I think I was fascinated by the narratives of teenage girls because I never really was one.
One of the landmark moments at my drama school is receiving your “casting.” One by one, we’d go around the room and guess the age range, genre, social class, and style that casting directors might assign to us at first glance, and the Head of Acting would tell us if we were right or wrong and how. When my turn came, I, then age 21, guessed my playing range to be 17-25 and received a firm “no,” followed by a certain “nineteen to thirty.”
The following semester, I asked another teacher if she knew what prevented me from being seen as a teenager. She answered with a gesture, her hand shooting out toward me from her face, fast and choppy but intensely direct. I instantly knew what she meant. “I’ve always been like that,” I said, and then mused aloud, “Maybe I never really was a teenager?” This epiphany earned me a certain look—the one my teacher reserved for when you realized something about yourself that she’d known all along.
I try to color the fragmented memories of my teenage years neon like the shows and films I love, but they are dark and damp, knees scraped on gravel, a gag lingering in the back of my throat. And a lot of them are missing. The second semester of my senior year—a culturally significant time in American Teenagehood—was lost to a medical emergency and subsequent unmedicated mental illness. My entire freshman year of college was riddled with regular blackouts as I self-medicated with alcohol. I cannot get that time back. I’ve been experiencing what I’ve dubbed “lost time” since I was around sixteen. Sometimes you are immediately aware you’ve lost it, but other times, it isn’t till months or years later that you realize you cannot recall chunks of time from a challenging period of your life. My teenagehood is plagued with both of these forms of time loss. Occasionally, I can recall a vague outline of things, but details escape me. I watch my memories through a fogged window; I have a sense of where they took place, but I cannot for the life of me get a clear view in. It’s almost like I’m searching for myself in narratives of teenagers on screen, yearning for the memories I’ve lost to be beautiful like they are on TV. Deep down, I know mine are probably best forgotten.
I’m approaching 24 this year: the prime age to star in a teen drama. I’m a Pisces, so it’s soon. I’m overwhelmed by how old 24 is, how profound the expectations of 24 feel. I expressed this aloud to a new friend, herself freshly 18, and she quipped back, “Bitch, you did it. Did you think you’d live this long?” The truth is, I didn’t. 25 was always my best guess, my biggest goal. I grew up seeing 25-year-olds playing 15 on TV. I saw the same actors playing 25 and 15 in the same season on different projects. I don’t think I could see past 25 because, to me, it was the last year when I could live as a teenager, both from an emotional standpoint and as an actor. I thought I had until then to spend the present rewriting the past over and over again through the roles I’d get to play. I don’t want to throw away the stability I’ve found in my twenties, but I do sometimes want to go back to a time before it felt so necessary, before the responsibilities of adulthood and independence demanded it of me. And until that day in drama school, I was under the impression that I’d get to. Being creatively confined to my twenties kills the second youth of my dreams, something I still haven’t quite come to terms with.
Since I can no longer count on rewriting my youth through a camera lens, I try to look forward to being forty: when women who look and age like me, without the assistance of conventional beauty, finally have careers worth envying. I wonder if my internal age, at odds with my body, is what keeps me from feeling beautiful. Perhaps on someone else my features would be beautiful in the way they need to be to enable the kind of stratospheric acting career I’ve always dreamed of, but I wear them with severity. So maybe it will all be fine when I’m forty, when I finally look the age I have felt for so long. But what am I supposed to do in the meantime, in the two decades it takes my body to catch up to my bones?
In spite of a lifetime of that dissonance, it is beginning to feel like I’m aging in reverse. The older I become, and the farther away I get from the lingering sting of those lost memories, the younger I feel. A certain innocence emanates from the stillness that comes after a lifetime of thrashing at the grasp of the hand you’ve been dealt. Here I am, nearly 24, living with my parents, working a babysitting job, sneaking out to have sex, trying to act more sober than I usually am. The teenage dream, right? The pandemic, in bringing what should have been the hit-the-ground-running beginning of my adult life to a virtual standstill, has given me a second chance at youth. And this time, I get to do it right.
I am realizing now, though, that my distorted, black-and-white sense of “wrong” and “right” never allowed room for me to ever truly feel satisfied with the way I lived my life when I was younger. The teenage narratives I was most drawn to throughout my late teens were that of Laura Palmer and those wrapped in the seductive melodies of early Lana del Rey songs. But I think I was drawn to those girls because they never really were teenagers either. Laura Palmer, Lana’s “Carmen,” and I all grew up too fast. Trauma ages us. We want to grow up faster when we associate the chaos of being a “teenager” with being violated. This total eclipse of any future chance at reliving my youth in my career has forced me to come to terms with my trauma. If I don’t get to be young again and have some positive memories of youth to call my own, even if only by proxy through some character, then I have to accept that my youth, my one and only youth, is inseparable from that trauma.
The lost girls in the stories don’t get to live long lives. Laura is murdered at seventeen, and Lana’s Carmen declares “I’m dying” over and over again. There is no playbook, no silver-screen show or siren song setting a precedent for how to live when you survive that kind of coming-of-age. So maybe it’s my job to write one for us. I thought I had to mourn multiple teenagehoods: the one I never had and the ones I’ll never get to act out on screen, but this surrogate youth of the pandemic has gotten me closer to what I feel I missed. And perhaps it’s partially my responsibility to show that teenagers don’t have a monopoly on deep, profound feeling, instability, chaos.
Perhaps I’m more teenage than I thought in possessing those things in abundance.
By Natalie Dix