My memories of 18th birthday parties are thus - self-conscious fights with my boyfriend for doing something ‘uncool’ / someone pouring a drink over someone / tears in the loos / being sick down the sleeve of my grandmother’s real fur coat / cut to black.
Whilst I was forgetting all this, a new generation was busy growing up. Out of the blue, we got an invite to an 18th birthday from a family friend whose daughter we’d comfortably assumed would remain frozen in the ‘kid’ phase forever.
As my sister and I walked into the room the following Friday, the atmosphere felt strange yet instantly familiar. The air was charged with emotional static; flashes of indignation, euphoria - the heat of adolescent emotion felt with the intensity of a 1000 suns - issuing from every corner.
But now it was the difference between looking at a 5m diving board from the poolside and standing with your toes curled over the edge trying to jump. To see all these people, busy being 18, feeling all these things, was like stepping between little pools of memory - vividly recalled, yet somehow diminished. It was strangled and embarrassed but suddenly, wonderfully, harmless. The boys looked young and playful, the girls self-aware but still soft with uncertainty.
My 22 year old sister and I looked at each other, both coming to the same conclusion. Age had removed the danger from the situation. This was our second chance. Our chance to enjoy the whirling freedom of being 18 in a way that angsty 18 year olds aren’t able to. This was our adolescent hall pass. This was that once-in-a-lifetime chance to relive our youth with the confidence of age. Just for one night.
My sister strode up to the decks through a cluster of girls who parted respectfully as she approached, put on Destiny’s Child and returned to take her place in the middle of the room. We stood, totally calm and totally poised, swaying through the intro bars. And then the beat dropped and we began to dance madly with our hands in the air, sloshing our vodka cokes as though we were in our dressing gowns at home.
Despite the angst, despite the loo tears, despite the unbearable 18-ness of it all, people began to shuffle closer, moving cautiously around the edge of our circle. And since we were basking in the glow of our social exempness, we grabbed their hands and swirled them into the middle of the dancefloor. Our confidence was infectious - everyone was suddenly introducing themselves, enthusiastically spilling beer everywhere and generally beaming with relief that we weren’t all being subjected to Hotline Bling for the 5 millionth time. My sister and I weren’t even dancing, but jumping round and round each other, feet thundering on the sticky floor, doing mad thrusts and kicks. There was a general understanding that we had been teleported from the future to let them know that it would all be ok, that life wouldn’t always be this awkward.
At 11 the cake came out, aflame with candles and we clapped and sang and helped ourselves to enormous chocolate slabs which we ate with our fingers. The girls picked at the icing cautiously, but appreciatively.
At midnight the lights came up and we flooded out into the cool air full of cake and burps and laughter, beads of sweat creeping back up our foreheads and turning our hair curly. I bummed a cigarette off some guy. He told me I was fit. It was perfect.
The night was joy. It was acceptance. It was freedom. It was everything I had wanted the first time round and hadn’t known how to get. It was too sweet for a whole adolescence.
Written and illustrated by Jess Bird