Normally, I hate Facebook Memories. Which I think is pretty understandable when you consider it showed me a picture of me and my ex on the day he married someone else. But today was different. Today, a picture popped up of me and my best friends at our university graduation ball 10 years ago. We’re hugging, drunk, sweaty, smiley. I was 21! We’re so excited. And terrified. Because we were basically standing on the edge of a plane, about to be pushed out, with zero life experience to cushion our fall. We’d reached the top and now it was time to jump.
I’ve been thinking about those feelings a lot recently, thanks to the annual summer-results ritual. Somehow, the press persuades awkward-looking teens to stand in front of a camera as they pull out a piece of paper from an envelope.
And it makes me think of the trip to Newquay on the eve of our GCSE results. We stayed in a caravan and I met a long-haired boy called Ben from Bristol, whom I’d later go and visit by coach and stay at his mum’s house (in separate rooms). We just had to get to sixth form. And we did.
I specifically thought about drinking beer from bottles and nonchalantly holding cigarettes. Today, I don’t drink beer or smoke, but I think I’d seen a picture of Kate Moss doing those two things
We went back to Newquay on the eve of our A-levels. After the shots, the hours’ getting ready, the boys, the dancing, the foam parties, the random kisses in the street with strangers, on the last morning I woke really early. I walked down to the beach – most likely, I was trying really hard to pretend I was in Dawson’s Creek, an exceptionally formative viewing experience – and sat on the sand, hugging my knees. (Hugging knees is surely the most pensive teen trope of all time?) But while I was indulging in a cliché, I had some genuine fears: what now? What next? What will happen in my life? Who will I meet? Where will I end up? And those questions were still there in that group photo in Brighton Racecourse for our graduation ball, as we finally said goodbye to the security of libraries and reading lists and union bars.
In answer to those questions, I envisioned Friends. A lot. I dreamt of New York. A lot. I dreamt of falling in love and jobs in big cities. I specifically thought about drinking beer from bottles and nonchalantly holding cigarettes. Today, I don’t drink beer or smoke, but I think I’d seen a picture of Kate Moss doing those two things.
I thought I’d have a tiny flat, with a cat and a record player and pictures of Bruce Springsteen on the walls. I graduated in 2007. And little did I know that owning flats would become as mythical as Central Perk, or even renting a place by myself would be a pipe dream. I now live very happily with my boyfriend and I hope we continue to do so, but I do wish I’d had a pocket of time in a small, poky apartment of my own. I wish I'd had a room of my own.
I thought I’d be taken out on dates for dinner or cocktails or to art galleries by handsome men. I thought I might meet someone in a bar or at a party, or have our eyes meet on the Tube. When I left Brighton and moved to London, dating apps didn’t exist. I didn’t know I’d be swiping right in order to go to overpriced bars in Liverpool Street with egotistical planks of wood who were as interesting as The Archers omnibus. I didn’t know that dating would be so hard, such a battle, such an obstacle course. I didn’t realise that, most of the time, if a bloke did take you to a fancy restaurant, they’d be an arsehole who called women “princesses” and told you how much money they earned.
I didn’t know how exhausting being broke in one of the world’s most expensive cities would be. I don’t realise how mind-numbingly boring shopping and washing and washing and shopping would be. I can’t remember if I washed or ate at university – I hope and presume I did, but the monotonous drain of grown-up life was certainly not in the blueprints.
I didn’t know that I’d be evicted by a landlord for complaining about a broken washing machine too many times. I didn’t know that when you’re burgled, your bedroom becomes a crime scene and you can’t move the knickers or the vibrator that the burglars pulled out from your drawer and left on the floor. I didn’t know you just have to stand there awkwardly, looking on, with a police officer, in your room that’s damp and the size of a shoebox.
But I also didn’t know that I would visit countries and cities I’d never heard of. I didn’t know that I’d fall in love with Los Angeles like it was a person and continue a long-distance relationship with a city I find enthralling and life-affirming and outrageous.
I didn’t know that I would meet people who changed how I thought and how I saw the world. I didn’t know that when you start a job, you can get a best friend thrown in, too, and that hours in offices, feeling afraid and new and anxious, is a wonderfully bonding experience, and that standing outside a Soho pub on a summer’s evening with people you’ve sweated and toiled with all week is a feeling of great, great contentment.
I didn't know that women would go out of their way to help me. For free. Without expecting anything in return. That they’d counsel and listen. And still do.
I didn’t know that being single would be so hard – that, when it feels like the world is being propped up by someone else, it is the truest test of who you are. And I didn’t imagine I could love my friends any more. Until I did.
I didn’t know that, as my friends find distractions – new countries, husbands, babies, a slower pace of life – a decade later I’m working harder than I knew possible and I feel like I’m only getting started. I didn’t know that the hardworking 21-year-old in Brighton with three jobs wasn’t just broke, she was determined, independent and ambitious.
I didn’t know that, a decade on, I’d still be in photos hugging the same women; that I’d be lucky enough to have some small voice on the internet to try and tell all those other 21-year-olds about to jump that the unknown is thrilling and wonderful; that they should say yes to everything and fall freely and openly to whatever comes their way; that the older you get, the unknown becomes more and more rare and precious.
And I didn’t know that, a decade later, I could call myself a writer, a girlfriend, a colleague and best friend. But I'm glad I didn't know that and I’m grateful for all the fun I had getting here.