On my 25th birthday I received a call from “Unknown.” It was 11:35 pm and my birthday had wound down without ever having wound up. I had woken up, gone to work, come home, napped, and putted around the house in my usual after-nap stupor. I ate a quiet dinner with my parents, neither of them bringing up the fact that I had just turned twenty-five. Why would they? Aside from the fact that I never could remember their birthdays (annoyingly, they chose to celebrate birthdays by the mysterious Lunar calendar, as though they were werewolves) May 9, 2011 was just like any other day, and would, judging by how things were unfolding, be like any other year. There would be a celebration in Las Vegas that following weekend, for which I was excited. Three friends and I would “party it up” young people style, meaning we would don short dresses and tall shoes and teeter about sprawling casino floors looking forward to dancing all night in massive, ornate nightclubs but really end up just wanting to sit down. The fact of the matter was that at age twenty-five, aside from one’s tall shoes and short dress not being nearly as tall or as short as those on twenty-one year olds, one’s energy is somewhat lacking as well.

But before that was to happen, I found myself at home in my childhood room, feeling strangely subdued. I stood barefoot in the narrow space between my desk and bed wondering where the time goes. I can re-connect my train of thought even if it didn’t necessarily happen like this:

“Goodness, I’m twenty-five now. I ought to write something. I ought to write a diary entry or something. Marking…this….strange ambivalence I feel.”

Edward Hopper Hotel Room, 1931 Oil on Canvas

It was ambivalence rather than the panic some of my friends reported feeling on their 25th birthdays. It wasn’t a quarter-life crisis, at least not yet. I didn’t feel lost or disappointed or much like questioning my life’s purpose (perhaps unwisely, I believe no one ought to ask themselves -not at twenty-five, anyway – unless they prefer the worst of mental agonies). Rather, I felt a numb surprise and mild amusement at what my sixteen or eighteen year old self would have said if she had foreseen her twenty-five year old self living in the same room and working at an aerospace transparency systems company.

Certainly, I went through these motions:

  • Looked at my computer and mulled over posting a blog entry. But the thought of sitting stunned before a blank screen and then forcing myself to hash out a half-assed, self-indulgent entry about nothing or, worse, a variation on a tired theme (the future!? What of it?!?!). 
  • Browsed my bookshelf for an inspirational/uplifting book. Perhaps Robert Greene’s The Forty-Eight Rules of Power? Or How to Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci? I shook my head no. Twenty-five merely meant a year older, not several thousand times more ambitious.
  • Stole a reluctant, guilty glance at my diary, the thin black volume that sits deceptively stolid atop my desk and in which I write only to curse/pine/dream. On past birthdays, it had been my greatest friend, a kindred spirit with clean lines upon which I wrote of grandeur and optimism only a young(er) person is capable of. I often looked forward to writing in it on birthdays and New Year’s Eves, seeing my filling the slate as a paradoxical but comforting way to clear it. Yet that night, my diary was a stranger.

No. No reading or writing would be done on my twenty-fifth birthday. Though it was late my mind ticked hungrily, vaguely wanting something it could not find on the bookshelf or even within itself to write out upon paper. Something critical to my feeling centered and whole had been missing from the moment I woke and it was never regained or returned. It was not my parents’ lack of acknowledgment (however abusive or neglectful this makes them seem, this is simply who they are. They love me dearly, in other ways), nor was it anything from my friends or from myself, even.

I wanted to speak to someone very dear to me, someone who had been where I was and who knew me and could say something that would dispel the ambivalence, however silly and temporary it was. I am, for the most part, an emotionally stable person – but my self-purported stability pales in comparison to that of my brother. Ah. There it was, and wasn’t. He was not there. I went to my phone, which sat charging on my dresser. I had plugged it in immediately after work, leaving it on vibrate and throughout the afternoon it buzzed with various texts and calls from people wishing me a “good one.” Near dinner time however, I had gone out of the room and forgotten about it until now. And now I thought to revisit the slim gadget – a gift disguised as hand-me-down from my brother – two messages blinked from the screen – “One Missed Call: Unknown.” and, “One Voicemail: Unknown.”


Hey Betty, it’s your brother.” 

Always, that unnecessary yet singular self-introduction. I would know that voice anywhere, a younger, smoother, more articulate and unhurried version of my father’s. Better English.

“I just wanted to give you a call and say “Happy Birthday.” So hope you had a good one. I’ll talk to you later. Bye.” 

Edward Hopper Rooms by the Sea, 1951 Oil on canvas.

And that was all it took. It was, in the history of voice mails, perhaps not the warmest, or the most enthusiastic, and most certainly not the most sentimental, but my brother is all those things without overtly being any of those things. He was “Unknown,” but perhaps the only “unknown” I could ever, ever be certain about. He was away, yet right there in my hand. He had sent a sliver of his voice into the phone he had passed down to me and in doing so, filled a gaping void I felt most acutely that Monday morning. The missing piece was not to be read or written, but heard. And standing there in my childhood room at the age of twenty-five, I was grateful that from the swell of uknowns that lay before me, I could at least be sure of one.

2 thoughts on “Unknown

  1. When I turned twenty five I had been in the Air Force for a year. My life was very busy. I didn't have to think about where my life was going, it was planned for me everyday. Twenty six years later, that is when I wondered where my life would go, where would I end up. I never expected to be at an Aerospace Transparency company. Yet here I am. So what is my point? I suppose there is no point. There are somethings we can do to control our destiny but in reality we have very little control of where life takes us. But if you embrace life and enjoy each moment, I think you will be alright.

  2. Funny thing is I kind of feel like life is just more fun as you get older and wiser. You make less mistakes and you have more at your disposal. And yeah, maybe the energy is a bit subdued, but you've been there done that. What's it gunna take to excite someone like you!? A lot I hope.

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