When I drive into my parents’ retirement community after 9 p.m., no one turns on. They call it “Dataw midnight”. A little after “Wheel of FortuneThe lights go out in the South Carolina island retirement community, draped in Spanish moss, for those aged 60 and over.
I never thought that at 29, I would end up being one of them.
My husband Matt was still a year away from school after we got married. In August, he was awarded a doctorate in chemical biology in one of the best programs in the country. Even though our lease ended just a few days after her graduation date, we didn’t renew it. We were sure he would be employed by then.
After 10 years of school, living paycheck to paycheck in ruined apartments, we were ready to move out of the small Midwestern town we lived in and move to a new place. I told my boss I was leaving in July.
As August approached, the vacancies did not arrive. Soon strangers were visiting our apartment, asking how much we usually pay for heating and if the stove was accurate. And then, it was time to pack your bags. But we had nowhere to go.
Matt was a student and I had only been in my entry-level position for two years. Moving to a new city without a job would be almost impossible because we had no savings. There was only one choice: We packed our apartment and cats and drove 5pm to the Dataw Island Retirement Community.
We moved into the guest bedroom down the hall from my parents. We had only been married a few months, and sharing a bed surrounded by my own childhood photos and strapped to my father’s desk wasn’t exactly what I had in mind for our wonderful first year of marriage. But at least we had our own bathroom.
Pretending to be retired at 29 was fun at first. Matt got down to crabbing. We went for a walk every morning around the island, greeting the other couples, 40 years our senior. We had a drink on the porch overlooking the golf course in the afternoon and listened to “Wheel” at dinner with my parents.
A few days after our arrival, my parents organized a cocktail party. Twenty golf carts parked at random on our lawn. We made a bar, answering questions from customers for the duration of our visit.
“A while,” we said. They complained about their own children. They never came, weren’t my parents lucky?
We were lucky my parents gave us a place to go. I loved getting to know them when their life wasn’t about children. My mother, a retired teacher, had a part-time job at a restaurant business where she regularly came home with reports of the new recipes she had invented. My dad, a retired government employee, was at two ping pong clubs, and talking about the island was that he was the star player of both. My mom and I were chatting over coffee before everyone woke up. Matt joined my father’s table tennis league, the youngest by far and also the least gifted. Our beer pong expertise hadn’t prepared it for five 70-year-old men with paddles.
We went to the community gym every day, and for the first time, I was the youngest and sexiest girl in the country. Women would compliment my routine like I’m heading to the Olympics and not just doing a few squats. Sure, the gym was still screaming at Fox News at a rock concert volume so people didn’t have to turn up their hearing aids, but when no one was watching I would switch to HGTV.
One-third of Americans aged 25 to 29 lived with their parents in 2016, more than ever in the past 75 years, according to a Pew Research study. I imagined other millennials like us, them sleeping in their childhood bedrooms under Orlando Bloom’s Tiger Beat posters, wondering how much I would stand out in a gentle aqua aerobics class for people with ailments. arthritis.
After a few weeks, the bogus retreat started to get a little boring. Socialization was limited to elderly neighbors who stopped to chat: a new pétanque court had been built and there was no dress code. People feared this would bring in “late night revelers,” which seemed unlikely on an island where the only bar quickly closed at 9am.
The crab fishing season has ended. Neither of us had a job offer. People stopped asking how long we were visiting. The rumor had circulated: we were the unemployed children of the Hubers.
We stopped having cocktails in the afternoon on the porch and started sneaking into a local dive bar. None of the furniture matched and the parking lot was full of vans with deer head stickers on them. We were not as in our place as on Dataw. It was like we weren’t going anywhere. Not in the towns where we couldn’t find a job, not in our old apartment where a lovely couple now lived.
We were meant to start our lives. Instead, we accidentally jumped all the way to the end.
At Thanksgiving, Matt and I started arguing. I wanted to leave. We could just pick a city, get into debt. Matt disagreed. He flew to Boston, New York or Chicago every two weekends for interviews. He would come back full of hope, but it never worked.
Our morning walks have become less frequent. We stopped joking about the shuffleboard. I found freelance work, but Matt was still spending his days applying for jobs he never wanted answered. Suddenly, the Fox News from the gym seemed more intrusive. I started swimming in the indoor pool, where I could only hear the rush of water against my ears.
In January, we were losing our minds. We had spent Labor Day, Halloween, my 30th birthday, our one year wedding anniversary, Thanksgiving, Christmas and a New Year where we both fell asleep before 10pm in the retiree community. We had barely spoken to people who hadn’t quite remembered their whereabouts during the moon landing for months. Marriage is difficult for a million reasons you can’t predict: Being stuck in a retirement community at 30 was never envisioned.
So we went to Disney World. It was stupid. It was expensive. It was 30 degrees and all the roller coasters were closed. It was exactly what we needed. After months of being the youngest for miles, we were suddenly surrounded by families, noise, light, people dressed as giant cartoon characters.
Watching all the families bustling around Disney World, I realized how much we had missed in recent months, isolated in the retirement community. We said we were moving there because it was our only option, but it wasn’t quite true. We could have found temporary jobs somewhere, understand.
The truth was, I was terrified that we were moving forward with no idea what or where we were going. I wanted to jump to the end, where the hardest decision in life is having cocktails on the back porch or at the club.
But you can’t jump forward. It might be obvious to everyone, but retirement communities are for people who are, well, retired. They’ve done all the hardest parts of life. We had done virtually nothing. We still had the energy to make a million mistakes, and if we never gave ourselves the chance to make them, we were going to miss out on all the good things life had to offer us too.
A week after we got back from Disney World, Matt finally got a call offering him a job in Boston. It wasn’t the city I hoped for at first. We didn’t know anyone there, it was cold, I had never even visited for more than a weekend. I thought maybe we should just keep waiting until something better happens. But it was time to take a risk. He said yes.
Our last night at Dataw we went to our favorite bar. I watched the stars above the swamp; there were so many. I realized I was sad to be leaving. I would miss my parents, with whom I had grown very close. I would regret spending so much time with Matt, who I knew would now be working late nights and weekends at his new job. I would miss the way the sun set over the salt marshes and made black outlines of egrets, poking their beaks into the water in search of fish. Maybe one day I would even miss the old men in short shorts on stationary bikes, nodding to Fox News.
But here we were finally moving forward.
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