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September 25, 2023

Oh, To Be Young Again

By Bonnie Carlson

I stood on the sidewalk in the front of the large, glass and rusted metal building, scanning it for the address. Checked the phone one more time as the Scottsdale sun beat down on me. Sucking in a deep breath, I walked up the steps and through the heavy glass doors. I entered a cavernous lobby and located the directory. There it was, Environmental Solutions, on the third floor. As I rode up the elevator, I inhaled the lingering scent of someone's cologne and tried to calm my breathing, wiping my moist palms on my pants. What would I find here?

I stepped off the elevator. A young guy with long curly hair, wearing jeans and a polo shirt, said, "Hey, Karla, how's it going?"

I waved. My heart sped up. What was I doing here? Was this the best way to figure out how my seventy-five-year-old body had woken up as a twentysomething? Should have called my doctor instead? Or tried to find my condo?

I prayed I could figure this out. I walked with this guy -- who knows what his name was? -- into a large open space, subdivided into cubicles. A skateboard leaned up against the side of someone's desk. Young adults hunched over laptops. Phones rang in the background. Faint music played that sounded like something from my favorite yoga class. Yet my diaphragm tightened. Where should I go? Then my legs seemed to carry me naturally over to an empty desk. I sat down and exhaled.

A Mac laptop, two yellow pads, two plants, some photos, an empty Lacroix can, and a to-do list adorned the desktop. I set down the latte I'd picked up on the walk over and stared at the photos. This was my desk, all right. I stared at photos of my younger self, but who were those other people, the handsome young man with his arm around my shoulder in one picture and a grinning woman with mountains in the background in another? Boyfriend or just a friend? Had I taken the photo of the pony-tailed woman laughing? Were we hiking?

A red-haired woman leaned over the divider into my cubicle. "Hey Karla, where's your helmet? Didn't you ride your bike today?"

I ride my bike to work? Not something I would have done in my actual twenties. So many things to learn about my new self. "No, I walked." Who was she? I couldn't believe she wore such a low-cut blouse to work.

A skinny young blond guy with a hint of a beard stood just outside my cubicle. "Willow and I are gonna talk before the meeting. You in?"

Was that Willow who asked about my bike? I panicked. "Can't. I've got something else I need to do first." I tried not to sound too mysterious, just busy or preoccupied, not wanting to invite any more questions I couldn't answer. I had no idea what was going on. My skin was crawling. These people clearly knew me, but who were they?

The blond guy cast me a quizzical look.

How the hell had I ended up like this? Maybe I should just fess up and tell these people what had happened. If only I knew.

* * *

It began that morning at six. The second I opened my eyes I realized I wasn't in my own bedroom. And nothing hurt. I gazed around the room at the tall, shuttered windows and the large ficus plant in the corner. Where the hell was I? A hotel? The guestroom of a relative or a friend? Had I developed dementia?

I sat up, naked, my full bladder summoning me into the bathroom. No, definitely not my condo. I must be dreaming.

As I sat on the toilet -- someone else's toilet -- I noticed not the weak, intermittent stream I'd become accustomed to but rather a strong, steady stream of urine. Waiting for my bladder to empty, I stared at my hands, resting on my thighs. Long slender fingers, free of the painful arthritic, bulbous knuckles I'd suffered with over the past fifteen years. I ran the fingers of my right hand over the knuckles of the left. No, I wasn't dreaming. Smooth young skin had replaced the paper-thin skin on my old-lady hands with their blue veins bulging through. What was going on?

I washed and dried my young hands and studied the image in the mirror. Holy shit. The face that stared back at me was my own, but from decades earlier. I leaned in for a closer look. I could see all the details -- without a magnifying mirror -- of my pore-less face. Gone were the crow's feet around my eyes. No laugh lines or furrows etched into my forehead. I touched the skin on my neck. Smooth and supple, not the loose, crepe-y, turkey neck that showed the world I was in my mid-seventies. My heart raced with excitement. It was like a miracle!

What had happened to my short gray hair? I'd never worn the hairstyle in the mirror in my twenties, long and dark, with chunky blonde highlights. Was I hallucinating?

I broke out in a sweat, pacing back and forth in the bathroom, stealing glances in the mirror every few seconds. Was this young woman me or somebody else? She looked exactly like me -- the former me -- but . . . It felt like I was becoming psychotic, out of touch with reality.

Suddenly I was freezing. I returned to the bedroom and opened the sliding door to the closet, looking for a robe. Clothes hung neatly in categories -- jeans, shirts, no dresses, a couple of skirts. I grabbed a soft, gray, comfy-looking robe and walked back to the bed and sat. I needed to calm down and sort this out.

An iPhone rested on the bedside table. Perhaps it held the key to the mystery of my transformation. If I could get into that phone, maybe I could figure out what was happening. Darn, what about the password? I pressed my thumbprint on the round button, and like Lazarus rising from the dead, the phone sprang to life.

Okay, first things first. To get my addled brain functioning, I needed a jolt of caffeine. Oh please, let there be coffee here.

I carried the phone into a bright, furnished living space with a small kitchen at one end. I studied the Keurig coffeemaker on the counter. Crap. Never used one of these. It had no carafe or basket for the ground coffee. I poked around in all the kitchen drawers for directions. No luck. I started playing around with it, grabbing and lifting the U-shaped handle. Ah, okay. I removed the puny little coffee container. Hopefully there were fresh ones somewhere. I rummaged through the cabinets and found a box of Starbucks "pods." Things were looking up.

While I waited for the coffee to brew, I got back into the phone, touching icons I'd never used. One had the date on it. When I touched it, up came an electronic calendar. Could I figure this out? I'd always used the old-fashioned spiral-bound, paper calendars. I liked penciling in the appointments and being able to see them all without using some kind of electronic device.

In search of half and half, I opened the stainless-steel refrigerator. There it was, but not a lot else in there. Almond milk, a few apples, condiments. I was starved. How about cereal? All I could scrounge from the cupboard was a half-full box of frosted flakes. Seriously?

As I drank my coffee, I poked around a bit in the calendar. The right day finally popped up. Uh oh. I had a meeting or appointment this morning at eleven, but where? All it said was "the team, 3rd floor conference room." What? It must mean my job. My heart started racing all over again.

I opened the icon with the mailbox and started to read through the dozens of emails in the inbox, none of which made sense. Several recent ones, including one reminding me of this morning's meeting, came from people whose signature line indicated they worked at a place called Environmental Solutions. That must be where I worked.

The coffee kicked my brain into gear. I desperately needed to figure out what had happened, how my seventy-five-year-old self had become younger. Think, Karla, think! I grabbed the phone and studied it, opening the "Contacts" icon. I had to talk to someone I knew. But when I looked for the names of my friends, my children, my doctor, none of them were listed.

But what about my sister Jill? Jill had died eight years ago from metastatic breast cancer, a hideous thing to watch. Memories flooded my brain -- good and bad -- from that horrible time but also from long ago, when were kids. Swimming at the lake, Halloween, going off to college. God, I'd give anything to have her back.

There she was, Jill Nilsson. Her maiden name and phone number. Weird. Finally, someone I could tell about this whole bizarre episode, someone I could trust, someone who could help me figure it out.

My hands shook as I pressed the number. I listened to it ring. What should I say? How could I explain why I was calling? Darn, voicemail kicked on. "Hi. This is Jill. Can't take your call. You know what to do." Bummer. But it was glorious to hear her young voice, upbeat and happy. Jill! My voice caught in my throat. What should I say? Finally, I said, "Hey Jill, it's Karla. Just checking in. Actually, I really need to talk to you. Call me as soon as you get this."

Then, almost immediately, I called her back, desperate to hear her voice a second time. I left a second brief message. "Forgot to say I love you." Tears filled my eyes. I started to pace and shake, desperate to figure out how I had become young again.

It didn't seem like I was married, but who were my friends? My reflection in the bathroom mirror told me that I was young, but how young?

Okay, Karla, calm down. You used to do research in your paralegal job. You can figure this out. I searched the apartment and found a lovely Coach purse. I opened the wallet and found a drivers' license. Huh. I was twenty-five and my name was Karla Nilsson. I hadn't used my maiden name in decades.

Determined to get to the bottom of this mystery, I sucked in a deep breath, stood tall, and said "I can do this." Whatever the hell "this" was. Hoping it would calm me, I walked out on the balcony to watch the sun come up. I looked up at the cloudless sky the color of faded jeans and then down at the parking lot. Looked like I was on about the seventh floor of a multistory building downtown. The city spread out around me like a toy village. Studying the surrounding buildings, I figured out exactly where I was. How ironic. Recently, I considered what it would be like to live downtown rather than in the more distant, suburban areas of Scottsdale where my condo was. I'd be able to walk to so many places.

"How exciting," I said, out loud. "Now I have a chance to try out some new things, like living downtown," my voice lost in the sound of the early morning traffic. I couldn't wait to walk around. With any luck, Jill would call me back soon. If I didn't hear from her by the end of the day, I'd go to her house and hunt her down.

In the meantime, going to the office seemed like the best chance to figure how what was going on.

First, though, I needed to find out about this place where I worked. I Googled "Environmental Solutions" on the cellphone. Interesting. The company helped corporations and government agencies conduct business in ways that minimized harm to the environment. According to Google Maps, which my granddaughter Madison had showed me how to use, the address was close enough to walk. Excellent.

I considered whether to go into work right away or wait until the eleven o'clock meeting. Better to get there early and try to get the lay of the land first. I had to get dressed.

I inventoried the contents of the closet, wondering whether to wear professional attire. To my surprise, there really wasn't much. Mostly jeans and leggings. Fine with me, that's what I usually wore anyhow. I searched the bureau drawer for underwear -- all pushup bras and thongs. Really? Time to find out what those things felt like. What was next, waxing my pubic hair? I pulled on a pair of black, 7 For All Mankind skinny jeans and paired them with a Splendid cashmere sweater. Looked like my younger self had good -- and expensive! -- taste. Marveling that everything fit, I donned a colorful print scarf, admiring what I saw in the mirror.

I took a deep breath, grabbed that Coach purse, and marched out the door to work. You can do this, Karla.

* * *

At eleven o'clock, the three of us, me, Willow, and the skinny blond guy filed into a medium-sized conference room and took seats at a large, fake wood-grained table. Oversized framed color photographs of national parks hung on the walls, beckoning us to hike and commune with nature. I sat across from the Grand Canyon.

Two people I hadn't met walked in with Starbucks cups and laptops. Everybody but me had brought their iPhones, placed face down on the table. And then, as the meeting progressed, every thirty seconds or so, despite the phones not making a sound, someone glanced at their phone, often followed by frantic typing using both hands. Like most people my age, I typed on my phone using one finger, making typos constantly.

One of the guys sitting across from me said, "Okay, guys, you all got the agenda."

Really? Everyone stared at laptops or tablets, neither of which I'd brought. My face reddened, and I looked over at Willow's laptop. That's when I realized I could read without glasses. Outstanding! I looked around the table and noticed that everyone in the room had tattoos. I winced. Apparently, I had the only ink-free skin at the table.

As a heated discussion unfolded, my heart rate quickened. It was easy to keep my mouth shut, not having a clue what they were talking about. Some technical stuff having to do with chemicals that had seven-syllable names I couldn't pronounce. I hoped that if I listened closely I might be able to understand what was going on, praying I could fake my way through it. Please, please, don't anybody ask me any questions.

This whole thing was so bizarre. I kept getting distracted, thinking, How the hell did I get here? Maybe after the meeting, I'd ask Willow some questions about myself. That's why I came to work, right? But I didn't want her to think I was nuts.

Suddenly, jerked from my thoughts, I heard my name.

"So, Karla, you've been unusually quiet. What do you think about all this?"

Darn. Now what? Was this guy the boss? My face flushed. "I, uh, I'm not sure . . . I'm not feeling all that well. I think I'll just listen." Actually true. The stress of the whole situation had brought on a pounding headache.

He frowned. "Okay. Shane, how about you?"

* * *

I managed to survive the confused blur of the meeting. No one asked me any more questions or expected me to participate. After the meeting I rushed out, grabbed my purse, and left to find some lunch, desperate to escape. That meeting had freaked me out even more. I left the building and found a nearby café, where I ordered a salad. While I waited, I watched people rushing to and fro.

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of a woman I could have sworn was Jill. I jumped up and tore off after her. I frantically searched for the bright red shirt the woman was wearing, in vain. She must have disappeared into the lunch crowd. Damn it!

Aching with disappointment, I returned to the table where my salad awaited. I could barely choke down any of it. I finally gave up and returned to the office, unable to stop thinking about Jill and the possibility of talking to her again. She seemed like my only hope to figure this out.

Back at my cubicle, I saw that everyone toiled at their laptops, something I could pretend to do as well. I spent the afternoon searching through my cellphone contacts and photos, trying to sort out my life. I saw several pictures of Jill -- at the beach, on an apartment balcony, hiking, always with that big, wide grin of hers. She looked happy, cheerful, with that cloud of wild, red frizzy hair. I studied each one, smiling, remembering. Such a contrast from the last painful months of her life after she got sick. If only those hadn't been my last memories of her. But wait, now I had a second chance to see her again. A chance to make sure she knew how much I loved her, how important she was.

Those images and memories of Jill made me weepy, so I escaped into the restroom. I sat on the toilet, holding back sobs, eventually able to return to my desk. Later, each time a co-worker stopped by to chat, I got an empty feeling in the pit of my stomach, pretending to be hard at work, hoping they'd leave me alone. Everyone looked so normal, like nothing was wrong. I couldn't figure out what to ask. My mouth would go dry each time I tried, dreading questions I couldn't answer.

As five o'clock approached, I planned a hasty retreat.

Willow popped into my cubicle. "We're going out for drinks tonight, Karla. Coming?"

Should I? On the one hand, I wanted to go home. Exhaustion had settled over me. But on the other, maybe if I went I could figure out more about what was going on.

"Oh, I forgot. You weren't feeling well." Willow leaned over, head resting on her hands, lowering her voice. "If you're still feeling crappy, don't feel like you have to go. Actually, you don't look that great."

"Thanks a lot. I guess I'll come. Where're we going?"

"We're gonna try a new place called Counter Intuitive."

"Where is it? I walked, remember?"

"No prob. We're gonna Uber over."

"Okay, just let me know when you're leaving."

* * *

Four of us piled into and then out of the Uber. Counter Intuitive wasn't too mobbed but surprisingly noisy. It took a minute for my eyes to adjust to the dark. The place reeked of beer. I tried to remember the last time I drank in a bar like this. Had to be decades ago. Music played in the background -- was that Adele? -- loud enough that you had to almost yell to be heard. My co-workers sauntered over to the bar and greeted several other twentysomethings, male and female, already seated.

Someone yelled, "Hey Jackson," and the other guy from this morning looked up. Okay, so that was Jackson. If I paid close attention, maybe I could figure out who the rest of them were.

Luckily, there were people in this new group my co-workers didn't know, so I listened to the round of introductions. The two other people from Environmental Solutions were Maya and Shane.

A bartender with a shiny, shaved head yelled over to them. "Hey guys, what'll you have?" Both arms and his neck were covered -- covered! -- in tattoos. Elaborate and colorful, dragons and snakes and flowers and mythical beasts. I couldn't take my eyes off him. Man, that must have hurt.

I craved a drink. "I'll have a chardonnay."

Maya frowned at me. "Really? Come on. Try one of their cocktails. That's what this place is known for."

"Like what?" I racked my brain for the name of a cocktail. "How about a mojito or a cosmopolitan?"

"That's what you always get."

I do?

"Come on. Try something new. Live on the wild side."

She had no idea. "Okay, Maya, order for me. Surprise me."

Waiting for my cocktail, I surveyed the scene. The guys talked and laughed, playfully punching each other, while the girls -- women? -- clustered together and talked about the latest Netflix series they'd binged on, programs I'd never heard of.

I listened. Even the women referred to each other as "guys." Interesting. When I was that age, if someone called us "girls," we'd blanch. We were women! That's what Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem said, right? These days, ironically, my women friends -- those who were still alive -- and I called each other girls. What would my twenty-five-year-old self have thought of that?

"My school loans are killing me," one of the new guys said. He wore baseball cap backwards.

"That's why I'm still stuck living with my parents, even though I'm working," Shane said.

Amazingly, I could remember their names, my memory sharp as a razor.

"Yeah, because the salaries at Environmental Solutions pretty much suck," Willow said. "I've worked there since I graduated, and I still don't make enough to get my own apartment."

Maya leaned in to Willow, talking softly, so the guys couldn't hear. "How are we ever gonna be able to afford to have children?"

Willow summoned the bartender and ordered another cocktail. "Are you sure you even want kids? 'Cause I'm not."

"I'm not sure either," Maya replied. "But wouldn't it be nice to know you could afford it, if you wanted to?"

"I hear you." Willow turned to me. "What about you, Karla? Think you'll ever have kids?"

That got me thinking about my own kids, both now in their early fifties. I grabbed my phone to check the contacts. Why weren't they listed? Oh, yeah, right. Not born yet. This whole thing bewildered me.


"I guess I do." I took another sip of my odd-tasting cocktail. "I guess I need a long-term relationship first."

Maya grinned at me. "I know, right? None of the guys I meet are interested in anything beyond hooking up. Which is fine for now I guess, but at some point . . ."

Hooking up? Maya faced me. "Where are you trying to meet guys these days?"

Oh, shit. Need to change the subject. "What's in this drink you ordered for me?" I asked.

Maya stared at the jewel-colored bottles behind the bar, as if they held the answer. "Lemme see if I can remember . . . vodka and cucumber and blackberry. But something else too."

I smacked my lips. "Ginger, mint?"

"Yep, that's it. So, back to my question. Where're you finding guys?"

I finished off my drink. "Haven't had a date in . . . How about you guys? Any suggestions?" I felt proud of myself for inserting that "guys," fitting right in.

Maya and Willow looked at each other, neither in a hurry to answer. Finally, Willow said, "Tinder mostly, I guess. How about you, Maya?"

"I've tried Tinder, too, but the one I like best is Zoosk." She also was on her second cocktail.

Tinder and Zoosk? I looked at my watch. We'd been here half an hour. If I was going to keep drinking, I'd better eat something. "Are we gonna order food? I'm starved."

Shane had been eavesdropping. "I hear the munchies here are awesome." He called to the bartender. "Hey, can we see a couple of menus?"

The bartender handed him menus and Shane yelled over to his buddies, "You guys interested in some food?"

One of the guys I hadn't met studied his phone. Shane said to him, "Theo, how about a look at a menu?"

Theo tossed back the dregs of his beer. "What've they got?"

The guys ordered appetizers. While we waited for the food, they got all raucous and loud, four of them staring at something on Theo's phone.

"What's that all about?" Maya asked.

Then the food arrived, plates of nachos and chicken wings and sliders of some kind. Starved after barely eating anything all day, I grabbed a slider. But the guys were still staring into Theo's phone.

Willow snatched a napkin and helped herself to nachos. "Probably some sports thing."

Maya yelled over the pounding bass. "Food's here, guys."

But they were still pointing at Theo's phone, exclaiming, arms waving around.

As I started in on my second drink, a huge margarita, I grabbed some wings. I had a pretty good buzz going.

Finally, the guys came over en masse and inhaled the remaining appetizers, washing them down with beers. One of them talked about some other guy, addicted to Twitter.

I'd never understood the point of Twitter.

Maya grabbed her phone out of her back pocket, looked at something on the screen, and started cracking up. "Look at this, guys." She held the phone for Willow and me to see. A photo of three smiling children, with cat's ears and whiskers drawn onto their faces, stared back at us.

I peered into Maya's phone. "Who're they?"

"My nieces and nephew, my older sister's kids. Adorable, but I don't know how she does it. Three kids under six? Kill me."

"How did she get those ears and whiskers drawn on their faces?"

Maya gave me quizzical look. "Snapchat?"

What the hell was that?

I needed to escape to the restroom -- with my phone -- to see if I could figure out some of these things. Then I remembered my phone call to Jill. Maybe she'd called back, and I didn't hear it over the din in the bar. I looked at the screen. Darn, no call back from Jill. My shoulders slumped. I'll try again when I get home, just in case. Hoping no one from work would see me, I started Googling all these things I'd never used or heard of, like Snapchat and Zoosk.

Coming back from the ladies, I looked around and turned to Willow, "What happened to Maya?"

"I think she left with Jackson. Probably hooking up back at his apartment."

I looked at my watch again. Wow, despite it being after eight I'd gotten a second wind. My old self would be fading by now, ready to turn in.

* * *

I arrived home at about nine-thirty -- the others left to move on to another bar -- and went outside to the balcony. I stretched out on the chaise lounge, struggling to make sense of my confusing day. Why hadn't Jill called back? The stars sparkled in the clear night sky, and a luminous three-quarter moon cast an eerie glow over the city below. I caught a whiff of marijuana. Hadn't done that in years. The traffic murmured in the distance. I was no closer to understanding how I woke up as my younger self than when I first opened my eyes this morning.

Seeing clearly, being pain free, looking good in form-fitting clothes, having a razor-sharp memory were . . . astounding. But the disappointment of not getting to see Jill again . . . My eyes filled. Tomorrow, I would try again, go to her house instead of work. Should have done that instead of going to the bar. Why hadn't she called back when she got my message?

I thought about my co-workers and the others at the bar. The problems they struggled with were different from the ones I'd had in my twenties. I'd never had to worry about money after college, having to move back with my parents because my job wouldn't support me living independently. I'd gotten married. Ben and I both worked, living comfortably before we had children. I never had to worry that I couldn't afford to have them. Was I that self-absorbed when I was twenty-five?

When I'd fallen asleep last night as a seventy-five-year-old widow, memories of Ben before I lost him to cancer comforted me. Often, as I drifted off to sleep, I recalled friends and loved ones I'd lost and missed. Thoughts of Jill filled my mind again. Hopefully tomorrow I'd get the chance to spend time with her, to tell her how much I loved her. I wrestled with why I lived on while others had not.

With one last glance at the starry night sky I decided to turn in.

I felt too restless to fall asleep though, couldn't shut my mind off. As I tossed and turned, a childhood memory popped into my head, a decades-old conversation with my grandmother. I couldn't have been more than ten. I'd asked her to tell me what it was like when she was a little girl. I'd forgotten the details my grandmother related about her childhood but recalled asking Nana whether she wished she were young again.

"Absolutely not. I wouldn't want to go through that again."

I hadn't thought about that conversation in years. Until this moment I'd never understood my grandmother's answer.

* * *

I woke up the next morning in my own condo bedroom, achy all over, and stumbled into the bathroom. The weak, intermittent stream had returned. So had my old-lady hands, enlarged knuckles, bulging blue veins and all. When I glanced in the mirror, I saw the damned turkey neck. A cascade of memories from yesterday flooded my brain. They seemed so real, it couldn't have been a dream. When I went to bed last night it never crossed my mind that my reprieve from old age would only last a day. I'd never get to see Jill again. Damn it!

I crawled back into bed and reviewed each detail of the previous day -- my youthful body, Environmental Solutions, the bar after work, thinking I saw Jill, hearing her voice. It had felt like visiting a foreign country.

I couldn't decide whether to feel relieved or disappointed that it hadn't lasted.

Article © Bonnie Carlson. All rights reserved.
Published on 2020-02-10
Image(s) are public domain.
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