My husband and I were at dinner with two couples enjoying a rare parents’ night out at a local restaurant. Not able to remember the last time the stars had aligned and we’d all scored babysitters simultaneously, I had dressed for the occasion in my late-thirties best. High-waisted jeans flared at the bottom, a top with puffy sleeves, big dangling earrings, and a knotted headband.
I was nursing a champagne cocktail, enjoying the lack of interruptions when suddenly someone mentioned college.
“Remember how great it felt to have a few drinks, stay out late, and sleep in?” one mom said.
“God, sometimes I miss it, that feeling of just letting loose. Of going dancing!” said my other friend.
We all sighed as we remembered the past, then discussed how our lives had changed since those carefree days. The kids, the work commitments, the early bedtimes. What would our younger selves say? When was the last time any of us had let ourselves have fun? Gone out and not worried?
None of us could remember. But as the meal came to an end, no one wanted to go home. So we decided to head to a nearby restaurant known for its later hours and weekend music. Yet when we arrived, the doors were locked.
“Already?” I said. “But it’s only 10:30!”
“Guess it’s time to go home,” said my husband.
Just as I started to nod, one of our friends interrupted.
“You know there is somewhere else we can try.”
Before he finished speaking, I was shaking my head no. Because we all knew that the only place open later was the bar we didn’t step foot in, also known as the local college bar.
“We can’t go there. Can we?” I said.
“Why not?” said a mom. “So what if we’re old? It’s not like they own it! Besides, we’ll be gone before their night even gets started.”
Around me, the group agreed. And so I nodded. “Okay, then. Let’s do it!” I said. “Let’s go back to college!”
Within minutes we found ourselves living a scene out of Old School as we walked through a portal to our pasts. The first thing that hit me was the smell of stale beer and sweat left over from too many nights of drinking and not enough cleaning in between. Immediately I regretted wearing open-toed shoes, along with my entire outfit. For around us was a sea of tight jeans and crop tops, old t-shirts and ball caps, with no headbands or puffy sleeves to be found. Quickly I took off my earrings and headband and shoved them in my purse, hoping to blend in better.
The crowd was still thin with space for us to grab a few barstools, and as we did, I felt myself relax. The music was loud, my friends were laughing, and if I closed my eyes tight enough, I could almost believe I was back at the college bar of my youth.
Almost seventeen years have passed since my husband, and I left our alma mater. Some days that part of our lives feels like a dream, foggy and forgotten, like the old essays filed away on my yellow Dell laptop, now stored in the back of a closet. And yet other days, it feels closer, like I could roll out of bed, throw on my popped collar polo and run off to class. Because while so much in our lives has changed, deep down, we haven’t changed much at all. We still share the same values, crack the same jokes, watch the same Seinfeld reruns.
In seventeen years, we’ve moved states and jobs, bought and sold houses, and had three kids. And yet, in that time, the inner voice that speaks to me all day long has never wavered. Hidden underneath the makeup, the smile lines, the puffy sleeves, and high-waisted jeans I will always hate more than low rise, lies that same girl with the same dreams.
And so I danced. We all did, surprised to discover not much had changed in seventeen years. The music was familiar, a mix of current hits and early 2000s hip hop that made us feel at home as we requested songs from the DJ and shared tales about beer pong and drank plastic cup vodka tonics that tasted more like rubbing alcohol than something a person should consume. And in that next hour, I smiled and laughed more than I had in years.
It wasn’t until later that I looked up and realized we were the only ones dancing. Everyone was standing there awkwardly, holding drinks and looking at their phones as if we were at a middle school dance where everyone was afraid to make eye contact. It caught me off guard, and for a moment, I paused. Had this part of college once existed for me too?
I thought back to those first few years when I tried to make friends and fit in. And I realized there was a lot of college I had left on campus.
Like how it feels to have someone spill a beer down your back, which happened right after I noticed the school dance vibe. Or how terrible it is to actually drink college bar vodka. Or how alcohol can fuel tempers, which we witnessed when two guys started throwing punches before being escorted out. By the time someone needed the bathroom and I stole a look at that floor, I knew it was time to go. And so we said our goodbyes, and my husband led me out of the bar just as he had hundreds of times before.
We got home just before midnight to find our oldest on the couch, asleep in a nest of blankets.
“She woke up and wanted to wait for you. I didn’t want to move her when she fell asleep,” our babysitter said.
Silently, we took off our shoes as my husband shuffled to the couch and scooped her up in his arms, carrying her back to her room. By the time he came back down, the sitter was gone, and our youngest was awake, having wet the bed.
This time it was my turn, so I walked into her bedroom and took off her wet clothes, cleaning her up with a wet towel. Then I dressed her in new pajamas and carried her to our bed, too tired to deal with a midnight sheet change.
Once she was settled between us, we leaned across her to kiss each other goodnight. As we did, my husband smiled.
“You know, those college kids would be pretty lucky to end up like us in seventeen years,” he said.
With our youngest snuggled beside me, I knew he was right. Because lucky didn’t even begin to describe the life we’d built. Sure, over the years there have been failures and pain and challenges, and we may no longer be able to spend every night dancing until midnight. But through these experiences, we have gained something much greater – self-reliance, love, maturity – and a life more beautiful than any I could have ever imagined.
And so as I drifted off to sleep, I decided that even if there were still dreams to chase, even if sometimes my mind still felt like it was 19, I did not want to go back to college. I wanted to be with my husband and children, home and safe, their love draped around me.
But that said, if anyone wants to host a dance party for late thirty-somethings, I’ll be there – just as long as I can wear my knotted headband. And drink wine from a glass.