Creative Director and Co-Founder of MEDUSA, Eden Szymura, writes about the trials and tribulations of being in your twenties, and the need to celebrate pockets of joy wherever you may find them.
I’ve been fighting it, welcoming it, trying to demystify it. It dawned on me, in all its magnitude and annoying clarity to everyone but myself, that I really am in a different stage of my life. In other words, my twenties are in full swing, living in London, childless (thank God) and single (less praise the Lord, but more praise my boundaries even if they regretfully have me living like a nun). I never saw that for myself, the London part, or the nun part, really. I’m not sure what I saw there. Lots of steamy dates and acts of overt romance. These are yet to stick, bobbing around in a sea of tepid encounters and emotional unavailability. My friends confirm this is a shared experience for many women, probably made worse in my case by the small roadblock of being scared of most men under the age of 40. Bit of an issue when they make up 75% of the people I find attractive. To be young is to be challenged!
I moved here last summer; the change in my life was so acute it felt like a slap in the face and the sting is only just wearing off. New city, new (and old) friends, new flat, new job. Now I’m gearing up for round two as many of the foundations I have built are set to change. And that is the cycle of being in your twenties. You get your footing, and the ground shifts beneath your feet.
I do wonder if living in London, or any big city, segregates your life out into more chunks or stages than the rural alternative. Or maybe the countryside accelerates these changes, when my Facebook is full of Oxfordshire engagements and pregnancies. As a new cosmopolitan, I’m in the very marketable sub-division of single women in their twenties, who have stable but at times unfulfilling jobs and are trying to thrive/survive city life. No wonder we lap up so many of these stories in popular culture in the search of reassurance that it’s going to be okay. So, I’ll offer up an addition, and I make the promise now to offer up many more.
Today, I felt like a woman in her twenties in the best way possible. In pure teenage hysteria, or perhaps the euphoria of something minuscule but exciting happening in my little corner of the world, I think I can say with all confidence that I am infatuated with the man working at the coffee shop down my road, when I have only laid eyes on him once. I think that is utterly and entirely reasonable. In fact, I am already plotting how I can return to this very conveniently placed coffee shop, just on the off chance I may get to exchange a few words with him. He has peaked my interest far more than a dating app could. He may be entirely unsuitable or unavailable, but I have enjoyed this reminder of what attraction feels like in a beautifully unexpected way. Speaking freely, for a split second the thought of seeking work in that establishment just as an excuse to get to know him did amusingly cross my mind, of course to be quickly dismissed by the managerial part of my brain that said ‘don’t be ridiculous’. This is best described as a mother and her hormonal teenage daughter coexisting in me; in times of turmoil, and emotional exhaustion, it is usually these parts of my brain vying for dominance while I cannot make up my mind on who to back. The mother usually wins, but I am hoping to let out more of my inner teenager and have some fun.
Complementing that daydream, there is a part of me these days that craves becoming an intellectual who works as a barista part time to pay the bills (how I would pay the bills, when these are London bills, is the QUITE LARGE problem). I have accepted in myself that I have limited career ambitions when those ambitions correlate to someone else’s ladder, I’m far too stubborn. If the line is ‘I’m an important person doing important work for important people’, I’d rather do ‘important work for myself’, if I can. So bookshops and coffee shops have an attractive appeal because they offer up a different form of work, away from a laptop screen, that leans on social interaction, and the knowledge that most people in them are building their own ladders, or democratic platforms, elsewhere too.
Back to the man working at the coffee shop down my road. You’re probably wondering what he looked like. He was tall and attractive, difficult to age, I think in his mid to late twenties. He had striking aquamarine eyes that were easy to meet, contrasted by dark hair, cropped short, and a friendly and confident demeanour. Hardly groundbreaking from me is it, a conventionally very attractive man. It was his chattiness and warmth that kept that image intact, instigated by a helpful chat when I was ordering – the coffee shop was closing in 40 minutes, did I still want a regular cup or a takeaway cup while I sat in? – and throughout my time in the shop I could hear him nattering away to regular customers and colleagues, offering free sandwiches (sadly not to me, rip). He even took one for the team and went to clean the toilet as the shift was ending. What an attractive sentence, and what a feat of zoning out from my writing that I heard it.
This was the first time I’d gone to this coffee shop in months. I was hungover, rather fragile, and in desperate need of getting out of the flat to will myself to do something. I appeared ‘good dishevelled’ – hair that needed washing but was mopped up in a bun and light, energising makeup. This was a very much cultivated look that required hard work, colour corrector and the gift that is concealer. I looked like someone who did nice relaxing things on a Sunday, quirky dog t-shirt and all, rather than the woman who hours earlier had broken up her 15 minute walk between the pub and the club to go home to pick up a half-full bottle of red wine she had started earlier that night. I see this as an ingenious and cost-effective drinking plan, and you can rest assured that the bottle was recycled in a welcoming and empty green wheelie bin once finished by myself and my friend – Emily, the other half of MEDUSA for that matter. These scenes are exactly where I am in my twenties right now. It is chaotic, and messy and entirely night and day between sourdough bread and 4am bedtimes. And a lot of aching, when I learn in the morning that dancing for hours does, sadly, have an impact on your joints.
Channeling my main-character energy this particular Sunday, I had brought along my tote bag containing a notebook for writing to the coffee shop. The trouble was my foolproof plan of sitting in a cafe, soaking up the atmosphere and writing important things until a gorgeous person asked me if I was a writer, to which I would coquettishly reply yes and then reference the feminist arts platform I run – or increasingly don’t as ‘adult’ (i.e., boring) responsibilities get in the way, was undone by my lack of pen, which became apparent when I sat down. The Gods must have been pulling their strings because I later found the pen I had earmarked for my tote bag on my bed, conveniently discarded.
Side note: I was also marginally let down by the baristas playing So Solid Crew rather than the calming José Gonzalez I had imagined, which gave all my actions a slightly manic edge as the song coursed through my reeling bloodstream. This was a song that had played in the pub the night before, and with it came the unfortunate memory of butting heads (quite literally, that was all) with a man called Adam who was doing a Masters in Business Management (Business Management?!). Adam was drunker than I was, and I remember being amused that his attempts to flirt consisted of repeated asking me my name and what I did for work. Apparently ‘social impact communications strategy’ isn’t very clear (hehe). At one point Adam very profoundly asked ‘but what does it mean, and you know what, I can’t say I entirely know.
In the café, the anxious teenager within me had two choices. Put the notebooks away and accept no writing was going to happen, though that was the sole purpose of my trip, or be brave and ask for something as minuscule as a pen to use. After some strained deliberation with myself, when the blue-eyed barista brought over my decaf black americano (decaf because I was once an anxious girl and now I am an anxious woman), I very cooly asked if he had a pen I could borrow. Low and behold there was conveniently a pen tucked behind his ear that he immediately gave me;I had not spied this pen prior to the request, what a meet-cute. Rays of light broke through the ceiling, choruses sounded, and scriptwriters all around nodded in approval. Richard Curtis smiled somewhere. My mum told me it was very smooth when I told her about my day later that evening. As if I would be capable of orchestrating such an advantageous and suave encounter.
Let’s be clear, I was given a Papermate biro, without a lid. Stay humble, folks. It was nothing special in the slightest, albeit the exact kind of pen that evaded my tote bag in the first place. But to me in that moment that biro may as well have been diamond encrusted. Not all heroes wear capes, some tuck cheap biros behind their ears and hand them to hungover women writing about their worries. So off I went scribbling in my notebook, unable to properly concentrate because of this man and the So Solid Crew churning up adrenaline. Of course I persisted, wearing the quirky dog t-shirt that conveniently showed off my newest tattoo which I am increasingly using to signal I am, in fact, ‘edgy’, without having any other proof of the matter. This is where I am at in my life now: in desperate need to get out more.
When the time came to leave, I offered up the borrowed pen to the barista at the counter. He said thanks, started to go for the pen, and then told me to keep it. Very cool. I replied equally cooly, ‘thanks’, and went on with my day, off to the park. And that was it, that was all. But it was magnificent and I left beaming. Was it covid related? Was it flirting? Was it just kindness? We will never know. A true delight all the same, but if he fancied me a little bit I wouldn’t be disappointed.
These small events are meaningful, because they are the events that make up our lives, and so I relish that little snippet. Why should we wait to justify experiencing joy? These feelings are not reserved only for seismic and monumental shifts; really, we must celebrate the trivial moments and encounters that often in retrospect show their significance. Otherwise we may be waiting a long time for joy indeed.
I wrote some of these paragraphs in the burst of infatuation that brightened my day, and others after it had gone. What a reassurance in this confusing and dishevelled twenty-something life: I may not know which way is up or down, I may not know whether it is going to be a day of magic or mundanity, but I know joy. Let’s revel in good feelings while they last, and not to wish away our lives in the hope of grander pursuits.
It’s a good job there’s a coffee shop with reliable stationery supplies at the end of my road (and a much appreciated supplier of the stationery). That’s all.