I remember the exact moment in my life in which I became an adult. Before it happened, I had assumed adulthood was quantified by credentials, like having a high school diploma, a driver’s license or a job. I got all of those things, but there was no convincing endorsement of my maturity to accompany them. In fact, my parents were so intertwined in their acquisition that I felt more like a child once I had them than when I didn’t. It didn’t help that the grown-ups giving me that diploma, license and job always patted me on the back and said, “Tell your father I said hello.”
The instant I knew I had transitioned from kid to adult came in an airport. I was traveling for work, something I had begun doing frequently despite my neophyte position in a media agency. I was meant to fly from New York City to Denver, but my flight had to be re-routed on account of weather. The announcement came suddenly and with little ceremony other than to land on a runway in Kansas. Out of the fuselage straggled a couple hundred passengers who wanted anything but to be in Kansas.
The most distressing thing about being in Kansas when you’re supposed to be in Colorado is explaining to your boss, who conceivably had never left the concrete cradle of New York City, why you are in Kansas when you should be in Colorado. It was a conversation that included much geographical instruction about the middle of the country and many assurances that Kansas was, in fact, a neighboring state to Colorado. It concluded with an incisive order to get myself to the state that I was supposed to go to in the first place. And to do it before the morning.
I recall snapping my cell phone closed and proceeding through the airport with only the collision of my rolling bag against my heels to nudge me forward. I pulled the bag over the high-waxed floors of that airport in Kansas, my eyes trained along the ceiling at the suspended signs directing me to beverages, to bathrooms, to baggage. I hoped that one would signal the way to Denver.
As I traversed baggage claim, my memory unreeled its footage of trudging behind my mother as she navigated the labyrinthine corridors of airports. I would follow closely behind, alongside my brother, never questioning whether she knew how to get to Gate 34B. Or to Colorado. The tremors of travel catastrophes were rarely felt by the kids, triaged at an executive level before information slid around our headphones. There was a comfort in knowing my mother would always get us on the plane. There was an equal comfort in knowing she would never get us on the plane if the airline was offering free travel vouchers.
It was there in a state that I had never been to — and never meant to go — that I became an adult. There underneath those directional signs, without any internal direction of my own, where I had to plot my next move. There was no mother to help me out of Kansas. There was no boss who even knew where Kansas was. I rented a car and drove myself six hours to Denver — and into adulthood — that night.
The consequences of being an adult continued for years. Marriage, home ownership, children, Huey Lewis concerts. Throughout the milestones, I felt like a grown-up because there was no one there to regard me like a child or to remind me that, in some ways, we all remain children.
Then my marriage ended, and the levees of my adulthood were tested. Without summons, emissaries of good judgment flocked to my side and began speaking to each other above my head, the way adults do when talking about the insolent child in the room. I now needed a lawyer to tell me how to speak. An accountant to tell me how to save. A realtor to tell me how to live. A therapist to tell me how to feel. A mother to tell me to sleep. A father to tell me to eat. A friend to tell me to stop watching “Eat Pray Love” every night.
The directional signs — the ones in the airport that illuminated the way when I first became an adult — have all gone dark. I am back to following at the heels of grown-ups, trusting that they’ll get me where I need to go, which is a route much more complicated than those laid out by any business trip. I have never felt more like a child while, by the same token, never feeling more adult.
I have never been more in Kansas and in search of Colorado.
Erin Donovan moved with her family to the Midcoast where she constantly is told she says the word “scallops” incorrectly. She performs live and produces Web sketches derived from her popular humor blog “I’m Gonna Kill Him.” Follow her misadventures at imgonnakillhim.bangordailynews.com and on Twitter @gonnakillhim.