When do you know you’re an adult? Really an adult, not just clinging to the I.D. that says you’re legal or pretending you feel wise and competent (say, in front of a classroom full of college freshmen, many of whom are only four years younger than you are) and detached when really, you just want to go out drinking with the interesting ones.

(Actually, a complete loss of interest in going out drinking with the interesting ones is probably a pretty good indicator, in which case I passed that milestone a couple of years ago, although it could just be the decline in quality of ‘interesting’ as my geographic situation has gone from edgy to eccentric to flabby suburban bland. But anyway.)

Or are you finally an adult when you get married? Or when you own a house? Or when you have kids?

Two words:

Britney. Spears.

In other words, the gradual ascent to maturity requires more than just its trappings. And yet there should be some kind of marker, some rite of passage by which a person knows that he or she has irrevocably turned the corner into adulthood, that those halycon days of improbably colored cocktails and inadvertent oral sex in bars or hotel bathrooms are, for good and all, over.

Clearly that marker is not marriage, mortgages, or kids, as any of the Wall Street power traders I used to temp for (and be propositioned by over Curaçao) in college could tell you. Nope. It’s something a little more ephemeral than that and, like any good rite of passage, more an ending than a beginning.

I submit, ladies and gentlemen, that the answer is divorce. Not necessarily your own, which would put the ‘adult rate’ at just slightly under 50%, but divorce experienced socially and vicariously through a member of your peer group. Since you’ll already have a marriage, a mortgage, and kids at that point, divorce, even if experienced secondhand, sheds an entirely new light on these things. Mostly, it does the unthinkable: opens the door to a possibility of returning to those days of carefree binges and haphazard sex, letting you glimpse the possible return of a time when the phrase Whoops! I slipped and fell on your penis! was a reality.

My friend “Don” is getting divorced now. He’s been living in the basement of his former home and is probably even as I write in the process of moving into a crappy two-bedroom apartment which his soon-to-be ex doesn’t want him to have; she wanted him to take possession of the one-bedroom that happens to be located about ten feet down from where I sit, i.e. in the bottom half of our duplex. Why? Because, he posits, she’s trying to cramp his style; he can’t have a one-bedroom and their daughter visiting every other night and hope to have any kind of social life, sunken living room, bearskin rug, and jetted tub be damned. I tend to give a more charitable interpretation that the lure of the familiar (i.e. a couple she knows socially as landlords) and the possibility of free occasional babysitting for their daughter (if “Don” ever has to run out and pick up his dry cleaning/FedEx a package/hire Divine Brown to blow him in his Geo Prizm) is more powerful than her concern for his welfare, social development, and healing process. But either way, she knows what’s up, and so does he. As he put it over drinks in our living room a few weeks ago,

“So now I can sleep with a different person every night if I want.” And then, gazing disconsolately at the ceiling, “Which sounds fucking terrible.”

This, my friends, is adulthood. The same man who, four months into his marriage, spent an evening sniffing around yours truly over bourbon at the Driftwood Inn for the possibility of a little sugar on the side (he actually used the term “open marriage,” while admitting that was his ideal rather than the reality), having lied to his wife and told her he was volunteering for the local independent radio station telethon, is now free, and that freedom tastes about like sawdust. He’d rather sit around watching rented DVDs of “The Sopranos” than even consider the possibility of ending up in a compromising position with some floozy(ies). And why? Because the man is now an adult. And the adult knows that nothing is worth the humiliation of waking up with a patchy memory and Bubbilicious stuck to your boxers.

About time.

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