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Sex and the mid-sized city

Over the past few weeks, I have been indulging in Sex and the City, the early 2000s classic that redefined television and taught everything U.S. health education classes didn’t. I am faced with the daunting task of finishing the series and subsequent movies by graduation, as the HBO Max subscription belongs to my roommate. For some reason, in the middle of my peak post-grad anxiety, I am reassured by this poorly aged yet timeless portrayal of four women living professionally successful lives in Manhattan, who stumble through the challenges of adult life. 

At its core, Sex and the City is a story about aging. As the show is centered on four single women in their 30s, the passage of time has an underlying presence in the show. The pressure to get married is felt by the more traditional Charlotte, yet the more progressive Samantha embraces the uncertainty of an open dating life. The show treats aging with complexity, showing the harsh realities but also the fundamental beauty of becoming a more experienced person. And through it all, the characters continue to make mistakes that are unmistakably human.

Graduating from college is intimidating—people paint it as the ending of the best years of your life. This is the first moment of aging that can fill us with more dread than excitement. Right now I am nervous about my ability to replicate the happiness of my college years. As a young person, I tend to view aging as decay. There is a decay in physical health, a decay in number of friends, a decay in the potential paths we see in our future. Each decision or mistake I make in my 20s will only close doors and tuck away daydreams about alternate lives. It is difficult to picture a future where I have more than I hope for, since it exists in the unknown.

When I watch Sex and the City, I am comforted by how similar my life feels to theirs. I share little in common with well-off white women living in Manhattan, but I find happiness in a lot of the same ways. There are moments of college that feel so unique to the college experience: basketball games, crazy parties, late-night food with friends, random hook-ups with quasi-strangers. But I am starting to realize that these moments can be present in adult life, just with a little less chaos and a bit more comfort. And as I have felt in the past year, this progression into adulthood feels more natural than I expected.

Most things in life can improve post-college: quality of apartments, stress level, vacations, freedom to customize our lives. What continues to intimidate me is the loss of my social life as I know it. Next year, my friends will quite literally be scattered across the country. I will lose the experience of always being around so many people I know. I can be sad about this, or I can embrace the uncertainty of being around so many people I do not know. The comfort of college can be a restriction on our interaction with the real world. But what is the real world?

For the women of sex and the city, they are the center of the real world. With glamorous parties, expensive dinners, and socializing with the city’s finest, their life cannot get more busy and chic. But for viewers like me, it is a replication of a fantasy we will never experience. Yet I like to believe that such a real world does indeed exist, and in some way I will find it. In some city, I hope for a life that fills me with enough excitement to churn out six award-winning seasons.

The “real world” or “life post-college” seems more subjective as time goes on. Most recent Duke graduates I talk to migrated to the same metropolises, and stayed in touch with many of their Duke friends. It seems difficult to fully escape this university, or at least the people. And to view life post-graduation as the “real world” does a disservice to the vast amount of learning I have done here. In my time at Duke, I made the same embarrassing mistakes that Carrie Bradshaw, the lead of Sex and the City, made: discounted my friends, spent too much money on the wrong things, wrote a self-obsessive column. Even in the fake world of Duke, I got my taste of fake adult life.

A few years ago, I lamented in a column on going to a mid-sized city in the South as a gay person. I fantasized about living my carefree years as a young gay man in a big city, a potential recurring side character in Sex and the City. I viewed Duke as an incubator for myself, only a test trial for the real world. In the past year or so, the glass walls to the incubator shattered, and the real world rushed into me quicker than I expected. It was nothing like anyone expected, and certainly nothing like I had fantasized. I ended up learning how to deal with the uncertainty of life, as the comfort of Duke left me. And I found happiness when I forgot what it felt like.

I have learned to let go of expectations for what my future will look like. It makes enjoying my present location more difficult. Often the real future surprises us and we end up making mistakes that disappoint our past selves. But just like TV shows, we must continue to chug along and write a new season or a tired sequel. I cannot live in fear that my next season won’t get renewed, or that my ratings will plummet. I just have to write this series with love and passion, and be grateful for every twist and turn.

Nathan Heffernan is a graduating Trinity senior. This is the last installment of his column, which runs on alternate Thursdays. 

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