How to live your life

The other weekend, I scraped the mud off my Wal-Mart sneakers and went up to New York City.

(If I say “I kid you not” again in a post, I would have to explain that this verbal tic is a reference to the apartment instructions we had from our friend’s family’s friends when we all stayed together in their Paris apartment many years ago, before the six children that were to come to us, collectively, and thus render inadvisable a weekend in someone’s idiosyncratic flat. You can expect, at some point in the future, maybe even now, a post about instruction manuals for one’s home. Everyone has written one at some point, right? How to water my plants. How to work the keys. What my cat likes to talk about. It’s an interesting genre which reveals, in calm, cheerful language, all of your issues, all of the unresolved foibles of your dwelling, your domestic neuroses, your assumptions about your readers. On your return you will find this manual barely touched—did they read it? Maybe I didn’t put it in the right place?—or gone. Thrown out in annoyance or they have taken it with them as the source material for, I kid you not, a lifetime of running jokes, and you see yourself, briefly, as others might.)

(Undeterred, you edit the copy for the next time, emphasizing that it is really important to follow the exact sequence and not just the spirit of deactivating the alarm that you don’t even use but your landlord refuses to disconnect. You rethink how to explain to your American visitors how to use a European washing machine without insulting their intelligence. How can you help your guests discover the charms of your neighborhood and not be tempted to buy their baguettes at Tesco or eat at Cafe Rouge. Or maybe you should get over yourself and not be so controlling. Or maybe they should just trust you.)

There really was mud on my sneakers. And my sneakers really are from Wal-Mart. I packed my off-white shoes, too, partly because I still sport the dark tights, light shoes look. Have you people in cities moved on from that? I wouldn’t know. And partly because, as the daughter of a Southerner come North to work at a fashion magazine, who was mortified by white shoes, first her own and later those of her compatriots, I want to redress that. It’s the sartorial equivalent of being queer, being here and wanting those around you to get used to it.

I flew via Memphis. This is an airport I would recommend. It was busy and purposeful, yet homey. It smells of bacon. I have been in a lot of airports and that was a first. I stopped off for breakfast at Jim Neely’s Interstate Bar-B-Que. There was a collection of china pigs at the cash register and I suddenly felt homesick for the South that I was leaving (for two days). The biscuits (and by this I mean like scones) that they wouldn’t have in NY or the sweet tea.

You could feel that odd combination of irritability and indifference in the crowd of people at the departure gate for the JFK-bound, delayed flight. Or maybe that was my imagination. Or maybe that was me.

It is the wedding of a childhood friend. We met at the beach. We didn’t like each other much at first, each wanting to be the funny, sarcastic one, then bonding on a rainy summer day playing Ms. Pac-Man in Kismet, at the Out, which was next to the Inn, geddit? After that we were daily fixtures on the beach with a million secret jokes. At the wedding, there are people I know from different parts of my life, most of whom I have not seen in 20 years, who assume, why not?, that I continue to live in NY, while they have been in L.A., or in NY, but hanging out with a different crowd. So, what have I been up to? I pretty much have to lead with Alabama, for now.

And what happens when you haven’t seen someone for 20 years and you are not friends with them on Facebook is that you are shocked that they have aged. And the people who are shocked about all of this aging are our parents’ friends. They will not believe me when I identify someone of my generation. “But he’s bald!” cries Mr. X. You people, they are thinking, have betrayed us with your gray hair, your teenage children, your impending frailty. It is like they left out the instruction manual for us and we forgot to read it.

It is a weekend of rootlessness and remembrance. I meet up with an old friend and we go back to her apartment. Her mom is there, babysitting. Before I go, my friend shows me an old photo album that was missing for years with faded photographs of us from high school and college, dressed up for the Tacky Formal, in teased hair and vintage polyester dresses, the junior-senior tea dance, Founder’s Day sun bleached and Hughsian 80sness with designer sunglasses and ripped up T-shirts, our lives before us.

The next day I go with another friend and her daughter to a talk at the Frick, which compares and contrasts Romeo and Juliet with West Side Story. The symmetry of the presentation and the neatness of its points—if only life made that kind of sense. It is soothing in its balance. Parents of young children see the abstract potential of their children not the messy uncertainties of young adolescence. Do the four singers on stage see this as a great gig? How will they look back on these days in their careers? Is this the jobbing bit or the bit where they are well-established or hoping that this will be a breakthrough? Our 20s were a time of wondering what this would all come to.

And, of course, there is no instruction manual, no magic sequence of moves, only some specific facts and some general guidelines. What makes it work, what makes you happy, even if that is a tasteless baguette from Tesco, will be given its savor by something else, like the amazing view from Primrose Hill, which you forgot to mention, and as your guests enjoyed their picnic they laughed about it. All those other details about the minor injuries unit and the thermostat but not a word about this. They had discovered it all on their own.

Just like you hoped they would.


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