[This is an excerpt from a longer essay I’m working on. Enjoy.]
The wedding guests were exquisite. Uniformly tall, fair, fit, handsome and broad-featured in a way that suggested a rigorous course of childhood orthodontics. The men, regardless of age, wore pale blue Oxford shirts and navy blazers with flat brass buttons, their hair swept confidently back from their fine faces. The women, regardless of age, were in matching jewelry sets and tasteful, professionally advised makeup.
The elders among them were distinguished and dignified. The young were straight-backed and fresh and drove newer models of cars.
The bride was beautiful; the groom striking and affable, comfortable in his skin as he made the rounds of guests and caught up with each one. They assembled for the reception at an old family friend’s house nestled in the hills, a rambling, time-worn family seat embraced by ancient oak trees. Its shelves were lined with coffee table art books and eclectic mementos of world travels. To walk the halls and whiff the oils of rare woods in the furniture and watch the oak-dappled afternoon sunlight nod upon the faces of patriarchs immortalized in oil portraits on the walls was to imagine that all the world was like this, that everyone everywhere was couched in success, gentility, and quietly self-assured entitlement.
And even as I downed multiple glasses of their fine wine, plowed through the caterer’s critically acclaimed steaks (yes, that’s steaks, plural, they were not small and I ate more than one), and cased their master bedroom for cool books and made shadow puppets on the wall with an eight-year-old fellow guest – the continual realization was clear: This will never be my world.
It was not a depressed or depressing thought. More a wondering, amused one, as most of my thoughts these days are wondering and amused.
Because really, this was supposed to be my world – this, or a neat, scaled-down, small-town version of it.
This was October 2008. Under normal circumstances, the fine cars and doctor/lawyer shop talk and mentions of children in UCLA law school amidst the classical guitarist’s delicate pluckings would all be the unnoticed bathysphere of a certain world and its inhabitants.
Now there was a palpable sense that the rug could be yanked out from under all this at any moment. Conversation struggled to break free from the topic of the economy; it never quite succeeded. Huddles of men stood with their heads together while the wives dutifully shouldered the burden of festivity, hospitably buzzed and dramatizing their pleasure at seeing each other.
The sets and props of their lifestyle would remain, but the scaffolding underneath was about to change forever. In a matter of months a man would be president who, if he approached this gathering unknown, would probably be handed an apron and directed to the kitchen or the alleyway entrance.
Wandering the magical, lovingly tended grounds outside, chatting easily with the svelte and gracious guests, was the Phantom Me. The Me I was supposed to turn out as, the Me that fit. The Me that took some initiative and made all the right moves.
Bolting myself inside the host’s well-appointed bathroom (my lifelong mature and reasonable method for dealing with any type of social disconnect) and selecting an oversized German-print Picasso retrospective from the toilet-side book rack, I peeked from the second-story window to the feasting tables down below, and took a moment to chart the Fool’s Progress of the Phantom Me.
Let’s see, what happened to her once she got that college degree? Once she got shot out of that hallowed cannon of upward mobility and was now expected to fly?
Her beginnings wouldn’t have been too different from mine. She would have spent her post-collegiate years with multiple roommates in a major metropolitan area, eating spaghetti and taking crummy little liberal arts gigs. Perhaps her city of choice would have even been San Francisco, but more likely L.A. or Orange County.
Then at some point, probably shortly before her 30th birthday, she would have had some sort of I Have to Get Serious crisis. Her tolerance for burritos and shitty living conditions would have eroded and collapsed into talk of Something to Show and biological clocks and marriage as milestone achievement.
She would have armed herself for battle with a Banana Republic shift dress and button-pearl earrings and landed an associate development director gig at the L.A. Symphony.
The Phantom Me would have shined in this role. It would have combined her excellent communication skills (99 percentile on her verbal SATs in high school, remember?) with her softcore bohemianism and “creative side.” She would be promoted within two years.
The course of her work would have opened new social doors for her; she would make the sort of friends who went on spa weekends and pricey yoga retreats. She would have circulated at fundraisers and made a wonderful impression on the legions of fascinating, presentable trustafarians. Her husband would have been plucked from this circle, attracted by her effervescent charm and worldliness.
The wedding would have been spectacular, and her parents would nearly have heart attacks before the Big Day, worried sick that they’d come across as carpetbagging slobs to the Nice People of her husband’s world.
I would have squirted two Beautiful Children into the Montessori school system, and it would be this, truly, that would seal my membership in the blue-blazer world; the seemingly unending trajectory of triumph in all arenas of my life would be such that, like an abundant force of nature, it would have no choice but to replicate itself and continue my incredible story.
Had I turned out the Phantom Me, even my liberalism would be forgiven. Because I would be the right kind of liberal. The one who hugs the whales and the gay interior decorators, is endearingly flighty and dingbatty and easily dismissed. I would not be the articulate crank who yammers on about economic justice and living wages before telling you which five obscure, unwatchable documentaries you have to see before I will even fucking talk to you. I would instead be a full-time mother and full-time arts fundraiser, the kind of woman about whom today’s wedding guests would whisper, “Isn’t she amazing? I don’t know how she does it!”
But I’m now 39. It would be at this very point when the whispers about the Phantom Me along the grapevine would inevitably darken, because despite the steep upward trellis onto which the thoughts of comfortable Americans are trained, everyone – everyone – eventually either fucks up or is fucked.
I know well what these whispers sound like. My mother is constantly updating me, in meaningless chunks, on people in her circle whose names and lives I have long since ceased to know or care about: Maggie got cancer, Shelly got divorced, Mark can’t find a job, Casey is on anti-depressants, Melanie got pregnant by a man who won’t marry her, Bob’s kids are drug fiends, Cathy’s daughter married an Iranian (but we’ve heard he’s very nice!), Richard’s son turned out gay (and please make no mistake: there are still vast groups of people for whom these last two tidbits would be announcements of tragedy and failure).
“So Jennifer, what is it you do up in San Francisco these days?”
“I’m a proofreader.”
[This concludes Part One of The Kid Is All Right: Meet the Failure I’m Not. Hopefully more will be forthcoming as I complete it.]