[This is the second part of an essay I’m posting in several installments.]
“So Jennifer, what is it you do up in San Francisco these days?”
“I’m a proofreader.”
The deliberate suspension of their judgment of me is as palpable as a barely contained fart: the highlights in their eyes dim and retreat, the smiles become a form of facial calisthenics, the nodding is something they are telling themselves to do.
But the kind, gracious ladies at the wedding are very practiced in this kind of thing. They know just how to neutralize the subject at hand. What fond memories they have of me as a child! What an interesting, fascinating, unique little girl I was! Such an individual type! And so intelligent. The old stories are dragged out once more: You spent my child’s sixth birthday party reading our stacks of Time magazine instead of eating cake and ice cream (I did?! What was I thinking?! Obviously I knew nothing about how to party. You snag the cake and ice cream and *then* lock yourself in the bathroom with the reading material.)! While still in grammar school, Jen, you would make the most profound observations about people and society! You were able to read and write at college level by the fifth grade!
So why aren’t you rich? they are thinking, but don’t say. They accentuate the positive, no matter how many decades ago that happened to be.
And suddenly there’s another phantom me, one that wants to say, sorry. I’m sorry I’ve disappointed you. I’m sorry I’ve made you doubt that anyone who’s intelligent and works hard will live the way you do. I’m sorry the spectacular promise I showed as a child appears to have come to nothing in particular, that the endeavors I have found worthwhile and fulfilling would seem to you either banal or baffling: hammering out a nonprofit mission statement for minimum wage; being named unpaid staff writer at a well-respected underground magazine (that then went out of business); romping around Europe by myself right after 9/11, when everyone else was terrified of driving ten miles from home.
So there’s another, deeper, stronger, more obnoxious phantom me that steps forward, looks these women dead in the eyes and says, no, I’m not sorry. I’m not sorry one bit. You may be disappointed in me, but I am disappointed in the stories you live by, as they will inevitably disappoint you.
If asked on the street, you would agree that everyone makes mistakes, that everyone is frail and human, that we all end up in the same final place. But how can you really understand these things when your culture enshrines the mythology that because someone is young and good-looking and upwardly mobile, they will always be so, their skyward trajectory will simply continue forever because of its attractive present state? When it doesn’t continue, you cannot forgive them for it, as you cannot forgive yourselves when you finally show signs of earthly mortality.
If the Phantom Me had come true, by now the talk about her would have gotten demoted from “Isn’t she amazing?” to “Poor Jen, that husband just left her for some young thing” or “Apparently Jen’s youngest boy just got packed off to military school” or “You know, she never did lose that extra weight after those two kids.”
And to be fair, much of their concern is pragmatic. With the way things are now, how will I survive in the long term? How will I not end up in a place of extreme financial vulnerability? Owning property nowadays more often than not requires earning six digits a year, moving to the “exurbs” and pulling a nightmarish commute, soothing your boredom and stress with a constant stream of new consumer items racked up on your credit card. Even if I were willing to do any of that, my skill set wouldn’t qualify me for the hot job, the grind would destroy my health and put me in medical debt, and my overall higher-ups would sense that I just wasn’t cut out for the life. They would be right.
This is the thing. It’s not that I have nothing in common with the Phantom Me. It’s not as though I’ve never had an I Need to Get Serious phase in my life; I’ve had several. I’ve put on the nice suit, I’ve rehearsed the interview answers, I’ve beefed up the portfolio, I’ve sat down more times than I can remember to try to “figure it all out,” to squeeze the meanderings of my achievements and interests into some sort of linear path that suggests the sort of soaring future that would make sense to my family, that would finally speak their language.
But each time, with few exceptions, “it” doesn’t want to be figured out. Something in me has always just said no.
[Part 3 will be forthcoming next week. Part 1 is available in the last post. Thanks for reading.]