Read an Excerpt
We tell ourselves stories in order to live.
—JOAN DIDION, The White Album
It’s ten o’clock on a Tuesday night, a light rain is falling on the wide streets of Brooklyn and I’m in my living room, strangling a rabbi.
This is the first time I’ve ever physically assaulted a man of God, and I have to say, it feels excellent. My fingers, with their chipped red nail polish, are digging into the soft white flesh of his rabbi neck. My heart is pounding loudly in my ears. Normally, I am the least violent person on the planet—a practitioner of yoga, a shopper for shoes—but in this moment, I’m completely unhinged. I’m a ballerina assassin, a ninja superstar, a platinum-haired dragon slayer in Stella McCartney vegan loungewear. Watch out, assholes: Jujitsu Blonde is in the house. (She lives here, actually. She was trying to read the December Vogue before turning in early on a work night, but then this bearded dude rolled up talking smack, and now she’s on the path of destruction.)
Somewhere off in the distance, someone is blasting the 10,000 Maniacs on a wheezing desktop speaker system, and I can just barely hear Natalie Merchant whining about something, and I make a mental note to kick her ass someday too.
Who is this guy, anyway—this Hasid, this pillar of his community, this ginger-haired fucker with the squinty eyes and the placid demeanor and the beige yarmulke the size of a dinner plate bobby-pinned to his head? I want to smack the Coke-bottle glasses off his pale God-fearing face. Has he ever even seen the sun? I can tell he’s wearing tzitzit, a religious garment, underneath his clothes because the fringe is hanging out like some short sham of a hula skirt. And the T-shirt he’s got on over it is a trip: It has a drawing of Calvin and Hobbes on the front and a dialogue bubble with the words “New York Attitude.” I’ll show this gentle Yid some New York Attitude. I’ll show him what two hours a day of Iyengar yoga and a bachelor’s degree in American history and an encyclopedic knowledge of the last eight seasons of ready-to-wear from Paris, New York and Milan and a diet of sushi, soy milk and organic spinach—and, oh yeah, a broken motherfucking heart—can do. I’ll send him back to Russia with a collapsed windpipe and no knees!
Because the night belongs to lovers!
You’re next, bitch.
The rabbi twists around forty-five degrees and looks at me with one straining eye. We’re basically the same size, only he has more padding around the middle, and he’s wearing some heinous pair of frayed brown rabbi shoes that lift him up an extra half inch. But still I’m thinking: no problem. I don’t care how “chosen” this flabster is, he’s going down. My hands are steel claws. I tighten my grip, taking a moment to contemplate my options: Would it be better to body-slam him down right here in the living room or drag his limp carcass out into the courtyard first so everyone can watch? Then I notice the muscles in his back tense, and—uh-oh. There are muscles in his back.
In an instant, everything changes. He reaches up and grabs my wrists and performs some freaky Mortal Kombat maneuver, nearly stripping the delicately exfoliated and moisturized skin of my forearms from the bone. He pulls me toward him, into his damp right armpit, and holds me there for just one second, just long enough that I can see the fire in his eyes, just close enough that I can smell his breath: pizza. And then without warning I go down, I don’t even know how, like one big bag of elbows clattering against the wood floor, blinkered and speechless, while above me, Cosmo the Rabbi grins madly.
Everyone has a fight-or-flight response, but in this case, both impulses strike me simultaneously. I want to run away, and I want to clock him. Fight and flight. Maybe it’s a Jew thing. Observance-wise, Cosmo and I are opposites, but in the technical aspect, we are the same. Equal in the eyes of God and the SS, we are both genetically Jews, both members of a tribe that has been chased around the world, kicking and screaming—fighting while fleeing—for the last three thousand years. Millennia of genetic imprinting and a lifetime of poor impulse control nearly propel me in two directions, at him and away, but in the end both lose out, and I sit there, motionless, holding back tears.
“At this point I would stomp on your face,” he says cheerfully. “Or kick you in the head, at least.”
That’s what happens when you fuck with God.
IN MY DEFENSE, he asked for it.
“Please, Rebecca,” Cosmo had said. “Choke me!”
“No,” I’d said. “Jesus! No.”
I’d been curled up in my usual position on an emerald-green velvet armchair incongruously plopped in the center of our large, dirty, empty parlor. For nine days, the rabbi and I had lived together like this, in circumstances any sane person would describe as “sin.” We were not involved, would never become involved—get that out of your head right now—but the means by which we had arrived at this point, and would remain suspended there, in awkward cohabitation for nine weird months, were, at a minimum, unusual. I am a twenty-seven-year-old nonpracticing Jew, a journalist who’d spent her adult life pursuing the feminine ideal as laid out by the Sex and the City television series. Cosmo is an ultra-Orthodox Lubavitch-Hasidic Jew, an ascetic, a practitioner of a faith that forbids an unmarried man and woman from being alone in a room together, let alone living side by side, separated by one thin wall. I don’t know what the Talmud says about a rabbi drop-kicking a skinny girl in the middle of the apartment they share, platonically, but I suspect the scholars would frown on it.
There are a lot of complicated explanations for what was going on then in our shithole two-bedroom in Brooklyn—explanations that draw on ancient scripture and popular culture, that deal with the peculiar appeals and deceptions of modernity, the privilege of youth and the limits of faith—but for the time being, a simple explanation should suffice: I was broke. Rent was cheap. He needed the money.
A week before I moved in, Cosmo had taken up jujitsu. He was rapidly losing interest in God, so why not? He was not leading a congregation now. He was, instead, the smartest employee of the Fast Trak Copy Center in the neighborhood, where he duplicated keys and halfheartedly tried to rescue people’s hard drives while dreaming of becoming a rock star. Whatever nerves the retail job hadn’t destroyed, the creeping agnosticism had, and the godless rabbi needed an outlet. An amateur jazz historian with a six-year degree in philosophy, he spent much of his spare time playing the electric bass, for a time in a band called Denim Fajita, which he really thought was going somewhere, but which went nowhere. Fluent in six languages, he had briefly dated Leah, a Yiddish scholar who really got his motor running, until she ditched him. He had just wrapped up an extension course in introductory Portuguese, so, he figured, it made sense to study hand-to-hand combat next.
Jujitsu was great but also “gay,” in Cosmo’s estimation, since it involved rolling around on the ground with men. Whatever Maimonides might have thought of me, there’s little doubt how he’d view that. Cosmo had just arrived home from jujitsu class when he began nagging me to choke him—he wanted to practice, and at least I wasn’t a dude.
At last I obliged, taking a short break from wallowing, my activity of choice since moving in, days after a breakup that had sent the world as I knew it crashing down on my head. I was single, miserable and living in a muggy apartment in the middle of the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, wherever that was. I figured I might as well fight a rabbi. That feeling changed abruptly when I found myself on the ground, nursing a bruised shoulder and two hinky wrists. He hadn’t even really gone at me—it was all just pretend—but I hadn’t eaten more than an occasional bowl of plain oatmeal since the breakup, and by that point, the pope could have done me in.
“Ouch, Cosmo,” I say.
“Sorry!” he says, beaming, and trips off to make tea.
“You know, Rebecca, you should really do jujitsu,” he calls from the kitchen.
In nine days, we had already been over this half a dozen times. Every time I fell into talking about my ex, every time I started to cry or wallow or reminisce about lost love, Cosmo would beg me to join him for a class. I had other outlets for my feelings, I explained. I was a writer. I worked out. I went to sample sales and cocktail parties and had long dinners with friends. I was a regular New York City gal, as I’d always imagined I would be: a Yale graduate, a social drinker, a reader of Us Weekly and the Wall Street Journal. What I was not was the sort of person who got all sweaty rolling around in a leotard on a mat.
“Why do I have to do jujitsu, Cosmo?” I ask, for the seventh time.
He shouts over the screaming kettle, “Because it’s just like sex, only without the sadness!”
He was morose, listless, hilarious—possibly a virgin, I wasn’t sure. At a minimum, he should have been, if he’d really followed all the rules. Cosmo had come over from Moscow a decade earlier with a suitcase of clothes, a hundred dollars cash and a road map to Brooklyn—nothing else. He fancied himself a Raskolnikov, but his darkest vices were good beer and big boobs, which together had edged God largely out of his thoughts lately. He had a weakness for awkwardly translated Russian expressions of disbelief, the best of which was: “You could be from Mars for that price!” He played the bass, listened to psychedelic punk rock and watched Top Chef online, over and over, season after season, until he could recite the dialogue from the cable reality cooking show, on which contestants whipped up all kinds of delicious dishes that Cosmo, strictly kosher, would never be allowed to eat.
We had a surprising amount in common, for a Russian rabbi and an atheist from Pittsburgh. We were both only children, both broke, both alone and both well accustomed to fighting and running away. Cosmo’s religion was Judaism, and it was failing him. My religion was a secular hash of things I picked up from books and movies during a boring childhood in the suburbs. I didn’t think much about the next world, but I thought plenty about this one: the kind of person I wanted to be, the kind of clothes that person would wear, the man she’d date, the apartment she’d live in, the restaurants she’d go to and the items she’d order off the menu when she got there. I had done everything right, had followed all the rules for a happy adulthood, just as Cosmo had followed the strictures of Orthodox observance to the tiniest detail. Yet here we both were, lost and depressed. Our faiths had faltered. The stories we’d been telling ourselves suddenly stopped making sense.
I crawl up off the floor and back into the green velvet chair, while Cosmo carries in our tea. Mine arrives in a small brown cup. His is in a rainbow-striped mug the size of his head that says, in big letters, NO KVETCHING.
“What’s gonna happen to us, Cosmo?”
“I don’t know, dude,” he replies, rolling a cigarette with loose tobacco from one of the dozen-odd Bali Shag bags lying around the apartment. “I guess we’re pretty much fucked.”
The Complete Story of How I Got Everything I Ever Wanted
One morning seven months after I graduated from college, I quit a job I never liked as a reporter for the Washington Post, jammed my wardrobe into a rolling suitcase and went to the train station without even bothering to look at the schedule first. It was January 27, 2005, a date I remember as well as my birthday. I arrived in New York in the middle of the afternoon, with twenty dollars and one credit card in my wallet and an expired driver’s license that I didn’t renew for three years. A week earlier, I’d secured a relatively firm but by no means ironclad commitment for a $24,000-a-year reporting job at the New York Observer, a small, salmon-colored weekly newspaper that I’d read for the first time two weeks before that. I owned no furniture and had arranged for no permanent place to stay. None of that mattered—I was home.
The taxi line outside Penn Station was long, so I walked a block north, dragging my suitcase, with its one functioning wheel, through puddles behind me. Midtown seemed glorious in the winter drizzle. The fumes wafting out of sidewalk nut-vendor carts were warm and sweet. Steam puffed up around my ankles from the subway grates, and it looked a little like I was walking on clouds. It felt like I was walking over a fetid subway grate, but at that point I had trouble distinguishing between the look and the feel of things. Life looked right, and I was thrilled. Some girls imagine their wedding day when they’re young: the dress they’ll wear, the music that will play, the man they’ll spend the rest of their life with. I imagined my first day in New York: the way it would smell, the first taxi ride I’d take, the people I’d meet in all the days thereafter and the life I’d live, down to the finest detail.
I am from Pittsburgh. Technically, I’m not even from the pea-size industrial city, glamorous as it seemed in my youth, but O’Hara Township, a small suburb to the north, nondescript in every way. I don’t know who first introduced me to the idea of New York, but for as long as I can remember it has been my Jerusalem—the shining city off in the distance, the only place to go. I’d visited a few times before I moved there—exhausting, confusing weekend trips, once with my parents and a few times with friends—but by and large, my sense of the city came from books I read, TV shows I watched, movies, pictures and stories in the newspaper.
I had read enough to know that New York was made up of three kinds of people: those born here (the Glass family, Ed Koch, certain hard-bitten tabloid news reporters); the commuters (my friend Matthew’s father, a buyer at Macy’s who specialized in women’s intimate apparel and went home to Westport every night); and the people like Truman Capote, J. P. Morgan, Zelda Sayre and me, who came from somewhere else and gave the city its soul. In my mind, it was simply the place one went, as soon as she possibly could. What would I do there? I would work and eat and go to parties and watch TV on boring afternoons and fall in love, and eventually I would die—happy.
I looked north, up Sixth Avenue to the midtown canyon and Rockefeller Center and after that Central Park, and felt everyone else’s stories falling like fresh soot from the skyscrapers above: Anne Welles and Neely O’Hara in their first apartment uptown. Faye Dunaway, braless under a chiffon blouse, smiling her taut smile on the executive floor of Union Broadcasting System. Holly Golightly stroking her cat on an idle Sunday afternoon. Diane Keaton shopping for Christmas presents on Fifth Avenue in a gentle snow, driving her beat-up Beetle wildly up the West Side Highway, staking out a town house with Alan Alda. And of course Carrie Bradshaw, clomping all over the place in her towering heels. To live in New York was to participate in the world’s largest choose-your-own-adventure story, one that featured millions of possible adventures, all of which had already been chosen. I knew instinctively, from the moment I arrived, that my eventual obituary, should I merit one, could be plagiarized entirely from ones that had already been written. For a long time, this was a comfort to me.
In this way, everything about New York felt new and daunting and wondrous, but at the same time, that wonder was weighed down by a layered foreknowledge of the New York experience—by the pictures and stories of everyone I was imitating, who’d already done every imaginable variation of this very thing before. As I took deep breaths of the damp, polluted January air, I already knew that there is no one in the world younger than a girl in a new dress on her first day in New York. I was authentically wide-eyed, but never quite fully, since I knew enough to recognize “wide-eyed” as a phase. What I didn’t know then was that a life made up of fragments of other people’s lives is still something materially new. A kiss on the Brooklyn Bridge is not every kiss; a reporting job is not every reporting job; a photocopy is not exactly the original. To understand this, you don’t have to abandon your entire life, everything you ever wished for, and move in with a Xerox shop rabbi in Brooklyn, but in my case, it certainly helped.
When I left Penn Station that first day, I had never held a hand out into traffic personally. But I’d watched and read the stories of hundreds of others who had tentatively done the same, who had felt uncomfortable at first, had affected nonchalance and then gradually grown accustomed, so that eventually the entire action of hailing a cab could be performed without any mental engagement, while on a cell phone and doing seven other seemingly vital things. When the taxi pulled up, I strained to come across as cool, even a little bored by the interaction. It was essential that the driver believe I was the sort of person for whom hailing a cab was no big deal. I climbed into the backseat, holding my damp suitcase in my lap and watching with horror as the meter ticked up. My first crosstown ride was an absurd extravagance, one I wouldn’t truly be able to afford for years. But I did it anyway. The important thing was to ride across town. I could easily have walked, but the girl I wanted to be didn’t walk with her luggage, and so the girl I was didn’t either, even though it would have made infinitely more sense.
The cab took me to my first home in Manhattan, which was inside New York University’s private hospital. Annie, my best friend, was a medical student there, and when I got to town I shared her concrete-block dorm room on the twelfth floor, directly above Emergency Intake. She had a foldout twin daybed and a wicker basket full of energy bars, to which I was welcome. Her narrow window looked out onto the East River and down over a giant white party tent left over from the autumn of 2001, when it was set up to house the charred remains of bodies recovered at the World Trade Center site. When I arrived, more than three years after September 11, it still held nearly fourteen thousand partial remains in three large storage cases, destined someday for a museum dedicated to the massacre.
Across the street was the 30th Street Men’s Shelter, housed in the old Bellevue Hospital building, a large dark brick mansion with bars on the windows and an architectural style that conjures an abandoned leper colony. We could see some of the patients’ rooms from her bedroom window, and they could see us. Occasionally, they backed up to their safety-locked windows and pulled down their pants. On my first night in the city, when I was walking back late from my first New York party, someone on one of the higher floors threw a dinner roll at my head.
At the time, Annie was doing a rotation in the psychiatry ward at Bellevue Hospital, a few blocks away. One of the patients in Annie’s care was a classic schizophrenic. His particular eccentricity was that he thought he was a superhero. He was usually a benign presence in the ward, except for a few times a day. At these times, which came with clockwork precision, Annie would be in with other patients and would hear a few quick footfalls, followed by a loud thud—the sound of the schizophrenic trying to run through his bedroom wall. Against all evidence to the contrary, he believed this was his superpower. Annie would rush upstairs. The nurses would tend to his cuts and bruises. Someone would try to explain basic physics and the limits of human endeavor to the man. Then, a little later, he’d do it again. This struck me then as horribly sad, and it strikes me now as exactly what I’ve been doing my entire adult life.
After a few weeks, I moved out of the hospital and into a college friend’s loft space in Brooklyn, where I lived for six months while he was away in an ashram. From there I went to a dilapidated brownstone nearby, which I shared with three twenty-three-year-old boys. Our landlord was a hairless, lobotomized widow who wore a bright red wig askew and went by the name Dr. June. Dr. June, who was not a doctor, lived on the first floor, which smelled like ointment. The three boys lived on the second floor, which smelled like socks and beer. I lived on the third, which smelled like old wood and dust, with traces of socks and beer.
Neil, Burt and Max were bighearted Ivy Leaguers who divided their time between getting stoned on our couch and picking up chicks at Pianos, a bar on the Lower East Side. They were all devoted students of New York’s mating rituals, and together, they’d developed a signature move: Just before last call at Pianos, they would start talking rapturously about the next morning’s brunch. Banana pancakes. Mimosas. Big, fluffy, buttery, cheesy omelets and orange juice to go with them and crispy, salty home-fried potatoes and maybe an order of Belgian waffles with vanilla ice cream on the side. Women found this irresistible. I know, because I found many of these women in my bathroom the next morning, getting ready for brunch. Neil, Burt and Max called me “Jane” for Jane Goodall, who lived with the apes she studied.
My experience with men had been limited up until that point. The first love of my life was Dirk Skellershmidt, a gay eleven-year-old who shared my cockpit at Space Camp. I was the commander of our fake mission into orbit, and he was some low-level peon who climbed around outside and pretended to hammer things. He used to come visit me and perform song and dance numbers from theater camp while I prepared for graver tasks, like fake reentry into the earth’s atmosphere. “I think you love Dirk,” said Justin, another Space Camper, who wore a different baseball-themed Jesus T-shirt every day.
“Why?” I asked, and in response Justin pointed to my own T-shirt, which was from Hidden Valley Ski Camp. I looked down and saw a blob of chocolate icing marring the “id” in Hidden Valley, possibly the entire “idden.”
“You were staring at him all through lunch,” he said. Apparently so intently that for the first time in my entire young life, I took my eyes off of cake.
Yes, I had to agree, this was probably love.
The second love of my life was Johnny Depp, and also the third, a love that faded and then burned with renewed intensity whenever he came out with a new film. The fourth was Doogie Howser, child-prodigy doctor of prime-time television, and the fifth was my friend Libby’s dad, who was tall and appealingly WASPy. These mild attractions all developed and disappeared—unrequited, of course—before I turned twelve. I was a late bloomer and did not date much in high school, as you might expect from a girl who spent her childhood at Space Camp, rolling around in chocolate cake. By the time I got to New York, I had had two odd, unsatisfying, semi-romantic relationships: one with a six-foot-five-inch, two-hundred-twenty-pound Swedish musician whom I’ll call Sven, a classmate in college; and one with a five-foot-nine-inch, one-hundred-forty-five-pound professor whom I’ll call Mitch.
Sven lived downstairs and was into electropunk. He had dark eyes and pale skin, and he towered over me. He had a devastating sense of humor and became a member of the Pundits, a secret society of pranksters whose biggest contribution to campus life was throwing naked parties. He invited me to an Easter-themed naked party the spring of our junior year. When I arrived, he took out a tray of edible pastel body paint and wrote his name in all caps across my collarbone. A few nights later, he came over to watch a made-for-television movie about the show Three’s Company. We dated for three weeks and never spoke again.
Mitch was a Jew from the Midwest who taught a popular introductory lecture course. A hundred students packed into his class—partly because his class satisfied a requirement for history majors and partly because Mitch was thirty-five and scrumptious. He wore thin wire-rimmed glasses on his boyish face, had a quick, easy smile and lips you could tell were warm and soft, even from the back of a large lecture hall. He called on me almost constantly in a class whose format did not involve a lot of people getting called on. He hand-graded my papers while teaching assistants handled everyone else’s. Why me? I had no idea. We kissed once, at the end of a party in his apartment, when he sat down next to me on the couch and pounced. All I remember is that his breath tasted strongly of lox. Sometime shortly after I moved to New York, I got a press release from the Food Network saying he was scheduled to be a guest judge on Iron Chef America.
By then, I was already well into my plum $24,000-a-year gig at the Observer. I began in the vital capacity of “party reporter” and could not imagine there was anything more to want out of life. Every night I went somewhere different. There was the American Museum of Natural History dinner dance, where shiny-haired society ladies shimmied with their strong-chinned husbands underneath a life-size replica of a blue whale suspended from the ceiling. There was the cocktail party at 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl’s apartment uptown. There was a book party for celebrity wedding planner Preston Bailey at the Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Center. A long elevator ride carried a group of us up—everyone in suits and dresses, me in jeans, since I didn’t own anything fancier—and on exiting, we were greeted by a long row of male models wearing nothing but cloth diapers, handing out chocolate-covered strawberries on sticks. The main room was decorated like Narnia, white lights dripping off enormous white-frosted trees. Two giant drag queens stood on pedestals, modeling jewel-encrusted wedding gowns. Preston Bailey had just done the Trump wedding—The Donald’s third, to his model-wife Melania—and for a few minutes at least, Bailey was the toast of the town. A few weeks later, I paid two hundred dollars for my first designer dress, scrounged from the bottom of a cardboard box at a sample sale, which I bought to attend the premiere of the sixth season of The Sopranos. At the entrance, I stood for ten minutes watching celebrities and socialites smile for the cameras, performing their “step and repeat” on the red carpet in front of the gaggle of news photographers. I watched how the women turned just so to the most flattering angle and rested one hand on a hip, how they tipped their chins and half smiled. When I got home, I imitated it in the mirror, determined to discover my best side.
At first, I had no idea who any of these people were. I had none of the appropriate clothes for these parties. I was chubby because no one had introduced me to juice cleanses and Pilates mat classes yet, and I was awkward because I had never “socialized” before, I had simply worked and hung out with friends. Against such odds, a different person might have taken a different course. She might have said, “Forget this, I’m going to take my functioning brain, get a Ph.D. and do something meaningful with my life, like, I don’t know, go fix cleft palates in Africa.” What I thought, instead, was, “I want this.” I want to be one of these people. I want to be glamorous and well dressed and smart and charming at parties. I want my hair to hang like a curtain. I want to be successful in New York, which was to say well-mannered and thin and stylish and talented at my work: “A comer,” as former Today show anchor Jane Pauley once told me, when I interviewed her for a story. “A comer” was on the way up. “A goer” was on the way out. “A goer” was the thing I never wanted to be.
My entire world formed between these two poles. During work hours I studied New Yorkers, writing about the virtue of the comers and the hubris of the recently gone. After work, I did my best to approximate the life of a real city girl, rationing my salary among cheap gym classes, brown-rice sushi and discount designer clothes. I got makeup that complemented my skin tone and learned how to apply it. I cut my hair and straightened it and dyed it and developed a daily ritual of violence to keep it tame. I learned which clubs were worth going to and how to get into them. I talked about wine.
Did all of this make me happy?
Yes, it did.
I wish I wanted to fix cleft palates in Africa, but the truth is I wanted a glamorous life. I wanted life as it looked on the TV screen in my bedroom in Pittsburgh, when, as an awkward, nearsighted adolescent—cowinner of her middle school’s pi-memorizing contest (we both got to seventy-five digits, which I can still recite by heart)—I dreamed of someday being a fancy New York City lady. Why were so many little girls around the country taken by this fantasy, which has been addictive in every incarnation but which became black-tar heroin in the form of Sex and the City? Why did we all want to be Carrie Bradshaw? She was a smart woman who used her talents to write a column about her sex life. She was single and basically useless. She kept company mostly with three other harpies, each as superficial as she, and they spent their time hopping from hot spot to hot spot, occasionally sleeping with losers. I had collected Susan B. Anthony dollars as a kid, cut out pictures of Gloria Steinem from magazines, listened to music by Stevie Nicks and made up songs about my favorite female astronaut, Sally Ride. I dressed up as Eleanor Roosevelt one year for a costume party at school. I worshipped journalist Linda Ellerbee, who hosted a television news program for kids; and inspired by her example, I once gave an exceedingly boring and earnest presentation to my sixth-grade classmates at the Ellis School for Girls about negative depictions of women in Procter & Gamble commercials.
So I was not a complete idiot. I was not underexposed to women of genuine merit. But still, above Eleanor Roosevelt, above Gloria Steinem, above Linda Ellerbee, I loved Carrie Bradshaw. Here’s why I thought I did: She was a commoner princess, an average-looking girl from nowhere special who had lots of pretty things and a steady supply of handsome boyfriends and a sexy job writing about her sexy life, and she’d achieved all this seemingly by her wits alone. I had a boring life in a dreary town. When I looked at what was missing, I saw pretty clothes, handsome boyfriends and sex. These were conspicuous voids and a lot easier to identify than “community, family and human connection,” which Carrie Bradshaw also had, in her own strange, mostly silly way, and which I was also missing. But at that point, I didn’t know those were things to miss.
Fix the outside; the inside will follow. This was the wrong lesson I learned from Sex and the City, and it’s what I set out to do, as soon as I possibly could. I read about designer clothes. I learned how to walk in heels. I got my schnoz turned into a ski slope by a thin-fingered Pittsburgh plastic surgeon, who encouraged me to look through the magazines in his office and pick out which starlet I wanted to resemble. And when that was done, I turned my tiny nose up at the Midwest and made my way eventually to New York to be a journalist, just like Carrie—and Nora Ephron and Joan Didion and so many other women I worshipped—thereby inching ever closer to perfection.
In his essay “Toward an Understanding of the Messianic Idea in Judaism,” Gershom Scholem, the founder of modern Kabbalistic scholarship, writes about what it means for people to spend their lives pursuing salvation. “There is something grand about living in hope,” he writes, “but at the same time there is something profoundly unreal about it. It diminishes the singular worth of the individual, and he can never fulfill himself, because the incompleteness of his endeavors eliminates precisely what constitutes its highest value. Thus in Judaism the Messianic idea has compelled a life lived in deferment, in which nothing can be done definitely, nothing can be irrevocably accomplished.”
In Pittsburgh, it was pretty much the same. The Messiah didn’t come in high school, but Ben Johnson did once in my hair. The Messiah didn’t come in college either, and he didn’t come when I moved to New York because it wasn’t just about moving there, it was about becoming that very specific person, having that precise life. Until I had that, no accomplishment was irrevocable. It was hard work, but I was up to it. Every pair of shoes, every clever turn of phrase, every new job was a step closer, and for a while it felt good to me to be moving toward a distant goal. A life lived in deferment is at least a productive one.
In his introduction to The New Journalism, a collection of literary nonfiction from the 1970s—“new journalism” described a style of reportage that read less like a newspaper column and more like a novel—Tom Wolfe describes the way he viewed his first reporting job in New York in the 1960s: as an amalgamation of first-reporting-job fantasies, forcibly rendered real. In his mind, it was Chicago in 1928; the hard-bitten reporters worked only at night, only in between drinks and pee breaks in the Chicago River. Tom Wolfe’s real first reporting job, for the Springfield Union in Massachusetts, was not quite so gritty. But what mattered was the childhood fantasy, not the small realities of actual life. Our first dreams grip us tightest and can refuse to let go. In some cases, that’s a good thing—we need firemen and ballerinas, and Prince William did have to find a wife—but for the rest of us, it can be dangerous when you get lost in the details. “I wanted the whole movie,” Wolfe writes, “nothing left out.”
I also wanted the whole movie, and who cared if it was a bad movie (and an even worse sequel). I wish I had wanted to fix cleft palates, but for me there was only New York, and in New York, only journalism, a dying profession that pays no money, whose practitioners most people hate. Virtually any other career would have meant a faster path to riches, retirement, fulfillment of the soul. But journalism was the clear choice for a person like me, who wanted to be as close as possible to the center of things, who longed to be “part of the conversation.” It is also the best job for people who are easily swept up in familiar story lines: the boy in the basket who floats down the river and becomes a king, the lonely little girl from Pittsburgh who goes to New York with high heels and a new nose and finds happiness. I have lived my entire life according to established story lines, even when they aren’t true.
On September 15, 2006, with my movie life progressing according to plan, I went to a party in Prospect Heights, in the garden apartment of a magazine editor I’d never met. It was crowded and reeked of craft beer and midpriced cheese. When I walked in, I was drunk on three vodka sodas, wearing jeans bought that afternoon. I ran headlong into a handsome stranger. He made and held eye contact. Most of the party guests were saying their good-byes, beginning the long haul to the subway, to bed, to brunch the next morning. It was nearly three a.m.
The stranger was gorgeous. Tall, half-Israeli, with sharp features, green eyes and sleek designer clothes. He was hilarious. He was the perfect man for the girl I wanted to be. He was a high school rowing champion who’d once climbed Mount Rainier. His brother was whip smart, a future senator. His mother made delicious steamed halibut with white rice, asparagus and little sautéed cherry tomatoes. His father, a doctor, grew figs. He had a good job at a good law firm but dreamed of bigger things.