I thought this morning about the past year and God help me but the first thing that came to mind — from a year when I got engaged, moved to London, and survived at least the first wave of a global pandemic — was being pitched by a San Francisco ad agency. They took us up to their penthouse into what they called the “Mack Daddy” conference room, a phrase that’s never been said aloud to me before and probably won’t be again, at least not unironically, by a man a foot taller than me with one too many buttons undone. It was unseasonably hot for any time, let alone October, and I had packed for autumn. My coworkers would have been more fashionably dressed than me anyway, but at least I had that excuse. They gave us sandwiches. I eat sloppily and so there I was, dripping hummus onto a turtleneck that I always pack on business trips only to remember when it’s the last clean thing I have left that it really doesn’t fit that well, next to my coworker with the perfect dewy skin who showed up with a chic little backpack she found on the RealReal. I mean, it had fringe, and I was still carting around the dumb Fjällräven I bought when I thought I could pull off the VSCO look.
I will have been 30 the last time that my girlfriends and I gathered around A_____’s Upper East Side coffee table over Chinese food and the cider that S____ had at her wedding that they sell at the Whole Foods on 86th. Is that the right grammar? “I will have been”? I was supposed to go to New York again in March; now one of the girls is pregnant and who knows if A_____ will return to the apartment after she rides out the pandemic in the outer boroughs. Who knows, too, when I’ll be in New York again. I haven’t been on a plane since February. It’s maybe the longest I’ve gone without flying since I left Las Vegas for Vassar in 2007. In December I was listening to “The Daily” while I stomped through Broadgate on my way to the Central Line at Liverpool Street. It was just after that Chinese ophthalmologist died and I was thinking, as I tend to about terrible things that obviously won’t happen to me, “There but for the grace of God.” Well, so much for that.
I’m 31 today and I’ve been getting my eyes checked for some 26 years now — since my kindergarten teacher called my mother to gently suggest that there might be a medical reason that I kept crashing into walls — and I still can’t spell ophthalmologist on the first try. I was a spelling bee champion, too. What have I been doing with my life?
I was a mess on my 25th birthday. I always refer obliquely to this time in my life, the illness, the bad boyfriend, the professional stress, but specifically what was happening was that I had been seeing a man 9 years older than me for about a year, long distance. For the first several months he’d laid it on real thick, carting me to the hometown he detested to meet his family, telling me how special I was, writing me love letters, concocting reasons to come visit me, and then in March or so I guess he realized I was basically a child but instead of breaking it off he kind of tried to ghost me. By June I had also starved myself down to some fifteen pounds less than I weigh now. (For those of you who know me personally, grimacing is the proper reaction.) On my birthday the bad boyfriend sent me this massive, noxious bouquet of flowers with a card I think he’d signed “Love,” though it would have been like him not to. He was the kind of person who, if you were wondering whether he was intentionally fucking with you or just clueless, was always intentionally fucking with you. I got the bouquet while I was at the office, and later at the office we got the massive request for proposals we’d been waiting to “drop” for a contract we’d been told was strategically vital. That launched a month of frantic work during which I grew increasingly religious about my diet and exercise regimen and vacillated between panicking that my boyfriend had maybe dumped me without letting me know and looking back at the photo I’d taken of the flowers for reassurance. I was so tired, but he’s turning 40 next month, which is funny. I wonder if I should send him flowers. He’d probably have me offed.
What have I been doing with my life? This morning my fiancé had laid out presents with cards signed by my favorite stuffed animal that I like to anthropomorphize and the squirrel that has taken up residence on our balcony. For breakfast we ate granola that I made yesterday in between dealing with my latest so-called “fire drill,” a term I hope I never hear again outside of a functional context once I finally get over my Stockholm syndrome and extricate myself from Silicon Valley. I’m still getting the annual barrage of emails from every boutique fitness studio I visited over the past decade offering a free class if I drop in today, even though I’m pretty sure they’re all closed. I almost took my birthday off of my Facebook last night because I’m going to ignore all of the notifications like I do every year, but I’m only human. I want to see that some people who I haven’t seen in years, when reminded of my existence, reach out instead of unfriending me.
I’m almost done with the first draft of my novel. I keep rewriting it. I’m not sure I actually have a plot. One of the museums in Copenhagen has a big block of marble on display next to all of the sculptures and it was the first time I’d thought about how sculpting from marble means chipping away at something that already exists. I have adopted this as my metaphor for writing. “Where’s Waldo” might be more appropriate. Where’s plotline?!
So: 30. The year I sat in a Mack Daddy conference room shoveling a sandwich in my fuddy-duddy face while two modern-day Mad Men tried to sell me millions of dollars worth of… something. Brand? (Eight years ago I was paid eleven dollars an hour to sell shoes.) The year I shared my last soup dumplings with J_______ before a child walks this Earth that will one day call her Mom. The year I learned that surviving a pandemic requires a lot less hustling around a grassed-over cityscape with a backpack than the movies had promised. (To be fair, I do hustle around the cityscape with a backpack more often than I did pre-pandemic, but that’s because I’d rather carry a kilo of flour on my back than on my shoulders and not because I’m armed with anti-zombie kit.) The year I almost finished my novel. Or, if you prefer, the year I didn’t finish my novel. A year in which I didn’t finish my novel. A year in which I didn’t travel to Tasmania or dye my hair purple or starve myself or get a weird bouquet from a fake boyfriend. A year in which I more likely than not avoided covid, although there but for the grace of God and we all know how well that one went for me the last time I said it. I’m begrudgingly celebrating my birthday today because I feel genuinely anxious for the first time about aging — how have I still not finished my novel — but death is everywhere right now, even more everywhere than it usually is, you’ve seen the scary chart floating around this week where covid zooms up past terrorism and heart attacks and even malaria. And the news.
On that uplifting note, I have a fire drill to attend to and a birthday gift from Nutso the squirrel to open. I hope it’s a donation to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.