The following is a personal essay written to help me re-write my narrative and untangle the threads of plot in my life. I share this with you in order to help you see that life is exactly as magical as you make it and once you commit to a story, it becomes your own.
There were four planets in retrograde with a waning moon in Aquarius, and the world was a vaguely vodka-soaked blur of strobe lights and pounding bass. One of the most beautiful people I had ever seen stood up, pushed back the sleeves of his blazer, and motioned for my glass. In a gesture he’d no doubt practiced countless times before, he deftly scooped some fresh ice, poured a generous shot out of the immaculate bottle, and splashed it with cranberry juice from the decanter on our table in one impossibly fluid motion.
“Thanks,” I nodded, certain my voice was lost against the booming crowd noise. He smiled and sat down again, giving my leg a reassuring pat. Above my head, his girlfriend waved her arms in a wild sort of pantomime to the lyrics; I could see the strap of my purse wrapped around her ankle as she jumped around the booth and wondered whether it was worth telling her to be careful. I no sooner finished the thought when one of her mad leaps cleared her of the danger.
So this was a real club, I thought to myself. This was bottle service at an exclusive Manhattan nightclub, and somehow I was here. I thought I’d experienced nightlife, even thought I was someone fairly remarkable—just weeks before, I’d spent an entire party within four feet of the entrance because people kept approaching me, recognizing me before I could remember their names. But that was the goth scene, and I knew it was barely a shadow of what it had been maybe twenty years before. I just didn’t know exactly how dead it was.
I looked again at the friends I’d come in with—they were all preternaturally beautiful, effortlessly stylish, and I wondered how it was that they coerced me into coming out. In another life, I would have sold an organ just to be acknowledged by a crowd like this. That other life wasn’t really too far behind me. What had changed? Was it me?
When I moved to New York City, I came with the cliche vision of reinvention, the intention to ascend, Gatsby-like, into the creative elite with no trace of my banal suburban past. But it takes more than a new address to change an identity. More than catchy nicknames, more than edgy haircuts, more than wild outfits, or statement shoes, or bright makeup, it took a certain attitude to change the person I was.
Once upon a time, I met the Most Interesting Girl in the World. She was an Italian-German citizen who grew up in Colorado, her father was an exiled Communist living in Argentina, her mother was addicted to plastic surgery and subjected her to medical testing for pay as a child. When she was fourteen, she ran away to Las Vegas and worked there are a cocktail runner until she met a beautiful Norwegian boy and followed him and his girlfriend to New York City to live in a polyamorous relationship—or something like that. I met her online and followed her adventures for years before she landed on my doorstep when I was nineteen. Her van had broken down somewhere in rural Pennsylvania and she managed to hitchhike as far as New Jersey before she realized she had no where to go and she ended up living with me for three months over the summer. She was very strange: she was tall and rake-thin, with a mop of thick brown hair and giant doe eyes that seemed to protrude from her head. She kept weird hours, insisting on crawling into bed with me despite the extra mattress I’d arranged for her across the room, petting my hair and cooing into my ear until daylight most mornings, and she seemed to live exclusively on rice milk and Ritz crackers. She had so many stories about her unique and distinguished friends and her glamorously dysfunctional family and called people “darling” in passing conversation. It was probably four weeks in that our phone rang. The woman who left the voicemail sounded concerned, and all the more urgent for the trace of sharpness left by her fading German accent: “Hello, you don’t know me, but we need to talk about my daughter. There are things you should know.” I remember the way the color drained from her face when she heard the message, the hesitation before proclaiming that her Crazy Mother had obviously paid someone to find out where she was living and got our phone number. But her quirks became more pronounced, more compulsion than charm. Her mother kept calling, kept insisting there were things we didn’t know about the odd girl who showed up on our doorstep. And then one day, she went to meet a friend for dinner and simply never came back. By the time I tracked her down, she arranged to fly to Rome the next day and start her life over, where she’d take advantage of the tuition-free university and escape once more from her mother, obviously hellbent on ruining her life. We continued to speak for a few months while she bounced from country to country, from Italy to Ireland, where she met a boy from Switzerland and moved to Zurich. The last time we talked she was in a Swiss hospital being treated for heart issues, but planned on checking herself out and moving to New Orleans.
Sometimes at parties, I wonder whether my one-time roommate is still alive, running from border to border in a never-ending attempt to escape her past. I think about how fascinating she seemed, how desperately I wished my life was half as interesting. It was years before I realized that her stories were likely more fiction than fact, and her truth was far less glamorous than the illusion she projected.
But as they say, the truth is stranger than fiction, and in a strange way my encounter with the odd, waif-like girl gave me something to aspire to. One day, I would write a memoir that people would actually want to read, full of fantastic and unusual stories about my life, my adventures, my unique and distinguished friends. But first I’d have to live a life worth reading about. I would have to write my own adventure.
The truly strange thing is once you commit yourself as the author of your own story, your life begins to resemble fiction. You begin to live the plot you’ve set for the character of yourself, and you need to choose that plot line very carefully. I realized that my early life was a ghost story: my mother returned to her ancestral home, built by her grandfather mid-century and still occupied by several generations before her. Like any good gothic novel, my life involved a good deal of ambient fear, inexplicable accidents, and a number of dubious relatives who may or may not have outstayed their welcome this side of mortality. But because this was my life I never considered it interesting or exciting. Because it happened to me it didn’t hold the thrill of other peoples’ stories. There was no mystery in it.
When I moved to New York City, the last thing I expected my life to become was a romance. In a scene-dream, smoke-in-eye club situation, I was approached by a tall dark stranger who asked all the right questions at all the right moments. That singular evening triggered a sparkling, starry-eyed chain of events that would last me the next two years. For the first time, I recognized the fiction that my life resembled. There was a magic in the way we met, in the connection we instantly felt. At times it felt like I was watching my own life like a film, with only a minimal amount of cinematic reimagining. There were scenes beneath streetlights and in pouring rain, scenes in ancient cities and scenes in dark places.
Unfortunately it ended like the movie it always seemed to be, with a dramatic scene involving a brisk spring evening, mascara-tinted tears on white pillowcases, and a bouquet of dried flowers that suddenly felt like a plot device. It was a story that ended as abruptly as it began. Now, I sat at the club surrounded by beautiful strangers who called me their friend, people I had not known just weeks prior, and searched for my next story.
“Are you okay?” My devastating new friend turned an intense gaze to me, leaning back to check the status of my drink. A wandering hand stroked his girlfriend’s leg, a slow burn of white on black that was more distracting than it should have been.
“Yeah, I’m sorry,” I replied, taking a sip of the vodka cocktail I hadn’t really wanted. Despite the inches between our faces, I called out my words as if across a room. “I’m just crazy awkward tonight.” I pointed vaguely to my head and gave a weak smile. Whether he interpreted it as a headache or a state of mind I don’t know, but he clapped me on the back and stood, miming that he was going to grab a cigarette. I wasn’t sure I’d ever met someone who communicated so well without words—his eyes asked if I was coming, but I shook my head.
I slipped my phone out of my purse and pulled up my messages. The DJ played a song I’d heard well over a hundred times pumped through my sister’s car, and I sent her a short video of the loud, pulsing darkness. Why am I here? I asked her.
She replied quickly. Hold on I’m coming.
Of course she wasn’t. She couldn’t. Another short video, another quip about how displaced I felt. She responded with lyrics to the song thudding dully around me. Was this the story of my life now? Where was the plot? Was I even the main character?
But I’m a writer. I put words to paper in an attempt to preserve scenes, to tell the story of a moment in time, to make sense of the seconds we pass. I had never waited for someone else to finish one of my pieces for me and I never did well with strict assignments. Why was I waiting for someone else to write my story? And who set the rules for how it was written?
I threw back the remainder of my drink and scrolled through my messages to find the number of the charming Libra I’d met at a party the week before. With only a slight push from the vodka in my system, I wrote my prompt. I hope this isn’t crazy forward of me, but I would love to continue talking with you face-to-face some time. Let me know if you have any time coming up. My chest tightened as I tapped the tiny paper airplane that would send it out into space and back again, to the other side of a screen somewhere else in the city. I called a cab and pushed through the crowd to the door, where my beautiful new friends were sharing the same lipstick-stained cigarette.
“There you are—I think we’re heading out.” In the open air, his voice betrayed his intoxication. I nodded and gave him a quick hug, waving to the others climbing into his cab before slipping into my own. I stared down at my phone, wondering how long I’d have to wait before it lit with a response. As it turned out, not long.
Your timing with this message is a little spooky—I’ll tell you why when I see you, maybe this weekend?
My hands tightened on the phone as I read the sentence over again. It felt like the first line of a novel I had just cracked open, spine still creaky, still smelling of bleach and ink; like the words that set the pace for the entire story that followed.
Photograph of me by Randy Contello, 2017