ike many people, I believe that I can be re-made by a new setting. This belief has taken me to a mountain village in Mexico for a month, to India twice, and, most recently, to San Francisco, where I am subletting a series of apartments while I get my life in order.
I’m molten again, willing to fill any mold other than the one that last formed me, and I am happy to find myself in a very pretty spot. I don’t know the woman who owns this apartment — she posted the apartment on Craig’s List and we met for 15 minutes before I signed the one-month lease — so everything about her I’ve gleaned from poking through things. Her name is Sandy, and the things she has to poke around in are lovely: sumptuous linens, a delicate eggcup collection, and more candles than a Catholic church. Her design palette is white with watery accents, like a Nantucket cottage or a “Restoration Hardware” catalog. Parts of her apartment remind me of myself — my childhood on the Virginia coast, my appreciation of down comforters acquired during college in New England — while other parts are foreign, girly and dreamlike.
Sandy has pictures of herself everywhere, many of them in bikinis. She looks fantastic in all of them, tanned and taut, with the easy animal confidence of an athlete. She also has mirrors everywhere, including a 10×6-foot framed one that leans against the living room wall. A friend who visited me put it best: “Our Sandy doesn’t suffer from a lack of self-esteem, now does she?”
Sandy obviously finds her own image pleasing and decorative — she even has a mirrored end table covered in mirrored orbs. I find a picture of me with my parents and prop it up on that same table. It looks small and rumpled amid the curated objects.
Sandy’s walls also contain uplifting messages. One exhorts me simply to “Laugh,” assuring me that, “Life Is Not Measured In The Breaths You Take, But In The Moments That Take Your Breath Away.” Looking at all this it came to me that this was what it must feel like to be a simple and happy person, someone who wakes up and reaches for her running shoes instead of a pack of Parliaments. Someone lovable.
Endlessly game for self-improvement, I take a cue from Sandy’s world: I try to relax and feel peaceful. I try to breathe. I try not to wish I were somewhere and someone else.
But after a few days surrounded by Sandy’s pictures and my own reflection, the whole exercise feels like it’s backfiring. I’m irritated and ill at ease. Every day, I have to look at a hundred images of this stranger’s sun-streaked blond hair and bright white smile, her handsome beaux, her collections of precious things. Sandy seemed to have it all together, and I do not. I start to feel like a loser squatting in the winner’s circle, hoping to catch some of her shine. I think about shrouding the mirrors, like a Victorian widow in mourning. I think a lot about joining Crunch. I start sneering at the treacle – really, what kind of moron wants to look at an ee cummings quote while she takes a piss? Then, at the nadir of my bitterness, I discover Sandy’s media cabinet.
Sandy owns seventeen DVDs. Rummaging through them, a theme emerges: there’s “Just Married,” “American Wedding,” “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” and the first season of “The Mind of the Married Man.” There’s also “The Notebook,” “The Prince and Me,” “Meet Joe Black,” and “Love Actually,” all paeans to hysterical romanticism. The kicker, though, are the self-help books, highlighted and annotated. In “Be Honest, You’re Not That Into Him Either,” Sandy writes in the margins, “we have the honey pots, so we have all the power!!!” Oof. That hurts to read. The radically self-loving Sandy actually has no self-worth apart from her ability to attract men. She believes her pussy is a lantern that makes her wishes come true when someone rubs it. She endlessly polishes her exterior and has no substance of value. She is what I will become if I keep defining myself in relation to the loss of my marriage.
Despite her perfect looks, perfect body, and perfect apartment, Sandy is just like me, desperately unsure of herself and hoping to get her storybook ending even as she fears, deep down, that she will never be loved. She’s a girl who writes in her copy of “The Secret,” “…would he have liked me more if I were thinner, busier, or more independent?” Whose emphatic underlining of passages (“for women, sex is about love and intimacy, but for men it’s just about sex”) makes my heart hurt for her, and for me.
This is not the life I want. I don’t fantasize about a fairytale wedding — I had one, and don’t want another. I don’t dream about my Prince Charming — I’d married one, and we tried really hard but we weren’t happy. My life might be messy and perhaps a little the worse for wear, but it’s mine, and not just for the month.
I’m going to find a frame today for my family picture, and it is going to hang in ee cummings’ place. That, at least, will help me breathe.