Take Me Back

Photo by Gregoire Alessandrini, 1994

I just finished reading a real jewel of a novel called Going Down by Jennifer Belle. It was published in 1996 and well received at the time. In it, a young woman named Bennington Bloom is studying acting at NYU when she decides she wants to make a break from her unreliable parents and support herself, so she takes a job as a call girl. She’s my favorite kind of narrator—observant, no-bullshit, and very funny. When she describes sex with her clients you feel her innocence and her jadedness; it all comes through at once, which seems so real. She’s good company in bad times.

It just so happens that this week I was sorting though a box of letters and keepsakes in my office closet when I came across the NYU i.d. that was issued to me in 1997, the summer I spent living in the dorms with my best friend from high school and two of her friends. My friend was studying filmmaking and the other two were acting students at Tisch, just like Bennington. Same time, same place. In the i.d. picture, my jawline is smooth and my skin looks plump and perfect.

The New York references in Belle’s novel have been bringing up memories that are so old and dusty, I didn’t even know they were still in there. The ten million Ray’s pizza places (Ray’s Famous, Ray’s Original, Famous Original Ray’s…), the skaters almost bowling me over in Washington Square Park, drinking coffee at the Angelika. Drinking coffee at the movies instead of a soda made me feel so grown up. It still does.

In the book, Bennington’s friend says something about Lucille Ball, and I can see myself in the bathroom of our dorm room while my roommate who was a model tweezes my eyebrows and advises me never to tweeze them all the way down or shave them off, or else I’d look like an alien, like Lucille Ball did when she got older. When she finished my eyebrows and turned me around to the mirror so I could see them I started to cry because I’d thought she could make me look as beautiful as she was, but I still looked like me. I told her this and somehow it hurt her feelings.

Before I moved up to New York for the summer, I got a job at a magazine that was supposedly my whole reason for being there. But I quit it after a just few weeks, from a pay phone, because the woman I reported to was so rude and snotty. I went back home and told my roommates—I’d been on my way to the subway that morning when I realized I just couldn’t stand it anymore—and one of them told me to fax my resume to her mother at her advertising firm. Her mother was terrifying and impressive, a force of nature—it really was her firm, as in she owned the business and had an office in midtown Manhattan with 50 people working for her—and she liked my resume, and consequently me. Everyone at that job was so nice to me. I made friends with another girl there and we spent most of our time using stupid voices on the phone and making instant hot chocolate by adding only the tiniest bit of water, then eating the crunchy chocolate stew by the spoonful.

That summer was emotionally stressful and annoying in the way that living with friends in college more or less always was, but it was also magical in the way that New York pretty much always is. Our dorm building was on Union Square, right next to a beloved breakfast spot that was confusingly named The Coffee Shop Restaurant. One morning there was a grease fire in their kitchen and we were all awakened at about 6:30 by the alarms. The smoke filled our rooms. Before we ran out the door I pulled on a pair of soft purple jeans that I wore all the time back then, even in the summer, but my friends kept their pajamas and robes on. (“You’re not afraid to be private in public,” Bennington’s acting teacher says to her, approvingly.) It was only the second week of my new job, the advertising one, and I hated to be late but I had no choice since we were stuck outside for a long while waiting for the firemen to say it was safe to go back in.

The following morning I got to work on time and walked into the little kitchenette for some coffee. A few of my coworkers were standing around looking at the New York Post and smiling.

“She’s arrived!” one of them said fondly when she saw me. She showed me the paper, which had a half-page picture of me and my friends standing on the sidewalk with a big headline about the fire the morning before. There I was, in those jeans I thought were so cool, smoking a cigarette at seven in the morning, next to my best friend who was wearing her old man pajamas—button-down top and matching pants—that once were seen only in privacy of our dorm room. I remember feeling so relieved that I had proof about the fire and wasn’t just lying because I was running late. My coworker gave me her copy of the paper and I kept the clipping for years, but I don’t seem to have it anymore.

All my life I have experienced feelings of nostalgia blossoming inside my body several times a day. The feeling can be triggered by the smallest things—the smell of laundry detergent coming from someone’s house, the way the light hits my living room floor. Sometimes, often, it’s not even nostalgia for anything I can remember, but a deep pang of longing for something that’s just out of my reach—some time or place that I could get to, or way that I could feel, if only I could figure out what it was. Other languages have better words for this feeling: saudade in Portuguese, kaiho in Finnish, hireath in Welsh. It seems to be a common experience all over the world to feel a formless sort of loss over something you can only half remember.

I’ve been getting this feeling even more than usual lately. I think it has to do with the pandemic and the quarantine, the chaos surrounding it all, and people’s drastically different responses to the situation—the way these things have made me feel trapped at times, and wishing things could be different. When I feel like this, I’m sometimes guilty of wanting to climb back into the simpler times of my past, until I remember that life was never simple, never easy. It only ever seems that way because looking back, I know I survived it.

Bennington Bloom is a born-and-bred New Yorker, the real deal. Her stories of the city sparkle with the same kind of magic I found there: the small-world coincidences; the impossibly wonderful places that are only possible in New York, like the Russian Tea Room; that sort of stuff. And like every New Yorker I’ve ever met, Bennington knows who she is. She’s resilient and strong, even though her messed-up parents are a constant source of heartache and she makes mistakes and embarrasses herself left and right. Who doesn’t?

When it comes down to it, the spirit of that character might be the most nostalgic thing about the book for me. She brought back memories of a former self, the girl in the i.d. picture with an even stare and good bones, the person who quit crummy jobs and took no guff. I’m so grateful to be reminded that her spirit is alive in me, even though it’s taken a kicking over the years. That resilience is serving me well now, and it will serve me in whatever future I—we—end up being faced with.