by Elisabeth Wurtzel
I am so done with 2012. What a wretched year it was.
Last winter, I was living in the parlor floor of a nineteenth-century walk-up on Bleecker Street with thirteen-foot ceilings and two fireplaces and a tarp deck that stretched out like a backyard, with pottery planters of ferns and geraniums and a wood fence around it. Despite all the chipped paint and disrepair that approximated charm in the floor-through apartment, I would have been happy if the previous tenant, from whom I was subletting, had not turned into a stalker. From time to time, and I never knew when, she would buzz and bang on the door and finally barge in, using a spare key she kept, and yell epithets at me for twenty minutes at a time, for no apparent reason. I have boyfriends who have caught me in very compromised situations, and none has ever called me “a disgusting little whore,” which is the kind of thing this woman would scream in a variety of less appetizing ways, on and on. When I explained, calmly, because I have been told that is the best way to deal with a hysteric, that trespassing is against the law and she needed to leave, she would just harrumph, “You and your law!”
My friend Olivia had her own bad scene with the same woman a few years prior and had taken to calling her Hooker Maria—the best explanation she could come up with for her multilevel closets of Marc Jacobs dresses and Gucci shoes was an upscale outcall business. Olivia’s husband likes to keep things simple, so he would call her Crazy Hooker Maria. Olivia figured that Hooker Maria’s rage could be explained by her age: recently 50, and out of work.
I did not know what to do. I would call 911, but the police are not equipped to manage crazy women and could not understand why someone who was neither a rejected lover nor a cast-out roommate was behaving this way. They always sent pairs of very fat female cops. As soon as I opened the door, I knew it was hopeless.
“You remember the movie Single White Female ?” I would try. They did not. They would ask if I wanted to file a complaint. I would look at the forms in white, pink, and yellow triplicate, all very 1986. I wondered if they were forgotten in an aluminum filing cabinet in the 6th Precinct or if they were folded into paper airplanes and flown into garbage bins with empty Styrofoam coffee cups and more of the same.
The final episode came in early April. After I changed the lock, Maria showed the police the lease and claimed I was keeping her out of her apartment; they let her in without investigating. They told me that if I kept her out again, they would arrest me and ordered me to give her the keys. “I am doing this because I hate you,” Maria said, after the cops had left. “I am going to slash up your face and ruin your life.”
In every movie about female sociopaths, the second-to-last scene involves law enforcement victimizing the victim; the end is murder or miraculous rescue. Not knowing which was likely, I grabbed my coat and my dog and ran outside to a nearby park and sat on a bench. It was so cold. It was that time of day, a couple of hours before dark, when the sun casts brilliant shadows, and the slabs of wood made stripes on the ground in front of me, which I stared at and cried.
It had all gone wrong. At long last, I had found myself vulnerable to the worst of New York City, because at 44 my life was not so different from the way it was at 24. Stubbornly and proudly, emphatically and pathetically, I had refused to grow up, and so I was becoming one of those people who refuses to grow up—one of the city’s Lost Boys. I was still subletting in Greenwich Village, instead of owning in Brooklyn Heights. I had loved everything about Yale Law School—especially the part where I graduated at 40—but I spent my life savings on an abiding interest, which is a lot to invest in curiosity. By never marrying, I ended up never divorcing, but I also failed to accumulate that brocade of civility and padlock of security—kids you do or don’t want, Tiffany silver you never use—that makes life complete. Convention serves a purpose: It gives life meaning, and without it, one is in a constant existential crisis. If you don’t have the imposition of family to remind you of what is at stake, something else will. I was alone in a lonely apartment with only a stalker to show for my accomplishments and my years.
I was amazed to discover that, according to The Atlantic , women still can’t have it all . Bah! Humbug! Women who have it all should try having nothing: I have no husband, no children, no real estate, no stocks, no bonds, no investments, no 401(k), no CDs, no IRAs, no emergency fund—I don’t even have a savings account. It’s not that I have not planned for the future; I have not planned for the present. I do have a royalty account, some decent skills, and, apparently, a lot of human capital. But because of choices I have made, wisely and idiotically, because I had principles or because I was crazy, I have no assets and no family. I have had the same friends since college, although as time has gone on, the daily nature of those relationships has changed, such that it is not daily at all. But then how many lost connections make up a life? There is my best friend from law school, too busy with her toddler; the people with whom I spent New Year’s in a Negril bungalow not so long ago, all lost to me now; every man who was the love of my life, just for today; roommates, officemates, classmates: For everyone who is near, there are others who are far gone.
Please understand: I live specifically, with intent. The intent is, I know now, not at all specific, except that I have no ability to compromise. Most people say that as a statement of principle, but in my case, it is about feeling trapped when I am doing something I don’t like, and it is probably more childish than anything else. I likely do the right things for the wrong reasons. But it has also meant that I have not disciplined myself into the kinds of commitments that make life beyond the wild of youth into a haven of calm. I am proud that I have never so much as kissed a man for any reason besides absolute desire, and I am more pleased that I only write what I feel like and it has been lucrative since I got out of college in 1989. I had the great and unexpected success of Prozac Nation in 1994, and that bought me freedom. And I have spent that freedom carelessly, and with great gratitude. Why would I do anything else? I did not expect, not ever, to be scared to death.
I was born with a mind that is compromised by preternatural unhappiness, and I might have died very young or done very little. Instead, I made a career out of my emotions. And now I am just quarreling with normal. I believe in true love and artistic integrity—the kinds of things that should be mentioned between quotation marks—as absolutely now as I did in ninth grade. But even I know that functional love includes a fair amount of falsity, or no one would get through morning coffee, and integrity is mostly a heroic excuse to avoid the negotiating table. But I can’t let go. I live in the chaos of adolescence, even wearing the same pair of 501s. As time goes by.
I work at home on Fridays , and on a bitterly cold February afternoon at the end of the week, when it was already getting dark, long before I could contemplate the relief of happy hour or a 4 p.m. Law & Order rerun, I was stretched on my couch doing a Google search on my iPad. I was trying to find an article I had written in 2009 but got distracted by gossip along the way—so much I never knew about myself! It amazed me that anyone cared at all. On a Yale alumni magazine blog, there was an article about graduates with interesting jobs and by extension interesting lives: I work for the great litigator David Boies, and I still manage to be some sort of writer.
Some sort, sort of.
And then I chanced upon something genuinely surprising: It was a PDF document, a 140-page guide published by Harvard to coincide with football season that particular year. The middle section was devoted to prominent alumni, mostly presidents, senators, governors, princes, agas—a multi-circle Venn diagram of all would have included people with names like Rockefeller, Kennedy, Adams, and Roosevelt. But then, under the rubric of “Literature,” there was my name. That would not have been so strange except that I was the only woman and, with John Ashbery, the only person on the list still alive. It occurred to me that it had been so long since I last published a book—not since 2001—that maybe they thought I was dead. But there it was, me with T. S. Eliot, e. e. cummings, William S. Burroughs, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Norman Mailer, John Updike, George Plimpton, David Halberstam, and Henry David Thoreau. It was a shockingly distinguished group to find myself lingering with. I had certainly moved up in the world by doing nothing. And maybe all it meant was that somebody in a communications office at the university had suicidal tendencies that she got through by reading my books. But I was moved nonetheless.
When I grow up, I thought, I am going to be a damn great writer.
It had never occurred to me before that any of the choices I made, which I prized, I guess because at least they were mine, were crazy or risky; but I was becoming convinced. I am committed to feminism and don’t understand why anyone would agree to be party to a relationship that is not absolutely equal. I believe women who are supported by men are prostitutes, that is that, and I am heartbroken to live through a time where Wall Street money means these women are not treated with due disdain. But I also don’t get it: Even sitting through a carafe of Italian wine with a guy who worked in private equity felt like being handcuffed in the back seat of an unmarked squad car: The next stop is jail. And a lot feels potentially imprisoning to me: To get through every day, through a job of staring at pencil marks in spreadsheets through glassy eyes, through humoring a husband who has not sold a screenplay in six years and is writing a new one still, through telling everybody your three basic children are talented and gifted—I know that people who do these things are happy because happiness is the untruths we tell each other and ourselves or it would be unbearable. But I would rather not. I would rather be sad, and sometimes lonely, but at least not suffering the silly.
Or is that my untruth?
For a while after my first book came out, I went home with a different man every night and did heroin every day—which showed my good sense, because the rest of the time I was completely out of control. Even now, I am always in love—or else I am getting over the last person or getting started with the next one. But I worry about growing old this way. Because of divorce, dating never ends for anybody: Men I was involved with long ago—more than one of them—have turned up after a whole marriage and kids and being so sure they knew what life was for to tell me they were wrong to let me go. Which is funny. But I don’t think I really want to be going to the new P. T. Anderson movie and Mission Chinese with someone new when I’m 85. And I don’t think anyone will want to be doing that with me. I am lucky: I run, and Gyrotonic sessions three times a week have kept me in the same shape I have always been in. But age scares me. I look at Kathryn Bigelow at 61 and feel greatly relieved. I consider how much I do that has nothing to do with how I look and realize that if aging bothers me at all, it must be a primeval pain. Because it is not just about the lines around your eyes or the loss of that glow of expectancy. It is also a feeling of enough.
Because I grew up in Manhattan , people assume I must be from a wealthy family, which is seldom untrue today, especially now that hedge-fund managers trying to avoid each other have taken over even the downtown enclaves. No one seems to remember New York City in the seventies, during the era of “white flight,” when Zsa Zsa Gabor was famously mugged in the Waldorf-Astoria and Felix Rohatyn had to be mustered to rescue the municipality from financial ruin because Gerald Ford did not think it was worth federal funds. During the Abe Beame years, you could buy a three-bedroom apartment on Columbus Avenue for $15,000 and worry that you were getting ripped off.
My parents were divorced, my mother had many part-time jobs over the years to support us, and I grew up in HUD housing, first in the West Nineties and then not far from Lincoln Center. I went to private school on scholarship and worked extremely hard because I wanted to grow up and not live near rodent-infested playgrounds, where we clung to the handlebars crossing the horizontal ladders to keep our toes from touching rats. I don’t know what made me believe that writing was going to solve my problems, since all anyone ever told me was that no one made money that way. But I knew that no one did not include me. I was intensely downcast, with a chronic depression that began when I was about 10, but instead of killing my will, it motivated me: I thought if I could be good enough at whatever task, great or small, that was before me, I might have a few minutes of happiness. I would do trigonometry problem sets as if plotting a sine curve could save me.