Out of Step
A couple of weeks ago, I fell in love…with the stories and the style of Maeve Brennan. The more I learned about her life, the more I became lost in thoughts about pace and setting; the idea that Maeve seemed out of step with the days about which she wrote, how slowly she seemed to move through eras and clock-measured hours, how strongly she craved a city that stayed still. I felt like her habits reflected an obstinate digging-in of heels, a refusal to update, to move along, to accept that one day becomes the next until eventually, you have a past very different from your present.
In an effort to contextualise her essays, I cast a more critical eye upon myself: the words I choose, my turns of phrase, the photographs I pair with each story I post here. And, sifting through three years of my essays and articles, I reconsidered how quickly things change – style and taste, patterns of consumption, social trends – and the pace at which those things come into then pass out of favour (sometimes fast, sometimes slow). And, it began to seem reasonable that Maeve’s seemingly old-fashioned 1968 was snuggled up close against my 1973 birth.
In the five years separating those dates, my parent got married, and their wedding photos include guests dressed like the people described in Maeve’s stories. A quick flash and gone were the pillbox hats, stuffy textiles and dinners at which it would have been inappropriate for a lady to appear alone, replaced by the white pantsuit, silver slippers and broad necktie my parents wore at the altar. And, a couple years later, their stylish haircuts, bright red sofa, bell-bottomed jeans and me, a shrieking flannel bundle.
Five years…easy for an eccentric and troubled lady like Maeve to find herself out of step, without realising she’d missed a step at all. I often consider social graces and standards, and the quaint manners most people my age never learned. My knowledge of napkin etiquette, cutlery-handling and table-laying seems like a deliberate and cultivated fetish. But, I also have a lot of tattoos, wear jeans to the office, say words like “motherfucker” and “dickweed” when I ought to be more polite, and am often unsure what to do with my hands. I teeter between being prissier than necessary and too casual for the places I hang out.
I know I’m not down with the kids, am reminded of this by music on the radio, posters on billboards, text-message jargon that infiltrates everyday conversation. And, now and then I am jarred by just how Maeve-like I am. She wrote a wonderful story about a group of young ladies she encountered in Midtown circa 1967, dressed in miniskirts and fishnet stockings, tall and broad (in fact, her essay seemed poised to expose a trio of transvestites, but Maeve held tightly her conviction that these ladies were indeed girls). Confronted by their forward behaviour, she ducked her head and kept walking, paying no attention to the bold way the young women made eye contact with passersby or the subject matter of their loud conversation as it cut the evening breeze.
The other day, I was appalled by the young women walking ahead of me, as they chatted and gossiped, recapping their weekend and mostly just shit-talking absent friends. The loudest girl told the others about “some guy I hooked up with this weekend, he had the nerve to friend me on Facebook! What a loser, man!” That he was “some guy” and not a more limiting “that guy” or “the guy” suggested this sort of encounter was commonplace and frequent enough that it was a meaningless one on a list of several. An unfair judgment perhaps, but the way she rendered him nameless, one of a horde, and scorned him for trying to follow up the next afternoon…It made me feel weird and old and disappointed, the way she made fun of him for having the nerve to give a shit about her after they slept together, the way she broadcast his lameness and her lewdness at the top of her voice.
Her behaviour was not only at odds with how I live my adult life, but was also at odds with how I behaved at her age. Casual connections are fine if that’s what works for you, but I can’t imagine shouting about them amongst friends, and certainly not in the street. If I consider the tone of my writing, I see how ill-suited it would be to describe that girl’s day, like a contemporary Maeve attempting to catalogue New York’s changing streets. And that’s just their conduct – I haven’t even broached the matter of their leggings, schlumpy boots, bomber jackets and lurid cosmetics.
Conversely, there’s a bar I’ve been hanging out at after work the past two months or so, a place that is out of step with me in two ways: the prices listed on the bill of fare are generally well above what I can technically afford for wine and snacks; and the majority of patrons are curiously caught between real and advertised age. I am probably older than a lot of the ladies there, but looking around one evening with another girlfriend, we noted that we probably looked more like their babysitters than like those ladies. And, quite likely, we were a good five years older despite looking much younger, but their carriage, attire, the way they primped in the ladies room made me feel like a dumpy kid, someone unsure how to pass through an elegant space.
So then, how to reconcile my fondness for that swel-egant martini bar and a recent Friday night in, when friends and I started with martinis at five o’clock, prepared an excellent dinner of roast chicken, potatoes and wilted greens, then got right plastered on the rest of the gin, several bottles of red, and ended the evening with dessert eaten straight from our palms, hands wiped clean on our jeans, and a Star Wars light saber battle that wrecked half the sitting room? I can teeter on heels with the best of them, and own a collection of sneakers, hoodies, naked-lady tattoos and silk pantyhose. Sometimes, I wear those things in a jumble; other times, I clean up rather sweet-looking. How to reconcile the sword fight with the fact that I refer to the place in my friend’s apartment where the sofa is located as her “sitting room”? For that matter, how to reconcile the fact that I overthink language but often talk with my hands, punctuating stories with dirty words and curious gestures? So much weight on words, and yet, so much disregard for the finer points of communication, now and then.