Future, Tense; Past, Imperfect
Who needs high school reunions when you could go to a book party instead?
I’ve never been to a high school or college reunion, but I have been to enough New York book parties to be convinced that there’s not that much of a difference between the two.
Several years ago, I got my first real job and first real boyfriend at a weekly magazine. I was a fact-checker and my boyfriend was a writer who wrote about people who wrote books. Consequently, he was invited to numerous book parties, many of which I attended as his designated plus-one for the evening. They were held in the kind of places I could only fantasize about while growing up in the Midwest: minimalist lofts, subterranean clubs, exquisitely appointed pied-à- terres. The first party we attended together was at Elaine’s, where the lady herself eyed us dyspeptically; another took place in the home of a media mogul where guests mingled between a Picasso the size of a ping-pong table and two-story views of Central Park.
Regardless of the location, the emotional milieu was always the same: celebratory, but underscored with a sharp, slender current of one-upmanship. Lives and careers were held up, side by side, to be better scrutinized; bylines and titles sorted according to weight and frequency. The question wasn’t “Where are they now?” but “Where have they been?” and “Where will they go?”
I was reminded of this a couple weekends ago when I went to a book party for that boyfriend. We’d gone our separate ways more than a half-decade prior, a couple of years after I quit the magazine where he is still employed. I hadn’t seen many of our old co-workers since I left and, flush with some choice bylines of my own, entertained the same fantasy shared to varying degrees by grown-ups still haunted by high school and the profound need to prove something to the world and, more crucially, themselves: waltz in, impress, and waltz out, feeling proven.
After the reading, I saw an editor I’d always been friendly with chatting among a small group of my former co-workers. I approached, said hello, and was greeted with the slightly startled dismay of someone who has just discovered a quart of milk has soured. After a perfunctory hello, he resumed his conversation with my erstwhile colleagues as I became acutely aware that the cork soles of my wedges were rotting and that I was wearing $19 shorts from Old Navy. They made my legs look good, but still. I wasn’t gleaming with success; I was sweating slightly with an insecurity that had never really gone away. Whatever professional gains I’d accumulated over the years vanished, followed, in short order, by whatever toughness the city had given me. That left only the tender, squishy bits exposed to the bookstore’s lights, which at that moment seemed very bright and unbearably hot.
I stood there, rooted to the carpeted floor by mortification, the lower half of my face a rictus, until, after what felt like two hours, one of them took pity on me and let me in on the topic of conversation, a cantankerous, widely despised old theater critic who had recently fallen on hard times. We traded pleasantries about the critic’s downfall until my new acquaintance announced he had dinner plans and excused himself. I took his exit as an opportunity to make my own. You could say I waltzed out, if, by waltzing, you mean discretely fleeing.
Walking to the subway, I tried to work out why I felt so humiliated, rather than simply disgusted by my former colleague’s display of rudeness. He had behaved badly and without provocation, and if anything, I should have felt sorry for him. But in taking his behavior so personally, I realized that this wasn’t really about his lack of social graces, but my own inability to separate myself from the past, when I was so new to the city and my immediate proximity to the fabulous and successful that I didn’t understand that envy and insecurity are currency traded at every level of society, particularly within the sector populated by those of us who work in the publishing industry. I was, essentially, still in high school, trying to stay afloat in a fish bowl filled with polluted water.
We ask ourselves, Do we really ever leave? Is it possible to, given how the hierarchies of high school replicate themselves as we move through life, through book parties, through careers? The aforementioned soiree notwithstanding, I’d like to think we do. We can choose who and what matters to us. We can choose whose opinions are worth taking to heart and whose are worth taking to the trash. We can choose to be kind to ourselves, and to learn perspective. We can strive to understand that at the end of the day, we only have ourselves to prove something to, and that we alone are responsible for our insecurities. And, perhaps most importantly, we can learn that other people’s behavior isn’t a summary judgment of our place in the world: Sometimes, an asshole is just an asshole.