Authors: Jessi Klein
was having one of those moments where you're feeling a little insecure and you want to prompt your boyfriend to say something complimentary by asking a question to which he must surely know there is only one acceptable answer.
In fairness to me, I did not ask Mike if I looked fat. I'm not an amateur. I know that men hate that question and resent you for asking it. Asking a man if you look fat is a sure guarantee that he will look at you and see Gilbert Grape's mom.
What I asked him was, “Do you think I'm going to age well?”
He replied: “I know you're going to age well, because you're already aging well.”
I had just turned thirty-eight. And I was having a thing, for the first time in my life, where when I looked in the mirror, my face looked a littleâI dunnoâI didn't look bad per se; I just couldn't put my finger on it. I didn't look old. I would search and search for exactly what the problem was, and then one night, staring at the ceiling unable to sleep, I realized what it was.
I just didn't look young anymore.
And then this other thing happened:
I was at an industry party thrown by a network. I won't say which one but let's call it COX. Agents and executives in suits were mingling with comedians at a glorified sports bar. I was getting ready to leave when an executive at COX ran up to me and put her face right up to mine. “Jessi! Don't go! I'm obsessed with you!” She was just rounding third from medium drunk to very drunk.
“You need to live in LA!” she yelled.
“Why?” I yelled back.
“So that I can put you in one of our shows!” she insisted, grabbing both of my arms. The bar was dark, but I could see that her face, which wasn't unattractive, seemed to have some odd angles, like someone had brainstormed a few ideas about where her cheeks were supposed to be. It was impossible to tell her age, in that LA way where someone is either thirty-five or is dead and has been dead for years. I wanted to leave, but sadly, there was a part of me that was flattered someone from COX could see me on COX.
“What do you think I could play?” I asked her as I started thinking about how I would break it to Mike that we were moving to LA. I pictured us driving across the country listening to Joni Mitchell's “California” all the way.
She stepped back so she could really take me in. Her face lit up.
“You could play Natalie Portman's mom!”
At home, hiding under my bed, I Googled “Natalie Portman.”
She is six years younger than me.
But this is what it is now, to be this age. In entertainment, if you are a day over thirty, you are seen as being a viable great-great-grandmother to Elle Fanning.
I actually had already lived in LA during my early thirties, and it was there, on an unfortunate makeup-buying excursion to Barneys with my friend Jessica, that I had my first personal experience with the revulsion that exists toward female aging. We were at the Chanel counter, where a nice woman swooped in to help Jessica find a red lipstick. This left me paired with a permanently annoyed man who looked like Nathan Lane's evil twin. “What are you looking for?” he asked curtly. I told him I was just in the market for a blush brush, and he gave me a look that let me know I may as well have told him to go fuck himself directly to hell.
“Can I speak freely?” he asked, taking a step back to look at this frumpled sea monster from New York. I hated him but I also felt like he was about to tell me the most important thing any human has ever said to another.
“Right now, your priority needs to be your undereye area.”
I remember how he stressed that word. “Your
.” Forget paying your rent and maintaining your relationships. Put off charity work and don't worry about voting in the general election because your PRIORITY right now needs to be your UNDEREYE AREA. I had never really thought about my undereye area before, but the truth is in the days leading up to my Barneys outing my undereye area had been something of a mess. Dry, flaking, red. Evil Nathan Lane wasn't making this up.
For $150, I bought a thingy of Chanel eye cream about the circumference of a bottle cap. Nevertheless, despite my making my undereye area a priority, over the next few weeks it proceeded to get worse. I finally went to a dermatologist who told me I was having a severe eczema reaction to the wildfires that were burning all around the Valley. In recent weeks, the air over LA had been purple with ash. She said applying any product on top of the irritation was probably making it worse. So basically, the Chanel counter guy had assumed that it was my disgusting decaying female face that was my eye problem, not the fact that the FUCKING CITY WAS ON FIRE.
Still. I was no longer an innocent to the knowledge that I had arrived at the age where I was supposed to be buying premium $kin products. I read enough magazines to know that celebrity ladies are not fucking around in aisle three of Duane Reade (Rite Aid in LA). Any number of fancy famous women may be spokeswomaning for Revlon, but in reality that is probably what they are slathering on their dogs. They use the expensive stuff. And mainly, they use La Mer. La Mer is to famous actresses over thirty what Gatorade is to athletes. The mythology around La Mer is that it comes from seaweed found at the bottom of the deepest ocean and was originally developed as a treatment for burn patients. Realizing that every woman is essentially a burn patient (insofar as our faces are constantly being scorched by the raging fire of time), some brilliant scientist smeared it all over a lady's skin and now the smallest container of it costs $265. There is no more disgusting secret about my life than the fact that in the last few years I have bought into the idea that I need La Mer/am worth it. And now I buy a couple of jars a year. This despite the fact that I used to listen to Nirvana and Hole and still have trouble buying socks that don't come in a bag because I just can't believe a single pair costs more than six bucks.
It is hard not to look to celebrities for confirmation that you can be old and still be a sexy woman. The bummer is that there are only about four such women in Hollywood who are seen this way, the chief example being Susan Sarandon. She's been carrying the burden of being the hot “old” chick for about two decades now. It's admirable, and I would absolutely have sex with her, but I feel like the pressure on both of us at this point is getting a bit intense. It's hard to source all your emotional assurances about aging on the shoulders of just one especially bangable sixty-nine-year-old.
And the magazines, the magazines. I don't know why I read them and I feel guilty about it, but there's nothing I can do, I want to look at the pictures even though they sometimes make me feel so bad about my stupid normal human appearance that my soul actually aches. Each of the fashion magazinesâ
âdoes an annual issue called “Beautiful at Every Age” where their teams of editors really sweat it out to let their readers know that you can look and dress hot no matter how old you are. They dedicate various sections to women in their twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, sixties, and seventies, but there are two decimating things going on here:
And so here I am at thirty-eight, staring into the mirror. And even though I do not look young anymore, I am now less concerned about my face (or, as Nora Ephron warned, my neck) than I am about my newest problem area, my hands. In the last two years, my hands have taken on a decidedly gnarled affect. I'm not sure how or when my knuckles got thicker, but now my hands look like wizard hands, like they should be clutching a crystal ball. And my fingers, always long and a tad askew, seem to have become even more crooked, like the branch fingers on a wise old tree in an animated children's movie, who occasionally beckons to little kids and dispenses nuggets of truth like “Just be yourself, Toby.” The tree is voiced by Morgan Freeman.
The thing is, taken part by part, I can handle my knotty paws and my sunken undereyes and all the little wilting tea leaves that foretell my future unprettiness. My only real desire now is to create a plan as to what type of old woman I can successfully become. I've been staring at old ladies for quite some time now, and from what I've observed, there seem to be only three paths that allow you to retain some aspect of appeal that will keep people interested in you:
This is clearly the best path. If you were born looking like Christy Turlington, you will continue to look like Christy Turlington into your nineties even if people have to squint a little to still see her in there. Sophia Loren still looks like a goddess because she was already a goddess. But what if you're not already a goddess? See Path Twoâ
This is a very common path if you live on the Upper East Side of New York, or on a yacht that never docks for tax purposes. There are legions of women whose old-lady style is based on wearing their money. I have to say, in certain respects, it works. Maybe you are no longer twenty-one with perky little boobs, but you are wearing an HermÃ¨s watch and an Alexander Wang tunic shirt and ChloÃ© flats and a sapphire necklace still wet from the
. The twenty-one-year-old with perky boobs can't afford even one of these items. So in that respect, you have more power than her. Even if people don't want to fuck you anymore, no one is fucking with you. Because you have so much money. But what if you don't have this money? Please skip to Path Threeâ
This is the last option. And it will be my option. We see these women all the time. They're not leaning on beauty, and they're not leaning on money. They're leaning on character. They wear hot-pink tights and high-top sneakers. They wear big glasses and pillbox hats. They look like they might have once worked at
even though they didn't. Or they look like Betsey Johnson back in the 1980s, but now here in the present and much older. They're memorable and fun. They're kooky old ladies. When I see them, I feel a pulse of happiness that maybe I won't be so sad losing the little dollop of prettiness I was allotted. That maybe the secret to getting old and feeling okay is just buying an enormous silly hat and making people smile when they look at you because they think you're having a good time.
But maybe that's not what the hat is about. Maybe the real issue is not so much making other people think you're having a super-fun time creeping toward death; it's simply being seen. This is the lament of older women, and ultimately of all old peopleâthat you become invisible. It is especially hard for women, though, whose entire lives have been spent spinning around the idea that if no one is staring at you, you've somehow failed. Maybe the silly hat is really a Hail Mary to get people to look at you, no matter the reason.
And maybe when you're at the age where
can no longer fathom how you could possibly dress yourself, it will all seem so incredibly ridiculous that you'll actually be in the mood for the hat. The most fuckit Kentucky Derby hat you can find.
I'm going to make the silly hat my priority.
have gone to therapy, texted all my best friends, and listened to a downloadable Buddhist lecture about forgiveness on my iPod, so I'm genuinely trying. But I still can't figure out whether to take my ex-boyfriend up on his offer of lunch.
“Let's catch up,” the email says.
I am engaged, but seeing his name still tweaks me in my gut, which in turn makes me feel embarrassed. Why am I so weak that he still gets to me, more than ten years after we've broken up? The Buddhists say that you shouldn't let shame about pain cause you to feel a second, self-inflicted pain, which is good advice; but sometimes it's hard to do what the Buddhists say, mainly because so many of the people who currently talk about Buddhism are in those newfangled sweatpants with the cuffs on the ankles and are otherwise insufferable.
The last time we'd really spoken to each other was November 2001âthree months after we'd officially broken upâwhen I screamed at him on a quiet block in Brooklyn Heights, outside what had been our shared home. The woman he was now dating stood next to him, aghast. A random passerby, a man, told me to be quiet. I yelled at him to fuck off. I punched Pete over and over again in the shoulder, because he deserved it. I also threw my makeup bag in the street. I'm less sure of why I did that. Whatever the reason, it was a bad idea, because the thing you forget as an adult having a tantrum is that unlike when you were two and having a tantrum, no one else is going to pick up the shit you throw on the ground. I watched my boyfriend's new girlfriend, the blonde in a houndstooth J.Crew coat, scurry to the safety of the opposite corner, possibly afraid for her life. She should have been. I was an angry monster who wanted to eat them both. I told him I would never forgive him, that he had lost me forever, and that I would never ever speak to him again.
So now I am deciding whether what I said that night will continue to be true.
Just before we'd discussed taking a break, I had started reading
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
. I remember thinking maybe it wasn't the best idea to be delving into Raymond Carver when I was already feeling blue. Just looking at the paperback's cover, a Hopper-inspired illustration of a lady in the world's bleakest purple shirt sitting alone on the edge of a bed, was enough to make me pull the blankets over my head. Still, I'd been experiencing a growing sense of shame about my inability to read anything but
since college, and I felt like I had to stick with it.
After Pete and I agreed that we needed time apart to “take a break,” I decamped to my parents' place in Manhattan. The Carver book, along with most of my other possessions, stayed behind. I packed an atrocity of a red gym bag with whatever items of Gap clothing felt necessary at the time. As I rode the subway across the river, I felt certain I would be back soon. I was so very naive. I had never gone through a breakup before. I didn't know that genially agreeing to “take a break” is, in most cases, just the emotional amuse-bouche to having your heart shattered like a lightbulb being thrown under the wheel of a school bus. Which is, of course, what happened.
Three months later, post-shattering, my friend Kat agreed to drive me back to Brooklyn in her beat-up green car to pick up the rest of my stuff. The plan was: She would double-park and wait while I went upstairs and quickly collected my possessions, such as they were: a Groucho Marx poster, my clothes, miscellaneous tchotchkes, and my books. I would then come downstairs, we'd cram my stuff into the hatchback, drive back to my parents' house, order Thai food, and then she'd watch me cry in my childhood bedroom. It seemed like an airtight plan.
Pete and I weren't speaking, but he had emailed me to tell me he was going to be away for a few weeks. He was off in Europe, supposedly with a friend, but I'd heard through the grapevine that she was there too. It was a mystery to me how this person, this person who'd been my person for six years, had turned his feelings for me off like a faucet and was now, miraculously, tragically, fucking someone else. As I walked into our former shared home, it dawned on me that the place must be loaded with clues as to how this had occurred. Just as I stupidly thought romantic “breaks” led to happy reunions, I was also too young to know that purposely rifling through your ex's apartment to find the detritus of his sex life with his new girlfriend is one of the dumbest things you can do in this life. In two minutes, I would acquire that knowledge. But at the moment I walked in the door, I was still an innocent.
This is why I was determined to open every drawer, look in every pocket, and peek in every peekable corner of the apartment. One of the first places I decided to poke around was the refrigerator. Why was I looking in the refrigerator? I think because I wanted to know what he was eating without me.
I WANTED TO KNOW WHAT HE WAS EATING WITHOUT ME.
His birthday had been three days before. But that still didn't help me understand why there were no fewer than five cakes sitting in the fridge. I lifted the lids of their boxes. They were all really nice cakes. Some were half eaten, but a few had only one or two bites missing. And that's when a vision began to form in my head, of Pete and his new girlfriend holding hands at some twee Brooklyn bakery, laughing uproariously over the difficulty of deciding which birthday cake to buy. And then I imagined her saying, “Let's just get all the cakes!” because that's a manic pixie dream girl thing to say, and then the two of them carrying all these cakes home and taking a few bites of each, still laughing hysterically, before putting the cakes aside and having birthday sex. In my mind, this scene quickly went from being something I imagined might have happened to footage I was watching on a security camera.
I was certain this was the way it must have occurred. And with this certainty came an overwhelming physical desire to take the remainder of the five cakes and smear them all over his bed and bedroom walls.
I should say for the record that I am not a violent person, or even someone who particularly likes conflict. I have middle-child syndrome and generally bounce around rooms like a Labrador retriever trying to make sure everyone is okay. But in that moment, the desire to destroy was overwhelming. I wanted to leave frosting all over his sheets and pillowcases so that when he returned from vacation his bed would be teeming with roaches and maggots wiggling in every mattress coil. I wanted him to come home to a room that looked like a scene from
I closed my eyes and was able to vividly picture how good it would feel, this release of fury and frosting. But some small part of me was also able to think about the aftermath; about how I would carry that action with me for the rest of my life and it would become some small but definite part of my DNA. About how it would be one of the maybe twenty decisions you make out of your whole life that truly changes something in you.
I would become someone who had smeared birthday cake all over her ex-boyfriend's bed.
For a long time, I stood perfectly still, with a cake in my hand, the surprising heft of it so tempting, trying to control myself, summoning powers of resistance. After about ten minutes, I took a deep breath, returned the cake, and walked away from the refrigerator.
The search continued, however. I went into the living room, where I went through his backpack and found a copy of a FedEx slip with her name and address on it. He had sent her a gift. Probably something quirky and charming, the kind of thing he used to give me. The kind of thing that led me to have a rubber mouse in a specific sweater pocket for years. The date on the slip indicated he had sent it months ago, while he and I had still been talking about trying to figure things out. The cakes called to me again, like sirens.
After fifteen minutes, the only thing left to search was the bedroom. I entered slowly, my heart pounding. Papers and clothes were strewn all over the floor. The bed itself was unmade, the sheets and blankets whirled into a spiral, like a NASA photo of a distant galaxy. It felt cosmically incomprehensible, the idea that Pete was sleeping with someone who wasn't me. This is why what I saw next was so genuinely shocking. You know how you read about people jogging on some nature path and then they see something weird sticking out of the bushes and it turns out to be a foot? That's what it's like to find another woman's ponytail holder beside your bed. It was there, next to a chewed-up piece of pink gum the size and shape of a cat's butthole.
When you see an unfamiliar hairband in your bedroom, it's like you can see your entire life getting small enough to fit into that little elastic loop, like the conclusion of an old-time movie where the final moment is slowly irised out by blackness until it disappears.
Shaking, I decided it was time to get out of there. I was gathering the last of my clothes into a garbage bag when something on the floor caught my eye. There, upside down on the rug, was my copy of
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
. I reached to pick it up and felt something sticky and wet on my hand. I turned the book over and noticed some sort of clear goo spread across the picture of the sad lady in the purple shirt. I was confused until I noticed the culprit just a few inches away on the floor, small enough that I hadn't seen it when I walked in: a little bottle of Astroglide lubricant that had tipped over and oozed out onto my book.
My friends and I have debated the meaning of this. What we didn't debate, because it truly isn't debatable, is that finding your copy of Raymond Carver's
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
covered in your ex-boyfriend's lube is a perfect poem of an image, a hateful little sonnet composed by the universe to memorialize the end of your relationship.
I'm still on the fence about lunch. But after years of reflection, I'm sure of one thing: I should have smeared the cakes.