Space Oddity

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com
Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Reyna Eisenstark

I. Self-Diagnosis

About a year ago, I was editing a behavioral psychology book when I came across the following sentences: “Special receptors also provide proprioceptive information, letting us know where our body parts are, and their position in space. This awareness is called proprioception.”

I stopped reading. I stared into space. I don’t have proprioception, I thought.

In fact, had this been a movie, there would have been a dissolve from my face, with its look of slowly dawning realization, to a series of scenes from my life playing themselves out in rapid succession: me constantly banging my legs into the low shelves around our living room, the collective disgusted sigh of a group of girls as I once again completely failed to make any contact with the volleyball coming right at me, my toe breaking as I sped from one room to another and failed to clear the wall entirely, repeated scenes of me stepping out of my car to discover it somehow parked two feet from the curb, me walking through various stores with my arms firmly at my sides, terrified of knocking into anything, certain that I would.

This moment of revelation really was like the proverbial apple falling on Sir Isaac Newton’s head and, considering how often I have misjudged and banged my head, the metaphor is especially apt. I realized that not only have I had this problem my entire life, but I have also been compensating for it my entire life, convincing myself that nothing was out of the ordinary.

Funny enough, I vividly remember reading an essay by Sloane Crosley about ten years ago about her serious problem with spatial awareness. Did I feel even a glimmer of recognition? Not at all. I actually chuckled to myself, wondering how someone could possibly get by with such a poor sense of direction. I prided myself on my (falsely understood) excellent sense of direction. Didn’t I read the part about her getting lost in a large box store and did I not recognize that this happened to me regularly? When I read the words, “To counterbalance my deficiency, my visual memory became stronger,” did I not realize that this is how I’d been managing my whole life? No, I did not. And yet, that essay struck me somehow and stayed with me all these years, perhaps stored away as something I might want to revisit at a later date. I suppose this is what they refer to as denial.

The thing about spatial awareness is that it extends way past your body and out into the world. For example, I cannot tell north from south. If I am walking in Manhattan, I picture myself on the street my dad lived on until I was nearly thirty and then picture which way the street numbers went up and which way they went down, and adjust myself accordingly. I thought this—which I have never admitted before—was totally unremarkable. One afternoon, when I was maybe ten, and before I figured out this trick, I asked my father how to get to Vinnie’s Pizza, a now long-gone but beloved pizza place on the Upper West Side (Amsterdam between 73rd and 74th Street). He told me to head west out of the building and then, after a block, to head north. Much as I tried to explain I didn’t know how to do this, he refused to offer any alternatives. He was of the belief that children learned things by simply doing them. What I learned was never to ask my father for directions again. I headed out of the building, choosing a random direction, making sure to note any visual details that would help me trace my way back. This being New York City, I eventually ended up at a pizza place, but it was definitely not Vinnie’s. As I sat there, eating a highly inferior slice and disgustedly watching a couple of flies hover over the pizzas that had just come out of the oven, I thought, This is probably what I deserve.

Because, in fact, I always realized that I had difficulties, but I had no way to explain them. My mother constantly yelled at me for knocking into things, and I often had bruises on my legs or my hips, but I didn’t actually feel clumsy. It’s just that I wasn’t able to see what was often right in front of me or below me, and I didn’t realize the wall or the coffee table or the glass on the counter was so close.

As for driving, I always assumed I had difficulty with parking because I started driving late; I didn’t have the experience. In fact, the only way I can parallel park is to tell myself to deliberately ignore the warning signs my brain is trying to send out. When I start thinking, Oh my god, the car is too close to the curb! I just keep backing in. But this takes enormous concentration, and when I don’t do it, the car ends up inevitably two feet from the curb. Or some unacceptable distance; I don’t really know for sure. Because this is another aspect of having spatial awareness problems: I can’t judge distances at all. I’ve always accepted this as a fact about myself, but when my older daughter was about eight years old and said something like, “Oh, it was about fifteen feet ahead of me,” I actually asked, “How do you know what fifteen feet in front of you looks like?”

And yet, I managed to live forty-six years without really knowing what was wrong with me, without quite realizing that something was wrong with me. I have always had a remarkable visual memory for things. I can find things in my house by picturing where I last saw them. When I was once accidentally dropped off at my private elementary school on a day the school was mysteriously closed, I managed to walk home just by recognizing the streets I had passed each day in the car and retracing them back home. I had been compensating just fine.

II. Diagnosis

This whole realization happened to coincide with an ordinary visit to the optometrist, in which the optometrist, using an instrument new to that particular office, noticed that I had enlarged optic nerves. This being a sign of glaucoma I was immediately directed to an ophthalmologist, and after a battery of eye tests that culminated in my eyes being held open (not unlike like the famous scene in A Clockwork Orange minus the Ludwig Van) and bright lights shined in them, it was determined that I did indeed have enlarged optic nerves.

But six months later, my enlarged optic nerves were exactly the same, and it was thought that perhaps they were just like this naturally. More (horrible, nauseating) yearly tests would determine this. And then, back for another ordinary visit to the optometrist, I casually mentioned to her my recent realization of the spatial awareness problem I’ve had my whole life, which, I was beginning to realize, involves poor peripheral vision. She was delighted! This was definitely related to my optic nerves! They must have been enlarged for most of (or all of) my life, thus affecting my peripheral vision all this time! It probably had nothing to do with glaucoma at all!

So there it was. I had spent a lifetime struggling with something that wasn’t even my fault, that a simple eye test could have detected years ago, but somehow never did. This realization also brought with it a flurry of memories: panic over having to make split-second decisions of left versus right, panic over a Frisbee coming straight toward me, panic over driving in the dark when I can no longer see the lines that keep me from drifting too far to the left. I felt exhausted just thinking about it.

And yet. There was also a sense of great relief. There was now a medical explanation! My problem was neurological! I’m off the hook for everything!

III. Self-Awareness

And yet. There was something about this realization that was sad, too. In all my reading about spatial awareness difficulties, I couldn’t help noticing that there are easy ways to detect the problem (I had every single sign) and that there were ways to improve it (this was never attempted). I’d been dealing with this as best I could all my life, but (and I knew already that the answer was definitely no and that this question needed to be buried with so many other questions from my painful childhood) couldn’t things have been made just a bit easier for me?

A couple of months ago, my sixteen-year-old daughter started driving lessons. Once, after a lesson was over, her driving teacher said to me, oh so casually, “She’s doing really well. She has a really great sense of how much space she takes up. It’s actually something called proprioception.” I smiled. In my head, I translated this into “Your daughter is not you,” something that I didn’t know I needed to hear until I heard it.

When we went driving together, I asked her to bear with me because I was panicking every single second. This was only because, since I have no sense of where exactly the car ends, it appeared to me that she was driving in the shoulder. But she was not. I watched with amazement as she calmly navigated us down country roads (with no dividing lines!) and then on to the highway. This person who was once inside my body, and then basically hung all over my body for many years, now distinctly had a sense of her own space. She was better at this than I was. I was just figuring it out.

•••

REYNA EISENSTARK is a freelance writer and editor living in Chatham, New York. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People. You can read more of her writing at reynaeisenstark.wordpress.com.

Read more FGP essays by Reyna Eisenstark.

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Watching the Storm

storm
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Reyna Eisenstark

This is how I used to explain my ex-husband. “The thing about C is,” I’d say, “if he was washing the dishes, and he heard someone call out for help—one of our kids or, really, anyone—he would drop what he was doing immediately, his hands covered in soapy water, and would run to help that person. As for me,” I’d add. “I’d take just a couple extra seconds to dry off my hands on a towel.”

This story always delighted me, so certain was I of its simple truth. I believed that it made C the better person, selfless, urgently devoted, able to react better in an emergency. It was not until our marriage ended that I began to see the flaw in this description of him, the fact that, in his rush to help whoever needed helping, he would track soapy water all over the kitchen floor (and possibly all over the house) with his still wet hands. And that later someone would come back to the house and maybe, exhausted from whatever emergency had just been attended to, would slip on the wet, soapy floor. Or would simply look around at the disaster of the kitchen and feel defeated.

This, I eventually realized, was a symbol of our marriage, the fact that he was always dashing off to do things and was living entirely in the moment, and I was always thinking ahead, whether it was seconds ahead or a lifetime ahead. The fact is, I would take those few seconds to dry my hands, even in an emergency, because I never stopped thinking about what was around me and how I and the rest of us would come back to it.

I was raised to think that extravagant gestures meant love. When my older daughter was just nine months old, we were waiting for the results of a medical test (which would eventually turn out to be fine), and, expecting the results the next day, I drove with my daughter to my mother’s house, two hours south. But just as I had driven away, the doctor called with the news and C called my mother to tell her. (Like all stories of the past, this would have ended differently if we’d had cell phones.) This phone call was, for some reason, not enough for C and so, deciding he wanted to be the first person to tell me the news, he jumped into his car, barefoot, and drove eighty miles an hour down the Taconic, so that he was waiting at my mother’s house when I got there. My mother was dazzlingly impressed, which was no surprise. I will never forget this, she said. I suppose she never has.

Dramatic love was the only kind of love, according to my mother, and when, for example, my stepfather drunkenly punched a hole into our bathroom wall, she put a nice framed picture over it. Problem solved. My stepfather loved my mother so much that he often became furious with her in public, so certain that she was flirting with every man in sight. This wasn’t exactly incorrect though. They were quite a pair.

Back when C and I were not yet married, I told a friend of mine about a fight in which C had torn a twenty-dollar bill in half. It was a fight about money, I added, helpfully.

My friend looked at me for a minute. Then he smiled carefully and said, “You really have a passionate relationship, huh?” I smiled back, thinking this was a compliment.

The time that C slammed our back door so hard that the glass shattered became a story about how he, wonderfully, returned an hour later with some new glass and carefully replaced what he’d broken. Sure, he had a bad temper, but he could fix things so well! I was careful not to mention the other doors and objects that he had broken in anger over the years. One was enough for a story.

At a diner one afternoon toward the end of my marriage, my friend Erin looked across the table from me and said, “You do know that not all men yell at women, right?”

I nodded yes, as it was at the same time slowly dawning on me that I actually did not know this, that I had taken it as truth my entire life.

When things were good, and I pictured C, I imagined myself running toward him, which to me proved that this was the love I had been meant for. He would protect me from anyone, except, of course, when I needed it most, from him.

•••

And now, four years into the very last relationship of my life, I wonder about how my boyfriend would react to someone calling out for help while he was washing the dishes, and I realize that I have never even considered this because emergencies are no longer in the forefront of my mind. I don’t picture the dishes, the soapy floor, any of it. There is no longer any drama, any extravagant gestures.

In fact, the story I might tell of him involves the early days of our relationship when, on a weekday morning, we’d sit side by side in the living room, with ambient music on in the background, holding hands and taking sips from our coffee, and simply the perfect stillness and calm I felt during those early mornings, which has become the symbol for how I pretty much always feel with him. No one is racing off to start some impossible new project that will never get finished or to demonstrate undying love as a kind of fury. Instead, the dishes will get done, we’ll dry our hands off, and then we’ll most likely get into bed together and read.

This kind of love is no less fierce, but where it once was like being smack in the middle of a storm, now it is like watching a storm from the safety of your porch, all that beautiful swirling energy, as thrilling as ever, but bringing with it only the feeling of comfort, never harm.

•••

REYNA EISENSTARK is a freelance writer living in Chatham, New York. You can read more of her writing at reynaeisenstark.wordpress.com.

Read more FGP essays by Reyna Eisenstark.

The Other Side

otherside
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Reyna Eisenstark

He wasn’t a handsome man, but he had a handsome man’s chin. And a voice that made up for pretty much everything else. I could not get over his voice. It’s the only thing about me, he once said, that I can control. He was on his college debate team and I could only imagine the suckers that thought they could actually talk him out of anything. I spent years trying to find a voice that resembled his, just so I could hear it again, but I never could. He was also quite tall, which was nice in theory, though I really didn’t ever get to see him all that much.

When I was twenty-six, we had the briefest of brief love affairs that lasted really only a couple of weeks; well, really only about four nights. But then, after it was over, we swirled around in each other’s heads for years, each not really aware that the other had never forgotten those four nights. Was, in fact, still thinking about them.

We had met in the backyard of my first real boyfriend four years before our actual love affair. I heard that voice and saw him casually snap a cigarette out of my first real boyfriend’s hands and I thought, Oh. This is the kind of guy I should be with. And then when a bunch of us were hanging out a few years later, after he’d moved out west, and then returned briefly, I realized I still felt the same way. But he had to go back west, he told me, as we stood in the dark outside a bar, and he continued to explain why, even though it seemed like we could be dating, we couldn’t really be dating.

But we both thought about it for a long time. Long after he moved back west and after I got married and after he got married. We had been in and out of touch for all those years that followed. I would write to him out of the blue and he would write back and it was just basic how are you doing sort of emails, nothing much, really. But it thrilled me anyway.

And then one time I wrote to see how he was, and it turned out he just happened to be visiting relatives back east, not far from where I was now living with my husband and two children. And we thought that hey, wouldn’t it be fun if we got together? It was. He came with his wife and his young son and we all got along well. At one point, when the two of us were talking alone together in the kitchen, he leaned against the counter and knocked a bowl to the floor. It shattered. And he was incredibly flustered, but I told him it was no big deal at all, just a bowl, jeez, wanting so much to make him feel comfortable. I noticed again that he was really quite tall. Thirteen years had passed. I was almost forty.

One night, soon after this, when he was safely back across the country, I asked him, in an online chat, to tell me something he’d always wanted to tell me. There was something about how he had knocked that bowl onto the ground. There was something I thought I knew. And eventually, after asking me if I was sure I wanted to know, he wrote that he should have never gone back west way back when we should have dated but didn’t. We should have, in fact, dated. I mean, there was more, of course, but that was basically it. We had never stopped thinking about each other for all those years. So now what?

There are people that make an appearance in our lives at exactly the right time. Sometimes you recognize it immediately but, other times, you don’t quite see it until long after the fact, when a series of events that seemed random and scattered begin to line up in your memory with a surprisingly linear precision.

So for instance, not long after the online chat just described, I was with my husband at a friend’s birthday party when I started talking to a woman I had known just a little bit. We were both giddy and a bit drunk at this party, and she told me about a writing workshop that was offered through a local university. I suppose we were talking about writing, but I can’t really remember how we got there. She told me that the university got good writers to lead these workshops and all you had to do was apply. If you got in, it was free. “You should do it!” she said, hardly knowing me at the time.

And I did. And it was at this workshop, where I found myself sitting at a table with total strangers, not a mother or a wife but a writer, where I began to feel my real self emerging again, the one I had buried for years, buried so that I could not see what was right in front me: my terrible unhappiness, my difficult, exhausting marriage.

When I think of the beginning of the end of my marriage, I always return to that random conversation with a woman who had been an acquaintance, a conversation that very casually set off a long series of events that quite simply changed the entire direction of my life.

But what about the man with the handsome man’s chin? Did you think this was going to be a love story?

It was, in a way.

After our online confession, he wrote me gorgeous poems, the sort of poems you dream of receiving when you’re twelve years old, studying your face in the mirror, and imagining love. It was intoxicating, of course. There were secret phone calls in which we talked about our love for each other, with a plan to meet secretly, somehow, even though we still lived thousands of miles away. We were never going to run away together. But maybe we could meet just one time. We had never, in all those years, spent more than a few hours together.

This is the guy you’re supposed to wait for your whole life: the one who gets you, who thinks you are more beautiful, more special, more interesting, than any other woman in the world, who says exactly the things you want to be told, things that you assumed no one could possibly know you’d want to hear.

We had never, in all those years, spent more than a few hours together.

In the end, we stopped talking. He had to stop. He couldn’t see me. He thought he could come all those thousands of miles by himself, just for a time, but in the end, he could not. And in the end, it was too much, too sad, too painful for everything. And then his emails got less and less frequent; he would not answer his phone when I called. It was too hard for him to keep up with his normal life and to have this secret life. I got that. But I missed him. I kept trying to contact him, but he was gone. For a long time, I was angry, frustrated, sad. Years passed. My life took a turn for the worse, and then, after another series of events, a turn for the better. Which is where I am now.

When I think of him, this man whose love for me was like the love you are told to wait for your whole life, I can only think of him as someone who, more than once, simply showed up in my life at exactly the right time. He was never going to be the love of my life, not really, much as I thought so at the time, but the one who would make me think (more than once), Oh. This is the kind of guy I should be with. Not him, exactly. We were never quite real to each other. Our relationship, if it had really happened in our twenties, would have ended. Maybe after a few months. Or a few years. Instead, nearing the age of forty, it was one last gasp at our youth, a way to recapture those few weeks, or really, those four nights, that we barely spent together. Even at the time, I could see that we were setting ourselves up for a disappointment, but not quite the disappointment that it turned out to be.

But I like to think that we both showed each other a window in which a different swirling life existed, and then once the blinds were quickly drawn, we could keep that image in our heads. We could hear a faint voice on the other side, waiting for us to get over there, to see what was possible.

•••

REYNA EISENSTARK is a freelance writer living in Chatham, New York. You can read more of her writing at reynaeisenstark.wordpress.com.

 

Read more FGP essays by Reyna Eisenstark.

The Right Profile

By Joe Lodge/ Flickr
By Joe Lodge/ Flickr

By Reyna Eisenstark

My old friend George liked to say that there were only three types of men: dogs, priests, and liars. “The worst are the liars who think they’re priests,” he warned me. For a while, I classified the men I knew this way: dog, dog, liar, dog, etc. George delighted in describing himself as a dog, but he turned out to be a liar. I should have seen that coming.

As for me, I liked to divide up human beings this way: the bullied, the bullies, or the ones that said, “Guys, come on, stop it! That’s totally not right.” This last one was the one I most admired, the one I most aspired to be as an adult. In truth, I have been all of those things in my life. Probably everyone has. I do tend to lean toward the third category more and more these days, which I suspect has something to do with confidence. Or wisdom. People are either wise or they’re not wise. That one’s easy.

“When you hit forty, you realize that you’ve met or seen every kind of person there is,” Bert Cooper told Don Draper on Mad Men, and I could not stop thinking about this for a long time. I once asked my father why he thought people tended to get more conservative as they got older (something which has not happened to him, I should note). “As you get older,” he said, “you just want a shorthand for things. You just want everything to fit into a specific category.”

Even though I’m aware of this, I tend to do it too (dog, dog, liar, dog, etc.) and even with my children (what kind of music do your friends like?), but sometimes it’s simply that I like to make lists for the fun of it.

My younger daughter once told me that she no longer liked the new girl in her class. She had hoped that maybe this new girl would be her kind of weird, which is what she’s always been looking for. But she was sadly disappointed. “She’s such a rule follower,” she declared. I knew exactly what she meant. And even though I felt her disappointment, my heart swelled with pride. Because the people I tend to dislike are the ones I call “rule followers,” though I have never actually expressed this thought to my children. At least, not overtly. What I mean by rule followers (and what my daughter clearly meant as well) are those people who lack creativity, who follow rules without questioning them, who cannot make decisions for themselves. I am not suggesting that people should be reckless. I am not even suggesting that my daughter rebel against her teachers. I just think it’s important that she question everything, even if it’s only to herself. I asked questions constantly as a child. I thought by asking as many questions as possible I could finally get to what I wanted to know, which was everything. Questions, I thought, might somehow help me to figure out exactly what category a person might fit into. If I had to, you know, make a list. I still ask questions, and I’ve only gotten a little bit closer to knowing.

Many years ago, when my children were so young that the greatest thrill of all our lives was to go to a local church that, on Wednesday mornings, had a little playgroup, I one day wandered away from the snack table (tiny pieces of cheese with crackers! Cups of apple juice!) because I heard something that sounded like crying coming from nearby. There was a little supply closet not too far from the snack table and as I approached it, the crying grew louder. The door was slightly open and I looked inside and saw a little girl sobbing. “What are you doing in there?” I asked her, immediately horrified.

She choked out the words, “My mother told me to…stay in here!”

Something in me snapped (“Guys, come on, stop it! That’s totally not right”), and I stormed over to the girl’s mother. She was a woman I barely knew but I had seen her enough times to recognize her as the child’s mother. “Do you seriously think it is a good idea to put a child in a closet?” I demanded.

She looked taken aback. “I didn’t put her in the closet,” she said calmly. And then explained that her daughter needed a time out and she had given her daughter a choice of places to go. “She chose the closet,” she told me.

“But do you think,” I said, my voice rising, aware that I was making a bit of a scene, “that a closet is an appropriate place for a child?”

She continued to defend herself, explaining that she knew where her daughter was, that it was a place for her to calm down, that she would be coming to get her in a minute. And I could see that as we talked, as everyone turned to watch us, as I stormed off, that I was no longer that third highly admired category, but that I was turning into kind of a bully.

The next time I saw that woman at the playgroup, I apologized for my outburst the last time, and she was very gracious about it, and we spent a little while making small talk about our children, and then we never spoke to each other again. My intentions had been good, I think, but I had a hard time coming down from my righteous high. Perhaps I had singled her out as a rule follower. I’m still not sure she was one.

Once I mentioned to my older daughter that I thought one of her friends was a much better artist than another friend who had won an art prize at school. “I don’t want to talk about my friends like that!” she said, which also made my heart swell with pride. It turns out that she doesn’t put people into categories all that often. Now that I think about it, perhaps that is really the job of rule followers. Perhaps we are all, in our own extremely complicated and misunderstood ways, dogs, priests, and liars. Perhaps we should just spend the rest of our lives not really knowing. At a certain point, you realize that there are questions that will never be answered, categories and lists that will never be completed. But when you hit forty, the relief of knowing this can feel something like delight.

•••

REYNA EISENSTARK is a freelance writer living in Chatham, New York. You can read more of her writing at reynaeisenstark.wordpress.com.

Read more FGP essays by Reyna Eisenstark.

Skipped

candles
By Roberto Cacho Toca/ Flickr

By Reyna Eisenstark

I stopped lying about my age when I was sixteen years old. This might not sound like much, but if I were to consider some of my life’s greatest moments of relief (a single but breathtakingly beautiful epidural injection shot perfectly into my spine comes to mind) that would be right up there at the top.

To make some sense of this, I should explain that this happened during the second half of my senior year of high school. I was actually not yet sixteen. My birthday was coming up, however, and my mother thought it would be a fun idea to have a sweet sixteen party for me. Or so she claimed. I’m not even sure what she was thinking, but I suspect she liked the idea of decorating and redecorating our apartment for an actual reason.

One night, about a month before my birthday, she and my stepfather came into my room. “We need to talk to you,” she began, which was enough to cause the panicked terrifying feeling that shot through the entirety of my teenage years. Had she looked through my journal yet again and discovered yet again that I was counting the days until I could leave home? I couldn’t begin to imagine what she imagined I had done. But no. It was simply this: “How old do your friends think you are?” she asked me, with a strange quizzical look.

“I don’t know,” I answered, as my panic increased.

“Do they have any idea how old you are?” she demanded.

And I told her that I guessed they probably didn’t.

Well! It turns out that my mother had called one of my best friends to plan this so-called party and discovered that my friend had no idea how old, or rather how young, I was. My mother suspected that none of my friends knew. And then here’s the part that seems like a miraculous gift to me now but, at the time, seemed like the cruelest punishment imaginable. She demanded that I tell every one of my friends, right this very minute, how old I was. The lie could not go on for a single minute longer.

Which is curious, in a way, because my mother has been lying about her age since I was a tiny child, although she always takes years off instead of adding years on. And she is fiercely protective of her birth date, which has changed slightly as the years have gone on. But for some reason, she would not sit by and watch while I kept my real (remarkably young) age from my friends. Perhaps she thought that I should have been proud of such a thing, but for years I had, of course, been ashamed of it.

For reasons unknown—but I suspect simply because my mother wanted me out of the house—I had started school an entire year before I should have. This wasn’t so terrible, as my birthday is in March and there were some kids born in the fall who were just a few months older than me. You were tall, my mother always told me, as though this was a good reason to start school a year early. I went to a small groovy private school that was happy enough to bend the rules.

But then when I was in fifth grade, this small groovy private school was suddenly no longer the place for me (I was never given a reason for this either), and when I switched to public school, my insane reading ability deemed it perfectly acceptable for me to skip another year. I was tall, remember.

And there I was, suddenly in sixth grade, aged nine-and-a-half, and in a permanent state of panic that people would find out. But as luck would have it, my sixth-grade teacher would not let anyone forget. We began learning Spanish that year, which played out like an exotic form of torture, in which I crossed my fingers tightly under my desk, praying that I would not be called on.

“Cuentos años tienes?” my teacher would ask, strolling around the room. How many years do you have? And in the sweetly vicious voice of a classic bully, she would add, “Reyna?”

“Tengo nueve años.” I have nine years. I would answer her as quietly as I could, my face burning with shame, noticing or possibly just imagining a murmuring sound everywhere in the room.

As the years went past, it became much easier to let people make assumptions about my real age, and if questioned, to lie about it.

“How old are you?” asked the meanest girl of a group of mean girls in my eighth grade class who called themselves The Dizzy Crew.

“How old do I look?” eleven-year-old me answered. She snorted.

“Ha! How old do you look??” Somehow this bought me some time.

And so, on the night I was forced to tell my friends my real age, the usual panicky feeling carried me along as I began to dial the first number, until I realized that something was happening to me. That enormous weight that that I had been carrying with me all this time, the weight of the two full years I had skipped, was slowly, and almost imperceptibly at first, lightening. My friends were surprised and kind of impressed by my confession. None of them thought less of me, as I had feared, and soon it just became part of who I was: their much younger, but still likable, friend.

And I carried on, graduating college at the tender age of twenty and, thus, headed out into the world, still too young to drink legally (confession: I did not let this stop me). I spent years thinking that I had an extra two years to do with as I liked, and maybe that’s why it took me so long to figure out an actual career (if I have, in fact, actually figured one out), since I really had plenty of time. In fact, I had two extra years! I would always have two extra years! It’s hard to pinpoint a single thing that has made me a lifelong procrastinator, but I’m considering that simple thought to be a good candidate.

The fact is that being two years younger than my peers was truly the most significant thing in my life, until one day…it wasn’t. One day, in fact, I was more likely to be the oldest person in a room than the youngest. It’s not really a revelation to point out that there is practically no difference at all between, say, forty-four and forty-six, but it astonishes me every time. After my marriage ended (to a man older than me, of course), I dated someone ten years younger, and my friend Rachel exclaimed, “I didn’t even know there was anyone younger than you!” I knew what she meant. I mean, in theory, there always had been people younger than me. But now, it was obvious. To people looking at me, I’m really just “a woman in her forties.” Or possibly, worse, a “middle-aged woman.” There is literally no evidence that I once felt constantly and hopelessly out of my element, that I tried desperately to catch up with things I was never quite sure I had fully processed. Suddenly, now I am wise. I have perspective. I can offer advice. Getting older has made me feel the one thing I’d never felt before: older.

And so, to the girl who spent several hours on the phone one night not long before her sixteenth birthday, I would like to say this: That thing that bothers you, that nags at you, that drives you to worry and exhaustion nearly every minute you think about it? One day it won’t even matter. In fact, it will cease to be something about you, about who you are at all. One day, and I know you probably won’t even believe this, but one day you might not even remember how old you are. And I am certain that nearly sixteen-year-old me would look at her future self—a maybe forty-something woman?—and turn right back around to what she was doing. I’m pretty certain she’d hardly notice me at all.

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REYNA EISENSTARK is a freelance writer living in Chatham, New York. You can read more of her essays at reynaeisenstark.wordpress.com. At the time of this writing, she is forty-four-and-a-half years old.

Shine On, You Crazy Diamond

diamond
By PTMoney.com/ Flickr

By Reyna Eisenstark

There was likely a time when I didn’t know that that long stretch of 47th Street on the west side of Manhattan was called “the diamond district,” but I can’t remember it. There was a sort of shorthand for streets in Manhattan that I learned as a kid: diamonds: 47th street, shoes: 34th Street, Indian food: 6th Street, and so on. This is the old city, the city of my parents and grandparents, that remarkably still exists inside the twenty-first century one, if you know where to look for it.

So when I found myself at the end of my marriage, panicked nearly every second about money, with my only valuable possession a diamond engagement ring buried in a tiny box on the top of my dresser, well, I pretty much knew where to go.

And so, on a hot summer day, a couple of years ago, I stood in front of a diamond exchange store on the corner of 47th Street and 6th Avenue, considering my options.

I don’t know what drew me to this particular store, but there I was. It was simply the first one I noticed. It was large and on the corner, which seemed like important details. Now, as a rule, I don’t excel at comparison shopping. In fact, when I am looking for something, I will pretty much snap up the first thing I see, and that’s it. Then I spend the next day? month? year? hearing about everyone else’s great deal on the very same thing that I should have gotten if only I’d bothered to shop around. In front of that store, I told myself that I could just see what they had to say and then try a few more places. But I knew this would be the only place I would enter.

The tiny ring was now in the pocket of my jeans. I hadn’t worn it in about a year.

The minute I entered the store, some young people rushed over. Really, I’m remembering this as a sea of twenty-somethings, men and women, descending on me. I told someone that I wanted to sell my ring. A young woman took a look at it and then there must have been some unseen communication going on (why is there no HBO drama set in the underground world of the diamond district?) because seconds later, a man in his late seventies, wearing a rumpled suit, came sweeping past everyone, took one look at my ring, and said, “Come with me, young lady.” He grabbed me by the arm and led me away. I knew at that moment that my ring was valuable. There was an actual charge in the air.

The man swept me past the crowd of young people all the way to the back of the store and up a flight of stairs into his crowded messy office, which looked probably exactly the way it had looked for the past forty years. Was there a manual typewriter? I know I’m not getting this right. He introduced himself and I’ll call him Abe Feldman, which may be his actual name; I no longer remember.

Abe Feldman was of a time when people said things like “how do you do” upon meeting someone and I wish I’d had the foresight to say such a thing. It might have given me an advantage. Instead I came across exactly as I was: hopelessly out of my element. I knew I would have to play the game I had been dreading, the ancient ritual of figuring out a price. Some people find this thrilling, I know, but for me it is simply exhausting. But Abe Feldman was raring to go.

Here is what I knew: the ring had cost six thousand dollars. The man who would become my husband, and then my ex-husband, had bought it with a credit card, which eventually we both paid off. I couldn’t imagine what the ring would be worth now, and probably I should have done extensive research into this, but I hadn’t. I knew that Abe Feldman would say some number and I would succumb pretty quickly.

I can’t remember if Abe Feldman wore one of those eyepieces that jewelers wear to look at diamonds, but let’s just say that he did. He spoke fast and urgently as he examined the ring, explaining that it had a slight crack in it (which I suddenly remembered) but that it was in decent shape.

“I’ll give you two thousand for it,” he said. He opened the safe on his desk, which I hadn’t noticed, and took out a big pile of cash. He started counted out hundred dollar bills, one at a time, flipping them onto the desk like cards, hypnotizing me. Abe Feldman was a master of seduction. He looked at me carefully and then said, “I’ll throw in another hundred,” and placed one last bill on top of the pile.

This was a ton of money. And yet, the number sounded right to me, which made me think that it was worth even more. But I wanted to stop the game, which Abe Feldman clearly knew. “Now, come on,” he said, “It’s nearly four. I have to leave. You should take the money. I’m giving you a good deal.” I had the feeling that Abe Feldman had all the time in the world. It was me who wanted to get out of there as fast as possible.

I must have agreed to it, because I remember him asking for some identification, which surprised me. Nothing at all felt legal in that tiny crowded office, but I handed him my driver’s license and he copied everything down.

It hit me at that moment that Abe Feldman was getting the deal of a lifetime and I knew that I couldn’t just give up so soon. I realized that he had seen my name. “As one Jew to another,” I began (I could be seductive too), “you know I’m supposed to bargain with you as long as I can, right?”

He smirked. “As one Jew to another,” he said, “I’m giving you a good deal.” And then I really knew there was nothing left to say.

I don’t really remember this part, but eventually I must have left his office and gone back downstairs and out onto the hot summer sidewalk. I remember thinking about Abe Feldman laughing to himself the moment I left. And maybe he did, but the best part about this was that I had a pile of money now in place of a ring that had been sitting in a tiny box on top of my dresser. And that ring, which, to be honest, I had always felt conflicted about, as I never really saw myself as a diamond-ring–wearing woman, had become more important, more useful, at the end of its life than it ever was before.

I would love to end this story with me throwing my hat in the hair all Mary Tyler Moore–like and then skipping down the street to buy myself something fabulous with all that money, or just simply strolling down the street, grinning, with an enormous sense of relief. And I would get there, eventually.

But this story actually ends with a sudden flash of memory: the man, who would later become my husband, and then my ex-husband, but now still my boyfriend, sitting on the end of our bed and asking me to marry him. And then, as we were both laughing and crying, just beside ourselves with feeling, he said simply, “I have a ring.”

And then there I was, standing on the corner of 47th Street and 6th Avenue, with thousands of dollars in my pocket and a terrible sinking feeling.

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REYNA EISENSTARK is a freelance writer living in Chatham, New York. You can read more of her essays at reynaeisenstark.wordpress.com.

The Time Machine

pint
By Gina Kelly www.ginakelly.com

By Reyna Eisenstark

A couple of weeks ago, I was at a concert in a bookstore in Hudson, New York, when some hipster put his nearly empty pint glass right on the bookshelf next to him. (This is a bookstore so hip that it has live music and serves beer.) And noticing the glass’s precarious placement next to the James Joyce books (of all things!), I waited a few minutes until I could no longer stand it and then grabbed the glass and put it on my table. A guy closer to my age than the hipster’s sitting near me immediately said, “Thank you! That was bothering me too!” And then, “Are you a Virgo?” What I said was no, but what I thought a few days later (when I accused my own ten-year-old daughter of being a Virgo) is that what I am is  … a grown-up.

This realization had been a long time coming.

Just a few years ago, when I was forty years old and my twelve-year marriage had completely unraveled, I dated a guy who was ten years younger than me. It started out as you might expect, but it turned out that we had many things in common: favorite authors, movies, music. Remarkably, we even shared a love of certain television shows, ones that he had watched in reruns growing up and I had watched in real time.

One of the thrills of dating a thirty-year-old was living the life of a thirty-year-old, but as a forty-year-old. On the weekends, while my daughters were with their father, I would step back into another world. My young boyfriend and I would go to parties at his friends’ houses. Sometimes that meant sitting around a fire pit in a backyard, smoking way too much weed, and watching a girl dressed in a cape spinning around in a hula hoop, and sometimes it meant sitting on a zebra-print couch, in a black light-lit room decorated with black light posters, again smoking way too much weed, and wondering briefly why I had ever left my dorm. Going out with friends meant first going to someone’s house and getting sufficiently drunk before heading out into the world. Going out period actually meant staying out until two a.m. and sleeping until noon the next day.

I had done all of these things before. And in actuality it had been many years before. Somehow all these people I met in their late twenties and early thirties were living a kind of delayed life, the one I had gone through in my early- to mid-twenties until I ended up settling down with the man I eventually married, and we went to, for example, readings at the 92nd Street Y. But here they were in their extended youth, with their comic book hero costume parties, and my young boyfriend firmly in favor of staying that way for as long as possible.

And here I was, astonishingly getting to do the whole thing all over again. “You’ve found a time machine!” exclaimed my friend Susan when I told her about my weekend life. And that’s just what it felt like. A time machine that actually worked the way it was supposed to instead of the way it works in nearly all science fiction shows, with devastating results. Because honestly who wouldn’t want to return to the hedonistic days of their youth but without all that youthful insecurity and doubt? For a while there, I will admit, it really was thrilling.

I was always the oldest person wherever we went. Strangely, it didn’t bother me at all. I sometimes found myself an amused observer, smiling to myself with some inner knowledge that I knew it would take these people years to figure out. Although there were times when I saw girls, say, dressed in shorts with tights, a look I could no longer pull off, and the realization that they were just at the beginning of something made me feel envious. I was getting to experience youth, it was true, and there were times, dancing at some club in the way early hours of the morning, that I felt truly alive as I hadn’t in years, but I would have never done these things at forty were it not for my young boyfriend. And that was when I realized that my actual youth was truly over.

I liked to imagine that my boyfriend’s friends saw me as a cool, possibly striking, older woman, but I honestly have no idea. When I was about twenty-two, a friend of mine was dating (and eventually living with) a thirty-year-old woman. A bunch of us would go over to their apartment and the only thing that struck me were the lines on his girlfriend’s face, something that I hadn’t really ever noticed on anyone before. She looked older, but we all got along just fine. This seemed to be the way things went with my young boyfriend’s friends, too.

Things went on like this for about a year, but my relationship with my young boyfriend evolved into nights at his apartment cooking together and then watching a movie or some TV show like Mad Men, which was perfectly fine with me. It turned out that my young boyfriend, lost, trying to get his career started, was going through a kind of depression, but it also meant that I wasn’t staggering around exhausted at one a.m., dying to leave the bar and just get to sleep.

And then one night when I came over, wearing an old blue hoodie and expecting a night of homemade dinner and TV as usual, my young boyfriend mentioned going to a party and I actually protested. We hadn’t gone out into the real world in a long time, and I found that I had preferred it that way. But I agreed to go along.

It was on the way to the party that I had a revelation, the kind of thing that could only come to a forty-something grown-up: I did not care what anyone thought of me. I was going to go to this party and if no one liked me, it completely didn’t matter. I didn’t even have to talk to anyone if I didn’t want to! Who cared! Thus freed from the usual party anxiety, I had a rather enjoyable time, snacking on the plentiful Trader Joe party snacks, drinking beer, and standing in the corner of the kitchen in my hoodie, observing the young people around me with a permanent smirk on my face. At a certain point, my young boyfriend tried to include me in the conversation he was having with some couple, and I made just the slightest effort at being friendly. But mostly I just didn’t care.

I realized that I no longer envied these young people, with their whole lives ahead of them. I realized that they would be making the same decisions I had: they would marry or not, they would have children or not, and every decision they made would make them regret others they did not make. They were just at the beginning of this stage and I was, I realized thrillingly, relieved to be on the other side. As a seventy-year-old woman once said to me, “We are all young for the same amount of time.”

So let’s leave that party for now and return to the empty pint glass. One way to think about it is this: a twenty-something puts the glass on the bookshelf (next to the James Joyce books, for chrissakes!) and turns away from it without a second glance. The thirty-something sees the glass, feels worried and perhaps a little responsible, but ultimately turns away and hopes for the best. The forty-something sees the glass, and having seen dozens of nearly empty pint glasses spill or crash, grabs it from the bookshelf and sets it down. The glass is no longer precarious. It is exactly where it should be.

•••

REYNA EISENSTARK is a freelance writer living in Chatham, New York. You can read more of her essays at reynaeisenstark.wordpress.com.