I am a believer in coincidence. (See last week’s post, Synchronicity: coincidence, literature, & suicide, or A brain of one’s own.) By which I mean that life is filled with funny details that make patterns or bring things together—sometimes literally, like the randomness of making a new acquaintance (the coincidence of my mother and future stepfather being placed in the same row on a flight to San Francisco, she reading an article about leftist politics, he a union member of intellectual bent), or sometimes remaking an old acquaintance anew (finding that the daughter of one of my father’s former lovers had moved to the same city). I seek out these patterns. I’m pleased to find them, like discovering the picture in the Rorschach image. As with the test, there is room for variety of interpretation. Sometimes coincidence involves effort, sometimes it isn’t coincidence at all. (I had been sending holiday cards to the mother of my age-peer, thus keeping us indirectly in touch; otherwise would I have learned of her daughter’s proximity? If I lived in Dubuque, this might be a coincidence; but New York attracts thousands of new inhabitants each month. This is part of what I love about the city: coincidence, happenstance, is embedded in its urbanity, its size, its depth of interests and peoples.) Timing renders an event or piece of information more meaningful; we become more receptive.
And so, recently I received an invitation to an LGBT (and friends) cocktail reception. Having gone to college at Vassar, and lived in NYC’s East Village in my twenties, such an event, or something similar, was once quite common. But then I got married, had kids…and now going out at all, attending a reading or meeting a friend for a drink, is something quite sparkly, and though no longer as rare as an immaculate apartment, it’s still narrowly controlled—the range of my activities bound by children’s bedtimes and the shortness of the night’s sleep anticipated by said children’s risings.
Yes, my life has narrowed. So I look forward to the cocktail party, figuring it will actually seem quite normal to me, perhaps a re-integration of some part of my younger adult self (still straight, but more diverse in social routines and schedule) with my ‘mommy-self.’ Sure, I used to go to bars where the gender of the customers and wait staff was ambiguous, used to have more friends and acquaintances who are gay or lesbian, and saw them more often. Here, at the cocktail party, the other attendees will also be parents; I suspect our lives (narrowed, if in different ways, and broadened tremendously too by those clinging, loved and loving additions) will be more similar than not. At least on the surface this must be true; but I am looking at things too simply.
But none of this is yet about coincidence, more about a remembering of youth, selves shed or integrated along the way. Something that must have occurred to me shortly after receiving that invitation, though I can’t have thought of it so fully right away.
A few days later, my husband was wanting a book to read and had settled on The Believers by Zoe Heller, which I had read and enjoyed two years ago, and so I found myself in the midst of the hustle of morning departures, pulling out stacks of old magazines and occasional sections of newspaper in search of the book. Like archaeological digging, he pointed out. For I knew just where The Believers should be and what books it should be near; I must that winter have been writing not enough and reading more. Alas, no book. (It later turned up at my in-laws. It turns out I hadn’t bought it for myself; I had borrowed it after giving it to my mother-in-law. Memory may have wished it as my own, thought of myself as possessing it, having read it, but no. Memory has desires and needs too.) Anyway, what came down, tumbling in chaos onto the bed, where it lay until kids and husband were dispatched and I had returned, was an old Times Style Section, including the Modern Love column, a piece I always mean to read, but rarely get to.
Never mind that this one was from September, it was new to me, and the title, “The Anatomy of a Breakup,” by Gili Warsett sounded intriguing enough to at least begin to read. And then here came a story of a young woman in a lesbian relationship going through her girlfriend’s gender transformation from woman to man. Shifts in identity, removal of breasts, testosterone. Gili Warsett described her loyalty, her love, and then her confusion as the relationship changed. Though I am giving away too much here, do go and read the article; it is beautiful and moving, and I found myself close to tears by the end. The relationship did not survive; and perhaps it wouldn’t have even with far fewer pressures, as so many loves of our twenties do not. But Ms. Warsett probed so honestly the questions she posed to herself, first as she found peace and comfort in being mistaken for a straight couple, and then ultimately as she entered into a straight relationship. She wanted to escape the fraught questions that had entered her life; she knows she is leaving something behind and is troubled by it. Her probings are a reminder of how quickly, how easily, we come to accept the world we live in as ‘the world.’ How easy it is, even, to think that identity-struggles, that homophobia, have diminished almost to the point of invisibility—because things are better, because many people are more tolerant…but really because we retreat into the easy limits of our own daily lives. Into what’s comfortable.
In the town where I grew up, the Confederate flag is pasted on pick-up trucks and still flies at the county fair. My mother and stepfather have friends who won’t go to that fair, who can’t, as a family, as a couple, because they are both men. How enlightened the town seemed to have become when I met them at the farmers’ market, when I saw their son playing, learned of hopes for a second child to join them. Yes, things had changed since my childhood, grown more open, and the outer world has come in—organic greens and coffee shops—but some of this is still the comfortable surface, easy on the eyes and brain. It frightens and saddens me to think about that fair, a place where my children can go, while others’ would be safer staying home. How comfortable is that?