I’M LUCKY THAT I had this revelation at Balthazar, sitting down to dinner at eleven, with the most desirable of company, sparkling, silk pooling around my ankles, tucking into a veal chop (the daily special, and thus, always to me, fate) as I said, with sincerity a straight shot from the heart, “Do you ever feel wistful for a life you’ve never known?”
What I meant by that is, I’m happy to go to parties, I’m happy to do my job, I’m happy to work in a field so closely aligned with my passions, there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t scheme how to manifest my gratitude in the lives of those slightly less at ease. Somewhere though, deep down in my soul, the craving in me grows for a quiet life.
If everything else ended what would you do? I don’t really have a home to go to, my parents split up when I was young and, ever since I left for New York in the middle of the night at 17, the place they lived was not something I’d go back to, and anyway, those houses are gone. I guess I’d start over in a small town and learn a practical skill far from the arts.
I’ve lived in Manhattan for a decade, and’ve always said that I can’t imagine myself anywhere else, and when I do, I’ll move there. I’d like to live in London but can’t imagine how I’d muster the fortune that would be required for me to permanently relocate, at least in the style to which I’ve become accustomed during my stints in St. James’s.
When I long for wisdom, I tend to pick up a biography, most often about a woman. Biographies of men tend to offer intimate revelations –– surprise, he slept with his housekeeper –– whereas biographies of women tend to explode from the page, each story tracked down by a passionate teller determined to regain the grip on a lost thread.
Of course I love stories about heiresses. They have the most money, and hence exquisite things, and they tend to have the least love, lending the reader the fabulous assurance that if trusted with such a fortune, one would find a confident balance between feasts, jewels, lovers and abiding companions. I can remember few details of the life of Singer sewing machine heiress Daisy Fellowes, although I’ve never forgotten the sight of her cuff bracelets. Same with Millicent Rogers and the Tiffany gold toothpick I’ve only read about. She also supposedly had her Georgetown housekey cast for toy-boy Roald Dahl, said to have “slept with everybody on the East and West Coasts that had more than fifty thousand dollars a year,” in The Irregulars. Baby, whatever gets you through the night.
Given myriad chances, though, I’ve always chosen something less than money, I guess, from the perspective of the one offering it. I’d rather have my freedom, my untethered, unmarred days. Still, an enormous amount of dedication is required to patch together a living, and it occurred to me this week that there is a direct correlation with how long it’s been since I’ve taken a vacation and how long since I’ve dated anyone. Years, so many that sometimes it seems pointless to reach for a two-week break, or a person.
Then I remember all the years I told myself that I’d take a sabbatical the “year after next year,” and the year that dawned when I finally realized I was supposed to take it off two years ago. And that I hadn’t, and that I probably never would. I remember once being in a snowstorm, on a major highway, slipping on ice. I was in the front passenger seat, and the driver had totally lost control. The car spun several times before landing in a ditch, and that was a best-case guarantee I wouldn’t have hoped for while we rotated around and around across the slick sheet of pavement, as the headlights of oncoming traffic passed through the windshield and we turned again, the darkness more terrifying than the light.
Everyone quotes that Mary Oliver line. You know the one from “The Summer Day.” I think of it, too, and more often, I meditate on the phrase that comes just before it:
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
And then there it is:
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
You’re already doing it. Aren’t you?
Or perhaps, in more earthly terms, Catullus summed it up thousands of years ago:
…you ask how many kisses of yours
would be enough and more to satisfy me.
…as many as the stars, when night is still,
gazing down on secret human desire.
I must practice, with all the days that I have; I will improve the way I pass the time.