thoughts you have on big walks through central park while listening to nora ephron audiobooks
"this is about the person who got hit by the bus. it is not about the bus."
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okay great intro carrie very encouraging! very welcoming to readers about to get another fucking essay about big walk thoughts that they did not ask for!
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The blue nights are here to tell us that summer is beginning to fade. The longest day of the year has come and gone and taken the dazzling orange sherbet sunsets of June and early July with it. In the evenings now, the sky is holding a shade of blue I’m sure would look great as a pair of jeans—deep and rich, blue but not blue blue, undercut with a hint of grey—that only ever occurs somewhere in late summer’s elongated liminal space between day and night. I’m walking through Central Park, cutting across at the reservoir, going against the signed direction of traffic even though I hate when other people do that, and when Nora Ephron says “Whenever someone says the words ‘Our friendship is more important than this,’ watch out, because it almost never is,” I draw in a sharp breath and stop in my tracks. I’ve been listening to Nora Ephron audiobooks for a week straight now; I should know well enough how to manage my reactions to her musings in ways that don’t inconvenience others, ways that don’t draw attention to myself, but I still somehow find myself bowled over by even the most simple of remarks.
I’ve found myself looking to Nora Ephron a lot this year, especially this summer, returning to her books and essays, playing her films and old interviews on YouTube on repeat, either in desperate search of an explanation or a desperate need of reassurance. Nora was so unfaltering, so set in her opinions about the way the world should operate but very often doesn’t, and her works are like big hugs; even when they’re catty or mean, they still feel comforting. In Nora Ephron’s world, it seemed as if every problem had, if a not a solution, then at least the promise that it could be spun into a funny story.
The first thought I had when my best friend revealed, without remorse, that she had been sleeping with a mutual friend, whom she knew I had long harbored feelings for, behind my back and lying to me about it was: “How could she?”
My second thought was: “At least I won’t have to pretend to think his movie looks good anymore.”
When Nora’s life famously fell apart, it took her six months to find the funny. Not to get too competitive about it, but when mine fell apart, it took me about six minutes to start cracking jokes. Maybe six months from now I will feel differently, maybe I’ll even be able to write something far funnier than this about it, but in the immediacy of it, the only way I could survive was to put my head down and charge through it, and the only way I could do that was if I laughed first. I mean, what else are you supposed to do when a man tells you he doesn’t want to ruin your friendship by acting on his feelings for you, only to act on them with your other friend instead? You have to admit that’s kind of funny.
I don’t recommend moving twice in the span of four months, much less giving yourself less than two weeks to do it the second time. But I had to find funny the way I looked, hunched over under the weight of Ikea bags I shuttled from one place to another in Ubers, the blue vinyl straining to hold a haphazard assortment of belongings that just months before had been transported by professionals in meticulously organized boxes. I had to find funny going all the way to East Harlem for a U-Haul I had reserved online, only to be told by the man behind the counter, between huffs from a bottle of rubbing alcohol, that they had no vehicles in stock that day. I had to find funny that nothing was going according to plan.
This was not the way things were supposed to work, I thought, and then I laughed. How could I have been so stupid, I thought. I’ve lived my entire life guided by the belief that the moment I let my guard down, the other shoe would drop. I should have known that things were too good, that too many loose ends had tied themselves up in my favor. Life was returning to normal after an unspeakably brutal year, and I felt happy, happy in that way where one day you’re walking around town minding your own business when suddenly you notice that you’re not sad anymore. Or maybe you’re not sad—maybe you were never sad so much as stuck—so much as you feel truly content with your life, and the things that used to keep you up at night no longer upset you so much. The past year has been proof enough that “this is going to be my year” is a cursed statement, but I thought it anyway. I had never felt so sure of it. I stopped looking up. The shoe dropped.
Of course the shoe dropped. The shoe is always going to drop; it cannot stay in the air forever and you cannot plan for when it will come down. There was no new learning there, just a reminder of what I had foolishly forgotten. What I learned instead was that it doesn’t matter whether or not the shoe drops, what matters is how we choose to react when it does. What I learned instead was that you shouldn’t ignore the signs that something is souring until it is fully rotted. What I learned instead was that I was never the supporting character in the fascinating story of someone else’s life. I was the main character of my own story all along.
But what I was not expecting to learn was that, once the dust settled and the shock wore off, I would get lonely. Not lonely lonely; I made more social plans than ever before, and besides, I have always been good—maybe too good—with my own company. Lonely in a sense that I could now pass an entire day without having a speaking conversation with someone. Lonely in the sense that I was aware of the absence of someone else in the house, someone in a room just down the hall if I needed, or on the other side of the couch. Lonely in the sense that I had come into this newfound loneliness by surprise, and was left with a phantom limb while trying to get my sea legs. Nora was right that a building could rescue you at your lowest moment, but she didn’t mention this.
There’s a meme that goes around every so often that, at its core, is about the fear of abandonment. “Not to be annoying, but could you please confirm that you still like me and have not decided to randomly hate me,” one version of it says. It’s funny because it’s a fear many of us have had, but it’s irrational, implausible, exaggerated. Our friends and loved ones do not simply decide one day to not only no longer like us, but to actively hate us instead. But it’s stickier than that. People may not choose to randomly hate you, but they can choose to not respect you. They can choose to love themselves more. “I’m afraid I care more about other people than they do about me,” I said often to my friend. “I’m afraid if I let anyone get close, they will hurt me.” She always told me it wasn’t true. Then she proved me right.
It’s a few Tuesdays later in July and I am downtown drinking with my friend Carlos when I tell him that this is one of the first nights in several that I have not gone for a walk with Nora.
For years I had considered myself an Ephron completist; I thought I knew all there was to know, thought I had reached the bottom of the finite content pool and had to make due with what I had, even though I selfishly wanted more. This summer, when the internet developed a brief fixation on the joys of Meryl Streep’s narration of Heartburn so intense it landed a New Yorker write-up, I discovered I had a blind spot: the audiobooks.
I started with the much buzzed-about Heartburn, downloading it to my phone on a whim one night as I headed out on a big walk. “I highly recommend having Meryl Streep play you,” Nora once joked. “She plays all of us better than we play ourselves.” And look, sure, people were right—Meryl doing Heartburn was good! Who knew! But I didn’t want Meryl-as-Nora, good as she may be. I wanted the real deal, wanted Nora’s deadpan, her dry drawl that made every comment exist on some spectrum of slightly to incredibly withering, whether or not it was intended to be. I moved on, downloaded her final two essay collections—2006’s I Feel Bad About My Neck and 2010’s I Remember Nothing—and fell into a new routine.
I tell Carlos how after work every night, I walk loops around Central Park and listen to Nora tell stories I have read before, stories I’ve heard before—sometimes as recently as just the day before. Sometimes I laugh out loud. Sometimes I blink back tears, while others I openly gasp at a simple insight I might have skimmed over on the page but cannot ignore when Nora gives it to me straight. Nora became the perfect company to fill up the empty end of the day. The pieces I love most as a reader— “Journalism: A Love Story,” “My Life as an Heiress,” “Moving On,” “The Story of My Life in 3,500 Words or Less,” “Considering the Alternative”—take on a new life. They’re more somber than I remembered them being, a little world weary, even when they all have moments of levity and an undercurrent of optimism.
Going on big walks with Nora, I explain to Carlos, is the closest I feel like I’ll ever be to, well, walking with Nora. As she tells a funny story straight into my ear, I can imagine that she’s right next to me, or maybe across from me at lunch, leaning in conspiratorially to say something biting and shrewd. It’s only in moments where I want to open my mouth and ask a question or reply to something she just said that I remember the conversation exists only in my headphones, only in my brain. None of what I just heard was shared directly with me; it wasn’t a conversation, it was a performance. This relationship is entirely one-sided, and will never be real.
But would real be any better? Carlos muses that maybe it wouldn’t be, that there’s something nice about how some relationships with our heroes are left only to be fantasies, imaginary friends for people old enough to have long since abandoned them. In this imaginary world, there are no stakes. We never have to worry about fucking it up, about being too needy, too grating, too unlikeable, about saying the wrong thing. And we will never have to engage with the rougher edges of the other person, the messy parts that make them a human capable of hurting us just like anybody else.
I turned 30 this spring, a milestone that feels both unimaginable and somehow right at the same time. I spent so much of my twenties waiting and wishing desperately for someone to take me under their wing, someone to tell me the things I’m supposed to know. I wanted someone who could make being known not such a mortifying ordeal after all, because I wanted so badly to be seen, really seen, by someone who knew enough that I could trust them when they told me it wouldn’t always be like this. I wanted someone to point me in the right direction to become whoever it is I’m supposed to become, and shape me into that person through their seemingly infinite wisdom, experience, and humor. I wanted someone to give me the answers and tell me all the secrets that I was sure everyone else possessed.
But no one has all the answers, and thinking they do—and hoping they could give them to you—is the idealistic wish of someone impossibly young, or younger than I now feel, at least. At some point in the recent past, I felt like maybe I was doing okay enough on my own to no longer need that, though that didn’t stop me from still thinking of Nora as a reliable constant to be turned to in the moments I still felt like I was floundering a little. Maybe not everyone has all the answers, but Nora seemed to. She was always so sure of herself, so decisive, so absolutely certain of life, I thought, possessing a fix for any problem you had. But there’s a moment in the final piece of I Feel Bad About My Neck that suggests otherwise.
“Considering the Alternative” is a tough essay to read, a meditation on aging and mortality, a gently prodding look at how we must face not only our own deaths as we grow older, but the deaths of our friends, and of so many things, for we are dying a little bit every day. It isn’t as funny as her other better-known work, and even though it determinedly ends softly on the bright side, it is still greatly lacking in the hopeful-in-spite-of-it-all tone that we’ve come to expect. It’s an even more difficult listen; there’s no room to gloss over the emotion in her voice, or the knowledge that it was written and recorded at a time when she knew her mortality was no longer a hypothetical but a given. Near the end of it, she shows her hand:
“What is to be done?” she asks. “I don’t know. I hope that’s clear.” It’s a small moment, one that is easy to speed past in reading but in listening packs an entirely different punch. Her voice is a resigned sigh, a wistful admission. She lingers in the uncertainty, lets you really know that after all that questioning, all that ruminating, she still isn’t sure she has any answer. She’s just as human as the rest of us. When we deify people like Nora Ephron, it’s sometimes easy to forget that.
I could listen to her dole out assured advice in “What I Wish I’d Known” over and over—wasn’t that what I had often turned to her for, anyway?—but “Considering the Alternative” kept drawing me back in with its somber not-knowing. Sometimes what you want is for someone to tell you everything will be okay, complete with a five point plan showing how, but sometimes what you need is someone acknowledging the very real truth of the matter. There are some things in life we simply cannot fix, cannot plan or negotiate or quip our way out of. Not everything gets to be a funny story. Sometimes all we can do is admit that shit sucks, and try our best to keep moving until the tide turns again.
It’s August now. I hope the people who hurt me know that they hurt me, but I do not wish them ill. I hope they are both happy, and safe, and making the most of their summer together. Someone new is now living in my old bedroom. I commented “I hope you like it!” on their Venmo payment for my share of the deposit and I meant it. It was a good room, but I do not miss it. I am no longer expecting an apology.
It’s August now and I am by myself and I feel okay. I feel good, maybe even great, like I’ve finally exhaled a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding. It’s August and we should be in bad summer now, but somehow it seems like good summer is only now starting. For months, it’s been grey skies and thunderstorms, thick listless air draped over everything like a weighted blanket impossible to climb out from under. But these past few days have been nothing but clear skies and sun, cool breezes rolling through idyllic temperatures, the imagined platonic ideal of summer days.
The blue nights are already beginning to turn, not yet consistently bursting into end of summer sorbet sunsets but working their way up to it. On another park walk, I stop and take a photo of the dusty lilac sky above the lake, grey clouds hanging so low I swear someone with long arms standing on Bow Bridge could reach out and touch them, but when I stare at the final result on my phone, it doesn’t compare. No filter or edit does the real thing justice. In my ear, Nora says: “‘We can’t do everything.’ I have been given the secret of life. Although it’s probably a little late.” I think I know what she means.
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