When I’m struggling to get something done, or when I have to make a tough phone call, or when I need to do/be/sound better than feel, I just pretend I’m someone else.
Now, I don’t go by a different name or anything. I don’t misrepresent who I am. That would be super weird. This is an internal thing I do, an inner monologue type situation. When faced with something I feel powerless to do — and you better believe sometimes that’s just like, getting out of the house and being a person in the world — I say to myself, often out loud:
“Well, I can’t do this. So I’m just going to pretend I’m a woman who can.”
Sometimes I pretend I’m a Katherine Hepburn type or a Madonna type. It’s not that I’m doing an impression or that I would trust Madonna’s judgement in all things. It’s that I need to channel a woman who seems like she would not be afraid of X, Y, or Z.
Shoes help me here, too.
If I am feeling weak, feeling sunk, it helps me every time if I put on a pair of smart shoes. I’ll brush the dirt off my shoulders (metaphorical dirt, usually, but you never know), buckle myself into a snappy shoe, and bing. Something changes. Suddenly, my feet are stronger, more … accounted for, strangely? Yes, I become more accounted for, somehow, on the Earth. And this makes me better able to pretend to be someone else who can do all the things I can’t.
It’s then that I can walk out the door. And wonder of wonders, the woman I’m pretending to be?
When I was new in Chicago — this is fifteen years ago, now — a friend of mine helped me get a job as a hostess at a downtown restaurant. The restaurant was a citywide chain so popular, Saturday night at the host stand felt straight-up dangerous. Elbows were thrown. Twenty-dollar bills were passed to the maitre-d’ for special treatment (woe betide the tipper if the guy from out of town waiting three hours already spied the exchange.) Wine was sloshed. It was loud. And it was an hour commute on the train from my tiny apartment in the middle of nowhere.
I had learned to eat well in college. I worked as a waitress at a cafe there in Iowa City and got my culinary education — and dating the head chef for most of that time meant I got, you know, tutoring help and stuff. By the time I got to Chicago, I actually knew a little about wine. I could make a pan sauce all by myself. This small-town girl not only knew what sweetbreads were, she would order them if she found them on a menu. Aside from the occupational hazards, being a hostess just felt wrong. I was in a restaurant but not doing what I could do. I knew a restaurant job was what I would have for awhile, but the role and the restaurant had to change.
There was an ad in the Chicago Reader for a waiter at a two-star (Michelin stars, that is) restaurant on Taylor Street. Let’s call it The Fancy Napkin. This place was gorgeous: an upscale French bistro owned by a Moroccan man who looked like a swarthy James Bond. The cafe sat sixty, tops, outfitted in impeccable white linen; the waiters wore impeccable white bistro aprons. Each wine glass was spotless and the lights from the chandeliers glinted off them all. Steaming bowls of boulliabaisse. Crusty baguettes. And if you wanted to spend north of a grand on a bottle of wine, the restaurant would be happy to help you do that.
I applied. There were no female waiters, just three dudes, one of whom had been there over ten years. I had to take a wine test. I had to answer serious menu questions. I forget what the owner asked me, but it would’ve been things like, “What is canard? What is mille-feuille? Pair wine with the caviar plate for me.” I got an hour with the menu and then had a quiz. I did very well on everything and the owner offered me the job. But I had a problem.
The theater company I was a part of was producing our first show. I had a small part in the second act. There was zero money. And I had rehearsals at night. As a hostess at the chain restaurant, I could be in the play: I’d just work the lunch shifts. But not at The Fancy Napkin — there was only dinner six nights a week. I told James Bond I would be thrilled to take the job and then gently broached the little matter of needing Wednesdays and Thursdays off for awhile, then swapping those out for the Friday and Saturday nights I’d need for the play. But not for long! Just four weeks or so? Sir?
This did not go well. After expressing his extreme displeasure over taking so much time to vet me, he told me something I will never forget: “Marie, you can be a poor artist. Or you can make a lot of money at this restaurant. But you can’t do both. Decide now. Do you want to be poor and in a little play? Or do you want to live?” I was speechless. I needed money. But the play. Theater was the reason I came to Chicago. But money. But art. But rent. But love. Oh, no, no, no. I was twenty-two years old.
So you know what I did? I took a walk around the block. Someone had told me once that if you have to make a big decision, take a walk around the block and say to yourself firmly, “By the time I get back to where I started, I will have my decision.” It works. You speed up the decision-making process. You get closer to the end of your loop and you’re still in a quandary and then bam! The solution presents itself. The whole way around the block, walking slowly, I didn’t know what to do. But when I got to the door, I did.
I heard a parable once that stuck to me like bubblegum on my high heels. It’s one you may have heard yourself — you’ll recognize it at once if you have — and if you haven’t, do enjoy the stickiness. This is my retelling, which I’m sure is clear.
There once was a farmer who had a single horse with which to work his land. One day, the horse ran away. “That is terrible news!” said his concerned neighbor. The farmer shrugged and said, “Who’s to say what is good and what is bad?” The neighbor probably looked at him like he was weird. He was kind of weird, but that has nothing to do with the story.
The horse came back the very next day and brought another horse with him! Very good news, no? Maybe, maybe not. Because the farmer gave the second horse to his strapping son and the next day, the horse threw the young man off and he broke his leg in like nine places. The (nosy) concerned neighbor said, “Ooh! Now that is bad news!” but the farmer put up his hands and said, “Who’s to say what is good and what is bad?” Now the neighbor was like, “See ya,” and he didn’t take over a hot dish to the son, who was convalescing.
In a week or so, the king’s men — because we are in Arthurian England, suddenly — came to take every able-bodied man to war. They didn’t take the farmer’s son, clearly, because he was useless to them with the broken leg.
Good news, no?
I think about this story so much. Because again and again and again in my life, I see this playing out. When I moved away to college, I was sad and afraid. But then, you know, college was awesome. I got a job in a nightclub when I was twenty-two and thought, “Boo-yah!” but it was terrible after awhile. I was so excited to move to New York City last year and then it turned so sour. And I was incredibly sad and disappointed when I had to relinquish my lovely D.C. townhouse to the rat, rat, rats, but do you know that… Well, I’m so happy here. I love this building now. It’s cozy. It’s safer. The sun comes up over Washington D.C. in peachy pink and golden orange and I just feel so happy.
I’m not sure how anemia can be good, but who knows? The boy in the story who shattered his leg certainly didn’t think it was very good, but then he didn’t have to fight in a war. Maybe I’ll be spared a war.