You’re going about your business of waking every morning and checking Instagram, liking cute kangaroo videos and mumbling hello to your spouse. You’re brushing your teeth and massaging Retinol cream into your crow’s feet, making coffee and reading students’ literature reviews. You’re chopping zucchini and pulling laundry out of the dryer, reading novels and mumbling goodnight to your spouse, when a storyline from a movie creeps into your brain.
The movie is Friends with Money, and the story follows a protagonist, played by Francis McDormand, who declares one day following her 43rd birthday that she is done with washing her hair. At the time you saw the film, high on your horse of youth and fresh starts, you remembered thinking, well that makes no sense. Why would anyone be so averse to a simple, small ritual? But now, fifteen years, or 5,475 days deep into your own routine, it suddenly makes perfect sense. Why would that character want to partake in banal tasks that cannot, and will not, ever nourish her, let alone help her transcend her mid-life existence — which is all she and you, and probably anyone and everyone at any age, is really ever after.
But you wake up, and you wash your hair, because you’re not fucking gross.
Not long after, as you are winding a towel around your wet hair, your phone pings with the sound of Facebook Messenger and you roll your eyes in the mirror because you know who it is — and it has to stop. Also because disgust, like glumness, among other menopausal emotions, are easily accessible these days. Still, you wonder if today will be the day you finally tell Cousin Patty to stop already with the chain emails about gathering eight friends at some nonsense virtual table. Why does she keep doing this, anyway? And more curiously, at what point did your older cousin crossover from the cool, hip, edgy person you remember to an annoying, presumptuous, kitten-t-shirt-wearing, chain-email sender?
And is that crossover inevitable for us all?
Pondering that rhetorical question, you decide to exercise pity, and simply delete her request, when you open the app to find instead a note from some man named Jay.
Hi Heather. How are you today?
The eye roll reserved for Cousin Patty comes as easily for Jay, whose friend request you apparently accepted some time ago — perhaps back when you believed accepting friend requests could help you market your writing? You have since learned that many, or most of these “friends” do not care about your writing, particularly men like Jay who mistake Facebook for a dating site, and not what nature intended it for: a way to destroy friendships over political views. Not to mention, this Jay person could have saved himself time, by checking the basics of your profile, starting with your married relationship status.
As with Cousin Patty, with guys like Jay, you decide, ignoring them is the best course of action — just as soon as you give his profile that basic glance social media exchanges dictate, and also examine every one of his posts and comments on his posts, scrolling down to 2006 when he joined and posted a picture of a beach sunset.
Which happens to be an interesting, artistic shot.
He pings again: We have a lot in common.
No we don’t, you scoff, while a familiar yet unidentifiable feeling flutters inside, and you find yourself drawn in.
Is it his extraordinarily green eyes? Or his Luke-Stanfield-meets-Harry-Styles look — which is to say, young. Too young, by at least decade and a half. Here is when you come to learn an important fact about yourself: if being a potential cheater seems distasteful, being a potential cougar-cheater seems outright cringey.
So you shut your phone, throw some ingredients into a crockpot, and vacuum.
The man doesn’t give up. The next day, he messages again. Hi, I would love to take you to dinner. And again the following day: please say yes?
And that feeling? Yes, it is there. And no, you still cannot name it. But you do realize, right then in your bathroom, setting down your toothbrush, how much you have been undervaluing the trait of tenacity. Wherever did this Jay person learn it? To glean a clue — and also to be absolutely done — you take one last look see at those landscape shots encased in the portrait circle border he is so oddly fond of when he pings through:
You drop your phone on the counter, then scramble to pick it up and exit Facebook to make that telltale green “live” circle disappear, but not before Jay adds:
You’re so cute.
Well, look, the man has a point, your reflection decides in the mirror, as the corners of your mouth upturn, creasing your marionette lines. The Retinol may be doing little, but so what? You still have currency. Especially if this Jay person did scroll through your old posts, and say, found that Halloween in 2015 when you were dressed as a sexy witch.
You slick devil, you, Jay. You chuckle inwardly, feeling a lightness you have not felt in some time. #Metoo insists you resist this — a hashtag you’ve liked and piled on to. But the truth? You used to resist it more. No one needed to curb you from catcalling right back to those construction workers when you strode past their sites. You think that really works? Think I will stop right here on the street and fall in love? You used to burn up over this.
Until they stopped catcalling. And your gray roots and soft-clam elbow skin made you feel invisible. A taboo admission?
“Are you done with that?”
Your spouse points to a tube of Crest.
“Here,” you offer, nonchalantly, feeling not the least bit guilty, considering one, you have not responded to Jay, you have simply observed; and two, this is one of those private moments you are allowed in a marriage of fifteen loyal years, not only because we are all primal human beings at our core, beneath all the exhausting titles we embody like wife, mother, sister, daughter, friend, caretaker, and sexy witch, but because three, you still plan to remain loyal, and to employ logic over carnality, as it’s not worth the heartache and trouble to act on any temptation.
But gloating and floating is not acting, which is why you continue to ignore, but also enjoy Jay as you resume brushing and cleaning and working and cooking and wiping and sleeping and waking, the lightness in your step buoying you higher and higher, until you are hovering almost above yourself — if you can bring yourself to admit how wacky that sounds. You can and you do, which is when the nameless feeling forms into an understanding:
The transcendence comes simply from the knowledge that there is a secret admirer who can see you for you: the person beneath all the titles and daily routines, maybe the person before them.
It’s true as you happily drift along, admired, appreciated, and seen, in the coming weeks and months, and the pings continue (hi… are you there… I really would love to take you out?… Pleeease), a part of you feels incrementally bad for Jay in this one-sided exchange. But you reason that perhaps the Jays of the world — or maybe just your Jay — needs this for his own exaltation: the pursuit of the unattainable. Maybe that’s the way it is. The Jays need the Heathers of the world, and the Heathers the Jays.
Alas, it is in this space of acceptance that you decide one evening over the phone to share your story with a dear friend, stuck in her own rut of routines and midlife titles. A friend who happens to be a computer engineer, and believes less in your fantastical outlook than in coding and programming. And she says what your reader has probably gleaned from the start of this story.
“Well, he’s obviously a bot.”
“Wait, what?” You set down your coffee cup, the air growing heavy, because one, you are denser than your reader, and two, in the months that have passed, a pandemic has hit, the routine has intensified into a Groundhog Day existence, and on top of feeling invisible, you are now wearing a mask. “But that can’t be… I mean, what would even be the point of programming a bot to do something like this?”
“I don’t know.” Your savvy friend laughs. “It’s the fucking internet. Why does anyone do anything? Phishing, identity theft…”
And like that, with the realization your friend is right, you plunge from your cloud. The thud of embarrassment and dopiness is instantaneous, but the aftereffect of what you can only describe as sadness takes time to sink in.
Mourning the loss of your admirer, you delete Jay — or some Russian programmer’s depiction of Jay — and return to tooth-brushing and alarm-setting, now and then forgoing washing your hair, and begging of your reflection in the mirror: but what other way will there ever be to transcend your existence? If all there will ever be are titles and routines and monogamy and invisibility, how are we to keep going?
The questions remain for a few weeks, when one night a familiar ping snaps you out of it.
She wants to show her love for all the special ladies in her life, with a chain email she hopes you will pass on.
Friends are like balloons. One you let them go, you can’t get them
back. So I’m gonna tie you to my heart and never lose you…
You order your kitten-t shirt from catfancy.com, tag ten friends, and hit send.
*This piece appeared in Paris Lit Up Issue 8 and is posted here with permission of the magazine. To learn more and support this wonderful publication, check out: PLU 8 ezine — Paris Lit Up