new york, new york
The last thing my parents wanted to see before they left New York was a museum, so here we are at the Met. We did the whole museum in about forty-five minutes--they aren't exactly art collectors--and now we're up in the rooftop sculpture garden, and I'm taking a moment to watch the sun stain the green treetops orange in Central Park. It's just like a postcard.
I turn and see my father lumber over to a pop art sculpture, a metal garden spade fit for a giant, and rap his knuckle on it. I take off at a tasteful--well, as tasteful as I can manage in my new strappy sandals--sprint to try to stop him. He rubs his hand over the textured paint job, scratching the metal with his fingernail, manhandling the thing. It's too late. Two museum security guards in blue blazers beat me to him.
"Sir, do not touch the sculpture," the shorter one barks.
I am at my father's side in an instant. He looks at me, wounded and confused, and then back at the men.
"This is the only warning you'll get, sir. Do not touch any of the art," the other one says.
"He didn't mean to, he . . ." I sputter, simultaneously embarrassed by and aching for my poor confused father.
"Sorry about that. It won't happen again," says a deep voice behind me. Uncle Matthew is striding quickly across the roof on his long legs, his brown hair mussing in the wind, his confident demeanor and calming intonation setting the guards at ease. "I'll make sure he behaves," he laughs, winking at them.
They look at each other and, wordlessly, turn away. They walk back to the other side of the roof, stepping with almost military precision. I imagine sticking out my leg to trip them, but I control myself.
I turn and shake my head at my father. I feel how hot my cheeks are, and I glance around to see how many people have noticed. Everyone is staring at us.
I thought it was bad when my parents started singing "Give My Regards to Broadway," in harmony, in Times Square, but this is far worse. We stick out like sore thumbs. The Clampett family in New York. Green Acres
all over again. Except that this isn't an old TV show. It's my actual nightmare come true. The Hinton family in New York.
"Daaad . . ." I whine a little. I can't help it. Please God. Please just let my family act normal. Oh please. I count in my head the number of hours until the Hinton family goes home, and Emily Hinton stays behind. Five. I can make it five hours. At least Uncle Matthew is here.
Mom comes up behind Dad and puts her hand on his shoulder. "Honey, Dad just wanted to see what it was made of. He wasn't going to hurt something as big as that." And then she turns around and with her third-grade teacher's voice belts out a warning to my twin brothers, who are currently across the rooftop garden trying to spit on the people below. God, just take me now, I say to myself. Take me now.
I always knew I'd get out of Jenks the first chance I got. Yes, Jenks, like jinx. It's a fitting name actually, like a curse. But technically the town is named after the man who founded it and has nothing to do with how you feel when you live there. Jenks, California. A regular old California suburb, with its regular old identical houses and regular old cars and regular old families. It's just north of La Jolla, the trendy suburb of San Diego with gated communities and a Banana Republic on every corner.
My parents are ex-hippies who "got saved" during the Jesus Movement. You'd never know it now, but they used to have long hair, trendy hip-hugging jeans, and weighed a combined total of 225 pounds. Now my mom's hair is a nondescript color, neither red nor brown, and she wears denim jumpers with wooden-bead necklaces. Essentially, she looks like every third-grade teacher in America. My father is your basic T-ball dad. He's got brown hair, a brown mustache, a barrel chest, and a basketball stuffed in his stomach. They're sweet and I love them, but they're definitely not New York. They're, well, Jenks, I guess.
I knew I wanted to live in New York ever since I saw When Harry Met Sally
during my Meg Ryan phase. (The Hinton Family Council, of which there are exactly two members, approves of the entirety of Meg Ryan's film work.) There Harry and Sally were on New Year's Eve at a glitzy party on the top floor of some gorgeous skyscraper reaching toward heaven, and I knew someday I'd be a well-heeled, clever, and sassy New York ing*nue myself. I'd find my Harry, and we'd buy a Christmas tree on the street and crunch, crunch, crunch our way back through the fresh snow to my apartment. That night I announced that I was moving to the "Big Apple." My father told me to remember to write.
I had originally thought college would be my chance to finally transplant myself to New York. By then my room was cluttered with fashion magazines and I had read every book about New York that I could get my hands on. I even had a poster of the skyline at night hung on my wall. Unlike my best friend, Jenna, who would probably end up teaching physical education just like her mother someday and only attended school to keep up with gossip, I got straight A's. My parents worried that I studied too much and always encouraged me to take up sports or join clubs. My mom even suggested I play the handbells with her at church, which was all fine and dandy if you were over forty or married or both, but not fine for a girl like me. I had different things in mind.
I knew my parents wanted to help send me to college, but they just couldn't. My dream had always been to go to NYU, to be right there in the heart of Greenwich Village. I felt in my bones that I would someday go to parties and mingle with art students and attend fashion shows and book signings. Everyone said I was a shoo-in with my grades and my test scores. Jenna and I were already planning her sightseeing visits, during which I planned to whack her over the head with a frying pan and drag her into A.P.C. in SoHo, the shopping capital of the world, and buy her some basics. And even though I needed a hefty scholarship to make it happen, I wanted to only apply to NYU.
At the last moment my mom forced me to apply to San Diego State University as my safety school. The possibility of my staying in Jenks seemed so absurd at the time that I didn't fight her on it too much. I had been saying I was moving to New York the first chance I got ever since anyone could remember.
When I got the letter from NYU saying I had been wait-listed, I didn't immediately lose hope, but the more I looked at the math with my guidance counselor, the clearer it became that it wasn't going to work out, even if I did get in. They allotted 85 percent of their scholarship money to non-wait-listed applicants. I was crushed. My parents tried to make me feel better, pointing out all the positives, but I was inconsolable. I actually began to pray that I didn't get in at all, just so that I wouldn't be tempted to take out loans that I would never be able to pay back. But I did get in. I got off the wait-list in late May. I just threw the giant manila envelope in the trash and never told my parents. By doing essentially nothing, I found myself attending classes that fall at San Diego State University. Go Aztecs.
If in high school I had wanted to get out of Jenks in some idle way, the way most teenagers dream of distant shores, then in my college years, it became an obsession. School was a breeze so I got a job in the dining hall to make extra money. It wasn't a glamorous job, but it paid well because no one else wanted to do it. I slaved away, saved every penny, and lost myself in books. And even though I loved Jenna and we'd been friends since second grade, I became obsessed with the people I knew who had gone away to college, not stayed at Jenks and attended SDSU. In particular, I was dying to see what those who left were wearing, saying, and reading. The Berkeley students were always the best. You could take an average girl from my high school, give her one year at Berkeley, and she would return the following summer to Jenks a fascinating person with her own sense of style. One girl came home wearing a dog collar. She somehow made the dog collar look like a Tiffany choker. But all the time, I was making plans. Plans to get out.
"Is there going to be food at this thing?" Jenna asked, staring at herself in the rearview mirror.
"I don't know. Maybe. Please don't stick your feet out the window." She pulled them in slowly. It was toward the end of our junior year of college, and I was getting excited about spending the summer reading. Jenna was getting excited about catching up on her TV and her surfing.
"So who is this guy we're going to see?" she asked.
"James Collins. My favorite contemporary poet. He's one of the best people writing today." I looked at her hopefully. "He's won all kinds of awards. And he's only in town one night, which he chose to spend at a book signing so people like you could be turned on to the world of literature," I said. She yawned.
"Don't you want to know something about this guy before you hear him speak? Come on. Please pretend to care a little. Just for me."
She looked at me sideways, pasted a fake smile onto her face, and said through unnaturally bared teeth, barely moving her lips, "Just for you!"
I sighed. She was hopeless. She had on a pair of acid-washed jeans, a Coca-Cola T-shirt, and a miserable kelly green and black checkered flannel shirt tied around her waist. I wondered if I could knock some fashion sense into her if I pelted her with Vogue
. Sometimes I swore she intentionally dressed cluelessly to get under my skin. Still, she had given up her evening and the season finale of The Bachelor
to come with me, and I knew she wouldn't find it at all exciting. I had to give her that.
We pulled into the parking lot of the Barnes & Noble in La Jolla and walked to the store. Stepping inside, I took a deep breath. It smelled delicious, divine--like paper, coffee, opportunities.
I led Jenna to the rows of chairs. We found seats in the back and waited for the presentation to start. The bulk of the audience was older than we were, though there were a few other student types, and they all seemed to be immaculately dressed. Several people had notebooks out, and almost all clutched a copy of Collins's book. I wish, I thought to myself, I could be around people who care about books all the time.
While Jenna fidgeted, I paged through my copy. When James Collins finally came out of the back room and was introduced by the manager of the Barnes & Noble, I was enraptured. He looked a little older than he had in his author photo, his hair grayer around the temples, but he looked dignified. As he stepped up to the microphone, I clapped politely, and Jenna put her fingers in her mouth and let out a loud whistle and clapped enthusiastically. I glared at her, and she shrugged, whispering, "Just for you."
I turned back to the front, and he started to read, his voice low and soothing, a poem about looking at the surface of the water from underneath. The rhythm and cadence of his words came to life as he read. My mouth was hanging open. Jenna was playing a game on her cell phone.
He read several poems, and then asked if anyone had any questions.
A woman in the front row asked where he found his ideas, enunciating every syllable carefully.
"From the world," he replied slowly. "From nature. From children. Music. Art. Democracy. My inspiration is life." He paused, letting us absorb what he said.
"What is he babbling about?" Jenna whispered in my ear. "He didn't say anything at all."
"Shh . . ." I hissed at her. I was trying to ponder the profundity of his statement. I was sure if I just thought about it, it would become clear.
"Who has the greatest influence on your work?" a guy about my age asked.
"Without a doubt, that would be my editor, Roger Cole," he said. "He understands my poems and shapes them more than I like to admit." He laughed. What power, I thought. "For his wisdom I am undeniably grateful." It had never occurred to me that someone did that; that someone made the artist's raw work into art. I was intrigued. How did one become an editor?
After the questions, almost the entire crowd got into line to have their books signed. I waited patiently, while Jenna hit the complimentary refreshment table. I watched her skip over the baked brie and crudites tray and go straight for the potato chips and sodas they set out in case any children came. I groaned inwardly. I looked around at my fellow poetry lovers. These people were educated. They cared about literature, and they saw beyond their own private world. Jenna, over there now browsing the fitness magazines, well . . . as much as I loved her, she was a part of the world I wanted to leave behind. These people represented what I wanted to grasp. "I need to get out of here," I said under my breath.
"And whom shall I make this one out to?" I heard. I turned quickly. James Collins was reaching to take my book from my hand, smiling.
"Emily," I stammered.
"Emily, what do you do?" he asked kindly, looking up at me. Does James Collins really care what I do? Probably not, but he did ask.
"I'm a student," I said.
"What do you want to do when you get out?"
"I want to . . . get out of here, I guess. I think I want to work with books." I didn't know. I wanted to get paid to read, to work with literature. "I want to . . . be an editor maybe?"
Excerpted from Emily Ever After by Anne Dayton and May Vanderbilt. Copyright © 2005 by Anne Dayton. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.