Feature: Of Essays and Exes
By Kelly Kathleen Ferguson
We all know “you can’t go home again,” but what does it mean to long for a place we’ve never inhabited, to love that idea so much that it feels like the beginning of a relationship? And what does it mean to finally admit defeat and break up with that ideal?
Megan Daum, in “My Misspent Youth,” writes of her infatuation with—and split from—New York City, and her long-cherished imagination of the life she would lead there. Daum begins by recounting a time in high school when she first saw a couple’s artsy, romantic Upper West Side apartment. From that moment she was driven by an “unwavering determination to live in a pre-war, oak-floored apartment on or at least in the immediate vicinity of 104th Street and West End Avenue.” Daum goes on to detail how this obsession influenced every major decision of her late teens and twenties, until she discovers—as in most relationships—there’s no escaping money trouble.
Daum’s dream—and oh, how I relate—was that she could shift herself from middle class to artsy middle class, as defined by the cocktail party scene in Hannah and Her Sisters. Like Daum, I grew up in the suburbs—world of Spam and plaid sofas. Then Mia Farrow’s apartment came along on the big screen (and it was her actual apartment). The wine swirling! The faded Persian rugs! The debates over Swedish film! I remember craving that same cocktail party the way I used to sit in my laminate closet and pray for Narnia. My baby-boomer parents lectured me on gratitude, but I didn’t understand why they’d worked so hard for such a boring life. Surely there was more to the world than meatball shrubs and collectible spoons. Surely falling in love with, and pursuing an ideal would bring me a life like Mia’s.
Daum writes that encountering the idea of New York made her want to move on quickly from her own boring upbringing. “Like a lover to whom you suddenly turn one morning and feel nothing but loathing, my relationship to my suburban town went [. . .] from indifference to abhorrence.” With this line, she sets up the romantic metaphor—her attachment to New York is a relationship—and the rest of the essay shows her falling in love, and then out of it.
A potential pitfall of writing about desire is that the reader might not care about your Big Lost Love, especially if your breakup story is, essentially, a story of privilege. Daum and I were both in a secure-enough place to dream about an ideal, and while she went in debt to follow her New York passion, she wasn’t homeless. She wasn’t even Patti Smith, splitting a bean for dinner with Robert Mapplethorpe at the Chelsea Hotel. No one has to live on the Upper West Side, and art poor is different from poverty. (As a friend of mine who grew up with various rusted vehicles in the yard once said, “Real poor is when you got no one to ask.”) So this essay isn’t exactly a melodramatic tear-jerker. But it does show how much Daum invested in her relationship with New York, and we can feel some of her disillusionment and loss. Still, that’s not usually enough to keep a reader hooked, so when Daum’s dalliance with New York (predictably) fails for financial reasons, what’s her trick for keeping readers on board with her tale of artsy heartbreak?
One secret is that she doesn’t overplay her hand. Her tone is wry observation, not bitter complaint. She admits that her Vassar degree gave her a sense of entitlement that warped her worldview—for both good and bad—and she helps us understand how a young woman with talent, elbow grease, and a few connections, could carve a niche for herself, and fall for the Big Apple. “I didn’t want to be rich,” Daum explains, “I just wanted to live in New York and be a writer.”
Daum goes on to confess each and every one of her financial foibles, from large (taking out loans for an MFA at Columbia) to small (a $60 dollar blender). And while she doesn’t say she went “broke,” she takes us through the steps of how her relationship with a place dragged on her. And really, doesn’t every big breakup come down to the allocation of assets? Daum, as if she had been subpoenaed, gives us the numbers: student loans, taxes, adjunct income, rent. The running spreadsheet—the red, the black—becomes the plot, the clock of the essay, showing that money was the reason for eventually dumping NYC.
Most importantly, Daum keeps in mind that breakups, like dreams, are generally only interesting if they are ours. And so she adheres to the Guidelines for Not Boring Your Friends with Stories About Your Ex:
1) Provide specific details (no “Vaguebooking”).
2) Don’t be self-pitying.
3) Help us understand why you fell in love in the first place.
4) Tell us a self-deprecating story or two.
5) Provide a conclusion and a next step (i.e., we understand that you’ve moved on).
Having done all of the above, Daum admits that she hung on to the relationship with New York even as she knew it was doomed to fail. The time comes when she realizes that not only can she not afford her Upper West side apartment, but rents have driven out the people who made her want to live there in the first place. She’s chasing a ghost, The Ghost of Mia Farrow’s Apartment Past. Time to move. As it turns out, there are plenty of places (with affordable rent) where one can have an apartment with wood floors and faded Persian rugs stained by swirled red wine, such as Lincoln, Nebraska—where Daum decides to move.
“Had I known that before,” Daum says, “I might have skipped out on this New York thing altogether and spared myself the financial and psychological ordeal.”
Although maybe this is where we call Daum out. Did she really not know? She’s admitted (elsewhere) that “My Misspent Youth” is an homage to Joan Didion’s famous essay about leaving New York, “Goodbye to All That”—published two years before Daum was born. But then again, we could quote Didion by way of reply: “One of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before.”
No essayistic tale of romantic woe, then, not even Didion’s, can prepare us for our own sense of hope, followed by our own sense of letdown.
When relationships fail, people often say they were more in love with the idea of the person than the person. Moving on requires a paradigm shift, a letting go of that idea. Which is fine. Good even. Or great! But just because a love fades, that doesn’t mean the experience was a failure. The trick is in letting go with grace, and maybe even with some gratitude. In “My Misspent Youth,” Daum shows us how—in a breakup, and in a breakup essay—while it’s good to be kind, it’s even better to be honest.
Kelly K. Ferguson is the author of My Life as Laura Ingalls Wilder (Press 53). Her work has appeared in The Cincinnati Review, New England Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and other journals. In the past ten years she has moved from southern Louisiana to southern Ohio to southern Louisiana to southern Utah to southern Ohio, where she is an Assistant Professor of Journalism at Ohio University.
Originally published in NOR 22.