love and war

Elizabeth Wurtzel Confronts Her One-Night Stand of a Life

Photo: Andreas Laszlo Konrath/New York Magazine

I am so done with 2012. What a wretched year it was.

Last winter, I was living in the parlor floor of a nineteenth-century walk-up on Bleecker Street with thirteen-foot ceilings and two fireplaces and a tarp deck that stretched out like a backyard, with pottery planters of ferns and geraniums and a wood fence around it. Despite all the chipped paint and disrepair that approximated charm in the floor-through apartment, I would have been happy if the previous tenant, from whom I was subletting, had not turned into a stalker. From time to time, and I never knew when, she would buzz and bang on the door and finally barge in, using a spare key she kept, and yell epithets at me for twenty minutes at a time, for no apparent reason. I have boyfriends who have caught me in very compromised situations, and none has ever called me “a disgusting little whore,” which is the kind of thing this woman would scream in a variety of less appetizing ways, on and on. When I explained, calmly, because I have been told that is the best way to deal with a hysteric, that trespassing is against the law and she needed to leave, she would just harrumph, “You and your law!”

My friend Olivia had her own bad scene with the same woman a few years prior and had taken to calling her Hooker Maria—the best explanation she could come up with for her multilevel closets of Marc Jacobs dresses and Gucci shoes was an upscale outcall business. Olivia’s husband likes to keep things simple, so he would call her Crazy Hooker Maria. Olivia figured that Hooker Maria’s rage could be explained by her age: recently 50, and out of work.

I did not know what to do. I would call 911, but the police are not equipped to manage crazy women and could not understand why someone who was neither a rejected lover nor a cast-out roommate was behaving this way. They always sent pairs of very fat female cops. As soon as I opened the door, I knew it was hopeless.

“You remember the movie Single White Female?” I would try. They did not. They would ask if I wanted to file a complaint. I would look at the forms in white, pink, and yellow triplicate, all very 1986. I wondered if they were forgotten in an aluminum filing cabinet in the 6th Precinct or if they were folded into paper airplanes and flown into garbage bins with empty Styrofoam coffee cups and more of the same.

The final episode came in early April. After I changed the lock, Maria showed the police the lease and claimed I was keeping her out of her apartment; they let her in without investigating. They told me that if I kept her out again, they would arrest me and ordered me to give her the keys. “I am doing this because I hate you,” Maria said, after the cops had left. “I am going to slash up your face and ruin your life.”

In every movie about female sociopaths, the second-to-last scene involves law enforcement victimizing the victim; the end is murder or miraculous rescue. Not knowing which was likely, I grabbed my coat and my dog and ran outside to a nearby park and sat on a bench. It was so cold. It was that time of day, a couple of hours before dark, when the sun casts brilliant shadows, and the slabs of wood made stripes on the ground in front of me, which I stared at and cried.

It had all gone wrong. At long last, I had found myself vulnerable to the worst of New York City, because at 44 my life was not so different from the way it was at 24. Stubbornly and proudly, emphatically and pathetically, I had refused to grow up, and so I was becoming one of those people who refuses to grow up—one of the city’s Lost Boys. I was still subletting in Greenwich Village, instead of owning in Brooklyn Heights. I had loved everything about Yale Law School—especially the part where I graduated at 40—but I spent my life savings on an abiding interest, which is a lot to invest in curiosity. By never marrying, I ended up never divorcing, but I also failed to accumulate that brocade of civility and padlock of security—kids you do or don’t want, Tiffany silver you never use—that makes life complete. Convention serves a purpose: It gives life meaning, and without it, one is in a constant existential crisis. If you don’t have the imposition of family to remind you of what is at stake, something else will. I was alone in a lonely apartment with only a stalker to show for my accomplishments and my years.

I was amazed to discover that, according to The Atlantic, women still can’t have it all. Bah! Humbug! Women who have it all should try having nothing: I have no husband, no children, no real estate, no stocks, no bonds, no investments, no 401(k), no CDs, no IRAs, no emergency fund—I don’t even have a savings account. It’s not that I have not planned for the future; I have not planned for the present. I do have a royalty account, some decent skills, and, apparently, a lot of human capital. But because of choices I have made, wisely and idiotically, because I had principles or because I was crazy, I have no assets and no family. I have had the same friends since college, although as time has gone on, the daily nature of those relationships has changed, such that it is not daily at all. But then how many lost connections make up a life? There is my best friend from law school, too busy with her toddler; the people with whom I spent New Year’s in a Negril bungalow not so long ago, all lost to me now; every man who was the love of my life, just for today; roommates, officemates, classmates: For everyone who is near, there are others who are far gone.

Please understand: I live specifically, with intent. The intent is, I know now, not at all specific, except that I have no ability to compromise. Most people say that as a statement of principle, but in my case, it is about feeling trapped when I am doing something I don’t like, and it is probably more childish than anything else. I likely do the right things for the wrong reasons. But it has also meant that I have not disciplined myself into the kinds of commitments that make life beyond the wild of youth into a haven of calm. I am proud that I have never so much as kissed a man for any reason besides absolute desire, and I am more pleased that I only write what I feel like and it has been lucrative since I got out of college in 1989. I had the great and unexpected success of Prozac Nation in 1994, and that bought me freedom. And I have spent that freedom carelessly, and with great gratitude. Why would I do anything else? I did not expect, not ever, to be scared to death.

I was born with a mind that is compromised by preternatural unhappiness, and I might have died very young or done very little. Instead, I made a career out of my emotions. And now I am just quarreling with normal. I believe in true love and artistic integrity—the kinds of things that should be mentioned between quotation marks—as absolutely now as I did in ninth grade. But even I know that functional love includes a fair amount of falsity, or no one would get through morning coffee, and integrity is mostly a heroic excuse to avoid the negotiating table. But I can’t let go. I live in the chaos of adolescence, even wearing the same pair of 501s. As time goes by.

I work at home on Fridays, and on a bitterly cold February afternoon at the end of the week, when it was already getting dark, long before I could contemplate the relief of happy hour or a 4 p.m. Law & Order rerun, I was stretched on my couch doing a Google search on my iPad. I was trying to find an article I had written in 2009 but got distracted by gossip along the way—so much I never knew about myself! It amazed me that anyone cared at all. On a Yale alumni magazine blog, there was an article about graduates with interesting jobs and by extension interesting lives: I work for the great litigator David Boies, and I still manage to be some sort of writer.

Some sort, sort of.

And then I chanced upon something genuinely surprising: It was a PDF document, a 140-page guide published by Harvard to coincide with football season that particular year. The middle section was devoted to prominent alumni, mostly presidents, senators, governors, princes, agas—a multi-circle Venn diagram of all would have included people with names like Rockefeller, Kennedy, Adams, and Roosevelt. But then, under the rubric of “Literature,” there was my name. That would not have been so strange except that I was the only woman and, with John Ashbery, the only person on the list still alive. It occurred to me that it had been so long since I last published a book—not since 2001—that maybe they thought I was dead. But there it was, me with T. S. Eliot, e. e. cummings, William S. Burroughs, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Norman Mailer, John Updike, George Plimpton, David Halberstam, and Henry David Thoreau. It was a shockingly distinguished group to find myself lingering with. I had certainly moved up in the world by doing nothing. And maybe all it meant was that somebody in a communications office at the university had suicidal tendencies that she got through by reading my books. But I was moved nonetheless.

When I grow up, I thought, I am going to be a damn great writer.

It had never occurred to me before that any of the choices I made, which I prized, I guess because at least they were mine, were crazy or risky; but I was becoming convinced. I am committed to feminism and don’t understand why anyone would agree to be party to a relationship that is not absolutely equal. I believe women who are supported by men are prostitutes, that is that, and I am heartbroken to live through a time where Wall Street money means these women are not treated with due disdain. But I also don’t get it: Even sitting through a carafe of Italian wine with a guy who worked in private equity felt like being handcuffed in the back seat of an unmarked squad car: The next stop is jail. And a lot feels potentially imprisoning to me: To get through every day, through a job of staring at pencil marks in spreadsheets through glassy eyes, through humoring a husband who has not sold a screenplay in six years and is writing a new one still, through telling everybody your three basic children are talented and gifted—I know that people who do these things are happy because happiness is the untruths we tell each other and ourselves or it would be unbearable. But I would rather not. I would rather be sad, and sometimes lonely, but at least not suffering the silly.

Or is that my untruth?

For a while after my first book came out, I went home with a different man every night and did heroin every day—which showed my good sense, because the rest of the time I was completely out of control. Even now, I am always in love—or else I am getting over the last person or getting started with the next one. But I worry about growing old this way. Because of divorce, dating never ends for anybody: Men I was involved with long ago—more than one of them—have turned up after a whole marriage and kids and being so sure they knew what life was for to tell me they were wrong to let me go. Which is funny. But I don’t think I really want to be going to the new P. T. Anderson movie and Mission Chinese with someone new when I’m 85. And I don’t think anyone will want to be doing that with me. I am lucky: I run, and Gyrotonic sessions three times a week have kept me in the same shape I have always been in. But age scares me. I look at Kathryn Bigelow at 61 and feel greatly relieved. I consider how much I do that has nothing to do with how I look and realize that if aging bothers me at all, it must be a primeval pain. Because it is not just about the lines around your eyes or the loss of that glow of expectancy. It is also a feeling of enough.

Enough. Please.

Because I grew up in Manhattan, people assume I must be from a wealthy family, which is seldom untrue today, especially now that hedge-fund managers trying to avoid each other have taken over even the downtown enclaves. No one seems to remember New York City in the seventies, during the era of “white flight,” when Zsa Zsa Gabor was famously mugged in the Waldorf-­Astoria and Felix Rohatyn had to be mustered to rescue the municipality from financial ruin because Gerald Ford did not think it was worth federal funds. During the Abe Beame years, you could buy a three-bedroom apartment on Columbus Avenue for $15,000 and worry that you were getting ripped off.

My parents were divorced, my mother had many part-time jobs over the years to support us, and I grew up in HUD housing, first in the West Nineties and then not far from Lincoln Center. I went to private school on scholarship and worked extremely hard because I wanted to grow up and not live near rodent-­infested playgrounds, where we clung to the handlebars crossing the horizontal ladders to keep our toes from touching rats. I don’t know what made me believe that writing was going to solve my problems, since all anyone ever told me was that no one made money that way. But I knew that no one did not include me. I was intensely downcast, with a chronic depression that began when I was about 10, but instead of killing my will, it motivated me: I thought if I could be good enough at whatever task, great or small, that was before me, I might have a few minutes of happiness. I would do trigonometry problem sets as if plotting a sine curve could save me.

These days, if I sneeze, it’s a reason to give up on the day, but when I was a teenager, I became willful when anyone said I couldn’t do something. I was a straight-A student, and when I got an A-minus in European history in tenth grade, I asked the teacher if he underestimated my intelligence because I looked dumb; he changed my grade to an A. I worked at Putumayo on weekends, took dance class five days a week at Luigi’s studio, edited both the school literary magazine and newspaper, and was horrified when my college guidance counselor suggested that I might prefer Brown to Harvard because I was, as he put it, “offbeat.” I did not understand what he did not understand about me: I had been planning to go to Harvard since I was 6 years old.

By the time I got to college, I had already written for Seventeen, and I’d done an internship at New York that I had been promised would be fetching coffee and filing manuscripts, but I had managed to do a couple of short pieces on Bret Easton Ellis and the pretty stucco bungalows of the Rockaways. The only thing that made my unbearable depression at all bearable through four years at Harvard was knowing I had to get better so I could tell the story. I was in a strange mental habitat where I paradoxically was both certain I would not live another day feeling as awful as I did, but I still had access to a vista onward that made me want to live forever.

I got out of college and came here hoping I might make a reasonable living writing for magazines. It seemed like a crazy dream when I was in high school, something so glamorous and grand that you had to be very special to do. But then this happened and that happened, and it began to seem less ridiculous. I wrote a music column for New York after I graduated, then I did the same thing for The New Yorker, then I wrote books. I never wanted to be a millionaire or a billionaire or anything at all like that, because the happiest thing would be doing what I love. Which is how it turned out, and so it goes with talented and thoughtful people who move to places like New York and L.A. and Chicago and Austin and wherever else you take your wits these days. It isn’t just creative types, also public­-interest lawyers and public-­intellectual academics and political thinkers—collectively, the professional class. In a city, these are the people who make the place vital and fun. They work hard but still have time to try a no-­reservations restaurant on the Lower East Side or to check out the small boutiques in Nolita and help interesting young designers get off to a start. Mostly, they make six-figure incomes and somehow manage. And they are happy for the privilege.

But these are people who soon won’t exist anymore. Soon New York will be nothing but a metropolis of the very rich and those who serve them—and the lucky and desperate still hanging on. All of the fun jobs are disappearing. 

If great talent did not require infrastructure to nurture it, Norman Mailer and Martin Scorsese would as likely exist in Papua New Guinea or, for that matter, Norway. But the arts have thrived, and great work has supported itself without the benefit of government subsidy, because this country was founded with an intellectual-property system and a free press that understood that creativity and capitalism are happy partners. All of that has broken down, between piracy and technology, and I do not expect that a satisfactory model will be invented that allows these choices to work. Forget serious journalism. Publicly funded universities are the next frontier of unnatural disaster. Meanwhile, most people who think they are practicing law are actually making binders, and my guess is that most people who think they are doing whatever important thing they are doing are making binders. The binders from law firms go to a locker in a warehouse in a parking lot in an office park off an exit of a turnpike off a highway off an interstate in New Jersey, never to be looked at again. No one ever read them in the first place. But some client was billed for the hourly work.

Until I went away to law school, I made a very good living as a writer and never had to do anything else. But I never saved or invested, because I believe if you take care of the luxuries, the necessities will take care of themselves. When I got a huge advance for Bitch, my second book, I bought a Birkin bag, which Maria has since stolen. If I had spent the money on a mutual fund from T. Rowe Price, I might well have panicked and lost it during the financial crisis of 2008, and I would never have had the pleasure of schlepping my stuff on the IRT in Hermès.

Maybe I should have been wiser. But the only way I could have was to have been a completely different person, along the way probably becoming a different writer, most likely a lousy one. I am fortunate to have been well paid for an almost pathological honesty, and the only way I am able to write that way is by being that way. It has been worth it—of course it has been—because there is a higher price attached to rare attributes than common ones. But there is a lot of good, workmanlike journalism that I could have, should have, and would have done if anyone ever thought of me. I established myself as someone much too precious. And, honest, I don’t pretend to like people I don’t and I can’t pretend to respect people who don’t deserve it. Still, my financial life might look about the same no matter what, because I chose to write about an uncompromised life in New York City in these times, and the only way to be that person is to never have it all work out.

I did not go to law school planning to practice law. I did not go to law school for any reason, except that it was something I had always wanted to do. But I sent David Boies an e-mail during my last year at Yale and asked if he would hire me. The printout ended up in a pile, and he only saw it a couple of months later. I was visiting my mother in Fort Lauderdale when David called me. He asked if I was still interested. “Why not?” And really: Why not?

It has been a singular privilege to work for David and to get to know him as well as I have. It’s enough to make me believe in luck. He is the smartest person I have ever met, and it is a steep fall to second place. I knew David Foster Wallace pretty well, and he was pretty smart, but David Boies makes David Wallace look like, well, some other lesser David, maybe David Remnick. I think most people are overrated; not David Boies. I know, because I just did not overrate him: Consider this an axiom.

Sitting on the park bench that day in April while my apartment was held hostage, I had exhausted my realistic options. I called David. This was the first time I had described events from start to finish—everyone else had been hearing it in wretched bits like fruitcake picked at Christmas morning—and I realized that I should have left after the first time Maria showed up unannounced, because there was no way the story could get better. David listened quietly and carefully, as if I were a witness on a stand. “You need to move right now,” was all he said.

“How?” How?!

We would figure it out, he promised.

The best lesson I have learned from David Boies is patience. He deposed Bill Gates for twenty hours to get the answer he needed, so David believes in time. If he heard what was happening and did not think there was any way to work this out, the situation had to be hopeless. Normally, when an intruder is in your living space, you call the police, but the 6th Precinct had already failed me. But David took over, figured some things out, and all of my belongings were put into storage that night.

I found a place to stay with a friend on the Upper East Side, but felt bad about being an imposition, and took the first apartment that a broker from Corcoran showed me, and which she made believe was my only option. She put a deposit on it with her own money before I was sure I wanted it; I was stuck. It has a beautiful backyard with a white picket fence, and if I lived in a tent outside, it would be perfect. To get to my apartment, I walk down a flight of stairs; the bedroom is a subbasement and is not a legal dwelling space. It is small and cramped, and I hate it. I feel like I live in a dungeon. It is in Chelsea, east of Eighth Avenue, the neighborhood equivalent of a dungeon. I treat it like a storage room: Everything remains unpacked, shoes line the floor of my bedroom, paintings and photographs piled five high line the walls of my study, I have yet to nail in my Eames Hang-It-All. I myself am in storage.

When I met Augusta at Animal Care and Control, she was a two-month-old, fifteen-pound puppy desperate to go home. Of course, all the dogs at the pound want to get out of their cages and be taken to a better life. But she looked at me with her chin down and with, yes, those puppy eyes that were brown and almond shaped like mine, and I knew she was my dog. She is nine now and looks like a wild black wolf. And she reminds me that stories can only happen exactly as they do: Even when you are picking out a dog, it has to be true love and not a list of pluses and minuses or a bunch of desirable traits you would describe on OkCupid. There is no substitute for magic. I have only ever known love at first sight, and I know it when I see it.

I am Potter Stewart wandering through an overwhelming emotional life that only makes sense on contact. It’s all pornography to me, all of life is so visually rich and it all hits me absolutely like flat sheets of hard rain so that the only feeling I trust is the one that comes down in a devastating way. When I meet people who tell me that they are immune to the power of beauty or that they don’t get overwhelmed by plain old lust, I don’t think they are lucky; I think they are missing all the fun. And all the pain, of course.

I’m like everybody else: I think about spending the rest of my life with every person I fall in love with, and I cry longer and harder and more than I should when it all goes wrong. I have spent an amazing amount of my life in tears. I have thought my heart was broke and done. But there was always the next one and the next one. Or I went to law school. Or I did something else. I am just not serious. Okay? There you have it. All the things that ­other people are willing to do that make them adjustable like appliances: I can’t.

I can only love with a pure heart and hope for the best.

For a while after the miserable night of moving out of Bleecker Street, any time anyone got close to me, my body stiffened. I had strange sensations all the time—I could be waiting for the light to change at 14th Street, and I would wonder if someone was going to run up to me and start screaming, even when it was bright and sunny outside. I would lie in bed late at night in the pitch black and wonder if a killer were going to sneak in through the back door. If the buzzer rang unexpectedly, I would duck behind my couch. I decided to have any UPS or FedEx packages sent to my office. I never wanted anyone to get near me again. I thought love and pleasure were over for me, forever.

But life is kinder than that. It just is.

And in the spring someone young, with a handsome aristocratic way about him, came along and made me smile when I really needed it. It could have been a one-night stand, and for a while it felt like a one-night stand that wouldn’t stop. But then somehow something else happened. We would sit in my backyard, or stretched with our legs intertwined on my couch, and talk for hours. We would laugh about whether Buddhism could rightly be called a religion or a phase people go through. We would have coffee and paprika biscuits in bed on Wednesday mornings. I was so faded by fear that I found myself in one of the most civilized and respectful relationships I have ever been in.

Still, I wonder if I ever will be okay after this last year. I don’t live anywhere, have not had a home for too long, and the physical estrangement is psychically debilitating. I used to be a happy person who had a lot of fun—even depression did not keep me from being a happy person who had a lot of fun. But having someone you have asked to stay away show up unannounced and yell hateful words is profoundly damaging. I feel sick. There is a gap between me and everyone, like a perforated box of polluted air is separating me from people: The space from me to anyone who might understand how lousy I feel seems vast. I am harsh and defeated, and I never thought I would describe myself in either way. The list of things I can’t be bothered with goes on forever. The list of things that bother me goes on forever.

I have lost my life. I had a lot of friends, saw people, had full days. I don’t know where anyone is anymore, and I can’t even remember who it is that is gone. I am not sure exactly how that happened: I was hiding, although it was not safe in the place where I was hiding, and life became impossible to explain, and too strange to explain, and finally I stopped talking to anyone.

Still, this story has the best possible ending, because I am telling it. In the history of the written word, never—not in the Bible or Beowulf, not in daily reporting in the New York Times with its rigorous reporters’ desperate fealty to facts—has there ever been a reliable narrator, not even on objective matters: One person’s purple is someone else’s violet is someone else’s indigo is someone else’s blue. I have been engaged in telling the truth about my life for most of my life now, and I believe everything I say. The events I describe are precisely as I remember them, and as anyone else who was there recalls. And still, I know: There are other versions.

There is the version that is not what happened at all. In that story, David Boies is not my boss, and no one comes to the rescue. I am broke and ashamed, because I am good and because I am bad. I am at the mercy of the police, who are alternately useless and dangerous, and as the emotional violence escalates into something malign and fatal, this story is being written by someone else entirely because I am dead. It would take many steps more to get there, or maybe only a few, but the structure of safety would have to break down completely. It easily could. In a way it has.

Look at how we live: We communicate in text messages and e-mails; even those of us old enough to have lived in a world where landline was not a word because it’s all there was have fallen into this lazy substitute for human contact. I have. When I was young, when I was the age I should have been when all this happened, if I needed to tell a friend, an acquaintance, or the customer-service person from AT&T the smallest thing, I had to talk to him. Every day, many times a day, whether I felt like it or not, I spoke to people, lots of people. It is as obvious from a voice as it is not from print if all is well. Now, in a whole long day of croissants in the morning and multiple dog walks and stops at the bodega for yogurt and jam, I may speak with people I care about only in type. When you add the mistake of Facebook and Twitter into this equation, very bad things can happen: The illusion of friendship defeats the real thing. Someone who people believe they care about and cannot live without could end up dead.

But this is it for me. I am a free spirit. I do not know any other way to be. No one else seems to live as I do. In a world gone wrong, a pure heart is dangerous.

I have always made choices without considering the consequences, because I know all I get is now. Maybe I get later, too, but I will deal with that later. I choose pleasure over what is practical. I may be the only person who ever went to law school on a lark. And I wonder what I was thinking about with all those other larks, my beautiful larks, larks flying away.

*This article originally appeared in the January 14, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.

Elizabeth Wurtzel on Her One-Night Stand Life