fixations

I Think About This a Lot: This Photo of Nora Ephron Looking Miserable While Another Woman Sits on Her Husband’s Lap

I Think About This a Lot is a series dedicated to private memes: images, videos, and other random trivia we are doomed to play forever on loop in our minds.

There are certain moments in your life when you feel totally and completely stuck. Like when you’re in a job that you know is below your skill level. Or when you’re in a relationship that’s just good enough to keep you in it, but just misery-inducing enough to make you conduct secret 1 a.m. Google searches for “What does it mean if a guy said ‘I love you’ once, but still refers to your time together as ‘hanging out?’” Of course you know exactly what it means. No one in a great relationship ever found lasting happiness four pages deep in Yahoo! Answers.

A few years ago, I went through a breakup so horrific that I ended up crying to an ophthalmologist that I’d found on Zocdoc an hour before. Why was I at the ophthalmologist in the first place? Because I was crying so much that I ended up with an eye infection. I was crying on subways. I was crying in bed at 2 a.m. I was crying with my head in my hands in a stall in the office bathroom, trying to hold in my sobs while co-workers endlessly caught up about office gossip — which, under any other circumstance, would be my favorite thing in the world to eavesdrop on. One morning, I woke up and couldn’t open one eye, so there I was at the eye doctor where even more tears plopped down on her gloved hands.

It was during this breakup that I read Nora Ephron’s Heartburn for the first time, and it felt as soothing and comforting as eating bowl after bowl of matzo-ball soup. Heartburn is Ephron’s novel and roman à clef about the dissolution of her marriage to Carl Bernstein. Dissolution feels too polite a word: He cheated on her while she was pregnant with their second child, like a Watergate-busting ’70s-era Billy Crudup.

I think about Nora Ephron all the time. A lot of women do. She was one of those public figures with whom many people feel like they have their own private relationship. I think about her thoughts on dinner parties (always have round tables), unsalted butter (don’t bother with it), and people (they have only one way to be). I think about her advice (“Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.”). But there’s one version of her that I think about the most, and it makes me feel strong when I’m in my lowest moments. It’s that photo above.

Imagine it: It’s 1977. Ephron married Carl Bernstein the year before, the same year Dustin Hoffman played him in a movie. (Forget everything we know about Dustin Hoffman now, this was peak ’70s Hoffman.) She’s completely in love with him, in that way you can only feel for someone who’s always just a little bit out of grasp. They had a rocky, nonexclusive start to their relationship, but with therapy (hers) and promises (his), they made it through. And then they go to some Amnesty International benefit at Tavern on the Green, and a photographer happened to capture Ephron in a completely unvarnished moment, like when you see your face in the background of a photo you didn’t realize was being taken, and you think, Does my face really look like that all the time? She’s sitting next to her husband, while some woman is SITTING ON HIS LAP. Ephron looks miserable. She isn’t trying to play it off like she’s in on the joke and she hasn’t yet turned the situation into a funny story; she’s just frozen in time in that moment feeling exactly what she’s feeling.

Maybe Carl and that woman are doing some bit where he’s playing a ventriloquist, but I doubt it. It’s 40 years later and I can imagine precisely how Nora is feeling — and I bet you can, too. You think you’re in the middle of a great time when you suddenly realize that your night, your relationship, your life, and your plans for How Things Would Go actually aren’t going your way. Even knowing that Ephron would later go on to have the ultimate revenge fantasy we’ve all dreamed of (having Meryl Streep play you in the movie version of your life), in that photo, all she knew was that some woman was sitting in her husband’s lap, and she did not put her best silk blouse on for this.

I probably look at this photo every six months or so when I’m feeling down, and it makes me feel instantly better every time. It reminds me to chin up and that probably everyone at some point has felt the way I’m feeling — even my hero, Nora Ephron. One of the big lessons I take from her life is that “everything is copy.” It’s about knowing that one day in the future, your heart won’t be in it anymore, and if you can sit down and type it all out, then something beautiful and maybe even funny can come out of the most painful moments of your life. It also reminds me that I should try to avoid marrying Carl Bernstein, if possible.

I Think About This Photo of Nora Ephron a Lot