Saturday, August 18, 2012

City Mouse and Me

My old friend the City Mouse is on 60 Minutes, navigating the periphery of the scandal with that same old calculating innocence and slippery grace. There’s an intensity in the lighting that makes her face look a little too made-up and her clothes a little too expensive –impeccably tasteful and garish at once. A little too rich and too thin.

“Public opinion has to be something that doesn’t matter to us,” she says coolly.

I’ll bet that line makes more than one viewer want to reach through the screen and smack her. I can only chuckle and smile warmly. Good old City Mouse. She used to say stuff like that all the time. I can’t help but feel weirdly proud of her. She has arrived.

The book she’s promoting doesn’t even mention her time at the non-profit office where we were co-workers, referring instead to the high-paying university job she moved on to as “her first real job.” Fair enough. The more I remember that dreadful summer, the less real it seems to me, too.

It was an early foray into office life for both of us. City Mouse was recently out of college; I had recently given up on pursuing a teaching career under the delusion that I might go to law school the following year. (Thankfully, that never came to fruition.) Eventually I grew into kicking ass at that job, but those first few months were rocky indeed. My high-strung boss did a lot of yelling. I did a lot of crying in the bathroom and anxious mistake-making.

City Mouse took it all in stride. She was smaller and sleeker than me, and a lot more shallow. But she had razor-sharp people skills and the remarkable ability to remain unfazed in the midst of chaos and absurdity. She carried herself like someone to be respected and – amazingly – even the most important people responded in kind. I suspected I had a lot to learn from her. Of course, she suspected the same thing.

City Mouse took my pathetic work-self under her wing – which I simultaneously appreciated and resented. I didn’t particularly want help, but I knew I needed it. It was the professional equivalent of one of those friends who always wants to give you a makeover.

This was her favorite episode. No joke.

I mean…I liked her. She was funny, nurturing, and insightful, just as sharp as I was with pop culture references and dry humor. We started hanging out outside of work, watching The X-Files and Friends at her place, meeting up for drinks, lingering over long lunches to share stories about our college adventures and commiserate about work and boyfriends. I was new to the city had had no friends there at all. I don’t know how I would have made it through that stark, lonely summer without her.

We used to alternately joke and speak wistfully about our authentic selves, and what we felt our jobs should be. She wanted to be an old-school wealthy socialite having groceries sent up to her penthouse. She cast me as a poet, wandering up and down the beach in a long skirt, composing verses in my mind. This, I believe, was intended as equal parts compliment and insult.

Or maybe it was neither. Maybe it was simply an attempt at defining me; assigning me the role of Country Mouse to her City Mouse. Can’t have one without the other. Otherwise it’s just plain Mouse.

I was telling her about a strange moment I’d had that morning with an old friend from college who'd been visiting. Years before, he and I had stayed up all night talking at Dunkin’ Donuts, then walked our bedraggled selves back to campus past all the commuters in their suits heading to the train station. “That’s going to be us someday,” we’d remarked with trepidation.

And sure enough, that very morning as I walked him to the train station on my way to work, we realized that we were those commuters now. It was a very recently-out-of-college kind of “O, life” moment that I thought City Mouse would relate to.

“But think of it this way,” she said encouragingly after I told her the story. “You can strive be better than those people who take public transportation to work.”

And there we were. Me yearning for my youthful all-nighters, her aspiring to soar above the train-riding riff-raff. All friendships have certain limitations. Ours kept bumping up against this one. We were both from modest, small-town backgrounds. But she was working like hell to put as much distance as possible between her ambitious self and the Goodwill clothing bins of yesteryear.

She left in the fall for a much better job. My old boss left, too, and things started to get a lot better. I started to get a lot better. Suddenly, I knew what I was doing and could move around that office with confidence. Happiness, even.

City Mouse was thriving at her new position. She’d acquired a gorgeous new dye job, wardrobe, and apartment. She was courting prospective members for an entourage of sorts – earnest ivy leaguers from her volunteer work at a small museum and the raggedy-hip aspiring musicians who lived in her trendy new neighborhood. Every time I went to her apartment, she’d be holding court with a new batch, most of them callow and vaguely impressed, some of them downright smitten.

She had more crushed-out boys than she knew what to do with, really. Once she tried to set me up with a very disappointed young Joey Sweeney, who was there under the impression that he was on a date with her. I’d have felt sorry for him if he hadn’t been so arrogantly unimpressed with me. I mean, I’m no City Mouse but I’m not exactly a mutant, either. How demoralizing.

My social life outside of City Mouse’s circle was ever-so-gradually picking up steam. We were mutually, benignly growing apart. But occasionally we’d still talk on the phone or meet for lunch. She’d tell me all about her new boyfriend who worked in the Mayor’s office, how she’d gotten her butt pinched by the Mayor himself at the holiday party, how the boyfriend was incredibly smart and so important, how she could see herself marrying him.

Toward that end, she started taking steps to convert to Judaism. I was at work when she called under the pretense of asking for advice, but she was breathless and giddy as a birthday girl as she told me about the elderly rabbi she’d been meeting with to discuss Judaism. Apparently he had just confessed that he was falling in love with her.

I’m not sure why, but that was kind of the last straw for me. I had absolutely nothing to say in response. I got off the phone, pretending to have actual work to do. What I really wanted to do was crawl into a shower.

She called out of the blue a few months later to invite me to a party. I don’t remember why, but something about it rang entirely insincere. I was fed up. Maybe I resented being pulled back into the old City Mouse/Country Mouse paradigm. Maybe I sensed she only needed me to fill out the entourage. Maybe she hit me with one too many of her left-handed compliments.

Whatever the reason, I simply declined the invitation and hung up the phone. When she called back, I didn’t answer. And that was pretty much the end of that. I’m not proud of it. It was a lot easier to walk away from friendships in those days, and this wasn’t the first one I’d pulled out of when things got icky.

I doubt the friendship would have lasted, though, even if I had stuck with it. Seventeen years later and here I am picking a spot of melted cheese off my Target tank top, married to my lovably shabby writer of a husband, pursuing humble low-paying teaching assistant jobs like I’m chasing some star, dreaming of the day when we can afford another family vacation to Legoland.

And there she is on 60 Minutes, standing fashionably by her notorious man. It’s pretty unlikely our friendship would have survived all those years of social climbing. She has a real audience now – snarky gossip bloggers, Sex and the City fans looking for their real-life Carrie, self-righteous Huffington Post and Daily Beast commenters, and the star struck young writer who penned the authorized family biography in the first place.

I don’t envy City Mouse’s position at the center of the scandal – or any of her one percenter fabulousness, really. Like I said…I’m strangely proud of her. The joy I feel is absolutely pure, same as when I read on Facebook that an old friend has finished medical school or had a baby. I think back to those school-girlish conversations we used to have about our authentic selves and realize that she truly followed her dream. And here she is, wealthy socialite, charming as ever in the face of adversity, the cool immaculately mascara’d eye of the hurricane.

And I…well, I’m not exactly a poet. But I’m living a life that allows for plenty of poetic pondering, happily tending my modest little garden, finally finding my way back the career that I loved in the first place. In our own distinct ways, we’ve both come a long way from that summer. Good for the Country Mouse. Good for the City Mouse.

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