I first came upon Joan Didion when I was seventeen-years-old and living alone in Manhattan for the summer. On the rare days off from my job selling expensive handbags to Upper East Side women, I’d wander through the city’s different parks and find places to read. On one overheated afternoon, I came across a line of Didion’s writing scrawled on the sidewalk of Washington Square park with chalk. Her words, laid out in unassuming yet elegant type went, “I was in love with New York. I do not mean love in any colloquial way. I mean that I was in love with the city the way you love the first person who ever touches you and you never love anyone quite that way again.” Naively, I thought that I had never read anything so true to everything that I was feeling.
Intrigued, I stumbled into Barnes and Noble and purchased the sole Didion book that I could find, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968). Sitting cross-legged on the floor of the non-fiction aisle, I eagerly consumed the book’s first essay before taking the A train back uptown. Most days after work, I’d find my backpack in the backroom and slip off my pristine black ballet flats in favor of my ratty, half-laced Converses. I’d walk the twenty-six blocks and the five flights of crumbling stairs up to the fifty square foot loft space I called home that summer. I’d pull out Didion and spend the evening pouring over pages of her prose.
One day, when the unbearable summer heat was finally starting to give way to a minimal breeze, I came upon the very words from that day on the sidewalk. In the final essay of the collection, titled, “Goodbye to All That,” Didion reflects on her experience of growing up–of loving and leaving New York in favor for the California sun. She writes, “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.” I felt this so deeply, without realizing the irony. I was the one who was convinced that no one had ever been asked to cut off all their friendship bracelets for the sake of professionalism, had ever set their apartment building-wide fire alarm off, had ever eaten as much raw cookie dough as I had that summer. In hindsight, I was wrong. I was the epitome of a cliché.
At seventeen, I loved the very romance of the sidewalk-chalked statement. In reality, I didn’t know anything about New York, and I’d definitely never been touched by the first love that Didion compares her love of NYC with. I thought I was in love with a boy who I didn’t even know, and yet, I thought I understood everything about love. I did not. I still do not. At nineteen, I came to learn that sex isn’t some beautiful, poetic thing. It’s mostly just messy and confusing and kind of gross. I also realized that the beauty of the Manhattan skyline from across the Brooklyn Bridge does not make up for the amount of times that the subway breaks down or for the cockroaches the size of your palm that you find in the shower.
After my summer in the city, I found myself searching for air. I found it on a hill in the middle of Connecticut. Now, I wear my ratty, half-laced Converse most days at Wesleyan University; the ballet flats have gone unworn for years. I’ve cut back on the amount of raw cookie dough I consume. The friendship bracelets have since been replaced by a single, gold bangle. And Didion’s words feel like returning home after a long day spent without something that I didn’t realize that I desperately needed. It is not the overly romanticized visions of Manhattan that feel true to me anymore. It’s this: “To free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves, here lies the singular power of self-respect,” that feels so integral to my conception of self. I wear it on an engraved charm around my neck each day.
At twenty-one, I’m thinking about how I’m going to graduate a year from now. How I’m going to have to leave this hill in the middle of Connecticut, and how I’ll most likely end up in New York, attempting to make a career in journalism. In an effort to free myself from the expectations of others and even from the expectations of myself, I have decided to spend this final summer in Colorado, living with my brother and writing. I think Didion would approve. She seems to conceptualize the freedom of the American West as an escape from the confines of the American East through her work. Maybe I’m naively romanticizing the West now as I once did Manhattan, but I guess I’ll soon find out. Either way, the open space feels right. That day in Washington Square, that seventeen-year-old girl had no idea what was in front of her, couldn’t see past the promise of a red-brick walk-up and an expensive handbag. I’m learning to accept that I can’t see that far ahead.
In another essay titled, “On Keeping a Notebook,” Didion writes, “I think we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.” On most days, twenty-one-year-old me doesn’t find seventeen-year-old me such attractive company. But on some days, I look back at her and nod.
Linne Halpern '18 is an English and American Studies double major at Wesleyan University. She is co-founder and editor of Reverberations.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem
By Joan Didion
Published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux