About Stefanie Gunning

Native New Yorker. Brooklynite since Brooklyn wasn’t cool. Wife. Mom. Voracious reader. Movie junkie. Theatre geek. Fervent supporter of the Oxford comma. Recovering manic pixie dream girl.

It’s my birthday, so I’m giving you a gift!

Last month, I started posting my novel, Rom-Com Rehab, a chapter at a time on Patreon (hello and thank you to my patrons!) April is my birthday month, so I’ve decided to post chapter 1 here as a present for you. If you enjoy it, head over to Patreon to read chapter 2!

Before we head off to a terrible rainy night in Brooklyn, a disclaimer: While based on some things that happened to me in real life, this is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

Everybody’s a dreamer
Everybody’s a star
Everybody’s in show biz
It doesn’t matter who you are.
                   ~Celluloid Heroes, The Kinks

We were young together.
                    ~As If We Never Said Goodbye, Andrew Lloyd Webber

Rom-Com Rehab, Chapter 1

Nate’s favorite things were Neil Simon plays, Richard Dreyfuss movies, musical theatre, and The Beatles. His passions were writ large, and for a long time, my favorite thing about him was his sense of theatre, the way he carried himself though the world as if a production number might break out at any moment. I reveled in the Technicolor of all his feelings. He lived his whole life like he was emoting to the cheap seats.

In other words, he could be a real goddamned drama queen.

So I wasn’t immediately alarmed, that November night just before Thanksgiving in 1998, when I found him sitting on our uncovered patio in a driving thunderstorm, crying. No umbrella, no raincoat, just sitting in a white plastic chair, his jeans and sweatshirt drenched, his nose running and his dark curly hair a matted mess, lightening flashing in the distance.

He’d just come back from three months on the road. He was working as a tour manager for traveling theatre companies then, a job that kept him away most of the time. He’d return to our floor-through in Brooklyn for a few weeks between gigs, to sleep and do laundry and decompress, and then he’d be back out there, shepherding African dancers or Jellicle cats from theatre to theatre across America.

We told ourselves and each other he was doing it for the money, that if any couple could easily sail through so much time apart, it was the two of us. I was a night owl and a loner, never happier then when I could stay up until the small hours of the morning, reading in bed. He was a happy-go-lucky wanderer, content to live out of suitcases, collecting friends and refrigerator magnets from all the cities he visited. And it was just for a few years, long enough to pay off our credit card debt and put some money in the bank. That’s what we told ourselves and each other. What we said when he left on his first tour, almost two years before. What we said when days would pass between phone calls or emails, and it hardly seemed to matter. What we said when the time apart started to feel more comfortable, easier, than the time together.

The apartment was dark when I got home that night, the porch door slamming open and shut in the wind. “Nate?” I called, standing in the entryway, clutching my inside-out umbrella in one hand and my leather backpack in the other, rain dripping a puddle onto the old wood floor. “Nate are you here?” I hesitated. Had we been robbed? Was he home? Was there someone waiting in the apartment to attack me? I had this thing about checking the shower and the closets when I got home, that went all the way back to elementary school — walk in the house, keep on my coat and shoes, check the shower, check the closets, make sure no one was there, and then, milk and cookies.

“I’m home!” I yelled, dropping my things to the floor and lacing my keys into my fist, like metal claws. “I am walking to the porch door now! I am holding my keys like a weapon and I am not afraid to gouge you in the face with them!”

I’d learned that particular piece of badassery from a self-defense course I’d taken in college. I’d directed William Mastrosimone’s Extremities my sophomore year, a play in which a woman named Marjorie fights off and then imprisons and tortures a would-be rapist who walks into her house one day. For months I completely immersed myself in personal narratives of rape, rape culture, the psychology of fear, the physical experience of rape, and the way rape victims are processed through and treated by the legal system. I also got a black eye and a cracked rib teaching my actors their fight choreography. I spent a lot of time crying in my advisor’s office that semester. The world felt so unsafe, and I felt so small in it. So after the show closed, I sought out a place where I could safely beat the hell out of a well-padded make-believe attacker.

I clenched my fingers around my keys, took a deep breath, and propelled myself across the kitchen to the porch door. But there was no intruder. Just Nate, head in his hands, looking utterly defeated.

It’s not kind, and I’m not terribly proud of this, but I was extremely annoyed.

“Nate? Nate, what is it?” I went to him and knelt down, the wind blowing my hair into my face and the rain pelting us. I tried to pull his hands from his face, but he jerked away from me and kept crying.

“What’s happened? What is it?” I untangled my keys and wrapped my hands around his wrists. He shook his head from side to side and sobbed, until he raised his head from his hands and looked me in the face.

“Tabitha,” he croaked, and then leaned forward to grab at me. I let him hold me, wrapped my arms around him as best I could.

“What is it? Tell me. What’s happened? It’ll be okay,” I said. I was starting to feel prickles of genuine concern. I’d grown accustomed to Nate’s alternating performances of exuberance and wretchedness, but this felt different. This felt real.

He leaned back, and with a look of broken sadness on his face, told me he wanted a divorce.

The funny thing? I was relieved. I’d thought he was going to tell me one of our parents had died. A car crash. A heart attack. A fall on ice and a cracked head. But a divorce? A divorce I could work with. I’d been talking him down from ledges forever. During his senior year of high school, Nate’s girlfriend, Sharon, broke up with him, and he convinced his high school’s marching band to assemble on her lawn and play My Sharona over and over until her father called the police. In college, his junior year, he didn’t get cast as Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor and changed his major from theatre to business for a month.

“Nate, come on,” I said.

“I want a divorce.”

I leaned back on my heels. The rain was changing over to icy hail and it hurt.

“Come inside,” I said, pulling at him a little. “It’s terrible out here.” He shook his head vehemently.

“Oh crap, Nate. You want a divorce?” I was getting more aggravated by the minute. Cold, wet and aggravated.

“I want a divorce.”

“You want a divorce from me?”

“Yes. I want a divorce from you. From you.”

“I don’t understand.”

Nate took a deep breath, “A divorce. I don’t want to be married anymore.”

“To me.”

He looked at me with such befuddlement. I giggled.

“You think this is funny?” he asked.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s just, this sounds like ‘Who’s on first?’ I want a divorce. From me? Yes. You want a divorce? Yes. Third base.” I ran my hands up his thighs, leaned between his legs. “Nate, come on. Come inside and we’ll order a pizza and you can tell me about whatever it is that’s got you so angry at me this time.”

I’ve thought about this moment so often, in the years since. The two of us in the rain, about to free fall into an unknowable after, a bright line being drawn in the air. We were still on the before side of that line, the side where, if you’d asked about us, I’d have told you I’d loved him since I was 15. That we were the closest of friends, our lives utterly entwined. I’d have told you about the summer theatre we ran together as teenagers, when most kids have jobs at the mall. How we moved to New York City the spring I graduated from college. That he was going to be a producer and I was going to be a director, and we were going everywhere together — to Broadway, to Hollywood, to London. We were going to have an office overlooking Times Square, with a partner’s desk. Al Hirschfeld would make a sketch of us at that desk, and it would have 5 Ninas in it.

As furious as he made me, as broken as he left me, there’s no way to tell this, to talk about him, without describing what it felt like to stand next to him on an empty stage and envision what Godspell or Our Town or The Miracle Worker might look like there. To listen to him dream out loud. Nate always felt like magic hour to me, that time before dusk when the world is washed liquid honey gold. We made a mess of so much that was good between us, but before that, we made alchemy of imagination and dust, cool air and paper.

“Tabitha. I’m so sorry,” was what he said. Just that, but I’d been reading his mind for more than a decade. A shiver rippled through me and I had a sudden desire to run from him, to keep things as they were, for just a little while longer. I think I might have told him we could fix it, whatever it was. I may have begged him to stop talking. Because I knew, as if he’d handed me a script folded open to just this scene, my part highlighted in yellow and his in blue, he was gone already. He was already gone. “I’m in love,” he said. “I’ve met someone and I love her, and she loves me, and I can’t stay here anymore with you. I can’t do it.”

I stood up and backed away from him. Wrapped my arms around myself. At moments like this, really dreadful moments, I often thought about how Susan Sarandon might behave. Not herself, the actual woman, but if Susan Sarandon were playing this character, this person who came home expecting to order a pizza and drink red wine and go to sleep next to her husband, and instead discovered her life was a bomb with the fuse already lit, how would she play it? Quiet dignity? Righteous fury? Shoot him dead and then drive to Mexico with her best friend in a convertible?

That last one sounded like an idea.

“You met someone?” I asked. I sounded nothing at all like Susan Sarandon. I sounded 6 years old.

“I met someone.”

I could feel my head nodding up and down. I wanted a cigarette. I’d had my last cigarette the night before Nate and I moved to Brooklyn. I smoked it the way I’d smoked all through high school — in my bathroom, leaning out the window, with the shower running. I was 22 at the time, but I was still scared my mother would find out I smoked.

“I don’t think that’s a very good idea at all,” I said.

We stared at each other.

“You don’t think what is a very good idea?”

“Getting a divorce.” I was vibrating, I was shaking so hard. Vibrating in waves.

“You don’t?”


He shook his head no, looked down at his black Converse sneakers. “I have been trying to make up my mind for the past three days. I kept telling myself that if I could just make a decision and stick to it for 24 hours, then that’s what I would do.”

I took a shuddery breath. “Nate, look. These things happen. You go on the road, and these things happen. But it doesn’t have to mean that we…. I can forgive you, of course I can. It was probably bound to happen at some point.”

“You don’t understand.”

I laughed, gagged sort of, but it sounded like a laugh. “I do. I really do. You’ve been away, and we’ve both been distant. Was it a one time thing, or…”

“Tabitha. No. It wasn’t a one-time thing. It’s been going on a long time now.”

“How long?”

“A while. She’s been traveling with the tour.”

“She was on the tour?”

“No, I met her before. She’s just been traveling with us.”

I had never gone traveling with the tour. With any of the tours. I had asked to come visit him on the road, but he’d told me it wasn’t allowed for insurance reasons. In all fairness, I’d just always wanted to go to San Francisco.

“Tabitha, I need to tell you…”

I shook my head, “No.” I took the few steps to the door, stopped. “I don’t want to talk about this.” I was dizzy, freezing cold. “I don’t want to talk about this. You don’t get to do this. You don’t. You don’t get to be the one who leaves.”

He stood up, took two steps towards me, grabbed my arm and pulled me towards him. Put his face close to mine. I thought he was going to kiss me, and I leaned into him. “Her name is Kimberley,” he said, so quietly. “She’s a costume mistress at Seattle Playshop. She’s 24. She’s beautiful, and kind, and the sweetest person I have ever met, and I’m going to marry her. I gave you everything. I gave you my heart and all my energy, all my attention. You need to hear me, Tabitha. I don’t love you anymore. I haven’t loved you for a long time. She’ll be here tomorrow. And I do get to be the one who leaves. Someone has to.”

He pushed me away and pounded into the apartment, and I stood shaking in the rain. Seattle Playshop. He’d been to Seattle Playshop only once, it was the first theatre on the first tour he took out. Monks, that tour. Chanting monks. I stood there, feeling my hands, feeling my feet, wanting to smoke. Lightening flashed and I counted to 8 before I heard the thunder. Why did this feel so familiar? All this drama in the rain? This raging in the swirl.

Then I got it.

I ran into the apartment, bright with rage now, found him in the bedroom, throwing clothes into a bag.

“You asshole,” I seethed. “You staged this. You’re playing Lear! You’re playing fucking King Lear while you tell me you’re leaving me. What the hell is the MATTER with you?”

“You’re crazy, Tabitha. I’m not the theatrical one here.”

“Oh, yes you are, Nate. You most certainly are the theatrical one here.” He slipped past me out of the bedroom, heading down the hall towards the bathroom. I followed him.

“And another thing. Seattle Playshop. You’ve been having an affair this whole time? The whole time you’ve been gone?”

He stopped. Turned towards me. Sighed. Theatrically. He sighed theatrically. Just saying.

“OK,” he said. “I will do this with you right now. I will answer anything you want to know, and then I never want to talk about her with you again. I don’t even want to hear you say her name.”

“You don’t want to hear ME say HER name?”

“That’s right.”

He lost his virginity to me, over Christmas break of my freshman year at college, his sophomore year. I had a boyfriend I loved, who adored me, and Nate was dating his way through the theatre department at his school, but never managing to seal the deal. We talked on the phone every day, usually at midnight, both of us smoking out our dorm windows. We’d rehearse monologues over the phone. Complain about how classes interfered with rehearsals. Bitch about the parts we didn’t get in scene study class. We had sex for the first time on the floor of my bedroom in a nest of blankets, because my parents were home and my bed squeaked. We laughed through nearly the whole thing. Joked about how we might as well get it out of our systems. I never told my boyfriend and I never felt guilty about it. I trusted Nate more than anyone I had ever known.

“When did you meet her?”

“On my first tour.”

“The first theatre of your first tour?”


“So, let me get the sequence of events here, the plot, if you will. You left the house, saw a woman, and immediately began having an affair with her.”

He did that jaw clenching thing I hated so much. “If that’s what you need to tell yourself.”

“And she’s coming here?”

“She is.”



I swallowed. I didn’t want the answer to my next question, but I asked it anyway. In my experience, what you don’t know can hurt you; of course it can, sometimes far worse than everything you do know. “She’s going to your parents’ for Thanksgiving?” I whispered it.

He had the decency to look away from me. “Yes,” he said. “She’s coming for Thanksgiving.” He walked into the bathroom and started loading things into his dopp kit.

I looked around; at the mish mash of furniture we’d collected over the years, at the framed movie posters and Broadway show posters. The chairs and tables. The couch we’d bought new, the only thing we’d bought new. The basket of Playbills we’d collected. The pictures in frames, of us in high school, in college, all our cast photos. I imagined Kimberley sitting in my chair at the Alexander’s kitchen table, the one nearest the patio doors, which I had claimed the first time I drove over there on my own, the day I got my driver’s license.

The cat rubbed against my legs and I reached down and hefted his bulk against me, held him to my chest. We’d named him Harold, after Harold Hill, the lead character in The Music Man. Nate came out of the bathroom. “Once Kimberley and I get settled somewhere, I can take the cat,” he said.

“No. I’ll keep him,” I answered.

“You hate him.”

I rubbed my cheek against the top of the cat’s head. “I’ll keep him.”

“Tabitha, you didn’t even want him.”

He was right, I hadn’t. I’m not a cat person. I love dogs, in the ridiculous way that dog people love dogs, which is to say, wholeheartedly, and purely. I have lengthy conversations with dogs I meet in the street, using my dog voice. Nate wanted a cat, so we got a cat. Harold was 8 weeks old when we brought him home, our first Christmas living together, December of 1991. He wasn’t a puppy, but he was an adorable kitten, always jumping up on tall things and getting stuck there, meowing until one of us would rescue him.

“Listen to me, Nathan,” I said, in a calm voice that sounded just like Susan Sarandon in Lorenzo’s Oil, finally. “I’ll learn to love him. Or I’ll drown him. But you can’t have him.”

It’s possible I’m a tad theatrical myself.

“Fine. You keep him.” He disappeared back into the bedroom.

“I do kind of hate you,” I whispered to Harold. “But I wouldn’t kill you.”

Nate emerged, bag slung over his shoulder. He came close to me, reached out a hand and put it on my arm. “I’ll be with a friend tonight, and then Kimberley and I are going to stay at my parents’ through the weekend. You can reach me there. I’ll come back for the rest of my things after Thanksgiving, all right?”

I nodded.

“Are you all right? Is there anything I can do before I go?”

I nearly said, “Well, I certainly hope you’ll die soon,” which is a line from Broadcast News. He would have laughed at that, once. But I didn’t, because we were on the other side of the line now, in the free falling after, where our lexicon of private jokes was no longer spoken. I didn’t know what language we spoke now. Instead, I shrugged off his hand, and extended my own. “I’m going to need your American Express Card, your bank card, and your keys. You can meet me at the bank tomorrow and I’ll give you half of what’s in savings and checking.”

His eyes narrowed. “You’re serious?”

I didn’t move, just kept my hand in the air. He dropped his bag and opened his wallet, handed me the cards and his house keys. I’d expected a fight.

Then I was alone.

I’m not sure how long I stood there, holding the cat. I remember humming The Oldest Established from Guys and Dolls once or a thousand times. Good old reliable Nathan. The oldest established, permanent floating, crap game in New York.


Eventually I put down the cat and went outside, slipped and slid on the icy sidewalk to the corner store, where I bought three packs of Parliaments and a red lighter, then slipped and slid back home, where I lit my first cigarette in seven years and made two phone calls.

The first was to my best friend, Lily.

The second was to American Express.

Remember when I kept saying I was writing a book?

Turns out, writing a book is hard and takes a long time.

But yes, I’ve been quietly working on a novel. In fits and starts. At the kitchen table. On vacations. In airports. On the veranda at my parents’ condo in Florida. And after consulting with the people whose opinions matter to me most (my husband, Jonathan, my best friend, Lisa, and my daughter, Ripley) I’ve decided to release it on Patreon, one chapter a month.

Want to read it? I just posted Chapter 1. Come meet Tabby and hear about a terrible, rainy night in Brooklyn.

Photo by Fabian Schneidereit on Unsplash

Fame costs – and right here in my house that I haven’t left for a month is where I start paying

As we enter into week…4?…5?…eleventybillion? of Covid-19 stay-at-home life, I’m definitely looking for ways to keep my monkey mind occupied and my cooped up body from permanently assuming the shape of the kitchen chair where I currently spend my workdays.

I’m a former theatre kid, was a legit drama major in college, started my career at Manhattan Theatre Club, and have a tendency to burst into song during meetings. And so it is not an exaggeration to say I shrieked out loud when I learned that Debbie Allen – YES, THAT DEBBIE ALLEN —  is offering dance class via her Instagram.

Screen Shot 2020-04-14 at 2.47.23 PM

@therealdebbieallen wants us to live forever.

It has been my dream to have Debbie Allen yell at me in dance class since I was 13. And so, I put on my leggings, t-shirt and sneakers (all the while wishing they were leotards, tights and Capezios, which I no longer own, but which used to comprise 50% of my wardrobe – the other 50% being sweatshirts with the neck cut to look like Jennifer Beals in “Flashdance”), moved all the furniture out of my living room (I live in 900 square feet with two other people, so you can imagine how this was received by my husband and daughter as they did parkour over the coffee table to gain access to the bathroom), and got ready to START PAYING IN SWEAT.

I was terrible. Comically terrible. You’ve seen videos of a newborn giraffe standing up for the first time? It was like that, but not cute. It was as if I had just discovered there are feet attached to my legs which are also connected to my body and those legs can be used for something other than holding up my torso in my kitchen chair. Eventually, I just lay down on the floor and watched Debbie, and then I put on the episode of “Fame” where Jesse is in a coma and Mrs. Berg reveals she’s a medium. (This is an actual plot of an episode of “Fame.”)

I don’t know there’s a lesson to learn from this, except to say it was reassuring and comforting to remember that once, not so long ago and also a lifetime ago, I was a kid who loved dance class and theatre school, and had big dreams. And while those particular dreams didn’t come to fruition in precisely the way I imagined they might, they were sweet and sustaining during a chunk of my life when I was scared and sad a lot of the time, and terribly vulnerable – and they remain so. Because even though I am mostly made of kitchen chair now, it’s still fun to dance around the living room. I’m glad I remembered that.

A Short List of Things That Did Not Kill Me And Therefore Made Me Stronger, I Guess. (No Definitely. Definitely Stronger.)

If you pay attention to such things, you’ll note it has been quite a long time since I wrote here. Blame it on the booze, got you feeling loose. Blame it on ‘tron, got you in the zone. Blame it on the P P P P P P Prozac.

No seriously, blame it on the Prozac. I hardly drink anymore and I don’t know what ‘tron is.

I started taking a little blue pill with my morning coffee more than two years ago, and it has been a cure in all the ways I hoped and in ways I couldn’t have imagined. I was amazed by how much pain I was in, which I didn’t even recognize as pain until it went away, because I’d been living with it for so long. It’s been “a journey,” as they say, although mostly I sat on my couch and thought about things while looking out the window. I am nearly used to myself, now, this properly medicated version of myself, this (according to my latest performance review at work) energetic, kind, calm, generous, courageous, forgiving, resilient, resourceful, curious, friendly, self-preserving rather than self-destructive person who sleeps at night.

So now what?

Part of this “journey” (which I took on my couch) has been facing and doing things that have previously terrified me. Terrified me in the way being told to brace while your plane goes down, or seeing a shark fin in the water while you’re swimming far from shore, or waking up in a dark hotel room and realizing there’s a stranger standing at the foot of your bed would. No casual nervousness for this girl. No, I’m talking, “I’m gonna die, aren’t I?” levels of fear.

What were these harrowing tasks and incidents? Let’s review:

My favorite writer got mad at me, blocked me on social media,  and wrote a mean comment on this blog. Back in November of 2016 I wrote a post about how a story in author Jennifer Weiner’s collection, Hungry Heart, hurt my feelings (it’s here if you want to read it). Make no mistake, I LOVED JENNIFER WEINER and MY LOVE FOR HER is why the little story she told (in which she characterized my profession, advertising, as a place where shills go to sell crap to vulnerable citizens) gave me the spiritual ouchies. She could have done any number of things. For example, nothing. She could have done nothing. She could have written to me and thanked me for being a fan who BOUGHT HER BOOKS IN MULTIPLE FORMATS AND ALSO MULTIPLE COPIES THAT I GAVE TO FRIENDS and, I don’t know, said she was sorry my feelings were hurt? Instead, she blocked me on all social media (Sure. Fine. Whatever.) and sent me a note about my butt being hurt via a comment on this blog (which is below this post, if you want to read it). I was hotly embarrassed by this, and low-key devastated, because I honestly LOVED HER BOOKS AND DEEPLY RELATED TO THEM, and I had always dreamed Jennifer Weiner might blurb a book I’d write some day. I was also disappointed, because I kind of did think if Jennifer Weiner and I ever met we’d be friends. And I enjoyed her Twitter, and miss it. But I did not die.

I applied for a writing residency and was rejected. The Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts introduced a new residency this year, designed especially for New York State working parents with a dependent child at home. I have always wanted to attend a writers’ residency, and Saltonstall is a beautiful colony located in Ithaca, NY, home to Cornell, gorges, waterfalls, and many adorable little shops. So I prepared my packet and included my writing sample — 20 pages from the novel I have been “working on” since 2013 — and in return was sent a polite letter (take note, Jennifer Weiner!) letting me know I didn’t make the cut. I was disappointed by this, and frustrated. I cried about it. But I did not die.

I stopped dieting and decided to live a full, rich life in the body I have.  Hey, so, I’m fat. I’ve been thinner than I am now and fatter than I am now, but I’m fat and have been fat since I was…uh, always? I’m also Type 2 diabetic since 2005, when my gestational diabetes decided to take up permanent residency in my body even after my daughter was born. Fat is an adjective that describes a body, like tall does. And diabetes is a chronic illness attributable to genetics, environment, and other factors. Neither is a reflection of how good a person I am, my value in the world, or how much love and respect I do or do not deserve. I know this, because I spent an excruciating 6 months working with Isabel Foxen Duke, powerful force for good and lodestar of food and body sanity, learning about the science of diets, diet culture, body respect, intuitive eating, and getting off the crazy train of misery I’d been riding since I was 11 and put on Weight Watchers for the first time. Through my work with Isabel, I have found a kind of peace and self-respect I never thought was available to me. I Marie Kondoed the hell out of my closet, got rid of all the clothes that pissed me off, and bought fabulous new clothes that fit. I started exercising regularly, because it feels good to move around. I started eating exactly what I want (which is sometimes fried chicken and sometimes salad and sometimes fried chicken ON a salad), and monitoring my blood sugar carefully to make sure I stay within healthy ranges. I cut off all my hair and now rock a pixie inspired by a French model. I travelled to Europe, to Vienna, Austria, a place I have always wanted to go, because my family is Austrian and Billy Joel has been telling me Vienna waits for me since I was a child. I have stopped waiting for my real life, the life in which I am finally thin enough, to begin. This process has been rife with grief. It has been painful. It has been unaccountably frightening. I hated a lot of it. But I did not die.

I stopped writing the novel I’ve been “working on” since 2013. The book I’ve been thinking about and puttering with for six years is called Rom-Com Rehab, and it’s the story of two best friends, one of whom saves the other from a rock-bottom self-destructive depression by designing a rehab program based on tropes from romantic comedies. There’s a lot of material about mythology and how modern female characters are avatars for ancient goddesses. Some funny scenes about working in television. A bakery/bookstore. And a bit with a dog. It’s a big, sprawling thing, heavily influenced by Wally Lamb, who I idolize and who has never said anything mean about my butt (take note, Jennifer Weiner!) But honestly, that book as it currently stands is a wail of desperation and rage tinged with vengeance, filled with coded messages to people I don’t want to talk to anymore. So I’ve officially abandoned it, by which I mean I no longer angrily berate myself about being a loser and a quitter and a coward who can’t finish anything for not writing it, and instead lovingly encourage myself to think about other things I might write. Maybe I’ll go back to it someday, with new eyes, a different approach, an untangled heart. With the right intentions. But for now, I’m letting it go. And I didn’t die.

I’m turning 50 in April. It’s a birthday, like any other, but it feels like a waypoint. A moment for deciding what’s next. And for me, what’s next is knowing I am moving in the right direction, amongst friends I can trust, including myself. Realizing the things I fear are far less powerful than my ability to face them. Understanding cake is not the enemy. Acknowledging Jennifer Weiner is fighting her own battles that have nothing to do with me (and if I ever do write a book, I’m definitely including, “SO BUTT HURT! -Jennifer Weiner” as a blurb). And believing even if I lose ground, make a mistake, don’t get what I want, or someone is a jerk to me, I will not die from shame or rejection.

There’s always another writer to love, another residency to apply for, another self-limiting belief to dissolve, and another story to tell. And so, what’s next is new stories. Told honestly. Without regret. A place in the world I don’t have to ask permission for, but instead can inhabit wholeheartedly, sure I will fail sometimes, and equally sure I will survive it.


All These Quiet Days

Like any Gen-X girl who donned an ankle bracelet and twirled around at a Grateful Dead show during the summer of Touch of Grey, I have enjoyed my fair share of recreational drugs. It was never all that big a deal for me — I preferred the comforts of plain cigarettes and Diet Coke to the highs of more potent product. But drugs were a regular part of my life for a long time, so much so that I can make a bong out of nearly anything (including an apple), and yes I WOULD like one of the Percocet you have left over from your dental surgery.

The point is, I just said yes, and have never been one of these, “I won’t even take a Tylenol when I have a headache” kind of purists. Give to me your muscle relaxants, your pain killers, your antibiotics and anesthesia! But there is one class of drug I have steadily avoided, despite every good reason to give them a try.


Depression is such a slithering monster. All tentacles, always reaching for you, always trying to pull you under into the dark. I’ve been fighting it, denying it, trying to find a way to live with it, trying to outrun it, since I was 11. And even that, admitting I was depressed even before I got my period, is so fraught with all of depression’s greatest hits: fear, shame, the immediate need to explain that yes, it’s true, and yes, a doctor even said so. Two doctors said so. Actually three, three doctors, OK, to be technical,  one therapist, one psychoanalyst and one psychiatrist (walk into a bar! Ha ha!) all agree that my history of depression started when I was 11 (triggered, in part, by a traumatic event that involved getting abandoned at a bus stop in Manhattan by my father, but that’s a story for another day), and that the times in my life when I considered myself “depressed” were actually heightened times of anxiety or crisis, and when these periods ended I retuned to a baseline of depression.

Baseline of Depression, by the way, is my fantasy band name.

About a year ago, I was in the deep end of one of these “periods of crisis.” This one showed up as an acidic, foaming rage that turned me into a scary, unpredictable, gimlet-eyed insomniac who cried all the time. And if that sounds terrible, consider the fact that my trusted therapist, Joe, who had seen me through more than a decade of my life — a decade that included changing careers, meeting and marrying Jonathan, getting pregnant and giving birth to Emerson, my father’s death, and my mother and stepfather moving away — had retired a year before.

I’m friends with quite a number of genuinely wonderful depressed and anxious people, and so I asked the most talented of my depressed and anxious friends, a stunning writer and photojournalist whom I had been a legit fangirl of before we became friends in real life, if she would give me the name of her therapist. And that is how I ended up seeing Mean Steve, a brilliant psychoanalyst who treats some of New York’s most accomplished and famous artists. So famous is Mean Steve’s clientele that he has a series of doors and waiting rooms you use to get in and out of his office, so you never see who has the appointment before or after you. (I should mention that he is not actually mean. I call him Mean Steve because I hate fucking going to fucking therapy because I should be done with fucking therapy by now I’ve been in fucking therapy for my entire adult life and fuck him and his stupid fucking mystery office I hate therapy. Fuck fuck fuck.)

The details of someone else’s therapy are uniquely boring, and this is not actually a story about Mean Steve and all the crying and yelling I do in his office. It is a story about Dr. Tapas (not his actual name).

About four months into my therapy with Mean Steve, I asked if he could prescribe drugs. This was at Jonathan’s urging, because I had a habit of nibbling at his Klonopin. (This is not a sex thing.) Jon also wrestles with the many-armed monster that is depression and anxiety, and has actual prescriptions for drugs that help him, which he takes as prescribed, because he is brave and good and also smart. I, on the other hand, seek out the dreamy, warm-blanket oblivion of benzodiazepine the way one might enjoy a good Scotch, so I was “borrowing” Jon’s pills, which annoyed him to no end, because those are HIS drugs and go get your own drugs, lady.

Mean Steve does not prescribe meds, because he is not that kind of doctor, but he did offer to send me to his “guy” — the psychiatrist he partners with for patients who need medications to support talk therapy. I was not gracious about this offer. In fact, I believe my exact words were, “Fuck that. I don’t need fucking drugs. Fuck off, Mean Steve.” And if you are observing the fact that I was TAKING drugs while claiming I didn’t NEED drugs, then you are correct.

I was 25 when Prozac Nation was published. I am now 48, and drugs have come a long way, baby. Anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication have been suggested to me before, by every doctor I have ever seen, including my dermatologist, who during an annual skin exam noted my ragged, bloody bitten nails and asked about my state of mind. I have refused even the idea of anti-depressants time and again, because I was scared.

I was scared that my depression was the key to my talent. That without it I’d lose the dark and twisty thing inside of me that sends up the words, that tells the stories, that holds the memories.

I was scared I’d become boring.

I was scared that without depression, I’d have to deal with all the things that made me depressed in the first place, instead of living from crisis to crisis.

I was scared that “troubled former drama major with a passionate temper” was who I was, and that I wouldn’t know who to be or how to be if I medicated away the thing that defined me.

And also, I secretly suspected that I wasn’t depressed, but just kind of an asshole, and they don’t make a pill for that. And if I took anti-depressants I’d not only have confirmation of this, but I’d still be an asshole, just maybe a calmer one.

But I had also just had a performance review at work that boiled down to, “Who exactly does this bitch think she is?” and I was tired. Tired of hearing I was scary, and angry. Tired of hearing I was unpredictable. Tired of staying up all night watching TV I didn’t like and eating food I didn’t even want. Tired of not trusting myself.

And so I took myself to Dr. Tapas, so named because he is Spanish, and handsome, and reminds me of Javier Bardem, but not scary No Country for Old Men Javier Bardem. I fully expected to recite my life history with my usual detachment, because I have told this story so many times, to so many doctors and men in bars, the kind of men who want to hear all about how broken you are on a first date, but instead I surprised myself and ugly cried for 90 minutes.

If it is possible to listen warmly and with charisma, that is how Dr. Tapas listened, and when I was done vomiting up my lonely childhood and frightening father and broken dreams and terrible relationships and self-destructiveness and everything I’ve done to try and fix myself, the doctors and Buddhism and meditation and exercise and eating more fiber and dry brushing my skin and all the books Oprah said to read and hypnosis and yoga and nutritionists and psychics (yes, even psychics) he said this (with a Spanish accent):

“Stefanie. You have worked so hard, and we are all so proud of you. You have done everything a person can do to try and be well. And now, you have earned, you deserve…Prozac.”

Well. Ok then.

I took the first one the next morning.

That day, the first day, I was thirsty and had a headache, and kept texting Jon to tell him all the nuances of exactly how I was thirsty and had a headache. He assured me I was doing great. The next day, I felt a little dizzy. And then on the third day I woke up and it was quiet.

It was quiet. In my head.

I have lived my entire life with a din of voices in my head, telling me all sorts of awful things about myself. That I am lazy. Ugly. Unworthy. A fraud. Untrustworthy. And on and on, from the time I was small, a discord of fear and rage and disgust, so omnipresent that I’d simply come to accept the cacophony as normal. And now it was quiet.

I explained it to Mean Steve this way: It was like my head was the Overlook Hotel, a haunted house, and I could never be sure what was around any corner. I could never be sure what might terrify me, or enrage me, or jump on me and try to kill me. And now all the ghosts were down the hall in one room, having a party. And I couldn’t hear what they were saying and it didn’t matter, because I didn’t need to go to that party. Not ever. And it was safe in my head, to rest, to look around.

It has been quiet for months now. And I am learning how to be a person.

I spent, no joke, all of my free time during the first couple of Prozac months lying on my couch looking out the window. Not reading, not writing, not watching TV. I just watched the sky change. And listened to the silence.

Lately, I have been trying to figure out what I like. Not what will make me smarter or more acceptable, what I ought to pretend to be to be interesting, to be worthy, but what I actually like.

I like succulent plants, apparently. But only tiny ones.

And making quesadillas.

I like the beach. More than the mountains.

I do not like the Grateful Dead, it turns out, but I do have an abiding affection for Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

Yoga is not my thing, but I am a beast at pilates.

I will never be the kind of person who wants to go on a bike ride with you, but we could go on a hike.

I want to learn how to play the guitar.

And it turns out I am startlingly laid back. ‘A‘ole pilikia levels of laid back. Maholo.

It is so strange, meeting yourself at 48. But I am learning. I am learning the shape of my own desires. That I am more than my history, my ghosts, the ragged edges of my grief and fear. That redemption is possible. That it’s ok to accept the help I need. That depression is a monster but fighting it doesn’t have to be the only thing I do. That I am a work in progress, but progressing. That there is a party going on down the hall that I never have to go to.

I am learning how to live well in all these quiet days.









The Definitive Word on Working in Advertising

Not so long ago, I wrote about how one of my favorite authors inadvertently hurt my feelings by dismissing a career in advertising as the lowest form of hackism.

Yesterday, my gallant friend and advertising colleague Ryan forwarded me this letter, which was originally sent to a fan from Kurt Vonnegut.


Given a choice between being Jennifer Weiner’s shiller of crap and someone Vonnegut might consider witty and well read, I’ll choose Vonnegut every time.

So it goes.

Eventually, You Write Your Own Story

I have loved Jennifer Weiner since her first book, Good in Bed, was released in 2001. That book, and the ones that followed (13 and counting) resonated with me so deeply it was as if they had secret messages encoded in them. And not just because, like Jen, I’m a chubby Jewish girl with hair that has less volume than I’d like, but because from the first I could read between the lines of her comedy, which felt so much like my own joking exterior, and recognize the particular shape of her pain:

The abusive father she estranged herself from, not because she wanted to but because she had to. The complicated childhood. The devastating breakup. The never-ending battle with her body. The particular humiliation and bravado that comes from being a smart, funny, talented, ambitious, hyper-verbal, sometimes mean, sexually precocious, attractive but not necessarily beautiful, fat girl.

Fat girl. Saying those words out loud isn’t scary anymore, because while I’m still fatter than I want to be, I’m also now happily married and a mother and successful in my career and loved and healthy. I know how my story turns out. But I was 32 when Good in Bed landed in my hands, still devastated by the end of my first marriage, caught in a self-destructive swirl, and so plagued by self-loathing I avoided looking at myself at all costs, refusing to meet my own eyes in the mirror, avoiding my image in store windows, ignoring my grief, the hollow center of myself.

I had never read anything like Good in Bed. Here was a character that felt so familiar she made me cry, someone who got her happy ending without having to lose half her body weight, someone who got to stay fat and still have a life worth envying. It was nothing short of a revelation.

And Jen kept the stories coming, usually just in time for summer, books featuring women characters with longings and insecurities, thighs that rubbed together and authentic problems, always delivered with heart and humor, with a blistering insight into a secret hurt that felt personal.

In a lot of ways, I grew up — the real kind of growing up, the kind you do as an adult, when there’s nothing left but to die or change — with a Jennifer Weiner book in my hands.

I identified with her, probably over-identified with her. I’ve never met her in person, but we’re connected on social media, and I once posted on Facebook that she was my imaginary back-up best friend, in the event something happens to my actual real-life best friend, and she responded to me saying we had a deal, she’d be there for me if I needed her. I was so excited by this that I printed the post out and hung it over my desk at work.

I’ve bought everything she’s published, sometimes in multiple formats, sometimes to give away as gifts. So of course I bought her new book of essays, Hungry Heart, in which she exposes her personal life and shares stories I had already guessed at about her childhood, her father, the end of her first marriage, her writing life. I stopped reading during an early chapter about her being socially ostracized in elementary school to tweet that there would always be a seat for her at my lunch table (and then refreshed Twitter over and over to see if she’d reply, which she didn’t, but she did like my tweet).

And then, in a chapter about her early career, she hit me with this:

I needed to find a J-O-B, one where I’d be paid to write, where I was, per Professor McPhee’s advice, writing every day. The two fields that came to mind were advertising and journalism. I rejected advertising immediately. No way was I going to be a shill in corporate America, using my talent to sell debt-ridden citizens useless crap! Besides, I was convinced, for absolutely no reason rooted in reality, that I’d end up working on the tampon campaign, and that my professional life would be spent finding synonyms for the word “absorbent.”

I’ve worked in advertising since 2007. I’m a creative director, which is a significant achievement for anyone in my industry, but particularly for women (though we’re working to change that). I didn’t study advertising in school, or go to portfolio school — everything I’ve accomplished in the past 9 years is the result of hard work, significant mentorship, the help of generous, excellent bosses and colleagues, and my own steely determination to succeed. I’m proud of a lot of what I’ve worked on, and there’s nothing I’m ashamed of. I am an enthusiastic supporter of young women (and dudes) in adland, and have mentored several of them up the ladder — frequently from being assistants to becoming copywriters (remember to hire me when I’m old, you guys). It’s not perfect, and I don’t romanticize it, but advertising has provided me with innumerable creative challenges, the opportunity to meet and work with some of the smartest people you’ll find anywhere, and a fascinating look at how business works. It’s taught me discipline, time management, empathy. It’s made me a better thinker, a better writer, more resilient. And the money is great.

So I’d like to tell you that my immediate response was, “Fuck you, Jennifer Weiner. You couldn’t hack my job for a single day. And also, maybe you’ve heard of Always’s #LikeAGirl. Or Dove Real Beauty. Or seen the Expedia spot in which a father travels to his daughter’s wedding and welcomes her new wife into the family. Or the Secret commercial featuring a queer actress portraying a trans woman, speaking truth to power that there is no wrong way to be a woman. Or encountered the countless other purpose-driven campaigns that have influenced culture and captured people’s imaginations. And how dare you judge the way anyone makes a living.”

But the truth is, I set the book down and cried. Because I trusted her. I trusted her with my ugly truths and the things I feared. And she shamed me, for being the wrong kind of writer. For squandering my talent. For being a shill and a sell-out.

This is a voice I’m used to hearing.

It’s my father, telling me I’d be gorgeous if only I lost 10, 15, 20 pounds.

It’s my mother, telling me how proud she is of me but still asking why I blog instead of publishing in magazines.

It’s my ex-husband, telling me I’ve got talent but I’m no Norah Ephron.

It’s my ex-boyfriend, the one I let break my heart three times (because I never learn, until I do), telling me he always thought I’d be a college professor, and it’s so surprising I ended up in advertising because he honestly thought I was destined for great things.

It’s the former friend who declared all I ever had to do to get anything I wanted was bat my big brown eyes and smile.

It’s the voice that tells me, in no uncertain terms, that I am not good enough and never will be. That I’m weak. Untrustworthy. Sneaky. Lazy. Craven. That I’m ugly. That I’m fat.

There was a time in my life when having Jennifer Weiner tell me I suck was the sort of thing that would send me falling straight to the bottom of  what I call The Hole — that dark, dangerous, lonely place where the worst of my depression plays out — and I would cope by hurting myself. By sleeping with a stranger. By running a sharp blade over the soft inside of my thighs, not hard enough to cut, but enough to leave a mark. By Googling the ex-boyfriend who expected me to be the most popular Literature professor at a picturesque liberal arts college and torturing myself with a fantasy about how well his life was going. By stuffing myself until I felt sick. By refusing to sleep, obsessively watching TV as the small hours of the night became morning. By smoking like it was a job I’d been assigned.

In the years since Good in Bed was published, I’ve spent thousands of dollars and hours upon hours of time learning how to avoid The Hole, with therapists and psychiatrists, with personal trainers and nutritionists, with writing teachers and meditation teachers and the Dharma. I’ve learned how to talk back to that hateful voice, how to ignore it, how to silence it. I’ve learned that The Hole is a place I can climb out of on my own without damaging myself, that I’ve got boots and ropes and picks. That my legs are strong and my heart is pumping and my lungs are full of air.

And because sometimes life is kind, because sometimes we get what we want and it turns out to be exactly what we need, I also have have someone to catch me when I slip, someone who will slide down and sit with me in the muck, and climb back up with me when I’m ready.

I wiped my eyes, got off the couch, and went to find my husband, who was reading in the bedroom.

“Jennifer Weiner hurt my feelings,” I squeaked. Jonathan looked up from his book, pushed his Clark Kent glasses up on his nose, and with complete seriousness said, “That bitch.” I chuckled, still trembly, and crawled into the space he made for me on the bed. He listened as I explained the sucker punch of being called out as a hack, how it felt personal somehow, how it was the unexpected judgement and cruelty that had caught me so unguarded in a place where I thought it was safe to be vulnerable. He listened, and when I was done we lay there in silence for a while.

“Well, she can’t sit at YOUR lunch table anymore,” he said eventually. “But do you think she was talking to you, or to Jonathan Franzen?”

It’s a funny thing, empathy. The way it seeps into the cracks and restores you. Because of course, Jen’s longstanding feud with Franzen is bitterly insulting. Her ongoing defense of genre fiction by women as deserving of respect has earned her support, but also criticism. She was clearly devastated when Oprah didn’t choose Hungry Heart for her book club, and instead selected Glennon Doyle Melton’s memoir Love Warrior; and when Jen confessed that this rejection set off a “small, sad voice” in her head that had her comparing herself to Glennon — who is skinny and blonde and adorable — and finding herself lacking, I understood on the most fundamental level. I know what that voice sounds like, the one who calls you fat and tells you that the prizes are reserved for the cheerleaders, the popular girls, that no matter how hard you work, how hard you strive, you will always come up as less than. And maybe when Jen hears that voice she defends herself, in part, by contemptuously retorting, “Hey, at least I don’t work in ADVERTISING.”

And if that is the case, I get it. I do. But I also know there’s a way to shut that voice down without hurting anyone else. Without hurting yourself. That no matter how much you relate, in the end, no one is writing your story but you.

I did pick up Hungry Heart again, after a few days. I enjoyed it, although the spell is broken, and I read it the way I read anything else — with curiosity and interest, but not looking for clues to my own heart. And when I got to the part where Jen dissed Brooklyn (seriously, what is her problem with Brooklyn?) all I could do was roll my eyes, sip the coffee I’d just bought at Mazzola, admire the Halloween decorations all along Union Street, and laugh.















When Saturday Night Is Enough

My daughter, Emerson, graduated from 5th grade last Friday. It was a tender, joyful ceremony, as these things are, with applause for every child and a surprisingly well-choreographed group performance of (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life from Dirty Dancing. There was a slide show that condensed the past 7 years into just a couple of minutes — round-cheeked preschoolers stretching into 11-year-olds as we watched (which is just how it feels in real life) — and a video of the kids and their teachers dancing and lip synching to Shake It Off.

My husband, Jonathan, and I sat in the back of the school auditorium with my best friend and de facto sister, Lisa, and our recently acquired 26-year-old surrogate son, David Goldberg. David came to us by way of our friend Sheryl. A few years back, when he moved to New York City from LA, she asked if I would take him under my wing. I took him to dinner one night to talk about writing and finding a job, and it quickly became apparent that our family had been waiting for him. That he is the gloriously fun, comic-book writing big brother Emmy has always wanted and the giant-hearted, Jewish, gay son Jon and I didn’t even know we wished for. He joined our family so seamlessly, so completely, that Lisa has him in her phone as “David Gunning,” and I frequently nag him about how he doesn’t visit enough (he already has a Jewish mother in Texas, so I’m sure he really appreciates this).

And so there we were, Mama, Daddy, aunt Lisa, brother David, all cheering for Emmy on this accomplishment, this marker of years gone by and new things to come. I never fail to notice how many we are, that we need a big table at a restaurant, a family joined not by blood but because we choose to belong to each other. It fills me with comfort, to be so many. It still surprises me, sometimes, to be a part of something so solid and real.

I wish that was the whole deal, happiness and celebration, surrounded by loved ones. I wish these sort of days could be simple for me, that I could stop my monkey mind and pain-seeking heart from butting in. But it’s always a wash of complicated feelings, of relief and sadness and happiness and loss, a miasma that leaves me trying to figure out what to do with my face, talking too loud and with too much enthusiasm, or getting weepy in front of near strangers.

I have a habit of searching for what’s missing. Of looking for the empty place in the middle of everything. Of holding myself and my life up to an impossible fantasy of normality and wholeness that is part Atticus Finch and part every TV family that ever laughed over a ruined Thanksgiving turkey or a vacation gone awry. Inside my head  I am nearly always performing a monologue entitled “YOU SUCK,” which goes a little like this:

Does my daughter look happy in that slideshow? Should we have gotten her a math tutor in 4th grade instead of waiting until 5th grade? Did she have someone to sit with on the bus to the field trip? Someone to dance with at the party? I should have volunteered more at school. I definitely should have made more mom friends. It’s been all these years and I still call most of these people “The tall one with the face” and “The one with the boots.” We should eat dinner together every night. Probably she’ll be a drug addict because she eats microwaved mac-n-cheese at least once a week. WHY THE FUCK WON’T SHE READ THOSE HARRY POTTER BOOKS LIKE THE OTHER KIDS? We need to figure out better lunches. I should teach her how to cook. First I should learn how to cook. God, I hate to cook. We should hike more. We need to teach her how to ride a bike. She needs a dog but Jon doesn’t want one.We should buy a country house, for hiking and biking and dog having. I work too much. I don’t take enough pictures. We watch too much TV. We should have had another baby so she’d have a baby brother or a sister.  What does a normal family even look like? How do I know if we’re doing it right? I’m failing her, I know I am, in all the ways I realize I’m failing and in hundreds of ways I don’t even know about because I don’t know how normal people are supposed to act.

When I was growing up, I was my mother’s Saturday night date. She was a single mother who worked crazy hours and traveled a great deal for business, and she also had an active social life (dudes have always dug my mom), but Saturday night was for me (until I decided I was too cool to go out with my mom and wanted to stay home by myself to eat a chicken pot pie and watch The Love Boat and Fantasy Island). She took me out like I was a grown up, to PG (sometimes R!) movies and the opera, to the theatre and fancy restaurants, to museum nights and parties where people were flirting and dancing. I loved these nights, loved having my mother as a sort of friend, loved getting dressed up in one of the outfits she would buy for me (I still remember a pair of sky blue pants and a patterned blouse that had gold string woven into the fabric that made me feel like Brooke Shields).

Emmy and I started having Saturday night date by accident. One night when she was around 5 she was very sick, and we sat up on the couch together watching Nickelodeon while she vomited intermittently into a garbage pail lined with a plastic bag, which I would casually tie up and throw away. (This is the definition of motherhood, I think. Being completely at ease with someone else’s effluvia.) I told her about how Grandma and I used to spend Saturday nights together, and she decided then and there that we would have a weekly movie night together, that Saturday night would be ours. We started with Disney, but as she’s grown older we’ve expanded our viewing. She loves movies where friends have fun together and women are badasses, and this has taken us to some fairly inappropriate places, which, just by nature of being out of bounds, has made our weekend ritual even more sacred. (Let’s just say she thought Bridesmaids was HILARIOUS but didn’t love Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.)

On the Saturday after graduation, we watched Dirty Dancing, and because it was a special weekend, I invited Lisa and one of Emmy’s best friends to join us (first checking with her mom to ensure she was on board with this choice of movie, given the abortion storyline and Patrick Swayze’s pelvis).

I really thought I nailed this event. We had a Pinterest-worthy dinner, complete with protein and vegetable, eaten at our table. The girls took pictures of each other carrying a watermelon and posted them to Instagram, then we ate the watermelon while we watched the movie. NOTE MY ADHERENCE TO THEME!

But despite my best efforts at normal mom-ing, the next day Emmy seemed a little out of sorts. I left her alone with it mostly, but did ask her if everything was OK, and reminded her that I was here to talk if she needed me. She said she was fine, that she was sad about school ending, that she was a little nervous about sleep-away camp, that she was a little sleepy. And then finally, as we sat down to lunch, I asked her what we should watch for next week’s Saturday night date, and if we should invite anyone to join us, because wasn’t it fun to have a houseful of people?

“Mama,” she said, tears welling up. “That’s just for us.” And she went on to explain that while she loved having friends with us, we should only do friend movie night on Fridays from now on, because Saturday is ours, Saturday is when we order sushi and eat it on the couch, and sit in the dark and laugh when Melissa McCarthy lets loose a string of profanity, and she asks if she can repeat the line even though it has the F-word and the S-word and the A-word and I say she can but she can’t tell ANYONE I let her watch this movie and now we have a secret, just us.

Just us.

I look for what’s missing.

My daughter sees what’s there.

I worry so much that nothing I give her is enough, that I don’t measure up, that I’m lacking and failing because our life doesn’t look like Little Women or Father of the Bride or Family Ties or Modern Family, and yet somehow, she doesn’t realize that we should send out Holiday cards and go to the library and and throw more parties and I’ve never had a mom’s group and I always feel like there’s some secret code for being the right kind of grown up, the right kind of mother, and no one gave me the rule book so I’m just winging it. Because I’m only now starting to realize that there is no right way to be a mother, no pinnacle of normal to strive for. There is only being the mother your child needs, whatever that is.

And Emmy needs me.

And so I will keep showing up, every Saturday night for as long as she’ll have me, with my encyclopedic knowledge of movie musicals and my worship of Sigourney Weaver. Insisting that the only way to make popcorn is in a pot with oil. Understanding that bedtime on Saturday is merely a suggestion. And knowing that having someone next to you on the couch is one of the truest ways to feel loved.

Next week, Working Girl.

Just us.