An Imagined Future of Complicated Grown-up Life
Delving back into Thisbe Nissen’s 2001 novel, The Good People of New York, felt like a kind of time-travel eavesdropping. From its first pages, I found myself in the middle of a conversation I’d begun as a teenager, a conversation I’d had with the characters, with the author, with the story itself. I pulled the book off my shelf because I was in the mood for something familiar, and there they were: the characters I loved, unchanged. It felt good to become reacquainted with Miranda, the smart, snarky, not-quite grown-up daughter; Roz, her overprotective but endearingly spirited mother; and the friends and lovers that flow in and out of their lives over the book’s twenty-or-so-year span. The events, too, I found comfortingly predictable and yet still affecting as they unfolded.
But I had changed since that first read. When the book came out, I was just beginning high school in a New York suburb. For me, The Good People of New York was a well-written window into an imagined future of complicated grown-up life, of urban living and love and sex. I read it more than once, and when I wanted just a taste of the story, I would open to a random page and take in just a scene or two. I had favorite parts, of course: mostly the moments when Miranda was doing something sneaky and forbidden. Lying to her mother, kissing someone she shouldn’t—moments that let a pretty well-behaved fifteen-year-old vicariously live a little more daringly.
This time around, curled up in an armchair with the book against my knees, I watched Miranda and Roz’s New York City meld itself with the city that is now mine. I’d known Miranda and Roz’s New York before I knew my own, and bits of their city had mixed with mine over the years. Loews 84th was not just a movie theater on the Upper West Side; it was the movie theater frequented by Nissen’s characters. Through this new reading, my city began to write itself on top of theirs. I could picture the Park Slope apartment they lived in and cringe at the way the rent on such a place would’ve skyrocketed since their fictional time there in the 1980s.
In this new New York, everything looked a little different than it once had. The high school students seemed more naïve. Roz’s every feeling struck me as logical; her protectiveness was clearly warranted. Miranda seemed immature, volatile, and stubborn, though I remembered once wishing that I had a friend like her. Or that I was like her. (Bold, sexy Miranda sneaks around with boys at summer camp! I never so much as kissed a boy at summer camp. When I first read The Good People…; I hadn’t kissed anyone at all.) But on this read-through, I related more to the mother than the daughter.
And when Miranda’s cute but misguided English teacher came upon the scene, their situation—a twenty-three-year-old sleeping with an eighteen-year-old—struck me as much more troubling now that I knew something about twenty-three-year-old man-children. Reading about Mr. Lorimer and his tortured emotions, I had the same realization that eighteen-year-old Miranda has as she sits in a diner booth, where she has fled to escape his dramatics. She remembers cozy hours spent at a diner with the high school theater kids, the above-it-all seniors, back when she was only twelve, the theater club’s talented seventh grade mascot. It dawns on her: “She’s older now than they’d been then! That seems impossible, but it’s irrevocably true.” In my book, the next sentence is energetically underlined in wavy black pen:
She supposes that’s just the way things go: you never get to the place you once looked up to because once you’re there you’re no longer looking up and you realize that maybe it only really existed if you caught it on it on an angle from below.
I loved that line when I first read it—even at fifteen, it resonated with me. But now, to return to it while feeling that very sensation toward the characters themselves, was both strange and moving. They hadn’t grown and changed with me, but their lives had shifted with my own understanding; the snowballing of my own experiences had deepened—and in some ways, even rewritten—the story. I wasn’t simply revisiting those characters; I was revisiting fifteen-year-old me—who was immediately smitten upon reading an excerpt from the book in Seventeen magazine, who bought the book in hardcover, probably at the local Borders that dominated my suburban book scene, and devoured it ravenously. I remember thinking, I like living inside of this story. I remember thinking, If I’m ever a writer, I want to write like this.
These days, as I write my way toward an MFA in creative writing and try to figure out what comes next, I think about fifteen-year-old me a lot. I think of her thinking about Thisbe Nissen and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—which I first learned of when it appeared in Nissen’s author bio—and the magical idea of going to school for writing. At that age, I already cared a lot about reading and writing. I kept a detailed journal, entries spanning a shiny rainbow of Gelly Roll pens. That journal is so inanely packed with the details of who was crushing on whom that I can only wince when I try to read it now. I half-wrote short stories, mostly plotless, heading-nowhere Microsoft Word documents about girls who were like me but a tiny bit cooler. I worked with what I knew.
When I feel panicked or overwhelmed by the work I’ve undertaken, I imagine how ecstatic fifteen-year-old me would have been if she could have looked ten or twelve years ahead. Maybe you do get to the place you once looked up to—that daunting and scary place. But when you get there, it’s already changed, turned into something you couldn’t have predicted. The reality of that place and everything that led you there is both harder and sweeter than the younger you could have imagined.
Rebecca Worby is an MFA candidate at Columbia University, where she has also taught writing to undergraduates. She is working on a book about atomic legacy and the complicated relationship between people and land in Moab, Utah. She is also the host and curator of Shelf Life, a nonfiction reading series starting this fall at Hullabaloo Books in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Follow Becca @bworbs and Shelf Life @ShelfLifeNonfic.