Friends of ours from Ojai California came to visit with their two daughters yesterday. The husband, we’ll call him Ned for the purposes of this blog, is an engineer for the Navy and a tri-athlete. Really great guy, clean-cut, all American good looks, can run twenty miles on any given day, can fix anything, super smart, and really great with the kids. The daughters (four and eight) are outgoing and funny and beautiful and bursting with personality, and the mother is this tall, blonde, perfect-featured/figured artist who is also an avid swimmer and all around knowledge collector (you’d have to see this family to believe it. It’s like I made them up just for fun).
Actually, the mom is Ali from “She’s Got Issues.” I’m not sure if I ever mentioned that Ali is a real person who grew up with Dan and happened to work at Mademoiselle at the same time I did, or that she came across “She’s Got Issues,” in a bookstore one day in Santa Barbara, and saw my name and thought, “That’s weird. That can’t be the Stephanie Lessing I once knew,” and the next thing she knows, she starts reading and gets a really strange feeling she’s in the book. That’s how we got back in touch.
So there she was in my house yesterday, looking so blonde and athletic and genetically superior that every time I glanced over at myself in the mirror, I kept picturing that scene in “Annie Hall” when Woody Allen is sitting at the table with Annie’s mom, with the ham on the table, and he suddenly imagines himself in full Hasidic garb. “Ali” looked so perfect that I actually had to remind myself that she wasn’t a book character and that I hadn’t created her. I did borrow her though.
Even my eyebrows looked oddly thick last night, and I practically tweeze them off completely. Oh and this is unbelievable — at one point, we took a drive over to the nature center and I swear to God, just as we were leaving, the Ali character spots a collection of books just sitting on a rock. She bends over to see what they are, expecting to see something like, “On Walden Pond,” or “How to Paint Enchanting Landscapes.” Instead the title of the first book she sees is, “How to Raise a Jewish Dog.”
Back at the house “Ali,” who, as I mentioned, is a big swimmer, was telling us all about how she’s taking swimming lessons back home and how the instructor showed her all these new things that she never knew, even though she’s been swimming her entire life. I was nodding my head the whole time, trying to absorb what she was saying, just in case I ever go swimming again, and trying not to let out the fact that I can only swim with a snorkel.
I’ve never told anyone that before, but that’s how I swim, even in a regular pool. My parents used to have an indoor pool when they lived in Alpine and I, who never learned how to breathe properly while swimming, could only go a few laps without exhausting myself. So, when no one was home, I would put on a mask and a snorkel and just swim back and forth all afternoon without ever turning my head.
The whole time Ali was gracefully demonstrating the correct way to do the backstroke, I kept flashing back to my bloated lips wrapped around my mouthpiece, the little whistle at the side of the pool that I kept for emergencies, and how fiercely I’d ball up my fists and curl my toes in an effort to improve my form.
It’s amazing how long I’ve been able to carry on certain friendships without ever letting on just how truly inept I am at so many things. It’s harder to hide these things from Dan because he lives with me. I’ll never forget the first time he saw me ski. I felt so sorry for both of us that day. He was riding the chairlift and spotted me on the mountain down below trying to disentangle myself from my poles. We caught each other’s eye, and I’ll never forget the look on his face. It was like he was watching me try to feed myself wearing facial mittens. When I finally skied down, he was waiting for me at the bottom of the mountain. He could have teased me to tears like he usually does, but he didn’t say anything. I think it was at that moment that he went from being my boyfriend to family.
Dan caught my eye a few times last night too, and we both knew what I was thinking. I felt pudgy and short, and almost as though I’d grown a moustache and yet I was having the time of my life watching them. I wanted Ali and her family to stay forever. I guess I was hoping some part of them would rub off on me. Perhaps I’d become more coordinated if they stayed long enough, or even a little less freckled, but they were headed to Maine and it was getting late. After they left, I was so sad I couldn’t sleep. How often do any of us get to see the characters from our pasts appear in our kitchens, only to discover that they’re even better in real life?