In Media Res, Part II.

Partie Une here.

A few weekends after Venice, I made my way to Amsterdam, this time with a closer friend. I had coordinated the trip so as to cross paths with one of my brother’s best friends, B., who happened to be traveling there for work, and whose familiar, sibling-like presence left me with a lump in my throat when we first met up at a small, previously-agreed-upon cafe.

“SmileyJen!” B. yelled affably in my direction, an abbreviation of my AIM handle, as we approached. I smiled despite the telltale constricting in my throat, the catch in my breath. I forced myself into pleasantries and plans for the afternoon. Despite my misgivings about visiting art museums with others, the three of us spent a lovely afternoon at the Rijkmuseum, whose extensive collection of Van Gogh and Vermeer was staggering. In between appropriately decorous pauses at the feet of these masterpieces, B. asked about my parents and sisters, we exchanged well-worn jokes at my brother’s expense, and I suppressed multiple instincts to cry. B. was a part of my brother’s tight-knit high school posse of four wise-cracking, immature, highly intelligent, and loyal friends. One or several of them were nearly always at our house between the years of 1996 and 2000, when my brother left for college in Boston — to the degree that my mother took to calling them “Sons One, Two, Three, and Four,” and would eventually have t-shirts made up to that effect. To the degree that we routinely doubled the portions for dinner, as at least one was at our dining room table any given night of the week, or picking at leftovers after sports practice the afternoon following. To the degree that I wasn’t surprised when one of them would pick me up from a party in lieu of my brother without previous coordination. Just: “SmileyJen!” they’d yell from the car window, and I’d trot out, unphased, waving to my friends. But B. had always been particularly solicitous of myself and my three younger sisters. When my brother threw parties when my parents were out of town, B. routinely sat with us for long stretches of the evening in the kitchen. Though he was friendly and conversational, we understood even then that he was keeping an eye on us.

After dinner, B., my girlfriend, and I accidentally cut through a corner of the red light district, and I felt my stomach knot. The scene was alien and garish and I felt flustered in B.’s avuncular presence. I was already highly sensitive to the unknown, and the Red Light District felt a few yards over the line.

“Hey, what’s going on?” asked B. “You’re making a face just like your mom does.”

It was too much, all of it: I felt in an instant that I had been posturing my way through the many weeks of travel to date, feigning savviness and aplomb when I was inwardly drowning in loneliness, heartsickness, and anxiety. Having this figure from my childhood invoke my mother in the presence of this gaudy strip of street — knowing that I was still, even as far as I was from her and the near-holiness that she represented, an extension of her gesture — well, I was adrift, now a faceless dot standing in a highly-trafficked, brothel-lined neighborhood in an ancient Dutch city, the aptly named “Venice of the North,” hundreds of thousands of miles from the man I loved, staring at a tableau that was all sharp angles and shadows: again, the chiaroscuro of modern isolation. The vertigo I’d felt in Venice returned.

There was a problem with our accommodations that night — not on the order of the Venetian hole-in-the-wall, but something logistical. B. had gallantly walked us to the hostel, and, upon discerning the trouble, had insisted we stay with him in the fine hotel his company had paid for.

“Your mother would kill me if I didn’t,” he pressed. And because I was twenty and occasionally unknowingly rude in such ways, and because I was overwhelmed by the gesture, and because I was desperate to keep any part of home close to me, I agreed — much to my friend’s delight, I might add. B. spent the night on the floor in the hallway of the suite, and my friend and I collapsed into deep sleep in the plush, king-sized bed with its finely laundered white linens.

In the gray light of dawn, my friend and I scampered around gathering our belongings in order to make our 7:30 a.m. flight to Copenhagen. B. stood in the archway, bleary with exhaustion and yet, still, the very conjuring of home. I could not look at him. I rehearsed what I might say as I busied myself zipping my suitcase and running a brush through my hair, and then, it was only a too-chipper, too-clipped: “Thank you!” A perfunctory hug, a squeeze on the arm. His dark frame a silhouette in the doorway as he watched us scurry down the hallway.

That daybreak departure — the early hour convenient cover for the disproportion of my anguish — remains in my mind the adumbrated vignette of self-formation at that time in my life. I was somewhere between childhood, when I belonged to my family, and adulthood, when I belonged to myself. But I also was desperate to belong to my boyfriend, and I couldn’t quite figure out how to make the pieces fit together.

In the meager light of an Amsterdam morning, as I taxied through a fine gray mist, all I knew was that I was in migration, midway, in media res.

Post-Scripts.

+Another powerful memory of in-between-ness from that semester abroad.

+And something written more recently about wandering.

+Speaking of France: the best French potato salad.

+Kate Somerville is running its friends and family event — 30% off anything with code BYNPFF30 (and free shipping!). This 2-minute exfoliating facial is amazing — try it in the trial size if you’ve never given it a whirl before! I’m also intrigued by this acne treatment lotion; in the past, I’ve used Mario Badescu’s drying lotion for “spot treatment” in emergencies, but I’ve consistently read good stuff about the KS lotion, and I know people rave about her daily cleanser. She used to have a body cleanser that I SWORE BY but that has been discontinued.

+The Nordstrom semi-annual sale just started for certain tiers of card holders. I’m mainly excited to order my favorite bra, my favorite underwear, and my favorite daily lip product (two for the price of one!!! — I wear this allll the time).

+These mallard pajamas are a must-have for micro this fall. They are sold out nearly everywhere else!

+Late summer wardrobe staple: white linen loose-fit mini dress. Yes pls.

+This midi is just so pretty.

+In need of new sports bras. Eyeing this long-line sports bra and this grandmillenial chic floral.

+Magnetic wooden blocks — cute gift! (More great toy ideas here.)

+I had to buy this precious Proper Peony for one of my girlfriends, who just had a daughter; now it’s 50% off with code SPLASH50.

+I have had great luck buying layering thermals at Old Navy over the years — they can be hard to find elsewhere! I love the look of a soft, waffle-knit tee at night or beneath a casual sweater. This one comes in such great colors!

+This satchel is so dreamy.

+A late-summer one-piece swimsuit in the perfect shade of peony pink. (More great swimwear finds here.)

+Still a few Roop bags here! (I’m in love with mine.)

+These strappy sandals remind me of The Row.

+A really really good cocktail.

10 Comments

  1. Jen– I often find myself starting a response to you then realizing 15 min later that I have written a small novella reflecting on my own life. Your long form writing always inspires productive and poignant introspection. I’ll save you the novella, but want to say thank you for the prompting!! I spent my full junior year abroad (my boyfriend joined for the second half)and my experience was rife with so many of these same emotions. I especially related to your use of ‘desperate’ in the line, “But I also was desperate to belong to my boyfriend, and I couldn’t quite figure out how to make the pieces fit together.” There is something about the emotional intensity of your early twenties that breeds a uniquely potent desperation. Just remembering it makes my heart clench!

    Also, loved your comment too, Molly! “Trying to fit round emotions into square relationships” really is such an apt description.

    1. Hi Katherine – Thank you for the tremendous compliments, and I say — bring on the novella! I love hearing what you have to say! You are so right about the emotional intensity of your early 20s. All about self-formation, independence. I have said this a few times on the blog, but I think it’s tricky, too, because so many of us go from being in lockstep with our peers (high school –> college) to finding ourselves totally scattered in terms of our “achievements” and “lifestyles.” I remember struggling as I looked at some friends who married and had small children by the age of 25; others who pursued careers in finance and seemed so established and financially secure; others who were still in school; others who had jumped around from entry-level job to entry-level job. It was so hard to understand what I was supposed to be doing, and I was comparing myself to people all over the map!

      Anyway — just to say, I agree!

      xx

  2. This post caught in my throat and evoked tears in my eyes. I can’t gather more eloquent thoughts other than B. sounds like a truly great person and that I love love love your long form writing.

    What you said at the end about belonging to your family and wanting to belong to your boyfriend is such a great depiction of the process of self-formation which sometimes feels like trying to fit round emotions into square relationships; the transition from what your “immediate family” means and the lack of clarity of how it will all fit together.

    1. Thank you so much, Molly. Relieving this time was a tenderness — I can feel how emotionally fraught it was even now, so many years later. And you are so right on the comment about “fitting round emotions into square relationships.” Such an apt description! It really captures the way my 20-year-old self was hoping to conform with expectations I had around what it meant to be a daughter, girlfriend, a grown-up, a woman full-stop–and how difficult it was to achieve them with so many new experiences, moving parts, moments of cognitive dissonance, and the inevitable surges of emotion that accompanied them all.

      Thank you for reading along, friend!

      xx

  3. As MK said, I love your long form writing. These type posts are by far my favorite. To be quite honest, you and I couldn’t be further apart fashion wise, but your writing, along with the other nuggets like home decor/organization/etc. has made this blog one of my top 3 favorites 🙂

  4. I love your longer-form writing, and you already know how I feel about how you capture the waning days of youth, especially when you’re writing about studying abroad. I fear that no other experience in my life will ever be as formative! I mean, falling in love was, of course, but in a different way … ahhh.

    xx

    1. Thank you, MK! I totally agree. Such a fantastic experience. Will definitely be nudging my children to do the same one day…

      xx

    1. Thank you, Annie! It was really fun to think back on this time and dig deep into what it felt like to be twenty, in love, and abroad. It feels like a different life — was that me wandering through the Venetian canals?! I’m rubbing my eyes in disbelief…It was strange and exciting to try that former self back on.

      xxx

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