Do I Know You?

When Mira called—out of the blue—we’d been out of touch for decades. I asked how she was. She said, “I’ve done everything I always wanted to do.” The words were a challenge. What if she’d figured out the secret to a happy life? We’d gone to high school together in New York in the late 1950s, a school for students talented in music or art. The school was highly competitive; music students had to perform, art students had to bring in a portfolio and also draw from life a person seated on a stool. Being there meant we were talented, special. What was wrong with that?

We were art students. I was thin and had long black hair. I thought of myself as ethereal and had cultivated a vague gesture, as if brushing away a cobweb. When I took up smoking, I practiced in front of a mirror. I was shy with boys I liked and barely talked to them. I wore a little eye makeup and my clothes were shapeless; my little toes poked out of holes in the sides of my sneakers. In my mind I was a princess-in-waiting, as if I could win a prize through innocence and the wearing of shapeless olive-green garments: something interesting would happen to me later in life. At the Modern, gazing at Rousseau’s Sleeping Gypsy, or Sunday afternoons in Washington Square Park, listening to the long-haired boys playing banjos and guitars: at such moments I felt lucky to be myself and not anyone else.

Mira was unlike me in every way. She drew curved black lines at the corners of her eyes, her lipstick was practically white, and she ironed her hair. She wore black stockings and shoes with little heels. Her teachers thought she was good as gold; in fact, she shoplifted, drank, smoked pot, and slept with boys. She was guided by an instinct for seeing what she could make happen. She lied just to lie. She told one person that she had a little brother who’d drowned. She lied just to see what she could get away with.

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