This is the eighth (and final) piece in a brief series of posts. Here are the firstsecond, and thirdfourthfifthsixth, and seventh.

By mid-June, I am feeling crazed by Not Knowing whether I have the type of EDS that will make my organs rupture without warning, and also by Not Being Able to run now, or potentially ever again.

There is nothing that makes a woman feel less attractive than spending a summer recovering from surgery. My skin and stomach are both taking a beating from the constant onslaught of anti-inflammatories. I have been nauseous for weeks; constantly dissolving Zofran tablets on my tongue. I sleep in long, monogrammed PJs even as the temperature rises because I am sick of looking at the scabby holes in my leg. I’m walking on my own, but my gait is like that of a baby giraffe and I cannot walk for too long without epic fatigue.

These are First World Problems, so I try to power through. I focus on how quickly I am healing; I talk about my progress with physical therapy. I take pictures of the scars and I post them on Instagram because when you are full of holes, you only want people to see the supernova of your body on your terms. I have two constellations of incisions – one on each hip – and a whole galaxy of scars on my right knee from repeated, failed arthroscopies during my days of competitive sports. There is also a several inches-long vapour trail running down the inside of my right leg from my running accident last summer.

I have to do something. I search for any activity that I can participate in that will Take The Edge Off and will not require more medication and that will not bore me. Under the influence of the last of my narcotics and Royal Ascot, I decide horseback riding is the way forward. I ask my physical therapist whether equitation is permissible, and he tells me that it is possible, but not advisable because Meredith, squeezing a piece of horsemeat between your legs could irritate your hip flexor.

I love making dirty jokes, but I do not take his bait because the last time I did that, I wound up announcing to the entire gym that I eat boxes for breakfast! I was talking about my prowess in conquering the eight inch riser they were having me step-up and step-down to prove my quad strength before they’d let me in the anti-gravity treadmill. But I got a few looks that morning.

I spend the next few days scouring the internet for barns that are not too stuffy, that are close to the city, and that accommodate adult beginners.

The last time I rode a horse was when I was leaving my first husband. Jade told me that when I was ready to leave Andrew, I should come home. When I knew it was time, I called my parents to come pick me up at a wedding in Las Vegas and take me back to LA. I had had several moments where I knew my first marriage was over, but that wedding where Andrew had dragged us to Vegas insisting he was the best man in a wedding in which he was not even in the wedding party provided a particular moment of clarity as to the direness of my circumstances.

Once I arrived in LA towards the end of that particular shitshow, Jade took me to her mother’s house. Jade’s mother, Das, is an accomplished equestrienne, and was one of the only divorcees I knew intimately at the time. Das took me out on the trail and we rode for hours and hours. It had inspired me to write a poem about Frederic, and horses, and divorces, which I had shared with him, and which he had praised in that way that made clear he thought it was stupid.

And that was that.

Within months Frederic was legally separated, and so was I and I thought things might go somewhere, sometime. But then he surprised me by telling me that he’d been seeing the Danish girl all that time, and what was I doing, still writing him letters? Didn’t I know that I’d caused a terrible flap between him and his girlfriend because they’d moved in together and one of my letters had been forwarded to their shared abode?

I shrunk back in a special kind of shame, then, when I realised I had left a man who couldn’t handle rejection to the point of refusing to admit he wasn’t the best man in his childhood friend’s wedding, only to find myself sending poems to a man I failed to notice was living with another woman.

I sign up for riding lessons at a farm in Pleasantville, NY near where Paul and I were married. My instructor wears concert t-shirts and has turquoise hair and tells me that I need to feel things; that I will suck at this a little to start; that feeling is first. I cry the first time I get on the horse – a giant gelding called, of all things, Bill – not out of fear, but because I am certain I haven’t felt much of anything in years.

I don’t suck at horseback riding, but I am not instantly good at it, which is exactly what I need. I need something to take my mind off of the EDS; and the whole of my lower extremities.

Hold the reigns up, like an ice cream cone! Tamara the instructor shouts from the centre of the ring, and I apologise for not doing it right. Why are you saying you’re sorry? she asks me, truly baffled, You’ve done this like three times in your life!

With that, I begin to realise how far off the rails I have gone. Literally. Figuratively.

At the end of my first lesson, I sign up for many more because even if I never master the sport, I am coming to terms with the fact that nothing will be the same again, and the future, whatever it is, will be entirely different and wholly Okay.

This is the seventh in a brief series of posts. Here are the firstsecond, and thirdfourthfifth and sixth.

We have made it to the end of May. I am still on crutches, but I am not yet losing my mind. I have Prepared for This – large joint reconstructions are apparently What I Do in the summertime now.

It is the morning of the last day in May, which is also my mother’s birthday, and it is a perfect, slightly cool New York City Early Summer Day. I take Roo out for his morning walk, hopping along beside him using one crutch, and hoping we finish his constitutional quickly. Everything takes so much longer when your mobility is reduced, and even walking and scooping after the dog seems to take hours longer each day than it did when I was fully in control.

As I carefully thread us between the fussy dogs and I navigate the uneven brick pavers on my block, Roo suddenly takes off for a man standing by his car. He is an older man; well-dressed; and is putting some sort of box into the trunk of a late-model black sedan.

I’m sorry, I apologise as I try to steady myself, He doesn’t normally take off like that.

I didn’t think he’d recognise me, the man tells me. I am not looking at the man’s face as he says this; I am looking down at my dog, who is sitting prettily beside this stranger like he has known him forever. But when the man mentions being recognised, my eyes are drawn upward. In New York City, it is not uncommon for a person unknown to a dog’s owner to recognise and be recognised by the dog – Roo is walked by a walker during the day and makes friends all the time. This is to say that, on its face, this exchange is no where near as weird as it might sound to a non-New Yorker.

But before I can ask how this man knows my dog, I realise what striking resemblance the man bears to my dead grandfather – my mother’s dad. I look at his face, and he looks like a very well-dressed, not-dead version of Bop. I am speechless for a moment, because the resemblance is so uncanny.

He bends down to pet Roo, then looks at me: Tell her I love her, he says as he stands up. He puts his hand on my shoulder, like he is resisting asking me for an embrace. I am dumbfounded, and not ordinarily a touchy-feely person, so I nod and I toddle away home with my dog.

I burst into tears in the lift, because I am either going crazy or have already taken too many pain-pills for the day. My mind is racing with questions. When we die, do we simply go on to live as our Best Selves in some other realm – successful, calm, and happy – waiting to bump into the occasional friend and relative along the way? Did I really have a conversation with my dead grandfather on a New York City street in broad daylight? Why would a stranger tell me to tell someone he loves her – unless it were my mother’s father on the day of her birthday?

Am I losing my mind? I am losing my mind.

My mother follows closely in the tradition of her people: Emotional Spaniards Who See Things. She often mentions her conversations with dead people, like this is something perfectly normal, and no one ever bats an eyelash at it. But my apple fell closer to the staid tree of my northern European father, whom I have only seen cry three times in my life: Once each upon the deaths of his parents, and then when I informed him in no uncertain terms that I would not be majoring in accounting.

I feed the dog then hobble off to work. I resolve to go back down and talk to this man; ask him how he knows my dog; let my rational mind take over and figure out The Reason For All This. But by the time I get back downstairs, the man has disappeared.

Am I dreaming?

I do not tell anyone about this encounter, because it sounds insane. In the past, I’ve always loved the subtle signs that I thought represented Bop waving from beyond – his name appearing in unexpected places; the time I thought I heard his laugh in the middle of the night. Those tiny events, which always happened at Just The Right Time, seemed ordinary and easy to explain – a consequence of my brain looking for comfort and reassurance after a protracted period of Complicated Grief.

How do I explain this; how can I make this make sense? I wonder in the taxi on the way to the office.

With my EDS diagnosis, the doctors believe that the genes for the disorder were passed from my grandfather, to my mother and Margaret, to me. And so I have been angry at my grandfather – the man who could do no wrong. I am mad at a dead guy, more than a decade after his death – mad that my grandmother had to feel like she was at fault for the death of her child when my grandfather’s shitty collagen gene was the likely culprit; inconsolable that I’ve spent the past few summers having my body put back together and it took so long for anyone to figure any of this out.

I am also suddenly super annoyed that despite spending decades talking and writing about how different and distant we are, I am turning into my mother.

This is the sixth in a brief series of posts. Here are the firstsecond, and thirdfourth, and fifth.

It is mid-May.

Jade is originally meant to stay for a week, but she stays for ten days instead.

I do not know how to communicate how glad I am to have her here. I am the sort of person who sends handwritten letters, or gives Grand Gifts to show gratitude, but who struggles with the basics of close emotional engagement. With that in mind, sometimes I re-watch Hannah and Her Sisters, and I want to believe I am the desirable Lee or the fragile Holly – but in truth, I am the easy-to-resent Hannah. Hannah, who never needs anything from anyone.

Jade works in the Arts, and some of her work can be done away from Los Angeles, so she works while I lay on the sofa in a drug-addled stupor with my leg in a machine that bends it for several hours each day. My contractor has not finished the bathroom renovation he promised to finish a week ago, so Jade puts on her headphones as the Tile Guy cuts marble in the background.

One thing is clear: We did not expect to be Here, wherever Here is.

Jade has come to New York wearing a hat with Half Dome embroidered on it, and I laugh, because I have the same one. It dates back to the early days of my divorce; my first week on the California coast. Jade had met me in Carmel, and although we were arguing about The Circumstances Surrounding The End of My Marriage, we drove to Yosemite to climb Half Dome.

For the first time in my life, I had no idea what I was doing.

In my head, it was the Perfect Time to climb a mountain, specifically, Half Dome. But because I do a lot of communicating in my head, I do not think I fully explained what this entailed to Jade.

We arrived in Yosemite at night and everything was on Fire. Jade’s house had once burned down, and she was terrified and furious at me that I had brought her to a literal firepit to force her up a mountain for no reason. And I had lost all powers of persuasion – I had just filed separation papers two weeks before – and had gotten a speeding ticket on our drive. At the time, I felt like it was an excellent idea to argue with the National Park Service officer over what federal preemption is and how it applied where a state law explicitly granted one the right to decline to provide one’s social security number for a speeding ticket.

(When you are getting divorced, it is shocking how angry you are – even if it is an amicable split. I denied how angry I was for a long, long time. I admitted to feelings of guilt, and sadness, and grief. But I look back on all the fights I picked with strangers; all the things I had to prove; and I cannot help but marvel at the magnitude of my rage.)

So Jade and I climbed – it took us all day but we summited Half Dome and looked out over the hazy valley. There were points where I had to scream back down the trail and encourage; bribe; cajole her up the mountain. But we did it.

Relationships are not easy. But that is part of how we got Here, I think: New York by way of California; divorced by way of Half Dome; married by way of a proposal in Yosemite Valley. Diagnosed with some rare disease by way of Scotland, and Amsterdam, and Big Sur, and an aunt who died in infancy.

So Jade works, and my leg bends, and the Tile Guy saws, and here we are.

Throughout the week, people come and go and Jade and I talk in between guests. Or sometimes, we don’t talk at all. Sometimes we just sit. On Saturday, when I am finally less disoriented and nauseated, Jade goes to spend a night Out East with an old friend of ours. JRA comes to visit; my friend Patricia comes in the morning to stay for a few hours. Others come and go. One friend jokes: Your house is always so clean and you are always so put together that it’s sort of fun to be like this. She confides this like we are little girls at a sleepover, and we are pulling a trick on My Ordinary Self.

I never need anything from anyone so I am grateful, even though I feel watched; supervised; incapacitated; and momentarily mortified about the state of My Apartment Under Construction. But the magnitude of my pain, nausea, and immobility is such that I do not have a choice. I have to ask for help.

By Sunday, nearly a week after the operation, I am feeling Marginally More Human. My friend Smplefy, who once met me in the Edinburgh Airport, is in town and he stops by with his daughter in tow – he is picking her up for the summer from a nearby college. He has asked me what he can bring to cheer me, and while I am inclined to say Just yourselves! I remember that JRA tells me to tell people specific, actionable things they can do for me, for both their benefit and for mine. So I tell him what I really want – a black-and-white cookie – which they proffer upon arrival. I know it is a labour of love because they are Californians, who have absolutely no idea what a black-and-white cookie is, and they have brought a fresh one from the Carnegie Deli.

While we are chatting, Jade comes back from Long Island. I watch her as she talks to our guests, and I cannot help but be completely overwhelmed by the generosity of these people who have come to be with me.

I am thinking about Scotland, Smplefy says suddenly, And your grandmother’s bracelet.

I am momentarily shocked, because that has been on my mind since the beginning of this adventure; since my diagnosis. Additionally my grandmother’s birthday and the anniversary of her death are upon us. But that bracelet, and those clues – they had been my information; my burden. It feels so strange for some one else to be in the thick of that with me. I am not even sure my mother had remembered the jewellery, or could piece together how it led to this place. Then I remember that M has a frightfully good memory, and he is struck by small details and things of beauty all the time.

It’s funny you should ask about that, I say…

So here we are.

This is the fifth in a brief series of posts. Here are the firstsecond, and third, and fourth.

It is May.

An old friend comes to town and asks me to dinner. It is one week until my surgery date. You’re so calm about all this, my friend remarks.

I shrug. But I am glad my friend is here – this is a surprise; we have History dating back to the California Coast, and there is quite a lot unsaid between us. There is a lot of comfort in these Things Unspoken – those weird, unshakeable friendship ties that friends never have to talk about; the stuff that spans time zones, and continents. But maybe I am a bit shaken by the visit, too – always waiting for the next arrival or departure; always expecting the other shoe to drop.

I walk home in a still-cool New York night, happy and full, like an early Joni Mitchell song when her voice was still high and the melancholy was just an undertone. But then I take a phone call outside my own door that devastates and infuriates me; that throws me into a tailspin where I feel I must pretend to be my own twin sister for a week to make up for being rude to the doormen. At the time, this seems like an excellent solution to my behaviour, but in retrospect, perhaps I am not admitting that I am also unnerved by All The Things I Cannot Control.

Paul arrives into town a few days later, the weekend before my surgery, and we bicker about mundane things. It is nerves, I know, but he takes this to heart and I know I need to be better about this. Bickering has never bothered me – my parents are champion bickerers and love each other deeply. I have always seen coldness; neglect as signs of trouble in a relationship – not the day-to-day sniping. My parents say We Yell Because We Care, and I honestly think they believe it.

We arrive early at the Hospital for Special Surgery on the Monday morning – they take me back immediately to prepare me and they tell Paul they will bring him back shortly. I have done this every summer for three summers in a row, so I know what I am in for. But for Paul, this is his first time taking anyone in for a surgical procedure; this is his first time being solely responsible for another adult human’s well-being.

With this in mind, and in advance of my surgery date, I have called my best friend – my sister – Jade, who agrees without hesitation to come in from California to take care of me after the operation. It is not that my husband cannot take the time off of work. Rather, it is that I am stuck with the belief that no waspy woman worth her salt would have a man come man a sick room. This is simply Not a Done Thing. My belief is dated and sexist, but I know that while I love his company, my husband cannot do the basics without step-by-step instruction, and I Do Not Want the Hassle Right Now.

Is this wrong? Am I a bad person for this; am I anti-feminist – for asking a woman to do the work that women have always done? Or is it right and safe for a woman to ask another woman to care for her during an injury or illness?

The surgery is a success and I wake up quickly in the PACU.

After a few hours, I really really have to pee. But this surgery is performed under spinal anaesthesia and my legs are only barely awake. The nurse brings me a bed pan instead of taking me to the bathroom. I see Paul’s eyes go wide, as the nurse lifts me up and puts what appears to be a puppy pad beneath the bed pan. She then lifts me and moves my bandages out of the way as best she can, before setting the pan beneath me.

I’m, uh, gonna give you some privacy, Paul mumbles. I’m going to go get a coffee.

The nurse rolls her eyes, and I start to laugh. Paul has reached his limit.

They always do this, the nurse assures me after he is gone.

It’s better than my first husband, I tell her, I was in the ER at St. Vincent’s a lifetime ago, and the moment the doctor touched me, my ex passed out into the bed of the woman next to me. 

The nurse clucked approvingly, as if to suggest that a husband who walked away from a bed pan was definitely an upgrade from a husband who Simply Couldn’t Deal in the first place. I am inclined to agree, but in either event, I still know it was best to import Jade. That I maybe I am sexist, but I am not wrong.

Eventually, they let me leave the hospital and Paul leaves for the airport as soon as he gets me home. There is a gap between when Paul has left for the airport and when Jade arrives, so Strand and Sam and their dog, McGee come to babysit me. It is a month before their wedding; my house is a disaster because we are renovating a bathroom and the contractor is taking forever to finish; but Strand is familiar enough with Needing to Babysit Me When I Come Home From the Hospital that she seems unfazed by the whole thing.

She is a saint.

Thai food arrives in waves, because we have ordered it, and friends who live downtown have also Seamless’d an order to me. Everyone knows that I love Thai food. Jade arrives shortly after the Thai food comes, and walks in to find me surrounded by dogs, blondes, noodles and Pringles – the detritus of demolition and construction all around.

When I was a little girl, I was obsessed with helper dogs: Seeing-eye dogs. Therapy dogs. Service dogs. I had this sense that helper dogs like Labradors, and Golden Retrievers, and other such majestic, helpful breeds could save the world.

But I didn’t personally know any such magnificent dogs. My parents were not Dog People.

I remember being small and asking my dad how blind people drove.  I assumed that being a grown up meant you drove – end of story. At the time, I had also probably just met my first seeing-eye dog. So my father told me, with a straight face, that blind people had the dog sit in the front seat and bark out the directions: One bark for “turn right;” two barks for “turn left;” a yelp for “this way to Grandma’s house,” and so forth. And I remember thinking – Brilliant, I want a dog just like that when I grow up.

I shudder to think of the number of times I repeated that information about seeing-eye dogs throughout my childhood.

But this story is not about helpful dogs. This story is about lightbulbs.

On Saturday, I was at home doing all sorts of domestic things that get lost in the shuffle when you’re terribly busy during the week – like changing the light high above the bathtub in the master bathroom that had been burnt out since I’ve lived in my apartment. (Which, in my defence, required more effort than anticipated, including Sugru, a ladder, and multiple trips to Rainbow Hardware.)

At some point in the afternoon, I got a message from my friend John, and after exchanging pleasantries, I asked him whether he had plans for the weekend. He responded that he planned to go out on a jazz club crawl in the West Village. This was intriguing to me. He then posed the same question to me: What do you have on this weekend?

Without thinking, I replied, I’m changing hard to reach lightbulbs.

I immediately regretted my honesty, and I said as much, because I still have some dignity, and didn’t want to be seen as a) The Biggest Loser on the Upper East Side (which I might have been), and/or b) angling for an invitation to join (which I was). But John is a nice person, and his reply to me was some variation on You should join me doing cool people things instead of changing lightbulbs!

A few hours later, I was showered and changed and on my way to the Village. As I was pulling up, I got a message:

Crazy stoned guy outside this place…

I greeted John and as we waited, a man threaded through the crowd, preaching crackpottery. Remind me when we get inside, there’s a story I want to tell you! John mentioned. I nodded, keeping my eye on our stoned friend telling his stories to the assembled jazz-lovers.

When the bouncer finally let us in, we snagged two seats about midway into Smalls Jazz Club. The crackpot had managed to get in as well, and I heard him behind us inside, telling a foursome about how he could confirm the existence of mermaids, who he found to be all lesbian bitches. He further assured the foursome that he wasn’t a homophobe, it was just science – he was a Marine Biologist who understood and had personally encountered/been severely assaulted by hostile lesbian mermaids in the wild.

The ceiling was low inside Smalls, and the atmosphere was perfect for a night of jazz and gin. We were watching the Fukushi Tainaka Quartet and sipping gin-and-tonics John had gotten us from the bar. Way better than domestic drudgery.

What story were you going to tell me? I asked.

The stupid dog ate another sock, he said. He had two labradors, one of whom had a habit of eating his children’s socks and needing to have them surgically removed.

So that’s like a semester’s worth of school fees in sock removal surgeries this year? 


He then called up a photo on his phone of the removed sock, which made me laugh. It was hard for me to reconcile the image of majestic, helpful labradors I had from childhood with John’s idiot dog.  But having already humiliated myself once that day, I opted not to try to make him feel better about it by offering up a story about how I once thought seeing-eye dogs operated by barking driving directions.

After the set had finished, we decided to grab dessert. John had once lived nearby, and I had lived in Tribeca and gone to grad school at NYU, and yet we still had to pull up Googlemaps to navigate to the sweet shop nearby. There was something oddly bittersweet about not being able to find our way unaided past the yuppified alleyways and storefronts where even the cheesy sex shops were upgraded from a decade before.

It was heady and strange, the feeling of walking through a past life. Andrew and I used to walk our dog Lilly up to the Village from our place in Tribeca on weekends; we’d have brunch, go shopping. But then I got sick and Lilly died, and a few short years later, we were divorced. Everything was different; little had changed in the Village.

But the walk was short and Googlemaps quickly got us to Sweet Revenge. There, we gobbled our way through a cupcake and a mini-cheesecake, laughing about the specifics of our night.

We parted ways after dessert, and I headed home to my own disobedient dog; curled up on the bathmat on the floor next to the expensive dog bed. The bathroom was ablaze with all four lightbulbs finally lit for the first time since I’d lived in the place.

As I put myself to bed, Roo trotted over to sleep next to me, bringing what I thought was his stuffed hedgehog along, but instead was a balled up pair of my running socks that must’ve missed the bathroom hamper when I’d stripped them off earlier. He didn’t do that very often, but occasionally, he would carry around a sock or two of mine, and I would find them thidden in his toy box under the legless Piglet stuffie that he’d once nicked from a baby gift I was wrapping.

I looked down at him, and sighed, and said aloud, If you even so much as think about eating those socks, you are a dead dog.

It didn’t dawn on me till later that sometimes, it takes trying to replace what seems like a burnt out light to find out that it’s broken at the stem and needs a more serious repair. And dogs will still be dogs, no matter how helpful they seem. That might have been helpful to know ten years ago in Tribeca.

That said, I’m still awfully glad to be a Dog Person. Seems much safer than being a marine biologist.

Around the time of my birthday, I decided that I was Done With Wearing Makeup, and I was going to revert to my natural state, which was that of a geriatric, fresh-faced Alpine woman.

My “personal style” has always very much been neutrals, Saint James stripes, and Birkenstocks (except for a now-embarrassing-to-recall Three Year Tour through the J.Crew catalogue when I lived in Washington), so giving up a full face of make-up was more of a relief than anything. I know some women really enjoy painting it on, and I admire that. But I am something of an inconsistent Bozo in my application of cosmetics, so I looked at make-up more as part of the yoke of professional womanhood that I had never quite mastered, and not as a privilege or a delight.

But the one thing I couldn’t reconcile with this new No Make-Up stand was my natural ginger eyelashes.

I am a redhead by birth; blonde by choice. Accordingly, I was cursed with straight, pale lashes that were not conducive to giving up make-up entirely because without mascara, everyone always asked me if I was sick or if I’d slept well enough the night before. No mascara was a no-go for me. After consulting with some beauty experts and with a trend-forward friend who suffered from the same straight-lashed problem as I did, I was referred to a lash extension clinic on Third Avenue in Midtown.

The very idea of eyelash extensions seemed absurd-bordering-on-impossible, and since I am secretly a Geriatric German and not a Fashion Insider, I was obviously out of the loop on this kind of stuff. But I went along with it, because if it meant that I didn’t have to wear mascara anymore, I was willing to try just about anything.

 You will probably be the only white person there, my friend confessed (she is Korean, and this appeared to be a beauty trend originating from there, or so she claimed), But it’s worth checking out, unless you are very uncomfortable with the idea of having someone stick stuff to your eyelids.

I am less uncomfortable with the idea of eyelid manipulation than I am with the thought of…extreme beauty treatments I said flatly. Remember the last time I tried something…exotic.

She laughed in my face. When she finally regained her composure she said, Are you talking about your first Brazilian bikini wax experience? How could I forget?

More than eight years ago now, on the day before I took off on my odyssey through Asia and Africa, I decided that it would be a great idea to have my eyebrows waxed. While I was at the salon, the waxer convinced me that I should definitely consider a Brazilian bikini wax. Since I was already on the cusp of adventure, I figured, Why not? 

(NB: Some people headed to the Middle of Nowhere in China for an extended period of time in order to contemplate ending a marriage call their lawyers or get vaccines or do rational kinds of things. My 2008-Self somehow never made it beyond the beauty treatments portion of preparing for End Times Adventure Travel.)

Never having had a Brazilian before, I did not know then that there were oh-so-many reasons why not. Unfortunately for me, not only was it my first experience with exotic wax treatments, but my young aesthetician neglected to tell me that it was her first time performing any sort of bikini wax, ever. And being completely uninformed about these things, how was I to know that basically everything was going horribly wrong from the outset? How was I to know that the boiling hot lava being slapped upon my nether-regions was supposed to feel bad, but not quite so horrible? That the odd smell of burning was not the ordinary bubbling of the hot wax, but actually, the searing-off of my skin?

It was that day, eight years ago, in the back room of a salon in Union Square that I learned that ignorance is not always bliss.

Twenty gut-wrenching moments later, I emerged with first- and second-degree burns across the whole of my lower half, and was unimaginably uncomfortably on a 15 hour flight to Seoul. I have been extremely wary of specialised beauty treatments ever since.

With that memory in mind, I booked an appointment at Lash Forever, because the prospect of not ever having to wear mascara again overruled the memory of the pain of my last serious exotic beauty endeavour. I arrived for my appointment; picked out a lash shape (the J-curl); and they hustled me into the back, where they cocooned me into a nice blanket, and taped my eyes shut, reverse Clockwork Orange-style. I popped in my headphones, and an hour later, emerged with eyelashes that looked like normal-person lashes, and not ginger lashes. This felt like a personal victory.

How did it go? my friend called and asked the next day.

Perfect, I said, I didn’t have to get naked, and no part of my body has been wounded or maimed. Total win.

We both laughed and she promised to meet up with me soon. It wasn’t until I hung up with her that it seemed at all funny or strange that I hated wearing make-up so much that I had spent an hour laying prone on a table having tiny shards of polyester semi-permanently glued to my eyelids so I could avoid wearing anything on my eyes in the first place.

But Paris was a very old city and we were young and nothing was simple there, not even poverty, nor sudden money, nor the moonlight, nor right and wrong nor the breathing of someone who lay beside you in the moonlight.
– Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

March 5th was my birthday, and that morning, I landed from sunny Johannesburg into snowy Paris.

Everyone loves the idea of Paris – Hemingway’s Paris – the very old city where you were young and you arrived at Gare du Nord with little else but a pocketful of francs and your schoolgirl French. Where you survived for weeks on the contents of your bulging backpack, and Orangina, baguette, and endless boxes of Petit Ecolier biscuits.

(It has been almost twenty years and I still cannot so much as look as a box of Petit Ecolier.)

I am here to break it to you: That Paris does not exist except inside your unreliable memories – and maybe never existed at all.

I had come unprepared for this trip.

I rarely travel with more than a carry-on suitcase, and this trip was no exception despite the tall order of multiple climates, countries, cities, and circumstances. But I had unexpectedly left 90F temperatures in Johannesburg and walked off the plane into subfreezing snowfall in Paris. My best-laid plans of wearing nothing more than a light jacket had gone horribly wrong and I was already mad at Paris again.

Paris was nothing but bad memories for me: Ex-husbands; ex-boyfriends; food poisoning; Roma picking my pockets; Frederic prattling on and on about how much more classically beautiful than me his first wife had been. It had gotten to the point where I’d begun to dread every trip to France. This trip’s sudden snowfall didn’t improve my view of the place.

(First world problems at their finest.)

On the morning of my arrival, I was meant to pick up a race number for a half marathon, and then I was to meet some friends for a late lunch. So I grabbed an Uber, and made my way out to the race expo at Parc Floral. I spoke my broken French to the young man who picked me up in a fancy Jaguar; marvelled at how little race security was in place at the expo; grabbed my number, then raced to the Latin Quarter to meet friends.

It was me and a motley crew of men who had come in from the US and UK. I had been promised a birthday lunch and wine, so we ordered racks and stacks of oysters and escargots and bottles of Sancerre to start the day. The seafood and snails were divine, and we quickly became Those Loud Americans.

Have you ever been a Loud American Abroad? The kind whose voice carries through the cafe, and the locals look at you contemptuously as they try to have their quiet, dignified lunches, like you’re a crying baby on a plane, or a horny young couple in a cinema whose necking blocks the view? We were that group of wine-soaked minor irritants to a restaurant full of French people on a cold March afternoon.

After a few hours, someone suggested we move along to another cafe, so we packed it in and headed down the Left Bank towards another picturesque spot. We traipsed across the cobblestones and down the alleyways, chatting and laughing about how simple and lovely it all was. We talked about life, and literature, and How Things Were. I felt light in the chilly afternoon, as my silly, long, schoolgirl hair swirled around me in the wind. If this was Paris After Everything, then it wasn’t so bad.

At our second stop: More oysters; more wine. A chat with an older American fellow with what sounded like a looted art collection and a passion for marrying younger women.

Finally, as the afternoon got smaller, we decided on a final stop before dinner. We stumbled past the Louvre on our way towards Le Meurice for an aperitif. (NB: The idea of an aperitif before a low-key dinner after an all-day pub crawl was borderline ridiculous, but after pub crawling for the better part of day, we didn’t have the mental faculties left between us to know better).

We arrived at the hotel into the middle of Paris Fashion Week festivities. The bar was closed for a private event, and the back room was set up for fashion buyers. One of my friends, insistent on his drink despite the fact that we had been rejected several times, finally approached the host and swore up and down that we were with the fashion event, but that he had to “impress the buyer” who had “grown tired of the free drinks” and wanted a lovely cocktail. He got us a table.

Pretend you’re a fashion buyer, he hissed in my ear.

Dude, I said, No way they are buying this. I am not even wearing make-up.

But we sat, and around came a beautiful bottle of dry champagne, which we sipped with delight before we were due for dinner just down the road. At the end of the bottle, I herded our group out the door. We met more friends for pasta, and another bottle or two of wine.

Towards the end of the dinner, the lights in the restaurant dimmed, and everyone began to clap and shout. Not understanding what was happening, I joined in the fun, until I looked up and saw that a cake was coming directly for me.

I laughed, and hid my head in my hands, then blew out the candles, and I thought how funny it was that in this very old city, where nothing was simple, I had unexpectedly discovered something new.