February 24, 2019
Morristown, New Jersey
I didn’t sleep downstairs on the couch at my mother’s house, although I had slept there the last few times to keep the old dog company because he can climb but no longer descend the staircase, he is confined to the first floor, where there are no bedrooms. This weekend my back hurt so I slept in the little yellow room upstairs with my sister. I felt guilty for not sleeping with the dog, but when I came downstairs in the morning, he seemed fine and happy: jackrabbit ears pricked up, tail wagging. He was bred to be a guide dog but was disqualified by a heart problem; when he was younger, he was very big and strong and anxious and now his hips and eyesight are weak, he is covered in gray warts, and is newly capable of leisure.
It was Sunday, and we were going to church. My sister drove in her turquoise Mercury Tracer—my grandmother’s old car—past the closed town pool and the living historical farm, then, closer to Mendham, the McMansions—the kind of homes that are lit up at night, as if to perform some lighthouse-like public service. We talked about how we used to feel about the route rather than the landscape itself: I remember sticking my entire head out the window in the summertime like a dog and the brief period where I was afraid of the woods.
The pastor, my mother’s best friend, was retiring after twenty-one years; today was her last service. She read from Luke 6:27, the passage that includes the line about turning the other cheek. I had forgotten that the following verse directs you to also give a thief your shirt if they steal your coat—literally, “from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt”—which I found vaguely hilarious; I pictured a person struggling gallantly out of their T-shirt after they catch someone stealing their jacket at China Chalet. After communion, the bishop of the New Jersey synod asked the congregation to release the pastor from her service. The official phrasing was so blunt that it sent a ripple of surprised, slightly manic laughter through the room.
After church, there was food and coffee in the narthex, but I felt slightly sick and overwhelmed and looked for a place to sit down alone. I walked downstairs to the church basement, to the empty nursery, barely changed since the 1990s. The same Little Tikes garden playset sat in the corner with one goofy plastic turnip in its plot. There’s a picture book I’ve been looking for. I can’t remember anything about it other than its setting—it takes place at a department store—and the fact that the objects in it were somehow perfect, the Platonic ideal of shop objects. I checked, but the book wasn’t there.
We left church early and my sister drove us north through to a wedding expo at the Sussex County Fairgrounds, an expanse of rolling hills, beige, stubbly grass and snowmelt puddles. My sister’s mood about the expo was grim. We were there to eat food and then get out, and she said she hoped they wouldn’t give her a sash that said “Bride,” which she had seen at other, similar events. We met her fiancé and his mother in an area branded as the “Tasting Terrace,” where we ate polenta, beef short ribs, salmon, and tiny, jewel-bright carrots. At a hot cocoa bar, the vendor directed our attention to a jar of marshmallows the size of Rubik’s cubes. “Some people don’t even believe they’re marshmallows,” she said.
My sister’s fiancé, his mother, and I used the prospect of winning raffles to talk my sister into taking a lap through the expo’s main room, which was magnificent. Tall young women in white gowns and full-coverage makeup hovered at the room’s center, demonstratively slotting their hands in and out of their gowns’ pockets and sharing gentle, embarrassed smiles with each other. One vendor sold CBD-derived beauty products; another displayed woodblocks that read “more issues than Vogue.”
I stopped at one booth to flip through a copy of New Jersey Bride, which contained a multi-page spread on Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino’s wedding. When the vendor asked if I needed help, I vaguely indicated the magazine and commented that he looked good. “He’s had some work done,” she replied archly. She also mentioned that “Snooki and the girls” were there; I’m not sure whether she meant the girls on the show—Snooki, J Woww, Sammi, Deanna, Angelina—or Snooki and JWoww’s four-year-old daughters, Giovanna and Meilani, who are best friends. People in New Jersey have a tendency to talk about the cast of Jersey Shore like extended family, so it could be either.
My sister’s fiancé’s mother gave me a ride south to the Willowbrook Mall Park-and-Ride, where I caught the 192 bus into Port Authority. On the bus, I read an article published that day in the Providence Journal on a series of invitation-only dinners held for the children of artists and wealthy donors at Brown University, co-reported by three students from the college paper I had written for while I there. I had known about these dinners; I hated them.
I recently talked to a friend about the optics of wealth and how badly the rich have absorbed the message that they are disliked categorically rather than aesthetically: wary of baroque displays of affluence, they do rich people things in private and cosplay as middle-class in public. We concluded that this was worse, which might be why the dinners nettled me more than a story about galas for young art collectors would. I arrived home after two hours of subway delays, drunk on a cocktail of personal and abstract irritation.
That night, I watched the episode of Survivor: Cambodia — Second Chance—the only season in which the fans select the cast by vote—in which Andrew Savage plans to blindside Spencer Bledsoe. “It’s unbelievably hard for me to put up Spencer like this. He’s a great kid,” Savage tells the camera, framed by sharp blades of grass. “But nothing’s getting in the way of my second chance.”
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