Sure, Bogie had Bacall, but our highly impressionable columnist had tuna salad mixed with little green olives, Joy mixed with Aqua Net, and a fantastic tribe of women who taught her everything she knows about girl power.
There are a few things I'm not particularly good at. Now, before you think I'm being coy or self-deprecating or anything else that it's not okay to be these days, I'll just say that there are a number of areas in which I excel. For one thing, I possess an almost encyclopedic ability to remember every detail of every TV show that ran during the 1970s. Sure, Paul Krugman won a Nobel Prize for integrating the previously disparate fields of international trade and economic globalization, but let's not kid ourselves, he's never going to be able to tell you that it was Miyoshi Umeki who played Mrs. Livingston on The Courtship of Eddie's Father. Lest you think this is my only talent, let me add that I'm also exceptionally gifted at finding lost Legos, and I was once instrumental in getting a squirrel out of the house, which may not seem like much, but talk to me after you've used your loofah mitt to shoo a large panicky rodent from the bathroom to the front lawn while dressed in nothing more than a towel and shower cap. Believe me when I say you feel pretty damn triumphant.
Anyway, those are the things I'm good at. The list of what I'm not good at is a work in progress, but I'd definitely place men right near the top. I am not now, nor have I ever been, particularly good at men. I like them, I even keep one around the apartment in case of emergencies (that would be Johannes, father of my 6-year-old, protector against future squirrel invasions), but I can't pretend that I'm totally at ease with them—at least not in the same way I am with women.
It seems to me that there are women who are women's women and women who are men's women. Lauren Bacall always struck me as a real man's woman. Glamorous, seductive, but pretty no-nonsense at the same time—the kind of dame who could smoke, shoot pool, drink everybody under the table, and still get up early to go fly-fishing without ever once chipping her nail polish. Bacall gave as good as she got, and what she got was Humphrey Bogart.
But she's not the only one of the girls who was one of the boys. Ava Gardner, Myrna Loy, Katharine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, Shirley MacLaine, Rosalind Russell, Angelina Jolie, any one of them could probably call your bluff in a high-stakes game of Texas Hold'em or change a flat tire without batting an eyelash or grab a rifle and go off skeet shooting.
I don't know what a skeet is or why anyone would want to shoot it. I don't know how to gut a catfish or loosen a lug nut, or flirt in a way that doesn't lead a guy to wonder if I might need to be institutionalized.
In my heart, I'm Lauren Bacall throwing Bogie the perfect To Have and Have Not exit line, "You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and...blow." But in my apartment, I'm still me and the exit line is more like "You know how to take the garbage out, don't you, Johannes? You just separate the recyclables and...go."
I blame my mother. I have decided that it's her fault my comfort zone is ruled by women for two simple reasons: (1) It is both easy and convenient to blame one's mother, and as a single working mother myself, I'm forever searching for ease and convenience...hence my freezer full of White Castle microwavable cheeseburgers. And (2) because my mother, along with her friends, always made the company of women look so incredibly appealing.
How many times did I see Helen or Ruby, Beverly or Renee, Naomi or Lilo and later Myrna use that old "giving the hostess a hand" excuse so they could disappear into the camaraderie of the kitchen—where they always seemed happiest to me, where they didn't have to look gorgeous, where they could pick at leftovers and polish off their Blue Nun and bitch without disclaimers, where they'd kick off their shoes and begin the postparty process of transferring all the stuff in big plastic Tupperware containers into slightly less big plastic Tupperware containers. The kitchen was their avocado green or harvest gold or white Formica sanctuary, and my favorite thing was to listen in to the blasts of laughter that punctuated every crazy contradiction, savored secret, or funny story as one by one, these lovely and amazing forces of nature would take a seat at the table until it was time to round up their husbands and head for home.
I loved those nights and I still love those women. Barbara Capalongo had a thing for Elvis Presley and the cheapest vanilla ice cream she could find—the kind that came studded with tiny crystals of frost. She chopped up little green pimento-stuffed olives and put them in her tuna salad—the most glamorous touch imaginable to me. Cyvia Snyder liked Danish Modern design and had her own membership card to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Sheila Abrams wore bell bottoms and eyeliner and taught me how to knit. And all of them smelled really, really good—like Wind Song, or Jean Naté, or Joy, or White Shoulders, or Aqua Net, with perhaps just a soupçon of brisket.
There is no room for a kitchen table in my kitchen...because here in the Big Apple, everything's a trade-off; I now have my very own membership card to the Museum of Modern Art, but I somehow ended up with a kitchen that only has room for three forks and a dish towel. Still, every few weeks or so, my girlfriends and I leave our various husbands and boyfriends and God-knows-what-to-call-this-but-we're-sort-of-together-at-the-moment relationships behind and settle in at my putative kitchen table to refuel our spirits or eat something we shouldn't, or both.
Inevitably one of us will announce that she's not doing what she set out to do with her life and the room will go quiet for a couple of seconds. Someone will refill the glasses, someone will clear the dishes, someone will crack a joke about setting out to get her PhD and her dry cleaning—guess which thing got accomplished, someone else will pin it on her mother (see previous page), but we'll all know exactly what our friend is mourning. And sooner or later, we'll break open the Pepperidge Farm Entertaining Cookie Collection box and come up with an inventory of her many assets. We will get high on hope and possibility and espresso. We will be the strong community of women I had no idea I needed so much until my own daughter was born. And there she'll be, Julia Claire, swiping a Mint Milano, ducking under the table, and listening to us laugh.