Thirty-one years ago the film Pretty in Pink came out. We watched it on Netflix but didn’t remember anything: not Andrew McCarthy’s flickering eyes, nor Molly Ringwald’s quivering lips. Nor the scene with the two of them in a library on a computer where she doesn’t realize it’s him writing to her until his picture appears onscreen and the two of them stand and smile (he was sitting opposite her the whole time!), and they make plans to go out. It was the ’80s, it felt safe. The internet was just another toy, more of an idea. We had some halo from the ’70s still.
I was stringing together low-skill jobs managing tills at 16, restocking shelves. I graduated college and avoided traditional ideas of success. I thought to do art you had to suffer, so I temped in factories, flagged for construction crews, delivered pizzas, quit when they offered me advancement, moved away. My success was a precious, personal thing: a fortune cookie promise I imagined but couldn’t put into words.
I moved to France after they offered me a promotion at work. I stalled out in Pennsylvania temping again, tried to grow a beard. I hand wrote love letters to a girl I liked but didn’t love, because she liked my writing. And then I came back and got tired, settled into a job, began a career, bought a house…sold it, went back to Europe, returned to the States to work, quit, went back to Europe again.
We drove down to the fair, in Puyallup. We hadn’t been to the fair since Lily was in first grade: we’d either been too busy in past years, or were in Germany. As we pulled into town and followed the signs for parking, I asked the girls if they remembered it and they said they did, but I wasn’t so sure.
Lily bought a T-shirt of the Walt Disney princess Ariel flexing her bicep, but the T-shirt designs are perversions of the Disney characters so Ariel’s got spider web tats and she’s wearing a Tennessee Whisky shirt that says something about mash. (She wanted the one with Snow White, who looks like she’s holding a bomb, but it’s an apple fashioned as a bowl/pipe she’s trying to light.)
Dawn and I stood off to the side while the two of them waited in line for the wooden roller coaster. The wait time is deceptive; you get into the queue and think it leads right up to the ride, but there’s an area around the back that winds tight like a small intestine and stretches out for miles, and it took a good hour for them to get through.
We only had three hours planned to be at the fair and the ride took maybe 45 seconds, but they’d use an hour just waiting to get on. And I thought with their instant gratification mindset it would drive them nuts but it didn’t, and when they got off they were exhilarated, and went off to buy cotton candy and lemonade.
There was time for just one more ride and Charlotte wanted me to go with her on the spinning, upside-down thing. We got in the air and it sped up, and I thought about the blind bourbon tasting from the night before, all we ate and drank, the Taiwanese Scotch…and my stomach turned, I blanched as we made our way off, and felt markedly older.
Dawn seems out of sorts with her work, wants more recognition or status, needs to find a place to park her success. The need for success gets co-mingled with identity, ego, pride, and self-worth. As a consultant mine is now split, to where my success is in my client’s ability to feel good about her work and me supporting her: and my ego/pride/identity can park itself elsewhere, in my writing. Our idea of success should grow with us, and vice versa.
Lily and her friends got tossed out of the Sherwin-Williams for playing with the color wheel. They said if you’re not going to buy anything you have to leave. The divisions start early: the demarcations and crude lines of authority, commerce, caste, the reality of fools in charge, the injustice. Our success is a sliver of a dream we keep like a talisman, ours to protect and enjoy.
In that movie, the scenes with Molly Ringwald working the record store, there’s posters in the background of UB40, The Smiths…bugs trapped in amber, the moment: we cherish our time and bottle it like a wish, a message on a distant shore we hope someone will answer. Our success is both enjoying what we have now and imagining what we will later.
Post title from song by the band Prolapse of the same name, 1999.