She sits there… cool and aloof. I know this type. A goth model wanna-be posing for attention, with teased over-dyed jet-black hair… which is looking in desperate need of a trim if you ask me. Her over-penciled eyebrows are matched in black, in stark contrast to her ivory skin, and she wears her carefully-precisioned black winged eyeliner like she’s auditioning to play the late Amy Winehouse. I look down and shake my head in judgment, then look up once more only to wince at the sight of her. I fleetingly recognize this shameful act of superiority, but I can’t seem to hold it back. The goth girl portrays this dark angst-ridden, coquettish persona that I left behind me a million lifetimes ago. Yes, there was a time when I was dark… a rebellious teenager going through a vampire-goth phase, vainly trying to be interesting and original, when in fact I was terribly insecure. Fast forward, though, and here I am today: An independent investment advisor to ultra ‘high net worth’ clients, married to my college sweetheart, and mother to a beautiful and gifted 12-year-old. I also have, to my credit, a long list of VIP friends and acquaintances who keep my social calendar full, any given week. I realize the many blessings in my life and always do my part in helping those less fortunate by donating to the homeless and to inner-city organizations. I also attend, and contribute to, several fundraising events in the city, and do my part in paying it forward by hiring interns each summer from my alma mater. I am deeply grateful for the life I live today and relish in the accolades of being a successful and accomplished entrepreneur who is well-traveled, well-read, and whom others respect and admire. A far, far cry from that desperately insecure teen I once was.
At this very moment, however, as I stare at the goth girl, I am brought back in time, and in my sudden introspection, I am gazing into the mirror of my youth. This mirror… a portal to a life lived more than thirty years ago! Through middle-aged eyeballs, I now watch my unsophisticated hormonal self at the tender age of seventeen. Fixating on the goth girl is like watching a film projection of me on the cusp of womanhood, back when I foolishly thought I was so mature, so clever. I watch myself there in that place in time, with all my character flaws and quirks that made me somewhat interesting to others. My mannerisms, along with my sense of style and humor, my inherent Brooklyn-born street smarts and my ambitiously optimistic view of my future self… all laid out in front of me in the image of this goth stranger, the image which I find clearly mocking me now. Back then, I naively imagined that I had some idea of what was in store for me, for the lifepath I would be following. It was a time when I felt I had every right to become anyone I wanted (an astronaut, actor, or doctor, for example). I always expected wonderful and exciting things to happen for me, as though I had my destiny and entitlements all figured out. Now, at 47 years old, looking back to that time, I never ever had the world at my fingertips. I wasn’t handed anything, or promised anything. But, I always dreamed big! Even with several stumbling blocks in my way, I knew I just had to succeed. I had to. I always had something to prove.
I knew I had to be someone that I, myself, could look up to, and someone that my family could count on. I had my reasons, since my attorney dad left us when I was just nine, and my sister was then just a newborn baby. Dad cheated on mom while she was pregnant with my baby sister, Abigaile, leaving us just weeks after her birth. My mom, my baby sister and me… suddenly alone. Dad chose a new life with his legal secretary and started a new family way out on Long Island, close to Montauk. Bunny, as his new wife is called, disliked and shunned the three of us, although my dad dismisses that notion outright. Mom was always diligent in protecting us from the pain of their divorce, giving my sister and me more love than we could have ever wished. She clearly overcompensated for my dad not being around, although he did make limited appearances during certain holidays and a few birthdays. He couldn’t have understood the emotions we felt back then, nor did he try. The pain of losing our father, by way of abandonment, lasted for years and it changed us all as women, and in how we associated with the men who would find their way into our lives in the years since he left us. We were broken. And sad. In my mind, I had to be strong for the three of us. I was the eldest daughter and I’m an Aries! I worked my ass off to build the empire, the life, and the many relationships, that I have today. “I, Joanna Johnston, high-ranking professional career-woman, refined and glamorous, always the most interesting, smartest, and most beautiful woman in any social gathering, the envy of every woman and the object of every man’s affection.” This was my daily mantra at 9 years old.
Growing up in my household in Brooklyn Heights, I did go through a rebellious stage. I maintained an A- average, but I got a bit weird during senior year when I gravitated toward the goth scene. Vampireville… my sister’s secret nickname for the ostracized high school goth gang, where I so desperately wanted to fit in. I knew I would grow out of this stage at some point, so I didn’t dwell with worry on this time of my life the way my parents did. Dad feared I would start doing drugs and throw my life away. He had me all wrong, but then again, he wasn’t around much to really know me. My interests were actually quite simple and harmless… listening to underground alternative rock bands, hanging out at The Limelight, and dressing like a zombie! I wasn’t eating the flesh out of anyone though… honestly! I was just having fun and living through a phase. Besides, I had truly believed that before my move to Boston to begin my freshman year, without yet having real world life experience, I could get away with a few things… just minor teenage stuff. I thought I could behave a bit recklessly, and not worry much about consequences. I was whimsical. I was young! In that time, so long ago, I could be dark and aloof. I could be brooding. I could be precocious and mysterious. I could be intriguing and depthful, to the point where I could compel any stranger to want to know me, if even for just a short train ride’s conversation. Just like the aloof goth girl sitting across from me this very evening on the 6 train.
It’s just passed 5:00 on this summer evening and the rush hour crowd is not following any rules of orderly conduct as they squeeze themselves onto the train at 42nd Street-Grand Central Station. The passengers press into one another and moans are released into the atmosphere of our subway car. Eyes roll up into eyelids as passengers reluctantly accept their fate of rush hour discomfort. During this particular ride uptown, I am one of the lucky ones because I have a seat. I boarded the train one stop downtown at Union Square where the subway cars were less crowded. I entered the train there with a relatively small-sized after-work crowd, and found my seating place in the corner of a 2-seater section of the car. I felt quite relieved that I would not have to stand and be subjected to someone’s elbow in my ribs, or someone’s backpack pushing against my spine, or the hot breath of a nearby yawning passenger who refrains from covering their mouth. When I take my seat on the train, I immediately situate myself by removing my black Kate Spade purse from my shoulder and placing it upright upon my lap. I hurriedly pull my pale-blue cardigan, sitting atop my shoulders, so that it sits more snugly around my neck and chest, a cotton-knit barrier protecting me from the excessive air conditioning in the car. I reach for my cell phone to connect to the transit wifi to catch up on emails when I innocently glance up from my phone to discover that goth girl sitting opposite me.
Pulling my attention from her obvious relationship with Sephora, I focus my attention on the white Beats headphones atop her head, wondering what type of music she could be listening to. “Simon and Garfunkel, perhaps?” I sarcastically wonder to myself. Her clothing consists of the very unoriginal ripped black fishnets, black motorcycle boots, faded denim cuffed shorts and loose-fitting black t-shirt. The collar of her shirt is armored with silver symbolic pendants on way too many silver chains that dangle from her neck. Her makeup clearly complementing this costume with its dark drama, and accented by blood-red lips. Oh, the cliché of it all! Eyes closed, she is bobbing her head in rhythm to the music streaming through her headset, which actually now sounds to me like Depeche Mode in its faint tones. She is a caricature of the village scene just south of Union Square, seemingly desperate to be unique and noticed. I see her though, as I see myself thirty years ago. Transparent. Flawed. Insecure. Eager to belong and to be understood. Probably envisioning her own life in twenty years or so as someone completely opposite of who she is today. She knows she can carry this persona for right now, because the ‘real’ world is so far away. A lifetime away. Perhaps, many lifetimes away.
My imagination continues to entertain me as I shudder from the train car’s air conditioning. I believe, without a doubt, that the goth girl must have boarded at Spring Street after getting off from work at her part-time job at some boutique shop which sells vintage clothing. I carefully study her so she does not notice my interest in her, but she catches me when she glances up toward my direction. I guiltily take in a deep breath, pulling my gaze away, pretending to be interested in a random subway advertisement above the train’s sliding doors. I take a risk only a few moments later and attempt to resume my careful observation of her, when I come to the realization that she is my opportunity to visit a somewhat forgotten past, a time when the world still felt so new to me… when the stirrings of adulthood seemed fascinating and terrifying as I was finding myself, finding my voice, finding my place in the world. The nostalgia of it all suddenly makes me completely still. I’m in a mental time-machine and I barely recognize who I was back then. Ironically, I sometimes barely recognize who I am now.
The quick 8-minute ride from Union Square to 42nd street, for me, is a stroll down memory lane, as this young woman reminds me of one of my incarnations, back when all I honestly cared about were boys, concerts, my cat, and having perfect, unclumped mascara! I cared more about what others thought of me back then even though I pretended not to. I remember having bad skin and low finances, but walked and talked like a confident rock star, with loads of makeup over layers of acne cream. I managed a tight budget that afforded me bargain clothes that were actually quite stylish and mostly all black. I obsessed over alternative music and the goth scene of the east village during the late 80s. I quickly reflect on the person I am today, sitting on this train now. A wife. A mother. A professional woman. Bor-ing! I glance down at myself sitting properly on the train, hands clasped together over my handbag, dressed in a navy knee-length size-14 dress, fitted with a gold thin belt buckled at the waist, with a string of pearls sitting at my collar, and my J. Crew cardigan tied across my chest. I pause for a few moments. A sentiment reaches me. “Too adult.” I’m clearly not edgy anymore. No edge equals no fun, no cool factor. No sense of adventure or mystique! “Where did ‘I‘ go,” I wonder. I close my eyes so I can go back in time again. I allow myself to be, for just a little while, transported from 2017 to 1986. There are no cell phones, there is no Facebook. I am dressed in black from head to toe in a size 6, harnessing my teenaged hormones in a flirty display of lace and fishnets. I’ve got a walkman with a cassette tape playing music through my bargain ‘no frills’ headset. And, I’m jamming to Strangelove! I’m free, edgy, and interesting. And, I am loving my vibe.
After 42nd street, where we received the disdained crowd of rush hour passengers, the train annoyingly creeps along to its next stop, 51st street. In the cramped train, I lose sight of the goth girl with all the people now in between us blocking my view. I cannot see her well without conspicuously straining my neck, so I allow my eyes to roam the crowd of diverse passengers who are eager to reach their destinations for this evening. It is mid-July and it’s Wednesday, hump day. With two more days until the weekend, there is a palpable anticipation for the weekend’s reprieve, when the majority of elite New Yorkers leave the city for the Jersey Shore or the Hamptons. I am not one of those people. I live on 67th street, near 2nd avenue, with Eliot, my husband of thirteen years, and our twelve-year-old daughter, Kelly. We enjoy spending the summer weekends here in the city while everyone else goes away. It just feels calmer, less chaotic then. We do, however, escape for the last few weeks in August, just before Labor Day, to the south of France, to stay with Abigaile and her husband, Joél, at their cottage in the countryside. It’s always a peaceful and tranquil time spent, and we all look forward to it every year. While my thoughts have led me to my upcoming French vacation, I realize that I should have scheduled Kelly’s french instructor by now, to help her brush up on her conversational french. My mental trek down goth memory lane is shelved as I continue to run down my mental “to do” list, and I start to feel a bit stressed by how much needs to be done in preparation for our trip, which is only just a month away now. Suddenly, the train pulls into 68th street, my stop. I arrange myself, waiting for the train to still before standing, and I quickly put away my phone after responding to a friend’s brunch email confirmation. I swing my purse over my left shoulder and stand while steadying myself. The train’s sliding doors open, and I make my way through the wall of straphangers to exit. I walk with purpose (as us New Yorkers do), keeping orderly pace with others exiting the subway and then continue through the turnstile, toward my normal route, up the northeast stairwell, leading out onto Lexington Avenue, right across Hunter College.
I usually pick up my pace up the stairs as this qualifies as a sort of cardio exercise for me lately. I reach the top step, but I somehow miss, hitting my knee to the ground on Lexington’s dirty pavement. A kind and reactive gentleman walking just a couple steps behind me, clutches me near my left tricep as my purse slides down my arm. He hoists me up, asking if I’m okay. I embarrassingly look up at him with a grateful smile and a slight giggle at my clumsiness, and I assure him that I’m fine. He releases me, smiles back, and quickly disappears, bolting uptown toward 69th street. I then look down at my bare knee with its slight ashen scrape and I’m relieved that there’s no blood, when I hear a young woman’s voice to my left ask me in a pleasant tone, “Are you sure you’re okay?” I’m standing straight up now and as I start to respond to her with assurance that I’m all fine, I sense her hand upon my left shoulder blade, a caring gesture I note. I slowly turn to her and I am immediately taken a-back. This gentle-voiced, kind samaritan is the aloof, clichéd goth girl from my train! She’s here… smiling at me with sincerity and concern in her eyes. I motion to move myself away from the rush of the exiting crowd coming up the stairs, so as not to not block anyone at the top of the stairwell. The goth girl moves as well, then proceeds to walk alongside me, apparently still awaiting my response.
She is tall, much prettier in the daylight now, with delicate features peering from under her dramatic and dark makeup. She has a small mole between her right nostril and upper lip, a Madonna-type mole from when she first burst onto the music scene in the mid-80s. I always thought that Madonna’s mole was so cool and I desperately wished I had one. I even thought about getting a tattoo to copy it. Funny that Madonna’s mole was gone after a couple years, and I don’t recall any interviewer inquiring about its disappearance. Ha, all these years later, and I still want to know what happened to it!
As the goth girl walks alongside me, I tell her in a convincing manner, “Oh, I’m fine, really, I’m just fine.” I proceed to thank her for her concern and assistance, when she asks me for my name. I’m surprised by this in a way, and I wonder if she thinks she knows me from somewhere. I half-smile curiously and reply, “Joanna.” She then introduces herself to me as Hayden and shyly asks me for directions to a salon located on Second Avenue. I can’t help but notice that she has an accent. It’s Australian, very lilty and refined-sounding, and when she speaks, I notice her teeth are exceptionally white and very straight. We end up walking together, since we are both heading in the same general direction, across the avenues going east. I encourage her to continue walking with me so I can direct her properly, since I am quite familiar with the salon she’s referring to, although I myself have never been. She accepts my proposal and continues to walk with me. Interestingly, I find Hayden to be nice company for this brief walk, as she is engaging and sweet with a childlike charm and likability. She confesses that she is on her way to see her American father and his new family after fourteen years following her parents’ split. Her appointment at the salon is to get a quick haircut and blowout she says, something nice to make a good impression I assume. She was admittedly nervous, though I could tell she was excited as well. She shared that she would be meeting his second wife for the first time, along with their two children, 3-year-old twin boys, who are half-brothers to Hayden. She had toys for them in an expensive-looking shopping bag clutched in her right hand. This is an important meeting for her, I can tell. Hayden needs this visit to go well.
To pass the time as we strolled across 68th street together, she shared that she is twenty-four, lives with her boyfriend back home and is mother to a Pomeranian named Daisy Dukes. She then spoke of her music band in Australia, of which she is the lead vocalist. She shared that she and her father are connected through their music, since he himself is a singer/songwriter and guitarist. I chose to not pry, although I secretly wondered if he was someone famous. We were halted at the traffic light waiting for the ‘walk’ sign, when she turned to me and apologized for being a Chatty Cathy, and explained about her nerves getting the best of her. She was just minutes away from the salon and about an hour away from a life-changing experience in meeting her father’s new family. In all my middle-aged wisdom, I could not fathom the advice I would give someone in her situation, other than to wish them the best of luck.
The light changed, so we proceeded to cross Third Avenue on our way to Second. Since we would be walking together for another few minutes, I thought I would help Hayden in some small, but meaningful, way. In that spirit, I acknowledged my own personal experience with extended family members resulting from my own parents’ divorce, which was, during its time, very complicated. Actually, it was a devastating time for my family, with continuous aftershocks, with which we still sometimes struggle some thirty-eight years later. With just a couple minutes remaining before parting ways with Hayden, the pretty goth Australian singer, I decided to share the abbreviated version regarding some of my family history. I wanted to convey the crazy dysfunction and dynamics that spawned our current unconventional family culture. To this day, I sometimes wonder how my mom, sister and I were able to maintain our sanity and remain so close and so strong. I’m sure the eighteen years of therapy helped with my perspective, and the passing of time has allowed me to accept most things as they are, without the associated complex feelings of guilt, anger or shame. Family is family. You don’t always get to choose. And yet, even with that understanding, you can still find yourself in the wee hours curled up in the fetal position on a cold bathroom floor, crying for answers and cursing at the people who’ve let you down.
My own personal history seems to connect me to Hayden right now and I feel a charitable sense of responsibility to her as we approach the northwest corner of Second Avenue. She really is a sweet girl. So open and friendly. I feel obligated to impart some other-worldly oracle of knowledge as Hayden looks intently at the potholed ground beneath where her boots step. She then sets her eyes to meet mine. I notice their color for the first time. Deep blue, like sapphire, similar to the color of the dress I’m wearing. Deep and dark. Goth-like, I chuckle in my head. I sense by her curious expression, and the way she suddenly leans in, that I must, at this very moment, say something. Something powerful, meaningful, something with lasting significance and utility. I realize that I have a tremendous opportunity right now to be of use to someone. A total stranger. A goth chick. Someone with whom I truly identify. Someone I once was, and a part of me still is! I fantasize that Hayden may be compelled to repeat our conversation later to her friends, to her mom, to her boyfriend perhaps, or her dad, maybe even to another stranger one day. My profound words could potentially live on after this day as she refers back to our conversation for many years to come. My words, this moment in time, this trust between two strangers will be remembered, will be valued, and will connect us in this life. Maybe she’ll one day write a song about me, I muse. Moments later, all this self-flattery melts away when I catch myself, and I feel ridiculous. I see the image of myself in my mind’s eye, as I am today. I am Joanna Johnston… successful, accomplished, fulfilled. And, I also see that young, inexperienced, insecure teen who is still a part of me. I exhale fully and take a moment to savor this epiphany. I want to hold onto that teenaged insecurity. I want to own it. The same insecurity that I once loathed and carefully disguised. I want to carry it with me today as a badge of honor, for it has shaped me. It has equipped me along the way here. I always thought insecurity was bad, shameful, negative. But no, it is not. My insecurity is my catalyst, my humility, and therefore, my strength.
Hayden and I stop at the corner on Second Avenue, and I reach out my arm with a pointed finger toward the salon building as I direct Hayden to her destination. We both know that we will soon bid our farewells, but we are not ordinary strangers just saying our courtesy goodbyes. We completely turn our bodies to face one another. Hayden stands about three inches taller than me, in a straight-postured, statuesque pose. Regal and confident with no insecurity there, I muse. Funny, but I no longer see those ripped fishnets, cuffed shorts, the superfluous silver chains, or jet-black hair and overdone makeup. I see before me a beautiful young woman with a certain poise that I did not capture previously on the train. I begin to carefully think about the words I will say to her before speaking them aloud. It’s interesting, because, when I do finally speak, I feel I am suddenly outside of my own body. A controlled, mature voice which doesn’t quite fit my own, takes over.
“Wow!” I exclaim. “How fortunate you are! You, right now, have a unique and special opportunity to catch yourself a curve ball hurled at you, going 100 miles an hour, perhaps one of many during your lifetime. But don’t duck, don’t run away, don’t look away. That is life coming at you. And, life is a privilege, it’s a gift, and it’s a blessing. It’s also an olympic obstacle course. It is precious and unpredictable, and riddled with ironies and challenges at every corner. Embrace the unexpected, and for whatever lies beyond your control, allow it to unfold as it will. Sometimes, a free-fall can land you in the most wonderful circumstances, though they can take a while to be realized as such. Just be present, be in the moment, be alive, and be patient with the timeline of your life. Be tolerant and forgiving of others as well as yourself. And never mind your fears for they might obstruct your happiness, your will, or your soul’s purpose. Trust that you will reach your senior years not knowing all the answers or understanding every pain and disappointment you’ve endured. But, aim to look back on your life without any regrets or missed opportunities. Always keep open your heart and your mind, and continue to receive and recognize all of life’s blessings for some will be obvious to you, while others will be hidden beneath those times of pain and disappointment. Just know that one day all will be revealed, everyone will be reunited, you will come full circle from where you started with deeper understanding, and the only thing that truly exists and matters is ‘Love‘.”
With a closed smile, Hayden nods in a gesture of understanding. She then reaches for my hand. She holds it in hers in a gracious manner, and proceeds to lean in with a light air kiss. I note a glassy look in her eyes. Without articulating a word, or murmuring a sound, she chooses to continue smiling, still close-mouthed. She appears to take in my message as she postures herself straighter, possibly adding another inch to her height I imagine. Her model-like frame appears lighter and her facial structure more relaxed. She gently releases my hand and stares at me for another moment with gratitude in her expression. No other words are spoken. She looks down, and turns away slightly. She starts walking, slowly, toward the direction of the salon. I watch her, all the while hating the fact that she is now leaving me there. I now know that something has awakened in me and I fear losing that when she leaves. As she reaches the door to the salon, she pauses and looks back. I am still standing there, watching her. She waves at me, and this time her smile is open. It’s a broad, happy smile. I could see those straight, white teeth in the distance, perfectly framed by her red lips. I also distinctly notice an aura about her, a golden-colored aura. I normally don’t see such things, I acknowledge. Suddenly, Hayden is out of view. She is gone. And in a sense, I am gone too. I so vividly see myself in Hayden, that I could not resist the chance to live a part of that life again. And now, she is gone. I do not move. I wait. Maybe she will step out of the salon and come back. I stand there in quiet awkward moments, hoping. Then, realizing I’ve waited long enough, I turn my back to the salon, reflecting on the pearls of wisdom I had shared with Hayden, which were still hanging in the hot, stale summer air. The wisdom, it seemed, of a mature, experienced adult. One who has lived and learned some things. I think about the words that I had spoken, their impact. Did I really say them? And to whom was I really speaking?
I soon gather that my 47-year-old self was in fact talking to me, 17-year-old me, through this interaction with Hayden. I spoke the words I needed to hear then. The assurance I needed to feel. Maybe I knew this wisdom all along, even at seventeen, but I had to be in that moment where I was then, at that stage of my own timeline, before I could properly understand and process the me I am today.
As I stand on the avenue, I feel shame cascade over me. I am ashamed at my initial prejudgments of Hayden, and how I projected repressed feelings of insecurity onto a stranger. I get it now. I do. I whisper an apology into the universe. I do have my shortcomings. I’m still learning. I’m still growing. I am today feeling blessed and humbled by my crazy childhood and the sacrifices of my mother. I love where I am in my timeline of life, and when I think back to my goth years, I now understand that girl more today than ever. And I love her more than ever, too.
I stand motionless on Second Avenue, where I am lost in thought and revelation. I then whisk myself from that hold, and stride down one block toward 67th street, to head home to Eliot and Kelly who are waiting on me, and probably wondering if we’ll be having the baked macaroni casserole left over from last night. I have an involuntary pep in my step, and feel feather light as I turn the corner of 67th. I’m just a few steps from the hunter green awning of our doorman building when something inside me feels wonderfully unleashed. I am eager to get home. I am eager to hold Eliot close and longingly, and smell the musk off his neck. I then want to squeeze my Kelly so tight and only let her go when she admonishes me with that predictable pre-teen angst that she’s developed. The thought of the two of them intensifies inside me.
I enter through the revolving door and stride across the lobby of my apartment building where Nelson, our charming hispanic doorman, thoughtfully asks me about my day, as he usually does. On any other day, I would have half-heartedly replied, “Good, thanks. How are you?” Then, half-listened to his reply. But today, I look at him intently, and say happily, “My day was very interesting and unexpected, but I would really like to know about your day, Nelson! Tell me.”