So, so many of today’s twenty-something women* are finding out who they are by waking up in the houses of people they barely know. It happens in the wan light of quiet morning, the fog of Last Night giving way to a distinct comingling of vulnerability and clarity.
Every object – their personal affects, their rumpled sheets, their jam jars, the shower that serves them daily stalwart – is thrown into sharp relief. You are the foreign body standing gooseprickled and hushed in that place. You go to bed a lover and you wake up a silent intruder in someone else’s life, and as you put last night’s clothes back on you put yourself back together, and no matter what happened you can feel the subtle disorientation that something in you has changed very slightly.
Even if you never enter that apartment again you will be faintly different forever, as if an Earth plate has moved ever so delicately along fault lines buried so deep you’ll never see them in your lifetime. And as you re-emerge into your city’s impassive daytime and orient yourself toward home (or toward some obscene breakfast sandwich you’ll inhale guiltily and with great relief, finally relieved of the duty of being seen) you will mine deep layers of yourself and beneath great blankets of calm, sometimes even contentment, you will masticate one question, turn it over curiously in your mouth: Was that what I wanted?
It’s not the lover that changes you, whether gamely used or loved raw so that your own shower will sting you later like a warm, good memory. It’s you. As a human you are programmed to seek partnership; as a woman you are engineered by society to seek love, and in particular to triangulate “love” against ideas about your future.
Our grandmothers largely looked toward the eventual certainty of becoming a wife as one great stabilizing force, a determinant; we are a generation of women overwhelmed by choice. We are allowed to find out who we are without men, but we keep pressing urgently through packed bars, stumbling into three-legged race embraces, careening off foreign hallways like a trick-shot, falling into beds anyway.
We are testing and then correcting. We don’t know whether we’re chasing stability or rejecting it but this is how we find out. Brick ourselves into someone else’s life for a night or several and see how we fit. And we are human and so we want to be held, but that is almost incidental.
Brooklyn is a cruel laboratory for the self. You will squeeze ungainly through narrow nicotine-yellow hallways, tripping over bicycle frames and sidestep anything damp, just to be safe, in your search for love. You will climb five sets of blood-colored stairs, a plywood bunk ladder, you will starve for air. Drink warm Gatorade, plastic-bottle vodka, piss-poor beer.
You are piss-poor, or it feels like you are. The walls are thin and everyone can hear you; you will be unwrapped and undignified on a floor mattress. You will not sleep if you’re not at home, smothering under a pilled fleece, a polyester duvet, the awareness of a complicated frame. 2 AM finds you fumbling for your buzzing phone as orange-stained lost-hour night bleeds in from behind heavy curtains.
You will have to work. You will have to eat. You won’t be able to eat here and no one will offer to feed you. You won’t know how to lock the front door. You won’t know whether to text. You do not call. You ought not smile too much, laugh too loud, be too eager to kiss or to do anything or say anything. You must be eager only to have another drink.
You must learn not to want to talk. You are sorry a lot, or you should be. You think. You don’t know. Your feelings are your own peculiar lacy private tangled bowstrung aching burden and you must carry them in a bundle like a soldier. You can’t really carry anything with you but that; it is the only thing you own that is worth anything. Your uniform is yesterday’s bra. More people in Brooklyn will see your bra than your feelings.
You don’t stay too long in anyone else’s space. You don’t ask to, and nobody asks you. You get bitterly cold in the winter, apocalyptically hot in summer. You are never, never comfortable. Sometimes you break a little.
When you steal rare deep sleep in what little sanctum you have made for yourself, a place that mercifully smells only like yourself – only then – do you think about things like a Real House. The longer you live in New York City the more distant and fascinating the idea of a Real House becomes, like a model in a snowglobe. You think about a Real Man. He can build things. He will cook for you. He wants you to stay. He begs you to stay, like in a song or a movie. You are With Him instead of Performing For him.
You think about these things even though Real Man is as much a child’s snowglobe idea, a dollhouse model, as a Real House. They are things you aren’t even sure you want. You can’t even decide if you are supposed to want them. Is it normal to want them? What if you ended up in a dollhouse? Who would you be then? You have the freedom to be a woman who can make her own reality.
Which is good, because seriously “Real Man” and “Real House” are constructs that do not even exist. I mean, probably they don’t. You might find yourself fleetingly wondering, and then you stash the question guiltily away under your classwork or your stack of zines or your sketchbooks or your notebooks full of writing or whatever represents your ideas about who you are and what matters to you. You stash it like a vibrator in your drawer. All your friends own one. It is a way of owning themselves.
Mostly you’re just looking for yourself. You move sometimes bravely and sometimes fragilely among men and houses. Was that what I wanted. Was that what I wanted.
This is what that episode of Girls was about. What if the snowglobe came to life? An older man. A doctor with a wife. Wife, another word you aren’t sure you want to understand, a question you have hidden away. A brownstone. Brownstone, brownstone, brownstone, a word with a sort of hushed power. A home like a décor catalog. You have never in a million years dreamed of such a thing for yourself, and now here it is, so big it might swallow you up, render you little, knock you out.
After a season and a half of sex scenes where the women ask can I and should I and do you want, here is someone strong, who knows what to do when Hannah says I want you to make me come. You don’t really know how important that is or how much you have been missing that until it happens. If it happens to you.
So much of the reception of that episode focused on the unrealism: Who lives like that? Who’d do that? Could a handsome, patient older man really adore imperfect, uncouth, unpretty little Hannah?
Exactly. That’s it. That’s the question. That’s the question inside so many of us that this episode is about. And the most important question of all: Is this what I want? Is this what I want?
A man who strokes your hair and calls you sweetheart. A thing that only your ideal of your father and your ideal of your husband, both of whom lurk only on the periphery of what you are okay with thinking about, would do.
This is when Hannah cries, of course.
The idea that without your particular angst, your misfiring synapses, your raw nerve-bundled fucking feelings you might be no-one is the great crisis of the young twenty-something today. The fantasy of an adulthood where that isn’t relatable, necessary or welcome – where it’s met with nothing but calm attention – is as terrifying as it is comfortable.
The episode began with Hannah excited at the idea she might have invented a trendy new term: “Sexit”, which either means to hastily exit a bar in search of sex or to leave someone quickly during or after sex, it’s not clear. As you watch you assume it’s probably going to become an IRL thing, and it’ll be cute, because this is how we think, now. Think about that, just in case you don’t understand how seismic to Hannah is the fantasy that presents itself next.
Of course it’s just a fantasy: Neither Hannah nor the wealthy married man would have plausibly sustained a long-term interest in riding off into the sunset together. You can read a lot into the fact that the episode began with Hannah dumping her awkward shopgirl trash on the man’s doorstep (get it?!)
But the episode is about that question, that crisis, and the fact that in the end, Hannah re-assembles herself in the ordinary morning of a near-stranger’s home, puts on the uniform of yesterday’s clothes, and does the walk home.
They used to call it a “walk of shame,” but there’s no shame anymore. It just is. It is just a walk where you are now a little different than you were before, a little older.
[*“I refuse to watch Girls,” I told my friends two months ago, “because I’ll just end up being compelled to write about it on Thought Catalog and then I’ll be that person writing about Girls on Thought Catalog.” Hello.
What I didn’t want to do was find myself sketching paragraphs about how ascribing generational-spokesperson status to a program about an actually-narrow and problematic vertex of “the female experience” is an unhelpful thing to do, or about how Girls is ostensibly about a set of modern challenges particular to people within a certain culture or possessed of a certain privilege, or making generalized statements about “women today” that would provoke all kinds of commenters righteously fixed on social justice and other issues.
Didn’t want to type the words “today’s twenty-something women” or anything absurdly and offensively over-general/heteronormative etc like that. Like, I know this twenty-something woman and what she’s doing is writing about these women and they are the furthest thing from Girls, in the best way, that you could possibly imagine. But still, here I am, so there you go.]