Love is a banquet on which we feed. That’s how it felt when Rich and I were younger, first dating, butterflies in our stomachs, long before having kids. Ten years and three kids later, love is more like a dining table with no candlelight dinner ever but three piles of mail that grow and shrink in a semi-sorted state; it’s a partnership with a never-ending to do list. It is comfortable, ordinary, nothing wrong, but something easily taken for granted or overlooked. Surely we are not the only ones in our circles of friends who feel this way at moments, but I might be the only person whose love was renewed because of a well-timed costume party.
Sometimes a little thing takes me by surprise and I fall in love with Rich all over again. It could be the way he walks in the doorway excited to be home and see the kids at a moment when I want to run out that very same door, or hearing him explain a concept to them in very grown-up terms with intricate details. On my friend, Maneli’s, fortieth birthday, it was seeing Rich dressed up as the famous photographer from the ‘70s and ‘80s, Robert Mapplethorpe, in a costume far more precise and compelling than I could have ever imagined.
Rich was not very familiar with Robert Mapplethorpe until about a week before Maneli’s fortieth birthday. I didn’t know Patti Smith all that well, either. I liked her music, but I didn’t appreciate that she was – or would soon become – one of my heroes. One important thing I’ve learned in the past few years is that love and heroes reveal themselves in unusual ways.
Fortieth birthday parties have become the new weddings for us. Many of our friends are married about a decade now, with kids well into elementary school. Unlike at our weddings, where we focused on linen colors, fonts on the invitations and other unimportant details, we now know what is important: time to step out of our daily routines, enjoy living, connect with friends and reflect on the relationships that define us.
If we get to wear a costume and travel to another time or place, that’s a bonus. While I normally do the bare minimum when presented with a costume theme, this one spoke to me more than the typical ‘80s or Great Gatsby party. Maneli, my highly fashionable friend who embodied all the beauty of her authentic Persian and faux Italian background, had always dreamed of living at the time of Studio 54. She decided this had to be her fortieth birthday theme. In describing her vision to us, Maneli was sure to mention that Studio 54 was not about generic disco, afros and psychedelic prints. She encouraged us not to think of Saturday Night Fever, but to research Studio 54 and to dress as actual characters from the nightclub’s heyday. She planned to dress as Bianca Jagger, probably without the white horse given limitations in the elevator of her cousin’s Meatpacking loft.
Challenge accepted. I considered Andy Warhol, Blondie and others, but needed to look no further than my second grade classroom. After dismissing my students, when I was alone, what did I play to create a bridge between a long day of teaching other people’s children and my evening with my own demanding offspring? 70s and 80s Rock. Velvet Underground. Patti Smith. Tom Waits. I played a lot of other stuff, too, all of which was startling to other teachers who stopped by to chat about lesson plans. Each piece was carefully selected to give me that moment of escape and that connection to art that I missed in the everyday moments of my life. The more emotional the better. A year before Maneli’s party, I left my teaching job because I had a third child. During that year, I immersed myself in reading and writing, and I had recently read Just Kids, Patti Smith’s memoir. A lightbulb went off, and that is who we would be: Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe.
Rich doesn’t share my love of ’70s Punk or Warhol’s Factory. I’m not sure he could have correctly answered a Jeopardy question, “Who is Robert Mapplethorpe?” if shown the artist’s picture a week prior. But as I have joked in the past, Rich has an attitude of “Go big or go home” when it comes to executing an idea, particularly for entertainment purposes, and he loves a good costume party.
We were approaching the evening from two very different perspectives, but with the common goal that for four short hours, we would be this couple. We decided this on Friday. The party was Saturday. I spent about five minutes cutting bangs, then made a special trip to Michael’s to find skulls, feathers and leather string for Rich’s necklace. I bought a pair of perfectly washed grey jeans off a clearance rack at Marshalls. Up high in my closet, a plastic Rubbermaid container held secrets of a more fashionable wardrobe from my 20s. This container had survived three apartments and a move to the suburbs, and at the bottom of it were my black leather Gap jeans from 1999. They fit Rich perfectly. I thought we were just about ready, but Rich checked maps for retailers in New York where we could stop before the party to look for a few more details. Within a half hour in Century 21 on the Upper West Side, he had the perfect collarless linen shirt and motorcycle boots. Who was this guy, and where did he hide my husband’s khakis and polo shirt? I marveled at his transformation as we hopped in a cab and headed downtown.
When I met Rich, we were just kids ourselves. We were twenty-five years old, living in New York, surrounded by friends and enjoying the pace and spontaneity of city life. I used to spend afternoons wandering the aisles of The Strand bookstore in winter, lounging with friends in Sheep’s Meadow in summer, and nights watching bands play on the Lower East Side. Now we cherished four hours away from our children and a glimpse into a more carefree time. I’ve changed careers since we met. I’ve leaned in and leaned out as the parenting demands have shifted, and sometimes I wonder how I got here, even though I’m happier writing than doing anything else. Rich and I have agreed and disagreed along the way, and we’ve left our home in New York City to start fresh in the suburbs. We are not the same people we married ten years ago, but nothing is constant, and that’s part of the fun.
Even heroes don’t stay frozen in time. When I was younger, Patti Smith was an icon from an earlier era. When I became an adult, she offered an unconventional love story, and now as a parent, her writing provides a window into life’s journey that resonates deeply. Balancing love and loss with parental joy and a dedication to art, I see a hero who can honor the past while paving a path forward. Reading M Train last summer, after my Patti Smith-for-a-Night experience was long past, I found new common ground in our mutual love for coffee, Law and Order, and the stories of objects. When our country fell apart politically and I had no choice but to become an activist and an outspoken feminist, catching up on years of being too complacent, I went to see Patti sing at the PEN America conference opening night. Her voice is more powerful than ever; her strength and humility awe-inspiring. Patti Smith’s is one of the biographies in the Rad American Women A-Z book I recently bought my daughter, but she is also an ordinary person, living simply, hair turning grey, watching television and talking to her daughter, not so different from my own mother. Our heroes are just humans on their own paths who happen to have talents that draw the rest of us along.
Change brings surprises, opportunities, conversations and coincidences. It was a coincidence that Just Kids was fresh in my mind at the same moment as Maneli’s party and a surprise that Rich and I could strike such a convincing resemblance to Patti and Robert. That night was an opportunity to look at my husband through a new lens. The same blue eyes through which I gazed at him on our wedding day were now surrounded by a few wrinkles and shadowed by stylish, freshly-cut bangs as I watched him greeting Andy, Janis, Bianca and a whole bunch of people in generic afros and polyester. Under the disco ball, in the mist of the smoke machine, he stood out from the crowd. My love and my hero.