The first time I met the Lady in Pink, it was a warm, breezy afternoon the day after New Year’s. The San Francisco Bay sparkled and popped like a freshly corked champagne bottle, and she was more glamorous than the fizz of Dom Perignon.
I was at my boyfriend’s house, where I was meeting his entire family for the first time. Of course, I was nervous. Deadly hung over, I spent hours deliberating over what to wear, eventually opting for a shapeless white number that made me look like a washed-out, European schoolboy. My boyfriend and I had been dating about two months, which meant that I was still in my daily Facebook stalking phase (“why is that girl from his 2011 profile pic still writing on his wall?”) and from what I could tell from his photos, his family was a jovial and social bunch. The second I walked through the door, my suspicions were confirmed. His mom, a petite brunette with a salty tongue and MSNBC addiction, threw her arms around my waist, stepped back, took a good look at my heavy-lidded, bloodshot eyes and chirped: “Welcome! We are so glad to finally meet you!” And then: “Do you want a shot of tequila?”
I shuffled through the living room door like a humpback at a sack race and made my way to the big kid table. It was just like a high school party: the hostess was prettier than me and the boy I came with disappeared into the bathroom for at least thirty minutes. “So great to meet you too!” I finally said after a period of muted silence, and handed her a bottle of top-shelf Two Buck Chuck. In return, she thrust a full shot glass in my direction, just teetering between Make Family Function Less Awkward and Really Bad Decisions. “Cheers!” we sung, clinking our glasses together and flinging the Cuervo down our throats. Immediately, I could feel it blaze down my esophagus, warm up my cheeks, and dull my electric nerves. See? I told myself. You’ll be fine.
And then I saw the Lady in Pink. She sauntered into the living room, a flurry of fur and leather and highlights and ostentation. “Check out my lasagna!” she exclaimed, lurching to the right; her tanned, sinewy calves bulged with muscle as she strained above glossy black pumps. “I made it myself. I even made the sauce.” She plunged a spoon inside the noodle-and-cheese entangled mound and watched its silver tail quiver. “You guys. I never make anything!”
As if on cue, everyone flocked to the Lady in Pink. They fawned over her pink dress, slick jacket, taut body (“you are not 40!”) and general Fabulousness. She had a tacky tattoo that she wasn’t afraid to flaunt, and a fancy job doing fancy things making lots of money. She paraded her wealth just like the lasagna (“Isn’t this amazing? I made it myself”) and the whole party followed suit. This wisecracking woman was a rail-thin, bronzed embodiment of Lamborghinis and the American Dream, and they wanted her to shine on them too, goddamnit; wanted to catch a ray of that Success and Only the Best For Me and Partner at a Big Firm and Here’s How You Really Live it Big.
My boyfriend gazed at her fondly as she slung her glossy blonde hair over her shoulder, gesticulated wildly and told a hilarious story about something amazing that she did on accident. At the time, I didn’t notice his stare, nor did I understand it. After all, I hadn’t yet started to hate the Lady in Pink.
In fact, I didn’t start to hate her until a month or so later, when my boyfriend revealed to me that they had a romantic history together. We were ice skating at Squaw Valley in Lake Tahoe, holding hands gently and gliding along the slick rink under a ring of pine trees, when he mentioned that they had briefly dated the year earlier.
At the time, he was living in another state. When they met at a family gathering (she was friends with some of his family members), she immediately fell for his beauty: a Ralph Lauren poster of luxuriousness, with silky chocolate-colored hair and forearms carved of marble. They exchanged flirtatious emails and she hopped on a jet to visit him when his “family was in town visiting too” (suuuure, I thought to myself). 15 years his senior, she took him out on the town, treated him to decadent meals and the finest sheets in a regal hotel.
Suddenly, the reverent way he had described her, months before, made sense. She was wildly successful, he explained, rose herself up from her non-designer, secondhand bootstraps and made an unfathomable amount of money. Now, she was attractive and cavalier, the cool girl from high school. I glanced down at my stubby – unpainted fingernails and felt my insecurities hit an all-time high.
Growing up, my parents had always told me “do what you love,” and so I chose the rewarding and thrilling, but never lucrative path of journalism. I am not thin like the Lady in Pink, nor am I blonde and fancy. I met many people like her when I went to college and later, moved to New York, and found myself constantly measuring myself up to them, defending my decisions and goals against theirs. I said I didn’t want to make oodles of money like them — I wanted to follow my passion, dammit — but somewhere in the back of my mind I desired long legs, straight hair, a dad with an ironed shirt and a kitchen that was always clean. The Lady in Pink, and the way my boyfriend talked about her, reminded me of everything I was not.
After some time, my boyfriend explained as I wobbled on the ice, the romance fizzled (his mother found out and got angry), but they kept the flirtation strong. Emails, suggestive texts, pictures. This is the part of the story that, as Peter Griffin would say, really ground my gears: the “friendly, totally appropriate relationship” my boyfriend assured (yeah, right) that continued after the admonishments. After both of them knew it was wrong.
As he continued the saga, and we circled around the rink, I tried to assemble my thoughts. I was going to laugh it off, play it cool. I was a writer, a chill girlfriend after all (one of the boys!); and could certainly handle this. I asked him lots and lots of questions, not because I am a journalist and love questions, but because it was the only way I could deal with my pesky pain and jealousy and rage, those things that “crazy” girlfriends feel and I certainly wasn’t supposed to. I deflected his questions with jokes, congratulated him on landing a MILF, and slapped him heartily on the back.
When I saw her at the next family gathering (wearing a skin-tight purple dress), I felt nothing but deep rage and animosity. I seethed at her swagger, ostentation, and bravado. The way she smirked at my boyfriend. The way he smirked back, or at least, the way I scrutinized him to see if he was smirking back. I couldn’t empathize with the Lady in Pink, her insecurity, and the circumstances that drove her to go after a boy 15 years younger; no matter how hard I tried. But perhaps worst of all, I knew that I had to endure those thoughts every family gathering of his I would go to, because she would always be there. She was, in a weird and twisted sense, a member of his “family.” And I just had to deal.
I think that many of us have a Lady in Pink. Someone who reminds us, painfully, of everything we’re not. Growing up, my Lady in Pink favored the Disney Channel (Lizzie Mcguire!) while I preferred Nickelodeon (slimy green Gak!). She does not eat dessert and spends thousands of dollars on shoes. She does not care, particularly, about social justice or catching liars and thieving politicians, about telling the stories of underrepresented populations and everything else I consider a fundamental part of my career as a journalist.
But she is venerated in my boyfriend’s family, and they are wonderful people. When I see her, I feel like my body is too bulky and my hair too frizzy. I feel introverted, neurotic and cerebral. I feel like she is powerful and more important than me, like my goals of becoming a successful journalist and writer are nothing compared to her stiff suits and globetrotting vacations. This is my Lady in Pink.
Maybe you haven’t seen your Lady in Pink for years, or maybe she’s not your partner’s ex. You might not have to sit next to her at family functions and hear your boyfriend’s mother call her “Barbie” and prod at her tight stomach jealously. But many of our partners do have exes, and those exes trigger us in some way. This year, after a painful Christmas Eve gathering that left me brooding and insecure, I knew that I had to figure out a way to handle my Lady in Pink.
For me, my Lady in Pink became a character in a short story. On those pages, I could write her away: her frivolity and perfection and my boyfriend’s (imagined) adoration. In real life, I know that she is a far more complicated and nuanced person. I know that she feels and she cares and her laughter is not cruel but genuine.
I know that her fingernails split, she dribbles wine onto her skirt, and the back of her head has a mussed-up, wavy handful of hair that her straightening iron can’t reach. Like me, she too probably has a Lady in Pink. The next time I see her, I’ll look her in the eye and ask her a question about her life. After all, perhaps the only way to conquer her once and for all is to realize that the real Lady in Pink does not exist; she is merely a character that we create for ourselves.
Erica Hellerstein is a writer and journalist from the San Francisco Bay area. You can follow her on Twitter.
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