Emily Flake | Longreads | April 2020 | 9 minutes (2185 words)
My parents took me to see The Last Unicorn in the theater when I was 5. The experience is seared into my mind for a number of reasons: Terrifying burning bull! Handsome prince says “damn!” Unicorn!!! But no scene hit me with quite the power of the one where the sad old bag Molly Grue meets the titular (last!) unicorn for the first time.
If you’re not familiar with this movie, allow me to express my condolences. It’s a batshit Rankin/Bass adaptation of the Peter S. Beagle novel of the same name, and it’s about a unicorn — but it’s not the magical creature that I’m interested in here. The character Molly Grue is a middle-aged woman, a scullery maid we meet as the unicorn is being led to safety by an inept wizard named Schmendrick (ha!) for reasons I won’t go into now (but really, stream it, you won’t be sorry). Her reaction to encountering an honest-to-goodness magical beast isn’t fear, or awe. It’s grief-stricken rage. “Where have you been?” she howls. “Where were you when I was new? How dare you come to me now, when I am this?” Even as a child I knew anguish and sorrow when I heard it — I’m pretty sure I didn’t know the word “melancholy,” but I understood that she was no longer the kind of woman to whom beautiful things happen, that to be a participant in a beautiful thing you had to be beautiful yourself. I felt that with every inch of my weirdo 5-year-old heart, and now, at 42, it resonates with a power that’s almost unbearable.
I am this, now. That feeling of loss, of being too old to be graced by magic — that’s no longer a hypothetical. My young maidenhood wasn’t spent sitting around under trees waiting for a unicorn to come to me, but I certainly looked for magic in places sacred and profane (mostly profane). I was blind to any beauty I might have possessed. I spent a lot of time apologizing for my body when I first started using it to have sex, a practice meant to head off any criticism my partner might have had, but which I now realize was insane and a perfect way to kill the mood. These days, I catch myself reflected in a window every now and again and feel uncomfortably sure that the tired-looking marshmallow with very dry hair squinting back at me no longer remotely qualifies as that kind of magic bait.
Mind you, youth doesn’t appeal to me, personally. Young men are sexual blanks to me — boring, unseasoned chicken breasts with nothing interesting to say. Give me your grizzled Gen Xers, your gray beards, your potbellies, your crinkled eyes. Give me your hearts heavy with regret, your gorgeous tattered men. I’ve always been more attracted to men at least a decade my senior, and once in my early 20s I slept with a man in his 40s because I wanted to see what that was like, to feel like I was giving my young body like a gift (for the record: it was lovely, bittersweet and poignant, yet deeply hot). Physically speaking, I no longer feel like a gift to anyone, not even to my own husband, a man contractually obliged to accept my body even if as a burden. In the increasingly rare instances where a comely stranger flirts with me, I hear Molly Grue’s voice: How dare you come to me now?
Another memory, this one much more recent: I’m on the phone with my mother, talking about my sister, who’s been going through a truly awful rough time. “She’s so miserable,” my mother says, and then her voice catches, “and she’s gained so much weight.” Those 20 or 30 pounds of stress-weight loom larger in my mother’s mind than any of the other disastrous consequences of my sister’s rough patch. A woman may lose her partner and her home, but the loss of her figure is a real mortal sin. This preoccupation with weight in my family goes deep — a constant drumbeat of self-excoriation for our extra poundage, a fog of shame we eat our way through. You’d think this obsession would render us thin, at least. It never has. Or you might think the flip side of the coin — the food side — would represent something delightful and irresistible, a form of joy worth sacrificing our waistlines for. But no, we had no food traditions, no family dinners, no beloved recipes. My sister and I ate cereal alone at the kitchen table, most nights. The food-way of my people is secret late-night runs to Wawa’s to stock up on obscene amounts of junk food, to be eaten alone in the always-damp basement while watching 120 Minutes. All of our deficiencies, written on our bodies. Imagine the surprise and joy when men started to look at me with interest. The idea that my body could be anything other than a source of shame and self-loathing was intoxicating, a drug I wanted to do as much of as possible.
These days, I catch myself reflected in a window every now and again and feel uncomfortably sure that the tired-looking marshmallow with very dry hair squinting back at me no longer remotely qualifies as that kind of magic bait.
I’ve spent my life worried about my weight; the aging issue is a relatively new voice in the cacophony. But it strikes the same notes — my blurring neckline feels like a personal failing, my drooping eyelids a sign of moral laxity. A new way for my body to display the deficiencies of my soul. I’m not denied magic because I’m not beautiful — I’m denied magic because deep in my soul I don’t deserve it. You can tell just by looking at me.
But recently, a new counterpoint presented itself. I was out to dinner with some lady friends, and I went to the bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror. The light was extremely flattering, my face a bit flushed and my eyes sparkling not just with booze and lively conversation but with the feeling that shit was finally starting to come together — that years of flailing might somehow be resolving into something resembling a “career.” I’ve written books. I get on stages regularly and make people laugh. I make a significant portion of my income practicing the nearly dead art of gag cartoons. I am at the top of the Google search results for my own name (not hard with a last name like Flake, but still). I looked at the woman in the mirror and saw potential unfolding. “This is it,” I whispered. “This is my prime.” I felt full of a new kind of power, not the half-cocked reckless mojo I used to carry out of a bar bathroom, but a fierce, capable joy. I am this, I thought. Now.
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It’s a nice feeling if you can get it, but you better figure out a way to bottle it if you do. It fades by the light of day and less accommodating mirrors. It is difficult to tap into that feeling of power when you feel stuck, bereft of ideas, distracted by chores, parenting, the goddamned internet. But to know that joy is possible is to catch a glimpse of the courage you will need to push yourself into unfamiliar territories, into places where your calling card might have to be something other than your beautiful face. My face was never so great that it could take me places — I was never going to pretty myself into a career or the respect of my peers or anything else worth having. My power to get those things, to work, to discover what I’m capable of as a writer and an artist, to live in the world, has only gotten stronger as I’ve gotten older. Forty-two-year-old me has considerably more wit, capability, and agency than 22-year-old me, who had a kewpie-doll appeal but didn’t know her ass from her dimpled elbow. But that face did serve, I realize now, as a ticket into the act of participating in desire. Not even to act on desire — my marriage has been a long and happy one so far — but in the act of desire itself, a satisfying little frisson of a glance, a smile, a hit of serotonin from an IRL “like.” I am as vain and greedy as I ever was, but easy co-signs are no longer a thing.
And yet: this new sense of capability is rich and intoxicating and a delightfully weird surprise. I recognize, of course, that these bones will be dust someday no matter how I manage to use them while they’re mine, and that a good week can turn into a bad year just as easily as anything. But I want this grace and power with a swooning desire that feels very much like love. Maybe this is a truth that doesn’t often reveal itself to the young, or the rich, or the beautiful — that you don’t have to sit under some dumb tree and wait for magic to come to you. You work, you fight, you learn, and every once in a while, you’ll look into a mirror and realize you’ve made your own magic.
It’s silly to expect a tender green shoot like that to supplant a lifetime of blaming my body for everything that’s wrong with me, the conviction that the loneliness and awkwardness and cruelty I experienced growing up were the natural consequence of my having round cheeks and a pot belly. In some ways, this new and possibly fleeting appreciation of my capabilities feels like it’s come disastrously late — how dare you come to me now, when I am this? I think a lot about Tina Fey’s definition of “crazy” in show business — “A woman who won’t shut up even though no one wants to fuck her anymore.” Who might I have been, if I’d gotten my shit together in what my mother called my “pretty years?” I worry that my ability to make myself heard will fade just as I’ve finally managed to get my voice into something resembling a shape. “Be so good that they can’t ignore you no matter how unfuckable you get,” I tell myself, despairing a little of never being that good. But it’s also silly to focus on the impermanence of looks when the body itself is so impermanent. The real goal should be: “Be so good that they can’t ignore you even if you’re dead.”
Maybe this is a truth that doesn’t often reveal itself to the young, or the rich, or the beautiful — that you don’t have to sit under some dumb tree and wait for magic to come to you.
And let’s face it: even that is a goal born of towering foolishness, of short-sighted narcissism. None of this matters, truly. The entire scope of human history is an imperceptible blip of time on a minuscule nothing of a planet. When I’m in a good mood, this truth feels liberating. When I’m feeling like the old, fractious, dissatisfied bitch I find myself turning into — it feels heavy. Why bother with any of this? It’s not a brave question, and to answer it bravely and with hope requires a daffy optimism and, yes, a certain belief in magic, a willingness to fall in love. Is this willingness so easily crushed by my drooping face and newly aching joints? If I’m *this* already, what on earth am I going to become? “Functional but invisible” is almost certainly preferable to “crumbling and loud with pain.” At least Molly Grue could *walk.*
But putting aside the loss of my looks and the attendant damage to my shallow ego — I have to ask myself if the idea that ol’ turkey-neck Flake is too busted-up looking to Make It in the world isn’t something of an abdication of responsibility, a convenient excuse to duck out of a fight. It’s haaarrrd, I find myself whining. They should tell you this every day in art school or creative writing class: the bulk of your creative time will be spent either disappointing yourself or devising ways to avoid the inevitability of disappointing yourself, and that is an emotionally taxing way to live, even if you get to do it while wearing pajamas all day. Feelings of victory and joy and that state of “flow” people are always talking about are the exception, not the rule. There’s nothing else I’d rather be doing (or that I’m even qualified to do — I was a good waitress, but not good enough to be a career one, and my music-distribution experience plus four bucks will buy me a latte, thank you, Spotify), but that doesn’t mean it’s easy, or that I don’t fantasize of just getting into bed and letting roots grow deep into my mattress. It’s the possibility of magic that keeps us going — of making work that rings clear and true, those fleeting moments where work feels like flying. We need to believe in magic, but somehow live without expecting it.
What I know in my heart, even if I don’t always live it in my mind and body, is this: All of this, the whole stupid enterprise, from working to fucking to writing to making art to walking, at any age, takes hope. Silly, reckless, pointless, goofy hope. Without it, I may as well sit down under that tree and wait, not for a unicorn, but to die. I know unicorns don’t exist. But I can hope it’s true that they live forever.
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Emily Flake is a New Yorker cartoonist, writer, illustrator, and performer.
Editor: Sari Botton
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Also In the Fine Lines Series:
Introducing Fine Lines
An Introduction to Death
A Woman, Tree or Not
Dress You Up in My Love
The Wrong Pair
‘Emerging’ as a Writer — After 40
Losing the Plot
A Portrait of the Mother as a Young Girl
Elegy in Times Square
Every Day I Write the Book
Johnny Rotten, My Mom, and Me
Everything is Fine
Bracing for the Silence of an Empty Nest
To Grieve Is to Carry Another Time
Game of Crones
Father’s Little Helper
Conversations with My Loveliest
What is Happening to My Body?
Keeping my Promise to Popo
Hello, Forgetfulness; Hello, Mother
Old Dudes on Skateboards
I’m 72. So What?
Learning From Perimenopause and a Kpop Idol
The Art of Losing Friends and Alienating People
We Are All We Have
Searching Sephora for an Antidote to Aging — and Grief
How I Got My Shrink Back