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Laura Lippman
Laura Lippman is a bestselling crime novelist.

The Art of Losing Friends and Alienating People

Illustration by Giselle Potter

Laura Lippman | Longreads | November 2019 | 17 minutes (4,147 words)


I am firmly in the camp that believes we need new interests and new goals as we age. At 60, I have taken up tennis and am dutifully working my way through Duolingo’s basic Italian lessons. Recently, a friend and I decided to pursue Stephen Sondheim completist status, attending productions of every musical for which he has written music and/or lyrics. Alas, our crowded calendars keep us from being as nimble as we need to be. Passion in the Philippines would have been amazing, but we couldn’t even make it to The Frogs in suburban Detroit. Clearly, we’re going to be at this for a while.

But this past spring, we managed to bag a New York production of Merrily We Roll Along, a Sondheim work that has been vexing dramaturges since its original 1981 Broadway run of only 16 performances. Based on the 1934 play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, it moves backward in time, centering on a three-way friendship that has fractured beyond repair. Mary, who always had a thing for Frank, has become a bitter alcoholic. Frank has ignored the work he does best, composing, in order to become a mogul, at which he is mediocre. Frank and Charley no longer speak at all. Because the story moves from their crabby old age (40-something!) to their more hopeful 20s, we see the fallout before we hear the bomb. The suspense is not fueled by whether Frank and Charley will patch things up, but the origin of the feud. Who did what to whom?

That reveal comes quickly, one advantage of a backwards-moving story. The fifth or sixth song, depending on the production you see — people are forever tinkering with Merrily — is a bravura rant. Charley breaks down on a live television show while discussing his writing partnership with Frank. Which comes first, Charley is asked, the words or the music. The contract, he replies, then launches into “Franklin Shepard Inc.,” a laundry list of his friend’s shortcomings.

The song builds, his rage builds. But just as Charley appears on the verge of one of those musical theater transitions that was mocked in Spamalot’s “The Song that Goes Like This,” he stops himself and begins to speak-sing softly. He misses Frank. He wants him back.

His argument is contradictory. He compares friendship to a garden that has to be tended, then, shades of Elizabeth Bishop, says “Friendship’s something you don’t really lose.” The tempo begins to build. He’s out of control and he knows it. Very sneaky how it happens . . . Oh my god, I think it’s happened. Stop me quick before I sink. He ends with a few vicious, well-chosen words about Frank’s obsession with money. The friendship is irrevocably broken. It’s unclear what can’t be forgiven — the stinging words or the public airing of the grievance.

Absent this kind of betrayal or falling-out, most friendships don’t end so definitively. These no-ending endings can be hard to process. Our culture long ago made peace with the fragility of matrimony, but we still have high expectations for friendships. If you really care about someone, you should be able to pick up where you left off, no matter how long it’s been. Friendship’s something you don’t really lose, right?

Hold my beer, Charley. It’s Frank’s turn to sing.
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Whole 60

Evgeny Buzov / Getty

Laura Lippman | Longreads | July 2019 | 15 minutes (3,660 words)


When I was in high school, I would walk to the Waldenbooks in the mall near my home and read novels while standing up. This was the 1970s, long before bookstores became places that encouraged people to sit, hang, browse. There were no armchairs in that narrow store on the second floor of Columbia Mall in Howard County, Maryland.

Reading while standing up felt like stealing, a pathetic thrill for this straight-A goody-goody. I had money — I babysat, I eventually worked at the Swiss Colony in the same mall. I could buy any volume I truly desired. But my stand-up reads were books too embarrassing to bring home. I remember only two.

One was The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden, a British novelist perhaps best known today for inspiring the name of Bruce Willis’s and Demi Moore’s oldest daughter. It now strikes me as a perfectly respectable book; I could have forked over $1.25 for it.

The other one was — I couldn’t begin to tell you the title. It was a slick psycho serial killer tale that began with a young couple parked on Lovers Lane, where they were attacked by a man with, if I recall correctly, a metal hook for one of his hands. He used his hook to slash the roof of the convertible, or maybe it was a knife, and as the metal blade (or the hook) pierced through the canvas, the beautiful, vain sorority girl — it was implicit that she deserved to die if only for her smugness — thought: “I should have had that slice of cheesecake at dinner.”

It has taken me more than 40 years, but the singular achievement of my life may be that if I am attacked by a serial killer on a deserted Lovers Lane, I almost certainly will have had dessert. Not cheesecake, because I don’t like cheesecake. Possibly some dark chocolate, preferably with nuts or caramel, or a scoop of Taharka ice cream, an outstanding Baltimore brand, or one of my own homemade blondies, from the Smitten Kitchen recipe.

Maybe a shot of tequila, an excellent digestif. Maybe tequila and a blondie.

But only if I want those things. Many nights, I’m not in the mood for anything sweet after dinner. Every day, one day at a time, one meal at a time, one hunger pang at a time, I ask myself what I really want. I then eat whatever it is.

It is the hardest thing I have ever done in my life.
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Game of Crones

Illustration by Homestead

Laura Lippman | Longreads | May 2019 | 16 minutes (4,090 words)


My daughter was 10 days old the first time I was asked if I were her grandmother.

It was the second week of an unseasonably early Baltimore heat wave and I had managed to maneuver her stroller across my neighborhood’s bumpy, narrow sidewalks to my favorite coffee shop. Almost nine years later, I still remember the one spot on our street where the juxtaposition of a tree planter and a set of rowhouse steps made it physically impossible to push a stroller through at any angle. One either had to lift the stroller a foot in the air or bump it over the curb into the street, a solution I figured out only after much grunting and angling. By the time I arrived at the coffee shop, I was sweaty and unkempt.

A young man peered into the stroller, then glanced at my face: “Oh, are you her grandmother?” Only three days earlier, a woman had seen me boarding a plane with my newborn, eyed me approvingly and whispered: “You look amazing!” An unearned compliment — my daughter didn’t come out of my body and my body’s not that great, anyway — but I had been happy to take it. I’m not dumb. I knew the grandmother question would be asked again and again, and that compliments would be rare.

I tried out a simple, direct reply, the one I use to this day: “No, I’m her mother, but I am old enough to be her grandmother, so it’s understandable that you would ask.”

I thought my answer generous. But in the years since my daughter was born, I have discovered that people who ask rude questions feel terribly affronted if you say anything that implies they have just asked a rude question.

“But I’ve seen that baby with a young couple,” the man said. “Out and about in the neighborhood.”

“I don’t think so.”

“No, I absolutely have,” he insisted. “She’s been going around with a young couple.”

I let it go. I live in a city that, year in and year out, has a startlingly high teenage pregnancy rate, and consequently a high number of young grandmothers, some of whom end up raising their grandchildren. I’d be proud to be one of those women. But I am not. I’m just an old mom and I’m cool with that. Say a word or a phrase often enough, and it loses its power. I’m an old mom. I’m 60. I’m a 60-year-old woman with a third-grader. I am old. I am 60. I am old. I am old. I am old.

“You don’t look old to me,” my daughter has said on more than one occasion. “You could be in your 40s, your 30s, you could be in college, you could be in high school.”

Uber drivers say something similar, but at least I know why they’re blowing smoke up my ass. I’m not sure what my daughter wants, but she’s been eyeing the American Girl Doll spaceship, which lists at $449.99 on eBay. Good luck with that, honey. Mama’s got money, but she’s not crazy.

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