by Alison Cupp Relyea, Monumental Me Writer in Residence
Full-time human, part-time writer, trying to do my part to make sense of this crazy world. Writer of everyday life, history and politics with threads of humor.
Recently, after a long overdue haircut, I left the salon feeling lighter, more polished, and, well, sexier. I caught a glimpse of myself in a store window and had the reflexive response that may seem odd to other people but has become my new normal. “What would David Sedaris think?” Pretty sure he would approve of the bangs and layers, I thought a bit more about my new relationship with one of my favorite authors. This one-way relationship, born from a simple compliment frozen in time on the title page of a book, shows the power of words, intentional or not.
Last spring, I started planning for the upcoming summer, booking little day camps for the kids and connecting with the friends I only see in summer months. I planned one event for myself: a night out to see author David Sedaris. I had seen him speak once before, a few years back, and couldn’t wait for the gut-splitting laughs.
After spending the afternoon watching the local college baseball team play, I barely squeezed in a quick shower to wash off the sand and dust. Watching these Bucks games with my kids had become the main driver in my calendar, and I was ready for a break. I ran out of the house quickly, leaving my husband, children, and in-laws with a makeshift dinner.
A fellow mom Liana and I headed to Guild Hall, a lovely, intimate venue, where we were meeting another friend, Monique. Liana and I perused the author’s book table, talking about the titles and debating which ones to get. After selecting our books, we got in line and borrowed a Sharpie and Post-its from the young woman working the event. At first, I was going to have both books signed to me, but then I felt a selfish twinge. Much like my own mom, I am often giving away my snacks, drinks, sunglasses, and other items that will make my children more comfortable. I couldn’t possibly keep two books for myself without giving one to someone else. Trying to remember which of my brothers likes David Sedaris, I crossed out my name and wrote “Sammy” on the Post-it instead. Liana changed one of hers, too, as we approached the table where David sat chatting with guests.
“He’s talking to people for a long time. Maybe he knows them,” Liana commented.
“Yeah, or he’s just really friendly,” I replied, wondering what on earth I would say to David Sedaris. I wasn’t intimidated, exactly, trying to prepare. Should I tell him how much I like his books, or how funny he is, or ask if he really wore that Fitbit as much as he described in his New Yorker story? When my sister and I met Lou Reed years ago at a book signing, he stopped for a cigarette break when we were right at the front of the line. We had an unexpected conversation about skiing and snowboarding with one of the greatest rock legends. If I could handle small talk with one of my heroes in my early twenties, I could handle it now. But I got out a lot more back then.
With my books open to the appropriate page, I approached David. We exchanged hellos.
“Did you go swimming today?” he asked, holding his pen and glancing up at me, and then back at the page.
“Yes, did you?” I said reflexively, not even thinking through the question. Then I tried to remember, had I actually gone swimming? I swim almost every day in the summer, but couldn’t remember if I had actually swam that day. Did I just lie to David Sedaris?
“No, not today. Who’s Sammy?”
“My older brother. He’s a fan of yours.”
“Great. Here you go!” I took my books and left the line, waiting for Liana to get hers signed. I could tell David was writing something more in my books than just Enjoy! –David, but not wanting to seem overeager, I waited until I had moved past him to read them. Looking at his writing, in black Sharpie ink, I chuckled, bemused. Was it the lip gloss I took three seconds to apply? Maybe the summer tan?
The title page in my book read Why must you so enchant me? My brother’s read I dig your super sexy sister. Liana came off the line laughing, having noticed what he wrote. We both shrugged it off as bizarre, one of his jokes, and joined Monique to take our seats. David Sedaris has a knack for catching his readers off guard, and this little joke was a fun introduction to 90 minutes of laughter and surprises. Did I laugh more than I might have if he hadn’t complimented me? Maybe.
The next day, I showed my husband, Rich, the books. I wasn’t intending to brag, but it was funny, that’s all. Okay, maybe part of me enjoyed the attention and took the compliment personally. Out of all the well-dressed women in East Hampton, why me? I was wearing sandals with a heel for the first time all summer. My hair was clean and brushed. Then there was the lipgloss. Wow, my personal standards were low.
“Who is this guy again?” Rich asked. Clearly we have different literary interests. He wasn’t jealous, just confused. I reminded him of the Fitbit story and offered to play some podcasts, but he was already over it.
For me, the damage was done. In my mind, I was sexy again. The timing was perfect. After a few years of adjusting to motherhood and focusing on other priorities, I spent the early months of that year exercising more often, sleeping better, and even doing yoga regularly. By summer, I was finally feeling like a thirtysomething mother-of-three version of my twenty-something self. Deep down, I knew the compliment probably had nothing to do with me, but I didn’t care. It belonged to me now, and the pressure was on to live up to it.
In the weeks after David Sedaris, I reflected on the past few years and realized that my lack of regard for my personal appearance was a touch embarrassing. An acquaintance of mine may have put it best in a Facebook post, stating that her work clothes, pajamas, workout clothes, and life clothes had all run together. That pretty much defined my post-third child wardrobe until a few months ago.
This recent transformation took me right back to freshman year in high school, when my older sister, Chrissy, caught some sophomore boys examining a picture of the field hockey team and trying to determine who had a fuller moustache: one of the upperclassmen or me. Always happy to provide advice, Chrissy delighted in telling me that I had to deal with this. My mom promptly drove me to Rite Aid, where I purchased something called Jolen Crème, a product with a horrific and lingering odor. Jolen Crème’s powerful chemical blend bleaches dark facial hair to a slightly less offensive blond version. It helped, but didn’t solve the problem. By senior year, I discovered another solution: waxing. My life changed forever.
After a few weeks of dressing as if I might see David Sedaris again, or some other human beings with eyesight, I noticed how much better I feel when I make a slight effort. A friend of mine who entered parenthood earlier than I did once mentioned that wearing a belt helps her feel put-together. It doesn’t take much to make a difference.
As the post-Sedaris time went on, an itching curiosity also grew. Now that I had reaped all the benefits of this unsolicited compliment, the researcher in me took over. I turned to my favorite research tool: Google. As I typed in the words, I braced myself, knowing what I might find. It’s okay. I’m already sexy. It was time for the truth.
Google: David Sedaris sexy autograph. Enter.
There they were, the Google results. Images of David’s autographs filled my laptop screen. They looked just like mine, with the same thick black ink, but they were images of other people’s books, with other women’s names; it was a world of sexy enchantresses. I shrugged and smiled, hoping that his words had the same positive impact on some of these women. The truth didn’t hurt, because I already believed the lie — or, in this case, the joke.
Sometimes we give genuine compliments, but other times, we say something kind just because. I do it, too. It turns out my brother Sammy is not a big Sedaris fan. In fact, he had never heard of David Sedaris, but now he has one of his books, reminding him how sexy his younger sister is. Just what every older brother wants.
Thank you, David Sedaris.
Originally published on Medium, 2018, revised for Monumental Me.
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