Lynn Harris in the 90s. (Photo: Denise Winters)
This will not endear me to you: Until my mid-20s, I was convinced that I was special — that my life was actually charmed.
That was the through line to my life story: Things just went my way. Hard work paid off. I earned good grades, had halfway normal parents and halfway decent boyfriends. My high school graduation speaker was Gloria Fucking Steinem. I got into Yale. I had the time of my life. I had an amazing dog named Montsi — a gorgeous white shepherd/tundra wolf mix who was my protector and soul sister. My books got published. I always had cool, land-in-your-lap life-changing experiences, like living and bonding with a family and “sister” in Mexico who looked just like me — whom I’m still friends with — and lucking into an awesome apartment with my best friend in Boston and winding up on both Geraldo and Ricki Lake in 1994, just because I looked exactly like Tonya Harding, which is a long story.
It wasn’t that things never went wrong. They did. All the time. Lost pets, bummer breakups, not fitting in, my books not selling, the then-love of my life marrying someone else.
But when I failed, I wrote it into the story. It happened because I was too special for him, for that job, for mere MORTALS. The setback was supposed to happen so I could learn. So something better could come along. It happened because I was meant to make magical fucking life-changing lemonade.
GAG ME, I know.
(This will not surprise you: I am an only child.)
In 1999, when I was 30, I was at the TOP OF MY GODDAMN GAME.
A few years earlier, I had turned a crappy breakup into a humor book deal. Because that’s what I did! For the book, my genius friend Chris and I created the character of Breakup Girl, the superhero who saves love lives. Book sales were meh, but in 1997, when only NASA had the Internet, we created BreakupGirl.net, which was literally an overnight success. It won awards and a cult following, got us in People Magazine and tons more, plus a sitcom deal and a great gig at Oxygen. We hired our best friends and went to work. (Did I mention that we were also all roommates in a massive apartment in Park Slope?) More Breakup Girl books, animated TV, a live show — and fans writing every day to say they loved BG and she’d changed their lives. BG was our baby, our love, our world. It was magical.
Because when your girlfriend calls to tell you her dog died, no matter where you are at with this relationship, YOU CALL HER. It’s the law.
I also had Dan, a handsome lawyer boyfriend with a handsome lawyer salary who took me to Paris. (I had met him through the boyfriend before him…because, see, THAT breakup was meant to be.)
Then came December 7, 1999, a day that will live in infamy. I’m at the doctor’s for a routine inspection. My giant cell phone rings. It’s Betsy from our team, crying too hard to speak.
“Oh my God, what, Betsy, what?”
She swallows. “They’re firing everyone.”
“What? Who everyone?”
Sobs. “They told us to be out by six.”
It was a massive dotcom bloodletting — so disorganized and undignified that the layer-offers forgot about both Chris and me; we had to track down the CEO so she could fire us to our face.
We packed. We left. We couldn’t speak.
I called Dan. No answer. Left a message.
I called my mom. I cried, cried and cried.
I woke up in my clothes, surrounded by boxes, gutted. Tried Dan again. Voicemail. Made sense; he was doing some VERY IMPORTANT LITIGATION. Must be why he’d been hard to find for — how many days now? Well, VERY IMPORTANT LITIGATION.
When the phone rang, it was my mom.
“This is the wrong time to have to say this,” she said, “but Montsi is not getting better.” Pause. “You should come home.”
I’d lost the job of my life — with no foreseeable way of getting Breakup Girl back — only to be ghosted by my boyfriend before that was EVEN A THING. It’s like, what, now you’re telling me my dog is dying? What is this, a fucking country song?
My dog was dying. She was aging, in pain. I stumbled home to Boston. We put her to sleep. I sat at the kitchen table, flattened, arms like anvils, unable to move for hours. My mom held my hand.
At some point, I left Dan the message that ALSO, by the way, Montsi died.
When he didn’t call back, I broke up with him. With mind rays. Because when your girlfriend — technically still your girlfriend — calls to tell you her dog died, no matter where you are at with this relationship, YOU CALL HER. It’s the law.
Day by day, gimlet by gimlet, I clawed out. One brutal legal settlement (years) later, we got Breakup Girl back. Montsi: still miss her. Dan: who?
This was not just a triple fail; it was my own personal Pearl Harbor. That’s what I realized, sitting in shock that day at my kitchen table. I was no longer a special protected snowflake. Really bad shit DID happen to me. For and with no reason. The so-called magic was gone. Which SUCKED.
But, of course, what doesn’t kill you makes your bullshit sensor stronger. I’d been so swept up in my exceptionalism that I didn’t see the writing on the dotcom wall. I didn’t notice that Dan, behind the Chateauneuf du Pape, was kind of a shit.
It wasn’t my life that failed, it was my magical thinking. Since then, I’ve been paying attention. I am not special; I am vigilant. Always prepared for the worst.
And, honestly, it’s the best.