Élodie and Me

Élodie Clyde makes a perfect Negroni. On Sunday nights, she draws a lavender-scented bath, lights some candles, and soaks until the water begins to cool, rereading The Dud Avocado or The Golden Notebook. She always has champagne in the fridge, which she serves only when warranted, and in an assortment of mismatched antique teacups. Clad in a series of caftans, she hosts hours-long dinner parties that begin with elaborate spreads from Sahadi’s and end with a range of digestifs and board games. Her closet is filled with Ulla Johnson dresses and confusing t-shirts from Parisian concept stores. Élodie cares about other people’s feelings, but just enough; she never takes responsibility for them. Her life is big, but never suffocating.

Élodie Clyde doesn’t exist.

I created her in October at an alter-ego workshop: twenty-five people gathered in a co-working space six stories above Allen Street for the purpose of inventing other people who were themselves, but not quite. The workshop was held by Creative Mornings, an organization that holds events for the creative community in New York and elsewhere around the world. Our hosts took us through a series of activities to help us develop our characters by combining specifics about two people we’d known well at different points in our lives. The idea, as we’d been told in a pre-event email, was to create a new person without straying too far from the truth.

I had other plans. Over the days leading up to the workshop, I’d been thinking about what I hoped to gain from it. I asked myself which truth I’d stay close to, which deceptions I craved. Could I, typically an open book, create an alter ego who was mysterious? Who, released from my own verbosity, could edit as she spoke? Someone who could talk to anyone, who’d be comfortable even in social situations where she didn’t have a defined role?

What I wanted was a better version of me. A life with more planning and intention; a person with a morning routine, a favorite candle, a signature scent. My present eclecticism, sure, but with a greater sense of cohesion to it. I wanted someone I could shape-shift into when just being Kat wasn’t enough—or rather, when I needed distance from myself to do something that scared me. 

I went through all of the activities at the workshop feeling like I wasn’t any closer to defining a higher self. I do my best thinking on a deadline, though, so between setting down my worksheet and having to introduce “myself” to other participants, I stumbled on the right answer.

“Hi,” I said, turning to a tall man in a checkered button-down and making direct eye contact. “I’m Élodie Clyde.”

***

I spent the next couple of weeks perfecting Élodie. In November, I started taking her out for test drives: consciously shifting into her before leaving the house. My posture slightly different, my mind clear and present, free of internal drama yet burning with the possibility of adventure. I started letting her choose things–the clothes I wore, the books I pulled from my shelf, how I spent my evenings. Becoming Élodie didn’t effect which opportunities arose in my life, but it did change how I responded to them.

The holidays belonged to Élodie. A series of designer dresses appeared in my closet from Rent The Runway; I never left the house without lipstick and false lashes. The way people—men—treated me was different; I both loved and hated this. I felt protective of Kat, who was invisible by comparison. 

On the Monday before Christmas I stopped into my local bar for a nightcap and found an open seat next to my friend Jake, the kind of guy who’s so blatantly handsome there’s no point in coyness; you just openly acknowledge it. He told me how great I looked; because this is a common occurrence for Élodie, she graciously accepted the compliment. I waved to a couple of other people I knew, met the new guy at the other end of the bar, and spent the rest of the night talking to Jake. I periodically glanced up to find the guy at the end of the bar staring at me—at Élodie—but it was warm, unthreatening. Élodie was used to the attention and thought little of it.

Last call came and went. We paid our tabs and Jake walked me to the corner. I hugged him goodbye and we headed our separate directions home.

I was just through the front door to my building, rearranging my keys to unlock the inside door, when the knock came. I opened the door, assuming it was my neighbor. We’d been on the same schedule lately, one of us always holding the door for the other.

I swung the door open, ready to make a joke about it, when I looked up and found someone else. It took me a minute to place him, even though I’d spent the past hour in his presence.

“Hi,” I said, then waited for him to explain.

“I saw you, at the bar,” he began. “And then I saw you open your door, so I thought I’d take a shot.”

This should have unsettled me; it was late at night and I’d just opened my door to a stranger, one who may have followed me home. But it didn’t. Or, not totally. I made the usual calculations. My inside door was still locked; I live on a busy-enough avenue that if I needed help, there would be someone to flag down. But also, I didn’t feel unsafe.

“I don’t know what I’m doing here,” he continued. “But when you walked into the bar earlier, it was like everything else disappeared, turned into white noise.”

I was simultaneously flattered and struck by the absurdity of the scene unfolding before me. Although Élodie is rarely surprised, I could feel my face rearranging itself into disbelief.

“Wait, what?”

“I don’t know,” he said. Mike, I remind myself. “But all I could see or hear was you, and I’ve never experienced anything like that before.” He paused. “I don’t even know what I’m doing here. I have a girlfriend”

But I did. It wasn’t me he was talking about; it was Élodie. I felt briefly like the kid sister opening the door for her older sister’s date.

I’d been standing on the step up to my front door, but suddenly I didn’t like how it made me feel like I was on a pedestal. I let the door close behind me and stepped down to Mike’s level. The conversation continued but failed to move forward, and while I was uncertain of where I wanted it to lead, I did know that I couldn’t continue standing outside. I thought through my options: I could say good night, go upstairs, let this be slightly more than nothing. But that’s not me—either me. I always need to see where the story goes.

“Okay,” I said finally. “We’re going to go have a drink nearby, and I’m going to tell you every terrible thing about me, and then whatever this is will be broken.” I told myself I was doing him a favor, releasing him from whatever accidental spell I’d cast, but I also knew I’d fuck it up, or rather, that Élodie would fuck it up.

We went to a cocktail bar around the corner that had been converted to a Christmas-themed pop-up for the holidays. Drinking an old fashioned out of a Santa Claus mug, she was radiant, charming—drawing him in when she was supposed to be repelling him. 

At the time, it all felt accidental, but later on, I saw so clearly how I went from being the passenger to the driver, how I took something that could have been simply happening to me and turned it into a story I was writing as I was living it. How Élodie provided both a heightened sense of my own agency and a scapegoat for my wrongdoings.

Three days later, Jake kissed me. On its own, it was insignificant, but in tandem with the strange magic of the previous few weeks it felt like there was a tectonic shift happening. 2019 had felt stagnant, stale. No milestones to speak of, nothing accomplished, nothing truly felt. A blank year. But now, a magical feel to my life, a sense of boundless possibility.

I had the sense that things were shifting and looked forward to continuing the experiment through the New Year. I always like the fresh start of January 1. Well aware that you can change your life any day you choose, I nonetheless find it easier when there’s an external shift to tie it to.

After so much heaviness throughout 2019, I finally felt lighter, open to the possibility of what was yet to come–not attaching myself to any particular future but instead trusting that I’d end up in the right one.

***

On January 7 my cousin Matt died after four nights on a ventilator, forever 26 years old. I’d had high expectations for this year, and suddenly I knew I’d been wrong.

In early September, my accountability group talked about how we wanted to feel over the next few months. I said, “Optimistic, glamorous, and at peace.” I bought a necklace that said “Optimism” and started wearing it every day. It took on new meaning when my retreat friend Jess, whose Instagram profile described her as an “eternal optimist,” lost her four-year battle with ovarian cancer in mid-December.

I told myself that I had to stay optimistic for Jess, that I had to live a full life to best honor the loss of hers. But in January, Matt’s death changed things. Every morning I studied my Optimism necklace and put it back in my jewelry box. The night before his funeral, I took myself out for a solo dinner at my favorite neighborhood restaurant, where I finished writing my eulogy on my Notes app while trying not to cry into my Nebbiolo. 

The next day, I attended Matt’s funeral, but it’s Elodie who nudged me toward the podium to speak before making a quick exit. How to be someone else around people you’ve known your whole life? I felt simultaneously concerned that my great experiment was failing and certain that I couldn’t send a delegate to a family funeral.

I waded through January and February. In February I took a trip to Paris that was originally supposed to happen the week Matt died. The trip involved a lot of Élodie things that are usually also Kat things, but nothing felt like either anymore. I went to basement jazz rooms and hidden cocktail bars, had solo dinners at hip restaurants, bought my baby niece a Petit Bateau raincoat. I traipsed through Montmartre with a cup of vin chaud, trying to understand why nothing felt like anything, why the trip I’d been planning for months had been reduced to a series of meaningless Instagram photos. I spent the whole week homesick. 

I went home, still mired in grief, and sent Élodie to interview for a promotion at work. She cared less than Kat did, could view even my career as a fun series of experiments. I started my new job in April.

All the while, I continued watching my plans for the year vanish. No writing workshop in Maine, no marathon to train for, no guarantees of who would live through this or what would be left of my city. An unmooring experience, despite being anchored to my apartment. A year I’d had great hopes for was suddenly steeped in every kind of uncertainty.

***

I’m writing this in a loose, bohemian dress by an Israeli designer whose clothing I turn to when I want to be effortlessly glamorous. When I thought about what this year would look like, it’s the type of thing I imagined myself wearing to have friends over to Élodie’s on Saturday nights. Instead, my dinner-party wardrobe is wasted on back-to-back Zoom calls and walks to the bodega for oat milk.

It’s hard to keep Élodie top of mind when her movements are just as limited as mine. To the extent I do, she affects my reading list, what I eat, the indulgences I stress-order to distract myself from all the freedoms currently on hold. I daydream sometimes about what she’d be doing in that other world, the one that no longer exists. Who knows how long it’ll be before I’ll saunter up to a bar with the new Ottessa Moshfegh and lock eyes with my next lover, 6’1 with spongy dark curls and a bigger library than mine. Or even just have a day that starts out ordinary and turns into an adventure. I had big plans for Élodie this year, none of which seem likely to come to fruition.

All the while, my grief supplants itself. Matt’s death eclipses my ability to fully mourn Jess; the pandemic fractures my understanding of where I am in grieving Matt. The days are the same, both intentionally and unintentionally. The sameness I enforce: strict adherence to a series of daily habits designed to keep me sane while isolated. Run on the treadmill, get fresh air, write in my journal. The sameness I endure: Every weekday morning I move from my bed to the couch, where I spend the day on a series of Zoom calls.

But slowly, Élodie At Home begins to emerge. Historically, I’ve had dishes in the sink and a floordrobe in the bedroom; now, I’m obsessively neat. I dive into home improvement projects designed to make my existence more effortless: adding wine-glass racks to my bar cart, floating shelves above my kitchen cabinets. I keep my Rent The Runway subscription even though I rarely leave the house. On Sundays I spend hours in bed reading, then order something decadent for dinner. I light candles more often; I finally test out the perfume samples stashed all over my home. I listen to Carla Bruni’s Quelqu’un m’a dit on walks around my neighborhood, stop to take pictures of flowers, wear a new dress to run errands.Sometimes after work I walk two blocks to pick up a freshly made Negroni in a heat-sealed pouch, to break things up a bit, to create the illusion that there’s still something in my life. While the bar owner mixes my drink, I chat with her about how we’re both feeling this week. At home, I slice open the pouch, pour it into an antique cocktail shaker with some ice, shake it up, and sip it from a vintage goblet. It’s what Élodie would do.

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