Personal Essays

Smithsonian Institution Archives

To Chelsea, and Climate Control, Cheers

From the awkward phase through the sweater phase to the riot grrrl phase and the New York phase, growing up with a First Daughter I’ve never met.

A girl I’ve never met got married over the weekend, and I was not invited. I’m pretty sure we would have had a thing or two to talk about if I’d ever had the chance to get to know her. That’s what makes her nuptials noteworthy: The way we relate even though we don’t—will never, could never—relate. Sometimes, celebrity is everything.

It is, at least, both the chasm and the bridge between Chelsea Clinton and me. It’s the weird, warped mirror through which I—an ordinary girl with an ordinary life—have access to her—an ordinary-ish girl with an extraordinary life. I’ve been right there with her, see, from the first moment she stepped into the international limelight, mid-awkward phase: lumpy sweater, untenable hairdo and all. We were born six months and 1,300 miles apart, in backwoodsy American towns to Joni Mitchell fans. Granted, her parents were politicians and mine were carpenter-teacher-artist-farmers, and this, perhaps, is a difference as fundamental as fundamental gets. But in my 12-year-old vision of the world, we were peas in a pod: dedicated middle school students, amateur ballerinas, unapologetic introverts. Geeks, even! She was a me from an alternate reality, one with money and privilege and power and prestige but not in a form that was so magical or exfoliated or charismatic that I couldn’t imagine it.

She was the only 12-year-old I knew who wasn’t somebody I knew.

A mid-’90s rumor that Chelsea was recording riot grrrl cassettes on a four-track in the White House basement only proved to me that we were on pigeon-toed life paths. I was getting the hell out of my podunk town, and she was gonna break out of that big pillared prison of patriarchy. So it was little surprise to me that when it came time for the class of 1997—at Sidwell Friends and in Regional District 11 alike—to caravan between college admissions offices, we did so like the disintegrating trail of comet Chelsea, who’d invariably just departed each campus, mother and security detail in tow, as I arrived. “How annoying will that be?” my father over-optimistically mused, “to have the Secret Service staking out your campus when she goes to the same school?” Alas, I went New England and Chelsea went West Coast. In that act, I wistfully saw a courageous last act of defiance—but I also saw our future as co-ed confidants, nurturing a mutual love for vegetarian Pad Thai and film noir, receding into a future where our orbits never intersected.

And in that city, the biblically hot summer of 2010 finds us living universes apart in very close proximity. That future looked like this: After graduating with equally liberal artsy (history; sociology) bachelor’s degrees, she got a master’s from Oxford and a prestigious consulting job, and I scrounged up an $8-an-hour retail gig and iced my cake of debt with an MFA. She climbed her way through hedge funds to public health policy, while I clamored through a tangled web of textbook marketing and porn magazine editing. Growing, slowly, into her public skin, she shrugged aside her shyness to campaign for her history-making mother. I began, reluctantly, to tweet. Chelsea and I both live in New York City, but as every small-town transplant learns pretty quickly, New York City is really many different cities stratified sloppily across each other—more fiesta dip than Chex mix.

And in that city, the biblically hot summer of 2010 finds us living universes apart in very close proximity. Chelsea resides in Gramercy, in—it seems reasonable to surmise—a well-appointed climate-controlled condominium. Blocks below, I inhabit a crumbling, A/C-prohibitive East Village studio in a physical and mental state that can only be described as akin to something like the mushy middlemost layer of a particularly festive fiesta dip. These last six months, while she’s been comparison-shopping luxury Porta-Potties and otherwise impeccably orchestrating the most impeccably orchestrated wedding planet Earth has ever seen, I’ve been watching my own sensible, grown-up, forward-looking, next-level-style relationship slowly unravel into something really…complicated.

So how ironic—and, yet, somehow, how right—that last week I should find myself, on a spontaneous road trip through the Hudson Valley, pulling over for lunch randomly in Rhinebeck. The town was in the throes of an ecstatic, municipally sanctioned bridal shower, every shop window festooned with construction-paper-and-magic-marker-congratulations to Chelsea, a mazel tov mention or two of Marc. And there I was, drifting along, the same random particle of cosmic dust, a decade older.

On the aristocratic, sun-parched lawn of the nearby Vanderbilt mansion, I drank a bottle of wine and watched a swarm of ants devour the crystallized carcass of a cicada and composed a toast. To Chelsea: the girl I never was, the bride I’d never know; to my unwitting prism, since, as even well-meaning toasts can be, this isn’t about you at all—it’s about me. Here’s to the awkward post-children and the angsty, overachieving teenagers we once were, and to the delicious mess of adulthood; to your grace under scrutiny, and my freedom to fuck up. Here’s to growing old and happy in our parallel universes, in spheres so symmetrical they’ll never touch.