Emma Bee Bernstein

I’ve known Emma for more than ten years, but I think of our time together as two separate eras—pre- and post-GIRLdrive.

Before winter 2006, our friendship was a rare treat to be enjoyed at a distance.  We saw each other on special occassions and it was always carefree, innocent, charmed.  I thought of Emma as this fascinating combination: part drama queen, part total goofball, part snappy dresser, part punk, part art…there were many associations. She spoke in superlatives, like “Omigod, this is actually my favorite song in the entire world” or “I just seriously had the worst day of my whole life.”  And I’d have to go, “Really girl?  Your faaavorite song?  The worst day?” And then she’d laugh.  The girl knew how to laugh, and how to make fun of herself, and she really knew how to have a good time.  She was one of those friends I wouldn’t talk to for months, but then it would be like no time had passed when we’d finally get together over 6th Street Indian food and a bottle of wine.

Then everything changed.  In the last couple years we had become, as I said on our blog, intellectual soulmates.  Through uncannily parallel experiences, we developed the magic of GIRLdrive off the tops of our heads one morning.  It was a perfect storm—our curiosity, our feminism, our restlessness…it all came together, and we understood each other.  We began to rely on each other like never before.  We were a delicate balance of rationality and art, I was Apollo and she was Dionysus.  Emma brought the rush and the lyricism to the GIRLdrive adventure.  She was breathless at the sight of the open road, often making me pull over to the side and pose for a photo.  She was constantly orchestrating the perfect soundtrack from her endless collection of iPod music, insisting “trust me, this song goes perfectly with these mountains.”  Every morning, she put together an awesome outfit from her enormous suitcase in the back of my Chevy Cavalier.  Although she brought her characteristic anxiety along for the ride, I could sense that Emma had never felt more free.  On the trip, and always, she was exhilarated by new knowledge, a new perspective to wrestle with, new photographic beauty to feast her eyes on.  We were experiencing daily revelations together. To have this sort of connection with someone was just intoxicating.

Later, it was overwhelming, frightening, even maddening to be so intertwined in Emma’s daily existence. Her presence had always filled a room, but lately it had overflowed.  Her pain was palpable, her anxiety was vibrating. She felt so deeply and so hard, it became impossible for everyone, including her, to bear.

In the last couple weeks, it has been hard to look past this layer of despair, to remember the fun times, and cute anecdotes.  But once I strip away what happened, there are so many moments with Emma where she displayed intense, almost euphoric lust for life—for music, humor, art, food, and love.  One of the fiercest debates we had recently was whether Radiohead was the most important band of our generation.  I didn’t give our generation that much credit; I was cynical about our ability to bond through a common artwork.  She insisted I was wrong, that their music got inside people, got inside her, defined her feelings, made sense of her experience.  I immediately felt a stark difference between the two of us…I just didn’t see music that way, and I felt shallow and uncreative and just…lame like why don’t I feel this deeply or something.  She sighed and told me she knew exaaactly what I meant (she said that sort of stuff a lot).  This kind of reaction and affinity to art was a blessing and a curse, she said.  On one hand it breeds obsession, self-destruction, can be a really dangerous way to view the world.  But it can also make life worth living, to see everything through an aesthetic and emotional lens, to feel each moment like a stab in the heart.  She explained that in a way, this is where her feminism came from, just the joy and beauty, but also the pain and complexity of the female experience.  What happened to her is not romantic…not at all.  But Emma herself was a hopeless romantic.  She even wrote on her Myspace wall—I guess proving her Radiohead point—“I wish it was the sixties, I wish we could be happy.” And Emma could be ironic, but in this case, I really feel like she meant it. 

—Nona Willis Aronowitz