(This is the second installment of a long project that I’ve decided to post here. As always, dear Sirenaders, do with it what you will. Comments are especially welcome as it’s a work in progress and I’d appreciate the postcard from beyond the abyss.)
I was saved by the doorbell, which began ringing and ringing and, within 15 minutes, had produced such a stream of multihued and platform-shoed people that they filled the entire brownstone. It being 90s Brooklyn and she an apparent trustafarian it turned out the couple owned the whole building, which they’d painted an unfortunate and very unlikely pink, and laden with room after room of inconspicuously expensive artifacts of high bohemia. African statues and exotically threaded rugs and a sound system to break your heart.
I flattened myself against one wall, gripped my seltzer, and watched these Brooklyn kids with big hair breathe each other’s big air. Though he’d been edgier when I’d first met him in college, The WASP had grown stuffy after we’d moved to New York. Our social life had consisted of dinner parties and openings with slightly older couples, gay and straight, who’d invariably ask me, “Now, what is it that you do?” It was a question I’d found intolerable ever since we’d moved in together, and I’d never known what to say. The honest answer would have been “look pretty, be quotable,” but even I knew I wasn’t supposed to be that quotable. The truth was I’d spent most days walking city block after city block, mawing an increasingly virtuous diet as my plaguing symptoms mounted, reading whole novels without buying them in bookstores, practicing yoga at the ashram around the corner, and waiting for the WASP to come home from work. So to these slickly packaged architects and magazine writers and dotcommers—o relics of that cushier time—I’d merely smile brightly and, no joke, let him answer for me (“this one’s a rock star in the making”) as he slung a long tan arm around my shoulder.
I’d forgotten what it was even like to be around people my own age, people who didn’t necessarily know what they wanted to be when they grew up and were visibly digging the process of figuring it out. As I watched them dance I tried to write them off as wannabe bohos but in my experience such types never moved like they knew how to fuck. And these kids were actually getting down, enlisting hips and pelvis and booty in every move as hip hop pounded throughout the house. None of that high-strung, high-shouldered bobbing I’d resigned myself to in the Manhattan crowds I’d been running in over the last few years. And everyone was decked out in colors—bright, head-turning pastels and royal primaries.
Like so many at the time, I’d retreated behind a funereal palette and so was wearing slim black cigarette pants and a white oxford shirt. Wired gold glasses even, with small pearl earrings and my standard dirty blond bob. Next to these kids I felt as stodgy as I’d considered the WASP to be. Male and female, they were decked out in overalls and clogs and Mary Janes and combat boots and drooping Levis and Mexican wedding shirts and dashikis and stripes and big polka dots and knee socks pulled over fishnets with tiny skirts and shorts and huge chinos and midriff-bearing tees even though it was mid-winter. They all seemed to know each other and were chattering in that rapid hyphenation of public intellectualese and high and low cultural references (Freud meets Frankie Goes to Hollywood) that has since faded in the long shadow of the emoticon.
Since I’ve never smoked and knew no one there I did what I always did back then when I got nervous: I eye-fucked strangers, less to actually get laid than to gauge my appeal as well as to draw someone into conversation. It worked well enough, partly because of the glow I’d recently been radiating but mostly because my mysterious ailments had left me with a gaunt awkwardness that was no joke. The last month had taught me all about the attraction men felt for drowning kittens-in-emaciated-female packages. Before I knew it, I was surrounded by a group of nice enough guys who kept fetching me seltzers and introducing me to more of their friends. One was feigning a fascination with my limited beverage predilections—“You don’t even like orange juice?”—when the lady of the house finally sidled up to me. “You’ve certainly met the men at this party,” she said, not entirely nicely, and I saw that she was a woman who disliked most other women even as she complained about not having female friends.
“I didn’t really get introduced to the guy playing chess earlier,” I said casually, and she laughed. “Oh, all the girls go bananas for him. He’s a painter who lives over in Williamsburg in a factory building he redid.”
I perked up. That was the kind of NYC glamour I’d been missing out on during my years of hiding behind the WASP.
“Don’t get misled by that choir boy vibe,” she said. “He’s a heartbreaker.” I eyed him, all Marky Mark moves and muscles, grinding up against a really tall girl with a flame-colored afro and a poncho. Some choir boy. I’d never slept with someone I’d didn’t think I could love before, and I knew I could never love anyone unsubtle enough to develop a reputation as a heartbreaker. An ideal candidate for my first fast fling.
Just then a tall dark drink of water entered the room and immediately started getting up on the girl from behind, herding the couple into bigger and bigger moves, sandwich style, until all three of them fell on the floor laughing, limbs akimbo. When he saw me laughing too he said to my painter: “Who’s the girl?”
“Her? That’s my future wife.”
Which is how I met the man destined to become The Artist Formerly Known as My Boyfriend.
“Love is also a good subject, as you might be said to have discovered.”–Ernest Hemingway, in a letter to Scott Fitzgerald, 1925
The following Saturday night was our first date, and I was a full-on crazy lady in the days leading up to it. Not because I feared he wouldn’t live up to my impression of him but because I knew that he would. Before leaving the party the weekend before, I’d sat quietly in a smaller room in which he was holding court. Watching him tell bad jokes—I deemed all jokes bad since designated joke-telling the lowest form of humor next to stand-up comedy—I realized he was the least ironic person I’d met since grade school, a fact that endeared him to me dangerously. As did the fact that I would have picked out every album he dropped on the ’70s turntable—Al Green, Chaka Khan, even early Hall & Oates, a preference everyone in my life misunderstood as kitsch-borne.
When I finally extricated myself to find my coat in the front hall, he appeared next to me. Though he’d ignored me while I’d been watching him for the last hour, I’d felt he was aware of my presence. Now I knew I was right.
“How can you be leaving already?” he’d said with no inflection, a trait I was to learn was characteristic of him.
“Better to leave them wanting more,” I’d said, and blinked at my own ridiculousness.
He’d soldiered on. “You can’t leave without me knowing whether we’ll see each other again,” he’d said and pulled a gallery opening invite out of his pocket. “Write your number on this.”
I’d thought while he looked for a pen in his pocket. Since things had ended with the WASP, I’d only taken other people’s numbers, a policy that seemed wise given the terrifying NYC dating scene. But taking a girl’s number was a big part of any heartbreaker’s shtick, and this guy seemed to need his shtick. If I was going to get to sleep with him, it was clear I had to play along. I pulled a pen out of my own bag and wrote down my number.
“People are always giving me an extra S,” I’d explained, handing the paper back to him. He accepted it slowly, and in one deliberate motion, had moved in just as slowly to kiss me. Later, when I watched him extend an invitation to our newly rescued kitties, I recognized the same strategy. He performed the action so quietly and steadily that we skittish animals felt contact was our idea rather than his. Certainly it was the best kiss I’d had in a long time, if not exactly the unspoken conversation that kisses had been with my very first love. But that guy was the kind of heartbreaker I planned never to succumb to again, the sort who smelled of cloves and the woods between our houses and a little bit of my sweat mixed up in his. This guy smelled, I’d realized slightly hysterically, of Obsession perfume and turpentine and commercial hair gel. It was about as unlikely a scent as I could have imagined in a suitor six months ago. Which confirmed he was ideal.
At four that morning, the phone had rang. I listened in the dark, body taut, to his message. “I am hoping you got home safely,” he began, without bothering to introduce himself and with a curious circumvention of contractions. “I am very glad to have met you, and am hoping you will come bowling with me next Saturday. As a date. If you come, I promise I will never, ever give you an extra S.”
Despite myself, I was thrilled.
(This is the first installment of a long project that I’ve decided to post here. As always, dear Sirenaders, do with it what you will. Comments are especially welcome as it’s a work in progress and I’d appreciate the postcard from beyond the abyss.)
“I’d rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe.”—Louisa May Alcott
Part 1: The Artist
I was barely 26 when I met the Artist. I’d just broken up with the WASP—or, rather, he’d broken up with me after he left for the out-of-town grad school program he’d selected over my protestations, and I didn’t go with him. Though I’d yet to make any progress in my dream of standing on my own two feet in New York, I hadn’t been been ready to jump ship on the city just yet. I’d been raised by a woman who’d made it clear that suburban housewifery paled in contrast to her brief single-girl stint in Boston proper, and I wasn’t keen to follow in her footsteps. My dreams may have been cobbled together from mid-century movies and books—a cute apartment with a cat; early morning sunlight at a desk overlooking a cityscape; stoop-snooping with a coffee at my side; plenty of occasions for clever outfits and cocktails—but I wasn’t ready to give up on them. I hadn’t even learned to drink cocktails. Or coffee, for that matter.
Though it rattled me to the core, it wasn’t the worst thing when The WASP swapped me out for, as he put it in his Dear John phone call, a “more appropriate partner.” (Reader, he really said that and, Reader, he really married her.) After several weeks of weeping on friend’s couches, I realized I was more scared than brokenhearted. Drying my tears, I did as the Santería lady in my old building had taught me. In a note taped to a candle I wrote down everything I wanted in an apartment– a good-sized kitchen, hardwood floors, tin ceilings, a backyard, proximity to Brooklyn’s 7th Avenue D Train Stop, even the exact rent I could manage ($650, if you can believe them apples). The candle burned for seven days, and lo! on the eighth day, I passed a nebbishy Park Sloper on Flatbush Avenue tacking up a sign for exactly what I’d requested. True, he explained abashedly that it was a low-ceilinged basement apartment that rattled with the caucophony of his large, loud children and large, loud Swedish wife; he and his family occupied the rest of the small brownstone. As the daughter of another Woody Allen type who’d married a big blond, I wasn’t put off. I’d accepted long ago what some men would put up with for the shiksas of their dreams. By the end of the week I was settled in with my scant possessions.
At which point I fell into the sort of existentialist spiral that, when you’re young, comes equipped with a rosy, irresistible glow. It helped that I was confident that the future would outstrip where I’d been. The WASP, though tall and handsome and moneyed and wonderfully constant, had been a self-referential, redundant snooze upon whom I’d been too dependent to defy with anything but my immune system. The resulting ailments I’d developed were more common in 19th century Freudian subjects than in former riot grrrls: numb limbs, involuntary bulimia, graying skin, blurred vision. It wasn’t a huge surprise that they disappeared within a month of moving into my own apartment.
I celebrated by kissing a boy so slight and immature that he offered me a juicebox on our first date. Then I kissed a bookstore clerk with red hair and pale lashes, two qualities that to this day throw me for a loop in a suitor. I moved on to kissing my osteopath, a curly, burly bear of a man who rubbed my inner thigh vigorously (medicinally?) with one hand while readjusting my spine with the other. But after a weekend in which I ran into both the elf on a date with an equally elfin girl and the osteopath with his stricken-looking wife, I realized I should take a breather and revisit my original, ever-elusive goal of self-reliance.
It would take me two decades to even grasp what that term entailed.
I spent the next weeks rearranging the few pieces of furniture I owned, rereading the same dogeared paperbacks I brought with me everywhere, and slogging through manuscripts for a freelance copy editing gig. When I finished that, I spent a few more days slathering on red lipsticks while dancing manically to Aretha Franklin and the Fugees and all the other albums I’d missed since moving in with my ex, who only would listen to music recorded by men wearing plaid. The silence roared anyway.
Though it really wasn’t that long ago, the kind of isolated, fertile boredom I experienced that winter now seems almost impossible to summon. It was a quiet that was only punctuated by the lonely sounds of nearby families yelling, by the clatter of other meals being cooked and eaten and cleaned, and, if I was lucky, by the phone. The cozy affirmation of gchat beeps and Facebook likes, the plaintive ping of a text, were still decades off. I’d almost forgotten that, back then, when you were physically alone, you remained wholly so unless you dialed someone or grew rapt in a project or, God forbid, left your house.
Which was why I found myself at the Laundromat one Saturday night though I’d been determined to bear the solitude in penance for not knowing anyone in New York whom I hadn’t kissed or alienated at some point. It is also why I started talking to the sharp-eyed girl my age who was folding a seemingly endless stack of men’s boxers. It turned out she lived down the street from me and was having a few people over to the place she shared with her “beautiful husband” a little later that night. Did I want to stop by?
When I got there, her husband was playing chess with a man who in profile seemed utterly ordinary. Ordinary height, ordinary brown hair, ordinary Irish-boy features. The husband himself, as advertised, was not half bad. Taking in the original Eames chairs as well his quick, calculating gaze, I wondered whether true love was a concept that had even entered this room. After a bit he looked up. “We’re nearly done our game.”
“You mean I’m nearly done kicking your ass,” said his opponent. Then he looked up and nearly felled me with his Ancient Egyptian cat eyes, a surprise in such an otherwise young face. “Hi.”
I nodded, having recently mastered the art of shutting the fuck up when flustered.