This is my contribution to Witches Magazine, Issue #3: Labor.
Read the feminist literary magazine in full here.
On the eve of my 24th birthday, I sit in a restaurant in Little Italy drinking red wine from a carafe, sharing ravioli and tagliatelle with my college friends. I am not my usual self tonight. I am avoiding attention, keeping my stories to myself, because I have recently been broken up with, and I am trying not to cry.
By the time we get dessert, I am drunk enough that I no longer fear my own earnestness. I raise my elbow from the table, the stem of my wine glass planted loosely between my middle and ring fingers. The house red swirls like my speech, moving with me as I talk. I speak to my friends like I’m standing on a podium, making a toast to my sad, drunk, almost-mid-twenties self.
“My goal for 24 is to be more like I was at 21,” I say, and my friends are caught off guard by the dramatic shift in our conversation. “I don’t want to work so hard to be with someone anymore. I was never like this in college, was I?”
My very kind friends don’t answer my question directly. I blow out the candle in a piece of cheesecake I didn’t want, then press my fork into the slice over and over again, pressing lines into it until a busboy takes the small plate away from me. Outside the restaurant, I say goodbye to my friends in the middle of a crowded sidewalk on Mulberry Street. The late June humidity is sticky even after dark, but I hug my friend Megan close enough to wrap my ankles around her calves.
“I need to call you tomorrow,” I whisper, letting my vulnerability stumble into her arms. “I have more to tell you about what happened with him.”
“I know you do,” she says. Since we met at 19, Megan has always been able to sense and simplify how I’m feeling. She saw me for the woman I would become long before I figured it out for myself.
“I’m sad,” I tell her, then I stop to take a single, shallow breath and hold it for longer than I should. Feeling the tears creep back again, I shoot my eyes up and concentrate on the restaurant’s awning that hangs above our heads, all the yellow and white pinstripes welcoming hungry tourists.
“I know you are.”
The work of holding back tears follows me throughout my birthday, my week visiting the city, and the rest of the summer. I spend the next day walking through Manhattan with my headphones in, listening to Regina Spektor’s entire discography and remembering how much I loved her music during college. I walk 90 blocks, trying to figure out when I started working so hard to be in a relationship or get over a past one. I don’t understand how I can feel so empowered in some parts of my life but so helpless in others. How can I teach fifty 18-year-olds about communication in intimate relationships every semester but not know how to make a good thing last? How can I publish a feminist literary magazine but forget how to get out of bed in the morning? I try to answer these questions as I glide through every neighborhood from the Upper East Side to Alphabet City. Sweat soaks my black crop top as I make my way downtown to my favorite ramen restaurant. When I arrive at the hole-in-the-wall spot, I walk straight to the bathroom, where the walls are covered in handwriting and stickers. I dig through my bag for a Sharpie I stole from the supply closet at school, and I leave my mark on the door frame: Walked 90 blocks listening to Regina Spektor to get here. 6/20/19. Happy 24th birthday to me!
That night, I see Regina Spektor in concert, alone, sitting in the last row of the theater. A birthday present to myself, I’d thought when I bought the ticket in March. During the show, I finally surrender to my sadness, and I cry throughout her set. I can sense which song she’ll sing before she plays it, and I wish I could talk to her on stage where she sits so gracefully at a grand piano. I imagine my voice traveling down from the upper mezzanine: These melodies are a part of me, can’t you see that? I want to shout. Look at your red dress, like the ones I wore when I was a teenager. Can you help me heal the ridges of my broken heart?
On the Fourth of July, I visit my parents at their home on Long Island. We sit by a fire in the chiminea that stands on four square stones in the middle of the backyard. When I was growing up, this flat spot was the pitcher’s mound during every kickball and Wiffle ball game we played. Now, when I think about home, it’s details like these that come to mind, at least on the good days—I picture my dad fetching a foul ball out of a pine tree, a Hula Hoop for second base, my big sisters making fun of the way my knees knock together when I run. When we all visit home during the summer, these are the moments we are always trying to live up to in new, more adult ways. My dad tosses another log into the fire while my mom sits up on the deck drinking Bloody Marys and eating clams on the halfshell with me.
I’m only home for two days—a fleeting gap in a hectic summer work schedule—but it’s enough time for my mother to realize something’s off. She’s aware of my recent heartbreak but dances around the pain all day. By the time the sun sets, her concern overcomes her restraint. She asks me what’s wrong as she pulls the burnt black shell off a roasted marshmallow, revealing the soft white still intact beneath it.
“I wish I could hit a reset button on my whole life,” I say, and my mom stays silent. “I feel like I’ve been sad about the same things for two years now. I keep working to fix them, but it’s not getting any easier.”
Throughout the summer, I make a joke that no one laughs at, about how I am so desperate to find something new to consume me that I’m going to join the Air Force, or maybe the Peace Corps would be better, since I can’t even run a mile without stopping, and who in their right mind would trust me with a gun?
Although my summer sadness is sparked by the particular man who dumped me—I miss how he wore his watch facing inward and insisted that was the proper way, and the Joan Didion on his bookshelf, and the way he referred to celebrities and politicians by their first names like he knew them personally—really, my heartbreak is cumulative. My desire for a relationship is a wound that keeps splitting open like it’s been stitched wrong. And I have grown comfortable performing the emotional labor of trying to fill this void.
In the two years leading up to my 24th birthday, I take on certain practices in my role as a woman in pursuit of stable romantic partnership. Somewhere along the way, these practices become my new normal. Though I apply these rules to myself and no other woman on earth, I feel a responsibility to adhere to the following:
At all times, you must put in the necessary work to win over the man you want to be with, and then deal with your devastation when you are not successful in the endeavor. Pretend you are okay when you are not, and exaggerate the length and exclusivity of your past relationships to make your pain more socially acceptable and understood. Feel embarrassed when you admit how heartbroken you are over someone you only dated for a few weeks, or didn’t date at all. Feel like a terrible, hypocritical, pathetic feminist. Feel your loneliness sear as you remember how you used to judge other women for feeling this way—you used to call them weak. Feel like the type of woman your younger self would hate—you are the ultimate betrayal of all she thinks she knows right now as she retweets Lena Dunham from her college dorm room. Feel guilty for feeling so low when there are people all around you who are suffering so much more. When you get that sinking feeling during a holiday, leave your family to go to whatever bedroom you’re staying in—whether it’s the one you grew up in, or the one in the cabin in New Hampshire that you’re supposed to be enjoying—and lie face down on your borrowed bed and listen to “Ribs” by Lorde for as long as it takes you to be ready to rejoin the couples in the kitchen, or until a concerned sister comes looking for you. When you’re at your professor’s house on the last day of the fall semester, immediately flee to the bathroom when Adele’s “Chasing Pavements” comes on the Pandora station playing on the television because listening to that song in your current state should have been one of Hercules’ Twelve Labors. Spend a large percentage of your measly graduate student stipend on products that are supposed to make you more attractive to the person for whom you have feelings, then feel guilty for spending your paycheck on superficial things. Do not ever stop trying to attract someone new, even for a minute, even when you’re completely hung up on the last one, especially when you’re completely hung up on the last one, because you never know when it might happen! But also, don’t work too hard at it, because it always happens when you’re least expecting it! You should, however, always work as hard as you can to feel like Lizzo; be feminist enough to damn to hell any man who doesn’t want you, even in the moments when you want him more than you’ve ever wanted anything. And when you can’t feel like Lizzo, pretend to feel like Lizzo in front of other people. When you work six days a week at a restaurant in the summer, level up from holding back your tears to holding back your vomit, and forget what it’s like to wake up without ajita. Try to figure out ways to piece yourself back together while simultaneously hating yourself for falling apart in the first place. Avoid any plotline in any movie/show/song/book about a woman who has the “burden” of choosing between two different men who love her. Get resentful when a friend talks about her significant other, but don’t be a bitch about it, except, of course, when you can’t help but be a bitch about it, and never apologize for that. Spend a considerable amount of time making sure you’re not attracted to women, then wonder if you would be attracted to women if you weren’t raised in an oppressive, heteronormative culture, then wonder if you’re actually perpetuating the fetishization of lesbian and bisexual women by considering dating women, then tell yourself that you’re the truly oppressive heternormative figure after all because this whole time you’ve known, deep down, that you have never really had feelings for a woman, and you are very much a fan of having a man put his penis inside of you. Cry to all of the sad songs in the car.
When longing for someone who doesn’t want you back, you must work to make excuses for poor behavior carried out by the men for whom you have feelings. Like, he really does want to be with you, but he’s just not in the right headspace this fall. He’s just insecure—he doesn’t believe that he deserves you (he told you that himself), but maybe if you work hard enough, you can prove to him that he really does deserve you. He’s super smart--he works for NPR!—so he’s just overthinking your relationship; that’s one of the things you usually really like about him. He’s a year younger than you, so he needs a little time to mature. He’s just depressed right now. His job is really overwhelming and emotionally exhausting—way more than yours is, you suppose—and he’s a Virgo, so he works super hard at it, which is actually really admirable, if you think about it. He’s not like most people your age—he just doesn’t check his phone a lot, and that’s why he’s taking so many days to answer your messages. You just need to work on adjusting your expectations. You need to be more patient. You need to give him the time and space he needs to figure his shit out and wait until he’s ready to be with you. If you say and do all of the right things all of the time, you’ll be able to prove to him that you’re the right partner for him. If you listen to him when he’s upset, and you really make the space for him to confide in you, he’ll see how much good you could do for him. Maybe you can help him. Maybe if you’re the thinnest one, the funniest one, the most charming one in your group of friends, then he’ll finally break up with her. Maybe you can make sense of all his mixed signals if you talk to every single one of your friends about him ad nauseam. Maybe if you really work to maintain a friendship with him, eventually you’ll be able to convince him that no, really, my virginity isn’t a big deal to me, like, at all, but I totally get why you were so freaked out by it, I totally understand why you stopped seeing me after I told you, and we can work on this, we can work through this, we can work this out, don’t throw it all away over this, won’t you please forgive me for my inexperience, and, yes, please, won’t you please just have sex with me?
“I just want something to consume me,” I tell my mom, swatting away an ember floating toward the face of my parents’ Labrador. The dog lies undisturbed, sound asleep in the damp grass next to my lawn chair. I lean down to pet her ears. “I don’t want to live inside my own head anymore.”
With the end of the season comes the end of my Great Summer Depression, and I’m finally burnt out from two years of these expectations. There is a liberation that comes with hitting rock bottom. There is a liberation that comes with the end of a depressing season. I decide I’m ready to get back to dating once I’m able to make small talk again without feeling like there are cinder blocks tied to my limbs.
Before a first date in September, my therapist tells me I have to force myself not to think beyond the present moment. She calls this extreme mindfulness.
“Don’t think about what you hope this becomes long term,” she says as I chip flakes of my navy blue nail polish onto her white couch. “Just concentrate on a realistic goal for enjoying your first date. What do you hope to get out of this? Perhaps a pleasant conversation over a decent cocktail?”
“If someone doesn’t kiss my neck soon I’m gonna drop dead,” I say. “Does that count as a realistic goal?”
This man doesn’t kiss my neck that first night, but we do have a pleasant conversation over a decent cocktail—several of them, actually. As the weeks pass, I realize I have finally met someone who wants to be with me, too. Meeting him isn’t a direct result of all my years of work toward this, nor is it some fated event that comes true because I finally stopped searching for someone. Some intangible, immeasurable combination of my past and present mindsets makes way for our relationship. Mostly, though, the secret is this: he is someone who reads my writing and answers my text messages in a reasonable amount of time, who can sense when I’m overthinking something he’s said, who doesn’t run away as soon as something is less than perfect, who meets me in my favorite café every Monday on his way home from work just so he can spend a few minutes talking to me from across a cramped table. He is someone who makes everything feel easy.
It’s no wonder, then, that it takes me some time to realize I have feelings for him. Without the work that has characterized all of my past relationships, my brain doesn’t initially recognize him as a potential romantic prospect. But where’s the crazy rush? I ask myself after our third date. How come I don’t feel anxious about this?
On our fourth date, we visit an observatory, where we each walk up a concrete ladder to peer out an old telescope. The white paint on the rungs nicks the palm of one of my hands as I hold down the back of my skirt with my other.
“That right there,” says a proud undergraduate getting class credit for interning at the observatory, “is the one and only Saturn.”
Saturn is tiny and matte, a pasty white sliver of sphere and ring at the opposite end of this bulky, immovable telescope. It looks like a little kid cut the shape out of construction paper and the undergrad taped it to the lens of the telescope just to fool us. I think of a song about a paper moon that I learned in elementary school chorus—Mrs. Violeta’s gaudy bracelets used to bounce on her wrists, jingling as she pointed to each row of students on the bleachers, inviting us to sing along with Ella Fitzgerald as she asks the one she loves to believe in her.
My date and I step outside, onto the balcony of the observatory, where we get a subpar view of our city, which we both agree is too small. We’re silent for a moment, looking over the unremarkable intersection below us. He slips his arm around my waist, warming me up in the October chill. I want to kiss him but resist.
“Is it just me,” he whispers, “or did that view of Saturn look totally fake?” I laugh, relieved that he’s willing to say what I was holding back to be polite.
“It was fake, wasn’t it? I’m convinced they were lying to us,” I say, and we make cynical comments all the way home.
Early the next morning, in his apartment, he turns to me and says, “Being with you is too easy.”
I freeze, clench my teeth and straighten my spine at the claim he’s made. I worry that he is about to confirm my fear: There is no heavy labor in this burgeoning thing we have here, so there must be something wrong with it. This must be fake. There must be something missing, right? I ask him what he means.
“I feel like I could spend forever just lying in bed and talking to you.”
As we spend our first few months entangled in each other’s lives, in each other’s beds, my doubts start to fade, and I eventually embrace the ease with which he has become a central part of my life. On the morning of Thanksgiving, when I am back at my parents’ house, I start to worry that during our week in separate states he will forget about me. I worry that our entire relationship has been in my head after all, that his feelings for me aren’t real or sustainable. I tell him this but add a disclaimer: I know I sound crazy, I type in a text, terrified of his response, but can you tell me that everything is fine between us? He immediately calls me and talks me out of it, which isn’t difficult to do. He reassures me that he likes me, that he doesn’t think I’m crazy, that we’re good together, that he’s attracted to me, that he can’t wait to see me when we’re both back in town. It feels simple with him. It feels the way I’ve always known being wanted was supposed to feel, but it never has before. A new normal begins.
This doesn’t mean that our relationship is perfect, or that my anxieties and insecurities have vanished, or that it will remain this easy forever. But it does mean that I don’t feel like I have to compartmentalize pieces of myself around him—I no longer have to pack up my anxieties and insecurities, snap on lids to suffocate them in containers in a storage unit across town. He doesn’t require the labor of pretending I’m okay when I’m not. He doesn’t put me in a position to decode his every move. He is willing to make himself vulnerable around me, but he doesn’t ask me to unpack his emotional baggage to an extent that should be reserved for someone with a private office and a copay and a graduate degree in mental health counseling. I am no longer planning out every text message, thinking I need to always say the perfect thing at the perfect time lest he disappear. For the first time, I can make myself at home in his apartment, in his everyday life. I take off my glasses, earrings, and bobby pins, and I stack them in a tiny pile on his coffee table.
With this happiness, though, comes its own loss. I feel a piece of my identity start to dissipate. How many years have I done the work of being single and unhappy about it? What do I do now that this part of my life has been simplified? Does this mean I’m not going to cry in the car to my sad songs anymore? This lack of distress is what initially stopped me from recognizing my feelings for him. I wasn’t sure I could feel gratified without the familiar rush of pain, without the self-indulgent satisfaction of feeling sorry for myself. Have I finally been granted permission to stop working so hard to win over the guy with the beard and the glasses, the one who sits behind me in class, or serves me coffee, or steps onto my subway car, or catches my eye from across the party? When did I start feeling a responsibility to work toward not being single anymore—at 22 it became all-consuming, but didn’t it really start when I was 15? What will my clever Instagram persona be if not that of Sad Single Girl? When I walk into a bar, what will I do with my time and energy if I’m not scanning the room for someone to sloppily kiss on the dance floor later? Can it really be that simple—that he likes me back and tells me so, that he is upfront about his feelings, that we are going to continue spending time together for as long as it feels good to do so? Does this mean I’ve become one of them? I know this is what I wanted, but without being subjected to my usual labor, I don’t feel like myself.
Then I think of a much younger version of me—she is 6 years old, or maybe 9; the difference is negligible, as my neuroses have been consistent for as long as I can remember. She wakes up on Christmas morning, unwraps all the things she longed for, all the things she mentioned in her lists and countdowns and prayers for months. She worked hard to get these things, or so she thinks, because she behaved as well as she possibly could in order to ensure the things she thinks she deserves. She has not yet learned that whether or not one “deserves” something is a meaningless concept. Then, in the blink of an eye, she’s sitting on her living room floor surrounded by ripped paper and empty boxes and a dark feeling of disappointment upon returning to the reality of her everyday life, back to normal.
But her life is different now. She has the things she wanted, and that is, objectively, better than not having them. What more can she ask for? What more can she do? She helps her mom stuff the wrapping paper into black garbage bags, she asks her dad to cut the twist ties restraining her Barbie Doll in its box. She carries on, a little more prepared for next year.
It’s unfortunate, and at times it feels unfeminist, to admit how much my boyfriend has lessened my labor lately. I wish I could say that I freed myself of my longing on my own, that I figured out a way to live forever in that single bliss I felt at age 21. But I was in pursuit of something I genuinely wanted—clear to my friend Megan on my birthday, and my mom on the Fourth of July, as well as my Instagram followers, most people I’ve had casual conversations with in the last two years, and anyone who has read my prior Witches pieces. And I was exhausted by the labor of unfulfilled longing. Certainly this is a new relationship, and it may or may not one day be subject to the labor that I see long-term relationships endure. But for the last two years, I experienced so much of the labor of relationships without any of the benefits—there is no payoff when the labor is only on one side. If or when this ends, I will have learned to avoid relationships that ask me to do the work of convincing and begging, of strategizing and decoding. And I will leave him with a trail of bobby pins scattered throughout his apartment, coloring his coffee table, his windowsill, and his nightstand.
This is my contribution to Witches Magazine, Issue #2: Bodies.
Read the feminist literary magazine in full here.
On a Thursday night in the spring, I carve out two hours to get ready for a first date. This is typical for the occasion. I need time to shower, shave, moisturize, do my makeup, dry my hair, curl my hair, floss only the teeth that show, and chew a piece of gum but spit it out before I arrive. Femininity is oppressive, I groan to myself as I pluck a half-inch-long black hair out of my left nipple.
Personally, I wouldn’t choose Wild Colonial, a try-hard dive bar on South Water Street in Providence, as a location for a first date. It is simple to say the bar’s harsh lighting and clientele of primarily middle-aged men don’t scream romantic, but more damning than the subpar atmosphere are my past experiences at Wild Colonial. To remember these prior visits is to watch former versions of myself stumble through my nascent romantic endeavors. These memories remain vivid a year later, and even two years later, because the scenes are raw, and my vulnerability is vast, as if I’m the protagonist in a heavy-handed indie coming of age film. The audience members cringe at my choices and circumstances, desperate but unable to pull their eyes away from the screen, as they hope I will escape unscathed.
In one of these memories I am newly 22, disoriented by my recent move to the city, missing the confidence I had in college, and spilling my glass of Downeast Cider as I set it down across from my very first Tinder date. I jump to grab a thick stack of square, white napkins and plop them on the spill, wiping with nervous, shaking hands. All the while I am keeping up small talk, terrified of awkward silences, and regretting using so much hairspray, because I can tell my hair isn’t moving when I turn my head, and that must look strange, I figure. I am at Wild Colonial not because I genuinely want to meet this man, but because I believe that going on a Tinder date is the right thing for a normal person my age to do. I make a lot of choices I think I am supposed to make during this time, regardless of what I really want, which is precisely how I find myself pointing at the tattoos on the arms of this guy I was never attracted to, listening to him explain the significance of each image, and wishing my body would vanish into thin air. A year later I visit Wild Colonial a second time, for an after-work happy hour that I spend trying desperately to get the attention of a guy whose feelings for me are consistent only in their inconsistency. I go home with an emotional hangover and lie face down on my living room floor with my headphones in, while he heads to the airport, en route to a vacation in Mexico with his girlfriend.
Despite a year passing and my meeting many more romantic prospects in the meantime, all of whom I’ve since lost feelings for, my memories do not feel distant. But this new guy seems promising, and different than the others, so when he suggests we meet up at Wild Colonial, I suppress my memories of melodrama and hope that this time, beneath the harsh lighting and between the groups of older men, I’ll find what I’ve been looking for.
My hope is quickly justified when I learn that my date is sarcastic in the same way that I am. We laugh a lot, and he’s smart, and I agree with most of his very niche opinions about music and politics. He talks more than I do, so by default I resign to asking him a lot of questions. He doesn’t try to correct the disparity. Still, I start to form a crush on him as we talk about Carly Rae Jepsen’s EMOTION album, about Cory Booker’s potential and flaws, about Simone de Beauvoir’s construction of gender.
“This is the same thing I wore to work today,” he tells me, about halfway through the date, when I say I like his shirt. I suppress an eye roll and flash back to plucking out my nipple hair. “We have a pretty casual dress code in the office.”
My elbows are planted on the high-top table between us, one on each side of my second Downeast, and I am talking with my hands, as I always do. He leans his face closer to mine, smirks, and starts imitating my expressions, copying my demonstrative tones and restless movements. I can tell he likes me more than I like him, which in turn makes me like him more. When he talks with his hands like me, our fingers tap together.
“I swear I’m not making fun of you,” he says. “I’m just trying to be cute and flirty and I really want to hold your hand.” I smile and reach my hand across the table between us. He takes it and gently holds on.
My hatred of Wild Colonial begins to soften easily, like turning down the smooth dial on the car radio down until the song fades to silence. This happens mostly because he holds my hand while we walk through the parking lot to my car. He keeps looking at me, trying to make eye contact, but I am too distracted to meet his gaze. A group of bikers is behind us, all of them smoking cigarettes and talking, and I can see the light above them flickering out of the corner of my eye. Its yellow hue comes and goes unpredictably, stark and saturated like a paint swatch, an artificial imitation of a color found in nature. A couple that looks a lot like us walks past comfortably and the woman smiles at me like we share a secret. I follow her eyes with mine but don’t smile back, convinced there is a difference between us. Untrusting and unsettled, I hesitate like I do in grocery stores in southern states, where strangers greet me like they know me. The cars on South Water Street zip by on my right, the drivers rushing to make the light before it changes back to red, so desperate to get to their destinations that they are quick to push and give up grace but not quite willing to break the law.
“Hey,” he says to me, coyly, and stops walking. He puts his other hand on my waist and kisses me once. My brain finally dismisses its distractions when I am struck by how quickly and aggressively this man has stuck his tongue in my mouth.
I drive him home, just around the corner, and put my car in park blocking the end of his driveway. Within a minute he kisses me again, and his tongue is down my throat again, and he is leaning over the console, his body above mine, his hand gripping my thigh and pulling me closer to him. My glasses get pressed against my face and fogged by his breath. He struggles to dodge my scarf and seatbelt as he tries to kiss my neck. My nose ring nearly falls out.
I pull back. Immediately he asks, “Am I encroaching on your personal space? I’m sorry.”
“No, it’s okay,” I say, unsure if I mean it. “You’re just very eager.”
In a split second, I need to decide if I am enjoying this, and I'm torn. This is what you’re always craving, I think to myself, remembering many midnights I’ve spent staring up at my ceiling, swallowing melatonin and wishing it were Xanax, swiping through dating apps and wishing a man would prove he wanted me like this one is now. I tell myself I should be grateful for the attention. It's better than nothing, I think. Don’t be such a hypocrite.
I do know for sure that he kisses with far too much tongue and I have to figure out a polite way to tell him this. I wonder what we must look like from the outside, and I think of the couples on TLC who kiss for the first time at their weddings, months of anticipation and sexual tension driving them toward each other’s faces with open mouths, starved bodies.
“You can go a little easier.”
He listens, so I park my car in a proper spot across the street and continue kissing him until he asks if I want to come inside.
“I’m considering it,” I say, contemplating my options out loud. “But what are your expectations if I do?”
“No, no, no—none! Never. I would never have any expectations. My expectations are so low—I mean, not low like bad, but low like nonexistent. I think it’s always wrong to have any sort of expectations because you never know if…”
He trails off. I’ve asked him to recognize his ethics and express them earnestly, and he is trying to do so while also trying to win me over. I love watching him negotiate this. He, like other feminist men I’ve dated, knows that our culture has shifted since the Me Too movement, and he is trying to adapt appropriately. I let him ramble for a minute before I cut him off. I feel powerful, and I agree to come inside.
His roommates sit talking at their kitchen table, and I say a brief and awkward hello to them, but they aren’t friendly to me. They immediately disperse into their respective bedrooms and I feel like an inconvenience. This makes me anxious. I wonder how often they do this—how often he does this.
I glance around his bedroom at the dirty clothes scattered on the floor, at the cluttered nightstand with a copy of Infinite Jest on it. I pick up a vinyl from a stack of records in a dusty milk crate at the foot of his bed. As I skim the liner notes of Carly Rae Jepsen’s EMOTION album, he apologizes for the mess and tosses clothes from his bed into a hamper.
“She really wrote the definition of ‘emotion’ right there on the cover,” I say, running my fingertips along the album art. “I love that so much.”
I keep my eyes locked securely on the album, surveying it, because focusing on one thing while he flits around me makes me feel in control. I glance at my hands and realize that they’re shaking. I’m nervous. I want to appear calm but my body is betraying me. I can’t feel the movement, can only see it from the outside, and I hope he doesn’t notice. He doesn't. He takes the record from me and places it indiscriminately on his dresser. I take a deep breath.
He pulls me from the edge of his bed closer to where he's sitting, gentle but swift, and I let myself fall into him, because I want to, because it feels good. I take off my glasses and place them carefully on his nightstand. I can see nothing beyond his face.
“Now I can dissociate from this entire thing,” I joke, based on experience. We both laugh.
As the night progresses, he doesn’t hesitate to move things forward, and I don’t hesitate to slow him down, move his hands to a different place, or tell him he’s skipping a step. He checks in with me each time before initiating anything.
“We have time,” I tell him eventually, when he asks if I’m okay. “You don’t need to rush. I’m already here, aren’t I?” I am still talking with my hands, this time flipping them tersely, gesturing toward my naked body lying in his bed on our first date.
“I’m sorry.” The words tumble out of his mouth, knee jerk. He says, “I guess I’m used to doing more than this.”
My anxiety arrives in the bedroom from the kitchen; I remember how cold his roommates were, how they left the room on cue, how it all seemed routine. A phrase enters my head, the same one I screamed at myself after my last visit to Wild Colonial: you’re one of many. I clench my teeth.
“You mean you just really, really like me, right?” I say, providing one of my many suggestions from the night. He says yes.
Later, I lie next to him for a little while and run my fingertips along his chest, feigning companionship, perhaps practicing for a future lover. I am silent, uncharacteristically unable to voice what I’m thinking, and it dawns on me that I barely know the man I’m lying in bed with. I kiss him just to fill the silence.
After he gets out of bed, I reach my hand out to grab my glasses. I let the details of his bedroom come back into focus, beginning with an open box of condoms on his nightstand. We didn’t have sex.
“Well, it was nice meeting you,” he says to me, with a single lighthearted laugh, as I’m putting my bra back on.
“Don’t say that,” I snap, noting that I like his sense of humor but not in this moment. “You’re going to make me feel guilty.”
“Why would you feel guilty?”
“Like I did too much too soon,” I say, uncovering something I didn’t know I was worried about. His eyebrows come together in confusion.
“You definitely didn’t do too much.”
A chill sneaks through the glass of his front door as I reach for my car keys in the hall, slowly guiding a long keychain from my college bookstore out of my tiny going-out bag. He puts his hands on my hips as he asks when he can see me again.
“You said you’re free on Wednesday, right?”
“Thursday’s better, actually,” I tell him. “I don’t teach on Fridays.”
“I’m going to text you… probably tomorrow. Is that too soon? Will I seem too desperate if I text you tomorrow?”
I like that he’s being clear, being sweet. He kisses me well, hugs me better.
Providence is desolate after midnight, so I fill up both sides of the narrow road between the rich, old houses on Benefit Street as I drive home. The neighborhood is picturesque even after dark. Colonial style lamp posts punctuate tree-lined streets like a Hollywood movie set, providing just enough light to remind me that I am passing through a place I can’t afford to live. The houses’ primary colors, Doric columns, and white front porches engulf me in the promise of domesticity.
Like always, I curse the city for being too small, wishing my drive home were longer—I need time to think, to make sense of my cacophony of thoughts, and to listen to EMOTION, which sits comfortably in my CD drive like it’s paid rent to be there. On my way to Wild Colonial I was hopeful, so track two had sounded perfect to me, and I sang along to it as if I held the power to curate the soundtrack to my own life.
I exhale for what feels like the first time all night, releasing the tension in my shoulders but feeling it grow in my chest. That could’ve been better, I think first. If I knew him better. I try to process my uneasiness: I know I’m not feeling sad, or regretful, or violated in any way. I know I did exactly what I wanted to do, I know I listened to my body, I know I communicated well. I know he responded to my requests without questioning me. Yet I leave this man’s house feeling deeply disappointed upon realizing that none of my sexual experiences are happening the way I always imagined them happening. Even though I am now making the choices I intuitively want to make, I am making them in conditions that are not ideal—namely, outside of a relationship, and almost always lacking anything resembling intimacy.
I park in the street as close to my front door as possible, risking a parking ticket, and stay awake until 4, tossing and turning in my empty apartment alone.
A few days later, I meet up with my sister, Melanie, for lunch at a poké restaurant on the east side of the city. We get lunch because I am desperate to talk through the details of this date. We get lunch because this is what we do. She chooses a table by the window, where the direct sunlight invites us to enjoy the warmth while protected from the late-March cold for a little while. As we talk, I remember that we sat at the exact same table on New Year's Day, the last time we went in search of a place to talk about an experience with a different guy that left me feeling equally conflicted.
I start to tell Melanie about the date, about our drinks going well, about his kissing with too much tongue, about my leaving with agita. I go on to explain to her that in order to have the sexual experiences that I genuinely want to have for my own enjoyment, my own growth, my own stories, while still looking for someone who is worth being in a committed relationship with, I have been required to lend my body to near strangers who often don’t know what to do with it.
“Sex isn’t like the movies, you know,” Melanie counters, candid and kind at the same time—her specialty. “It’s normal for it to be awkward and uncomfortable sometimes.”
“I know that,” I say, and I mean it. “I definitely like him, and I don’t regret anything I chose to do. But I guess when I was younger I always thought I’d only make these choices within the safety of some wonderful relationship with someone I loved, and that’s not happening for me.”
Melanie replies with yet another stinging memory of my former self. “But when you were younger, you also pictured yourself growing up to be a Disney Channel star.” I drop my head down to the table, rest it on my forearm next to an açai bowl. “But you know that almost nothing in life happens the way you imagine it will. Why would sex be any different?”
Melanie talks like I do—she is all dramatic narratives and pithy commentary and ostentatious vocabulary. She offers me a story from when she was my age—about hooking up with a firefighter, being horrified by it, then being glad she did it—and by the end, tears glide out the sides of my eyes as I try to suppress my loud laughter in the small restaurant. I never imagined I’d spend my twenties laughing over poké in Providence with my older sister, but I feel no need to mourn my failed dream of becoming a Disney Channel star.
My next few days are consumed by my analyzing this one date. As he texts me to chat and to confirm our plans for Thursday, I remind myself that my disappointment isn’t about him in particular, but about the general dissatisfaction that comes with being an adult woman living a real life with real nuances. This is not a reason to settle for subpar relationships—or even subpar dive bars, I’d argue—but it is a reason to let go of the disappointment deriving not from a particular negative experience, but from the lack of an idealized experience. Like I’ve done in all other areas of my life, when deciding how to use my body, all I can do is continue to make the choices that make me as happy as possible given my real life in the moment.
But my body does not exist within a vacuum, so the choices I make surrounding it do not automatically feel empowering just because I chose them myself. I am still susceptible to guilt, and shame, and social standards, and disappointment, and expectations influenced by pop culture. Being liberated enough to have choices does not mean the given options will fulfill me; making feminist choices does not guarantee that I won’t leave his house with a lump in my throat. Living in a body full of emotion is inherently difficult.
I think back to Carly Rae Jepsen, to Cory Booker, to Simone de Beauvoir, and I feel more confident in my feelings for this man, more sure that this has the potential to be something good, more willing to let myself enjoy a new crush and see where it leads. It is the first time in months that I’ve felt this optimistic about someone.
On Wednesday, he cancels our second date without an explanation.