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Pretending you aren’t catering to male fantasies is a male fantasy: pretending you’re unseen, peering through the keyhole in your own head, if nowhere else. You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.”
Margaret Atwood

It begins on a chilly evening at Dante’s in the West Village. I’m stalling on the sidewalk before meeting a much-older date,  who works in finance, because I haven’t had any freelance work in two months. He wants to make life “a little easier” for me. 

The cold wind rattles my bones and I’m reminded of a previous state of being: One in which the winter months rolling in would bring me comfort and warmth. But now the change in seasons brings an emptiness I wish I could ignore. It’s like the older I get, the more I wish to be a child again. I have to snap myself out of it: there was never any comfort or warmth in this… But this time of year, the holiday “spirit” blooms in New York City, slaps me in the face, and before I know it it’s inescapable. Brooklyn is brimming with young couples and strollers and screaming children. Manhattan becomes one big Macy’s commercial for cheer and joy and tidings for all who believe in something. I, in turn, choose to respond by retreating into my black hole of solitude, killing time before the new year.

Walking into the bar, I’m indifferent to him, to this place, to this prospect of anything becoming any easier.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” I sigh, approaching the table, without a trace of conviction because I’m not sorry.

He’s tall, white, unremarkable, with salt-and-pepper hair and an eager smile. I already feel like I’ve met him countless times, and it occurs to me maybe I have. He’s wearing Armani and smells like a man who’s always trying to make an impression. “Oh, you’re just on time,” he jests. I eye a silver wedding band on his ring finger.

Without asking, he starts removing my purple overcoat. I’m annoyed because it’s part of my outfit, but I don’t resist. Everyone is always pulling at my seams. I take a seat at this tiny candle-lit table and tell him to order me an espresso martini. I haven’t been out in days and already I ache to get out of these straps. These wirings. I feel my phone buzzing in my handbag. “So, what did you say you do again?” the man asks me.

“I’m a paralegal.” I replay, before downing the espresso martini in one deep breath as he starts monologuing his many years of business expertise and philanthropic achievements. I can’t bring myself to care. My eyes scan the restaurant to the other tables, all other couples, all the men much older than the women, and he asks me something about copyright law I didn’t catch. I pretend I need to pee.

I lock myself in the bathroom stall and dig through my handbag for my phone, my vape, my lip gloss, and my little pill bottle. I take a deep puff of watermelon nicotine, languish in the vapor burn, and check my messages. There’s a text from an unsaved number and a message that makes my throat close up around the smoke.

It’s your mom. Call me.”

I don’t know how she could have gotten my number. I haven’t heard from her since I changed it almost two years ago. In that instant, I feel invaded, violated, closed in on, and the feeling that I’m running out of time grips me. I can’t think about this right now. I take a deep breath, put my phone away, pop a Valium, and remind myself of what I came for: The prospect, of course, that after tonight things become “a little easier.” That I might charm my way into buying myself a little more time, a little more runway to get by in this city.

The truth is, I don’t have to do much. Just show up and smile and play the role gracefully.

________________________________________________________________________

An hour passes and I’m four or five espresso martinis deep when Armani Man asks me why I’ve agreed to meet him here tonight. I giggle into my glass, disarmed — and I consider the truth:  “I don’t know. You seem nice enough…,” I mutter with the flutter of my falsies. “I don’t see the harm in making a new friend.”

“Is that what you’re looking for? A new friend?” he asks.

Behind closed, glossy lips, I grit my teeth. This small talk is taking far too long. My phone buzzes in my bag again. “Mmm-hmm…” I slide it out just enough to peek at the notification screen. I knew it. It’s another text from her.

I’m staying in the city for a conference. I want to see you.”

And then another.

 “Please. It’s Christmas.”

I snap my glassy eyes back up at the man sitting in front of me, but it’s too late. I think a tear might be forming along my waterline. I tell myself it’s the mascara. It’s nothing. But he catches it.

“Everything okay?” he asks.

I nod, fingering my empty martini glass. “It’s my mom.”

“Ah, I see. Is she, ermh… supportive of you?”

I look up at him with a cold, dead look, like he has any right at all to try and know me. The candlelight flickers across my face and the tear falls to the glass, so I look away. Out the window I fixate on a man who looks exactly like Armani, calling a cab for his wife and daughter, all wrapped in overcoats and scarves. I hear a pinging inside me that sounds like it came from my phone, but it’s something else.

It’s the timer running out for tonight. I can’t do this anymore. 

It dawns on me, in those nights leading up to Christmas Day, that I’m going to be spending the rest of this year alone. All of my friends have all evaporated into thin air, all either visiting family upstate or out galavanting with their famous friends. I wish I could get out of this damn city. The recurring nightmare of being found out by my mother on the streets of Times Square plagues me. She stares in my eyes, perplexed and says nothing. She doesn’t even recognize me anymore. I don’t recognize me either.

______________________________________________________________________

Christmas Eve comes around and an aching, throbbing desideratum takes me over  as the sun sets. I wish I could bury my head in my pillows unbothered for eternity. It gets dark too early in December and the streets go so quiet and still that all I can hear are my own thoughts. All I can think about is Richert.

Richert… a man who I should so plainly leave alone, who lives in a world so alien to mine, and usually it’s not this hard. Usually I keep myself busy, keep myself out late at night, at parties and soirees and endless plans to pass the time. That’s why I hate the winter. There’s nothing else to do but romanticize the unavailable.

Unable to sleep, I lay in bed toying with my phone in my hands, wondering what he might be doing that’s so important that I haven’t heard from him in days. He told me he would be out of touch over the holidays, but I didn’t expect complete radio silence. I didn’t expect him to not even respond to a text, or a nude, or a vulnerable admission that I so badly need him inside me. I call his number. It rings, and it rings again, and then he answers abruptly. He is quick to silence me on the other end.

“Don’t call me here,” he snaps in a low whisper, and hangs up.

I sit up in bed, stunned in the dark for what feels like hours. His voice steeps in steam from my radiator and in the silence of my four-walls as dusk fades to night.  I come to terms with the fact that I hold no power here. He has a life, a partner, a future, and a family to look forward to. I have the prospect of things becoming “a little easier.” It should fill my shivering head with boiling rage; it should fuel me with the strength to burn his whole house down. To make him suffer for making me feel this small.

But tonight I just feel numb. Needing a distraction, I venture out into the city and take the L train across central Brooklyn in a lace dress, an old fur coat, and my poofy hair in a messy bun. My face is naked and exposed to the world as I hop off Wilson to an apocalyptic stillness on the streets. I have to walk several blocks before I find a hole-in-the-wall dive spot with any sign of life. I buy myself the holiday drink special, the “Lonely Hearts Club” — a mix of whiskey and agave topped with pink peppercorn.

I ask the bartender why they call it that.

 “Because, y’know, holidays are hard on people like us,” he says.

 I want to ask him what he means by that, but I stop myself. I toss the drink back and sway my hips in my seat. The Psychedelic Furs fill the bar with a lush, sugary desperation that feels fitting here. The bartender hovers nearby, probably because there are only five or six of us here, but he takes each patron in like meat options at the deli. He probably wants to get laid. Or he’s just bored. “What are you doing here all alone?” he asks. My first read was right.

“Just got off work. Blowing off steam, I guess.”
“What do you do for work?”
“I’m a barista.”
“Yeah, I do that, too,” he says. “I’m just ready to get home, man. We close at two and then I’m going to this rave at Nowadays. My friends are waiting for me.” Something about the way he casually says “man” gets under my skin. It fucks with my equilibrium, and I feel unsteady on the barstool. I almost fall.

I look around at the three or four other people in here. They are all, in fact, men.

“Wanna do a shot?” he asks me.

I say yes. We toast to the new year (“or whatever”) and the doors swing open to a group of blonde white girls from Greenpoint, laughing riotously. Now the bartender’s attention is elsewhere entirely. I finish my drink, leave him some cash, and I leave. I push past whatever that was in there, as I brace the harsh winds outside. I check my phone to find that it’s past midnight now. Merry Christmas.

As a kid, I would sneak out of my bedroom at this hour, with my stuffed bear in hand and my footie pajamas snagging at my toes. I couldn’t sleep, my mind abuzz with fantasies of loving, benevolent creatures that lived in faraway places. Creatures I trusted would protect me when I needed them most. My mother told me these elaborate stories, as her way of protecting me. She told me that these creatures would visit me as I slept… as long as I believed. And I did. I believed in them for many years because I needed to. When the outside world chipped away at these dreams, the creatures would send me secret, psychic messages, their little voices in my ear telling me to be strong. They would tell me everything was going to be okay. But that didn’t last.

I open the texts from my mother, still unanswered, and I decide that the least I can do is send one back: “I’m not in town this Christmas but I hope you are well. I love you.”

I send it, and then delete the number and the rest of the log. I don’t need fantasy creatures and fairytales anymore to protect me. I make my dreams come true for myself, in a world that doesn’t believe that I even exist. I remind myself that there is power in that.

I feel a hard breeze whip against my back as a car slows to a stop along the road. I look over to see the window rolling down and a shadowy man poking his head out at me. “Where are you going tonight, beautiful?” he asks.

I smile curtly and turn away from him; I walk on. But the car only pedals forward and then slows down ahead. He tries again. “Come on, let me give you a ride.”

I think about my mother, and then the man in Armani, and then Richert with his fiancé, and the bartender with the lonely heart. None of them see past their own reflection in me. None of them see me any better than they could with their eyes closed. This man in the car is no different. I buckle against the pavement and tell myself it doesn’t matter. I open the passenger door and climb inside. “Where are you headed?” he asks with a slow, leering smile.

“Nowadays. My friends are waiting for me.”

As he spins the wheel to pull back out onto the road, I catch his ring finger. A wedding band in plain sight. It doesn’t mean much — at least not what it used to. I let him talk about the weather, the holidays, how pretty I look tonight in my fur coat. I smile and nod, soaking in the blast of hot air coming from the car heater. I look out through the windshield and find something in the Christmas lights hanging along the storefronts that I haven’t seen in a long time. I close my eyes and imagine what those magical creatures would think of me now. I wonder if they’d recognize the woman they raised.; she sure has come a long way. No one is going to hurt you ever, ever again. 

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