I don't know what exactly makes a boyfriend. Since the age of sixteen, I've had somewhere between two and eight, depending on how you count. I try not to. Not long ago, I was convinced that boyfriends were bullshit, that people in serious relationships were coy and dull. In my mind, aggressive singleness was the way to go. I was having a fine time, dating in the etiquette-free zone of New York. But was it dating? There weren't many actual dates involved. But whatever I was doing, it was fun. And I liked being alone. The games I played were intended to discourage commitment, not invite it.
Then came Jack.
For a year, he sold me coffee on Thursdays and Friday afternoons. Jack worked at the little bakery around the corner from my office. He was tall, always half-smiling. We started chatting, learned each other's names. I found out that coffee was not, in fact, his calling. He was an animator and freelance graphic designer. Not, under any circumstances, a bassist.
Sometime in October — a few months after Jack started giving me unsolicited discounts on coffee and tiny sandwiches tied with ribbon — our chatting and flirting ratcheted up. By early November, I felt like I was going to fucking explode if something didn't happen soon. Unconsummated flirtation is inhumane. And it was getting dark outside really early. Plus, I had a brand new, queen-sized futon. A bed that was off the ground. So much room.
That is why, one evening, I decided it had to be done. I marched downstairs to ask Jack out. But at his counter, all I could do was mutter incoherently. As I handed him the fifty cents he charged me for a $1.50 coffee, I tried, one last time, to force the words out. Instead, I whispered something about the shop's sandwiches and how I really liked them, which I did, but it wasn't like I was some kind of sandwich freak or something —
"What are you doing later?" he asked me.
I felt like I was going to fucking explode if something didn't happen soon.
"What?" I was stunned.
"Like 9:30. What are you doing?" I repressed the sudden urge to grab his collar, pull him over the counter, kiss him and say, That's what I'm doing later.
"I don't know," I said, tremulous. "I was going to sit in my bed. It's new."
He laughed. "Would you like to get a drink?"
The whole bakery was watching us, like we were some fucking Meg Ryan movie. Comfortingly, the people in line behind me seemed more annoyed than touched.
That night, I'd been sitting at the bar for a couple of minutes before Jack walked in. It was enough time for me to be near the bottom of my first whiskey, so I insisted on getting his first drink. He shrugged and let me. A Budweiser. I don't entirely trust beer drinkers, so I was wary. We sat at a table in the corner, where Jack told me he was twenty-five, from Paris, then D.C, now Harlem. He had a sullen little brother, like me. I played with my ring, a big silver skull with wings. "It's an evil ring," I said in an evil voice.
"Kind of Hell's Angels?"
"More like Keith Richards. I'm not evil, though."
"Did anyone say you were?"
"I don't know. I just wonder what I look like to people sometimes. I have a sex-related job. I swear too much. But I'm really innocuous."
"I didn't think you were dangerous."
"I threw a barstool once. Can I kiss you?" I said this without thinking. To my great relief, Jack smiled and kissed me. It was a surprising kiss: lots of stubble, not at all quiet or sweet like he seemed, and there was childish impatience on both ends.
At some point, I was tired and wanted to go home. Jack came upstairs with me, and we made out on my new bed. With the carefully selected red sweater pushed up above my breasts, I said, "You know, you can crash."
"I like you," he said. "I wanna take things slowly."
Take . . . things . . . slowly.
Was this some French phrase I wasn't familiar with? It sounded like English, but what did it mean? I could only think of two possibilities:
1) I was being blown off, because I fucked something up.
2) He was gay.
"So sleep on the sofa," I told him, trying to stay cool. "It's three a.m. You're going to go 130 blocks uptown now?"
"Look, I gotta work tomorrow, but Monday, I'll call you."
I nodded, having no expectation that he'd actually call. I was annoyed with myself for having ruined yet another perfectly good capitalist relationship by making out with my supplier.
Sunday, he called. To ask me to dinner. The next night, I prepared myself for my first dinner date in possibly ever. With shaking hands, I applied a new gold eyeshadow named something like Nights on the Beaches of Botswana. We met up at this pretty cheap place near my apartment where we drank a big bottle of Pinot Noir and talked more about his animating. He had a lot of amusing, post-apocalyptic ideas, and I said, "We should work on a cartoon together."
This is when I realized I really wanted him. When I think of the great love stories I know, it's never the passions and the distances traveled that move me, not the self-destructive muses — not Scott and Zelda, Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner. It's the couples who worked together on something, who expressed their love through projects and shared passions. Richard and Mary Leaky. Kathleen Brennan and Tom Waits. In high school, my boyfriend made a comic book, and we were happiest when sitting on the floor of his parents' factory, cutting and pasting, stapling, Xeroxing, creating poorly stapled little booklets. (I was also pretty happy when I was shirtless on my parents' sofa, with his inexperienced fingers hovering at the button of my cargo pants.) So "maybe we could make a cartoon together" meant "I have, for whatever reason, faith in my fondness for you."
"That would be fun," he said. "Let's do it."
"It'll be about a gang of troglodyte children, of course," I said as we paid the check, and headed out, hand in hand, up Avenue A.
"Absolutely. They'll have superpowers, but really limited ones. Like, one will be able to move Ikea furniture with his mind."
"Can there be one ill-tempered girl who can read the future of flowering plants?"
"How could there not?" He squeezed my hand. "It's strange. I really like you."
"Well . . . two dates. Kind of a New York record."
"Yeah, it's bullshit here. I've seen it fuck with people. So I don't do it."
He was being frustratingly vague, but I didn't push it. "I just do it. The fun, the sex, without risking much."
I wanted us to end up fucking on the cold hardwood floor with the most minimal amounts of clothing removed.
"Yeah. I never got sex like that." I put my hand on his back. That might have seemed sweet, but I was really looking for the battery compartment. I'd met these sorts before. Boys who, tired of being constantly assaulted with the idea that they are supposed to be relentlessly hungry, rejected that entirely, and become mini-monks. I'd seen Fight Club. I'd read Susan Faludi. But it was a bit troubling, because there was sex without boyfriend for me, but no boyfriend without sex. And I wanted, I thought, Jack to be my boyfriend.
I wanted him to kiss me when I came over after working late, my face held in both of his hands. I wanted him to offer to make me tea, and I'd say, "Okay, but let me wash out the cups, it's a mess here." I wanted Jack to sit with me on the floor where I'd been sobbing because I couldn't pay the bills, and I wanted him to tell me that maybe I should see a therapist. I wanted us to end up fucking on the cold hardwood floor with the most minimal amounts of clothing removed. I wanted it to be that confusing, horrible freak-out sex, and I wanted it to put me in a good mood even though I knew I'd have to take the morning-after pill. I wanted him to sleep next to me as I drifted in and out of consciousness, floating on the Percocet I needed for the cramps the pill gave me, which were unique and excruciating and sometimes made me wonder if just jamming a wire hanger into my cervix wouldn't be better. I wanted to buy him a set of paints for Christmas. I wanted to finish my text messages with "xoxo." I wanted to go down on him in the guest bedroom of his cousin's house in Cincinnati. I wanted a picture of us together, with him wearing his "I only date crack whores" T-shirt.
This was a sort of love too, no? Not the ancient and infinitely tender, solemn love we talk about, but this — inserting someone into the tiny tableaux of your life and thinking they looked right there.
Back in reality, Jack and I made made out in a dark Tompkins Square Park for a while. I was sitting on his lap, which was nice. I'm five-eight in bare feet, and a comfortable lap is rarer than it should be. Again, I told him he could crash. Again, he said he wanted to take things slowly. Again, I didn't understand. Is there something about fucking too early that dooms you, or is it just the tattered vestiges of custom lurking in our minds and bothering us? "Slowly" is time wasted, no?
I asked Jack what bar he'd go to first if he'd been in prison for ten years.
"You think about drinking a lot," he chuckled. Oh fuck. This take-it-slow stuff, this discouragement of alcoholism — it wasn't a thing, was it? He wasn't Christian, was he? I wondered if it was wise to care about him, or if it was really best to keep sleeping with pretty rocker boys.
But I was determined: we were going to have sex. The next night, we had plans, and I didn't fuck around getting ready. I wore cute green underwear with lace. I put on The Shirt.
On the rack, The Shirt looks very Little House on the Prairie: puffed shoulders, flared sleeves, bias cut, hook closures up the front, a dense pattern of red and pink flowers. But once it was on, my breasts, normally an unremarkable B, were suddenly translucent and amazing and moved when I breathed. Honestly, I can't stop looking at them. The Shirt is not fair. And I didn't want fair. I wanted to speed things up, figure out what was going on.
Once ready, I took a cab uptown. I didn't want people on the subway to think I was odd for staring at my own tits. When I got there, he'd ordered a Maker's for me already. Aw.
"You look nice," he said, neither awkward nor slimy in his tone. I had the feeling he understood the game I was playing with The Shirt. It was humbling. Soon we were on our third round, I was on his lap, and it started to rain.
"Oh, shit!" I said. "It's such a bitch to get back downtown in this weather!" Actually, it's not. You're on the train or in a cab. You're not hacking through the brush with the rain making the quicksand more dangerous.
"Do you want to stay over?" he asked, sounding genuinely concerned, like it might really be a problem for me to get back downtown.
"Is that all right?" Despite all my planning, I wanted to make sure he really wanted me there.
"Would I ask if it weren't?"
We walked the few blocks to his place, smiling but barely speaking, the giddy nervousness vibrating in my brain at such a high frequency that it became a drug. I felt warm and far away, and it wasn't just the whiskey. Then we were in his room, on the bed which occupied almost the entire space, kissing. Him on top, then me. He was trying to unfasten the hooks on my shirt, which are hard even for me, so I undid them, slowly, giggling, and when I was about halfway down, I stopped to ask him something I shouldn't have.
"How many girls have you had sex with?"
"One," he replied.
I stopped undoing my shirt. I stopped doing anything. "With the girlfriend?"
"Yeah," he said quietly. "That a problem?"
"No, but can I ask why?"
"Didn't see the point. Sex wasn't making other people happier. It didn't seem like it would make me happier."
"Okay," I say slowly, not wanting to be anything less than clear on this point, "but it makes me happy. You understand that, right?" I was afraid he was one of those guys who considers twice a week adequate. I'd been there before, and it sucked. (Although, admittedly, I was at the other extreme.)
"No matter who it's with?"
"No! But it's expressive and . . . interesting. In many different . . . contexts."
"Okay. I understand that."
"And you understand that I've had sex with eleven more people than you have, and have hooked up with a number exponentially greater than that?"
"I really don't give a fuck," he said, laughing dismissively and pulling me down next to him.
If this were the movie it started out as, we'd have amazing, mindblowing, sweaty sex.
"Okay, do you like sex?"
"Are you serious? Of course."
"And do you want to have sex with me?"
"But why, if not with other girls?"
"Things have changed in my life," he said. "I really like you. And you're beautiful."
I still didn't entirely understand. He only had sex with girls he really wanted to have sex with. But how could you only want two people in twenty-five years? I told myself that for now, I was one of them, and that's what really mattered.
"So, everything's cool?" I asked, unzipping his fly.
If this were the movie it started out as, we'd have had amazing, mindblowing, sweaty sex. And we tried. But when he put the condom on, it wasn't working. So I said, "Fuck it, let's go without," because I couldn't do anything but want him. He said that was a bad idea. For a second, I figured he thought I was trashy. But he was just being responsible. I ended up going down on him and waking up with his arm around me, his hand in my hair, and The Shirt on top of the computer. It was morning. We had to go to work. We walked to the train station holding hands, and at the corner, where he went one way and I went the other, he kissed me and said, "I'll call you this afternoon, okay?"
And he did. He called, and I realized that for the moment neither of us were going anywhere. If he's not my "boyfriend" yet, he will be soon.
Like possibly every other girl in the history of the universe, I imagined that if there were a match for me, it would be some fiery, sullen rock star. I envisioned sex fueled by anger, vicious cheating, bottle throwing. (I don't know where I got any of this. I think the babysitter let me watch Sid and Nancy once.) But that's not Jack.
Once, I heard that having a boyfriend isn't about auditioning guys for the role; it's about finding someone you care enough about to write the role for. Here, I've found a specific person, but what's getting in the way isn't my idea of what he should be. It's my idea of who I am: unfettered, of loose morals, wild, restless. I’m learning, though, that these qualities don't preclude me from loving someone, no matter how hard I'd throw a bottle at someone who suggested otherwise. n°
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|ABOUT THE AUTHOR:|
|Carrie Hill Wilner is a Manhattanite by birth and breeding. Still, she has lived in a lot of places and done a lot of things, and will probably live in others and do more. She is pretty sure she graduated from Columbia, but they never sent her a diploma.|