Nerve Classics

Open City

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Alicia and Hans live in Battery Park City, a movie set of a place. It’s on the southern tip of Manhattan, built on landfill shaped and contoured into a luxurious landscape. It is very clean here, bereft of corner delicatessens and smoke shops, worn sidewalks and bike skeletons locked to parking meters.

There is an absence of expression. The number of windows with vertical blinds tells you something. Want a bland, unremarkable one-bedroom apartment to shoot a ’70s-style porn video — the kind where a bachelor in a jet-black toupee gets it on with three stewardesses in his waterbed? This is the place.

Hans got this sublet apartment after, you know, the World Trade Center went down. Rents also went down, way down, because nobody wanted to live here, a smoldering ghost town caked in ashes. So the city stepped in and gave rent grants, and thus, a prime condo became a shelter for a struggling Ph.D. candidate. I met Hans a few times in the last two years since he began making my friend Alicia so damn happy. Alicia the Irrepressible, who pulls no punches, not ever — not in the seven years since we were in school together, and never in pronouncing her feverish longings for girl-on-girl action.

On the first day of class, she stood up with bravura to introduce herself, and with one expert flip of her big, black hair she sent us all a message: I am a professional flirt. I took the challenge personally, because my flirting skills, though daring and wicked, were a little rusty. Alicia and I smashed open the gate to theamusement park and pulled the taffy of mock flirting. Classmates would retreat from us in blushing silence. We were each in great relationships during school, so there was no question about it — it was all in fun. But we approached it as an art, and still do. Tonight, Alicia and I are waiting for take-out food from the one Chinese restaurant that delivers to Battery Park City. And Hans isn’t home yet.

Alicia always wants to know if I’m getting any whenever we see each other. It is her first question for me. She wants to hear about gay-chick sex, any which way she can get it. She’s gotten a little, I’ve gotten a lot. (And, right now, I could use a break from the ladies. Lately, too many intense women, too fast.) Problem is, I tend to meander from sex talk to art to healing to the many things in the cosmos I wonder about, like, is something that was true yesterday, still true today? This is not Alicia’s focus. Sex is.

With a major devilish grin, she jumps on the couch with me and whispers, “You should get online, Juliana. There are so many cute girls!”

I think, Oh boy, I guess I know where this is going. Alicia jumps up to get her laptop from the bedroom. She springs back into the living room, proud and happy like she’s about to show me a school project that scored an A+. She sits, just about on my lap, and pops up the screen. Her leg is jiggling, a fast toe-to-knee jackhammer. She is so damn excited because she thinks she knows what I need: cute girls! The photos come up, and Alicia shrieks with, “Oh, she’s hot!” and “Look at those lips!” But me, I have other thoughts as we scan profiles. I think, Where is that person now? Is she getting ready for a date, shaving her legs in the bathtub? Next photo. Is she home tonight nursing her sixteen-year-old cat? Next photo. Is she sitting on the floor of her art studio, her face buried in her hands, smoking to get high and desperate for word from her lost brother? This is where my mind goes.

But Alicia is giggling and showing me her hotlist, a personal collection of potential babes. The women are kind of boyish in structure and girlish in form, square shoulders and angular faces, smooth skin and bounteous breasts. Alicia’s type is someone who looks like me. I had no idea. It’s strange. I never really had any real attraction to Alicia, but maybe she’s had a hard-on for me? Did our foolishness and flirting cover that in the past?

The intercom rings. I’m paying at the door and looking for singles to tip the delivery man and Alicia shouts out from the sofa, “Juliana, here are some swingers!” For me, talking about sex is not as interesting as eating dinner, but it is all-consuming for Alicia. Another time, finding swingers online would just floor me. I’d want to know who they are, what they wear, and how they navigate the tenuous terrain of trust and togetherness to invite other lovers to touch their special places — their bodies, and perhaps, their hearts? What about misunderstandings? Jealousy? Envy?

I’ve seen my friends in committed relationships reach their first anniversary, then restlessness and disappointment set in. One of the two discovers that what she wants isn’t what her lover has, simple as that. She tries something easier than breaking up, because Neil Sedaka was right, breaking up is hard to do. She looks outside in the night for something more — secret sex, or sex that’s known about but not acknowledged. They stay together in a newly undefined relationship, one where they are together, and slipping apart. And at times, I become a confidante for one and not the other, trusted and not trusted at the same time. As a friend, it is very, very difficult.

The next sound at the door is Hans, his key turning in the lock. His entrance, pouty and dejected from fifteen hours at the university, is a major downer. He’s tall and pale and underfed in that way that comes from being driven by obsessions of the intellect. His shirt is the wrong color for his skin tone and he just looks all washed out. Even Alicia bouncing up into his arms and tickling his neck hardly gets a grin. He’s got that thick, gooey computer-geek glaze in his eyes. She orders him to drink a tall glass of water, sit down, and have dinner with us.

I expect we’ll talk over dinner, but Alicia sits down on my left and reopens her laptop to show me her photo and profile. I see a frame holding Alicia’s body, alluring in a ruffled party dress, but no head. The next photo is shocking, though I manage to keep slurping my fat noodles and saying mm-hmm.

She asks me how I like the shot. It’s Alicia, her back to the camera, no, her backside to the camera. She is bent over at the waist. She wears only a g-string. She says she thinks it’s too dark, but that Hans didn’t want to use the flash. I look to my right and Hans nods, saying, “It’s better with the shadows.” He’s right. A flash would be turn the photo tawdry.

I thought her search for lady sex might be a big secret to Hans.

Alicia and Hans met online while she was still married. Wait, that is, she was in an open marriage when she met Hans. She’s told me, “Hans is very experimental, Juliana! I have a lover with so much desire!” Since they met, her smile is one of those deeply meaningful ones, like it shows me that she loves, she is loved, and that she is held in his arms with reverence.

Then she skips to the ads of other bisexual women. I’m surprised. I thought her search for lady sex might be a big secret to Hans. I look to him. He’s eating, pouring wine, and glancing over to Alicia’s screen occasionally. So, I ask him about his work. He hopes to get a grant for a conference in China. Alicia chimes in, “They’ll love him, they’re all geeks.” He says, “No one is doing this research but me, so I am an exotic of sorts at these seminars.”

Next, Hans is up from the couch to get his laptop from his bag. He starts to show me an eighteen-minute PowerPoint presentation. Moo shu is in my mouth while Hans describes satellite systems and Alicia skims through profiles on my left. I am sitting in the middle, strangely interested in both screens at the same time. I have plenty of questions about his research. I wonder if, in China, he will stand in line for hours to view Mao’s frozen body? He says, “No, after the conference, I will look for other kinds of bodies. There are internet cafés there now, you know.” He smiles. Okay. I look to Alicia to see if I can perceive jealousy or annoyance. None. I search for an expression that may be covering her jealousy or hurt. Nothing. What I see is Alicia laughing, joyously. So I look to my right to see if Hans has a wink that says, gotcha! Instead, he’s focused on the screen.

Hmm. Alicia is who she is, and Hans is cool with that. And Hans is who he is, and Alicia is cool with that. And I sit between them, images of Alicia’s desires to my left, pictures of Hans’ passion on my right. It’s like I’m in the center of their loop of common understanding. Uniquely intimate. They trust my friendship enough to, in a way, come out to me. We hang for awhile, and everything starts to feel less bizarre and more fun.
And when I leave, I feel extraordinary because I have new information to chew on. Again: is something that was true yesterday, still true today? Yesterday, my belief was that an open relationship was about screw-ups and secrets and lies, and people telling each other things are fine when they’re not. On the way to getting what they want, I see them lose what they have, dragging each other from mistakes to wild make-up sex to crying fits of desperation. But tonight, contrary to everything I’ve learned before, Hans and Alicia show me an open relationship that is very, very good. I am moved by that new understanding. It feels like getting a syllabus at the start of a semester: So much to learn! It’s heady. Intoxicating. On the walk to the subway, I count the vertical blinds in the polished stone buildings. They look as different as I feel.

This article originally appeared in Nerve’s True Stories.