Shut My Eyes and Play Along

2 Jun

Glossy magazines litter the coffeetable, all of them plastered with promises of tips on how to be thin and beautiful and fake a way into someone’s affection. The pale yellow walls are adorned with all sorts of photos and knick-knacks promoting an appreciation of wine, sex, countries they’ve never been to, eras they’ve never lived in, etc. This is where it all happens, where they lay around in sweats rubbing lotion on their legs and warping each other’s minds, further reinforcing all of the manufactured wants and desires. This is where the little pigtailed girls with chipped teeth in faded family photos go to die. I gaze off at a Marilyn Monroe poster and wonder if they’ve ever stopped to think they’re idolizing the beauty of a woman who killed herself because she was only idolized for her beauty.

We watch the lives of others on T.V. – dating shows, entertainment news shows, romantic comedies – and I can’t help but think that the entire design of the apartment, every decoration, everything about the way these girls talk to each other and present themselves to each other, is an attempt to represent a lifestyle that they don’t possess. When I am alone with them, none of them speak the way they do here in the living room. They are putting on a show for their friends, for the people they live with, for anyone who may be watching. One can be truly content with themselves and their lives, so long as they don’t have to gaze at other people’s.

They take turns in the bathroom, preparing their war-paint for the evening’s battle, flicking their hair with their fingertips and staring at themselves far more intently and deeply than they ever will at the one they’re trying to look nice for. Text messages are sent to the friends they want to see, the ones they don’t want to see, the boys they want to meet at night’s end, the back-ups, the ones they don’t want to run into, their thumbs pecking away like the beak of a pigeon.

It always seems one of them has a pressing issue with a flavor-of-the-month tryst, and they talk about it coldly, candidly, as if they are in charge. The ‘boy’ in question is static – he merely wants to sleep with her, and deep down she knows that. He plays flirtation games and makes comments to act disinterested as he slowly reels her in. No more and no less. The complications she is asserting are in her own mind, created because we can only be passionate about that which we don’t possess. She is passionate about something inside of her, something she can’t quite reach, not the well-built boy who makes lame jokes.

As purses are collected and we gulp down the last drinks needed to get out there and take the stage, I can’t help but be impatient to escape from the madness of the living room and the bar. I want to get past the shows that tell us who we should want to be, the anticipation of something that isn’t coming because we won’t allow it, the yelling over the crowd, the flirtations, the lights being turned up at last call, the stop at the late night bagel joint and the idle chatter with the vanilla fraternity member one of her roommates has brought back while they chat in the bathroom. I want the comfort of her bedroom, where I can count her eyelashes as she sleeps and wonder if that was really her out there.

Abandonment Like That Was Easier Then

31 May

Tim slips a dollar into the jukebox and puts on James Brown as we scrub and mop, grooving across the soapy tile floors with energy brought on by the prospect of the shift’s end. He counts the tips while I collect the trash and take it out around the corner, where I run into Mary, who I haven’t seen in two years. She’s wearing a matching blazer and skirt that makes her look like a flight attendant, and her haircut is one color now and looks a little more expensive. A plastic I.D. card is clipped to her coat and she’s holding a leather briefcase. I am unshaven, wearing an apron stained with mustard and barbecue sauce, and carrying two trash bags that are dripping an orange liquid.

She explains that she is in town recruiting for her company, and is on her way back to the hotel to change. I explain that I’m still living here and about to get off work, and it’s the first time I can ever remember being ashamed of this job. What scares me is how quickly I am able to shake it off. We make plans for a drink in the hotel bar, and I head back in to finish up the shift change.

I don’t know why we do this to ourselves. So rarely do we sit down with an old lover from a past life and not find ourselves wistful for older times or alarmed at their change in demeanor, appearance, friends, attitude. You aren’t sitting across from them, but rather what they have become, and once one dives into the chaos of this world, the change is rarely for the better.

Her eyes are as green as a fairway, and it seems they might be the only thing that hasn’t changed. She sounds more cynical, less warm; she smokes cigarettes now, and fake laughs at her boring co-workers’ jokes, and she no longer smells like a Blow Pop tastes. The cheap, chunky rings are missing from her fingers, and her shoes look uncomfortable to be in.

‘I wish I was still here,’ she says with a sigh, and I know she doesn’t mean that. She’s either trying to soften the fact that I’m still pouring drinks in this town, or she’s mistaking ‘here’ for ‘myself’. She probably enjoys drinking wine while she sits on Ikea furniture at parties where there are cheese cubes and no beer pong tables. I stifle the urge to say ‘me, too’.

‘You really shouldn’t smoke,’ I say, taking a drag from my cigarette.

‘It relaxes me,’ she says with a weariness that implies a stressful life, despite the fact that she’s spent the last twenty minutes telling me about how her days are compromised of sitting at a desk checking her e-mail, amazed that she’s getting paid eye-popping amounts of money to do so. My mind drifts off to the carefree girl flitting from table to table on a Saturday night, the one who would drunkenly pirouette down the sidewalk in front of me on our way home. I don’t see that girl in front of me anymore.

‘You really like how all of the instruments come in one at a time,’ she says as The Cure begins to play on the jukebox. She raises her eyebrows as if I’m expected to be impressed by her knowledge of me. At the moment, I kind of am.

‘I do,’ I say with a nod. She sighs and rests her chin on her palm, gazing at me in a ‘what are we going to do about you?’ sort of way, the kind of look she used to give me right before we kissed. I always felt like a naive child who’d done something so adorably stupid that she couldn’t help but squeal and embrace me.

‘You seem sad.’

‘Haven’t I always?’

‘Not like this.’ She traces a manicured finger around the lip of her glass. “How long do you plan to stay here?”

‘I don’t know…haven’t really thought about it.’

Her eyes are searching me for something, and I wonder if it’s the same thing I’m searching her for. On the surface, I haven’t changed much – I still have detailed opinions about “Just Like Heaven” and I still live here and work a service job, and I’m pretty sure I’ve worn this shirt back when we were together. But I’m certain that she notices the spirit missing from my eyes. Perhaps while I’m searching her for remnants of her old self, she is conversely searching for any noticeable change in me. I get the feeling that the both of us will be disappointed.

‘You know,’ she begins, taking a pull from her drink and pursing her lips. ‘I always thought that you would be the first person I knew here to leave and do something really great. I really did. I can remember looking at you some nights and thinking ‘in ten years, I’m going to be able to tell people that I dated this guy’.’

This may be one of the nicest things anyone has ever said about me, and yet it makes me feel nauseous. Not only does it contain the pangs of guilt, but it contains the notion that doing something great involves making a lot of money or being famous. It contains the idea that if I never left this town, she wouldn’t find herself proud of the fact that at one time in our lives we shared a connection. It implies that she’s reconsidered her idea of me, and I don’t blame her. I want to explain all of this to her, but I think she’s too far gone for it to make any sense. Or perhaps I am.

Thankfully before I have to respond a co-worker of her’s wearing a pale blue shirt with a white collar approaches, greeting me offhandedly in a manner that feels no different than if he were to pat my head or give me a quarter to go get some candy. He probably sees me as just what I am – an old acquaintance she’s left for bigger and better things. The only thing I’m unsure of is how much bigger or better those things are.

‘I told my friends I’d take them out for a night on the town,’ she says, her eyes still back in the conversation we were just having. ‘Would you like to come along?’

‘I don’t think so…I’ve got to open tomorrow.’

‘Well, it was really good to see you,’ she says with the frown of disappointment we all have when we briefly get to visit our pasts. She gives me one more burning glance of desperation, and hugs me tightly. As she catches up to her friends waiting near the entrance, I think of the wide-eyed boy who used to get butterflies when he saw her, the one whose face would beam so wide as she drunkenly pirouetted down the sidewalk in front of him on their way home.

I Think It’s Better the Second Time Around

24 May

As she fumbles to get the key into her front door, the realization occurs that this is the best part of the night. The bits that occur after the idle twenty minute chatter in the kitchen is what brought me here, but isn’t the knowledge or feeling that this person is eagerly and willingly walking you into their bedroom equal to or better than the physical sensation of the act? If that weren’t the case, it wouldn’t matter who was on the other end of that sensation, would it? We’d fuck like blind rabbits. Isn’t the person in question usually carrying out some sort of role or aim we’ve concocted for them? Isn’t that the point?

I am more alone here than if I were by myself in my bedroom. The drone of my fan is missing. The person warming the back of my neck with her breath is a stranger. The most she can provide for me is a prop body for me to close my eyes and pretend it to be the one I would rather be with. I sold myself out there, recognizing her excessive giggling and brushing of limbs. I said things I didn’t mean and censored opinions and laughed at dumb jokes and ignored inane commentary and did nothing but prove to myself that being myself isn’t the reason I got here. And for what? What have I sold my character and time for? A mediocre drunken blowjob? Twenty minutes of thoughtless, distracting pleasure? This is far more shameful than paying for it monetarily.

I peel her arm away from my body and slip out into the quiet night, the slush of wet snow making a squishing, sucking sound as I walk. We often choose these partners on the merit of a thoughtless interaction – no phone numbers, no breakfast, no strife. But this is never the case. They are serving as an antidote to loneliness, an assurance. A replacement to disperse affection on and fuck when we can’t be with the ones we want. The situation cannot be casual and mutual, as neither party understands the other’s thought process. A disconnect exists that prevents comfort and flippancy.  I used her while I thought of someone else. She was no different than a walking, talking, flesh-and-blood masturbation tool – a blow-up doll with a pulse.

I stop into the gas station to grab a pack of cigarettes and to get the sting of feeling back into my numb fingers. The skinny middle-aged man behind the counter is the same one who sold condoms to us a few hours earlier, rolling his eyes as we stumbled and howled near the coffee machine. Now he gives me a sly smirk and a wink as I hand him a five.

It all comes down to the desire to love and be loved. Without that passion, that seeking of affection, that hazy sense of romanticism, you are merely fucking a stranger, and with every stranger I fuck I feel a little less able to ever believe in those things again. We de-emphasize love while we scrutinize sex, and why are we scrutinizing sex in the first place, outside of the lacking of what we expected it to provide? We attach some grandness to it, some buzz, that it can’t live up to because, well, it’s just sex. It’s mythos lies in validation, in the giggling and high fives of friends, the images of media, our green nature on a subject we have to fight ourselves to frankly discuss; without affection, it is simply a highly pleasurable sensation, something akin to a massage at the spa.

By the time I arrive home my pant legs are soaked halfway up to my shins, rings of salt dust layering around their ends. Seth is asleep on the couch, an episode of Taxi glowing from the television. I peel off my jeans carefully, making sure not to touch the frozen ends to my skin.  The tips of my toes are still numb as I crawl into bed. Every now and again I hear the faint sound of Danny Devito’s animated ranting. I grab an extra pillow and pull it to my chest, drifting off to the low hum of my fan and the canned laughter of a 1970’s studio audience.

All We Are is All Alone

19 May

We went from bar to bar – rickety service elevators in meat-packing districts opening to purple velvet, fish tanks, make-out rooms, steel bartops, drinks by the bottle. They paid for everything and introduced me to their ‘fag hags’, one of whom was Ellen. She had black hair that looked red in certain light, marble blue eyes and wore a black cocktail dress with a long coat that looked like something a businessman would wear. She had a fierce intellect, a wealthy family and a studio apartment on Bedford. Why she held my hand in the dead of winter outside the Christopher St. station, looked into my eyes and kissed me, I’ll never know.

She ran five miles and threw up her lunch and spent fifteen minutes fidgeting under an incubator and read glossy magazines with models on the cover and put on glittery, sparkling war-paint and bunched her brightly colored toes over thin, curved planks and bit her lip as she stared into the funhouse mirror of her mind. And she most certainly didn’t do it for a guy like me.

These slip-ups were apt to happen back in school, but this wasn’t just any girl, it was a Manhattan girl, who was taking a semester off from Brown, who traveled with her sister to London and Greece at seventeen, who lived in a brownstone, who fucked lawyers for clothes and vacations. Girls from my hometown kept pens from hotels in Toronto to remind them of weekend trips. But when I looked into her eyes, I noticed that Manhattan girls are the same as Ohio girls; they only have fancier costumes and better opportunity.

She pointed out the apartment they used for all the exterior shots on Friends, which was on her street, and I looked up at it as we walked by, flakes of snow breezing through the glow of the streetlight. It was that moment, the Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album cover, that solidified my status as an adult, as truly existing in the world. Here I was, walking through the Village (was I? I was pretty sure I was) with a beautiful woman, having spent the night stumbling around lower Manhattan with wealthy trendsetters, a week away from starting work on a nationally televised late night show and what’s more adult, more cool than that? And yet on another level, it seemed nothing had changed.

I had always thought that when I got to this level of adulthood, of ‘someday’, that things would somehow be different. But everything was all too familiar. Her breath was stale and beer soaked and she had cocaine-sprinkled mucus caked around the rims of her nostrils and our lips mashed together as we tried to kiss-and-walk and it was just as sweaty and smelly and confusing and nerve-racking as it’s always been. I didn’t feel what I’d expected cool and adult to feel like, which was in control, or in love, or assured of purpose. I still felt like nothing more than a scared shitless kid lying awake in the apartment of a girl who was mysterious and flitting and went to an Ivy League school and was bi-coastal, and who despite all that seemed like nothing more than an equally scared shitless kid with a more desirable lifestyle. It felt like nothing new.

Whenever one is gazing around at the living quarters of a stranger they plan to or have gone to bed with, there is always a moment – sometimes as brief as a millisecond – where the little David Byrne voice pops into their head and says ‘How did I get here?’, and I hear it as I am looking at a picture on her nightstand of her and her brother?/boyfriend?/friend? at the bottom of a ski slope. She is wearing a puffy North Carolina blue coat and she has an orange tan that match the lens of her goggles. I hear a car honk in the distance.

We are adversaries, I thought to myself, watching her sleep. That’s all we know, people like us, isn’t it? Adversarial romance. Pushing you against a wall and going into make-out rooms and batting eyelashes and carefully selecting words packed with meaning set to incite their receiver and trading stares that are anything but honest. We are afraid of each other, and we have to be. Because if I hang around with you strange, new people long enough, I will become just another guy and my Midwestern mystique will become Midwestern simplicity and you will become just another girl and your sultry mystique will appear to be nothing more than a pathetic need for attention, and only then will we be able to give each other honest looks and words, and there’s no quicker way to kill romance for people like us than to have that kind of honesty. I could love you, I thought, as she smiled in her sleep, but you’re only looking for those who want you. Or perhaps that’s what we were all looking for. I determine that the skier is a boyfriend and drift off to sleep.

I slip out a little after nine with an excuse that is met with sleepy murmurs and head on foot to Big Cup, the only place I know to go, my head buzzing in the gray Manhattan morning. Back at school, this is known as the ‘walk of shame’, where you are leered at by the walking seniors and visiting parents as you burp up beer from the night before and trip over your shoelaces. Here, nobody gives a fuck. I stop on my way there and puke in a garbage can, and I don’t think anyone notices.

‘Welcome to New York!’ Louis says with a wink, eying my previous day’s wrinkled clothes and unintentionally tousled hair. The thought occurs to me that he’s still not aware that I’m straight. He just laughs when I ask if Todd or any of the others have been by. A skinny black guy with pirate earrings and stoplight red pants says with a hand wave that none of them will be up for at least another two hours. On the train home a homeless man recites bad poetry. I give him four dollars.