The bar is the type of kitschy you find within a five block radius of Times Square—faux-weathered beach signs (No Shoes No Shirt No Service) and billboard-like surf boards waxed and gleaming, retired up on the wall behind the bar. You feel an odd disequilibrium, like your world has cocked a few odd degrees to the right. Off kilter, but not enough to make a big deal out of it. It is freezing rain when you get here (fifteen minutes late) and you strain your eardrums to hear if the downpour is still happening outside, beyond the Jimmy Buffet remix erupting from the speaker above your head.
“We’ve set the bar for modern dating,” he says as you chew on your straw.
You hunch over the frozen tropical drink that you ordered to counteract the unseasonable climate outside. Most of your actions these days are devoted to rectifying the weather. See, you don’t like tropical drinks and you don’t like missing happy hour, which the two of you often do because of your tendency to meet at odd times in odd neighborhoods where neither of you pay rent. That is, when you manage to meet up at all. You’ve known him for nearly a year at this point and can count on two hands the number of times you’ve seen him. One hand for the number of times you’ve slept together or caught a glimpse of each other’s lives past your flesh and blood manifestations. You would not call this dating and you tell him so.
Tonight is a fluke, to be sipping drinks with him mere blocks from your apartment. A little too close for comfort, which might be why everything feels askew. Still, this night’s embodiment unfolds as many others have. You note the changes in appearance since your last meet up (You: You’ve shaved your head. Him: You haven’t.). You debate politics (his choice zealotry) and feminism (yours), keeping both topics on the sexy side of offensive. You order another round of frozen drinks as the ones before you melt into sedimentary layers of liquor and crushed ice. You discuss dating, because you can. It’s your unspoken rule that you can talk about dating anthropologically, like academics comparing field notes.
“I deleted the apps.”
“I went on a date with this woman who spent ten minutes debating the merits of each seasonal Frappuccino flavor.”
He calls the women he’s been seeing basic. He tells you you’re not. You’re supposed to puff up, be proud, but instead you list off stereotypically “basic” practices that you adhere to: Starbucks and Spinning on Saturdays. Holy trinity of S’s, you tell him, thinking that your vocal support of Starbucks beverages really drives your point, like a stake to the heart of his idea of you. But he just laughs and you feel his knee tap yours.
When he asks about your dating life you look down and grumble about the disappointment you’ve been touting around recently. It’s one you are sick of hearing yourself talk about, but you still do talk about it because you secretly relish it sometimes. You think maybe it makes you feel powerful, to complain, but you don’t want to dwell too long on that correlation. Whatever it signals can’t be good. He nods as he digests your complaints and tries to give you advice, from a guy (and fellow dating anthropologist), before scoffing and wondering why he’s telling you how to date other men.
You remind him that you don’t call this dating and he excuses himself to go to the bathroom.
“You should write about us,” he says later as you leave that bar to go to another. Your dates tend to last hours. The talking’s addictive. Sentences unspool wildly and tangle between the two of you. He counters your musings in unexpected ways. He doesn’t say, Jesus, you’re smart or stare in blank awe when you gush about Joan Didion or that rambling foreign film you saw at the Film Forum last weekend.
You snort, say, “You’re kidding.”
“I don’t kid. We’re begging to be turned into fiction.”
“We’re not interesting enough,” you tell him.
But apparently you are. He’s off again about the miracle of your arrangement: Booze! Debates! Sex! With all pesky emotions superhumanly bypassed by you two: champions of the casual dating scene. He talks about what a character like him would do for your writing, while you’re careful not to veer into him as you walk. You want to keep that healthy inch of separation, but you let his talk waft over you because you like when he talks about your writing. It keeps you showing up to these periodic dates. You’ve never had a guy so curious. You like the tingle in your chest that accompanies his every request to read what you’re working on, especially since you know that you’ll never let him read anything.
He thinks maybe he’ll write about you. He writes songs, an art form that you equate with poetry and you’ve never understood poetry. So you quell any natural curiosity about his work and try not to think of him constructing slant rhymes in his room or jangling chords on the guitar. It’s easier to view him as detail-less. Even if you’re acutely aware that there’s a unique, churning brain bobbing along beside your own. Plus, the idea of him putting bits of you to tune scares you a little.
“I’m not interesting enough,” you say, as you wonder what he would write about you.
You get the next round of drinks at a bar you choose, since it’s in your neighborhood. You’re bad at picking places to eat, drink, date, stand. When you do have to pick, you usually wait until the last minute to text him a meeting location. This drives him crazy; you know it, because he told you. You say, “I’m bad at texting.” You try to turn the admission into a joke, expanding it from texting to technology in general. He pleads the same Stone Age insanity. You then blame your technological ambivalence for your substandard dating skills.
“We come off better in person,” he says. “We don’t translate to five photos and a quippy innuendo.”
You admit that when you were last on the apps, you considered writing I solemnly swear I am up to no good in your “About Me” section, but ultimately decided against it because you were worried it would come off too sexual.
“Smart move,” he says. “I’m happy you didn’t.”
You laugh in response, but part of you crumbles at the idea that you don’t translate to any other medium than the corporeal one you already exist in.
As you finish off your IPA, he broaches an invitation to your apartment. Your last gulp of beer catches on its way down and you clear your throat until your cheeks burn. The topic of sex is a tepid one between you two. Your encounters with him have been few and far between, watered down by distance and dates with other men. You wonder which came first, the nonchalance or the detachment.
You tell him you have to get up early the next morning. You apologize and immediately hate that you felt the need to apologize.
“It gets better,” he tells you. You frown and it dawns on you that he means sex. Sex gets better. As if you’re back to being a first-timer pretending to enjoy the act of awkward fucking. All limbs, no coordination.
The last time you were rigid under him in his bed (for it was always in his bed, by your choice) already nervous you wouldn’t be able to perform, he noticed because he always notices and you confessed your particular brand of neurosis: Your humble sexual success rate. How the twelve total times you’ve given an honest response to Was it good for you? guys took it as a personal offense. That the depressing truth of the matter is that you’re always just kind of happy it’s over so that you can leave and say you’ve been laid in the last week, should anyone bother to ask.
The moment all these things came flooding out of you, you regretted saying them. Your face reddens and your chest tightens. You had to push him off you just to keep your head above it all.
He has a way of making you confess like that and maybe that’s why you only see him once a month. You don’t like to be rubbed raw on a regular basis. It’s not fun to walk around a ragged wound, especially in a place like New York City.
His theory was that you don’t trust men. He told you, stop sleeping with assholes. You didn’t think you had been so you rebuke the idea, but even as you scoff and began to yank your jeans back on, you wondered if it is true. He apologized: I’m just saying you don’t have to be so negative. You tell him that no one is forcing him to hang out with you. He said the negativity makes you interesting.
He’s back on your negativity now as he walks you to your apartment. His words lob at you as half-jokes and you swat them away, but you tilt with the weight of five drinks and a gutting realization. Your skin feels clammy as you finally tell him what you’ve been postponing all night.
“I don’t think I can have casual sex anymore.”
You want to be honest, you tell him that, but your honesty comes out leprous. It occurs to you that maybe you’ve never been nakedly honest with another person. Your stomach flips at the thought.
He wilts. He smiles. He takes a step ahead of you and keeps the distance until you arrive at your apartment. You have to tell him what stoop to stop at because he’s never been there before. He turns to you and makes a parting joke about being available for pity sex, if you’re ever interested.
His joke gnaws at you and you feel something prick at the back of your eyes so that you have to look away. He, of course, notices. You want him to leave before you embarrass yourself and melt in front of him, but he invites you for a lap around the block and suddenly, you’re happy to be with him for another five minutes.
Talk to me. You don’t know how to. You have no reason, no explanation. You don’t even understand what’s going on between the two of you. It seems banally tragic that your time together can boil down to an ending as stupid as I Can’t Have Casual Sex Right Now. You tell him, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” though theories bubble up in your brain.
He stops you outside of a closed Post Office.
“Look at me,” he says. You don’t. You start kicking at the curb, right beneath a CURB YOUR DOG sign. You think of all the things one could curb. You run through mad libs in your head to avoid looking at him even though he keeps telling you to. You begin spilling fragments of thoughts in a puddle at your feet. You talk about the way you have to force yourself to keep eye contact with strange men on the street even when it makes your insides squirm. And about that time you broke up with the one guy in the hospital and felt like you were rehearsing lines for a play. How before going into the room to do it you had to be patted down by a burly nurse and put your things in a locker, then sign them out again after. It’s shit from your past, shit from your present. Shit that doesn’t quite come together to resemble an explanation for him as to why this isn’t working for you.
“It’s not important,” you say, waving him away. “I shouldn’t even be telling you all of this.”
“Because. There are people way more fucked up than me.”
Suddenly you’re acutely aware of how you must look to the people passing by. What image registers in their brains from the slivers of monologue they overhear? You resemble someone crying on the street. They probably think he’s breaking up with you. This makes you start blabbering again, to ward off that impression.
He listens to you, but you feel like a fake. You always feel like a fake when you try to breakdown. A breakdown requires a certain freedom that you don’t have. You remember a conversation that you had with him, as writers. Your type (writers) are always thinking, always self-aware in any given situation of how your lives influence your writing.
“Sometimes I don’t feel like a real person,” you say. You get glimpses of how that would feel, like visions or hot flashes. You’re hot flashing now on the sidewalk.
He shakes his head. “The dark shit makes you more interesting.”
Even so, you still feel like only a portion of a person, like a piece of shit as he puts an arm around you. You hover your head over his shoulder until your neck hurts, because you don’t want to lay the full weight on him.
“We clearly have different ideas about what this is,” he eventually says.
You still don’t know what this is. You let your head drop to his shoulder as you watch a car lingering in front of you on the street—a bright yellow Camaro with black racing stripes. It’s blasting Tupac with the windows rolled up. You think of the irony of this car in this moment. You’re a writer, it’s what you do: critique the scene instead of live in it.
It’s time to go home. If you lean on him any longer, you’ll become selfish. You think about telling him that he deserves someone better than you, but it’s only a line. A plastic condolence. You don’t even know what he expected from you in the first place.
He walks you back to your apartment, lingering there.
“I’ll give you some space,” he says. “Let you figure some things out. You text me when you do, ok?”
You know you won’t. When everything that oozed from you tonight hardens like cement into a shell tomorrow, you’ll have to gradually chip your way out and you won’t want the reminder of him. Not the sight of his name in your phone or his person standing before you, watching for facial tics he seems attuned to.
He leans in to deliver a parting peck. It’s an awkward, unfinished goodbye.
Brenna McPeek is a writer currently living in Manhattan where she is completing her MFA in Fiction at Columbia University. She can usually be found in a coffee shop or movie theater feeding one of her two addictions: coffee and popcorn.
6 Questions with Brenna McPeek:
TD: Tell us a little about this story? Where did the idea come from?
BMc: This story was inspired by a conversation I had with a friend a while back—I wrote a very rough first draft not an hour after parting ways with him. I wanted to think on the natural desire to connect with another person, but also the ways in which we tend to get in our own way in the process. I then wanted to explore what that experience is like filtered through the watchful (and often critical) eye of a writer.
TD: Who is your greatest writing influence?
BMc: I read anything and everything and my influence tends to shift depending on what project I’m working on. Right now I’m very inspired by Elena Ferrante. Her ability to create first person female narrators so raw and unapologetically human is incredible. She mines the mind of her protagonist and puts the whole imperfect thing on the page, unfiltered.
TD: What is your favorite place to write and why?
BMc: I like to switch it up, but my current favorite is my family’s cabin in Breckenridge, CO. It’s the one place I can go that instantly sets my mind at ease.
TD: Favorite word?
TD: Do you have a reading ritual?
BMc: I like to collect business cards from my favorite restaurants and bars around New York and use them as bookmarks.
TD: Anything you might want to share with readers about the writing process.
BMc: I have a tendency to word vomit. Put the mess of words on the page and clean it up later. No matter how I may hate it or avoid it, revision is where my breakthroughs happen. It helps to step back and look at the project as a machine of sorts. Every sentence, every word should be deliberate. Every choice should serve a purpose on a larger scale. Maybe It sounds idyllic, but it’s a level of precision I’m striving for in my work.