“I like it for its bits,” she prefaced.
She sent me Little Expressionless Animals by David Foster Wallace. It was as if she were trying to kill me. She’d gone through the trouble of creating a PDF I could print because she knew how I felt about holding words in my hands in order to truly understand them—to appreciate them.
Her girlfriend would be in the city soon and shortly after, I’d be flying out, a fact I was trying to remain blissfully ignorant of. Whenever the subject got brought up, we both physically tensed up and prayed for the moment to be over, like when you watch a sex scene with your parents.
But we couldn’t avoid the date of the girlfriend’s arrival or my departure much longer, and here she was sending me heartbreakingly beautiful essays. It felt like head games, giving me more emotions than I was used to having to deal with—than I was equipped to deal with. I had felt bold this summer for wearing my heart outside its normal, methodologically-guarded cage. She made me feel bold. But I started to wonder if I just wasn’t brave enough to walk away.
Sometimes it made me long for the days of the simplicity of boys. Boys who I could laugh with over dumb jokes and easily impress by chugging my beer or pushing up my cleavage. Focusing on the outside as opposed to constantly looking inward; like searching for a shell on the seafloor, blindly grabbing handfuls of sand, hoping to feel something solid in my fingers.
I fell in love with the city and the girl in one fell swoop. They happened simultaneously and are correlated. I took them both on like a new persona. I was all cold-brew coffee shops, dive bars in Brooklyn, trying to read Ulysses—in a word, pretentious. But I was intoxicated on having the girl think I was smarter and greater than I was. She saw the sum of my parts as something they certainly were not. I waited for the day where she’d figure me out, realize she’d done the math wrong. But that day didn’t come and every text, every date, every kiss came as both genuine shock and assurance.
She was standoffish—intimidatingly so. The first time we were alone was on a train to Connecticut to see a mutual friend. She didn’t speak much but when she did her words were wise, or funny and were weighted in worth. I spoke pennies, spouted them out like a broken Coinstar machine, cramming in the cracks of any and all silence. At one point during that hour and 17 minutes, I was prattling on about myself and thought oh my god, you’re still speaking, and then just stopped mid-sentence and let out an awkward giggle.
She turned to me and said, “Don’t worry. I love it when you talk.” Twisting the ring on my index finger, she asked me about its origin to kick start me into another rant.
“With a girl!?” My sister focused on the latter part of the statement when I called her. To me, her gender seemed like the least important part.
“I’m in lust.” I repeated the more exciting aspect, the aspect that had me reeling, the aspect of finding someone I needed to kiss, touch, explore. But she was already lost in semantics.
So I started to focus on the semantics. I’d never shared anything romantic with another girl before, save a few kisses that were sticky with cheap vodka and an immature desire to get a reaction out of the party. I would think about it as I zoned out during my internship. I would become excited about the unknown but also terrified.
I started to think if a girl breaks your heart it has got to be infinitely worse than when a boy does. If things don’t work out with a boy, we girls can explain it away, chalk it up to him being “just an idiot guy,” incapable of understanding your personal brand of feminine mystique. But with a girl?
She understands it. She has it. And if she still doesn’t love you? It’s as if she looked directly into your soul and gave a quick and resounding “no thank you.”
By the end of the summer we’d been using Google slides to communicate unofficially, as if speaking through a form of Google docs was not a form of cheating. It started out so I could help her brainstorm ideas for ad campaigns for her internship. It quickly turned into a live stream of our thoughts. It was impossible to follow, nonlinear and very honest. She joked about making a modern, lesbian adaptation of,
You’ve Got Mail.
“We could call it Edit This,” she said
I thought about editing—deleting parts of the story, slides of the summer. Her girlfriend, her very long term but long distance girlfriend, would have been first probably. It didn’t change the way I felt about her, but it should have. And it certainly should have changed the way she felt about me.
“She’s a cheater,” my friend said as we walked our usual route to my favorite taco place. His tone implied this was a final argument.
“And I’m a home wrecker, an ideal pair.”
“I’m serious. If you were to do this for real, how could you ever trust her?”
I wondered about the threshold she and I would have to cross in order to be “doing this thing for real.” It already felt pretty real, and I liked obstacles. I liked relationships where there were obvious pitfalls or ways they could fail. They felt safe because they had a scapegoat, something to blame, which shirked any introspection on my part, on what might be wrong with me.
She called me Wolfe after sending me a letter from Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Wolfe. I contemplated if this—sharing lesbian literature— was the standard when dating girls. I hoped it wasn’t—that this was special. I’d never been sent literature from a boy, except for a dirty acrostic poem made from my name, during a Valentine’s Day in high school years ago. That paled in comparison. It didn’t matter that the words weren’t hers. I told myself the feelings were hers—she merely outsourced the romance.
Vita is self-deprecating in the letter. I mean, how could you not be when you’re sending a letter about something as lofty as love to Virginia Wolfe? Wolfe would probably look at each word, come up with far superior synonyms for every line, words which would ultimately create an incredible photograph. And you, inferior Vita, had merely drawn stick figures with a heart in between.
But Vita says that in Wolfe’s attempts to beautify, she would lose the honesty of the raw. And she’s right. For me, love wasn’t in the stars—memories of hot gas shining brightly light years away, that have already burned out and died. Love was in the bruises on my arms from when we grabbed each other so tightly, in pure need, the first night we slept together; our bodies grinding together like gears turning, breaking away, and then finding each other in new grooves, as we rotate around one another.
I was riding the subway to work, a particularly hellish five minutes on the 4 express. I was smashed into a grind line, an old lady’s umbrella handle poking into my left breast and the young Wolf of Wall Street wanna-be’s briefcase (likely empty because he was an intern and what could he possibly have in there) finding its way in the crevice of my ass. I tried to find a place to avert my eyes.
I caught sight of a couple. The girl’s hair had fallen into her eyes and was working its way frustratingly into her mouth. Her hands were occupied with the subway rail bar and a cup containing a bright green thick substance, undoubtedly packed with kale and named “green machine” or “detox monster.”
Her male companion dropped his belongings, much to the annoyance of his subway neighbors and delicately moved the hair from her eyes, her mouth, and lingered an extra second with his thumb on the apple of her cheek.
I couldn’t shake the image even as the 4 stopped at Grand Central and birthed me out of the doors and into work. I titled a slide in our sacred Google space, “Fleeting Subway Thoughts…” and set the scene for her. I posed the question on my mind.
“Did she think ‘Gross, his grimy subway hands on my face he better not have just given me the stomach bug working its way up and down the Bronx bound trains or did she just think it was beautiful?”
She responded, “Well, what would you think?”
“Normally, I’d tell him to get his janky fingers off my face. But now… I’m not so sure.”
“I’d like to touch your face,” she typed.
When I got to the park I found an isolated bench and wrapped myself in the David Foster Wallace essay—the words, the plot, the subliminal messages she sent by giving it to me. I agonized over the lines as if she stood behind Wallace as he wrote, imploring him which verbs would best work to let me know she loved me.
A man sat down beside me on a bench made for one or two close friends. He waited a minute to see if I would acknowledge his seat choice, his encroachment on my bench, on my thoughts.
I did not. I tried to get myself back into the essay.
“You look like you are trying to take over the world,” he said in a manner that expected a playful response. My knee jerk reaction was to give a pity laugh in an attempt to make him feel comfortable. But he shouldn’t have felt comfortable. He should have felt uncomfortable. I took on all of that to normalize the situation. I became pissed off at his entitlement to my time, my space, my date with the park and my essay.
When he gave up hitting on me, he stayed on my bench and made a phone call. I decided to leave then, since it was becoming dark, even angrier that he’d wasted the last precious lighting of the sky to read by. As I was crossing the street, I made the mistake of making eye contact with a stranger. He switched directions and caught up to my purposefully rushed pace.
“You look like my ex girlfriend,” he said.
Yes, but never your next girlfriend, I wished I’d said aloud. He trapped me in conversation with questions of where I was going, where I was coming from. My eyes were flighty as I kept looking back towards my route home. I felt like a cornered animal. I thought about whether I could ever love a man again.
My cab made its trek to La Guardia. I was sleep deprived and nauseous—the outcome of a day of drinking and night of no sleep. I’d just said goodbye to her but I was too tired to be sad about it. She and the city had exhausted me. I didn’t know the next time I’d see her—if there would be a next time. At 7 am on a Saturday, the streets were the quietest I’d seen them all summer.
I thought about the bits of the summer, the city, her. Perfect afternoons drinking five-dollar champagne in Washington Square Park. Frustrating nights spending 13 dollars on a teacup of gin in Meat Packing. I was either moving rapidly with the rush of the city, like a subway car, like all the lights; or I was waiting, stuck in a line or an amorphous blob of people, traffic, reluctant realities. I was waiting for her.
I added them together, then subtracted, then divided; I looked for the sum of all the parts, of what they equated to. I formulated until my hung-over head protested. I pushed it against the chilled glass of the window and blinked goodbye to the Brooklyn Bridge.
The city was all enjambed lines, people, and trash at the beginning of summer. Sometimes, when I thought about trying to grow here—to live, or just be in such a crowded place—it made me want to lie down and take a nap. I thought I should start anew where there’s still unchartered territory to be claimed. I started to think where that might be. Mars? The deep sea? South Dakota?
Over our first brunch, she spoke about her girlfriend, and her ex girlfriends. And I wondered where the cemeteries were in the city, if there were any. Manhattan feels like a place with no space to forfeit for the dead, or even the living for that matter—only for what hasn’t happened yet.
Maddy Keith is a woman/writer/whatever. Has been published in Colonnades Literary & Art Journal and was the winner of the 2015 Frederick Hartmann Fiction Contest as judged by Jenine Capó Crucet. She’s on the brink of twitter fame @madlymaddly…not really..but help her out.