“So, tell me more about yourself.”
Says the man seated across the high-top bar table, his voice polished and sharp, carried by an acoustic confidence. He has introduced himself as Aaron. He looks reassuringly similar to the pictures on his profile — thin, handsome, California-boyish, with cheeks dusted by blond stubble, and eyes like little ponds at dusk, polite and calm. He takes a sip of his beer. “What’s your story?”
I pause a beat before I answer, run through one last mental rehearsal. I’d thought carefully over the preceding handful of hours about how to answer such a question — namely, where to lie, and what to omit. Because “my story,” told honestly, gives me, and likely whoever’s listening, severe anxiety. Or at least it doesn’t appeal.
I haven’t been on a second date — or had sex — in nearly eight months.
“Well,” I offer tentatively. “My name’s Mel. I’m 27. I work for a mobile advertising startup here in the city. And, hmm, what else, I love to read, I like to drink beer, and I love basketball. Huge fan of Draymond Green.”
(Purposefully omitted: My distaste for beer; my preference for watching Keeping up With the Kardashians over anything related to sports; and my unfortunate propensity for pigging out on left over Thai food late at night, usually after dates that end poorly and without company. These are the aspects of myself I’ve recognized as probably unappealing. My best friend, Sarah, who now lives with her boyfriend, Kevin, and who earlier this evening coached me on delivering this response, agrees enthusiastically.)
“You’re a warriors fan?” Aaron asks, visibly intrigued. He seems to perk up a bit on his stool. “I wouldn’t have guessed. That’s so cool. I am, as well.”
God damn, I think: Sarah, you evil genius. Who knew that to garner a man’s attention, all you needed to do was lie about liking sports?
“Oh yeah,” I reply, swallowing a little bit of integrity. “Big time.”
I can’t help but feel a little guilty about this, but then Aaron smiles at me, and it occurs to me that a man hasn’t smiled at me in such a way — with a wattage suggesting of connection — in a long time. And suddenly my dishonesty doesn’t seem to bother me all that much.
Two hours and six beers later Aaron and I are walking down Columbus St., sauntering along in that wobbling first-gear employed by couples who are only walking to be doing something while they’re talking. And we’re truly only incidentally walking in the direction of Aaron’s apartment — a one bedroom spot in North Beach he shares with a roommate who is currently developing an app vaguely related to marijuana. I can’t remember the details, because while Aaron had been providing them, I’d been thinking instead about the utter lack of assholishness detectable in his voice. Which was refreshing. Last week I’d met a man for coffee who interrupted an ice breaker-type story I was telling to ask me if I’d be interested in starting a sex-only relationship.
“Um, what?” I said.
“Look I’m just super busy,” he continued, straight-faced. “Everyone in San Francisco is, of course. But I don’t have a lot of time for small talk, and you’re pretty attractive, so here’s my proposition: We engage in a what amounts to a sex-only agreement. Once a week. My apartment. At a time that’s mutually agreeable for both of us. Nothing else. Just sex. What do you think?”
I took a second before responding.
“Do you do this a lot? Does this work with other girls?”
“You’d be surprised,” he replied, smiling.
“Hmm. Good. Well, no. My answer is no.”
Undeterred, he took a quick sip of his coffee, shifted his weight, and pulled out his phone.
“Well in that case would you mind playing with this new app we’re developing? We’re working on the UX right now. I want to see you interact with the interface.”
I left without looking at the app.
I shake the memory from my mind. Which isn’t exactly hard to do. Above Columbus St. the fog hangs low and thick, a down comforter blanketing the sky. It has a way of isolating the city, the fog does, and the night, making the cafes and shops and lights that dangle from the limbs of the trees feel like decorations inside a dainty little snow globe.
“Do you want my jacket?” Aaron asks as we walk, slipping his arms out of the sleeves before I can respond. The jacket is a Northface, big but warm, and possessing of that splendid smell of sweat mixed with cologne that’s not gross and that seems unique to men who are physically attractive.
“Thank you,” I reply, realizing how much I really do like the way Aaron’s jacket smells. It triggers something inside of me, something that reminds me how much I want to be in a relationship that includes the regular benefit of being able to wrap myself in someone else’s jacket. I try to shake the thought from my head, but it proves relatively sticky. It’s something I’ve struggled with, over the last eight months, this tension between my seemingly instinctual and certainly genuine desire to find love and companionship, and the expectation imposed by people like Sarah that I, at this point in my life, should be focused solely on myself and on having fun — which, of course, means having commitment-less sex as often as possible.
I have no trouble seeing Sarah’s logic. The problem is that I just can’t commit to such a single-minded focus the way she wants me to. For instance, earlier tonight, in the twilight hours preceding my date with Aaron, I’d sat down on my couch and started flipping through Facebook. And as I flipped, my newsfeed absolutely flowed with pictures of engagement rings and puppies and European vacations, dozens of these little digital windows into the sepia-filtered infinities of people young and coupled and satisfied, one after the other. And as I sat there scrolling — despite my awareness of the importance and opportunity of my independence — I realized, independence be damned, what I want right now is someone I can love. Someone who will love me. It’s the only reason I date. If it were just about sex, I would never do it. Dating sucks.
Or, at least, dating had sucked before tonight.
~ Like decorations inside a snow globe ~
“This might seem forward,” Aaron says after a few more blocks. “But would you like to come up to my apartment? We can have another drink, talk some more?”
My heart speeds up inside my chest, a bird in the wind.
“I’d love that,” I say, smiling without really meaning to.
“Great,” Aaron says, and after a few more steps he grabs my hand.
For the remainder of the four block walk to Aaron’s apartment, the satellites of anxiety that for so much of the last eight months have been orbiting the nucleus of my brain seem to drift away, as if gravity has suddenly stopped working on everything but the essential elements of my self. For the first time in a long time, I feel the coiled power and potential of my youth, along with a certain ownership of the city, the night, my life. I feel like I finally recognize myself, the person I knew back when I first moved to the city. As we walk I wonder whether or not my feeling this way is important, whether it signals something about me and really more so about Aaron that I should be paying attention to. Maybe! I can’t help but think. Maybe it does. I have to work to keep myself from getting giddy.
When we get to Aaron’s apartment, however, something about the night begins to change. He opens the door and leads me into an entrance-way lined by walls coated with chunky, REDRUM paint. We make our way up stairs defined by floorboards that creak and whine like small animals in pain as we step up them. The lights of the fourth floor hallway flicker with an eeriness that invokes a run down psych-ward.
This is fine, I think — despite the fact that something inside me is suddenly nervous. This is fine.
“Here it is,” Aaron says when we reach his front door. “It’s nothing special, I know. But it’s rent-controlled.”
See? I say to myself, ignoring the scent of what smells like unusually strong marijuana that’s seeping out from under the door. He lives here because rent control.
“Can’t argue with that,” I say.
But then Aaron opens the door, and steps aside to let me in, and I can no longer ignore the marijuana smell. It is engulfing, consuming, like a wet net thrown over my head. Breathing is a struggle. As I focus on that, and as my eyes adjust to the apartment’s vaguely sordid light, I notice the four men — one no older than 17, the others both closer to 35 — huddled around a coffee table in the center of the room. They’re plucking giant green nuggets of weed from liter-size ziplock bags and placing them into a veritably medical collection of pill bottles and dime baggies. Around their feet sit metal scales of various sizes, and strewn across the table are volcanic piles of black ash, half-finished joints stained the waxy yellow of infected toenails, and a shining collection of empty beer cans. A sofa that I presume folds out has been pushed against the far-right wall. Further to the right, visible through the open door of the room’s lone closet, are two large weed plants, both basking in the ominous, chromic glow of hydroponic heating lamps.
~ The waxy yellow of infected toenails ~
The men look up and stare as I step inside their radius of attention, unsmiling as they adjust to the sight of me, their eyes wide, like wolves disturbed in the wild.
“You’re a weed dealer?” I say, quickly feeling embarrassingly childish.
“Mel,” Aaron starts. “I can — ”
I swivel back around.
“Do you, like, sell to dispensaries, or something?” I ask. “That’s what you do, right?”
Aaron takes a second.
“No…not currently,” He replies, his voice warbling slightly, as if he’s unsure of the ground he’s standing on.
I consider this.
“What’s your angle with that? Why would I buy weed from you instead of, you know, the weed store?”
“Yeah, that’s a problem we’ve run in to.”
“We have blow, too,” says the kid who looks 17, speaking up from the coffee table. “I mean just in case you don’t want pot.”
I turn and nod at the kid, then twist back to Aaron.
“You sell coke, too?”
Aaron peers over the top of my head at his friends, roommates, whatever. He sort of grimaces.
“The blow’s actually where we get most of our profit from,” says one of the older-looking dudes as he sits up and takes a sip of his beer. “To answer your question regarding our profit strategy.”
I twist my head to acknowledge him.
“Interesting,” I say, nodding. Then I turn back to Aaron, cordially. “Well, this has been fun. But I think I’ll be going now.”
He doesn’t try and stop me. Doesn’t ask for my number. Instead, as I’m walking out, I hear him say, “Guys I told you I needed the apartment tonight…”
When I get home I gently close the front door behind me, slip off my shoes, and fling myself onto the couch, like a doll someone’s decided they’re giving to Goodwill. Instinctively, I call Sarah.
“Mel?” she answers. “How’d it go?”
“Ugh, annoying,” I say, tossing an arm over my eyes, sinking into the cushions of the couch, into familiar depths of despair. “He was a drug dealer who lived with like seven other dudes.”
“He was a drug dealer? What? That’s new.”
“Yeah, like, a big one.”
“Who deals drugs any more?”
“I know, right?”
“I’m sorry, babe.”
“I just really need to talk to someone, I think.” I remove my arm from my face and sit up on the couch. “This whole failing at dating thing is starting to get to me, Sarah. I’m beginning to think there’s something wrong with me.”
“You know that’s not true.”
“Hmmpf. Well what are you doing?”
“Oh, nothing,” Sarah replies cheerily. “Me and Kevin are making brownies, getting ready to watch Cooked on Netflix, then we’re probably going to go to bed cuz we’re running a 5k in the morning, and Kevin’s parents are — ”
I hang up before she finishes, and let the phone tumble to the floor. I lay back down on the couch, close my eyes, and throw my arm back over my face, distracting myself with the whorls of red and black that the weight of my arm produces against the underside of my eyelids. Like universes exploding, contracting, dissolving. After a drowsy length of time I get up again and walk over to the fridge and dig out the left over Thai food I’d ordered the night before. Then I sit back down, turn on the TV, and let my mind go numb listening to the dissenting pixie shrill of Kim and Kourtney Kardashian discussing the various injustices they face in their inter-familial affairs, the absurdity of their lives providing a kind of narcotic comfort.
For the next hour or so I watch T.V. without really watching, the Kardashian girls’ thick lips shining like pieces of fruit, their carefully manicured eyebrows arched like the spines of terrified cats, everything progressively taking on more of an abstract presence, faces obscuring into shapes and ideas. Soon, however, the Thai food is gone, and the carton on my lap is empty, and I feel rather urgently the need to cry creep up behind my eyes. I consider how much the word desperation sounds like despair. I’m certain this is not a coincidence.
Around midnight I turn the T.V. off. I start to lift myself off the couch, but just as I begin to stand I catch my reflection staring back at me in the black T.V. screen. It’s a colorless, almost ghoulish version of myself, composed mostly of outlines but me, nevertheless, complete with the contours of my cheekbones and the bags beneath my eyes and the absurd bird’s nest of brown hair that piles atop my head. Me, unmitigated, unavoidable. I stare for some time, unsure of whether I like what I see.
After a while I try on a smile, just to see what it looks like, just to see if it still registers.
To my surprise, I still smile back.