“Don’t look at me like that,” he said. He leaned into the bar, pushing his glass of whiskey with exactly three melted ice cubes in front of him. “It’s obnoxious.”
We had been talking there for forty-five minutes, our friends hovering around the pool table a few feet over, laughing and waiting for it to free itself up. I assume that they were looking over every now and again, maybe even asking out loud, “What are they talking about?” but in the moment, I couldn’t be embarrassed. I was drunk — not too drunk, just the right amount — and he was talking to me. And for the first time in a long time, it felt like we were actually saying something to each other, instead of just awkwardly existing in the same room.
Nathan and I had met four years prior, working at the same internship for a corrupt politician who later got indicted on tax evasion charges. We didn’t go to the same college (his was more prestigious, on the better side of our city), but we saw each other frequently enough that we kept the same group of friends.
I remember the first time I saw him, at orientation for our three-month stint with the politician. He was sitting all the way at the far side of the room, his slightly-too-long, nearly ink-black hair quickly breaking free of the style he had attempted to put it in. There were about a dozen of us, all wearing our best “going to a big-kid job today” outfits, a sea of Banana Republic and sweaty palms. And yet he seemed somehow bored by it all, as if, even at 21 years old, this was a favor that he was doing for the campaign. When our boss asked, more rhetorically than anything else, if there were any questions, we were all silent until, from the corner of my eye, I saw Nathan’s hand shoot up.
“Um, I think we’re all wondering when we’re actually going to meet the man in question.”
It was magnificent, like he was annoyed by the idea of having to be here, at an internship that was, by all accounts, an extreme privilege. Our boss was speechless, and shuffled his notes while muttering something about not knowing when the Delegate was going to be available. I immediately decided that I had to go meet him, maybe learn something more about him, but so had everyone else. He was the star of that internship, the mysterious young man with the dark brown eyes and the deep olive skin, who always had something oddly captivating to say.
I remember when, one night, we were stuck in the building on a rainy evening, just the two of us. It was late, and everyone else had fallen off and gone home, but we were still there, personalizing thank-you cards for a fundraiser that had just been thrown.
“Do you like doing this?” I asked him.
“It’s fine, I guess. I don’t really like him, but I like working on the campaign. It’s nice to meet people, figure out where the money is. I don’t vote, though.”
“How could you not vote?”
“Voting is pointless. Excuse me.” He got up and walked past me, over to the liquor cabinet — our politician’s private stock — and opened up a bottle of scotch. “Want some?” he asked, gesturing towards me with an elegant cut-crystal glass.
I hated scotch, but I drank it. I was intoxicated before I even took a sip, thrilled to be in this place, with someone so unconcerned for other people’s rules that taking a prized glass off a private shelf was nothing out of the ordinary. We could be fired, and he knew that, but he didn’t care, and, as if by osmosis, suddenly neither did I. Everything about him rubbed off on me.
When I knew that we would be working on the same project, I always dressed a bit nicer, took a bit more time in the mirror. I would dab a touch of perfume behind each ear, and a bit behind the knees (a trick my mother taught me). Once, when he hugged me goodbye after an all-night fundraising marathon, he stayed just a second too long and inhaled deeply right behind my ear. “You smell nice,” he told me, “And I don’t say that about a lot of people.”
Moments like that sustained me for years.
“Do you want another drink?” He asked, looking down at his melted glass of watery whiskey.
“Yeah, sure, why not?”
I knew that another drink would push me over the edge from “pleasantly tipsy” to “sloppy,” but I didn’t want him to stop talking to me, and I didn’t know how else to achieve that. Our friends had finally gotten hold of the pool table, and we were just the two of us, standing at the corner of the bar, talking about things that had happened four years ago.
“Remember when that Senator’s daughter got pregnant?” I asked, laughing.
“I thought he was going to kill her,” he replied, in all seriousness.
“Are you kidding?”
“No, are you? Do you know how big a blow that was to him? She got pregnant three months into his re-election campaign, he was running on an entirely Christian-morals platform, and she was all of 15 years old. I was sure she was going to meet some unfortunate car accident. The Kennedys killed that girl for less, you know.”
“You think everyone is as evil as you are, Nathan. Not all politicians are sociopaths.”
“I love when you believe in things.” He smiled at me, and my legs felt like they were going to buckle beneath me.
“Do you?” I smiled, bumping his shoulder with my own.
And then, there she was, coming up behind him. His fiancée, with her sandy-blonde hair in its perfect little ponytail, and her simple black dress that somehow looked more elegant than anything I’d ever worn, even when I put a day’s worth of thought into my outfit. She put her arm around his waist and pulled up next to him.
“What are you two doing over here?” she asked, smiling at me.
“Just talking, Emily. What’s up?” He put a 20 on the bar, paying for my drink.
“We were just wondering if you guys wanted to play pool. You seem like you have… a lot to catch up on. Should I leave you guys to it?” She looked at me intensely, as if challenging me, and I smiled back at her, taking a long sip of my gin and tonic.
“We’re fine,” he said, “We’ll be over there in a bit.”
“We’re big kids, we’ve got it under control,” I said, in spite of myself, and they both looked at me, her with barely-concealed anger and him with a soft, almost evil smile.
She immediately walked over to her small cluster of equally well-dressed girlfriends, glancing back at me every time they laughed about something. Her exaggerated anger towards me had stopped being intimidating long ago, and now only served as a minor obstacle to getting to talk more with Nathan. I was devastated when they first got together three years ago, certain that there was something almost misogynist in his decision to get with a girl so tedious and superficial, but the more I got to know him, the more it made sense.
There were certain types of girls that men like Nathan marry, and they’re not all that clichéd WASP-y Martha Stewart-in-Celine-type. In fact, Emily had a more prestigious, arguably more thoughtful job than I did. She worked in publishing, and often worked on fairly edgy stuff, and though her family was the requisite amount of rich, I doubt they had anything to do with her job beyond being able to pay for her degree from Brown. She wasn’t stupid, she was just safe. And conversations with her were a game of chess, one-upping and asserting status and making sure to always know and say the right things. There was nothing human about it.
But she was beautiful, and she worshipped Nathan. She made sense. I imagined that the key to their relative success was a mixture of her obsessive interest in him, and his desire to find someone who fit every item on his checklist (and whose feminine iciness impressed the friends whose approval he wanted). I imagined a regular routine of makeup sex.
“What are you thinking about?” he asked, without looking at me.
“Nothing. Emily seems upset, maybe you should go talk to her.”
“Emily’s always upset, don’t worry about it. Where’s that guy you were seeing, Jackson?”
“We’re not dating anymore, but we weren’t really dating in the first place. I don’t know, he’s fine. I try not to anticipate a relationship that lasts more than three weeks.” I took a long sip of my drink, and felt like a bar stool suddenly wasn’t sturdy enough for me.
“What do you mean? Do you not want to date someone for longer than that?”
“Hah. I don’t know. I think I’m just one of those girls that guys date to get out of their system before they find someone they can introduce to their parents. I’m like that little bit of gross mustard-water you have to squeeze out of the tube before you can get to the actual mustard.”
“You’re not gross mustard-water.”
“Oh, yeah?” I looked at him with what I imagined to be sex eyes but which were likely, in practice, profoundly drunk eyes.
“You’re fucking terrifying, Leah. You have this really intense energy, and you always have something to say, and it feels like you don’t even know that you’re like this. I think that you don’t realize how wonderful you are. Stop — stop looking at me like that. It’s obnoxious.”
“You already said that.”
“Well, it is.” He looked down at his whiskey, as if he were counting the ice cubes.
“I’m… going to go to the bathroom.” I slid off the stool and made my way towards the back of the bar, trying with every stop not to seem as drunk as I was. I passed by our friends, and the small cluster of girls around Emily, and imagined what they must be thinking. They barely looked at me — too drunk and caught up in their own game to notice, I guess. How could they know that everything had changed? Everything felt light and dizzy, and part of it was the drink of course, but part of it was him, and I knew that.
For so long, I had imagined what it would sound like to hear Nathan say something like that to me, to hear him admit everything I’d ever suspected when we looked at each other just a little too long while making a joke. There was something so intensely sexual about the way we spoke to one another, without ever breaching a very fine line of respect and reservation. Now, it felt like anything was possible, all from the word “wonderful.” Did it mean what I needed it to mean?
Had he really called me wonderful? And, more importantly, was it one of those things that guys do, where they give you a pre-game pep rally to get you motivated to call that other guy back? Should I text Jason?
It felt like as good a time as any.
In the bathroom hallway, nearly pitch-black, save for the soft red light of the exit sign that glowed in the far corner, I fished my phone out of my purse. “Hey” I began to type, unsure if I was really texting Jason, or I was just looking for something to do that wasn’t as deeply pathetic as standing in a bathroom hallway and feeling my heart pound between my thighs at the thought of Nathan saying I was wonderful. After all, I had gone this long knowing that he was getting married to Emily, it’s not like one compliment from him was going to suddenly change all of that. There was an order to things, and I was taking my place in it, the girl who made him laugh and to whom he gave pep talks about texting the guys who were more in my league.
I leaned my forehead against the wall as I stared down at my phone, its white-blue glow obscuring everything around it. I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes, feel the acute sensation of being so needy of someone who had everything already. What could I possibly offer to him that he didn’t already have?
“Are you still waiting for the bathroom?”
I turned around; it was Nathan. In the doorway between the bar and the bathroom hallway he waited, as though he wasn’t expecting to see me, even though we both knew I told him where he was going.
“No, I was just sending a text message.”
“Are you crying?” He looked at me with that wonderfully pompous look, that bit of icy assuredness that always reminded me the hairline fracture of better than me he would always be. But this time, there was a glimmer of softness behind it, a revulsion at the idea of crying in public, tinged with the idea that it was me, the wonderful girl, doing the crying.
“I’m not crying. I was upset about something stupid, but I’m fine. I don’t need your commentary.”
“Hey, whoa. Don’t get defensive, I was just asking you if you were okay. Don’t worry, it won’t happen again.”
“I’m — I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that. I’m just not having a great time tonight, and I think I drank too much. I should probably go home.”
“Don’t do that. We just started having fun.” He took a step closer to me, expressionless.
“Did we?” I backed myself against the wall.
“I thought so. You were telling me about all the trouble you were having with that guy. Jackson?”
“You know his name.”
“Is that why you’re crying, Leah?”
“I told you, I’m not crying. And if I was, I’m certainly not crying anymore. If you want to use the bathroom, it’s all yours.”
“I’m fine.” He glanced down at my phone. “Who are you talking to?”
“What? I was just texting someone, why?”
“Are you talking to that Jason guy?”
“Why? I thought you weren’t seeing him?”
“I don’t know what we’re doing, am I not allowed to talk to him? I’m sorry, Nathan, I didn’t realize I had to get clearance from you first.”
“This isn’t funny.” His expression changed suddenly, and he took another step towards me. We were inches apart at this point, and I could barely hold his gaze. It was full of curiosity and anger, and maybe sadness.
“What isn’t funny?”
“I don’t want you to talk to him.”
“What do you mean? You’ve never even met him, he’s a perfectly nice person.”
“I don’t want you to talk to any guy. I don’t want to know that there’s someone else who gets to touch you.” He put his hand on the small of my waist, and the air disappeared from my lungs.
“I… what — what did you say?”
“Do you know what it feels like to see you again, almost every day? Do you know that when Emily and I decided to move to this city, I almost backed out, because I didn’t want to be in your group of friends again?” He paused, and drew a small breath. “Do you know that I’ve been hard since we sat down at the bar together?”
“No, I didn’t know that.” He pressed himself against me, and I felt every bit of him, like taught steel rope against the very bottom of my stomach. He was taller than me by just a few inches, but suddenly he felt immense, like his entire body was twice the size of mine. My breathing quickened, and I put my hand on the small of his back. “But I do now.”
And he kissed me. Against the wall of a dive bar bathroom hallway, under the soft red light of an exit sign, I was finally kissing Nathan after all these years. And it felt like he was trying to swallow me whole, his body as flush against mine as I’d ever felt before, his tongue insisting on mine, as though he wanted to leave no uncertainty over whether or not this was intentional. His fiancée was at the pool table with her vicious group of girlfriends, and his hand was quickly moving my dress out of the way.
“Please,” the words escaped me before I could even consider what I was saying, “Please fuck me.”
Without a word, he moved towards the door of the women’s bathroom, and pushed me through it, locking it behind him.
Part II coming soon.