I have decided not to sleep. I wanted British Andy to come upstairs last night and he wouldn’t, even after a successful third date. He dropped me off outside my place at 4 a.m. with a fierce, sloppy kiss and marched home bent against the January wind. In the full-sized bed that takes up most of my cubbyhole bedroom, I ruminate for hours on the frigid picture of Andy’s retreating peacoat. If I focus on the peacoat I get turned off completely and think, ‘what am I even doing with this guy, he wears peacoats and has a thing about color coordinated socks, we couldn’t be more different.’ It’s not that I want to sleep with him so much, it’s that he’s principled about waiting and I’m principled, if you can call it that, about diving in and making an interesting mess of things. Matt, the other guy I’m dating, is the same as I am. We’ve only been out once, but I can tell. He took me for sushi and wore these cute Cary Grant-ish wire glasses, which I didn’t see coming because his pictures are all flannel and beer and he works in construction. The muscles in his arm rippled every time he sipped his lychee cocktail. For a split second on our date I thought, ‘this guy is a diamond in the rough,’ but the whole thing was too scripted for that to be true. No one is that effortless. But Matt doesn’t annoy me, not like Andy does…After a few hours, I fall asleep in my dress.
At nine-thirty I come to, a little buzzed still, and rush out to buy the Sunday Times knowing I have only an hour, maybe two, before the hangover closes in. Now that I’m a few years out of college, hangovers have become acute and painful, but actually they’re almost a relief because when I’m that incapacitated there’s no room for anyone else—no room to think or miss. No room for choice. My hangovers allow me to be cold and finite, like the scene in Titanic when the steel doors shut out the flooding boiler room. When the ship is sinking, it’s all about survival.
But at 10:15 Andy texts: “Good morning. Would you still like to see a movie today? Her is showing at 11 a.m. on 14th Street.” Andy moved to Manhattan from London six months ago, so he doesn’t know to call “14th Street” Union Square. I uncross my legs and lay the phone by my side, frozen and quiet as if waiting for my own response. A muscle in my right leg is twitching, something that’s started to happen on mornings after I drink a lot. There is a tinny ringing sound that lives on the air and I can hear it louder now that I’ve acknowledged it, rushing in like a vampire I’ve invited.
“Sure.” I write back. “I’ll meet you there?”
I see Andy under the awning of the Union Square AMC, and immediately decide I prefer the sight of retreating peacoat to waiting-for-me peacoat. Andy’s a cute guy, a successful entrepreneur, a working class kid who’s now an Oxford grad, but he hunches over and buries his hands in this coat: for all these accomplishments, he marks himself the shyest kid on the playground. He bestows a quick kiss that doesn’t leave me wanting more, but he’s bought my ticket and when I say, “Thank you,” he says, “Of course,” while he’s looking around for the escalator and that does make me want him. I guess at bottom we’re all something. For all I’ve accomplished, I’m the girl from a single parent household—busy mommy and no daddy: treat me like an obligation, and you’re in.
Monster-sized ads for upcoming movies line the way to the theater, like rose petals. “I want to see that,” one of us says. “Man, that’s gonna be terrible.” “Does Nicholas Cage ever sleep?” And gesturing to a modest poster behind the slick-ponytailed girl taking our tickets I go, “I saw the trailer for that, it looks great.”
“We should see that when it comes out, then,” Andy says, very British with the extra “then.” The poster says Summer 2014, and it’s January. I nod okay and wonder if it’s a normal reaction when you’re tracking toward a relationship to want to fall asleep.
“Hey,” I whisper to his shoulder, “want to get some movie candy?”
“It’s just 11,” he says. He’s kept walking, so we’re almost past the concession. I say, “I love candy all the time,” right as he adds, “You can get some,” but it’s already behind us by now.
Her has already started. Joaquin Phoenix is a cog in an ornate machine, moving miserably and mechanically through his colorful, futuristic world. All I know about this movie is that at some point, he’ll fall in love with a computer.
Andy keeps hands to himself. I have a lot of experience with withdrawn passive aggressiveness, but this is not that. Andy’s just a stay-in-his-own-lane type of guy. I bet if I had gotten snacks, he wouldn’t even have nibbled. Growing up, cops and robbers was my favorite game. The best part was switching sides. At the end when we’d de-role I would say, “I was a cop, but really a robber the whole time!” This annoyed whoever I was playing with, my cousins and my neighbor usually. Someone would always say, “You can’t do that!” But it would be too late. The world to me is not cops and robbers; it’s people who say “you can’t do that” and people who don’t see why not. Andy doesn’t snack because it’s too early in the morning; he doesn’t reach for me because it’s too early in the relationship.
I don’t have a lot of time to dwell on mine and Andy’s inherent differences, because Her is incredible and soon enough I am blinking fast as butterfly’s wings not to cry. Joaquin Phoenix’s character does fall in love, and when, in heartbreak and distress, he challenges her, “You are mine or you’re not mine,” she replies: “No…I am yours and I am not yours.” I miss the next few lines of dialogue because I’m repeating this over and over in my mind. I am yours and I am not yours. I am yours and I am not yours. This feels like something Daisy Buchanan would say, and no one would take it seriously. I wish I had written it. I wish I could say it to everyone. I wish I could say it to my dad, who always says You Are Me, and it feels like I’m doomed and special at the same time. My chest is warm; I strip off my coat. I look over for the first time in 45 minutes and Andy has his on, all buttoned.
Outside the theater, we stand and say goodbye in the same spot where we said hello. Andy goes to have drinks and to “watch football with his mates” in the East Village. I have a moment of wishing I was a British guy and Andy and I were just friends and I cared about soccer and could drink the day away without judging myself. I know some girls who go to this place called Boom or Blast or something on the Upper East Side, drinking 2-for-1 Blue Moons on the tabs of handsome, smug SUNY guys—I could go there, but I’d get too wasted hating everyone and be tapped out by four. I tell Andy that I’m going to meet some people and start home.
The hangover has not landed, but I am exhausted. I think about waking up at five to workout before school, how my students will ask me about my weekend.
A text from Allie comes in: “How was it?” It’s one, so she’ll just be leaving her new girlfriend’s apartment. Everyone is having sex except for me.
“It was…ok.” I write, and then delete. Too passive aggressive. The wind is slapping my hair across my face so I turn down another avenue, deciding I will wind my way home and maybe today will be one of those days in my twenties I remember later, when I had nothing and no one to take care of.
Another text, which I expect to be Allie again, but it’s Matt: “Hey you. Want to see a movie today?” And I get an idea.
“Have you seen Her yet?” I ask.
“Want to!” he says. And then: “Union Square at 4:30?”
At home, I sleep fitfully for a couple hours. When I wake up, the Times crunches under my belly. I start to read into this and wonder if I’m sacrificing my own intellectual exploration for fruitless misadventures with undeserving men, then I decide not to think anymore. I grab a shower beer, an old trick of my ex-boyfriend’s, put on some coffee and start getting cute. I have a blue dress that’s flapper-esque, a la Midnight in Paris, and I get the feeling Matt wouldn’t mind an overdressed movie date. Actually, he’d probably prefer that. Matt dropped out of community college and moved to New Zealand for a year, and he wears some talisman necklace as evidence of this adventure. He likes accessories.
I am right. When I see Matt, who’s waiting for me to show up before he buys the tickets, he says something like: “You look amazing. How’d I get so lucky?” I try not to look like I know exactly which theater we’re going to, and walk in step with him. When we’re coming up on the concession stand, I say: “Thoughts about movie candy?” Matt opens his coat (tan, a workman’s coat, decidedly not a peacoat) and the inside pockets are filled with: Twizzlers, Reese’s and a Coke. “Done,” he says. “Do you want popcorn, too?” You’re damn right I do.
We eat, but it’s a second date so food is still sort of a prop, a means to an end, and in 30 minutes the popcorn bag and the Twizzlers are forgotten on the floor. He takes my hand into his lap and keeps it there. He says “mmm” at most of the right moments during the movie, but not at the yours not yours part, which makes my chest swell up again with a kind of euphoric defiance. I’m now feeling like I wrote this movie, and I’m not really part of the audience.
After it’s over, we’re 100 miles an hour, basically skipping down the escalator recounting all our favorite parts. I tell him mine. He says, “I don’t remember that.” I tell him when in the movie it happens, which is easy to do because I’ve now seen it twice in 10 hours. And he nods, looking at my lips. We kiss, then we go to a bar.
It’s one of those nights where I get drunk easily, because I’m willing to be, like when you look up at the sky already deciding to play the what-shape-does-the-cloud-make game and you immediately see a unicorn or a shark or something. It’s Sunday night, and I’ve been having this feeling for six months that I know how everything’s going to go and I’m ready to pretend that Matt is the curve ball that’s gonna change the game.
The bartender is a good looking older woman, and she and one of her regulars are saying what a beautiful couple we are after our third or fourth round. Matt is beautiful—muscled and sharp-jawed and he looks Greek and All-American, too, and the more I drink and look at him I think, this is it, this is. I’ve been waiting for this, probably.
Later, I will remember that the lights above the bar started to twinkle like a Christmas tree when we were paying our tabs and I didn’t think that was strange. I will remember nothing of the subway ride to Greenpoint. I’ll remember that on our way to his room we passed through a narrow hallway and he almost crashed into a bike. I find out later that he lives with a lot of people, like six guys and girls. I find out that Matt knows a lot of great obscure spots and he continues to wow me until he stops calling. This has never happened to me before, and I am devastated and numb. Valentine’s Day comes and goes and I see on Facebook that my ex-boyfriend of five years has done the same exact thing with his new girlfriend that he used to do with me. I go to a party in a slip and a fur coat. I start spending a lot of time in Queens with my two friends who are engaged, smoking cigarettes under the awning of their favorite bar while it rains and snows. I tell anyone who will listen that Queens is amazing and underrated even though I only ever go to that bar. I go out with British Andy twice and buy new dresses for each date. I promise him both times that I really like him and will not disappear again, and then in March I disappear. Allie and I work at the same school, and for Spring Break we go to Rincon in Puerto Rico and watch the surfers at sunset from the deck of a club, a two-story shack called Tamboo. I say I want to learn to surf and someone tells me that it’s the end of the season. The real waves are gone. The houses all around Tamboo are filled with so many people, ex-pats mostly, tracking sand in and out, coming and going. This feels right to me. I think, New York is too brittle and rigid, and if I live here I will be closer to my true nature. I will probably have to modify my drinking so I can be up early to surf. Or, I think, maybe I will surf just two or three days a week. Everyone will know me and know how I do things and there will be no need to compare myself in this place. I lie on one of Tamboo’s deck chairs in the dark. I am mine and not mine. I will just stash myself away. Even if someone comes along, he will not be able to collect. No, not completely.