I FELT GOOD ONCE
James said we could be friends. I asked him what type. He said “friends that make each other feel good.” I felt good with him the first time. I feel good when I’m with him, physically. But then it’s sadness and longing until I am able to push him into the recesses of my mind.
“Things are complicated.” “I’m going through a lot.” “It’s been a weird time”—he says these things and they keep me an arm’s length away, to explain his absences and why I always feel hungry.
If someone cares about you, you’ll know and things will be easy. This is the lazy advice I’m given by people who are simple or who just want me to shut the fuck up. Another man, Adam, gives me versions of this advice. I think partially so I will shut the fuck up but also because I have never told him about a smooth romantic experience, something without potholes every five feet. It’s a stupid idea, a two-dimensional application of the idiom “actions speak louder than words.” It ignores the truth that people are complicated and difficult and not always in touch with themselves. People can do horrible things from a place of love.
“You’re wrong,” Adam says plainly when I try to argue for complexity and nuance. He says that these things, like James, are not that complicated. He says that I date the same type of men, although if there is a personality pattern I don’t know what this exact “type” is. The end of these situationships are similar, but at first glance, the men seem to be different.
How would I have known that, if you pierce through hundreds of paintings, you’ll find they’ve all been painted on the same canvas? Adam is right, but only in the sense that all of these men immediately exercise an alarming amount of control and influence over my life.
I thought, maybe still do think that it wasn’t the same with James. I thought I cared for his specific presence, his person, his warmth. The others have been stand-ins—the male affection I have been deprived of my whole life. Stephen, Chris, Michael: they are all part of the same nesting doll.
* * *
I always went to James, and he always promised to come to me. “I’ll bring over a bottle of wine and we can hang out properly. I’ll come over soon.” “I want to see you, but I can’t get myself to leave Greenpoint.” Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised or feel let down. Why are we taught to expect any sweetness out of a man’s mouth to be a con?
We started seeing each other during the pandemic.The city hadn’t fully opened back up. I wasn’t quarantining anymore, but I was being incredibly careful about who I was seeing. I drank a few glasses of wine at the bar and waited for his text. He was driving back into the city from out of town.
When it was time, I got there and stood outside of his building. “I’m downstairs.” “Buzz up, I’m just getting out of the shower.” I climbed the stairs and heard a door open.
He let me in. His hair was wet and he was holding his tiny dog, Steven, in his arms as if it were his child. There was no mention of his height in his Tinder bio, but based on his photos, I got the sense that he was waif. I knew he was going to be short, but I was still surprised by his petite stature—5’1” and 120 pounds.
Once I was inside his apartment, I made pretend niceties with his dog and took off the jacket I was wearing, a thrifted oversized military jacket I bought in Miami a month after my mom died. I unrolled the magazine I had tucked into my armpit. My friend had given it to me at the bar. It was a porn magazine from the ‘70s that had an interview with Mick Jagger he wanted me to read. I put it on his counter, and he began to flip through it. He settled on a pictorial where vaginas were photographed in ways where they looked like part of the forest of landscapes.
I sat down on the blanket-covered couch. He offered me some old white wine. It was warm and disgusting. He rolled himself a joint, and we scanned through his streaming sites to find something to watch. Eventually, he put on a movie that was basically just soft porn. I stayed on the edge of the couch cushion, the inside of my face felt like hot fizz.
Talking is tiring and eventually, we gave in to the ease of TV replacing nervous conversation. The movie seemed to go on for hours. I was getting tired, bored and impatient. I gave him some girlish indication of interest, clumsily draping my leg over his knees. “Is the movie turning you on?” He asked. “Yeah.”
* * *
The sex was good, although I don’t exactly know why. My sex life is driven by insecurity and emotional turbulence. I have sex because I am depressed, because I need to be around someone who doesn’t know me, because the physical effort will momentarily distract me, because sometimes I need to not feel utterly repulsive, because I want to be near a warm body. That first time James fucked me I was surprised, like I could cum, like an orgasm wasn’t that far off. I was panting, out of breath.
I don’t finish but James does. His voice is deep and low and, when he cums, it’s a guttural moan, a vivid expelling. I’m surprised by the intensity and the volume. I stared at the headboard and wondered if his neighbors could hear, if they were used to this.
“That was so fucking intense, wow.” We lied down on the couch and he put on some horrible Hackers-type movie starring Ryan Philippe. He closed his eyes while the noise from the movie grated on my ears. The details are blurry—maybe if I had known the effect he would have on me they would have been etched in my brain, but I was unaware and now those moments feel lost.
James is more tender and kind than any man I’ve interacted with. I don’t know him that well, but I think of the cruelty of Stephen who had a secret 18 year-old girlfriend. I think of Thomas who broke up with me when I came back from my mom’s funeral. I think of Jordan, who left my body bruised and yellow. I don’t think those things exist inside James.
There are always abrupt endings to our moments of peace. “You should probably get to bed, you work so early,” he says. I understand the cue to leave, and I didn’t intend to sleepover, I’m not sure I ever have, but it’s still a new wound.
In the cab on the way home, I feel elated—like I finally understood the purely physical reason people have sex. A little high, energetic, exorcised. But inevitably my anxiety reappeared. Now that we had fucked, and like that, was he going to ghost me? Was it worth the highs if I was going to quickly be faced with my feared lows?
I didn’t see him after that for months. It could have been one or it could have been three. He left my messages unanswered. I lost track of the time because I pushed him out of my head. He didn’t want me, at least not the way I wanted him to.
The next time I saw him it was 9am. We were both awake and had the afternoon ahead of us free. But this time I was less satisfied. I didn’t feel the poppy field head-swarming effects I had the first time. In the evening, he said we should take a nap. We laid in his bed. He passed out while I sat there fidgeting.
I wanted more from him, but he held me at arm’s length. Further actually. I deleted the conversations, deleted his number, and tried to regain control over the situation, over my obsessive thoughts about someone I knew so little.
But he reached back out.
I am weak and frequently a pathetic worm, so I engage. I tell him I need him to be more communicative. He says he’s sorry, he’s been “going through a lot”—he’s depressed, in an episode. “I understand that. I’ve been that way, too. If you’d like to talk about it.” We don’t. The conversation takes a turn for my sake. He says the type of things that make me happy and give me hope that even if we’re not on the same page, we’re now in the same book.
I feel embarrassed, or, at least, stupid now. Can I really expect much from someone I fucked immediately? I think I am past these “antiquated” social constructs but even “don’t fuck on the first date” seems haphazard and sexist to me the world may still operate that way. He said we could be friends but friends don’t treat each other that way.
* * *
I can’t get rid of the space he occupies even when he disappears. I tell Adam and my therapist, “I think I’m infatuated.” Adam doesn’t think so, “you probably just don’t dislike him or you have a crush on him, I don’t think it’s anything more.” My therapist thinks that he is unwittingly the perfect conduit to amplify my insecurities, issues and trauma.
Adam and my therapist are both right, of course. I hate the idea that I’m always there for people and I don’t have it back. The times I have seen James it’s because he’s reached out, and I’ve agreed or acquiesced. He’s never seen me because I want or need it. We operate around his schedule: when he’s free, when he feels like he needs someone.
Adam says this is an obvious disregard and disrespect of my time, “that would be it for me.” But he’s done this to me, too. I have cancelled my plans for him before. If he wants to hang out, I have a hard time saying no. It’s partially because I am comfortable around him, but I would also drop things, should he be in a spot. Adam says he feels the same way.
Sometimes he acts that way. He tried to stay with me in the hospital when they found the blood clots in my lungs, even though it was the height of Covid. He showed up to pick me up the next morning even though it made him late to work. When I was away for my mom’s funeral he went into the apartment and got rid of the hospital bed she died on. But when he lets me down it’s colossal. He was only dating Gwen for a month and still, he flaked on me during one of my worst manic episodes when he had promised more. And then there’s always the lingering ghost of Kelly who he infantilizes and removes any and all blame from. He comes back for me, for our friendship. These men see some value in my body I am not fully capable of understanding.
James and I make amends, in the sense that I try to let go of all the ways I’m upset and unsatisfied. I will go see him again.
He buzzes me in and, as I’m climbing up the stairs, I hear him unlock the door and leave it slightly ajar. I come in, his hair is wet and he’s only wearing a towel. His hair is always wet, I realise. He apologises but doesn’t say anything that explains why this seems to be his perpetual condition. I think maybe he keeps his hair this way because he’s hiding that it’s thinning. When it’s wet, he might be better able to conceal it. But his hair dries and it’s long, the layers cut perfectly for his face. Silky with hints of sun and big waves throughout, his hair is beautiful. He looks beautiful.
Whenever we fuck he is in and out of the bathroom a lot. Adam is always telling me that the men I fuck are definitely using Viagara or stimulants. “There’s no way they’re fucking three times without anything.” Most of the men I fuck are well endowed; he tells me most of them have had penis enlargements. I don’t know how I’d tell, but I don’t really believe him. The way he talks about sex is bleak and sad, but with James I quickly question if he’s right. He offered me a vague explanation for the bathroom trips one time: “I have a thing about, like, fluids, it’s not you.”
As time goes on, the relationship becomes more tender and explorative. It’s nice, but it hurts me to think that this might be regular human decency, completely foreign to me when it comes from a heterosexual man. He says things while we fuck, but his voice is low and quiet. I either pretend I haven’t heard him or ask him to repeat himself. He asks me to open my mouth, he brings us face to face. We use our open mouths to exchange breath. He holds up my leg while he fucks me. He looks at my feet and hurriedly takes both of my socks off.
When we finish, he wraps me in his arms, moves his arm under my head and pulls me in close to him. He starts to drift, but I can never fall asleep. I am restless, but I try not to move. I don’t want to disturb his sleep. He stirs awake the minute I so much as glance at my phone. I feel stuck. I try to give in to him, to this type of placidity. I trail my fingernails along his arm, against his leg wondering how much longer I can do this.