The second I was old enough to know what sex was, I knew I wanted to have a one-night stand. To me, it seemed the most deviant, cool, subversive and flat-out dirty thing there was. I wanted to do it immediately. Largely because I had no idea what it entailed. I figured a one-night stand happened when two people, one of whom was a woman, went to a man's apartment for martinis and stood on the bed the entire time, trying not to spill them. Sometimes they bounced on the bed until they hit their heads on the ceiling, and that's how the girl (a) passed out or (b) knew it was time to go home. This accounted for the sound of mattress springs creaking as well as any exhaustion the next morning. It was how hair became tousled. It also accounted for a very specific image I had, one of a woman in a silk teddy seen from behind. She's facing a window and it's probably nighttime. We zoom in on her hip, where she is resting her expensively manicured hand, with a pair of red sling-back stilettos hooked on her pinkie. Like a few notes of a song stuck in my head, that's all I got. I don't know who or where this woman is, only that between all the drinking and the bed bouncing and the near-concussion getting, the heels had come off. That explained why there was a lot of morning-after tiptoeing in movies and why no one ever had sex with their shoes on -- it would puncture the mattress and twist the ankle.
It's remarkable, the logic we'll build around a misapprehension. Our brains are like bonsai trees, growing around our private versions of reality. For example, I never asked my mother where babies came from but I remember clearly the day she volunteered the information. My sister was taking a nap, my father was out back developing an elaborate pulley system for firewood using a laundry basket, and my mother called me to set the table for dinner. She sat me down in the kitchen and, under the classic caveat of "loving each other very, very much," explained that when a man and a woman hug tightly, the man plants a seed in the woman. The seed grows into a baby. Then she sent me to the pantry to get place mats.
As a direct result of this conversation, I wouldn't hug my father for two months.
Eventually, I realized that bouncing on hotel beds was only "sexual" in teenybopper movies and short stories. I now saw one-night stands for what they were: a strange penis and a strange vagina getting to know each other fairly well, very quickly. But my original fascination with the one-night stand remained intact, even if the logistics had changed. And why not? Here was one last thing I could single-handily save from being muddied by adulthood. Here was one small innocent dream from my childhood brain. A dream there was no harm in believing (provided one kept their wits and prophylactics about them). It is so rare that we get to realize as adults what we imagined ourselves doing as children. Granted, this rule is generally applied to more wholesome activities like, say, intergalactic space travel or a career in the ballet. Nevertheless, I suspect this is why I hung on to my one-night stand dreams.
But by now, time was running out. Another decade and my invitation to the reckless sex-and-drug-abuse club would get revoked. Then people would be compelled to spit words like "floozy" into my face and they would have every right. It was suggested that perhaps I was not trying hard enough. That's probably true. It's not as if I had chronic bad breath or a neck goiter or other blatant physical obstacles to overcome. A couple of guy friends generously offered to help me remedy the situation, but their candidacy was null by virtue of the fact that they'd met me. And I wasn't about to walk into a crowded sports bar and scream, "I've got twenty minutes and one expired condom. Who's in?" Adventure within reason was key. Still, it seemed that it shouldn't be this hard. Who do you have to sleep with to get laid in this town?
My first legitimate attempt came during the spring of my freshman year of college. Armed with the knowledge that oral sex had nothing to do with talking, I met a prep school-issued member of the sailing team at a keg party. It was such a small college that the simple fact that we had never seen each other before was enough to get the conversation going. After eliminating all the telltale TV signs that he was a potential rapist, I went back to his dorm room. It was below freezing that night, and I had decided to wear taupe-colored stockings beneath my jeans and flannel socks over that. This is not a look that lends itself to a sexy undraping. It's also supermodel-proof, meaning that even a supermodel would look unappetizing in taupe-colored stockings and jeans. I tried to keep my new friend busy by kissing him while he began unzipping, but nothing gets past the human hand these days. He put a massive callused paw on my synthetically silky thigh, stopped, said "huh," and excused himself to the bathroom where he vomited (presumably from alcohol). Then we both crawled into bed and he passed out, drooling on my arm as it went numb from the weight of his head.
I felt relieved that he had gotten sick. Now the social scales of mortification were even. I watched him until six a.m. at which point I felt I had put in my time. I got up and wrote him a Post-it Note, apologizing for leaving. When I realized I had crammed in all I could on one yellow square, I grabbed another and filled that one with more witty remarks about seeing him around for some delectable cafeteria cuisine. Though one consisted of just my signature, in the end I filled six Post-it Notes, which I stuck on his computer monitor over a screen saver of rotating catamarans.
Three months later, he graduated and I purchased my first pair of candy red high heels.
I realized that I had to be a little bolder if I was going to have a suitable one-night stand and that it wasn't going to be handed to me on a silver keg. My second attempt came during a semester I spent at Columbia University. Columbia seemed like a hotbed of people and options compared to my small and cloistered New England college. For one thing, it had grad schools. We didn't have grad schools. We didn't even have a football team. There were certain similarities, however, including the way the floors of the library became progressively less social as you worked your way up. The first floor was a meat market. The top was monkish. This architectural layering of academic intent seems widespread. But at Columbia, if I really wanted to get some studying done, I had to bust out of the building altogether and study in the law library.
This was a place where silence was platinum. One was glared at if one sneezed or shifted in one's seat. I could have come in naked with nothing but a grand piano strapped to my back and my only chance of eye contact would have been if I had leaned on the keys. The law library became my sanctuary, my home away from a home that included a roommate who hung full-color posters of Audrey Hepburn on her wall, recited Shakespeare, and regularly flopped down naked and soaking on my bed and said things like: "Tell me, is there anything more glorious or decadent than a shower in the middle of the day?"
I wasn't sure that there was. This was before I took up smoking, before I tried heavy drugs in any effective amount. This was a time before I bought myself flowers or clothing I didn't need. This was also a time before regular sex. Somewhere in my head a new image of the one-night stand had formed. It had all the good clean fun of bed bouncing but was now informed by the fact that I had seen a couple of penises and got the gist of what would go down on such an evening.
The Columbia law library looked like one of those very expensive stores that you can tell are expensive by the amount of space between the clothing on the racks. Just replace the shirts with people. It was also open late. I spotted a guy in one of the modern-looking chairs. I was burned out from studying but I didn't want to go home. God knows what show tune-heavy naked prancing was going on in my room. She also used to binge on Twix bars and pin the wrappers to her bulletin board. I packed up my things in case my encounter went poorly, marched over, and leaned in.
"Would you like to get out of here?"
"Why?" he asked with genuine confusion, and stared at me.
Unable to squeeze any more mileage out of my bravery, I said, "I'm sorry, I thought you were someone else," masking my shame by pretending I was a spy. The right answer to my question would have been given in code, like, "I would like to get out of here but it's raining on the plains." And then one of us would slip the other one some microfiche. I ran out of the library and never went back.
The following year it looked like my time had finally come. I was traveling around Europe with my friend Justine and I decided to give it another go. We boarded a train bound for Venice and thought it would be a good idea to sneak into one of the first-class cabins. It was an overnight train and in first class the seats slid down on both sides of the cabin, making the room a solid block of cushions. We found what we thought was an empty cabin, but opened the door to discover a nineteen-year-old Italian rap artist, sans entourage, or however you say "sans entourage" in Italian. He had a wide forehead and spiky black hair and two tongue rings. He wore a black button-down T-shirt, black jeans, and shock-white sneakers. He was also foreign and his very existence jibed nicely with my fantasies of raising my children abroad and learning how to make good coffee. Justine wrote in her journal while I chatted it up with our companion. In perfect English, he apologized profusely for his poor English. He said he wished he spoke better but "that's the way it goes." I was trying to imagine how I would say "that's the way it goes" in Italian when a train cop knocked on the door with a couple of inexplicable German shepherds, checked our tickets, and booted my friend and me back to coach.
Hours upon hours later, unable to sleep from back pain, I remembered that the aisles of the first-class cabins were lined with a kind of nubby carpeting. I grabbed my book and lay on my back in the middle of the hall with my knees up. The lights flickered overhead as the train sped through the south of France. A hip-looking couple rolled cigarettes and smoked them with their arms out the window. People passing through stepped over me. Suddenly I saw the light in the rapper's car turn on. The couple in the hall was immersed in some debate in a language I couldn't understand. I knocked on the door and went in.
"Me again," I said, sliding the door shut behind me.
We talked, he handed me headphones, and I listened to some of his rap. And then he kissed me. Which is pretty narcissistic, kissing someone while they're listening to your music. The only thing that would have made it worse was if the song was about him kissing a girl on a train. Which it very well could have been.
The doors didn't have locks on them.
"We can do everything but," he said, and again, I marveled at his grasp of American phrases.
"Don't worry about me," I replied. And then, not wanting to look like a slut but still gunning for my one-night stand, I said, "We can do whatever comes naturally."
I felt like a guy.
"No, not naturally." He ran the metal tip of his tongue around the inside edge of his teeth. "I'm Catholic."
"Really? A Catholic rapper? I've never heard of such a thing."
"That's because you're American and all Americans do is violence."
And the Catholics are such pacifists? But I knew arguing would only lead to more chatter so I accepted his Euro-slap and we did everything but. He threw out his back, I threw out my neck. It was romantic. I kept thinking: How is it that I got the one moral rapper on the planet? And: I wish the doors on this train locked. I had to keep dislodging my ankles, which persisted in slipping into the crack between the pulled-out seats. Afterward he gave me a mix tape, which I wound up leaving in a Danish hostel two weeks later.
A few years ago, after I had long since given up the one-night stand ghost, I accompanied a girlfriend to an AA party. I had a cranberry juice and seltzer and I met James. Granted, he was vouched for, meaning that if he hacked me up to pieces and stored me in Ziploc bags, we had mutual friends and somehow that meant he would never get away with it. Still, he was new to me. He suggested going to my apartment but I knew I had (a) a roommate and (b) my childhood blankey in plain sight. Plus, bringing him back to my bed made me feel like a prostitute whereas going to his place made me feel like a call girl. The next morning I woke to realize that not only had he put an extra blanket over me while I slept, and he'd ordered in breakfast, but he lived two apartment buildings down from me. In fact, our apartments faced out to the same courtyard and if we wanted to communicate through tin cans and string, we could have. Not only were we going to see each other again, the whole scenario stank of frequency. He was nice and clever and a generally pleasant human being who hadn't done a single reckless thing since the day he thought he could will objects to disappear and wrapped his brother's car around a tree.
I hadn't factored that into the equation, James being a good person. I slouched in his kitchen chair and sighed. He poured the orange juice and coffee. There was nothing to do but eat my home fries and ask him what he did for a living. And that was the beginning of a legitimately beautiful friendship. The other day we were in SoHo, shopping for sneakers for him.
"You've ruined me, you know?"
"You were supposed to be my one-night stand. Everyone should have one and now look what you've done. I'm going to have to go out into the world and sleep with someone else. You've turned me into a strumpet."
"Who said everyone should have a one-night stand?"
I stopped walking. Were all my attempts at achieving sexual normalcy for naught? It was as if he had casually mentioned the nonexistence of the tooth fairy to a kid who's all gums. For most of the forthcoming/drunk women I've ever encountered, one-night stands happen in between relationships, an attempt at recharging any romantic energy or just reassuring yourself that you're hot enough for strangers to want to touch their genitalia to yours.
But I respected them. They were never filler for me. I treated them like a complete experience and what had they done but elude me? A one-night stand that plays hard to get. Fascinating.
"Maybe you're just not a one-night kind of girl," added James. "Don't look at me like that -- in some cultures that's a compliment.'
How was it possible that despite twenty-odd years of evidence to the contrary, they still struck me as sleek and glamorous and sometimes more worthwhile than a full-blown relationship? Then I remembered something I had seen when I started this ridiculous journey. I realized that if I could pan out from that picture I have -- the one of the woman with the negligee and the red heels -- I'd probably find her at a boyfriend's house. Maybe she's about to break up with him. Maybe he's about to tell her about the affair. Maybe this is her wedding night. Maybe this is what she wears to remove hair balls from the shower drain. As long as I stayed zoomed in, I'd never know. I bent down and took my shoes off. I wanted to walk barefoot in the dewy grass with them swinging in my hand. Except we weren't on grass. We were on Prince Street. I made it half a block before James stopped me.
"Enough," he said, "you're going to give yourself tetanus."
"Alright." I leaned on his shoulder with one hand while I put my shoes back on with the other. "But you should try it sometime. It's not as bad as you'd think."