The first words he spoke to me were, “I’m going to kiss you, and you’re going to walk back into that room like nothing happened.”
We met in a kitchen on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and with a crowd full of people just feet away in the living room, he put his hands on my hips and drew me in for a kiss I couldn’t escape. I stood speechless as he sauntered back to the party, not even glancing over his shoulder. It was never a question in his mind that I was going home with him that night. We sat around a coffee table, avoiding eye contact, counting down the minutes until he would put his hand on the small of my back, ushering me into a cab. Thirteen blocks felt like an eternity, with every halting red light punctuating my growing anticipation. The kiss I found so enticing just minutes before was eclipsed entirely by what I would discover in the taxi and over the next 10 months. I had never felt so desired in my life; my body hummed to the pitch of his lips, the tenor of his touch. And I discovered just how far I would go and how much I would sacrifice in order to feel it again.
It was a kind of intimacy I had never experienced, confusing and addictive. After our first night together, I searched for my clothes on his messy bedroom floor. Still somewhat of a newcomer to the one-night stand, I assumed the faster I left, the better. I’d certainly had a few, but to this point, most of my romantic history was composed of a slew of boyfriends, some serious, others not. Rarely did I find myself feeling so exposed to someone I had never spoken to until just hours before. Fumbling in the half-lit room, I felt his hand gently grab mine, pulling me back to bed, and I melted into the warmth of his arms as he smiled and said, “Please stay.” He spoke with humor and charm about everything from his family to his hand-made mask collection, and I drank in every word. He was memorizing the curves of my body while I memorized shared favorite TV shows and restaurants. Wary of coming on too strong, I crept out without so much as a “see you later.” That night, the screen of my phone flashed with a string of numbers I didn’t recognize. It was him. He was exactly where I’d left him not long ago, and he wanted me ba...
It wasn’t long before I learned his generosity didn’t extend far past the bedroom. An aspiring actor and comic, he was constantly performing. I was an audience member caught in a never-ending rehearsal. What at first seemed a captivating glimpse into his mysterious magnetism grew stale as I realized I had no part in it. Finally, after six months of sleeping together, he asked me what I did for a living.
Stung by an absence of any interest in my life, I would make jokes at his expense, belittle his career. If he stood me up, I would reschedule for a day that I’d be out of town. I felt myself moving around pieces in a game where I didn’t know if I was the prize or a pawn. After I saw him sending texts to another woman while we were in bed, I swore I would stop playing.
“But are you having fun? It doesn’t really matter if it’s still a good time,” my friends offered. Given the chance, I would rhapsodize about the incredible sex. I told stories over brunch that made people drool before the brioche French toast was even served. As a serial monogamist, I was in uncharted territory. I knew my fascination was one-sided, so I hid, asserting to them and to him that he meant nothing to me, just a great set of abs. I left dates with other men early to climb into his bed. Sometimes we’d spend three nights in a row together, other times weeks would go by with no word. But he could erase those weeks of neglect with one evening of being attentive, earnest and present.
During this time, my father became suddenly and seriously ill. Challenging my non-boyfriend to see me as a person, I blurted out, “My dad is sick and the doctors think he’s dying.” I expected him to be uncomfortable. Instead, he listened intently, wrapped his arms around me and held me close all night. In that instant of honesty, raw with fear and longing, I began to hope.
And so we tried to convince ourselves we could date with some degree of sincerity. At lunch one Sunday I asked him about a wide yellowing bruise underneath his bicep. “Boxing,” he replied, as we sipped our sangria, conversation floundering. Back at his apartment, with lips parted in a smirk, he asked, “Full disclosure?” pointing to his arm, “Sex injury.”
I rolled my eyes at him, my best impression of someone completely unfazed. But it took just 20 minutes before my mouth went after his arm, kissing and biting just a little too hard. A sea of new bruises began to swell. “I’m not staring at any sex injuries that weren’t caused by me.” His eyes lit up as he unbuttoned my jeans.
It was 2 o’clock in the afternoon as I lay in the curve of his arm, slightly damp, still naked. “Do you know anything about France?” he asked. I nodded. With renewed energy, he shot out of bed and rifled through the pockets of his shorts. I raised an eyebrow as he returned to my bed with a twice-folded piece of newspaper. “Number 16 across. It’s a long French name.” He read the clue while I counted fifteen blank white squares. “Charles de Gaulle,” I announced, my assuredness masking the uncertainty of what was at best an informed guess. He slowly measured out each letter to a space.
One word gave way to the next, graphite flint striking sparks in his mind until all the white was grey. An inconsequential accessory, I hung over his arm like the bag you fling onto a couch after a long day. “I couldn’t have gotten it without Charles de Gaulle, though,” he conceded. “You gave me that.” I thought of that, and everything else I’d given him. Attention, time, misplaced devotion. These moments of casual conversation felt the most disingenuous, like we were playing house in a functioning relationship.
To everyone outside looking in, I was naive, certainly, but still the embodiment of the empowered woman, capable of using a man for sex just as deliberately as he was using me. A generation of young women has been led to believe that casual sex can turn into a meaningful relationship. That Cinderella can slip off more than a slipper on the first date and Prince Charming won’t suffer from that unmistakable wanderlust that sends men to the next bar, to the next girl. But when sex is just a text message away, there is an entire city at your fingertips. An entire city of women wondering if this time she’ll be captivating enough to keep him interested. Why was it so easy for him to treat Manhattan like a bottomless buffet of partners, but so gut-wrenchingly confusing for me? Was I using him for sex, or was I using sex as bait? Creating the tableau of what I thought he wanted, I became a better actor than he, masking my feelings for him with racy lingerie and witty quips. I had no idea if it was just the sex that kept me coming back, or the allure of a real and fleeting connection between us, more fragile than gossamer, more fiction than fact.
It ended between us just as one might suspect it would. Too many gin and tonics made the bar soft with haze and loosened the sway of my hips. The scene was all too familiar as I found my back up against a wall with his legs slowly parting mine. In one moment his lips were on me, the next I was on a street corner screaming, my cheeks blackened by mascara. Though the details of that night are admittedly blurred, there are certain moments permanently etched in my memory. I remember most distinctly the words: “I know it might sting a little, but I met someone else.” I inhaled sharply, like I had taken a boxing glove to the stomach. He had probably wanted one last fling, only to be halted by a sudden and inexplicable appearance of a conscience. There were so many signs along the way that led me to this moment – the self-centered soliloquies, the disappearing acts, the chorus of other women – but I blinded myself to them all. I’d put up with his disrespect and lied to other men all on account of a guy who probably knew from the first moment he could never be serious with me.
A few weeks later I saw that sun-worn, creased page of newsprint collecting dust on my window ledge. The whole relationship was a puzzle, a game with rules I never mastered, though I tried. I wouldn’t thank him for much, but he taught me something about myself I always suspected but didn’t know for sure. When I sleep with a man, there is nothing casual about it. The only game I played was trying to convince myself that I didn’t care for him deeply. I ultimately lost this round, but I breathed a sigh of relief, because for the first time in months, though I felt humbled, I felt like myself.