I like the hot months in New York. And while East Coast companions have rolled their eyes—or simply looked at me with that “Really? Really?” look—when I’ve told them I’m “summering” here, for the past few years that’s what I’ve done. Inevitably too broke or shiftless to commit to a full year of rent, but forever prey to the charms of the city, I’ve sublet a series of sweltering Brooklyn apartments as a seasonal compromise. This is how, in the final year of my twenties, I ended up in a fifth-floor walk-up full of radical lesbian and feminist art.
The sublet, in Williamsburg, was a step up from the previous year’s place, which came with typed instructions on how to keep the cat from eating the steel wool a former tenant had used to stuff the cracks between walls and floors. I would miss that building’s landlords, who were described in the document as “angry ghosts.” They showed up in the middle of the night to tinker with the boiler in the basement, or to feed the feral cats in the alley outside my window. In my new place I could contemplate other things, like the flying cockroaches in the stairwell, or the artful reprints of bushy vaginas affixed to the refrigerator.
It was a fine base camp for my yearly campaign of cosmopolitan dissipation.
It was a fine base camp for my yearly campaign of cosmopolitan dissipation. Unfortunately, new technology threatened to disturb my peace at every turn. This was the year my idle lifestyle fell prey to a handful of smartphone apps for gay men on the prowl.
“Do you think you could ever really date someone you met through a smartphone app?” I asked my friend Emma. “Whenever someone asked where you met, you would have to say, ‘We met through Scruff,’ or ‘Growlr.’ Oh, God.”
“You don’t have to say that,” she said. “You just make something up.”
“That’s true,” I said. “But you would know.”
Committed by now to doing one thing and saying another, I set aside my reservations to meet David, a man my age I had been texting with through Grindr.
When I arrived for our date, he was already sitting at the bar, precious craft cocktail in hand. A black woven fedora, the kind I saw everywhere that summer, covered his head. He also wore a soft-looking, pinkish-red collared shirt, and I began our date by resisting the impulse to touch it.
David only met my eye occasionally. Instead, he looked at his drink or his smartphone, and asked me what I was doing in Williamsburg. When I told him, he insinuated that my spending most of the day reading Henry James didn’t constitute work.
“You think it isn’t important for me to read books, when I’m trying to learn how to write one?” I argued loudly, embarrassing myself.
“You’re at about a nine right now,” he said. “Bring it down to a five.”
“You think that’s a nine?” I asked, laughing, and went on defending my shiftlessness. I quickly tired of the sound of my own voice, though, and started interrogating him about his more legitimate work life. He had been in marketing for a decade, he said, and now handled campaigns for a number of different spirits.
“Spirits?” I said. “What spirits?”
“Spirits?” I said. “What spirits?”
“Alcoholic spirits,” said David. “You see, spirits are all about aspirations.”
We began, as we sipped our way through another cocktail each—cocktails made with elderflower liqueur, top-shelf tequilas, I think one of them contained gunpowder somehow—to parse the aspirations associated with different spirits, the ways in which drinkers revealed their fantasies of upward mobility by their brand loyalty.
“Tanqueray is ghetto fabulous,” said David. “Grey Goose, on the other hand, is pure, clean—the country club. Most of the times I’ve gotten really wild, it’s been while I was drinking Jack Daniels.”
“Have some Jack Daniels,” I said.
Everything ever said about alcohol being true, my feelings of resistance to David began to burn up in the heat of an obvious, aggravating mutual attraction. This kept us arguing until three hours had passed and we’d downed six fancy cocktails each.
“Damn, you can really drink,” said David.
I’m Russian, Irish and Welsh,” I said.
Flush with aspirations, awash with romance, our conversation turned to the most romantic subject of all: travel. David had travel plans spanning four years; he wanted to see Australia, Brazil, Hawaii, Tokyo and Eastern Europe. Privately, I thought that these plans must coincide with the aspirations associated with his preferred brands of liquor. But how? Then, in the spirit of romantic travel, one of us suggested leaving the bar for a stroll. David was standing by then, and when a young woman tried to take the stool he had been sitting on, he stopped her. Once she had walked out of earshot, he looked affronted and casually called the woman a bitch. An overreaction, I thought. I recalled the décor in my sublet. What would happen if I brought David home with me? All those pictures of vaginas. All those bitches.
“You’re at about a nine right now,” I said. “Bring it down to a five.”
Outside, the night was mild and cool. David suggested we stroll to the Northside Piers. We stopped to kiss along the way, half-joking about what we would do if a pack of homophobes saw us and decided to beat us senseless. “I would run away and call 911 while you fought them,” I offered.
“I could see that,” he said.
We sat down together on a bench, on a dark stretch of pier, admiring the city lit up across the water. I wrapped my arm around his shoulder. He was asleep, actually asleep, within minutes. I took off his fedora and rested my chin on his balding head. In the distance, a train snaked lazily along its track.
“Can I say something?” he said. Then he said the something he had asked permission to say.
David stirred. “Can I say something?” he said. Then he said the something he had asked permission to say: “This feels right.”
I rubbed his shoulder, buying myself time. Heart-warmed, I nevertheless knew at that moment that any possible serious relationship between us was doomed. Almost nothing, aside from perhaps sleep, couch-bound inertia and sometimes reading, ever felt right to me. Perhaps there are two kinds of people: those for whom things feel right and those for whom they never will. But on a first date, you just can’t say, “This feels neither right nor wrong.” I felt then that I would be alone for all my life—cosmically, fundamentally alone. I rubbed his shoulder again, this time with more affection—the terrified kind.
With our respective feelings of rightness and of cosmic aloneness, we strolled away from the piers, toward Bedford Avenue. I would invite David back to my sublet, to spend the night with me and all the radical feminist and lesbian décor. On the way, I stopped outside a large condominium, along which stood a wall of bulging garbage bags—more garbage than I had ever seen in one place, outside of a landfill. I took his hand in mine, pretending garbage was romantic.
“Where does all this garbage come from?” I said dreamily, staring at the black wall.
David gave me a baffled look. “What do you mean, ‘Where does all this garbage come from’? The garbage comes from the garbage. Where the hell do you think it comes from?”
Shortly after our first date, David left for a long weekend in Miami. During this time I imagined he was using one of the gay cruising apps, or else his simple and winning feeling of rightness, to lure other men into bed with him. The idea didn’t bother me; he knew I would be leaving New York soon, and so neither of us seemed to entertain any illusions about the longevity of our relationship. (Aside, that is, from the illusion of not entertaining any illusions—an illusion that afflicts us all.)
In any case, David and I planned to see each other again when he returned. “This time,” I thought, “we’ll really and fully consummate our summer fling. We’ll go to bed together in a direct and uncomplicated way, the way that Grindr intended. Enough of all this excavating, enough of the impossibility of ever fully understanding oneself or anyone else. Let’s fuck!”
Within 24 hours of having this thought, I began to feel more lethargic than usual. I beat a hasty retreat to my sublet, where I shivered and sweated, hit by some heavy summer bug. I downed a capful of generic-brand, semi-hallucinogenic orange syrup. What aspirations did this spirit reveal?
I sent David a text message to let him know I wasn’t feeling well and that we should probably call off our date.
“Need anything?” David wrote back. “Soup? Drugs?”
I responded to David, told him yes, I would like soup and drugs.
Hours later, when he arrived, he found me staring at a pyramidal shelf in the corner that supported a garden of potted succulents. In one hand, he held a white plastic shopping bag containing the soup and more cold syrup; in the other, a large sports drink.
“How sick do I seem to you?” I asked.
David felt my forehead and, after asking if I was always such a baby when sick, brought a bowl of ice water and a washcloth from the kitchen. He dipped the cloth in the water, then pressed this to my forehead and rubbed my shoulder. Soon I fell silent and closed my eyes, drifting off while he played a game on his phone.
He must have set this game aside at some point to peruse the lesbian art monographs on the coffee table, because when I woke up, he was asking me, with a mix of glee and horror, “Oh, my God, is this Betty and Wilma?”
“Is what Betty and Wilma?” I mumbled. David held up a thin book I had noticed several times in passing, the cover a reproduced painting of two women locked in an aggressive sexual pose. One muscular woman, a redhead with black eyes, gritted her teeth angrily and grasped the second woman from behind. This other, dark-haired woman bent down and looked over her shoulder with an expression of almost grief-stricken ecstasy.
Somehow, in all of my days in the sublet, during almost every one of which I had looked upon and appreciated this image of aggressive lesbian sex, I’d never noticed that these two women were Betty and Wilma from The Flintstones.
“What do you mean you didn’t notice?” asked David, sounding almost mad. “Every day, you have been walking by a picture of Wilma Flintstone banging Betty Rubble.”
I had no satisfying explanation. He had said, horribly, the word “banging.” Soon, lulled by the white noise of the fan, I drifted back into medicated sleep.
When I next woke, the sun had set. The enchanted, noisy Brooklyn night had appeared, as it always does, as if from nowhere. David had gotten up from the couch, I assumed because it was time for him to go. He had a long commute home before returning to work the next day—returning to more campaigns, more bottled aspiration, more spirits. But after rummaging around in the kitchen, he came back with a small capful of purple syrup and a glass of water.
“Drink this,” he said. He helped me up. It seemed so strange that this man, who I would likely see maybe one more time in my life, and who I’d probably lose touch with after leaving New York for another year, bothered to lavish me with such care. He would probably be back on his smartphone, back on that grid of abs and torsos, the day after I left. Then he said, in a gruff, impatient way, with what I thought to be residual anger at my not having recognized Betty and Wilma, “Let’s go to bed.” He led me away from the monograph, away from the empty soup container and the empty sports drink bottle, both now garbage—so this was where it came from—and into the bedroom.
“And you’d better not make me sick,” he added, to which I, once again, could think of no easy reply.