That fall, the rats were out. Everywhere you went people were talking about them. It was like they were taking over. I was repulsed, of course, but I also felt jealous of how confidently they moved through the world. They danced on the subway tracks like death wasn’t coming and I thought to myself, I wish I could do that. One night I went out to dinner with my friend Nate, and he told me that on his way to the restaurant a rat had run over his foot. It was so big, he said, I thought it was a cat.
A few nights later I was at a party and, predictably, someone brought up the rats. That fall, when no one had anything else to say, someone brought up the weather, what they were watching on TV, or the rats. A tall guy with glasses I didn’t know was talking about finding a dead rat outside his apartment. It was huge, he said, you wouldn’t believe the size of this thing. I waited patiently for him to stop talking because I had a story of my own. When he did, I said, A few days ago, a rat ran over my foot. It was so big, I said, I thought it was a cat.
That fall I had stopped believing I was a person, at least in the classic sense of what it meant to be one. There was, first and foremost, the problem of my personality, the problem being that I did not seem to have one. Or, if I did have one, that I had the wrong one. In order to change, I told stories about myself that I heard other people tell about their lives. I would tell them so often that eventually, they felt like the truth. I borrowed everything I believed from everyone else. I tried to have opinions of my own but nothing stuck. Instead, anytime someone said Let that sink, I did. I let other people’s opinions drift down into the soft pink center of my brain. The leaves were just beginning to turn from green to brown, and my defining characteristic was that I would always let anyone change my mind.
A few months before I’d started working at a cafe in Manhattan, serving strong coffee to women who looked good for their age. Some of them yelled at me if their coffee was too hot so I got in the habit of sticking my finger into their cups before handing them back, to make sure the coffee didn’t burn their tongues. I did this until a regular named Glennis saw me do it and said to my manager, That girl stuck her finger in my coffee. My manager was a man named Roger who was both younger and shorter than me. I figured these were the reasons that Roger liked to punish me, because he felt threatened by both my age and stature. After Glennis told Roger about my finger in her coffee, he took me back into his office and said, What were you thinking. I said, What Glennis doesn’t understand is that I’m doing her a favor. I said, What I’m doing here is not a service that every barista is willing to provide. I said, I think we should be asking ourselves, in fact, what it was that Glennis was thinking. After that, I wasn’t allowed to make drinks anymore, just run the cash register and clean. I told customers their totals and spent a lot of time mopping. I was thirty. No one tipped.
In the back of the coffee shop there was a kitchen where they made breakfast food, stale bagels and runny breakfast burritos. There was always a pot of poached eggs on the stove, and I hated the way they smelled. If I had to go back into the kitchen to get something I held my nose with two fingers. Every time I did this the cook stopped what he was doing and stared at me. On one particularly bad morning I went back to the kitchen and my natural human gag reflex responded. I’m sorry, I said to the chef, it’s not personal. They’re my eggs, he said. It’s always personal.
I worked nights and weekends with Jason, a twenty-two-year-old theater major. He told me he loved going to Renaissance fairs and when I said, You must be joking, he said, I don’t joke about the Renaissance. He would sing at the customers, repeat their orders back to them like it was an audition. When work was slow, I’d think about killing him. I’d slice his throat with the bread knife or shove his head into the coffee grinder. Every night when I mopped the floor, I imagined I was mopping up his blood, too.
It was my job to gather all the baked goods that no one had bought that day and put them in big black trash bags and leave them on the sidewalk outside. One night I asked Roger if it would be better to take them to a shelter and he said, Sure, you can if you want to. I don’t want to, I said, I just thought someone else probably should.
At night, before closing, we couldn’t leave until the last customer was gone. We would give them ten and five-minute warnings. We had to keep reminding them we were closing but most of the customers wouldn’t move so then we had to clean around them. You could tell the customers who wouldn’t leave thought they were better than us. When they lifted their feet so I could mop underneath them I realized they were right, they were better than me. While I mopped, I thought about all the people I had made fun of with five-year plans. Now five years had passed and I was the one mopping the floor.
* * *
I lived in a windowless room in Brooklyn with a roommate named Irene. Irene was a friend of a friend who had let me move into her apartment after her and her boyfriend broke up over their “artistic differences.” Her words, not mine. They had been using the windowless room that was now my bedroom as a studio for their “work,” which as far as I could tell was just cutting up letters and stringing them together to make phrases that real artists had actually already made popular. The Jenny Holzer quotes sell really well, she told me the day I moved in. Letters that spelled out “Men will not protect you” hung above the sink. When she saw me staring, she said, Urban Outfitters bought that one. Oh, I said, That’s nice. From that point on I refused to ask anything further about both the art and the artistic differences.
I had told Irene I would only be there for a few weeks, but I had nowhere else to go and a few weeks had turned into a few months. She said she didn’t mind. You’re easy, she said. No one had ever called me easy before in my entire life. I typed “Irene called you easy” in my phone, in a note I had titled “Things to remember.” I didn’t think it was true, but it felt good to go along with it anyway. I imagined being an easy person. It felt nice. I imagined this until Irene asked me if I took her box cutter and then I would have to remember that I wasn’t an easy person at all. I said, Irene, why would I take your box cutter, and she would say Well, I can’t find it. And I would say Why does that mean I took it and she would say Can you just help me look for it. Her tone of voice would scare me, I’d get paranoid that Irene would kick me out if she discovered I wasn’t easy, so then I’d say something like Of course Irene, what else can I help you with?
And then I felt like her waitress.
To avoid Irene, I mostly stayed in my bedroom, even though the only three things in there were my mattress and two cardboard boxes. One box had somehow gotten wet on the bottom and was starting to smell, but it seemed easier to tolerate the smell than do anything about it. Also, I sort of enjoyed watching the mold spread along on the bottom. It seemed to symbolize growth, progress. Some days after work I would lay on my mattress and listen to Irene cutting up letters and imagine that one day, I would have a room with a window. A window I could imagine.
One day I asked Irene if she thought we were old to have roommates. I’m twenty-three, she said. So, no.
I called my sister and said, I’m so old. I’m so old, I said, and I’m living with a child. You’re not old, she said, not yet. Not you, she said, you’re not old, you’re still so young. She didn’t understand that I didn’t mean I was old in the general sense but that I felt old for what my life looked like. What I meant was that I had imagined being thirty a lot and what I imagined was not even close to what I was. But I kept imagining those things I thought I’d have at thirty, but now I imagined them at forty. I was scared I would keep going this way until the things I imagined were no longer possible, until the things I imagined never happened because I had died.
I could already feel my insides growing stale. I knew this staleness was just one of the ways my body was preparing itself for death. It reminded me of an ethics class I took in college where the professor was very young and attractive. He would get really worked up when he talked about the intelligence of farm animals. Animal rights are going to be the next big political movement in America, he said, I’m sure of it. In fact, he said, you won’t be able to imagine eating meat in five years. I saw him years later at an event my college put on for alumni. I stood in line behind him at the buffet and there was all this meat on his plate. When I saw that I thought, There’s a man whose insides are as stale as can be.
I had moved to New York eight years ago, telling everyone I was going to be an artist. In college, I had been a studio art major, and back then, most of the feedback I had gotten was about my unrealized potential. One instructor said that he appreciated my talent, but that my work would suffer because I lacked discipline. That didn’t change how disciplined I was, it just made me hate him. Like all men I hated, I also craved his validation; when I graduated, I told him about my plan, to move to New York, to imply that I was serious. To paint? He said, But you won’t paint. Once you get there, he said, you won’t paint. What is he, I said to my friends, a fucking oracle?
But he was right. I didn’t paint. Instead of painting, I took all of my potential, the full weight of it, and used it to accelerate my downward decline.
* * *
After I’d been working at the coffee shop for a few weeks, Jason asked me what I did. Jason, I said, we work together. You know what I do, I run the cash register. I thought he was mocking me, because he had overheard Roger tell me I couldn’t call myself a barista. Baristas make lattes, Roger had said, staring up at me. And you don’t make lattes.
No, Jason said, I mean outside of here. For some reason he used his fingers to make air quotes when he said the word “here.” Jason, I said, “here” is a very real place. I said, Jason, tell me you realize that. He just laughed when I said this, which was so annoying to me that I decided Jason’s conception of reality was not my problem. Don’t avoid the question, he said. What do you do?
On the way to the cafe that morning I had been listening to a podcast where a woman was talking about how important it was to tell other people you were an artist, no matter how legitimate you felt. Legitimize yourself, she said. Okay? Okay, I said, even though she couldn’t hear me. Out loud I said, I’m legitimate. I even stared at my reflection in the window of a Dunkin’ Donuts as I said it. But even as I said it, I knew, and not even that deep down, that I still wanted someone else to legitimize me too.
So even though I had stopped painting, I told Jason I was an artist. I’m an artist, I said, I paint. I was actually feeling pretty legitimate until he started asking me what I painted and then I had to start lying, because the answer was “nothing” and I wasn’t going to tell Jason that.
I spoke of shapes and abstractions, using words I’d learned in school that I hoped would just confuse him enough to obscure what I was talking about, so he wouldn’t be able to ask any follow up questions. Then after I spoke there was this little silence where I knew Jason wanted me to ask about what he did. Because I knew that this was what he wanted, I refused to give it to him. That refusal was the most powerful I had felt in weeks.
On the same podcast, the host had said that to be an artist, you had to really want it. This worried me, because I had a long list of things I wanted, but painting wasn’t always on the list. I worried that if I really wanted it, wouldn’t I be painting all the time? And if painting wasn’t on the list, what was I doing? What did I want instead? What, in other words, was my life?
To avoid answering these questions, I didn’t let myself believe that I had stopped painting. I told myself that even though I wasn’t painting at the moment, I was letting my work percolate inside my brain. I told myself that after the appropriate amount of brain percolation, I would paint again. And while my brain percolated, my brushes sat, stiff and untouched, next to blank canvases that taunted me.
* * *
In late November, I called my sister as I made my way home. She was the fourth person I spoke to that day, after Roger, Jason, and one customer who asked me why we didn’t have soy milk. Nut shortage, I had said, but I was just guessing and she knew it. My sister was younger than me, by almost five years, which had felt like a lot when we were young, but now barely felt like anything at all. Even though I was the older sister, she never asked me for advice, and I never felt protective of her, there was no need, she was always very good at protecting herself. She had a good job and a steady boyfriend and still, despite these things, she was one of the only people in the world that I liked.
How was work, she said, and I said Oh, the same. I mopped. I told her about how Roger had asked me to come into his office so he could reprimand me for not wearing a hairnet when handling the pastries. I told her that when I tried on the hairnet he provided, it had ripped and Roger had said he would place an order for some extra-large hair nets. I had said Because of my big brain and he said No, because of your big head.
I told my sister to wait one moment, and I took my face away from the phone. It was cold outside but the side of my face was warm and slick with sweat from where I had the phone pressed up against it. I went to wipe it off and I saw that I’d been talking for twenty-three minutes straight, and I hadn’t asked my sister a single question. I started to worry not that I was actually selfish, but that my sister would think I was selfish. I put the phone back to my face. Enough about me, I said. How are you?
Oh, she said, we’re fine. We bought new curtains for the apartment yesterday.
My sister did this a lot, referred to herself and her boyfriend as “we.” When this happened, I would think inside my head “I love my sister” exactly three times. This helped me to forgive her for saying stupid things.
Oh, I said. That’s nice. Curtains are good. Yeah, she said. When you have a window, you’ll see what I mean. I didn’t respond. Instead, I thought “I love my sister, I love my sister, I love my sister,” but she’d said such a stupid thing it didn’t really help me forgive her. Yeah, I said, I think I have to get going.
We talked every single day. Even when she talked about curtains and the window I didn’t have, I kept calling. I needed these short conversations with her because I needed to see my life reflected back on someone else to know that I was real. My days were always the same but I told her about them in a way that made them seem different. Sometimes I would stand by the register at the coffee shop and stare at the customers, imagining how I would describe them later to make her laugh.
I lied all the time, but never to her. She knew I wasn’t painting. When I complained, she would tell me how talented I was. I didn’t believe her but it still felt good to hear someone say that to me. Sometimes I would ask her to say it again. Or I would say things like, How talented? Very, do you think? And she would say, Yes very. Unfortunately, my sister didn’t know anything about painting or art at all, so I couldn’t necessarily trust her opinion. In the apartment she shared with her boyfriend, there wasn’t any art, just a framed movie poster of American History X that her boyfriend had hung above their bed. One time when we were FaceTiming, I saw the poster and I said Are you aware you’re dating a sociopath? She said, I have told you we’re not just dating. We’re life partners. To fill the silence, I said Okay. When she still didn’t say anything, I said, I’m joking, obviously.
I was not joking. But the point was, she knew nothing about art, so I shouldn’t have trusted her when she told me I was good. But because I had decided to trust people who said things I liked, when she said Very talented, I said Thank you, and I didn’t say anything else.
I took the subway into Manhattan one Wednesday a month to see a psychiatrist I couldn’t afford. Dr. Brewer was a thin white man in his seventies who wore bowties and sat with his legs crossed at the ankles. When he sat like that, he reminded me of my dad. I knew he had grown up in Texas because he said so, and that his white hair had originally been red because there was a picture of him in a graduation gown from years ago on the wall behind where he sat. Everything else about him was a mystery.
I had found Dr. Brewer online, the same day my last psychiatrist had sent me an email saying, I think we should discuss what appears to be your substance abuse. After I deleted that email, I googled “psychiatrist near me.” I clicked through five pages of results until I found Dr. Brewer’s number and called his office. He said he was accepting new patients, and that he charged $450 for each session. Oh, I said, I don’t know if I can afford that. Well, Dr. Brewer say, There’s no better investment to make than in one’s self. Well, I said, that’s true. I do, I said, have a credit card. I scheduled an appointment for the next week.
Normally, I knew what to expect with psychiatrists. I had been seeing them for years. I knew what words to use to describe what felt wrong, even if they didn’t always feel true. I used words like anxiety and depression, when what I really felt was an emptiness so deep I was scared to name it. But I had come to realize that the psychiatrist’s room was a place where exactitude was appreciated, diagnostic codes being what they were. So, I described myself in terms we both knew and I walked away with pills that were supposed to help, even though I wasn’t sure they ever did.
But Dr. Brewer wasn’t like all the other psychiatrists I had met. The first day I met him, I walked into his office prepared to give my spiel, to tell him my diagnoses and what pills I needed. But instead of asking me why I was there, he asked me what I knew about mallard ducks.
What do you know about mallard ducks? He said, and I said, Nothing. I said, I don’t know anything about them. You know, he said, mallard ducks have a notorious habit of raping their females. That’s sad, I said, but I didn’t believe him. As if he could sense my doubt he said, I’ve seen it happen. Okay, I said. In fact, he said, I saw it on my way to the office this morning. I was walking through the park and I saw five male ducks hold down a female and rape her. Hold her down, I repeated, How can that be possible. It’s possible, he said, and it’s a hell of a thing. How do they hold her down, I asked, and he said, It’s hard to explain. He said, It’s just something you have to see.
We sat in silence until he said Now, let’s get to why you’re here. He said Where would you like to begin, but I was still thinking about the mallard ducks, trying to picture how you hold something down with just wings. Do ducks have fingers? I asked, and he said, Isn’t it time to talk about you?
I was having trouble finding the words I usually used. Well, I said, I guess I’m here for a few reasons. I told him about what I had decided, with the help of past psychiatrists, were my problems. I didn’t mention the emptiness. I just wanted to get my pills, get out of there, go home, and google mallard ducks.
Dr. Brewer handed me two paper slips for my prescriptions. I asked why he wrote them on paper, and he told me he was “old school.” I didn’t say, Is that just a euphemism for “old.” Instead, I said Thank you. We made an appointment for a month in the future and I dropped the slips off at the pharmacy on my way home and then forgot to pick them up until a few days later, after the pharmacy had called me several times. I said I’ll come today, and each day it was a lie until one day it wasn’t. By the time I got the pills I had googled all about the mallard ducks and by then I knew Dr. Brewer hadn’t been lying. I had watched video after video of duck rape and when I tried to tell my sister about it on the phone, I realized Dr. Brewer had been right, it was hard to explain, it was just something you had to see.
The night I told my sister about the ducks, I had drunk three beers in quick succession and was opening a fourth when I asked if she could stop chopping and listen. Why, she said, So I can hear more about duck rape? No thanks, she said. I’m good.
Those were the type of moments that made me feel the most empty, when the person who got me the most in the world wasn’t getting me at all. Fine, I said. Let’s change the subject. I told her I was thinking about quitting my job at the cafe, which wasn’t true, it was just something I said out loud every once in a while, to see how possible it felt. My sister said, I think that’s a great idea. She said, That’s exactly what you need, a fresh start. When she said that I was even more offended than I had been by her chopping. I said, Why do you think I need a fresh start? I said, Does that mean you think I’m rotten? You’re not rotten, she said, I didn’t say that. Don’t judge me, I said, Don’t you ever judge me. I don’t judge you, she said, I love you.
But I knew she was judging me. I knew that everyone did, everyone who loved me at least. In fact, that was the problem, that they loved me. I knew that when you love someone, judging is just what you do when they don’t stop making bad choices.
* * *
That fall I had a reoccurring dream. I was in a white bathroom, starting at my reflection above the sink. I opened my mouth, looked into the darkness at the back of my throat, but all I saw was blood. I shut my mouth. Finally, I thought, now I know what’s wrong.
For years I had been following a Twitter account that called itself That Counts As Art. The account’s basic premise was to expand the idea of what counted as making art. That you didn’t have to be strictly painting, or writing, or creating, that you could say you were engaging in generating art no matter what you were doing. When I first started following the account, it would tweet things like “Going to a museum counts as art” and I would go to a museum and let myself think, That’s enough art for today. But as the years progressed, the account, and I along with it, grew increasingly more deranged. It started tweeting things like “Doing the dishes counts as art” and “Showering counts as art.” I knew this wasn’t true, or at least it wasn’t true in the sense that you could only shower and have art to show for it. However, I wanted to be soothed more than I wanted to be right, so I kept following, liking, retweeting. I followed, liked, and retweeted until, over the years, the basic premise of the account had seeped deep into my consciousness, until eventually I found myself showering and thinking, That’s enough art for today.
But I knew I was lying to myself. I could take as many showers as I wanted but in order to create art, what I really need to do was paint, and I wasn’t doing that. What I did was have ideas. I was always thinking of things I could paint. I tried to see this as a sign that I was a true artist, but in reality, it was a problem, because these ideas were unfortunately coupled with the fact that I never actually painted. I found myself in the middle of a self-imposed artistic purgatory. I was stuffed full of ideas I couldn’t let out. This hurt, but not bad enough to do anything to relieve myself of the pain.
That fall, the main idea I had was to paint a picture of pain. I had this fantasy that I could paint a picture so good it would make you feel pain. Real pain. I knew what pain felt like but no one talked about what it looked like. That, I figured, was my job. So I bought textbooks about pain online and underlined them with black pen. I said to myself, You’re in the research phase. I said to myself, This counts as art.
In one of my textbooks, I read a study about pain tolerance. The scientists had built a cage for twelve rats to live in, complete with bedrooms and play areas. Each rat had its own little rat bed, its own little rat lever for food. The rats played and made friends but a few weeks into their little rat lives, something went wrong in the lab and a few of the cages caught on fire. A scientist in the lab opened the rat cages before leaving the lab himself to get help. Later, through security footage, it could be seen that even though their cages were open, instead of running away from the fire, each of the twelve rats ran towards it, towards their tiny little rat beds that were burning up first and fast.
In a footnote, the scientists wondered why the rats ran towards the fire, away from safety. When the rats sensed danger, they ran away from the open door of the cage, and they ran towards what was familiar, even if it was going to burn them alive. The rats, the paper concluded, “preferred the familiarity of physical pain over the psychic pain of the unknown.” I wrote that down in my phone. It, too, was something to remember.
I called my sister and tried to explain the experiment to her over the phone. When it seemed like she wasn’t getting it I started to read the entire study to her, and kept going even when I could feel her getting bored. When I finished reading, she said, I don’t get it. What don’t you get? I said, and she said, Why you’re telling me this story.
I’m telling you this story, I said, because I’m the rat. I’m the rat, I said, and that’s all there is to get.
All days were like most days, and most days I was late to work. One morning I stood on the platform trying to calculate what would be faster, walking or waiting for the next car. Either way I was going to be late. I had been late so many times before that I knew with absolute certainty what was going to happen when I arrived at the coffee shop. I could imagine the shame and the embarrassment and the anger I would feel when Roger took me into his office. Because I could already feel those things, I wondered if I was somehow already living in that future. I thought maybe if I could feel everything now, there was a chance I wouldn’t have to feel those things later. But that didn’t work. I felt the shame and the embarrassment and the anger before I arrived and I felt it when Roger asked me to come into his office again, too.
Jason was already working behind the register, flustered because he was having to make drinks and run the register without me. I said, I’m sorry, and he said, Don’t worry, it’s fine. Jason, I said, Don’t be so nice to me. He didn’t say anything after that.
After the morning rush at the coffee shop, things always slowed down considerably. After nine or so the customers were just people who had brought in their laptops to work and ask for free refills. We weren’t supposed to give free refills but the customers would get mad when I said that so I eventually I just filled up their cups anyway, what did I care. We also didn’t have Wi-Fi at the cafe, which made the customers even more mad. They were always saying What do you mean you don’t have Wi-Fi and always I apologized like it was my fault. As far as they knew, it was. I spent a lot of time saying Please, let me clarify, and I spent a lot of time asking myself, How did I get here. But I knew exactly how had I had gotten here, I ran here all by myself.
When I was bored at the coffee shop, I would try to think about my life and figure out what was wrong. Sometimes I made stacks out of everything I’d done in my life. One stack for the bad things, one stack for the good things, and one stack for the things that served no higher purpose, neither good nor bad. No matter how creative I got, that last stack was always the highest in my head. I wished I had the courage to be evil or the discipline to be good. There was a fourth pile, things I’d done that mattered. That stack was empty.
When I was even more bored, I would stand behind the register and swipe through Tinder. I saw millions of faces that didn’t make me feel one single thing. My friends were getting married, having babies, buying houses, and I made them laugh doing an impression I called “men of Tinder” that was just me saying I’m Taller Than You In Heels over and over again.
One day, during my break, I sent my oldest childhood friend a photo of myself wearing a shirt that read Thank God for Abortion. A few minutes later she called me and said Speaking of…and I said So you’re pregnant. Yes, she said, Baby number two! She laughed and said I can only do this again because I forgot how painful it was the first time. I said I understood. I do that too, I said, with shoes that don’t fit. What do you mean, she said, you do that with shoes that don’t fit. I said, What I mean is that I will wear a pair of shoes that don’t fit me over and over again, only because I’m able to forget how painful they were to wear the first time. We both, I said, forget about the pain. Hmm, she said, what I’m talking about seems different.
A few months into her second trimester she called to tell me her and her husband were going on a “babymoon.” Julie, I said, it’s mortifying for you to call it that. You’re adults, I said, call it vacation. When the baby was born, I thought they were going to ask me to be the godmother, but they ended up asking someone else instead. I got drunk one night and called Julie to ask her why they didn’t ask me. Well, she said, I thought your whole thing was being godless. That’s not my whole thing, I said, it’s barely even one of my things. Julie, I said, I love god. Okay, Julie said, maybe baby number three, but I knew she was lying.
After my shift, I got on the subway and saw a homeless man laying across four or five seats. All of the seats except for the ones next to him were taken. He was missing a shoe and I took the seat next to his dirty foot. I could see the dirt that had collected under his big toenail and I had to tell myself to look away, twice, because the first time I didn’t listen. At each stop, the car got more and more crowded, but still no one wanted to sit next to him except for me. This made me feel so good about myself, because I lied inside my head and told myself that not only was I not afraid of him, that I was brave, but I also said to myself that because of my bravery I was humanizing the homeless man with my proximity. I wanted all this to be true but what was really true was that my feet hurt after standing all day at the coffee shop, and I was honestly desperate to sit anywhere. I had asked Roger if I could have a stool to sit on behind the register and he had said no. That wouldn’t look very professional, now would it, he had said. He said it like that, but it wasn’t a question. I got off at my stop, calling my sister as I walked away from the platform. I’m always taking open seats on the subway that no one else wants, I said. I’m just not afraid of strangers the way other people are. Why, she said, are you saying that like it’s a good thing. I said, Don’t you understand bravery? She said, Are we sure that what’s going on there is bravery? No, I said, and changed the subject.
When I got off the phone, I texted three people I knew, asking what they were doing that night. I kept checking my phone, only letting myself look at five-minute intervals, but no one was responding. There was this tiny little thought inside my brain that I ignored, one that said You’re A Friendless Loser. I was able to ignore it because there was another thought in that same brain, one that said Everyone Else Is A Loser Who Doesn’t Realize How Cool You Are. But no matter which thought I believed it didn’t solve the problem of potentially being alone forever.
Then, after seventeen minutes, Kelsey texted me saying she was at a friend’s birthday party at a bar nearby, and I forgot that I was potentially going to be alone forever, because I wasn’t going to be alone anymore, at least not for the night. I drank a beer while I changed my clothes, put on lipstick, picked out shoes. I didn’t bring a jacket because I knew that, later, I would drink enough that I wouldn’t be cold anymore anyways. I brought a second beer with me on the subway but I forgot a bottle opener so I held on to the glass until I got to the bar, and I placed the bottle in a bush outside the entrance.
I had a lot of friends, but most of them I didn’t really like. People I’d spend time with not because I wanted to, but because it was marginally better than being alone. And it had always been like that. When I was in high school, I found a book on my mother’s nightstand. It was called Queen Bees and Wannabees, a book about the hierarchy and cruelty of teen girls. The Queen Bees, according to the book, were the bullies who reigned supreme but were unable to form intimate, real relationships with their peers. When I asked my mom about it, she said the mother of one of my classmates had given it to her. Mrs. Bergset, she said, thinks you’re a Queen Bee. Okay, I said, rolling my eyes, tell Mrs. Bergset thanks for the compliment.
When I first moved to New York, Kelsey was one of the first people I met. A mutual friend was in town visiting and had introduced us. I thought Kelsey was too loud, too unafraid to be herself. I resented Kelsey for not caring what other people thought while I was stuck caring what everyone thought, all the time. But we started hanging out a lot because even though Kelsey was three years younger than me, she liked to party like I liked to party. It never occurred to me that maybe this was because she was younger than me. But more than anything, Kelsey was good at partying. She could drink straight whiskeys all night without throwing up. If she blacked out she never told me about it. My other friends, when they blacked out, tried to pretend like they hadn’t while asking me stuff like, When did we leave the bar, and, I went home with you right? Sometimes I’d say things like, 5am, and No, you went home with that guy, don’t you remember? just to make them feel bad. Kelsey you couldn’t make feel bad, because she didn’t care. She would text me the morning after we went out, I don’t think I slept alone last night lol. I didn’t like her, no, but I was jealous of her enough to want to be her friend.
When I got to the bar that Friday, Kelsey was already there, surrounded by people I’d never seen before. When she introduced me to these people, each one said some version of Don’t you just love Kelsey and I had to say keep saying Yeah, I do, she’s amazing, over and over again. One of the women I met was much shorter than me and she said I just love how tall you are. This always happens. Short women are always saying to me I wish I had your height and I always say No, no you don’t. I say I’d do anything to be petite for a day and they say Oh my god, no, and then we take turns disparaging ourselves until we both grow so old that no one cares what we look like anymore anyway.
There were Christmas lights strung all over the ceiling of the bar and if I squinted my eyes the greens and blues and reds all blurred together into one big wet shimmer. I kept doing this until one of Kelsey’s friends asked me if I was okay so I stopped. I tried to say something to Kelsey but she was too busy talking, talking, talking. She wouldn’t stop. I said What are you on and she said What? I’m not on anything! She said You’re so funny. Every time the door opened, I looked over to see who was coming in, even though I wasn’t expecting anyone at all.
I wasn’t having fun but I didn’t want to go home. I didn’t really know what to do with myself. I wanted to stand alone in a corner of the bar, drinking, but I thought that would be embarrassing, so I tried to forget what I wanted to do so that I could do what I assumed a normal person would do instead. Kelsey and her friends were talking in one of those girl circles and I sort of squeezed my way in. A woman with curly black bangs was talking about a dildo she had found in the shower of the bathroom she shared with her roommates. It just appeared there one day, she said, and it never left. She lived with three other girls, and she didn’t know who the dildo belonged to. It just sits there, she said, staring at me while I shower.
What does it look like, I said, and the woman with the bangs turned to me. What does it look like? She said. You really want me to describe it to you? Well, I said, not now.
I had dated a guy once who had loved dildos. Actually, what he loved was to give them blow jobs and have me watch him while he did it. I didn’t like or dislike doing this, at least not from a sexual point of view. But because he liked it, very much, I did enjoy how powerful I felt giving him something he wanted.
This boyfriend and I went shopping for dildos a few times while we were dating. He was very particular and he was never embarrassed. He spent a long time asking the sex shop attendant about different models. I found his assertiveness in this particular situation very attractive. We would stand in front of a wall filled with dildos of different sizes and colors and he would caress each of them, one by one. That, in my opinion, was how you should treat a dildo; with compassion and care.
The woman with the bangs was asking the group how she should confront her roommates. I can’t have that in my shower, she said, What if I have guests. A woman wearing a pink ribbon in her hair said Totally. She said That’s disgusting. Someone else in the group suggested she cover her hand with a Ziploc to grab the dildo and throw it away. Oh my god, I said, Don’t throw it away. I wanted to say, Don’t you know how much those things cost, but I didn’t, because already I could tell that this group was not the type to know how much a good dildo cost.
I was bored, so I told everyone I’d buy a round of shots. The woman with the bangs said, You really don’t have to do that. The words she used were nice but the way she said the words wasn’t. I ignored her and bought a round of shots anyway. I went to the bar and brought back as many shots as I could carry. What’re we drinking, the girl with the pink ribbon said, and when I said Whiskey she said That’s disgusting, but she drank her shot anyway.
We brought our shot glasses together to cheers. One of the women was already unsteady, and she emptied about half of her shot glass of whiskey onto my hand, but I didn’t care. I licked at my skin before downing my own shot in one gulp. Already, I could feel the warmth getting under my skin, just where I wanted it to be.
That same guy who liked dildos used to always act so impressed by how I could “put away” drinks. That’s what he said, You can really put them away. During the course of this same conversation he, at one point, described me as stalwart. I remember this because I thought I would never feel sexual again. Don’t call me that, I said. Stalwart isn’t sexy. He said Now who made you believe that, and I gestured to the world at large.
After a while, the woman with the pink ribbon in her hair started trying to cajole the group onto the dance floor. I just want to dance, she kept saying, Don’t you just want to dance? God, she said, flinging her arms out to her sides, it just feels so good to let loose. Her ribbon was starting to slide out of her hair. I said I’d need two more whiskies before I started dancing and she said Well that’s not very bohemian of you. What gave you the impression I was bohemian, I said, and she laughed. But eventually I did have two more whiskies and by then I was agreeing with the woman with the pink ribbon. You’re right, I said, It just feels so good to let loose!
When I went to go to the bathroom there was a line. We’ve Got One Toilet, a sign above the door read, Deal With It. I have always had a strange affection for bars that talk to their patrons like they don’t want them to be there. I don’t want to be here either, I wanted to say, but I have nowhere else to go. A man got in line behind me and introduced himself. He was talking fast and when he told me he had coke I asked if I could have some. We went into the bathroom together and I hoped he didn’t expect me to fuck him. I was sort of scared but I wanted to let loose more than I wanted to avoid putting myself in a dangerous position. The bathroom was dark, with graffiti covering its black walls. While the man dug his key into the clear little bag, I tried looking at myself in the mirror, but it was covered in graffiti too. Instead of myself, I saw the words Fuck You painted in red. The man held the key out to me and I let him put it up to my nose. I’m Mark, he said, and I sniffed and said, Cool. Thanks for that, I said. I’m gonna go dance.
He didn’t try to kiss me. He just said Okay, see you out there, and when I looked back, he wasn’t even looking at me, he was just digging away. Then I did want him to kiss me, when it became apparent he didn’t want to. Those are the feelings I have, the ones that get me into trouble.
I went back to the dance floor, joining the woman with the pink ribbon even though now, the pink ribbon was gone. As I begun to dance, I could feel myself inflating, a balloon filling up with the all the joy that one balloon could possibly hold. I spent the rest of the night out there, even after the ribbon woman left. Her friends took her home, but at one point later in the night, I thought I saw the ribbon on the dance floor, brown and dirty and beautiful. Before she left, she said, I know I don’t know you but I love you anyway, and I said, Okay. I said, That’s fine. That was my way of saying I loved her, too. In the morning, I asked Kelsey how long I’d been out there dancing. I said it felt like hours. I don’t know, Kelsey said, I think like twenty minutes?
Between dances, I would go back to the bar and order whiskey shots for myself. At one point a tall man with glasses came up to me, trying to make conversation. He asked me where I was from. When he asked me what it was like growing up in such a rural area, I answered by telling him about the time a raccoon entered our next-door neighbor’s home through the doggie door and mauled their newborn baby. He left pretty soon after that. Then a woman next to me was showing her friend something on her phone. Look at what my dad texted me, she said. They laughed and the first woman said God, I love your dad. I turned to them and said Anytime I hear a woman said ‘I love my dad’ I know she’s lying. I think they left too.
The whole night I kept waiting for something to happen. I knew that if I just hung around long enough, something would. The most important thing was that I not miss it when it did.
But nothing happened. Nothing other than my falling asleep on the subway home and waking up somewhere in the Bronx. When I opened my eyes, I had no idea where I was but I wasn’t scared, I was disappointed because now something had happened but it wasn’t what I had been hoping for. I didn’t know where I was but I did know who I was. That was disappointing too.
I had a bottle of beer in my lap and I wasn’t sure where it was from until I realized it must have been the beer from earlier, the one I placed in the planter outside the bar. Waking up with an unopened beer felt sacred; I told myself, and I almost believed, that it was a gift from god. It felt like an omen, a sign that I belonged. As I took the subway back in the direction I had come, I told myself I’d keep the beer unopened in my bedroom, a talisman of that feeling. But when I got home, I looked in my fridge and since I had already drunk all the beer I could afford to buy that week, I drank the talisman and figured it was as useful in my blood as it was in my bedroom, anyway.
As I got undressed, I checked my phone and saw I had a text from an unknown number. I hoped it was the girl with the pink ribbon. Instead, the text that came through read, It’s Mark. Sorry, I wrote back, who? Two texts came back in quick succession. The cocaine guy, he wrote, From the bathroom. I thought, But that could be anyone. I never replied.
I plugged my phone in and walked into the kitchen. I was so hungry but I didn’t have any food of my own, I hadn’t been to the grocery store in weeks. Irene had left a raw onion on the table and I bit into it like an apple. My eyes teared up but I kept biting and chewing, biting and chewing. As I was doing it I thought to myself, This is depravity. Depravity is eating a raw onion like an apple.
But I was wrong. That wasn’t depravity; not yet. Depravity was still to come.
Mariah Adcox received her MFA from Columbia University. She lives in Brooklyn.