Basically I was looking forward to being part of your harem. To be fair, you wouldn’t have used that word for it. My family thought I was crazy. What makes you so sure you’ll get in, they said. What makes you think he’ll want anything to do with you.
Well, I knew. You can tell when a person wants you, and I’m not naive.
I should add that that was the language from day one. I’m sure there are other harems where it isn’t like this. What makes you so sure she’ll settle for you, families might ask the guy then. But you weren’t that kind of guy, or you wouldn’t have had a harem.
It all makes sense in my head.
That first night I was actually on a date with someone else, if date is the word. It was casual. Halfway through we realized there wasn’t any liquor, and I jogged out to the corner store. I really did jog. It was maybe twenty degrees, and I was dressed in my pajamas, with a little tank and flannel bottoms, like in all the L.L. Bean commercials. With boots, though. At the door he had saluted me—saluted my bravery, like I was going out to war.
In a way I was. The sides of the buildings were dark with ice. Even in the corner store, with the heat going, the clerk kept her jacket on, like she was afraid to trust it. The warmth could leave at any moment, and then where would you be, the jacket asked us. As for herself, she was ready for Armageddon.
You were in line, too. For all I know you were also dispatched on a liquor run, coming from a date with someone else. Maybe your primary.
The line was endless. There was an issue with the register, and the people ahead of us kept defecting—leaving their Mountain Dew: Code Red and their ibuprofen, their jerky and their cylinders of smashed-up cashews—and going off to other corner stores. But we, my dear, were faithful.
Mainly I didn’t want to go out into the cold again more than I had to. Another few blocks in the wrong direction. In better weather it wouldn’t have seemed so far, and then maybe we wouldn’t have met.
We started talking. The guy back at my apartment had saluted my pajamas. He made a whole thing of it. But you treated me respectfully, talked into my face as if I wasn’t wearing a slinky little tank. We had an intelligent conversation. You wanted to know what I had been reading lately. You didn’t ask how long I had been in the city. For that alone I should have kissed you.
In the end the clerk gave up. She took the blank roll out of the printer, started writing the receipts out herself. Pack Beer, she wrote for mine, $4.50. I was first, but I waited for you. Your gum cost more than my beer. I didn’t make fun of you for it.
Afterwards you borrowed her pen and wrote your number down on my receipt. I didn’t think people did things like that anymore. There was your name and then the number next to it, like it was your price. I wished there wasn’t someone waiting to get drunk inside my apartment.
I didn’t do it right away. I was familiar with those stories, women undone by their earnestness. It was important to make it seem like I didn’t care. In a way I didn’t. Part of me thought you might not exist. Not that I had hallucinated you, but that under those circumstances, you might have presented yourself as better than you really are. Maybe that wouldn’t even have been your fault.
Hello again, I said, from the coldest night ever.
Hello yourself, you said. On the way back the gum had frozen in your mouth. You had to drink some hot tea to unfreeze it. You’d never had tea at 3 AM before.
Then you’ve never had insomnia before, I said. Or been a member of the Soviet intelligentsia.
Not to my knowledge, you said.
One of my many failings, you said.
We went to a Japanese place. I told you that in college I had added hot water to wasabi and told a girl it was matcha. You didn’t judge me as harshly as I probably would have judged me, if the tables were turned. You told me people who liked matcha were only bringing it on themselves; my prank had only made the fraud that was matcha more apparent. Then we ate our complimentary oranges together. In the morning I woke up with the smell of them still on my fingers and thought of you without illusions.
So the first date was, in summary, perfect. On the second you arranged for me to meet the other members of the harem. Again, not your word, but really everyone is using it, so why can’t we make them happy?
Many people would not have been so forthright as you had been about the harem. There’s a story about Sholem Aleichem’s father—that he married a woman and only then revealed his dozen-odd motherless children. Surprise!
For me the harem’s existence did not surprise so much as its extent. Its detail continues to astonish me.
We met at the complex. Each floor was a separate apartment, reserved for different harems. You called them networks. It really wasn’t so different from dorms. There was a central kitchen, a fleet of microwaves, a crockpot. There was a produce bowl filled with rubber bands. In the living room there was a big calendar with union meetings circled on alternate Wednesdays, and a reminder to sign up for commuter benefits.
Each girl had her own room, each room its own key. And a peephole, which I thought was funny. Who could it really be, in a harem—how could there ever be surprises? Maybe you looked out through the hole and were shocked by yourself.
The girls were lovely, cheerful. Some of them had met you through Hive and looked a little embarrassed about that. There was something weird about harem apps, a stigma that didn’t attach itself to mobile dating for singles. One girl was getting her post-bacc in Classical Studies; she had apprenticed herself to a cheesemonger and was incorporating this practical knowledge into her understanding of Hellenic dairy production, such that it was. For a while she was doing the cheesemongering in conjunction with meat-curing, but it hadn’t been good for her health. Another girl was working at a deodorant facility over the summer, while she finished her master’s in chemistry. After that she was going for her PhD.
They weren’t all like that, but they were all very professional people.
Probably I shouldn’t think of them as girls, when they were women, but that would have made me a woman, too, and I wasn’t comfortable with that. I didn’t like to think of myself as a finished object.
I was encouraged to see they weren’t all beautiful. And even the beautiful ones looked at me with kind eyes.
You walked me home, asked if I was doing okay.
Yes, I said, and it was even true. I was looking forward to it all, even the big calendar. I felt like it was college again. I had found my people.
You found me at a time when I didn’t want anything in particular. Childhood seemed like it had taken a long time, and when I thought about the future I didn’t see much ahead of me. How long was this going to take, I wanted to ask someone. But there was no one driving.
Once I thought about killing myself. But it seemed like a waste of all these toiletries.
My mother worried that the sense of competition might be unhealthy for me. Harems worked for some people and not for others.
This was true, I acknowledged. I wasn’t ignorant. I had heard the stories. There had been those suicides a few years earlier—a whole string of Ivy Leaguers who couldn’t cope with the pressure. One of them had jumped off the roof of a garage. Another had tried to frame the primary in her harem. (Can opener. Dark garage.)
All this was sad, I conceded. But I wasn’t going to let these events define me. My harem was different, I said. We didn’t do primaries.
This was the thing my family understood least, which most strained their incredulity. Come on, my sister said. Get off it.
I told her it was true.
There is always, always a primary, my sister said.
If you think he doesn’t have one, my sister said, that means he hasn’t told you yet.
I had considered this. If I were you, I thought, which of us would be my favorite? The cheesemonger? The chemistry student? The accountant? The game developer who worked at the Humane Society in the afternoons? She was beautiful and big-hearted, but she always smelled like dogs. And I wondered, too, whether you could be intimate with someone who always seemed, in some qualitative sense, better than you. I wasn’t better than you. I made the same amount of money, had a regular-looking face, didn’t exercise as often as I should have, was possibly a little better-read. We were the same.
So in theory we should have been perfect. Except maybe, for your primary, you didn’t want to be with someone who was more or less the same person. Maybe you needed dramatic difference. Someone to confide in who would be surprised when you confided, instead of instantly accepting. You wanted to look through the peephole and be shocked by what you saw. You told me that sometimes you talked to your cat. That didn’t seem strange to me.
The other women in the harem—did they know who was the primary? Were they, like me, always a little bit suspicious?
In a way it’s worse, my sister said. It’s worse than not being the primary. It means he isn’t being honest with you.
I didn’t want this to be true because I was honest with you. Also because I loved you.
We went for a group date—what more corporate-minded ladies in the harem called “a focus group.” It was a skating experience, in early spring. Emma wore an outfit I can’t even begin to describe now—cashmere and lace, aglets—a stench of quality. We went out on the ice clinging to each other, to the walls. My blades cut through a lonely hot dog a boy had flung onto the ice; when I looked back it was doing a sort of inverse sizzling, its griddle steamy and cold.
I thought a lot in those days about Emma. The first time I met her she was using a mortar and pestle to make her own adobo spices. Her patience was remarkable. She was tall and glamorous; I was short and stubby, like a thumb. For weeks, it must have been, or months, I was jealous of her. I didn’t think it was because she had you. I didn’t feel that way about any of the other women. Instead I felt a kind of keen, axe-headed jealousy that simply wanted to be her, and wouldn’t be happy until I split myself in two.
Immediately it became apparent that Emma was not a very good, or even an especially capable, skater. I saw my moment. When I was young I had taken skating lessons, before my father left and things became tight. Or perhaps we had all simply lost interest. Often when I finished my ankles hurt. Either way, on our group date I tried to skate as if I was keeping my balance and agility out of sheer inborn talent. No fancy squiggles or hops, just darting around very independently. I thought it might make you proud.
On the third lap I paused. You weren’t really watching or not watching. You were holding Emma’s arm, helping her move. At first I saw this and felt hopeless. I thought that perhaps the only way to get your attention would be cluelessness, incapacity, outright brokenness. And I felt jealous, of course, of beautiful baby-stepping Emma. But then I saw, superimposed over the two of you, an image of what it would be like when we were all old, taking care of one other. I had driven my previous boyfriend crazy with this, texting pictures of various old people and animals supporting each other in their infirmity. Let’s get through the first year, k? he had said. Then we can think about the next ten.
I thought: Ten?
But now I looked at the two of you and felt a sense of expectation so concrete it was as if you were already touching my arm. In that moment I stopped hating Emma. In her beautiful infirmity I saw, instead, a vision of our future. All the members of the harem were helping me see it.
For the next lap I thought of a game I had played when I was a child: hobbling around the rink on one of those walker-like pushers that you lean on for stability, then challenging a boy to a race. At that point I would fling the pusher aside and dart and fumble down the ice until I’d won. There was a warm pride in me then that wasn’t appropriate. But at least I was warm.
I had two contradictory lines of thought. I felt them both with equal sincerity. The first was that it would be better not to be the most loved. It might be tremendous pressure. The second was: Maybe you would love me most if I embodied some of the qualities of all the girls.
I don’t want you to jump to the wrong conclusions. I don’t think everyone in the harem feels this way. But it might be instructive to consider that more of the harem may feel this way than you think.
Consider, for example, our Girls Night Out, in late spring. You kissed us goodbye; we climbed into the rented bus. We had Wi-Fi, coolers full of light beer and ginger ale. Someone had taped GIRLS NITE OUT!!! to the front of the bus, and Lauren joked that we should tie cans behind the bus, like newlyweds. One can for each of us, she said. It would be an industrial disaster.
Natasha reminisced about the days when a Girls Night Out meant a rented limo. I thought at the time that she missed the days when we were rich, but now I think that she just missed the days when we were small. Our numbers were no longer comprehensible.
A bus has its own toilet, Lee said.
Yes, Natasha agreed. But she was right, too, when she pointed out that a bus’s ceiling isn’t ringed with stars.
We ate together in an elegant restaurant—French-infused, with colonial influences. There were menus with dishes in seven Asian languages, and a duck appetizer called pho gras. I say we ate, but I mean that some of us were the kinds of people who ate and others were the kinds of people who picked and then went into the restroom with our pre-apportioned bags of pistachios or exactly twelve almonds, and still others were the kinds of people who ate and went to the restroom to dispose of what they had eaten. Others drank neon cocktails or hard liquor, and others smiled with an unhungry radiance and wouldn’t eat or drink until we returned the next day.
I think that we filled the whole restaurant, unless I am overlooking a back room. They converted the men’s room into an auxiliary women’s room for us. There were, as we’ve discussed, significant numbers of women with significantly different reasons for using the restroom.
The eaters encouraged the non-eaters to eat, the non-eaters encouraged the eaters to demonstrate self-control, and I thought that in about ten years we might reach the same weight, average out into a single person.
We clinked glasses.
It was a not particularly progressive part of the city, you had warned us, when you made the reservations. Maybe you wanted to be coy or discreet. For whatever reason the menus said Welcome Women’s Council of the Arts. We loved it. We took pictures with the menus. We uploaded them to Snapchat. We could have been 80 years old, Magda said. We could have been Republicans.
Now I know what to tell my parents, Dani said, and we felt an uncomfortable territory had been broached. Or I felt it, at least.
I didn’t know how to explain us to my family. I had enough trouble explaining it to my sister, and she was young. She had a social media presence. My mother was old and confused, and looking at the terror in her face as we spoke I felt guilty, as though I had picked a compromising hobby, or forced her to use Instagram.
Think of it is this way, I told my mother. What if instead of having everyone you love arranged sequentially, you got rid of the time element and arranged them in space. That doesn’t sound so bad, does it?
Her silence was somewhat encouraging.
And you couldn’t say, I said, that you loved one person the most—
But honey, where do the children live?
In the apartment, I said. If the mother lives there.
Why wouldn’t she live there?
Not everyone wants to live in the building. It’s not for everyone. And also there’s a wait list. I’m on the wait list.
When do you get off the wait list?
If I knew, it wouldn’t be called a wait list. I like my apartment, I added helpfully.
My mother was quiet.
I don’t like this, she said. You’re breaking families apart.
She looked at me apologetically.
I don’t mean you you, she said. I mean you people.
In the restaurant, in the safety of our sameness, we talked about the misconceptions. The biggest misconception we faced was the most simple-minded: Not that we were sluts—that was a nonsensical gut reaction; if anything, we were sluts in the inverse—but that we were selfless. We weren’t. There were those among us who would sooner share a man than an apartment. I need my own toilet, Stacey said.
We talked, too, about what we considered the Mission. There were women among us who believed we were a company and those of us who expected more of a nation-state. It was the difference between feeling sufficiently representative and being sufficiently kind. The crippled, the lame, the refugees fleeing various upturned states . . . We wanted to be the kind of we that could embrace them all.
At first I got a little caught up, a little emotional. Here were all of us, the fat and the thin and the too-thin, the intimidatingly beautiful and the accomplished and also the unattractive and languishing, and you, my love, you loved us all. I dabbed at my eyes with the Vietnamese-inspired cocktail napkin. The glasses were all greasy with wok oil. I thought that I could be any one of these people and you could still love me. This was encouraging, because in those days I thought that the thing I was was not necessarily permanent.
After dinner the women’s council fell apart. Some of us wanted to go to the nightclub. Others wanted to go to the hotel and do pedicures. It’s Spa Night, Omira said, in considerable distress. When else will I have Spa Night? She was a mother of four, heavy-set, with unnecessarily large eyes. They seemed to have been enlarged gradually by tears, through the same physics by which a shoehorn operates. But the other girls said she brought an uncomfortable tit-for-tat logic to the evening.
It wasn’t about services rendered, Katie said. It was about sisterhood.
We were standing in the snow with our jackets half-off, ready to go out or go in, and the indecision made me tired. The partiers took their separate taxis. We took the bus to the hotel and then ran out in the snow to a CVS, raiding it for gallon-bottles of nail polish remover and decals and glitter. Why did we buy decals, I thought.
Half of us had grown mad with the power of your charge card. The other half forget their age. On the way back we took off our heels and carried them in our arms or looping off one finger. I don’t really know why; one of the other girls started it. Most of the pavement was still icy.
It’s funny, Lourdes said, but my feet feel better now.
At the hotel we rubbed the polish off each other’s nails and started again, fresh. We said the partiers would be jealous, meaning that we ourselves were jealous, and beginning to worry whether we had made the wrong decision. Who had the partiers been, we asked ourselves, and who was left. All the prettiest, most ambitious women were at the club. And our feet were cold. We tore open the pack of decals and stuck them to our Women’s Council menus in despair. They were like scarlet letters in the shape of little bows and unicorns.
Do you remember being thirteen, Omira said, intent on starting an evening of reminiscence. No one answered her.
A few minutes later she tried again.
We wondered if we could make a kind of alcoholic nail-polish remover from the drinks in the mini bar. It’s included with the room, Leslie P. said. But it wasn’t.
Some of us went back to our rooms. Others of us tried to reverse the distinction we had effected between the partiers and the Spa Nighters. We texted the partiers, left them casual-seeming voicemails. No one responded. Possibly their phones were dead, we said hopefully. Possibly they were ignoring us.
More of us went to our rooms. Some of us tried lesbian experiments. Others of us said we had tried all that before and weren’t interested. It’s like the science fair volcano, Greta said. After a while you know what happens when you add baking soda to vinegar.
Anyway, our nails weren’t really dry.
I remember when I was 13, Omira said, looking out the window.
By brunch we were mostly reconciled. We were, the Spa Night people, at least better-rested on our return, and vaguely better-looking. You had to be grateful for these small improvements. I ate the salty garlic bits off my everything bagel and mused generally on my growing sense of competition. That wasn’t the girls’ fault, or yours. It was something in me. I thought about how I had stood to the back of the line, as we boarded the bus, hoping you’d kiss me last.
On the ride back we had the kinds of talks about you you might expect. We divvied you up. Some of us loved your eyes, some of us your earnest haircut, your habit of hanging the bathmat over the lip of the tub, your finicky gestures when selecting your morning’s fruit. We loved your tendency to be, at times, pedantic. We thought you were bossy, but we didn’t mind. The older women loved the simplest things the most. I loved your grin—the dogtooth that peeks out over the bottom lip. In summary we loved you, sweetheart.
There’s a Greek myth that came to mind, the Danae tearing up their god and eating him in bits. I think that’s the one. I’m afraid to look it up, in case the details are conveniently untrue. If it isn’t true I will have one story fewer for myself. And then how will I explain my own mythology. These are the tools I will need.
We were having sex, but it wasn’t, apparently, of the right variety. I couldn’t always give you the somewhat pained look that meant you were having fun.
What do they do for you, I asked, that I can do for you, too? What can I do differently. Or less. Or more often.
Well, you said. It’s not really like that. You looked at me thoughtfully. It’s like. You know. Sometimes you want your favorite Italian place, and sometimes you want Chinese.
I nodded, which I think you thought meant I understood, but I was really mostly dazed, or shaking the pain away. I didn’t want, particularly, to be Italian food. Or Chinese, for that matter.
But on the other hand, you hadn’t told me to be either of those things. In an unfortunately clumsy way, I thought—walking home to my apartment, running the words back—you had told me you wanted me to persist in being myself. But what if that wasn’t who I wanted to be anymore.
You kept your eyes closed, but at the crucial moments you always said my name. That was impressive, my sister said. From his perspective, who knows. It could be any hole down there.
When we were about five months into the relationship, my sister confronted me. She did this very sneakily, in the guise of inviting me to her apartment, with its enormous flatscreen, for an episode of True Blood. I loved this show. I loved it unreasonably. I loved its violence, its Southern sluttiness, its coy half-rhyme with true love, which seemed so stunningly accurate to the brutality of what I considered to be a real relationship. Also I had the unshakable sense that while the conditions of this show were, on a simple mechanical level, unbelievable, they were somehow exactly like my life. I have this same feeling watching The Mikado.
My sister was very patient. She didn’t pounce at the first commercial break. But a good way through the show, she paused and looked at me and announced she was both suspicious and concerned.
Her suspicion came from honest sources. She didn’t want what had happened to our mother to happen to me. This was extremely fair. On the most glancing surface level, our situations were the same. In the late nineties my father had begun seeing another woman. My mother intuited something was amiss, although not through any of the usual ways—no suspicious bills, unexpected business trips. He just suddenly seemed very eager to take the dog for its morning walk. He had never seemed particularly eager to take care of something before.
It turned out he had been talking to this woman on his cell while Gigot squatted in the grass. I often wonder if this would have happened at all if this hadn’t been the late nineties. So much of this affair had been made possible by the invention of the cellphone.
She gave him an ultimatum. Knowing my mother, this ultimatum was probably hesitantly given, its wording imprecise. He agreed to it. Four years later it became apparent that he had not only continued to see this woman, he had acquired a few more.
My mother told none of us this until we were old enough to wonder, at which point my sister persecuted it out of her, in a little scene that must have replicated, in miniature, the conditions under which my mother had first wheedled the truth from my father. I was astounded, not because I didn’t think my father was capable of cheating, but because I didn’t think he was capable of being so organized. Multiple women? He couldn’t even remember where I went to orchestra practice. All the medical information he had filled out in my name had the wrong middle initial. (To be fair, this middle initial was my sister’s. I can see why the grouping principle holds.)
In her expensive apartment, my sister reminded me of all this. She pointed out the similarities with expert argumentative skill, but also with complete outrage, which reminded me why she had gone into the tech world instead of becoming a lawyer. In the everyday world, she simply felt too strongly to be useful.
My rebuttals were small and meek. I cannot reconstruct them now. It is possible I simply repeated “but it’s not cheating.” I was afraid of saying something that would provoke my sister’s use of the word cult. Cult was bad. Cult was worse than harem. The whole time I saw that rebuttal curled inside her, waiting. I did not know how to defend you. I just felt that you were really mine.
I do remember sitting in her apartment, the one she had furnished through the combined efforts of her own salary and her fiancé’s, and thinking that she could never understand me, sitting inside the steady two-person thing that was this apartment.
You’re never going to have a wedding, my sister said. Doesn’t that make you sad?
I told her plenty of people never have weddings.
Yeah. They die alone.
Then we looked at each other and laughed at the absurdity of it all. The one thing I would never be was alone.
One thing I have always found useful is lists. When I was little I kept a list at my desk. On it were reminders of all the things I was going to be. These were not intended as alternatives, but as a cumulative network, a counting-up. I don’t know why I thought I would forget. In any case, the list proved necessary and prescient. In later years my mother found the list, and she and my sister laughed over it together. Doctor. Dog-doctor. Seller of fish. They called me and I laughed too, but I felt hurt, betrayed not by my family’s laughter but by the fact that I had so easily betrayed my younger self and become someone unrecognizable. I was not a doctor, or a dog-doctor. I was not even a dog.
So now I sat down and made a list. On the one side was you. On the other was, more or less, everything else I treasured. (For a moment I was vengeful and wrote, on that side, my self-worth. But I quickly understood that this was an overreaction born of indignity, an emotional posture.)
I looked at that list for a long time. No matter how long I looked, the two sides always came out even.
A year after Girls Night Out, it became apparent that things had changed. There were new girls, many of them. Every time a new girl appeared, I tried to embrace her, remembering my own uneasy first days. But privately I considered that she had done nothing to earn him. The former sorority girls suggested that an initiation of some kind would ease tensions. The former non-sorority girls remembered that at their public universities, rushers had been asked to sit, in a bikini, on a washing machine. A frat boy with a Sharpie had been on site to circle, in Sharpie, any part that jiggled.
Dating apps, we said, had changed the harem culture. Our ranks swelled. We became less like a harem and more like a small firm. We had our squabbles, our status considerations, our corporate retreats. There was a certain impersonality to us now. More and more we expected recidivism. We were afraid to get close to anyone else; they would leave with our secrets.
I remember when we were like a family, Daisy said.
Privately we all thought Daisy had come too late to remember this.
For my own part, as we swelled I wondered whether my loss, if I left, would register. Proportionally it would have to be less deeply felt than the loss of a partner. How many of us would you have to lose before you felt it that way? Five? Twenty? I thought of the Danae. How much of us was in you, how much of you in us? How much of you would I take with me when I left, your shining little mirror.
Meanwhile my sister was getting married, and scheduling the away time was a nightmare, because that was supposed to be my rotational weekend with you. I had to make my petition, file the appropriate paperwork. It wasn’t that you wouldn’t let me go. It was just that everything was difficult. We had become, more than other harems, a bureaucracy. You looked crowded out by us, diminished. When you went to brush your teeth, you closed the door with visible relief, happy to be alone with yourself. You needed to get reacquainted.
My sister’s marriage was an occasion to rethink the whole thing. The situation. It seemed like an opportunity that had not come before, which could not have been true because I was going into my second year. There must have been opportunities for regret. There had been headhunters, sure. There had been the girls who left and tried to take you with them, either as single agents or as part of a bisexual co-op. But rifts and upsets like this redoubled, rather than shook, our faith. We felt this as an assault, untrue to our founding principles. An evangelical among us compared it to the War on Christmas.
They’ll come for the harems first, she said. And then they’ll take everything.
We weren’t sure what everything was, but we felt so strongly about it. We felt a right to be here with you, without other men. There was a collective ease to our presence. We could be ourselves. There were even die-hard philosophers in the group—I could sympathize, although I wasn’t among them—who felt that the binary couple was a threat to the persistence of the larger human system. They made comparisons to boutique farms, organic cranberries and apples. Sure, you felt good about it. But enacted on a broader scale, what would happen? There wasn’t enough acreage; there weren’t enough good men. You couldn’t feed humanity that way, the women said. You couldn’t make enough spelt.
Bentham had his thoughts on us. He’d anticipated our rise. If you were not careful, you could get stuck addressing his clairvoyant powers with Lourdes or Jessica or Mitsi all day. You could lose the better part of an evening that way. And time, to you, was precious.
Meanwhile we were dealing with problems you couldn’t, I’m sure, have dreamed about when the harem was first incorporated. What to do about retirement benefits for those among us who were peri-menopausal? Whose back-to-school night would you attend, for those among us who had children? Why wasn’t there better representation, in the ranks, for women of color? Were we discriminatory in our practices? Were we sufficiently kind? We said we didn’t want birthday presents; we had dissolved our individual first dates into an enormous equally celebrated anniversary; but didn’t some of us seethe in quiet or weep, feeling neglected? Weren’t some of us lonely?
I shouldn’t be coy. Most of the time I was a lonely person. And you were the person. There was an urge I felt to double you, to surround myself with more of you, with people to hold me unexpectedly from behind as I reheated chicken tikka, to kiss my shoulder when I couldn’t get out of bed after work. There wasn’t enough of you, but all the women felt that way. It was selfish to want more.
When my sister’s invitation came in the mail, I studied it for the obvious tells. There was a picture of my sister with her fiancé. He was average-sized, with a stiff, bashful face, as though there were secrets he wasn’t willing to give up. The card was holographic, so that when you turned it, an image flashed of the two of them. I hoped they would be doing something patently staged and ridiculous, kissing in the surf or under the half-shade of a garden trellis. But they were just sitting in a big armchair together, holding mugs of cider and looking at each other.
Oh, I thought. I hadn’t expected it to look like that. I didn’t cry, but the skin around my eyes felt tight, as if I had been sunburned a while back and was only now starting to realize it.
I’ll tell you about the time you almost lost me. You do not know, perhaps, how close you came.
The subway car was overheated, but I stayed because there was, I thought, a boy who could fall in love with me. For the entire ride he kept his phone on his lap, his squarish fingers tapping in the desultory way that made me think it was Facebook or email rather than a stupid game. He had thick blond hair parted far to the left, and shoes like I had but in blue suede instead of fawn. I could see he bit his nails down the way I did, and teased with his teeth at the cuticles, although I didn’t see him do this on the train. It would have been better if he were reading, because then I could get a better sense of who he was—eliminate, at least, my remorse if I knew he was reading A Little Life or Gone Girl—but there was something tender and stumbling about his fingers, going back and forth.
I thought if I stood across from him—by the window, with the September light coming while we were aboveground—he might make a mistake and think I was beautiful. I would resolve, in the light of his regard, down to a single, unanticipated person. But he never looked at me, and we crossed that morning’s bridge into Manhattan.
If you like this article, please subscribe to n+1.