I saw you for the first time at your girlfriend’s birthday party last September, two weeks after I dropped out of school. In the hallway outside the apartment you shared with her off Franklin Street, a boy with long hair and ugly tattoos pushed me up against the wall, pinning me by my neck with his forearm.
I could have kicked him, maybe, but the thought didn’t even occur to me. I was transfixed by the snake tattooed on his bicep, a skinny blue thing with bugged-out eyes. He looked as confused by the situation as I was, as if his arms had acted of their own accord.
After a few seconds he let me go. “Sorry for that act of violence,” he said, and walked away.
If I was a different kind of person, I might have taken that as a sign from the universe that I should go straight home. But I fixed my hair and rang the doorbell. My hands were shaking.
Your living room was warm and loud and filled with smoke. Some people were squeezed onto a plump, cream-colored couch that looked as if it had been stolen from a retirement home. The rest were on the floor, some leaning languidly against the wall, others trying to make themselves comfortable, resting their chins on their knees as they muttered their contributions to the conversation.
There were newspapers and magazines on the coffee table, scattered among painted porcelain tea cups being used as ashtrays, empty cans of beer, and ratty copies of books by Badiou and Agamben. There was a Sol Lewitt print on the wall, some flimsy fabric draped over one window, and a couple half-dead potted plants giving off a rich, wet smell. You took my coat from me and placed it gently on the back of an empty chair. The slow, careful way you did this made me feel as if you were performing some sacred gesture, perhaps preparing me for a ritual sacrifice. You told me your name and kissed my cheek. I felt something inside of me flicker and go dark.
Kayla, who had invited me, was by the window, arguing with a tall boy, her posture as precise as a ballerina’s. At the time, she and I were both working at a jewelry store near St. Mark’s Place. She was friends with your girlfriend, Josephine, who came by the store occasionally. Once, she bought you a present there, a tiny gun made of gold on a long string of leather. I never saw you wear it.
Josephine waved to me from the corner of the room, where she sat cross-legged on the floor, cradling a sleepy, malnourished grey cat. She looked a bit like Monica Vitti, except happier. Her hair fell around her face, a pale fluttering curtain. She wore an amethyst on a black cord around her throat, which trembled slightly as she laughed.
I wanted to tell someone what had happened in the hallway, but I didn’t know how to describe it. I wondered if the boy was a friend of yours, and if he was coming back to the party. Maybe I should have been afraid of him, but all I wanted to know was why he had done it. I wanted to ask him how it felt. All night, I watched and waited, but he never arrived.
During the party, I thought carefully about which possession I should leave at your apartment. My phone would have made things difficult for me. My necklace was too obvious. A hair clip wasn’t urgent enough.
I sat on the floor of your bathroom and took everything out of my purse, deciding. The tiles of your floor were turquoise, and matched the cotton curtains that covered the small window - handmade, I realized, from the bits of thread dangling from the sides.
As I surveyed my belongings, I wished I had brought my umbrella, which folded up to be only a few inches long and could easily be forgotten on the floor somewhere. Eventually I took out one of my earrings – a silver hoop with glittery red beads dangling from it, a gift from my aunt – and placed it on the edge of the sink. The other I put in my pocket. I felt naked in a tiny, thrilling way.
I rummaged briefly through your medicine cabinet. Josephine was on the same brand of birth control that I was, I discovered, and she wore Clinique’s Happy perfume. There was nothing I wanted to steal, though I did squeeze a bit of your toothpaste onto my finger, rubbing it on my tongue before I returned to the party. It tasted of real peppermint, healthy and expensive.
I called the next day. Kayla gave me your number.
“This is probably really weird,” I told you, trying to keep my voice light and cheerful. “It has a lot of sentimental value, that’s all.”
“No, it’s fine.”
You sounded irritable. I’d waited until 1 o’clock to call, hoping to give you time to recover from your hangover. At the sound of your voice, I felt warm and tired with embarrassment.
“If you could just keep an eye out, that would be great. Maybe it got lost in one of the couches,” I said, brightly. “But it’s really not a big deal.”
“I’ll look, I promise.” The sudden earnestness in your voice surprised me. Were you just trying to get me off the phone? I thanked you and hung up.
A few days later, I received my earring in an envelope with my name on it. Kayla must have given you my address. It was nice to meet you, said the note on the back of an index card. Your handwriting was as fastidious and elegant as a girl’s.
At that time, I was still living in student housing. By some minor bureaucratic miracle, no one had bothered to make me leave. I shared an apartment with three other girls, all psychology majors. That, combined with the fluorescent lighting and linoleum floors, made the apartment feel like my own personal, wildly ineffective mental hospital.
One of my roommates, a tiny, energetic girl named Kathy, took a great interest in me after I dropped out. I wouldn’t tell her why, which must have led her to believe it was something horrible and therefore fascinating.
She kept asking me to rate things of a scale from one to ten.
On a scale from one to ten, how stressed are you?
On a scale from one to ten, how much do you like yourself?
On a scale from one to ten, how satisfied are you with your life?
Or my particular favorite: On a scale from one to ten, how hopeless do you feel?
“Negative seven,” I said, trying to confuse her.
“Christ, Kathy,” I overheard one of the other girls, Gillian, say, after they thought I’d gone to bed. “Maybe she just doesn’t like it here. Not everyone does.”
Gillian was my favorite roommate. She had a really terrible eating disorder, which even Kathy didn’t want to ask about. When I first met Gillian, at a party freshman year, she was glamorously thin, and I envied her immediately. Hers was a body that suggested discipline, restraint, self-control — all things I thoroughly lacked. By the beginning of sophomore year, she was so obviously, visibly sick that it seemed rude to mention it. She slunk around the apartment in expensive sweatpants, smoking cigarettes and cutting out pictures from Italian fashion magazines. On weekends we often watched television together.
Of the four of us, only Julia, an awkwardly tall girl from Westchester, seemed genuinely concerned with academics, and so I rarely saw her. She had a prescription for Xanax, which she sometimes sold to me for a very reasonable price. That was the extent of our friendship, which was fine with me.
That was the year I started pulling out bits of my hair. It began as a bad habit, an occasional accident. Then I started to leave it around the city, in the splintered edges of park benches, between the pages of newspapers left on the subway, around the doorknobs of diner bathrooms. I did it strand by strand, subtly, the way you pick flowers while leaving the bush intact. Someone must have seen me, someone must have noticed, but no one said anything. I was like Gretel, trying to find my way back to myself.
Shortly after I left school, I got a job at a very weird, hip jewelry store near Tompkins Square Park, which was where I first met Kayla. If I’d known her in high school, she would have terrified me. She was pretty, with deep-set hazel eyes and a large, expressive mouth, and almost a foot taller than I was. But she seemed to like me.
“High five,” she said, when I told her I’d dropped out of school. “Me too.”
Around noon, we started drinking, usually beer from the deli at the end of the street, sometimes gin out of the metal flask Kayla had decorated with stickers.
“Maude doesn’t really care,” Kayla said, referring to the elegant, mysterious owner of the store I never actually met. At one point she had been a slightly famous fashion model, but a few years earlier, she’d married a Russian stockbroker and opened up a jewelry store. “She just doesn’t want to know about it, you know?”
Anyway, the job did not require a lot of brainpower. At the beginning, I hoped that I would get a lot of reading done. Though I faithfully brought War and Peace with me every day, I never made it past Pierre’s duel.
My days took on a kind of rhythm, which, depending on my mood, was either comforting or excruciating.
How are you
Have you been to our store before
I love your dress
If I could have you sign here for me please
I like your shoes
Have a good afternoon
Are you looking for anything in particular
Yes, there is a mirror right over there
Receipt in the bag
Have a good evening
When the store was quiet, I talked to Kayla about her terrible boyfriends, the sketchy photographers who wanted her to model for them, and her deadbeat dad who called every once in a while to beg for money and/or forgiveness. Her life seemed like a minefield of awful men, and I admired how gracefully she moved through it. “That’s just what they’re like,” she said. “You can’t take it personally.”
A week after Josephine’s party, you came to see me after work. Though I’d mentioned the store when we spoke at your party, I was genuinely surprised to learn that you had been paying enough attention to remember.
You waited outside while I locked up. My heart was a wild dog in a cage. It amazed me that I could still accomplish even the most basic of tasks— putting on my coat, opening up my umbrella, walking beside you, talking to you about your day.
You were dressed the same as any other vaguely hip white guy – jeans, leather jacket, ratty white converse, sunglasses – but on you it looked better, fresher, as if you were the first person in human history to ever wear that outfit, as if the city were full of cheap copies of you.
You told me you’d meant to go the to the Frick but you fell asleep on the train and ended up near Inwood Hill Park, where you’d wandered around for a couple hours, feeling like a ghost. In a grocery store you bought a large bag of some kind of Mexican candy which came in gold paper and tasted like powdered lemonade. I ate six.
“It’s a nice park, actually,” you said. “When the weather is nice, we should go.”
You said this so easily, like we were old friends, like it made all the sense in the world for us to spend time together. It was very convincing. Or maybe I was just an easy target. I wanted to be convinced.
I told you that I was lonely, because almost everyone I knew in New York was a student. “All they talk about is, who’s selling Adderall, which professor they want to fuck, etc. Which is fine,” I said. “I just can’t relate.”
“Students can be tiring. You need to hang out with grown-ups.”
“Is that what you are?” I asked, and you laughed. You were five years older than I was, which surprised me. I would have guessed we were the same age.
You asked me why I dropped out of school. I told you: “I thought I wanted to be a poet, but I really just wanted to be a poem.”
“Everyone has that problem.” You shrugged. “You just have to get past it. Turns out they’re not as different as you might think.”
I shook my head. “But I wanted to be the poet and the poem and the paper and the pen. When I sit in a class it’s like someone is sewing up my lips.”
That was probably the first thing I ever said that truly interested you. I could tell because you closed your pale eyes, like you were trying to really concentrate. This gave you a grave, almost ethereal expression.
It was bullshit, obviously. I dropped out of college for reasons that had very little to do with poetry. Sometimes I am able to really convince myself of certain stories I tell, of various motives I’d like to ascribe to myself. In this case I was simply lying. But I got addicted to that angelic look on your face.
Nicola Maye Goldberg is a graduate of Bard College, where she received the Mary McCarthy Prize. Her work has appeared in the Winter Tangerine Review, the Quietus, Queen Mob's Tea House, and elsewhere. She is currently an MFA candidate in fiction at Columbia University.