I was bad at all things boy-related right from the start. By age 25 things hadn’t gotten much better. I was oblivious to those who paid attention and enthralled by those who looked straight through me. It’s not the most unique description of a young adult’s romantic life as everyone was stupid and young once. Some of us continue to be stupid and old.
On a Saturday night about three months out from my 26th birthday, the last birthday that I would spend living in Brooklyn, I attended the party of a friend from high school. It was a quiet affair and on the way home my best friend and I decided to stop at a local bar instead of heading to our respective apartments. We were frequent visitors to this place and so easily settled into the usual frenetic happenings of a Saturday night in Fort Greene. It was my best friend who spotted him looking at me.
She has always been my spotter, a role that’s history stretches back to our freshman year in college and continues to this day. It’s a frustrating job that should not be undertaken lightly. It leads to gesticulating at my obliviousness and threatening to confiscate all of my headbands and occasionally falling into coughing fits that bring on asthma attacks. But none of that happened on this particular evening. The boy in question was tall, very tall. So tall, in fact, that my best friend found his height discomfiting. If it had been any other night, I would have acknowledged that yes, she was right, someone was noticing me, and gone back to chatting with her and ignoring her sighs.
I’ll never know what made me approach him that evening as he sat outside smoking a cigarette. He was wearing a sleeveless vest of some sort. In February. In New York City. There was something of the plaid variety layered beneath, but it was also missing sleeves. His hair was longish in the front and fell into his eyes. If someone had asked you to draw a picture of a late 2000s hipster, he would do rather nicely. Not that I cared about that particularly. I, in my skinny cords and white v-neck sweater and chocolate brown equestrian-style boots, looked every part the preppy princess that I was not. I understood clothes as costume and as armor and decided not to judge too harshly.
By that point I had been without my job for almost 18 months. The internship that I had taken the previous summer in an effort to clear a way into the fashion industry was coming to an end, and the economy was still making it impossible to find any temp work. I would soon be left to my own devices for far too many hours.
It became apparent rather quickly that we had almost nothing in common, nothing beyond the physical at least, but I was bored and unhappy and needed a salve for both. He had a habit of asking me what I was thinking that drove me insane and I had a way of clamming up that he didn’t appreciate. But the move home, which I knew was coming, hung in the distance taunting me with all of its symbolic failure, so I let it play out. I didn’t feel like caring too deeply about much of anything.
A couple of weeks after my recent move to Los Angeles, I found myself with an unexpected Friday off and little to do besides laundry. I was beginning to feel comfortable getting around the city without a car and decided it was finally time to visit the mall. The plan was to longingly touch clothes and possibly stuff my face. After passing the line of children who awaited their fateful meeting with the Easter Bunny, I mistakenly made eye contact with a woman working at one of the outdoor beauty kiosks. I almost waved her off but thought better of it. I needed something new for my face now that it would be exposed to so much sunshine. I might as well let her try and wow me.
Before long she was working a facial peel into the skin on the inside of my left wrist. There was nothing to do in those two minutes but chat. About where I was from. About what brought me here. About my baby blue nail color.
“Don’t let LA corrupt you,” she said. “You look like a good girl.”
I’ve always been The Good Girl. At first it was simply about positioning, about being the counterpart to my older sister and her Bad Girl label. And I liked praise and became adept at sussing out what kind of behavior led to it. But eight years of defying various authority figures about what my life should look like and what my career path should be is not Good Girl behavior. That defiance in pursuit of my own form of happiness and satisfaction bled into other parts of my character. But there still exists a surface layer of propriety that makes me sit up straight and cross my ankles and not my legs, especially when greeted with strangers and acquaintances. It’s that thin layer of fakery that leads to interactions similar to the one that I experienced at the mall.
That and all of the blazers.
I was annoyed but I would never have to see her again. It wasn’t worth mentioning or discussing.
Five years prior, I sat in a bed with the same label being dropped on my head. “This isn’t going to be serious.” I said that I understood. That I wasn’t looking for anything serious either.
I didn’t say that he annoyed me in so many ways that anything serious was unfathomable. I didn’t say that I was a hot fucking mess emotionally, and I was wary of dragging anyone into that, even someone I only had lukewarm feelings about. I didn’t say any of it. I thought that agreeing was enough. I thought that we understood each other.
“I’m not sure you get it. I don’t want to hurt you.” And there it was implied, and then bluntly stated soon after, that I wasn’t aware of my own fragility. That I couldn’t be trusted with my own sexual decisions, would never be able to fully grasp the consequences of what I chose to do with my body. I was too good and too sweet to understand anything about the world or how it worked. I thought about yelling at him, but I don’t yell. I thought about hitting him, but I was exhausted.
It is the side of the label that I hate most of all. It follows me around and looms large over any number of my non-platonic dealings with men. When I was younger, I enjoyed it. I liked playing the game, affecting coyness and shyness in pursuit of what I wanted. But it’s only a game if both sides are playing. I didn’t understand what I was really dealing with, the implied lack of agency and awareness, didn’t fully get it until I sat there in that bed. It wasn’t simply that I didn’t know what I wanted. It was that I needed to be told what I wanted.
The human tendency to strip those things that are new or strange of all complexity to ease our understanding is an exercise that leaves you with only a shadow. He was unable to see that I was all tumult and shading, neither Good nor Bad. But I don’t think that was completely his fault.
Back then I had trouble seeing myself too.