He tells me: “When you look at the MRI scans of an addict’s brain, going through withdrawal from drugs, and compare those pictures with the brain of a person in love, they look the same.” I don’t need science to tell me that.
Kick’s profile proclaims his wordiness, and I had messaged him threatening to crush him in Boggle; he responds to my Boggle-boasting by showing up for our first date with an actual set he made himself on a 3D printer. Loser buys the pie. He beats me handily, and then we play a game where we can only talk in sentences that use words from the boggle board. It’s amazing how all you can see at times like this are TITS and GROPE.
On the way home, we stop to pet dogs and kickbox trees. He has hipster glasses and a hipster beard but he is not a hipster. He has suffered losses this year, and I recognize the telltale signs of their passing in his hands and face. We nod at each other like two cagey veterans passing in the street.
In front of my building, the garbage is skittering past and I am kissing Kick. He kisses like it’s the only way to get air, a desperate, scrabbling quality, a lot of bumped teeth. He pulls my hair a little too hard; he lifts me up, he snarls. I wonder what that last girl did to him, and I want to rescue him, to share my lifeboat with this growly tiger of a man.
Our next date stretches to 24 hours. We go out for Thai food, where he orders an entire fish, complete with the head, and identifies parts for me. We each eat an eyeball; he skewers the head on his chopsticks like a puppet. I like how he looks to the side when he laughs, like he’s checking to see if anyone is coming. The conversation keeps swinging around to things I know about by delightful chance. He mentions Stephen Jay Gould and I offer a merry opinion on punctuated equilibrium; he points to parts of my body and I can name those parts in Latin.
The nubbin inside your ear, for example, is called the tragus. It is derived from the Greek word for billy goat, because of the little hairs that grow on it. I only know things like this because Sketch has drawn mine, named these things, but I don’t tell Kick this, and when he looks surprised that I know things, I tilt my head like, what?
After dinner, we go to see a movie of interminable length, and he rests a hand on my leg. I invite him up to my apartment for tea, and he spends time on the floor of my livingroom, scratching my rabbit behind the ears. An inspection of my browser history would reveal web searches in which I cruise for pictures of hot guys with rabbits, a barren category. My stove is leaking gas from one of the burners, and he fiddles with it for me. I feel something, seeing this man apply himself to my appliances.
He spends the night, and I keep waking up and laughing, because it’s funny to me that this bearded stranger has his head on my Calvin Klein pillows. The bed has moved far from the wall like a boat that has slipped its moorings. I drift around with my tiger, comfortably lost. In the morning, we walk hand in hand. Two blocks from my house, on top of an old warehouse is a rooftop farm I hadn’t known was there. There are roof chickens, clucking and getting worked up at our approach. Kick knows a sound to make that affronts them into silence.
Later that week, New York City schools are closed due to snow, and I lace up boots and forge a path for his dirty, cluttered apartment on the Upper West Side. The apartment is bursting with travel artifacts, take-out containers, the smell of his elderly cat. We prowl Central Park like foragers, climb trees and jump fences. He shows me where the raccoons have vanished into their den, just the way the two of us disappear into his apartment. We watch kids playing hockey at the ice rink, pick our favorites to root for. It is cold. You can count the degrees on one frozen hand, if you take off your mittens.
We wrestle in the snow, not far from where kids are hurtling suicidally downhill on dollar-store sleds; he demonstrates ju-jitsu holds and I get snow down my pants. When I wrap my legs around one of his arms, he pronounces this a mounted crucifix and praises my instincts as a fighter, and I am inordinately proud.
There is much in this man that I find praiseworthy and touching, and delightful. But he gives me the backstory of his last relationship (accidental pregnancy, personality disorder, chaos , newborn daughter spirited away to Wisconsin) , and I know that we are playing at a relationship. I go back to work on Monday, and do not hear from him all week. It is relationship-light—none of the emotional calories, and it leaves a funny taste in your mouth.
We are like people meeting for the first time at an airport. Our destinations are miles apart, continents. We are on the clock, and can only fall in love until our flights are called. If I wander away for coffee, he may be gone when I return. I attempt to convince myself that I am all right with this.
He has so much emotional freight that his friends call him Bilbo Baggage; his hurt spills out on the floor like a shittily packed suitcase. I try to help him push things back into other things, both of us with these yawning empty places; we complement one another not with what we have, but with what we are missing. We compare scars and offer commentary, and we cling to each other under the blankets. He has a scar down the middle of his chest, a keloid thick as yarn that I can find in the dark, but listing to the side like a slash—the one side of his chest expressed as a fraction over the other. He will not tell me what happened.
Sometimes, I feel like one of those paid seat-sitters who keep the rows padded out at the Oscars while the real people are in the bathroom. This is relationship filler. But I can’t help it. I want him. He comes over and stays and stays and stays and even now, I write with him in my bed. He is naked but for a ski hat he has pulled down over his eyes because my room is too bright (It reeks of morning person in here, he says). His body is going towards middle-aged fat; he has the widest feet I’ve ever seen that weren’t in a Flintstones cartoon. He looks like someone I could not knock down. He is inordinately proud of his gigantic penis, and sends me a dick pic one otherwise cheerless Tuesday evening. My first sext.
Different theories I have for the scar on his chest: a fight with a unicorn, an accident involving a sea battle, a narwhal, a marlin, the place where they took his heart out and left a note in its place. I’m still working out what the note might say.
Here are some things you should not do when you’ve got a new man in your bedroom, and you’re trying to drop anchor: Do not tell him the darkest chapters from your past just because those stories are the most interesting. Do not try to show off your flashiest yoga poses, because you are guaranteed to fall on your ass. Do not think you can brave the purple waters of BDSM without a safe word.
But I keep going back. The weekends pass sleeplessly, my laundry piles up and spills over the edges of the basket in a flood of my nicest underwear. There are red flags, and more red flags, and I ignore them, skating out singlemindedly to where the ice gets darker. During the week, I am mentally doodling his initials in my notebook; I reread our texts. I wait.
My friend Nina tells me about a hormone your body produces during physical intimacy, oxytocin. The joy hormone. I wonder if my body creates more of it than normal. When I’m with him, my brain is lit up like Las Vegas and I can barely hear the murmur of warnings from beneath the clang of the slots, a freaking jackpot of sex and attention.
We go out to eat at Country Kitchenette in Morningside Heights. He eats his breakfast and a good piece of mine as well. I am still hungry, so I order more food. While we wait, he takes my hand, draws it to his lips and bites down on it, crushing the little bones and sinews so hard I cry out. Back at his place, he hits my ass hard enough that he leaves a raised handprint, counting coup on my white body. I photograph the raised handprint, feeling a strange mixture of horror and pride. My underwear says BADASS, right across the back. I walk around him wearing them, and they are a dare, a challenge. He looks at me like an animal, all snarly and snaggle-toothed. His parents had let him decide for himself if he wanted braces or not when he was a child; he decided not, and his teeth leave irregular marks in my skin.
We walk down 44th street in the interstice between Astoria and Sunnyside, and I tell him that I have rechristened it Rape Boulevard because it’s so dark and spooky and industrial and deserted, and he pushes my head hard against the side of a parked van and starts to unbuckle his belt. I seem to have lost the ability to make decisions; I float in a sea of oxytocin with my eyes shut. But someone is coming down the sidewalk, and he lets me up.
There is something about the undivided attention of an abusive man that lights me up. He is so riveted by me that I grit my teeth and find a way to dig it. I don’t tell anyone, because if I did, I would have to stop. On a subway platform, he sticks a dirty finger in my mouth, like a fishhook, pulling out the side of my face from the inside. It hurts, but I laugh as I tell him to never do this again. We go ice-skating in Central Park, and he tries to knock me down. He pulls me down icy stairs; he flicks snow in my face. Someone’s beautiful mother tells him that’s not funny, and I kind of love her, and he calls her a castrating bitch behind her back.
Ten years with Sketch, and I never once heard him refer to any woman as a bitch. Not even me, not even when I was being a bitch.
My friend Rita always coaches: awareness, acceptance, action. I realize that if he was treating a friend of mine this way, I would call in an airstrike. Reluctantly, I begin to unpeel my clenched fingers from the oxytocin tap. I call one friend and talk, and then another. I tape a note to my favorite picture of myself, a framed shot of myself in mountain-biking gear, halfway down Death Road in Bolivia: No one mistreats, disrespects, or judges this girl. I am braver than I reckon, and I do not believe all the things that I think.
I call him, and it takes two and half hours on the phone to call it quits. In the withdrawal that follows, I would have relapsed back into his bed, but I can’t suffer a call like that again. I choose letting go over being dragged, but it leaves me feeling deflated, flat. February drags out in a cold and sour note.
I did finally learn what the scar on his chest was all about; he did it to himself, when he was a teenager. He wanted to have an interesting scar to make up stories about. For all his flaws, his petty rages, his arrogance, for how hard he hit me and how ugly our final conversation is, this is something I can relate to.