Even the most innocent parts of the body, if sufficiently magnified, look pornographic and sort of gross. In Paris, I went to the Mona Hatoum retrospective at the Pompidou and there was one round booth with a large video monitor set into the floor like a peep show; you could watch the camera crawl into the corner of the artist’s rolling eye or into her moist nostril. Up close, there’s always wet hair. It’s the kind of art that makes you take an involuntary step backward. Full respect, Mona Hatoum.
Personally, I like my life viewed from a comfortable distance. I don’t take selfies, and when I ask people to take my picture, they ask if I really want them to stand so far away. And I do. I do.
From a safe distance of four thousand miles, I message Squeeze in Venice and then wait hours for a reply so polite it makes me want attack my phone with a hammer. Our texts are constructed like the conversations in a Wall-Street English phrasebook: How are you? I am fine, thank you. Are you enjoying your visit? They are the sort of texts that promise nothing, that give nothing away.
Go ahead and ask me how I really am. From a distance I look alright, but pan in close enough and you can read the truth in all the moisture. In a lather that I will be left without anyone to pay attention to me, I go out on a date with the kind of man I would probably set myself up with if I liked myself better: Dig is kind, he is actualized. His profile picture shows him in front of Machu Picchu, where he attended a yoga retreat. He works construction and he offers to teach me how to drive a backhoe, playing right into my fantasy of being able to dig trenches around my enemies and ex-boyfriends, moats I would fill with crocodiles and raw meat.
Dig and I meet for a restorative yoga class, where we lay on our backs side by by side, our legs spread and buttressed with pillows. I can feel him liking me from one mat over. When my hand drifts into his space, he lightly touches my fingers. The next day, he texts me a picture of a baby rabbit because he actually heard something I said when we talked. Astonishing.
“He’s available,” a friend I meet for dinner suggests, laughing when I recoil at this gruesome possibility. “That’s the problem. It freaks you out that he is actually available.”
Gross. I am such a cliché.
I walk around my neighborhood past the apartments of men I have slept with, half hoping to see them, half wishing I had that backhoe. A neat chasm around their apartment buildings would end my worry that I will run into one of them at CVS when I’m out without makeup on.
My neighborhood is quiet, but sometimes it is violent. The most terrifying part? The randomness of the violence. A gay man was walking down my block a year ago and someone threw a rock at him from a speeding car, hard enough to kill him. In 2012, a Sikh was standing at the subway platform that I use every day when a 33-year-old woman, mistaking him for Muslim, came up behind him and pushed him in front of the train. This week, a woman was walking down 43rd Avenue, and a man threw acid at her face. She’s in critical condition; she might die. “Can I ask you a question?” the man asked, to get her turn around. I would have turned around too.
I can’t stop thinking about this woman, a priest who has dedicated her life to service and spiritual pursuits. Karma must have been taking a smoke-break. What hope is there for the rest of us? My friend saw her right after it happened, kneeling in the street with her hands covering her face. The paramedics hadn’t arrived yet, and my friend thought she was just another woman, crying in street.
For a while after I hear these things, I am more careful than usual. I stand with my back to the wall of the subway platform, instead of craning out to gauge the distance of the next train. I am momentarily alert about someone passing me on the sidewalk, or a car that slows down as it approaches. I pay attention, for a moment. But then nothing happens, and I go back to walking with my headphones in and my brain unplugged. I can’t maintain that heightened alertness.
The thing with dating is that it can lapse into violence at any moment. I am meeting men in public places, but I always want to walk them down dark streets so I can kiss them afterwards. I am not the greatest steward of my own personal safety. I leave my purse on the table when I go to the restroom; I sometimes forget to lock the door. I meet a man and after a charming hour think I know him well enough to invite him up to my apartment. Petty amounts of cash vanish.
I’m not careful. I go to an 80s dance party in Ridgewood, and I let a man nearly twenty years my junior kiss me to a George Michael song (“Sex is natural-sex is good/ Not everybody does it/ But everybody should…”) He wants my number, and I tell I am too old for him. His abs like cobblestones under his t-shirt, his name unpronounceable. My friends watch me, with mingled amusement and disapproval.
We are playing Truth or Dare, but if you say “Truth,” my friend Helena will moan with disappointment. You’re supposed to say dare. I get dared to sit down at the only empty chair at a crowded table full of young men with beards. I take the seat like it’s always been mine, glad to get off my feet, and the beards act bored with me before I’ve even opened my mouth.
Truth or Dare. A good metaphor for my life. I dare myself to do things that maybe I will tell the truth about it afterwards.
I dare someone to duck under the table cloth at a table full of strangers and emerge out the other side. I laugh a little too hard. Sometimes I feel like I am have to work to make it look like I am having a good time. At home, I sit alone and read something howlingly funny without my lips twitching. I only fall on the floor pounding my thighs when someone else is around.
Things aren’t that funny. I’m glad to be back from Paris, but I feel scared a lot of the time too. I don’t know what I’ll do next. I don’t trust the strangers next to me on the street, or I trust them too much. I want to call Sketch but I can’t think of what to say after I tell him how much I miss him. Instead, I spend hours trying to perfectly mat and frame an etching I bought him at the Rembrandt house in Amsterdam. I can’t get it to not look fucked up. Sketch is the one who taught me the word for those dented places where you can tell a paper travelled in a duffel bag: dinkles.
My life is full of dinkles. I send Squeeze a final text, sensing I will not hear back from him again. My phone is heavy with disappointments. I get an inquiring text from Push, my hot, dickish neighbor. I’d like to sleep with him again, but I don’t want to reward his shitty attitude towards women. We can correct their behavior, ladies, if we just stop fucking the shitty ones.
No one is coming to take responsibility of your safety for you, I tell myself sternly. No one is coming to make sure I am happy. I get a text from Dig, wanting to see me again, wanting to get up close. I tell him no, wanting to then run water over my phone so I can’t take it back. Look at me from over there, I want to yell. Don’t scrutinize me. Don’t come any closer.
“You are literally insane if you don’t go out with him again,” my beautiful roommate says, drunk and flushed. I believe that this is the universe talking to me, so I decide to act on it, even though it scares me. He is kind. No man who has lain beside me in sevasna peeping at me so longingly is going to do me harm. But am I safe for him? Why does he like me so much? Why is he so willing to turn over the keys to heavy machinery to me? Why would anyone trust me with their actual feelings, ever?
But I am not going to learn to do things differently if I don’t try to do things differently, so I text him and ask him out. I type out a warning label, and then delete it. I will be careful, aware of the fact that for a certain kind of man, I am the next oncoming train.