Body parts abstracted. A hand smoking a cigarette. An eye glued to a phone. A voice dissociating in passing.
A gloomy day. Quiet as days go in the city.
No sirens. No screams of construction. Not yet.
I watched as people walked through the park.
Everyone, everything, subdued by the wetness. By clouds. By the cool air of Autumn. By an extra layer of clothing, long sleeves, maybe a jacket. A bit more weight on the body.
I sipped my coffee slowly.
Enjoyed the breeze. The rustle of branches.
I read twenty pages from an old book. The paper stained with age and brittleness. I thought it might crumble. Whenever I opened it the smell of stale forests, stagnant and musty, clouded my nostrils like old basements. The words themselves jumped from the pages. Dynamic. Transcendent. Rambling incoherence. Artful smut. A sordid aliveness.
I closed the book mid-chapter.
A nearby conversation shoved me into distraction.
“Yoga.” He said emphatically.
“Yeah yoga. Me too.” Both their voices drenched with the pulse of coffee.
“It just helps me relax, you know? Take space. Just an hour and a half to see my life out on the table.”
“I love Savasana. Just being there.”
“Oh. I don’t do that kind of yoga.”
They looked normal. Button up shirts. Close cropped haircuts. Shaved faces. Jeans. Their names were probably Chad or Steve or Gary. It doesn’t matter. They talked about yoga, insurance, making money. The rat race. It sounded like they wanted to search for something deeper in life, but only vaguely; the language of healing in vogue to the point it warped the everyday normal with platitudes and Sanskrit and charlatanism.
I felt soulless.
I needed to use the bathroom.
I wandered into a bookstore imagining love, a conversation, finding connection. Depth of another kind. Placed on the shelves, between pages, sentences falling out and strung together, unassuming. Haunting a mysterious elsewhere.
I used the bathroom and sat in an empty wooden chair.
A woman approached me.
Or I approached her.
Maybe we both felt longing.
An escalator clicked in repetition.
Dull music played overhead interspersed by a voice making commands to the other workers.
The ringing of a phone.
All of it gentle.
It disgusted me.
“What are you reading?” She asked.
I looked up. I said, “Hey.”
Initially I thought I recognized her from another life. A different era. She wore glasses. Shoulders slouched. Slightly. She wore clothes that suggested a style from another city.
“Have we met?” I asked.
She shrugged unsure.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“Hm. Only been there once. Years ago.”
She shrugged again as if to say, “That’s nice.”
“Do you live around here?” I asked. Although she approached me, or maybe I approached her, she simply stood there, quiet, peering into my eyes inquisitively. Cocking her head to one side. Smiling faintly.
I asked her questions over and over, both out of interest and to assuage my own discomfort. I felt anxiety on the periphery, a small paranoia that people watched as we engaged, listened to our conversation, made judgments, asked questions at a distance, whispered gossip down the lane.
I wondered if she felt the same way.
But she approached me.
Or I approached her.
We had to be okay.
I wondered if the anxious feelings arose as a byproduct of the constant state of surveillance. The insidious oppression of daily life that gets placed into the category of fake news and fiction. 1984. “Fascism is just a hot word.”
I noticed a store camera staring at us. Perched in a corner, high up. It probed our humanness with an alien eyeball. It unnerved me.
I saw my reflection.
I saw her reflection.
She looked unphased.
The paranoia dissipated almost as quickly as it nudged me, not enough to take over our interaction, not enough to send us spinning into a dazed panic. She appeared relaxed and that relaxed me. The touch of anxiety created just the right amount of tension to make my heart beat a little faster.
“I’m here with a family I work with.” She said. “I take care of their children. They’re filmmakers.” She rubbed her fingers together to indicate money. “I have the day off. The night too. That’s why I’m here. In a bookstore.”
She made me smile. “A good life, huh?”
“They treat me well enough.” She said.
“Are you reading anything in particular?” I asked.
“Not today. Nothing’s catching my attention. I flipped through a few magazines. That’s all.”
“Uh huh. So…”
“What are you reading?” She asked.
I showed her a used copy of Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller.
“Typical.” She said. “Misogynist. Everyone’s got to read it once I guess.”
I felt embarrassed.
“That books not from here.” She said. “Let me get this straight. You’re in a Barnes & Noble reading an used copy of Henry Miller? You trying to be cool or what?”
“I was over at the park and had to use the bathroom.”
“That doesn’t explain the book.” She laughed. “Don’t worry. You don’t have to explain yourself to me. He has his moments of brilliance. Just uses the word cunt too much. It gets to be childish after a while.”
“Can’t argue with that.” I said. “What’s your name?” I asked.
“Kayla.” She held out her hand.
“Well…” She said.
“Well…” I repeated. The jolt of awkwardness made me sweat. I don’t know why I had to work up the courage to ask, but I did, and I could feel it under my armpits and on the center of my chest. I hesitated and stuttered but managed to come out with it, “Since you’re not reading, want to go for a walk?”
“Are you straight?” She asked.
“What?” The question jarred me.
“Are you straight?” She repeated.
“I mean, no, but that’s quite a question.”
“Straight guys have all these assumptions about women. Like they own us or something. They have all these fucked up expectations. Like a conversation means they’re getting laid. Not all of them, but you know what I mean. I thought by the look of you, the way you crossed your legs, I thought you might be, but still I had to ask. You answered correctly. Good job. You pass.”
“Okay.” I thought it strange her way of interacting but it made sense. She saw me and saw something in me but she also needed to screen me to make sure.
“Do you want to see anything? Or maybe I should ask, what have you already seen?” I asked as we walked out the door.
“If I wanted a tour guide, I would have hired one.” She said curtly. “I want to experience the city spontaneously today. I’m not working. I’m not on a schedule. Let’s keep it that way.” Her general countenance was soft but she spoke brusquely and to the point. I liked it. The combination of her vibe with the way she expressed herself felt balanced, and to be honest, it put me at ease.
“I do want to drop my bag though.” She said. “I don’t need it. I didn’t buy any books.”
We took off and walked the block and a half to her hotel. I couldn’t believe the place. It was 19th Century Revival Romanesque on the outside, but once inside, it sang with the tones of the Prohibition Era. Like a scene out of The Great Gatsby, but out of touch with reality, like a fundraiser for poor people with only rich people in attendance. The carpeting under my feet screamed a pattern of bourgeois pretense and the lighting vibrated an atmosphere of chic bohemian jazz notes without any of the cigarette smoke. It was simultaneously fancy and drab. A few people sat at a bar with tall wine glasses. They laughed about god knows what.
“This place makes me gag.” She said. “But it’s where they put me up, so here I am.”
We took an elevator to the 13th floor.
“Lucky number.” I said.
She opened her door and dropped her bag on a chair. The décor appeared odd to me. A mishmash between the abstraction of modern art and the warmth of a Moroccan café. Lots of orange, red, brown, and maroon draped across sleek, impractical furnishings. It confused me. Like they wanted people to feel comfortable but still cold.
“People with lots of money confuse me.” I said.
“Tell me about.” She said. “I’m from Hidden Hills.”
“That means shit to me.”
“If you saw it, you’d understand.”
“How’d you make it out?” I asked.
“Clearly I haven’t.” She held out her arms and pointed to the wealth of the hotel with her eyes. “But I also had a certain upbringing, I don’t really want to talk about at the moment.”
“Okay. No problem. Should we go back out?”
She grabbed a fanny pack, and to my surprise, grabbed my hand, and we ran out the door.
For a few blocks we walked hand-in-hand. The early leaves of Autumn scattered sparsely, juxtaposed against the square edges of bricks and sidewalk. It felt romantic. Playful. I felt also childlike and nervous. “My hand is sweating.” I said.
“I know. I can feel it.” She said.
“You don’t think it’s weird we’re holding hands? We just met.”
“You don’t go on Tinder much, do you?”
“No. I don’t.”
I felt like an old man. Like an anachronism. All of a sudden a grouchy rigidity swept into my body. Unsure of myself but still trying to boast confidence, I tensed up. The cat was constantly grabbing my tongue. I tried to shake it off.
She let go of my hand.
“You never brought someone home from a bar?” She asked.
“Come to think of it, I don’t know that I have.”
“You’ve had sex, right?”
“What, well yeah, of course.”
“Just checking.” She said. “Holding hands is the least of my worries. Don’t get any ideas though. It’s nice to be with another person. To share intimate moments. To share awkwardness.” She said it matter-of-factly.
She embodied a great knowing of her own desires, and without any breaks in the flow of movement and conversation, she let it be known with clarity how she felt and what she desired. It was pleasant.
“Let’s go to the river.” I suggested.
“Lead the way.”
As we walked to the river we talked about social movements and social justice, the use of psychedelics and how that affects our general experience. We talked about the need for healing within activist circles, the continuation and rehashing of trauma and how we each deal with our own navigation of relationships. We saw eye to eye on a lot of subjects but especially agreed on a wish for more subtlety of conversation when it came to the political landscape. We understood it wasn’t so easy. It required self-critique which we all struggled with. So many of us were hurt and lashing out, cutting people off, calling people out, and at the same time not owning up to our own bullshit. The hurt was understandable but the methods of dealing with it often seemed like the most expedient way of not actually having to deal with anything at all.
As humans of the modern era we devoured one another on a regular basis. We were taught to consume so consume we continued to do. “No ethical consumption under late stage capitalism.”
So it goes.
It felt good to connect with a stranger of a like mind.
We arrived at the river. The sun started heading into its nightly slumber. Not that we could see it anyway. The sky still covered over gloomily.
Out ahead of us we saw a couple dancing together.
“Oh my god. That’s so cute!” She said.
“Shall we?” I asked. I held out my hand and made a slight bow.
“Of course, darling.”
We took one another by the hand and held one another around the waist. We danced back and forth as though in a ballroom and strutted forward in a clumsy tango. We knocked knees a couple times and I may have stepped on her toes.
“I have no training.” I said.
“Oh be quiet and just dance.”
We spun each other around.
The river glistened despite the clouds in the sky.
“You know it’s a full moon?”
“Tonight? That’s right, it is.” She said.
“Want to a grab a beer?” I asked.
“I trust you’re not going to try and seduce me just because we’re having a beer?”
“No expectations at all. Just enjoying your company.”
We walked hand-in-hand.
We sat at the bar.
“I think I want a mixed drink.” She said.
She asked the bartender, “You have any good whiskey.”
He laughed. “Bottom shelf.”
“Whatever. A whiskey sour.” She said.
I ordered a beer.
“I just realized we haven’t eaten tonight.” She said.
“Beer is like bread.” I said.
“Aren’t you a philosopher.”
“That’s what people tell me. Your local wizard.”
She gave me a look over her drink. A look that said simply, “Please. Stop.”
“I don’t know if I’m hungry. I feel like I’m buzzing off our spontaneous rendezvous.” I said.
“Same.” She said.
I didn’t know where the night was headed and I didn’t care.
We laughed and played and talked.
Intimately as strangers could be.
It was comfortable enough.
Hints of weirdness interspersed.
I noticed how much pressure our society puts on sex. I kept checking her out. I didn’t feel especially turned on. Physically speaking. She was beautiful, of course. I felt rather a magnetism.
We spoke a similar language.
An attraction of words.
She approached me.
Or I approached her.
I don’t know.
I remembered seeing her in the bookstore. My thoughts scattered. Vaguely drowning.
The day gloomy.
I saw her flipping through magazines.
I felt lonely.
I went back to my book and kept glancing up until she disappeared.
Out of sight.
I dove into my book again.
She emerged like a dream.
In a haze.
She approached me.
A fuzz of uncertainty.
Full of my own projections.
Slowly we met.
My thoughts shed around her like the seeds of fall.
Like petals and leaves and I listened.
“I’m trying to get better at saying no.” She said. “I think it comes in all different forms. Not just the word no. I say it when I assert myself. When I cross your entitled boundary to create my own. But I do it out of self-preservation. Protection, really.”
“How old are you?” I asked.
“You look older. You sound older.” I said.
She looked away exuding a bashful confidence.
“How old are you?” She asked.
I made a motion with my hand indicating my age. To be honest, I liked showing off the ring on my pointer finger.
She mocked the motion.
“I like hanging out with older people.” She said. “I often do.”
“I’m not that much older.”
“We never would have been in high school together.” She pointed out.
“This is true.” I said.
We each ordered another drink.
“I feel a little tipsy already.” She said.
“I drink beer.” I said.
“A philosopher caveman on our hands.” She joked. “Who are you, Yoda?” She shifted her voice. “Drink beer I do.”
I laughed at myself.
“Beer good. Beer give me good sensation.”
“Sensation!” She laughed. “Oh my god. What am I doing hanging out with you?”
I shrugged my shoulders.
“We crossed paths. You approached me.” I told her.
She looked at me aghast. “You approached me! I felt someone looking at me. I turned around and it was you. You kept looking and dodging my gaze!”
She read me to a T.
“I was scared.” I said.
I felt like I wanted to cry.
“It’s okay. I was scared too.” She said. “But I eyed you up. I could take you.” She held up her arm and made a muscle.
“What. No way.” I retorted.
“Look.” She said. “We had a good night and day so far. Don’t ruin it. I was scared when you kept looking at me and dodging my eyes. You’re a tall white man. I was already skeptical. I was getting ready to leave and I noticed you crossed your legs. I don’t know why but I thought about that meme. You know it?”
I nodded. “From tumblr?”
She quoted it verbatim. “You know how people buy drinks for girls at bars? Why can’t people do that at bookstores? Like if I’m looking at a novel in Barnes & Noble and some person walks up to me and strikes up a conversation and offers to buy the book for me there is a lot better chance of that working out in their favor.”
My jaw dropped.
“I flipped the script.” She said. “I approached you. In a bookstore. I didn’t buy you a book…”
“Wow.” That’s all I could muster.
“You don’t know what it’s like to be a woman.” She said.
I shook my head.
“Your eyes are like darts. Watch them.”
“You’re right.” I nodded. “You went out of your way, spent the whole day with me, just to tell me that?” I asked.
“Oh my god, no. You’re cute. So far, I like you. I already told you not to ruin it.”
I felt my cheeks turn red and for the first time that night, unexpectedly, I was aroused.
“I like you too.” I said.
“Don’t get any ideas.” She said.
“Do you want to get out of her? Go for a walk?”
“That’s an idea.” She said. “I said very specifically don’t get any ideas. But yes, let’s go for a walk.”
We finished our drinks and meandered our way back to her hotel room. We weren’t drunk. A couple drinks each without dinner. Tipsy. Uninhibited. Slightly. Full of magic.
“I’m going to sleep alone tonight.” She stated.
In her room on the 13th floor I felt awkward. I didn’t know where to sit. The one chair was piled up with the outpouring of a suitcase. The only other options were the floor or the bed.
I noticed the mini-fridge.
“Look at these snacks.” I said. “And the drinks! Coconut water. Kombucha. Whiskey.”
“I don’t think they’re included in my stay.” She said.
I stood there.
In the middle of the room.
Unsure how to act.
“I don’t know what to do.” I said. “Can I sit in the bed?”
“Sure. I appreciate you asking.”
She curled up on the king size bed and sequestered herself to one corner.
I climbed onto the bed to join her.
We continued to talk. The conversation felt scattered. I was a nervous wreck. I tried to be cool but so many voices shot through my brain. Each one
full of jealousy
a different approach.
We talked about boundaries. She recounted an experience with a person she sees from time to time. A friend of a friend. Continually he overstepped boundaries. Didn’t listen to body language. To verbal language. To every sign under the sun. He kept at.
“Why do men think no means yes?” She asked.
I didn’t know how to respond. I felt ashamed. I felt awkward in my own position so close to her and wanting to be closer.
“Do you feel that way right now?” I asked.
“Can I come closer?” I asked.
“Yes.” She said.
I inched my body closer, pulling myself over with knuckles dug into the bed.
We touched legs.
I rubbed her knee.
We touched hands.
Ran fingers along fingers.
We talked about intimacy. About feeling feelings for people but unsure how to initiate those little touches of desire.
“Can I get closer?” I asked.
I moved myself again. Closer to her chest. I wanted to rub my head into her shoulder. Instead, we kissed. We kissed and kissed and kissed.
We kissed to the point of tiredness.
I was aroused and kept pushing myself onto her.
She pressed herself into me.
I maneuvered between waves of sleep and pure ecstasy .
We intertwined tongues.
Our breaths rose and emitted soft grunts.
We laid back.
“How are you feeling?” I asked.
“Nice. Comfortable. Tired.” She said.
“Same.” I said.
We kissed oblivious to time or day or happenstance.
We two humans fuzzy with little love.
“I think I’m ready for sleep.” She said.
“Are you okay getting home?” She asked.
“Yes. I’ll be fine.”
She smiled sleepily.
I smiled sleepily.
“It was nice meeting you. Spending time.” I said.
“Let me give you a hug.”
We got up and hugged.
I didn’t know what to think. I felt a buzz. My body alive. I don’t think I was thinking at all.
She showed me out and closed the door behind me.
“Goodbye.” She said through a sliver of space before the door completely shut.
We didn’t exchange information.
I didn’t friend her on Facebook.
She didn’t seek me on Instagram.
A lovely night.
In the annals of mystery.
“Goodnight.” I said.
I walked home.
A light drizzle.
I didn’t mind.
I felt like I was floating.
I crawled into bed with my girlfriend.
She wavered between sleep and a book.
“Where were you?” She asked.
“I’ll tell you later.” I said.
“Oh god.” She laughed mildly. “Did you meet someone? You have a dumb grin on your face.”