I was leaning against the dryer at the laundromat, reading Willa Cather’s My Ántonio, occasionally pulling a long strand of my hair forward in front of my face, ruing the many Y-shaped split ends, and wishing I had the cash to buy Keratase’s Bain Force Architecte, when he walked in, wearing the expression that promised to restore my god-given joie de vivre.
Actually, it was a mask, sporting a studied antisocial scowl, to be exact.
He was wearing a white v-neck T, low-slung jeans, and eating something unidentifiable, red sauce running, out of a Taco Bell wrapper. After the last bite, he balled up the wrapped and tossed it into the nearest wastebasket. He didn’t even hit the rim. Then he burped, loudly.
This was it: my dinosaur, my werewolf, my future. I would be the Gretchen to his Faust, the Beatrice to his Dante, the Petrarch to his Laura. No, we could gender-swap! While bending over to extract his grubby jeans from his dryer, the cleavage of his butt crack parted, as if winking at me, in confirmation. I yanked my flannel pjs and gym clothes out of the dryer and left, feeling equal parts nausea and desire.
The next day, I posted a Missed Connections ad on Craigslist.
“Justin Timberlake sighting at the Laundromat Royal Plus at T minus zero yesterday, during commercial hour of the nuclear slash zombie apocalypse! J/K, but seriously, who(m)ever you are, you seemed like a cool guy. My usual hideaway is Little Lost Sock on St. Denis, near my kitschy rat hole of a studio, but I thought I’d upgrade in the hopes of spotting a hipster hottie: and it worked. But kismet’s only kismet if you read this, and remember me (Jessica Rabbit doppelganger leaning against Industrial Washer No. 6—so worth the extra fifty cents per load) and write back. Can’t wait to fire up our future, sock to sock. XOXO, Audrey.”
A month went by. Then two. I’d given up on my fatal attraction to Monsieur Nasty, and was actively courting “Kevin” on OKCupid, which, from his profile picture, I was pretty convinced was a pseudonym for Freddy Kruger. What can I say? Death-drive-dominated, I go in for the psychos and duds, with the hopes of converting them to my politics, authors, and brand of jeans: True Religion.
The jargon on OKCupid is pretty straightforward, differing from that of a personal ad, in which the seeker pens his or her version of an ideal partner, after providing a brief gloss of themselves, i.e. “Me: busty blonde – 37/25/36—high-level telemarking executive, enjoys long walks, New Wave cinema, Italian food, and travel. You: above-average height, good sense of humor, stable job, and keeping the good dream of chivalry and romance, among equals, alive.”
That’s the kind of ad I imagined actually drew some promising suitors.
I got a few responses, by techbots who/that should have remained on the shelf at The Fake Store in Montreal, or The Boring Store in Chicago, stores that made a fetish out of unoriginality.
Or was that techbot me?
The last profile I read before signing off, by Cupidity4U simply read, “Calling all Ginger’s!”
I messaged him: “Happy to teach you the plural possessive case, for cash.”
My problem was simple: there was no life in the afterlife. I no longer “spent time”: I killed it.
That Sunday, I took my beloved quilt, hand sewn by my Grandma Ethel, before her cataract surgery (now that’s impressive), to the laundromat. While sitting on top of the very machine in which it was whirring, lint and dingy sweat disappearing like dewdrops, who should walk in but my original crush, looking like Fidel Castro on steroids. He had his headphones on (I thought I heard strains of Alice in Chains), I mine (Death Cab for Cutie). I studiously ignored him, dramatically swaying instead, while doing the crossword, back to him. It worked: within a minute, I felt a tap, on my arm. I turned around. His eyes were the color of sludge.
“Hi,” he said.
“Hi,” I said.
“I’m Guillaume. Do you live near here?”
“Old Jewish Quarter.”
“Are you Jewish?”
“I’m surprised you can dance. Jews don’t have rhythm. Haven’t you ever seen them rock?”
“Do you mean shucklen?”
“A Yiddish word meaning to shake or rock, not explicitly mentioned in the Talmud. Mohammed is supposed to have said, ‘Be not like the Jews who whenever they read the Torah publicly move to and fro.’ His contemporary, the poet Labid, writes of a person who gropes for an object, moving his hand to and fro like a praying Jew.”
“Yeah, shucklen. I would have known you were Jewish anyway, by your nose, long-suffering attitude, and Jew hair. And your freckles.”
“Oh yeah?” I said, thinking, Jew hair? Is he more stupid than racist or more racist than stupid?
“Want to go to Le Salon Daomé Friday?”
“Ok. But I’ll be late, no matter what time. Blame it on my Jewishness. Jews live in the Real Presence of the Lord, or anticipation thereof; what use do we have for the Gregorian calendar, or military time? That’s for amateurs. There’s a revolution at hand, beyond the Israel-Palestine conflict. I hope you’re on the VIP list of God’s chosen people: the foreordained, however politically objectionable, elect. If not, I’ll talk to my people. And my rabbi. I have three.”
I picked up my basket of socks and underwear (I washed the good shit in Woolite, chez moi), and left. He had a point though, I ruminated on the walk home. What is rhythm without rhyme? What patriarchy, without the idea of difference? What modernity, without history?
Was it me who was unable to face the fact there too existed maths, science, facts?
After seeing each other once more at the laundromat, and actually talking, we started seeing each other once a week. After a month, we were officially “dating.”
Within six months, it happened. He cheated on me and, as a systematic attempt to defend his own scummy behavior, launched a full-scale offensive attack, using every tactical scheme on, and, off, the books, to destroy a woman’s self-confidence.
Name-calling. Belittling. Eye-rolling, gas-lighting, and whole weeks of shamed hiding, from him, and me. Extricating my mind was easy enough, but my heart was in hock.
I actually wasn’t 100% sure he cheated. But all the signs were there, and I respect myself, so I broke with him, the next day. I fortified my regrets and justifications: ships in the night; too little too late; we’ll always have Paris. My life, at 31, was a study in the Derridean concept of hauntology, echoes of meaning from a once-embodied woman who’d seen too much, done too much, tried too hard, and was, at last, unwilling to see human fallibility for what it was: reality.
I am not superhuman. Two months after we split, we had a one-night-stand, replete with flowers, wine, and nostalgic banter for what never was, or was never meant to be. Before we slept together, we decided to get matching tattoos: Know Music, Know Life. No music, No Life. Keep it weird, I said, in my doorway, after the night was over. Be an orphan language, like Hungarian, or Basque. Just say no to the Chinese, German, and Soviet world-domination.
His to me: you live in a body. Accept that, or die, unloved, in a digital cloud. He leaned in, gave me a drawn-out hickey on my neck, and left. I sat cross-legged on the floor for an hour, listening to David Bowie while touching the last mark I’d ever have from him, other than the memento mori inked into my lower back.
The following day, while at the supermarket, I realized I could not make this natural disaster into art: if I tried, I’d just be the next person singing the blues about how heterosexual binaries are impossible even in numbers theory—1+0 only ever equals 1, a Narcissistic threnody.
Phone call, a week after our last booty call. 8:19pm, initiator, me.
“Hey. It’s Audrey. What are you doing right now?”
“Making Hamburger Helper.”
“With what? Like, on a bun?”
“I gotta go. I gotta eat this. Can we talk later?”
“No. And I’m hanging up first. I’m busier than you, you know. I have a term paper due, on Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, and the thesis is a mess. How’s your tattoo scab doing?”
“You have OCD,” he said. “Audrey, I—” Click. I hung up.
I wanted those to be the last words he ever said to me, my pied piper, my Orpheus! We could have chosen any soundtrack to accompany, or orchestrate, our lives. Pink Floyd! The Clash! The Cure! And yet he chose to stray, like a feral animal who didn’t know how good he had it.
Here, kitty kitty, he used to say, to the stray calico I adopted we’d named Lily, offering her a can of kibbles, and sometimes using that moniker for me. I was kitty-like. Kitten-like, even. Green, desiring invention, like the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk, but born into the wrong generation, or the wrong gender, as I explained it—my sadness—to my sister, Angela, on the phone.
“How could you be mourning him? You guys didn’t even last six months!”
“Seven. And I’m actually not. You know those t-shirts that translate “shit happens” axiomatically into every world religion? ‘Shit happens’ is the last swan song of a world dominated by brute matter. But I still need one. The t-shirt, I mean.”
“So get one,” she said. “Audrey. Please. Your eyes are closed to the future.”
“Falling out of love is a socio-cultural experiment on the genetic engineering of the human heart,” I said. “Next time, I will clone my heart in advance, so it’s waiting for me, undamaged, at the finish line.” I hung up, putting on Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart”: “You cry out in your sleep, All my failings exposed. And there’s a taste in my mouth, As desperation takes hold . . . But love, love will tear us apart again.”
I draped the mosquito netting around my bed, grateful for one thing: we’d never moved in together. Crawling under the covers, I turned on my sound machine (summer breezes punctuated by a whippoorwill), and woke up 8 hours later, refreshed.
I had a lot to do in the next month: get over Guillaume, work my three temp jobs, and plan for Halloween. Two weeks passed, rather peacefully. I was ready to start dating again.
Within an hour of arriving at Velvet (free cupcakes and $500 prize for best costume) on Halloween with my friend Roxanne, I found my next target. He was propped up against the wall, dressed as a pirate, but with two black mesh eye patches, not one. The rest of the costume was Johnny Depp in Pirates of Caribbean to a T, including the fake swashbuckling sword.
“Ahoy,” I said, by way of a suggestive hello, popping my hip. “Christopher Columbus, I presume? Betty Boop.” We clinked our beers, then made small talk for a few minutes, discussing costume inspiration. His voice was low and scratchy, as if he’d just smoked a case of Marlboro Reds. As I’d already decided most people never get beyond the hello, goodbye level of transactional intimacy, I was content to surf here, on the surface, with whatever random dude popped up next, for eternity. At least it was painless.
“So,” he said, spearing my cherry, and popping it in his mouth—was that supposed to be cute? “Tell me about yourself.”
“It’s humbling, n’est pas, that at the end of the world, citizens, consumers, and politician spend whole years of their life, or term, arguing over whether health care is a privilege under capitalism or a right under socialism, without tracing the question a little farther back, to, say, plantation history. Why are some people are granted the right to education, affordable, safe, housing, fresh water, and human recognition, starting with a name, while others are forced to try to exist, in human bondage? Survival of the fittest? Survival of the escaped slave with the fleetest feet.”
He nodded emphatically. “Life does not live. The democratic body on which we feed is half-dead. Cronenergian body horror, writ large.”
We both took a long sip of our drinks.
“What do you do for work?” he asked.
“18th century oil painting restoration,” I said. “I’m also a part-time student, of literature.”
He was, he said, a public accountant.
“Cool,” I said. “I’m always looking for free help with my taxes.”
We stared at each other for a good four seconds, in complete incomprehension the other, before switching into social propriety mode, and seeking analogic continuums between fine art restoration and accounts receivable. It didn’t take long.
Turned out, we both felt Jean-Paul Sartre’s authenticity v. mauvaise foi dichotomy had been abandoned prematurely. “I sum up this double-bind thus, ‘I know you are, but what am I?’” I said. “How can the subject-object dichotomy become a rapprochement of subject-subject?”
“Impossible,” said Guillaume. “Desire is based on dominance and subterfuge.” He ranted on for few minutes about nepotistic dynasties: Kennedy, Bush, Lehman and Koch Brothers. “Kennedy, Kenneth—is no one tracing these threads? Talk about simulacrum. The new world takeover is operated by sinister, aesthetically realist, plastic Mattel dolls!”
“Many of them quite aged,” I added. “Hey, what’s your party trick?”
“I download data from the world wide web at 2000 gh a second. In my mind. You?”
“I can turn a room full of bad men into a nuclear waste dump in minutes. Ok, two hours.”
“I don’t reveal my secrets. My history is the history of Paris, from occupation, to fall, to triumph.”
“What’s the triumph?”
“An empire not of dog eat dog, but cat drinks Moët & Chandon.”
“Or maybe the truth,” he said in a slightly higher voice, taking off his eye patches.
It was Guillaume.
“Wherever you go, there you are?”
“And there I am, too. If you’ll have me.”
I closed my eyes for a moment, and thought of an OKCupid profile that would attract the real him, with all his flaws, to the real me. I decided upon a song lyric: Dave Matthews Band’s “Spoon”:
Maybe I’m crazy
But laughing out loud
Makes the pain pass by
And maybe you’re a little crazy
But laughing out loud makes it all subside
“I don’t know that I have a choice,” I said archly, opening my eyes. “You’re armed.”
Virginia Konchan is the author of Vox Populi (Finishing Line Press) and a short story collection, Anatomical Gift (forthcoming, Noctuary Press). Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Best New Poets, The Believer, The New Republic, and Verse, her criticism in Boston Review, and her fiction in StoryQuarterly, Requited, and Joyland, among other places. Co-founder of Matter, a journal of poetry and political commentary, she lives in Montreal.