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Jul/Aug 2014 Fiction

Holiday Love Scarf

by Siel Ju

Image credit: Jonathan Bailey, NHGRI, Digital Media Database, www.genome.gov

Image credit: Jonathan Bailey, NHGRI, Digital Media Database, www.genome.gov


My friend Matt was a Sagittarius. For his 25th birthday, he invited everyone he knew on Facebook to a comedy show at Largo, followed by drinks. Per Matt's insistence, I ended up carpooling from Santa Monica with two friends of his I hadn't met before—Christian, a recent grad school dropout who drove with his angular face set in self-absorbed silence, and Danielle, a project coordinator for a national environmental nonprofit. Danielle was a young, heavy girl whose angry brown eyes contradicted the childlike lilt of her voice. For most of the drive, she spoke urgently about the harmful effects of BPA on human reproduction, occasionally dropping her voice to make jarring sexual innuendos about sperm motility. She acted horrified at the mini bottle of Aquafina in my purse. "All those plastic toxins—It's really not something you can afford to do to your body, at your age," she said, then quickly added, "Our age, I mean."

I was thirty-two. "It's okay," I said. "The planet could use fewer kids."

Danielle took a big inhale, but Christian preempted her by pulling into the parking lot. He offered to pay, but we both handed him fivers.

The comedy show was a strange mix of droll and slapstick humor. It went by quickly, and the crowd walked en masse to the dim, speakeasy-style bar next door known for its complicated and expensive cocktails. I started a conversation with the woman next to me, Natalie, who said she was going to visit her mother in San Diego for the holidays, but that she wasn't looking forward to it.

"My boyfriend got me a book, Codependent No More," she said. "It's not that my mom's ever forced me to do anything, but I've always felt obligated."

She sounded vaguely wistful. I told her that my mother used to pepper me with small, passive-aggressive insults about my appearance when I saw her, but that things were easier now that she'd remarried and moved back to Korea.

"I miss her sometimes, but I have to admit I'm happier during the holidays," I said.

Danielle, who I didn't realize had been listening, piped in. "So what are you doing for Christmas?"

"This kind of stuff," I said, gesturing in a circle to signify the evening.

"Don't you have any other family?" There was her horrified tone again.

I ignored her. "I'll be back," I said to Natalie. "I'm going to buy the birthday boy a drink."

Matt and I had dated briefly when we'd first met a few years before. It hadn't worked out, but due mostly to his good nature we'd unexpectedly become pretty good friends, the kind that shared dating woes. He'd recently had a couple brief affairs with married women. The experiences had left him feeling jilted, though he'd been the one to end things. The women had seemed too glad to see him go.

"You said they weren't really your type physically and had too much emotional baggage," I said.

"It's that they never even considered leaving," he said. "Not even on a fantasy level."

"Can't you ever just have fun?"

Matt always went for strong, independent women, a commendable trait, but after landing one, he'd glom onto her in a cloying, wheedling way until she inevitably decided she was better off alone. Then he'd call me to rehash what happened, cataloguing the timeline of the relationship in the listless tone of existential writers before starting to whine self-pityingly. Whenever he did this, I'd want to slap him and tell him to grow a pair, then would feel guilty and suggest going out for ice cream. His favorite flavor was mint chocolate chip.

This night Matt was at the center of a dozen or so of his coworkers who'd formed a possessive circle around him, busy rehashing the show. I saw Matt was holding a full drink already, and so made my way to the bar to get one just for myself.

People ebbed and flowed, ignoring me. After a while, Natalie came to stand by the bar, too. "I wasn't going to come when my boyfriend canceled," she said. "But I'm glad I did. I liked what you said about your mother."

"You mean we're both codependent?" I said, aggrieved.

"No, no," she said. "I have this friend who just had a baby. She moved to Simi Valley, had no one to talk to, so I drove up to visit her just to be nice. Then when I got there, she started making fun of the way some people dress, and halfway through, I realized she was talking about me."

"Did you say something?"

"No, but I wish I had." She sighed. "It's a process. Baby steps."

Her expression was more resigned than hopeful. I noticed she was dressed very chicly, with expensive leather boots and an oversize knitted scarf. I asked her where she'd gotten the scarf, and she said she sold it at her boutique in Santa Monica. "We're neighbors," I said, and she gave me a ride home.

 

The next afternoon, driving, I called Matt. I hadn't gotten to talk to him much at the bar, and had left early, which I felt guilty about; he tended to take little things personally. But he sounded happy to hear from me.

"So what did you think?" he said.

"He was funny," I said. "I liked the joke about the paleo—"

"No no, I mean, about Christian. He's wanted to meet you since he saw that picture of you on Facebook. The one from Halloween, where you're hitting me with a ruler."

I'd dressed up as a sexy school teacher—tight blouse, cat glasses, and a flashy copy of Flesh Unlimited. The ruler had been my bookmark. "Really?" I said. "He barely said anything to me."

"He can be a little shy until you get to know him. He's really smart. He remembers everything, and he speaks French. In grad school he was studying this crazy photographer, Hippolyte—"

"Is he unemployed?"

"He has a second interview at this architecture firm."

I agreed to go out with him, then hanging up, felt disgruntled that the one guy interested in me was jobless, lost and floundering in his thirties. I tried to remember what Christian looked like in more detail. When he'd smiled, I'd noticed his nice teeth, and in my memory, the angularity of his face grew more definite, until his expression turned confident, knowing. An architecture firm sounded cool, I thought.

I parked at a meter and went into Chado Tea Room. I was there for a writers and publicists roundtable. The idea was to bring the two sides together to talk out how to help each other. It was an informal thing organized by the editor of a health newsletter I wrote for regularly. As I'd expected, the meeting was all women, a dozen of them, the PR agents dressed smartly, the writers more dowdily in bulky jeans. I sat down and ordered a maple scone. The two women near me introduced themselves, then went back to talking about a male restaurateur they despised.

"And then he told my friend he would've gone home with me if he wasn't already seeing someone."

"Seriously?"

"It's like he can't conceive of the idea that I might not be attracted to him."

"He's so handsy, too."

I tried to join in. "I knew a guy like that," I said. "I always wanted to tell him off, but when you do, they think you're flirting with them."

"So what did you do?" The first one asked curiously.

"Nothing," I said.

"But then they'll go around telling people you're into them."

"They'll do that regardless."

"True." The woman looked vexed and thoughtful; her eyes were filled with angry idealism. She was in her early 20s, the baby fat on her cheeks adorable against the serious set of her jaw. It felt sweet that she thought this wrong could somehow be righted. In fact, her mood was infectious. By the time I was on my way home, I found myself twitchy with a vague sense of agency, that if I thought about it hard enough, I could find a way to tweak the world a little for the better. It was rush hour. Dejected drivers were changing lanes too often, further stalling the traffic. I imagined opening my windows and yelling out, "Don't you see what you're doing?" then let the thought slowly dissipate, along with the empowered mood. The phone rang.

"I wasn't sure when would be a good time to call." It was Christian. "Matt said you work sporadically."

He sounded different than I remembered, calmer, which made me unexpectedly nervous. I felt as if we were riding up an escalator, he a step above me and looking down while I craned my neck up suppliantly. I wanted to bring us back into equilibrium.

"Matt said you liked that picture of me hitting him," I said.

"Huh?" he said, then laughed briefly. "Well, it's the first picture I saw of you. Look, I know it's a little weird. I was going to say something last night, but that Danielle girl talked our ears off, and then I turned around and you were gone." His tone turned gentle. "I'm really not a creepy person. Matt can vouch for me."

I tried to match his tone, but it came out petulant and warbly. The anxious part of me still wanted to make him uncomfortable. "I don't know anything about you," I said. "What kind of work do you do?"

"Actually, I just got a new job," he said quickly, "starting Monday. I mean, I still have to call them back, but they've made the offer." He breathed in sharply. "I thought maybe I could take you out this weekend and we could celebrate."

I found the slight nervous pause in his speech charming. I immediately accepted. This seemed to have the effect of either repelling or disorienting him; he got off the phone quickly, saying he'd text with the details. His sudden desertion turned me morose and apathetic. I drove glumly, resigned to the traffic, resentful that the guys I met showed only cold arrogance and flaccid inhibition, never anything in between.

I decided to call my friend Erin at work. Usually, Erin was my favorite wingwoman, though I'd known better than to ask her to go to Matt's party. Erin disliked Matt. The night I'd met him, I'd left the bar with him, abandoning Erin. In my defense she'd been busy making out with a guy she ended up taking home that night, too. But that guy had never called Erin again, while Matt had stuck around. For that, she was bitter, and she took it out on Matt, though she wasn't really a vengeful person, just glum of late. When she picked up, she seemed glad for the interruption; her voice had that efficient, workplace tone, tempered with a brooding angst. I could see her in her plastic office at the bank, her hair pinned efficiently away from her face, her feet shifting slightly in her heels as she powered through her files. She said her work always felt satisfying when she was in it, but hollow when dissected in retrospect. To cheer her up, I suggested she leave work early and we go holiday shopping, just for ourselves. I gave her the address of Natalie's boutique.

 

The boutique was a cute little place on Montana Avenue, an upscale shopping street. Several slim, well-heeled women browsed, their faces grim and determined, as if from the effort of keeping their weight down through middle age. When we walked in, Erin and Natalie took to each other immediately. They quickly began bemoaning the dating scene in LA. Natalie said she'd met her boyfriend through OKCupid and encouraged us to try it, too.

"I've had to retrain myself completely," she said, "to actually make this relationship work."

Natalie's tone was encouraging, but I suddenly felt weary. The conversation sounded familiar. I said I'd tried online dating before, and that it hadn't gone well. But Erin's face turned eager; she asked Natalie what she meant. Natalie said in the past she used to do nice things for her boyfriends, only to find herself taken for granted, then cast aside. "I'd be like, 'I got a present for you,'" Natalie said, using a doofy, cartoon character voice while shuffling towards us in a silly weeble-wobble walk, her arms outstretched like she was offering up a gift. "But he should be the one giving me gifts. I didn't realize it, but I was emasculating them. I was totally sabotaging myself." She recommended a relationship course she'd taken, a series of online seminars, starting with one about bringing love into your life, which she said outlined concrete steps you could take to get guys to pay attention to you and ask you out. One of these methods consisted of catching a guy's eye and holding it for five full seconds.

"It really works!" she said. "I mean, I'd met my boyfriend already when I took it, but my friend who took it with me said it's like magic. They'll get up out of their seat, walk over from all the way around the bar, and offer to buy you a drink."

"Meeting guys isn't the issue," I said. "It's everything else."

But Erin's eyes were glittering. She listened to Natalie, rapt, lit up by the winter sunlight, which had refracted through a window and was dappling her face with dots of iridescent color. When she tilted her head down slightly, the spots moved into her hair, covered it like jeweled netting. Looking at her, I thought she was radiant and wondered why she always seemed to have such a hard go of it, with the guys. I wondered why I did, too. Natalie promised to email us a link to the seminar website. Before we left, Erin and I both bought scarves—I got two, one to send to my sister in Portland—the same style but different colors from the one Natalie was wearing the night before. Natalie sold them to us at half price, and when we said that was too generous, she said it was fine and smiled shyly, her teeth peeking out meekly between her lips.

 

I had a good week, a productive one, the days running in a neat little seam. A couple nights, I met Erin for happy hour. She was cheerier; she'd signed up for the seminar Natalie had recommended and was anxious for it to begin. I didn't tell her about Christian, but her enthusiasm lit a pilot light of hope in me, too. I could sense it in my quiet moments, blue and steady and waiting.

For the date I dressed in monochrome, black pants, black heels, black coat, plus the new black and white scarf from Natalie's shop, hung around my neck in loose coils. The outfit looked stereotypically New York and made me feel protected, like I was encased in an urban shield denoting self-sufficiency. I tried putting my hair up in a bun, but it make me look too severe, so I left it down and added earrings, big silver hoops I thought lent me a more receptive flair.

I got to the coffee shop a few minutes early, but Christian was already there, sitting at a good spot in the back away from the foot traffic. When I walked in the door, he raised his hand in greeting and stood up. His light brown hair was loosely styled away from his face. He wore dark jeans and a black moto jacket that looked expensive but old. He had the kind of good posture that made me aware of my own; I noticed myself straightening my shoulders as I walked towards him. I was about to shake his hand when he caught me in a quick hug, then we sat down. He asked me if he could get me something to drink, but there was a long line at the counter, so I said I'd wait. "You can have my tea if you want," he said tentatively. "I haven't touched it yet."

I declined, thanking him. He said he would have liked to have taken me out to dinner, but he wasn't sure if it would have made me uncomfortable, that kind of time commitment. I shrugged, then smiled. I said I was thinking about getting a hot chocolate.

"Because we could still go to a restaurant," he said. "If you want."

I was about to shake my head, then remembered what Natalie said about emasculation. "I'd like that," I said hurriedly. "I mean, we should celebrate your new job! Dessert, wine." I suddenly stopped, anxious I'd suddenly raised the bar too high on the dinner, made it too expensive.

"Do you like tapas?" he asked.

"Absolutely," I said. I was grinning unnaturally; when I realized this, I abruptly remolded my face into a neutral expression. Then we smiled awkwardly at each other.

"Me, too. I think I was a Spaniard in a former life." He suddenly turned serious. "Wait, I didn't really mean that. I don't believe in reincarnation." He looked at me intently as he said this, like he wanted reassurance I wasn't a reincarnationist either. I laughed to show I wasn't, then felt annoyed with myself. My reaction seemed too suppliant.

He drank his tea in a gulp, then we jaywalked across the street to the tapas restaurant. The place had recently reopened with a sleeker look, ebony tables and warm, ruddy lighting. It was packed, but we got seats at the bar. Next to us a man ate alone, attacking his cheese plate with vicious little bites. Between pokes at his phone, he snuck glances at us with a timid envy that made me feel lucky to be with a date. I glanced at the menu, then when Christian asked what I wanted, suggested he order for us, being a former Spaniard and all. This seemed to imbue him with a small, glowing pleasure. He took on the task with enthusiasm, conferring energetically with the waiter over taste profiles of the cured meats. He sampled two different wines before settling on a third. Then he turned back to me.

"It's weird because Matt's told me so much about you already," he said. "I don't know where to start."

I asked him about him. He'd grown up in Ohio, the baby of the family. His mother raised him like a little prince, he said, and he was close to his parents now, though he disagreed with them on everything; they listened to Glenn Beck and got into pyramid schemes. His older sister had four kids, one autistic. He was the black sheep, he said. He'd gone to college in Iowa, then moved out to Los Angeles on a whim, first working as a PA at Warner Bros., then bouncing through odd jobs before starting an MA program in creative writing at Cal State Northridge. "To clear my head," he said.

I noticed he said the words "odd jobs" with an ironic gloss, as if he was protecting me from the dark and outré details of his life until he knew I was ready for them. His tone grew more relaxed as he spoke, prouder, like he was happy for the opportunity to shape the vague meanderings of his life into concrete proof of an adventurous spirit. He said he'd traveled to Thailand twice in the last year. His eagerness to be perceived as a rebel of sorts roused my sardonic proclivities—he actually used the word hedonist to describe himself—yet that same eagerness also revealed a vulnerability in him that softened me. I wondered if I talked the same way about my life, if my little attempts to reframe my past were similarly transparent and frantic.

When the food arrived, it was clear Christian had ordered way too much. We played Tangram with the waiter, trying to get the tiny plates to fit into our bar space.

I asked about the architecture firm. Christian looked confused at first, then said Matt had misinterpreted, the job was at a nonprofit developer for low-income housing. His title, which he seemed satisfied about, was Director of Outreach. "Basically the liaison between the public and the nonprofit," he said.

As we talked we shared the food gingerly, careful not to clash opinions or forks. At one point he lifted his glass of wine, then realized it was empty and set it back down. The bartender quickly came over, but Christian waved him away after seeing my full glass; I'd forgotten about it in my nervousness. I started sipping industriously. He said it must take a lot of discipline to work as a freelance writer, that that kind of self-imposed structure didn't come naturally to him, which was one reason he'd left grad school. He said this in a way that hinted he had a certain disdain for routine, its lack of passion. I watched him talk, imagining how he'd looked at CSUN, the class discussing Lolita's agency while he sat in the back, agitated with the quiet bookishness of it all. He said he'd read some of my articles, Googled them. He liked one I'd written about a raw juice cleanse I'd done, that what I'd described was exactly how he'd felt on a similar cleanse.

"Those types of articles are just repackaged PR pitches," I said. "The so-called benefits—they're really placebo effects."

I'd meant to be humbly self-deprecating, but my tone came out huffy and caught him off guard. "Well, I agree the stuff about it curing cancer being unlikely," he said quickly. "But I did feel cleaner afterwards—"

"Starvation will do that to you," I said. The words were still harsher than I'd wanted, but this time I managed to sound more teasing.

He smiled. "So that's what that was," he said. He turned thoughtful, turning over a piece of beet to better pincer it. "The way some people talk about juicing, you realize they're actually obsessive compulsive, or have an eating disorder. But there's something about that their obsessiveness that makes me want to get into it, too."

"I agree," I said. "The extremeness of it. It gives you a sort of focus."

"So we have something in common," he said. The bartender came over again and Christian gave him a nod this time, for a second glass. "You look very—professional today. Is this how you usually dress? I mean, I like it." He said that last part quickly, which made it unconvincing.

I got home close to 11:00, feeling like the date had gone well enough, yet fettered with an undercurrent of apprehension, like I'd done something wrong but couldn't put a finger on what the mistake was yet. I went to bed immediately to sleep away the feeling and woke up near dawn, spent from the rushed confusion of my dreams.

 

It was the Sunday before Christmas. I spent it at a Korean spa with Erin, then in the early evening, when Christian called, told him about it. There had been a minor kerfuffle at the beginning when Erin tried to wear a bikini into the hot tub; her argument for the tired-looking staff was that a different Korean spa had allowed her to do so. In the end, she got naked but was angry for a while; I had stayed out of the fight, which she seemed to see as a kind of betrayal. After the sauna, though, she got over it. I'd noticed most of the women arrived alone, going about their soak-and-scrub routines in vigorous and somewhat grim, business-like fashion, before pulling on the shapeless regulation loungewear and padding off to nap in the heated room, splayed out unabashedly with their mouths open. I mimicked them and woke up feeling discombobulated and puffy.

Christian had had a long conversation with his parents, who were hurt he wasn't coming home for the holidays. It was the first Christmas he wasn't spending with them. The year before he'd flown back with his girlfriend at the time, a woman five years older than him, whom his parents had loved, thinking her a calming influence. Christian and the girl had broken up shortly after that, but his parents brought her up again that day, which had led to an argument.

"I think we stayed together so long because we were just that age, when people couple up," he said. I didn't ask how long. "It's weird, she never mentioned kids when we were dating, but when we finally broke up, she gave me all this crap about how I'd robbed away her last chance of having a baby and left her with nothing. It made me think all women are the same."

"Well, it's an easy argument to make," I said.

"That all women just want to have babies?"

"No. I'm saying maybe she didn't want the relationship to end, or was feeling wounded, and the whole baby thing was the first thing she could think of to make you feel shitty." I paused. "Though, who knows?" I added. "You knew her, not me."

There was an angry silence while he considered this. Then he asked if I'd had dinner.

 

Christian lived in the Fairfax district, in a one-bedroom that was fairly spacious but looked cheap, with popcorn ceilings and pinkish carpet mottled with faint stains. The hodgepodge furniture looked assembled from garage sales. When I arrived, the apartment was filled with the pungent aroma of prunes and olives and garlic, mingled with the bouquet of decanting wines. He'd cooked enough for an army—homemade hummus, a dense black quinoa and avocado salad, and a gigantic casserole dish of chicken marbella. He'd mentioned he enjoyed cooking, but seeing the spread, I was duly impressed. He told me, more convincingly this time, that he liked my dress, a simple scoop-neck I'd changed into self-consciously.

We sat down at one end of his too-big dining table, the five other chairs staring us down. Once we started eating, he became more spirited. He asked me if I liked the wine, and when I said I did, said he'd made it himself. "It's my second year," he said. "It's more acidic than I'd like, but I know how to correct for that now."

I noticed the wine cooler buzzing in the corner, and next to it, a barrel-shaped contraption with vinyl tubing and a red corker balanced on top. He said winemaking had become a semi-serious hobby. He was planning to get his sommelier's license and had just started a blog.

"It's not as hard as you'd think," he said. "And a lot of fun. I drive upstate to pick the grapes at this one vineyard. Though next year, I'd like to make that trip with someone."

I didn't know how to respond. "Your ex wasn't into it?"

"No," he said, then shook his head. "Definitely not." He broke apart a roll into tiny, deliberate pieces before starting to eat it. "It dragged on far too long as it was. Honestly, it started falling apart as soon as we moved in together."

I nodded.

"You know those intense, obsessive relationships, where your lives get tangled up immediately? It was one of those."

He said he had a tendency to let things move too fast. "I think I saw her as a wounded bird I could protect somehow. But we both took that too far. By the time we broke up, there was no way we could be friends. The last time we talked, I was at the grocery store. She called me and started screaming at me about how I shouldn't leave without telling her where I was going, that she needed to know where I was, at all times, basically." He looked up from his plate at me. Something in my face made him change course. "That's what I think is great about you and Matt. That you stayed friends. Had that level of—maturity."

Gingerly, we started trading Matt stories. Christian explained how they'd met, at a pick-up soccer game in Westwood Park. I half-listened, grousing over what he'd said about his ex. I'd never had any intense, obsessive relationships. I wallowed in a mix of jealousy and contempt, the two feelings jostling each other for dominance like rancorous siblings. I felt like a box of cereal in an aisle full of cereal boxes, in a supermarket in a city with countless supermarkets, at a time when no one ate carbs. All the good things in life seemed to happen only through rare intersections of luck and timing, chance meetings that never happened for me. I thought about Matt getting a text from the plump married woman about how she understood completely, things had run their course. I pictured Natalie paging through her codependency book and carefully dogearing a page. I watched Christian's hands; he'd stopped eating the roll and was absent-mindedly playing with the remaining pieces until they disintegrated into crumbs.

"You've gotten really quiet," he said. He was studying me, his expression vaguely apprehensive and contrite. "I hope I didn't upset you."

"Upset me?" I said. I shook my head. "No, I'm just listening. I'm interested." I smiled, leaning forward. I wasn't sure if Christian was just a blithe kind of a guy who innocently, if obtusely, shared whatever came to mind, or if he was more deliberate, if the effect he'd produced on me was exactly what he'd been going for.

"I think I'm trying to be honest and up front, but going about it the wrong way. Like if I put it all out there..." He took a long sip of wine. "I practically dragged you over here tonight."

"I wanted to come." I said. This seemed to calm him. We looked at each other, and for a second I thought he was going to kiss me, but he didn't, so I kept talking. "I've met people like that. They seem like exactly what you've been looking for at the time. But then you realize you projected all this stuff on to them—"

He nodded. "It's been good in a way. I've gotten more cautious, not just always jumping into the next thing that comes along."

Somehow this elbowed awake that resentful, unlucky feeling again. No one ever took any leaps of faith for me. He saw me look at the clock. It was after 11:00. "I talked the whole night," he said resignedly. I disagreed lightly, playing nice. We got up to clear the plates. I started running the water, and he said it was okay, he would do the dishes in the morning, but seemed glad for it when I said I wanted to help, it was only fair since he'd cooked.

Standing at the sink together, he asked me about my past relationships. I said there hadn't been anything serious of late, that the last guy I dated was in the summer, and even that hadn't lasted long. He asked why not, and I said ultimately, he hadn't made enough time for me. He asked what kind of time I considered appropriate. I laughed nervously. "I don't know," I said. "More than once a week?" He nodded, like he found this answer satisfying, doable. I found this appealing. The domestic act of washing dishes together drew me into his bubble, and I realized I liked it there, this foreign, homey place. When we finished, he suddenly leaned down and kissed me. He held my face in his hands; they were soft and clean from the dishwater.

We made out for a while, then went to his bedroom. We mussed around on his polyester bedspread. After a few minutes, I told him I didn't want to have sex; I had my period. He said that was okay, he still wanted me to stay over, if I wanted. At that it was like it was decided. We groped at each other slowly and ardently, occasionally freeing each other of another piece of clothing, until what seemed like hours later, we were both naked except for our underwear. We rolled around hotly, not having sex. He seemed more confident now, firm, like in bed he was comfortable being his true self. Eventually he put his hand between my legs and touched me over my panties until I came. Afterwards I started giving him a hand job, then watched him masturbate, on his knees straddling my body, until he came on my chest. He wiped me down with a warm, damp washcloth.

We got under the covers. We started kissing again, more gently this time, but pressed hard against each other. With his thumb he caressed my eyebrow, then my ear. "I really like you," he said. "I want you to know, the other women I'd been seeing, I've told them I met someone, I'm not going to see them anymore." As he said this, he was looking away slightly, like a child who had told a tall tale he'd almost convinced himself was true. I felt an uncomfortable mixture of empathy and derisive mirth. I suppose it wasn't out of the realm of possibility that he'd been dating a few other women. He was attractive enough, but something about the way he'd made this declaration made me disbelieve him. It seemed too spot-on a detail of the way he wanted to be seen—as someone unconventional and daring and profligate—and it felt desperate, beseeching in its effort to convince me he was a catch and I the lucky one. In a way I did feel lucky. But I also wanted to call him on it. I like you, too, I wanted to say. But you're not fooling anyone.

We dozed next to each other fitfully, the room humid with our body heat. I had a hard time falling asleep, and when I did, kept waking up. In this way, I didn't dream.

 

The next morning I drove Erin to the airport. She was going home for the holidays. Her parents lived in New Jersey. During the drive, Erin discussed the relationship seminars. They didn't start until the New Year, but she had signed on to the website and watched some of the free mini videos, one about online dating.

"Basically, we need to look at it as a numbers game, and just go out with a lot of people. And right away, too, so you're not all invested in someone before you even meet. None of this emailing and talking on the phone for weeks." She leaned toward me. "The magic number is thirty-seven." She sat back, then wagged her hand. "Or around there. You have to go out a lot."

Her expression was anticipatory, but with a disgruntled undercurrent, like she was aggravated about all the time she'd wasted before discovering these truths. Still, she seemed happier, more alert. She was wearing a crisp blue crewneck and a high ponytail, which gave her the look of an unusually enthusiastic student, the kind who sat in the front row and raised her hand a lot.

"After the trip, I'm starting fresh," she said. "So while I'm at home I want to do like a cleanse. Vegan, no gluten. Mostly raw food. I need to reset my system. I'm not going to drink at all. Or if I do, only organic wine, no sulfites. Although I might go out with my friend Vanessa in New York for New Year's..." She ran mental calculations, negotiating with herself.

"Vanessa the alcoholic?" I asked.

"Well, yeah. Though I probably shouldn't have called her that, when you don't even know her. I don't know she's really an alcoholic. It's just that whenever I go out with her I end up drinking way too much. Last time..." She came to an uneasy pause. "The thing is, I've been taking Xanax." At this I turned toward her, and she continued hurriedly. "For that breathing issue I told you about. It's been helping, really it has. But then when I drink after I've taken one, it'll be all great for a while, and then suddenly I'll black out and not remember anything. That's what happened with that guy. You know, that short guy I told you about, with curly hair. At the Italian restaurant."

I remembered the guy, though I'd never met him, just heard about him as I'd stood in line with Erin at the pharmacy for Plan B. She said she'd found him unattractive, but she was drunk and took him home anyway. The last thing she remembered was padding into her bathroom to get a condom. In the morning she'd looked at the used thing and panicked; it didn't look right. "I don't want to have this guy's baby," she'd told me. "In the future, everyone I sleep with, the guy has to be good looking, someone I can at least look at and say, okay, I could have his baby." She said she'd never get an abortion; she'd been raised Catholic. She'd looked somewhat excited when she said this, like a part of her wanted an accidental pregnancy to happen, which alarmed me. But as she swiped her credit card, I supposed there was no reason Erin shouldn't have a kid if she wanted. She certainly made enough money to raise one by herself.

When I got home, I felt unexpectedly exhausted and lonely. I lay on my couch with my arm over my eyes and let my mouth turn down dejectedly. I thought about the guy I'd dated the summer before, how one afternoon he'd gotten barefoot and climbed the fig tree on my street, laughing as he dropped the fruit down to me. The weekend after that, apropos of nothing, he'd told me he liked hanging out but didn't want anything serious, as if the intimacy of sharing fruit had suddenly made it all too much. There'd been a slight smile of satisfaction on his lips as he'd told me this, like he was enjoying exercising his upper hand. I'd told him goodbye and good luck. This shocked him; he said effetely he hadn't meant he wanted to stop seeing me. I guess he'd really thought I was a pushover.

I wondered if maybe I was. In a vague sense, I knew why Erin was unhappy. But I felt powerless to help her. I did the same things.

Maybe I could change—with Christian. I thought about his saying he wouldn't see the other girls again, and this time felt kindlier towards his posturing. In a way we had a lot in common, shielding our insecurities with false bravado and toughness. He was arrogant, yes, but only because he was too terrified to look at himself more closely, to face the fact of his insignificance in the world. Weren't we all? I thought it was possible we could protect each other, preserve each other's fantasies of self-importance.

I got up and went to my desk. The teenager next door was playing basketball on the driveway again. I typed to the beat of his dribbling and ended up working for hours into the evening, dropping into bed early with a twangy headache that felt almost virtuous, like a sharp proof of productivity.

 

An hour later, I woke up when Christian called. There was a coddling solicitousness to his tone that assumed I would be feeling tender and vulnerable towards him, and in my groggy, curled-up state, I did. He asked me what my plans were for Christmas day. When I said I didn't really celebrate Christmas though I had nothing against it, he invited me to a potluck Christmas dinner he was having with a few of his friends. "You don't have to bring anything," he said. "Just show up."

"I can make something," I said. I wondered if Matt had said warned him about my cooking for some reason. I thought I was passable in the kitchen.

"We could make something together," he said. "What do you like?"

At this I started making haphazard suggestions, but it became clear he'd already created a menu and bought the ingredients, which was just as well. We were to make turkey and sweet potato pie. He said there'd be six of us, and he thought his friends would like me. He said this like a compliment without bringing up whether or not I might like them. This grated on me. I pictured myself as a demure and obedient child, being kept up after bedtime and trotted out to play an amateurish piano concerto for the dinner guests. At the same time I felt that child inside me grow eager and plaintive, looking forward to that impromptu concert, yearning to perform well. In my mind I petted the girl's head, trying to calm her anxieties. But I couldn't. She was hungry for attention, and strong-willed.

 

In the end I didn't end up helping much in the kitchen; Christian had almost everything done by the time I got there. He had me run the beater over the sweet potato mixture, then as soon as the pie was in, we started making out, somewhat theatrically, like we were acting out a scene in which we knew we'd be interrupted by the comedic sidekick. Still, we went at it for a while. He had my shirt wrenched up and me pinned hard against the fridge when the doorbell rang. We straightened up with an artificial sheepishness. His friend Jason arrived first via taxi with his law school girlfriend, Jenna. Then Amy, a girl Christian had met in an improv class a long time ago, came in with her acting class buddy, Jeff.

I disliked Amy instantly. A pretty, slightly bony brunette, she introduced herself to me in an ostentatious, overly-familiar way that somehow seemed to announce she'd met plenty of Christian's girlfriends before and had acted this way with each one. She and I sat flanking Christian, who took the head of the table, and she flirted with him occasionally, leaning over with her elbow on the table, her hand dangling over his thigh. Then she'd look over at me and wink, as if the flirting was some inside joke we shared.

She mostly focused on Jeff, though, a dark, scruffy guy with nice arms. She had an obvious crush on him that got bolder with each glass of Pinot Noir. All of Christian's friends drank a lot, in fact, the empty bottles collecting on the table like spent exclamation marks. They apparently took the Christmas holiday seriously. By dessert they were lax and garrulous, playing with the food, spilling bits and drops, interrupting each other excitedly with banal platitudes about life. Christian was enjoying it. He'd let himself get quite drunk. His self-aware, self-revisionist tendencies were completely gone. Now he was shamelessly cheeky, wearing a loose, semi-permanent grin. This transformation gave me pause, though I was glad to see him looking free, liberated from the insecurities he worked so hard to mask. He started making silly double entendres and laughing hard at them. At dessert, he interrupted Amy and made an abrupt segway in the conversation to start discussing deadbeat dads.

"I'm not saying they shouldn't be held responsible, necessarily," he said, mirthful and loud. "But the thing is, they have no choice if you think about it, if a woman gets pregnant accidentally and she just decides to have the kid."

His eyes had a giddy, hooded look, like a mischievous boy trying hard to stay awake to see the results of a prank he'd set up.

"I totally support a woman's right to choose," he continued impishly. "Which is why, if she's made that choice herself, never mind what the guy wanted, shouldn't she kind of take on the consequences?"

The guests kept on their tipsy smiles but their brows tensed slightly, inclined to be agreeable but unsure how they'd suddenly ended up in this position. "I don't know if I'd go there, Christian" Jason said in a tone of mock caution, and the table laughed a little, good-natured and uneasy. I looked around with a nebulous discomfort. I was bothered that by virtue of being his date, I may appear to be agreeing with him if I stayed silent. Yet I didn't care to join in, not when Christian was so obviously fishing for attention, holding up his ridiculous bait with a desperate glee. And I didn't really want him to feel bad, either. These were his friends, after all, and he'd invited me to meet them. It was Christmas. He was drunk enough to be oblivious to the tenor of the room. He grinned stupidly over his glass. I felt embarrassed watching him, but also wanted to be tolerant of his transparency, its needy innocence.

Jenna suddenly spoke up. "You know, my mom didn't ask for anything," she said, sounding petulant and defensive, but slurring girlishly, too, "raising me and my brother alone. But she struggled. I don't know if she would have taken it, but it would have really helped if our dad had helped out, ever."

There was a short silence. Then Christian said, "Wow! I wasn't expecting that!" Everyone laughed. "Wow!" he said again, more chastened this time, but still laughing. "I take it back. Down with deadbeat dads. I can take it back, right?"

"Yes, yes, take it back," Amy said, waving her hand as if to dismiss him. She got up and clomped around the table in her heels, passing around the chocolate raspberry crumb bars she'd brought. She said they'd been a hit with her acting class. Then she inhaled dramatically, like she'd just remembered something. "Jeff's an ah-mazing actor!" Amy said. "We should do that scene from last week!" She tried to pull him up from his seat.

"Hey—It's relaxing time now," Jeff said, pointing at his wine and gently extricating his arm. He was on his second glass, like me; he was the designated driver.

"Oh, fine." Amy stalled for a moment, uncertain, then by herself started in doggedly on a short solo scene—an Ibsen monologue animated with big arm movements. I smiled at Jeff, rolling my eyes at Amy. He smiled too, shrugging. Then we clapped—Amy was taking her bows.

The night slowly devolved. Christian opened yet another bottle of wine despite protests, a Bordeaux he insisted everyone had to try. This finally started putting his friends over the edge. Amy drank a half glass, then got up to do another scene, pulling Jeff by the arm again and begging "Please? Pretty please?" in a cringingly desperate way. Christian for his part started opinionating about Mel Gibson's latest DUI. By this time I'd learned to just quietly smile along, obliging him without responding to him, like his friends knew to do. When he realized no one was really listening, Christian gestured wider, until inevitably, he hit his wine glass. We watched it fall slow motion into the turkey carcass. "Well, there goes that," Jason said, then glanced over at Jenna, who had been sitting silent for a while. She looked like she was going to throw up. Jason took her out of the balcony for air, then popped his head back in. "I'm calling a cab," he said.

Jeff immediately suggested going, too, but Amy was drunk and bratty, saying she was staying until Jason and Jenna left. The cab was going to be an hour. We waited in the dimly-lit living room, Christian fiddling with iTunes and Amy yelling out requests, then dancing jerkily by herself. Jason and Jenna came back in and clung to each other, swaying in a vague waltz. Christian took me by the waist, and we twirled around a bit, too. He'd lost his logorrhea; the dancing took all his concentration, and he was pretty good at it, better than I was. Seeing Amy watch us, I felt a small, peevish pleasure. Christian dipped me. I was afraid he was going to drop me, but he didn't, and this made me relax for the first time that night. His eyes looked darker now, hinting at a complexity that almost made his former drunken pontificating seem like a put-on.

When the song ended, Amy had a change in attitude. She turned to Jeff and said, "Do you want to go?" She said this smiling with bedroom eyes, as if he'd just propositioned her. When he said yes, she took his arm. I heard her heels clatter out through the apartment complex's courtyard.

The taxi came soon after that. As soon Jason and Jenna were out the door, Christian turned and grabbed me. I lost my balance, and we fell on the floor. We rolled around, giggly at first, kicking our shoes off, then more sensually, then giggly again. We cycled back and forth; we couldn't stay serious enough to actually progress to a real sexual encounter, but it felt good all the same, playful and intimate. Then he propped himself up on an elbow and said, "I got you a Christmas present."

We went to the bedroom, where he fished a gift bag out of the closet. In it was a Malcolm Gladwell book from my Amazon wish list, and a silk eye mask. I'd told him I wore one when I slept at home. "For when you stay here," he said.

I thanked him sincerely. It was the most thoughtful gift I'd ever received from a guy, the most accepting. I leaned into him, and we kissed deeply, and while we did, I remembered what he'd said about his tendency to jump into things too quickly. I didn't care. Maybe it would be different this time. It was happening fast, but without illusions. I already knew I could be embarrassed by him, and I was okay with it. It felt candid and clear-eyed, free from games.

"I got you a gift, too," I said suddenly. I took his hand and led him outside in a half-run, the concrete icy against our bare feet. The night winds whipped around us powerfully. I opened the trunk and lifted out the scarf, the blue one I'd gotten for my sister. "It's like mine, but different," I said.

He turned it over in his hands, then wrapped it loosely around his neck and looked at me, as if for approval. "Thank you," he said. I shrugged happily. I felt resolute and proud, like I'd flouted some rule. "Thank you," he said again, then leaned over for a long press of his lips against mine. When he pulled away, his face was in shadow and I couldn't read his expression, then he moved a little and I saw the glint of light on his teeth. I realized then he was still drunk, swaying, grinning blithely under the moon, content. I was disappointed realizing this, that he wasn't experiencing this moment as viscerally as I was. But I also felt a slight pull. He was happy, and he was with me, and I wanted to feel what he was feeling.

 

After the New Year, I went to Natalie's boutique again. I explained to Natalie why I needed another scarf and told her about Christian, which seemed to make her happy, like she'd been somehow instrumental in the romance. Then Natalie told me about her experience detaching from her mom.

"It was just a first step," she said. "But when she said we should go on a hike, and my brother said no, he just wanted to relax and watch TV, I agreed with him. In the past I would have just gone with my mom without question. I would have helped her try and guilt him, too."

She sounded exultant.

"Then the next day, when I was packing up to leave, she asked me to stay until after dinner, and I said no, I wanted to beat the traffic. She didn't make a scene because my brother was there both times. I planned it that way to make it easier."

"Have you talked to her since?" I said.

"No. That's how I know she's mad." Natalie marched me over to the scarf section and presented the top one to me in a defiant gesture. Then she brightened. "So let me know how it works out with him," she said. "Maybe I'll start calling these the holiday love scarves."

That night I met Erin for drinks at Bodega Wine Bar. When I got there, she was surrounded by a group of co-workers, most of whom seemed to be her underlings. They looked at her with a glittery respect mixed with a certain impetuousness, like they were testing out being on equal footing with her, fellow drinkers at a bar. When I arrived, they bought Erin a last drink and said their goodbyes. Afterwards Erin glowed, basking in the aftermath of their attention. She had the look of a valedictorian who'd finally received from school the attention she'd never gotten from her parents. I felt a swell of tenderness. We moved from the bar to a table that had opened up in a corner, then sat close to each other and made small talk in low tones, as if conspiring. I leaned my head on her shoulder for a moment in a show of feeling.

"I've wondered if I should be worried about you," I said.

"Worried? Why?" She asked in a flattered tone.

"The Xanax thing. I didn't realize it, that you were having such a hard time."

"Oh, that." She shrugged, then leaned over her glass of water and without lifting it, sucked from the straw. "I don't take them that much."

"I feel like maybe I made it hard for you to tell me," I said. "Like I was judgy about that short guy. It's just that it seemed like you were unhappy, so you were trying these random things, whatever came along, and they were making you unhappier." I paused, feeling genuine. "You deserve better."

She laughed mildly at this, like she was humoring a child. She put his arm around me and squeezed my shoulder. She felt strong and solid. "It's not like I suffered some sort of damage and I'm permanently tainted now. I just didn't like the guy, and I need to nix the alcohol and Xanax combo. Keep them separated. Church and state."

"Okay," I said. "You're right."

She was still smiling, more inwardly now, thinking. "Let's go for a walk," she said. "Actually, let's go to my place. I have a surprise."

Erin lived five blocks away. The streets were cold, but the air was still. I felt like we were inside a refrigerator, the traffic on Lincoln whirring steadily behind us. Once we started walking, I noticed Erin's shoes, new gray pumps with rounded toes, then realized she was wearing a whole new outfit—a gray pencil skirt and a maroon silk shirt under her regular black coat. I complimented her and she stuck out her chest a little, gratified. She said it was her new look, part of a new year's resolution. Her stride was brisk and her mood jubilant. She pointed out little details of her neighborhood's holiday decorations as we walked—the miniature tree in a shoe repair shop, the lone red ribbon around a ficus tree. As if on cue, a green sedan glided by, the tune of Feliz Navidad floating out its windows. The car contained a nuclear family, elementary school-aged kids in the back seat; it came to a stop at the light in front of us. When it started moving again, a homeless guy we hadn't noticed stood up from a doorway and yelled that Christmas was over. At this we turned the corner onto Erin's street.

As soon as I walked in the door, I noticed the moving boxes. At first I thought she'd brought some extra stuff back from her parents' after the holidays, but then saw she'd taken her framed posters down. Erin grinned at my confusion. "Surprise!" she said. "I'm moving to New York."

"Since when?"

"I didn't tell you because I was afraid I'd jinx it. But the New York office had this senior manager position. My boss told me last week I got the job, which was weird since we're on the same level now. They're paying for my move, and if I want, they'll pay for my MBA." Her eyes shone. "After that, I could really go anywhere."

I congratulated her, a bit uncertainly at first, then once I started to feel the logic of it, more heartedly. I'd miss her, but she was right. Moving would be good for her. It would rejigger the frayed puzzle pieces of her life, start to jolt them in place. She opened a bottle of champagne, and even before we started drinking it, we started growing giddy and excited, imagining her future. I peppered her with logistical questions. She was going to leave in a week and a half. She started talking about renewal and clean slates, about how she'd get to start that relationship seminar there now. Her voice was somewhat tremulous, with a flustered joy.

"The fact is, it just hasn't worked out for me in LA," she said. "I've been living here a decade, and really, what do I have to show for it? There's nothing holding me there. I mean, friends, of course," she looked at me meaningfully, "but you know." She paused. "I didn't want to admit it because it seemed like admitting that I'd failed, but it doesn't have to be that way."

We nodded together in a fraught but accepting silence. We both surveyed the jumble of boxes.

"I've kind of started seeing someone," I said.

"Yeah, I know," Erin said, as if she'd been waiting for it. "Natalie told me."

Erin had gone in after work to exchange her scarf, to get a gray one that went with her new outfit. We must have just missed each other. Erin asked me genial, obligatory questions about Christian and seemed fairly happy for me. She poured us more champagne, then put on some music. "Pretty Young Thing" played, a cover by a woman with feathery voice. I thought she filled the lyrics with fear and an ill-defined regret, bringing out the strange melancholy of youth and uncertainty in the lyrics. But the music only seemed to enliven Erin, who sang along at the chorus, keeping beat with her thumb against the glass. I thought about how nothing was fixed, that everything—songs, events—held only the meanings we affixed to them. I wondered if my mind had been perpetually stuck in one spot, dissolutely clinging to the uncertainty it was familiar with, adding that scrim to everything I saw. For a few seconds I saw myself as floating in a limpid, amniotic darkness that was comforting, but also keeping me in an ineffectual, fetal state.

Then the song ended, and Erin turned to toast the new year again. We started walking between the boxes, Erin going over what she planned to take, what she wanted to sell. She gestured at the window and pointed at a big Christmas tree planted in a neighbor's back yard, its gigantic glass star gleaming from its high perch. The fog had come in, and I couldn't see the real stars above it, but I could sense them up there, shining, patient.

 

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