Get yourself out there, my sister Rachel likes to tell me. There’s usually a post break-up grace period before people start chanting it at you. Say, three months. Sometimes six months or a year. Every now and then, for the particularly mangled hearts and memory attached dump-ees, longer.
In my case, it took 387 days until I agreed to go there. It’s true, I’ve been counting the days and things that Alex has missed since he left me for LA. He’s missed 56 grocery runs, 223 glasses of Merlot, 612 cups of coffee, three seasons of The Wire, and 118 ‘bless you’s (he always said I had a cute sneeze). I don’t count on purpose. It just sort of happens. I consider it a gift. Rachel disagrees. She thinks it’s a curse.
Curses, I correct her, are something someone else gives you. This, on the other hand, is something I have given myself. You’re an idiot! she screams. We’ll be at dinner or watching a movie and there will be a piece of my day that Alex is missing and I’ll have to mentally (sometimes verbally) log it. She’ll look at me mumbling, her eyebrows raised to the ceiling: June, you’re doing it again. You need to get out there. Rachel recites the phrase bi-weekly, folding it into conversations like it’s the only English sentence she knows.
To be fair, we live together, so she’s witnessed every inch of my self-indulgent misery. The nights I lock my door like a teenager and write sad love poetry until I exhaust my word count. Oh, and the phone calls. When I call Alex, or he calls me, routine checkups on the state of our noxious dependence. This happens once or twice a month, and together we recite words from a script: Him—saying the timing isn’t right and distance is just, so hard. Me—saying I still love him and will wait. Him—Okay, baby. One day. It’s like I’m addicted to promises and he’s addicted to giving them out for free. So, I can’t really blame Rachel for her nauseating words of encouragement.
Still, when people say ‘put yourself out there,’ they don’t mean everywhere, they only mean some places. The first time Rachel told me her favorite sentence was on day 246. I like to prove her wrong, so I put on some lipstick and went out to a bar. Came home with a mustachioed performance artist who spent all night showing me pictures of his latest series: kitchen appliances spray-painted with the words ‘fuck me’ all over them. On his way out, he asked if he could have the toaster if I wasn’t using it.
‘I’m using it,’ I told him.
‘Right now?’ he asked.
‘No, but I will soon. It’s my favorite appliance. You cannot have it. Not even for art.’
‘Well, what about your Brita?’
And that’s when Rachel told me: That’s not what I meant. So, on day 387, she’s taking matters into her own hands, showing me where exactly I should put myself. There’s a new editor at her magazine, she tells me over breakfast, with great hair and a safe smile. Safe, I repeat back to her, So I don’t need to bring a helmet? She doesn’t laugh. What about goggles?
‘I already told him about you,’ she says. And here it is: ‘June, you need to get out there.’
‘I will,’ I say. ‘Maybe on day 400. A crisp, even number.’
‘You will sooner than that,’ she tells me. ‘I already gave him your info.’
She holds eye contact as she takes a sip of her coffee, which I feel like pouring on her head. He texts me a few minutes later: Hi, it’s Nick.
Hi, it’s June.
Your sister says great things. I’d love to take you out for a drink soon.
My sister lies compulsively. She has since we were little girls. I’m free tonight.
What did you say? Rachel asks. That I’m really good in bed, I tell her. Thankfully, she’s rushing off to a weekend work event, so I can be left alone in my misery as I prepare to embark on my journey t h e r e. Nick asks if Philippe’s at eight sounds ‘good,’ and I say it sounds ‘perfect,’ which is a word I reserve, un-ironically, for obligations that fill me with dread.
I throw the rest of my coffee out and pour a Red Bull in the mug. I’m so fun, I tell myself. I check the time, decide to waste it. Reorganize my room. Then the living room. I count the books on the shelf I haven’t read and think: what have I been doing all these years, instead of reading books I meant to read? I pick one out. Then, I close it. Maybe next year.
I pour the Red Bull down the sink and open a beer instead. I’m such a guy’s girl, I tell myself. I look through old photographs of me and Alex from all our years together and count how many times we have broken up: eight. He always had a reason of some kind for us not to be together at a certain moment. Is this normal of love? For someone to be losing track of you all of the time?
I check the time. Watch the news. Some man in Lower Manhattan robbed a liquor store using a desk lamp as a weapon. Three people were injured. There is a number to call if you recognize him. I don’t, obviously, but I write the number down anyway. I check Alex’s Instagram page. I check Alex’s Facebook page. I check the pages of every boy I’ve ever kissed. I wonder who checks up on me. Do a few sit-ups. Write exactly one sentence of very, very sad love poetry. Check the time. I am always checking the time. I paint my face. I wash it off. What do I want to see? I go to my closet and find the tightest dress that still fits me in the way I like. I pick out the black cocktail number I wore, coincidentally, on my last date with Alex. I can hardly call it a date since it was the same night of our eighth, most recent break up, when he told me LA is calling, and that it’s not about me.
‘It’s never about me,’ I said.
‘You’re the best,’ he replied.
As we parted, he told me he liked my dress, thought I looked ‘cute.’ He left me on a corner as he got into a car and said: I love you— tossing the words, like coins, in my direction.
I look up Philippe’s. It’s a fifteen-minute walk, but I still have 45 minutes. I decide to leave anyway and get lost on purpose, so I’m appropriately late. Perhaps this tardiness will give me the opportunity to say something like: I was re-reading Kant’s Ethical Philosophy. I was working on a business plan for a soil sustainability non-profit. I was volunteering at a local dog shelter. I was being a different person.
By the time I get to Philippe’s, it’s 8:05. I walk through a beaded doorway to the dining room, which looks like a Paris-themed Bat Mitzvah. The waiters are wearing striped shirts and berets. A mural of the Eiffel Tower covers one of the walls. French quotes cover the others. The owner is an American, and I will bet my mother’s life on it. Nick texts me to say that he’s running late. Late. I was supposed to be late. He says he’s wearing a red button-down. Red. Interesting color for a first date. I get us a table by the window and wait. I am always waiting. Act natural, but not too natural, not your natural. Act someone else’s natural, someone more well-adjusted and beautiful than you, act that natural.
The women next to me are talking loudly about one of their teenage daughter’s rough break-up. The problem is, the mother of the girl says, that she hates the new boy she’s been seeing to get over the old boy. It’s driving them apart. He has a tattoo, it’s not confirmed, but she has a feeling. It pains her. She didn’t even touch her chicken parm last night, the daughter’s usual favorite. I’m just not hungry for this, the mother says of the teenage daughter’s sad excuse. She is changing. She worries she doesn’t know how to prepare the daughter’s new favorite chicken dish. The new boy probably knows. The other woman suggests she tries Active Listening.
‘Listening?’ The mother of the teenage daughter asks.
‘No, active listening. Just try repeating what she says back to her.’
‘Repeat what she says? Exactly as she says it?’
‘Yes,’ the other woman confirms. An expert. ‘It’ll make her feel heard.’
‘But what if she tells me she hates me?’
I look away to not make it obvious I’m eavesdropping. Swallow my own spit and start uncontrollably coughing. This is karma. I look up to a man in a red shirt, his head tilted as I gasp into my napkin.
‘June?’ says the red shirt, ‘Nick,’ he points to his button-down.
‘Sorry,’ I cough. ‘Wrong pipe,’ I point to my throat.
Imagine: we fall in love and get married and have 26 children. These would be the first words I ever said to him: Sorry. Wrong pipe. There is a joke here, but I don’t feel like making it. He sits across from me as the last of my coughs break. I feel my face getting red. I am blushing. Or, I am dying. He smiles with his head still leaning to one side, like he is watching a baby walk for the first time. He has a kind face. An open one. I wouldn’t mind stopping him on the street for directions.
‘Are you okay?’ he asks.
‘Oh, yes,’ I say. ‘It happens a lot.’ No, it does not.
I read every wine on the list twice, pretending I know anything about wine. I wish there was a secret menu for lonely, lost women. How to look sexy while subtly chugging. How to spin the glass elegantly without spilling it all over yourself or your date. How to order. How to be.
‘Have you been here before?’ he asks.
‘Here? No. Have you?’
We both look embarrassed. Maybe for the same thing, maybe for different things.
The waitress comes over, greets us with an eager Bon Jour! I order a glass of Chardonnay. I think about winking at her to say: Make it a generous pour. Or give me two glasses in one big cup. I will pay you secretly in the bathroom or the alley outside when this is all over.
He orders a glass of Merlot. I mumble #224, but then wonder if it even counts because I’m not the one drinking it. I retract it. Back to 223.
‘Did you say something?’ he asks.
‘Definitely not.’ That was rude. Try again: ‘I mean, I haven’t said anything yet.’ That was worse.
He smiles. ‘You look really nice,’ he says.
‘Oh. I really had so little time to change.’
‘Yeah? Busy Saturday?’
I try: ‘I was volunteering at the local dog shelter.’
‘There’s a dog shelter around here? No way! Where? I live right down the –’
‘I can’t tell you,’ I cough (karma).
‘You can’t tell me?’
‘No,’ I say. ‘It’s hidden.’
‘A hidden dog shelter?’
‘It’s a referral thing.’
He leans forward, in a whisper. ‘Can you refer me?’
‘Maybe,’ I say. ‘Once I know you’re safe.’
His smile is nice. He definitely had braces. And a retainer. He was good at wearing it. Maybe that’s a nice starting point. Ask when he had braces. No, don’t. Bon JOUR! the waitress screams, brings our wine. We cheers our glasses, the clink is barely audible.
We talk about college. I don’t tell him how much I drank. Or the degrading costumes I wore to frat parties for male attention. Or the various places me and Alex screamed at each other in public when I found another girl’s pictures on his phone. I was an English major, I tell him, more than once. He was a Journalism major, he tells me, definitely once. It’s nice, I say, that we both like words. We talk about work. Him, at a magazine. Me, at a financial planning start-up.
‘So,’ he asks, ‘you like numbers as much as you like words?’
‘Nick, I am hopelessly addicted to numbers,’ I say.
We both laugh together, but I feel like I am doing it in the dark, and alone.
No more college. We go to childhood. He tells me about how his dad forced him to go fishing, even though he hated it. Whenever they’d get home from the lake, he would fill up his bathtub and dump the caught fish in when his dad wasn’t looking.
‘What was your plan?’ I ask.
‘To give them a better life,’ he says.
I tell him how I used to sneak into my mom’s office to steal wrapping paper. I’d rip off giant pieces and package household items—toothbrushes, bars of soap, cutlery—and store them under my bed, which I would later open in the dark, pretending it was my birthday.
‘What was your plan?’ he asks.
‘To practice looking surprised,’ I say.
Bon Jouuuurrrr! the waitress interrupts, letting the check fall between us. He insists it is ‘his treat.’ You’re sweet, I tell him, immediately hating myself for hearing how rehearsed the statement is. He signs the check, and I peek at his signature like I’m looking for a signal in his handwriting. We grab our coats. Walk out. We say goodbye to Philippe’s forever.
‘I live right there,’ he says, pointing in some vague direction. ‘If you want to come up?’
‘I would love to see where you live.’ Gross. Try again: ‘That sounds nice.’
The walk is short, maybe three blocks, but then we hike the six sets of stairs to his apartment. Try not to look winded at the top. What have I been doing all these years when I meant to go the gym? He unlocks the door, his world springs open. Memories cling to the walls, friends and family and places he wanted to remember. He has a few plants, all of which look on the brink of death, maybe from over-watering. There is a record player. There is a bookshelf. There are chairs, but only two. There is mail. There are shoes with socks tucked in the soles. There is a tie on the couch. A coffee stain on the counter. There is cereal on top of the fridge. This is where he exists in the world. Do you have a bathroom? I ask. A stupid question.
‘No,’ he says, gives me a friendly wink and point to the corner.
I dab my face from the beads of sweat our hike has caused me. Look in the mirror. See nothing but the makeup I applied. See all I have ever applied. Think about the time in seventh grade when my crush, Ethan Simmons, pointed at my cheaply glittered eyelids and laughed: you have blue on your face! Is there anything worse than being laughed at for trying to look beautiful?
My phone buzzes and it’s a text from Alex. I should have known. Today is the 30th. He always circles back towards the end of the month, careful maintenance on my predictable devotion. Whenever I call him in the middle, or god forbid, at the beginning of the month, chances of him answering are slim. But at the end of the month, he gets desperate, like he’s collecting rent money. The message reads: Thinking of you…
Thinking what of me? I decide not to respond. I am out there, Alex.
I hear music from the other room and take it as my cue to wrap up. Say goodbye to my face. Goodbye, face! Be good! I walk out to find Nick frantically moving the papers and mail from his counter, nervously cleaning up. I think: you are adorable. I think: I love your mess. I think: look at mine.
‘I’d offer you another drink, but I only have this weird small batch whiskey?’
I say it’s my favorite. I try not to cringe while drinking it.
We sit on his couch that faces an empty fireplace. To make it look less empty, he’s added small candles, which he lit while I was in the bathroom. I say it looks like a shrine to some dead child. He laughs. I am not that funny, but he is that polite. I lean my arm on the edge of the couch, positioning my neck to look alluring and mysterious. Is it working? I feel something. No.
Here is a sneeze.
‘Bless you!’ Nick says.
Don’t do it.
‘Did you say something?’ he asks.
‘Oh. I thought you said 119.’
‘Right,’ I confirm. ‘Nervous tick.’
Look away. Take a sip.
‘I had a lot of fun with you tonight,’ he says.
‘I did, too.’ I don’t lie.
‘You’re a bit hard to read, June.’
‘Oh, no. I guess, I’m bad at....’ everything. Dating. Being yourself. ‘.....being sexy.’
‘Sorry,’ I cough. ‘It’s been a while since I’ve been on a date.’
‘Oh! You’ve been counting have you!’
He thinks I’m joking.
‘Yes,’ I tell him. ‘I have been counting.’
He looks at me until I look up. ‘What do you gain,’ he leans forward, ‘from… keeping track?’
Here is another sneeze. Another bless you. That’s 120.
‘I’m sorry,’ he says, leaning back.
Come back, I want to tell him. Come closer. Pull me in. Rip me open. Watch me spill on the floor. I look at my body, which is tucked into farthest corner on the couch, like I’m desperately trying to become it.
‘I’m sorry,’ he continues, ‘it’s not my place to judge—Not that I’m judging. I mean, you know what I mean.’
‘No, you’re right. I keep track. It’s like I think that if I measure myself in someone’s absence, I don’t know. One day it will add up to something. Like it’ll all mean something if I just... keep track.’
‘Ooof,’ he lets out a sigh. ‘This dude really cracked you, huh?’
I laugh. The sad kind. ‘I think most people crack you.’
‘Do you still love him?’ he asks.
‘Ha!’ I cough, ‘Love!’ But I think: sadly, yes. I call it love. But it’s not love. As much as I would like it to be. As much as I count it to be. It’s not love. It’s something else. It’s me.
Nick looks at me, through me. ‘I was in a relationship once with someone I thought I was going to marry.’
‘Do you still love her?’ I tease.
‘I wouldn’t say that. But I convinced myself she was it because I just wanted whatever it was that I kept ignoring signs that were so clearly not it. But at the time, of course, I thought we were going to share the world and live out our lives together.’
‘I think, in the end, I had the right idea but the wrong person.’
My phone buzzes, another text from Alex: Busy Saturday night, huh? Lock it shut. Move closer to Nick and put a hand around his neck. ‘I think we should have sex,’ I tell him. He agrees. We embrace each other, messily and too soon, like we’re blinking in a photograph.
The sex is bad, obviously. We are drunk. We are nervous. He is a man, I am a woman. We don’t yet know each other’s body, but we feel obliged to act as though we know, at least a decent amount, about all bodies. Why do we do this? Who is we?
Afterward, he asks me if I want water, or something. I don’t want water or anything. Smile anyway. Check my phone, another text from Alex. Lock it shut.
‘Do you want to watch a movie, or something?’ Nick tries.
What is this ominous something?
‘No.’ That was rude. Try again: ‘I only watch movies with popcorn. And I am not hungry.’
‘Maybe we should cuddle,’ he suggests.
We position ourselves accordingly. He is the big spoon. I am the little spoon. He is a man and I am a woman. We were once something else. Now, this is all we know how to be. Why do we do this? Who is we?
I close my eyes. I tell them to stay shut. Stay shut, eyes. He holds me, I let him. I imagine I am being bundled in layers of saran wrap, tightly bound and kept still, preserved in my place in this world, forever.
I sleep, sort of. Wake up at 4 am with an urgency to evacuate. Sunrise is scary with someone new. Sunrise is scary with someone old. I unfold myself from his arms and seek out my belongings in the dark, like I am on a treasure hunt. Except it is not fun. And I am not searching for anything new.
‘Hey,’ I hear from the man in the bed.
‘I have to go,’ I tell him.
‘It’s 4 am. It’s late,’ his eyes still closed.
‘Actually, it’s quite early,’ I correct him.
He gets up. ‘Let me call you an Uber.’ He insists.
I sit next to him on the edge of the bed and together we watch the animated car move along dotted lines on the map. There it is, my chariot: A 2016 Toyota Camry. As the icon turns the corner, Nick says: He’s here.
‘I can see that.’
‘I want you to stay,’ he says.
‘It’s not nice,’ he says, ‘it’s just honest.’
‘I wasn’t volunteering at the dog shelter. The hidden dog shelter doesn’t exist.’
‘Why would you lie about that?’ he asks.
‘I don’t know,’ I say. ‘I’m actually allergic to dogs. I used to cry about it as a kid.’
‘Because you couldn’t have one?’ he asks.
‘Because it made me sad knowing I could never touch one. Or even get close to one. Without it causing me pain.’
I walk out. Neither of us say goodbye. If you don’t say it, does it still count as a goodbye?
I get home and wash my face. I feel the cool water on my skin and beg for it to wash me away. Take it all, I tell it. Take the sunspots and freckles and laugh lines and whatever exists beneath pores. Take my eyes and nose and ears and take the dimples, too. This face. The one I’ve been wearing my whole life. The one I have yet to claim.
My phone rings. It’s Alex. 3 am LA time. Let it go to voicemail. It rings again, then again, and I watch his name evaporate and disappear. I feel him reaching for me, reaching with a promising, third hand he doesn’t have. Turn off the sink. Watch the water get swallowed down the drain. Where does it go? Think about climbing in, sliding down, starting a life somewhere in the pipes.
I check the time. I am always, always checking the time. I go towards the window and watch the sunrise. I count the people I see from my view. The early risers. The ones who can’t sleep. Who had bad dreams. Who got out of bed anyway. I see the sun reach for the streets, pulling back the covers, setting the concrete ablaze. I see the birds. The dogs. The rats. The world between the cracks. I see the men I have loved. The men who never loved me. Who didn’t know how. Who left before they arrived. Who used me as a vehicle for growth. For sex. For just one more chance. I see every piece of myself I have shed and given. Every limb I broke off mistaking lopsidedness for love. Every time I shrunk in size. Went inward. Sunk to the very bottom of the Earth while still sleeping next to someone. Every heartbreak cracks open, springs loose like a water hose, and I count the seconds, every last one, as the whole world wakes up: here we are, it screams, let’s do it all over again.