Hey. It’s me. Would you please let me know if you’re coming tonight?” I hang up with a clank and eye the corner of my computer screen. It’s five o’clock. “Fuck!” I say more loudly than I’d intended, and everyone in the room audibly stops working and turns their head in my direction. “What?” I ask.
Steve, my perpetually tanned and smiling Zen Buddha boss who’s sitting Indian-style in his Ikea desk chair that isn’t big enough to accommodate this position, and Samantha, my blond Barbie-doll coworker who stopped blowing bubbles in her chocolate milk with a straw during my little outburst, return to their work. Then, as the atmosphere is gradually restored to its earlier, calmer state, Chester, our sweetly spastic intern, a gangly NYU film student with pubescent tufts of peach fuzz on his face and Ronald McDonald hair, trips and drops the wooden crate of videotapes he’s carrying around for no apparent reason. A collection of mediocre independent films that no one will ever see crashes to the ground, skidding and scattering all over the oddly shaped loft space we call our office, some cracking, others zipping across the scuffed yellow floorboards.
The place erupts, as Steve and I jump to help Chester pick up the tapes. Meeting me eye-to-eye over a saccharine tale of lesbian lawyers in love (shot on digital video for under fifty thousand dollars), Chester takes the opportunity to say, “What’s your problem today, potty mouth?”
“I’m your boss. A little respect, please.”
“Yeah, whatever. It’s gotta be that dick.”
“It’s five o’clock and I still have no idea if he’s coming to my birthday party.”
At this point, Sam and Steve, apparently eavesdropping, plus Spencer, chiming in from the conference room at the other end of the office, join Chester in the familiar refrain: “Dump him!”
“Do it. Like Malkovich dumped Pfeiffer in Dangerous Liaisons, man,” Chester says. “Brutal, final, balls in the nutcracker.”
“Really, Jacquie,” Sam says dryly, not even glancing up from her expertly shaped red nails, which she began filing while the rest of us were wrangling videotapes. “There’s no point in prolonging the drama.”
I’m used to this kind of treatment. Rolls right off me. And I’m sure as hell not giving in to their shameless peer pressure. This time, I revert to my oft-employed sixteen-year-old Valley Girl voice and reply, “Whatever, you guys!” before strutting out of the room, stomping my four-inch boot heels as I go. In the hallway, I slide down the wall, landing my butt on my heels and wishing I had a cigarette. A hand emerges through the cracked door, handing me one—and a lighter.
I pull smoke into my starving lungs. I don’t smoke, except when I’m drunk or stressed out, and this moment would qualify as the latter. I stretch my legs across the narrow hall, settling in to consider my lot in life. It’s not just that we’re shipping the current issue of the magazine to the printer tomorrow with an alarming amount of work still undone. More urgent, I’m turning thirty-two today and I’m barely able to pay my rent (I mean mortgage; I’m not used to the change in status) and I’m still putting up with men who can’t be bothered to attend my birthday party.
On any other birthday, I might have told myself not to worry—even thirty didn’t faze me. I felt energetic, ambitious, full of hope, and I was in a serious relationship—but this one is momentous. When I was a kid in Los Angeles doing MASH charts with my friends—employing a precise science to determine if we would live in a Mansion, Apartment, Shack, or House and every other piece of information pertaining to our perfect future—everyone was praying to live in a mansion in Malibu, marry Rob Lowe, work as a movie star, drive a Porsche, and have three kids by the time they were twenty-five. Everyone except me. Even then, I knew I wanted more time to play solo and announced boldly that I would tie the proverbial knot at thirty-two. It seemed like a grown-up age, when my screen-diva career would be thriving and I’d be ready to stop dabbling with the Brat Pack and walk down the aisle with a lawyer or a surgeon or a truly talented hot actor—like Tom Cruise, for example—and settle down with him in the palatial estate in Malibu I had earned. I didn’t even care when my friends protested that thirty-two was way too old to land a cute husband.
Somehow, through the years, when relationships ended and I’d feel that particular panic start to bite, something in the far reaches of my mind would soothe me, cooing, “It’s all right, honey child, you’re not even thirty-two yet!” Thirty-two became crystallized in my mind as the age when I was supposed to start acting like a responsible adult.
And here I am. Not only do I not have any husband prospects (or a mansion on the beach), I don’t even have a proper boyfriend. In my mind, this birthday is the clock striking twelve and if I don’t get my act together by midnight, I’ll turn into a big, fat, pumpkin-faced loser who’s doomed to sit alone in an attic wearing rags, stitching the hemline on some evil supermodel’s Monique Lhuillier wedding gown, and picking ashes out of my hair. For me, being thirty-two and single means watching ring fingers (instead of people) walk down the street. It means scanning the wedding pages in The New York Times every Sunday, looking at nothing but the photos and the brides’ ages, feeling validated by the ones who are older than me and humiliated by the ones lucky enough to find true love at a tender, young age.
“Look at this chick,” I announced at brunch last Sunday with my best friend, Courtney, and my sister, Alicia. “Marrying her high school sweetheart. How quaint can you get? Here I am, well into my thirties, fifteen years of dating under my belt, and I haven’t met a single guy I’d marry.”
“You’re just fine,” said Courtney, whose advice I regard with some reverence, since she and her husband, Brad, are the only happily married people I know. “You’re on your own unique path. Imagine if you’d married Philippe, for example.” Philippe is my impossibly beautiful and adoring French ex-boyfriend, with whom I shacked up in a minuscule garret overlooking Paris for two years after college. When I decided to go to grad school in New York rather than continue to hustle for gigs teaching English to bored housewives and lecherous businessmen in France without working papers, he proposed.
“Marry you?” I’d responded incredulously. “I don’t even know if I like you anymore.” It was my cruelest moment, the memory of which still makes me wince. True, I’d been having doubts about him and France and my life choices in general, but I can’t remember anymore why I felt compelled to brutally break the heart of the only man I ever considered worthy of my love. My usual pop-psychology explanation is I wasn’t ready: I was too young to make that kind of commitment, so I convinced myself there was something wrong with him.
“I’m sure you could have been very happy with Philippe,” Courtney went on. “But you never would have moved to New York or become a journalist.” I could have lived with this assessment, but she went on. “You would have been married for, wow, seven, eight years to a darling French doctor and you’d probably have beautiful, bilingual kids. Maybe by now they’d be in school and you’d be writing a memoir about your life as an American mom in Paris, maybe in an office overlooking the sea at Philippe’s family home in the South. But you wouldn’t”—she bit her lip in concentration—“be so independent. You wouldn’t be the strong, career-driven, New York woman that we all adore.” I stared blankly at my friend, whom I wanted to throttle.
Alicia reached over and pried the Styles section out of my fist. “This couple?” she asked, indicating the smiling blond faces that had piqued my jealousy. “Look at him.” We did: smarmy frat boy turned smarmy investment banker with a crooked smirk on his face. “They’ll be divorced by the time she’s thirty. He’ll be sleeping with some bimbo he met at a conference in Miami. She’ll take him for everything he’s worth, driving him to drink and rehab and remorse. By the time he comes back begging, she’ll have found herself, sunk his millions into a successful catering business, and started having sex with her twenty-two-year-old personal trainer named Ed.”
We reassessed the photo.
“I sure am glad I didn’t marry my high school boyfriend,” I said.
“He’s gay,” said Alicia.
“Oh yeah.” We returned our attention to our six-dollar chai lattes.
Even if I’m not regretful about my life so far, I do know it’s time to give up the hopeless cases that always seems to provoke my passion, say adios to the ubiquitous commitment-phobes, and meet The Goddamn Guy already. When I say The Guy, I mean the one whose name I would tattoo across my tummy. I’ve had boyfriends, loads and loads of boyfriends. In fact, I calculated that I’ve spent ten solid years of my life in serious relationships—or some combination of serious relationships and tempestuous affairs that felt awfully serious at the time. All those years in and out of love, and it occurred to me the other day with a sharp gasp that there wasn’t one man among them that I considered tummy-tattoo-worthy. I fall in love the way most people tumble into bed after an excruciating day: immediately, giddy with anticipation, semiconscious, every exhausted muscle releasing into fluffy relief. My frequent romps, as passionate and consuming as they can be, tend to burn bright and fizzle fast, and I’m way too smart to get a tattoo while my head is still spinning. My longer-lasting relationships, on the other hand, have been with guys like Philippe, who loved me but never inspired the kind of certainty in me that would justify putting a sharp needle to my soft, unsullied flesh, not to mention indelibly branding me his babe.
I’m currently doing the dance with Jake, a twenty-nine-year-old artist I met at a Halloween party thrown by the specialty division of a movie studio. He was there courtesy of his roommate, the assistant to the VP of publicity, dressed as the sexiest Bamm-Bamm Rubble ever, with his messy coffee-colored hair gelled into a hyperactive mane and a tight, furry, leopard-skin outfit that showed off sinewy thighs and toned biceps. He was flying on ecstasy. I was a devil in a skimpy red dress and fishnets, soaring as high as he was on the endless stream of multicolored martinis that kept arriving on cocktail waitresses’ trays. After two minutes of enthusiastic chitchat, he said, “Do you want to make out?”
“Okay,” I said.
And we did.
With all that vodka and ecstasy coursing through our veins, how could it be anything but bliss? By the time we were groping each other on my couch, I was enamored—of his unruly hair, his soft kisses, the way he gazed at me with intense, celery-green eyes and said, “God, I like you,” so lovingly I almost believed it wasn’t the ecstasy talking. We had sex on my kitchen floor, my head banging against my refrigerator as October rolled into November—and I was a goner. The next morning, while I was popping aspirin to relieve my bruised skull, he told me, “Damn, you’re gorgeous,” and “I’m obsessed with your body,” and “I like you, but I’m not ready for a relationship.” I chose not to listen to that last part, because I liked the first bit and because I wanted to keep having sex with him.
My wise little sister tells me that men are simple creatures. When they say something, they mean it. Like “I have to eat something right now” means feed the guy or he is going to break something. “I don’t know how to be faithful” means the dickhead is about to sleep with his slutty ex-girlfriend who’s been skulking about lately. And “I’m not ready for a relationship” really does mean “I’m not ready for a relationship.”
Even before my postcoital first date with Jake, the warning signs were in place: the premature gush of passion, the fact that he didn’t call for five days, forcing me to call and hang up on his voice mail twelve times (dialing *67 so my number wouldn’t show up on his caller ID) before he finally picked up, enthused and genuinely surprised that so much time had passed. He wanted to see me that night, which he did (his friend’s band’s gig, cheap burritos, sex in the cab on the way back to his place) and continued to do, but the rules had been established.
We spent one weekend lying around his apartment eating takeout and watching bad movies on cable and finally dragged ourselves to the grocery store on Sunday afternoon, because Jake had a sudden impulse to make spaghetti Bolognese. On the way there, I made a remark about how much I love it when a man cooks for me and he made one back about how I’d better find a boyfriend who cooks, then. I didn’t respond. Instead, I went silent and his words sat in my gut festering like a bad oyster. Picking up a package of ground beef, Jake said, “You all right?” I nodded. But I’m like a kid when it comes to hiding my emotions. In the pasta aisle, he nudged my shoulder affectionately with his chin and asked, “Hey, what’s up?”
I swallowed hard and pulled my eyes away from a box of multicolored bow ties to look at him. “If this relationship isn’t going anywhere . . .” I forced myself to look in his eyes. “Then what are we doing?”
He grinned and said, “Having fun, right? I mean, I’m having fun!” He said it with this big exclamation point at the end, as if there was nothing wrong with the sentiment, and then threw a couple of items into the cart. “Oops, forgot the parmesan.” He planted a peck on my cheek and bounced off to find a hunk of cheese, as I stared into jars of marinara sauce with tears blurring my vision. But I can’t quite bring myself to leave. That night, as he was kneeling over me, inching his way toward orgasm in the windowless Brooklyn cave he calls a bedroom, I stared up at him: his clenched jaw (framed lovingly by my feet), loose curls just barely grazing his broad shoulders, the tattoo that circles his left arm rhythmically tensing and untensing, impossibly slim hips, golden hair creeping down his tanned, hard stomach, which was glistening ever so lightly with sweat, and I thought, You’re a god. I will never be able to leave you.
Tonight Jake has a meeting with a gallery owner who supposedly likes his bizarre paintings, and I should be supportive of his burgeoning artistic career, but the idea of going home solo on my thirty-second birthday makes me sick to my stomach.
I spy a beer can someone’s left in the hallway and shake it to see if by chance it’s still full, cold, and fizzy before ashing into it. I balance my cigarette on the top of the can and reach my body forward over my legs, letting my chest collapse onto my kneecaps. I close my eyes and take a few deep breaths, holding on to the bottom of my boots, gently nudging away anxious thoughts the way my yoga teacher advises. Then I lift my head from my knees, straighten my back up against the wall vertebra by vertebra, and breathe deeply in and out, before taking another hit of the cigarette.
Talking to Jake about his financial and professional woes helps take my mind off my own. The big news is I just bought an apartment. I never would have thought that I could afford it, but then my old yoga teacher, Tara, announced that she was moving to Vermont to open a studio and selling her magical mini-loft on East Eleventh Street between Avenues A and B, just as I was getting booted from my apartment. As one of those ethereal yoginis, Tara was determined to install “a loving soul” in her “space” rather than “gouging a stranger for a price dictated by an inflated real estate market. om shanti” and sold it for substantially lower than the amount she would have gotten if she’d listed it with a realtor. I’d been to Tara’s for tea and, as corny as it might sound, it felt immediately like home. Sunlight spilled through four enormous, south-facing windows onto rough, slightly slanted hardwood floors. She had redone the kitchen, with a new stainless steel dishwasher and fridge and glass-fronted birch cabinets. The bedroom was spacious for the East Village—big enough to fit a queen-size bed and a dresser and still run and jump around a bit—and had a walk-in closet and two small, east-facing windows that filled the room with light in the morning. When I went to scrutinize the place before buying, a pigeon was warming two tiny eggs in the nest she had built outside on the sill and her eyes met mine without fear. I took it as a good omen. I knew I could transform this space into my personal room of one’s own, that paragon of peace and self-examination that I had yearned for since first reading Virginia Woolf in college.
I thought I had found it once before. Days after my arrival in New York eight years ago, I landed an absurdly cheap railroad flat on East Tenth Street with hammered tin ceilings and charmingly warped floors. A friend of a friend was moving to an island in the Caribbean and didn’t want to give the place up, just in case she ever chose to relinquish tropical paradise for urban squalor. It was a great deal, but I always knew I could be booted if the landlord found out about me. A modicum of fear lived in the far reaches of my mind, a miniature tiger I could sense every time he sharpened his paranoid fangs on the inside of my skull. When my fears became reality, however, I was caught unawares. I was in the shower, actually, and heard pounding so loud I thought maybe my building was burning down. With the shower still running, I wrapped a towel around myself and made watery footprints to the door, only to find a burly marshal standing there. He forced the door open and said, “Put on some clothes, miss. You’re being evicted.”
I scrambled around still wearing a towel, trying to determine my next step. I threw my computer, underwear, DVDs of Manhattan, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, La Dolce Vita, and the complete second season of Sex and the City into a bag, while calling Courtney, who said I could stay with her, and then dialed a lawyer I once slept with who informed me that the marshal wouldn’t leave without me, so I had better go without a fight.
“Put on some clothes, miss,” the marshal said again. I snarled and threw my toothbrush, condoms, and teddy bear into the bag.
In the movie version of my life, I won’t have to change a thing.
That’s when my stellar housing karma kicked in again: The very next day, Tara sent an e-mail around saying she was looking for someone to buy her place. My parents said it sounded like a good opportunity and agreed to loan me the $25,000 I needed for a down payment and co-sign to ensure my loan and co-op approval. And after crashing at Courtney and Brad’s for a few weeks, I finally moved in three months ago. Between the mortgage, maintenance, taxes, and the lifetime repayment plan I set up with my parents, I pay about $1,400 a month. This is minimal by Manhattan standards, especially considering the amount of space I get for it, but hefty for a single, financially challenged editor of a struggling film magazine, especially one who has spent the last eight years subletting for $450 a month. Which reminds me. I drop my cigarette into the beer can, toss it into a nearby trash can, and hoist myself up off the floor.
Once reinstalled at my desk, I e-mail Clancy, an acquaintance who used to assign me movie blurbs at a trendy New York listings site, who just got a job at a new glossy women’s mag, Luscious, editing articles about the hot new venereal disease and the most effective sexual position for firming the buttocks. Film might be my passion, but I’m more than willing to write about cellulite-reducing sneakers and celebrities’ must-have beauty products if it enables me to pay my bills. I have been pitching Claney on average seven story ideas a week since she got the job, but so far nothing has stuck. I make my message quick and to the point.
Hey lady, any news on my last batch of story ideas? Can’t wait to hear what you think! xx, Jacquie.
Then I Instant Message my sister about more pressing matters: Jake is making me insane.
I hear the “You’ve Got an Instant Message” jangle and Alicia’s deceptively innocent-looking moniker, AliCat22, appears. don’t mention his name, she writes. makes me want 2 kick him *really* hard in the face. Nice.
Ever since we were kids, I’ve had the impression that my little sister physically feels my pain. I remember being in the doctor’s office with her when I was about seven and Alicia almost three. We were both on the examining table and the doctor informed us that I needed a shot. I was terrified, but held out my trembling arm like a brave little trooper. As the needle punctured my skin, I whimpered a bit, but it was Alicia whose face quivered before crumpling into tears. It’s the stuff of family legend (and it was pretty damn adorable), but here is something to ponder: If she actually, physically, feels my pain, then isn’t her drive to alleviate it a selfish act?
Alicia wants to rid me of the affliction that calls itself Jake and tells me so on a daily basis. But she doesn’t really know Jake. Sure, he wears a perpetual Billy Idol snarl on his lips. Sure, he occasionally makes me cry. But he does have his good qualities. Alicia doesn’t know, for example, that when we’re alone he actually smiles sometimes. And it feels good to be the person capable of making an unsmiling man smile. One word of praise from me, and he goes from looking like a small-town scam artist—lips a-pout, eyes darting as if he’s up to something—to resembling the dynamic front man for a boy band. Alicia also doesn’t know that Jake sleeps holding on to me so tightly that I have to pry his hands off me to go to the bathroom at night. She doesn’t know what I know about Jake: He is so unsure of himself that sometimes he lashes out at people more confident and grounded than he is, people like Alicia, an L.A.-born smart-ass, who scares the hell out of guys much tougher than Jake. I know that I shouldn’t excuse Jake’s behavior just because I understand it, but I do anyway. Because I do understand it. And because he’s so cute I don’t really want to live without him, or at least not until the weather warms up.
Jake’s just getting me through winter, I write back.
jacquie, it’s march
It feels like winter. It’s two degrees out.
any excuse, get rid of the loser already. he’s a drag a bimbo not smart enough 4 u an idiot illiterate MO-RON. looooze him
I’m not sure how to respond to this. I notice I’m inspecting a handful of my dark, wavy hair for split ends and biting off each one I locate, and flick myself with a rubber band around my wrist. It stings. My cognitive-behavioral ex-therapist taught me this trick to break my bad habits—like a well-conditioned little Pavlovian doggy. It occurs to me that I should flick myself every time I think about Jake.
He’s not illiterate, I write after doodling a pretty-girl face with long lashes and collagen-injected lips on my notebook. He e-mails, with some more or less forgivable spelling errors. And he has a book. I got it for him. I picture the untouched copy of On the Road still sitting on the arm of the couch where Jake was lounging when I gave it to him and add, He won’t read it.
can’t meet mr. right if you’re still sleeping with mr. retarded, she writes.
“Jacquie?” Steve’s voice interrupts our scintillating correspondence. “Will I be able to look at the rest of the text by tonight?”
“I think so,” I say, shuddering at our habit of leaving so many details until the last minute. “Copy editor’s dropping the last couple articles off before the end of the day. Do you want to give them a read tonight and I’ll go through them first thing in the morning?”
I’m the managing editor of a small, cheeky New York film magazine called Flicks. With a staff of five (plus Chester), we all pretty much do everything—and too much of it. Steve gives final approval on all text and art, but since he is also the one raising money for our survival, he is too busy to get involved with details. Samantha oversees photography and helps Steve with ad sales. Trevor is our design god. And Spencer and I assign and edit text. Everyone contributes articles, but because we’re all swamped and cannot afford the army of freelancers we would need to fill our pages, Spencer and I end up writing most of the magazine as well. Sweet Chester tackles everything the rest of us don’t have time for, and I get the honor of dealing with the remaining muck—i.e., fact-checking, making sure we’re on schedule, and staying on top of the writers (who have slipped through Spencer’s fingers), photographers (who have slipped through Samantha’s), advertisers (who have slipped through Steve’s), the printer, the copy editor, and Trevor. It’s a tough job, as they say, but somebody’s got to do it. And because I absolutely, positively love it, that person is me.
Copyright © 2007 by Andrea Meyer. All rights reserved.