Two years ago, in the last days of a flatlining relationship, my boyfriend, Bobby, and I were crashing with a pal of his in Altamonte Springs, Florida. Bobby and Max — whose names I’ve changed, like most of the others in this story, along with some identifying details — had grown up together and played on the same elite soccer team. Max’s apartment was in a village like many in America, with a cast of characters leaning out of old cars and teenagers playing trap music from the little balconies around the deserted pool. The apartment was pretty dirty, its sink clogged with ancient mounds of mac and cheese and, as a maintenance man would later discover, a number of pulverized shot glasses.
It was an awkward ménage à trois. Bobby was fed up with me, and we were essentially pretending to parent an unruly and garrulous man-child. Max went off to his job as a programmer and returned home for lunch like a Fifties schoolboy, wolfing a burrito and watching Tron: Uprising. A lovable work in progress, like most of us, he was seeking romantic companionship online. That sounded stale to me. A decade late, I joined Facebook, assuming the fake surname Starchild and bypassing the intrusive introductory questionnaire. Then I downloaded the dating app Tinder and sat with Max late at night, checking out a brazen array of babes.
Bobby and I split up on Valentine’s Day, signifying nothing, and I returned to New York for the end of the longest winter. The heat wasn’t working properly: the low panels gave off only the faintest warmth, like the breath of a near-death person. I spent most of my time in bed, racking up a thousand-dollar electricity bill with the space heater Bobby had left behind.
The Tinder icon, with its hot-rod flame, was still on my phone, and it guttered at me when I was low. My profile showed just one picture of me, wearing a fedora and faux-smoking a feather, with my name underneath. I felt safe, semi-anonymous, especially because I had left the text box blank. Every day was different, the self was dim and fickle, I didn’t know what I was looking for.
Paul, 40. He is a big banker. “Try not to hold it against me,” he jokes before we meet. We all do what we must. What does he do? He fudges numbers, nervous about it. Before we meet, he tells me that he is in fact forty-five, having cleverly reprogrammed his Facebook account to make himself seem younger. “Full and frank disclosure.” A few days later, he sends a picture of himself on a terrace with an exotic backdrop. “Taken last month in Vietnam. I’ve gained a few pounds since the pictures that were taken for Tinder. . . . Full and frank disclosure.”
We arrange to meet on a Sunday on the Upper West Side, where he lives. “Are you familiar with Central Park?” I tell him I’ve heard of it. He threatens to spank me for my insolence and mentions his “tendency towards sexual dominance” and “fondness for sweet, smart, sexually submissive younger females with well taken care of feet.” In the spirit of full and frank disclosure, I nearly tell him about the fungus that lives under a left toenail, but skin disease is better conveyed in person.
As arranged, I show up at Paul’s apartment on Central Park West. In his pictures, he was a Patrick Bateman type with really straight teeth. Having been forewarned of his weight gain, I’m disarmed by the effect. He reminds me of a polar bear in his pleasant tall-person plumpness and hair flecked with white. I’ve brought him some hyacinths. He thanks me and puts them in the sink.
The kitchen is big and clean, the lighting is recessed, the appliances are top-of-the-line, there’s an island of marble with a better-than-Nespresso coffee machine and a bottle of South African red. He’s opened the latter especially for me — during a vaguely eugenic vetting he conducted by phone, I told him that my parents grew up in Johannesburg. “Thanks!” I say. I sip it and think out loud that good wine tastes furry in a good way.
We spend some minutes watching the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics with the sound off. Korean dancers weave beneath colorful streamers. It’s one of those weirdly warm winter nights and Paul has opened the doors to the terrace. He invites me to enjoy the view. We go outside and look at the trees. “What a good view,” I say. He nods mirthlessly. We return to the white living room’s long white sofa and big-screen.
“I wish I’d studied economics,” I say. On my way to Paul’s apartment, I had quickly asked Jeeves about private wealth management, and now I formulate a leading question. “So you work with high-net-worth individuals? You must be good with people.”
“Yes, my clients have become good friends.” His new best friend is his art dealer, but he’s also close with an old Jewish man who lives across the park. The man is very rich, obviously, as well as ornery and bigoted. When Paul goes there for supper, the food is ladled out by a servant while the old man rants about Obama and the blacks.
I tell him it sounds like South Africa.
“That aspect is awful, of course,” he says smoothly, “but I don’t really respond to it. We talk about his children.” Paul is like a second son to the man. I ask Paul about his own family. He is close to his sister and her daughter. He has two brothers, to whom he does not speak. One brother “is also in business.” This brother is envious and vindictive. He has tried to besmirch Paul’s reputation in their hometown, something Paul does not take lightly.
“What is the mathematical side of your job?”
He points to the Olympic pageantry on the flatscreen. “I can look at an event like this, and my ballpark estimate of the cost — and that includes the venue, the tickets, the deals that the press reports and the deals it doesn’t, the ads, the athletes — well, it tends to be extremely accurate.”
He’s a badass, he’d like me to understand, and proceeds to tell me a number of things he probably shouldn’t. He is smirky. I am bored, tipsy, and famished. I thank him again for the wine and the chance to see his art collection and terrace. I say I ought to go because I am suddenly very hungry.
“We could order you something from Daniel Boulud.”
“Oh no,” I say, “that sounds extravagant. Do you have any crackers?” My manners have disappeared. He’s stymied. He doesn’t have crackers, or snacks of any kind, because he doesn’t keep any food in the apartment. “Really?” I ask.
“My hours are unpredictable, and if I’m staying at home, I prefer to order in,” he says. “Meals in single portions. As you know, I’m trying to lose weight. Let me see, maybe I have something.”
He goes into the kitchen. “Would you like dessert? Lemon tart from Marea, and this is tiramisu from —” I don’t care, yes please, sounds great. “Which would you like?” Both! He acts amused and retrieves two forks from the kitchen.
It occurs to me that elaborate desserts are a trope of reality television, that maybe these are romantic rewards for a date who jumps through the hoops and gets seduced. He seems reluctant to hand them over. Unforgivably, I devour most of one and half of the other using the same fork, so that by the time I think to offer him a bite, what’s left is ravaged and cross-contaminated. I put on my coat and Paul insists on giving back the hyacinths. He travels a lot, they’ll just die here.
Perhaps a strip-club goer, perhaps a greaser of palms, perhaps a philanthropist to the homeless, Nick has single dollar bills scattered throughout his apartment like windswept leaves. Left alone in the morning to let myself out, I gather and stack all thirty-six of them on his kitchen counter. “Thanks for tidying up,” he texts later. A nice enough guy — trusting, like me.
Thomas, wearing a cowboy hat, hikes near a mesa with a baby in his rucksack. The baby is nice, and Thomas looks pretty good in profile. I’m unprepared for the photos that follow. First Thomas is absent — instead, there is an eerie, elfin, redheaded girl with skin like milk and an odd half-smile, who cradles a ginger cat. Then father and child at a stable, petting a miniature horse, everyone facing forward as if posing for a society photographer. Then a Slavic face like Ivana Trump’s on the cover of a magazine.
Thomas and I never meet, but we do speak on the phone. He might be a repressed gay Presbyterian, is one thing I think as he is talking. He’s the former head of a perfume startup and a photographer with a whiff of disgrace — still, I listen to his story and find myself in agreement with him on a number of big-picture insights. Everything about his personal life sounds like a calculation gone wrong. He found his bride in Russia, where she was brilliant, young, and beautiful. Brought up as an agnostic, she agreed when they got married that any children they had would be raised in his spiritual tradition — and indeed, she came to relish American-style Christianity, singing at one point in the church choir.
He embarks on a long and puzzling account of his ex-wife’s career as a nuclear physicist. He had paid for much of her schooling, something he cannot help but mention, since the aftermath of any failed relationship (let alone one so nakedly transactional from the outset) brings an ungenerous and impossible impulse to claw back one’s misspent resources. Then there was her recruitment by the U.S. government, which capsized their lives. Thomas describes a trial period during which her records were combed for connections to the KGB. He speaks at length about the absurdity of the government’s methods, which ultimately led officials to reject his ex-wife. The supposed reason: her mother and sister still lived near Moscow. How could it be so simple? He bemoans the slapdash, cookie-cutter approach of the government’s background searches, a subject he knows a lot about, since his father’s work in Washington during the Cold War required a formidable security clearance. No one likes to feel like an innocent.
Perhaps his wife had a change of heart or a crisis of faith following this setback. Perhaps she no longer felt beholden. In any event, she retreated into a fold of women, Russian women who once crossed will never forgive, and this close-knit group brainwashed Thomas’s wife into believing he was monstrous. This was right around the time he lost his job, and soon a great deal of money in their drawn-out divorce. He tells me that his ex now worked on Wall Street, while he was financially and emotionally ruined, allowed access to the red-haired child every two weeks. “I’m destitute,” he says with a laugh. He suspects his ex of going back on their agreement about the daughter’s religious education.
“She used to eat all sorts of fruits,” he says. “Now she only wants soup. Chicken noodle soup from a can.”
Children are fickle, I say consolingly. He mentions the divorce attorneys, their feverish work for nothing but filthy lucre, the way they feed off the crises and unhappiness of others. I know what he’s upset about — I, too, hate the thought of profiting off anyone’s bad time. Yet here I am, recording his. “You’re a great listener,” Thomas tells me, “and a special lady.” I suppose I am listening for that too.
Around nine one evening, I send a text to Kenneth, 23. “How’s your week?”
“Are you available Tuesday or Wednesday,” Kenneth responds politely. I like his non-interrogative questions and reply, “Wed maybe. What are you doing tonight?” This is bold. “I know it’s pretty late,” I add.
“Are you gonna be up,” he texts while I ride the subway home. “Yeah,” I respond when I’m aboveground again. Kenneth, exceptionally handsome, tall, black, and athletic, is, as I remember him, free of sexual insecurity. He is allegedly training to hurdle in the next Olympic Games. Literally and figuratively, I would like Kenneth’s laid-back ways to rub off on me. I am not like Kenneth. Sex is a pocket of life I’ve found full of change and spent strangely.
I shower and moisturize, brush my mossy teeth, tidy up. He arrives an hour later. He has a bit of a beard now. “You look the same,” he tells me warmly. We sit on the sofa a foot apart, drinking cans of Modelo. “You’re taking whey?” He has seen a tub of the stuff in my kitchen.
“I’m trying to,” I say. He reaches for my upper arm, a body part that has atrophied over the years, to test its strength. Most hours of the day I feel far away from my body, as if it belongs to someone else; it seems odd that it is mine. Sex is a way to remember my body is there. I tense the biceps under his long fingers, and he pretends to be impressed. My arms used to be the hammiest bits of my body, I tell him, but now they’re stringy and soft.
He says that he is training “a lady who got the opposite problem to you. She’s trying to lose weight. If I work with her, she’s going to have to change everything.” Does she like him? “Probably.” He laughs and observes that artsy women seem to like him. He used to be a lefty, but in Ghana, where he lived until he was seven, his teachers forced him to switch to his right hand. He wonders whether, uncorrected, he might have been a painter or something.
Kenneth sits back and relaxes his vernacular. A girl he knows from college has been talking to a guy for a few months. The guy told her not to talk to other guys, but he went through her phone and found her doing exactly that. “I know all the technicalities,” Kenneth says. We laugh. One nice aspect of casual-sex preliminaries is that you can jeer at the hypocrisies and tender feelings of others while hiding and hoarding your own.
He got fired recently. “My boss’s name was Mister Misra. Short for ‘miserable.’ ” This terrible joke would nix my lust for another man. The job was selling high-interest loans over the phone.
“We had a script, we’re supposed to read the answers to any question. This one guy said, ‘You’re gonna screw me.’ I agreed with him, I was like, ‘Yeah, you’re smart.’ I was coming home from midtown on the B or the D when I got the message ‘Kenneth, you have been terminated’ on the bridge. The city looking beautiful. I was looking good, too. But the rest of the ride, I felt so bad.”
“What was your outfit?”
“I had on a red sweater, with a nice white shirt underneath. It was good. Basically an outfit for Valentine’s Day.”
An awkward segue to suggest lying down in the next room, but I muscle through, and he’s amenable. He takes off his sneakers in the living room and lies in the bedroom wearing all his clothes. I cuddle up to Kenneth, who smells nice, and objectify him from the side. He puts his hands all over me with enjoyable urgency. He takes off his clothes and I take off his socks. We sit facing each other and kiss like the most beautiful pornography never made.
“You took off my socks,” Kenneth observes afterward.
“Isn’t it nice?”
“I don’t always do that.”
“Sorry,” I say. “I thought it was romantic.”
“It was.” He seems to be thinking about something else. I ask him to open the window. I typically struggle when asking others to do the necessary. I just do it myself, or I don’t. Kenneth opens the window. I give him the better pillow and burrow one of my shoulders under his impressive right arm. His skin is warm and smooth. Someone, anyone, sleeping next to you — their breath, your shared intention — is for me the most reliable soporific. I’ve taken benzos and hypnotics, but I’ve never found them irresistible. Kenneth is here to remind me that there’s such a thing as a good man you don’t have to keep.
I swipe my alarm clock from green to off, but Kenneth is an early riser. I hope he will go so I can return to bed and fret about the future. I offer him a bowl of Lucky Charms, poor guy. We eat our cereal side by side. I take a puff of a fresh Marlboro Red. “That does wake you up,” I say.
“I always wake up early,” he says. “The best thing for that is you take a walk. Walk for an hour. It gives you a feeling of time, I think because you get ahead of the rest of the day.”
“Where do you go?”
“What I do is I walk to the park. It takes an hour, half an hour to get there, then I go back.”
I ask if he listens to music.
“What I do is I walk there and I pray. On the way back, I listen to music. That’s the best thing.”
He’s inspired me to walk him to the bus, I tell him, but he hasn’t, I’m just hustling him out the door. There’s an awkward embrace at the threshold.
“Bye,” he says. Fleet footfalls on the carpeted stairs. The front door bangs.