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Years ago, I was in the East Village when I paused outside one of the darkly fashionable bars ordinary to Manhattan. It was a cool autumn night, and I stood watching the streetlights shining against the bumpers of parked cars. It had been raining earlier, but now it was over and the air was rich and damp; the rainclouds looked like bruises in the gray sky.
Inside the bar, a man was waiting for me. I didn’t know who he was or what he even looked like, but I knew his name was Alan and that he worked on Wall Street. I’d never done anything like this before. It was just something I’d slipped into, almost by accident.
I did not have high hopes when I clicked a headline written in all caps, SHARE YOUR STORIES OF LOVE AND ROMANCE IN THE BIG CITY. The Craigslist ad was for a blog requesting true stories written by women describing their dating experience in New York. The ad said they would pay fifty dollars per story. At this point, I’d never had what could accurately be called a love life, and I’d only been living in the city for a few months. But I was a writer and thought I could just make something up.
After I wrote an e-mail to the blog editor, attaching what could charitably be called a resume, I left for class. I bought a deli sandwich and ate it on the way back home, uncaring that honey mustard was sliding down my fingers and bits of lettuce and tomato were tumbling to the ground with each bite.
I kicked off my boots and opened my laptop. I was surprised by my own excitement when I saw the unread e-mail in my inbox. My excitement quickly gave way to dismay.
The “blog editor” was a man named Leonard. No last name. He apologized for the deception and explained that he did not run a blog, but rather maintained a group of young women whom he set up on dates with rich, older New York men. He called it “The Girlfriend Experience.” He swore there was no sex involved, only that these men, usually corporate finance types, were lonely and too busy for conventional dating. They just wanted someone to talk to. Leonard would find men online and then set up a date with whichever girl met that particular man’s preferences. Then Leonard and the girl would split the payment. Was it something I’d be interested in?
I don’t know why I said yes.
Maybe it was because I’d been looking for writing gigs for the past month, anything involving editing or paid fiction submissions, with no success. Seldom did the online ads sound promising, but it was becoming increasingly clear to me just how difficult writing jobs were to find. Even clearer was the realization that I was ill-qualified to do anything but write. Ads for assistants called for someone “highly organized” and “prepared.” But my room, littered with empty soda cans and books stacked like coasters on the floor, was evidence to the contrary. Employers wanted someone who was “friendly” and “likeable,” and I just didn’t have the energy to pretend to be either of those things.
Maybe it was because I’d already found a few unorthodox jobs on Craigslist after I failed to find anything better. A sketch artist paid me a hundred dollars to come to his studio and pose naked for him. He was very nice; after he’d drawn me in various poses, he cooked me a tofu lunch. I was paid thirty dollars to proofread a middle-aged woman’s resume, and for fifty, I picked up prescriptions for an elderly man in my neighborhood.
Or maybe it was because I’d run out of shampoo and couldn’t afford to buy more. Maybe it was because I’d started washing my hair with a bar of soap, and the soap wouldn’t lather and instead built up brittle and sticky on my head, making my hair feel like straw. Maybe it was because I’d begun to subsist on ramen and canned ravioli. Maybe it was because I’d found a job at a video game store but had to quit after my boss lured me to his apartment to “pick up a work check,” only to try and put his hands on me instead.
New York, I discovered, was an isolating city. When I was still living in Grand Prairie, Texas, and I thought about my future in New York, I had imagined something truly fabulous. Broadway shows and talented buskers in the subway. Central Park strolls. Hot dogs. Yellow cabs crammed together like pennies in a jar. I imagined living in a small but bohemian apartment downtown. I imagined trendy boutiques, Williamsburg parties, dark cafes. I imagined making friends with smart and good-looking creatives and perhaps one day dating one of these smart and good-looking creatives. I was going to college, and I should’ve met tons of people—in the halls in-between classes or chatting in the cafeteria. Instead, students flitted in and out of campus, paying hardly any mind to one another. I was too shy to go to any parties, or shows, or restaurants by myself. My free time was spent in my room in a dorm run by Catholic nuns on the Upper East Side; a crucifix was nailed to my bedroom wall, bathed in a murky, yellowish light. I would read or listen to music or open the window and listen to the city’s everyday noises—the mechanical rumbling of garbage trucks, the slamming of car doors, dogs barking—all the while waiting for something extraordinary to happen to me.
Leonard asked if we could meet up so we could get to know each other. The next day we met outside the Whole Foods at Union Square. It occurs to me now how odd this was.
I got there first. I was always the first person anywhere. A few minutes or so had passed when Leonard emerged from the subway, a greasy slice of pizza folded over in his hand. I knew it was him by the way his neck swiveled back and forth in earnest, how his eyes stopped and concentrated on me in a way that was both meaningful and polite.
I waved at him with moronic confidence.
He was wearing a nylon jacket, the zipper of which was broken. His features struck me as too small for his head, except for his large, bushy eyebrows. Leonard asked me if I was from the city.
“I moved here from Texas. I’m a student,” I said.
“Good. I only have one other girl that’s a college student. These Wall Street guys love college girls.” He stuck the last bite of pizza in his mouth. “So, the job’s pretty simple. I give you a time and place, and then you just meet up with whomever. Usually it’s dinner, sometimes drinks. How old are you?”
“I just turned nineteen.”
“Gotcha. You won’t ever have to go by yourself, either. I always find a bar or restaurant nearby and hang out until the date’s over. I’ll give you my number so you can call if anything goes wrong. I know I don’t look like much, but I know a little bit of kung fu.” Right then his arms sprang to life as though he were a wind-up toy. He raised them in a circular motion over his head and arched his fingers so that it looked as if he were squeezing an invisible piece of fruit in each hand.
“That’s called a Tiger’s Claw. It’s a traditional kung fu salute,” he said.
I wasn’t sure if I should act startled or pretend as though nothing had happened.
“Don’t be nervous.” Leonard assumed a relaxed pose. “These guys, they’re a little weird, but mostly they’re harmless. They do all the talking, usually. You just gotta sit there and be friendly.”
I said I could do that, though I didn’t know if I could.
“Just be grateful you’re not the one that has to e-mail these wackos,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, when they respond to my ad, I pretend to be one of you girls. I have to check them out, make sure they’re not dangerous or anything. I have to put up with all their flirting and dirty talk. You don’t want to know how many dick pics I get in my inbox. Believe me, you’ve got it easy.”
“You don’t have a boyfriend, do you?”
“Well, it’s probably a good idea that you don’t say anything about this to him.”
I’d been seeing a classmate of mine, but what we shared could hardly be called a relationship. His name was Amir. He called himself my boyfriend, but we both knew he wasn’t really. He was in love with a lesbian who had broken his heart, and he frequently brought her up in our conversations. I didn’t really know what I was doing with him. I forced myself to laugh at his jokes and most of the time I found him irritating.
Leonard folded his arms over his chest and looked at me serenely. “I’ve got a good feeling about you. I can tell you’re shy, but I bet this will help you to open up.”
Open up how, I wondered.
“There’s a little something for everyone. Different guys want different girls. Some guys want hood rats, others want a Jewish American Princess. Then there’s the ones that want your type.” He gestured in my direction.
“What’s my type?” I asked.
But Leonard only shrugged his shoulders and said that he’d better get going. “I’ll e-mail you if a date comes up.”
We began walking our separate ways when I turned around and said in a slightly raised voice, “I shouldn’t use my real name, should I?”
“Oh, right,” Leonard said. “A lot of the girls use aliases. What do you want yours to be?”
I said the first name that came to mind: “Joni.” I’d been listening to “The Last Time I Saw Richard” on the subway ride over. The lyric played over in my head, “All good dreamers pass this way some day.”
There was a burst of laughter as the door to the bar swung open and then slammed shut. A couple exited, walking right past me before disappearing around the corner. I looked through the window of the bar and saw that it was mostly crowded with men and women in their thirties. I was struck by their glossy, clean faces. An elegant woman in a black leather dress turned her head in my direction, though I couldn’t tell if she was actually looking at me. I jerked my head the other way. Was I dressed alright? Did my makeup look fine? I wanted to look sophisticated, but my dress was cheap, and my foundation could only half-way hide the numerous acne scars on my face. I felt certain that I would be found out as an outsider the moment I went inside.
I walked through the door. The music thrummed at a disorienting volume. My armpits felt damp. I stood there stupidly for several moments, unsure of what to do. I tried to pick out someone in the crowd who looked like he could be named Alan and work on Wall Street, but all their faces were interchangeable.
Someone wrapped his hand around my wrist.
“Joni?” Alan said. “I thought that was you. I called your name a few times, but you never responded. Follow me. I got us seats at the bar.”
He led me to our seats. I sat down, trying to arrange my body in the least hideous position possible. I didn’t know why, but I was desperate to impress him. Perhaps I just wanted him to get his money’s worth.
“What do you want to drink?” he asked.
I’d never had a drink before, except when my parents let me have a sip or two of their wine. I made a vague gesture with my hand.
Alan ordered two Manhattans. I was prepared to sputter some kind of half-baked lie if the bartender asked for my ID, but he did not.
“I have to say,” Alan said, taking a sip of his drink before exhaling deeply, “you look even better in person.”
“Thank you.” I tried not to laugh. The day before, Leonard had e-mailed me the photo he would use when asked what I looked like. The photo was of a girl about my age and clearly a model: tall, waifish, with boyish hips and a somber expression on her face; she looked nothing like me.
“I like your hair,” he said.
“Thank you,” I said again.
“A lot of people wouldn’t be able to pull off that shade of red, but you do.”
Self-conscious, I began to run my hands through my hair. I wished he would change the subject. He glanced to my breasts every few minutes.
I was relieved when he began talking about himself. He didn’t say much, however, just that he worked in finance, which I already knew, that he had a golden retriever he played frisbee with, and that he’d never been married.
“So you’re from Texas. You don’t have much of an accent, though.” He sounded disappointed. “What are you doing in New York?”
“I’m a student.”
“I know that. But what else? Everyone’s trying to be something in this city.”
“Well, I’m trying to become a writer.” It sounded idiotic the second I said it. Every liberal arts student with a Moleskine was a struggling “writer” or a poet or an artist. I thought this answer might repel him, dressed as he was in his expensive blazer and leather shoes, but instead he asked me what I wrote about.
I said that my last short story was about a teenage girl who sells her used underwear on Craigslist and uses the money to go horseback riding. He didn’t have anything to say to that, but he nodded as though he understood, which both pleased and annoyed me.
“Who are some of your favorite writers?” Alan ordered himself another drink. I was only half-done with mine. I named a few, and even though he expressed interest in my answer, I could tell he wasn’t much of a reader.
“Why don’t you have a boyfriend?” he asked, crossing his ankle over his knee.
“Well, I was—am sort of seeing this guy I go to school with.” Should I have said that? I watched his face for a reaction, but he only nodded.
“I’m all ears.”
I didn’t want to talk about Amir with him. There was nothing to talk about anyway. We’d never even been on a date, unless you counted that time he bought me ice cream after class, which I didn’t. In fact, this was truly the first date I’d ever been on with anyone, I realized with incredible dismay. Nothing was turning out the way it was supposed to.
“I don’t want to bore you,” I mumbled. I wished we would stop talking about me. Hadn’t Leonard said Alan would do all the talking? I just had to sit here and be friendly.
“You mentioned horseback riding earlier. Do you like horseback riding?”
“I used to take lessons as a kid.”
“Wow, you’re a real Texan, aren’t you?” he said, beaming. “We should go sometime.”
“We can do all kinds of things together. Whatever you want. And eventually—”
“Can I get another one of these?” I asked the bartender.
“—I’d like us to have sex.” He began to lightly trace the veins in my hand and forearm.
“What?” I said vacantly. I remembered how Leonard promised there would be no sex whatsoever. Had he lied to me?
“Sex. Isn’t that the whole point of this?”
“I don’t know … about that.” I did my best to sound confident, but my voice, an octave higher than usual, told me that I wasn’t.
Alan reached for his back pocket and pulled out his wallet.
My phone vibrated. There was a text from Leonard. It said: everything cool? gonna head out.
I felt sick to my stomach. This was all wrong. Leonard had told me I just had to sit here and be friendly. He’d told me there’d be no sex. He’d told me he’d be there if I got into trouble.
Alan thrust his arm out toward me. In his hand was a wad of cash. “Here. Why don’t you sleep on it.”
I accepted the money with deliberate slowness, as though it were a trap.
“Sorry, I have to make a call. I’ll be right back,” I said.
He obliged with a wave of his hand. I slid down from my seat, grabbed my jacket and purse, and walked outside.
I could tell it had rained during my date with Alan; the air was misty, which made the city seem even more cold and isolating than usual. I pulled out my phone and rang Leonard’s number. No answer. Automated voicemail. I rang again. Same thing. I looked down and counted a hundred dollars in my hand. At the time, this seemed like an enormous amount of money to me. I decided to wait on the sidewalk for Leonard to call me back. But after fifteen minutes had passed without a word from Leonard, I knew wasn’t going to be hearing from him, at least not tonight.
The bar hadn’t emptied out at all since I first arrived. If anything, the crowd seemed larger. People were on the dancefloor now and there were more young people, but I was still the youngest person at the bar. I had imagined glamorous places like this before I moved to New York. I had imagined spending my Friday nights wearing lipstick and a pretty dress, laughing and dancing till two in the morning. This was exactly what I’d wanted, but now it all seemed crude.
I approached the bar and was confused when I saw that two women were sitting where Alan and I had been. They glanced at me, their mouths curled with disdain. I walked away. Maybe he’d found a seat elsewhere or had gone to the bathroom. I was about to continue my search, but then I thought, what would be the point? There was no sense in staying. No sense when I could leave and escape it all. But as I swung open the door, the night air cold and urgent against my face, I doubted that there was even such a thing as escaping.
I wrestled with how to tell Leonard that I didn’t want to go on another date, but it turned out that I wouldn’t have to. A week after my meeting with Alan, Leonard said he was done with the dating gig. He claimed he’d lost interest. But he said we should “hang out” sometime. I didn’t know what to make of that offer.
It was around this time that Amir ended things between us for good. I was more upset than I should’ve been, and from an outsider’s perspective, my heartbreak for someone who wasn’t even my boyfriend must’ve seemed pathetic.
One day in the middle of December, just a couple of weeks before the end of the term, I went on a walk. There was a lot of activity on the street. I looked at people, bicyclists, dogs, small children, and felt glad to be out with them. I stopped by a deli and bought a San Pellegrino Limonata. I’d never had one before and admired the neat, European-looking design.
I walked to the East River, looked over the railing, and pulled the can out of a brown paper bag. I was struck by how tart and sugary and satisfying it tasted. I was sure I’d never tasted anything so wonderful. I stared down at the water as it dashed over the rocks. The fog was so thick that day that I couldn’t see the other side of the river. The sky seemed empty and washed-out, and the reeds bent over wearily. And although that day was undeniably dreary, it was the first time the city looked truly beautiful to me. As I drank San Pellegrino by the river and listened to the cars rumble down FDR Drive, I celebrated impermanence, the relief that all things must eventually end. I imagined what the city would look like when winter was over and spring came. I could see the green grass in Central Park, the flamingo pink cheeks of children playing in the sun too long. I imagined Coney Island, the East Village gardens, and warm mornings strolling the streets. I imagined going up to the roof of my building and reading a book, and then coming back to the river at sunset to watch the sky fade to a rose-gold smear. It all seemed perfect—too perfect, so that I wondered if it would ever really happen.