The air conditioner is almost too cold on my wet skin. I pull my top sheet over me and balance my laptop on my thighs. I’m still on the Chanel website. I click “Makeup” and then “Lipstick.” Rouge Allure Velvet Extreme Intense Matte Lip Colour. I say it out loud to myself in my best approximation of Alice’s accent. I have never seen her eat. I saw her smoke a cigarette once, but she didn’t see me, outside the white tent of an art fair. She was with a client, a paunchy man of indeterminable origin and he moved to cover her with his umbrella as the mist turned to drizzle. I didn’t notice it was raining. I was too fascinated by the way she was holding her cigarette, pinching it like a joint. Then one of the art handlers came to get me and I had to go back inside.
The lipstick comes in 11 different shades:
According to an online French dictionary, Pivoine Noire means Black Peony. I toggle between Endless and Eternal before adding them both to my cart. My phone vibrates. I have an email from Parentheses confirming my order. I lick my lips. I’m just getting started. The sun is setting, projecting a square of golden light onto the far side of the bedroom. I see my own silhouette hunched over the laptop and I straighten. “The silhouette of a woman with taste,” I say aloud. I turn so that the silhouette shows my breasts. I consider taking a photo but I don’t want to lose momentum. I should eat dinner but I’m not hungry.
I want a big sweaty iced coffee, ripe with condensation. The only place to get one at this hour is the McDonald’s near the Q station. The last time I felt an insurmountable craving for chicken nuggets the dining area was dominated by a man who thought he was a pitcher of orange juice, convinced anyone who approached was trying to “spill” him. I spent the day alone, what is one more humiliation? I pull on a pair of black gym shorts and my Kate Bush t-shirt.
“That you?” says a man in the elevator. He’s pointing at my shirt. “Um no,” I say. Pulling up Etsy on my phone already scrolling.
mushroom lamp vintage
mushroom lamp murano
mushroom lamp glass
Everything is so expensive. Too trendy. I change tactics, open the Tumblr app and type in “interiors.” I am searching for the type of room that would change my life if I lived there, you know the one. McDonald’s is full of teenagers. I scroll to the syncopated rhythm of their conversations.
“Yeah, I’m not doing that calculus shit”
Mattress on the floor, surrounded by potted plants
“Ooo she likes it, I heard she gave it to Sean”
Seagrass rug and black marble coffee table
“I can eat a 20 piece by myself no cap”
I open the browser and type “black marble coffee table.” It’s my turn at the counter. I ask for just a splash of milk but my coffee comes out nearly beige. Whatever. A black marble coffee table could really tie our living room together. The milk continues to unfurl in my coffee like the white tendrils of the expensive stone. I shake it and a drop of condensation comes loose and cuts a slow path through my arm hair. There is nobody in the elevator this time. I look at my distorted reflection in the steel plates along the back. I can tell my hair dried funny.
The living room is neat. When I first moved in, my roommate and I were sitting on the couch one night drinking wine and getting to know each other when she announced that she was going to bed and took her laptop, charger, book and purse into the bedroom with her. From that I surmised that we shouldn’t leave our personal things in the living room. Our current coffee table is actually an orange, upholstered stool that once belonged to my grandmother. We covered it with a large teak TV tray that I found on Craigslist and that in turn is covered in a few old celebrity magazines and some coasters I cut myself out of cork.
The couch is our most expensive purchase, a brown leather mid-century dupe the color of a football. The pillows (when they aren’t slipping off of the leather) are light blue linen. They have picked up several tea-colored stains in the two years we’ve lived here. On the side table are two small cactuses, one for me and one for my roommate, named Lucy and Desi, as well as a pile of books purely for decoration including a copy of Tropic of Cancer I bought used, stamped by a Naval Base library, probably stolen for its pornographic potential. When I skimmed it a year ago I underlined the sentence, “I need to ponder my shame and my despair in seclusion.”
So maybe the black marble is a bad idea after all. What I really want is something to weigh the room down. If I lived alone and had more money and was a different person of course the room would have a black marble coffee table. But starting small is probably better. I go into my bedroom.
What is that candle brand everyone has been talking about? I see their ads on Instagram, purposely underproduced. An androgynous person in a sports bra and boxer shorts poses on all fours, a line of votive candles balanced on their back. The yellowed sill above a radiator is made to look like an altar, tall candles burned down to their last inch with a photograph of an old woman in braids and a peach-colored crystal. “Peach.” That’s the name of the candle brand. I click the URL in their Instagram profile.
The website is more of the same imagery. Models who are DJs and creative directors lending their faces and their clout to the brand: “Keep it cute while we burn it down.” The candles come in three sizes: a votive (The Mini), a squat, medium-sized one (The Tubby), and the tall ones that look like prayer candles (The Soldier). All of the candles are named after parts of a flower:
I click on “Pistil” and the page loads with wavy, black text. PEPPER, BLACK PEONY, AMBER, BOURBON. Did I buy the Pivoine Noire lipstick? I can’t remember. How long ago was my bath? There is a layer of water at the bottom of my coffee. The golden square is gone from my wall and the night stretches on with more of the same. I roll over and curl into child’s pose, the pillow cool on my forehead. PEPPER, BLACK PEONY, AMBER, BOURBON. I know a girl named Amber. I flip onto my back and open Instagram, the sudden brightness of my phone making me cringe. Amber and I were close at camp one summer. She lives in Cincinnati with her husband and two kids (one boy, one girl) and posts smoothie recipes and things like expensive pouches to keep more pouches in. Amber is taking a bath. I press a finger to her Instagram story to hold it in place while I try to read the label of her candle. “Anther,” it says. I smile. Wait, where was my Peach cart? I guess I accidentally exited the tab.
“Peach Pistil Soldier,” I type into the search bar. There it is. “Add to cart,” I click. And then “Check out now.” I watch my name and address pre-load. I don’t know how Peach knows me already, this information that follows me around from digital store to digital store. And now I know Peach. I walk into the living room and straighten the pile of magazines on the TV tray. On second thought, this is a risky place for a candle. I bring Desi the cactus into my bedroom to make space, setting the cactus down next to my jar of pens and pencils. Most of them I stole from work. The company name is embossed in white with a tiny castle keep. Like a fortress, or a porn dungeon.
Lately, I haven't been watching porn, preferring to look at images and gifs on reddit. A subreddit I know that Scott looks at: NSFW gifs. A thin brunette slowly unbuttons her denim shorts, hip bones as sharp as shoulder blades. I think about Scott thinking about her. I get wet. Her belly button is unusually high, the expanse beneath it flat and tan. “There’s nothing like cumming on a flat stomach,” he said to me one time, straddling me with his bangs hanging over his face. I blinked his sweat from my eyes, tried to discreetly poke my belly to see how much it gave. But of course he noticed. “You’re good,” he said, squeezing my thigh. “Really good.”
Scott didn’t show me this side of himself in the beginning. It’s hard to remember the before times now, but it’s true. On our first two dates we walked and walked and never kissed. I told him about my parent’s divorce, that by the time they told us the news my father’s closets were already cleared out. Even at ten, I punished myself for my obliviousness. Sat on the floor next to an empty dry cleaner bag and cried. I checked my father’s nightstand drawer too. A single penny, a gum wrapper, a tiny bag of buttons that said London Fog. I pocketed them all. Scott told me about Dakota, that she clawed at him with her nails during their fights. He had a pink scar near the corner of his jaw. “That’s horrible,” I said.
Later I wondered how much of that was true. I still have the London Fog coat buttons in my jewelry box. I open the apps. A man in a fleece vest stares back, his face like a wedge salad. I check my settings, 25-35. Maybe something different tonight. I slide my finger across the screen. 45-55. Too old to remember the difference between a flat stomach and a flattened one. We could ponder our shame and despair in seclusion...together.
The first man is 52. A little paunchy, like the client I saw covering Alice with his umbrella. I imagine him imagining Alice. Walking back into the expanse of the facility where hundreds of artworks sleep in their temperature-controlled tombs. I try to think of the one place without cameras. Of course, the bathroom. Alice with her shift dress hiked up over her waist and her black pantyhose around her ankles, legs wiry in the way of all fit women over 50. His shelf of a stomach sticking out, denying him the sight of his own erection.
I want tonight’s men to be grateful, but not too grateful. Aggressive but not pushy. I want, I want…Amber’s husband. Maybe. I haven’t looked at a picture of him in a while. I open her Instagram account again. They pose together at a wedding, his hand on her lower back. His hair is light brown and long like a college athlete’s, it curls a little behind his ears. He is wearing a white short-sleeved button-up shirt tucked into butter-colored chinos that match her yellow dress. I can see the outline of his muscles, but there is something too simple about him. I think back to the photo of Scott with the baby duck.
I notice that my coworker Kimberly follows Amber too and feel a stab of fear. My work life is infringing on my home life again. But a lot of people follow Amber, 20,000 people to be exact. Kimberly knows a rough sketch of my life. The last time I posted on Instagram was three months ago, a stack of diner pancakes. The edge of Scott’s left hand and the corner of his shirt visible. Proof that he was there without giving anything away. That was a good day. I told him about my first company party, that I saw someone stub out their cigarette on a Brillo box worth millions of dollars. Scott grew up surrounded by wealth, his grandfather was the wrestling coach at an Ivy League college; his parents were elementary school teachers in the same college town. Our kinship is based on the ability to move between worlds, lower middle class kids fluent in privilege. There is an edge to our jokes about the people we know with money. Scott is more bitter than I am, having expected more from life to begin with. “I was the only guy in my frat whose last name ended in a vowel,” he told me once. I made sympathetic noises.
Sometimes money comes up and we laugh about it and move on and other times he is sullen for the rest of the date.
On the day we went to the diner, I brought up my own art. I hadn’t intended to tell him about it but I heard myself explain that starting in middle school I kept a tub of colorful cardstock that I cut into increasingly intricate shapes. It started with valentines one year, ladybugs with pink spots, terriers with little bow ties and sailboats under heart-shaped clouds. Any event after that was an excuse to make more cards, and I spent hours sitting on the shag carpet of my bedroom, fragments of paper falling into the crevices of the floor. My high school art portfolio was a series of images from the mall where I met my friends on the weekends, stretching $20 in pocket money across lunch at Jamba Juice and sets of earrings that turned my lobes green.
I cut out every pretzel in Auntie Anne’s, the dispensers of butter, pieces of coarse salt so small that I had to balance them on the nail of my pinky finger. I cut out the changing room of Forever 21, sequined belts abandoned on the floor and four ruffled tops waiting to be tried on. The number five hooked to the door indicated a fifth top, the tags hanging from the purse where it had been stuffed. I called this one The Shoplifter. More tableaus: the bath store, the food court (tiny lo mein noodles and sushi rolls, my eyes crossing with effort), and the shopping bags in the back of my imaginary BMW. I have always liked looking into rooms I can’t access. When I meet a man I fantasize about his living room first.
Dating in New York is the closest to real estate tourism you can get. How else can I see into so many stranger’s lives? I see their art and their invoices and bills, but not their bathrooms. I see their terrible taste but I need something more private than taste. I remember a storefront gallery show in Chinatown, curated by a friend of my roommate. There was a video artist showing there. She had long, thick black hair and a mole on her upper lip. One of the videos showed salmon swimming upstream to spawn. “I want to have sex with other people’s secrets,” she said over the sound of the rushing water.
I didn’t show my artwork to Scott the day we went to the diner. Instead, we went back to his studio apartment and watched a few episodes of something before having sex and falling asleep. The sex was normal. Sometimes he put his hand on my throat and squeezed a little bit. The first time surprised me, and then I looked forward to it. Something about the way he operated made me think that if I asked for it he would go out of his way not to. After those chaste first two dates he made a move on the third, ordering us Thai food and then tugging at the buttons of my dress while he nuzzled my neck. “What took you so long?” I said. “Patience is a virtue,” he responded.
My artwork came up the next time he was at my apartment. He wanted to know why there was nothing on my walls. “Overstimulated by work?” he asked. “Actually, I am working on something,” I said. I took the binder from the drawer in my desk. It was filled with plastic sheets. Inside each plastic sheet was a single piece of white cardstock. The last sheet in the book was only half full:
FOREST FAWN BROW TINT
OMBRE BUBBLE LAMP
‘ANGELICA’ WHITE LINEN TANK
BOOTCUT BLACK MOTO LEATHER PANTS
AU NATURALISTA GLITTER LASH SET
WORN NAVY BOYFRIEND CREWNECK
Next to each item was a paper facsimile that I cut out and glued to the page. Before I saw his face, I knew it had been a mistake. “Do you own all of this stuff?” he said. “Yes,” I said. He looked at my sparsely cluttered bedroom–the single closet three quarters filled with unthreatening attire from eco-conscious brands. He flipped back and forth between the pages, neatly dated.
“How do you afford it?” I had recently opined about my student loans. I shrugged.
“Where is it all?”
“It’s at work.”
When I started at the facility, I began storing my purchases in an empty unit. At first, I wasn’t sure if I could get away with it. Everything was closely monitored. But nobody was monitoring the “empty” units. They had no reason to. Because I have everyone’s schedule, I have plenty of advance notice if I need to move my stuff. It became a game for me, hiding one or two items in my tote bag and bringing them to work. Keeping them under my desk until everyone leaves for the day. Sometimes I just sit on the floor of the unit and listen to a meditation app or a podcast. Fondling the tags I don’t even bother to remove.
“How often do you buy stuff?” he asked.
“Once or twice a week.”
“Did you buy anything today?”
“How many things?”
I had to think about it. One makeup palette, a beaded choker, light blue mules, perfume that smelled like a night out in Barcelona.
His hand was on my throat.
“Is that true?”
“Good girl. From now on, every time you buy something I want you to tell me. If you buy something behind my back I will find out and I will punish you.”
I wanted to laugh. This was Scott? This was who he really was? I showed him the depth of my need and he responded. Somehow he was the man from the chaste first dates and the solemn pose in The Frick and now a wannabe dom. He was all of those things but I was only me. The way I responded in this moment would determine the course of our relationship. I had the power, so I did what I always do with power. I got rid of it as quickly as I could.
“Ok,” I said
(To read the next part, click here.)