Nadia lay there and listened to the bed frame squeak rhythmically while a man twenty pounds lighter than her clumsily thrust his hip bones into her flesh. A few times, she tried to make eye contact, believing that this would somehow make it better. If only she could connect with him in some way. But he looked away quickly as if he were ashamed. So instead, she counted the squeaks and thought about what she was going to eat after this. The room smelled like weed and things you do to cover up the smell of weed. Her throat was dry. She was thirsty and could feel a headache coming on.
He must be getting tired, she thought.
Nadia had met David on a dating app that only lets women message men first. It’s supposed to make women feel empowered but it only made her feel impatient and resentful. In the beginning, she would just start the conversation with “Hey!”, figuring that she didn’t really need to put in that much effort. This proved to not be the best strategy because many of the men would simply respond “Hey” back and then the onus would once again be on her. She hated that so she started asking questions. Most of the conversations were boring. Too many back and forths with men she either found only mild to medium attractive or so peculiarly hot that they must be bots. Too many men relating her skin color to some sort of food item. Too many men who didn’t seem like they actually wanted to have a conversation with a twenty-eight year old paralegal from Michigan.
With David still on top of her, she managed to swipe a finger across her phone on the hybrid desk chair/nightstand next to the bed. 11:07pm. If she got out of there in the next eight minutes she could make it to the pizza place around the corner from her apartment before it closed. A drop of David’s sweat fell between her eyes. She had had enough.
It’s not that Nadia didn’t enjoy having sex. It was that she had started to see it as less of a pleasurable experience that made her feel sexy and powerful and more as a conquest that made her feel sexy and powerful but somehow also bored. It had become a game to her and she had beaten all of the levels. It was so incredibly easy to have sex with men that it didn’t feel fun anymore. There was no excitement. No satisfaction. She left every encounter feeling empty and cold. It had become a job. A chore. It felt like it was happening to her.
By midnight, Nadia was sitting on her own bed with a slice of greasy pepperoni pizza. She saw the flash of a text on her phone as she chewed on the crust. Had fun tonight. She flipped her phone over.
“I’m going to start dating myself,” she announced to a mostly empty breakroom the next morning.
“Ooooh, like an app?” Libby, the newest legal secretary asked.
“No. Like, I’m going to stop dating men and date myself. In real life.”
“Well, that’s fun.” Libby sucked on her iced coffee as she walked out.
Libby was twenty-three and in the six months she’d been working at Steinbring & Steinbring, had had two boyfriends and a handful of situationships. Nadia had only had one boyfriend and even that was debatable. His name was Marcus and the entire relationship had lasted the length of a college semester, and she only started calling him her boyfriend because he introduced her as his girlfriend at a mixer for his sales job. At first she was annoyed but later liked the way it felt in her mouth when she relayed the story to her best friend, Camille.
Boyfriend. Boyfriend. Boyfriend.
“We can go on double dates!” Camille had said. But Nadia didn’t want to go on double dates. She barely wanted to go on dates with Marcus. His jaw clicked when he chewed and he always tried to order for her even though he didn’t know what she liked. She found him a little embarrassing but when Camille asked what she meant by that, she couldn’t think of any examples. They mostly just hung out at his apartment.
Across the break room, Amara, an attorney who once sloppily confessed to Nadia that she hates it here smiled at her. “I think that’s great,” Amara said. Nadia believed it to be sincere. Still, she regretted saying anything at all. She had a habit of doing this, of saying what was on her mind without thinking about whether or not the thought was meant for anyone but her. She wasn’t even sure she knew what she meant by dating herself. Going to museums? The movies? Sitting down at a bar alone on a Tuesday night? She already did that. She wondered if it was more of a feeling that she was after. Was there a difference between being alone and lonely? Which one was she?
That night, Nadia drank too much wine alone in her apartment. She watched an episode of television that she knew would make her cry because could pretend that she was crying about the love and tension between these TV siblings and not her own sad pathetic life. She also monologued in the mirror, won three imaginary arguments in which she played both parts, and spent an hour investigating a girl she went to high school with. Nadia preferred investigating to stalking. She liked to think of herself as an anthropologist.
Sami Griffin moved three houses down from Nadia the summer before 10th grade. Nadia’s mother was a Midwestern white woman whose currency was gossip, so Nadia knew more about Sami than she should have. In Tampa, Sami’s father had gotten his secretary pregnant, inspiring Sami’s mother to move her family to Michigan where she grew up. Sami shared the blue split-level at the end of the cul-de-sac with her mother, her three brothers, and her grandmother, who dropped an Avon catalog on Nadia’s front porch the day after they moved in.
“Great, now I have to avoid her,” Nadia’s mother had said as she threw the catalog in the trash.
Sami was tall and leggy and Nadia had guessed that she played basketball even before she saw her using the hoop one of the brothers had set up in the driveway. The day that Nadia went over to introduce herself, Sami was kind and smiley and suggested a game of HORSE. After five games (one to break the tie, Sami won), Sami invited her in. There were still boxes on the floor and the house smelled like cigarettes and Skin So Soft. Sami heated up a French bread pizza in the microwave.
“Tell me all the gossip,” Sami said as she stretched a piece of gooey cheese between her fingers.
Nadia didn’t really know the gossip—she was mostly unremarkable to her peers—so she embellished on rumors she had heard and, later, felt guilty about it. She imagined her and Sami getting close and her mind briefly wandered to getting ready for homecoming and sharing clothes and stringing tin cans between their houses to communicate (Nadia had seen this in movies) even though they both had cell phones. Nadia also secretly believed that whatever feelings of closeness she felt now were only due to proximity and likely to be short-lived—and she was right.
Almost immediately, Sami was adopted by the cool kids and by fall she was a starter on the varsity basketball team. Nadia had lost her imaginary friendship before it even began. The two spoke less and less at school until eventually it was barely a passing smile in the hallway. It wasn’t any different at home. The captain of the boys’ basketball team had started picking Sami up and sometimes she would nod at Nadia from the passenger seat as she waited for the bus and that felt worse than not being acknowledged at all. Which is why Nadia was surprised when she received a text from Sami at 2AM on a balmy July the following summer asking Nadia to let her climb through her bedroom window.
i’m sorry i feel stupid i just cant go home
Sami’s usually bouncy ponytail hung on her shoulder and Nadia could smell the vodka on her breath. She had been crying.
“Are you OK? What happened? Do you need water? Do you want me to get my mom?” Nadia asked as the two of them stood in the middle of her bedroom.
“Stop asking so many questions,” Sami said through gritted teeth. She declined the One Direction t-shirt offered to her and climbed into Nadia’s bed without asking. She took the spot closest to the wall and Nadia very gently got into bed next to her and tried not to move. When Nadia woke that morning, Sami was already gone. They didn’t speak again until graduation.
Investigating Sami in the years since had scratched an itch for Nadia. She didn’t always uncover much—Sami was noticeably absent from social media—but typing her name into the search bar every few months felt almost pathological. She couldn’t help herself. She gathered facts like little treats in her pocket. Sami had played Division II basketball at a private university in Philadelphia. Sami moved back to Michigan and briefly worked as a phlebotomist at a clinic near their high school. Sami had run a 5K in New Jersey in 2019. Sami had attended her mother’s 60th birthday party in February.
Nadia woke to the glare of a website on her laptop screen informing her of every address Sami had lived at in the last ten years.
She spent Saturday in a horrible state of malaise. This happened a lot—an existential crisis brought on by too much wine and not enough food and water before she crawled into bed without washing her face. She’d wake up depressed and contemplate every life choice she’d ever made. She should have majored in something practical like economics even though math made her nervous. Was math even a factor in economics? She was too stupid to know. She should have made more of an effort in her friendships. She shouldn’t have canceled or ignored texts as much as she did. She should have cared more about her appearance. Maybe she should get a cat. Maybe she just needed something to take care of. She should have worked harder. Been better. Been someone other than who she was. Sometimes she wanted to take the bones out of her body and rearrange them.
Right before the sun began to set, Nadia showered, got back in bed, and FaceTimed Camille in New York and told her about her not plans.
“Oh my God, girl. Self care, yes.” Camille was always enthusiastic about anything Nadia did. The two had met at Steinbring & Steinbring as paralegals four years ago. They started a month apart and for a year, it was just the two of them. They took lunches together, talked shit about attorneys together, and eventually transitioned from work friends to friends when Camille invited Nadia to her 26th birthday party at a club Nadia never would have gone to on her own. Up until that point, Nadia wasn’t sure about their friendship. She often felt left out when she would hear about Camille’s weekend or scrolled through her Instagram stories in bed on a Sunday morning. Nadia wasn't sure what her co-workers thought of her—she hoped it leaned more towards private and mysterious than weird and reclusive—but she avoided post-work gatherings not because she was a snob and didn’t want to hang out with her co-workers, but because she knew how much everyone liked to talk and the less time she spent with everyone the less she gave them to talk about. (Or so she thought. It would be another year before she found out that the secretaries were all convinced she was sleeping with a partner.)
The night of Camille’s birthday party, Nadia broke down picking out an outfit, thought about canceling, decided against it, and ultimately went with the first thing she put on. The club was too loud to hold a conversation and too hot to feel comfortable. Nadia didn’t much care for Camille’s other friends, who were mostly thin, mostly white, and, Nadia figured, mostly rich. But one of them—she couldn’t remember his name—kept buying everyone shots. So she smiled and asked questions and woooo-ed along with everyone else. She was good at performing who she thought she was supposed to be. Nadia ducked out when the cake arrived, figuring everyone would be too distracted by the sparklers and the excitement of the birthday girl to notice. She hated eating in front of new people as much as she hated saying goodbye. The next morning Camille texted: Thanks so much for being there *heart emoji* lol I’m dead.
“It’s not self care, it’s something else,” Nadia explained to Camille now from her bedroom. “Self care sounds too…”
Camille cut her off, “Okay, call it whatever you want. But I think getting to know yourself better is so great. It’s the best.”
Nadia wanted to say, “How would you know?” But she knew that would be rude. Just because Camille had known her boyfriend since she was a teenager didn’t mean she didn’t know herself. There was a part of Nadia that was angry with Camille for following her boyfriend to New York and leaving her here, and it gnawed at her in moments like this. She knew it was irrational. She knew that Camille didn’t owe her any more than she had already given her—Camille was Nadia’s biggest fan. Still, she felt abandoned. It was so hard to be a person without your person.
“Do you think maybe you’re overthinking this?” Camille asked. Nadia knew she was only asking because she knew the answer. Yes! Of course she was overthinking this! That’s what she did. Nadia rolled her eyes and she knew that Camille could tell.
“I’m sorry you’re having a hard time,” Camille continued without waiting for a response. “You’re amazing and I tell you so every week.”
“You missed this week,” Nadia said.
“I’m telling you now!” Camille laughed. Nadia groaned. “I just think you’re stuck. And you’re on this search for something that’s missing from your life, but it’s hard to know what it is if you’ve never had it, you know?”
Nadia watched from her bedroom window as a man on a bicycle stopped to go through her recycling on the curb below. “I’ve had a boyfriend before,” she insisted.
“That’s not what I mean,” Camille sighed. “I just think,” she paused and Nadia braced for something devastating or annoying or both, “Whatever you’re looking for, you’ll know it when you see it.”
Nadia called in sick on Monday. She wasn’t sick sick but she might as well have been. There was a feeling in her gut that she couldn’t shake. You’ll know it when you see it. What the fuck was Camille talking about? She wanted to be mad at someone or something but couldn’t tell if she was mad at Camille. Any other day, Nadia would’ve used this sick day to hibernate, which just meant get high and graze about her apartment all day. Watch movies. Read. Order food. Investigate. But this day, she did something different. She was going to prove to Camille that she wasn’t stuck.
By 10AM, she was at the coffee shop near her apartment at a table in the corner with a $7 coffee in her hands and croissant crumbs in her lap. Despite her contempt for authority, Nadia was a rule follower. She picked the table in the back in case anyone she worked with would happen to see her and out her as a liar. She knew the chances of this happening were low. Her apartment was three train stops and a bus (on a bad weather day) or a twenty-seven minute walk (on a good weather day) from her office. She also knew that she didn’t need to explain herself to anyone—you’re allowed to take mental health days! But that didn’t make her any less nervous—less about getting into trouble and more about having to come up with a reason for why she was in this coffee shop and not at work. Nadia wasn’t a great liar. Her face was always a tell.
After just seventeen minutes of sitting at that table in the back, Nadia grew irritated. She didn’t know what she was supposed to do. She brought a notebook thinking that she was going to be one of those people who journaled but it felt silly. Being alone with her thoughts was awful and writing them down felt disgusting. Why would she want a record of this?
Just as she was about to give up and go back to the safety and comfort of her apartment, Nadia’s phone pinged. She glanced at it, already anxious assuming it was work. But when she saw the name at the top, she forgot where she was for a moment. Sami Griffin had sent her an email. The Sami Griffin, object of her investigations. For a split second, Nadia panicked. Was there some way Sami could tell what she had been up to? Had she collected every Google search? Every Sami Griffin Philadelphia and Sami Griffin basketball and Sami Griffin married? Was she sending a cease and desist? If she opened the email would it track her location and would a SWAT team bust through this coffee shop to arrest her? She debated waiting until she got home to read it, but what if she got hit by a bus on the walk and died or, worse, lived but forgot about the email because she’d be in the hospital and by the time she remembered to respond Sami would have changed her email address and then she’d never reach her? Nadia wished she could just be normal for one goddamned second.
The following Tuesday Nadia sat at that same coffee shop, up front this time. She made sure to get there fifteen minutes early in order to get settled and was glad that she had already been here before so she knew the layout. She wanted to appear casual, unbothered, cool. But she was not. She tried to focus by taking another look at Sami’s email to confirm she didn’t imagine it. The email was still there, and it read as she remembered: Sami had moved to Boston for her medical residency and had heard that Nadia was there too. Nadia desperately wanted to know how her name came up, a brief reminder that people did in fact speak about her when she wasn’t there.
Nadia was already halfway through her iced coffee when Sami walked in. Her hair was darker and seemed curlier than Nadia remembered. Her shirt was tucked in that way that was deliberate yet effortless that Nadia could never seem to replicate. She looked older but somehow still familiar—tall, leggy, smiley.
“Oh my God, you look exactly the same!” Sami said as they hugged. She smelled like citrus and coconut.
Over the course of the next thirty minutes, Nadia learned that Sami’s grandmother had passed away—breast cancer—and that her mother sold the house and moved back to Florida. Two of her brothers were still in Michigan and owned a roofing business. The other one was a middle school science teacher in Indiana. They were all married with children. As Sami spoke, Nadia studied her face. The laugh lines around her eyes. The way she still leaned her head back when she laughed. How her eyes got wide right before she told you something she was excited about. Was she wearing lipstick now or lip gloss or was that just what her lips looked like? There was a lightness to her that reminded Nadia of the day they first met in Sami’s driveway.
“I’ve been talking forever,” Sami said as she used her straw to move the ice in her glass. “Tell me about you. Are you married? Dating? What’s up?”
Nadia felt a drop of sweat run down her back.
“I’m sorry, that was so aggressive,” Sami laughed. Nadia examined her neck again.
“No, I get it,” Nadia said, sitting up. “I actually kind of decided to stop dating recently. Like, last week. It’s a nightmare.”
“Nightmare!” Sami leaned forward and slapped her hand on the table.
“Have you been dating a lot?” Nadia asked.
Sami sat back. “Not a lot. I’m like, newly single,” she nodded as if she were reminding herself. “I was engaged, but she didn’t want to move and this was my first choice.” Sami shrugged.
Nadia felt her heartbeat in her chest and for a second she wondered if Sami could hear it.
“I guess we could’ve tried to make it work. I don’t know. It was for the best, I think.”
Their eyes met and Nadia quickly looked away. Nadia couldn’t explain what she was feeling.
She wanted to disappear. Or scream. Or do a set of jumping jacks right here in this coffee shop. She opened her mouth to speak, but Sami beat her to it. She looked at her phone.
“Shit, I’m sorry. I have to get to the hospital.” Sami stood up and Nadia followed.
“Of course,” Nadia said, “So cool, by the way.”
Sami rolled her eyes and said, “It’s fine.” There was a humility that Nadia feared had always been there but that Sami had chosen to never share with her.
They hugged again and this time Sami rubbed Nadia’s back in a way that made her want to cry.
“Let’s get drinks next time,” Sami said, grabbing her bag off the back of the chair, “We have so much more to catch up on. I’ll text you.”
She watched as Sami crossed the street and bumped into a woman coming out of a CVS. Sami said something—Nadia couldn’t make out what—and they both laughed.
Nadia thought about texting Camille but wasn’t sure what to say. She went back to work but couldn’t focus. She started Googling Sami at her desk as if this would provide her with some clarity but quickly realized that her usual self-soothe ritual now made her nauseous. She knew that is was unlikely to make anything any less ambiguous.
“Hello!” Nadia wasn’t sure how long Libby had been standing in her doorway trying to get her attention and it felt too embarrassing to ask. When Nadia finally turned to look at her, Libby’s face was scrunched up in a way that could either be perceived as disgust or pity.
“What?” Nadia said, perhaps a little too coldly.
“Ugh. Nevermind.” Libby turned to go and Nadia thought about following her but what was the point? Libby had never said a single thing that she cared about hearing.
Nadia faked being sick again and went to get a drink at a bar instead of going home. It was dark inside even thought it was the middle of the afternoon and it felt like the perfect place to hide. Nadia loved feeling mysterious. She resisted the urge to google Sami from her phone and watched as an older woman alone at the other end of the bar flirted with the much younger bartender. Nadia felt embarrassed for her and wondered if that was also how people saw her. Her phone pinged.
So good to see you! Want to get a drink next week? I can do Tuesday or Thursday.
For years, Nadia had wanted this. Some sort of intimacy with Sami, some sense of closeness. To be more than just the girl who lived down the street. To be a contact in Sami’s phone. To be on the receiving end of a text from her that was not sent out of desperation or necessity. To be her friend. And here it was and it freaked her out and she didn’t know why. (Or she thought maybe she did know why at least a little bit but who has the time to deal with that? She was almost 30!) She stared at the text and thought about how to respond. She was free on Tuesday. And Thursday. But maybe she should wait a bit to text back. What if she sounded too eager? What if something came up? Or what if Sami was just messing with her? It had occurred to her that Sami was still the girl who was not particularly kind to her in high school. What if there was a group chat buzzing right this very second about how gullible Nadia was to actually believe that Sami Griffin wanted anything to do with her? She slowly sipped her drink and wondered if they still did lobotomies. And then she sent a text to “Sweaty Dave."
Emerging from a financial district high-rise smelling like a man you barely respect when it’s still light out as you play hooky from work because you had a panic attack about the hot girl from high school is a very specific type of shame.
As she stood under the awning debating how to get home, Nadia stared at Sami’s text one more time. So good to see you! Nadia’s face was still flush when she scrolled down to block Sami’s number. The weather was nice. So she walked.