It’s a new year. Here come our new hopes, new projects, new obligations. It’s a time of new beginnings and of endings too. I’m going to take a hiatus from writing this blog, so this is an ending of sorts. But before I leave you I thought I’d share the first chapter of Lost and Found, the novel I’ve been working on since spring of 2021.
Thank you for reading, thank you for being in my life. I hope you have a beautiful year ahead!
There I was, in some sticky trance, just inside my front door, listening to my bad date’s footsteps echo against the hall’s dingy tiled floor on the way to the elevator. Humiliation pickled my bloodstream.
I shook my head, took a deep breath, thunked the heavy deadbolt into place and turned. I wasn’t even two steps away from the door when the voices began. ‘Your judgment has serious flaws,’ said my father, in my head. ‘You’re not girlfriend material, but you already know that!’ said my college friend Cole.
“I have to go,” said the guy who walked out of my apartment without a backward glance.
Peter, who worked at the hedge fund that shared our lobby at work, had captivated me with his caustic wit and dented monogrammed silver belt-buckle. I invested weeks in targeted flirting before he asked me out. He was not a Mormon like me. Just getting this date was a big step in my plan to build my life my way. I wanted to be part of the wider world, which meant the men in it, no matter what I’d been warned against since I was 12.
We’d made plans to meet at a not-inexpensive organic Chinese place in my neighborhood. I waited for him outside, making an effort to look nonchalant. He showed up only about three minutes late, with a wide smile, his suit jacket buttoned against the October chill.
“Emma,” he said, as he leaned in to kiss my cheek. “At last we’re not just gossiping while waiting for the elevator.”
I laughed. “It’s a little out of context to see you in the evening, but I’m rolling with it.”
When I felt the light touch of his hand on the small of my back as we walked into the restaurant, I suppressed a frisson. ‘I’m cool,’ I said to myself. ‘This is all normal.’
I was about to speak to the hostess, who made eye contact with me first, but he took charge. “Jonas, for two,” he said.
We walked past several small blond wood tables at which flushed-faced diners made animated conversation between taking sips of cocktails and bites of succulent food on red lacquer platters – New Yorkers as satisfied with having gotten a table as they were with eating.
When we were led to a little table in the back by the servers’ station, Peter turned to the hostess, flashed his winning smile, and said, “Oh I’m sure you can do better than this.”
She melted and moved us to a table in front near the window.
When the waiter came and asked us what we’d like to drink, Peter said to the waiter, “I’d love a beer” and then to me “Is it OK with you if we don’t share a bottle of wine?”
I was relieved, because this meant I didn’t have to explain why I don’t drink. I wanted to stave off that awkward conversation for as long as possible. Because I knew how uninterested he’d be in my religion. “Sure,” I said to him and then, to the waiter, “I’ll have sparkling water.”
After hearing about the intricate specials and studying the menu, we decided to share several small plates, whose arrival punctuated the easy conversation over dinner. We talked about work, the real estate market in New York, basketball fans vs baseball fans, dumb things we did when we first moved to the city.
He laughed a lot and so did I. My heart pounded just like it did at seven when I’d to hop the neighbor’s fence to chase a ball. For the first time, I was on a normal date with a normal guy, like a normal twenty-something girl in New York.
As we finished dinner, for which he paid with efficiency and without comment, Peter said, “You live close by, right? How about I walk you home? It’s a beautiful night.”
“I’m only 12 blocks away,” I said. He helped me with my jacket. His hand was more firm on my back as we walked out of the restaurant. We made our way over to West End Avenue and uptown.
“Here’s me,” I said, when we got to my corner at 100th Street. I turned to face him, itchy not to say goodbye after just an hour and a half. He stood there with the slightest trace of a smirk on his face.
“Would you like to come up for a bit?” I chirped like some anxious baby bird. I didn’t realize he’d therefore expect sex.
“You bet,” he said.
I had just opened my apartment’s door when he turned to kiss me, all cold cheek, hot breath and slippery tongue. I gasped. I’d hardly been touched in my life so far and wasn’t supposed to want to be.
“Mmm,” he said, “I can still taste that ginger chicken.”
He had no idea that I was a virgin, and I wondered how and when to tell him my limits as he guided me over to my squashy flannel hand-me-down sofa. When he insinuated us down onto it without taking his lips off of mine, I wished I’d spent less money on clothes and more on better furniture.
Peter kissed the way I imagined he negotiated at work. He was relentless. Somehow, the harder he pressed his face into mine, the more invisible I felt. I tried to speak, but he covered my mouth. He coaxed my back down into the sofa and climbed on top of me, his hot torso steaming up his shirt and mine, releasing a cloud of perfume and spray starch. I wriggled out from under him to sit up. He coaxed me down again. I wriggled up again. After his third unsuccessful attempt to get me to stay horizontal, he sighed, jumped up, picked his suit jacket up off the floor and without even looking at me, headed out, muttering, “I have to go.”
I stood by my front door, my insides heating up with shame as my outsides cooled off, rubbing my reddened face to soothe the razor burn, excoriating myself. ‘What a disaster! But what did you expect? Flirtatious banter punctuated by a little casual making out? You are hopeless!’
I knew this guy didn’t really matter, but I was gutted anyway. ‘Why does one rejection reanimate all the others?’ Every stilted, awkward interaction with a guy bashed around in my head like a zombie – the ones at church who found me wanting and snubbed me, the ones in grad school who skittered away like droplets of mercury whenever ‘The Untouchable’ walked into a party. ‘Am I ever going to be the woman any of them want me to be? Am I ever going to be the woman I want me to be?’
Loneliness was the price I paid for being too feisty and un-wifey for the Mormon boys and too virginal for the non-Mormon ones. In 26 years of life, through college and my first job and my MBA program, no one had even wanted to hold my hand. I had been on less than a dozen dates and had no boyfriends. I’d been in New York for five months. Could I start a love life here?
All I’d wanted with Peter was to be a normal girl, to be seen more than to be desired. But my plan failed. It was my fault for inviting him up. It was my fault he’d left in a huff because he didn’t get what he came for. I’d deluded myself into hoping I could kiss him a little, flirt with him a little, and that he’d be fine with a little, at least for a little while.
I took off my tasteful yet saucy pumps, plopped down on the still warm sofa, rubbed my stuck together toes and let myself sink into sadness. Like one of those fancy goldfish with huge eyes, puffy cheeks and a fluffy orange and black tail, I lived my life staring at the world outside of my bowl, trapped in my obvious and incurable separateness. My church friends said I had to stay in the bowl and find a goldfish like me. My not-church friends said I should throw the bowl away.
I wanted to perch on the rim – reveling in the incandescent life I fantasized about creating in New York while still reserving the right to fall back into the warm enveloping waters of my faith. But the rim of the bowl is not a place any goldfish can stay for long.
Before I shed a self-pitying tear, I shook my head, got up and texted my best friend Cammie, a devout but rebellious Evangelical Christian I met in the MBA program at Duke. We both adore Eric Bana, have fervent convictions about sunscreen and exfoliant, think matching one’s shoes and handbag is trying too hard unless they’re black, pretty much tell everyone, except each other, what to do, and place Buffy Summers on our altars right next to God. We moved to New York in June 2006, the same year Daniel Craig became James Bond.
“Daddy says you can tell everything about a man by the way he treats a woman,” Cammie wrote. “But Daddy doesn’t have to try to navigate hook up culture in New York City. This boy had bad manners, Emma. You need to choose better dates.”
I tossed the phone onto the sofa. But as I hung up my skirt, put the tissue back in my pumps and my earrings in the enameled box on my dresser, fear started to percolate under my skin. ‘Why am I just seeing it now??’ I sat on my bed and clenched the comforter in my hands. ‘I was lucky this guy simply left. It could have been so much worse.’
‘OK,’ I said to myself as I washed my face and brushed my teeth. ‘That was beyond dumb and you didn’t even realize it. You are a freaking toddler.’
I put on my nightgown. ‘Asshole dudes in New York are beyond my control, but this stupid innocence? This is too much of a risk.’ I did not know what I did not know, but I knew it was a lot.
I reached a conclusion as I got into bed. ‘For a grown woman, I have an unacceptable knowledge gap about men and sex, but I’ve bridged a ton of other knowledge gaps. I can bridge this one too.’
I just had to find a way to learn.