Sex and the Ivy

Tuesday Night in Park Slope

Filed under: Drinking, Friendship, Jules, Life, New York — Elle August 21, 2007 @ 10:06 pm

I FEEL impulsive and reach for my phone, hitting the call button at the first name under Contacts. Drunk dialing is a little bit like Russian Roulette. Nine times out of ten, no one picks up. After all, these calls usually happen late or on the weekend. But this is a weeknight and it is still early. On the other end, there’s an answer.

IT’S HER last night in Brooklyn and she has yet to set foot in a single establishment of note in the two months she’s lived here. With three jobs and plenty of friends in Manhattan, Jules never parties down the block from home. Instead, she hops on the train and heads toward the part of the city tourists think about when they hear “Big Apple”. Across the bridge, she downs drinks and flirts with dawn, the train schedule on the back of her mind. Somehow, she always returns to Brooklyn before the morning.

Sunrise usually finds her sobering up and dozing off in a quiet, still Park Slope bedroom, while street chatter and zipping cabs continue on in another world just a water’s width away. But after tonight, she won’t be back here, at least not as a resident. Tomorrow, Jules will be packing her clothes into the trunk of a friend’s car and driving over a hundred blocks north to her new apartment at 118th on the east side.

When I learn just how little she’s seen of her own neighborhood, I decide that this is something that must be amended immediately.

“This is what we’re going to do,” I tell her on my way out of work. “I am coming to Brooklyn — god knows I won’t have a better reason to be in Park Slope until motherhood — and we are going to go to one restaurant and one bar, and that will comprise your Brooklyn experience.”

It is an eleventh hour try at redeeming the past eight weeks of flight from a neighborhood she will probably see little of from now on. But that is precisely why we need to do it.

IT ALWAYS surprises me when the F train lurches above ground as it moves deeper and deeper into Brooklyn. From afar, the skyscrapers and water seem eerily removed, as if they are imagined destinations and not within less than an hour’s reach. This part of the ride reminds me of my favorite moment on the Boston subway: when the Red Line train rises over the Charles River and offers a brief and blissful view of the water that lasts just the length of the journey past Charles-MGH. Every Monday during fall semester, I caught this sight twice over on my commute to an internship downtown. Every day this summer, Jules has glimpsed its New York twin.

I get off at 7th Avenue. We opt for a Thai restaurant just footsteps from the train station, our decision mostly resting on its cocktail menu. She orders a Long Island; I get a lychee-flavored martini. To our amusement, my fried rice is shaped like a Star of David. It is also unexpectedly spicy. After just a few bites in, my eyes begin to water.

“Jesus,” I sniff, not ironically. “I don’t know how I’m going to finish this.”

Across the table, Jules laughs at my dramatic deep breaths. Her safe, though bland, selection of pad thai suddenly doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. I take a large gulp of water and ask our waitress for a side of white rice.

“I just lost hearing in my right ear. Is this an allergic reaction?” I ask my giggling friend.

I am being ridiculous as per usual but I’m not entirely joking. I sniff again and blink back tears. With genuine concern punctuating her laugh, Jules suggests that we go for post-dinner ice cream.

We wind up in a liquor store instead. After I miraculously (and painfully) finished my meal, we downed the last of our drinks and decided to go bar-hopping, only to discover that the Park Slope crowd is neither young nor college-friendly. The establishment we walk into is not like any store I’ve been in before. There is a thick pane of glass between us and the shelves of alcohol. I can only assume that the strange barrier is a preemptive measure against theft. And here I thought we were in the Pleasantville of Brooklyn.

In front of the dread-locked cashier is a sign that says “Cash Only”. I wonder if anyone actually walks in with enough green to purchase several of the bulkier bottles. Jules and I can’t decide what to buy so we finally settle on what we drank the last time we were together: a miniature bottle of Skyy, enough for four shots each.

On the way home, we pick up a pack of cigarettes. We’re already feeling good — the drinks during dinner have hit us — when I spot on the lowest shelf of a corner deli the bottle of Welch’s White Grape Juice I’ve searched three stores for. Fuck bars. This is all we need.

“MMPH,” she murmurs, handing her emptied glass to me. “Get another.”

Jules and I are in her apartment, determined to turn our unfruitful search for a bar into a nonetheless entertaining evening. I’ve been mixing drinks for half an hour, but this time, when I reach for the bottle, it’s empty. I’m slightly taken aback though I know perfectly well where the alcohol must have gone.

“Jules, I have to tell you something,” I say.

She returns my grave expression with a quizzical look. “Okay,” she says.

“You have to promise me you’re not going to freak out.”

“I promise.”

I pause dramatically before I lean in and tell her, “There’s no more vodka left. We finished the bottle.”

“What!”

She is incredulous. I pick up the bottle and flip it over to demonstrate the severity of the circumstances. Jules screams and covers her face, bursting into giggles.

“Holy shit,” she says. I can’t help but laugh too. It’s not even the alcohol, though I’m starting to feel tipsy. The entire situation is comical.

“Oh my god, Jules. In about 15 minutes, it is going to hit us. Hard. We are going to die in 15 minutes. What do we do? What do we do to prepare for this?”

Jules can barely respond. She is on the floor laughing with the box of cigarettes pressed against her lips. A few minutes later, we discover the bottle of juice uncapped and we embark on a frantic search around the room for the top.

“We need to find it while we’re still sober!” she says.

We are stumbling.

AFTER the fifth or sixth cigarette, I get up from the stoop. Before I am even halfway upright, I stumble backward. The open night air feels like it is throbbing, pulling me to the floor. It’s been over 15 minutes and I’ve overestimated my sobriety. This was what I was telling Jules about earlier — “dying”, or rather losing all feeling and emotion. I am numb. Every part of me is numb.

She pulls me up and I clutch her hand hard while spreading open my arms for balance. It is a warm evening with the occasional cool breeze and I am clad in her clothes: a pair of boxers and a green t-shirt I’d never buy for myself. Unsteadily, the two of us circle her block, walking arm in arm, cigarettes in hand. We are having a full-fledged conversation, but I know that it’s the kind we’ll forget about the second there’s a pause. Each step is heavy, heavy like our intoxication, and my feet land in thuds against the pavement.

The smoke and the scent of Jules’ clothes on me make for a heady combination. Her voice has a lulling effect. But everything does when you’re drunk. My fingertips are raw from lighting multiple matches, most of them burning out too quickly to be of use. After we strike the last of them, Jules and I light up by pressing the tips of our cigarettes together in a sort of kiss. I suck hard on mine and exhale slowly. It burns my throat. It almost smells sweet. And suddenly, it occurs to me that I don’t know what it is I’m drunk on, if it’s the alcohol or the company or the city or the weather.

Jules flicks her cigarette and an ash lands right on the web between my index and thumb.
“Fuck!”

I flinch. The unexpected pain pulls me right out of my thoughts. Maybe I’m not so numb after all.

By the time we walk up to her doorstep for the second time, our tongues are dense with tobacco and we are so heavy in our drunkenness that we have to pull ourselves up the stairs by the railing. When we get inside her room, we collapse into bed, one after the other, abrupt and indelicate, as if weighed down by lead.

I’m worried that I won’t wake up for work in the morning, but Jules shoves a vibrating alarm under my pillow and assures me that if it’ll wake up someone with ADD, there’s no way I could accidentally sleep in. I shut my eyes and wonder how soundly I’ll sleep tonight. Her sheets feel cool and crisp against my skin. Our nightcap is doing the opposite of its intended purpose and the more I try to calm my mind, the more thoughts simmer to the surface. I think back to the conversation I had earlier as I sipped my white grape cocktail and made phone calls on impulse.

“Listen,” I said. “This is important. This is really important.”

“Okay, I’m listening.”

“I need you to do something for me, okay?”

“Depends on what it is.”

“You’re going to be in New York a while, right?”

“Right.”

“Well, I’m going back to school in September. But Jules is still going to be here.”

Out of the corner of my eye, Jules perked up at the mention of her name.

“All by herself,” I continued. “And you have to promise that you’re going to watch out for her. Can you please do that for me?”

“Of course.”

Even in the darkness, in my darkness beneath my eyelids, everything is spinning. I don’t know if I’ll ever get over this feeling, this nothing.

IN THE morning, I wake to the pulsating device beneath my pillow. I groan. Turning over makes me dizzy. Sitting up makes me dizzy. My throat is thick, my voice husky and ragged. Beside me, Jules sighs deep as my movements stir her from her slumber. I have an hour to get to work in SoHo.

After a shower and a change of clothes (out of hers and into mine), I drag Jules out of bed for breakfast. At less than six bucks and under half an hour, it is possibly the most satisfying meal I’ve had in New York yet. I know that there’s no one else I’d rather share it with.

“Brooklyn is beautiful,” Jules comments wistfully as she walks me to the train station.

There is a tinge of regret in her voice, perhaps because we both know the ride to suburbia is too long for either of us to come back here very often. But for now, we revel in its charms. It feels like the neighborhood is just waking up, and I am pleased by the subdued activity. I take in the sunlit awnings, the sidewalks, the quiet, and I wonder when I was last somewhere that felt as suburban, that felt as much like a home as a place could in a city.

“Brooklyn is beautiful,” I tell her in agreement.

I pause a beat and turn my head to Jules. “Let’s never come back.”

She looks me right in the eye and grins. Her skin, pale and pink, is glowing against the sun.

“Never,” she says.

Sparks

Filed under: Dating/Relationships, Jules, Kyle, Love, Riley — Elle August 18, 2007 @ 8:12 pm

I can’t remember the last time I was infatuated with someone. Well, that’s an exaggeration. I can remember, but it was months ago and it turned out disastrously. I don’t miss infatuation one bit. It’s an attachment as unhealthy as nicotine. What I do miss, however, is feeling sparks. It’s been so long since I’ve met a guy who induces pre-date anxiety, first kiss bliss, and the kind of euphoria more suited to cinema than real life.

Not that immediate chemistry is something that’s happened to me often. For the most part, my post-high school relationships (largely short-term) have been spark-less and have occurred accidentally. That is, I ended up dating someone I wasn’t too keen on upon first encounter. Even my attraction to Summer Guy, a person I eventually fell in love with, was very much a gradual development. Unexciting as that is, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. After all, romantic relationships evolve, change, and deepen as much as platonic ones and friendships are rarely immediate.

Still, there is a palpable difference when you meet someone who you instantly hit it off with. My first meetings with both Kyle (in the autumn) and Riley (in the spring) left significant impressions. I was growing discontent with all things Harvard, the people included, and they were breaths of fresh air during periods of time when I would’ve liked nothing more than to leave school. In their own ways, they were the opposites of everyone in my life, and I could’ve talked to either of them all night.

And that is the movie version of romance, the kind written about and marketed to us, the connection people crave despite the overwhelming odds against its common existence. But then again, perhaps that’s what makes it so special and sought-after. It is rare to find someone who you can forge an instant understanding with. The few times that it does happen, it sets the bar remarkably high for the future and as much as common sense testifies to its rarity, it’s what we search for.

As far as sparks go, they’ve only happened a handful of times in the past year and only with Riley was it romantic. I struck up a great rapport with Kyle, had an instant girl crush on Jules, and felt unparalleled professional chemistry with my summer employer. And I don’t know if I really want sparks of the romantic variety at all. Without them, this summer has been incredibly freeing, if only because a crush hasn’t hijacked my every waking thought. In New York, I’ve gone out on a lot of unspectacular first dates and had a lot of good but not earth-shattering hookups. The person who occupies most of my thoughts is in fact Jules. She is the only one in this city I expect phone calls from or meals with. It is nice to not have a guy to miss or pine after. When they’re around, they’re a perk. But when they’re not, I have my girl.

So I guess there is a fear that I’ll eventually meet someone with whom there is that rare spark, who I cannot push into the corner of my mind after the bill is paid or the end credits played. How worth it is it to trade complacency for the possibility of whirlwind love? When it comes to risk versus caution, I usually err on the side of the former but I’m beginning to see the benefits of playing it safe. The popular notion of love at first date is not only overrated but hardly an indication of a successful future. In fact, I sometimes wonder if instant chemistry is actually a warning sign. Riley, after all, felt like puppy love and high school all over again and look how well that turned out. Is infatuation in the beginning an indication of a nuclear ending? If so, maybe I should eschew immediate sparks for a slow burn instead.

Stray

Filed under: Aidan, Jules, Kam, Kyle, Sex — Elle July 29, 2007 @ 9:42 pm

AFTER ALL the times we’ve slept next to each other, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Kyle sleep so soundly as he did last night. Whenever I dozed off with him on my Mather twin, he never fell into deep sleep. He would lie there with his eyes closed, just skimming the surface of consciousness and ready to wake from the slightest movement.

My bed in New York is bigger than what we’re used to. The air is musky, laced with liquor from our breath. When I beckon him to bed, he comes fully clothed. I unbutton his shirt, unfasten his belt, pull off his shoes and his socks and finally — with a tug — his pants. I run my fingertips over his torso, resting them between the tufts of dark hair on his chest, and ask him to turn onto his stomach. He obliges.

I start to rub his shoulders for the first time in months. I ask about his girlfriend — or rather, his ex. They broke up recently, just a few weeks ago, and I actually believe him this time when he says it’s over. He confirms what I long assumed: his cheating on her with me was symptomatic of already existing problems, rather than their underlying cause. I think I needed to hear it from him to be sure.

“But she’d still flip a shit if she found out, right?” I ask.

“Of course.”

Everything feels displaced. All my friends I’m used to seeing in dorm rooms and dining halls are now running around New York nightclubs and office buildings instead. It changes things. I can’t imagine Kyle sitting in my common room and having a conversation with my Harvard roommates, but put us in a shabby chic one-bedroom across from Tompkins Square Park and suddenly, he’s making brunch plans with Kam. That was last night. Unfathomable. Were I at school, my blockmates (always the first to remind me of his transgressions) would have a difficult time mustering up cordial “hellos”. Maybe Kam is less judgmental. Or maybe it’s New York that’s forgiving.

YOU KNOW those nights when you enter a party slightly inebriated but completely pumped and hours slip by without you even noticing it? That was also last night. I walk into Aidan’s birthday celebration around 11:45pm with my friend Jules in tow. We dance, we laugh, we talk. Next thing I know, it’s pushing 4am, the club is emptying, and I’m getting into a cab with Aidan to drop off a drunk companion. I have no idea when everyone else left (though it’s clear they’re long gone), where my keys are (I drunkenly handed them to Jules), or how/with whom I’m ending the night. I can barely recall the last four hours. It feels like I just got there.

But I know I had a good time. I see it in the expression on Jules’ face. If her smile is any proof at all, then I must be damn pleased. I feel it too. Something about the rhythm of my heartbeat makes it feel like the last song played is still pumping through my veins. I am in such a good mood that I don’t even freak out in the cab when Aidan’s very drunk friend reaches up my dress, rubs me between my legs, and presses his lips against my thighs. I laugh uncomfortably and move his hands away. But I couldn’t get angry if I tried.

I stopped having sex after spring break. The last time was on March 29 with Sam in Philadelphia. A week later, I found out he’d been telling another girl that they were sexually exclusive and I ended things. I was about ready to give up on men altogether. Then Riley happened and if I had any doubts at that point, that fiasco cemented my feelings on the subject. I told myself and my friends that I didn’t want to sleep with anyone unless I was sure I could trust them or at least certain that they didn’t have secret girlfriends. That meant restricting sex to relationships.

In some ways, I looked forward to saying no. Most of the time, it wasn’t even difficult because I didn’t have any romantic feelings for the guy. It’s easier to disappoint someone who’s just a hookup. And with each successive encounter, my resolve strengthened, as if every refusal at the sight of a condom was a small victory in itself. Guys couldn’t argue. My reason for not having sex left no room for debate. The bottomline: if we’re not dating, we’re not fucking.

But the truth is more complicated.

I’m incredibly scared of loss. And I know I shouldn’t feel like I lose something by sleeping with someone, but I do. I decided to stop having sex because I was sick of giving away all these pieces of myself and subsequently worrying about unintentional attachment, ill-advised yearning. It felt like I had no control. It wasn’t my silly superstition about winding up with taken men (though certainly, the pattern started to worry me) so much as it was my wanting to wait for someone who made me feel safe.

I guess last night is as safe as it gets, even though some might say that sleeping with a previous partner doesn’t count. Let me tell you, after four months of forgoing sex, it counts. There are plenty of people it could’ve been, others who have made me feel safe, but something about yesterday’s circumstances allow for the situation to happen. It is organic. It didn’t feel right with the senior who I hooked up with on a near-daily basis over exam period, nor have any of the men in New York left enough of an impression to earn my trust. I was quite tempted to give in a couple weeks ago with Mark in the hotel but the place didn’t feel right even though he did. Thankfully, he didn’t push for it. I don’t know if I could’ve resisted.

It is easy to anticipate last night, even though I don’t really think it is going to happen until it actually does. We both have had a good deal to drink, but it isn’t the alcohol that convinces me. Often times, I’m most stubborn about this matter when I’m drunk. I don’t really need convincing at all. Everything is so familiar, like we have done it before — and we have — but need to remember again what it’s like. It all feels the same — his tongue against mine, the smell of his breath, the texture of his hair between my tugging fingers, the way his hands grip my waist. At the corner of my mind, I remember that Kam is in the living room, that I need to quiet my moans. But that thought is already drifting away.

I stroke his chest with my fingertips slowly, in circles — like I used to — before I lean down and stretch my lips wide to take him in my mouth. Even that is the same. He feels very, very familiar. Before he gets on top of me, he whispers a promise about not making the same infamous mistake we made the first time. I think that is what makes the difference. I laugh. I don’t care anymore.

When he finally pushes inside me, it hurts. It actually hurts. It’s been so long — not just since I’ve had sex but since we’ve had sex. Initially, the pain takes me by surprise, but then I remember that it always used to hurt.

Every.

Time.

I guess I forgot that part. After he finishes, he leans over, presses his cheek against mine, and sighs long and deep. I breathe hard. I can hear footsteps and the apartment door opening and Jules’ laugh.

IT’S JULY 29TH. Four months to the day. It’s been a pretty long self-imposed streak, if the lack of activity on the blog hasn’t already made this abundantly clear. This entire time, I thought that having sex again — just once — would end the whole mission, that I’d go right back to sleeping with men who I only vaguely trusted. I’m not entirely sure how I feel right now but if anything, I’m more firmly resolved to wait for a relationship than ever.

This morning, I wake up to the sound of storm and thunder. I can sense nausea on the horizon. Kyle is next to me in a surprisingly deep slumber, his chest rising and sinking steadily. Kam and Jules’ muffled voices filter in from the living room. I feel safe.