Something Left to Want, Short Story, 1998

I’ve been writing again a lot the past few years; scripts, treatments, essays and stories for a book about everything, overexposing the raw bits. The short story below is separate from all that, I’d forgotten I even wrote it twenty years ago and stumbled on it by accident in one of my old journals while doing ‘research’ (remembering stuff) for my book. I wrote it in NYC the fall of 1998, at the tail end of my Bard MFA years while going back and forth between New York and Moscow shooting photos and short films, agonizing over the past. That fall I also started my first job at Conde Nast, assisting Polly Mellen at Allure, though this story has nothing to with her or the job, it reflects that moment in time. It was that period and place in life in your Twenties when we learn on the go. Mom and I emigrated to the US from the Soviet Union in 1979 and my learning curve from age seven when we landed in Baltimore ‘fresh off the boat,’ to twenty-two, when I graduated Bard film school and started working at Conde Nast, was steep. There was so much I didn’t know, about “society” and money and sushi (don’t ask). I was a fast learner but I didn’t even know how to “fake it till you make it,” I just went and did what felt right to me and sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. It took years to unscramble all the things I was supposed to know in the circles I found myself surrounded by. My life’s motto: In moments when there is nothing left to lose there is always something left to want.

Something Left To Want
September 24th, 1998

She watched him get out of bed. The more time they had spent together the less she understood him. At first the evasiveness was a charming mysterious a part of his appeal. But now six months later, (a full two years if you count the “friends” thing) it annoyed her in quiet moments. She felt a tinge of anger as he walked out of the bedroom without looking at her. She sat staring after him, invisibly, silently. He was definitely a ‘guy’, though there were hints of a man seeping out. He liked to see himself as a ‘man’ and probably would never have spoken to her again if he’d had any idea of these treasonous thoughts of hers. But she liked to secretly insult him. Just like she knew he loved to deny her at every opportunity. It was the quintessential love-hate thing that disgusts some and turns others on but more often than not some twisted combination of both.

It was initially that very thing that had drawn him to her: he said ‘no.’ It wasn’t that he said ‘no’ to her per se, but he had a way of putting her in her place she had never quite experienced. Maybe it could be attributed to a ‘daddy syndrome’. How cliché. The thing most women experience whether their daddy was absent or not (and in her case, double because daddy really was absent). He was strong and had nerve. Most people who encountered her would either succumb to her wishes easily for lack of will or be manipulated to such a degree by her insistent wants and desires that they eventually gave in. But he was different from the start. Not only did he argue but he had good points most of the time, and she as forced to admit, yes, he was right sometimes. She should have known eventually that very thing would be the cause of their downfall. What it boiled down to was a mutual fear of losing control. He had always feared her just as much as she feared him. He couldn’t and wouldn’t allow himself to be under the control of a woman and falling in love was the platform and final straw of losing all control. And as much as she fought admitting it, she had fallen in love with him quickly, accidentally ignoring those same fears.

She listened to him now, fumbling around as he went about, carrying his world along with him, even to the goddamn kitchen. That sullen serious thing he did when he felt like ignoring her or the world. Sometimes she hated him. And yes, yes, she knew the line between love and hate was painfully thin so who the hell knew where it blurred or even disappeared. She wanted so badly to let go of all of these things that seemed to pry them apart every time they made the slightest bit of progress. He made her question himself and sometimes she didn’t know whether that was good or bad. The first year they had known each other before ‘something’ happened (even before they had become friends) she had watched him from afar at some party of a friend of a friends the would coincidentally end up at. Occasionally his eyes would dart to her and she would try to hold those eyes. Even then she sensed he would be the hardest of all, because once it happened with him that would be it. He would be the first and last. His strength was apparent from the start. He had an intensity that glowed and kept others at bay, intimidating and magnetic at the same time. He would wait casually for others to approach him, and of course they inevitably did. It wasn’t just that annoying insecure guy thing where they pretend not to care (though she suspected if placed in certain situations he really was just as insecure as every other jackass artist). But who really wants to fall in love with that at first sight? Besides she had had enough of matchbox men who crumbled easily. She wanted someone string to argue with, but who also knew the right moment to stop and throw her against the wall with a carefully (non) violent swing of the hips, lips, whatever.

But she fucked up first. She knew it. She knew it and she couldn’t stop herself. Why she had chosen to go home with his roommate at the end of that night she couldn’t explain to anyone. At the time, they had only known each other a few months, from a very casual distance. It was at the gallery opening of a mutual friend of theirs that they had really begun to open up. Until then they had exchanged a few brief curious words, usually from her end while he would not and smile quietly, politely (or something). He was careful not to give her too much. But on that particular night she had just come from another party with some girlfriends, where they had spent the evening downing vodka martinis and laughing about the boys they had slept with in the past year. She felt especially invincible, the combination of cocktails and the hit off that joint she had shared with one of the girls making her happy and horny at once. And that is what makes it all the more surprising that they would have a conversation at all, with the way she had ‘behaved’ that night, flirting and laughing, not just with him. Eventually she would figure out that while he pretended to dislike her at these moments, it was precisely these characteristics so opposed to his own that made her attractive to him. Somehow in the midst of the drunken flirting she as able to impress upon him that there was more to her than the Prada cocktail lounging girl he had wanted to see in those first few encounters. And he truly did seem to hate the bottomless party girls. But she wasn’t like that, even when she dumbed down and tried to pretend for whatever insecure reasons of her own. She had aspired to a lot and done most if not all of it so far and that was what finally hooked him. Like most of the guys worth holding onto he didn’t seem to just want to fuck her, though he would be just as good in that respect if not better. And while she pretended it didn’t bother her when that was all they wanted (and sometimes it didn’t because frankly there are some guys who are only good for one thing), in the end it was a guy’s talent (especially his talent), which reeled her in for good. But what happened that night felt unforgiveable in retrospect.

They had spent at least an hour engulfed in their own world together, with only minor interruptions from drunken friends who would weave a crooked path through the crowd trying to find their place in a conversation. He told her about the months he spent travelling though North Africa, Egypt and Palestine (where he was born) documenting the various political groups that had grown throughout the region. He had received a small grant from PBS to complete an hour long documentary but when he finished shooting and returned to New York he found himself entangled in a battle over the films edit and had yet to resolve a final cut. She listened attentively, interrupting with only an occasional comment, feeling they had known each other a hundred year, not to mention another lifetime. She felt he had confided in her and had felt an undeniable ease and comfort in their conversation which normally only developed after months of friendship (or great sex). The fact that they could make claim to neither circumstance made it all the more special. With him the most mundane seemed to be a glimpse into the personal; he was one of those men who are so intensely private that the slightest hint of detail from their personal lives made you feel privileged. Sometimes she had to wonder if this was just a ploy they used to their benefit because really, if you stroke an ordinary rock in the dark long enough eventually it will start to feel like a diamond. Still the night was satisfying and while she did not anticipate his company him home, nor did she want it, she was sure he would imply a future meeting, or ask for her number or do something to make her feel wanted. But he didn’t. Eventually he excused himself to go home, saying a polite good bye to her and some others as she looked after him in surprise and irritation. She felt she had been good. She felt she had understood his evasiveness from pervious encounters. She felt she knew him. But she didn’t. So instead of going home and analyzing it in the morning, she downed another martini and smiled at his roommate.

It all made perfect sense at the time. She was happy and felt pretty and deserving of attention. His roommate had been watching them all along. She needed to be wanted. The fact that she may have been falling in love with someone else was irrelevant because that someone had given her a clear signal of ‘thanks, but no thanks.’ Obviously he wouldn’t even notice much less care if she went home with his roommate. The next morning she crept out of their apartment, stopping in front of his door momentarily. Of course she had no intentions of any kind, but she glanced at the door sadly, and wondered what shape his body formed as he slept. They did not see each other for many months after, whether by chance or plan. She continued going to the same parties and openings but he had suddenly disappeared. She looked for his face occasionally and once she thought she saw him walking out of a movie theatre a few feet ahead of her. As she tried to push through the crowd to say hello, the guy, like in a parody of a bad movie, turned around to reveal a stranger’s face.

Several months after the last time she had seen him, she finally ran into him at the most unexpected place, and in the most magical way. She had taken a day off from her work (the script was too much to deal with and her small apartment was driving her nuts) and decided to go uptown to the Whitney. As she left the museum she had what for her was an irregular urge to walk through the park. Usually she hated Central park and found the local moms and joggers oppressive and depressing, too faraway from the fantasy of her Lower East Side playground, but it was nice out and she wanted to walk and feel the air. Eventually she found herself sitting on a bench, watching the people and thinking about her life, feeling self righteous and useless at the same time. She didn’t even notice him walk up. He said her name and sat down next to her and began talking as though they were old friends. It stunned her at first. She barely knew how to respond and felt herself being lifted into a make believe world where things that only happen in movies start to happen to you.

From that day they began to talk on the phone regularly; flirting, laughing and joking about the things that made them sad though they rarely met in person. They had tried to but the first time they made plans to meet for dinner the conversation went great at first, but as it dawned on her how she felt about him her silences became longer and more frequent. The tension was unbearable. She didn’t know what to say to him. He made her nervous and it was unlike her to respond this way. Usually she wasn’t nervous at all. Usually she felt a little superior to the guys and didn’t give a damn what they thought of her. But she cared what he thought. That made her nervous. It also made her act funny and talk stupid.

When she was in his presence she felt he could see her insides. He could look right into her head and read every thought. The worst part was she couldn’t do it back. After their second dinner date had gone equally as bad they both quietly and privately resolved to maintain their friendship over the phone. On the phone they were fine. She didn’t have to see him and he couldn’t see her, thus eliminating any chance of him seeing through her. She realized after that second ‘date’ that she had been in love with him for as long as she had known him. They went on like that for half a year, making excuses as to why they couldn’t go out alone together, and still having wonderfully open and personal talks late into the night. Sometimes they would both lie in their own beds, the receiver sweaty with conversation, neither wanting to hang up. They still saw each other but only in groups of mutual friends. Even then the tension remained. Her girlfriend once told her he had found out about the night she had spent with his roommate and she began to suspect he was angry at her for that, but she could never be sure because it was only in person when things got weird. She became accustomed to excusing his behavior to an unknown emotion of his rather than something she could have done. It got to a jagged edge where she avoided ever being alone in the same room with him and finally a moment when she thought she had figured it out; the anxiety and dysfunction. As she stared at him one night at a friends birthday party, across the room as usual, he was on the couch talking to some writer from one of those new downtown magazines that kept sprouting and she was leaning against the wall complaining about him to one of her girlfriends, when it hit her like an uppercut to the jaw: he was just was just scared as she was. And she was completely powerless to change any of it. She knew that if and when, it would be he who would take control and reverse the situation. She was not in control. She thought she liked that.

She continued to lay in bed now, listening as the silence escaping from the kitchen was replaced by the calm beat of the shower. She remembered how he called her one night and asked to come over. The spell had been broken and she raced around her apartment picking up dirty socks and scattered papers. Nervously she waited on the couch with the TV on mute, scared of missing the sound of the buzzer and jumping when it finally rang. He walked in, smiling at her as though nothing had ever happened and he had always come over in the dark like this. She poured them both red wine from the bottle she kept on the counter and they talked for a long time, just as they had done on the phone. He kissed her for the first time that night, holding her tightly as she gripped his arms. She kissed him back, starving, wanting him to engulf her whole, to own her. They both decided he should go home that night and after he kissed her again at the door and said goodnight she went into her room and cried for the first time in a year. She was petrified. Scared of losing him already. She wiped her eyes in disgust, cursing herself. She wished silently to finally move on from this wretched fear. He called her the next day and from then on they saw each other regularly. The tension was released in a long night’s work and was no longer an issue. They fought and argued but it was that which made them come back. They both knew there was something left to want.

As he came back into the room, she watched him from the bed, his torso draped with a towel, hair shiny and wet from the shower. He stopped by the edge of the bed and stood over her silently, looking. Smiling, he leaned into kiss her. Turning and dropping the towel to the floor he walked over to the chair where he had left his clothes and began to dress. Silence was their favorite gesture. It made them feel they were the only two in the world, alone together. She got up from the bed, molding her body around his, forcing him to let go of whatever he held onto. He turned towards her, his arms relaxing around her waist holding her tightly. That was all she needed to hear.

Photo Credit: By Me, Paris, 2010

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