He was in his early forties, married, with the blackest hair I’d ever seen on a white man, dusted with dandruff he was either trying to get rid of or felt no particular way about. As I stood across Eighth Avenue, waiting for the light to change, I wondered if I should hold his gaze until we were close enough to touch. Had he been Black, or a woman of any race, we would have hugged. But he was not a gaze-holder, an embracer, not with me. I didn’t know how to greet this rich, white, married father of two, how to leave the digital space we’d inhabited for months and enter a physical one.
After a summer of constant emailing, I was spending a week not-coincidentally temping in the building where he worked as a magazine editor, where, he said, he could help me find a writing job. That day, we sent 73 messages to each other before finally, I left my desk to go meet him in the park, where we sat at a tiny green table, no food or drinks between us, our legs carefully averted, the eyes of passersby lingering, for what I had characterized to my supervisor, my mom, and my boyfriend as a business meeting, but that I knew was anything but.
As a little girl, I had a very particular image of what I thought 25 would be. I did not see a person in my mind’s eye, but a slightly more lifelike Barbie doll—5’11” in a white tank top and stiff flared-leg jeans, a blank, blithe look in, or rather on, her eyes. The fantasy version of 25-year-old me was somehow nearly a foot taller than my final resting height, with long hair, as if all of me would have just kept growing indefinitely until I died. The gag, of course, is that 25 is nobody’s grown, despite the “quarter century” birthday parties people had the nerve to throw themselves then.
When I was 25, I felt like a naïve little puppy whose nose the Universe kept rubbing in all her foolish mistakes. Within the first six weeks of that year, I had reunited with my on-again, off-again boyfriend, gotten pregnant, and had an abortion. Soon after, I would meet my biological father and two of my siblings for the first time. And it was still only spring.
The Editor was the friend of one of my professors, my last semester of grad school. He sat in on a few classes towards the end of the year. At first, I cared only that he worked at a magazine, something I was hoping to one day do. After that first class, we walked together to the train, and he asked what I was working on. I told him about the jazz writing I’d been doing, artist interviews and show reviews, and he piqued my interest when he mentioned Lonette McKee’s rendition of “How Long Has This Been Going On?” from the jazz film Round Midnight, a singer and song that I had always loved, but could never find anyone who was even remotely familiar. “I’ve always thought she was underrated,” he said.
Later that evening, when I got home, though we hadn’t exchanged information, I had what would be the first of many emails from him.
Message: Hey. I read some of your pieces on that site you mentioned.…
He went on to tell me he’d liked my piece on jazz improvisation, one I was particularly proud of. It did not read to me then as an invitation, but as another instance of the way things always seemed to work in my favor—that of everyone in class that day, someone so well-connected, so powerful, had taken a liking to me.
It was May and I was graduating soon, with no real job prospects or plans. So I decided to proposition him: he’d mentioned in passing a nonfiction book project he was working on. Did he need help—a research assistant perhaps? Or even, possibly, an opening where he worked? I spent hours crafting my cover letter to him, addressing him by last name as though we’d never met, afraid to come across too familiar, as though that might somehow disqualify me. Whether to call him by his first name or last in a cover letter; to hug, to handshake; where to place him.
“Sure, I might need some help,” he wrote back. We agreed to meet for lunch in June.
I wore a high-waisted coral-colored pleated skirt, sandals, and a floral-print leotard that snapped at the crotch. Hair in an afro—it was finally growing back. When I arrived, I reached to shake his hand, but he was already beginning his nervous chatter; he reached back, belatedly, half-heartedly.
We sat in a restaurant near his office in the middle of his workday going on and on at each other about records. He really did know music. The obscure facts that were perennially lodged in my brain, never able to let spill like I wanted, he could receive and process. Like my passion for the American Songbook, its writers and players like Oscar Peterson, Lorenz Hart, Sarah Vaughan; and Vernon Duke, whose lyrics to “Autumn in New York” rang out to me each turn of the season like an omen.
Hours passed, three in all that day, and I wondered how he would explain his absence to whomever he reported to. Though I knew our meeting was supposed to be about professional matters—the book project, a job—he kept veering off, back to music, or politics or culture, and I let myself follow. I took this, oddly, as a point of pride—that our natural rapport was so great that we had millions of other things to gab about besides what we were there for. I found value in connections that arose fully formed, whether romantic or platonic, and struggled to have faith in relationships that took work. That’s how the best of my friendships had started, though by then, many of them had faded. He and I were an odd pair—the many double-takes at us told me that. The fact that we got along so well was proof of something. “I love y’all’s banter,” my boyfriend said, oblivious.
The Editor entered my life around the time that my boyfriend, perhaps still upset that I’d chosen to terminate my pregnancy, suddenly turned on me, becoming cold and patronizing, seemingly overnight. Later that June, I moved out of what had been my first-ever apartment, into a new, much larger space in Flatbush, by choice, by necessity, but mostly by choice, which I would later be informed was a stupid reason to move in New York. I rented the truck and my boyfriend and his friends helped.
At the end of the day, he sat perched in the driver’s seat of the U-Haul, looked down at me, and said, “Make sure you tell my friends ‘thank you’ today,” as if I were some kind of bratty child, instead of what I actually was: insecure in ways he now took advantage of. “Why do you think I wouldn’t?” I snapped back, explaining to him not for the first or last time that he was being cruel, and him pretending like he had no idea what I meant. This, I learned—playing dumb, telling me I was only imagining him acting differently—was called gaslighting.
I had a new apartment, a new roommate who would last a month, an irregular period, a sad boyfriend, no money, no job, few friends, and another two-line email from the Editor.
Subject: re: re: so.
Message: how’s life?
All of his messages started this way. So small. So simple, a prompt. I didn’t know how to be with white people other than witty—had no faith in them to really understand what I was talking about, and so with him, I spoke only with my brain, only saying things which could be read as smart and clever. No matter how final my previous email had been, he always asked a question in his replies. He should have done improv, so talented was he at keeping a conversation going.
I’d followed him on Twitter months before, but he hadn’t followed back. Sometimes, I’d reply to his inane attempts at humor, right there for everyone to see, and a literal minute later, I’d have an email from him. Discreet. Private. I was never saying anything of real consequence—except for when I was begging him to help me find a job, or a roommate, or once again ruminating on, as I did at the end of every lease, picking up and leaving New York—yet he felt the need to keep record of our correspondence offline. Smart.
We were not neighbors, not even close—he owned his place in Park Slope, and I rented in a giant, impersonal building in Flatbush—but it turned out we did live closer than we had before I’d moved. We lived in the Brooklyn version of opposite sides of the train tracks—opposite sides of Prospect Park. After mentioning my cross-streets to him, he told me that he sometimes kicked a soccer ball around with his kids in the park, and afterwards would go to one of the new hipster bodegas, branding itself as a health food store, right by the train, right by where I lived and went sometimes, too.
I spent my days trying my damnedest to hold it all together, calling the temp agency about work; writing “morning pages” to try to maintain a creative life; applying listlessly for jobs I didn’t want and knew I wouldn’t get; and once, examining two different canisters of salt, the store brand for $1.10 and the name brand for $1.30, debating which one to buy, sincerely believing that 20 cents would make a difference in my financial struggles; that many 20 centses would rescue me from the sinkhole I found myself in. Wasting away. Pairs and pairs of eyes squinting at me from across a table, asking if my arms had gotten thinner, which they had.
When August arrived, I could no longer pretend I was on some kind of self-imposed summer break—I needed a job. We had long stopped talking about the book project, but I had managed to swivel the conversation back to work, and, perhaps better than the book, he’d gotten me an interview with his boss, to take place during my week of temping in the building; all I’d have to do was go upstairs. It was the kind of thing you did for your best friend’s daughter, or your niece. At least in that context, it was understood as a kind gesture. In this context, I was a former, but brief, student of sorts. In this context, it was an act of unprompted generosity; a call in need of a response; a give looking to get.
He knew that I needed a stable job, but in brainstorming a path to it, that afternoon in the park, all he could come up with was that someone’s assistant—some man’s assistant—might have a “young woman thing happen to her”—get married, get pregnant, or go to grad school—and then I could take her place. At the beginning of the week, I’d sent him something I’d written, a funny little piece about loofahs named for Martin Luther King, and he’d replied that I should write an essay collection. But now, I was just another girl.
In the moment, I registered the offense of what he’d said, but was too dumbstruck to reply. All I could think was, I’m smart, I’m talented, I’m published. I’m not just some woman, some girl, some Black girl. When I got to the interview, more informational than for a particular position, I sat there, not especially prepared, across from an even older white man who was kind, but disinterested; who perked up only when I mentioned the semester I’d spent at Columbia. I was so used to my Blackness being the reason I might be perceived as less-than that I had forgotten that being young and female were also causes. They reminded me.
One night soon after, my boyfriend and I were sat up in bed, each on our laptops, typing. He glanced over at my screen.
“Who are you emailing?” he asked.
I froze. It was 11pm. Was it too late to be writing him? I gauged whether a quickly invented lie would cover my tracks; what would happen if I told the truth.
“Editor guy,” I said, bracing myself.
“Oh, cool,” he said. He heard only “professional opportunity guy” or “writer friend guy.” He could not sense how close I felt to being caught.
The more the Editor and I talked, almost daily, at this point, the more I sought ways to create space between us—asking about his children, talking about my boyfriend. Anything but the most obvious option.
The boyfriend and relationship were my first, an imperfect test-run whose flaws I had discovered early on. But for years, I’d had a bad habit of cutting people off instead of dealing with the conflict; I was determined to stick it out, no matter how much it hurt. “So you think you and him are in it for the long haul?” the Editor wrote, late one evening in September. “Kids, house, the whole thing?”
“Yes,” I wrote back, because that was what I had taken up saying—that I wanted to be with my boyfriend forever. “Then so it will be,” the Editor replied from his side of town, putting his children to sleep or pouring his wife a glass of water or wine. Then so it will be is what you say to young people, whether five or 25, who believe things you know not to be true; then so it will be is a kind of grace.
To: The Editor
Subject: re: re: re: so
Message: Half of what makes me me is the audacity to do certain things; the other half is the sense not to.
I kept thinking about how much simpler things would have been if I were still a virgin. It hadn’t been that long ago—the inevitable impasse all my early relationships had come to because of it. Instead, he and I had before us the specter of sex, the will-they-won’t-they that had hung over boy-girl relations since time immemorial. Will they? I wondered when he told me about the Rumspringa from his marriage he’d been granted several years prior, after his second child was born—apparently, the point at which many men realize they’re fucked. Will they? I wondered, when I wrote that I’d been texting all day, and he asked why I hadn’t sent him any. Because you don’t have my number, I thought. Because I know how these things begin and we have already begun. Will they? I wondered, every time he made note that his wife and children were out of town. Will they? I wondered when I touched myself and his face was the face that sprang up.
Mingled with pain—that’s how Vernon Duke had described autumn in New York. In October, ravaged by the cosmos, or my own poor decision-making, I ran away from home—from my apartment, my awful new roommate, and my body-snatched boyfriend, to a friend’s place in Harlem. My hands and legs twitched as I told her just some of the chaos I’d stepped into that year—the pregnancy, the long-lost family, the move, the roommate who left, the hoarder who replaced her; the loneliness.
Sometimes, I will remember a strange, bright moment from that year—the green-skinned veggie dumplings I ate from the Chinese spot down the street; or the meme of a roaring brown bear covered in snow with the caption “I FUCKING LOVE COCAINE,” the one thing that could reliably make me laugh. I read Rainer Maria Rilke and Gandhi to try to think conciliatorily towards my aggressive new roommate, something that now seems ridiculous. I made playlists with titles like “Can You Feel a Brand New Day?” and “INSPIRE.”
That year, I lost not only the last scraps of my innocence, but every last thing on my laptop, further compounding my anguish. But a DJ friend helped me by uploading dozens of records from his own collection onto my computer. That’s how I came across it—Cannonball Adderley’s 1960 live album, At the Lighthouse.
“This next one is kinda cute, we think. We think it’s pretty,” Cannonball says at the top of “Blue Daniel,” a waltz by the trombonist Frank Rosolino. It is a sweet, catchy little tune, the kind you find yourself humming without realizing it. Over and over that fall, as I tried to put my life back together, I sang it to myself like a lullaby. There are no words that I know of, but when I hear it, I see a blue that isn’t wistful, but the gentle, gray-blue of a sky welcoming dusk. A blue with a pretty name and a shade you have to close your eyes to see. It is a bird that graces your windowsill when your life is so empty, so bare of goodness, that you will take anything as sign towards hope. It is beauty that is not about your pain, but a break from it.
Subject: re: re: re: re: so
Message: I subscribe to the 99 percent theory. If I can produce meaning, and respect commitment 99 percent of the time, then I have 1 percent where I can do whatever I want. That’s 3.65 days a year.
Me: Don’t spend it all in one place.
It stopped eventually. One day, sometime that fall, I just didn’t respond. Then, four years later, a strange Twitter account, halfway between a person and a brand, followed me. After some digging, I discovered that it was his wife. I didn’t know exactly how she’d found me, but I was disinclined to believe it was a coincidence. A few weeks later, just as quickly as she’d come, she disappeared.
Perhaps her husband had strayed before, and they’d discussed it in marriage counseling and moved on. Perhaps exchanging nearly 400 emails with another woman over the course of a summer was hurtful, but familiar. Perhaps it didn’t matter, as I’d wondered, that I was so young, and Black; maybe it only mattered that I was someone else. Perhaps it was new, perhaps it wasn’t; and either way, it stung.
I don’t believe we were equally culpable—my naivete was too vast for him not to consider. But there was an unspoken agreement that something was happening, something more could happen, if I wanted it to. And whether I was brazen or gullible, my unhappiness justified, or not—
An avenue, clogged with traffic. A light waiting to turn.
He extended his hand. I crossed the street.