AFTER the film, Addie stands under the dripping marquee and shakes open her cheap umbrella, a simple move that attracts the attention of a man loitering by his BMW. He saunters over to her with the breezy confidence of a local somebody, plucks the red plastic coffee stirrer from his mouth and tucks it in his breast pocket. A weird gesture, she thinks, a bit gross, but kind of endearing.
“Your umbrella’s shot,” he says.
Addie nods and looks down at her cellphone. No missed messages. It’s definitely on, but nobody has called.
Dimitri is probably having sex right now with one of the waitresses at the bar, probably Marissa-from-Greenpoint, the short one with the pretty singing voice and the nine-year-old son.
“Did you like the movie?” he asks.
This one has a matador’s face, she thinks, insolent and beautiful. “It was all right. Kind of shallow and derivative, but I didn’t really expect much going into it.”
Derivative. That should scare him.
“Agreed,” he says. “That flick was bullshit.” He arches his neck and lampoons the American actors’ failed British accents — “Blewdy hell, it’s pissin’!” — and in spite of herself, Addie laughs.
His name is Rob, he says. And hers?
Four minutes later he’s strolling to his BMW with her number in his cellphone.
BACK at her apartment Addie keeps checking her phone. No missed messages. To take her mind off Dimitri and Marissa, she flips open her laptop and scrolls through responses to her online-dating profile.
Suitor 11: “You, me. Let’s make it happen. Limited-time offer. Don’t miss out.”
Suitor 17: “Greetings. My name is Martin Josovich. I am a retired History teacher. I am seventy-three years old, but I’m blessed with more joie de vivre and enthusiasm than men half my age. My dear Sadie, may she rest in peace, could testify to this. Were she watching me, and I believe she is, she’d be saying, ‘Get out there, Marty. Meet someone new.’ Help me make her wishes come true.”
Addie closes her laptop with a sigh, wondering if she made a mistake by giving Rob her number. He is, after all, a complete stranger. He could be violent or boring. He probably won’t even call. Of course he won’t call.
ROB calls on the third night. Usually when she’s on the phone, Addie paces around the apartment and picks up books and thumbs through them while the other person talks; or she clicks through the television channels on mute; or she eats small handfuls of dry cereal out of the box. But Rob has a pleasant voice and a great sense of humor that makes her want to do none of these things. A few times she laughs out loud, a good sign.
In bed that night Addie replays the entire twelve-minute conversation. Rob wants to pick her up at noon on Saturday. Another good sign. Some guys can wring only an Italian dinner and a Hollywood-movie-plus-drinks out of their limited repertoires and can’t imagine picking up a woman before dark. But this date will be different.
ADDIE’S stylist, Marko, points to the chairs in the back of the salon. “Shampoo. Rinse. Go!” He claps his hands and shouts to a short, dark-haired woman: “Maya, wash this one, and please use the thickening shampoo.”
Soon Addie is in the jacked-up chair by the front window, Marko’s version of Carnegie Hall, a performance venue for an audience of bored pedestrians and homeless men. Marko rests his hands on her shoulders and scrutinizes her reflection in the mirror. Then he frowns and crosses his wrists and extends his slender arms before him.
“Are you ready to take the shackles off me and allow me to give you a style from this century? Or do you just want to stick with the same?”
ON Saturday at precisely noon Rob’s black BMW pulls up in front of Addie’s building. She notices the vanity plates: I DOCTOR. Does this mean he’s an optometrist? An ophthalmologist? What’s the difference, again? She won’t even bring it up, she decides. She’ll compliment his car or his hair instead.
Addie slides into the passenger seat and smiles at Rob. “You look great,” he says — this from a man who has made clear vision his vocation — and merges expertly into traffic. A new and exciting world seems to be opening up to her. The city rolls by her window, and she is relieved to find that Rob doesn’t feel a need to talk much. The music is too loud, for one thing, and the stereo speakers are everywhere — above, below, on all sides — playing a maniacally cheerful pop song.
Rob guns the engine on the FDR north and taps his thumbs on the steering wheel.
“Glad it’s Saturday,” he says at last.
She smiles at him. “Me, too.”
He presses a button on the steering wheel, activating a third repeat of the same song. “Totally,” he says, before lapsing again into silence.
What a pleasant change from Dimitri, who would never stop talking. She met him in the kitchen of a house party in Brooklyn. Addie waited with an empty cup while a guy in a muscle shirt pumped the keg and droned on about the latest Bolaño novel to a lanky redhead with tattoos on his forearms. Dimitri appeared beside Addie, frowned at the redhead, who was now expertly tilting his cup at a foam-reducing angle, and said, “Greased lightning over here, eh?” She didn’t know why it was funny, but it was. She laughed.
“This young lady is practically dehydrated, fellas,” Dimitri said to them. “Stop mucking about.”
When they finished, Dimitri took the keg nozzle and filled her cup first, then his own. She wasn’t looking for old-fashioned manners in a man, but, she told her girlfriends, from that very first night, Dimitri saw her, understood her.
Rob pulls the car into a mall parking lot. Addie looks out the window and realizes she doesn’t know where they are. Queens? Long Island?
Rob swings open his door. “Let’s hit it,” he says.
“The mall?” Still strapped to the seat, she forces a smile. “Really?”
“This place cracks me up,” he says. “Come on.”
IN the video arcade Rob slips a five-dollar bill into a change machine, and she watches twenty tokens blast into the brass bowl below. Grinning, he hands Addie eight tokens and swings his arm out as if introducing her to a magical realm. “Play whatever you want. It’s on me.”
She’s met well-off men before, and they’re invariably different from what you first expect. They do things that nobody would imagine a person of their stature doing. Rob, she notices, doesn’t need to dress in an Armani suit to attract attention to his wealth. He wears a ragged tweed sport coat over a Bruce Lee T-shirt. His dark-wash jeans and black Chuck Taylors complete the look he seems to be going for. And this unorthodox beginning to their date — the mall? — doesn’t entirely repel her. On the contrary, it strangely comforts her, because she will not have to put on an act with this guy. She can be herself with Rob. It’s too much pressure to date an indie-rock drummer or a coke-snorting sculptor these days, the guys who want to go to all the hip parties and talk about the great artistic work they’re not doing. They always deem her to be too conservative, too tame, and they end up leaving her for a bony woman with bangs and a spider tattoo on her thigh. But Rob won’t do that.
She stands beside him at a kung fu video game — her legs and arms goosefleshed from the air conditioning — and realizes that she’s even more attracted to him than she had first thought. Tongue tip peeking through clenched lips, dark eyebrows crunched down over his nose — he is undeniably handsome. There really are some good men out there, she decides. Kindhearted, charming sweethearts. She knew it all along. She just needed to look harder. Here’s a fun-loving, generous guy with a positive demeanor, the opposite of Dimitri, that self-destructive moper, whose harrowing descents into despair were numbed only by copious amounts of vodka, ice cream, and chips. Like some kind of computer-animation trick, Dimitri morphed into a fat, alcoholic bartender when she wasn’t looking. One moment he was a beautiful boy at a party, making flirty jokes with her, and the next thing she knew, wham. Old Fat Beard.
She’s lucky Dimitri dumped her, though it shattered her at the time. He broke up with her: she hadn’t seen that coming. But it wasn’t a breakup so much as an act of liberation. In fact, she should send him a thank-you note. “Thanks for setting me free, D., so that I could find my Rob.”
Rob shouts, “Press the KICK button for me, doll!”
She’s ecstatic. She pushes that KICK button for all she’s worth. On the game screen two cartoonishly muscular villains fall and die, thanks to her help.
Rob breaks free from the game long enough to plant a wet kiss on her cheek. Before Addie can even react, he’s banging away at the PUNCH button with the heel of his hand. “Fuck,” he says and snaps his fingers. “Check it out,” he says, pointing to the screen. “I got killed by that priest and his special powers. Wait, I’m getting back up. I’m still alive! Am I? No, I’m not getting back up. Yup. I’m dead.”
She puts her hand on his back and rubs between his shoulder blades and helps him through this minor emotional crisis — their first as a couple. He smiles gratefully at her. Strange as it sounds, we were in an arcade when I just knew . . .
He motions to Sbarro and says, “You hungry? Let’s grab a slice.”
“Sure, but . . . do you really want to stay here?”
He looks puzzled by her question, his eyebrows converging. “Why not?”
“You’re right,” she says, laughing. “Why not?”
“Do you want to leave?”
“I’m having fun,” he says.
“I’m having a blast,” she says, her voice a little too enthusiastic. She reaches out and touches his forearm. “I love pizza. Well, OK, I don’t love it. It’s not my favorite food in the world, but it’s up there. Is it your favorite?”
“Nope,” he says.
And that’s it. Nothing more. Guys can do that. Nope. Easy as that.
Addie and Rob stare into each other’s eyes, and a gulf of silence opens between them. She realizes she hasn’t said anything remotely interesting or smart since he picked her up. Look at that sad, beautiful face, she thinks. It’s obvious what he’s thinking right now. He’s worried that he’s made a mistake. She’s a big snooze, and he’s trying to figure out a way to end this sham of a date.
“Hey.” He leans closer, his nose scrunched. “I think somebody farted. Do you smell it? Damn, that’s ripe. Let’s get out of here.”
ADDIE leans back in the booth, sated after a slice of mushroom pizza and a quart of orange soda. She realizes that this is the life she’s been missing. Simple, unadorned pleasure. Who needs fine dining with its confusion of utensils, plates, and stemware? Who needs entry into exclusive clubs where only the holiest are permitted to worship? Shared time at the mall, doing nothing, just being together with your man — that’s what’s important. Dimitri, wearing only unwashed gym shorts, spent hours watching the Yankees on his enormous TV or napping on the couch before his nightly shifts at the bar, and she felt ridiculous as she hopped around him on Saturday afternoons, saying, “Want to go to the park? There’s jazz in the park, Dimitri. Want to fly a kite or throw a Frisbee? Go out to lunch? Anything you want, Dimitri, because today’s your day, killer.”
But Dimitri only smacked his lips and yawned and drifted off to sleep on the couch. That wasn’t shared time. That wasn’t the mall arcade in Queens. (Or Long Island?) Rob, she notices, isn’t like Dimitri at all. Rob is exuberant. Rob makes decisions and runs with them. Rob is a doer. And that’s probably the biggest problem she had with Old Fat Beard toward the end. She was making all the decisions, and it’s thrilling to be with someone who says, Today I’m making the decisions. I’m taking you out. You don’t have to worry about a thing, doll. You’re in my capable hands.
There’s nothing insulting about the term doll, she decides.
Licking pizza grease from his fingers, Rob tells her that his “pants are vibrating.” He fishes out his smartphone, an expensive-looking device that can probably make waffles from scratch. He glances at the caller, blushes, and excuses himself. “Sorry. Have to take this. I’ll be white black.”
Addie laughs — she always laughs when she’s uncomfortable, a tic she dislikes about herself — and wonders whose call is significant enough to take him away from the table. Another woman? Girlfriend? Wife? Why did she ever think this man was single? Of course he’s married. Or engaged, at least. His tall, classy fiancée is probably some fashion model from Copenhagen who would never set foot in the mall. But what does that Danish beauty have that Addie doesn’t, other than two passports and towering height? Maybe Addie can win Rob away from her. No, she shouldn’t break up a potential marriage. Addie has to end it. She has to.
It was good while it lasted, she thinks. This date got you out of your apartment, and you’re finally seeing Queens or Long Island through the food-court window. And you caught a glimpse of what was out there, an entire population of available men. Another guy will come along soon.
Unless he doesn’t. And the truth is none will if she’s too passive. So why give one up when he’s already here? Why not fight for the man she wants?
Addie watches Rob pace outside Sbarro with his greasy fingers pressing the phone to his ear. Clearly Rob needs an attentive woman. He can’t take care of himself properly. He needs comfort and nurturing and disinfecting wipes for his sticky hands. But that’s not her job. Best to end this thing before she gets too deep. This one had potential. Better luck next time.
Addie drapes her cardigan over her shoulders like a shawl and walks toward Rob, prepared to tell him that she’s taking a taxi home. Maybe he’ll protest and drive her back to Manhattan, and maybe they’ll make out for a while in front of her building, but that’s it. He may kiss her, but he’s not coming up. Well, he can come up for one cup of coffee, but the bra is not — not! — coming off. Sorry, Rob. And even if it does become unhooked somehow, even if it falls to the floor by mistake or divine intervention, no way are they crossing the threshold to her bedroom. Two condoms are hidden in her bedside drawer, in case of an emergency. Unprotected sex is not even an option. Rob will have to wear a condom. That’s non-negotiable.
“Rob?” she says, her voice barely a whisper.
“Why?” he says into the phone, unaware of her. “You told me I could keep it until dinnertime. Yes, you did. You did. Fine. I’ll bring it back in an hour. Please?” His voice climbs a register as he says, “Dad, please. I’ll finish my homework later. I’m on a date with a girl.”
Addie backs away from Rob into a sporting-goods store, where she hides behind a display of dangling baseball mitts to collect her thoughts. She glances at her watch: 4:18 PM. A steady progression of days, months, years has dragged her to this very spot, this low point. She’s twenty-six years old, and evidently she’s now on a mall date with a high-school kid. What an unmitigated disaster. This is the type of real-world life experience that could produce a powerhouse blog post, a viral screed, if it weren’t so utterly humiliating — and if she were actually writing these days. But how could she have known? After all, Rob does look like he’s in his midtwenties. It’s not her fault; anyone could have mistaken him for an older man. Of course she did recognize that he was slightly younger — by a few years, it seemed to her — but she didn’t expect this.
And, in her defense, she does look “fresh” and “adorable” at twenty-six, if the opinion of InsaneSexxxClown666 (Suitor 30) counts for anything. In grocery stores and bodegas she still has to show her ID to purchase alcohol. That means that some people — most people, probably — think she looks a few years younger than twenty-one. Right around Rob’s age, in other words. So this is all easily explainable, if she is ever questioned by the authorities. A simple misunderstanding.
A man in a green polo shirt steps around the display of baseball mitts. His nametag reads WADE. “Help you find something?”
My God, she can’t escape them. They are everywhere, men and boys, these prowling animals with their hairy faces and big hands. “No, thank you,” she says. “Just looking.”
“The Mizuno is a great glove.” He grabs a black mitt from the wall, plunges his hand inside it, and punches his fist into the leather. “Big pocket. Good action. Want to try it?”
“I have to go,” she says. “Thanks.”
“Any time,” he calls out. “Come back, ask for Wade, and I’ll take care of you.”
She exits the mall through the store’s side door, face burning. She wants to view this as a wake-up call, a chance to make some positive changes in her life. This is an opportunity, not an embarrassing low point. She should call Rob later tonight and thank him. No, he should never know the truth. Let it be a mystery. Besides, he apparently has homework to finish.
There are no taxis in the parking lot. She can’t see a bus stop anywhere. Just sit for a minute, she tells herself. Breathe. Sit right here on this bench, and don’t look at your phone. Yes. That’s good. Shut your eyes. Relax. Feel the wind on your face. It’s only a minor setback. This will make a funny story someday.
IN the winter Addie revises her online-dating profile, answering every question honestly, no lies at all, and giving a straightforward appraisal of her life and what she’s looking for in a partner. A month removed from the Rob debacle, she recognizes the importance of complete honesty from the get-go. She provides her real age and favorite movies and TV shows and reveals her true personality, not some imagined ideal that she thinks will appeal to someone brilliant and successful. Dozens of men in the tri-state area contact her. Unfortunately even the best ones leave something to be desired.
Suitor 37: “Have you tried the dating scene and found it lacking? Me, too. So let’s save each other from any more awkward situations. Meet me at the YMCA swimming pool. Wear that little two-piece [wink-wink], and we’ll just see what we’re made of. Afterward maybe we’ll smoke some cheeba. I’m sober, but AA doesn’t say jack about drugs.”
Suitor 45: “BIG! Trust me.”
Suitor 51: “I read your profile with no small amount of interest. You seem kind. In case you’re wondering about my photos, yes, that is an authentic Austrian woodsman’s hat from the Kingdom of Bavaria. Bet you’ve never seen a hat like that before. Have you?”
Ultimately Addie chooses to reply to Suitor 63 in Brooklyn, who wrote: “Hey. You’re pretty. Wanna meet for coffee?”
“Sure,” she writes. “Can you come to Manhattan?”
He doesn’t write back.
AT work on a Monday in early March, when winter is still at war with spring, Addie takes a break from data entry and opens an issue of Us Weekly. Dimitri once said, “Why do you always gotta read that rag? It’s trash.” And she told him it was the same to her as watching professional soccer was to him: a diversion. “But the difference is,” he said, “I don’t imagine I’m one of the players. You act like you know them, Addie. It’s messing with your mind.” It was the wrong thing to say, however truthful. She stood up and walked out of the room, slamming the door behind her. “Why don’t you update your blog,” he shouted, “or write another chapter of that novel you’re working on?”
Ever since graduating from Brown with a degree in English, she’s done nothing to follow up on her aspirations. After a few minutes’ thought, she puts down the magazine and approaches the office of Marge Pistorek, her boss.
Marge Pistorek has always intimidated Addie. Perhaps it’s the way she barrels through the office, a plump cannonball ready to smash into anything, looking over shoulders to see what’s on people’s screens. So what if Addie fell asleep once — once! — at her desk? That was two years ago. And who in America hasn’t?
When Addie enters Marge’s office, her boss looks up from her desk and says, “What’s up?”
“Hi. I’m really sorry, but I think I might want to leave.”
Addie coughs. “The job. My job.” She coughs again. Her throat is so dry all of a sudden. “I’m considering moving on.”
Her boss sighs. “Fine. But you’re staying two more weeks, right?”
“I guess I’m more, like, looking for advice.”
“Two weeks is standard.”
“Do you think I should stay? Am I doing a good job? No, what I’m really wondering is: Is there a way for me to do more creative work for the company? I’m an ambitious, thoughtful—”
“Tell you what: Stay another week. In fact, I can probably replace you by this Thursday, Friday at the latest. Can you stay three days? Can you give me that?”
“Yes,” Addie says. “I mean, no, I can stay the full two weeks. You know, I don’t even have to leave.”
“Not necessary. Two, three days, tops. Thanks for letting me know.”
AT Brown Addie had a close friend, Robin, who, like Addie, had lost her mother at an early age. As juniors Addie and Robin became the youngest coeditors in the history of The Round, the undergraduate literary magazine. They often stayed up drinking red wine in Slater Hall. In Robin’s dorm room they smoked weed and blew the smoke through a toilet-paper roll stuffed with fabric-softener sheets to hide the smell and ordered Peking duck from the place around the corner. Addie spent three nights in Robin’s narrow dorm bed. Afterward, when it became clear that they were compatible only as platonic friends, neither spoke of it again.
But maybe Addie knew something about herself back then. Maybe men are not the answer.
At Martini Navratilova, the hole-in-the-wall bar on Avenue B, she drinks oily red wine at eight dollars a glass. Within minutes of her arrival, she falls into a conversation with an attractive gray-haired woman in her early fifties. When it’s time for a refill, the woman, Sue Ann, ignores Addie’s request for red wine and buys her a “real” drink: a Jack Daniel’s, neat.
“I wouldn’t touch the wine they serve here,” Sue Ann says. “I don’t know what’s in it exactly, but it ain’t grapes.”
Addie learns that Sue Ann edits a popular series of chick-lit novels. Sue Ann lets out a derisive laugh when speaking about it. Pink and lime-green covers, a lot of bad writing inside. Sue Ann says she has toyed with the idea of calling the series For Masochists Only.
Addie read one of the books at the Hamptons house her friends rented a few summers ago. She’d found it on a living-room shelf, a single spine-cracked volume amidst miscellaneous tchotchkes. The truth is, she enjoyed how light it was, perfect for skimming while sipping wine under an oak tree.
“Actually I read one of your books,” Addie says. “I liked it.”
“They’re garbage, kid.” Sue Ann assesses Addie over the rim of her glass with her pretty, narrowed eyes. “They’re cotton candy.”
“But sometimes you’re in the mood for that.”
“If you have no taste.”
“Then why do you edit them?”
“Oh, I don’t know. A little thing called a mortgage?”
“But you seem so intelligent. Couldn’t you—”
She raises her hand to stop Addie. “You’re cute but annoying. Have a good night.”
“WHO is this?” Old Fat Beard says in a low voice, almost whispering into the phone.
“It’s me,” she says. “I’m drunk and just left a lesbian bar and everything is shit.”
“Mom?” he asks.
Addie hangs up, horrified, but then calls him right back. “Dimitri?”
“That was a joke,” he says. “You used to have a sense of humor.”
She lets out a tired laugh. She does not yet know the thirty-six-year-old Addie who will become managing editor of Nylon magazine, the forty-four-year-old first-time novelist, the sixty-two-year-old breast-cancer survivor. These future versions of herself are as hard to reconcile with who she is today — a confused young woman drunk on the corner of 7th and B, her phone pressed to her ear — as the five-year-old child who fell down the stairs and sobbed into her mother’s papery neck, the angry eleven-year-old who refused to speak at her mother’s funeral, the fourteen-year-old who won a writing award for a short story about a dying pet but didn’t bother to show up at the after-school ceremony to claim her prize.
“I’ve been thinking about you,” Dimitri says.
Her legs are carrying her toward his apartment. “Good thoughts?”
“Hells yeah. You know I love you, Addie. Come over?”
“I don’t know. I’ve been drinking, and it’s late.”
“Uh-huh.” She can hear his enormous TV on low volume in the background. “Well, your contact-lens case and saline solution are still in the bathroom.”
“Aw. That’s sweet.” Also quite strange, because it’s been more than six months since he broke up with her.
Dimitri coughs into the phone. “I have a cold. Just warning you in advance.”
She doesn’t care. They can be sick together, cuddled under a blanket. “I’m sick, too,” she says, as if this confirms their compatibility. “I’ve been coughing all night.”
She hears the TV’s volume grow a little louder. “Would you mind bringing over a twelve-pack? The fridge is kind of empty.”
She knows she shouldn’t go to him.
She knows that.
Please. Tell her something she doesn’t know.