Richard looked out the window. April, and he was sure he could identify in the faces of the passing students a certain late undergraduate mood: the weather having turned sweet, exams just finished, and you’re preparing for whatever plans you’ve made. A summer internship or humanitarian junket. But in the meantime you feel accomplished and blamelessly lavish your days on nothing: afternoon drinking and smoking pot, watching shirtless guys play Frisbee, walking amid the blooming magnolias.
“Why have you not submitted anything?”
The intrusion of Antonella’s sympathetic but firm question made Richard feel like a child poised for a lecture.
“I’m blocked,” he said, nodding morosely. “I just go in circles.”
“There are tricks I can suggest.”
Across her forehead a glossy fringe of brown hair was cleaved asymmetrically, and she wore a gray cashmere turtleneck tucked into Adidas track pants. On the desk there was a plastic container full of untouched salad, one black splash of balsamic dressing down the side. Its sweet smell was filling the office.
“What do you have in mind?” Richard asked.
“Acupuncture, therapies, mind games maybe,” Antonella said. “Have you ever tried standing on your head?”
“That could work.” For a moment he looked thoughtful. He clasped his hands together in his lap. “On the other hand, it all might get better tomorrow.”
A doctoral student in medieval Italian literature—ostensibly—Richard Turner had done little in the past months to deserve the title. It was a significant change. Not too many years ago—he was twenty-nine now—he’d been a cultivated, slightly pedantic undergraduate, someone for whom a high GPA, prizes, bursaries, and glowing reference letters came easily. But lately he’d found himself blocked and unable to write, and in the face of this mystifying impotence, whose source he could not identify, all his efforts at maintaining a long-cultivated identity of academic competence and dependable accomplishment had taken on an air of pointlessness. Yet his solvency depended on remaining a student, and so he continued to show up faithfully at the library and to meet Antonella, his supervisor, in that cluttered office where they were now sitting.
He felt like an impostor, an actor playing a previous self. Still, he decided, given that so few students continued to bother, had ever bothered, to study what she taught, Antonella would be invested in retaining as many of them as she could.
But her face stiffened.
“I will have to write the letter soon, Richard. I cannot in good faith write it without seeing any work.”
“I understand,” he murmured.
His tuition and living expenses were covered by a fellowship from a family of degenerate industrialists with a deep presence in his hometown—the MacLellans or the MacLennans, he always mixed up the name. The long-dead patriarch had wistfully forgone a career as a professor of literature in order to accrue vast wealth, and had set aside
a portion for the advancement of humanity, in the manner of Alfred Nobel.
For the money to flow, the foundation required written updates from an academic supervisor every six months. Richard pictured the reader of these letters, no one he’d ever met: some loafing male heir, one of a group of scattered dilettantish progeny who dressed in Balenciaga and ran flailing subsidiaries, scrolling absentmindedly through his phone at a Michelin-starred restaurant as he scooped pâté onto a fussy square of toast. Richard had always felt a condescending superiority to this handsome specter, the same sort of condescension, mixed with envy, that most of his academic colleagues felt toward alarmingly rich people.
“There are others who could use the money,” Antonella said, her crossed arms indicating a disinterested concern for the student body at large, the numberless deserving beneficiaries, while the vaulted eyebrows over her dark, clear, slightly amphibian eyes made her affection for Richard plain.
He should have been much further along. Most of his immediate colleagues had graduated or moved into postdocs, a mellow encampment he’d also once considered his rightful destination. Instead, he was still auditing the occasional seminar, purporting to move forward with a thesis, but he hadn’t written anything in months, the end was nowhere in sight.
“Will they continue to pay?” Antonella asked, her apprehensive voice becoming jarringly conspicuous in the quiet room.
“I don’t know,” Richard said. “I was going to ask you that.”
“I’ll delay as long as I can.”
“And I’ll get something to you as soon as I can.”
For the rest of the meeting, in a welcome but abrupt change of
subject, they discussed their summer plans. Antonella would be returning to Italy for a wedding, an event she was not exactly looking forward to. Richard imagined he’d probably end up at some beer gardens. Otherwise, the summer was vague. He hoped to get a lot of work done. If he could manage to interest himself in any of the material he was supposed to be interested in, that is. None of it compelled him the way it used to, for whatever murky, idling reason.
“I’m rooting for you,” Antonella said, smiling again. “You’ll come out in the end.”
For a moment he imagined that she would reach out and embrace him, but she didn’t move.
“Thank you,” he said, standing up.
“See you soon, Richard.”
He went outside and paused in the sun, waited as the students, changing class, whirled around him in energetic streams.
AS HE TOOK THE train back downtown in a fresh white shirt under a pilling blue sweater, and wearing the tennis shoes he had cleaned using Windex, Richard wondered if the guy he was going to meet would resemble his OkCupid profile pictures. People so often didn’t. The challenge of presenting oneself on-screen, widely considered a prerequisite for a full life in the early twenty-first century, flustered many, including Richard. There was either too much self-promotion of a flavorless, unoriginal kind—the guy in front of the Parthenon or the Eiffel Tower—or a depressing lack of artifice: “obligatory body shot” in the speckled bathroom mirror; the guy smiling beside a buffet, wearing a shapeless suit, his arm around a woman who looked like his wife. One of Richard’s fantasies was telling the love of his
life that he’d signed on to the website on a whim, after yet another disheartening date, and there you were. But like all fantasies, it derived its power from its robustly chimerical nature, its palpable utopianism and unreality.
The train swayed.
Did Richard resemble his pictures? He was good-looking enough, he supposed, just shy of six feet, wavy-at-a-stretch black hair, peaches-and-cream complexion, lips he would have preferred substantially fuller. Physically on the broad but skinny side, he wore eyeglasses that were a cross between aviators and Gustav von Aschenbach. His youthful face and at times stuffy sense of dress were two characteristics that pushed his likely age in opposing directions.
“You’re, like, simultaneously twelve and forty,” an old boyfriend had once told him.
Richard looked up and scanned the jammed subway car as a woman pushed past in search of a seat. A few feet away, there was a harassingly good-looking Latino guy dressed in smooth black athletic clothing, wearing earphones, staring at the floor. A preoccupying thought had him confronting a void of inattention with the most beautiful scowl.
Richard envied people whose faces naturally descended into such hard cohesion, bestowed as he’d been with open, boyish, defenseless features. Enough guys did, thankfully, find him cute, but not necessarily mysterious or hot; he didn’t have that distilled facial architecture that plunged people into fits of despair and longing. The guy with the earphones was probably a model or an actor.
Whenever Richard went out into the city, he usually recognized at least one guy from the websites and apps he was on and could recall details from their profiles, lovelorn or hopeful as they might be.
He had a very good memory and almost instant recall—at least when it came to men. Out at the Boiler Room or some other bar, peering through the dingy amber light at the impatiently aslant bodies in line to buy a drink, he knew that the guy wearing the shredded denim shorts was HORNY KEWL AND MELANCHOLY, and his favorite thing was BEIN NAKED WITH PEOPLE I LUV.
There were so many beautiful boys in the city, and they did so many beautiful things. A hematology resident, for example, whose grandfather bought him Barbie dolls every Christmas, sat across from Richard at Starbucks, one leg flopped over the other, with a bitchy expression and a caramel Frappuccino; a boy with a gold Afro lay sprawled on the steps of Low Library, James Baldwin in hand, ignoring Richard’s attempts at eye contact. My mother says the universe will bring him to me, the boy had written under THE MOST PRIVATE THING I AM WILLING TO ADMIT.
When Richard went on dates with them, they became arguably more than strangers but broadly less than acquaintances. Coffee enthusiasts, secondhand bookstore employees, painters, urban gardeners, grant writers, sous-chefs, asset managers—Richard met them for drinks in Brooklyn, lower Manhattan, and sometimes Queens. They were in the main decent and polite. They ordered a second drink, went to the bathroom, and returned to nurse the inch of water formed by melting ice cubes. Richard did the same. They parted—that night or the next morning—with a hug and a smile and a promise to be in touch.
Who knows, Richard thought, as he entered Café Grumpy and saw Blake standing at the counter—a largish, cheerful-looking white guy, dressed with an inconspicuous competence in jeans and a button-down shirt—maybe this time will be different.
“Hi,” Blake said, with a smile on his face and an open-handed wave. “Richard?”
“Blake?” Richard reached out to shake Blake’s hand. Blake’s other hand was wrapped around an iced Americano. “Nice to meet you.”
Richard was already taken aback, detecting what seemed to be genuine enthusiasm in Blake’s voice. Was Blake actually looking forward to the date? Most guys in New York were fidgetingly impatient to skip preliminaries, to get wherever they wanted to go, whether it be marriage, sex, or somewhere in between. Then again Blake, though an administrative assistant by trade, was an actor by profession, so maybe he was just good at faking it.
“I hope this was a convenient place to meet,” Blake said.
“It’s great,” Richard replied, poised to outline the essential flexibility of his schedule but then deciding to hold back those details for the time being. “I come here whenever I’m in the neighborhood.”
They left the café and went walking on the High Line. There were small, hairy tufts of green at their feet, architectural birdhouses to their left, and condominiums looming in. On one side, the Hudson swept past.
“I was sure I was going to be late,” Richard said. “The subway stopped for like, ten minutes just before Thirty-Fourth Street.”
“The subway is in free fall. Everything is.”
“I’m going to make an outrageous claim,” he said.
“Go ahead. I love outrageous claims.”
“Taxation is a crime. All politicians are criminals.”
“Well, that’s not so outrageous,” Richard said.
“Government is a farce.”
Blake shook his handsome, swarthy head, an earnest smile on his face, as if he could see the idolized anarchist future just beyond Richard’s shoulder. Under a gray cardigan he wore a dark green gingham shirt, his body invitingly soft and hairy.
“No government at all then? This is good,” Richard said. “Usually we surround ourselves with people who just back us up in our own opinions.”
Richard’s political views, when mildly articulated, tended to favor the indebted welfare states of Europe.
“That’s because we’re lazy and tribal,” Blake said, with docile conviction, staring out at the sparkling water. The April mist, which had blanketed the city all morning, was beginning to lift.
The majority of the interests represented on the website where they had exchanged messages at first seemed predictably progressive and benign—riding bikes, drinking whiskey, organic gardening—but the omnipresence of Ayn Rand, that avatar of selfishness, in Blake’s profile and so many others, struck a discordant note.
People actually read this shit? Richard thought.
Initially dismissing it as a fringe movement, he was forced to revise his opinion as her name proliferated, appearing on countless profiles under the headings FAVORITE BOOKS, MUSIC, FOOD ETC. or WHAT I SPEND MY TIME THINKING ABOUT. It was so common, in fact, that it had inspired a small countermovement of aghast leftists. Unfortunately, the principals of this countermovement were not as attractive as those whom they attacked. It was undeniable: the Ayn Rand aficionados were fucking hot.
And probably rich, Richard thought, though with Blake he couldn’t quite tell. Was his apartment some counterintuitive structure in an implausible corner of the borough, the opaque potential of which
Blake had been the first to discern? The kitchen a pinched triangular space with parquet flooring, an array of fatigued appliances on the counter? Did he sleep in a double bed?
“Long trip?” Blake asked, probably wondering the same things about Richard, probing for clues in his clothes, his shoes, and his manner of speaking.
“It’s not that far from here back to Brooklyn,” Richard replied.
“I bet I’m farther out than you.”
“Where exactly are you?”
Blake was reluctant to give his neighborhood a name, as online there was fierce disagreement as to where its borders truly lay.
“It’s a bit of a walk to the subway from my place,” Richard said, also deliberately vague. “But there are some nice brownstones along the way.”
“Do you like the neighborhood?”
Aside from getting on and off the subway together, Richard interacted with the other residents of his neighborhood only when he entered the local bodega to line up for a cheap and substantial made-to-order sandwich. Among the dim begrimed shelves of Doritos bags, marshmallows, and ramen noodles, he tried to strike a pose of belonging but not possession; he smiled when he made eye contact—sometimes the other people in line smiled back at him, and sometimes they didn’t. That was okay. It was like that with the women who ran the laundromat around the corner. They were never nice to him, made him wait forever when he needed change or detergent, just talking among themselves in Spanish, and with his conflicted sense of his own right to live in the neighborhood, he certainly didn’t blame them.
“It’ll be a whole different place in a year or two,” Richard said.
“How do you feel about gentrification?” Blake asked.
“I’m not sure either,” Blake said, smiling bashfully at the ground.
Blake’s hand—its thick, blunt fingers and chewed-down nails—dangled by his side. Richard imagined them walking hand in hand, as in a commercial about marriage equality, vacations, or pharmaceuticals.
“Men used to have sex over there,” Blake said, pointing west toward the formerly dilapidated piers that stretched out into the Hudson. Richard knew that the area had once been something quite different from what it was now, with its yards of peroxided blond hair, hordes of rich tourists, and prominence in guidebooks. What gay man in New York didn’t? He had a hardcover black-and-white coffee table book on the subject. In one chapter, men were photographed fully copulating among the jagged spikes of decaying wood, or strolling blithely in leather jackets, naked from the waist down, through decrepit, spectral industrial spaces.
“Now it’s just tourists,” Blake said. “Late capitalist gourmands.”
Blake seemed to be in the familiar posture of struggling in a stylish dead-end job and floundering creatively, or resolutely indifferent to his inner life and living in a transitional neighborhood for cachet. In any case, he was cute. Richard felt a lurch of attraction every time they brushed against each other.
He cautiously thought back to the advice his best friend, Patrick, had recently given him. You have to be pickier.
They’d been drinking beer at one of the interchangeably squalid bars they went to on weekends, standing beside a retro arcade game, surrounded by young men tapping at their illuminated screens in the soggy collusion of sweat and denim shorts. “No more secondhand
bookstore employees, painters, whatever. I’m all for independence, but this city is a Golgotha,” Patrick warned.
“But I thought New Yorkers were like, notoriously single people?”
“That was before Bloomberg turned everything into a park and criminalized soft drinks.”
Richard was unsettled at the memory of these words: he didn’t himself have a nerve-racking, high-yield job in finance or law, or even a nerve-racking but low-yield job such as working in an art gallery. He was in graduate school, okay, but not for anything in vogue like urban planning or public health.
Blake glanced over and smiled.
“Did you have a busy week?”
Should he pretend to be run off his feet, or radiate a sense of calm availability?
“Not too bad.”
“I had some auditions this week, on top of work,” Blake said. “Apologies if I’m a bit demented. This is my fourth iced coffee of the day.”
“Did the auditions go well?”
“I think so. One of them brought back some funny memories.”
They passed a small outdoor café, fluttering with activity, and Blake related an anecdote from his adolescence, something about a hunky chemistry teacher and a narrowly avoided scandal. As he did so, Richard fished in his memory for an experience of his own that might appeal to Blake. He considered relating his first encounter with Ayn Rand: reading the slim fable Anthem in high school English class one day, while the rest of the students worked through The Catcher in the Rye, but decided against it when he realized that Blake was talking about his relationship with his parents.
They hadn’t helped him realize he was gay; he’d spent his late teens and early twenties in a “sexual darkness.”
“My twenties were sexually dark too,” Richard said.
“But it’s gotten much better,” Blake continued. “I think they were just confused. They’ve come around a lot in the last few years. I’m lucky. Now they’re supportive.”
Blake began talking about dating girls in college. Richard looked over the railing toward the miscellany of buildings that flocked to this part of the island—some billowed, some pierced; it was a playground for famous architects. A group of guys, laboriously tanned and muscled, moved down the street, chatting loudly and gesturing in broad, confident whorls. Richard didn’t have a “group of friends,” only ornery but devoted individuals in a variety of pursuits—teaching English in foreign capitals, learning violin making, studying yoga on a banana plantation—and he envied those who seemed to belong to a unified pod that spread itself five abreast on the sidewalk, sharing gossip. As it was, the majority of his friends were too indebted to afford gym memberships, though some among them managed to wrangle free Bikram yoga classes in exchange for washing the floor after all the sweaty bodies had lifted off.
Blake touched his hand.
“Hey, what’s so interesting over there?”
“Nothing. Sorry. Want to have dinner?” Take me out for dinner, Richard meant. He’d finished the last of the Raisin Bran in the middle of the night, munching tactfully at the dark kitchen counter while his roommate, Leslie, snored on the nearby sofa. The cupboard was empty now. But Richard knew that Blake was unlikely to come through. Going dutch was, not just between two men, but among everybody now, the norm.
“Somewhere around here?”
“Sure,” Richard said. “I’m easy.”
A yolky suggestion of ozone blanketed New Jersey, couples drifted past holding hands, and tourists took pictures of the big concrete hotel.
“What kind of food do you like?”
“I have eclectic tastes,” Richard said, resolved to seem as open-minded as possible, and not wanting to bracket off any potential dinner opportunities with Blake.
“My friend is a sous-chef at a place in my neighborhood,” Blake said. “He said he’d get me pan-roasted fluke at a discount.”
Richard was hopeful again.
“But I don’t know if he could do it for two. I’d pick somewhere cheaper”—Blake smiled compassionately, tilting his head—“but I really need to eat something decent tonight.”
Richard nodded. “I understand.”
They went down a flight of stairs to street level. Richard followed behind Blake, eyes on the black sickle of his hairline, the tag of his cardigan erect against the green collar of his oxford shirt. These dates always failed. It was a predictable script: a few hours of milky diplomacy, siblings and sleep patterns and diet touched on, before parting ways with a hug that was not exactly disingenuous but certainly performed, as if wishing each other courage in the next phase of the battle, which was the continued search for love, later to ignore each other in public if they ever crossed paths again. Then back to his apartment, back to sitting cross-legged on the bed with his laptop and a tub of lime sorbet, trying to view his life in a positive light.
“Actually, I think I know a place,” Richard said.
They stood on the corner, facing each other, about to part.
“What kind of place?” Blake asked, perking up skeptically.
“It’s not pan-roasted fluke, but it’s good.”
Blake thought for a second, then said: “Okay.”
Buoyed by this successful maneuver and the temporary rescue of the date, Richard led Blake south down a sidewalk thronged with dog-walking couples. No one knows that we just met, Richard thought. We could be in a long-term relationship. Any one of these people might think that Blake had chosen me from among the countless eligible young men of New York City.
Richard wanted to belong to that group of young men who were chosen.
When they arrived at the restaurant, Blake peered through the window as if into a condemned building. “What’s an egg cream again?” he asked, climbing into the booth.
Did this mean Blake was a recent arrival to New York, lacking that period knowledge? He’d been evasive when Richard asked him how long he’d lived in the city. People could be so touchy about that question.
“It’s milk and syrup added to carbonated water,” Richard said.
“What are you getting?”
“The garden salad or the Caesar salad,” Richard said, scanning for something cheap. “Probably the garden salad. You get whatever you want.”
“You’re going to make me fat and happy.”
When the waiter came over, Blake ordered the shrimp Scampi. It was three times the price of the salad. Richard was someone who never ordered a dish more expensive than the host’s, even when exhorted to do so. At the same time there was something agreeably carnal about Blake’s shameless appetite.
“Eating is a very cerebral and academic experience for me,” Blake
said after the waiter left. “I love to think about food connected to history, psychology, sex, and gender . . .”
“So, when you eat a hot dog . . .” Richard said.
“Hot dogs? Hell no,” Blake said. “Do you know what’s in them?”
“Okay, fine,” Richard said. “Veggie, wheat burger, whatever. You’re besieged by the linguistic, historical, religious, etcetera of the burger.”
“Okay, you have been listening,” Blake considered, with a smile.
“What about just, you know, a taste sensation?”
They bantered in this vein for a while, until the food arrived. Blake glared at his dish—a morass of oily threads under a squall of Parmesan cheese.
“I’m blaming you if I get sick,” he said.
“I’ll nurse you.”
Richard’s salad went quickly, and for several minutes he tried not to watch Blake consume the shrimp.
“Are you watching me eat?”
“Sorry,” Richard said, taking a sip of water, which he’d been nervously doing ever since they arrived. Now he needed the bathroom. He excused himself, and as he made his way across the diner, peopled by a mix of old ladies, dissipated rent-controlled locals, and nostalgia-oriented transplants like himself, he wondered if Blake was husband material. His LAST ONLINE always indicated a reasonable time of day, unlike the majority of profiles, which, especially on those weekends Richard came home in the middle of the night, were usually active at some desolate hour: 2:46 a.m., 3:57 a.m., 4:21 a.m. Richard imagined the owners of the profiles in their bedrooms, lonely insomniacs, their frustrated return home from yet another disappointing night
out; waiting alone with a collapsing buzz on the grimy subway ledge for the train that wouldn’t come; the pitiless white light in the cars that decelerated frequently between stations; the walk home at the end of the journey through dark and empty streets.
He imagined Blake pulling an elegant maneuver and paying for the meal—standing there beside the booth when he returned, as though to assist Richard with his coat, not meeting Richard’s eyes because he wouldn’t want to draw attention to the payment, with a glimmer of demure masculine capability in his expression.
But the bill was still there when Richard got back, and Blake was staring out the window at two muscular men in tight V-neck T-shirts—tempting the still fickle spring weather—who were walking arm in arm. For such a supposedly solitary city, where everyone either was a lonely neurotic who lived with a dog, or blew most of their paycheck on therapy, analysis, or rent, New York could at times feel as if it was the exclusive domain of couples. And children. Every day there were more children.
Richard took out his wallet, trying to mask his disappointment with chivalry.
“Only a five-dollar tip? I thought the waiter was a nice old guy.”
“I just think tipping is getting a little out of hand though, you know?” Richard was flustered by Blake’s insinuation of cheapness. “It seems like every six months it goes up by, like, five percent.”
“Shitty job though.”
They left the diner and soon reached a basketball court surrounded by a fence. Sweaty men moved back and forth over the artificial ground. Richard was unsettled by what had just happened. So was Blake just rigorously egalitarian in his dating practices? As the sky began its parabolic exit, he imagined their future together as a
scrupulously calibrated transaction of equals, a continual updating and canceling of accounts, until the ledger effaced itself.
These moments, as the next stage of the date was decided, were always filled with pressurized speculation. Richard glanced at Blake out of the corner of his eye. He at least wanted the entanglement of their arms, the cozy liaison of an easy silence, to walk along the Hudson with him, serene in the high-strung city. He didn’t want to go back to his apartment alone.
“It’s such a nice night,” he said, looking up at the pink clouds and risking an optimistic note.
“I hope your nice night continues,” Blake said.
“Are you leaving?”
Blake nodded, and Richard’s heart—whatever it was that could sink—sank.
“Well, we should do this again sometime.”
“I have your number,” Blake said.
“You should use it.”
Blake leaned in and kissed him on the cheek.
Richard watched as Blake hurried down the street and disappeared around a corner. For a moment, he stared at the empty intersection. A truck careened through.
So that was it? Another extended hand left hanging in midair, but no overcoming of particularities, no conquering of idiosyncrasies, no alliance made? He turned and started walking toward the subway.
On the ride home, in the intimate scrimmage of the shaking car, his sense of loneliness was alternately charged and deflated, belittled and aggrandized, by the presence of so many other people. A homeless man snored at the other end of the car, a nebula of smell keeping
others away. A child ate a chocolate bar with a hypnotic expression, his mother’s eyes red from crying. Richard felt a shivering sense of defeat at what he was going back to: the dark apartment, the ziggurat of plates in the sink, his faraway roommate, Leslie, on the couch, the empty bed. It seemed foolish and unjust to be moving in that direction, when Blake was maneuvering through the streets behind him, drawn somewhere else, free again, set loose in the potential and marvel of the city.