Becoming Hers Ch. 01-1

It was the last night before Thanksgiving break, but the festivities had already begun. I felt good about how the first semester of my senior year was shaping up. I even felt prepared for finals (unheard of in previous semesters). And so, as a reward for all the hours spent toiling away in an obscure corner of the library, I was allowing myself a night that would rival even those reckless Saturday nights and splotchy Sunday mornings of my freshmen year.

8 of us had begun bar-hopping on east 14th street at 7:30 pm.

6 were left by 5th st and 10:00 pm (Paulina had joined the group after an especially awful first date and wanted to wash the taste of it out with tequila. We had to coordinate her Uber back to her apartment and a friend to meet her when she got there to drag her to bed. Nico said he had to be in bed early for a 7 am flight back to Austin, but he didn’t like going out much anyway.)

3 people were left by Houston st. and midnight (Sam had imbibed in the bad-date tequila and had sought to recapture the rush that liquor gives you at the next two places. A fight ensued and we said goodnight to him as he stumbled up the steps to his place. Ingrid and Sofia hadn’t been very involved in the festivities, which we found out as they made it known that they were involved with each other as they left the fourth bar hand in hand.)

And then it was 1:30 am and the survivors stood deep in the Lower East Side. The night had begun to slow down, which it always did around Elliot and Juan. When they drank they liked to talk, arguing over anything for the sake of it, laughing at the dumbest shit in the interest of having a good time. Both things I usually enjoyed endlessly, but not tonight. I didn’t want to end up at Elliot’s place with a bong between the three of us talking about Quentin Tarantino’s foot fetish or confusing each other with words like “nihilism” or “Neo-liberalism”. I wanted the night to be something different, something that would last in some way. So I said goodbye to them on a corner far from where any of us lived, wondering where I would go.

“Anywhere” was the answer that my slightly boozy brain came back with, and I pushed off the curb heading in that direction.

I could spend the night wandering through the Lower East Side and Soho. Maybe end up in Chinatown with a bowl of roast duck noodles to soak up some of the beer. But then I’d have to take the late train home, 45 minutes, maybe even an hour if you factor in waiting on the platform. Or I could walk home, across the bridge — eh— but also past a thousand other bars and end up closer to home, maybe with someone to bring back to my apartment.

The thought appealed to me, and the crisp smell of November was in the air so I didn’t mind the long walk home. The Lower East Side was humming and I bopped along the sidewalk, weaving in and out of douchebags, do-gooders, drug dealers, detectives, defectives, dark doorways, drunks, dishwashers, and drag queens. Some huddled together smoking cigarettes, others all alone with hands sunken deep into their pockets.

I got lost in the flow of the city until I turned a corner and in a sudden was left alone on a street, a rare occurrence, especially on a Saturday night. The silence hits you like a sound wave, leaving an echo. Of course, you can hear the city just around the corner, but there is nothing immediate. I stood frozen, waiting for a box truck to roll through this quiet little moment I had all to myself, rumbling and rattling and honking and screeching.

But all I heard was a pulse.

A pulse that carried me, like a lullaby, away from the plans I had just thought up. It was music, far off and away. I walked on and it began to build. The rhythm seemed to match the pace with which I had been making my way through the evening. It sounded like where I wanted to be.

I found myself confronted with a narrow stairwell leading down to a heavy wooden door with a small window that had been fogged by cigarette smoke and time. A flickering light, similarly clouded, caused the door to alternate between a dark brown and black.

A siren passed behind me, the blare drawing me out of the abyss. I swayed on my ankles as I watched it pass and turn the corner. I looked back to the door and then down the street which I had come (which was no longer a silent lane but had turned back to just another street). The refreshing fall air of a November evening had turned into the bite of early morning, nipping at my nose and ears.

Sensing warmth, I walked down the steps.

It was a small place, just like any other. The lights were as low as the bartender’s eyelids. Drunks had clumped together with those they came in with or those they would leave with. I sat at the far end of the bar and ordered whatever was on tap closest to me. My eyes wandered around, eyeing the usual crowd in any bar at 2 am; the clank of glasses and the clack of pool balls, lingering love-stares and broken hearts being drowned in something brown and bitter.

I’ve always loved playing pool, so I turned my attention towards the far end of the bar to see what the competition looked like this evening. A wiry, wobbly man dipped and swooned for the perfect shot. He looked as if at any moment he could, would, and should collapse. A few dollars sat at the corner of the table. I looked to the other end of the bar to see who was playing him and how big their smile was.

On a stool there was a woman. Though she was sitting perfectly upright, she was nothing but swoops and curves, her angles and dips drawing your eyes down and then back up. Her thick black hair ended just at the top of her cleavage. Once my lingering stare made its way back up over her collarbones they caught her eyes. She beckoned me over with a finger.

Did she mean me? I swiveled my head in a drunken roundabout only to find nothing and no-one.

She must be pointing at me. I went red. Does she think I’m a fuckin’ waiter?

Her stare was unwavering. She put her finger down and pouted a lip out. She looked like someone who got what she wanted. I could practically feel the steam started to pour from my ears. I finished the last of a beer to cool off and, with the lift it provided me, headed right for her.

“What’d’yaneed?” I said, caught off guard by how much I was slurring.

She just smiled, a bit less than before, and looked me over. Her eyes ran down my neck and across my chest, ending at my thighs, and then right back to my eyes.

“I don’t need anything. But I’d like you to stand here.” The smell of her perfume mingled well with the sweet sting of liquor on her breath.

The words threw me off balance (not that that was much of a feat at this point in the evening). My anger turned to curiosity.

“Ok?” I didn’t mean it as a question.

There was a grumble behind me.

“Just a moment.” She cooed as she slid off her stool, placing a hand gently on my chest as she passed by me. She plied the cue from the stumbling player.

She took her time wandering around the table looking for her shot and I was thankful for this. On the stool she had been in the shadows, her body concealed by crossed arms and dim lighting. Now, she stood in the glow of the overhead light. Her hips and thighs were hardly held in by the black dress that ran halfway down her thighs. She seemed nearly bursting out of her clothing at every opening, her toned calves shoved into black boots were no exception.

She found the angle she was looking for right in front of me. She bent over to line up the shot, her hips widening and the line of her dress lifting ever so slightly. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught two strangers taking in the same scene, one of them biting his lip.

She took her shot and sank it, doing the same to the next three in a row. On her fourth shot (the last before the eight ball), as she bent down to line up, she lifted her eyes towards me, her face framed just above her cleavage and just below her flowing black hair. Her eyes were staggering, discs of brown that seemed to smolder and glow beneath her hair. I noticed her nose was just slightly crooked (which I’ve always been partial to).

Without breaking eye contact, she shot, missing by a wide margin. She handed the cue back to her opponent with the beginnings of a smile on her face. By the time she made it over to me the smile had broadened. She was standing just inches from me.

“That was impressive. But why miss the last shot?”

She wordlessly and gently grabbed my wrists, raising my hands to her waist. While in my grasp, she spun herself slowly around so she was facing away from me.

“Because I missed you.”

She leaned back into me. I became worried about happenings below my belt, but that didn’t stop me from tightening my grip and beginning to explore a few inches downwards. She moaned so softly I couldn’t hear it but could feel the vibration of her neck.

The sudden cracking of a pool ball broke me from the momentary spell I had found myself in. The wobbly pool player stood up crookedly and scowled at me. He looked like the kind of guy you didn’t want to get involved with, even if he was dancing the thin line between blind drunk and dead drunk. I began to release my grasp on her.

“Don’t mind him.” She said it so softly that any worries vanished.

“He…wouldn’t mind?” I said in a hushed tone.

“I just met him, actually.”

Her hands found my wrists again and she pulled them over her stomach. She began swaying gently in my grasp as her hands ran up my forearms, giving pulsing grips now and then as if she was- sizing me up?

“He’s not who I’ll be leaving with.” She broke my grasp and turned to me. Her eyes were searching as if she was trying to capture my expression.

“Oh?” was all I could muster. Her words had me feeling cheap but excited.

“He’s been buying rounds of double tequilas for us all us and drinking both of them, which has severely impacted his pool game and his wallet.” Her eyes pointed down to a nice wad of cash sticking out of her pocket.

“I know I can hardl-“

“-Not bad to look at either. But like I said, I don’t know him and don’t care to.”

“Then what were you doing with him all night, then?” I said, now in a lame attempt to be playful.

Her smile vanished.

“Waiting for someone like you.”

She extended a knee in between my legs with enough force to make me catch my breath but not enough to hurt. My hands shot up reflexively to grab her but she caught my wrists. I stepped back and slammed onto the wall of the bar and a few people turned their heads to look. I was shocked at how strong she was (not that I cared to resist her).

“Look at me in the eyes.” She said softly, although with a new edge.

I could feel more and more eyes on us, but all of them combined paled in comparison to her piercing stare. I could only hold her gaze for about 10 seconds (it felt like 100). I broke off and looked down, catching a glimpse of black lace between her thighs.

“Naughty, naughty,” she cooed, smiling as she let me go.

“What was that?” I asked through an exhale, trying my best to appear normal in front of the remaining eyes.

“A test.” She said, her eyes looking towards the door.

* * *

We pushed past the old man in the faded Yankees hat who’d tell anyone who’d listen about a particularly severe Albanian landlord in Flushing, the girlfriend physically supporting her boyfriend who had all but become a part of the chair he had slumped into, the group of girls talking shit about a group of guys who sat a few seats down looking defeated, two handsome men who had looked like they had each succeeded, and the guy sitting next to the door who didn’t work their, but made it his job to nod at everyone coming in or out.

And then we were out of the bar and back in November again, but night had been swept away. If the night in New York is a pulse, then the morning is a vibration. There aren’t any roosters I know of in Manhattan, but there’re plenty of things to wake you up. The fishmonger’s trucks slam on metal sheets that lie over the exposed patches of the road (left in such a state by municipal employees who just paused for a breakfast break 10 minutes ago). Bakeries deliver their bread by the box-load, newspaper boys deliver their rags by the stack. People leaving their jobs honk just as much as those heading into work.

The darkest hours that stand just before dawn were rolling away and that thin blue fog of approaching daybreak was thick in the air. I saw her anew in this light. She looked like one of the glowing girls in a Renoir painting. I noticed for the first time that she was older than me (by 10 years? 15?), a fact that gave me momentary pause for reasons I am unsure of. Maybe I felt like I wouldn’t know what to say now that I knew this, like an age difference transformed who I had become swept up in at the bar.

“Where to?”

“That’s something you’re supposed to tell me.”

“Well, I was heading home…”

She responded with a look that might’ve been saying “home sounds fine,” which made the next words all the harder to bear.

“…But I have roommates.” The words hung in my mouth like a bad drag of a cigarette.

She scoffed through a smile, “You know, I’m not that easy.”

“Of course,” I said quietly (though I screamed the words in my head).

She gave me another moment to save myself, but it passed as all moments do. She turned away from me and my blood ran cold.

“Wait! can I have your number…or something?” Good one. Original.

She seemed to roll the idea around in her mouth with her tongue.

“Tell me yours, I have quite the memory.” 

”Uh- 917-” I hesitated, waiting for her to pull out her phone or a piece of paper.

“917…?”

“917-202-22XX” The number left my mouth and she left my side.

“I’m Clarissa,” she said over her shoulder as she walked away.

And so she was gone, without so much as asking my name. Although, in truth, I would be whoever she wanted me to be.

* * * *

The next morning I woke up with burning questions that were to go unanswered until I dealt with my raging hangover. I nearly fell out of bed and stumbled to Neil’s coffee shop. After the first several cups of coffee and half a buttered bagel (all I could even think to stomach), I began to confront the questions.

Why would she call? What is so special about me? Why’d she chosen me in the first place? She’s not going to call, she didn’t even write down my phone number.

I left a decent tip on the table. On the walk back to my apartment, amidst the swerving cabs, the barking dogs, and an icy wind that shot down the avenues, I decided I had to forget about it; If she calls she calls (but she would not call). Besides, I was about to go home with my family and be preoccupied with turkey and football and an endless stream of questions about my future.

Two mornings later the buzzing of my phone woke me up. I didn’t recognize the number. I turned off the ringer, unable to answer even if it was her (I was fortunate enough to have secured the bottom bunk in my old room at my parent’s house).

I typed “Sorry, can’t talk right now, who’s this?” And closed my eyes as soon as I hit send, hoping to get a few more precious minutes of sleep before my extended family came over. 

”Don’t like to text. Call When you can. Clarissa .” And below was a link that I clicked on and led me to a dinner reservation for four days from then.

I knew I could call her, but that could only be in a few hours, and she didn’t strike me as the kind I could leave waiting.

After lunch, as everyone began to settle into their food-comas, my dad asked me to bring up some firewood. I walked around the house, and, seizing this opportunity, dialed the number that she had texted me from.

“Hey I, uh, just saw your text.”

“I don’t think you did.”

“Excuse me?”

“You probably saw it just a few minutes after I sent it, and now just found the time to call. Which is fine, but don’t lie to me.” She sounded calm, even playful.

“Ok, I won’t. Sorry I didn’t thi-“

“Don’t apologize. It’s natural.”

“Ok.” I waited for her to speak again but was met with radio silence; one of those awkward moments in any phone conversation with someone you’ve only spoken in person to.

“So listen,” my voice was just a pitch too high, “I saw your email- which was really nice of you by the way- but-“

“Will you be able to make it?”

“Well, that’s the thing. I really would like to but I told my family I’d be here through the weekend-“

“-Send me your information and I’ll book you a new one.”

“What?”

“Did you not hear what I said?”

“No, I did it’s just-“

“-I don’t care to repeat myself. Should I book it or shouldn’t I?”

I could hardly bring myself to speak. Although I was slightly annoyed she kept interrupting me, not giving me a moment to think or even explain myself, I was also feeling an unanticipated rush of excitement from hearing her voice again. “Sure.”

“I’ll see you soon.”

I hung up the phone feeling like my body was vibrating. Does she want to pay for my flight to New York? Can I even let her do that? *Should* I even let her do that.

I replayed the conversation over and over again in my head, trying to make sense of it. She sounded assertive, even more so than in the bar. I couldn’t decide if I was comfortable with it. Then the thought occurred to me that maybe the feelings I had when I spoke with her; the rush, the breathlessness and the wanting, were because I wasn’t comfortable.

That evening I found myself sending her a photocopy of my passport. I watched the email sit in my outbox and wondered what the fuck I was doing. Giving a stranger a copy of my identity. Agreeing to let her pay hundreds of dollars to meet her…Where? And for how long? And for what purpose?

If only I knew then what else would be hers soon, a photocopy of a passport would seem so trivial in the big picture.

Sure enough, within the hour I had a ticket waiting in my inbox.

For the next few days I was almost absent from my family, too caught up in Clarissa and the questions she seemed to endlessly plant in me. Why me? What did I do that was so special in that bar? Was this some kind of joke? I wondered if I’d get an answer at the dinner. I wondered if I’d ever get an answer.

* * * *

It wasn’t until I was on my flight and in the air that the thought occurred to me: If I land at 7:30, how will I make it to a dinner reservation downtown at 8? I chewed on that thought as I weaved my way off the jetway and though the terminal. I opened Uber on my phone, ready to press order on a ride I could hardly afford when I spotted a man in a suit holding a sign with my last name on it.

I reflected on the last week or so on the short ride to Manhattan. Nothing felt like it was happening on normal terms. Everything felt so outside of my control and outside of what I knew and was comfortable with.

I decided I needed to prepare myself. After all, both of my interactions with Clarissa so far had left me knocked off my feet and speechless. The car began to slow down as we approached the tollbooth for the tunnel.

“Sir I uh…” the driver began, “…the lady told me to give you this when we got here.” He held a box up over his white shoulder. It was wrapped in metallic grey and had black ribbon wrapped around it.

Each new development still came as surprise, however, the idea that nearly everything was to be a surprise was…not surprising.

“Oh, thanks,” I said as I took the package from him.

I must have sounded caught off guard because the driver chuckled awkwardly, “yeah heh-heh strange, I know, but I figured it’s like a birthday present. Is it?”

“No, it’s for…well, to be honest, I’m not sure what it’s for.”

As the driver paid the toll and began a nightmarish merging of 6 lanes into 2, I picked at the bow and tugged on the ends. The ribbon was wide and thick and wrapped very tightly around the box. The bow itself was knotted intricately and any attempt to pull it loose failed.

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