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First Date After the Breakup

A terrible first date. A catastrophe.

Christina Torney. Two weeks ago, at 2AM at a horrid New Media party in the East Village, she handed me a business card with "you are very cute" scribbled on the back.

I called her yesterday. She remembered me, and we decided to meet tonight, Friday, in the East Village for a drink, at a bar called O:O:?:O. I don't know how to pronounce it. I think it's supposed to be "oh, oh, ooh, oh," but she told me it was "zero, colon, zero, colon, question, colon, zero." I was terrified to lose the address, in case I'd have to call information.

My apartment was a mess, so I cleaned before leaving for work this morning. I made up the bed with my vintage orange-striped sheets and arranged the pillows. I hid the science fiction behind the more literary volumes. I stacked my most current CD's--Squidpusher, The Gleaming Eggs, Three Time Headhuntweeds, and Bish--by the player, and stuffed my videotapes of MGM musicals, along with my porn tapes, in the bottom of the closet. The bathroom I scrubbed to gleaming, until it shone like a shark's tooth.

I wore my best New Media shirt and pants to work, with big black shoes and black plastic framed glasses. I slicked my hair a little, until I looked like an extra on a compact car commercial, Mazda, Hyundai, or Volkswagen.

Work was full of meetings and little else, so I left early and took myself to dinner, then arrived first to O:O:?:O. It was off 2nd Avenue. I sat at the bar and sipped a shot of Ketel One Vodka, which helped me feel less like my worries and more like my aspirations. A DJ spun records in a corner, and squishy lights were projected on the wall. The bartender was friendly and talked about sports, to which I nodded and said, "hell, yes."

Christine arrived twenty minutes late, wearing a short dress and carrying a small black bag. Her hair was up with barrettes. She smiled at me, shook my hand firmly, then looked me over with utter disappointment, her mouth twitching into a half-smile. We found a table, and she offered to buy a round. I waited, perplexed, while she spoke to the bartender for several minutes. The bartender seemed upset. When she came back, holding another vodka for me and a rum and coke for herself, I asked her what was wrong with him.

"We just broke up three days ago," she said.

Before I could respond she was talking about work. I asked her about her company, one of the big rollups. She hates working there, she said. On her business card, she is a VP of Digital Marketing. She told me all about it, describing bitter conversations, stock option battles, Machiavellian chess moves of incredible complexity played out via CC:'ed email. Because the DJ spun drum and bass too loudly, and we sat under a speaker, and because she was not tall, so I had to lean over and bend down to hear her, I heard only every third word, and then poorly:

"Kent...president...media budget...bastard...fucking me...bathroom...window space...bitch," she would say. "IPO with the...hundred thousand dollar kittens...London office...green." I kept nodding, mumbling out items like, "it's that way everywhere," and "you just need to work through the bullshit," commiserating helplessly. She had nice breasts and a good mouth. She was older, maybe 28.

Her shoulders seemed fine. She had three small moles on her face, one on her chin, one between her nose and lip, one on her right cheek. Her tongue was perfectly pink, her ears were small, and her lips, moving swiftly, were covered in dark red lipstick. Looking down at her, she had a nice curve to her frame, a slight arc from chest to hips, and a little breadth to her bottom. From what I saw, her legs were long compared to the rest of her--she was 5'3"--and they looked fine in black stockings. However, her voice was rough and nasal, which is a constant disappointment in my life, and she laughed like a fox being struck with a dog's squeaky toy. I have a nice, flexible voice, my only other good feature beside my shoulders and eyes, and I've always wanted to know a woman who could match it, but it never works that way. Good voices are rare. The music went quiet, and she asked, meeting my eyes with her own brown irises, "Do you do coke?"

"No," I said, blinking. It was the first thing she said I understood, but I didn't have a reply.

She frowned and excused herself, vanishing into the bathroom. She came out a minute later, and began speaking even more quickly.

They were switching DJ's, and the place was now only voices. Her voice was definitely nasal, even when she wasn't shouting, although I don't know if coke stuffs you up. "I was really drunk at that party," she said. "I thought you were cuter." She plowed on. "I don't believe in not being honest. You seem really nice, but you know there's no sex after this, correct? You're not interesting to me that way."

"That's okay," I told her, dazed. She was silent for a moment, and I thought of a few things to say, then said, "Let me get another round."

I went back to the bar, and her ex-beau the barkeep eyed me viciously, ignoring me for two or three minutes before taking my order. I wanted to leave him a large, apologetic tip, but I figured it would be an insult. Then I realized I couldn't leave him less than a regular amount, or it would also be an insult, but I had no idea what you were actually supposed to tip a bartender. 20%? 15%? 25%? I always made it up depending on how much change I got back. The drinks were $6 each and I put $20 on the table. He didn't come back with change, and began to serve other people. I waited a little longer, and he purposefully didn't look back to me. Apparently 70% is the right amount.

I went back to the table, where a tall, muscular Latin American man in a mesh shirt was hovering. Christine introduced me to him--his name was Juan--and he smiled at me, winked at her, grabbed her shoulder for a long moment, and excused himself. "I didn't mean to hurt your feelings," she said, "with my comment." Then, to explain, she told me, "life is short." She drained the rum and coke in two long drinks. "Ted's a good-looking guy, you think?" I looked over to the bartender, and he was looking back. He had a big lunky face and a good body, and he was dressed in a tight shirt. She was yelling in my ear. "I met him when I was with someone else, literally, like I was on top of this guy at a completely fucked party and Ted came over, and while I was on top of this guy I began to kiss Ted, I just grabbed him, and then I got off the other guy, who was royally pissed off."

I said something. I think it was, "how long were you together?"

"With Ted or the other?" She didn't wait, just continued. "A month. Before last year I was mostly with women."

She expected a response, but I just let my mouth open a little, shellshocked. She frowned. "It's noisy. Do you want to get out of here?" I nodded, and this made her smile for the first time in the evening, with broad, good teeth. "Let's leave in a minute, and then I need to go uptown to meet some other friends. Excuse me."

She vanished to the bathroom again, and I saw the plan--she wanted Ted the lovelorn bartender to see me leaving with her--even better that I wasn't cute, then--and then she could ditch me for some backup scenario. Perhaps I could even pay for her cab, if I was lucky.

I took a second to weigh the consequences, but there were none, so I grabbed my bag and left, keeping an eye on the bathroom door. As I reached the crowded front of the bar it opened, light slicing out, and I saw the bartender shoot me a final confused sneer. I pushed past the mob to the door and stepped out past the unmonitored velvet rope, into the dank summer air. I was amongst barely lit nightclubs, sushi places, bodegas, and a five-foot-wide fortune-teller's parlor, "Palms Read" in neon. Cabs tootled past. I thought I'd grab one to get out faster, but thrift intervened, and I walked left to Second and turned south quickly, hoping I wouldn't be caught.

At least she would have to leave by herself, under Ted's sour eye. He would catch her as she looked impatiently around the bar for me; maybe she would sit down, expecting me to emerge from the bathroom. He would probably hold back a few minutes, then tell her, "your friend left." I felt a bland pleasure that it would piss her off, but my feelings were pretty badly hurt.

Maybe she'll call me at work on Monday to scream at me, and I could tell her off, although it's more likely she'll forget about it.

I walked down to 2nd avenue, then over to 1st for the evening F entrance. There's a place where they sell old monuments on that block, the monuments open to the air behind a wrought-iron grating. I've walked past it dozens of times. I saw a large granite eagle, a few odd pillars, and a cherub. Men slept next to the curb, holding bags of belongings to their chests. I tried to convince myself that I was actually not injured, that she was an awful person and I was lucky to be going home alone.

When I pulled out my wallet to get my Metrocard, I saw her business card with the message on the back. I crumpled it, and wanted to throw it away, but the closest trash can was under investigation by a homeless man, so I stuffed it in my pocket.

I didn't have anything to read on the F, which took a long time to come and was crowded--it was only 10:30--so I read the same Barnes-and-Noble-sponsored poem over and over off the placard, until I hated it. It was by Sharon Olds. I've read it 500 times by now, in the past 6 months. I started out liking it, but now I loathe it. Fundamentally, it's about a couple of staid, married English professors who are certain that their sex life is more excitedly savage than anyone else's.

Of course, their sex life is, compared. I got off at Smith & 9th and wandered down the station stairs, the buzz from the four or five Vodka shots beginning to fade. The windows in my neighborhood were mostly lit, and there were people on the stoops, talking in Spanish.

The fluorescent light has been broken in my building's tiny foyer for months, so I fumbled with my keys, still a little hands-drunk, and found my way up the narrow stairs. My neighbor's mountain bike was parked across the hallway, and I wound around it. I opened my door, turned the dimmer switch, and stepped into my tiny apartment, to find my room scrubbed, cunningly arranged, and set for seduction.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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