What Do You Know About One-Night Stands?
by Joanna Acevedo
You will be twenty or twenty-one or twenty-two, no younger than nineteen, no older than twenty-four. After twenty-four, you would know better. At eighteen you were too afraid, too afraid even to go into the bar, to talk to the man. He will be thirty-one or thirty-two. When they are older than that, they know better, or else the twenty-one year olds don’t talk to them anymore.
He will say that you look twenty-one. If you are younger than that, it will be flattering. If you are older, you will laugh and thank God for the small miracle of your face, which is not special, but always manages to attract them. He will be caught in the tilt of your smile, the way the light reflects in your eyes. He will make fun of you for being young. He will pretend that he knows more about the world and maybe he does, but you are young and you don’t believe him. In your world, you are impervious to all but the harm you do to yourself.
The only pain you know is self-inflicted — the bad ex-boyfriends, the bronchitis you get every Christmas from too many cigarettes. There is a pleasing logic.
It’s called mania. It heightens and brightens, and this is the only way to make the shrieking thoughts stop.
You will tell him that. “There is nothing you can do that I haven’t already done to myself.”
This will make him smile. He will be wearing a boring shirt. He will be so absolutely interchangeable from all the men you see on the subway every morning, you will have to double-check his ID to make sure, absolutely sure, that you have not slept with him before. Even after he has kissed you, outside of the bar or party, thumbs pressing into the hollow of your collarbone, beard tickling at your chin, you will not be sure. It will feel too much like a dream, a hazardous landscape of what-ifs and what-nows, and you will have to continue to press forward to confirm reality.
The night will be a blur of drinks, ostentatiously tipping the bartender, going out for a smoke. You will have a lighter but you will ask him for one anyway. Your thumbs will touch. He will smoke Marlboros, Reds. You will make a joke about how they are Cowboy cigarettes. You will smoke Parliaments, Lights, in the blue pack, because that is what your friends smoke. You did not smoke until you came to the city, and it frightens you the ease with which you picked it up. You will not stop frightening yourself until you are old and your fragile character has all but solidified.
Out in the cold, you will say something disparaging about Newports so he knows that you are legitimate. You feel a strange urge to legitimize yourself. He will indulge this. He will indulge you, and all of the childish things you say while you try and prove to him that you are not a child.
He will have a beard and a real job, like marketing or investment banking or real estate. You will be a student or barista or struggling artist. He will ask you to talk about your work and you will feel uncomfortable, unable to bear the most intimate parts of yourself in front of this intimate stranger.
“What do you want to do?” he will ask.
You know the answer. But it sounds stupid in your mouth. So you will say, “I want to do nothing,” cultivating your air of mystique and nihilism, which he will immediately see as bullshit. He does not want to know you. How do these things happen? You will ask yourself, when you are already in his bed. The girl before you has asked the same thing. The girl after you will ask, too.
There is a certain type of man who will pick up a twenty-one year old girl in a bar. Most men are this type of man. These are the men with the knowing smiles, the men who put their hands on your knee, who will buy you drink after drink when you cannot buy your own. You will impress them with how much you can drink. They will remind you, again, that they get hungover, while you do not.
“Just you wait,” they say. But they do not want to wait. If you were their age, they would have already moved on to someone younger.
Some of these men do it for the novelty. For bragging rights. This is especially useful to you if you are underage. Remind them, as you drink your drink — purchased with a fake ID perhaps, or maybe you are just lucky — that you are nineteen, twenty. “Do you do this a lot?” You will ask. “Pick up nineteen-year-olds in bars?”
They say no. They will always say no. The truth is that in a big city like yours, there are really only so many girls as crazy as you. You are living in an altered state, fueled by caffeine and nicotine, pure adrenaline, youth. You are not yourself. You are not operating the controls of your body, you are allowing him to run his hand up the length of your thigh, you are laughing at his jokes and you will never laugh so hard again.
This is the only way to do it. To pretend that your face is not your face, to pretend that your limbs are filled with luminous fluid, floating up around you. This is the courage that you will have when you are young. Later, when you are older, you will look at the young and wonder how they could possibly treat their bodies so lightly, as if they were disposable.
But a body is simply that, an object. You want these men to bruise you, to surprise you. You try in vain to escape the inevitable: the miscommunications, the mistakes, the terrible things that people do to one another in the dark.
Tell these men about your various failures, your fears. It is remarkable what you can confess to a stranger, passing a bad cigarette back and forth, inhaling menthol fumes. You can say anything and they will still slam your head against the wall, in the bar bathroom, and smile like wolves when you ask if they have a condom. You will be trying to protect yourself. There is no protecting yourself.
You will be drinking a beer or a gin and tonic. These are the only drinks you are confident enough to ask for. You are desperately afraid of looking stupid in front of the bartender, asking for a drink that doesn’t exist, or stuttering as you speak. You will watch other people order, and frequently you give up, nod, and say, “I’ll take the same.”
The bartender will be kind, understanding that these things happen. They have watched too many stupid girls sit just where you are. They will pour heavy on the tonic, light on the gin, lime wedge, ice in the glass. They will ask you if you have a way home.
If he buys you shots, you will swallow them. Whiskey snaps alligator-jawed down your throat. When you smoke cigarettes, you no longer feel an effect. It is simply something to do with your hands. You will be drunk, but you will pretend that you are not. You have gotten very good at this. You are small and a girl, besides, but you can drink grown men under the table. This is a point of pride for you. You will talk about it too much.
You will talk too much. You allow yourself to get into these situations, don’t you? You will have a strange appreciation for the mornings after, for the moments when you can say anything and they will listen. They do not have to understand. This is better than therapy. There are 15 or 20 men in the world who know all of your secrets. The cheating on exams, the shoplifting, the heartbreaks. Small offenses, yes, but you hold them close to you all the same. You do not want to know anything about the men, but you trace the places where their ribs press against their skin, as close as you could ever be to another human being. They never seem to mind.
Their apartments are small and tidy and slightly heartbreaking. They have clean sheets and this surprises you. You do not have clean sheets in your apartment. You have not done the dishes in you don’t know how long. Your days seem to get longer and longer, daylight vanishing.
You, in a bar at two or three a.m., smoking your cigarette. You will know what comes next, but you will hope, anyway, that you will not have to do it. Sometimes you meet nice guys and they surprise you with their steady hands and shy smiles and you will turn away from them, turn back to this. To clean sheets and a white-washed bathroom in an apartment and hands you do not want, touching your body. Consider the alternative. To be still, to settle down, would be Death.
In the morning you press your hand flat against his chest. He groans and rolls over. They always sleep deeply, and it always surprises you. You cannot sleep in any bed but your own. You have sacrificed your sleep, and for what? You are fumbling in the dark.
His Ikea furniture. His books, if he has any. The cigarettes on the desk. He will have interests and you will not want to look, to know. If you are awake before him, you will read your own book in the thin light coming in from the window.
He will buy you a cab or he will not. If he does, you will be surprised, but confirmed in your suspicions. There are still nice guys left in the world. You will wonder, head-thumping against the glass in the back of the cab, what the hell a nice guy is doing with a girl like you. You will want them to hurt.
Or you will slip out in the very early morning, that same thin light illuminating your path, Google-mapped and tracked, to the nearest subway station. You will work out in your head the way back to your apartment. You have remembered to charge your phone. You are young and dumb, but you can take care of yourself. You track the progression of your steps underneath the tangle of streets and overpasses at Broadway Junction.
You let yourself into your apartment as quietly as possible, as not to wake your roommates. You will change your clothes and shower before work or school or one of your other obligations.
On the subway, rushing forward, you imagine that you have left lipstick on the rims of his coffee mugs. You cannot recreate the richness of sensation as he hands you a cigarette, window cracked in a car with icy wind blowing, the sureness of his smile.
They are always sure. They have won a prize, and you are it, and you will feel flimsy and gauzy in their arms, unreal.
Joanna Acevedo is a student living and working in New York City. Her work has been seen in Rigorous Magazine and the Artymis Collective. In her spare time, she works as a barista and plays roller derby.
Featured image courtesy of Joao Ferraz.