By Janet Frishberg
Don’t worry, that was just 22. You walked this city wanting love and not knowing where to find it. Not truly believing it would ever happen, and still hoping it would. Wanting someone, a sage or a wizened ancient, to tell you: you will find it. And thinking, this cannot be all there is. These cannot be the only jobs.
Don’t worry, that was 22: picking at your skin and then healing it, biting your nails down to the bloody edges. Obsessing over every single thing you bought as though it would lead directly to your financial ruin.
Don’t worry, these bars, these nights that led to nowhere but sore feet and sour mouth taste, and left you wiggling under the comforter emptier than before you walked out of the house, that was 22.
Paying too much for bad food, accepting invitations to dates and parties you didn’t actually want to go to, taking the bus home alone at one a.m. with your shoulders held tight because you didn’t have money for a cab—that was 22.
This night was 22, when you walked from bar to bar with a group of seven friends and wondered who you’d meet while out, even as you suspected the answer would be the same as it usually was: no one. Or at least no one who would matter.
Tonight, over drinks, curled in a row around the L-shaped edge of the bar, your friends asked about your weekend and you told them you weren’t sure how, but you slept with him again, that guy from last summer. It started with drinks this past weekend, plans to meet friends at a new wine bar. You realized what was going to happen when he kissed you while you two waited in line. The kiss was a surprise; you’d had no agenda. (This was rare.) You smiled on the sidewalk with his lips pressing on yours; it felt all the same between the two of you as during summer: just for fun, casual. Friendly, you could say. You were glad for the comfort. You didn’t even really mind that you hadn’t shaved your legs since you couldn’t remember when.
When you went to the bathroom (by yourself—this wasn’t 15 anymore, after all) and stuck your hands below the automatic hand dryer, it was one of those extra-high-powered ones that made your skin ripple off and flap. Your tight, smooth-skinned, 22-year-old hand, without spots or blemishes. You saw it now under the dryer, how it’d look one day at 50, at 78. When you’d be able to do to yourself what you did as a kid to your grandma’s hands, which was pinch the skin together in little mountain ridges over the knuckles and watch, fascinated, as it stayed standing, waiting for you to smooth it back down again and again.
And the payoff for having hands like hers, you hoped, the payoff at that point must be, would have to be: a sense of calm when making decisions, a sense that everything was not quite as monumental as you used to feel it was, at 22. It must be a sense of relief, knowing you could leave your house in a dress and what felt like every man on every corner of your neighborhood wouldn’t hiss or meow at you. But also, you knew having hands like hers might become the personification of impermanence. A loss of control. They might mean invisibility of a kind that could drive you to tears. To scotch, no ice, or to bed for days.
In the morning, you woke up in this man’s bed, and wondered what had happened, although you were pretty sure you knew. You had some glimpses of a memory from the night before, if not exact details. You could imagine it at least, color in the rough outlines from having been in the same bed a number of times before. And you didn’t even have to imagine, when ten minutes later he started touching you again, sure why not, and then he was on top of you with a condom on, inside of you.
A few days later, at the bar, you told your friends how having sex with him that morning was less intimate than holding hands used to be in sixth grade.
M.’s girlfriend turned to you, still holding her girlfriend’s hand, and said, “God. That makes me so sad.”
You weren’t sad about it before that moment, but after she said that, you were sad that you hadn’t known it was sad until she said it.
His strong body (he is the type who works out) on top of you in the morning, his shades pulled over the windows, your voice having exited your own body a few minutes before. After he finished, he collapsed on your chest and there was no question of whether you came or not; you didn’t, and it didn’t matter.
You never realized sex could get to where it would feel more intimate to eat dinner across a two-top table from him, or sit next to him on a public bus with your thighs gently touching, or hear the sounds of him peeing while waiting for him to drive you home in the morning. When you were a kid and first learned what sex was, first had someone’s wet tongue in your mouth at twelve, you never knew that it would or could get to this point ten years later—this point where someone was on top of you in his bed, and your legs stuck out at strange angles, but you could be anywhere, in any dark room in the morning, for how little you felt.