How do you tell the story of a strange night? I've been dining out on one particular anecdote for years—I’ve got my cues down, know when to hum the Psycho theme and how to land my punch line. In this way, I have given the story of a strange night comic shape, which is not the same as figuring out what that night has meant to me, if it's meant anything at all. Maybe there’s no moral to this story. Or maybe the moral is as simple as: Sometimes two people bump up against each other, and there's a little pop of static electricity, and your humming skin reminds you that every person is a charged object.
On this occasion, I’m going to start the story with a prologue. The setting: a Brooklyn dive bar. Dramatis personae: me, of course, and the man I was single-mindedly in love with at the time. I am 25, and the outer context of this scene is that I am at the nexus of overlapping crises. There's a familial one, home in Florida, which I won't go into; there's also a professional crisis, as I have been laid off from my cushy dot-com job and, in the void of any particularly gainful employment, discovered I don't know what to do with my life. New York is in crisis, too—it's less than a year after 9/11, you can still see faded "Missing" posters fluttering on scaffolding poles. It may be helpful to imagine that The Strokes' album Is This It is playing at the bar where this conversation takes place. No doubt it was.
Two vodka sodas down, my great love tells me that he can picture us married, can see our future children, the house we‘ll live in together, the rocking chairs where, side by side, we‘ll grow old. I'm a cheap date and two vodkas make me blurry, but his next words I recall verbatim: “I'm just not sure,” he says, “I can be in that relationship right now.” It takes a moment to understand that he’s breaking up with me. The concepts don’t square. He loves me, envisions a future for us together; and yet here, in the present, I don't fit. Ouch, I say, and he looks at me curiously. I don't tell him what I'm thinking, which is that I've just learned it hurts to have your mind fucked.
What ensues is the first proper slutty phase of my adult life. Here I’ll steal a beat from the comic version of this tale, and explain that I’ve always been an aspirational slut; since I was a teen, I've pondered with admiration those women who treat other people’s bodies like rides at an amusement park. Me, I’ll queue up for the double-loop roller coaster, then duck out just before my turn, fearing queasiness. But mind-fuckedness turns my scruples off. Not knowing who I was, I’d tethered my identity to my relationship, and with that string cut, I was just floating around, a rogue Macy’s Parade balloon buffeted by strong winds and crashing into buildings. This was the period of the Js—I don’t remember the names of all the guys I slept with that year, but I know at least some were called John, Jonny, Jesse, Jake. I found it funny. Most of them worked in or around the music scene—drummer in a friend’s band, A&R guy with a fiancée stashed away somewhere, etc.—and occasionally I’d find myself at gigs alongside a handful of recent conquests. I found that funny, too. But also unsettling. Once, hooking up with a surprisingly forthcoming sound engineer, I learned many of these guys were pals, and they talked about me. I acted like I was cool with that. But I wasn’t.
Now the story of my strange night begins in earnest. The setting: a schmancy film industry party. Dramatis personae: me, of course, and a young actress I’ve just met, for whom I’m playing wing girl. Picture glamorous people mingling with sugary cocktails in hand. It's midway through the party, and the actress and I have been absorbed into a klatch of a half-dozen or so glamorous people, one of whom stands out: a tall, fair guy a little older than me, with peridot eyes that skip about in search of someplace interesting to alight. He's a director, and I, it turns out, am interesting. We talk about books, philosophy classes we took in college; we trade recollections of Detroit, where he grew up and where my family’s from; we make fun of Werner Herzog and then confess our earnest love of his films. This man's name does not start with J. When our klatch decamps to a bar not far from my apartment, he and I huddle in a corner, and no one even tries to interrupt us, so impermeable is the seal around our talk.
He walks me home. I invite him up for a nightcap. I’m drunk but I feel sober, because all this talk, it’s reminding me who I am. And, sitting on the small sofa in my living room, sharing a bottle of cheap wine and a pack of cigarettes, the talk deepens—we share our dreams, our family woes, our daily vexations.
At dinner parties, this is the point in the story where I stop and explain the layout of my old apartment. It's a two-bedroom in a converted tenement building in the East Village; as you walk in, the bathroom is immediately to the left of the door, and my roommate's bedroom is on the right. Her door is closed and, as I'll soon discover, locked; she's out of town that weekend. Take two steps forward and you're standing inside our tiny kitchen, which is L-shaped and opens off the long side onto the living room where the man who's returning me to myself is now seated. My bedroom is at the back, through the living room; that door is also closed.
We're talking, talking, talking, and then, at some point, we're kissing, kissing, kissing. Hands everywhere. The booze and the cigarettes and the swoon of love I’m falling into are all making my head spin, so I stop things short and head to the bathroom. This is important: Walking off, I say, verbatim, “Make yourself comfortable.”
I decide to brush my teeth. I’m thinking about a rock star I once went on a date with, who told me that when he was a junkie he'd spend about 20 minutes each morning brushing his teeth, it was a path into consciousness for him. Now I understand what he was doing, because as I'm brushing, brushing, brushing, I'm also giving a pep talk to the girl in the mirror. Maya, I tell her, don't fuck this up. Unplug your hormones, repent of your slutty ways, throw up a stoplight on the road you know leads to bed, to sex, to a morning of stilted chat and the awkward exchange of telephone numbers. Slow down, I tell myself, because this guy's a keeper.
Breath freshened beyond belief, I return to the living room. Not-J has disappeared. I know he hasn't left, because I would have heard him exit from the bathroom, but just in case, I walk back through the kitchen and peer into the outer hall. Nothing. I test the handle on my roommate’s door: locked. Confused, I go back into the living room, and this time, I notice that the door to my room is now slightly ajar. As I remember it, I take cautious, silent steps toward that door—but that may be a dramatization, a fiction encrusted over actual events by years of retelling. Cue the Psycho strings.
I push open the door. The “keeper” stands in the middle of my rather large bedroom, naked but for socks and the boxers bunched around his ankles. He is masturbating. If I were telling this story among friends—over brunch, let’s say—I’d be gaping my eyes in astonishment now, which is precisely what I was doing back then, watching him jerk himself off with his eyes closed. Eventually, the green eyes open, and he looks at me. I don't know what to say, so I fill in the blank with a rhetorical question: “What are you doing?” He blinks a few times, then replies (comedy beat ”Making myself more comfortable?”
And that's usually where I end this story. It’'s innocuous, that way—an early episode of Sex and the City, except it happened to me. “The Naked Masturbator.” Ha ha.
Here's the epilogue. Because I’m no good with hairpin turns, because the concepts don't square, that the man I was falling in love with five minutes prior is now, unprompted, poised before me with his dick in his hand, I cross the cold hardwood floor of my bedroom and perch on my desk. He’s waiting for me to say something, say anything, but I keep saying nothing, and so he starts talking instead. This talk has a different register. It’s discombobulated—he pulls up his boxers, grabs for his clothes, doesn’t put them on right away but rather clutches to his chest as he delivers a rambling monologue about his intimacy issues, real problem shit derived from the aforementioned family woes, and how he’s been working through his instinct for self-sabotage at thrice-weekly therapy sessions. He only sabotages situations when he really likes someone, he tells me, pointedly. I still don’t know what to say. “This is actually kind of a breakthrough,” he continues. “That I'm opening myself this way. I have to tell my therapist about it on Monday.” I nod—sagely, sympathetically, the way a therapist would. Then I ask him to go.
“Thank you,” he says as he leaves.
After he's gone, I smoke the last cigarette left in the pack he's forgotten. And I think. All my mind has to offer is the refrain, What a strange night. I brush my teeth again and go to sleep.
Perhaps there is a moral to this story. I've never thought so, but here goes. I wake up the next day, a Saturday; I’ve got the whole weekend and, indeed, my whole life stretched out before me. My skin is still humming from that sharp little shock of encounter, and I’m searching for a way to ground the charge. I turn on my computer—picture a turquoise-trimmed iMac—and begin to write. I write my strange night in screenplay format, and it’s no good, what I've written. But it is, in a profound sense, in the sense that the person I am now was born in that writing, a start.
And so: You're welcome, Naked Masturbator. And thank you.
Love Stories is a series about love in all its forms, with one new essay appearing each day until Valentine’s Day.