#84: Rhythm is gonna get you.
Notes on sex and dating during the year of the pandemic.
Everybody knows that the plague is coming
Everybody knows that it’s moving fast
Everybody knows that a naked man and woman
Are just a shining artifact of the past
Leonard Cohen’s gravelly baritone is distorted as it filters through the speakers of the very beat-up car. It’s a December night in Brooklyn and my date, L., is driving me home. I am on the aux.
“I’ve been listening to this song over and over,” I say.
“You know Leonard Cohen is from Canada,” he says.
I am nonplussed by his offering of this seemingly random piece of trivia. Who cares if Leonard Cohen is from Canada? I puzzle over this.
“Are you from Canada?” I ask.
L. laughs. “Yeah, I’m from Canada. I told you last time, remember?”
“Oh, of course,” I say, clearly having forgotten, and we laugh again.
It’s been almost three months since the last time we went out, because I kept saying no. I’m looking for something serious, whereas L. is biding his time while he earns enough money working for a moving company to buy a surf shack in Costa Rica. I enjoy his company but don’t want to waste my time. I think he was turned on by my refusal because every couple of weeks he has sent me a funny text trying to entice me to go out with him again.
My responses have been friendly but firm.
He’s a comedian, so maybe that accounts for his good timing. It just so happens that earlier today, I was informed by my dentist that if I keep grinding my teeth this badly, I could be at risk for nerve damage. Suffice it to say I’ve been stressed.
When I got L.’s text, I figured I could break my own rules—it was a medical emergency.
He parks illegally in front of a hydrant across from my apartment, and we start making out. This is the most fun I’ve had in a long time.
A cop approaches the car while we are in a compromising position and L.’s reflexes are wicked fast—he jumps out of the car, acts normal, and the officer moves on. I am relieved and giddy from the close call.
“I think cars were invented specifically for making out,” I muse as he strokes my hair, “You’ve got the backseat, you’ve got the windows for voyeurs…”
“You’ve got a trunk if your date starts to talk too much...” he says, and I laugh.
Soon after I say goodnight and go back to my apartment. That night in bed, I don’t grind my teeth, but the next day, I am already conflicted about whether or not to keep seeing L.
This isn’t going anywhere. My friends say that I seem happy and encourage me not to break it off; L. and I schedule a date for later in the week. I’m looking forward to it.
Two hours before we are supposed to meet, I get a text from L., cancelling.
He is apologetic, but they need emergency coverage at the moving company and he can’t turn down a shift. His priority right now is earning money to buy the house in Costa Rica. The holidays are next week and he’ll be in Canada through the month of January.
He wishes me a happy New Year. I cry in spite of myself.
I’ve been interested in learning to play chess since I heard about the Jews in Soviet gulags who would play games in their head against their cellmates.
These times feel grim and I’d like to train my mind so I can face whatever’s coming.
There’s a flyer at the grocery store advertising chess lessons, and that’s how I meet D. in April. Though he lived in my neighborhood in Brooklyn before the pandemic started, he is currently in Washington, D. C. helping out his elderly parents.
Our lessons take place over Zoom.
I like him from our first meeting. He is thoughtful, patient, and kind. He’s also clearly a huge dork, but I’ve always been into nerdy guys. For many weeks, I attempt to ignore my crush, and focus on the chess. It’s hopeless. I suck.
“You don’t suck,” he says to me. “You’re just not concentrating.”
No shit, Sherlock.
Lord help me, I’ve always been more interested in boys than… pretty much anything. My rating on lichess.com is actually going down. I’m cross-eyed, sweating, a wreck. I hate ambiguity more than anything, and I can’t figure out where things are at. He is definitely flirting with me during lessons, which is weird, because six weeks ago, I thought he implied that he had a girlfriend?
D.’s coming to Brooklyn in six weeks, he tells me. Not to stay, just to visit while he sublets out his apartment. Would I maybe want to get coffee when he’s here?
He’s nervous as he asks me.
“Of course,” I say. “Let’s do it!” Our voices are light and breezy, as if this might just be a friendly cup of coffee, but it’s clear that we both know it’s a date. We probably should have quit chess lessons then and there, and created a strict delineation between work and dating. But we are both so used to this game within a game, getting off on the excitement of words unspoken, that neither of us says anything. We continue having lessons for the next six weeks, counting down his arrival in Brooklyn, and I’m starting to feel pretty weird about paying for his time.
“Do you guys even talk about chess anymore?” asked my friend, incredulous as she watches me type D.’s fee into the Venmo app, accompanied by the chestnut emoji.
“Uhhh… Kind of,” I say.
My heart pounds each week as I click on the Zoom link for our lesson.
I spend more time picking out my outfit than I do working on my homework, and it isn’t very close. I’m starting to get a sneaking suspicion that I know why there aren’t many female chess champions. He’s basically talking to himself as he demonstrates a complicated endgame sequence.
“How can I get to mate in two moves?” he asks me.
I squint at the screen for a while, the strange blocky computer game pieces swimming before my eyes.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I have no idea.”
We call it quits for the day. He’s coming next week.
How should I describe the disappointing anti-climax of our meeting after months of long-distance flirtation?
For one thing, he couldn’t seem to make a plan. Forget mate in two moves; he was updating me on an hourly basis about his shifting schedule. Could I meet during the day? Actually, did I mind if it was after 10pm? Could I meet him in a neighborhood where he had to return a friend’s book?
I call my friend in agony.
“Months of this bullshit, and now I’m not even sure if we’re going to see each other,” I say. “Is he just not interested?”
“He’s clearly interested,” says my friend. “He seems nervous, and scattered.”
Well, make that two of us.
We finally decide that he will bring over a bottle of wine to my place. When he arrives, I hate to say it, but I’m disappointed by how he looks in person. He has a handsome face that looks good on my computer screen, but he is clearly out of shape, and what’s worse is that he’s just physically awkward in a way that goes beyond appearance. It’s hard to find a conversational groove. He chatters on and on about his passion for atheism and his conviction that it’s immoral to have children given the state of the world. I feel a little like I’m getting lectured by a college freshman, who happens to be a man in his forties. Suddenly he laughs, anxious.
“I’m talking way too much,” he says. “I’m being so boring”.
“It’s all good,” I say, unsure of what to do. We are clearly not going to be dating, but I know that he’s a good person, and I feel sorry for him. After a pause, I lean in to kiss him, and he jumps back, startled. A moment later, it’s clear that he regrets his reaction, and that he wanted to kiss me back. He kind of pats my arm. And then he goes back to his monologue about atheism. I’m bored now, and just wish he would leave my apartment. Soon enough, he is at the door.
“I would love to see you again the next time I’m in Brooklyn,” he says, suddenly seeming to regain his confidence.
“When will that be?” I ask, somewhat irritated.
“I don’t know,” he says. I wave him out. We don’t correspond for several days, and then I send him an email quitting chess, saying that my work has gotten too busy. I feel bad about it, but the idea of continuing to pay for him to give me lessons sounds clinically insane.
Three months later, when The Queen’s Gambit becomes a sensation on Netflix, I am all sour grapes.
“That show tells a lie,” I will say glumly to anyone unfortunate enough to ask me if I’ve seen it.
“There’s nothing sexy or glamorous about chess.”
It’s my birthday, and I’m hanging out with my best friend and his boyfriend on their apartment building’s communal roof deck. It’s a warm May night, and there’s a beautiful sunset over the New York City skyline. We are attempting to take a group photo with a phone’s self-timer, but there’s no good place to prop up the phone.
One of their neighbors, G., comes up onto the roof deck to smoke a blunt. I tell him that it’s my birthday and ask if he would take a photo of the three of us. He’s happy to do it. He hangs out with us for about an hour while the sun goes down and he finishes his blunt. Then he goes back downstairs.
“G. is cute,” says my best friend.
“Yeah…” I say. “I kind of got the feeling that he was ignoring me. Like, he was only talking to you guys.”
“Are you kidding?” says my friend. “He was clearly hanging out with us to be with you. Why would he spend an hour trying to chat up some gay men?”
I am startled by my friend’s words; I had experienced G. as totally disinterested in me, but as I play back the evening in my mind, I realize that there were many signals that he found me attractive.
“It’s really weird that I’m so off with my perceptions,” I say, unnerved.
“You need to remember that you aren’t the fat kid anymore,” says my friend. “That’s what I want for you this year: to realize that you are a beautiful, attractive adult woman.”
“Thanks,” I say. I get a flash of inspiration. “I’m gonna put a Post-It note with my number on his door.” I’m excited by this idea, as it feels kind of ballsy and vintage New York. Sure enough, I get a text from him the next day.
We hang out, and he’s nice, but we don’t have very much in common. I was mostly excited by the validation.
I connected with M. through a dating app. He’s from India, and works at an elite consulting firm. When we meet near the park, I can tell right away that he’s super smart. He’s also handsome. We easily fall into conversation, and I’m having a nice time.
He looks at his phone.
“Oh, shit,” he says. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s no problem,” I say. “I know you’re busy with work.”
“I have to respond to this email,” he says. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“It’s fine,” I say. “How long will it take? Ten minutes?”
“Fifteen, tops,” he says emphatically. We walk into a CVS for the air conditioning. I wander through the aisles, listening to Shania Twain coming through the store’s loudspeakers as he frantically taps on his phone. Ten minutes go by. Then twenty.
“I’m so sorry,” he says. “I’m so sorry.” He looks like he might cry.
“It’s cool,” I assure him, though I’m starting to feel like an idiot as I take my fifth lap through the shampoo section. After another ten minutes, he’s finally finished.
“I’m so, so, sorry,” he says.
“I’m starving,” I say. “Let’s get dinner.”
Things get back on track. He pays for a nice meal, and tells me a bit about his work. I get the impression that he doesn’t really sleep during the night, instead taking sporadic two-hour naps between work calls in international time zones. I’m starting to feel tired for him.
After dinner, I walk with him towards the hotel he’s currently staying in. He’s full-time in New York, and I can’t remember why he isn’t living in an apartment, but it’s something work-related. He looks at me with a pained expression.
“You’re looking for marriage, aren’t you?” he says.
I’m a little surprised, as I haven’t heard many American men phrase it like that, but I nod.
“I have to tell you, then,” he says. “My work is planning on relocating me to Uganda in three months. I’m starting to feel like I don’t have time for a relationship.”
“I appreciate you telling me that,” I say. “That had occurred to me as well.”
I kiss him on the cheek and we part ways.
I am incredibly attracted to S., that’s for sure. As he sits across the table from me describing a trekking expedition he undertook in Alaska, I scour my brain trying to figure out who it is that he reminds me of physically. My eyes light on his red flannel shirt, and I realize it’s the Brawny paper towels guy. Oh dear, I’m in trouble.
We matched online. I was really excited to come across his profile, as there aren’t too many outdoorsy guys in NYC. He’s in graduate school, earning a degree in some type of hippie geocentric economics. He’s into complex systems and sustainability. It all sounds pretty good to me. I go into this date with high hopes, but as the night goes on, something starts to feel off to me. What is it?
Oh, I realize. He’s not funny.
Not just not funny, but actively unfunny, like in a Michael Scott kind of way.
“I used to have a radio show in Alaska,” he tells me. “It was really hilarious.”
I’m doubtful. But when he walks me home, instead of me bidding him adieu and wishing him good luck on the rest of his journey through comedy, we end up fooling around on my couch, and breaking at least two and a half of my first date rules.
“It felt like something out of Greek mythology,” I tell a friend. “I was helpless.”
Our second date goes much the same way. But the more time I spend with him, the harder it is for me to avoid confronting the fact that I don’t really like his personality. This has rarely happened to me before; usually I’m attracted to someone’s humor or intelligence before I get too wrapped up in their appearance. But things with S. are moving fast.
“You need to go with him on a real date,” counsels my friend. “Like, actually go someplace together, and do an activity that isn’t hooking up.”
“There’s a pandemic!” I whine. “Everything is closed!”
But I know I’m just making excuses. The fact is, the prospect of non-fooling around activities with S. is increasingly unappealing. Still, I resolve that for our third date, S. and I are going to go on an honest-to-goodness outing.
Reader, I tried. We make a plan to take the ferry to Governor’s Island. But he has to run errands, and the weather is crappy, and the traffic is bad, and yada yada yada we end up going for a short walk near my apartment. As we stroll, he tells me a story.
“You know the song “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You” by Gloria Estefan?” he asks. “When I was a kid, I really thought that the Rhythm was a thing, like a monster, and I was scared it was actually going to get me. Isn’t that funny?”
He looks at me expectantly, holding for a laugh. Suddenly, I have a horrible suspicion that this is part of his comedy routine. I give a weak chuckle. He smiles, satisfied.
“That’s part of a comedy routine I’m working on,” he says.
I deserve what comes next.
We get back to my apartment.
So far, we haven’t actually had penetrative sex, as I have been telling myself that I’m waiting to be in a real relationship before I take that step. But our hormones are doing their thing, and soon enough, it’s happening. At first it feels great, but the longer we go on for, the more I start to feel disconnected and unhappy.
“I want to stop,” I say, and he withdraws, looking dazed and a little angry. We lie next to one another in a truly uncomfortable silence. I look at the clouded expression on his face and it occurs to me how truly little I know about this person. Somehow, I never even got around to asking him the basics.
“What are you looking for?” I ask him.
He takes a moment to respond. “Well, technically, my wife and I aren’t legally divorced yet,” he says. “But I’m definitely open to being in a relationship.”
Record scratch, spit take, etc.
“Your wife?” I say, and suddenly I’m cracking up laughing. This is so classic. Of course this weirdo secretly has a wife. I’m actually delighted by the absurdity of the situation, and the fact that I’m finally starting to crack the mystery of what feels so off about him.
“Yeah, I mean, I’m trying to divorce her,” he says morosely. “But she thinks I might get a windfall if my grandma dies, so she won’t sign the papers. Word of advice, don’t get into bed with a redneck.”
His voice is tinged with a sardonic bitterness, and for the first time, he is actually being funny.
“She’s currently fucking some Navy officer on a house boat in Anguilla. She stole my skis, she blew up my Jeep… I’m telling you, don’t get into bed with a redneck.”
I’m actually crying laughing, a slightly manic catharsis of all of the tensions of the past half hour. As he continues to list all of his ex-wife’s petty crimes, I start singing a made-up country song called “Don’t Get Into Bed (With a Redneck).”
I’m so amused by myself that I don’t notice his stony silence.
“That’s it, I’m getting out of here!” he snaps, jumping out of bed and rushing to put his clothes on. “That isn’t funny!”
He is very angry, and I’m a little afraid. I shift into my non-violent conflict resolution body language, hoping to cool the temperature. In my head, I am taking notes. It turns out that beneath the strong, silent, masculine exterior that I found so sexy was… a temper.
Good to know.
“Okay, I hear you,” I say in the calmest voice I can muster. “Since you’re feeling that way, I think you should leave.”
He turns on his heel and is gone. An hour later, he sends me a nasty text.
My reply the next day is frostily polite:
“It would go a long way towards avoiding these types of miscommunications if you would be upfront and honest about the fact that you are embroiled in a nasty divorce and emotionally unavailable. I hope you will be more careful next time. I sure will.”
But this episode really stings. If I’ve had penetrative sex with a man, I can kind of smell him in the room for at least a week afterwards, which is why I’m typically so careful. I feel wounded and disoriented and rehash everything with my best friend, over and over again.
“I’m funny, right?” I ask him, after retelling the whole story for what must have been the eleventh time.
“Wasn’t the country song bit funny?”
“You have to know your audience,” he says wearily.
And the point is well taken.
@allthefrensy is a writer living in Brooklyn.