New York City, April. A hotel somewhere. Midtown, perhaps. I should know this. But my company booked my accommodations beforehand, and I'd just blindly let the taxi driver take me to this soulless structure from LaGuardia.
It's the night before the conference. An odd day and time. Tuesday evening, 10 pm. I'm sure New Yorkers go out on Tuesdays nights. But where do they go? And what do they do? I'd laid down for a quick nap which turned into a three-hour siesta and had woken, bleary-eyed, about twenty minutes before. I'm restless and bored, so I decide to wander down to the hotel bar, get a drink, maybe talk to someone. Well, get a drink, at least.
I bring my iPhone and a book to keep me company, just in case.
The bar is pretty empty except for an older couple sharing drinks in the corner, an Asian businessman on his iPad, and a bearded man sitting nearest to me who is just staring at the TV. I take a seat at an appropriate distance from everyone else, then order a glass of wine. I don't drink very much anymore—call it turning 30, I guess—so I stick to what I always get: Riesling.
There are two TVs. One is playing the news. The other is playing some sports game. I don't give a shit about either. I open my book, The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. I've read it 15 times. It's one of my favorites, and a comfort for times like this, when I'm alone in a big city.
Except I don't want to read. That requires thought. I don't want to think. I just want to drink and be. "Exciting night, eh?" I joke to the bartender.
He raises his eyebrow. "Yeah."
"Is it usually like this?"
"On weekdays?... Sometimes. Depends." He glances down at his phone as he receives a text, then looks back at me. "Where are you from?"
Of course I'm from elsewhere. We're in New York City. "Michigan."
"Oh, yeah? What part?"
"Sure." By default, I might add.
"What brings you here?"
"I have a conference." Yet another reason I'm a cliché this evening.
I glance around the room again. This one of my favorite past-times—people-watching. The Asian guy is still on his iPad. Maybe he's going to the same conference as me. The couple has just left. Then there's the other guy, the bearded man, who appears—well, miserable.
I look at him for longer than I should. Something about him interests me. I don't know what. He's middle-aged, to be sure—40s, maybe 50s. He has curly dark hair streaked with gray— a bit unkempt of a mop of hair, really—and a full, mostly-gray beard. He's wearing glasses and a yarmulke. A gray sweater, with a collared shirt underneath. Chinos. I can see the dark hairs on his hands.
There is overwhelming sadness written all over his face.
Or maybe I'm extrapolating here, or perhaps even projecting. Who knows; maybe I'm sad. Well, of course I'm sad. Of course I'm miserable. But I don't wear it as nakedly as he does.
He catches me watching him and looks over at me. I quickly look back down at my phone and pretend to be texting someone. Relax, I want to tell him. I'm not looking at you like that. I'm gay.
Or am I looking at him like that after all?
Later I will learn that everything I saw was correct. All of his emotions were bared. I read him perfectly, like a book. He was utterly miserable.
I'm nervous for tomorrow. I have to present in front of 200 people. I like presenting sometimes, but—200 people? That's a lot. And then there's the whole being "on" thing conferences always require. They're exhausting. I'm the sole representative from my company this trip.
So, falling back onto habits from my 20s, I decide to get drunk. Or rather, tipsy. Or somewhere in between. I order another glass of wine. I'm a huge lightweight (thank you, antidepressants), so two glasses for me equals four for a normal person, and I'm feeling pretty good and confident after my second.
"That guy down there looks like he needs a fuck," I whisper to the bartender when he fills my third glass of wine.
He does. "Wow," he comments, "you're right." An appraisal. "Are you going to do anything about it?"
"Pues, por que no?"
So I get up, glass in hand, walk to the end of the bar, and plop right down next to the bearded man.
"Hi," I say, "I'm Lucy, and you looked like you needed a friend. Might if I join you?"
He turns to me slowly. "No, not at all."
What does he see that night? I later wonder if he was aware of me as I was aware of him. Me, a thin brunette, newly-30, turquoise tunic, black leggings, chunky jewelry, Midwestern accent.
I wonder if he noticed that I was as lonely as he was.
He has an accent, which doesn't surprise me at all. "I'm Eli," he says, and shakes my hand.
I shake his. It's a strong hand, bigger than mine.
"So where are you from, Eli?" I ask, taking a sip of my wine.
"Really? What part?"
"That's so cool," I babble inanely. "I've always wanted to go to Israel—Jerusalem especially." I tell him about a few friends of mine who've gone there for Birthright, mention some of the places I've always wanted to visit.
Eli is in New York for a conference, like me. Only his is far more prestigious—an academic conference at Yeshiva University on the Talmud. He is a Torah scholar, he tells me.
"That's the first part of the Bible, right?" I ask.
"The Christian Bible?... More or less, yes. There are some deviations."
He asks me what I'm doing here.
"I'm here for a conference, too," I say. "Food Tech—heard of it?" Of course not. "It's a tech conference for software and hardware companies that work in the hospitality vertical." A blank look, much like I would give him if he went on about the Torah. "I work in sales for a tech startup. We manufacture software for restaurants. Here's my card." And I give him my business card, like I'm practicing for tomorrow instead of doing whatever the hell I'm doing right now.
"Have you been to New York before?" I inquire.
"Yes, several times. And you?"
"Yeah, a few times. For conferences and stuff." Wow, what am I—a teenager? Then I ask, "Do you like it here?"
"Yes…" A pause. "It's...there is no place like New York, is there?"
"No, there certainly isn't," I agree. A pause. Then: "Did you do anything exciting tonight? See the sights? Go to a fancy restaurant?"
He looks down at his hands. "No, I just stayed here. You?"
"Me too, actually." I turn to the bartender. "Another wine, please. And for him—what would you like?"
"No, you don't have to—"
"Please. Look, to be frank with you, Eli, you look like you not only needed a friend to talk to, but a steady dose of alcohol. This is my treat. Welcome to America, if you will. What do you want?"
"Well—a Scotch, please."
"Another Riesling and a Scotch it is, then," says the bartender.
Eli will end up paying for all of our drinks tonight, despite my later protestations.
Next: a blur. We're both drunk. Or at least I am. I'm flirting with him. I tell him he needs to shave his beard. It makes him look old. He's only 43, he tells me. "You'd look a lot younger if you shaved it," I tell him. Eli says he hasn't been without a beard since he was 21.
He also tells me that the last time he was in New York City was two years ago, with his wife and his two eldest children, for this same exact conference. Except his wife is no longer his wife. They are now divorced.
I ask him some questions about his line of work. He's a professor at a university in Jerusalem. He mentions Hebrew words I don't recognize. I ask him if he's religious or just studies books by dead people, despite the yarmulke on his head. "I am Jewish." "Yes, but do you actually believe in God and shit?" "Yes."
He asks me if I "believe in God and shit." I tell him I'm nothing now, but I used to be a Christian. He asks me what happened. I tell him it was hard to reconcile being religious when I realized I was gay. A startled look. "You are gay?" "Yep. Lesbian." He looks surprised.
I catch him massaging his neck with his hand. "Are you sore?"
"Yes—I mean, only a little—"
"Come up to my room. I'll give you a massage."
That's when he pays and comes up to my room.
It's a mess, but I don't care. I tell him to make himself comfortable, then go into the bathroom and change into pajamas—very unsexy ones, I might add. This was the last thing I'd been expecting when I packed for my trip.
I look at my reflection drunkenly and whisper to myself, "What am I doing?"
I'm seducing him, that's what I'm doing.
It starts out as a massage. But then he massages me. In the middle of my massage, at the touch of his tender, firm hands, I start to cry. He asks me what's wrong. I tell him that I haven't been touched in way too long. That I just broke up with my ex-girlfriend six months ago and am still getting over her.
"My wife and I just divorced this year," he says, "and I will never get over her."
At first we just snuggle, really. It's slow and I don't think either of us really minds. We're just doing what we want to do, and what we want to do is just—this. He lies on my bed. I run my hands through his hair. It's wonderful hair, thick and unruly. He looks at me through his glasses. His eyes are dark blue—almost grey—and intense. Beautiful. His voice is softer than you'd expect.
Then his hands are in my hair. He is watching me intently. I stop talking. I want him to kiss me. I just want to be kissed. I need to be kissed. Will he?
This is taking too damn long. I ask him out loud if he wants to kiss me.
"But I thought…aren't you gay?" he says.
"Yes, but I don't care," I say. "Kiss me."
And so he does.
It's a wonderful kiss. Odd, too—none of the girls I've kissed in the past few years had facial hair.
I take his shirts off—the sweater and the collared shirt underneath. I become the aggressor. I kneel on my bed and look down at him with lust. He is not bad-looking under all of those clothes. They gave him extra bulk, added to the image of a "dad bod," as the young people say nowadays. He has a hairy chest, mostly dark, a few strands of grey here and there. Freckles. He's pale. Bulky, yes, a bit soft around the middle, as you'd expect, but in shape, too.
"Now let me see you," he says.
I haven't been naked in front of a man in three years.
What I'd forgotten is how objectified it makes you feel, but in a good way—that there is someone looking at you with desire, the raw desire of a heterosexual male. But desire for solely you, or at least in this moment. It gives me a perverse feeling of value, of beauty—something I've been secretly fearing that I'm losing since I turned 30 this year and started finding handfuls of grey hairs.
The look of a woman—the female gaze—is different. There's desire there, yes. But it's a shared desire, one I understand as I am a woman myself. The male species is separate, alien, utterly foreign to me now.
I'm afraid that I look fat. I haven't been working out enough lately and eat chocolate more often than I should. But he tells me I'm beautiful, and I know that—at least right now—I am.
His hands on me. His lips on my skin. His beard against my chest. Grazing. My nipple in his mouth, hard—as hard as he is, I soon learn.
It's hot. We're hot. But it's tender, too. Sad. He's brought it, his sadness, and it covers everything. But that's okay. In fact, I later realize, it's probably the only reason I let this happen. The sadness made him human.
I tell him to talk dirty to me in Hebrew, and he abides.
"Now you," he growls.
"Uh…shalom?" I say, and we laugh.
Then I gaze up at him and say, "Fuck me, you bastard" in my best Spanish.
He's on top at first. I don't organism the first time. But the second time, we begin to work together. Our bodies are in rhythm. I've rarely been in rhythm before with a man; usually there's something off, instructions needed. We work and work to a crescendo. And I die a little death.
He asks me if I've ever been with a man before. "Of course," I laugh; hadn't I just shown him I knew what I was doing? I tell him that I've dated men in the past, but realized that on the whole, I prefer women. The only men I'm ever drawn to—if ever—are enigmas, usually foreign. The last man I had had sex with—before Eli, I mean—was an Argentine psychologist I met at a hostel in Rome a few years ago.
Then I admit that it hasn't been that many, really.
He tells me that he's only slept with two women before—a girlfriend in high school, and his ex-wife, who he met in college.
He spends the night with me. I wake up at 6:30 am to the shrill alarm on my phone. I'm hung over, exhausted, and dizzy.
How strange it is, to wake up to a large, warm, hairy man next to you after months of nothingness, and before that, smooth, sensuous curves. But it's not so bad. Especially when he rubs his eyes, stretches, mutters something in Hebrew, and says, "Did that really happen last night?"
"I'm glad." His lips against the back of my neck. I shiver. "At yafa."
"Pardon?" I say, my breath catching in my chest.
"You're beautiful in the morning," he says, and then we start again.
Whenever we're not at our respective conferences over the next few days, we're with each other. We stay in, mostly. Order pizza to the room. Take showers together, one bath. Kiss. Fuck. I'm in the organizer here, the instigator, but he follows along—possibly gladly, but I'm not so sure. In the light of day, the alcohol gone, he's more reticent, reserved.
But I soon learn that this isn't how he really is at all. I Google him and find out that he's some hot shot back in Israel, a professor who's written over a dozen books and won prizes I've never heard of before. He, like me, likes to be the center of attention. We both have that knack to want to please everyone, avoid strife. We both love to be flattered, adored. When he is lecturing, he is an animated speaker, walking about the room, waving his arms around. I'm the same way. We're both theatrical.
I learn how much he loved his wife. They married when they were 23 and had their first child—a girl—a little over a year later. She was his rock—solid, cool, unfettered and rational to his zeal and his fervor.
But it was she who left him. She fell in love with a hotel owner in Tel Aviv. She told Eli that it was like she was coming alive again. She hadn't meant to betray him, had wanted to stay, but—she was suffocating. Couldn't he tell she was suffocating?
He tried everything. He begged, he pleaded. He put on his most dramatic display. The children, he argued. Our love. Our lives. Are you really going to throw that away now?
It didn't work. Her mind had been made up, with her typical coolness. She left him, and the whole university knew, and he fell apart.
"I was…I am a shell," he said. "I am not who I was."
"Then let's find him," I said firmly, and kissed him.
I tell him about my ex, Katie.
We'd been friends for three years, lovers for a year and a half. She was blond, loud, brassy, and fiercely, intimidatingly intelligent. I couldn't believe it when she decided to date me. I felt beneath her, almost. Insecure and whiny in comparison. But she chose me.
I loved her. And it was complicated. Katie was not an easy person to love. She needed her space. She had a harsh way about her. She didn't stand for fools. I was always afraid I would face her wrath, and one day I did. But I didn't crumple. I stood my ground, and we stayed together.
But then she started to nitpick. To point out my flaws. Why didn't I wear a mouth guard? she demanded. She couldn't sleep with all my damn grinding the night before. And why don't I have my own opinions? "All you do is parrot what other people say," she accused. "Don't you ever think for yourself?"
Then she started to withdraw from me, to avoid me. I'd try to kiss her, but she'd pull away. Our sex life, once vibrant, became sparse and stale. I didn't know what to do.
Then she left me. She met someone at a—you guessed it—conference. An engineer from Seattle. So she got a job in Seattle and moved there to be with her.
I sobbed the day she broke up with me. She was harsh, as per usual, and said, "Stop it. I can't stand your crying. Let's be adults about this." I tried to suck things up. But she'd ripped my heart out and shat all over it. I wasn't enough. Our life wasn't enough. We were done.
On my third day in New York, I go downstairs for breakfast to meet Eli and am stunned to find a completely different person in front of me.
He went to a barber that morning and was shaved. He looks vulnerable and ten years younger, as I'd predicted he would in my drunken flirtation the first night he met. He has a defined chin, and when he smiles, he has dimples. He is, however, more handsome than I would have expected—so much so that I am taken aback. "Well?" he asks, rubbing his naked cheek. "What do you think?"
"Forget breakfast," I say. "Let's go up to my room."
One last fuck. Except it's not just a fuck. The foreplay is long, tender, and beautiful. I stare at him unabashedly, admire his profile, his arms, his thick, straight eyebrows. He traces my jawline with his lips and mutters compliments. He praises my legs, my ass, my hair, my cunt. He tells me he adores the smell of me. That all he could think about during his conference the past few days was how he wanted to get back to me and make love to me. I admit the same. When we're done, we just lay there in bed, hands entwined, in a state somewhere been sleep and being awake.
He takes me to the airport. He has one day left in New York before he flies back to Israel. I am going back to Michigan.
We kiss in the taxi. He is saying things in Hebrew I didn't fathom, but the words sound lovely nevertheless.
Finally, I pull away and said, "Thank you."
A text when I arrive in Michigan: The moment you left, I missed your smile. I was dreading New York until I met you. You made the whole city shine.