One morning he asked me to show him “the whole thing,” meaning all of the things I did to get ready in the morning: the makeup and blow-drying, how I stood and perfected a curved wing of eyeliner. This was during the short period of time when we were together. This was during the even shorter period of time when it was good and he left a rose on the toilet tank for me. “Do you ever leave the house without your makeup?” he asked. “Not really,” I said. “Try,” he suggested.
I was 23 when we met. He was 25 but seemed older and wiser than I could ever imagine being. It was hot for the entire duration of our relationship. That’s all it was: one summer. We were wet with sweat when we went to buy milk at the corner. “When I walk with you,” he said, “I notice that men look at me because we’re walking together.” I smiled, but his face told me that he hadn’t intended this as a compliment. “So is that what it’s like to be a girl?” he asked me. “To have everyone look at you so closely—is that why you spend so much time getting ready?”
So I showed him “the whole thing”. I was wet and in a towel when I began. I felt exposed, but that was nice and intimate. He sat on the edge of the bathtub and watched my face while I focused on the mirror. I felt his gaze. A literal “male gaze,” we joked. When I was clean and finished, I asked him what he thought and he looked at me. My hair had been blown out straight and then curled again with a phallus. My lashes were black and I had stained my cheeks pink. “Well, you look like a pretty girl,” he said. “And you looked like a pretty girl before all that too. So what is it for?” It was 10 am on a Saturday. I was hungover. I wasn’t prepared to answer such a philosophical question. Where should I begin?
Maybe it began in my pre-teen years. I was unpopular with boys and also just unpopular in general. I was a romantic; I read every Jane Austen novel and began to speak with an affected British accent. I used the words “fortnight” and “shan’t.” As I sat and read on the school bus, I imagined that I would inevitably blossom into a thoughtful beauty; this period of alienation would only make me more desirable to some future man.
On the weekends, I indulged in screen adaptations of Austen novels, standing an inch away from the television screen and fast-forwarding to the scenes when love was ever so chastely consummated with a proposal and a country stroll. Ever the Anglophile, I read George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. I understood the play as a tragic love story. I wished that Eliza would come back at the end.
My first grooming ritual came about at this time. I would put my hair into a low bun at the back of my head and curl the hair around my face into delicate tendrils a la Jennifer Ehle playing Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. I bought a straw bonnet. No surprise that boys did not care for this look. Nor did the girls. “You look like a Hasidic man with your side locks,” one classmate said. But at that point in my dreamy adolescence, I wasn’t dressing for boys or men. I was dressing in accordance with a fan-girl fantasy. Dressing for men—that came later.
When I told him about this time in my life, he seemed to understand how lonely I had felt. “Pain makes us more interesting,” he lied. Didn’t he know that I wouldn’t have been there, in his reassuring arms, if I hadn’t at some point conformed to a more conventional aesthetic? “Girls who are only pretty are not interesting,” he said.
One afternoon we sat on his living room floor, each of us wearing one of his button-down shirts (“I like you in a big shirt,” he had said), and he read to me from his favorite novel, Herzog:
Herzog came in and sat on the edge of the tub, watching…she (Ramona) did not look at him while making her preparations…she began to apply her cosmetics— the bottles and powders filled the shelves above the toilet. Whatever she did, it was with unhesitating speed and efficiency, headlong, but with the confidence of an expert.
I blushed while he read. I was so absorbed in the romance of him reading to me, I couldn’t focus on the words. But later I read them alone and was disappointed to find that I could not identify with Ramona, who was confident when it came to presentation and seduction. When Ramona washes and dresses in front of the mirror, she stares straight ahead with unhesitating speed. Meanwhile I had paused and looked back at him often. I needed to be admired.
We first met while I was in graduate school in Michigan, in the depths of Midwest winter, at a synagogue in downtown Detroit. Urban farmers and social justice activists resurrected a small congregation there. They were white kids from the suburbs of Detroit who moved back to the same city their grandparents fled in the 1960’s. My own grandparents immigrated to Detroit from the Displaced Persons camps in Germany after the war. I was raised in New York but I believed that my family had left some karmic footprint in Detroit. I was sure there was some cosmic reason I had returned. So when I met him I was feeling ripe for romance.
Outside the synagogue, the pavement was covered with shards of ice and glass. Inside, the heating system was broken and we shivered in our coats. Through the windows, I could make out the lights of a strip club across the street. But as I remember it now, the light inside was golden yellow. The color of his shirt was called “orchid smoke,” because, as he later told me, a poet writes the names of the colors for J.Crew.
We didn’t really speak that night but we held hands in a circle when the activists said the blessing over wine. Maybe we said hello but that was all until months later when I saw him again at a barbecue in Ann Arbor. He was standing by the vodka-soaked watermelon, wearing brown corduroy pants, a Garfield the Cat pin whimsically fastened to his tweed blazer. He had curly, wild hair. Another woman pointed to him and said, “Something about him, right?”
He was not my usual type. He was not dressed for Wall Street or a football game. But I blushed when he turned around and smiled. I mean there was something about him. Something soulful maybe?
I was drunk when we went home together. So drunk that I fell in the backyard mud and forgot the name of the street where I lived. Still, I remember it clearly. I pulled my tampon out without him noticing and threw it down the side of my bed. This sex was not the fantasy of love I harbored as an adolescent girl but it was better. It was dark. The light from the street in my bedroom window outlined the shape of his head. I woke up the next morning with my eye makeup smudged and my wet, mud-caked jeans on the floor. “You’re cute in the sun,” he said. After he left, I vomited on the floor, next to the dry tampon.
Some people get deep under your skin. I still remember the thrill of returning to my room the following evening to find my phone, glowing and buzzing like a bird on my nightstand: “Fuck” He wrote, “I am still thinking about you.”
“Why ‘fuck’?” I asked.
He sent me stanzas from a poem by Etheridge Knight: “And I/must admit that the sea in you/ has sung/ to the sea/in me.” It moved me. No one had ever sent me poetry before.
I was in awe of what I perceived as an adult lifestyle. At his apartment, he made me espresso, which I did not yet drink. “You’ll need it in the real world,” he said. He toasted sourdough bread and sliced cucumbers and cheddar. He handed me the latest issue of the New Yorker and we sat and read and ate like adults. Before this moment, I had thought I was in the real world. “Graduate school is not the real world,” he said as I marveled at the perfect, round, green slices of cucumbers lined up on a cutting board.
He knew that I lived with five other graduate students in their early twenties—all girls. Weekend nights, we played Top 40 garbage on iPod speakers and took shots of something cheap. Someone always cried when we went out. But now I was far away from that childish, philistine life. Alone with him in the morning, he would go searching through his record collection for the perfect song. When he found it, the song felt part of the soundtrack to our own Woody Allen movie, the ones with bookshelves on the Upper West Side and Mia Farrow in muted, sophisticated clothes.
We took a walk to feed his friend’s parrot. He said this friend was a semi-famous novelist named Jonathan something, I forget the last name. “They’re all named Jonathan,” I said and to my endless delight, he laughed. When the parrot had been fed, he asked if I wanted to go see a film about Gerhard Richter. I began to cry. I can’t say why, but it felt intensely intimate to me to experience culture with someone I had slept with. A therapist might say that I felt “validated.” I used to lie awake next to men while they slept, wondering how it was possible for them to be so close yet know so little about me. Nothing but Coors in their fridge and The Great Gatsby on their bookshelf. But when I was with him, I felt like a grown up woman for the first time.
One of our early conversations was about Berlin. He told me that he had studied abroad there. I told him about a trip I took to visit my friend and how much I liked drinking cheap beers on the street, and leaving bars with the smell of second-hand smoke encased in my winter coat.
“Yeah, yeah” he said, excited. “Everything is more relaxed there. Even the women.”
“Yeah,” I said, wanting to agree with him even when I didn’t know what he was talking about. “What do you mean?” I asked.
“They’re just more chill,” he said. “They’re not always dressing up.”
“None of them?” I asked.
“My ex didn’t,” He said. I felt this in my stomach. “Oh sorry,” he said, “I didn’t mean to talk about other women.”
We were in different cities one night and I got ready for bed. I took my makeup off with cotton pads and Vaseline and I waited for him to call. The lights were out by the time he did. “You should be sleeping,” he said. He told me he was walking home from a jazz performance, in a good mood and making lots of quick jokes, “I can’t wait to have you in my arms,” he said, “—I mean not literally inside of my arms.”
“Would you send me a picture?” he asked. “Just something small.” I didn’t want to get up but I said, “Ok.” I’m sure it would’ve been fine to say no but I went to the bathroom mirror and examined my face. I looked tired so I sent a shot of my body from just the lower lip down. “Very sexy,” He wrote back, “but can I see your face?”
I’m pretty sure I groaned out loud but another part of me just wanted to please. I took out my makeup bag and applied just enough concealer and blush to look fresh.
“You look beautiful,” He said. When I went to sleep I could not help but feel like we had both lied.
The next night, the issue of suitable photos resurfaced. We were both tipsy, walking home from our respective evenings at bars. “Can I see you?” he asked over the phone. “Can you send me something sexy?” I walked home quickly and went straight to my bedroom where I took off my shirt and posed. I had done this kind of posing before, twisting myself into the shape of a Maxim magazine girl of the month. My lips were just slightly open, my eyes narrowed and vacant. Other men I had dated had loved this kind of replica. They were much simpler men, I thought. But that night I sent the picture and got no response. “Too much?” I texted. He did not reply. “Hey—did you get my picture?” I wrote again. Still nothing. I waited up another hour, drinking water and trying to read but I couldn’t stop turning over my phone, which I had strategically placed face down. At 3 am, I went to bed and all throughout the night I dreamed he had returned my text. At 7, I finally heard the low buzz I had ached for. “Sorry!” he wrote. “I fell asleep.” “No problem!” I wrote back, though my head ached with fatigue.
Weeks later he told me that the picture had made him uncomfortable. “You’re very sexy,” he said. “But….” he searched for words, “you don’t have to try so hard.” “Try so hard?” I repeated. I was hurt but I felt that he was right. I always thought that he knew better than I did.
“I’m not into that Victoria’s Secret look”, he explained. “You know, that boobs pushed-up artificiality. I just wanted to see you.” He said he liked the “moles and wrinkles and scars.” Ok, I thought, I’ll just be natural. I’ll be “me.” All I had to do to be “me” was undo all the things I had learned about how to be sexy—arched-back poses and placating sex sounds—and then I would truly be sexy.
I first learned what “sexy” meant in the age of Kate Upton and Scarlett Johansson, the age of blonde twins in Super Bowl halftime commercials. I applied a peroxide spray to turn my hair blonder. I bought a lacy bra and underwear with birthday money. And I transformed myself into the kind of conventionally pretty white American woman with round boobs that I thought men wanted—I mean the men who weren’t him.
When I was fifteen, I once sat next to a boy who played on the basketball team and walked with a cocky swagger. “You’ve got potential,” he said, tracing his finger down my arm in English class. To be hotter, I think he meant.
I thought this was what it felt like to fit in. I loved how it felt to have boys look at me and find reason to touch me. I felt powerful.
But the power of beauty is conditional. In dying my hair and wearing a better bra I was not taking down the patriarchy but finding a way to survive it. The male attention set in motion a pervasive, perpetual fear that attractiveness would one day be taken away from me. If I slipped up—if I wore the wrong thing or got the wrong haircut, or if I god forbid gained weight, I would suddenly become ancillary and invisible again. I had been made visible by the grace of society and I wanted to stay visible.
The worse things got between us, the more I felt compelled to look perfect. My beauty ritual became more involved and finicky. I redid my eye makeup several times in one morning, looked in the mirror often, and changed outfits. I checked my reflection in store windows, which he hated. I second-guessed every choice I made, which he hated even more. I’d put on a feminine, floral dress and then worry that I looked too fussy and soft. I’d borrow one of his oversized shirts and then return it when I felt shapeless. “Stop changing,” he finally snapped. “You looked fine before.”
I began to pay attention to who texted or emailed him. Looking over his shoulder, I noticed emails from someone named “Pina” in his in-box. They said, “How are you? I don’t hear from you. Are you happy?” I knew that Pina must be the German woman he had dated, because it seemed to me that only a foreigner could pull off that line, “Are you happy?” The gravitas of the question highlighted my flightiness. “Are you happy?”
As it happened, I was the one who was not happy. When we were together, he seemed less affectionate than he had once been. He did not hold me in bed and I woke him and asked him to. I felt ashamed but I couldn’t help myself. “It’s too hot,” he said. “I’m claustrophobic.” Around this time, he stopped calling me to initiate plans, stopped grabbing my hand while we walked down the street. He was there but he wasn’t. I lost my grip on reality.
I longed for him in my whole body, in my stomach. I couldn’t eat. I’d make obsessive-compulsive bets with myself. While washing my hair with a yellow bottle of highlight amplifying shampoo, I’d think, OK, if I get out of the shower and it is 9:05 am, we will end up together. Whatever that meant. I dressed in the clothes I wore at the beginning of our relationship and returned to an earlier scent of deodorant. In this way, I thought I could summon him back.
One afternoon, to distract myself, I went to see a Woody Allen movie alone—something new, Europhilic, and badly reviewed. I watched Ellen Paige play a character who was supposed to exude sexuality without being conventionally hot. The women in Woody Allen’s movies were always accidentally hot—more beautiful for their undone hair and loose fitted linen clothes than if they had tried to be beautiful on purpose. So maybe this is it, I thought. This is what he wanted. Loose linen that somehow still accentuates the roundness of an ass. What if he wasn’t really liberating me from societal norms. What if his preference for a natural look was about him and his gaze and—I was suddenly angry.
I left the theater, it was pouring with rain and he still had not called. “I need to talk to you,” I texted. I walked around the city, soaking wet and thin from a week of eating little more than spoonfuls of peanut butter to keep myself alive. I was too distraught to enjoy my weight loss. Someone once told me that there is something especially beautiful about sad women but in that wet, hysterical moment the idea seemed ridiculous and cruel. “Call me, I am serious,” I texted, invigorated by anger and no longer self-conscious. “Of course,” he wrote back, “let’s talk when I get home.” Then the anger once again dissipated. Sorrow returned.
We broke up a few days later to nostalgic, yearning piano music on the record player. Some 10 am Rachmaninoff to prove our devotion to meaning and art. I came out of the bathroom in yet another outfit and I saw him lying on the grey couch with his hands over his face like I was actively tormenting him with my floundering insecurity.
He looked at me, dejected. “What do you want to do?” I asked. “You mean today?” he replied. “I mean you hardly call me anymore,” I said, beginning to cry. “You hardly touch me.” The music was unbearable. He held his arms out for me and I came over to the couch. I climbed over him like a child and settled into his fleetingly open arms. “Sorry, Shay,” he said. He cried too, as I later liked to remember.
“When we met,” he said, “I felt so excited.”
“We can end this,” I offered. I thought this brief moment of bravado would make him change his mind or restore my sense of agency. I cried mascara tears and he wiped them away.
After our break up, my sanity was decidedly not restored. While out with friends, I would find myself staring into space, recalling the nights we had spent together. I reconstructed the crumbling brick walls of his bedroom. His old grey couch, and the pale blue sheets he never changed. I thought of a night early on when he told me, “I want to fuck you on the floor”; how he pulled me down and kissed my face. He cushioned my head with his hands, and remembering this maudlin detail, and still sitting at the bar, I realized I was wet. And I was crying. This was a pathetic time.
I continued to send him emails, attempting friendship but transparently hoping for more. I checked his Facebook page as I checked the weather and the news. I wanted to know where he went, what music he listened to, and most of all who he met.
Eventually he reached out to tell me that he was moving to Berlin. I asked him if we could speak over the phone one last time, as if one of us was dying. While we spoke I circled the block several times. I spoke about myself cheerfully and manically. I said, “Yeah, yeah things are good. So enough about me! What made you decide to move?!” He told me that he was moving to Berlin to live with a woman.
“I don’t know if I ever mentioned her to you,” he said, “her name is Pina.”
“Of course you did,” I replied with thinly veiled bitterness.
In the pictures I scoured for online, Pina is standing in a spacious Berlin living room: high ceilings, candlesticks and bikes mounted on her walls like pieces of incidental art. The room’s stripped-down beauty is fitting. Pina’s face is round and bare. Her hair looks naturally dried and cropped at the chin. She wears a man’s denim shirt. She isn’t thin. She isn’t beautiful. Not in any traditional sense. I mean she truly looks like she doesn’t give a shit about what you think.
When I told friends about her, I got mean: “She’s plain,” I said. They insisted that I was definitely cuter. But by then I knew that cuter meant nothing. “Cute” was bullshit. I didn’t want to be cute. I wanted to look casual and cool and a touch masculine like Pina. I wanted to look like I didn’t give a shit. But of course I did.
I remembered the little details about Pina that he had strewn throughout our conversations: she had dated women in the past and did something in the art world.
They had once gone to a club in Friedrichshain together, probably somewhere down a wide, wind-blown block where a line of tourists would be turned away for trying too hard. He tried to put his arms around her to dance. “Look around,” she said, annoyed. “Do you see any other men coming up behind women possessively like that?” When he first told me this story, I didn’t understand the lesson. Months later, I got it: the lesson was that she didn’t need him for validation. She didn’t want a man to keep her or change her. That’s why he was with her.
I knew that to be the kind of liberated woman he would love, I would have to stop wishing he would come back and love me. I loved him because he had shown me that I could reject society’s expectations for female beauty. But when he was gone, it was his expectations I needed to shake. Like a modern, leftist Henry Higgins, he had tried to groom me to be the un-groomed woman he wanted. But, I realized over time, he had failed. I was still wearing makeup and blow-drying my hair. I re-read Pygmalion and finally understood that it is not a love story; it’s the story of a woman who emancipates herself from a controlling man.
How should I emancipate myself? I wanted to feel good. So I bought my own bottles of wine and sliced my own cucumbers. I bought myself weed and stored it in a mason jar as I had seen him do. I took myself out to indie films and art exhibitions. It was a small revelation that culture existed without him showing it to me. I read poems. In those days I especially loved Marie Howe’s poem about grief: “…there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself / in the window glass, / say, the window of the corner video store, and I’m gripped by a / cherishing so deep / for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I’m speechless…” The familiarity of my own reflection began to comfort me.
There was something masculine and entitled about enjoying life alone. I drank whiskey alone as he did. I bought his favorite candle, “Leather Mahogany.” I made espresso. I took all the parts of him I loved and made them mine. Why try to be the woman he would love when I could become him? A man who loved himself.
A few years later, we met again in Berlin. At a bar across the street from the apartment he shared with Pina, we drank two rounds of beers. I knew even before I walked into the candle-lit bar that despite whatever internal growth I had experienced, I would still feel something for him.
We sat at a small, round table and he ordered our beers in German. His hands, resting on the table, were still the ones I remembered cradling my head. I was so sick of my own nostalgia.
He talked about Pina, filling in more details I had wondered about: her mother was a young hippie of the post-war generation. That night she was working at an anarchist wine bar where guests paid only what they felt was fair. We talked about work; we talked about what we were reading. I was so disappointed with how mundane the conversation was. “I’m actually thinking of buying more high-end sheets,” he said. We were on our third beers when he finally asked me if I was seeing anyone. And I was, but admitting it felt like a small defeat. “I still compare everyone I date to you,” I blurted out. He blinked. He gently touched my arm. “We were never right for each other,” he said. “One day I think you’ll see it too.” His touch was something I had desired for so long. But in that moment it felt condescending. How disappointing, I thought. He still thinks he knows something better than I do.
He said he wanted a cigarette so we went to a convenience store and bought a pack. “You keep them,” he said after we had smoked one together. Then he hugged me too politely, and crossed the street to his apartment. I considered keeping the cigarettes as a memento and I did, but only for one more week. There was once a time when I had saved his chewed gum. After he had left I went back into the corner store, bought a beer, and drank it alone in the street.
Shayna Goodman‘s essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Salon, Lilith Magazine, and Jewish Currents, among other places. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Hunter College, an MA in Judaic Studies, an MSW from the University of Michigan, and a BA from Sarah Lawrence College. Shayna received a fellowship in creative nonfiction from Tent: Creative Writing (2017). She teaches first-year writing at Hunter College. She was raised in Manhattan and currently lives in Brooklyn.