I should have known better. I should have stayed home, remained alone. I should have known better.
Once you are an adult, every story begins in the middle. Mine is no different. The unpleasant details of what had come before do not need sharing, though they had brought me to New York where I could hide. My job allowed me to disappear. A copy editor’s work is essential, yet never as important as that of the writer. This suited me.
In a gray, padded cubicle, reliable words and rules of usage occupied my monitor, or filled the space on rectangular pages. Boxed in, I was invisible. Safe. Alone.
Weeknights, I rode the subway to a tiny square apartment with metal bars on the windows, and sealed myself behind a door fitted with five deadbolts. I watched the world on television, or read about it online. I ate my frozen meals from plastic or cardboard containers and owned no silverware or china, no knives to cut. No glass or china to break. I possessed nothing I did not consider disposable.
Weekends, I wandered museums where I could lose myself in the crowds. Walking beside handsome students, listening to docent lectures, I took notes as if I belonged in their cozy, boisterous groups. I fell into step beside family units, close enough to smell the baby-fresh scent of the shampoo mothers used on children’s hair. So close that, when the crowd swelled along with my need for contact, my hand could drift over a father’s fingers as he held his child’s hand upon an escalator or railing.
I reached for elevator buttons at the same time others did, on purpose, knowing my shrugged and smiled apology would be accepted. Knowing those I accosted would not suspect my longing for the touch of another’s hand on mine, however fleeting or unwanted. Listening to strangers’ conversations, I would pretend they spoke to me, composing witty replies no one ever heard.
“So, like, the thing about acting is that, like, you can be anyone, you know? Like, I could be a warrior princess, or like a vampire and shit. Clothes, makeup and attitude are everything, you know? I took dance too, so my coach says I have a really good shot at getting a part real soon.”
“Does he say that when you’re sucking his dick, or after?” her friend replied as I applauded, silently.
I could blame drama girl for what happened, but I would know it had been my idea, my fault. What if I acted, I had thought. What if instead of acting like one of these vapid young girls, or pretending to be a doctor on a television show, or a cat in a play, I acted as if I was normal? As if I was not damaged. As if I was not afraid.
Though, at first, I comforted myself pretending I had carefully thought the scheme over for weeks, I actually began formulating plans even then, noting the shabby hooker-like clothing these girls sported, casting my gaze around with newfound interest in what others wore, how others acted. Would I be a woman who wore crisp, black suits or one who wore dark-washed, pressed jeans? Did I wish to be no-nonsense in kick-ass leather boots, or flirty in sandals with sky-high heels? Was I the sort of woman who wore dresses with no panties, or one who never carried a purse? Would I be bright as sunshine, cool as spring rain or would I have a metallic tang, like a penny on the tongue?
“Excuse me?” I said to a woman at my office soon after.
Only Botox, I suspected, kept her brow from furrowing at me for bothering her. “Yes? What?”
“I love that suit, and your shoes, and scarf and, well, just everything you have on.” My palms sweat. It was the most I had said to anyone, anywhere, since suffering through the interview required to land my job. “Where do you shop?” I forged on, braver now that the words were out, though she stared at me as if I had lost my mind. Maybe I had.
“SoHo or the Lower East has the best boutiques for accessories. Fifth Avenue for serious clothes and shoes. I don’t remember where I bought everything, but the suit’s Ann Taylor.”
I watched her, and others like her, until I had a list. Until I knew just who I wanted to be.