Zack says this and looks up at you with his blank Asperger's eyes. He is sitting up in the hotel bed. You had both slept in it the night before. You had kept your clothes and even your shoes on, chaste as a nun. Zack likes you like a girlfriend but you like him like a friend.
Before crashing into bed together, far apart like siblings, you had gone to a bar and then to a club. You let him pay $11 for each of your four Ruby-Red Lemon-Drop Martinis at the swanky Daily Grill. That's $44 before tax and tip that he paid to get you feeling slinky, get you feeling warm and liquid and boneless, dancing like an off-duty stripper with him later at the club.
Chaste as a nun who drinks sugar-rimmed cocktails and simulates sex on the dancefloor.
Can you blame him? For trying what he tried there at the end?
Zack had come to town for the small-press comics convention in your city. You had not seen him since two years ago, when you rejected him after a couple of dates. In those two years, you had become a symbol to him. Whenever he applied for but did not get a job, he thought of how you had rejected him. Whenever he e-mailed a girl from the speed-dating night and she only wanted to be his friend -- it was you all over again.
But it had been good for him, or so he said -- you also have to do, in some nebulous or obvious way, with his recent drastic weight loss. Weight Watchers and long walks at night. A lot of yearning odes to pies and doughnuts on his blog.
You like it, don't you? Like being a symbol? Like being the point up ahead that seems to steer someone's life, like the unwitting carved maiden on the prow of a ship? Like having that much power over someone?
Yes. You do. Admit it.
You are a terrible person but tell yourself that you're nice. That you have a good heart. Why? Because all of your other former co-workers at the newspaper didn't like him, thought his loud nasal whine was obnoxious, thought it was weird that he chewed wads of paper when he was nervous? And because you tried to see past all of that?
Or did you? You never really could see past that. What you saw two years ago when you agreed to go on those dates was: you, freshly rejected by someone else and insecure, and him, innocent and adoring. But mostly you just saw you.
The first part of the night had been so charming. You had walked six blocks from the metro station to his hotel in your short dress and shoes printed like the fur of some wildcat. You had spotted him when you were half a block away -- he looked so thin! So surprisingly handsome, or at least scruffily cute! He had a new beard! You forgot how tall he was!
He had taken you into his arms just like a lover from the most romance-drunk teen girl's fantasies. From your fantasies. He had clasped you in his superhumanly strong grip and swung you around and around, there on the sidewalk in front of everybody, you laughing and adored.
That had been a movie moment.
In the rain, he had twirled his umbrella and done part of the "Singin' in the Rain" bit, stomping through the puddles like a big kid, even jumping up onto a low brick ledge and sort of parachuting down off of it. Movie moment. You had wavered back and forth between embarrassed and delighted. Later he misread the sign outside a sake bar and said, "Hey, let's go to the Snake Bar!"
At the Daily Grill, he'd honestly shocked you with his newfound coolness (or was it partly the alcohol -- for you, for him?). He'd worn a dark suit, black pants and a dark-gray corduroy jacket. He'd looked like what he was, an endearingly geeky freelance comics and pop-culture writer/blogger, someone who'd interviewed people who impress you, including a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who was also in town (for a literary festival) and wanted to spend time with Zack that weekend. But Zack spent time with you instead.
Seated next to Zack at the bar were a young cool guy and his hot girlfriend. Zack was being Zack, loud and funny with his lecture-style ramblings and pronouncements that make you think of Truman Capote or one of those old-timey folks who said impossibly witty things with a cocktail in hand to a laughing audience at some plush red Manhattan lounge, some legendary bon vivant like you'd see in a classic movie. The cool guy and his hot girlfriend had been honestly entranced, laughing genuinely, and you'd felt proud. "Atta boy!" you'd thought. Revenge of the nerds!
Zack drank a cocktail, a Black-and-Blue Mojito with a mucky seafloor of elegantly smushed berries. It was a girl drink but he hadn't cared, and that night, he had made it cool, because he hadn't cared. "What's that?" asked the cool guy, who surely only ever drank beer or gin and tonics. "I'll have one of those!"
Zack hadn't meant to neglect you while the cool guy kept prodding him for more stories, more Zackness. Zack had turned to you once or twice to shrug, almost sheepishly, as if to say, "Wow, hey, tonight I am cool!" And you truly hadn't minded, staring at the back of his head and catching only some of what he'd said that had the cool couple laughing so hard.
He wouldn't neglect you, if he suddenly got cooler than you. You are pretty sure of it.
You'd also stared down at your fancy cocktail, pink and sweet and perfect, like what angels must drink! Or so you thought as you were getting tipsy, the kind of thought that lets you know you're getting tipsy. You couldn't even taste the vodka. It had slipped down your throat so easy.
Each time you'd wanted a new one, you'd reached way down to your shoulder bag at your feet, making a perfunctory show of pulling out your wallet and swearing that you'll pay for this next one, "I have cash; my grandma gave me a 50 for my birthday!" But of course he had paid for them all. (Hey, his folks are rich; they gave him the condo he lives in rent-free; whatever.)
You had stumbled to the club, the one so loud from the outside that Zack had talked of earplugs, was glad that he had some in his pocket. It's only at moments like this that you remember the other Zack, the worrywart who's scared of late nights in the big city, disdainful of drunken sluts, spooked by drugs and alien to sex.
That night at the club, he'd been no alien.
A rock band played and you two were up front. You'd done the things you always do, let all movement emanate from your hips, because you're no stiff white girl, dammit; you know that dancing is all about sex. It's pretend sex. And there's no denying it -- you had pretend sex with Zack there on the dancefloor. You took his goddamned pretend cherry.
And yet the whole time you'd really been trying to catch the eye of the lead singer.
More drinks at this place, this club, cheap screwdrivers with thin un-pulpy orange juice and skunk vodka. They hadn't gone down easy, so Zack had stood over you, practically chanting "Chug! Chug!" He'd said, "Close your eyes" (you'd closed your eyes) "and drink as you listen to my voice: You're at the beach, you're listening to the ocean, everything is calm, it's all good, drink, drink..." You'd opened your eyes once to see him blatantly peer-pressuring you to drown your liver. "Innocent my ass," you'd dimly thought.
There is an isolated moment you can remember, an island of clarity in the blur of the night. Zack in the men's room and you sitting on the cracked pine-green vinyl of a booth seat in the empty dining portion of the club's restaurant, staring at fat sequin-scaled goldfish in a tank. Staring at the flowy slow-motion movement of their tails and fins, like when you're in the pool and your hair flows so pretty.
The club with Zack is like an aquarium where your hair flows so pretty, prettier than in real life. When you're drunk, all metaphors seem profound.
At the hotel, in out of the rain, you'd posed on the bed like some G-Rated centerfold and he had snapped a few photos. Your thoughts were like little clear champagne bubbles that rise up giddily and pop away to nothing. "I'm posing like a cat, back arched and clawing at the sheets -- but it's OK, because my clothes are all still on." Someone ought to brand you with a PT for "prick tease."
"Let me see! Let me see!" you had chanted after each one, scrambling to him to see yourself on the tiny screen.
Once sleep was physically inevitable for both of you, beckoning like a drowsy siren, you'd decided to stay in his room instead of walking six blocks to the metro, riding the metro for 45 minutes with a book you have already read, driving the five miles from the station to your home... and besides, the metro stops running at two...
You had fallen gratefully beneath the comforter. It had felt so clean, like heaven-clouds, like where angels sleep! He'd only tried one thing during the night -- as you'd slept, he'd draped a heavy arm over you, accidentally making contact with the padded part of your still-on bra, and you'd jumped. "Oh," he'd said in his flat Asperger's voice, and he'd turned over onto his side, his back to you.
You'd wondered if he'd mistakenly thought that he'd just made contact with your real boob.
You'd stared at the back of his head.
In the morning, he'd asked if he could hold you. How could you say no? Well, quite easily. But you hadn't. You'd stiffly allowed his embrace, holding your breath and eager for it to be over. Telling yourself it's all for a good cause, a charitable cause. He'd felt like a big soft down-covered baby. He'd gotten bold.
He'd pulled you on top of him. "Zack..." you'd murmured scoldingly, sadly. Laughing a feeble little laugh. "I'm not going to try anything," he had said, and then he had tried something. His hand up your skirt.
You had wriggled off him, embarrassed for both of you, feeling that this ending was all wrong. You had then sworn that "It's OK, it's OK," delicate with him (you are a symbol, after all; you have power). You had just stood there for a while as he sat up in bed. He had said something astonishingly jerky: "I feel great. I guess I should feel like an asshole about that, but I feel great."
You can't blame him. He's not like a normal person, someone blameable, plus there's your invisible PT tattoo. (But maybe you're unblameable, too? Sad things have happened. That morning, he had reminded you that you'd been crying in the hotel bathroom just before joining him in bed. You hadn't told him what was wrong, but now you remember drunk-texting someone you shouldn't have. Funny -- all of this is fuzzy, but the glittering auburn goldfish are so very clear.)
Now he is trying to summon up a "movie moment," from out of thin air, from out of nothing. Some "You complete me" Jerry Maguire kind of deal. Where is the debonair Truman Capote-style dispenser of bon mots from the night before? But it never comes to him, and it never comes to you.
You hug him good-bye and feign reluctance before you bolt out the door.
Soon you will be down the hall, fidgeting while waiting for the elevator and staring at the cans of coconut juice mixed in with the Pepsi cans in the vending machine.
Soon you will be hurrying down the street in gray weather, then realizing you have hurried way down the wrong street, and it will take you twice as long to get to the metro station. Your slept-in contact lenses will feel sticky on your eyes, and you will fantasize about brushing your teeth.
You will re-read your favorite parts of your book on the train, seasick in your backwards-facing seat.
You will feel inexpressible relief at seeing your car parked magically where you'd left it the night before.
You will drive five miles home to your apartment, where you live alone. You will try to settle on just one label, just one tone, for the night with Zack. What song would be playing over the preview (which would undoubtedly include his "Singin' in the Rain" routine)?
But you won't be able to label it neatly and put it away. You will feel mentally constipated. You will need a maiden on the prow of a ship.
After he gets home, he will tell you that the visit did wonders for his self-esteem. You will not be able to forget the part where he tried something, but you will not mention it, ever.
Later, he will e-mail you the photos of you that he took. ("Let me see! Let me see!") You will see yourself kneeling on the hotel bed like a sex kitten, short dress rising to expose the "control top" bands at the top of your tights, playing with your hair and not looking at him, faraway and blurred. You will see the sad empty pit of yourself. You will stare into it then look away.