Twitter, Shame, and I Don’t Know Your Name: The Grim Side of Dating While Dad

Monday, February 29, 2016

She follows me in the morning, and I get a series of tweets from her, late in the afternoon. “Been reading your stuff. Wow.” And “I really wish you were still teaching.” I follow her back on Twitter. Her handle is an almost indecipherable portmanteau, her profile photo a beautiful young Asian girl exhaling smoke at the camera.
 
 We switch to direct messaging late in the evening. 
 
 I am one week out of the hospital. I feel shaky, walking through my days like a recent immigrant who only half understands the language of his new country. I am tired and confused. It isn’t lust that’s on my mind as I message with this 20 year-old from Arcadia, now a student at the same college from which I resigned when she was a junior in high school. It’s the hunger for familiarity. 
 
 Flirting, chasing, the game, whatever you call it — I’m doing one of the few things I still know how to do. In my new life, post-teaching, there are very few things I do that make me feel competent. My children, as delightful as they are, exhaust and confound me. I love them more than anything, and that love is matched by worry.
 
 Seduction — at least this kind — makes me feel alive.

When I saw “Shame,” perhaps one of the best (and to be fair, only) films ever made about sex addiction, I identified with a great deal and rolled my eyes at plenty else. Yet the scene that stuck with me the longest isn’t graphic. The protagonist, played by Michael Fassbender, is to meet his friend in a bar. The friend is anxious to pick up women, and starts flirting with three girls before Fassbender gets there. They play a game where the friend is supposed to guess the color of the women’s eyes after they shut them. The friend fails hopelessly. Fassbender walks up, makes cursory eye contact, stares at his drink, and gets the colors exactly right. He does this with resignation rather than pride; this is his work. Later, he fucks one of the girls in an alley.

This is the thing about sex addiction, to the extent that it’s a real thing at all and not an artificial creation of the media and the Recovery Industrial Complex. When you’re in the addiction, you’re always “on.” You might forget to tie your shoes or turn off the coffee pot, but you pick up on every cue and you assess every opportunity, even when sedated. Even when 168 hours off of a locked ward.

She asks “When can I meet you?” I give her some dates. “I’m going to New York with my family Wednesday,” she says. “Can we do tomorrow?”
 
 That’s easy. Sure, I tell her.
 
 She is precise: “What time can I come over?” I have a tight schedule that Tuesday with kids. “8:45,” I tell her. “Okay,” she messages back, “I have a midnight curfew.”
 
 Curfew. I decide not to think about the last time I had to deal with a girl’s curfew.
 
 We message a few times the next morning. I keep forgetting to ask her name, knowing her only by her strange Twitter handle. 
 
 Then, at 4:30PM: “Hey, I don’t know if this is appropriate but I have some weed left so I was wondering if you wanted to smoke a bowl first?”

I haven’t smoked weed in years, not since we called it pot. It was bad for my bipolar brain then and it would be bad now. 
 
 And I am on autopilot. “Sounds great,” I text, “bring it.”

She pulls up at exactly 8:45. I open the gate and guide her through the narrow passage that leads to the off-street parking spot. Only after she climbs out of her late-model Lexus do I get a good look at her. She is even prettier than her single photo would imply. In her heels, she’s quite tall..

We come inside and sit down at my little desk that doubles as a dining room table. We look at each other. She is trembling with excitement or nerves, or possibly the cold. I switch on the heater.

She pulls out a metal box, red and gold and black and green with lions and bears and elephants on it. “Animal Crackers!” the logo on the box says. She’s placed a small PETA sticker in one corner.
 
 She opens the box, pulls out her weed and her pipe, and packs it expertly. I like watching her do this, because I love watching anyone do something they’re really good at.
 
 She offers me the first hit, and I decline. She fires it up, takes a deep hit, and passes it over to me. I inhale, cough and splutter. It really has been eons. She laughs in surprise, and I blush, and the age gap feels less awkward.
 
 We finish the bowl. She looks at me, expectantly, evidently calmer with the weed in her system. 
 
 I can’t do this.

“Are you hungry” I ask. She hesitates.

“Yeah?”
 
 I have pretzels and tortilla chips, and we make a healthy dent in each bag. 
 
 “So,”, I say after a few minutes, “I don’t think we should do anything.” 
 
 She looks confused and relieved and asks me why.
 
 “Have you ever done anything like this before?” I ask, nearly certain of the answer.

“No.”
 
 “Then maybe not with me. Not tonight.”

Before she goes home, to make sure her head is clear, we walk to the corner store to buy bottled water. We hold hands; I ask her about her family; she asks me about my kids. Before she climbs back into her car, I kiss her on her cheek and ask her to message when she gets home safe.

She does.

That is the story I wish I could tell. That is not the true story. This is the true story:

The truth is that I kiss her when I take my third and final hit, exhaling into her mouth. 
 
 The truth is that when she kisses me back, I pull her out of her chair and up and onto my lap.

The truth is she then pulls her gray woolen dress up and over her head. Red bra, red panties, so new that I half-expect to see a Victoria’s Secret price tag.

I pick her up, carry her to the bed. She softly bites my neck, and asks “Can we turn out the lights?”

I don’t remember the last time someone asked me to do that.
 
 I turn out the lights, and then — why not — I light a candle. While I’m doing that she takes off her underwear and gets under the covers.
 
 I keep condoms in my bookcase, and I grab one on my way back to the bed. She looks concerned.
 
 “Please don’t wear one. I don’t… like them.”
 
 I’m fresh off a psych ward and reckless as a childless stunt pilot whose dog just died. It’s her call to make. I leave it by the bed, just in case.

And then I am gentle, we are gentle, I am trying to be kind, but the whole exercise feels utterly robotic. She has a beautiful body, but every movement she makes with it seems practiced, artificial, a caricature of desire. 
 
 I wonder how much porn she’s watched.

I wonder if her parents are younger than I am.

She asks me to take her from behind, and a moment later, looks back at me. “Is this okay?”
 
 I can’t anymore. 
 
 I pull out of her, and lie down beside her. We study each other. She looks away. 
 
 “I’m sorry,” she says.
 
 “No, I’m sorry,” I reply. “Have you ever done something like this before?”
 
 “No.”

She turns around and presses back against me. “What time is it?” she asks.

“10:05. “
 
 “Can you wake me up in 45 minutes?”
 
 I set the alarm on my phone and spoon her. She takes my right hand, puts it on her breast. We doze off.

45 minutes later the alarm jangles. We get dressed and I walk her out to her car.

I kiss her on the cheek. 
 
 “My name’s Helen,” she says softly, “I don’t think you know that.”
 
 “I didn’t. Message me when you get home safe.”
 
 She does. It is the last time I hear from her.