An Error

The Fear of Being Found, Brian Luong

He’d seemed nice.

Zoe had noticed him — not for himself — but she’d noticed him noticing her. He was with a guy she knew, and she’d seen him looking. Not ogling a specific body part, which would have been creepy — who wanted to be ogled? Just looking -taking her all in- in a way that made it clear he admired her.

In a minute, he came over with their mutual friend.

“Hi,” said the friend. “This is Nathan. I don’t think you’ve met before.”

They’d chatted for a few minutes that night, which was enough time for her to form the ‘nice’ impression. He was tall, skinny, and reasonably good-looking — not her usual type, maybe. (But if he liked her, he was attractive enough for her to start thinking about liking him.) He was definitely a few years older than her, with a tired-looking face. Black silky-looking shirt. A fraction too much cologne, but maybe she was being ungenerous — maybe his hand had slipped over the nozzle.

“I’m busy alll the time,” he said, but in a way that didn’t seem braggy. “Always on the road between California and here. I run a small travel agency there. What about you?”

“I’m an artist,” she said. “A singer. Well, aspiring. We’ll see.”

“A singer! Oh, that’s so great!” he said with enthusiasm that she considered inappropriate. It was as if she had announced something much grander. “I’d love to hear something sometime. Not now, of course.”

Of course it was the usual line guys gave her when she said what she did. Still — she enjoyed hearing it; was that wrong? She hated when they acted nonchalant about it. (Singer? Why not babysitter, window-washer, dog-walker?) Or worse, dismissive. (One time a date had told her, Would I have heard of you? in such a way that she’d excused herself to go cry in the bathroom.)

It had ended there, with him asking sweetly for her number. She gave it to him and wandered off to get drunk, with a mild, pleasant warmth in her stomach.

He next texted her on a Friday evening.

She was a little dispirited by the lateness — she’d already had plans. If he’d been genuinely interested, wouldn’t he have texted her earlier in the week?

Besides, it was a message her best friend Maria would describe as breezy. “Hey, wanna grab a drink tonight?” Low-effort, Maria would say, taking the phone out of her hand and tossing it on the couch. Why try when you’re not even trying? That was something Maria said a lot about boys.

She matched his tone with a: “Would love to, but have plans unfortunately, sorry.”

The message that followed then was a little less nonchalant. “Oh, well. Rain check soon? By the way, it’s the guy from Dirty Precious, the travel agent — hope you remember me.”

Zoe thought that was a message that deserved a flirtatious reply. “Sure, that narrows it down to only a few dozen travel agents that I met at Dirty Precious last week.”

None of it was fresh or sharp, but it did the trick of establishing familiarity, and soon they were texting about makeup plans next week. Zoe still didn’t know how she felt about him, but it was enough that he was funny without being abrasive. That was enough for now, she thought as she brushed her teeth harder than usual. When she spat, there were traces of pink foam in the sink.

“What do you think?” he said as he zipped up his jacket outside the theatre.

Zoe didn’t particularly like the jacket — it was the downy, puffy kind that had probably cost a lot of money — but she had liked the movie.

“I thought it did a really good job of depicting grief. That’s what I like about horror movies. They’re a bait-and-switch. Most of them talk about grief — usually starting with death, or the loss of a grandparent, or something.”

This was something she’d thought about before: it was an insight that she’d been proud of. She realized, belatedly, that she wanted to impress him. But when she turned to look at him, she saw that Nathan wasn’t listening. He was looking at his phone, a small crease between his eyes.

“Listen, would you mind if we cut this short? I have a fucking work crisis happening, and I need to sort it out tonight.”

The way he’d said fucking — with so much emphasis — was a little rude, she thought. She wouldn’t have sworn like that in front of someone she didn’t know. But she was twenty-five years old; why was she being childish? Of course people swore in front of strangers.

She looked down at the ground.

“No, of course, yeah. You should go,” she said, trying to swallow the disappointment she felt that he was leaving, and without an apology. Was it real, she wondered. Was he making up an excuse? She hadn’t felt anything in the cool darkness of the theatre: he hadn’t reached out to grab her hand or grazed her shoulder at all.

Maybe it was her jeans, all wrong: a sterile and depressing choice for a date, surely. Not like what she’d worn the first time they’d met. Maybe he’d been disappointed; maybe he’d remembered her as being much prettier or sexier than she was. Zoe worried about that a lot: she thought that boys who liked her at first had been fooled, and that they’d figure out that her prettiness was a mirage caused by makeup and the right clothes on a thin, inoffensive body.

“We’ll rain-check, I promise. Soon.”

He bent down to hug her, and she knew from the way he touched her back that she’d been wrong. He hugged her — oh, not like a friend would, but as though he wanted to feel what her body was like under her clothes. It wasn’t much, that lingering hug, but she was feeling something besides surprise: a long-dormant tug of sexual excitement.

“I met a boy,” she said breathlessly to her girlfriends. “I went on a date the other day, and we’re seeing each other again for drinks Thursday.”

They were at a tiny, trendy Italian restaurant where you could hear all the other diners’ conversations.

“Tell us,” said her friend Rachel as she reached for another piece of bruschetta. Zoe loved it when Rachel got excited, she loved the way she leaned forward and talked just a little too loudly. More than anything, it made her feel more excited about Nathan. Her friends’ pleasure added to her own (which was more insubstantial, it might drift away if you looked it directly in the face).

“Is he cute? Show us a picture!”

Although she did think Nathan was attractive, Zoe was glad that she didn’t have a picture. There was something, some small-scale agony in the ritual of showing pictures to your girlfriends, mostly because she couldn’t imagine them saying “No, I don’t think he’s cute.” No, they would never say that. They would have coughed, and smiled knowingly, and said “He’s cute” in that hearty manner that she was afraid of.

“He’s thirty, I think, or thirty-one. Runs his own business. He seems polite…he’s pretty funny.” She searched for some detail that would impress them.

“Oh…he took three months off work to care for a sick friend. I thought that was incredible. You know? I mean, how often does anyone do that for a friend? Maybe for a girlfriend or a relative, but — I think it’s such a great sign of character.”

They were impressed, she could tell now, they were nodding like solemn ambassadors. Just as she had been when he told her.

Even better, he’d mentioned it offhand, as they were going into the theatre. “I’m swamped at work, I took three months off-” and she’d asked why, and then that surprising answer came.

“I’m so happy for you,” said Maria tenderly.

Zoe laughed.

“I barely know him. I just have a good feeling, that’s all.”

When the next text came, it was one of which her friends would have approved.

“Hey girl. So…I think I owe you an apology. I peeled out of there so fast last time, I completely forgot. But I had a beautiful night — maybe I can buy you dinner to make up for it?” He’d finished with a smiley face.

She stared at the text until she felt that tug of sexual excitement again.

“Yes,” she texted back, her fingers fairly racing over the keys. “Let me know when works?”

His answer came two minutes later. “Tonight? Meet me at Dirty Precious. I’ll be the travel agent in the back.”

She couldn’t say what it was that was exciting her, but she suspected it was his sureness. As if he’d known he could text her, and that she would cancel her plans to meet him at nine o’ clock. How had he known? Or was this something men knew instinctively, when they had you on a hook? (And if she was on a hook, which part of her was caught?)

She saw him as she entered the restaurant: he was leaning forward and speaking animatedly with a waiter. This time, when she saw him, there was a ripple of emotion in her, there was something foreign travelling through her chest. It replaced the blankness that she’d felt before (when she hadn’t known how she felt about him).

When she got closer, she saw that he was arguing. Something about tables, and a reservation –

“It’s okay,” he sighed, and motioned for the waiter to go away. “Zoe! Come here.”

He pulled her into his body, and once again the intimacy of the gesture took her by surprise: it was as if they’d been dating for a long time. It made her think what it would be like to have Nathan as a boyfriend. Would he call her on Friday evenings, or pick her up from rehearsals?

“You look great,” he whispered against her ear. He drummed one hand lightly on her hip. “Is this new?”

Zoe felt colour come into her cheeks then; she pulled away a little out of sheer embarrassment.

There was a smile on his face. “Why don’t you sit? I ordered us espresso martinis. You have to try these. They’re the best in town, except for at Harry’s Bar, and who goes to Harry’s anymore?”

She hadn’t heard of Harry’s, but she sat down and adjusted her dress under the table.

When the espresso martinis came, she agreed that yes, they were the best in town. They were so strong they went to her head immediately: she was feeling woozy by the time she’d drained her glass.

“Are you hungry?” he said, watching her.

“No,” she said reflexively, before realizing they were supposed to have dinner. But he seemed satisfied with the answer.

“Me neither. Excuse me, please?”

Zoe didn’t want to drink on an empty stomach, but it was too late: he was already summoning the waiter over, and she’d look foolish if she took back her previous statement. So she settled for the free popcorn at their table, and the olives out of the second (thankfully non-espresso) martini that arrived in shockingly little time.

“I have to be careful of what I eat,” he said. “My hours are so wild that I can’t go to the gym as often as I like.”

“But-” she looked at his shape in his black shirt. “You’re thin.”

He laughed and bit into an olive.

“And I wouldn’t stay that way long if I didn’t watch what I ate, would I?”

It was confusing to her, to see a guy talk the way….well, a girl would talk. It seemed all wrong, somehow, to hear a thin man talk about his weight: that kind of self-control seemed to be out of place. Suddenly she wondered what he thought of her body, and her lack of desire to police what went into it.

They drank two more martinis before they were through, and talked about what it was like to be your own boss, and what they did on Sundays, and what their exes had been like (“mostly young and confused,” he announced with a wave of his hand).

She tried to think what word she could use to categorize her exes, but she was too tipsy to be clever, and she was feeling a little confused herself, in the dark smoky air of the bar, and the nearness of him.

Why doesn’t he touch me, why doesn’t he touch me? Her heart hammered under the soft material of her dress, and the music seemed to her much too loud suddenly. It was difficult for her to focus on what he was saying, and he had to repeat himself a couple times before a look of understanding came into his eyes.

“Do you want to get out of here?”

Zoe stood up in relief. He caught her hand as she lurched slightly.

“Maybe we should have eaten something, after all,” he said, his hand on her back as he guided her to the door, and she felt an immense comfort and satisfaction in those words. They seemed to her proof of a loving nature, of a kind and considerate person, and she clung to him as if they hadn’t just met. He laughed again, and again, smoothing her back in a proprietorial gesture.

“My place is just around the corner, don’t worry. That’s why I’m here so often.”

He hadn’t been lying: it really was close — an old building, with a non-working elevator.

“Here, I’ll help you up, just a couple of floors…” He held her hand firmly, and she felt that tug of sexual excitement again: it cut through her drunk fog with ease. She imagined her lying on his bed, with her arms around him; she imagined him touching her as surely and tenderly as if she were a soft animal.

“This is me.” He swung open a heavy door to reveal a lush, well-lit cream apartment. There wasn’t much furniture: only a couch and a few chairs in the drawing room.

She sat down uncertainly. He sat next to her.

“Do you want something to drink?”

“I don’t-,” she started, but before she could finish, he was mumbling Thank fuck, and grasping the material of her dress, and his mouth was on hers.

The kiss took her by surprise; it was wrong. Not soft, like she had imagined, not growing in heat and purpose as it continued. It was a single-minded kiss; he was thrusting his tongue down her throat, pushing her shoulders back on the couch, biting the soft places of her neck and shoulder as avidly as if they were plums, then going back to her lips. She didn’t like the way he was working his tongue in her mouth, or perhaps their kissing styles just didn’t mesh well, but she broke off to say something.

“Okay, I-”

She didn’t know what she had been going to say, but he wasn’t listening; he was taking off her dress in the most awkward fashion possible. It was as if he had never undressed a woman before. He kept reaching around the back, searching for a hook or zip that wasn’t there. She caught his hands and tried to redirect them, but he mistook her attempt for enthusiasm and kept fumbling. Finally, he just tugged her dress up until he could see her breasts.

“Shouldn’t we- should we go to the bedroom?”

He didn’t answer her; he had fallen upon her breasts with clumsy eagerness. He fondled and groped her and pawed at her like a dying man, and it made her feel special, to feel so wanted — but she also felt as if he didn’t want her at all, but just a body. He was moving through her to some end that only he could see. Meanwhile, she was barely inhabiting her own body; she was watching him do things to her from a perplexed, terrible distance.

She tried to summon up the feeling she’d had in the bar, and outside the movie theatre, but it was gone. She didn’t have the memory of it; all she had was this man who was different — who was doing these things to her that she didn’t enjoy, that he wasn’t good at, and how had she been so mistaken? Was it too late now?

After a minute or two, he grabbed her legs and placed them on his shoulders. He was now kneeling on the soft pile carpet.

“I’m going to tongue-fuck you now,” he announced importantly into her crotch, without looking at her.

“Oh, I-”

She coughed, a dry little cough that felt absurd given their position, and the words he had just said. But he didn’t notice. He was taking off her panties, and tossing them behind the couch cushions.

This was the last chance, she thought: the last chance to redeem their sex, to pretend it wasn’t a jagged, poorly-designed encounter. A seal flopping on land…no, not that — it could still transform… He would make her feel good; he would know what he was doing. He could, she thought, become that man in the bar again (the one she had wanted so desperately to touch her, ah if she could remember why)

She braced herself. He bit her directly on the soft mound of her pussy.

It was such a shocking act that she gasped. Alcohol had numbed her body somewhat- but it still hurt her, and she moaned and flinched and pulled back, but of course there was nowhere to go when her back was dead against the couch.

“Yes, baby,” he moaned in turn, and moved his mouth to her thigh. He was moving more efficiently now, as if through the steps of a routine only he understood: he licked and bit as he went, and it hurt and embarrassed Zoe so much that she finally put her hand on his shoulders and pushed him away.

“What?” For the first time, he looked at Zoe — looked at her properly, with an expression of disbelief.

“I-”

How to explain that she felt loathsome? Her eyes filled with tears and she blinked them back.

For the first time, she noticed a plant pot in the corner of the room. He owned a living thing.

“I want to go home,” she said childishly, refusing to look at him.

He laughed into the darkness.

“Is this a game?” He nuzzled her thigh, and it was a soft gesture: not the Nathan of the last few minutes. It was soft and confident, like the man she’d been with in the bar. But this only made her feel more desolate, and she spoke without thinking.

“You’ve had girlfriends? Before, I mean? Did you have a lot of sex with them?”

She was astonished by her own impudence in asking the question, but she needed to know what was happening; how a man with such self-assurance could be so terrible.

Nathan’s face darkened.

“What kind of question is that?”

She reared back from the prospect of his anger.

“I’m sorry,” she said humbly. “I don’t know what I was thinking…I guess I was just feeling jealous.”

He softened immediately at that suggestion. He placed a hand on her knee. She fought the urge to shake it off.

“Shall we-?” and he was grinning now, sliding his hand from up her knee back to her thigh, and it inspired so much nausea in her she felt electric.

“Come on,” he said, wheedling, and then his fingers were inside her despite her obviously resisting body, and it hurt- it hurt again-

“I have to go,” she said. “I have to go now. I-I’m sorry.”

She stood up and felt for her shoes under the couch.

“I have to go now,” she said again over her shoulder. She was already at the door and he was there, watching her, just watching. “I have to be up very early in the morning, and I don’t feel well…I’m not even sure if I have my key; I might have to wake up my roommates…they work early, too…”

She wasn’t even a good liar; what was she doing? But he came up behind her and slid his arms around her waist and bent to kiss the line of her jaw. Standing here with him like this, she could almost believe him to be courteous again, to be old-fashioned, to be the Nathan from Dirty Precious.

“Okay, bunny,” he said into her neck. At any other time, she would have felt weak at the endearment; she would have been texting her friends about it.

“Silly bunny. To be jealous of other girls you’ve never met.”

She managed a smile.

“I should go,” she said again. Finally, he released her and watched as she slipped her heels on.

“So…will you get home safe? You’ll be okay?”

She wanted to laugh at the question: how could he imagine that anything outside would pose more discomfort to her than what had just taken place?

“I’ll be fine,” she said.

“I had a wonderful time tonight,” he said, which was so absurd she pretended he hadn’t said anything.

“Goodnight.”

“Wait,” he said. “Did you forget your manners? Kiss goodbye?”

She tolerated his kiss, which was just as sloppy as before. She was no longer herself, no longer that drunken Zoe from before. She was a person who unsavory things happened to, and suddenly she hated him for it. She hated him for making her life unsavory when it had previously only been unremarkable.

“I’ll text,” he said, and then it was over, she was out in the street, feeling the damp air, taking great lungfuls of it in until she felt steadier. He shouted something after her — a goodbye?- but she didn’t hear what he said, and she didn’t turn.

All the way home, she thought of that first night in the bar, and how nice he had seemed, and how wrong she had been. She had thought that because he gave up work to help a sick friend, he was a wonderful person. That he would make love to her wonderfully. How foolish! She was no better, after all than his young foolish exes.

“Foolish, foolish, foolish,” she whispered to herself, realizing that she was still a little drunk.

“Did you say something?”

When she got home, she tipped the cab driver heavily. She drank a glass of water and nearly sobbed with relief, sitting alone in the kitchen with the lights off. It was over, she said to herself: this mishap, this foolish encounter. She would text Maria about it, saying she had been mistaken, and that was that. Maria had the tact to understand; she wouldn’t probe further, and all would be forgotten.

Zoe had no way of knowing then that he would text earnestly for weeks and weeks after that, trying to understand what had happened, why she was no longer interested in him. She didn’t know that she would remember him a few months from now, when she was with another man, and marvel: “How could he have been so bad? Didn’t he know?” Later — later still — she would remember Nathan, and say of him: that was one of the worst nights of my life, and he had a wonderful time. Isn’t that funny? She would think (although she didn’t know it yet) of him with pity, never with resentment. She would remember him (although she hadn’t turned to look) standing on his stoop and waving goodnight: goodnight, Bunny! Good night.