By the time he was 35, the only way Ted could get hard and remain so for the duration of sexual intercourse was to pretend that his dick was a knife, and the woman he was fucking was stabbing herself with it.
It’s not like he was some kind of serial killer. Blood held no erotic charge for him, either in fantasy or in real life. Key to the scenario, moreover, was the fact that the woman was choosing to stab herself: The idea was that she wanted him so badly, had been driven so wild with obsessive physical desire for his dick, that she was driven to impale herself on it despite the torment it caused. She was the one taking the active role; he just lay there as she thrashed around on top, doing his best to interpret her groans and facial twitches as signs that she was being crushed in an agonizing vise between pleasure and pain.
He knew it wasn’t great, this fantasy. Yes, the scene he was imagining was ostensibly consensual, but you couldn’t ignore its underlying aggressive themes. Nor was it reassuring that his reliance on the fantasy had increased as the quality of his relationships had declined. Throughout his twenties, Ted’s breakups had been reasonably painless. None of his affairs had lasted longer than a few months, and the women he dated seemed to believe him when he told them he wasn’t looking for anything serious — or at least to believe that the fact he’d said this meant they could not accuse him of wrongdoing when it ultimately proved to be true. Once he reached his thirties, though, this strategy no longer worked. More often than not, he’d have what he thought was a final breakup conversation with a woman, only to have her text him shortly afterward, telling him she missed him, that she still didn’t understand what had happened between them, and that she wanted to talk.
Thus, one night in November, two weeks before his 36th birthday, Ted found himself sitting across a table from a crying woman named Angela. Angela was a real estate agent, pretty and polished, with sparkly chandelier earrings and expensively highlighted hair. Like all the women he’d dated over the past several years, Angela was, by any objective measure, way out of his league. She was two inches taller than he was; she owned her own home; she made an amazing fettuccine with clam sauce; and she knew how to give a back rub with essential oils that she’d sworn would change his life, which it had. Ted had broken up with her more than two months earlier, but the subsequent texts and phone calls had become so relentless that he’d agreed to another face-to-face meeting in the hopes of gaining some peace.
Angela had begun the evening chattering brightly about her vacation plans, her work drama, and her adventures with “the girls,” performing a happiness so clearly calculated to make him see what he was missing that he writhed with vicarious embarrassment, and then, at the 20-minute mark, she dissolved into tears.
“I just don’t understand,” she cried.
What followed was a hopeless, absurd conversation in which Angela insisted that Ted had feelings for her that he was hiding, while he insisted, as kindly as he could, that he did not. Through sobs, she marshaled her evidence of his affection: the time he’d brought her breakfast in bed; the time he’d said, “I think you’d really like my sister”; the gentleness with which he’d taken care of her dog, Marshmallow, when Marshmallow was sick. The problem, it seemed, was that while he’d told Angela from the beginning that he wasn’t looking for anything serious, at the same time, confusingly, he’d also been nice. When what he ought to have done, apparently, was tell her that she could get her own damn breakfast, inform her it was unlikely that she’d ever meet his sister, and be a jerk to Marshmallow when Marshmallow was puking, so that both Marshmallow and Angela would have known where they stood.
“I’m sorry,” he said, over and over and over again. Not that it mattered. When he failed to admit that he was secretly in love with her, Angela was going to get angry. She was going to accuse him of being a narcissistic, emotionally stunted man-child. She was going to say, “You really hurt me,” and, “The truth is, I feel sorry for you.” She’d announce, “I was falling in love with you,” and he would sit there, abashed, as though the claim damned him, even though it was obvious Angela didn’t love him — she thought he was an emotionally stunted man-child and didn’t even like him all that much. Of course, it was hard to feel entirely self-righteous about all this when the reason he knew what was coming was that this was not the first such conversation he’d had with a woman. It was not even the third. Or the fifth. Or the tenth.
Angela sobbed on, a figure of perfect, abject misery: her reddened eyes, her heaving chest, her mascara-stained face. As he watched her, Ted realized that he couldn’t do it any longer. He couldn’t apologize one more time, could not continue with this ritual of self-abasement. He was going to tell her the truth.
The next time Angela stopped for breath, Ted said, “You know none of this is my fault.”
There was a pause.
“Excuse me?” Angela said.
“I was always honest with you,” Ted said. “Always. I told you what I wanted from this relationship from the very beginning. You could have trusted me, but instead you decided you knew better than I did what I felt. When I said I wanted something casual, you lied and said you wanted the same thing, and then immediately you started doing everything you could to make it something else. When you didn’t manage to make what we had into a serious relationship — the thing you wanted and I didn’t — you got hurt. I see that. But I am not the one who hurt you. You did this, not me. I’m just — just — the tool you’re using to hurt yourself!”
Angela let out a little cough, like she’d been punched. “Fuck you, Ted,” she said. She pushed back her chair, preparing to storm out of the restaurant, and, as she left, she picked up a glass of ice water and threw it at him — not just the water, but the whole, full glass. The glass — it was more of a tumbler, really — cracked against Ted’s forehead and landed in his lap.
Ted looked down at the broken tumbler. Well. Maybe he should have expected that. Because who was he kidding? This many crying women couldn’t be wrong about him, no matter how unfair their accusations felt. He reached up and touched his forehead. His fingers came away red. He was bleeding. Awesome. Also, his crotch was really, really cold. In fact, as the ice water soaked through his pants, his dick started to hurt even more than his head did. Maybe there should be a legal limit on how cold restaurant water could be, the way there was a limit on how hot coffee could be at McDonald’s. Maybe his dick would get frostbite and shrivel up and fall off, and then everyone he’d ever dated would come together to throw a party in honor of Angela, the fearless heroine who’d ended his reign of terror over the single women of New York.
Wow, he was bleeding more than he’d originally thought. In fact, so much blood was streaming from his forehead that the water in his crotch was turning pink. People were running over, but sound was coming to him kind of scrambled and he couldn’t make out what they were saying. Probably something along the lines of: You deserved this, asshole. He remembered what he’d said right before Angela had flung the glass at him — I’m just the tool you’re using to hurt yourself — and he wondered if this was related somehow to the dick-stabbing fantasy, but he was bleeding and freezing and possibly concussed, and he didn’t have it in him right then to figure it out.
He hadn’t always been this way.
Growing up, Ted was the kind of small, bookish boy female teachers described as “sweet.” And he was sweet, at least where women were concerned. He spent his childhood and early adolescence floating through a series of crushes on older, unattainable girls: a cousin, a babysitter, his big sister’s best friend. These crushes were always sparked by some small gift of attention — a minor compliment, genuine laughter at one of his jokes, remembering his name — and they contained no overt or sublimated aggression at all. Just the opposite: In retrospect, they were remarkably chaste. In a recurring daydream he had about his cousin, for example, he envisioned himself as her husband, puttering around the kitchen as he prepared breakfast. Dressed in an apron, he hummed to himself as he squeezed fresh orange juice into a pitcher, whisked the pancake batter, fried the eggs, and placed a single daisy in a small white vase. He carried the tray upstairs to the bedroom and sat down on the side of the bed, where his cousin was snoozing beneath a hand-stitched quilt. “Rise and shine!” he said. His cousin’s eyes fluttered open. She smiled sleepily at him, and as she sat up, the quilt slid down, revealing her bare breasts.
That was it! That was the entire fantasy. And yet he nursed it so long, and with such devoted attention (Should the pancakes have chocolate chips in them? What color should the quilt be? Where should he put the tray so that it would not fall off the bed?), that it imbued his aunt and uncle’s house with a sexual aura that remained palpable to him even as an adult, even though his cousin had long ago become a lesbian and immigrated to the Netherlands and he hadn’t seen her in years.
Never, not even in his wildest imaginings, had young Ted allowed himself to believe that his crushes might be reciprocated. He wasn’t stupid. Whatever else he might be, he’d never been that. All he’d ever wanted was for his love to be tolerated, maybe even appreciated: He yearned to be permitted to linger worshipfully around his crushes, lightly bumping up against them every so often, the way a bee might brush against a flower.
Instead, what transpired was that as soon as Ted fixated on a new crush, he would start to moon over her, gazing at her and smiling like a dope, concocting reasons to touch her hair, her hand. And then, inevitably, the girl would recoil — because for some impenetrable reason, Ted’s affections provoked in their targets a reaction of intense and visceral disgust.
They were not cruel to him, these crushes. Ted was drawn to the kind of dreamy girls to whom open cruelty was anathema. Instead, perhaps understanding that their earlier small attentions had been the doorway through which Ted had entered uninvited, the girls set about locking themselves down. Instituting some universally understood emergency girl protocol, they refused to make eye contact, spoke to him only when necessary, and stood as far across the room as it was possible to get. They barricaded themselves inside fortresses of chill politeness, where they hunkered down and waited for as long as it took for him to go away.
God, it was awful. Decades later, remembering those crushes made Ted want to die of shame. Because the worst part was, even after it became obvious that the girls he adored found his attentions excruciating, he still desperately desired to be around them and make them happy. He struggled in the grip of this conundrum, trying to exert self-control in the form of brutal self-punishment (standing naked in front of the mirror, forcing himself to look at his skinny legs, concave chest, small penis: She hates you, Ted, face it, all girls hate you, you’re ugly, you’re disgusting, you’re gross) and then losing control and finding himself awake at three in the morning, crying with frustration and typing states where it’s legal to marry your cousin into the internet search bar, playing an endless game of whack-a-mole with his hopes.
The summer before high school, after a particularly humiliating episode with a camp counselor, Ted went for a long solitary walk and considered his future. Fact: He was short and ugly and greasy-haired and no girls would ever like him. Fact: Just knowing that someone as gross as Ted liked them creeped girls out. Conclusion: If he didn’t want to spend his whole life making women miserable, he needed to figure out a way to keep his crushes to himself.
So that was what he did.
His freshman year of high school, Ted crafted a new persona: cheerfully asexual, utterly unthreatening, scrubbed clean of any whiffs of need. This Ted was a 60-year-old comic in a 14-year-old’s body: hilarious, self-deprecating, and much too neurotic to ever have actual sex. When pressed, this Ted claimed to have a crush on Cynthia Krazewski, a cheerleader who was so unattainable that he might as well have claimed to have been in love with God Himself.
Thus disguised, Ted was free to befriend the girls he really did like and to channel all his energy into being nice to them without ever hinting that he wanted any more than that. The truth was he didn’t want more, not really. He had no faith in love’s capacity to cause him anything but pain. Far easier, and more pleasant, to be friends with girls: to chat with them, to hear their stories, to drive them places, to tell them jokes that made them giggle, and then to go home and masturbate himself into a frenzy, banishing his desires to the realm of the imagination, where they couldn’t do any harm.
By his junior year, all of Ted’s romantic energy had coalesced around a single target: Anna Travis, who not only tolerated him but considered him a friend. This was the magic of his new persona: As long as Ted kept his feelings hidden from them, girls — some of them, at least — liked him quite a lot.
Though she was considerably more popular than he was, when it came to love, Anna was as hopeless as Ted. For three weeks in ninth grade, Anna dated Marco, a soccer player who dumped her when he was promoted from the freshman team to junior varsity, and she’d never gotten over it. Years later, Anna still had an insatiable desire to talk about Marco with anyone who would listen, and since everyone else was sick of the topic (and, perhaps, a bit unnerved by how crazy her eyes got when it came up), her sole partner for these conversations was Ted.
Obviously, Ted didn’t exactly want to help Anna spend hours analyzing what it meant that Marco had said, “Miss you, kid,” and punched her in the shoulder when he saw her in the hallway the week before… but at the same time, he also did. Because telling Anna how stupid Marco was for dumping her and how infinitely superior she was to Marco’s new girlfriend-of-the-week was the closest he’d ever come to confessing how he felt. Plus, watching Anna yearn for Marco provided fuel for Ted’s fantasies in which Anna yearned for him.
Fantasy: It’s late at night. Ted’s phone rings. Anna.
“Anna,” he says. “What is it? Is everything okay?”
“I’m outside,” she says. “Can you come down?”
Ted puts on his bathrobe and opens the door. Anna is on his stoop, looking miserable: hair messy, shirt askew. “Anna?” Ted says.
Anna flings herself against Ted and starts sobbing. He wraps his arms around her, patting her back as her chest shakes against his. “It’s okay, Anna,” he says. “Whatever it is, it’s okay, I promise. Shhhh, shhhh.”
“No!” she cries. “You don’t understand. I — ” and then she tries to kiss him. Her lips brush warmly against his, but then he pulls away. She’s shocked, heartbroken. “Please,” she says. “Please, just…” He stands there stiffly, allowing her to slide her tongue into his mouth, and after a moment of hesitation, kisses her back, tenderly, but then, once again, he pulls away.
“I’m sorry, Anna,” he says. “I don’t understand. I thought we were just friends.”
She says, “I know — I mean, I tried to keep it that way. But I can’t hide anymore. It’s always been you, this whole time. I know you don’t feel that way about me. I know you love Cynthia. But I just… if you would just give me a chance. Please. Please.”
And then she’s kissing him again and pushing him toward the bedroom, and he’s trying to resist, saying things like, “I just don’t want to ruin our friendship,” but she’s so insistent, she won’t stop begging him, she’s unbuttoning his pants, and sliding on top of him, and putting his hand on her breast. Once they’re both naked, Anna is gazing at him in a way that is both worshipful and anxious, and she says, “Tell me what you’re thinking,” and he sighs heavily and says, “Nothing,” and stares off into the distance, and she says, “You’re thinking about Cynthia, aren’t you?” and he says, “No,” but they both know that he is. Anna says, “I promise, Ted, if you just give me a chance, I will make you forget about Cynthia,” and then she slides her head down between his legs.
Every so often, Ted wondered if there was a chance Anna might like him as more than a friend. She didn’t like him as much as he liked her, that was obvious, and she was never going to show up at his doorstep sobbing from frustrated passion, but… maaaaaaaaaaybe? She sat close to him on the couch sometimes, and she was always trying to talk him into asking girls out, which in and of itself was probably not a good sign, but when she did it, she’d say things like, “You’re a lot cuter than you think you are, Ted,” and, “Any girl would be lucky to go out with a guy like you.” So even though she didn’t like like him, maybe there was some latent potential that he could activate if he only told her how he felt. But there was also a kind of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle thing going on, whereby any serious attempt to determine the state of the relationship would invariably alter it — and because change was scary, and he was 99 percent sure Anna didn’t like him like that and never would, he let things stay the way they were: good old friendly, utterly dishonest Ted.
Anna was a year ahead of him in school, college-bound for Tulane, and the week before she left for New Orleans, she coaxed her parents into throwing her a huge goodbye bash. The party was a performance with an intended audience of one, Marco; an elaborate setting designed to show off Anna at maximum sparkle — and sparkle, dazzlingly, she did. She wore a short lace dress with a plunging neckline, and high heels, and lots of eye makeup, and she piled her tawny hair on top of her head. She surrounded herself with a coterie of other beautiful girls, all of them crying and laughing and shouting and posing for pictures and emoting so brightly that the rest of the world went dim.
Ted lurked around the edge of the party, hating himself. He and Anna had mostly hung out one-on-one, when she was feeling down about Marco and didn’t have the energy to go out. On these occasions, they sat around on the couch and ate pizza and talked. Anna was usually wearing sweatpants. Ted had rarely seen her like this, broadcasting her charisma at full force. He was painfully aware of his natural role at the party — fawning courtier — and he didn’t want to play it. Maybe he’d been deluding himself that he’d kept his feelings hidden all this time, when really he’d been walking around with his dick dangling out of his fly, unknowingly exposed. Maybe everyone in the room was thinking, “Oh, there’s Ted. He’s in love with Anna. Isn’t it embarrassing? Isn’t it cute?” Maybe Anna knew too.
Of course Anna knew.
Ted’s pride bristled inside him, cutting into the soft parts. For the first time, he was angry at Anna, at the way she’d allowed a random distribution of physical resources — height, facial symmetry, soccer-playing ability — to determine the outcomes of both their lives. He was smarter than Marco, and kinder than Marco, and had more in common with Anna than Marco, and he knew how to make Anna laugh harder than Marco ever would — but none of that mattered, because who he was didn’t matter, to her or to anyone else.
The evening dragged on, and as the party started to break up, the remaining guests decided to wander down to the beach. Ted could have gone home, but instead he stayed and sulked. Someone lit a campfire, and Ted sat in the literal shadows as he watched the glow from the flames play across Anna’s face. He felt like something deep inside had broken. He’d asked for nothing; he’d tried to content himself with as little as it was possible to want. Yet here he was, feeling humiliated and small once again.
Anna was roasting a marshmallow, twirling it contemplatively over the coals. She was wearing a boy’s sweatshirt over her short dress, and her bare legs were crusted with sand. The wind shifted, sending a plume of smoke billowing over her. She coughed, and stood, and then she circled the fire and plunked herself down next to Ted.
“Getting hard to breathe over there,” she said.
“Did you have fun at your party?” Ted asked.
“It was all right,” Anna said. She sighed, probably because Marco was long gone. He’d only stayed an hour. Looking at Anna, her forlorn expression mirroring his own, Ted felt bad about how angry he’d been only a few minutes before. He unrequitedly loved Anna; Anna unrequitedly loved Marco; Marco probably unrequitedly loved some rando none of them had ever met. The world was pitiless. Nobody had any power over anyone else.
He said, “You look beautiful. Marco’s an idiot jerk.”
“Thanks,” Anna said. She looked like she might be about to say something more, but instead she put her head on his shoulder, and he put his arm around her. She closed her eyes and settled against him, and when he was pretty sure she was asleep, he let himself kiss her forehead. Her skin tasted like salt and smoke. Maybe I was wrong, Ted thought. Maybe I could be content with this.
Unfortunately, he could not.
Ted had hoped that when Anna left for college, his feelings for her might torment him less, but they didn’t. Indeed, with Anna’s physical presence in his life so diminished, Ted could see with greater clarity the astonishing amount of space she took up in his head. In the morning, as he waited for his alarm to go off, he imagined holding her in his arms and nuzzling her neck; the first thing he did when he got up was check his email to see if she’d sent him a message overnight; all day, he filtered his experience for amusing bits and pieces that he could turn into stories to write to her about. Whenever he was bored or anxious, his brain distracted itself by worrying at the question of whether he could ever make Anna like him, like a dog working the last bits of marrow from a bone. And for hours at night, his bedroom turned into the set of an imaginary porn film starring the two of them, with the occasional movie star or classmate as a walk-on guest. Given how little contact Ted had now with actual Anna, it was like he was in a relationship with an imaginary friend.
Ted would have preferred not to live like this, but he wasn’t quite sure what to do about it. He supposed the answer was to develop a crush on someone else, someone who might like him back. As it happened, that wasn’t as wild a prospect as it might have been a year earlier — while Ted was still short and nerdy, his braces had come off, he’d gotten a decent haircut, and there was this girl he tutored in biology, a sophomore named Rachel, whose crush on him even he wasn’t oblivious enough to overlook.
Ted wasn’t remotely attracted to Rachel, who was thin and frizzy-haired and abrasive, but he was 17 years old and had never even held hands with a girl, so who was he to keep his standards high? Maybe if he and Rachel hooked up, he’d start to develop feelings for her. Stranger things had happened. Besides, he had to admit that dating Rachel couldn’t hurt his chances with Anna — after all, how many stories had he heard about girls who didn’t realize the love of their lives was standing right in front of them until the moment he fell for someone else?
So, one afternoon after tutoring, Ted, mumbling, asked Rachel what she was doing that weekend and if she wanted to hang out. As soon as the words escaped his lips, he regretted them, but it was too late. Rachel took charge immediately, acquiring his phone number and giving him her own. She told him what time, precisely, she’d be expecting him to call her, and when he dutifully phoned, she let him know what movie she wanted to see that weekend, what time it was showing, and where they should eat dinner beforehand, and then she gave him directions to her house so he could pick her up.
As they walked out of the theater, she was already making plans for future hangouts, chattering about how much she wanted to try the new Thai place on Seventh, and how they shouldn’t forget to go see that romantic comedy they’d watched the trailer for, and did Ted have any plans for Halloween, because she and her friends were putting together a group costume and he’d be welcome to join.
Ted was wildly uncomfortable. He wasn’t quite sure who Rachel was on a date with, but it didn’t seem to be him. He’d contributed nothing to the outing; as far as he could tell, she could have brought an inflatable doll with her to the movie and had an equally good time. As he drove her home, he resolved to politely make it clear there would not be a second date. Rachel would hate him for dumping her, obviously, which meant he might need to drop out of the tutoring program, but he figured it’d be worth it to avoid the awkwardness that would otherwise follow. They didn’t have any other activities in common, so if he played his cards right, he might never have to see her again.
When they reached Rachel’s house, Ted put the car in park but left it running.
Rachel unbuckled her seat belt. “Good night,” she said, but she didn’t move.
“Good night,” he said, going in for a hug. What, precisely, were his responsibilities here? Did he even have to explicitly break up with her, since they’d only been on the one date? Could he just quit tutoring and hope she got the hint? He was patting Rachel’s back in a way that he hoped signaled Please don’t hate me, I’m sorry about what I’m about to do to you, when she took his cheeks between her palms, held his face steady, and kissed him on the mouth.
Ted’s first kiss! The shock of it briefly drove all other thoughts from his head. He froze, jaw slack, and Rachel plunged her tongue into his mouth and wriggled it around. Just as his brain caught up with his body and he remembered he was supposed to be kissing her back, she broke away and started covering his lips with light little pecks. “Like this,” she said breathily, and he realized she was taking it on herself to teach him how to kiss her, because he obviously didn’t know how. A hammer of shame swung down and flattened him. Dorky, know-it-all Rachel, condescending to teach him how to kiss!
Well, since it was too late not to humiliate himself, he might as well take the opportunity to learn. After a few minutes, he decided that kissing wasn’t that hard, really, although it certainly wasn’t everything it was cracked up to be. Overall, it wasn’t an unpleasant sensation, but there was nothing particularly erotic about it. Rachel’s glasses kept bumping up against the bridge of his nose, and it was weird to see her this close up. She looked like a different person, paler, more… vague, somehow, like a painting. He tried closing his eyes, but it made him uncomfortable, like someone was going to sneak up behind him and plunge a knife into his back.
So this was kissing. He had to admit Rachel seemed into it. She kept kind of rolling around and sighing. Would he be enjoying himself more if he were kissing Anna? Frankly, it was hard to ever imagine being turned on by this activity. Two boneless slabs of flesh, flopping around, like a pair of slugs mating in the cavern of your mouth. Gross, Ted thought. What was wrong with him? Rachel’s breath smelled like popcorn butter: slightly metallic, with a hint of the burnt grease that stuck to the bottom of the machine. Or was that his breath? He could think of no way to tell.
Rachel was basically on top of him now, moving her hand in an exploratory way, like maybe she was trying to figure out if he had a boner. Needless to say, he did not have a boner; he actually felt like his dick might have snuck up inside his body to hide. Was the fact that he didn’t have a boner going to hurt Rachel’s feelings? Should he try to fantasize about Anna so that he could get a boner so that Rachel wouldn’t feel bad about the fact that he hadn’t gotten a boner for her? No, that could not be the right course of action. But what did Rachel want? She was full-on straddling him now, grinding her hips against his knee and groaning. Did she want to have sex? Surely not. They were parked outside her parents’ house, and she was only a sophomore, and besides, he was Ted. It was one thing to accept that Rachel might have developed a minor crush on him during biology tutoring, another to think that he’d made her so wildly hot for the D that she was ready to bone him in the front seat of his car.
Still, she really did seem to be absurdly into this. It was almost existentially unsettling, that two people in such close physical proximity could be experiencing the same moment so differently.
Unless… she was faking her enthusiasm? Or, if not faking, entirely, then exaggerating. A lot. But why would she do that? Pretend he was turning her on with his clumsy tongue fumblings when he wasn’t?
As soon as it occurred to him, he realized the answer was obvious. She knew he was nervous, and she was trying to coax him through it. His ineptitude and discomfort were probably visible from space. She was pretending to enjoy herself so he’d relax and stop being such a bad kisser. She was faking sexual excitement out of pity.
If before he’d felt like his dick had crawled up inside his body, now he felt like a two-ton lead slab had dropped on his crotch from the heavens, paralyzing him for life.
Kill yourself, Ted, a voice in his head said. Seriously.
He might have done it, too — just leaped out of the car and pitched himself in front of the nearest oncoming vehicle — but then Rachel picked up his hand and pressed it to her breast. He felt the no-thoughts shock again. Rachel’s breasts were small, but her shirt was low-cut, so he was touching a lot of very soft skin. Tentatively, he squeezed, and then he rubbed the spot where he was pretty sure her nipple would be. Holy shit, it was there, and after a second of rubbing, it popped up under his thumb.
Closing his eyes like he was jumping off a diving board, he plunged his hand under her shirt and bra, and then he didn’t have to worry about the no-boner problem, because the bare nipple he was pinching was the dirtiest, sexiest thing in the world, and it was somehow only dirtier and sexier for being attached to a person he barely knew, whose breath smelled like popcorn and whose transparent parody of arousal was an insult to them both.
He pinched it again, a little harder. She yelped, but then quickly recovered. “Oh, my God, Ted,” she moaned, fakely.
They dated for the next four months.
Looking back, Ted thought Rachel was the first woman he could truly be said to have treated badly. Yeah, he’d inadvertently creeped out some of his crushes, but he’d been a kid, and he’d wrestled mightily to keep himself under control. And there was probably an argument to be made about the way he’d acted around Anna when they’d been in school together — that he should have been honest with her about his feelings instead of skulking around in the friend zone — but while he might have been cowardly with Anna, he’d also done his best to be kind. Rachel, though… if there was a hell, and he ended up in it, he was pretty sure the devil would hold up a picture of Rachel, shake it in his face, and say, “Hey, buddy, what was the deal with this one?”
But he didn’t know! He really, truly didn’t.
In the four months they were together, he never started liking Rachel any more than he did on their first date. Everything about her bugged him: her stupid hair, her nasal voice, her habit of bossing him around. The thought of people saying, “There goes Rachel, Ted’s girlfriend!” made him cringe. He saw, in her, all the parts of himself he tried so hard to repress: her sycophantic overtures to people who treated her like shit, her faux-patrician condescension toward the handful of people below her on the popularity ladder, the sarcastic jabs she used to distance herself from all the other losers on her social plane.
Like him, she was prone to embarrassing bodily mishaps — period stains, bad breath, sitting in ways that inadvertently exposed her underwear — but, unlike him, these episodes didn’t seem to cause her inordinate shame. He was the one who felt ashamed: When he caught sight of her in the hallway ahead of him, sauntering on with a rusty patch on the back of her jean skirt, or when Jennifer Roberts fanned the air in disgust after Rachel, who’d been standing much too close, finally turned away. In these moments, Ted didn’t just dislike Rachel: He hated her, more than he’d ever hated anyone else in his life.
So why didn’t he break up with her?
At home, alone, Ted knew he did not like Rachel and that he did not want to date her, and so breaking up with her seemed straightforward, the right thing to do. But then they would meet up, and as soon as Rachel saw him, if he hesitated, or pulled away, or signaled with even the tiniest of expressions that something was wrong, then her face would darken. At the first hint of her anger, he would feel an onrush of guilt and cold fear. He’d get swept up in a current of conviction that he was a total garbage asshole jerk, his sins stretching in an unbroken chain back to his original decision to agree to go on even one date with her when he’d been in love with Anna the whole time. Skewered by guilt, he would decide that rather than confront Rachel directly and add to the immeasurable wrongs he’d already done her, it’d be so much better to wait for a more opportune moment, like maybe one where she’d do the breaking up herself. After all, it wasn’t like he was such a prize; surely if he just sat it out, sooner rather than later she’d free herself of this delusion that he was remotely datable and dump him of her own accord. With that in mind, he’d agree to whatever she was suggesting with a sense of profound relief — and then it’d be 10 minutes later, or 15, or an hour, and he’d surface and think, Wait a second, I was going to break up with her. Why are we sitting here in this Olive Garden, eating lunch?
With Rachel prattling on, that dark cloud of incipient anger nowhere to be seen, the idea that just seconds ago it had felt impossible to end the relationship seemed absurd — but it also seemed absurd to break up with her out of nowhere, when he’d just been sitting there acting like everything was fine and saying things like, “Sure, I’ll go with you to visit your cousin on Sunday.” Because if he tried to break up with Rachel right now, while she was halfway through a breadstick, surely the first thing she’d say would be, “If you knew you were going to break up with me, why did you literally just agree to go with me to visit my cousin on Sunday?” and he would have no answer.
Well, what if she did, Ted? What. If. She. Did. Couldn’t he have just shrugged his shoulders and said, “Whelp, sucks for your cousin, I changed my mind”? No. He could not do that, because that was something that only an asshole would do, and he, Ted, was not an asshole. He was… a nice guy.
Yes, okay, everyone agreed that nice guys were the worst, but this was different. To feel incapable of interrupting Rachel in the middle of a meal and dumping her without warning — that wasn’t Nice Guy Syndrome, that was just being humane. He’d never empathized with Rachel more than he did in those moments, imagining what it would be like to be innocently eating lunch with a person who had been acting for all the world as though he liked you, who had given you no hint that anything was bothering him at all, when suddenly, out of nowhere, wham, it turned out you were completely wrong about him and everything he’d been telling you was a lie.
His whole life, Ted had clung to the idea that he was misunderstood — that the girls who’d rejected him were wrong to treat him as though there was something inherently creepy about him. He might not have been the handsomest guy around, but he wasn’t bad. And yet sometimes he’d lie awake at night imagining Rachel telling her story to a tribunal of all the girls who’d ever rejected him, regaling them about his deceptions, the way he’d pretended to like her when he didn’t, the mask of “niceness” he wore when the truth was he was a selfish, lying piece of shit — and he saw all those girls, Anna at their center, shocked but not shocked, nodding and agreeing that, yes, of course, they’d known something was wrong with him all along.
And so Anna took on another role in his head: forewoman of a jury that stood ready to convict. The longer the relationship with Rachel went on, the more Ted needed her to return to his imaginary tribunal with a story that vindicated him. He needed his first-ever girlfriend not simply to say, but to believe, that while things might not have worked out between them, he wasn’t creepy or scary or bad; he was, fundamentally, a good guy.
To placate this imagined version of Anna, he stayed with Rachel, and he lied. He finished his lunch at the Olive Garden, he went to visit the cousin, and he tried to lay the groundwork for his escape. He did his best to keep his distance from Rachel—not enough to make her angry, just enough to keep the relationship from getting any more serious than it already was. He didn’t call her very often, and he was busy a lot but always apologetic about it. He did exactly what was required of him, but no more. He felt a bit as though he were playing dead, remaining limp and pliable in the hopes that she would eventually lose interest and wander away. “All right,” the tribunal would say at the end of it. “He’s not the best person. He’s not a saint. But he’s no Marco, manipulating girls just for the hell of it. It could have been worse. He deserves another chance. We find the defendant… reasonably okay.”
“But wait,” a voice pipes up, just before the gavel comes down.
“Just one thing, though. I have a question.”
“What about the sex?”
“Uh… what about it?” Ted and Rachel did not have sex. He wanted to be very clear with the tribunal about that. Ted did not take Rachel’s virginity. (And Rachel did not take Ted’s.)
“Did they hook up?”
Yeah, obviously. They dated for four months.
When they were hooking up, did Ted “do exactly what was required of him, but no more”? Did he “play dead” with Rachel, so to speak? Was he the polite, slightly distant, withdrawn person that he was with her otherwise?
Um. Well. No.
What was he like?
“What were you like, Ted?”
“I was… kind of…”
Before Ted got old and sexually experienced, before he mastered a range of fetish keywords on Pornhub and started paying for a yearly subscription to Kink.com, “mean” was the word he used in his head for the things he did to (with?) Rachel, that squirmy, compelling dynamic. The word predated her. He’d used it when he was a kid to describe certain kinds of comics and cartoons and movies and books where people were “mean” to girls. Wonder Woman was chained to the railroad tracks. On the cover of one of his sister’s Nancy Drew mysteries, Nancy was gagged and tied to a chair.
Young Ted liked stories where people were “mean” to girls, but that didn’t imply he wanted to do mean things to them. When he imagined himself into these stories, which he only rarely did — being mostly content to watch them play out — he, Ted, was never the one tying girls up. No, he was the one who was rescuing them. He untied the ropes and rubbed their wrists to get the circulation flowing, gently undid the gags, stroked their hair as they cried against his chest. To be the villain, the tier-upper, the inflictor of pain? No, no, no, no, no. Meanness had nothing to do with Ted’s love life, or his fantasy life, either. Until Rachel came along.
As far as possible, Ted avoided hooking up with Rachel. He rarely touched her affectionately, and he kept his mouth closed when they kissed. Though he recognized that it bothered her, he felt like he was being a good person when he did this: Since he didn’t like her, he had no right to pressure her into doing sex stuff. After all, if he made an effort to hook up and then later broke up with her, she’d be justified in returning to the tribunal and accusing him of using her for sex. By this logic, therefore, the only way he could exculpate himself from guilt was to require Rachel to prod and nag him and push him to be alone with her, to ask him two or three or five times, so that, in the end, no one could claim that it was his fault.
Once they were in her bedroom, with her door closed, she’d start kissing him in that way that never ceased to feel fake: those light pecks, those melodramatic sighs. Ugh, Rachel, he would think, as the annoyance he’d been fighting all day pushed to the surface. Why are you so bossy and pushy and oblivious? Why do you like me? Why can’t you tell I’m not that into you? But she would keep throwing herself at him… and eventually, surrendering to temptation, he would channel his irritation into a pinch or a bite or even, later, a light slap.
She claimed to be into it when he was “mean” to her, and he guessed she must be, if how wet and flushed and wriggly she got meant anything at all. Yet he still felt, gut-deep, that there was a patina of falseness over everything she did, and that in claiming to enjoy what he did to her, she was telling him what she thought he wanted to hear. Part of what it meant to be “mean” to Rachel, therefore, was to scrape away that falseness, to dig under it, to force her to show a true reaction: He wanted to catch that real part of Rachel, but it kept slipping away from him, like an eel dipping under the water, and chasing it drove him up the wall with lust. I hate you, I hate you, he’d think, pinning her bony wrists above her head and biting the meat of her shoulder and dry-humping her leg until he came.
“That was amazing,” she’d sigh afterward, cuddling up to him, but he did not, could not, believe her.
Sometimes, he wondered if, more than the hookups themselves, she liked their aftermath, because in those brief periods, he was different with her. He needed her to salve his guilt over what he’d just done so badly that he was vulnerable, open and raw. He’d kiss her and bring her water, and afterward he’d lie beside her and hide his face in her hair. In those moments, he could look at Rachel’s face and see her not as ugly or pretty or good or bad or loved or hated, but just as a person lying next to him, stripped of all the judgment he was continually imposing on her, his obsessive critical analysis of everything she did. What if he could like Rachel? If he liked her, then he wouldn’t be a bad person for dating her. He’d have nothing to atone for. They could be happy. He’d be free. The thought made him feel fantastically light, like some sponge inside him, heavy with poison, had finally been wrung dry.
It never lasted. As the postcoital bliss began to fade, Anna would manifest beside him like a ghost. Think about me, think about me, she’d whisper in his ear, and he would. His brain would rev up again, thinking, churning, judging. He’d fucked up by hooking up with Rachel, letting Rachel see him like this, exposed. Now she’d be even more sure that he liked her; now she’d be even more hurt when he dumped her; now he had even more sins against her to expiate; now it would be even harder to get away.
He’d sit up, pull on his underwear.
“Nothing. I just have to get going.”
“Why don’t you just lie here with me for a little while?”
“I’ve got homework.”
“I told you before, I have a lot to do.”
“Why do you always get like this?”
“Like this. All cranky. After.”
“I’m not cranky.”
“Yes, you are. Mr. Cranky. Crankypants.”
“I’ve got a calculus midterm, a project due for history I haven’t even started, I told a friend I’d help her study for the SAT, and the final draft of my college essay is due to the guidance counselor on Monday. I’m sorry if I seem stressed, but it doesn’t exactly help for you to pester me and call me Mr. Crankypants when I’ve already wasted like an hour here.”
“Just come lie down for a minute. Let me rub your back.”
“Rachel, I don’t want you to rub my back. I want to go get my work done. This is why I said we shouldn’t do this.”
“Oh, come on, cranky. My mom won’t be home for another hour. Here, just let me…”
“Hey, cut it out!”
“What, you don’t liiike it? Because it seems like you liiike it. Oooh, yes it does.”
“Stop, I said!”
“Make me, baby.”
“Goddamnit, Rachel — ”
And above them, like a heavenly chorus, the girls of the tribunal would resume their chattering: Look at them, those two uggos, doing their weird ugly-person shit, oh my God, he’s so nasty, did you see that, did he? I think he just… yes, he did, he did, oh no, I think I might vomit, oh, gross, that’s the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen, I don’t know who’s grosser, her or him, how could she, how can she bear it, I would never, ever, ever let him do anything like that to me…
While Imaginary Anna remained Ted’s constant companion, helpfully sharing her detailed opinions on the evolution of his relationship and the state of his soul, Actual Anna continued obliviously on at Tulane, receiving a friendly email from her good friend Ted every couple weeks — none of which, notably, mentioned the existence of an Actual Rachel.
Ted’s self-presentation to Anna was as carefully curated as a museum exhibit, and he wrestled unsuccessfully with the question of how to incorporate Rachel into the display. The problem was that while an abstract “sophomore” could conceivably be a sexy rival to Anna, raising Ted’s status in her eyes, Rachel herself could be nothing but a liability. If Anna asked him follow-up questions he couldn’t avoid, he feared that the discovery that he’d been romantically linked with Rachel Derwin-Finkel might be enough to taint him forever with her loser’s stench.
Rachel, on the other hand, knew all about Anna. Boy, did she. Sometimes, Ted suspected that Rachel was a very low-level clairvoyant, her psychic powers limited to a tiny and useless handful of realms. The slightest flicker of discomfort on his face would be immediately met with “Ted? Ted? What’s wrong? What are you thinking about? Ted?” Since he was usually thinking about how annoying Rachel was and/or daydreaming about Anna, he had no choice but to lie when this happened; he lied more to Rachel, on a day-to-day basis, than he’d ever lied to anyone in his life. And yet every once in a while, she would interrogate him in a way that sent him spasming, unable to keep himself from revealing a piece of the truth.
For example, he once — once — mentioned Anna to Rachel, but he might as well have tattooed ASK ME ABOUT MY FEELINGS FOR ANNA TRAVIS.
“Gilda Radner was basically an underrated genius,” he said that night in the Blockbuster, as they browsed past a rack featuring The Best of SNL. “My friend Anna is a huge fan of hers.”
“Your friend Anna?” Rachel echoed.
Ted froze. “Yep.” He felt as though he were walking across a lake in winter, and the ice had begun to crackle all around him. No sudden movements, he told himself. You can still get yourself to safe ground.
“I don’t think I know Anna,” Rachel said. Her voice was studiedly casual.
“Probably not,” he said. “She graduated last year.”
“How do you know her?”
“I don’t remember. I think we had class together one time.”
There was a silence. Side by side, they gazed at the movies under the bright fluorescent lights. Rachel picked up the case for Steve Martin’s The Jerk and studied the back of the box. Was it over? Had he escaped?
“You mean Anna Zhang?” Rachel asked.
The ice gave way, plunging him into the water.
“No.” Dammit, he knew Anna Hogan! Why hadn’t he just said Anna Hogan? YOU ARE SUCH A FUCKING IDIOT, TED, his brain screamed at itself.
“Well, which Anna is it?”
Ted felt his throat starting to close up. “Anna Travis,” he managed.
“Anna Travis!” Rachel was ostensibly still reading the box, but she raised her eyebrows in such a way as to evince dramatic skepticism at the idea of Ted moving in the same exalted social circles as Anna Travis. “I didn’t know you knew Anna Travis.”
“How come you never mentioned her before?”
“I don’t know. It just never came up.”
It occurred to Ted that if Rachel flew off the handle and gave him an ultimatum about Anna, he would have to break up with her, because obviously if he had to choose between Rachel and Anna, he’d choose Anna, and since nothing had ever happened between him and Anna, Rachel would be the unreasonable one, and the breakup wouldn’t even end up being his fault.
But Rachel was savvier than that. She put The Jerk back on the shelf, and they wandered through the Blockbuster in silence.
“She’s pretty,” Rachel said after a minute.
Rachel’s face twisted briefly into a sneer. “Who? Gilda Radner. No, Anna Travis, dummy. She’s hot.”
“I guess so,” he said.
“We’re just friends, Rachel,” Ted said, with exaggerated patience.
“I mean… obviously,” Rachel said. “Anna Travis.”
Rachel, Ted thought, you are a fucking cunt and I hope you die in a fire.
“Did you go to her goodbye party? Over the summer?” Rachel asked.
“No reason.” Rachel took another movie off the shelf and thoughtfully read the description on the back. Without looking up, she said, “I just heard this rumor that at that party she banged Marco Hernandez in her parents’ bedroom while her mom was getting the cake ready downstairs.”
Image: Ted is strapped to a gurney with Rachel standing over him, perusing a selection of knives, as she decides which one to jab into his tenderest parts.
“That’s ridiculous,” Ted scoffed. “Who told you that? Shelly?” Shelly was Rachel’s flighty, obnoxious best friend. Ted thought maybe he could start a fight about Shelly that could serve as a distraction. Or maybe he should just knock over the nearest video display and flee the state.
Rachel did not take the bait. “It wasn’t Shelly, actually. But everybody knows Anna Travis is obsessed with Marco. Like genuinely, crazy obsessed.” For the first time, Rachel looked directly at him, her eyes blank behind her glasses. “I heard that she’s been writing him all these messages from college and calling him all the time at his dorm, and it got so bad that he had to have her number and email address blocked.”
Ted felt sick. How long had she been carrying this piece of information around, and how had she known she should use it?
“Oh my God, Rachel,” Ted said. “It’s like honestly embarrassing the way you do this, gossiping about people you don’t even know. You treat people you think are cool like they’re celebrities or something. Anna’s just a regular person, and you don’t even know her, so maybe you and Shelly should stop obsessing about her love life like a couple of dorks.”
“Well,” Rachel said, pursing her lips. “I actually do know her. So.”
“You do not.”
“I do,” she said, coldly triumphant. “We went to nursery school together, and our moms are friends. It was her mom who told my mom the thing about Marco blocking her number. She said Anna’s been so messed up about it that she might need to take a semester off. I guess your friend Anna just didn’t tell you.”
Ted’s stomach contracted around the knife Rachel had just shoved into his gut.
Rachel wrapped her cold hand around Ted’s limp one. “I don’t think I’m in the mood for a movie, actually,” she said. “My parents won’t be back home until midnight, and my brother is at a sleepover. Let’s go.”
A few nights later, Ted sat in front of the computer, trying to compose an email to Anna. He’d written and deleted 20 variations on the question “are you sure everything’s okay?” but nothing had come out right. He’d already sent her two emails that went unanswered, and he knew he should just chill. The problem was that he didn’t just want to find out if Rachel’s story was true; he needed to find out — his itch to know felt like bugs crawling under his skin.
Driven by anxiety to unforeseen heights of bravery, Ted found himself picking up the phone. He had Anna’s number at school memorized, even though he’d only ever called her once before — on her birthday, when he’d sung the entire “Happy Birthday” song into her voice mail. She never called him back, but he did get an email eventually (subject line: Thank you SO much!!) that she signed with a bunch of X’s and O’s, which had felt significant at the time.
Anna picked up on the first ring.
“Hello, Anna. It’s Ted calling,” Ted said, as though he were speaking directly into her answering machine.
“Ted!” she said. “What’s up?”
“Uh… I was just thinking about you,” he said. “Are you doing okay?”
“I guess,” she said. “Why?”
Because my girlfriend, whose existence I’m keeping a secret from you, told me a secret you’re keeping from me, because she was jealous of the crush I have on you, which I’m also keeping secret from you, though I was unable to keep it a secret from her?
“Um, I’m not sure exactly. It’s weird, but I just had the… feeling… that something was wrong.”
Using covertly acquired information to feign a mysterious psychic bond was a new realm of deception for Ted, and he didn’t fully understand the potency of what he’d done until Anna started to cry.
“I’m not okay,” she said. “I’m not okay at all.” Between sobs, she began gasping out a tangled story that involved not only Marco but also a guy in a frat who’d treated her badly, a nasty fight with her father’s new wife, an ongoing war with her roommate, and the fact — which she mentioned as almost an afterthought — that she was failing most of her classes and would be on academic probation next year.
“I’m sorry,” Ted said, stunned. “I’m so sorry. That sounds really hard.”
“I can’t believe you called me,” Anna said. “Nobody else from home has called me in forever. It’s like they forgot about me. You think you’re so close to people, but when it comes down to it, they just forget.”
“I didn’t forget about you,” Ted said.
“I know,” Anna said. “I know you didn’t forget. You were always there for me, always, but I never appreciated it, I took you for granted. I was so selfish. I hate who I was in high school, God, I wish I could change everything about myself, but it’s just — it’s too late to do anything. That’s the problem. It’s all so fucked up, and I just don’t know who I am anymore, you know? Like, who is this person who made all these choices that I just have to live with? I look back at that person and I hate her, I hate her so much for what she did to me. That person is like my nemesis, my worst enemy, but the problem is that person is me.”
As Anna poured her heart out over the phone, Ted’s own heart lit up like a solar flare. He wanted nothing more than to show Anna how he saw her: how beautiful and perfect she was in his eyes. He needed to let her know that he was going to carry that memory — that knowledge — of her inside him, so that no matter what happened between them, no matter how down she got on herself, he could do this for her: He could love her, selflessly and unceasingly, with total commitment and purity, for the rest of his life.
An hour later, Anna sniffled. “Thank you for listening, Ted,” she said. “It really means a lot to me.”
I would die for you, Ted thought. “No problemo,” Ted said.
After that, Ted and Anna began talking on the phone almost every night. Never in his life had Ted experienced anything that matched the thrill of those late-night conversations, and he found himself constructing an elaborate set of rituals around them, the way a primitive tribe might need to perform rituals around the lighting of a fire, to keep its power contained.
Part of the ritual involved keeping the conversations a secret — from Rachel, of course, but also from his parents and everyone else. He moved the phone in the den away from his computer and up by his bed. He ran the fan outside his door to create a mask of white noise. He took a shower, brushed his teeth, and got under the sheets. Before Anna even answered the phone, his skin would have grown warm, almost feverish.
Their voices were husky and low; they murmured to each other, Ted thought, as though they were lying beside each other in bed, whispering across the pillow. He closed his eyes and pictured this.
“How was your day?” he asked.
“Oh. You know.”
“Still. Tell me. I want to hear.”
As Anna began telling him the story of her day (“Well, so, I woke up at four a.m. because fucking Charise had fucking crew…”), Ted stroked his hand slowly down his chest and around his rib cage, imagining it was Anna’s hand, his skin goose-pimpling beneath Anna’s fingers.
As she talked, he said very little, mostly just sympathetic uh-uhs and oh-nos. Once, when she sounded particularly upset, he said, “I’m sorry,” and then mouthed silently, “sweetheart.”
Meanwhile, his hand progressed in slow sensuous circles down his torso, along the waistband of his boxers, and under the elastic band, hesitantly stroking the edge of his pubic hair.
“Tell me more about Kathleen,” he said when Anna seemed to be running out of story. Kathleen was Anna’s stepmother. He began playing with his dick — tapping it with his fingertips, flicking it on the shaft. “Do you think your dad will stand up to her, or will he take her side?”
“Oh my God, are you kidding?” Anna practically shrieked.
“Shhhh, shhhh,” Ted hushed her. “Charise has practice in four hours.”
“Fuck Charise,” Anna whispered. Ted laughed. Anna laughed too. He could practically feel her breath on his face. He squeezed his dick, arcing his back with pleasure, and gritted his teeth to force himself to keep quiet.
“Are you getting sleepy?” he asked at last.
“Yes,” Anna said.
“Do you want to fall asleep together?”
“I do… but you have to get up so early…”
“It’s okay,” he said. “I’ll sleep in study hall.”
“You’re sweet, Ted. I like falling asleep with you.”
“I like falling asleep with you, too. Good night, Anna.”
“Good night, Ted.”
“Sweet dreams, Anna.”
“Sweet dreams, Ted.”
In the ensuing quiet, he imagined Anna watching him with fascinated disgust; he imagined her touching him; he imagined that on the other end of the line, in the humid New Orleans night, Anna, racked with desire, was touching herself and thinking of him. He listened to her breathe in and out as his hand worked steadily beneath the sheets. He felt ashamed of himself, of course, but the warmth of that shame pooled in his crotch, amplifying his pleasure. He came in a torrent, making no sounds other than those that could be explained away as sleepy breathing. Only when he’d calmed himself completely, his pulse and his breath both fully slowed, did he dare to whisper, “Anna, are you asleep?”
He imagined Anna lying awake, eyes wide, staring at the ceiling, her heart full of yearning, but there was only silence.
“I love you, Anna,” he whispered, and he hung up the phone.
And then it was winter break, and Anna was coming home to visit. Would Ted see her? Of course he would see her. They were practically best friends! They talked every night. She’d said, “You were always there for me, always.” He would see her, obviously. The only question was when.
In high school, making plans with Anna had been a process as delicate as surgery, and occasionally as brutal. If he asked her directly to hang out, she’d always smile and say, “Sure! Sounds great! Call me tomorrow and we’ll figure it out.” Only a slight tightness around her mouth and the heaviness of her exhale would suggest that he’d imposed. But inevitably, a conflict would appear at the last minute, or else, when he tried to pin down the details, she’d simply fail to answer the phone. If he called her out on her flakiness, or even made reference to the broken plans, as opposed to pretending they’d never existed in the first place, she’d pull away even further, in a way that made him feel ashamed of himself and needy for pressing her.
On the other hand, she happily kept him informed about plans she had with other people, providing a steady flow of information about excursions that were about to happen, details of dates or parties that were always this close to coming together. As long as he listened, without complaint, to an endless description of activities that were supposed to happen without him, there was a 30 percent chance, at least, that Anna would change her mind at the last minute, claim to be unable to handle the unbearable burden of whatever her social plans were supposed to be, and decide to hang out with him instead. She’d arrive at his house and collapse in exaggerated relief: “I am so glad we’re doing this. I was so not in the mood for another house party at Maria’s.” As though they were both equally at the mercy of circumstance, similarly oblivious to the power dynamic that governed their “friendship.”
But surely something had changed between them! Surely she wouldn’t treat him now the way she had then, not after she’d spoken the words aloud: You were always there for me, always, but I never appreciated it. I always took you for granted. What could those words be but a confession? And what was a confession if not a promise, or at least a willingness, to change? He loved the way her voice had caught and hitched a little before that second “always.” You were always there for me, always. When they got married, she could include them in her wedding vows: You were always there for me, always. You were always there for me, always. You were always there for me, always.
They were the most beautiful words he’d ever heard.
The night before she got on the plane to New Jersey, Ted tried to nudge Anna, as gently as he could, into saying what he wanted to hear. “I’m excited to see you,” he said.
“Me too! For sure.”
“Have you talked to anybody else from here lately? Like, friends, or anybody? I remember you saying that your friends from home were bad at being in touch.”
Was he imagining the slight hesitation before her answer? She still hadn’t confided in him about Marco; the other day, Rachel’s obnoxious friend Shelly had announced, out of the blue, that she’d heard that Marco Hernandez had an actual restraining order out against Anna that required her to stay 500 feet away from him at all times. This was obviously an idiotic rumor of the type that was Shelly’s specialty, but he still wished Anna would do something to reassure him — ideally burst into tears and say, You were always there for me, always, and plead with him to forgive her for all her years of neglect — but he’d have settled for even a hint that she intended to make an active effort to meet up.
Instead, the conversation took a sharp and unsettling turn.
“Actually,” Anna said. “I was talking to Missy Johansson, you know her? And she told me you were dating somebody! Rachel Derwin-Finkel? And I was like, no way, that’s not possible. But she insisted that it was!”
“Hahahahahahahaha!” Ted said.
And then, when Anna’s silence indicated that cackling like a madman was an insufficient response, he added, “Um. Yeah. We’ve been hanging out.”
“Hanging out as in dating?”
“I mean, I don’t know. We haven’t really put a label on it.” (They had.) “It’s complicated.” (It wasn’t.) “You know how I am.” (She did not.) “But… yeah.”
Ted, who had been leisurely erect at the beginning of this conversation, now felt like he might puke. There was something deeply wrong, almost violating, about having Anna talk to him about Rachel; it was like having his parents walk in on him having sex.
“Maybe all three of us can hang out when I’m there! I’d like to see Rachel again. It’s been way too long.”
“Um, sure. If you want.”
“Did you know our moms were friends? We used to have playdates, like, constantly. We don’t know each other that well anymore, ’cause we went in different directions, socially, in school, but Rachel’s a really good kid. Mostly what I remember about Rachel is that she was super into horses when we were little. And My Little Ponies and stuff. Remember?”
Clever, Anna. Very clever. What actually happened was that a rumor had spread around school that Rachel Derwin-Finkel masturbated with My Little Ponies. It was one of those rumors that no one really believed, not really, but that they passed along enthusiastically nonetheless. Ted himself had argued passionately with the other boys at his lunch table about whether that was even possible (Did she just stick it in there, or…?), and then, when the controversy threatened to die down, he’d willfully revived it, because the Rachel scandal had taken the focus off the previous scandal roiling the third grade, which was the question of whether or not he, Ted, had been caught by the music teacher pooping in the instrument closet during the spring recital, WHICH OF COURSE HE HAD NOT.
What did Anna know about what it was like to have a rumor like that spread about you, that overpowering and helpless shame? He wished he could believe Anna was jealous, but he didn’t; she was just marking her territory, like a dog peeing on a patch of grass. Did he even exist in her mind as a living, breathing, thinking person? He spent so much time trying to figure out what she was thinking, but what kind of a consciousness did she imagine lived behind the mask of his face?
For the first time, Ted imagined fucking Anna the way he (almost) fucked Rachel: cruelly, without concern for her comfort, fully acknowledging that as much as he loved her, he also hated her. In his fantasy, Anna was underneath him, his hand was around her throat, and, oh shit, there was Rachel: They were in a three-way. Rachel was naked, on her hands and knees, and Ted was grabbing Anna by the hair and forcing her —
Making her —
They were both —
“Did you hear what I said, Ted?” Anna asked.
“No — sorry — listen, I, uh, I’ve got to go!”
On Anna’s fourth day in New Jersey, Ted was in Rachel’s bedroom, dressing himself after another round of not-quite-copulation, when Rachel asked him what he wanted to do for New Year’s Eve.
“I don’t know,” Ted said as he pulled on a sock. “I think I might just stay home.”
“You can’t do that,” Rachel said. “Ellen is having a thing, and I told her we’d go.”
“What? Why would you do that?”
“Make plans without asking me first. Don’t you think you should have checked in with me to see if maybe there was something I’d want to do other than being dragged to some party with a bunch of sophomores I don’t even know? I have a life outside of you, you know.”
“Um. You literally just said you had no plans on New Year’s and were going to stay home.”
“I said I might stay home.”
“Okay. What else might you do?”
“I don’t know. There’s this party at Cynthia Krazewski’s I was thinking of checking out.”
“At Cynthia Krazewski’s.”
“Cynthia Krazewski invited you to a party.”
“Ted. You’re telling me Cynthia Krazewski invited you to her New Year’s party, and you’re thinking of checking it out.”
“Are you, like, having a stroke?”
“I’m just trying to get my facts straight. Cynthia Krazewski called you up on the phone and was like, ‘Hi, Ted. It’s me, Cynthia, and I would like you to come to my party’?”
“So who invited you?”
“What? What are you talking about? Anna invited me. Who cares? I didn’t even say I was definitely going. I said I was thinking about it.”
“Oh, now I see. Now I get it. Now everything is very clear.”
“You don’t see anything! I was on the phone with Anna, and she mentioned the party at Cynthia’s, and we talked about going. We don’t even have concrete plans.”
That was not what had happened. What had happened was that Anna had complained to him at length the previous night about the painful obligation she was under to go to Cynthia Krazewski’s party, despite the fact that it was the absolute last thing she’d ever want to do, and thus Ted had inferred there was a strong likelihood that if he should happen to be home alone on New Year’s, he would get a last-minute phone call from Anna, and the two of them would wind up spending New Year’s together, most of which they would pass watching SNL in Ted’s basement, but then at midnight, they’d switch to network television to watch the ball drop, and he’d “discover” a bottle of chilled champagne in his fridge, and after they’d toasted each other, he’d turn to her with a wry, amused smile on his face and say, “I know this is silly, but we might as well!” and she’d giggle and say, “I guess so!” and so he’d kiss her in an almost-friendly way, on the lips but closed-mouthed, and then he’d pause as he was pulling away and wait, and she would wait, and then she’d go in for the kiss, and then they’d be making out for real, grappling on the couch and then on the floor, and when he took her shirt off, he’d pull it up but then kind of twist it around her arms so they were pinned above her head, which was a trick he’d recently discovered with Rachel, and Anna would make this kind of sexy, surprised Oh face with her mouth, and she’d be panting underneath him and they’d fuck and he’d make her come so hard that afterward they would be together for the rest of their lives.
It was a foolproof plan.
Oh, wait. No, it wasn’t. It was a sexual fantasy, and he was an idiot.
Then, just as he was acknowledging this to himself, Rachel — his girlfriend, his mirror — began to dance. Clad in only her underwear, her tiny tits shaking, she did a hideous little dance, a mocking-Ted dance. A dance that, in a moment, fused everything he loathed about her with everything he loathed about himself.
“Hi, I’m Ted!” Rachel sneered, shimmying. “Look at me! I’m Anna Travis’ dorky sidekick. I follow her around hoping that if I do everything she tells me all the time, I can somehow make her like me. Look at me, look at me, look at meeeeeeeeeeeee!”
Was there a point at which your ego was crushed so completely that it died, and you no longer had to lug around the burden of yourself?
There must be a German word for this feeling, when the elaborate contortions of your own thinking rose to the surface and became suddenly and unpleasantly visible. Like walking past a mirror in a crowded mall and thinking: Who is that dude with the terrible posture, and why is he cringing like he expects someone to punch him? I’d like to punch him — oh wait, that’s me.
“Did she invite me?” Rachel practically spat. “Am I invited with you to the cool kids’ party?”
Ted didn’t answer her.
“So she didn’t invite you? Did she just say she was going, and you were just going to lurk creepily around her like, oh Anna, I’ve missed you so much since you’ve been at college, I wish we could just run away together and watch like 20 hours of SNL while I make you popcorn and breathe heavily into your ear?”
“Yep,” said Ted. “That’s pretty much what happened.”
“I have an idea,” Rachel said. “We’ll go to Cynthia Krazewski’s party together. Sure! Why not? I’ll call Anna. I told you our moms are friends, right? I’ll ask her if we can come to Cynthia’s. I’m sure she’ll say yes. It’d be fun to see her. You’d like that, wouldn’t you, Ted?”
“No,” he said. “I would not.”
But that was precisely what they did.
In New York City in the year 2018, Ted lay on his back on a hospital gurney, shoved into a hallway of a crowded ER. Unable to turn his head either left or right, he stared directly up into a blinding fluorescent light and wondered if he was dying. That’s ridiculous, he told himself. I am absolutely not dying. A lady threw a glass of water at me; it’s a minor injury; it’s absurd to think a person could die because of that. Immediately, he imagined Rachel saying scornfully, “People die of head injuries all the time, Ted.”
Ted thought, I am probably not dying, but I am scared and alone and I don’t like this.
“Excuse me,” he shouted, through a dry, cracked throat. “Could someone please tell me what’s going on?”
No one responded to his plea, but eventually some blurry shadow-creatures came swimming toward him. They asked him questions in a nonsense language, and he answered in an equally unintelligible garble, and he was rewarded by a prickle in his arm, followed by a flooding ease of bliss.
As the drugs took hold, Ted’s memories began to entwine with a strange yet perversely lovely hallucination. In this hallucination, the tumbler Angela flung at his head had not bounced off his skull but shattered instead. One piece of glass had become lodged in his forehead, and he could see that piece of glass in the center of his vision, rising like a tower, impaling him, pinning him down, refracting a shimmering circle of rainbows in the light. Through the glass, he could see himself reflected in all his miserable glory.
There he was.
There he is.
Trenton, New Jersey, on the last day of 1998.
Ted and Rachel are standing on Cynthia Krazewski’s front porch. Rachel has prepared herself as though for battle. She is clad in a skintight black dress and shiny high heels, her hair sprayed and bound in a tight French twist. Ted rings the doorbell, and after what feels like a pointedly long time, Cynthia Krazewski opens the door.
“Hi,” Ted says. “I’m Ted.”
Rachel nudges herself between them. “Anna invited us,” she says.
Cynthia says, “Who?”
“Anna Travis,” Rachel says.
Cynthia shrugs her shoulders like she’s never heard of Anna Travis. Maybe she hasn’t. “Whatever,” she says. “Beer’s in the fridge.”
Inside the party, Ted locates Anna immediately. She is in the corner, talking to Ryan Creighton. She’s wearing a dowdy smock dress over leggings, and she’s dyed her hair an unbecoming shade of red. In contrast to Rachel, Anna looks a little… bland? She looks like what Ted knows her to be: tired, overwhelmed, and sad. Ted thinks, Is it possible that Rachel is hotter than Anna? Or that they’re both equally hot? His world trembles on its foundations, but then Ted sees Anna put her hand on Ryan Creighton’s biceps and laugh flirtatiously, and once again she body-slams his heart.
Rachel sees Ted looking at Anna looking at Ryan Creighton. She stiffens and grips Ted’s hand until it hurts.
Realizing she’s being watched, Anna takes Ryan Creighton’s arm and leads him over to Rachel and Ted. There is a bunch of superficial hugging and some Oh my God it’s been so longs. Anna and Rachel giggle over some small embarrassing habit of Ted’s — Have you ever noticed how he — while Ryan Creighton looks seriously bored.
Ted thinks, Everyone at this party could die tonight, including me, and I wouldn’t even care. He gets very drunk.
At some point in the night’s festivities, the doorbell rings, followed by a slight commotion. Anna disappears from sight. Ted tries to go after her, but Rachel holds his wrist in a firm and brutal grip. Rumor filters back to them that Marco Hernandez was at the party briefly but left when he found out that Anna was there. There is more talk about the restraining order, and whether it’s real or not, and how that would even work.
Ted kisses Rachel with tongue and squeezes her ass. In doing so, he discovers that it is possible to enjoy something and yet not care about it in the slightest. He finds this sensation — feeling pleasure, and simultaneously feeling detached from the pleasure — to be, itself, quite pleasurable. He wonders if he has miraculously become a Buddhist, or suffered a psychotic break.
When Ted finally withdraws his tongue from Rachel’s throat, he sees that Anna is watching them. Anna looks upset. Rachel sees Anna watching them, and kisses Ted again, in triumph. Ted once more feels like a patch of peed-on grass.
Anna disappears, but when Rachel leaves to go to the bathroom, she returns.
“Ted, can I talk to you?” she asks.
“Sure,” he says. “What’s up?”
She leads him outside, onto the porch. It’s freezing, sleeting a little, but he’s wrapped in enough drunken warmth that he doesn’t really mind it. Anna lights a cigarette. She exhales a gray wave of smoke and scratches at her thighs. It’s news to Ted she smokes.
“I can’t believe you,” she says at last. “I can’t believe you did that.”
“Made out with your girlfriend like that. Groping her and everything. Right in front of me.”
“Huh?” Ted says. “What?”
Anna slumps forward. “I don’t know…,” she says. “I guess I just thought…” She starts again. “I guess, we’ve been talking for weeks about how hard this was going to be for me, and about how worried I was about how it’d be, seeing everyone. You knew I didn’t even want to come here, but then you decided you were going to come with your new girlfriend, so I had to. And then Marco showed up, and it was like, super traumatic, and when I come to you and try to get support, you’re in the corner making out with Rachel Derwin-Finkel. It just… I feel like our relationship isn’t the same anymore, that I’ve lost you somehow. I miss you, Ted.”
There are tears in her eyes. Ted has never seen her look so despondent, and Anna often looks very, very sad.
“Why aren’t you saying anything?” Anna asks, sniffling.
“I guess…,” Ted says. “I’m not sure what to say.” Awkwardly, he puts his arms around her. “I’m here for you, Anna. You know that.”
“I know,” she says. She puts her head on his shoulder, and for a second, it’s like that other good night, the night of the bonfire, the brief lifting of the yoke, freedom from the circle: Marco hurting Anna, Anna hurting Ted, Ted hurting Rachel, these endless rounds of jealousy and harm.
Anna says, weeping, “I’m so tired of chasing after all these shitty guys. I want to be with someone I can trust. I want to be with someone good.”
And then Anna, luminous Anna, beautiful Anna; Anna, with her dimples and smooth skin and the freckles on her nose and her pretty, pretty hair; Anna, whose smell enchants him; Anna, who has ruined him for all other women; Anna, the one he’d die for. Anna, the most perfect girl in the world —
Anna kisses him.
I will be good for you, Anna, Ted thinks, embracing her. I will be good for you for the rest of my entire life.
Just give me one quick minute to break up with Rachel first.
Anna waits on the porch while Ted goes back inside to tell Rachel he is leaving. “It’s Anna,” he says. “She… We…”
He doesn’t finish his sentence. He doesn’t have to. The look Rachel gives him penetrates deep, deep, deep into whatever tattered mess he has of a soul.
Of course, there is screaming.
There is crying.
There is beer throwing. (Just the liquid, not the glass.)
But then, at the end of it, Ted leaves the party with Anna. He walks out of a party with Anna Travis that he walked into with Rachel Derwin-Finkel, and if there is a heaven, this is the feeling he will be allowed to live inside of for eternity; the greatest, most triumphant moment of his entire life.
Twenty years later, from the perspective of his hospital gurney, he has to admit that everything pretty much went downhill from there.
Ted loses his virginity to Anna Travis on March 13, 1999, in the top bunk of her dorm room, after they’ve been dating long distance for three and a half months. To the surprise of both parties involved, Ted has difficulty maintaining an erection. The reason for this, though he would never, ever confess it, is the look on Anna’s face. She just seems so dutiful. She looks like she is taking medicine, or eating vegetables. She looks like she is thinking, Whelp, my life sucks so bad I guess I might as well have sex with Ted.
No, that’s not fair. Anna is having sex with him because she loves him. Since they started dating, she’s told him that she loves him, dozens and dozens of times. She’s having sex with him because she loves him, and because he loves her, and sex is a normal part of this equitable exchange. She loves him because he is “good.” But by “good,” she means “safe.” And by “safe,” she means “You love me so much that you’ll never, ever hurt me, right?”
Anna loves Ted, but she does not want him in a way that causes her to suffer; she does not want him desperately, despite herself. And it turns out that is how Ted has always wanted to be wanted: the way he has always wanted women. The way Anna wanted Marco, and he wanted Anna, and Rachel (or so it seems, in retrospect) wanted him.
In the absence of this painful wanting, Ted has trouble getting hard. At first, he tries to address the problem of his vanishing erection, by shouting at himself, TED YOU ARE HAVING SEX WITH ANNA TRAVIS! But that doesn’t work. What lifts his dick, finally, is thinking about Rachel. About how, if she knew he was having sex with Anna Travis, she would be so jealous and so pissed. Look at me now, Rachel, he thinks triumphantly as he comes.
You fucking slut, you stupid fucking bitch.
Ted dates Anna, long distance, for the next year and a half. For the first year, he struggles valiantly to make it work, but for the last six months, he cheats on her: first with a girl on the floor of his dorm at college, and later, with the girl who will eventually become the next in his series of girlfriends, and in between these women, he also cheats on her with Rachel Derwin-Finkel, while they’re both home over Thanksgiving break. The whole time Ted is having sex with Rachel, Imaginary Anna flutters around him, waving her angel’s wings in his face: I’m so beautiful and perfect, she sighs. How could you possibly prefer having this creepy weirdo sex with Rachel Derwin-Finkel? Is that really the kind of person you are?
The thing is, it’s such a relief, having sex with Rachel Derwin-Finkel. He doesn’t have to pretend around her. She knows exactly who he is.
As he gets older, he finds himself refining the technique he first used, however inadvertently, on Anna; his secret seduction trick. This is what you do: Drag your heart like bait in front of them. Pretend to be an easy catch while always staying slightly out of reach. Oh look, it’s me, here I am, I’m just nerdy old Ted. You’re so much better-looking than me; you’re so much cooler than me; you’re the greatest you’re the smartest you’re the best. With you, for you, I’d be the greatest boyfriend who ever, ever lived.
Pathetic Ted, short nerdy Ted, ladykiller Ted, using a thousand tiny hooks to catch onto a woman’s ego, like a burr clinging to the cuff of her pants. All he has to do is smile and make a few self-deprecating comments, and women start telling themselves he’s so “nice” and “smart” and “funny.” They argue themselves into settling for him, talk themselves into just one date. They feel proud of themselves for giving him a chance.
The older he gets, the higher his stock rises. More and more women want out of that endless chase after Marcos; they yearn to collapse into the arms of their Teds.
Ted hears other men congratulate themselves on this new reversal of power, the fact that now, in their thirties, it’s so much easier for them to get dates. Maybe there are men who can enter into this bargain wholeheartedly, who can look into the eyes of their Annas and not mind the truth of what they see there… but not Ted. What Ted saw in Anna’s eyes, he also sees in Sarena’s and Melissa’s and Danielle’s and Beth’s and Ayelet’s and Margaret’s and Flora’s and Jennifer’s and Jacquelyn’s and Maria’s and Tana’s and Liana’s and Angela’s: that tiredness, that willful giving up. He sees how smug they feel about settling for a “good guy,” which means: a guy they secretly think they’re too good for. He sees them think they’re safe.
He gets pleasure out of it, a kind of pleasure, fucking these women, but it’s entwined with loathing, both for them and for himself. He gets his revenge in his fantasies, which grow more and more elaborate, until at last they involve sharp knives and utter desperation. It’s like the game kids play: Why are you slapping yourself? Stop slapping yourself! Only in this case, it’s Stop impaling yourself on my dick!
The women he dates all turn on him eventually, of course. The more they feel like they’ve compromised themselves by being with him, the more passionately they pursue him when he launches his retreat. He becomes an instrument of pure self-punishment: What is wrong with me, that even this fucking loser won’t give me what I want? They identify all sorts of problems in him that he needs them to fix: he isn’t “in touch with his emotions,” or he’s “afraid of commitment,” but they never question the basic premise, that somewhere deep down, underneath it all, he wants to be with them. Of course you have feelings for me, Angela might as well have been saying, right before she threw the glass at him. Admit it, dammit!
And you’re Ted.
In 2018, Ted is Facebook friends with both Anna and Rachel, though he hasn’t seen either of them in years. Rachel is married, a pediatrician, and the mother of four kids; Anna lives in Seattle as a single mom. She seems to be doing okay, now, but for a while she was going through a rough time; Ted suspects she may be in some kind of recovery program. She posts inspirational quotations that strike him as beneath her: “I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination,” and “It is in the darkest moments that we must try to see the light.”
He thinks of Anna, now, as he’s lying on the gurney. In fact, he sees her. She’s coming at him through the rainbows, accompanied by a chorus of voices, a fluttering of wings.
What time is it? What day is it? What year? Here is Anna, but she’s not alone. She’s with all the women of the tribunal. They’re here, at his bedside, whispering about him, observing him closely, judging him the way they always have. They’re fighting, disagreeing about something, and he senses there is a misunderstanding at the center of all of it, some base confusion. He could clear it up, if only there weren’t a giant shard of glass embedded in his forehead, if only this blood would stop pooling in his mouth.
I didn’t mean to hurt anyone, he tries to tell them. I just wanted to be seen, and loved for who I am. The problem was, it was all a misunderstanding. I pretended to be a good person, and then I couldn’t stop.
No, wait. Let me start over. That’s not right.
All I’ve ever wanted is to be loved. Well, to be worshipped. To be desired, madly and painfully, to the exclusion of all else. Is that so wrong?
No, wait. That’s definitely not what I meant.
Listen, listen. I can explain. There’s a bad Ted underneath the good Ted, yes, but then, under that, there’s a Ted who’s good for real. But no one ever sees him; his whole life, no one ever has. Underneath it all, I’m just that kid who wanted nothing more than to be loved and didn’t know how to make it happen, even though I tried and tried and tried.
Hey, stop. Put me down. I’m trying to tell you something. Would you stop talking and listen to me, please? The light up there is hurting my eyes. But also, maybe turn on the air conditioning? It’d be a little easier to explain myself if it wasn’t so damn warm. Are those flames licking at my feet?
I’m trying to say something important. Where are you taking me?
Listen to me, will you —
I’m a nice guy, I swear to fucking God.