FOREVER 21 by Sylvia Math

He was not a mercy fuck at all, but the way he looked at me—stricken—and couldn’t take his eyes away, eclipsed whether I wanted him or not. He wanted me so much I never got to consider whether the answer was maybe. It was why not? from the start.

I was dressed up for another man. Dressed exactly the way the other man liked, with extra enchantments. Black dress so short you could see the beginning of the high triangle thigh gap; primordial geometry but not a math problem. No bra; spaghetti straps. It was a cheap stretchy slut dress from Forever 21 I’d bought that afternoon just for him. $15.99 or something. But with Manolo Blahniks. And a short black Agnes b trench coat I had so long I forgot what it cost or whether I bought it in San Francisco or New York or Paris. Lots of eyeliner; dark red lips—I prefer a pale lip but he hates that & he only visits NYC a few times a year so tonight I’m aiming to please.

Then, in liquid black eyeliner, I carefully wrote on myself in cursive French, from my collarbone to my left ankle. Lines from the Revolution of Everyday Life. I sat on an uncomfortable metal folding chair in St. Mark’s Church. Third row, aisle. I was the second one there, so I could be sure to have a seat I wanted. To watch him onstage.

He accused me once, when I was 18, of not knowing how to say hello or goodbye. The insult stung, stayed with me. The things people whose opinion you care about tell you about yourself–or your manners or your timing– when you are young get inscribed indelibly. Didn’t Hamlet say “the readiness is the all”—? So I work on my version of it, rubbing it in, sharpening my lack of facility with time into seductive weapons of timing. SO THERE. I’ll show YOU bad timing, FOREVER. I don’t make an entrance for him. I’m early, too early. Always. With an aisle seat so I can be the first to leave and he has to chase after me later. My approach is silent and undetected but my departure is always quietly theatrical…he likes that too; I finally figured it out. But I still can’t stop playing my seconds & minutes games with a mute & carefully timed predictable vengeance. You could set your clock by it, how I’m always too early & gone too soon.

But here, this time, in the row behind me, someone else has already arrived. He’s one seat over, so he’s looking at me from an angle, one I can see back in my peripheral vision. Plus, I have a Movado mirror face watch. It doesn’t work, but I feel naked without this fat cool silver mirror on my wrist. I can position it like the rear view mirror in a car to see behind me, and I do. I see the stricken face of the man. I monitor him looking at me, how he can’t look away. He’s looking at me—a woman in expensive heels and a cheap dress, with writing all over her body in French, plus the trenchcoat!—like I am something so fictive, so desirable I cannot be real, and he has to stare or I will disappear, back into fantasy.  

This happens sometimes. When you set out to seduce, your net goes wider than you planned. You’re trying to be one man’s predictable femme fatale; you accidentally trigger an image of someone else’s high school fantasy of a Godard ingenue on a bender. One thing about dressing up as the femme fatale though, is it is usually invisible armor: men are intimidated. Too intimidated to stare, to talk to you. This man was not intimidated, but neither was he emanating a martial masculine response to my siren call. This is why I had to say yes. He intrigued me; I could not place him in what I knew so far of the world.

When I slipped out just before the end, I passed him my card. It was a luscious night with the one I came for, I think. I don’t remember anything about that time, really. What I remember most of that night is the way J. stared at me, and how I clocked him looking, in my dead mirror watch that doesn’t keep time.

He was a poet, of course. Who else would be early to a poetry reading at St. Mark’s, mesmerized by a woman who was overdressed for the occasion & written on? Slathered in words?

But whatever heated wordless longing fired our speechless introduction to each other was absent from our ensuing fling entirely. We shouldn’t have talked. Like O, we should have only opened our mouths for sordid purposes or sustenance around each other. Once there were speech bubbles above us instead of thought bubbles, our connection burst. Between us, there was an OED of words; a Norton Anthology of metaphors. And none of the right ones, somehow.

He had a small son, a four-year-old. Every other weekend. For this son, the poet perpetually made chocolate letters, the alphabet. He had letter molds, and there were always curvy chocolate letters cooling on wax paper over a cookie sheet in his fridge. He fed these to me, too. As our postcoital conversations pushed us further and further away from each other, I lounged in his bed, nibbling on a melting L or Q or F.

I tried to write about him before, and the words would not come then, either. I plucked an aftermathic email chain to explain to someone, and saved the draft, with a title:

He Was a Very Fine Poet and I Actually Liked Him a Lot, but We Broke Up Because We Could not Communicate for Shit

Me: I don’t remember the french movie at bam though…are u sure that was with me?

Him: Pretty sure, yep

Picked you up in Wmsburg, got lost, found our way eventually and in time

Horrible older actor, staggering around, being incomprehensibly vain,
seducing younger women

We left

Full moon?

I think it was the only time you drove in my ancient destroyed Honda Civic

We parked in the east village and you complained that they were
playing “that scientologist, Beck” on the bar stereo

You told me about a filmmaker who lived in Ageloff Towers on 4th and A

I told you about a poet who had lived in that building

The conversation didn’t go well

Me: I’ve never even heard of the Ageloff towers…

Him: It’s an apartment building, tall, across from Key Food, on Avenue A. I don’t think you named it, I think you just pointed at it.

Him: Actually, this conversation is going about as well as that one did.

One male friend I tell about the fling says, “I have to practice my longing Labrador eye stares.”  Another says of the stricken stares,  “What if staring was his move? His technique for getting hot chicks into el sacko?” I believe—maybe as an embarrassing crutch, like reading all your horoscopes in mini crises of indecision —that moments when we are stricken by someone or they are stricken by us must mean something. Clues. That have to be followed up, followed through. Rachel Kushner wrote of “tainted magnets.” We are all tainted magnets; and what we attract & what we are attracted by is not coincidental. The fact that she was writing about how she kept finding alluring images of women with guns when she was writing The Flamethrowers is after-the-fact and irrelevant to my situation, I decide.

“The complete sentence narrates a satisfying process. It closes and opens like a clam. I take a knife to the sentence and start my evening at the raw bar. It is hard work, and the sentences would prefer to be in the ocean.”1Jordan Davis, “Naragansett” 

The closest we ever got to the ocean together was the time we took the Staten Island ferry. It was the only time I ever got off on the Staten Island side, instead of just joyriding back and forth. We went to a minor league baseball game. I hate baseball & have no memory of why I agreed to do this, nor of the game. I don’t remember the ferry rides either. We went with a third party, a poet who is extremely funny and loves baseball. That’s probably why we went. In the company of the third party, we would not be left alone with our defeated conversations, but buoyed along the minutes by the hilarity of our mutual friend.

What I remember clearly is that the only time we really laughed together was the next morning. He had a plant in his windowsill, and I asked him what kind of plant it was, while I was eating one of the chocolate letters. “It’s a ficus,” he said. For some reason this struck me as funny, and he asked why. “Because ‘ficus’ sounds like an obscenity, a word from the fuck family of words, off kilter a bit.” He understood what I meant right away. For the first time ever. “Yeah,” he said. “Like ‘fike us’?! No, fike them. Fike you.” We laughed and laughed. He got me another chocolate letter, and made coffee. We had a private language, finally. That consisted of only one word. A misreading of a plant name as an obscenity  An edenic garden that lasted only one morning and could not bear fruit, & that we wanted to flee—would have been glad to be kicked out of by even a fake minor god, or a deus ex machina as a last resort— even as we dallied a bit, not killing time as much as observing that it was static when we spoke.

We stayed friends. Until I couldn’t bear it anymore that he remembered every little thing about our time together, and I remembered next to nothing. At first I thought what bothered me was guilt. Was I a heartless unfeeling bitch who didn’t remember because I didn’t care? Why did he remember and I didn’t?

Before me, he was married for more than a decade. He dated me, and another poet, both briefly, then got long term married again. He was the marrying type; he had the American statistical average number of lovers: five or six. I had already had more than that by 18…

If you only had a handful of lovers, you’d remember things in greater detail than if that number blurred by orders of magnitude too, right? This bothered me more than the deluded guilty phase: I realized I was envious of him.

Rivka Galchen once paraphrased Proust in a magazine interview: “There’s a Proust line about how, like, one reason why we start to forget about people or get over people is not because they’ve died but because WE’RE dying.”

It never occurred to me before him that the trade off of my decisions wouldn’t be regret, but envy. Of course I didn’t give a fuck about petty sexist morality; I purposely defiled it in a big rush. But I never considered that in choosing the many, I would not have the few: a logical and numerical impossibility. Maybe it was more than numbers. (“There must always be in the poem a number that subverts counting.”)2conversation with Joshua Clover about the line in his poem “Ceriserie”: “Fire: the number between four and five.” What implications did it have besides forgetting more? Was I spending a limited capacity at a different velocity? Did all the little deaths of orgasm add up to a deathiness? I wasn’t forgetting him because he was gone, but because I was going—going faster than him? (Billy Bragg: “For the girl with the hourglass figure, time runs out very fast”—not as biology but something a shade more metaphysical?)

Maybe it wasn’t language that separated us, but speed and trajectory. The rhythm. At the time of the misunderstanding email chain, I showed it to a male friend, for consult. He said, “You are ships that don’t even pass in the night.” He was docked & I was joyriding.

Once I was walking around the Pere Lachaise cemetery with the man I went to see that night at St. Mark’s, the night I met the poet. He quipped, “There’s nowhere to sit in here.”

Father the chair. Father the chair of the bored, who widowed Time, according to the second poet:

“The bad guy is back in town!
Too late, though—everybody died
of boredom. But you know, a true villain needs only his own estimation to thrive. In cartoons
enemies are merely competitive
spoilsports. Here,
in this Père Lachaise de l’Ennui
we toast the Widow Time
and her entirely actualized indifference.
Bless her.”3Jordan Davis, “Shell  Game” 


Sylvia Math fled California for New York City, and is working on a memoir titled Looks Bad on Paper.

Art by Steve Anwyll @oneloveasshole

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