Okay, now that you’ve noticed, we might as well discuss this thing. Don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about; you looked right at it and cringed. My long pinky fingernail, that’s what! I was trying to keep it hidden, tucked into my palm, as I always do when I’m in the presence of people who cut all their nails to be the same length—“omni trimmers” as I call them—but, the more I think about it, I really shouldn’t have to hide. I’ve got nothing to be ashamed of.

Beer’s off the table. I mean, it never even entered my mind. Every single-speed enthusiast worth his weight in flannel has started at least four kitchen microbreweries. So that’s out. Same with meats. If I see one more menu advertising “flavor-conscious charcuterie,” I’m going to stop eating porchetta altogether. Okay, not really, but I’m definitely going to be really put off and order free range chicken instead sometimes. French fries are out. Chewing gum too. Shirt making (for humans, pets, and dolls). Sweater knitting (for doll-like humans who also happen to be pets). Soap barring. Beading of every type. Pencil sharpening. Beekeeping. Shoelace ironing. Shoelace wrinkling. Pencil un-sharpening. Jaw surgery. It’s all been done. And it’s not like I haven’t considered the full gamut of options, because I have.

Rocket science seems really hard. So does open heart surgery, deep cover espionage, and learning Mandarin. But for me, the complexity associated with each of these activities pales in comparison to something I call “the break in.”

Known by many names—the ice breaker, the introduction, the causal factor behind innumerable severe, public anxiety attacks—the break in refers to the technique one employs when one finds oneself at a large gathering where one knows very few attendees or, in the worst cases, none at all. Whether at a cul-de-sac barbecue in a neighborhood one just joined, a business networking event, or a holiday party where one only knows the host, the only thing more terrifying than the specter of maneuvering one’s way into an in-progress conversation is continuing to stand alone.

So, what is one to do?

I don’t know.

If “one” is me, one scrolls through numbers on one’s phone, won’t eat because he’s overwhelmed by the number of people surrounding the appetizers, and has this weird, raised eyebrow, I’m-easy-going-and-optimistic-if-you-want-to-include-me-in-your-chat-but-I-also-have-a-lot-of-my-own-stuff-going-on-as-you-can-see-from-how-intently-I’m-looking-at-my-phone, look on one’s face.

If one is me, one is unable to properly enact the break in, a break in, or anything akin to breaking in.

If one is me, one knows he needs some help.

To that end, I’ve created a brief list of possible break ins. With a little luck, I’ll be hob-knobbing like the best of ‘em in no time at all.

 

1. Saying “I don’t mean to interrupt” and then introducing myself.

2. Saying “Hi, I don’t mean to interrupt” and then introducing myself.

3. Just introducing myself without saying anything about not meaning to interrupt.

4. Standing outside a conversation circle, chuckling about an inside joke I overheard but don’t understand and then saying “Wildcards!” with a wink and a two-handed finger point.

5. Faking indigestion and asking every attendee for a specific flavor of Tums that only I know has been discontinued.

6. Quoting Hamlet, loudly, to a tray of carrots, until everyone’s private conversation is interrupted and they’re forced to pay attention to me.

7. Leaving the event to buy a bag of apples and then chopping off both my thumbs before returning, making it very difficult to peel said apples, and justifying my requests for 1.) emergency medical attention, and 2.) help peeling all the apples I just purchased.

8. Grabbing asses.

9. Calling in a bomb threat and then standing on a table to tell everyone that I’ve already notified Batman and “everything will be fine.”

10. Calling in a bomb threat and then standing on a table to tell everyone that I called in a fake bomb threat.

11. Asking every attendee “how spicy is too spicy?”

12. Yelling “Abbondanza” repeatedly, in a really bad Italian accent.

13. Renaming myself “Tornado Joe” and not telling a soul.

14. Being really cool about sharing my time on the see-saw, inspiring everyone to want to know a little bit more about my story and how I came to be such a considerate guy (note: this only applies to events being held on playgrounds).

15. Introducing myself as Jeffrey Dahmer — “Not the murderer!”

16. Reading aloud the entire script of Juwanna Mann as if I were R2-D2.

17. Being respectful and open to others’ opinions at all costs, and never compromising my values.

18. Singing at a subtle decibel level the “come on and work it on out” line from the Beatle’s song “Twist and Shout,” but purposely saying “work it all out” instead of “work it on out,” hoping someone will notice and correct me.

19. Committing heinous acts of treason and murder.

20. Worrying less and loving more.

21. Being the guy who brought the kite.

22. Keeping an ear out for people saying “less” when they mean “fewer,” noticing two people make the misstep, and shouting “You dumb fucking idiot!” in their faces.

23. Saying every male attendee looks “sort of Dickensian” and every female looks “good enough to eat.”

24. Talking about talking about my screenplay with “other writers” while I bend down to untie my shoelace and then tie it again as quickly as I can, because I’m trying to show off.

25. Offering up some high-fives after saying “I know a guy who’s looking to unload flamethrowers cheap…a little too cheap.”

 

Wish me luck.

 

The Subway

By Luke Kelly-Clyne

Essay

Above ground, I’m human.

I say “excuse me” when I need to squeeze by.  “Sorry” when I err. “Please” always and “thank you” until I sicken myself. “How can I help? How can I help?” I never gawk. Men, women, and children are my confidantes, my countrymen, and my heart beats well with each untroubled step they take.

Do you really wish you could’ve gotten out of work sooner? Do you really wish that, or are you just being overly apologetic in hopes that your one-time girlfriend and current pitying host will forget that she ran into you at the Whole Foods bean bar where she felt obligated to invite you to her “Tuesday supper club” because she “knows it’s tough to be in a new town”.  Do you really wish you could’ve gotten out of work sooner? Because your nervous stomach and that fresh bile stain on your collar tell a different story.

Do you really not need your ex to introduce you to any of her friends? Do you really think you’ll be fine navigating the party on your own, or is this just a reflexive attempt to thrust yourself into a situation wherein you might add to your empty arsenal of easygoing guy qualifications? Do you really not need your ex to introduce you to any of her friends? Because while you sat at work, hiccuping back vomit and debating whether or not you’d attend this party, every guest became immersed in conversation about mutual friends whom you’ve never met, would hate you, and are coming soon.

Do you really want to live in Africa? Do you really want to, or is this just something you’re saying now because you’re drinking a glass of Malbec and there’s a good-looking girl with leather bracelets and uncombed hair sitting next to you? Do you really want to live in Africa? Because no one there will care that you “appreciate Infinite Jest more at thirty than at nineteen” or have a friend who works at Google; in Africa, tenuous ties to accomplishment still wouldn’t be fodder for introductions.

Do you really love this obscure bossa nova record? Do you really love it, or do you just feel like unbuttoning your shirt one more notch wasn’t enough to make you seem like an aficionado of all things alternative? Do you really love this obscure bossa nova record? Because the kind of people who love this record didn’t even wear shirts to this party and won’t put one on until they fly to their Peace Corps reunion in Senegal next week.

Do you really wish Alain could’ve come tonight? Do you really wish he could’ve, or do you just want everyone to know that you and your host have a French mutual friend? Do you really wish Alain could’ve come tonight? Because if he came, he’d barely recognize you and comment to your enthralled former girlfriend about New York audiences appreciating bossa nova in a “façon” totally different from the Brazilians.

Do you really hate Mitt Romney? Do you really hate him, or do you just think having a strong negative opinion about a conservative politician will make up for the fact that you wore loafers to a flip flop fest? Do you really hate Mitt Romney? Because if you hated him, you’d be too busy right now to give conservatism a thought; you’d be texting Alain about yoga retreats and Freegan microenterprises in fluent French.

Do you really think dinner is even better than the appetizers? Do you really think that, or have you just not spoken since your Romney comment? Do you really think dinner is even better than the appetizers? Because thinking that would mean you’d eaten one single olive tapenade cracker while precariously fielding questions about why you think Mitt is “worse than Hitler and Bin Laden combined.”

Do you really prefer Italian filmmakers to American? Do you really prefer them, or has Todd Phillips made every movie you’ve seen in the past five years? Do you really prefer Italian filmmakers to American? Because liking the bruschetta and penne alla vodka you’re eating better than the olive tapenade just means you have the palate of a nine-year-old; it doesn’t mean you know anything about Rossellini’s neorealism.

Do you really hope to get back to Europe soon? Do you really hope to, or are you just glad that your time studying abroad in Barcelona has enabled you to seem nostalgic for a place other than Disney World? Do you really hope to get back to Europe soon? Because the locales you’re remembering as “incredible” and “unforgettable” seem to be recollections of landmarks other guests mentioned five minutes ago, during the Italian filmmaker conversation.

Do you really wish you could stay? Do you really wish that, or would one more minute at this dining room table fashioned from unlacquered Balian driftwood cause your restless leg to bob so high it knocks the glasses off your soon-to-be-forgotten face? Do you really wish you could stay?

Because, it’s really fucking okay if you fucking really don’t fucking wish that at all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“No. I don’t follow sports.”

That’s all I’d have to say, and would it be so horrible? Would telling the truth make me that much of a pariah? Shouldn’t I just speak what I feel? Isn’t that always best?

“Do I follow the Giants? No. To be frank, Frank, I’d rather spend an afternoon wrapped in a nice goose down blanket, watching Bravo and eating Stacy’s pita chips than listening to a pair of bombastic announcers analyze eighteen human battering rams. Football does have eighteen players, right? Or is it six thousand? I always mess this up. Want a pita chip?” Crunch.

All that would be fine. Great. Then again, I’m OH SO insecure.

What kind of a man would I be if I admitted to knowing nothing about sports? Well, I’d be the kind I am, and many others are, I suppose—mild mannered folk who think a hat-trick is something a magician does and an RBI is an infomercial-reliant technical school. Sports lovers probably wouldn’t hold it against me. I’d tell them I know more about French-made semiconductors than I do about Babe Ruth (I know nothing about semiconductors) and we’d just talk about something else. Vegetable dip, or hepatitis or something. It seems so simple, until I’m faced with owning up to the fact that I’m an athletic philistine. I can’t stand being completely in the dark about any subject, let alone one that large, intimidating men care about so passionately.

Of course my friends don’t mind my ignorance. My friends that have earnest talks about “the best, cheap brunches in town” and tips to boost page views on under-trafficked blogs. They’re like me. Blissfully out-of-touch with all diamonds, gridirons, links, and hardwoods. When I’m with them, Derek Jeter might as well be a firey public relations intern, LeBron James, the third most famous member of a Des Moines barbershop quartet that hosts Sunday afternoon community center sing-alongs.

As an out-of-shape American male, I’m reminded time and time again of the shockingly small sports-ambivalent minority I help comprise. I’m not like the others in my tribe. I’m a tattered plumb v-neck in a sea of limited edition mesh game jerseys, a can of solid white albacore in a bucket of Gatorade, a guy who doesn’t like sports in a population of guys who live for them.

It’s not that the things I know and talk about are any more important than the score of yesterday’s Knicks game, or that I hate sports. I just don’t care about them. At all. The World Series is as much a concern of mine as Harold Camping’s dancing a pre-Rapture jig on my wobbly dining room table. Same for the Super Bowl, the NBA Finals, the NHL World Cup, the Iowa Corn Cob Derby Olympics, the Toothy Smile Games, and all the rest. I don’t mean to diminish athleticism or its champions’ impressive feats. Hitting home runs, dunking basketballs, kicking field goals. All these things are incredible displays of disciplined practice and God-given talent, and they’re absolutely noteworthy, especially to someone like me who struggles to pull on their socks in the morning because they’re “too tight”. I do understand that much about sports, but that’s about all I get, and I’m okay with that, as long as I’m not confronted by the more informed.

I make my way through a good number of work days without exposing my defection. Men shake my hand just like they would an Ohio State Buckeyes season ticket holder, and they’re none the wiser. We exchange greetings. We conduct business. We offer well wishes and adieus. Civilization continues as it should, as long as my secret’s kept hidden.

But, see, the weekends are different. That’s when the barbecues happen—barbecues where I only know the hosts. Barbecues where all the women are discussing wrap dresses and I’ve got nothing to add. Barbecues where I wander over to a group of guys who’ve cordoned themselves off, content to flip Worcestershire-soaked meat and talk about off-season trade prospects.

I introduce myself and pick off pieces of my beer’s label, trying not to cough from the grill smoke that relentlessly billows in my face no matter where I stand. Sports talk surrounds me and I’m silent, but, unfortunately, not for long. Sooner than later a polite member of the grill team will try to include me.

“You follow baseball, Luke?” he says.

“I do. I certainly do, indeed.” I know I must respond quickly and firmly now. I need to squeeze in lucidity while I can, before I’m asked my opinion on some well-known player’s sloping batting average and my stammering suggests severe stroke trauma.

“Who’s your team?”

“The Yankees.” I say, because it’s a safe choice and I’m afraid.

“Same here. They’ve really had a tough season, huh?”

“Yeah, it’s been rough.” That’s literally the last thing I can offer. I can fake nothing else. I’ve already taken this pathetic, brief charade to its bitter end. Any further comment will make dust of my fraudulent bones. The man who’s asking me things thinks he’s being inclusive. Little does he know my nervous system is slowly shutting down in anticipation of his questions, questions for which I shall have no answer. He thinks he’s having a friendly conversation. I think I’m the first victim in some sort of barbecue genocide, the lone target of a ruinous Murray Hill Inquisition. What could he possibly say next? Why, kind Christ, won’t he please relent? Surely those flaming slabs of meat could use more attentive seasoning.

“How about the game last night?” he pushes on.

“Ugh, I know.” I manage to turn my authentic terror into a convincing dejectedness, assuming the good ol’ team suffered another defeat. I know something’s wrong when my interrogator stares back at me, confused.

“They won. They played great for the first time in 38 games,” he says. “Did you see it?”

“Yeah, um, I was glad.” I dribble out, knowing I’ve been discovered. I’m the recipient of a disappointed look and a conversation-ending excuse.

“One second, I’m gonna check the meat,” the fan says, leaving me to suffocate in my noxious ether of obvious, petty lies.

Could this result be better than that which would’ve followed an honest admission? Maybe. But, probably not. After all, a coward liar probably puts people off more than an honest non-fan.

I look down and notice that I’ve picked off my entire beer label during the course of my panicked ruse.

I promise myself that from now on, I’ll be honest and confident in my real interests.

I take a deep breath and walk over to the cooler, thirsty for something to bide my time.

A burly bald man is there and we begin to talk. After a few short minutes, my newfound resolve is tested.

“You a football fan, Luke?” he asks.

I know this is my chance to rectify all of my trespasses. I think of the embarrassment I just endured, the poor impression I made. I think of being confident. I know what I must do.

“Absolutely,” I say, without the slightest remorse. “Absolutely, I am. But more college than pro.”

 

I never want to accept any invite to attend any organized event, ever. Yet, I always do accept and I almost always go.

Why?

Well, I’ve been thinking.

For one, saying “yes” feels good. All non-sociopaths want to please other humans to some degree, and accepting an invite usually engenders good will between the inviter and the invitee.

Fear is also a critical component. If I say “no” too much, will I cease to be remembered? Upon my fiftieth declination, will my phone number and email be deleted from every contact database the world over? Will the walls of my silly little bedroom collapse on top of me, as the North American Coalition Against Bad Excuses files away every last memory of my existence? All photos, commendations, and birthday cards slid into a tattered manila envelope containing only Hootie and the Blowfish singles and Palm Pilot owners’ manuals?

“Luke? Luke who? Let me check the Shit No One Cares About envelope. Oh, yes. He was invited to Beth Maloney’s sister’s medical school graduation party and said he had a dermatology appointment. That was number fifty. Yes, I’m afraid there are no more invites for Luke. Not here, or anywhere else for that matter. That scoundrel. That poor, inconsiderate bastard.”

Last, there are my delusions. Time and time again, some scheming agent in my withering brain mounts a dendritic pummel horse and performs dazzling gymnastics routines. After his dismount, I see speed networking events as “useful”, aunts’ birthday parties as “important”, and high school reunions as “chances to reconnect”. I think pummel-horse man operates in the same cognitive space that houses every “getting ready to go out” movie montage I’ve ever seen because, for a split second after agreeing to go somewhere, I picture myself thumbing through rows of fine suits in a cavernous walk-in closet, oblivious to a well-engineered soundtrack that seamlessly blends the din of Stevie Wonder’s Living For The City with the street noise of my imaginary perfect Park Avenue block. This will be fun. This is what people do. Who knows what the night holds?!

The thing is: I do know.

There have been very few instances where I haven’t forecast every thing that was going to happen before it did. Speed networking will always consist of sweaty palms, poorly formatted business cards, and allusions to the Cape’s unpredictable weather patterns. Aunt Paige’s birthday will always leave me longing for a time when every woman in my extended family wasn’t divorced and dating fifty-year-old mortgage-brokers who offer little more than made-up stories about how close they once came to qualifying for the American Express Centurion card. High school reunions will always be a lot like Aunt Paige’s birthday, except with soon-to-be mortgage brokers struggling to remember the names of their “favorite” single malts. I know this, and I still go. To everything. Always. In fact, it was for all these reasons that I accepted a dinner invite last Saturday. Little did I know, that acceptance would be my last.

I’d planned on a night in: a hot shower, a jar of Nutella, and a healthy Netflix Instant Play queue.

But my phone buzzed and the plan changed.

A text message from Annabelle, a quasi-work-friend with whom I occasionally grabbed a bite: “Any interest in coming to dinner with me and a few others?” it read.

My psychosis sprung into action. Desire to please? Check. Fear of being forgotten? Check. Fantasy? Maybe. I needed more information.

“Sure, where?” I replied.

Pastis.”

Ah, yes. An overpriced, up-its-own-ass Manhattan restaurant that I can’t afford. But maybe my ill-fitting cardigan will catch the eye of Mike Bloomberg or, better yet, an infertile Russian Oligarch looking for an idiot, American heir. Delusion button pressed. With a “Yes I’d love to” text and a desperate, “Please come with me” plea to my best pal, Sam, I was headed downtown.

Annabelle met Sam and me at the hostess stand and lead us to her table. We sat next to an expansive bar that made me wish I knew how to make even one drink with vermouth in its recipe.

Three others were already seated at the table when we arrived. “The friends.” They seemed harmless. Cornell graduates. North Jersey suburbanites-cum-West Village aficionados who probably clutched their New York Magazine “Best Of” issues like wading remnants of the Titanic’s freshly splintered deck. They smiled, and shook hands, and asked about where I lived, and recoiled when I said Queens. Then, one with a gold Rolex and a puffy red face sympathetically mentioned she had an uncle from Park Slope, Brooklyn. Another mentioned her family’s “small vacation home in Sagg Harbor” in a fine display of counterfeit humility. I let it roll off my back. All was still subtle enough. I pressed my knee against Sam’s, silently communicating my guilty thankfulness.

Then the last friend arrived, and all hell broke loose.

He bent down to kiss the female dinner guests on their cheeks, the shawl collar on his red cashmere sweater flapping against his face with every overzealous dip. I could tell right away that he was something extraordinary, something awful, something for which I never could have planned. Then, he extended his hand to me: “David. A true pleasure.” I looked into his eyes and I knew: I had encountered pure evil.

The things that came out of David’s mouth were stunning. His pretension seemed limitless. It was as if the ghost of F. Scott Fitzgerald replaced David’s brain with the entire contents of This Side of Paradise, and then destroyed the concept of irony.

 

-“I can’t believe they gave us this table. I’ve been back from Hong Kong, and in New York City for over a week. I’ve been to Pastis four times already. I should think that’s enough to get a decent table. I mean, we’re at Pastis, not M. Wells for Christ’s sake.”

 

-“Waiter, waiter, I’m not sure what this is, but it’s certainly not lamb. Grace, try this. Please. Does this taste like lamb to you? Well, does it?!”

 

-“There’s nothing quite like owning well-positioned retail properties.”

 

I couldn’t be sure anything David said was true or even factually accurate, but I guess he knew that. And that’s why he kept going.

 

-“Sideways be damned, I don’t mind Merlot. What else would you drink with a filet mignon…if trying to adhere to a certain price point, that is? Oh, Lizzy, I’m sorry. I know you’re a Chardonnay fan. No, no. Enjoy it.”

 

-“I swear, sometimes this city makes me wish I were an American.”

 

He clapped his hands, and laughed the way I imagine Boss Tweed would have, if he were pretending to be a foreigner. Inappropriately timed, forced blasts. I asked David what he did, and he replied only, “I deal in the markets.” Soon after, he referred to Zagat guides as “dining papers of the proletariat”.

I looked around the table to gauge my companions’ reactions. Surely, even this group of tip-toeing braggadocios would show some shock. None. Only Sam, my loyal friend, looked back at me terrified, his suddenly sunken eyes beaten in by the endless barrage of David’s insanity.

I became numb. Claustrophobic even. I feared that if I listened to David much longer, my exploding skull would ruin the steak tartare he ridiculed me for ordering. Like a panicked soldier foolishly lured over enemy lines, I resorted to desperate measures. I put down my water glass, placed my napkin beside my plate, took out my phone, and conquered my crippling desire to please.

“Sam!” I said, grabbing my confidant’s shoulder in manufactured alarm. “I just got a text message from my landlord. A pipe broke in my building and my entire apartment is flooded. We have to go. Now!”

“Oh God, let’s go. Oh God, do you have renter’s insurance?!.” His reaction was pitch perfect. He knew.

No goodbyes. No extended explanation. Just a lie. A well-placed lie to extricate myself from the worst commitment I’d ever made.

That dinner was rock bottom, and it changed me. My desire to please is gone. My fear of being forgotten, a thing of the past. And the allure of my movie montage, “getting ready to go” fantasy? Fin.

Sam and I left the restaurant and hopped in a taxi.

 

I turned toward him. “Are we sociopaths?”

 

“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I think so.” He opened the cab’s window and let in the blare of a passing fire engine. I breathed deeply as I let it drown out my last regret.

 

“Oh well,” I exhaled. “There are worse things to be.”


It’s 9:34 on a Saturday night. I’ve showered. I’ve gargled. I’ve buttoned my flannel shirt three quarters of the way and rolled up the bottoms of my jeans a little. I’ve even done ten quick push-ups to pump some blood into my frail biceps, a desperate attempt to mask inferior genetics.

I send out a mass text to my friends: “What’s the plan?”

For a few seconds, Xboxes are paused, YouTube windows are left unattended, and Gchats are interrupted. Three sets of preoccupied fingers type hurried responses.

I’m awaiting the inevitable. Watered-down gin and tonics, sweaty, rude crowds, and scantly informed discussions between twenty-two-year-olds about how “different real life is from college”. We’ll probably also talk about Kanye West’s tweets and how early we all have to get up for work during the week and why time seems to go faster when you’re out of school. It will be cool to ironically brag about how past our primes we are, because it’s not ironic. We really feel that way. Or do we? Or something. I’ll attribute our fleeting lives to the lack of any new experiences. (“We’ve kind of done it all. Except for marriage, I guess.”) Then someone will start talking about The Office and I’ll go to the bathroom, slicing my way through scattered conversations about American Apparel going out of business and how good Mario Batali’s Eataly is and how there’s no other place on Earth like New York City.

But that’s later.

Now, I’m in the bathroom staring at myself in the mirror. After all my careful preparation, I notice a pimple below my left nostril. God. Dark circles under my eyes. Ugh. The florescent bathroom light in my overpriced, disappointing apartment flickers.  I take a step back. For perspective. Maybe my whole will be better than the sum of my parts. Then, I see it. The biggest problem. My most glaring inadequacy: the long, dry mop on my head. Unruly wisps spilling over my ears. Rampant cowlicks hastily matted down by Duane Reade pomade. It dawns on me that there’s nothing I can do. I’ll look bad tonight no matter what.

I need a haircut.

Two full days of compulsively checking my reflection in storefront windows lead me to Tuesday, when hairdressers start their week. I call and make an appointment and I feel like I’ve accomplished something. I have a plan to improve my life, I think. I’ll be a better human once I get a trim. I’ll call my parents more and tutor a local elementary school student, maybe. I’ll definitely cut out fried foods and start to spend more time outside. The sun is good for me.

I blink and it’s Saturday at 12:10. I’m late for my appointment. I rush into the salon and nearly pass out from the smell of acrylic nail polish. I wipe the crusty yellow sleep out of my eyes and tell the receptionist my name.  She’s horrifying and beautiful all at once. I never thought orange skin and Juicy Couture sweatpants could make me feel so insignificant. I apologize for my tardiness. I’m fixated on her perfectly waxed eyebrows and I stumble over my words.

She gets up from her desk. “Let me see if Kendra is ready for you.” The receptionist walks over to a hairdresser and I see them look at me from across the room. I glance down at a stain on my shirtsleeve and notice that the elastic is stretched out. My wrist looks frail inside the floppy fabric. Why don’t I take better care of myself? I should start to work out again. I should’ve showered this morning.

“Kendra will be with you in a minute,” my spray-tanned goddess says upon her return. I pretend to be reading People magazine but keep sneaking looks at her while I wait. I imagine us getting away from here, from all this. We could move to Brooklyn. She could write children’s books like she’s always wanted. We would be happy there. Sunday dinners. One week at her family’s house. Mine the next. But, nothing’s set in stone. We’d go with the flow. Her dad would understand how it is and he would like me so much. “I know how it is,” he’d say to me when I called to tell him we were staying in. “I like you so much.”

I snap out of my fantasy and I begin to worry about how expensive this place is. I can’t muster the courage to inquire about the price. I’m embarrassed by my end-of-the-month poverty. I hope they take credit cards.

Kendra yells to me: “Lou, come on over!” I don’t tell her my name is actually Luke. She asks me to sit down so she can wash my hair. My neck cranes back over a porcelain sink and, for the first time in a long time, I’m relaxed. Kendra drops a cool dollop of shampoo on my scalp. I’m lulled by an unlikely melody of running water and her smacking bubble gum.

“You want an Aquafina?” she asks.

I do want one. I haven’t had anything to eat or drink all day. I’m weak and thirsty, but I can’t bring myself to say yes. I don’t want to trouble her. Never am I more considerate than when I’m in the company of complete strangers whom I’ll probably never speak to again.

“No, I’m fine. Thank you.”

Like ten tiny knives, her fingernails gouge my sopping skull. Suds seep into my tearing eyes and I grit my teeth in agony. I wonder how a one-hundred-pound woman with pink highlights and four-inch heels could be so mercilessly strong.

“Is this too hard?”

“No, it’s perfect. Just what I need.” Then I make some comment about how long my hair’s gotten and how amazed I am at how fast it’s grown. She doesn’t respond, but what did I really expect her to say?

Kendra rinses me clean and taps my shoulder. “Lean up and come over to my chair.” The sharp pain in my head subsides and I let myself sink into her swiveling, black leather throne. I try to explain what look I’m going for.  She finishes my thought: “Professional, but you could still go out on a Saturday and get the ladies, right?” I think she’s mocking me. Or does she think I’m handsome?

“Exactly,” I say. She’s like a babysitter or an older sister who understands what I go through and knows what’s best for me. I’m comforted.

Now, it’s silent. She clips away.

Then, she asks: “So, are you in school?”

“I just graduated this past May.”

“Where did you go?”

I tell her. She doesn’t recognize the name. I pretend it’s not that well known.

“Did you like it?”

“Yeah, I mean school is school. It was fun to party.” Suddenly, I’m the Fonz. I don’t tell her about the four years of obsessive studying and meticulous extra-curricular preparation. I don’t tell her about how I perseverated over the modern-day validity of Kant’s Categorical Imperative and argued with people about the real meaning of Utilitarianism. I don’t tell her that I went out maybe two nights a week and spent the rest of the time panicked that I wouldn’t ever be able to find a job.

“Are you from Manhattan?”

“Yes,” I lie. “Born and raised.” It would be too much to explain my divorced parents and stepsiblings and patchwork of suburban Connecticut teenage angst.

Kendra takes a break from chewing her gum and lets out a grumbling moan. “Luuucky.”

I wish to be the person she thinks I am.

Silence sets back in and I notice my hair for the first time since I sat down. It’s drying and I’m realizing she’s doing a terrible job.

“How’s it looking, hon? Still too long?”

“No, no. This is fine. Great, actually. You’re good at what you do.” A dumb, semi-patronizing comment that makes me feel important and suave, for a second. She smiles. I smile back.

She unclips my smock and starts brushing loose hairs off my neck. “Want to see the back?” She hands me a mirror and spins my chair around.

“Looks fantastic! Wow.” I respond like she’s just cured AIDS. I’m such an unbearable fraud. I look worse than before. I stand up and begin to feel queasy as I anticipate paying handsomely for this butchery.

“How much do I owe you?” I’m disappointed in myself at how crass that sounded.

“$55 is fine, hon.” She says it like she’s giving me a deal. I feel like I’m her best customer. I have an urge to be very loyal to her, despite the way she’s made me look. I’m a victim of stylistic Stockholm Syndrome.

“Is credit card okay?”

She pouts. “Sorry. Only cash or check.”

I have neither cash nor check. I tell her this and hand her my wallet and phone. “Let me run to the bank. Please keep these as collateral. I’m sorry.” I run faster than I have in my whole life.

When I come back from the ATM, she’s already with another client. I scurry over and give her $65 of the last $92 in my checking account. “I’m sorry. Thank you for waiting. I’ll see you soon.”

“Thanks, hon,” Kendra says.

I pass the receptionist. She’s reading the People magazine I pretended to thumb through earlier. “Looks nice,” she says reflexively, without looking up from her page.

“Thanks. She did a great job,” I say.

I walk out.

I never go back.