This story is an answer to a recent fiction piece published in The New Yorker, Cat Person (read the original here). My issue with the story falls on many levels: the craft felt incredibly sloppy for a piece published to such a large readership, yet it gained praise for its 'relatability'. The loose, unimaginative phrasing felt like a diary journal in the vein of creative nonfiction, and that vexed me.
Second, while I, too, found myself emotionally mirrored in Margot's insufferable sex experience, I, as a woman, feel we should be claiming more for our female characters. Had this been nonfiction, I think it would have been more compatible to have such ruminations on a personal experience. But all I could think was how I didn't want my daughters to ever read this and feel that this is how they could expect their own sexual experiences to turn out. Yes, many of us have fucked out of rote. We have been conditioned to do so, to roll over, to meet the needs of others before our own. I'm glad we've sparked a conversation around bad sex, and the roles women are expected to play in those moments. But if you want to change the paradigm, then it has to be rewritten, literally, and fiction is the vein to do so. I felt that opportunity was lost in the original.
So, my project in the last 24 hours was to rewrite the story as I would have wanted to read it, with the literary craft and ending I feel female characters deserve, and now demand. How our stories are told has become increasingly important, and I couldn't just read the original and just 'take it'.
Winter’s grasp was around the corner, the end of her first sophomore semester looming, when Sheila met Mark. It was the middle of the week, a time usually reserved for quietude before the activity of the weekend began to creep in with enthusiasm. The theater’s energy was diminished, and as he approached her counter, Sheila traced his features, cataloguing in her mind the contours, determining how attractive he was to her. Endearing, perhaps, but not so attractive that she would have asked him out in a social setting. More like that teenage boy sitting toward the front of the classroom, the one with the hair just slightly disheveled, pudgy, leaning over his desk trying to diminish his size, eyes cloudy, although she was certain he was well through a third of his life, if not more, and should have outgrown such insecurity.
As a previous coffee steward, she’d learned that coquetry would augment her dented, scratched steel tip jar, and now it was an automated response to interaction, even though cinema counter workers didn’t profit from the same reward system. She heard him mumble his selection, and with rote sarcasm, uttered, “Good & Plenty…better than Bad & Insufficient.” He barely glanced up at her, thanking her quietly, forcing her to stretch to return his change, her arm lingering in his space, yet acting as though her presence was empty wind. She was puzzled by how invisible he made her feel.
Surprisingly, he returned a week later, ordering the same candy, but throwing her a snarky compliment, “Well, you didn’t belittle my candy choice. That’s a start.”
“What can I say? I plan to go far here,” Sheila replied, acquiring a small whisper of confidence from his gaining his meager attention. As she prepared to close for the evening, he unexpectedly strode to her, and demanded her phone number. His boldness threw her off balance, and she found herself uttering the digits, even though he didn’t even bother to ask her name, referring to her as the ‘Cinema Candy Girl.”
Weeks passed as Sheila and Mark built rapport via text, swapping humor, his wit always one step ahead than her own, forcing her to engage in a way that felt like work. There was an ebb and flow to the timing of his responses directly proportional to own: he would respond promptly after her initiation, but if she delayed, he was curt, and she would have to begin the conversation again. Occasionally, she tired of this childishness, but her loneliness would overcome her, and she would once more send a GIF, or a joke, and the cycle was reborn. Although the exchanges were shallow and impersonal, her ego was stroked when they would have a good ‘streak’, and things seemed to flow in their communication.
One evening, she whined about the lack sustenance she had on hand, and out of the blue, he told her to meet him at the local Wa-Wa so he could buy her a box of Good and Plenty. She thought he was joking, until he said, “Knock it off. I’ll meet you there in fifteen.” Obligingly, she donned her parka over her onesie and set off into the stark air.
Confusingly, he acted as though this was a daily occurrence between them, barely saying hello. He took her in to purchase a snack, but she exited weighed down by some necessities and a couple of useless trinkets: chips, a slushie, a novelty lighter, a rock shaped like a heart.
“I appreciate you taking care of me,” Sheila whispered as they stood under a fluorescent bulb scattering intermittent, pulsing light. He stood in the flicker, his winter coat fluffy and round, a plaid, Sherlock type hat situated on his head. He almost seemed alluring in the soft glow.
“No problem, Cinema Candy Girl,” he mumbled, then his hand reached to lightly cup her elbow, and he bowed his lips to a small patch directly above her right eyebrow, planting a kiss so delicate she felt like a ceramic doll. “Do good on your exams, we’ll get together when you finish,” he whispered before leaving. Her belly flip flopped recalling that tender moment over and over as she walked home.
During winter break, Sheila lived and died by the ‘ding’ of her phone, constantly announcing her nonstop conversation with Mark to everyone in earshot. First thing in the morning, they would exchange pleasantries, as if they had spent the night and woke together. At night, it was repeated. They developed an intricate, fictional love triangle involving his two dogs, Cal and Mel, and her childhood puppy, Rico, where Mel was constantly jealous of Rico’s outward affection toward Cal.
They communicated so much that Sheila’s father asked if she had become involved with someone. Sheila smiled coyly, before stating, “Mark. He loves the cinema.”
Her father’s eyebrows scrunched and folded, and he replied, “There are some things we’d like to know about him.”
Sheila giddily shared this exchange with Mark, and was rewarded with heart emojis, setting her own heart ablaze with affection.
As soon as she returned to school, Sheila anticipated seeing Mark as soon as possible, yet he became elusive. He was always, “tied up at work” sending her promises that they “would get together soon”, which irritated Sheila. She began to feel powerless, and insecure, so when he invited her to a movie, she jumped at the invitation.
He wanted to see a movie that they could have viewed at Sheila’s cinema, but she demurred and asked to go to Cineplex at the edge of the city, where there wouldn’t be many students. He arrived to get her in a black, dusty Accord, with garbage falling out of its various nooks and crannies. As they coasted down the highway, silence sat between them, and he barely turned to look at her. For the first time, Sheila recognized how little she knew about the man next to her, and wondered if he had lured her, unsuspectingly, into a trap to rape or dispose of her.
As if reading her thoughts, he blurted, “I’m not Ted Bundy.” She laughed nervously, but then felt a pang of guilt, blaming herself for the awkward quiet, for being the girl who worried that every man she dated might be the ‘good’ guy who finally did her in. Of course, wasn’t every girl THAT girl?
“Well, if you needed a victim, I’ll be yours,” she threw out in response, and he guffawed, sliding his fingers to her thigh, quickly touching and then reverting to his quiet self, leaving her to awkwardly try to engage him without luck. He finally seemed to lighten up at the theater, trying to poke fun at his Good and Plenty order with the girl at the counter, only succeeding in embarrassing himself, and primarily, Sheila.
They sat stiffly in their seats for the entire film, and as they left, Sheila felt confused and horribly unsure of herself. Perhaps it was her casual dress, the yoga pants and a hoodie, she thought, as she systematically tore herself apart in search of an answer for his seemingly lack of interest. Picking her up, he had quipped something about how he didn’t expect to her get so dressed up, but now she worried that he felt she had underestimated his investment in the date, as she glanced at his chinos and blue oxford shirt.
“Want to go to a bar?” he questioned, but as though he were doing it to be kind, and not because he wanted her company. Sheila felt he wanted her to decline, and that might end their relationship. The hope she felt after their weeks of communication crumbled on the floor between them, and the thought of such rejection found her passively replying, “Sure, if you’d like.”
“Do you want to go?” he asked. She turned her head away, feeling like an insurmountable wall had sprung up between them, fighting her eyes as they formed jewel like droplets in the corners.
He poked her. “Why are you pouting?”
“I’m not pouting.”
He sighed. “Should I take you…?”
She interrupted and demanded, “No, I want a drink. That film was heavy.” They had watched an artsy World War II drama, which she had initially thought he was jokingly suggesting when he named the title. He then scoffed, and snapped how his judgement regarding her taste in films must have been an error, and perhaps she would prefer the latest rom-com, which made her fold.
Yet, he looked embarrassed when she commented, and it dawned on her that maybe he had wanted to make a good impression, but misunderstood that just because she worked at an art house cinema, it didn’t mean she wanted to watch the same kind of films, especially on a first date. Perhaps he felt slighted from her initial joke, explaining the silence and discomfort they shared. She melted a bit with these imaginings, and felt warmth toward him for the first time that evening.
He asked her where they should grab a drink, and she offered her usual watering hole, but he twisted his mouth and told her he knew someplace with more class. It was an off the grid spot, unmarked, and as they stood in line, she chewed her lip knowing he was going to be disappointed when he discovered that she wasn’t yet old enough to gain entrance. Mark went ahead of her, and when the doorman glanced at her ID and refused her entry, he continued inside without glancing back. “Mark,” she called out weakly, trying not to draw more attention than necessary. He kept walking until another girl grabbed his arm and spun him around so he could see Sheila standing alone outside.
“You’re not 21?” he asked, incredulous.
“I’m sorry…I’m only twenty.”
“But you said,” he began.
“I said I was in my second year. I figured you knew.” She felt like he was glaring at her, as the crowd in line watched.
“Didn’t you take a year off though?” He was seemingly insistent on proving she was a different age than the one on her license.
“I’m twenty.” As soon as the words tumbled, so did hot tears, overtaking her eyes, and she felt like there was no way they could recover, and suddenly the act of being with him felt like a burden.
But the tears seemed to be a sort of witchcraft, her vulnerability a catalyst for Mark to encase her in his arms, whispering, “There, there. It’s fine, darling.” Like at the Wa-Wa, she felt like a fragile creature in his arms that demanded his tenderness. He brushed the top of her hair with his lips and her body melted into his, the pangs of their struggle slowly evaporating.
“You must think I’m crazy, getting this emotional over a bar rejection,” Sheila said to him. His eyes said the opposite. In his glassy irises fixated on her with warmth, she saw herself, a split-second image of perfection, her hair ablaze in the incandescent wash of the lamppost, snowflakes tumbling around her, her mouth aglow with joy.
In this perfect moment of anticipation, he leaned closer, then dove downward, his mouth covering her own, and she felt the shock of his tongue as it invaded her mouth, nearly touching her uvula. Despite how wretched he felt inside her mouth, a feeling of superiority washed over her, knowing that she understood how to kiss better than this thirty-something man, and it boosted her ego momentarily.
When they finished, he led her by the hand to a different bar, more of a gaming hall, dust kicking up from its wood, slat flooring, the bouncer chair empty at the door.
“Want a martini?” he asked, and she wasn’t sure if he was serious or poking fun. She was unsure of what to ask for; typically, she went to places where her friends could order rounds at the bar, bringing pitchers of cheap beer back to the table where they would clandestinely share. Fearing his disdain for the few labels she could name, she requested a beer, nonspecific.
As they sat and talked, Mark finally began to resemble the man she recognized from her IPhone. He quipped about the movie he chose, and Sheila recognized that she had been astute: his stillness must have been nerves. She noticed how closely he seemed to monitor her replies, how badly he seemed to want to impress her.
Sheila chuckled at his attempts to pigeon hole the other woman he seemed to think she was: the art house cinema snob who had film experience because she took one semester of video production. But it still rubbed her with an uneasiness, that perhaps he had worried she was embarrassed to be seen with him, and that perhaps he had felt wounded. His discomfort opened the door for her empathy, and his susceptibility to her opinion inflated her self-importance, making her feel dominant. She began to joke about her job at the cinema, her co-workers, the films they showed, anything that she felt would lend itself to comforting him, and would help boost his esteem. It was a way to manipulate and control. She could see in his responses how his nervousness melted away.
After a few drinks, stoked by the power she felt, she began to consider going to bed with him. He must be eager, she imagined, to have her, and perhaps he would work hard to impress her. She felt something stir, and a tiny fire lit in her pelvis.
When he finished his drink, she announced, “Shall we go?” For a moment he appeared crestfallen, as though the evening had slammed a door shut in his face, until she tenderly grabbed his hand into her own and pulled him toward her to leave. His face was awash in the knowledge that she desired him, and his visible desire for her turned her on.
She turned to him outside and leaned in to meet his lips, but he merely grazed her cheek with his own. “You’re intoxicated.”
Lying, she replied, “That’s not true.” She pressed her breasts and belly into his chest, wrapping her arms around his waist, and she felt him quiver and exhale. It made her feel sexy, feeling him shake beneath her touch, the fire inside her gaining strength.
He detached himself and whispered, “Let’s get you back to your dorm,” then guided her by the arm to the car. Once seated, she leaned over and into him again, and he finally capitulated to kiss her. If she leaned back as his mouth covered hers, the kiss became bearable, almost sweet. As they intensified, she swung her leg over his body and found herself sitting across his lap, and she felt his body straining against his zipper to be free against her thrusts. He stifled moans as she rocked back and forth, and then he swung her back to her seat.
“I would have thought you were too old to be fooling around in the front seat. You are twenty,” he jokingly chastised.
Sheila blew him a raspberry. “Well, where to?”
“What about your dorm?”
“If you’re into voyeurism… I have a roommate.” Sheila dryly replied.
“No, not really.” He laughed.
“Your place?” She countered.
“Is that okay?”
His house was a happy bungalow, close to campus, surrounded by forest, where blinking Christmas lights surrounded the entrance arch. As they turned to exit the car, he became serious, “Don’t forget, I have dogs.”
“I remember…our messages?” She reminded him, and they stumbled out into the chill.
He floundered with his keys in his fingers, cursing when he couldn’t get the right fit in the lock for what felt like hours. To calm him, she took her fingers and drew figure eights across the wide yolk of his shoulders, but it only succeeding in him bumbling more, so her hand arrested and waited.
Finally, he swung the door open and sheepishly announced, “This is it.”
Stepping into the dark, her eyes had to adjust to the shapes presented to them, eventually discerning shelves of books, rectangular games, plastic encased albums, and mounted pictures.
“This is nice,” Sheila commented to herself, believing it as the words fell out of her mouth. She sighed with relief, realizing that she had never been to man’s home to have sex. It had always been a clandestine act, avoiding roommates and interruptions. She liked that she enjoyed the same things he scattered in his living area, and it relaxed the dawning that she was completely on his territory.
She glanced out of the corner of her eye and caught him observing her reaction to his space. It triggered a tiny alarm that perhaps she had misjudged him, and that he was merely waiting to get her into his kill space, skillfully set up in another room. During her reverie, Mark crossed the distance and suddenly his mouth was on hers, tossing her jacket and purse onto the couch, then pulling her into his bedroom, his hand clumsily rubbing against her breast as the other squeezed her left ass cheek, almost pinching.
The room was sparse: a wooden crate sat next to a lumpy box spring and mattress, a bottle of Jameson teetering on top when he sat down, until he grabbed its neck and poured some down his throat. He shoved the bottle into Sheila’s hands, while he grabbed his Macbook and fumbled. For a second she thought he was checking his email, until a rock melody began to waft in the background.
As he undressed, Sheila watched from her perch on the mattress. He yanked off his shirt and his pants crumpled to the floor, and as he bent to remove his dress shoes, she stared at his flabby, waving belly, swathed in dark, swirling hairs, and she suddenly felt the fire extinguish. But she wasn’t sure she could tell him no. She had initiated, and persisted, and now they were here. It wasn’t that she felt he would take something she didn’t want to give, but that she felt disappointment in herself for attempting to make this entire situation into something that it might desperately never be. In her own longing to be wanted, she had forgotten she needed to desire him too.
She sat in her guilt as he finally shook off his trousers, raising the bottle of whiskey to burn her lips and throat, and clobber her inner hostility for what was coming next. He ripped the bottle from her hands, then his body fell against her own like dead weight, his mouth insistent and wet, his fingers probing with lifeless rhythm, roaming from her breasts to her crotch, killing any desire as she lie there, motionless.
She attempted to rekindle something by wiggling from underneath and then rolling him to his back, taking control by sitting astride him, and shutting her eyes to recall his sweet softness of his kiss at Wa-Wa. A tiny flicker. Sheila ran with it, removing her hoodie, and she felt Mark’s hand cup her breast under her bra, pinching her nipple painfully. To compensate, she moved his hand to the back of her bra, but he fumbled worse than he did with his keys, and ordered her to remove it, and with a swipe from one hand, she peeled it off her body. His face was a mixture of hunger and contentment, like the other men she had bedded, and again, his hunger for her sparked eagerness in herself.
Leaning down, she kissed him, imagining the thoughts that must be circling his mind. “She’s perfect, nineteen, and if I don’t get her, I may perish.” As she continued to play this script in her head, she felt her body grow warm, kindling her own libido. She moved against him, slowly grinding, then slid her hand into his boxers and stroked him, encircling his entire member with her small hand. He moaned, an awkward, feminine yelp, but she wanted him to stop. He took his fingers and moved them into her panties, slipping his fingers into the moist pool between her thighs, the tension in his body melting away. His index finger gently rubbed her clitoris, and she bucked as she became further aroused. Then, as his middle finger scratched the inside of her, she recoiled, and he pulled his hand away like it was burnt, his face looking up at her apologetically. Again, the blaze building inside her extinguished.
As if suddenly dawning on him, he asked, “Hey, are you a virgin?”
Fueled by the drinks and discomfort, Sheila began to laugh. It began as a giggle and then racked her entire body, her arms and legs quaking until she rolled herself into a fetal position, attempting to gather her breath.
“What the hell is so funny?” Mark icily replied.
“I just…” Sheila sighed, still chuckling. “It’s just…” She stopped when she saw his countenance. “No, I’m not.”
Mark’s faced flashed with a wave of anger, and resentment. He thought he was the center of her humor. In fact, she had recalled her first time, carefully planned, in a fancy hotel that her mother had reserved, after Sheila and her boyfriend of over a year had finally determined they wanted to sanctify their relationship sexually. That was ten lovers ago. The mere thought that this date would be anything close to what she would accept for her first time was laughable.
She felt a stab of guilt for his discomfort. “I didn’t mean…I’m sorry. I wasn’t poking fun at you. It was kind of you to ask.”
“Well, we can take our time,” he whispered, as he rolled his body on top of her. His hands began to grope for any loose flesh, and then he took three fingers, pushing them inside of her, scraping her from the inside out. To ignore the pain, she floated outside her body, picturing her almost naked self, thighs leaning outward as Mark lay between them, his soppy mouth leaving behind indelible traces of him across her skin, and his hand disappearing inside her over and over, saw-like, abrasive.
He pulled his hand out and leaned to the side, slightly crushing her left leg, as he pulled a condom from a hidden space by his bed, and began to roll the latex over his disappointingly short but chubby penis. Again, he seemed incapable of dexterity, and as he plodded through this task, she envisioned the positions he might like: mounting her from behind, plopping her on top, and then pinning her beneath him. Those images created a wave of revulsion so strong she felt her stomach churn. Why was she doing this if this was the last place she wanted to be? What obligation was there to see this nightmare through? She suddenly had no desire to be his sex toy for the evening.
“Listen, I’m not sure we should be doing this.” Sheila remarked candidly, preparing for the hurt that flickered in his eyes after the words hung in the air between them. He had finally rolled the condom on properly.
“Why? I thought…” His voiced betrayed confusion, irritation, and defensiveness.
“I just don’t think we’re…compatible.”
What she didn’t utter hung in the air between them, frozen.
“How can you tell that? I haven’t even fucked you yet.” He rolled onto his side and pouted, rubbing his hand through his hair, an effort to self soothe. His erection began to slowly diminish, the condom becoming a deflated sac.
Sheila didn’t know how to reply, how to say that sometimes you can’t grow into wanting, the spark had to be there, she didn’t want to have sex for the sake of having sex. At least not sex that she could very well predict by this point was going to be bad, awful. Sex where he would merely toss her around like a rag doll, mentally referencing all the pornography he had ever seen and wanted to try, and she would be expected to lie there and take it. Sex where she would have to pretend that she was enjoying him inside her, rubbing her heart raw with every thrust. Sex where she would have to fake orgasm, acting like she enjoyed his clumsy movements, when after she would feel like a tiny piece of her soul had to be sacrificed for his pleasure, because his value as a man carried more worth than hers in society, at least for this moment.
She couldn’t find the words to describe how lonely she would feel in the aftermath of his coitus, knowing that she relinquished her own pleasure in exchange for emptiness. How a previous experience had left her shaken and hollow for months, and she had no desire to serve his interests above her own, permitting him to prey on her nurturing underbelly and feminine tenderness, as she had been conditioned to allow since birth. And how disgusted she felt with herself that she had even questioned her own judgement in the first place to boost her own confidence and insecurity.
Instead, in silence, Sheila found her bra on his musty carpet, and began to dress as he turned his head slightly to watch, bitterness splashed across his features. After her hoodie was placed back over her head, she merely stood and said quietly, “I’ll call an Uber.”
She wandered out to the living room by herself, gathered her parka and bag, and then slipped out into the freezing winter air. It was only then that she realized she hadn’t seen a single dog, and wondered if he had lied about them, knowing she loved them, to make himself more attractive to her.
The next morning, her roommate Denise asked about her ‘date’. Sheila poured out the details, but when she reached the part where she decided to stop, her roommate sucked in her breath. Sheila looked at her with curiosity, “What?” Denise began to weep. Sheila hugged her hard as Denise cried and shared a recent, parallel experience. Denise wiped her eyes. “It never occurred to me that I could just leave.”
A week later she and Denise sat in their room, drinking wine and joking, when Sheila got a random string of texts, her phone lighting up in the dim space with desperate determination:
“I shouldn’t be doing this, but I can’t stop thinking about you.”
“Can you tell me what I did? Why did you leave?”
“Have you screwed that many guys? Is that why you laughed when I wanted to know if I was your first?”
“Is there someone else?”
“Who is he?”
“Are you fucking him now?”
Sheila paused, then decidedly turned the phone off.
Reflections of a woman spawned in a cement cocoon...