The fish market I worked at the summer when I was twenty-four was nestled between a bakery and a cheese shop, on a stretch of West Village blocks associated with Sex and the City and snotty NYU students. I hated my job and only derived pleasure from interacting with neighborhood locals and setting up the display every morning in the single floor-to-ceiling window that helped to raise the temperature and the stink inside the tiny shop to new heights.
It was July. I wore light cotton dresses along with huge rubber boots to keep my feet dry. I tried not to fall asleep in the office even though I was plagued with what can only be described as a rapid descent into insomnia following night after sleepless night in my newly empty bed, next to the space where my domestic partner had snored every night for the first half of my twenties. I hadn’t had sex more than three times in the last six months prior to our bust-up. At that age, at that point, with my newly-found freedom and my now notorious sex-drive, I was basically walking around with a water-balloon between my thighs. But I couldn’t recall how to so much as check out a girl, let alone start up a conversation that would lead to me going down on her. After giving her the heave-‘ho all I had left was a bad stand-up routine about the “scales of justice” and no audience except cold slabs of marine life and four Nepalese employees who didn’t speak English. I stared out the window a lot. The heat made the eccentrics who populated the area around Washington Square Park roam the streets and move like interpretive dancers.
There was a little boy who had started smoking cigarettes regularly in front of my shop over the course of one week. He leered at me in a way that was half-adorable, half-creepy as I arranged the rainbow trout and soft shell crabs on a bed of ice in the window. I wondered why the Catholic school down the block would let their summer school students smoke, or why this boy didn’t seem to care, cocking his eyebrow as he’d swagger in front of the store, unbuttoning the top button of his short sleeve button down shirt, tapping his Camel Lights against his thigh. One day he sauntered inside and leaned over the counter, close enough that I could smell the Winterfresh gum on his cigarette breath.
“I’m Liz. I have lupus. I work down the block. You should hang out with me. Now.”
That night, after work, I had my first orgasm since the World Series of the previous year. On my back in my hallway, keys still stuck in the lock-barrel, sweat and the smell of dead fish rendering me the olfactory equivalent of a Renee Zellweger movie, I had this strange tomboy literally rip a skirt off of me. Liz, who was not so much a schoolboy as a female version of every guy I wanted but couldn’t have during puberty, gave my the best oral sex of my life up until that point. It was pretty awesome. It finally made me sleep; Liz sprawled out next to me, sweating until half of the bed was soaked, one of the symptoms of her disease. She didn’t snore.
That joke about a lesbian second date involving a U-Haul is only funny because it is true. Ten days later Liz, three days worth of her clothes, her ashtray, and a carton of unfinished cottage cheese were still taking up residence in my studio apartment. Her wardrobe mingled in my laundry, she insisted on putting half-finished bottles of beer in my fridge, and the feeling of wet bed sheets — either made damp by my fluids or hers — was starting to get to me. I needed my space and I needed it now. After four years of hearing someone breathe, blink, and chew I wanted a little, just a little, time to myself. And I was starting to think that the Prednisone she took for her lupus was making her crazy. I wouldn’t let her smoke pot in my house and was grounds enough for a three-hour long tantrum. She’d start crying at a bar and run out into the warm, thick New York air sobbing, grab me by the shoulders to spout some inane and melodramatic dialog that made a Lifetime made-for-TV movie seem like an episode of Nova.
All I wanted was conventional dating with a lot of naked Twister. Liz, however, wanted a typical dyke union where you rush into things unknowingly, drop the “l” bomb way too fast, and then inevitably crash and burn in an ugly pile of Kleenex, Ani DiFranco albums, and Tofutti Cutie wrappers. And the guilt of breaking the heart of someone with a chronic condition seemed like grounds for a soap opera.
When I gently approached her as she reclined on the couch, hand behind her belt-buckle, and asked if maybe, maybe, tonight would be the night she’d retreat back to her five-person share in Hell’s Kitchen, she leapt up, grabbed my face between her hands and hollered, “Babe, what we have is for real!” Her hand was up my skirt before I could even locate a grocery bag in which to put her stuff.
I wanted so badly to believe that the sex could at least last until autumn, that my tolerance for someone so unstable, so entirely batshit insane, would endure. But no. I caught her smoking a joint in my apartment (with my doorman) on a late Friday afternoon after being dispatched from the fish market following another failure of our air conditioning system. I threw her out, used her office’s proximity as motivation to quit my job, and went on to become a vegan.
I learned that a New York summer, fish, and serious unions in your early twenties, all usually fade into something that reeks.