I’m an honest guy. I know how that must sound – defensive, mendacious, illegitimate, whatever – but it’s true. I’ve got my flaws, just like everyone else; I drink too much, sleep too little, care almost enough about the important things, but I’m still basically good. Mira still disagrees, though, and probably always will; to her, I’m just your average douchebag, just a piece of shit from Guilford who looks good and knows it. We were damn good together, mostly, but a couple years back, when we were like this, deep in love, or whatever, I cheated on her with a crazy Nicaraguan-Russian girl with skin like polyester and a smile like wildfire. Veronika. She’s a lot nicer in my memory than the “filthy homewrecking skank” that Mira was screaming about over the phone last summer. I didn’t tell her about it, either, but you know how those things go. Better to ask forgiveness than permission, or whatever, but in this case I was done for either way. I might have gotten clean away with it if Mira wasn’t batshit crazy enough to backcheck five months worth of undeleted texts while I was in the shower, but fuck it. Denied it to the end, but we both knew what happened.
Veronika was my homeboy’s girlfriend at the time. You could have guessed. That’s how all these stories begin. I told you ‘bout her smile, but it was that ass that caught my eye – best I’ve ever seen, on my life, and the little back dimple piercings? Mmh. He used to bring her around in the winter, when we were rooming together in Baltimore, before I moved out of the apartment and he moved on from Veronika. She’d had eyes for me from the start, and I’ll be damned if I didn’t almost feel bad for him the second time I fucked her in the bathroom – it’s hard to really feel any pity or guilt when you’re balls-deep in a gorgeous exchange student, but some twinge of shame was definitely there. Mira did always say she liked how sensitive I was.
So there I was, standing by the curb like a homeless sonofabitch with a microwave in a trash bag under one arm – all she let me keep of the shit we bought together. She almost cut me when I asked for the futon, so I figured I was pushing it and just packed my suitcase in silence. She was crying, and I think she was gonna have her girlfriends over, so I went fast and probably forgot some stuff. I left without saying another word to her, though that probably just made her feel worse. I was pissed – it was raining, and I felt like she was overreacting. She didn’t get that messed up about it the other times I cheated, not that she knew about all of them. Something she said stuck with me, though, I still remember it.
William Reyne, she said, without looking at me, Were you lying about everything? Do you even know what love is?
It’s those times when you need to take a step back. At least, I did. I called up a couple of my homeboys and we hit La Cabane for some beers and a joint – Dom’s weed guy rented the suite above the bar – and we had a little fun. It was nice to kick back and forget about the world for a while; nothing’s my fault after five or six shots. Eventually, Dom spoke up over half his Sierra.
Shit, Reyne, he said. You should write the book on how to fuck things up this badly. This must be the eighth time since we met, and always for the same reason. You know how to lie like nobody else I ever met.
Nah, I said. That ain’t me.
I was stupid back then, didn’t know how much I actually lied, but it got me thinking. I was still lingering on those words of hers. Was I lying about everything. Did I know what love was. I let the liar accusation slide, but if there was anything I prided myself on at 20, it was loving. Hell, any piece of ass on the entire UMBC campus could swear to my particular set of loving skills, and the other half knew the rumors, even though I’d been a one-woman man for a whole semester by that point. I don’t know jack about lying, but I could write a book on loving.
Step one: Get caught cheating.
Your girl catches you cheating. It happens. Maybe she read your old messages, maybe she got off work early and walked into the kitchen to find Jamie from English 215 playing tonsil golf with your 7-wood against the refrigerator; the circumstances don’t matter. Maybe you’d get away with it if she didn’t care, or if she was doing it too, but you’re not dating a weak woman. Your girl is a bad bitch who doesn’t vibe with open-anything; that was the only ultimatum she warned you about when you started dating, that she promised she couldn’t tolerate, was cheating. You said you wouldn’t, or you said you’d cut those habits, but you didn’t.
You realize you had really liked this one, even with the one-girl limit she imposed, while paying your tab at the bar that night. You’re halfway through a joke with your best friends about getting back in the game, starting with that blonde piece of ass in the corner with a tan line on her ring finger. You start to miss her already. You’re not used to this.
Maybe you try to keep her. Maybe you bring her flowers, you write a shitty sonnet, you disown all your side chicks and change your phone number. You blame college hookup culture and deactivate your Facebook. You give her unfettered access to your accounts and claim that it was a fault of passion. You sign up for rehab or some shit. You say you’re sorry.
You realize it’s not going to work after a while. After her Nana, who always loved you the most, told you to stay away from her girl, you stop. You get mad at yourself for caring, but you still care. You let it get to you more than it should – you, the chic slagmagnet with the confident grin who exudes machismo and sports a six-pack (when you suck it in a little). You decide to get better at this. You decide that if you can’t find love, you’ll make it. You still harbor this crazy dream that maybe if you play your cards right, she’ll forgive you.
Step two: Know yourself.
After a year, you’re done pretending it didn’t matter. You remember all the things you hated about her, too. Yeah, you remember that? She hated your friends. She made you read her stupid poems. She gave awful head. You always had to do the vacuuming. You were never allowed to come home late (in hindsight, reasonable).
You stop going to class. You need time to focus on other things. You finally blame yourself. You don’t look good enough to go after some other cutie on the streets, and over here you need looks and personality to have any luck. You used to look better. You used to look good. You had let yourself go a bit while trying to hit the rebound, but now you’re ready to put a change to that.
You get a haircut, finally. You read a book. You start hitting the gym again. You go out and buy a set of brushes, some canvas, and everything else the cute girl behind the counter at Blick tells you to buy. You think a new habit will pick you up out of your slump. Go find another girl, your friend Dom suggests as he finishes rolling a joint. He’s been dating his dealer’s sister for two years now, as bold as it is. You suppose that he knows a little bit more about this than you do, just the same; he was engaged before he had this girl, and she cheated on him, too. He drank himself half to death, but he made it through and found another girl. Better cooking and great in bed, he tells you, but she makes him shave his beard.
I’ll try to find one, you tell him, though you’re worried they won’t compare to what you had before. She wasn’t perfect, but neither were you.
You’re drinking a little less these days, which is good. You’ve set your sights higher; you’re lifting more, you don’t need to stoop to the low-hanging fruit just for the thrill of cheating. Every now and then someone might catch your eye at a club. Casually, and without breaking your confident smile, you tell Dom you’ve got a hook in the water. No lies this time. Dom says nothing, just smiles and nods.
Step three: Striking fool’s gold.
It’s rough going, for some reason. You get numbers, of course; you’ve still got that natural charm that these desperate Baltimore girls usually kill and die for, but your luck runs dry after a few weeks. Like, really dry. Not an average dry spell, like the feeling you had after a week without cheating, but some real Black Sunday shit. It’s been two years now since you walked out of Mira’s place with a microwave, but you haven’t even come all that far.
It turns out Dom can help you out; he picked up a bit of work with his soon-to-be brother in law, and he starts taking you with him to collect on debts. You’re a tall enough guy, and Dom assures you that it’s just good to have numbers in these situations. One day you find some hope in a girl looking for a hookup – for her anxiety, she insists with a sly half-smile that catches your eye immediately.
Her name is Alex, from Canton, but she’s got a cousin who grew up down the street from you in Boston. She’s studying English right now, but she’s got her eyes on med school. She’s got a cute smile and a penchant for showing it off, and she likes your pecs. She doesn’t nose around much, and if she’s nervous and doesn’t have time for a toke, she always says, Such a beautiful day.
You get a little pattern going. On Sundays you usually take a day off from lifting; Saturday nights you do a lot of plyo, and all the jumping leaves you tired until at least noon, but it’s perfect for brunch with Alex. You get some good conversations going, and that leads to sleepovers. After the first one, Dom asks how the ass was after waiting so long, but you’re not sure; she didn’t put out. Says she needs commitment. She tells you her last relationship was pretty bad, she’s not too sure yet. He’s the one who got her started with smoking, like, a lot. Tried to move it up a notch when he scored some coke for a party, she wasn’t feeling it, they fought, it got ugly, they broke up, whatever. There were a couple days like this, nice, quiet, beautiful days. They’re baked into your memory because you were happy, or at least you found it easier to convince yourself that much.
The next few weeks are a haze, though, and you don’t really remember what happens after it’s over, or why it happens. You get frustrated and some little part of you reverts back to how it used to be, maybe. She wants to make it official, but you let that little part of you inhabit your mouth for a bit. That little part of you says that you’d consider it if she let you get your end wet; that little part of you thought that it would sound better than it did, but the rest of you knows.
She turns around and says, Get out of my apartment.
It takes a few months after this one; you need time to pull yourself together before you go back to the bar with Dom and the guys. Some of them clap your back and crack a joke before going out to the floor in pursuit of a dance partner. You go sit at the bar with Dom, who can’t dance for shit, and open a tab.
Good job, Dom says to you after a minute or two of silent drinking, Well done as always. Even these little almost-not-really-breakups send you right back to thinking about Mira. Doesn’t take much for the rest of that winter, but eventually you get over it. You’re with Dom and his new wife for a drink, and you tell them that you’re swearing off your womanly pursuits for a while. Taking a break to focus on yourself.
That’s a good idea, his wife says. Dom nods agreement.
You think about sending an apology text to Alex, but you don’t.
Step four: Take a break.
You take a break for yourself, just like you promised them. No more bars, no more attempts at love, just you, the gym, and painting. You paint happy scenes, of happy people, but they don’t make you happy. Your paintings aren’t very good liars. You start attending your classes again, to give yourself something to do, and you keep your steady exercise schedule. Your tuition pays for a rec center membership too, and before long, you know all the regulars, the best time to get the squat rack, the best guys to snag if you need a spot. You shed the last of the extra fat around your stomach. Your arms impress you enough that it’s hard to look away in the mirror when checking your form. Success looks as good as it feels.
As the winter stays cold but drifts further away from New Year’s, you see the stragglers start to die out, and your passion gets a little numb too. You know everyone who’s left here, including one girl who actually kind of inspires you. She’s on the treadmill and you’re at the racks, so you only occasionally make eye contact, but you can’t help but notice she’s got the ass of a goddess, perfectly shaped and always a pleasure to see on the treadmill by the mirror wall in the gym. You hope you bump into her somewhere else around campus, because only a douche would try to strike up conversation at the gym.
Everything’s going better.
Step five: Until finals.
It’s much easier to mess up the optional parts of life. These classes aren’t optional, and it’s hard as hell to get back into them after slacking off for so long. You don’t do too well in half of them, and this sudden streak of failure makes you lose touch with yourself. You might actually fail out, now. It gets to the point where you say, Fuck it, and you go out with Dom and the boys to a Spanish club on Pratt Street. It’s still February, and the sleet makes the line to enter feel like fuckin’ purgatory, but inside it’s warm enough that it doesn’t matter; everybody’s stripped down to their underclothes where they can. You pity Dom for wearing nothing under his sweatshirt. Dom sits down at the bar for a drink; dancing doesn’t interest him since his knee started acting up. There’s a girl who bumps into you now and then as you navigate the floor. Sorry, babe, you mutter, looking away.
Babe yourself, she answers. She’s tall, and it takes you a second to recognize her from the gym, and another second to recognize her from the front. You’re a bit guilty about that. You ask her for her number, real straightforward. She gives a little smile, and you can tell she recognizes you, too. She plays hard to get, though; she tells you that line wasn’t smooth enough to earn her number, but you can have her name. Sydney, with a Y. You buy a drink for Sydney with a Y.
I would never get with you, she tells you early on in the slightly flirty conversations; she’s a Yankees fan. But she still writes her number on a napkin at the end of the night, and you still finish your drink with a smile after she leaves.
Step six: Closure.
You don’t expect much anymore. You’ve come sort-of far, but you still haven’t locked this relationship down. Sydney from the gym hasn’t let you hit it yet, but you don’t really mind this time. You still do your paintings. She actually thinks it’s cool, too. She helps you study, ‘cause she’s actually good at this school shit, and you feel good about your exams as you take them. Sometimes she asks to watch you paint, which is nice. Dom doesn’t think you’ve changed much, but you’re not lying to yourself about being happy anymore, and that might just be the best you can hope for.
Eventually, you think you might actually have a shot here. Spring’s here in force, and you know you’ll be back in Boston for the first few weeks of the summer. You try to convince yourself it’s a good idea to take action. You remain unconvinced. Thankfully, she had the same idea, and a little more bluntness about it, but she still wants to think about it first, then sit down and discuss. By this point, you’re ready. It hasn’t been that long, but it feels like forever; you think you know what love is, now.
It was such a beautiful day when we got around to discussing. She had her running clothes on and a drop of sweat on each arm. I wasn’t really sure what to do to be ready, what to wear, and I felt like an asshole for thinking the collared shirt was the right play. Still, I smiled when she started up the stairs to my place and buzzed her in, soon as she rang.
I know how this must sound, too – me, William Reyne, nervous about talking to a cutie after racking up a body count like the Plague, but Sydney was something else. Eyes like you wouldn’t believe, addictive kisses, and she actually liked my repetitive lifestyle.
I let her in and led with a quick hug, and I guess she could feel my heart racing as her lips brushed past my cheek, ‘cause she laughed and gave my back a little squeeze. A heavy breath and a stolen kiss later and she was back to serious mode. No clue how she can flip back and forth so easily, but I still managed to follow suit. I wasn’t as ready as I thought I’d be, so I tossed some Thai leftovers in my microwave and gave it a smack to turn it on. It barely works anymore. I should really replace it, I would occasionally tell myself, while I’m on this trend of reinventing who I am, but I guess some things are hard to change.
She explained that she thought I was pretty good, but she knew her way around these New England big-city assholes who think they’re better than everyone. I didn’t correct her. She got up and walked around while she spoke – I always loved when she did that. I tried not to at first, but I succumbed and let my gaze down to that ass of hers, and I know she could tell ‘cause she puffed it out a bit and laughed. Some part of me almost thought it looked kind of like Veronika’s. So I looked back up to her face. She said that there was only one ultimatum if we were to start dating, one thing she couldn’t tolerate, and that was lying. If I lied to her, we were done.
I stood up and walked over to her, slipping my hands around her back and planting one of those genuine, special kisses right on her forehead, and pulled her close before I even thought about speaking. I may not be perfect, but she’s as close as it gets. I’m happy. I don’t want to lose her, not if I can help it. I open my mouth and hope a lie doesn’t come out:
I’m an honest guy.