He worked diligently to stamp out her love completely. To give her no sign, no encouragement that he could ever return her ardor in the same way, or even at all. At one point, she was an interesting curiosity to him, her with her fishnets and hot pink lamé skirts paired with little more than what amounted to a black bra. The requirement for her shoes was that they made her at least five inches taller. She always fashioned her hair in a random sort of way, affixing various parts of it with bobby pins and adding shiny clips or homemade baubles to complete the effect of sporting a nest on her head. Roland couldn’t help but notice her that first time he saw her walk into his favorite coffee shop inquiring about a job. Her voice was the second thing that struck him, its low baritone more comparable to the sound of someone with no gender at all rather than the high-pitched wisps he tended towards. He didn’t particularly like these girls that he dated, but he was of a family that cared about who he spent his time with. Most especially his mother, Faye Realton, a woman who had kept her own last name rather than take that of Roland’s father, Roger Smithington; not because she was some sort of feminist, so much as she felt her family name had more prestige. That being said, if Roland dated any girl for more than a month, Faye fully expected to meet and vet her lest she “cut Roland out.” Roland’s biggest fear in life was being cut out. He was making decent money as an analyst at the investment banking firm he worked at, but somewhere down the line, he knew he was going to lose his mind if he stayed in this industry–was counting on his parents’ death as an ultimate escape plan. All he had to do was keep them happy while they were alive.
A girl like Leila wasn’t going to make them happy, pleased with his “path in life.” If anything, she would incite them to live longer so they could stop Roland from making a mockery of the family with such a “free spirit,” a “psycho.” Roland knew all of this as he watched Leila chat up the male barista, explaining her extensive background in the service industry and how she could make any coffee drink with two hands tied behind her back. The barista seemed charmed enough, if not a bit wearied from having to deal with the amount of street riffraff that came in asking about the same nonexistent position. He assured her he would keep her resume on file and contact her should anything arise. Leila smiled, used to this sort of brush off, Roland could tell. And as she walked out the door, he wondered if he shouldn’t chase after her, offer to take her somewhere. But he had to get to work soon and this sort of advance would be very impractical. So he forgot about her for a time unless she cropped up unexpectedly in a masturbation fantasy along with some of the other strangers he saw fit to reserve in his spank bank. After a few months, she was almost gone completely from his mind, even in fantasy.
He didn’t think of her again until he was taken by some co-workers still in their early twenties to one of the last clubs worth going to on the Lower East Side, Mehanata, where he saw her dancing, making use of the stripper pole that was available to all. She was wearing the same uniform: fishnets, hot pink lamé skirt, black bra and knee-high black boots. He practically stopped cold at the sight of her. She was the sort of person who always looked like she was alone, even when she was with a group of people. It was her defiance, her lack of similarity to others that ultimately made her appear this way. Roland knew that if he talked to her tonight, he might be going down a rabbit hole of no return. Enough alcohol cured him of this fear, however, as he finally found it within himself to approach her, she who still looked as though she was completely on her own at this Bulgarian nightclub. She seemed to cringe as he sidled up to her, interrupting her mad dance to some generic dance track he couldn’t identify.
“Hi,” he said plainly, almost screaming it. She stopped her movements to stare at him.
“What do you want out of this exchange?” she demanded.
Roland was stunned. No girl had ever gotten straight to the point like this, saw fit to eviscerate the rules of flirtation so gleefully. “I, erm–”
“Come with me,” she stated as she guided him out of Mehanata. And before he knew it, the two were out in the street and in a yellow cab–another anomaly about Leila was that she hailed taxis instead of using any of those modern apps.
The next thing Roland knew, they were sitting on her fire escape, passing a bottle of whiskey back and forth to one another. She had told him the basics about herself, her name, where she was from (San Francisco), her age (twenty-eight) and how long she had been in New York (seven years). What she had yet to tell him, which is what Roland, himself born in New York, always wondered about people, is what brought her here. Everyone who comes is pursuing something, some grand attempt at life that will make them feel fulfilled. Roland was shocked to learn that Leila simply arrived here by happenstance after going on a cross country road trip with her now ex-boyfriend, who ended up leaving her for someone he met while the two were “vacationing” in the city, never making it to what was supposed to be their final stop on the tour: Montreal.
“I still haven’t been to Montreal, actually. It’s killing me. Do you want to go next week?”
She was so open, so approachable, Roland thought. It was disarming and disorienting.
“Um, I probably have to work,” Roland returned flaccidly.
“Don’t you get time off? Isn’t that the point of being fancy and having an office job–getting paid while you’re away?”
Roland took another slug of whiskey, thought for a moment and said, “You’re right. Let’s go. Why wait until next week?”
It was thus that Roland and Leila’s first date ended up being taking a 6 a.m. bus to Montreal, whereupon the nature of their relationship quickly deepened, as traveling with another person always creates an impenetrable sort of bond and solidarity. Roland even told her all about the pressures of his family, of having an older brother, Kenton, who had already consummated the expected goal of marrying and having a family, now with a second child on the way, another boy. His parents couldn’t have been more pleased with Kenton, as boys were obviously far more conducive to carrying on the lineage.
“This sounds like a waking nightmare, why don’t you just disown yourself?” she offered after walking back to the outdoor area from the inside of La Banquise to bring him their order of poutine.
“Are you not close with your family?”
“Not inappropriately, no. My parents have their own lives, have started different careers so many times that it keeps them constantly busy and my brother has a bird sanctuary on Catalina. We see each other when we want to see each other, talk when we want to talk. That’s how it should be with family.”
Roland dug his fork into the poutine. “That’s an almost utopian thought for someone like me.”
She raised her brow. “As opposed to someone like me? Trash?”
He smiled. “That’s not how I meant it.”
“That’s how it sounded.” She moved his fork away with her own and added, “You know the real difference between rich people and everyone else? They really believe they’re somehow special. More valuable than others. It’s incredible. But an air of superiority is ultimately an Achilles’ heel.”
Roland had never been talked to so bluntly. And somewhere within himself, he knew she was right. Yet this was the moment he realized he couldn’t let her in any further. He could, however, let himself in further in the bed they shared that night and for the next five nights during their stay near the Little Italy neighborhood, which like all Little Italies outside of New York City, wasn’t half as tacky. From Leila’s perspective, Roland was becoming her boyfriend, possibly the real love of her life. For all their oppositeness, they had a natural affinity. She thought. Roland was putting out the same amorous energy, after all. But she did her best to make a point not to let on that she was growing fonder than she ought. Because no woman should ever grow fond of a man lest the rug that is her heart should be ripped out from under her.
Leila didn’t adhere to the rule. And as the trip came to a close, she didn’t seem to be fully aware of the haze that going on a trip with someone can inflict. Thus, something happened when they got back from Montreal. She found herself hopelessly attached to Roland. She who always made such a point of no attachments after the circumstance that led her to New York City in the first place.
Roland, on the other hand, was making strides to distance himself, using the classic excuse of being preoccupied with work to keep from seeing Leila too often. She was a lovely girl, as Faye might say, but she wasn’t one of his own. She was exciting in bed, by comparison to the types of women he would court, allowing him all the freedom of experimentation he wanted. This wouldn’t be enough for him to lose what he held dearer than anything: parental approval and the correlating inheritance money. So he did the honorable thing and took her out to a lavish meal at Daniel to politely end things. Before he made the reservation, he failed to take into account that the way she dressed was going to look incongruously out of place at Daniel. His embarrassment set in almost immediately when she flounced in to meet him, utterly unaware of the spectacle her style caused and that she was about to be “released,” as it were, from his already unclenched clutches.
He ordered for them, starting with a bottle of pinot noir, so as to ease his way into the slaughtering. She truly didn’t see it coming, Roland discovered, as he finished saying the sentence, “It’s time for me to start thinking seriously about who I’m going to marry, and I know it can’t be you.”
Setting her fork down with a distinct urgency, she asked, “What can I do? How can I change? I want to be the right person for you.”
She sounded so desperate, came across as so sad that it was all Roland could do not to look away from her. How could he inform her without further damaging her that there was absolutely nothing she could do? That she had served her purpose in his life and it was now time for him to move on. So he did something he shouldn’t have: he gave her hope.
“Well, for one thing, your manner of dressing is, um…”
“That’s something that can be changed, Roland. If you really don’t like my wardrobe, I can get a new one.”
He wanted to run from the restaurant. Instead, he told her other ways she could alter herself that would be impossible for someone like Leila.
“You need to start pursuing a career. Stop going out all the time in the aimless wandering that is your existence.”
Leila looked like she might cry, and it made Roland hate this night all the more. Rather than shed tears in front of him, she assured, “Well, next time you see me, I guess I’ll be wearing a skirt suit and working in an office.”
Roland sighed. “You shouldn’t change yourself Leila. Not because of me. If you don’t want to do something or be a certain way, then don’t.”
“The thing is, I love you.”
Roland bristled. He thought he would at least be able to escape the relationship without that phrase being bandied. The last girl who told him this was Susannah Fendermeier, who he went to Yale with. He didn’t love her, either. She ended up dropping out after he rebuffed her love, and he wasn’t sure what had ever become of her. Even if he had loved her though, the Jewishness would have made her an “unworthy candidate” by Faye’s standards.
The silence that sat in between them in the wake of that “I love you” felt like a nuclear wipeout had just occurred. “I don’t love you Leila.”
“But if I change–”
“I’m not saying you should. I’m just saying these are things that could make you more suitable. I can’t promise you anything.”
Leila nodded in acquiescence, leading Roland to believe that this was it. He had washed his hands. Alas, his hands were dirtier than ever, with Leila suddenly showing up outside of his building in the Financial District wearing the aforementioned skirt suit she had referenced and blasting Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games” from some speakers she connected to her iPhone. Tourists started to think it was some sort of shtick, offering her money that, of course, she took as she might as well get something out of her public display of pain. Her daily presence also attracted local media attention, with some outlets assuming this was a statement on how women couldn’t get jobs in the finance industry, imperviously sexist as it is.
She didn’t grant interviews. Didn’t tell them that she was driven by madness and obsession, not understanding how she and Roland could be so close in one instant and essentially strangers in the next. She thought they had shared a connection. Connections are so rare in this life, too rare to be thrown away so easily. And Leila wasn’t willing to let it be tossed out so carelessly.
So she continued showing up, watching him as he arrived and left, hoping against hope that he would talk to her, see that her earnestness and love would never be found in another girl. This went on for months, and he never once made eye contact with her–refusing to acknowledge that they had ever shared anything. Even if he had chosen to address her, to give her “another chance,” she was no longer the girl that he had been attracted to, that one in the pink lamé skirt and black bra with a fiery and elusive aura. At last, he stamped her out completely.