The Non-Functioning Defense Mechanism

“Did you ever think maybe men treat you like shit because you act so cavalier?” the old man asked her. Brandt was his name, and Antonia kept going back to his shriveled dick for god only knows what reason. Maybe because he was the only person who would ever answer her when she called, wanting desperately to not be alone at night. Anything but alone at night. It was when all the demons of the mind came out to fester. To torment her with chides of “you’re gonna die alone,” “no one wants you,” “you’re a piece of shit,” etc. So she called Brandt, whom she had met on the street one day when she offhandedly picked up a copy of the New York Daily News with the headline “God Isn’t Fixing This.” And no, apparently he wasn’t. At least not Antonia’s penchant for self-harm. Brandt started chatting her up, giving her shit about buying the merchandise–which she did under the pressure of his highly effective semitic salesmanship. Somehow, by the end of it, she had given him his number. In his old school capacity, he called her right away and invited her to go to Lincoln Center to see La Bohème. She didn’t want to refuse the company, especially when it seemed so elegant and no other man had proffered a preordained date so glamorous. So, without the foreknowledge that Brandt might be otherwise legally tied to another person, she rendezvous’d with him outside of the Met as arranged. He was dressed in the same dingy short sleeve button-front shirt à la Chandler Bing with greenish khaki pants that didn’t do much to ameliorate an already rather lumpy figure.

He grinned when he saw her, flashing his yellow-toothed smile. He looked incongruous in this setting. It was as though he should never leave his perch from behind the newsstand. Yet, impossibly, here he was. “I thought you might not show,” he opened.

She shrugged. “I’ve never seen La Bohème.

He chortled. “At least you’re honest.”

So it went between them, an endless abusive repartee that bordered more on anger than affection. That anger swelled after she stumbled upon the fact that he was married when his wife, Nettie (she was obviously older than Brandt), showed up unexpectedly to the stand one day. It happened when he had already summoned Antonia to come there so that they could engage in their usual antics while he “closed for a fifteen minute break.” Guileless Antonia, who had taken the time to curl her brown tresses into corkscrews and apply just the right shade of pink lipstick and understated daub of mascara. As she approached the newsstand, however, the sight of Nettie giving Brandt a foul peck on the mouth let her know that he was, of course, already spoken for. Wanting to catch him in the act so that he couldn’t deny it, she took a deep breath and marched right up to them. Brandt froze. Antonia let him, for just a split second, think that she would actually say something incriminating, then turned toward the magazines to pick out the January issue of Interview, in spite of its tasteless cover–Kylie Jenner in a wheelchair. It still somehow wasn’t as tasteless as Brandt’s glaring lie. As she reached into her purse to hand Brandt the money, she looked Nettie straight in the eye and asked, “Are you Brandt’s wife?”

Somewhat stunned by the question, Nettie nodded. “Yes, why do you ask?” she demanded tartly while side-eyeing Brandt. Something told Antonia that Nettie had come to expect his philandering. “Oh, I just come here a lot. I feel as though Brandt’s a daily part of my life,” she returned.

Nettie arched her brow. “I’m sure he is.” She then extended her hand and said, “I’m Nettie. The woman behind the newspaperman, the ‘daily part of your life.'” Her voice was raspy, and the bags under her eyes led to irises that looked glaucomic. It occurred to Antonia that Nettie held the grip on the purse strings that kept Brandt’s News of the World open.

“Nice to meet you Nettie. See you around Brandt.” With her magazine tucked under her arm, she trudged the entire twenty-three blocks it took her to get back to the East Village. Alone in her apartment, sitting cross-legged on her giant easy chair with the Interview open on her lap, Antonia sighed at the sound of her phone ringing. It was, obviously, Brandt, calling to apologize. And, obviously, because of her loneliness, she answered.

“I was going to tell you, really I was. It’s just not an easy thing to bring up.”

“But it’s an easy thing to commit adultery?”

“Well, yes. It’s something we… Nettie and I…”

“Please don’t say Nettie. The name is disgusting. It’s literally out of a Woody Allen movie.”

“Antonia, please. I don’t want this to change anything between us.”

“What the fuck are you saying? This changes everything between us.”

She could hear Brandt fumble for the words under his breath on the other side of the line.

“Well, what have you got to say? What can you come up with to convince me?” Antonia countered.

He guffawed. “Nothing. I guess nothing. If you want to come see me, you come see me, okay?”

With that, the conversation was over. Her emotional defense mechanism, that thing that was supposed to keep her from getting attached to anyone, least of all a foul elderly two-timer, was defective. In short, useless.

Months went by and she stayed away from Brandt. Had managed to distract herself with other prospects. Soren from Copenhagen, Alban from Glasgow, Mauro from Venice. That was one positive aspect about staving off the solitude in New York: ample international travelers all ready to be shown “a good time.” But when Mauro went back to Italy to mock the gondola riders in Venezia, a palpable dry spell ensued, one during which no one came over to her apartment to keep her company durante la notte. It made the itch she thought she was feeling in her vagina transfer immediately to a desire for ill-advised behavior. She went back to Brandt, having sex with him on the floor of the newsstand after it closed. The square footage of these little alcoves is more spacious than one might think.

When he peeled his sweaty, flabby body off of her, Antonia knew she had made a mistake. Continuing to go back to this grotesque person, this ultimate representation of how New York scrapes one’s entire body and soul of morality. Like pulp out of an orange (or is seeds out of an apple core more apropos in this city’s case?). When she left him, he tried to be sweet to her. It was the added repellent she needed in order to have no urge to return.

The next afternoon, Antonia met one of her few close friends, Hazel, a former co-worker who had mastered the art of monogamy by herself going for a younger man that could be more seamlessly “controlled.”

“Why don’t you like yourself?” Hazel asked bluntly over coffee. It never occurred to Antonia that this could be the reason for her destructive behavior patterns. On the one hand, it probably seemed to most as though she was highly self-involved, her lack of a significant other or a large network of friends leaving plenty of room for concentration solely on her own “issues,” as many would put into quotes as a way to demean her perception of problems. In truth and upon more invasive examination, it was clear that she despised herself. One boyfriend who ultimately broke up with her explained that part of what initially caught his attention about her was: “This girl just hates herself so much.” That probably ought to have been a red flag that maybe this wasn’t a person to be with–someone allured by the prospect of preying on her low self-esteem. And yet, there were no other offers. No one else lining up.

Her defense mechanism–to act, as the old man called it, “cavalier”–was non-functioning. Never prevented the hurt that came with every rejection. So she did the one thing she could to repair it. That evening, after returning from a long day of poring over documents of a legal nature (she was an assistant at one of the more dubious law firms in the Financial District), she went to the kitchen, removed a knife from the chopping block, went to the bathroom and cut her heart out.

As it lay slowly beating on the black and white checkered floor, Antonia could feel herself strengthening with the weakening of this thing. This thing that had for so long tricked her into believing in every little feeling she had for someone, that it was all laden with meaning when, in fact, to feel nothing was the greatest feeling of all.

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