On a street corner in December of 2012, she sees it. A standard-issue sort of graffito that reads simply and in all capital letters: HURT. It’s just her brand of emo. Cliche, but to the point in its succinctness. To her, it feels like the perfect image to add to her Instagram, because she has only just gotten it and in its novelty has become slightly addicted. An addiction that will, of course, backfire, as all addictions do. She doesn’t know it yet though. There is so much that a twenty-four year old girl does not know. So much she can’t know until the omen of hurt that blows through her life has his way with her.
They meet at a place called The Cove. It’s disgusting and shitty without trying, as most places in New York now have to do. The lights inside are laser-like and green, just the kind that make a girl of a certain age think of Jennifer Lopez’s “Waiting for Tonight” video. Harper doesn’t want to meet anyone tonight, which is typically always when you meet someone. Fate is a cruel little diva, and will only throw you a crumb of love when you can’t yet digest it–the regurgitative emotional bulimia of a past relationship perhaps forever bubbling up. In Harper’s case, however, she had always kept it light. No attachments meant no detachments. If someone crossed her path tonight, she knew it could be no different. For the heart can’t grow any larger once it’s been formed past the age of eighteen–at least unless you’re the Grinch, as Harper saw it. And that was, like all heartwarming stories, basically a fairy tale. So she stood there, smoking (you could get away with smoking still at that time, the space was so large, and the sprinklers untrippable), expecting nothing other than to watch her friend, Annette (her grandmother was the one who had a hand in naming her after Annette Funicello), grind shamelessly against a greasy white guy that would never look as attractive greasy as Jordan Catalano.
A remix of “Call Me Maybe” blares over the speakers as the DJ looks out into the audience for acknowledgement of his ability to cater to the collective need for hearing popular music no matter how shamed one feels about it. But this doesn’t impress Harper, nor does the DJ’s transition to the slow jam of Frank Ocean’s “Thinkin’ Bout You,” almost as though to pay respect to all the junior high DJs out there who ever had the courage to attempt bringing hormonal early adolescents together. Harper, finished with her third cigarette in what feels like just as many minutes, is growing increasingly bored with her duties as wing woman, and starts to consider leaving. Or at least going to the bodega across the street to get a sandwich. She’s probably consumed so much Boar’s Head in her New York life that half of her internal organs are synthetic meat. A cheerful thought, one of just many (including that Marina and the Diamonds lyric, “Oh god, I’m gonna die alone”) as she makes her way out into the street, looking down at her cigarette to light it only to bump right into the very person that the graffito had warned her about: Nowel. The way he spelled his name would come to signify many infuriating things about him. But in that split second, Harper was blinded by the crashing wave of odorous pheromones, or so she later surmised. And so when they got to talking and he offered to accompany her to get her sandwich before heading on his own way to a show where his friend was serving as bassist (she should have known then–only ill-mannered men have bassist friends), she found herself not wanting to go home. Wanting to take him up on his offer to meet him later, after the “performance.” She knew that, by then, Annette would be ready to go home with the greasy-haired guy, making it perfectly viable for her to go her own way with Nowel. But something was holding her back–maybe it was the searing emblazonment of that word, “HURT,” somewhere in the nether regions of her mind that called out like a warning not for her to get involved. And for once, she listened, rebuffing him with, “I’ve got to get back to my friend.” Nowel got her number nonetheless. She assumed she would hear from him months from now when it occurred to his penis that he might need a pussy fix.
But she was wrong. It was around 2:30 a.m., just when she was walking to the Bedford stop to get back home, in what then felt like the deep recesses off Myrtle-Wyckoff, that she received the message: “Are you still around?” She had to admire his use of a fairly complete sentence, and that he didn’t say anything so bold as, “Fuk 2nite?” or whatever it is guys in inebriated states say. She didn’t know what the norm was being that all the ilk she attracted was rather unpredictable in their proclivities both sexual and grammatical. So part of her had to make up the most bombastic and inappropriate texts in her mind that she could imagine so as to cushion any potential shock or offense beforehand. Thus her heart was so easily warmed to the innocence of “Are you still around?” So she admitted that she was, and they agreed to meet at the corner of Driggs and N. 7th, where he bought a hot dog before they went back to his ill-kept three bedroom apartment on Havemeyer and S. 1st. She was, in truth, just glad that he lived somewhere–and so close, too. Most of the time, she would meet a guy, and he would confess at the last moment that he actually didn’t have a place to stay, was crashing at a friend’s, had just moved to town and was “in between” “situations,” etc. So really, Nowel had quite a lot going in his favor that night. Fate was feeling diva-ish, in short, wanting to fit the bill of Harper’s needs only when she didn’t need or want them.
They woke up late the next morning, neither one in possession of the sort of job that seemed to entail actually being anywhere ever. It was the Brooklyn way at that time. Now, it’s just trust fund millennials that feel compelled to work hideous jobs at startups and offices so as to avoid the guilt lobbed at them by poor American society for being born into wealth. 2012 was probably the cutoff for when that antiquated Paris Hilton phenomenon of touting affluence ended. Luckily, it was never something that affected Harper. She didn’t tout her affluence, so much as existed in it–exuded it with the effortless wearing of vintage from 10 ft Single by Stella Dallas or the impulse purchase of a movie rental membership from Photoplay on Manhattan Avenue. She lived her status simply by not even considering it, by not even pausing before buying the way most people would, or, at the very least, allowing a fragment of failure to wash over them for succumbing to American capitalist brainwashing. Of believing that the buying of an item could also buy one’s way to a more complete soul. But she knew already that it couldn’t. It was just one less obstacle to need to overcome in the day-to-day dealings with existence and its forever lingering taste of dissatisfaction. In this way, money was both a blessing and a curse, in one sense eliminating one of the greatest puzzles of living and in another leaving too much focus on the meaning of it all without the perpetual paper chase as a grand distraction.
In any event, as she rolled over to face Nowel and risk experiencing the unleashing of his morning breath onto her (she never had any, thanks to swigging travel size mouthwash every time she went to the bathroom, which was rather often thanks to her coke habit), she briefly felt that heart-swelling feeling the Grinch elucidated. He was still asleep though, his eyes fluttering as he processed a dream that could have been either pleasant or un. She took his continued slumber as a sign from the gods to leave while she still could. She was already getting too involved as it was by having the cognizance to remember what his last name was: Callaway. So simple and purebred. How was she supposed to be able to forget it now?
She didn’t have much time to wonder about it as she decided to walk some of the way back to her respective area, relishing the shitty scenery as a way to drive home the point that she, too, was shitty. And she wanted to let that sentiment pervade her. Maybe it would help her to start avoiding these hollow one-night stands “going forward.” And just when she was about to make a resolution to never go home with someone just to do it again, a text arrived. “Leaving so soon?” He was rather fond of questions, this Nowel. She would come to find that this was his method of operation: constantly asking, but never answering. Sighing heavily as she could feel herself actually caring about what her response might be, she leaned against a bird shit-laden wall with the same exact graffito that she had seen before, this time the letters in red instead of blue, as though crying out its import with even further urgency. She ignored it, instead Instagramming a video of a pigeon pecking at a Checkers wrapper and captioning it, “Ran into someone as hungover as I am this morning.” And she was, in fact, fairly hungover, considering that she only drank eight vodka sodas. That was tame for Tuesday.
Crawling into bed to sleep off the remainder of her haze, Harper forgot about the text until she got yet another one later on around five, again posing another demand: “Want to come to a friend’s art show tonight?” She was horrified. How could he possibly ignore the cardinal rule about not sending another text until she responded to him? Did he not understand the societal norms of “the game”? And before she could truly ponder just how deranged he might be, he sent another message, adding, “There’s an open bar…” as though knowing just how to appeal to her at that time in her life. She stared at the intended tantalization of the ellipsis for a second before turning to the mirror, a vanity she had paid $200 for at Junk, to apply some makeup while she thought about the prospect of entertaining his lust. She did, after all, have no one else to divert and abstract her attention from other, less desirable focuses, like her mother calling her on a daily basis to tell her about her latest series of physically beneficial treatments that maybe Harper might want to start considering soon if she was going to have her “pick of the litter.” That’s actually how she referred to men. A litter. She was from Connecticut, so that had to be why she used such “breeding”-oriented terminology. It still didn’t seem like a good enough excuse, being from Connecticut. Mercifully, her mother had given birth to her while she was vacationing with her now ex-father in Nice. Everyone needs that French citizenship cachet for added entitlement to anything and everything signifying the good life. In truth, it’s probably what kept Nowel interested so long after he wasn’t, the prospect of marriage for “an in” in Europe.
But this is now, before the days of abandonment, as Elena Ferrante would call them. He is interested, overly so. And she lets it get the better of her. Never fucking do that. Never fucking fall for it. It is a lie driven by some arcane psychological motive that you will never understand. Even when it was happening, Harper had this faint idea that it was too rom com-like to be real. Had that synthetic Boar’s Head quality. But she was getting acclimated to it quickly, it was starting to taste so normal, this bathetic affection, which she resisted the night of the open bar, until the open bar insisted upon a reversal of emotions.
From there, it was an easy dive into becoming too consumed with Nowel Callaway, all pale freckled skin and too thinning hair for someone in his mid-twenties. What else was she doing? Focusing on a career? Certainly not. Trying to pursue some artistic endeavor to create the illusion of being a person of substance? No. That’s why Nowel became her grand career and art project rolled into one. Something she had to make work because nothing else was. And the more she picked and prodded at the abstraction of the relationship, the further he recoiled, to the point where, soon, after almost a year of seeing each other practically every day, he at once and abruptly tapered off to one night a week with the excuse that he had to move to Asbury Park to record an album. Apparently all that time spent orbiting musicians finally made him want to become one. Or maybe he was only pretending to feel “the call” so as to have a viable excuse to distance himself without seeming like a total cad. At least that’s what it felt like after he sent her a link to his SoundCloud and it was all essentially gibberish set to the “ambient” sound of bathtub water running and sex noises. She asked him where he had found the latter “material” and he insisted it was all culled from PornHub. She knew it had to be otherwise. He was cheating on her and flaunting it for her ears to hear. He really wanted her to be the one to say, “This isn’t working.” It would make it all so much less icky for him. No risk of the “psycho bitch” reaction that comes whenever a guy ends it. But she wasn’t going to let him have that release, not after he was so earnest in initiating the whole damned farce in the first place.
Then, one week, late in December of 2013, Harper was driven to her Edgar Allan Poe-nian madness, walking past the very graffito that had warned her of what would happen the night she met him. She glared at it, thinking about all her stupidity, from Instagramming it in the first place to Instagramming at all. And that maybe if she had tried to concentrate her frivolity into at least becoming a “lifestyle celebrity” of the app, she wouldn’t have instead frivolously wasted her time on a person doomed to grow tired of her in a way that her would-be followers never could. No, they would cherish her every image, counsel and paid sponsorship. They would never sever ties, unfollow her as Nowel was about to, or, for all intents and purposes, already had. And all that anger of wasting her emotions and effort on a tangible being at once welled up inside of her and spit itself out in the form of her attacking the lamppost with her freshly-manicured hands, scratching the word HURT until her nails bled to the point of blotting it completely out.
In the psych ward she feels fine again. Calm. Serene. Part of that calmness and serenity stems from writing HURT over and over again on various pieces of notebook paper in the same exact font as how she remembers it. Now and again, she’s allowed internet access to check her email, where she’ll sometimes find a new link to one of Nowel’s latest songs, or even news of how he’s out on some bullshit tour, traveling to places like Kansas City to spread the gospel of his “experimental” sound. He doesn’t seem to know or understand what’s happened to her, simply thinks that the disappearance from each other’s lives was mutual. And that he’s only doing her a solid by even bothering to “keep things friendly” as he put it in the first email detailing how he was glad that Harper finally got the point and stopped responding to his strained texts, but also that it didn’t have to mean they couldn’t still keep up an occasional and healthy email correspondence. As he so cordially put it. Now and again, she’ll respond to one of his missives with HURT typed over and over again. He hasn’t gotten back to her with a reply of late.