Bea was running late. She hoped it came off like a cute girl-next-door personality trait, like she’d show up all frazzled, tripping over her words, a little out of breath, her cheeks flushed and her smile wider than ever, like, I’m here, I rushed all the way here just for you.
How To Be a Heartbreaker
Bea was running late. She hoped it came off like a cute girl-next-door personality trait, like she’d show up all frazzled, tripping over her words, a little out of breath, her cheeks flushed and her smile wider than ever, like, I’m here, I rushed all the way here just for you. She hovered in front of the R train’s sliding doors, tapping her toe to the bubblegum-pop song blasting in her headphones. It was midday and there were two other people in the car. A woman in a black puffer coat with fur lining her face was hunched over her phone, absorbed in her game of Candy Crush. On the other end, a man spread his legs, his hands falling in front of his crotch, looking nowhere in particular. She hoped Jake was running late too.
Kelly leaned over the kitchen countertop, her chin digging into the palm of her hand, her fingers curled under her lips. Jake had been spending every night at work, tiptoeing into their bedroom in the early hours of the morning, when the sky is pink and the air is cool. She’d squeeze her eyes shut, forcing even breaths. He knew she was awake. He tiptoed anyway, carefully peeling off yesterday’s clothing and sliding into bed next to her.
Jake’s username was nightswimming_1, even though his interests included neither swimming nor the night. He did something in computers; he was an engineer, or a programmer, or maybe he sold them. Either way, when they first met, at a café, Bea leaned in extra close, her hands cupping her face and her eyes wide. Wow. That’s so cool. I could never do that. I can’t even imagine. She says, like little me, little me with my little bag that swings in the crook of my elbow and my heels that click-clack down the sidewalk, explain it to me, explain your big boy world to me.
She met her first John for Korean food on Thirty-Third Street. In his photos, he looked young for forty, with long chestnut hair swooped over the side of his face and muscles that were outlined under his T-shirt. How could she be so lucky, she thought, to have found someone moderately attractive, whose first message wasn’t a point system on whether or not they’d be a good match.
She called them Johns because what else was she supposed to call them? Her clients? Was it all clients, the ones who frequented salons and gyms, that booked appointments past eleven when their children were asleep and their wives were who knows where? Bea imagined these mysterious wives about whom she only knew their names; she imagined them wondering how many late nights it would be until the divorce, until they woke up one morning and decided they deserved better, and whisked their sons away in the middle of the day, with the sun still shining and nothing in their hands but the rest of their lives.
Messages she received usually went something like this:
- Under 5’3, I like petite women. +3
- Under 130 lbs. I want someone who takes care of their physique. Fitness is important to me. I take care of my body, so should you. +5
- No tattoos or piercings, you should be a woman of class. +2
- Must look good in little black dress. +1
- Hair preferably down to the waist, I’m attracted to feminine women. To the shoulders is fine, but not ideal. +4
- 17-19. I can date women my age, but I’ve found they become bitter with age. I’m adventurous, young at heart, I need someone to match my energy, someone bright-eyed, ready to explore life with me. +9
- Must be comfortable with intimacy. I’m not looking for friends, I have plenty of those. +11
If you get all 35 points, message me.
How lucky she was, to be five-foot-two, to be eighteen but look fifteen, to be constantly looking in every mirror, every reflection, just to check if her skirt hit her in that magic spot that sucked her in, but not so much so that her fat spilled out over her skirt’s elastic waistband.
When her first John tapped her on the shoulder and stuttered, Hi, I’m Michael, in that voice like, I can’t be too loud, we have to be quiet otherwise everyone will know, they’ll all know, he looked much older than his pictures. His hair was gray, plastered onto his head, his button up shirt rumpling in the wind, a body in there somewhere.
They ordered the same dish. Bea asked him questions about his life. He leaned back as he talked about his time teaching English in Korea, how the kids knew English better than him by second grade. She laughed, throwing in oh my gods and then looking directly into his eyes, biting her lips as he chattered away.
When she’d decided to start sugaring, or escorting, or prostituting, or whatever she’d decided to call it that day, her stomach burned up and she did not eat for three days. She and her friend Cassandra rode the subway from their Brooklyn apartment to Best Buy at midnight. Cassandra helped her pick out a burner phone, reminding Bea to get one with a camera so she’d be able to send photos. The two giggled all the way home, only stopping to stare at each other, their faces red and their fists clenched, until they’d burst out laughing all over again.
When Bea and Jake finished at the café, he took her to The Strand. They perused the stacks, stopping to read the back of books they’d heard were good. They remarked to one another. I read this, it was amazing. I’ve been wanting to read this, it’s been sitting on my bookshelf forever. I saw someone online making fun of this one. He drifted behind her. Occasionally their hands would brush past each other, and they’d take a step back, the way Bea did in middle school, and Jake couldn’t remember the last time a girl made his legs tremble.
Kelly folded her son’s laundry. Her son had just turned six and was starting kindergarten. She and Jake had decided to put him in ballet classes. She had done ballet throughout high school and her son was restless. He’d bounce from room to room in their apartment that overlooked Central Park, scaling their furniture like it was his jungle gym, like the world was his to conquer.
He cried the first time he came home from ballet. All the girls got to wear sparkling pink tutus that fluttered as they leapt and twirled, and he was assigned a white T-shirt and black shorts. That day Kelly called the school, asking why her son wasn’t allowed to wear a tutu, asking why he was being punished. He’s just a little boy. He wants to wear a pink tutu like everyone else. Her voice quivered and she hoped they could not hear her sniffling on the other end of the line. For God’s sake let him be a kid.
Bea’s fifth John called himself Mark. His apartment was unlived in.
He offered her champagne before she walked in. It was two in the afternoon. Bea couldn’t decide if men offered her champagne because it was a facade of elegance or because it would get her drunk before she realized it. He gave her water in a mug instead. It tasted like coffee. They sat together on his couch, uncomfortably far from each other. The East River sparkled in his window and the sun was loud against his naked hardwood floors. She set her water that tasted like coffee on a side table, next to an empty Hermes box.
He had her change into a Victoria’s Secret babydoll dress that pushed her boobs up to her neck and came with matching strings to go up her ass.
On the seventh time he offered her champagne she accepted. Getting drunk let words fall out of her mouth and let his touch feel like someone else’s and made walking seem like dancing. And how could she resist an afternoon buzz? Mark smiled like the Cheshire cat. He laughed before the punchline.
Bea counted a wad of cash in his too-nice bathroom because he was a gentleman. When Bea stuffed the wad of cash into her wallet, he told her she looked sexy.
Mark finished on himself because he wanted to look into her eyes as he did it. She was his good report card that his parents hung up on the refrigerator. She was his soccer trophy perched on his bedroom shelf. She was the only stuffed animal he kept after he grew up. And after he reminded himself of how well he took care of Bea. She wondered if he was always so easily proud of himself.
At home she showered until after the water began to burn. She let her afternoon buzz become an evening tipsy, and then a midnight drunk.
Jake rented them a hotel room by Bryant Park. The lobby had gold plated ceilings and an elevator that ran smooth to the seventeenth floor.
Bea did not look up as they checked in, their hostess’s voice was shrill, and she wore a tight pencil skirt and an even tighter french twist. Everything sparkles in this hotel, Bea thought, even the pen Jake used to sign his name. She tried to pretend like she was an Instagram influencer, or a toilet-paper heiress, or maybe even Jake’s younger cousin, but they all must have known she was a whore.
They sit on the bed next to each other, their legs outstretched and their pinkies loosely holding on to each other. Have you ever seen the Matrix? he asks. No, I haven’t. He turns on the movie, fiddling with the remote. He scoots closer to her. He wraps his arm around her shoulder, lightly scratching her, his fingers tangled in her curly brown hair. Then, he kisses her on the cheek, and Bea cannot look at him either.
Cassandra wants to hear everything when Bea gets home. She spares no details, from her train ride there, to their lunch at the café, to the Strand, and finally, to that simple kiss that stopped time. Cassandra holds her legs to her chest on their pink couch, nodding her head as Bea paces back and forth, her eyes darting everywhere. When Bea stops and looks at Cassandra like can you believe it, can you believe my day, how perfect it was and how gentle he was, how he held me like it was his first time and how we didn’t even have sex, can you believe we didn’t have sex, Cassandra holds her breath.
Bea, he’s fifty. He has a wife and children. Where is this going to go? You think he’s going to drop everything for you? And then what? You’re going to introduce him to your parents? You’re going to be his kid’s stepmom? You’re going to be a trophy wife in his fancy apartment? At eighteen? Did he even pay you?
In fact, he did not.
Bea meets Jerry in front of a Starbucks and he already has a coffee. Jerry is her fifteenth John. He takes her hand, looking behind himself as he leads them to a hotel across the street.
Are you into being intimate with older men? They always use that word. Intimate. Bea tells him if it’s the right person. You’re such a pretty girl. Such a pretty, sweet girl. You’re so sweet. I would love to get to know you.
Bea can’t help but wonder not if their wives know, because anyone would know their husband isn’t spending so many late nights at work, but if they care. And then she wonders if they too crave that special word that their husbands throw around like a football and slide in between words like emotional connection and dinner.
She can’t help but think about their wives and what’s wrong with them. What’s wrong with Anne? What’s so wrong with Anne that Jerry has to say they’re married but he’s looking? What’s so wrong with Anne that Jerry wants to film himself with a girl barely out of high school? What’s so wrong with Anne that Jerry has to hold that girl down when she says no because he doesn’t have a condom and she doesn’t want to be filmed?
Bea can’t help but wonder if this is what Jerry meant by intimacy.
Tonight, Kelly does not pretend to be asleep. She does not change into her pajamas, she does not even sit down. She puts away toys and dishes and books, rearranging them and then unarranging them. Her steps are slow and her eyes are tired but Jake is not home and she is determined to look him in the eyes when he opens their front door like I know what you’ve done, I know where you’ve been, and I know my tits are starting to sag and the scar on my stomach from our son, your son, is never going away, but here I am in our dark apartment and look at me, look at what you’ve done to me.
And when Jake does get home, it is four in the morning and Kelly is meandering around in the dark, illuminated only by her phone she is clutching in her hands. She does not stop for Jake, like she hadn’t heard him or like he hadn’t come home at all. He walks over to her, bumping into their couch. He brings her forehead to his chest and her body is still. Go to bed, he says.