By mid October, winter had started to take root so I purchased an overstuffed, down-filled parka to barricade me from it. A cold, bitter wind would try to find its way into all the openings. I zipped and buttoned and wrapped and tied the fasteners, and I waddled down the street looking like I’d been swallowed whole. But to my utter surprise I was not minding it at all, the fashion statement, the hordes of people, or the falling mercury. In fact, the thing that I had never imagined possible was happening: I was falling in love with New York.

Central Park was still ablaze in color, even for this late in the year, and it made me realize again how much I missed the changing of the seasons with all the pageantry and drama of the East Coast. This is a city of deliveries — trucks double-parked with hazards blinking, bicycles zipping through clogged intersections with their baskets overburdened, and dinner arriving at your door by foreign men fluent only in the language of gratuity.

Somehow, my days seemed more full here. It wasn’t the Victorian Inn but mornings were spent at my neighborhood hangout, The Coffee Pot, which specialized in the good, the bad, and the ugly (food, waitresses, décor). I window-shopped my way through SoHo and then stayed up too late listening to my friend Jane sing her beautiful songs in the back room of a club on Bleecker Street. I got half-price theatre tickets, I memorized the subway lines, and I searched the markets for the best produce. I walked the length of the park taking a different route each time. I even stood in line for an hour just to marvel at illusionist David Blaine, packed in ice in Times Square for three days, his latest death-defying publicity stunt.

After all, this was the city of Harry Houdini, and everything about it seemed magical. Maybe because everything was only a subway stop away.

The night air was crisp and alive with the first appearance of snow. Big, wet, beautiful flakes were falling and already dusting the streets. None of it was going to stick but it did speak of things to come.

I was meeting my friend Rebecca for dinner in the Village before her poetry reading. The Mediterranean restaurant we had chosen was sandwiched between the Italian, Indian, Thai and Middle Eastern selections. The sun was already in its last moments of setting and normally I didn’t like to eat so late but now my days had become longer and I was getting used to the length of them.

We sat in a dark corner watching the restaurant fill up with well-dressed, sophisticated people and their buzz of animated conversation. The flickering candles cast a spotlight on their faces, a beacon of smiles and laughter that encircled the room. And I suddenly felt like I understood something here that I have never fully understood in Los Angeles: what it really means to live in community — a diversity of people in close proximity whose intersection creates a spark of opposing perspectives.

Rebecca’s poetry reading took place in a performance space across the street. We wound our way up three flights of marbled steps, sagging and worn thin by the footfalls of history. A darkened hallway, papered with student announcements, led to a small, dingy room that stank of exhaled cigarettes and the air freshener intended to mask them.

The walls were painted black, graffitied tables were haphazardly arranged and the entire place would have been completely void of character except for the beautiful brass bar that stretched the length of the wall. My eyes traveled across the top of it, past the shiny, porcelain pub handles announcing the beer on tap, over the rows of glassware lined up like soldiers at the ready, all the way down to the end where a man was sitting and waiting for my acknowledgement. He wore pinstriped pants, an unbuttoned button-down shirt and a loud, colorful tie. He watched me cross the room, and I took a moment to accept his attention. I found a table, ordered a drink, and when I looked up at him again, our two faces were reflected in the mirror, framed by a Guinness Stout advertisement.

Rebecca, an accomplished poet, had been invited by the university as part of its visiting writers series, and I was eager to hear her read some selections from her book. I knew that each word had been wrestled with and labored over, and I thought, if I were a poet I would write like she does: small observations of love carved out with a hammer and chisel.

In another city, Rebecca would have been flown in, welcomed by committee, and paraded like literary royalty. But here she was merely another artist of some esteem to turn out on a cold night, greeted by other New Yorkers who’d eaten late and left room for a dessert of creative thought — young, old, but none of them indifferent — and, nourished by ideas, they’d mass-transit back to their respective high-rises and do it all again tomorrow.

I would forever be impressed that on any given night an entire power grid of artistic current was available to tap into, independent substations emitting their own pulse of electricity that charged the city with imagination.

Inspired, I fumbled through my purse for a pen, and I stared at the napkin under my wine glass as I waited for the words to overtake me, certain in that instant that I, too, would become a poet.

My eyes traced a path across the room to a blond man at the far table. His face was turned downward, hidden in shadow but I could see that his eyes were closed and this tiny act of moving into himself pulled me in with him. His chest expanded slowly with each deep inhalation causing his shoulders to rise ever so slightly. This man and his silent act of non-action captured me far more completely than the flashy businessman at the bar. This man was less put-together. His workman’s boots, his frayed jacket, and his sense of self-possession suggested a raw, rugged nature that was infinitely more appealing than an aura of wealth could ever be. He must have felt my gaze upon him because he looked up at me, smiling.

And suddenly, I was ignited. The words burst forth in spontaneous combustion: We are making love but we are only practicing birth control. 

Okay, so maybe I am not going to be a poet. But I could feel the excitement of possibility.

On the train home, I examined the people in the car around me. There was a couple sitting next to me, their hands in such a frenzied caress they may well have devoured each other inch by inch. As I watched them, my own nerve endings tingled by osmosis.

The man standing by the doorway was wearing perhaps the finest wool coat I had ever seen. It cloaked him with success. He’d offered his seat to an older woman with a juggling act of shopping bags, and I was secretly aglow by this tiny act of chivalry. In fact, everywhere I had gone, men had opened doors for me, made way for me, and acknowledged me with such respect that I began to feel a quiet appreciation settle deeply within. I was awakening to the idea that when I don’t feel the necessity of defending against the aggressions of men, I give myself permission to be more feminine, more attractive, and more vulnerable. I liked this new place I was opening to, it was as if I’d entered a comforting unknown land but one in which I immediately wanted to buy property and make my new home. Men.

•••

The grand opening of the Fire Zone brought wealthy investors, FDNY top brass, and fire fighters in uniform together for an evening of celebration. One arm of Rockefeller Plaza was tented to keep the wind and the public out, and the food, drink and merriment in. I was decked out in my own honorary uniform shepherding the invited guests through the fictional firehouse. There was a wall of bunker gear they could try on over their suits, various tools hung up for inspection, even an authentic brass pole transplanted from a station house across town for which I’d been diligently instructed in proper technique.

The exhibit, a fire safety program designed for kids, consisted of a stationary but otherwise fully functional engine, a large-screen video projection of a fire truck in real time battling New York traffic in response to a call, and a fire-gutted, interactive set with special effects simulating the five different types of fires most common to the city. Kiosks gave basic information, handouts provided practical escape plans, and the store sold clothing and merchandise whose proceeds funded the program.

Commissioner Tom Von Essen, Deputy Commissioner Lynne Tierney, Father Mychal Judge, Chief William Feehan, Lieutenant Joe Torillo — these were just some of the people I had contact with the year before they would be among the response team called for the biggest fire in the history of the city. That was still eleven months away and inconceivable to any of us gathered on this breezy October evening.

No, the biggest news of the moment was next month’s election, not the one between Al Gore and George W. Bush, but the one between Hillary Clinton and Rick Lazio, the most heavily watched race of the year. The other competition setting the city on edge was the World Series that this year, pit the Mets against the Yanks. And since I’d been pressured to make a commitment, I chose the underdogs. Aside from being the underdogs, they had a much more appealing logo.

On the morning of my first official day of work at the Fire Zone, I stopped at Dean & DeLuca for a cup of coffee. I had yet to discover the perfect European bakery to satisfy my addiction so I was trying out this new shop in anticipation. The line was absurdly long and there was only one scone-like item not drowning in glaze, but I waited for it anyway. A radio station was broadcasting live from Rockefeller Plaza and giving away tickets to the famed Subway Series. Fanatics had come dressed to win.

The outside temperature had once again reached Southern California acceptable so there was a lot of painted flesh on display, and I wormed my way through what seemed like an audience of Let’s Make A Deal contestants. I was wearing my job shirt, a department-issued sweatshirt with my name stitched on the front and FDNY on the back, and I was stopped by three tourists under the illusion that I was on the payroll.

“Excuse me, miss, could you tell me the quickest way to get to the Met?”

“Wow, are you a real live fireman? Er, fire woman.”

I pointed and nodded my responses, but soon I was getting the hang of it.

“Hey fire lady, how on earth do you guys get those big trucks through these crowded streets?”

I smiled reassuringly and put my hand on this last woman’s shoulder. “It happens every day, ma’am. It happens every day.”

I ducked under street barricades with the authority of a city employee, dodged civilians crossing 51st Street, and made my way through the storefront doorway of the Fire Zone. A man in uniform was standing just inside. He smiled, and I fell quietly into the most inviting blue eyes of any man on earth. It was as if the sun was reflecting across the ocean of them, and I flushed with warmth as I floated gently upon the surface. For an instant, the gravitational pull caused me to stop breathing.

The paper bag slipped from my fingers and my scone tumbled to the floor. The man bent to retrieve it. I glimpsed the perfect triangular shape of his back where his trim waist widened to allow for muscular lats that merged with strong shoulders.

He stood and held the bag out to me, grinning. “Hi,” he said. “I’m Frank.”

Unable to form words, I nodded, took my damaged baked good and slipped past him.

Downstairs, I threw my purse into the locker and noticed my face in the bathroom mirror. I was blushing, dammit. The red glow of enticement. Wow, that man and the intoxication of him were already threatening my sense of control. His brown, curly hair, tinged gray at the edges, framed a delicious smile that hung slightly off-center and pulled me dangerously close to the edge wanting. And as my chest began to burn, I struggled to shield myself from being devoured by flames. I would not be left wanting.

Control the fire. Harness the energy.

So without ever having uttered a word to him, I began making an unconscious list of why this could only end in sorrow. After all, that sort of magazine-model handsome must certainly come with an ego to match, and I decided in that moment that I was not going to like this alluring, self-centered Frank. Not at all. I instinctively knew that if I opened the door to Desire, he would eventually bring his fraternal twin Rejection, unannounced.

•••

Moments of history can dissolve the laws of time and space, and these pieces of mine caught up with me in the basement of the Fire Zone at Rockefeller Center.

I stared at my face in the mirror. There I was, that was me. Smile lines, freckles and a couple of moles but otherwise largely unblemished. I’ve been blessed with smooth, even skin and a thick, healthy mane of blond hair, and I’ve never made much of an effort to accentuate either with makeup or chemical products. It wasn’t a conscious decision, rather it evolved over time.

In adolescence I had to choose between being a pretty girl and an athletic girl, and since sports were much more fun I abandoned pretty during t-ball sign up. In junior high, I didn’t understand why the pretty girls wore such uncomfortable clothes hoping to attract the cutest boys when you could simply play basketball with them. By high school, the boys I played basketball with were all talking about going out with the pretty girls, and since they were talking about it to me, I knew I wasn’t one of them. It hardly mattered, I still wasn’t ready for sexual contact so the idea of putting effort into attracting it seemed counterproductive.

But by college my extracurricular activities did not include any experience as a girlfriend, I’d only ever been the friend, and worse, I’d acquired a protective barrier of an extra fifty pounds that kept me safely distant from my sexuality. When I looked in the mirror, all I could ever see was disappointment, which was a lot harder to lose than fifty pounds. It would take more than a good diet to shed that.

What it took was a really diligent street artist outside the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris where I had made my escape just after college. He asked me in broken English if he could draw my portrait, and when I declined, his relentless pursuit chipped away at my defiant resolve. It was my beauty, he insisted, that must be captured, my face, its delicate shape, the definition and height of my cheekbones, the sharp, angular point of my nose. No one had ever said such lovely things to me, and certainly never in a musical French accent, but I was smart enough to see this for the ploy it really was — to flatter me out of ten francs, and I wasn’t having it.

“Ah, no, Mademoiselle, it is for me, my pleasure, to have keep you in my collection,” he said, pointing to a tattered binder of drawings.

“Do you understand,” I insisted, “if I sit in that chair, and you draw my portrait, no matter how good it is, no matter how much it looks like me, I’m not going to buy it. I won’t pay you.”

“No, no, no. No money.” He took my face in his hand like a piece of fruit. “I to draw you, for me.”

I sat in that chair merely to prove a point, and for fifteen minutes I squirmed under the microscope of his attentive gaze. A crowd soon began to form behind him, all of them comparing his drawing to my face. And when he finally turned the finished portrait toward me, there I was as I had never seen myself before. He was right. The woman looking back at me, she was beautiful. I sat there in stunned silence looking at her features on that paper. This face, mine.

In an instant, the years of loathing had ended.

•••

I snapped the official FDNY flashlight to my belt loop, tucked the newspaper under my arm, secured my scone and coffee, and climbed back up the spiral staircase, casually not looking for Frank.

The opening of the Fire Zone coincided with the beginning of the school year, which meant that the days would soon become a jungle of student field trips, but until we eased into that routine, the schedule was still empty and the pending rain would put a damper on any sort of public curiosity. In fact, that would only come after the Twin Towers had fallen and, helpless, an overwhelming stream of mourners would file through in silent homage to all of our previously unnoticed heroes. They would inundate the store purchasing ball caps, t-shirts, mugs and refrigerator magnets. Internet orders would pour in from all over the world. But I would be gone by then, back home in Southern California with a more tangible hold on the tragedy, a personal grip on what once was. All of that was still, at this moment, unforeseeable, and in the first two weeks of its operation, the Fire Zone was little more than a ghost town of idle time. It was just a silent, empty fire engine, a wall of hanging bunker gear, me and Frank.

I sat down at the dispatch desk, opened the New York Times, and settled into my morning. On the front page, the coming election and the opening World Series game vied for attention. According to the latest Times/CBS news poll, American voters were thoroughly ambivalent about their choices for president with just over two weeks to decide. While they found Mr. Gore to be more caring, closer to the people on issues and generally more capable than Mr. Bush, there was no clear majority indicating which man would lead us into the 21st Century.

The only contest making history was the Subway Series, the first since the Bronx Bombers crushed the Brooklyn Dodgers back in 1956. This would be the Mets’ fourth appearance in the series and the Yankees’ thirty-seventh. The Yankees were also going for their third consecutive win, which meant I couldn’t possibly root for them. In fact, I’d become, overnight, a diehard. I was up late with the rest of the city, tuned in to all twelve innings of Game One when the balance unfortunately tipped in favor of the Yanks.

I skimmed the newspaper, distracted, my mind churning, churning, trying to focus on the words, a charade of attention paid to current events while the imprint of that man’s smile remained.

Frank, all six feet of his handsome, masculine, perfectly sculpted body came sliding down the fire pole and landed with a thump, his steel-toed, department-issued boots tapping out steps across the cement toward me. I turned to look over my shoulder and caught his glance downward, his hands sliding into their pockets.

“Can you believe this weather?” He continued toward the doorway, propped open to welcome the sunshine, and without turning around, “They say it’s supposed to rain, but I don’t see it.”

The combination left me without a response. He stood there filling up the door frame, his shirt sleeves waving, his neck craning up to search for clouds between the buildings, the curls of hair bunching up over his collar. His eyes followed the sky all the way from one end of 51st Street to the other. When he had finished his search and perhaps because of my silence, he turned back to me and smiled politely.

I had put the newspaper down, anticipating our interaction. A string, invisible and hanging loose from my chest, at once began to take up slack, pulling at me, encouraging me from my seat. I leaned back against it, aware of my resistance. If he were not handsome, I would have moved toward him easily, we would have been engaged in meaningless conversation, we’d be laughing already. That is the paradox of attraction: to become in an instant who we are not in the hope of being liked, even loved, for who we are.

I stood up. It was ludicrous, this behavior. No one had ever accused me of being shy. Silent, sometimes, but commanding. Flirtatious, often. Coquettish even. It is only in the face of desire that I become self-consciously inept. Weakness is otherwise unfamiliar to me, and now, no longer rooted in my sense of self, I drifted, a helium balloon, untethered.

As I drifted toward Frank, I rehearsed my opening line. Still two steps away, I delivered. “Are you afraid the game’ll be rained out?”

“Not really.” He said this without looking at me.

And there we were, the two of us in matching uniforms, curbside, the gallop of traffic, the hurried pedestrians, the shuffling feet, and the growl of applause from the live radio broadcast in the plaza around the corner.

Frank kicked a pebble between his steel-toed boots. He took his hands out of his pockets, rubbed them together, and put them back, an action just long enough for me to glimpse his left hand, empty of a wedding ring.

“Nah, they’ll play the best of seven no matter when they are.” He cocked his head toward the plaza. “What’s going on down there, do you know?”

“Some radio station is giving away tickets.”

“To the Series? What do you have to do to get ‘em?”

“Take off your shirt, paint a logo on your chest, act like you just escaped from the asylum.”

He smirked, his eye catching mine for a moment.

“Or,” I said, “you could try showing up dressed as a New York City fireman.”

“That’s never gotten me anything before.”

“Oh, I doubt that.”

Now, he turned toward me, full on, as his smirk grew into a smile, open mouth, white teeth, a little laugh at the end. He licked his bottom lip. His eyes, endless and consuming, darted back and forth to take in mine one at a time, and the full force of his attention blew me off-balance. I stepped away to catch myself.

He looked back toward the plaza. “You mind hanging here while I go check it out?”

“No, go ahead.”

He shifted his weight to pivot, but then he hesitated for a moment, formulating his thoughts perhaps, preparing to speak. Instead, he nodded and turned. I watched him move away. His blue pants, pulled by the weight of his hands in their pockets, were snug against the curve of his butt, creasing from side to side as he walked.

I thought of Frank as a nude model in art class, on a raised platform, lean and strong, not moving, not speaking, not seducing. A man merely standing, unclothed, offering himself to be seen. In art class, the model does not try, the nudity is not objectified. I imagined Frank to be that comfortable, that centered, that still.

I wonder if this is the difference between a feminine approach to sexuality and a masculine one — the difference between using lighter fluid and kindling; one is meant to burn hot and fast, the other is meant to last. It is the masculine perspective that so dominates. In the movies, two people notice one another across the room, they exchange a smile, and in the next scene they are hungry lovers, ripping each other’s clothes off, groping at body parts. But my sexuality doesn’t look like that; in fact, my sexuality is threatened by that. It saddens me that my past relationships have all been shaped by a race to the bedroom. Yes, I was an active participant, sometimes an eager one, caught up in the frenzy of enticement, giving in to expectation. But that was not my real desire. I have never once gone to bed with a man when I was entirely comfortable, open, and ready.

I have come to believe that we have a sexual addiction problem in our society. We have traded sexuality for intimacy. And I have done it, too.

•••

As I left the Fire Zone for the day and made my way up Seventh Avenue, I stopped at the corner market to smell the fresh flowers on parade. Wooden baskets offered up displays of ripe fruit. All around me newsstands, magazine racks and red electronic ticker tape running across the tops of buildings proclaimed the ever-unraveling sense of time. And people, people everywhere, were marching forward into their lives as if they knew where they were going.

I cut through the edge of the park where the dazzling autumn colors welcomed me again. Leaves with brilliantly painted faces were scattered in the grass, and I remembered from some early science class that leaves don’t actually turn color in the fall. They aren’t green all year long and then become red and orange and yellow and purple for one momentous display of nature’s fireworks. Instead, leaves always have a spectrum of color within them; it is only that for most of the year, green predominates. Then, as the days get shorter and the leaf stops making food, the green fades to allow for the more vibrant hues to come forth. Only one time during the year does nature show us what is always there but unseen. As I took note of this miracle of autumn, I thought of myself in much the same way. It is only in the presence of love, or even the hope of love, that I allow myself to show what remains otherwise hidden.

I stared at the leaves on the trees, colors blending one into the next, and I had this moment: a panoramic overview of myself standing on one tiny spot of earth as a prism encircled me splitting white light into color and a narrow bandwidth of sound into a euphonious, symphonic roar. And for just that instant, the earth stood still as if by magic.

Frank. I smiled at the thought of him, someone in whose presence my senses were being resuscitated. New nerve endings were being implanted under the surface of my skin replacing what had for so long remained numb, and I was suddenly conscious of just how much time had gone by without my ever having been touched.

Upon my next inhalation of unseasonably warm autumn air, I breathed in the realization that my last tear had been shed over Marc. I leaned against the trunk of a tree to catch my breath. I picked up an acorn, rolled it around in my fingers, and put it in my pocket. A seed. A map of new growth yet to come. Here it was again, that distant, forgotten feeling of falling in love, if not actually with Frank, then with the idea of him and the hope of a new beginning.

The hope of a new beginning. Isn’t that why people come to New York? And isn’t that why I had come, too? The beauty and spectacle of this city is that it does not contain my past. I have no history with these streets or that restaurant. That is not the building of a former lover. I did not stand over there in the subway station and say goodbye to anyone.

I turned onto Amsterdam, a bounce to my step, an enthusiasm to my cadence, and then I saw it, a green awning above a tiny, corner shop that simply said, “Bakery.” The door was propped open as if to summon me inside and when I entered, it came as no surprise to find old, dark, worn floorboards stretching toward the kitchen, long countertops with high wooden stools underneath them, and the most gorgeous display of English scones looking back at me from behind glass. These were the first to have even remotely resembled the ones Richie makes at the Victorian Inn back home. My taste buds leapt in anticipation.

As I examined the rows of them, guessing at their contents, the woman behind the counter greeted me with an inviting hello, and the sudden magnitude of her beauty was so disarming it produced in me a near-audible Wow!

She wore a small, paper thin, orange bandana to keep her hair back, and a long-sleeved cotton shirt that hugged her body, cupping her perfectly shaped breasts and gripping her delicate arms. Her sheer, gauzy skirt was embroidered with flowers and lace.

I took a moment to study her flawless skin, her lifted cheekbones, her kind eyes the color of honeyed caramel, and her dark hair that glowed with the hint of tangerines in the sunlight. Her face, open and bright, seemed to match her personality.

There was a man in line ahead of me deciding on the ideal loaf of bread to go with his evening meal. Another had approached the counter and was waiting for a coffee refill. All around me, men had gathered as if in competition, and waited for her to give them her time and her smile and the warm sunshine of her attention.

She reminded me of Lauren the way she captivated the room, and watching her I was aware again of the stunning difference between a woman guarded and a woman surrendered. I am the former. I have not yet unclenched my fists. And I was beginning to understand that I have defended myself so capably that I’ve left my men nothing to do but compete with those defenses. In fact, I am guilty of what I have accused them of being: warriors of self-protection. Just as my clothes so often hide the shape of me, so does my cloak of invulnerability.

The man in front of me had decided on the olive nut loaf, and as the woman slipped it tenderly into its paper sleeve, he searched for ways to lengthen his time with her.

“Wasn’t your hair darker yesterday?” he asked her.

“Yes, it was. I stripped out all the black. Now it’s a bit orange. I’m still experimenting.”

She took the bills he offered her and tucked them inside the cash register before turning her attention toward me. The man lingered for a moment and then drifted to the door. 

“It’s such a game, isn’t it? Hair color.” I said this softly, pretending that she and I had already formed a secret alliance of sisterhood.

“It really is,” she said, as if the burden of beauty rested heavily upon her. “My hair has changed so much since I moved here. When I go home, it becomes silky and bouncy again. I think it’s the city. The smog.”

“Where’s home?” I asked her.

“Texas.”

I nodded and eyed the pastries. “You know, I have been all over this city looking for a real English scone. In general, I think the English are lousy cooks, but they do understand the scone. Nothing heavy, not too sweet, kind of erring on the side of bland, dry and crumbly.”

She smiled and I, too, was smitten. “Well, I hope your search has ended. I recommend this one.” She pointed her tongs toward a plump mound dotted with raisins.

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll give it a shot.”

She slipped the largest one into a paper bag. After I paid her, I couldn’t help myself, I lingered, too. “That’s an adorable top. Where did you get it?”

“Slade. On 23rd and Broadway.”

My face must have registered my ignorance.

“You’ve never been to Slade? Oh, honey, don’t go now, I’m telling you, it can lead to financial ruin.” She pulled the coffee pot from its cradle and moved through the opening in the counter. Then she hesitated. “But if you’re really in the shopping mood, try Filene’s Basement.” The Texas twang she had tried so hard to shed came pouring out with one word, Fy-Lene. “I was there yesterday, and it is nearly a dream come true for this girl. It’s right around the corner on 79th and Broadway.”

She winked and hovered over the men as they raised their cups to her like tiny birds in need of sustenance.

If Filene’s Basement was selling what she had, I certainly wanted to get it. As I rounded the corner heading uptown, I tried to imagine the wardrobe of a woman, this woman, fully alive and possibly even ready to explore her sexuality once again.

Inside, I scoured the racks awkwardly. Having been so long out of practice, I needed help. I dialed Lauren’s cell phone to no avail. Damn. Could I do this by myself? I closed my eyes and summoned her spirit: What would Lauren do?

I took an armload of clothes into the dressing room. Girl clothes. Under the telepathic direction of my distant friend, I’d selected tight fitting, well tailored, sexy, girl clothes, and one by one I tried them on. Every shirt had a neckline lower than my collarbones. Every pair of pants hugged my body separating my waist from my hips and thighs. And everything made me feel fat. I was no longer fat, but back in those endlessly long and painful days, I’d gotten comfortable hiding behind fabric that hung and flowed. Having clothes that actually fit made me feel self-conscious. I bought them anyway. It’s not that I’ve never had girl clothes before, it’s that I hadn’t made them a regular habit and certainly not in the last six months.

Outside, the sun was beginning to set in a magic hour of light that cascaded down Broadway. A bookseller had set up long tables on the sidewalk with a smorgasbord of used volumes arranged in perfect rows on top. I hoisted the shopping bags onto my shoulder like long purses and freed up my hands for discovery.

And there it was, Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. I picked it up and opened the cover. The inside dedication page read, “For Tess,” and a rush of ecstasy escaped from my lungs in an audible sigh. Did this mean my time had come again?

Out of the corner of my eye I saw another book. The Joy of Sex was standing upright in impeccable condition, carefully protected by a plastic dustcover. I made my way toward it not wanting to seem eager, not wanting to project any sense of inexperience.

On the stack of books next to it, lying down, was a new copy of a 2,500 year old manual written by a Chinese philosopher, The Art of War. And there I stood on the cement in the Continental Divide between the art of war and the joy of sex, two halves of myself, unreconciled.

I walked up the six flights of stairs to my glorious apartment in Hell’s Kitchen and began to hang up each new piece of wardrobe in my borrowed closet. When I had run out of hangers, I removed the old clothes, the big shirts, the oversized sweaters and the pleated pants, and I folded them diligently into a pile on the bed freeing up the hangers for their new tenants.

Next I went through the chest of drawers and removed questionable items discriminately. When I’d finished, I gathered them all up, trotted back down the six flights of stairs and left my former identity out there on the sidewalk, free for the taking. 

It had been a long, full day and with all my many thoughts competing for attention, I looked forward to the television providing me an evening of distraction.

Game Two of the World Series unfolded without drama or suspense until the ninth inning, but I’d given up long before then, mindlessly flipping through the hundreds of channels my sublet cable provided me. The man whose name was on the lease had ordered a range of pornography selections, which came as no surprise since the week before I’d stumbled upon a drawer full of nude black and white photographs of him and his girlfriend. They were actually quite tasteful and beautiful, the Swede and the Brazilian, appearing like the inside and outside of a coconut — she the pure fleshy fruit and he the lean fibrous husk.

I sat with the remote control flipping from sex act to sex act feeling some mixture of fascination, enticement and disgust. My limited experience of pornography suggests that every encounter is essentially indistinguishable from the next. The women are often enhanced reproductions of the same image as if they had all arrived at the surgeon’s office holding the same print. They play opposite men from a much larger casting pool but with a similar performance manual, one that has instructed them to be soundless in their experience and limited in their range of expression.

First, the man performs oral sex on the woman as she flails around in feigned ecstasy. Then, it’s the woman’s turn to reciprocate while he stands there, mute, brushing the hair from her face so the camera can capture both the magnitude of his manhood and her impressive ability to swallow it whole.

There’s usually the shot from the man’s point of view as she looks up at him in what appears to be a desperate plea for approval. Then the intercourse begins. She thankfully breaks up the monotonous musical score with a variety of crescendos that correspond to his frenzied, aggressive thrusts. This goes on just long enough for him to ejaculate, and every scenario fades out on her face in rapt delight.

This lack of playfulness and originality reminded me of something I once read in Sex: A Natural History. Among the mating habits of various species is a description of little red flying foxes that “copulate while both he and she hang by their feet, heads down, supporting their own weight and in complete silence. They begin with twenty seconds of oral sex, he then thrusts for precisely twenty seconds and ejaculates for nine. After exactly one hundred and seventy-five seconds of passion and thirty-five seconds of rest, they start all over, always for these same durations.” I wondered if the little red flying foxes had passed out copies of their script.

When I see pornography I have the same thought nearly every time: why is watching loveless sex such a turn on for so many people? For me, watching it produces the same response as having it: loveless sex leaves me cold. Unimaginative, self-conscious, goal-oriented, below-the-waist sex simply cannot be the phenomenon that is driving our culture to this extent, can it?

I scrolled through television channels like an anthropologist on an archeological dig. A man in uniform steps up to the plate as the crowd rises to its feet. Click. His penis pounds into her. Click. He takes a practice swing and faces off with the guy on the mound. She squeals with rapture. He fades into the outfield, hammers his glove, and spits into the grass. They stand opposite one another, presidential candidates in debate, their faces with the stiffness of intellectualism. The military tank claws through hard dirt, spins around heading right for us, and fires a hailstorm of incendiaries. The music swells, he rushes toward her, takes her into his arms, and lifts her from the ground. They kiss. He shifts into fourth and screams past the Jaguar next to him on the winding, mountain road. She saunters down the stairs, her white sequined gown caressing her body, the onlookers caught up in the slow motion of her steps. He ducks under the barrier, rolls to safety and reloads his weapon.

It all looked like the same thing to me: a power struggle. Sex as power, money as power, politics as power, war as power. My God, is this what people do when they feel impotent? Is pornography, like violent movies and video games, merely a symptom of some disease that we pretend doesn’t exist by calling it entertainment?

I turned off the television; it wasn’t helping. I certainly didn’t need to be thinking of sex that way, especially if I might be having it. At some point. Maybe. I don’t know.

I walked into my bedroom, removing clothing as if unburdening myself. For the first time in my life I had silk pajamas, courtesy of Filene, and I slipped into them with reverence. They buttoned up the front and closed at my sternum giving the hint of cleavage. And they felt like warm liquid against my skin.

A long-dormant feeling was coming back to life. It wasn’t sexuality; it was sensuality. Mmmm, I remember that.

I opened the paper bag that contained the scone I was going to save for breakfast. I bit into it, enraptured. It tingled my taste buds sending shivers through my body, the closest thing I’d had to an orgasm since Marc.

I poured myself a glass of wine and put on a CD, turning up the stereo. Loud. Bill Withers. I would never have been able to leave home without him. His smoky, sultry voice and those simple songs of love and of making love always made me feel like dancing. With a glass of wine in one hand and a scone in the other, I floated around the room, eyes closed, and I took back possession of my Self, something I’d been yearning to do for far too long.

It was impossible to keep Frank out of my mind. Yes, I know, this overwhelming force of attraction I was feeling for him was not in response to who he was but to who he might be. And to who I might be in his presence. Lauren was right; my tough exterior is just a Halloween mask, an uncomfortable, hard plastic shell with tiny eyeholes and not enough breathing room. It’s time. It’s time to show my face. I’ve had the discouraging habit of falling for illusionists, men who were pretending to be present and open and patient and lasting, all the while hiding a false bottom, a trap door through which they would eventually escape. And since I was an illusionist too, how could I expect anything real to develop?

I have come to believe that relationships end in one of two places: when they start to get real or when they stop being real. Mine had always been the former. I’d seduced men by who I am not, and sent them running from who I am. And now the grand experiment was to hold onto real from day one.

But Frank? Nothing in my logical mind would have chosen him. Frank was not the sort of man I have ever been attracted to before. Unrefined. Blue collar. Pedestrian. He did not always speak grammatically correctly. And he couldn’t spell worth a damn. For God’s sake, the last thing in the world I wanted was an uneducated fireman living in New York City. But dammit, in that moment, more than anything else, what I hoped for was exactly that.

Hope begins in the dark. – Anne Lamott

My friend Jane was performing at The Cutting Room on Halloween night. I got on the train at 50th Street and sat down next to the devil. When the subway doors opened at Times Square, a tiny bumblebee and her honeycombed father stepped on, followed by a crowd of witches and ghosts, Harry Potters and Merlin-esque Dumbledores, Nurse Nancy in fishnet stockings, Charlie Brown, the fairy princess, the Swamp Thing, and various colorful I-emptied-my-closet-and-this-is-what-I-had ensembles.

I’d gotten dressed up for the evening, but I clearly lacked the holiday spirit. At ten o’clock on a Tuesday night, The Cutting Room was quite a scene, and I crammed myself inside, rubbing up against well-dressed socialites as if the goal was to make bodily contact with each of them. There is no such thing as personal space in New York City. Moving through the crowd was like a game of musical chairs without the chairs; we were all searching for the empty space to step into, many of us arriving at the same time.

They, the people of New York, were in their wool and cashmere, smashing up against the grain of my noisy nylon jacket. I felt like an orphan in a sea of benefactors, and suddenly pick-pocketing was a viable option.

I could just hear, above the din of conversation, Jane’s lilting voice coming from behind the red velvet curtain separating the bar from the back performance room. She had already begun her set and as I slipped in, she looked up, smiling that glorious, inviting smile of friendship. Her husband Dave was banging on the strings of a standup bass behind her. Their music made me melt.

I took a seat at an empty table in the back corner of the room. Jane’s delicate voice, combined with the power of her thoughts, made her songs so stirring. They also often made me ache.

Marc and I liked to discover new music, and Jane’s had been mine. I had given him one of her CDs and then I started calling him Blue, a reference to the chorus of one of her songs: Dive into a swimming pool blue, bring it home and paint it on the walls of the living room. It was one of my favorites, but I hoped she wouldn’t play it tonight; I feared it would be my undoing.

I ordered a glass of wine and drank it quickly. I was well into my second when I saw a man sitting across the room and I nearly gasped out loud. It was Marc. Or someone who appeared strikingly similar to Marc. I couldn’t breathe. My head was spinning and it wasn’t the alcohol, although that wasn’t helping. It was as if the walls were caving in, the room was filling with debris and I was choking on the ruins. My gut instinct was to run. But of course it wasn’t Marc, he was with his new, ample-breasted wife, somewhere that wasn’t here.

I looked at the man again. And now he was looking back at me. He smiled. I quickly diverted my eyes and downed the rest of my drink. I kept my eyes on Jane as if in rapt attention, and every time I stole glances at the man, he was looking at me.

His face was longer than Marc’s, less boyish. His nose was more angular but his forehead and hair were very much the same. It didn’t matter that the man wasn’t actually Marc; I was still in danger of imploding as I fought off memories that were invading like criminals, armed and dangerous.

Soon the waitress came by with a third glass of wine. “The gentleman at that table,” she said pointing, “sent this over.”

“Oh, um, thank you.” It’s exactly what I needed, drunkenness. I smiled at the man. He raised his glass.

I had trouble having an orgasm with Marc, that’s what ruined our relationship. He must have felt that on so many levels he couldn’t satisfy me. But it certainly wasn’t something we talked about, not in those terms. What had begun as an exciting exploration of each other’s bodies and the thrilling, unexpected pleasures that passion can take, eventually descended to a goal-oriented activity. Once I was being monitored for not having normal or appropriate responses, I could no longer deliver.

“You’re responsible for your own orgasm, it has very little to do with me,” he would say. But that was just bravado since in other moments he would wonder if he was too small, if I thought he was handsome, if I liked the way he smelled. I was crazy about Marc and everything that was Marc, especially his size and his face and his body and his scent.

When I talked to Lauren about it, she would list all the small, subtle ways in which Marc alienated me and kept me on guard. It made sense to her. “His job is to make you feel safe,” she would insist, “especially in the bedroom.”

“And what am I doing for him?” I inquired.

She had that all-encompassing, loving tone. “Oh honey, you are giving him the honor of seeing you cum.”

I lifted my third glass of wine and pushed back the memory.

Jane’s set ended and there was a new band rushing in to take her place. The man across the room stood up and took his leather jacket from the back of the chair. He was tall, taller than Marc by at least four inches. His legs were solid and muscular and filled out his jeans quite nicely. He slung the jacket over his arm, picked up his drink, and headed my way.

Oh no. I couldn’t raise my eyes to meet his, I could only stare straight ahead, waist level, petrified, as he moved toward me.

“Mind if I join you?” His voice was deep and resonant, not like Marc’s at all.

“Please.” I watched him sit down. “Thanks for the wine. I’m already drunk, and this isn’t helping any.”

He smiled. “I’m Jack.” His eyes were like Marc’s: they sparkled.

I braced myself to keep from melting. “Tess.”

“You know why I came over here don’t you?”

“Tell me.”

“Because you’re the most beautiful woman in the room.”

He was cocky, this Jack. I liked that. I find confidence very sexy. And I guard myself from it.

“Do you think you’d still feel that way if my boyfriend had come with me tonight?” I said, lobbing the ball back at him.

He paused for a moment feigning consideration as he searched the ceiling. “Yeah, I think I would.”

He looked at his watch and then leaned in as if he was about to tell me a secret. “It’s the last forty-five minutes of my birthday, and all I want to do is share a drink with a beautiful woman. I’m glad the boyfriend isn’t here, but I doubt he could have stopped me.”

He was really close to me, only a few inches away. I could smell his cologne. The combination of sensory information was dizzying.

“That’s good, I’ve never heard that line before.” I said, not at all impressed.

“Line?”

“The birthday line.”

“You don’t believe me?”

“No.”

He pulled his wallet from his back pocket and removed his driver’s license. I reached for it but he retracted. “Ewp, guess my age, and you won’t have to buy the next round.”

I met his eyes and smiled. “There isn’t going to be a next round.” I reached again for the license and tried to pull it from his grasp but he held firm.

“Come on, take a guess.” He smiled, mugging.

I quickly examined the lines around his eyes. He had good skin. This was a nice face, so much of it like the one I’d spent touching for nearly a year. “Thirty-eight,” I said, tugging at the license. He let it go this time, and I held it near the candle’s light. “John Henry Stillwell?” I scanned for the birth date only to discover that he was telling the truth: it was his birthday. Marc was a Scorpio, too. His thirty-eighth birthday was next week, which was why I’d guessed that age. But Jack was only thirty-seven.

“You’re much younger than I thought.” I smiled coyly, handing back the license.

Jane came over to say her hellos and goodbyes. She winked and dashed off. The next band was beginning to play, loudly, and Jack pulled his chair closer to mine.

“Look, Marc, I should really go home.” I hoped I wasn’t slurring my words.

“Who’s Marc?”

“Oh, geez, sorry.” I leaned my head into my hand. “I’m sorry.” I picked up my wine glass and took another gulp.

“I hope he’s good to you at least.”

“No, he’s, he’s uh,” oh what the hell, “Marc is the man I’m trying very hard to forget.”

“Well, I can help you with that.” Jack’s eyes sparkled again.

I had to look away. “No, you look too much like him.”

He brushed a strand of hair from my face. “Wanna tell me about it?”

I closed my eyes for a moment. My head was beginning to pound. “Jack, look, you came in here looking for something, and it’s not me, it really isn’t. I hope you’ve had a happy birthday, but I am not the present.”

He sat back in his chair as if the force of my words had blown him. He ran his hands slowly through his hair and folded them behind his head. He stared at me, unflinching, unmoving, as a hush fell over the world. Mine.

“Wooooooooow.” He shook his head. “You’re tough.”

It was just a word, but it seared into me leaving burn marks. This is what happens when I’m embarrassed and angry and hurt and confused: I leak. Tears began to fill my eyes, and despite all my effort at holding closed the floodgates, they came anyway. I let my hair fall across my face to hide myself and softly I said, “I don’t want to be tough.”

This wasn’t going to happen here; if I was going to dismantle it would be in the privacy of my shitty little sublet apartment. “I’m sorry.” I got up and grabbed my jacket from the back of the chair. I moved through the door, around the red velvet curtain and back into the bar’s lobby area. The people were still crammed together like packing peanuts in a cardboard box. I couldn’t move. I wondered how many fire codes were being violated.

I squeezed along the wall to the corner near the restrooms. It wasn’t forward movement but it was movement. I turned and Marc was right behind me, he looked so much like Marc.

And somehow we were kissing. Slowly. An electricity of sensations. I pulled at his lips, brushing mine against his, biting them, suckling, tasting. Tongue wrestling soon followed, slow circles of contact. He growled a bit, hungry, and his desire ignited me.

He pushed my head back and bit my neck, opening his mouth wide, causing suction.

The room fell away, the noise, the people. All at once, he had put one of his legs between mine, and I could feel him against my thigh.

His hunger grew and his hands became impatient. They did not fumble in their search, scavenging from breast to breast. It was exciting, this burst of passion in a forbidden place. His tongue was now a flurry of darting probes, as if time were running out and he had to devour me before it did.

I let his hands caress each of my thighs, the space where they came together. God that felt nice. I was dizzy — from alcohol, from ecstasy, from confusion.

What was I doing? This was crazy. This was absolutely crazy.

Slowly, his hand crept under my shirt. My skin tingled under his touch. He pulled my bra up over my breasts, the elastic pushing down across the tops of them.

“God, wait, we can’t — ” I opened my eyes. No one cared a hoot what we were doing.

He wrapped his hand around my breast and squeezed, a grip so commanding he might have ripped it from my chest. His thumb found my nipple, which he grasped between it and his forefinger, and he pulled.

I was jarred out of ecstasy into reality. “Okay, we have to stop.”

He removed his hand and his breath swept across my cheek, “Let’s go back to my place. I don’t live far.”

“No, please…”

“Come on.”

“I gotta go. This isn’t — ”

“Don’t go. Come on, let’s just, you know…”

“Oh my God, what am I doing?” I pushed at his chest throwing him back into the wall. He was protesting in some cryptic alien language, a flow of words that garbled on their way to me. I couldn’t hear him because a train whistle was going off in my head; it was a silent voice but it was screaming, NOOOOOO!

Suddenly, I was moving through the mass of people tossing them aside like bowling pins. Then I was running down the street, pulling at my bra through my shirt, trying to contain myself, some part of myself, keep something in order, make it right, make it all right.

I was running. Somehow it seemed that I was forever running and the streets were jammed as if it was Halloween night in New York City. This time, it was. We were all wearing our costumes — mine, again tonight, the escape artist.

I couldn’t bear to look behind me to see if Jack was following. Instead, I darted through a line of festive people outside a popular nightclub, threading myself through their trail of laughter and carefree conversation.

At the 34th street subway station, I jogged down the steps, slipped through the turnstile and nearly dove into the comfort of the waiting train that hesitated before closing its doors and whisking me away. Oh, how I wanted to get away. But this time, quite unexpectedly, my images of getting away were of going home.

Home. I wanted to go home. I wanted to be in my car with my music playing loudly, driving along my beach that led to my house. I wanted to sleep in my bed tonight. I wanted to light a fire in my fireplace, open a bottle of my favorite wine, put on my big, paint-stained sweatshirt and curl up on my couch. I wanted to barricade myself inside, set the security alarm, and make the world go away.

I hate New York. I hate the perpetual motion and the proximity of the masses, too many, too close, pushing in on me, leaving indentations. I hate the cold and the bricks and the noise of construction. I hate that I never get to sit down. Or isolate. I hate that everything has to be carried like a burden. I hate that there are no spaces between buildings. Or people. Or thoughts. I hate the six pair of pants I have hanging in someone else’s closet, and the three pair of shoes. I hate my sense of displacement and discomfort and disappointment. I am a fugitive. On the run. With wagon trains beginning to circle. Like vultures.

I let my knees buckle, and I fell into the hard plastic bench as the train lurched and screeched along the tracks. The muscles in my body dropped their defenses, and I sighed more loudly than I’d intended. A man looked down at me from his perch across the aisle. His eyes were dark and his face was unkind. He squinted as if calculating the value of my presence, what I might be worth to him, and his disquieting stare stripped me of my anonymity.

The bra beneath my shirt was still askew and clawing at my breasts. Its elastic band dug into me, tight and stretched, clamping my chest as if attempting to hold back an eruption of emotions and the hot lava spewing toward the surface. I felt embarrassed, confused, violated, humiliated and ultimately ashamed.

I looked again at the man on the other side of the train. He raised his eyebrows in a gesture of solicitation, and I quickly turned away, torn between wanting to kill him right there and wanting to lay down my sword so that I might soothe the angry beast, me.

War gives us meaning. That’s what Angelo used to say and it occurred to me now. Angelo had lasted three months. He was the antithesis of everything I’d ever been attracted to before — a military man, a boxer — but I was trying to be open-minded. I had especially taken pride, however false, in the fact that he was not Caucasian. Angelo flied the American flag every day and had special lights pointing up at it from the lawn, separating it out from the night sky. He would look at it reverently and say over and over again that what we needed was a good war to spur the economy and promote patriotism. Angelo believed that war gave us a profound reason for living.

I tried my best to wrap my head around that for the whole of our relationship. I couldn’t. Call me crazy but I thought that’s what love was supposed to do.

My subway train shot through the excavated bedrock, layers of earth that had been displaced long before my arrival. Traveling like this beneath the city always made me feel a bit entombed.

I closed my eyes. The motion, a gentle quake and its accompanying rumble, made the trip seem less like being trapped in a dungeon. I imagined myself floating inside a bubble, a delicate vessel whose translucent sheath could take in light and refract a rainbow of happy colors. I was hoping the bubble wouldn’t burst before I arrived back at my apartment.

When the subway doors opened at 50th, I was greeted by Alice-in-Wonderland — a tiled mosaic on the station walls, the large, upright rabbit tipping his hat to the little girl, her dress flowing, caught in still frame running through a trail of red hearts. I followed the crowd through the exit toward the swirling logo of the Equinox gym, and up the staircase that opened onto Broadway with the sidewalk vendor’s cart of fresh fruit at the corner.

The night air struck my face with its chilling breath. A fog had settled onto the tops of the buildings blanketing the city in mystery, shielding the stars from view.

I had to pee so I darted up the six flights to my apartment as I pulled off my coat and, once inside, I threw my stuff down on the mattress without turning on a light. I wiggled out of my shirtsleeves to free myself from that bra, kicked off my shoes, sat down on the toilet and groaned. Ah, relief.

And all I could think about was love. And war. Here I was again, hovering, uncommitted, in the Continental Divide between them. They are intimately linked, at least they are in me. The most violent acts of rage and aggression to which I have been subjected have come at the hands of men who have claimed to love me. And so I am suspicious of love, I am resistant. Love and war are at odds in me. I stand at the crossroads. And I wonder. If I lay down my armor now, all of it, after so long of being on the defensive, I wonder if I possess any ability at all to fully love.

In the New York Times Review of Books there was an article I’d read years ago about a publication that chronicled and ranked the greatest leaders throughout history. It struck me, this idea that we could quantify strength and greatness. There were only men in the book, and their ability to lead was measured only by their success in war. No Jesus. No Gandhi. No Dalai Lama.

War.