Falling for My Booty Call

Sarah Kasbeer reflects on a history of hookups — and why they left her cold.

Sarah Kasbeer | Longreads | November 2018 | 15 minutes (3,867 words)

 

His brown eyes trailed over my body in an exaggerated way. If it had occurred at work, it could have been considered sexual harassment. But at the bar, and uninhibited, I felt the rush of being seen.

At 22, I was lonely and working in a restaurant. Nic was a server I had a crush on who’d hardly ever spoken to me until we bumped into each other on a random night off. He walked into a Chicago dive bar where I happened to be getting drunk with a friend. I approached him from behind to order myself another round.

“Corona — with a lemon,” I said to the bartender. Somehow I’d gotten the impression that this was the sophisticated European way to drink cheap beer. I left a dollar and change on the bar before forcing my lemon wedge into the bottle, ready to make my move.

“Hi Nic,” I said to the half-moon formed by the adjustable snaps on the back of his hat. The half-moon turned. Nic set his Heineken down before slowly looking me up and down. He seemed to still be processing my identity.

Perhaps it was my off-duty attire that threw him. During shifts behind the restaurant bar, I was forced to wear black button-up shirts and dress pants, my shoulder-length hair in a ponytail. That evening, I had donned a dive-bar appropriate denim and pink tank top combo. My long bangs were swept to one side, my light hair down.

“Sa-rah,” he finally answered, his mouth widening into a smile. The slow, deliberate way he lingered over both syllables of my name made it seem as if he knew something about me that I didn’t, or at least not yet.

Instead of being offended by the once-over, I was awash in a familiar response: pleasure mixed with shame. Sexual objectification can trigger conflicting impulses. On the one hand, I wanted to be treated with respect. On the other hand, I wanted to be wanted. Getting laid was the easiest way to prove my desirability, even if the feeling only lasted a few fleeting hours.

***

In 2004, I had recently graduated college and broken up with my long-term boyfriend while on study abroad in Rome — mostly so I could ride around on the back of an Italian guy’s Vespa, guilt-free. After returning stateside, I got a job at a tapas bar while interning at a museum downtown. When I told people where I worked, they always heard “a topless bar,” and I’d have to explain I did not peddle bacon-wrapped dates while also wearing health-code mandated pasties. Instead, I dressed like a Subway sandwich artist, doling out mojitos and spicy potatoes covered in mayonnaise and dotted with red flakes.

Instead of being offended by the once-over, I was awash in a familiar response: pleasure mixed with shame. Sexual objectification can trigger conflicting impulses.

I met Nic at the restaurant. In his late 20s, he had dark features, a wide smile, and one of those near-silent laughs where his head moved but not much sound came out. At work, we never spoke or even exchanged glances. He didn’t pay any attention to me. I can’t say when or why it happened, only that somehow, I developed a crush on him.

“I have nice teeth,” he would later tell me, running his tongue along the smooth edges of his pearly white incisors, as if this mere fact were an answer to everything. As if I’d come to him looking for an answer to anything.

A few weeks after I saw him outside of work, we ran into each other again — this time at a bar in Wicker Park. It was the kind of place you go last. Reps from R.J. Reynolds were always there giving away free cigarettes; their electronic ID checkers offered the only lights in a nearly pitch-black room. I’d once been thrown out for having a food fight with my roommate, and knocking her off the barstool.

When I arrived, I saw Nic in a corner laughing with some of the other servers from our restaurant. I didn’t waste too much time with small talk.

“Got any weed?” I asked him

“At my apartment,” he said, smiling.

When we got to his house, I engaged in the formality of smoking a bowl before he generously offered me a place to crash: his bed.

“I won’t even touch you,” he said.

I stripped down to my white underwear and bra before making myself comfortable. He turned off the lights, which made what we were about to do seem like a covert operation, in which we both knew the mission but hadn’t yet discussed ground strategy. I could feel him tentatively crossing from his side of the mattress over to mine. Eventually, he slung his arm across my hip and moved his head toward me.

His kiss felt natural on my lips — like it had been there all along.

The next morning, I started what would become a familiar ritual of ripping the manila envelope and yellow ticket off of my windshield, cringing at the $100-dollar fine, and then consoling myself with a cigarette. Slow, deliberate circling for free parking at night in a crowded neighborhood of Chicago required the kind of patience not found in someone who sensed sex on the horizon. So I’d park at a meter and tell myself I’d get up and leave before the meter maid came. Instead, I came, and didn’t want to leave.

At work, Nic still barely acknowledged my existence. I read this not so much as a slight toward me as an indication of the fact that he wasn’t technically available. I’d heard from other employees he was in a protracted breakup with his girlfriend. The details weren’t exactly clear — nor did I exactly care.

I’d go out with my friends and then around midnight, text him from my shitty Motorola flip phone to see if he was home. I’d stay overnight at his place, accepting that I’d get another parking ticket just so we could hook up again in the morning. Within a few weeks, it became difficult to reconcile the man I saw at the restaurant — collecting rounds of Sangria at the service well or entering his orders into the POS system while generally avoiding my gaze — with the version I regularly encountered after my shift: sweating, biting his lower lip, gripping my naked flesh.

Maybe it was the secrecy with which Nic and I conducted our late-night sex romps that made it so exciting to me. It essentially repeated a habit I’d formed earlier in life. I’d learned growing up to hide my sexuality — to treat it as a kind of shameful secret.

***

Before I moved to Chicago, I lived in central Illinois for 20 years, most of that time spent in my parents’ home, a welcoming white brick house with blue shutters. We took our Christmas photos out front in the fall maple foliage, my dad wearing a plaid flannel and holding our family dog. A sidewalk wrapped from the front door around a tall evergreen tree, as if our house were throwing its arm around a good friend.

My parents, both from small towns, held fairly conservative family values. We went to church every Sunday until I decided to opt out. My father was a science-minded atheist who had recently stopped going as well. During my confirmation process, I’d asked our pastor how the seven-day theory of creation could be true, given that it conflicted with the entire field of paleontology. He sidestepped my concerns, telling me the seven days weren’t meant to be read literally.

I realized I couldn’t become a member of a church I didn’t believe in. More concerning to me, though, was that if adults were willing to bullshit me about something as consequential as the afterlife, what else were they preaching that might not be true?

The problem, I would soon learn, with using religion as a moral compass is you either stick to the prescribed path or become completely lost. There is no map for the grey area.

***

As I became a teenager in the late 90s, the grey areas inevitably presented themselves. When I was 14, at a high school football game, a 19-year-old basketball player asked if I wanted to meet him later that night. In the whole two months I’d been a freshman there, I’d seen Larson around school and knew he had knocked up a girl two years older than me. But I didn’t care — he had noticed me.


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At the time, I felt ugly. I had braces and wore boxy colorful sweaters. I thought sex was the key to unlocking the door to another world. If I could be seen as beautiful and desirable by men, popularity with women would surely follow. I agreed to meet him at 12:30 am that night, which would require sneaking out out.

I waited for my parents to fall asleep, then crept out my front window, down the sidewalk, and past the evergreen tree, where Larson was waiting in his car. He took me to a basement that smelled of stale cigarettes and beer. We left the lights off so as not to wake anyone. There, on top of a mattress on the floor, I lost my virginity.

I continued to see Larson like that for a few months. I became obsessed with him, even though he offered me nothing. He wasn’t my boyfriend, and didn’t talk to me in the halls at school. But I wrote his name in my notebook; drew little hearts around it even. I spent long rides on the bus to high-school swim meets replaying our late-night rendezvous in my head.

I assumed we had to conduct our affair in private because of the age difference. But there was also the fact that everyone, including me, knew he had a baby momma at school — and she was due in the spring. A few months later, he stopped passing me notes in the halls and started avoiding me all together.

At the end of the year, the girls in his graduating class put together a document they dubbed the Senior Will, traditionally used to “pass down” gifts — i.e. offensive descriptions of underclassmen — and distributed it around school. It said things like, “We leave Gabby Smith oyster crackers to go with her chili-smelling pussy.” Everyone read it, including teachers, who confiscated copies.

In it, they called me a “whore” and left me an “STD kit,” which was less original than Gabby Smith’s inheritance — but harsher than what my best friend was willed: “the full Buns-of-Steel collection on VHS.” At the time, I didn’t understand that contempt for women is actually something women can learn from each other.

***

I’ve always had feminist leanings, but spent much of my life without a community to fully support my emancipation — especially when it came to sex. Although my mother was a self-professed “women’s libber,” the sexual revolution had not rubbed off on her, at least not in a way she could share with her teenage daughter. The only people who found my sexuality appropriate, appealing even, were men.

So I offered myself to them, in exchange for validation, which was often short lived. For the most part, I accepted that sex would not necessarily lead to a relationship (though it sometimes did). It was almost better not to get attached — less risk of getting hurt. Operating like a man felt like liberation. But it required I suppress my feelings.

While at my museum internship in Chicago, I was supposed to enter data into a spreadsheet from an email signup list, but instead found myself daydreaming about Nic ripping off my underwear so he could go down on me.

I’ve always had feminist leanings, but spent much of my life without a community to fully support my emancipation — especially when it came to sex.

One morning after we’d been steadily seeing each other for a couple of months, I rode with him in a taxi. He was on his way to work, and I was on my way home — I hadn’t driven the night before. I laid my head in his lap and he caressed my hair with a subtle softness that would ultimately be my downfall. It was less intimate than, say, our mutual-masturbation race an hour before, but more affectionate than our normal goodbyes, which involved a peck on the lips and a slap on the ass at best.

I knew this touch anywhere — it was that of a boyfriend.You don’t caress someone you don’t care about in such a way. But it was an isolated incident. He continued to keep me at arm’s length, treating me as if I meant little to him. My mind received mixed signals. I found myself thinking about Nic more and more. It drove me crazy that he would only return my texts sometimes — and we only saw one another in the middle of the night. We’d begun our tryst in September, but it wasn’t until February that he actually invited me somewhere during the day.

“Do you want to watch the Super Bowl with me later?” he asked the morning of the big game.

“Okay,” I said apprehensively, worried he might have been just messing with my head.

I met him at a bar near his house that afternoon, even though I hate sports — and especially football. I was just happy for the chance to be with him.

Fuck, I realized: I wanted to be with him.

***

True story: The last time I’d had a booty-call type situation, it was 1999, I was 17, and my boyfriend was serving six months in jail up near Joliet, Illinois. I was a one-guy kind of gal — and for the most part, a loyal one, even as a prison wife. But six months was long enough to get bored, especially in a town where people partied at train tracks in the cornfields.

One night, I was hanging out at a party when I went to smoke weed in my car with a tall guy I’d had a crush on earlier in high school. (This has embarrassingly been my modus operandi for getting laid for a while.) I was about as smooth with my pickup lines as a fist through a piece of paper.

“Do you want to have sex?” I asked.

Tall guy had a semi-significant other too, so we had to be secretive about hooking up. I drove to his house late at night and parked my car nearby. It felt very clandestine. His bed was low to the ground, a futon maybe, and when we had sex on it, he pulled my long blonde hair and called out my name in a throaty way none of my boyfriends ever had, “Sa-rahhhh.”

Maybe it was the illicitness that added an extra air of excitement. Or an unfamiliar voice with whom I shared no banal, everyday activities — no history of fighting over whether to rent Le Divorce or the latest Terminator movie at Blockbuster — that was inherently sexier. But again, what did I get from a man who could offer me nothing but secretive late-night sex on a mattress? I didn’t know if it was degrading or empowering. Or if they were two sides of the same coin.

Not all of my sexual experiences have gone down like this. Later, my college boyfriend was committed and respectful and perfectly nice. But it didn’t have that same, “holy shit what are we doing” catastrophic element which apparently I desired in a fuck-buddy. When you really love someone, a best friend or a boyfriend, they become almost like a member of the family. You don’t want to yell out dirty things to them, like, I’m going to cum on your face.

“Nice” evoked a kind of caring that, up until a point, I only understood as fatherly. When I was a teenager, my father had given me a lecture about how sex was supposed to be an expression of love. I was so offended I covered my ears with my hands and rocked back and forth in my chair until it stopped.

I didn’t fall for Tall guy, but when my prison boyfriend got out of the joint, he caught wind that something had gone down between us. He hit me — and went back to jail for it. Kindness, it turned out, was an important trait in a boyfriend. But for a booty call? I didn’t think it really mattered. I assumed I could compartmentalize sex and love, the way men did. Or that I should be able to, if we were truly equal.

***

The week before Valentine’s Day, when I asked Nic what he would be doing that night, he told me, “Taking my girlfriend to dinner.”

I braced myself on my kitchen sink.

“I thought you guys broke up,” I said, my mind racing through a catalogue of what I’d assumed to be evidence that he’d been steadily becoming more available. There was, of course, the Super Bowl, where he’d put his arm around me in broad daylight in front of his friends. There were the women’s hair care products in his bathroom, the contents of which had stayed at the same level since I’d been overnighting there. I used them once at his suggestion and wondered what kind of woman she’d been, past tense.

I’d mentally avoided the fact he only called me late at night, and that a photograph of the two of them remained on the windowsill. She had pale blonde hair and a pretty smile. The guys at work said she looked like Anna Kournikova, the tennis player and subject of Enrique Iglesias’s creepy hit song about running and hiding but not being able to escape his love. Once, Nic asked me if an earring he’d found by his bedside was mine. It wasn’t.

We’d been seeing each other on and off for four months, but to be fair, there was never any assumption of exclusivity or coupledom. A man who wants to date you takes your ass out to dinner. I’d originally assumed I would be satisfied with an intermittent, no-strings-attached arrangement, but over the course of a few months, my feelings changed. Nic had been to my house; in my bed, where he experienced the most intimate side of me.

He’d even called me at midnight on my birthday a month before. Why would he do that?

I felt not cheated on, but still cheated somehow.

“You don’t understand,” he told me. “She’s sick.”

I had no idea how to even begin to process this information. My roommate and best friend at the time was not impressed.

“That guy is a dick,” she said.

I eventually got a job at a different restaurant, where I projected my desires on another male bartender, out of sheer convenience, but he didn’t seem even a little bit interested. I met an attractive six-foot-three lawyer with an MBA who I really tried to like. But he was (cringe) nice. So instead, I found myself hopelessly thinking about Nic, who offered no perks besides feeding my fixation on him.

***

In the next few months, it became clear to me my lust for Nic’s attention was no longer sustainable. This revelation occurred during a pre-Tinder era, when meeting men, stigma-free anyway, was limited to IRL. I heard stories of him hitting on other women — friends of friends — and decided his girlfriend couldn’t be that sick, and if she was, then he was really an asshole, as opposed to just your run-of-the-mill rake.

Some part of me was holding onto the belief that if I were truly special, he would come to realize it. And that was precisely the problem: My specialness was riding on whether or not some guy liked me.

A month or so would go by between our meetups. Eventually, he stopped returning my texts, and I stopped sending them. Still, some part of me was holding onto the belief that if I were truly special, he would come to realize it. And that was precisely the problem: My specialness was riding on whether or not some guy liked me. As early as 14, I’d begun valuing and devaluing myself based on approval from men.

This was all, of course, before empowerment went mainstream, trended on social media, and became a commodity to be packaged and sold to women by corporations. In the late 90s and the early 00s, there was no Jezebel or #YesAllWomen or widespread anti-slut shaming movements. Fucking whomever you wanted, whenever you wanted felt like a solitary act of feminism, regardless of the fallout.

For me, like many other women, the #MeToo movement came too late.

The winter I spent sleeping with Nic, I was also raped. I had texted Nic earlier that very night to see if he was around, and received what had become a familiar response: silence. By this time, I knew he didn’t care, and I hated myself for wanting him to. So I went to another guy’s house, willingly, not thinking anything out of the ordinary would happen.

I saw Nic again afterwards, but never told him about it. One night several months later, in a traumatized state of denial and drunken stupor, I called, cursed him out, and then hung up. Some part of me blamed him for not being there to protect me. But it was drowned out by a larger part of me that blamed myself.

To admit you need protection is to confess vulnerability. It’s not something I would have done at the time. I did not yet understand that true intimacy requires a different kind of nakedness than the one I excelled in. Nor did I know that I would not be satisfied stripping off my clothes, all the while keeping my emotions guarded.

***

Not long ago, I got an email from LinkedIn that said, “People are looking at your profile.” “People” turned out to be Nic. I was 33 and had only recently starting going to therapy for the rape. I hadn’t spoken to him in ten years, but had coincidentally been rolling the thought of us around in my mind. I saw him not only as a man from my past who had hurt me, but also a portal to a less wounded self.

Since I didn’t know how else to reach Nic, in order to send him a message, I had to first invite him to connect with me on LinkedIn. What better way to examine a dark part of your past than the unforgiving fluorescent light of a professional networking site?

Because my drunken call had been our last contact, I opened with some brief greetings and an apology: I would like to apologize to you for the way I left things — not a good time in my life. Call it making amends if you want, I just felt the need to tell you that. I secretly hoped he would think I was in AA and not pining for him.

I don’t know why you’re apologizing, he responded. I was the one who was a complete jackass.

Yes, you were, I wrote back, relieved.

We exchanged a few more cordial messages, and it was clear he didn’t think I was dumb or slutty or desperate. Is that what I had thought this whole time? I realized my unresolved feelings had more to do with me than they did him. Like the men who had come before, he was a mirror I’d held up, in hopes of seeing myself in a more flattering light. And I’d given far too much authority to what I saw in the reflection.

A few years have since passed, and though I haven’t spoken to Nic, I often wonder what would happen if we saw each other again. Would our fling feel like ancient history? Or would I start drooling like one of Pavlov’s dogs? When I was 20, I ran into the basketball player from my high school at a nightclub. I could see him staring at me from across the room, his jaw dropped wide open. He didn’t even attempt to close it as I walked past. To his credit, I probably looked a lot different without braces.

* * *

Sarah Kasbeer lives in New York City. Her essays have appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Elle, Guernica, The Normal School, and many other places.

Editor: Sari Botton