Fiction by Jamie Kahn
Ooh La La
Condoms, dude. Just say condoms. It’s shorter and easier and much less embarrassing. We’re at the CVS near the 86th St. train stop and it’s the middle of the afternoon, but we know we’re going to spend the rest of the day fucking until it gets dark outside and we have to escape to our evening plans. We’ve done this twice before. But on the way back to J’s place, he realizes neither of us have condoms and since I’ve found the only responsible man in all of the five boroughs, this is still a barrier—hah—to our tearing our clothes off and getting on with it.
But when we go inside, the condoms are behind the stiff, scratched up plastic that pretty much everything is in these places in New York, and the buzzer for unlocking it is broken. This is where we call it quits, right? This is where I should cut my losses and do one more risky thing that I’ve done a few times before and would feel much less agitated about doing for this man, because hey, at least he actually tries. But no. He tries, and keeps on trying. We are at the front and I’m smirking at myself and picking at my nail polish that isn’t yet chipped, but might be soon enough.
“Um, your buzzer is broken in the family planning aisle,” he says.
Okay dude, I get it. You’re a WASP on the Upper West Side who probably doesn’t feel comfortable using overtly sexualized language in public but jesus christ. Before, it was comical, but we are beginning to tip the scales into embarrassing.
“What aisle?” The girl asks.
“Uh, aisle nineteen.” He points.
The girl makes her male coworker go and open it.
We know which condoms we need, or rather, he does. When he grabs them, I note that I always get the same kind, but I don’t say anything.
The guy with the keys walks away, and I turn back to J—this sophisticated techbro I’m sleeping with, and dating, and generally enjoying more and more in a way that feels dangerous to me. We try to stifle our giggles. We lean into each other a little in our laughter, but don’t touch. Not exactly. We know it isn’t over yet.
We start walking up towards the front. Even though this kind of thing is embarrassing as a teenager, it’s almost worse as an adult. There’s another layer to it. I’m not just embarrassed. I’m embarrassed of being embarrassed. A nightmare. I’m walking behind him, which I probably shouldn’t be doing because isn’t it somehow anti-feminist that I am shyer than he is about all of this? Not even all this. All nothing. Condoms specifically. By the time we get to the cashwrap and see the same girl again, who no doubt witnesses this kind of thing multiple times a day, everything is funny again.
Somehow, his word choice sticks in my head on the way out. “Family planning.” How sex-ed. Like, planning what? Not having to suffer the woes of Plan B again? I guess that is kind of nice of him.
When we walk out into the city cold, it’s all pure hilarity again. Our laughter puffs visible white breaths into the air. He looks cute when he smiles, his slightly crooked canines carefree among the rest of him, which is so put together in a way that’s never natural for any twenty five year old, but for him, it might be.
“Oh, every time this kind of thing happens to me it’s so funny,” he says.
Of course, every time.
When we get back to his place, he fucks me like he loves me, and like he doesn’t care about me. Both can be true. When he’s fucking me from behind, he kisses my shoulder and my neck. He’s so careful with me before he grabs my hair and tugs so hard I know I’ll leave his bedroom with a headache. Since we are using condoms, he finishes inside me. I never usually do that. Most guys like face or tits, so much that getting traditional feels like a novelty. When he pulls me close to him under the covers, he says, “So, you like it slow?”
I shrug, unsure how to answer something like that. I settle on “Sometimes,” which might be true. For a second, I think about who I’d be if I was blonde and ivy-educated and could make all my tattoos disappear.
Halfway back to Bushwick, my headache intensifies. I shake out my ponytail, but it doesn’t help. Nothing does.
I try to take photos of ridiculous signs all over the place. It’s a habit I picked up from an ex-boyfriend, which he picked up from a skate photographer. I do it so much more, and so much better, now that I’m not with him. Maybe it’s because I notice better things when I’m alone. I do it all—funny license plates that say 2BROKE, SHAGYWAGON, and LOVEU. Shop signs like Rainbow Kitchen Supplies in the east village or The G Spot in Flushing, Queens, where I once went for a wedding of someone I hardly knew. Graffiti is the easiest. Fuck this life. Nothing is real. Dump Him. A simple sad face. Sometimes it’s something else entirely. A fake skeleton days after Halloween, sitting perched in a trash can near Greenwood cemetery. A fake QR code sticker for free blowjobs. The tag on a pair of jeans at a sample sale in Soho, that simply says don’t lose me.
When I walk home from the L train, it’s dark and freezing. It’s too cold to take my hand out of my pocket to check the temperature on my phone. I’m sure it would shock me.
In one of the windows above the dim street, someone has placed a neon sign that simply says Ooh La La. I think to myself that this is a good one. I contemplate stopping and taking a photo, but I walk past it in the time it takes me to mull it over and decide no anyway. Normally I’d do anything for a good shot like this. Was I beginning to let things slip? I decide I’ll come back for it later. It isn’t going anywhere.
When I get into my building, I unloop my scarf and peel my gloves from my hands, my fingers still red-tipped. In front of the door to my apartment, I fish in my bag for my keys. I know they have to be in here somewhere, which is why it’s all the more devastating when they simply aren’t. I slide with my back to the door until I am shrunken down, sitting in front of my apartment. I pull out my phone and text J first. I don’t tell him what’s going on. Somehow, that feels like too much, even with the looming possibility that my keys are somewhere in his apartment.
So what have you got going on with the rest of your night?
Right then, my friend who I haven’t seen in roughly three months because that’s how adult life goes, calls me up. I let it ring twice before I answer her.
“Hey, B. What’s up?”
She tells me that I should come to her place right now. That there are a bunch of people who miss the shit out of me. I’m doubtful.
“Who?” I ask.
She says “Everyone,” and tells me to just get over there already. I tilt my head back so the softest part of the crown of my head is touching the door.
“I’m not going all the way to Bed Stuy right now.”
B asks if I’m home, and when I tell her yes without explaining further, she says she’s sending an Uber to pick me up.
I know the code into B’s building because it’s just a bunch of zeroes. A fog of house music pumps from behind the unlocked apartment door. I open it onto a sea of acquaintances. B yells when she sees me, throwing her hands into the air off-rhythm. “Hey! Do you want to do some molly?” She points at her glass coffee table, where a collection of quartz crystals and candles sit beside neat, pinkish lines. I say yes, and we take it together.
The molly tastes bitter, which is apparently how you know it’s good. Our friend N, who I’ve seen more recently than B, pulls out a bottle so we can do shots. She greets me by handing me one, and we tap them down and knock them back together. I realize quickly that I haven’t eaten in hours. A girl I’ve never seen before is ripping pieces of a baguette off and eating them dry on the other side of the kitchen counter.
I walk over to her and before I can even ask, she hands me some. We smile and chew while people awkwardly dance around us. We both start moving to the beat with our mouths chipmunk-full. Somehow, I feel the music in my fingertips and I’m acutely aware of my feet in my socks on the hardwood. I keep moving, and B joins in on the dancing. “I’m so glad you’re here! This is amazing!” She shouts over the bass. “I haven’t felt this good since my therapist ghosted me!”
“Don’t you mean you ghosted your therapist?” I ask.
“No. My therapist ghosted me,” B corrects flippantly. Christ. I guess therapists are ghosting people now.
B explains that since her therapist was her referral to her psychiatrist, her psychiatrist wouldn’t prescribe her meds if she wasn’t going to therapy. When her therapist ghosted her and the wait was too long to find a new one, she ran out of prozac and went AWOL for two full weeks. “But it’s better this way,” she says.
“Now we just microdose on shrooms instead,” N chimes in.
“Oh. That’s very west coast of you,” I say.
In a moment of lull, I check my phone. I hate the oily glow of the screen. Turning the brightness all the way down doesn’t help. Molly does this thing to my eyes, I can’t even explain it. Anything too bright freaks me out and makes me shake.
There’s nothing to see on my phone anyway, so I open up my messages and type one out to J quickly. Got locked out of my apartment but im at this party in bedstuy u should come here’s the address:
B skips over and puts an arm around my shoulders. “I love doing molly because it makes you feel like you can just say whatever you want. Doesn’t it feel that way?”
Again, I’m faced with something I’m unsure how to answer. I don’t know if there’s any value in saying whatever I want if there’s nothing I want to say. Again, I settle on “Sometimes,” before the bass drops again. B spins me around, which takes me by surprise. Her curls bounce in the pink light of the music video on the tv.
Later on, when we’re out on the balcony for a cigarette, the cold bites at my arms in a thousand little pin pricks. Across from me, a guy I’ve never seen before is talking about the recent rough breakup in his polyamorous throupple. The glitter on his beard smudges down his neck and onto his hands, shimmering like rainbow tilapia under some combination of moonlight and city windows.
What happened was he and his boyfriend had been dating this girl, but she broke up with them both a few weeks ago. “It was awful, you know?” He says between drags. “We were really starting to fall in love with her.”
“Well, at least you have each other,” I say, thinking that this must be the right thing.
“Sure,” he says. “But the pain is twice as big.”
We come back in smelling like cigarettes and rain. B has put out more molly, and I do it without thinking twice. The music is still loud, the lights still low. Behind me, a girl I’ve seen a few times before starts showing off her new tattoo to the polyamorous glitter beard guy and baguette girl. She has her shirt pulled up to reveal the chevron ribbs rippling on her side, a freshly blackened scorpion tattooed right on her side. Palm-sized.
I don’t ask her what it’s for or what it means. Someone else is bound to. It reminds me of a girl I knew back in school. I thought she was the coolest thing in the whole world because she got a tattoo in the eighth grade. I didn’t know her well, and at first, I thought it might have been a rumor, but sure enough, I came in while she was showing it off to a group of girls in the bathroom.
It was splotchy and ill-placed—a scorpion right on her side. I could hardly tell what it was. I had to wait for her to say it. I never asked how she managed to get it.
I almost bring this up, but it feels like something just for me. I wonder what that tattoo even looks like now. Probably faded and lonely. Last I checked she had a balayage and a fiance and lived in Connecticut.
“Nice tattoo,” is all I say. I keep dancing with B.
The next time we head to the balcony for a cigarette, the night looks so much less dark. It sits in a bruised purple over the sky, coating over us like a pilling cotton quilt. I ask what time it is, and N tells me it’s 3:50 in the morning.
“Might as well stay up all night,” baguette girl says, ashing down into the street.
“I’m just going straight to work from here,” glitter beard says.
“I locked myself out of my apartment,” I groan.
Everybody looks at me a little shocked, and N pushes me to explain further. I tell them about the whole situation. About J. About the condoms. About texting him to come over here and getting no reply. About the fact that my keys might still be over there but I’m three texts too deep to mention it.
“You’re dating a techbro?” Is the first thing N says, her eyebrows pushed together like wings.
“Dating, seeing, fucking, I don’t know.”
“Well, have you checked if he responded recently?” Glitter beard asks.
“No,” I say. “I don’t want the disappointment.”
“Didn’t you just fuck him earlier today?” N asks.
“Technically that’s yesterday now.” I smirk a little. “But yes, I did. But, look, I’m not out here trying to get hurt. I’m a sucker for superlatives, and there’s no way I’m the best this guy’s ever had.”
“The best? The best at what?” Glitter beard asks.
“I don’t know. The prettiest, smartest, most interesting, successful, funny. The best at everything.” I realize the cherry on my cigarette has gone out. N leans in to light it with the end of hers. Our cigarettes kiss and glow just slightly warmer like sweet little lightning bugs that don’t belong here.
“So you want someone to tell you that you’re the best?” Baguette girl asks.
“I guess so.” I realize how this sounds only as I say it out loud in front of three people.
She takes her last drag and puffs out. “When was the last time you believed someone who told you that you were the best at anything?”
We head inside, and N tells B about the situation with my keys. They both start looking around, moving people to pull up couch cushions, even though I lost them long before I got here. I can’t blame them for wanting to feel helpful.
A guy wearing overalls with no shirt under them, who had been sitting on the couch until B moved him, asks, “What about your secret pocket?”
“Hey, stop being a fucking pervert!” N hits him with a couch cushion.
“Jesus,” he puts his hands up innocently. “I meant, does your bag have any secret pockets?”
I pick up my bag and start to shuffle through it again. Lip balm, journal, pen, book for the subway, headphones, three uneaten granola bars. God I need to clean out this thing. But yes, there’s a top pocket right next to the zipper.
I hold up my long lost house key, dangling on a loopy pink keyring. “Well, fuck me. Guess I have no use for the techbro after all.” I smirk. Everyone expresses relief at my discovery for an appropriate amount of time before returning back to their party business.
But things are dying down. The music is lower. People are starting to peel off and head out one by one. This is the way a party dies—so slowly you don’t notice until it’s gone.
I take a look around, from everyone else still lingering to glitter beard to baguette girl. To N and B. It could be another three months until we do this again, which somehow feels right even though I hate it.
They know I have to go, and when B offers to Uber me back home, I shake my head and hug her. I tell her that I need to walk it off.
“Don’t freeze,” she says, half maternal, half wistful lover.
The walk home is only twenty-five minutes. I’m not sure why I felt too defeated for it less than twelve hours ago. Everything is still quiet in the purple-blue dark. I know the molly has worn off, but I'm still a little scared to check my phone. I almost don’t, but I remember something important.
The Ooh La La sign. I’m coming up on it, just around the corner. I came back for it, just like I told myself I would. I whip my phone out fast, but before I can find the camera, I open onto my conversation with J.
I guess you don’t like to party. I type. I close the conversation.
When I round the corner, my phone camera is at the ready. I want the little pink letters to call to me in the dark. But they don’t.
I check to make sure I’m at the right place, and I am. All the markers are the same. It has to be that window. It probably was that window. But the sign is gone now. The window sits there blank. Hollow. This is what happens when you wait too long.
Just as I’m about to tuck my phone back away and shuffle home in defeat, it buzzes twice. Both from J.
Maybe you should remember to send me the address next time.
Jamie Kahn is a Brooklyn-based writer with fiction and nonfiction featured in The Huffington Post, The Los Angeles Review, Capsule98, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, The Hunger, and Oyster River Pages. She serves as a reader for The Barcelona Review and Epiphany Magazine.