There are few things crueler than eating White Castle sliders in front of a starving dog late at night. There are few things more grossly unattractive than eating those uniquely fragrant hamburgers while texting with a man who is not your husband, about meeting for sex in the sort of hotels that look nice on the internet but in person are furnished with stained comforters damp with fuck sweat.
In 2011 I wrote a story about Ashley Madison, the site for married people looking to have affairs. I created a profile with a picture of myself taken on Halloween—I’m wearing a peacock costume with blue and yellow feathers, my face bright green and red. Hot, for a bird. I went on dates with married men. At a rococo caviar joint I ordered golden osetra while a young man showed me pictures of his son playing soccer. Another pressed his palm against my thigh at a whiskey bar, lamenting that he had always wanted porterhouse on the grill in an apartment overlooking the park, until he’d finally achieved porterhouse on the grill in an apartment overlooking the park. Did I understand?
I was bored by the dates, the pimento olives. It was easier and more interesting to talk over e-mail, to dangle the idea of meeting but never do it. That way the men exposed more of themselves and tried to calibrate their sexual energy according to my fear. I had never before experienced having my timorousness attended to in that way. On top of that, I could eat previously frozen White Castle sliders while I fucked with their heads and they played with their dicks.
One night I sat down with my computer. I had recently lost my mother, and talking to strangers was a noncommittal balm, like arnica. I talked for a while to a man kind of named Jeff, who worked nearby. His picture looked familiar but only because it was white and doughy and I lived in a part of the world that rested on the dough of white men.
The others I’d been speaking to seemed unsure; Jeff was confident, aggressive. His manner annoyed me, but it was good for the story.
When we switched over to e-mail, I was shocked by two things—first, that he was using his actual daytime e-mail, his full name showing when my cursor hovered over the handle (the classic Sports Team + Year I Was Born formula). Second, that he was my gynecologist.
It had been several months earlier, weeks after my mother’s death, that I’d gone to a new doctor for my annual gynecological exam. He made a joke about not using gloves. I don’t remember if I laughed. I might have. I could say I was grief-stricken, which is true, but I’d allowed plenty of other trespasses like that before I’d experienced any loss.
A week or so later the office called with my results. I required a colposcopy, a procedure meant to biopsy malignant or precancerous cells, which led to the doctor removing those abnormal cells in the same visit. Right before I went into his tiny surgical room, I asked about the risks, and he replied, excitedly, “Well, you might never be able to have kids.” He was genuinely pleased to make the joke. The toady smile and the large grim hands. He should have been holding a Solo cup in a fraternity cellar and not a scalpel in an operating room. I bet I smiled back.
After the procedure I was in terrific pain and hemorrhaged mahogany blood for days. Another gynecologist fixed it and called the original surgeon a barbarian. It was more painful than my recovery from the emergency cesarean I underwent years later when, luckily, I was still able to bear a child.
Now there I was, looking at my screen, realizing that the man who was asking me where I liked to ski and fantasizing about how sexy it would be if we accidentally bumped into one another on the slopes while our unsuspecting families waited in the lodge was the man who had disfigured my insides.
I spent much of the following eight years researching, for a book, the ways in which female desire is denied. I was so embedded within female desire that I’d nearly forgotten about the male desire that had shaped my teens and most of my 20s. Shortly after the book was completed, I was going through my old e-mail account and found the correspondence with Dr. Jeff. With the exception of the odd cocktail-party retelling, I’d stopped thinking about him. But he had not stopped thinking about me. He’d been sporadically e-mailing me, or rather the peacock cipher I’d called Natali, the whole time:
Hey sexy it has been a long time. How are you?
It’s been years Natali!
Friday after work?
Looking him up on the internet, I found dozens of terrible reviews of his practice, and of him. A number of patients talked about his unscrupulousness, the way he delivered abysmal results with laughter, the way he joked about the inanity of one woman trying to keep her gown closed when he would be seeing it all within moments anyway, while she was under anesthesia. All of it aligned with everything I’d experienced as Dr. Jeff’s patient. Plus his greed, reprehensible for a doctor—the way he stuck his head out of his office to insert himself into billing questions. I began to consider how perhaps I hadn’t needed that painful procedure. How I hadn’t needed to bleed for days. How I might have suffered that pain just so this man could make a few thousand dollars. This man who at night was trying to see the very nether regions he had ruptured during the day.
I felt powerless and didn’t want to feel that way anymore. So I wrote to him. From that old e-mail I dusted off my ability to flirt and typed, Hello Jeff, remind me why we never met.
He wrote back within the hour. He lived in an affluent town. I told him I lived nearby. We could meet at a hideout in between.
I feel indescribably insane describing what transpired over the following weeks. We moved from e-mail to Snapchat to text. Mainly the conversations were staid, about where to meet and when. I sailed our exchanges, several times, into pornographic waters. One week I said it would be “hard” to meet. I sent a meme of a hot redhead with side boob, twerking.
Over a few months I stood him up several times. Once was at a Brazilian bar with colored lights hung from the ceiling and loud college kids getting two-for-ones. He drank caipirinhas and sent me messages that turned surly. Another time, he waited at his favorite caviar spot with a tier of Siberian hybrid while I celebrated my husband’s birthday in Tahoe. I took breaks from our meal to text with Dr. Jeff. My husband averted his eyes as I wrote, Stuck in traffic, can’t wait to finally do this thing. I’m wet AF.
Dr. Jeff forgave me my trespasses. I always had a good excuse—work, fear of being caught, traffic—and he always had a hard dick. He told me so. He told me he woke up with one after dreaming of me. He told me he couldn’t concentrate at work. I suppose he was looking at other women’s spread legs and thinking of mine. Which in fact he’d already seen! How meta.
In between our missed connections, we engaged in stimulating conversation. Once, I wrote, I like it from behind; I like to be animalistic. Another time he texted me the link to one of his favorite clips from a free website. The video was exceedingly pixelated. I wrote, Does it turn you on that it’s so low quality? I wanted to make him feel a certain way. He replied that he liked that it felt like real people.
Other times I tried to price him out of a sexual relationship with me. During a lube interlude, I sent him the link to one that I’d gotten in a swag bag, at $34 a tube. Nice, he said, but it’s water-based, so ultimately it dries. He came back at me with a CBD lube at $20 a bottle. He made me feel immature, unsophisticated in the parlance of infidelity. He also didn’t balk when I suggested we meet at one of the most expensive hotels in the country. When I didn’t show after half an hour, he wrote, You kind of suck right now. And then, But I think you know that already. I texted him an hour after my promised arrival. One of my children was sick and I had to get home right away. Then I wrote, I don’t really like being told I suck. I get that it’s been hard to meet.
Around that time he sent a picture of himself smiling, as though he thought I’d enjoy it. He was paunchier than I recalled. I found everything about his expression and his haircut despicable.
One day, unprompted, Dr. Jeff wrote, Did I ever tell you what I do for work?
No, I said. No, you did not.
He didn’t follow that up.
I thought of the other women he might be emotionally assaulting with his gloveless jokes. I thought about doing something. But what was there to do? Add another Yelp review to the fray? I might have used my journalistic resources to out him, but to out him as what—a scumbag? I thought about his child and his wife, whom I’d seen on Facebook. I saw photos of a vacation in Italy. I saw the child doing the classic pose with the Leaning Tower of Pisa. In my book about the desire of women, I wrote about a teacher of the year who’d had an alleged relationship with one of his students. Using his real name gave me pause, but he was already a public figure. Still, I often imagined his wife reading the details that hadn’t been part of the trial. Even though multiple people close to the case told me she’d likely been complicit in the end, had likely perjured herself, I couldn’t help imagining her pain and my part in inflicting it.
On top of that, and to the extent that #MeToo factors into my relationship with my former doctor, what I hope to impart to my four-year-old daughter is not to act from a stance of persecution but from one of pursuit.
Mary Gaitskill, in her collection of essays, Somebody With a Little Hammer, has a remarkable piece about the times she’s been raped. She writes that the one that affected her the most was not the violent rape by a stranger but the two quasi–date rapes, wherein she felt she had some agency and didn’t use it. I think, as women, we feel the worst when we’ve rendered our own selves powerless. When we have abdicated that power to assholes. I’ve seen a lot of the subjects of my book—and friends, and myself—either keep quiet about the events that wound us or talk about those events without nuance. Someone is an aggressor. Someone else is a victim. I’ve wondered, over this past decade of research and suturing the rips of my past, how I might act from a different plane. How I might exercise agency without claiming victimhood. How I might “win.”
But with Dr. Jeff I don’t think I’ve been doing that. I think I’ve been failing in all the ways I don’t want my daughter to fail. I don’t have an endgame in sight. As my long-suffering husband has said, “What in the fuck are you doing?”
A corollary to my self-perceived failure—and potentially the most disheartening feeling I can imagine—is my fear. The very bald fear that has made my peacock soul feel plucked. The fear that comes from imagining meeting this man in person, again. The very idea of seeing this person who once made me feel so violated. And even more frightening and awful and untenable than that—the vagabond, loathsome fear that he would not think I was cool. That I had not played by the infidelity rules. That I was not cool enough to keep my mouth shut. That I was not fucking cool. Can you believe that? What in the gloveless fuck am I doing?
Several days ago, Dr. Jeff and I were supposed to meet for the eighth time. As usual, I had no intention of going. But I worried we were getting to the precipice of his patience. He claimed to be fucking other women. He did bumps of yayo during the day. His job was such that he could make his own schedule. Schedule surgeries around bumps and fucks. He could meet me anywhere at nearly any time. (As far as his wife was concerned, he’d told me numerous times that he was very careful, with manifold excuses for leaving the house at all surgical hours.) But I was elusive, scared of being caught. I was too much the primary caregiver of my children, too micromanaged by my boss.
But then the most wonderful thing happened. Dr. Jeff canceled on me. His wife had purchased tickets to a deluxe chili event. Chili and vinho verde and whatever else did not go with chili and rows upon rows of banquet tables. Demure little plastic plates with chili from across the country. Cincinnati style, Texas red, lentil chili, coconut chili, black bean chili, white bean chili, Caribbean chili, chocolate chili and chili verde—perhaps that one goes with vinho verde.
The tickets were expensive for a chili tasting, and the outdoor venue was thick with cliché—polo shirts, frat faces, Hawaiian prints, sunglasses at night. There were pink clouds at sunset, incels spinning roulette wheels at casino tables with no money or prizes to win. There was house music, 1990s music, chili burps, overstuffed garbage cans. There was, in a corner by a speaker, the saddest woman ever to hold a volcano drink. How could I know all this? I know it because I was there. On my father’s birthday—my father who was a doctor himself and who, had he still been alive, would never have let me undergo that surgery without a second opinion—I forced my husband to come with me and find my doctor at a chili fest in a stinking venue under sloppy white tents.
We parked in a muddy field. We walked half a mile to a long line of sweaty ticket holders. I cut the line because I was afraid of missing him. My husband waited at the end of it because he’s of the opinion that a man who cuts a line could and should get beaten up. I ate two mini plates of chili before he caught up with me. We scanned the room, and he said it was too crowded. I would never find my man. After an unreasonably short time, my husband grew bored and went to sit by the constellation of Jaguars under a black tent with black couches and Veuve Clicquot and brochures.
Within minutes of searching alone, I found Dr. Jeff. At first I saw him from behind, in a too-long T-shirt and frayed, womanly jeans. I recognized immediately the short trunk of his neck, the douchebag lean of his sagging frame. And then he turned. It was magnificently haunting to see that face, the face of a man no woman (I could ever imagine) wants to fuck. He scanned the crowd, his roving, rye-colored eyes giving off the revolving glow of a lighthouse. Beside him was the wife with the blown-out hair, the nice-enough wrap dress, the unsuspecting hand that holds the elbow of the stocky cheating pig.
I realized it had been easy to find him because of the way he was looking for something. He chewed a chili-stuffed tortilla with his mouth open. What was he looking for? It wasn’t “hard” to surmise. A woman to bang. An ass to appraise. There were young women in short black shorts and black halter tops, pouring shit wine and slinging leaky chili with gloveless hands. My doctor’s eyes found their thighs. I’ve always wondered if gynecologists tire of what lies between the legs. I was positive this one had not.
After that first sighting, I let him go. Because he was with his wife and because I knew I could find him again and again. I felt psychically connected. I knew him so well. All the hotels we hadn’t been to, all the bars at which we hadn’t gotten drinks. All the porn and lube he liked and all the ways in which he liked to fuck and all the ways in which he humiliated his patients and lied to his wife. All the vacations and the food and the political views. (Nearly more shocking than finding out my former doctor was pursuing my cipher was discovering the Fox News–grade political memes on his Facebook feed.) I knew I could find him again because I knew what he was looking for. The more important question I found myself asking, in that swirl of undercooked chili and flabby golfing arms, was, What was I looking for?
I found him again, and at last I walked toward him. It has always been easy for me to squeeze through crowds. I’m smallish and vehement. Moving through Chili Fest, I was reminded of the night I had gone to a club on the storied shores of New Jersey, trying to interview Samantha Ronson, who was guest deejaying that hot summer night and had just started a relationship with Lindsay Lohan, who was also there, in the booth, the two of them like miniature goddesses of strobes and men in tank tops. I was carrying a record—Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Conversation—because Ronson was a fan. As I moved through the moist crowd, a tank top spilled his vodka cranberry on my shoulder and licked it off me. I was pressed between walls of flesh. I didn’t know what to do. I think I fucking smiled. Moving through the crowds of Chili Fest, I was also reminded of the orange day in Puerto Rico when I was 11 and on a family vacation and my overprotective parents had allowed me to take a walk down the beach. I lay on the sand, slathered in baby oil, Stephen King’s The Stand covering my eyes against the godless Puerto Rico sun. And I awoke to a man licking my arm, to whom I said “Excuse me” as though I’d interrupted his business phone call.
There was cigar smoke in that Chili Fest crowd, men in their 50s with their counterfeit Cubans; the smoke reminded me that I miss cigars but not the men who gave them to me in bars I thought were fancy, with bargain marble and shiny mahogany. I don’t miss the nights I acted like the bottle girls I wrote about; only I wasn’t getting Louboutins and weekends in St. Barts but Ashton Classics and bearded licks, thigh touches. I stroked egos for no fucking reason.
I got to him. Three feet away. I looked at my phone and licked my lips until he looked at me. Like most women, I’ve always been able to feel a man’s eyes. I straightened my back and touched the nape of my neck. Stretching, I’ve learned, means to some men that I’m DTF. I did all the things I’d seen women do in movies when I was a little girl. I did everything to look like a woman who wants to fuck a random mottled stranger and not like the girl who’d been ripped apart a decade ago.
He looked at me. We made eye contact, after all these years.
Songs of my past—“Bitter Sweet Symphony,” “The Sign,” “Losing My Religion,” “Creep”—were bouncing from the loudspeakers under that stretched-out dirty cloud of a tent. I looked around the wasteland to the soundtrack of my 20s, a decade in which I’d lost my parents, my aunt and uncle, my grandparents, my fucking dog.
I looked around at the ghosts of the men who populated the remainder of that haunted decade. Neon glasses. Yankees caps. Acqua di Gio. Tennis sweat. Mike’s Hard Lemonade. The unfuckable faces. Cigar smoke. The ones watching as I danced on bars, fatherless and always looking for something. The Bermuda shorts. The men who didn’t call me. The men who called too much. There’s his fucking face again. The food trucks. Opium at frat parties. Special K with a dude in my dorm who I thought was gay. A first date at the Korova Milk Bar, my nipple tweaked as I drank a white Russian. The man in Puerto Rico.
“Shut Up and Dance” came on. I fucking love that song. There was his face again. His fuck o’clock shadow. His hands that had been inside me. Ripping. His eyes, small, and the big tits on this other woman he’s looking at. Someone grabbed me by my arm. I thought it was him. Even though I was looking at his face I was imagining his arms winding around me. Imagining he had come to say, I know what you’re doing. You didn’t respect the code. There is a fucking code. You were supposed to be cool. You said you were cool. You told us all you were cool. In Puerto Rico you were cool; in New Jersey you were cool. Your parents are dead, but I am still alive. I know you. I see you. You might never have children.
It was my husband grabbing my arm. “Come on,” he said, “let it go.” What the fuck was I looking for?
And I realized. Not to be fucking dramatic, because that’s not cool. But what I was looking for was me, who I am now, who I still really am not, after writing a book about women, after listening to them tell me about the wounds they suffered, the same ones I have suffered. I’m looking for who I want my daughter to be. Not a fucking cool girl. Not a stroker of egos. Not a woman who talks to strangers on trains and planes and on ginger beaches when she wants to read or sleep or cry. I haven’t come here to destroy this man’s life but to—oh, God help me for saying it like this—save mine.
I smiled at my doctor. I blinked both my eyes like the student in the classroom who is in love with Indiana Jones. He smiled back. He looked like he recognized me. The peacock with a vagina on his operating table. Perhaps he did. My husband’s hand on my arm. Pulling me. I winked at my doctor again. I licked my lips. He kept smiling. Then I gritted my teeth like a fucking psycho. Like a cat about to hiss, the way I hiss at my daughter when she’s being a dick, the way she hisses back at me because she is.
He looked shocked. I smiled again. My husband pulled me toward the exit. I think he was scared, as finally I was not. On the way out was a table stacked with giant wiener schnitzels. Sick of chili, I took one from a hot brunette and ate it like an animal, in front of whichever dogs were watching. We walked to the muddy field and got into the car and I went home to my kid.
Editor’s note: Some names, locations and details have been changed for the sake of anonymity.