‘Upside Down’ is my first time publishing anything even remotely fictional. It had to be fictional, because I was grappling with a situation that consumed me for five months, though it only truly consisted of approximately ninety minutes of interaction. The premise of the story, the skeleton on which it’s strung, is fiction. That part was actually written in a frenzy, one afternoon a week before Edmund returned to the States. I was terrified that he wouldn’t call me, and to quiet my anxiety, I wrote a three-page fantasy in an attempt to visualize/manifest my desired outcome.
That attempt to bait the cosmos into completing my bidding failed. However, I had requested that if this thing wasn’t going to happen, he provide me with notification. I knew I would continue hoping indefinitely otherwise; no such luck. Well, it wasn’t so blasé, I was actually filled with bloodlust at the ignorance at what I saw as a simple request for solace. So, the organs of this story, the contemplations I delve into throughout this moment, are all completely genuine. 88% of the remarks made by Edmund are real as well, I bet you can pick them out.
This story runs counter to many of my beliefs. I don’t like to report on my life in real time and I don’t like to show people when they’ve hurt me. But at this juncture in my life, 24-years-old, 15-months sober, 6 years living in New York City and 1.5 years into my writing career, I want to stand up for myself. I’m not a toy, an ego boost, or an idea; no girl is.
It was four days since Edmund’s purported return and I still hadn’t heard from him, despite his promise to call when he got back. He’d told me he would decide about the fate of our relationship during his work trip abroad. My phone sat silent, mocking. Lock, unlock. Lock, unlock. “Your screen time is up 23% compared to last week,” the notification said. “Thanks,” I sighed.
I am not built to hold my feelings in. The waiting was a sickness. Where was he? Had he changed his mind, determined to stay faithful to his wife and family?
I awoke the next morning to the sound of ‘Upside Down’ by Diana Ross, the ringtone I’d set especially for Ed in anticipation of his call. It was the first time my phone had ever rang with that song, and, adrenaline racing, I forced myself to hold off answering, to savor it. It might be the only time I’d hear the ringtone, depending on how this conversation went, and I wanted to get my $1.29 cents’ worth. Eventually, I swallowed hard and slid to answer. “Good morning,” I intoned, dusting the sleep off my voice, leaving a measured huskiness around it.
“Good morning, how are you?” Ed’s metallic voice chirped in reply. “I got you something while I was gone and I need to see you right now. What’re you doing?”
Avoiding the urge to stammer, I invited him over, providing my address. Those sentences required every ounce of breath that remained in my diaphragm. “I’ll meet you downstairs,” I managed to spit out afterwards.
I rinsed and lotioned my body, tousled my hair, drew on some eyebrows and applied a dark pink lip balm before heading down to buzz him in. Sipping a tea in soft brown pants and a white satin tank top, I commended myself for assembling the perfect costume of practiced indifference.
My heart hit the floor as Ed jaunted towards the front door, that same gawky walk of his whose rhythm I’d memorized from our first encounter. 72 years old, dressed business casual, he looked out of place in Williamsburg. I let him in and swiftly signaled the elevator that would take us directly to my bedroom, still prepared for the soul-crushing end, or the grey ennui of friendship.
As the door slid shut, Ed wordlessly gathered my dewy face in his hands. All at once, as if the dragging weeks had never elapsed, his mouth was on mine, his breath overtaking the dilapidated shaft’s heavy musk. As if I had never doubted it, I thrashed with passion in non-cardinal directions, my hands in his hair, his coat pockets, anywhere they could attach themselves to HIM. My hands grabbed more than they could hold, obsessed with the sensation of having, having been denied so long.
The second space found its way between us, I watched Ed’s dark eyes dart towards the camera in my elevator’s corner.
“Don’t worry, it tapes over every twenty-four hours, if it’s even taping at all,” I assured him.
We stepped into my bedroom. I hadn’t even had a chance to ask him if he’d ever been to Brooklyn. The answer was hard to gauge from his face, intently studying the contradictions condensed before him; my chimerous volumes of novels, my boxes of designer perfume and jewelry, the Popova paintings and graffiti sketches populating my walls, all together a cacophony painstakingly organized into one ramshackle converted warehouse bedroom, itself a jumble of exposed bricks, pipes, and planks nailed together, doused in the glow of two candles and one Himalayan pink salt lamp.
It was dreamlike, watching this well-worn Upper East Side man sit on my unkempt bed in his pressed slacks. The room’s lack of windows left it in a state of perpetual evening, nullifying the passage of time, leaving this particular moment shrouded in rosy obscurity.
I studied Ed studying me through my belongings. A week ago I’d rang one friend in a panic from this very bed. “Do you think he’s going to call?” I’d interrogated, as if she’d know. She’d never met him. But I needed someone, anyone to quell my quaking mind, wild-eyed over a potential reversal in Ed’s commitment.
My friend was more interested in the problem’s roots. “I think…” she exhaled, “you need to unpack your obsession with this man.”
‘Hah, unpack,’ I thought to myself. If the reasons predicating my attraction to baby boomers could fit inside a box, my inner domicile was decorated with that box’s contents. I’d analyzed this reality from every angle, and my complex theories were too difficult to explain. Instead, I replied with a contemplative “hmm.”
She pressed further. “Is it your father? Tell me about your daddy issues.”
‘Hah, daddy issues,’ I thought again. Of course I had daddy issues, who doesn’t? No one’s parents love them correctly, that’s why humanity universally commiserates over it. My father did me the service of teaching me early on that I’m inherently annoying. I say service, because that lesson, once internalized to the point that I resolved to work around it, gave me every ounce of charm I command today. When I came to believe I was extraneous, unnecessary, in the way, I committed to proving my worth. I learned to achieve. The “charisma” that’s served me through my first two decades of life doesn’t stem from some internal light, it stems from my razor precision in understanding how to stay out of the way. For that, I am grateful to my father.
Reclining with one leg crossed over his knee in the office where I worked, Ed had once told me about his daughter, the adventures and fond memories they’d shared. This was one of our first encounters, only shortly after I’d realized my devotion to him. I thought it was strange that he shared those stories with me, but they didn’t arouse envy. I wasn’t looking for a father figure. My longing married complicated desires with countless tributaries.
Watching Ed take in my bedroom constituted one. Here was an old money Manhattanite who’d been assured everything by birth, by mere circumstance, a lucky draw of the cosmic possibilities, forced to grapple with the mundane realities of a 24 year old aspiring writer scrounging a living in Brooklyn. On the same visit he’d told me about his daughter, Ed had later remarked, “you know, my father lived on the edge of society too.”
Too? Too who? Was he talking about me?
“I don’t live on the edge of society,” I’d laughed. “We are at my 9-5 job right now.”
The remark solidified my unspoken beliefs about rich men and their attitudes towards me. I wasn’t a person, I was an idea. Logically, Ed should have known that I have to pay electric bills and student loans, that I have to eat breakfast and take baths just to keep the sustenance job he’d met me through. His notion of me wasn’t based on logic. It was based on the thrill of bantering with the underlings, maybe some unsatisfied desire he had for a struggle of his own in the face of a life defined by ease.
“Keep writing,” he’d said to me on the phone once. “You’re talented. I would know, I hang out with a lot of writers.” I stayed silent on my end of the line, seething at this perceived condescension from a man who’d never published one word himself. I wasn’t worried about my talent, I worried if I had the strength to continue living this patchwork fast-paced life.
It took me four months to arrange all my earthly affects into seventy square feet. I wanted him to stare that reality in its face. I wanted him to see my clothes on their hangers and understand that I don’t drop from the sky in an ensemble, that I have to finger through fabrics to put together my outfits. I wanted Ed to get that I am a person.
Furthermore, I wanted him to understand that despite the fact that society said he was more important than me, what with his town cars and Rolex watches, that my life was forged of saline, sweat and tears, and therefore truly more worthwhile.
“And then what?” I’d thought to myself in the months leading to this precise moment. It was the question that dogged everything. My life’s goal was to write a book, get famous, get rich, and buy a beach house. “And then what?” a voice sometimes inquired, before I shut it back in a hole, because the implication was “and then nothing.” The persistent meaninglessness of life would not budge. In the months prior to this surprise morning with him I fantasized, “Ed proclaims undying love, comes to my house, lays me on the bed, bows down to my superiority… and then what?”
And then… I don’t know. It was the greatest gap in my life. Finally laying claim to my desires would be nice in its own right, book deals and beach houses are nice things. However, striving for them served the greater purpose of “proving” – proving to my parents that my aspirations had never been pipe dreams, proving to my middle school bullies that they’d never actually hurt me, proving to the college classmates who’d laughed at my alcoholism that I was better than them all along. My greatest fear, even greater than the fear that I may never achieve those book slash beach house benchmarks, was the crippling terror at what I’d be left with if I absolved myself of this incessant proving. What vacuous personality would I be forced to face?
And then what. I didn’t want Ed to leave his wife. Rationally, I knew our relationship would max out at two months.Beyond the driving forces behind this attraction that I could pinpoint, there was a nameless need for him that overpowered all reason, and I held the desperate hope it could momentarily blot out that human condition.
Still cautious to give myself over, I asked Ed, “would you like some tea,” and when he shook his head ‘no,’ I sat down on the bed an said, “have you reached a decision then?”
I knew I should have asked about the trip, his daughter, hell, even the present he’d bought me. But until I heard his piece on this one crucial matter, all of it would be futile to discuss, bastardized by superficiality. And I knew as clearly as I knew he’d altered the course of my life, that I could never be superficial with him again. So I let my true colors show and acted only in self-interest.
“Not really,” he began, “but I can’t stop thinking about you. So it seems the decision has been made for me.”
His gaze rested on his hands, folded in his lap while he awaited my reply. I could see in those eyes that even privilege hadn’t protected Ed from pain. He had tragedy and loss behind him, though his smile made valiant efforts to hide it. I loved the shape of his mouth, the lines that echoed around it resounding from years of worry. In spite of the weariness he wore on his face, there was an intoxicating lightness about him. He felt bird-boned and delicate, barely strung together. I’d watched his waist hungrily at every available opportunity and decided that if his belt was buckled even one notch looser, his pants would slide of those narrow hips. But this lightness was not just physical, it came from the spirit. When he smiled, his face was a blush brought to life. It retracted inward, ever so slightly, into shyness.
Though I wanted to consider myself a cold-blooded predator, my warmth forever betrayed me. I surrounded myself with broken people and sympathized with their plight, because underneath it all, I was scared to the skeleton myself. Nothing could convince me that I’d ever be enough. I felt for the world’s bereft souls, and yearned to fix them. By proxy, it would imply that I might someday fix myself. When Ed’s lines blurred around the edges at some sweet remark I’d made, I felt maybe reality’s evils weren’t so daunting.
I considered all this before speaking. The potent cocktail of anger, tenderness, and fear gave me double vision.
“At this point, I’m tired,” I said simply, my voice gaining strength. “I’m tired of longing, of worrying that you’ll change your mind. I need to know you’re committed to this.”
Staying sober through my breakup with the love I’d left for Ed, the web of lies I’d spun in its wake, the entire month-long period of waiting had been the most harrowing experience of my life; I’d found out what it meant to truly go insane. It had all been for him, for this, and this situation was so fragile, just a baby butterfly exiting its cocoon for the first time, spreading its rice paper wings, that I didn’t dare let on about all that, lest I send it spiraling towards a fatal fall flat on its face.
Ed pulled a delicately wrapped parcel from his jacket pocket and presented it to me. Inside, was the most stunning hunk of Almandine garnet I’d ever held in my life, radiating clarity. The semi-precious stone, shining in my favorite color, a deep red, symbolized the bloodshed behind me and the passion ahead. Before I could stop myself, I sat up to take his mouth in mine. My rage and my longing coalesced into everything I kissed him with. And on what I now know was his first visit to Williamsburg, we made love for the first, second, and third time, joy and sorrow rolling in and out like tides upon the coast, forces once at odds synchronized in harmony.
Vittoria Benzine is a street art journalist and personal essayist based in Brooklyn, New York. Her affinity for counterculture and questioning has introduced her to exceptional artists and morally ambiguous characters alike. She values writing as a method of processing the world’s complexity.