I had hundreds of nudes stored in my phone, but I’d never sent them to anyone. The shots themselves were fairly standard: my faceless body floating in bedrooms and bathrooms, in mirrors. Whenever I took one I fell in love with it for a moment. Standing there, naked and hunched over my little screen, I felt overwhelmed with the urge to show someone this new iteration of my body. But each photo seemed more private and impossible than the last.
You could see in them something beyond desire, harder and more humiliating. While I was brushing my teeth or stepping out of the shower I would see my own body and find myself overwhelmed with a sense of urgency and disuse. My body was crying out that I was not fulfilling my purpose. I was meant to have sex – probably with some wild number of people. Maybe it was more savage than that, that I was meant not to fuck but to get fucked. The purpose of my life at large remained mysterious, but I had come around to the idea that my purpose as a body was simple.
I was too fearful of the world to go out and get fucked, too plagued by hang-ups, memories of shitty girlfriends, fears of violence. Instead I took photos. In the photos my body looked stunning, unblemished, often arched as though trying to escape the top of the frame. I was like a spinster full of anxieties and repressions, charged with chaperoning a young girl who could not fathom the injustice of the arrangement.
One night when I was feeling exceptionally beautiful and isolated I decided to start sharing the nudes online. I used a website that anonymized usernames and disguised IP addresses, and I put up three photos with no accompanying text.
I was on my girlfriend’s toilet, the next morning, when Olivia messaged me. My post had accumulated more responses than I could possibly read. Perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that none of the lewdness, the appreciation, not even the occasional brutality of these comments satisfied me. The anonymity of the photos felt cowardly, the distance of the viewers so great as to make their sentiments meaningless. The only part that thrilled me was repeatedly refreshing the page to see the photos reconstitute themselves again and again, not in a private folder on my phone but in a shared white room accessible from all corners of the world.
I was guilty of some trespass against my girlfriend, Romi – that was clear from the fact that I was refreshing the page while hiding in her bathroom. Romi’s drugstore-brand cleanser was perched on the sink. Her clean hospital scrubs hung on the back of the door like a poor drawing of a person. But, I reasoned, looking down at my phone, the photos had nothing to do with her. It was only my body that appeared in them, and my body didn’t belong to her.
What would Romi do if I showed her the photos? She’d be a little sad, a little confused. What can I do? she would say, convinced that only some inadequacy of hers could leave me wanting the affirmation of strangers.
I assumed the vast majority of the responses were from men. Their comments were full of typos and references to their erections. I smiled, scrolled. When I refreshed again the message at the top was from a user called paintergirl1992. I read the words in the preview – Excuse me – and stifled a laugh.
Excuse me, the message read, I’m sorry to intrude! Your photos are very beautiful. Thank you for sharing. I would love to buy you a drink – are you in NY? Sorry to be so forward. I hope you have a lovely day – Olivia
olivia, I replied, where do you live in ny?
Baby? Romi said loudly from the hall. Are you okay in there?
I’m fine, I said.
Olivia was replying in real time.
Clinton Hill, Olivia wrote. BK! Are you in NY too?
Would you like to meet?
who are you
Olivia sent a link to a social media profile.
Do you want some coffee? Romi called through the door.
I opened Olivia’s profile. I didn’t know what to think. I put down my phone and yelled, Yes, over the flush of the toilet.
In college I had discovered a trick to enjoy parties: I would talk to couples, or to pairs who were sleeping together, about the moment in which one of them had seduced the other. How did you know? I would ask. I loved watching two people start to laugh over the presumptions they had made, the supreme moment when they realized their feeling was returned. A special look of conspiracy passed between them as they remembered that window of time before sex opened up, the unfolding of the harbored lusts and hopes – the clues, the mechanisms through which they had been discarded and then retrieved. Some people had long, dramatic stories that were designed, in their telling, either to disguise a moral failing or to test the morality of the listener. Other couples revealed that they had slept together within two hours of meeting. Partway through the conversation that look of conspiracy that had moved between them would fall back into each separate face as they remembered the isolation they had felt while they still lived in doubt. There was a portion of all this sweetness that was private, a consolation of a former alienated self.
I was thinking of this when I walked through Bed-Stuy to meet Olivia for the first time – the question of how I would know. Was it simply irrelevant, since we had expressed blunt interest in each other online? There had to be a physical exchange, a look of some kind to reassure us both that our tentative interest remained intact. It had been a couple of years since I had entertained a new flirtation.
When I arrived she was already at the bar, tucked into a corner table and apparently absorbed in a paperback, wearing a long skirt that tickled the floor. Her hair was a thick shroud. She ignored a glass of water.
I touched her shoulder before I sat down, and she started. She had beautiful skin brightened by mild freckles. Her nose was just slightly too wide, and it seemed to make the clouds of her hair appear uncontrolled rather than voluptuous. When she smiled I thought, with shame, of how my own nose threatened to spoil my looks. I was reasonably attractive, but – at least in clothes that hid my body – not strikingly so.
I searched for any sign of disappointment in her expression, but there was only an obliging look, as though she was sorry that she hadn’t seen me sooner.
Do you want anything? she said when I had seated myself across from her. A beer or something?
I’m sorry, Olivia said, I don’t even know your name. What’s your name?
She blushed violently, like a middle-school girl. This was not what I had expected from the person who responded to my pictures, and yet it filled me with a warm confidence – the anticipation that I might settle and subdue her, and that she would look up at me with gratitude.
Olivia, I said, I’m glad you messaged me. It was a surprise. But it’s nice to meet you.
Why did you pick my message? Olivia said. Or – I suppose you could have responded to plenty of the messages, excuse me.
Are you fishing for a compliment?
No, no, Olivia said, and she pulled the book halfway up toward her chest before catching herself and laying it back face down on the table.
Well, you can have one, I said. Your hair – it’s stunning. I noticed that right away on your profile.
All right, stop, please.
I liked your message too. So polite.
Oh, Olivia said. This time I did see disappointment cross her face – she was ashamed of being liked for her politeness.
What? You know it was polite. I liked that.
Good, she said, without conviction.
And I probably picked it because you’re a woman.
Her eyes swung toward the door. I wondered whether it hadn’t been a mistake to meet her – whether she was dangerous to me somehow, or even just a girl with little will of her own who had surprised herself by ending up here. I wasn’t interested in pure timidity. I had assumed from her message that she was concealing a little wildness.
Does that . . . bother you? I said.
That you preferred a woman’s message? Of course not.
What kind of women do you like? I said. You are interested in women, right?
Yes, she said.
Are you interested in me?
Olivia looked at her lap again. Yes, she said, with the affect of a girl admitting to a petty crime – depositing gum beneath a desk.
Are you? I said.
I didn’t mean to insult you, not at all, Olivia said. You’re very beautiful. All I mean is that I don’t know what I’m interested in – it’s all changed – I’m in a strange period of my life, she said suddenly, earnestly.
Okay, I said. What kind of strange period?
It’s hard to explain. I don’t really talk about it.
What were you interested in before?
I don’t know. Art, mostly.
But you’re not anymore?
Well, I’m a painter, Olivia said, with an embarrassed tilt of her head, as though she were shrugging off a petting hand. I felt oddly attracted to her tics – the way she disappeared herself beneath her hair, the small frenetic motions she made with her fingers against the spine of the book. Perhaps it was her anxiety I was attracted to – the way it forced me, by contrast, into an unusual ease and confidence.
So you were interested in painting before, I said, and now you’re interested in something else. Something sexual, I assume? Since you responded to my photos?
Olivia continued to toy with the book on the table. She shrugged.
What’s so strange about your life now?
After a long pause Olivia looked up at me with determined, steadied lips.
There’s a man that I’m sleeping with, she said. We liked your pictures, and we thought you might like to meet us. Together.
I was plunged back into that feeling I’d had when I walked out of the cafe the day before – the new sense of my life as a spectacle for some lukewarm viewer. There was nothing particularly shocking about Olivia’s suggestion. Women who dated other women were familiar with it, even tired of it. But, perhaps out of a desire for intrigue, I felt it as an exciting complication, a new thread to unwind. At the very least it was a confirmation that there was something going on beneath Olivia’s shy game. Something preexisting and potentially juicy, subject to its own rules.
Okay, I said. And what makes it strange?
I can’t explain. You have to meet him.
Why should I trust you? I mean, who is he?
You’ll have to meet him, Olivia said. You’ll like him.
Olivia, I said, if that’s your name, you sound like you’re recruiting me to some kind of cult, do you know that? Whereas I thought I was just on a date with a girl.
Olivia blushed again. There’s no cult, she said.
So why didn’t you message me together?
Ah. But you didn’t tell me that.
You said just now you preferred messages from women.
Well, why isn’t he here?
Our relationship is a bit complicated, Olivia said. We don’t go out together very much.
I can’t explain it all to you myself, Olivia said. But will you meet us? We’d both like to see you. This weekend.
Do you do this often?
Of course not. I’ve never done it before.
Never asked a woman to meet the two of you? Or never slept with a woman?
No, she said, avoiding my eyes still. No, I’ve been with a woman before. With women, I mean.
This guy could be anyone.
I know, Olivia said. She smiled finally. I’m not very good at pitching it, am I? Nathan is much better at it than I am. He would convince you in a minute.
How did he convince you?
Oh, no, he didn’t convince me, Olivia said. That’s a long story.
Well, are you doing anything tonight? Why don’t we order some drinks and you tell me the story?
No, I’m sorry. I should go soon. But you should come and meet him this weekend.
It’s you I wanted to meet. Besides, I don’t trust him.
You don’t have any reason to trust me either.
It’s true, I said. But I like the way you look. That has to be enough for the moment.
Don’t you have any curiosity?
Don’t you know men are dangerous?
Be serious, Olivia said gently. Don’t you like men, even a little?
You don’t have any intuition about men, do you, my roommate Fatima had said on one occasion when I went out with her to a straight bar and allowed men to buy me drinks. As though I were an exchange student on her home turf. Yes – the dynamics between men and women were strange. I felt myself trying them on, aware of all the places in which they were not made for me. I could see an inkling of fear in Fatima when I admitted this. I couldn’t call what I felt about men intuition. Most men seemed hardly to exist for me, except nebulously, as acquaintances or obstacles. And then, occasionally, in the presence of a man who exuded power, I would feel a kind of weightlessness; I could feel myself growing soft and dimpling amiably under even a light touch of his attention. This was a truth so inadmissible in my life that I insisted even to myself that it was not the case.
I don’t know, I said to Olivia. I’ve liked them a few times. But I’d rather not like them any more than I do. I’m not really looking to like them.
Why did you put your pictures up, if you didn’t want men to look at them?
I laughed to hide the pain of this observation. It wasn’t a man I agreed to meet, I said again.
No, Olivia said, but I don’t think you would mind. I actually think you’ll enjoy meeting him a lot.
I liked this too – Olivia’s conviction. For the first time she looked certain, or if not certain then at least superior. I was nearing the end of her interest. She was doing this as a favor to the man she mentioned more than out of any desire for me. If I refused her, she would leave only mildly disappointed, with the certainty that it was my loss rather than hers. She and I were in more of an argument than a flirtation, and there had not yet been a moment when I knew for sure that we would, at some point, fall into each other’s arms. But right then, glimpsing my own superfluousness, I knew I would try to seduce her.
So I won’t get to see you alone? I said. Not at all?
If you’d like to take us up on it, Olivia said, we’re free Saturday night. Uptown. I’ll text you.
She slipped her coat off the chair and began to gather her things. When she picked up the book I saw it was a fraying copy of Mansfield Park.
You’re leaving already? I said. That’s it?
She looked so ashamed that I immediately regretted having spoken. I was unused to being as delicate as she clearly needed me to be. I still felt affronted by the way the conversation had unfolded.
I’m sorry, she said again. I hope I see you this weekend?
She walked out with her head bowed, skirt drifting behind her.
Image © Maureen Barlin
This is an excerpt from Acts of Service by Lillian Fishman, published by Europa Editions in the UK and Hogarth in the US.