Living with Nicola’s Single Life



Avenue A & E 4th St, NY, NY 10009

Neighborhood: East Village

Nicola is a lively twenty-year-old girl of Thai and Italian descent, born and raised on the Upper East Side. She has been my roommate on East 4th Street for four months, since I answered her apartment ad on Craigslist, and she works as a cocktail waitress at Thor—a fashionable nightclub in the Lower East Side—until 4:00 a.m. most nights. The sound of her returning late from her shift in high heels tends to wake me up, as our place is really small, and so most of our conversations happen around dawn. We have yet to see one another outside of the apartment.

Nicola is usually drunk when she comes home. After asking me about my day, she typically walks into the bathroom, shuts the door, and turns on the fan. If at this point I stop telling her about my day, she will sing through the door “I’m lis-ten-ing.” After which she comes out and tells me about her day.

“Man,” she said recently, pouring white wine into one of our tall plastic Sopranos cups, “what a shitty night. It’s like, after two mojitos I knew I should have gone home, but Nick was like, ‘Why don’t you guys come to Cipriani?’ and we were like, “Uh…sure!’ and we went, and I got plastered, and now I’m not gonna get up until four tomorrow. Fuck!”

At seventeen Nicola dropped out of LaGuardia High, the prestigious performing arts school, whereupon she began to work in bars around the city while taking classes in film production at New York University, which she still attends part-time. She is full of energy and career ambition, but finds it hard to stay at home and study, as she is extremely popular and in constant demand at brunches, dinners, movie premieres, record release parties, concerts and clubs. She and her friends tend to climb things when intoxicated and not working—mostly bar stools and bars themselves, but also streetlamps, the hoods of cabs, community garden fences, and trees. Men take notice of her when she is out, partly because of these public displays, but also because she is a dark-eyed girl with long legs, swaying hips and a wry, flirtatious smile. A lot of her time is spent turning men down.

“Axl Rose hit on me tonight,” she said one time. “Who is he exactly?”

I told her, realizing that Guns n’ Roses were at their peak when Nicola was only four.

“No shit,” she said. “He was such an arrogant prick. And this basketball player Kobe Bryant was trying to buy me drinks all night, even though I was working. Guys can be such assholes. Seriously. Like the other night, this guy was drunk and hitting on me, and he’d just been married that day. His bride was on the other side of the room with her girls, all wasted, and he’s saying he wants to sleep with me. That really hurt my feelings, you know? He kept being like, ‘You see that hot blonde over there? That’s my wife.’ And then he’d try to touch my chest. I was like, ‘Ugh!’ ”

Her encounters with interested men are not limited to bars, however.

“This boy in my class named Fred asked me for my number this afternoon,” she said another night. “I mean, how cute would I be if I dated a boy named Fred? But I wasn’t into it, so told him I lost my phone. I’m like, ‘Yeah, I was really drunk, it’s been this total fiasco. I don’t know where my phone is.’ And just then—swear to God—my phone rings in my bag. This poor guy Fred’s like, ‘Was that your phone?’ and I’m like, ‘No. See ya later!’ I felt like diving into a cab.”

She took a long sip of wine. “And did I tell you my New Wave Film teacher asked me out last week? He did. I turned him down. It was so awkward. You can just feel it when they’re about ask you out. Their eyes sort of change, and their mouth gets all weird and tight? It’s pretty awful.”

Nicola wears mostly small and revealing clothing when she goes out, which, she knows, invites the advances of certain men. If she dislikes being approached all the time, I wondered, why doesn’t she wear more clothes?

“First of all,” she said, crossing her legs on one of our red wooden bar stools, “guys will hit on you when you’re in sweatpants and a sweatshirt, so that’s not really the issue. And at work they make us wear these little miniskirts.” She jumped off the stool and jokingly modeled the skirt, putting one leg forward and a hand on her hip. “But you’re right, I do kind of ask for it. And I don’t know, but the whole thing is kind of like…revenge? Revenge for all the inappropriate shit guys do? It can be really funny, you know? To see these cocky, arrogant dudes get all shy and retarded trying to ask you out. It’s like this guy Hans, okay. He’s got this big contract with Dolce and Gabbana. He’s on this billboard on Broadway on a boat in little shorts, with his head titled back like this.” She showed how, elegantly stretching her throat.

“He’s really proud of himself, right? But he asks me out the other day and suddenly he’s all timid and afraid, like, his self-esteem just disintegrated. It’s like sweet revenge. And yeah, all that attention is kind of shamelessly flattering. One thing that girls do that you should know about is this: we’ll get dressed up to go somewhere to see someone so we can ignore him. Guys get obsessed that way. It’s tragic, but it’s the way we are.”

Nicola uses this word “tragic” a lot. She pronounces it in a tired, theatrical, self-mocking way, while sort of rolling her eyes and shaking her head. It’s as if she were saying: “My life is tragic, but not really.”

One tragic thing she does is to cry in the shower, which she has been doing for years. As a teenager she did it after fights with her parents—which were frequent—and now she does it for more complicated reasons, but especially after breaking up with boys. “When you moved in I was crying in the shower every day,” she said recently. “I’d just broken up with Alex [her thirty-year-old ex-boyfriend, an alcoholic painter] and I was spending hours crying in the shower, like sitting down in the tub, shaving my legs, totally multi-tasking. It got to the point where it was the only place I’d let myself cry. I was always running into the shower.”

I asked why the shower.

“You know,” she said, frustrated that I didn’t understand. “The water? Mixing with the tears? Cleansing your face of the crying look as you’re crying, so you don’t look like you’ve been crying?”

Another example of this tragic idea surrounds the issue of sleep. She has always had trouble sleeping, and can be heard heating tea in the microwave or pacing the floor of our apartment until eight or nine in the morning, unless she takes sleeping pills. Lunesta is her brand, and she calls the individual pills “Loonies,” as in: “I took three Loonies last night and passed out on the floor,” or, “I think I’m building up a tolerance to Loonies.” She is unashamed of what may be an addiction to these pills, and seems to relish their association with things tragic, like Marilyn Monroe’s death. But when they really take effect and put her down for twelve to fourteen hours, she gets upset. Upon waking at four or five p.m., cranky, squinting and wrapped in a bed-sheet, she’ll ask: “When did you wake up this morning?” After I tell her, she quickly computes the difference in her head. “God damnit! I’m sleeping my fucking life away!” she says, and then slams her bedroom door.

Time spent oversleeping causes Nicola no end of guilt, as she is determined to be a success in the film industry. To make up for these lost hours, she often—in the manic period after waking—undertakes small- and large-scale apartment projects, such as: learning to caramelize carrots in a skillet; painting the walls a different shade of lime green; doing the dishes; making a collage of magazine photos, postcards, famous quotes, and poetry magnets on the back of the front door; installing a new dead-bolt lock; or alphabetizing her CDs. Many of these projects go awry or remain uncompleted, which frustrates her further, to the point where she often needs a drink to settle down.

A more recent project of hers concerned my own head of hair. “Your hair is too long, dude,” she said, sucking her teeth. “You’ve got kind of a bob going on in the back.” Using a hand mirror, she showed me what she meant, and she was right.

Immediately, she set to work de-bobbing me with a pair of our stainless steel kitchen shears. During the cutting, she said excitedly: “I almost can’t believe what a good job I’m doing. You are so lucky I’m cutting your hair right now!”

But she got carried away. Afterwards, I saw that she’d only managed to raise the bob, rather than eliminate it, so that I looked a bit like a fashionable French girl. “Whatever,” she said, weary from the effort. “It’s only hair. It’ll grow back.”

Haircuts are strangely intimate things. While Nicola was giving me one, she touched my neck, ears, chin, lips, nose, eyelids, and forehead at different times. She repeatedly ran her fingers through my hair, like a real stylist, while pressing her warm thighs and waist against my back as I sat there, perched on the edge of our bathtub. I’ve wondered since at the nature of our relationship. Nicola has an older sister, and I a younger brother, so there is no obvious sibling model. The subtle attempts I’ve made to subvert her into a younger sister role have all been rejected, just as I’ve denied her attempts to boss me around, the way an older sister might feel entitled to. Occasionally she has tried to “mother” me, but I’m five years older than her and it hasn’t worked. Further complexity lies in the fact that she is basically my landlord; her parents own the apartment, and I give her a rent and utilities check every month. And about a week ago she brought home a male classmate of hers to work on a screenplay, and introduced me as her “boyfriend” in case the guy tried to make a move. The next night she came home late and drunk, and joined me on the couch, where she held my hand and sobbed: “Do you understand that I am going to be single for the rest of my life?”

During the last four months, Nicola and I have made plans to do a number of things together. These include: shopping for clothes for me; walking across the Brooklyn Bridge really late at night; seeing the Whitney Biennial; hanging out with my handsome friend Casey; watching the Spiderman III; going to Scores Gentleman’s Club with her friend Chloe; and visiting the apartment building on Avenue B and 7th St. where a lot of fashion models live. We have done none of the above, but making plans to do them is comforting. It makes us feel close, like friends.

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