The Grindstone



Neighborhood: Fort Greene, SoHo

I was two weeks old the night we met in SoHo and you showed me how the world works. Back then, I still couldn’t sleep through the night. I’d lie face-up on the bed I’d bought from the last roommate, listening to the traffic on the BQE a block away. The cars whooshed all night and it sounded like the ocean, though it wasn’t scary like the ocean, it didn’t obliterate you—make you feel mortal—the way staring out to sea did. It made you feel a part of something.

You were a friend of a family friend, and you texted me, “Dinner, Tuesday, SoHo?” and I got ready in the rent-stabilized, Fort Greene apartment I shared, where I’d made my room a shrine to the city. I hung a torn-off New Yorker cover in a frame I found on the street, and built a shelf for my books—Another Country; Bright Lights, Big City; Sidewalk—that had the voices and the stories of New Yorkers. New Yorkers just like me.

It was hot that day. One of those days where you just have to let yourself sweat, let your thighs rub and your clothes stink, because the more you fight the worse it feels, so even when you walk over a subway grate and it punches you with steam you just keep breathing in and out, in and out.

I cleaned myself and put lipstick on my mouth, because you were older and because SoHo sounded glamorous. It wasn’t a woman’s lipstick, it wasn’t plum or wine, it didn’t say, fuck off. It was a girl’s lipstick, cerise or magenta or something like that, but it was the only one I had, besides a tinted Burt’s Bees chapstick. It had come free with the rosewater toner the woman in Sephora sold me to ward off wrinkles, when she said that twenty-five was actually quite old to start prevention. I painted my lips and shook down all that hair I used to have, checking myself in the over-the-door Ikea mirror I’d brought down from Boston.

I walked to you that evening, walked over the Brooklyn Bridge. I was walking everywhere then, eager to please my Fitbit and so desperate to see the city, see it all and be everywhere, that I couldn’t wear headphones in case I missed something. I let people knock into me as we all moved above the river, and I leered at the city as she spread herself out before me, lusty and hot.

In SoHo, there were cobblestones and wrought-iron fire escapes and ground-floor galleries, and I wished I had worn a fancier shirt, or at least some jewelry. Inside, you were seated and I found you and you smiled at me, smiled in a way I was used to, like you knew I was off limits but you were still happy to look, and your gaze snaked over my shoulders and chest as I sat down and let you stare at me.

You were kind of good looking, too, in that way older men get to be, when their age reads as distinction. You wore a shirt with pink pinstripes, which said you had money, or some other status that made you feel secure.

We made small talk about the Brooklyn Bridge, and you told me about this architect you knew, “a famous architect,” you said. “You haven’t seen his TED talk? He does amazing things with concrete.” I blinked and smiled and thought about what to say. But you spoke, instead.

“So,” you purred. “You’re new.”

“I am. Brand new,” I said. Two weeks old, and I knew three people in the city, including my roommate who shared the apartment with bars on the windows that cost double the $650 rent of my last place up in Boston, though at least here the whole place didn’t tilt left. The second was his girlfriend, and the third was a friend from Boston who’d been here a year. I didn’t know any real adults. I didn’t know how to be, yet. I just knew that the city had cracked open my chest and was pouring itself into me, filling me with a ragged kind of need, one I couldn’t place, or meet. I wanted everything.

You ordered food for both of us, which felt charming and adult, sort of anachronistic and out-of-a-movie, and I was grateful because I didn’t understand a lot of the things on the menu, and also because I couldn’t really afford to eat there and you ordering meant you were paying. You got salami, chorizo, meatballs and gouda, though I had said I was a vegetarian. I chewed the two olives that came in my drink really slowly and thought about the twelve thousand steps I’d already done, and how at least my jeans would be looser in the morning.

It felt comfortable being with you, a stranger, and I guess you cracked a joke, because I remember that I laughed, and you said, “If people find me funny, we’re going to be friends,” so I knew to keep laughing. But then you touched my hand when you said funny things, so I held my drink close so you would have to reach over the table to touch me. You sat back in your chair, body lengthened and opened. You belonged here, I could tell.

I noticed all these young women around us, tall and thin and out with men twice their age—big, fat men, with patchy hair and authority. Did people think I was out with you like that? I wasn’t tall or thin but I was young and that seemed to count for something. The women were wearing high heels and I worried about them because my flat sandals had already blistered my toes. Did their feet hurt?

“How’re you liking the city?” you asked, one arm thrown over the seat next to you.

I thought of what my roommate had said when he’d taken me for brunch at the place with almond milk and sourdough, the place between the empty lot and the check-cashing store. Ben said he was eyeing his exit, because, “New York can grind you down into a fine dust.” I couldn’t imagine feeling that way. I had never not wanted to live here, and I felt like if the city wanted to grind me down, I would let it. I felt alive in New York, like I was part of something eternal, something that couldn’t die. Still, I sort of knew what he meant. I thought of the shovers and the jostlers, the caricaturists and women selling mangoes in ziplock bags. I thought of the underground supplicants: boys hanging from subway poles, kids hawking candy bars car-to-car.

I told you the line about being ground down because I thought it was clever, and I thought it showed I knew what I was getting into, that I wasn’t just every other twenty-something newbie, running and searching and blind.

“Well,” you winked. “It depends on your interaction with the grindstone. If you go against it, sure, it can grind you down. But, if you hop on it and ride it around…” You smirked and cocked your head. I understood that you were riding around the grindstone.

I wondered if I would end up like Ben or like you. I wondered how to end up like you.

You were in commercial real estate. So was Ben, actually. But it wasn’t the same. Ben worked for a start-up in a co-working space out in that west-Manhattan wasteland, and you worked with “a tycoon,” a billionaire, “with a b,” you said. You’d been with him a long time. “When he farmed it out to a brokerage, I followed the portfolio,” you told me. I didn’t know what that meant, so I looked down and nibbled a piece of cheese.

You’d flown in his chartered jet, his chauffeured Maybach. “You can’t imagine what that’s like,” you said.

I tried to. I imagined there were women in the car—quiet, beautiful women with long smooth legs crossed at the knee, like the ones around us.

Were they riding the grindstone, too? Where had they come from?

The girl nearest me had on a blue dress, the blue they call royal blue, and she smiled blandly at the man across from her, who had his top three shirt buttons undone and a pink, doming head ringed with gray. Did she have a broken home and daddy issues? Did she plan to act or sing or make it here? Was she a straight-laced and middle-class girl who’d hadn’t planned for the speed and the stone of the city?

“I have an excellent eye,” I heard you say. “Superb aesthetics.” Suddenly, I saw myself in your Upper East Side apartment—I saw marble, steel splash backs, a rain shower, a big window I was pressed up against. I bet your apartment didn’t smell of smoke or have bars on the glass. I bet your furniture wasn’t from Craigslist or the sidewalk. I stared at your face as you spoke. Maybe I even leaned in a little.

I didn’t interrupt you, so you kept talking, kept telling me about how you moved in “certain circles,” and then you used the word “elite.” I pictured you at parties, and saw myself there, too, wearing shoes like the women across from us, maybe picking up small bites from butlered trays, not counting quarters in the bodega for noodles to cook in my scratched-up wok. You told me you’d met movie stars—that’s what you said, “movie stars”—and they had “something special deep inside them.”

I looked at you.

“Yes,” you said. I think you thought I was impressed. “I know people who know movie stars very well.”

You looked at my neck, my chest, and my face. It felt like you were offering me something.

When I didn’t speak, you asked me what I did for work, and although it’s easy to talk to men like you, it’s hard to be heard, so I gave you the one-sentence, self-deprecating version in which graduate school was at best an accident, at worst, a mistake. When you heard Harvard, you said you’d turned down a place at Yale, and I nodded and picked at another piece of cheese.

“Getting old sucks,” you said, all of a sudden. “Billionaires would give it all up to be twenty again. Money doesn’t matter, only time.” You looked at me with a longing, a longing for I don’t know what.

Right then I realized I had something, something of interest to you and people like you, something that—if you couldn’t have for yourself—you wanted by your side. I’d never known that before. This something seemed tradable, and I pictured menus, hotel robes, jewelry boxes, cab doors held open. I saw how the women around us spoke up sometimes and then sat quiet, and I thought I could do that, I could play that part well, and I straightened my back and crossed my legs. I knew I would have to learn, like they had, I’d have to get thinner, practice curling my hair. But older men had always seemed to like me, like that lawyer that spanked my butt in the lunch line when I was a sixteen-year-old work-experience kid, or the deputy headteacher of my high school who consoled me at our graduation dance, when the guy I liked made out with my friend, by saying, “Any man who isn’t charmed by you is clearly a faggot.” I shrunk back from the lawyer and the teacher like a shy crab. But there was another way, I realized, looking at the women and at you.

This was something I had never considered. This was a New York I had never considered. Maybe this was New York. All hustle, all take. This city that could be bought and sold. This city that ground you into dust unless you had a way out, a way up—a man reaching down and pulling you to safety.

I glanced at the women, women that I had judged, written off, but that I now saw were being paid for and catered to. I looked at their decorated hands, the condensation on their flutes. They had worked out how to be. They were New Yorkers. They weren’t sleeping in coats instead of paying for heat, they weren’t eating leftovers.

Did it feel nice, being shown off? Did they feel trapped behind their smiles, were they choking down words? Would I like a possessive palm on my lower back, nudging me around the party? Could I hold a man to me, let him take without giving, and find pleasure in pleasing and from nice shoes and meals and views from a high-up home?

The girl in the blue dress had tumbling brown curls, and the type of make-up that looks like you’re wearing none at all, that you’re just radiant and ready and soft. She fiddled with her gold pendant, and all the time she spent looking over her date’s shoulder like her future was waiting made the two of them seem familiar, bored even, like all the hope that had fired them up had burned off, and left only a charred dependence. I imagined her getting ready, trying a black dress (too drab), or red (too bold), and feeling that everything was too tight or too short and that maybe she should just stay in. I saw her darting in and out of a closet, a walk-in, as the pink-headed man lay shirtless in bed scrolling the Wall Street Journal on his iPad. I imagined she’d peer at him with those brown eyes, and say, “How’s this?” and he’d say, “You look great,” but he wouldn’t really look, and she’d feel tense until the third drink, or the fourth, when she got heavy and loose and all around her New York fizzed with magic and promise and she knew she was where she was supposed to be. At that moment, she wouldn’t care that his touch wasn’t tender, that he didn’t know her best friend’s name, that he never laughed at her jokes, only smiled, that he didn’t know she’d hated swimming since that trip to the lake when she was twelve. It wouldn’t matter that he was leaving town for another week and had given her a few hundreds instead of an explanation. At that moment, everything would be just right.

I prickled with intrigue for a minute—a long minute that felt like falling— and then something about your grin slammed me down into my real life. I couldn’t do it, didn’t want it, didn’t want you or someone like you, and when I mumbled a bad segue to my boyfriend, the boyfriend I knew I should have mentioned earlier, you blinked only a little too hard.

Then your phone buzzed, and you said, “Excuse me, it’s this girl. She’s a bit younger than you. She watches my cats when I’m in the Hamptons.”

“I love cats,” I said, feeling like I ought to smile a lot.

“Not all chicks dig dudes with cats,” you said, and you winced when you said the word “chicks,” but then you had to say it again so it didn’t seem like you’d made a mistake. “Some chicks just don’t,” you said.

Then you told me about a girl you’d fucked at your place who was allergic to cats. Her face had swelled up so much she couldn’t see. I couldn’t tell if you meant it as a funny story.

When the waitress brought the check, you tossed down your fancy card. I said, “Thank you,” and you said, “Yup.”

We walked out into the night—one of those New York nights where you can’t even feel the air on your skin, it must be the same temperature as blood. It still felt awkward, like a little rupture, so when I looked to the right and saw the new World Trade Center gleaming downtown, I said I liked the building.

You told me your 9/11 story, said how it smelled like war, how you’d been to “the pile,” and I was glad that you were talking again. “The strangest thing,” you said, “was seeing no planes that whole week. In New York, you never look up and see no planes. See?”

Above us, there were no planes, and you scowled at the sky for proving you wrong.

Then I saw a red twinkle. “There’s one!” I said, and I saved you from your tiny shame and you looked down at me and smiled.

Your Uber arrived to take you back to the Upper East Side, and you kissed my cheek, a palm on my lower back, which made me embarrassed because I was sure my shirt was damp from the leather chair.

Back inside, the girl in the blue dress refilled her glass and re-crossed her legs. Where would she go, after this?

You veered off over the cobblestones, and I walked home alone over the Brooklyn Bridge, that blood-hot air on my arms.


Jasmin Sandelson is a writer and PhD student. She lives in Brooklyn with her partner and their Pomeranian.




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§ 2 Responses to “The Grindstone”

  • Tsb says:

    Favorite line among many: “I was walking everywhere then, eager to please my Fitbit and so desperate to see the city, see it all and be everywhere, that I couldn’t wear headphones in case I missed something.”

    Also, re: “You were a friend of a family friend…” This casts the girl who was allergic to cats story in a very dark light.

    Also: This reminded me of Mary McCarthy‘s story “A genial host.” And I love that story.

  • Ann White says:

    Superb. A true account of reality.

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