When he handed dirty underwear to me that sticky, Brooklyn spring morning – I was crouched naked next to his bed, fishing through my over-sized purse for concealer.
It was 8:26am, and down the street, the M train screeched to a stop at the Knickerbocker platform.
Shit, I mumbled – fumbling through makeup brushes. I’d be late for work.
We had slept for the equivalent of a nap the prior evening, having spent the dew hours on his apartment roof, watching the sunrise, blankets tucked around our naked bodies and a red wine bottle sloshing back and forth.
It felt like love – to watch a city wake up with one another. And New York has a tricky way of making you feel like every interaction is a story waiting to be told: every affair and sunrise – unique.
The bedroom window in his apartment was cracked open, filtering out the smell of our sex: the breeze blowing sheet music off his keyboard and onto the floor, scattering around us.
For the sake of his privacy, I will call him “W.”
I was tired; painfully hungover. The type that sits behind your eyes, leaves your mouth dry as you wake, and nestles into your temples.
But, I felt it was worth it. And I also thought better than to say that to him.
Why do we do this, I moaned instead, in a less-than-subtle desperation to see where he stood on the evening.
In my mind: I envisioned W sweeping me off my feet “because we’re falling in love, you beautiful, unique AND interesting woman.”
I watched him from his $10 Target wall mirror, his lean body as it shuffled, heavy-footed around the room, his flimsy grey comforter slipping down his back from his shoulders.
I don’t know, he muttered, back turned as he stood towards his closet. You don’t let me catch a break, girl.
My cheeks flushed.
A sex quip.
Not what I was going for – but okay, we got this.
I watched as he dragged his dirty laundry basket out of the closet.
People say, with such certainty, that you can see situations like mine coming – when someone doesn’t want you the way you want them – and that they make it obvious.
But the truth is, when you’re young, you don’t see for yourself yet; it’s just that everyone is busy seeing for you – and you ignore them.
I met W through mutual friends on a weekend camping trip in upstate New York. He was slim, tall, with long, confident blonde hair – and when he smiled, you noticed. When he spoke, you looked.
The first time I saw him, he was slacklining effortlessly between two trees.
Because, of course.
Pictures of that moment remain somewhere on my Facebook timeline: me observing him in the background, my oversized flannel shirt hanging off my shoulder as our friend snapped his skill.
Early on, he mentioned that his father founded Earth Day in the ’60s. Earth Day, I made sure to tell him, was also my birthday.
What I really wanted to say was: Soulmates.
Mostly, W was aloof, and not in the Psych Today emotionally unavailable way, but in a way that you understood this person was always running thoughts over in his mind, and selectively choosing when to share.
He was quiet in large groups, speaking when spoken to. Smiling in union with others. Often, when he asked you questions, you realized he had listened to every word you said, and was not silent out of perceived disinterest.
A rarity in New York.
When people spoke to him, they used their words carefully. On the contrary, when I spoke to him, I overshared in a vein way to appear more interesting.
When you age, peering back, you recognize that on some unconscious level not only did you see certain situations coming, but you created them, in your own blind, stumbling innocence.
I was 25, insecure, lustful, new to recovery, and when he kissed me hard on that camping tarp in the woods that weekend – rocked by idealization.
He was 24, in a band, arrogant enough to know how to be aloof, and mostly emotionally unavailable and mostly noncommittal, which is far worse than definitively noncommittal or definitively emotionally unavailable.
Occasionally, he told me about his broken childhood, late at night, our legs intertwined under unkempt sheets.
And when I told (read: overshared) moments about mine, he asked follow up questions.
Usually, after a few whiskeys, he’d kiss me on the temple in public.
I even met a few of his friends. Albeit, on accident.
Sometimes, he texted a few times a week. Mostly, he texted at night – but not too late, only just barely. Some weeks, he only texted once.
Those weeks were agony.
Right before before ‘Underwear Gate’ I’ve named this story – we had banged drunkenly, sloppily, on a balcony of our friends New York beach house – twice.
When I told friends about the debacle, I conveniently left out the alcohol consumed. Instead, I made sure to tell how he tracked me down on the beach. I left out the slurred words used, and kept in the way his hand grazed my back, possessively, when I flirted with another.
He didn’t call again for a week after that. And when he did, I told my friends I’d end it.
I didn’t end it. Instead, we had sex at sunrise, grape-stained teeth chattering together on the rooftop.
So, when he handed me someone else’s beige, lacy – and dirty – underwear from his laundry basket that morning – it shouldn’t have come as a complete shock.
But, when you can’t see in front of you, life is nothing but surprises. Looking back, there are truly so few of them.
“You left these last time you were here,” he said casually, handing them to me with the tips of his fingertips.
A lacy, beige thong dropped into my lap.
I froze, peering down, still gripping my concealer bottle between two left fingers.
There, on the side of my right thigh, the thong laid haphazardly, lace ripped near the crotch, elastic stretched, dangling off my kneecap.
I knew instantly that I did not recognize the underwear.
“I’m gonna make some coffee,” he said, turning away from the scene unfolding on my kneecap.
But surely, SURELY, I was mistaken. Hadn’t we just made effortless love all night??? Watched the sunrise with real wine glasses??? Listened to Morrisey and Taj Mahal on record??
Had I made a random pit stop to Victoria Secret? Was this his idea of a gift?
I poked the thong with my fingers, pulling them up briefly from my kneecap.
These are not mine, I thought, my stomach sinking.
And I took them.
I took a random woman’s dirty underwear.
A sponge for incident at 25, not only did I take them, without pause, I shoved those babies to the bottom of my oversized purse, and walked out that morning from W’s apartment, carrying them with me from the streets of Ridgewood, Brooklyn, to the M train headed city-bound, to my office in Manhattan on 57th.
For 48 minutes, that pair of lacy, dirty, beige underwear traveled with me as I sat stricken on the subway.
When I carted the now bunched up thong all the way to my 4th floor office and past the coffee station, I promptly hissed at my then ‘work’ husband, dragging him into my office to show him the evidence.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” he said, peering over and into my bag, his sympathy lackluster as he tried not to laugh at my increasing horror.
Throughout the years I have told this story many times over wine-fueled buzzes, I am almost always met with the same, rhetorical question:
Why did you take the underwear?
All I can really say is this:
When you are naked, running late, insecure, and sleeping with someone who is treating you like you are disposable: you will probably make choices you otherwise wouldn’t.
In that moment, when he handed them to me, I didn’t want to see what was happening. Besides, who sleeps around and then hands random underwear out with such certainty?
“What?” – my first thought.
“Oh GOD.” – my second thought.
“Don’t make it awkward.” – my third thought.
Like any good southern woman knows, I was brought up to diffuse situations, stay small, and take up as little space as possible.
A flicker of heightened emotion regarded as dramatic or unnecessary.
I didn’t want to cause a scene. I didn’t want to lose ‘this’. This obviously BEAUTIFUL love affair that was unfolding in W’s dusty, Brooklyn apartment.
So, instead, I orchestrated a life where I was taking someone else’s dirty underwear to work in an attempt to play cool.
For a long time following this incident, I consoled myself with the idea that it wouldn’t have mattered, seeing the reality or not seeing it. I was, in fact, a sponge for incident at that time in my life. And maybe everyone is when they’re young.
Days filled with unsolicited advice you defiantly don’t take and subtle warnings you can’t hear: the whitewashing of all your excitement. Yes, I definitely saw all of it coming, exactly the way it came.
Later that day, I ended up telling him. After enduring a day’s worth of berating from co-workers who had now heard about the now infamous dirty thong smushed into the side pocket of my purse, I texted him. (And yes, I did eventually also rid myself of the garment.)
He apologized. Profusely. Because of course he did.
We went on a date. A proper one after that.
And I continued to sleep with him for months: somehow still shocked at his continued non-commitment.
At some point that year, it ended – like all things do, when it comes to situations like this. There’s an expiration date over the horizon, and though it’s glaring at you in the face, you do everything you can to avoid looking directly at it.
It’s only through the protection of time that it’s easier to gaze.
W left New York not long after we ended. A few months later, I left too. Funny enough, we both live in Colorado now, and have yet to bump into each other though I think of him sometimes.
I used to roll my eyes at the mention of his name, in that “don’t-care-but-kinda-care-and-still-hurt” way. But, overtime, what I really came to understand was that I was hurt by my own actions: a brooding shame for not being able to assert myself.
Overtime, I came to accept that W’s not a malicious man. At least he wasn’t to me. He just didn’t want me the way I wanted him. And I never told him otherwise.
Oh, and he stupidly gave me someone’s underwear.
There have been worse crimes.
Albeit, probably not many as careless.
What I remember of my time with W was that he cared to the capacity that he cared. He asked questions and he was present when he was with me, and he offered perspectives that I still cherish today.
Every romantic situation offers you something, if you want to see it. And accept your role within its creation and dissolution.
The harsh truth I took from W is that you cannot flirt, fuck or fictionalize yourself into a reality that you want.
And that’s on me – to demand better.
It is on me – to look up from the story I create – and compare it with the truth.
It is on me – to want better.
It is on me – to use this voice I have.
And eventually, I did demand better, though I still smile when I think of this story, or anytime I peruse a Victoria Secret store, my eyes passing over a beige, lacy thong.
I think of that one woman out there, wandering around the world, who’s underwear I became so closely attached to one morning:
To her, I say thank you. May your life be adorned with plenty of other lovely beige thongs. May you use your voice, if you feel you need to. May you find love.
And to you, W, I wish you a happy life as well. Thanks for the sunrises.