I chose Justin. 27. Attorney. Owner of a cat. Check, check, check. We began messaging on Bumble, and I waded into the stream of conversation: favorite bands, adoring descriptions of Dante’s death mask in Florence, asking questions like, is it true that attorneys just lie for a living? Are you going to kill me if we meet? The usual. A date was set, and I decided it was best to wing this one—improv.
This date was a test run, still just a perverse idea in the back of my mind, alongside memories of first dates in which I alternated between humiliating a poor, unsuspecting man, or being cast aside for not being willing to drop my pants after he picked up the check. I was already familiar with Bumble, Hinge, and all of the other apps that use algorithms and proximity to help you find your soulmate, or whoever is closest at a given moment, so this wasn’t something completely out of the ordinary.
Ted Bundy was only caught, I told Justin, who listened over a glass of ice water, because he made the mistake of speeding after he saw a police car. When the officer pulled him over and searched the car, he found a ski mask, a crowbar, rope, handcuffs, and an ice pick. This led to the cops searching his apartment, but there wasn’t quite enough evidence to arrest him. So he was only placed on 24-hour surveillance. Poor Ted. That’s why I don’t speed, I said.
Justin’s eyes grew wider as he stared at me over his drink, but he was polite enough to let me keep talking. He touched the side of his glass apprehensively, the condensation dripping beneath his fingers—he didn’t even have the decency to order a coke. How dull, I thought.
“He also escaped from prison,” I said, smirking, “Twice!” Ted decided to be his own attorney—he wasn’t in handcuffs or anything kinky like that during the first trial, so he managed to escape through a courthouse window. Maybe he knew he was fucked after the absolute mess he made of his trial. But I don’t think I would break out of prison if I were in that situation; I’m not resilient enough to keep on the move.
Justin, I noticed, had not stopped drinking water for lack of something to do with his hands, though he didn’t seem as perturbed as I assumed he would be. He offered hints of his interest through his slight incline towards me, the table, and my words. He had one tooth, next to the right incisor, that strayed from an otherwise straight smile, and circular glasses which made him seem like a poet lost in an unreal city, rather than a lawyer in a thin, heather-gray t-shirt. His wistful look appealed to me, but I still wanted to send him lurching out of his seat as though I had poured ice water into his lap, or he had recognized, finally, that he was face to face with a madwoman.
Oddly enough, after asking about his favorite serial killer, Justin took a moment to give it genuine consideration. He didn’t have one, or at least he didn’t admit to having one—but this led quickly to a debate about body count and what number graduated a serial killer to the status of mass murderer. I thought a mass murderer was someone who killed many people at once rather than sequentially, but Justin made a good case for Ted and I was relatively impressed by the nuance of his argument. I suppose that’s his job.
I tend to talk about Ted Bundy on dates a lot. He’s kind of my go-to. And he’s reentered popular culture, so I like to see if men’s ears perk up at his name. Or if they know just how brutal these homicides were. Honestly, this is usually better received than my Jew and Dante jokes. Maybe the Dante jokes are too willfully esoteric, but I refuse to cut them. I play with the rest of my material over time—knowing your audience is key. Start slow.
When the subject of children came up, I told Justin I would never do something like that because children are physically repulsive, bad for the environment, and tear apart your vagina. Also, if I reproduced with an Ashkenazi Jew, I would likely give birth to an eggplant because of the inbreeding lurking behind our chromosomes.
After a few jabs at Christianity and Catholic guilt thrown into the mix—Justin wasn’t Catholic, he was some sort of bland protestant, but I told him he looked guilty anyway—I naturally transitioned to foaming at the mouth about Dante. Dante is my literary hero, lord and savior, the love of my life, etc. When my 12th grade English teacher, Ms. Rosenblit, sat across from me at faux-wooden desks arranged into the shape of a baptismal font, making me incant the opening lines of the Inferno, nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita…In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost, I saw that her eyes were no longer staring into mine, but instead scrutinized the forest which rose around her, around us. I soon found myself following Ms. Rosenblit, my Virgil, into the trees. Branches pricked at my skin and snagged at my clothes—I shivered in the darkness that draped itself across my shoulders. Each time I open the Comedia, I plunge forth into this wood. I have no desire to return to the straight way.
Now, on dates, I like to inform men about two things related to both Dante and the clitoris, to see if they quiver: 1) The fig, an obscene medieval Italian hand gesture, formed by putting the thumb between the index and middle finger, representing the clitoris, a symbol thrust into the face of god by Vanni Fucci in Inferno XXIV-XXV, and 2) the name ‘Lovenotch,’ used by Dante in reference to an infernal creature belonging to a larger class of ‘Evil Claws’ who live in pitch and push sinners back into the boiling tar. Lovenotch is medieval Italian slang for the clitoris, and variations of this term are my usernames on many social media platforms. There is something delicious about a medieval, Italian exile who places everyone he knows in hell and then effectively becomes the patron saint for the very city that ousted him. Also, his allusions to anal are surprisingly progressive.
I’ve overshared this information at inappropriate junctures before—first dates, meeting acquaintances over coffee, speaking to professors, but I’ve acquired a taste for poisoning the delicate conversational formula required when first meeting a romantic interest. I’ve met men who laugh at my bone-dry sarcasm and those who push back their chairs and look at me like I broke out of an asylum, but this time, with Justin, was different. Rather than shrieking, “the horror! The horror!” at my amplified persona, he enjoyed it. I laughed with him, keenly aware that I was beginning to find him charming, rather than a victim whose throat I held in my hands.
After I told Justin about my raving love of Dante and Barbara Rosenblit, whose name I expected everyone to know, he told me of the literature that made his own heart beat faster. Justin obsessed over Plato much the same way Dante infiltrated my every thought. He told me about The Phaedrus, a dialogue I had long been terrified of opening. I am afraid of reading certain books for fear I’ll fall into them and drown alive. Justin told me an anecdote about orgies and the use of young boys as apprentices and sex toys in Ancient Greece. This excited me, making me laugh and clutch my own glass of water slightly less frequently, but I wanted to continue making the rules. I needed to dictate who laughed when, and who was shocked.
“Don’t most people think Plato just invented Socrates?” I asked.
Of all the offending things I said that night, this is what set him off.
“Ugh. People always say that, but they don’t know anything. There’s independent historical evidence of Socrates existing, it’s just that he seems to be a really different person depending on if you read a history about him or one of Plato’s dialogues. So, yes, he absolutely existed. What was he like? We have no idea. Plato could’ve made that up. But he definitely existed—there are records of his goddamn trial.”
Justin said all this in an aggressive, breathy trill. For a moment, I thought of pushing him further, asking about the holes in Socrates’ defense, how he might’ve gone about saving his client, but instead I laughed vacantly, then fell silent. The biryani had gone cold, and the restaurant felt as if it were yawning around us.
Justin finally broke the silence. “There’s no pressure, really, for you to come over, but if you do want to meet my cat, I promise not to expect you to have sex with me, and I will probably not murder you.”
This actually felt sincere and was slightly disarming. The one time I agreed to go home with someone on a first date, while away for a semester in London, had turned into a nightmare after which I took an Uber home at four AM to collapse in a boiling hot shower, covering the scent of his body with the sterility of soap and feeling like an idiot, knowing I knew better.
“Yes,” I said, feeling the hesitance in my throat. “I want to meet your cat. But my mom will be really mad with you if you kill me.”
Then I followed him into the frigid streets of Center City.
He was a foot taller than me, as is par for the course with men who have grown at a normal rate whereas I stopped stretching upwards by age six. I had to trot to keep up with him. I’m minuscule, practically a walking fetus, which is a fact I love to thrust in the face of the men I date who are indeed much too old for me. They need to feel guilty about something—this might as well be it. At his building was a security guard who I hoped would notice if I never came back down again.
As we ascended in the elevator, I grew worried I was descending into some sort of potential murder trap—perhaps only real murderers like jokes about their fellow murderers? Justin led me into his apartment which had yellow barstools at the counter, mid-century furniture, and one of the sweetest cats I have ever encountered—Doodle.
Doodle purred and rubbed against my legs, covering me in cat hair, much to my delight. I took off my scarf and overcoat, draping them over one of the vibrant yellow chairs, a color far too cheerful for my taste. I set my purse, a tiny, red bag designed to look like a mailbox, next to his actual mail. This act made me immensely happy—I made sure he acknowledged it.
We sat on the couch and fell into awkward silence. A decanter filled with whiskey and glasses that looked untouched sat on a tray upon the coffee table, though he didn’t have the sense to offer me a drink. He seemed afraid to get too close to me. When he asked if I wanted to watch anything, fumbling with the remote to turn on the TV, I looked him dead in the eyes and said: “put on the Ted Bundy tapes.”
I was joking, of course, but he followed my commands. Maybe he liked being told what to do. Then, I was sitting in a random apartment with a 27-year-old attorney/murderer and his cat, listening to a confirmed murderer deny his killings on a Netflix special, while I made small talk and reached out to a cat that would rather lick her genitals than interact with me. It wasn’t that I disliked women or was afraid of them, it was just that I didn’t seem to have an inkling as to what to do about them.
So I started asking how he was going to get rid of my body, and whether or not he would be glad when Doodle tried to eat my desiccated remains. He played along to the point where I was thrilled, both from a renewed sense of terror and the thought that maybe I had actually found a human soul I could connect with.
Justin took me to his bedroom to show me his bookshelves, dozens of volumes about ancient Greece and Rome, some Camus, legal textbooks, and I asked, “is this the part where you strangle me and then put my body in the bathtub?”
“No, I want to at least know what you think of my books first. Then I’ll smother you.”
⬥ ⬥ ⬥
I needed to put on a bigger persona during my next date—the bar has been set.
Before meeting Jack, a 29-year-old man I had matched with on Hinge, mostly because he looked innocuous enough and, yes, he had a cat in one of his photos, I knew I needed to plan my next onslaught more carefully. I wanted something bigger to happen, something bolder.
I wrote notes in the graph paper notebook I always carry with me, working out my material. My fixation on Bundy and other dangerous, unhinged criminals. Yeats’ erectile dysfunction and subsequent operation to insert iron rods into his genitals, thus making him always semi-erect. The more bizarre excerpts of the Divine Comedy, featuring corpses layered in a river of shit, Dante climbing around Satan’s testicles to escape hell, etc. This soupy mixture included memorized quotes from James Joyce’s love letters to dear old Nora, his dirty little fuckbird, and my own repertoire of personal stories, such as when I forced my mother to wrap me up in a BSDM-esque harness made out of ribbons and take me on a walk around the neighborhood because I believed I was Balto the sled dog and had to train for the Iditarod. I grouped stories into themes: childhood, mother, womanhood, Jewish identity, and depression were sprinkled over all of these disparate categories. If there were silences on my date, I would have ample routines to perform—this was my heavy rotation of content.
The jokes I held closest to my heart detailed Dante—the perverse universe that he threw into orbit around himself, an afterworld structured in part through the demands of Beatrice, his muse and defiant guide, a literary construction so tangible it felt the tug of gravity. I wanted to create something equally corporeal with my words, to use them to protect myself but also reflect the dark miracles of existence—the maudlin truth that I too wanted to connect to another soul swirling around in this dark wood. But maybe that was too heady for a first date. I could always save it for the second that never came. Stick to the weird sex stuff—it’s safer.
We agreed to meet for coffee at ten AM on a Saturday, which is violently early for me, but he was going out of town and I wanted to know what would happen when I terrified a man in broad daylight.
I didn’t message Jack about Dante at all beforehand, which is unusual for me. Maybe I was off my game. My inquiries into his killing tendencies did not sway him from agreeing to meet for coffee. I texted him the night before, How many women have you brutally murdered? We met at Milk and Honey Cafe, and I walked in windswept and resisting his eye contact, which, apprehensive as it was, caught me off guard. He seemed much more boring than Justin did. This man was alarmingly short, maybe 5’3, and I found that staring more or less directly into his nervous gaze was the most unnerving part of the morning.
Thankfully, he was supposed to meet a friend in Baltimore at one o’clock, so at least there was an expiration on how long we had to spend together. I began by making nosy comments about his coffee order—do you take it black just to be indie? Is your advertising job like Mad Men? Do you brainwash people? Do you listen to everything I say to sell me content on Instagram? Do you have several secretaries you get to have affairs with?
He didn’t seem like the type to know what to say or even to be scared enough by any content about Dante, or Joyce, so instead I moved straight into murder and how I am ready to be killed at any moment when I meet up with guys on the internet. He told me “Yes, your concerns are valid, but we’re in public. That really takes the chances down.”
“But you could put something in my drink that only takes effect later, or find an alley to shove me down, or hold a gun to me under the table.”
“Christ, I’m not going to do any of that.” He laughed a little, and nervously drank his indie black coffee. I continued to discuss my belief about the innate evil in most people and in myself. “We’re all selfish. Really, any charity we do is just to make ourselves feel better. Even if it does help someone else, ultimately, we’re the ones who receive the dopamine or public praise or whatever else. Pretty much everything we do is completely self-motivated.”
This wasn’t funny, just true. I said it out of boredom more than anything.
He asked if I wanted to take a walk around the park, and we ran into a friend of mine as we were halfway there.
“Hi,” I told her. “I’m on a date, and this is extremely weird and causing me pain. I’m going to go now, but I’ll talk to you later.”
As we continued to the park, Jack said, “wow, you really aren’t good with people.”
At the slightly pitiful winter farmers’ market—sad Amish wives, mostly jarred produce, everyone wearing heavy coats—we passed a butcher with several coolers marked by pictures of pigs, I asked, “how many bodies do you think are decomposing in there? Will you buy me some raw meat?”
I guess I was fully improvising.
We sat on a bench and I showed him the ridiculous front of my purse, fashioned into the facade of a sewing shop, and he said, “you’re quite, erm, you pay quite a lot of attention to detail, don’t you?”
I wasn’t sure what to do as the hours sprawled forward, and I felt as if an invisible clock were looming over me while I waited for the deadline of his Baltimore trip to hit him over the head. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem urgent.
Finally, he did have to go, and we exchanged numbers because I didn’t know how to say no. I was supposed to be performing for this guy, and he didn’t seem to get that. Perhaps my ridiculousness made him feel comfortable and secure in his boringness.
Strangely, I think this interaction had more of an impact on me than it did on him. I even considered texting him to apologize––for what, exactly, I don’t know. But I left the performance feeling sick, and he left the performance not knowing he was an audience member. Is awareness essential to becoming part of an audience? Am I ever going to get the response I desire most? It was odd. He seemed to like me, if constantly surprised by what I was saying. How am I supposed to terrify men and gain gratification from it if they aren’t upset when I talk about fisting dead literary figures? At least I had gotten free coffee out of it. Later, he texted to congratulate me on not getting murdered. I declined to respond.
⬥ ⬥ ⬥
Before the guilt subsided, I set up another date.
I was putting myself on the line for absolutely nothing if I didn’t get some sort of audible gasp, a chair thrown back from a table in disgust, a text message of my own ignored, shoved in the back of some sort of digital drawer. Perhaps I was inciting too much discomfort and not enough joy to elicit laughter. I felt I had already been played in some external game that is “romance,” or whatever you want to call it, and that this was my fair chance to retaliate. These men would recover.
Despite my knowledge that I would turn into a bizarre story told over drinks, I still felt pangs of remorse. I was torn between the idea that dating apps are avenues for sex and thus it was my right as a strong, independent feminist to fuck with these men, and get fucked if I so chose, or that I was slaughtering their own genuine, uncynical hopes of finding someone to embrace when life turns into a forest of self-doubt and exhaustion. The more I think about my own experiences, the more I realize that I am twenty and half convinced that some sort of Jane Austen fantasy will play out at my feet with a guy I meet on a dating app after I see two pictures of him and he says he likes cats, and half convinced that I’m better than that. I can’t reconcile these two extremes.
I returned to the internet. I kept flipping through men as if they were volumes neatly lined up on bookstore shelves. Intent on ignoring their alleged humanity, I tried to find someone who looked boring enough to be willing to accept my date suggestion, and then sensible enough to react with visible fear rather than only mild perturbance. Conversations faltered and flickered out before either one of us had the gall or the inclination to ask, “do you want to get coffee?”
I turned to friends who were both curious and startlingly enthusiastic about my encounters with my male victims, aka dates, and asked what I could do to get a real reaction: to see how my words and obscene gesticulations would affect the mind of a normal man, as my experiences with Justin and Jack had clearly been flukes. I wanted to see the facade slip, force something improper to happen, break open the constraints of formality and see true vulnerability. I would use my words as a crowbar.
My friend Claire told me I needed to find a guy who looked like he would swipe on “basic” girls. Namely, girls who wear white sneakers, leggings, and jean jackets in the Spring. Girls who go to parties and probably take shots of vodka while screeching, ‘wooo!’”
This is definitely internalized misogyny speaking, but it rises up in me all the same, if only because I am sick of seeing women teetering home on stilt-length heels that support goose-bumped knees exposed by short dresses in the middle of winter. In summer, I do not mind near nudity, nay, I encourage it, but when it’s cold, I feel strongly that any woman going to a party or a bar must be encouraged to wear pants and a parka.
Sexism aside, I asked Claire to review my Bumble profile to make it more normal, i.e., basic, in the hopes that there was something I was putting online that was scaring these ‘normal’ boys away. Turns out, it was everything.
All of my pictures featured me in elaborately patterned outfits, contorting my body in strange ways, or staring lustily into the pages of a book. Apparently, none of these features are turn-ons for guys who claim they like “Beer. Sport. Travel.” Claire deleted all of the questions I pinned to my page, creating an artificial air of mystique. She also deleted the information about my height and switched out photos of me with my legs jutting into the air (I’m very flexible, for anyone wondering) with photos of me looking relatively normal in groups of friends. Pilfered from the camera roll on my phone, these relics were hard to find. Finally, the piece de résistance, she rewrote my bio: “I like sarcasm and black coffee.”
“I don’t know that you can actually pull off being a sorority girl if you don’t own black leggings or sneakers without floral embroidery on them,” Claire said, “but you can definitely seem like a sceney, indie girl.”
She encouraged me to not be picky. “Swipe right on every single person who looks like they’ve crushed a can of Natty Lite on their forehead.”
So I swiped without looking at or reading profiles, or trying to ascertain any sense of a higher spiritual purpose. I swiped on Brads and Chads, Joshs, Marks. I send myriad messages of Hi! You’re cute 🙂, each of which brought me a little closer to my grave.
This listless hunting continued until I could hardly take it anymore.
One day, I was swiping in bed, wrapped under the covers and ignoring my reading—“Nutting,” by Wordsworth, which is about a tree but as appalling as it sounds—until, by accident, or curiosity, I swiped on a pallid, vampiric man named Darwin. His bio claimed that he was a grocery store connoisseur. Many of his photos were of him posing with beakers and test tubes in a lab (our future children?).
Not basic. Exceedingly interesting. I sent a message. We discussed room organization and public transportation. I’m type A, he’s type B. I looked up his Instagram and found pictures of him posing bizarrely in mirrors across his apartment. I abandoned my mission, briefly—I was interested in another human being and felt the need to genuinely pursue this possibility. Perhaps he was already aware of the absurdity of existence, able to express vulnerability and sincerity on his own without me flensing it out of him. We messaged back and forth for a few hours until he told me he would gladly reveal his grocery store preferences, but we had to meet in person for me to collect this information.
He told me I met all of his checkmarks for a Bumble profile. Which was ironic, considering I had stripped my profile of most originalities before the algorithm gods matched us. “Sydney,” he wrote, “You are the earth and I am the moon. You are lively and brimming with sophistication. Me, I am only half as bright, and desolate with the lack of life that you so uniquely possess.” This wry exaltation struck me as charming, hysterical, and then concerning. Was this in response to some immutable core of my personality that Darwin deciphered over text message, or to the basic doppelganger I posed as on Bumble?
We agreed to meet for coffee at United by Blue, which was at least slightly more sophisticated than Starbucks, albeit still relatively basic. This made me wonder if he picked this place because it was convenient, or because he had some false perception of me looming large in his thoughts.
Although I knew I had gone off track now, that this would not advance my true and original plan, I was genuinely interested in this man. His sense of humor led me to believe I could be my absolute boldest, that some authentic facet of our personalities had already been braided together, and that this dual vulnerability would win me a place in his heart. Rather than acting as a timid audience member, ushered into a show to be quiet and watch, I thought Darwin and I could bring out the most absurd in each other in tandem, and that this odd combination of humor, irony, and reality could bring us closer together. I wanted to prove my individualism to this man after I had stripped my digital profile of all its traces. I believed that my weirdness could find its counterpart in Darwin.
He appeared in the coffee shop and I tried to look busy. He was tall, though everyone is tall to me, and devastatingly pale, which I liked. His glasses were perched on the bridge of his nose, adding a darker dimension that complimented his moody, full lips. The Byronesque nature of his physique was offset by the crisp, blue-button down he wore. The shirt, it turned out, was more in line with his actual persona than the initial quirky features which had drawn me to him. He ordered a black, iced coffee.
Somehow, the conversation morphed rapidly to senior citizens and old age homes—more his subject than mine. I told him, confidently, that I expected to die by the age of sixty and that if someone put me in a home, I would ask them to shoot me first, preferably with a .22 caliber because I like bullets to be proportionate to the size of the victim. I sensed right away that I had said something too extreme, too grotesque, and when he didn’t immediately tilt his head back and laugh, my heart contracted. I thought I had been speaking his language.
However, I continued. Suddenly unaware of what to do with my hands, now eyeing him warily, I told him I might consider allowing my mother to live in my closet or backyard when she reached maximum ripeness. I phrased it exactly like that. He twitched.
I could feel the air grow flat and cold between the two of us. No reverberations of shared laugher, no sense that we had found some deeper connection in one another, no eternal companion to wander the dark wood. I had lost a potential ally.
“Ha, yeah. I don’t think it’s that bad to get old… I mean, you get to do nothing. Maybe you can even get a girlfriend in the retirement home. Apparently, senior citizens actually go wild in retirement homes and have a lot of sex.”
This was not a basic observation. This was not a normal fact. I assumed if he had brought up the sex habits of the elderly, he would be comfortable with my ability to pervert anything, and so, rejuvenated and newly hopeful, I asked “Do you think it’s still kinky though, or pretty vanilla? Do you still want to be spanked when you’re old, or has life fucked you up enough?”
But at this, he mumbled and averted his gaze.
Flailing now, I brought up Ted Bundy—specifically, the Chi Omega sorority massacre. Darwin just looked into my eyes as if silently pleading for help, or death, whichever would come faster. I tried to slow down this descent into my own madness, but I was nervous, and kept trying to invoke the humor we exchanged over the internet.
He talked about his work in a lab, so I asked if he was allowed to artificially inseminate animals whenever he wanted. “What do you do with dead lab rats? Do you talk to them when you’re alone?”
He mentioned that he’s close with his mom.
“My mom’s name is Carol—remember that name,” I said. “She’s a saint, an icon, and a lunatic. She is disappointed that I’m obsessed with Jesus despite my Jewish upbringing, but I can’t help it. He looked so good up on that cross.”
At this point, I was making myself laugh, nearly choking, and I was too nervous to realize that he was receding from the table, hands clutched in his lap, mouth wrinkled with concern.
Darwin had never had any pets but confessed to a fondness for Corgis.
“I like Corgis, but they look too much like loaves of bread to me. I prefer cats, because firstly, you have to work hard to earn their love, and secondly, they lick their genitals atop all of your belongings.”
“Oh. Ha. That’s funny.”
You know that someone is in true agony when they tell you that something you said is funny rather than actually laughing at it.
I asked if he was trying to be indie by drinking black coffee. “No, I like it just enough. It wakes me up, I guess,” he mumbled. “Do you want to try it?”
“No. You might give me herpes. Or maybe I have chlamydia.”
Darwin’s eyebrows receded towards his hairline. “I’m kidding,” I sputtered, “unless you really do have herpes. In which case, you shouldn’t be offering me your drink.”
The coffee was quickly finished, and the chatter over the course of an hour felt like it had stretched into decades. Finally, blissfully, he said he had to return to the lab.
“Uh, it was nice to meet you. Thanks for getting coffee with me.”
“Thank you for making it possible for me to drink free coffee. It’s my pleasure, really.”
With that he gave me a pained half hug, which I almost responded to with a handshake, but instead limply gave in: I had caused the boy enough trauma.
I watched him walk away and turned in the opposite direction as though I actually had somewhere to go. I knew I botched the whole thing, but it felt uncontrollable, like these sick thoughts inside me had to be released, and he seemed like someone who would be amenable to my off-brand humor. When I was walking to meet him, slight smile on my face, dark sunglasses supplementing the confidence I wore like a mask, I did not anticipate the need for my verbal weaponry to carve out some genuine reaction—I expected Darwin to be acquainted with the bizarre, searching for something real amidst the noise. His false persona online mirrored my own, the basic girl facade, and both of us left more isolated than before. I thought we would get lost in conversation and witticism for hours, exchanging thoughts on favorite comedians, novels, and grocery stores, but instead I disturbed him. The premise of Dante’s hell is that you get exactly what want, eternally. This was my contrapasso.
⬥ ⬥ ⬥
A few nights later, I had gone, against my better judgement, to an event hosted by my pretentious literary society, the Philomathean Society, which I had joined because despite myself, I cannot keep away from ostentatious displays of intellect, or even better, pseudo-intellect. At least this crowd felt more obligated to laugh at my Dante jokes, if only to hide the fact that they’d never read the Comedia.
This particular night was meant to interest prospective applicants, so naturally it featured a table draped with a blue, felt blanket, upon which two slowly asphyxiating lobsters sat, claws bound, as two bunnies with the burning, crimson eyes of the devil hopped about, occasionally on top of the rapidly failing bodies of these ill-fated crustaceans. There were also several plastic plates featuring slowly dying, drying crabs flipped on their backs on an adjacent table. Philo takes a strong stance against animal cruelty.
At the very least, the bunnies were saved from their untimely demise, and content to hop around with their lobster friends. I was fortified by Diet Coke poured into a cracked teacup with a decent bit of rum, and was somewhere mid-rant, declaring to friends and onlookers how I would make a perfect undercover operative for pedophile sting operations, because I am of age but look like a 12-year-old girl. I was performing, uninhibited, slightly drunk, devouring the laugher around me—I felt like Dracula, my thirst unslakable.
Sitting in a wood-backed chair next to the table featuring the lobster-bunny orgy, quietly observing me and occasionally laughing, was Michael, whom I had rarely spoken to and I think had definitely unnerved on a number of occasions, but who I now found was listening intently as I described the realm Dante created out of nothing. The boy had the decency not to pretend he had read The Comedy himself, but told me he might like to read it with me as his guide.
I was comfortable masquerading as a fool for men I met in the digital wilderness, a backlit wood, but as I left that night, I found myself feeling timid as I invited Michael to continue our conversation at my apartment. As we tore away from the straight path, I felt my heart racing underneath my blazer. I was not sure if I found a heavenly muse or Geryon to accompany me on my journey.
We walked on through the semidarkness, our arms brushing occasionally as my voice reverberated in tandem with the steps we took away from Philo, towards something unknown. I gestured wildly, no longer drunk, but instead intoxicated by the nuances of Dante’s hell, a place I was sure existed under the skin of the Earth itself. I explained the distinction between poet and pilgrim, the logical inversions necessary to follow the trail Dante set out for himself, his pilgrim, and his readers. As the difference between Dante the writer and Dante the protagonist became clearer to Michael, my role on this odyssey became more nebulous, more hazy, until I felt I was as ignorant of my intentions as Michael was of the Comedia.
As we reached my building, I was sure Michael could see the same wrought iron gate that I did, letters warning LASCIATE OGNE SPERANZA, VOI CH’INTRATE. As I stepped under this archway towards my front door, Francesca and Paolo spiralled before my eyes, the burning smoke of the heretics’ flesh filed my throat, the shrieks of the suicides bore into my ears. My heart was racing, and I was not sure if Inferno lay before me or behind. I felt a longing to know Michael, to trace the outline of his own journey as I had Dante’s pilgrimage, yet I felt terrified that I might be plunging into a new river, suffused with sticky sentiment rather than hellfire.
But as we sat on my bed and talked, the hours dissolved into early morning. The murky darkness receded. I felt myself growing more and more awake as I animated Dante’s universe—its topography, its topos, its scents, the architecture of this unorthodox Christian afterlife resurrected from the ruins of Latin epics, from the tatters of the poet’s own 14th century Florentine existence. Then, his exile, when he was forced to become a pilgrim, mourning the unsalted bread he was offered in strange homes, writing terza rima that would long outlast the duration of his wandering.
I whispered Italian phrases to Michael, repeating the words I wrote down and carried in all of my pockets. Cred’ ïo ch’ei credette ch’io credesse. I thought that he thought that I thought.
My voice crescendoed as I spoke of the visceral genius of the man who put his enemies in hell and then publicly flaunted the profane nuances of their demise. I explained Beatrice, telling Michael how Dante’s first love evolved into a cosmic force in his work, beckoning the poet closer to heaven, towards artistic enlightenment, and towards Jesus, though the last part is less moving for me. Dante engendered the necessary journey to transform into the Poet—he wrote his metamorphosis until it transcended the page and became his history.
I traced the structures of celestial bodies, cantos, realms in the air with my index finger, until Michael leaned closer to me and my blurred, frantic sentences. He held my face in his hands and as if reading the lines flickering in my mind. As I veered off the path and towards his open arms, I saw Beatrice coruscating in my peripheral vision. One must fear only those things that have the power to harm; not other things, for they are not fearful.
Our first kiss was innocent, tasted lychee sweet. I held his hand firmly within my own as the cynicism I harbored began to slowly melt off my extremities. The morning stars receded, their light freckling the wooden floors of my room, and I kissed him. I pulled him into a realm of literary brilliance, and he pulled me out of the narrative I was drafting, out of the dark wood, until I stood by his side upon the terraces of Purgation. E Quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle.