I met her two days before Christmas at a holiday pop-up market on the Lower East Side. This was 2006, and she was selling refurbished antique furniture, which she’d placed around her taped-off space like someone’s fancy living room. She wore tight red trousers and a black shirt that looked like the top of a ballerina’s leotard. Her hair was frizzy, bleached blonde, and she had a lot of makeup on—too much, I’d say. Her face was pinched, as though she’d just smelled someone farting. It was that look of revulsion that awoke something in me. She made me want to be a better man.
While she was busy with customers, I sat on a chaise longue for sale and pretended to be fascinated. I pushed at the springs with the palms of my hands. I lay down like a patient in analysis, then sat up again. The thing was priced at $2,750. I took out my cell phone and pressed some buttons, pretending that I wasn’t staring at the girl. Finally she noticed me and came over.
“King Edward, home on the range” is the first thing I ever heard her say. I had no idea what she meant by this. “It’s all mahogany. Late Edwardian. Only that panel has the inlay missing.” She pointed. I turned around to look at the wood. “The festoon there?” she was saying. “But I like it without the mother-of-pearl. Mother-of-pearl would look chintzy, I think, with this shade of leather.” I could only clear my throat and nod. She told me she had reupholstered the chaise in leather from an old armchair she’d stripped on the side of the road. “It was like skinning a deer,” she said. “This past summer in Abilene.”
I turned back around to face her crotch—a tender triangle swollen and divided by the thick protuberance of her zipper fly, thick thighs pulling at the weave of the red wool. A tiny key hung from a coiled loop of white telephone cord wrapped around her left wrist. She fingered the coils with long, chipped black nails. I had to marry her. If I couldn’t, I would kill myself. I broke out in a sweat as though I was about to vomit.
“Field dressing,” I blurted. And then, “Field dressing?” I looked up at her face for some kind of validation. Her eyes were a dark, watery blue.
“Oh, are you a hunter or something?” Again, her face like someone had farted—fragile and strangely condemning, like a queen’s.
“No,” I answered. I went back to pushing on the springs. “But there’s a new book about hunting by this guy in Montana, I think, who says you should smoke weed when you hunt because it attracts the animals. Apparently they’re attracted to it, to your energy and, like, the vibrations in your brain. I don’t totally remember. Not that I smoke weed. I mean, I did in college. I’m thirty-three,” I added, as if this explained something.
“You’re reading a book about hunting?”
She folded her arms. Her mouth, as she waited for my answer, was a heavy, wilted rose.
“No,” I told her. “I was just reading about the book. Online.”
“Oh, okay.” She scratched her head and started to walk away. “The springs are all new,” she said, not bothering to turn around.
I got up and followed her. I asked if she did custom work. “I have this ottoman,” I lied.
“Any custom work would have to wait until after the New Year,” she told me. But I could e-mail her photos in the meantime and let her know what I had in mind.
“I’m definitely going to think seriously about the couch,” I said. I was scared I’d mispronounce the words chaise longue. She gave me her business card and smiled falsely. “Gee, thanks,” I said. She said nothing. And so I left, stumbling over the legs of a wicker rocking chair and waving back at her like an idiot. I went straight home and lay in bed, moaning in ecstasy, over and over, each time I read the letters of her name: Britt Wendt.
“That’s not a name, it’s the beginning of a sentence,” Mark Lasky said over coffee the next day when I told him I was in love. It was Christmas Eve. “And you met her where? Working at a furniture store? Nick, you went to Yale, for Christ’s sake.”
Mark was my oldest friend, the first of many to suddenly quit smoking, lose his hair, get married, and buy a brownstone in a part of Brooklyn he wouldn’t have set foot in five years earlier. Some of these friends had even conceived children already, which seemed preposterous to me at the time. I was nearly thirty-four, approaching the end of my “Jesus year,” as it’s often called. In Christ’s honor, I’d grown my hair out past my ears. I had to use a rubber band and bobby pins to keep loose strands out of my eyes when I went running.
“She makes the furniture herself,” I explained to Mark. “She refurbishes the furniture herself, I mean. She has her own business. She’s an artist.”
“An artisan,” Mark corrected me. “Did you sleep with her already? Has she seen your apartment—excuse me—your room?”
“I don’t see why you can’t date Becky or Elaine or Lacey Freeman,” Mark said.
“Gross,” I said. “Lacey Freeman?”
“Okay, not Lacey. But Jane? Jane Germeroth is perfect for you. Jane Germeroth is smart and she has good boobs. Listen to me, Nick. Cut your hair. You look like a drummer in some shitty band. You look like a fucking bartender. Also, your scarf is gay.”
My scarf was gay indeed. It had cost several hundred dollars, but it was beautiful—red-and-white checkered silk with long tassels.
“And it’s offensive,” Mark went on. “It’s supposed to look like what Yasser Arafat wears on his head. Now teenagers are wearing polyester versions like it’s some hip-hop thing.”
“This is silk,” I protested. “From Barneys.”
“You know you can buy that shit on the street in Chinatown for ten dollars?”
“Well, you look like a gynecologist,” I said. Mark was wearing a monogrammed cable-knit sweater and khakis.
“What does that even mean?”
“It means you look old,” I told him. “And, you know, perverted.”
“What do you want me to do? Wear tight jeans and roll my own cigarettes? I’m a grown man.”
“Rolling your own is better for you,” I said quietly, collecting the last crumbs of my cinnamon scone. “Less tar.”
Mark groaned and finished his coffee. “You’re not in love,” he said. Then he paused to watch a girl in a short skirt bend over to tie her shoe. A few days earlier I would have clung to the image for weeks—the lines of her panties under the opaque black tights, the soft dimpling down the backs of her thighs. When she stood back up, her thick brown hair seemed to undulate around her shoulders in slow motion. Her face was irreverent, almost pug-nosed, mean and adorable. But I was unaffected. I had Britt Wendt now. Other girls meant nothing to me. “So are you going to buy the couch?” Mark asked finally. “Where would you even put it?”
For the past year I’d been renting a room month-to-month for $350 cash in a flophouse owned by a Hasidic slumlord. I had to myself an eight-by-eight windowless corner of the building, which had once housed a plant that manufactured little tongue-colored erasers. The place still smelled vaguely of burning rubber. My room was on the top level. The other tenants up there were all hip young people. I didn’t know anyone’s name. Downstairs, Middle Eastern gypsy cab drivers slept in shifts on bunk beds, their black sedans parked outside like a presidential cavalcade. Streetside, there was a soaped-up storefront full of car parts and broken computers. The building should have been, and probably was, condemned.
The only furniture I had was a twin mattress and a low glass coffee table, on top of which I piled my shoes, each pair in a Ziploc freezer bag to keep the vermin and roaches out. The walls between the rooms were single sheets of gypsum board. Hand-drawn signs in the crumbling hallways read: no bedbugs! no street mattress! no homeless! The place had two communal bathrooms full of silverfish and a shared kitchen full of mice. I was constantly looking for a sublet or a room in an apartment or a cheap studio, but nothing seemed good enough. I couldn’t commit. Plus, I was always broke. I kept spending all my money on clothes.
Christmas morning, I was woken up by my neighbors having sex. Usually I’d pound on the gypsum, but that morning, in the spirit of the holiday and in honor of true love, I let the grunting slide. I stayed under my comforter with my laptop on my crotch, listening to the sex sounds and googling Britt Wendt for the thousandth time. The Britt Wendt I found on Myspace was twelve years old, lived in Deering, New Hampshire, and posted inspirational photos of nature scenes with captions about how to be your best self, jokes about periods, links to articles about Olympic skating and beauty pageants. The only other Web pages that came up for “Britt+Wendt” were Swedish genealogies. My Britt Wendt was a mystery. I looked at her business card again. It was minimal, just her name and e-mail address and the words redesigned antiques. The font was generic, Arial Bold. The card stock flimsy. It was like she just didn’t give a shit. After my neighbors finished, I heard them walking down the hall to the showers. I considered visiting my go-to site for porn but chose not to. With Britt Wendt to pine for, watching videos of strangers having sex felt sacrilegious, like squirting a mayonnaise packet into your mouth while riding the elevator up to Per Se.