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In the stranger’s basement bedroom, I awoke, facing a staircase that had pale blue lights illuminating the bottom of each step. The bedroom had no windows to indicate the time and my phone was upstairs. The stranger was still asleep, with his back to me, and enough space between us to fit another person. I inched closer and pressed my back against his, hoping that he would turn around and wrap his arms around me, while I could pretend he was someone else, someone from last year whom I hadn’t forgotten about.

We laid there for what felt like a few hours, but time makes no sense without an indicator of its passing. I imagined what a day would be like if I didn’t let myself look at the clock, and whether or not that would be harder than the prior day, when I had canceled my apartment’s WiFi with the heroic intention of reading and writing more instead of procrastinating on Netflix.

Instead, I had opened my phone and then Tinder, which led to four whiskey sours at a speakeasy on the Lower East Side. The stranger graduated from Harvard Law School and founded a start-up. The more he drank, the more he dropped the words, Harvard and CEO. I leaned over to kiss him to shut him up. He called an Uber and we rode across the Williamsburg Bridge to his apartment on Driggs and 3rd. I had texted the intersection to my friends so they could tell the police to find me in case I died. That was the last time I had checked my phone.

I listened to the rhythm of his breathing and imagined how he would kill me. I felt the most at peace in the moments when I feared for my life, like hiking on icy mountains on the edge of cliffs in Patagonia, or running the last six miles of a marathon, or lying drunk and naked in the basement of a stranger I met on the internet. Perhaps I liked to indulge in those moments too much, feeling the adrenaline rush of being alive.

A few minutes or hours later, I startled awake, feeling the stranger’s arms around me. We continued cuddling as I thought about ways to ask him about the time. He must have sensed what was on my mind because he held me tighter and kissed me every time he felt me shift, told me to sleep more, that we’re not in a rush, that he enjoys my company and would like to do this again tonight, tomorrow, that we had such a great time last night, that he’s afraid he’ll close his eyes and I won’t be real.

“I have to head out and do some work,” I lied, “But I’m looking forward to next time,” with no intention of seeing him again. I didn’t even remember his name, but I felt bad for imagining that he would kill me.

How lovely intimacy with strangers can be, like the impersonal touch of a stylist combing through my hair, a yoga instructor’s tight grip on my shoulders as she corrects my form, a masseuse working out the kinks in my back. To spend so many hours with someone, share our bedrooms, and then disappear completely—it made me feel like there were no consequences to my actions. Nothing was real; therefore, nothing mattered, and everything was possible.

 

Four years ago, I graduated from college and stopped feeling anything at all. I thought the loss of experiencing a range of emotions was the logical result of becoming older and wiser. I spent a lot of my free time thinking about death. I assumed it was a philosophical phase, the way people went through a libertarian phase or a cryptocurrency phase. I read about plane crashes before bed to decompress. The reminder that life was finite soothed my mundane worries about my lack of purpose. I couldn’t remember the last time I felt excited about anything. I lived my life in past tense, replaying memories while I read my old journals, because the present was unbearably boring and the future uncertain.

Perhaps I was severely depressed and perhaps it was a defense mechanism against seeing the darkest sides of capitalism, but this sense of apathy lasted throughout my first year in New York. I spent that year at a consulting firm that helped big banks exacerbate Puerto Rico’s debt crisis. I took the subway before the sun rose each morning to work ten to twelve hours a day in front of three computer screens, experiencing daylight only through tinted office windows.

I carried the lack of feeling with me to my Master’s in England, where I sat through eight hours of lectures a day modeling the economics of developing countries, a euphemism for neo-imperialism, before walking back to my room to read Iris Murdoch and Evelyn Waugh until I dozed asleep, pretending that I was immersing myself in British culture. On the evening of the summer solstice, I lay in bed and imagined falling from my fifth-floor dormitory window. The sky wouldn’t fade to black until 11pm, and I feared the day would never end and I would be stuck in the same day, playing on repeat, without the reset of a sunrise. In Being and Nothingness, Sartre says we are condemned to be free, to either make our situations meaningful or change our situation. I carried that book everywhere I went, and it must have saved me, because I saw that book on my windowsill and remembered that my situation would change soon—I would graduate in less than a week and leave England for good.

I moved back to New York City for the second time last year, and I felt giddy with excitement for the first time since college. I was enamored with my new job. I walked to work from my apartment on Mulberry Street, through Washington Square Park, and up Fifth Avenue. I spent my days applying data science through coding, running meetings with teams across the company, and giving presentations about my research. Each day was challenging and unexpected, and it was enough visibility to make me feel important at work without doing anything that was important enough to screw over people in other parts of the world. Whereas a data mistake by 0.01% at my last job would have cost Puerto Rico millions of dollars, no one questioned the significant figures I produced as an economist, a talking head.

Last year was the first time I lived and worked somewhere with no end in sight, and I feared more than anything that I would get bored too quickly. In the Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann writes, “What people call boredom is actually an abnormal compression of time caused by monotony… When one day is like every other, then all days are like one, and perfect homogeneity would make the longest life seem very short.” I blamed routine for compressing large stretches of my post-college years into nothing more than work, food, books, and sleep. This year would be different. I booked weekend trips to Paris and Madrid. I signed up for a marathon. I let myself obsess over Gordon.

 

Gordon was a friend from my old consulting job. He sent me fountain pens after I moved to England. He liked journaling just as much as I did, and that was enough for me to project all my fantasies onto him about the kind of person I thought he was.

On my second day back in New York City for the second time, Gordon and I spent the night in the Orchard Street Hotel in Lower East Side, where I stayed for relocation housing for my new job before I found an apartment. We were in a room with floor-to-ceiling windows revealing Manhattan’s skyline. We left the curtains open and saw the city lights illuminating all the metaphorical notions of New York City—the endless possibilities, the people I hadn’t met yet, but the person I wanted to be with the most was beside me.

“I’ll fuck you until the sun comes up,” he said. I thought to myself, like a child, That means you’ll be here at least until the sun comes up?

He fell asleep with his arms around me. I faced him, awake. I needed to see him to know he was real, and he was the most beautiful person I had ever seen.

An hour after the sunrise, he called an Uber to go to work.

“See you whenever,” he said, walking a few steps backwards to smile and wave as he left.

I’ve never witnessed the death of someone I love but I became familiar with the thought that I would never see someone or someplace again, like riding in the cab to the airport in Marrakesh and seeing Gordon turn away to enter the Uber.

It would be another week before I heard from him again.

It would be another two weeks until we saw each other again, and then another four weeks, and then another two months, and finally, another six months.

“Work has been busy,” he always said, as he kissed my forehead.

There is a line in one of my favorite poems by Robert Hass that says, “Longing, we say, because desire is full of endless distances.” I ran twenty miles back and forth along the edges of Manhattan in January weather to release the anguish in my body that had nowhere else to go, the anguish from seeing my messages to him left on read, our canceled plans, his Instagram photos of the views from the bedrooms of other women. At least anguish was better than feeling nothing at all.

I recently read my journal entries from last year. I had written in verbatim everything Gordon said to me using the fountain pens he gave me. I cringed every time I decipered a mention of the things he said we’d do “next time,” things we never got around to doing. I thought about how much false hope I held onto for a next time, like the false hope I gave the Tinder strangers who lay beside me. They say there are five languages through which people express their love, but everyone expresses indifference in the same way.

 

The day after my Tinder adventure with the stranger, my boss brought me into a conference room for my annual performance review. He handed me a sheet with my new compensation statement and bonus. I tried not to cry, not because I was overwhelmed with joy, but because I feared I couldn’t leave if I ever got sick of my job. This was the lure of the corporate world—more money, more prestige, more benefits. People worked in jobs like these all their lives, living each year on repeat until retirement or death. As he gave me my new responsibilities, I imagined myself moving across a monopoly board, my insides burning with nausea.

I remembered the time I won a game of Monopoly in 11th grade. I built hotels on Park Avenue and Broadway, and charged my friends $2,000 Monopoly dollars each time they landed on one of my properties. When it came my turn, I moved my thumbtack across the board, landing on my own properties. We each rolled the dice for a few more turns until I said that this game was becoming meaningless. We laughed because none of us had ever seen someone win Monopoly before. So, this is how the game ends, when the person who has everything is no longer having fun.

The night of the performance review, I ran ten miles to sweat out my discomfort and walked home with an endorphin high, but I still wanted another hit. I opened Tinder. To me, Tinder offered infinite novelty and a constant sense of improvement—the antidotes to routine. Perhaps that’s why New Yorkers and I were never satisfied. How could anyone in New York City ever be content with the reminder at the tips of our fingers, a glance at the skyline, a stroll through a crowded subway, that something and someone better was always accessible.

After ten minutes of swiping, I had new messages from twelve beautiful men. Most said something generic, like “Hi” or “Happy Friday!” Next.

I opened a message from someone, whose name also happened to be Gordon. He majored in English and was an aspiring data scientist. He wrote, in response to my bio that I worked in data science and liked literature,

import random

print “What are you in the mood for? Choose: ‘a’, ‘b’, or ‘c'”

print “a – Existential Repose”

print “b – Adventurous Romanticism”

print “c – Something Dark and Russian”

lit = {

“a”: [“Milan Kundera”, “Albert Camus”, “Herman Hesse”, “Jean-Paul Sartre”],

“b”: [“Alexandre Dumas”, “Jules Verne”, “H. G. Wells”, “Victor Hugo”],

“c”: [“Leo Tolstoy”, “Fyodor Dostoyevsky”, “Anton Checkov”, “Nikolai Gogol”]

}

answer = raw_input(‘> ‘)

if answer in lit:

    r = random.randrange(len(lit[answer]))

    print “Check out:”, lit[answer].pop(r)

else:

    print “Uh-oh. Try again and type ‘a’, ‘b’, or ‘c'”

 

Nice try, I thought, but your Python syntax is outdated. Learn Python 3. I responded anyway, since all I was looking for was someone who put in the effort to read my bio, who made me feel loved or desired or special.

We met at the lobby bar of the Randolph Hotel in Midtown. He ordered a Pilsner, I had a Maker’s Mark with Diet Coke, and we talked about finance, tech, working out, the weather, Europe—so vapid, all the topics I feared talking about. We parted ways on the corner of 6th and 44th, and he laughed awkwardly, presumably because he didn’t know how to say goodbye to someone he would never see again. I added that it was great to meet him and I would be down to hang out again, though the abnormally high pitch of my voice must have given away that I was lying.

I checked my phone and saw that he had messaged me on Tinder, apologizing for the worst goodbye in the history of goodbyes and suggesting “dinner or something.” I responded that I’d be down for “dinner or something.” He gave me his number and I saved him as Gordon 2.0, because I thought it was funny that I now knew two Gordons, but I wasn’t planning on texting him. I had infinite options and finite time. I was in New York City.

I opened Tinder and swiped left on almost everyone. I felt entitled to being extra picky, lest I ever had to suffer through a boring date again. I compensated for vulnerability with vanity. When I swiped right on someone who didn’t match me back, I stared at the screen in disbelief. Few people! I thought, Are smarter! More successful! More attractive! And as interesting as I am, my shitty personality notwithstanding—

“There’s no one around you. Expand your discovery settings to see more people.”

Even New York City had its limits.

I felt faint and sank into my bed to reflect on my impending life without Tinder. Tinder was my portal to finding people who could be empty vessels onto which I could offload my apparatus of free-floating romantic obsession so that I could have fodder for long essays and spare time. This was not a good way to treat people, but I didn’t see them as really ‘people.”

When I didn’t have someone new to obsess over, or a one night stand, or an excuse to drink, or a flight to catch, or a run long enough to send my body into so much shock that my brain had to release endorphins to mask the pain, then I had to concentrate on doing my job well and being a good friend and challenging myself to write, and just do stuff without being distracted.

I feared that moments like these—moments that reminded me that I could not escape routine—were inevitable no matter how many times I changed cities. I never wanted to leave New York, but I didn’t want to live here forever. What an exciting yet discomfiting hallmark of our youth that everything with a semblance of permanence is also fragile.

The next day, and the next week, and the next month, I went to work, spent time with my friends, worked out, enjoyed nice meals, read books, and overslept. I knew each moment was fleeting and I tried to savor as many emotions as I could, even if they were only momentary pleasures and displeasures, grateful to feel things besides the apathy I felt in previous years.

Perhaps I like Camus’ interpretation in The Myth of Sisyphus, that people, like Sisyphus, are condemned to roll a stone up a mountain only to have it fall down again, but, “The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Perhaps true happiness occurs when one is content that the same year could circulate on repeat, with age being the only variable factor. I still don’t know if I believe that Sisyphus is happy, but I am open to the possibility.

 


Nancy Wu is an economist and interdisciplinary storyteller based in New York City. She created and hosts POC Podcast (Progressive Opinions of Color), which amplifies stories from leaders of color in policy and culture. She’s attended workshops at Tin House and is working on a memoir.