"Here, unmoving, doing the same thing as everyone around her, she was in control."
Karen looked up to her right at a man, leaning against the restaurant window, guidebook in the crook of his arm. With his combed hair and thin arms, he was neither handsome nor offensive, the only standout thing about him the red in his cheeks, which spread into mottled pink as she looked at him, like food coloring in water.
“I haven’t,” she said. “But I hear it’s great.”
“It’s the only dim sum restaurant in North America with a Michelin star,” he said in what she imagined was his most excitable voice, although it was hard to tell with his Southern drawl. “Oh, what am I saying? You’re a New Yorker. You know these things already.”
“You’d be surprised,” Karen said, looking down at her phone. “I hope you enjoy.”
“I will, ma’am.”
Karen put her earbuds in, but didn’t turn on any music. She often did this when waiting in line, so she could hear, but not participate, in the conversations around her, taking stock, an auditory voyeur. On her right, she heard the Southern man flipping the pages of his guidebook, grunting to himself when he came across a place he wanted to try. On her left, a couple argued about the translation of dim sum.
“That’s a stretch,” the man said. “It’s just the act of ordering small snacks.”
“But the Mandarin characters literally mean ‘point’ plus ‘heart,” said the woman. “Look it up. I like the idea.”
“Only forty-five more minutes. I’m starving, aren't you?”
She did lots of tasks for hire–running errands, cleaning, organizing, delivering munchies for high people—but unlike waiting in line, most of them were highly visible interruptions in people’s lives. Just yesterday, she had picked up diapers for new parents, standing awkwardly in their doorway while the mom fished in her purse for a tip, and the dad held the baby to his chest and stared at her. In that moment, she was at their service; here, unmoving, doing the same thing as everyone around her, she was in control.
It was that same desire that led her, despite her age and lack of a relationship, to bristle at the increasing suggestions to have children. It wasn’t that she hadn’t felt urges to procreate—lately, a downy baby head or a deep bass voice made her insides twitch and turn in a sort of biological tantrum—and it wasn’t because the world at this moment seemed particularly hostile. Even her inability to afford New York without taking on extra work didn’t stand in her way; her college friends with kids just moved further out, then outsourced the menial jobs to people like her. “Being a mom is a full-time job,” they’d say. “There’s zero shame in getting help.”
No, for Karen, it was about the desecration of the body. The assigning of purpose to the perfectly senseless act of sex, the process of bearing, then the literal labor—what else held such grotesque intimacy, such potential to ruin her interactions with men? She loved the first, and sometimes the second times, the adrenaline rush of new-skin contact, the strategic exchange of fluids. Once, in her twenties, she had let it go farther, her legs splayed open as they slept, his flatulence waking her in the night. When her period was late, he wrapped her in his arms, whispering condolences, and she felt sick, recoiling at his familial embrace. The test was negative, but she vomited anyway, ridding herself of the idea. To this day, her loved ones were convinced that breakup scarred her, that she was single because she couldn’t recover from the loss.
“Single women raise babies all the time. They even get pregnant on purpose,” her mom had said to her over lunch, as they selected egg rolls and mac-and-cheese from the corner deli’s hot buffet. “Well, maybe just celebrities. You should really find a man.”
“Fuck! I don’t want to even talk about it,” Karen had said, almost yelling. One of the construction workers sitting nearby raised his eyebrows at her and smiled as he bit into a hoagie.
Her mom rolled her eyes. “Yes, Karen. Because that’s the way it works.”
But Karen was skilled at staying steadfast. Last night, after another long, piecemeal day of work, she had slept with a guy she met while having a nightcap. He was textbook attractive, and he radiated a light scent of fabric softener, as if he were designed to mask the volatility hidden under women’s pores. When they had sex, it was focused, programmatically perfect, his condom-sheathed penis in and out without disruption or outburst.
“I’ll call you,” he said as he got dressed to leave.
She fiddled with her phone. “Please.”
“You look beautiful lying there,” he said, hopping up and down on one leg, pulling his boxers over the other.
“Want to go a second time?”
She put down her phone and looked up at him, her jaw clenched and eyes narrowed. “I should get to sleep. I have an early morning.”
The man turned toward her for the first time in the meal. “In the mood for dessert?” he said. “There’s an award-winning gelato place around the corner.”
Karen studied his face, crumbs under his nose, brown sauce on his cheek, and a slick of oil on his lips and chin. She imagined them leaving the restaurant, her with her chair and him with his guidebook, and down the block, newcomers to the line assembling behind them, eating eight flavors of creamy ice until she couldn’t take it anymore, at which point they would go back to his place and lay down, his greedy mouth between her thighs. Yes, she thought, she’d melt at his persistence, his dedication, his lust for longevity.
“I have to go,” she said. “I have work to do.”
He swiped the back of his hand across his lips and laughed. “It’s ice cream.”
“Okay,” she said, following him to the exit. “Just one more treat.”