By Jowita Bydlowska
He looked exactly the same as he did on the Apps, in the picture with the baseball hat.
He ordered a slice of bread with a vegan thing on it. It came with sauces that showed up in small fussy containers. The waitress wore her hair in a ponytail, straight like a blade. There was a smell of chocolate in the air from the former Nestle factory in the area.
I liked his nose, the wide nostrils. I talked too fast because I was a nervous person or I was just like most people on a first date. I briefly wondered if he thought I was desperate. He said the age thing on the Apps was a glitch. He was 10 years younger. I didn’t mind that, I didn’t mind any of it.
The chocolate factory had recycled itself into a modern art museum, the kind of a place you could pay $20 to see films of people screaming silently, or stare at pebbles arranged in piles and patterns in rooms with metal lockers lining up walls. I brought up the museum because it was nearby and I didn’t know what to talk about with someone his age. Art was always safe and made you look smart even if you weren’t, which I wasn’t.
Isaac had not been to the museum, yet. But we could go, he said, as if we’ve known each other for 12 years and I was exhausting him. I wondered what his penis looked like.
The restaurant had concrete walls that echoed coughs and clinking glass. I took a picture of the lighting fixture above our table. I wanted to look up what those light bulbs were called. They’re great little things, really energy-efficient, Isaac said. His father was in real estate. I knew this. I looked everything up prior to the date just like any normal person would. On Instagram, Isaac’s early pictures showed him with a girl who was a model in Hong Kong. I also found an obituary: Isaac’s grandfather died the year before and he had 12 grandchildren one of whom was named Halina, which was an unusual name. I liked it.
They’re called filament bulbs, Isaac said, about the lights after a long pause. He seemed too young and too polite to be the kind of a man who liked to explain things to women, yet he had lied about his age so I knew I shouldn’t assume things about him. I reached out for a piece of bread from his plate. I’m not sure if I did it to show dominance. I am not particularly dominant.
I asked him to drop me off at my niece’s daycare. I wanted him to consider that children happened. It was better than having to ask him if he had a condom, later, not that a condom would prevent anything child-related at that point. I wasn’t sure if someone so young would know to have condoms. It was too embarrassing to have them myself—it was a lot more embarrassing than it was to have sex with a new person who could have all kinds of opinions on your body.
I saw him again, on Friday. At his place you clapped your hands and a wall lit up in a neon design that looked like a formula of a chemical equation. He said it was called nanoleaf. I said I couldn’t wait to see what kind of lights he had upstairs. He looked at me.
I said, I thought you were good at lights.
Ha ha, he said. He pulled out his phone and started answering texts or maybe comment on tiktokers making smoothies, I couldn’t see. His dog slobbered over and sat beside me, all teeth and a wool face. I remembered the dog from the pictures on the Apps. She was named after a flower or a pastry, I couldn’t recall.
He told me to pick a movie. I felt he’d think me presumptuous for saying that stuff about lights upstairs. What if he wanted to have sex with me but on the couch?
He had tattoos, and posters of tattoos on his walls. He was in cryptocurrency. I knew nothing about that.
I picked a movie about alien plants. There was a famous actress in it whose nose turned pink when she cried. In the movie, she was married to a man with a beard and they had no chemistry even though she cried extra hard after he died.
Shortly after the movie started, Isaac placed his hand on my breast. Instantly, I turned to face him, as if he pressed a button. I felt obliged. We started kissing. His dog made a noise that sounded approving. I once slept with a guy whose dog liked to watch us have sex. I decided I would ask Isaac if he could put his dog in a crate or in her own bedroom once my top was off—I wasn’t sure where she slept but she probably had her own bedroom.
We took breaks to watch the flick in-between kissing. I thought of those queue machines that spat out numbers in government buildings. That’s what it felt like to be sticking out my tongue whenever he would press on me as the people on the screen kept dying horrible, green, sticky deaths.
Later on, upstairs in his bedroom, he undressed as if he was in a locker room at the gym. He folded his clothes. I guessed he was a sociopath. He wasn’t my first sociopath. I didn’t come. On the way out, I took a picture of his dog and then of the neon lights on the wall.
After that date, I wished I had a dog. I don’t have close friends. The dog would go with me everywhere and I would teach it not to slobber all over me like Isaac’s dog.
We were having a really nice fall this year. I hated my job less. I talked to my mother on the phone and she asked me if I had a good coat. I had a good coat I bought from a second-hand store.
I ran into Luke there and he complimented me on my hair. I hadn’t cut it in months. I’ve always loved Luke’s hands and watched them as he paid for his purchases, a silk scarf, probably for a girl. Men moved on quickly. Luke owned a shop, a place called Twilight, that sold useless items like lunchboxes with faces of actors from the 80s television printed on them, or porcelain piggy banks that weren’t pigs but pineapples or small houses. Also Polaroid cameras. Everybody was obsessed with Polaroid, Luke had boxes of pictures of ex-girlfriends—mine included—and people’s feet and blurry, desolate landscapes. I debated telling him that I missed my period. The sales girl asked him if he wanted the scarf wrapped up. He said no.
Are you getting that coat? He sounded friendly and tired. He had probably been up all night fucking his new girlfriend. One time we didn’t leave the bed for 24 hours. Afterwards, he had a rash on the back of his thighs.
His apartment was full of objects that nobody played with any more like typewriters and toy trains. And Polaroid cameras, of course.
How is the shop, I wanted to ask as we stood in the lineup but instead, I said I was getting the coat. I thought he liked it. It was wool. The sleeves were too short.
Good seeing you, he said. Have a nice day.
Outside I texted Isaac and told him to take me to the museum with video screens and rubble. He said, yes, sure. He had to do some cryptocurrency stuff, first. I asked to explain. He said something about mining but then he lost me.
I needed to do something about my ass. I was squeezing it as we talked and there was too much of it. Luke said asses were fine. Floppy upper arms not. A man smiled at me. I stopped squeezing. I was behaving like an animal.
I decided to go to a restaurant alone. I was going to have a me-day. I picked a place called Hello 123. I wondered if the owners were too tired to bother coming up with something more clever. I imagined some exhausted woman in a white chef’s coat screaming, Fine, why not just Hello 123?! And the other owner probably sulked because he had literary ambition and he wanted to name it after a novel by a Japanese author or a former communist country.
The menu was mostly bowls of grain and various sprouts and other punishment food. I ordered a smoothie that had seven ingredients, three of them unpronounceable. The walls were white tile; everything else was wood. The dishes were named after healthy things that were supposed to happen to the eaters, such as Detox, Energy Booster, Relax, Happy. Mine was Happy. I doubted it would work.
A woman at a table next to me had a big, fluffy dog, so white it looked bleached. She said his name was Barksdale. I pet him. I did not wash my hands before eating. I thought of Luke. Luke climbing into his loft bed and giving his girlfriend the scarf. She’d wrinkle her nose. She could tell it was second hand. What a bitch. I would’ve been happy with it.
At home I watched videos on YouTube of various contestants blowing the judges away with their sad stories and their skills. A large singing child who was once bullied sang opera. A man with a stutter told jokes. A woman argued with her puppet. The puppet then played the piano and the woman kissed her on the top of her head when she was finished. A rain of golden scraps of paper fell from the ceiling and the woman and the puppet cried. I cried. I touched my stomach. Nothing about it felt different.
I emailed my mother the clip with the woman and the puppet, and a picture of my new-old coat.
Isaac liked the video of people pretending to be on vacation, their beach and palm trees superimposed onto a screen showing war atrocities, cars burning, women in headscarves wailing. We walked around the museum mostly in silence because he was on the phone, and it looked important. He was scowling at his phone. I told him about my job that I hated less. I sometimes cried at my desk.
But I guess I’m lucky, I said.
Yeah why? He was chewing gum. He didn’t look at me. His shoulder-length hair was in a ponytail. He was a lot more handsome than Luke who looked like a dad. Imagine a dad and that’s Luke. He even had sewn suede patches on the elbows of his suits.
Because I don’t live in a war-torn country.
Isaac and I made out in his truck. He still touched my breast as if he was being instructed by someone: press here, pinch nipple, press again, press harder. It was fine.
I’m thinking of getting a dog, I said when he stopped.
Dogs are a lot of work. Daisy was a nightmare until I sent her to puppy school.
I imagined this puppy school, little fluffy eager dogs sitting in desks, tongues out, watching the teacher draw a bone on the blackboard.
What’s so funny?
I told him. He said, That is funny, and unzipped his pants.
I gently pulled out his dick and stroked it. He threw his head back and moaned. In high school I pulled too hard on a boy’s penis and he asked if I worked on a farm.
Milking cows, you know?
I grew up in the city. I just never touched a penis before, prior to that boy.
I was both gentle and firm with Isaac and made him come. He said there were some Kleenexes in the glove compartment. There were two boxes with iPhonesX in the glove compartment as well. Unopened.
Are you rich? I said as he drove me home. He ignored the question. I felt both relieved and embarrassed.
Nice building, he said as he parked in front of my building. It was a nice building. Built in the 1930s, art deco as Luke told me. Luke appreciated it. He once took a picture of it with his Polaroid.
I’m comfortable, Isaac said. I plan to own a house before I turn 30. Renting is for idiots. You should own.
I should, I said. Well, I’ll be off then. Do you want to come up?
At home, I checked my email. My boss wrote that if I needed to stay home because I felt too sick, I should stay home. It was unacceptable to sleep at my desk. I didn’t write back that I finished scheduling all the important meetings and responding to all the important people. I had hoped the walls of my cubicle hid me for those 10 minutes I slept but I guess not. It was probably Kelly who told on me. She brought three sandwiches to work, every day, and I could hear her chewing. On the walls of her cubicle she pinned pictures of children whose facial features looked slapped together, almost as an afterthought. A missing nose or mouth would probably go unnoticed for a while as long as there were balloons celebrating the cretins’ birthdays.
I was very tired all the time.
I called Luke and asked if he would like to have a coffee.
He came over that evening and commented on the new blue rug in the living room. He took a Polaroid of my kitchen. There was a vase of flowers on the table and they were dying. That was from my me-day. I bought them. In magazines they always tell you to buy flowers and candles. Girl, you’re worth it!
We went into my bedroom and I took off my clothes. He took off his. He didn’t fold them. My bedroom was exceptionally clean and I hoped it conveyed soullessness. A photo of a falcon, framed, a photo of a dog, framed, a frame without a photo. A cabinet, two bedside tables and two lamps. The bed was always made, with a brown throw and white pillows. My sex toy was inside its velvet pouch with golden tassels, which was the only personal object. My inspiration was Airbnb.
Luke went down on me for a few minutes. He still had no idea where my clitoris was but that was fine. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed having him debase himself like that, licking my genitals. I thrashed and said, Oh god oh god.
He got on top. His penis was smaller than Isaac’s. He breathed in my neck and then said, I’m coming. He was polite like that. I was also grateful he’d always tell me because I couldn’t tell.
I hope you know this isn’t—he pulled on his jeans, then his sweater.
Of course not.
Don’t get a dog. They’re a lot of work.
Okay, I won’t.
I got the test from Dollarama. I also bought a dog toy.
I went into a bathroom in the mall and peed on a stick. I waited four minutes. I checked my Instagram. A person I followed lost a tooth and was starting a GoFundMe campaign to get an implant. Another person I followed posted a video of a bird landing on her head. I liked both pictures. I didn’t donate to the tooth campaign because I had to save up for the abortion. Not for the procedure itself—that was covered, I Googled immediately: “Ontario, abortion”—but for the pick-me-up. I wasn’t sure what that would be because I didn’t know how I was going to feel afterwards. If I was going to feel like a big spender—a hotel, a massage, cocaine—or a sad cry in a tub—bath salts, home.
What should I say about it? It was uneventful. I took the bus to Kitchener. I didn’t want to do it in my own town.
If this was a different story, I would’ve named him Henry because that was my favourite male name. Halina for a girl. H is my favourite letter. It sounds different in every language.
The noise was disturbing but I like industrial music so I told myself I wasn’t bothered by it. None of it seemed like it was happening to me. I was not in pain. I was uncomfortable. I told myself it was no worse than having a tooth extracted which made me think of the Instagram tooth person. The nurses were sweet. I wanted to ask one of them if she would like to be friends. Like in kindergarten. “Hi, wanna be my friend?” Maybe I was high. I was high. The thought came into my head and it made sense when it shouldn’t have had.
I took an Uber home. It cost me $132. I felt good about something, about splurging.
To adopt a dog, I had to write an essay and get three references, plus provide a place of employment and describe the place that I lived in. I felt embarrassed not being able to check the “backyard” or “balcony” box. I made up the name and an address of a veterinarian. Jeffrey Smalls which was the name of my first live-in boyfriend who was a drug dealer.
A couple of weeks later, a woman came over with a small, aggressive dog to see how we’d get along. This was not the dog I was applying for, this was a dog whose job was to come to people’s houses and judge if they were worthy. I spoke baby talk to the dog: Who’s a nice little boy?
It’s a female, said the woman who looked like the kind of a person who referred to cigarettes as “smokes.” She would not take her jacket off. Red was not her colour. The Pomeranian—she told me the dog’s breed—sniffed between my legs, licked my outstretched palm, barked without conviction and rolled on the ground before it settled into a sleeping position. I had no idea if the test went well. Sandra, because that was the dog woman’s name, said she’d get in touch. My apartment was too small for a big dog so let’s scratch that off the list. Plus am I aware of the costs? I was because in the application I put down I was willing to spend my week’s earnings on a dog, insurance and food and toys.
After they left, I locked myself in the bathroom. I lived alone but I still needed privacy. The woman downstairs was having a party and was playing “Don’t Rush” by DaBaby. I Shazamed it while sitting on the toilet. I Googled DaBaby. It made me sad to read DaBaby’s brother took his own life.
Isaac bought a house in Milton, Ontario, and showed me pictures of it. I wished he’d want to marry me despite our age difference. I imagined his Italian parents’ shock when he’d introduce me.
Very nice, I said about the house. It’s nice to see you back online.
He had left Instagram for about two weeks. He said he came back mostly because of people like me. Like what? I just posted stuff that had no meaning but was funny to me. A Barbie doll’s head in a trash pile. A praying mantis, a carpet in Calgary. An X-ray of my broken clavicle from a year ago.
We had sex on the couch. Daisy didn’t watch. She was staring into the fake fireplace screen on Isaac’s plasma tv, then she napped.
Isaac played music after we fucked. The music was familiar. Isaac looked at me, waiting. He seemed proud of himself.
I told him that when I was 23 I met this man in England who was about 42 and he introduced me to Depeche Mode.
Oh wow, Isaac said. Twenty-three, wow.
The music was good, cerebral, like pleasant surgery.
Isaac said, Will you stay over? We can have breakfast.
I thought about it for a moment. I appreciated the romantic gesture. I said so, I said, I appreciate the idea but I have to get up early. Work.
Okay, he kissed me on the forehead. I felt younger then, like a child. I gulped some air, kept the tears away. There was nothing more pathetic than a girl crying after sex.
Anyway, I decided I was definitely going to get a dog. I needed to care about something, or, rather, for something. It was obvious Isaac was thriving even at his young age and I didn’t think that was because of money.
Jowita Bydlowska’s last novel, Possessed, came out in 2022 and some people thought it was too sexually explicit. Jowita lives in Toronto with her son and a little white chihuahua. You can find her on Facebook.