It started like any other dumb relationship. No particular red flags.
I’m reading this book on Afro-pessimism, he said. A white guy. He closed the book on his thumb to keep his place and held it up to show me the cover.
Oh, yeah? I topped off his coffee.
How about you? You’re a person of color, he said. Helpfully. Would you call yourself a pessimist?
Canada’s burning, I said. Maui’s burning. Our president just signed away Alaska.
I wouldn’t call myself anything.
I tried writing an honest Tinder ad once: 31yo waitress. Divorced, no kids. Likes science documentaries, very vanilla sex, quiet evenings at home.
Not exactly a date magnet. Not exactly a catch.
He was a new tenure-track assistant professor of film studies up at the university, he said, specializing in noir.
What’s that, I made the mistake of saying.
It was good I only had two other tables.
Not right in the head, my aunt used to say.
Neurodivergent, said the high school counselor. Autistic, no cognitive impairment, 156 IQ. Highly unusual for a girl, he said.
He was sorry to hear there were no plans for college. He was sorry the school district didn’t offer any special enrichment opportunities for students like me.
But he’d be very happy to provide one-on-one tutoring, he told my chest.
Oh, yeah? I gave him the warm smile. Noir, noir, noir. That’s really interesting, I said.
It’s called masking. I wouldn’t be much of a waitress without it. Imagine the tips.
I love how retro it is in here, he said, gesturing around. Like, really beautifully preserved. He was from New Jersey. He loved old diners. He’d never seen one this authentic. He’d never been to West Virginia before they flew him in for the job talk.
I tried to imagine someone buying me a plane ticket just to interview. Not only me: two other people. Paying for our hotel rooms. Our food.
Then telling two of us no.
One of my tables was a mom with kids. Cute. The little one was acting up. I brought over a handful of crayons and drew a circle on the placemat, and the little one grabbed the crayon and started to draw circles. That’s great, I said. Look at that. I asked the mom how old they were and so on.
When I went to his table, he said, You’re good with kids.
I sincerely love kids, but you’d have to be a sick fuck to bring any into this world.
Thanks, I said.
You’ve never been out of the state? The film professor laid down his fork.
The word for his expression was incredulous, but even thinking it irritated me.
So what kind of things do you do for fun around here?
Smoke weed. Walk in the forest alone. Masturbate with a nine-inch purple vibrator until I fall asleep.
Play backgammon on my phone, I said out loud. Also true. Also soothing. If a panic attack starts late at night, backgammon takes up just enough brain-space to distract me from the spiraling death-thoughts.
To be clear, I’m not an aggressive player. It gives me no pleasure to knock the little circles onto the middle strip. I just want to get my own pieces home safe. I play more of a quiet defense.
Sometimes I throw a game or two, just to give the algorithm false hope.
Choking’s not that weird. Some guys just like to choke you. Some guys spank. So what? No big deal.
Guys are weird. Guys are guys. It wasn’t that.
Okay, but kind of angle your arm a little more, okay? Good, he said. Yeah, that’s great.
Underneath me, his rug was thick and comfortable. Shag.
He pulled the camera back down from his face.
Okay, but kind of widen your eyes a little, like you’re actually dead. Like you’re looking into the void.
It wasn’t hard.