Shedding The Armor

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Ethan stroked the stem of his wine glass and leered at me.

“So, Francesca, what are you looking for?”

Heavy internal sigh. Here we go.

I brushed a dark curl behind my ear and managed a weak smile. “Do you mean, like, existentially?” I knew what he meant.I always knew what a guy meant when asked that question. Ethan turned to look for a server to order another drink and I turned my phone over to sneak a peek at the time. We hadn’t been sitting at our mezzanine table twenty minutes and already it had begun.

“I mean from CatchMe,” Ethan said. He was referring to the dating app where we met. “Are you looking for Mr. Right or Mr. Right Now?”

A throbbing sensation appeared at my temples.In my head I was looking for my wallet so I could slap two twenties on the table and leave. On paper Ethan was my type. Reedy with thinning brown hair, Ethan cycled and trained for triathlons. Physically, he ticked all the boxes. His profile was succinct and direct. He knew what he liked (confidence) and what he didn’t like (flakiness). Introverted but social, he valued his alone time as much as he did planning dinners for his close circle of friends. He was independent and self-sufficient, like me.

“You wore that black dress,” he said. “The same one from that picture in your profile.” Ethan’s eyes scanned my curve-hugging dress, resting just a beat too long on the keyhole slit between my breasts. “Did you wear it because I told you how sexy you look in it?”

I bristled. “No. I wore it because I like how sexy I look in it.” You and your male gaze can suck my dick.

“Whatever the reason, you look really sexy.” Ethan raised his wine glass to his lips and winked at me. “Your curves are distracting.”

“Thank you,” I said through a sneer.

Acid gurgled in my stomach. Men expressed unsolicited approval of women’s bodies because they assumed we were insecure about them. It was a ploy to get us to lie back for them with greater ease. I see you, bitch.

“You probably don’t hear that a lot. Most men like petite women. Not me. I like ’em with a little meat on their bones.”

If he were sitting any closer the heat from my flared nostrils would have singed his eyebrows. I scraped the soles of my slingbacks on the granite floor like a bull pawing up dust. That’s it. Comfy sweats and a re-run of Grey’s Anatomy was better than enduring any more back-handed compliments from this toad.

I pointed my index finger at him. “I don’t know who you think you are but–” My cell lit up and I heard the ding of an incoming text. And then another. And then another.

“It’s fine,” Ethan said. He pulled his phone from his jacket pocket. “I need to check my email anyway. I might be meeting someone later.”

The hand resting in my lap curled into a fist. On top of everything else he was a double-booker. He really knew how to make a girl feel special. I picked up my phone to read the messages. The texts were from Chloe, my magazine’s social media manager.

I’m stuck in the bathroom with Pepper.

She’s drunk and she got into a fight. Greg’s here.

What do I do?

Chloe’s panic jumped off the tiny screen. “I’ll be right there,” I typed back. “Keep her in the bathroom. Do. not. let. her. out.”

Another epic Pepper melt down. My patience for these public outbursts of hers was wearing thin. Learning your fiance cheated and calling off your engagement sucks, but enough is enough.

I seized my purse from the floor and dropped my phone inside of it. “I’m sorry, but I need to go. Work emergency.”

“What kind of work emergency happens at eight o’clock?” Ethan knitted his brows. “You haven’t even finished your drink.”

I downed my martini and slapped the empty glass on the table as if I’d just thrown back a shot of tequila. Whoa. Take it easy, girl. You didn’t eat dinner.

“It’s for the best. I don’t really think we’re a fit,” I said. “I don’t want to waste your time.”

Ethan reeled backwards in his chair. “Maybe you should have thought about that before I paid for your drink,” he spat. I half-expected him to cross his arms across his chest and pout. Careful, Ethan. Your entitlement is showing.

I took my wallet from my purse and fished out a twenty-dollar bill. “Here.” I slid the money across the linen table-cloth. “I wouldn’t want you to go broke because of me.”

He grabbed the twenty and shoved it in his jacket pocket. “No wonder you’re alone,” I heard him say as I got up. I winced and bit the inside of my cheek. Keep walking. No matter how tempting it is to dump the rest of his Cabernet over his balding head, keep walking.

Woozy from ingesting the entirety of my extra dirty martini in one sip, I clung to the rail of the spiral staircase until I’d made it to the first floor. I gave the hostess a strained smile and pushed open the heavy wooden door leading to the street. My burning cheeks cooled in crisp September air. I made it as far as the corner of Thirty-First before the first tear fell.

There are three weapons people use against a woman to mortally wound her: her age, her body, and her relationship status or lack thereof. In a city like Manhattan – one crammed with shallow douchebags like Ethan – you didn’t get to forty-two years old while possessing a curvy figure without having to defend yourself from such attacks. Why did I keep going back to the empty well that was online dating? I outranked and outearned most of the men I encountered on those sites, even the ones for “elite” single people. I owned a successful online magazine; on paper I was worth a few million. So why was I picking through the reject bin known as CatchMe like some bargain shopper who couldn’t afford to do better?

Standing on the curb, I flagged down cab and instructed him to take me to Fifty-first and Eighth. I closed my eyes and rested my head back against the leather seat. There were a myriad of reasons why I was alone. There was nothing conventional about me: I was a size ten (Okay, twelve) with wild curls and a hair-trigger temperament. Too hard, too demanding, too direct. I was always too much of something. After every date I went home, opened a bottle of wine, and wondered if anybody would ever find me just right.

But here’s the kicker: with the pain of rejection and feelings of unworthiness after every bad date came a wave of relief. I didn’t need to pay my shrink two hundred dollars a pop to tell me that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over expecting different results. I returned to the muck of online dating because nothing ever worked out. Rejection protected me. Just like most of the men I met online, I was unavailable. My therapist used more specific terms like “dismissive avoidant” and “attachment challenged.” As she explained, disorders like this stemmed from a lack of parental support during childhood. That’s what it always comes down to, doesn’t it? Fucked up parents? Only mine weren’t fucked up. My mother died when I was five and my father – too immersed in his own grief – emotionally checked out. My one sister, Lucy, was all I had. When she’d go out on dates I’d stay up until after midnight, too riddled with anxiety that she wouldn’t come home to fall asleep. That paralyzing fear of losing someone has never left me. So, yeah, “attachment challenged” was pretty on the nose.

My chest tightened as the taxi pulled up in front of Taboo. All I wanted to do was go home and remove these over-priced heels I bought to go with this dress. The pointy front of the four-hundred dollar patent leather shoe had rubbed my toes raw. Instead I was headed to crowded lounge where hundreds of bloggers and social media influencers were gathered to celebrate the launch of Rogue, an online men’s magazine. Parties like this were full of pretentious narcissists posing for selfies and coming up with braggy hash tags to go with their tweets.(A hot Editor I had an interview with a few months ago just asked me to give him head in the bathroom #bulletdodged)

It was part of my job to I attended these soirees under protest, anticipating the smirks and whispers. Yes, I was that woman. The one you read about. Google me and you won’t have to go beyond the first page to read about how my personal life and career converged at just the right angle to make them both come crashing down. As exasperated as I was to be here performing damage control (again), I knew the humiliation she was in for if she didn’t get it together. If I could prevent her from making herself fodder for gossip blogs, I’d do it.