The Manhattan man (“Man-man”) grew up a plane ride away from New York City. Fresh from graduation, he arrives still “in a relationship” with his college girlfriend, who can’t come to New York for practical, non-titillating reasons. He is better looking than she is. Or, perhaps, it’s she that is the prettier one. But in any case within their relationship is an attractiveness asymmetry borne out of the downy haired innocence of youth, much unlike the attractiveness asymmetries found in Manhattan, which are borne out of asymmetries in financial wealth.
Anyway, the Manhattan Man is pretty enough and in that first whirlpool month of living in Manhattan, he dutifully tells every girl who approacheth that he has a girlfriend back home. Upon hearing this, the girls’ smiles get even wider and they rest their lacquered hands on his forearm. He might as well have told them that he sleeps with a teddy bear. Manhattan girls are never threatened by non-Manhattan girls, and instantly assume, despite the Internet and everything, that Man-man’s college girlfriend is a woefully unsophisticated grandmother-in-training who buys her clothes from a Sears catalog. A hypothesis which doesn’t turn out to be true with nearly as much frequency as their other assumption: that unless college girlfriend moves to Manhattan soon, the relationship is doomed.
The Manhattan Man works in an office. He had a pretty standard, non-melodramatic childhood and therefore doesn’t have a chip on his shoulder or any other annoying major personality flaws. As a result, everyone at the office likes him and the creamy innocence he symbolizes, and soon he is playing two team sports after work and on the weekends. He has such a nice rosy flush when he’s running around!
Every night Man-man lies down on his bed with his laptop by his head, and talks to College Girlfriend via video chat. This is the development of the equilibrium of information exchange between them:
Stage 1: They both have so much to tell each other!
Stage 2: He still has a lot to tell her! But they are both sadly surprised when he asks her how her stuff is going, and try as she does, she can’t think of anything new since the last time they spoke.
Stage 3: Now he’s lost interest in telling her about his stuff. The reporting is tiresome and he feels like a dork when he talks about going to a cool hidden bar –like a little boy or worse, a tourist. So now on the phone he sounds a little bit like a sullen teenager, and this makes College Girlfriend feel frustrated, helpless, like seeing something die in your hands.
After a few torturous months in Stage 3, they break-up. Although Man-man was the first to lose interest in the relationship, he felt so guilty about it that he resolved to spare College Girlfriend the trauma of being broken up with. Instead, he thoughtfully behaved in an increasingly aloof manner until she couldn’t stand it anymore and finally broke up with him over the telephone, cried her heart out immediately afterwards, and then, unexpectedly, again when she changed her relationship status on the Internet.
Man-man goes on a dating frenzy. Well, okay, more like a hook-up frenzy. He pulls a lot of girls because they can sense the newness on him, and they know that this is a special and short period of a young man’s life, before he becomes cynical and well-dressed like the rest of the men in the city. The scarcity of the resource ignites demand, and the Manhattan Man simply sits back and enjoys the ride. As if the city were a buffet and he the buffet king, he gallops through the well-trodden phases and fetishes of a young Manhattan Man:
Both branches of exoticism (girls that look All-American but have foreign accents, and girls that look exotic but have All-American accents);
Girls who were born and bred in NYC and have intimidating fathers;
Girls who say they live in the Upper East Side but really it’s a six-floor walk-up in Spanish Harlem;
Girls who look like College Girlfriend;
Girls who look like his mom.
A few years of frolicking through his changing (I wouldn’t say evolving) proclivities, and now Man-man is in his mid-twenties and has developed a little bit of a bloat. It’s not that he’s fat. But he’s got a hard little watermelon belly on him now, and all the drinking and eating out has him retaining water like the Seven Sisters. Tufts of hair begin to grow in a spotty non-pattern on his fleshy back. Not only that, but all the grease in his diet has risen up to the tippity-top of each pore on his still child-like face, giving him a shiny sheen. His eyes are bloodshot. These days, if the angle isn’t right, and the lighting isn’t perfect, it’s really easy for him to look terrible in a picture –with his mouth stretched open and his eyes glazed over, his body limp and saggy, he looks like a giant fallopian tube. It is rumored that he has been going home with bridge-and-tunnel girls.
We have reached the nadir of Man-man’s existence (thus far). Now let’s get out of it!
On a typical Saturday afternoon, the Manhattan Man lies on the couch playing Xbox360. It’s sunny outside and all the status updates on his wall are some variant of “my life is divine because I am on a rooftop near grilled meats” accompanied by fuzzy pictures of early twenty-somethings with Hipstermatic halos around their heads. But Man-man doesn’t have enough energy to be around other people today. Also, it’s his mom’s birthday and he should call her but he can’t muster up the energy to do that, either, so as punishment he’s making himself find all the collectibles in every “chapter” of Gears of War 2.
The punishment is a sort of solace.
One of his flip-flops fall from his foot to the ground, but it doesn’t make a sound because there is a gigantic pile of soft garbage (tissues, paper towels, used bath towels, some girl’s fake leather jacket) on the ground and the shoe simply falls into one of its dark crevices.
It is this final unmet expectation of sound that becomes Man-man’s last straw.
He sits up straight as a rod and yells, “Enough!” Kicks off his other flip-flop and throws it across the room. It falls on an open pizza box with leftover crusts in it. He marches over to the box, closes it up with his flip-flop still inside, and throws the whole thing into the garbage. He proceeds to throw most of his apartment into the garbage. Then he strips down to his boxers, examines himself in front of his roommate’s full length mirror, drops down and does as many push-ups as he can (seven… okay, five) and takes a cold shower.
From that day on, Man-man’s actions are much more deliberate. He hates, really hates, the man that he used to be. “I was a loser!,” he often berates himself. He joins a gym and goes regularly, using the work-out app in his iPhone to stress and strain his muscles for maximum gain. He dresses better, too, by noticing other men on the morning subway commute, the ones who wear delicate beards, masculine glasses, and subtly textured shirts. He establishes routines, like waking up at the same time on the weekdays, eating multiple meals a day, and calling his mom on Sunday nights.
The water weight comes off, the grease decreases and Man-man looks better than ever. Moreover, he doesn’t look better because he looks tender and innocent, like a newcomer to the city. Now he looks good as a New Yorker. He looks good in spite of the cynicism and self-consciousness that might be lurking beneath his well-tailored threads. And the world at this point does the funny thing it always does when a Man such as the Manhattan Man pulls himself together: it runs towards him with open arms, like a child actor in an airport reunion scene, and flings itself at him, gives him everything he has ever wanted, and then a whole fleet of things he didn’t even know were available to law-abiding civilians. Male authority figures give him warm brotherly slaps on the back, women fight over each other just to be in his line of vision, and work promotes him three positions upward in one dazzling leap.
Smiling and gracious with this second welcome from the city that never sleeps, Man-man reaches that point in a twenty-something’s life when one feels the first bittersweet pangs of one’s own mortality. This begets a desire to be connected to his roots, and Man-man sends an apologetic little “hey, what’s up!” to College Girlfriend, who by now is already engaged to a thirty-four-year-old school teacher.
She ignores him.
But back to this connecting to roots thing. Man-man enthusiastically renews and strengthens ties with his friends from college and high school who have also relocated to Manhattan. And through this miasma of nostalgia and shared team mascots, he meets his next girlfriend. Let’s call her, oh… The One. She’s never just a random girl that he just met one night. She’s a friend of a friend, or the sister of a buddy, a co-worker’s something or other. She’s connected, you know? And this connection makes Man-man feel solid, like there is a dignity and maturity in mutual acquaintances. Indeed, he believes that there is something sacred, almost holy, about a shared past. (In contrast, early 20’s Man-man had been all about meeting people he’s never seen, in places he’s never been.)
And with that slightly sanctimonious perspective, our Manhattan Man moves to Brooklyn to share an apartment with The One. They also share chores, corkscrews, and external hard drives. They even get a dog. With The One’s help, Man-man becomes his best dressed self yet. The One is the same age as Man-man and has had time to form her opinions and thoughts about the world. As a result, there are skirmishes, arguments, brawls even. Growing together pains, a romantic might say. It is during these formative years that Man-man learns, really learns about women. Not just the female body when it is primped and ready to dance, but also when it is in recline against a headboard at 11.30 PM at night, set aglow by the cool rays of a laptop playing “The Real Housewives of.” And he learns about the female body that changes with time, that, oh let’s just say it, that ages.
The One, too, also discovers, she feels too late, this little catch about being female, and calls out to Man-man, from the bathroom, that she thinks she’s getting age spots. “They’re sun freckles,” he says without getting up to see. She spits toothpaste foam into the sink and closes the door to look at her face some more. That night instead of watching reality TV in bed, she gallops through seven online discussion fora about female reproduction, and by the time she shuts her laptop in half to go to sleep, she has a five-year plan.
Okay, three. It’s a three year plan. There isn’t time for five years!
When The One clearly, though rather emotionally, brings up the issue of her inner timepiece, Man-man sees the image of himself in a vice –the kind that he used in shop class to hold onto pieces of wood and acrylic while he sanded down their hoary sides– he sees that vice and he sees its handles turn as the two metal plates push closer and closer together. It makes him feel trapped, airless, like a video game character who’s just ran out of life-meter points and is in the throes of death and a dark red stain spreads across the screen, the color of death.
He doesn’t want this. He’s only in his twenties, he has a good couple of years before he turns thirty. And in a town where the magazines and newspapers would call a 40-year-old man a “play boy,” in a town where 20-year-old girls did not even blink twice when approached by men who could be their grandfathers (as long as they dressed nice of course), in a world where Man-man’s bosses haven’t even settled down, he does not want to die just yet. He wants to stay out. Gin-soaked sunrises on the Williamsburg Bridge. Montecrisos between everyone’s teeth. Mystery and vice. He wants to have unlimited, unbridled possibilities. He wants his life to be on the first page of a choose-your-own adventure novel, before any choices have been made, before any story arcs have been eliminated. He wants it all.
And so, Man-man, regressing back to the time when he didn’t have the cajones to break up with College Girlfriend, once again tries to force The One to break up with him by acting like a jackass. It’s cruel to break up with a girl that wants to carry, give birth to, care for, and raise your seed, Man-man reasons to his friends. None of them remind him that maybe it is even more cruel to make a girl wait in vain. So that when she’s 42 and finally giving birth to her first child, she’s paying extra insurance because it’s considered a high-risk procedure at that age, and in addition to worrying about shedding baby weight, she also worries about dying. Anyway, that’s hyperbole. She’s not even 30.
Man-man goes on very long walks with the dog. He hangs out with his single buddies many nights of the week. He stops participating in vacation planning. He stops paying attention to her face. He reads his iPhone through the few meals they have together. He breaks every promise to get milk/juice/eggs on his way home. He has lunch with the new girl at his office, and enjoys the fact that she meets him downstairs at the lobby in heels. She never wears heels.
In this cruel and painstaking way, Man-man drives The One towards something else in her life, be it her job, or another man. Maybe another man at her job. Something that gives her attention or demands so much attention from her that it makes her feel wanted, important, dire. She becomes a more serious person as a whole, and it’s not hard to see where the frown lines would appear, when they do, that fateful day.
One night, one of them comes home to the other, and sobbingly confesses that they’d just kissed someone else. After the initial sting of betrayal, they both sigh with long-sought relief.
The relationship is over.
The Manhattan Man recovers from the break-up with incredible agility. He moves out of their shared apartment and, with all the money he saved on rent during his years with The One, is able to afford a swank bachelor pad in Tribeca, Manhattan.
The prodigal son returns!