The thing about hanging out is that it’s not like it used to be. Jeremy and Emma both remember a time, an adolescent time, when certain aspects of their experience will have been similar enough. Meaning, on some things they would relate. After school, on a Friday, say, they’d be allowed to go out, meet a group of friends, and go to a movie. Going to a movie. That’s what both would’ve said to an inquiring, supportive if somewhat suspicious and “protective” parent. Don’t just hang out—that would’ve been the parent’s tacit injunction. Hangin’ out is idle time; it is the devil’s work.
Jeremy and Emma agreed to hang out on a Friday night. Each was weary from their respective work weeks, yet eager to meet the other: first time “live”. Both had suitably professional yet murky, middle-of-the-road, 21st century jobs. Jeremy was something called an operations manager with a facilities management company. Emma was a platform coordinator for a start-up. When they’d first announced these facts it had been with flat disinterest, like they were comparing specs on an electronic device they’d just purchased through Amazon. That was their first time speaking on the phone, sometime after each had stopped swiping on the dating site in order to…I think the word is gaze, at each other. The talking was more careful than the writing. Once, over text, Emma quipped that while hers and Jeremy’s educational lives were comparable, and their ages and work experience more or less equal, their salaries likely weren’t. Jeremy’s reply had been cautious. “No doubt”, he appeared to concede while being coy, also over text. Over their one and only zoom meeting, he was less reticent, and more openly accepting of Emma’s implications. He seemed to get that he’d better say the right things, evince the right attitude, if this thing with her was to have any legs. Emma was quietly impressed. Jeremy, she decided, was brave. Jeremy, she further summarized, was “woke”.
If Jeremy had tests for Emma they weren’t apparent to her, though she might have noticed that he had noticed the lightness of her examination. After all, he didn’t have to do much to demonstrate correct thinking, and neither did much to demonstrate sublimated passion. The banalities of the workplace had been one topic of conversation so far—a shared affinity for anime was another. Jeremy had a guilty pleasure around video gaming, he affably confessed. Emma, not so much. However, on the question of bad behavior she didn’t leave him hanging entirely, betraying a habit with social media. Jeremy assessed this furtively having heard maybe one too many references to friends whose latest deeds were known via Facebook or Instagram. Neither shared about big stuff, closeted or taboo material. Twenty-somethings from in-tact families peopled with numerous siblings, they’d had their share of problems. Both had been in therapy for stereotypical reasons: Emma had struggled with eating disorder her first and second years of college. Jeremy had spent those same years “talking to someone” about things he looked at on a computer other than video games.
Secretly, they’d both heard the term sex addict from at least one mental health professional. Jeremy’s experience of this had been squirmingly painful. His counselor was bluntly manful about the whole thing, urging his patient to see pornography for what it really is: a life-dulling, women-objectifying monstrosity. Despite that agenda, the air of those sessions was self-consciously “compassionate”. Jeremy felt pitiable as he was warned about the problems of sex addiction: that he’d be at risk of being impotent; that he was contributing to the mistreatment of women; that he’d struggle to achieve half-mooted goals of being a stable, decent, vaguely religious and largely conformist family man. Frowningly uneasy, Jeremy couldn’t decide which consequence sounded the worst. Emma’s take, as in what she “took in” from therapy, had been quite different. She binged and she purged. That was the problem, so she wouldn’t “take in” easily. Regardless, the consequences that she’d been warned about relating to sex were more conventionally urgent: she was in danger, either of getting pregnant in an unwanted away, or of catching an STI; of getting raped, maybe. In her case, religion was invoked, sort of, though the problem there was her persecution via others’ judgements, not the incongruency of her own values with her actions. As for treatment of the opposite sex, it seemed that men were only relevant as victimizers, not as people who might be harmed by anything she did.
As they Ubered together to a restaurant in Bat Guano Plaza, Jeremy and Emma rolled by a group of kids hanging out on a streetcorner that was kitty corner to a mall. The pack of seven or eight were a middle-school-to-high school milieu, hovering in that stage of life wherein sex beckons acoustically. Jeremy and Emma chuckled and pointed, each dredging from memory the familiarity of shuffling movements, the sideways, fragmented exchanges that were nothing like what had been desired, much less rehearsed, ahead of time. Emma gestured at one boy and voiced a sympathetic moan. He’d ill-advisedly brought a back-pack but not a phone, so he looked a little like a refugee from the twentieth century: someone who might stand alone, gazing at a group, bereft when there’s nothing in his hands to play with. He was a runt destined to be left behind by the group; perhaps eaten by a lurking predator. That was Jeremy’s remark, which Emma thought morbid, if just about funny. Over dinner and its strolling-in-the neighborhood aftermath, Jeremy and Emma spoke further of this scene and the memories it had triggered: reflections on youth that each shared verbosely.
They were close to something; close to each other, potentially. Multi-tasking, deploying a work persona and a skill first practiced in settings like middle-school, Jeremy maintained a light if credible interest while plotting how to voice his budding, fragile desire. He fashioned in his mind how to phrase something like, “do you wanna hang out some more, at my place maybe?”. The light was dim. The hot day was ending and the moon, burnt orange as if touched by wildfire, was peaking above a mountain. Emma was strolling more athletically, keeping a step ahead of her date, he noticed with piqued curiosity, possibly consternation. Was she poised to run away, bored by him all of a sudden? Was his half-listening demeanor not nearly as winning or intriguing as he thought it was? Perhaps he should abort the whole hanging out further thing? A quick retreat and re-think: that was in order, he seemed to decide.
Emma laughed. They’d hit a private stretch, several yards before and behind them with no fellow pedestrians. Alone time. Phones were in pockets, not yet summoned for an escapist Uber ride or a shared trip to….the question lingered, the possibilities in play. What did she want? Jeremy fretted. What was she laughing about, he wondered, seeing no hapless kids around to make fun of.
“What?” he asked.
She contrived hesitation, seeming quite confident and pensive. “I dunno…I was thinking about how we talk, what we talk about. I was thinking of sending you a text, asking for a dick pic”.
He wasn’t sure he’d heard her right, was about to ask “what?” again, only in a voice that was shriller. But he knew. There was no denying what he’d heard, try as he might to erase it. Jeremy felt a wave of tension cloud over him. A pressure front stormed in about his shoulders and worked its way down, cooling his feet and then crashing on a pavement beach.
Seconds passed: a pregnant moment in which thought was past its due date. Emma’s head turned away, and pressure re-ignited, further mounting in Jeremy’s chest. He felt a crushing sensation, something familiar if forgotten arising for a second wave. Had she done something wrong? Was this another test? There would be only split seconds left for him to decide what to do…to respond somehow. Nothing said would be a response, but it would be a killer. Something said could induce a variety of effects, all of them better than silence, contrary to what Jeremy implicitly believed.
“Yeah, I don’t think so”, he uttered finally. He’d taken one moment—one more split second—to craft the words, measure his sound. No judgement. No stammering. No affect. A perfect response, he thought—one that would bring matters to an end. No more discussion. The end. The dinner date was over. Emma would soon return home to her apartment, head straight for the bathroom and purge the disgusting shrimp entrée she’d earlier pretended to enjoy. As for Jeremy, well, he would settle in for an evening before his laptop and a spell of “Catherine: Full Body”, satisfied that he would not get eaten on this occasion.