The Ballad of Manhattan Man

This is not a story about the fancy Manhattan man, or the down-on-the-dumps man. Our subject is not a genius, an artist, nor a bad man. He is just a man who lives in Manhattan –The Manhattan Man.

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);
  • Older women;
  • Models;
  • 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!

The Manhattan Man plunges head first into the life of a white collar bachelor in the city. Since his last dip in the party pool, he has become bolder, more authoritative, and infinitely better at understanding the wants and wiles of women. They say that behind every successful man is a great woman, but did you also know that before every successful man is a long-term relationship?

Now pay attention as Manhattan Man makes one of the biggest discoveries a man in his position will ever make: younger women. Before, younger women were either illegally young, or overshadowed by their older compatriots, who were alluring to Man-man because they knew things that he didn’t know. Now that Man-man is older and wiser, he realizes that he can satisfy his need for depth separately from his need for women. He prefers younger women not just because they have smaller pores and firmer asses, but because older women reek of desperation. Well, enough of them did that he could no longer look at any of them without suspecting that they do. That niggling suspicion that they see him as a sperm bank, a necessary ingredient in their life dish. He doesn’t appreciate the objectification.

Also, women his age (late twenties, early thirties) have just stumbled upon and are still reeling and dealing with the fact that despite it being the 21st century and all, the world kind of still sucks for girls. And this reeling and dealing is, to Man-man and all bystanders, ugly, unpleasurable, and boring. In contrast, it is so much sweeter to sup from the fountains of more youthful paramours, whose realizations have only pitched them further forward on the positive slope towards imaginary roads.

Man-man wants to take one of these young fawns, these cocksure colts, these bold young bucks, and protect her from anything that might sully her glowing ignorance, her beautiful immaturity, her childish toes and stupid tiny tattoo. In this way, he hopes, he will keep her young forever. Maybe it is he that is the fountain of youth.

But Man-man is not having success in finding a young girl for keeps. He goes to the meatpacking district, he goes to fancy lounges, he goes to dingy hidden bars, he goes to mirrored hotel bars in the middle of a swimming pool lit up with neon lights. He is spending a lot of money buying pretty girls drinks and they are, yes, sparkling with the attention and returning his banter, and tilting their heads towards him when he says stupid clever filler shit to them. Sure, all that is happening. He has a ton of awesome profile pictures.

But nothing is sticking. These Princeton-educated girls with tawny colored eyes, these willowy creatures from the Czech republic who are not afraid to speak their minds. They aren’t sticking. It’s like Garfield sticking his paws into an aquarium of goldfish –for one shining moment he has a handful of lively colorful slivers in his paw, but in the next second they are all gone, slipping back to a swimming life. It dawns on him that he has mistaken the looks they give him as looks of kindness, when actually they are a kind of pity. These pretty young things know from the first introduction that they will be breaking his heart, ignoring his texts, moving on to collect experiences and compliments from new sources.

And just when Man-man is sadly nursing a drink by himself at the bar in Pegu Club, lookng around sullenly, feeling old and shitty and sorry, and thinking about texting The One, just to say hi, tell her that he finally saw that movie she had once hounded him to see, and that he had loved it. Just when his eyes were glistening with nostalgia for the wholesomeness of College Girlfriend, the way they held hands and walked on the boardwalk in Virginia Beach during Spring Break, and squinted at the sun in unison. Just when our Man-man was visited by these soothing images of loss, his phone vibrates one, two, three, and a buddy summons him to a house party in Brooklyn.

Brooklyn! He hasn’t been in that self-conscious backwater since he rode out of there in the middle seat of a moving truck, sitting between two sweating Bronx brothers who packed him up and moved him out of his apartment with The One lickety split. So fast that when she finally decided to come outside to say good-bye properly, for that last sad embrace, all she caught was the rumbling coarse purr of the moving truck as it rounded the corner towards the ugly Manhattan Bridge.

But it is only 10:30 PM and the Manhattan Man does not allow himself to go home before midnight on a weekend because, not that he has a biological clock or anything, but to do so makes him feel old and mortal. So, wearily, wearily, he slides off the bar stool, tucks his Centurion credit card into his wallet, and with 5 o’clock shadow, loosened tie, and one foot on the curb, he sticks his arm out for a cab. Oh Man-man, can you be any sexier! When he tells the driver that he wants to go all the way to Boreum Hill, the driver gives him a dirty look.

Anyway, the whole point of the party is that this is where Man-man meets Young Girl, who is the same age as the slippery future ex-wives he has been trying to net, but unlike them, she never goes clubbing, doesn’t really drink a lot, and already owns a cat. Don’t get me wrong –she’s cute. Sweet. Smart. She wears the uniform of her people: long straight hair, thick bangs, fast fashion with vintage aspirations –Forever 21, H&M, American Apparel. And underneath all the billowing floral suspender romper corduroy crap, solid T&A. She has a vivacious mother or Peter-Pan father –and whichever one it is often looks at her and wonders how they managed to raise such an even-keeled child.

Man-man and Young Girl hit it off immediately. He loves: her innocence, the number of things she has never done nor seen nor heard of, her slim wrists and milk moustaches, her excitement at simple pleasures, her shyness, her gaiety, the way she is so opinionated and indignant about the most obvious things, as if it was on her shoulders to promote equality, the environment, child nutrition. He loves seeing her struggle to make female friends, and her wobbly-kneed way of turning down potential suitors reminds him of a young Princess Di trying to dissuade photographers from snapping their cameras at her while she stood back-lit wearing an, unbeknownst to her, transparent skirt.

And there’s that word again: holy.

Yes there’s something holy about Young Girl, and it makes him feel holy too. With her, he feels both wonderfully young and wonderfully old. Her excitement towards life is contagious, and he finds himself standing in the front row of concerts again, swaying with his baby in his arms, listening to bands that his co-workers have never heard of. And when her excited recklessness causes her pain, he is always there to hold her and rock her and smooth down her long straight hair. Promise her that, if she’d lived as long as he has, she would realize how negligible her current setbacks really are. It’s during these moments that he would tell her what he knows. What he has seen and heard and felt and thought and concluded. He fills her with a carefully curated selection of his knowledge and experience, leaving out the ugly parts that might turn her into one of those grim women his age, make her ugly. He does this to protect her, and to also make them more compatible. To protect them. To make her stick.

He’s not manipulating her, okay? And accusations of condescension are laughably inappropriate –everyone knows that loving condescension is a major pillar of the most stable relationships.

I mean, look around at Man-man’s friends. Where only a few years ago his friends were leading interesting and vibrant lives and venturing in risky, inspiring endeavors, they are now not even good for a bit of decent conversation. Some of his friends from school are already divorced. And worse off are those stuck in bad marriages –zombified bowling pins who aren’t even allowed to pee in the shower, arguably the most innocent thing a man can do with his penis. Someone better stick a hand between their legs and catch their balls before they completely fall off.

If Man-man can circumvent that lukewarm bath of a life with its petty turbulences by meeting a woman while she is still young and moldable and telling her what to think and expect from the world so that she doesn’t get too disappointed and adversarial, then Man-man’s doing both Young Girl and himself a favor. And so, like the generations of Manhattan Men before him, Man-man makes one of the most important conclusions a man in his position could make: that men should be with younger women.

They get married. Why not? He’s figured out the Holy Grail of relationships already. What’s to be gained by putting it off? They move into a one-bedroom apartment in an age-appropriate neighborhood –neither too crazy nor too sedate. Even still, on his morning walks to the subway, he passes exactly four locations that remind him of of a more debaucherous, bygone era. An era that he genuinely does not miss (anymore) (finally).

Ahem, public announcement. Just so you know, one slight disadvantage of a wife that you treat like a pet is that you think you know everything that she is made of. After all, you raised her. She’s a known quantity. As domestic as apple pie. This condescending assumption is, of course, erroneous, but the Manhattan Man doesn’t know that yet.

At the office or on the street, Man-man meets a woman. She’s his age or older and mysterious, so mysterious! She’s self-made! She knows her way around a humidor! She has an authoritative but feminine strut! She’s so cosmopolitan, so New York! He admires her. He is intimidated by her. He doesn’t know what to do with himself when he’s around her. The Manhattan Man has worked out an extensive list of pet peeves about women that he can’t stand, a list that he loves to go over with Young Girl, lecturing on and on about visible bra straps and insanely high heels. The Mystery Woman seems to possess all of these pet peeves but through the prism of his admiration for her, they only make her more seductive and alluring.

She doesn’t seem to need him. It’s he that seeks her approach.

He asks her to get coffee. She says yes, but just coffee, no time to sit. He feels like he just scored a touchdown. Waiting in line together, he catches her taking in his wedding ring, but misses the look of pity she gives him. He’s always missing those looks of pity!

They bump into each other a few more times, and to his delight become de facto coffee buddies. He loves: her shockingly cold fingers, the deliberateness of her details –the monogrammed jewellery and throaty laugh, the way she talks so easily and confidently about her work, like a man, really. The way she owns herself and has already travelled the world over twice: first as a romantic backpacker and once again as a first class passenger. The way she disagrees with him in such an agreeable, good-natured, but authoritative manner. The woman has lived! Screw compatibility, this is who he wants.

Just having these thoughts makes Man-man feel guilty. When he and Young Girl are cuddled on the couch watching a movie together and a character says that old refrain about men not being monogamous creatures, that the idea of a traditional marriage is against nature, he fears that his hand will tremble or his face will flinch and betray him to Young Girl. To deal with his guilt, he buys her gifts or gets fat or works out extra hard or suggests that they have a baby.

Meanwhile where he had once been scared and excited by his work, the Manhattan Man has been, for the last couple of years, fairly confident and bored about his job. In order to force himself to give a shit about maintaining good work product, he has become increasingly dependent on external feedback: positive reviews, promotions, and bonuses. When these external stimuli taper-off, as they eventually do for most workers, Man-man starts to feel worthless, ashamed, and bitter. He comes in to the office later and later everyday because he keeps missing his subway stop. One time he ends up at the end of the line at 205th street and instead of riding back to work, calls in sick and spends the rest of the day walking around the Bronx Zoo with his hands in his pockets. He begins to feel jealous of homeless people because “they’re free.” He also sometimes wishes that he were in jail; it would be a kind of relief.

A new nadir for the Manhattan Man!

To climb out of his predicament, Man-man decides to ask management for a raise. More specifically, he asks to join management. He’s been so well-liked, you know? All those intramural basketball championships and that skit at the Christmas party a few years back, everybody still remembers. A meeting is granted, Outlook calendars are updated, and on the big day, Man-man wears his lucky belt. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. Behind frosted glass doors, management wraps up the meeting with the following consolation: “Yes, I suppose you have been on a kind of plateau, but you have to admit… it’s a comfortable kind of plateau.”

That night, in the back of a cab on a gridlocked Avenue of the Americas, the Manhattan Man repeats these words to himself: a comfortable kind of plateau, a comfortable kind of plateau, a comfortable kind of plateau. When he had bawled in front of all the guests at his sixth birthday party because his Curious George cake wasn’t made out of ice cream, his dad had taken him to the next room and said, “Don’t be an ungrateful little brat. Do you know how many kids out there would love to have a Curious George birthday cake, but never will?”

Is he being an ungrateful little brat again? He has a comfortable plateau of a life –the compatible young wife, the downtown apartment, the well-paying job. Yet all he wants to do is to escape. To run along the level plane that is his life, faster and faster, until he gathers enough speed that he can burst out of it, like a phoenix rising from the glowing embers of his old life.

What kind of a man wants that?

Why does the life he painstakingly built for himself feel so stupid?

When his father was his age.

There were no video games for men back then.

Industries geared towards keeping boys from becoming men.

So much time in front of the TV!

He’s watched every season of that reality show where those girls live in a house.

Everyone is estranged from each other though.

All the guys are doing it. Playing video games and watching TV and married and having crushes and getting their balls pinched at work.

He’s never done a triathlon.

Or a black girl.

He has nothing to show for the last ten years!

Picking a major, getting a job in Manhattan, breaking up with College Girlfriend, meeting The One, moving to Brooklyn, finding Young Girl, moving back to Manhattan. What was all that about? And what the hell happens next?

A rapping on the window of his stalled taxi.

He can tell who it is by the sound of her bracelets jangling against each other.

Man-man peers up through the dirty window at his unexpected visitor, the midtown Manhattan skyline looming behind her like giant ghouls.

Ah, so this is what happens next.

He takes a deep breath, and opens the door.

This story was originally published in two parts in Zouch Magazine (Part 1, Part 2).

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