Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Report Writing for Battering Intervention Classes

Administrative issues in domestic violence work are topics that are easily seen as dry, boring, and for some even unnecessary if they are doing direct service work. Cultures within agencies and programs are easily ingrained and accepted with little critical thought, sometimes because front line workers have little power to address them, and at other times because workers with very little experience are placed in roles where they do not fully understand the content, let alone the administrative structure. In addition, battering intervention work is easily downplayed in importance and need, with interns gaining responsibility, agencies investing few resources, or the program itself becoming sidelined due to other agency needs. These are all issues which need to be addressed to create an effective program, and report writing is a dynamic which can link to several of these challenges in this work.

When I conduct supervision, I consider administrative issues to be important ones. When discussing clinical challenges, I stress creating balance between process and content. You both need to understand the specific details of individuals in the group and curriculum/educational information (content), and the boundaries of group rules and how individuals make their way through the sessions of the class (process). I have written before that there is a need to know the difference between the model used for intervention (the process of the class, the structure of the rules, the beginning, middle and end experience of the individual participant) and the curriculum used for education (the lesson plans, activities, use of media, structured discussions). The article is going to be focused on methods of reporting on an individual participant in a battering intervention program.

Each program has intake paperwork that gathers background information on incoming participants. While this is not strictly reporting a battering intervention worker will do to outside sources, these documents help inform later reporting, and sometimes help to establish rapport and understanding og the individual participant. The format this takes is sometimes an individual interview, sometimes a group orientation, sometimes a group overview. State guidelines and standards often determine the content requirements, but some of the important aspects include:
  1. Danger/Risk/Lethality assessment: Specific questions on paperwork that give indications of potential lethality are important to include, along with understanding that such assessment is an ongoing process throughout an individual's time in the program, not just during paperwork. It is best to have these questions spread out, rather than in a block, as someone filling out intake paperwork may gloss over extreme questions if they are all together, particularly when they are "yes or no" answers. Most often, these questions come from Jaqueline Campbell's work on Domestic Violence Danger Assessment.
  2. Screening tools: These may vary by program, but I personally like to use the PHQ9, the Mood Disorders Questionnaire, and the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE). I think such items support participants in working toward self-care, and often provide words to experiences that make depression, mental illness, and childhood trauma difficult to talk about and seek help over. This paperwork serves a dual purpose: identifying potential problem areas for individuals, and providing humanization by specifically discussing how domestic violence classes are not just about harm toward others, but also harms toward self. It can demonstrate a layer of care over the individual that can be important in establishing rapport and motivating change.
  3. Description of harms: If done as an individual interview, this might engage a participant prior to group to discuss hurtful behavior. I personally think it is better, as an engagement strategy, to collect basic information without getting into detail unless the participant wants to provide it. I want to know charged crimes (if applicable), general patterns of harm, motives for hurtful behavior, a participant's perception of the situation, and I also consider general attitude as a part of collecting this information. Some programs collect police reports and collaborative information or require it for initial intake appointments. I think these can be useful secondary information and a way to ask specific questions, but can also become distracting toward motivating change and allowing an individual participant to see where they might need to make shifts in their behavior in relationships overall.
  4. Objective data collection: I like to do pre-post collection of information to show overall program efficacy and to determine usefulness of the program and potential for updates and feedback from participants. I use an adapted version of Emerge's Violent and Controlling Behavior Checklist, but I know some programs prefer to use versions of the Power and Control Wheels. I also have a survey that asks for goals, concerns, perceptions of how the class might be useful for the individual, and how a participant describes respect and harm in relationships. I find that comparing the survey and the checklist before entering class, and after finishing provide some insight that is useful for participants, and fascinating for reporting on the program overall.
  5. Intake letter: I avoid doing any assessing of participants until they have attended 6-8 class sessions. I will often say during intakes, "this is the first time I've met you, and I know when I meet someone for the first time, I don't tell them my entire life story. Especially not details of things I am not proud of, or don't want to talk about. I don't expect you to do that with me today, although I am going to collect some background information so I can start learning how I can help you the best I can." This is a part of working to use Motivational Interviewing engagement strategies in the program, and it is best to do so as early as possible. Some states require writing a letter informing the referral source that an individual has entered the program, general information about battering intervention groups, the date and time the individual agreed to start classes, and contact information for the program and group facilitators. I suggest such letters not provide details beyond a general statement that the person is accepted into the program due to admission of hurtful behavior.
I work to communicate that there is no such thing as a domestic violence evaluation. People request them all the time, and the general assumption is that such an evaluation will determine if someone NEEDS the program or not. Whenever I hear this request, it is from an individual who definitely believes they do not need the program, and therefore will be evaluated as such. The reason for this confusion, in my experience, is that mental health treatment and substance abuse counseling both involve an evaluation. These evaluations use psychological tools, drug testing, structured interviews, evaluative guidelines, and diagnostic determination for an individual. From all of these sources of information, a determination is made for the TYPE of treatment an individual will receive. This may include inpatient treatment, individual counseling 1-5 times weekly, group sessions, educational sessions, or a combination of things. The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) has a breakdown of axes which look at factors within an individual's life which may intersect with substance use, and help to determine what sort of treatment might work best. Battering Intervention does not have any such screening tools, any diagnostic components, guidance on setting criteria, or differentiation of classes necessary, save the state of Colorado (which has a process for domestic violence offenders, but I disagree with several of their foundational research studies they have used to justify separation of participants which are based on general criminal populations, not specific to domestic violence offenders. They also charge a fee for initial intake that is often comparable to a full self-pay mental health evaluation of anywhere from $600-$1500).  

The assessment for battering intervention is simply: is the individual appropriate for the class or not? This means that a report that determines appropriateness needs to be based on factors that make the classes useful for an individual. Complications arise when an individual participant is referred due to non-intimate partner violence, which may count as "domestic violence" but dynamics with parents, children, siblings, roommates, or extended family are much different than intimate partner relationships and are best treated differently.

Some criteria I use to assess appropriateness include:
  • The participant admits to hurtful behavior in a relationship toward an intimate partner
  • The description of hurtful behavior includes patterns and history in the relationship
  • The participant speaks both about the incident leading to referral and dynamics of harm throughout the relationship (which may include answering "why did things go downhill?")
In general, if someone is referred for a violent, abusive, or coercive controlling incident in an intimate partner relationship they will be appropriate for the class. The assessment looks at willingness to admit to hurtful behavior, and a certain degree of acknowledging patterns of harm. For those who are not referred for intimate partner violence, some additional pieces I consider have to do with the ability of the individual to speak defensively of their intimate partner, admit to hurtful behavior within "normal limits" with an intimate partner (which would include speaking about arguments, selfish and/or controlling behavior that does not stray into abuse or violence), the context of the incident itself, and the interest for the individual in joining the class in general.

For example, one man I saw for an assessment had a fight with his adult daughter over her moving out of the house because she had not followed through with an agreement to stay in treatment. He and his wife agreed with this decision (per his report), and when he spoke about his wife he did so with care and admitted to raising his voice during arguments on occasion, and lying to her about where he was going (specifically related to him coming to the class, because he said she was very stressed about his court involvement). He was assessed as inappropriate because while his incident was perhaps domestic violence related (this point could be argued), his report about his relationship with his wife over the course of 40 years seemed based in overall health and respect, and his contributions to class discussions over six class sessions consistently demonstrated this attitude about her.

Another individual was referred for brandishing a knife toward his adult siblings when they were arguing during him making dinner. He was not in a relationship at the time. While discussing the incident, he admitted to his threatening behavior toward them. He then spoke to a history in his relationships that included direct violence with a former partner, and dismissive neglectful patterns in a more recent relationship. During his sixth class session when doing a long check-in, he said directly that he needed to be in the class as he had learned about ways he had been violent that he never had considered before. The incident bringing him to the class may not have been intimate partner related, but this history and his willingness to look at his patterns made him appropriate. Now in his case, if he had not spoken to a history in his relationships, without collaborative information, it may have been difficult to assess him as appropriate due to the lack of intimate partner relationship history - but such things demonstrate why intake paperwork can be an important part of this process.

When writing an assessment report, I suggest that facilitators take notes when an individual talks about hurtful patterns of behavior. I use the Emerge model of intervention, which means I believe in doing a long check-in at session 6-8 of the program. I ask questions about most recent harms, what the individual considers to be the "worst" hurtful behavior, what the incident was that resulted in referral (if not otherwise disclosed), the history of the relationship currently, prior history of relationships, and specific questions about other physical assaults, sexual harms, affairs, and threats. I also tend to ask "why did your relationship go downhill" as it tends to give a lot of information about the context of the relationship overall. All of these answers given by the individual I capture quotes and detail for use in reporting. The structure of the report includes:

  1. Information on payment and attendance: this includes any financial issues, tardiness, missing classes, and overall administrative compliance with the program. This may mean I include information on an individual's inconsistency, or alternately their ability and willingness to communicate problems they might experience while attending the class. 
  2. Participation: detailing how an individual uses the classes, this can be anywhere from minimal participation noted, excessive or inappropriate participation, or details on how an individual contributes or uses the class appropriately. 
  3. Report of hurtful behavior: I start here by listing information on the referral incident. The challenge in this section is never adding in secondary information a participant might give which places responsibility onto others, justifies hurtful behavior, or exposes other people's personal issues. It is important to think about the reports through the lens of how a victim/survivor might read the report, and how a defense or prosecuting attorney might read the report. If a victim/survivor could read the report and say "those are lies about me," or if a prosecutor or a defense attorney reads the report and thinks "we need to charge the victim/survivor," or "if that is how it happened, we need to dismiss the case," then the report needs to be rewritten. The goal of reports are never to try a case, but rather to provide information on how a participant views themselves and their patterns of harm. If an individual blames, then it is possible to write "Mr. Jones justifies his behavior by focusing on Ms. Jones' behavior" or to simply not include such information at all and focus exclusively on hurtful behavior the participant admits to. This section will also detail patterns and history, and may include other dates and times of harm. It is important to either specifically name times (years and months when available), or if speaking of general patterns to identify a timeframe (in a prior relationship X years ago). Generally speaking about behavior without a time reference could again be used for or against someone in legal negotiations, and is important to differentiate for clarity. I often also include details of cheating, other physical harms, and threats in this section.
  4. Concerns: It is important to note concerns for each individual participant. Sometimes concerns are related to administrative compliance issues, sometimes for behavior issues in the class, sometimes for specific nature of harms in a relationship, sometimes for current behavior in a relationship, sometimes with self-care issues and/or overlaps with mental health or substance abuse issues. Occasionally, I have noted the very real possibility that an individual is feeding me information to coach a report but there may be additional information left out. Noting concerns can be helpful to discuss with a co-facilitator or supervisor.
  5. Recommendations: The most common recommendation is to complete the program, however, if there are secondary issues to be addressed such as parenting, mental health, or substance abuse related needs, then I will note that the individual may benefit from specific care in other areas. As this is not an evaluation report, recommendations are best as suggestions and if needs are apparent, these suggestions are best made for the individual to be evaluated for services by someone else.
There may be state guidelines that outline needs for reports on a monthly, quarterly, or even weekly basis. Often this can be determined by the needs of the referral sources.
  • Weekly reports: I currently do weekly reports on participants via email. These reports are basic attendance and compliance issues, and occasionally I will write a note that summarizes a problem. If weekly reporting is needed, it is best done in a list style. This can create confidentiality issues, and have several logistical challenges as a result. Most of my referrals are from a specific probation department, so I do a list of every class participant, but those not referred by them I use initials instead of names. The challenge with this method of reporting is it tends to lack detail, and problems are not flagged until they are bigger issues.
  • Monthly reports: Overall, I think this is the best method of ongoing reports. It does become cumbersome for facilitators to write reports on every participant, but it structures an individual's process through the program which is useful when behavior builds over time, and can often be protective of program staff's decisions about individual participants. I like to use a section with check-off boxes to simplify the process, and a section with notes to add in information on how a participant is in the classes. Most commonly, the notes section contains a statement such as "Mr. Jones participated appropriately during class sessions," but it allows facilitators an opportunity to communicate information on individual activities, challenges, ongoing issues inside or outside the class, or details on behavior problems.
  • Status updates: These are simple reports, often just listing attendance and payment details. I often do these per request, and they are not specifically scheduled.
  • Letters/information to partner/victim/survivors: State requirements may indicate a need to conduct partner contacts, and occasionally may require a letter to be sent to a participant's partner and/or ex-partner. If this is a practice, it is important to detail the limitations of the group, information on how to get support or advocacy, and contact information for the program specifically. It can be good to provide a pamphlet outlining the program goals, and basic information on domestic violence. 
For completion reports, I mirror the format of the assessment report, including all the sections as listed above. If someone is completing, I will insert additional information on "report of abuse" if additional information came forward during an individual activity, and also tend to expand on participation information to detail how the individual used the groups overall. Concerns may shift based on how facilitators have experienced the individual, and recommendations often include a line such as "if Mr. Jones were to be abusive or violent, he may return to the program," in addition to any overall needs that may have been identified during the course of the program.

Termination reports are also mirrored, but often list information on last attended session, outstanding balance due, content on the reason for termination, and concerns tend to highlight those reasons. Administrative discharges (participant moved, changed programs, is released due to medical issues, is suspending program participation for an agreed upon allowance, etc) need to detail out the reasons for closure, methods of reentry, and also follow the same format overall.

Sometimes, when an individual never attends a class, or drops out before completing an assessment (most common terminations in my experience) I will write a shorter letter outlining the issues leading to termination. I may also draw from intake paperwork to detail some information if it seems necessary to use the entire termination report format.

The most common issue I have seen with program reporting is including impersonal check-off report styles with little to no context, or providing a "certificate" at the end of the program. Often I find that battering intervention workers may not understand how dangerous such practices can be for victims/survivors. Lack of detail in reports can be used against victims/survivors by saying things such as "hey, I finished my program and they loved me there - said I could teach the class - and she hasn't done anything." This is an easy set up, and may lead to court systems making decisions in favor of someone who is abusive, and uses the certificate to further manipulation and control. Check-off style reports without individual details can sometimes contain things such as "good progress/poor progress" which seems to indicate that the facilitators know definite risk and how a participant is using the program. However, a primary characteristic of domestic violence offenders are that they are excellent radars, and great at using those radars to manipulate others. I can never guarantee that even the seemingly most enlightened participant has changed behavior without doing a partner/victim contact and having knowledge of behavior outside of the class. Judging absorption of material is not the place facilitators need to focus - let the individual's behavior speak for itself through quotes, and detail of attitude in the class. After all, participation in class is a mirror into behavior in intimate partner relationships.

Other problems involve facilitators not understanding why report writing is an important part of accountability. Yes, it is sometimes an administrative headache, but when the safety of victims/survivors is at risk it is both necessary and ethical to make sure reports are neutral or worse about participants, and that assessment or discharge reports always contain information that describes the participant's hurtful, abusive, violent, and controlling behavior. Some programs, who may have an integrated community coordinated response that involves extensive contact with referral sources in an authentic and working relationship may minimize paperwork due to this. That doesn't mean reporting doesn't happen - it just means the reporting is directed through interpersonal connections, not by paperwork. I prefer the paper trail, regardless, because it CAN potentially be used against an abuser who might evidence increased risk or danger.

For this reason, reports for BIP should be neutral or worse. Remember that "positive" reports might overlook manipulations an individual abuser has worked to use against facilitators. The thinking error of "feeding the change agent what the change agent wants to hear" is particularly challenging in BIP classes, and often can lead facilitators to miss how an individual participant avoids responsibility and accountability in classes, and might be using the class to look good and further harm others.

What are your experiences? Have you worked in agencies with excellent or poor reporting systems, and how did you navigate those spaces? What is your philosophy behind report writing and administrative details of this work?

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Aziz Ansari and Sexual Harms Beyond Assault

Attention continues to rise for inappropriate sexual behavior by male celebrities. This weekend, an article highlighting a sexual encounter between Aziz Ansari and an anonymous woman (Grace) has brought up discussion of consent, sexual pressure and coercion, and where his responsibilities lie within this brief relationship.

A major challenge of celebrity is the illusion of intimacy. Personally, I like Mr. Ansari. I greatly enjoyed "Master of None" and have found his work to be excellent over the years. But his work as an actor, producer, and writer tell me nothing about him personally. My connection to him is passive - I watch him in his shows and feel like I am getting to know him, know who he is, know how he thinks, but it is just one way. He has never met me, knows nothing about me - and the information I have on him is a created image. As with all created images, there is no doubt a certain mirror into his life, but it is necessarily going to be full of inaccuracies.

I believe this is one of the major reasons there seem to be a large amount of blame placed on this anonymous woman, and general backlash against the #metoo movement due to this woman's story. Aziz is a good guy or she should have done A, B, or C! She's treating him unfairly!

This is also a bit like a real life version of the "Cat Person" short story that was recently published in the New Yorker (and my fictionalized response in the man's perspective here). Was this really more about bad sex, a consensual tryst that Grace did not enjoy, that led to her complaining about her experience later?

These are important questions to ask, but maybe we are missing some bigger aspects of this situation. The Atlantic published an article considering some of the current challenges with sexual behavior in relationships, saying, "Sexual mores in the West have changed so rapidly over the past 100 years that by the time you reach 50, intimate accounts of commonplace sexual events of the young seem like science fiction: You understand the vocabulary and the sentence structure, but all of the events take place in outer space."

In this article, I want to take some time to explore these sexual harms that often get lost in discussions - those that are not assault or violence, yet still cause pain and fear in others. 

What are we missing in our dialog with children and teens about sex? How are gender roles fitting into expectations about sex and relationships? A choice to hook-up and have casual sex is not inherently bad or wrong, even if many people (and USA culture) have moral beliefs against this behavior.What I encounter again and again in battering intervention groups is that in the sake of seeking consent, and in having sex as a part of courtship, development of intimacy beyond physical passion is lost.

Many abusers definitely gain consent before engaging in sex, although I question how explicit this consent is. One article defends Mr. Ansari by saying he shouldn't be a mind reader, yet men often accept implicit consent with few or any verbal consents to sex. They have definite understanding of nonverbal cues, but push against those in the knowledge that verbal rejection is hard to give after sex begins. Women feel pressured to consent, and may even fear saying no could lead to violence.

During group discussions, I will outline various kinds of intimacy and where they can fit into development of a relationship. Certainly, the first kind of intimacy guys in my groups go to is sexual. That physical passion I mentioned earlier. That is indeed a type of intimacy, and an important one for health in a relationship. Often what is missing from that analysis of passion, however, is a desire to be with that person, loving touch beyond sex, desire to pleasure your partner, and gaining knowledge of what the other person likes or does not like sexually or within physical touch overall.

Other categories are more difficult to discuss. What about emotional intimacy? The idea of closeness - a shared bond where you know someone's opinions, thoughts, and even their values or morals - can be equally intimate and critical to development of a healthy relationship. The equivalent to a random hook-up with a stranger might be going on a first date and telling that person your most intimate details, such as your worst fears, abuse you experienced in childhood, deeply held political or social beliefs that are controversial - and while some people do this during first meeting someone, the experience of someone dumping so much information at the beginning is often off-putting. Closeness takes time to develop, and takes time to foster in a healthy way.

Psychological intimacy can be considered along with commitment. An alignment of goals, values, and meaning in life. Again, it takes time to grow this aspect of intimacy, and a hook-up equivalent might be meeting someone and telling them that you should get married, pool your finances to buy a house you have chosen for the both of you, have children immediately, or any number of other intimate choices made when relationships become closer.

Emotional and psychological intimacy seem ludicrous to develop so quickly on a first date, yet for some reason we do not have deeper and more critical thinking about quick physical intimacy development. It is a risk - often a dangerous and hurtful risk. Certainly, if someone does not use safe sex, then there is risk of STD or STI or pregnancy. Along with that risk, however, is the truth that you might end up with someone you are not compatible with, or might make choices that coincide with pressuring or controlling someone into having sexual behavior they are not 100% comfortable with. The person you have random sex with might equate that with something much more emotionally or psychologically intimate - and if you are not on the same page your behavior can easily cause harm.

Some of the hangup I am seeing with people defending Mr. Ansari are that he did not sexually assault her, that his behavior was not sexual violence, that she gave consent for their sexual encounter therefore it shouldn't matter. This perspective denies the idea of sexual control, sexual alienation, and sexual irritation - ALL of which there is zero doubt that he is responsible for in his encounter with Grace.

Sexual control is making someone do something they do not want to do sexually, or keeping someone from certain intimacy they want to engage in. There are many forms of sexual control that involve coercion or pressure. Constant asking for sex, trying certain sexual behavior repeatedly and ignoring boundaries set by the other person, not listening to protests (verbal or nonverbal), and yes, not picking up on nonverbal cues, requests, or complaints.

Control is a human experience - we ALL do it, and sexual control can be a very destructive aspect of sexual behavior that we need to be addressing on a more active basis. We need to avoid lumping all sexual harms into violence - because in Mr. Ansari's case, he is being equated to other men who have engaged in sexual assault and violence. Without understanding the difference here, we risk his behavior and other's being dismissed because it clearly does not have the same impact or destruction therefore Grace gets blamed for daring to report this, rather than us realizing that regardless of the level of harm - it is still harm, and it is still destructive!

Sexual alienation and irritation are also very human things. It is where a person does something physically or sexually intimate that their partner becomes irritated by, or something which pushes that person away. One of the biggest alienating factors are not talking about sex, not talking about desire, not developing sexual knowledge of a partner over time. Other irritating/alienating sexual harms can involve things such as flirting that the other person does not like, use of pornography that is not okay with a partner, and blindness to or ignoring of another person's sexual boundaries. Again, some of these are clearly a big part of the incident with Mr. Ansari and Grace.

Defenders of Aziz Ansari lament that this could destroy his career. Attackers say sexual harm is sexual harm and he should be held accountable. When we make this into a binary argument, we miss the point that he needs to be held to account for his behavior that is problematic, and he needs to be aware of the level of power and influence his fame affords him and where that fits into his dating life. Grace describes the "hour or so" in his apartment involving him attempting different sexual behavior, her intermittently engaging and then disengaging and while her internal dialog was clearly confusion and anxiety over his behavior, his internal dialog could have been anything from entitlement of his celebrity status, confirmation bias on when she seemed willing to engage in sexual acts (while ignoring when she was not), and definitely overall entitlement to continue pursuing sex after she verbally and non-verbally expressed her discomfort.

Instead of lumping Mr. Ansari with violent, abusive, and sexually assaultive male celebrities, we should build awareness for the layers of sexual harm, and learn better ways to guide men toward responsibility, accountability, and health in relationships. Instead of being sad that his career is damaged and building anger toward Grace, we should be exploring where we focus on condemning celebrities yet ignore how common these patterns are for everyday men toward women. We need to be taking this opportunity to nuance the different kinds of sexual harm beyond rape and other forms of sexual assault, so we can adequately address their impact, and the intent men have behind them.


*For additional reading on this topic, I suggest reading Nehmat Kaur's "What Should We Expect from Liberal Feminist Men Like Aziz Ansari?" or Karishma Attari's "Aziz Ansari has a long way to go before mastering his own sense of entitlement." or Emma Gray's "On Aziz Ansari And Sex That Feels Violating Even When It's Not Criminal"

Monday, January 1, 2018

Concession Stand Girl

This post is a fictional story in response to "Cat Person" by Kristen Roupenian, appearing in the New Yorker on December 11, 2017. It is my attempt to portray the thinking pattern of the man she detailed in her work, and where those thoughts might illustrate entitlement and disconnect that are common in abusive, violent, and controlling men. If you have not done so, please read her work first before reading this response.

Warning: This story contains sexual content, mature themes, and swearing.

Robert had been in a slump over the past few months. Nothing that won't get better, he told himself constantly, it's just life. Ups and downs. I'll be better, something good will happen, it always does. 

He had lost his job two months ago, but he could admit that things had been bad before then. His boss was a dick, and the job wasn't great either so its loss was inconsequential.  He was on unemployment currently, and his mother always sent him gifts and even money if she felt particularly sorry for him, so his income hadn't changed even if the amount of time he had for himself had increased. 

Idle thoughts of going back to school nagged at him, but he wasn't sure he wanted to study or do homework again. After all, he had done two years, slogging through each class to the point he was always just barely passing. He had never had a specific inspiration to focus on anything. He was good with his hands, and school just never spoke to him. Too much thinking, not enough doing, he told himself. 

If he was honest with himself, mostly he was just bored a lot of the time. When he was laid off, it started like a vacation - video games and movies, take out or delivery dinners, and only leaving the house when he had to. Ordering whatever he needed online kept that to a minimum, and he even assuaged his conscience of not working by setting up a job alert on a few employment websites and reading them once or twice per week.

That vacation mindset lasted a month or so, but over time he began to feel restless. He had some friends from high school closer to home, but he had moved out of state years before as a point of rebellion and hadn't been good at maintaining friendships. He had a couple of guys he had enjoyed hanging out with at work but within a shipping and receiving company, where everyone worked different shifts, he hadn't done much with them outside of work. Now that he was no longer going to that job, those friendships had shriveled up.

His cats had been his companions for years. Mu and Yan were perfectly happy with doing nothing, with hanging out, not going anywhere. They would cuddle in shifts, Mu on the bed, Yan on the couch - purring and curling into balls on his lap were sweet comfort, and their conversations were whatever he wanted them to be. A meow here, a feline grunt there, and he had learned to interpret their needs, their quirks, and deal with them as needed.

But this restlessness was getting to him. The times he would venture out of the house for supplies he couldn't add to an online shopping cart, he saw people together laughing, talking, and seeming to have fun together and he felt a twinge of jealousy. It was more profound when he witnessed couples casually touching each other, showing public displays of affection and just being comfortable around each other.

Robert had been as successful in relationships as he had in friendships, which is to say fleeting at best. Women were a mystery to him, and always seemed to want things he couldn't or didn't really want to give. He'd heard his male coworkers talk about their relationships with degrees of care or annoyance, sometimes telling stories of love and others of hate and he would always wonder why women would stay with the creeps. 

These coworkers were still okay in his book, casual friends he could laugh with and do work tasks with, but when they described anger over her doing this or that, he'd shake his head. He'd wonder why the guy put up with that shit, but he'd also wonder why she did as well. Just keep to yourself, he'd think, and be a gentleman. That's what really counted, after all.

A need to go out of the house drove him to the arthouse movie theater. The one class in college that had vibed with him was a critique of cinema, and independent movies usually interested him more as a result. It was also one of the few things that could be more difficult to access online.

He perused the concessions and idly purchased popcorn and a box of Red Vines. Red Vines were a treat from his childhood and he hadn't eaten them in years, so he figured why not have some? The response of the girl behind the counter caught him off-guard. "That's an . . . unusual choice," she said. "I don't think I've ever actually sold a box of Red Vines before."

Looking down on her, he noticed she was young. Probably just out of high school, young. This was a college town, so she most likely was just another student bringing in some spending money. He stepped back slightly as a reflex, getting a better look. It confirmed his initial thought, but he also noticed she was cute. Not the kind of beauty that would grace the cover of a magazine, but more of a young co-ed fresh and naive cute. Her comment was confusing. Was she deliberately trying to insult him?

Robert had experiences of girls making fun of him in high school, and more of women ignoring him since then. As with many interactions with others, Robert was dumbstruck. "Well," he said. "O.K., then." He took his change and went into his movie.


The movie was distracting. He spent most of the time running through his head, considering better responses to that interaction. The popcorn trickled down in the box, and the Red Vines which might have been a nostalgic experience just stuck to his teeth as he chewed on them and thought of her face, and her body.

He could have explained his childhood love for the candy, maybe say the salt and sweet were an excellent combo. He could have asked her why she cared, but no, that would have been too aggressive. Was she flirting with him? He told himself he was the sort of older guy young college chicks might fancy, and his beard spoke to experience most men her age couldn't come close to.

The blur of the movie did not match the length of time he spent thinking of alternatives to the conversation. When it ended, he walked out and looked to the concession stand, hoping to see her again, see how she responded to him a second time. But the lights were off, and her shift must have ended.

The next day, he realized he should just go back to the theater. He hadn't really absorbed the movie, anyway, and what if she was there again? Maybe they'd hit it off on a second play through. Some acne-covered guy was in her place this time, though. He took his popcorn, skipped the Red Vines, and sulked into the movie. 

He watched the movie and was able to keep track of what was happening better, but his disappointment seeped into the experience and he left feeling negatively toward the show itself. That evening, he surfed online pornography trying to find women who looked like the Concession Stand Girl but didn't find anyone close enough to her looks, and eventually he gave up, unsatisfied.

Following days were spent wandering around coffee shops, restaurants, and bars around campus. He told himself that it was good to get out and wander the city, better than being cooped up at home, and that maybe he'd meet someone. He knew he was really looking to "accidentally" run into her, but he also knew his assumption that she was a college girl was just an assumption so he did so without many expectations, but with many high hopes.

Theater times were similar enough the following week that he picked a movie with the same showtime as when he met her, even though he wasn't particularly interested in the movie itself. As he walked inside, he glanced over at the concession stand trying not to be too obvious. Play it cool, he said to himself, noticing she was working again.

Walking up to the counter, he made sure she was the one who would be helping him, and when she noticed him he was bolstered by the small smile she gave him. He kept his composure and ordered the same as before - popcorn and Red Vines. She didn't say anything this time, but simply rang up his order. "You're getting better at your job," Robert told her. "You managed not to insult me this time."

She shrugged, and he noticed her eyes lighting up a little as she did so. "I'm up for a promotion, so," she said and handed him his change. Not wanting to say anything stupid, he took his change smiled in return and went to the movie.

When reviewing his responses this time, he felt confident he had walked the line between simple, nice, and suave. She obviously took his joke well, remembered him from last time, and maybe even had thought about him over the past week. As the movie started, he smiled to himself and relaxed. If she was still at work after the movie, he'd ask for her out. 

Frowning, he wondered if that was too forward. If she said no, then it'd probably be over and he didn't want that. Maybe he could just ask for her phone number? If he kept the connection going, he was sure he'd be able to show her what a good guy he was, and she'd want to spend more time with him. He convinced himself that he was better at the long game, and settled on that choice.

Movie watching was much more enjoyable this time. Since he had made up his mind, he partially couldn't wait for the movie to finish so he could go out to find her. But he knew this movie was shorter than the last and there was more of a chance she'd still be at work. That was one of the nice things about independent movies, they were often shorter which made for an easier time critiquing them. Sometimes even bad movies were enjoyable because it wasn't a lot of time to spend, but plenty of material to criticize.

The moment the credits started rolling, Robert got up, disposed of his trash and walked out of the theater. She was still there! He felt a roll in his stomach, his pulse rising. Now was the time. He approached her as she was refilling something on the back counter. When she turned around and saw him, she initially seemed confused then smiled slightly.

"Concession Stand Girl, give me your phone number," he said, and surprisingly she looked at him for a moment, then took a napkin and wrote a number down. He hoped it was correct. He knew some girls gave out fake numbers to throw men off, but that seemed less likely since he knew how to find her again.

Robert thought about what to text to her the entire drive home. Something quick and witty, and it had to reference Red Vines. If it was a fake number, he'd play it cool when he saw her next time and he also thought of lines he could give her then. He favored one where he joked about it being hard to write on napkins. 

"Good thing I bought enough Red Vines that you had to stay late tonight to stock them," he texted anxiously.

"That's why I gave you my number, I needed to complain about the overtime I had to work thanks to you," she texted back, and he laughed out loud.


For the next several weeks, they texted back and forth, building their joking and playing in ways that made Robert feel fun and interesting. She was a good sparring partner, for the most part, except when she didn't respond to him. He knew he needed to play it cool, but at the same time it was frustrating when he wanted to hold a conversation, or have a line of jokes and it took her a few hours to add to it. By the time she would text to add to the thread, he had bored of it and would usually just send a simple response. 

But she kept texting. She sent internet memes, pictures, silly things mostly. He ate it all up. His playing it cool was working well, even with a few times where he thought maybe she didn't like him anymore - or maybe had found someone else. Those times where she didn't text for a couple days were a test of patience. He wanted to respond to her, to call her out for not texting, but he also knew that might seem needy - and he wasn't needy. He was perfectly fine by himself, doing his own thing, even if those days were often boring. The texts with Margot were almost like a fuel that kept him going, gave him energy the moment he heard his phone chime with an incoming text.

Suddenly, he realized it might have been long enough with their text dancing to meet her in person again. He waited for an opportunity, not wanting to be direct about it in fears of scaring her off. His phone beeped - a text! "Ugh. My roommate took all the snacks out of my care package, that bitch!"

"Why don't you go to the dining hall and grab something lacking nutrition of any kind?"

"They're all closed this time of night, so now I guess I will die starving here in my dorm room."

"If it's a matter of life and death, I'm happy to save you from such a pathetic end - I'll buy you some Red Vines and all will be well in the world!"

"Sadly, I am already resigned to starvation as my destiny. Say something nice at my funeral?"

"No, I'm serious, stop fooling around and come now," he texted immediately followed by, "7-Eleven, the one on campus, twenty minutes. Be there, your life depends on it!"

He rushed out of the house, grabbing the hat and jacket closest to the door and going slightly over the speed limit to get to the store. He didn't want to keep her waiting, after all, and the dorms were about a block away from the store. 

He didn't notice the wintry cold as he stood outside, his heart racing in anticipation of seeing her again. When she walked around the corner, he was surprised that she simply wore pajamas and a jacket as if it were a walk down to the refrigerator in the kitchen. He wasn't sure if it made her extra cute or just made her look younger. He realized he might be staring, and stopped to focus on holding the door for her, slightly inclining his head to emphasize the polite gesture.

"I'm glad I got to you in time, let's go find the red sticks of life!" they went to the candy section and he was slightly sad they didn't have Red Vines, but she seemed pleased with Cool Ranch Doritos. Not wanting the joke to fade, he insisted she get a cherry Slurpee because it was the closest thing to Red Vines. She negotiated a Cherry Coke Slurpee, and as they went to the counter he furtively worked to find a small, cheap gift he could get her so she would remember this night. The cashier was so quick, he had just enough time to grab a novelty lighter shaped like a frog with a cigarette in its mouth. Just silly and unique enough she'd have to think of him whenever she saw it.

"Thank you for my presents," she said, as they went back out into the cold. 

"You're welcome, Concession Stand Girl," he said, thinking it was the perfect term of endearment in the moment. She let me buy her gifts, we've been having a great time texting, now let's see how she takes a little bit of affection. He took her gently by the arm, and she didn't recoil or back away. Robert was about a foot taller than her, so it was a quick thing to kiss her on the forehead. When he stood back from the kiss, she looked at him with her eyes slightly narrowed as if puzzling over him. "Study hard, sweetheart," he said. "I will see you soon."

Robert turned, walked to his car, and drove home. Only looking back once he had pulled away from the store. He saw her walking back to the dorms and smiled to himself. That went well.


Margot went on winter break soon afterward, and Robert and she texted nearly non-stop. They would joke back and forth, update on daily activities, and even started saying good morning and good night. Robert was concerned about her going home for break. Who would she hang out with? She's just recently out of high school, within a year or two, so what if she sees an old boyfriend? Robert's texts were playful, but constant, and in part he kept the dialog going because if they were texting then she obviously was thinking about him. 

Robert decided to let a little more about his life into his texts. He had been keeping most of their dialog to joking and life in the present, but hadn't asked her a lot of questions nor had he given much up about himself. One evening, as he sat in his living room petting Yan as she contentedly purred on his lap. "It's good thing my cats are keeping me company while you're away," he texted, scratching Yan between the ears.

"You have cats?"

"I do. Two, Mu and Yan."

"I have a cat too - Pita," she texted back with a emoji of a grey kitty cat. 

"Yan texts Pita a warm greeting."

"Pita purrs back along with a flirtatious Meow."

"I won't tell Mu so he won't get jealous, you know those male cats!"

"Pita meows more quietly, then!"

Before Robert could think of how to respond, she texted again. "My parents are asking about u," she texted, and Robert immediately sent her an emoji with hearts for eyes.


After winter break, Robert was a bit nervous to see Margot again. What if she rekindled a love with an old boyfriend, like he had constantly imagined? It was clear they were good with texting, and were quite friendly, but he didn't just want a friendship and if it turned out that was all he was to her, he wasn't sure what he would do. 

"Back in town, want to hang out? I like the rush at the end of the term when I fall behind on all my studying!"

"Sorry, busy week at work," he replied. "I promise I will c u soon."

Truthfully, he'd gotten a small part-time job at a bank near his house. It wasn't many hours, but his unemployment had run out and he needed to do something other than live off his parent's financial assistance. The house was not very expensive. His aunt had owned it, and when she died it had gone to his mother. She was going to sell it, but Robert managed to convince her that he could live in it. Since his aunt had owned it free and clear, all he had to pay for was utilities. A sweet deal.

His work hours weren't enough to keep him from making time for Margot, but he thought that a bit of holding back would make her want to be with him more, so he lied about his schedule waiting for two weeks before finding a suitable artsy movie to take her to. It was playing at her theater, which seemed nice. When he asked about seeing the movie, she responded with, "lol r u serious," and he instantly replied, "I'm sorry I misjudged your obvious taste for fluffy romantic comedies that bring in all the ladies." 

She was probably joking around, which was their pattern. The movie had Oscar buzz, and was supposed to be an amazing portrayal of refugees from Nazi Germany, and their battle for survival. Of course she wanted to see it, it would be great! Her text back was simply "lol okay let's go to your drama fest, but let's go to the Quality 16," and he felt happy that he had waited to ask her out on a date. He wasn't sure why she wanted to go to the other theater, was it because she didn't want her co-workers seeing her on a date with him?

He gave her the details, and said he'd pick her up. She said she'd be ready, and Robert started thinking about how to set up the date. He'd have to wait for her to talk. If she was going to tell him the bad news, he was sure it would come up sooner than later. The talk about "I just want to be friends," usually didn't happen in the middle of a date, after all. If she had that talk, he'd be cordial, he was a gentleman, after all, but he'd just watch the movie and take her home. 

Arriving at her dorm, he got out and opened her car door for her. They exchanged the pleasantries of "hey" back and forth and he drove off. She didn't say anything, and neither did he as he waited for her to disappoint him. He glanced over at her when he noticed her looking out the window. She looked tense, and he sighed. If it was going to be a let down, he might as well make it easier on her. "Don't worry, I'm not going to murder you," and when she looked over she seemed to relax a bit.

"It's O.K. - you can murder me if you want," she said. Robert laughed at that, appreciating her response to his joke, and patted her knee. She continued, "So before you murder me, I thought I'd tell you about my classes this term. Maybe I could bore you into having pity for me?"

He laughed shortly and kept driving. She told him the details of her classes. She was right, it was boring, as he never had much interest in classes even when he was in school. He nodded along, and made listening sort of noises at appropriate times, but didn't get into the conversation at all. 

Once they got to the theater, they went up to the concessions stand. The employee asked what they wanted, and Robert winked at Margot before saying, "I'll take a large popcorn and a large weirdly matched box of Red Vines please, like all the cool kids are doing nowadays!"

The cashier looked at Robert blankly, grabbed a Red Vines from under the counter, and went to get popcorn. Robert looked over at Margot but she was looking away at that moment. He shrugged. It was funny in his mind. Maybe she didn't hear him. It was pretty loud with the popcorn popping and a monitor blaring a preview for an upcoming blockbuster movie.

He kept waiting for her to tell him about her boyfriend, about wanting to be friends. If she tried to touch him during the movie, maybe that would mean she actually liked him as more than friends? During the movie he kept one eye on the screen and another on her, watching for her to reach for the popcorn at the same time, or for her to touch his leg or arm or something. He sat with his arm on the divider, thinking maybe she would lay her arm next to his. But nothing.

After the movie was over, they went back to the car and he tried to think of a way to lighten the mood. As she was getting in the car, he said "Glad to see you dressed up for me," and smiled. He liked her casual leggings and a sweatshirt, but he figured for a first date she might wear something more dressy. He had worn his business casual attire from work, thinking it would be just the right amount of classy for a date. He closed her door and walked over to his side and got in. 

"So, do you want to go get a drink?" He was still waiting for the "just friends" response, and thought if it was coming, now would be it. "We could go get a drink, I guess?" she said tentatively.

"If you want," he said back.

She sat staring out of the window, saying nothing. Robert poked her in the leg. "What are you sulking about?"

She looked at him. "I'm not sulking, I'm just a little tired."

"I can take you home."

"No, I could use a drink, after that movie," she drolly observed, and he laughed and started up the car.

"Where do you want to go?"

"How about Chester's?"

"Chester's? That student ghetto? Let's go someplace classy. If we're going to wash that movie out of our memories, let's do it with style! Can you believe it has Oscar buzz?"

Margot started to speak, but Robert spoke over her. "We're going to 1920 Tavern, it's a Speakeasy."

When they arrived, there was a line, which was not uncommon for the bar. Robert chatted idly with Margot, and she responded directly but quietly. He didn't notice anything out of the ordinary as he spoke about his experiences there. "I remember the first time I came here," he exclaimed, as he handed the bouncer his I.D. and walked in. 

He was telling his story, walking on to the front door, when someone tapped him on the shoulder. He turned and noticed Margot standing out of the line on the sidewalk, crouching to sit on the curb. He went under the queue and joined her while she looked at her feet. "Sorry!" she said. "This is so embarrassing."

"How old are you?" he demanded.

"I'm twenty," she said.

"Oh," he said. "I thought you said you were older."

"I told you I was a sophomore!" she said, her voice slightly raised. 

"But you did that - what do you call it? That gap year," he objected, trying to sort out if she had lied to him in some way.

"I don't know what to tell you," she said helplessly standing up, her fists balled up and started to cry. "I'm twenty."

He felt bad for her, now. He stood and simply enveloped her in an embrace. "Oh, sweetheart," he said. "Oh, honey, it's O.K., it's all right. Please don't feel bad." He gently kissed the top of her head, and she pulled back while wiping the tears away.

"I can't believe I'm crying because I didn't get into a bar," she said. "You must think I'm such an idiot." They both stood as a few flakes of snow fell, highlighted by the soft light of the street lamps. He measured her beauty. Her tears enhanced that measure somehow. He decided it was time to kiss her.

He leaned in. Since she stood on the curb and he was in the street, their height difference was minimized somewhat. As his lips locked on hers, he felt a rush throughout his body, an emboldening and a comfort. When she moved her lips ever so slightly, he took the opportunity to take the kiss a bit further and put his tongue in her mouth, while doing so knocked his teeth against hers. He enjoyed her warmth and the intimacy. It had been some time since he had kissed a woman, and he realized how much he had missed it.

Eventually, he took her by the arms and looked into her eyes. "Let's try Pluto's," and led her down the street, pulling her by the hand until they were walking side by side. This bar didn't have a bouncer, and didn't really I.D. anyone. He'd gone here himself when he was underage, so he was pretty sure they would be fine. 

As they settled into a booth, Robert stood and said, "Should I get you a vodka soda?" He was pretty sure that was the sort of drink girls had when he was that age.

"I'll just have a beer."

He settled back in with drinks, bringing two thick and dark porters. "I guess I should have listened to your highbrow taste and gone for that new Melissa McCarthy travesty."

"I like Melissa McCarthy - she was hilarious in Bridesmaids!"

He sipped on his beer. "You must have loved that movie when you were ten years old."

"Ha. Ha. Well, it was better than the movies you saw at ten. Charlie Chaplin films lacked any colorful dialog."

"Cute. With all those film classes you took last year, I'm surprised you would see a movie that wasn't in black and white, or at least sepia or someshit."

She laughed and he continued. "At work, you guys must loathe the multiplex what with their lack of quality wines and making up for art by blasting things in surround sound!"

"It's not that we mock the lack of quality wines, it's just that drinking Boone's Farm in one big swallow before going in to the film is going to make you have to pee an awful lot!"

Robert laughed back at her, and she took a large swallow from the beer. 

They began to talk about movies more in depth, and Robert discussed some of his favorites. They each got another beer as he enjoyed talking about his top five, and discussed a bit about his own film classes and what he had learned in critiquing films. She responded by discussing how her older co-workers intimidated her, particularly when they seemed to understand some of the movies she thought were boring or incomprehensible.

"Look," Robert said, peering deeply into her eyes. "Some guys are just assholes about movies. I took those classes, and you know what I really learned?"

"That Red Vines are superior to Twizzlers?"

"No, that you should just fucking enjoy movies you enjoy!"

She nodded. "Sometimes, I just feel like I'm not smart enough with these guys. Like I have to have a degree in movies to have an opinion on anything."

He rose his glass to hers and they knocked them together and drank, about an hour in and their third beer together. Robert appreciated that she was constantly smiling as they talked, and she began to slur her words a little. He thought it was cute. As they finished their beers, he was surprised to hear her say, boldly, "Should we get out of here, then?"

The surprise stuck with him. Was she suggesting something? It sure seemed like it. They had just been discussing the unintentional humor of sex scenes in movies where people always kept the covers over themselves, and made sure to have underwear on at all times.

She took his hand and pulled him up, and he suddenly felt hungry. Not a need for food, hungry, but rather a current just below his belly button that radiated out to the rest of his body. She held his hand and walked out, him trailing behind her noticing how nice her butt looked in her leggings.

As they got outside, she turned to him and angled her head up for a kiss, closing her eyes. He thought for a moment about the situation. She was twenty, he was quite a bit older, and maybe this wasn't a great idea. He leaned down and kissed her briefly on the lips. "You're drunk," he said plainly.

"No, I'm not," she said, petulantly. She grabbed him in a tight hug, holding on in a way that almost seemed desperate. Robert took a deep breath and let it out, shuddering slightly as he sighed.

"I'm taking you home, lightweight," he said, disentangling himself and putting his arm around her shoulders, shepherding her to the car. He had parked two blocks away to be closer to 1920 Tavern, and the walk back was comforting. His arm around her, feeling protective, she stumbled twice and he held on tighter each time to keep her from falling again. Each stumble was greeted with laughter from them both.

When they got into the car, Robert put the keys in the ignition but before he could start it up, Margot grabbed his hand, guided it quickly around her shoulder and started kissing him. He was excited by her aggression, and roughly put his tongue down her throat, thinking that might be what she wanted. The continued to make out, and she pulled back slightly and started to kiss him more gently.

After a number of gentle kisses, and his hand roaming forward to her breasts, she maneuvered herself over the center console and straddled him. He was already hard, and had been since she put herself out there for a kiss when they left the bar. The way she was moving around on him was almost too much. He moaned involuntarily a few times when they came up for air, and when he realized he was about ready to reach climax without having done anything, he pushed her off - a little more harshly than he meant to - and started the car.

"Making out in the front seat like a teen-ager," he said, in mock disgust. Then he added, "I'd have thought you'd be too old for that, now that you're twenty."

She stuck her tongue out at him, and it both made her seem younger and turned him on at the same time. "Where do you want to go, then?"

"Your place?" He thought going to her place would be better, give her more space but also he was really curious about her room, how she lived.

"Um, that won't really work. Because of my roommate?"

"Oh, right. You live in the dorms," he said, a bit disappointed as a bit of the twinge of worry was still there that she didn't want anyone to know she was with him.

"Where do you live?" she asked.

"I live in a house," he said, matter of factly.

"Can I . . . come over?"

"You can."


As they arrived at his house, Robert got nervous. He hadn't had anyone over to his house in some time, and while he wasn't overly messy, he wasn't overly clean either. He tried to remember if he had put his laundry away.

Before he got out of the car, he turned to her and hoping to curtail some of the responsibility for the state of his house, he said, "Just so you know, I have cats."

"I know, she said. "We texted about them, remember?"

"Pita is going to be so jealous," he said with a half smile and got out of the car.

As he went up the walkway, he fumbled for his keys trying to find his house key. All of the keys he had for his new-ish bank job always confused him, so he swore under his breath as he searched. Margot put her hands on his back and started rubbing, which distracted him from his concentration and as he tensed up, she stopped.

He eventually found the right key, and muttered, "Well. This is my house," and pushed open the door.

Robert tried to think about how she might see his home, with its collection of board games collecting dust with the old vinyl collection, both leftover from his aunt's possessions. He hadn't changed the decorations much since moving in. His aunt had put up a few art prints in frames, and he enjoyed them well enough.

"I like it," she said, and he thought that maybe she was being truthful about that. Then again, compared to a dorm room this must be a castle.

As she gazed over the room, seeming to be cataloging every detail, he took her around the waist and drew her to himself, and kissed her deeply. He removed her purse from around her arm, then her coat and his, all while still kissing and touching her.

He ushered her into the bedroom, bowing his head slightly and waving her in as if he were a concierge. The dresser by the door had his bottle of whiskey, and he took a swig to push back any leftover jitters. Thinking about the ambiance, he decided to turn on some music and handed her the bottle as he keeled down to his laptop. He had been listening to the campus radio station earlier, trying to get himself into the groove of college kid culture. It seemed like good background music.

Margot sat on the bed, and after he was done with the computer he realized that maybe he was more intoxicated than he had thought. He was feeling slightly light-headed, and waved it off as excitement as he unbuttoned his shirt and unbuckled his pants. He felt foolish when he couldn't take the pants off because he had forgotten to take off his shoes.

He stumbled slightly as he bent over to untie and remove them, and as he did so he noticed his belly and wondered if the college guys she saw were the crazy athletic sorts, the ones who hadn't yet lost their metabolism for beer; or if they were the more nerdy types like him with normal bodies. As he finished removing his shoes and pants, he noticed that Margot decided to take a swig of the whiskey as well and he grinned.

Robert crawled on top of her, his penis hard and ill contained by the boxer shorts he still wore. As she fell back on the bed, he kissed her mouth, tasting her with his tongue, and started to help her remove her clothing. He grasped her breast and pulled off her sweatshirt, then reached down to her crotch and tried to gently caress, but realized too late that he grabbed a bit too hard.

She wiggled out from under him and straddled him like she had in the car. She seemed to be breathing heavily, and he got more excited by thinking she was really into him. As she moved herself over the log of his dick, she closed her eyes and pulled her undershirt over her head. He instantly grasped her breast, moving the bra below it and began to rub her nipple between his thumb and forefinger.

As he did this, Margot pushed herself toward him, and he maneuvered one hand to her side, and the other around her back to undo her bra. He fumbled with it, coming close but not quite able to undo the clasp. Jesus, he thought to himself, why don't they make padlocks out of these things? "Take that thing off," he grunted, barely able to talk.

When the bra was off he marveled at her naked torso. Her skin was so smooth and perfectly unblemished. He'd only had sex with one other woman, and it had been back in college. They had dated for a few months, had sex a few times, but it was long enough ago it was more a vague memory of an old movie. He thought of it often, particularly when he masturbated, but he knew that the porn he watched insinuated into the memory. He took a few seconds to look at her, trying to capture the image and moment in his mind.

He started kissing her again, running his hands up and down her back, through her hair. She held him with one hand entangled in his hair. As they rocked back and forth, kissing, she reached down and put her hands into his underwear, grasping his penis. He groaned in pleasure, and put his own hand into her leggings, under her panties, feeling her moisture.

He slipped his finger tentatively inside her vagina, and as he did so she bit the corner of her lip and moaned. Emboldened by her sound of pleasure, he pushed further in. The angle was poor, and he scraped his fingernail against her causing her to flinch. In the instant, he felt worried that he'd hurt her and she wouldn't want to continue and he reflexively said, "Sorry!"

He looked at her face, her lips slightly parted and eyes widened and suddenly felt self-conscious. "Wait. Have you ever done this before?"

In a millisecond, a wave of doubt flooded his mind. Her comparing him to any other guy she had ever had sex with, and he lost some of his erection. When she stared at him, then started laughing, he lost more of it.

"I'm sorry," he said, thinking that perhaps it was over. "I didn't know."

She immediately stopped laughing and looked at him seriously. "No, it was . . . nice of you to check," she said. "I've had sex before, though. I'm sorry I laughed."

"You don't need to apologize," he whispered, his penis becoming flaccid beneath the weight of her sitting on his lap.

"I'm sorry," she said again. "I guess I'm just nervous, or something?"

He shook his head slightly, recognizing that he was being ridiculous. Here she was, almost completely naked in front of him, willing to fuck him, and he was thinking that she didn't want him. Of course she did, or she wouldn't be here!

"You don't have to be nervous," he said. "We'll take it slow."

She made a sidelong smirk and he picked her up and threw her on the bed. He was glad he didn't have a bed frame or headboard, as it might have knocked against her head when he tossed her a bit too far. He pulled off her leggings and panties in one quick movement, and stepped out of his boxers, back to being fully aroused.

He took a step to a bedside table and opened a drawer. He took out a condom and removed it from its wrapper, slipping it on. He was thankful it went on smoothly, as he often had a hard time putting them on. He had practiced with an entire box at one point to try and make sure he was prepared, and fortunately still had a couple left.

He joined her on the bed, sidled up to her, and slipped his finger back into her pussy going fast and straight. She was still wet, and that turned him on even more as he rolled on to her and started to fuck her. He grew tired of missionary almost immediately, and rolled her back on top of him. As she moved against him he slapped her thigh, saying, "Yeah, yeah, you like that," just like he had seen in countless videos.

He turned her over to get at her from behind, and as he thrust deep into her he reached down and grabbed her breasts and whispered in her ear, "I always wanted to fuck a girl with nice tits."

When he flipped her over again, he went back to missionary and started to feel a bit tired. He didn't want to stop, though, so he growled, "You make my dick so hard," over, and over as he fucked her. Each time he uttered the phrase made him that much more excited until he finally felt the moment of release, shuddered and came. He laid all his weight on her, panting and kissed her ear.

The moment could have lasted forever, or at least Robert wished it could, but after a short while he slipped his penis out of her and made his way to the bathroom, clutching the condom to keep sperm from getting everywhere. He cleaned himself up and walked back and leaned on the doorway, still a bit winded.

"What do you want to do now?" he asked.

She had pulled the covers over her naked body, and Robert flashed back to their conversation about sex in movies. She shrugged, and still caught up in that thought he said, "We could watch a movie," and he walked over to his laptop, went into his movies folder and clicked on a random flick. He got under the covers with her and set the laptop between them. He put his arm around her and started stoking her hair, and gave tiny kisses to her arm and shoulder.

He realized he had started "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," and quickly realized he wasn't going to pay enough attention to read the subtitles. He felt content, and happy that the night had turned out so amazingly.

"You know, I dunno how to really say this, but these past few weeks have been amazing for me," he started. "I've loved our conversations, all the joking, everything."

She laid still, saying nothing, and he continued. "It was hard for me over your break from school," he laughed, almost a short bark. "I was worried you'd go back home and connect with some old high school boyfriend or something. I know, crazy, huh?"

"I was so worried you might, like, make a bad decision and things would be different between us when you got back," he said. "But I should have trusted you."

He idly watched the movie as the characters jumped between treetops. "Are you still awake?" he asked, and when she quickly said yes, he said, "Is everything O.K.?"

"How old are you, exactly?" she asked him, looking straight at the laptop.

"I'm thirty-four," he said worriedly. "Is that a problem?"

In a moment all his fears returned and he held his breath.

"No," she said. "It's fine."

"Good," he said. "It was something I wanted to bring up with you, but I didn't know how you'd take it." He rolled over and kissed her forehead. She smelled like jasmine, and he went back to his side of the bed with the scent lingering in his nose.

She turned and looked at the clock on the bedside table. "I should go home, probably," she said.

"Really?" he said almost at a squeak. He had this entire image in his head of sleeping together, waking up in the morning. "But I thought you'd stay over. I make great scrambled eggs!"

"Thanks," she said, as she got out of bed. He appreciated her butt in the glow of the laptop light as she walked to the foot of the bed and slid into her leggings. "But I can't. My roommate would be worried. So."

She continued to collect her clothing, covering up her body piece by piece, Robert trying to remember each image.

"Gotta get back to the dorm room," he said, sarcastically. His imagined morning glory was shattered, and he was instantly sad.

"Yep," she said. "Since that's where I live."

The drive was endless. The snow had turned to rain. They didn't talk. Eventually, Robert switched the radio to late-night NPR. Robert recalled how, when she hadn't gotten into the speakeasy she had cried out of frustration and he smiled with the memory. It was a sad smile, and the memory itself was bittersweet.

As they arrived at her dorm, she unbuckled her seat belt, and he did the same. "I had a really nice time tonight," he said.

"Me, too."

"I'm so glad we finally got to go on a date," he said.

"You're welcome," she said, and reached for the door handle. "Thanks for the movie and stuff."

As she started to open the door, he panicked a little. "Wait," he said as he grabbed her arm. "Come here." and he pulled her to him, wrapped his arms around her, and kissed her passionately again.

A few seconds later, she pulled away and said, "Good night," and got out of the car and walked to her dorm.

Before he drove off, he sent a quick text to her with emojis. He chose some hearts, a smile with hearts for eyes, and a dolphin laughing to himself at his reference to sex, the dolphin jumping in and out of the water. She'll appreciate that, he laughed as he drove back home.


That next day, he felt great! He finally had a girlfriend again, and he had so many thoughts about what they could do next. He knew she was busy at school all day, and he didn't want to bother her - particularly because he had kept her up until almost 4 A.M..

Later in the evening, after he had a dinner of cold leftover pizza, he sent her a text to resume their witty banter, "I hope you enjoyed my Red Vine last night!" She didn't respond immediately and he frowned to himself.

The days that followed were a mix of anxiety and excitement. Now that they were together, he shouldn't worry, right? They had sex, so she obviously wants to be with me. Maybe she overlooked the text. Maybe the sex joke was too soon? That was stupid of me. She should have figured it out, though. We've joked about Red Vines in so many ways, it's part of the fun coming up with new references! Why doesn't she text me back? Did she lose her phone? Maybe she really does have another boyfriend. Hopefully we can do this again next week! Is she ignoring me? Why would she do that? She was really quiet after we had sex. Did I do something wrong? She did compare me to another guy didn't she? She didn't have to be so cold about it, though. Maybe that's not it. Maybe she was just tired. She had a bunch of beer and some whiskey. She obviously can't handle her liquor. Oh wait - I put on a movie with subtitles! That was stupid. I should have put something funny on - she said as much after that Holocaust movie. Damn it.

Three days after having sex, he couldn't take it anymore. "Hey, so it seems like you're really busy, huh?" he texted.

"Haha sorry yeah," followed by, "I'll text you soon."

His low level anxiety didn't improve with that text, but he felt better anyway finally having heard back from her.

He puttered around the house, tidying up a few things. A chime from his phone and he dropped what he was working on and rushed to check the text, excited.

"Hi im not interested in you stop textng me."

He read the text several times, each time feeling like his stomach was falling out of his gut, each time feeling a bit more upset.

He fell back onto the couch and stared at his phone screen until it turned off. Both of his cats appeared, and each took up either side of him on the couch, Mu tentatively meowing, Yan purring slightly.


He felt like crying. He didn't cry. He felt like burying himself in the couch cushions and never coming out. The cats were now upset too, but he didn't pay them much attention.

After some time, he didn't know how long, he got off the couch to go pee. When he got back, he picked up his phone again and re-read the text. This time he just felt nauseated.

"O.K., Margot, I am sorry to hear that. I hope I did not do anything to upset you. You are a sweet girl and I really enjoyed the time we spent together. Please let me know if you change your mind."

He watched the text go through to her, then threw the phone across the room with a shout. The cats ran for their respective hiding places.

Then he cried.


He missed work for two days. He just didn't feel like going. The first day he just didn't bother, the second day he called to say he was sick. The third day he called to say he quit.

He spent the next week trying to get out of his funk. He cleaned his house, played video games, ate delivery pizza. He called his mom, which he rarely did. He didn't tell her what happened, but she said she was worried anyway and said they would come down to visit.

His parents stayed for a week. His mother noticed he had lost weight and said something about it every day. His father talked to him about his potential, and what sorts of jobs he should look for. His mom bought him a new jacket and winter hat like he was twelve.

He was a bit numb through it all. He put on an act for them, laughing when he thought it was appropriate, holding a conversation here and there, but he just wasn't into it, and hoped they would go back to their home soon.

He couldn't stop thinking about Margot, no matter how hard he tried. How had he fucked it up? What did he do? If only they could have sat down to talk, he was sure he could have convinced her to stay. He remembered his break-up with his college girlfriend, Amy. It had just kind of ended, really. She spent less and less time with him, always busy with school or other events, and eventually she just told him she was moving on. He was hurt at the time, but not like this.

At least she could have given him the courtesy of telling him to his face. Why hadn't she responded to the joke about the Red Vines? Was that what pissed her off? You know, I hope she gets treated like shit by one of those fucking idiotic jocks. I know she will. It's the sort of bullshit girls like her end up in relationships with. Here I am, treating her nice, showing her kindness and humor - a bit of intellect - and it was too much for her. Maybe I should have treated her like shit, right? Maybe I should have been cold, played hard to get a bit more. Maybe I should have negged her. I always thought that was stupid, but you know, maybe they have a point? You know, I deserve something from her. She should just fucking tell me what her problem is with me.


The parents went home. The moment they left, he put on his new coat and went to the campus dive bar Margot had initially suggested they go to that night. He sat there all evening, nursing a beer. She didn't arrive, and he eventually went home.

That became a regular pattern. He would spend the day doing this and that, browsing Facebook trying to find her, looking at other social media to see if she had any other accounts. When he had the idea to do that, he realized he didn't know her last name at all. He tried searching phone records, but didn't have any luck. He paid for a background check on the phone number and finally found her last name.

Eventually, he found her Facebook. He looked through her photos, trying to see if she had a new boyfriend, but there weren't many public photos, and when he looked at her wall (she really should have better security on her page, he thought) she didn't post very frequently and mostly just cute memes with cats.

He found her campus email address and drafted two or three emails to her, but saved them all to drafts and never sent them. It didn't seem satisfying. He wanted an in-person dialog over this.

He continued to go to the bar, at first two times per week, but after two weeks he was there every night. Until he saw her.

He was sitting at his normal table, watching the door as anyone walked in, each time hoping it would be her with a thrill of energy, then each time a let down when it wasn't. But when he saw her, at first he thought it wasn't her. He stared slack-jawed for a few seconds, then regained his composure and stared down at his beer, trying to make it seem like he was just there drinking.

He heard the group she was with go up to the bar, and heard some shuffling and small high pitched laughter that you often hear from young college girls. He stole a glance and saw some guy standing close to her, shielding her from view. Fuck. She did end up with some jock asshole. He just sat there. He didn't really know what he expected. If she had come in alone, he would have gone up to her, of course. He had been waiting for that. This group of people with her, though? No way. He knew she had probably told them all whatever lies about him that she told, and if he tried to have a rational discussion with her it would go nowhere. Pointless. Fuck.

He waited at his table, stony, until they left. After they were gone, he went up to the bar and ordered a whiskey, neat, and slammed it down. He ordered a second, and did the same. He ordered a third and left it sitting there.

He pulled out his phone and read her last text over and over. He sipped on his drink until it was gone and ordered one more. "Hi Margot, I saw you out at the bar tonight. I know you said not to text you but I just wanted to say you looked really pretty. I hope you're doing well!"

He stared at his text but hesitated sending it. If he sent it, she could respond, and maybe she'd want to go back to their same ritual. Then what? She could just ignore it, and then what? He stopped thinking and pressed send. He kept staring at the screen, hoping she'd text back.

Two minutes later, when nothing had arrived, he typed again, "I know I shouldnt say this but I really miss you"

Nothing. He waited five more minutes, then another five, just staring at the screen.

He felt fuzzy around the edges. His jaw felt like he had been gritting his teeth for hours. Maybe he had. He started typing again, and had a hard time getting the words right, but also didn't really care.

"Hey maybe I don't have the right to ask but I just with youd tell me what it is I did wrog"

Reflexively, he corrected himself, "*wrong"

He waited some more. He sipped at his drink. He ordered another.

"I felt like we had a real connection did you not feel that way or . . ."

More minutes passed. He felt nauseated.

"Maybe i was too old for u or maybe you liked someone else"

He felt a burning in his stomach, and not from the alcohol. It built up. He felt resentful, he felt jealous, he felt enraged.

"Maybe I was too old for u or maybe you liked someone else"

He teared up, and wasn't sure if he was sad, or just pissed. He typed through the blur.

"Is that guy you were with tonight your boyfriend"

He decided to wait a bit on that one. Surely, that'll get an answer! Surely she'll want to respond to that. If he's her boyfriend, she had to say so. If not, then she'll defend herself, right?

No response. It had been two minutes.


Fuck. Still nothing. This was ridiculous. "FUCKING ANSWER ME, BITCH!"  he mumbled under his breath, beyond noticing how drunk he was.

Robert resumes texting. "Or is he just some guy you are fucking"

He pressed send and instantly regretted it.


Fuck. That was too much. Wait the fuck a second here. She blew me off. Fuck her. This is bullshit.

"When u laguehd when I asked if you were a virgin was it because youd fucked so many guys"

He pressed send and immediately started typing again.

"Are you fucking that guy right now"

"Are you"

"Are you"

"Are you"

He texted his next response and as he pressed send he yelled it into the bar itself.

"Answer me"

Everyone left in the bar looked at him. He drank the last bit of his whiskey and stumbled out of his chair. He slapped down some money, probably much more than he owed but he didn't want to leave without tipping and didn't want to stay around to pay by card.

He stormed out of the bar, slamming the door shut and made his way to his car. He got inside, and hoped she would have texted back by the time he was there.

He pulled out his phone. Nothing. He typed another response, having a hard time getting the spelling right, and retyping several times till he got it right. Finally it was correct. He pressed send.


And immediately vomited over himself.

*Thanks to Linda Lattanzio for bringing "Cat Person" to my attention, and in encouraging me to write this response.