The bar’s in Williamsburg, occupying an odd slice of an intersection separating a handful of Polish delis, a denim shop, a decrepit video store that supposedly sells coke. It’s a local spot, a nice enough place with open windows and pretty terrible food. You wouldn’t commute out here specifically from Manhattan, and that’s why when I look up at our newest addition to the group, my mouth unattractively wrapped over the end of a fish taco, and see Henry O’Toole standing there in his three-piece suit and his raggedy beard, my blood slows to a crawl—heavy, leaden, resigned to yet another awkward three hours of my life.
“Henry, this is Catherine.”
Nina Green, the executive editor of some famous fashion magazine, stands in her strapless summer dress to introduce Henry to the table. Henry shakes Catherine’s hand politely. “And this is Jenny,” Nina continues. We make no move to reach out and touch one another unnecessarily. His tattooed hands—the fingers, the knuckles, et al—have receded towards the safety of his own person while I pretend to busy myself with the fish taco, depositing it on a plate of spent limes. We both nod and approximate the uncomfortable smiles of two people who have said and/or done horrible things to one another and are forced to be diplomatic about it in public. Though I do contemplate the satisfaction derived in saying a terse, “Oh, we know each other alright.”
Three years ago I made an unfortunate miscalculation when I walked past Henry O’Toole, a then-nobody sitting at the white table of a designer’s showroom I happened to be modeling in. The intensity in his face, a pair of dull blue eyes, a bluish-black shamrock amongst countless other inked things running down his arm. “If I don’t say anything now,” I thought, “I’ll never see him again.” Compelled by some love-at-first-sight, time-just-stood-still, mid-twenties romantic garbage, I wrote my number down on the back of a white receipt and gave it to another model to palm over to him. Looking back, I attribute my forwardness less to fate and more to the weeklong Xanax bender I had been on, popping pills every hour on the hour in an attempt to ignore the pleather shoes tearing skin off my feet, the Italian women commenting on my “bigger American build”, the people touching me, touching me, touching me, touching me for days on end. Henry O’Toole and my own judgment just one of 100 other things pleasantly clouded by time-released chemicals.
At the time it seemed a logical enough thought. I had been working in New York for a year, doing a lot of showroom modeling during the market weeks following the runway shows, and had never seen him before. His appearance could have been a one-off, an accident—only it wasn’t; it was the first of many. Now firmly of the fashion set—an engrained fixture at all the shows, in all the showrooms, showing up at the magazine parties and lending his name to the lesser ones—his schedule is more predictable than anyone’s, a set span of certain weeks throughout the year, rotating between New York, London, Paris, Milan, his every outfit documented along the way on street style blogs, rushing around various cities holding a phone, an attaché case, the hand of the girlfriend he now lives with.
His persistent presence in my life, despite living in Europe, was a lesson I learned the hard way, when, for countless seasons after our breakup, I was forced to continue to model for him in showrooms, standing against a white wall while he took photographs of me, offering me little more than a weak “thank you,” my eyes focussed safely in the direction of the floor. For hours it would go on like this, parading around for him in pants and blazers, a sad solider in a cocktail dress, purchased for someone to wear on a more pleasant occasion.
So of course he’s here, with Nina Green, in the middle of Nowhere Brooklyn, ruining a Sunday afternoon in my neighborhood. Because why wouldn’t he be? My hands stop shaking after a half a glass of watered down rose and, for the first time in years, I resist a compulsory nervous breakdown. And when, an hour later, our eyes meet briefly from across the bar, I feel nothing but the absolute emptiness one feels when assessing a total stranger, just another body between myself and a painted wall, an obstruction, a pulse.
Who wears a three-piece suit in June, anyway…