Fred fell asleep and settled into a calm, soft snore in about three minutes. Lauren couldn’t sleep. Her anxiety was relentless, and she couldn’t stop thinking. She considered putting on a podcast but was afraid to wake Fred up. Even though he was a heavy sleeper, he was very firm about not being disturbed while he slept. His bedroom was a cave of complete darkness, with blackout curtains over the windows, a white noise machine, and a fan running to keep Fred asleep and disturbances from the rest of the world out. It was a perfect laboratory to encourage Lauren’s mind to wander in and out of doubt and overthinking.
They had met six months ago on Bumble. He’d been one of a rotation of older men with money who could take her out to dinner in the City. Her friends had recommended that she try being single after her last big breakup, and work on herself. So she’d stayed “single”, officially, and just dated around. But she’d known it wouldn’t last too long. She had never gone long without a boyfriend. It felt safer to her, to know exactly where you stood, and work on one person at a time. Even in high school, she’d had long relationships with boys, and even adult men when she was in her senior year, raising her daddy’s eyebrows and making girls at her high school jealous or poisonous or curious, depending on how they’d been raised.
She’d always liked older men, because they were more mature, or so she told herself. Now that she was nearing 30, she felt differently about it. Men with jobs and cars and college degrees now seemed pathetic to her when they looked at 18-year-old girls with any seriousness. Was it jealousy because she was getting older and not getting as much attention? Or was it concern for (or solidarity with?) these sweet young things who had no idea of the wheel of sexuality they’d been put on the moment they were born?
At 27 (28 in two months), men who were older than her had more baggage, too. They had ex-wives, or lots of ex-girlfriends. Some of them had kids. They were more complicated than the 21-year-old “men” she’d dated when she was 17, but not because they were more mature. Now, the older men had habits that wouldn’t ever change, settled like deep scars. And they could always leave you for a younger model, especially in a city like New York, where there was a constantly rotating cast of interesting young girls to find around town. That’s what had happened with her last boyfriend; he’d left her for a 20-year-old Instagram influencer who made him feel “young”. “You’re fucking 40, Roger,” Lauren muttered to herself now in bed next to Fred; “20-year-olds even make me just feel older.”
She’d liked Fred because he was hot, but also because he was funny, mysterious, and a bit of a scoundrel. Most of her boyfriends had been safe bets, desperately in love with her, willing to do whatever it took to keep her around. Roger had been a surprise. And now so was Fred. He never seemed to respond to her text messages on time, which she had originally chalked up to his working so much. Now she wasn’t so sure.
One of her endeavoring girlfriends had looked Fred up online and found that he’d had not one but two suspected DUIs sometime in the early 2010s, after med school but before he’d settled into the life of an ER doctor. The news of his arrests had been a local scandal because his father was a big deal surgeon and community member, but somehow Fred had never gone to jail for more than a single night and he’d gotten off with a warning. And he still had his medical license.
She didn’t know if he was an ER doctor because he was restless, or if being an ER doctor made him restless. He’d moved around a lot since his residency, and often took short stints as a relief doctor in small cities across the country. In fact, for the first three months they’d known each other, he’d been spending three days at a time in a town outside Denver, living in a hotel, and flying back for a few days to his home in New Jersey, spending his nights out in New York, seeing girls like her.
They’d probably clicked because she was so flexible and could have a night out on a Tuesday just as easily as a Friday or Saturday. She was a freelance writer, with a standing gig at an online community news outlet that let her write scathing opinions on popular TV shows, flippant reviews of her dating life (especially how stupid men were), or make fun of fashion, while also inviting her to have opinions on politics or current events if she felt like it. They trafficked in her youth and willingness to forego privacy so she could bring out (mostly negative) emotions in other people, just like every other successful platform currently thriving.
She felt, deep down, that she didn’t write anything serious enough or original enough to really call herself a writer, or at least not a journalist. She’d earned a degree in journalism from NYU and just stuck it out in the City, letting her dad pay her rent while she “found herself” and “worked on landing something bigger”. Her friends who had studied journalism had flung themselves across the country in search of real reporting jobs; some of them worked tirelessly at TV or radio stations; some of them flitted from print rag to print rag; some of them were in marketing; a good chunk of the better looking ones had hit jackpots as traveling influencers on Instagram. Very few got to do any real investigative journalism. She had one friend from undergrad, Veronica Martinez, who had spent years at small town papers across the southwestern U.S. and was now a bona fide reporter for the New York Times. But everyone else seemed a lot less serious.
At least, Lauren thought as she rolled over onto her stomach, I’m not alone.
Still, her work at the online magazine was enough to get her the coveted blue check mark next to her Twitter handle and the “verified” badge on Instagram, and she could count on getting dozens of comments anytime she posted anything, spanning from encouragement, agreement, and disagreement to dismissal, sexual harassment, and rape threats, all in a matter of minutes.
She never read the comments. No one had ever doxxed her. She’d never been canceled, which was probably more luck than skill. She knew she lived an utterly privileged life, and it was just a matter of time before her off-hand, stupid humor set off a bomb that would ignite a response. But so far, she was less offensive than other denizens of the internet, so she had gotten by unscathed.
Lying in bed next to Fred, she wondered how she’d gotten to this point of commitment with a man while still maintaining utter anxiety. Why was she so attached to him? Was it just hormones? Was her biological clock tying her to this man to make babies, even though it was clear he could take her or leave her? He never said “I love you”, and she was careful not to be the first to say so, but she’d never dated someone this long without that phrase at least coming up. He never talked about moving in together, or taking her home to meet his parents or younger sister. She only knew of his family from his conversations that she’d overheard on the phone. She’d met a few of his friends, but only by accident if they’d been out somewhere and run into Chase or Tyrone at a club or bar. His friends were always with new women, younger than she was, drunker than she was, taking selfies and making Instagram stories about the fun they were having.
Fred came from wealth, just like Lauren did. But it seemed to be more expansive than hers. She paid a chunk of change to her student loans every month; he’d never had any, and his entire education was already paid off, even before he’d started making doctor-sized paychecks. He had a Lexus sedan to commute to work and a collection of convertibles to race around upstate New York when he had the time. She took an Uber once in a while but was relegated to the Subway or bus most of the time. He owned this townhouse where there were sleeping now with a garage in Montclair, which was a suburban move to make, something that made her think he was planning on having a wife and children at some point. But really, it was because the garage could hold all his cars, and eventually he could rent it out as an AirBnB when he was on another stint as a traveling doc.
Lauren rolled over once more, gently, trying not to shake the bed. She took a deep breath in and out. Had he agreed to be her boyfriend by choice? Had she forced him into it? Had he just placated her with a title but kept on living his life as it was before? She hated ambiguity in relationships. She didn’t have one-night stands and wouldn’t have sex with more than one man at a time, so when she decided to go home with Fred one night, on their third or fourth date, she’d ostensibly committed herself to monogamy with him. And that had come out two weeks later, drunkenly, when she’d confessed how much she liked him and how she’d stopped seeing anyone else.
Thinking back on his face that night, he’d seemed surprised, and flattered. She couldn’t remember the conversation entirely. It had taken another week or so to decide that they were going to be “boyfriend-girlfriend”. But had he just gone along with her, or was he actually committed? They’d never really discussed the terms. She’d just assumed that meant monogamy and no more shopping around. But he hadn’t made any external declarations to that effect.
He rarely used social media. She’d tagged him in photos on Facebook from their first date after they’d first decided to be “a couple”, partially out of territorialism, partially to show her mom and sisters what a catch she’d made. He’d winced a little bit when she showed them to him. “Maybe don’t do that anymore,” he’d said. She didn’t untag him, but she didn’t even post photos of him at all after that. She didn’t dare to ask if they could be “Facebook official”, which would have just been a formality to scare off other suitors in any other relationship she’d ever had.
She was afraid of making him angry. He didn’t seem to get angry; just disappointed. She felt like she was walking on eggshells, even though he never came out and demanded anything. It was more that he just didn’t seem to care. He could take her or leave her.
Now that she thought about it, after she’d posted those photos, she’d had a message request from a stranger on Messenger. Curious, she’d accepted. It was one of his ex-girlfriends, one she hadn’t heard of. This one didn’t live in Paris or New York. She was from his hometown outside of Cleveland, Ohio. Lauren had completely forgotten about the message until now.
“I know you won’t believe me,” the message started, “but Fred is a bad guy. He’s a cheater and a liar. He’s also a compulsive gambler and probably an alcoholic. He hid everything from me the entire time we were together. Don’t trust him.”
Lauren had scoffed at the message and immediately blocked the sender. She was just a crazy, jealous ex-girlfriend, and Lauren had used the moment to write about how vicious women could get when they started to age out of dating. That was not a particularly popular opinion to have, and she got a lot of flak for being anti-feminist. It was one of the most widely-shared posts she’d ever made.
But now she was starting to wonder if the message had some truth to it. She’d never seen Fred gamble, but he worked weird hours, and who knew if he told her the truth about where he was all the time? She knew he liked to drink, but she didn’t think he was an alcoholic. It wasn’t like he had to have a drink to steady his hands on his way into work. But she only saw him two or three times a week. He’d only stayed at her place once; he always found an excuse to go home, and she was sure he always drove himself.
She turned her head over and looked at him, making out his outline in the pitch dark. She felt used and angry, and couldn’t think of what to do about it. She took her phone from the nightstand and checked the time. It was 4:55 am. She checked the train schedule; she’d just missed the first train in, but she could catch the next one at 5:24. It was a 10-minute walk to the Walnut Street station. It was cold but she could wait around a bit. Or she could get an Uber. It would be something like $45. Maybe she could get him to cover the cost?
Quietly she slipped out of the bed and went into the bathroom to find her clothes.