The summer after my Junior year at college, an intriguing woman would come to the gym I worked reception at. She was beautiful: silky black hair, porcelain white skin, a lean petite frame, and small facial features offset by wide emerald eyes. But it wasn’t her beauty that drew me. What I fell in love with was the tattoo above her left shoulder-blade that spelled Z-W-E-I in clean, uppercase letters.
It means two. In German
Oh. You speak German?
I’m from Dusseldorf.
I guess that explains the accent.
Yes, that would explain it.
So, why do you have two tattooed on you?
It’s the number of love. And togetherness.
Can’t other numbers also represent love and togetherness?
Well, sure. But I’m more of a two girl.
Well, I’m more of a one or more guy.
Yeah, I like being alone or with more than one person.
After that brief conversation (prior to this, the only words we had spoken to each other were a perfunctory ‘hi’, ‘bye’, ‘thank you’, and ‘you’re welcome’) our relationship gradually developed. She learned my name, I learned that she was a budding artist, and we finally met up at a café near her studio on a Tuesday evening. She ordered espresso and a brownie. I ordered herbal tea and a protein shake.
So you’re not just a receptionist. You’re a health nut.
I try to be.
Do you drink caffeine.
Yes, of course. Only first thing in the morning though.
I have to wake up early. I open the gym at five.
Shit, yeah. I forgot that gyms open up early.
Yeah. All the intense ones show up right at five.
Is it true that the remarkably successful wake up that early?
It seems that way.
I don’t know. I’m not one of the remarkably successful.
I’m never that productive. But maybe that’s why I haven’t made it as far as I’d like.
You’re not very German, are you?
What do you mean by that? What’s a German?
I don’t know. Practical, early risers, hard workers, stern.
Yeah, well, I’m an artist. And I’ve lived here for ten years now.
I never liked how North Americans say that word.
Sorry, sorry. It’s a habit.
Fortunately, I made up for my faux pas by redirecting the conversation to her artwork. Our date ended with her giving me the URL to her website and inviting me to her studio on our next encounter.
When I returned to my place, I spent a full hour stalking her online presence. Despite her claim towards unproductivity, she was a prolific and successful artist. Her minimalist paintings and modern sculptures sold for up to one-thousand dollars.
The next morning, I woke up in a tired funk, made coffee, changed, and opened the gym. I had hoped that she would come in and I could congratulate her on being an up-and-coming in the art world. But by the end of my shift she never showed.
After an afternoon workout, I wrote her a quick message:
I looked at your artwork last night. You are talented. When should I come visit your studio?
She didn’t reply.
That night, I had nightmares that the word two was following me, appearing in bright neon colors at every turn. For the second night in a row, I didn’t sleep well.
I opened the gym again a five, this time with a black coffee in each hand. I effectively eliminated any expectations of her showing up. For me, that helped to ease the anxiety and get me through the workday.
She came at 1:30, right when I was leaving.
Hey. Sorry I never replied to you.
Oh, it’s okay. Don’t worry.
I have a show coming up. It’s keeping me busy.
I can imagine.
But you can come to my studio tomorrow if you’re free.
Sure. I’m off tomorrow actually.
Great. Does after five work?
Sure. Text me the address.
Enjoy your workout.
You as well. I mean…
Don’t worry. People say that all the time.
I went back to my apartment upset about the encounter. It wasn’t how I had imagined our next conversation to go. Exhausted, I fell asleep for three hours and woke up disoriented. When I finally understood time and place again, I reached for my phone. She had texted me her studio address: 355 Queen Street. We planned to meet up at five the next evening.
I knocked on her door two minutes before five. She opened it and greeted me with a wide, white smile. As she turned around, I could just make out the straight lines of her shoulder tattoo through the thin fabric of her sweater.
How are you?
Fine, and you?
Fine as well.
You want anything to drink?
What do you have?
Wine, beer, and water.
I’ll take a beer.
Beer it is.
So these are your artwork.
Yeah. I’m getting them ready for an upcoming exhibition.
I like how they all are shades of beige.
Yeah. I like things simple.
Most of them aren’t finished yet.
When’s the exhibition?
I was waiting for her to extend an invite, but she didn’t. So I contented myself with walking around her studio while sipping on a Brooklyn Lager. Not my favorite beer, but she never gave me the option to choose. We chatted about her artwork and my engineering studies; and then I left.
I left without understanding our interaction.
I felt the need to talk things through with my friend in the area, so I asked him to meet me at a bar. He said he was busy, which was a common excuse with my friends recently. I went back home and watched a movie, depressed about the fact that I had never had a girlfriend, a peculiarity about me that I used to be proud of.
I woke up to my roommate rustling around the living room. He was back from wherever he had been backpacking. I decided not to greet him, as our relationship had become strained after he found out I drunkenly made out with a friend of his at his birthday party last month. Apparently, he had been harboring a secret crush on her.
Before turning off the TV and falling back asleep, it dawned on me that the number two was increasing in its appeal.
The next two weeks were incredibly desolate. I worked more shifts than usual (without seeing her), signed up for two dating sights, chatted with many women, dated two, kissed one, drunkenly slept with the other, and felt lonelier than ever.
She came back on a Thursday, her tattoo visible behind a sheer t-shirt. I ran into her just as I was finishing my shift and afternoon workout. There were dark bags under her eyes and her skin was unusually pale.
Hey! Where have you been?
Preparing for the exhibition. It’s been crazy.
It’s partly my fault. I tend to procrastinate until the last few weeks.
How are things coming along?
Slowly, but coming.
Figured I’d work out and see if that gives me some energy.
And, hey, you should come to the showing.
Oh! Yeah, um, sure. Text me the info.
Bye. And enjoy your workout.
Thank you. Enjoy your day.
On my way back home, I suppressed a smile in order to contain my growing expectations. My intuition told me nothing would come of our tense encounters, yet my imagination conjured elaborate scenarios of our potential coupledom. Even the passerby and commuters could feel my budding excitement; they smiled and nodded at me for no particular reason. I shrugged and decided to smile and nod back at most of them.
But that internal smile didn’t last for more than a day, as she never texted me. In fact, it turned into a cold bitter frown of disappointment, the exact expression I wanted to protect myself from. Instead of smiling, strangers were now furrowing their brow and leaning away from me when I walked by them, sat next to them, or handed them transaction money. And the women on dating sites failed to reply back to me.
I began to reconsider my aversion to the number two.
A week later, believing that her show date must be coming up, I decided to get out of my funk and send her a polite text message:
Hey, I hope your art is going well. When is the showing? I’d love to stop by.
After an excruciating eight hours she finally replied:
Hey, sorry. I’ve been so consumed with the show I’ve been bad at keeping up with my texts. The showing is this Thursday, 22 Dobson St in SoHo. Starts at 7. Love to see you there.
It wasn’t a promising text, but it also wasn’t discouraging. I controlled my impulse to immediately respond to her, slept a few hours, went to work, and replied with an, I’ll be there, during my lunch break at eleven.
The next two days passed in an anxious blur. The day before the show, I went shopping for a sweater that had an artsy feel to it. It felt strange, as I had never changed my style to appease someone. I settled on a red sweater with geometric lines and left the shop sixty-eight dollars and seventeen cents poorer.
On Thursday evening, I took the sweater out of the bag and paired it with dark grey jeans. I spent a least fifteen minutes gazing at my reflection, unable to discern whether others could see through the false image I was projecting.
In the end, I couldn’t tell.
I ran into my roommate in the hallway. He smirked when he saw the sweater and asked if I was going out. I quickly replied in the affirmative, slid my puffy jack (also red) over my arms, and fled down the stairs.
I spent the Subway commute in a mistrustful state, believing that others were silently judging me, sneering at my imposter ways. So I kept my head down and retreated into an emotionless state.
I was so disconnected from my surroundings that I almost missed my stop at Broadway-Lafayette St. I let google maps guide me to the gallery and took a deep breath before scanning the crowded room through the tall glass windows. Everyone seemed to be in white, beige, grey, or black sweaters marked with simple patterns or lines.
I entered in a puffy red blaze.
Despite the fact that no one turned their heads, I felt that all eyes were on me, shunning my threatening presence: a red harlot in a sea of Spartans. Snubbing their cool reception, I firmly made my way into the main room, briefly gazing at the squares, lines, and colors on the wall. When I entered the second room, I quickly spotted one of her large beige paintings, now complete with textured squares. She was in the corner nearby, next to one of her sculptures, chatting to an intimidatingly handsome man: tall and thin with long wavy hair. I saw him laugh and gently touch her left shoulder, right where the tattoo was located. She smiled back at him and leaned in.
I slouched into the soft red fabric containing me. They stood up straighter and noticed my glare.
She grinned and motioned me over. I obliged with laden steps as I removed my jacket.
Hey Craig. Thanks for coming.
Craig, Andre. Andre, Craig.
Hi Andre. Nice to meet you.
Craig is the receptionist at the gym I go to.
Oh, what gym is that?
I was a Blink member last year. I gave that up for kickboxing and yoga classes though.
I’ve been meaning to get into yoga. Where do you go?
I let them continue their conversation for a minute before realizing that I was third-wheeling the situation. I reluctantly told her that I would take a look around, a response that seemed to please her.
I spent an hour alternating between wandering aimlessly and drinking free wine in a corner. I didn’t speak to anyone, and no one spoke to me. As the rooms cleared, I figured my presence was becoming increasingly jarring, so I left without saying goodbye to my potential lover.
On the subway ride home, in a sea of others, with no one to text or meet up with, I finally decided that one or more was no longer preferable.
I wanted to be a two.
But how to become that, I did not know.