“Help” was her first word to me. “Help” was typed into the subject line of a long email. It was followed by an exclamation point.
The email was signed “Seymour Glass.”
The email concerned “Seymour’s” recent decision to take up casual sex. She thought this would be a good strategy for combating the alienation she felt in most human interactions.
A few days into her project, she lost her virginity to “some kid” she found on Craig’s List. He came to her dorm, fucked her, and left—all within the space of minutes.
She cried in the shower, and scrubbed his name from her memory.
She met another guy, "some bald guy.” He came to her dorm, undressed and announced that he had forgotten condoms. She told him to come back when he was less forgetful.
He came back the next day. He came fast. He offered to train her to be his sex slave. She said she would get back to him on that.
She cried in the shower, but his name stained.
The second guy had mentioned my parties, saying he would be glad to take her to one. “You can read about them on his blog,” he told her. “I’ll put in a good word for you.”
She ignored the offer, having already decided that she would never again see the first two men she had fucked. Nevertheless, she took the advice to read my blog.
She wrote to me, asking for my help.
I thanked her for writing, saying I was unclear about how I could help, or what she needed help to do. I’m a pervert, I told her, not a therapist. The best I could offer was a sounding board as she worked out her thoughts on this new pursuit of sex with strangers.
She took me up on the offer.
“Seymour” wrote long notes to me, often late at night. She wrote about the discomfort she felt in even the most basic social interactions, saying she only felt comfortable with her parents, her cousin, her close friends, and her dog; the interactions and acquaintances of college life left her feeling awkward and raw.
She had decided that sex might be a way to break through that wall of alienation. She wasn’t looking for an emotional commitment. She hoped that sex would allow her to feel something physical and “real” when so many other things felt phony.
Seeking the genuine and real, she set out to fuck strangers.
In our notes, she expressed her anxiety that no one would find her attractive due to her scars.
That revelation gave me pause. I asked about her scars—were they the result of an accident or surgery, or were they self-inflicted?
“Yes,” she replied. “The scars are self-inflicted.”
It struck me that “Seymour” was behaving somewhat compulsively, and I said so. I asked if she had a therapist she trusted. I was concerned that she signed her name as a fictional suicide, given her history of self-injury.
“Oh, you know Salinger!” she wrote. “I really like him, maybe too much.”
“I don’t think it’s possible to like Salinger too much,” I replied. “Unless you’re Joyce Maynard.”
“Oh, you know Maynard, too? That’s great. Of course, none of the kids here would know anything about that. But yeah, I have a therapist, and I’m on lots of yummy pills, so don’t worry about that.”
I asked to elaborate on her rationale for approaching sex as she did.
“I'm honestly not sure if I think sex is a big deal or not,” she wrote. “I don't think it is, truthfully . . . but . . . I'm just scared of people. I wouldn't be able to sleep with someone I care about. I'm too afraid of getting hurt . . . I'd rather sleep around. I'm just trying to feel better, which I know isn't a good reason to engage in casual sex. But I'm also terrified of being alone. If I can't connect with people on an emotional level, at least I can connect on a physical level . . . as is my rationale. And just to talk with someone is nice, whether I'm fucking him or not. Even very trivial, casual talk—it's nice, it's something . . . you know? And to be held is nice, though it means nothing.
“It's a nice escape, although I can't relax enough to even feel pleasure from it, but it's something. It's better than drinking. Or various other escapist behaviors.
“I don't know what to do . . . because honestly, I think of how I need to fuck someone. I've been trying to resist it, but I keep thinking about it. Luckily, my week is busy . . . but Monday I'll probably be with someone else. I don't know why; I'm not sure if I dislike it or not—I don't know what to make of any of this.”
This girl was a piece of work.
And yet she was so cognizant of her state of mind, and so articulate about it. She was, in the current parlance, an emo kid, someone who mulls things over, fretting about the basics of being human.
We used to have other names for young people like that, but these days, “emo kid” seems to work.
“Seymour” presented herself as at a loss about what to do about her anxiety, and chose what would appear to be an odd solution—she dreaded the tepid waters of simple social intercourse, so she dove into the deep end of anonymous sexual intercourse.
As we corresponded, “Seymour” came to trust me, at least as much as she could let herself trust me. She encountered me as words on a screen, in my blog and in our emails, and I took her words seriously. The fact that we interacted in text and not in person kept me at a reasonably safe distance. She could open herself to me, as flesh and blood didn’t interfere.
Still, she was getting under my skin. I thought about her as I went through my day, remembering things she had written and formulating my next response. I came to care about her, in a way; I wanted to do what I could to make her feel less alienated from people. If that meant being an online friend, I thought I could manage that.
I forgave myself certain responsibilities. I could not keep her from hurting herself by fucking strangers any more than I could keep her from digging razors into her muscle tissue. I could only tell her, from experience, that if she wanted to distinguish the genuine from the phony, she was employing methods that might only confuse the two.
If I’ve learned nothing else in life, I do know this: you can’t always save people.
I also know myself: I’m compelled to try.
Reading “Seymour’s” notes, I recalled my early life with Lucy.
We worked together in a bookstore. I was drawn to the information desk. I enjoyed helping people find titles they couldn’t recall, or matching a desire to read with a book that might fit the bill. Lucy gravitated to the stock room, where she could open boxes, type ISBNs into a computerized inventory and chain smoke.
One day, I invited Lucy to lunch. At the time, she weighed under a hundred pounds. No one at the bookstore had ever seen her eat. I suggested we order sesame chicken from a take out place. I liked that it was too much food for four dollars and ninety-five cents, including an egg roll and a soda.
She liked it. She began to order it every day.
We slept together, eventually. I learned how that worked.
If I woke to find her missing, I got up to look for her. She was often in the bathroom, naked on the tile floor. One night, I pulled her face from the cat box. I plucked litter and turds from her lips and eyes. I wet a washcloth. When she was clean, I picked her up and carried her back to bed.
The next morning, I called in sick to stay by her side.
I thought that was how I should take care of her.
Fifteen years, three children and one divorce later, Lucy finally got medical treatment for her depression. Now that she was alone, by her design, she had to do something.
I hope it works.
Meanwhile, I’m the boy raised by my father to care for my mother, the husband trained by experience to care for his wife, the single father who cares for lovers when his young children are gone.
I’m a piece of work.
I couldn’t bear the thought of “Seymour” crying in the shower come Monday, her self-imposed deadline for fucking yet another stranger.
We were passing notes when I made a proposal.
“Look, you say you are going to fuck someone on Monday, and you don’t even know who that is. Can I make a suggestion? Meet me instead. In the flesh.”
She agreed to take a risk.
We both did.