On a warm summer evening, Tess joined friends at Bryant Park to watch a free movie. Onscreen was Harold and Maude, a film about a poor little rich boy who falls in love with an eccentric seventy-nine-year-old anarchist. Completely comfortable with her advanced age, the older lover offers a peculiar kind of love and wisdom well tailored to the needs of her twenty-year-old suitor, who had previously staged suicide attempts to get attention.
Tess’s company that night was comprised of women a decade or two or three younger than she was. She had met most of them a year before, when she made a dramatic and ambitious effort to recast her social circles. It was the biggest change to her life since she had started having sex outside her marriage and blogging about it. Tess’s blog was primarily concerned with a dominant lover she called Victor. The lover made her happy. Better still, the blog got her attention.
Now, sadly, she knew that the relationship with her lover was ending. The night after Harold and Maude, Tess had a date with Victor. She showed him a story she had written about him. They made love for what would be the final time.
A couple of days later, Tess was depressed about the loss of her lover. She moped through her workday. Normally eager to Twitter about her outfits and lunches, she managed only to write a sorrowful “life goes on.”
That evening, Tess eased her pain by doing something that had long brought her pleasure. She anonymously attacked me online.
I’m not exactly sure when I became Tess’s obsession, but it seems to have begun shortly after we met. My friend Viviane had decided to bring together sex bloggers based in New York City for monthly tea parties. Tess and I were among those invited. Never having read Tess’s blog, I checked it out. The prose was deep purple, for my taste a little too steeped in a “give to me your leather, take from me my lace” sensibility. Still, she had a good story to tell about discovering herself as a sexual submissive in middle age. I could identify with a narrative about reasserting your sexuality in adulthood.
The blog may not have been my cup of tea, but upon meeting Tess, I found I liked her enormously. She was funny in a catty kind of way, and her vanity was pure camp. She kept her graying hair dyed red and pushed her plump tits forward with the shameless aplomb of a drag queen. She flirted constantly and despite her diminutive stature, she could easily drink me under a table. If I were to open a saloon in the Wild West, I’d have hired her to keep the cowhands happy and buying rotgut.
The feeling seemed to be mutual. She even arranged a date for me with a woman she referred to as one of her “bitches.” The woman and I saw quite a bit of each other for a while, and I thanked Tess for making the connection. It’s nice when friends do things like that for one another.
Some things came to be traditions with Tess. After a few drinks at Viviane’s parties, Tess could be counted on to stand up and loudly ask the room, “Am I the only woman here who hasn’t fucked Jefferson?” I would always laugh, but nervously, aware that the question hung uneasily in the air. I had, in fact, had sex with nearly all the women in that circle, but not all of them wanted this known or wanted to contemplate specifics about my other partners. For Tess, though, her question was a way of distinguishing herself from the group, which she apparently saw, at least in part, in terms of each person’s relationship with me.
Tess enjoyed gossiping with Viviane and between the two of them, it seemed they knew everything about everyone who had a sex blog. They talked about me a lot, but I suppose I did generate a good deal of stories worth gossiping about.
Over lunch one day, a fellow sex blogger warned me to be careful of Tess. “She’s a viper,” I was told. “I’ve only had conflicts with two sex bloggers and with Tess, it got personal and nasty very quickly. Things I had told her in confidence were being spread everywhere. And it was all over some ridiculous competition in her mind: she was interested in some guy who was interested in me. I didn’t care about him—she could have him, so far as I was concerned—but she seemed to need to destroy a competitor. It was all very primal and, frankly, unnecessary.”
I nodded along politely, thinking my friend was being overly dramatic. I liked Tess. Anyway, it wasn’t like Tess and I would ever be in competition over some guy.
One day, I was contacted by an unhappily married woman who read my blog and wanted to get together for sex. This happens in my life now and then, and after some preliminaries, we met. We had fun and she wanted to continue seeing me. For our second date, she proposed flying me to the Bahamas so she could sneak away from a family vacation to have a few hours of sex. That actually doesn’t happen to me often, and being game for adventure, I accepted.
My new girlfriend began reading other sex blogs and soon asked me about Tess. “I really feel like I have a lot in common with her,” she said. “Do you think it would be okay for me to write to her?”
“Of course,” I said. “Tess is great and she’s approachable. Mention that you know me. That should open the door.” They did seem to have things in common. Both were middle-aged suburban moms who were cheating on their husbands. I was pretty sure Tess’s husband knew about her affairs, but, like most cheaters, my new friend Dee was lying to hers. I thought perhaps Dee might benefit from Tess’s experience.
My girlfriend sent an email to Tess, who immediately responded that they should instant message. Dee didn’t know how to do that—she had only discovered the Internet a few months before—so Tess walked her through it. That very night, the two of them messaged until nearly three in the morning. “I love Tess,” Dee wrote to me. “It’s like she completes me. I can’t imagine not knowing her.” That’s great, I replied, glad that they had hit it off so well, and so quickly.
My trip to the Bahamas was to be brief. I would arrive one day, see Dee on the second day, and then head back on the third. Unfortunately, I missed the flight—I made the mistake of taking the A train to JFK, unaware that it was making all local stops. By the time I got to the airport, there was no time to make it through security. I texted Dee with the news. She was understandably upset but decided to compensate by booking me on a cruise two months later. This was also pretty rare for me, so I accepted.
I did regret that I wouldn’t be able to say, “I suppose the first date was a hit, because she took me to the Caribbean for the second.” Instead, I would have to wait until the fourth or fifth date. That’s still a good story, but it doesn’t have quite the same panache.
Tess told my girlfriend that she was making a mistake by taking a vacation with me. She would do better to use Craig’s List to find another man to take on a cruise. My girlfriend had never heard of Craig’s List so Tess sent her a link and instructions on posting.
The next time Viviane had a party, my girlfriend told me to pick up a bottle of Patron tequila to give to Tess. “Tess has been just so great to me,” Dee said. “She stood by me when you missed that flight. She knew all the right things to say.”
I obliged, sending Dee a photograph of Tess receiving her gift. I thought it was a little odd that Tess had recommended that a woman she had never met was better off taking a vacation with a random stranger than with a friend of hers, but, you know, people are sometimes funny like that.
Dee and I settled into a routine. We would meet regularly for sex and afterward we would head to a local diner for cheeseburgers. She picked up the tab. We then went on the cruise she had arranged. It was a Disney Cruise and included a day at Disney World. When she told me how much the trip cost, I said, “You know, for that kind of money, we could go to Amsterdam or Paris or San Francisco. You know, some place real.”
“No, we have to do Disney,” my girlfriend said. “I don’t go anywhere else.”
It was her dime, so I didn’t complain. Anyway, we had a nice time. I hadn’t been to Disney World since I was fourteen. Dee knew the park’s best restaurants. In one, we sat in a booth that looked like a car and ate sandwiches while watching a Fifties science fiction movie, just like a drive-in but indoors and fake. The waiter was nice and kept trying to sell us dessert.
Not long before our cruise, my girlfriend met Tess in person for the first time, after a few months of constant instant messages. They went to a reading by other sex bloggers, most of them friends from Viviane’s party. I was with my kids that night, so I stayed home. It was a fun girls night out for Dee. She was excited to meet so many people. That night, she also braved her first time alone on a subway and her first taste of Thai food.
Tess suggested that my girlfriend start her own blog to write about her sex life with me. Tess showed her how to start a blog and gave it a snazzy alliterative name. “Only, God, don’t make him sound so great,” Tess said of me. “Seriously, I read all these blogs about him and I want to barf.” My girlfriend laughed. She promised to make fun of me.
My girlfriend talked about Tess all the time. One day, as we were lounging in bed after sex, Dee said, “I think the most important thing to happen to me in years was meeting Tess. She’s changed my life.”
“That’s nice,” I nodded.
“I mean, I think meeting you was really only so I could meet her.”
“I’m glad you’re both such good friends,” I said, making a mental note that one day, I should tell her that it’s poor pillow talk to tell a lover that his main contribution to your life was introducing you to someone else.
She turned to me. “Tess likes you. She really does like you. She thinks you’re funny.”
“Aw, that’s nice,” I smiled. “I like Tess, too. She’s certainly funny.”
My girlfriend laughed at a memory. “She is so funny. She knew I was seeing you today so she told me last night that I need to have sex with someone else.”
I filed away another pillow-talk conversation for a later time. “Does she have anyone in mind?”
“Doesn’t matter. Some other man.”
“You mean, instead of me or in addition to me?”
“Tess says she’s going to find me a second lover, a real man like the ones she likes.”
I turned to her. “Dear, you are a married woman who is cheating on her husband. Your life seems plenty complicated already. Do you really think you need to add another layer of complexity?”
“I’m not really going to do it. I’m just telling you what Tess says. She wants me to have sex with someone else. Because then I would know that the sex we have isn’t so great.”
“Oh.” I mulled that over. “Wait, Tess wants you to understand that we don’t have good sex? Do we not have good sex?”
“How would I know if we do? I’ve been married to my asshat husband for twenty years. I’ve never had good sex.”
I caught that Dee now used the word “asshat.” That was a word Tess liked. “You don’t know when you’re having good sex? Well, I think we have pretty good sex. And I’m an expert, you know, so my opinion matters.”
She patted my leg. “Tess thinks you’re overrated.”
“Considering I write my own press releases, that’s entirely possible. But how would she know? Tess and I have never had sex.”
“I know. You’re never having sex with her. She told me the reason, too.”
“Lack of interest, I assume. We’ve never talked about having sex. She’s really into that guy she dates.”
“No, she won’t have sex with you because you’re bisexual. She says that’s disgusting.”
I winced. “Um, last time I checked, Tess was bisexual.”
“Tess says that’s different. Men want women to be bisexual. But no woman wants a man to be bisexual. She says it’s like sex with a gay guy. There's not enough attention on the woman.”
“But that’s . . . “ I stopped at the word “hypocrisy.” I didn’t want to color my girlfriend’s impression of her new friend. “Well, I can assure you that a lot of women do in fact like bisexual men. I meet plenty of women who like that I also see men.”
“Yeah, but you fuck young girls. They don’t know what they want. Tess is talking about grown women, like me. She says you fuck women half your age because they’re easy to get your way with. She says you’re afraid of strong women.”
I sat up on my pillow. “Actually, for the most part, my partners find me. I never need to ‘get my way’ with anyone. And I don’t consider my partners to be lacking in strength.” My girlfriend seemed to be harboring plenty of negative thoughts about me. “Hey, wait a minute. Tess always talks about the twenty-six-year-old man she screws, the guy with the six-pack abs. Isn’t she fifty-two or something?”
“No, she’s fifty-one.”
“Oh, that’s better. For a minute, I thought she slept with men half her age.”
My girlfriend laughed. “It’s different with younger women. Tess says you’re taking advantage of them. But younger men are lucky to be with an experienced woman like Tess.”
“I really fail to see the distinction.”
My girlfriend laughed again. She seemed to enjoy getting a rise out of me. “Come on, you know what she means. Men don’t take younger women seriously. They just use them for sex. Tess screwing a twenty-six-year-old guy, you know that’s great for him.”
I could feel my head starting to ache. “You just said the same thing over again. Basically, if I have sex with a younger woman, I’m exploiting her. If Tess has sex with a younger man, she’s doing him a great favor. And this is true . . . why? Because she’s a woman and I’m a man? Just like her objection to my bisexuality? It’s cool for her to be bi, it’s disgusting for me to be?”
She turned to look at me. “You don’t get it. Maybe Tess can explain it. She’s good at explaining things.”
“Maybe I’ll ask her one day,” I said, not really meaning it. I’d heard all this before; it was typical of glib double standards about gender, bisexuality and age. Those points of view were pretty common among suburban swingers. Anyway, it wasn’t like I really knew Tess. She was just someone I saw socially now and then, someone who now spent an awful lot of time instant messaging a woman I was dating.
My girlfriend and I had sex again before lunch. As sometimes happened, I came on her face. “Oh my God, hand me my phone,” she exclaimed, waving her hand toward her handbag. Still woozy from orgasm, I clambered off the bed to my desk. I handed over the phone. My girlfriend held the phone over her face and snapped a photo. “I have to send this to Tess,” she smiled. “She’ll love the new pearl necklace you gave me!”
“Yeah, that’s funny,” I nodded. I took a few tissues to clean up.
A moment later, my girlfriend burst into laughter. “Ha ha! Tess says ‘Typical, a cheap present from Jefferson.’”
“Cute,” I said.
Dee replied to Tess’s text and waited for a response. I pulled on a t-shirt. “Okay, now she says, ‘Next comes the big spender’s lunch. Both the jism and burgers are on you.’ Isn’t she funny?”
“Yeah, that’s great,” I said. “Can I get you a washcloth or something?”
“Yeah, would you do that? Thanks, babe.” She stared at her phone, typing a reply to Tess as my semen dried on her cheeks.
I returned with a warm washcloth and cleaned her face. My girlfriend looked a bit cross. “Tess says I shouldn’t pay for lunch anymore,” she said. “She said that men are supposed to pick up the check. She’s right.”
I stood back. “Men are supposed to pick up the check? Gee, I must’ve missed that lesson in my gender studies classes.”
“No, I’m being serious.” She stood from the bed and took her bra from a chair. “Come on, you pay for lunch today. It’s just cheeseburgers. I want to tell Tess you did it.”
“Tess is certainly interested in our lunch plans.” I reached for my jeans. “I thought you didn’t mind paying. You have more disposable income than I do. Anyway, we don’t need to go out. I can make something here.”
“No, let’s go out.” She crossed to press her body to my back. “Come on. Do it for me. I want a cheeseburger. I want you to pay for it. I want Tess to see that you’re a good boyfriend.”
“Okay, whatever,” I said. “It’s just cheeseburgers.” That afternoon, lunch was on me. My girlfriend blogged that I paid for lunch. After that, she went back to paying for our cheeseburgers.
A few months later, I took my children on vacation to visit family. When I returned, my ex-wife filed for full custody of our children. She had discovered my blog and now claimed that my writing and sexuality put the children in immediate danger.
It was an awful moment. I responded as best I could, looking for an attorney and making calls to see what resources were available. Lambda Legal offered pro bono research. The Sexual Freedom Legal Defense and Education Fund reviewed the motion against me and, as it was entirely concerned with my sexuality as described in this blog, established a legal defense fund for my case. The National Campaign for Sexual Freedom offered guidance and advice. “Above all, you want to keep this case out of the media,” Susan Wright of NCSF told me. “This kind of thing attracts a lot of attention and it won’t help you if that happens. Your only goal can be winning.”
That made sense to me. As my blog was the basis of my ex-wife’s complaint, I took it offline. I asked bloggers not to write about me or my case. My friends complied, expressing their concern for me and my children. By drawing the curtains online, I was able to focus on the more immediate concerns of real life.
Where most saw a family’s private crisis, Tess saw an opportunity for personal gain. She had long coveted what I had, feeling it incredibly unfair that writing and popularity seemed to come so effortlessly to me. With my blog now gone dark, Tess felt that she could displace my popularity and claim some for herself. Even better, with Viviane among those concerned about my situation, Tess could take her down a peg as well. With Jefferson and Viviane down for the count, Tess could position herself as Queen Bee of the New York sex blog scene.
Tess’s simmering obsession with me became a full-time campaign. On her own blog Tess feigned indifference to me, but in reality, she was consumed with destroying my reputation. Every lunch, every meeting for drinks, every day sending instant messages at her boring job . . . all offered opportunities to gather and disseminate gossip about me. Her greatest resource for information was Dee, who was now my ex-girlfriend, having finally heeded Tess’s insistence that she break up with me. No information was deemed too personal or unimportant to share with anyone who cared to listen. Tess gossiped about my sex life, my appearance, my family, my career and my income, twisting everything to depict me in a poor light. She outed me casually, hoping that connecting my personal life to my online life would help to further the impact of her slander. She waded through all the positive things people said about me, her ears listening carefully for anything remotely negative that she could collect and use.
Tess’s behavior cost her friendships, but those she dismissed. Anyone who wouldn’t talk trash about me was too loyal to be of use to her. Instead, she worked on assembling new acquaintances who didn’t know me, or didn’t know me well. She contacted people we knew in common, spreading the word that if they had any grievances against me, she was all ears. Those with blogs were encouraged to post anything negative they could possibly recall, or even dream up. Tess followed the blogs closely, adding comments under her pseudonym or anonymously, egging on others to keep the drama rolling.
I was astonished by Tess’s vehemence. I had considered Tess a friend. We had never been anything but cordial to one another in person. I had considered her conversations with Dee to be simply catty fun. Only now was it clear that Tess was driven by an obsession so intense that it might be considered erotic.
I recalled the warning about Tess that my friend had offered. Apparently, she was right: Tess wanted something I had, and in order to get it, she felt that she needed to eliminate the competition.
Like my friend, I was unaware of any competition between us. If my blog was popular, that was because I worked on writing to the best of my abilities. Tess could have what I had simply by applying herself as a writer. Similarly, if Tess wanted the social position that accrued to Viviane, she could follow her example. Viviane had become a well-regarded figure in the community because she spent so much effort helping others. There was nothing too difficult in doing what Viviane and I had done. We just had to work and care about others. Instead, Tess seemed motivated by covetousness. We had things Tess wanted, so she would take them away from us.
Tess sought out my friends to further two main objectives of her campaign: to collect information to use as gossip and to do anything she could to disrupt my relationships. For many, the effort was comical. Here was Tess suddenly taking an interest in people she didn’t know only to suggest that they end a friendship with someone they did know. But for others, the effort was painful. One friend told Tess intimate details about our relationship and now found, within a day or so, that these details were widely spread among gossipers. Another friend told Tess something she had told no one else in our circle, including me. When we heard it repeated as gossip, it was clear that only Tess could have been the source.
“This is like a sick game of telephone,” I marveled. “If a kitten was killed every time Tess betrayed a confidence, heaven would collapse from the mewing.”
In her blog, Tess described her encounter with a friend of mine.
“I recently met a young woman that has been involved in Jefferson's life for a few years, meeting him at twenty, and has suffered a lot at his hands," Tess wrote. "This young woman was troubled when he met her and had been for many years, as an older person, as the person who held power in their relationship, he should have been seeking to help her and not have a sexual relationship with this beautiful, bright but troubled girl.”
Tess had not simply “met” this young woman. She had sought her out, taken her out for drinks and then presented a carefully rehearsed conversation designed to elicit personal information and to turn my friend against me. Tess began their meeting by speaking in a giddy Valley Girl lingo, apparently believing this would help her to appear youthful. My friend—a brainy punk with an aversion to pretense—asked for Tess’s real name. “Oh, that doesn’t matter!” Tess giggled. “I’m more Tess than that anyway.”
“I’m not calling you ‘Tess,’” my friend said. “That’s ridiculous.” Tess reluctantly relinquished her actual name, dropping the cutesy patter as well. Apparently, my friend wasn’t going to pick up the carefully laid sweets that led into Tess’s trap. Tess adapted. Six rounds of drinks later, Tess had what she wanted. My friend, drunk and in tears, called me from the ladies’ room. “I’m actually hiding in here,” she sniffled. “I don’t know what she wants from me.”
My friend was worried when they parted company, as Tess was unable to walk straight. Tess suggested they meet again soon. My friend would need to meet Dee, Tess slurred, and definitely Dacia, as she was smart like my friend. “You don’t need that dickhead,” Tess assured her. “We can be your new friends.”
The gossip began immediately. My friend was upset to have her intimacies spread, and disgusted by Tess’s self-congratulatory description of their meeting. “Who the fuck is she to say I’m ‘bright but troubled?” my friend fumed. “Well then, I say she is ‘old and fat.’”
Tess’s tawdry betrayal was awful at the time, though we laugh about it now. My friend will complain about suffering a lot at my hands, and I will say that just how it goes when I have all the power in our relationship.
As for Tess’s professed concern for “this beautiful, bright but troubled girl,” that faded with the next day’s hangover. Tess had no further use for her. Tess’s interest in my friends waned once they had been pumped for potential gossip.
Destroying me was an exercise for Tess, her way to bigger things. Tess felt that gossip about me was her entrée into the big leagues. If she hurt someone I cared about, that’s was just collateral damage; she didn’t care about these people. She wanted to be at the table with the cool kids, the young women who dressed well, wrote snarky blogs and knew where the good parties were. If she attained my popularity or Viviane’s connections, she wouldn’t waste her time as we had on little people. She would aspire to schmooze with the A list of online sex. Tess felt that gossip would get her past the velvet ropes, and gossiping was an awful lot easier than writing.
For one red-hot season, Tess could see it all on the horizon. My blog was gone, Viviane was distracted and Tess was drinking martinis with women who wore awesome shoes. Tess could just smell the attention waiting for her. But then she found her spotlight fading. Viviane kept showing up at the parties Tess attended, and people still gravitated to her. My custody case ended and my blog returned. Evidently, I was still friends with all the people she thought she had turned against me. All of her gossip had failed to destroy her obsession. It was all too much.
Tess fumed about me on Twitter, “Anyone who follows that dickhead can’t also follow me.” She was the center of attention, God damn it, and some popular fucking dickhead couldn’t take that away from her. People would have to choose: it was either her or me.
By that time, Tess’s online presence beyond Twitter was mostly limited to videotaped sex toy reviews and pictures of her breasts in different bars. Still, she wanted to defend her turf. She was the Queen Bee of sex bloggers and she wanted everyone to acknowledge that.
As for me, I really didn’t care if my readers also read Tess’s Twitter. I mean, who cares about that stuff?
Tess had only ever been an incidental figure in my life, and by that time, she was just someone I used to know. Her behavior had made her unwelcome at the private parties I attended. I rarely made it to the bar parties she frequented, as they were on nights I spent with family. I hadn’t seen her in well over a year when one summer evening, following Harold and Maude and her break up with Victor, she attacked me yet again.
Tess chose a website where women anonymously complained about former boyfriends. There, she posted the shopworn narrative she had honed in her gossip over countless lunches and cocktails: Jefferson is a Svengali who uses his charm to prey on feeble-minded young women, leading them into lives of white slavery. It was a story rooted in the melodrama that apparently informed all her writing.
The difference this time was that Tess had posted a photograph of my face. Outing me to acquaintances was no longer enough. Now, she needed to out me online. It was as if attacking me was a drug, and she needed to increase the dose to chase the high.
For the first time, my face was online and associated with my blog.
I read Tess’s post, wondering at my impact in the life of someone I barely knew. Apparently, she could not get me out of her mind. After breaking up with a lover who meant so much to her, Tess could think of no better solace than trying to hurt me so I would also feel pain.
But I felt no pain. I’m watching my children grow into the most wonderful people I’ve ever known. My life is filled with loving friends. My writing continues to satisfy my creativity. I’m content.
Tess could take consolation in one victory in her private campaign against me. Dee had been mine, but now Dee was hers. If Tess envied that I had a girlfriend who took me on trips and bought me cheeseburgers, she might have gone out and found her own. Instead, she took mine. Now Tess gets the subsidized trips and lunches that might have been mine.
Of course, Tess also gets the persistent neediness of a high-maintenance sidekick who can’t seem to stop talking about me. Perhaps Tess considers that trade-off every time she picks up a menu and makes a point of ordering the most expensive entrée, privately gloating that her filet mignon is another cheeseburger she has denied to me.