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By Any Means

By: Vittoria Benzine

 

Three drags from an Uber driver’s cigarette bolstered my facade of calm. I swallowed the acidic taste in the back of my throat and stepped through the entrance for my first glimpse into Richard’s apartment. It was bigger than anything I’d ever seen in New York, with a spacious terrace featuring panoramic views of Central Park and the frosty Upper East Side. Black and white tiles gave the floor a sense of antiquity. I noticed a thin layer of dust covering everything and thought, Couldn’t he afford to hire cleaning help?

Richard handed one of many lessons to me with a wrinkled nose and expression of repugnance. “Do you smoke?” the older man interrogated. Apparently, even the smoke from Marlboro Ultra Lights lingers on clothing. Perpetually prepared to frappe up a frosty glass of niceties, I told him “a few cigarettes here and there helped keep my weight down.” A sheer veil concealed my delight that the fumes had effectively masked my heavy pheromones of apprehension. I breathed a minor sigh of relief, assured that the man attending the old-fashioned elevator I’d just ridden for twenty stories had meant nothing by his searching glances.

I had heard Richard’s voice for the first time over the Uber driver’s phone, only forty-five minutes prior, as he berated the man for his inability to find me in the myriad of alleys winding through my gated college campus. I finally located the vehicle and ducked into its heated interior, escaping the vengeful New York winter. Close proximity to the ocean exacerbated the wind’s sharpness. I felt as if the air itself sought some vendetta against me. While thick, wet snow flakes slushed on the Riverdale highways ahead of us, I swigged from a fifth of bottom-shelf tequila I’d brought to embolden myself. Our tired eyes drifted to meet in the rear-view mirror, mid-gulp, and I offered the glass bottle in the driver’s direction. He gratefully accepted, offering the rationale that “in Jamaica everyone drinks while driving.” I told him I understood, that “drunk driving is essentially a sport in rural Pennsylvania.” We remained silent the rest of the way to the Upper West Side. Christmas lights streaked by the window while I anxiously clicked my kitten heels together. I tugged on my stockings and re-folded my thin turtleneck, wondering if my attempt at modesty might register prudish.

Growing up in Nowhere, USA, I had expected this glorious city to welcome me with open arms and roaring applause upon my arrival in August 2013. Instead, life went on without even a glance. I soon found that, despite its breakneck pace, daily existence in New York City cycles through the same repetitive monotony one might find anywhere else. The sudden awareness of my naïve egoism shocked me. My eyes darted around rattling subway cars, struggling to avoid contact with strangers who would detect my vapid core. I mimicked the rat race habits I observed every day, even in the absence of a destination. Waiting at the train doors before they opened seemed to instill some sense of purpose. I might be heading for a desultory stroll through SoHo, but I would get there efficiently.

An inability to escape the deadening rhythms left me craving something more, something exciting, something scary. I simultaneously longed to join the ringing descant of wealth some New Yorkers sang, louder here than anywhere I’d heard before. SeekingArrangement, an online platform meant to connect wealthy older men with youthful companions, offered a solution. I could quell my monetary woes and find a new adventure, something differentiating. I wanted to confide my plan in one of the few people I trusted.

My friend Shane and I shared an affinity for high fashion and a distaste for our spoiled classmates. He was also one of the only people I’d met at school who could keep pace with my drinking. Long past the hour our classmates had gone to sleep, we trekked to the Beer Cave, picking up two Four Lokos a piece before journeying back to our school’s expansive quad. It was early October and the day’s earlier warmth had settled into a dank chill. Through the moisture, we saw several stars in the open sky above. I marveled at their tenacity amongst the city’s light pollution. “I made an account on Seeking Arrangement last week.”

“Are you actually going to meet up with someone?” he asked

I sighed, training my stare upwards after lighting a cigarette. I passed it to his freezing hands. “I’m worried I’m going to get absolutely mangled.”

“Then don’t get mangled.”

“I can’t continue living off work study paychecks.”

Wealth confronted me again and again, mocking my own meager conditions. Genuine appliqué Valentino stars on other girls’ shirts outshone the cheap imitations on my garments. Chanel heels rang throughout stairwells of the Gothic building where most freshman classes were held, generating a full-bodied, sonorous tone. My faux-leather pumps were the destitute cousins who hadn’t been able to afford singing lessons. Sprinkling salt on the wound, my high school sweetheart had recently decided I was not as sexy as the record label he’d just started in Los Angeles, using his trust fund. The girls I attended class with at the nation’s nineteenth most expensive college carried Goyard bags stuffed with fake IDs and phones packed with numbers that could get them into the clubs I’d dreamed about frequenting. I attended classes on a full scholarship awarded to students in the top 2% of the applicant pool. The minimum wage student job included in my package felt like indentured servitude.

Hopeful adolescence still sat fresh in my memory. The original plan had been to attend Barnard, write a few cheeky articles on current events in the fashion industry, and immediately catapult to fame. Looking back, I can only laugh at my naïveté. I had been told time and again that the path to success is nonlinear, rocky and frenetic at best. I insisted that I was different, that force of will alone would open the path of least resistance. I didn’t know that even wildly talented individuals claw their way to spotlight. I tried and failed to escape my family’s skepticism. My grandpa had warned me that if I moved to New York, I may not be able to “run with” the peers I’d meet. His words met stubborn ears. Just four months into my New York life, the inexorable push forward allowed me to forget I even had a family who cared for me back home.

On the first day of orientation, the president of our university addressed the incoming freshmen, encouraging us to embrace the school’s Jesuit ethos of Cura Personalis, to use this education to enrich ourselves with a holistic approach. “Do not live a double life,” he warned. I’m definitely going to do that, I thought. I was well-versed in the art of presenting a polished face to authority figures. I had hidden my nascent addictions from my entire family, using sparkling report cards as evidence in my favor. With the additional luxury of distance between us, I could expand my leisure activities, explore the costs of becoming something greater. New York is like that. In a city of over eight million people trying their best to live the good life in a small space, the city quickly turns your limits into liabilities.

By December, I’d gone on a few introductory dates with men I’d met from SeekingArrangement. I’d dipped my toes into the fantasy: evenings spent in hotel lobbies with executives who ran the city behind closed doors and over energetic phone calls. I loved the scent of boutique establishments. Everything in my life had been used before we owned it: our car, our house. New buildings epitomized wealth; something erected entirely to the purchaser’s tastes. The fresh aroma of a recently installed HVAC system signaled importance. Meetings during my entrance into the “sugar bowl” never made it further than introductory conversations. Each SA encounter, though pleasant enough, ended with the same falsely paternal concern that a young, pretty girl shouldn’t be riding the subway, and the same stack of crisp twenties deposited into my un-manicured hands. I would quickly excuse myself to the ladies room to count my new currency in peace.

A Tinder message arrived in a lull between spurts of activity on SA. My first look at Richard: a tall and burly man of fifty with thick grey waves and a curling smile akin to the smile of the world’s most famous cat. I would have fucked him for free. I had been using the app for validation and enjoyed swiping right just to see who had reciprocated. Richard’s message brought an uncommon skip to my heart. He was the first in a series of men who would point out my submissive appearance, and he offered a “mutually beneficial relationship” if I was interested in being dominated.

In November 2018, I read the Satanic Bible after finding it on a table for staff recommendations at The Strand. I laughed when I reached Anton LaVey’s treatise against pursuing sexual activities solely for the purpose of challenging oneself. He explains, “Self-deceitfully forcing yourself to be adulterous or to have sex partners when not married just for the sake of proving to others (or worse yet, to yourself) that you are emancipated from sexual guilt is just as wrong, by Satanic standards, as leaving any sexual need unfulfilled because of ingrained feelings of guilt.”

My freshman year of college, I became aware that I thought about sex almost constantly. I wanted everything: forbidden sex during office hours with several professors at a time, hate sex with my ex-boyfriend’s father on my dingy dorm room bed, carefree sex on any number of nameless floors. I also knew that this conflicted with the image of the successful, respectable woman I’d envisioned growing into. Regardless, I channeled my insatiable sexual energy into situations that destabilized me.

LaVey continues to explain that “…it is an established fact that the nymphomaniac (every man’s dream girl and heroine of all lurid novels) is not sexually free, but is actually frigid and roves from man to man because she is too inhibited to ever find complete sexual release.” I couldn’t say no to a man when I was eighteen. I always believed the onus of responsibility fell on me. I had accepted their advances, gone home with them, and sat on their floors, thus requiring my acquiescence in their inevitable next moves. I thought this irresistibility was my curse, to inadvertently seduce every man I met. I didn’t believe I deserved boundaries.

My parents visited for my first holiday season in New York. We sat for dinner at Krave Fishbar in Midtown East. I grappled with repeated silences, trying to fill them with the few wholesome stories I’d acquired over the past few months. I told them how I’d gone to DUMBO with some girls from my floor for a food festival, omitting the joints I’d smoked on the way. I’d gone to the Met for an art history class, though I’d written the assignment while tripping acid. I recalled my thirteen-year-old summer, when I sat on the boardwalk in Ocean City, Maryland with my mother. “I am never going to drink or do drugs,” I had told her. “I would never risk my entire future for a momentary high.” I meant it at the time, too. I stood out as the black sheep of my family for my devotion to success. I didn’t like to party. I didn’t see the point.

While I sat with my family in the Midtown restaurant’s narrow dining area, I asked the waiter for a glass of bourbon. My parents shot an unreadable glance in my direction, one of curiosity more than concern. I had brazenly ordered our first bottle of Prosecco, daring the server to ask for my identification. This was not the daughter they knew.

As my parents picked at their entrees, I typed an affirmative reply to Richard’s proposition. I thought, If you’re uncomfortable, Vitt, that means you have to do it! This internal urging would become my rallying cry for imprudent decisions, as I began the overarching battle against my better judgement.

It was through my encounters with Richard that I began observing the habits of those men inhabiting our nation’s top-tiered tax bracket. Like Richard, most of them stocked only three items in their fridge: bottled mineral water, probiotic yogurt, and vintage champagne. Perusing the bottles with feigned comprehension, I made my selection based on an elegance of font.

I sat down on the couch next to my new patron and raced to the bottom of a fresh Laurent-Perrier Brut. Richard ordered me to scratch his hair as he regaled me with the tale of how he came to acquire his extravagant circumstances. I worked my fingers in different patterns, wondering if I was doing it right. I had gently run my hands through many tendrils of lovers lost. Just two years prior, I had reclined on a plush sectional in the basement of my boyfriend’s sprawling country estate while he introduced me to The Big Lebowski. I couldn’t bother paying attention to the movie, his enthusiastic ability to recite every line filled me with a tenderness I’d never known. He looked impossibly sweet, gesticulating along to the movie with his head in my lap, glossy brown hair fanned around his face.

Richard asked me to stand up so he could take a look, first instructing me to spin and then directing me with a finger gesture to lift up the skater skirt I’d arrived in, a silhouette of girlish innocence. My initial inclination towards offense subsided, not only at the realization that I had chosen to enter into this situation but also with an understanding that while I had many times felt this kind of evaluation taking place on subway cars and street corners, someone was finally declaring their intentions directly. My consciousness slipped into the ethers of whispers and watched as the rest of me nodded in approval. Richard nodded in approval as well. I didn’t consider myself a pedigree specimen of the female form, but I could make an acceptable stand-in. “What’s all this on your face?” he asked, waving his hand at the makeup highlighting big eyes and high cheekbones. I looked like an aging career girl. He led me to his bathroom, instructing me to wash off my makeup to look even younger, like a fresh-faced Birkin.

I finished the glittering white wine and opted for a Bordeuax to accompany me as I stepped into the shower to begin washing. Each sip straight from the neck convinced me that this bathroom was mine, that I lived here and had just finished a Bikram Yoga class utilizing eighteen karat gold metallic therapy, and I was unwinding before yacht negotiations at the 79th Street Basin. I thought back to my ex-boyfriend, how sick he might be if he knew the circumstances.

“I need to call my mom!” I yelled out to Richard from the bathroom while toweling off, buying myself time. I recall stretching out on the California King, completely nude, with the wine bottle in one hand and my cellphone in the other. I don’t remember how I started the conversation with my ex-boyfriend, but I imagine it was something like, “You’ll never guess where I am right now!” followed by the truth about where I was right then. I spent the next twenty minutes on the phone with Drew, rapidly reaching the end of the second bottle over a conversation whose contents I mercifully cannot remember. While I can’t control my alcoholism, I can control my reliability as a narrator.

Through patchy memories characteristic of a brownout haze, I see Richard’s frame in the doorway, the view of his spacious room upside down as my head hung over the edge of the bed. The first gasp of penetration felt like a prayer in which the mouth jolts open and some spiritual force awakens, escaping as a guttural noise. The remainder of the evening sits in my memory like disembodied clips from a dirty film. They will stay locked in their vault until I bring them to the grave, where they belong.

I came to in a taxi back to the Bronx with the same familiar bills in my handbag. My eyes searched the view outside my window to find we were cruising North on the Henry Hudson. I frequently gazed upon New Jersey from this vantage point, envious of those living there. I assumed they didn’t worry over what they would become. They just were. Meanwhile, I felt groggy and frustrated that I hadn’t kept it together well enough to take the subway and maximize profit.

I wanted to be a good sugar baby, but I also wanted a whole mess of entangled, incinerating things. I wanted to find an arena in which I could come into my own sexuality. I wanted to cheat love. Destroy and bastardize it. Most of all, though, I wanted to join in the games that distinguish many New Yorkers. I wanted to scheme, if necessary, to get rich. I wanted to manipulate people without sympathy.

Finally arriving back at my apartment in the Bronx, piss drunk, I threw my meager restitution in the air with flourish for my roommate’s benefit, first counting the bills out with a countenance borrowed from music videos. The bills fell to our floor. The small quantity left something to be desired by way of drama, but I resolved to ask for smaller bills next time. Though $200 hardly seemed like big money, I could work with it. Perhaps it was just a start.

I crawled into bed, hoping to sober up before traveling downtown to spend my new money on a much-needed haircut.

The luxury discount service Gilt City landed me at Warren Tricomi, in the Flatiron District. I ascended to the building’s second story, away from the bustling Christmas crowd on the streets and into an even more chaotic salon. I accepted tokens of kindness, like a cup of coffee, meant for those who could afford to return for routine appointments at full price. I felt fraudulent moving amongst these titans of financial indulgence. I felt scarred by frugality. The coffee slid into my stomach, and I willed away my throbbing hangover.

Freshly shampooed, I confronted my unadulterated visage in the mirror. My thick, brown waves were reduced to a helmet of wet locks. Without protection from my distinctly Sicilian hair, the alcohol abuse had no place to hide. My cheeks were bloated and splotchy, my eyes hung with dark circles. I lowered my lifeless gaze when my stylist, Tani, asked, “What are we doing today?”

I was still practicing the same succinct summary I continue to use: “I’m trying to grow it out, but it’s coarse, so I need the dead stuff cut off. I have a side part, with side bangs cut just below my eyebrows, and layers, please. Otherwise, my hair takes a triangular shape.”

She raised an eyebrow, fingering my frayed strands. “A lot of dead stuff here.”

The coffee had only thickened my dehydrated tongue. It sat like a scrap of discarded fabric in my mouth while the unrelenting vinyl cape tortured the nape of my neck. Alcohol abuse-induced anxiety welled in my gut, crescendoing until it buzzed around my skull like static on a cranked TV. I tuned out the cacophony beyond its bounds, where stylists, assistants, and clients moved about and conversed. I simply focused on the immediate area that Tani and I occupied.

I wanted to tell her that everything I’d petulantly believed in proved incorrect. I wanted to describe the sensation of drifting away from myself. I could probably find the words to highlight how it might not actually be drifting, but falling, floating, always going down, away from light. Tani caught my eye before quickly returning to her sharpened scissors. I decided against opening my mouth. What was the point? She moved on to the hairdryer, and its heat singed my scalp. Oh good, I was not dead. I wanted to yelp, to pull away from the pain. No, be cool, Vitt. I sat through it until she finished. My hair was short and dull, but it bounced.

 

Vittoria Benzine is a street art journalist and personal essayist based in Brooklyn, New York. Her affinity for counterculture and questioning has introduced her to exceptional artists and morally ambiguous characters alike. She values writing as a method of processing the world’s complexity. Send love letters to her via Insta // Email: vittoriabenzine@gmail.com // Site