Read a Selection From How to Ruin Everything

From the short story collection Lin-Manuel Miranda calls "funny and subversive."

How to Ruin Everything

The Boy Who Cried MILF

Sefina

“Yo, what do you mean she ate her couch?!” Marcus asked, rolling a cigarette from a pile of loose American Spirit tobacco.

“She like, started picking off stuffing from a rip in the armrest,” I explained. “She got a taste for the foam and would, umm, snack on little clumps of it…like popcorn.”

I’d been watching a show called My Strange Addiction on the misleadingly named The Learning Channel. And as Marcus and I sat drinking on the outdoor patio at Zeitgeist, a bar in San Francisco’s lower Mission, I recalled the segment that had been stuck in my head, of the anxious woman whose only comfort was to eat her seat.

“She hit rock bottom”—I paused to sip my beer—“the day she finished the last cushion. No lie.”

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I imagined her perched gingerly on the steel skeleton of her beloved couch, one final tuft of cushion in her trembling fingers, a tear welling in the corner of her eye as she prepared to say good-bye to her only friend and step out into the void. Yeah, her fixation was weird, but she wasn’t hurting anybody else. We’re all allowed our vices, I thought, pushing my dry beer glass toward the graveyard of empties in the middle of the table, watching the tip of Marcus’s rollie blush each time he sucked a cloud of tar into his lungs.

Back in fourth grade, when Mr. Gomez explained the cruelty of “yucking someone’s yum,” he framed it in the context of cafeteria etiquette: It’s rude to gag at the Go-Gurt your lunch table neighbor is enjoying, no matter how objectionable you may personally find its slimy texture or the sound it makes squelching from its packaging. It only dawned on my classmates and me years later, when we connected the dots of Mr. Gomez’s sexuality, that he’d been teaching us a broader philosophy of lifestyle acceptance. That every human has individual desires and needs, and in undermining another person’s right to their own joy, we undermine our own. My sexual preference in fourth grade hovered between Sour Patch Kids and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, but early in high school, around when I declared myself a vegetarian, a hip-hop head, a communist, a Buddhist, and a teetotaler, I entered the market for a yum of my own. Older women just made sense.

I’ve always looked young, and by the time the rest of my friends had hit puberty, my self-esteem was suffering. This is the year the beard will materialize, I kept telling myself. As I marched into my twenties and the follicles refused to open, I tried visualizing the perfect handlebar mustache, or chin curtain, pushing the hairs out by sheer willpower. Every six months I’d successfully grow one new, long, pube-like loner, which would suggest to me that although I couldn’t see my beard yet, it was there, bunkered down beneath my skin, waiting for the right moment to greet the outside world, occasionally sending a stray up as a periscope to check on conditions, each time deciding not yet.

I know what Freud would think about my attraction to older women. I don’t care what psychology literature might imply: I love, but am not in love with, my mother. But zhat’s exzaaactly what someone in love wiss zheir mozher wooooould szay! I picture Zombie Freud moaning, lurching toward me, scribbling in a notepad, before I drive his ballpoint pen into his temple.

A fetish doesn’t develop in a vacuum. It blooms in the fucked-up petri dish of a person’s life experience: their joys, fears, familiarities, and weaknesses. People don’t eat couches just because they’re hungry. And although I’m generally attracted to intelligence and confidence, and like the idea of someone who can kick my ass in Scrabble, I believe the most alluring aspect of the older woman ties into my delayed development, fueling a fantasy that this forty-five-year-old divorcée, or this freshman congresswoman, or this risk management CFO could look at me and see maturity. And every insecurity I ever had about what girls my own age thought of me would melt away, their opinions trumped by someone who knows better.

Marcus started taking me to Zeitgeist in the summer of 2008, when I was twenty-one, back home in San Francisco after my second year at college. Ten years older than me, Marcus was the average age of most Zeitgeist customers, where the vibe in the patio’s vast grid of picnic tables was a cross between an open-air high school cafeteria and the steerage section of a transatlantic freighter—a bazaar of bikers and bicyclists, punks, hipsters and queers, septum piercings, hand tattoos, and muttonchops.

Marcus alternated between rolling cigarettes for himself and communal spliffs as the two of us, increasingly drunk and stoned, hatched increasingly dubious get-rich-quick schemes. Earlier that summer we’d crashed the presidential nominating conventions to film a crappy homemade TV pilot about global warming, doing the planet’s greenhouse gas layer no favors with our two-thousand-mile road trip. On the drive back from Obama’s nomination acceptance in Denver, a hyperventilating Marcus lost his engagement ring in a parking lot, and it took an hour of searching through the Dumpster until we found the ring in a discarded Quiznos bag. Marcus and I got along because, despite our age gap, we had roughly the same amount of our shit together. We were a few beers deep that day when he twitched his head toward a far table.

“Yo, that girl’s trying to beckon you.”

It was true. She was a few tables over—a beautiful, curvaceous, coffee-skinned woman in her midthirties, long black locks falling past her shoulders, a hint of a smile on her lips. One might flag a flight attendant, summon a confidante, bid for a bedpan to be changed. But true beckoning is reserved for royalty and film noir femme fatales. The woman’s hand curled back gently as if she was fingering the air, her sparkling charcoal eyes locked, unquestionably, on me. No doubt about it. Textbook beckoning.

“Dude, go over there,” Marcus hissed.

Stoned and edgy, I stumbled across the patio’s obstacle course of knees, table legs, and sockless loafers, Zeitgeist’s scowling, pierced, and bearded jury sizing me up from every angle. Finally, I wedged myself into a small opening at her table, where she was sitting with a group of female friends.

“I’m Sefina.”

We hit it off instantly. Sefina was Fijian and lived in Oakland. She was progressive and artsy. We seemed to have everything in common as only two thirsty people can. There’s danger in eagerness—you expose yourself to rejection. But Sefina and I kindled and built our shared enthusiasm, discussing our favorite performance poets, albums, authors, concerts. We looked each other dead in the eye. And her gaze didn’t waver when I felt a couple of fingers brush purposefully across my inner thigh under the table. I did my best not to jolt upright. I couldn’t believe it. This was a woman whom, at any age, would be out of my league, and all I’d had to do was sit there like an idiot. I’d hit the cougar jackpot.

But then I started to talk about baseball. And high school. And slowly but surely the embers in her eyes died like a peed-on fire, her excitement replaced by a furrowed brow and resignation. I didn’t understand. I tried to resurrect our chemistry by shoehorning Pablo Neruda into the conversation, but it was too late. I may not have been familiar with a beckoning, but I was well acquainted with these roaming pupils—the look of someone who wants to escape the conversation.

“Okay. What’s up?” Sefina squirmed uncomfortably.

Sefina squirmed uncomfortably.

“It’s nothing. Don’t worry about it.”

I pressed her. What could possibly be so bad? That I liked baseball?

“Okay. Look. When I pulled you over here I thought you were…”

What? Older? Cooler? Had more Neruda memorized?

“I thought you were . . .”

What?

She paused. “A trans man.”

And there it was. It took a moment for this reversal of fortune to sink in. After the initial numb attack of embarrassment, feeling flooded back to my rapidly sobering body, that warm, fuzzy, floating replaced by queasiness and a headache.

“I thought you . . . you’re just not really what I’m into. No offense.”

I felt like bolting out the door immediately, but I waited a few beats before getting up, patting Sefina with an awkward side hug, and wading back through the swamp of jeering eyeballs, all aware, surely, of what had just happened.

“So . . . how’d it go, player?” Marcus grinned as I sat back down.

It didn’t hit me until later, but there were some positives to pull from the experience. It was a bar full of old people—we were part of different Zeitgeists. And even so, Sefina had been attracted to me—something about my bone structure was working for people. So what if it took her thirty minutes of conversation to figure out that I’m a biological male? Why chain my self-esteem to the gender binary? Sefina has a right to her yum, whatever it may be. Whether or not I’m it. I’ll find the person looking for me. After all, I reassured myself, everybody is somebody’s fetish.


Reprinted from How to Ruin Everything © 2016 by George Watsky. Published by Plume, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

Author Photo: © Jared Leibowitz

Featured Image: Anna Ismagilova/Shutterstock.com

GEORGE WATSKY is a writer and musician from San Francisco, California. After getting his start as a teenager in competitive poetry slam, winning both the Youth Speaks Slam and Brave New Voices National Poetry Slam at the Apollo Theater, he has since branched out into hip hop and long-form writing. Watsky has performed on HBO’s Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry, the Ellen Show, the NAACP Image Awards, and his online videos have received hundreds of millions of YouTube hits. A committed live performer, he’s played hundreds of shows, both with his band and solo, across the North America, Europe, Australia, and India, including festival slots at San Francisco’s Outside Lands, Just for Laughs in Montreal, Rock the Bells, Soundset, Warped Tour, and released numerous music albums and mixtapes, including his most recent projects, 2013’s “Cardboard Castles” and 2014’s “All You Can Do.” He graduated from Emerson College with a degree in acting and dramatic writing, where he received the Rod Parker playwriting fellowship, and released a poetry collection, “Undisputed Backtalk Champion,” on First Word Press way back in 2006. And although he was forced to write a lot essays in school, he considers this his first attempt at prose.

About GEORGE WATSKY

George Watsky

GEORGE WATSKY is a writer and musician from San Francisco, California. After getting his start as a teenager in competitive poetry slam, winning both the Youth Speaks Slam and Brave New Voices National Poetry Slam at the Apollo Theater, he has since branched out into hip hop and long-form writing. Watsky has performed on HBO’s Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry, the Ellen Show, the NAACP Image Awards, and his online videos have received hundreds of millions of YouTube hits. A committed live performer, he’s played hundreds of shows, both with his band and solo, across the North America, Europe, Australia, and India, including festival slots at San Francisco’s Outside Lands, Just for Laughs in Montreal, Rock the Bells, Soundset, Warped Tour, and released numerous music albums and mixtapes, including his most recent projects, 2013’s “Cardboard Castles” and 2014’s “All You Can Do.” He graduated from Emerson College with a degree in acting and dramatic writing, where he received the Rod Parker playwriting fellowship, and released a poetry collection, “Undisputed Backtalk Champion,” on First Word Press way back in 2006. And although he was forced to write a lot essays in school, he considers this his first attempt at prose.

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