The Billionaire

by Carolita Johnson

Once again, I’d been dumped. That wasn’t the hard part. I was getting used to being dumped, and had developed a routine involving a lot of sushi and frequent chair massages. Learned to see the advantages in not having a man in my hair all the time. No, what really smarted was that I’d been on the verge of dumping my dumper (Aha! For once it would be me in charge!) when he’d beaten me to it. Long distance, no less. And then, of course, I’d changed my mind: “No, wait!”

But it was too late. I wasn’t getting enough sleep. I had no appetite. I was pining away, getting skinny and sickly looking with all the playing and replaying in my head of much more acceptable breakup scenes, scenes that were kinder and more indulgent to my bruised and bewildered ego — oh, the things I could’ve triumphantly said, should’ve cavalierly done! — when it suddenly came to me: for goodness sakes, hadn’t I just spent a decade in Paris? If I were in Paris, what would I do?

Of course. Silly me. I’d take a lover.

Yes, if I were in Paris, everyone would know that was what I needed — they’d just know, even strangers would know, the cashier at the supermarché, the baker’s wife, don’t ask me how, but they would. The bartender where I had my espresso every morning on my way to work might wink at me as he passed me my buttered demi-baguette, maybe subtly jerk his head in the direction of some gentleman reading a Libération or Le Monde at a table, by way of a friendly suggestion…

The line-up of well-intentioned potentials would have heard I was available before my tears had dried. Some would even have felt it was their duty, if not to go out with me, then simply to make up for their fellow man’s failings by being nice to me, just to keep me from becoming dispirited. I’d often done the same for them.

But I was in New York now, in a world that suddenly really did feel like a “world made of steel … made of stone.” The “Flashdance” reference can be pardoned if you realize I left New York for Europe in the 1980s. It hadn’t seemed so unforgiving back when I’d left, but upon my return 10 years later, I’d been promptly “daunted” by New York men: the first guy I’d blithely tried to “take as a lover” had complained that I seemed to “just want to lie back and get laid.” I’d been, like, “Duh!”

It was irksome that he didn’t think that was funny, or even wryly chipper of me. Did men have no sense of humor here? Or was humor simply valueless in my (apparently) new role as a disposable female? What, they couldn’t afford to eke out a polite laugh when I made a joke in an awkward moment? They were that stingy? I’d left that guy’s Chinatown loft feeling like I’d failed a test I didn’t know I was taking. It gave me that weird, middle school feeling that I was being sent to the dean’s office or something.

Within the space of a few more such incidents (including one knight in shining armor who sped off in a cab after midnight without even waiting to make sure I was in the door of my building, which was located in a really bad neighborhood I’d since moved from, and which was known by muggers as “the ATM”) it dawned on me that — guess what? A new kind of man had developed in New York while I was away. He was the kind of man who just wants to lie back and get laid, himself. I could have related to that, if it weren’t that this new man weren’t also quite so demanding, expecting me to deploy my entire sexual repertoire on him, as well.

What was I? The Singing Bush?

I considered myself pretty progressive, sexually. A few years back, I started skipping preliminaries and going straight for sex on first dates. Why waste time, I reasoned. Life is short. If I didn’t like sex with a guy, what would be the point in a long courtship? I was doing us both a favor.

Case in point, the middle-aged guy, with the long hair and shirt extravagantly unbuttoned, Bernard Henri-Levi style, who’d roared like the MGM lion, again and again, while climaxing, back in Paris. The final roar was a long one, accompanied by a protracted shaking of his long hair mane. It would’ve been a shame, wouldn’t it, if, after many earnest and costly dates, he’d pulled that during our first sexual tryst? Because as far as dealbreakers go, the roaring was unequivocal. Mainly because it was evident I was not allowed to burst into uncontrollable laughter at it. Do whatever crazy thing you want as long as I’m allowed to express my amusement, I always say.

Aside from my easy laughter, which is not the insecure kind of man’s cup of tea — but then, I’ve always avoided insecure men — I really didn’t think men had anything to complain about, sexually, with me. And yet, I seemed to be leaving something to be desired. There had been complaints. “Sacré bleu!,” I pictured myself writing on a postcard to my Parisian friends, “over here the men even expect blow-jobs on the first date!

I realize that by now, meaning the year 2012 in which I’m writing these fond words, giving a blow-job to a fellow you don’t know very well may seem perfectly reasonable, and even preferable to the full Monty sometimes. But I came of age before Gen X made porn customary, and the blow job and Brazilian practically mandatory. Not by much, but by enough to be bewildered, at first, by the spectacle of a penis I don’t know very well constantly looming into the air space around the bottom of my face at the beginning of a sexual encounter.

Waving it out of the way as if it were a mosquito would fail to quash the owner’s insistence. The first time this happened to me I tried to fast forward past this awkward entr’acte by asking in a sultry voice, “Why don’t you put your condom on?” To which the reply was “We don’t need one yet.” To which my reply was a curt, “Well, if we don’t need one soon, we’re not going to need one at all.”

That first time, it was in Paris, and I’d thought it was a one-off. The under-30 “dude” was a Californian, a sort-of-famous chef in town for an apprenticeship with a really-famous French chef, and I’d concluded that an irrepressible, profession-related habit of putting things he imagined were delicious in people’s mouths simply extended to his penis.

It was rather endearing when I looked at it that way, but I still didn’t want to sleep with him after all that relentless one-eyed bandit in my face business. I suddenly felt exhausted and told him to go home. As I recall, he had the nerve to refuse to leave until he realized, with my help, that he was just kidding.

Further such experiences back home in New York showed me that by the year 2000, most available men under 30 were like this. Having always, during my twenties, dated men in their late thirties (because no one relishes a twenty-something female like a late-thirty-something male), I’d been unaware of this development. Now that I was the late thirty-something, I was a little too old for the older men I’d once dated (ironic, because I’d actually been a little too young for them when we first dated), and the current thirty-somethings were — surprise, surprise! — pretty much only interested in twenty-somethings. Now, in one of life’s little ironies (or favors, depending how you look at it), I’d been picked up as a blip on the “Mrs. Robinson” or “cougar” radar by younger men.

Well, I was only temporarily daunted. When you’ve had it good for so long, meaning, when you’re used to having more power in sexual matters, it’s not so easy to go back to the crappy old days. Or in this case: the crappy new days. I found myself reminiscing over how, 20 years previous, men had seemed much less selfish. Then it crossed my mind that maybe it was me who was more selfish now, not just the men: for example, I found that I failed to see why I should worry overmuch about sexually pleasing a man I was seeing just for sex. I mean, I didn’t mind if I pleased him, but why would I make that my main objective?

I was spoiled, is what I was. The older men of yore had been grateful for the tasty little morsel that I’d been, and they hadn’t offered much in return, mainly taking their pleasure from the pride of fucking an adoring young woman — and an adoring young woman who was all about learning as much about sex as she could from an experienced, self-assured older man, at that.

The problem was obvious: I’d picked up a bad attitude from these older men. Now, I, too, wanted to have uncommitted sex with an adoring and giving person without giving very much back in return (unless by fortuitous accidents that cost me nothing). It seemed an ideal way to run one’s sex life, between true loves. I had that “I’ll have what he’s having” sentiment, if you see what I mean. Only thing was that this meant that young men and I had conflicting interests in bed. But I justified my position this way: if there’s going to be a lazy sexual douchebag in the equation, why shouldn’t it, why couldn’t it, be me? All I needed was a change of tactics.

Putting to use for good instead of evil the researching skills I’d picked up at university (Structural Analysis in Literature is evil, as you may learn one day), I emailed a friend of a friend who, it was rumored, had either given or taken “female-empowering” masturbation lessons. I’d never bothered to ask, because anyway: given, taken — does it make any difference, really? I’d found a fuzzy old instructional video at her house once when I’d spent the night on her sofa in Hoboken after a party, searched and failed to find her among the participants.

Anyway, whatever. I had a hunch she wasn’t shy about sex, and that’s what counted. Also, she’d let me read, saying she couldn’t bring herself to, a number of unconsciously sickening, nearly amusing “perfect crime” screenplays her father had written and sent her over the years from prison (where he was doing life for killing her mother), and this had created a certain strange, random bond between us. She was a very cool lady — smart, beautiful, strong, older — and she seemed to have good taste in men. She might have just the man for me in her little black book, and be willing to share.

So, I asked her if she knew, by any chance, of a sexually cheerful, enthusiastic, well-mannered (and thus, probably older) man who’d like to take me out for a steak dinner and sex (though not necessarily in that order) every now and then, who would refrain from all the possessive rigmarole of dating in earnest, while not trying to place upon me the dreaded mantle of the “fuck buddy.”

“One thing, though,” I specified, “He has to come with references.” One lesson I’d learned from all those years abroad before I had a network of friends that included wise women like her yet was that men who had no connections to my circle of friends tended to think they could treat me shabbily with social impunity. (And they were right.)

This is how she responded: “I’ve always said, if you can’t get over someone, just get under someone else! Let me look around. I’ll get back to you.” Which she did, by the end of the week. “I’ve got the perfect guy,” she wrote, “I used to sleep with him myself, and he’s the nicest guy ever, a great lover, has a cock as big as a coke can. He’s in an open marriage, he’s a billionaire, and he’ll call you on Monday at six.”

And so, I was set up with my first New York billionaire. I hoped her appraisal of him as a genital mutant was an exaggeration; I’m just not that greedy. We spoke on the phone that Monday, and he asked me how I’d “like to do this.”

“Oh, you know, the regular way,” I joked.

“No, I mean, do you want to meet for dinner first, or …?” trailing off.

“Do you have any other ideas?” I ventured, taking my cue.

“Well, I do have this fantasy, but maybe it’s dumb.”

“Why not let me be the judge of that,” I said, which was a bit of a test, because for some reason a coy, “I’ll be the judge of that,” has always gone over well with men I’ve found fun in bed, or anywhere, for that matter.

“Okay, it goes like this,” he said (passing the test), “I book a hotel room in advance, and you arrive before me, put on whatever finery or lingerie it is you like to wear, and then wait for me. No lights on. Just the light from outside coming into the room through the window. I arrive, we have sex, and then we go to dinner.”

“Okay, I’ll tell you something that might sound dumb to you,” I said. “I’ve often found myself fancying a man, wanting only to go to bed with him, and getting myself asked out on a date. We go to dinner, but by the end of dinner, I’m exhausted from all the polite chit-chat and job interview style of the whole thing, and just want to go home and forget the whole thing. So … I like your idea.”

“You are the coolest person I’ve ever met! I mean, will meet,” he said, sounding genuinely in awe.

Heck, even I was quite proud of myself.

He made the arrangements, booking a room at the Millennium Hotel in Times Square. I was broke and had no special “finery” to wear, so I went iconic: I dug up my least faded black panties and bra, wore them under my fitted black trench coat (a relic from flusher times), with a pair of expensive black stretch suede knee-high boots (also from flusher times). Although I didn’t have the full Brazilian, I’d waxed and trimmed to what I deemed a charming but not excessive degree. All this together, I figured, should be enough to get any healthy man’s engines fired up.

I fussed a bit over my makeup in the hotel bathroom, pocketed the complimentary shower cap, mini-shampoo, conditioner, hand cream. Then I checked the bed for evidence of bedbugs (you never know!), hid a condom under the pillow, checked my silhouette in the mirror a few more times, then sat down on the coverlet to wait.

After a few minutes I realized I was sitting in the pose of Edvard Munch’s “Puberty” painting and thought better of it. (Not sexy, except maybe to a child-molester.) I went for something a little more nonchalant, gazing casually out the window with the lights off (as per his request), the afternoon light reflecting off the building opposite the window, backlighting me.

He arrived, we performed our respective quick reads of each other to make sure nothing was seriously amiss, decided nothing was, and then … we did it. And we did it with a condom, just so you know I’m no fool. (If I recall correctly, he may also have kept his socks on.) As for his size, let’s just say he had nothing to complain about, but he wasn’t a mutant, thank goodness.

Afterwards, as we lay there, we murmured our greetings, “Hello, there!” “Nice meeting you!” Pleasant. We chatted and laughed together in the dark for a little while. Then he proposed we go have dinner at a place around the corner where he’d made reservations, and while we got dressed he did something that warmed my cockles: he pulled some stapled-together papers from his briefcase and handed them to me: “This is a photocopy of an article written about me in the Times. I thought you might like some references.”

At dinner, after letting me glance over his article and watching me grin at this or that amusing anecdote within, he asked me about myself. I told him about my time abroad, and — only when asked “what a great girl” like me was doing without a boyfriend — told him about my latest romantic disappointment. He pronounced me “an angel,” and reiterated his opinion that I was the coolest woman he’d ever met, which, along with the delicious red wine and steak dinner after sex on my agreed terms, I don’t mind saying made for a very agreeable way to spend an evening.

I turned the conversation toward him, and he told me he’d had his 50th birthday recently, and that his wife had arranged for all his exes to gather together with them for a dinner party. Not only that, but she’d arranged for each of his exes to “celebrate” his role in their lives with a little toast, one by one, going around the table. After dinner, he said, each of them had retired to the bedroom with him, some for sexual pleasures, and some for just talking and cuddling. (He was, he chuckled, no longer a young man, after all.)

(Who was this guy? Right? I don’t mean “who,” as in what was his name: I mean who was this guy! How’d he swing this life of his? And more importantly, how could I manage to get the same or similar deal for my 50th birthday dinner?)

I was thoroughly impressed. Almost impressed enough to not keep thinking that, amazing as this guy was, I wished he were a little more like my ex. But sex with a new man is sometimes a must for wiping the whiteboard of disappointed love clean. My heartache was definitely feeling a little dulled, the voices of self-recrimination slightly muted, both good signs. And there was a tarte tatin on the dessert menu, good news indeed.

As we nibbled our desserts, he continued to draw me out with questions. What kind of music did I like? Who were my favorite artists? All my answers were good, and everything was swell till he nonchalantly asked me one more little question that put the words “sex” and “pain,” and “tying down” and “whips” together.

Sighing within, and trying not to look crestfallen, because I could see where this was going now, I told him that over the years I’d pretty much tried everything, and come to the conclusion that I’m pretty content with a few conventional positions and a cheerful lover, and that I definitely preferred sex without pain. Just in case I hadn’t made myself clear enough (because in these matters there’s no value in beating around the bush, so to speak), I even evoked the sexual shorthand term, “vanilla sex.”

My billionaire didn’t bat an eye. Right there you could see he hadn’t become rich and powerful for nothing. Wow, I thought, this man could be Secretary of State. It’s not easy to face a woman who has just effectively told you that your most intimate predilections aren’t to her tastes, and vice versa, and still enjoy the rest of the evening as if nobody’s vulnerabilities had been exposed and shied away from. That took aplomb and (need I even say it?) compassion. I remembered an ex who had been partial to proclaiming that he was “a powerful and important man,” and chuckled to myself. My billionaire was the real thing.

He continued showering me with attention and earnest compliments through the rest of our evening, but I knew I’d never see him again. Deflated as I was by this development, I found myself counting my blessings as he paid the bill: imagine if he’d brought a whip and handcuffs to our encounter and surprised me instead? Imagine if he’d brought the subject up before my magnificent dessert, spoiling the enjoyment of my first perfect tarte tatin since leaving Paris? (I can taste it now, it was so delicious.) No, this guy was a gent, and I found myself gazing at him during one brief hazy moment of near-regret, wondering why I wasn’t more fond of getting whipped.

And then it was time to go home.

He insisted on walking me to a cab. “Honestly, the subway is right here,” I protested, pointing to the station entrance literally across the street from the restaurant, which we were passing, “It takes me straight to Astor Place, it’s practically door to door!” But pulling the “old-fashioned” card, he didn’t relent until he’d put me in a cab, whereupon he tried to hand me a twenty-dollar bill, which was too much, in more ways than one.

“This is too much!” I said, “To my house it won’t cost more than five dollars.” But he wouldn’t take the twenty back, claiming he had nothing smaller, and having arrived by subway with my trusty unlimited-use Metrocard, I had no cash to give him the difference. I realized that even a half a minute of arguing over it would perilously loosen the pretty bow we were both trying to tie the evening up with. So I did the expedient thing and pretended I’d give him the change “next time,” knowing full well neither of us were in the market for another date. Fine. I’ll figure out what to do about my dignity while the meter runs, I thought.

Before the cab door even closed, visions of Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s began passing before my eyes, of how she basically lived on nothing but fifties handed to her by cynical rich men, ostensibly for tipping powder room attendants or paying for taxis, but really for placing bets on how quickly the erosion of her moral integrity would take place. It may have only been a twenty, but it was enough to make me feel all queasy and slimy inside. There was no way I could keep this money.

I peered at the taxi driver’s grumpy face in the rear view mirror and tried to picture myself saying, “Keep the change!” to him. Would I do it grandiloquently, with a flourish? Why not? How often does a girl on my income get the chance to play the Big Spender and leave a huge tip? Or would I mumble it as I grasped the door handle, rushing out, perhaps leaving my phone or wallet on the seat, which I’d never recover since I’d rushed out without a receipt? Disaster!

Whatever I decided, I must do it without losing my wits.

Okay, so if I do tell him to keep the change, what then? What if he’s a recovering alcoholic or gambler, finally on the wagon, and the twenty pushes him off the wagon, sends him straight to the liquor store or the OTB? I could ruin this guy’s life with my selfish need to feel sociologically cleansed. On the other hand, he might be a hardworking father of six, with a mother who needs a hip operation. How could I know?

Having been weaned on episodes of the original Star Trek, I grew up applying the Resolution of Non-Interference (signed by the United Federation of Planets) to my life as if it were gospel. Giving this guy an unexpected bonus could mess with his fate, couldn’t it? I might be dangerous! Should I just tell him to take me somewhere in Brooklyn, and take the subway home? That would probably use up the $20. But that was ridiculous, and it was late, and I was tired and sleepy and wanted to go home.

While I was frantically comparing these scenarios and weighing their butterfly effects, we’d pulled up to my stoop on Eighth Street.

The fare was $5.60.

I handed him the twenty. “Please,” I said, dying to get out of the cab, “keep the change.” He took it, and as I quickly scooted over the backseat to reach for the door handle, I saw his eyes open wide in the rear-view mirror.

“No … No, miss! Miss!” he said in a panicky voice, “This is a …”

“I know, I know,” I interrupted, my face hot as our eyes met for the first time during the whole ride home, “I know it’s a twenty. My date gave it to me for the cab ride home, but I just can’t keep it. I’m … I’m strictly non-profit!”

And his face in the rear view mirror burst like a kaleidoscope into a childlike smile, maybe the first smile he’d cracked all night. It took thirty years off him, I swear.

“Thank you, miss! God bless you! You nice lady.”

And then I lived happily ever after, on and off, off and on, like most regular people do.

Previously: Apropos of Nada.

Carolita Johnson’s cartoons appear in The New Yorker and at Oscarinaland.