About thirteen years ago, some friends and I bought a former J.C. Penney's on the square in my town. We had in mind apartments, a coffee shop, maybe an art gallery. Keep in mind, this is in rural Indiana, so... long shot.
There was a print shop in the basement, the sort of place that made signs and business cards before you could do that stuff for about a nickel on the Internet. On one wall of the loading dock, someone had stenciled the word STRING with spray paint. Over that, someone had doctored the sign with sidewalk chalk so that it read NO STRINGS ATTACHED. I recall that when the realtor walked me through that part of the building, she looked at that sign and said, "Don't I wish!" I thought it was odd. I didn't know if she was referring to the real-estate deal or to the sexual convention of no-strings-attached relationships, the more common meaning. No one referred to it as an abbreviation then — there were no "NSA" advertisements on Craigslist. Back then, NSA brought to mind foreign intelligence. But even in those days, some people who considered no-strings-attached relationships to be the gold standard of sex. Men I knew nattered on about the possibility finding a hassle-free female pal who just wanted to get together, get it on, and get gone. These are the guys in romantic comedies who tend to populate the couch of the male protagonist's apartment. We're supposed to see them as poor, deluded dumbasses.
I didn't like the real-estate agent, who later got me into a bidding war on that worthless hulking edifice, and I didn't ponder it much longer. But I've always wondered if it was an offer on her part. I didn't pull the string. I didn't check to see if it was attached. Mostly because, for some reason that I can no longer fathom, I believed in a world where real estate, even semi-crumbling late-20th-century real estate in a perpetually depressed housing market, was the only really good bet to make with my money. I wanted the building. Not her.
Still, I have had this offer three times in my life. Once with a bank teller, when I was twenty-four. For three weeks, I'm telling you: No strings attached. She kept saying it, in fact. And I figured she knew something I didn't, because — well, because she was older, and she did. But in the fourth week, she lent me the key to her condominium in Gulf Shores, Alabama. I was too young to understand that when someone gives you a key, any key — a car, an apartment, a mailbox — they are, with that very gesture, attaching a string. This was the fourth week of NSA. Then she told me to make a copy, then she let me drive down there on weekends. String. String. More string. When the ex-husband opened the sliding glass door one evening, the room was positively strung from end to end.
The next time was when I was about to get a divorce. With me separated for three weeks, a female friend of mine sat on my porch and outlined a physical contract between us, using the very term "no strings attached." I'd known this woman for seven years, nothing untoward between us whatsoever until that moment. I liked the offer — it seemed ideal after the stresses of the last four loveless years with my ex-wife. I recall that I hadn't heard the term "no strings attached" from a woman since the bank teller. Again just three weeks later, when things began to go sour, I reminded her of the term: "I thought you said 'no strings attached,'" I whined, sitting in the front seat of her crappy Buick Regal. That's when I realized that the term itself, when used as a kind of contract, is a string, a point of connection, a mutuality and a bond. String! What she said then was the gassiest, most perplexing answer I've ever heard on the subject: "It's string! You can't control string! String goes where it wants to."
The other time was with a smart woman I knew long ago. She was a waitress at a bar where I worked, a woman whose father, she pointedly told me, was in the military. We always found each other standing outside the bar at three in the morning, me walking her to the car, or talking to her about tips, or drinks, or who was stringing whom. Eventually, it was game-on with the two of us. The very first night, we decided that we didn't want any commitment. Each of us said it. The very words. No strings attached. Again, three weeks passed, and one morning I woke up thinking about her. I rolled over in bed, and gave her a call. She didn't answer. I called again later that morning. I had in mind a trip to the dog track, some drinking, and some wild-ass stringing. But she didn't answer. Not that night, either. Or for the next four days, though I called her six, eight, twelve times. When I finally saw her again, it was on shift, and she smiled broadly, like nothing had changed.
"You get my messages?" I said.
She shrugged, and patted my hand. "Three whiskey sours," she told me. I did my thing, produced the drinks.
"Are you ignoring me?"
She looked sideways, like I was being silly. "Of course not," she said. Then she called me "silly," as if I didn't know her, as if I didn't get the message from her eyes the first time. She avoided me all night, the entire shift. Much later until I jogged up behind her after she left without me. I asked her what was wrong. And she looked at me, squinting, as if she could barely make me out. I knew what that meant, too: What was wrong was me? I got it right there and then: I was a piece of string, and god damn it if I wasn't attached.
I knew then what only the string knows: You're a string. If you don't get attached, you'll just end up in a tangle.
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