first person

All the Time I Wasted Trying to Please Indifferent Men

Photo: Stefano Petrou / EyeEm/Getty Images/EyeEm

An Elle profile of Christie Smythe lit up social media this week. It’s a harrowing and utterly bananas record of how a respected journalist blew up her life in order to shoot her shot at erstwhile Pharma bro Martin Shkreli of investor fraud, AIDS medication price gouging, and Wu-Tang one-off album fame. At first I thought, How could a person who understands this much about legal proceedings and fraud be this dumb?

But then I realized: I could understand perfectly, actually. This is what happens when you think you have glimpsed the secret pain of an emotionally constipated person — in my case, usually a straight man. You think, Here is a beautiful mystery to be solved. His prickly exterior is just a spiky carapace protecting a delicate soul from a brutal world.

The best moments in the profile are the little collisions between Smythe’s professional judgement as a journalist and the part of her that seemed to feel for Shkreli on a human level. She was the one who broke the news of his indictment for fraud and certainly knew of his reputation for stringing along and trolling journalists. The man (quite literally) put out a bounty for a strand of Hillary Clinton’s hair. Yet, upon meeting him in hopes of getting a profile, she was apparently so wrongfooted by his pathetic state that she reversed course. She didn’t see how such an “earnest” person could be a fraud. She began to believe him — and to believe in him.

The profile describes, in Smythe’s own words, a hectoring dynamic between the two of them that involved lots of negging from Shkreli followed by arbitrary bouts of intimacy. After Shkreli’s bail gets revoked in the fraud case (as a result of the whole bounty-for-Clinton’s-hair thing), Smythe is present in the courthouse as a reporter. And then, before filing her story, she calls around to his friends (whose numbers she has, for … reasons) to make sure someone retrieved his cat. She thought about his cat. I keep coming back to that. The cat. His friends. Her activating the phone tree to make sure the cat was looked after, before attending to her own responsibilities.

Shkreli comes across as immature and, also, awful. This is not news. This certainly was not news to Smythe, whose job it had been to report on his awfulness. She had the evidence. She had been warned, too, by her friends and her husband and her peers. What is stunning is that Smythe recounts the warnings she received to the author of the piece. She is the source — the one admitting that people told her Shkreli would ruin her life. I don’t quite know if she believed them or not.

I read much of the piece cringing in self-recognition. When you’re lonely and desperate and someone intriguing leans in and brushes your arm with theirs, when you look at them and they look at you and they say something that feels true about you, or they just talk to you in a way that singles you out from the whole big world, you feel that you owe them something. Everything they say holds this charge. Even if it’s vague. Especially if it’s vague. I like you and You’re so cool and I like talking to you and We get along and Do you ever just feel … ? and Haha. With the amount of energy I have spent trying to decode what a straight man means by “Haha” with my friends, one could power the entire world for a decade.

My adolescence and early adulthood were strewn with obsessions with straight men who held eye contact with me for 15 seconds at a party one time. I spent half of Physics II pretending not to understand calculus so a hot engineering student I liked would lean over and correct my notes during the lecture. Smythe remembers the scent of chicken wings; I can still remember the smell of this man’s deodorant and the coppery-gold of his arm hair. I spent all of General Chemistry I and II running like a beckoned dog to help a stoner with his lab reports and problem sets. Every time he messaged me on Facebook, I’d run to Goodwyn Hall and sit with him for hours as I helped him through the problems — all because he’d looked at me and said that he liked me and that I was a cool dude. Junior year was the year of reading and editing a really bad holiday-themed fantasy novel involving evil snowmen. That guy used to drop his huge binder on the cafeteria table and explain in painstaking detail all the lore and the machines and the weapons he had designed. Then he’d leave me to pick through his grammar and typos and edit his manuscript while he flirted with my friends.

The end of the profile is bleak: He ghosts her, essentially, from prison, and she still says she’ll wait for him. It made me think about the years I went around pretending to be less than I was so a man would tell me I was worthy. And I worry I’ve traded the best possible version of myself, all that glittering possibility, for vague shadows of affection. I’m still that needy, anxious kid going over the “Haha,” hoping it means something — except now it’s all the more sad because I know it doesn’t mean anything.

All the Time I Wasted Trying to Please Indifferent Men