Sunday Stories: “Chafing”


by Em Pisacic

When my period first skipped, in February, I thought it was no biggie. A month later, after pregnancy tests came back negative, I dismissed its continued absence as a consequence of having started running more than twenty miles a week. April was spotless. May marked my third half-marathon, two months since I last had sex with Jack, and three since I had enjoyed it.

Web searches for “lost period distance running” told me I was undereating and overexercising. The former fat girl in me was proud, and I was disgusted enough by that to seek out help. In June, Dr. Brian told me that my amenorrhea was no big deal. When I pressed, he said I could eat more but, “just an extra slice of toast at breakfast, something moderate — you don’t want to go too far the other way.” I got a second opinion from a gynecologist with a bubble-gum pink office and a mini fridge of pastel sparkling waters. She confirmed that I had RED-S, that my body was too starved to reproduce.

As though I hadn’t known. Hadn’t spent entire nights searching why I only felt energized to run and never to go dancing or have sex. I never asked what would happen if I stopped running, because I knew the answer: my period and sex drive would return, with some of the weight. Instead, I assessed my iron intake and estrogen labs.

But the answer forced itself up in the form of a glute injury that left me unable to walk without a limp, better yet run, for a month. Soon after, I found a trail of red clots in the toilet, dug out my heating pad and put on the pounds that are necessary for everything to function alright. Jack says they round out my figure (boobs) quite nicely, and I try to approach them with indifference.


Ronan approaches from the corner of my eye, and I wonder if the extra pounds are noticeable in my sheer running tights. He’s here to catch up with me, but what if he can’t help but notice? Which one of us should that embarrass?

“So, what’s new?” he asks.

We have lots to catch up on, in theory. I’ve been giving all my friends a spiel about the quarter-life crisis that is my apartment search: Am I too normie for Crown Heights? Too queer for the Upper West Side? But Jack and I signed a lease for a place in Park Slope just this morning. What’s the point in telling a story that’s already resolved? Perhaps we have missed too many little stories, clumped into chunks of flour in need of more forceful sifting.

I fill the space with books, that I’ve been reading Stephen King’s On Writing.

“I liked this book of short stories by him that has Shawshank Redemption,” Ronan replies. “Well, longer than short stories but not whole books themselves.” I stop myself from suggesting the term novella.

When the conversation peters out, I fill it with descriptions of another book: “short and terse, but not like Hemingway. More like my grandfather, learning English working as a building porter and watching Jeopardy. Like, it’s wise in the way that sober old men are.” The description is as apt as it is organic, with so much potential for personal resonation. But he is the fourth friend (all men, now that I think about it) I’ve said it to this week, and the words feel like an overworked piece of bubble gum in my mouth.

“That sounds good.”

Now, I have nothing to say and I don’t force it, either.

In the office, we shared so many moments and managed to fill them all with overfamiliar detail. Sharing a morning coffee was more humane then jumping right into our inboxes, and skipping on the broader team lunches avoided the murderous shop-talk/small-talk combo. On a slow day, we even caught up over an afternoon yogurt. We couldn’t help but learn each other’s mundane minutia: my half-marathon training runs, his bouts of dog sitting Juno for his mom, even the ebbs and flows of my brother’s perpetual situationship. It was all the excitement of being in the same second grade class as my best friend Laura, but with a salary. 

But our familiarity ceased so fast once I started working remotely that I have to wonder if I imagined all of it. I was out of sight and seemingly out of mind. He declined four social invites in a row. That left me insecure and lonely. When I asked if I had done anything wrong, he said he “just [hasn’t] felt very social lately.” It was a hard sell, given how leisurely our friendship had been.

I had to guess it was a matter of demographics. He is thirty-three, ten years older than me. He looks young enough that I had initially pegged it as three or four years, perhaps a senior in a university math course I would’ve bantered with as a freshman. Along with the age gap, there’s also his long-term girlfriend, Emily. Had she known how much time we spent chatting at the office? How might she feel about him hanging out with a twenty-three year old girl outside of work? The optics of our friendship weren’t great.


Perhaps I’m projecting, though, based on my friendship with Jakob. (Is it okay to treat male Software Engineers as a monolith?). We matched on Tinder, and accumulated four hours of phone call familiarity before meeting for vegan dinner and wine.

On our second date, I came to his apartment, and in his bed.

“Right now you’re my favorite person to talk to,” he said as we cuddled afterward. My cheeks rounded and flushed. “That’s scary when we don’t know each other that well,” he followed, and asked to take a step back. My face deflated. We had been so comfortable in his apartment, his bed, my head in the crook of his arm. At least I had been.

But, oh well. At least he had thought about it before he had met my friends or borrowed my fading Franny and Zooey. He wasn’t the first guy to feel I might be the answer to his problems, but he was the first to stop himself from making me fall short of that impossible bar.

So, we deescalated to being close friends that made out sometimes. I channeled any romantic desires into planning dates with other people who might want that too. Eventually, I found Jack, and Jakob got a job in DC. We keep in touch with hours of biweekly phone-calls, and the occasional dinner when he comes to town, catching up on our families and hobbies and partners.


On my way to an Open House on the Upper West Side, I asked Jakob what he thought of the neighborhood.

“Upper east side is old money and upper west side is new money. Oh and Orthodox Jews that aren’t Orthodox enough for Williamsburg” he replied. When I asked if it isn’t “too grandma like” for a twenty-three year old, he said that only a “cool artsy grandma” would live up there.

Given that I like early mornings and knitting, I asked if I already am one.

“Not yet,” he assured me.

As I huffed up the steps to the Open House, a second message came through: “Anya and I have talked about moving in together when her roommate leaves in May.” How hadn’t I heard about this? Wasn’t six months a little early? Did he know I would think that, or do we sincerely keep missing each other’s calls?

“We should call soon. I miss you!” I shot off before meeting the broker.

A few hours later, I opened my phone to a wall of texts.

17:19 “Definitely!”

17:26 “I do want to mention that Anya does have some concerns about our relationship,” he texted with a grimacing emoji that I’ve only ever seen used as a joke. “We’ve had some discussions about being friends with people we have dated before. I draw a line at preventing me from being friends with someone, but I also want to make sure I address concerns that she has”

17:36 “I’m not saying this to put anything on you or change our friendship in any way. Just wanted to bring it up because honestly it has been stressing me out”

18:19 “I’m sorry I realize I should not have brought you into this. It just really upset me and I wanted to talk about it. I should’ve used better discretion. I’ll try to be better.” The text ended with a pouting emoji that is cuter than it is sad.

Was he right? Probably, when my only choices were to give him permission to say “have a nice life” and never talk to me again, or break up a relationship that had made him very happy so far (and justify Anya’s concern). But it felt so good to be that important of an emotional confidante: that even when I’m the worst person for the job, I’m the best to get it done. 

When we talked on the phone two days later, I cut to the chase: “We should just jump right into it because I’ll be too distracted to care for any small-talk.”

Anya felt betrayed that he had eaten dinner with me while visiting the city. They had since discussed it three times, with the same result: she was the victim to his perpetrator, with little room for a misunderstanding or mismatched perspectives. And when my name was showing up on his phone, she was glancing over his shoulder more and more.

“Do you feel like you’re being heard in these conversations, like she cares how you feel about it?”

“Not really. It was frustrating. I kind of made that known the last time.”

I did not ask the same about Anya because I thought, if anything, playing victim could only make her overheard. In hindsight, perhaps she left a lot unsaid. Perhaps she wanted reassurance that there was no romance between us; that he didn’t want there to be; that not every man must be a sleazy player optimizing for easy women, easy sex. (Did she ever get it?)

At the end, he asked, “Does talking about this make you uncomfortable? Would you rather not talk about it again?”

“No, but I bet Anya would be uncomfortable, for you to be complaining about all this to me. Like, probably solidifying her fear about our friendship. So we probably shouldn’t talk about it again,“ I said through laughter, the absurdity of it all hitting my funny bone. “So with that said, I hope you feel heard and cared for in these discussions, like she cares about what you want, too. Don’t put your needs aside for hers. That’s what compatibility is about, mutually agreeable needs.”

Jakob and I had always been able to talk about everything, no limits. He once cried in Central Park telling me about when the valley of his anxiety became agoraphobia, and how he is so grateful to be comfortable going outside. Intimate would be an understatement. And what is the point of a relationship, if not closeness? Until that call, my friendship with Jakob had transcended our gender roles. We were so familiar that archetypes weren’t needed to facilitate our understanding of each other.

Would Anya be threatened by our friendship to know our dynamic had no pretense of ‘I am woman, you are man, let’s kiss?’ Or was that deep familiarity exactly what threatened her? It doesn’t matter. More than both of those, she’d probably take issue with our friendship warranting such questions in the first place. She was entitled to that boundary, and he could accept or reject it. Like I said, relationships are about mutually agreeable needs, and I’m still making that choice.


It’s possible that I am projecting this fresh drama onto Ronan’s recent rejections of my social advances. He rarely brings up his girlfriend, Emily, which I find odd given that they’ve lived together for years. I make a habit of asking about her. When I do, he usually alludes to ongoing mental health issues and unemployment. Would she be comfortable with him sharing that, and little else but? I certainly wouldn’t be.

A few weeks ago, she was so sick that she fell asleep at the dining room table, so I ask after her now. “Of course don’t share anything that isn’t yours to share or you aren’t comfortable with, but do you know what she’s dealing with?”

“I guess, yeah,” he stammers with the same affect as, you know, it’s going. “On the 15th, Emily got really anxious about her grad school applications due the next day and decided she wasn’t going to submit them.”


“Yeah, this has been her plan for a year and a half plus now. She hasn’t worked for three years so, uh, I don’t really know what she’s going to do.” Not what they are going to do: as though they don’t sleep together, cook and dine together, spend the holidays together, love together.

He isn’t displeased about the one panic attack, but about the years of them and their long-term consequences. I care about how he feels, but don’t know how to engage without it being interpretable as commenting on her, or their relationship. Maybe I shouldn’t have asked. If Ronan wants to talk about it, he can.

“And how’s Juno?” I ask after his mom’s dog, hoping that she too hasn’t made any upsetting life decisions.

One completed loop of Prospect Park later and we jog towards a crowded, and flower-covered cafe. Divide and conquer: while he gets in line, I snag a table and text him my order.

My pastry is more pumpkin pie filling than pumpkin bread. I almost push my plate towards Ronan for him to tear off a hunk, a habit from the office. It feels out of place for two friends just grabbing coffee, though. Perhaps I’d be bolder if his sugar cookie looked chewier.

My nipples hurt. As if it weren’t bad enough to be in a polished cafe sweating, making small-talk, and eating pastries as overpriced as they are over-sweetened. Nudging my bra this way and that way only creates even more friction. I cannot reach under my shirt, to massage them or even pull away the undersized irritant for just a moment. I want to mitigate the pain as badly as I want to talk about it. But I can’t, nor do I want to, not to Ronan, so I ramble about my apartment search instead.

“Sorry, I’ll stop talking about apartments soon,” I lie, “It’s just been a lot of my time these past few weeks.”

“No, I’m actually interested. Me and Emily probably aren’t re-signing our lease, so I’ll be looking soon, it’s good to hear about.”

“Thank god, your landlord sounded terrible. Are you staying in Park Slope?”

“Probably not, no. The rents around us have gone up like crazy since we moved in, and given that Emily isn’t sure what to do and hasn’t been employed for a few years, I think we’re gonna look elsewhere.”

How can I reply without him complaining to me about her, making me feel complicit? How can I be there for my friend without worrying so much about what it might look like? After all, I have no knowledge that Emily, or anyone else, takes issue with our friendship. Whoever I’m worried about is an anonymous third party. One that is not only judgmental, but makes women compete over men, and recenters my friendships to be about men getting hard and getting off.

None of that changes the fact that I don’t know how to respond. Instead I walk to the bathroom, stiff as a plank. There is blood when I wipe: thank god I didn’t fuck it up again this time, acting out like an insecure teenager throwing up her dinner. (My cold, sharp nipples get no such relief as they try to slice my sports bra into even thirds.) Isn’t it kind of fucked that I am happy to be here? Why must I compromise between energy to run, energy to live, and comfort? I can’t run and be as thin as I feel is expected of me. I can’t put on the necessary weight without chafing against my sports bras and worrying that my friends and medical practitioners alike will see me differently. When my body shuts down on me, weakness and suffering feels intrinsic to my womanhood. There is nowhere else to seek justice. I can be angry at it, or acquiesce to its apparent limits.

At least with strained friendships, I can lament men for making me their therapist and rom-coms for fetishizing coed friendships. I can laugh at the irony that I would have avoided this situation in centuries’ past by being treated as an object that father would hold until passing it off to husband. Today, I am instead beheld. I get paid a salary, negotiate my salary to something close to what a man makes, and buy my own plan-B when a condom breaks. That agency almost makes me feel at fault, but I’ve done nothing wrong trying to get close to people. It’s the norms that make it so hard, the de jure restrictions becoming de facto ones. That’s negative, and certainly not productive. But identifying the problem helps remind me that I’ve done nothing wrong. The badness is external.

Being a woman informs the context and norms for every situation I enter. It’s comfortable, and actually quite helpful when I can’t pick a dinner spot or want an excuse to get dolled up and get physical attention. It supports my life: known and yet so frictionless that it is forgotten. The forced restriction on my friendship with Jakob reminded me that it was there, grating my nipples. When I think to text Jakob, I imagine Anya peering over his shoulder and breaking up with him, and put my phone down feeling like a homewrecker. When I think to ask Ronan about his apparent concerns with Emily out of care for him and his relationship, I worry that it will be interpreted as anything but. When I think of Anya and Emily, I feel guilty that their oversharing partners get more of my empathy than they do.

This is chafing. Perhaps I shouldn’t run. Perhaps I should not be an athlete, nor a friend to straight men, or at least not as a woman. Perhaps I should guard my intimacy and my body. If I want to be topless, the only place to do it safely is in an empty room with nothing but a vibrator and a box of chocolates.

But I can’t get there without leaving the bathroom, saying my goodbyes, and buying candy from the bodega. So I massage and roll my nipples until I find some ease, only for it to be undone with every step back to the table. For all I know, blood is dripping down them, pooling by the band until some slips down my torso.

I sit back down and ask, “So, are you still playing a lot of tennis?”



Em Pisacic (she/her) is a lifelong New Yorker who writes short stories and personal essays. She enjoys long runs, theoretical math, and the color green. Em can be found on Instagram @empisacic

Image source: Josh Couch/Unsplash

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