I always get the “Bagel Works” at Bread Alone. This is a bagel with cream cheese, salmon, onions, lettuce, tomato, and capers. I always tell them to hold the capers. This has to be the fourth time Mr. Headly has brought me here for a late lunch. I am not sure why he feels the need for this; we both know this isn’t going anywhere.

Doesn’t he know this isn’t going anywhere?

Bread Alone is located about five minutes from my house and he drives all the way over here just to take me out to lunch. I know he lives nowhere near me and I am wondering what excuses he tells himself just so that he doesn’t feel ashamed for traveling so far, or maybe he has no excuses at all and he just tells me that he has to drive over here anyway for this or that and that the drive would be “no big deal.” Also I assume the fact that I live in the middle of nowhere has to have some appeal since he knows no one will see us together.

We order and we sit down.

Mr. Headly is much older than me. He has short salt and pepper hair, brown eyes, and a curious, mischievous smile. His top lip has a scar running down it from his nose, where he told me had had gotten bit by a dog when he was younger. How this happened, he told me, was that when he was a boy he kept putting his face in front of the family dog even though she didn’t like it, and one day she bit.

Doesn’t he know not to mess with a bitch? I guess not, since he is sitting here eating lunch with me.

I didn’t have to do this. I only did it because I knew I could, and I guess that’s what’s so fucked up about it. I could have left this nice man alone and let him live his life, but no, that’s not how I work.

When I met Mr. Headly, I knew from the moment I saw him that he was sweet and kind, and dumb. He was intelligent, that was certain; he was a professor, a musical aficionado, but he just wasn’t smart. Just like all the men before him, each saccharine sweet word that came dripping out of my mouth steadily possessed him. Every coy, heavy lidded look I threw his way enraptured him.

He was mine.

How did this all come to be? Well, even though I never make the first move, I make it impossible for a man not to. It’s all about the right mixture. You know those foods that you are addicted to? Scientists specifically engineer certain foods to be just the right amount of salty, sweet, a never truly satisfying taste that makes you crave more and more and more.

Our food was ready. Mr. Headly, ever the gentleman, went up to the counter and paid. Now, a “Bagel Works” has just the right amount of salty and sweet. The combination of savory salmon and creamy rich cheese spread is undoubtedly a favorite dish of many because of this. He brought it over and placed it in front of me.

That is what I do. You have to have the right amount of sweet, which is the clumsy, emotional, lost little girl, and the salty, which is the confident, dominant, outspoken woman.

I would purr during class, “Mr. Headly, I just can’t seem to figure out this question . . . you are so smart, won’t you help me?”

While at the same time I would be wearing a skintight dress that screamed “LOOK AT ME” and then right when I caught him looking down at my body I would curl up the corners of my mouth and wordlessly say with narrowing eyes “What a naughty boy you are.”

This makes it physically impossible for a man to say no, especially a weak man like sweet Mr. Headly.

The second I got a message from him a feeling rushed over me that I imagine is equivalent to a shot of heroin, because in my experience validation is as addictive as any drug. So bold of him to put himself out there, I thought. After all, he was the head of his department, and surely he knew this type of fraternization was against college policy.

I smiled to myself, Poor man, what have I done to you. It still surprises me and yet amuses me to this day that a man would risk his very livelihood and reputation on a tight dress with a faux demure attitude. I must have done a good job.

He wanted to meet me outside of class, somewhere private, so he booked a hotel room. He sent me the room number, and I was to meet him there while he took his break from classes. I found his car in the parking lot, parked next to it, and headed inside. I found number 209 and knocked. He opened the door. I stood for a moment and regarded him, a sly smile on my face and thought, got you, and walked inside.

The room was what you would envision a cheap hotel room to look like: terrible carpet, tacky wallpaper, and the cheapest furniture imaginable. I didn’t expect much more. After all, I don’t think he had ever done something like this before.

As you can imagine, Mr. Headly and I have almost nothing in common with our age difference, so we have little to talk about on our lunch dates. So why he takes me to these lunches is a mystery. Does he think that he owes me something? Does he think he has taken advantage of me since I am so much younger than he is, and since I am his student? Doesn’t he know that it is the other way around? That I saw his weakness and I exploited him?

I explore his face from across the table as I take a bite of the bagel. No. He has no idea. His eyes are searching, wondering what I am thinking, what I am feeling. I wonder if he does these dates in an effort to make sure I won’t tell anyone. That if he satisfies me in all these different ways I will be content with our secret. I have no interest in ruining his life. My only reasoning for this entire affair is completely selfish in that I did this for my pleasure only, for the rush, and I hadn’t even really considered the reprehensible consequences he may face.

At the hotel I took a shower and I left the door open so he could watch. In my periphery I could see him gazing at my body from the bed. More validation shot into my bloodstream. The high you get from self-worth is more heavenly than anything you could ever imagine, and as you could imagine, you would do anything for it. You would even find weaknesses in men and use them. Sadly, it is so easily done because the weakness in them is the same weakness within you. You look into their eyes and you see their need, and you know you are seeing your own eyes, your own need. The need to be wanted, loved, and valued. You see it in them and you despise it, because it reminds you so much of yourself and your emptiness. So you exploit it in others, knowing how to get your high from it, because so many before got their high from you and you know the game.

In class we have a little secret now. A smile exchanged between us while all the other students go unaware, completely oblivious. I like this little game. It feeds the void inside of me. More validation. I’m special. I’m different than the rest.

I hear others express how cute Mr. Headly is. My secret smile lying underneath my calm façade, pretending not to even notice their commentary while those feel-good chemicals blast off in my brain, and I feel the rush. You want him? I have him.

He told me one day that he was “hoping I would just sleep with you, so I could get you out of my head, and maybe it would just be bad and then I could just go on with my life.”

But it wasn’t and he couldn’t. More hotels, more lunches.

I never leave my plate unfinished, even if the last bite is torture.

We left the restaurant and walked to our cars. Mr. Headly turned and grabbed me. He held me tight against him. His fingers combed through my long black hair. He twirled the ends in his fingertips. He was so gentle that not a single hair was tugged or pulled. He was so loving and warm; and in that moment I believe he may have loved me.

And I felt nothing.

No rush.

No validation.

Nothing.

The game was over.

Cassiopeia Ottulich’s personal essay “Bagel Works” won first prize in the Fifth Annual School of Visual Arts Writing Program Contest. Cassiopeia is a tattooist in Woodstock, NY, an Animation student at SVA who is graduating this year, and a girl who has aspirations of one day becoming a graphic novelist. “I like to write the truth, not matter how ugly it might get.”