Years ago, when I was young and stupid, I wrote a piece for the Nasscalled “Secretly Sexy.” This was 2004, the carefree years of the early internet, before the term “listicle” had been invented. YouTube did not yet exist. VH1 was still a thing. (I remember being gobsmacked that they could have a show called “I Love the ‘90s” in the year 2004. Our cultural memories had already begun to telescope.) At any rate, it was that cultural context in which I entitled the piece a “Top-Forty List.”

Secretly sexy, I wrote, was the “je ne sais quoi that attracts you to someone, the little things you can’t put your finger on when you’re talking about the object of your affection with your friends. It is the positive inverse of the Secretly Unsexy, that wealth of cultural ‘sexy’ stereotypes which are secretly not sexy at all. …There’s nothing lewd about the Secretly Sexy,” I noted; “that’s part of what makes it secret.” All right, young know-it-all.

14 years later, I ran into the excellent Adam Nemett at a writers conference. My first novel had just come out; his was just about to. On a hotel patio in Tampa, Florida, he jogged my memory of the Secretly Sexy list I’d written at age 21 by finding on his phone it in the Nass’ archives and embarrassing me in front of our tablemates by reading it aloud. Listen, a few of the items on the original list I will stand by forever (chapped lips; dancing with a deadpan). But others have badly failed the test of time (the phrase ‘get yo’ freak on’? fraternities? God help me). A couple are decidedly not secret,and never have been(drinking milk straight from the carton; Mr. Clean). I guess I was just too young and innocent to be aware that Mr. Clean was an already known sex symbol.

In the spirit of reviving the Secretly Sexy Top-Forty List from an older, wiser perspective and getting back on the right side of history, on the occasion of the Nassau Weekly’s 40thAnniversary Issue I asked Adam to help me come up with a new and improved list. He kindly acquiesced. The results of our project are below. That we are now seasoned authors in our mid-30sonly, I think, confirms our authority.

Happy 40, Nass.
xx Rachel

  1. A nap in the sun
  2. A velvet throw pillow
  3. A weekday matinee
  4. A midday UPS delivery
  5. Playing hookie (both phrase and act)
  6. Ice water
  7. Hair combs
  8. Down-tempo disco
  9. A stray unblended streak of sunscreen
  10. The moment an avocado has become perfectly ripe
  11. Citrus in winter
  12. Outer space
  13. A rent-stabilized apartment
  14. Passing someone on a staircase
  15. Wiping sweat off a piece of gym equipment because you just had your way with it
  16. Getting your hair cut
  17. Casual aptitude re: home maintenance
  18. Casual aptitude re: gardening
  19. Casual aptitude re: cooking
  20. Cherry Coke
  21. A healthy plant in a clean bathroom
  22. The change in temperature on stepping out of the steam after a shower
  23. The damp spot that just-washed hair leaves on the couch
  24. Egg cartons
  25. Deli slicers
  26. Nancy Pelosi
  27. A naked eye (no mascara or eyeliner)
  28. Naked Eye (Luscious Jackson song), & all those campy old hits you used to dance to at bar mitzvahs
  29. Reruns of 90s dramedies
  30. The earnest yearning gaze that 90s characters fix upon one another
  31. A semi-ironic awareness of one’s own earnest yearning
  32. Unironic enthusiasm
  33. Watching two movies back to back with the same movie star except they’re vastly older in one of the movies and you feel like you’ve really been through a lot together
  34. The Weekend Times (print edition)
  35. Conway Twitty
  36. Ceiling fans
  37. Most GIFs
  38. The rare, apt adverb
  39. A concise, grammatical, correctly punctuated sext
  40. Straight up having a good time


Illustration by Nora Wildberg
Illustration by Nora Wildberg
Illustration by Nora Wildberg

RACHEL LYON is the author of the debut novel SELF-PORTRAIT WITH BOY (Scribner 2018), which was longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and written up in The New Yorker, New York Times Book Review, O Magazine,NPR’s Fresh Air,and elsewhere. Rachel’s shorter work has appeared in Joyland, Iowa Review, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, Brooklyn Rail, Bustle,and other publications. A cofounder of the reading series Ditmas Lit in her native Brooklyn NY, Rachel has taught creative writing for the Sackett Street Writers Workshop, Catapult, the Fine Arts Work Center, Slice Literary, and elsewhere. Subscribe to Rachel’s Writing/Thinking Prompts newsletter at, and visit her at


ADAM NEMETT graduated from Princeton University and received his MFA in Fiction/Screenwriting from California College of the Arts. He serves as creative director and author for History Factory, where he’s written award-winning nonfiction books for Lockheed Martin, Brooks Brothers, City of Hope Medical Center, and Huntington Bank, and directed campaigns for 21st Century Fox, Adobe Systems, HarperCollins, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, New Balance, Pfizer and Whirlpool. An excerpt of his debut novel, WE CAN SAVE US ALL, was anthologized in The Apocalypse Reader. Adam’s work has been published, reviewed and featured inThe New York Times Book Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon, Lit Hub, Fatherly, Variety, LA Weekly, The New Yorker, C-Ville Weeklyand Cornel West’s memoir Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife and two kids.