After almost two weeks hiatus from sex– not just the literal act, but the whole of the damn thing, the headiness, the anticipation, the knot of aching jitters in the belly– I can begin to glance back coolly, to tuck my hair behind my ears, to blow nonchalant cigarette smoke at That Giddy Fool in the Corner of the Bar: Me.
“Don’t be such a girl,” Z. wrote me a week ago, but, oh, let’s call a spade a spade. I am a girl. I am a girl’s girl. I like pretty clothes. I like songs that break my heart in 4/4 time. I like to be petted, stroked, literally and figuratively, I like to be the center of attention, I like laboring under the delusion that I’m the loveliest girl in the room. Recently, lecturing five days a week to classrooms that are 2/3 filled with scores of young beauties, I feel like the Wicked Queen from Snow White– no reflection as I gaze out at the sea of new faces; instead, a time machine: a glimpse at what I once was. At 19, I was beautiful, and totally unaware of my own good fortune. Similarly, the most attractive girls in my classes are the unassuming– one girl comes daily in combat boots and oversized band tees, like a messenger from my past, her flawless, olive skin shining in the industrial light, her honey-colored hair falling in careless waves over John Lennon’s face. When she’s trying to reason out something difficult, she tugs at her hair; her mouth– which is, naturally, rather luscious– juts barely open. The boy to her right stares unabashedly. Only Connect…
Such a girl, he wrote. Or branded as such, I wrote in my retelling; branded– as in burned, as in, you hurt me, once, and I let you, as in, if I admit doubt, insecurity, then I become that thing you claim to want– a girl– but do not actually want: Don’t Be That. And doubt, insecurity– hello, darkness, my old friend– are these, to Z., to so many men, the hallmarks of “girl”-hood? And how, how, could a “girl” like me, so vested in her flaws, so clever at owning them, be anything but insecure about being naked– literally and figuratively– around someone whose standard dating fare is ex-strippers and cocktail waitresses? Once– once– I started an application to be a cocktail waitress: broke, a newly single mother, terrified of how I would manage to support my son with his father voluntarily out of the picture. Halfway through, I thought, Well, it should be awhile before they call me, I’ll just eat very little until then. And ex-strippers! Ex-poet/lovers can write all the sonnets in the world to my ample hips– no one in their right mind would pay me to dance naked on a stage. Nor would I be willing to do the things one does to get a body like that– cosmetics, starvation, snowy hills of blow, retching one’s dinner before it gets too far down one’s digestive track. These are the things insane people do. Or desperate people. And I am neither of those, despite being a girl.
I confided in J. about my insecurities, one evening– “I always feel like he’s staring at my body and finding it lacking–” and he discouraged the idea: “Nah, no way.” Then he sat for a minute. “Maybe– I mean, if you get a vibe, there’s usually something to it.” And there is, undoubtedly. Z. can make all the claims he wants about liking my brain, liking my difference, express real frustration that said standard dating fare can’t, or at least doesn’t, think the way I do, but the truth is probably closer to the fact that like so many men I’ve encountered in my life, he wants it all in one wrapped package– Olivia Munn, in her glasses, with a spanking fetish, begging for it in Japanese. Batteries included.
And after all– am I “reading into” our encounters, our texts back and forth? Writing that, I’m reminded what the phrase actually means, where it derives from. When I am literally reading something, I am imposing an agreed upon order onto symbols that, divorced from that agreement, mean nothing, are innocuous. In class, the same week Z. implored me not to be precisely the thing I am, we discussed the word “nigger,” in conjunction with Gloria Naylor’s essay, “The Meaning of a Word,” where, in yet another intersection of my various laminated lives, Naylor writes that the female equivalent of “nigger” in black culture is “girl,” as in, “Girl, no, you did NOT say that to him; I wish I’d been there to see that;” and I had to take a deep breath, as the moment I read it, I was back there, in his tiny room, the dim light falling on our bodies, his thumb digging a deep, sweet line into the bottom of my right foot, slung casually over his naked waist; was I, after all, imagining that sweetness? Imagining the little ecstasies, the little sparks? Alone in feeling them? Back to reality– 25 faces, scrubbed clean as young birch trees, waiting for me to elucidate the text– I found myself heartily disagreeing with Naylor’s claim that words in and of themselves are innocuous “enough”; although maybe, writing this, it’s the “enough” that gives her argument sway. We are so tied up with words that any chance of them being innocuous long ago disappeared; the moment you look at a word, say a word, hear a word, it is imbued with meaning. I “read into” it: not only do I bring my part in the “agreed upon order” to bear, knowing how to say it, hear it; so, too, does my experience come with me, so, too, does my experience read that word, hear that word, say that word, for me. Just as I make order from chaos when I decipher symbols into sounds, into meaning, so, too, I try to order chaos when I ponder his tone, his smile, his half-cocked eyebrow when he said, “I don’t want you to go.” Did he mean it? Was he itching to be rid of me? The order I’m striving for is of an impossible nature– to be in another person’s head. To understand their meaning. To know their thoughts.
And then what?
Walking home from my run the other day, I thought again– it’s all exchange. Just a moment ago, even, writing of the women Z. tends to date– “his usual fare,” I said– as in food, as in money. I give you this, you give me that. Just as marriage comes down from old, old laws involving dowries, involving land for cash, cash for land, land for the exchange of one’s daughter, one’s daughter for the exchange of cash– you get it, I think– so, too, do we discuss desire, love, sex, in terms of exchange. Even Juliet, whose love, whose real love, was bigger than her, was truly a secular transcendence– even Juliet, who said, “My bounty is as boundless as the sea/My love as deep/The more I give to thee, the more I have/For both are infinite”– even Juliet, waiting for her lover– now her husband!– to come and “claim” her, said,