I’ve been searching for decades for an elusive shoe, the one that will end my desire for all other shoes. As I eagerly await a new, in-transit prospect, I have an Amazon-Prime-Delivery-moment to reflect on the nature and history of the quest.
I have a pronounced allergy to excess. A visceral objection to material encumbrance. Moreover, a nagging, consumerism-inspired anxiety created in the dissonance between the multiplicity of options and the dearth of satisfactions. I’m afraid my journey has now yielded excess instead of the desired monastic efficiency required to “think about other things.” Not that I am entirely so high-minded. I am aesthetically drawn to the ascetic. My fashion taste being in the ballpark of post-apocalyptic barbarian and Diane-Keaton-joined-a-cult. (An ex once described that ballpark as the “elegant retiree”, this before the advent of menocore.) “That’s a wicked woman”, a friend’s child remarked upon seeing me in an old opera coat of my mother’s with a $2, satin, Chinatown dragon hat.)
This ideal shoe must be practical, serving a range of weather, supporting varied occasions, and functioning in different walking conditions. While all of these pose unique challenge, I’ll wager that the topline to hem relationship presents the make-or-break situation, one with elaborately specific exigencies for each person. It’s a moving target because these shoes must work with a variety of pants, skirts, and dresses.
My memories of the incipient quest take me to grade school, where sneakers sufficed. Not to say that the type of sneaker was not a consideration, but once that decision was made, it was truly the shoe for most of living. The narrow range of situational requirements in that time of life eases the task. I had a pair of pale blue, Converse high tops that lasted through quite a bit of 5th grade. At some point near the end of high school, I moved on to black low top Converse, which I revisited again 15 years later in graduate school. A mistake I’ve now made too many times, alas, those shoes do not have arch support.
Several years ago in graduate school, I committed to a pair of black, mid-calf, motorcycle boots from J.Crew. (At the time, I also wanted the sweater to end all sweaters and jackets, a tall order. I ended up with a grey, cocoon shaped cardigan, which that same ex with a knack for sartorial nomenclature coined my “Romulan” sweater. I don’t think Romulans actually wore sweaters, but if you take a sidelong approach to imagination, you kind of get the idea.) I still have the boots, several soles later. My dog, Petey, once ate through the buckled straps and I had those repaired, too. On the last trip to the cobbler, a strap was lost and they again face sole repair. So I’ve come to terms with my waning enthusiasm for them. I consider throwing them away, but I haven’t been able to bring myself to do it. My perspective on their topline to hem relationship has changed over time (or maybe my body has changed), while they have stayed the same. A classic growing-apart.
The ugly sneaker seems to fit the bill for many, but I’m not there. All I see is “trend” in flashing neon. I imagine commuters changing out of these kinds of sneakers once they get to work, a kind of reverse Mr. Rogers. The comfortable shoes get you where you’re going, but the right pair is waiting for you when you get there. They’re forever relegated as the means in a troubling ends-justify-the-means scenario.
Included in the list of contenders, sitting at the back of my closet: Birkenstock London, Dankso Maria, Clarks Wallabee, a pair of dusty-colored monochrome, Maison Martin Margiela high-top sneakers. A leopard bootie from Boden and perhaps surprisingly a pair of Nike slides are clear front runners. I love my LL Bean winter boots, but the shearling makes them prohibitive most times of year. WIth all of these options, I still struggle to find the right pair on any given day.
When my new Doc Martens arrive tomorrow, I know that, as yet another pair of shoes, they won’t have the capacity to end the chronic nature of consumer desire. I’d like to believe that fulfilling my list of impossible requirements was possible. However, here’s a new kind of wager. These new boots will help me be the person I want to be by dressing like I already am. If it’s wise to dress for the job you want, “like the boss” as it were, then I’d like to think of my best self as that boss. In my case, since the boss is that ascetic-loving, Inner-Worldly mystic living in the awareness of abundance, she doesn’t think about shoes– she’s moved on to other things.
There was a bathroom in my Aunt and Uncle’s house with dark colored walls and a boldly printed shower curtain. I watched my older cousin apply eyeliner in the mirror. It was so glamourous.
Sometimes colorful spaces are just around a corner, out of reach, but memory preserves the intrigue for years.
These introductions to joyful mystery remain strong.
“I didn’t really fall in love with you until you fell in love with someone else,” my husband said. The light of this insight would soon be blotted out by the darkness of his affair with my friend, a young woman whose age nearly matched the length of our twenty-two year relationship.
I’d met someone over a decade before at Haystack, an artist residency on the coast. I saw him as soon as I stepped from the gravel parking lot onto the wooden deck upon arriving. My palpable response to his presence had more to do with a sense of movement than with appearance. Something tangible, yet invisible. We grasp at forces like magnetism and electricity to explain the kind of tugging and sharpness.
When I found that he and I were assigned to the same studio, I was deeply relieved. I felt inexplicabley safe. His proximity allayed the familiar, but long latent, social anxiety that blindsided me with it’s resurgence upon my arrival to this place.
I experienced my feelings more like the memory of feelings. I felt like a person I’d been long ago. This alienation was provocative, like a traveler’s estrangement, revealing intimate things that never seem to change, though sometimes they’re forgotten. This reverie made me miss my husband and I began, almost immediately, writing him letters. I reflected on how we’d been ten years ago, when we’d met at a tiny liberal arts college on the East Coast. Our connection then forged by some shared version of what I was feeling again in that present moment. An inquisitive and observational drive meandering back and forth over the line between excitement and anxiety. I bummed a cigarette from another artist and smoked alone on the deck, enacting another memory, a regression.
That first evening of the residency, all of the artists gathered for a communal dinner of homemade pizza in the lodge. After eating with my new studio mates, I suddenly felt acute pain in my abdomen. A doubled-over, face-flushed, leave-me-alone, but someone-please-help-me kind of pain. Without missing a beat, my new friend, confirming my most immediate intuitions, took charge. He made contact with the staff after hours, procured medicine, tea, and sat next to me until I was well.
The two of us spent the next weeks working side by side in the studio. We learned how to make nets by tying different kinds of strategic knots. We used crochet for sculpture. We tied silk and cotton yardage around small and various objects and dipped it into steaming, noxious vats of dye. He made me a silk scarf with his newly acquired skills, but added a well-placed iron burn, a contradistinctive gesture in this place where everyone seemed to put the world aside for utopic immersion. For us, the shine seemed suspicious, calling to question what it obscured.
In addition to these sanctioned pursuits, we made creatures from spent pistachio shells. The exquisite corpses emerged from bits of string, bobby pins, and ink throughout the days.
We paused in pleasant surprise to discover our mutual Wu Tang love, further demarking us an incongruous demographic.
We laughed at the messages left in the guest book and added our own under each other’s names. We marveled at the behaviors of people away from their daily lives: I interrupted my roommate getting an awkward massage from a man named Ed. Ed had written in the guest book, too: “Life is short. Haystack is long.”
The day our studio group was tasked with presenting histories of our work to one another; I nervously fumbled with my slides. He loaded the projector for me.
Not only was vulnerability OK; this man helped me. The effect was so foreign I could not then name the experience. Even as a child my well-intended parents would push me, hoping that through immersion or coercion I would unlearn my pronounced and innate reticence. I learned instead that even the smallest bits of life were painful and no one was there to help. It was my moral obligation to overcome, my fear a kind of failure. Through these new kinds of interactions it was as if something inside me dislodged, like a bit of ice melting in a glass of cubes, and soon everything falls just a bit, into a new place, and slowly becomes less rigid, more fluid.
I was flirting, but I indulged it, not because I didn’t assess that risk, but I determined there was none. First, my new friend was surely gay. He even referred to his current partner with gender neutral pronouns, not a usual habit for straight people. Second, he was six years younger than I, which seemed like a lot at the time, especially since those particular years marked different stages of life. Finally, this residency was only two weeks and he would soon return to school 2,000 miles away.
For this moment, I needed the profound sense of safety and belonging that I felt in our small exchanges and quiet work. That sense of security on one front, allowed an opening for growth on another; I glimpsed a new horizon for my work. One day in a group discussion, he said, “I just want to live my quiet little life.” The contrast between the humble content and his enthusiastic confidence was startling. It resonated with me so thoroughly as if we just made our life’s plans together.
The last day of the residency came. I walked alone on a wooded path towards my cabin, a lump forming in my throat. I sat on the ground to quell the vertiginous welling, instead, I began to cry, overcome with grief. Unnerved and mystified, I interrogated the feeling as it consumed me. What was my problem? I was in love and I would never see him again.
I returned to my daily routine, changed. My husband and I continued our work renovating an old one-room schoolhouse, transforming it into our home. I tended to my tasks absently. I was listless, tearful. My stomach ached.
One day, weeks later, I received a letter in the mail. He missed me, too. The partner he’d so vaguely referred to? He was breaking up with her.
“These are the challenges marriage is made of”, I told myself. “Events unfold over long arcs of time. The nature of feelings is transience, the nature of marriage, commitment,” I tried reasoning with myself, inspiration to just wait this out.
“If you feel the same way in five years”, I told myself, “then might be time for action”. The problem was, I had already taken action, albeit involuntarily. I was not present in my life anymore. I had to fix it.
So one night, as my husband and I sat in his blue truck parked in our driveway, I worked up the courage, “I’m in love with someone else”, I told him. The only way to protect my marriage was to bring this inside, believing the true work and hope of love is the creation of wholly personal answers to our most intimate questions.
“But, you can’t love two people at once,” he said softly, staring at the steering wheel.
“I guess you can,” I said, heartbroken. In some ways, I’ve been heartbroken ever since. I can say this still, over thirteen years later.
My friend and I continued to write letters and talk on the telephone. “I love you,” I told him, “but nothing is going to change. You should find someone else.”
I dragged my sister to visit him with me almost five months after we first met; she and I drove over thirteen hours and checked into a hotel in the city where he lived. Our next visit would be another eight months after that. Our relationship slowly became a part of reality for me and my husband.
“You have to make a philosophical decision”, a friend warned.
“But, we already have”, I thought to myself. We chose the only path that was not arbitrary, and although I recognize that as a matter of some indifference when it comes to meaning, it was everything when it came to wisdom.
I felt guilt, but not in a way I could have expected. I felt guilty for being with my husband. Was my internal compass broken, or did my instincts reveal a truth I couldn’t understand?
Despite that, I brought everything to my marriage first. My marriage was the largest circle in a set of Venn diagrams, everything that happened was within that circle. At our wedding we read aloud from Wendell Berry: “Marriage is a perilous and fearful effort… It creates pain that it is the only cure for.” My universe functioned only under the rules of that marriage, but not blind to the realities it faced. Marriage was my shelter, a wellspring of courage. It made meaning by virtue of it’s very structure, calling me to face and solve the problems it created, by revealing my reflection in another.
Our so-called pains and perils were hard to parse. Our marriage now included this third person. More so than conventional marriages, it was political as well as personal. This felt especially true in the rural town where we lived. My husband worked for his parents, conservative Christians who stayed in the small town where their family had lived and run businesses for generations. Despite his daily lunch and video games with his mother, he didn’t share much about his personal life. The decision to reveal our relationship to his family was left to his discretion. I didn’t want to violate his privacy. I had renewed empathy for other unconventional relationships in hostile times and in hostile places.
I had a very close relationship with my mother-in-law and it pained me to feel as though I were keeping something from her. “You’ll find someone someday”, she told my partner at dinner one night as the three of us stared at our plates, finding it suddenly difficult to swallow any food. The secrecy produced feelings of guilt and alienation, weighing heavily on me for over a decade and finding destructive expression in anxiety, obsessive work habits, and excessive drinking.
We were effectively in the closet for over twelve years.
“Can he even get it up for you if you don’t bend over?” a friend speculated on my partner’s sexuality as a way of insinuating a generally lurid and corrupting vein of suspicion into what she considered a reckless and degraded situation.
This secrecy was counterbalanced with unwelcome scrutiny. The three of us were increasingly committed to our relationship, even moving in together. My unmarried partner and my husband became close friends – more so even, they were as family, planning a future. Eventually, my partner and I told our geographically-scattered families. His were concerned but supportive. Mine, I suspect, were ashamed, and mostly expressed anger and disapproval. (We spent some time not speaking.) Slowly, as they spent more time with the three of us, they accepted the relationship, albeit begrudgingly. We enjoyed holidays together. We traveled. We behaved much as any other family. Despite some level of acceptance, I felt uncomfortably overexposed – a private aspect of my life, one which ‘normal’ heterosexual couples could expect to be left private, was now open to the salacious, speculative, and critical fantasies of others.
On the other side, there were great joys and illuminations for having given over to this relationship. A pride in attempting to face something so inexorable and culturally pervasive with thoughtfulness and compassion. The three of us took great pleasure in considering and discussing it over the years, how it highlighted dimensions of relationships generally (“in order not to be alone, you need to be two, but in order to be a couple, you need to be three”). Nothing could be taken for granted, imparting a beauty and generosity often lacking once love’s urgency wanes and gives way, even if slightly, to the mundane. Honesty became king among values, a new prerequisite for engagement.
I once heard a sermon at a wedding comparing marriage to a triangle whose sides A and B represented the husband and wife. Alone, their union was unstable. The addition of the third side, C, for Christ, stabilized the marriage, a triangle being the most stable shape. Our trio did, in fact, last longer than most romantic relationships of any kind.
“I learned it from you”, my husband argued coldy. He’d slept with a young co-worker and friend of mine in our bed while I was out of town. He confessed only much later, laughing at me as he relayed the details.
A year before, this friend was going through a breakup. “Can I come over? Will you cut my hair?” she asked tearfully. We sat in my backyard and I cut the thick, greasy mass of blonde hair to a short bob, like mine, as she requested. I offered that she stay with us until she was back on her feet and she admitted to having wanted that, to being on the precipice of asking if she could move in. That was the beginning of a transformative dialectic where through some unwitting, but fateful collaboration I slowly disappeared, leaving her in my place.
Despite the outcome, she initially set her sights on my friend. “Maybe he and I will fall in love,” she calculated. Once she moved in, I had to tell her about our relationship, about the polyamory (a term I employ here, but rarely used and to this day do not relate to). I see only now that she was hunting; she was hungry and looking for signs of weakness.
The affair started once she’d moved out, with frequent text messages and emails. A party they attended together while I was out of town. Like so many years ago at Haystack, I assessed the risk. Sure my calculations were faulty the last time, but this time, the risk was visible from outer space. They followed a tried and true formula for falling in love in a series of various inappropriate interactions. She described and collected her dreams, mostly sexual in nature, for him. In some transparent pedagogical fetishism, my middle-aged husband would analyze them for this twenty-something friend. I protested, pleaded even, but my husband was volatile. She was a fourth side to the geometry of the relationship, irrevocably weakening the figure.
I knew if I pushed too hard, he’d rebel. He angrily assured me there was no risk. He would guard over his cell phone with a bodily paranoia, always angling a shoulder or an elbow against the world, folding inward and turning sharp corners outward. I, knowing better, felt my only strategy was a loose grasp. Sometimes this meant leaving the room to cry out of view. Any display of feelings produced contempt in my husband, coldness. Any resentment he’d buried over the years, he concentrated in this one willful act.
“Did your husband tell you about that racy dream he had last night?” her question landed like a blow to the stomach. “No,” I answered as breezily as possible, trying to control the expression on my face. I knew she was no longer my friend despite her pretense, but I had no commitment to her. She was insignificant to our problem.
Months before, the four of us had gone to a table tipping at a spiritualist summer camp nestled into a steep hillside overlooking the ocean. The medium called us at random to the table in small groups. She relayed messages from those who had passed. My grandfather thanked my partner for caring for me, startling not just because of the medium’s adamance, or its resonance with reality, but because we were in a group of strangers. The medium had no knowledge that we knew each other at all. “This is strange”, she began, “for some reason her grandfather wants to speak to you. Do you know each other?” she directed the question at my partner.
She advised my young friend to move across the country.
Hazel, my husband’s grandmother, warned him to move away from his parents and the family business. To take charge of his own life, outside of that small town. My husband laughed it off, “The dead are just like the living, only more benighted.”
“You’ve decided everything. I’ve never made any choices”, he rationalized his leaving me. It was true, I gave direction to our lives. Our house, our four dogs, our finances, our social life, the state we lived in, these were all my choices. The decision to get married; I’d even gotten my own engagement ring.
“You are trying to fix something within yourself, with something outside of yourself,” diagnosed the shaman we saw when trying, if only very briefly, to salvage our marriage. Suddenly, the feelings of sexual urgency that accompany new love were a bright light beaming into his life, which now appeared like a prison cell of inertia. Love was now cause and means of moving away from our marriage. He used it as retaliation, suddenly discovering a repressed anger he’d always vehemently disavowed. “We can’t help you yet, because you haven’t done enough work on yourself for it to take”, concluded the shaman.
At Haystack all those years ago, I’d remembered an older version of myself. My husband was now, too, finding himself through renewed desire. He needed to go back to the place where he’d lost the thread of his own identity. Like a little girl learning double dutch, rocking back and forth until she spots the moment where she understands the rhythm, where she knows it in her body. It’s a version of belonging that calls her to jump in. “She is my truth,” he repeated. The lens of a twenty-something woman became a powerful occasion for self-revelation. This was a middle aged man using this affair as a form of self-discovery, on a quest for a new (or lost) identity. “I need to grow up. I can’t do that with you”, he said. It was a beautiful equation, by choosing someone whose age matched the duration of our relationship and approximated the age that we met, he could go back and undo it all. He could start again in his twenties and erase the history of our pain.
He referred to the feeling of ease he felt in her presence, as an immersion in “fuck-it time.” It was shorthand for a kind of nonchalant, pot-smoking, job-hopping, ethos of indolence, both physical and intellectual, that let him escape his otherwise hyper-critical existence.
There’s only so much self-betrayal one can take before the body rebels and compulsions take over. Heartened by her cavalier and relativistic attitude, he adopted it. Only in him, it mutated into a righteous nihilism. Intellectually, it gave him permission. With a simple, “Fuck it.” Poof! Our marriage disappeared. “I have new ideas about responsibility now,” he defended. “She’s right, it just doesn’t matter”, he argued for her defacto exposé: a marriage ceremony should be just a party, without the added trouble and insignificance of a “piece of paper” or legal sanction.
I experienced his affair, just like anyone would, as trauma. It was in our home, with my friend, and there were so many lies. I lost the home that I worked so hard to renovate and tend: That season alone I’d planted two-hundred ostrich ferns, five peonies, and four rose bushes that I would never watch grow. They even dated at the restaurant in the small town where I worked, culminating in the loss of my job. My privacy destroyed.
My husband told his parents about our twelve years of polyamory in the same breath as admitting his betrayal. The manipulative effect of the timing adding significantly to insult and injury. My in-laws have not spoken to me since.
My husband refused all conversation.
“We fell in love,” my one-time friend explained to people.
“She had someone else and now he does; it’s only fair,” people gossiped. To me, they’d nod, “You got what was coming to you”.
Their relationship was attributed to my selfishness over the years, (who was I to believe I could be in a relationship with two men?) Even my friends pitied him, saying he finally felt his anger and jealousy. It was my job to have emotional oversight, to read between the lines, to act as guardian. He’d let me have my relationship for all of these years, where was the quid pro quo?
To the world, all was sanctioned so long as the hetero-normative couple bond could be re-established as the moral of the story. Hollywood love always wins. The story of our relationship had been recast as the story of my profligacy. As with other unconventional behavior cast in the light of hardship, polyamory became the scapegoat for my husband’s affair. Being one woman in a relationship with two men, I was a certain villain. Assignation of blame quickly resolves complexity and promises to be the bulwark against undue pain.
Facing this devastation in light of the previous decade did not feel like a lesser betrayal as the community expected it should, but instead a far greater one. I was forced to move out of the state, closer to my family, my life wiped out on every front. I considered my life with my husband one of building: our home, our relationship, but most importantly a very hard-earned story of love, identity, and purpose. It seems he was right that I did those things alone. His one act of will, or work, towards our life was to destroy it, burning its bridges and salting its earth. In this he came alive.
A bright light now shines on my aloneness in that marriage. Despite the final suffering and humiliation, I was the builder. If the story was ever only mine, it remains so. I still believe that infinite consideration and gentleness can reshape the love experience. The great love for my husband is not lost. I am still living by the same generous wishes and inquisitive purposes. Love remains so strong and intense in my memory because it was my first deep aloneness and the first inner work I did on my life. His absence simply what its always been.
In a letter written long ago, I reflected on Ed’s comment in that Haystak guestbook, “Ed’s a prescient genius.” The truth reverberates still: “Life is short. Haystack is long.”
Steve Reinke @spreinke
“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” – Maya Angelou
Despite having written much over the past couple of years about a devastating turn in my life, I have not shared that writing. My body has decided on this opportunity to demonstrate a marked indifference to the compulsive clamoring of the mind’s narrative. The body insists upon trauma and it’s own temporal mandates: I am not healed.
Sometimes, on the other hand, the head knows what the heart still refuses to metabolize. The disjunction between the knowledge that true sanction lies within, and the invincible and contraindicated desire to share, causes me shame. I’ve failed to reconcile these internal mechanics, limping around like a simulated human from some dystopian future, not yet able to integrate different parts, to achieve credible likeness through human fluidity.
As I attempt to parse this conflict, shame emerges, thematic. The more I consider my reluctance to share, the memories of shameful experiences proliferate. Feelings of shame have been, for me, less terrifying than an alternative where those closest to me could not be counted on for comfort or connection. I have learned not to trust my own emotions, and have been unable to use them as a compass for living. I preferred the thought that I was the cause of my own distress,that my abnormality, my wrong-ness was to blame for feeling so alone.
After my divorce, there were people who never spoke to me again. One, a man I’d known for almost 15 years, someone I’d invited into my home after his own divorce when he needed a place to rebuild. The same man who delivered a reading from Wendell Berry at my wedding: “Marriage is a perilous and fearful effort, it seems to me… . It creates pain that it is the only cure for.” A particularized problem so complex and inextricable from our selves, so inexorable as to produce countless impasses for the imagination (the human tool possessed most fully of infinitude) that to evade that rhizomatic nest is simply to bury that self along with epigenetic hopes for future peace.
I thought back to one of the final exchanges I had with this man. He spent the night at the house I shared with my then-husband. He, firmly middle-aged, had recently started seeing a woman considerably younger than himself, a pattern that unfolded in the typical manner: he grew older, the women stayed the same age. This particular woman had apparently been through a series of sexual traumas, a topic he broached with us, his close friends, in a serious and avuncular tone. He, in his consummate sensitivity and gentleness would save her from this history. His manner approached fetishistic – he the guide to this young woman, a savior from the damage of sexual predators past. (Attempting to disavow any connection to a gendered power dynamic, he self-described as lesbian.) He elaborated tales of this young woman’s trauma, which, although undoubtedly trauma, he characterized as assault: In high school, she had given a blow job she did not want to give to a young man because he was “popular”, “black”, and “on the football team.”
Admittedly, I was rather blunt in my attack of this disclosure. Insensitive.
Lest the description of my dismay topple into the well-worn grooves the media and cultural discussion have handed us in order to properly analyze and divide over this kind of story, I’ve searched for the impasse. I’ll proffer a suggestion at bypass: There is the culture, or community, on the one hand, and individuals, on the other. #MeToo has taken highly personal stories and reflected them into a cultural narrative. We have not recognized that the equation, from one to many, is unidirectional. While appropriate to generalize from a pool of specifics, not so to reflect the general back onto an individual. We expand culture by adding elaborately specific stories, not by taking the average of those stories and waging it on the imagination of those who’ve yet to create their own.
In the case of #MeToo, the culture has given us two possible reactions to individual stories. On the one hand, you can blame the individual (she was drunk, she wore the wrong clothing, was too subtle, too unsubtle) and on the other, you can validate the victim (it was not her fault). Ostensibly different, there is common ground: Women are always victimized. If not by some outside force, then by the narrative that invokes her personal, often ethical, failure.
There is actually a third, and most powerful option: Just keep telling stories. True stories are like the body, like the heart, they demonstrate, in aggregate, that same indifference to the compulsions of analysis, in favor of something a lot more resistant to digestion. True stories quite literally don’t make sense in the way we like to think of it, unless we omit the nagging suspicions and fleeting glances that would never hold up in court. Making these omissions too shameful to report. They destroy our coherence, and women, most especially, are rendered powerless through an image of incoherence.
I suggested to my friend that a woman whose history was scarred by repeated incidents of unwanted sexual encounters hinging upon murky wagers of sexuality bore some self-examination. Perhaps the more accurate language would have been: “Your story about these events scares me in it’s implications about my own ability to consent, and therefore, the possibility of any personal integrity or cultural agency.”
I am not blind or unfeeling to the traumatic effect of such encounters, nor to the deep rooted structural inequity eroding the foundation on which all sexual encounters are predicated, however, I shudder to recast all regretful sexual encounters as assault. I do not know where the self resides in that narrative. The self that is the consciousness of thoughts and feelings, not their subject. I shudder at the implicit bias: the explicit designation of the perpetrator as “black” in the retelling of this story.
Should we outlaw sex between men and women? After all, we are so far from social equality, the existing power differential does not admit consent in any case.
My now ex-husband used to joke, “all heterosexual sex is rape.” Just one in a series of memories provoking waves of shame as I flinchingly contemplate my complicity.
My friend’s account of his young girlfriend’s story was pre-#MeToo. There was no cultural resurgence of Monica Lewinsky and Caitlin Moran had not yet written How to Tell the Bad Men From the Good Men; there was no conversation around Aziz Ansari’s behavior or that of his accuser. (A conversation which simply vacillates between the two aforementioned channels of prescribed thought: blame the victim or validate the victim.)
I should give a bit of context: the nature of conversations with this friend tended to the personal, but always through an intellectual lens, often making use of books or various theories to consider the topic at hand. Our conversations were explicit, probing, critical, contemplative, speculative, abstract, analytical. They weren’t shy. It’s likely I would not have suggested my qualms at the accounting had it been told by the woman herself, and I’m sure the first-hand account would’ve differed from the retelling. I did not know her, nor would I want to hurt her, blame her, or denigrate her experience. My observations reside now, as then, at the level of using these personal stories to contemplate my own integrity, my own consciousness, my own ability to consent. Hearing her stories (admittedly secondhand and through the mouthpiece of a new, male lover), my stomach immediately turned at the implications. Myself being the figure standing in for all of those implicated by the cultural exigencies created in these private mythologies. After all, we tend to tell stories that sound like the ones we already know. We can’t see things that we’ve never seen before. In these tales, we find palliatives for difficult feelings and we’re taught that our feelings are our truth. They’re not. They are metabolic flotsam to be witnessed for transience. We’re not comfortable living with mystery, and quite often agency treads too closely to responsibility to inspire our full enthusiasm.
This friend took a liberty in telling his girlfriend’s story. He was appalled at my reaction and vowed to protect his girlfriend from me. He would never bring her around me. I was dangerous in my cruelty. He would fix her with his compassion and would tailor his love-making strategy to her recovery.
I apologized profusely. I felt ashamed.
This man stopped speaking to me after my divorce. He preferred the friendship of my ex-husband. This makes a bit more sense in light of the details. Suffice it to say, my middle-aged husband also found a young woman to analyze, encouraging her to share her erotic dreams so that he could examine them. Let’s not forget, too, I am cruel. And insensitive.
During this same time period, my young friend who would become my husband’s second wife, was engaged. She was quite aimless at the time, floating from barista job to bartender job, fantasizing about being a midwife, but mostly creating drama in her romantic relationships to avoid facing the deadening ennui. She would break up, get back together, muse on the boredom once things had settled into a routine, shake things back up again with suggestions of moving in together, or moving out, or drunkenly kissing other men at bars. Generally, provoking feelings to mask the malaise and avoiding the work that would create meaning. In one such fit of impulsivity, she convinced her boyfriend to marry her. He was complacent, too, and agreed on one condition. They would not be married “for real.” They would not file paperwork. They argued: “It’s only a piece of paper.”
Her engagement announcement was met by a small group of friends with some measure of surprise. As the conversation tended towards diffusing the awkward reaction, she managed to back peddle away from anything that looked like an engagement or subsequent marriage. As it turned out the promise would culminate in a potluck dance party in her own honor, affording the opportunity to dress up and be center of attention under fraudulent pretenses while not actually committing to anything.
I suggested she take a closer look at what she meant by marriage, that perhaps there was more at stake in the piece of paper than she thought, in invoking the sanction and support of a community. After all, I told her, gay people are fighting too hard to get married so you can have your sham wedding.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m more in the “ban marriage for everyone” camp, than a subscriber to the “marriage equality” oxymoron, but what can I say, I find words meaningful, alchemical even. It’s another case of the complex boundaries between individual cases and the larger culture. Ultimately, a case of connectivity, perhaps of meaning at all.
I’m an asshole, it’s a theme. She cried, of course she did. She pouted and insisted, indignantly and self-righteously that her perspective was well-considered. I was being elitist with my ideas about what a wedding should be. Not everyone must be so rigid in relation to ideas. She sobbed.
Here’s the refrain: I apologized profusely. I felt ashamed.
Please indulge my addition of the final chapter to that engagement: It fell apart when she, after months of sending her sex dreams to my husband, staying up with him late at night, decided to put his penis in her mouth while I was out of town.
Remember when I apologized to her for second guessing the triviality with which she faced her engagement? I suppose she proved her case. She instantiated a reality simultaneously selfish and nihilistic.
I’d made a fundamental mistake in these cases. I took these conversations to be about ideas, to be the general case. I wasn’t sensitive to the reality that most people don’t want to test their personal stories against some Kantian imperative. Everything tends to get a little too not-in-my-backyard feeling when we have to consider a reality where we live with others, truly connected to others. After all what is the American self if not exceptional?
Let me tell you about one more friend. She and her husband are still in touch with my ex-husband, although admittedly they’re not so fond of him. Or rather, they describe him as self-serving, duplicitous, and deeply narcissistic. However, they know that according to popular culture you shouldn’t have to take sides in a divorce. In fact, it is much more deserving of dignity to be able to remain a kind of neutral party. This husband, he’s never thought much of me. He once wrote a short story depicting me (thinly veiled of course, only animals don’t invoke plausible deniability) as a cruel woman, albeit in a position of power, who would “spit” at her assistants and who demeaned her husband with her “roving eye.” He once gave me a book titled something like, Decor for Dictators. It made him “think of me”. I don’t behave as he thinks a woman should. I saw my friend, this man’s wife, recently and I told her I’d be interested in her thoughts on some articles I was reading about #MeToo and #TimesUp. She characteristically wrinkled her nose, “I don’t know what I’ll think about that. I’m pretty regressive when it comes to these issues”, she warned. When I shared my writing with her about the dissolution of my marriage, she was conspicuously quiet. I felt ashamed.
When people show you who they are, believe them.
Self-publishing my stories feels like another form of shame. As if the stories represent something abhorrent about me, something defective. It feels as though these kind of stories need authoritative sanction, an aegis.
and young children, who, as with heavy metals and certain other poisons of the body and spirit, capitalism and the like, become more susceptible to theft of the narrative kind. To be unnaturally frozen, and on the internet at that, without their consent.
In the early days of my pregnancy, I spent a lot of time imagining how to dress my soon-to-be son. By the time he was born, I had carefully selected clothing for his first six months of life. The thought of raising a boy considering the political events of the past year inspired questions. Some days, it sounded outright alarms.
In the same way that we have strong associations with certain smells, I also have very strong associations with certain fabrics and patterns from my childhood. My wish for my son was that, if he remembered his early clothing at all, the memory would be a gorgeous underpinning, a depth of time, like a mossy undergrowth in an old forest or a well-loved storybook. His memories, carefully tended pictures, a kind of redolent imagery. I wanted my son’s clothes to be part of a beautiful, intentional life. I also wanted to resist the violence of binary conventions.
I’ve been on an evolving quest, man-repelling for baby boys, only, in this case, repelling his future-man in favor of his future. As soon as I took to the baby registry, the perils emerged: my son was headed for the major leagues or the military. He also had his choice of sanctioned interests: trucks, cars, dinosaurs, outer space, and superheros.
Certain companies pay lip-service to egalitarian dressing. They mostly make ‘boy-things’ cool for girls, most especially things conferring economic advantage, STEM for babies. This strategy emphasizes the importance to creating an accessible iconography, defining a range of interests and assigning them to our children. This ideology, geared towards creating egalitarian economic producers, is often just undermined by the aesthetics of the garments. For example, frilly, pink dresses decorated with spaceships. Sure it’s important that girls can like science, but that is certainly a separate concern from considering the fundamental disparities between the sexes. Is it important that they are still girls? After all, what are girls and boys if these simple assignations, given at birth, disappear? In the words of J.D. Salinger in a conversation from Franny and Zooey: ” . . . all legitimate religious study must lead to unlearning the differences, the illusory differences, between boys and girls, animals and stones, day and night, heat and cold.”
Finally: Plant a flag: pink or blue.
Screenshot of Search for Baby Boy Clothes
Screenshot of Search for Baby Girl Clothes
I’m not blind to all of the yellows and pale greens out there, but frankly, that feels like a form of tokenism. Black, white, grey, and brown seem like better choices for color neutrality, although far from a solution. I would like to strive towards a future reality where there are no distinctions in dress between men and women, Until then, dressing my son in girl’s clothes isn’t an answer.
I’m wary of my own hang-ups: the unconscious expressions of my hopes and fears. Although there’s no way of relinquishing my ego completely, I try taking time to observe my son, as well as my gut reactions. For example: I usually cringe a bit when someone refers to a boy as a “little man.” It feels a bit like fulfilling a prophecy we might reconsider wanting filled. We tend raise our boys to be the kind of men that we are used to seeing. Unfortunately, that is a nurture we have clearly come to regret. As Simone de Beauvoir describes the being of women as “what they have become” instead of “what they are”, so too with men. Children are not little adults. At some point our choices will determine identity and I would like to choose wisely. To this end, I have a provisional set of guidelines:
- Avoid text and overt iconography. Perhaps, it’s the explicitness that chafes. A foreclosing on the complexity that seems our birthright. Additionally, I have no interest in becoming an unpaid brand ambassador.
3. Mix & Match Color and Pattern: Combine traditionally gendered colors and themes, or choose those with weaker gender associations. All-over patterns are better than single images. Avoid ready-made sets. Select items that work together for more flexibility.
4. Use abstract designs and nature or animal themes.
5 . Simplicity Always Works. Pattern, color and minimalism are not mutually exclusive.
I once read that Andy Warhol was “[making] the world safe for Andy.” Through some mysterious alchemy, showing the world to itself, reflecting it, making oneself simultaneously part-of and apart-from. A mechanism for individuation. I hope that as my son moves through life, his individuality is complex and that he becomes aware of its fragility and contingency, but that he can become inspired and curious about it’s beauty. Small choices made towards complexity increase safety and destroy illusory differences.