Monday, November 16, 2009

Courting the Gaze

I’m twelve, maybe thirteen. It’s winter; that much I’m sure of. Still, the house is almost steamy. Up before anyone else, except my father, who left at five for work, I've turned the thermometer past eighty. Though my mother dutifully turned it back down when she woke at seven, a certain heat lingers. And so, I am perfectly comfortable in my usual pajamas: one of my father’s work shirts, gray, v-necked and short sleeved, with pocket, and barely grazing the top of my thighs.

--Though not yet pretty, I’m admittedly cute: chin length blond wavy hair, an adorable smile with a small gap between the front teeth, an athlete’s body, somewhat boyish yet beginning to become feminine. This I have not yet realized. While I have some interest in boys, and a naive curiosity about sex, I come to these things like the child I am, seeing only mystery and wonder, understanding nothing but the taboo nature of such things without understanding the allure of the taboo. It will be impossible, later, to fully recapture such a time.

--So when there comes a knock at the door that morning, I go to answer it with no shame. What could I know of shame when I’ve not yet tasted the forbidden fruit? The scenario is entirely banal: a UPS man, strangely interchangeable with the others in that dark brown uniform, with a package for my mother. It’s nearing Christmas, and must have been a gift, though this I can’t remember with any certainty. What I do remember clearly is the cold burst of air from the open door, and how alive I feel. It’s when I move to accept the package, short shirt shifting with the switch of my steps, that I see the look he is giving me, I recognize, without having reference, that look, and I know. I blush slightly, and hurry from the door with my mother’s package, wanting to spare us both the embarrassment I’ve brought about, but also wanting to sit alone with this new feeling, not entirely unpleasant. For, in the moment of my shame, I felt something of desire. I felt the desire to be the object of desire.

--Years later the complexities of power will enter into the equation, but the moment of delivery was simply the fall at its purest, alone in the garden with the gaze of God. It will not be until I am fifteen, and overhear two boys talking of the girl at a party giving blow-jobs for beer, that the fact of desire will make me cry. It will not be until I’m eighteen, and about to leave for college, that my own incapacity to rule by desire will reduce me to real tears. In this initiating moment, the desire to be desired was so seemingly simple in its complexity, making me aware, without sure consequence, of my own power. The gaze became something to court.

--Of course there were consequences. Though I continued in the smart and studious mode of my naiveté for a time, by fifteen or sixteen I was getting drunk with sex, fascinated with the power of desire. I was the bad girl in good girl’s clothing, and then I was the bad girl in bad girl’s clothing. Short shorts, crop tops, high heels, my parents were appalled, but I was impossible to reason with. Much of the time the attention I attracted was frightening to me, but the fear produced the most intoxicating highs.

--Still, every addict knows that the lows, come they must. By my early twenties I was drinking hard to contend with the shame, which, try as I might, wouldn’t go away. The desire to be desired was powerful, but the shame was more than its equal. And so, an endless pattern of drinking, flirtation, sex, and drinking to forget. But even when I could forget on the conscious level, the shame would come on sideways.

--Why, I wonder, is this so hard to talk about? I much less needed the talk about safe sex, which I knew how to address years before my mother shared her insights, than I needed to talk about negotiating desire as a woman. But where do you turn for that conversation, and how do you begin to articulate the nearly unspeakable? I want to initiate this conversation for those young women I see, drunk as I was on their own supposed power. I want to initiate it for my friends, whose stories break my heart. I want to initiate it for myself. I know little of how to do so, but I do know that age won’t solve the problems of desire—it will only carry its own attendant complications.

--What I would say, I do not know. Perhaps that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to be a woman in our society without being caught in the net of desire. Perhaps that speaking of desire, and of the desire to be desired, is the only way to confront the shame it brings. Perhaps that there must, or at least there should, be a way to experience the highs of desire without debilitating shame. Or, perhaps, simply that I care, and I’d like to hear your story.