I have forgotten how to be a Strange Woman Alone — I am in a smallish town upstate this weekend, trying to remember. To see what it feels like now to wander without agenda, to eat dinner without commentary. In most ways it’s not as fun. I find I don’t want to dip into anything too deeply. I want to wait until he gets here, and see it better with him. I want everything witnessed doubly and passed through another brain and then back again. I’m going to refrain from assigning value to that but there it is.
I’d, more specifically I guess, forgotten that when I am alone I become open without meaning to. It feels like a liability to walk around this town unaccompanied. How many times in the past 26 hours have I turned a corner quickly, or just turned my head. Looked down. Two people are a shield. I feel unarmed; dangerous.
In college I wrote a paper purporting that — bear with me now — Virginia Woolf writes female subjectivity into the streets (flaneuse!) with Mrs. Dalloway, and while I am not saying I would like to rewrite my senior thesis, or even reread it - I already regret evoking it - I have often thought that I would change that thesis statement now. Include an addendum, something less hopeful, less fictional. This is the tragedy about college, about writing life before it’s lived, about not knowing that particular impossibility of women (or this woman) passing through public space unobstrusively.
Now I would write about how subjectivity for women is often at odds with the men around us, cornering us in Hudson art galleries, reeking of bad weed, wearing their barn coats, checking out the real estate print-outs in all the windows, grey-bearded, saying, “Whoops!” as they knock into us sideways. I would write now about the challenge of consuming one’s surroundings with agency and with (false, but comforting) dominance when one’s own “city stroll” is retracted every few blocks with a “Hi there little lady.”
Is self-consciousness at odds with dominance? How to do both? Or neither?
Perhaps this is not a woman thing. Perhaps it is just a human in the world among other humans thing. And either way it may be that it’s better to be shaken into reality, into community. Maybe this double-consciousness is why I love women’s writing so much. To watch and to know you’re being watched.
Women have to go from laughing inwardly at, “Richard Mapplethorpe” (Could it be?, looking up and there is, yes, a magazine tear-out of Robert Mapplethorpe photos labeled “R. Mapplethorpe, 1987) to having an older, 60ish man in aforementioned barn coat sidling up to you in a quiet corner, trying desperately — really just flinging his head all over the place, like a slithering snake, trying to catch your eye.
For my part, I did look up at him open-faced as he approached. This was my mistake. I was so joyous and smug and eager to tell someone, anyone, that they got it wrong, that this man’s name was not Richard Mapplethorpe, that come on, people, what the fuck is this exhibition anyways, a clever teenager’s bulletin board? (No, it’s an often quite brilliant but so poorly presented and in the context of shitty, shitty Hudson art and in sad wooden frames that it makes absolutely no sense — this is part of it’s allure but also renders it meaningless and weird. I wished the we of my me was here to remark on how Amazing! it all was. Part of me now is always spent wondering if something I’m seeing is something he would think is “Amazing!” or not. My instincts are getting better every day.). But when I looked up tonight and saw this grey-bearded barn-coated man, I looked away from him quickly, felt in danger of sharing anything with him, retreated from my exuberant wine-drinking self and stared straight ahead at another 80s magazine photo juxtaposition.
But he says to me anyway, as I’m shuffling away, and quite pointedly:
“Ah, beautiful nudes, aren’t they?”