Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Six Eyes Are Better Than Two

In high school I spent a few weeks making out with a kid who thought he was Hunter S. Thomson. He carried his little reporters' notebook everywhere and wrote longwinded accounts of his mushroom trips at Stinson Beach. He also wrote a thing or two about me, as I learned when I caught a glimpse of his notebook one day:
It had everything to do with Linz, her beauty, wit, intelligence, artistry…I wanted to see what was behind this front that Niko and Matt tell me about.

There was something immensely satisfying in knowing that the gonzo-wannabe was thinking about me during his sessions of brow-furrowed scribbling; in a way, reading his notebook was even more satisfying than making out with him had been. He didn't know how to do anything worthwhile to my body, and even if he had, I wouldn't have known how to let him. So why did I bother?

As a means for delivering physical pleasure, our sex (or whatever it was) was unreliable. What it could deliver with remarkable success was the pleasure of feeling another's gaze on me. The making out had been mostly a game of imagining how the gonzo saw me: when I smile like this does he think I'm really enjoying myself? When I look off into the distance like that does he think I'm mysterious? With his notebook in hand, I was taking a shortcut straight into his head, seeing him seeing me without all the messy business of making out. And to top it off, these Niko and Matt characters had apparently thrown in their two cents too. It was like a gang-bang fantasy come true!

* * *

If there’s a motif in my writing on this blog so far, I think it’s this: that sex can make a girl feel split in two. It’s a phenomenon that affects me just as much now as it did at age 14, with the first boy who tried to do more than just kiss me—a yeshiva student in Israel, go figure. In that King David hotel room, and many times after, I slunk out of my body and watched from the sidelines, mocking his fruitless probing as a way to distract from my own feelings of awkwardness and inexperience.

And while I might not feel so awkward and inexperienced anymore, there is still sometimes a vast chasm between what my body is doing and what I’m actually feeling. It’s an acidic, persistent soliloquy that won’t shut up, that mocks and yawns and ultimately inscribes a circle of myself around whomever I’m with, so that our interaction is limited to the points where our bodies physically touch.

They say that for women, sex and attraction are all about being the object of a gaze. As Berger wrote: “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at." If this is true, it means I look out from at least three sets of eyes during sex: not just my own, but also from my partners' eyes, looking back at me (like with gonzo), and from those mocking eyes that watch from the sidelines (like on that hotel bed in Israel). I may go into sex as a unified self, but somewhere in the middle my perspectives and experiences fracture.

There's another activity besides sex that splits me into multiple selves: writing. Writing is a trick that I can't really play on myself unless I pretend I'm at least two different people. I'll write a few paragraphs from the perspective of that sex-spectator, cool and detached and utterly unsentimental, talking down to silly little me putting on a show for a boy. Then I'll read it again, this time imagining I'm the boy reading what I've written about him; then I'm someone else I've slept with, or someone I want to, or someone who intimidates me or whom I admire.

In this sense, isn't there something inherently feminine about writing? As a woman interacting with men, I’m very aware of myself as being seen—I see myself not only through my own eyes, but also through an imagined pair of male eyes. And isn’t writing a similar exercise? Don’t writers write for readers?

Even the gonzo, in his writing, was caught up with being seen—when we were making out, I could feel his gaze on me, but there was something narcissistic in the way he wrote about seeing me. He’d make a point of carrying around his notebook everywhere, and leaving it open on coffee tables to pages he must have been particularly proud of. When I caught a glimpse of my name, he actually gave me permission to read what he’d written, and then watched intently as I read his words.

The act of writing for me is a performance for fabricated readers, and it’s rare that I get to behold the beholding, so to speak. I’m always imagining how readers will see me, but I know that some readers won’t see me at all; I showed my writing to someone who read it right in front of me and was clearly skimming, scanning the paragraphs for something familiar sounding, or references to himself, perhaps. Kind of like the way he was with me in bed.

But what happens when someone really reads my writing is beside the point—it's the control I have over the various imagined perspectives that makes me go rushing to my journal after unsettling sexual encounters. I may not have control over whether the men I’m involved with see me or not, and when I feel like they don’t, sex carries a twinge of loneliness. But if sex splits me in two, writing joins me back together again—and isn’t joining what sex is supposed to do anyway? Often it doesn’t, and when I’m left feeling the weight of everything my partner doesn’t know about me, writing is an opportunity to set the record straight—a kind of reconciliation.


  1. Its interesting because, well, how much performance do we engage in simply out of a desire or impulse to behold the beholding?

    And here you write about that, using two examples of performance that are, in many ways, on opposite ends of the spectrum. Writing is a performance in which you might not ever be aware of who, exactly, your audience is. And sex is, well, sort of the exact opposite--sometimes we might be all too aware.

    And yet there is an element of performance in each. Great post.

  2. I agree, excellent post. It asks me, what do we do that *isn't* intended for an audience? Such a private thing as a notebook can be written while looking-over-your-shoulder thinking of someone reading your words. And sometimes I feel myself turning over in my sleep but remaining conscious of how I look to him, should I stay on this side or will it look sweet if i put my leg on his. So then are we ever truly alone?

    I think sometimes, in the nose-picking self-talking bad-dancing moments we are the most honest, when we forget to imagine another's eyes looking on. And when those moments start to happen in someone's presence, that's a true intimacy.

  3. if that's the mir that i think it is, i'm not so surprised to find nose-picking included. :)

    Isn't the idea of being watched- and watching yourself be watched- partly why facebook is so successful? There's not just one, but two links at the top of Facebook to connect you to your own profile. Facebook isn't only about "stalking" and gossiping about other people, it's about controlling the way people watch you. You can carefully select how portray your relationship style, choose to tell people exactly what you are doing, and hand pick photos of your life. It's the ultimate in looking at yourself and manipulating how other people look at you- because if you're on facebook, you know that they are.

  4. This. This is quite good.