Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Worst Birthday Present I Never Got

I was 18 years old, wispy and wanton and supple, and having sex with TWO, who barely seemed to notice me on him. He’d smile contentedly, let his eyelids fall closed, and look a little like he was lying on a lounge chair at the beach. I was in a different world perched there atop him, and I knew it.

When we were new, he politely declined my inaugural offering of a blowjob ("eh, I just don't really like them"), and I had to go down on my hands and knees to convince him otherwise. I knew I was dealing with a different creature entirely than ONE, who had to pull over on the drive home from school every day to have me before his homework.

TWO, as I’ve mentioned, was complacent about sex. Curiously, he was also the boyfriend who’d slept with so many girls he couldn’t remember the number. But maybe these things go hand in hand.

He was an incredible cook, and he’d make lavish meals for me: hand-rolled sushi and home-fried tempura. Ice cream with candied lavender petals that I helped him brush with egg white and dust with sugar.

He was also a DJ, and I’d follow him around Amoeba for hours as he buzzed through the aisles with a spring in his step, his face contorting in pleasure with each surprising discovery. When we got home, I’d watch from the couch as he stood at his turntables, his long neck arching gracefully beneath the weight of fat headphones, his long fingers pulling rhythmically at the vinyl.

Sometimes I would quiz him: Sex or music? Music. Sex or sushi? Sorry babe, I’ll take the latter.

* * *

For weeks preceding my 19th birthday, TWO hinted that he had some sort of secret surprise, some secret sexual surprise for me. When the day finally came, he took me out to sushi and then back to his place where we sat on the couch with his younger brother. The two of them rolled joint after joint and blazed in front of late-night cartoons. I grew tired and bitter as I sensed my secret birthday surprise slipping away.

I’d been delighted for weeks with the thought of my sexually complacent boyfriend plotting for my pleasure, but now: oh what a letdown. No mention, even. Wordlessly, but with a glare shot his direction in the dark, I climbed up into his lofted bed and tried to sleep. When he finally climbed into bed and I asked him about the surprise, he taunted me with “What surprise?” and said it like I was some sex-fiend, like I was his pet teenage girlfriend with the big ugly sex drive hanging down like hairy oversized balls.

Still wispy and wanton and supple but now 19, I fell asleep in a sexless loft saturated in birthday disappointment, and shamed by my stoned boyfriend's taunt.

* * *

I’ve had my share of guys who were a little mean, but what TWO did to me that night still feels like one of the meanest things anyone has ever done to me. No one else has put my desire in the spotlight like that, just to throw rotten tomatoes at it.

For all its immaturity, my relationship with ONE had taught me that sex was something fun and joyful—something almost innocent in its purity of purpose. But this understanding was torn at the seams with TWO. Whether he meant it or not, our desire disparity left me with self-doubt and him with a valuable resource in a relationship: Power.

Power plays weren’t on my mind back with ONE—maybe because I so thoroughly and effortlessly controlled the game. And even though I wouldn’t realize it until later, ONE taught me how power is exercised by giving (daily coitus on the side of the road). TWO taught me how power is exercised—even by men—by withholding.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

On Curiosity & Boredom

Oh, to be in bed with someone new! The curiosity, the suspense, the surprise and the delight. The way his mannerisms translate now that neither of you have any clothes on. Because you just knew when you saw him walk like that or laugh like that or smile askew at you like that—you just knew he'd be fun, and you were right.

And the fun is so particular! Each fuck is a sparkling discovery: of tics and looks and laughs transformed, familiar but strange. The transformation of voices is especially acute. Once you've heard someone's sex-voice, they never sound the same. FOUR had such a lovely voice, with rounded words, like intricate hollow objects, or piping with water trickling through. And TWO had a toy box voice, a pop-goes-the-weasel voice, with all sorts of crackling surprises that made me blush and demur and look on in awe.

This is what gives me the most pleasure: to experience someone in all their specificity. Everyone's styles so deliciously different: I didn't know that a person could be like that! And their being constitutes a whole new take on life, a whole new life.

* * *

As a kid, when something funny made me burst into hysterics, it was always followed by a shot of panic: what if that's the last funny thing that happens, ever? What if nothing makes me laugh this hard again?

When I got a little older, the end of a sexual relationship left me with the same fear: what if I never have sex with anyone new? What if there's only a finite amount of newness in the world? Pretty soon I'll have discovered it all and be bored.

It's similar to a feeling I used to get lying awake in bed at night, paralyzed by the newfound realization of my mortality: I am finite. The things of this world are finite. Laughter and sex do not go on forever. Everything ends in death: the ultimate boredom.

* * *

Boredom, like death, can strike when you least expect it. I hardly knew FOUR when we began sleeping together—a first for me that should have guaranteed an endless stream of surprise and discovery. And it did, mostly. But sometimes I would catch a glance of something in his face that I recognized; it was the same face I first saw in ONE, and later recognized in TWO. A familiar something, neither attractive nor repulsive, but shocking for its banality.

Seeing this face obliterates my fixation on all those unique little features and mannerisms. You're nothing special, I think to myself. Seen you before, ages ago, a hundred times.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Don't Pin Me

When I was 19 and a counselor at summer camp, the thirty-something cook took a special interest in me. We'd stay up late talking in his tent and he'd dispense hard-hitting epithets on my character (We were also fooling around. Is that relevant?). I couldn't figure out how he had me pinned after only knowing me for a few short weeks, and I developed a sense of awe for what appeared to be great wisdom.

It wasn’t just me he had a knack for analyzing. He’d entertain me by going through our co-workers and pronouncing them this or that: Alpha-female. Type A. Or her parents didn’t love her enough. Or, she’s American, so of course she’s got no passion. Being in the company of such an astute observer was intimidating—at times it felt like he knew more about me than I did.

But then one night he tried to mock me for my supposed naiveté. “You’re just a giiiirl," he crooned. I protested, playfully at first. “Ok fine, you’re a WOMAN.” But that didn’t feel right either, and now I was annoyed. He kept trying to pin me down under his thumb and I kept slithering out; I could see he was struggling and it only made me more indignant.

I’m none of those things, I told him. Why can’t I just be Lindsay?

At first, his commentary had been chillingly accurate, and it made me want to believe everything he said. But now I saw how inconsistent his little pin-me game was, and I began to question whether he had ever really seen me.

It became increasingly clear that he had not—that he was incapable of authentic vision. The cook saw the world in terms of types, a strategy that allowed him to produce quick insight with limited information. The formula is simple: take a single observation, plug it into the appropriate category, and bingo: he’s an Achiever, she’s an Intellectual, or maybe a Creative—along with all the associated attributes.

But the same thing that allowed the cook to be so perceptive at times also prevented him from ever really seeing what was in front of him. Confronted with oddity or novelty, he consulted his mind’s library of archived experiences to help make an appropriate judgment.

This is what I think my favorite rhetoric professor in college was getting at when he talked about “seeing sameness.” A comment on one of my posts illustrates the utility of this mode of vision:
People (in mass) follow statistical patterns and can be described by generalizations, whereas individuals can't be. You don't need to make a new "sense" based on what could easily be a statistical outlier.

When you’re a physics grad student, like this dear little commenter is, it’s useful to streamline the process of seeing otherwise you’ll probably never get through the first steps of your experiments to look for variations in the fine structure constant. There will always be statistical outliers, and sometimes its best just to ignore them.

But when you’re seeing in terms of pre-established notions—seeing sameness, seeing what’s already happened—you’re not really seeing. And when we’re looking at art, or listening to music, or trying to really know a person, it's those statistical outliers that make a painting worth looking at, a song worth playing on repeat, or a person worth falling in love with.

We don’t always see what we’re expecting to see, and when that happens the temptation is to look away—to reach inside our heads for the Platonic ideal, and see that instead. But when we let go of preconceptions, we can look at a thing as totally individual and completely unique—not fitting into preexisting categories but forging new categories.

This is what I think my professor meant by seeing difference. It’s a way of seeing that’s interested in the features that distinguish an object, not the features that align it with some larger category. Seeing sameness is an act of gathering up the chaos of the world and organizing it into boxes. Seeing difference is making more chaos, doing away with overarching order. The only presumption it makes in looking at the world is that everything it encounters will be unique.

Maybe this is why I’ve never been able to identify with a political party. Those labels have never resonated for me; they feel like cages. They’re shortcuts, and though I'm aware of their usefulness, I want you to really see me, see me slowly and carefully and not call me a “giiiiirl” in a knowing drawl like that damn cook. Or a democrat. Or an intellectual. Or an achiever. Whatever. It sort of all feels the same.

I’m glad that other people can call themselves democrats and creatives and conservatives and introverts—really, I am—but it’s just not for me. Sorry.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

But I Didn't DO Anything!: On Womanhood, The Indigo Girls and Cockteasery

I've been listening to the Indigo Girls since elementary school, turned on by my best friend Sasha, who was turned on by her older sister Sarah. Sasha might insist that she came upon them independently, but either way, I still associate them with Sarah and the older-girl mystique she had: lipstick, high school, tampons, etc. I also associate them with summer days in Sasha's garden, and drives to Yosemite with the windows down when you get the first fresh breath of mountain air.

One thing I could never imagine is a guy turning on the Indigo Girls. If you happen to have one in the front seat of your car, a fun game is to blast the Indigo Girls and bask in your own girliness and try to catch them cringing. It's a good way to feel like a separate species from the thing sitting in the seat next to you. I've had boyfriends with a broad appreciation for music who insist that they think the Indigo Girls are great, but I'm not sure if I believe them, and even if I did, I'm quite certain that their appreciation does not run deep, like mine, like Sasha's, like Sarah's. When I turn on the Indigo Girls, it's because I want to hear the aural extension of a part of my soul that I'm pretty sure guys don't have.

***

I didn't identify with the Indigo Girls so strongly until I started having the kinds of experiences that once gave Sarah her worldly air. It offered a kind of escape for the times when I'd done too much and felt sullied. Their music takes me back to a world of prepubescent innocence—pre-guys, pre-sex. On second thought, this world isn't really pre-anything—unlike puberty, it's not a free-fall of teasing and flirting that finally culminates in the crash of intercourse. Boys are peripheral in this world; it's like an infinite extension of the peaceful afternoons I spent sitting in the garden with Sasha, licking sugar off lemons. Is this what Lesbianism is like? I wouldn't know, but I bet the Indigo Girls would.

***

There's one glaring exception for me to this theory of Indigo-girlhood Eden: Jonas & Ezekiel. The song is tribal sounding, rhythmic, heavy. Sasha put it on a mix tape for me that I played constantly on a family trip to Israel when I was 14, and so it was in my head when I found myself in the hotel room of a fellow young American Jew—Zach—whom I'd met by the pool. I was delighted with him when he flirted with me on the lounge chairs; I was in awe of myself as I sat on his lap on the swing set, my little sister watching from the adjacent swing. I imagined seeing myself in her eyes: old and experienced like Sarah had seemed to me. But I was far from experienced, and the half hour I spent in his hotel room left him unsatisfied, and me disgusted.

Apparently this is what they call a cock-tease. But I didn't do anything! Exactly.

As he fumbled with belt buckles and bra straps, I felt myself slithering out of my body and hovering near the ceiling over this mess of two teenagers. Look—he's doing this to her and he thinks she likes it. Idiot. When will this be over?

It was the first and most definitely not the last time I experienced the uncanny sensation of being two girls at once: the girl on the bed with her eyes half closed and her head tilted to the side in mock pleasure, and the girl in the air dispensing sardonic commentary on the coupling occurring below.

There is hardly any more lonely feeling.

Despite how icky the little tangle made me feel, I became fixated on it in the weeks that followed. I'd fast-forward my mix tape to Jonas & Ezekiel, close my eyes and let the drum beat and melody take me back to the hotel room and our awkward fumbling. With the music on, it was easier to recreate the scene in my head in impeccable detail: freckled shoulders, tucked-in sheets, the texture of the ceiling one that you could pull shapes out of—and I did.

It wasn't exactly what you'd call fantasizing, since the whole thing revolted me, but it was strangely similar…