A Different Idea
AT THE BAR. I’m talking about love. I’m talking about how I’m bringing love into critical thought. I’m full of shit. I’m using the word “radical”. I’m saying that to love under capitalism, to really love, is a radical act. I’m talking about creating a school of critical thought that is based on love and compassion and also on joy. I believe this, actually, but I don’t want to be saying it out loud.
Bringing the loving ethic into literary criticism, I hear myself say, creates a gaze that is restorative. I didn’t mean restorative. I think I meant transformative. I can’t remember. It doesn’t matter. The person I’m subjecting to all of this doesn’t care. He’s looking at me as if I’m the first person to ever say these things.
I’m quoting Maggie Nelson. I’m saying: And we have not yet heard enough, if anything, about the female gaze. About the scorch of it. With the eyes staying in the head.
It’s about embodiment, I tell him when he asks me what it means, the female gaze remains lodged in the body. The mind is not elsewhere. When you are a woman, I say, even your limbs become watchful. Something shifts in his eyes and I realize he thinks that this is sexy. That he is now, perhaps, thinking of my limbs, bared. I have a terrible premonition that he is the kind of man who will, before we have sex, say something like, shall we engage in a radical act?
He asks me why the male gaze isn’t lodged in the body. I am sick of talking about these things. I want him to say something crude to me like, you’ve got a great ass.
It’s lodged inside someone else’s body, I say, that’s why.
The scorch of this female gaze, I think, is an inward thing. It doesn’t scorch its object, does it? I look at him, right at him, in his eyes, imagining that I am looking at the very core of him. He touches my arm. He is confident, which is why I’m here. He doesn’t mind being in control. He didn’t text me all day and then, two hours before we were supposed to meet he told me where to be. I’m not going to go, I thought when I first saw his text.
I feel like I am saying the lines I learned a long time ago. My friend used to make fun of me because for a couple of months I kept talking about crop rotation, and deforestation. After that it was necrophilia, because I’d read some essay on it where the writer talked about whether a corpse had gender or not and whether necrophilia was a queer act, even if committed with a corpse of the opposite sex. Whatever. It worked. For a while I used to tell men that I hated films. I talked about astrology. Was I trying to prove something? The whole thing had started to feel like a simulation.
He asks if I want to go for a cigarette. Yes. We smoke. I imagine the female gaze like a face with cigarette-ends for eyes, flaring orange. He says, you’re really beautiful. I make an unintelligible motion towards him with my hand. Thank you, I say.
Later, back at my flat, we sit at the little table and drink mugs of whiskey and hot water. There are green tulips on the table, still shut tight. He reaches out and touches one, squeezes it so that it puckers at the end, a bit of pink showing through. Oh, I say, I thought they would be orange.
They’re definitely not, he says, squeezing another one. Stop it, I tell him. He doesn’t. He pries the tulip open and one of its petals fall to the table. Stop it, I repeat. He looks at me, surprised. Oh, he says, have I made you angry? He is smiling.
He stands up. He finishes his drink and he says, let’s sit on the couch. On the couch we start kissing. It is happening too fast. I’m naked and lying there and he’s touching me and I’m saying slowly, go slowly, in a kind of pleading tone of voice, slowly, slowly and then finally he says I can’t go any slower.
After, we lie in bed on our sides, facing each other. He fiddles with the ends of my hair. He says, look, do you think we could make this more serious? I am lying trapped between him and the wall. I force myself to look at him. I hate you, I think. I’m not joking.
I don’t know, I say. He looks a little sad. I don’t want this. I want to be in love. I want to be danced to the end of love. I should know better than that. I don’t think I’m the one, I say and he laughs. There is a stranger in my bed. He touches my nipple. I want to turn away from him and roll into a little ball but I don’t, I just lie there, breathing.
Think about it, he says. I lie there and think about my heart beating, my lungs working, patched like old velvet, my liver, distilling toxins. I fall asleep quickly.
He is awake before me, showering. He has left the door open so my room is heavy with steam. When he comes out he is naked, drying his hair with my towel. He looks at me, his eyes narrow and hard. He asks, am I alright? And I say yes, why?
There was so much negative energy coming off you last night, he says, it gave me bad dreams. I laugh and look away from him. He sits at the end of the bed. His body looks soft and slouched, like that of an older man.
This isn’t really what I thought it would be, he says. His voice is light, as if he is making a joke.
I’m sorry, I say.
And it’s true. I stare up at the ceiling, my arms folded across my chest. I hear him stand, pick up his clothes and shake the creases from them. I hear his keys, his belt buckle. I turn onto my side. My pillow smells like him. We look at each other. I ask him if he wants a coffee and he says yes. I get up and put my robe on and he follows me into the kitchen, leaning back against the counter and watching me as I grind the beans.
What do you want me to say? I ask him.
I don’t know, he says, looking down.
We sit at the little table together and drink our coffee. We talk about the things we have to do that day. I have a headache. I’m not going to do anything. Please leave, I think.
At the door he gives me a hug and then, pulls away and says, you know, you’re not really a very loving person.
I’m trying, I say back, quietly, even though what he has said has made me so angry that I am imagining scratching into his face, starting with the thin skin underneath his eyes.
You’ve got some work to do, he says. He flicks his eyes up and down my body. He is dismissing me. I don’t say anything to him. I shut the door.
Alone, I light a stick of opium-scented incense and walk from room to room waving it slowly around. I change into sweatpants and a sweatshirt. I put Odd Future on. I sit on the sofa. You’re okay, I think, your life is okay.
Jessie Widner is a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh. Her work has appeared in The Blue Mountain Review, Adjacent Pineapple, and Adelaide Magazine. She lives in Edinburgh.