My nearly naked head has been ripe for conversation since the first time I put clippers to it, nearly seven years ago. On Friday, xoJane published the story of my decision to shear down. Read it here:
I recently entered a Weight Watchers-sponsored contest called, “You Only Live Once,” where I described a bucket-list dream, one that is possible only now that I am a healthy weight.
I had two. One, to dance in Senegal with my instructor Idy Ciss. The other, to dance Alvin Ailey Workshop classes in New York.
I didn’t win. But clearly the universe heard my desire as I am about to walk into a 90-minute Master Class with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater – Artist Date 66.
I feel a little bit like Jennifer Beals in Flashdance. A self-identified outsider taking another step inside the sometimes seemingly-closed world of dance.
I notice the opportunity a few weeks ago while purchasing tickets for the Ailey shows. The class lists as intermediate, and I hope my six years of West African instruction will qualify me.
Three days before the workshop I get a call from the Auditorium Theatre requesting payment. I am in.
I am over the moon.
And now, standing at the studio doorway, I feel I should be more nervous than I am. But as I told my dear friend the night before, “The worst that happens is they say, ‘You suck. Please sit down.’ ”
I can live with that.
Inside I meet Kristen. She recognizes me from the Ailey shows earlier in the week – seeing me pin a slip of paper to a board in the lobby reading, “How Does Alvin Ailey inspire you?”
“To Dance. No matter how badly.” I scrawl.
Today I will get my opportunity.
There are about a dozen of us here. I am the oldest by at least 15 years. Surprisingly, this lends me a sense of calm and confidence, which I do not question.
We are joined by company member, Antonio Douthit-Boyd. He appears to be wearing slippers on his feet – quilted booties. I wonder where he is coming from as it is snowing outside.
He moves quickly through the warm up. Much more quickly than I am used to. I breathe and do what I can. So far so good.
He moves across the floor, making adjustments to each dancer’s movements and posture. “Widen your legs. Go lower now. Keep your balance. See.” “Jut your hip first. Muuuch more movement. Excellent.”
He comes to me. I do not avert my eyes, hoping he will not notice me, in case I am doing it wrong. I smile at him.
“Beautiful flat back,” he says, touching the space between my wings. I lower into the squat – legs wide, and come up on to my toes. Antonio meets my outstretched arms with his own, our fingertips touching. My legs are shaking. I struggle to balance. “Good,” he says.
The other dancers have had significantly more training than I. It is clear. Ballet. Jazz. Modern. They nod knowingly to the terms Antonio throws out. And more importantly, they can execute them. I am in over my head. Kind of. But I just keep moving. Smiling. Trying to mimic the other dancers.
I notice that I am not frustrated. I am not angry. I do not stop.
I do not ask Antonio to slow down and bring the class to my level. I do not burst into tears.
I have done all of these things previously.
I am not jealous or envious. I notice the beauty of the dancers. Their bodies. What they can do.
I am amazed by my response.
I am equally amazed that I occasionally “nail it.”
Moving across the floor – a quick, leg-cross-over-leg, jazz step. Hips wagging. I think of Harry Detry, another of my teachers at the Old Town School, calling out over the drums, “Shake your babaloo!” “Sell it!”
I am “selling it.” And I know it. Antonio does too, clapping, “Yes! Yes! That’s it.”
But the final movement has me stymied. Leap, cross over, lift the other leg, turn, lift the other leg, jump. Or something like that.
I am not even close.
No one cares. No one is watching me. They are watching themselves. I am free.
And in that freedom, I see the pattern that will keep my body in constant motion. Give me my momentum. Right leg back, left leg back, right leg back, left leg back.
It is. But I still don’t have it.
A couple more times across the floor and I might. But it doesn’t matter. I risked being “the worst.” And by all accounts, I was. But I don’t feel like it. Not even close. Just less trained.
Pulling on my jeans, my body feels different. My pelvis is open. Open – I could drop a baby out of me with a single squat – open. I like it.
It is the ballet, I am certain of it. The one type of dance I never consider.
I do not have a ballet body, I tell myself. I don’t even know what that is. It is an excuse.
And I am out of excuses.
I consider it.
I am a second tenor.
So says Steven, who I met on Thursday at the Palette and Chisel, at the opening before the opening of my friend Errol’s art show, “City” – Artist Date 49.
Steven is a member of the Chicago Gay Men’s Chorus – the beneficiary organization of 20 percent of tonight’s sales. He is introduced to me by the Kent, the Executive Director, who is introduced to me by Stephanie, Errol’s partner.
We are chatting when he gets the nod that it is show time. He grabs my hand and says, “Come on, let’s go.”
“I don’t sing.” I protest, remembering my friend Teresa insisting the same when she was asked to audition for Beach Blanket Babylon in San Francisco. “Can’t you just belt something out?” So she did – the theme song to the Flintstones. She didn’t make it past the first verse.
“Of course you do,” Steven says. “You are a second tenor.”
He does not push further, but instead, joins his colleagues at the piano.
When he finishes, I ask him how he knows I am a second tenor. “Easy.” Everyone who claims to not sing is a second tenor. It is an easy range to sing, he explains. And there are lots of them – second tenors – so it is easy to be one among many.
I love the idea of me – a straight, Jewish girl who can’t carry a tune – surrounded by gay men singing Christmas carols. It seems somehow “right,” although certainly not congruent to the notion of “one among many.” I have weaseled my way into more unlikely settings. But I am pretty certain he was jesting.
He reminds me of the chorus’ upcoming holiday shows, and invites me to come watch open rehearsals on Sunday afternoons – both potential Artist Dates (Stephanie mentioned my practice to Steven and Kent when she introduced us) – then warmly takes my hand in his and bids me adieu.
Tonight is actually the second Artist Date Stephanie has “invited” me to– the first being her and Errol’s home in Bucktown, which was highlighted in a garden walk this past summer. I am humbled and touched by her interest.
However, I notice that tonight, unlike most of my previous Artist Dates, stirs up very little in terms of thoughts, emotions and memory. I am decidedly – without having made a decision – present.
I notice the chicken satay and Vietnamese spring rolls. The brownies and fruit pastries from Alliance Bakery. All of which I avoid.
The mild flirtation from the bartender who tells me I look like a character from a show on A&E. “But much better looking,” he says. I smile and tell him I do not have a television.
Errol’s paintings. So much rain. Like tiny kaleidoscopes sliding down windshields. It is wet outside tonight. And cold. Winter is coming.
I am drawn to the saturated colors of “Backlit,” “Shadows” and “Days End.” Purples and Yellows. And I tell him so.
My friend Dina asks if I recognize where “Backlit” is painted. I do not.
It is Paris.
She can tell from the roofline, she explains, using a fancy term I don’t know to describe the classically Parisian use of attics.
Dina lived in Paris 30 or so years ago. I always imagined I would live there. Or New York. Or that I still might. They feel familiar to me – they always have. And I’ve never been lost in either one.
Yet, right now in this moment, I feel no desire to be anywhere but Chicago. In spite of its cold, dark, rainy-ness.
I am driving my friend Leslie home and I mention that the man I asked out for coffee via Facebook has not responded. It has been more than two days and I am surprised by his lack of contact. It seems out of character. Mostly because I think he is a man, and not a boy. I am a little disappointed, but nothing more. I’ve made no investment. The crush diminishes.
“And then there were none,” I tell her.
And for once, I don’t mind.
Up until now, life without some sort of love interest felt sad. Somehow lacking. The crush, the flirtation, gave me a sense of hope. Of possibilities.
But I don’t feel sad right now. Absent is the familiar pain stemming from the fear that I will be alone.
Frankly, I am a little stunned. I am afraid to give this experience a voice. That I will jinx it.
All I know is, right now, my life feels full. With friends. With art. With possibilities. And I am, blessedly, not particularly troubled by what I lack. And by moments too far ahead.
It is as it was promised to me, that I would find contentment where I am right now. Content in my role as a second tenor. One among many. Easy.
This woman is wearing a knit hat, striped in colors of the Rastafarian flag. It was a gift from a woman in Australia, while she was in Australia. A woman who fed this woman lunch and beers but accepted no payment. Her listening to the stories she was regaled with was payment enough.
She flew to Australia following the demise of a relationship. Seems it is what she does. Camping in the Outback. Hiking in Wales. Meditating on a mountain outside of Tokyo.
She is standing on a small stage in Rogers Park talking about it. Coming clean, as it were.
Artist Date 45.
My friend Clover will also be reading and performing a piece . It is about her mother. About art school and being a performer. About helping a man across the street who has fallen and everyone around him just keeps moving as if this hasn’t happened and the universe calls upon her to play the part of his angel.
There is a third. Eric. Who will talk about his need to go to a place where his father had been. The father he didn’t know. And then he did. But who he never really knew. And is now dead.
But right now I’m watching Jennifer. I know her name because I looked it up in the program, which is black and white. Folded but not stapled. And reads, “The Kindness of Strangers: A Festival of Storytelling.”
And then, “A 3-week rotating mix of more than 30 storytellers weaving tales of connecting, or not, with strangers.” The words encircled by drawings, like a globe – buildings, a boat and a lighthouse, water.
I want to be this woman with a knit hat and a beer-stained hiking map, marked up by pub patrons who laugh each time she says the word “garbage.” This woman who takes off on serious adventures – by herself – when love goes south. When the re-bound from the break up proves not to be the antidote to her pain. Who is standing on this tiny stage telling her story.
I want to be that brave. To travel alone. Even though I’ve done it – albeit briefly — and my experience is that solo travel is most satisfying when it is connected to purpose. And people. Like my volunteer trips to Rwanda and the South of France.
I want a rebound. Even though it has been suggested I don’t date. Even though I have probably been divorced too long for anything to be called a rebound. And my short-lived dalliances, both emotional and physical, have been painful to the extreme.
Even though my experience of being alone this past year has brought me closer to myself. My craft. My writing. The very thing that might put me on stage.
I am comparing my insides to someones outsides once again. Devaluing my own experience when confronted with someone seemingly doing what I think I’d like to do. What I think I should do.
I well up listening to her. While the details are different, I recognize the story as my own.
I see pieces of my story in Eric’s too. Reconnecting with a parent who was physically absent for so many years. His through desertion. Mine through adoption. Losing them again. And what is left. For him, a ring. For me, a pair of opera glasses and a too-big mink coat, her name embroidered on the inside, hanging in my closet.
But I do not see myself in Clover’s story.
I’m not even looking, let alone comparing. It is not that I am not interested. I am. I am teary, ass-glued-to-the-seat, riveted.
Maybe it is because I know her story. Her stories. She has trusted me with them over the years.
Her mother selling her art work, without her consent, as payment to her therapist. Lying down in the street in downtown Chicago when the light is turned red. A classroom performance piece. The ants that crossed in front of her mattress, on the floor, in the basement of her mother’s friend’s house, in the toniest part of upstate New York.
And I have trusted her with mine. They are less the same. But our feelings, and our responses, match perfectly. This is where we found our “me too’s.”
Like I am just now doing with Jennifer. With Eric. Connecting with strangers – who may or may not become more than that. (Turns out, I have danced with Eric’s girlfriend on and off for years. I’m pretty sure I’ll see both of them again.) The place of beginning.
Part of the “uniform” of my 20s was a black, suede backpack. I was living in San Francisco, but bought it at St. Mark’s Place in New York. Its contents varied depending on where I was going, but two things were a constant– condoms and a portable toothbrush.
These two items collectively served as a reminder that I was ready for anything. And that the world was full of possibilities. A sort of slutty message of hope.
I’m not in my 20s anymore.
And yet, I’ve been carrying around a handful of condoms in my bag – tucked into a zippered case, attached on a string – ever since my ex asked me for a divorce last May.
My friend Mary Kate noticed them last week when I was leaving her house, as I was pulling my keys out of the zippered case. I saw her glance. Not in a nosy way… just following my hands.
I told her about the black backpack. San Francisco. The condoms and the toothbrush. How I felt like anything was possible.
I also told her I felt like a 14-year-old boy who carries around a condom for so long that his wallet is now imprinted with a circle. But that carrying them somehow reminded me that I’m ready. Like a Boy Scout. “Because you never know where you are going to meet someone…”
She laughed. She always laughs – it is one of her more charming qualities – and teasingly said, “Right. You’ll just meet some guy, bring him home and sleep with him?”
She already knew the answer. So did I.
Once upon a time, “Yes.” But not anymore.
Not because I’ve had an ideological shift. It’s not a question of morals. Never has been. Just the painful awareness – which I’ve written about at length – that I am not capable of casual. And the guidance I’ve been given to avoid the manufacture of my own misery.
I learned that with Mr. Thursday Night last spring. And with the Southern Svengali in the fall.
It’s not about the sex. (Because we didn’t have sex.) It’s not about ridiculously-devilishly-handsome good looks. (Although both of them possessed those.)
It’s the connection. The energy. The emotional intimacy. That’s the turn on…and what ultimately brings me to a physical connection. I thought it was always my body moving too fast. But really it’s my mouth. My ears. My heart.
I mentioned this conversation to a friend the next day. She asked if it had occurred to me that every time I open that zippered case – which is several times a day, as I keep my keys in there also – I remind myself of the sex I am not having. Or, more to the point, of the intimacy – both physical and emotional – that I do not have in my life right now.
It had not.
The deliberate manufacturing of my own misery.
She continued speaking but I heard little of what she said as I was stuck on this new idea. I unzipped the pouch, pulled out the sleeve of condoms, walked into my bedroom and put them in the drawer next to my bed. All the while, she kept talking.
“I just took them out of my bag,” I interrupted.
I added that should I find myself in the position where I “just have to have sex, right here, right now,” I can go to a Walgreens – most of them are open 24/7.
“Perhaps that would serve as a pause,” she replied.
It’s been a little over a week since I took the condoms out of my bag. And the world still feels full of possibilities.
Epilogue: In taking photographs for this blog, I noticed that the condoms had expired. I promptly tossed them in the trash.
I remember what I was wearing that day. A tight pink and white striped “French sailor” t-shirt from Old Navy, with buttons along the boat neck. Too loose, Army-green cigarette pants from Target, purchased prior to my ex asking me for a divorce – before the weight slipped off of me, seemingly overnight. A thin, woven belt, and my yellow peep-toe wedges with ankle straps.
I felt like a page torn from Glamour –“Great Looks for less than $50,” or something like that. Minus the shoes. The shoes would put me “over budget.”
The shoes always put me over budget.
“What calls for the most care in a woman’s costume is unquestionably the foot gear and the gloves.”
The words are stenciled on a wall at the Art Institute of Chicago, along with numerous other pithy statements about dress. I am here for a member lecture and pre-viewing of “Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity” – Artist Date 28.
Sometimes I feel light, superficial, because I am delighted by statements like Joanne’s. I feel that it should not matter.
And yet, I am at a show that has toured the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Musee d’Orsay in Paris before landing in Chicago, a show that is focused on fashion. Earlier this year I saw another, “Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair,” at the Chicago History Museum.
I consider that, perhaps, how I choose to cover my body might not be a simple matter of practicalities and aesthetics. That fashion – how we dress ourselves, individually and as a culture – is in fact, a statement of sorts. A reflection of time, mood, politics. Think hemlines rising as the economy upticks.
Or, as Gloria Groom, the show’s curator says in her lecture, “clothing is not fashion.”
The exhibit is bursting with paintings and sketches. Advertising, bits of clothing and accessories. Bustles, corsets, shoes. Costumes for walking the boulevards of Paris. For going to the sea.
“As fashion was an integral part of Paris’ character, some places – the boulevard, parks, racetracks and theatres – were constructed with the idea of it’s well-dressed pubic in mind.”
Groom ends her lecture with a joke, a “warning.” That those experiencing a bad hair day, clothing day, face day, might do well to avoid the exhibit. That mirrors and reflective surfaces abound.
I am standing in front of a collection of hats. Fifty or more. jeweled. Feathered. Contained in a single square of plexiglass spanning floor to ceiling. I see myself admiring the millinery. Recognizing one that reminds me of the hat I wore at my wedding. I mention this to the woman standing next to me. She asks me about it.
It is made of tightly woven straw, pinned up into corners, decorated with ribbon flowers and glass fruit. I had to have it.
I do not mention I am divorced. It does not feel germane. We are talking about hats. This is progress.
My marital status creeps in later, standing in front of an Edouard Manet painting of Nina de Callais, called “Lady with Fans.” She is lying on her side, looking straight into the camera. If there were a camera. Her eyes are big, dark, open.
She is dressed in black, but she is not mourning. She is wearing jewelry. If she were in mourning she would not be, Groom explains. Groom adds that de Callais is divorced. That perhaps she is “re-baiting the trap.”
The placard next to the painting notes that de Callais was known for hosting salons of writers and artists.
A woman next to me says, to no one in particular, “She is ugly.” I do not agree. “Don’t you think she looks and sounds like fun?” I say.
“Perhaps. But she is ugly. At least she is painted that way.”
I say nothing. Like my friend Julie says, “You can’t argue with crazy.”
I wonder if I am re-baiting the trap. Maybe. Not long after I moved back to town, my friend Tori commented that I dressed differently – sexier, more body-conscious. I wasn’t conscious of it. But now I am.
There are corsets. Boudoir paintings showing seductively naked shoulders and upper backs, napes of necks teasingly exposed.
“A woman in a corset is a lie, a falsehood, a fiction. But for us, fiction is better than reality.”
I think of a party I attended in San Francisco in the mid- 1990s. There is a poster of the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, circa 1976, hung in the bathroom. By today’s standards, and even those of almost 20 years ago, the women – once considered the pinnacle of beauty in America – would be seen as flabby, soft. Their breasts, saggy. Their thighs, heavy.
Like the photograph of Marilyn Monroe that was recently popular on Facebook. She’s in a yellow bikini. Boy short bottoms. Tie halter top (I covet this suit.). She is reclining. Folds of skin naturally line up across her belly in horizontal rows.
I have folds across my belly.
I am acutely aware of the phenomenon of Photoshop. Of airbrushing. That no celebrity would willingly allow this photograph to surface. But that it might show up in The Star or The Inquirer, with a headline like “Monroe Hits Maximum Density.”
It is a little after 4. I have given myself an hour to tour the exhibit. It is not long enough. I have somewhere to be.
I want to stay and stare at the woman in the Frederic Bazille family reunion painting. The one in the polka-dot dress staring out at me. Her face is sweet. It is shaped like mine.
I want to take off my shoes and run my feet through the fake grass covering the floor in the Plein Air (open air) room.
I want to scroll through Henri Somm’s sketchbook, digitally brought to life.
I want to see the related exhibits: “Undressed: The Fashion of Privacy” and “Fashion Plates: 19th-Century Fashion Illustrations.”
I return home and there is a message from my friend Joanne. A different Joanne. She was at the lecture too. She saw me. I saw her. But we didn’t see each other seeing one another. She says, “You looked lovely in that dress.”
I wonder what this dress – its halter-style, plunging neckline and flirty skirt, covered in large red and navy flowers – says. Is it a sign of optimism, worn the day before the Supreme Court overturns the Defense of Marriage Act? Or is it nothing more than a response to a sticky, summer day in Chicago?