This story will start in a short bit, but first I have to explain why it is a day late and will be a page short. This weekend, I am spending my time with a handful of great writer-colleauges at a retreat mentored by the prolific fiction author Percival Everett and poet Philip Bryant. It is a great time talking—sharing with them. We are laughing our heads off and getting filled with more stories that we wish we could all write ourselves—and listening to our new friends find that we don’t have to write all these stories ourselves.
The color of the weekend tells me how pale my telling of this weeks story is, that I cannot do it justice—and that many of the things I have written here in this forum are waiting for more color, texture, flavor and sounds that will want readers to linger with the stories and hopefully share more of their own.
And I don’t know why this story came to mind—seemingly unfortunately, early in this morning. Unfortunate, only because I know it is important, especially to one friend of mine, but I do not have the mental space to give it justice today, with so many other writing projects that are filling my days, my note book and the many conversations that my co-Givens Retreat Fellow, story-telling voices are too eager to join. For most of the weekend, my mind has been somewhere else, on other issues, other things about which we must write—and I will tell you more about this experience in coming days. But at the moment, I have to get out at least the notes for this story. And maybe you will fill in the color. Maybe you will fill in the details from your own life movie. The story is not uncommon.
This is a story of my friend E who called me one summer evening, tears of hurt and anger filling the stream of rant I heard as she told me, “Can you belief what he just did?!?!” She said she was, “So mad,” and with the sounds and tones I could tell that the outstretched arms of the tallest basketball player where not long enough to show just how mad “so mad” was.
I don’t know how to tell the story and in a real sense, it is not my story to tell, or at least tell the best so that it means what it needs to mean. It seems so awkward, painfully awkward that I have trouble getting it out. It is that her boyfriend had just helped her put in a large air conditioner in her apartment. After, he said something to the effect that he should now “get his reward,” as in she should give him sex.
I was not thinking of it that way. I thought, for sure, he was just having tongue-in-cheek fun in their intimate space, a little play in that is a part of noticing the space that two lovers occupy to figure out if they will make love now, later or spend that moment in each others’ space in some other way—or spend a moment apart. It was hard to imagine that he was thinking in those terms. It was not hard for her.
And the more I listened, the more I knew I just needed to listen to her and how she felt. The more I listened, that night and in later days, I realized that maybe he really did expect sex for service.
The more I listened, the more I saw that her anger was deeper than the absurd implication that sharing her body was worth help with the air conditioner. I listened, that night and over weeks and months enough to realize that while it might not have been solely the help with the air conditioner that he was offering—that he was holding out other things: THINGS and was asking for her love, her body and sex.
He is a wealthy man. But for most of their relationship, she resisted having him buy things for her, do things for her, buy her. She was as fierce about paying attention to not setting up a dynamic where he expected sex because he paid for stuff, a dynamic that I increasingly became aware was part of his psyche. She avoided it as strongly as I avoid having woman friends do any of my cleaning, especially girlfriends… because it harkens to another dynamic that doesn’t cast the roll of women duly. (My mother may not have won the battle to get her son to do a good job taking care of his house, she, and other influential people in my life, have taught me well that it is not the job of some woman to take care of house cleaning for me.)
When I see her, some days, she is very plain looking and on others strikingly stunning—or stunningly striking—and as I say this the redundancy of either phrase is not lost on my, but the emphasis is intentional. And it should not matter and I would not mention it, because in the most critical and final analysis, it is irrelevant.
What is not irrelevant is how she feels about how she looks, how others contribute to her sense of beauty—or detract from it, and, more importantly, her sense of her own humanity. As one of the girlchildren of our society, she feels the urgency of establishing her sense of worth, power of her sexuality and the human care that needed to take care of both. She knows the passing and the intimate gazes that will evaluate her as not pretty enough just as well as they will trigger the desire to make love to her. She is aware that this gaze will often come with an attitude of male supremacist entitlement, that the few bread crumbs off his plate of power and goods are sufficient payment for what is most precious.
E is not wealthy. She is one of the millions of people in our country who are very challenged to keep health insurance. She has a resume that, while is shows fast and deep talents, puts her in line for employment that barely keeps in her tiny apartment and in a nifty but old car. Those things are important. Health. Home. Job. Money. Those are things about which she worries and things she knows she could make less of a worry with a man who would buy that security for her. For her, for all of us, that price is seen when she looks in the mirror each morning and has tells herself what she is worth.
Not sure why I am thinking about this story now. Maybe it is because I am communing with a group of articulate, smart, creative people, all of them with black bodies, all of us who know what it is like to have our bodies, our image subjected to alternately an object of hatred and desire—and often experiencing those as one in the same.
Still, this is not my story to tell. It is hers to tell with more color and truth and clarity. It is hers to tell in a way that tells me why she was mad enough to spit profanity, what it is that is so important that it is an issue of protecting ones sense of self.
She tells it in a way that reminds me that I want to be beautiful, for that to be acknowledged and to have the people in my life respond with their beauty. E tells me she knows and has to remember she’s worth a whole lot more and tells me with a melody that give it meaning. I hear her. We know.
For now, back to the task of Sisyphus.