The night Leonard Cohen died, I surprised myself by not feeling sad at all. I just put on the album I’ve been listening to since I was a kid, The Future. There was no threat of tears or melancholy; no emotion. I just let the nihilistic sensuality seduce me under and out of sight the way I did as far back as 2nd grade.
That night I thought of how artists like Leonard Cohen and H.R. Giger… men with such intense, unapologetic libidos and harrowing visions of the world… FASCINATED me as a child. The Future was the only Cohen album my parents had when I was a kid, and it went missing all the time… into my room.
Under my headphones, alone in the dark, I loved the delicious feeling that his overpoweringly masculine voice was corrupting me, telling me secrets I wasn’t supposed to know yet. I didn’t understand what the searing desire in his voice was for; I didn’t know what had made him so contemptuously hopeless, but it excited me like a glint of light down an obscured tunnel. I loved the feeling of being lured away from the walled gardens of my childhood into tall hedges filled with mysteries.
He would reference things like women hanging upside down, Stalin, apocalypses, repentance… hopeless sex on the edge of destruction. My 8-year-old brain didn’t know WHAT he was talking about but Leonard Cohen was the only adult who seemed likely to let me in on the secrets adults hide haphazardly from children. In the same way I would interrogate my uncomfortable French teacher about what blowjobs were, I would listen obsessively to Leonard Cohen’s music for clues that could fill out the dark edges of the shrouded adult world.
There’s even a line in “Closing Time” where he says “I lick my glass to the awful truth / Which you can’t reveal to the ears of youth / Except to say it isn’t worth a dime.” And I would think “That’s ME you can’t reveal it to! But goddamit I’m going to figure it out from this album whether you like it or not, Leonard!”
As a child I believed, but couldn’t confirm, that the secrets he was close to sharing were hidden somewhere in the music. And listening to these same songs as an adult, I realize that they ABSOLUTELY were. But I had to grow up and go through my own adult shit before I could decipher his meanings.
I would listen to “Waiting for the Miracle”, just as stirred by the too-intimate rumble of desire in his voice as with his thrilling, despairing lyrics. My skin still tingles like it did in fourth grade when he begins with that hungry “Baby, I’ve been waiting…”. I knew though, even in my innocence, that I was listening to something illicit and secret. My parents would play the album openly after dinner, probably thinking I was too young to understand anyways. But it was exactly my inability to understand him that would make me sneak the album into my room to listen to privately.
I discovered H.R. Giger a few years later when I was thirteen… a small book we had of his work disappeared just as quickly into my room. He was another artist who wore his boner on his sleeve, entirely unashamed of his nightmarish mind and perverted obsessions. I think both he and Leonard realized as young men that their internal landscapes were much too intense to repress, disguise, or water down.
Sex and arousal seemed like such a shameful secret to me as a child, and Cohen and Giger made me feel okay about it. They fully embraced their inner depravity, but not in the way that now alienates me from men who come on WAY too strong. Both of them had a deep, sexy appreciation for women’s beauty whether or not they were fucking her. Instead of feeling objectified and threatened, their vision of women seemed to reveal the exultant power I felt inside. Instead of leering at me, I felt like they were looking right through me to the magnificence their work sparked in my blood. I felt beautiful, seductive, powerful, and important through the way they focused on women.
It can be a fine line between objectification and celebration, one I still struggle to define. But I grew up with a father who looked contemptuously upon women who were in control of themselves, who slept with who they wanted and lived without shame. He would sneer the word “slut” with pure venom and looked down on single mothers as trash. Once we were watching a German film where a woman started masturbating while bored at home, and he spat “She’s selfish“. He told me when my grades were slipping in high school that “an uneducated woman was just a baby-making machine.”
In contrast to my fathers’ disgust for women’s sexual freedom and power, Giger and Cohen seemed to say “Go for it, baby. This is your show. You’re hottest when you’re doing what you want.” I would feel the spark of something like divinity when I connected to my internal self. Sometimes it was sexual, sometimes it musical, poetic, or just imaginative, but always a blinding, superhuman intoxication. Where I felt devastatingly beautiful, lethal, playful, ravenous, irreverent… when Cohen or Giger gazed at me, they were seeing that demon-goddess I felt like while the song lasted.
I had my own well of horror to contend with from a young age. Seeing how they let theirs flow freely into their work made me less afraid of being consumed by mine. Sexuality is only one of the secrets adulthood keeps, and not even the most interesting half the time. I had labyrinths opening up in me as I got older, down which I delighted to stray. During my high school years, I didn’t know anyone who could follow me to those places, but Leonard Cohen and H.R. Giger were foremost amongst the artists who could go there with me.
When Giger died suddenly from an injury two years ago, I felt ripped open down the front of my body. It was like he’d been torn out of those secret passages we’d travelled together as spelunkers through my arteries and synapses. Male desire in my teens had seemed so funny to me; teen boys with their frantic erections had failed to rouse my desire even once during high school. Their transparent, panting need was right there on the surface; no lure, no mystery, no seduction. I’d had vibrantly adult men as immaculate lovers since I was a child in the form of Cohen and Giger, and teenage boys didn’t stand a chance.
So I felt as though my first lover had died. Though we’d never met, Giger had been one of the only men I’d ever allowed past my defences. His luscious, nightmarish desire had thrilled me in ways no fumbling boy had ever been able to. He’d given me, and all his fans, unlimited access to his every dark fantasy and vision, and so I felt as though he had access to mine. Even though it was one-sided, I was crushed by his death.
I’ve been wondering this last week why Leonard Cohen’s death didn’t crush me the same way. Perhaps because he was frail and aging even when I went to a concert almost ten years ago. I’m pretty sure I was the only 17-year-old in that whole building, lusting for him from my balcony seat. I asked the middle-aged couple in front of me if they minded me clinging to the railing next to them, and they replied “Whatever you like, dear.” It’s only now that I can decipher their bewildered side-looks as I gasped, trilled, and moaned during his husky songs! At the time I just thought “Why isn’t everyone this turned on?”
I think… here’s my first thought as to why Leonard Cohen’s death didn’t hurt like Giger’s did. Two years ago, I was in a very insecure but innocent place. I was so uncomfortable with my desires, so hungry for intimacy and intellectual companionship, and I was looking for that in the wrong people. I wasn’t a fraction as emotionally/sexually comfortable as I am now. I was fragile then with little self-sufficiency. So when Giger died, I felt abandoned on an alien planet with no resources or intimacy. But two years later, I’ve spent so much time developing my inner strength and ability to validate/celebrate myself from within. This time when one of those first lovers died, I don’t feel incomplete and vulnerable without him.
This time, my immediate response to learning of his death was to turn off all the lights except for my glowing pink ones, put on a négligée, and revel in the voice that had felt like a worshipping paramour for the last twenty years. This time his spirt had already been interred within me for so long that he felt alive in my every nerve and breath. It was as if his death had only reminded me how vibrantly present he would always be in my body and mind whenever I listened to his music. Years of seducing his way past my defences, getting in before they were even formed, meant that a part of Leonard Cohen was always going to be alive as long as I was.
I think he’d like that: the idea that a weird teenage girl was unashamedly getting off to him in a theatre balcony. I think he’d like knowing that a little girl rebelled from her father’s contempt for women by listening to his albums, that she got her first flushes of personal power from his lyrics. I think he’d like knowing that my response to his passing was to put on something sexy and indulge in his voice like a warm bath.
My models for what constitute an attractive man are based on Leonard Cohen and Jean-Luc Picard. Intelligent men who appreciated women’s beauty without trying to control it, who saw the divinity in women without erasing their humanity. I’m turned off instantly by men who just want to project their pre-exsiting fantasy onto me. I’m drawn instead to men who want to see me at my freest, whatever that may be. Unfortunately, I’ve never found one my age or single! It would be amazing to meet a man who’s curious about who a woman is, rather than trying to make her be what he wants.
I didn’t know Cohen or Giger personally, or whether they indeed fit this description. Rather, their depiction of women in their art instilled a feeling of power and beauty in me from a young age. I think that helped me grow into a woman with zero tolerance for being controlled/defined/expected to be anything but who she is naturally. And the feeling of intimacy I had with these artists made me crave the kind of man who wanted to get to know me instead of telling me who I am (something FAR too many men rush to do when they meet me).
Now as an adult beginning to write and create from a place of unashamed openness about all the things I felt ashamed of as a child, I can see exactly why their frank perversity appealed so strongly to me. Both so in touch and luxuriant in their sense of horror, in their strange lusts and apocalyptic visions… I spent years trying to water those things down in myself, fearing I’d come off as too intense or disturbed. I can see now that my sense of horror is such as lush and exciting as my sense of optimistic wonder; neither are disturbed or unhealthy. They are siblings of the same root structure.
Sometimes I miss the feeling of intense curiosity these secret-keepers aroused in me. That was real innocence: sensing there was SOMETHING Cohen and Giger could confide in me but not knowing what. Knowing that it was against the rules for them to share it with me. Loving the feeling that they were trespassing in my mind like a boy who’d climbed through my window; it was a secret, against the rules, I had the power to permit.They were the first ones I shared my secret self with, the first to be AS twisted, perverse, and transgressive as my excitements felt inside.
Now that they’re both gone, I feel them under my skin like internal tattoos, secret friends who got in early and stayed with me until I could function independently. They’re there with David Bowie, Jean-Luc Picard, Seven of Nine, Lestat… every artist or character I adored when I was young and bored by the real people around me who had no secrets I was curious to learn. Some taught me nobility, strength, independence, but Cohen and Giger were the two lovers who brought me tales of the dark, exciting, erotic world outside my tower, a world I’d get to explore for myself someday.
Thank you to my two inaugural lovers. Because of you, I know the intricacies of my own erotic imagination and have confidence in my self-knowledge, enough that I’ll be able to curate men intelligently into my adult life when I want them. Your work was the literal definition of “empowering”: I have so much personal power now because of how you trusted me with glimpses of secrets when the big world was so shrouded in frustrating mystery. In some form, you’ll live as long as I do.
I’ve been waiting four days to feel even slightly more centred or stable since David Bowie died, but it’s not coming naturally. My sense of disorientation, of having a core DNA base missing, only increases as I examine the feeling further.
I’ve been trying to push myself through to the stage where I accept it. I see the beauty in how he lived long enough to watch the seeds of gender-freedom and celebration of strangeness finally bloom in the mainstream. I say corny things to myself like “His spaceship knows which way to go.” I know he planned his last album release and was surrounded by loved ones. But it doesn’t alleviate this ragged, gasping sense of wrongness that his absence has left.
I still feel like my heart is eating itself when I listen to his music; like there’s a vacuum in the centre of the zeitgeist that could swallow and crush us. Our culture wouldn’t look anything like it does without him, and so it feels like we lost a primordial creator: one we’re completely lopsided without.
Maybe people who’ve known their grandparents are more acquainted with the feeling of losing a beloved, integral presence you’ve never been without. But this is my first time grieving and I’m doing it all wrong. I snap into controlled spells of numbness, choosing to feel nothing for a few hours before letting myself go back to grief. And when I can’t sustain the numbness anymore, I’m pulled by my sternum towards the black hole that was created when he left. I keep thinking “How are we going to do this without you? There is simply no other off-worlder here to carry out your duties.”
The first time I saw the liner notes for Ziggy Stardust, it was like the alien messiah I’d been waiting for since first grade, the one I’d daydreamed about then, had finally appeared.”You’re not alone; give me your hands.” My teenage self needed him and I don’t know what I would have done without him. So now I feel lopsided because I haven’t yet become enough of what I want to be to carry on without him.
To this effect, something very strange happened on Monday. I think when that black hole appeared, in spite of the enveloping pain, a self-preservation instinct must have taken over my mind. It’s the only thing that explains how David Bowie’s death transformed my life in under four days.
I first saw the news on my phone in my black, cold room at 7am when I got up for work, and didn’t turn on the heat or light for an hour while I cried. I realized almost immediately that there was no way I was going into my stupid job today, no way I could pretend I wasn’t a fucking disaster, not for a job where I was irrelevant and disrespected. I couldn’t properly mourn the death of this person without making a sudden, decisive change to my life. So I texted my boss that my first boyfriend from high school had died and couldn’t come in. I also resigned.
Here’s the strange thing: if I had not stayed home that day grieving, I wouldn’t have seen, during my first numb spell, that a friend was looking for someone to take over her amazing job as a Production Assistant at a gorgeous theatrical costume house. I had a trial shift today and I’m not sure if they’ll keep me. It’s okay if they don’t because I know now how a workplace can feed the soul, and I’ll pursue that with slavering energy until I find it again. I became light-headed and short of breath with the beauty and splendour of “the cage”, where over 50,000 sumptuous costumes live two stories high. I almost passed out seeing coat trains of fur hanging ten feet long from the ceiling, at the velvet, lacing, and luxurious folds of brocade pressing in on either side.
Whether they hire me or not, I wouldn’t have been there trying out for this amazing position if David Bowie’s death hadn’t prompted me to immediately quit my soul-sucking uncreative job. It disturbs me that the death of such a beloved, important person was what it took to get me to snap out of a state of numb inertia. Whatever happens, I never want to waste my time and energy in a place that drains me the way that restaurant did; the coldness, meaninglessness, the sexist attitudes, seriously inappropriate touching and comments, the utter lack of interest I have towards food I can’t eat — never again. Life’s too short for us Earthlings; there’s too much opulence and bizarre beauty to drown in. I want my lungs to fill up with imagination and creation. How did I forget that this is the only way that living feels like being alive?
Anyways, I didn’t want anyone else’s grief to touch me this week. I didn’t want to see any RIP posts and feel like it had become just another hashtag. I couldn’t see “David Bowie trending” when I had to scream into my pillow to cope with an unprecedented sense of loss and emptiness. I knew there had to be lots of other people just as ripped apart by this, but I didn’t know who they were.
The only person in the world I knew for sure would be just as fucked up as me was Sharon Needles (aka Aaron Coady). What David Bowie did for me in my teens, Sharon Needles did for me in my twenties. Both have other-wordly stage personas that dazzle but do not obscure the tender hearts inside. Angie told David that “the messiah thing” worked for him and encouraged him to scream “give me your hands” in Rock n’ Roll Suicide. Sharon’s the last person to identify with a messiah figure, but she’s functioned as one nonetheless for a lot of isolated weird kids out there. Both performers wield strangeness and otherness to make outsiders feel like they’re not alone. Sharon has performed Bowie songs with a radiating, vibrant energy that shows how much respect and affection she has for the man himself. Perhaps because it’s my first time grieving, I could only share the experience with someone who’s already proven their sincerity and depth of feeling many times over to the world.
Aaron shared a picture of himself without make-up, without a pose, without even a bandage on his cut browbone– his normally handsome face twisted in the same mutilated sense of horror that I was feeling. I only let his grief touch me for the first 48 hours; no one else came into my apartment and my mourning but Sharon Needles. I normally regard Sharon as a kind of pagan goddess: beautiful, fearless, razor-smart… but for the first two days I didn’t talk to anyone or leave the house, he felt more like a sister. I realized we were probably both teenagers at one point who got swallowed up in David Bowie’s music, film, or performances. We probably both fantasized about his unearthly androgynous beauty. And we probably both needed him at vulnerable times in our lives. I’d never dare compare myself to anyone so talented and fearless except in this one case: I felt closer to “Sharon”, to Aaron the artist, in our shared grief than I had in four years of reverently adoring his work.
Remember that clip of David Bowie performing “Starman” on Top of the Pops, strange, sexy, totally comfortable having chemistry with Mick Ronson in front of the entire world? The first time I saw that, I was at the AGO exhibit and ended up sobbing in public, trying to pretend I was just having a nose bleed. It sounds crazy, but I was crying because I was grateful that I hadn’t been young in the 70s, and that I was born now after this part of his career was long over. I thankfully didn’t have to be alive when he first appeared in our culture: languid, alien, caring, a force of youth and acceptance. I was grateful I never had a chance to fall in love with him then, because I would have spent my life broken-hearted. I counted my blessings that he was already a legend, a distant god woven into the stars by the time I was an emotionally vulnerable teenager. It doesn’t make his death any easier, but at least I didn’t have the pain of being young when he was young. I can’t imagine that level of attachment and loss.
That clip from Top of the Pops kept coming back to me, not just from the memory of crying helplessly in front of strangers, trying to hiccup to my mom that I was “just so happy he’s old now.” I kept thinking of how no one had ever gone on a national broadcast and been this weird, this homoerotic, never been front and centre while challenging so many norms of beauty and behaviour. It makes me beam to think of how he must have made so many straight guys adjust themselves uncomfortably while they watched TV with their wives/girlfriends! And this on top of being a devoted husband, loving father, outspoken advocate for social justice and endless fount of creativity. I listen to “Kooks” and wonder what it must have been like to be that adored and accepted by your parents. That’s the type of parent I would want to be: “We believe in you.”
I loved to buy into his ‘alien’ thing. I still do. I feel like an alien all the time, and it’s fun to imagine that maybe David Bowie and I are from neighbouring planets in the same star system. But the part of me that’s showing no signs of healing yet is grieving for the marvellous human being who deserved twenty more years on this planet, his planet. I’m not mourning the god, the alien, the messiah, because those will live on as powerfully as they always did. The truth is, I’ve only known about ten men in my whole life that I would say are good men. Probably less, considering I didn’t know David Bowie. It frightens me that one of the only truly gentle souls I ever knew of, visionary or not, is gone. That’s why I think, “What are we going to do without you?” I know that grief can’t help but be the mourning of the self, and it’s probably closer to “What am I going to do without you?” Who will be as gentle, smart, creative, and inspiring? I only know a few who come close.
The first song I heard in my head while I was still in my dark room that morning wasn’t the one I expected. I was in pain from sobbing so violently, and I couldn’t begin to imagine actually listening with my ears to any music yet. But I heard “Lady Stardust” over and over in my head while I cried. I remember being 15 and enchanted by the male pronouns coupled with the feminine title. I especially lingered over the line “Femme fatales emerged from shadows to watch this creature fair.”
Not that I’m a femme fatale or anything, but I frequently feel like some night-crawler that lives in darkness until a glowing personage makes me want to poke my head out of my cool, dry hiding places. And it’s the phrasing “a creature fair” that made my heart keep breaking. I’ve known those fair creatures before; even as a murky ink smudge on the shaded edges of their orbit, I know what fair creatures are like. Delicate, watchful, sometimes quiet and absorbent before springing suddenly into song, blazing, warm, and with a finite existence. They have the presence of a sylph, magnetic and elusive at the same time. I’ve been lucky enough to be kissed by some, adored in return; I’ve had their warm hands hold my face. They make intense, joyful eye contact without a shadow of a doubt that I’m as worthy of love and friendship as they are.
The idea of one of these fair creatures being infected by cancer, knowing he was going to die, and ending his life with the prescient grace of a falling flower that knows it will forever scatter… it still feels like a blunt set of talons rake my face every time I think of him being attacked by a cancer virus until it killed him. I thought I might actually be sick when I finally made myself look up how he died. I wish I could have held him until all that sickness absorbed into my body. I irrationally hate myself for not being able to do anything to give back to someone whose music and myth were so important to getting through high school. He guided me through a lot of frightening epochs and I never gave anything back. I never will.
I wish I could wrap all this up to a poignantly fulfilling conclusion, but the truth is that I am, for now, incomplete. My queen has died in battle and I don’t know if I’m supposed to keep fighting or just wander away. Frankly, death doesn’t actually seem that natural to me. It doesn’t seem like a part of life. It seems like DEATH, uncontrollable, menacing, occasionally glorious, but not worth the attention it gets.
I can only think of one way to eventually feel okay about this, and that’s to design a full life and future the way that a very young David Jones did. He told Nina Simone that he didn’t think he had a great voice, but he knew what he wanted his life to be. To this day, he’s the only person I’ve heard say that, because who the hell else would even notice? I think the only way to fill this void is to focus on what I can control, and nurture as much creativity and curiosity as I possibly can in myself. There are things that are probably never going to come naturally to me, including being so accepting of strangers and so understanding of human frailty as he was. I don’t care if it never comes naturally to me; it’s still something I want to be even if it’s a struggle my whole life to lower that guard.
I’ve plastered over this void so that I can interact normally with people, but now I’m challenged to make my spirit full and rich enough that his absence doesn’t become an abscess. I’ve got this handful of stardust I’m gripping so tight it hurts, because it slips through mortal fingers just that easily. I’m going to have to swallow it all at once to keep it.
Ten years ago I was starting high school, and my relationship with the word “slut” has never stopped evolving since then. About six months after I started ninth grade, I was certain that I would be a slut. I attached no kind of moral identity to this word, negative or positive, and didn’t realize that most of the world did.
I pictured a “slut” primarily the way a man would remember an elusive, mysterious Venus who he still longs for years after she flutters out of his grasp. I pictured the woman that Mick Jagger describes in “Anybody Seen My Baby”—a fleeting image of erotic vapour that you can’t hold onto, tantalizing and indescribable.
I’m not sure where my romanticized idea of the meaning “slut” came from specifically. I can’t actually recall how it was presented to me, only that it seemed inevitable that this exalted, liberated status would suit me quite naturally. But then, this was when I still pictured sex as an encounter that produced iridescent light emanating softly from both bodies, without any associated mess, noise, awkwardness, or disease.
I say that I thought it would suit me well to be this perverse outsider because I was an alarmingly unusual child. I’ll write a follow-up post eventually to explain how much so eventually, but it satisfies my purpose here just to say that I had been the most bizarre sore-thumb even in the county’s gifted program. When I thought of a “slut”, I always pictured an intelligent but unusual woman who didn’t fit into the fabric of society, but was comfortable with being an outcast, and was regarded by men as a worthy adversary. At fifteen, it seemed a natural matter of course to me that a strange, perverse child would grow into this erotically free and unique woman called a “slut”.
Looking back, I wonder if this is all a result of how deeply young girls are conditioned to view their personalities as inseparable from their sexual choices. So much so that I would think that being erotically free and unique had anything to do how much sex I had. But when I’m kinder to myself, I concede that even an intelligent child can’t be expected not to associate the great unknown Sex with romanticized qualities. I’m sure everyone did it—it’s the nature of any unknown, and any innocent.
However, no matter WHAT definition of slut we’re looking at – the traditional, patriarchal shaming term – the unashamed modern Millennial who joins in the annual Slut Walk – the playful name you call your friend when she texts you about the rando she made out with last night— to my disappointment and shame, I grew into none of these. Every single month of my fifteenth to nineteenth year, I waited in expectant, certain anticipation of the moment of activation that would begin my destiny as this glorified archetype of elusive, memorable female power.
I remember sitting in my family doctor’s office at fifteen, and she asked me if I was sexually active. I considered my answer for a moment, not wanting to confess my inexperience even to a woman who’d known me since I was five, but chickened out.
“Not yet,” I wagered carefully. “But I plan to be so very soon.”
She had a pile of birth control in my hand within seconds, which I then proceeded to keep in my locker as a grand sigil of pride where all my friends could see them. I kept those pink-and-green packets around long after they expired, delighted by their suggestiveness and the identity they seemed to bestow with or without action on my part. But as for action itself, I really didn’t get much.
Don’t ask me how a perverse, bizarre, frumpy child ended up being friends with four older boys and their associated friends during her high school years. But when they adopted me as a friend I felt, among other things, snugly secure that my destiny as a glorious slut who had interesting weekly adventures would soon begin. I started going to parties at their houses, drinking, smoking pot, and being generally rambunctious – but true sluttiness eluded me.
I recognize only now that the reason I was so well-protected from their repeat advances was an unnerving and disquieting absence of teenage lust in me. I liked the attentions of one particular boy, liked talking to him, loved being alone with him, and assumed I must be attracted to him – however I would find myself bored, eyes open, counting time when he kissed me or put his hand under my shirt. Physically, he was an astonishingly beautiful specimen. I’m disturbed with myself when I look back and wonder how this slender, quiet Adonis failed to awaken my latent chemical reactions. I only know that it wasn’t until I was twenty-two that I realized the difference between the non-sexual, childlike adoration I had for him, and the actual gravitational tug of true physical attraction.
Mentally, I was highly erotic and had been as far back as I could remember. I wrote detailed erotic stories that dealt with complex power exchanges and gripping suspense between parties, but I recognize now that having an advanced erotic identity does not necessarily mean you have an advanced sexual identity. I was obsessed with eros; I drooled over Moulin Rouge and its portrayal of an excessive, decadent paradise of desire and darkness. I devoured Anne Rice’s fecund descriptions of blood, velvet, languor and the loneliness of immortality. When I listened to Led Zeppelin’s “Since I Been Loving You” or “I’m Gonna Crawl”, my eyes would involuntarily roll back in my head and my nerves would light up in waves of feeling all over my body – a condition I still suffer from today and the reason I can’t listen to certain music in public. To this day, I think Erotics ought to be taught the way Ethics and Aesthetics are taught—as a classical field of intellectual and artistic exploration. But sexuality—the inexplicable, irreducible, senseless—remained a mystery to me.
A rumour started around eleventh grade that I was, in fact, a major slut. When I was told of this, I was thrilled. Without even having to engage in any amourous activity, I had achieved the status that I still didn’t understand. I still didn’t realize that word “slut” did not mean what I thought it meant to men or women, no matter if they regarded it as a good or bad thing. I didn’t realize there were emotional consequences to sex, the worst of all being numb. I was still caught up in the romance of the word, of the thrilling character it allowed me to play. Without explicitly lying, I made sure all my friends thought I was more experienced than I was. I wasn’t bashful about flirting, talking about sex in front of boys, or acting the part of a brazen. I wore this one pair of pants—if they can even be called that—that a boy confessed to me used to give him erections in the library (they were more like short-shorts with garter belts that attached to the rest of the pant leg). Now that I understand more fully what is contained in the male gaze, I’m far too wary to wear them outside now.
I wasn’t bashful about any of this because I had no idea what flirting connoted, what the pants connoted, what my behaviour connoted to others. At eighteen I had never interacted with anyone’s genitalia, never had to push away someone for being too rough, never recognized that there is an uncomfortable, distasteful, even frightening side to sexuality. I wasn’t bashful because it was all theoretical, and had never threatened me or compromised me. I’m grown now, and while I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a woman following her impulses and instincts, I recognize now that someone with a mind and personality like mine would never have been able to emotionally handle or tolerate ANY definition, positive or negative, of being any kind of slut.
I don’t use the word with any kind of moral connotation, but if we must use that word, to indicate the level of comfort a person has with sharing their bodies with others. Let me try to explain. At a slumber party I went to at seventeen, I listened quietly to two girls talking about how they couldn’t understand what the boys they were interested wanted. I had nothing to contribute, so I listened for clues. But then they turned to me and one said “You get boys interested you. How do you do that?”
The other said “She plays hard-to-get. I’ve seen her do it, she’s really good at it.”
I was surprised, because I had never had any notion of playing; if anything, I thought that I’d made it easy for men because I acted so experienced. But in that moment I realized something about myself.
“I don’t play hard to get,” I conceded regretfully. “I think I just am hard to get.”
I started realizing that I had many involuntary defences in place. It took years to recognize them all, but the first I recognized was that I was never interested romantically in someone unless they seemed different in some radical way—wildly intelligent, outstandingly creative, even just as unskilled in blending in as I was. Unless I could identify with or respect someone, I’d feel nothing towards them. I don’t do this in the hopes of finding a “worthy” suitor. It’s not a standard I ever decided to have. It’s an involuntary part of me that kept me insulated from sexuality even through the storm of teenage hormones, a filtering system that I have no control over. The tragedy is that I never had any chance of becoming a slut. My outer line of defences is as reflexive as a sphincter—it prevents me from enjoying any kind of sexuality that isn’t charged with a non-sexual subtext, be that intellectual connection, emotional identification, intrigue for the profoundly unique/unusual, or even admiration for the uncommon goodness of someone’s heart.
I wish I could surrender to the simplicity of pure sexuality the way other people seem to be able to. I wish I could separate my thinking mind from my sex-brain. But you’re talking to someone who had an active erotic imagination for years before most kids even start health class in sixth grade. I can surrender, but only once my mind has approved a would-be challenger as appropriately rare, special, uncommon beyond his or her choice in hair colour or taste in clothes. I infrequently identify these individuals, but when I do, the desire to surrender to my impulses is as powerful as anyone’s—I’ve simply had a lot more experience learning to control them.
By no means do I think this is a morally superior way to be—morality indicates choice, and I only pretend that my pickiness is an act of choice to feel like I have any control over it. I’m trapped by it, if anything. I wish I could just be attracted to someone based on their appearance and interest in me—but unless they get through my involuntary screening process, I can only receive their attentions with disdain or extreme guilt.
There have been a couple young men, in recent years, who I have respected and enjoyed the company of immensely. Men who offered their affections in very respectful ways, and to whom I could only say “I’m sorry. I wish I had executive control over my heart.” But I don’t—I can’t even be swayed by material wealth or social position, though it would have served me well in the past to be more materialistic.
I briefly dated a pilot, who was also studying for pre-law. He had money, a car, he cooked me dinner, and went with me to ballets. He looked like young Nick Carter, which explains my initial interest, and was intelligent enough to make me try to override my own boundaries. I wanted to be more interested in him, but none of it was enough. I ended up telling him to leave me alone when his texts became too gynaecological. And I recognized a terrible flaw in myself that I may be powerless to cure.
I need to feel like someone has unfettered access to my mind because I can let them have any access to my body. I need to feel like I would tell them almost anything before I’ll do anything for them in bed. I need to feel like they know me so well that I can’t hide anything from them before I’ll let them see me unclothed. And I encounter these creatures so rarely that I simply don’t have the opportunity to be a slut. I’m sure I would be if those who passed my screening filter were more numerous, but through some trick of genetics, I am essentially a G.I. Joe that comes equipped with every tactical defence accessory you came buy.
I wish flesh was enough. I wish the feeling of skin-on-skin was enough to overcome the feeling of numb meaninglessness I get when I try to make myself engage in activity with someone I barely know, or know too well to kid myself that I like them. But my brain reaches out into every part of my body. It has spies and special agents in every blood vessel and nerve ending. It has nothing to do with intelligence—when I say my brain won’t let me be a slut, that is NOT a comment on “being too smart to be a slut”, a sentiment I’ve been accused of having. I’m fascinated by the intelligent women I know whose formidable, eloquent minds seem to allow them so much freedom to indulge and explore. My own formidable, eloquent mind simply doesn’t allow the same.
When someone calls me a “prude”, it’s hilarious and exquisitely painful to metabolize. I want to tell them how determined I was to be anything BUT a prude. I want to tell them that all it takes to get me turned on is the opening notes of a thunderstorm rumbling in the distance, or an icy wind slicing up the inside my winter jacket. I want to tell them that I have an enormous fount of sexual energy and an unfathomable well of erotic curiosity. That watching a conductor command his orchestra makes me drag my nails over my throat in desire. I wish I was a prude or a slut—either would be easier to manage than being such a unrelatable contradiction.
I’m afraid for the men who pass my filter and give me permission to unleash this energy on them. I’m afraid that any human male can’t handle a sexuality that is rooted directed into the brain stem, amplified exponentially by imagination, acute sensory sensitivity, synaesthesia, and undercurrents of sadomasochism. I can’t even handle my sexuality at times; how could I ask some poor, unsuspecting man to? I think that’s why I like the idea of a man from a war-torn country who’s already seen more horrifying things than I can imagine and won’t be frightened when my energy hits him like a Japanese bullet train.
But then, it occurs to me that sexuality isn’t really meant to be controlled. It’s not supposed to make sense. Beyond the qualifiers “consenting” and “adult”, there’s really no moral territory it needs to honour. And maybe it only feels like mine must be perversely disproportionate to the rest of the world’s because they have more experience with letting it out around people. Perhaps there’s a lot of women who, like me, worried that they were going to accidentally wound the guy they were with, but who’ve learned from experience that it’s actually harder to fuck someone to death than you think.
Maybe once I reconcile my ruthless independence with the art of well-managed surrender, I might finally get to have my slutty phase. I’m truly restless for it to begin, since my sexual encounters have been as few and far between as a sparse chain of islands in the mid-Atlantic. And I often find it paradoxical that a woman who pole-dances, who writes erotic novels, and who spent a freaking summer in a frat house, gets as little action as I do. I just can’t imagine going out to pick someone up at a club and letting them come home with me—what if they want to use my shower? What if they touch my books? How do I say “time to leave” when they want to lie around watching Netflix after? These are things I would only share with a good friend, not a good-looking rando.
I am a Victorian father’s dream-come-true: a daughter who comes ready-equipped with all the defences against dishonourable behaviour. Unfortunately, I don’t think sex is dishonourable, or really related to honour at all unless you’ve mutually agreed to be faithful to someone. But these defences are integrated into me as thoroughly as if I were a cyborg. It’s maddening to be a slut by nature, confined to a mind that is essentially a nunnery.
One of my goals in 2015 is to find ways of exploring impulses that don’t impinge upon natural instincts; there has to be a communication there. I don’t believe these boundaries are as implacable as they’ve always seemed. It may begin with being kinder first to myself, and so to other people. I’m quick to write off potential suitors quickly, but my favourite experience is when people surprise me, when I’m proven wrong.
I listened to “Tale as Old as Time” the other day, and really heard one of the lyrics for the first time that I think applies here:
“Bittersweet and strange, finding you can change, learning you were wrong.”
Rather than trying to force myself to be something I’m not, I’d rather absorb more fully the willingness to change and respond to change, to relish the experience of being proven wrong about someone. Was that the elusive key to slut-dom all along? “Tale As Old As Time”? I should have been listening more carefully all these years 🙂
“Then what do you look for in a man?”
“Anemia. Wan, anæmic good looks. If not that, then at least a careless decadence coupled with an archly diffident attitude towards my interest.”
“You know that fin-de-siecle aristocrat who threw a sarcastic funeral for his penis and sneeringly invited all Paris society? That guy.”
I wish I could be more certain of how natural it is to live on your own through your twenties. I’m an unusually solitary person anyways, but the uninterrupted lengths of time I go without being near my family, or without making meaningful contact with friends, makes me wonder if this striving to be independent isn’t a little unsettling to some natural instinct for family and community.
I got a sumptuous massage from a friend today, and realized that I go untouched for weeks most of the time. It’s not a sexual thing at all, but maybe just an intimacy thing. I wonder if I’d be as sensitive to all the things that cause me anxiety if I gave myself more regular opportunities to feel close to others.
I love my apartment to death; I’ve nicknamed it Antares after a beloved star, and for how far away from the world it can make me feel on a good day. But sometimes I wonder how strange it would look to someone from a different country, time, or culture, to see me living in it alone every night, reading, writing, Netflixing, and then waking up alone again in the morning. That itself doesn’t bother me; what bothers me is the possible effect it might be having on my temperament that I’m not even consciously aware of.
I mean, if this was natural, then why would a girl raised in an atheist, culturally blank home, a girl who’s a serial shiksa (or would be if I had the guts and no conscience), why else would I find so much peace in listening to the Sabbath Prayer from Fiddler on the Roof? On repeat. I lie in bed and listen to this track again and again: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xZZj-Od7Ot0
Now, I had a desperate hunger for ethnicity and a cultural identity long before I lived on my own; even in sixth grade I would latch onto ethnicities and learn about them, finding comfort in pretending I had an identifiable background. But Sabbath Prayer hits me deeper than that familiar longing for culture. This track hits me in the family bone, in the part of me that wants to be cared about. It’s a part I keep rigidly under control, and gratify on my walks, pretending that the stars and wind care about me, that they want to protect me. I rely on being independent, yet within that I know there’s a delight in the feeling of existing under a mighty aegis.
I’ve never been blessed; I’m not really sure what that word means, but I see parents blessing their children in other cultures, rabbis blessing babies. I like the idea of someone well-wishing me in some small ritual. it doesn’t have to be a big deal. I don’t need to believe that this blessing confers the protection of the gods upon me. But I feel sort of achey and empty when I think of the simple act of one human openly wishing another well, in some way just slightly more ceremonious than “have a good night!”
The idea of someone touching my head, closing their eyes, and immersing momentarily in care and affection in the hopes that their feelings will follow me as a little charm of luck; I probably wouldn’t be able to handle that, actually. I’d love it so much I’d plunk down and sob, and their charm wouldn’t be following me anywhere until I stopped hiccuping. Their baffled blessing would float awkwardly above my head, going “Ummm… I think I just made things worse.”
I very, very rarely think about things like family or emotional support. My thoughts are much more frequently caught up in the ecstasy of revenge and redemption, in blazing wild, fiery paths through ice, in the strength of a black hole wrenching a galaxy in motion. It takes one massage from one friend to remind me how necessary closeness and caring is. I never, ever think of myself as a person who needs to be cared for. I think I actively define myself in opposition to that. But I really wish I could experiment with this; I wonder… if I was in a position to receive regular tokens of love and concern from family and friends, to get a small hug from my mother before I went off to read by myself for a few ours, I wonder how I would be different.
I wonder if the sound of someone’s loud TV in the next apartment over would still make me nauseous with anxiety. I wonder if my heart would still shrink in slick, withered worry about whether the noise will ever stop. Will I be able to write? Sleep? Think? I wonder if I lived close to an emotional support system rather than isolating myself the way a properly independent twenty-four year old does in our culture, would I get so defensive in public on the streets? I turn into a little motoring fortress in public, whipping around slow walkers, glaring at smokers– to be honest, I was like that when I lived with my family, but then, my family was not a support system in high school, not at all.
I’m jealous of the friends I know who have a strong cultural, familial, even religious background that gives them the opportunity and framework to feel close to their parents and siblings. But it’s probably not that simple at all. Maybe culture and religion themselves do nothing to hold people together, but the way they’re practiced does. Can’t get into that, because I have practically no experience, and also, it’s 5:30 a.m. and my analytic skills are diminishing along with my rhetorical dexterity.
I always look forward to Valentine’s Day; this is something of a mystery to my friends, since I am the most perpetually single person that they tend to know. However, it’s not a mystery to me; I’m a relentless Romantic, but I’m aware that my definition of ‘romance’ is very different from the relationship-focused, Bachelor-esque connotation it’s acquired in this century. My type of ‘romance’ is only similar in a few conceptual ways to the original 19th century meaning. But since this is a word that keeps evolving, I think I can use it to describe my own experience with it.
Romance has never seemed to me to be contingent upon the presence of another person. Rather, I find it most commonly in a state of sumptuous, active solitude– like being on a hunt. I often wonder how that heightened level of exhilaration could be either granted or sustained if another person were around, but I’m assured it happens; I’m just not sure I’m suited to share the experience. My “romances” are typicallybrought on bymusic in massive, noise-cancelling headphones, the lowered inhibition of knowing I’m completely alone, and a sensation of seeing my own imagination reflected in nature—lofty-sounding factors, but factors that require isolation.
I suppose I like Valentine’s Day because it insists that a freezing February night can be joyful, heart-racing, and this is something I’ve always found on my own. My most romantic nights are the ones that are too cold for anyone else to want to be outside; the cold drives everyone indoors so that I can be assured I’ll have the snow, sky, streets, wind and lake to almost completely to myself. It softens my guard to know I’m unlikely to have to share these things with any more than a few stray pedestrians who will thin out as I get closer to the water; it opens me up to immersing in my music and internal narratives. I put on gigantic headphones and set off, the freezing wind feeling like a glowing promise of solitude, and I start to get lost in one of the stories I’m writing or begin composing a new one.
It’s on these walks that some of the most magical things of my life have happened to me, things I know I wouldn’t have seen or been a part of if I’d tried to share it. Anyone I walk with eventually begs me to slow down, or gets cold and wants to go inside. And so my ‘romance’ may seem incompatible with Valentine’s Day’s target demographic, namely couples, but I always look forward to it as a confirmation that blazing excitement and joy can bloom on a cold, slushy night.
Since this is my definition of romance, I’m unsure if I could be romantic with a person—it’s is so ingrained into me as a solitary outdoor activity that takes energy, nerve, resolve, and a kind of childlike wonder that I know would be naturally unattractive to a fellow adult. Furthermore, how could I expect someone to follow me on these treks? For starters, I walk FAST. Walking with me is exhausting even when I’m not these states; I frequently zip around tall boys on the street. Second, there’s the music to consider. I have a heart-shaped jack which takes two sets of headphones, but I only bought it because I had the same idea for it in seventh grade; I don’t expect it would be very practical in use. I also don’t have favourable memories of sharing music with people; they tend to talk or text during it, or if not, are alarmed by my reaction.
I would never be able to share the quickening of my heart; the steely ferocity that sets in when a particular song begins, or enters its climatic throes; how could I share the feeling of being physically pulled, as if by the gravity of the moon or Jupiter or something out past the Kuiper belt, towards some inexpressible, terrible, marvellous, sublime destination. How would I communicate to them that walking like this, alone in the music, puts me into a trance, makes me feel as though I’m seeing the curve of the earth, only it’s not Earth—I can’t even describe it here with words. But I’ve long since gotten comfortable with the idea that some things are not shareable, and that’s what’s so wonderful about them.
The last time someone tried to follow me, he was sobbing hysterically and demanding I either come back inside or let him come with me. I could only feel oddly detached from his effusions; romance is as much a matter of instinct as it is emotion for me. I felt like an animal watching him, like a coyote or an osprey, eyes with no white in them, unable to empathize with his distress. I calmly explained to him that I go for walks all the time, and that I was in no danger.
“You can’t go out there!” I remember him squalling. I’m still as strangely without empathy now as I was then.
I felt something internal tugging the corners of my mouth upwards when I heard that; I honestly didn’t do so to mock him. But I felt too much like a beast being shouted at by a cleric; the moment I had given into the need for this walk, some part of my civilized self was left behind. And with that unfeeling smile, I said: “No, you can’t. I can.”
I didn’t mean to torment him, but my brand of romance is rooted in something atavistic, something that must look cruel and unfeeling from the outside. On the inside, it feels like sparkling waterfalls, flaming limbs of a spiral galaxy, a cascade of tiny petals about to forever scatter; it feels nucleotides finding one other and fusing, like synopses bursting and reforming. From where I live inside myself, it’s exactly like flying. And I suppose living like that, even for an hour or two, demands temporarily relinquishing some humanity.
So when I turned and walked away from him into the darkness (I just remembered I was actually wearing a cape– all unintentionally dramatic) and heard him howl in anguish, I felt giddy, electric thrills as if he was the melodramatic voice of civilization that I was leaving behind for a foray into some dangerous, savage communion.
It would be untrue to say I’m completely alone on these pilgrimages; truthfully, they wouldn’t be what they are if I wasn’t inundated by the sensation of being watched, followed, cared about by an unseen multitude. Empirically, I know this sensation is fabricated, but then, so is a good actor’s belief in his own words. So is the ecstasy that monks achieve. In light of Joseph Gordon Levitt’s recent film Don Jon (which I thought was brilliant, and will write a post on later) so is every guy while watching porn and every girl while watching a romantic movie—all immersed in a sensation that may not be reflecting an empirical reality, but is materially powerful and meaningful within the mind. Romance, for me, is quite literally a theatre in which my brain and nerves interface with natural stimuli to put on a show of such spectacle that even ancient Greek audiences would find it tasteless. Romance is a co-production between two major opera houses with the express intention of making the fresco’d ceilings crack and melt. When I see conductors lose themselves to the keystone role they play, bridging the performers and the orchestra who can’t interface directly– I feel such vibrant recognition. Vibrant– almost violent. Seeing how deeply invested a conductor becomes while pulling these two behemoths together makes me go “YES– I know that feeling!” Obviously they undergo far more training and are far more disciplined than I, but I recognize what it is to contain both, and it’s not just a trance– romance is power.
Power, and the feeling of being powerless at the same time, swallowed up, consumed by the experience. To fully immerse in an illusion so marvellous that it makes every snowflake incandescent; it gives the lake a voice, and makes it feel like every star in the sky (which in downtown Toronto isn’t much) is interested in what I’m doing, in my thoughts. I used to think this was arrogant, but I’m more forgiving now. I’ve recognized that I’m never more vulnerable than in these moments, rarely more humble that I am in the face of the massive universe I feel acutely connected to—and strangely, loved by. These episodes of high romance are incredibly redemptive, and they wash away the frustration, despondency, and loneliness that builds up from living in a world where one appears so perverse to most everyone else. I always feel so loving afterwards, not just of this alien world but of myself. For a little while after, I feel like I belong on this planet.
People tell me this is how their boyfriend or girlfriend makes them feel; believe me, I may have my own peculiar brand of romance, but I’m hardly insensitive to how lovely that is. And though I have no personal experience with that, I completely believe it’s authentic and true. Friends sometimes assume that I’m cynical and bitter about love just because I’m so rarely impressed by the options, but this could not be less true. I’m a huge fan of love; I just don’t necessarily think it’s interchangeable with or necessary for romance. Romance, for me, is purer than love; it’s nearer to nature. Romance makes my eyes go black, my lungs fill with liquid mercury, and draws me away from safety.
I might someday figure out how to share this wilderness with another person, but I’m not in any rush to do so. It took me about eight years longer than other kids to make friends and much longer to even be attracted to someone—I’m comfortable being a decade or so behind a few curves. I can almost imagine, when I really push myself, what it’d be like to share a piece of music with someone, but when I get close, I actually feel my cheeks get hot and I’m too embarrassed to continue thinking about it. Like how sometimes I can’t watch the gushy scenes in movies; not because I find them schmaltzy– ask some of my friends. They’ll tell you I hide behind a pillow or a stuffed animal at a particularly sincere, tender moment between the romantic leads. Maybe because I think if I was in that situation, it would be unbearably intimate. How does anyone maintain eye contact with someone they like?! How do you hold their hand without blushing and screaming and jumping around?? Sorry– those are questions for my next post.
In the meantime, I’d like to be able to offer an alternative kind of romance to anyone who is unhappy to be single on Valentine’s day: give yourself some credit. You’re probably capable of creating your own romance if you allow yourself to follow a crazy, exhilarating instinct.
Finally, romance is something I say is an immersion in productive illusions, which is true—empirically. I’ve delineated here how profoundly these illusions affect my life, but what that black-eyed coyote-osprey doesn’t want you to know is that I only half-believe that romance is just belief ❤