Codes

 

 

I know you by heart. You are simple as stick figures,
easy to read as summer. Your beats are
staccato, the way you drum your fingers on tablecloths,
then stop and unclose your fists in the afternoon,
your fingernails
blue: a whisper of glitter on a stark napkin.
The way you tug at a curl means two more weeks of
rain, because everything takes its cues from your tenderness.
When you’re tender you are mute as stars.
You let your bottom lip droop like a flower,
quivering because it was touched too closely,
filled too fully by the snow.
You tug on my
hand the same way, stopping me to cry at a dead frog in
the road because you are a small soft blur of crayon
on construction paper.
Sometimes you are the one who cuts.
I know when you are not tender from
the way you put your hand up
to your neck, from the knifelikeness of your elbows.
You are freshness too, the scent of simple wildfire
in the brush that starts when you rub your hands together.
You contain darkness too, the viridian green of a forest
caught in a storm, or the
shape of a gargoyle on an arch, and yet
the way you stare into the distance is all things holy.
The precise placement of your hand on your chin
or cheek can mean peace or war: war for a
hundred thousand years, war that robs you of
braveness, the kind of war that nobody wins
and nothing is left but dry grass because you left
although I know you by heart

 

 

 

‘Don Draper Solves A Problem’: Sexual Assault In Popular Media

Louie-Pamela-Part-2

 

On the latest episode of Louie,  Louis CK, bumbling feminist dad and comedy darling, assaults a woman. He overpowers her, tries to take off her clothes. He attempts to rape her, and tells her “You said you wanted to do something with me…I don’t believe that the ship has sailed.” She lets him kiss her while pressed against a door, with no way to extricate herself from his grasp. The expression on her face is unmistakably one of revulsion and fear as he tells her “I’m going to take control and I’m going to make something happen.” When the kiss is over, she mumbles “Thanks”, and flees, while he pumps his fist in the air.

This is the penultimate scene of the episode: the final shot is of Louis looking after his daughters on a bus – a painful contrast to the violence that has come before.

Nihil novi sub sole, runs the Latin expression. ‘Nothing new under the sun.’ Sexual assault is hardly groundbreaking territory for television. Rape is backstory. Jenny Schecter on The L Word  struggles with the trauma of a childhood rape. Rape is drama. Buffy Summers is almost raped by her vampire boyfriend without a soul, Spike. Rape is plot point. It crops up in Downton Abbey to further the storyline, to make it more complex, to heighten the conflict between the main characters. Rape is crudely used to demarcate the villains (Joan’s doctor fiancé on Mad Men, the Dothraki on Game of Thrones, Fitz’s father on Scandal) and humanize the survivors.  And yet the sexual violence in entertainment media feels so arbitrarily assigned that there are moments when I can almost believe in the fiction of a writers’ room so dry of ideas that someone spins a pencil and lands on ‘Character Gets Raped’.

Let me play devil’s advocate for a moment, I say as I slip into the skin of a privileged white man on the Internet. Rape is frighteningly common. Why not reflect that in art? No-one’s saying that Louis CK condones rape. Feminism is an important part of his persona, after all. This is the comedian’s comedian, the thinking man’s entertainer, the man who points out the uncomfortable truth that  “Men are the number one threat to women today.” To ask him to not address sexual assault would amount to censorship, bleat the crowd of fanboys who assure you that you just “don’t get the subtlety, the nuance” of X scene.

You’re left to wonder, who does get it? Perhaps only the men who don’t understand the feeling of unease as you, a woman, walk to your car in a dimly-lit parking garage, keys in your fist to form the flimsiest of weapons.

If I asked you what the primary purpose of popular media was, I’d wager you would tell me it was ‘to entertain.’ There’s nothing entertaining about rape, I say (even as Salon excuses Louie by writing that the assault was “funny in fragments”). Therefore, we move on to the secondary purpose: to reflect reality, to instruct, to inform. There’s the odd rape scene in which you feel the writer is moved by a blistering compulsion to make you feel the horror of it, to render you unable to avert your eyes. The writer of Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson, witnessed a woman being gangraped in his native Sweden. Years later, he worked out his anxieties in a scene that makes the viewer shudder with its brutality. There is no ambiguity in the scene where the piggish Advokat Bjurman rapes Lisbeth Salander; no question as to the author’s condemnation of the act that is taking place. Although it is undoubtedly possible to question the utility of depicting violence so-violently- it is near-impossible to claim that such a scene propagates rape culture.  It is reminiscent of rape-revenge movies, the B-genre of horror that is often derisively called ‘torture porn’ because it makes its young women suffer intensely before they are allowed to exact their bloody vengeance. However, as a survivor, that kind of movie often has a very therapeutic effect on me: it grants me and others the catharsis that real life has denied us.  The B-movie has its uses.

But most portrayals of assault in television and movies are neither realistic nor useful.  Instead, they propagate dangerous myths: she wanted it even though she started off saying no (Straw Dogs, Gone With The Wind, Game of Thrones). It’s not real rape if there was no physical struggle (Three, Pretty Little Liars). Silence means consent (Girls, The Mindy Project).

Rape in popular media lingers in a gray area that is not really gray, and afterwards there’s no real discussion of whether it was rape or not.  Imagine if Mad Men had called Joan’s rape what it was. Perhaps someone watching, somewhere, would be better able to understand that what had happened to them was rape. Perhaps they would understand that freezing up was a common survival instinct that did not mean they were to blame. Instead, all we got was an unsatisfactory “You’re not a good man, and you know why” from Joan much later in the show: a reminder of an incident that might easily be erased from the viewer’s memory by that point; a refusal to call it rape. Similarly, on Pretty Little Liars (a show that is aimed toward a largely YA demographic), 16-year-old Aria begins a sexual relationship with her English teacher, Fitz. Once her parents find out, they condemn Fitz, but at no point does the show address statutory rape laws or even portray the relationship as undesirable. The word ‘rape’ may be shocking, but the unwillingness of people to call rape ‘rape’ explains in part why Jezebel didn’t report Chris Brown as having been a rape survivor,  it explains in part why David Choe was shocked at the suggestion that he’d raped his masseuse (when it was clear from his own account that he had). Rape is a big bad word, and nobody wants to say it.

Consider that Louis CK’s character is meant to be the sad, relatable schlump, a good man – in which light I ask, why write that scene? It’s already frighteningly easy for men to sympathize with rapists. It’s easy for men to come forward in the wake of Dylan Farrow’s allegations and remind us that they’re only allegations.  Men are already afraid because they buy into the myth of false-rape reporting, and so they seek solace in the idea that unless there is concrete evidence – semen, hair, videotape – that there is no rape. When you have the hero of a show like Louie commit assault, it becomes that much harder to accept that what happened was assault, and so one struggles to rationalize, one struggles to come up with ways in which it wasn’t. That’s what men are doing right now – rationalizing this episode on Vulture, on The AV Club, on the blogs and thinkpieces spawned by that episode. They are saying things like “he was asserting himself”, “to call this rape is to be overly PC”, “maybe he did press too hard but that was it.” It’s the same way that men talked of the many scenes in Breaking Bad when Walt forces himself on Skyler – as him “dominating his woman” or “being an alpha male.” Same reason that a Youtube video in which Don Draper grabs a woman by the hair and forces his hand inside her is described “Don Draper solves a problem.” There’s nothing satirical or edgy here. Rape has been given a pass for centuries, and literature, music, movies, media isn’t challenging that in the ways that it could be, only normalizing it. Nothing new under the sun.

The Classy Woman

 

bree_hodge_pink_suit

 

 

She unclosed her eyes gracefully at the first ring of the alarm clock, because she never overslept. She slipped out of bed in her lacy peignoir (not the slutty kind).

*

She carefully selected a  skirt suit that was the right length for job interviews but also the right length for men to notice what great legs she had. With it, she wore heels (not the slutty kind) and then calculated and applied the exact correct amount of makeup that would make men think she wasn’t wearing any makeup.

Her whole wardrobe was composed of shades of beige, nude and taupe, just like all the makeup she owned.  She didn’t own anything in red. Red was the devil’s color.

*

Her coworker came by and said “Good job, Grace!”

Her name was always Grace, or it was Bree, or it was Jacqueline, or it was Rita or it was Eleanore. Whatever it was, it was classy as could be. Her last name was also classy, and began with ‘van de’.

 

*

They didn’t know what it was, but there was something classy about the way she handled mergers and acquisitions. When she shook the other parties’ hands, they all noticed it. “That sure is one classy dame,” said the old Business Person, watching her admiringly as she exited the business room to the sound of gentle piano music that came from nowhere. Everyone else sighed in agreement.

They were all in love with her, but they would never dare to bring it up. She was too classy for that, unlike the slutty new temp who wear skirts so tight you could see the curve of her ass when she bent over the copier. The classy woman’s ass was just as good or better, but you had to guess what it looked like. This was hotter, somehow. Nobody knew why, but everyone agreed that it was.

 

*

At  the end of the work day, she kicked off her work heels gracefully and put on her play heels. She let her hair down from its elegant bun so it cascaded around her shoulders (not in a slutty wild way).

 

*

She went to the bar. You could tell it was a classy bar because everyone inside was old as hell.

Her friend was crying at the bar, sloppily. You could tell her friend was sloppy because her lipstick was smeared on her glass and one bra strap was visible.

“I’m so upset,” sobbed her friend. “He walked out on me after four years. Without a word. Just a text message saying “Bye forever.’”

“Shh,” she told her friend. “You can’t talk about these things. You have to be classy about it. Also I can see your bra strap.” But her friend didn’t even care.

The bartender set down five shots for her friend. “Are you sure you want all five?” he said hesitantly.

“I’m trying to tell her to keep it classy,” the classy woman said.  The bartender looked at her admiringly. “What would you like?”

“A glass of white wine,” she said. “Make it the best white wine you have.”  The bartender gasped in a good way at her order. No-one had ever ordered that type of white wine before.  Everyone in the bar fell in love with her immediately.

“Are you sure about this?” said her friend. “That wine is like $400 and doesn’t even taste that good.” Everyone gasped in a bad way because her friend had been vulgar enough to bring up money.

“This is a nice place,” said the bartender. “You must be lost. Please leave.” He ushered the woman with the visible bra strap to the door.

 

*

 

Later at home, she relaxed in the neat comfort of her apartment, which was filled with tasteful art pieces that were not done in the slutty modern style. She was reading a Victorian novel, but still sat up perfectly straight even when she was alone. She had perfect posture.

The doorbell rang. It was Richard the IIIrd. He walked handsomely into the apartment and took her shoulders in a commanding but also refined way.

“I want to kiss you,” he said, and then he kissed her (not the slutty type of kiss).  This was how all their kisses started because she was too classy to make the first move. He led her to the bedroom. Refined piano music started playing out of nowhere.

During the sex, she kept her eyes closed because she was too classy to open them. After he was done, she put on her reading glasses & read a copy of Homes & Gardens until she fell asleep at a reasonable hour.

 

on beauty

“I had only one desire: to dismember it. To see of what it was made, to discover the dearness, to find the beauty, the desirability that had escaped me, but apparently only me.”
― Toni MorrisonThe Bluest Eye
 

I

When I was a little girl, my mother bought me a doll. It was a doll from an expensive boutique in Paris: she had rosy cheeks and long dreamy lashes. Her eyes were blue, and they closed when you lay her down. When you propped her up again, they opened. I was fascinated by how lifelike this attribute was, but what fascinated me most was the color of her eyes and her skin: so blue! so white! I named her Sleeping Beauty.

Sleeping Beauty’s name has always varied: some call her Briar Rose, some call her Rosamond. Disney names her Aurora. However, in the most popular version of the story, Charles Perrault left the princess anonymous. Before she falls into a deep sleep, she is called Beauty, because she has been given the gift of perfect beauty by her fairy godmother. While she sleeps, she is called Sleeping Beauty, for that is all she is. When the prince comes to rescue her, she is laid down in her beautiful bedchamber, sleeping. Fixed; passive; perfectly beautiful. He falls in love with her beauty, what else does he know of her?

All the fairytales have beautiful women, of course. In the cast of Disney princesses, Aurora is white;  Ariel is white;  Belle is white, Cinderella is white; Snow White is white. There are princesses of color – Mulan, Jasmine, Pocahontas, the late addition Tiana. However, the kind of beauty they possess is still the most narrowly-defined version of beauty: there is very little variation of features between the white princesses and the princesses of color. The nonwhite princesses have almost the same facial features: almost the same dimensions of cheekbone, of lip, of nose and chin. There is only enough variation to mark them ‘Other.’ Dye Belle’s hair, stain her skin with brownness, and Jasmine emerges. The brown/black is only coded as beautiful when it retains a certain percentage of whiteness. It’s a phenomenon that works both ways. In reverse, it’s what I call featural appropriation. The features that are mocked or satirized on the black/brown body are praised when they are transplanted to a white woman. Like cultural appropriation, it is a systematic deconstruction of our culture, our features: some of our parts are taken, and the rest are left discarded on the floor. We are discarded.

 

II

Jasmine’s precursor, is, of course, Princess Badroulboudour from The Thousand & One Nights. She is described as:

“the most beautiful brunette in the world; her eyes were large, lively, and sparkling; her looks sweet and modest; her nose was of a just proportion and without a fault; her mouth small, her lips of a vermilion red, and charmingly agreeable symmetry; in a word, all the features of her face were perfectly regular.”

Compare that description to this, from Jules Verne’s Around the World In Eighty Days:

‘…her fine eyes resumed all their soft Indian expression.When the poet-king, Ucaf Uddaul, celebrates the charms of the queen of Ahmehnagara, he speaks thus: “Her shining tresses, divided in two parts, encircle the harmonious contour of her white and delicate cheeks, brilliant in their glow and freshness. Her ebony brows have the form and charm of the bow of Kama, the god of love, and beneath her long silken lashes the purest reflections and a celestial light swim, as in the sacred lakes of Himalaya, in the black pupils of her great clear eyes..” It is enough to say, without applying this poetical rhapsody to Aouda, that she was a charming woman, in all the European acceptation of the phrase.’

Princess Badroulboudour is described as having “perfectly regular” features, because regularity and symmetry are pleasing to the eye, charming, agreeable, faultless. If beauty is described as regular and faultless, we presume that ugliness is the opposite. Something irregular, some fundamental fault-line in the topography of the female face, some fearful asymmetry that causes ugliness.  Ucaf Uddaul describes the queen’s charms similarly: her cheeks are “harmonious contours.” What is ugly is not merely ugly, then. It offends harmony. It offends symmetry.

Verne goes on to describe Aouda as a “charming woman in all the European acceptation of the phrase.” Her eyes have a “soft Indian expression”: she is described as fundamentally Other but still acceptable by European standards of beauty, which is paramount. Verne in his benevolence makes sure to let us know that the particular kind of foreign beauty that Aouda has does not prevent her from also fitting into the mould that would be considered a beautiful woman in England.

I had an Indian friend once who asked me, on a trip home: “what do white boys think of Indian women? Do they think we’re pretty?” The question hurt me, just as it hurt me to see the Youtube comment on a Selena Gomez video: “I’m Indian and proud to see that Selena Gomez likes our culture. I never thought people would know so much about India like she does [sic].” Both were questions shaded with such innocence, how could I possibly begin to explain to either person the complex realities surrounding their assumptions? More importantly, I thought, I didn’t need to. Perhaps it would be enough to just say: “White people’s opinion of our beauty, our culture, doesn’t matter”- but then, who would be satisfied with that answer, when it clearly did? How can I describe the specific wound left by the white women on online dating sites who say “only white men” or that left by the white men who say “you’re attractive, for a [X ethnicity]?” We do not dare disclaim or minimize the woundedness of little black girls who grow up in a time with too few Lupita Nyong’os. We know what happens to a wound when it festers.

 

III

            Beauty is pain, goes the saying, but what does that mean? My grandmother tells me it means that one must suffer to be beautiful.  There is a certain kind of suffering, perhaps, in female beauty rituals.  We pluck our eyebrows, we wax our legs, we ache in our stilettos.  We go hungry and we zip ourselves into dresses that make it difficult to walk. And still, I am dissatisfied with that construction of the phrase. Is it, instead, that pain is beautiful?

Many men have told me they are attracted to sad girls, girls who are in pain, girls who need to be rescued. There is a romanticism, they tell me, in loving a sad girl, because they feel vindicated when they can make them smile. There is an exquisite vulnerability in the performance of sadness and pain that they seek out, that is beautiful in itself.  When women weep in television and movies and books and even in songs, it is often an aesthetic affair: tears stream down their cheeks, their eyelashes are darkly matted with mascara, their mouths droop downward in an irresistibly sad line that speaks of sorrow but also of beauty.

            Beauty is pain. Beauty causes pain, too.  “She was so beautiful it hurt” is a phrase often heard: it describes the bone-deep ache we feel when we see a sunset or a city skyline at night. We ache because it is temporal, we ache because we cannot grasp it, we ache because we cannot comprehend it. But that is not the only pain caused by Beauty.

A while ago, I wrote a poem called ‘Color’. It’s about a young girl and her pretty blonde doll that she keeps locked in a closet, for fear it will fly away. The girl in the poem is a little brown girl, and as she grows older, the doll changes in her image: it transforms; its whiteness is destroyed. As I illustrated it, I noticed (for the sake of convenience, I’d begun with the white doll and overlaid its features with brown paint, black hair) that the smiling expression of the doll in the first frame was rapidly disappearing. It wasn’t that I was erasing her smile, it was that her smile was naturally eroding under the weight of the red lips, the dark skin I’d drawn on. The more color I added to the frame, the unhappier she grew.

 

mary0 mary 2 mary 3 mary4 mary5 mary6 mary7 mary8 mary8 mary9

 

As color seeped into her world, so did pain. Awareness of beauty hurts, but not as much as the awareness of ugliness, the awareness of lack.  In Toni Morrison’s tale, Pecola longs for blue eyes so much; suffers so much as a little black girl that “the matrix of her agony” is filled with death. The awareness of our lack of beauty forces us to strip away skin, to bleach it, to cover up darkness. Beauty is a construct, but who will tell that to those who deconstruct themselves in the search for beauty?

Like Pecola’s friend, I scanned my own doll as a child for the signs of the beauty that had escaped me. I tried to dismember it, to find the secret of the desirability that had not escaped me. I locked my doll in a cupboard, because her beauty hurt me. She was a doll, she decayed. I remained.

 

 

 

 

Roxanne

1. i’m thinking of men singing sad songs to sex workers, only
they never call them that.
in her bedroom, Roxanne puts on thigh-high leather boots;
zips them up – wait, is this Pretty Woman i’m thinking of?- and
strolls the boulevard, her red lipstick an invitation in the
darkness. all the sad men discovering that “cheap” rhymes with
“weep” and that “use” is part of “abuse”
all writing poems to sad
girls who don’t know they don’t have to do things.
do you know you don’t have to sell your body to the night?
d o  y o u   k n o w you’re more than just a whore? but then,
says the jokeman, all women are whores; that’s why they greet
each  other with “whore” and “slut”, stupid sluts
do you know a slut used to mean a woman who didn’t keep her
bedroom tidy and now sluts are still dirty women ha ha ha ah ha
i’m not saying she’s a whore but, jokes the jokeman. have you
heard that one? do you know the joke i’m thinking of?
you cannot be a whore because i love you
sings the sad man. why won’t you let me love you, sings
Alfredo
to Violetta, a “famed courtesan”, in La Traviata. courtesan is
just a  fancy word for whore. he saves her.
she dies of tuberculosis anyway.
they all do

2. men counting. i’m thinking of men counting the number of
hookers they killed in that 2 AM drunk game of Grand Theft
Auto. i’m talking
about body count being the number
of women you fucked but the number of men you killed.
women being fucked. women don’t fuck. they don’t wreck
they are wrecked. sext: i will tear you up like weeds.
men adding things, men subtracting the number of miles it will take
to get to your house. men carefully constructing the architecture of
happiness: a good life, a public proposal so she can’t say No.
do you know how much i paid for that wedding ring? is this
Tiffany i’m thinking of? is that the name of the girl or
the diamond? women are the greatest expense, joke men.
women are expensive & lovely, like fine wines, jokes the
jokeman, the difference is they don’t age well. ha ha ha, ah ha.
is that the joke i’m thinking of because i thought women
weren’t expensive?
remember those times a man approached
you on  a dark street and asked if they could pay you
they never offered very much
that’s it, that’s the whole joke

3. i’m thinking of men waving off your purse on the first date,
so you  shrug and say OK, surewhynot. men letting you sun
yourself in the glow of his generosity his deep-rooted
Niceness
that you are thankful for. is this  Niceness™ i’m thinking of? 
the same man leans in for a kiss after, when you deftly step
back. maybe you just didn’t like him after all. maybe you
wanted to wait until the second date, maybe you just didn’t
feel like it.  maybe you  changed your mind, maybe you’re
just a stuck up bitch.  did you ever consider that?
men being angry, saying  Do you know
I bought you
all those drinks?

do you know how much i spent on dinner? i’m thinking
of women running forward like puppies, leading men on.
good joke, because women are bitches,
says the jokeman, and the bros laugh together, and
the women
laugh also because they are
ashamed, and so the women learned they were bitches.
so you learned to never let them pay
again. later you will close your door, and lean against it.
you have  paid for nothing but you feel poorer, somehow
do you know what i’m thinking of
do you know

 

 

 

 

 

 

Becoming A Sea

 

I came to the dark red door and knocked good and loud because the old lady had asked me to. When he flung open the door in anger, I swallowed my discomfiture and asked for the old lady.

“She’s not here,” he said. He had thick dark eyebrows and I imagined him as a much older man, when his eyebrows would turn white (but still be fierce). But he was young, maybe my age, with a sulky turn of mouth. He wore a soft gray T-shirt, and he leaned against the door in a proprietary way that made me think he must be the old lady’s nephew, or perhaps her grandson.

“I’m here on vacation,” I volunteered, and I could feel the eyebrows thinking So?

“My mother asked me to visit the old lady to see how she was. I come here every summer and I always visit her. She’s asked to see me.” I emphasized the “asked” so he could see that I was legitimate, no afternoon intruder in the quiet privacy of the old lady’s house.

My palms were sweaty in the heat of the day, and I wiped them against the back of my thighs, hoping he couldn’t see.

“Oh,” was all he said, but he stood aside for me to enter. “You better come in and wait. She won’t be long.”

There were almost no lights on, and all the windows were open. I walked straight to the kitchen, where I poured myself a glass of water from the fridge. There were postcards pinned to the fridge by magnets: depressing landscapes fringed by the usual palm trees.

“Who are you?” I said to the boy. “Are you her grandson?”

“My name’s Rohan,” he said with bad grace. He sat down in an ancient chair and fanned himself with a magazine, much as the old lady would. “She’s my aunt. I’m looking after her for the summer. She’s been sick.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. I’m Mira,” I said. He nodded.

“Where are you from?” he asked as I pulled my hair out of its loose bun so I could put it up again.

“Here,” I said. “I’m Indian.”

“Obviously,” he said. “Where are you visiting from?”

“America,” I said. “My parents live at the end of this street.” I brought the glass of water over and dropped into the chair opposite his. I meant to drink it slowly, but found myself unable to stop till I’d drained it.

“That’s why you’re not used to the Indian summer,” he said, pointing at my jeans. “That’s why you’re so dehydrated.”

Now I was as irritable as him, displeased at the idea that I was somehow a stranger.

“I visit every summer,” I said. He shrugged.

“Why wear jeans?” He himself was wearing loose khaki shorts. Underneath, he had unexpectedly beautiful calves for a boy: solid and reassuring. I wanted to touch them and see if they felt cool in the darkness of the room. Instead, I touched my own knees and felt how clammy they were, how stiff and unyielding on my thin legs.

“How long will she be?”

He said he didn’t know, maybe a half-hour, maybe an hour. It clearly made little difference to him. He went on fanning himself with the magazine.

“I’m going to go,” I said, and stood up. “I’ll – I’ll come back later.”

He was polite enough then, and walked me to the door, and stood on the step with his hands thrust deep in his pockets. In the late sun I could see that his face wasn’t as fierce as I’d thought. I felt confused and also angry: at him and myself.

“Bye,” I said, and headed off down the short street.

“Bye,” he called after me, but I didn’t turn. The road seemed to dissolve before me, in the way that deserts do when heat trembles in the air. I thought of the deep Southern states I’d never been to, and fragrance of cactuses (I refused to call them cacti) blooming against the sky. Desert, I decided, was the color purple.

 

 

 

 

When I got home to the air-conditioned comfort of my own house, my mother was making my favourite meal: idlis with spicy sambar and yogurt. I sat down at the dinner table and unbuttoned the top button of my jeans.

“Did you see her?” asked my mother, coming over and setting a steaming hot plate of the idlis down in front of me. My parents spoiled me thoroughly. When I insisted on washing my own clothes or cooking, they told me I could do plenty of both when I was back in America. “You’re so far away from us,” they told me repeatedly. “You live 8,214 miles away. Let us spoil you.” It made me terribly sad to think of my parents looking up this little fact: memorizing the exact number of miles across land and ocean that divided us in the strange urge to quantify their pain at missing me, to count what was uncountable.

“I didn’t.”

“Oh, Mira-”

“I went to her house,” I interjected quickly, soaking my idlis in the sambar until they were soggy.  I only liked idlis if they were soggy.

“Wasn’t she there?”

“No,” I said, “but her nephew was. Rohan something. I told him I’d come back later. “

“I know Rohan,” said my dad, who’d come up behind me to sneak an idli off my plate.

“Yeah?” I said.

“At least – I’ve never met him. I’ve met his parents. We were classmates.”

I ate two whole plates of idlis while my parents reminisced about their schooldays, and then I announced that I still felt hot and wanted to take a nap.

“As messy as your father,” said my mother with fondness, carefully laying down a towel over the puddle of sambar that I’d left underneath the plate.

 

 

 

 

I dressed carefully the next day, putting on a long skirt that my mother had lent me. The skirt was too wide in the waist, but I liked the embroidery, the way it smelt of my mother’s jasmine. I changed shirts twice before putting on a white kurta, and then braided my long hair all down my back to keep the heat out.

This time it was the old lady who answered, and she was overjoyed to see me.

“You’re so beautiful, Mira,” she said, and hugged her close. I could feel the small bird-bones in her back, her fragile hips. We sat down and drank glasses of iced rose milk. It was some time before I dared ask about Rohan.

“He’s out playing cricket.”

“In the afternoon?”

“I don’t know,” said the old lady. “He said he likes to play when the field’s empty.”

I said : “If you ever need anyone to take you to the doctor, please ask me. If Rohan’s ever busy, I’d be happy to.”

We talked for a long time. The old lady wanted to hear about my life and what I was studying at grad school, and when I  told her I’d been awarded a special prize for my thesis, the old lady reached out to clasp my hands in hers. I let her.

When Rohan came in, he said teasingly: “You look very Indian, Mira. Quite different.”

I felt myself flush. I wanted to say something rude.

He sat down and stretched his legs out on the divan, and I felt again how attractive he was, how his slightly damp cricket whites glowed against his dark skin. I stayed for an hour longer, all the while gripping the folds of my skirt under the table, almost trembling.

 

 

After that I came every afternoon, always in the hope that he would be there. He usually was, and we’d talk about all kinds of things while the old lady set out snacks and forced us to eat far more than we could manage. Sometimes he wasn’t, and I felt so disappointed that I longed to hoist my skirts up and run the five miles to the cricket field just to watch him play. I thought about how he rolled his shirtsleeves above his elbows, and how he was tall even when he slouched. I didn’t sleep well, and when I came down in the mornings there were plum-colored bruises under my eyes.

“It’s the heat,” said my mother wisely. “I’ll make you something.” And she swept off to the kitchen to tell the maids to make something for “Miss Mira.”

“I had the air-conditioning on all night,” I said reflexively, but my mother couldn’t hear me.

 

 

One day the old lady wasn’t there.

“She’s at the hospital,” said Rohan. I told him how sorry I was and asked him if he was doing OK. “I can hear the blue in your voice,” I said, and immediately regretted it.

“What do you mean?”

“I have synesthesia, sometimes. I mix up my senses. I dream of letters in color and textures in music. It’s a condition. ” I stopped talking.

“What color is my name?” he asked, standing very close to me, so that all my senses were blurred and rushed as if I’d been riding a roller-coaster. I said the first thing I thought of: “Yellow.”

He was disappointed.

“Yellow? I don’t like yellow. Yellow is my least favourite color. “

“It’s not all yellow. The R is yellow, and so is the W. Some of it is green. Like when you stand in a forest. It’s all dark yellows and green. Everything’s muted. ‘Rohan’ feels like standing in a forest.”

When I said it, I knew I’d said too much. Like the villain in a detective story, I’d blurted out, “But who poisoned him?” when nobody had told me that he was poisoned. I sat down in his aunt’s old chair and picked up the newspaper, holding it high up. I turned to the astrology section and began reading aloud like a little kid, “Cancer: You will make new friends and go on a trip this month. Look after your health. Your moon is in retrograde. You’ll find something you lost last month…”

He came over to me and kneeling, slowly pulled the newspaper out of my hand, so I had to look at him.

“Do you want me to kiss you?” he said, and I couldn’t answer, but he seemed to understand.

 

 

Later, he told me that he’d known all along, that he was even amused by it. I called him cruel, and he laughed, but turned serious again quickly.

“I was waiting for you to say something, I wondered if you would. But you never did. So I had to.”

We were sitting on the old lady’s terrace, and the dying sun shone brightly on us. I’d rolled my thin cotton shirt up to expose my stomach, and he’d taken his off. I’d never been so hot in my life.

“I don’t understand why you do this,” I said.

He gestured to the view. Before us lay the high buildings of the city, dipped in sunset. It was the color of the inside of oyster shells; it was all rose.

“I like the heat,” he said. “I like to see how much heat my body can take. Sometimes I feel as though I’m made of heat. But then a small breeze blows, and there’s relief and it feels better than anything else could possibly feel.”

I slid my shirt down over one shoulder and showed him how quickly the skin there had darkened.

“I’m actually tanning through my shirt,” I said, laughing, and he kissed my bare shoulder where it met my neck. I tilted my head back and felt the sun, as he’d said, coming from inside me: a small, secret source of radiance.

 

 

 

The old lady would be all right, the doctors said, but she’d be in the hospital for a while longer. I went to her house every day and Rohan would be waiting, answering the door almost before I knocked. Later in the evenings, we spent time on the terrace or inside his house where we could be alone, but the afternoons – the long, languorous afternoons- were our time to go out. All the while, I wondered if I was falling in love with him, or whether it was something much simpler than that. While regular people took siestas, we trampled through knee-high shrubs to get to the cricket ground.

“I thought you played with other people,” I said when it became apparent no-one else was there.

He smiled. “Now I’ve got you.”

“I’m a terrible player,” I warned as I swung my bat vainly at his oncoming ball.  He bit his lip, trying not to laugh, and I threw the ball back at him for making fun of me.

“Do you want to go to the sea?” he asked me suddenly.

“What sea? Where?”

“The seaside’s only an hour away. We can go anytime you like. Do you like the sea or the mountains better?”

“Do I have to pick one?”

He shrugged. “People say that usually they like one or the other.”

I thought about it while I drew circles in the red earth with my bat. “I  guess I like the mountains.”

He shook his head sadly. “We’ll never work out.”

“I’d still like to go to the sea,” I told him, and he promised to take me sometime.

 

 

 

We liked to go to the local dhaba, too – Rohan said they had the best fish in town. The men there stared the first time I went, but Rohan ordered for both of us and pretended not to notice. When the food came, it was everything he’d promised: the fish blackened at the edges just the way I liked it, seeming almost to sizzle in the pan, the charred insides baptized with lime juice so my mouth puckered when I bit into it. I felt as though I’d never really tasted food until now, and I looked around in wonderment at my shabby surroundings, at the men dressed in ratty trousers smoking hand-rolled cigarettes.

“I’ve never done this before,” I said.  “Eaten at a dhaba.”

He shook his head. “You’re such a princess,” he said. Although I knew he didn’t mean to be unkind, the comment hurt me, and I pushed away the sharp knife they’d given me to fillet the fish with.

“You’re upset,” he said.

“I’m full.” I dropped some money on the table and got up. He was instantly contrite.

“You know what I mean, Mira. You don’t really live here. When you come, you don’t see the real country. You’re not spoilt, but you’re like that princess who lives in the tower – what’s her name, Rapunzel? You don’t see the ugly bits, the worn-down people.”

“Do I have to go to every slum to see the real country? Everything is real, Rohan. Everything is authentic.”

“You don’t act like that,” he said, and I knew he was right. “You act as though you’re discovering a strange place. You’re on holiday in the Heart of Darkness and I’m your tour guide.”

I turned my back on him then. He followed and told me I didn’t know the way home. I was thwarted even in my grand gestures, I thought, ruined by anticlimax. When he walked to my door, I ran inside before he could say anything.

 

I didn’t go to him for three days. I sat stubbornly in my own house, turning the air-conditioning higher and higher till my mother started complaining that she was freezing. It felt like I was rejecting him in rejecting the urge that led him to seek out the hottest places in the hottest parts of the day.

I remembered telling him that he’d be very comfortable in hell. Hell would feel like an ice bath to him, I’d said, and he’d said that he’d never know, because he planned on going to heaven.

On the fourth day, I knocked on the little red door. When he opened it, he looked at me for a long moment, and then we kissed.

“Not here,” I protested. “Someone will see.”

He took my hand and brought me up to the rooftop again, and showed me how he’d laid out cushions and a thin rug for us.  His laptop was there too, and speakers were plugged into it.

“I thought you’d come today,” he said. “I had a feeling, so I brought this up here. Pick something for us to listen to.”

I didn’t care, but he was waiting, so I played the first thing my hand fell on. It was a song called ‘My Tears Are Becoming A Sea.’

“You’re a closet romantic.”

“Not closeted. I wear it everywhere I go. Everyone can see it.”

The music playing like fountain spray over us.

“What color is music to you?”

“All colors”,  I replied truthfully. “It’s like seeing a rainbow in an oil slick.”

The song ended, but when I got up to play another he kissed me, hard, and pulled me back down on the rug that was still warm from our bodies. He put his hands on me, sliding up my skirt until I groaned. I peeled off his sweaty T-shirt, and felt his shoulder bones and kissed his neck and the tender hollows of his collarbones. Then he was inside me, and I was hotter than I’d ever been before, but I didn’t mind, because of the little breeze and the long shadows cast by the palm trees across our bodies like a blessing.

 

 

He never asked me a single question about, as he termed it, my “real life,” the life that was waiting for me at home.  I was the one to bring it up when summer had begun to fade.

“They say it’s going to be an Indian summer,” I said one day when we were at the hospital, waiting to see the old lady. He held my hand, because he said that was the one place where no-one would mind public displays of affection. No-one would stare at  us at a hospital, he explained, because I could be his dying sister. Nobody wanted to be rude to a dying girl.

“Every summer is an Indian summer.”

“Not here,” I said nervously. “Home. America.”

“Oh,” he said, and I could tell he wanted to say something more, but he didn’t. My gaze fell on the salted lime soda in my other hand. I watched the glass sweat; a long drop of moisture slid to the bottom.

“I’ll be back next summer,” I tried again. “I can come back in December, too. I know my parents won’t mind if I come twice a year – they’d love to have me.”

He shook his head.

“Mira,” he said, “I don’t live here. I’m only here to look after my aunt. I won’t be here next December, or even next summer. I’m sorry,” he said, looking right at me with his eyes that were the color of a summer campfire, rust-brown and smoky. That was his color, I suddenly knew, not yellow or even green. I’d mistaken it for a forest, but it was a fire.  “You just live so far away.”

“8,214 miles,” I said. “That’s how far.”

“Right,” he said. “Well, even if you didn’t – I don’t think…” and his voice trailed off into a graceful pause.

Suddenly I felt I would scream if he said anything more at all, though I know he wanted to. I knew that he wanted to go on and say all kinds of things: like “I didn’t mean to hurt you,” or even “Maybe we shouldn’t have started this if we couldn’t continue it.”

I said: “Don’t get the wrong idea. I had a good summer. You know? We could have had another. That’s all I meant by it.”

“Okay,” he said, turning my palm up and kissing it. This, I knew, was something he liked to do: he liked to punctuate conversations with a kiss. But the kiss was never a comma or a question mark, it was always a full stop.

 

 

My parents knew I’d met someone, but they knew very little about it, or the fact that it had ended how it had. I’d always been private. Private – such a strange word, I thought, in its implication that other people are somehow public. I imagined the signs glowing in America: THIS IS A PUBLIC RESTROOM. THIS IS A PRIVATE RESTROOM. THIS IS FOR CUSTOMERS ONLY.

I tried to keep it private, but my mother caught me upset in the kitchen one day. I’d been slicing watermelon to help her make juice, and it was something I loved, although I was no good at cooking. It was so easy to cut watermelon, so easy and so hypnotic to sink my steel knife into the pale pink flesh, to turn it this way and that until three perfectly symmetrical slices fell from the parent fruit. Then I’d crush it with the back of my knife to release the sweetness, and this is what I had been doing when I started whimpering.

My mother came in and fetched me a paper towel. This is what I love most about her: her ability to be practical at the most sentimental of times, something I have never possessed.

“Well,” she said, “what is it? Did you cut yourself?”

“It’s only a little thing,” I told her, and I knew she understood that I didn’t want to talk about it. She hesitated for a moment, and then wiped my face.  Perhaps she already knew all about it – mothers have such a mysterious gift of knowing.

“Do you feel feverish?”

“A little,” I admitted. “I feel a little delirious.”

“I know what you need. We’ll have it for dinner,” she said, and swept the leftover pieces of watermelon into the trash before pressing her hand (still cold from filling ice trays) to my cheek, and I felt that she did, after all, know what I needed.

 

 

 

He called the next day, and the next day, and the day after that, but I never answered.

Summer was ending, and I had to pack. I was right about it being an Indian summer, the heat lingered on, bright and fierce, well into August. But it didn’t matter to me anymore, I no longer ventured out in the afternoons. I spent them with my parents, who I knew were melancholy at the prospect that I’d soon be gone. We played chess and watched movies; went for walks at night. I let them talk about the people they’d known and the people they missed, knowing they didn’t have anyone else to tell.

On my last day there, my parents loaded my things into the car.

“We’re running late,” fretted my dad. “She’ll miss her flight.”

They bundled me into the back and set off, and I pressed my face to the glass, leaving the mark of my face on the fog-chilled windows. At the top of the hill, we passed the house with the red door, and I thought of how we never had gone to the beach, after all. And then I thought of the miles I would cross to go back home, to my other home. I thought of the old lady, and how happy she would be when I came back next summer.

Like I’d been mistaken about Rohan, I’d been mistaken about the color of summer. I’d thought it was the color of forests, of fires at their core, a bitter orange. But it was more like the sea when you stare at it for too long. It’s blue, like possibility. It’s not blue but transcendent, almost no color at all because it is every color; so dazzling that you look long after the tears are streaming down your cheeks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Real Women’

 

In the movie When Harry Met Sally, Meg Ryan’s character, Sally, sits in a diner with her friend, Harry.  Harry says that he has always been able to give a woman an orgasm, and Sally questions the veracity of this claim. She tells Harry that women “fake it.” Harry admits to knowing that women fake it, but not with him. He can tell the difference, he says. Sally looks at him for a second, then goes into her now-notorious performance. She grips the table, runs her fingers through her hair, and lets out soft cries of “Yes!” until everyone is staring at the two of them. Harry is astonished, but Sally concludes her performance with aplomb. When she finishes, she immediately resumes eating her sandwich as calmly as if an extraordinary event had not just occurred, as if the audience has not just witnessed the way in which women are concerned with the perception of their performance in bed. The scene is illustrative of a larger truth: the fact that women are often thinking about how they look and with the authenticity of their performance, even at the most intimate of moments. Women “lie” in bed – excuse the pun – and the lie is attributed to the deceptive nature of women, not with the internalized idea that we should prioritize the pleasure of the man. Women, in that moment, are acting, and the act is construed as a lie.

The idea of Woman as performance piece, Woman as dramatic, Woman as drama itself, is nothing new under the sun. It began with men, who were cast as players- in both the modern and ancient senses of the word. Man as seducer is a trope that perhaps belies the fact that it is the authenticity of the woman that is always in question. Perhaps men in Victorian novels deceive women -”men were deceivers ever”, says Shakespeare, but it is women today who are inexorably associated with artifice, always seen as performers in the male gaze, always seen as performing for the male gaze.

Real men do – fill in the blank?  “Real men don’t hurt women,” asserted Barack Obama in January. Real men respect women. Real men, real men, real men. Real men do not catcall. Real men do not hit women. Real men do not rape. They do not abuse.

The assertion is eminently unsatisfactory, because we who are real – not fictional- women, understand that they do. We read it every day in the papers ; our lived experiences show that they do. The men who hurt women are real flesh, real bones and real blood. “If he hurt you, he wasn’t a real man,” is no consolation to the wounded.

Real women do – fill in the blank? Real women are conceived of in quite different ways than real men. Men are characterized as real if they possess X set of attributes [that, taken together, reflect notions of traditional masculinity more than anything.] But the realness of women is questioned much more extensively.  The site of the woman’s body is mined for realness, and so often found lacking. What is the masculine equivalent of Real Women Have Curves? Is there one?

The masculine beauty ideal exists, but men who do not meet it are not classified as not being “real.” In sharp contrast, women with skinny body types and narrow hips are banished to the realm of the “unreal.” The Dove Real Beauty Campaign discusses unrealistic beauty standards in the media, but continues to propagate a strange narrative of what real women look like, and what real beauty is. Realness, as a concept, is still central to the Dove Woman. And so we circle back to the question of artificial beauty, of artifice.

 

Dove-Ad-thumb-600x299-124392

 

 

 

Take the artifice of makeup. Makeup is an instrument, a daily ritual for most women. Makeup is a construction of a face, say men, that women do not in reality possess. There is an eternal fascination – mirrored in the tabloids, in men’s forums on Reddit – with un-made-up women. There is one all-consuming question- what do women look like without makeup? What do famous women look like without makeup? Which women are ugly without makeup, and which women are not? Which women wear too much makeup? Makeup is part of the performative identity, and is often construed by men as being especially for their benefit. Men often tell me they find me more attractive with less makeup. The [heteronormative] assumption is implicit: women wear makeup for men.

 

 

Makeup is often marketed as a “masque.” When women take off their makeup, they are perceived as vulnerable because the “mask” is off. In the Natasha Bedingfield music video, “I Bruise Easily”, the singer takes off her elaborate regalia and makeup – she is dressed and made up to look like a geisha – to reveal her bare face, which accords with the theme of the video: vulnerability. It’s a clever little sleight of hand on the part of the music video director that conceals the lie: Natasha is  heavily made up in the scene in which she lets down her hair and sings in jeans and a tank top.

Men do not understand what “the no-makeup-look” means, and how it differs from a face that is truly bare. They talk about feeling deceived when they see a woman without her makeup, as if the simple act of blackening your eyelashes constitutes some deep and terrible betrayal of self.  Popular Twitter comedian Kelly Oxford tweeted: “Women are more self-conscious than men about how we look because we walk around all day with makeup on our faces like a bunch of liars.” Makeup, they say, is a lie, and thus a woman who wears makeup is a liar. Men become very angry at the artifice they imagine we propagate. I am not qualified to discuss the struggles of a transwoman to be perceived as a real woman in a society that sees chromosomes as determining the composition of a “real woman,” but I can imagine that it adds several more complex layers to ideas of women as “performative.”

 

kelly

 

What is the difference between a liar and an actress? (This sounds like the beginning of a bad riddle.) Both wear makeup, after all. However, the art of an actress lies in her performance: she is praised for “lying.” If women are liars without being professional actresses, we are doing something undesirable. We are undesirable, we are manipulative.  Real men are expected to not do X, true. But real women are expected to not do X, as well as not to look Y. Real women are expected to “not be hoes.” Real women are expected to not be skinny, not to have undergone plastic surgery, not to wear too much makeup. We are not “real.” We are a figment, a fever-dream, a reflection in the eye of a man.

What do women want? asked Freud, and this is something men echo through the decades, as if women were a monolith and not separate individuals with distinct desires and dreams. The idea, of course, is that we do not know what we want. But there is a more ominous reading of this question, and that is “Men can never know what we want.” If we are not real women, if we are shrouded  in illusion, how can men expect to understand us?

There is this scene in The Matrix, a movie that is often quoted by men’s rights activists as being instrumental in their understanding of the world. Neo, the protagonist, stands before his mentor Morpheus, in a dystopic universe that he has only just become aware of. Morpheus, deep-voiced, tells him to question his surroundings, tells him to interrogate the very concept of reality. This is nothing new under the sun for women, whose “realness” is interrogated by those around us. We are constantly locked in a struggle to define ourselves as “real”, to have to prove that reality in a world in which we are all already seen as Eve’s daughters and therefore already artificers. Welcome to the desert of the real.