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Posts Tagged ‘men’

lip and eye

It starts here.

9pm, heading home from pub trivia at a busy spot near my office. Down on the metro platform, the orange line train pulls in. Only six stops to my station. I’ll be walking the dog by 9:30.

The doors slide open onto a car bubbling with chatter. Summer in DC, the weekend lasts all week. Between nuzzling couples and clusters of young people, a few wilted office drones slouch and sleep. I take one of the few unoccupied seats. Bar hoppers stream out around me.

 

Manspreading.

He takes up a row. Briefcase on its side next to the window, legs splayed, foot halfway into the aisle. As I settle into a corner perpendicular across the car, he catches my eye. I ignore him, pull out my journal and start writing.

The sensation a prickle, a tiny persistent sting against scalp and skin.

He’s still looking.

(more…)

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Mother Earth Odjig

Mother Earth, Daphne Odjig

Eyes like a growling. Eyes like a treasure box. Storefront reflection, candid photograph, inverted glint on spectacle glass.

Eyes tethering me to corporeality.

They write their stories on my body. Make their confessions on my body. Cast the runes and decode the signs and plan their fortune on my body. Ink the map of their nightmares on my body. X the spot of their rescue on my body.

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Listen Now

starry-night

Itzhak Perlman was riding shotgun when the October moon slid out onto the horizon. The soloist’s strokes teased from the slimmest strings the opening notes of Beethoven’s violin concerto.  Other players followed and a rumble rose from deep in the bouts of cello and bass, swelling to a roar and thundering through my ribs, pressing out the tears.  The stoplight was seconds from green so I pressed back.  It took some effort.  It took my breath.

The moon lay herself down in a hammock of treetops and followed us with her sleepy gaze.

Across town, a young writer of mysteries saw her too.  What echoed across the dusk to his ears was Don McLean’s “Vincent,” at least the opening verse.  His song reached in through the passenger side window and wound around the Berlin Philharmonic.  I pulled into a jammed parking lot.  They grabbed their instruments by the neck and careened off together, streaking light across the purple sky.

(more…)

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cave woman

Downstairs is the Cave of Dudes.  It is where the free-weights line up in rows by the mirror, where contraptions pierced through with grimy iron bars and corsets of straps hunch in the corners and dare you to approach.  Someone has squeezed a couple of treadmills in at the back.  They are the wireless kind that run on human power instead of electricity.  The robot machines are quartered in the vast gallery upstairs, a whole army of them blinking out their perfectly calibrated, simulated tracks on LED screens.

Down in the cave, incline benches.  Pull-up bars.  Clangs and grunts.  Some days, most days, I’m the only gal down there.

The Cave of Dudes skews young.  They cluster in packs, spotting each other and counting off.  Their tattooed calves flex with effort.  When they finish a set, they pace, flushed and breathless.  They turn their arms just so to see the cut in the mirror.  They try to look like they’re not looking.

The few older men who dare to visit are made of sinew and focus.  They grip through fingerless gloves.  Intensity makes their neck veins pop.  Even though they lift less, they seem stronger.  Grounded.  The old dudes are more likely to end up on a mat doing the peacock pose.

I am a 42-year old woman with cellulite and stained sneakers.  It takes an enormous force of will to peel myself from the whirring breeze of the elliptical and descend into the Cave of Dudes.  It stinks of testosterone.  The man-juice is thick as brine and you’ve got to churn your way through the miasma to get to the dumbbells.

I go because I love the place.  It’s a playground, full of toys to mess around with.  Yet every time I start down, up drifts the bass dialogue and the metal bang.  With it, a clench of dismay.  Couldn’t it be silence?  This time, couldn’t the room be mine alone?  It never has been, not in all the years I’ve been going.  There’s no reason to believe it would be now.  Still.  Traveling has offered up enough deserted, junky hotel fitness rooms that I know what a blast it can be to bounce around by myself.

Better yet, how about a gaggle of gals?  If my girlfriends in their saggy capris and cheap Reeboks joined me, that would be a party.  We could shut off ESPN and crank Throwing Muses and Flogging Molly.  We could do all the wrong things with the iron maidens in the corner.  We could dance between sets.

But in the Cave of Dudes, antics are unwelcome.  Talking, unless it’s about muscles and stuff, is also rare.  Dancing?  Who would dare to try?

To will myself through the throatfuls of male musk, I’ve learned to man up.  Every gal has a store of Dude inside her.  She knows how to act remote and invulnerable.  How do you think she survives the subway, the office, the bar, the street?  When it’s necessary, she taps  the supply, adopting tunnel vision and shooting straight for the target.  No distractions.

Even when — especially when — those distractions are the echoes of ancient patterns learned by a girl surviving in a universe of threat.

I know rationally that the dudes in the cave have things more compelling than me to capture their attention.  They may notice the arrival of a female of the species, but what’s it to them if I’m clumsy or old or weak?  What do I care even if they do care (which they don’t)?   I’m safe here.

I know all this rationally, but still, the sense of intrusion, of outsider-ness, as I walk in almost overwhelms me.  Among the dudes, the racks and incline benches look as sinister as they do inviting.  My toys, in the company of dudes, look like mistakes waiting to happen.

Stepping across the room, I try not to glance at the bench press.  It’s my favorite piece of equipment.  I started on it a year or so ago with just the bar.  Eventually, the weights went on.  Week by week, they increased.

It’s a strange kind of thrill to climb of my own free will under that iron bar.  Lifting it off the stand exposes my girly chest parts and delicate neck to a grimy mass, one that’s entirely in my control.  It’s danger, it’s power.  Nothing beats finding out how much this body can do.

Despite all this love, I start to stride past it over to the relative safety of the dumbbells.  A trio dudes are all gathered up near my beloved bench.  One of them is doing some sort of big-cock-lunge-squats while the other two watch with their arms crossed.  It looks like a dare.  Or a hazing.

As I pass, a little voice whispers, I wish he were here.

Oh, you again.

The voice accompanies me everywhere, all the time.  But I hear it right here, at this almost imperceptible moment of choice.  The timing makes me pause.  That wish is whispering up right as I am about to abandon my very favorite exercise on account of the presence of men.

I stop.  I let that wish bob and dance like a soap bubble , the little voice a song inside it.  Yes, we always got such a kick out of sweating together, punching stuff and finishing the run with a wind sprint.  Yes, this was one of highs we climbed together.  And yes, if he were here, every piece of equipment in this place would be fair game.  We’d mess around with it together.

All this wishing.  Wishing to be alone, wishing for the company of women, wishing for My Mister.  Wishing to be younger and stronger.  Or older and more free.  Can I actually change any of these things?  For the ones I can change, do I want them enough to take the leap?

Or do I choose this?

Wishing without action is a destructive habit.  It’s biting nails and picking at scabs.  It’s holding the fact of the terrain up against an ink-stained map of Rivendell.  It’s falling from a cliff then cursing the earth that’s caught you.

He’s not here, Smirk.  It’s just you, your grit, and your capacity to make your own bliss.

Get to it.

I touch that bubble with the tip of my courage and let it pop.

Then I slide on right past the trio of dudes, grab two 10-pound weights, and rack up.


Image: “River in a Cave,” John Spies, Thailand

 

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Hand Wraps

His daughter sits on the basement floor and colors, if what she’s doing can be called that. The enchanted forest book was among yesterday’s Christmas loot. Green ink creeps in swirls as she embellishes the narrow space between the veins of a leaf. She barely registers the music screeching past as it thuds thuds in time to leather gloves pounding a heavy bag.

This is his three minutes. I squeeze into a corner of the blue mat on my back. My clasped hands are wrapped in ragged strips of fabric and swipe at the air as I curl into crunches, press towards 50 and then surge past. Close to my exposed flank – too close – he jolts and slips and ducks. The weight falls off as beads of sweat hit the mat. Shadows of sinew cut into his shoulders. Ropes braid his neck. He dances with power thrumming along every string.

The earlier chapters are carved into flesh hidden beneath skin. The tongue is lost but the meter of those verses is translation enough. Ghosts jammed their grappling hooks into his jaw and temple and laid their weight against the cables. Claw over claw, they tried to draw him with stubborn resolve down into that pit where they boil the tar and hemlock, where they chant their cold spells. Mother Gothel learned her arts there before planting her garden. You may know the place. The more you lean in, the stronger the scent of oblivion.

On the floor near my shoulder, his daughter chooses a darker green for the branches. “They’re supposed to be brown,” she says, “Like a tree. But I want them to be vines.” She paints the fine strands like jungle dusk.

He keeps his fists in his line of sight. I see how he grows muscle from sources both clear and buried. He laces up gloves and running shoes, of course. He pounds it out on canvas and asphalt. Yet under that, a core strength comes from a deeper exertion. He strains up, always up, forcing momentum to reverse against the compulsion to surrender, resisting that sweet temptation of relief.

To those whose bodies are matched to the pull of gravity, this effort is incomprehensible. But look closely and you’ll see the corrugated skin and voice, you’ll see the cuts like scars across the force field he emits from the moment he wakes even before the sun. You’ll see how his light’s flickering tempo jabs back against the black box of night.

He invites you into that basement where he does battle with an appetite for extinction. He powers up some deeper engine and keeps it running, makes it growl against the silent pulleys they use to draw him in. He keeps it humming, makes it fire, even when the key has gone missing, he pushes it from the hill and pops the clutch. He finds a way to spark it to life no matter how thick the rime obscuring a barely remembered green.

His daughter switches out jade for fern and loops spirals along the wings of a bird. She looks up, pausing to watch her dad’s fists fly against the bag. “Can I have a turn?” She asks.

“Sure, babygirl,” he pants. “Let’s get your hands wrapped after this round.” He smiles in her direction before turning a scowl back on the bag. It sways, creaking its displeasure at the assault.

I bend sideways to force my obliques into submission. I face him now, watch his bare feet shuffle over the mat as he circles his unyielding crimson opponent. He is strength here, he is courage. He is also their opposite. He is the admission of weakness, the acknowledgment of fear. He knows what is at stake. He’s felt the reeling sensation that comes when every treasure escapes his grip. He’s seen how close a man can come to failing to save the most precious.

He chooses fierce. Both coach and fighter, he splashes cold water in his own face and wakes the weary champion. He plays as if brave knight-errant, as if he was born for this, because he’s covered enough earth to know he is not. None of us is, and anyone who believes otherwise is Don Quixote, all fool and bluster.

This is why I love the softness there under the corners he’s trying to chisel back into his armor. Those tender places are just as welcome in my grip as the cut and thunder. Plenty of men are blind to their weak seams and show only scars that come with a good story. They have not been tested yet. They have not broken. It is always only a matter of time.

I want to see bulges and the crude patch job. These are the places where he stuffed whatever gauze and rotgut he could find. These jagged seams map his crossing, and they show him which way to turn if he finds himself back on that familiar route. The stitches hold the reminder of what happens when he loses his footing, when he almost falls so far he can’t climb back. I want to know he’s visited that place. Even if he stayed long enough in that pit to become a citizen, he chose to give up its Neverland promises and rise back up to life.

Evidence of that ascent is written into him. I see the callouses on his hands and know that he keeps them in shape both to hold his domain among the living and to keep climbing, even now, even when he could be justified in saying this is far enough.

The bell clangs, end of round. I stand. He lets out a breath and taps my hip before ripping off his gloves. I pull the straps tight on mine, bouncing on the balls of my feet as I wait for the seconds to tick down to my beginning. He touches his daughter on the head. She lifts her eyes from the twining vines and tangled leaves now waking to lushness across the page. “Let’s get your wraps on,” he says. “You’re up next.”

 

 

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Then she realizes it is not man. It never has been man. The one whose gaze she has been seeking all this time, alert to it feeling its way up her spine, it is not one or another. It is only a gaze, an entity all its own taking on some kind of psychic presence in her orbit. It moves from eye to eye, brain to brain, sketching her into background or foreground depending on preference, on mood, on the light slanting across the edge of day.
 
The outsideness of it she never questions. She simply submits to it, as if only that exists: submission to the forever slipping away line of sight. Her form, laugh, posture, texture all move about like a bit player, an extra only. Just a hash-mark on the canvas, one of the legion, a soldier of oil drawn into nameless formation alongside interchangeable others down a mountainside waiting for the slaughter. She is one. She is all of them.
 
It is never a man at all, is it? The origin of the gaze, it never really is him placing her, taking her measure. No, it is not living tissue with intention, not even an actual eye in an actual skull.
 
Instead, it is the piece of her she left behind. The missing Y, the twin who was next in the queue and swam out against its will in the next tide, out into the sea, out to be lost to Marianas trench. Later, eons later, geyser force, thrust (again, unwillingly!) a briny and brimstone singed speck of what she lost back to the surface. Now this He (or, rather, her) watches, watches.
 
Not to take her measure, no. Not to judge or even manipulate. These are the assumptions of the simple mind. He (or is it She?) only comes to covet. For corporal life? Yes, for the depth of the bend, the unchained laugh, even – yes, even this – the pain. Deep in the bones, the age and accumulating disease, the sorrow – yes. He would take all of it. Give everything. His universal access, the boundless roaming, for one minute in her skin.
 
This twin, a houri, thunders in astride some winged steed made of nothing but smoke and the dried rinds of tangerines left on the riverbank. She loved him before she knew love but was gone before he ever knew her at all. Now she begins to wonder. Now, the dawning awareness.
 
The he is her He, and he is only just everything she traded for life. Is she wrong? Is it possible he is not the one who came after her? They lose their beginnings and endings, out there in the nothing of not-life. Maybe he was shed before? Did he, in fact, precede her by a fortnight, out into the gnashing maw of the world? Did he roll out the crimson carpet? Did he bury the landmines in his wake, just for her, just for spite?
 
Jealous thing, this unborn brother. No wonder he stares with such assessing frost. He hovers like an odor yet he refuses to resolve into view. Would that be his undoing? To let her see him? She dares to believe he can be undone, that she has some agency in the situation, but perhaps she is fooling herself (as is He). Surely, surely, no one would instill such power in a creature as weak and foolish as she. That would be a muck-up on a cosmic scale. She has no managerial skills, no executive privilege, no armaments (that she knows of).
 
He fears something. This much is slowly becoming clear. She can’t imagine what. How could it be? His everything, the whole of the skies, the diamond planet, all of Davy Jones’ locker and the soft thighs of the unclaimed farmer spinning wool in the wooden room by a window streaked with oil and light, all of this at his fingertips, and he stands there watching her? Is this the best he can do?
 
So finally, she turns on Him (who is her and who is surely there, even if only seeing but not seen) and speaks:
 
In this world you choose to crave this erratic pulse, this weak will, this drifting imagination and coarse flesh? You have nothing to constrain your wanderings – not body and its hungers, not child and the chains of toil, not the need and the clutching, relentless thirst of the ones to whom you belong. You are neither bound by gravity not checked by time. Yet still, ghost, gaze, you linger here in the doorway of my unremarkable boudoir?
 
And then he speaks in her voice from her own throat:
 
What shall we trade? One crumb each from the other plate?
 
They both consider.
 
The night is long.
 

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The comment was not meant for my ears.
 
The young couple walked over a carpet of grass under a smiling May sky. The shared yes shined all cheeks including those of the two-year-old daughter brought by the bride into the union. It was a postcard moment. The problem is that moments never sit still.
 
The groom, a co-worker, pulled the twosome into his grip. From the early courtship, I worried for mother and daughter both. He had a repellant tendency towards conceit and control, and the thought of their having to build a life with the guy made me shudder. I had tried to befriend the girls but he inserted himself into our interactions every chance he got.  The mom was sweet but passive. Young, too. She believed her daughter needed a strong male role model. I wanted to beg her to run. How could she possibly have seen enough in the guy to want to stay? She claimed to love him. Ah, yes. Love. What do I know about the secrets that unfold when the door closes? And there they were, standing before the glittering lake together. Vows, rings, flowers, cheers.
 
One must wish for good.
 
As they walked away, legally bound now, I heard one of her male relatives lean over and say sotto voce to his neighbor, “Boy, she really got lucky with that one.”
 
The other fellow replied, “I don’t know how she managed it, but I hope she can hold onto him.”
 
A frost wrapped its grip around my veins.
 
This is how it is, I suppose: How we learn what is allowed for us, and how we come to know what we can expect from these messy lives. Hearing this whisper helped me understand more of the bride’s story. (With family like that, who needs enemies?) Yes, perhaps she had heard enough about her wasted chances that she believed she needed to be saved. And perhaps she had also been tromped on by stupid, arrogant men enough that she mistook dominance for devotion.
 
Also, though, didn’t that whisper shout a truth shared by too many of us? He is the prize, and it was just dumb luck that she picked the golden ticket. With all that baggage, she shouldn’t look too closely at the fine print.
 
Single moms have to take what we can get. If we hope to find companionship again in this life, we might as well accept that we are going to have to settle for less. Most men (even single dads) will take one look at the kiddos we bring into the relationship and will think twice.  The sooner we face that we are not the hot commodities we once were, the better off we’ll be.
 
Or something to that effect.
 
How much of this do we internalize, despite knowing better?
 
Lately, I have been struggling with the beginning of a budding something-or-other with a fine fella who has a couple of kids of his own. We have enjoyed a few friendly, casual quasi-dates and exchanged some thoughtful emails. Our conversation has deepened, and something like interest has begun to push up through the polite chit-chat.
 
Now, I pause.
 
In the midst of this growing interest, three things happened rat-tat-tat to throw me off my game. First, a weekend work event and last-minute childcare issues had me scrambling to find 11th-hour care for a super-early Saturday morning. Two days of stress, planning, and pleas to friends later, it was resolved. Right on the heels of that, a freak roller skating accident busted up my wrist and ankle. In a splint and in pain, I was out of driving commission for the better part of a week. Both my work and my son’s school commutes had to go through some major contortions during that time. Finally, as soon as I was driving again, a tire puncture left me flat as we were pulling out of the driveway on the way to school. Several more days of commuting kerfuffle ensued.
 
Needless to say, I was exhausted.
 
This new fellow, he heard about all of this going on. He continued to express his interest. To ask me when I wanted to get together. To send me friendly texts about his thoughts, his day, and even to inquire into my well-being.
 
Not once did he offer to help.
 
I am a tough mama. I can go it alone. I have friends and family, and hell, I got this shit down.  Nevertheless, as the two weeks went by and his chatty calls and emails cropped up, I felt a growing sense of disappointment. It is early enough in our friendship that I am unlikely to ask straight out for help. I didn’t feel like I should, as we haven’t built anything solid between us yet.
 
Of course, this isn’t the whole story. I also notice that part in me that wants to make sure he sees me as capable instead of needy. I want him to association me with fun! And Lightness! And not to create a link in his mind between me and having to work at something. Aren’t there a dozen other single moms lined up behind me that would rip my arms off for a chance to get at this guy? And wouldn’t it be stupid of me to destroy my chances on something as insignificant as a missing offer of help? I mean, can’t I live without that? Haven’t I learned to manage just fine anyway?
 
Isn’t he the prize? And shouldn’t I just be smart and not look too closely at the fine print?
 
So, instead of asking outright, I simply breathed through the confusion and decided to wait. I kept being friendly, kept responding with politeness, and waited to see what would happen. I sat in that open not-knowing, leaving the door wide open for him to decide what role he wants to play in my life.
 
The last time he called, he asked AGAIN about the flat tire. I told him it was not yet fixed, I was having to rely on my folks and friends, and I would be hauling my kid with me to the service station in the morning. He said, “Well, good luck. Let me know if you want to get together for a play date or something if your plans change.”
 
Like it did on that beautiful May afternoon, the frost wrapped its little fist around my veins.
 
A successful, attractive, sharp-as-a-tack fellow is expressing interest in me. He continues to reach out, ask me for drinks, and accompany me on walks. But in that moment on the phone, I realized something chilling. He has not once asked me on a date-date. He’ll say, “Hey, let me know when you’re free.” But he has not actually said, “Can I please take you out to dinner? There’s a performance I’d love to take you to see.” Something along those lines. If I honestly look at our exchanges over the past couple months, I’m a little embarrassed by how much I have made myself available to this guy. It has been me showing up with the token gift every time we get together. Me sending him suggestions when he has a project or is planning an event. Me making the arrangements for where we will meet. Me going over to his house for a glass of wine and a chat. I jumped from initial interest to courting him without him following a similar trajectory.
 
I was feeling happy and thankful that someone was interested, and doing whatever it took to keep it moving in the right direction. It didn’t occur to me to even acknowledge what I want, let alone ask for it. Isn’t it realistic to hope for him to put in the effort to keep me feeling good about us, too?
 
All of us carry the scars of our past relationships. The voices of the old lovers, fathers, friends and villains clang against our ribs, making it hard to discern the unique tattoo of our own hearts.  
 
Sometimes distant echoes freeze us inside the threshold of our own home base.
 
I’ve been told I overthink things, that I crave drama, that I am cold and distant, that I don’t know how to love and that I fall in love too easily. That I am selfish and that I give too freely. I have clung, I have dismissed. Every time, these choices seemed both right and wrong, taking me both further from the easy catch and closer to my true path.
 
And so I wonder: Is it time to stop trying to make myself wantable, and instead seek partnership that guides me towards my purpose? Am I finally going to respect myself enough to build a relationship that honors my best self?
 
I do know how to love, and I also know there are hundreds if not hundreds of thousands of ways it can unfold between two people. Whether this guy and I are a good fit for each other is more about how we handle the places where we grate than it is about easing into a postcard-perfect embrace.
 
It may be the case that we will move to the other side of this, talking with care and creativity the way we have in every conversation so far. Perhaps I will learn that he is not as generous with his time and support as I would like my fella to be, and then I will be faced with a choice between acceptance and moving on. Perhaps he will surprise me, and I will be the lucky one to be on the receiving end of his generous spirit. Who knows?
 
Whatever happens, I will not put my head down and just be happy for any old attention I get because it is all I can hope for on this side of divorce. Instead, I picture a full-to-spilling life, with friends and love and meaningful work. I invite in the crazy ups-and-downs with my headstrong kid, the long walks over distant mountains, learning and then forgetting the names of birds calling from branches. I welcome garlic popping in oil on the stove, a sugared ginger decadence cooling on the counter, the jars and books and paints and splattered messes. In all of this, I feel the presence of someone near who places his hand on my arm and says, “Here, let me get that.” In all of this, I also feel the warm throb of solitude calling forth words on a page and candlelight in an empty room.
 
In any event, I do not feel frost gripping my veins.
 
I know that all of us – the fella, the Me, our children, the bride and her baby girl and everyone else besides – are precious and miraculous beings. We have it in us to craft a life meant for storybooks. But we have to be our own heroes, and we have to believe against all the forces whispering cold wind across our hearts that we are more than the lucky ones. We are also the gifts. Each and every one of us is the prize.
 

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