It seems every time I come to London, some song haunts my experience of this space that encapsulates the emotional landscape I’m occupying. I was thinking about what it was that would capture the summer for me, that buoyance and happiness that has so thoroughly infused me of late. I found it. Actually it’s a whole album of awesomeness that hits on self-love, drag queens, and a deep appreciation for the love in one’s life.
Yes, that’s right, Meghan Trainor’s last album (2016) is my summer soundtrack. Which is actually really saying something. I promise, I’ll get to Meghan in a minute. (Ok, in Part II, but Meghan won’t make any sense unless you have the back story.)
I’ve written before about how transformative my time in London has been, especially when combined with beginning my ashtanga yoga practice and my research career. But I haven’t written about what it meant to me to be on my own here for over five months when I’d left a painful, volatile, and intensely disparaging partner at home in New York.
I’d gotten together with my second husband very soon after I freed myself from my first husband. I was certainly damaged and codependent, and unable to feel valued without the “love” of a man. As a bisexual, that really says something about the way women internalize the logic of patriarchal culture. Not even the love of a woman would have filled this hole in my sense of self worth.
And even all my time in grad school, reading feminist and gender theory, hadn’t helped me totally extricate myself from the damaging cycles of self-valuation through the male gaze, through my own utility to the patriarchy, and through what men thought of me, and more particularly, my emotionally distant and mentally ill partner. I’d come to terms with my bisexuality. I had learned how to stop accepting the deeply misogynistic behavior that was happening in my own home. But I still wasn’t free to either be myself or to live in an environment that wasn’t constantly steeped in casual sexism and the implicit cage that comes with a partner who will go nuclear the moment you step on the wrong eggshell.
My time in London was an opportunity to be myself and only myself for myself — for the first time in my adult life. I had swung like Tarzane, from man to man, and had never given myself time to just be me. To know who I am, outside of my relationship to any other particular person. Going to London alone for an extended period of time was a coming of age. But not the Holden Caulfield kind; the woman kind, where you realize just how oppressive the weight of the patriarchy is and has been, and how, when you don’t have to carry so much of it all the time, you are free and creative and vivacious.
It was the birthday I spent in Paris where I fully bloomed into myself. As I joke with my friends, drag is how I came to be comfortable with being a woman. I have never felt at home in femininity, and yet I ended up with a hyper feminine body. When I realized it was all drag anyway, I figured, “well, if I have to be a lady, there better be some fucking rhinestones.” And LIPSTICK.
Those of you who know me know that lipstick is a part of my identity. Paris is where this happened. In fact, I think you see the very FIRST time I felt brave enough to wear red lipstick in the above photo. That’s right. Brave. Because somehow being a woman, and doing something that says “I’m here! and I’m fabulous! and You WILL pay attention to me!” requires courage.
The anthem for my time there was really Florence + the Machine’s album “Lungs.” I discovered Flo in London, and though it was several years old already, Lungs expressed exactly that kind of joy I felt at being able to breathe again for the first time. Every morning as I walked to yoga I’d listen to the album in order. The route from my flat to the Stables was inscribed with the lyrics of each song; each line is now permanently associated with the pavement of certain streets and corners in Camden Town.
But it said EXACTLY what I was feeling. “Happiness hit her like a train on the tracks.” The violence of being struck by oncoming happiness so big and so powerful and so inexorable made the joy itself almost unbearable. My soul was so raw from being consistently raked over my husband’s perceptions of my failures that happiness almost hurt. It hurt worse when I was heading home and dreading the way I would inevitably lose my grip on that happiness. But Florence was right. I was “stuck still no turning back.” And the dog days were really over. Though I returned, and though we struggled for several more years to pull it together, I was never going back to that cage again. I came home, but nothing else could ever contain me again.
When I returned to London the following summer, it was a time of parties and friends and a happiness that I carved out for myself, despite the fact that home was terrible. My partner had injured himself and was addicted to opioid painkillers that were making him extremely paranoid. Earlier that summer, I’d been in Ithaca for theory camp, and though we’d agreed to an open relationship he would call me all the time and ask who I was with and what I was doing and tell me I was cheating on him. I wasn’t even involved with anyone — though it technically would have been allowed under the new terms of our relationship I’d negotiated when I got home from London the year before— and yet he wanted to know my every move while he was stuck in the city and I was upstate.
I said goodbye to Saz, who was returning back to NZ where she was from. Haz and his then girlfriend Nat ran an online radio show asking for musical goodbyes to Saz and I picked Weezer’s Smart Girls to show my love for all these amazing women I’d met here. On that same show, Davin, a friend I’d made at Saz’s themed going away party, submitted Queens of the Stone Age’s “I sat by the ocean,” which summed up the kind of calm bad-assery I was feeling watching the tides of my life. Some good some bad. Happy here, unhappy there. Passing ships in the night.
In 2014, I sadly didn’t make it back to London, but I returned in 2015 for a conference and some good times with my best friend. She and I and some other friends went to see Magic Mike XXL together and celebrated the full on invention of “the female gaze” in this movie. See, as Laura Mulvey points out, almost all culture is made for the “male gaze,” which reduces women to stereotypes, props, and sex objects. Is a woman in a film there because she’s the hero’s love/sex interest? Because what happens to her (often rape or sexual trauma) propels the plot forward? To facilitate the journey of the (usually white) male protagonist? Yeah.
It means that women are never even remotely portrayed as people with thoughts, wills, desires, and rich inner lives of their own. They are surfaces onto which male desires can be projected.
Mulvey is a Lacanian. Lacan highlights the importance of images, of representations, of projections of the self (all of which are not really us) in order for us to comprehend ourselves as subjects. We see ourselves through the Others we project onto — an image in the mirror, an image in popular culture, an emotional state captured in a pop song, etc.
MMXXL was the first thing any of us had ever seen that not only passed the Bechdel test, but it actually catered to (admittedly hetero) female desires. There were naked men everywhere. Hot naked men. And they were all the hotter for being emotionally intelligent, sensitive, attentive men. Who paid attention to women. And gave them exactly what they wanted. Yes, it was a movie about men, but it was a portrayal of a different kind of masculinity altogether. And it was SUPER HOT.
But fiction. All the stuff of fantasy, right? I mean, why else were there so many screaming women in that theater, literally throwing dollar bills at a movie screen, if it weren’t fulfilling some kind of fantasy that pretty much none of us were living out in our real lives? I mean, maybe some women have that, but not the rest of us, right?
I also questioned my attraction to men. Because as fun as the movie was, I didn’t really seem to get worked up over the same parts Channing Tatum as everyone else in the theater did. Turns out it was mainly just because I had yet to have really good sex with a man so that I could imaginatively connect with those hip-thrusting dance moves that seemed to drive the crowd crazy while my vagina sat there clenched up and unmoved.
After the movie, we went back to our AirBnB and sat down and had a long heart to heart in which I broke down over my anxiety about finishing my PhD and the impending destruction of my marriage that was also sucking the life out of my soul. The song for that summer was another of Florence + the Machine, but it came off of her divorce album, How Big How Blue How Beautiful. Every song on the album ripped me to pieces. In fact, I couldn’t really listen to it much at first because it gave life to the pain that was lodged inside of me as I came to the realization that my partner was never going to be able to love me without hurting me (What Kind of Man Loves like This?), without creating the storm that was constantly swirling around us and drowning me, its choking arms dragging me under the surface of this disaster again and again.
I realized that we were — that we always had been — a lost cause. And yet I still could not achieve escape velocity. Somehow I knew I’d built this whole life only to wreck it — because what else could be done? What else do you do with a ship you cannot steer that seems attracted to tumult? You can bail, or you can stay on deck until the bitter end when it makes matchwood of itself on the shoals.
When I returned to London the following summer, I’d finished a PhD, completed a year on the tenure track, and left my husband (who I was still nevertheless supporting because — *sigh* — manchildren). I was very much broken and exhausted. But I was finally — finally — free.
Totally and completely. To do what I wanted. To say what I wanted. To wear my armpit hair how I wanted and not have to hear someone complain about it or tell me that they just “can’t get over [their] revulsion” to it — or to my body in general. I started celebrating my body more. Exploring it with more people. Having adventures. And saying no to people.
No. I don’t want to see you again.
No. I don’t want to do that.
No. I don’t want to be obligated.
No. I don’t want to care about anyone’s feelings but my own right now.
“No” is a really freeing word as a woman. We aren’t supposed to say “no.” It’s disobedient, insubordinate, unruly. It might get us labeled frigid, or a bitch, or even crazy. No man ever seems to believe the word “No” when it escapes a woman’s lips. And yet I learned to say it. And to say it forcefully, and to say it without caring that my desires, and asserting them, is going to directly clash with someone else’s desires.
But without “no” there is no yes. Yes is meaningless if it’s not an option.
So I also learned to say yes.
Yes. I would like to go home with you.
Yes. I want to do that.
YES. Touch me there.
YES. Do it like that.
YES. YES! YEEEEESSSSSS!!!
In my lecherous new phase of YES, this freedom from obligation, from caring about someone else more than I cared about myself, from being so emotionally entangled with someone who so clearly did not care for me was encapsulated by Adele’s new song “Send My Love to Your New Lover.” Treat her better.
This was all you. None of it me. You put your hands on my body and told me you were ready for the big one, for the big jump. I’d be your last love, everlasting. You, me. That was what you told me.
I’m giving you up. I’m forgiving it all. You set me free.
I liked it because I smirked every time I thought about what my husband would think of the Turkish baker. And the Hungarian chef. And the nice British boys who used their accents. And the mermaid of my dreams with her little aqua nightie. Adele’s song is about letting go of someone who couldn’t handle her. Letting go to the point of not even being jealous of someone’s new lover. I snickered to think about all of my new lovers, but also to think that I had probably gotten “back on the horse” much sooner than my ex would likely expect. So. Many. Horses.
And that if he did have a lover, this is exactly how I’d feel.
Give her my love. She’s gonna need it.
Turns out I was oddly prescient. He’d gotten himself a girlfriend. A “super hot lawyer,” as he told me later. This is why he’d kicked me off the Netflix — so he could give her the password. And he was using her. And he dumped her after she was no longer useful.
But this is where I left London — still quite bedraggled, but recovering. And free. And totally emotionally unfettered for the first time in my adult life. I spent my summer listening to Adele’s song on repeat as I cultivated my friendships with all the glorious people I’ve written about before. It was going to be a while before I pulled myself together again, but to return to the shipwreck metaphor, I’d escaped the wreck. I’d been swimming in the storm for weeks. And then I washed up on the shores of London and I was so relieved. I was safe. I was whole. I was alive. And that was joy.