The Defiant Act
This was the year I owned a bed again. The year I returned to teaching in an elementary school, tired and overextended, resentful and broke. The year all of my belongings did not fit into a suitcase or the corner of someone’s room or one shelf in someone else’s closet.
This was the year I did not live near ocean or mountains. This was the year an ex-boyfriend had a brain tumor and I did not know what to say, so I said nothing. This was the year I forgot to make resolutions and drank spoiled milk in my coffee for three days before I realized.
This was the year I met a man during a snowstorm that shut my city down for a week. On our first date we went for a walk with a bag of bird seed my mother gave me for Christmas that was supposed to bring good luck if you spread it on New Year’s morning. I wanted to walk and leave some in a few different places, but he took the bag from my hands and dumped the whole thing under a tarp.
He steered us to an apartment where he used to live. I was freezing, but we stood next to each other as he pointed out all of the ways it was different than when he had lived there. I liked watching someone else’s nostalgia instead of my own so I did not tell him I could not feel my toes. I did not tell him I hadn’t lived anywhere for more than 12 months in the last eleven years.
A month later, I would watch him disappear in front of me. Some shell going through motions, shining hazel eyes gone painted. I never knew what to expect when my car door opened and he got in. The days he was happy to see me were good. The days he was indifferent drained me, like someone had invited me to their home, but hoped I would not accept the invitation. I always said yes.
I told him these things only once, when he sat across from me in an armchair and asked “How are you feeling about this? You and I?”
He was the one who needed to talk about feelings and I said this, catching him off guard. It was the only time I remember causing him surprise. I was predictable and easy and pleasant. I was medicated and in therapy three times a week and committed to us fucking other people. I was not trying to be good. I was not trying to be anything.
Later, a mutual friend would tell me how he told her he could not date anyone who was nice to him. Another mutual friend would call him Aladdin; the man who shows you the world and then pushes you off the carpet.
When he ended things with me and I said I was going home to cry he said, “Please don’t” and pulled me into his lap. I told him he was a good man. I told myself how sincere he must be, to care that I would cry.
This is my magic trick.
In October I watched Ragnar Kjartansson speak at the opening of his DC exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum and afterwards a close female friend tells me that she is done dating. Is going to focus on herself and whatever she wants. I tell her I have done this before, for years at a time, before I picked up my entire life and moved across the continent and up into a new country for a man. Look how well that ended for me, I tell her, smiling.
“Wasn’t it good to live that life, though?” and I admit it was.
In Ragnar’s Women In E, women stand in gold dresses on a revolving pedestal surrounded by gold hanging from the ceiling. They repeatedly strike an E cord in shifts of two and a half hours at a time. Everything around the woman glitters while she spins. I visit and watch people who are unsure if they can go inside the gold curtain that surrounds her. I visit and watch to see if she will look at me.
My friend who is done dating works at the museum and helps the women transition between shift changes. She tells me they share one small dressing room where they leave notes and write quotes for each other on the walls. They become close, these women.
I jot a single note in my phone from the exhibit opening, attributed to Ragnar:
The defiant act of suffering without dying.
I realize how much I want someone to put me on a pedestal.
After Thanksgiving I let a man I like hold my face hard and say “Look at me when I’m fucking you” and it feels good. It feels good to be told what to do. It feels good to be able to do something so easily. He is honest about who he is and what he wants and I tell myself I am listening. I count bruises on my ass and my thighs and my breasts as proof that someone wants me.
He says he has waited a long time for this, but he has not.
On Christmas, my ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend posts a photo and calls him her soulmate. This is something I never dared to name him during the four years we loved each other. She did it within a few months.
He is hers now and he seems happy. They like the same things, do the same things, are from the same country. She looks easy. She looks nice.
I was not easy. I was not necessarily nice. I was strong-willed and dangerously introspective with a flare for depression and self-loathing. I like books more than exercise or other people. I was the person on his couch when he came home and the person who did not get out of bed at all some days. I can hear conversations he must have now — how it never quite fit with me, how he almost gave up cycling for me, how I sat on the couch and mostly wrote or took walks. How right it feels with her, how easy and worth it after me.
At a Christmas party we went to years back his married friend talked about meeting his wife and said, “When you know, you know. Right?” and looked at him for validation. Looked at us together. He could not even nod his head. I sat on a wooden stool surrounded by strangers and wondered if it might somehow mercifully tip over so I could look as embarrassed as I felt and have the room understand without feeling sorry for me.
I attended every one of his cycling races while I lived with him and he rarely read my writing. I considered these our “things”. His cycling, my writing. Once, when I asked if I could read my writing out loud, he said it sounded like I was casting a spell. I kept a death-grip on this sentence for months, refusing to release the idea that I had bewitched him, finally. That my words could do something for us.
This disconnect is evidence of his joy now. I am proof of what the wrong person means once you find the right one. I am a story and a building block and a distant memory. My absence is a way to measure his gains now.
The day after Christmas I wrote an email telling him I was happy for him. He blocked my phone number.
If I had been a boy my name would have been Peter. Peter is derived from the Greek word petros, meaning “stone” or “rock”. If I had been a boy, my mother would have had three sons and they would have stopped trying to have more children there. My mother tells me how much she wanted me to be a girl.
With age, I want to know what it means to be male. To live Peter’s life, Peter’s namesake. Hard and steady and rock-like.
Amanda means “worthy of love”.
In the last few days of the Ragnar exhibition, just before the new year, I lay on the museum floor and watch the entire 64-minutes of his Visitors piece, a gospel dirge in a decaying mansion performed on nine screens. I sit between the screens projecting Ragnar and a women playing the cello. I sit between the legs of the man I am fucking. I want to lean against his chest and I don’t. I want to cry and I don’t.
They repeat the same line: Once again I’ve fallen to my feminine ways.
I like to watch a man say this. I like to imagine I have cast off some part of me that is flawed just by sitting here and listening.
Later, I learn it is a poem Ragnar wrote when his marriage ended.
Before we leave, we go to see Women In E. The woman on stage stares at me and holds eye contact until the pedestal has spun her too far to continue to look at me. I wonder if I have imagined it, but hours later the man I am with tells me, “I saw that. She did.”
A few weeks pass and this man tells me we cannot sleep together anymore. There are many reasons and, of course, it is important to maintain the friendship that started this. I have stopped respecting his privacy and started stealing his time, he tells me by slowly disappearing. He goes back to the west coast and the woman he left there. He has a tattoo on the back of his ear that says FIX ME and I get the joke now.
This was the year I did not have to be told and told again when someone does not want me.
On New Year’s Eve, I put on a black dress with sequins. I attend a party at a massive old house in DC and my date is a woman. I kiss her at midnight. I look around the room of people I barely know and feel like I am spinning.