COLUMN: DIRT CITY | 05.16.2022

Our lady of the utterly bodied
by Barbara Genova

After the assault some elements of my chosen professional field became so stark in their stupidity and their unchanging nature, you wanted to flick them off — thumb and index joined in a circle then separated in a be-gone, ticks.

Seated dinners. Events. Bedroom door doesn’t lock all the way. Female intern goes MIA. Male co-panelist tries to get inside bedroom. Event coordinator “has anxiety.” No food. Junior agent “has anxiety.” Sixty-five-year-old TV harridan screams at you for failing to properly tag her in a thank-you post. No water. Adult male spends a neat hour taking pictures of your ankles, following you around, then he’s gaining on you.

Had it always been that dire (mezzo e mezzo), had I been luckier as a young woman (not at all), was my body much more attuned to the brutality of fact, in lieu of what should be / how things could be run with the appropriate funding / ah, the eternal future, if only — yes. All of these.

The body knew.

It does, to this day.

That season I was getting briefly respectable after my latest underperforming title managed to score deep-cut nice reviews from male critics. Let’s pretend I played a suicidal anchorwoman, no, wait: a suicidal film editor. Dance dance dance. A couple guys went on the record saying I had matured into a compelling presence. How, they couldn’t quite tell: perhaps I swallowed a tape worm. Or was it a magic razor blade under my tongue. Who cares! The male stamp of frosty approval had arrived, and for a minute I pushed myself to enter the space.

For sure, I had been there before, listened to the talks, bought a Jacobin issue, but now? I could be there. Someone important had deemed me a worthy companion piece. I made a point of patronizing certain establishments — certain haunts. Used bookstores, art house theaters, urban society. Any venue that came with a goddamn bar.

One summer afternoon I went to the [redacted] theater to meet the rarest and most elevated of those men. His move. He had an event later in the same location.

This was a documentary man, a high concept man, un jefe muy respectado (though he hadn’t released any work in the last four years), and he’d been the one dude in thousands who never tried to cop a feel, never boasted about today being the day he’d finally grab my ass, never did that miserable hand on the small of her back to guide her across the room boy-thing, oh he was a good one, the holy man. Yes, indeed the bar is low low low yes yes. Moving on! Theater in question was on track to become a habitual pit stop for me — not so much the mid-cult programming, but the fact that I could sneak in to pee, since, get this, they said the plumbing was broken — a loose white sheet of paper taped on the door said out of order — and it wasn’t. Everything worked. And, and, the door was never locked: patrons assumed it was. On a week night you could watch them all flock — you had your ADPs (actors directors producers), people who said they were writing, girl pundits, people who maintained they were doing a bit, news desk girls in evening dresses all day long, and their pearls, on a string, pop. So there was this damp, pervasive Island of Dr Moreau feel to the place and not a single Richard Stanley joke would have been met with the resounding yes it deserved.

Back to the man of the hour.

The logic for us meeting, besides the obvious (holy man’s amenable to get a drink, you go): it was a net positive for my image to be associating with him. You never knew who was watching.

Any man in a public place could be a brand new fan who’d come to bargain — daily occurrence that semester — and he could be connected with the stranger who had attacked me in late spring. Three separate sets of cops had grilled me to get an answer — did you ever see that face before? — to the point there was little I did remember, aside from the smile he was rocking. That, I would recognize. Mouth full of teeth.

All the more reason for me to be out and about. The stranger could show up in real time, or, he could send his mates over. Go check her out, tell us what she’s doing. Take a picture.

You never know who’s watching.

Anyway, the holy man. I managed: I coped. I wore the baggiest clothes. He was nice. He asked without asking, was there a place we could sit down. To talk.

Like humans.

They put us, no cap, in the children’s room.

What would have been a side room, a storage room, a VIP room, had been turned into a play room, to placate the patrons with kids, and please don’t ask how many of them got blasted in the lobby as the progeny drew ghost skulls in purple crayon on the floors. Down we crouched on miniature stools, our elbows bumping on a round table.

When the holy man got settled, a cursory glance, a whisper, he asked for a cup of tea. They produced a pot on a tray, a yellow Lipton bag recovered from the forgotten drawer, a roll of lemon cookies wrapped in plastic. The manager scuttled in, thanked him, got out.

For the next hour and a half I kept up with my end of the bargain. He was puzzled by the most menial stuff, like a foundation’s board not having the budget to commit to any ad buys in the subway system for a five-day exhibition, and I was a suitcase model, smiling and waving, oh yeah, there is that, you don’t say, business could be run differently, on the other hand, though, are you sure you would get more motivated visitors from an aggressive mass campaign

The man had his back to the doorway, don’t believe he turned once, I got to bear witness to what was happening: a constant drip drip drip of people walked up to the room and stopped dead in their tracks, oh fuck he’s inside, with some woman, now’s not a good time, later later, and every five, ten minutes a guy was coming around to do the look-a-loo, neck stretched out to catch a glimpse of the man, is he there is he therehe’s there.

That’s how you’re made.

You want this level of respect, you gotta be a man, you must have new work out once in ten years, let them believe it took ten years to make (it never does though, does it bishop), and you need to spook them all into helpless silence.

Hush, he’s here. Pause. Is he still there. Look. Is he still there. Look. Can you see the back of his head.

Total annihilation. Bodied. Bodied.

And you can’t fucking fake that.

You can’t command such a reaction unless you started your whole career with the express intent of getting here, and you built yourself up as a moral presence, a pure subject, the Nine Stations of the Cross lighting up like a switchboard as you carried the world on your shoulders, and so many dominoes — prizes, grants, terse relieved nods from the old guard — they had to fall down just-like-that. It’s a lifetime achievement itself, the meta-game.

And the holy man never cursed, ever! Dudes revered him for that. Drop him in the Sahara, he’d slowly dab at the corner of his parched mouth. My my, it is torrid out here. A matter of personal dignity, I would hazard, this general sense of, the confirmed gentleman doesn’t need to get low, maybe a twisted notion of punishment as self-control but go on, monsignor.

You would be forgiven if you had a question: was I hanging out with him because I was signaling that with the appropriate incentives I could have been persuaded to become —  his beloved?

No. God, no. I would have married him in a flash, for intellectual security, and for the pleasure of taking his temperature whenever he got sick: but the bedroom work, I drew a blank there. Couldn’t picture it. The preacher thing never did it for me, until it did, and sweet mother of tears that was a different season of water gushing out, my cunt beating thump thump thump any time a preacher type called me darling —  I can feel the burn on my tongue, he said darling it was me, so in the end I did want to be someone’s beloved: I needed to meet another cerebral artist, how about that —

It’s always very meticulous, the art work, though. Have you noticed? The desert, the West. The inherent vertigo of condors. Very subdued acting.

The kiddie spell was broken when a man escaped from the lobby and sat down to chill with us. This one didn’t seem to have a problem making it past the invisible gates. He was another featured speaker for the night: a pretty sizable player at the time, real avid on the social game, hungry to learn where it could take him. Not that many people remembered he had started out a video game nerd, a table top Dungeons and Dragons nerd, just some Atari / Sega country scramble of a nerd, and at that stage he was bombed out by the years of hopping and chopping he did for promotion, and the theater manager had urgent matters to discuss with the holy man, so the nerd boy and I moved to stand against the wall, where he told me, in a short honest whoosh, just what he had to do to secure a spot within polite society (nothing degrading mind you, keep your panties on, pretend it was a documentary about bluegrass). We had been scoping each other out — good reviews from men, guess who reads them?, other men — and I felt close enough to say what I had been thinking from the moment I stepped in the children’s room, and he went yeah, and he added, fuck is this, you hustle and what? you get, this, huh.

And it’s not like we bonded on a shared appreciation of premarital sex in the Jason movies, but still, he was normal? He played fair. Nerd Boy did what he did. Stay away from the persona he claimed, and you would get along.

It was something. It was better than most.

Holy man indicated he wanted to get food before the event. I had to escort him from the premises — and that was going to be a production. An ordeal. Definitely went to the restroom here. Out of order sign and all. No one stopped me: they would not dare. They knew that I knew.

They kept piles of cardboard boxes in there, delivery invoices stacked on top.

You see — six to eight months in the life cycle of a small business, any cultural establishment with a bar will become that and only that, a bar, a theory of corridors to swan around, regulars treating the place like it owes them money: nobody comes here to watch a movie anymore, nobody buys a book anymore, no one ambles upstairs for the conference, not anymore — they don’t! You played yourself. Have fun managing a goddamn bar.

Came out and the holy man was being stalled by a twitchy guy in a diamond-patterned sweater. (That would be the picture of a rando with a job description, very good!) He was begging the holy man to come teach a creative invention seminar in a de-luxe private academy. He was begging. Rat-a-tat. The school this, the horizon that.

Holy man turned and said, oh, she teaches over there. Don’t you.

And I nodded, uh-huh, why yes I do. I teach a master class at your very school.

The door was a tight line away, the holy man was mine to protect — should I teach there, he asked, and I went, fuck no, they suck, but he already knew. Had to put some food in him. He trusted me to handle that. Best we could have gotten in loco was a bag of chips, they served so much alcohol at the bar, the place ran on mojitos and licorice delusion fumes, out of order, patrons must have staggered out to take a piss in the streets the city streets —

it was a four minute walk from here to my scene of the crime, on a clear night you could see the precise patch of asphalt I was slammed on so hard I bounced clean off the ground, boom / thwack, before I went down again

and a four a five and a week after that, I was walking the same street, wasn’t gonna let a man in a hoodie cut me out from this splendor

We moved to the Lebanese diner three doors down. A quick chicken meal and we talked some more, the light was unforgiving, the white it blared, I walked him back to the theater. Showtime.

A packed house had gathered to marvel at his intelligence / his back his neck, soak it up boys / but I was done for the night.

(Can’t recall if shit got heartfelt between us at dinner or during a ramble of a call the same year. For a while, I got too familiar with the dumb rush of stuff sliding out of your reach — it’s the riptide effect, report one assault you’re gonna need to swim out of a riptide for months, son, and it all adds up: it’s a contact mania — the police, the hospital, my agent’s on the line, need to be out in public. You have two people vibrating under your skin all the time and they both want to run the business of being you. It’s too much.)

As I was pacing outside the theater, contemplating the traffic, I had a choice: I could bring myself home (the speediest getaway route would have been the bus on the other side of the street) or I could give in to the real blue silk desire to take the night, take it back for my own leisure — second option would have been a vast improvement over going home and flirting with a Xanax overdose just to be sure I would black out, which is what I did, the night in question —

Here’s what stuck with me.

The holy man said, for the longest time he’d held onto resentment as the main force driving the mindset he had toward his former wife, and that decision he had made out of ideological reasons. We were talking about the way things end. How we can keep wishing for a better outcome with the same people whose name we curse in the dark, those made to destroy us. And I got that. He was earnest, a blade to its core.

But, zoom out, rewind, look at us, look at the context: a man and a woman, drink in hand, a side room, enclosure, desperate strangers on the outside wondering what’s going on inside — that was Zoolander.

It was the VIP room from Zoolander.

Can you believe this nonsense? Can you believe this used to be a life worth living?

Barbara Genova (she/they) is the pen name of a public woman who went private. Poetry and stories written as Barbara have been published / are forthcoming at The Daily Drunk, surfaces.cx, Anti-Heroin Chic, Sledgehammer Lit, Scissors and Spackle, The Final Girl Bulletin Board, Fahmidan Journal, Misery Tourism, Hallowzine (2021), Expat Press, The Bear Creek Gazette, A Thin Slice of Anxiety, Roi Fainéant Press, Discretionary Love, and the Hecate Magazine anthology issue #2 (DECAY, winter 2021). She can be found on Twitter and on Instagram.

Image by Igor Ovsyannykov from Pixabay