I’m giving a reading and I want my audience to hear me. I want my words to come out of my body still full of my body, but they won’t.
I won’t let them.
Instead, I read as if I’m the scared outsider who’s standing in for the author at the last minute and who looks up, shocked, at any response.
An affirmation: It’s my job to be nervous and the audience’s job to take my nervousness away.
I go to readings where writers stand there, in their bodies, laughing and getting choked up as they read what they’ve written about experiences they’ve had, in those same bodies, and I think: I could never do that. I could reveal my life in my stories or I could reveal my body in person, but no way could I ever show myself that much in my body.
I want you to like me but I don’t want you inside me.
I want you to like me — you, the audience. If I could, I’d take all the emotion in me and I’d use my body to rub it into yours, and it would enter through your spine and skin and lungs, and through your teeth. I want it to enter you and I want it to make you feel loved, but then I don’t want you inside me.
Sometimes I think that if I had a dancer’s body or a singer’s voice, I wouldn’t have to say these words at all. My body would say them for me.
Another affirmation: I, Bárbara Selfridge, have a nice body, a body capable of expressing strong emotion.
An affirmation is something you don’t believe but want to.
I want to believe I could use this body to make you love me.
My friend Simka and I went to hear a Brazilian band, and Simka is really my friend, even if he’s married to Cathy, who can drive me crazy, and even if he always reacts to my criticism by backing off, saying I put too much importance on our friendship, that all he needs to make him happy is Cathy — which isn’t even true because Cathy’s always driving him crazy, too, and besides, right in the same conversation, he mentioned that after our last fight he obsessed about it for weeks. I always get hurt when he backs off, but the “only Cathy” line is obviously just Simka’s way of deflecting criticism, and you have to forgive him.
So anyway, Simka and I are dancing, mostly not with each other, and then we sit down on the dance floor to watch a floor show, and first there’s a skinny black woman dancing in a bikini and skirt and fans, and it’s just exactly the way I always want to dance: fast and precise and exaggerated, as if she were a puppet and the music the strings.
Everybody applauds, and I whistle with my fingers in my mouth, and the next dancer is Asian, and I always forget about the Japanese migration to Brazil, even though I loved the movie Gaigin, which was all about that, and even though every week I paste up ads for Brazilian bands at the local sushi-and-jazz parlor. This dancer is not only Japanese, but she’s made of butter: two inches of soft, butterfat flesh cover her whole body and the butter shakes and shimmers and it’s so beautiful I think I’m going to die. I feel sorry for the skinny black woman even with her perfect connection to the music because she didn’t have any of this sweet, quivering butter on her body. I turn to say so to Simka and guess what.
He’s hiding behind me, not looking.
“I can’t look,” he says.
“You look at every woman in Berkeley!” I say, which is true because on Saturday mornings, when Simka and I come back from bird-watching, we stop at Peet’s for coffee, and Simka is mesmerized by any woman walking by. I say that it’s rude, that it’s an invasion of a woman who just wants to walk to the grocery store without being on display, but he says, no, that looking and being looked at are appropriate behavior in an ideal society. I say it’s still visual rape, but it’s so Simka, and you really can’t do anything but make fun of him for it.
But now look at this: the most beautiful woman in the world is shaking the most beautiful buttery flesh in the world, just so we’ll look at her, and Simka won’t.
“I know,” he says. “It proves what you always say: that I only want to look at women when they don’t want me to.”
Simka really is my friend, and here’s another reason: because, after all those years of buying puritanical taboos from Marxist-Leninists, now both of us wish we could dump the taboos and be brave, romantically, but neither one of us is. This is our slogan: Every person on this planet is a sensual being who deserves the right to give and receive physical affection — except, of course, for the person in question.
A slogan like ours is the opposite of an affirmation because it’s something you believe but don’t want to.
My mother has a story about riding the city buses after school. Men would stand close in front of her, hanging on to the bar overhead, and she’d move back to make room and try to concentrate on her homework, and when they’d move closer, she’d squeeze her knees as far away as possible. But no matter how far she’d squeeze, the men would sway closer, pressing their knees into hers, rubbing their calves against hers. She never looked at them and never knew what to do until one day she swung her leg back and kicked the man as hard as she could, right in the shin. He moved away, and she felt wonderful, really wonderful, and after that she was dying to do it again — to kick another knee-presser — but then, because she looked up, wanting it, none of those men ever stood in front of her again.
I want you to like me. I want with my whole body to make your whole body feel loved, but I don’t want you to be mad at me. I’m scared that, if I make you feel loved, I’ll disappoint you, and then you’ll be mad at me.
For a long time I was mad at my body for betraying me. I kept telling it that we were just making friends with my roommate’s new boyfriend, just trying to convert this fellow student or that campus worker to communism. I thought my body was with me, but then Cathy and other voices of authority would yell at me. “You knew exactly what you were doing!” they yelled. “You were flaunting your body in that poor man’s face! No wonder he got the wrong idea! No wonder communist ideas aren’t sweeping the masses!”
So I tried hiding myself under a layer of fat and T-shirts stolen from my roommate’s brother, who was in the navy, but it didn’t work. I was still “flaunting my body.”
I think of men looking for women and girls who don’t fit their bodies, and it scares me. What do they want? To make us fit? To become our connection to ourselves and to all the world that enters through the body? Do they think that would be enough — that we’d never ask anything else?
I want you to love me. And maybe you’d love me if I let you inside. Maybe, if I showed you the places where my body doesn’t fit me, you would climb into those places and then I would fit.
But what if I want to fill my body myself? Suppose that, instead of my acting nervous here in front of you, begging you to connect my body to my words, suppose instead my body were full of me, and I laughed at my own jokes and cried at my own endings? Would you be mad that I hadn’t saved a space for you inside me?
When you give a reading, you want your audience to love you.