by Erin Gustafson
On a recent Sunday afternoon drive, she decided to show me the house her dad grew up in and where her grandmother lived after her grandfather died. We were seeking out ghosts of the past, trying to substantiate memory amidst the melancholy of Sunday. So logically, we stopped to get coffee.
While sitting together at a table by the window, we were addressed by an innocent looking fellow sketching the face of a model.
Why did he talk to us? What did he want from us? Would I (could I) have addressed him? What about our coffee conversation presented itself as permeable? What space was there between us for his questions?
I was full of curiosity and excited at recognizing a fellow traveler. But in being open, in being curious, in wanting to share what we enjoy in the world, exchange stories and share experience, we fell into the trap of polite conversation. Why is it that in being open to conversation with men, my body must always be open too?
“So what do you girls do?”
You girls, you girls, you girls. It’s as if all of a sudden I’m cut off – my identity abruptly separated from everything that isn’t the pleasures rumored to be trapped inside the body of a young college girl. Two comments from past encounters with strangers come to mind:
“Girls from this college are Fun!” and, “We draw people to our state by tellin’ ‘em, ‘In Kansas, there is a pretty girl behind every tree.’”
All of a sudden, in these conversations, I find myself pegged as belonging to someone else (the specific person I’m talking with), as well as holding all of Mankind’s promise of ecstasy. They were looking through us not to find a person or a story, but rather a pleasure.
I guess I perceive in these conversations a reticent, axiomatic belief that women exist for the pleasures of men. What upsets me is not that someone might find my body desirable. Rather, it’s that there is this commonly accepted notion that men think with their dicks, have uncontrollable sex drives, and biologically need to jack-off (often over the nude and prostrate figures of a woman).
In a phallic dictatorship, there is no place or voice for my own desire–except the desire to please. I am frustrated at my inability to challenge the assumptions of my role as a woman without turning a polite conversation into a crude argument. It’s as if my voice emerges from a mask of pleasantry, unaided by my own will: ‘I will be who you want me to be.’ But I’ve come to understand that the desire to please is not the same as self-interested/self-actualizing desires.
Is there a way to avoid the traps of conversation? I feel I get sucked into situations of answering this demand for sweet girls. I keep following the rules of what can be said, what can be hinted at, but I’m continually perturbed by who has the power to speak about sexuality.
When I talk with most people, I feel like part of myself gets lost. All the things I cannot articulate manifest in other forms, like a shadow of who I’d like to be. But I always still play to the situation, the expectations, the possibilities of commonly understood speech, the structure, the symbols, the packaged meanings of easy-bake phrases.
Language can be a trap, the pitfall of conversation: ‘I will be who you want me to be.’ Except that my failures, those silences, the things left unsaid are not just a shadow-they are a place of drowned desires still living. The pleasantry exposed requires the strangulation (death by suffocation) of most of my thoughts. So many stifled things are a workout for my tongue: the muscle is built to keep the silence in and let so many things slide through.
The pitfall of conversation: situations we fall into when just trying to be social, approachable, less of an object and more of a person.
“I’m the same as you with coffee and a dead grandmother, a love of art and an interest in travel.”
But I guess we’re not the same because in the end you look like Larry Flynt, he’s a dirty old man, and to be a good woman, the only question I need be concerned with is, “Hey, do you like me or not?”