Yesterday evening, I read the below essay as part of a special edition of The Marrow which took place at the Pitchfork Music Festival. I stood on a small wooden stage and choked up in front of some of my friends and many strangers. But it was one of the most thrilling and exhilarating experiences. Other readers included hosts Leah Pickett and Naomi Huffman, Huffington Post Chicago Editor Joe Erbentraut and Mark Richardson, Editor in Chief of Pitchfork.
“I’m just warning you, I’m not a very social person right now,” I said to an old friend who had just arrived for an overnight stay in my apartment.
“Oh,” she said.
“I mean, I feel like people have this perception of me. But it’s not true. Not now at least. I do things, but I am alone. And although I sometimes need them, I more just need myself.”
I need to take back myself.
I began living alone during college and it was during that time that I began going out alone. More importantly, it was when I learned how to dance alone. I grew up on dance floors, but they were the hardwood floors and concrete manufacturing garages that I practiced in. And I danced with other girls, girls my age, girls who were forced into these classes by their mothers. Girls who thought this made them dainty and precious and feminine. But for me, it was a natural extension of the self, even back then when I had barely been kissed, but certainly touched all over.
No, dancing for me was a claiming, a possession. A body is forever, even if it is not “right,” even as it ages, even as it struggles to live. It is the one thing we can not escape, whatever its state. It is punishment and pleasure. It is never perfect, even if the world tells us our imperfections are manageable through strife and pain. Or maybe it is always perfect, always right and valid and good. It is everything else that the world tells us it can’t be. To be satisfied in ourselves is to know the blessings of life.
This is me taking back my limbs. This is me taking back my space, taking more space, taking all of the space I can call my own. I need to, you see. Girls are taught to give space away. But I want it all. And if you fight me for it, I will find a way to take it back. I always do.
It was around 3PM and I was riding the Blue line back to the hood, my home, to get my hair done. I didn’t realize when the car got empty. I didn’t realize it was just the two of us, that he was slowly creeping toward me, moving from seat to seat to see if I saw him, to see what he was doing.
My headphones were a little box and that little box protected me from the outside world. As soon I could, I began wearing oversized, heavy ones that covered my ears and, if my music was loud enough, my face, my body, but especially my thoughts. They were a method of escape for a woman who craved it.
And in that box there was the sad disco of Donna Summer and the ache of Sade. There was the isolation of Joy Division and the heartbreak of Sharon Van Etten. There was the weirdness of Bjork, the assurance that you, that I was worthy of myself in whatever way I would grow. But mostly disco and house. The heat of the rhythms. The singleness of the sound.
I can’t wear them now. I am too afraid of their ability to lock me away from the world. I need to see the world around me. I didn’t then. And since then, what runs through my mind is not the syncopation of the rhythm or the instrumentation. It is not the lyrics. It is not the warmth of the vocals. It is not anything except:
Who is here? Who wants to hurt me? Who craves the power?
Concentration is a privilege of the body, one I no longer have. One I think about more often than not. To concentrate is to be in another place, to not be aware of my surroundings, to fall victim to the ways the world works.
Is he waiting to strip me of my sanity? I can remember the deadness of his eyes. I don’t know if he ever actually saw me, even as he held me down, even as he looked me in the eyes.
How did I get back here to this place where I am of two things: the mind and the body?
When my friend left, I realized that I had begun to fall deeply into that aloneness. That things had gotten worse. That the aloneness had transformed into loneliness and pain and anger. That being around a friend was a blessing and a necessity. But also, to be alone is not always to be lonely. But it had become that thing for me.
Not all places of escape are the same for all people. We each develop something that speaks to our everyday, our tastes, our sorrow. I know mine more than many other things in my life: the dance floor; the blinding, shimmery lights; the weight of the bass.
I came home from work and slept and woke up a little before midnight. I needed to go home again.
Negativity breeds negativity. Positivity does not act the same. No, positivity takes constant effort. Happiness is effort. Joy is work.
I think that negative memories work in much the same way. Unless the night was truly spectacular, we rarely remember solid pleasantness. Moments that are just good fade until weeks and months bleed into one another. But the bad has a way of staying, an unwanted acquaintance that takes root on the couch of your mind and forever overstays.
I arrived at Smart Bar, alone. It was a disco-themed night. The lights were glowing. Faces were distinguishable. And the disco ball was spinning, the room illuminated and lovely. Because it was the middle of the week, the space was not packed. I could breathe. Freedom was free.
Great disco is more than just the joy. Through and through, it should be about the transcendence of the dance floor, of dance, of the body in motion. We dance when we are glad. But also, the dance floor is communal escape. It is freeing because one is literally free. There is space to move. I am taking back my space, one song at a time, one note at a time, one beat at a time. I count the rhythms in my head, the steady 4/4. It is like my heartbeat. Moving steadily, a great pace, it is the constant. Other people have each other. I have music. I have movement. I have it.
It is possible to be and do what you want and to think about what you did a month or a week or a day later. I recognize when I am making bad decisions and do them anyway. I would rather recognize than to pretend they were never even there. I would rather recognize than to wake up one day and wonder where all these moments went and what they actually mean.
Just as you can feel it inside of you, seeping through your pores, running through every inch and cell of your body, so too do I think they can see it in you, they can smell it on you.They lust for it. They want it. They’ll take it and use it. They’ll crush you with it. They’ll think nothing of it.
I wish it was as easy for me to move someplace else as it is for so many of my friends. They see other places as chances, as means to an end, as an extension of what they want in the world. But I see them as impenetrable forces. I’ve never visited a city that I didn’t love. Because I can not imagine myself within them permanently, I instead feel appreciative of what they offer. If I were to dig deeper though (and by deeper, I mean deeper within myself), I would need to escape and quickly.
I hadn’t seen her in a while.
She asked me how I was doing and I said I was fine. But the more I talked, the angrier I got, until my anger was the only thing I saw. The injustice was the only thing I saw. The racism was the only thing I saw. The costs were the only thing I saw.
"I used to think these things happened to me because there was something wrong with me, that I was the common denominator. But now I know that it is every woman and that it is always. Now I know that the world is just fucked up."
"And how did it feel to say all of that?" she asked.
Well, it felt better than pushing it aside to assuage people’s moods. It felt right.