Dislocated Bodies: An Erotics of Absence
“The more we go into something, the more it recedes.”
When I first moved to Colorado, I’d try to locate the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance, a habit I’d acquired while living in San Francisco the previous four years. One day, I thought I spotted the bridge as I crossed Broadway in downtown Denver. But it was a construction crane erecting another in a series of high-priced condos for coastal refugees, transforming this place from a sleepy Western town into an urban hot spot. Unlike the bridge, the crane was not a symbol of the city. It did not create a point of connection between past and present but signified instead its uncertain future, Denver’s rapid demolition and reconstruction. It could be argued the same thing was happening in San Francisco, which seemed to become less itself as its population fled for Oakland, Richmond, and beyond, the flow of Silicon Valley dollars dividing it between two incarnations: old, weird boho mecca and sanitary, upscale playground for new-money techies.
As I watched the crane in the Denver skyline, I felt a deep desire to be in the Bay Area again. Across from San Francisco is Marin County. In Marin County is Mount Tamalpais, the subject, totem, and time-traveling device in Etel Adnan’s book-length essay Journey to Mount Tamalpais. For me, this work, profoundly invested in the relationship between inner and outer landscapes, explores the paradoxes of human perception and the multi-locational nature of being. “This is this. This is that,” Adnan writes. “In between, existence’s duration.” If my search for the Golden Gate in Denver was a side-effect of my in-betweenness, in my homesickness for the Bay, I had become a citizen of the irrevocable distance carried within myself.
To quench my nostalgia, I watched films set in San Francisco: Rise of the Planet of the Apes starring James Franco, Gus Van Sant’s Harvey Milk biopic, Hereafter, a Clint Eastwood movie in which Matt Damon plays a psychic whose gifts make it impossible for him to sustain a romantic relationship. When I got to Denver, I began to experience not just the absence of my former city but my girlfriend of two years, who hadn’t joined me in my eastward migration–a decision which, because we tacitly understood our lifestyles to be ultimately incompatible, was pretty much mutual. Eight years younger than me, she wanted to go every night, get drunk, sleep late, behavior that I could do without in my 30s. We officially broke up when she dropped me off at the airport to catch my flight to Colorado.
At first, we exchanged texts and emails daily, but as the weeks went on, the frequency of our communications dropped off. It wasn’t her absence, necessarily, but that of a partner I felt as I set up my apartment, bought furniture, pots and pans, a colorful shower curtain I knew she would’ve liked. Soon I was also without the “I love yous” of our correspondence, and I had an idea why. I wasn’t angry or jealous, but I wondered why our now-platonic relationship couldn’t co-exist with her new romantic endeavors. Hadn’t it co-existed peacefully (if not enthusiastically) with her work as a burlesque dancer?
I’d attended a number of her performances at the Skylark, a gritty Mission bar that was always packed for her troupe’s Friday night performances. While my ex danced, men clapped and groaned. I listened amused to the vulgar comments about what they’d do to her as she de-pantsed in a single, fluid motion or unbuttoned her shirt, revealing sparkly red pasties. Then I would watch after the show as these same guys become shy and reserved, intimidated by the overwhelming sexuality she’d represented onstage.
One routine involved whipping a blow-pop from her snatch (actually held between two pairs of underwear), forcing it into the mouth of the closest male, and bringing it to her lips with a dirty smile. Such dances were not primarily about sex, I found, but about an ironized notion of desire. Her routines made the sexual farcical, drawing the audience into the absurd and anxious distance between fantasy and fulfillment. Like all jokes, the dance had a punchline. The last-second withdrawal of the lollipop left her victim comically (and publically) deflated, showing us that love’s appearance could also be a vanishing act, that, in both rejection and consummation, it was the fate of our desires to flee.
In another routine, my ex performed to Richard Hawley’s “Tonight The Streets are Ours,” transforming this innocuous love-song into a feminist anthem. First, she went through the standard burlesque motions, teasing the audience with the slow removal of her clothes, ending up in a sequined white bikini. At the end of the dance, however, she went behind a wall on stage, emerging a few seconds later with her face covered and a can of spray paint in her hand. As the song ended, she tagged the wall with the words, “My pussy, my rules.”
Like the lollipop, these words instantly altered the dynamic between audience and performer. Her final act of graffiti shifted the song’s pronoun, Hawley’s “our” to whom the streets belonged, from a hetero couple conspiring against a loveless world to a woman claiming in solidarity with all others the right to her body, tearing it forcefully from the gaze of the patriarchy. It was an act of self-empowerment the guys in attendance seemed to love. They reacted with cheers and whistles to this fantasy of female domination, and I wondered if the reality of a woman asserting such control would’ve elicited the same level of enthusiasm.
Even consummated love, I would think as I watched my ex dance, could leave one feeling refused: drained and disappointed. Desire is the felt absence of the desired object that manifests as anticipation, electrifying the mind and body into hope and frustration. This frustration converts the erotic into a fertile imaginative space in which past and future become lovers of a sort.
But love, too, disappears as it comes–in more than one sense. In this way, it is a relative of time. And of being itself. “To be is a process we’re searching for while it’s already here,” writes Etel. While we search for the here and now, it plants its seed and perishes deep inside us. “To perceive,” she writes, “is to be in the process of becoming one with whatever it is, while also becoming separated from it.” Being is this paradox. It both and neither. A refusal and an embrace. Solitude and relation.
In Denver, I was experiencing only solitude. The women in town couldn’t place me, and no half-assed internet date would be complete without a barrage of questions designed to clear up the confusion over my identity. “What are you studying?” “Where are you from?” “What’s your heritage?” “What kind of poetry do you write?” My responses meant little to them. I was too intellectual or too artsy. Too East Coast or too West Coast. Too ethnic. Too sober. The failure of these dates to move into meaningful relationships indicated a fundamental disconnect between my self-image and the image of myself received by these women. I was not who I was, and I often wondered who appeared before them as I talked about documentary literature or ecopoetics or my idiosyncratic leftist politics.
The city itself seemed to reinforce this sense of isolation. Every street in Denver looked the same. No North Beach or Mission or Tenderloin. No Richmond or Sunset or Embarcadero. These neighborhoods–Capitol Hill, Congress Park–didn’t have their own frequencies; they didn’t exude an urban energy. This place, an oasis of breweries and bros, had no locus. “The center is about loss,” says Etel. “Far from separation or unity. Loss as the price for Being.” In Denver’s red-blooded American sprawl, despite its cultural emphasis on “adventure,” I encountered the unwillingness to risk such loss. Projecting the image of itself as an edge-of-the-wild metropolis, it confused vision with what was seen and mistook the natural world for its consumption.
On weekends, the steepest trails were as crowded as the escalator at the Cherry Creek Mall. Here nature was fully commoditized, selling us the city from which we stared out all week toward the longed-for mountains, a desire distancing the mind from the present. Daydreaming into these peaks and ridges, we anticipated the moment we could escape our surroundings, our daily lives, and therefore ourselves.
But this escape is paradoxically a form of self-absorption. In which we imagine our desire for nature has become the center of the universe. In his poem, “Susurrus Stanzas (Sutro Baths),” about the staggeringly gorgeous ruins of the 19th-century bath house where land meets sea in San Francisco, a place I visited often, Brian Teare contemplates a non-anthropocentric vision of the world: “to write sight,” he writes, “is itself / site’s re-vision.” Here Teare acknowledges that poetic vision alters the world it seeks to represent. I found in California that people projected themselves unforgivingly onto their surroundings–though this is true of most people in most places. The difference in the Bay was that people also seemed to do the same to themselves. They came here not to escape their former lives but their former selves.
In Oakland, for example, I had a roommate who described herself as a laid-back hippie. She was raised in a conservative Catholic family, she told me, though she’d left behind this conservative past. One day, I planned to have my new girlfriend (now my ex-girlfriend) to our apartment for lunch. My roommate was at work, but her girlfriend was in our kitchen loudly conducting business meetings on her computer. When I explained my lunch date and asked if she could hold her meetings elsewhere, she said no. I was stunned by this response. I calmly let her know that this was my apartment, not hers, that I paid rent, etc. But she refused, and furthermore, she told me, I would have to give her notice if I wanted to use the kitchen, as she had many meetings scheduled today and in the near future.
I became incensed. I was through negotiating. I told her to get out, repeatedly and unkindly and in a way that let her know I wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“This isn’t going to happen again!” I said absurdly.
At first, the girlfriend seemed outraged at my outrage. Then she was offended by it. Finally, she seemed scared and stomped out of the room as if it was her apartment and I’d been the one who refused to leave.
I was shocked by this display of entitlement. It was clear she still believed she’d done nothing wrong. My roommate agreed with her girlfriend, asserting in a “house meeting” later that evening her right to use the space and demanding an apology for my rude behavior. When I refused, she explained that she wanted our home to be “laid back,” that I had failed to keep it so, and that she would have to find another roommate who shared her enlightened vision of domestic life.
What she meant was that I hadn’t followed her rules and had to be punished for it. Since her name was on the lease, she had the ability to kick me out, and that’s what she did. I may have been an asshole to her girlfriend. I may have been unreasonable, but at least, I thought, I didn’t equate my desires with the truth of what had transpired.
My ex-roommate’s decision seemed less like a hippie-inspired liberation of our living quarters than an act of quotidian fascism. Could it have been that she did, in fact, observe the strict codes of conduct of her youth? Was her professed ideology of “positivity” and “openness,” I wondered, just an inversion of that code, allowing her to believe in the myth of her transformation from conservative to free spirit?
“How to apprehend any person?” writes Etel Adnan. “How to make sure that seeing anything is not seeing oneself?” I have no doubt that to see another is to a great extent to see only oneself. And maybe personal history, even if we attempt to leave it behind continues to exert its pressures on us. Maybe self-image is a buffer against our hypocrisies, making us insensitive to the ways in which we act out our pasts. Maybe self-knowledge is just a convenient disguise for our faults.
After I was kicked out of my apartment, I moved in with my now ex-girlfriend. Directly across from her second-story unit was a busy highway overpass. When we watched TV, it looked like the speeding SUVs and pick-up trucks would crash through the living room window; they always swerved at the last second. I began to associate this gut-wrenching visual with her lack of judgment in choosing this place, and I became annoyed– though, looking back, this frustration was probably with myself. My sudden residence at her apartment, an act of generosity that saved me from homelessness, soon became a cause of stress between us emanating from both sides. We fought more, fucked less, and got tired of seeing each other. To put it differently, my ex’s gesture of love and strength began to weaken our relationship, and I was largely to blame. Still, I found it impossible to forget my discomfort with the highway traffic that served as a metaphor for this growing tension. My mind and body told me to flee, and I moved into my own place at the end of the summer with the relationship still intact–due mainly to her saintly patience and kindness.
Nine months later, I was accepted into a PhD program and left for Denver. My ex flew to Colorado for a visit a few months later. There was nothing romantic about the trip, and we had a great time–until I broached the subject of dating. From her social media posts, I knew she was dating a number of people. In other words, she’d become polyamorous. When I asked if this was true, by way of a yes, she bowed her head in shamed silence. I didn’t mean to cause this response, and we somehow ended up in a fight. Maybe my laughter following her admission made her think I was being critical. But I meant only to express surprise at her concern with my opinion of her love-life. I had no right to pass judgment, and I wasn’t, but she seemed to suspect otherwise.
In retrospect, I don’t blame her response. My laughter was condescending. I was likely using it to communicate that I understood the situation better than she did, that I understood her response better than she did, an arrogant assertion, to be sure, and pretty dumb considering how little I understood my own feelings and motivations on this and just about every matter my existence brought before me.
Maybe this feeling of unfair judgment lingered in her mind. When I contacted her about my trip Oakland the following March, she was less responsive than usual. After a conspicuous silence, and just a day before my vacation ended, she messaged me with a transparent excuse for avoiding a get-together, saying she’d developed a sudden fever. I waited till I landed back in Denver. Then I wrote her a one-line message: “You’re really a disappointment to me.”
I knew the pain these words would cause; she’d always sought my approval, and her response to my earlier laughter was proof that this was still true. Immediately after I sent this message, she called me six times in a row, and, when I didn’t answer, she replied with an email full of insults and curses. With these words she became a different person to me, one I didn’t want to know. I didn’t contact my ex again, and this was the last I heard from her.
Before I’d left San Francisco the year before, I visited the Sutro Baths to commune with my imminent departure. Looking for closure, I saw only that my nostalgia for this place prevented me from experiencing my last days here. Everything had a sentimental sheen. This image of my absence, the search for some kind of beauty in it, distanced me from the place and people I cared about; I was already gone.
When I immerse myself in Etel’s Sea and Fog, I reencounter this distance. Opening the book to a random page, I think again of the baths:
“And the sea ceased to be because it became the sea, and we stopped at the station of impermanence, and rose from our bewilderment to witness the junction of the past with the present.”
Here the ghost of the bathhouse and its gorgeous decay are one. I imagine descending the tall steps to the beach. Crossing a thin concrete length of foundation. Climbing to the promontory. Pushing my face past the safety barrier, a waist-high wall, I inhabit my vision of the sea. I come here for a meditation thats object is its endless movement. I come to experience my gaze in the singularity of place. “The world’s presence in the mind defines the mind,” writes Etel. “It produces the world and leaves it, receding into itself by the same action.”
The more it recedes, the more present it is. The more present it becomes, the more I am forced to consult its absence for clues as to my current location.
So place is a drift of moments with no end. So love, in absentia, a future that never comes.