Here, in tight quarters, I’m certain some feelings are quintessentially feminine.
To my left on the airplane is a large white man whose right arm and leg occupy a third of my seat. When I ask to get past for the restroom, he asks, Really? as if the rest of his question is: Do you really think you have a right to your needs?
To Thomas’s right is an elderly white man with a shitty book who occasionally wants to make small talk. When I return from the restroom, Thomas’s nodding and tone say he’s humoring the man in a conversation, from what I overhear, about publishing. The man’s tone says he’s maestro; he’s explaining. I put headphones on and look neither of them in the eyes in order to preserve freedom.
Feeling pinned, I starve for seclusion and look across an aisle out the window. Burls of clouds flare gold and pink on northern Europe’s horizon—bolded as desperation.
Once we land, while we wait to file off the plane, the maestro leans over to me. Can I ask you something? Do you go to the AWP?
Privately, I feel a wave of sickness—the premonition of a holding cell he’s backing me into. In part, I fear the topic but more so, being captive and obliged to a white man whose motive I already suspect is domination.
Steeling my face, I answer, Historically, yes.
He smiles with a type of nearly erotic satisfaction and inhales slowly to prepare: I go most years, and I’m wondering…there are always so many young girls wandering around at those hotels. I’d say 80% of the attendees are young girls in MFA programs. I wonder what they’re doing, all of them. I mean, how they’re ever going to get jobs.
In such an instance—and they are frequent—I feel a unique pain rush me: a rage rising like fire up the front of my chest paired with trembling nerves, nerves about how I’ll tamp or unleash my rage.
Girls? I ask. My eyebrows lift. I follow my question with a sound familiar to Thomas, a sound that’s making him fight a smirk: Hmmmmmmm. It’s a higher pitched, performative hmm, like a mother addressing a child who’s just asked for a treat, and I save it for public moments of bafflement to present that I’m puzzling, though I’m really buying time to consider my war tactic.
I don’t know if you know, but publishing is dang hard, he goes on. I’ve been shopping this novel, he continues.
I wonder by what magic “boys” have receded out of view in his clearly empirical recollections. I want to say: You know I am a “girl.” But he knows I’m a “girl”, even if I’m 32 year old with more advanced degrees, even if Thomas bought me minor credit by calling me his wife. He knows his audience is the group he’s insulting with statements parading as questions, and he’s accustomed to living safely behind the armor of wise white-maleness.
I’m not sure I’m familiar with the phenomenon, I say.
The small things I utter thereafter burn up, and he cuts in again and again.
The plane returns. Ahead, the knot of passengers loosens and moves toward the door. I recall an afternoon, a world, Amsterdam lies on the other side of its threshold.
Bicycles are king in Amsterdam—the primary mode of movement—and the diplomatic chaos of their traffic coats the horseshoe streets with plush and drafting grain. Our common city bikes hold our spines upright and so tune us like sailors to westerly wind full of lilac, the passage of sky’s blue fire off five-story windows, the fluid coupling of neighboring wheels—all in sidelong confluence.
Cycling in Amsterdam is a cooperative act, not only among other riders but also with pedestrians, cars, buses, and trams. We yield at a crossing just long enough to feel the breeze of another’s swift passing. And since these relations are institutionalized, since riding a bike is native and daily, the constant, quiet, gestural agreements made from atop a bike are civic in nature.
Unlike most Americans, the Dutch have developed a language for bike transit in which they are highly literate. A taupe Fiat moves down Prinsengracht toward a canal bridge, and seeing a stream of bikes to the right, yields. A cluster of long-haired teens prepare to cross the street on foot, always already privy to the stream coming over the bridge, and yields. We, learning to slow down and glance right, yield.
In De Pijp, passing Sarphati Park, a mother repeatedly sings a short phrase to the baby on the front of her bike, and each time she finishes, they kiss and the baby laughs.
Unhomed, and though my fingertips are blanched in The Netherlands’ late spring chill, I find a home in this. By home, I don’t mean a cinematic notion of beauty but a type of ease in which breath follows the current of an invisible rhythm. Borne on that rhythm, however, is amorousness: fulsome, gold, low-grade purring.
We have so many forms from which to build fond illusion, but the image still reigns. I wonder sometimes if Susan Sontag might coin this the “new-new age of unbelief” or whether we actually saturate or trick eyes any more thoroughly than at the advent of the camera, when Feuerbach said we prefer “the image to the thing, the copy to the original, the representation to the reality, appearance to being.”
Here we are smiling on bicycles. Here we are in front of a canal like romance fiction. Drawn to an oxidized green wall, I tell Thomas, Go stand there, and photograph him. Here are the windmills, the swans, babies cooing, café tables, sky and fronds and poppies and pigment trays—like Mondrian curated color.
Or: here is how artists picture an Amsterdam in which dikes no longer hold off the ocean. We’re standing beneath Waterlicht, chilled to the bone, feeling both dreamy beneath undulating light and a little unnerved, drowned. I’m losing blood. My fingers, blanched, look like waxy, dying petals. I’m distracted by my body, trilling with need, and so cease to see.
We say goodbye to our friends, pedal madly from the Rijksmuseum back to De Pijp, shivering in the wind we make.
Once home, Thomas oscillates the showerhead over me to warm me up. I sit down for a moment beneath it, and when I try to stand again, my vision goes black.
Some changes happen. I find pajamas.
Soon, I sleep and dream of babies in a wind-shorn landscape.
Tomorrow we’ll board a boat on the Amstel—or are we at a food festival—and you’ll see, I’m fine. I appear to be laughing, squinting in what looks like blessed sunlight, hand and hand with my love, a cheerful node in the notion of travelogue.
Riding along, oriented only by a spatial notion of Westerpark, a peripheral blot, a wedding dress shop catches and keeps my eye. I’m inviting you into my private thinking. For a moment, I dreamt up a long, cream dress of delicate needle lace, sweethearted, sheer across the collarbones, cap sleeves, with an open back. But the dress I dream of is worn by someone else, someone long and linear, a woman with a drapey chignon my hair won’t accommodate.
I suspect Thomas and I will someday get married, but I could never have a wedding, actually. So, to whom does this fantasy belong? By what channel has it cropped up in me?
We’re wired with certain desires. By we, I mean subjects of capital. By wired, I mean our subjection is so rigorous and thorough, so disciplining—some desires appear native to corporeal experience. The dress, before I wake from it, feels like light or an answer shining in me.
It’s obvious, but the trouble remains sorting my desire from desire.
Then I wonder what many of us keep wondering: how to rewire, unwire, pitch water over the circuitry. Something like Deleuze & Guattari’s programmatic “Body without Organs”—to approach the animal woman but more to displace the colonizing man’s heroic plot, his rubrics, his reliance on my obedience.
I’m reminded (thanks to Cixous, Irigaray) so much hinges on the word—abandoning sorting for dissecting.
On Wagenstraat in Den Haag, we’re lured by signs for a shoe sale and realize they only sell Sketchers, which makes us regret walking inside. The store also sells shady powder supplements and half-price t-shirts. The owner flags us as Americans, and when I report we’re from Atlanta, his performative Ahhh! tells me he’s never heard of it or misunderstood.
People want to connect.
He says he loves Los Angeles, and his splotchy tan and over-plucked brows make this unsurprising. He says the Dutch are lazy—that they expect things, especially pregnant women who siphon paychecks from the government, for whom giving birth is a choice. Two days earlier I had already decided to birth my children in The Netherlands, to never wear Sketchers, and in which words I’d explain to my future son his mind is not distinctive from his body, not separate—or only metaphorically.
Rotterdam understands buildings are bodies, just as flanked in color, thought’s circulation, or episode. Myth or anamnesis, they become absorbed by another’s storytelling.
In a skyscraper’s mirror capturing the kinder features of weather, I stop feeling the temperature in favor of a warm narrative. Brilliancy is a celestially drowsy afternoon in which we walk and don’t wonder where.
The Museumpark acts both as open space and route, a connective tissue. It self describes as a “fragment of the city,” a sensory microcosm of white gravel and blacktop, orderly orchard, and mirror wall with holes that reflect the doubled frenzy of transit—wind and cars, canals and bodies—and the loss or sudden folding of things once visible into mystery. Corners are part physics and part plot device.
In the closet of feeling, I watch guiltily for a crisis.
You could say walking is my religion or that I am wedded to walking—whichever figment of the state best vivifies devotion. While Catholics exist pendulously between abstracting bodily sin and the concretized Eucharist, I live for bodily revelation, awaiting the spark of love, ambivalence, or crises—the same undifferentiated burn—while I move through a city.
In a rented apartment in Paris now, we begin our days consulting the train map of Île-de-France on a child’s placemat over coffee. We don’t know where we’ll walk, which is itself a luminous aerial viewpoint suspended above future, that alluring rhetoric of sovereignty.
At home in Athens, I walk at least three miles most days, though frequently upwards of ten. Here, we’re averaging between ten and fifteen. And many walks are without any stable terminus—a restaurant maybe (often spontaneously closed in Paris), a neighborhood, the Seine, the city, although as Chris Marker’s Level Five reminds me, But none of us knows what a city is. That is to say its unboundedness is coincidental with its sublime power.
Jane Bennett says, “Some of the political potency of the term freedom might be traced to its association with the pleasure of bodily mobility.” Underexplored, however, is the significance of mobility for a woman’s pleasure—that dreaded thing—particularly as a strategy to shore up freedom.
Some pendulous going between desire and gratification—this nowhere is a locus of revelation.
So tired of facing faces, I already hear a quiet that awaits us, that will gird us like glass around the sacred, in Butte-aux-Cailles.
The sidewalk crowd is a lopsided braid in Montmartre. A man walks between a camera and the couple posing for wedding photos whose eyes dart but keep smiling.
We sit to share a cheap sandwich from Alexine—gruyere, arugula, coarse mustard, and apricot. A sting like worry falls across me while I watch a young woman who poses to be watched. This is a feature of youth—a name we give to shapeless waiting for improvement—that no one wants to describe: desperation to be seen and touched, which, as I recall, is imagined as balm or mercy for an unspecified crime.
In Le Marais, we become native by tightening our lips. We remain flush with the locals. I mix patterns to be chic, and Thomas dons a classic kerchief. We speak only in the words we pronounce the best to prevent total fatigue.
It is both difficult and simple to feel alone in Paris. The crowd is unrelenting, and the crowd is impersonal.
Accidentally confronted with Église Saint-Augustin, I say we could go in, which means, feeling this adrift, I’d like an anchor.
Inside, the whole city mutes; time turns cryptic, gold-washed by artificial candlelight. I walk the perimeter, inhale and exhale narrowly, hold my ribs aloft so my feet alight featherly with each step. When a demand makes itself known, such as the other or silence, I self-restrict and so trivialize my weight.
A little enclave calls with a familiar name: Saint Bernadette, namesake of a kindred friend. I translate French through Latin and Spanish: she saw visions of a veiled woman in a forest grotto later believed to be the immaculate mother.
Even Mary abridged her body—or narrative did. Of all otherworldly entreaties, she only asked that Bernadette soak in the spring and eat of nearby herbs for penance, which, in a day, turned the grotto’s dark water clear. Bernadette’s amorous body, I think, though others concatenate a predictable vein between faith and purity.
Once rumors of insanity passed, the village believed Bernadette, and the water cured the sick, and we keep training the hot claw of desire to submerge its noise—the story to reward obedience.
Sara Renee Marshall was grown in Arizona and Colorado. Her work can be found in Interrupture, Jellyfish, Colorado Review, OmniVerse, jubilat, in chapbooks, and elsewhere. She is a teacher, tutor, and doctoral student at University of Georgia. Sara lives with Thomas and Saint Francis in Athens, Ga.