It always happens in a crowded theater. She comes sometimes with a husband, sometimes without. She is somewhere between 60 and 70; she wears her hair short and tight. Even sitting down, she’s short. I never remember what she’s wearing – summer, winter, it never registers. No matter: the way they decorate their husbands gives much more information about education and economic status.
She somehow finds her way to a seat beside me. She always wants to talk. She talks at me, to me, even if I clearly have a date, a companion, a book, an electronic gadget purchased expressly to avoid human interaction. Headphones do not deter her – she finds a good reason to ask me to remove them and thus moves in on my attention at the next opportunity.
The lady of winter finds me at a public reading for a cookbook. Pohlad hall overfills. When I grabbed a seat in the back row, I chose poorly. I find myself standing up constantly to let other ill-prepared women in and out of the aisle. She asks me how I found out about the event – she just happened upon it in the newspaper. I am on the mailing list. She has rediscovered cooking for home after a career in food for the masses, marketing recipes and writing about them all the time. She fascinates me, as all people with strong careers and hidden passions do.
It comes up that we both write, have had careers as journalists. I mention in passing that I just got a book back from a copy edit. She asks me what it’s about.
Shit. This is not the time or place for that conversation.
I tell her it’s about divorce for those under 30. She had that experience. She asks me what we’re all doing wrong. I say “Unrealistic expectations combined with underdeveloped frontal lobes.”
It is true. My book says something about the first part – I only learned about the second part recently.
The summer lady finds me at a play. Her husband wears tailored slacks, a button down shirt of a light and expensive fabric. He has a nicely trimmed full head of hair, white. She keeps her trophy nicely, but a full head of hair at that age does not bode well for her sex life.
The play, called The Naked I, gives voice to queer and gender fluid experiences. The play is itself is quite fluid.
“I’m conservative,” she says before the show starts. “Are you conservative?”
“Not even remotely,” I tell her.
She recently watched a Fringe Festival show about two women who fell in love, one while married to a man. The story ended badly for everyone. “It just showed how painful that all is,” she said. I didn’t press her. I got the impression that for her, the play confirmed that being gay just couldn’t work – that the straight way was the right way because it wasn’t just the only way that saved pain.
I’m pretty sure that the play meant to send a message about how the rigidity of monogamy, patriarchy and homophobia wound up making three people miserable.
At intermission, she tells me she’s just thrilled with this play. “It just shows so much of the experience!”
I wonder what message is going through what filter. On the one hand, I admire her for exposing herself to something I am assuming she is opposed to. On the other hand, I suspect she is finding confirmation of her “conservative” beliefs in what she sees, despite a pretty loud message that challenges most conservatism – she’s focusing on how life is made miserable for the gender fluid, sees in it the benefit of conformity.
Maybe she’ll remember the joyful bits, too.
I dodge her personal questions. “Conservative” might just be code for straight. I have no problem admitting my heterosexuality, nor my allied status. But conservative, like liberal, is a tricky status to claim. It’s not just about who you accept or don’t – sometimes it’s just about how fast you want to move, how much skin you wish to cover, how much you tell a stranger in a theater about yourself. In some ways, I’m as liberal as you can get while remaining clothed. In other ways, I’m pretty damned conservative.
Those slight, frozen moments, they happen from time to time. I’m uncomfortable coopting the language of “out and proud” when it comes to my spiritual status. I tell those who can handle it. Any person with sufficient Google-fu can find out that I’m Pagan, that I like Doctor Who (but somehow don’t have as much to say about it as other fans), that I adore Julia Cameron, that I’m fat and that someone at some point gave me a camera.
They might find more with greater digging. I’m not really hiding… I’m just not waving a flag.
These women pick me out for some reason. Maybe I look like a character popular during Baby Boomer childhood. Maybe they just see a fat woman and assume she’s lonely. Maybe they think I’ll boost their egos.
Maybe I just look safe.