Thursday, June 5, 2008

portrait of a lady (house mix)

A couple months ago, I sat (and stood) as a model for one of my students, Chad Houle, a photography major who’s working on a great project about gay men and domesticity. (Check out his work at When Chad approached me about sitting for him, I was a bit nervous, for multiple reasons: will I look cute enough? Am I really a "gay man"? But the most visceral nervousness rose from the simple prospect of being the object of a stranger’s photographic eye. The last time someone plopped me down in front of a camera for a formal portrait was (not counting those endless squares of yearbook mugshots) was more than fifteen years ago, when someone in my family had the brilliant idea for a family mugshot. I was in full adolescent awkward glory, with rough black hair that looked like it was cropped with a lawnmower, and sporting a mustard-colored corduroy oxford shirt (yikes). But worse than that was the fiction of our “happy” family—my sister and I, our two (pre-divorce) parents, smiling like zombies for the fuzzy-wuzzy portrait. So psyching myself out for this new portrait of myself as a single divorcee, I was apprehensive about what kind of a fictional remix I was adding to my current state of being.

The above is an outtake from that session. Here I am in my Providence apartment, sandwiched between my wall of books and shelf of fetishistic inspirations: a red wooden Japanese doll, a Jenny (Japanese Barbie) doll, a flyer for my first warehouse dance club in San Francisco (circa 1996), a pen in the shape of a lipstick, a cassette single of Mariah Carey’s “Love Takes Time” (1990), a postcard of Marilyn Monroe in her last film, a nearly-empty container of Gucci Rush perfume (a perfect pinkred rectangle), a 1978 first edition of the poet Ai’s book “The Killing Floor." In the photograph that Chad chose as the final portrait, I very much recognize myself: still the filling of a fetish-and-book sandwich, I'm leaning against the mantle, one leg bent, looking like the perfect combination of mistress of the house and tweedy librarian. But I heart the outtake for a different reason. I look tired. Or perhaps more accurately, I look boneless, like a rag doll flopped on a chair.

Mistress of the house/ librarian is fiction not because it is fake but because it is an idealized goal for and of myself. The boneless ragdoll, on the other hand, is a bit of reality. Because in truth, I’ve since moved out of this bookcase-lined apartment on the West Side of Providence. The “mistress” aspect of my lady persona was factually fictional, since I this apartment was not mortgaged, but rented. Emotionally, too, because in my year of living in this place, I never felt it to be “my own.” Not only because I was renting, but because I had a very intrusive and disruptive neighbor downstairs who loved her television so much that she needed to share her programming choice with me almost every night, all night by turning up the volume to some ungodly level. And when my landlady decided to sell the place, she had her realtor come into my place and perform little acts of violence. After my friend TLS saw images of the place online along with the ad for sale, and she said to me, “I didn’t know that you had got a new print up over your fireplace.” I was like, “But I didn’t?!” Apparently, the realtor had gone in and covered my poster for the seventies softcore film “Emmanuelle: Joys of a Woman” (tagline: “Nothing is wrong if it feels good”) with a cheesy Monet print. And when I got back home from one of the open houses, I’d see that they had hidden my gay magazines under more "innocuous" ones. I understand the need to sell, but hello, it’s not like the perspective homeowners have to buy my poster of French porn flick and the latest issue of “Butt” magazine along with the place. It all made me feel very un-grounded in the very space that was supposed to be “home.”

Now, all of my books have been shoved into wine boxes and along with bins of clothes and what bits of dishes and furniture I have, tucked into a storage space for the year. I'll be a bit nomadic for the next year (I'm teaching in the Fall; on leave to write in the Spring). This coming year will be a bit nervy for me, for a lot of he same reasons I was nervous for the portrait. Given the emotional instability of my “home” life as a kid, I think I’d been searching not so much for a boyfriend as for a husband. That is: someone with whom I could express in the concrete materiality of physical space and objects the emotional bond of love. I thought I had found it in my ex-husband, and to give both of us credit, we had a good long run (nearly 9 years). But once single, I found myself unable to disconnect the emotional synapse between emotionality and living space. I felt that as a thirtysomething, I needed a “HOME”: an adult dwelling space that could speak for the mistress-librarian in me.

But seeing Chad’s portraits of me helped me realize that I have to re-learn my emotionality as a single woman all over again. I once read in an interview with Lindsay Lohan about the joys of living out of a suitcase...and a storage space. She talked about how unstable such a life is, but surprisingly joyful: when she returns to the storage space, she finds all sorts of things she didn’t know she owned!! Like a little Christmas every couple months! So of course I will take inspiration from Miss Lohan, and learn to take cozy comfort in a few suitcases and a storage space that waits for me faithfully like a long-distance lover...all the while looking for a lover who will be independent of me but always boxedpacked and ready for me—a boy like a storage space.

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