A couple Saturdays ago, my partner-in-crime Trace made this observation as if she were welcoming an old friend: “You’re wearing your favorite shirt!” So I was: an original, circa mid-1970s tee-shirt in glorious beige emblazoned with the image of one of my favorite records, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. Or more accurately: so it seemed as though I were wearing my favorite shirt. In fact, I was wearing a copy of my favorite shirt. And when I say “copy,” I don’t mean “reproduction,” an icky knock-off with a computer-scanned image ink-jetted onto an American Apparel shirt. No, I mean a literal copy: I’ve been owning a 70s Rumours tee that I bought in Berkeley back in 1998, but the shirt I was wearing when hanging out with Trace was another 70s original that I recently bought on ebay by sheer dumb luck/ fated miracle. Yes, I possess two of the same old and used tee-shirt.
Hence the images above, which is actually not the same photo or even two photos of me in the same outfit but two different photos that look the same from afar. In the first photo, I’m wearing my first vintage Rumours shirt, the one bought in 1998. In the second, I’m wearing my new vintage Rumours shirt, bought 2010. Even though I do collect all kinds of Fleetwood Mac shirts, I love this specific model of shirt most of all because one, the image: the quasi-Victorian meets ballet meets sorcery: that’s me. Also, printed on beige, it’s roughly the tone of nude pantyhose. Wearing it, I feel chicly redundant, like I’m wearing my own skin over my own skin. The two shirts above are almost identical, save the idiosyncrasies of wear-and-tear of the decades. The Berkeley one was pretty worn when I bought it. It was already so soft from repeated wearing that for my “wild” twenties, it was my favorite shirt to wear on hangover Sundays: aaaahh the memory of sitting around watching old Joan Crawford movies eating pizza or Jack-in-the-Box while in a state of painful yet fuzzily comforting debilitation, snuggled against a solid sofa of a husband body, cocooned in a tee shirt that spoke to the unique alchemy of tee shirts: cotton can become silk through years of abuse. So now, having logged twelve years of wear on this war-torn body, it’s become almost transparent, the neckhole rib stretched beyond bounce.
The second copy of the shirt is in a weird condition. Textile-wise, it is in much better shape—the cotton is soft but not thin, not near translucence. Judging by the length of the torso, the crispness of the tell-tale 70s tag and the intense black of the silk screen, it was worn but hasn’t been washed and dried. It probably spent most of its life in storage. Yet it has strange black-edged holes all over that look like cigarette burns. And there is one particular hole that punctures the “O” in “Rumours” that Trace said is “shaped like a heart.” Weirdly, the hole goes all the way through the back of the shirt, as if someone really did put out a cigarette on the shirt while it was lying helpless on a table. The cigarette hole is, appropriately enough, on the left side, so the hole is literally over my heart. So when I wear it, I feel all cheesily romantic—like someone put a cigarette out on my heart. (Awwwwwww)
Some people buy two (or three) of the same piece of the clothing for practical reasons: it fits so well, why not have a back-up, to rotate or replace? I do this too. But mostly I buy multiple copies of clothes to protect my heart against loss. My fear of loss borders on neurotic. As a child, I used to spend half my allowance in dime form, not at a candy machine but on the Xerox machine at the public library. I made endless black-and-white photocopies of pictures I loved from books I loved—starting with Joan Walsh Anglund and Dare Wright books of cute doll-girls, then moving on to stills of Audrey Hepburn, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Rita Hayworth, Cary Grant, and Johnny Weissmuller. The piles and piles of photocopies were a poor kid’s way of owning books that he couldn’t buy. But as I grew older, it became a process of the way my heart worked: it became a delusional insurance against loss. If I copied these books that I knew couldn’t be mine, I could always have them with me even when the books got checked out or lost. They were poor copies (although Crawford and Davis in particular retain shape well in Xerox) but they were mine to keep with me, between the pages of the math textbook, in my underwear, as the backside of my own drawings. As I aged, I didn’t stop copying, and I’m still a bit copy-crazed. I copy Mary Karr and Sylvia Plath’s poems, passages from Mary Gaitskill and Toni Morrison, memoirs of Judith Jamison, because they are words sure to produce feelings that I knew I wanted to keep forever: love.
The copier in the Liberal Arts Division office of RISD was broken the first week of classes this semester, so I had to hand out course syllabi to my students that had black carbon crud all over them. I apologized to my classes, but secretly I kind of liked it that I was getting all sooty because it was a distilled version of my compulsion to copy. It’s how I want to exist as a human, emotionally speaking: constantly stained by the granules of my feelings. I fear the loss of love like I fear the loss of my Rumours shirt: as an inevitability. If boys can always turn around and leave, so can shirts.
Here is how I used to experience love before I met my now ex-husband: I’d fall in love with boys as not a gay boy but as a girl. This kind of love didn’t take too long to implode because regardless of their sexual orientation, the boy preferred either a real live (genetic) girl to one whose femaleness was merely emotional-psychological-political (me) or a male homosexual who was a real boy inside (not me). I guess this actually did lead to masochism, and a lot of bad behavior in the way of dramatically self-hating girls whose self-hating was often a form of glamour. But then, in 1997, I met a bona-fide faggot who truly loved—or rather, and this is an important and beautiful specification, tried with all his might to love—a boy who was really a girl inside. He promised he’d love me forever and the Xeorx-crazed kid in my head fought like crazy against the lifeguard, but soon got fatigued and relaxed into his rescue.
We got hitched and went on a real Elizabeth Taylor-and-Richard Burton-esque ride that lasted basically a decade. The self-hating and self-laceration at not being a “real girl” stopped, and I fully embraced being a wife. But the marriage itself eventually fell apart. Why, who knows. But I think it had something to do with what J.L. Austin said: “to promise is not to try to do anything.” So now that I am back to being a single girl, once again I find myself falling back into that old feeling of ecstatic disintegration. In my teens and twenties, I thought that my body would hold its outline together and make sense if I just had enough sex with boys. I admit, I didn’t have all that much sex, but each perverse action would bring me closer to recognizing this squishy sausage of bones as “my body.” Now that I am in my thirties, things are different. While I have a comfortable sense of who I am, I now have a hard time even imagining sex with boys I love. When I try, I can’t see or feel my body. Sexual fantasy doesn’t happen because my body has become nothing.
I think I need two of my favorite tee-shirts, like I need two’s of my favorite jeans or sweaters , for this reason: because the truth is, using my feelings to connect with people often makes me feel like I don’t have a body at all. With these copied clothes, it’s like I’m Xeroxing myself over and over, but this time I’m not insuring against the loss of library books but against the loss of myself.
I think I’m in love again because he makes me feel like nothing. Not in a masochistic way of “I’m nothing” but “nothing” as in “nothingness.” My body rattles with such uncertainty of itself that I’m afraid my cells will rattle right out of their skin and I will disintegrate into a pile of slimy, granular stuff.