When I walk into a restaurant, alone, I have to do some heavy scoping before I choose a seat. A table that’s up against a single wall is okay, but a corner table is better. If the only tables available are ones in the middle of the floor, exposed on all sides, then I will probably turn around and leave.
Even the corner is a compromise. If it were up to me, I’d eat beneath the table, cross-legged, slurping my soup. Above me, the civilized humans could spread their napkins across their laps. They could bring the spoon to their lips with confidence, not spilling a single drop, not making a single sound as they eat.
So often in my life I fight the desire to slip beneath the table. In my dream world, I would experience things from underneath, present but unseen.
I was nineteen when I first heard the artist Cat Power. A friend had put the song “Nude as the News” on a mix tape, and I listened to it over and over. Sometimes this meant I’d fast forward the tape until I found the song. Other times, I’d listen to the whole mix just to get there.
I didn’t realize at the time that Cat Power was simply a stage name for the singer Chan Marshall. I assumed that Cat Power was a band, maybe a trio of women with muscular arms and tattoos. I had listened to that song hundreds of times when a friend told me that Cat Power was playing at the Crocodile in Seattle, just a short bus ride away from where I lived. “We should go,” she said, and then she added a warning: “But I hear that she is really, really weird.”
When Chan Marshall took the stage, her hair covered her face. All of her face. She made sure of it. In between songs, she obsessively tousled her hair, rearranging it to make sure she was hidden. The end of her nose poked through, but that was about all the flesh she revealed. I watched in awe, waiting for her to drop the act, to tuck her hair behind her ears and smile. If she did this, I imagined, she would laugh, and we would all laugh in relief. But that never happened. She played the whole set behind the curtain of her hair, and I watched, half holding my breath, wanting to protect her from the world with my cautious attention. I wasn’t the only one: the whole room that night felt cautious—rapt and tender. I kept thinking that I didn’t understand. I didn’t get it.
But of course I get it. Everyone on stage is always hiding.
The conflict that defines me is this: I desperately want to hide. I desperately want to be seen. This causes problems.
The following scene from my childhood might help me explain my marriage. When I was a toddler, my mother used to dry me off after a bath, release me from the towel, and send me to hide, naked, somewhere in her room. My options were limited. Under the bed was too dusty. Once, I crawled under her bedspread, but I was so obvious there—a big, human-shaped lump—that my mother insisted on a redo. Most often I hid in one of three closets, huddled in the dark with my knees to my chest. My mother announced her arrival by calling my name, and she continued to call for me over and over as she looked. I must have liked that. I must have liked hearing my name. When finally she found me and opened the closet door, the light revealed me—all of me. She scooped me up and helped me dress.
This is what I want: the luxury of hiding. The sweetness of being sought. I want to be at once tender and hidden, furled like a seedling underground.
It sounds reasonable, right? Sensuous even. But what I really just said is that I want to hide inside a closet with the door closed. I want my partner to come looking for me. I want her to fill the air with my name. I want to say nothing, to be silent, to be found.
On the TV show Transparent, the central character, Maura, knows some things about seeing and being seen. She is a person who late in life, has come out to her children as a woman. They have known her as their father. All of the characters in Transparent are struggling to reckon with who they are, and in some ways Maura, who has spent her life hiding, is ahead of the game. Throughout the show she performs a kind of magic trick: when confronted with judgment, she refuses to hide. For instance, in the first episode of the second season, Maura runs into her sister at a wedding. Their relationship has always been rancorous and they haven’t seen each other since Maura began presenting as female. “Look at you,” Maura’s sister says, taking her in with contempt—her long hair, her white dress, her pearls.
“Yes,” says Maura, “Look at me.” She gestures down her body and creates a wide berth of silence. She invites her sister to stare. Before Transparent, I had no idea that such a thing was possible. That when someone attempts to dismiss you, instead of fleeing or fighting, you might simply reveal yourself more deeply. You might refuse to cover up, to disappear. You might just say: Hello. Apparently you need to look a little closer. Here I am. Keep looking.
Sometimes I try this trick at work, a place where I am often anxious. My job is to stand in front of twenty-eight students and help them learn how to put words on paper. It’s the same thing I have to teach myself every day. Sometimes the students are teenagers. Sometimes they appear to be replicas of the students who shunned me in high school. As I enter the classroom, I activate a force field. I don’t try to, but I do. I can feel it. I am there, but not there. That’s not me you see standing in front of the whiteboard. It’s a projection of me, like that scene from Star Wars when R2D2 projects Princess Leia as a hologram on top of an ancient pillar. She’s small and grainy. She flickers inside a circle of blue light. Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi; you’re my only hope. When she finishes her plea, she glances behind her as if someone is approaching. She leans forward and seems to turn a knob. The turning makes her vanish in one last flash of static.
Last year, I taught myself a simple trick. Before beginning a class, I breathe. I look around the room. I feel my feet on the floor. I take in the humanity of my students. When I do this the force field begins to dissolve. I slow down. I loosen. This, it turns out, is a better place to teach from. It requires more concentration, less energy. But also, exciting and dangerous things start to happen. Students stay after class to talk to me. Sometimes they weep, openly. Sometimes they confess their dreams. Sometimes they leave behind troubling notes. My humanity makes a space for their humanity. I can’t hug them—my professional boundaries forbid it—and so I try to be a mirror. I try to be still and alive.
When I first tried this approach, I thought I would never go back. I thought I had learned a permanent way of dissolving the force field. But the force field returns. It is insistent like that. It can outsmart delicate things like breath and concentration.
There is one place where my desire to hide and be seen is not a conflict: that place is the page. When you read my words, you see me, but also: you don’t. You see black words on a white page. You don’t see my face; you see an imagined face. You see me-but-not-me. This is exactly how I want it.
When I was twenty-three I cobbled part-time jobs together to make a living. One afternoon a week, I taught French at an elementary school. Other days, I worked at a bakery. I had a neighbor who taught figure drawing at a nearby college and she offered to hire me as a model. The pay was $20 an hour. I said okay. It was more than I’d ever been offered for an hour’s work.
And so I stood in the middle of a room, naked, a circle of students around me with easels, as the teacher—my neighbor—arranged my body in different poses. I had brought my own bathrobe, which I put on when the session ended. As I was tying the sash, one of the students approached me with his sketchbook. He wanted to show me his sketches. He was a tall man, the same age as me, with long fingers and smooth fingernails. I was surprised and embarrassed for him. He had just seen me naked, and now he was talking to me. It felt like a breach of some rule he should have known. But he was already using his charcoal pencil to scribble his number in the corner of the page. He ripped it off and handed it to me. I tucked it in the pocket of my robe. That night, after a shower, I would feel the torn edge of it. I would be surprised by it again and then throw it in the bathroom trash where it would sit on top of used up floss and toilet paper.
A week or so later, I would see that same young man again and recognize him instantly: the tawny hair, the long fingers. We ate at opposite sides of a shared picnic table at the local market. He was alone. I nodded at him, but hoped he wouldn’t approach me. He barely nodded back. He showed no glimmer of recognition. With my clothes on, I looked like everybody else. It wasn’t me he’d been drawn to that day, nor was it my particular body. It was the fact of my nakedness.
Somewhere in my house I have a suitcase full of art I made in college. I don’t want to look at it. I don’t want to throw it away.
Somewhere someone may have an old sketchbook under their bed with charcoal drawings of nude figures. Maybe one of the pages is torn, and maybe on that page is a sketch of me—only it’s not me. It’s the way someone saw my body for several minutes on one day nearly twenty years ago. Or, it’s what someone’s charcoal pencil was able to capture of what their eye saw and what their brain processed. My foot, for instance, is just a simple curve. My knee is the suggestion of a shadow. My nipple has been reduced to a simple dot. If you were to look at this sketch you might think that you knew something about me, as if those lines and dots added up to private information.
Sometimes I entertain the idea that I might walk into a restaurant and sit at any table. Or I might teach an entire class without compulsively tucking my hair behind my ears. I remind myself that some people walk through the world and simply inhabit their bodies. They don’t try to be smaller. They don’t try to fade into the wall. For minutes at a time, I imagine myself this way, steady and sure. I wonder if my fear dissolved if my longing would too.
I think about the moment between being hidden and being found, the moment when my mother’s footsteps approach and her hand pulls on the knob to the closet door. One moment I am cradled in the dark, the next moment I am exposed and flooded with light, and then, finally, I am found, lifted, wrapped in a blanket, placed on a bed. My name is spoken. I am safe and content. Imagine that. Imagine that feeling. Imagine a world in which you are safe.
JENNIFER BERNEY lives with her partner and two wild sons in the Pacific Northwest. Her work has appeared in Tin House, The Offing, and Brevity. You can connect with her on Twitter, or on her personal blog, Goodnight Already.