Spotlight: White Girls by Hilton Als

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Whenever I read excellently penned memoirs, I entertain the idea that my own life could be written in a similarly hypnotic vein. Then I remember, being more mouse than girl, that I shy away from trend-setters and starlets; on the whole I have avoided more often than collided with life. But then Hilton Als, in his essay, Tristes Tropiques, describes himself as “half living life so I can get down to really living it by writing it”, and I think aha! just watch me!

My raison d’être is to be where no one notices me like in a bookstore on a saturday night just before closing. Which is where I was when I saw White Girls with its capitalized title, defiant and oddly familiar. Not being able to pinpoint the arc of his story – messy, contradictory, and addled with cultural references – I was drawn to it.

From Tristes Tropiques, “what is grace but the desire to forget one’s body, or share it with others?” Als describes a need, a craving for love which transcends ownership, or even, at times, touch; our search for a “we” or a “I” that acts like a mirror, reflecting back our double, or twin.

He describes a white girl (one of many in the book) he calls Mrs. Vreeland because “she was stylish, and everything she wore was unfussy and the opposite of fashion and what did the first Mrs. Vreeland say about style? ‘It helps you get down the stairs’.”

These days, I yearn for the time to write the essays, poems, plays whose bits rattle about in my brain. When I was young and had the time and money I worked grunt jobs instead of pursuing my craft; I felt that I had no right to write, I had to live first.

Now, I try to imagine what this new ideal would look like. If I wrote all day, would I dress up my limbs and paint my face to go out to the bars and cafes at night?

Because writing often flits between subjective and objective desire. We are so much in our own heads, we have to feel the world’s eyes on us in return, to feel desirable, and to make the isolation of the work worthwhile. When Hilton Al’s muse says, “what readers crave most, what fills them up, is the story of love, and how it ends,” she speaks for all of us who are watching our lives and loves take root and unravel, while simultaneously putting it all down on paper.

Prospect St. Seattle, 1984

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 Prospect St.  Seattle, 1984.  Girl-child leaning on a pole marked Prospect.  Languid like the curve of the cornerstone. Eyes downturned, passions curbed for the time being.  Loneliness leaving pock-marks on the present and the future firmament.  Meeting glamour with hands in pockets.  At some point there will be a sense of deja vu; this thing that I am doing I surely attempted before.  Is it a boon that I cannot remember my failures? 

Vocal point concert, looking back

A year ago, the music affected me in such a way that my stomach lurched and I felt as if I might vomit. The songs grappled with the human condition – desire, adoration, devastation, hope – sung by teens radiant with the glow of youth. Their lyrics slipped through my pores like a truth serum. I wanted to bolt. I believed I was under some curse or coming down with the flu. I drove to the bar where my husband was working. It quickly became apparent that the snake poisoning my body was jealousy. She sat at the bar, the other woman. She didn’t register the danger in my approach. She kept talking in a familiar tone, as if she was the television in the living room. I sat down across from her; taking stock of her assets. I felt that my rival was not too formidable. Before her, opened, sat a giant black notebook, the kind that allows for both sketching and text. I got out my smaller lined journal and pen and commenced writing, digging my heels into life.

Delayed request

I can see art on the wall of my new day-bed nook. Something neither small nor large, a medium-sized piece, although I don’t know whether it would be portraiture, or a landscape, or something realistic like a photograph. I also don’t know if I envision it framed or not, hanging from a nail or taped up.

Before I can decide what to procure for my viewing pleasure, I must paint the wall, whose present shade of green is decidedly sinister, not the warm luster which would best set off a work of art.

There is a lot to consider.

And while I’m cataloging desires, let me put down that since childhood I’ve hankered after a certain bed-prop/cushion/pillow which allows one to be fully functional while reclining. The house where I spotted this device was occupied by intellectuals who kept the complete works of L. Frank Baum on hand. I always thought that being able to comfortably read in bed would open many doors for me but at the same time I did not dare to mention this nor bare this request until now.

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Prague

He was a lanky guy with spectacles, a sensitive nerd like my dad.  Our friendship was undeniable.  When he traveled to Prague, he met the woman he would marry.  Life opened its arms for him.  When he returned, he told me that the city he had traveled to was my city, that I would adore its every nuance, that I would find myself reflected back in every twisted turn of its streets.  He laid his words at my feet like a package I would decline to open, afraid like the Pharaoh’s daughter to believe or to disbelieve divine prophecy, facing both options head on with silence. I never spoke to or saw my friend again.

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Headrest

The incident that slipped her memory went like this: She delivered a package to his apartment.  He was overcome with stiffness of his back so she carried the item – a thing to offer comfort, a headrest! – up the stairs.  He invited her in; of course, she was delivering a package! He offered her tea made from tightly curled leaves called pearls.  The only place to sit was the bedroom; and given his physical condition he preferred laying horizontal.  She didn’t think of the situation as particularly erotic.  And yet she found herself succumbing to the inevitable seduction. Since time immemorial, her defenses were feeble faced with an imbalance of power. 

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Studio

We talked about how we weren’t going to be together anymore and then I went downstairs to play some songs because it seemed like a comforting thing to do and he followed me into the studio and accompanied me on bass and we went back and forth selecting songs.  The irony reached a pitch and I had the urge to record us for posterity though that was pointless since he was leaving; if this was the last time we would play these songs together a record of it was decidedly valuable, though desperately impractical.  One only plans for the banal and unsurprising.   The unexpected whirrs past; we lack a record but are rewarded with intensity.