Brittany Allen | Longreads | August 2019 | 10 minutes (2,730 words)
In 1974 Walter Thompson, a Berklee-trained bandleader, moved to Woodstock and made up a language. A fan of improv, Thompson initially designed forty signs for structuring a live composition. With one gesture, he could single out a group in his orchestra (like “Woodwinds”). With another, he could instruct said group to hold a long note (“Long Tone”), match one another’s phrasing (“Synchronize”), or tell players to dit dit dit out a series of staccato bursts (“Pointillism”). Wham, Blam, thank you ma’am: a new song, on the spot.
Forty years later, directors working with all kinds of performers — actors, dancers, and musicians — still employ Thompson’s conducting shorthand to devise material. The language has a name now: soundpainting, a term I find almost unbearably lovely. At my (blessedly experimental) college I studied soundpainting, stage pictures, lyric essays, many radiant paradoxes that suggested trespass between one mode of making and another. But soundpainting, this word lingers. What a pure reminder that our creative borders are porous by definition. That some of our metaphors ought to be mixed.
Either Martin Mull or Frank Zappa or Elvis Costello or someone else entirely once may have said, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” and meant this as a cut. But like Thompson, I chafe against the arbitrary border. In this reader’s opinion, there are some excellent books about music. But on the synesthetic end of the exercise, there are also miraculous books suffused with music, there are rhythmic books that dit dit dit a forever impression on your skull. A man in Woodstock believes you can paint with sound. Well, I know for a fact you can dance to pages. Read more…
Kate Branca | Longreads | May 2019 | 22 minutes (5,497 words)
You hear the drums before you see us, a circle of figures facing inward, our arms rigid, our feet pounding the stage in an even, rhythmic, side-stepping march. The circle bobs up and down with our forcefulness. Our costumes are geometric bodysuits, designed not to contour to our human bodies, but to transform them into something more angular, hardened, like a shell. They have V-neck fronts and stiff cap sleeves and straight pant legs that stop suddenly at the shin, transforming our bodies into great Xs of yellow, purple, and black. We wear strips of black tape on our cheeks, like war paint. Our costumes make us look like ancient Aztecs or alien warriors — beings of a past or future time.
When I am wearing that costume and bound to that ring, I am transported back nine years; suddenly I am a 19-year-old performing the choreography of Robert Battle with my college dance company — and also none of those things. It feels like I am nothing, or that we are collectively something else, emptied, but electric, maybe capable of boring a hole in space or time. During a performance, when I catch sight of something mundane among us, like a wisp of hair sprung from Brittany’s bun, or a nervous twitch in Erin’s fingers, my chest blooms with love for the moment: for the startling gift of feeling like I am many people, in many places, traversing many times all at once.
We twist and extend our arms into wide, heavenward Vs and beckon the stage lights with flicks of our hands. We tuck and splay and smack our thighs. Then the pace of the drumming quickens with a RAPAPAPAPAP! and one in our company enters the center of the circle where a spotlight appears. She spins wildly in one direction, then the other, her feet stamping the ground as fast as the mallets hitting the drums. Meanwhile, those of us around her shoot our arms into the air like crops hit by a sudden gust of wind. She rejoins the circle so that only the light remains inside the ring made up of our bodies, and now that it’s there, finally there, we are frenzied by it. Hopping, slamming, jumping, falling, flinging ourselves in patterns around its edges. With a final pound, the drums stop, leaving us standing around the light’s rim with our feet wide, arch to arch with one another, arms by our sides, chests heaving, but open to the sky, our necks craned toward whatever bulb or star gave us this brightness. We lower our chins as the stage fades to black.
Adam Morgan | Longreads | May 2019 | 14 minutes (3,793 words)
Four years ago, when the news broke that a second Harper Lee novel had been discovered fifty years after To Kill a Mockingbird, the literary world was shocked. Some readers were thrilled by the prospect of returning to the world of Scout, Atticus Finch, and Boo Radley. Others were concerned the 88-year-old Lee might have been pressured to publish an unfinished draft. But Casey Cep, an investigative reporter for the New Yorker and the New York Times, drove down to Alabama to get to the bottom of it. And what she found wasn’t a publishing conspiracy, but another lost book Lee had attempted to write for more than a decade, but never finished.
The book was called The Reverend. It would have been a true-crime novel like In Cold Blood (a book Lee helped Truman Capote research, write, and edit, despite his failure to give her any credit). The Reverend would have told the story of Willie Maxwell, a black preacher who murdered five members of his own family in the 1970s in order to collect life insurance money. It would have touched on voodoo, racial politics in post-industrial Alabama, and a courtroom setpiece that rivaled To Kill a Mockingbird for drama. But Harper Lee never finished writing The Reverend, and now, thanks to Casey Cep, we know why.
Cep’s debut, Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, is fascinating, addicting, and unbearably suspenseful. Cep actually tells three concentric stories: the crimes of Willie Maxwell, the trials of his lawyer Tom Radney, and Harper Lee’s failed attempt to write about them. When I called Cep from “a Southern phone number” on an unseasonably hot spring afternoon, she initially thought I was one of her sources calling with a “some bombshell thing they want to show me, far too late to help with the book.”
Noun, feminine: An abundance of persons or things; crowd, horde
Noun, biblical: Survivors, the chosen
* * *
When I fell for the video girl in Omarion’s “Touch,” I never thought I’d come to know her name. I loved her for her low-slung baggy jeans and spangled bustier. I loved her for the wave arranged across her forehead, her sly smile, and most of all, of course, for the way she moved. In the video, Omarion spots her with her girls as she’s leaving the club, and soon they involve each other in a pedestrian duet that elaborates the walk home along the lines of a Cuban rumba: frankly sexual, magnetically relational, but rarely, barely touching.
What won my attention was an unusual liberty in her movement — unconfined, it seemed, by a tightly choreographed routine or proper place in the staged urban environment — and a looseness in her waistline I can’t help calling Spanish. In Latin music, lyrics linger less over hips and ass, lavishing attention on la cintura atómica, la cintura sueltecita as the locus of sensual movement, maybe even the primary engine of Latin culture’s successive “explosions.” Marking the waist as specifically Spanish doesn’t check out in a diasporic vocabulary that includes wining, belly dance, even hula. But that’s how I responded to her body — with recognition. I followed the current that ran up and down her torso, briefly electrifying each gesture as if it were a spoken phrase that would resolve into a statement. I wanted to know where the meaning would land.
I didn’t expect to see this dancer again. Maybe I couldn’t see past the way she’d been cast: as a girl who appears, suddenly, in the chaos of the club, then slips back — a moment, an hour, a day later — into the city’s unsyncopated working rhythm. Blink. Touch. This was 2005, before the internet’s full power was at my fingertips, before I could feel confident that “Omarion video girl” would yield a name, a résumé, a world. I didn’t try. For years I’d return to her on YouTube, exhibiting her to friends and lovers, an avatar of erotic freedom, improvisational play, anonymous genius. I wanted her to be noticed beyond the terms the screen had set. And I wanted to be noticed for noticing her.
* * *
Pop culture teaches us that backup dancers are beneath notice. They’re not real artists, and the pleasure we take in them is primitive. They are not suitable emissaries of culture, even if culture wouldn’t be any fun without them. There are no prominent prizes for video girls, no credit roll at the end of the concert naming names. When we pick favorites and mimic their moves, our mothers make sure we know not to aspire. Backup dancing is not aspirational; it’s a no-man’s-land where brown girls are liable to languish, underpaid and overworked. It’s one wrong turn away from sex work. When Cardi B brags, “I don’t dance now / I make money moves,” she’s minimizing the difference between the kind of dancing she used to do on the pole and the kind of dancing done on other stages. Neither one, she seems to say, will pay. These messages have posed a problem for me, because I grew up in a time and place in which every Puerto Rican you’d ever heard of was — or had been — a backup dancer.
The distinction between was and had been didn’t matter that much, because the fact that certain individuals had achieved star status did little to reduce the stigma of salacious amateurism that lingered with them. Especially before Lin-Manuel Miranda, Sonia Sotomayor, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez went to Washington, the prototypical Puerto Rican in U.S. consciousness was [Dancing Girl emoji, skin tone tan]. Probably, she still is. Even the nation’s youngest congresswoman is haunted — or rather, refuses to be haunted — by her younger body, bopping across the rooftops of Boston University in 2010. As a dweeby tween, I wasn’t ashamed: I liked being noticed in relation to something “sexy.” But I see now why my mother was. There’s an implied analogy between the backup dancer and Puerto Rico itself, as if the island exists first and foremost for the empire’s entertainment, as if Puerto Ricans can be famous, too, so long as we know our precarious, paradoxical place.
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Official policy refers to Puerto Rico as a commonwealth, but it’s really a shadow colony in plain view, hypervisible especially in relation to the colonies most Americans don’t know or name: Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands. The United States government sometimes refers to Puerto Rico as “the shining star of the Caribbean,” a phrase dreamed up for a midcentury publicity campaign designed to attract business investment to the island. But this special status has not protected Puerto Rico — or its diaspora — from myriad forms of colonial extraction. Puerto Rico is both empire’s “shining star” and, in the notorious words of U.S. Senator William B. Bate, “a heterogeneous mass of mongrels,” threatening the nation’s delicate racial and political ecosystem from the shadowy margins. There are too many of us (“mass”), and each one of us already contains too many (“mongrel”). When changes in U.S. economic priorities have displaced Puerto Ricans from Puerto Rico itself, we’ve become backup bodies in cities like New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia. By the late 20th century, Puerto Ricans made up the largest “immigrant” group in New York City. Life hasn’t been much better stateside, but there is still an important sense in which the Puerto Rican pseudo-citizen moves dique freely in relation to her cousins in the rest of the Caribbean and Latin America. She won’t be deported, exactly. Instead, she’ll spin in a perpetual motion machine.
All of these myths and policies converge on the body of the Puerto Rican backup dancer. The consolation prize for second-class citizenship — really, for lack of sovereignty — has been cultural nationalism. We can shimmy and shake all we like, get loud and proud about how well we do it. But even when the backup dancer gets to be a star, she’s on the blink, appearing and disappearing like the bright spot on the nocturnal satellite map before and after Hurricane Maria.
For years I’d return to her on YouTube, exhibiting her to friends and lovers, an avatar of erotic freedom, improvisational play, anonymous genius. I wanted her to be noticed beyond the terms the screen had set. And I wanted to be noticed for noticing her.
Over the years there are certain stars I’ve come to count on, that seem to have achieved a steady glow: Rita Moreno, for example. Rosie Perez. Jennifer Lopez. Invoking them in sequence, like this, suggests a progressive history, a lineage in which I secretly attempt to situate myself. But the more I read into it, the less it feels like history and the more it feels like a cut-rate carousel. I’m stuck on the constant costume changes these women have hustled through to appear, against the backup dancer’s odds, as names we know. Despite the individuality that stardom confers, they’ve passed through many of the same institutions and come to many of the same professional crossroads. Sometimes they have literally danced in each other’s footsteps or played the same roles. They stand out from and stand in for New York City itself — Nueva York, los niuyores — a few recognizable forms in what the performance scholar Jayna Brown calls “the multijointed body of the female tableaux.” She’s talking about black vaudevillians at the turn of the 20th century, but the image translates: there’s a complex pleasure to getting lost in the crowd. Brown goes on to quote a contemporary of Josephine Baker’s: “She was just a chorus girl, baby, we all was chorus girls.” But it’s hard to hear her tone. Is the chorus girl jaded, disabusing us of the glamour we associate with the star, implying that she can never really rise above her station? Or is taking the star down a peg a way to hold her close, to include her in movement’s “we,” movement’s “all”?
* * *
Growing up, I wanted to be included — even, especially, in the mass of mongrels. I knew Senator Bate didn’t mean to make it seem like so much fun, at least not on the face of it. But by the time we get around to the 1978 Rolling Stones song “Miss You,” Mick Jagger is sure the way to sound American on R & B radio — the way to sound black — is to growl “we’re gonna come around at twelve / with some Puerto Rican girls / that’s just dying to meet you.” I liked singing along — accustomed, like women of all backgrounds, to extracting pleasure and power from pop music’s misogyny. Sometimes I still do.
Maybe I was particularly vulnerable to crude seductions because our family was the opposite of a crowd: me and my mother in California, my grandmother in New York, no siblings, no husbands. Until I left the Bay Area for New York when I was 18, my direct relatives were the only Puerto Ricans I really knew. I was grateful for my Chicanx friends at the private schools we attended on scholarship — we began our political lives together — but culturally speaking they didn’t really know where to place me, and I wasn’t in a position to help them. If Jennifer Lopez implied an urban world teeming with around-the-way girls and spontaneous block parties, I was eager to be implicated.
In Zami, Audre Lorde’s erotic memoir, she articulates her mother’s longing for her natal island of Grenada: “She missed the music you didn’t have to listen to because it was always around.” When my mother danced around the apartment it became populous — with stories of her father’s famous footwork, Motown madness with her college boyfriend, José, the live drums from the New Rican village that seemed to fall in line behind her heels. We’d angle out the closet door with the full-length mirror so she could teach me her teenage moves: the Mashed Potatoes, the Watusi, the Jerk. And then she’d spin out where I couldn’t follow, spurred into a frenzy by the telltale cowbell in “Adoración.” She was multiplied at both ends: by everything that entered her and everything her dancing made me do, the movement she started in the living room. A culture of one. Given our isolation, it would take me years of living in New York to discern which of my mother’s gestures and behaviors were the product of her powerful personality, and which were Puerto Rican cultural commonplaces. It isn’t always easy, or explanatory, to name the difference.
In her self-titled memoir, published in 2011, Rita Moreno remembers moving to Washington Heights and “sitting on the wrought iron grille base beside an open window … while our new radio, shaped like a small cathedral, blared music to me and to any other appreciative Latinos within earshot.” With neighbor girls she “put on costumes and spun through living rooms [and] even ‘entertained’ on the rooftop.” Rosie Perez credits her early dance training to the long summers she spent with her cousin Cookie “in a dilapidated tenement that she kept clean as hell … doing the Hustle in the kitchen while my wet set dried.” I wonder if we’d call it training if we never came to see her dance on TV. Was I training, too, for the pedestrian life I have, in which I’m only famous for my dancing among the friends who follow my Instagram stories? For my gracelessly improvised life as a writer?
‘She was just a chorus girl, baby, we all was chorus girls.’
The New York I live in now is more densely Caribbean than it was when Audre Lorde’s mother suffered the unmusical noise of the north. Despite the city’s constant war on public space, the air at least stays thick, stays wavy. These days the uptown bodegas play bachata, and when I walk by I like to let it inflect the rhythm of my walking — the music I don’t have to listen to because it’s everywhere, the dance I don’t have to do because it’s always in my body. It’s a trope of black diasporic dance to start small, as if walking, as if merely shifting weight, hitching a skirt — the better to dramatize the smooth continuum between everyday life and the high fever of the mess around.
My mother sometimes worries about the way I walk, especially in Washington Heights, where my grandmother lives. She migrated — pregnant with my mother — 15 years after Rita Moreno, in what historian Lorrin Thomas describes as “the postwar boom … that nearly doubled New York City’s Puerto Rican population in two years.” We’ve come to call it “la gran migración,” taking a cue — as we often do — from African American history’s Great Migration from the rural South to the urban North. I still visit my grandmother in the same neighborhood — the same building — where my mother grew up.
And yet it isn’t the same. I was born post-crack and post-Reagan, so our block has always been that kind of hood to me. Now it’s gentrifying. I admit wishing we could keep the ancestral apartment, somehow, so I could live there with rent control. But she doesn’t think I understand the danger. Around here, Latinas are always the ones hit hardest by street violence, she says. I don’t know whether I am, in this case, her daughter or the daughter of my gringo father. So I ask. She thinks the corner boys can tell I’m Latin like them: You can’t do anything about the way you move. In the heat of conflict I feel a pleasurable frisson: the transmission alive in me. I wouldn’t wish that way out of my body, because I wouldn’t wish my body away. It feels safer, somehow, to stay close to my mother even when she says it isn’t.
I know that standing out can pose its own dangers, depending on how and among whom. Cue Zora Neale Hurston: I feel most colored when I am thrown against a stark white background. The image evokes the police precinct’s mugshot as vividly as the museum’s gallery wall. I also know that being singular — or at least, the idea of being singular — has mattered to both my grandmother and my mother because it’s mattered to their survival. Moving — out, away, up from poverty — is often easier alone, dissociated from the trope of the hungry horde. But even loneliness has a lineage, and I find myself feeling for it.
* * *
Rosita Dolores Alverío was not technically an only child; her mother had abandoned her younger child, a boy, when they migrated from Juncos, Puerto Rico in 1936. But in the wake of this desperate choice, Rosita was raised like one, with the intensity of attention I recognize from my mother’s only childhood and my own. Focusing on one child mitigates the economic limitations of working-class life — and of course, raises the stakes for a return on investment. Even by the impossible standards of an immigrant mother, it’s safe to say that Rosita made good as Rita Moreno, the first Puerto Rican to become a bona fide star in the United States. She’s won all four major prizes in American entertainment — the Oscar, the Grammy, the Emmy, and the Tony — and her 1962 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress as Anita in the musical West Side Story remains the only Oscar ever awarded to a Latina performer.
Over time, this distinction has become a bitter sign of how tightly U.S. culture seeks to control our conditions of appearance. But in her memoir, Rita conveys the animating thrill of matriarchal ambition that first set her spinning onstage as a child dancer. In certain moments, her descriptions of their shared labor sound almost utopic:
A happy home has its own music. The house hummed with Mami’s Singer sewing machine as she worked the foot treadle. This machine was so old; it was not an electric model. All the energy came from Mami, from her foot tapping and rising and falling. It sounded like the roll of a Spanish rrrrr! As if in accompaniment, I danced in time with its pulsing, while Mami was creating headdresses and costumes for me.
I didn’t demonstrate enough talent in ballet class to warrant such a scene, but my mother did make our home into a kind of studio, ready for whatever talent might emerge for cultivation. In the “happy” immigrant home, work and play are closely intertwined by necessity. Work must become play, or play must become work, if play is to survive as a vital practice. Like my grandmother, her sisters, and the majority of Puerto Rican women immigrants to New York City, Rita’s mother first worked as a factory seamstress. At home, she turned these same skills to the fanciful project of imagining new and dramatic ways for her daughter to appear. Rita was the chosen channel for this form of dreaming, but the dream itself was more general: to produce, with the means of production at hand, a range of possible lives and the freedom to move among them.
When the doors of Hollywood opened for Rita Moreno, they didn’t open for all her possibilities. They opened for a Slave Girl, an Indian Princess, a Dusky Maiden. It was one role, really: the temporary romantic interest of the white leading man led astray by her temptations before settling down with a suitable (read: white) wife. Who can blame Rita Moreno, then, for her profound ambivalence about so-called stardom? “Cold feet” kept her from auditioning for the principal role of Maria when West Side Story was on Broadway, and her anxiety persisted even after she secured the supporting role of Anita in the film adaptation. Though Anita animated contemporary anxieties about New York’s “Puerto Rican problem,” the role was also substantial, a rare opportunity she was sure she’d somehow squander: “A shadow followed me like a backup dancer, making me worry that it would only be a matter of time before I would lose everything.”
There she is: the backup dancer, making a cameo here as a sly, flexible metaphor. If Rita’s shadow is the backup dancer, then Rita herself is surely the star. But the metaphor seems to articulate the slippage between the two positions — the backup dancer is the star’s shadow side, the constant reminder of how precarious her visibility really is. She’s on her heels, grabbing hold wherever her body touches ground. Maybe Rita felt shadowed by the roles she’d been forced to play, unable to get out from under the sense of herself as an erotic extra. Or maybe she couldn’t escape the sense that her luck would always come at someone else’s expense: she was keenly aware of replacing another Puerto Rican dancer, Chita Rivera, who’d triumphed as Anita on Broadway. She was convinced she could “never, ever be as good as Chita,” that she’d never deserve the power of her position.
She was multiplied at both ends: by everything that entered her and everything her dancing made me do, the movement she started in the living room. A culture of one.
But if the backup dancer haunts the star, she also keeps her company. “Rita the Cheetah,” as she was known in the press, would never be lonely as Anita: the role activated a rhyme of substitutes, a small crowd of Puerto Rican hopefuls passing in and out of the spotlight. In fact, Rita deliberately “sought out a friend who had played the part of Anita on a coast-to-coast tour,” eager to learn a few steps for her audition. Every dance begins in — as — someone else’s shadow. That’s just how it is. However singular her performance would turn out to be, Rita became Anita in relation to the other women who had been her. A gang of Anitas gave birth to Rita’s Anita, the gang leader.
Ultimately, it is Anita, with her active — if contentious — relationship to group identity who is West Side Story’s brightest star. It is Anita, not Maria, who seems to summon the whole urban world into being with a swirl of her purple skirts and a clap of her hands: “Here,” said the New York Times review, “are the muscle and rhythm that bespeak a collective energy.” When I imagine a world ruled by Anitas, I get a festive feeling, as if I’m climbing the fire escape to the famous rooftop scene. I can almost smell the summer-softened tar, the beer going flat, the perfumed sweat rising as banter becomes music, becomes, suddenly, a dance battle. Maybe there’s a way to wiggle free from our collective confinement without leaving each other behind. Maybe there’s a way to argue over what “America” has made of us in our own language.
From the rooftop, these dreams seem don’t seem so far off. But in her memoir, Rita Moreno asks us to stay with her in closer quarters, to find freedom in a scene where her only company is her own shadow, in a moment that’s not right for shimmying. In one of West Side Story’s most tragic turns, Anita leaves Sharks turf to deliver Maria’s message to Tony, only to be intercepted by the Jets:
When I had to play the attack scene in the candy store, I wept and broke down— right on set. It was that incredible, amazing, magical thing that happens sometimes when you’re acting and you have the opportunity to play a part so close to your heart: You pass through the membrane separating your stage self from your real self. For a time, at least, you are one person.
The “attack scene” has always been understood as an implied gang rape, which heightens the intensity of her language in this passage: why should inhabiting a scene of traumatic violence be “incredible, amazing, magical,” a restorative moment of contact with her “real self”? Trauma is usually narrated using exactly the opposite vocabulary: splitting, sundering, shattering. But for Rita Moreno, to break down is to return to a truth about her experience in the industry that her usual performance of resilience obscures: being singled out for special treatment by Hollywood’s power players had a shadow side.
Rita’s first sexual experience was what she later came to recognize as rape by a man who claimed to want to work as her agent. Immediately after the filming of West Side Story, her long-running, emotionally abusive affair with Marlon Brando would drive her to attempt suicide. Of course, these biographical details do not exactly correspond to the violation implied by the candy shop scene. Rita was never a Puerto Rican gangbanger; her working-class Washington Heights was more like my mother’s than Anita’s. And yet, the projection of these fantasies onto her body — the stereotype of her body as essentially available, disposable, and replaceable — put her in the way of real violence, mostly at the hands of white men. Becoming a star required a dangerous risk: leaving her own turf for the way her turf was rendered in show business. The candy shop wasn’t real to Rita, but the candy shop scene did feel real, with its crowd of white men curtailing her movement with threats and demands. This time, she did not have to hide her fear and anger for the sake of her career; she could dance with them.
There’s a moment in Peter Pan when Peter’s shadow runs away and Wendy intervenes to carefully stitch it to the soles of his feet: a woman’s work. I think of Rita in West Side Story as her own Wendy, mending her relationship with the shadow that would follow her everywhere in the Neverland of American show business. It’s another kind of costura, more painstaking, maybe, than the dreamwork that produced her first costumes. Here, her desire to be “one person” is not the same as a desire to escape alone, to escape intact. Instead, it reflects the difficult knowledge that she is one person only when she can bear to incorporate the parts of herself she’s disavowed.
* * *
In an interview from 1998, Jennifer Lopez refers to Rita Moreno as “the original Fly Girl,” naming her the inadvertent matriarch of the Fly Girls featured on Keenen Wayans’s hip hop driven variety show In Living Color, where Jennifer got her first big break. She shifts the focus from Rita’s moment of semi-stardom as Anita to imagine her in relation to a small collective of dancers, most of whom did not move on to fame and fortune. It’s a complicated gesture, elevating the Fly Girls by saying they have a history while at the same time pluralizing Rita’s individual achievement. She was just a chorus girl, baby. We all was chorus girls. Every genealogy of Puerto Rican performers — including the one I’m moving through in this essay — will be intimate, idiosyncratic, and provisional. But if we’re talking about the Fly Girls, specifically, it’s fair to feel like someone’s missing.
In large part because of the narrative of competition forced upon them as two Puerto Rican stars in generational proximity, Jennifer Lopez has never been very good at publicly acknowledging her debt to Rosie Perez, the In Living Color choreographer who lobbied to make her a Fly Girl in the first place. I think a lot of Latinas who came up with and through hip-hop are just beginning to see what Rosie meant to us — to mend, like Rita with her shadow, the disavowal that has often accompanied our admiration. DJ Laylo, a Bronx Dominicana, put it this way in an interview with Remezcla: “It’s a little bit of a sore spot for me because whenever I’m in predominantly white spaces, I always have people coming up to me saying, ‘Oh my god you sound like Rosie Perez.’ And I know they don’t mean it because they’re paying tribute to all that she is.”
My mother was the first one to introduce me to Rosie — we checked out Do the Right Thing from the library on VHS — but she, too, was plainly unsettled by Rosie’s accent, which she insisted had been exaggerated to make her seem Extra Rican. The theory wasn’t far-fetched; Rita was made to invent an accent she didn’t have for West Side Story. But I wasn’t really listening to my mother’s critiques. I was too mesmerized by the film’s famous opening credits — red lights, then blue — which find Rosie pumping her chest and throwing hooks in front of Brooklyn brownstones to all four minutes of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” Whatever she was fighting I felt like I was fighting too, including my own resistance to her performance. Recently I’ve been asking friends how they remember feeling about the scene back in the day. The word “unapologetic” keeps coming up, which makes me wonder what — and who — we’ve grown accustomed to apologizing for. My friend Christina’s take is a little more specific: “She seemed like she wasn’t afraid of men.”
I can almost smell the summer-softened tar, the beer going flat, the perfumed sweat rising as banter becomes music, becomes, suddenly, a dance battle. Maybe there’s a way to wiggle free from our collective confinement without leaving each other behind.
In some ways, history supports Christina’s formative impression. In several interviews, Rosie recounts how she first met Spike Lee at the L.A. nightclub Funky Reggae, where he was hosting a big booty contest to promote School Daze. Rosie wasn’t having it; she’d come to the club to dance: “disgusted…I jumped on the stage — okay, so it was a speaker — and bent over shaking my ass.” It’s a parable of her performance philosophy: the speaker becomes the stage as she insists upon her objection to performance as part of the performance itself. When Spike’s bouncers came through to pull her skinny butt back down, the young director decided he liked that trash-talking Brooklyn Rican. He picked her out from the lineup and gave her an on-screen solo.
It would be a merciless eight-hour shoot that gave Rosie swollen knees and tennis elbow: he solicited the anger she’d once directed at him and worked it to the bone. It’s not an endorsement of his abusive techniques as a director to say that in the final cut her anger seems to exceed its conscription to become the sign and symbol of the borough’s unrest. In a movie that centers on the political struggles between black and white men in the world of work, that cannot imagine a role for anyone else in the battle for representation in the face of racist violence, it is a Puerto Rican woman’s persistent and plotless physical practice that frames the narrative. Who or what is her adversary as she trains for a fight we never see go down onscreen? We can’t call it. The block, the pizza parlor, the movie set itself — the site of struggle is always changing. Rosie is slick with the sweat of staying ready wherever it finds her.
Part of the reason I find myself saying “Rosie” instead of her character’s name, “Tina,” is because the scene unfolds in a liminal space between our world as spectators and the world of the film, where the story has yet to be told. When Do the Right Thing first came out, the conservative critic Stanley Crouch complained in the Village Voice that the scene was “amateurish,” nothing more than a music video. He’s wrong to complain, but right to see it like that. Rosie isn’t really Tina yet, she’s Rosie, recognizable if you know her from Soul Train, and just a Puerto Rican girl dancing if you don’t. Soul Train’s practice of using amateurs to bring the energy of the street to the screen was being developed in new directions by MTV, and Spike Lee was making major contributions to the same culture. He wasn’t the first one to cast Rosie Perez from the club floor; her “realness” had become a hot commodity in the emerging hip-hop economy. Of course, someone like Stanley Crouch was never gonna get Rosie. But his critique magnifies an anxiety about her performance shared by those who thought they did.
Soul Train’s director, Don Cornelius, liked Rosie so much that he had her dance down the line twice on her first night on set. She was out of place — a Puerto Rican in Los Angeles — which made her stand out, trigger a double take. Her light skin and tight little body gave her immediate mainstream market value. But the way she moved and spoke from within that body also seemed to threaten the investment. “Is that your real accent?” Don Cornelius asked the first time he heard her speak, turning an invisible dial down. In her 2015 memoir, Handbook for an Unpredictable Life, Rosie remembers: “Don Cornelius did not want to see how I really danced,” anymore than he wanted to hear how she really spoke.
On Soul Train Rosie was always trying to do the moves she’d learned back in the city: the Pee Wee Herman, the Roger Rabbit. At New York clubs like the Roxy and the Latin Quarter she had her eye on the male dancers “behind Whodini and Big Daddy Kane … all doing James Brown, Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, and the fabulous Nicholas Brothers moves, making them their own.” Don’s early objections to Rosie’s dancing took the form of gender management: “Nononono, you’re a girl!” Of course, the (imagined) friction between her conventional femme sexiness and her hip-hop intensity is what gave her performances heat. If her body was disciplined in a satin miniskirt, stockings, and a waist-cinching belt, her face was not: that self-possessed sneer. Louie Carr — “Cutty Mack” — remembers Rosie as “aggressive and sexy and a little street, like a machine gun.” Don Cornelius wanted the rhythm of the weapon without the war.
Don’s struggle for control over Rosie — and here, he’s only an example — reveals the risk inherent in the aesthetics of realness. A musical like West Side Story was exciting, in its time, because it suggested an intimate relationship between the singing and dancing on-screen and the changing demographics of the city itself. Rita Moreno, the only actual factual Puerto Rican with a speaking role, was the linchpin of that seductive suggestion. In the plot, her dancing always starts a debate, a competition, a party. It always demands a reply. The delight we take in her call-and-response virtuosity implicates us in the project of imagining an urban world we can all inhabit. But the industry only let the provocation of Rita Moreno’s performance go so far. It didn’t matter that she mastered the choreography. That she waited her turn for dignified, complicated starring roles that never came. That she wore a white pleated skirt to the March on Washington. The game had rules for a reason: to make sure it never got really real.
But by the time Rosie Perez was born, whatever remained of the American Dream for Puerto Ricans was dead, and she was too black and too busy trying to survive an abusive childhood to play along. Rosie’s New York was post-Civil Rights: the War on Drugs had replaced the War on Poverty, and the collective trauma of ghetto life had already yielded several generations of black-brown collaborations including bugalú, salsa, and the beginnings of hip hop. White institutions were no longer the only gatekeepers crafting and legislating the representation of urban culture. Rosie’s class position and her historical position intersected to make it clear that she wouldn’t, couldn’t, and shouldn’t have to assimilate out of the world that made her.
Don Cornelius, with Soul Train, was a major player in that transformation. Starting in 1971, he opened the door to the creative power of regular-degular city kids, who brought their own bell-bottoms and hustles to set, collectively forming the living, breathing backdrop for some of the most iconic black performances of the ’70s and ’80s. But on Soul Train the backdrop was the real show — not the celebrity guests who mostly lip-synched anyway. The young dancers pulsed behind the permeable membrane of the screen. And on the other side the rest of us joined the party, turning the TV into a magic mirror. A girl who could be your half sister is doing the dance you do in the front yard on Sundays, and she’s making it famous. Next time, it could be your actual half sister. Next time, it could be you. In providing a major cultural platform to kids who rarely received the message come as you are, Don Cornelius modeled the possibility of an equivalent political platform.
In a movie that centers on the political struggles between black and white men in the world of work, that cannot imagine a role for anyone else in the battle for representation in the face of racist violence, it is a Puerto Rican woman’s persistent and plotless physical practice that frames the narrative.
But he also exploited the Soul Train dancers. Rosie remembers: “We didn’t get paid, just a Kentucky Fried Chicken two-piece lunch box — not kidding.” The prestige economy forced the dancers into a frenzy of competition, like “piranhas at feeding time.” Don Cornelius — and the other impresarios who followed in his footsteps — wanted to let in the feel of freedom, but carefully calibrated to align with market protocols and the agenda of their own enrichment. That’s life under racial capitalism, beibi. If he let Rosie move however she wanted to move, she might roll up the next night with her entire hip hop block demanding a living wage. On the other hand, if he didn’t, she might leave. One night, that’s what she did:
I walked back to the head of the line, paused, then strutted down as if I were Naomi Campbell on the runway, continued walking past Don to my seat, grabbed my things, and told him I was out.
It takes a special kind of grace to perform and stop performing in the same seamless gesture. The Soul Train line always pointed beyond the station; Rosie’s secret weapon has been her willingness to leave. In a 2017 interview with Desus and Mero, Rosie states it plainly: “I didn’t wanna be [in show business], so I wasn’t afraid of not getting a job. I was like, fuck this shit, I’m smart, so fuck y’all.” Almost nothing is more threatening to the star system than divestment from it. The star system often functions as an imperial structure of containment, a way to manage the unruly energy of a muchedumbre whose festivities incubate a revolutionary impulse. The Puerto Rican poet Luis Palés Matos warned everybody back in 1937: si … te picara un tambor de danza o guerra / su terrible ponzoña / correrá siempre por tus venas. Translation: if … you’re pricked by the drum of dance or war / that terrible poison / will run forever through your veins. This kind of inheritance doesn’t care who your mother is. This kind of inheritance could go viral.
* * *
Over time I find myself feeling disappointed in Jennifer Lopez, and this might be the moment to ask myself why. It’s a refrain among Puerto Rican women I know to say girls like that are a dime a dozen in my neighborhood. My mother says it, too — that her cousin Carmencita was more beautiful, with her heavy winged eyeliner and languorous way with a pencil skirt. Eyes like black coffee trembling in a cup. I’m not sure if we say so because we’re ashamed that she’s regular — the wrong one to represent our culture’s repressed powers — or if we’re ashamed that we’re regular, too, but without the will to say so what? Jennifer Lopez never claimed to be the most talented girl in the room. In her infamous 1998 interview with Movieline, she said, “I’m not the best … that ever lived, but I know I’m pretty good.” Being humble, for her, has never required being hidden — as we so often assume it must.
But Jennifer’s mediocrity is not the source of my disappointment. I don’t care that she can’t sing, or that she’s just okay at dancing. When I think about the fact that Keenen Wayans refused, at first, to hire her as a Fly Girl — “called her chubby and corny” — I’m grateful to Rosie for fighting for that “big-ass beautiful girl from the Bronx” with the “star smile.” I like the footage from that period, especially a little promotional clip for Janet Jackson’s “That’s the Way Love Goes” where Janet introduces her new dancers as “Jennifer, Shawn, and Nicky: three backed-up hoes!” It’s fun to watch Jennifer fire back, “Honey we’re here to wreck shop, what’s your problem?” Taken literally, the idiom suggests the end of buying and selling, the general damage “backed-up hos” intend to do with their dancing.
If these are the moments I love best, then maybe I’m less disappointed in Jennifer Lopez than I am in the nature of stardom itself. She’s achieved what long seemed impossible for a Puerto Rican performer: race-blind roles, multimillion dollar paychecks. But that doesn’t do anything to make me feel like part of an us. Her stardom feels far-off and joyless. When I try focusing on recent interviews with her, my eye always wanders from YouTube’s main screen to the little stack of further possibilities waiting in the wings, and I can’t resist clicking aimlessly. I’m more interested in the algorithm of associations than the record of any single personality.
That’s how I spot her: Omarion’s video girl, in a red crop top, striped shorts, and gold sneakers, dancing with Bruno Mars in the January 2018 video for “Finesse.” It’s a tribute to In Living Color, and Danielle Polanco — this time I can say her name — is the Fly Girl the camera loves best, leaning out from the fire escape with her girls to call down to Bruno and his boys, a Tony-and-Maria moment made plural for our pleasure. The family tree has many branches: later I learn that she danced backup for Jennifer Lopez, Janet Jackson, and Beyoncé, that she was the dance captain for the Broadway revival of West Side Story. She played Consuela, an even smaller role than Anita — a backup dancer’s backup dancer. Now, the core of her career is teaching boutique classes: “Heels” at Alvin Ailey Extension and Millennium, “Vogue Femme.” Virtuosity is not what determines a dancer’s destiny in the studio as opposed to the spotlight, and I don’t find myself wishing Danielle Polanco were a star just because I could watch her dance all day. Genius has no proper place. Insisting on the absolute distinction between genius and mediocrity drags the party down; it disrupts the circulation of genius itself.
Maybe that’s why Rosie Perez felt weird when she went to the club with her friends from Soul Train and people pointed, stared: “Look, it’s the Soul Train girls!” Just a few years earlier Rosie herself had been the random amateur scouted from the crowd. What had changed, really? The club was still her home haunt, the uncanny valley between amateurism and stardom where her career played out. It’s not hard to imagine all the other Rosies on the dancefloor who’ve remained undiscovered, but still manage to steal the show when the beat drops. Then there’s the rest of us, shoulder to shoulder, an undulating wave of body heat that breaks, now and then, into open conflagration.
Genius has no proper place. Insisting on the absolute distinction between genius and mediocrity drags the party down; it disrupts the circulation of genius itself.
* * *
Three years ago in Brooklyn a new DJ night was born, spinning salsa and reggaetón and trap en español: “A Party Called Rosie Perez.” It’s organized by Christian Martír alongside DJ Suce and DJ Laylo, the same woman who bristled when the wrong people projected a resemblance. It’s gotten hot: when my friend Cassandra went, she spotted Residente from Calle 13. The first time I go, Bobbito Garcia, the legendary hip hop DJ, is at the turntables and I’m dancing with my friend Yohanna while a video projection of Rosie on Soul Train plays on the club wall. Now and then someone bumps the shaky projector and Rosie’s head gets cut off, so she looks like a doomed chicken flapping through her final bravura performance. I can see the bright shadow of her younger body pass over Yohanna’s, Rosie’s rapid pumping playing a polyrhythm over Yohanna’s more relaxed step and slide. Since we’re the party, are we Rosie Perez? Alive and moving inside the space her body’s made? The visual effect allows me to imagine that it’s possible to dance in someone’s footsteps without replacing her. To channel someone’s spirit without making her a ghost.
My reverie is interrupted when a young white boy dancing next to me taps on my shoulder and points to the screen, shouting who is that? In America, I remember, you can immerse yourself in Puerto Rican culture without knowing it. Without ever naming a name. Months later, I think of this moment while reading La raza cómica by the scholar Rubén Ríos Ávila, who offers some counter-questions: What is pleasure worth if it cannot be deciphered? What is the joy of dance good for if we can’t know its point of origin?
I understand the impulse behind the Party as my own: a form of feeling for history. In the absence of something so static or simple as a point of origin, a name is a portal — a way into the crowd as well as a way out of it.
When I leave the club my body’s still buzzing. For a moment I think I see Danielle Polanco, striking a pose on the subway platform. Up close, I see she’s just another cinnamon girl with a high bun and hoops whose skin is dewy from the sweat of a summer night. But I can’t help feeling we’re both backup dancers. Any sudden movement might start a number. We might already be in a number without knowing it, an elaborate social production we didn’t design, roles we didn’t choose, and for which we are probably not being properly compensated. But as backup dancers we’re always ready. Are you?
* * *
Carina de Valle Schorske is a writer and translator living between New York City and San Juan, Puerto Rico. She is currently at work on her first book, a psychogeography of Puerto Rican culture, forthcoming from Riverhead and tentatively titled NO ES NADA: Notes from the Other Island.
Editor: Danielle A. Jackson
Copy editor: Jacob Gross
Fact checker: Ethan Chiel
Steffan Triplett | Longreads | March 2019 | 12 minutes (3,080 words)
The place that held us together was dying. Maybe it wasn’t the place itself, but our perception of it. Amid the sulk of that summer of 2011, we tried to replicate our friendship from years before, and that meant doing things we had always done. So, I picked up my friend Elisabeth from her house, like I always had, and we drove to a meet-up destination, this time, a deli, like we always did. We stood in the parking lot until every member of the group showed up.
Even though I was warned she was coming, my stomach lurched when Sara’s teal truck drove into the parking lot. That lurch turned into anger as she left her truck and I saw the sweatshirt she was wearing, one I had given to her as a gift. I wondered, Did she do this on purpose? It was like seeing a ghost. We piled into two cars.
Sometimes the rattle of a clapper sounds over your bed. Or a ghostly draft lifts the hairs on the back of your neck, cooling your skin; or there’s an upstroke, feather light, along the inside of your forearm. A sudden lurch, maybe just a blink, then a sense of falling upward and it is there. So are you.
If we insist on defining something in terms of what it annuls then how can we grasp the essence of what is lost when it shows itself? And how can we tell if there is anything to be gained by its presence? This is the trouble with insomnia.
When I am up at night the world takes on a different hue. It is quieter and closer and there are textures of the dark I have begun paying attention to. I register the thickening, sense-dulling darkness that hangs velvety as a pall over deep night, and the green-black tincture you get when moisture charges the atmosphere with static. Then there is the gently shifting penumbra that heralds dawn and feels less like the suggestion of light than a fuzziness around the edges of your perception, as if an optician had clamped a diffusing lens over your eyes then quizzed you about the blurred shapes that dance at the peripheries of your vision. In sleeplessness I have come to understand that there is a taxonomy of darkness to uncover, and with it, a nocturnal literacy we can acquire. Read more…
Natalie Lima | Longreads | October 2018 | 16 minutes (4,165 words)
Yesterday I woke up and looked at my body in the mirror. My nightgown was tighter on my stomach, the folds in my skin forming a silhouette of my shape on the fabric. I’d put on more weight over the summer. Panicked, I gathered all the visible clothes in my bedroom, pulled them off hangers and out of drawers, and threw them into a hamper. I carried the hamper outside. The sun was out and directly overhead, but the desert-winter air was cold, and I could see each puff of my breath in front of me. I tossed the hamper onto the driveway and some panties spilled from the top. A white cat sitting across the street, licking itself, scurried off. An elderly man with a Fitbit on his wrist speed-walked directly in front of me, past my house, but didn’t acknowledge me, which was perfect, as I was still in my very snug nightgown, braless, and standing over a laundry basket with panties spilling out onto my driveway.
I looked up at the bright sun (only briefly because it hurt my eyes) and I lit a cigarette and burst into tears, chunky black eyeliner from the day before streaking my face and running down my chest like wet soil. After a few puffs, I dug out the nail polish remover that I’d thrown into the basket during my frenzy, and I emptied the liquid onto the mound of clothing. Then, without a moment of reassessment, I flicked the remainder of my burning cigarette onto the hamper and watched one of my favorite maxi dresses slowly ignite. And everything else in the basket followed. Before long my driveway was a summer bonfire against a Tucson mountain range. A car alarm went off close by, but I didn’t know whose it was; I didn’t care either. My knees buckled and I fell back against the garage door and slid to the ground. Sobbing, I watched my now too small clothes burn into ashes right in front of my house. I eventually lifted the collar of my nightgown and hid my face underneath. “Oh my god, when did I get so fat?!” I cried and cried into my chest. After who knows how long, I leaned over and blacked out.
* * *
Everything you just read was a lie. But as I was writing that opening scene, I did imagine the deep satisfaction of being able to take all the crap in your life that upsets you and burn it up. However, despite my fondness for melodrama, there’s no way that story could have actually been fact because I’m a broke grad student and I have neither a house nor a garage, and I don’t really know anyone else my age (31) who does. My mom owned a house at my age, on a housekeeper’s salary, which I see as a testament to the present economic state in this country, but hey, that’s another essay.
So let’s start with the truth now.
Yesterday I woke up to the song of a lesser goldfinch outside my window (I think that’s what it was, but I’m not one of the Irwins). I announced to my sleeping dog, “Today is going to be a good and productive day!” then leaped out of bed and started a pot of coffee. Eventually I walked into the bathroom and looked in the full-length mirror and I saw myself — my chin was sagging a little lower, my nightgown with a cartoon bunny and the word “friends” printed across the front was snug on my body. It was clear that I’d put on a significant amount of weight in recent months (that part was true).
This happens sometimes, that we actually take a sincere look at ourselves in a mirror and maybe spend a few minutes — probably because of untreated anxiety — picking at some old blackheads populating our nose. But if you’re like me, after excavating some of the grime, you continue on to examine all of the changes in your appearance, notice how you’ve aged, think about your mortality, and remember the cross-country drive with your mom the summer your dad left and you turned 15, and how she made you leave your dog behind with a stranger, and how you didn’t see the point in existing anymore — not without your sweet pitbull who used to lick your eyeball without warning. And in the middle of this musing, you finally pause and tell yourself: Stop thinking about your childhood traumas before 8 a.m. Then you lean further into the mirror, as much as your back will allow, your nose almost touching it, and you think: Every day I wake up I’m another day closer to my imminent death.
This is when you know it’s time to turn away from the mirror.
Any sort of unwanted bodily change can make me want to sink into myself; it can prompt me to want to cancel all of my commitments for the day so I can brood over a salad and question my current self-care practices (or lack thereof). But usually this is not the case. In reality, things are busy and there is a hot cup of coffee that needs to be drunk, emails that need to be sent, a dog running in circles around my living room who needs to go out (and poop, or things will get ugly and I have carpet). In those first moments of the day, I am quickly reminded that life is in session and the weight is there, whether I like it or not. I know that the fat on my body is part of me, and I can choose to carry it like a backpack weighing me down, bruising my shoulders by the end of the day. Or I can carry it like a fashion accessory that is a key part of the outfit I slipped on that morning. Most days, I make an effort to carry mine like an artsy tote bag that bears an edgy photo of Joan Didion or Frida Kahlo smoking a cigarette.
* * *
How should we actually carry ourselves anyway? I don’t know the right answer to this, but I think about it often, especially since adopting a dog a few months ago. The skin on her belly hangs low, due to overbreeding, due to nature and circumstance. When I walk her, strangers point out how much her stomach sags, how it makes her look much heavier. Sometimes, they even point out the largeness of her uneven nipples. My dog doesn’t care, of course. I watch her move the tiny limbs attached to her sausage-shaped body fearlessly, in a way that I wish we all moved about in the world. I also think about our place as humans in the animal kingdom: our supposed superior intelligence, with our big Homo sapiens brains (though the brain of the sperm whale wins for biggest). Yet we worry about the aesthetics of extra flesh. We worry about how we carry everything around.
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* * *
When I was growing up, my mom used to tell people that my excess weight was baby fat. I’d run into the kitchen after dinner, during Fresh Prince commercial breaks, and ask her for a second slice of flan. She’d groan, then cut me a slightly smaller slice, with less syrup drizzled on the plate, and hand it to me. I’d smile and leave the kitchen. She’d instantly turn to her friend Kristina, the wife of my father’s best friend and an aerobics instructor. “It’s just baby fat,” my mom would say, sincerely, as she placed the remaining flan in Tupperware. “Hopefully she loses some of it when she goes through puberty. You know, your body changes then.” Kristina would smile and nod. It was evident that neither of them believed the baby fat theory. I didn’t believe it either (I could hear the whole conversation from the next room; our house was, um, compact). After a silent moment, my mom would finally change the topic to the less stressful O.J. Simpson trial.
Presently, I’m the heaviest I’ve been in years. My mom lives across the country now, and I call often to check in and ask about my nephew and sometimes about my brother. My weight occasionally creeps into conversation. It’s never to shame me, not anymore at least. Often it’s me complaining about how I need to get active again, and she listens and agrees. She reassures me that I’ll lose the weight again. Sometimes I’m tempted to say, “Mom, what’s the problem? It’s just baby fat.” But I don’t want to make her upset.
* * *
I’ve spent my entire life in a large body. I have chosen “large” as the most accurate adjective to describe my body because the word is vague, and my weight fluctuates from year to year — 100 pounds lighter one year, 50 pounds heavier the next, 115 down the year after that. Sometimes my body is on the smaller side of large, more Queen Latifah in The Last Holiday, that movie where she’s told she only has three weeks to live so she jets off to Europe, eats caviar, and falls in love with LL Cool J. And sometimes my body is closer to Chrissy Metz in This Is Us, and I eat comfort food late at night, shove the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos wrappers immediately into the trash can, and ask myself, Why is this my life? — all while dressed in fashionable prints and versatile shrugs.
Because of the current body I occupy, I have to acclimate to everything that comes along with it — larger clothes, tighter chairs, and by far the most unpredictable component: people’s reaction to it. Last fall, I ran into one of my former professors who I hadn’t seen in more than a year. We were at a reading, listening to a well-known poet discuss palm leaves and the rhythm in his lines. My professor did a double take when he spotted me across the conference room, his eyes wide open but blank as he sized me up, unsure if it was me or a stalker who was staring too hard at him. Ultimately he turned away, deciding it wasn’t me. I called his name twice, “Charlie! Charlie!” and his eyes finally widened in recognition.
“I knew that was you!”
“Of course you did!” I said but didn’t actually mean it. I gave him a hug and almost added: Maybe I should become a spy since I’m virtually unrecognizable now. In the moment, I thought this joke was funny, but I figured it would have embarrassed him so I refrained.
* * *
My current bodily state is, of course, mostly of my own doing. Bad habits, things I’ve been trying to kick my whole adult life. Then, last spring, I fractured my ankle. I was walking across the University of Alabama campus in Tuscaloosa one day, watching the squirrels run about and bury nuts. I had just finished my tutoring shift in the Writing Center, where I’d spent the past hour copyediting a male student’s paper, an argumentative essay for why abortion is murder and should be made illegal again. To decompress, I stopped in front of the campus library and watched the squirrels for a while. One squirrel sprinted across the grass into a little hole it had dug itself and popped back out with a nut in its hands like a magician. Two other squirrels wrestled near a large tree (at least I think this is what they were doing; I don’t know a ton about nature without Google). After a stressful afternoon, watching these animals do their thing — watching life in motion — soothed me immensely.
A few minutes later, I continued my walk back to the parking lot to play the “Where did I park my car this morning?” game, and I looked up at the cloudless blue sky. Every existential thought I’ve ever had filled my head: Wow, life is so beautiful/Why don’t we all take time to slow down more often?/We’re all glued to our smartphones/We don’t appreciate the simple things anymore/I remember a time when I used to pick up the phone and call all my friends/Maybe this is why our society is sick and full of broken people, because we don’t take time to pause/I wish I could play the cello/I think I’m lonely/What is connection in this world anyway?/Nobody connects anymore, except to send nude photos/I can’t believe Snapchat moved past the era of sending temporary nude photos to strangers/When all my religious friends started using Snapchat to send photos of their weddings and babies, I knew I was getting behind the times —
Then I tripped. Not on something blocking my path that shouldn’t have been there — like a rock or a fallen tree branch after a springtime windstorm. I simply fell over nothing. Which has become the most unimpressive ankle fracture story anyone has ever heard. Sometimes I have to share how I fractured it; I actually have to say it aloud. “Can you slow down?” I plead with a friend as we walk to a class together. “I messed up my ankle a few months of ago.” They always reply with a sympathetic “of course” and proceed to slow down because my friends are decent people. But, invariably, the follow-up question is: How did you mess it up?
“I tripped. That’s it.”
“Over something? Was it during sex?” they joke.
“No,” I chuckle. “I tripped, just walking. There was no sex. Well, there were squirrels. What I’m saying is: My life is horrible.”
My friend laughs and pats my shoulder in consolation.
* * *
Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t live in a body? Or if we all lived in ones that looked exactly the same? I imagine us like Flubber, a green goo-like substance bouncing around a lab and happily jiggling all day. All of us green and unwieldy and free. However, I have considered how this sameness could eventually get boring. Sometimes we might have the desire to pair up with someone less green and more blue, or someone less gooey. Sometimes we might not appreciate the ordinariness of our own gooeyness and sink into a depression and chronic self-loathing. But this concept — of what life would be like untethered to a body — never leaves me.
* * *
A few weeks after tripping over air, after some squirrel-watching and ankle-fracturing in Tuscaloosa, I left my program and moved home to South Florida. It was for the summer only, before driving out to Tucson to try out a new grad school and a new, larger, more progressive city that seemed like a better fit. The move back home made for a good kick to my ego. Not only was I less mobile and speedily putting on weight, but I was also in my thirties and moving into my mother’s three-bedroom apartment — an apartment she shares with her husband, my younger brother, his girlfriend, and my 3-year-old nephew, Mugen.
I spent those weeks hobbling around, and because there wasn’t much space, I slept on a small daybed in the living room. Each morning I awoke to the song of a screaming toddler who, for some reason, was always fed in a high chair placed two feet from my head. At night I often cried into my pillow, distressed about the current shape of my life, regretting that I quit my full-time job and gave up my crappy-but-cozy apartment in Los Angeles to attend graduate school — for the financially lucrative dream of writing short stories. Though I slept in the middle of the living room, and though I was the largest person living in my mom’s apartment, I remained essentially unseen. No one knew of my daily weep-fests. Everyone else’s life, too, was in session.
The night before my cross-country drive to Tucson, my mom returned home from work and cooked my favorite meal — garlic chicken, red beans and rice, and avocado salad. She was calm as she stirred the beans, and it calmed me to watch her. My mami, nine inches shorter than me and less than half my size, mothered me that night. I decided to ignore the past few weeks so I could enjoy this last meal with her. I forgot about my screaming nephew and the tiny daybed. I forgot about my body and my messed up ankle, and decided — for just that evening — I didn’t have a body because bodies didn’t exist anymore. That night I was a glob of green goo.
My mom handed me the avocado salad and sat down. “Mi’ja,” she said. “Wasn’t it nice to get to spend these last few weeks with little Mugen?”
Before I could answer, my brother stepped into the kitchen. He rested his hand on my shoulder.
“What are you two talking about?” He asked.
“Natalie was just saying how much she’s gonna miss Mugie.”
“Aww,” my brother said. “Isn’t he the sweetest?”
“I think I’m getting a dog,” I said, then shoved some rice into my mouth.
* * *
What’s great about relocation is that everyone in the new place is unfamiliar with your body. They’ve never known its shape any bigger or smaller; there are no emotional attachments to the way they assume its size should be, like the disappointment when you see the plate with your favorite recipe come out of the kitchen with too much cilantro on top. People fasten themselves to what they’re used to, including bodies they don’t live in. A perplexed glance from a friend or loved one at a party, and you’re instantly reminded that you showed up covered in too much cilantro.
* * *
Once I had driven past miles of endless cacti, after listening to all the available X Factor auditions on YouTube and every mediocre cover of Whitney Houston in existence, I eventually reached Tucson, Arizona. I quickly moved into a modest apartment (and by “modest” I mean it had roaches). When I noticed the the bugs zigzagging across the bathroom floor one night, I called the apartment manager to complain. “We don’t have roaches here,” she said. For me, this translated to: Natalie, move out before you wake up with roach eggs lodged in your ear canal.
By this point I had acquired some furniture — a new bed, some tables, a reading chair — and I needed a truck to transport everything to the new pest-free apartment I’d found. However, I was nearly broke from traveling, and my parents failed me by never teaching me any practical moneymaking skills, like carpentry or identity theft. This left me having to brainstorm creative ways to secure a truck without landing myself in jail — in a city where I had no one to bail me out. I could:
(a) spend the last bit of my travel money and commit to never eating ever again;
(b) sell my voice to Ursula the Sea Witch in exchange for Prince Erik to come help me move my stuff with his royal carriage; or
(c) sell my kidney.
I settled on the only realistic option — (c).
Okay, I’m kidding. I decided that before making any hasty decisions, I’d sleep on it.
A couple of days before I was scheduled to move out, I found myself at Circle K, wearing a raggedy dress that should have been relegated to pajama status, pumping gas and buying a Chaco Taco to help me cool down from the Arizona heat (but who doesn’t love a Chaco Taco in the winter, too?). On my walk back to my car — ice cream–filled taco in hand — a tall, lumberjack-looking dude stepped out of his truck to pump gas. He sized me up with the eagerness of a dog who has spotted the can of wet food instead of the kibble.
“I like your dress,” he said.
I offered a half-hearted “thanks” and quickly licked up the vanilla ice cream running down my hand. He walked into the store, and I looked over at his truck. I stared it down just as he had done to me. It was a giant, white Ford F-150, definitely big enough to transport all my furniture in a single trip. It was perfect. When he came walking back to his truck, I appraised him. I quickly decided that I wasn’t picking up on any serial killer energy, based on nothing except that he was smaller than me and I felt I could take him in a fight, if it came to that.
“Hey! Sir.” (Don’t ask me why I called him sir, I already hate myself.)
He turned to face me, with the jolly, wide-mouthed smile of a 13-year-old who just met his favorite Laker — which just so happens to be the same exact smile of a man who thinks he might be able to stick his dick in you.
“Any chance I could borrow your truck to move some furniture?” I asked, eyes twinkling. “I’m new here.”
My lumberjack’s smile wilted. “My truck?” What?” The confusion on his face was unexpected. Wasn’t he used to people in his life asking to borrow his big-ass truck? Isn’t that what trucks are for?
“No,” he huffed. “What I’m looking for is a date. With a big, sexy lady like you.”
If this had been the first time I’d been told something like that, had it been the first time a man I’d never met announced how much he likes big women — like it was suddenly my lucky day — I might have clenched my pearls. But this wasn’t the first time, because I’ve been in this body for more than three decades — and all of those decades fat. After a big sigh, I looked over at his truck again and, in my mind, kissed it goodbye. “I understand,” I said, nodding. “But I can’t go on any dates right now. I need a truck to move my crap.”
I jumped into my car and sped off.
* * *
There’s a scene in the series finale of Sex and the City where Carrie walks around Paris, sad music playing in the background, wallowing in her sorrow. She has recently abandoned her life in New York to be with her artist lover in France. However, upon her arrival, her lover is busy preparing for his upcoming show at some fancy art gallery and has no time for her. This leaves Carrie exploring the City of Love alone. During one of her solitary, daily walks she passes by a busy cafe and, through the window, notices a group of women sitting at a table, laughing hysterically together. The women remind her of her own best friends, back in New York, and suddenly her face falls and she sinks into a deeper state of melancholy.
Anyone who has moved to a new city can, to some extent, relate to Carrie’s loneliness (though we haven’t all been invited to Paris by Baryshnikov). Now take that loneliness and compound it with the inherent loneliness of living in a large body, of having to navigate the world in a body that is often stigmatized, made invisible or hyper-visible at any moment. A multilayered loneliness.
* * *
The next day I rented a U-Haul and moved into the new apartment without trouble, just an achy lower back and some sweat stains on my shirt. I slunk down onto the carpet, then lay flat on my back and attempted some stretches I saw on YouTube. Mid-stretch, my phone buzzed. It was a text from a good friend, a meme:
Dear Big Girls:
Don’t be afraid to get on top
If he dies, he dies
I cackled. Which hurt my back a little, but the laugh helped me relax. I let my body unfurl on the floor right then, let it just be for a while. I rubbed the (supposedly new) carpet with my fingers and thought about every awkward romantic encounter I’ve ever had (which I blame on porn and the patriarchy but that, too, is another essay). The text from my friend was a magical moment of big girl solidarity, where I was reminded that I am never alone in this complex existence inside of a body. Everyone has to deal with living in a body and, some of them, bigger bodies like mine. So the next time I find myself climbing on top of a man, laughing because of the meme, I know he likely won’t die. But if he does, there are certainly worse ways to turn up one’s toes.
* * *
Natalie Lima, a 2016 PEN America Emerging Voices Fellow and VONA/Voices alum, is an MFA candidate in creative non-fiction at the University of Arizona. She is currently working on a collection of essays about the absurdities of living in a body.
Editor: Danielle A. Jackson
On a good day, all of humanity’s accomplishments feel personal: the soaring violins of the second allegretto movement of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7, the intractable painted stare of Frida Kahlo, the enormous curving spans of the Golden Gate Bridge, the high wail of PJ Harvey’s voice on “Victory,” the last melancholy pages of Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose. These works remind us that we’re connected to the past and our lives have limitless potential. We were built to touch the divine.
On a bad day, all of humanity’s failures feel unbearably personal: coyotes wandering city streets due to encroaching wildfires, American citizens in Puerto Rico enduring another day without electricity or potable water in the wake of Hurricane Maria, neo-Nazis spouting hatred in American towns, world leaders testing missiles that would bring the deaths of millions of innocent people. We encounter bad news in the intimate glow of our cell phone screens, and then project our worries onto the flawed artifacts of our broken world: the for lease sign on the upper level of the strip mall, the crow picking at a hamburger wrapper in the gutter, the pink stucco walls of the McMansion flanked by enormous square hedges, the blaring TVs on the walls of the local restaurant. On bad days, each moment is haunted by a palpable but private sense of dread. We feel irrelevant at best, damned at worst. Our only hope is to numb and distract ourselves as well as we can on our long, slow march to the grave.
On a good day, humankind’s creations make us feel like we’re here for a reason. Our belief sounds like the fourth molto allegro movement of Mozart’s Symphony no. 41, Jupiter: Our hearts seem to sing along to Mozart’s climbing strings, telling us that if we’re patient, if we work hard, if we believe, if we stay focused, we will continue to feel joy, to do meaningful work, to show up for each other, to grow closer to some sacred ground. We are thrillingly alive and connected to every other living thing, in perfect, effortless accord with the natural world.
But it’s hard to sustain that feeling, even on the best of days — to keep the faith, to stay focused on what matters most—because the world continues to besiege us with messages that we are failing. You’re feeding your baby a bottle and a voice on the TV tells you that your hair should be shinier. You’re reading a book but someone on Twitter wants you to know about a hateful thing a politician said earlier this morning. You are bedraggled and inadequate and running late for something and it’s always this way. You are busy and distracted. You are not here.
It’s even worse on a bad day, when humankind’s creations fill us with the sense that we are failing as a people, as a planet, and nothing can be done about it. The chafing smooth jazz piped into the immaculate coffee joint, the fake cracks painted on the wall at the Cheesecake Factory, the smoke from fires burning thousands of acres of dry tinder, blotting out the sun — they remind us that even though our planet is in peril, we are still being teased and flattered into buying stuff that we don’t need, or coaxed into forgetting the truth about our darkening reality. As the crowd around us watches a fountain dance to Frank Sinatra’s “Somewhere Beyond the Sea” at the outdoor mall, we peek at our phones and discover the bellowed warnings of an erratic foreign leader, threatening to destroy us from thousands of miles away. Everything cheerful seems to have an ominous shadow looming behind it now. The smallest images and bits of news can feel so invasive, so frightening. They erode our belief in what the world can and should be.
As the first total solar eclipse in America in thirty-nine years reveals itself, an email lands in my inbox from ABC that says The Great American Eclipse at the top. People are tweeting and retweeting the same eclipse jokes all morning. As the day grows dimmer, I remember that Bonnie Tyler is going to sing her 1983 hit “Total Eclipse of the Heart” on an eclipse-themed cruise off the coast of Florida soon.
Even natural wonders aren’t what they used to be, because nothing can be experienced without commentary. In the 1950s, we worried about how TV would affect our culture. Now our entire lives are a terrible talk show that we can’t turn off. It often feels like we’re struggling to find ourselves and each other in a crowded, noisy room. We are plagued, around the clock, by the shouting and confusion and fake intimacy of the global community, mid–nervous breakdown.
Sometimes it feels like our shared breakdown is making us less generous and less focused. On a bad day, the world seems to be filled with bad books and bad buildings and bad songs and bad choices. Worthwhile creations and ego-driven, sloppy works are treated to the same hype and praise; soon it starts to feel as if everything we encounter was designed merely to make some carefully branded human a fortune. Why aren’t we reaching for more than this? Isn’t art supposed to inspire or provoke or make people feel emotions that they don’t necessarily want to feel? Can’t the moon block out the sun without a 1980s pop accompaniment? So much of what is created today seems engineered to numb or distract us, keeping us dependent on empty fixes indefinitely.
Such creations feel less like an attempt to capture the divine than a precocious student’s term paper. If any generous spirit shines through, it’s manufactured in the hopes of a signal boost, so that some leisure class end point can be achieved. Our world is glutted with products that exist to help someone seize control of their own life while the rest of the globe falls to ruin. Work (and guidance, and leadership) that comes from such a greedy, uncertain place has more in common with that fountain at the outdoor mall, playing the same songs over and over, every note an imitation of a note played years before.
But human beings are not stupid. We can detect muddled and self-serving intentions in the artifacts we encounter. Even so, such works slowly infect us with their lopsided values. Eventually, we can’t help but imagine that this is the only way to proceed: by peddling your own wares at the expense of the wider world. Can’t we do better than this, reach for more, insist on more? Why does our culture make us feel crazy for trying?
Garrett M. Graff | Longreads | June 2018 | 20 minutes (5,086 words)
Razhden Shulaya maintained a diverse business empire, like a Warren Buffet of crime. By age 40, from his base in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, he had a cigarette smuggling operation, a drug ring, a counterfeit credit card scheme, an extortion racket, an illegal gambling establishment, and teams devoted to hacking slot machines. According to prosecutors who have been building a case against him, Shulaya’s associates provided gun-running, kidnap-for-hire, and the fencing of stolen jewelry. Plans were in place for what authorities came to call the “romance scam”: use an attractive woman to lure a target down to Atlantic City, knock him out with chloroform, and steal his money. They’d take his Rolex, too.