I was sitting on the rooftop of my apartment building in May waiting for July’s fireworks. I was cleaning high-rise condos in Manhattan, teaching fourth grade in Queens, eating wheat bread and American cheese sandwiches that the government delivered to the school. I was writing everything down as if I knew what I was seeing. I was pretending to be a neutral observer, but I kept trying to override my heartbreak with poignancy. It was almost working.
I missed the structure of school, syllabi handouts guiding my hours. I always thought I wanted to be free, but as soon as I was free, I longed to be corralled, guided. I couldn’t get a job as a journalist, so I got jobs that had nothing to do with writing. My friend told me I could have any man I wanted, so I maneuvered through the city not having any of them.
The invitation said: Wear your costume, a Halloween barbecue in May. I went dressed as my Freudian id. A man approached me, said I’m a burglar too and pointed at his mask, the same one I wore. Later, a couple invited him to a sex party, said they needed someone sober to drive their SUV. He said, You have to come with me. It felt easy being told what to do. I assigned myself to him like a grade.
Still wearing our bandit masks, the man opened the passenger door to the car. I stepped in, noticed a bottle of lube on the dashboard. The couple who owned the car began making out in the backseat. They both wore studded dog collars, but the woman kept grabbing the man’s collar and saying, Motherfucker. Motherfucker. As we drove over the Williamsburg Bridge, I realized I wanted the burglar to touch my thigh, but he kept both hands on the wheel. When we got to the building in the Financial District, the sun was rising and the bouncers said we were too late. I wore my mask on the subway home.
It was the summer Marina Abramović sat in a chair at the Museum of Modern Art for eight hours every day. Visitors who were willing to wait in line for hours or days could sit across from her for however long they wanted. When I visited, I observed from the sidelines. I’d never seen anything like it. I found her beauty most hypnotizing before the fact of her stamina registered.
An email to my friend in Oregon: Do you know who Marina Abramović is? She’s doing this performance piece at MoMA where you can sit in front of her. Some people are hogging their turn, they sit there all day with her. One woman took her clothes off, another woman wore the same floor-length blue dress as Marina. I have this urge to sit with her and cry just to see if I can.
I feared her gaze—she made people feel like the only ones in the room. I wanted to feel fractional.
This well-documented, now-famous performance was titled The Artist is Present. Each time I paid my museum admission, I was paying to see her body.
In June, I found a way to get paid for my body—I worked as a model for a men’s clothing ad. I was not the focus of the photo, but I sat on a lawn chair in the background reading a paperback copy of Catcher in the Rye. That morning, a large man had teased my hair into a lion’s mane, smoothed it into a housewife bouffant, then curled the ends. As he slipped each curl out of the iron’s round barrel, he held it in his hand like a baby bird, blowing on the hair until it cooled. Doesn’t that hurt your hand? I asked. He looked at me in the mirror and said, No, baby, I’m a man.
The stylist, a sweaty woman in red stilettos, fretted over the clothes not fitting me. Size two, the same size as when they hired me the week prior, but all the clothes were a sample size zero. I stood beside the rack of clothes, naked except for the flesh-toned Victoria’s Secret thong she’d given me that morning. I hadn’t taken a photo all day. The stylist found a dress that was too big for me and sewed me into the dress. Now just don’t move or go to the bathroom.
No one ate the colorful buffet, no one let me stand next to the roof’s edge. Then, at the end of the day, the photographer told to sit on the edge and arch my back. Two weeks later I got a check in the mail for $800.
I kept going back to MoMA to look at Marina Abramović. I felt closer to her, closer to sitting in front of her, though I did not wait in line. Watching her meant I didn’t have to watch myself, didn’t have to face anything besides the museum. My body was simple. I missed modeling when I didn’t get more jobs.
My financial situation wasn’t dire—bills got paid—but I started considering the possibility of commodifying my body. People spoke of it as if it were detached, and perhaps that was true in a way. It trailed behind me like a valuable shadow.
I kept hearing the phrase That’s the price you pay—for living in New York, for dressing the way you do, for focusing on art. What would happen if I stopped paying the price? What if someone assigned a price to me? What if someone else paid that price?
Sick of balancing multiple roles, some days I wanted to be less human.
Sylvia Plath quoting her pen pal Eddie Cohen in her journal: …fifteen thousand years… of what? We’re still nothing but animals.