by BRITTANY JULIOUS
I used to work on the block where a man tried to force me into his car. This was not the first time.
The Rhona Hoffman Gallery, the reason for my trip, is located on a block of Peoria Avenue, off the expansive Randolph Street, and filled with other galleries and artist spaces. On certain Friday evenings, the block is bustling and busy with young people leaning against old meatpacking and industrial buildings smoking cigarettes and tying their shoelaces just so. I never fit in around here, even when I worked on this very block, day after day, during the fall after my college graduation. I never fit in around here, even when I visited two friends, former store owners, now embarking on the next chapter of their lives together outside of the city.
I think about this block because it represents different facets of my changing life and the way I see the world. That fall after college, it was a space of learning and responsibility. I hoped my job would lead someplace else. I hoped I had found a sense of place and purpose.
It was also a space of trouble, of quiet evenings and brisk temperatures. For a while, my greatest memory of that block was not the galleries and stores, but the way my neck hurt again and again while walking against the fierceness of the wind. It is a beautiful block, but like many corners of Chicago, it makes more sense during the day. At night, one realizes how long the blocks are, how wide the sidewalks are, how the only thing one passes by are more buildings and more pieces of trash, but not more people.
I began reading first romance, then erotic novels during my senior year of college. My interest stemmed from a love of fan fiction and a desire to both write and read beyond the characters I saw on the screen. I've noticed with my friends who appreciate either romance or fan fiction, a love of films and movies. There is the underlying devotion to storytelling and later, the ability to build on what was there. We can always keep going.
I like that the men represent a validation of my fantasies and my fantasies are not merely of the physical, but also of the potential for triumph, for personal redemption, for overcoming the things about ourselves — whether articulated and open or deeply stored within — that often delay the lives we want and the people we want to be. I think of myself as a woman coming back to her optimism. It was lost for a number of reasons in a number of different ways, but a part of me seeks out an interaction with the world that makes risks possible and chances worth taking. What I fear rests in me is a deeply-ingrained thought practice that ultimately makes living and loving seem like things other people do.
The black heroines in many of the novels I read are not traditionally beautiful, but they are interesting. They struggle and weep alone; keep their heads up and minds focused in private. They do a lot and feel a lot and often find peace through extraordinary circumstances that are more difficult than their lives pushing toward financial success and the desire to overcome a challenging society, a prejudiced society, an unforgiving society.
The ways in which I can overcome the world at large are through myself. I can not depend on outcomes of others, but must instead push myself to work harder, to think more, to pursue more. And in my favorite novels, the heroines must overcome the limitations of affection by challenging their willingness to love and trust.
The older I get, the more aware I am of how I lack a true understanding of normal. To me, normal is pure and right and exact. There is a real idea of normal love, of normal relationships, of normal intimacy. And even though a rational part of me knows that there is no way that a unique, individualistic, surprising world could produce a tried-and-true normal, I still hold on to the idea that there is a “right” way, and I am not doing it.
A friend once asked me what it was like to date as a black woman. She was asking not as a point of othering, but because I told her that “things are different.” We were discussing our parents’ relationships and how rare and strange it was that they are still together. This idea of marriage, of happiness, seems more like an exception to the rule of confusion, pain and regret.
Two years ago, a group of black teenage girls sat across from me on the 66 bus. An older black man, much older, at least in his 50s, began hitting on them, blatantly and disgustingly and physically. They were obviously turned off, because he was crass and because they were young, and this man thought that he could say and do anything he wanted to because these young women tickled his fancy. One girl, agitated, yelled, “I don’t care. Leave me alone! Leave us alone!”
It could have only been the culmination of years of frustration and annoyance because I too felt that anger and grief. This was not a random occurrence for them. This was the everyday, the day-to-day, the moment they stepped outside until the moment they locked their door.
There are slight come-ons, cheesy pick-up lines, catcalls which in hindsight are child’s play, and then there is harassment — physical and verbal — much like these teenage girls on the bus suffered, and what I’ve faced numerous times in the past. Harassment is different, and terrifying, and traumatizing. But once you’ve faced it, in all forms, whether it is a man calling you “A stupid stuck-up bitch” or another grabbing you off the street, a block away from your own home, attempting to rape you before you’ve even gotten your first period, you learn to toughen up, to always be aware, to call out the aggressors from the get go in the hopes that this time won’t turn dire. It’s not about hate but about safety and street smarts. As a black woman, unfortunately, I believe it’s something we become accustomed to at a young age.
It shapes the way you look at life and the way you encounter the people around you. If you are like me, it stifles your freedom, creating an existence of confusion. What does it mean to be loved? What does it mean to be happy?
I still think of the moment when everything changes, when that loss of youth shapes one’s days from here on out. It is that critical age of post-innocence, yet pre-adolescence. In my head, the other girls were able to still feel somewhat young and somewhat free, but I remember knowing more than I should, and feeling angry about it at 12 years old. Even now, I yearn for my age, meaning, the ability to be young and feel young and have that be enough. A co-worker said, “What do you have to stress over?” And I thought, most everything. It’s the same as it ever was.
Last Thanksgiving, we sat around my aunt's great big television — the place of common gathering for my family — and my grandmother tried to run her weak hands through my thick hair. She couldn't get far. She made a comment about it being unkempt and unright.
A friend shared a conversation she had with a mutual editor and they discussed not my fear of the body, but my fear of the expectations of the body. I am fearful that I lack ownership, fearful that my personality is not good enough or pleasant enough or funny enough to warrant love. If I only have the physical than these interactions must be representative of something inherent in me, something others see but I am unable to recognize or know. There is the me I know and the 'real' me, the me everyone else sees. That distance makes me uneasy.
At the holiday dinner, I tried to talk to my family. We’ve spoken before, held conversations and shared jokes, but the older I get, the more I recognized the full formation of my internal self. The older I get, the more I recognize my dual selves, the one that thinks and sees and feels so much that emotions manifest in stomach pains or stiff joints, and the one the world sees.
“I just don’t like it when people make comments about my appearance. I don’t like being touched without knowing,” I said. But what I actually meant was, I don’t like knowing that there’s something wrong with me, that it is visible, that what I sometimes feel and think deep down can be confirmed through appearances.
Brittany Julious is the senior editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She tumbls here and twitters here. She last wrote in these pages about the month in music. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.
Photos by Xaviera Simmons.
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