Regards from Barcelona
Emerging Writer Series
Every two weeks or so I am publishing an essay from an emerging writer. This week, “Regards from Barcelona” by Kathryn Chiariello. Kathryn is an essayist and fiction writer from D.C. Her work has been published in Gargoyle and Watershed Review and is forthcoming in Cutleaf Journal. Like all people who make their homes in the nation’s capital, she lacks voting representation in Congress. She hopes to live someday in the 51st state.
There is freedom and—I hate to admit—loss, in no longer being subject of the male gaze. I am an American woman, so-called white, forty-four, vain. I am living in Barcelona for the summer. Always before, these streets crowded me with looks. Now, their absence. And no wonder. My skin is crepe and leather, bags and wrinkles obscure my eyes, and everything I say seems parenthetical, thanks to the two deep creases that run from my nostrils to my jaw beside my cheeks—my cheeks, such as they are, flat and colorless. My lips are dry, never shiny, those of someone who is ever thirsty.
A caveat, and the context of my noticing this absence. I had an affair. I am fool enough to put this to paper, this that my closest friends don’t know, though my spouse does. My consideration of the freedom and loss of the male gaze in general is shaded by the freedom and loss specific to the affair. It ended—again—as the summer began.
I am in this city, on this terrace—hot, orange, baking me dry, Catalan flags on the balconies across the narrow block, swallows circling high above me—because my spouse has professional obligations here. (Yes. I followed a man here, have followed him for years. Discount what I say by the price of that.) There is construction and renovation throughout the neighborhood as the restored and re-opened Sant Antoni market and travelers like us exert gentrification pressure. Scaffolding encases the building next door, and men spew dust and noise into the air that covers everything in the apartment with a fine layer of debris.
This morning, in a failed effort to clean enough so that the bottoms of our feet don’t turn black from walking barefoot on the tiles, I scrubbed the apartment’s floor on my hands and knees. (Mopping has already proved futile. So too moping.) Now, with my legs outstretched on a rickety wooden chair on the terrace, I notice my knees are bruised. I am bruised by so much, including the affair, and the end of the affair, and it shows in my face, my flesh, my carriage.
I am tempted to cover these dark knees when I go down to the street, but I have an equal urge to flaunt my mistakes, my experiments, my history, damn all the perfect girls and young women with their smooth skin and summer clothes turning each other’s heads—and mine. I see the way they look at my spouse, whose recent increase in visibility inversely matches my disappearance. He is fit, financially comfortable and considerate, not a man-child like the ones who ogle them as they walk down the street. I’m sure there’s more to the attractiveness of older men to younger women than that, but so much of the alchemy of attraction is culturally conditioned. Even so, I am not bold enough to reason away the instant spark, especially when it’s reciprocal. With the other man, seven and a half years my senior, that’s how it was. Neither of us could explain it. The look across the room. Everything else followed.
It’s a surprise, and a failure, to consider the recent retreat of the male gaze as anything but an advance. I was a pre-teen when male eyes and words and whistles first assailed me. In my late teens and early twenties, I yelled back to hollers or honks, showed anger, tried to claim my right to public space. As I got older, I clenched my jaw and walked faster. My new weakness— experiencing the absence of attention on the street as anything but liberation—helps me to be more forgiving to young women who encourage male attention than I was to my peers who did so when we were that green. It still isn’t the choice I want them to make, but I understand better—a bit better—about exercising a simulacrum of power while you have at least that.
I should clarify. I am not writing in defense of leering, cat-calls, come-ons, or being followed, groped, flashed or frottaged. Neither am I writing in defense of any prelude to violence or abuse of power. The male gaze I’m concerned with here is separate from all that. I’m thinking of a look of appreciation or desire, quickly revealed then quickly hidden. I’m thinking of smoldering eyes on a jacaranda-filled square, not of heavy breath and bulging crotch and being blocked in a two-seat bench on the DC Metro by a man who outweighed me by sixty or seventy pounds. I’m thinking of a discrete smile from another table at Bar Lobo, not of looking up from where I kneeled in a bookstore to the sight of an engorged penis being shaken at me by a man with blank eyes and clean, well-trimmed fingernails.
They are related, of course—sexual assessment based on appearances and predatory harassment of women on the street. What, really, is not to celebrate about being free of either, of both? Why should I have walked through Gràcia the other day in my black sundress and come back to this apartment, this dirty floor, my notebook, deflated that not a single pair of eyes caught mine? (Maybe it’s the dark sunglasses, I tell myself for comfort.) And how is it that even here, in my own mind, on the page, I elide so quickly from considering harassment to considering flirtation?
On a blue-sky day in late summer, three years ago, or was it already four, a teenage driver crashed his car when he craned his head to look at me walking. I saw him turn his head, saw the SUV jump the curb, saw him strike the tree. I called 9-1-1 and went to him, along with another driver. The boy’s car reeked of pot. He wasn’t hurt so much as shaken and wildly afraid of being in trouble. The change happened fast; in Gràcia this week, I was invisible.
Memories muscle in and interrupt— images I sent the other man over the course of our story. Timid beginnings, a shot of me at a canal in Amsterdam, hidden behind the collar of a faux-leather jacket and a muted scarf, wearing the expression of a friendly mouse. A series of increasingly revealing ones that made me feel—from certain angles and in enough shadow—beautiful.
Photography played a part in my love life from the beginning, the captured image, the gaze made paper or pixel. My first high school boyfriend took boudoir photographs—to use an antiquated term for what are now frequent, ephemeral, expected. He was a guy who knew his way around a Nikon and a darkroom like he knew his way around my body. Much more experienced, he had already been with a score of girls before he became my first boy. When I searched for him online a few years back, I found him in a camera shop and photography studio in Sweden. He had a lovely portfolio of travel photography and a less lovely series of teen girls in sailor caps. Only later did I learn they were high school graduation shots, not a fetish. (In Sweden, kids don sailor caps and drink and ride open-topped buses to celebrate that rite of passage. Now that I know, it looks like a blast.)
This time around, much of the satisfaction came from owning the gaze, from becoming my own photographer and exhibiting my own desire. But there are always questions of power and objectification in an image. And are selfies any less driven by the aesthetics of an imagined audience than pictures taken by another? Or, in the words of yesteryear’s consciousness raising, is it often simply a matter of internalized oppression? As if that idea and its embodiment is so simple, so easily dismissed as passé, along with so much another generation of feminists might have had right but is too often considered repressed and old-fashioned.
As the affair picked up, building from a friendship and professional comradery into a more and more overtly sexual entanglement, I sent him pictures, he sent me appreciation, jokes, encouragement. The arrangement must have suited us both. People get something out of whatever relationships they stay in, however warped the rewards might seem from the outside, however far it might be from what they really need. When I finally stood before him naked, I saw his eyes shine and simultaneously dull in the same way my first boyfriend’s eyes used to do when he watched me pose for a picture. We found our way around each other’s bodies, too, by intuition and experience and connection. (All of that, and likely a good dose of porn and mutual fantasy.)
Even now that it is over, I want more of him. (It is over, dammit, and that’s better for everyone—those who know, like my spouse, and those who don’t, like his.) I want more of his eyes on me and more of the sight of him. I loved to look at him. I loved to see myself in new light. During our affair, he sent me two pictures of his body. I should erase them. But even if I did, I’d keep the memories of seeing them and of our living times together. He really saw me—that’s so hard to let go—and somehow in seeing him, I claimed my own gaze, too.
When I look, I look for men of a certain age, my age, or often older. I look to appreciate their forms, and I look for signs of their haecceity—what Buddhists call their suchness—in their eyes and faces. What I see more often is young women who incite my jealousy with their figures, clothes, hair, skin, feet. I can call it internalized oppression, but that doesn’t help stop the awful habit of finding every flaw in myself, every deviation from a standard of beauty I know to be racist, and sexist, and ageist, and cis- and heteronormative. This gaze collaborates with the male hegemony, demeans the self and others negatively impacts woman-to-woman relationships, and crowds mental space. Knowing all this, still I see my flaws in their beauty, and I look towards men for consolation. Towards one man I don’t think I will ever see again, except in pictures he shares with the world, where he looks so good, and I don’t exist.
The gaze to and from the other man was something out of a book—appropriate as we’re both writers and prone to fiction. When I first saw him, the shock of sudden connection and attraction staggered me. We didn’t speak. At lunch the next day, I spotted him at the salad bar and hurried away, against every drive in my body to approach. In a plenary session, I passed by him on my way to the back of the crowded room—I’m the kind of person who sits in the back, he sits at the front—and he did an actual double take. I let a smile escape the corners of my mouth. I watched him lock his bike outside a theater where we gathered for a reading. I watched his shoulders, hard and articulate as they moved on his back, his hands, the line of his jaw.
We spoke briefly on the way into a banquet, on the second to last night—was it?—this whole sequence could be off, flash lit and several years ago. He introduced himself.
“I’ve met almost everyone here, but we keep missing each other.”
We talked then, but only briefly, before I escaped to the safety of a table crowded with colleagues, my back to where he sat. I had to avoid even the sight of him, it so undid me. It still does. On the last night, our eyes connected across the room, and he came to me. We spent a half-hour—an eternity—chatting, flanked by companions, until with great effort, I walked away.
Last fall, back home in DC, I led him into ending it. The first time we tried to end it. He needed to be free of me, needed to attend to his family, his book, his life. I was no longer an escape or a solace. He had nothing left for me, hadn’t for months.
I couldn’t believe it was over, but my body did. It felt like I was absorbing a death. That afternoon, I went for a haircut. Better than shaving my head or hacking off all my hair with a knife. The bright day was autumn cold, and I was early for the appointment, so I strayed in and out of stores up and down the avenue, in too much pain to be as numb as I looked.
A homeless man, shoeless, sat against a wall with his legs stretched out in front of him against the front of Designer Shoe Warehouse. He interrupted his own plea for money.
“Damn, baby. You look good. You look like Demi Moore. You look like Demi Moore when she was young.”
I don’t. I ducked into the store, cursed myself for not giving him something, for not buying him shoes, for not talking back to him—or to the universe. I wandered around looking at heels designed to cripple women and to attract men who like women to be crippled.
Back outside, two Save-the-Children men were on the prowl. I hugged the building to avoid their approach. Choked back tears. Fought to remember the other man as he really was, not to lose even that.
One of the men had an English accent. “That’s an amazing jacket,” he said. “And those boots are perfect.” I kept my head up and my eyes hidden behind those same dark glasses that I wore again in Gràcia the other day.
“Aw, posh, posh, posh,” he called after me as I escaped into another store, sobbed into the display of men’s down vests, not knowing then the affair would stretch out for months of another year. The year I disappeared.
The first time the other man and I met specifically to be together, neither of us looked away. Not when the cool, June rain slicked the narrow street, not when we hurried inside. The hotel was newly opened, like us, and a bargain. There was a bath like half an egg in the middle of a sitting area. On a desk next to the bed, they’d seeded books in German, French, and English. Instead of a mini bar, there was a brass cocktail cart with crystal decanters. A crystal vase held fresh summer flowers, pink and yellow and white. I’d never seen anything like that room, or him, but in life as in literature, detail can cradle deceit. We talked for some time and with great ease about writing and life. Like anyone in the midst of a long-distance love affair, we talked about finally being together. It had been many months since we’d seen each other and many miles of emails. I’d almost forgotten how his voice sounded, how much I always wanted to kiss his throat.
I straddled him as I undid the buttons of his shirt.
“You missed one,” he smiled. There was a good deal of mischief in him, and in the whole situation, a lightness that is hard to convey through the heartbreak, his lies to his spouse, my unorthodox honesty with mine.
When he was dressing to leave, I pulled him toward me by the waistband of his pants. Reached up to place my palm on his bare chest.
“I like the looks of you.” I said. “I like the you of you.”
He leaned down and kissed me.
In the end—if it really is the end this time—I walked away from my view of him and from his eyes on my body, my words, my life not only because it was the right thing to do—for that, I should have done it so much earlier, and more cleanly, should have never started with him, should have never violated another woman’s marriage that way—but also because I still felt the shift, knew that I had lost him already. A weak and reckless part of me wanted him to watch me go, wanted him to want me enough to call me back. A weak and reckless part of me turned around, again, and again, faced his disregard, saw he knew shame but perhaps not guilt, experienced the pain of observing that to him, too, I am now invisible.
I’m not so sure any more this essay is about the loss of the male gaze, liberation from it and mourning for it, or about one woman’s slow loss of a love affair and her resurfacing in new waters, in a cold and deep and unknown sea. There are plenty of fish in the sea, that’s what people are supposed to say to the broken-hearted, but she—I—wasn’t looking.
None of this makes any sense.
My spouse’s eyes can show amazement, concern, desire, anger, compassion, connection, humor—all before breakfast. If he hasn’t appeared much in this piece, it’s because of how difficult it is for me to admit, to myself, much less to anyone else, how all of it, everything we share, everything we’ve built, our mutual commitment and contentment, did not stop me from turning my head. I turned my head, and I looked, and I touched. And yet we went through all of this, as always, together. It might be hard for others to understand, but we did. It may have been an affair, but it was not a secret between us. We talked. Laughed. Fought. Made love. We imagined our relationship and ourselves from new perspectives.
“I married you for your mind,” he said. He ripped a piece of bread from the loaf and dragged it through olive oil. “People thought I married you for your looks, but I married you for your mind.”
“People thought I married you for your mind, but I married you for your looks,” I joked back.
We married each other for everything.
I couldn’t handle the inverse. I’m a hypocrite, and not just as a feminist. I can only deal with his gaze on another woman, let alone his hands or his heart, by teasing, joining, assessing. I insinuate myself into his private space of fantasy, where appreciation and desire for the other is more securely placed. Maybe that is another cause for the recent withdrawal of eyes as I walk. Maybe it shows somehow that I am dangerous, someone who has demonstrated the power to bring fantasy to life and not the wisdom to forgo it.
In the mirror, I will only find more wrinkles, bumps, bulges, loss. My face will continue to fall. I will lose my height and my strength. At some point, I will truly cease to be an object of any desire. If my spouse and I continue to want each other, it will be based more and more on our suchnesses than our likenesses.
One afternoon recently, he and I went to the beach, the dirty, crowded city beach that flanks the turquoise-blue Mediterranean. We were the oldest people there. We spent a couple hours reading on too-hot sand, next to too-dirty water, amid students and young lovers. The graffiti on the breaker wall read, as everywhere here, sinpapeles. Loud announcements in three languages warned of wind and thieves. When we left, it was too hot to hold hands, but we walked home side-by-side on cobbled sidewalks through streets that smelled of piss and diesel and dogs. We took cold showers and didn’t get dressed and kept the room shaded and private and stayed there all night, together.
It is the nature of the human body to get older—if we are lucky. It is the nature of the human body to die. Death is present in each body at birth and remains a body’s constant and more assertive companion as we grow older. Our culture and my mind profoundly avoid this simple and inevitable reality. I should not be surprised that men avert their eyes from signs of it. I should not be surprised at my own misguided attempts to grab hold of more life, in the shape, and the image, of a man who showed so much of it. I should not be surprised that I am guilty of dust and sin.
The man I loved—the other man—is so alive in body, mind, being, whoever he is or is not to me. Maybe that’s what I need to recognize about the whole experience—and about the eyes on the street. Maybe life is what I crave most in and of and for myself. Maybe somewhere inside I know it’s available to me as much as ever, if I still breathe, and has nothing much to do with the jolt I get from him or any other person, a stranger or my most beloved.
I can hope that it’s true—can’t I—and that all of this is just another way to claim my own.
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