New York City is open for spring and I want to love my life. I want to buy lilies for my bedroom and drink champagne with my friends and wear my favorite dresses and go listen to jazz. So instead of getting on the train after dinner, I’m walking fast in my new sneakers and a floating slip dress to make a ten o’clock show.
I’m so excited to have thought of it. Jazz clubs are perfect. They’re dark and moody just like me. Being inside them feels like hiding in art. I wish museums were open all night. I wish you could still smoke inside. God, I wish I still smoked. I should go to Paris.
I head straight to the door because I’m a little late. There’s a guy. I know him. So many of him. He’s white, in his sixties, wobbly and red-faced from alcohol, and boy, is he excited to talk to me. He’s trying to contain it. He’s collecting himself. What a great end to the night. A beautiful woman showed up.
Try to be cool, Wobbles. I’m not here for you.
Under the awning lights, I see a few women. I’m the only one alone. Also the show starts at ten-thirty. I’m early. No need for the hustle. No need for this shimmer of perspiration on my bare chest. No need for the attention it’s bringing from the men scattered on the sidewalk.
If I leave I might not get a seat, but I can’t see about a seat without getting past Wobbles.
He’s holding the door for people coming out from the early set. Open. Close. Open. Close. In between he’s finding every excuse to talk to me from six feet away. He’s not threatening. He’s chivalrous about consuming me.
So I like jazz? Is this my first time here? Am I by myself? Do I like Broadway? He just saw Broadway. Where do I live? He lives on Long Island. Do I like Laurie Metcalf? He just saw her. He knew Edward Albee too. One of the greats. Maybe the greatest. What do I do? Am I alone? Do I like jazz?
He opens the door again like he’s surprised, “Oh, did you have fun, folks?”
He stops people from entering, “Nope. They’re not ready yet. I'm not management, but I’ll tell you when they’re letting people in.
He points to me, “I’ll let you in first.”
I hate what I am wearing now. I’m not even wearing a bra. A bra makes this dress all cleavage. It’s too much attention. If I am in a group of women, or with just one man, I can wear the bra. Not alone. No way. I don’t have it in me tonight. And Wobbles might faint.
I can do a good job ignoring the gaze, but when it closes in around me, I’m trampled. I am simultaneously defeated and enraged. I want to throw temper tantrums on mountaintops and on highways and on the news. I despise being an object. I hate it.
The men waiting in a group now also know how much I like Laurie Metcalf. And that I live in Brooklyn. And that this is not my first time. They listen to my short answers while they look at me and down my dress. I catch three of them. Two look away, right away. One stands closer to get a better look. Sometimes fending off the loud one means the quiet one sneaks in without notice. He stares into my eyes and back at my breasts when I scowl at him.
“Gross!” I huff out loud, like a valley girl. Fuck them all. I spin to walk to the curb.
What do I want? Should I just go home? Do I really care about this dumb jazz show and lilies? Is it so bad to be talked to and looked at? Nobody’s touching me. I am safe.
I take out my phone and pretend to talk on it. This is normal. It is normal for a thirty-seven year old woman to talk to nobody on a dead phone because the men/strangers around her won’t let her stand somewhere and wait.
I’m creating space with my fake phone call. I’m gathering courage to star in the gaze fest over by the door. I did technically start the line. I’ll get in first, with or without Wobbles, but what if it’s sold out? Deal with it, Lauren.
I want to hear music so I will deal with this. I want to take a train, so I will deal with this. I want to take a walk, so I will deal with this. I want to breathe air, so I will deal with this. I want to be a person, so I will deal with this.
So what if I’m an object, like always.
For trans women, disabled women, immigrant women, women of color, queer women, poor women, this infuriating objectification, this gaze I despise, it is much more likely to be violent and murderous instead of simply annoying and soul-crushing.
Yes. I have endured a long list of assaults and harassment over my lifetime, most every woman has, a lot of men have too. But straight able-bodied white women existing in public are in far less danger than marginalized women. These are facts.
I’m racist patriarchy’s ideal. I’m protected. What oppresses me keeps me safe.
Management comes up to say they are open. Wobbles walks in first, and makes sure I am right behind him. He is led to a spot in a corner, stage right. I’m led to the front, stage left. Goodbye Wobbles! Hello Springtime! Now for hiding in art, or maybe, I don’t know, blooming in it.
“Take any one of those seats, or that single right there.”
“Fun!” I’m excited. The single right there is the spot I’ve seen only regulars sit in. I want to be a regular. I’m actively trying to be a regular. Does this mean I’m a regular?
This is my Wobbles reward. Down with patriarchy! The throne is mine!
“I’ll take the single.”
After getting situated I realize the reason I always stare at the person in this seat, is because it is practically on stage. It is next to the piano. It is lit by stage lights. I’m sitting in the exact place people look. And they are looking.
They are looking at a woman. A woman under lights. A woman on stage. A woman at night. A woman in public. A woman alone. Whatever it is, they’re looking at it.
I just escaped the gaze and immediately, willingly, and joyfully put myself directly back in it. Fuck.
The waitress navigates to me through the seated tables and says, “Um, my colleague just informed me that the gentleman in the corner would like to pay for your drink.”
Jesus Christ, Wobbles.
“Oh, sure, my gentleman friend from outside.” She knows what I mean.
I don’t know what to do. The two couples at the table to my right are watching me. The music is about to start. I don’t want to be rude. I’ll have to talk to him afterwards either way now. Dammit. I do not want him to pay for my drink. I want him to leave me alone. The lights are going down.
The waitress says, “You don’t have to accept it.”
And I say, “Yeah I just want to pay for it myself,” because I need her permission. Even after all this time and work and spitfire I’m still unsure of making moves against the patriarchy. I’m still unsure about putting my needs before the men/strangers around me.
As soon as I say no, I am awash in guilt. He’s harmless. He’s drunk. He’s trying to be nice. Give the guy a break.
What about my break? What about warm nights in the West Village when I’m not ready to go home? What about flowers growing out of trees that looked dead? What about becoming the woman I want to be?
Does a patriarch feel shame in public because he is there? Does he feel guilt for not sharing himself with strangers? Does he spend half a concert consumed by anything but the music? Does he believe the music exists for him?
He believes I do.
Whatever. I shouldn’t have worn this dress I love. And I didn’t have to pick this seat I’ve always wanted to sit in either. Why do I always demand so much attention?
This is nothing. It’s not the night a man/stranger pulled me off the street from behind as a joke. It’s not the night a man/stranger followed me for twenty minutes from the train to my front door demanding a blowjob every couple of steps. It’s not the night I got drugged, by a group of men/strangers.
It’s the night a couple guys looked down my low cut dress, and a man my father’s age persistently flirted with me. Nothing to write an essay about.
I should’ve let him pay for the drink. I’m always so harsh. Poor innocent Wobbles. Everyone's right. I’ll never find a man. I have to open my heart.
And on it goes.
At some point in this tailspin I institute a rule that I do not accept drinks from strangers. I will explain this to Wobbles after the show. I instantly feel better. I can explain myself away. I start sinking into the music because I have a plan to care for Wobbles’s emotional well-being. I can relax now that a man/stranger across the room won’t be hurt by my refusal of his attentions that I did not invite or want in the first place.
What a relief.
I fan my hair over my open chest, sip my prosecco, and pretend I’m not on stage, because I am, but the music is wonderful and the lights have the back of my eyelids glowing.
It’s halfway through the set when the lead ponders the special sort of woman it takes to be with an artist. He’s praising her struggle. He just played a tune written by some legend dedicated to his second, and ex, wife. It’s pretty obvious this pianist is going through something, or did.
Then he says a line like, “Because an artist needs his art, his music. That’s what he needs first,” with all the sincerity in the world. My eyes are in the back of my head. They may never unroll.
I wonder what I need first. Am I an artist? What sort of man does it take to be with an artist? What sort of man does it take to be with me?
They play a couple more songs. It feels like color moving under my ribs as I take notes on the club’s trifold flyer. I wrote stories in high school about women alone at jazz clubs. My seventeen year old self is beaming at what I’ve become. I’m living the dream. I’m a regular.
When I was a teenager I thought that, if I could enter the space, I had access to it. I just had to be bold. I had to stride in like I belonged. But that’s not how it works. All the structures are held up by the same oppressive systems, so it doesn’t matter if I’m there, unless it’s for a demolition job.
A woman alone in public is a woman navigating men/strangers and patriarchy. It is so second nature to my experiences in the world that I forget that I am doing it all day long. Sort of like how all day long I am benefitting from privilege.
When the last song is finished I grab my things and head to the bathroom to take mirror selfies. I come out to Wobbles as he stands from his seat. I walk up confidently to say, “Thank you so much for the offer, but I have a policy that I buy my own drinks.” I own every syllable.
“Well that sounds like a good policy,” he says loudly and enthusiastically, because he is drunk and probably not a terrible person. We start to walk toward the exit, exchange names, shake hands, and say, “Nice to meet you, have a good night.”
I turn to walk to the door. He falls down two steps.
I do not move to help him. He caught himself, and I don’t want to bother. Also, I don’t want to embarrass him. Wobbles was flirting with me, and he never had a chance. Whether I like it or not, I protect the patriarch. I can also turn my back and let him fall.