drinking red wine in the bath with a Burlesque Dancer
His thumb caught on the page. Close enough to share notepad scribbles, proudly showing new poems and asking opinions now we’d removed anything but friendship from it. I brushed it off, gave my expected affirmation but caught my finger smudging at my lip, wiping away the purple residue of wine I didn’t drink, skin hot from a bath we never took. He closed the book and we went to the pub to meet friends, threw it on the bed, and kept some clone of me there.
“Cursing myself for not existing as the fantasy of me that someone else built.”
Under beer garden red heat lamps on odd Fridays, months from the incident, I feel like I catch something behind his eyes, remembering this other version of me. I miss conversations in analysis of perspective, the imagined me peering out, playing with the vision like an optician switching lenses. One? Or two? Which? One of me? Am I here? Bundled under a coat, the imagined me seems to strip me naked, recalling all the photos of performances and leaving me wondering how many people’s brains pull up an imagine of me undressed when they hear my name in conversation. 3 drinks in and I can blink it away, find power in it as I walk half-drunk to the toilet, striding with confidence in heels. I’m happy then to step into her shoes.
I can’t help but hope I look good in his head, feeling in competition with myself. I imagine I exist there with perma-red lips and hair longer and smoother than mine. I imagine my accent is now French and skin suddenly tanned as I sit opposite him in a jumper and feel inferior cursing myself for not existing as the fantasy of me that someone else built.
When that thought finds its way back into my brain Sunday, I get angry over it. In sober daylight across roast dinner tables, the stripped-down soaked version of me mocks every secret shared, all the vulnerabilities that get spilled in friendships that are supposed to be left out to drip like beer down bench cracks. Instead, he lets it separate then dips a pen in the slick oil of the sexy side and wipes away the clear side of substance-less opinion, profession, existence outside of a bath, a bath we never took.
Because months on and regardless of anything done since, I know without looking that there will be nothing new written about me. The me that danced with him at a gig, the me makeup-less dropping homemade cake off when he was ill, the me whose work he complimented, will find no place in his literary imagination and I know that in the way that all women know that while they remain clothed they won’t be a character in the male brain’s dramatisations.
But when I exist as both the burlesque dance and the person, my existence in minds fight between the two. I imagine I’ve split down the middle, stood in living rooms talking about the day-to-day while the fantasy me rests in bedrooms, trapped in notepads like a little page cage for a person no level of friendship will pry from imaginations, always the more memorable.
“I exist in minds as a burlesque dancer, a hobby eclipsing my identity in the way a woman’s sexuality seems to always bulldoze everything else”
And on, date twos or threes, the boy I introduce as a writer will graze over the sentence; ‘I was talking to my flatmate about you, like about how you do burlesque, she thinks it’s really cool’. He tells me his mates laughed at a joke I told last time, and I immediately know I now exist in his living room, caught up in a forever performance of slipping bra straps and sexuality. No matter how long I sit and sip my pint, discussing the ins and outs of the gothic genre and the essay I had published, I’ll never stop dancing, my imagined painted nails flicking away what I am for what they want me to be.
I can’t help but think about all the labels I’ve given men that they didn’t deserve. To my friends I introduce men with complimentary suffixes of their dreams, they are musicians and writers and actors and filmmakers, no matter where they spend their 9-5 or what they currently do. I paint them with their passions with a level of credibility they don’t deserve, sat in offices and still getting the joy of brushing all that aside for the romantic identity of their choosing. But 3 months from my last performance, I exist in minds as a burlesque dancer, a hobby eclipsing my identity in the way a woman’s sexuality seems to always bulldoze everything else. My daily life as a writer and all other achievements are hushed as the lights of their imagination go down and the fantasy of me takes centre stage and moves in a way they’ve never seen, having never actually seen me perform.
Wondering what it might take to get my imagined self to stop moving in their minds, I tried to cut off the limb. I stopped posting on my performer account, stopped actively looking for gigs, took any sign of it out of any dating profiles, and disconnected my Instagram. I tried desperately to get better at self-introducing as a writer, but still the man I sat opposite never asked me about that as he dives into his interest in my hobbies.
“It’s a conflict of self-presentation and ownership as by owning my image and sexuality when I perform, that seems to have given everyone the go-ahead to own her too.”
But in not talking about her, something about imagining the other me sink down into the water and drown out makes me equally as sad, and I’m yet to put a finger on which is the worst thing the patriarchy has made me feel: the pressure to hide my hobbies and give into the fear of how presenting as sexual might taint my public existence, or the protection I give to the sexualised version of me that exists in the imagination of men.
It’s an age-old story when you boil it down; the trials of a woman trying to be more than one thing, the simplicity with which sexuality clouds all else in a society that both demonises and worships skin. It’s a conflict of self-presentation and ownership as by owning my image and sexuality when I perform, that seems to have given everyone the go-ahead to own her too. I read something recently about the distinction between sexual and sexualised, a split that made my imaginary self in the bath shift with discomfort in my brain as I read easy statements about the beauty in personal sexuality and how sinister it can be when the world gathers up your proud sexuality and runs off with it, locks it up as something theirs, never to be undone or retrieved no matter how much I try to distance myself from it.
And I have no answers on a way to balance it. Some days I want to scream, look people dead in the eye and call out their swayed interest in my hobbies that include nudity versus those that don’t. I want to ask them why they introduce me as a burlesque dancer, assigning me a new job and offering this sexual version of me out to their friends as if it’s theirs to give. I want to grab the imagined version of me, throw her wine glass at the wall and drown her, cut all the lights on the performance because I never choreographed it. But then I know I’d miss her, be desperately looking for her when the next casting call comes or on random nights out when I want to slip into my ego.
I want to be both in minds of others as I am in life. I’m a writer and a burlesque dancer, and a daughter, sister, friend etc, I’m 3D and layered, but when burlesque comes first it all seems to get jammed, printing me out and sticking me in people’s minds as 2D, sexual and nothing more. And I’m tired of people’s limited view of me making me resent a corner of my being.
I wish I could meet all the versions of me that are trapped in the minds of men I’ve met a handful of times. I wish my male friends brought her to the pub, let me sit opposite an idea of me and analyse all the parts added and missing before grabbing her hand and running off, bringing her back home to my mine where she can do it all, put on clothes and still exist and be interesting. I want to steal them all back, keep all their beauty and power for myself so I might feel less insecure looking into the eyes of others, no longer catching on the corner some 2D me, an objectified mutant of my own empowerment. I want the only home for any version of me, to be me, take her out of the cold imagined bath of the male mind and into my own, with bubbles and lavender to come and go as she pleases.
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