Saturday, January 30, 2010

Language and substance

Once, Kelvline and I ran into this guy who lived in my neighborhood, Edwards, who always walked or biked around late at night looking kind of homeless but well-dressed and after a while I realized he probably lived in subsidized housing and asked for spare change to supplement his SSI. Sometimes he looked like he was buying or selling drugs too, or just connecting people; I could tell he liked paying attention to everything that was going on. He often said to me: you’ve got style. He’s stopped saying that now, for the most part. Instead he says: how long have I known you? I say: I don’t know -- nine years? He says: and I’ve never attacked you, right -- not even once? I say: does that mean you’re going to attack me now?

But anyway, when Edwards spotted me and Kelvline together one night, not the first time but the first time he stopped to say something, he said to Kelvline: where did you learn to dress like that? Kelvline was angry; she assumed this was another black guy giving her shade for not looking black enough. Kelvline said: I’ve always dressed like this, I grew up that way. But that wasn’t true -- when I met Kelvline, she wore more or less masculinity casual with hints of art school messiness like a pair of jeans held together with 50 safety pins, and eventually it just became those jeans and some other clothes she never washed because then she was aiming for a scruffy kind of realness, but certainly not the clashing colorful polyester ensemble she was working on the night we ran into Edwards.

This was a complicated dynamic in my relationship with Kelvline. She had such a huge personality, but at the same time she imitated the people she respected. The word she used was emulate -- emulation involves imitation but also appreciation, right? Not just copying but comprehension. Our relationship came apart when Kelvline told me she was worried I was compromising my integrity for deciding to visit my father before he died. Eleven years before, I’d told my father I would never speak to him again unless he acknowledged that he sexually abused me, and he hadn’t acknowledged anything. My decision to visit him anyway challenged Kelvline’s opinion of me, and that was more important than me.

This was after I’d taken the train cross-country and I was drained and disoriented, hours away from visiting my father in the house where I grew up with all that violence. Kelvline decided this was also the perfect time to challenge me over an interview I did about Gay Shame with the Wall Street Journal. While I was in on the train, the predictably unsympathetic article landed on the front page, with my legal name as attribution instead of Mary Hedgefunds, the name I gave the interviewer. Kelvline told me she didn’t believe my account of the interview, she thought I was trying to use the Wall Street Journal for my own advantage. This stunned me: Kelvline didn’t trust media at all, any media, even the tiniest of independent outlets. And yet she felt it was necessary, crucial even, to confront me about an interview with the publication owned by the stock exchange, just as I was about to visit my father on his deathbed. That was her way of showing support. It felt like she was using the language of accountability without the substance, and I wondered if she actually knew what accountability meant.


kayti said...

Her timing was perfect. Just perfect.

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

I know, right?

Thanks for the understanding!