August 13, 2015
by Carley Moore
A couple of weeks ago, after I spent the night with a man who is no good for me, I went to the 10:50 a.m. showing of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, directed by Ana Lily Amirpour. The film is in Farsi, set in a mythical Iranian town called “Bad City,” and is being touted as the first Iranian vampire Western. Into the theater, I brought cheese grits with avocado and chicken meatballs, a brownie frosted with peanut butter, and tea with milk and sugar, purchased from a place I love in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn called Scratch Bread, on the corner of The-Man-Who-is-No-Good-For-Me’s street.
I was instantly glamoured. Shot in black and white, and containing a love story between a chador-clad vampire woman and a James-Dean-esque son of a junkie, this film is full of sex workers, pimps, and lost souls who wander Bad City’s empty, eerily suburban streets. Its star, played by the mesmerizing Sheila Vand and known only as “The Girl,” lives in her own subterranean apartment, where she dances to Radio Tehran, Kiosk, and Farah in front of a wall of Madonna and Michael Jackson posters, ticket stubs, and postcards of ruins. Ringing her eyes with black eyeliner, she fastens her chador over jeans and a black and white striped fisherman’s shirt, and skateboards the empty streets looking for her next victim.
In my favorite scene, she follows a brutal, drug-dealing pimp home, and looks on silently as he snorts lines of coke and gyrates to a techno beat. The backdrop of his apartment is pure Scarface—glass coffee table, white leather sofa, and mounted trophy heads on the wall. At this point in the film we worry for her because we don’t yet know what she is. Will this be the brutal rape of a young woman, followed by her initiation into a life of prostitution? Or does she perhaps want him? Will she speak? Her face is blank, pale, and emotionless, and so the answer to any of these questions is hard to tell.
Eventually, The Girl takes his finger into her mouth and sucks on it; her fangs sprout, and she bites it off. As he whimpers for mercy, she pins him down and kills him. The Girl is not our first feminist vampire, but she might be our first Iranian one. She hunts only men and boys, and terrifies a little boy in a frayed suit coat—who is straight out of Italian neorealism—with the warning, “Be a good boy.” She swoops in to protect sex workers, and in the shadowy world of Bad City her chador is more cape than covering, serving as a necessity but also a prop.
As I sat in the dark and ate my grits, I thought about women who eat men, the connection between sex and eating, and the way I perhaps use food to compensate for love. I remembered that it was watching True Blood at the end of my marriage that made me realize there was something missing in my life—passion and fucking, along with sex that felt like it was consuming me or I was consuming it. One of the reasons I returned to the No-Good-Man’s house is that he was exceptionally good at eating me out. As the credits rolled, I decided the moment that the vampire begins to kiss and bite its victim’s neck is remarkably like the moment when a baby latches onto its mother’s breast. Lips to flesh. The fear of being bitten. Suck. Suck.
When we were still married, my then-husband and I made an appointment with a person we referred to as the “milk witch.” We’d moved to a new neighborhood in Brooklyn, Ditmas Park, that contains an odd stretch of Victorian houses and run-down buildings between the south end of Prospect Park and Midwood. I felt a clash of cultures there—working-class people of colour, mostly renters, pushed up against the wealthier white families in the Victorian houses. We were living in one of those run-down buildings and, as usual, I felt I had more in common with the working-class Caribbean women on their way to jobs in hospitals and schools than the rich people in their houses. I’m not sure what those Caribbean women thought of me. Maybe they didn’t at all. It was a busy, loud neighborhood on the main drag, full of people who had a lot of shit to get done.
The milk witch was living in one of Victorian houses. She’d been highly recommended by the one of the new moms I knew, who told me that it was typical for lactation consultants to charge $150 an hour. We figured we could afford one session.
At the hospital I had winced in pain as my daughter tried to latch. It was all bite, no suck. A couple of my friends said the pain would go away, but it didn’t. I kept trying. I pumped. We gave her bottles of my breast milk. The nurses in the hospital were too busy to help. Someone came by and lectured me about the importance of breastfeeding and gave me a pamphlet.
The milk witch was kind. I admired her house for its messy family sprawl, her kids in the living room doing their homework—older and alive in a way that I couldn’t imagine my baby would ever be. She had me try to feed my daughter and then she weighed her to see if she’d gotten any milk. A little, but not enough.
“Her mouth isn’t fully able to latch yet,” she said, “so you have to train her. You can’t give her the bottle. You’ll have to wake up every two hours to feed her. She can do it and so can you.” She smiled encouragingly. She told me to buy nipple shields, to come back in a week, and to call her if I had questions.
I woke up every two hours for a week. We tried hard, my daughter and me, her crying red face against my pale, engorged breast. I felt eaten up by what was I trying to do, and yet I got no nourishment from it, and neither did she. Soon I was desperate for uninterrupted sleep, and hysterical and sobbing during the day. The pump felt like a failure, but I used it anyway. My husband gave her bottles so that I could sleep for four hours in a row instead of two. He liked this time they had together in the night, and also wanted me to rest.
I knew of other new mothers who were feeding their babies every two hours. They looked tired, but determined. They were not crying in the street. They were breastfeeding in the park and in restaurants under little blankets called “Hooter Hiders.” They told me to keep trying and that it would get easier. My husband and my best friend said it was fine if I quit. My mother said it didn’t matter as long as my daughter had enough to eat, but it was 2008 and at the height of the “breast-is-best” movement and the media-manufactured “Mommy Wars.” Once, a woman I didn’t know stopped me on the street to ask me if I was breastfeeding. I stammered out the truth, as if I was on trial, and she seemed smugly pleased about my suffering. I felt ashamed when I bought organic formula, and a failure when I fed my baby from a bottle. There was lot of talk in the air. I remember phrases like, “It’s not really a choice for me,” and, “If you look at the research, how could you not?
I pumped for five months and supplemented with formula. My daughter never learned how to latch. One day, while I balefully hooked myself up to the pump, my best friend juggled my daughter on her hip and said, “I can’t watch it anymore. It’s medieval. Please stop.”
And so I did.
Like many first-time parents, I wasn’t prepared for how all-consuming having a baby would be. I felt eaten alive in those early months. Bitten. Fed upon. Tethered to a tiny mouth and then a machine that was all suck, suck, suck.
Recently, my therapist, who I have been seeing for about four years, asked me to articulate what I wanted in a partner. It’s not that this question is new to me, but there was something about it that filled me with a seething rage that made my throat constrict until I managed to eek-shout, “Don’t fucking ask me that question!”
I still struggle with my so-called “transference.” I know it’s part of the therapeutic relationship, but I have at times thought I was in love with him, and approached our sessions with all of the butterflies and nausea that one associates with third and fourth dates. Lately, I mostly dislike him, which moves him more from boyfriend to father in my subconscious, and is probably an important part of our evolving relationship. When he told me about a year ago that he was getting married, I burst into hot, jealous tears, and then said, not entirely without meaning it, “congratulations.” I have joked with him that these kinds of moments would do well in an imaginary book I call The New Yorker Book of Therapy Cartoons. It’s only available during NPR pledge drives and on the sale table at select about-to-fold independent bookstores.
I get, in some stupid, smart-woman way, that in therapy I am re-learning a relationship that was never quite right for me, such as the one I had with my parents; sometimes I am an adult in that room and sometimes I am a little girl. Perhaps I am supposed to learn to voice my desires so that I can believe they are achievable. I don’t know. Therapy is confusing.
The truth is, I have actually realized that I have a hard time saying what I want because most of the time I don’t believe it is possible, at least in this country, and certainly in my lifetime. But I am challenging myself to say these desires out loud, to protest for them, and to ask for them.
I want affordable housing in okay neighborhoods for lower and middle-income people in cities. I want universities to stop spending all of their money on administrators, new buildings, and tenured faculty, and instead pay adjuncts and contract faculty like myself a living wage— because at places like NYU, where I teach, and innumerable universities across the country, we now teach well over half of the courses offered to students. I want to stop living in a police state where the shooting of people of colour is a daily occurrence and there is rarely justice for the murdered and their families. I want to remember that to protest is my right, and I want to walk the streets without being harassed by the police—who seem to exist only to protect the rich and their property from the nuisance of protesters. I want sex-positive education for all children so that they learn how to speak their desire and how to know that consent can be hot and not just legal hand-wringing. I want to smash rape culture so that my daughter can dress however she likes and express her sexuality in whatever way she feels is best for her. I want my students to graduate from college debt-free, politically-empowered, and with a notion of what it means to be a producer and not just a consumer. I want to question ideology in myself and in the systems around me every day. I want essentialist ideas about gender to die, while holding on to the right to express all of my girlish ways without anyone questioning me. I want therapy for everyone if they want it, and free, socialized daycare.
Sometimes I want a boyfriend or a partner. Sometimes I fantasize about moving in with this imaginary partner. Sometimes he is so handy and industrious that he builds us a cabin in the woods and we live there. Sometimes I buy my own cabin. Sometimes she’s a person who likes to dream with me, too. Other times, I sell a novel for half a million dollars and I have enough money to make a down payment on an apartment near Coney Island. Other times, I move to the desert with a bunch of other women friends when we’re all in our late fifties, after all of our children have gone to college. But mostly my fantasies involve not living my life in fear, having autonomy, and eventually finding my own permanent place to live.
But I can’t say any of this, then, to my therapist in that session. I don’t have the language at that moment. It takes many more weeks to write this essay, in which I locate those desires.
In the dark. A different man. Let’s call him The-Man-Who-is-Maybe-Good-For-Me. He is a dad. He is something called an Underground Plant Engineer. He looks at maps all day and fixes the cables, tunnels, and wires that bring us the internet. He says this is boring, but he’s lying. He describes particles of light. Flashes. What’s underneath the city and its buildings? There are problems all day. Urgency. We are having a long conversation over three dates. I like him so much that I sing him a song from my childhood about going fishing in a “crawdad hole.” I have a terrible singing voice, but he likes it anyway. We laugh about my ridiculous rural childhood. We are on my bed. We are kissing. He takes off my pants. He makes jokes about how inappropriate he is, and then he puts his mouth on my pussy and licks and sucks. He uses his finger. He has a beard. Full lips. Bristling. Bracing. I come fast and hard. He keeps his clothes on.
The next day, my friend and I text about a new man in her life, one who is opening her up, helping her see that she has needs of her own and is not wholly independent. She texts me, “But then once you allow yourself to feel them [these needs], where do they end? What if they swallow you whole?”
Love eats us alive: it consumes us and spits us back out again. We eat our loved ones. We lick and suck because it feels good—but aren’t we also playing at devouring them? Sex consumes us sometimes, makes us into one moving being. The vampire mimics the kiss so that she can consume. The baby sucks for nourishment. The lover eats us out to open us up.
On another occasion, I leave the apartment of The-Man-Who-is-No-Good-For-Me at 5:00 a.m. I take a car because it is raining and I’ve been up since 3:00 a.m., and even though I’m certain I don’t have enough money to make it to the end of the month, I don’t care. Before I leave, I take the package of Ho Hos we bought the night before at the deli and put them in my bag, and I write him a note: “Dear Wolf. Insomnia made me miss my bed, so I took a car home. All safe. Hope I didn’t wake you. Will text later. Your Red.”
This is a game we play. Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf. We played it more when we were in a monogamous relationship. It was a narrative we liked because it was simple. He was a large bearded wolf in the forest. I was a lost red-haired girl. Sometimes there was a woodsman who was looking for me. Sometimes I was innocent, and sometimes I tempted him. He found me. He bit me. He took me. A fairy tale. A porn fantasy. It worked surprisingly well.
In the car ride home, I stare out the back seat window at the Brooklyn lights—streetlights, streetlamps, brake lights, deli signs, and bar neon. The city is a string of lights that glamours me. I’m here for the lights, I want to say, because it’s one of the few things left in the city that still dazzles me.
My insomnia upsets me. Not because I don’t know its contours, but because I’ve been on Lexapro for the last month and for the first time in almost five years, I consistently sleep through the night. I had decided I was no longer an insomniac, and yet I wake up thinking about The-Man-Who-is-Maybe-Good-For-Me, who I am seeing the following night. I am missing him, which bothers me because I just met him. He sent me his picture before I fell asleep next to The-Man-Who-is-No-Good-For-Me.
I wake up thinking about a poem I will write, the student essays I must comment on, my friend’s new YA manuscript I am reading, and whether or not the H&M coupon on my counter has expired. I wonder if it is possible for me to love two men at the same time. I think of my friends in open relationships and the Dear Sugar podcast featuring my freshman year roommate and fellow poet, mom, and friend, Arielle Greenberg, who lives with both her husband and her boyfriend. I am thinking she is brave and I am confused. I worry I don’t have enough time and that these men are neither good nor bad, they are just these interesting men I know, and that it is simply easier to cast them in role of the low-down and no-good and the promising and maybe-better because I don’t know what I want. I wake up, like I used to wake up. Panicked. Manic. The usual.
When I get home, I open the computer. I boil water for instant coffee and I arrange two of the three Ho Hos on a plate. I add half an avocado from the refrigerator in an attempt to make it a healthier breakfast. I write and I eat the first two Ho Hos. They are sweeter than I remember, and then I eat the third one too.
In one of my favourite scenes from the movie Wild, based on the best-selling memoir by Cheryl Strayed, Reese Witherspoon, who plays the young Strayed, eats her mother’s ashes after she has died from cancer.
Gray smudge on pink lips. The daughter on the ground. Hungry. Grieving. A primal ingesting, a way to eat the mother and to bring her back into a living body.
When an interviewer asked Strayed if she’d really done this, she said, “Yes. My family and I had spread my mother’s ashes in this plot of land that I grew up on in northern Minnesota, and there was just this little bit left, and I could not let go of my mother in the material world. I couldn’t do it, so I did what came naturally to me, and so many people have written to me to say, ‘I did that too.'”
The womb. The breast. The mother’s body. Ingest. Ingest.
Lately, my daughter has taken to resting her hand on my breast and saying, “I’m going to touch your boob for a little while.” I wonder if this is an unconscious desire on her part to reclaim the breast. Or maybe breasts just feel nice. My ex told me she’s been doing it to him too, usually while they’re watching cartoons together. More tether. More touch. I come from you, and though we are separate now, I will claim you even from a distance.
When I first started seeing my therapist, I longed for him to hug me. It felt like a primal ache, something prehistoric in my bones. Maybe it was the baby I once was and her desperate desire to be picked up and held for as long as she wanted. I’m told I was a demanding baby. I had colic and a hernia, all in my first year. According to my mother, I could not be held enough. I couldn’t put you down and you didn’t want anyone but me.
In her beautiful graphic memoir, Are You My Mother?, Alison Bechdel writes about the moment her therapist, Jocelyn, hugged her. The hug happens after Bechdel cries “quite freely for the first time” in Jocelyn’s presence. Years later, Bechdel finds herself wanting another hug. This time, Jocelyn will not hug her and Bechdel, who is also writing about the psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, realizes, “The analyst also provides a holding environment for the patient…but this means the analyst’s attention, the physical room, the couch.” In the following exchange, Bechdel and Jocelyn discuss the hug and the not-hug and all that had changed since then:
B: That moment patched up a hole.
J: Hmm. Based on what I’m learning now in my psychoanalytic training, saying that to you would be against the rules. But you know what? I’d do it again. There was enough in you that wanted a positive mother figure. You were able to take in my good feelings about you. But the feeling that you were bad was still a part of you, so you got other people to confirm it.
Love, whether it’s romantic or familial, is about the hug, and the therapist’s job is to hold you so that you feel hugged enough.
Skin against skin. Contact. Flesh. I see you because I hold you. I keep holding you until I let you go.
When I’m angry with my therapist, I tell him our relationship doesn’t matter because it doesn’t exist outside of the room where we meet. “No,” he insists, “We’re here together and this is real.”
One of my high school best friends just gave birth to twin girls. She is already a mother of two, so this makes four kids in all, and though we have not seen each other since our early twenties, I keep track of her loosely on Facebook. She’s a breastfeeding activist and home schools her kids, and I’m both overwhelmed by her life and excited by all that she manages. She’s breastfeeding the twins and according to my Facebook feed it’s going well (breastfeeding twins while reading a Kindle!), although she did post that she wishes men could lactate too, so her husband could take over.
I dreamed recently that I went to visit her in the upstate New York town where she lives. I walked into her house, took off my shirt and bra, sat down in her nursing chair, put a twin on each breast, and fed them. My friend looked on for a minute and then padded off to take a shower. I felt some surprise that I still had milk, but I did. The babies latched and sucked and there was no pain.
I’m sure there are less obvious ways to read this dream, but for me it was a reunion on many levels. I was initially to give birth to twins, but I lost one in the fifth month of my pregnancy, and so in this dream I held the twin I never met and I fed them both in the way I thought I might in those first early months of my pregnancy.
I was also reunited with an old friend. In the dream, she was very much the girl I remember, with beautiful red hair and small, perfect feet. But a mother of four now! Like all high school friendships, ours was intense and romantic. I felt she was trapped in her home, and so I dreamed of rescuing her, but I see now that it was probably me that longed to escape my own breaking home.
Lastly, I reunited with the mother inside of me who wanted to do everything right, and who still thought that was possible. The mother is a fantasy mother, and I suspect she, or the idea of her, lives in all of us. She’s the mother we once had or the mother we never got. She’s perfect and ready because nature made her that way. She doesn’t need a lactation consultant or a bunch of books, and certainly not Lexapro. She’s good to go, right out of the gate.
Perhaps my dream was a sort of goodbye to this fantasy mother. I’d like to think it could be that easy.
I asked The-Man-Who-is-No-Good-For-Me to read this essay because I felt stuck. He says that there are two essays here: one about breastfeeding and eating, and one about dating and my therapist. I sat with this for a week and decided he was wrong, and so I persist now in tying these threads together, these pieces and parts. I feel it’s the essayist’s job to put seemingly contradictory evidence in conversation. Or perhaps I am the feminist who delights in making you think about fucking, eating, and breastfeeding all in one place.
Women’s bodies, more so than men’s, are dual landscapes—they can be for nourishment and for sex. The breast is the site for that overlap. Babies suck it, but so do lovers. We all need to eat.
In an essay I wrote a year ago about turning 42, I called OkCupid the “man store,” but I realize that it’s more complicated than that. It’s like a menu with pictures and elaborate descriptions for food that will most likely never arrive, because as a guy I was recently dating—who I did not meet on OkCupid—said, “OkCupid makes everyone crazy.” Maybe he was right.
Psychologists who study choice have determined that, contrary to what we’ve been led to believe by marketing departments, too many choices actually exhaust us and leave us feeling unfulfilled.
Sometimes OkCupid feels like a vista of possibility, but mostly, lately, it strikes me as a huge time suck. The-Man-Who-is-No-Good-For-Me says it’s best to treat it like a weird video game, and dating as an anthropological adventure. He’s always been more positive than me.
Scrolling through pictures of men and sometimes women reminds me of why I periodically take Facebook off of my phone. I want to avoid the late night, boredom-induced nothingness that feels like the nadir of late capitalism. All screen. All voyeur. No face. No contact.
And still sometimes I go on dates: first dates that don’t involve food, but just drinks, because the date is the food, the person you may or may not want to taste, to see again, to get to know better.
The one who was a DJ and a concert promoter and unemployed and angry.
The one who was a bartender in Red Hook with a beard and a bench press in his room.
The one with three kids who didn’t really have time to date.
The one from before.
The one from Rome who writes film reviews for an Italian website and has Dennis Rodman’s jersey number tattooed on his forearm.
The one who protests rent hikes and anti-rent-stabilization initiatives.
The one who likes pottery and utopian communes.
The one Who-is-No-Good-For-Me. The Wolf.
The one Who-is-Maybe-Good-For-Me.
The one who says he lives in New York but really lives in Baltimore.
The one who broke his ankle and is still living with his ex.
I’d like to think that in fifty years we (or our children) will look back and laugh at the folly of sites like Facebook and OkCupid. Or maybe we’ll have fully moved into what Maureen O’Connor in her New York Magazine article calls “The Voltron Theory of Casual Dating,’ which is based on the 1980s cartoon, Voltron: Defender of the Universe, in which several smaller robots join together to form one super robot. O’Connor writes:
In the absence of one good partner, an actively dating single person will naturally construct a corpus of complementary partners who, if assembled into one giant Voltron partner, would be his or her ideal boyfriend or girlfriend. (Much like the Wu-Tang Clan.) Occasionally, the Voltron becomes so attractive that it eclipses the appeal of any one person. This shift marks either the downfall of dating, or the beautiful escape from infuriating gender roles and frustrating pressures to nail down a spouse.
I see myself sliding towards the Voltron theory, and it’s okay, fun, and even good at times. But I wonder if unlimited choice is making me unable to commit—or am I just moving away from the goal-oriented model of dating? Am I eating all of the cake? What if I just love a lot of cake?
Sometimes my ex and I get together with our kid to have family time. We worry that she misses the two-parent experience now that she travels back and forth between us. On a recent Sunday morning, I took the train to the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn where he just moved into. They were deep into a game called “Bakery,” which I quickly joined. They had drawn cookies, cakes, baguettes, cupcakes, candy, and croissants and arranged them on a chair. My ex and I were put to work either as customers or sous-chefs, while our daughter ran the bakery she’d named Zally’s. I was especially adept at playing customer—voicing some faux-anxiety about guests arriving soon and having nothing to feed them, buying up all of the baked goods with pretend money, and then noisily gobbling what I’d bought just outside of the store.
It turns out that fake baked goods give me just as much pleasure as real ones and parents who binge on fake food are funny. Six-year-olds, not surprisingly, like to be in charge of the food, and I am a glutton even when I play.
I re-watched A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night once it started streaming on Netflix, and, though I still loved its black and white beauty and startling imagery, I noticed the second time around that it’s essentially a moral story. The bad men are ultimately punished, and the woman vampire drives off into the darkness with the one good man in the movie: Arash, the son of a junkie. I came to realize that most stories about terrifying, out of control, or grieving women are made safe in the end by the promise of a monogamous relationship. The man heals the woman and makes her safe again. Cheryl Strayed’s journey in Wild is comforting because, at the end of her long walk alone on the Pacific Crest Trail, standing on Bridge of the Gods outside of Portland, she forecasts her future: a husband and two children. Her journey alone is coming to an end! She won’t die a withered, old, grouchy hag! Though I love this book, I’m more interested lately in stories about women that do not wrap up neatly, do not end in marriage, and do not make the woman safe because she is coupled.
On some nights I am a woman who walks home alone. Not a girl, though I see myself as girlish still—in my ankle boots, the way I laugh and blush around certain tall men, and the games I play with my daughter.
I recognize that I had to let that girl go. She had ideas about marriage and men, breastfeeding and babies, ideas that I now know were fantasies.
I know the walk home, and yet I never quite know where I’m going.
It’s a second date, this time with a father of two teenage boys. We smoke a cigarette through the screen of my window and drink whiskey. I attempt to do a four-card Tarot reading for him, but I’m still learning the Tarot, and I have to use my friend and poet, Hoa Nguyen’s, handouts. He draws the Queen of Cups for his present card. In my mythic deck she is Helen of Troy, a woman whose beauty was so great she started the Trojan War. I read out loud to him from Hoa’s notes: “Deep love, untapped feeling, deep self-knowledge, and super sexy!”
He takes off my clothes on the narrow couch. His lips pressed on top of mine. Against my neck and then breasts.
I want in this moment to be eaten up. Devoured.
Later, I’ll want to do the eating. I won’t know the table or the restaurant. I don’t even think I’ll know how to get there, but I hope I’ll know when I’m full.
Carley Moore is a poet, essayist, and novelist who lives in New York. Find more of her work at www.carleymoorewrites.com or follow her on Twitter @carleymoore2
Image: Samuel Ferri
Samuel Ferri is a cartoonist and a practicing human living in Brooklyn, New York.