REAL FAKE ID
It’s July 2021, and I’m jumping up and down to The Strokes’ Last Nite at the second of the three weddings I’ll attend this month, when some woman grabs my trousers. ‘Oh my God, I love them. very Saved By The Bell vibes. Where did you get them?’
She is blonde hair, beige satin, and almost certainly a clone of the blonde-and-beige woman who asked me this at the first wedding.
‘Instagram,’ I say. ‘It’s as if the algorithm knows that though my body may be thirty-three, my soul is a toddler.’
Last Nite gives way to The Killers’ Mr Brightside. My friends are on the dance floor, jumping up and down as if they’re back in Sixth Form, ecstatic that their fake IDs got them into some leopard-walled, 80p-a-shot, club.
‘I could never wear something like that, but you,’ she says, ‘you can get away with it.’
Before I can reassure her, she’s gone, and — coming out of my cage and I’ve been doing just fine / Gotta gotta be down because I want it all — I’m jumping up and down to a song I have always hated. I am getting away with something, however; beige-blonde knows it, my gut knows it, I know it. The question is: what?
THE BEIGE YEARS
I went to a lot of weddings in my twenties, too. They were mostly my Jewish cousins’ and my then-boyfriend’s Christian friends’. I wore loose black dresses, eyeliner that I’d usually blinked away by the end of the service, shoes that were neither hiking books nor trainers: my idea of “making an effort.” But when faced with the other women’s professionally ironed hair, clothes and faces, I was certain they’d waggle their clutch bags at me and yell, ‘fake.’ In the toilet, they’d whisper about who’d lost or gained weight, whose dress looked good, whose bad. Who hadn’t even bothered to buy a new dress! Once, an older female relative looked at me in a similar way to which the beige-blonde woman would later look at me, and said: ‘you look hungry.’ I was shocked; yes, I’d had a few anorexic-ish phases, but they were firmly in the past. I was, at that time, nudging the bottom of what the (incredibly flawed) BMI calculator said was a healthy weight range. ‘I’m actually stuffed — those canapés!’ I hoped my words would stop me feeling the feeling, that had never really gone away, that being hungry was some kind of heinous mistake.
At many of these weddings, someone would ask when D and I were going to marry. When this happened on a table of beige people eating beige food, most of whom I’d only just met, and I said that we didn’t want to, there was a silence. Then someone asked how long we’d been together. Staring at my flabby cheese lasagne, I said. A bit more silence, and then came the objections, the disbelief.
‘You can’t be serious.’
‘You’ve been together way longer than us and we’re engaged! Don’t you want all this?’
I was about to point out that it wasn’t as if I’d suggested the earth was flat, when the fiancee of one of my boyfriend’s friends dug her nails into her napkin and said: ‘but don’t you want all this?’
At that particular wedding, no woman spoke aloud. The Father of the Bride’s cv-like speech — ‘and then she got Grade 4 Clarinet’ — would’ve been tragic-comic were it not so, well, beige.
‘No,’ I said, ‘I don’t.’
IT STARTED OUT WITH A KISS, HOW DID IT END UP LIKE THIS?
In How to Do Things With Words, J. L. Austin uses the wedding vow as an example of performative language, that is to say, language that is not just a saying but a doing. If you say, ‘I make you my lawful wedded wife,’ you make it so. Over the course of his now canonical lecture series, he details all the ways a performative speech act can fail, or, as he puts it, become ‘unhappy.’ In The Scandal of the Speaking Body (2003), Shoshanna Felman proposes that the performative speech act is always a form of seduction. It is the scandal of love, of giving what you don’t have, of making Donjuanian promises: ‘the speech act “says” more than it can ever intend or know’ (113, 2003). The act projects itself into infinity, whereas the body which projects it, is limited by time and space. It is, in other words, set up to fail.
I think about this right through the third wedding ceremony, which is not religious. The bride’s mother’s speech begins with the words ‘I love them,’ and I think, also, about that night on my narrow undergrad bed when D and I first said we loved each other. We’d been joined at the hip in a slightly disgusting way for six or seven months. I want to be with you forever. I want to have kids with you. I love you. We were young, sweaty, bookish, earnest. Did we mean it? Yes, we meant it; our meaning sluices through my veins even in the the remembering. Though we did not, perhaps, know what our meaning meant.
That ‘forever’ motored the ‘I love yous’ that we exchanged after every tiff in the thirteen years that followed. At first, it glittered with the promise which blotted out the parts of me that didn’t fit with it, such as the way I tended to fantasise about women when we fucked, the extent and ease to which I got crushes on women, the occasional suspicion that I wasn’t a woman, not fully, not really, whatever that might mean — just grammatical cul de sacs, I thought. As our twenties inched towards our thirties, however, forever started to feel beige. I began to wonder what would’ve happened if I’d let myself be queer in that place that wasn’t all fantasy, aka, my real life. When we did, finally, split up, the closest I came to answering the question of why our relationship had lasted so long past its sell-by date was the long, slow afterlife of that blind teenage promise.
‘Oh, so moving.’
The speeches are over.
Many women are crying. I am not one of them — not crying, not a woman, not quite. I arrange my face such that no one will suspect I am thinking about J.L. Austin. No way will I contribute to any stereotype they might harbour as to single thirty-something afab queers being sad and bitter.
YOUR PHONE DOES NOT LOVE YOU BACK
The promise of love is the promise to straighten time into a line whose horizons say only: Everything is going to be OK. And: You’ll never be alone. Which is perhaps not so different from the promise of digital technology, particularly, the smartphone. One of the more flippant reasons I have for not having, or taking any steps towards being able to have, kids, is that it already takes me an inordinately long time to leave my flat. I check the weather app, the bus app, the restaurant booking, the menu, instagram posts about said restaurant, the news; I watch a video about how to make a vegan carbonara pasta I will never, ever make; I change my outfit three times. I don’t want to be too hot, nor do I want to be too cold. I don’t want to arrive carrying an unnecessarily heavy backpack (I always carry an unnecessarily heavy backpack) but nor do I want to be missing anything, especially not a book, headphones, a bottle of water, tissues, an umbrella, a charger, a second book … But of course, no App can know how things will go, by which I mean, they cannot know how you’ll feel about them. And though I know this, as no doubt, do you — a 7% chance of rain and I end up soaked; 97%, and I’m lugging my raincoat around a humid art gallery — I fall for its promise. Again, again, again and again.
In How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, Jenny Odell reminds us that nothing, in this productivity-obsessed moment, is harder to do than nothing. To counter this, suggests that we resist in place:
‘To resist in place is to make oneself into a shape that cannot so easily be appropriated by a capitalist value system. To do this means refusing the frame of reference in which value is determined by productivity, the strength of one's career, and individual entrepreneurship… It means recognising and celebrating a form of the self that changes over time, exceeds algorithmic description, and whose identity doesn't always stop at the boundary of the individual.’ (xxx, 2019)
I read Odell’s words for the first time in February 2020. It was a few months after the break-up, also the rejection of what will never (thank god) become my second novel. I read them on the top of steamy London bus. I wiped the window with my coat sleeve, looked out at some kids sucking strawberry laces, told myself that by doing this and not, say, checking my work email, or responding to a WhatsApp message, or booking a restaurant, I was ‘resisting in place’. A few seconds later, my stomach muscles began to tighten, and my heart began to beat too fast. A few seconds later, and I was scrolling Tinder. Three new matches, a message from one saying, ‘hi,’ from another asking about my job and what I liked to do in my spare time, nothing from the third. I felt the way I used to feel when I’d complete a level on a PC game as a kid: a sharp ‘ping,’ followed by a rush, followed by an inertia which made it impossible to even think about starting the next level, which would, I knew perfectly well, turn out to be much like the ‘old’ one.
Then the engine stopped. Someone was shouting. I shoved my phone in my pocket, pulled it out, shoved it back in; noticed that the kids were holding their school bags above their heads to protect them from the rain, which my phone had not predicted; pretended to read some more of the Odell whilst obsessively combing the moment at which I’d decided not to pack my umbrella in the hope that I could somehow change the outcome. Of course, I didn’t know that in a month, even this moment — me, on a scratchy bus seat, going places, with other people — would seem like a wild and unlikely adventure.
Although Odell doesn’t mention a relation to time, per se, her notion of ‘resisting in place’ implies a more open, flexible approach to it, much like the one proposed by Sara Ahmed in The Promise of Happiness (2011). What we need, Ahmed argues, is to stop seeing happiness as narrow, and often unreachable, set of goals — the straight wedding, the good job, the mortgage, the child, etc. — but as a process of being more open to chance: of ‘putting the hap back into happiness.’
These are the sorts of words with which I surround myself when I start to feel as if my life, simply because it has veered from the superhighway of heteronormative and professional success, is no life at all. Everyone else is getting second novels published, getting married, getting pregnant, whilst I… what am I doing? I am tunnelling into the vague spaces between fiction and theory, monogamy and polyamory, male and female, though tunnelling might not be the right word, because what it feels like is leaning into an awkwardness that has always been there, a companion in all those early noughties indie clubs. It started out with a kiss / How did it end up like this?
Sometimes it works. Sometimes, when I catch my reflection in a shop window and realise I’ve dressed like a toddler, again, I wonder whether time is just happening differently to me than to most afab people; it is spinning me around and now the two of us are facing each other at an angle from which I crawl back into those unexplored cul-de-sacs. I don’t just mean wearing silly clothes; I mean sitting with the feeling that my femaleness has always felt like a mistake that belonged, more properly, to someone else. I couldn’t get away with it. I mean sober sex parties. I mean sex, both sober and not, that untethers your body from its gender markers for a forever that might be gone by tomorrow but whose afterglow I can still feel, months, even years, later. I mean sex with people I love, people who have sex with and love other people as well as me. I mean L-word style sex maps. I mean the endless processing of my partner’s feelings about their partner’s feelings about his other partner that is part and parcel of polyamory. I mean not assuming that none of this means nothing because it only lasts a few months.
But if words changed people that easily, inspirational insta posts would cure depression. We’d read an article about the climate crisis and never buy anything from Amazon or supermarkets, never fly, never drive, ever again. We’d strike until the machines that set it all in motion stopped. If words did what they promised, the world would be perfect. But — plot twist! — it’s not. I’m not. You’re not. And sometimes I do feel a nothing that makes me cry, though always in times and places where I am not supposed to, like the middle of a crowded supermarket, a restaurant, or an office. Increasingly, however, I feel a nothing that makes me wonder whether I will ever cry, or feel anything, ever again.
WHAT A TIME TO BE NOT-DEAD
‘Writing,’ says Zadie Smith, in her essay about how the pandemic disrupted her attempts to optimise every moment of her day for maximum productivity, ‘is routinely described as ‘creative’ — this has never struck me as the correct word. Planting tulips is creative… Writing is control. The part of the university in which I teach should properly be called the Controlling Experience Department.’ Writing, she argues, is ‘all resistance’ to whatever confronts us: it is pouring the largely shapeless bewilderment’ of experience into ‘a mould of our own devising.’ Reading this, I felt hashtag seen; my occasional ‘successes’ mean that most people consider my writing a wholesome and productive activity when, in truth, it is more of an addiction. Or a neurosis. Yet I also felt — well you cannot feel hashtag shame because there is no hashtag for shame because shame is what makes us feel abjectly apart from the rest of humanity. I felt shame because writing, for me, is more a process of trying and failing and trying to accept that whatever moulds my words form have less to do with my intentions than with — well I don’t know what it is. You could call it the Big Other; lack of talent; failure, laziness, distraction. Sometimes I write in the hope of glimpsing it, of learning to live in my body in a richer and more nuanced way; other times, to escape it. I write to escape myself, my feelings, my body, life.
I also feel shame because it’s rare that an editor thinks my attempts to shape my experience are ‘good’ enough to publish; because even when they do, the rush of success makes me, much like a line of coke, or a Haribo, hunger for more. I do this via anorexia. I do it the most when something happens to remind me that life is a matter of what happens, not what I want to happen. It’s not that I want to die; it’s not even that I want to get thinner; it’s just that I want a little break from one thing and then another and then and then and then.
This anorexic middle, or non, space is much like Bartleby the scrivener’s ‘I’d prefer not to,’ in Melville’s classic short story. Odell, indeed, uses his refusal neither to perform, nor to outright refuse to perform, his clerkly duties — he’d simply prefer not to — as an example of resisting in place. Doing something through doing nothing. Sianne Ngai, in Ugly Feelings, also uses this as an example of an ugly, or non-cathartic, feeling that refuses the terms of the question altogether. Adam Philips, in his essay, ‘On Eating, or preferring not to,’ directly characterises the anorexic as a Bartleby, suggesting that the person with the eating disorder ‘appetizes the trauma occasioned by the object, and the desire, into a scenario of bingeing and refusal.’
Sometimes, when I catch my reflection in a shop window and realise I’ve dressed like a toddler, again, I wonder whether time is just happening differently to me than to most afab people; it is spinning me around and now the two of us are facing each other at an angle from which I crawl back into those unexplored cul-de-sacs.
Yet all of these theories make anorexia seem like an act of will; a choice; an action. And it does feel that way, at first; you want to change your body’s shape, you try and fail to change your body’s shape, then something clicks, and you succeed at changing your body’s shape, and people say, ‘you’re so lovely and slim,’ and you are high. You are high because you bear the genetic predisposition to get high off starvation; because you have not yet been doing it long enough to come down. But also because you have been seduced: your body is living proof that life can be what you want to happen.
This honeymoon phase does not last, however. People look at you as if looking at you is painful. You’re cold and tired and dizzy. You can’t sleep. You can’t think about much besides food, mostly the food you can’t eat, though you don’t know why you can’t eat it, you’re not deciding not to eat it, it’s just that you don’t need it, and you get full so quickly, and, and, but… You’re going to get over this. It is stupid. Really, stupid. You buy energy bar after protein bar after chocolate bar. You are going to eat them. You definitely are! It’s just that the moment at which you really need them is never quite yet. In this way, anorexia just happens.
My anorexia loved the nothing that the pandemic made happen. It did not love the closure of gyms, but the ending of restaurant meals, dinner parties, unplanned beers and chips, or plot twists of any sort — all this it loved. I knew, by this point, that it did not love me; what it wanted was to narrow my horizon to a question only of what I would eat, when I would exercise, how much, and when. I did not feel sad that what I thought was my life had ended; that my career, if it went on this way, would never become a career at all; that D was probably humping his new girlfriend in the house we’d moved into together at that exact moment; that a Christian fundamentalist would no doubt say that the pandemic was God’s way of telling me that I’d chosen a really, really bad time to start living my best gay life. I felt nothing because I was in the same non-place and non-time as I’d (not) been in at fifteen, at seventeen, at nineteen, at — you get the picture.
Because I’ve never been severely ill, because people often tell me that I am lucky to be so naturally thin and because I’ve gone for long stretches where my level of disorder was low enough for this to feel mostly true, I’ve persisted in the delusion that I can live with it. That I can develop a radically queer relation to time, write, teach, do a PhD, keep up with multiple friendships groups in multiple cities, party, exercise, do activism — whilst consistently undernourishing myself and maintaining a too-low body weight.
Yet it is only recently, as lockdown as eased, and I’ve started treatment, that I’ve begun to accept this is impossible. If I get stuck on a train or a friend changes a plan at the last minute, I throw tantrums that would be worthy of any toddler. There’s fur on my face and my white blood cell count is so low that I’m at risk of serious infection if I catch anything. I am hungover after one drink. Yes, it’s easy to deal with my gender dysphoria when my body looks less female, but it's not sexy, it’s not sexual, it does not make me feel good; it makes me feel as apart of the whole gender and sexuality spectrum as it does from time and space. And because so much of me is over there, in that anorexic non-time, non-space, I go on dates, I go out for drinks, for dinner, I write, I teach, except that I don’t, I can’t; I’m tired and dizzy and headachey; I’m in the same not-quite here as I was in March 2020. The change, if there is one, is that I'm sick of it.
SHAMELESS POT LICKER
Maggie Nelson describes the moment she gives up drinking as one of surrender; not an act of will but ‘indirectly, through renunciation, undoneness, abandonment.’ You have to become sick of the ‘particular brand of freedom’ that your addiction promises. I’ve felt this; I feel it now. The problem is, you can’t abstain from food. (I wish!) My problem is that I can tell you at length about the sort of story I ought to tell myself about food; it is one that includes words like ‘intuitive eating’ and ‘kindness’ and ‘listen to your body’ and ‘you don’t need to earn your food’ and ‘calories are just energy.’ I can tell such a story to the other people in my CBT-for-anorexia group; indeed, we tell each other these stories at length. We over-empathise with each other’s words. ‘You deserve better!’ ‘Remember to nourish yourself.’ If we could eat the essay-length WhatsApp messages we exchange between group, we’d be long-since cured.
Zadie Smith says that without love, life is just ‘doing time’ and I wonder whether anorexic non-time feels so bad, so empty, because it is so devoid of it. When I eat more, I am no longer straining towards the next moment; I’m in it, and that is enough. Except when it isn’t. Except when, for whatever knot of reasons, anorexia whispers, you’re too much, too little, too wrong, too you, and it’s not that I’m restricting, it’s that I’m not in the mood for a bagel, and I am sure, absolutely certain, that I don’t need bagels, or love, or anything. It started out with a kiss / How did it end up like this? Back at level zero.
Love isn’t lust; we cannot really ‘fall’ into it. Nor is it care or affection. Bell Hooks writes that it may contain all of these things, but it’s not any of them: ‘When we understand love as the will to nurture our own and another’s spiritual growth, it becomes clear that we cannot claim to love if we are hurtful and abusive’ (6, 2001). Words cannot do everything that they promise, but Hooks’ words did something to me; or maybe they were the straw that broke the back of the camel that had already been weakened by so many years of reading queer theory, experimental literature, and of having long, winding therapeutic discussions with friends, and, indeed, therapists.
Her words made me cry. Then they made me realise that my life already contained a lot of love; not romantic love, not at the moment, but many, many friendships which fulfil Hooks’ criteria: friendships that bring me joy, that challenge me, nurture me, that I could not live without. I’ve always been this way; spreading outwards, to many people, in many places, even when I was in a long-term relationship; it’s just taken me a long time to see that this is as valuable a way of connecting to all that is not-me than concentrating on a close-knit nuclear family and a few childhood friends, as was D’s preference. Yet how much better would it be were I not trying, also, to hurt myself? If I were really, properly, present? These are the sorts of words with which I try to flood my body, over and over, with the hope that gradually, it’ll start to believe them. Hooks says she writes down positive mantras to heal herself, and, although she finds them ridiculous, they do begin to work. I write down mantras. Sometimes, I look at them. Other times I look at instagram posts of similar mantras written by other people. I’m not sure if they do anything.
On the morning of the third wedding, I wake up intending to run, as I have done before the previous two weddings. But I’m exhausted. And whatever combination of words I’ve read and heard makes me read this exhaustion, not as a sign of failure but as my body’s way of telling me it that it would prefer, in fact, to lie on the sofa. And somehow, I listen to it. A O-kaaaay, says anorexia, but you could work on some writing. You’ve got to squeeze something out of every moment, remember? I don’t want to write, either, so I don’t. I just mooch around my flat all morning, reading a few pages of this book, a few pages of that, making myself a lunch that is probably what most people would not consider an accurate representation of the word ‘lunch’ but which, in anorexic terms, is huge. I intend to read a book on the train but lie across two seats and sleep, instead.
I arrive at the wedding, lo and behold, with actual energy inside me, and I don’t know what it’s for, or where it will take me, but whereas, a few months ago, such not-knowing would’ve made me panic, today, I can just carry this not-knowing into the next moment, and the next.
And the next contains a table containing snacks, so many snacks, don’t look at the snacks, and Prosecco. I reach for a Prosecco. A few sips in, and I’m confident enough in my obviously-queer, obviously-singleness, to walk up to a circle of unknown beiges. I’m about to say hello, when a child tugs at my trousers. ‘Do you want to see my den?’ she asks.
‘Ignore her,’ says her mother, my friend.
‘But I’d love to,’ I say, ‘I mean it.’ And I do: I spent a lot of my childhood either making dens or imagining that I was making one. And I am bored of the beiges before I’ve even started talking to them.
The child crawls under a table. I follow. We sit on some coats, then she brings out a Tupperware. ‘Snacks!’ She says, ‘you need plenty of them, in the wild.’
She hands out a box of raisins, which I recognise as coming from the same discount supermarket at which I often shop, and a shortbread biscuit I recognise as coming from the snack table whose contents I have somehow, despite not thinking that I’d looked at it, memorised.
She nibbles the shortbread, then the raisins. Then both at once. ‘Why won’t you eat your snack?’
There is, in my bag, in my tent, on the other side of this marquee, half of the same packet of raisins. On its front is a cartoon raisin; it is grinning, thrusting its stick arms and legs over the edge of the box, and wearing a bandana over its eyes — like it’s getting away with something.
Why can’t I eat my snack? There is no way to answer this question without inflicting violence on this child’s body. Because violence is the core of what anorexia is; slow, silent, edgeless. And violence, as Bell Hooks reminds us, is incompatible with love.
Yet in me there is also the memory of the child I once was; the one who spent long car journeys building imaginary treehouses and — I remember only now — stocking it with snacks. Lots and lots of snacks!
I nibble the shortbread. I don’t manage all of it but I manage more than anorexia wants. I don’t look at my phone. I don’t think about my phone, and whether or not I am looking at me.
Eat the rest of the fucking biscuit.
But I can’t.
One more bite, and another and another, only I’m not the one biting, nor is anorexia; I don’t know whether the ‘it’ that feeds me, that knows that eating is neither shame nor mistake, but ordinary, without moral value, and necessary, is the same ‘it’ that I occasionally glimpse in the beyond of the silence beyond my writing. Or whether it is just the me I’ve wasted so much time and energy suppressing.
‘You ate it,’ she says.
Mistake mistake mistake mistake
I stick my fingers in my mouth and I lick them, and I wonder whether this life-grabbing ‘it’ is the equivalent of me licking out the bowl of all the times anyone has ever told me they loved me. Whether it is, in other words, the performative utterance’s ‘excess’: the ‘more’ that it can never know, but unleashes, nonetheless. Whether I write because I want more experience, not less. But it’s possible I’ve drunk too much Prosecco — or read too much theory.
‘There you are.’ My friend scoops up her child, who yells that she’s not ready, but my friend presses her writhing limbs into her grandmother’s arms — as if her words are nothing.
Then she drags me towards the dance floor. ‘My favourite!’
The song is Mr Brightside, and she jumps and her husband jumps and the bride jumps and the groom jumps and me, I jump, too. Coming out of my cage and I’ve been doing just fine. I jump, and I’m hungry, I’m so hungry, and I don’t know why, and I do know why, and I’m terrified; and I know that if I put anything else in my body tonight, it will be of the chemical variety, and that I will spend most of the next week in bed, feeling sorry for myself, annoyed that, unable to write or to think or to run, my body can no longer handle even these slivers of fun that I occasionally allow it; and I am terrified; and I am terrified; I want to stop thinking about how one day, everyone in this room will be dead; yes, even the children will be dead; and I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that none of this is a plot twist.
Clare Fisher is a UK-based writer. They are the author of the short story collection, How the Light Gets In (2018, Influx Press) and the novel, All the Good Things (Viking/ Europa Editions). They teach creative writing and are studying for a phd looking at queer theory, experimental writing and failure, at the University of Leeds.
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