At the Circus

Notes of a (Young Woman of Color’s Inner) Dirty Old Man

At the Circus

Illustration by Ola Sadownik

I came home to find Thalia sitting on my desk, her legs spread wide and a cigarette in her hand, looking at me in anticipation. I wasn’t surprised. I don’t know when she started showing up, but she always appears when I’m about to get to the most uncomfortable scene in a book; partly to help me through it, but mostly because it’s always her favorite part. Either way, I keep her around.

I sighed wearily and tried to tug my copy of Hunter Thompson’s Hell’s Angels out from under her. “Get off my book.”

Thalia shrugged cockily and slipped off my desk to read with me, into a Hell’s Angels party that hovered somewhere between a friendly sex orgy and an all out gang rape. Pretty girl about 25 lying on a wooden floor, two or three on her all the time, one kneeling between her legs, one sitting on her face and somebody else holding her feet... Thalia hovered around the spectacle, unseen by the drunken men but enjoying it just as much. I kept averting my eyes uncomfortably.

You won’t be able to read anything that way, Thalia said, turning my face to the scene. I let her forward. It was easier to hold her arm and watch from over her shoulder. A hard core of eight or ten kept at her for several hours. In all, she was penetrated in various ways no less than fifty times, and probably more… jerking, moaning, not fighting, drunk… Thalia has a fascination with violent scenes, and I don’t know that I could really read them without her help. She crouched, intently trying to get a better glimpse of the woman under the pile, through the legs of the onlookers. The atmosphere in the room was harsh and brittle, almost hysterical, Thompson observed. Wincing, I turned away once more.

What are you doing? Thalia demanded, catching me observe some of the Angels staggering around outside with disgust. We’re here to see her!

I relented, kneeling down next to Thalia and following her gaze... The Angels went out and got the girl’s ex-husband, who was stumbling drunk. They led him into the shack and insisted he take his own turn. The girl caught a glimpse of Thalia grinning at her and leaned forward to wink reassuringly back. At the sight of her former old man, she leaned forward, resting on her elbows, and asked him to kiss her. Thalia relaxed in her squat and lit another cigarette. “Let’s go,” I said, pulling her to her feet and back into my room. What a kiss that must have been, was all Thalia said.

Thalia loves Hunter Thompson’s women. She immediately became friends, when I read his early Puerto Rico novel, with a small woman in a white satiny dress who lives off of mysterious traveler’s cheques and attractive, unhinged men who beat her too unimaginatively and dance with too little passion to hold her gaze for very long. Sometimes she brings this small woman with her when she shows up at my desk.

I am tightly in the grasp of these women I hold in my head, women who don’t understand my moment in time, or maybe don’t care for it, or for anything at all. The thing about Thalia is that she is mine alone; she has no history, no context, no education that she can share with me — Thalia speaks another language. She reminds me that I owe these characters a reading of the world that is more difficult than the ones that satisfy me.

I followed Thalia up to the roof where she likes to meditate, rather than continue to read without her antagonizing (but often necessary) presence. The first time I found Thalia meditating was a few years ago; I’d fought with a man who’d had the ill judgement of using the not all men line on me, and after setting him straight I’d gone looking for her, found her on the roof in a borderline vulgar malasana. She laughed when I told her.

Women Explain Not All Men to Men, she said, amused, summing me up. “Apparently we have to,” I said, “can you believe him?”

Thalia was, as usual, completely underwhelmed by my anger. Sure, she said, shrugging. Why shouldn’t they defend themselves hoarse? She laughed again.

She’s never been threatened by glimpses of savagery. Women are terrified of being raped, Thompson said grimly, watching the gruesome orgy, but somewhere in the back of every womb there is one rebellious nerve that tingles with curiosity whenever the word is mentioned. Thalia peers at violence strangely, half-thrilled and half-pitying. She spent her formative years in Gandhi’s India, watching in wonder as he twisted the victim around, turned his gaze on the colonizer. Gandhi quietly pitied his oppressor until the whole Empire creaked and moaned and finally splintered.

If past revolutions have been the attempt of the exploited to prove themselves as men, and if power has the intrinsic ability to masculinize the ego, Norman Mailer said restlessly, then women have to start seeing themselves as men. What would be the fruit of that logic? Mailer often liked to show up when Thalia was around, and then I had to deal with the both of them. I turned to him to tell him to be quiet but Thalia silenced me with a look.

There is no fruit to that logic, she said. Why should you want to emulate them?

“I don’t,” I exclaimed.

When you use their language to fight with them, you do exactly that, she said, without moving or opening her eyes. Mailer shifted next to her, but Thalia ignored him. I’m not denying everything you have to fight for, she said, her eyes still closed. I just don’t think you need to feel this anxious or threatened.

Men were debauched by their own tyranny, and degraded by it and confused by it, as much as the people they tyrannized, Germaine Greer said, gesturing at Mailer sitting at her side.

Women possess the better half of life already, Mailer sulked, hovering around Thalia’s shoulder and looking at Greer.

“I know they do,” I fumed at him.

You don’t act like you know it, Thalia said carelessly. If you really believed we possess the better half, you’d let men off the hook sometimes, you’d play around more with their silly egos, you’d just have more goddamn fun.

Gandhi’s goal was the liberation of the British from the psychology of colonialism, I thought dully. For the salvation of the oppressed, we had to create an alternate construction of the oppressor.

A girl appeared behind me with shiny eyes and ragged clothes, and went over to sit down next to Thalia, as if summoned. Thalia has a fondness for the girls that come from Mailer’s sullen hysteria, and they for her.

You’re the one who wants a revolution, Thalia said to me, amused. She moved her hand to gently brush the girl’s hair out of her eyes. I watched the two girls breathe deeply, in time with each other.

You don’t understand the peace of being with a man who looks at you as if you do not exist, the strange girl in ragged clothes said musingly, her cheek lightly resting on Thalia’s shoulder, so that slowly you’re beaten beneath him and everything whirls and you’re not there at all, and love has finally come the only way I ever want to see it when it is smoke and I am in the opium den and thugs beset me, but I do not care for I feel nothing anymore. Thalia’s mania has a tenderness that Mailer lacked, and she somehow turns even his most nihilistic thoughts into a numb peace when she hands them to me, through these girls. Both of them were very still, cross-legged and untouchable. It was strange seeing someone so restless meditate so fully, but I suppose freedom is the one thing for which Thalia doesn’t mind holding still.

Irked, I prodded Thalia aside and sat down next to her on the roof, still holding Hell’s Angels. “We’re supposed to be discussing sexism in literature,” I reminded her. “Hey.” I snapped my fingers in her face. “You’re supposed to at least be interested.

Sexism…feminism… she said, shrugging listlessly, glancing around the roof, as though looking for a new vocabulary, one that didn’t exist in a graduate seminar. Just do something, tell me something, something that doesn’t sound like you got it out of a textbook. I’ll be interested when whatever you find is bigger than what you already know.

Let’s really get hip about this little matter, and recognize that the whole question of women's liberation is the deepest question that faces us and we're gonna go right into the very elements of existence and eternity before we're through with it! Thalia laughed. She likes quoting Mailer because she is fond of his panic, his fragility, in the face of moral and state authority. Forever entertained by fragile penises, Thalia reminds me of another colony of fragile penises that tried to encompass me — nationalist political reformers in colonial India, fighting for independence. The hyper-masculine, “traditional” Indian warrior who obediently sprung up to fight the white oppressor, suppressing his own fearful outcry by covering his woman’s mouth.

Mother India. My country has, since its illegitimate birth, been fetishized as the epitome of the modest, middle class, bindi-and-sari clad woman, the respectable mother, the woman of honor. Thalia giggled obnoxiously, unable to help herself. You have no country, she said, laughing. Your country is a haphazard set of lines marked in the earth around a fiction, an idea. Imagined nation, imagined citizen, imagined honorable woman.

She broke into another fit of giggles before she could finish saying “honorable woman.”

My history has no honorable women; they were created to justify a war for “independence.” The modern West produced not only servile imitators and admirers but also circus‑tamed opponents and tragic counter-players performing their last gladiator‑like acts of courage, a disciple of Gandhi once said. We must acknowledge the non-players in the game.

The tragic counter-players who fought the British, the nationalists defending and protecting India, the idea, the people… they tried to match the colonizer, power move by power move. But it wasn’t Mother India’s imagined honor that the nationalist reformers were protecting, of course. When, in the course of Indian colonial history, or of humanity, has protecting a woman’s honor not been the same as proving a man’s manhood?

I remember walking down a sea-front in Bombay in the midnight rain, after the beach had “closed” and all the good girls had gone home, with Thalia holding her dripping sandals at my side. She was lecturing me about Rousseau and in the humidity her shirt was sticking to her obscenely. A group of policemen suddenly confronted us, high-pitched and angry. “What do you think you’re still doing out here? It’s not safe. Go home!”

They were overbearing, with a deceptive tone of concern, towering over us with large sticks that only seem comic in retellings. Their touch was protective; any man looking at the scene would have said so. But I squirmed in fear; who would choose this over the danger of the street? Roughly, the policemen pushed our bare, undignified feet back into our slippers, taking longer with me because I struggled. Thalia seemed almost distracted as they shuffled her around, looking over their shoulders at the sea. “Don’t touch her!” I started to yell as the cop yanked Thalia’s elbow.

Oh, save it, Thalia yawned, even as we were being hauled down the street. He’s not touching me.

They let us go by an auto-rickshaw stand, where we were forced to get into a rickshaw and give the driver a respectable sounding address. But after the police left with satisfaction, Thalia had the driver park around the corner and gave him a cigarette instead. We managed to return to the beach after the rain and the men had subsided.

I was furious. Thalia laughed a black laugh, smoke furling out of her tilted mouth. She was not furious. She lounged on the rocks, her feet in the sea, legs spread wide, in complete possession of her body. I looked over at the empty police stand and tried to snatch my body back from them. For all her crassness, Thalia possesses a strange kindness that I almost don’t comprehend. It is, in a sense, kindness that is required to grapple with the wretched Indian male anxiety in the face of the white male colonizer.

Nationalism is the ultimate manifestation of fear — a fear which turns the oppressed into the oppressor. Hindu nationalists who fought for independence were, and remain, terrified; quite ugly in their desperation. They were dehumanized by the colonial authority that had usurped a sense of manhood they hadn’t had and didn’t even know they needed.

“Bullshit,” I said. I hated it. I wanted none of it. Unfettered, Thalia stretched across the rocks and scratched her pussy absently, lit another cigarette and watched the Indian ocean with glee, and with maybe a little kindness.

In a crowded Puerto Rico bar, Hunter Thompson’s whore, my woman in the white satiny dress, is no longer wearing it. She is on the dance floor, moving her body in a trance, or perhaps in prayer, with her dress a puddle around her dipping ankles. As she grows more ecstatic, her man grows more hysterical. She gets thrown to the ground. Over and over, throughout the lifetime of their relationship, she has been thrown to the ground, left alone at home for days, pulled into and out of the bed before she knows what she is in the mood for.

The scene has always made me shudder. But the creations of fiction are incapable of such educated responses… Thalia is wildly, unnaturally attracted to these violent, fragile men. On come the ladies with their fierce ideas, Mailer always says, hopping around in the doorway of the room like some kind of sprite, just as I open my mouth to enter an argument. Thalia gets distracted by Mailer and I end up taking several extra seconds to speak, but she chortles every time. “Stop that,” I say to her, irritated. “He’s being rude.”

What? Doesn’t it sound kind of flirty to you? Or at least flattering! she once said, impishly. Is it weird that I find it kind of a turn-on?

“It does not sound flirty,” I replied, making a face, “And yes, it is weird!”

Thalia watches not-so-coyly as her female comrades are mythologized into ideal wives, mothers, bodies to be defended; she once made me follow a bus driver down a dimly lit street at 3 am, where he promised there was a chai stall that hadn’t yet closed for the night.

Just a little further, don’t you want to see where he’s going? she kept asking, sounding as breathless as I felt. She only agreed to turn around when he stopped at a run-down apartment, grabbed my waist and said very seriously that his wife wasn’t home; even then, while he was clutching me, pulling me back, she half-turned facetiously, almost encouraging him, until I managed to overpower them both and get us away. Unusually, Thalia gave in to me that night.

She also hovered over two windswept years in my bedroom, making me trade fake orgasms for good stories. Who is winning in this mess? I remember thinking after a particularly convincing false howl. Thalia never left the room those nights, and I never asked her to.

Thompson’s woman in the white satiny dress holds the frantic penis like a leash, dancing naked in the middle of a circle of men, and then disappearing. Left with no choice after searching the island for her all night, her man returned home to find her maddening absence, before hurling his unclaimed abuses at the other drunk or frightened men in his folding newspaper office.

“I’m happy now,” she told a stranger who ogled her. Let me forget about today until tomorrow. Thompson did this too, for his whole life. He left an instruction, ate the barrel of a .45, and had the line float through the air as his ashes were blasted out of a cannon.

Thalia and her friends — Thompson’s girl in the white satiny dress and Mailer’s girl with the ragged clothes — laugh carelessly as the men around them trip over themselves in their quest to be, become, and remain men. I've known no such luxury, but Thalia does.

Man is alienated from the nature that brought him forth, Mailer said in frustration, he is not like a woman in possession of an inner space that gives her a link to the future, so he must drive to possess it, he must if necessary come close to blowing his head off that he may possess it.

Colonization is a colonization of the mind, Gandhi said. Of the powerful, too; not just the weak.

“This is why you like cruel men,” I said coldly to Thalia, “You have turned them into playful men, sexy men, hilarious men in your head. You don’t want to be a reactionary circus‑tamed opponent. You want to turn the terrorist into a teddy bear.”

Thalia shrugged, and I could tell she had only half-listened to what I said. I wanted to shake her, but I knew she would just laugh. You can’t conquer a free woman; the most you can do is kill her. Thalia’s never been afraid in all the times I’ve struggled against a man’s grasp; she has never been afraid of pain.

Do you want to be someone who’s never almost wandered into a married stranger’s apartment at 3 am looking for chai? she asked me that night, ridiculously, after we’d gotten home. Isn’t that just hilarious, though?

“You’re not brave, you’re just crazy,” I told her, but I wasn’t sure what the difference was.

And you are no one to deconstruct what my own experiences mean to me, she said back.

Maybe I am partial to the innocuousness of cruelty. There are worse things than cruelty. I have, after all, chosen to invest a life into possibly the cruelest calling in the world, where being bland is a sin and being bored is a curse. In such a calling, the cruelty of men becomes so banal, it is almost welcoming.

Humiliation is liberating, Thalia once said, perched on the bedside table of a hotel I had been called to, as I lay still on my back staring at the ceiling. What can you be afraid of now?

Thalia twists words in her sacred blindness, until I have to scramble to pick them up and rearrange them. Brave, crazy; Eros, Ares; Love, offspring of War.

“I am not interested in equality,” Germaine Greer once raged, frustrated, to me and a circle of other activist-press people as we hounded her with our ethical objections to various liberal issues. “I do not envy the lives of men.”

The language of identity politics is a problem because it allows identification with the aggressor; it assumes, through all of its “circus-tamed” resistance, that being the “oppressed” is still worse than being the “oppressor.” But Thalia loves the non-narrator, the non-players in the game.

The girl with shiny eyes and ragged clothes, the patient non-narrator, lay beneath him stiffly and suffered it with a smile. Her lover was furious at something else, terrified by his own memories of war and groping desperately for life, thrusting with dread and panic. But the ragged girl didn’t notice. She wasn’t even looking at him. She was looking at Thalia lounging by the small window, watching her carefully. When he was done, she kissed him once remotely on the nose. All done now, she murmured. Somewhere in the annals of literature, Thalia has a girl’s club where many more girls with wide shiny eyes gossip and giggle at each other’s bruises and tell bitchy stories. Non-narrations.

I pulled the covers up to my chin, shivering for the girl in the ragged clothes, her eerie patience. “I’m not afraid,” I insisted, “But you’re always shooting us down, just like they are. Why can’t you be serious for once?” Thalia sighed, and got up to sit on the bed next to me.

They, they, they, they. You’re so resentful, Thalia said, stroking my hair, her eyes sparkling. You’re all too busy defending each other like chivalrous men to really tell your stories, your very own real stories! All you have to do is tell me your stories.

Apoorva Tadepalli

is a freelance writer from Bombay and Brooklyn. She tweets at @storyshaped.

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