Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Thirty-Three: Arcs

I found an article on line the other day that was about an interview on satellite radio with a young female stand-up comedian, an interview that focused on a story she'd told about her late-teen days. The story was that one night, when she was eighteen, she was out in the city (I'll assume it's Manhattan) getting very drunk with friends. She was dressed for flirtations and partying on a summer's night--- miniskirt and tube top ---and was rather drunk by midnight. She and her friends piled into a cab on their way to a bar across town. The friends were in the back seat, and were asleep. The girl telling the story sat in the front with the driver. The driver, she said, was "old" and "gross" and "dirty", though she didn't specify what she meant for any of those things. But she was in the mood to do something outrageous, and so she slid a bit closer to him and slowly opened her legs. The title of the article was straightforward enough "X Gets Fingered", and that much was simple enough. The driver slid a hand up her skirt and fingered her while making nervous conversation and her friends slept on.

The story as written lost its point from there. Part of the article was a comment on how inept the interviewers were, and how they wanted to ask for details but didn't know how to do that without seeming "creepy" (or perhaps just violating station policy). The article also veered off into a discussion of how women in comedy are allowed or expected to talk about sex. I came away not knowing what the author wanted to say. Were we expected to look down on the two interviewers? On the girl? On ourselves for wanting to know the details, or, worse, wishing we could've been the driver?

The story itself could've been a fairly hot sequence in a "Red Shoe Diaries" episode. I will say that. Zalman King could've shot the story well. I can see the way it could be told, and there could be just a bit of humor to it. The basic outline of what happened isn't all that outrageous, and a young friend once told me her own version of it.

My friend grew up in Seattle, and she was a punk-rock girl, a girl who spent her teens hanging around the arts scene and punk clubs. One night, when she was sixteen or so, an older man (older meaning late forties, she thought)  in an expensive car saw her sitting stoned and drunk outside a club and offered her a ride. She went. It was obvious that there would be sex involved, that he was expecting some kind of sex. She told me that she remembered worrying not about the more obvious things--- the physical danger ---but about how the sex would work in the car. Would he put a hand behind her head and push her down into his lap? She had on Doc Martens boots and a long skirt--- would she be able to get the skirt up if he climbed atop her or pulled her over to straddle him? In the end, he only put a hand on her thigh and worked the skirt up and fingered her while they drove. She wasn't wearing anything under the skirt, so once her skirt was pushed up, the rest was easy. She told me that she was puzzled that he didn't do more or want more. Her age, she suspected. In the end, he was afraid of her age, afraid of her being underaged. She thought he was something of a coward for that, for not just taking what was there for him. She came twice, she said, and was as loud as she could be in the car. Now I did ask about that, and she told me she'd always been loud, but that even drunk and high, she wanted to be loud to prove to the driver that he was getting her off, that this really was about sex.

My friend is something like twenty-five now. The story happened nine years ago and a couple of thousand miles away. Talking about it over drinks, she told me that, yes, in those days she'd been self-destructive and willfully blind to dangers, but that she didn't regret what she'd done that night. I asked the kind of questions I always ask. Was she expecting him to buy her drugs or offer her drugs? Was she expecting money? (I didn't ask about the age issue--- after all, she was out for drinks with me.) Her answer was that she did it because she wanted to be able to say she'd done it. She was in a mood to be touched, and the risk made that hotter. She liked thinking that she could make men take risks--- risk legal troubles ---for her, too. But the key thing, she said, was to be able to say that she'd done it, to be able to tell her friends at school the next day, to make it part of her image.

I did understand that. We're storytelling animals, and I've always believed that we live through our stories. There's an old saying that no one wants to climb Mount Everest as much as they want to be able to tell people that they'd climbed Everest. Telling the story later matters more than the actual event. I can agree with that. I know that in my own life I've done so many things so that I could have stories later. I can look back on so many things in my life and realize that I did them specifically so that I could have raw material for stories. My friend from Seattle understood that at sixteen, and she and I agreed about it eight or nine years later. She got into the man's car already planning in her head how she'd tell the story of what might happen.

There is the Aristotelian pyramid here: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, dénouement. The structure is simple enough. And it is how we've been taught to look at any narrative. We shape narratives to the story arc. And we need stories in our lives, to tell others and to tell ourselves. We seek out story material. The stand-up comedy girl understood that. She had a story to tell her friends afterward, to shock and amaze--- she had a story that she'd be telling to interviewers years after the event. She knew that when she first slid her leg closer to the cab driver. She'd had years to craft the memory into a story that would hold her listeners' attention, one that would be part of her image. My friend from Seattle knew that, too, when she picked up her backpack and climbed into the man's car. 

I've known that all my life, too. And I suppose it is something I offer my young companions: being part of a story, being part of that arc, being part of something we can each shape later into stories that create who we are. Stories are how we make ourselves, and they're gifts, too, that we give to others. I try to keep that in mind when a lovely young companion talks to me across a table or takes my hand and says, "I wonder what would happen if we..." I try to remember that, and to remember that a life that isn't crafted and shaped is no life at all.

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