I saw one of these boys in an airport yesterday. He was in line ahead of me and was traveling with his sports team. They all spoke loudly in English in the German-speaking country we were in.
This boy with his brawny shoulders, pale skin, blue eyes, and dirty blond hair stood with his shoulders back, solid. His body communicated that he could “get things done,” or simply, “get things.” I have encountered these boys many times before. They remind me of restless or bored summer days in small towns, or maybe just the uncertainty of being young. It is a complicated fantasy, this image, filled with the desire to be seen, the desire to be desired, to be legible in this world of boys. Seeing this boy at the airport I was again 15, 17, 19 in a small vacation town in New Hampshire walking past a group of teenage boys. These boys in the wet evening air, I dreamt that this could be my movie moment. A meet-cute, or a meet-tragic. Somehow he would be a sensitive jock, or a nice boy who came from money who wasn’t precious or classist, or a local boy who was smart and had big dreams. I had one of those once. A boy named Jackson or Brett or Jason. He was cute and we worked at a restaurant together. One night I was lonely and took my clothes off. He saw that as an invitation which it was and climbed into bed next to me. I always wanted my life to look the way the movie looked so that I could feel the way the way the movie made me feel. With Jackson or Brett or Jason the lights were low, it was late, I was thin, he was eager, and I couldn’t understand why this wasn’t enough. I asked him to stop halfway through.
Maybe there is a flaw in writing about this boy in the airport because maybe he is just trying to become the image he sees. Boys who look like him, act like him, succeed like him. Boys who are good at sports or come from money or look at everything as though it is theirs. Boys who are conversational in the way that these boys see approaching women as a conversation. Boys who need their worlds upheld for them and when it isn’t turn to desperation or despair or.
I was talking with a friend recently about being young and all the ways young people hurt each other or hurt themselves because they don’t really know any better. And I always wonder if there isn’t a way to skip this part so that all of these minor moments that stack up together to feel larger than they are, why they can’t be avoided. If only we knew better, or were taught differently, or could be something other than the images we see. As a teenager I looked at these images and didn’t know which one I was, it felt like none of them, and so I was a blank space or an empty thing or parts of all of them but even then it didn’t fit right as though there was no island of self that I was slowly moving towards.
As a teenager I felt a kind of jaw-clenching thrill as I paraded past these boys playing the game of being seen. I didn’t know the rules or even what the game really was, only the sense that by playing it I was coming closer to being the image I was meant to be, and that felt like some kind of accomplishment. Like buying a thong, or a lacy bra. I’ve arrived, I felt like saying, I’m arriving.
In the airport as a 36-year-old woman I still felt the gravitational pull this boy emitted. The one that makes everyone around him conform to his image of you, the images he sees, the ones I saw as a teenager that never fit, that still don’t fit but sit very neatly around the margins still so that I always know what I am and what I am not and what that means to all of the people around me. I felt myself to be again 15, 17, 19 in a small vacation town in New Hampshire walking by a group of teenage boys practicing being seen. Instead of smiling this time though and shyly looking down I stared impassively forward which is still playing by the rules, his rules. I am making myself the opposite of what his gravity demands which is not a solution but it is as far as I have gotten towards that island of self that seems to be perpetually out of reach.
Mimi Cabell has recent work in Cabinet magazine, Manual: a journal about art and its making, and on Somesuch stories; and has recently shown or presented work in Helsinki, Reykjavik, Minneapolis, and in Ramallah, Palestine as part of Shifting Ground, an offsite project commissioned by Sharjah Biennial 13, curated by Lara Khaldi. She currently lives in Providence, USA where she is Assistant Professor of Design at the Rhode Island School of Design.