Scared Active

Video stills from Self-Rotate, 2012 by Liat Berdugo

Audio transcription:

You never know how someone is going to interpret you checking in on them. When Miguel texted back that he was fine, I shouldn’t worry, I sent back a peace sign emoji –something I have never sent before in my entire life. I wanted the peace sign to silence him so he couldn’t see anymore of my waiting. I’m waiting on everyone. I worry normally, and normal is long gone.


I look out the window and feel more upset than I should about Miguel not telling me more. It’s a tiny exchange, but the longer I go without seeing many people, the more I want from everyone, even strangers. Outside the window is the tree I call my skeleton because it is so bare and grey and is just beginning to grow some buds. The nubs of them make its angular form look off-kilter, like the tree has forgotten how to vertically drive. I send Miguel a photo of the tree and tell him it reminds me of the first walk we took together, even though it doesn’t. I just want something new between us. 




I am involved with memory. My primary partner, the past. I am involved, and the body of this involvement varies. Occasionally I sext with someone I know in a different country and together we manage to tap out a fantasy about me and Eileen Myles in a bathroom stall. Vaguely, he is her. Vaguely, I apologize to him for not responding for 12 hours. We stall out, and try to be nice to one another instead of talking about whose hands are gripping what parts in our imaginations. When trying to re-start the scene, I send him an animated gif of a Victorian lady doing a curtsy, but something goes wrong in the message and all he receives is a still image of her collarbone. He says not to worry about delays, that our exchange is fine on its own time, but I know we are not meant to believe what people say through screens. He says it’s fine. Fine, again. I too am doing fine. 




What’s not new to me now is flattening the road after I disturb it with my speech. I am used to assuring people almost unconsciously that they are okay, and that if anything felt awkward it must have been the fault of my face. The first time Miguel kissed me I giggled. Not because I’m an idiot, but because someone was watching us. Is this funny? Miguel was too close to my face for me to read his expression. I placed my nose at the collar of his sweater and hoped he would accept the universal code for closeness blunting shame. It was loud, at a party, we had eaten small cups of corn and drank larger cups of sour cocktails, and a man in a shirt with roses began to take photographs of us kissing almost as soon as we started. There was no space, no space to feel anything at all. All day we had watched Chantal Ackerman try to explain herself and then Pina Bausch and then her mother and then the loss of privacy as you get older. What is likely to happen when you sit in a movie theater all day did not happen between us there, but I lifted my hair above my neck between scenes and caught him looking.


Another day Miguel told me he prefers not to assume a kiss leads to—his hands froze in the air, his glittering blue and green fingernail polish. Sometimes masculinity overwhelms who I am, he sighed. The space between us was dry again. We had only kissed that one time, and it wasn’t clear yet if the kiss would repeat. A steady sense of closeness isn’t what we have, but I am trying to know him. 


Do you think of yourself as masculine? I asked him. I guess at this point it is important to tell you that we were in Mexico, that when he said “masculine” what is behind it is machismo – a term  about gender that puffs loudly beyond us both, beyond either of our attempts to perform gender the way we mean it for our bodies. We were in Mexico, both of us Mexican but of different stripes or, more exactly, of different colors. I tried to let him tell me how he relates to this country, to its machismo and its gigantic cheesy heart. In the bar across the street, a Mexican pop song about leaving home played so loudly that the speakers fuzzed. I like how I can’t predict whether Miguel is opening his mouth to tell me how misogynist the song is, or whether he is about to sing along. When he chooses to sing, he does it tunelessly, with vigor, and I wonder what he is trying to tell me. 


On one of our first times together, Miguel and I walked in Tlateloco, where so many students were murdered. We came because I’d asked him to show me his favorite concrete. I like prompting. It is much more difficult to answer questions –as difficult as it was to find our way to the infamous plaza through the crowded after-school sidewalks of the housing development. The Plaza de Las Tres Culturas opened surprisingly from a set of trash bins, but the expanse of it felt too open to tackle head-on, so we walked into the church with the glass windows designed by Mathias Goeritz, an architect I already knew Miguel loved. Goeritz was asked to do these windows by the city, Miguel told me. They are stark, abstract, and the only thing he looked at when we were inside the otherwise traditional church. It felt very difficult to smile. Outside the church there were not bloodstains.


The people who live in this high rise, Miguel gestured above us, are always asking people to stop protesting. They just want to get on with their lives. I looked up and snorted, not trying that hard to be attractive. Why are you laughing? I had rolled my eyes at the wrong thing again. I felt young in my incorrect behavior, as uncertain as I’d been at 13 when I was guessing the right look to make with my face, my body that needed modification. I was not 13 now, but 35, and so I looked at him directly, his serious eyes. His huge glasses that he admitted were a prop – without them he’s not someone I can imagine knowing. Too short the time to remove them. Too long the bus ride home, when I was still taking bus rides, or even hugging the subway pole and him insinuating something about this and me, something I chose not to hear well. We had just begun to hear about the virus then, but it felt like rumor, otherwise not involved in our days or nights. I am involved, he told me when we first became friends. It was fine by me.




The problem with the screen is that every person is merging in my mind. The people and their places, what is weighty to each individual in the landscape that has meaning to them. I matched with this cute trans guy on Lex who reminded me of someone else, and I told them this and they liked it. We clarified pronouns and suggested maybe exchanging erotica. They sent me a story they wrote right away, but I was too tired. They messaged again to see if I was still into it, and I said sorry, busy day. My friend Liz calls this aspect of internet communication “choreography.” We enter a conversation or a promise, and then back off to cook dinner, work, cry. The problem is that I get caught with my hand down my pants waiting for her reply, Liz says, when am I supposed to stop? 


In most cases, sexting makes everything worse. 




Last week I attended the Friday night candle-lighting that my rabbi friend was hosting on Zoom. My rabbi friend has a golden voice, and I liked it at the beginning of the call when she told me to get up and change my clothes before the sabbath queen should come and see me like this. I stood up and put on earrings. I sat back down, turned what I consider to be my best cheekbone to the camera, and there was a message from the cute trans guy on Lex. Hey. looks like you are in this candle-lighting. I clicked hard and fast to close the Zoom window and leave the meeting. I knew anyone could see me in there, but how much, now, did they think we had in common? How much of my Friday body had appeared before them? 


Okay, I know how to take a hint, they messaged again later when I hadn’t replied. I put down the phone, with nothing left to comfort a stranger. I want neither the collapsing of worlds that at other times has felt pleasant, nor to feel bonded by chance. In the time of the virus, I have to ration concern. It is enough already, how many people I have to care about. 


The way I inadvertently attracted that person who ended up being at the candle-lighting is I posted on Lex asking if anyone wanted to be my taskmaster. “Hold me to my plans, and threaten me if I don’t do what I say I will,” I typed. I thought I could make this sexy instead of asking my friends. Personally, I’m disgusted by the phrase “accountability buddy.” “Dom for my depression” is a much better term. 




I used to think it was important to have boundaries between friend and other, the people I have sex with, I guess. It matters less to me now. Not, I think, because I am being less careful, but I feel able to navigate the fluidity more, between a body and my fingers, a phone and a hand. For example, I consider Naz a friend, but I met her a few years ago because I had a threesome with her and her boyfriend, Karl, the first time I lived in Berlin. Last summer I went back and we were roommates, and I lived in the side room in her little apartment in Neukolln and adored her. That was our second phase. I loved her first when I found the lady-moustache bleach in her cabinet, and next when I saw the same razor that I use on her shelf in the shower. We are not the same, but we are both hairy and also shine femme on purpose. 


On Saturday I found myself looking at Naz’s armpits. So smooth, their little eaves. I guess this is the advantage of video chat, how little someone can track your eyes. But I wish I wasn’t so obsessed with noticing skin stretching over skin. When I write about it, I feel the ghost of eating disorders past raising her fist in triumph. When I caught Naz pulling her high waisted pants to her ribs, trying to cover her sweet round belly, I protested. 


I love bellies, I said. It was the kind of thing you only say to other people, not to yourself. We decided that for the rest of the conversation we would both unbutton the top button of our jeans and undo the zipper, so our bellies could be released.




When you trust someone, what is it like? is an actual question that my friend Mari asked me. I had taken a risk and sat down next to her, knowing I would smile more than she would, but it would still feel like a conversation. In this case she asked me theoretically, but we both knew we were talking about being women among men, white women from elsewhere living in Mexico. It was the night before 9M, the March 9th women’s strike in Mexico, and Mari and I had spoken before about how to be in solidarity with the Mexican women’s movement, given its primary focus on preventing femicide and violent rape and domestic violence. Where I come from, feminism leans more toward salary and pronouns. This is a position in which we find we are alike, Mari and I. How we’re different: Mari has this quality of being stable while see-through. She makes me think about what beauty means and paleness as achievement. I think I resent her boyfriend.

When I came to the open studios where I knew Mari would be, I looked for her body along the wall like a shadow in smoke. I could feel that I wanted her to like me and had to be careful not to scare her away. It’s hard to explain her effect in a room; she seems to think she is not present. She will know what everyone else is doing, including the people upstairs where most of the studios are as well as the majority of the free drinks. She will tell me how upstairs there are two women sitting amongst many potted vegetable plants, and that one of them has leaned back and gotten her long hair caught in the tomatoes. No one knows whose plants these are. There have been many artists working here, taking over the rooms for studios since the building was condemned in 2017, right after the earthquake. Many buildings like this in the Centro have giant stickers pasted on the outside doors that say clausurado and the date after which you are not meant to enter. But you do. 




Yesterday my partner came and sat with me on the couch and wanted to make out in the heavy rain. I did, too, and began to finger his armpit through his clothes. I was watching a livestream about how people are dating during quarantine, what technologies they use and don’t for security reasons, and how to build new connections outside of your shelter-in-place. Unfortunately, the livestream was accidentally about loneliness. None of the panelists could hide it. When the blonde one’s voice began to fray, I slowed my touch on my partner and dropped my own hands to my knees, black leggings chalky with bread flour.


Neither my partner nor I will remember much from the livestream, but we will try later to make conversation about it. We are both wearing stretchy things and our calves make friction against one another under the dinner table. Earlier, I watched him from across the room as he rocked his hips from side to side and stirred the morning oats. It wasn’t exactly boring. 


How are you, babe, he said then. He could feel me watching without his eyes. I didn’t answer and he didn’t mind. It’s not a question, right now, so much as it is a vacuum in space. 


Words by Leora Fridman
Image by Liat Berdugo

Leora Fridman is a writer whose work is concerned with issues of identity, assimilation, care, ability, and embodiment. She’s author of My Fault, among other books of prose, poetry and translation. She’s currently a 2019-2020 Fulbright research fellow to Mexico.