Weeks after it arrived, I finally got to The New Yorker issue with the profile of Chris Rock. It was terrific but there was one bit that made it truly priceless for me. Rock’s first performance included this observation: “I was born a suspect.” The world already expected little of this tiny bundle, except eventually, and in one way or another, be guilty of something and, thus, feared.
I read the profile midway in writing “This Is How I Lost It,” at a point where I was beginning to realize what the story was really about. When it opens, it seems to be about the mundane situation of one character losing her virginity. The story, though, develops into realizing that growing up a girl is perilous nearly from the get-go just by being born a girl.
From her father on, men have always seen Clare one way–as someone with limited resources who they have a right to treat in a way they would never tolerate themselves. She’s an object of desire that is baited and hounded no matter where she goes, including at home, and her main fight in life is claiming value beyond her body, to be taken seriously for whom she is. For the last couple of stories in the series, Clare goes about this in one of the few ways she knows how: she accentuates her figure, takes pride in how it attracts men so she can handle them on her own terms, using them then casting them away before they will eventually discard her. Every woman knows this way is more damaging to herself than men. The last story showed Clare beginning to claim her talents–a power that will shield her better if she’s allowed to adhere to it. As a woman, there’s a lot that could interfere with that, including falling in love as she is doing now.
Her friend’s war concerns her intellect. Her mathematical skills have been a source of pride throughout most of her schooling but she’s realizing how in advancing through math boys are beginning to receive all the attention while she grows practically invisible, a freak at best. She makes the conscious decision to neglect her studies and bungles her chances to sharpen her mind. Instead, she turns to distinguish herself in a more acceptable way for a girl. She knows enough that her thin, barely developed body would only be accentuated by the unforgiving fashion of the day and chooses instead to wear the carefully tailored, close-fitting dresses and jackets from the ‘30s and ‘50s, or the loose peasant blouses from the late 60s and 70s.She perfects lavish eyeliner and streaks her red hair in different colors every month. She wears leather and thigh high boots. So armored, she feel special and beautiful and steps in to sex as if it leads to a greater sense of herself.
They’re walking a path where their prodigious talents will either flourish or wither. The best way for them to become who they are–instead of what the world sees them as–is to stand by each other. There’s a doubt about that by the end of the story but I hope they will. You just never know.