At first, she’s nothing but a beckoning gloved hand, slinking out from behind the curtain. Trudy points around the room, still hidden, cartoon-like: a perfect pin-up leg, an elegantly posed arm. Is she here for you? For me? For you? She comes together, a whole human person, in time with the high hat, a blast of glamour all at once onstage.
We’re at a piano bar in Chelsea, in a gloriously midcentury lounge in the back. I’m beaming, but I’m also a little nervous, for all that I’m just in the audience. It’s my first burlesque show, and it’s strange that it took me this long. Unconnected friends all over the country are part of this scene, yet I still don’t entirely know what to expect. It’s like roller derby, another passionate hobby that grabbed my friends but passed me by, something mysterious to do with bodies and stage names.
Trudy Yours is a good stage name. We met at a swing dance class in Williamsburg; I had just moved to New York from Chicago, and I was determined to find friends with no connection to my career, my college or my hometown. Ever since A League of Their Own stunned me as a 7-year-old, I’ve wanted to be a swing dancer. I’ve now lived in two cities with thriving swing communities, but despite loving multiple classes, I often talk myself out of going out nights, given how far my apartment is from anything.
There were five women and one man in our beginner Lindy class. Trudy was an excellent lead; I was not. But we all kept in touch, my swing dance girl gang. Now I’m showing up for her on a totally different dance floor. Burlesque isn’t salacious; it’s a delight to watch these women own and be playful about their bodies. Another performer winks her way through a merry widow tease, lace veil and all. Our hostess keeps up a good patter with the pianist. The nipple tassels are really a thing; the fringe and the sparkles and the heels are a dream.
From where I’m sitting, Trudy was born for burlesque — she’s flirty, brassy, gorgeously put together. The energy in the room is so positive and supportive, the near-nudity feels like a triumph we’re all in on. For a time, I wanted to be an improviser, but I’ve never felt as safe on a comedy stage as I do watching Trudy. As I cheer and egg her on, I wonder, as I’m sure so many others do: Would I be brave enough for that?
What I produce tends to be solitary. Safety away from numbers — the only person who can let you down is you. I want so badly to be a novelist, to make comics, to tell stories in a way I can control. I want to live genre fiction. But I miss theater; I did theater from elementary school through college, as an extracurricular, though I wanted much more. I tried improv, but found myself frustrated by the overcrowded and cliquish learning programs. I tried formal training in singing, but couldn’t find a way to learn Andrews Sisters harmonies with a group. I tried newsrooms, which I loved, but I’ve been freelancing for a year now, and job-hunting is a drag.
A dear friend mailed me a copy of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way this month. The shorthand is that it’s a creative person’s self-help bible. I’ve gained a lot of respect for self-help books and advice columns, with infinite nods to Brené Brown, Captain Awkward and Cheryl Strayed. Cameron is a strange mix of slightly woo-woo, encouraging, realistic and gut-punching. “If being an artist seems too good to be true to you, you will devise a price tag for it that strikes you as unpayable,” she writes. “Hence, you will remain blocked.” Here’s a paragraph early on that keeps flooring me the more I read it:
As a rule of thumb, shadow artists judge themselves harshly, beating themselves for years over the fact that they have not acted on their dreams. This cruelty only reinforces their status as shadow artists. Remember, it takes nurturing to make an artist. Shadow artists did not receive sufficient nurturing. They blame themselves for not acting fearlessly anyhow.
Some words make me writhe with embarrassment if I see or hear them: nourish, nurture, heal, gentle, safe, soothe, tender, kind. I want to punch something or yell. They sound smothering and suffocating and condescending and mewling, in addition to just being hideously overexposed. But I won’t pretend to ignore the common thread, and what it might say about me. That’s a fear response. That’s What am I if I don’t have enough of those things in my life?
I worry about my Instagram feed every so often. “It doesn’t take place in the city I see every day,” I once wrote, “but in some sort of post-apocalyptic quiet, with very few people and interesting light.” I continued: “I think this says less about my state of mind than about when I’m comfortable snapping pictures in public — I don’t have the instinct to whip out my camera phone when I’m just hanging out with friends, most times.”
Once upon a time, I was this confident, emotionally bright person, whether I was alone or not. My star sign is Cancer, and I always scoffed at the crab imagery, so soft inside all your armor. But at 32, single, motherless, as Facebook reminds me hourly that my life should be coming together by now, I’m afraid to be open about these hurts I carry around. I don’t connect the way I want with people. I’m scared of more disappointment. While friends in the real world tell me otherwise, I don’t actually believe I can afford the risks I so desperately crave.
The loneliness of those photos is neither intentional nor accidental.
Bodies don’t scare me like feelings do. In college, I completed a nude item for our very famous scavenger hunt: At the bookstore which requires you to check all bags and purses, walk into the bookstore wearing only bags and purses. It was a breathtaking experience at 20, a transgression with support I trusted. One little old lady who was waiting in line to pay squeezed her eyes shut but said to me, “Good for you, sweetie, good for you!” I feel more or less safe in my body. I don’t care about being goofy in photos or buying so-ugly-they’re-great clothes or wearing those amazing heels that make me 6’2″. But feelings?
Heather Havrilesky, New York magazine’s Ask Polly, once wrote, “When you believe that you’re a monster, you believe that any real, flawed human being who’s not a creation of your imagination is a monster too.” I often feel monstrous — is there any other explanation for why I feel so abjectly lonely and incomplete? If I wasn’t a monster, if I wasn’t broken somehow, wouldn’t I have actually dated someone since high school? If I wasn’t naive and desperate, wouldn’t I have gotten better, less exploitive jobs? If I wasn’t doing it all wrong, wouldn’t I deserve better than what I’ve felt and been dealt for the last five years? If I was the person my friends tell me I am, wouldn’t someone sit with me in the dark? I mean, yikes, I’d be scared of being sucked dry by my neediness too.
My therapist often asks me if all my friends know how bad things are for me, whether I actually go public with my hurts and my needs. And I don’t. I don’t know how to seek out help anymore; I don’t believe that I’ll really, actually get it. A lot of that is shame and fear, about whether saying such things will affect my job prospects or my friendships or my reputation altogether, as if there’s something contagious or dangerous or disgraceful about my sadness. New York in general and journalism in particular are intimidating small towns. When I feel this vulnerable, it’s better to not admit any weakness, for fear of losing whatever toehold I’ve got. So maybe the crab metaphor isn’t so off after all.
One story I keep telling myself is that I just need one good thing to fall into place, and then I can fix everything else. I just need to get out of this toxic workplace and I can be happy enough to find love. I just need to find love so I can focus on getting the job I deserve. I just need to make art, so I can believe I’m not wasting my life and relax. I just need to run away for a while, so I can figure out who I am.
I’ve never really done the pseudonym thing. Even on the internet, when everyone else had interesting screen names, I just introduced myself as Esther and never got a chance to reinvent myself. I hunger for radical transformation these days: to drop back to my college weight, to abandon t-shirts and jeans for tailored vintage repro, to bloom within a community, to own my body fully with art I won’t regret. Burlesque might be a difficult hobby for a journalist seeking prestige work, but I don’t know that. That’s fear talking, and hurt. (I know I am good enough. I just need the chance, and not to get in my own way—) I want to shed a lot of my skins, and consciously build my own. According to my depression, who’s looking?
I have a lot of brave friends, all of whom are just as human and monstrous and marvelous as I am. I hope I can learn from them. I hope I can show you how.