The Performance Artist
When I was younger, I fell in love with a performance artist. During these last decades, the interest in this arguably regressive performance art has all but disappeared. Oddly enough, though, it was conceived, gained popularity, and reached its peak during a time of genuine progress.
I only saw her once all those years ago. I had finished another semester of my studies, which, like many others', amounted to very little. Some fellow students and I were looking to blow off some steam and decided to take in a show downtown. I noticed many of the preppy, well-dressed attendees from campus. We maneuvered our way through the crowd and took a seat at one of the few tables left inside the underground venue. The stage stood at the front of the cramped dwelling. Black spots riddled the hour floor, and there were no other set pieces besides the small, rusty console off to the side.
I had never been to one of these before. I saw videos online but never in person. My hands and legs trembled, and I had this uneasiness in the pit of my stomach. Most of all, though, were these violent shutters running all over my body; throat, wrists, pelvis, thighs. The alcohol, along with some conversation, helped pass the time until the event was underway.
Valerie had been going on about the male "male patriarchy" since the train ride. The latest subject was the pay gap between the sexes. "Women make up half the workforce," she said, "but only make seventy-nine cents on the dollar, or whatever the latest statistic is."
"It's wrong," Michael said, shaking his head as he returned to the table with his and Valerie's second drink. "It's wrong and it's an embarrassment. This is why we still need to do more when it comes to gender equality." He then pushed his chair in closer to Valerie.
Jennifer rolled her eyes as I looked over at her, smirking. She leaned in and whispered into my ear, "He really wants to fuck her."
I laughed and took a sip of my beer, expecting the exchange to end there.
The crowd was about split, half men and half women. You could tell who had been to events like these in the past and who hadn't. The first-timers had this mixed look of excitement and nervousness. And, like me, they kept fidgeting with their more sensitive spots.
I then noticed Jennifer peering over at Michael and Valerie, who were now talking flirtatiously amongst themselves. She opened her mouth to speak, but hesitated, as though wondering whether she wanted to continue. "When you break it down, though, women aren't actually making less money than men," she said, loud enough to break up Michael and Valerie's chummy conversation.
Valerie looked over at Jennifer, dumbfounded. "What are you talking about?" she asked, pulling away from Michael. "Of course, we make less."
"On average, yes, women earn less money than men," Jennifer said. "But, when people make the argument that 'women make less than men,' they don't always take certain factors into account; factors like what women study in college, what types of jobs they have, and how many hours per week they work. Those all led to different wages."
Michael and I looked back and forth at each other, uneasy.
"Okay… but you also aren't taking into account that women have a much harder time negotiating a decent salary for themselves," Valerie said. "If we come off too strong, we're considered 'pushy' or a 'bitch'."
"That still doesn't explain the pay gap," Jennifer said. "Most jobs pay per hour and men, on average, work more hours."
"Women work long hours also."
"They don't as much."
"Maybe they can't because a lot of them have children to raise."
"True, but that's not because of discrimination in the workplace," Jennifer said. "It only means that men and women pursue different career choices."
Michael broke his silence, trying to put an end to the conversation. Jennifer wouldn't let him, though. "I'm curious," she said to Valerie, "What's your major?"
She said psychology, and looked confused about where this was going.
"Do you find it fulfilling?"
"So far, yes."
"Good for you," Jennifer said. "Women tend to choose majors they find fulfilling; childhood education, the humanities, nursing, social work. Those choices, though, usually led to lower-paying jobs. Men, on the other hand, those who don't work manual labor, tend to choose majors that led to more profitable careers; jobs in science, technology, engineering, mathematics."
Michael chimed in with a joke this time. "But, who the hell wants to go into those fields?" His laugh sounded desperate. "I would rather cut my own dick off," he added.
"I would too," Jennifer said, with a laugh.
Valerie wasn't laughing, though.
Michael tried putting his arm back around Valerie's waist. "I'm a film major," he said. "It's one of the most useless majors there is. So, I'm more fucked than you are."
"No, you're not," Valerie said, pushing him away. "You have certain advantages that other women and I don't have."
Jennifer laughed and took a sip of her gin and tonic. "Yes, men have advantages in society. But, so do women."
Valerie scoffed. "Like what?"
"Well, in the classroom, men and even young boys are barely tolerated if there's the slightest bit of 'male bravado.' Women, on the other hand, are generally given the benefit of the doubt." She asked the table, "Who here has gotten pulled over by a cop for a minor traffic violation and not been given a ticket?"
I shrugged my shoulders, like a five-year-old.
There was one time I didn't get a ticket," Michael said, reluctantly. He didn't want to say it, but he couldn't help himself. "It was a female cop who pulled me over and let me go."
"I've only gotten a ticket once," Jennifer said. "It was a female cop who pulled me over that time." She then asked Valerie, "What about you?"
"It's not my fault most cops are men," she said, with a grunt.
Jennifer, of course, knew everything she said, but I don't know if she believed it. Regardless, she liked the rise she got out of Valerie. She enjoyed the performance of it all. "And then there's the prison population," she continued. "The majority of people incarcerated are men, who also get harsher sentences for committing the same offense.
"Men also die," she laughed. "On average, they die younger than women because of the backbreaking hours they work. Men make up the overwhelming majority of workplace deaths and murder victims. They also make up the majority of military personnel. And speaking of the military, women say they want an equal role in the military. They say they want to fight and kill and even die, and yet they can't handle…"
Jennifer was losing focus, and she knew it. She stopped and took a minute to calm her nerves. "We're not as oppressed as you think," she said. "Women, in western countries, are the freest and most self-determined in the history of the world."
There was a long pause before Valerie spoke. "You can't tell me, though, that women don't lack a certain degree of power in society. We've elected a female president, and nearly half of all CEOs are women, but it's never enough."
Jennifer responded, "That isn't how you measure progress, though. None of that means women, in general, are doing better. White men run the country and they're killing themselves more than ever."
She took another moment to finish the last of her drink. "And besides… do you really want more women in charge. Don't we already hate each other as it is?"
Valerie didn't respond. If looks could kill, I remember thinking.
"Look!" Michael said, pointing to the stage. "It's starting!"
I was never so happy for something to start in my life. The bright, white lights on the rafters above shinned down as a young woman, maybe a year or two younger than me walked out from behind the stage curtain. Her glaring, radiant skin, which I would have given anything to touch, matched her low-cut tank top and briefs. There was nothing erotic or sexual about them. They were simple, and natural-looking, like the small breasts behind her top; her nipples poking out from behind the think, white cotton.
She stood at attention for a moment, then dropped down into an almost prone-like position. The sound of her hands smacking against the house floor echoed through the room, and she shot her head up to face everyone. She wasn't performing for the crowd, though.
The dance that followed wasn't so much a dance. It was more innate, and untaught. She glided, barefoot, around the stage and made her way over to the console. In one swift motion, she swept up something shiny from the top. She then raised her arms and clutched her hands together above her head. Her eyes were closed, and her toes (which you could see as she stood on the edges of her feet) curled on the stage.
You could feel everyone in the crowd holding their breath as she held the object between her hands. My heart pounded in my chest before working its way up into my throat. I knew what was coming, but I didn't know where it would be.
Her hands separated and one of her arms dropped. And, without warning, she moved the sharp, shiny object across the armpit that was exposed, causing a small but powerful spurt of blood to shoot out. Everyone in the room gasped and I could see, out of the corner of my eyes, both Michael and Valerie squirming in their seats.
"Shit," she said. "I've never seen it done there before."
"I know, right?" he said. "Good choice."
Jennifer sat in her chair, watching closely.
The young woman did the same to the other armpit before tossing the scalpel over her head and lifting her arms again. The white, blinding light above made her dark brown hair — as well as the rest of her body — look rather light, and what little clothing she wore mixed with her skin. But there was no mistaking the blood once it started flowing down her sides, legs, and onto the house floor where the dried-up black spots lay.
A burst of energy then came over her. She moved as free as anything I ever saw around the stage, leaving red trails everywhere she went. I watched, amazed by the lack of physical regard she had for her body and the speed at which she moved. Her hair, arms, and legs soared through the air while her movements became more frantic. She was still losing blood, though, and couldn't keep this up for much longer.
I wanted to know everything about her. What was her name? Had she done this before, or was this her first time? There was no sound; no music playing in the venue. So, I wondered what she was dancing to. What was she dancing for?
I looked over to see Michael and Valerie all over each other. One of his hands was deep in her crotch. The other was wrapped around her throat as she watched the performance. "That's right," Valerie muttered while looking at the woman on stage. "You bitch." She then faced Michael and the two locked lips, their tongues darting in and out.
The same excitement was common among the other attendees, particularly the women. The sensation that came over me next, I first attributed to the girl onstage. But then I noticed Jennifer's hand moving across my leg towards my thigh. She didn't look at me. She kept her eyes on the performer, not wanting to see the show Michael and Valerie were giving.
The performer's moves became clumsier. Her skin became paler. Her steps fewer and fewer until, finally, she stopped in the center of the stage. Barely able to stand, she ran her hands up her body, starting at her stomach and moving past her breasts and neck to her face. She then flung her arms out, as though she were reaching for something. She didn't know what it was, but it was something a girl her age would never know; something that hopefully would be lost forever. There was an anxiety in her eyes, however; a curiosity, a fear of what might replace it once it was gone.
She kept her arms stretched out as long as she could until she could no longer stand and collapsed on the stage.
Valerie left with Michael that night, but not before Jennifer asked me to come back with her. She made sure Valerie overheard. She thought about Michael later, and I thought of the performance artist.
While we laid in bed together, after the customary post-sex rundown, Jennifer told me not to worry. "She'll get stitched up and she'll be fine. They always are," she said. "A lot of the time it's not even real."
My best years have passed since that night. I still think about her often. What did she do with herself afterward? Did she ever perform again? And is she happy?
I asked Jennifer, "What is your major?"
"Why do they do it?"
"I think it's a catharsis of some kind. A salute to everything we left behind… and whatever we have become. Or will become. But I don't know. Performance art isn't really my thing."