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Observations

 

1

I had heard from several people that she was now working in a lap-dancing club, and also that she was taking quite a lot of drugs. Of course many people say after a relationship break-up that they want the best for their ex-partner, but did I really want Myriam to be happy on the basis of her pronouncements when we split up? We parted halfway into a trip through Eastern Europe, after she went out one evening on her own and met some people who flattered her so completely that she decided she would rather be in their company than mine. She supposedly ended up having an affair with one of them, and, a friend of hers told me months later, a threesome that involved another girl. Myriam had said to me that I didn’t want to experiment with my life: I had said maybe I was too old to be interested in a certain type of experimentation (I was thirty three; she was twenty one), and that it smacked to me of another escape from reality. Shouldn’t real experimentation come from confronting reality not escaping from it? Perhaps I was condescending, superior, smug – all terms thrown at me – but was I right? Let’s just say this is a story of two tapes, a few observations and, possibly, on the narrator’s part, an emotional striptease to match that of Myriam’s elaborate undressing.

2

I would see Myriam in the street or in a café every couple of months, and we would talk briefly, stiltedly and then move on. I would have liked to have talked more but she would always say she was in a hurry, and it wasn’t until friends told me she was working in a strip bar that I could make sense of this cold-shouldering. When I was going out with her, friends and ex-boyfriends were always treated with the utmost cordiality, and time was always spared. Even if she didn’t care very much for the person, she would still spend a few minutes chatting because, she said, it was part of her value system, part of being brought up in Bosnia in a Muslim family. Working in a strip bar though presumably meant that her values had shifted, and she no longer needed to respect a social custom, when the social customs would now have no respect for her. Then again she could have just cold-shouldered me for another reason. True after it was over, after returning to the city, I asked her not to phone me, but that was because I had nothing positive to say, and I had no interest in insulting her further.  I had also during the trip come so close to slapping her during one moment where I felt she’d given me no credence, where she lied and then smirked when she thought I’d believed the lie, that I was worried I might really do it the next time we would meet.

But then things move on – she went through a couple of other boyfriends; I caught up with somebody I had a brief fling with years before when I visited New York, and both of us had travelled around a bit – me to Mexico and Turkey and a few times to France; her, I’d heard, to India.  So I thought everything was dormant enough for a friendship to evolve out of an old relationship: from what I had heard the boyfriends weren’t very reliable, and she was confused and unhappy much of the time. When you add a strip club and drugs to a Muslim background that had been rejected, confusion seemed almost inevitable.

One or two friends asked if I didn’t want to go and see her at work. I didn’t even know which club she was working in, and, curiously, never at that time really tried to find out. Maybe she moved from club to club, I didn’t know. There was one night when I bumped into her dressed up in stripper style gear as she was walking towards Haymarket; and another when she seemed to have recently finished work and had just come from the top of the Grassmarket: two different parts of town suggesting she had moved from working in one club to another, or worked in more than one. Beyond that I hadn’t thought much about it.

3

A year or so after we’d split up, I found myself teaching a film course each term. The students would usually go for drinks after the class and I would often join them. One or two of them were budding filmmakers, and one night I got into a conversation with one who talked a lot about the voyeuristic aspect of film, and how central to learning his craft, he insisted, was observation. He explained he lived in a good location for observing people. He lived just next to a main road and when he said where it was I realised he was a near neighbour of Myriam’s. He would often save footage that he’d recorded. The following week after all the others had left the two of us talking film, we again touched upon the voyeuristic aspect of cinema, and I explained I had an ex-girlfriend who lived not far from where he lived, and that he probably had recorded footage of her walking home late at night. I didn’t divulge exactly what she did: I said she worked in a bar.

Over the next few weeks, right up until the end of the term, I would find myself getting into conversations about the ethics of film with Steve and with one or two others, but usually we would be the last two still in the pub after everybody had gone home. On one of these weeks, in fact shortly before the end of term, I was more specific: I said Myriam (whom Steve had very briefly met when she wandered into the pub we frequented looking for someone, said hi and promptly left) was working as a stripper in a club somewhere in town, and I was fascinated by how she appeared not so much when she stripped but when she would be walking home afterwards. I didn’t say much more than that, but later, walking home myself, I thought back to how she would often feel after we would make love: how she would say she should have been a virgin and no matter how much she enjoyed sex, no matter how tender I was, a sense of despair would overwhelm her afterwards. How would she feel, I wondered, after spending the night stripping? If I were to visit her whilst she was at work, I somehow felt I should first of all witness her mood after work, and not during it.

The following week, after the final class of the term, I was talking to Steve for maybe half an hour and said I had a very strange request. I wanted to know if he would lend me the tapes of any weekend footage he’d recorded. I simultaneously lied lightly and revealed concretely: I explained my ex-girlfriend was maybe involved in dubious activities at the bar she was working in, and I wanted to know if she was okay. Steve looked at me as if it was both a strange request and a poorly explained rationale, but accepted. After all, in our late night talks I knew that his interest in the seamier side of life wasn’t only professional. Sure he was working on a script that incorporated the sex industry and drugs, but this seemed more than just an issue of profession; it seemed closer to a vocation.

He gave me the tapes when we met up a few days later and, watching the tapes later at home, sure enough on two of them there she was walking home at about I would guess two thirty in the morning. Steve would say he generally recorded between midnight and four, and she would turn up half to three quarters of the way through the tape. I got a better view of her than I might have thought: Steve obviously decided she was one of the more attractive or interesting girls walking along the street and so he had zoomed in frequently – even at one stage he’d obviously moved from one room to another to get a better view. Watching this footage felt doubly voyeuristic, or even equally voyeuristic to watching Myriam in a club. I felt Steve watching her as much as I was watching the footage.

4

Now one of the things that I found most interesting about Myriam, and something I noticed even the first time I saw her, was a kind of collapsed look in repose. If it was true that her face came alive when she smiled, it could fall apart altogether when a mood or memory caught her as if by surprise. She said I was the only person who ever really noticed; and this scared her she said. It suggested I knew her better than anybody, and knew it with merely a sense of observation. Months later, after we’d split up and I saw her in an Edinburgh café with a new boyfriend and her brother, I observed the same expression in repose on her brother’s face. It was a distraught look, a look not so much of madness but of someone looking at a world they found mad. That was more or less how Myriam would sometimes describe the world to me: that nothing made sense, nothing seemed real.

So watching the footage I looked to see if this expression was on her face, and sure enough there it was, a troubled, yet not at all pensive look that seemed unable to make sense of the reality around her. It was this look more than any other that provoked in me a feeling of what I can only call love, just as I feel if I went to the strip club, and she had this huge smile that would sometimes be so emphasized her teeth would stick to her gums, I would feel a sense of loathing. I recall reading once somewhere that for some men the pleasure of being with a woman resides chiefly in the look on her face as she orgasms. Was there something in me that loved most in a woman another private aspect that the world rarely sees, except that for me this aspect was hardly hidden from view; it merely demanded someone empathic enough to view it? I found it so strange that I was the only one, Myriam believed, who really saw that expression.

But after witnessing the footage I felt a great urge to see her work in one of these clubs, to see how she would manage to keep a smile on her face for a whole evening. All that following week, after viewing the tapes, I would frequent a different strip bar each night. During that first week, having covered all the strip bars and lap-dancing clubs in town, I didn’t see Myriam. Maybe I turned up at the right club on the wrong night, on a night she wasn’t working, or maybe she was away somewhere, out of town. Each night in the club I’d chosen I would spend just about the time it would take to drink a pint slowly: about an hour or so. During that period I would maybe see three or four different strippers, and I noticed as they danced they had a similar look on their face to that Myriam would often have when we were conversing and socialising with people. Sure on occasion she would drop this façade without falling completely into that melancholy state I suspected she shared with her brother, and perhaps other members of her family. It would often be after we had watched a film, or read passages from a book together, or were sitting talking about one’s life with friends, and what gives it purpose and meaning. But most of the time I would be witnessing a stranger faking happiness, or someone being happy but somehow in the process having eradicated all past experiences to live in this immediate present. I wanted to know if this is what I would see on Myriam’s.

5

The following week I was out of town and thought intermittently about Miriam, her walks home after work, her stripping in the club, but it never really preoccupied me.  I still loved her, I supposed, but in a way that caused me no pain, but still a great deal of concern. I needed to feel she was okay.

When I returned, I thought rather than going to all the clubs again I would phone her and find out if she were around. As I moved to pick up the phone and call I discovered myself strangely nervous, the sort of nervousness one feels if someone possesses a certain control over us, or of someone to whom we’re very attracted, having given us their number, whom we then contact. But I remember when I made that call, that first call to Myriam after we’d met and talked and she’d given me her number, I didn’t feel nervous in the same way. There was something in this call that made me much more on edge. I suppose before all I needed to do was ask her out, that I knew so little about her then that almost all the feelings when I picked up the phone and called were anticipatory; on this occasion so many of the feelings were based on reflection.

As it happened a man answered. I asked if Myriam was in and he said no she was out – she would be back later. I asked at what time. He said who was calling. I offered my name, and he said he would give her the message. So at least she was in the city. That evening I started going to the strip clubs again, and on the third night of visiting them – a Friday evening – as I waked in I noticed Myriam at the bar talking to one of the barmen. It was about nine, and a few minute after she’d disappeared, the barman picked up a microphone from behind the bar and introduced the first dancer. All the way from the Orient, he said, comes Samira, to offer us some Turkish delight. I wasn’t of course surprised she had adopted another name, nor that she had decided to play Turkish on this occasion. But we had talked so much about the exploitation of exoticism in the West, and how she hated being referred to as exotic, that it seemed especially bad faith that she was using it for her show.

She came out wearing a belly dancing outfit, a shimmering gold top and a long flowing black skirt – an outfit she’d worn once or twice when she had belly-danced for me. She was also wearing a gold band around her head to keep back her long, straight black hair.

There were maybe thirty people in the pub now, and as she danced in front of them on a small stage with a pole dancing bar in its centre, I tried to catch the look on some of the men’s faces as they watched. The looks were often simultaneously longing and lustful, and I thought it was a response Myriam could bring out in men more than most. She was never really a cold person (which was why her response to me since we split up surprised me so much), and she possessed a superficial openness that could make men fall in love with her very quickly. She would be very tactile, give away her phone number with barely a thought, and smoked a rolled-up cigarette in an inept yet seductive manner. She would constantly re-light the scrappy little roll-up that had been made so badly she would have to constantly re-light it; and in the re-lighting she would look down as she re-lit it, and then would half look up again, taking a deep inhalation as she looked across at the person she was in the process of seducing.

I think it was because thoughts like these occurred to me that I lacked this emotional yearning as she twirled around the floor and started slowly removing her clothes. As she did so I moved a little closer to the stage. When she noticed me, the smile that was on her face became subtly different, as if frozen not because she was forced to smile for business, but forced to smile because if she didn’t she would burst into tears. I knew that my presence, and her awareness of my presence, shamed her, but she continued her performance nevertheless. Now, though, it seemed less an erotic performance than one increasingly shameful, as she removed her black bra and exposed her breasts, as she then removed her black panties, throwing them in my direction. The others whooped and laughed, with a few looking across with an envious glance, as though she had offered them to me as a precursor.

After the performance I quickly left. As I walked home I felt an anger welling up inside me – but with what or with whom? With Myriam, with the club, with the whole sordid nature of the place, or even with myself, somehow still fascinated by a woman I should have long since extricated from my emotions. With other ex-girlfriends my feelings towards them were still there, but only as tenderness and a worry for their well-being. But I couldn’t help but feel with Myriam that there was a resentment that I could only describe as schadenfreude. I wanted her to suffer, yet suffer not so terribly that her life was at risk, but suffer enough so that she would have to escape this non-life, this life that seemed willing to sacrifice an inner being.

6

Some might say that, unlike with other girlfriends, I was still in love with Myriam, and this would explain why I felt so despondent that night and angry with her more generally. But if that were partly true, I think it was much more the fact that I could see in her initially when we met, a burgeoning respect for herself, for other human beings, for the possibilities in exploring rather than exploiting others, and exploiting herself.

That evening back at the flat I put into the V.C.R. not one of Steve’s videos, but one that a friend of Myriam’s recorded a year before. It was during a concert, and Myriam was the singer-songwriter who sang about her country. Again Myriam was to some degree the exotic other, the poet from the Balkans exploring her own and her country’s turmoil. But as she sang, I sensed someone exploring that otherness rather than exploiting it. And as she did so, I saw many different looks on that face, a range of thoughts and feelings that suggested each line of each song reflected a truth she was searching out even if she knew not exactly what that truth might be. It was a face that resembled the face she would have in many of our conversations, and conversations with friends, enquiring, open and energized by the possibilities available in one’s own mind.

When I compare that face to the one I had seen earlier that day, with its monotone grin, or the downcast face present in Steve’s videos, I believe that all I wanted for Myriam was the face that contained a flicker of multifaceted thought and feeling. I certainly wouldn’t want her back, want her to be with me, but something in me would still like to be part of that process in bringing her back to herself, to finding the possibilities within her. This isn’t finally an anti-stripping or an anti-drugs story, but it seems with Myriam at least the two conjoined eradicated those flickering possibilities for a complicated but revelatory life and replaced them with what I felt was a lazy despair, the despair of one who cannot see the soul in herself and consequently can’t see it in others. She may have said on numerous occasions that writing songs, thinking, reading, generated despair within her, but it was an exploratory troublesomeness that she thought allowed her to understand better the world and her place within it. It was this apparent rejection that was so bleak, and it is this physical revelation as opposed to an emotional one I hope she’ll find a way to turn away from.

As I look back on the story I’ve written I feel a little as if I have tried to find an emotional correlative to her stripping on stage, to try and capture instead some of the truth that was in her songwriting, a nakedness of thought and feelings. Perhaps I have succeeded; perhaps it’s not for me to know. I sometimes wonder, though, when I think about what I’ve put down on paper, that it is simply something written down in a notebook, an idle luxury in a life that earns a modest income from writing reviews for mainstream papers and teaching some courses at the university: a halfway house between self-expression and financial reward that, usually, suits me and satisfies me.

But I sometimes imagine: what if the self-expression took the form of stories for which no one would give me any money (like this very one here), and the income I earned elsewhere had nothing to do with who or what I perceived myself to be? And what if I came to a culture that was wary of me and yet at the same time desired my exotic beauty? This story may be about the nature of striptease – one person removing their clothes; another trying to reveal something about themselves – but perhaps what is required is something else entirely: a delicate, fumbling attempt to try and make sense of someone else’s mind. I sometimes also wonder whether somewhere, in a notebook, or in the form of a song, Myriam has written something that muses over why I happened to watch her take her clothes off one evening in an Edinburgh strip bar. I  find myself thinking too whether we might ever show each other what we’ve written.

 

©Tony McKibbin