One year ago this month, I dodged a bullet and ran straight towards another; one year ago this coming month, I dodged that one, too. I’ve had a strange love year, this year, and what I’ll most remember about it is that sentence: “You dodged a bullet.”
It’s meant to be reassuring: a friend’s arm around you, a deep sigh, as you’re steered away from the scene of a great emotional crime or the hot mess of a person. The chorus of Broken Social Scene’s “Ibi Dreams of Pavement” warns us against the hubris of taking on too much, the danger of engaging with others’ grotesque failings: “And if God is what they made / cut their hands off, believers / Don’t get high on what you create.” You end up on a couch with someone, recounting all the red flags: the smoking, the rehab, the silence about the future, the over-promising about the future, the annoying friends, any fact that didn’t seem to want to touch you, etc. “I knew those things bothered me. I knew it from the start,” you say, confused. And your friend pours you more red wine and pats your hand. “You don’t have to care about those things anymore. You dodged a bullet.”
But every time I hear that phrase, I feel bad, for a lot of reasons.
Because it puts me in a superior position, and that feels a little . . . superior. And does this bother me because I don’t feel better than someone else or because I do?
I know I’m not a perfect partner: I don’t make much money, if that’s important to you. I’m a little helpless when it comes to technology and more than a little lazy. I always want every dead horse beaten to a pulp, by which I mean I can never let anything go. I make irritating generalizations about men. I have the occasional drunken outburst; at least twice, boyfriends have told me they don’t enjoy having to pour me into a car after weddings. But it’s also true that my life has so few concrete, “big” complications: no child, no lurking ex, a stable career and a job I love. My physical health is fine. I am emotionally happy, for the most part, and have been for years. No one’s coming for me—creditors, former lovers, etc. But that’s mostly just Doing Life and either not having made some of the Big Choices or having managed their consequences by this point in time. I hate writing this paragraph because it sounds like bragging. And maybe that’s why my friends want to say it for me: “You dodged a bullet. That person doesn’t have himself together. You do. And you deserve better.” I get that it’s good to be met as an equal. Why do I still feel bad about asserting my own togetherness, much less the relatively high-functioning nature of that togetherness, as a standard by which I will search for others?
Because it makes me too aware of generic definitions of togetherness, and I hate the generic?
But “having yourself together” . . . there’s got to be some mathematical term, some biological concept, for a series of evolving wholes. The Barback once told me his ex-girlfriend thought he had it together because he had a car, a child, a cool apartment, and was going back to school. “I told her, ‘Yeah, but I’m just THIS CLOSE to it all collapsing, to not having it together,'” he said. Life, for him, was always just one step away from going on hold; it would take just one attack of his chronic illness to eradicate a new path. At least, that’s what he felt. And I thought THAT was a red flag in and of itself: that he saw Life as a series of infinite dangers, that if one block crumbled, the whole wall would fall and there’d be no rebuilding. It was a red flag because this belief was predicated on another red flag: he had no faith that anyone would stick around to help him rebuild. He wouldn’t let you. That is, he wouldn’t let me. One unkind word from him, two unkind words from me. He claims I was the bullet. I claim he was the gun.
While I do like to think my form of togetherness has a sustainability, a resilience, I do understand how wholeness itself might be, at times, circumstantial, a fortuitous intersection of the right conditions with one’s desires. Deleuze and Guattari, in fact, saw the body itself as a fluid whole, ever becoming, a shifting series of plateaus (a “thousand,” in their most famous work), rhizomes spreading out, forming subjectivities, plural. What could it mean to be “together,” when one’s own criteria for being (much less those of another, imposed upon one) change as we age?
What it could mean is that one is possibly both the target and the bullet.
Because when someone tells a woman she dodged a bullet, there’s a kind of reinforcement that the smartest way to be in a relationship is to maintain a level of emotional safety, to choose only partners who won’t require excessive care from you. And that seems . . . like the worst version of the worst masculine stereotype.
I Googled “dodged a bullet,” just to see what came up, and it was pretty awful, but it was mostly pretty awful because it seemed like there were a lot of links for men about “crazy women” and how a guy could know whether he’d dodged a bullet. I won’t provide links to these. They were callous, and they were cruel, but the overall tenor of them was this: you dodged a bullet if she’s “making a big deal” out of something–the relationship, the break-up, etc. “Making a big deal,” “causing drama” . . . all these seemed like euphemisms for “caring,” to me. But instead of “caring,” the word these sites used was this: “insecure.”
If you’ve read my other essays about The Barback, this conflation of vulnerability and insecurity might sound familiar. And it does still anger me—not, I feel certain, because I am “insecure” but because he judged my admission of vulnerability from a place of distance, when he had been requiring that his own admissions be met with love. His vulnerability was “self aware” and “rational”; mine was “insecure” and “dark.” Leslie Jamison’s beautiful essay “In Defense of Saccharin(e)” thinks through the myriad ways we in academia are taught to avoid excess, to refine our feelings and thinking while rejecting refined sugar in any form, aesthetic or otherwise, as if, in doing so, we can prove our superiority to feeling, that we’re better than simple emotions leading us to clear-cut disasters of feeling, smart enough to know what feelings are worth it and which are not:
We dispatch entire works, entire genres in the clean guillotine strokes of these words: saccharine, syrupy, sentimental. It’s as if sentimentality is something we don’t need to define. We only need to hate it, shield ourselves from it, articulate ourselves against it—thus asserting that we are arbiters of artistry and subtlety, an elite so sensitive we don’t need the same forceful quantities of feeling. We will subsist more delicately, we say. We will subsist on less. In this, we make sure we’re not mistaken for the rest of the world, whose sensibilities are too easily moved by crude surfaces of feeling or meaning. We don’t examine the contours of sentimentality, we simply eschew them. We don’t worry about the fine line between melodrama and pathos, we simply assert that we’re camped on the proper side of the divide.
In one strand of the essay, a younger Jamison eschews “girly drinks” for whiskey, a strategy to look tougher, smarter—to look, frankly, “male.” It is a strategy of which I am guilty—as if whiskey will inoculate me against the bullet I’m clearly courting, a way to have my deep feelings and still seem “securely” invulnerable from them.
Near the end of “Ibi Dreams of Pavement,” the lyrics link “dodging a bullet” to not only vulnerability but to love and, particularly, women’s love:
And if love is what they gave,
Turn wives into healers
Don’t get high on what you create
Or it might just steal ya
Excessive caring is “feminine.” Taking care of yourself and not caring are “masculine.” And the gendering of it all—of avoiding those who will “cause drama” or who aren’t as “together” as we are, the cautioning against a wife becoming healer . . . it makes me think that what troubles me most about the phrase “dodging a bullet” is that it encourages us all, women and men, to think of caring about those who need care as involving oneself in an act of danger, an obliteration of the individual self.
Which, in fact, it is. Or, at the least, isn’t there is an alteration of the self because it has put itself in the way of vulnerability, in the path of something fast moving and vital?
But isn’t all vulnerability a risk? And don’t we cringe at that cliché because we want to believe someday, we will understand fully all the warning signs in advance and do everything just right, as if the signs don’t change as often as what counts as danger for us as we grow, our thousand plateaus shifting?
I know that there are risks and RISKS. I don’t want to take care of someone who won’t take care of me. I don’t want to be with someone I cherish but who won’t mirror back the courage I try to have when I stand in the way, willingly, of what makes them crumble. I don’t want someone who will not sweetly, graciously catch me when someday I also fall. A yoga teacher used to end class by encouraging us to “protect your heart with wisdom—give your heart with courage.” I’ve thought a lot about the first part of this . . . but isn’t it painful to think of so many people as bullets, of ourselves in need of so much protection, as if giving weren’t, itself, eventually to be the result?
Don’t I carry within the barrel of my own heart, a bullet I hope, some day, someone won’t dodge?