Detail from Charles Sheeler's "American Interior," 1934. From the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery.

In the mid-nineties, when I was twenty-four years old, I walked across Manhattan to meet a powerful man in a luxury hotel suite.

This is not that story.

I’d met him a few weeks before, when I was working at a music festival out of town. He was the top-billed artist, not my idea of a rock star but somebody’s. I coordinated transportation for artists, so when this man’s airport pickup got botched—roadwork, a detour, a lost driver making up time, the car pulled over for speeding—I felt responsible. The driver described a grim silence while the officer issued the ticket. By the time they reached the hotel they were hours overdue. The rock star still said nothing, only handed the driver a hundred-dollar bill for the ticket.

The driver drove straight from the rock star’s hotel to my cheaper hotel, handed me the hundred, and advised me to reassign the morning pickup.

Because of course there was a morning pickup. All weekend long, we’d take care of this artist and we’d begun horribly. I grew up backstage, well-attuned to privacy issues, so I cringed to think of the trooper’s flashlight poked through the window and the rock star blinking in its beam. Of course it was a fiasco. Of course he was furious. Of course this failure—my failure—would reflect badly on the whole festival. Of course I must repair the damage.

A few minutes later I was at the door of his suite. I tried to leave the money and a note of apology in the lobby, but the clerk refused to accept any messages; instructions from the guest. Fortunately, I knew the room; I’d made the reservations.

I would have been wearing a t-shirt. I would have looked contrite, ashamed, deadly serious.

The rock star was nice about it all. He offered a few acerbic tips on the hiring of drivers, but after sufficient evidence of my misery, he accepted the money. Later I felt too agitated to sleep: not the effect of meeting him, but the understanding that everything else—every ride, every hotel encounter, every bottle of water—would have to be perfect.

The weekend went well. The rock star was friendly. After rehearsal, he asked me to suggest a restaurant where a few musicians—old friends—could meet for a quiet dinner. I made a reservation and gave half the party a ride in a rental car. When they invited me to stay, I declined. It didn’t seem right to barge in, and I had schedules to update, guests lists to check. When I came back, dessert was being served and everyone objected to my waiting outside. I probably had tiramisu.

The rock star was happy with his set. At the end of the festival he took me aside to recommend a book that changed his life. “Take my copy.” He offered to sign it for me. “But what should I say? I’m not sure what to say…” He stared at me; I couldn’t help him. When he finally decided, he scrawled a message and said we should get together once I’d started the book.

A few weeks later I was home, a boxy apartment on the Lower East Side. I lived with two guys, one in law school, one gearing up for business school. We were good friends but I was a little embarrassed when the calls began, a man leaving messages for me to call back. He gave his name as Pocahontas, or possibly Aladdin.

This is the story of why you go to the hotel. I ignored the calls because he was a musician and the festival season was over. I was exhausted and it took energy for me to be around people who were a big deal, people connected with work. I was busy at night, writing fiction I was certain would never be read. Also, I had begun the book that changed his life and hadn’t much liked it.

But the calls. Enough to irritate my roommates.

“What’s his deal?”

“It’s probably travel receipts.” He’d hand them off to his road manager, I figured.

“But who is he?”

“A musician. He uses false names in hotels.”

“Just tell him to stop calling.”

Of course I couldn’t be rude: the ticket, the dinner, the book… I wanted my roommates to understand, so I told them everything. The next time the rock star called, the law student informed him that we were not living in [the title of one of his songs]. The rock star hung up at once.

“That’ll stop him,” said my friend, in what I now applaud as an act of sense.

But back then, with so much to prove as a backstage underling, I was mortified. The rock star knew I’d violated his privacy. He’d already had to forgive me once. I might have to work with him again.

I called to apologize. “I wanted to see what you thought of the book,” the rock star said, a little sadly. “I’m only in town a few days. Come by. I don’t get a chance to talk about books with most people.”

Of course he preferred to stay in, where he wouldn’t be recognized. Of course I understood the lobby was too public. Of course, of course, of course.

When I tell this story now, it’s the story of how foolish I was. I went to the hotel because I was young enough to set off the way any man my age might have, my head full of duty, good will, remorse; and no room for the reason that actually mattered. How ridiculous to imagine anything other than the strawberries and champagne. How hilarious that even then I didn’t get what was happening.

It took a phone call from his wife to begin to make me understand, because he took my hands to apologize for “the interruption.” The hold light blinked; he’d take the call in the bedroom. “We talk every night. I promised I’d try harder. But it’s not easy.” He gazed at me, sighed. “You don’t make it easy.”

I would have been holding his book, which I’d read like homework. I would have looked uncertain, with no sense of myself as pretty and therefore no idea how to frame what he’d said.

He was still in the other room when I heard a knock and opened the door to the road manager. He looked at me sharply, a little confused: “Aren’t you…”

Then he placed me. His face changed. In his expression I saw exactly where I was, exactly what it meant, exactly how stupid I’d been. I pushed past him and fled.

Nearly twenty years later, I worked with the road manager again. All day long, he told me he was sure we’d met. “Did you ever tour with X? Did you ever work at Y?” Once his artist was safely onstage, we sat together. “C’mon, I remember you. I just can’t place it.”

I didn’t have to say much. “That was you! You were the girl who ran!”

“Because I saw the look on your face.” I meant this as a kind of thanks.

“Well,” he said slowly, “You didn’t look like that kind of girl.”

Most of us have dozens of stories. This is nowhere near my worst. I have no reason to think the rock star would have tried anything beyond more seduction-cliché. He might have chuckled at the misunderstanding, shaken my hand goodbye. But I couldn’t stick around to find out. Whatever happened next, however egregious, would have been read as my fault too. Hadn’t I come willingly?

This is a story about what girls must learn and how dangerous it can feel to learn it. We show up at the door with our books and ideas, our curiosity, our education, our work ethics, our determination to do well, our cultural training in deference and courtesy, our reluctance to cause a scene or the modesty that doesn’t permit us to imagine one, and we are taught that we had the terms wrong. All along there was a cruder scale. Picture us walking through a late summer evening in New York, the way our legs feel strong, the way we enjoy the breeze, the way we soften our opinion of a book a man admires to spare his feelings. Our thoughts unfold in any number of directions, our hearts are a rich and variegated terrain, but we are about to flatten to that kind of girl or not that kind of girl. There are punishments for both.

Nor are these stories confined to the stars in hotels. I’m thinking of the advice not to submit to a certain journal, because the editor “doesn’t like” stories in which women and children are central; or the meeting for a faculty hire, in which a committee member proposed that they could “do better” because the candidate wrote about “girls.”

This is a story about what we learn, and I learned to shut down men who cross the line with a bit of mock indignance. “And here I was,” I tell one or another, “thinking that you loved me for my mind.” We laugh and laugh at how absurd that would be.

Is this what we’re supposed to teach our girls? Remember, kiddos: during occasions of harassment, your minds become a useful joke. And what about anger, vitriol, abuse? Because if you roll this story over, it’s about what we put up with when we do know better. Recently an artist security guard had a fit over his difficulty working with “bitches and cunts,” and I was determined to prove that a woman could handle him. “I hear that,” I said soothingly. “But I’m the one with your passes.”

I don’t want my daughters to “hear that.” I don’t want them learning any of this. I feel the way I did when they were little, looking through a book of myths, and I tried to rush past the rape of Persephone. My four year-old flipped back and pointed to the illustration of a huge bearded man overpowering a winsome girl. A chasm yawned beneath his chariot. “There’s that bad guy, Hades,” my daughter said. She had taken to preschool like a convert, a tiny parliamentarian armed with new rules. “He wanted Persephone to come with him but he didn’t use his words.”

There will come a day—likely many, many days—when what we’ve taught our girls to cherish about themselves will not matter in the slightest to a man who has power over them. He will find it easy to discount their words; also their thoughts and feelings, their ambitions and achievements, their kindness, their anger; at worst, their free will. Such a man is now President. Clearly we must prepare our daughters. The local middle school addresses this by requiring girls to wear shorts nearly to their knees; an early lesson in you don’t make this easy. The culture is built on the premise that girls should grow up knowing how to withstand objectification, harassment, and abuse, because objectification, harassment, and abuse are endemic. It’s our job to leave the hotel, the culture tells us, or to never show up in the first place.

One of my daughters wants to please people and the other can’t be bothered. I have to be afraid for them both. I stare down the barrel of this cultural moment and see no way, literally no way, that these healthy, strong, intelligent people can walk through the world of men unscathed.

And I see no end to my fury about that. I imagine a rage so great that it could blot out the sun and lay waste to the earth—as if I were a goddess too, as if even a goddess could protect her daughters. But we all know better. That’s not the way this story ends.

 

Nalini Jones

Nalini Jones is the author of What You Call Winter and a recipient of an NEA fellowship, Pushcart Prize, and O. Henry Prize. Her work has appeared in PloughsharesOne Story and Elle India, among others, and in anthologies including AIDS Sutra and Freud’s Blind Spot. She lives in Connecticut and teaches fiction-writing at Columbia University’s School of the Arts.

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One Comment on “Not That Story

  1. Thank-you for the beautifully written and arresting piece. I’d love to read “Not That Story” in common with others (lots of others) as food for discussion.

    I’d start off suggesting that parents (especially fathers) to not “freeze” the way they treat their daughters as if they were, maybe, ten or eleven… as if sheltering them until they leave the house would actually help them navigate the adult world.

    The near-misses from mistakes made in young adulthood… By the time you stop making them, you are no longer a young adult. How do you know the lesson of Ms. Jones without an awful lot of preparation from your adult role-models? Are we too uncomfortable with the subject to discuss it with our adolescents and pre-adolescents?… too busy? … too shy? Whatever, the only satisfying thing we can do is to blow past our inhibitions to help them mold dearest children’s approach to decision-making… so that they have their own value judgment/assignment process in place… so that their reactions to risky situations, as they encounter them, are reflexive as well as informed.

    (At university, it was a requirement that we take course work in “Values”, which is distinguished from “morality”, and focused on processes we require to make value judgements. I thought it “valuable” at the time, and even more these days when it seems that almost no one in public life seems to be able to make a reasonable value assessment.)

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