Aimee Mann is, of course, second to none in the Deadpan Kiss-Off genre. But for me, this somber ballad from Welcome Home delivers a much more devastating blow in its recognition that when two people split, what’s lost is not just the attention they paid to each other, but the specific, inimitable quality of that attention. I’ve been hearing it in my head lately because I’ve been thinking about what it means to be watching someone and then to stop. Over the past couple of years, I had occasion to spend a lot of time doing the former, and now I don’t, and it feels strange, by which I mean uncomfortable and interesting.
From early on, I realized my watching was a form of love. Not idolatry or hero worship or fandom; the person I was watching could tap other sources for that kind of thing if he wanted. No, my watching was private and it held close knowledge of the ideation and practice and gruntwork and planning and late nights required to fill public watchers with awe. I had always thought awe was the best form of watching I could hope to experience in this life. But I was wrong. To watch in sympathy and understanding was so much better. There was a totality to it that closed a loop inside me.
In time I started to notice, though, that after an initial tsunami of attention to and praise for my own creative work, it kind of… ceased to be a topic between us. We were both looking at his but there wasn’t much looking back, no questions about how it was shaping up or what problems I was grappling with or what I wanted from it. Sometime during the first autumn, I mentioned this hesitantly to my friend C as we drank bitter, bright red Italian sodas at Oddfellows–hesitantly, because I felt selfish for caring at all, even immature for wanting external validation.
C said: “You know, the thing about women artists who fall for creatively brilliant men is that sometimes we project our own brilliance onto them to avoid fully stepping into our own creative power. We privilege their genius over our genius. And on some level, even when it’s unconscious, those men know what we’re doing, and they don’t mind one bit.”
“Oh, totally,” I said, meaning both “As usual, you are right” and “I’m going to pretend you mentioned this for reasons that have nothing to do with me.”
Winter and spring went by. In midsummer I told her: “I sent him about ten pages from the new book that I’m really proud of, just because I thought he might find them fun, and he said he was way too busy with work to look at them so he’d just wait and read them when the book comes out in a couple of years.”
I said I had been somewhat nonplussed by that response. Just the week before, he’d blogged several thousand words arguing with a decade-old review of his own work, but he didn’t have twenty minutes for mine?
“Of course you’re nonplussed,” she said. “You’re Kristi fucking Coulter and you’re not used to being treated like that.”
“I guess not,” I said. “But then why do I feel embarrassed for sending the pages in the first place? Why do I feel like some pushy dilettante asking for the Great Man’s attention?”
“You know,” C said, “the thing about women artists who fall for creatively brilliant men is that sometimes we project our own brilliance onto them to avoid fully stepping into our own creative power. We privilege their genius over our genius. And on some level, even when it’s unconscious, those men know what we’re doing, and they don’t mind one bit.”
“There are these flashes where he seems to really see how hard I work and how good I am,” I said. “Those flashes are like a drug. They vanish so fast and all I want to do is chase them.”
“Rat pellets,” C said. “It’s to the advantage of Great Men to keep us nervous and uncertain and they know how to dole out just the right amount of rat pellets to make it happen.”
“I guess that makes me the rat.”
“We’ve all been the rat,” she said. “Also, don’t forget: you’re an alcoholic. We alcoholics love our rat pellets.”
I sighed. “I just wish I could stop blaming myself for wanting a little more.”
“You know,” C said, “the thing about women artists is….”
Six months later I watched him for the last time, in circumstances best described as “highly janky,” though I didn’t know it then. I had challenged him to a mildly racy dare that night, and when he didn’t even acknowledge it I felt bad that I’d tried to dilute his focus with my dumb boy-girl stuff. Later on, when I understood what had actually been going on, the memory of watching took on a layer of grease that I definitely could have lived without. But the grease lives on the scene, not my eyes. They’re clear, and strangely peaceful now that they’re not looking for those flashes anymore, now that I’ve been locked out of a room that was just never going to have enough air for both of us no matter how much I longed for it. And my work has been on fire, my synapses turbocharged, all because I gave up hope.
I think the way I watch has been changed forever, and I’m not sorry about that. Show me how your story drafts evolved. Play me the demos that went nowhere on their own but whose best parts found homes in other songs. Walk me through your series pitch, or the spiel that landed your Series B funding. Teach me how to mix paint. I’ll hold the level when you hang a show. Don’t try to awe me. Just bring me in, but also: look back at me and understand that my gaze is not a commodity. It’s a gift. Please return it.