In her column, Body Language, Tracy O’Neill considers how our physical selves relate to one another and the world.
I lived for years and sometimes still live with a man who opened up his boyhood quickly to me. “When I was nine,” he told me one early Christmas in the relationship, “I destroyed a public statue of Feliks Dzierżyński!” It was Communist Poland. Workers were revolting against Soviet influence, and someone raised him on shoulders to better throw jars of paint. He went home to his mother with a hunk of stone from the pedestal that had held a body signifying the betrayal of an entire country in the Red Terror.
“I was playing,” the man said. “I didn’t know what anything meant then.”
We met working in a disorienting place, a place where, most of the time, you couldn’t see very far in front of you and then, intensely, momentarily, in a strike of strobe you would, and you saw bodies like undulating pixels. In the beginning, I saw him only in flashes, but in stories, a human figure was assembled, and so I returned the telling, recounting the time I threw each possession in a childhood friend’s bedroom from its assigned surface. Displacement was the game of it, like shoveling sand or leaping into mounded leaves, but the incident disturbed the parents. Now, I thought it was ironic. For adults, or physicists anyway, the product of displacement and force is called work.
I’ve since sometimes suspected that play is what happens in the absence of naturalized meaning. I think of music, and I think of sports. A play on words hinges upon double meanings, and there is the way the noun form of the word can denote free motion, or action for pleasure, or an elusive change or transition of light or color.
“Don’t play me,” the person says who is afraid the other will not mean what it seems she suggests.
That Christmas, see-sawing between our pasts, he recalled receiving an extraordinary orange toy box his
father had brought home from a trip to America, and I recalled offering birthday
party guests a piece of foam toy toast. He explained
that extraordinary box had once held Tide laundry detergent. I explained
that foam toast, when wet, looked smothered with jam .
He talked about all the toys he’d ever loved: a set of carved blocks, balls, a
planter full of sand. I talked about the toys given to me as birthday gifts: a
plastic guitar, a bride’s dress, a veil.
But as a child, I was often confused about what to do with toys, what playing with them would entail. I was disinterested in the cause-and-effect implicit in the baby doll someone gave me which, when you poured water in its mouth, would yellow the plastic diaper with fake pee. Instead I favored sand and gravel and park structures where recreation did, in fact, correspond with recreating your orientation within space. Tag is not what I’m talking about. I preferred playground play to playground games. Games have rules, constraints, winners, losers. They are often accompanied by some disciplinary gaze, either within or without, demanding a particular orientation or conduct toward other players.
In Mythologies, brilliant structuralist killjoy Roland Barthes—and I invoke killjoy with admiration; George W. Bush was the presidential candidate with whom polled independents preferred to have a beer in 2004—cast toys as miniature adult objects, training tools for the bourgeoisie. Dolls are meant to condition young girls to mother, and toys “are meant to produce children who are users, not creators.” Barthes would say that a life of objects was already invented for me—the little wife with her spongy toast!—but toys do not necessarily imply play beyond play-acting, and play does not carry the requirement of toys.
At the playground, gravity doesn’t tether. It’s a thrill on the skin like wind, as a swing takes the backward curve. The playground reframes the senses, particularly sight. On a slide, the horizon swipes up as one moves. One might walk with the hands, fist to fist on monkey bars. Or the same technology might afford a reversal of sky and earth in a hanging from the knees. Where the rest of life routinizes a perpendicular attachment to the ground, the playground provides alternative visual fields. Strange, changing angles and attendant vagaries of vision replace the tunneling movement toward destination.
Playground play cannot be mistaken for adult life. It is not always compliant with common-sense consequences, the rules whereby water leads to pants-pissing accidents. It is not married with children and a Fisher-Price logo and no taxes. The converse is true too. Playgrounds are not generally for adults. I don’t have the qualifications to enter one anymore, and may never. Many cities ban childless adults from park playgrounds. The mayor of Hollywood, Florida, says their ban was passed in response to parents who have observed “really strange people walking around.”
Today, there are few designated public spaces for non-minor play. Instead, normative adult play is sexual, the stuff of the private sphere. The Big Pun song goes: “I’m not a player, I just fuck a lot.” Even the words “play” and “toy” arrive with schematized porny valence in the world of grown people. Consider the true sentence “Barthes endorsed playing with wood.” Invite someone to come play.
The year I began seeing the man who had destroyed Dzierżyński, I heard the La Roux song “I’m Not Your Toy” at every party. I had known him one year when he began picking me up for coffee on a BMX bike that he pedaled through New York City traffic as I stood balancing my feet on the back tire pegs and holding his stomach. At six or seven in the morning, when we were very tired after our shifts, he built cocktail straw teepee houses to float on the rocks of my whiskey. If we were ambitious, we walked to Sullivan Street Bakery for the first morning bread, and there would be flour on his face when the sun was pinking the sky. Once, when we were not specifically together—that is, when we had not made promises about how to relate into perpetuity—he insisted on purchasing pastry for my family before I went to visit them. He was fresh out of a marriage, and I didn’t own a bed.
Aural Sex was the title of the first mix CD I made him, and the mix CD he made for me was not a mix but a pirated album with sad lyrics. The concept of a mix, I explained to him, was to terrorize the plot of the album, so that in the playing, it did not reproduce what already existed everywhere for everyone. This was what I wanted generally, and I was sure it was easy enough, taking continual delight to be augured by the dear, fuck-up charm of our mishaps: him losing his shoe in the mass of people ecstatically pushing each other at a concert from which we later hopped home, me licking from the wrapper a gifted candy hippo crushed shapeless in his pocket, or us falling asleep midsentence on other people’s couches.
But almost everything I said then disposed him to believe I didn’t care about him. “I don’t know why people decide to be in relationships,” I said. I meant it. I was curious and ignorant and didn’t know longstanding couples with a sense of play. Then during a car accident, when I thought I would die, struck and floating across lanes of traffic, I wished I had told this man I loved him. When it turned out I lived, I didn’t say it. My words instead were Merry Christmas , and he sent me a photograph of his ex-wife’s cat.
Sometimes, we tossed a football together. He wanted to play tennis, but I’d never learned. He wanted to swim in lakes, but I was terrified, for some reason, of swimming in a repository of water that had not been designed for swimming. I couldn’t explain this fear, that I didn’t know what a lake was for.
After two years, I capitulated. We woke up very late and drove upstate. It was five o’clock when we arrived, and we hadn’t yet eaten. When I breathed, I saw lights that didn’t exist. He decided we should swim across the lake and back.
“Why are you testing me?” I shouted, weak and still scared halfway through the lake, to which he said he wasn’t. “Then what is this for?” I said. These questions I again asked when he sped us on an ailing motorcycle and I wondered how desirable the oath of parting at death is when you uphold the promise too quickly. These questions I asked when, complaining of sickness from a round of Plan B, he said, “So next time, don’t take it.”
This was also the season that every dog broke my heart. I lost my way sometimes looking at other people’s retrievers. In moments of melodrama, I believed I would never again be happy without one of my own.
The day I went to adopt, we drove to Massachusetts. The shelter woman warned me that this puppy, a cubbish male, didn’t like people. He was fearful, a mixed breed from the South.
“He’s difficult,” she remarked. “Remember you don’t have to adopt anyone.”
Then she opened a door and a scared, clumsy blur ran until he fell into a table leg. I bent down and he came to my arms. Cowboy I called him, and he was the softest life I’d ever held. On a grocery stop on the way back to New York, the man I didn’t yet live with carried Cowboy in his arms, brilliant with pride.
“We have a puppy,” he whispered. I guess that’s what it looked like to the other shoppers: a woman and a man alternating the cradling of a baby dog.
“This is my dog, Cowboy,” I told everyone I saw, especially the man holding him. I wanted someone to play with but, too, I wanted to create the rules for my animal.
The man moved in, and I stopped working at night. We did not toss the football anymore. We did not ride precariously two to a BMX bike. We went to see a Gustav Metzger exhibition that was like a horrible playground. You had to crawl beneath a blanket over a photograph of suffering people on their knees, so that to look was also to be empathically oriented toward the subjects. He made declarations about how we would live in a sailboat parked in a cement lot in Brooklyn and only vacation when we could do so for a month or more. I made borderline abusive remarks about a weak grasp on the reality of adulthood. I insulted him for playing with his food, for hounding my friends to play ping-pong or pool at bars. I began to argue about definitions. He believed love meant not making someone feel bad. I believed love meant washing laundry and doing drugs openly.
“English is not my first language,” he said.
One evening, when I was picking up takeout, the pizza man told me that on the phone my fiancé had specified broccoli rabe on the side.
“Who is that?” I asked.
“Don’t you know?” the pizza man said.
The neighbors began to call the man who lived with me my husband. They described a guy with tattoos who opened the door for me to the only truck on the block I ever entered, with whom I walked a black dog. I can see how it looked, but I continued to correct their diction.
“His wife was the woman who lives in France,” I said.
In the years after we danced to the song about the woman who was not a toy, his father was dying and we got fired and my parents lost their house and we said we were lucky because of each other and he forgot in the pages of which book he’d saved rent money and his father was dead. We bought clothes to fit into new lives and our living room was filled with a picnic table. We went to hospitals and his idea of discipline training was dancing with the dog and we never both had insurance. I washed laundry. I found baggies hidden under the sink. I came to think his plays on words were not funny unless they were at his own expense. I threatened to record our conversations so he could not take creative license with history. At the laundromat, in silent rage, I would look at a Tide box and try to see what it looked like to a little boy in Warsaw 1989. In our messes and ruined things, all the displaced household objects, I would try to perceive play. But I would not allow the man to take my dog into the playground to toss wooden sticks.
“The playground is for playing,” he said.
“It’s for human children,” I said. “Neither of you are both, though both of you think otherwise.”
We didn’t have a yard, and he found the rules of public spaces oppressive. “Then where can we go?”
“Utopia,” I said, in the sense of no place.
We traveled five hours to a used bookshop that was someone’s crowded house to buy a rare book, the Blok artist Władysław Strzemiński's Teoria Widzenia , or Theory of Vision . The man I lived with already owned a copy, but it was wearing at the binding, and he was afraid of losing pages. It is not a book that can be found at any library. It is not even a book that can be found at any Polish library.
In Teoria Widzenia , Strzemiński advanced a proposition: Vision is not a discrete event; it does not happen all at once. “Each look,” he wrote, “brings a new situation of shapes.” An afterimage might persist and overlap with another image until the eye catches up, moving to a new point of seeing. He did not trust memories. He believed that reality was shape-shifting, historically constituted. “Although the empirical method gives a true and full image of what is,” Strzemiński wrote, “it is not able to seize what is being created and changing.” In other words, always there is a play of form and shape and lines and color. Snatches of the eye’s acquisitions over time are parceled within systems; the collections of visual memories over time become one vision we call real.
The bookseller was one of those people who called me a wife. The bookseller proposed we all take a trip to Poland to find more rare books. Though I knew we would never go, I could see that fantasy then: strangers gathered by the materiality of books, by a history of the eye, flying around the world together for more theories of vision.
It was only later that I began to notice that often I couldn’t hear the man I lived with when he spoke, even when I wished to listen, that I looked through him like another possession to pick up. All the sensory information had become schematized in meaning. I did not know how to deconstruct the settled vision. There was, in my stomach, the feeling of losing keys, and I couldn’t open up my home anymore.
After I asked him to leave, I let him stay, and after I let him stay, I asked him to leave. I don’t know how many times it was. What I know is that in one of his lesser known works, a monograph called What is Sport? , Barthes praised the transmutative octane of play. “To play hockey,” he wrote, for example, “is constantly to repeat that men have transformed motionless winter, the hard earth, and suspended life, and that precisely out of all this, they have made a swift, vigorous, passionate sport.” And three decades before, in A Lover’s Discourse , he wrote, “Someone tells me: this kind of love is not viable. But how can you evaluate viability? Why is the viable a Good Thing?” Perhaps Barthes was not such a killjoy.
Those who hope play is the Good Thing still sometimes find the unviable too much to shoulder. They will know that, as when a child leaps from a swing, hitting the ground is rarely a square landing. The crushed candy will be thrown out. The errant leftover shoe found beneath the bed goes in a bag reserved for items to return on a day you feel stronger. It rains as you walk home without the grocery you used to buy and didn’t like. Who has ever emoted over absent kasha like that? Who does not want to transform the hard earth? I still find myself accidentally saying to people leaving rooms, sometimes near strangers, I love you.
I did not go back to a playground until recently, when a dear friend brought her daughter to visit from suburban Connecticut. When we had met, my friend’s car windshield was decaled with her DJ moniker, and she’d swagger over to a bartender in her Air Jordans, tell him to make it blue. It was with the same muscular pride that she’d entered domestic life. All day we had pointed at animals. Sometimes, the daughter needed to be coached to gaze in the direction of these winged and tailed and finned variations on life. Her favorite zoo creature ended up being a mouse. But at the playground, where the instructions were few and the sensory possibilities were many, she screamed, “More.” We snapped photographs to send to my friend’s husband.
“I want you to be happy,” this friend told me. “I want you to have what I have someday. I think you do too.”
“Maybe not,” I said, which has always seemed like a redundant phrase.
The first time I met my friend’s daughter, when she was a newborn, I was still living with the man, and I had never seen him hold a baby, though he spoke of wanting one, mine, ours. He was tense with fear and tenderness. The baby wailed. Now the newborn was a little girl, and I didn’t live with this man anymore. Nana is the word my friend’s daughter has decided means aunt. At the top of the slide, she sang out for her nana.
“That’s you,” my friend had to tell me. I leapt to answer the call for family.
My friend’s daughter smiled and bounced her arms. I climbed a mass with many right angles. We were amongst leaves, and when she turned her back to me, it was a question. I held her, and then I let her go. There was a squeal of pleasure in the descent. She must have seen the horizon fly up, branches rushing like the opposite of falling and circumferences of flower bushes blooming large through time. For the rest of the afternoon, we ran through rays of spraying water and ascended metal. The images slid apart, and the ground was strung above again. I could see the play of light off surfaces, and I wanted to bottle it for home. Strzemiński would say it was impossible. The eye does not catch up. We are left only with the afterimages.
The apartment was quiet that night, just the sound of a dog tongue on water. When I looked around, there was nothing to put away. I remembered an afternoon many years ago, in the mix CD period, prior to the promises and insults. The sun was already setting, and for nightclub people it was morning. I was a younger person who took confidence in mishaps, figured straw houses could persevere like the stubborn youth La Roux compared to love. It’s a short memory. All it was was passing a garden fence thick with glossy leaves. We were tossing a ball on the way to the diner for breakfast, taking turns running ahead and falling back, and I called out to the man with whom I wanted to live.
“Tell me,” I said, when he caught up, “what it looks like for a man and a woman to play.”
I can’t remember the answer for what I still wish to know.