A Real Girl by Katie Prout
In the winter of 2013, I nannied for 12 hour shifts in a concrete loft in the West Loop of Chicago, where I divided my time between getting head-butted in the vagina by a screaming, redheaded toddler with a behavioral disorder and trawling through music blogs, looking for interesting and choice morsels to bring back to my maker. One morning, Stereogum featured Lana del Rey covering Chelsea Hotel No. 2, which excited me, for I thought he would appreciate the gender play–a woman singing a man’s song about a woman–as well as Lana’s amplification of that dragging Seventies darkness we were both fascinated by. After viewing it, however, James told me that the video was boring, as was del Rey’s coverage of the song. “She did nothing new,” he typed. In our chat, I agreed with him, but throughout that day I kept the video on repeat, and thus the song, until the sun went down and the redhead’s parents came home and I was free, in some sense, to go. Chelsea Hotel No. 2 is not a particularly stimulating piece of music, no matter who sings it and despite the references to oral sex, but Lana’s version twisted open some dim awareness within me. In the video, the viewer sees Lana in black and white, relief without relief; the light leaves her face bleak and her cheekbone underspaced with black, silk eyelashes heavy with glue, lips drawn up and above the mouth that opens wetly when she wants a smoke. It’s a frightening, garish look, woman in drag as woman who’s dead, and it’s an aesthetic that until then I hadn’t realized I’d been living as an unironic truth. It was a great relief for me to see someone else who knew what I knew then, 25 and unemployed in Chicago, driving my body through the city like a drunk drives a car: the apex of oblivion is not in drugs, or booze, but in the arms of a man who tells you to leave him for your own good, and you don’t.
That winter was wet; sleeting and black all down Halsted, and lasted too long, well into May. The night of the Day of Del Rey, my bike spun out from underneath me and left an ugly, enormous bruise on the back of my left calf. When I got home, I wrung myself out in the tub, then took off the rest of my clothes to examine the blue spreading around to my shin. After that, I ran a very hot bath and sat in it for awhile, smoking, and when the water cooled I got out and drank a glass of whiskey and a glass of water in the kitchen, standing in a towel while rivulets ran down my legs and onto the wood of the floor. Then I dressed, and headed out to the Clipper.
The California Clipper is a bar located on the corner of Augusta and California Avenue, on the eastern end of Chicago’s Humboldt Park. Back when I was a weeknight regular, the bar was low and curved, polished to a shimmer, and the lighting, like the booths, was red. A Patsy Cline cover band took the small stage one Saturday and one Wednesday a month, and other honky tonk numbers sauntered through the rest of the calendar, but I liked Tuesdays best, when the empty dance floor made the small bar feel cavernous and me like a ghost. The wall-length mirror contributed to the sensation of suspension, doubling the space behind and to either side of my body. The crowd was slight on Tuesdays, leaving enough room in the mirror to allow a patron to sit at the bar and watch herself get steadily drunk in the backlit reflection.
Surprisingly, a place like this didn’t have a jukebox. What it had, on the nights when no band played, were the bartenders. I no longer remember his name, but one in particular loved his women heartbroken and from the country, as did I, so when I sat down on the nights he was tending, that’s what we listened to: Patsy and Dolly, Loretta and Kitty, Tammy and June. These were women who pleased and prayed; stabbed and swore, laughing as they negotiated with the Devil. Whenever “I Fall to Pieces” came on, I felt briefly, positively refreshed, for in it Patsy Cline never promised me that heartbreak gets better, in fact states plainly that she’s been permanently unmade by the man who wants her to act like they’ve never kissed.
Of course, to be unmade is also to be made into something new. In her 1952 rebuttal to Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life,” Kitty Wells sings that it wasn’t God who made honky tonk angels, as Thompson snidely suggests–this chorus thus giving her song its title, and “honky tonk angel” functioning in both songs as Leave It To Beaver-ish code for “prostitute”–but rather the men who left them sexually and romantically wrecked. It’s an odd idea, to make something by breaking it, and when it came on at the bar, I used to wonder at it. God made Woman by breaking off a piece of Man’s rib; man makes whore by breaking woman’s heart. What does the whore make?
“In the land of gods and monsters,” hymns Lana del Rey on the track of the same name on Born to Die: The Paradise Edition, “I was an angel, looking to get fucked hard.” Like Patsy Cline, Del Rey said publicly what I struggled to privately admit. In a world of circumscribed roles, she took the one she was expected to perform, and owned it. If I gave the responsibility of making myself up to someone else, not only would my many failures be perhaps less my fault, but I could also remain connected to the maker, forever, in a way as intimate and physical as the bellybutton, marking where the cord used to be. For a long time I felt inside as though I were walking around like that duckling in the children’s book Are You My Mother?, looking for the authoritative one that would protect and nurture my scared self, mistaking bulldozers for birds. That night, I asked the bartender if he listened to Lana, and when he said no, I sat at the bar and played with the lighter he had lent me for my smokes. It was beautiful, cream and gold, with a Bettie Page decal on the side. Having noted this love for aesthetic, I assumed he was gay, although later I learned I was wrong.
“Can you be mine? Can you be mine? Can you be mine?” sings del Rey, in “Never Let Me Go,” to which I would also add, listening to the track while doing dishes at work, “Can I be yours?” I asked that question to one, and then to more. In early 2013, I didn’t know anything about sex without love, or what I mistook for love at that time. I hadn’t had a one-night stand in my life, and in the wreckage of my unspooling, that seemed like an important thing to learn how to do. But I didn’t get my first at the Clipper. That happened a month before at Rosa’s, a blues bar over in Humboldt Park west. The guy up on stage at the live lit show I had dropped in on told a story about taking molly and having sex with a Russian lesbian on New Year’s Eve. He seemed pretty good natured about it; less braggadocio and more earnestly happy with his fortune and luck, but still, he made sure to tell us that the Russian said afterward that he was as good at oral as any woman she had ever fucked, so when he came off the stage and sat next to me, I turned to him and asked, “So, do you really like eating pussy?” which caused him to drop his tumbler onto the counter of the bar in his haste to turn and look at my face.
Like much of del Rey’s earlier work, I had slept on “Gods and Monsters”; it was released in November 2012 along with the rest of the Paradise EP, but I had no need of either until after James was gone. During my days alone with my charge in that West Loop loft, I walked the kitchen and living room, up to the tall, frigid windows that looked over Peoria Street below, listening to music that I thought he would like me to like, as though in all the musical world, there existed one song that would cause him to change his mind about me, if only he knew I liked it.
Further along in “Gods and Monsters,” del Rey asks, “If I get a little prettier, can I be your baby?” To make oneself something different–prettier, quieter, better–for the one that brings out the madness seems harmful, but it made me deeply happy, in a strange and devastating way, to be made crazy by James, to make that not only his fault, but his power, and proof of the reality of our singular kind of love. A couple months after we’d broken up James did tell me, on our way home from a Nick Cave show in which Cave grabbed his own balls as he told a loud drunk man in the audience to suck his dick, that he loved me once more. Obviously, I was in raptures; I had, I thought, finally been allowed to return to his side for good, but James was a little afraid, I think, of what we had done. The next day we were downtown and walking towards the Clark and Lake stop, our faces bright from the cold, early morning wind, when he stopped and sighed. “I do love you, Kate,” he said, “but it’s not easy.” For him, the it that was not easy was the act of love itself, love as a choice and a verb, but it was also me: I was not easy in general, and to love in particular. Kate, too, was me: it’s the affectionate shortname used throughout my life by the people who loved me most. That was not why James called me Kate though: he told me Kate was sexier, more mature, and that it was time to let Kate go.
The bartender at the Clipper also called me Kate. It was how he introduced me to the man who sat down at the stool to my left. I no longer remember his real name, though I find it from time to time, along with his cell phone number, printed onto the front of a business card that’s mixed in with the rest of the detritus I discover when I move. Anyway, that’s not the name he preferred. “Call me Big,” he said, and looked back down at the glass of malort he was swirling in his hand. Big looked sad. He also looked like he belonged in the circus: Big Top, I thought in my head in the silence that strung between us after his first words. Big was enormous, appallingly large: seven feet tall (I asked) and closing in on 400 pounds, but exclamation point of his size was his great and wondrous head. He was bald; his skin white and his eyes blue, and on Big’s frame everything was more: baldness balder, the whiteness whiter, and the lines of skin that met around the holes of his skull so pronounced and so full of sorrow they looked like they had been carved into ice.
We got to talking. Outside, the snow that had drifted all day began to gather up: the line of white against the large front windows rose with increasing speed, and new patrons who came in came in laughing, or swearing, stomping their feet and dusting off their shoulders, for even in the short amount of time it took them to walk from their stoop to here, the snow had stuck to them, and stayed. Big had had a bad day: he was an adjunct professor in the film department of a local college, but the job wasn’t going well. I asked him what he’d rather be doing. He bought me a drink.
I made it happen. My friends didn’t know where I was, my roommate didn’t know where I was, but the day after the Nick Cave show, two months after he’d told me to get out of his car, I was back in the living room we used to share, James was unbuttoning my shirt, and I was thinking god, yes. Earlier that day, I listened to Born to Die. Until this point, I had been keeping my affinity for her music to myself, ashamed that I could resonate so hard with verses like, “Even though you’re not here, won’t move on. Ah, that’s how we play it.” In “Dark Paradise”, del Rey’s voice sweeps from a childish plea to the lower octaves of a grown woman taking an oath, all over a steady, determined percussive beat of someone walking straight into the sea.
Unlike the artists I was supposed to like (and did: Sleater-Kinney, Solange), Del Rey admits freely that she prefers walking towards, not away, from destruction. On Born to Die’s title track, we get
Feet don’t fail me now
Take me to the finish line
Oh my heart it breaks, every step that I take
But I’m hoping at the gates,
They’ll tell me that you’re mine
The first time I heard these words, really heard them, I was straightening up as the redhead napped, and in the thrill of recognition I dropped his books and toys, surprised to find myself enjoying the unaccustomed sensation of full, deep breaths. No matter how shameful, how crazy I was being, I wasn’t alone. Lana knew.
In 2012 and 2013, Lana del Rey got dragged by many music critics and feminist blogs for not behaving as they saw fit for a woman of her class and generation. “It’s a put-on, and a transparent plea for attention, and a little bit sad to watch in a cute kind of way — like the worst parts of Born to Die,” wrote Randall Roberts in the LA Times. Pitchfork called Born to Die “the album equivalent of a faked orgasm.” And in the New York Times, Jon Caramanica offered del Rey this patronizing admonishment: “The only real option is to wash off that face paint, muss up that hair and try again in a few years.”
Of the mainstream music press, only Jessica Hopper provided the thoughtful appraisement which other reviewers so lacked. In her now-classic essay “Deconstructing Del Rey,” Hopper wrote, “The big question here is not: Is she real? But, rather, why it seems impossible to believe that she could be.” Instead of doing the complicated work of understanding that objectification could be both del Rey’s choice and also bad for her, critics wanted to push her way. For awhile, I myself did the same: I couldn’t be a feminist and also be suffering so terribly for love; it was one or the other, so I held del Rey away from my body and joked about her on blogs while listening to her in the bath, in the kitchen, in my bedroom putting on makeup for my next date, in all the places my female body was historically yoked to and yet still yearned to call home.
There is not a lot of room for chosen destruction in the narrative of what smart, self-respecting women do. But sinking onto James the night I gave in, I found succor in annihilation; I didn’t have to be responsible for the self anymore. I wanted him more than I wanted to get better, and I was no longer pretending otherwise. It was an enormous relief.
I told a bit of this to Big, back at the bar. Not the particulars: nothing about about how “Walking through the city streets, is it by mistake or design?” was of late the loudest question in my head; nor anything about how, the night he told me he loved me again, James fucked me until I came four times and even then, talking after in the dark and out of my mind (“You like your girls insane, so”) with happiness, I looked down at his face, unusually soft in its features, and knew with the clarity of an empty room that it didn’t matter how much I loved him. What I told Big was that I was a nanny, looking for other work, and that I was getting over a breakup. He nodded in empathy, keeping his gaze diverted from my body while he listened to me talk. I didn’t know what to do about his body, either: I was careful not to be sexual in my words or turn of my head, but I still wanted his attention: without it, why did I come here? It was unusual for me to spend this much time talking with someone at a bar who I was not trying to sleep with, but unable to just say that, both of us made a motion at performing our roles half full. The bartender poured us each a shot of malort, on the house. I took it, and Big bought me another manhattan. When I stood up to use the bathroom, my knees sank a bit, so I grabbed onto the bar to steady myself. He caught me by the shoulder, then hastily withdrew his hand.
It was midnight, and the snow had been falling since noon. Public schools would be closed for the next three days, but as my charge was a toddler, I would be expected to show up at the usual 7:15am. My bike ride home was impossible; the bartender suggested I leave my bike behind for the night and hop in the taxi he had just called for a group of women, giggling and almost as drunk as me. The women agreed, but a few minutes later, the door opened and shut and they were gone. That’s when Big spoke up.
“I can give you a ride,” he said. “And you don’t have to leave your bike here: we can just throw it in the back.” And then he got up and left for the bathroom. While Big was gone, the bartender leaned over and assured me that this was a good idea: Big, like me, was a regular, and a good guy. When he returned, we both paid our tabs, grabbed our coats, and headed out to the street.
Great, white mounds of snow poured endlessly from a sky pink with light pollution. While Big pulled his truck around–enormous and white, like its driver-I fumbled at my U lock. He got out to lift my bike into the bed of his truck with one arm, and then I climbed in, and Big and I took off, around the block of the Clipper, then back onto California towards my home. “Make a right,” I said, and he did, but not onto the street I intended and so we went the wrong way down a one way: slowly, quietly, pushing through the deepening snow. My head lolled against the windowpane. I watched my breath cloud my face. “Here, make a right here,” I tried again, but he went on straight. The entire time we drove, Big spoke; I no longer remember what he said, only the soft, measured sound of his voice while we went around, in ever widening circles, the apartment I called home.
No one I’ve seen tonight knows my last name, I thought the third time Big missed my instructed turn. The vehicle looks like nothing. It matches the snow. The roads are blank. Dimly, I knew this was bad. My roommate was out for the night: no one would know if I didn’t come home until I didn’t show up to work in the morning. My head swung to my other shoulder on our next unscheduled turn, and still, Big kept talking. I wasn’t alarmed. I didn’t care about any of it. I had completely separated from my body at this point. No longer the driver of myself, I was watching what was happening with the vague disinterest I typically reserve for television. That last was what finally did cause alarm. I hate tv, and some part of my brain that wasn’t completely soaked in alcohol could remember a time when I would have cared more about what was happening to my body than what could have been a commercial, and that small sharp thought grew sharper, until at last I sat up and checked the lock on my door before yelling, “BIG. Turn here,” and he looked at me in surprise, and then he did.
We parked in front of my apartment. He talked a bit more, and I thanked him for the ride. His face looked exhausted and kind under the streetlight on my corner. “Sorry about talking so much,” he said. I told him I knew all about that. Then, he got out of the car to unload my bike and hand me his card. “In case you want to get an admin job,” he said. “It’s not much, but it’s not diapers.” I looked at the card, and then at him, unsure of what to offer in return. “May I hug you goodbye?” I asked.
Big’s entire body leaned back, just for a moment, as he looked down at me in surprise. Finally, he said, “People don’t usually want to hug me.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “That’s sad,” and then I leaned my bike against his car and we hugged, awkwardly but for real, and he thanked me, and then I stumbled up the stairs into my home and bed. The next morning, I threw up in the sink while I was brushing my teeth, and when I told her later, my roommate laughed, but when I told another friend, she looked at me and then said “Jesus,” and it wasn’t the moment when everything changed and I stopped trying to destroy myself and started living in my own body again, for there is no one moment; there are many, and they steadily build, until you look back and see them all, see like del Rey sings in her 2015 cover of Daniel Johnston’s “Some Things Last A Long Time”, after releasing her fourth studio album, celebrating her 30th birthday, and languidly shooting the male gaze itself out of the sky with an enormous, shoulder-hefting gun while wearing a blue silk robe
But it’s true
And it’s true
But it’s not funny
There is no music video for this one yet. We just hear her voice, aching, tender, and happy. Not everything needs to be seen to be true.
About the Author
Katie Prout is a runner, writer, and MFA candidate in the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program, where she is also an instructor in undergraduate creative nonfiction. Her work has published online or in print with the North American Review, The Toast, Runner’s World, Pretty Owl Poetry, and elsewhere.