October 31, 2018. On my third date with Johnny we sat outside smoking cigarettes on the back porch of his mountain home. In a shy attempt at intimacy I’d lifted my legs up to rest on his and a few minutes later he was running his hands up and down my shins, staring into my eyes and telling me he believed in manifestation. Needless to say, I was swooning, amazingly holding his stare and not saying what was really on my mind which was that yes, I agreed, we were meant for each other forever and ever and ever.
A minute later and the moment had passed and he was telling me about how good it was we met during the summer, which is to say during the basketball off-season, and as he began to talk about his deep felt love for the 76ers I saw that the look in his eyes wasn’t just reserved for me but for 15, six foot tall men back home in Philadelphia.
I took a sip of whiskey, which I hate but was pretending to like, holding back an inevitable cough i get whenever I drink hard alcohol and wondered what other topics of conversation would make Johnny’s eyes sparkle. In future revelations, I would learn he loved synthesizers, aliens, Disney, and obscure horror movies with strong female leads.
Over the years I’ve seen some of these movies, Martyrs comes to mind, a 2008 French film made by Pascal Laugier about a secret society that tortures women, suspending them between life and death, in hopes of being saved by their eventually sincere allegiance to god. Or the 2005 Patrick Wilson flick Hard Candy in which a 14-year-old girl physically and psychologically tortures a pedophile inside his own home. My favorite, easily, is 2006’s Freeway, directed by Matthew Bright which touts itself as a modern-day retelling of little red riding hood in which the little girl fights back against the big bad wolf until her innocence is lost and she ends up a mass murderer. I can relate to her and admire her honesty — until then I didn’t know I could feed my soul by destroying a world that isn’t built for people like me.
I guess it’s fitting, then, that these films are horror movies. On more than one occasion in my life, I’ve seen a man look at me like a monster when I threatened his leading role. Like Johnny’s “I believe in destiny” look, I’ve come to know the “monster” look the second I see it and immediately spring into a habitual reaction, doing what I can to soften around the edges while also categorically denying that I’m scary, which definitely doesn’t help my case. Underneath all that what I really mean to say is “what’s your baggage bro?” But it’s too aggressive, too personal, so I bite my tongue, sit on my hands, listen and watch like a diplomat. Anger will be my second reaction, the one I’ll realize later when I’m home on the couch, a comeback that missed its chance.
I must admit that once enough men tell you to know your place it becomes a bit boring and, I fear, sedative as one diatribe bleeds into the next which bleeds into the next until eventually, you can’t listen to one without listening to them all. They pile up like transparent stills and with them, all layered up, one atop another, the resulting image is sad in the way that a ghost that visits the living is sad as they try desperately to affect a world they’re no longer a part of. Long ago it passed through their fingertips and, try as they might to have held on, all that remains in their clenched fist is air.
By watching films of women acting out their anger I found the permission to stop defending myself, to stop trying to convince the world I’m innocent and, instead, to embrace the ugly beast that I really am. When the movie ends and the credits roll I look at Johnny as if to say it was me playing the part of vampire all along and I see him recognize that look in my eyes. “Thank you for loving scary women,” I say. I wish I loved them as much as he did, but just like it takes a certain mood for me to sit in front of a mirror and pinch blackheads out of my face, I have to be in a certain state of tough-vulnerability to cue up a fem-fatale horror movie in the DVD player.
“I grew up with strong women,” he said, shrugging. I look at him in awe, wondering how it took me so long to realize that being strong isn’t necessarily scary, and even if it is, then it’s all I can do to embrace my inner demons.