Bitch Please: Claiming and Reclaiming Words

anxiety, sex

In a new novel I’m currently pitching to agents and publishers, I introduce one of the main characters as an “alcoholic, bulimic bitch.” She arrives in chapter three, so not everyone gets a sample large enough to include this part, but the language makes me nervous anyway.

It’s not because I think it’s linguistically inappropriate. It fits the character, genre, temperament; the language is right. And this is both how others see her and how she often describes herself. It fits.

However, I am a man and I know that this word is loaded. Bitch. When I was a kid, it had very specific applications. Men called other men bitches to reduce them, to emasculate them, to suggest that they were weak. Not men. Sometimes it meant they were so soft that they were actually the property of the person defining them that way. You’re my bitch, you do what I say.

It was basically the same if a woman called a man a bitch, maybe worse, but with the same meaning. However, if anyone called a woman a bitch, it meant pretty much the opposite. That she was strong, tough, spiteful maybe, self-serving, unkind and uncaring. Driven beyond compromise. It wasn’t exactly a reduction of femininity, but it was reserved for a certain type of mean woman.

The polarity of any single word fascinates me. Bitch isn’t about who says it, who has a claim on it, really. But it changes meaning depending on who it is being thrown at.

Of course, my brother called me a bitch when he wasn’t calling me a runt or whatever else. My mom didn’t like that and she told him as much. It was heavier than it seemed like it should be.

The other form of the word is as a verb: to complain. And sometimes verbs become nouns because they describe a behavior that is so common it creates a condition, a type. A person who bitches too much might be a bitch. A whiner. But what does that mean? Which genders does it apply to in this context?

In high school, or maybe in college, I noticed that women were self-applying the word. They’d say, “I’m going out with my bitches,” or they’d run into some friends and say, “What’s up, bitches?!?!”

Sometimes gay men do this, too. Maybe there’s a subtle freedom in already identifying as what the oppressors are worried about being mistaken for.

In an excellent piece for The Paris Review, poet Danez Smith asks if we can reclaim a word that was never ours. They explore several other incendiary words along with discussing intent, audience, audacity.

The essay concludes:
Who owns language? Does my man-shaped body have any hold on a word that is a violence thrown at women? Where do I get off using “bitch” to capture my love for my menfolk friends? This is the danger that I live for, the bad words with definitions forever in flux, words that show us how tonal and relational English can be. Bitch, in another man’s mouth, a knife. In mine, sugar. In mine, a knife if some stranger hears it. And here is where I make an intention: to never use bitch the way it’s been used against good bitches, to drain the poison from the wound until it’s just another door to the body, a door from me to you, my good bitch.

I see this and I believe I get it. It’s real, raw, true. And I know I’m not exactly describing the character in my new novel affectionately. But she would say it about herself, I keep hearing myself say in defense. Yes, maybe, but also not affectionately. More like self-deprecation. She might say it about herself, but she wouldn’t like to hear it thrown at her like a rock.

Too many of my friends have told me about ugly pursuits made after them by creepy men. Men who are overly sweet and immediate toward strangers, who turn into monsters just as fast when they don’t get any sweetness in return. Men who think that a pretty lady or whoever is on the other end of their Hey baby is suddenly a bitch for not showing them some warmth.

I respect Danez Smith’s desire to re-frame bitch into a context where a recipient only feels inclusive affection, but the core of the word is rooted culturally, generationally somewhere else. Can it change that quickly? Or like they say in the essay, how does a stranger’s ear consider the unknown intent?

My character, Abbie, embodies all that being called a bitch can be. She’s mean; she’s bitchy, whiny; she’s also a friend, an intimate who gets to be affectionately called out for her antics. But since she’s my invention, does that mean I get to treat her the same way her friends do? Does it matter who I am?

Maybe I’ll get the chance to frame this as a discussion question or something eventually.
Or maybe I just did?

Daffodils in the Window

anxiety, booze, sex

A slightly different version of this story originally appeared in
The Philadelphia Secret Admirer Volume 5, Issue 198: 31 May – 06 June 2017

It was the kind of Thursday that felt like a yellow seven. July is always blue and the fourth is usually red. Obvious. I was in San Francisco for the festivities last year, such as they were, socked in fog. Three days later I was getting my shine back in the Golden State.

I met her the night before around midnight. Still nursing a hangover, I wasn’t drinking much, but she was. As she walked past, I said to my friend, “That chick is wasted.”

She noticed me nudge my friend and stopped.

Illustration by John Laben
Instagram: @ecuacalizona

Proving me right, she swayed and offered a half smile. I could see her ego battling her pickled intellect. She knew I was talking about her, but maybe I said something flattering. Her body type was what used to be called “full-figured” before the term was claimed by empowered obese lesbian burlesque performers.

Plus-sized, yes, but the pluses were healthy and appropriate. Anyway, I was nonplussed by her directness. She was cute but seemed likely too drunk to even remember this. I introduced myself. She shook my hand without giving her name.

My friend believes it is improper to release yourself from a handshake without both giving a name and receiving one. Since he was standing next to me I didn’t want to let him down. So I held onto this curvy cutie’s hand while she blinked slowly. Each time her eyes came back a little less.

“And you are…”

“Ginincumpooper.”

“Excuse me?”

“Jennifer Cooper.”

So it went. We found a booth and sat together. I had a second stout. She needed nothing else. In twenty minutes, I learned that she was a grade school teacher who liked music. Also, she was friends with a bartender who worked Fridays in a spot near my place. I suggested we meet there in a couple of days. We exchanged numbers. I texted her my name.

When I woke up the next day I saw a text from Jen. It was a simple nice-to-meet-you, so I didn’t answer right away. Instead, I sent a heavy amber stream into the toilet, which was a process that seemed to take fifteen minutes. Back in the bedroom, I noticed Jen sent another message asking what I had planned for the day.

The truth: nothing. I was just going to walk around and window shop. I replied that I was going to buy some gifts for friends and family back home. She said she was helping her friend move. Then she began quizzing me. What did I do, where was I from, etc. It was clear that my initial assumption was accurate. She didn’t remember much of what we’d talked about the night before. As the day went on, our text conversation continued. There was an underlying urgency to her curiosity. She probably thought we’d done more (physically) than we had, which was nothing. But how much more? Did she think we slept together and that I left before she woke up? If only.

At 5pm Jen invited me to meet her and her friend for happy hour. I asked if they were done moving and she said they were taking a break. Of course, I thought we were going to meet the next day, but when I reminded Jen about this, she said I should come now anyway.

So I did.

When I arrived, her friend immediately got up and left.

“She didn’t finish her drink,” I said.

“It’s just soda water,” Jen said. “She’s pregnant.”

It was a pint glass half full of ice and clear bubbly. Jen had the same thing, but hers contained a lemon wedge. And gin.

“How much more do you guys have to do?” I asked.

“We’re done,” Jen said.

“You loaded the truck?”

“No, I was just helping her pack. She has to get a truck tomorrow and move everything to storage.”

Jen went on to explain that her friend was six months pregnant by a guy she’d known for eight months. And they got married a month ago because he was from Ireland and couldn’t stay in the country otherwise.

When I suggested that was crazy, Jen agreed and then she got another gin and tonic. She came back and sat close to me. We kissed. It was cautious and exploratory. Like seeing one of those wet floor signs as you enter the bathroom but you can’t tell where the puddle is. Am I going to fall? Is it going to hurt?

I smiled. She finished her drink and studied my face strangely. She definitely thought I was the cat who ate the canary coming back for seconds. “Let’s go to North Beach,” she said, “I know a great place.” Then she ordered a car. In an instant, she was wasted again.

She tracked the car through the app and then got irritated when it went the wrong way (in her opinion) and took too long. She canceled and started over.

“Don’t they call you when they get here?”

She looked up blankly, then went back to eyeing her screen.

Eventually, our ride came.

“I didn’t go out alone last night,” Jen said to me in the car. “I was with a friend, but he left.”

“Oh? That’s cool.”

“Yeah, he went to another bar. He’s gay, so you don’t have to be jealous. He went to a gay bar.”

“Why would I be jealous?” I said. “You can have friends. And I hardly know you.”

“But you fucked me.”

“Um…”

“You want to fuck me,” she corrected herself.

We drove past the Condor Club. Its big vertical marquee looked bleak in the afternoon light. The fog had dissipated into a haze and the sun sat behind it like a big fried egg.

“I’ve heard the food is good there,” I said.

“At a STRIP CLUB?” she hissed.

“Sure.”

When the car stopped, she said this wasn’t going to work. I wish I could say I agreed just then, but it took me a minute. I followed her into the bar for another drink. There were daffodils in the window.

Transparency: There were no daffodils in the window. I just wanted to end this story with something poetic and positive. And to show that the narrator was drawn to something beautiful, but possibly illusory. This was part of a flash fiction contest with the first sentence as the prompt, but the narrator is me; it’s a true story. There was no prize aside from publication, which was worth almost nothing. The illustration came later, when I was thinking of making the story into part of a zine series that I decided I did not want to continue making.

Post Script: On the real day when this happened, I followed Jen into the bar and we immediately parted ways. It was a pretty stark turn and I was surprised to be dismissed so immediately over what I considered some meaningless chatter. Weren’t we just getting to know each other? They were serving a free buffet because it was Sunday in an Irish bar, so I got in line and made a plate. Jen went straight to the bar, sat between two geriatric regulars she was well acquainted with, and got another drink. I took my food to a table and ate by myself, but I noticed that Jen had moved to see if I was still there. She stared a little harshly at me, which I did not think was warranted. Had I really offended her that greatly? Since I’d just eaten for free, I decided to buy a shot, so I went to the bar and ordered a Jameson. Jen continued staring, now a little more curiously. I drank the shot, nodded to her, and left. I walked down through the Financial District back to BART and got a train home. Back in my apartment, I felt exhausted, like I’d just lived out a year-long relationship in the course of a day. I was grateful for that brevity.