Distancing #15: Control


In the past few weeks, I have abandoned bras entirely. I feel good about this because I know that in doing so I follow in the footsteps of many great women, including Chaka Khan, who in 1981 performed live at the Roxy with an eleven-person band in a black turtleneck and slacks. No bra.

Recently, I rewatched Chaka sing “Sweet Thing” on a stage crowded with other musicians, her feel-good vocals sending spirals of joyful togetherness into the atmosphere. I felt affirmed in my choice to go for walks, buy my groceries, and attend Zoom meetings all bra-free.

These days I spend most of the day between my desk and the bed. When I walk outside it’s the aimless kind of walking. I have nowhere specific to be, if not in front of my laptop. There’s a toothpaste-green house down the block that I walk past sometimes. It has a nice-sized front porch and a disorganized but well-groomed family of brightly colored flowers. On a few occasions I’ve seen five or six Black people in front of the house, tending to the shrubs and wild-like flowers.

“That house looks like it could be on the set of Queen Sugar or something,” Jerome remarked as we walked by one day.

“It does,” I replied. “I didn’t know so many Black people lived here.”

I try not to stare as I walk past. Silently, I wonder about these Black folks, who they are and how they’re getting on sheltering in place. I also feel a little bit scandalous not wearing a bra in public, and wonder if this respectable-looking crew notices. If they’re judging me. I’m not sure how close it’s okay to get to people gardening. I don’t even know if I can smile—maybe that’s contagious too. Instead I turn up my headphones, which are blaring an embarrassingly freaky-deaky playlist. Right now Trey Songz is howling about what he can do to and for a woman in bed, a version of masculinity so absurd it makes me chuckle.

On a “normal” weekday before social distancing, I’d spin over to the side of my bed, sigh, shower, then frantically get dressed and dash down my block for the train to Manhattan. My morning routine was anything but graceful, but the drama was my personalized kick of morning coffee. Anxiety about being late was a feeling I came to accept and even appreciate. Commuting is—was—one of the most unpredictable and exhilarating parts of my day.

Now we face another kind of unpredictability. When can we gather in public? When will schools and restaurants and community centers reopen? I crave the kind of unpredictability that titillated my senses—the fielding of bodies in space, the tickling sense of urgency, the minute-to-minute purpose that comes with having a physical destination to travel to. The intimate act of locking eyes with a stranger on the subway, politely brushing off an animal rights activist on the sidewalk, inhaling the scent of greasy food-truck smoke. Oh, the food. I want to be excited again.

Once a year I seem to go through a Chaka Khan phase: I listen to her music, post about her on social media, and most importantly try to channel her fierceness. This usually happens when I’m feeling stagnant or uninspired, so it makes sense that I’m dipping my toes into the pleasure pool of her music again right now. I came to the genius of Chaka’s oeuvre as an adult and still haven’t fully absorbed all of its nuances. Her music always feels good to listen to, but lately I’ve wanted to slouch inside moodier tones, ones that take me into warm feelings and places from my past.

“I don’t know where it all went, time passed us by.” Janet Jackson’s words on “Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun),” from her 1986 album Control, are a warm electric blanket that momentarily satisfies my itch to travel. Each phrase Janet sings gives voice to the thoughts and desires that have been creeping into my consciousness since sheltering in place began. I find myself humming along to break the static energy, to change the landscape of my living room into something feather-soft and sensual. I tip out of my chair as someone walks by my window. I turn up my headphones as I work, playing only tracks that take me to a simpler time, the opposite of how I feel in my blue wool socks and three-day-old bun and sweatpants.

“But time never ends, let’s find a time to get together once again.”

These days we’re all obsessed with how to pass time. There are a million Zoom events to attend at any given minute; everyone seems to be “live” on social media. Time flies when you’re having fun is a phrase we’ve all heard before, but there’s some insight to it. So much of how we experience time has to do with how we feel in the moment. Janet’s voice urges me back into my body, and with each melody I breathe a little deeper. Sometimes I even feel a quiver. As our virtual lives explode, I hear Janet echo: “I really don’t know where all the time went.”

On a late-afternoon phone-stroll one day, Safia casually shares that Venus is in retrograde. As she talks I stop on the sidewalk and shift my cell phone from one ear to the other, thinking about what this might mean. The next day Jerome and I have an argument that ends up taking us two days to sort out. I also dream about an ex trying to get back into my life. I come across a tweet by celebrity astrologist Chani Nicholas that prompts me to research this astrological moment, and on my journey down the rabbit hole I learn that Venus goes into retrograde about every eighteen months. When it does, it appears to be moving backwards. For us earthlings, this is a time when our intimate relationships and romantic desires are put to the test. Ordinarily I’m not that into astrology, but in this moment it offers me something we’re all hankering for so badly: a sense of the future.

If there’s one album that speaks to the dire sentiment of this planetary movement, it might be Control, with all its romantic and sexual frustration. “He Doesn’t Even Know That I’m Alive” captures it best: it’s about a woman who is in love with a person she’s never had contact with. “I’ve got his picture, it’s on my dresser right next to my bed,” Janet sings cheerfully. “He doesn’t know me but I should know him.” The refrain—the title—is jarring, maybe even a little psychotic. As Janet giggles and sings about what sounds like old-school stalking, I wonder if I should be bopping along.

“Let’s Wait Awhile,” whose narrative details are blurry but which seems to be about a young woman who has been intimate with a partner but wants to pull back and take it slow—“Let’s wait awhile before we go too far”—reminds me of my own adolescent journey toward discovering sexual agency. Janet gave Black girls like me permission to make sexual decisions that felt right—to say yes or no or stop at any moment. The song rings tenderly through Janet’s voice, but also through a careful texture of bells and chimes, these slow spaces where we wait for what comes next.

As I sit in front of my laptop, braless, listening to “Let’s Wait Awhile,” I think how funny it is to want to withhold intimacy. All I seem to think about is how nice it would be to be in the close presence of friends. “Let’s get sweaty dancing all night long,” I text Sara. Then I write, “I wish we were at Eataly right now drinking wine and eating calamari” to Kate. These days when I talk to friends we can’t help but discuss all the things we want to do when this is over. Caitlin sends me photos of a cabin in the woods she’s considering buying. “Want to come have writing retreats there with me when we can do that stuff?” she asks. I have trouble imagining a future beyond the current moment, but I text back an emphatic “yes!” In the meantime, privately, I retreat into a world at my desk by the window, with Janet taking me to other times and places.

— Naomi Extra
Montclair, NJ day 71

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