On a good statuing day, I made three times that, but I could only work three-hour shifts; physically, it was the harder of the two jobs. They would not, could not, leave me alone. It was as if, by doing nothing, I had challenged them to a fight.
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My refusal became a battleground. When a new blur approached — deferential, kneeling to drop a dollar in the pitcher at my feet, I focused my eyes and came to life.
Her husband, with fat white legs and a bucket hat, stood diffidently behind her. I felt my humanness returning, collecting. I blinked and the world sharpened; I reinhabited my blank, white-painted face. When I smiled at her, it felt like I was bestowing a gift.
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The frat crew hung back; I could see them without seeing them. One shuffled nearer, but was recalled by his friends, and they wandered uncertainly away. But later, one of those polo shirts bobbed into my vision again. A quick stoop to the tip jar, the rosy flash of a larger bill. He was flushed under freckles and looked impossibly young.
I gave him a curtsy, and, absolved, he was gone. I usually dressed for work in the rickety house I shared with Toby and a roommate.
Toby and I lived in a world where everyone patched together crummy little gigs to get by, where the kind of work you did was never the point. The point was everything else. We put on puppet shows at Mardi Gras parades together. We paddled around abandoned Civil War forts in the swamps outside town.
We day-drank by the river, ate out of the dumpster, splurged on body-sized slabs of ice from a seafood company and rode them like sleds down the grassy slope of the levee. Only certain musicians among us could earn money by pursuing their art; the rest of us took and left jobs like breathing.
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Statuing, though, became more permanent for me than most things because it was my eternal fallback, my safety net — I worked for myself, I worked when I chose, the overhead was low. That wilderness was open to anyone with the guts to try it. Use my face paint. Go for it. On any given day, since he was unemployed, Toby might be napping as I put on the blue gown and got ready to go. His mane of strawberry-gold hair, which I loved, splayed on the pillow like a sea creature. While he slept, it was easy to remember why I wanted to take care of him.
Or at least, by not saying no. As the world wanted me to. Toby asked for my number. If I wanted to get a drink. If he could bike me home. Could come inside. Toby entered my life, and all I had to do was say yes. Toby was depressed. He needed to talk. He needed me to listen. He needed dinner, sex, money, comfort. He needed to move in together. I became the negative space of his asking, and the negative space was always yes.
Toby is the big spoon, clinging. On the white background, I painted red lips, round red cheeks, peacock eye shadow. I caked on glitter salvaged from an abandoned primary school after Hurricane Katrina. I donned my hat, covered in faded fake flowers from the cemetery dumpster. And, while statuing, I was a stranger.
Georgia Is On My Mind: A Tale of a Guardian Angel
I was strange even to myself. A new person or a nonperson, either or both. For a pleaser like me, statuing was a crash course in stubbornness. What sounds like the most passive trade imaginable — becoming an object, a literal living doll, refusing to move or speak — was, in fact, bizarrely, the opposite. It was exhausting, but it strengthened me. I left work aching and charged up. I learned, for the first time in my life, to refuse people. I learned that it felt good. That it got me somewhere. It throws people off, sometimes badly.
Because I was acting inappropriately — not responding as a person typically would — my audience acted inappropriately in turn. People inevitably tried to touch me. Then, and only then, I moved without being tipped.
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I slapped them lightly, on whatever was closest — hand, face — still deadpan, not speaking, not meeting their eyes. A slap for the drunkard trying to stick his finger up my nose. A slap for everyone who moved to kiss me or lift my skirt, which happened almost daily. I was too surprised to move; she left without speaking. I did not slap people for touching my hands, though sometimes they jumped back of their own accord, shocked to feel my warmth, my aliveness.
But often the strangeness spurred by my refusal was more innocent, a grab bag of unfiltered human reactions that fascinated me. I felt myself and my audience pulled together into deep space, a lost world where no one knew how to behave anymore. One night, out of nowhere, a man tried to hand me his baby. I bought a steak that night, paid our rent, and never saw him again.
Y ears later, I left New Orleans, and left statuing, with relief. He was out somewhere as I stood in our room for the last time, perfectly still, staring at the artifacts of our life together: tangled blankets, my clothes in optimistically stacked crates that mimicked a real dresser. His shirts tossed over the single chair, his shoes, his smell.
I was the doll in the dollhouse, frozen in my own life. When I statued, being still was my form of refusal; here, at home, stillness was acquiescence, another yes.