You do not like the second person. You find the second person indulgent, and co-optive of the reader. You walk down the street, you buy a croissant and then—well, thinks the reader, joke’s on you, I hate pastry and haven’t left my house in weeks. This is exactly the kind of mental pushback you’re not interested in, because you prefer a more direct omniscience. Let there be some all knowing and invisible eye hovering over the small people, observing their foibles and telling us their hopes and dreams. Let the voice slip in and out of consciousness. Let there be no doubt as to who is in charge.
But the second person is always there, and sometimes you slip into it, finding yourself narrating yourself as “yourself” and buying the croissant anyway. It allows you to step outside the question of your own responsibility, in the case of events that aren’t so fictional, or in the case of the croissant, so healthy. There are many events that are worse than subsisting solely on a diet of croissants, which you don’t even like. The second person is inside you at all times, which is alarming, but at the same time, a comfort. It was the first person who lived cautiously on the surface and acted appropriately, and it was the second person who had no qualms about doing, thinking, and saying any number of unseemly things. Or maybe she had qualms but because of the distant nature of the second person they weren’t apparent. She, you could say, is a real pistol, a humdinger, a problem, a bitch, a goddamn mess, but that would be third person. You can see how this gets complicated and you prefer simplicity, like the simple pleasure of sinking your body into a warm bath, or a tar pit.
So you slip into the second person on a regular basis and in the second person you are guilty of a number of things. You cross the street before the light changes. You once took change from a barista tip jar though later you felt guilty and put in a dollar. You relentlessly keep tabs on people you never much admired in your youth but have somehow gained public respect, which you find perplexing and maddening. How is it that Ben Laird from high school has become a well-respected newsperson? He once tossed you over his shoulder as you were trying to go to Algebra I (you never made it to Algebra II but perhaps you never applied yourself?) and carried you to Social Studies even though you yelled for him to put you down. It was humiliating to be a small woman, even though you, like he, thought of yourself as a girl and would continue to do so for years. Perhaps it was your fault that men thought there might as well be a handle at your waist so they could carry you from place to place like a suitcase or satchel – perhaps if you’d carried yourself confidently like a grownup that wouldn’t have happened. But you were a girl well into your forties.
Stop. This is self-blame, you tell yourself. You’re not responsible for incidents like these, but then again, you’re not sure where the responsibility lies for the more complicated moments, such as when your first boyfriend somehow convinced you to give him a blow job while he drove down a country road at night. You knew the woods were full of deer with suicidal ideations but you did it anyway, feeling uncomfortable and scared but also telling yourself you were brave and daring and finding some pleasure in the way he was helpless under your ministrations even if you were gagging and hated the taste. When you were still in the process of saying no to the auto-blowjob but you both knew you would eventually say yes after he wore you down with a long series of complaints, cajoling, and guilt-inducing pleas, you brought up the possibility of what might happen should a cop pull him over while this proposed fellation was in process, and he assured you the cop would understand. He actually said it as if there was a secret understanding between men in such situations, a blow-job golden ticket, a nod of utmost seriousness exchanged between two men who understood the importance of getting off at the risk of vehicular homicide. This, you thought, must be what it is like to be in a secret society, like the Freemasons. There is a handshake and a sacred vow to promote the male orgasm at all costs, even unto death. As the negotiation which was not really a negotiation concluded, you didn’t mention to him that you have always carried in your mind a suspicion that road head always ends as it does in The World According to Garp. You didn’t tell him that you are afraid your third-person POV obituary will read, “She died as she lived, with a cock in her mouth.” To tell him this would have likely ended the negotiation which was not a negotiation entirely, as it is a well-known boner killer to speak of biting someone’s cock off, but you were young, and didn’t realize you had this as an out. You were sixteen, after all, though this entire scenario will repeat in your twenties and thirties with different men and no different outcome, because it seems a foregone conclusion that auto-blowjobs are automatic. You suppose there is some joke about stick shift here, how you can’t shift away from a stick or the stick has a predetermined and escalating path with reverse being the outlier—but no one in America knows how to drive stick these days and you’re afraid the joke won’t land and you’ll be one more unfunny woman.
You are a funny woman though, and you do know how to drive stick. It was one of many tasks you assigned yourself in your youth to try and forestall what was already apparent: that there really was a tidal wave of sexism just off the shore of your small island and it was waiting to crash over you and erase all the shell-decorated castles you’d made while your parents promised you you could be president if you tried. Actually, they never mentioned the presidency to you as if they already knew there’d be compromising photos taken of you without your knowledge or consent in your twenties and your father’s insistence on teaching you stick was so you “could drive any car in an emergency” by which he meant to say you could get away if you were in a “bad situation,” by which he meant to say you could somehow outrace rape if you just knew how to balance acceleration and engagement.
Here again we see the usefulness of the second person; it allows you to write about rape conceptually, as something that happens to other people but not to you, or even if it did or does or will happen to you, using the second person allows you to raise the idea of it without directly admitting to the experience. It becomes a more abstract problem, and as an abstract problem the second person’s account can’t be questioned, can’t be a series of choices that, had they been made more soberly or less naively or in more modest clothes or more public settings, might have gone differently if only you’d been exercising constant and unerring vigilance every day of your life, whether conscious or unconscious. There is something disgusting about this kind of intellectualization, but if moving through the world as a woman has taught you anything it’s that being a woman requires you teach yourself a language that circles and diverts, recurs but veers, says but doesn’t.
Other things you taught yourself: how to use a pocket knife, how to build a fire, how to play two chords on the guitar. You are prepared for the apocalypse and being That Guy at the party. This is what you thought it was to be a man when you were a teenager. Because you are a funny woman but not secure in your funniness, you like to reveal your masculine coded knowledge at parties. You know the activities of the local football team and you can talk about the Marvel universe of the comics, not the movies. You are a cool girl who is funny enough and you can laugh at the jokes which are at the expense of other girls not as cool as you. Ha ha, you laugh, she’s such a girly girl while I am one of the guys please don’t touch me.
Because you are a cool girl you take it up the ass even though you aren’t sure you like it and even when you are with men in bed who aren’t in the secret society of road head and would probably like to know if you are actually enjoying yourself as they fuck you in the ass you aren’t able to articulate your pleasure or displeasure because you are so thoroughly mired in the second person that you can’t access those files. You hover outside yourself and watch yourself in action, and isn’t sex funny looking from this angle and men a little ridiculous, the way their balls sway back and forth, no different really from watching lions fuck at the zoo. And because you are so thoroughly invested in the second person you even have time to take a look at your own ass, which isn’t so bad as you thought, really. You imagine what he thinks as he’s fucking it, whether it’s ample enough or too much, and think to yourself, my god, I’m objectifying myself, which is first person, the first time you’ve accessed it in a very long time, and how amazing is this! You’re not just a you but an I! An I with a fairly attractive ass, though if you think too much about it your self-censor will step in and upbraid you for narcissism, but you think this could even be a kind of confidence if you can just see yourself through his eyes and imagine his eyes are kind, or a kind of kind, and maybe this is one way to pull the second person off, even if it’s just by putting on another layer?
No, you reject that epiphianic moment almost as soon as you think it. You almost wish you could erase it, because it seems downright embarrassing but at the same time you did have a moment of relief as you thought it, because at last you could stop worrying about the whole problem that is yourself and point of view. But it can’t be right that the only way for you to be a first person is to see yourself through a man’s eyes, is it? That would be third person, or objectification, at any rate, he’s an I and not you. To find personhood only in a dick sliding in and out of your nethers is probably not the feminist dream. You wonder if gay men have this problem too or if having two men in the same room at the same time fucking each other is like double the self or yourself reflected back twice as beautiful but this is silly, since you know there are a lot of power dynamics in giving and receiving and words like tops and bottoms wouldn’t exist without hierarchy, though also you can’t help but notice that receiving is seen by some as submissive and linked somehow to womanishness which is then linked to weakness, which makes you sad, and to further complicate matters some of the more outrageous moments of minor sexual assault in your life have occurred at the hands of gay men who seemed to hate you for being a woman and that touching you without your consent was a funny joke they got a pass on because they didn’t want to fuck you. Anyway, it’s not as if you think two women having sex creates some kind of self-hood vacuum, no, you have found in your few experiences with women that there was very little jockeying for position though there was that one time you were bigger than she was and found yourself trying to take the lead but not knowing how. She’d told you she wasn’t sure if she was gay and you said you’d help her figure it out, which sounded like a very confident line, even with a bit of porn-y charge. She was smaller than you, bird boned and almost frail, and so you were sure you were supposed to be dominant but you had never practiced being dominant and after a while of you kissing her and trying to awkwardly pin her with an assurance that you did not feel assured about, she gave you an apologetic smile and went down on you in a way that reminded you of your own head bobbing in a car seat while traveling at sixty miles an hour on a dark country road. The whole situation turned south somehow because you didn’t know how to drive without stick and she thought the only polite way to get out of things was to get you off and out the door. You hadn’t even cut your nails which you later read was a no-no but how were you to know to be prepared when you never had a real relationship with a woman but just hookups and slip ups, drunk in bathrooms with strangers and trading dresses and then falling into stalls? Once you went in to a bathroom in a club to fix your lipstick and another woman accosted you with blowsy forwardness and left two red kisses on each of your breasts, leaving you then alone and breathless in front of the mirror and wondering what had happened. How you envied that woman, tried to follow her, but lost her on the dance floor. You think of this as a missed opportunity even now, but probably if you’d found her you would have messed it up somehow because you couldn’t figure out how to act in a way that was sexy because all your prior notions of sexiness involved you being very still, not acting at all, and because you fixate on things like nail length and lesbian decorum when that’s probably not even a thing. The only time you’ve felt like you might know what it was to be a man was with that small girl (who was actually a woman) and it felt like you were adrift in an ocean with no sense of shore, just treading water because you didn’t know which way to swim. You hated it even as you were excited by it because not knowing what to do felt like a kind of hell but even as she gave you head in a way that might have been obligatory you still came. Maybe that’s what it’s like to be a man, you think, unsure of what you want but getting it anyway instead of not knowing what you want but being sure you’re not getting it.
It’s not satisfying to think that the only way you can have sex that doesn’t feel like you’re subjugated to another’s vision is to leave your partner unsatisfied. And you’ve also noticed there’s something a little gross about the way you view women you have had sex with or want to have sex with, the way you think of them as a collection of body parts and responses, which seems like how a serial killer might think. It’s not quite that bad but it is bad because all the times a woman has asked for something more from you, some kind of emotional connection, you’ve pulled away or behaved in an infuriating manner, emulating the kinds of behavior you’ve seen immature men practice on women, saying “it’s just sex and you knew that” or not answering texts when eventually texts become a technological possibility because this behavior persists on your part for decades. It’s as if even after one woman after another tells you you’re emotionally unavailable you can’t step outside yourself long enough to ask yourself is there something you should be listening to here? So you never do, and in that way, you are confident you in some small way know what it’s like to be someone other than yourself even if you don’t know what it’s like to be you most of the time.
This is why the second person can be a tedious move. It’s not just that the reader is being told what to think and feel, it’s that you can’t ever exit this point of view once you engage in it. It becomes the default and you are its slave, following it to whatever conclusion is foregone enough to be satisfying for the reader. How can you ever know if this is self-reflection or indulgence, or if someone who was not you would have the same thoughts viewed differently? What would these same thoughts be like from the mind of a man, which is always your default thought, which is one more example of how you take a binary world view and refuse to consider the complications of identity. You are always dividing the world up into bodies but the bodies are always divided the same way. And how do you step back inside your body if your body has proven to be a problem, taking up too much or not enough space, existing as a receptacle for others’ emotional weight or bodily fluids? You can’t even eat a damn croissant, which actually you find delicious, so much so that you want to cram the entire thing into your mouth in one buttery wad, without wondering what it will do to the state of your ass, as if the croissant experiences transubstantiation in reverse, from bread to body—my god, that’s inappropriate. Ah, there it is, the first person finally, the real you who is the polite I who steps in after all this self-indulgent reflection and deflection to say I am here I am ashamed I can’t believe I said any of this erase it erase it erase it.
Rebecca Hazelton is the author of two volumes of poetry: Fair Copy and Vow. Her work has been published in the New Yorker, Poetry, and Best American Poetry.
“Second Person” was originally published in TLR: Babel Fish.