The Virgin and the Midnight Gardens: Being My Own.
“Keep the curtain closed!”
The command rang in the gold dappled air, rays of warm light caught dust motes driven into frenzy by the sweeping curtain as it was flung shut, sealing us from the day.
“Sorry!” I said reflexively, though I wasn’t.
I needed a reprieve, a sweet sojourn of sun and outside air. It was late afternoon on a warm summer day, outside the world shimmered with freedom, and within was a cloistered red lit enclosure, what felt like an oppressive, hungry interiority.
Two large, lacquered eyes fixed on me with an imperious stare, hunting the impish rebelliousness that was well-hidden behind wide-eyed, quiet obedience. Nina’s lips painted crimson and lined with deep plum well exceeding the natural border curled derisively as they gaudily framed the words “Leave it.”
I nodded in acquiescence, which provoked the red lips to twist vine-like with triumphant liquidity.
In this realm, the sun was not allowed to shine.
The illusion of a nighttime pleasure palace depended on it. Neon light, red cushions and deeply beckoning banquettes that devoured the patrons like carnivorous flowers and left them prone, staring with mouth agape at the spectacle.
The Gender Illusionists (I’m sure the language has since shifted to reflect modern discourse) were the essence of that fantastic fabrication, and they ran the show.
Transgender and drag performers danced and lip-synced to songs as the audience consumed the scene and a preset menu of Asian-infused delights greedily.
I was the host, a boy in muted, dark colors who would escort the hungry audience to their seats and the exotic delights for their delectation.
It worked for me, a summer job verging into early autumn, I was already beginning to wonder why I’d study human sexuality in the fall in a sterile alcove, listening to the canned droning of rotely reciting instructors when I could watch it all dance before my eyes in nocturnal regalia.
I was happily overlooked, not the focus of attention, but the sloe-eyed boyish host, sweetly liminal I’d span knowable approachability and the unknown. I had a bashful laugh and a taste of Asian exoticism to my mien.
Eventually, this would become a problem.
I would soon want to be seen again, after coming back to San Francisco from traveling abroad, but in that moment I was a happy part of the periphery.
I was a late bloomer, so watching sexuality performed in floridly ribald articulation suited me, I studied it. I caught the glances of men who looked at me with curiosity, but whose gaze would be usurped by a far more decorated flower.
The performers were mostly of Philippine descent, so I learned a smattering of Tagalog to spout in cheeky asides among the murmuring performers offstage. I learned the soft tones that could erupt into a raucously infectious titter, and I loved it, for a time.
This was before transgender became a mainstay word in global discourse, it was then relegated to the wings of the world’s stage. This production was a rare delight. Before drag was nicely neutered for television, the lure of gender as illusion was novel and exciting, it brought tourists and locals alike flocking to see the spectacle.
Being near such glamorous pageantry, I was once again able to be an observer, a role I had lost while traveling. It had been so deeply immersive and revealing that I was relieved to be a wallflower once again. I’d watch faces bathed in the warm colors of the stage lights as they stared at the performance in rapt attention.
The show was segmented into different numbers, each performer having their own song, from older music steeped in sonic Americana to newer dance numbers favored by the younger set.
People loved it, they exploded in joyous, disbelieving applause and shouts of adoration when the last show concluded in its climactic finale.
The last show was called Blow Up, it featured the most skilled dancers and concluded the evening’s entertainment.
As much as I found a respite from being seen in that land of night-blooming orchids, I began to miss the sensation of eyes resting on me with conviction.
Being seen was something I both craved and feared, and the pull of visibility began to loosen the grip of the hothouse environment that I moved within like a shadow.
I slipped beside the performers gleaming like burnished beacons of foreign beauty and taboo exoticism, and I felt unrooted.
In the world of identity and gender performance taken to such dramatic extremes, I was like a delicate bud being strangled by a more robust, hardy species.
I was looked at with bemusement, sometimes curiosity, sometimes reproach, among the foreign flowers I was an interloper. A wildflower with shifting hues that craved the sun beside painted petals that opened at night and could be known from afar.
My prettiness was commented on often, though it was rarely a compliment.
There was another realm in San Francisco at that time which had its own Blow Up. A party among a myriad events that beckoned me with colors more changeable and kaleidoscopic than the bold, heavy palette I was surrounded by. It was an indie dance party, set in an underground music scene, and I thought perhaps I might be my own kind of specimen there. I was right.
I had missed a certain kind of energy during my time in the land of Asian illusion, a maternal warmth and softness, and I found it in the indie music scene.
I had also missed men who might find an unadorned face more diverting than a masterfully painted facade.
Being in a realm of competitively performed mirages had muted my own organic awareness of myself, and the unique place I inhabited, a place not of illusion but of natural synthesis.
The men and women in this new space invited me back into a natural appreciation of myself and my interconnection with others. Instead of being a bud beside a riot of carefully calibrated color, I was able to begin to bloom, embracing the qualities that made me my own kind of flora.
Competition took on a new hue, not the lilting waves of Tagalog tones, but clear and separately discernible statements, which I understood.
The personas that ruled this place in SF were less careful in their presentations, but no less severe in how they defended territory.
The women who were accepting and nurturing towards me could become fierce if they felt their power threatened, but it was communicated to me, not like a breeze undulating around me.
Again, I wasn’t quite like the people I was surrounded by, but in this area I was allowed to have my own space. Perhaps I was able to take my own space is more accurate.
I learned how to utilize my mind assertively. Instead of inverting my awareness and being purely an observer, I harnessed it, externalized it, and found my tongue. I used it to form quips or banter that pleased or shocked or riled, but I wasn’t ancillary, and I wasn’t ignored. In this place I had a voice.
No longer the nominally mute wallflower, I trafficked through the realm of the underground music scene and eventually found myself hosting parties, becoming the face and persona of them. Unlike the compressive greenhouse environs I left, I could create a space of my own in this new milieu.
The women who oscillated between comforting me and competing with me soon began to relate to me as an individual and true friend, the men who looked at me with cagey curiosity soon lost their apprehension, and sometimes their pants, in my presence.
I was very late to the party sexually, and felt both seen and safe with men who were experimenting.
I had found my own glittering urban garden, more gritty and wild than the careful contrivance of staged display I had been around before.
While personas and exteriors were still enacted on this stage, there was something more spontaneous and dynamic about it for me.
I was able to be both a debauchee and an innocent.
I could learn by experiencing, but wouldn’t be consumed. I could remain as untouched as my adolescent persona needed, but be worldly and decadent with a wild band of friends that roved the city by night.
Not confined to a strict role or gated garden, but dispersed by the wind under the moon.
I see now that this juxtaposition of ultimate freedom and autonomous self-hood awoke the virgin archetype in me, free and beholden to no one.
Only in a place where individuality was prized above all things could I have found my tongue.
In the world of performative illusions, or in the gay realm, there was still an imposition upon personhood. Yes, they defied the ethos of mass culture, but in my mind they offered acceptance for those who sacrificed individuality.
Being accepted was offered at the price of consuming enclosure, like a Venus flytrap, I thought.
I did not wish to be enclosed and digested, caged by the teeth of sweet acceptance only to lose my core being, dissolved in the mouth of some external structure.
I wanted to be myself, to change as I lived my life, and to be free.
In The Pregnant Virgin, Marion Woodman says, “As I understand the virgin archetype, it is that aspect of the feminine, in man or in woman, that has the courage to Be and the flexibility to be always Becoming.”
This is such a magic invocation for me, it’s been so powerfully a part of my story.
Though I didn’t know it at the time, the archetype of the virgin is associated with Near Eastern goddess worship, where virginity is related to being one-in-yourself, and not about sexual inexperience.
Many of the ritual ways the goddess was worshiped in antiquity involved using the body to be of service to her through dance and sexuality. The body was used to connect to the goddess, she who belonged to no man herself.
In my youth I wasn’t aware of the rituals in the temples of Ashtoreth or Aphrodite, nor the Kordax dance of Artemis, but awake in my body and mind was the desire to preserve an essential core being, to be unclaimed by any man, to be wholly my own.
My brief involvement with gay bars was when I was hired to dance in a few during a summer. Mostly at one newly opened that imitated the yawning expanse of LA nightclubs, a departure from the spaces full of diverse people I’d occasionally dance at for indie events.
I would move to the heavy bass beneath the weightier gaze until after midnight, then leave. The enclosure and release mirrored my experiences in the nocturnal garden, though the cage in this instance was literal.
I was an outdoorsy, bookish virgin who lived by the marina, though you wouldn’t have guessed it.
Even the posters of the parties I hosted evoke the dichotomy of sensuality and inaccessibility that represent my twenties. One poster in particular is comical to me, repurposed from a modeling test shoot, it depicts me brazenly staring at the camera with a belt around my neck, hair slicked back and glossy lips parted.
I was chaste and childlike when the photo was taken, though it was used to promote a libertine’s paradise of a party in the gleaming night world of SF.
It amuses me to think of the assumptions that were projected over me at that time. Something about that period feels so exquisitely secret, as if the bold externality fertilized a private perception of viewership. A different kind of invisibility attainable only to those putting on the show, moving in the shadows while in the spotlight.
I like to think that we all have various stages of growth that can be unlocked by the progression of innate pattern and environment, and when permitted freedom, our inborn qualities can flourish in dazzlingly unique periods of maturation. Some are to be seen by others, and some I think only by ourselves.
Looking at my experiences in this city from the outside, it could seem that an utterly different person has lived them in different phases. In essence though, it’s the natural unfolding of a native specimen, growing outside of interfering structures, under the sun and the moon.
Maren Zweifler enjoys teaching Yoga with a focus on free movement and intrinsic shapes, emphasizing spinal fluidity and innate, primal posture. Deeply inspired by movement systems that embrace nature like Sridaiva and Continuum Movement. He completed a 500-hour certification in SF and has taught both there and in Austin where he honed his skills teaching private classes tailored to the individual needs of his clients. He created a wellness/yoga program at a non-profit. These experiences allowed him to explore both the unique individuation of the physical experience in one-on-one sessions, and the commonalities of the human form that can be witnessed in large groups. You could connect with Maren on Instagram.