Brittany Newell talks shyness and music as she remembers her friend Cash Askew who was lost in the Oakland warehouse fire
Brittany’s been bad. She is a drag queen and a rat. She comes from California and was born in 1994, amidst soft cyber sounds. Her debut novel, OOLA, will be published by The Borough Press (HarperCollins) in the UK and by Henry Holt in the US and Canada, both in 2017. She is working on a new novel about asexuality and CCTV.
Two things happened to me in the last months of 2016. I started going out again, and my friend, Cash Askew, died.
Both things, in their different ways, have me thinking about shyness, especially as I lie in bed after a swoopy New Year’s Eve. What are the modes of relationality available to the shy girl, the shy person, when she finally steps out? How does she, to put it less academically, get her life?
A knee-jerk answer, for many, is music. Last night a DJ echoed what I’d heard Cash, and so many musicians, say: music is how they deal with social anxiety. It’s a way of being with people without needing to talk. The DJ’s cigarette trembled as he expounded the magic of a good techno beat. I totally agreed — more than making out or freaking out, I look forward to zoning out on a dancefloor, where the bodies are hard but the collective gaze soft. The creeper urge to stare is made neutral, shyness alchemized into a chill way of being near others. I like the proximity without commitment, that spritzing of affection as you shake your hair out and love thy high neighbors. Who doesn’t get tired of talking?
“If music is how the shy girl connects, it's also how she articulates loss”
If music is how the shy girl connects, it’s also how she articulates loss. This month has been my first experience with communal mourning. I’ve discovered that grief, like a song so fucking good you just have to howl, takes you to a place beyond language. In the weeks after Ghost Ship, I hugged people tighter and we stared at each other and made sounds: How? What? HER? Innumerable bars held benefits and memorials, but every dim-lit space with a sound system was at least partially a vigil. The sadness and confusion was something we didn’t need to discuss. It came out in one’s sweat, an intensely human odor.
The shy girl, in mourning, encounters new demands of her body. She, who normally has trouble sharing her thoughts and desires, can’t help but share this sadness. The clasp to her heart is bust, it hangs grossly open. She can’t hide her feelings. It’s all there, in the muggy, swirly air.
Shyness is weird, both circumstantial and deep-seated. While some people (like moi) feel like their life has been defined by a genetic attraction to corners, everyone has experienced, at least once, the full-body tingle of shyness. What even is it, to be terribly shy? For me, it’s like a psychic clumsiness: I am less skilled at moving through space. I’m terrified of my body suddenly slipping out from under me, like a bicycle on gravel. But it also has to do with touch: perhaps we shy girls are a little more controlling when it comes to skin-to-skin contact. I don’t seem to take touch as lightly, or give it as readily, as more free-wheeling friends. I like things to unfold in a particular way, which is antithetical to going with flow (overrated).
Maybe it has to do with a stricter sense of where my body ends: if you are prone to introspection, does this mean you think of your body as a place to go in to, like a bedroom or a vacant lot, therefore somehow fenced and bordered? I wish I could trick myself into a feeling of limitlessness, an oozy extroversion. Alas, it takes me longer to thaw in a crowd. My melting point is higher. Cash and I talked about this trouble.
“Shyness, like recent death, could be defined as present absence. You know – the shy girl is physically there in the room, but somehow she's unreachable”
Shyness, like recent death, could be defined as present absence. You know — the shy girl is physically there in the room, but she’s somehow unreachable. Her eyes are downcast when she dances; her touch is accidental, when she wriggles through the crowd. Or, conversely, the shy girl’s not there, she’s at home, listening to Slowdive and painting her nails, but you can’t help but picture her, wondering what colour she picked, thus bringing her back to the bar. Shy girls slide easily into legend, because they are more often encountered in thought than in touch — like when you watch her groove across the room, or wonder about all the things she doesn’t say, or, more relevantly, miss her. This rareness of physical contact leads to a weird sort of fame. The shy girl may not hang, but she lingers. Long before she died, Cash haunted me.
I still wonder where she is right now, what she’s listening to. She was the type of girl everyone knew of and crushed on from afar. One thing I wish I could say to her now is I love the way you wear your clothes — not just the clothes themselves, but the way she moved in and through them. Everything tumbled around her like freshly-washed hair. Even as her friend, I was too shy to articulate this, instead resorting to boilerplate girltalk like you look cute tonight!. I didn’t want to sound creepy. Any self-identified shyster knows the world-ending terror of not finding the right words. Too many hours of my life have been devoted to the fear of coming across as creepy or weird or cold or aloof.
I like the way you dance, a girl once told me, it’s like someone is forcing you!
Oh, how she bludgeoned me. I know that I dance with the same expression I read or count coins with. I can’t slacken the bitch-face; I’ve tried yoga, I’ve tried opiates, but like parents warn children when they make ugly faces, it’s just stuck that way. Hey, hey. It’s a subtler pleasure sought when the shy person “goes out,” a funny phrase since I feel like I’m always so deep in my head. I don’t really unspool, like the many wild childs (wild children?) I know. You are my New Year’s resolution! one such beret-wearing vision trilled last night. They are rightfully adored, these wicked things in their ADD splendor, belly-bared shit-stirrers swinging from the beams. It takes all types to fill a room. Some people spangle; others, like the light-bulb in the bathroom where you go to gather your thoughts, just click.
The pleasures of interacting with shy girls are specific too, marked by tiny victories. There’s the honour of having them smile at you, text you the rose emoji, tap your arm to say, monumentally, hey. I always felt this way with Cash — blessed by the event, both basic and rare, of hearing her say my name aloud. It seems impossible that I’ll never have that pleasure again.
Every time I go out, I can’t help but look for her on the dancefloor. That was where I saw her most regularly, as two shy girls not good at talking. I don’t think I’ll ever stop scanning a crowd for her curls; it’s a muscle memory. I know she can’t read this, and won’t ever know all the things that I loved her for. But writing about her, and all the other muted beauties I’ve encountered and been too scared to ask the name of, is one small way of bringing her back.
“The tragedy of shyness is that it prevents people from telling each other what they truly think, how they really feel”
The tragedy of shyness is that it prevents people from telling each other what they truly think, how they really feel. I made a New Year’s resolution to tell folks, even those I don’t know, all the minute things I value about them, the details maybe only a shy girl would notice: how M walks with her pelvis tilted forward, how big and round C’s teeth are, how L in preteen underwear is my platonic ideal. I don’t know if I’ll follow through. As discussed, words fail, and we all get sick of talking.
So for now I’ll think quietly of all the babes I’m blessed to know, or sorta know, or barely know, or only recognize and yet catch myself dreaming about, and I’ll hope, some day, to find the right words to communicate my love, however creepy it may be. I can say one thing for certain. I think most often of the shy ones, those hardest to talk to, harder still to forget, grooving with the downcast gaze of one who’s seen a ghost.