Hazlitt Magazine

'Owning the Taint of Artistry': An Interview with Leslie Jamison

The author of Make It Scream, Make It Burn on being skeptical of skepticism and championing the ordinary. 

Magic Eraser Juice

Driving an ambulance in a opioid-torn city in the age of Narcan.

The Swimming Pool Library

This summer, I assigned myself the task of swimming home, moving through the neighborhoods and communities that, side by side, would bring me back to myself.

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Misunderstanding Magnus

A record of my failure to understand the world’s greatest living chess player. 

One of my issues is that I don’t have Jesus, so I don’t know what to do. There is no one personal exemplar whose behavior I can imitate in moments of doubt. I have to try and figure out how to live, in real time, and what I should be living for—what I should hope to achieve with my limited energies in this briefly available life. This is a huge problem. A bigger problem than it might first appear, since human beings are, fundamentally, imitative creatures—we’re just slightly differentiated copies of each other. While it’s true that we’re individually quirky, our quirks are built upon a massive superstructure of beliefs and values we’ve taken from other people. Nobody arrives at their principles through self-directed philosophical reasoning from zero. We just steal stuff and make slight adjustments to it. We try our best to be acceptable people by fashioning ourselves out of scraps of human material we find lying around. And this is true whether we’re talking about how to pick a romantic partner, decorate our apartment, or almost anything else. This is mostly a good thing. It just makes sense to copy the wisdom of authority figures, most of the time, since, let’s face it, you and I are not so smart. We can’t figure everything out, and even if we could, it would take too much time. Our environment is more option-rich than ever—even choosing a beer can require processing a tremendous amount of information. Given that we’re going to die, we shouldn’t spend all of our time figuring out what to do while we’re alive. And this is especially true in times of crisis or even minor difficulty. When shit is hitting the fan, it’s probably best to imitate a competent person whose behavior we’re familiar with, rather than try to invent some half-baked solution while the situation is degrading around us. But, if you don’t have Jesus or another central figure, which competent people do you emulate? It’s probably a big mish-mash with no one person in charge. That’s how it is with me. For example, these days, I’m interested in imitating Tyler Cowen, Octavia Butler, a barista at my local café (he just seems so grounded), my fiancée and my in-laws. I’m always looking for another person whose characteristics I can graft onto my own.  Sometimes, this effort fails. It has failed most spectacularly in the case of Magnus Carlsen, the World Champion of Chess. He’s a man of frankly annoying brilliance. At thirteen years old, he achieved a drawn game against the former greatest player of all time, Garry Kasparov, slayer of IBM’s Deep Blue. And, since 2013, when he took the world title at the age of 22, he’s never come close to losing it. I have tried to study his life in an effort to siphon off some of whatever powers his intellectual dominance. I have learned nothing. This is a shame, since I spent years trying to become a great chess player, and his guidance would have helped. However, after much detailed examination of his life and work, he remains inscrutable, and I remain a hapless screwup on the chessboard. This is a record of my failure to understand Magnus Carlsen. *** Chess players generally do a terrifying amount of mental work. Being at the highest level requires a lot of cognitive load on the board, and off the board. But there is one player who manages to do quite well without studying much at all—obviously, it’s Magnus Carlsen. He’s infamous for preparing far less than other players. He likes lying in a hammock and playing soccer. He says he’s just less fixated on the game than other people are. “It’s easy to get obsessed with chess,” he says. “That’s what happened with [Bobby] Fischer and Paul Morphy [the game’s first great player]. I don’t have that same obsession.”  So, why does this work? Potentially, it might be good because it creates levity. Since he takes things less seriously, he’s less concerned, so his thoughts are clearer when he’s at the board. Also, Magnus has created a style around his lack of scholarly appetite. He tends to steer games towards positions that require less preparation—generally, you have to prepare for positions that are complicated and offer many chances for failure, since these are harder to work out in real time and the penalties for failing to understand them are more dramatic. Magnus avoids these situations as much as he can. The lesson here, maybe, is that if we want to succeed in our endeavours, we should organize our lives such that our activities require less planning and preparation, and then aim to minimize our stress as much as we can, such that we can execute our carefully chosen tasks calmly. But, okay, on the other hand, maybe that’s just silly, empty conjecture. With respect to chess specifically, maybe Magnus just gets away with being lazy because he has raw talent. For a few weeks of my chess career, I tried to study less and be more relaxed, in imitation of Magnus, and my chess suffered horribly for it. And, as for not-chess, the question of whether you’re working hard enough seems so utterly context-dependent that having a general dictum about it is worthless.  This is complicated by the fact that, lately, Magnus is working harder, and performing better. He’s now preparing for games more, and he’s gone from being slightly more effective than anyone else in the world to being dominant on a preposterous scale. So, what do we do? Should we work hard to excel, or just engage in carefully planned non-effort? Who the fuck knows? Not me. *** Magnus is working harder. But that’s not the end of the story. The work he’s doing is really peculiar. Magnus is doing a lot of computer preparation, something he forsook in the past—but he’s preparing lines of play that the computer thinks are not that great. This is a hilarious development that actually makes a fair amount of sense. Magnus is making a correct observation about the nature of computer evaluation, which is that it’s not 100% relevant to human play. See, when a computer says a position isn’t good for the white pieces, it’s opining that it, the computer, could win the upper hand with the black pieces. Which is cool and all, but Magnus isn’t playing computers. He’s playing the most computer-like humans in the world, but they’re still likely to make mistakes, and therefore probably can’t find the computer-perfect line of play that makes Magnus’s position slightly dubious. Thus, he’s seemingly assumed that if he likes the creative possibilities in a position—the kind of long-term plans available, or just the aesthetic feeling of it—he can outplay his opponent, even if he’s technically at a slight disadvantage. And he’s right.  Again, compelling. Again, suggestive of a fun and profound-seeming takeaway that could probably be massaged into a best-selling self-help book: that often, the optimal strategy will actually look like a mistake, based on the assumptions of the old strategy. Accordingly, if we want to come up with a genius new way of doing things, we should look first to things that seem unlikely or silly. Like George Costanza, we should at least consider doing the total opposite of what we’re currently doing. But, wait: what? Didn’t I claim, at the outset of this essay, that we should imitate others? Should we imitate highly successful people who do not imitate other highly successful people? Under what circumstances? It seems like our guidelines have generated an interesting internal contradiction. Magnus is doing things that seem a little crazy to the uninformed, but are not, in fact, that strange to someone who has his highly specific knowledge. Good for him! Not good for those who want to imitate his success. *** Magnus has this weird dead-eyed look on his face a lot of the time. It’s the kind of seemingly vacant gaze we associate with stereotypical depictions of stupidity or advanced neurological illness, not something we’d expect of the greatest chess player of all time. He and I have been in physical proximity once. He was stalking down a hallway in the Netherlands, after a difficult game at a tournament I was reporting on, and his eyeballs moved not a bit. As he brushed past me, his stare was settled on a point just in front of his face, and he followed that point down the hall, as if his head were tethered to the hand of an invisible puppeteer.  I have wondered what it looks like in there, in that point. In that mental space he carries around, that he enters while the world spins about him, and exits just before delivering a winning move. I’d like to ask him how his private mental playroom is furnished. But I suspect that whatever he’d have to tell me would only baffle me further.  As much as we all have to look for exemplars, we also have to be aware that sometimes this won’t work. To assume otherwise is to assume that there’s nothing irreducible about a person. That the gestalt that makes a given person extraordinary is composed of elements that can be neatly carved at the joints. That, effectively, I could be taught to act as you do. Imitation, as they say, is the sincerest form of flattery. But perhaps failed imitation is actually going a step further. To be able to say to someone, after hours of studying their every characteristic, the following: I’ve tried, but I cannot reproduce you.
‘Owning the Taint of Artistry’: An Interview with Leslie Jamison

The author of Make It Scream, Make It Burn on being skeptical of skepticism and championing the ordinary. 

Five years ago, Leslie Jamison published her collection The Empathy Exams and became the patron essayist of feelings and pain—a writer who wrestled with the wounds and bruises that haunt others and who grappled with her own. Jamison redefined empathy and peeled back the layers of why we disdain melodrama and the performance of pain. Her new collection Make It Scream, Make It Burn (Little, Brown And Company) explores different kinds of aches: obsession, longing, and desire for the things that lie outside of our grasp.  Make It Scream, Make It Burn takes the reader through three states across its three sections—Longing, Looking, Dwelling—delivering us from being haunted by what we don’t have to showing up for what we do. These are essays about how our yearning to be understood might manifest in an obsession with a blue whale whose song soars into a wildly high frequency; about how a belief in reincarnation can “promise an extraordinary root structure beneath the ordinary soil of our days”; about a photographer who has documented the same Mexican family for 25 years, dogged by a desire for connection and completion that is impossible to fulfill. They’re also about Jamison’s own reckonings with her desires: realizing that she had “developed an attachment to the state of yearning itself” and learning how find “the pleasures of dwelling, which are harder and thicker than the pleasures of conjuring” in marriage and step-parenting and pregnancy. As in The Empathy Exams and her critical memoir The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath, Jamison is restless in these essays, circling and questioning until she lands on deeper understanding, and then refusing to rest there. I first met Jamison in 2015, when I was a student in the Columbia University MFA program and she was teaching a master class on confession and shame. Now, she is the director of the nonfiction concentration. We met in her office on the first day of the semester to talk about how this collection took shape over seven years of writing and living, about representational asymptotes and being skeptical of skepticism, and about championing the ordinary. Kristen Martin: How did you come to put all of these essays together? Some of them you originally wrote before The Empathy Exams came out. How did you come, over time, to start to see connective tissue between these different things that you were writing about, and also to revisit them, reshape them, rewrite them to create this book?  Leslie Jamison: As with The Empathy Exams, there was an organic process. If I try to break it down, it’s like a three-stage process. There’s an initial wave of writing in a lot of different directions that don’t necessarily feel connected, where I’m just following fascinations or following assignments that speak to me on some profound level or following a personal impulse toward pieces I want to write. Everything from wanting to write about the Museum of Broken Relationships, that could also be an occasion to meditate on breakups and how we hold ended relationships inside of us, to pieces that came to me from editors but somehow struck some primal chord from the beginning, like the loneliest whale in the world or kids with past-life memories. But just sort of feeling less like somebody with an aerial, conceptual map, but more like a dog tracking a series of scents. And then the second stage is that I start to sense the contours of the thematic concerns that connect those essays. In the case of this collection, this idea the really is articulated probably best in the epigraph [from Marilynne Robinson], that idea of “When do our senses know anything so utterly as when we lack it?”—how we’re defined by things we can’t have or know or touch. And that to me is what brings together obsession, longing, and haunting as three thematic anchors, and certainly what brings together different things in this collection. How are we made by the things we can’t have or don’t have? It feels important to come to those contours part of the way through the process of writing and following these ideas, rather than trying to impose them top-down from the start. And then the third stage is once I have a lot of raw material and have some sense of the thematic inquiries that are connecting the pieces is thinking about how to create a collection that feels coherent, and that takes the form of structure and order—what order do I put these essays in? Which ones belong? Which ones don’t? In this case, thinking about the three sections as a way to guide the reader through the pieces. And then also revision within the pieces as a way to help them speak to each other more fully. This was everything from creating the arc of the collection, both in a conceptual sense of going from longing to having in some crude way, but also more of a method arc that goes from more reported or journalistic pieces, to more critical pieces, to more personal. But also, inside of any given essay, seeing that, say, the essays on Civil War photography and James Agee and Annie Appel are all referencing the same Sontag quote about how people “want the weight of witnessing without the taint of artistry”—how to make that not an unintentional repetition, but like, there’s this idea that these essays are all working through and we’re returning to it each time and hopefully understanding it a little bit better each time or in a different way each time. As far as the things you wrote fresh for this collection, were those things that you wrote after you had started to figure out a structure and then you were filling in beats in the arc? One was definitely the Second Life piece—which I wrote on commission, and the idea to write about Second Life was brought to me by my editor at the Atlantic. But the second she said it to me, I knew that I wanted to do it, not just because I was sort of obsessed with this idea of who is on Second Life, and it was more appealing to me because it was this weird sort of joke of a place that was obsolete—that was way more compelling to me than writing about Instagram. But also, part of why I immediately knew that I wanted to write about it was because I saw it immediately as the third part of this triptych, where I had written the piece about the whale, and written the piece about past-life memories, and this felt like the completion of this trilogy that I hadn’t even known existed, that had to do with people intrigued by alternate versions of themselves. Whether that’s the digital avatar, a whale, or a past life. The last essay in the collection, “The Quickening,” I at a certain point was very explicitly writing as the last essay in the collection—which was also true for “The Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” that I knew that would be the last essay in The Empathy Exams. I think of “The Quickening” as not like a sequel to “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” but thinking about the idea of female identity as both shaped and shamed by too much fixation on wounds and what it means to hold in mind this other female archetype of the maker, or the mother. And to reckon directly with the parts of myself that wanted to grow up, out of being the wound-dweller and into being the mother figure, but to actually, as I’m always collapsing binaries, to collapse that binary too, and say of course I’m both at once. But I see it as an ending piece that’s also in conversation with that last ending piece. In the first draft of the collection, there was an essay all about my eating disorder that was formally experimental, a kind of collage text of all the different times that I had tried to write about my eating disorder over a period of like fifteen years, and then a separate essay about my pregnancy. At a certain point, my editor and a couple of readers were pushing me on why I wanted the essay about the eating disorder to be there. And I kept saying, “I really like the way it’s in conversation with the essay about pregnancy.” And I heard myself say that enough times and I was like, if that’s why I’m invested in it, then I need to actually put them into conversation, and then that totally opened the door, and it was like, oh right, this is actually the form that this material needs to take, and at that point it really started to come together as this alternating, braided piece. By structurally braiding them, I was forced to reckon with how I was understanding these two personae—the shameful persona of the eating disorder narrator, and the more virtuous persona of the pregnant narrator, and I just wanted to come at that head-on rather than just having them both speaking to each other from across the space of different essays. Something that’s interesting about the structure of this book versus that book is that in this book you start with looking at things outside of yourself—I mean, you’re in every essay, but your focus is more documenting other people’s longings and obsessions in the first two parts of the book, and then turning the eye back on to yourself in the last section. In The Empathy Exams, we start with you and then move away. Why did it feel important to invert that arc here?   One answer to that has to do with the desire to create something new with every book, and to make the shape or the sculpture or the experience of each book feel distinct. And so, in that sense, I wanted to create a different kind of experience for the reader than the one I had already created. Of course it was going to be a different experience because the essays are about different things, and ranging over different terrains subject-wise and emotionally and even geographically. But whereas in The Empathy Exams I had been interested in how a narrator who began the collection by articulating these deeply personal experiences—what you get from following that narrator out into the world but carrying with you this knowledge of some of the emotional baggage that narrator was carrying with her. I was just as interested in the inverse of that experience in this collection, which is to say you see someone moving through the world, as we’re always doing—you move through the world on any given day and you see a bunch of strangers and don’t know all the baggage they’re carrying with them, but know that it’s there. That sense of getting to see that narrator—which again, as you say, I’m present in all of the essays—but to see this journalistic voice then peel away these layers as the collection continues to expose or articulate or ruminate on some of the personal experiences that are driving or motivating these interests in longing or obsession or being made by what we can’t touch. That’s an interesting arc to go on, to see how somebody’s interest in others is often fueled or inevitably dogged and shaped by what it is that they’re reckoning with in their own lives. It became exciting for me to think about how the structure of the collection could enact what we know to be true of the strangers we see on the street in an abstract sense, but we aren’t usually going through that process of seeing somebody move through the world and then seeing this exposed, X-ray version of what it is they’re carrying inside themselves. But it might be possible over the course of a collection to enact that X-ray. I feel like one of the threads in the book is about the impossibility of fully documenting someone else’s story and this asymptote we come up against in being able to reproduce what has happened in anything on the page. At one point, you write, “making art about other people always means seeing them as you see them, rather than mirroring the way they would elect to be seen.” So, it’s not only this failure of language, but this failure of being able to know someone or fully empathize with them. When you were writing the essays about other people, and even with the essays about yourself, how were you reckoning with reaching that asymptote? I guess one of the ways that I reckon with asymptotes is by confessing that they’re there, and it feels like documenting other people’s confrontations with the limits of representation and what’s frustrating about that is more interesting than the kind of more claustrophobic gesture of simply commenting on the incompleteness of my own representation of anything. You can feel like this very cloistered hall of mirrors if you’re doing a thing and then commenting on your own attempt to do the thing. It felt like it just let some oxygen into the collection to actually look at these other people’s attempts to do the thing rather than just self-reflexively lamenting my own incomplete attempt to do the thing. And certainly, I think, in a way, that’s why my essay on [the photographer] Annie Appel does feel like the culmination of that second section to me, just because her story feels like such a stark embodiment of the inevitability of completeness when it comes to representation, and the ways that that sense of incompleteness is both a frustration and an engine. It can feel like a flaw or liability but it’s also this very dynamic motivating force. And so the figure of this woman who with very little institutional support or funding had become obsessed with this single ordinary family and for 25 years just kept photographing them—there was just something so moving to me about that, and it just held so many of the tensions that I was interested in in art and art that was somehow documenting other people’s lives. Like the tension between finding extraordinary truths in very ordinary lives, the tension between never achieving complete representation but achieving something maybe more honest in recognizing that completion, and just being willing to do it anyway. Being able to say look, this representation is flawed. It’s not the whole story. But rather than simply give up in the face of that, we keep trying to put something out there. And the Borges parable that shows up in the essay about Annie also feels like a useful encapsulation of that—that for a map to show everything about the world, it would have to be as large as the world, and so that there is something useful that happens in that inevitable reduction too, that it makes it possible to see or to experience. And even in the fact that by documenting this family, she’s also changing them. She’s involved in their lives—she’s not trying to pretend that her fingerprints aren’t on the photos. Yeah, she’s owning the taint of artistry. Some of the most both compositionally and aesthetically but also emotionally interesting photographs of hers are the ones where she’s in there too. I love that photograph of her with Maria and Jaime at their kitchen table, where you see her camera is on the table, so you’re seeing that evidence of her role as a documenter. But you also see the fact that these are just three people who have spent a lot of time together, and have both the intimacy of that exposure but also the wariness of that exposure, and that all of those dimensions of their relationship are sitting there side by side in that picture feels to me as one iteration of her willingness to own her place in that drama.  And then in the Civil War photography essay, responding to the portrait of the soldiers, not necessarily the battlefield photos of the soldiers. So, this constructed thing doesn’t necessarily have to be a failure because we see that it’s constructed. Something is getting communicated even if it’s clearly a representation and not a full reproduction. Yeah! And in the same way sort of responding to the Alexander Gardner photograph of the rebel sharpshooter where the soldier’s dead body had been posthumously arranged, and responding to and trying to make sense of people’s indignation when they found out that it had been constructed in that way and that that made it inauthentic. But having a very different response that this doesn’t make it inauthentic—it’s another kind of authenticity, to  think about what sort of desire was at play when a photographer wanted to arrange the body in this way. There’s truth in that desire to tell a certain kind of story about war that’s even more interesting to me than the truth of how the body happened to fall. A constant between The Empathy Exams and The Recovering and this book has been this skepticism of skepticism. In The Empathy Exams, you’re defending saccharine; in The Recovering, you’re defending the platitudes of AA meetings; and then here, there are moments where you’re grappling with wanting to believe in the people who believe that their children are reincarnated. When did you start to doubt doubt as a writerly pose, and how has that doubt of doubt developed and changed for you in your writing career? [My] job talk [at Columbia in 2015] was the first time that I formally adopted that pose. I mean, obviously as you point out, it had been this throughline stance that I was invested in in my work—coming to the defense of something that seemed uncool or untenuous or unrigorous, to like sentimentality or to like clichés or to believe people who believed in reincarnation. All these forms of naiveté, I think temperamentally I’ve been drawn to defending them, and maybe that just comes from a desire to defend the underdog. Some of that was at play with Annie too, that there’s something so deeply earnest about her self-presentation as an artist that I think that same part of me was also like, I want to jump to this person’s defense or this cliché’s defense or this sentimental text’s defense. But that job talk was really the first time that I tried to put a real thematic name to that throughline that had been showing up in my work for a while. And I’m sure it felt satisfying to me to make that stance explicit at an Ivy League job talk, to be like, there’s a certain kind of skepticism that seems too cool for school and what’s that about? I have literally never thought about this in relation to that—but I do think there are some childhood dynamics that are probably at play in terms of why that role feels like a natural one to me. I grew up in a household where I was the youngest person in my family by nine years, and my older brothers both had very rigorous, quantitative minds. They’re both economists, as is my father, and so all three of them were very smart, very critical, and very good at poking holes in arguments, and ruthlessly logical and pretty skeptical of a lot of things. And so I think it was sort of an available role in the ecosystem and probably had something to do with  gender too, to be the youngest and a girl and almost being the one who did something other than poke holes in things. I think that I could be the enthusiast in the room and that role hadn’t been cast yet, so I showed up and tried to fill it. So probably some of the deep grooves are borne of that kind of family dynamic. And then I think there is probably some emotional or social motivation behind it too, that I grew up in L.A. and was not one of the cool girls, and so I sort of developed this affective affinity for the underdog. Lots of people have an affinity for the underdog—it’s more fun to have an affinity for the underdog than for the overdog, it’s a tried-and-true mode of relation. But I think for me there was a little bit of this sense of wanting to defend things that are uncool, that had come from that teenage self too. So when I resist Didion, I’m resisting her dismissal and I’m resisting her skepticism, but I think I’m also a little bit still resisting the cool girls in high school. Because, you know, she’s kind of a cool girl. With her packing list! And her size 2 dresses and her bottle of whiskey and…I’m sure some of my relation to drinking was wanting to finally be one of the cool kids, and some of my relation to sobriety is wanting to sort of rehabilitate or defend the not-cool kid who’s not packing a bottle of whiskey on their reporting trip, that is packing a Diet Wild Cherry Pepsi instead.  I think that something that’s a little different in this book is turning back around on the doubting doubt again. Like to say, who am I to say that nothing is alien to me, and do I really want to believe these people who believe their child is the reincarnation of a World War II fighter pilot? Yeah, I think you’re exactly right! To some extent, it’s another form of ongoingness, which so many of the essays are interested in. I think one of the forms of ongoingness that I am compelled by is the continual turning of the screw in terms of an idea. So, you don’t rest on doubt, you don’t rest on the dismissal of doubt, you are constantly turning it another notch, or toggling between two signs of a tension rather than landing on either one. I think so much of my work sort of insists on oscillating back and forth between competing forces rather than settling on one, and I think skepticism and the resistance to skepticism is another one of those tensions. I want to ask about the last section, Dwelling, where you kind of have an arc of your own. You begin with “Rehearsals” about being a wedding guest, and yearning, and “The Long Trick,” about the death of your grandfather, who was “the original absent man”—which is again, wanting what we can’t have, or don’t have—and then there’s this series of essays toward the end about showing up for daily life and finding spark in the ordinary. How did you come to put that arc together? I’m also curious if writing about finding spark in the ordinary has changed the way you see your daily life.  First of all, it’s really gratifying to hear you articulate that arc, because it meant a lot to me to try to make an entire book but particularly make that final section in a way that didn’t just feel like some kind of crude, “all right, we’ll just put the reported pieces here and the critical pieces here, and then we’ll just put the personal pieces at the end.” That it really was so much more about creating that journey from outward to inward, but really also letting my ideas evolve, and within that third section, having a journey from longing to inhabiting. I think that to some extent, it was a version of this logic that we’ve already been talking about—writing toward the things that I felt passionate about, not just in the external world, but in my own life, and then stepping back and noticing that, both because of what I had lived, but because of how the things I was living were shaping my attention, that there was this arc that emerged. And, there were certain things that I thought I first I was doing for craft reasons that I realized were serving that emotional arc. For example, “Rehearsals,” that essay about being a wedding guest, initially I had decided that I wanted to put it in—and actually, it was a late addition to the book, not because it was written late but, because I hadn’t initially been thinking about it as part of the collection. But I realized I was really attached to some of the writing in it, in that way that you feel you hit a sort of electricity in your prose sometimes. I felt like there was something there that I felt proud of. And also I liked the idea of an essay that had a different texture to it than some of the other essays—it’s shorter, it’s more lyric, it feels more like a burst of energy than a long-form piece, and I liked the idea of having some variation in the pieces. So, at first, I was thinking about it almost in a tonal or aesthetic way. But then I realized, oh, of course, content-wise it also makes sense to have this essay about being a wedding guest before I’m writing about my own wedding and becoming a mom! It’s almost like I tricked myself into a narrative arc in that sense. I think once I was looking at all the essays that felt like they were a part of this section, then these interesting conversations between them started to emerge. Like in “Rehearsals” I write about how we think about weddings as beginnings, but they’re also endings, and in the Museum of Broken Hearts, I’m essentially writing about the inverse of that, which is to say we think of the end of relationships as endings, but they’re also beginnings in a way of the afterlife of memory. To me, that’s what a collection is all about, is the way that these essays acquire this layer of meaning by virtue of both being present, even if you’re not always spelling it out. I guess what I really wanted to do in that final section is have that narrative arc where you are getting the sort of satisfactions that I think are real as a reader of watching a narrator move through space-time and move through the events of her life, but it wasn’t just that narrative journey—that there are also these ideas that are getting shaped. And in terms of whether that attention to the ordinary has changed my relationship to living the ordinary—yeah, I think they’re in a real feedback loop. I would like to believe that finding ways of writing about ordinariness is constantly returning me to my daily life with some sense of, this isn’t just trudging or drudgery, that every moment of this life is a site for meaning. Which doesn’t mean that we can’t sometimes take a break and Instagram on our phones—it doesn’t always have to be the deep communion—but that we’re alive to that possibility in any given moment.  I just read August 9–Fog by Kathryn Scanlan, and it’s really like an erasure poem essentially. She found the diary at an estate auction somewhere in the Midwest of a woman who lived on a farm, and it was just her recording her ordinary, daily life, but Kathryn Scanlan sort of whittled it down into these very sharp fragments that are still ordinary life, but just like distilled and juxtaposed. It will be like “Niagara Falls jigsaw puzzle turned out very pretty / very hard,” that will be the whole page of text. You’re moving through the seasons and you’re moving through cycles of life and death, and there are these larger life events lurking in the margins that show up, but it’s a book that kind of trains you or invites you to see how luminous the ordinary really is. Anyway, I just read that last week, and I had that feeling of having one’s life philosophy better distilled and articulated outside oneself. So, I think I’m always on the lookout for the ways other people are finding ways to represent the ordinary as well. And I think in a way—this is one of the chips on my shoulder when it comes to nonfiction—I think we’ve accepted for so long that ordinary life is viable material for fiction, and that fiction can make extraordinary things about ordinary life, but in nonfiction it feels a little bit harder for us to accept that. I think there’s more pressure in nonfiction for there to be something extraordinary about the narrative itself. And so, it’s almost like we need to claim that same space in nonfiction for the ordinary as art.
Magic Eraser Juice

Driving an ambulance in a opioid-torn city in the age of Narcan.

There is one particular alley in my city which is policed by a local little person on a scooter named Leticia. She sports a stylish short haircut, heavy makeup, and a shoulder bag with a large handmade pin which reads "I have narcan." She has to reach up above her head to the handlebars of her scooter, and she can dart the thing through traffic with breathtaking agility. I've seen her screaming at a guy to put his dirty needles in a sharps container instead of leaving them out on the sidewalk. Last time we ran into her she asked if we had any gloves. We went into our ambulance and gave her our last box. We figured she'd probably have more field saves than us by the end of the night anyway. An opiate overdose kills you by first lulling you to sleep and then slowly suppressing your respiratory drive. You breathe ten times a minute, then eight, then four. You turn blue. Your breathing stops, your brain begins to die, and eventually your heart stops pumping. It looks like a pretty good way to go—until some over-caffeinated paramedic like me stabs you with Narcan and ruins everything. Narcan (generic name: naloxone) is a competitive opioid receptor antagonist, which means that the Narcan floods into you bloodstream and bonks all the heroin off its receptors. This ends both the overdose and the high. So, with a cartoon-zombie exaggeration, quite literally back from the dead, the patient sits up, gasps, cries, sometimes vomits, and almost always looks around with wide, sweaty, who-the-fuck-are-you confusion.   "Good morning!" we say, way too casual. "Welcome back." ***  It's pretty common in my city to have a dose of Narcan drawn up and rubber banded onto the rearview mirror of the ambulance. We keep the rest of our gear all the way in the back of the rig and we run so many overdoses that it's just easier to have the Narcan ready to go. We're lazy that way, I guess.  You remember Epi-pens? You probably knew a kid in your elementary school who had to keep one in his backpack in case he was attacked by a peanut. They make those for Narcan now, and they give them out at clinics and the needle exchange. It's a little plastic device which contains a single dose, quick-release Narcan shot and can be given with little or no training. They're all over the street.  "We gave him Narcan already!" a homeless man shouts as we pull up. "I gave him two of the thingies, the ones they gave us!"  Police carry them, social workers, other drug users. Often a patient will get far more than the recommended dose before we arrive, and we will step carefully through a pile of used heroin needles and Narcan packaging on our way to the patient. I've Narcan'd the same guy twice in a shift. Some days everyone is just dying and coming back left and right like junkie whack-a-mole.   *** Fentanyl is quick, beautiful, and cheap, and it kills you.  What does it mean to drive around with an antidote? It's a strange feeling, knowing that there's an oops button on an overdose. We don't always get there in time. If you're by yourself, or if you took a particularly strong blend, or if your friends suck at calling 911, sometimes you die all the way. But a lot of the time, you die most of the way, and then we pop you full of magic eraser juice, and you come stumbling back from the edge.   There's a range of reactions on waking up. Some patients are upset, some surprised, some nonchalant. "Oh, I've OD'd a bunch of times."  One patient walks away as soon as we get to the hospital. We pull the gurney out of the back of the ambulance and he casually undoes his seatbelts and gets up. We ask where he's going and he tells us he's going to walk back down the hill and buy another hit. I ask if there's anything I can do to change his mind and he laughs and says no, but maybe you can try again next time. We bring back a woman wearing matching mittens and a hat who is confused, then starts to cry. She's been using meth every day but has been clean from heroin for 20 years. I arch an eyebrow. She sobs, then screams, then grabs my arm.  "How did this happen? Who did this? I have to know what happened." She repeats herself, panicked, still high on the meth she was probably shooting before she took the dirty dose by mistake. "Where was I? Who did this? How did this happen? I could have died! I could have died?" We try to calm her, but she's so far gone into her own circles that it's difficult to get through. We wake up plenty of overdoses who claim they're clean, but she's so up front about the meth use that I start to believe her story. Once she slows down a little we determine that she shot up what she thought was her usual meth dose and woke up to a team of paramedics pressing a mask to her face and hauling her off the ground into a gurney.   She was going to dose her friend next, the man who called us, and when she realizes that if he had gone first he might have died she starts sobbing again. "It could have been you! If it wasn't me it would have been you! Oh my god, how did this happen?" We found her lying in a puddle behind a gas station, with a pile of so many scattered needles that we had to pull a sideways one out of her thigh. Here you are, Miss Mittens, at two in the morning, lying in a heroin-riddled alleyway, in a heroin-torn city, in the heroin-soaked night, you've lost half your friends to ODs, and you're tying off your arm and pumping your vein full of some sketchy meth that you bought from who knows where, and you're, what, suprised that things went badly? We could lecture her, or be mean about it. On the other hand, fuck it, you know? It was an honest mistake. She's not taking it out on us, she's just plain scared. I unpackage a disposable blanket and wrap it around her. "I'm so sorry this happened to you. We're going to take really good care of you. Just focus on your breathing, okay? We've got you now." ***  We wake up a guy in his thirties who says, "Shit... Did I OD?" Yeah, man, we gave you Narcan. Welcome back. He sighs, leans his head back, and looks defeated. "I was clean for seven years." He shakes his head. We close the charting computer and talk for a while. He tells us how he got clean, put his life back together, even worked in a drug counseling clinic to help other addicts get off the street. He's a young white guy with a beard, flannel shirt, and torn jeans. He's wearing a T-shirt from a band I like under the flannel. He tells us he hates the failure but he's been slipping lately. His voice is soft but he holds nothing back. A brush with death always brings closeness with it, but to be brought back from a death which was caused by your own greatest personal vice—to have lost your greatest struggle, and then look up from the depths into the eyes of your witnesses, there's nothing left to hide.  "Is there anything, you think, that anyone could do for you? A program, a counselor, a friend? Is there anything that we could do? You seem like someone who could fight this. What would work, do you think, for you?" He stares at his hands for what seems like a long time.   "No," he says finally. "I don't think there's anything that would help. It's a hell of an addiction."  *** They say heroin is amazing. It's a cheat code. That it's better than any other feeling that you've ever had up until that moment. Everything you've ever tried for, every challenge you've failed or risen to, every struggle and every injury, it all just falls into place. It was all worth it, every minute, every gasp, to bring you here to this moment. It's meditation, it's orgasm.  I'm not a heroin user, but I know what it feels like to search for something and think you've found it. I know that aching, dark emptiness of an addict, and the feeling that one more step, one more grasp, and it's just within reach; that thing you've been hunting for, the thing which has kept you up at night. It's right there, right beyond your fingertips, just stretch a little farther, escape a little more. I can't begin to know the pain of a true opiate addiction, but I have no judgments for those in the struggle. A lot of people blame the Sackler family for the current American opioid crisis that has swallowed cities like mine; immigrant pharmacists turned CEOs turned opiate drug kingpins, the Sacklers created Oxycontin. Released in 1997, Oxy was stronger, purer, and more addictive than any prescription pain pills that came before it. Its "time-release" formulation made for easy crushing, snorting, and shooting. The soul of the poppy flower wove its way from opium in Turkish smoking dens, morphine for Civil War soldiers, laudanum for menstrual women, the heroin of jazz musicians, and found its home in orange pill bottles across every strata of the American experience. Purdue Pharma, owned by the Sacklers, marketed the drug so heavily that they were eventually convicted of felony "misbranding." They said it was non-addictive, abuse-proof. (So did the first doctor to inject morphine with a syringe, incidentally; he said the addiction had been caused by eating the drug, but injection was safe.) Purdue bought and sold doctors to over-prescribe the medicine across America, bringing in billions of dollars in profits. Rich and poor, black and white, Purdue Pharma bought lunches and dinners and weekends on yachts for the doctors who prescribed the most pills to the most humans. Reps were given bonuses for getting doctors to prescribe more pills and higher doses.  Long before the Sacklers, before time-release capsules and hydromorphone isomers, the British went to war with China over opium. Europeans wanted Chinese tea and silk and couldn't find enough silver to pay for it all, so traders flooded China with opium from India instead. The addiction spread quickly, the need grew, and soon Southern China began to writhe and cripple under the poppy flower's curse. The Qing dynasty tried to outlaw the drug and stop the influx. The British drug suppliers, with profits burning in their eyes, sent war ships into Chinese ports to blast their way to their opium riches. Two separate wars followed this plotline, only twenty years apart.  Historians still debate the long-term effects of it all, but a thin sticky tar-colored thread runs itself across an ocean and two hundred years. There was a dusky evening, once, in Southern China, say 1842. Gold would be found in California in seven years' time. Maybe it was late spring, maybe the crickets hummed as the nights began to warm for the season. Maybe a shorebird cried out, a wave slapped a wooden dock, a rope sagged heavy with moss against a boat. A man leaned on the rotting wall of a shop front and sucked opium through a pipe. The smoke burned his lungs and filled his head with warm clouds as war raged around him. His life melted, his worries faded, the creases in his worn face relaxed and lay open to the last of the evening light. The money he would pay for this feeling, the unlimited resources that could be torn from his hands to fulfill this need. Men in parliaments would curse and tear up trade agreements, fire would be set to ships, borders re-drawn, before he would give up that dope. There's a diagram to be outlined, somehow, between that tired Chinese pipe and the needle in the sidewalk under my boot. That man, if he could pick himself off the storefront wall, walk a few steps, peer his head through the filmy curtains of time, what would he say to my sidewalk junkies on the downtown streets? My twisted, bleeding twenty-five-year-olds, sleeping on cardboard, scratching at infected sores, poking needles in their battered arms. Would he nod, half-asleep in the fog? Would he pass the pipe? So I'm driving around the city at one in the morning, seeing street folks wrapped in blankets dancing to a boom box, milk crates full of crack pipes and diapers, scarred arm veins waving up at the city lights, sleeping bags pushed against the forced air heat vents of a sewer grate, and I'm listening to the radio, to politicians and talking heads discussing what to "do" about it, how to "fix" it, with policies and regulations and focus groups, addiction, trauma, law and order, enabling, decriminalization, buzzword after buzzword coming down like rain. And I can't stop reading about the Opium Wars, how humankind found out just how beautiful and deadly this shit was, just how far humans would stretch their misery to fulfill the need for smack. I've had a lot of non-medical folk ask me about fentanyl lately. What's it like? It's awful, isn't it? They should do something about it, and right away! Well, sure, I guess. Who's they?  I love that you're sitting at a mahogany table on the thirty-fourth floor trying to double-click a solution out on your laptop, I love the effort, I really do, but I'm watching Leticia the scooter mayor wearing the gloves we gave her dig through her purse and the ghost behind her plunge the needle into his vein and lean his head back and exhale, just close his eyes and breathe the syrup into his blood and give a little shiver and his whole world gets soft and you're up in your apartment and I know you can hear the sirens but we look like ants from where you are.
The Swimming Pool Library

This summer, I assigned myself the task of swimming home, moving through the neighborhoods and communities that, side by side, would bring me back to myself.

"To be embraced and sustained by the light green water was less a pleasure, it seemed, than the resumption of a natural condition."- John Cheever, "The Swimmer" "As you know, we've been swimming, and we've developed a taste for it." - Lisa Simpson, "Bart of Darkness" Arrogantly, I have always believed that I am more myself in water than on land. It's just the way that water, like any true celebrity, makes one feel known and held, so long as there is air in our lungs. When I quit my full-time job in July, I decided to resituate myself by swimming in as many outdoor public pools as I could physically take. The city of Toronto hosts a constellation of fifty-eight outdoor pools—fifty-seven currently swimmable—so I didn't lack for water, and being newly unemployed, for time. This wasn't about discovering the biggest or best in the city. Rather, I was inclined to find a path in them, so that I could feel as if I were, dear lord, going somewhere. As in John Cheever's short story "The Swimmer," I assigned myself the task of swimming home, moving through the neighborhoods and communities that, side by side, would bring me back to myself.  "The Swimmer": a jovial middle-aged Westchester resident named Ned "Neddy" Merrill, gin-drunk in his friend's backyard, announces his intention to swim home by way of the fifteen private (and one public) pools that punctuate the properties between himself and his Bullet Park mansion. This setting is powerfully Cheeveresque, to the extent that Mad Men—which shook down many of Cheever's stories for tone and content—located the Drapers' Ossining residence on Bullet Park Road, a fictional street named for Cheever's 1969 novel, Bullet Park. In "The Swimmer," Ned's impetus seems mostly romantic; a way of leaving the party in style, reassembling the built waterscape into something natural. "He seemed to see, with a cartographer's eye, that string of swimming pools, that quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the county." There's no good reason for Ned to do this, other than the fact that he wants to, and believes he can.  As a swimmer, I have no particular gifts. I have a serviceable stroke and an absurd kick. I love to dive and somersault and generally roughhouse. My identity as a swimmer is as much defined by the pools, lakes, and swimmin' holes I've swum as the ones I've encountered in art, film, and literature. Mostly, I just enjoy being in the water; the leisure, the coolness, and the distance from anything resembling work. The almost ekphrastic pleasure of reading about something set in or near a pool provides its own bone-dry satisfaction.  "The Swimmer" was published in the July 18, 1964 issue of The New Yorker, 55 years before I decided that I too would swim home. On my laptop, I examine a map of the city's pools, tracing a line between the ones that form a jagged nautilus spiral towards my apartment. I am compelled to do it the way billionaires seek Everest and, presumably, further billions. I will swim across the city, because I want to, and believe I can. Day I—Three pools (Riverdale Park East, Kiwanis, Monarch Park), 32 km cycled  I cycle to Riverdale, and then East York, passing a football field dotted with hundreds of motionless seagulls. I admire the mid-rise apartment complexes and their vainglorious names: Terraces, Towers, and Arms. They seem beautiful and banal and untouched in the way that I don't associate with Toronto, a city of cranes and Crane Girls. Nested in a leafy little enclave is Monarch Park, my third pool of the day after large and liminal Riverdale Park East and sunny, sweet Kiwanis. I fold my clothes into a mustard yellow locker that bears the warning AMANDA'S don't touch OR ELSE, with the rebuttal, OR ELSE WHAT BITCH, scratched in below.  The Monarch Park pool boasts an intriguing macaroni shape with a robin's egg blue slide nestled into its bend, a generous concrete deck, and lots of comfortable seating. I position myself in a purple plastic Muskoka chair behind the deep end lifeguard. A set of adult twins scream unintelligibly, pelting a tiny Nerf football at each other. There are a good deal of adults and small children—fairly consistent at every pool I visit. But Monarch Park has different social patterns, with the kids all playing together, and parents pulling their chairs together in a circle to gossip and flirt. The soft, divided idyll reminds me of Tom Perrotta's novel Little Children, about an extramarital affair between two lost adults that is, in part, cultivated at the town pool. "As badly as Sarah sometimes wanted to just grab Todd by the face and kiss him, to crawl onto his towel and blast away the pretense that they were just a couple of pals killing time together, she wanted just as badly to hold on to the innocent public life they'd made for themselves out in the sunshine with the other parents and children." [[{"fid":"6705696","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"High Park Splash Pad/Monarch Park Outdoor Pool Lockers","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"High Park Splash Pad/Monarch Park Outdoor Pool Lockers","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"alt":"High Park Splash Pad/Monarch Park Outdoor Pool Lockers","class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]] The adults watch as their respective children play at the far end of the pool, one of them with a shark fin strapped to her back. The "innocent public life" that Perrotta articulates is a rare form of peace that thrives at the public pool. "If they had an affair, all this would have to head underground, into a sadder and darker and more complicated place. So she accepted the trade: the melancholy handshake at four o'clock in exchange for this little patch of grass, some sunscreen and conversation, one more happy day at the pool," writes Perrotta. In the water, I flip around aimlessly like a happy seal, warming my face in the late afternoon light as the laughter of adults, and more distantly, children, floats over me.  Pools, like people, can be both subject and object. We swim in them, soak them into our hair and let them dissolve our swimsuits with the same chemicals that protect us from spontaneous algae blooms. But we also love to just look at them. Three years after Cheever wrote "The Swimmer," David Hockney painted A Bigger Splash, which pins the moment after a dive against a still pastel background, the splash itself the only kinetic presence. The painting is nebulously referenced in Luca Guadagnino's 2015 feature film of the same name, a sensual thriller that features—as does his earlier feature, 2009's I Am Love—a pool-related death. In both the painting and the film, the person who authored the splash never transcends it. What remains is water. Pools are naturally erotic, like the language we use to describe them—aquamarine, sapphire, azure, and cerulean—all the horny words for a blue you can't quite hold onto. They are also natural sites of tension (drowning, social exclusion, sunburn). They are places where we reveal our bodies to each other in public anonymously, above and below water. Pools were the first public spaces where it was socially acceptable to be somewhat undressed, and cinema, like the Esther Williams aquamusicals of the 1940s, normalized the female body in a tight maillot, bullet tits and all. On film, pools grant directors permission to linger on bodies outside of the bedroom, private with a public conceit. Bunny painting her toenails in The Big Lebowski, Elle Woods's aerial view Harvard Law School video application, all the pool party scenes in Boogie Nights, Sebastian flashing his peach emoji butt at Annette in Cruel Intentions, Clueless's opening montage where Cher Horowitz asks, "Is this like a Noxzema commercial or what?" But none of this happens at the public pool. In Perrotta's Little Children, sex is carefully avoided to maintain the purity of the space.  Sex is one of the fantasies of the private pool, to be bought and enjoyed in one's own backyard. Public pools are where the possibility of sex originates, which is its own thrill.  Day II—Two pools (Donald D. Summerville Olympic Pools, Greenwood Park), 25.1 km cycled Never have I seen such density of children in my life. They're everywhere, campers with the city's various programs wearing backpacks as big as they are. They come streaming in shortly after my friend Tess and I lay out our towels (she forgot one, so in a compromise, spread out her shorts and T-shirt, in the shape of a flattened body). The Donald D. Summerville Olympic Pools in the Beaches is a fascinating structure, a big concrete stadium cantilevered aboveground to avoid the pre-existing utilities that digging would've interfered with. The effect is a wide view of Woodbine Beach, volleyball players, bathers, and the lake, with a thick haze hovering over the water. Through the puddle-filled and somewhat decrepit change room, then upstairs, we're met with an impressive sight: a 50-metre Olympic, perpendicular to which is a smaller, shallow pool where campers, children, and their parents play together, even a few babies. At the far end is a diving pool with two springboards, plus a five- and ten-metre diving tower. Tess and I dare each other to jump from the five-metre platform, which was much much much scarier than I thought it would be at deck level. Around us, zealous teenagers bellow commands and scoldings through plastic cones. We are all, it seems, making huge mistakes. It is worth noting that the aforementioned characters—Little Children's Sarah, Elle Woods, Bunny Lebowski, Annette Hargrove, and Cher Horowitz—are all white, and as I moved from Riverdale Park East (which, incidentally, has a huge slide), to Kiwanis, to Monarch Park, to the Beaches, I was aware of the fact that these movies aren't indicative of the diversity of contemporary public pools. At Kiwanis, I was delighted to see a row of bikini babes lying in the sun, punctuated by two women in burkinis doing the same.   In his book Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, Jeff Wiltse writes that "a social transformation occurred at municipal swimming pools after the mid-century. Black Americans challenged segregation by repeatedly seeking admission to whites-only pools and by filing lawsuits against their cities." On the first leg of my pool tour, I saw the city at its most diverse—age, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, and body type. As Wiltse points out, the public pool was (and is) a place where class was visually erased, swimming attire being more-or-less universalizing. Swimming became socially acceptable within the middle and upper classes as more resorts and athletic clubs dug pools that were suitably genteel (the invitation-only New York Athletic Club built an extravagant affair of marble and tile, with a row of chandeliers). This was followed by the private pool boom of the 1950s, motivated—much like the white flight to suburbs like Cheever's Westchester—by the integration of public spaces. Public pools, like so many things, have been shaped by white supremacy. Is it any wonder that in all these movies, private pools are almost uniformly white spaces, whereas public pools, like the one in Cheever's story, were viewed as vulgar and chaotic. [[{"fid":"6705701","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":" The Bathing Suit/Christie Pits Splash Pad","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"2":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":" The Bathing Suit/Christie Pits Splash Pad","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"alt":" The Bathing Suit/Christie Pits Splash Pad","class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"2"}}]] In a recent New York Times piece, "Women Crash the Pool Party," Amanda Hess writes about how swimming pools became a symbol of opulence and exclusivity partly through their role in segregation. "The glittering image of white luxury rested on barring black swimmers; if a person of color set foot in a whites-only 'public' pool during Jim Crow, it would be drained." Interviewed in The Guardian in 2015, Wiltse remarked that from racist preconceptions about "black people carrying communicable diseases," these kinds of extreme and alienating policies were primarily enforced because of "white anxieties about black men interacting with white women in an intimate public space." These measures were particularly damning for children, and the legacy of this municipally sanctioned marginalization is still felt today. "Black people in the United States drown at five times the rate of white people," writes University of Toronto academic Jacqueline L. Scott in her article "Swimming while Black," and one of the most pervasive stereotypes to this day is that black people simply don't like to swim. In fact, they have historically been robbed of safe and inclusive opportunities to do it. North American public pools had to do with skin right from the start. They were first created as a cheap and accessible method by which the poor—who had no running water in their homes—could bathe, and therefore not bring their diseases to bear on citizens who had private baths in their homes. In 1888, public baths were declared a "profitable sanitary investment," founded on a dubious understanding of how diseases were spread, and a desire to keep the working-class immigrants and people of color in their own, usually badly neglected, neighborhoods. But they didn't stay that way.  As Wilste writes, pools were originally segregated along class and gender lines. Sex and poverty were the most pressing threats, so people of all ethnicities swam in the same pools, if not precisely together. The late 18th century saw a boom in swimming culture, with boys and men swimming naked in rivers and lakes, in full view of polite society. Cities like Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and New York had swiftly ballooning populations, and municipal infrastructure wasn't prepared for the cultural and material needs of the working classes. They experimented with indoor public pools for bathing, as well as river baths, ingenious covered shelters that perched in the water, protecting swimmers from being dragged away in strong river currents, and passersby from the impropriety of public nudity.  In 2019, Toronto's public pools are uniquely equipped for the needs of different swimmers. Fourteen public pools schedule Female Swim programs to reflect different religious and cultural requirements. Likewise, they also offer Open and Inclusive (LGBTQ2) Swim, "incorporating all gender expressions and body types," and Adapted Swim programs for those with special needs and/or disabilities. The inclusive work of Toronto's public pools practice seclusion rather than segregation. By creating a safely demarcated margin within a public space, those who were previously left out are now able to participate on their own terms, a right that someone like me has always taken for granted.  Water doesn't discriminate: it wants to kill us all equally. Not so long ago, white people decided who could get in and who couldn't, and in many American cities, the result of that remains. We all deserve to learn to swim; to be told by a patient adult that floating is as natural as breathing. Who would I be without these things? And where? Surely not jumping from a five-metre diving tower. I watch a group of children, seven or eight years old, take their turns on the platform. Each one is palpably terrified, clinging to the rail. Down below, they cheer, brightly calling, "You can do it, Sophia!" One child mutters what might be a prayer, or self-hype, at the edge of the platform before flinging herself off. Pools teach us to be brave in short bursts, a lesson that carries on land.  Day III—Two pools (Sunnyside Gus Ryder Outdoor Pool, High Park), 14 km cycled Sunnyside Gus Ryder is one of the oldest pools in the city, featuring a stucco pavilion with an incontestable Mamma Mia! vibe. Like the Beaches pool, it is flanked by the lake, murky and foul-smelling today. From 1922 to 1955, Sunnyside was a resort, complete with amusement park, pleasure boats, and beauty contests, before being demolished to make space for the Gardiner Expressway. The pool and pavilion remain, and the Gardiner's sharp division makes Sunnyside feel both remote and hectic.  In "The Swimmer," Ned's experience of the public pool is a very recognizable form of hell. "The sounds here were louder, harsher, and more shrill, and as soon as he entered the crowded enclosure he was confronted with regimentation. 'ALL SWIMMERS MUST TAKE A SHOWER BEFORE USING THE POOL. ALL SWIMMERS MUST USE THE FOOTBATH. ALL SWIMMERS MUST WEAR THEIR IDENTIFICATION DISCS.'" Sunnyside has more rules than any pool I've attended thus far. A refreshingly apologetic teenager forbids me from bringing my bag poolside, and so I carry my stuff out to the deck, all of it getting soaked as I pass through the mandatory showers. Sunnyside pool lacks the typical sharp corners and is instead rounded off like gift soap. It is ringed by a vented plastic gutter which a) swallows the choppy waves made by the swimmers and b) permits the deeply tanned, Speedo-wearing seniors to perch happily on it, their legs dangling into the water. There are no chairs on the narrow deck, just a concrete ridge that lines the pool and backs against a chain link fence. I put down my towel and am immediately swarmed by flies. In her book Swimming Studies, the writer and artist Leanne Shapton tells the quiet story of her early life as a near-Olympian swimmer, and the way that swimming follows her into adulthood, from training with swim clubs, to cold ponds, to hotel pools. "As I swim, my mind wanders," she writes. "Mundane, unrelated memories flash up vividly and randomly, a slide show of shuffling thoughts." She writes later of scaling the chain link fence to go night swimming in the Sunnyside Gus Ryder Pool "with two friends named Jason." My mind, too, has been drifting down a lazy river of faintly related thoughts and memories. Inspired by Shapton, all the bathing suits I've owned; the golden age of Speedo (1996); the wow now very sulfuric smell wafting over from the lake; transmission of E. coli.  [[{"fid":"6705711","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"Monarch Park Pool Slide/Kiwanis Outdoor Pool Deck","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"3":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"Monarch Park Pool Slide/Kiwanis Outdoor Pool Deck","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"alt":"Monarch Park Pool Slide/Kiwanis Outdoor Pool Deck","class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"3"}}]] Mostly, I think of the pools. I have spent more time in them this week than I have in my whole adult life. I've peed in public bathrooms wet with puddles that never dry. I've seen purple, yellow, green, and blue slides, each of them controlled by a taciturn youth. I've seen huge, and I mean Ben Affleck huge, back tattoos. I've witnessed a lifeguarding mascot in a large brown dog costume wave as his pants fell down without his noticing. I've doubled over with laughter as four or five adults frantically ran to pull the dog's pants up, struggling to tuck his tail through a hole in the back of his sweats. I've swum in rectangular pools and oblong pools and pools with diving boards and pools with no deep ends. I've swum laps in the slow lane and the medium lane, I've dropped from a five-metre diving platform, after which two teen boys in soaking wet T-shirts asked me if that hurt, because I was "pretty angled." I've eaten melted peanut butter sandwiches for every meal, most of them flavoured with sunscreen. I've taken off my bathing suit at the end of the day and seen a photogram of it left on my body. Everything I own reeks of pool, and I feel as if I've entered a happy, nudity-filled, sunburned civilization that exists while everyone else is at work.  At Sunnyside, I alternate between reading and lapping the warm droplets of water at the bottom of my Kleen Kanteen. Ned "took a shower, washed his feet in a cloudy and bitter solution, and made his way to the edge of the water. It stank of chlorine and looked to him like a sink. A pair of lifeguards in a pair of towers blew police whistles at what seemed to be regular intervals and abused the swimmers through a public address system."  At 4 p.m., a stern teenager announces that the pool will be closing, so please, get out. It is, quite frankly, a relief. As I flee, I realize I didn't actually get in the pool. I've been frankly surprised by the sheer quantity of nice kids in these pools, but Cheever did get one thing right: the lifeguards and their whistles, towers, and megaphones. It's humbling to be yelled at so regularly by teens in aviators, but this is my life now. Day IV—Three pools (Stanley Park South, Alexandra Park, Giovanni Caboto Outdoor Pool), 16.4 km cycled Alexandra Park is the only outdoor pool not in service this summer due to extensive repairs (although the tiny Stanley Park South pool was also closed today on account of a "fouling"). Currently hidden by covered chain link fences, Alexandra Park was oddly exposed so far as pools go, adjacent to the busy Toronto Western Hospital, a McDonald's, and Tim Hortons. It's a chaotic intersection, with streetcar tracks going in both directions, treacherous for cyclists. As a location, it's anomalous compared to the pools I've been to, all of them plotted in protected swatches of green or sand as they mostly seem to be. I peer in through a gap in one of the barriers. The grey concrete pitches towards a deep end where a bunch of workers in orange vests and safety hats discuss, one assumes, the pool. Seeing a pool drained of water is like catching it naked, the bottom no longer banded with squiggles of light. "The breach in his chain of water disappointed him absurdly, and he felt like some explorer who seeks a torrential headwater and finds a dead stream," observes Ned upon finding an empty pool at the Welchers'. The film of version of "The Swimmer" depicts this scene much differently than the story, with Ned (played by a perfectly maniacal Burt Lancaster) tending to the needs of a lonely little boy who is afraid of the water. The two of them climb down into the empty tank of the pool, and Ned leads him in a pantomime of swimming across the bottom. They argue about whether it counts as swimming, although it's obvious that both of them want to believe it is. As Ned makes his way to the next pool, he hears the boy bouncing on the diving board and runs back, grabbing him in a hug, believing that the boy was about to dive into the empty pool. [[{"fid":"6705716","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"Woodbine Beach (Donald D. Summerville Olympic Pools) ","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"4":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"Woodbine Beach (Donald D. Summerville Olympic Pools) ","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"alt":"Woodbine Beach (Donald D. Summerville Olympic Pools) ","class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"4"}}]] In Samantha Hunt's novel Mr. Splitfoot, Ruth and Nat, two foster kids recently sprung from their cultish home, develop a séance scam where they play at being mediums, connecting the bereaved to their loved ones. Ruth, who believes that only she is the fraud, realizes that Nat is also faking it when he quotes a scene from the The Swimmer, which they'd recently seen on television. "Nat chuckles as if in response to an unheard dirty joke. His head swivels, lifting his left ear to the sky, then his right. His eyes are white. 'What's the matter? I thought you were going to dive. You thought I was going to dive? There's no water in the pool.'" Nat quotes Lancaster as Ned, parlaying a fragment of a movie based on a story into something he thinks these people will want to hear.  Empty pools become dugout stages for performance, and dangerous as they are, they also present an opportunity to amend history. In "Women Crash the Pool Party," Hess writes that Beyoncé challenged the history of racism and segregation of pools in her "Formation" video. "Spliced with shots of a flooding New Orleans, a crew of black synchronized 'swimmers' creates its own waves at the bottom of an empty pool."  Day V—One pool, one splash pad (Alex Duff Memorial Pool, Christie Pits), 2 km walked Each time I read "The Swimmer," I'm delighted by the childishness of the premise, the hero's journey skewed through the driving intent of the fanatic, the delusional, the drunk. I love the mean Waspy voices whose dialogue penetrates Ned's cocksure inner narrative. But what I savour, cruel bitch that I am, is the chastening conclusion—Ned exhausted and thrust face-first into some version of reality. Most of the story I spend hating him, but at the end, I feel compassion for him, his pain, his need to keep swimming if only to prove that he's not drowning. "The Swimmer" is the bender, the hangover, and the agonizing humility of sobriety, something that Cheever—a writer whose own alcoholism was a defining part of his literary aesthetic—would've known intimately.  My mother was an alcoholic for as long as I knew her—a negligible 16 years. My understanding of drinking came when she was hospitalized during a particularly potent case of alcohol poisoning. I grew up hating the smell of alcohol, the way my high school friends swayed and slurred at house parties after mixing Schnapps and wine and whisky and before puking in the laundry room. But I was also sensitive to being perceived as a narc and worked hard to appear cool with it. Eventually, I did become cool with it. In my thirties, a few drinks quickly crowded out the day's stress. "Mommy needs a wine," I'd declare upon entering my vacant apartment each evening, only now realizing the implications. I began feeling inexplicably very sick and was instructed to cut out alcohol and Tylenol. "But my treats!" I replied, to Dr. Yu's scant laughter. Nearly two years after my last drink, I still remember the feeling of warm deflation, yielding to the undertow of my own body. As Ned swims from one pool to the next, he fuels himself with gin, wasted as much by the booze as by his own physical efforts. I think of the bottles of Bombay Sapphire I occasionally bought, blue as any pool.  It's been raining for the past few days, but today it is sunny and mild. I walk to the Alex Duff Memorial Pool—ten minutes from my house and the most crowded pool yet. I put my towel down in the shade and make my way over to the zero-depth ramp, slowly pushing into the icy water. It's sunny, but windy out, and even when I dip my head and shoulders, I feel the cold of the water penetrating my bones. "He was cold and he was tired," Cheever wrote of Ned, emerging from one of his pools, still so far from home. A child gently touches my shoulder and then floats away, murmuring, "Sorry." I had intended on swimming a few laps at every pool I attended, but here, I simply can't. I am too cold and too tired and my throat and nose sting from all the chlorine. I am sick of the sun, the sharp snap of voices, the damp towels, and broken water fountains. I leave quickly, pulling my shorts and tee shirt on over my wet suit. Walking through Christie Pits, I wade into the sun-soaked splash pad, absolutely bumping with infants. The spray hits the water, dimpling the surface hypnotically. I appear to be the only adult actually in the water, but I'm too drowsy to be embarrassed. I trudge home and take an excessively soapy shower. I pull on dry clothes, pulsing with sunburn. I am home. In the muted but terrifying final scene of "The Swimmer," a distinctly beaten-down Ned staggers up to his house, attempting to open the front door. He blames "the stupid cook or the stupid maid" before remembering that there is no cook or maid anymore. "He shouted, pounded on the door, tried to force it with his shoulder, and then, looking in at the windows, saw that the place was empty."  As all of us do, I dream frequently about my family home, sold long ago. After one of these dreams, I wake up confused and ungrateful for the apartment that uncomplainingly houses me. It is not, I believe, the right home. But every evening when I returned from the pools, it did feel that way, when I have so often and inexplicably felt like Ned Merrill, powerless to return to the seat of his vitality. That feeling is already fading, and I believe it had more to do with being at home in my body and in the city than in the actual place where I delivered myself at the end of the day.  On September 2, all of Toronto's outdoor pools will close for the season, signaling the end of summer. But there is a long winter ahead, and a quasi-subterranean stream of indoor pools that might, I suspect, continue to carry me home.
Accident Waiting to Happen

They had only been married a year and she knew with absolute certainty that his mother would blame her for this.

The lessons are held in a room in an old church rented out to a down-on-his-luck dancer, not exactly overworked but uninterested. The room has artwork lining the walls, slashed with rustling sheets of plastic, high sloping ceilings; church ceilings with room to spare. A group of five stands in a room too big for it. There has been a mistake. When the instructor tells them to move, they reveal themselves to be incompetent dancers and incapable of grace. The instructor stops them often. His frustration mounts. The mistakes become more frequent, one woman slips and falls hard. When she gets up they have decided to try something new. * It was like coming out of a drowse, or the haze after a long, hot bath where the water seems like sleep made liquid. When she opened her eyes, everything was composed of abstract shapes. A white something occupied the entirety of her vision and crowded out a black something to the far-left corner. It moved gently from white to grey to black, in a rhythm in time with her own breathing, and back to white again. She blinked, puzzled. She remembered that they were driving to a conference that Sy had been invited to, a well-known philosophy conference where everyone bragged about their book deals, but this thing was pressing down on her, down the entire length of her body and as she regained consciousness she became concerned, vaguely at first, and then insistently, about the fact that she had no idea where she was or what she was looking at. Her stomach was beginning to twist, pulling at her skin with goosebumps like needles as she struggled to move. Visions of people locked in basements, frantic moths fluttering silently with their wings on fire ran through her head and she felt her heartbeat increase to a steady note which ended in a dull pain in her left breast. At an emergency help seminar that she had once attended, after two hours of playing with dummies, the emergency workers had packed everything away and informed the class that if you could wiggle your toes after an accident then you were probably fine. A flight of midges had come from somewhere to coat her face and neck in a rough film. Like communication received from a rusty satellite blinking forlornly from thousands of miles away in space, she felt eight toes struggle against the insides of her shoes. Relief. Who in this day and age had any use for little fingers, especially toe pinkies? And who knew, this might even end up improving her balance. Moving on. Left hand, no pain but not free. Right hand, contained movement. She had decided to invent her own technical language for this; until she knew what the matter was she was content to treat it all like a game. She moved her right hand gingerly and touched the expanse of white in front of her. It collapsed and then ballooned back again. She pushed it off her face and saw the most absurd sight she had ever seen. It surpassed anything that had ever happened to her, and for a moment, she was relieved at the thought of being in possession of such an exceptional conversation starter. “Have you ever been in a car accident?” Never a dull party again. Although of doubtful veracity, their neighbour told everyone he met a prize story from when his wife was giving birth. She was screaming on the bed and at a crucial juncture in events he had bent down to detach a piece of gum stuck to the sole of his shoe. He looked up only to glimpse a placenta flying right at him. If his story was true, she felt a deep sympathy and a spiritual connection to him in that moment of first clapping eyes on a tissue whirling through the air and slapping him in the face. There were knobbly pieces of glass everywhere. From what she could see, which was very little, much of the tree had collapsed onto their car. Slabs of bark were jutting in through the windshield and a fine powder of crushed wood was scattered everywhere inside the car, like a trigger-happy carpenter’s workshop. “You think it only happens to other people and then you find a tree sticking through the front of your car. I mean, how hard is it to see a tree coming at you?” It must be the seatbelt which was pinning her to her seat. “Thank God for seatbelts! Still condemn the structural misogyny, though.” Things of this kind were what people her age were expected to say and she always said it too glibly, without enough force. The car felt angled somewhere disconcertingly far from one-eighty. She turned her head. Sy still had one hand on the steering wheel. While she did not know how to drive she had often dreamt of her sun-bleached arm hanging out of the window and her hair wiry and brittle, driving somewhere with red haloed grass slitting the air outside, through fields that were bumpy and scraggly and un-manicured. “Sy,” She called loudly. “‘Wakey wakey.’ I said to him, and he was so cross to be woken up.” Please. She reached out and touched his arm gently, then inched the tips of her fingers to his neck where she was sure she felt a pulse. Slow songs in the car would be too sad for him. Piano was sad, silence was sad. They had only been married a year and she knew with absolute certainty that his mother would blame her for this. The screen of her phone had detached and was lying smashed near Sy’s foot. Her left hand was trapped between the side of the seat and the door, where something had come loose during the collision. She tried to shimmy the seat away from the door and put a foot against it when she felt the car move and stopped, clutching her chest where her heart had suddenly let off a great electric beat of indignation. “Coming home late and your mum says half laughing, half angry, you scared me!” She realised she was shouting out her cocktail conversation and now began to move more gingerly, her performance of old and prudent. The seat did not budge. She tried reaching under it for the lever to move it. Her hand found it, and she was horribly aware now of the precariousness of the floor beneath her feet. She had never been prepared for something like this, perhaps if her father had been a survivalist, if Sy had been a survivalist, they never would have been in this mess. If she had been a survivalist by association she would likely have already leapt out of the car and chopped the tree down to clear way. The handle gave way and twisted without more fuss, (“Nobody had to get down on their knees!” laughter, another hit quip) it at least had remained unscathed in the crash. The seat obliged an inch and she pulled her hand out and examined it. It seemed fine, a little creased, and perhaps a tad splotchier than she would have liked. There were ugly bands of red across the knuckles. She felt entitled to a break now and her sense of her own utter uselessness increased. Sat like a spectator not knowing what to do with her hands, back to the days when she had got it into her head to take dance lessons. A tin-flat, prickly time runny with loneliness. The lessons were in a room in an old church rented out to a down-on-his-luck dancer, not exactly overworked but uninterested. All movement in the lessons was sombre. Woman on Street Bending to Pet a Dog, Stretching Hand Out to Pick Apples, Fake-Laughing at Party, everyday motions were elevated to choreography. Sometimes, secretly, she arched her shoulders and pushed them up, down, side to side to recreate a tangle from somewhere deep inside her. Once, she slipped and fell hard. When she got up Mr. Vance was having them try something new. She turned to the person next to her, a bald man wearing a Def Leppard T-shirt, and linked the base of her wrists to his so that their hands opened across each other like wings. His wrist was broad and firm and she could feel the cords of muscle working steadily. The dance teacher told them to keep moving around this fulcrum and follow their partner’s wrist, to never lose contact. Although the car was no more than a few feet high, every time she glanced outside she felt the urge to be sick. The clearing was not much bigger than a squash court and smelled like garlic and salt. Everything had flown off-kilter and she was like a rock jutting out through this new sea-world of twisted green, bark in front of her like hacked off rope and leaves spread over the ground below, which, until now, had been an inalienable constant to her feet. Now it was a snare shot of bone snapping on impact. The door was so heavy that it felt dangerously temperamental, like a missile biding its time. It swung when she pushed it open and fell against one of the upright parts of the tree with a clap. She crept to the edge, bent like an arthritic diver, whimpering and babbling nonsense, it was just air, just gas and then a solid slab of ground. Billions of little particles crammed together with all air pushed out like concrete floating on a vat of lava. The floor of the floor is lava, and that was what she was expected to jump on? Are they mad? Sy’s mouth was open like a ventriloquist’s dummy. “Who’s mad?” “Everyone! The universe!” “The universe?” “Has anyone ever told me I’m good at this? That’s what they tell you: this kind of thing never really happens. Who’s to blame? Everyone who said, ‘calm down, everything will be all right,’ that’s who. If they had told me this would happen, I would not have spent most of my life making sure my granola was soft enough to eat at breakfast.” The car was stifling, there was a strange acrid smell rising from the plastic, what if it’s on fire? She was being very loud, which bears get scared by yelling and which ones get attracted to it?   The air rushes past, whistling in and out of her ears and gathering in tears at the corner of her naked eyes and her heart stops beating, she falls through the air between heartbeats like an interrupted breath, going underwater waiting to come (once more) come up again.   She was hugging the ground and repeating the words “wow” and “oh my God” to herself. The undercarriage of the car was torn up badly near the front and accordions of pipes hung down ludicrously. With its network of snaking lines and wires, it most resembled a map of the routes the car traversed. She loved to get first prizes in competitions when she was younger. The car was only three feet off the ground, she realised as she stood there. She could easily reach in and undo Sy’s seatbelt. “This is why we take initiative, Jana!” Sy’s face had fallen over to rest on his chest and a glob of saliva was spilling from the corner of his mouth onto his linen top. He seemed to say, “remember me?” with a petulant aggression that irritated her. The man still had to be rescued. “Banging on about it.” What should she do? Sy had long, slim legs which looked good in tight jeans and which were tailor-made to run around with golden retrievers in sunny fields, but they did not lend themselves well to being pulled out of a car by a woman half his size. The back of the car was on the ground and she clambered onto the backseat and squeezed her shoulders through the gap between the two front seats to examine the situation. He could be napping on the side of a road. The trees were hemming them in, the back of her neck was prickly with dust and the golden green heat which seemed to come from the leaves. Before all this, when she used to sit in the back of the car there was always air rushing through the windows, smelling like clean sheets on a line. New and silver and sleek, like a pen. There were emergency blankets under the seat, one ragged and one fancy. Sliding back out with the blankets rolled up under her arm, she walked over to Sy’s side and stood on her toes to open the door. The car had twisted while crashing, she saw, and Sy’s side was lodged higher up the side of the tree than her own. She wedged the door open with a stick and came face to face with Sy’s suspiciously hair-free ankles. The skin was as smooth as the skin on his forehead when it rubbed against hers and he whispered her name into her cheek like a bite. She touched the gravely curved bone above the line of his shoe. This was terrible, she realised. Instead of learning from the survivalists she had put her faith in the entertainment industry. She knotted the top of the blanket to the knobbly underside of the car, which had several suitable pipes apparently for exactly this purpose, and slowly stretched the blanket taut to the ground. She nudged a starred rock lying nearby to weigh the blanket down, and then found a heavier rock to put behind the smaller one to keep it in place. “Slide of life, slice of life.” It was unreasonable that it had to be functional, too. She climbed into the car again and wrapped Sy’s head in the other blanket and then attempted to turn him to face the door. He merely slumped over like a grotesque crash test dummy, his legs hanging over the edge. She hooked a hand through the steering wheel and drew him close with her other arm across his neck, put her face against the sloping shoulder, closed her eyes for a moment and then felt discomfited because he had used the hotel shaving cream and did not smell like himself. She climbed out of the car, ran back to his side and grabbed his legs to pull them down; his arms moved upwards like pantomime wings, and when she tugged again he bobbed with a sigh like a ballerina. Then the breath broke and his head scraped the side of the doorway as he slid sideways onto the blanket. It held for a moment, straining grimly, then collapsed as a dog began barking in the distance, the bark like a heavy, wracking cough that swallowed up the air from under Sy’s body. Her ribs contracted in shock. If she thought that this might jolt Sy awake she was wrong. She bent over him. Still breathing. A drop of blood fell on his face and flowed in a steady line into his beard. “What?” It led to his face like a determined pioneer. His eyes were still open, still seeing under the eyelids and she could feel them boring needle-like both inwards and outwards. She was afraid to touch her face. A dull ache was building up in her sinuses. All she could see was the impossibly dark red wake in the dip of his nose. One’s face was only a fragile network of tunnels. He was such a handsome man. Before him she had not appreciated the importance of that slippery something which is Cool. With Sy and his friends, she was expected to stuff it into her mouth and gag on it while their palms pushed it towards her relentlessly. She was expected to contort her face and her shoulders and mince herself up and she knew why, because it was dangerous here to be human and whole and her smooth pallor would mark her out as more alien than the twisted fawn she created for them ever could. Like a ragged hunchback she stored all the Cool they exuded in her hump. She felt so old with them, so out of date, even though Sy was the one who was older and she had naively assumed that that would make an even keel. Perhaps he had only taken up with her for her entertainment value. Let’s trot the old girl out for the folks. We need a bandmember to tap the beat out, three makes a crowd. It’s the kind of music he would listen to, as well, pompous army brass bands. And it was all fine, to criticise them would be to criticise herself, because she, Jana, had chosen. They needed her to help them suck the air out of a room because they were better. Hold the grown-ups up, freelancer, code for unemployed. It was more than enough reason to gently manoeuvre him away from them. She had a throbbing headache now which pressed down over her eyes. Behind the car, tire tracks over the ground stretched backwards up a knoll. The ground was lacerated with the imprint of the tires, which was so vivid as to be alive. Now and then as she followed the tracks she could even smell burning rubber. On top of the knoll was a thick line of trees beyond which she could see the long backs of power lines. She climbed up to the road and the emptiness was like the muffling of sound after the slap of diving into water. It was doable, she could drag Sy up here. The leaves on the side of the little hill behind the road were slippery, and while climbing down she tripped and the sky spun, soapsuds in a churn of trees, before she tasted dirt upon crashing into a mulch of orange. Sy, the first time. Hand like a fern on the wooden frame of the door. Flash beneath the orange. Brushed the leaves aside and there was a thick mat like alien skin, so intensely blue that she thought she was going mad, surely this was unnatural. A carpet of electric blue Larkspur had been growing in silence, and a thick layer of leaves had collected over it so that the whole impromptu structure had now cracked like an egg, spilling blue all over her. “Felt,” “seemed.” How odd that all sense of proportion should vanish here. If she had left him in the car this could all go away and be blamed on someone else. Now it was her, her fingerprints were all over the scene. Worse, who knew what would happen when he woke up and discovered that for one brief shining moment she had abandoned herself to occupy both their bodies like some God. She bit down on her knuckle punishingly. Delusions of grandeur. Why now? It tolls for thee, stop it. “Ha ha ha.” Louder. “HA!” Better? “Yes.” The trees moved with her in a ring, branches like demure hands holding up skirts. The sky was turning as she walked to the car, their poor car prone like a dumb pet after running into a saucepan for some cheap laughs, birds chirping in circles over the concussed man outside. Come walking through here, Sy, and look back at me as you walk to the road. It occurred to her that his jeans were too tight. Well. The blankets weren’t so torn up that they couldn’t be used as a sled. A more pressing issue was how to drag him—by the feet or the arms? It would be easier to hold his feet, they were much more grippable. There was also the promise of slight amusement when she thought of his head bumping along in her wake. “Is she telling you about the part where she dragged me over all over the forest? I told her when I woke up that she should have bashed my brains out with a rock instead of this wish-wash. Non-verbal assertiveness, don’t make me laugh.” Why not her instead of him? And he would never speak like that, or would he? No, no, it was so easy, her understanding of him was already being replaced by her complacency with his silent body. Her hands were moist and raw from the dirt and there were pinpricks of blood under her skin. A mutinous feeling was welling up in her; the heat was thick and sticky, as insistent as a dripping, half bitten plum so that she felt paralysed. It was worse than being trapped in the car. Sy was used to receiving things, not her, and now that she was fine with it, she had to act until he could stroll in and be the golden boy once more. More so, because now he would be the endearingly bandaged golden boy, something she knew he had been hoping for ever since his water skiing accident fifteen years ago which he had milked for sympathy for a mindboggling two years after the event. “I said to myself, anything would be better than this mute idiot body lying like a portal to a world without him.” Maybe that would turn out to be true when he woke up. There were dragonflies here. Their bodies littered the ground and their crunch was the one in the sliding frame of her study window, where bodies of tiny insects had collected and hardened into an ill-packed mass. Her spine always felt tight in her chair with her back to the door and Sy’s hands were lodged there now, pulling at her so that her breath built up and escaped from the back of her head in a shimmer. Her torso was forced parallel to the ground and as tense as a hand curled in the process of forming a fist. A lick of her hair smudged the corner of her vision. “Does - my - bottom - look - too - big - in - this?” Each breath was ripped from the air and grew rough edged as it went in. The muscles in her arms no longer moved in smooth consultation with the rest of her body, they were becoming knotted and bunched with splinters and buds springing at odd intervals, an errant tree branch coiling stubbornly upon itself. A spot between her shoulders, the one you need another person to reach, prickled uncomfortably from the line of sweat that was crawling down her back. Her body moved forward as if through treacle, and the fluffs of pollen that skimmed the air in front of her—she could see glints of white even high up near the darker tops of the trees—only made everything feel more viscous. It was peaceful, even fitting, and she could spend her whole— “What are you doing to that man?” A thin boy with over-large eyes bulging from his head. She had over-exerted herself. She was hallucinating. “Oh. Hello.” “Is that your car? What happened to it?” “Er, yes. Are you lost?” “Did you run over that squirrel?” Oh God. “I didn’t know there was a squirrel there.” “You shouldn’t be driving where-where there aren’t any roads. There’s a road right up there. How did you get off?” The questions were a relief. Coming from this boy they did not seem like preparation for taking offence. He stood there scratching the strap of his satchel, clutching a jam jar with some dirt in it. The trees above him separated weightily in the wind and then came together with a low crash. “Do you live near here?” The boy pointed a toe conversationally. “On a farm. My daddy has two of those big combinavesters and nobody else has two. They all just have one.” “Combine harvesters?” “Combinavesters.” Show off. She did not want to share. It had been her very own solemn mission and now, Sy was something to be ashamed of and the exaggeration of having crashed into a tree was newly painful. There was also the worrisome urge to impress this boy in some way and make him so attached to her that he would cry when she left. “What’s your name?” “Licken.” “What? Like the chicken?” “Which chicken?” Farm humour. “All right, never mind, tell me, does my face look all right?” He looked at her and made a show of squinting, closed one eye and then the other and slowly narrowed them until barely open. Then he shrugged. “I don’t know what you looked like before.” Pleased with himself. She felt incredulous, what was this, intro to philosophy? It was all a big joke that she was not in on, she thought as she glanced down at Sy, feeling uncomfortably sure that he was not really unconscious but surreptitiously feeding the boy lines. This was the kind of thing he would come up with on the first day of class. Licken. That whenever she turned around to drag him, whenever she did the work like always, he opened his eyes and waggled his eyebrows to laughter from an invisible audience. “Help me drag him to the road.” Licken stood uncertainly. “Who is he?” “He’s my husband.” “Okay. What do you want me to do, then?” She looked around. There wasn’t anything for him to do. “There isn’t anything for you to do, so you can go home if you want.” He did not go home. He followed her, becoming more and more excited, asking her why she was doing this, playacting, yelling when Sy hit something or when the blanket snagged and breathing very hard. He threw down his satchel frequently. By the time they reached the road he was beginning to frighten her. She arranged Sy by the side and crouched down. Licken was whining about the heat and how she had tricked him into coming here. Down the road, an engine shifted gears and they both turned their heads to stare. A large lorry was coming their way. She stood up and waved her hands. There were people cheering and singing in the back of the lorry, someone playing a flute. The music stirred the branches and the leaves and the grass and each blade twitched as if part of the same slumbering instrument. “Hey!” Licken was jumping with her, they were both yelling. They were nearly level when everyone in the lorry waved back at her. A man wearing nothing but a cape held his arms out as if to embrace the whole world as they passed them without stopping. “We are hurt!” She screamed in full throat. “We are hurt, stop!” She heard someone laugh and toot a novelty horn before the sounds of the lorry faded. A plate of pain stretched from her throat to the front of her forehead when she breathed. Sy would wake up. He would wake up. She would know then. She slowly sat back down. Licken had dragged out a copybook from his bag and was brandishing a pencil that was too large for him. He had crossed his legs to make a bony desk and was scribbling away. She leaned over and saw that he was practicing the alphabet in careful three-line intervals. Savage, corrosive triumph rose up in her as she took the pencil from him and drew a perfect “g.” After a few minutes, his hand stole over hers as he watched her carve the same few letters into the paper. Her neat printing slowly turned into a jagged, demented scrawl as they sat waiting and the page ran out.
Searching for Duke

After years of whispers in her Polish community, Anna finally learned the truth about her father. And then she decided to go to Sri Lanka to find him.

Anna Kopec always knew she was different. Until she turned eight, she thought it was because she was adopted. "Even just sitting at the dining table. I looked around, and I didn't look like them. I didn't look like my family," she says. That's not entirely true. There is a resemblance between Anna today, at age twenty-seven, and her mother Maria; she has the same aquiline nose, dimpled chin, and dark brown hair. But her dark complexion, skin the colour of caramel and eyes like pools of amber, stand out in the framed photos that line the walls and mantel pieces of her Polish family's home. Back in the '90s, when she was growing up in Edmonton, there were whispers in her tightly-knit Polish community. Heads turned when Anna attended Sunday mass; she could feel the eyes boring into her back as she sat attentively during the service. But the whispers and close attention didn't get to her until, at around age five or six, she started Polish dance classes. Even though Anna was dressed in the same colourful outfits as the other kids, a red skirt and white shirt worn with a black vest and white lace apron, decorated with multicoloured floral embroidery, she stood out. The students called her chocolate—which didn't bother her at first, it echoed a nickname from her grandfather. But, for the two years that Anna attended the classes, she would often end up sitting by herself in a corner, reading a book. The Polish woman running the program occasionally got her own son to dance with Anna. When Maria found out that her daughter was being ostracized, she was furious. She yelled at the dance teacher and said Anna wouldn't be coming back. "That's when I realized something was going on." Every now and again, Anna would ask her mother why she was brown, why she was darker than everyone else in the family. Her mother would say she would tell her soon or change the subject. When Anna's sister Barbara was in grade four or five, she asked their mother the same question. Why did Anna look different? "She had told my sister that because I was born premature, I was put in an incubator," says Anna, shaking her head. Barbara repeated this explanation to her friends at school, and Barbara's friends went back home and told their mothers, who told them that's not how it works. Kids can be cruel, and Barbara became the laughingstock in the schoolyard. One day, after a shopping trip to buy Anna a figure-skating dress for an upcoming performance, her mother took her to McDonald's. Anna was excited to get a Happy Meal because her mother didn't usually buy fast food. "I can still remember the skating outfit was hanging off the back of a chair," says Anna. "I was eating Chicken McNuggets." That's when Maria told her that Woody, the man Anna had grown up calling Tata, was not her biological father. Her real father came from Sri Lanka. His name was Duke.  When they got home, Maria gave Anna a picture of Duke. Anna felt a sense of relief. Her mother was still her mother, and she didn't feel any different towards her Tata. Her siblings Barbara and Lukasz were still her sister and brother. A few days after her mother told her about Duke, Anna wrote the following entry in her journal, in alternating purple and blue glitter gel pens: It wasn't until years later, when Anna was entering her teenage years, that she started to ask probing questions. Who was Duke? Where in Sri Lanka did he come from? Was she like him? Maria didn't seem to understand why Anna needed to find out more about her Sri Lankan side when she already had a family that loved her. The rest of Anna's family was sympathetic to her search but couldn't help. When she was sixteen, during an annual trip to see her extended family living in Germany and Poland, Anna decided to try to find out more information about her biological father herself. It was a spur of the moment decision, which she hadn't discussed with her family in Canada. Her parents had divorced, and Anna was living with Maria. While Maria didn't seem to understand Anna's quest, Woody encouraged her to find her own answers. She enlisted one of her German cousins in her search, and managed to find a date of birth and date of death for a man named Duke Santhira. Woody's mother showed her a few more photos, but that was all Anna could find out. A few years later, in October 2013, a chance conversation with one of her university professors put her in touch with Sri Lankan Canadian academic Amarnath Amarasingam. He was travelling to Sri Lanka in January. He asked Anna if she wanted to come along.   "I didn't even have to think about it," says Anna. Immediately she wrote back: Yes.   Ten days before Christmas 2013, Anna and her now-husband Gurvinder Gill travelled to Sri Lanka. This is all they had to go on: A name, likely assumed. Duke Santhira. Duke's birthday and the date of his death. A few pictures. Poland: When Woody Met Maria Wlodzimierz Kopec first saw Maria Czweryn on a bus in Warsaw, Poland. It was the early 1980s. She was eighteen, and he was twenty-three. At the time, Poland was still under the rule of a communist government that played by the Russian rulebook. Wlodzimierz saw Maria on the bus on his way to work at Mazowieckie Centrum Rehabilitacji Stocer, a hospital in Konstancin-Jeziorna. It was a long bus ride from his home in Warsaw. He was working as a nurse's assistant there. Maria's bus stop, on her way to a horticulture school, was a couple of stops before his. "Caught by her beauty," he says, he asked if he could walk her to school just as she was about to step off the bus.   Wlodzimierz, who started going by Woody after his move to Canada, sits in the dining room of his Edmonton home. He's wearing a white shirt and jeans, his blue eyes piercing through a pair of Hugo Boss glasses. He speaks in short, Polish-accented bursts. When he stops speaking to collect his thoughts or search for the right word in English, he stares out into the distance, looking through the glass sliding doors that open into a small backyard blanketed in snow. As it happened, Maria lived very close to Woody; he passed by her apartment every day. They dated for a year, and then Maria wanted to get married.  Woody had lived an idyllic childhood. He came from a middle-class family. His father had served in the army, and when he was a child, both his parents worked at Fabryka Samochodów Osobowych, a famous automobile manufacturer. The family lived in a hotel for factory workers, sharing one room separated by curtains to create a bedroom, kitchen and living room. Just before he started school, the family moved into a new apartment in Warsaw.   After finishing school, he went straight to work at a newly opened factory for retreading old tires. He got the job after meeting the director of the factory through his father. After a stint working at the hospital instead of military service, an assignment that was the result of his poor vision, he returned to the tire retreading factory. "It was a new plant in Poland, with Italian equipment. [The boss said] there might be a chance to go to Italy for a course," says Woody. "Getting a passport was impossible. Only party people had them. Regular people stayed in Poland and worked where they were told to." Maria's father had been a middle-ranking officer in the Polish army. When Maria was seven, he died of carbon-monoxide poisoning. Maria's mother moved with her four daughters to Warsaw in 1972, where the army gave them an apartment. "We weren't poor-poor, but we didn't have much money," says Maria. She's moving around her kitchen in Edmonton, putting together a meal of pork tenderloin and vegetables, while constantly apologizing for not being able to make a proper dinner. Maria lives a short drive away from Woody. Compared to Woody's minimalist home, with neutral beige walls punctuated with family photos, Maria's home is warm and cozy, with a large Christmas tree standing tall in the living room. Dressed in a chic blouse and pants, her eyes sparkling with flecks of glittery gold eyeshadow, Maria is charming to a fault, constantly offering a glass of wine or a cup of tea.  "My mother had major depression, and she was bringing up four daughters. I was practically raised by myself … My sister Anna had left for Germany when I was in high school. I didn't have the greatest relationship with my mother." Outside their family home, an apartment in an historic part of Warsaw that was rebuilt piece-by-piece after being obliterated in WWII, tanks were rolling down the streets following the announcement of martial law in 1981. "You had to be home by 8 p.m. There was rationing of meat and sugar."  While she aspired to become a psychologist, Maria took a practical look at her options, and told Woody she wanted to get married. And so they did, in 1983. Life was not easy after marriage. They had to contend with the challenges of living in a communist society. "Corruption was enormous," says Woody. "It was the main reason to leave." Barbara was born in 1984, and Lukasz in 1986. The family was living in a simple cottage in a small district in Piaseczno County. Woody was doing shift work at the tire factory, also making some money under the table, and he and Maria were fighting. "Main reason for Maria was that I drink too much." He did drink a lot, he admits. It was easy to buy vodka, and much harder to refuse his friends who wanted to drink after work. Besides, he wanted to stay away from Maria's screaming. Maria remembers being stuck at home with two little kids and washing and boiling an endless load of diapers. "I got twenty diapers, you know how? Each gynecologist gave you ten diapers for a baby. Cloth diapers, not the modern ones like now. So, I went to two different gynecologists," she says. "I was twenty-two years old, with no running water, no heat … We didn't have milk for the kids. Only vodka for the men to drink and get angry."  Maria's three sisters were already in Germany. Woody went to Germany in 1988 and started to work in the black market  doing industrial renovations-drywall, taping, cleaning work spaces and delivering materials. "What I made in one hour in Germany was worth more than a month's work in Poland," says Woody. His idea had been to stay in Germany for a few months at a time to work in the black market and spend the rest of the time in Poland. Life was tough while Woody was in Germany, says Maria. "I used to wake at 5 a.m. and take a stroller that was made in Czechoslovakia and walk five, six kilometres to the nearest market. It was a big used stroller, so no bus would take me. I would get eggs and the best meat," she says. "But sometimes there was no food. I had to go around and barter for milk. So, one day I put on my nylons and lipstick, and one of my sister's friends came and took me to the German embassy. There were people sleeping on the streets for three months to get a visa. But somehow, when I went, the person opened the gate and I walked out with a visa. We went with my sister's friend in a car to Germany. Woody was not impressed when I showed up there." Maria arrived with Barbara and Lukasz in Germany in September 1989. "Maria wanted to apply for asylum in Germany. I thought it was a stupid idea, but all the sisters persuaded me," Woody says. Germany: When Maria Met Duke In 1989, communism fell in Poland, and getting asylum in Germany was tough. Maria, Woody, and the children were facing deportation. Maria had heard Canada was taking in refugees from Germany and had written 180 letters to Canadian and American sponsors. A sponsor in Edmonton agreed to take them in, extending their temporary refugee status in Germany. While they waited for the papers to get processed, the family was sent to live in a small town called Rüthen, where many other refugees were also sent to live. They were given accommodation in the upper portion of a two-storey home in a lower-income housing complex, a place that the family came to call the refugee hotel. Although they were given an allowance to meet their living expenses, Woody continued to work under the table. Every week, he travelled to Cologne, a two-hour trip one way taking a bus and train, to save up money for the airplane tickets they would need to travel to Canada. "That's when Maria met Duke, Anna's father," says Woody. Duke worked in a pizzeria in Dortmund. When he wasn't working, he'd visit a friend living next door to Maria. In Rüthen, Maria walked everywhere. To the market, to take the kids to preschool. "With my luck, it was always raining. One day, this red car stops, this red Ford, as I'm walking. It's Duke. And he says, 'Don't be afraid.' I got in and he took us to the daycare. I left the kids and went grocery shopping with him. Then I invited him over for tea." Woody knew Maria was lonely in Rüthen. "She was complaining I was out of town, staying with friends. I was drinking," says Woody. He told her, "I know it's hard for you. But listen, we decided we are waiting to go to Canada. I have to suffer, you have to suffer." Meanwhile, Maria says, Duke took her and the children to McDonald's and the zoo. They started becoming very close. He told her some stories about life back in Sri Lanka, how his father had the first car in Jaffna. But he didn't talk about why he had left or the civil war that had started in 1983. Instead, she found out through his friends that he had been tortured. "He had scars on his body," she says. "He had the biggest smile. He didn't laugh loudly, but his smile was beautiful. He sang in Tamil, he was always whistling. And he got these beautiful letters from his mother, the [writing] was like artwork." They fell in love. "He was a really gentle man, a gentle soul. And I had lots of suffering inside me. We had our little talks, but people who go through things, we don't talk about that stuff. It's not what you want to remember."  When Maria found out she was pregnant with Duke's baby, she was shocked. Her first instinct was to go for an abortion. She even visited a doctor with her sister Elzbieta but couldn't go through with it in the end. She told Woody about the pregnancy. "I was devastated," says Woody. A deeply Catholic man, he decided this was God's will. He told Maria, it's "something not for you or me to decide. I know I wasn't maybe very good to you. Maybe I have made my mistakes. Maybe that's the price I have to pay for it. And I forgive you everything. Let's start life together. It's new life in front of us, new country." Coming to Canada Anna was born on December 29, 1991. The Kopec family left for Edmonton in May 1992. "It snowed the day we landed in Edmonton. It was a huge snowstorm, there was a big dump of snow," says Anna. "My mother used to joke that she should have known to go back right then."  Like many new immigrants to Canada, they struggled at first. They started out living in the same house as their sponsor, Piotr, who had a younger brother, Jacek. Woody started helping Piotr paint and do renovations, eventually found a job in landscaping and gradually started picking up piecemeal work in construction. Maria worked three jobs, sending the kids to visit their grandparents, aunts, and cousins in Europe regularly. She learned English by reading Danielle Steel novels, and cleaned townhouses to help with the family expenses while Anna napped in a stroller. Eventually, she became a nurse.   For four years, Woody and Maria stuck it out despite their differences. They were immigrants in a new country, and it made more sense to live together. Moreover, given his faith, Woody did not want to get divorced. But in 1996, they decided to go their separate ways. They got a divorce in December 1998. The transition to Canada wasn't without bumps for Barbara, Anna's older sister, either. She has fond memories of growing up in Poland. Barbara looks straight ahead as she talks, as if watching a movie about her own life, trying to rewind and pause. Sitting in the expansive kitchen of her large suburban Edmonton home, light filtering in the large windows, Barbara pushes her bottle-blonde hair behind her ears and pulls on the sleeves of her sweater. She's lithe, petite, a no-nonsense version of Renée Zellweger.  In the beginning, life in Canada was an adventure—a new school with new friends, new experiences like making snowmen outside the house, Jacek dressing up as Santa Claus for Christmas. But Barbara started to notice the strained relationship between her parents. On a road trip one summer, Barbara remembers telling her brother Lukasz that she thought Jacek was in love with their mother. Barbara struggled with the tense atmosphere at home, disappearing into the basement to hide her tears.   "When I visited my dad, I would take cutlery or cans of food because he left with nothing," she says, tears rolling down her cheeks. "That was my Grade 4." Meanwhile, Barbara was also dealing with the constant chatter in Edmonton's tightly knit Polish community about Anna not being her real sister. "I hated going to church, hated going to religious class because it was all Polish. I hated going to the Polish Saturday School because a teacher pulled me aside one time and asked me, 'Why is your sister brown?'" Her animosity towards the Polish community and the Polish church deepened further. When she was hanging out with her non-Polish friends, there were no questions. Her resentment was so deep that she didn't even want to go for her Communion, dressed up in a hand-me-down outfit, her hair in a formal 'do. The classes leading up to the religious ceremony had been unpleasant, with kids whispering loud enough for her to hear them question whether Anna was adopted, and whether Woody was her real father. Barbara remembers being about thirteen when her mother Maria showed her a picture of Duke. All the resentment she had felt about dealing with the rumours at school and in the Polish community turned towards Maria. She says she told her mother that Anna needed to know the truth. Barbara had pulled away from Anna. It was partly the age difference between them, and partly the bullying she faced because of Anna's parentage. So, when Maria decided to tell Anna, Barbara wanted no part in that conversation. "I feel like I ignored her until she was about fifteen, sixteen," says Barbara, overcome with emotion. She walks away for a few minutes, composes herself before taking her seat again. It wasn't until Anna was a young adult herself, and Barbara was getting engaged, that they truly bonded. Even so, a few years later, when Anna started to look for her father in earnest, Barbara couldn't help her. "I could not remember anything." Anna's Story The dreams started when Anna was about twelve years old. At first, they were simple. She saw herself going for a walk with Duke, who was always in a green shirt, the same shirt he was wearing in the photograph that Maria had given her when she was eight years old. This was around the same time that Anna had started to ask more questions about why Duke hadn't come looking for her. Maria told her that Duke had been sick with some sort of blood disease, and he'd died because he'd stopped taking his medications, collapsing in the pizzeria where he worked.  By the time she was fourteen, the dreams had turned into nightmares. Anna dreamt she was holding a bottle of pills, Duke's medicine; sometimes he was sitting by her bed, sometimes on the floor and sometimes kneeling over the toilet, asking her for them. But for some reason, Anna couldn't give him the pills. "I would wake up sweating and crying. I was terrified," says Anna. Barbara had been right about Jacek and Maria—the two married when Anna was around twelve. "He'd been in our lives since day one in Canada. He was always there," says Anna. Jacek became like a father-figure. When Anna started having her nightmares, she first confided in Jacek. "He said, you need to talk to your mom."  Despite Anna pestering her for details, Maria didn't tell her much about Duke beyond the fact that he was born in Jaffna, Sri Lanka. When she asked Maria why Duke didn't visit her before he died, Maria explained that Duke had kept in touch for a while, but he couldn't get a visa to Canada. She remembers her mom telling her that he asked for Anna to visit, but by the time their family got their Canadian citizenship, allowing them to travel, Duke was dead. But the stories also kept changing. Anna remembers that Maria told her that Duke and Maria had stopped talking. In one version, she told Anna that Duke had managed to get as far as the United States border, but that he was sent back. "The story was never really the same," says Anna. "Sometimes she would give me little stories. That he loved spicy food. Or that the civil war had been really hard on him. Or one day we were sitting on the couch painting our nails, she had a nail file in her hand, and she said, 'I don't know what to say. He laughed a lot.' I randomly started thinking that maybe he's alive, she doesn't want me to see him. The rebellious teenager in me started thinking, maybe I will find him." When she was fifteen, Anna wrote to Dr. Phil and Oprah, hoping one of them would help her with her quest. She didn't hear back from anyone and decided to take matters into her own hands. Anna had been travelling solo to Germany and Poland to visit her extended family since she was nine. By the time she was sixteen, her relationship with her mother had started to deteriorate. Anna decided to go back to Europe with a mission to find out more information about Duke from her other family members. She didn't tell anyone about her plans until she landed in Germany, and contacted an older cousin, Michael, her godfather. Michael lived near Dortmund, the city where Duke had lived. After Michael agreed to help her, Anna told her aunts about her plan. They didn't have much information about Duke. Her grandparents didn't have much to add either, even though Anna knew about Woody's father's animosity towards Maria and her infidelity. But her grandmother was understanding about Maria's situation. Her own marriage to Anna's grandfather had been more for convenience than love. She showed Anna photos she had of Duke and shared her memories with Anna. "She told me, 'I could tell they were in love. I could tell something was there, that it wasn't just [a fling] to her."  Anna visited a hospital where she had stayed as a baby and the housing project where Duke and her mother met. She and Michael went to Dortmund's registry offices, to look for Duke's birth and death records. At first, the officials weren't prepared to give Anna the information, because she wasn't legally on his records. Anna was crying out of frustration and said her piece to a woman in the death office. Anna isn't sure what she said, or how she said it, but something struck a chord with the woman. After they left, the official started looking through stacks of paper files. When, at first, she couldn't find a record, Anna's hopes lifted for a moment; maybe there was a chance that Duke was alive. But Anna got a call later that night; the woman had stayed back at the office, searching for hours. The official gave her a date of death, April 24, 1995, and a cause: a brain aneurysm. Duke had no grave. His ashes had been scattered.   Anna was distraught, and called Maria in Edmonton, hysterical. But Maria didn't understand. "Well, you knew he was dead," she said. When Anna returned from Germany to Edmonton, she went to a cemetery with Jacek and Woody to set up a little plaque for Duke. Her relationship with Maria continued to break down. Going to Sri Lanka When Anna was in her third year at the University of Alberta, one of her professors introduced her to Amarnath Amarasingam, a Sri Lankan Canadian academic who has studied the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora and its politics. Amarnath was working on a project on post-war reconstruction in Sri Lanka. The professor suggested that Amarnath may be of some help to Anna in her search to know more about Duke. Anna sent Amarnath an email on October 27, 2013. It was a Sunday afternoon. "My story is a little complicated, but I will do my best to tell it in a swift and quick manner as to not take up too much of your time," Anna wrote. She provided a brief summary of her story, including her father's name, which she acknowledged might be an alias: Duke Santhira Sathusigaman Pillai. When Amarnath received the email, the first thing that struck him was how little information there was. "All she really had was this name Duke, and the fact that he came from Jaffna. That's like me saying I need to find a guy called Duke in Toronto. Actually, scratch that. It was like, I want to find a guy called Duke in Ontario." Anna had attached two pictures of her father, as well as a picture of herself and a tiger pendant that Duke had given Maria. It was like a puzzle. The name wasn't a common Sri Lankan Tamil name. Then there was the tiger pendant, suggesting an affiliation with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), also known as the Tamil Tigers, a militant organization that sought a separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka. It added complications to asking questions about Duke and his family. Nevertheless, Amarnath could understand Anna's desperate attempt to look for her father. Amarnath asked family and activist connections back in Sri Lanka if they could help by tapping into their community network. However, there wasn't enough information to go on. A few weeks passed, and it became apparent to Amarnath that any meaningful search would need to happen on the ground in Sri Lanka. "Especially with that pendant. Usually people don't want to have anything to do with any Tiger-related stuff … We knew nothing about his connection. It could have been nothing. Or he could have been some high-level guy. We didn't know why he fled to Germany," says Amarnath. "People are usually more willing to talk face to face."  He had been planning a trip to Sri Lanka to conduct field research and interviews with former LTTE fighters who had undergone rehabilitation. A friend, Kumaran Nadesan, a Sri Lankan Tamil Canadian who works as a senior business consultant with the government of Ontario, was going to join him. Kumaran was looking to do some ground work in establishing a not-for-profit that provides assistance in sustainable development in the north and east of Sri Lanka. On October 31, 2013, Amarnath sent his flight plans to Anna. Anna's email and subsequent phone conversations with Amarnath had shown her how little she actually knew about Duke or her Sri Lankan heritage. While Anna had read up briefly on the civil war that affected the country for twenty-six years, she wasn't aware of its complexities. Every time she corresponded with Amarnath, he was full of questions: which town in Jaffna was Duke from? Are you sure you've spelled his name right? However, the minute Anna read Amarnath's email about his upcoming trip to Sri Lanka in January 2014, she knew she was going to tag along. The only person who knew about her plan at that point was her now-husband, Gurvinder. The flights to Sri Lanka during peak season were expensive. At the time, Anna had no money and Gurvinder was working, so he fronted the $3,000 for the airfare for the both of them. "We booked the tickets without talking to my family," says Anna. "I was totally not thinking rationally." Anna finally told her family a few weeks before she and Gurvinder were supposed to leave. Her sister was skeptical but supportive, Woody was excited, and Maria was shocked. As the date for their departure crept closer, Anna got more and more excited herself, but it wasn't until shortly before the flight to Sri Lanka that the anticipation really hit her. An avid journaler, Anna kept a record of her visit in a black-and-gold embossed notebook. It's titled Sri Lanka: Dec. 15, 2013-Jan. 11, 2014. A Journey to find myself. The first entry reads: As they stepped out of the airport into the humidity of Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital, and started the drive towards their hotel in Mount Lavinia, Anna was struck by the lush landscape, where the palm trees grew in clusters. But as the highway gave way to an urban environment, she started to truly get a sense of the chaos of a large Sri Lankan city. The buildings looked older, dotted with large, brightly coloured billboards, the traffic was a mess, with a car honk signaling, "Oh hey, I'm gonna do this, okay?" Their hotel room had a view of the waves of the Indian Ocean slamming into the shore. After a quick shower, Anna went for a walk on the beach with Gurvinder. They came across a snake charmer with a cobra and a monkey, crude boats and shanties. Anna started thinking about the poverty she was witnessing in the midst of the beautiful surroundings. "I think back and wonder what he lived in, what his family, if alive, lives in now," she wrote. The entry for the day ends with: "I feel like it hasn't hit me yet, except in some particular moments. But I am ready to embrace me, my other half. Daddy I feel you, please be my tour guide." Discovering Sri Lanka Navigating this new place was a daunting task, and one that Anna wouldn't have had to figure out if Duke had been there to guide her. Every time she noticed the local men, she thought she was seeing Duke. It would be almost two weeks until Amarnath and Kumaran joined them. Anna and Gurvinder spent that time taking in some of the spectacular sightseeing spots in Sri Lanka. They explored Anuradhapura, one of the ancient capitals, the rock fortress Sigiriya, the Dambulla cave temple and the city of Kandy, which houses a sacred Buddhist relic in one of its temples. "One of our tour guides, he was Tamil. I asked him how it was for the Tamil people in Sri Lanka, and I got a kind of a crash course," Anna says. "I liked it that way, physically being there … But then there were times when I disconnected from Sri Lanka." While the landscape was breathtaking, their mornings started with delicious local food and fruits, and evenings ended with one spectacular sunset after another, the devastation of the decades long conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE fighters was apparent behind the facade of the tourist attractions. Anna had long had an interest in political science. She had studied various conflicts in Africa and travelled to Kenya after high school after saving up money from working a few retail jobs. On the flight to Sri Lanka, she skimmed through Amarnath's PhD dissertation to augment her Google searches on Sri Lanka's painful past. She was "aware of the Sinhalese-Tamil divide" from an academic perspective but didn't know much about how the country was moving forward in its reconciliation process. When she first saw large billboards of then-Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa dotting the landscape, he seemed like a "wannabe Putin." It wasn't until Anna and Gurvinder accompanied Amarnath and Kumaran to the northern parts of the country that had seen the worst of the conflict that she could appreciate the devastation. For the moment, however, it was too much to take in. Instead, Anna concentrated her mind on the task at hand—finding any information about Duke. A Motley Crew The vacation part of their trip was over. The day before New Year's Eve, Anna and Gurvinder met Kumaran and his friends at a restaurant in Colombo. Kumaran and Gurvinder instantly hit it off, joking around like old friends. Over crab and fish curry, which Kumaran insisted they eat the traditional way—with their hands, which was a novel experience for Anna—he and his friends heard Anna's story. "It just sounded like such an amazing adventure," says Kumaran. "And I was impressed that Anna had decided to go on this journey." Over the next couple of days, as they met more of Kumaran's friends, Anna would tell and retell her story. She was taken aback by how touched people seemed, and how everyone wanted to help her in some way. They would try to fish out more information or ask her questions about things she may not have considered in her search.   For people who heard the story, it was kind of a contained problem, says Amarnath. "It's not like we were trying to fix world hunger or something. We just needed to find this person called Duke. Plus, Anna came off as quite charming and innocent. People wanted to do something and help."  For Anna, the help she was getting from relative strangers was completely at odds with her mother's apparent lack of interest. As each day passed, she was feeling more and more aware of how little information she had to go on.   Amarnath arrived in Colombo on New Year's Day. Amarnath, Kumaran, Anna, and Gurvinder walked around the city. While Kumaran and Gurvinder joshed around, and Amarnath maintained his circumspect air, Anna's frustrations continued to build.  The next day, the frustration she'd been dealing with the day before had manifested itself as a throbbing headache. A sense of helplessness and self-pity gave way to anger. She and Gurvinder stayed in the hotel, stepping out only to grab a bite of pizza. Anna finished reading Secret Daughter, a book by Canadian author Shilpi Somaya Gowda, about a young woman who was adopted out of India as a baby by an American woman, and who travels back to India to search for her roots. The not-so-happy ending reminded Anna that her own search may not end the way she hoped it would. It helped her come to terms with her own situation. The quartet left Colombo for Jaffna, the capital of Sri Lanka's northern province, on January 4. It was a Saturday, and sitting at the airport, Anna was anxious, trying to keep her expectations low. The drive of about 400 kilometres from Colombo was covered in a little over an hour by a small propeller plane. From the sky, Anna could see green trees and bright red dirt. But the bus ride from the airport to their hotel showed a different landscape, in stark contrast to Colombo. The buildings in Jaffna were older and looked poorer, many houses missing half of their structures. While the protracted civil war affected much of Sri Lanka, it was nowhere more apparent than in the northern region. The LTTE's stronghold, it bore the brunt of a sustained offensive by the Sri Lankan government.   At the time, former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa was still in power. It had been five years since the brutal end to the civil war, but not much had been done to heal the deep wounds of the long battle and its grizzly finish. Facing heavy criticism from Britain and the United Nations calling for an investigation into human rights violations in order to properly launch efforts at reconciliation, the government continued to deny allegations of war crimes committed by the Sri Lankan army, refusing entry to the UN team tasked with the investigation. Meanwhile, rebuilding homes, returning land, and dealing with displaced people weren't given as much importance as repairing physical infrastructure such as roads and electricity networks. A military presence continued in the north, and many former LTTE rebels as well as civilians spoke about living under a constant sense of surveillance. Anna was slowly becoming aware of some of these realities. In Jaffna, the group had been mulling over the idea of taking out a newspaper advertisement, looking for more information on Duke. A journalist working for one of the Tamil papers cautioned the group against publishing Anna's story, suggesting instead that they look at the government birth registry. Working on the assumption that Duke might have been Catholic—because his did not sound like a Hindu Tamil name—the group visited a Catholic priest Amarnath knew, Father Vasanthan. Father Vasanthan suggested that if Duke was indeed Catholic, there would be a record of his sacraments. However, with records dating back to the 1700s spread out over thirty parishes, they needed to narrow down the search. Time was running out; within a week, Anna was supposed to leave Sri Lanka. On Sunday morning, Anna attended mass. Father Vasanthan and another priest were running the sermon, about the biblical Magi, or the Three Wise Men, and their journey to find Christ. She wrote that "the priest said how it is a journey we all take to find ourselves. Directly speaking I am on that journey. Finding out more about him means finding out more about myself." After praying at the church, Anna and Gurvinder walked with Kumaran to a temple. They stood in front of Ganesh, the elephant-headed god said to be the remover of obstacles. Anna closed her eyes, and asked for help. On Monday, with five days left in their planned stay, the group, along with Father Vasanthan, went to the Jaffna Divisional Secretariat to speak with a civil servant. Nothing. The rickshaw driver they had hired called two of his friends who lived in Germany in the '90s but came up empty. The priest asked one of his friends who also lived in Germany, but it turned out to be another dead end. With every no she heard, Anna's heart sank further. Based on some Facebook research conducted by Amarnath's reporter friend, the group visited the Catholic church in a nearby village and looked through the baptism records there. They found an entry for a man named Duke, but it wasn't Anna's father. Annoyed, Anna stepped out of the church to call her mother, who was again unable to give her any more answers. Anna lashed out and hung up. Anna's calls to Maria were frustrating for everyone, says Amarnath. "We felt she had more information that she was not telling us. That became difficult to get beyond. So, I told Anna to stop calling her. I figured either she doesn't know, or she won't tell you," he says. Gurvinder was cracking jokes and trying to make Anna laugh, but sometimes ended up exasperating her further. They were like an old married couple, says Amarnath. Meanwhile, wanting to get on with networking for his own project, Kumaran would have to leave the group for meetings. And he wondered, even if they manage to locate Duke's family, how they would react to Anna. As a last resort, the group went with Father Vasanthan to the offices of Uthayan, one of the largest Tamil newspapers in Jaffna. The visit to the newspaper's office once again brought home how brutal the Sri Lankan civil war had been. "There were posters everywhere with pictures of dead journalists and other dead workers who were murdered by the army or the LTTE," wrote Anna. "There were bullet holes, some with casings, still in the wall. It was insane." They took out an advertisement with two of Duke's photos, giving Father Vasanthan's contact information in order to dissuade chances of spurious claims. They met the newspaper's founder E. Saravanapavan and Anna told her story once more. Saravanapavan forwarded Duke's picture to someone he knew in Germany. After the visit to Uthayan, the group broke for lunch. Amarnath told Anna that he would post Duke's photo to online news sites in Toronto, while Father Vasanthan would pass the photos around in other parishes. A Breakthrough The advertisement was black and white, printed on the side of the seventeenth page. Anna saw people waiting at roadside stalls and standing outside their homes reading the newspaper. She hoped someone would recognize the photo and call. In a small town called Puthukkudiyiruppu, the group visited another Catholic priest who talked about the many challenges faced by the people of his community, ranging from issues of child abuse to prostitution. At another town called Putumattalan, they saw remnants of a blown-up school that was used as a makeshift hospital towards the end of the war. All that remained standing were parts of cement walls. There were still medical supplies strewn about the rubble. A new school was being rebuilt on the same spot, and the group met a few of the students. On the way from Putumattalan to Amarnath's home in Mullaitivu, they stopped by a hospital. Although the area had been a designated safe zone, doctors claimed the building was bombed during the final stages of the war by the Sri Lankan army. The claim was denied by the Sri Lankan government.   On the way back to the van, Father Vasanthan got a call. The woman was calling from Germany. She identified herself as the sister of the woman in one of the pictures of Duke. Father Vasanthan put the call on speakerphone, with Amarnath and Kumaran huddled around. Anna looked on, bewildered, unable to understand the conversation going on in Tamil. When Anna tried to ask questions, the others shushed her. The woman in Germany remembered Duke as one of her husband's friends, but her husband now had dementia.   Suddenly, Father Vasanthan said a name: Manipay! He was repeating what he was hearing on the phone, making sure he got the name right. It was the name of the town that Duke came from. The group couldn't believe their luck.   Manipay Manipay is a smaller town in Jaffna, about a twenty-minute drive from the downtown core. The group started their search with the local Catholic church. The priest there didn't know anyone by the name of Sathusigamani Pillai, and the name didn't turn up in the baptism records either. But the priest called the caretaker of the church, who recognized the last name as that of a man he used to work with at a cement factory, who was now dead. The priest told them to visit an old woman in the village, who knew all the families in the '80s. It was a long shot, but the group decided to take a chance. When they arrived at the woman's house, she wasn't there. About to turn around to leave, they noticed an elderly woman walking towards them. She invited them in. When Kumaran explained why they were there, speaking to her in Tamil, and told her Duke's last name, the woman smiled. Kumaran says they knew the woman knew something. "You could just tell, the way she had smiled. I was sure she knew exactly which family we were talking about. But we couldn't do anything. She said she didn't know and asked us to leave, so we left." At that point, Anna told herself it was over. But the rest of the group persisted. The tuk tuk driver took them to a Hindu priest he knew. The priest's mother told the group to try the village doctor's house since he knew everyone. Anna stopped herself from rolling her eyes, and the group made their way to the doctor's house. As they stopped to ask for directions, Amarnath noticed an old man slowly cycling down the road. He told Kumaran to ask the old man if knew the family name. It turned out that he did know the family, and where they had lived. For Anna, the old man, Mahendran, was like an angel on a bicycle. Amarnath says that's how villages work. "You want information, you find the old people."  Mahendran led the group to a big house with a bright blue gate. The ladies who owned the house didn't have any information but Mahendran took them to another house a few doors down. The couple living there knew the Sathusigamani Pillai family quite well, even their son, Duke.  They pointed them in the direction of the house of a relative who lived a few blocks away, and the group rushed there. The houses in the neighbourhood had brightly coloured boundary walls, sloping, tiled roofs, barred windows and an entrance decorated with potted plants. The group found themselves knocking at an elaborate gate. A woman in a sleeveless dress appeared before them, her hair down, a puzzled look on her face. The woman's name was Sitha. She invited the group in and told them what she remembered about Duke. The living room was filled with wooden cabinets and display cases, a family photo hanging on the wall. They sat around a coffee table, Amar and Kumaran talking to Sitha in rapid Tamil as Anna smiled. Duke was one of eight children; he was naughty but studied well. Given Sri Lankan Tamil cultural traditions, Sitha could have been engaged to marry Duke. And she told them about one of Duke's sisters, Sarojini, who didn't live too far from her house. Duke's mother also lived somewhere in Jaffna District. As she left Sitha's to find her aunt's house, Anna couldn't help crying. Anna thanked Mahendran, who also had tears in his eyes, and wouldn't accept any money. At Sarojini's home, introductions were a little more abrupt. Initially, Sarojini and her husband were perplexed to be introduced to Duke's daughter, as they knew he had not married. Anna's uncle said he'd seen the ad in Uthayan but was confused because it had mentioned a daughter searching for relatives. Again, Anna couldn't understand most of the conversation in Tamil, and Amarnath and Kumaran translated. Although the aunt and uncle welcomed them, and answered their questions, they looked guarded. Anna found out that one of Duke's brothers had died. Sarojini's husband told her that he used to take Duke to the movies, that he was a patient young man, but also got into some trouble. He also told the group that Duke had been sympathetic to the LTTE and had been interrogated and beaten by the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF). Sent to Sri Lanka in 1987 to disarm the militant outfit, the IPKF found itself embroiled in the conflict, and has been accused of human rights violations in the course of its operations. When Anna asked if they had any pictures of Duke, they showed her one where Duke looked bigger but was wearing the same green shirt that he wore in the picture that Anna had. She also saw a painted portrait of her grandfather. The couple wasn't in contact with Anna's grandmother, they added, and suggested that she might disown Anna given that Duke was not married. Throughout the meeting, Anna felt as if she was causing some trouble by being there. Still, her aunt hugged her several times, with tears in her eyes. The group grabbed lunch before setting out to find Duke's mother. Answers Duke's mother Gunalakshmi lived in Valvettithurai. Sarojini hadn't given them many details or an address. The group asked around, stopping passersby on the roads, but they weren't getting anywhere. They asked at a convenience store, but no luck. Then they noticed an old woman sitting outside her house. At first, they asked the old woman if she knew where Gunalakshmi lived. The woman said no. However, based on a photo that the aunt had given them, Kumaran and Gurvinder were convinced that the old woman was Gunalakshmi herself and started accusing her of lying. Meanwhile, another woman approached them. She had heard about their search for Gunalakshmi and offered to take them to Gunalakshmi's house. They took a winding path, through a house and long backyards. When they reached the house, an older woman came out. They asked if she was Gunalakshmi, Duke's mother. The woman started crying and said yes. The group went inside and arranged some chairs in a circle. Kumaran asked the woman if she knew that Duke had children. Gunalakshmi told the group that Duke had told her he had met a white woman. Kumaran pointed to Anna and told Gunalakshmi that she was Duke's daughter. When Anna took out Duke's picture, Gunalakshmi got up to get out her glasses. She burst into tears. For the next two and half hours, Gunalakshmi talked to them about Duke.   Gunalakshmi told Anna that Duke was named after one of his father's European friends. That he was handsome and got into a lot of trouble, loved school and wanted to be an engineer. He was the baby of the family. He had been affiliated with the LTTE for three months and was shot by the IPKF. Fearing for her son, she had faced off with one of the main leaders of the LTTE, Colonel Kittu. He was known for his fierce loyalty to the cause, and his ruthlessness. He told Gunalakshmi that Duke couldn't escape his association with the LTTE, that he would get killed either by the LTTE or one of their enemies. Gunalakshmi told Colonel Kittu that if she could not save her son, she would shoot him herself. Gunalakshmi had Duke shipped off to Colombo, and then to Germany. Every six months, she'd travel to Colombo to place a call to him. Then one day, her older son stopped her from travelling to Colombo. News had come from Germany of Duke's death. Anna's grandmother turned out to be a feisty woman, who had decided to live by herself to avoid squabbling family members. During the group's visit, she was cracking jokes, questioning Kumaran's marital status and attributing Amarnath's shaved head to his kids. She asked Anna if she had a lover; when Anna pointed to Gurvinder, she told them that they'd better be married when they came to visit her next. It was turning into evening, and the group had to head back to Jaffna. Anna and Gurvinder had to fly to Colombo the next day, and then leave for Canada. Anna and her grandmother hugged several times, as if unwilling to let each other go. Anna felt Duke in Gunalakshmi's arms. She told Gunalakshmi that she would learn Tamil, and promised to write and send photos, and come back to visit. The group had a celebratory dinner at a restaurant back in Jaffna. The driver remarked that what had unfolded that day only happens in movies.   Last Days in Sri Lanka The night before Anna and Gurvinder's flight out of Jaffna to Colombo, Anna barely slept. She kept waking up with a start, not believing what had happened. Their last day in Jaffna was a beautifully sunny one. As Anna and Gurvinder said their goodbyes to Amarnath and Kumaran, Anna struggled to express herself. After the flight that took them over the lagoons and coast of Sri Lanka, Anna and Gurvinder made their way to a friend's home in Piliyandala. That's when Anna called Maria. Their conversation was awkward and distant. Anna remembers answering Maria's questions about Duke and his family dispassionately. Maria doesn't remember asking any questions at all. Anna still could not believe that her mother didn't have more information that could have helped in her search.  Anna and Gurvinder spent their last day in Sri Lanka walking the beach at Galle Face. After a quick trip to shop for souvenirs, they were headed to the airport. During the drive, Anna felt a sense of peace. She was leaving with answers she had only dreamed of having. Afterthoughts Sitting in his living room, Woody says it was a miracle that Anna managed to find her grandmother in Sri Lanka. After living for so many years with so many questions—about Duke, why he had ended up in Germany, why he died—Anna had found some answers. She had strangers helping her through some of her darkest moments.   He uses the word miracle again, this time to describe Anna herself. "Anna is like the glue for the family. She's the fire extinguisher because sometimes our family is almost like a bomb," he says. He pauses for a few minutes and looks outside the glass doors of his living room. His eyes are glistening when he turns back, and he asks, with a catch in his voice, "Do you think I'm a hero?" His question about his decision to acknowledge Anna as his own child is rhetorical. "No. I'm not. I don't think I did anything special. I wouldn't have been able to look myself in the mirror." "Our life is like karma—whatever you do comes back to you, or sometimes even harder. Everyone makes mistakes." Maria maintains that she didn't know much about Duke's history other than what she had already told Anna. Maria and Anna are on better terms now; Anna's marriage to Gurvinder in the summer of 2018 brought the family together for the wedding celebrations. But Duke remains an unresolved issue between them. And Maria felt disappointed by Anna's estrangement. When Anna went to Sri Lanka, Maria says she was scared for her daughter. She was unsure whether Duke's family would accept Anna. But Maria says, "I believe in the power of the dead. I was sure Duke would look after her." There's no question in Anna's mind that she needed to look for Duke in order to find herself. When she tells the story, there's always a reaction of disbelief, as if something magical happened. There's some truth to that, Anna says. "Yes, it was a magical experience. But it was also very difficult. In a way, I didn't have that fairytale ending. If someone were to read this story as inspiration for whatever their search may be, I would say that you may have questions, and all you can do is try to find the answers."
The Queer Appetites of Ismail Merchant

The late film producer’s cookbooks reveal a subtle, coded queer sensibility.

Though he was hoping to see Rock Hudson or Doris Day on the street, Ismail Noor Muhammad Abdul Rahman didn’t see any stars when he first arrived in New York in 1958. The 21-year-old Indian man lived in a drab room on the sixteenth floor of Martinique Hotel in Manhattan’s Herald Square. The neighborhood was nothing like he pictured. Given the number of movies he’d seen featuring New York City, he was a naïve believer in the cliché that each street was paved with gold, so he was spooked by the sight of the homeless people who clung to liquor bottles.  Animal desire drove him to the city. On August 11, he boarded a boat that snaked its way from his native Bombay to Genoa, hopped on a train to London, and then flew to New York. He had finished his degree in political science and English literature at Bombay’s St. Xavier’s College, where he spent his last year applying to American business schools. He was desperately hoping to gain admission to the University of Southern California, which would provide easy passage to Hollywood. Cinema was his great love in life, after all. The world would come to understand him in such terms when he re-christened himself Ismail Merchant, paired himself creatively and romantically with the Oregon-born James Ivory, and produced such films as A Room with a View (1986) and Howard’s End (1992) under the Merchant-Ivory label. These films trafficked in lush imagery, their moods carefully calibrated to convey the inner lives of characters who found themselves unmoored in the world and struggling to express their longings. Some films, like The Bostonians (1984) and Maurice (1987), came out in the thick of the AIDS epidemic and reckoned with queer desire.  He ended up going to New York University instead. It only took hours after arriving for the young man to wonder if he made a mistake in moving to the city. Most disorienting of all his new home had to offer was the food. He was puzzled by a place called Horn & Hardart, a clinical coin-operated food operation unlike anything he’d ever encountered. The sense of sterility extended to the grocery store, where all this food was sheathed in cellophane and he had to silence the impulse to touch and smell the food as he could in Bombay. He couldn’t make peace with the hot dogs and hamburgers in America. Not even the street food consoled him.  Maybe he should have foreseen this disappointment. The Bombay of his youth was a gastronomic wonderland, where bazaars felt like tactile museums: He could poke the poultry, sniff the melons, pinch the produce. He walked through Null Bazaar’s seafood stalls, made from marble slabs wobbling on wicker baskets. He gazed at the fruits and vegetables at Crawford Market as if they were jewels, filtered through forgiving skylights. He saw 20, sometimes 30 chickens cramped in straw baskets as they cawed and clucked, listening to their screams before slaughter. The absence of refrigeration in his Bombay home meant that any meat was cooked the same day his family bought it home from the bazaar. Merchant didn’t do any of the cooking, though. The men of his middle-class, Muslim family were discouraged from entering the kitchen, primarily the domain of women like his mother and six sisters, though the hired help tended to be men. Merchant relays these stories in two of his cookbooks, 1986’s Ismail Merchant’s Indian Cuisine and 1994’s Ismail Merchant’s Passionate Meals, both published well after he became an esteemed producer. America, Merchant explained in his cookbooks, was always the imagined destination. Once he had his business degree in hand, he found himself jobless, and he could only afford to eat meals from coffee shops like Chock Full O’Nuts. By then, he was trying to get financing for a short film, which would become 1961’s Oscar-nominated The Creation of a Woman. He needed a way to entertain his potential investors. The only way for him to survive was to learn how to cook. In New York, he had the latitude to perform all the kitchen tasks he couldn’t in Bombay: cooking, serving, entertaining. Cooking came naturally to him. As if by osmosis, he’d unknowingly absorbed the lessons of his family’s cooks. He could make a simple dal or a keema of minced lamb and peas. These skills always lived inside him, awaiting articulation. Cooking became a form of currency for Merchant, capital he used to ingratiate potential investors who could help finance his career in films. He knew it was odd for a would-be producer to feed investors himself rather than take them out to restaurants. But his food was a great equalizer. “I like to think that my cooking and the occasion softened some of them up a bit,” he wrote of his guests. Merchant went on to achieve greatness in the culinary realm, making meals that had become legendary in their own right, particularly amongst the artists in his orbit. Actress and cookbook author Madhur Jaffrey called him “a shrewd horse-trader” in the foreword to his 1994 cookbook, a man who could “inject a sense of easy camaraderie between those high up in the entertainment establishment and those barely on the rise” through food. (Jaffrey, one of America’s doyennes of Indian food, has credited Merchant with kickstarting her culinary fame. He persuaded Craig Claiborne of the New York Times to write a 1966 piece on Jaffrey’s culinary talents in a bid to generate publicity for 1965’s Shakespeare Wallah, a film Merchant and Jaffrey worked on together.) “In India we say that the ability to create flavor is in the hands,” Jaffrey wrote. “Some people just have it. Ismail certainly does.” In the kitchen, Merchant was a creature of instinct. Cooking was not a merely iterative process oriented towards producing a favorable result for him; it was an opportunity to experiment with abandon. Merchant’s greatest fear, he wrote in his second cookbook, was boring his guests with a static repertoire. “I disobey all the conventions and laws of cooking, preferring to improvise and make new discoveries all the time,” he wrote. His recipes flaunted the rules he knew in Bombay. He tossed leftover lemons that were sitting in his refrigerator into his masoor dal. He cooked fresh ginger root and green chili into his burgers. He cooked shrimp in Dijon. The food was sly, giving convention a knowing glance before tilting it ever so slightly.  When Merchant wrote of his distaste for the rules that guarded cooking, he was, of course, referencing blind devotion to ingredients and techniques. Implicit in this statement of culinary rebellion, though, was his skirting of the rules of a world that told him that a cook must be a certain kind of person, must be a certain gender. On trips back to India, he tried his best to keep his culinary inclinations a secret from the women in his family, until he couldn’t hide it any longer. His mother became too sick to cook one day, so he prepared a meal of large prawns in mustard sauce in fewer than fifteen minutes. His mother and sisters never quite got used to the idea of the family’s only son inhabiting the kitchen, though. It was as if he was committing an act of transgression, a man who took on a feminized trait and performed it. There are codings in Merchant’s food writing that remind one of the unavoidable fact that Merchant himself was a gay man who was never publicly out, moving through spaces that could have very well been inhospitable to him had he been an openly gay man. Merchant died in 2005, at age 68, following surgery for abdominal ulcers. His widower, James Ivory, has recently stated in unambiguous terms what was once unspoken: The two men were in love.  In a 2018 interview with The Guardian, when pressed as to why he and Merchant dodged questions about the nature of their relationship, Ivory suggested that keeping them both in the closet was a shrewd way of protecting Merchant. “That is not something that an Indian Muslim would ever say publicly or in print. Ever!” Ivory told the paper of Merchant’s sexuality. “You have to remember that Ismail was an Indian citizen living in Bombay, with a deeply conservative Muslim family there. It’s not the sort of thing he was going to broadcast. Since we were so close and lived most of our lives together, I wasn’t about to undermine him.”  Understanding that Merchant maintained his public life in the closet shades his food writing with notes of queer desire, as if the kitchen gave him a chance to fulfill yearnings he had theretofore repressed. In these cookbooks, Merchant conjured a fantasy world, the kind some may associate with the prototypical domestic goddess. Merchant became the impresario who spun wonder out of groceries from Gristedes in the stuffy confines of 5 ½-by-8-foot kitchen equipped only with a four-ring gas stove and oven. “A great cook should be able to do something well with the snap of a finger rather to toil over it,” he wrote in the introduction for his first cookbook. “He or she should be inventive, be someone who can whip up something from nothing.” A culinary wizard, to his mind, could practically assemble a salad from two strands of straw. Tucked in his recipe headnotes were the names of people most of us have only seen on celluloid: Maggie Smith, Christopher Reeve, Raquel Welch, Vanessa Redgrave. He summoned an existence a casual reader may dream of when standing inside their own kitchen.  The brand of domestic performance that Merchant perfected has long been coded as female. As writer Emily Gould noted in The Cut in 2017, the kitchen can cloister women as much as it can provide them a stage for expression. It follows, then, that when Merchant’s first cookbook was published in 1986, the most visible Indian cookbook authors in America were two women: the aforementioned Madhur Jaffrey and Julie Sahni, a dancer-turned-architect-turned-cookbook author who’d grown up in a Tamil Brahmin family.  Merchant published his first cookbook when America was finally disabusing itself of the notion that Indian food was too intricate to bring into the American kitchen. (Merchant’s first cookbook shows its age when it includes a recipe for fried paneer that calls for Cheddar cheese.) Both Jaffrey and Sahni had, the spring before the fall publication of Merchant’s first cookbook, published two cookbooks, A Taste of India and Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking, respectively, illustrative of the point to which the genre of Indian cookbooks had grown.  But Merchant’s cookbook was not an Indian cookbook, per se; he certainly didn’t classify it as such. To start, he was operating from a different center of gravity than Hindu Indian food writers, having grown up in an Indian Muslim household who regularly consumed nonvegetarian food, thus disrupting the worn myth of the Indian national who is automatically vegetarian. More crucially, the cookbook is neither national nor regional in scope. Instead, as Craig Claiborne of the New York Times noted, it is “simply one man's inspired notion of what his native land's cookery should taste like. It is tailored to his own sophisticated and remarkably original palate.” Only Merchant could have written these recipes, in other words. Sitting alongside this cultural history of women inverting the trap of the kitchen into a province of creativity is an obscured history of gay men pulling off a similar magic trick. The kitchen has long been an arena for expression for gay men, too, a tradition that food writer John Birdsall unwrapped in his 2013 piece for Lucky Peach, “America, Your Food Is So Gay.” Birdsall gestured towards a working definition of food shaped by gay men (Claiborne, one of the 20th century’s most influential culinary gatekeepers, was one). This was “food that takes pleasure seriously, as an end in itself, an assertion of politics or a human birthright, the product of culture.”  Birdsall wrote of his own impulses as a young line cook working in a casually homophobic San Francisco kitchen. He weathered prejudice routinely in these spaces, resulting in a fury that he soothed into spirited artistic output. He was “fueled by sublimated rage, the outsider with something to prove, taking the ingredients I was handed and making sure they transcended their limits.” Merchant’s writing suggests a similar cognizance of the fact that his cooking possessed a whiff of radicalism, as if he was overcoming the boundaries others had set for him. His friends came to regard him as a master chef. He interpreted the compliment as a testament to his boundless imagination and fearlessness in execution, rooted in a desire to prove his own worth. In his eyes, as he wrote in his first cookbook, a master chef “must have imagination, a flair for mixing conventional and unconventional ingredients, an appreciation of different seasonings, and a desire to satisfy his or her ego.” Today, some of the most prominent male voices in America who have written cookbooks borrowing tenets of Indian cooking—Nik Sharma, Suvir Saran, Raghavan Iyer—happen to be gay men, as if Merchant’s culinary spirit echoes in this current generation. Call it coincidence. (This is to say nothing of the queer women, like Preeti Mistry, who have written cookbooks.)  Reading Merchant’s gentle pleas to “be adventurous and not be afraid to make discoveries” in the kitchen brings to mind Sharma’s Season, the 2018 cookbook that brims with similar refrains. “Mine is the story of a gay immigrant, told through food,” Sharma writes, as if explicating what Merchant could communicate only in hushed tones. “It has been a journey of self-discovery I embarked on more than a decade ago, one that taught me to recognize the inherent tension between originality and tradition, and to opt for the former without rejecting the latter.” Sharma’s is a philosophy that tosses curry leaves with the buttermilk batter for popcorn chicken; that grills pork chops with chaat masala; that puts paneer in places some may least expect to find it, like a salad of cauliflower and lentils. He, like Merchant before him, is guided by reverence to tradition without unwavering fealty to it. His is cooking that moves towards freedom, mindful of the worth of culinary tradition and carefully breaching it. Merchant developed a vocabulary of cooking that was entirely his own long before these men, his queerness contained in whispers. He encouraged the curiosity that motivated him to take cooks places they may not otherwise have imagined. These recipes flowed from him freely, as if he was, in the kitchen, a man who had nothing to hide.
‘There Was a Desire to Write Myself Back Into Existence’: An Interview with Kate Zambreno

The author of Screen Tests on allowing for randomness, accusations of naïvety, and productive nap times.

Kate Zambreno is drawn to the ambulatory nature of the photographer and writer Moyra Davey’s work, how she uses texts to roam through an idea. A film by Davey features her pacing—a visual metaphor for the monologue she's speaking—through her apartment, talking evenly into a microphone that picks up the gulps of air she takes before her next sentence. I picture Zambreno, the author of books including Heroines, Appendix Project, and most recently, Screen Tests (HarperCollins), as she works, physically moving in the same way Davey does, roaming through genre, time periods, and mediums. Zambreno works within the same interdisciplinary nature that once caused Anne Carson to be accused of naïvety. We can hear Davey speak in the film, but she’s not necessarily speaking to us. It feels like she’s making a voice note for her own reference—layering the life of Mary Wollenscraft with that of her own and her sisters, the timeline overlapping like tracing the contours of a drawing with vellum. Who is Zambreno speaking to? In Screen Tests, short texts are removed from the reader, allowing them to process each sentence in private. This distance begets texts that feel more personal than Appendix Project. The second half of Screen Tests is saved for essays—or rather, fragments linked together to form an essay, further proving Zambreno’s knack for lack of specificity. In both books, Zambreno gives the reader insight into the ambulatory nature of her process, a generosity atypical of writers. The following interview provides further insight into Zambreno’s nesting doll mind, motherhood, bad reviews, and the nature of performance.  Tatum Dooley: In Appendix Project, you're using French philosophy and children's books as a lens to view your life in a way that it becomes an autobiography. Kate Zambreno: I’ve been thinking about not how to fill a text with myself, but how to empty myself from a text. Recent work, since Heroines, has been characterized by an ambivalence towards the first person. A lot of the specificity is emptied out of Appendix Project but it penetrates through almost unknowingly.  The children's book stuff is my favourite part of Appendix Project. I think my meditation on the strangeness of these children's books is about how these appendices, these lectures, were written in pure exhaustion. There's this pure ghostly state of exhaustion. Exhaustion is so much like grief and grief is an exhaustion where everything is slowed down and so you notice the strangeness of everyday life. I read each talk in Appendix Project as a mind map. A single talk connected William Mumler to Roland Barthes to your own photo albums to the film Wanda to Goodnight Moon. How do you make those connections? I think that's definitely what I intended with the talks, for them to be about the connections the mind makes and about finding surprising connections between things. The truth is I just read the same things over and over again. Bhanu Kapil's work is so much in Appendix Project because I teach her work and I read her work over and over again. I feel like Roland Barthes is throughout everything. Appendix Project is my failure and my attempt to write about the last couple of years of Roland Barthes's life. I'm really interested in the sort of ambulatory, or the idea of, like, walking in an essay. I think about the writer and photographer Moyra Davey a lot. She'll take on a subject for a book, like the notebooks of Jean Genet, but then she'll drift through all of her reading and put everything in connection to each other. For each of the talks I had about five or six objects that I was thinking through. I allowed for some accident and randomness.  You've mentioned that you had writer’s block after you published Heroines until your daughter was born. Was that a symptom of something larger? Do you have an idea of what brought on the writing block? I was used to writing books that had very little readership except a small community. Heroines broke through and it kind of astonished me. It surprised me and I think it estranged me from myself. Some people had very, very, very strong reactions to Heroines when it came out. I found that paralyzing.  Then I moved to New York. I felt very much closer to New York publishing which is closer to thinking of writing as a commodity. People began to ask me what my next book was and wanted it to be something as buzzy and as loud as Heroines was. I found myself withdrawing and wanting to go more into a private space which is the space of writing. I had to almost revolt against what New York wanted of me and what publishing wanted of me. What came out of that was a rich period of writing. I thought I had writer's block but really it was that I chose to think and read for a while. As soon as I gave birth, I stopped feeling writer's block. The demands of my life meant I had to take on more commissions and I had to be a little less precious about being paralyzed. I had to have a little bit more confidence. I've noticed in Appendix Project and Screen Tests that you keep returning to the origins of things, the town you are born and also motherhood. Book of Mutter only cracked the surface of me trying to write my origins. I feel like that's something that writers are uncomfortable about, it has a lot of shame associated to it.  Those tend to be some of the most interesting areas to write, but they can take a long time. One of the areas my work has started to think about is childhood. I haven't really wanted to write [about] childhood or origins and since I don't really want to write it, the work kind of has a bruise under the narrative. I was surprised to find, in Screen Tests, how much I write about my father. In a recent Paris Review interview, you said, "With the talks and shorter appendixes I felt more liberated to try to think through a weird collage of concerns and ideas, a live-wire essaying. I allowed myself to exist in this space of unknowingness. Maybe it helped that I was not planning on publishing them as a book, until they became one. They were more ephemeral, they were refusing the monument.” I wonder, is this writing similar to what you're interested in with the artist On Kawara—is the text a performance that's ephemeral? I think that there was a lot of desire not to have the talks printed. I thought that that would have been really wonderful for me to have resisted having them made into a book because I think that would have been truly a tribute to their mortality and the performance of them. There was a moment in the book where I write about the writer Sofia Samatar, our dialogue about our desire to write a book and distribute it in train stations without our names. How literature can have this energy of performance, which is a desire of mine. The first talk is a meditation on the daily paintings of On Kawara. I was really interested in this idea of painting as ritual and painting as process and painting a date much like Roland Barthes writes a journal in his Mourning Diary. The paintings stand in for a life lived. What is art but time and transcending time?  I have this quote I've been thinking about a lot lately, which was in one of my notebooks from three years ago. It's from an obit of a painter who is really a critic. I don't have his name. He never sold his paintings, but he kept on painting. This is what he said about why he started painting again: "Although my guess is that the art object is done with. I myself go on making paintings but this doesn't have much to do with making saleable physical objects, making them is more like philosophical investigation, art criticism, or yoga.” I think in some ways the appendices were art criticism, philosophical investigation, and yoga. And so, my desire for writing to have that process feel to it.  The last sentence in each of the short stories in Screen Test twists the knife in the same way Lydia Davis does—it almost becomes like a poem. There’s a cadence to the stories that is enunciated in the last line. I feel like I'm a prose writer who will never be seen as a poet, but everything I write is a desire to be a poet. When I finished Heroines, which felt like this very maximal work in a way, all I wanted to do was write one sentence stories. I'm really drawn to short forms, to the fragment, to smallness. I'm a huge Lydia Davis fan and also of Diane Williams. Anne Carson writes, in the Gender of Sound, which you write about, how she's been called naïve in her use of bringing together different time periods and sources. And I wonder if that's ever been an accusation lobbed at you. Yeah. That passage is about the accusations that she's been naïve in the past for bringing in all different time periods and styles. There was a review last week that brought in Heroines as being incredibly naïve. So much of Appendix Project is a talk about talks—it’s very meta in terms of being aware that I'm often invited as a wild outsider who does this naïve form of scholarship that would be considered very criminal in the university and academia, which is why I don't have a full time job. The truth is I don't identify as a scholar. It’s hard for me to imagine Anne Carson being called naïve. Maggie Nelson has spoken about earlier reviews of her books where she's been called similar things. When Heroines came out, the writer Sheila Heti sent me a very tattered copy of a book called Manet and his Circle, which is about when Manet's paintings came out he was derided as completely naïve, as a plagiarist, as a copyist, and that his paintings were incredibly ugly. It's very hard for us to realize that because Manet is in museums and these works are so beautiful but they were seen as, like, not painting. The idea that in certain time periods if you do something that's considered naïve or ugly you're threatening. You write that Anne Carson says she always has six books by her side when she's writing. I wonder if you do as well, and what are those six books?  Well, it just changes with every piece that I'm working on. I'm currently writing a book about Hervé Guibert's To The Friend Who Did Not Save My Life. I'm thinking through Guibert's Compassion Protocol. And then I have Moyra Davey’s Burn the Diaries and The Station Hill Blanchot Reader and I have Foucault's Birth of the Clinic and I have Anne Carson's Decreation.  When people ask me if I'm reading, what I'm reading, I'm like, I'm just reading Hervé Guibert all over again in translation. I’m thinking back to when you said you started writing when Leo was born. Alice Munro talked about starting to write when she had children, that there was an urgency to write and finish a story as her children napped. So did Raymond Carver. There’s an urgency to write to provide, but also time constraints. Ninety-nine percent of the Screen Tests and Appendix Project were written when Leo napped. Some of the times I had childcare and some of the times I did not. I sat next to Diane Williams [at an event] and I spoke to her about that, I think she started writing when she had children too. One of the things I said to her is that when you're a mother you're a ghost, there’s a sense of you being in the dark and being quiet for the baby. This difficult thing happens, your identity is through another. There is almost a loss of the self that happens, especially at first. It's about the baby. For me, this extreme loss of self was also a form of decreation. I think that's why I really desired to write. Writing is a way into and out of existence. I often write when I'm feeling the most ghostly and I felt extremely ghostly right after I gave birth. There was a desire to write myself back into existence, to mark, like the On Kawara paintings, I am still alive.
Women Between the Wars

In Jean Rhys’s novels, women exhibit a particular kind of English suffering, a perfect illustration of the female condition in the interwar years.

If you consume Jean Rhys’s first four novels one after another, the books begin to bleed into each other. You may try to be logical, making a note of names and ages. There are, after all, four different protagonists: the 18-year-old chorus girl Anna Morgan (Voyage in the Dark), the 28-year-old wife Marya Zelli (Quartet), thirty-something Julia Martin (After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie), and the middle-aged woman Sasha Jensen (Good Morning, Midnight). But after a while, the protagonists start to look like the same person, distorted in funhouse mirrors—this one a little younger, that one a little poorer, one with a fur coat, one who has already sold hers. They are all, even Anna, sad about aging and obsessed with clothing; they’re largely underemployed and dependent on the palely awful men they date for food, board, and taxi money; they flit from depressing lodging to depressing lodging, and they spend the course of the novels inhaling one drink after another. It’s tempting to chalk these similarities up to the novels being largely autobiographical: if the heroines are the same person, maybe that person is Rhys herself? Indeed, in an essay in The Guardian, her Wide Sargasso Sea editor Diana Athill argues that Rhys’s novels were “based on things that really happened.” Several details from Rhys’s own life neatly dovetail with plot in her work: the chorus girl career and abortion in Voyage in the Dark, the affair with Ford Madox Ford in Quartet, the characters’ drinking habits through all four novels. But are these novels really best consumed as autobiography? These four books seem at their most powerful in portraying a general female melancholy that speaks to the conditions of the interwar years rather than one specific to Rhys herself. The financial precarity, the hostile landladies, and the blurred line between dating and sex work sound all too familiar when we look at the historical context. Of course, the geography of these novels matters, too. Nothing feels more characteristically Rhysian than Quartet’s Marya gazing down the Rue de Rennes in Paris and thinking of Tottenham Court Road or Leaving Mr. Mackenzie’s Julia spending 600 francs on new clothes before her trip to London in the hope of looking respectable enough for her family to welcome her. Rhys’s novels are obsessed with England and Englishness,11I will be using the terms “England” and “English” in lieu, in places, for “Britain” and “British” throughout the essay since these are the words Rhys uses over and over in these four novels.regardless of where they’re set. But while her heroines are preoccupied with a sort of establishment Englishness that they feel shut out from, Rhys (who was born and grew up in Dominica) uses these novels to portray a new form of Englishness. Her take on Englishness is markedly multicultural, reflecting how the British colonies have disrupted and dispersed English identity. These novels suggest that to be an English woman in the interwar years is to be unhappy, no matter where you were born or where you live. In Voyage in the Dark, Germaine, a French woman, says “Scorn and loathing of the female—a very common expression in this country… I wouldn’t be an Englishwoman… for any money you could give me or anything else.” In Good Morning, Midnight, a male escort named René claims, ‘“England isn’t a woman’s country. You know the proverb—‘Unhappy as a dog in Turkey or a woman in England’-?”’ In her short story “Till September Petronella” (published in 1960, but written in the ’30s), we hear the same old ditty from an English man himself, someone from the heart of the establishment, telling the eponymous Petronella, “You poor devil of a female, female, female, in a country where females are only tolerated at best!” In Voyage in the Dark, a suitor asks Anna about her work as a chorus dancer, her accommodation in lodgings. When he finds out her wages, he responds, “Good God… You surely can’t manage on that, can you?” How did a generation of women make things work when their wages and bills didn’t quite equal out?  *** In the years Rhys was writing about, two competing fairy tales were being circulated. One was heartening. Things had changed forever for women in Britain. After a surge of women into the workplace during World War I, the gentler sex were on an almost-equal footing to men: they worked, lived in lodgings in big cities, drank, dated. Flappers existed! Everything was thrilling. The other fairy tale was comforting, like someone rocking you back to sleep after a bad dream. After women held the fort while British men were away fighting, now the men were back and the old order could resume. Women could work for a while if they liked, could live in lodgings if they liked, but the vast majority of women would end up marrying and dropping out of the workforce. They would be financially cared for by men or by their families. The truth, situated in the space between the two competing narratives, is painfully clear in numbers. In her study on British lodgings, British Boarding Houses in Interwar Women’s Literature: Alternative domestic spaces, literary critic Terri Mulholland notes that the number of single women over the age of twenty-five increased by over half a million between 1911 and 1931, which meant they outnumbered single men. This is presumably a disparity partially caused by the loss of male lives in World War I, a disparity which would have felt particularly exaggerated in the middle and upper classes, since the largest loss of life was sustained in the officer class. She tells us that 50 percent of women who were single in their late twenties in 1921 were still single a decade later. The obvious conclusion is that women whose families were unable to support them would have gone out to work. But Neal A. Ferguson reports in “Women’s Work: Employment Opportunities and Economic Roles” that throughout 1911-1931 approximately one-third of all “employable women” had jobs. In Good Morning, Midnight, Sasha’s hostile English employer asks her to explain a five-year-long gap in her resume and draws his own conclusions with a sneer. But this wouldn’t have been uncommon. As Ferguson explains, “Underemployment was not a temporary condition; it typified women’s economic position.” While women were eligible for unemployment benefit, their benefit was set at a fraction of what was granted men. Counterintuitively, the number of women in lodgings soared in Britain, implying women were no longer living with their families. A lodging or boarding house was a house in which a person could rent a room. According to Kate Macdonald, lodging houses were structured differently depending on the class of their guests—“there were ‘common lodging houses… hostels for the poor and homeless.’” In these houses, multiple beds would be crowded into one room. “Next up on the scale was the rental of a room rather than a bed.” This is the sort of lodging Rhys’s heroines stay in, but Macdonald emphasises that even within this point on the scale, there was slippage: “At its worst this room would be in a crowded slum building, with a bare minimum of furniture and heating, and no means of cooking other than at the fireplace.” Mulholland observes that between 1861 and 1911 the number of female clerical workers in London more than doubled. She concludes that the increase in women workers resulted in an urgent need for affordable housing “that was simply not available.” What these statistics depict is a society out of step with reality. It was a system, for the most part, structured around the idea that women would be financially provided for by their husbands or their relatives. But there weren’t enough men for women to marry their way into financial security and even middle-class families no longer seemed to be financially stable enough to provide for their daughters. The wages women earned, at approximately half the male rate in most industries by 1931, probably weren’t high enough to live comfortably on while paying the rates demanded for “respectable” lodgings. While Mulholland notes that boarding houses “run by philanthropic organisations” did offer some women on lower incomes cheaper rooms, these were primarily targeted at women under the age of 30, contributing to the idea of lodgings as a short-term solution for working women before married life.                                          ***                                                In Rhys’s books, many heroines come close to going broke. And it is part of these novels’ very particular brand of tragedy that when our heroines work (and for much of these novels, they’re supported by men), they are mostly drawn to professional roles with a built-in expiry date. It would have presumably been more challenging to make a living as a forty-year-old chorus dancer or a forty-year-old artist’s model or a forty-year-old shop mannequin, than a clerk, for example. And this isn’t broadly representative of Britain at the time—according to social historian Katherine Holden, during the 1930s nearly a quarter of all occupied unmarried women worked in retail or clerical work. A secretary or a typist or a shop assistant might not have to be young in the same way a chorus girl would to hang on to their job, but ageism was still prevalent: Holden notes that 75-80 percent of workers in these areas were under the age of thirty. In her study of British lodgings, Mulholland quotes an unemployed 38-year-old woman seeking office work: “I went to the Employment Exchange and to my utter astonishment I was told my age was against me. Now I was made to realise that having put 38 as my age on application forms, no employer had any use for my type of services.” The same woman makes a confession straight out of the pages of After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie: “I am tired of the struggle […] I am always hungry. All I can do all day is wander about the streets. No one needs me. There is no place in the world for me.’” These precarious conditions didn’t go unchallenged by the women they affected. In 1934, Holden reports, a group of middle-class women in central London set up the Over Thirty Association, a group formed to campaign on two problems. The first was female unemployment, which was “widespread” at the time, but the second issue was arguably even more pressing: the deplorable living conditions that so many unmarried women tolerated. *** Rhys’s heroines are grappling with alcoholism and brutal misogyny and mental health issues, but to compound these problems, they have no permanent home—just rooms in boarding houses and hotels. They could get kicked out of their lodgings any time, and they do, over and over again. There’s Anna in Voyage in the Dark, whose landlady gives her the boot after she gets new clothes and comes home late a couple of nights in a row. In Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, Julia’s lover insists she bring him back to her London boarding house—he suspects they might get caught and she might get kicked out, and that’s his kink. And sure enough, she does. This wasn’t a problem specific to Rhys’s characters—this was an interwar issue. Holden writes of an “invisible majority” who “lived in lodgings, boarding houses or institutions or who had no permanent home.” In a boarding house, Holden notes, bachelors were given the “services usually offered by a wife,” like help with housework, meals and laundry. Despite women paying the exact same rent on less wages, these services were rarely included for female boarders and it was common for landladies to regard their female tenants with suspicion. As Mulholland notes, unmarried landladies with no male relatives living in their boarding house were at risk of their establishments being labelled brothels.  The way out of this precarious housing system—buying property—would have been unachievable on the average female wage of the time. So, what would you do as an unmarried woman trying to live comfortably, instead of paycheck to paycheck, or save money in the years between the wars? Possibly, you’d have supplemented your wages as an amateur sex worker. Rhys’s heroines usually “manage” by supplementing their income by moonlighting this way. As literary critic Sue Thomas has noted, this isn’t as clear-cut a deal as traditional sex work—instead of settling on a price from the beginning, the exchange would be “implicitly negotiated,” with sex made available in exchange for gifts of money and clothing, dinners out, drinks. In this exchange model, the sex worker has markedly less power and autonomy—another key difference between sex workers and their amateur equivalents is that most sex workers would have multiple clients but an amateur typically has just one. In other words, these women occupy the uneasy grey space between sex worker and wife. In Kerry Chamberlain’s investigation into interwar sex work in Liverpool, she observes that from 1926 onwards, the number of arrests for amateur sex work “consistently, and often significantly, outweighed” the number of arrests for traditional sex work. She also observes that unlike traditional sex work (which was predominantly carried out by younger women), a wide range of women of different ages were arrested for amateur sex work, which she believes implied that women carried out amateur sex work “at different stages of their lives on a casual and short-term basis, perhaps in response to periods of economic difficulty, departing from the trade before the point at which they came to be legally recognised as ‘common prostitutes.’” Of course, there is nothing inherently harmful about exchanging sex for money. But what’s painful about the amateur model is the way it obscures intention. The woman is reduced to acting on blind trust—that the man will be generous, that he will give her enough money so that she can not only provide for herself but set some aside. There’s no safety net here, no other clients to cushion things if he ups and leaves (which we see in one of the most upsetting novels of the era, Storm Jameson’s A Day Off). The amateur’s own feelings for the man are also entirely irrelevant: leaving isn’t an option. Which might explain Rhys’s curiously numb descriptions of the men her heroines date. This wasn’t an attitude exclusively held by those carrying out sex work. According to history writer Ellie Cawthorne, a common tip from 1930s advice columnists was to prioritise financial security above all other attractions when considering settling down with a man: “Readers ‘were reminded that if a woman married for stability rather than romance, although she may be ‘starved emotionally,’ she would ‘at least be sure of her daily beef and potatoes.’” ***  Rhys’ first four novels all have the same stutter. They’re all compulsively, repetitively focused on Englishness, with hundreds of asides about England and English people (which are fun to read; like Thomas Bernhardt on Austria, Rhys is at her best when she’s dripping contempt for the English). There’s Anna, a white woman who hails from the West Indies but moves to London aged eighteen—more or less exactly like Rhys herself. Marya is so English it’s repeated twice in the first ten pages, except that she’s married to a Polish man and seems so foreign that a fellow Brit isn’t sure of her nationality. There’s Julia, who grew up in England, but whose mother is Brazilian. Then there’s Sasha, who’s English but previously married a Dutch man and spent a sizeable chunk of her life in France. The novels coax out a new vision of English identity that seems to reflect the dispersed England of its colonial history. These novels seem to argue that it’s no longer only the Mr. Horsfields or Walter Jeffries of this society who are English. To be English is no longer just to be from England, but to be from everywhere and nowhere, to have no single national affiliation.  In Rhys’s early work, Englishness becomes a sort of trauma you’re powerless to shake—something which also reflects the reality of English colonial rule. England took formerly healthy countries and bled them dry. In these novels, England does the same to its women. Her characters do not enjoy the same privilege of being English as a Mr. Horsfield—they seem partially disqualified from enjoying the same automatic social acceptance by marrying a foreigner or having a foreign mother. But these women still seem held hostage by their national identity and infected by the same sadness that they associate with England. Like the countries England colonised, they’re given second-class status while remaining beholden to England. In both Good Morning, Midnight and Quartet the protagonists talk about relocating to Paris as a great escape. But none of Rhys’s heroines can ever escape the island, not really. In Paris, at a gathering, amongst new friends, we find Sasha “talking away, quite calmly and sedately, when there is it is again—tears in my eyes, tears rolling down my face. (Saved, rescued, but not quite so good as new…)” Considering what life for unmarried English women of the time was like, these sad, hard novels do not end unhappily. Not as unhappily as they could, at any rate. Nobody is homeless. Nobody kills themselves. An attempt at assault is averted. And despite their precarious existences, the heroines always find money somehow, from someone. “People talk about the happy life,” Sasha says, “but that’s the happy life when you don’t care any longer if you live or die. You only get there after a long time and many misfortunes.” Sasha, along with her heroine doubles, is well on her way.
Good Faith

How queer BDSM and sex work helped me to refuse an inheritance of indoctrination.

In the mid-1970s, the man who would later become my father joined the Unification Church. He had moved to a commune in Northern California after finishing college and wanted to share his newfound devotion with his parents back in Brooklyn. So, he took them to see his guru, the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, at a Madison Square Garden rally. That night, Moon spoke through a translator to a crowd of 20,000. He proselytized that all of human history was on the brink of culmination, that the third world war was going to happen within the next three years. He preached his sexual philosophy, which has since been quoted as, “Woman was born to connect in love with man's sexual organ. Man and woman's sexual organs are the place of the true love palace.” And then Moon declared that Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus. An enraged word pierced the hush of the reverent crowd. In front of thousands of my father’s fellow acolytes, my grandmother stood up and screamed at the top of her lungs: “LIAR!” Her son was humiliated. But this moment of shameless dissent would become an iconic one for me. I keep the story close to my heart the way other people wear heirloom lockets. Still, if I met you while tipping red wine into mugs at a house party and the subject of cults came up, as I find the subject tends to in our anxious times, this isn’t the story I would tell you. Here’s the one I would: Unification Church members like my father were to remain celibate before they were deemed worthy of participating in mass weddings officiated by Moon. After these weddings, they would become the True Children of Moon and his second wife Hak Ja Han, known as the True Father and True Mother. My dad, a communications major, was known even then for his persuasive charisma, and so he was sent on road trips to collect acolytes. On one such trip, the church sent as his companion a schoolteacher in her late twenties who had moved west following a Lutheran upbringing in Iowa. She was not persuasively charismatic, was in fact skeptical of Moon’s teachings. During that road trip, they spread the good word all right, but they apparently didn’t take their vow of abstinence very seriously. On one drive, a group leader noticed my mom leaning over to put a stick of gum in my dad’s mouth. Subsequently, yours truly was born in sexual rebellion. That’s the tale I would tell you, and some of it is even true. My parents were definitely Moonies, but we never talked about it growing up. In fact, my younger sister and I weren’t raised with any faith whatsoever. I might occasionally fudge the years to construct a salacious punchline about my conception being the reason they left the church. This makes great bar talk, a very sensational origin story for a long-time dominatrix and queer pornographer. If every artist’s work centers on a single obsession, mine is sexual power. * From a young age, my attraction to power exchange and pain play was as innate as my multivalent gender orientation. It was more than a single fetish that held my fascination. I was aggressive and restless in my early conventional relationships, like a perverted lab animal that was growing too big for its cage. Unlike many religious people whose proclivities develop from a need for new rituals, I had an organically agnostic approach to my erotic life. I was curious about everything and subscribed to nothing. Which gave me a very good disposition for sex work. It wasn’t until my twenties, when I discovered forums for experimenting with sex professionally, that BDSM (bondage, domination, sado-masochism, and so on) became a proud part of my identity. I discovered an informal commercial dungeon in the Bay Area where I worked collectively with other dominatrixes. We had monthly staff meetings, negotiated the rules of engagement for our paid sessions, and cleaned up our own lube-y dildos. To clients, we were goddesses in thigh-high leather boots; in the basement locker room changing back into street clothes, we were colleagues and friends. We called one another “Mistress” (as in “Mistress, your bicycle almost fell on the latex-drying rack so I moved it!”) with a confirmed ironic wink. The owner of the business was our boss, and there were shift managers, but the Master/slave element of BDSM stayed strictly in the session room. After a few years of exchanging cash for working with men on their illicit desires, I more aggressively pursued my own. I enmeshed myself in Leather subcultures centered around values like exchanging comprehensive education, fighting social oppression, and creating mutual care. And sex. Lots of weird hot cathartic sex!   Leather was never fundamentalist: it was open source, which made it the ideal erotic philosophy for my adult life. Power was to be played with in order to be understood, and that required rituals of communication performed in good faith. Pleasure was not to be pursued at the expense of someone’s agency. Intimacy and ecstasy happened when everyone opted in. Vulnerability was a gift we exchanged with those who deserved it. The more I opened my body and heart freely to my friends, the easier it was to see non-consensual power trips coming a mile away. Where my queerness led me to rip up inherited family recipes and create new tastes from scratch, my parents re-inscribed old values onto a new cult with the same rotten problems as ancient religions. The queer Leather community has offered me a middle path between pleasure and pain, healing and suffering, structure and anarchy. I feel very clear about the appeal of BDSM: for me, it has always provided a space to confront and undermine authority, including the emotional control my parents try to hold over me.  * I had always been content not knowing much about my parents’ lives before I was born; they rarely offered and I rarely asked. When I was thirteen, they separated, and they are both still single and discontented. I actually didn’t know anything about my celibacy-breaking conception story until I was twenty-five and in therapy with my dad. We were attempting to reconcile after our first period of estrangement. I told him I was working happily as a pro-domme. He told me that he and my mom met in a cult. In the years since, when I’ve asked my dad, typically a notorious over-explainer, what drew him to Unification, he can never give me a satisfying answer. He usually just shrugs, saying, “Well, honey, it was the Age of Aquarius.” The best reasoning I’ve been able to come up with is that my Judeo-Christian-disillusioned parents were both looking for fresh, definitive meaning. They thought they found it in Unification but didn’t actually want to follow the rules of their new authority. In the forty years since leaving that group, my dad has continued to explode outward seeking purpose, while my mom continues to apathetically implode, seeking only oblivion. In the decade or so since I learned the truth about my parents’ past, I’ve grown apart from both of them. The more they make me feel obligated to take care of their emotional needs, the more boundaries I feel I have to erect in order to care for my own. I wonder how their early adulthood attempts to find a True Family together led them to very distinct but equally lonely twilight years.   I am now the age my mom was when she gave birth to my younger sister. Like many grown children, I do not want to repeat my parents’ mistakes. Since my love, my friendships, and my work all center around explorations of intimate power through the cultures of kink and the politics of sex work, I find myself considering the questions: what is the meaningful difference between identifying as a Leather queer and participating in a cult? How do you know whether you’re in a kinky polyamorous family or part of an abusive scam? And has settling into a comfortable role within Leather communities helped me to heal from generational trauma that my parents never seemed to have resolved for themselves? Plenty of my polyamorous kinky friends have intimate lives which, frankly, might appear to outsiders to be indistinguishable from a cult; chosen Leather families in which adult queers instate consensual hierarchies dictating anything from domestic chores to erotic play. I’m constantly surrounded by limbs bearing whipping bruises, murmured boot cleaning protocols, echoes of “Yes Ma’am” and “Please Sir” and “I’ll just send my sub out to grab us more coffee.” It has become urgently important to me that I’m able to differentiate consensual domination/submission from the exploitation I associate with cults—not only to separate my own tastes and impulses from those of my parents, but also to be able to tell if a BDSM relationship has gone from being consensual to coercive. Especially since, as I would learn, the Unification church was not exactly known for its asceticism. * Since my father wouldn’t tell me much about his time as a Moonie, I went looking for answers elsewhere. I reached Dr. Janja Lalich on the phone from her house in Butte County, California, not far from where I grew up. Lalich is a professor of sociology at Chico State, and the author of several books on charismatic relationships, political and social movements, ideology, social control, and issues of gender and sexuality, including, with Margaret Singer, Cults in Our Midst. Around the same time that my parents met, Lalich was part of a radical Marxist-Leninist group called the Democratic Workers Party. She told me that, like my father, she earned leadership roles within her cult that gave her a sense of purpose and belonging. Since leaving the group during its dissolution in the late 1980s, she has devoted her career to writing and teaching on the topic of extreme beliefs.  Dr. Lalich asked me where my parents had lived when they were involved in the Unification church. I found myself embarrassed that I didn’t actually know. Berkeley? No, somewhere north, on some land I think? Mendocino? “They might have been at the camp in Boonville,” said Lalich. An uncanny shiver ran through me. Years ago, chatting with my mom about having stopped on a road trip at a Boonville brewery, I watched her get opaquely nostalgic. Lalich described Moonies waiting in bus stations for hippie travelers to arrive in Northern California. They would offer them a hot meal, driving them to the Boonville camp in buses with all the lights on so no one could see where they were going. “By the end of the week, they’d be devotees,” she said. The more I learn about my parents’ lives before me, the more I wonder why I had accepted origin stories with so many plot holes. But guardians can raise you with more than faith: they can also discourage curiosity. Maybe I had been raised with a familial version of “bounded choice,” the term for the internal logic of cult followers which Lalich prefers to “brainwashed.” This logic is often inscrutable to those outside the belief system. When you’re on the inside, you find it normal, since someone else is shaping your world. I guess my parents raised me to be inquisitive about everything in the world besides their past lives, to think it was perfectly normal that I didn’t really know anything about them. I guess a lot of authority figures do that. Lalich spoke about the experience of being in a cult, filling in some of the blanks left by my parents. One particular detail made my blood run cold. She explained that most cults assign a “buddy” to new members.   “That person is supposedly guiding you,” Lalich continued. “What they’re really doing is monitoring your growth and reporting back to leadership.” Of course, this false pretense was the basis of my parents’ relationship. My dad, though six years younger than my mom, was her “discipler” in Unification. As Lalich described the “closed reality” that disciplers create on behalf of the leader, I wondered for the first time if my parents ever restored their compromised capacity for listening to their own intuitions. And I thought about how much more I trust my own gut since playing with erotic power alongside my adult friends and partners. Cult leaders don’t assign you a partner to assuage concerns; their job is to manipulate your shame, to use “humiliation and belittlement” to push you further along the path of devotion. “Questions are turned back on you rather than answered,” says Lalich. Those who join a cult often think they’re gaining a new family, but Lalich warns that if members criticize or try to leave the group, “these people who were once supposedly your family no longer want to have anything to do with you.”   Like many gurus, the Reverend Sun Myung Moon seemed to have had erotic domination on the mind even as he preached for world peace. “Moon was a pervert,” Lalich told me. I asked her to clarify, since "pervert" is a reclaimed word in my friend groups, a source of communal pride like slut or dyke or whore. “He would tell [his followers] what sex positions to take,” she said. Mariah Blake offers more context in a piece for The New Republic:   “Moon told his followers that they could join his sin-free bloodline by marrying a spouse of his choosing and engaging in a series of rituals. First, the newlyweds would beat each other with a bat, and then they would perform a​ ​three-day sex ceremony​ involving prescribed positions in front of Moon’s portrait. After the final sexual interlude—in missionary position—the bride would bow down to the groom, a confirmation that they had restored the ‘lost ideal of goodness.’” Most people would agree this is perverted behavior. It’s not the acts that I find disturbing, though. Personally, I enjoy beating and being beaten with large wooden implements, and one person telling others exactly how to fuck sounds like a hot enough scene to me! But the dictating leader seems to be the one being gratified by these rituals, rather than either of the people performing them. In a BDSM relationship, a sub might prostrate themselves before their dominant, but the idea is for both people to enthusiastically consent from a place of mutual desire and equal volition.   My own need for assurance that I’m not being indoctrinated borders on the neurotic. BDSM soothes that neurosis with a sometimes-comical amount of built-in processing. Scene negotiation and safe words and consent check-ins can feel invigorating even if they’re also tedious at times. Ultimately, they offer an infrastructure of individual agency and subcultural accountability: the opposite of discipling. Speaking with Dr. Lalich reassured me that my sexual experimentations have given me the tools to resist abuse rather than make me more vulnerable to seduction. My parents and their cult background gave me a counter-model, a way not to be. My ass has been beaten black and blue while I've been adrift on waves of euphoria. I’ve given and taken orders, administered and yielded to deserved punishment. My leather pants have been shined with saliva in view of hundreds of casual observers. I’ve fisted men in the leather slings I helped install into warehouse ceilings. I’ve guzzled the piss of strangers in bathroom stalls. I’ve called female partners “Daddy” with a tone that in no way invokes my male genetic predecessor. I’ve done it for cash and I’ve done it for fun and I’ve done it for love; no one has ever persuaded me to pledge my allegiance to anyone or anything. And in all of my years of experience with sexual countercultures, I’ve only met one group that set off all my internal silent alarms, and that I now feel meets Dr. Lalich’s criteria of a cult.  * “Hello, Mistress,” says the tall, tense white man at the bus stop. He looks to be about fifty, someone who has seen little excitement. “I’m slave brain. That’s brain, not Brian. Most people ask me that so I figure I should clarify.” I hoist up my black rolling suitcase. slave brain reaches out to grab it, then hesitates, confused. I’ve seen this look on slaves before. He is wondering how this little woman in Chaco sandals, black jeans, and a tank top could be a Mistress. This is how I always give myself away. I’ve known plenty of femme supremacist dominas who expect male submissives to literally throw their coats down in puddles for them. But my domination style has always had a camp wink and piggish urge to rut around in filth. For me, being a sex worker doesn’t mean I’m a formal dominatrix 24/7. I’m all for patriarchal restitution, but dominating someone I’ve just met, who isn’t paying for the privilege, actually feels to me like extra emotional labor. A slap in the face is still attention. I’m headed to a rural East Coast town, on the recommendation of a new friend, Michelle, who I’ve met through mutual colleagues in the feminist porn scene. Michelle is a captivatingly stern pale goth queen, busty and heavily tattooed, the kind of pro-domme who capitalizes Me and My in her emails. In one such recent email, Michelle has invited me to take sessions at the “kinky inn” she’s involved with. I’ll call it The Space. I’ve recently moved to New York from the Bay Area, and I’m still getting used to the different cultures of BDSM and sex work on opposite coasts. My expectation is that The Space is like the dungeon I’ve worked for in Oakland, or some of the other professional studios I’ve rented in my travels to Toronto and LA. Apparently, The Space hosts play parties and couples retreats, and also welcomes guest professionals to take sessions. According to Michelle, they have enough of an existing clientele that I don’t even have to take out an ad online. The website of The Space boasts about its own kinky reputation in self-aggrandizing terms. I have to admit, I’ve totally fallen for this marketing, probably because I want to believe such subcultural places are real. Their social media presence is vague enough to inspire me to fill in my own fantasy, and I’m expecting something old and grand like the house in the Bette Davis movie Watcher in the Woods—or, more to the point, the deviant isolated manors of Story of O or Laura Antoniou’s The Marketplace. I follow slave brain across the parking lot, a vast sprawl of mostly deserted asphalt. I get into the Jeep Cherokee of this strange man because that’s what I came here to do. I trust him because Michelle told me a slave was coming to get me. I trust Michelle because she’s a fellow kinky punk sex worker, a reckless principle that has nevertheless gotten me in surprisingly little hot water so far. I guess I’m in it for the curiosity almost as much as the money. “So, what’s The Space like?” I ask brain as he drives us into the woods. “Oh, Master M changed my life,” he says, his eyes on the road but suddenly dreamy. “You’re so lucky. And the new headmistress is wonderful, too.” I ask what her name is. “Quinn.” He blinks. “Mistress Quinn.” “So, why do they call you brain?” I ask. “Well, Master M gives everyone a slave name. My name is Brian.” “So, your name is Brian!” “Yes, but Master M says I think too much. So, my slave name is brain to remind me not to think.” A contented grin spreads across his face, as if he is reflecting on a great blessing. The Jeep pulls onto a rural road, bouncing down a sloped gravel driveway, where my provincial mansion fantasies are given a rude awakening. The Space is actually just a squat grey one-story house. It’s not the modesty that catches me off guard, but the dissonance between the grand fantasy it’s selling and the reality I’m now seeing. I let slave brain take my bags this time. After holding open the screen door, he moves aside for me to meet Master M and Mistress Quinn, who are standing expectantly in a small country living room. Master M looks like he is pushing 70, sinewy and rough-skinned, with a stringy grey ponytail and black beady eyes. Quinn can’t be older than 25. Her considerable breasts pour over a leather corset, which she wears casually under black cotton leggings and a hoodie. She has a round, open, girl-next-door face and long shiny brown hair. She does not shake my hand. Michelle is there, too. She seems irritated with M and Quinn for reasons no one bothers to explain to me. The three of them seem distracted and stand-offish, neither friendly nor particularly professional. They show me to a comfortable bedroom with its own bathroom and inform me that dinner is in an hour. slave brain is dismissed and Michelle follows him up the road in her car. I’m alone at The Space with Master M and Mistress Quinn. They inform me that I have a client booked for tonight. The thought of cash soothes my discomfort as we sit down to homemade dinner at a large wooden table. Master M serves venison stew and congee. They offer me red wine and a joint, asking questions about my experience “in the scene.” Trying to find some common ground, I explain that my professional BDSM practice has a different dynamic than it does in my personal life, but that I really love my work and exploring power and… “She takes a long time to answer, doesn’t she?” M says to Quinn, and they both laugh at some joke I’m apparently not going to be let in on. The way they touch each other makes it pretty clear to me that they fuck. I’m unnerved by the creeping sense that I’m being appraised. I’ve met eccentric dungeon owners before, but the worst they’ve been is impersonal while giving me an orientation: Here’s how you buzz your client in, here’s the madacide, here’s the binder of dusty old Portishead CD-Rs, I’ll be in the other room smoking menthols. The Space is making me feel disoriented. I ask my host some reasonable questions: “So how do you screen clients?” and “Where do we negotiate our scenes?” and “Should I collect my money before or after session?” All my queries are met dismissively. “We’ll discuss it later,” or, “You don’t need to worry about that.” So far, I’m not able to discern a concrete reason to feel in danger; but they aren’t giving me any cause to trust them either. After dinner, I change into a sheer pink and black polka-dot teddy and robe, pulling on opaque black stockings and a garter belt because I’m still not sure how East coast clients will react to hairy legs. I’m instructed to wait in the guest bedroom listening as my client, Steve, arrives. M calls me out to the living room. I’m surprised to discover that Quinn has already led Steve downstairs to show him the basement dungeon. Every place I’ve worked has had its own particular style of theatrics. But I’m used to a clear differentiation between the role you play in session and the person you are, the person being hired. Back in Oakland, the worker always greeted the client at the door fully dressed and negotiated the scene for herself. Here, M instructs me to kneel in front of him on the thick musty carpet. Getting on my knees in an ordinary living room, next to couches and a coffee table and an acoustic guitar, feels much less comfortable than crawling around on a dungeon floor. It’s dawning on me that M and Quinn see me as the same class as slave brain. Several voices, deep inside my body, wage a war that lasts an instant. My female-socialized subconscious coos, You probably just missed something. It’ll be over faster if you just go along with what he wants. My insolent self-preservation screams: Call the whole thing off! Don’t kneel to this man! Michelle will come pick you up!  And some punkass part of my nature, the part that always prevails, wants to see what M thinks he can do to me, and how much I can resist while placating him at the same time. So, I do as he says. “Our slaves always stand with their eyes down, to show humility, and their chins up, to show pride in subservience,” M explains as he begins to stalk slowly around me. Does he want me to feel beneath him because he’s hiring me? I think to myself. It’s also possible that he believes the money that Steve is paying me and the cut I’ll owe The Space is beside the point. If part of the fantasy of this place is for clients to interact with “trained house slaves,” I might have agreed ahead of time to play that part. But the client is downstairs, and Master M is not my master. So, who is meant to benefit from this pageantry? M leans forward and begins to stroke my ear. “This is your clit,” he whispers, as if saying it would transubstantiate one collection of nerve endings to another. I don’t feel anything in my clit. But drops of sweat pour down my side from my underarms. I stay still and quiet. M pulls his fingers back and continues to stalk around me. I sense a wave of smugness. That unwelcome appraisal feeling again. Does he think I am enchanted by this? “It’s time for you to go to the dungeon,” M intones. I stand shakily and walk to the basement door, avoiding eye contact. As my eyes adjust to the dim light, I see Quinn and Steve in the far corner, standing expectantly next to a leather sling. Quinn has removed the casual part of her outfit, and now cuts an impressive figure of a tightly corseted girly dominatrix. Steve is a very conventional-looking middle aged white client, bursting out of his skin with anticipation at the sight of me wobbling on kitten heels down the wooden stairs. The dungeon is fully and uniquely stocked with horn-handled crops, matching alligator skin floggers, and hand-built bondage furniture, but the walls are covered in trash bags. It feels like I’m in the haunted garage a family makes every year for Halloween. “Steve likes to tickle!” Quinn explains. I’m comfortable with tickling fetishism: the top is looking for an involuntary and unstaged response. But I don’t understand why Quinn is telling me this instead of Steve. I’m used to having my own negotiation with a client, especially one who will be dominating me. Together, they guide me into the sling, wrapping leather cuffs around my wrists and ankles so I’m laying back, spread-eagle and fully restrained. Any moment now I am expecting Quinn to leave me alone with my client. It’s unsettling to have her there observing me. I would have understood if she or M had explained they would stand by for safety reasons or because I’m new to the house, but that’s not what’s happening. My dynamic with my client is completely thrown by her deliberate presence—imagine a psychologist being non-consensually monitored by the person whose office she is renting. Steve approaches me slowly. Then he dives in. He doesn’t caress or stroke. He just goes directly for my ribs and jabs mercilessly. This kind of fetish torture usually makes me feel euphoric and strong. But I’m also used to clients with finesse, who work with me in real time to build a sort of movement narrative incorporating ebb and flow. Steve is just relentlessly attacking. His face is shocked and delighted. Ordinarily, I would “top from the bottom,” teaching a new client how I like to be teased, but Quinn’s creepy presence has me all out of whack. I laugh. I shriek. I curse excessively and loudly—ohholyfuckingjesuschristshitaaafuckingaaaauuuufhh! If I’m going to be in this weird isolated dungeon in the woods, I figure the least I can get out of it is the catharsis of screaming vulgar bloody murder, something I can rarely justify in a thin-walled city building. My squirming and giggling and chain-rattling is amplified by the tension of this entire situation. Ordinarily, even if I’m enduring something challenging, I can ground myself to the presence of the other workers in the house. They know who I really am when I’m out of character. Here, there is no anchor. I’m learning they expect me to be the character. Every so often Quinn approaches and joins in on the tickling. I could use a safe word, or call the scene off, or tell her to fuck off, but I’m worried that this will be seen as insolence or a reason not to pay me. I choose to let Quinn touch my body, but the choice is bound to the disorientation of my situation. Finally, Quinn tells Steve his allotted hour is up. They unlatch me, and I’m quite shaky getting up the stairs, where M is waiting for us. Quinn, Steve, and I stand in front of an expectant M, who again instructs me to kneel in “slave position.” “I’m very disappointed in you that you would use such language in my house,” he says, referring to my litany of cursing screams. I have no idea what to say. I’m embarrassed and furiously insulted being spoken to like this in front of my client. I thought I had done a professional job making this tickling fetishist very happy. No one has ever questioned the way I process pain and sensation. Cursing is my style, and my style is the experience a client is paying for. Steve genuinely didn’t seem to mind my language, so why should M? The Space seems more concerned about maintaining manipulative hierarchies than doing good business, which is antithetical to everything BDSM means to me. After Steve is sent on his way, I collect my cash with relief, retreating wordlessly to my room. I draw a scalding bath, pouring excessive milks and salts into the tub, seething with indignity and confusion. I realize the boundaries between personal and professional are very blurred here, in a way I’m not used to, in a way that disturbs me. I open the linen closet in my room and notice the labels: maroon towels are for slaves, black towels are for guests. So which towel is for me? In the morning, I leave the house in my exercise clothes without seeing anyone. I run up the gravel driveway and turn left on the dirt road. I don’t encounter any cars or people or other houses. Just trees and birds and clean mountain air for miles. This is a rare treat, to be able to run and let my mind go, even close my eyes, with no surprises and no traffic. I try to breathe the fresh air as deeply as I can. As I run, it occurs to me that if I had to leave, this would be how I would have to do it. I stay at that house for two more days. During that time, I see a different client, a regular to The Space, who singletail whips me mercilessly with no warm up. He makes me walk naked through the surrounding forest carrying a wooden cross, explaining that I’m “a goddess taking on the suffering of the world.” As an atheist I find this extremely ridiculous, but I do take some pride in enduring outrageous scenarios for the satisfaction of paying customers. I hit my limit, though, when he attaches me to the cross by suspension cuffs and raises it, by hydraulics, up the side of a tree. I look down at M, Quinn, and the client, all visibly amused. For the very first time in ten years of stomping and spitting and cursing and cumming for money, I instinctively imagine my best friend—who has been unconditionally supportive through some truly weird sexual shit I’ve done—feeling concerned about the position I’m in. So, I use my safe word. M clucks in disapproval, and I live through an excruciating pause. A safe word is supposed to be a ripcord; you’re not supposed to have to negotiate with the parachute once you’ve pulled it. All of the times I’d used yellow for slow down or red for stop everything, the client has checked in and dropped whatever roles we were playing. No one has ever seriously shamed me for invoking these consent tools. No one has ever questioned my professionalism or devotion to my craft or value as a sadomasochist as a result. Until now. But they do let me down off the cross. And the session is over. And I do get paid. And I do decide it’s time to call Michelle. As I roll my suitcase out the door, Master M tells me scornfully, “It would be good for you to come back. We would love to have you, since you can barely take the pace of one of our kindest Masters.” Staring out the window of Michelle’s station wagon, I feel the dread of a horror movie third act. We head back to her place and spend a few days together. I don’t really tell her about my experience. I roll my money into a sock and zip it into a compartment of my bag. We take her dogs for a walk and swim under a waterfall. We cook vegan dinner with her best friend, a short dark-haired guy with huge ear gauges who owns a tattoo parlor. He makes fun of my $10 pink smoke shop belly button ring, just visible under my loose tie dye shirt, and I snap at him that not everyone can afford fancy things. The next day, he walks into Michelle’s apartment and drops to his knees in front of me. Pulling latex gloves from the pouch of his red and black hoodie, he starts unscrewing my belly button ring. He produces a new piece with aquamarine gemstones that sparkles so much brighter than the cheap one I’ve worn for ages. Slipping the new silver through my piercing hole, he threads the shining ball in place, muttering, “I just don’t like to see good people with bad jewelry.” Michelle takes me to an enormous warehouse owned by her friend. On one floor, the friend makes string for lacrosse sticks, hundreds of white lines whirring and shifting away in somehow whisper-quiet industrial machines. We smoke a joint and she shows me the floor where she wants to shoot porn, giant beams from floor to ceiling, dust catching light from filthy windows. I start to fantasize about raw and dirty kidnapping scenes, how it would feel to run across this enormous space as if you were really trying to escape from someone alluringly sinister. We head to a dive bar where she introduces me to the local motorcycle gang, not just guys in leather jackets, but a real gang, with initiations and hierarchies and birthrights. There is karaoke. I sing “Sympathy for the Devil,” slithering flamboyantly as my beer foams out of its bottle. Broad men with scratchy-looking beards buy me drinks because they claim they have never seen a woman sing like that before, which, as always, I find difficult to believe. Michelle takes me to the parking lot to catch the bus back to Manhattan. I never ask her about her relationship to The Space and frankly I can’t explain that choice. Maybe I was ashamed that there was some expectation I had misunderstood. Or maybe I was just happy to have survived with several bills stuffed in my boot, on my way home to the city, and didn’t want to push my luck.  Every so often, I meet someone who has trained at The Space, even close friends whose approach to sex work I respect and BDSM lifestyle I trust. Though I’m typically notoriously over-inquisitive, I find myself biting my tongue instead of asking them to explain the Masters and Mistresses and slaves and clients out there in the woods. I realize now that I don’t really want to understand. All I care about is staying as far away from that house as possible.   My personal philosophies of kink and sex work did become clearer to me after that weekend. I’m not looking for new authority figures. I’m not looking to recycle the suffering of old gods. I’m looking to make something new. Sometimes, when I look down at the shimmering blue of my belly button ring, it reminds me of that moment of kindness, of a man willingly getting on his knees in front of me to give me a gift, expecting nothing in return. It reminds me of pulling out of that gravel driveway, and of everything women everywhere have endured to make their rent. When I meet the Master Ms of this world, the people who try to take advantage of their perceived power over me, I try to invoke the spirit of my grandmother, screaming “LIAR” at the top of her lungs in front of hundreds of acolytes at Madison Square Garden.  * My family, like most families, has exchanged moments of selfless care and moments of critical resistance.   My dad and I did reconcile after those revelatory therapy sessions, and it took another ten years before I would cut off communication with him again: for unapologetically slapping my ass in a bar, for ignoring my boundaries about when he was welcome to crash on my couch, and most of all for warping every conflict between us to make himself the hero. People usually think of cults in terms of groupthink, or a collection of people brainwashed by a single guru. The more I learn about them, the more I’m struck by how the psychic manipulations of cults echo the dynamics of abusive intimate relationships. Sometimes those abuses look like slaps, and sometimes they’re felt in the form of a man’s entitlement to dismiss a woman’s boundary because he likes it better when it seems like she has none.   “You should be allowed to say no,” Dr. Lalich said when I asked her how to tell if you’re in a healthy group relationship. “To question anyone in the hierarchy including the dominant. You should be allowed to leave when you want, without any rebuke or shunning. You shouldn’t be made to believe that this is the only way to live. You should be able to untie the bonds!” If a family is a cult, then I’m in a perpetual state of trying to walk away from the influence of my own. Even though the healthy consensual BDSM situations I’ve been in have put me in many positions of literal subservience—down on my knees, withstanding torture—nothing has made me feel freer. Because when you surrender from a place of recognized strength, you learn to see false prophets for what they are: people who expect filial piety when they haven’t earned the privilege.    
‘We Can’t Change History, But We Are Complicit in Perpetuating It’: An Interview with Lisa Taddeo

The author of Three Women on desire, community, and the male gaze. 

When Lisa Taddeo set out to write her new nonfiction book about desire, three women she met stood out. It took eight years for her to map out the inner workings of Maggie, a high school student in North Dakota who develops a relationship with her English teacher; Lina, a housewife in Indiana who works tirelessly to please a husband who refuses to kiss her; and Sloane, a poised restaurant owner in Rhode Island whose husband enjoys watching her have sex with other couples.   Throughout each account, we watch as the women unwind. As the coils holding them together give way, they experience a kind of renewal, face condemnation, and wrestle with their newfound freedom. And Taddeo is there not only to bear witness, but to observe and unpack the reactions of the women and communities surrounding Maggie, Lina, and Sloane. Three Women (Avid Reader Press) is not just a book about desire, but the consequences for acting on it. Sara Black McCulloch: What led you to write about desire from this perspective? I read that what partly prompted this book was that you were reading Gay Talese’s Thy Neighbor’s Wife, and that you were put off by it—that it was written from a very particular and male perspective. Lisa Taddeo: The main thing with Mr. Talese’s book was that, and you know I met him and he was an unofficial mentor for a certain part of the process, but you know, I found that there was just not a lot of emotion behind the acts he had been describing, and his book was different. It wasn’t that I didn’t like it—I enjoyed it very much. But at the same time, I just wanted to know more about... you know, there was a lot of swinging in it. And what I found with a lot of swingers is that they kind of go, “Oh you know, it’s fine.” And maybe for you it is fine and you don’t feel sad, but I just wanted to know about more of my own biases. I don’t judge them, I’m just so fascinated by it, but I couldn’t do it, so I wanted to know why these people could, in a sense, do it. I just feel like there wasn’t much talk about why—the whys about everything—and that was where I wanted to have a departure. I think Talese was interested in different things, but I was also so fascinated by swingers that I went looking for swingers. I spoke to a lot of different groups of swingers and I could not find someone who gave me the sort of complexity I was looking for until I found Sloane and that was game-changing for me because she was the person I always looked for. I don’t think she’s necessarily representative of swingers, but what she is for me is representative of the complexity I wanted to know more about.   How did you find the women? I know, for instance, that you met Lina in a discussion group you were running.  I posted signs across the country, literally in bars and casinos. I posted them on windows of cars too, just everywhere: churches, bus stops, truck stops, everywhere. I went to the Four Seasons, seedy motels... I was just trying to find people. I moved to Indiana because of the Kinsey Institute [which researches sex and gender] and because I met a doctor who was administering these hormone treatments to women and he was telling me about them. I found Lina really early. I think I spoke to her on the phone before I moved because the doctor had given me a number of his patients who were interested in talking to me. I didn’t know how fascinating she was going to be until she walked into that room and started telling her story.  I had read about Maggie when I was in North Dakota researching a different story. It was about women who were working as waitresses during the day at this coffee shop and by night, they were being trucked into the local oil fields to have sex with the men who worked there. So, I was reading about Maggie in a coffee shop and I read about the trial, which had just ended. I called her mother’s house and introduced myself, asked if I could come and tell them more about what I was doing, and then drove to North Dakota the next day.   I found Sloane by moving into her town to speak to several other people and at that point I was hearing rumours about not just a woman who was swinging, but a woman whose husband wanted to have sex with her every day and that not only did she allow it, she wanted to do it too. And that was the rumour. What was shocking to me about that, and indeed every woman and person that I spoke to, was the ways in which they were reviled by their communities for doing things like that. I just don’t think you should judge other people for their lives. So, I was interested in that. That was how I found those three, but I spoke to hundreds of other people, at least 20-25 at length. I also noticed a shift in voice and POV throughout the book, from diary entries to third-person accounts. What was the reasoning behind these particular choices? They were all different choices, but I wanted the voices to be reflective of the women. For Maggie, one of the reasons why I started with the second-person was because she had been so reviled in the local press that I had in mind the most staunch disbeliever and I wanted that person to be able to instantly get inside her head in such a way that it would be impossible for them to not at least try to understand her. I wanted the literal experience. I did the trial and the other stuff more in the third-person to keep it factual. With Lena, she found herself in the sexual moments—I would say more than anyone else did—and so I wanted her section to reflect that. I mean she told me everything so openly. It was just so infinitely interesting to me that I wanted to show how present she was in those moments.   With Sloane, who was the most reticent to talk and also the most eloquent but detached, I tried to tell her story in her rote voice. You explored some really small communities that judged and condemned others for living their lives, and I wanted to know if you believe that there is such a thing as community anymore? You moved to these towns where these women lived—do you feel like a community is there to essentially police and surveil people now? I do. You know, it’s funny, because my daughter is four years old and we live in a rather rural part of Connecticut, and a lot of people have said to me, "You should move here and here because there are a lot of moms and kids." But I moved to so many places and I’ve seen so many moms and dads, and no! There’s a lot more competition than there is community or a sense of community. You know how people say a child is raised by a community? I just don’t see that anymore in any way. Even with social media, it’s really become so much about who’s got what, and whose kid is doing this, and whose partner has a better career, and a nicer house—all of that! That’s what I found in almost every place. There were some places that were kinder than others, but for the most part, it was not a loving situation.  You don’t just discuss how women condemn each other but how they compete with each other, too. There was something really striking that your mom told you: “Never let them see you happy,” and by “them,” she meant other women. Were you noticing this in your discussion groups and even how these women were communicating with you? One of the reasons I was most drawn to these women was because they were the victims of these things. They were less judgmental about the things that happened in their lives. They were victims of men, to an extent, but also the victims of other women. They were not so much the aggressors, and I found that really warm about them—that they didn’t want other women to necessarily suffer, whereas I found other women who wanted other women to suffer. All the women that I observed for the final cut of the book were all, in some way, jealous or just condemning of Maggie, Sloane, and Lina. A lot of this is frankly biological, as men are not necessarily competing against each other, at least not the same way. The women are competing to be the thing that is chosen and that’s sociological and biological. The idea that men spread their seed—not be clinical—across a large group of women in order to perpetuate the species, whereas women are meant to stay back with the child and bear the whole situation. I find that really informs the way we move about. The sociological implications are that we also, at the same time, want equality. We’re very sentient, wise beings, but our biology and our sociology either mix or they don’t, depending on the day. I really think it’s other women because we’re fighting against each other for men or whatever—at least in heterosexual relationships. (It’s different things across different orientations and sexual predilections.)  The male gaze really fuels that too, but it many ways it also fuels the desires of these three women too. We’re still rooted in it. We can’t change our history, but we are complicit in perpetuating it in the present. We’ve been living under it for centuries, and we can’t just wake up one day and change. We first have to admit that it’s there before we can figure out how to combat the negatives in our lives. When you’re immersing yourself in someone else’s life, especially as a journalist, there is always talk of objectivity. Did you ever find yourself slipping, in a way, and judging these women, or would their stories force you to confront something within yourself? Or trigger the memory of a personal situation? Did you find yourself connecting with them on a deeper level? It’s funny because there were countless things, but the thing that I think about the most is that when I was a kid, like 10 or 11, I was going to Puerto Rico with my parents. I had helicopter parents before the term was coined, and they wouldn’t let me out of their sight. And I just wanted to take a walk down the beach. They finally said yes and I was so happy. That day, I packed baby oil because I wanted to get super-tan. I was wearing a black bikini with little neon butterflies and I loved it. I was so happy. I took Stephen King’s The Stand with me because I was a depressive kid. I laid down in the sand and fell asleep. I woke up with two things: one was a second degree burn across my body that was insane. The other thing that woke me up, in fact, was a man, I don’t know if he was 30 or 40, but I knew that he was a man and I was a kid. He was licking my arm. The first thing I thought—I remember the feeling very well, and not just the tongue, but the feeling I felt in my head, which was, “I don’t want this man to think I don’t... like him?” I don’t know, it’s weird, but I still have that feeling today and I’m nearly 40 years old. It was shocking.  I went back to my parents and I did not tell them about the situation for two reasons: one, that I didn’t think they would ever let me out of their sight again, and two, that they would think I was a slut. And that’s what I thought. I was an 11-year-old girl. I didn’t do anything. I shouldn’t have put baby oil on my body, but other than that, I didn’t do anything. It’s super interesting, and multiple things like that came up. And mainly, it’s about how the formative years shape the way that we are, and we desire, and in other ways that are more obvious in the present. And a lot of people weren’t aware of it. Neither was I! We internalize those experiences and feelings of shame, and that plays out in very different ways: you have to be careful with how you’re perceived by other people. You need to be constantly vigilant. I noticed, too, that even the women you talked to couldn’t fully let go of this vigilance either. It’s a weird kind of invisible service in their public and personal lives. They’re always making sure that everyone else’s needs are being met. And just the performative aspect too—just being aware of yourself and your attractiveness and I found that so much in everyone that I talked to—women and men. But men have this goal, which is an orgasm, no matter how sloppy and smelly they are. With women, some of them can, and I’m inspired by the women who can, but I myself have never personally found that. I will not do anything if my teeth aren’t brushed.   I wanted to talk about parents and what we inherit from them. In the introduction, you talk about your mother and the secrets she hid, and how that creates a barrier to communication—or not telling your parents what happened to you.  Yes, but also, it’s not that I didn’t think I could talk to my parents, it was more that I was ashamed. I thought it was my fault, too. I didn’t want them to stop letting me be alone. I didn’t know that I needed to go to them—I don’t think what they would have said would have been helpful. With Maggie, we see that too—that she didn’t really confide in anyone because she couldn’t. The women you spoke to had these fractured relationships with their parents and people in their lives and they really had to compartmentalize aspects of their lives and themselves. I think that a byproduct of growing up years ago—although this has less to do with Maggie, because with her, it’s more of a byproduct of where she’s from in the country—but with Lina and Sloane, they both had parents that they wouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable going to with the things they experienced. With that said, I think it’s the time, and that now there are a lot more studies about how to be with children. I don’t think people were really looking at that back then. Are any of the women planning on reading the book? Two of the women have read it. I’m in touch with all three of them pretty frequently, so they’re very much aware of the book’s publication date. I’m not supposed to reveal which two have read it. Some are a little more nervous than others about it.  Are you planning on keeping in touch with them and seeing how their lives turn out?   Yes! I am so interested. I’m close to them. I would call all of them friends, but the nature of our relationship is very much—it was mostly one-sided because I was asking the questions. With that said, there were many intimate moments that we shared about their men and about my own stories whenever I thought it was something they would want to hear or that would help them or make them feel comfortable because they were giving so much of themselves. It was organic. One of the things that allowed women to explore their sexuality and desires was the advent of birth control, and in terms of what’s happening now in the U.S., this is going to have an impact on everything, but what impact will this have on desire? I think that to make any heaving step forward, there’s going to be a thousand steps back. It’s always shifting and what’s going on now is awful, but I also hope that it won’t last very long and that eventually those people in power are going to die off and when then do, hopefully there will be less people taking their place that will deal with it the same way. It’s definitely going to change the way women talk about it, but I also think that it’s making voices louder because there’s a lot of rage. Also men—in general and in the book—are threatened by their desire and tend to use it against these women in many ways. Men get nervous when women have desires that go above and beyond their desires. I think that’s why there’s such a rise of this incel community coming out of the woodwork, because they’re hearing about what women want and they’re translating it into, “Women want to have sex with good-looking guys.” For centuries, men have wanted to have sex with good-looking women, but the fact that we’re hearing from women now is making a lot of men who are not confident—and this is sad and they should be heard—but the way that they’re trying to be heard is despicable and that’s a perfect example of what happens when men feel nervous about female desire.
Epcot World Showcase

Every sixteen minutes the couple in the film gets married. Every sixteen minutes they kiss like they wish they could take it back.

Visiting the World Showcase at Epcot when you've had three red wines and a Canadian beer in the outdoor pavilion so you drunkenly ask the attendant at the movie theater in France what Paris is really like: The attendant smiles and says, “come watch the movie.” She says: If you lay on the floor before the lights dim they make you get up, but if you wait until it's dark they don't care what you do. From opening to close, the same film plays every sixteen minutes. In rural, rustic France, wooden carts bustle past soaring, fairytale castles. The fields are dotted with pristine white sheep. Female attendants who work at Epcot, France wear long, russet skirts and peasant tops that tie delicately at the throat. The attendant asks the audience to enjoy this introduction to her home. She says "home" like you might mouth a packet of Splenda. The panoramic screen reveals a view of rocky ocean cliffs and even more soaring castles and cyclists and more sheep and women carrying oversized baskets of bread. Every sixteen minutes the same country road winds along valleys sprinkled with tiny yellow wildflowers. Places people like to fuck at Disney: The Haunted Mansion, It’s a Small World, and the sixteen-minute movie in Epcot, France. Stains dot the theater seats, the curtains, and the floor where you can lay if you wait until the lights dim. Only after the lights dim, the attendant says. Not a second earlier. "The music is from Beauty and the Beast," she whispers in my ear. "Like from the Disney version." If you lay on the floor after the lights dim you see people's feet and bagged merchandise from every country in Epcot. Around the world in less than an hour if you don't stop to watch the sixteen-minute movie in France. A woman feeds her partner a chocolate-covered strawberry bought from the pavilion and he licks the residue from her fingers. You're not supposed to eat in the theater, but according to the attendant, nobody cares what happens after the lights dim. These people eat chocolate-covered strawberries and wear sport sandals. They’re climbing each other like real sports enthusiasts, I tell the attendant. One of them kicks a bag and it rustles. Ocean waves crash against the rocky shore. Sheep bleat beside a moated castle. The attendant says she’s heard it a thousand times before: the movie soundtrack and the fucking. The lights have dimmed so we’re on the floor and she's untying the delicate knot at her throat. I knew this would happen just like I knew it would happen the last time like I know it will happen again. Next weekend. A month from now. Tomorrow. Every sixteen minutes the attendant introduces a film about her home in a peasant top that ties delicately at the throat. The cyclists speed down the road past a cart full of bread. Sheep saunter up the hill, guided by a man in blue slacks. People in the back of the theater wear sport sandals and feed each other chocolate-covered strawberries and fuck next to a rustling bag of Epcot merchandise. Tiny, yellow wildflowers. During her introductory speech, the attendant says you can leave at any time by exiting the theater to your left. No one gets up. There’s only rustling bags, chocolate-covered strawberries, sport sandals, fucking. When I ask the attendant if she ever stays to watch the movie with special guests, she takes my hand. Do you ever stay and watch the movie means: will you lie on the floor with me? Do you ever stay and watch the movie means: will you untie the delicate knot at your throat? Do you ever stay and watch the movie means: I will not take you to dinner after this, we won’t go home together, I did that in another life with a woman like you but that tenderness is gone now, sixteen minutes is all I can offer, please, I’ve already given the other parts of myself away, do you understand? Pan over a snow-capped mountain. A line of people ski down its frozen side like a trail of ants. I tell the attendant the frosted mountain looks like mint chocolate chip ice cream and she laughs. “I haven't heard that one before,” she says, but I’m positive she has. Villagers sell pink and white flowers from a wooden cart. The attendant pulls up her skirt, loosens the knot at her throat. A woman on screen carries too much bread. The man herds sheep in his blue slacks. "Three red wines and a Canadian beer," I tell the attendant when she asks what I had for dinner. She's asking what I had for dinner because she’d like us to get dinner. There’s no dinner in our future, but we will lay on the floor of the movie theater. I know this the way I know the movie repeats every sixteen minutes. The attendant touches the delicate knot at her throat and undoes it using only two fingers. Wooden cart, castle. Pink and white flowers. Bleating sheep. Midway through the film a couple exchanges marriage vows inside a crumbling chapel. The music piped over the ceremony is familiar. “It’s what they use in Beauty and the Beast, the Disney film,” says the attendant. The bride wears a white dress and a shimmering veil. When the couple kisses, it looks like they’d rather die than let their lips touch. When my wife kissed me on our wedding day, she was so nervous her lips trembled. We did not listen to Disney music and there were no castles. Her hands left damp marks on the paper she carried so she could remember the order of the vows. We lit a white candle and the wind blew it out. Every sixteen minutes the couple in the film gets married. Every sixteen minutes they kiss like they wish they could take it back. In the movie theater, the lights dim and the attendant hikes up her skirt to reveal socks that buckle over the knee. “They’re regulation,” she whispers, when I slip a finger beneath the elastic band. Behind us, plastic bags rustle and people's legs move back and forth as they fuck and the attendant wants to know why I'd have three red wines and a Canadian beer for dinner, but what she's really asking is why won't I have dinner with her. Dinner isn’t on the table. We served chicken at our wedding so stringy I picked the gristle from my teeth and my wife kissed me with a mouth full of regrets. Why’d you drink dinner, asks the attendant, and I’m answering her question by ignoring it completely. This is a repeat of the conversation I had last week, two days ago, tonight, tomorrow, three weeks from now. The movie replays every sixteen minutes. On screen a girl in a yellow dress delivers flowers to a market full of smiling, happy people. She hands out flowers until her cart is empty. In sixteen minutes, she'll do it again. Flowers, the wooden cart, cyclists, skiers racing down the mint chocolate chip mountain, a lone woman carrying too much bread. The attendant rolls down her regulation socks and undoes the delicate knot at her throat. My hand slides up her thigh. Sheep dot the landscape like someone ripped open a pillow. There are castles everywhere. I ask the attendant what Paris is like and she says "it's exactly like this," but her eyes get wide when she says it and I know “exactly like this” means she’s willing to be whatever I want. Why did you drink dinner, she asks, and it's an echo in the valley between the ice cream mountains as the bags rustle and the people eat chocolate-covered strawberries and fuck in their sport sandals and we lie on the floor, once the lights are dim. The couple gets married in the crumbling chapel every sixteen minutes and they kiss like strangers. We lit the candle at our wedding and the flame blew out while I laughed, but my wife’s lips trembled and her hands sweat all over our vows and there were no castles anywhere. Why did you drink dinner? The attendant asks, and up come the lights. People pick up their bags and move out of the stained seats so other people can sit in the stained seats and set down their bags on the floor beside bits of popcorn and discarded gummy candies. In a few minutes, the attendant will loosen the knot at her throat. Roll down the regulation socks. Three red wines and a Canadian beer slosh in my stomach in lieu of dinner. There will never be dinner with this woman. There will never be dinner with any of them; there will never be. The movie replays every sixteen minutes. The attendant says: “Please enjoy this introduction to my home,” and we begin again. Sheep. Crumbling chapel. The couple kisses in the church and their mouths are trembling. Every wedding kiss is an earthquake. Pink and white flowers. Castles. We can slip down to the floor, the attendant whispers, once the lights dim.