I don’t want to test my children for genetic illness to subvert their autonomy, but to allow them to fully exert it. And though I have the means, I can’t quite find the will. …
The author of The Real Lolita on doppelgangers, the responsibilities of true crime reporting and fictionalizing people’s pain.
Despite decades of contributions to psychedelic science, women have long been marginalized in the field. That’s starting to change.
The shepherd of psychedelic mushroom research was a woman. She wasn’t the first to harness their medicinal power or, in the word of the casual western psilocybin enthusiast, their “magic.” But she was the first to share their secrets with the west. Before hippies, before Tim Leary advised his disciples to turn on, tune in and drop out, and before a photo essay titled “Seeking the Magic Mushroom” appeared in 1957’s Life magazine, there was María Sabina. A Mazatec curandera, a shaman, Sabina lived in a secluded mountain village in Oaxaca, and used the long-stemmed mushrooms that dotted her mountainside to heal the sick. Her work honored a centuries long relationship with psychedelic mushrooms that stretched back to the Aztecs and Mayas, as far as we know with certainty, and likely even further, based on interpretations from prehistoric cave paintings. Sabina had performed the velada mushroom ceremony for more than thirty years when an eccentric New York banking executive from JPMorgan named R. Gordon Wasson arrived at her mud hut’s door. It was 1955. Uneasy at first, the caretaker ultimately welcomed the peculiar foreigner: to watch, to partake, to seek the divine healing that her ancestors’ mushrooms could yield. Astonished by the mushroom’s power, Wasson returned to Mexico again, and again. Life published full page images of Sabina, her name changed to Eva Mendez in the magazine’s text, preparing the mushrooms, handing them to Wasson, and wrapping her arms around her son Aurelio, under the mushroom’s effect, as he lay on a mat on the floor. The article got the attention of Albert Hofmann. Wasson brought samples to Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who first synthesized LSD in 1943. Hofmann isolated the active alkaloid, calling it psilocybin, for distribution by Sandoz Laboratories, and Tim Leary picked up the scent. The rest is psychedelic history. But Sabina’s name is often dropped from this narrative. “She is the reason we have psilocybin research right now,” says Katherine MacLean, a former research scientist who spent close to half a decade working with psilocybin. “But I don't hear many of the researchers paying appropriate respect and thanks to María Sabina. Every single time they speak, that name should be spoken.” Even now, as a renaissance of psychedelic research swells, she is all but forgotten. Forgotten too is the horrific fate she suffered for revealing the mushroom’s secrets to foreigners: Local government federales arrested and imprisoned her, burned her home to the ground, and murdered her son. She died destitute and alone. * Psychedelic science is a niche discipline with its origins in 1950s universities and 1960s counterculture. Above-ground psychedelic research re-opened in the early ‘90s, but the field remained small. Only the last fifteen years can be considered a true, burgeoning revival. Since 2002, the U.S. government has approved twenty-six clinical research studies exploring the physiological and therapeutic effects of psilocybin, MDMA, LSD and ayahuasca. Scientists in the field argue that psychedelics can be a boon for effective mental health treatment: for the critically ill and dying, for recovering alcoholics, for veterans suffering PTSD, for adults with autism hampered by social anxiety, and for many more. Read any article on psychedelic research published in recent years, and you’ll meet plenty of scientists triumphed as new revolutionaries. They are almost exclusively white and male. One of those men is my dad, Charles Grob, a child psychiatrist at Harbor-UCLA who has led and published studies on psilocybin, MDMA and ayahuasca since 1992. I grew up on the periphery of this semi-radical community, attending panels, lectures and seminars to support him. I’ve sat in venues—ballrooms inside sterile hotels, conference rooms inside fluorescent-lit hospitals, living rooms inside enterprising psychonauts’ bungalow-style homes, nestled into the hills of Laurel Canyon—and listened to white men speak about sacred plants and compounds for the better part of my thirty-one years. It wasn’t until I attended Psychedelic Science 2017, a massive meeting in Oakland that attracted over 2,500 psychedelic researchers and enthusiasts, that I had the opportunity to hear women in the field speak en masse. On the first day of the conference, I eagerly counted the number of women giving presentations: 48 of 119. This almost-parity shouldn’t be a shock: Women are not newcomers to the field. They’ve always been here, treating the same subjects as their male colleagues and co-authoring the same papers all along. Still, recognition and acclaim for their accomplishments has long been muted. Betty Eisner pioneered LSD treatment for alcoholism at UCLA in the 1950s alongside colleague Sidney Cohen. But The New York Times honored Cohen’s legacy with an obituary after his passing, while Eisner received no such honor after hers. Joan Halifax led research on LSD’s therapeutic role for the dying at famed retreat center Esalen in the 1970s alongside then-husband Stan Grof. Grof is considered a father of LSD research; Halifax’s involvement is something of a footnote. But something is changing. In 2017, women were not simply a growing faction within a growing movement—they were leading the charge, both increasingly as principal investigators on clinical studies, and as champions for social progress. And they’re refusing to be made invisible by their male colleagues, speaking out against inequity and lack of representation, and submitting study protocols in record numbers. * Many psychedelic studies today are conducted at university hospitals—Johns Hopkins, New York University, Purdue University, to name a few. “There's a strong component of sexism that's built into these conservative institutions,” says MacLean, who worked for four years as a lead researcher and session guide on The Johns Hopkins Psilocybin Research Project team. “You can imagine [the standards] might've been established by men who didn't have to take care of children.” After watching a female colleague endure excessive bleeding triggered by returning to work one week after giving birth, MacLean chose to make a change. She left Hopkins and cofounded the Psychedelic Program at The Center for Optimal Living in New York. The program, which consists of a team of clinical psychologists and harm reduction specialists, focuses not on administering psychedelics in a research setting, but on integrating past psychedelic experiences in a therapeutic context. “I was one of the only women researchers [in psychedelics],” she says of leaving the research world behind. “I felt like I was letting some of my female colleagues down.” Because the number of women in psychedelic research has been, until now, a minority, survival has hinged on mentorship and commiseration. “[They’ve] seen it all before,” says MacLean. Among her mentors, MacLean cites Mariavittoria Mangini, a nurse family practitioner and cofounder of the Women’s Visionary Congress. The WVC is a nonprofit open to all genders, but built as a platform for amplifying the voices of women in psychedelics. Its existence derived from necessity, says Mangini. She points to a 2006 psychedelics conference in Basel commemmorating the 100th birthday of Albert Hofmann, the chemist celebrated for first synthesizing LSD (and for identifying the active alkaloid in María Sabina’s magic mushrooms). Among 75 presenters, Mangini was one of five women invited to speak. WVC formed out of the ensuing outrage. “You have to take power,” says Mangini. “People don't give it to you.” Subtle sexism has long permeated not only academia, but also the psychedelic movement’s small corner of social history. “Women had a really subordinate place,” says Mangini of the ‘60s counterculture. She hung out at Millbrook during Tim Leary’s extended psychedelic residency, assisted psychedelic pioneers like Halifax and Grof at Esalen, and operated “freakout tents” at Grateful Dead shows, helping Deadheads come down from bad trips. Every step of the way, she says, she and women like her labored to make their voices heard. The standard makeup of cotherapy teams is another oft-articulated concern: Unofficial protocol from the ‘60s dictates that psychedelic research teams consist of a man and a woman. It’s no wonder, then, that counterculture sexism trickled into counterculture-inspired research, research conducted in conservative institutions like the one MacLean left. Mangini’s seen far too many women take a backseat to their male co-investigators when it comes to presentations and authorship order. Despite the entrenched sexism that academia far too often embodies, and despite psychedelics’ lack of inoculation against it, Mangini is hopeful. “Women assume that they have a place at the table, and that their voices and their work are going to be regarded at par with the work of their male colleagues. So I feel like we've kind of won that battle.” * A historical lack of visible women is one part of what many in the field feel is the larger problem: Psychedelic research lacks diversity. One need only scan the lobby inside the Oakland Marriott during Psychedelic Science’s opening day buffet for proof of its overwhelming whiteness—not only of who’s running the show, but the vast majority of who’s watching it, too. This imbalance shouldn’t come as a surprise either. Psychedelic research bears a long history of whitewashing, reaching back to María Sabina’s erasure, if not further. “[White] women have been the first in the gate of inclusiveness,” says Janis Phelps, who’s worked to secure diversity scholarships to the psychedelic therapies and research program she oversees at California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS). “I feel a great charge from this particular kind of work to bear a pathway, and bring people of color, LGBTQ populations, gender fluid populations, indigenous peoples who need a voice at the table into the room.” Twice during the conference, LisaNa Macias Red Bear, a Native American mental health specialist and community educator, takes the microphone in the main ballroom. “What I want to say is that cultural appropriation [of plant medicines] is a form of re-traumatization to indigenous people,” she says during a Q&A, as reported by The New York Times (which did not include her name, describing her instead as “a woman with dark hair and dark sunglasses” who “identified herself as ‘an indigenous person’”). “I’m asking for everyone here to just be accountable for your own white privilege.” At a lunch with the nine-person clinical staff—of which eight are women—behind the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), perhaps the most public-facing psychedelic research nonprofit out there, clinical study associate Allison Wilens says, “When we talk about progress, we should be talking about power…We should be talking about institutional access. [...] The more we can open the doorways for people of different backgrounds to be in the room, the stronger the work will be, and being able to maintain that is what will allow us to sustain progress.” * I met Katie Stone at WVC’s daylong workshop, led by Mangini, at the tail end of Psychedelic Science. By chance, we’re seated next to each other. And by observation, we’re among the younger women in the room, the audience for a small series of self-identified hippies telling the tales of their first trips. When I tell Stone that I’m writing a story on women in psychedelic research, her eyes widen. This, she says, I’ll want to hear. A PhD candidate at CIIS and board member of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, Stone leapt to volunteer at the conference’s registration table. But when she spotted one of her research heroes and approached him to introduce herself, another man cut her off—then placed his hand on Stone’s stomach, and pushed her away. I talk to her again about the incident several months later. It’s stuck with her, but she’s gleaned a silver lining. “I thank him for that experience. I will never again step aside for a man.”
The author of Kens on the power of satire, rituals of rejection, and imagining Christian Slater.
In 2014, The Governor General’s Literary Award for English-language children’s literature was awarded to When Everything Feels Like The Movies, written by then relatively unknown author Raziel Reid. The book, narrated by gay teenager Jude Rothesay, was inspired by the life and murder of fifteen-year-old Larry Fobes King by a classmate in Oxnard, California, in 2008. Though the book received critical praise, its unflinching depictions of sexual exploration in the high school set led to immediate backlash from conservative pundits. “It is fair to say that Jude’s sexual yearnings [...] constitute the bulk of the narrative,” wrote Barbara Kay in the National Post under the headline “Wasted tax dollars on a values-void novel.” A similar column appeared in the Toronto Sun by Brian Lilley, who admitted to not having read the book, and Ottawa author Kathy Clark circulated a petition to strip the book of its award. The critics emphasized that such subject material was inappropriate in a children’s book, though Reid’s book was always marketed as young adult, meaning it is intended for teenagers. “These discussions never seem to extend to teen movies,” he tells me over the phone from Manitoba while visiting family (he lives in Vancouver). We had been talking about the adult books we read as teenagers, and how little would stop us from seeking out the stories we were interested in. High school movies, even (especially?) those that aren’t necessarily dealing with Big Serious Issues, have typically been allowed to be blasé in their depictions of sex. Reid had these movies in mind when writing his recent young adult novel, Kens (Penguin Teen). The influences are obvious; his book is to 1988’s Heathers what Clueless was to Jane Austen, taking loose inspiration from a classic story to recontextualize it for a new era. Willows High is ruled by leader Ken Hilton and his clique, Ken Roberts and Ken Carson, “created from the same mould, soul sold separately.” Shy Tommy Rawlins is offered what he believes is the shot of a lifetime when he is chosen to be given a makeover and made into the latest-edition Ken. While the sharp one-liners that made up When Everything Feels Like the Movies abound in his latest work, Reid trades in the gritty realism that Jude tried so desperately to escape in favour of a deeply artificial, deeply disturbing, deeply sparkly dream world. Kens is as frothy as it is heavy, and the already dark themes that underscored Heathers reaches a new gravitas in our current dystopia. Anna Fitzpatrick: How long have you been living in Vancouver? Raziel Reid: I moved to Vancouver in 2011. I grew up in Manitoba, and then I took a Greyhound bus to New York City when I was eighteen, which inspired Jude's dream in When Everything Feels Like the Movies to get on a Greyhound and move to Hollywood. I still have that dream. I went to New York, I went to film school there, I lived in New York for almost three years and then headed to Vancouver. I wasn't going to stay in Vancouver, I was just going to visit a friend, but I picked up a copy of Xtra Vancouver, which is now defunct. It's still online but it's not in print. I opened it up and this columnist was advertising for his replacement. He was a social columnist. I thought, I can party, and I can be friends with drag queens. I submitted some writing and got the gig. It was my first time getting paid to write. I decided to stick around Vancouver for a while, and it ended up being five years. I went to Europe for a while, and now I've been back in Canada for a year. Where in Europe? I went to the UK first for the launch of When Everything Feels Like the Movies. Little, Brown published it there. I went to Germany for the German publication, and it was also published in Austria and Switzerland. I went to Hungary. I spent a year living in AirBnbs. What was the European response to When Everything Feels Like the Movies? It was interesting, the conversation around the work really centred around class in a way that it didn't in Canada. I think there was a lot of discussion about the content, and the type of youth I was depicting, but it wasn't exactly contextualized. In Europe, I think the class system is so much more defined, and of interest to people. I found that the reviews and the interviews I had there really centred around the class I was depicting, and touched a bit on my own background and how the story came from that place. It was really interesting to me because that was a conversation I hadn't had in Canada in the United States. And then you have Kens, which is a completely different setting. You set it in a fictional place, but it feels very Beverly Hills. It's funny you say that because my editor at Penguin, at first she didn't realize that I had created this Barbie World, that I was inspired by Willows, Wisconsin. She flagged Wisconsin and said, "Raziel, are you sure you want to set it here, it seems like Beverly Hills to me." I wanted it to be the original fictional hometown of the Barbie Doll, and when she first came out, she was set in Willows, Wisconsin. I had created a Barbie World, but it was inspired by this idea of superficial California. And obviously there's like, the Malibu Barbie influence. As I was visualizing the world, even though I was setting it in Wisconsin, I kept on thinking of that California coastal type of place. The book obviously isn't about Wisconsin, I don't know anything about Wisconsin, it's just about Barbie. What was your own high school experience like in Manitoba? High school wasn't that bad. I just hung out with artists and misfits. We had fun. It was really bohemian. I didn't go to school very often. I skipped class a lot. My school was right next to the Assiniboine River. I used to just go and sit by the river and do a lot of writing. I think I charmed my teachers. They liked me. They knew I was the outcast creative gay kid. I think they were really supportive, and helped me to graduate. I'm not sure I would have graduated if I didn't have teachers who had a soft spot for me. I was so turned off of school, just the ritual of it. I certainly found, when I was younger in elementary and junior high, I found the society we were building among the students to be absolutely terrifying. I was so put off by school I didn't go to university. I didn't want anything to do with education. What books were you reading? Luckily my mother was a voracious reader, so she had a lot of books for me to read. I read a lot of adult fiction. American Psycho was definitely my favourite. It remains my favourite book. I think after I read that I read all of Bret Easton Ellis's books. I'm obsessed with him. The Poisonwood Bible, I read that. Alice Munro, I used to read in high school. Tom Wolfe, I read a lot. F. Scott Fitzgerald. A lot of glamorous but depressed people. The beautiful and damned! Your book has been described as an homage to Heathers, but at times it's like a full-on remake. You've recreated some full scenes. How did you approach such iconic source material and make it your own? I didn't try to remake Heathers because I think that's impossible and I'm obviously obsessed with it as a cult classic. I so believe in it. I really just wanted to capture the energy, the satirical vibe, and the edgy attitude towards high school that Heathers represents. Ultimately I think it's a different story that turns into something really opposite and unique from Heathers. I'm constantly just taking information and inspiration from around me and manipulating it. I have a lot fun playing with some of the energy from Heathers. Aside from Heathers and Barbie, what were some other big inspirations for this? Well, my '90s childhood and all of the teen movies I was obsessed with, starting with Clueless, the first film I fell in love with as a kid. My older sister had a VHS of Clueless, and when I was five I used to watch it obsessively. Other movies like Sugar and Spice and She's All That, Mean Girls of course. Jawbreaker. I loved the iconic teen story with the clique of mean girls who rule the school. I always wanted to be the Regina George character because she was blonde and pretty and dating the hottest jock. Then I started to imagine what the highschool of the future might look like with that dynamic. Wouldn't it be interesting if that clique of mean girls was a clique of bitchy blond gay boys? In that way I removed the distance between me and the queen bee, or between people like me and this traditionally popular clique. In teen comedies, the gay male character is usually the sidekick. If they're front and centre it's usually a tragedy, so it was interesting seeing these characters leading a dark teen comedy. There are so many great lines in this book, but at one point you have this teenager Claude from Idaho who looks up to the Kens, and you write that they're his biggest inspiration because they're "so post-gay it's sickening." I think that encapsulates so much of the novel because they live in this world that's not aspirational, but still operates on this completely different dynamic than ours. I was in Berlin at a literary festival there, this homosexuality in literature festival, that had brought in queer authors from all over the world. It was so extraordinary. It was like the United Nations of Homosexuality, where every country was represented by a different author. We were all on panels together, and spoke, and I just spent a week doing this. I heard from queer authors from Russia, from Turkey, from Iran, so many authors were talking about queer persecution, about publishers being seized by the government because they published queer content. All these tragedies and all of this oppression, and then I started to talk about my experience in Canada with When Everything Feels Like the Movies and some of the censorship that I faced, and then I also talked about being more advanced than some of these other countries that are talking about gays literally getting bound and thrown off cliffs. We're certainly not perfect in Canada, but we have progressed quite far. We've achieved a level of equality that many other countries don't have. So I started to talk about how equality shouldn't mean homogenization. Acceptance and progress for gay people shouldn't mean that we have to be like heteronormative culture, or that queer culture has to blend with heteronormative culture. I wrote Kens really to show what a post-gay world looks like, but I filled it with language that is so identifiably queer and scenes and situations and characters that are really rooted in queer culture, because I think it's really important to strike the balance between progress and the rich and fabulous history of queerness. At times it felt—and I don't know if this is an intentional choice—LGBT identities can be treated as trendy, or commodified without necessarily progress happening. Right, like the gay accessory, or the gay best friend. I hear that all the time. With straight women who are allies who are like, "Oh, I'm hanging out with my gays," so homosexuals are like a product. I definitely have a bit of fun with that. Your book gets really dark. Heathers and a lot of your other inspirations were also really dark, but were you ever concerned with crossing a line? Yes. Believe it or not, I'm not a shock jock. I really don't like causing controversy. It's not something that I seek. I have found that I'm naturally out of sync with this world and what society considers right and wrong. I'm constantly doing a lot of self-censorship and trying to not dull my ideas or erase them, but to hone my ideas or craft them in a way that is accessible to people, because I don't really have a good gauge for how people are going to react. Ultimately I have something that I'm trying to say. I'm trying to bring attention to certain issues. I never want it to be superficial. I want the significance to come through. But the dark aspect, like the mass teen suicide trend that starts, I was inspired directly by this world. There's that Blue Whale Suicide Game, I'm not sure if you've heard of that. No. It's this social media phenomenon where it's like a game that you play, and you follow a series of tasks, and the last task culminates in your suicide. [N.B: the origins and impacts of this game are ambiguous and differ between news sources.] There are hundreds of deaths attributed to this phenomenon, and there's a huge rise in teen suicide in the age of social media. I definitely think that the pressure that kids are facing on the internet plays into this. And also we're in this competitive world on social media, and so we compete with everything, every aspect of our lives. So what if we were competing with our deaths? That was my way of taking it to the extreme, to make us have a look at our own insatiable need to be recognized for everything. I don't give away spoilers in this interview, but the fate of Brad was also hard to read in the context of the book. Yeah. [pauses] I put that scene in the way that I did because I think the reality of those situations are so shocking and so immediate. I remember watching the video [similar to the incident that appears in the book]. I saw the headline, I clicked the link, I watched the video, and it was like being hit by a truck. It just felt so surreal, and so intense, and so emotionally overwhelming, and so shocking. I was so jolted by it. I decided it was important I write this chapter in a way that is just so shocking and that no one is expecting because I fear that the more terror that we see, the more apathy we see from our government on these issues, the more desensitized we become. I don't think that we're any less horrified than we were before, but I do think we are less shocked. I think the power of satire is to serve as an electric shock from the page, to remind you that this not something that you should scroll past, or that should become common to you. You should never get used to this. It should always be a jolt to your system. So much has happened between the time between writing your last book and the writing with this one, specifically with your career, and the attention you've been getting. Having been the subject of think pieces and op-eds, did that affect your creative process at all? You know, it didn't change my creative process. I feel like I've always just gone back to writing and being alone and finding a space within myself and finding a space in this world to create and that's what I did with When Everything Feels Like the Movies and that's what I did with Kens. I thought it was going to be different because I thought I was different, and of course I'm always different, I'm a different person every day I think. But what I found is it was very similar. It took a while to get this book published. I wrote the first draft in 2015, and sent it to my agent, and then started sending it out to editors. Because it's such a unique book, there aren't many comparative titles in young adult publishing right now. There's more film references than book references. I think that was maybe a concern to some editors. I had a lot of editors that were interested in me, but they just didn't think they were the right person for it. I went through this whole ritual of rejection, of failure, of feeling like maybe this isn't my next book, and struggling to place it in the market. And then I got the yes. Which is the same thing that happened with When Everything Feels Like the Movies. You get a million nos, and then one person says yes and changes everything. Who do you hope reads this book? It's interesting, because obviously I write it for a young market. Teenagers. But I recently recorded the audiobook, and I'm the voice actor on the audiobook, and the sound technician in the studio with me was a straight man in his fifties. He was laughing his head off as I was performing the book, and he told me he was going to buy it for people for Christmas. He was like, "I know I'm not your target audience, but I really appreciate your work." I always hope to get that guy. To get the person you don't expect and you're surprised they're interested in the work, and it affects them in a special way. I know you said this isn't a direct Heathers remake, but there are times when Blaine is described as having Jack Nicholson eyebrows. Did you imagine Christian Slater when you were writing him? Oh, I always imagine Christian Slater, are you kidding me?
I don’t want to test my children for genetic illness to subvert their autonomy, but to allow them to fully exert it. And though I have the means, I can’t quite find the will.
In my right desk drawer, on top of old greeting cards and beneath my checkbook and a roll of stamps, sits a 23 and Me DNA testing kit. It is unopened, still in its shrink-wrapped plastic casing as it has been since it arrived, three days before Christmas last year. I had bought it during those cyber holiday deal days—got it half off, in fact. It’s one of those fancy ones, the ones that tell you not only your ancestral background but also some of your genetic makeup. One swab of your cheek, and you can tell if you are a carrier for hereditary diseases. Maybe you have a recessive gene for sickle cell anemia; it’s no big deal for you, but if your partner also has one, your future children are at risk. A bit of spit also tells you your own genetic risk. Perhaps you have variants of certain genes that come with an increased risk of Parkinson’s. A wealth of knowledge is right at my fingertips. And yet, it sits there, untouched. Because it’s not for me. * I already know I have the BRCA I mutation. A broken link in my treacherous DNA gave me an eighty-seven percent chance of developing breast cancer and a sixty percent chance of ovarian cancer. I’ve already gone through months of monitoring, MRIs, biopsies. I’ve been poked and prodded for years. “Stay very still, miss, or the scan won’t work… Don’t mind the cold in your veins, ma’am, it’s just the contrast, it’s just the needle, it’s just the knife.” I got my breasts removed this past February, after a cancer scare that thankfully turned out to be just a scare. I have no feeling in my chest now, where my pectoral muscles sit atop two bags of saline, hard and unmoving even all these months later. I have to go to a special cancer gynecologist to make sure I don’t yet have ovarian cancer. In fact, I should get my ovaries removed entirely, but I just can’t bring myself to face menopause yet, at only thirty-five. So, I live with the knowledge that if I’m wrong, if I get cancer before I get the surgery, I will likely die. Unlike breast cancer, ovarian cancer is hard to detect until it’s too far along to be stopped. Those with a diagnosis are given an amount of time they have left, not a visionary plan for remission. * I learned all of this about my body just a few years ago, when my mother called to tell me she had the mutation, as did all of her sisters. I got tested then, in my thirties, and I’ve had to make all my decisions in rapid succession with limited knowledge since. I also have identical twin girls—nine years old. I cannot get them tested for the same mutation as me, even though they have a fifty-percent chance of inheriting it. I cannot know one way or the other if my children will be nearly destined to get cancer, or if they will be spared. I’m not allowed these years to prepare, research, keep that knowledge safe for them for when they will have a better understanding of what to do with it. I cannot decide to get this test for them, because only they can—when they are eighteen, nine years from now, able to choose as adults. Or maybe they’ll choose not to, which is why parents are not allowed to test their children, according to my doctors, whom I’ve asked several times. Because some people prefer to remain in the dark about their genetic illnesses. On the one hand, it’s obvious, and it’s something I’m a huge proponent of. Their body, their choice. How dare I, a parent, someone who is not them, decide whether or not they know their genetic makeup? They deserve to make their own medical decisions about their own bodies. On the other hand, what makes this different from so many other conditions? Parents are allowed to test their children for multiple conditions and diseases. We worry over whether their weight is on track with all the other children; we fret if they can’t hold a cup by eight months; if they have a sore throat, we are allowed to take them to the doctor to find out if it is strep. We are their guardians. All of their medical information goes through us. And what is a BRCA mutation if not medical information? I don’t want to test my children to subvert their autonomy. I want to test them to allow them to fully exert it. Why should they have to deal with this sudden and heartbreaking knowledge all at once, like I did, when it can be parsed bit by bit as they grow? For me, I was pushing a grocery cart down the cereal aisle when my cell phone rang. My mother informed me right then, as I was picking out Frosted Flakes, that she came back positive for the mutation, and I needed to get tested. I had a fifty-percent chance of having it, too. As a work-at-home mother with four-year-old twins, I had to take the girls along with me to the lab to get the test done. They sat there, wide-eyed, squeezing my hands as my blood filled the little tubes. I hadn’t been allowed to eat all day, so afterwards I dragged the girls to a small sandwich shop, even though they were tired, cranky, scared and confused about what had just happened. I had hoped them sitting in the middle of the road in protest would be the worst this got. I was wrong. Two weeks later, I was fixing them a snack in front of their favorite Disney show when my phone rang again. Without pleasantries, Florida Cancer Specialists put a doctor on the line to tell me I had a nearly ninety percent chance of cancer, and a life full of tests ahead of me, starting at that moment. Holding Teddy Grahams in my left hand, suddenly, this body that I thought I had known forever, this body I thought was my own, had turned into something else. And I had to deal with it all at once, while at the same time pretending nothing had happened. I smiled and handed out the crackers. What else could I do? Having the information at my fingertips allowed me to do something, to take action. It hit me like a ton of bricks and I had to navigate my emotions and hide them from the girls, but it also gave me the power to change my future. It put me in control. If I had had more time in the driver’s seat, I could have planned my life differently. I could have been prepared. At least, even in my thirties, I could do something. Wouldn’t it perhaps have been more helpful if the pieces of this puzzle had been gently dropped for me by a loving parent figure over time, with periods to process and maintain, with a guiding hand showing me the ropes, taking me through the options, telling me it’s not so bad? To have never gotten so used to myself as I was before I had to rip myself apart would have been a gift. Or would it have been? I can never know. And as such, even though I have the means to test my children, I do not have the will. I could have this all wrong—what makes me an expert over doctors and genetic counselors? Nothing. So the kit waits there. Still, knowing sooner might give us time to line our ducks up to get my children the best treatment possible, and the treatment they are most comfortable with when they need it. My husband and I would live differently. Our savings plan would make room for the accumulated costs. All of us would have time to financially, mentally, and emotionally prepare. Similarly, if the girls are negative, that’s nine years I don’t have to worry every day for them and their possible future. If they are positive, that’s fine. I know how to deal with that, and I will be able to calmly prepare them. Or will I? I knew how to deal with it within my own body, but even though they come from me, my children are very different from me. Perhaps my preparations would push them too hard in one way or another. Of course, I’d rather know now so we could start planning for the very same future that will await us whether we know about it or not. But I am not them. And they get to make that choice, not me. I’ll never use that kit. At least, I don’t think I will. I’m too much of a rule follower. But it sits there, in my desk drawer, day after day. Just in case. If ever I needed to, one day, I could swab one of their mouths and send it in. If ever I needed to, I could know. It seems so straightforward. It seems so easy. It can easily be construed as ethical, as beneficial. I just laid it all out for you here, in fact, in these thousand words. But maybe after all that rationalization, they are right. Because if it were so easy and straightforward, if it were so ethical, I would already know if my kids had my BRCA mutation. And I wouldn’t have an unused DNA kit taunting me from a drawer in my office.
The author of The Real Lolita on doppelgangers, the responsibilities of true crime reporting and fictionalizing people’s pain.
When Sarah Weinman first pitched a story to Hazlitt about Sally Horner, the real life kidnapping case that Vladimir gave a brief shoutout to in his 1955 masterpiece Lolita, she had a placeholder title in mind. "It was March 2014, and I was like, ‘So I have this piece, I think you can call it something akin to the real Lolita,’” she tells me. We’re sitting in the lobby of the Drake Hotel where she is staying in the middle of an extensive book tour; she just came from our shared hometown of Ottawa, where we compared notes on the effects a recent tornado had had on our family’s homes, and is on her way to Texas that afternoon. “So I had that title clearly from the get go. It took me a while to accept that that would be both the title of the piece and the book title.” “The Real Lolita,” was published on this website in November of 2014, where it has consistently remained one of Hazlitt’s top viewed stories. If you’re one of the few who has yet to read it, Sally was abducted in 1948 at the age of eleven by fifty-year-old Frank LaSalle and was kept in his captivity for two years, in a story that filled headlines. Though Nabokov and his wife Véra, would vehemently deny that Sally’s story had any real influence on Lolita, his own notes show that was patently aware of what had happened to her while writing his novel, and there are more than a few parallels between Sally’s fate and that of Dolores Haze. Weinman has spent the past four years meticulously conducting more research, including interviews with Sally’s surviving family members and deep dives into Nabokov’s papers, and has expanded this work into The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World (Knopf Canada). It’s as much a history of Sally Horner as it is a history of the writing and publishing of Lolita, and the widespread reactions to both stories. Though Weinman spins together a true crime narrative with literary theory, she writes with an acute sensitivity about her subject matter, never forgetting the real people at the center of the story. Anna Fitzpatrick: Can you tell me about your relationship to Lolita growing up? Sarah Weinman: I read it when I was sixteen, which in hindsight was perhaps not the greatest decision. I thought I was ready to handle it, the way that precocious sixteen year olds are. I was a sixteen-year-old who was getting ready to be a senior in high school. At that time you still had grade thirteen in Ontario, so I fast tracked. Senior class, we'd been studying all this CanLit. Margaret Laurence, Alice Munro. We did a Margaret Atwood story that somebody else picked, for whatever reason, I think sort of similarly to how I was attracted to Lolita. Some other student was like, "Let's do Atwood's story ‘Rape Fantasies.’" And afterward we were all just like, "What did we just read?" There was a module where we were also looking at more contemporary Dissident writers. I think we had just had come off of reading One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and somehow that led me to thinking about Nabokov. "Oh, Lolita is controversial, I must figure this out and see what this is about." I start to read it, and it was really the first time I grocked this idea of an unreliable narrator. Humbert Humbert was essentially trying to sell us the reader's story about what happened and his own responsibility or lack thereof. And something didn't quite mesh. There was clearly something else going on underneath. It wasn't just about illicit desire. It was also about manipulation and just outright trying to say something that is at complete odds with what is actually happening. Here it is, he's trying to present this tortured love story, but really it's about the repeated rape and abuse of a child. I didn't get all the nuances there. You can't at sixteen. I just remember feeling kind of thrilled and disturbed that you can do that with literature. There were these greater ambitions that could be had with books. I think Lolita helped me open my eyes up as a reader at that particular point. I always feel books come along when you need them, and that one did at that particular point. And then I immediately went into a Philip Roth binge [laughs]. I read it at seventeen, and I remember so much of the experience was just decoding his language. So much went over my head too. I totally missed the anagrams [the character Vivian Darkbloom was an anagram of Vladamir Nabokov]. And not just being an anagram, but also female. He loved doppelgangers and doubles. And there's all this Edgar Allan Poe motif. All these different ties to crime and criminality. For whatever reason, whenever I reread it now I go back to the preface. I always think, "What was John Ray Jr. doing there? Also, who is Clarence Clark, and why did he represent Humbert?" There are all these little pieces that because Nabokov's language is so amazing and really demands your attention, it's really easy to read Lolita as a potboiler. It can be read that way! It has that pacing and it has that narrative drive with the cross country second half stuff. But there's so much else going on that you almost do need to take steps back, look up a dictionary, which is of course Nabokov's own preferred way of reading literature. There is just so much going on that it's really easy to miss things. To tie it back to the whole Sally Horner story, it's directly referenced in the text, and at every event that I do I ask people who read Lolita, did they notice it? At the time I wrote the book, the answer has been an unequivocal no. Since it's been in production and ready to go, I think I've now talked to two people who've encountered this pair of doubling. After Lolita was published, Véra Nabokov writes in her diary that she's distressed with the way it was being interpreted. Your book was reviewed in the New York Times, and whoever was running their social media tweeted the review saying some version of, "We read Lolita differently now than when it was first published," which got some blowback.But the Times piece quoted some reviews from when Lolita was first published showing how some people really did interpret it. It's funny, because for this interview, I was looking at I think the Wisconsin Journal in 1967, it had a special issue entirely devoted to Nabokov. They had an index in the back of every review published up until that date of Lolita in English, and every essay that was published in English. I'm going through this list and seeing the headlines and even that is such a telling example of how wild, how big the spectrum is that people read. Some people saw it as a tragedy, some people saw it as a love story, some people saw it as an erotic drama, some people saw it as a comedy. That's why, in my book, aside from wanting to retell Sally Horner's story, I thought it was really important to trace Lolita's publication path, and how complicated and rocky it was. But also this weird cultural afterlife that it had, where it's out in the world, it's a big bestseller, people have opinions whether they read it or not, eventually there'd be a movie that Stanley Kubrick directs, and even though Nabokov is credited on the script it's pretty clear Kubrick rewrote most of it. I read the first draft of Nabokov's script in his archives at the New York Public Library. It's 410 pages long. You could not film it. There's so many different ways in which this novel was misinterpreted, and yet because I'm always sort of playing, "On the one hand on the other hand," I don't necessarily think there needs to be one interpretation of Lolita. It's a story that couches repeated sexual abuse. I do take Nabokov's word and Véra's word that Dolores Haze is the true heroine. We only get to hear from her through Humbert's very skewed, very diseased perspective, but what emerges is someone with incredible resilience. She manages after her ordeal to escape him. She goes off with Quilty because he seems the best option that she had. When he turns out to be just as bad if not worse, she gets away. In that brief period she's married to Dick Schiller, she tries to build something of a happy life. In that regard too, it's interesting how that mirrors what happened to Sally Horner, where after she came back she only had another two years to live. [Horner died in a car accident in 1952, at the age of 15.] Poor Sally. Poor Sally! She already felt very tangible to me when I was working on the piece for Hazlitt, but then when I met with her niece and she gave me this trove of photos, some of which are reprinted in the book and some of which I was putting on Instagram as extra material, just to see what she looked like, in her formal garb going to junior prom with a boy, or one of my favourites, where she's wearing dungarees and a shirt and is wearing lipstick, which may be red but might be black, you don't know because the photo is in black and white, she's holding a newspaper with comics on it, she's coming out of a room and she's sort of startled. It's such a fourteen-year-old kid look. And just a year later, she already looks so grown up at fifteen, and had such little time left. Diana [Horner's niece] made that comment about, learning only decades later that Sally was mentioned in Lolita, the shock of realizing, "Oh, people are writing about my family." What is the responsibility, on both tracks, with artists inspired by real life and with true crime reporters? I think there's a tremendous responsibility that we all have. I never want to forget that even though my book is out in the world, and people are going to react the way they're going to react and it's sort of its own separate thing, and the Sally Horner that I wrote about is not necessarily the Sally Horner who lived because I can't recreate her one hundred percent. I don't know what she sounded like. Even as a nonfiction writer, I had to resort to speculation. It's something that goes against my nature, because I really try hard to be rooted in facts whenever possible, but there is one chapter, the Baltimore chapter, where I just didn't have enough facts to turn it into a really thorough narrative. It was at the prodding at my editors. They were like, "You have to establish your authority, not just in terms of what you know, but also in terms of what you don't know." That's why, I figured out if I clued the reader in on what I didn't know, but also make very specific and very informed guesses as to what I thought might happen, then I could at least get close to what I thought the truth was. Earlier this month I did an event in Philadelphia, which is just across the river from Camden, New Jersey. Sally did spend some time there , but Frank La Salle spent a lot of time in Philadelphia. He had an address there, he worked in a garage there, he just would keep coming back. I did my event, and Diana actually attended, as did other family members. I knew she was coming, but she was a very introverted person and didn't really want attention drawn to her, so I was trying to be really mindful of her privacy. But afterword she came up, and I asked her, "Was this tough for you?" She said, "Yeah, you might have heard a few sniffles in the back." It was just...[pauses]. Having her in the audience was just, wonderful, but it was also a reminder that there were real people involved. To represent people's pain, or fictionalize people's pain, you really have to set the bar so high. I feel like Lolita does clear that bar. What it should do is, I'm not asking people to castigate Nabokov for writing Lolita. He had his reasons. Some of them were rooted in a personal compulsion. Some of them were rooted in, what is the biggest literary game that I can play, what is the most audacious, imaginative thing I can do as an author? But when other people attempt to do something similar and they don't quite meet the mark, I think it does show. It's sort of like an uncanny valley where the border between reality and fiction collapses, and it doesn't always work. I noticed, in reading the aftermath section of the book, at least two key people you interviewed during your research passed away in the course of writing it. It's a reminder of how, especially before everything was so heavily documented, there's a real window in which these stories can be deeply researched. That's part of the attraction for why I seek out these stories. I want to get there before things disappear, before researchers lose touch with tangible memories. And yet, even with more contemporary things, the way stories disappear when they're digital only, we have to hold on to whatever we can. I think that's why I'm so into researching in archives when I can hold and feel papers and letters and documents and the like. But I also love doing late night digital newspaper searches, or ancestry.com, or looking at Reddit and Websleuths and Wikipedia, and seeing what rabbit holes they lead me down. Nabokov was so reticent to claim Sally Horner as an inspiration for his book. Why do think that was? I think people would have asked too many questions along the same lines. "What are you doing trying to fictionalize some girl's real pain?" And yet, even [writer for Nugget Magazine, which first publicly made the connection between Horner and Lolita in 1963] Peter Welding didn't go as far in making certain connections as [Nabokov scholar] Alexander Dolinin did in the Times Literary Supplement, which is what got me going in the first place. In that piece that he wrote, he didn't even mention that Sally died. It made me wonder, did he know? Did he not want to know? Was he not interested? Was it just about doing a simple binary connection between Sally's kidnapping and rescue and Lolita? It is interesting that this New York Post reporter picked it up and wrote the Nabokovs when they were in Montreux, and Véra of course wrote back on both behalves. That letter really is a marvel. I remember when I first read it, I thought, "Wow, this is some real audacity. On one hand you're denying it, but on the other hand you flatly say, 'Yes, [Sally] is in Lolita.'" So if it's in Lolita... put it this way, there aren't that many crimes that are explicitly referenced in Lolita. There's Sally Horner's kidnapping, and there's the George Edward Grammer case, which misspells the last name of because he thinks "grammar" the noun is much funnier. Why make a point of not only referencing those cases but subsequently, so little survives of the originating manuscript and notes for Lolita- Because he burned them all. Yes. He would write, Véra would type, they'd go away. But there are these ninety-four notecards [of Nabokov's] in the Library of Congress, and one of them is about Sally Horner's death and the other is about George Edward Grammer about to go to trial. I just feel like, even if it wasn't a conscious effort to preserve them, there's still that unconscious effort of why hang onto them if you could get rid of them at any point. One thing that I learned from the book is, I didn't realize so many of Nabokov's early works explored that relationship with an underage girl. There's speculation that there was an incident in his own childhood— I mean, there was an incident in his own childhood. The reason why I delayed talking about it until the very end, is because as much as there was an incident in his own childhood involving his uncle, who probably fondled him in some degree of molestation, I think Nabokov himself had a complicated relationship to that. He would not be someone who was like, "I was traumatized." That would just be anathema to his own thinking, especially when that uncle died young, left him his fortune, and then that fortune had to be abandoned when the Nabokov family fled Russia during the revolution for Europe. So I'm sure there was a whole host of complicated feelings coming about. I thought, it wouldn't be fair to him to trumpet this idea of, "This is the reason!" It was much more interesting to me to document in the text that he wrote, here are the incidents in which this particular compulsion repeats itself. In the "Lilith" poem, and certainly that paragraph in The Gift, and a little bit in Laughter in the Dark and definitely in the novella Volshebnik or The Enchanter, where he's really trying to figure out if he can make this idea work in a fictional form. Of course, it wasn't published in his lifetime, it was published in the 1980s when Dmitri, his son, decided that this should actually go ahead. I also wanted to include all that to show that Lolita didn't spring wholesale out of nowhere. That works of genius require effort and work, and sometimes you have to keep at a theme forever and ever and ever. I know in my own work I seem to have themes that I also explore and probably will explore for the rest of my professional career. I'm a crime writer, doesn't mean I've committed crimes. People write about serial killers, it doesn't mean that they are serial killers. That we know of. True. But I think exploring the worst that people can do is also a way of trying to understand, or possibly empathize, or certainly come to grips with. It's sort of like why so many people are attracted to true crime narratives as catharsis or as dealing with fear. The excerpts you have from his earlier works, the way he approached the subject matter was unrecognizable. Even the prose level just wasn't at the level. Part of it was, some of what I'm quoting is translated from Russian. The Enchanter may work better in the original Russian, which I regrettably do not speak or read. But I also trust that Dmitri would have translated as faithfully as possible as to what his father wanted, because he was one of the few translators that he actually trusted. It was very much like, let's not go outside the family. A personal frustration I have with Nabokov, is I am trying to learn how to speak and read Russian right now. So much studying, and I can say, "Hi, my name is Anna!" And then I see what he's able to do with his second language... Which in a way wasn't really his second language. It's also clear that he was learning all these languages at the same time. And so that also informed the way he spoke, it also informed the way he wrote, and also the way he interacted with interviewers. Just this idea that he wanted to create the appearance of spontaneity but everything was super scripted. It's because he didn't trust his English or his thinking on his feet in a spontaneous fashion. I think it was also, he didn't want to lose control. That is also why knowing about Sally Horner for him likely would have detracted, because that's not something he could control. But the creation of Lolita, the writing of it, the inception of it, the treatment, that he could control. I had known about the film adaptations growing up, and the casting decision to have Lolita played as an older teenaged seductress, and I didn't realize that Nabokov had signed off on those adaptations. But what really surprised me was that he signed off on a musical they made. I think in that instance, it was more trusting that these were the best in their field. He himself couldn't really abide music. I think he had some pathological allergy, which is ironic because Dmitri became a pretty well known opera singer. He sang bass. It wouldn't surprise me if Véra was musical. But he himself was not. It was like noise to him. It just didn't work in his brain. Whatever melody was, it was in language and not music. I'm sure when Alan Jay Lerner came calling to say, "I wanna adapt it into a musical," he was like, "Well, I've heard of My Fair Lady, I've heard of Camelot, I've heard of Brigadoon, sure I'll sign off." He wasn't above wanting to make money. Lolita was a bestseller! It enabled him and Véra to leave America and live in Montreux Palace.> It was a quick bestseller, but a long journey to getting published. That's the thing. There are all these years of wilderness where he despaired that it would ever see the light of day, he went off and wrote Pnin, he was working on the interminable translation of Yevgeniy Onegin which would get into such trouble critically and especially with his future frenemy Edmund Wilson. So the musical, which I wrote about, because I just could not get through this idea of, "Why did these people think this would work?" The irony is that John Barry's score, there are aspects of it I quite like. I think it's ultimately a good score. I just don't see how it can ever be revived. The reason being... reading Lolita, you have your own idea as to what is happening. You either trust Humbert Humbert's narrative, or you don't. You get seduced by it, or you're repelled by it, but you make that decision as a reader. Once you have a visual or theatrical representation, now you're seeing Humbert. You're hearing him. It doesn't match your conception. You're seeing Lolita, it doesn't match how you envisioned her. Suddenly you see the edifice and the artifice all the way. The horror just rises up as a result. Which is why I think the best adaptation of Lolita is the audiobook that Jeremy Irons read. Because he's reading Nabokov's language.
On seasons of grief and change, in Montreal and everywhere else.
PLATEAUS When I heard that Leonard Cohen had died, the first person I thought of was my mom. There were a few tapes you could reliably find in her car when I was little: Rain Dogs by Tom Waits, The Very Best of Nina Simone, Highway 61 by Bob Dylan, and Songs of Leonard Cohen. She’d speak-sing tunes, tapping on the steering wheel, I’d sigh audibly, and she’d claim I’d love them too one day. It’s rarely easy to like something you’ve been ordained to enjoy, especially if the order comes from your mother as she’s giving you knowing looks at each cultural reference throughout all 11 minutes and 21 seconds of “Desolation Row” or struggling to hit the low notes of Cohen’s baritone. Twenty years later, Dylan’s supposedly inarguable greatness continues to irk me and Cohen’s womanizing and use of synths remain unfortunate, but she was otherwise mostly right. No matter how cheesy and hoplessly sincere Cohen could be, I inherited some of her love for him. She passed on other things to me, too: a shameful sense of humour, nail biting, disproportionately small feet and an ardent love for Montreal and what’s now the Portuguese Plateau—her favourite neighbourhood, and the place where Cohen also once lived. Long before the Plateau as I know it (cafés on every corner, clothing shops and a club district I either avoid or enjoy gawking at on Friday nights) got its name, the area was defined by St-Laurent Boulevard, its east and west divider, which everyone called the Main. I moved here in my early twenties, like she did, and have lived here for the better part of a decade. I remember being in awe of these streets as a kid, amazed by punk teens, bookstores and fruit stalls on Mont-Royal Avenue’s sidewalks, my eyes used to forest and open sky. When I was little, growing up in the Eastern Townships southeast of Montreal, we’d come into the city every month to visit my Jewish grandparents on Pine Avenue, a downtown area they returned to once their four kids had left home. Crossing the Champlain Bridge, we’d drive over the freighter-dotted St. Lawrence, the river from “Suzanne,” Cohen’s song about his “half-crazy” manic pixie dream girl par excellence. Listening to Cohen on our way back to the country, passing cornfields in the dark, his low voice, my mom’s humming and the car’s soft vibration were a lullaby. Long before Cohen’s schmaltz became a selling point, before I would get defensive about others’ criticisms of him as if he were a family member only I was allowed to mock, this was how I first grew to appreciate him: the voice of this Jewish Montrealer sounded like going home, songs I didn’t understand rocking me to sleep before my parents carried me inside to bed. Home was a house built by my father, a six-foot-five Franco Québécois man, in Frelighsburg, an hour and a half from Montreal. My room looked out onto the woods full of trees we climbed, one of which held our treehouse amid its thick branches. I could see the arch covered in vines where I married my husband Aaron in 2015 and the lawn where my father rolled out sleeping bags for us to look up at the stars, tracing Cassiopeia’s W in the air with a giant finger. Behind the woods was an orchard I used to bike through to get to my best friend Catherine’s house. Back then, her family owned a half-dilapidated defunct schoolhouse packed with old desks, globes, worn out toys and musty couches. There was nobody in sight and our imaginations ran wild—we ruled like queens, our kingdom the woods all around us our fathers had mapped for decades. It was the kind of childhood magic that, now, can make nostalgia grow thick and constrictive as a noose. In the days following Cohen’s death, flowers piled up on his old doorstep—two blocks from my place, off a small leafy square tiled with Portuguese ceramic azulejos, bordered by Marie-Anne Street on its northern edge. Someone had added “So long” and “and Leonard” to the Marie-Anne street sign, quoting one of his famous ballads. The noose of nostalgia tightened hard then, but what I yearned for was hard to pinpoint—the memories triggered weren’t mine alone. This was the area Mordecai Richler mapped out in Saint Urbain’s Horseman, where poor Jews were pushcart peddlers. It was where my zaida grew up in the 1920s and 1930s and couldn’t wait to get away from; moving his family just east of the Decarie Expressway in the late 1940s and then suburban Ville Saint-Laurent in the ’50s—then still a separate municipality before merging with Montreal in 2001—was a sign of prosperity. Each kilometer he put between himself and the Main’s deli windows lined with hanging karnatzel (dried sausage) was a sign of success. It’s the neighbourhood that my mom, to her parents’ dismay, moved back to in the late 1960s as new Portuguese immigrants were opening roast chicken joints next to schmata shops and Schwartz’s smoked meat. It’s the hood that provokes my mom’s easily mockable habit to, when she’s in town, suddenly point at a building and say, “Heyyyy, I used to live here!” before nodding knowingly and mumbling the street name of a former residence, half lost in memory—“Mhmm... St-Cuthbert.” For her parents, moving out of the neighbourhood meant getting away from their Depression-era childhoods, moving past what once seemed like inescapable fate. My mom remembers Ville Saint-Laurent as countryside, surrounded by fields with maple trees behind their house, not unlike the one I used to swing from in my own backyard in the Eastern Townships. I wandered around my neighbourhood that November, day-dreaming about a break in the time-space continuum where my mom and I cross paths on St-Laurent, the two of us the same age with the same wavy brown hair. I’d recognize her and she’d be confused about why a young woman with oddly high-waisted jeans was staring at her so excitedly. I often look down at the pavement and think of that Jewish girl growing up in Montreal in the ’60s, swooning over Cohen’s monotone voice, walking these streets. She lived here just one generation after her father was rejected from McGill for being Jewish, she and her peers distancing themselves from religion. Still, it must have felt like a big deal for a young Jewish boy’s speak-singing voice to be heard on the radio as memories of the Second World War had just started to loosen their grip. Even just a bit farther back, the area was a hub for poor Eastern European Jews where my zaida ran along the Main in his pageboy cap, the first Stall born outside of Poland. His school, Baron Byng, would have been just a couple blocks west of my apartment—a Jewish institution that has A.M. Klein, Irving Layton and Mordecai Richler on its alumni list. The neighbourhood is now home to Fletcher’s Café, which, since opening in 2016, has doubled as The Museum of Jewish Montreal. Zev Moses, a former city planning student and the space’s director, said he wanted the museum to function as a living entity—an ever-growing intangible constellation of stories. In addition to hosting Yiddish reading nights and the historical and cultural tours they run in the Mile End, Plateau and Côtes-des-Neiges neighbourhoods, the museum’s website features an oral history section full of recorded accounts from local Jews. On December 1, my mom’s sixty-sixth birthday, a good forty years after she left, I thought she could contribute her own story. I made gravlax that we ate with cream cheese on St-Viateur bagels, then recorded her as she told me about the neighbourhood that was the setting of some of her first memories. She remembers eating thick slices of chocolate cake at her baba Mary’s house up on Hutchinson Street. Both her parents’ families lived in the area, all Polish Jews who spoke Yiddish, not much English and certainly no French. As my mom and her siblings grew up, they moved back to the Main one by one. What my grandparents had worked hard to achieve was, to their children, suburbia. She’d go on to live in apartments all over the neighbourhood, namely one right on St-Laurent in a diagonal from Warshaw’s—Jewish K-mart, as she called it. Warshaw’s sold produce, meat and cheese, but also carpets, cheap clothes, whatever the owner could find. (Their motto: “Warshaws has it all, from croutons to futons.”) Across the street from her two-story apartment, where rent was $250 a month for a four-bedroom shared by six people, the neon sign out front of Dave’s fish market flashed into my mom’s window. This was before the language laws came into effect in 1977, when a David could go ahead and put that English apostrophe in neon and the neighbourhood was sorting out its new shifting identity. If you walked a block east of St-Laurent, you hit St-Dominique—the Main’s bowels, as my mom liked to call it. In the back alleys, she could smell barrels of cucumbers becoming pickles and the carcasses of rotisserie chicken from the first Portuguese restaurants. She also sometimes heard sheep being slaughtered illegally. Her group of friends mocked the first boutique that opened, an omen of things to come. I can easily picture her sitting next to the neon-flooded window with a joint and blowing smoke into the street, a strip that now gets overrun with bros and stumbling high-heeled women on Saturday nights. In 1976, she left Montreal for the Eastern Townships to get away from the city, which is where she met my father. She never moved back, the Main inevitably changed without her: crumbling walk-ups were renovated into sleeker apartments, hip hangouts started popping up and rents tripled. The neighbourhood she described that day as winter was coming on, that was her Montreal—not the suburbs of her childhood that the city would eventually encroach on, but the ever-changing place her father thought he was escaping (though he moved back, just a few blocks up the hill in his retirement). It’s the place she chose and that still makes her pause in reverie at red lights. My grandparents thought her moving here was a rebellion, but she was just looking for a life without sidewalk-less streets and huge supermarkets where everything is wrapped in plastic. She shopped at Waldman’s for fish and Old Europe for cheese; still two of my go-tos, though Old Europe became Vielle Europe somewhere down the line and Waldman’s is now run by a South Asian family though their sign hasn’t changed. When I moved to the area, unlike her parents, my mom wasn’t horrified—it was a homecoming tradition. Sometimes I see my childhood on the Main too, as I’m waiting at a red light, and I feel the tug of the noose. I remember being ten years old and running around the Boulevard with my cousins after the unveiling of my zaida’s tombstone a year after his death, as per Jewish tradition. Our own tradition: we went to Schwartz’s for smoked meat sandwiches ordered fatty, with a pickle on the side and a cherry soda: salt, fat, sugar and sun tinged with my first taste of grief. The neighbourhood’s last hundred years of cyclical gentrification lie on top of each other like stratified rock, like concrete poured over and over for decades. This fact was recently brought to my attention during dinner at Chez Doval, a Portuguese rotisserie down the street from my apartment that opened while my mom still lived here. The restaurant set up shop as the neighbourhood’s demographic shifted when Portuguese immigrants fled Salazar’s authoritarianism to Canada, braved our winters and tiled park walls white and blue. At that time, my grandparents had only their youngest son, John, still living in their suburban house. My mom was enjoying the Plateau’s morphing, interstitial state, while starting to feel the pull towards the countryside’s forests and open skies. As I ate charred chicken and sardines, the establishment’s guitar player, dressed like an aging cowboy, moved smoothly from mournful fado to a cover of “Despasito” to “Hava Nagila.” Nowadays, there are plaques built into the sidewalks to mark the age of historical buildings. I pass by the little bronze rectangles, frozen in stone when walking the five minutes to Hof Kelsten for shakshuka or to Fletcher’s for a Moroccan-style bagel and schmear—spots that are building a New Wave Jewish Montreal. I’ve always found comfort in feeling my roots on these streets, and I like seeing my family’s heritage revived in its Canadian point of origin. But after living in my mom’s old stomping grounds for nearly a decade, the fact that I could map these streets blindfolded stopped being enough. Familiarity didn’t exactly breed contempt, but it lost its comfort. It seemed time to enact the other part of the family tradition: leaving. SILENCES Sometimes change is slow, like gradually outgrowing a neighbourhood. Sometimes it’s so swift that the wind gets knocked out of your lungs, and you suddenly find yourself in the “after.” Five and a half months after Cohen’s death, my father died of cancer. It was just under a year and a half after a diagnosis he was delusionally optimistic about. I’d adopted his attitude whole-heartedly, because the alternative—that my giant woodsman of a father, who had a six-pack in his sixties, could die—was impossible. He fittingly figured out something was wrong when he was chopping wood and hit himself with the butt of his ax in the area of his liver, the pain lasting longer than it should have. It was the site of a tumour the size of a fist. I was in Vancouver in mid-April of 2017 with Aaron to get away from the last year of disappointing diagnoses, about to head down to San Francisco for a friend’s thirtieth birthday, when my mom called. My dad’s state was worsening quickly. I could have seen it coming earlier: in his thinned face, in my increasingly frequent dreams about his death, in the call he made a few days before I left to tell me how happy he was that I was traveling and that he loved me. But we both clung to his denial like a life raft. We were good at silence together: it was a practice we’d cultivated since my mom had moved out of the house nearly twenty years earlier. As the youngest of three, I spent a lot of time alone with my parents, getting to know them after my brothers had gone off to school. I lived half of the time with my dad, both of us going through separate trials in each other’s orbit (loneliness for him, awkward hormones for me). A comfortable silence developed between us; though that layer could be broken by jokes or frustrations or conversations about mountain ranges, my dad’s atlas at the ready. We learned to read each other’s habits and body language. Though I often disliked the silence, it could also be meditative, nearly monastic—a contrast to my mom’s house, where we talked about everything and either raged or laughed until tears streamed down our faces. My grandmother used to say that she forgot about my father when he was a baby because he never cried. I was unsurprised when he, a man who’d been a Catholic altar boy in the 1960s, told me he’d considered becoming a priest. Following my parents’ divorce, he got into making stained glass. I could often follow the sound of his glass grinder to his basement workshop, dark as a monk cell, where he cut, smoothed, taped and soldered together hundreds of delicate pieces of brightly coloured glass that looked tiny in his huge hands. He created beautiful secular patterns full of flowers, trees and birds. After my mom’s call, my dad and I skyped, and I saw how sunken his face had become, how laboured his breath was. He told me he didn’t want me to cut my trip short. I spoke to one of my brothers and changed my tickets. When I finally got back to the house he built, a week ahead of schedule, he was asleep in a hospital bed, the wooshing sound of an oxygen machine constant around him. When we turned him slowly so he could change positions, I finally saw his emaciated legs, how much of him was already gone. I made him fricassee, a comforting and soft dish of ground beef and vegetables from his single-dad-dinner days. He said that I was strong like him, and that he’d never said je t’aime enough. I’d always heard those words so loudly in our silences, in the stained glass he made me for my birthday, in how hard he laughed at my jokes, in how excited he was when I got anything published, how he still introduced me to people as mon bébé even though I was in my late twenties. When I was in the throes of a typical post-undergad existential crisis, freaking out about not becoming something, he soothed me by telling me I’d already become everything he’d hoped for as we cross-country skiied through the quiet woods. I kissed his forehead, held his hand, said je t’aime aussi. We got one last night of silence in our house. I stayed awake as his girlfriend of ten years tried to sleep in the basement and Aaron slept in my childhood bedroom. I had a book on my lap that I couldn’t bring myself to open, instead just listened to him breathing, the oxygen machine’s wooshing, as rain fell on the metal roof outside his room. The next day, he was worsening fast, talking about cherry trees that didn’t exist down by a sidewalk that wasn’t there—our dirt road had always been flanked by deep ditches. It was clear that we couldn’t take care of him anymore. As a nurse sat at our dining room table explaining that an ambulance would come to get him, I mistook the sound of the oxygen machine for his footsteps down the hall. Paramedics had to strap him to a chair so they could move him. I didn’t think I could stand seeing him leave, so I asked Aaron to drive to the hospice ahead of the ambulance. Half way down our street, I made him stop and turn back, deciding it would be worse for nobody to witness his departure. We sat in the parked van and cried as two gentle ambulance workers carried my father out of his house for the last time, his body long and straight, a skeletal king in a metal throne. On April 22, I left the hospice knowing it was goodbye, I whispered je t’aime in his ear and told him I’d see him in my dreams. When his nurse called after midnight to tell me he was gone, it felt as if my whole life had sat itself down on my chest. Just like that, we were in the after. When my brothers and I got to his room early in the morning, the nurses had covered my dad’s body with the blanket I’d crocheted him for Christmas, put a daffodil in his hands. When the others cleared out of the room, I sat on the couch next to the bed and told him I was mad at him for letting me believe him. I asked my brothers to keep the blanket for me and left. Back at the house, there was the deepest silence I’ve ever heard. Over the next few months, I became obsessed with gathering my dad’s things I knew he’d touched, spending hours drapped in his blanket. There was a period when I hoped the house would be a shared weekend home for my brothers and I, in honour of our father who’d spent his life building it. I sunk my claws into objects in an effort to process, as if it would help the words “he’s dead” feel real, or would keep my body from jumping with a start during that cloudy stage between waking and sleep. It eventually became clear, though, that my brothers had no desire to have the house and that I couldn’t do it alone. I thought up unfeasible schemes of keeping a part of the land and building a yurt in the woods, before realizing it wasn’t something I actually wanted—my claws were just in too deep. The house had become another thing that felt like it was being ripped away without warning. Until my brothers and I put it up for sale, it had always been a wordless way of explaining “this is me,” all I needed to do was point. With my father gone though, the silence between those walls was maddening. This was our kingdom, the only place we reigned supreme, and now I was leaving it behind. GHOSTS Aaron and I are looking to buy our own apartment a few neighbourhoods north, partially thanks to the money from selling my childhood home. Though the fact that taxes soar for property owners in the Plateau, it’s not the only reason to leave. I’d like to choose a definitive change—I think I could use some fresh concrete. Even amidst Jewish renewal, our neighbourhood has been changing again too. In 2015, after over ninety years of being on the Main, the gravestone merchant L. Berson & Fils packed up its slabs and moved west to Hampstead where many of their clients live. They famously survived the language laws and won a fight to keep Hebrew on their sign (though they were originally L. Berson & Sons), but gentrification, two years of street construction and the borough’s new parking regulation eventually won for real. In part, the neighbourhood is changing because of evolving demographics of Jewish Montrealers moving here, with North African and Middle Eastern immigrants settling in more affordable neighbourhoods. When I step out of Vielle Europe with my cheese haul, there are sometimes tour groups learning about the old Warshaw’s building that’s now a pharmacy, in an open-air museum, as the reality of contemporary Montreal Judaism happens in farther-flung areas outside of this historical frame packed with stories. A couple springs back, I spoke to Sigal Samuel, the Washington, D.C.–based author of The Mystics of Mile End, a book about Montreal’s changing Jewish landscape. She’s a former Montrealer herself, of Moroccan and Indian Jewish descent, and she told me about how her predominantly Ashkenazi Anglophone neighbourhood of Côte-St-Luc became increasingly Sephardic and Francophone during her high school years. Throughout our conversation, a word she used over and over stuck with me: “we.” After more than seven years of living in D.C. and New York, she still considered herself a Montrealer. This is a city artists love to leave, without being able to shake completely. Cohen, who lived in L.A. for decades, put it best: “Some say that no one ever leaves Montreal, for that city, like Canada itself, is designed to preserve the past, a past that happened somewhere else.” There’s a subgenre of stories about leaving New York after being chewed up and spit out, but for Montreal Anglophones, it’s different. They leave to seek their fortune, but the city sticks to their imagination, like Frelighsburg’s woods and open sky sticks to mine. It soothes me that Samuel still thought of herself as part of our “we.” Maybe you can’t ever fully leave a place if some of it is only there because you were, too. My mother’s voice lives out there on the Internet in the neighbourhood’s ether; there are sizeable scratches on my apartment’s hardwood floors; there’s a faint scar on my left knee from falling off my bike in the orchard after playing with Catherine; part of my father’s house was built to make room for me, son bébé. In January, we left that house for good. We emptied out the last boxes and packed up a van full of furniture that barely fits in my current life. I said goodbye to the house before turning off the light and looked up at the bright winter stars through tears: Cassiopeia was putting on a show. A week later, I went to Montreal’s contemporary art museum to see the Leonard Cohen exhibit A Crack in Everything, in which forty artists used him as inspiration to create homage pieces. My favourite was a montage of video interviews filmed over decades, where you can see how little Cohen’s face changed and hear how deep his voice dropped. It includes an interview with him in Parc du Portugal, where his memorial piled up, a few minutes from my door. The French-speaking interviewer asked him why he chose to move to the Portuguese neighbourhood, oblivious to the Main’s Jewish roots. If she’d turned around, she could have seen the distinctly Semitic name Schreter’s scrawled across windows, or gone down the block to Schwartz’s to order smoked meat, kosher pickles and cherry soda. The exhibit made me wish I could build a museum for my father, too; he’d built his own and we’d sold it. Now, I’m trying to redefine what it means for things to be in pieces. I sit on a huge maple-wood chair that originally belonged to my paternal grandparents and drink coffee from my father’s mug. His atlas lives on the shelf under my livingroom table, his stained glass turns sunlight technicolor in the Eastern Townships, his cactus grows in a kitchen a few kilometers north of me, his mushroom-picking basket lives in a yurt in Vermont, his tiny bone-handled knife is tucked away in San Francisco and a dainty tea cup made it all the way to London. His museum spans thousands of kilometers. I’ve grown to hate the term “ghosting,” not because people being shitty by unexpectedly cutting off contact doesn’t deserve a description, but because it’s disrespectful to ghosts. I’m not talking about translucent spectres that go bump in the night: my ghosts live in the dining room chair at the head of the table where he sat, the pages where his thick fingers traced rivers and fault lines, the skin around my shoulders where he hugged me. Now, when I see my father in my dreams, I don’t turn away, there’s no pretending—we talk with the urgency of people aware of time. We often find each other at our house—sometimes the rooms are half empty with leaving, sometimes we’re in the yard with the sun shining, but I always hug him and feel his arms around my shoulders. Instead of those moments being ripped away, they dissolve as I open my eyes. With “You Want It Darker,” the title track on his final album, Cohen wrote an apt goodbye. He speak-sings about killing the flame, backed by a Jewish choir and a rabbi from an Outremont synagogue chanting “hineni, hineni,” Hebrew for “here I am.” He follows it with, “I’m ready, my lord,” his voice so low only underground animals should be able to hear him. Now, after so many farewells, hineni, here I am, ready to leave and build a different silence between my own walls. I haven’t been back to our house yet, but I know that on a sunny day in the near future, I’ll drive up the dirt road, through a tunnel of maple trees and pull into the driveway. Maybe I’ll find the courage to knock on the door and see how much the new owners have changed it. Maybe I’ll see bright light filtering through my father’s stained glass, the one he built into the wall, permanently. Though I don’t really want kids, there’s still a part of me that daydreams about one day having a daughter and that, through some twist of fate, she’ll move to the Main in her early twenties and wonder if my feet touched her sidewalks. I hope the City of Montreal hasn’t removed the words “So long” and “Leonard” from the Marie-Anne street sign on the corner of the Portuguese-tiled park. After taking said hypothetical child for an obligatory sandwich at Schwartz’s or Fletcher’s or whatever futuristic Jewish food joint we’ll be eating at then, I’ll stand at that park’s corner, pointing, the noose of nostalgia so tight around my throat that all I’ll be able to choke out to my mocking daughter will be, “I used to live here.”
Talking to poets abroad about their complicated, sometimes fractured relationships with their homeland.
In 2015, Palestinian author Mona Abu Sharekh guided me through the clean side streets of Shati refugee camp in Gaza. Eighty-five thousand refugees live in the half-kilometer shantytown, making the camp one of the most crowded places on earth. Some of the alleyways were too narrow for us to walk side by side. We turned one corner and found a bedsheet hanging across one of the lanes, blocking our way. A young girl, her hair a chaos of curls, explained that her family had draped the sheet to make an impromptu extension to their home. She told us firmly and adorably that we could not pass. We wandered instead through the market, past carts of vegetables and herbs and the horrid stink of chickens, before returning to the tangled streets. I would have gotten hopelessly lost in Shati’s maze were it not for Mona. She was born in the camp thirty-five years ago, and though she spent much of her childhood in these streets, she hesitates to call Shati home. Her father’s family comes from Asqalan, a city just a few kilometres up the coast but out of reach for Palestinians since the spring of 1948. “You know this story,” Mona said. “It is boring.” I did know the story. In 1947, the war-weary British declared an end to their quarter-century mandate over the land of Palestine. The newly formed United Nations drew up and voted for a partition plan that divided the territory into separate Jewish and Arab states. Most of the region’s Jews accepted the UN partition. Palestine’s Arabs, who made up two-thirds of the population but were granted less than half of the territory in the plan, rejected it outright. An armed conflict ensued which escalated into all-out war between Jewish forces and a coalition of Arab militaries on May 15, 1948. The war would last fourteen months. By the time the final armistice agreement was signed in July 1949, Jewish forces had seized control of all of the land promised to them by the UN plan, plus half of the land allocated for the Arabs. Seventy-eight percent of the British Mandate territory of Palestine became the State of Israel, while Egypt administered the Gaza Strip and Jordan annexed the West Bank. Over the course of the war, Israel had effectively erased over four hundred Palestinian villages from the map, and 750,000 Palestinian Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes. Of these, more than 200,000 refugees sought sanctuary amongst Gaza’s eighty-thousand residents. Gaza swelled. The tiny sliver of coastal territory represented only one one-hundredth of the area of Mandate Palestine but housed a quarter of the Palestinian population after the war. Gaza had become, according to one historian, an “involuntary Noah’s Ark.” This past spring marked the seventieth year of the Palestinian displacement, what the Palestinians and their supporters call the Nakba, or “catastrophe.” The forty-thousand Gazans who demonstrated near the fence, under the watch and fire of Israeli snipers, were marking this anniversary. Three generations of Palestinian refugees and their descendants—more than five million refugees according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA—remain scattered throughout the world and among UNRWA-administered camps like Shati in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. The vast majority of these refugees have never been to the place where their families come from. Their ancestral homes remain out of reach, if they stand at all. And so second- and third-generation Palestinian refugees possess a fraught and complicated notion of “home.” “My life is here in Shati Camp,” Mona said. “All the streets. All the corners of Gaza. My family are here. All my experiences. The first person I fell in love with was here. I was married here. This is the place that lives inside me.” But for Mona to openly declare Gaza her “home” would be a betrayal of Asqalan and her family’s ancestral home. To do so would be akin to surrender. A forfeiture of her Palestinian right to one day return. This is the refugee’s dilemma: to somehow long for a place your heart does not know, and to demand a return to somewhere you’ve never been. I’d sought out Mona during the research for my last book, Pay No Heed to the Rockets: Palestine in the Present Tense. I’d wanted to seek out stories about life in contemporary Palestine, and could not think of anyone better equipped to tell these stories than the storytellers themselves: Palestinian poets and authors. Many spoke about what the idea of home meant for second-generation refugees seventy years after the Nakba. After touring Shati with Mona, though, I wondered about the descendants of refugees who live far from the villages their grandparents lost—not just across a fence, but across an ocean. I wanted to meet with members of the distant diaspora, those separated from Palestine in both time and geography. So I decided to go to Brooklyn and meet some writers there. * Fatimah was thirteen years old in May 1948 when her father shouted at her to get into the back of a truck driven by a man she didn’t know. She was on an errand from her mother and was returning home from the baker with seven hot loaves of taboun bread balanced on her head. Fatimah handed the tray of loaves to her father and climbed into the truck bed. They drove east, away from Yaffa and the seaside. The loaves were still warm by the time they reached Aboud, a village northeast of Ramallah where her father’s family lived. “Every time she got to this part of the story, she started crying,” said Tala Abu Rahmeh, Fatimah’s granddaughter and a poet living in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighbourhood. “I never knew the rest of the story. My grandmother was a tough person, but she broke when it came to Yaffa. That is the place where it seemed everybody’s heart broke.” Fatimah’s father became mayor of Aboud, and Fatimah married a man who used to sell oranges on the beach in Yaffa before the Nakba. “I am the daughter of the mayor who married the orange seller,” Fatimah used to say, always smiling at the poetry of their union—and leaving out the less-poetic fact that her husband’s family were also successful landowners. They eventually moved to Jordan with their daughter Halima—Tala’s mother—who met and married another Palestinian refugee from Yaffa named Ibrahim. Tala was born in Amman in 1984, and Ibrahim started telling her about Palestine when she was only four years old. “He told me I was from a place called Yaffa. It is by the sea. It has all these beautiful oranges,” Tala said. Ibrahim described the Nakba, too. “He said the Israelis came on a dark night. They came into our homes. They kicked out the Palestinians.” He also told her about the massacre at Deir Yassin, where more than one hundred Palestinians were killed, many children among them. “He told me things you should not tell a four-year-old,” Tala said. “I imagined Israelis as a very dark shadow that took everything in its wake and swallowed it. I didn’t understand death. To me, the Nakba was about disappearance.” Halima was far less angry when she spoke to Tala about Israel. “She said, ‘Israelis don’t know any better,’ which was a very strange thing for a Palestinian to say,” Tala said. Every other Palestinian of Halima’s generation had little trouble vilifying Israel, but she would not. “I think she thought hating the Israelis would destroy her own humanity,” Tala said. “That’s why I always think of my mother as a majestic and angelic human.” Despite her sympathy for Israelis, Halima would not relinquish Yaffa to them. “You must remember that Yaffa is ours,” she had said. “Yaffa is Palestinian. It is just hard for us to live there now.” Tala was ten years old in 1994 when Baruch Goldstein, a far-right Israeli settler, opened fire on Palestinian Muslims praying in the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron. Tala remembers her mother screaming on the phone with her grandfather when she heard about the murders, and her father trying her best to comfort her while Tala and her brother Tareq watched in horror. “I was so confused about why this man would just murder twenty people who were praying,” Tala said. “Later on, my father explained to me that they were killed simply because they were Palestinian, and I remember feeling this seething anger at my father and mother because they made us Palestinian.” For Tala, being Palestinian also meant that the only place she knew as home, Amman, was not her home at all. “I was suddenly faced with the fact that I was from somewhere else. I resented that idea.” When Tala was ten years old, Halima divorced Ibrahim and declared, “We are going to live in Palestine.” Halima believed Tala and Tareq would be better off living with a single mother in Palestine than as the children of divorced parents in Amman where they would have to spend every second weekend in a different house. She brought Tala and Tareq across the Jordanian border to Ramallah where Halima had family. Tala was furious. She couldn’t understand why her mother would move them from a free country to a place with a curfew, military jeeps on the road, and no traffic lights. Tala started to understand what being in Palestine meant to her mother the following September when her mother and all of her aunts crammed into a car to drive Tala and Tareq to their first day of school. It was 1994, during the early days of the Oslo Accords, and the Palestinian Authority had just been granted full autonomy over parts of Palestine, including Ramallah. The first day of school was the first time Tala’s mother and aunts would see the Palestinian flag raised and hear their anthem sung. Until then, such expressions of Palestinian nationalism had been forbidden. Halima felt that seeing her children stand and sing beneath a Palestinian flag was worth all she had endured: her heartbreak, her divorce, her move from Amman. The moment still resonates with Tala nearly twenty-five years later. “This is what Palestine is for me,” Tala said. “Not a country or a cause. It is the story of the person I loved the most in my life, my mom, who fought for something that was so magnificent and dignified.” Tala also remembers a day when Halima brought her and Tareq to visit relatives elsewhere in the West Bank. The original steering wheel in Halima’s car had broken, and the mechanic replaced it with a steering wheel from a truck. Tala recalls how hilarious her tiny mother looked behind the oversized wheel. As they drove, Halima asked, “What would we do if we were free? What if all the checkpoints suddenly evaporated?” Halima, Tala and Tareq always used the word “evaporated” when they fantasized this way. They didn’t want to imagine the bloody violence of war and revolution. They just wanted the occupation to silently disappear. “We’d go to Yaffa,” Tala said. “We’d eat some fish,” Tareq said. “And we’ll find an apartment by the ocean.” * During that same terrible spring of 1948, Hala Alyan’s grandparents were also fleeing their homes. Jewish soldiers launched Operation Ten Plagues against Egyptian forces garrisoned in an old British prison fortress in a Palestinian village called Iraq Suwadayn, sixty kilometres southeast of Yaffa. Like Mona’s family, the Alyans escaped the fighting to Gaza, but Hala’s grandmother had relatives there and so the family was spared the indignity of having to live in one of Gaza’s refugee camps. Hala’s father, Nafez, was born and raised in Gaza, then traveled to the Gulf in the late 1970s to study economics in Kuwait where he met and married Hanine. Hanine gave birth to Hala during a trip to visit Nafez’s brother in Illinois in 1986, and travelled back to Kuwait with her parents when she was only ten days old. Hala, then, is an American citizen. Had she been born in Kuwait, she would have inherited Nafez’s status as a stateless Palestinian refugee. Just as her grandparents in 1948, Hala would flee an invading army. Hala turned four years old the week before Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and she would leave unopened birthday presents behind; her parents allowed her to open only a couple of gifts every few days. “They were trying to teach me discipline,” Hala said. Hanine, five months pregnant at the time with Hala’s brother, borrowed money from her cousin—the Kuwaiti banks had crashed in the wake of the invasion—and hired a driver to take her and Hala into Iraq and then across the Syrian border where Hala’s maternal grandmother lived. Hala remembers little of her escape from Kuwait. “I had food poisoning at some point,” she said. “I remember being really hungry, and being somewhere that had za’atar and zeit on the table, but feeling really sick. My first intense memory was in Syria where we waited for a couple of months for my father to get out of Kuwait. I can still see my mother’s face when she told me to pray he would be with us soon.” The family traveled from Syria back to the United States, deciding to land in Oklahoma because Hala’s father knew someone there. Hala’s parents spent the next ten years working wherever they could while simultaneously pursuing graduate degrees in colleges in Oklahoma, Texas, and Maine. The Alyans lived on food stamps and government assistance when they needed to, and moved into bigger houses whenever they found better jobs. By the time Hala became a teenager, Nafez was a Professor of Economics and Hanine had earned a PhD in Higher Education. Then the family moved back to the Middle East, where Hala’s parents found work in the UAE and Lebanon. Hala finished high school in Lebanon, then completed an undergraduate degree in Psychology at the American University of Beirut before moving to New York in 2008 to study for her Master’s Degree. She is now a clinical psychologist as well as an award-winning poet and novelist. Her debut novel, 2017’s Salt Houses, about a displaced Palestinian family, won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. Such a nomadic childhood meant Hala’s idea of home was never linked to geography. “My concept of home was very much attached to my mother and father,” she said. “Our family was very insular. Very dependent on each other. It was us against the world.” Hala always took for granted that she was Palestinian, but she cannot remember ever being taught about Palestine. Her father spoke affectionately about his own Palestinian childhood in Gaza. He told Hala and her brother stories of how his grandmother baked bread in clay ovens, or how a favourite market vendor used to dye baby chicks in bright colours and give them to the neighbourhood children. “My father infected in us a nostalgia for Palestine,” Hala said. Though she’d never seen Palestine, she came to love the place because of her father’s love. * After completing high school in Ramallah, Tala enrolled as an international student at American University in Washington. Going to America had long been a dream for Tala. “I always had this fantasy to be a Palestinian-American,” Tala said. Many of her friends and classmates in Ramallah were Palestinians with US citizenship. She admired their American cool, and when the violence of the Second Intifada reached a peak in the early 2000s, Tala also envied their ability to leave. “I wanted that escape route. I wanted to be ‘Palestinian-Something’ so I could run away when need be.” Personal tragedy compelled Tala to run back to Palestine. In 2006, when Tala was twenty years old and studying for an MFA in poetry, Halima was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Tala left school to return to Palestine to be with her mother during her remission. Halima had been admitted to the Shaare Zedek Hospital, an Orthodox Jewish hospital in West Jerusalem where she was treated by Israeli doctors. “That complicated my heart,” Tala said. The hospital staff were “spectacular humans.” Tala holds particular affection for a nurse named Rifkah who fought her superiors to get Halima’s Palestinian Authority-issued health insurance approved. “She just loved my mother,” Tala said. She remembers Rifkah administering Halima’s chemotherapy drugs. “My mom just sat there and extended her arms to Rifkah. I was very touched.” Still, Tala questioned her mother’s easy affection for her Israeli caretakers. After all, Halima had to cross through the Israeli military checkpoint at Qalandiya, by foot, to reach her appointments. All her doctors and nurses—and all their children—had served in the IDF. These people were supposed to be her enemies. Halima shrugged at Tala’s questions. “I had a blood transfusion,” she told Tala. “I have Israeli blood in me now. Maybe that is why I am more compassionate.” Israeli authorities had issued Halima a permit to enter Israel for her hospital appointments, and the permit extended to her family. Halima’s Israeli friend, Mariam, suggested they take advantage of the permit to visit Yaffa. Halima, Tala, Tareq, Halima’s sister and a friend of Tala’s crammed into Mariam’s car and headed west to the sea. As they drove, Mariam started to point out the sites of Palestinian villages destroyed during the Nakba. Halima cut her off. “Don’t be depressing,” she scolded. “I want to enjoy myself.” They got a table at The Old Man and the Sea, a famous seafood restaurant in Yaffa, and Halima joked with the waiter to bring them everything on the menu. “We had this huge spread of seafood and hummus and whatever,” Tala said. “We ate until we couldn’t breathe anymore.” Near the end of the meal, Tala caught her mother’s eyes drifting from the restaurant to the old city surrounding them. This was the place Halima’s mother was born, and where she fled with seven hot loaves of taboun on her head. Halima’s father sold oranges along the beach that stretched below them. This was the Yaffa where the sun never set, the beloved city swallowed by the dark shadow in Tala’s imagination. Halima, still weary from the chemotherapy that in the end would fail to save her, turned from her lost city back to her family and friends. “It doesn’t matter who it belongs to in the end,” she said. “Isn’t it such a beautiful city?” * Hala Alyan wanted to visit Palestine for the first time with her father. “We talked about it for years and years and years,” she said. “The joke in the family is that my father totally betrayed me.” Her father took Hala’s brother to Palestine in 2010 while Hala was busy with her comprehensive exams in clinical psychology at Rutgers. When she finally visited Palestine by herself in 2012, she was happy she’d gone alone. “Had I been with my father, I would have seen the place through his eyes.” The experience was strange. “I felt like an imposter in some ways,” she said, “and there were other times when I felt so at home.” The ease with which Hala navigated Israeli airport security and the Qalandiya checkpoint made her uncomfortable—most Palestinians don’t have the privilege Hala’s American passport affords her. “I was a tourist,” she said. “A diasporic tourist.” But the Palestinians she met did not treat her this way; they welcomed her with warmth and excitement. Birzeit University in the West Bank near Ramallah, invited Hala to give a lecture to their psychology students. Afterwards, she told one of the professors she felt awkward calling herself a Palestinian. “Don’t ever stop,” he said. “We rely on you to feel entitled to that identity and owning it. In some ways, you are just as important as the people living here.” Hala could not visit Gaza during her time in Palestine; the only foreign nationals Israel allows past the Erez checkpoint are accredited journalists, diplomats, and international NGO workers. Still, Hala possesses both a curiosity and kinship for Gaza she admits she doesn’t feel entitled to. In her poem “Push,” Hala addresses the cities she has visited during her nomadic existence. “I love you like an arsonist,” she tells Beirut, and proposes marriage to Istanbul. She tells London she wasn’t ungrateful, and expresses her longing for the starlit eels and honey water of Doha. But to Gaza, she says over and over, “I’m sorry.” Hala has many reasons to apologize to Gaza. “I am sorry for what is happening there, and I am sorry for watching idly by,” she said. “I am sorry for being distracted by my own mundane life. I’m sorry that my father lost you, and I am sorry you’ve lost so many. And I am mostly sorry that I haven’t put in more effort to visit. I have a very loaded relationship with that place.” * Halima died in August 2008. Tala returned to America after the funeral and, afterward, vowed to never visit Palestine again—she could not forgive her uncles for burying Halima in Aboud against the wishes of Tala and Tareq, instead of in Ramallah where she would be closer to her family. “No one ever asked us where we wanted our mother to be buried,” she said. She couldn’t forgive Ramallah’s sexual harassers, nor Palestine’s corrupt political class. “And I was also mad at my mother for dying,” Tala said. “I always considered Palestine my first mother, and both mothers had abandoned me.” But on the first anniversary of her mother’s death, Tala suffered what she called a “nervous breakdown” and checked herself into a Washington hospital. A close friend convinced her she needed to go home, to Ramallah, to deal both with her mother’s passing and with her relationship with Palestine itself. “I was twenty-five years old and broken, and I knew that if I didn’t deal with this I would be broken forever.” Five months later, after travelling around the US to say goodbye to friends and family, Tala sold everything she owned except for two bags of clothes and went to Ramallah. She moved in with her grandmother who has suffering from dementia, and her aunt who was also still struggling with Halima’s death. The thought of visiting her mother’s grave in Aboud broke Tala’s heart. Instead, she paid homage to the hilltop tomb of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish who died the day after Halima in 2008. “I figured he couldn’t live in a world without her, because she was the brightest light there ever was,” Tala wrote in an essay for This Week in Palestine. Darwish and Halima had never met, but they seem to have conspired to make Tala into a poet. Tala first learned about Darwish when she was a six-year-old in Jordan; at the time, she adored the famed Egyptian chanteuse Fayrouz and told her mother she wanted to grow to be a singer, too. Halima frowned and lifted a collection of Darwish’s from a bookshelf. “Here,” she said to Tala, handing her the book. “I want you to be like him.” “Who is this?” she asked her mother. “Why should I be like him?” “Darwish is a great poet,” she said. “And poems are like songs.” “He sings?” “No. He writes.” “Why is that different?” Tala asked. “You listen to Fayrouz all the time.” “Yes, but when Darwish writes, he writes in my heart.” Tala had long considered Darwish and Halima to be kindred spirits, and imagined Darwish was her actual father. “He was the one Palestinian who never disappointed my mother,” Tala said, “who always said something beautiful. Even when he wrote about heartache it was so lovely and tender. Tenderness is something so important to me. Tenderness is not weakness.” She recalls a section of Darwish’s poem, “State of Siege,” in which the poet addresses an Israeli soldier who killed a pregnant woman. Instead of raging against the soldier and his crime, Darwish compels the soldier to imagine the child, a boy, growing up after the end of the occupation and not remembering “the time of siege.” What if this boy grew into a young man who studied in the same school with the soldier’s daughter? What if they fell in love, married, and had a little girl of their own (who’d “be Jewish by birth”)? The tenderness of these verses always move Tala. “Not because I give two shits about Israelis and Palestinians and their peace,” she said, “but because this is such a beautiful moment to imagine the end of all this misery.” Tala regained her own affection for Palestine after finding a job as an undergraduate Arabic Literature instructor at Birzeit University. As she taught her students to learn and love their own indigenous literature, they, in turn, taught Tala that Palestine was a place to be loved for all its blemishes. Many of her students lived their entire lives in refugee camps where they endured terrific poverty and despair. And still they expressed a compassion for Palestine that Tala felt ashamed for lacking. “They brought Palestine’s tenderness back to me,” Tala said. Because Tala was only a few years older than her students, they felt comfortable coming to her with their own experiences of trauma—especially the young women. “As the youngest member of the faculty, I was like their big sister,” she said. They told Tala their experiences of physical and sexual abuse, often at the hands of their own family members. “I remember feeling, for the first time in my life, that I was rooted in Palestine. For the first time I felt that someone needed me. I have a purpose, and it is not to throw stones,” Tala said. “It is giving people a chance to be okay with their trauma.” This was something she’d been denied in the wake of Halima’s death. “People yelled at me not to cry when my mom died,” Tala said. “They told me she was in a better place. That it was god’s will. But my students cried at their trauma. And I cried with them. And this restored my feeling of power. I learned how to love my identity as a human being, and as a Palestinian, through all these kids who were just as lost as I was.” Tala stayed in Ramallah for five years before deciding to move back to the United States. Without her mother there, Palestine no longer felt like home. Halima’s passing gave both Tala and her brother permission for leave Palestine for good. One of Halima’s old friends, also named Fayrouz, told Tala, “It breaks my heart to tell you that I am so glad you are leaving. Palestine is getting worse every day. I made a vow to your mother when she was sick that I would always have your back. And I can’t have your back anymore because this place is full of thugs.” Even Fayrouz, who used to speak of the beauty of finally crossing over the Allenby Bridge from Jordan into Palestine, felt betrayed by what her homeland had become under the crush of occupation and the corruption of the men in power. “Our mom’s dying gave us freedom,” Tala said. “We got to build lives without feeling guilt for leaving her.” * Hala’s Lebanese grandmother used to warn her not to fall in love with America. “She was afraid I would never come back to Lebanon,” Hala said. But Hala did fall in love with America. She has lived in Brooklyn for a decade, the longest stretch of time she has lived anywhere. “And I married a white American man. The very thing my grandmother warned against is what happened.” Now, America, and Brooklyn in particular, is home. Hala used to define “home” as the place where the people she loved lived. Lately, though, her idea of home has also evolved to include all the places that contributed to her identity. Each time Hala moved from one house or apartment to the next, she wandered through the rooms and touched all the walls. “I say goodbye. I say thank you. I have a such a ritualistic relationship to physical space,” she said. “I identify different versions of myself—different mistakes, different loves—with the places I’ve been. The idea of home has changed because there have been so many rebirths of me.” Each time she revisits one of her former homes, either physically or in her poetry, Hala returns to old parts of herself. Despite the fragments of herself scattered around the world, Hala maintains a monogamous love of place. “Teach me to love a country without hating the other,” she wrote in one of her poems. “One of the things I struggle with the most is finding ways to be attached to these different places that often have such contradictory associations,” Hala said. “To love parts of the West. To love parts of the Middle East. It is difficult to carry those two at the same time. There is no such thing as choosing a place without betraying another place.” * Brooklyn is home for Tala, too. After years of living with her mother or her aunt in Palestine, or in her student housing in Washington, Tala’s tiny apartment on Nostrand Avenue represents the first place she’s had absolute sovereignty over. “Everything in that apartment is mine. No one has any say over how it looks. It is clean and smells nice. It has pictures of my mom and my fiancé. The little dumb things I’ve collected. All my clothes. I’ve always wanted lots of clothes.” Opening up her mailbox every day and seeing her name on the envelopes brings her joy—even if they contain bills. Tala sometimes feels she is an “occupier” of Nostrand, an odd sensation for a Palestinian refugee. She is, after all, a foreign national whose lucrative translator job at the United Nations affords her the ability to live alone while the lower-income families who share the building struggle to pay their rents. Being racially ambiguous helps her fit in; most of her neighbours assume she is Latina. “Nobody looks at me like I am a stranger,” she said. “I feel very welcome. It is easy for me to walk around and not feel like an asshole. But it is crazy for me as a Palestinian woman who grew up with very little to have more money than the people in my building who are American.” The fact that her landlord is an ultra-Orthodox Jew adds to the irony of her position. “God is looking down at me and laughing,” she said. But privilege can feel tenuous in Trump’s America, especially for Arabs who are not yet citizens. Tala experienced this anxiety first-hand in January 2017 when Donald Trump suspended the entry of travelers from seven Muslim majority countries. The day the executive order came in, Tala went into “a full-fucking-blown panic” fearing that Jordan might be on Trump’s list. It wasn’t. Tala’s fiancé, Mark Doss, works as an attorney with the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) and reassured Tala that she was not facing deportation. Later than night, as Tala and Mark were having drinks with friends, Mark received a phone call from one of his colleagues at IRAP telling him that Hameed Darweesh, an Iraqi man who worked as a translator for the US military in Iraq for a decade, was being detained at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Tala and Mark took a cab to the airport, which, by then, had grown into a mob of activists, immigration lawyers, protesters and news media. Mark and a group of other attorneys demanded access to Darweesh. An official refused, and told Doss to “call Mr. Trump.” Mark feared what might happen to Tala, a non-citizen, if the police took them into custody. Mark turned to Tala and whispered, calmly and in Arabic, to “run.” Tala ran to the other side of the airport and eventually went home. Mark stayed behind, and thanks in part to his advocacy, immigration officials released Darweesh the next day. The experience altered Tala’s perception of America. The protestors and immigration attorneys that mobilized at JFK, and elsewhere in the United States, revealed to her the goodness of Americans. “I know a lot of people in this country don’t want me here, and I also know that there is a huge lobby that doesn’t like me just because I am Palestinian. But there are so many people that made this place their own. Since I was never able to make Palestine my own, I want to make this place my own.” Tala applied for permanent residency status last fall. “I wonder how I am going to feel,” she said, “when, for the first time, I am not a guest here.” She dreams of the day she receives her green card in the mail and holds it in her hand. “It will be the first time I hold something that I’ve chosen. I love New York. It is a privilege to come from this place, and to say that this is my town.” Recalling her mother, now gone for ten years, she said, “I am nobody’s daughter now, and I want to be New York’s daughter.” Tala’s green card arrived this past spring, not long after the seventieth anniversary of Tala’s grandmother’s panicked flight from Yaffa. Mark and Tala married at City Hall in January and will have a proper wedding in October. Mark is a Christian Egyptian-American born in New Jersey, but Tala wants him to fall in love with Palestine. “I want Palestine to look pretty to the man I love,” she said. And when they have children, Tala will make sure they know who they are. They will learn to speak Arabic with a Palestinian accent. She will teach them about their grandmother, about Darwish, and about their homeland. “They are probably going to be brats from Brooklyn,” she laughs. “But I will beat the love of Palestine into them.”
I understand why people balk at labels. But I think of them—tomboy, butch, genderqueer, MOC—as functional and hopeful. That function is communication.
In grade four, our class was located in a portable about a hundred metres beyond the school’s back door. A small wooden porch flanked by two railings and a set of stairs lead up to the portable; it also provided a multi-level platform useful for playing WWF Wrestlemania. One other girl sometimes played with us, but mostly it was just me and a whole bunch of boys. The goal was to hurl ourselves at each other hard enough to pin—to push and jostle and launch off the porch onto an unsuspecting crowd of wrestlers. The boys weren’t my friends, but they let me play with them. (Sports is all about numbers.) I had long hair but it was unkempt, and we were in the era of ‘90s Jaromir Jagr—his glorious, curly mullet unfurling from his hockey helmet in much the same way my dark waves bunched at my shoulders. That year, I turned nine and was finally allowed to play hockey. The first time I knocked over a fellow girl—not on my team—I stopped skating and helped her back to her feet as my father hollered from the stands. Afterwards, my father and my coaches told me to “use my size,” the way it was useful on the porch behind the portable. That year, in school, we played a math game called Around the World, based on times tables, in which the goal was to circle the classroom, defeating your classmates one by one. That year, drunk on wrestling and hockey and math—a subject I understood to be best suited to real (read: male) nerds—I requested that my classmates call me “Andy.” They did not comply. I grew up in a time and place—a small town called Dundas, Ontario, b. 1984—when gender roles were binary. I grew up in a place where my favourite tomboy classmate later ridiculed my unshaven legs. I grew up in a place where, walking to work or the library, people yelled gendered, homophobic slurs out of their cars at me. I grew up with a mother I thoroughly confused and disappointed, just by virtue of being myself. It’s hard to say what kind of a person I’d be if these conditions had been different. Given these conditions, though, I took refuge in “tomboy.” * The word “tomboy” first emerged in the mid-16th century to describe rude, forward boys. A couple decades later, it began to apply to women—more specifically, bold and immodest, impudent and unchaste women. Soon after that, the term found the home we’re familiar with, referring to girls who behaved like “spirited or boisterous” boys. (Men got to keep “tom cat”—super creepy if you’ve ever googled “cat sex” after hearing alleyway yowling in the middle of the night.) By the time I hit elementary school, tomboy’s denotation had remained similar, but its connotation had shifted: wanting to be like a spirited and boisterous boy wasn’t such a bad thing. Second-wave feminism had crested, powersuits had come and gone, and we all understood that embodying certain aspects of masculinity provided a shortcut—albeit tenuous—to power in adulthood, and freedom in childhood. As Jack Halberstam writes in his 1998 book Female Masculinity, tomboyism tended, at that time, to be “associated with a ‘natural’ desire for the greater freedom and mobility enjoyed by boys.” Of course, there were boundaries: eschewing girls’ clothing altogether, or, say, asking your classmates to opt for a more masculine version of your name. “Tomboy,” as an adult term, is most often applied to straight women who are somewhat masculine or boyish, or maybe “androgynous”—most often applied by the mainstream to masculine people with model-like proportions, proportions that are clothing-flexible because they are narrow and boxy. The first sentence of Lizzie Garrett Mettler’s introduction to Tomboy Style: Beyond the Boundaries of Fashion, goes like so: “When I arrived on campus for my first day at Brooks School in North Andover, Massachusetts, I was thirteen and as plumb a tomboy as any.” A couple of paragraphs later, when Mettler describes breaking her collarbone playing field hockey, she writes that her new Brooks best friend, Kingsley Woolworth, “decorated [her] sling with Lilly Pulitzer fabric sourced from a pair of my mother's cigarette pants.” Mettler's tomboyhood fashion icons, featured in the full-colour book, are universally thin, generally white, and cover the usual gamut from Coco Chanel to Patti Smith, Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy and Diane Keaton, with more contemporary additions like Tilda Swinton and Janelle Monae. My favourite photo is probably the one of Eartha Kitt, in mid-swing, playing baseball. Most of the other photos and icons—not to take anything away from these women, who are all great women—don't include people like me. I don't and can't see myself in these rich icons: their small breasts, their bony shoulders, the ease with which a pair of trousers glides past their hips and thighs. Taken together, with Mettler's narrative, “tomboy” is a way of being a woman that fits quite neatly into what we expect of “woman”: a conventional BMI, tousled hair, a camera-friendly approach. Bodies with hips cocked, odalisque'd across the hood of a ‘50s car. Style from brands and stories that are very parochially New York, or what you'd call continental, European. Style that reaches out to rich woman who want to marry rich men to let them know that everything will be okay: here is a way forward that will still appeal to the men and women in your social niche. * Last year, I was eating lunch at a cafe in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Behind me, a mom and daughter spoke Polish and waited for their order. They were of a set: both blonde and blue-eyed, similar facial structure, similar feminine clothing styles, similar body types. When I was very young and could be forced into puffy-sleeved dresses, could be convinced or strong-armed into curls and tights, my mother foresaw a future where we were of a set. My hair wasn't blonde like hers, my eyes weren't blue, my ears stuck out farther from my head than they were supposed to, but none of these things were immutable. At eight or nine I began to grow. My body shot up and broadened. My legs lengthened, my belly got round, I became chubby, grew breasts. Next to my peers, who still looked like children, I felt monstrous. My mom urged the hairdresser to "soften" my face with feathered bangs. We fought about clothes. I wanted to dress like the boy from two doors down who wore low-riding shorts and untucked T-shirts; wearing my pants like that, my mom said, would draw attention to my belly. We bought aspirational-sized clothing. We put me on a diet. I starved and binged. I forgot to close my legs when I was made to wear a skirt. Instead of being of a set with my mom, I resented her as much as my inability to give her what she wanted from me. “Tomboy” provided me with my first out. Tomboy offered a way to pursue masculinity from what felt like a failed female body. I gave up mimicking girlhood, accepted a ruptured relationship with my mother, and slowly began to build a relationship with my body and my selfhood that wasn’t based in self-negation. The world I grew up in—the world we live in now—still places an inordinate amount of pressure on female bodies as consumable; opting out of femininity, even privately, freed me to see myself as a whole person, and it also freed me to interrogate the legitimacy of the boundaries I was breaching with my monstrosity. Tomboyhood offered me a kind of self-acceptance I never got to experience as a girl. But conventional gender-code breaking—allowed, within boundaries, for girls—ends, too often, with adulthood. As Jack Halberstam writes, “If adolescence for boys represents a rite of passage… for girls, adolescence is a lesson in restraint, punishment, and repression.” In popular culture (The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking, for example), tomboyism is often folded into narratives about resisting adulthood; there’s a tacit understanding that with time, a tomboy will grow out of her (his, their) affinity for masculine presentation, masculine-coded pastimes, masculine-coded work. And so tomboy gets roped in, like everything else, to safety and convention—swanning into simple, elegant, usually white, womanhood. A conventionally attractive woman devouring a burger in a men’s magazine profile; an unadorned silk dress. My masculinity never turned men’s mag icon. I have never been an uncomplicated body in a silky dress; instead, I began to identify with the world of female masculinity best understood and embraced by queer theory; I pursued masculine-coded work, becoming a bike mechanic; I grew up and, though I dated men, came to identify as queer. For over a year, I have had a BuzzFeed video bookmarked on my computer: “What Is Female Masculinity?” I watch it about once a month. The video starts with identifications: “I don’t really identify with anything but if anything I guess it would be butch”; “MOC, which is, like, masculine of centre”; “Genderqueer butch mahoo”; two “gender-neutral”s; “LHB: Long-haired butch.” Everybody has similar but diverging things to say about masculinity, female masculinity, aesthetics, and the benefits and disadvantages of being masculine and female in a world that prizes many aspects of masculinity. Near the end, one of the participants says, “A lot of times, butch women are blessed with the burden of boobs. That’s a very funny cross to bear on top of everything else.” I have large breasts—boobs—and like many people who experience gender dysphoria, I do everything in my power to keep this detail from the general public (I own a compression vest, surreptitiously wear sports bras under collared shirts, curve my wide shoulders forward in an attempt to hide myself). Often, I’m proud of myself and I accept my body. But sometimes, I feel alone, quite alone. I can’t sum up the power of watching someone express my secret shame as a warmly funny in-joke. I understand why people balk at labels—why further subdivide the world? But I think of them—tomboy, butch, genderqueer, MOC—as functional and hopeful. That function is communication. If I can’t describe who I am in this world—I am who I am, whether or not I can describe it—then I can’t seek out others like me. * Early in 2015, a feminist mom, Meredith Hale, wrote “Don’t Call My Daughter a Tomboy” for the Huffington Post. Hale’s daughter comes home from school one day and announces that she feels like she is like a boy, and, in fact, a tomboy, because she likes sports. Hale writes, in part, that she had “been guilty of using the label ‘tomboy’”—but only before she “knew better.” Late last year, feminist Catherine Connors wrote a piece for Her Bad Mother (later reprinted by Bust) called “Don't Call Her a Tomboy.” Connors’s daughter, who dirtbikes, self-identifies as a tomboy. “I wouldn’t call you a tomboy, sweetie. I think that you’re you,” Connors tells her kid. “And you like a lot of different things, and they’re not just ‘boy things’ or ‘girl things,’ they’re things that you like.” Similarly, Hale wants her daughter to grow up embracing her femininity at the same time as she feels free to pursue whatever sports and pastimes draw her attention. Eventually, Connors comes to the conclusion that these ongoing conversations are not really about tomboys, after all—they are about feminism. That girls and boys can contain multitudes. That gender stereotypes must be challenged. That parents must contest the ways in which society—with its pink aisles and camo prints—boxes in boys and girls. Has our conception of gender changed so much that the in-between space that was so useful for me as a child—that is useful for me as an adult—is no longer necessary? After mulling over these pieces—and, more broadly, the differences between mainstream feminism and queer feminism—for more than a year, I wish there was room to embrace both tomboy and the fight to move beyond gender stereotyping. I wonder: how would I have felt if I received these messages from my mother? What if, instead, we outlined for kids like these that girls and boys can do and like and be who they want—but if they’re not a girl, or not a boy, that’s okay, too? I have done a lot of work to disentangle myself from misogyny—to embrace my own femininity, to move past the ways in which I had rejected femininity broadly because it had been foisted upon me. I can’t help but feel that mainstream feminism has not done the same amount of work to understand genderqueerness, to understand complex trans identities. Why, otherwise, would you call to kill a term that still holds some usefulness for me, and others like me? If the world has told us for much of our lives that we are not quite women, and, moreover, “girl” and “woman” never quite fit, is it our responsibility to forcibly expand girlhood and womanhood until it grudgingly accepts us? Can I not just be woman-adjacent in peace? Identity exists at the crux point of internal and external pressures—who we feel we are, and how others see us. Far from being discrete, one feeds into the other. I have no way of knowing how I’d feel if I hadn’t spent my youth feeling shamed into, and failing at, femininity. I wouldn’t be a feminine woman, but maybe I’d feel more comfortable stretching “woman” till it fit. As it stands, I’m not a woman, and I’m not a man; I’m not a tomboy anymore, either, though kernels of tomboyhood remain useful for me. From time to time, lifting a cargo bike into a repair stand, I tell myself to use my size; from time to time, I opt for a dress I can walk or bike in, because shoehorning a curvy body into masculine clothes takes work. In adolescence, tomboyhood offered a positive way to describe myself instead of repeating I’m not, I’m not, I’m not. It emphasized doing rather than being; it offered the option of finding power, and community, in monstrosity.
Remembering the New Yorker’s Lillian Ross, who chronicled the second half of the twentieth century with her trademark brand of reporting, one year after her death.
In May of 1950, a thirty-one-year-old New Yorker staff writer named Lillian Ross became the talk of the town when the magazine published her sharply-observed, massively detailed profile of Ernest Hemingway. Around the same time, she began following the noted screenwriter and director John Huston as he was making his much-anticipated movie, The Red Badge of Courage, based on Stephen Crane's Civil War novel. Two years later, "No. 1512," Ross's remarkable anatomy of the Hollywood studio system and the fate of Huston's film, appeared as a four-part serial in The New Yorker and in book form, as Picture: A Story About Hollywood, a few months later (available again in April 2019 from NYRB Classics). Hailed at the time as one of the first examples of nonfiction written like fiction—it wasn’t, of course; fictional devices have been used by writers of nonfiction since at least the nineteenth century—Ross is on record as having consulted with New Yorker editor (and later her long-time lover) William Shawn early in her reporting, telling him: “I don’t know whether this sort of thing has ever been done before, but I don’t see why I shouldn’t try to do a fact piece in novel form, or maybe a novel in fact form.” By the time Ross died on September 20, 2017, at ninety-nine, her reputation among the foremost literary journalists was secure. But what’s often overlooked is that, with Picture, she pioneered the fly-on-the-wall, warts-and-all, inside-Hollywood form of journalism which later spawned a whole genre of books, such as John Gregory Dunne’s The Studio (1969); Steven Bach’s Final Cut: Art, Money and Ego in the Making of Heaven’s Gate (1986); Julie Salamon’s The Devil’s Candy: The Anatomy of a Hollywood Fiasco (the 1991 book about Brian De Palma’s disastrous adaptation of The Bonfire of the Vanities); and James B. Stewart’s DisneyWar: The Battle for the Magic Kingdom (2005). Memorably, Ross begins "No. 1512" with a phone call from Huston. "You know something?" he said, over the telephone. He has a theatrical way of inflecting his voice that can give a commonplace query a rich and melodramatic intensity. "They don’t want me to make this picture. And I want to make this picture." He made the most of every syllable, so that it seemed at that moment to lie under his patent and have some special urgency. "Come on over, kid, and I’ll tell you all about the hassle." Granted by Huston and the studio, MGM, the kind of carte blanche access that has virtually disappeared in today's spin-doctored culture, Ross, using her favorite 3 x 5-inch spiral Clairefontaine notebooks and micro-point Uni-Ball pens, recorded the making of the movie with stenographic precision, detailing all the compromises, the noble intentions, and self-absorbed foolishness of Hollywood, often in long chunks of what seem to be verbatim dialogue. It feels as though she’s present everywhere, a technique that’s similar to “participant observation,” a form of qualitative data collection used in sociology and anthropology. In the introduction to her 2015 anthology, Reporting Always, Ross simply called it “writing a piece as if it were a miniature movie.” She was there to witness the death of the studio system that defined the Golden Age of Hollywood, when big companies, like MGM, were facing competition from TV and anti-trust legislation that would soon end their dominance, to be replaced by an era of smaller studios and directors and actors who demanded greater control. Although Ross, with her micro-approach, only alludes to the macro forces at work. She always thought of herself as an observer, not an analyst. Born in 1918 in Syracuse, NY and raised in Brooklyn, she started writing for her school newspaper in the sixth grade. Her first story, about the library, began, “Fat books, thin books, new books, old books…” Reading it in print, she recalled, was an “unforgettable rapture.” Later, on a school trip to The New York Times, she was seduced by the sights, smells, and sounds. In the early ‘40s, she got a job on an experimental liberal newspaper called PM that featured splashy photographs and no advertising. When William Shawn, then the managing editor of The New Yorker, tried to hire Ross’s editor at PM, the editor recommended he hire Ross. She distinguished herself from the beginning with vividly drawn stories about a bullfighter in Mexico, the Miss America pageant, a busload of midwestern teenagers visiting Manhattan for the first time, and diamond dealer Harry Winston. Once her reputation was firmly established by her profile of Hemingway, she turned her attention to Huston’s movie. Given the sanitized portraits of Hollywood up until this time—mainly puffy biographies of stars and cleaned-up histories of the big studios—what surprised readers was Ross’s depiction of how crude internal politics and battles between art and commerce were at the heart of moviemaking. Huston saw "The Red Badge of Courage" as an artistic endeavor, a story of the moral ambiguities of war (his next film, which he regarded as a quick-and-dirty money spinner, was The African Queen). Although backed by his producers, Huston wasn't aware that legendary MGM boss, Louis B. Mayer, who favored corny, big-budget entertainments, hated the idea of The Red Badge of Courage but was content to watch as his subordinates fell on their swords. Ross captures the action with a cinematic intensity and her trademark rendering of dialogue, as in a characteristically vivid scene in which Mayer is seen in his office ranting about modern movies: "Don't show the good, wholesome American mother in the home. Kind. Sweet. Sacrifices. Love." Mayer paused and by his expression demonstrated, in turn, maternal kindness, sweetness, sacrifice, and love, then glared at [producer Arthur] Freed and me. "No!" he cried. "Knock the mother on the jaw!" He gave himself an uppercut to the chin. "Throw the little old lady down the stairs!" He threw himself in the general direction of the American flag [behind his desk]. "Throw the mother's good, homemade soup in the mother's face!" He threw an imaginary bowl of soup in Freed's face. "Step on the mother! Kick her! That is art, they say. Art!" He raised and lowered his white eyebrows, wiggled his shoulders like a hula dancer, and moved his hand in a mysterious pattern in the air. "Art!" he repeated, and gave an angry growl. James Thurber once admiringly called Ross “the girl with the built-in tape recorder,” although Ross didn’t believe in using tape recorders. In her 2002 book, Reporting Back: Notes on Journalism, she wrote: “To me, the machine distorts the truth… Tape-recorded interviews are not only misleading; they are unrealistic; they are lifeless… I make sure to write down key, identifying phrases and words that help me remember the rhythm and context of what I’m hearing. Then I’m able to reproduce long exchanges.” And in a 1961 interview in Newsweek, she said, “You try not to get in the way of the person you’re trying to show. If you’re trying to follow along with the person you’re interviewing, to respond to him instead of coming along with a lot of prepared questions, you just get him going. And don’t bother him.” In a review of Picture in The New York Times, producer and screenwriter Budd Schulberg summed up what many of the people associated with “The Red Badge of Courage” probably felt. “It is a book with many morals. Perhaps the first and most obvious is that, if you value your privacy, if you don’t want to be caught with your clichés down or your pretensions showing, Miss Ross is not the lady to ask into your home.” When Picture was published, reviewers made much of Ross's so-called purely factual, objective reporting, even though the author's hand is evident throughout the book. Noting that spending time with Huston felt like being in a Huston film, she wrote, "In appearance, in gestures, in manner of speech, in the selection of people and objects he surrounded himself with, and in the way he composed them into individual 'shots'...and then arranged the shots into dramatic sequence, he was simply the raw material of his own art." In her understated, yet no less deliberate, way, of course, Ross also shaped her material into an expression of her own experience. Her judgments, cloaked as observations, are often incisive, as in her description of a Hollywood executive lunching in a fashionable restaurant. "He was almost the only one in Chasen's who was not at that moment looking around at someone other than the person he was talking to." Unlike the so-called “new journalism” that was to come in the 1960s, when writers like Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson put themselves front-and-centre in their stories, Ross held a view that today seems quaintly old-fashioned. In her introduction to Reporting Back: Notes on Journalism, she wrote: "reporting is not about the reporter, even though he is always revealed in the writing. If one is the kind of person who needs attention from others—who prefers talking to listening, who wants to be the star of a situation or important to the situation, who essentially wants to show off—reporting is not a choice line of work." Shortly after Picture was published in late 1952, a reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement wrote, “Miss Ross, though she makes no comments of her own, lets everyone babble with childlike trust and in such an uninhibited manner that without exception they appear a crowd of grotesques worthy of Nathanael West.” Midway through her research, Ross was attacked in the literary magazine Partisan Review by Hans Meyerhoff, a UCLA professor friendly with movie insiders. Among the charges was Ross's technique of asking questions "deceptive in their sophomoric simplicity" and her habit of seldom saying anything herself. A shoot-the-messenger observation at a time when journalism, like the movie industry, was in the early stages of a radical evolution. In an interview after Picture was published, Ross explained, "All I do is take a lot of notes. And I listen." A simple strategy that allows readers to see and hear what they would otherwise be excluded from, pioneered by the woman a New York Times reviewer described as "one of the most creative innocent bystanders of our time."
The author of Beirut Hellfire Society on writing about the Lebanese Civil War, collective memory, and the selfishness of Greek deities.
Rawi Hage’s Beirut Hellfire Society (Knopf Canada) is a delirious percolation of grief and remembrance. The novel takes place in Beirut in 1978 —just as the Lebanese Civil War began to crescendo—where Pavlov inherits his father’s task to cremate the bodies of the unknown, the outliers, and the shunned. Pavlov’s undertaking of burial also serves as his induction to the eponymous secret society, which operates on the fringes of conflict while full of flashy, hedonistic characters. What you get is a story that is not only critical of nationalism and religious superiority, but one that is lush with fabulism and decay. Writing about war is a dance between respecting the integrity of collective memory and finding the freedom to revisit it in fiction. It’s a dance that’s all-too-familiar for Rawi Hage, a survivor of the Lebanese Civil War who came into recognition via his debut, De Niro’s Game, which chronicles the friendship between two men as they struggle to survive in the same turmoil-ridden landscape. The novel won him the International Dublin Literary Award. More than a decade later, with Beirut Hellfire Society, Hage circles back to writing about the civil war. Amanda Ghazale Aziz: What stirred a return to writing about the civil war? Why now? Rawi Hage: I was trying to write a book about death, about loss. I was thinking about situating it inside Sarajevo at one point because I was there a few years ago, but then I felt that Beirut is more familiar and the Lebanese Civil War would surely provide that amount of death, especially that excess of death. I found myself going back without any hesitation. Let’s consider the act of burial in this book; Pavlov’s newly acquired task to bury the outliers of society reminded me of the collective conscious affected by the missing and unclaimed bodies (Tel al-Za’atar, for instance). I have to say, writing about burial of the unclaimed and shunned seems like a partaking of the ritual itself. Well, I started this book as a personal mourning for friends and family and close people, and the Middle East in general, with the amount of cadavers these wars were and are producing in various regions. That access of a parade of cadavers. The book is a bit fantastical, it’s a bit unrealistic, but that was made on purpose. I think we’re ready, as Arabs, to move on with how we process these events, much like in Latin American literature and magic realism. The fabulism in Beirut Hellfire Society is a way of processing? Yes, and it’s also a way to contribute to a new form of Arabic literature. I think it’s due. I’m not the only one, and I think it’s time to move on from that nationalistic literature and head into that of the imaginary. I think we’re ready. Especially with the new generation. If anything, I’m writing for the new generation and hope that they would carry this on someday. I think, by seeing the new generation [of Arab writers] doing amazing things—they’re very combative in that sense—that I get my inspiration from them. I don’t get it from my generation. I hope I get to play a role of transition. You were formally trained and worked as a photographer before you ventured into writing. How does memory and documentation guide you as a writer? I think when you experience a certain trauma, the only way to see the narrative clear is through images. I think it’s a phenomena for people who went through wars, it’s a mechanism of coping with the trauma. Maybe I’m projecting, but maybe that’s my experience. When I recall the war, I recall it in images, not verbally or by text. That’s what really comes to me: fragmented images, much like photographs. Images in different sizes that can be interpreted or projected on or be used as a memory to recall events. At least that’s for me. I think the system of recollection, which are in the form of images to me, is much more current for people who experience collective trauma. Collective trauma and memory has me thinking of Etel Adnan’s question in Night: “Is memory produced by us or is it us?” When it comes to collective memory of wartime and location, though, what do writers owe to readers and the event itself? Do they owe it to collective memory or do they serve the story first? There are many functions, but I’m not sure with literature to what extent it contributes. It depends on the era, too. I think in terms of severe crisis, many literary writers try to become a spokesperson or try to record things as close to reality as possible. I know for the Lebanese Civil War, after it had ended, the government had tried to obstruct the memory as much as possible. It was a conscious decision to not talk about the war, or to excavate what happened. It was only done by artists, such as Akram Zaatari—there was a small group who were very conscious about immediately recording the war. What was interesting is they recorded in a fictitious way. If you look at their work, it’s very close to fiction, and that’s maybe because the narrative of the war was still contested. There is no official say, but certainly it’s still contested, though I think most of the artists were sympathetic to the left-leaning narrative of what happened, which I agree with. You know, it’s a very tricky balance. You don’t want to write with an agenda, as it affects the art, but you don’t want your art devoid of history. So it’s a very, very fine balance. When I had set to write De Niro’s Game, my intention was to write a book of literature and to contribute to the literary scene. Having said that, what concerned me the most was the trauma that I couldn’t escape. I think with this new book, I’m moving to somewhere different. There’s been enough recording of what has happened by other artists; the Arab world, they’re outspoken… There are six-hour arguments. Things are out in the open, the politeness is not there. I agree. I also think there is a burden for racialized writers to represent the whole community, to have the last word on a said event, which is impossible. That’s right. The responsibility, the burden, is much heavier for us. If we don’t exercise our collective imagination—and not just documentation —we’ll always be at a certain disadvantage. I think what literature could provide us with is showing other possibilities. What I fear most is homogeneity. Ancient Greek literature is heavily referenced in Beirut Hellfire Society, with Pavlov’s obsession with the Iliad in particular, what with the downfall of Troy serving as a mirror to that of Beirut. Were you reading any works of Ancient Greek literature during your time spent writing this novel? Yes, I’ve read the Iliad many times—it’s a book I’ve read again and again. I like it, I like the poetry, I like the story, but I also like the Greeks in general, though I do not want to idealize them. They were like any other empire: oppressive. What I like about the Greeks was the multiplicity of gods and goddesses, and how accessible the gods were, and that transformation between humans and gods. That accessibility. Gods were not unanimous, and the Greeks knew it, they were very conscious that they had constructed their own gods. I like that, I think that it’s much more sophisticated, especially with how open they were about the failures of their gods. The Greek deities were notorious for being as jealous and selfish as humans, if not more. So selfish, so openly manipulative that it’s hard to take them seriously! They’re so transparent that they’re a mirror to their own society. It’s almost naive. I don’t know why I like reading these works, but it certainly helped my writing. There’s a certain courage that I appreciate.
I can’t imagine where I’d be if they knew my version of what happened.
I’m the only man in the village who subscribes to The Hollywood Reporter. The latest clipping, which I paste in my scrapbook, is just a column inch, an ad for waterbeds on the reverse. Black Water director Edgar Van Buren is once again facing criticism, this time for his decision to host a lavish party for the jurors who acquitted him of manslaughter. Held at the director’s mid-century home above Coldwater Canyon, the party marked the one-year anniversary of the verdict, on May 15, 1988. All twelve jurors attended. The father and former manager of Doretta Howell, who intends to sue for wrongful death, has called the party “proof you can’t find one good man in Hollywood.” I recognize the byline. The writer had tried contacting me countless times throughout the trial, but I could not be reached for comment. Because I was non-creative personnel—below-the-line, as they say—and had no height from which to fall, I could avoid the most public disgrace. But behind tinted glass, the studios don’t forget. Without the help of the courts, they took everything from me, my whole life in America. And I can’t imagine where I’d be, if they knew my version of what happened. * After a morning of being thrown through a window, Dot Howell collapsed in the honeywagon, unable to proceed with her French. I remember handing her a Yoohoo and picking sugared glass from her hair. Edgar Van Buren insisted his actors perform the stunts themselves—no body doubles—and as I testified, she obeyed his every direction. Dot and I wouldn’t get our three hours that day. On the set of The Chasm, our lessons were just ten-minute fragments before she was hauled off again. The few times I cornered a producer—and once, disastrously, Van Buren—he wouldn’t take me seriously. I said Dot needed those hours, there on the shag rug of the honeywagon, chewing Skittles and microwaving in the desert heat. I said she needed to be a girl for three hours a day. I asked her, “Do you think he got the shot?” She shook her head, a shimmer of glass. All she could focus on was the model. A Medieval French castle surrounded by the sodden country of my native Normandy—it was our class project; we had a different one on every shoot. Now Dot cracked the lid on another tub of clay and slapped some on the hillside. I didn’t protest, but lately the clay had been piling higher and higher, while the castle went unfinished. It wasn’t encouraging that she pictured Normandy as a muddy wasteland. “Soon we’ll need to add the servants’ homes,” I said, in French. Dot massaged a lump into the landscape. Finally, she said, “I need to tell you something.” I kept picking at her hair. “Stop it,” she said, freezing my hand. Dot had never addressed me so formally. I sat very upright behind my desk and put my fingers together in a steeple, as if to show her that when you speak like an adult, everyone around you grows cold and severe. “Dad and I made an agreement,” she said. “When he gets here, he’s going to be my manager.” Betraying nothing, I said, “He was supposed to be here yesterday.” “I know that.” Dot’s first assistant pounded on the honeywagon door. It was time to go back through the window. “Do you think he’ll come today?” I asked. "Probably, yeah." “That’s not very professional.” Dot looked at her dirty hands, and suddenly lurched at me like a beautiful, filthy little vampire. I neither flinched nor smiled. * God hated The Chasm. If I believed in predestination, I’d observe how He arranged the production’s calamities to torment Edgar Van Buren. The director’s perfectionism was the stuff of renown—dozens, sometimes hundreds of imperceptibly different takes to achieve the one. That’s why, despite everything—despite the drinking, the verbal abuse, the reckless endangerment—everyone wanted to work with him. It was a chance to be a part of something everlasting. Yet on that project, everything conspired against him. Twice the set was ripped away by sandstorms that gathered on the radar, blood-red and too late to evade. That’s when Dot and I laid the foundation of the castle, the honeywagon rocking in gale-force winds. And we had further opportunities to work when the elder star, Xavier Braun, stepped on a rattler and was bitten three times, fast as automatic weaponry, and had to be air-lifted back to Los Angeles. The Chasm was Van Buren’s first horror film. Having asserted himself in almost every other genre—comedy, history, war—it was an aesthetic challenge he’d set himself. But what was it about? The script was impressionistic, constantly reappearing on different-coloured paper as it underwent another visionary mutation. I don’t think he really understood what horror meant—not yet. In the latest version—mustard yellow—a narrative spine had formed at last. A runaway orphan (Dot) hitchhikes into the desert, and comes upon a seemingly abandoned chapel, only to discover a man (Braun) living inside. The orphan mistakes him for a priest, but as it turns out, he’s an escaped convict, a child-murderer. The title, as I gleaned from the mustard-yellow version, referred to the psychic underworld into which the killer initiates the orphan. But everything else remained indistinct. The budget was ballooning. The studio was terrified. Van Buren’s indulgent, improvisational method was a Hollywood anachronism. He’d inked a famous contract in the late 1960s, wedding him to the studio in perpetuity, but guaranteeing certain artistic protections. At the time, it had seemed like a colossal mistake. But by the ‘80s, he was the last of his generation’s directors still to be provided unlimited budgets and vast creative leniency. As his fellow auteurs found themselves directing second units on third sequels, Van Buren remained untouchable. He took as long as he liked; the budget was just an abstract figure to him. At night, he’d start a bonfire and drink to semi-prophetic excess, sweat shining in the flames, and everyone waited to hear what he’d discovered and transform it into cinema. I didn’t care about Edgar Van Buren or his Chasm. I was there for Dot, Dot alone. I only dreaded the one calamity: that Ryder, her father, was coming to take over her career. And what would that mean for us? * It was dusk when Dot’s bike finally skidded to a stop outside the honeywagon. After a Yoohoo, to my amazement, she took up her math textbook and moved through the algebra with vigour, as if her mind were ravenous. In our classroom, all was orderly and French and still as a mirror. In fact, it was I who spoiled the environment. “Is there anything I can say to persuade you?” Not looking up, she said, “No, Pascal.” “He’s a day late. He doesn’t call. Is this the behaviour of a manager?” She placed the pencil by the page. “You don’t know him.” Something in her voice frightened me, a kind of echo from a place I didn’t understand. I corrected her pronunciation and poured some Skittles on her desk. She exaggerated the sticky gnashing of her teeth—that was better. And then I heard the crunch of tires, and we were outside, headlights sweeping over us. As the truck rolled to a stop, it nearly mangled Dot’s bike. Ryder slammed the door of the Ford F-series, which she’d bought for him. He was bald, but wore a red beard, dense as a forest observed from a jet, and his barbell biceps were unevenly patchy, the hairs like scratches. Already he looked northern and overheated. “Doretta!” He could barely support her when she leapt into his arms. “This is Pascal.” We shook hands. “You’re the teacher.” Dot cleaved to me and said, “Mon astre.” “What’s that.” I felt a warmth in my cheeks. “There’s no good translation,” I said. “I’ve told you about him.” “Sure,” he said, “I remember.” “And she’s told me about you,” I said. “Alright.” Ryder told her to look at the sky. Wasn’t it indigo? Wasn’t it beautiful? “It’s like that every night,” said Dot. “Is that your bike?” “Yeah.” “Good for you. Remember where I taught you to ride?” “Lake Erie.” Ryder glanced at me. “I found a little spot with a view of the valley,” he said. “Get in the truck. We’ll catch the last of the light.” The sky was fading fast, but Dot humoured him. He heaved the bike into the cargo bed, and in another moment, the truck veered away. I replaced the textbook on the shelf, and dropped her pencil in the oblong ceramic cup we’d fired together. Then I corrected her algebra—so many mistakes—and my day’s purpose was fulfilled. * Awake on the honeywagon’s narrow bed, I listened for that shy knock on the door. Then she’d come inside, as she’d done so many times, and wordlessly curl up on the carpet. I’d imagine her sucking her thumb as we fell into our dreams. No one ever appreciated what those children went through, not until something happened—and then everyone had an opinion. But they were a lot like a movie set, like the chapel they’d built for The Chasm: pristine from certain angles, behind which the trash collected and a producer was smoking. Eight years old, Dot had been given to me on a set at Nickelodeon. I mean that in earnest: her mother, Roxane, just a bruised little child herself, entrusted Dot to me. After a brief, impulsive marriage to Ryder, Roxane had fled to Los Angeles with some inarticulate ambition, but before she even had headshots, she was drinking for breakfast and coughing. The limelight isn’t morbid; it skipped over Roxane and fixed on her daughter—Doretta “Dot” Howell of the rosebud hair, the endless eyes. Doctors said they were actually growing too big for her head. With that monumental face, Dot appeared like an adult you’d once known, or had, at least, once seen on screen. Those are my fondest memories, still glowing. I recall Dot as an energetic blur. At Nickelodeon, we’d play hide-and-go-seek, and she’d give herself away with laughter. She’d do anything for Skittles; she’d imitate the sound of French. When the Enquirer started following Roxane around, just to catch her drunk in public, Dot began staying overnight. After Roxane’s death, I gave up my other children and wholly devoted myself to Dot. I banished the charlatans and money-lenders. I gave her an idea of God, telling her there was always a beautiful man watching her. And so, I was the one she asked about the bleeding; I was the one who told her what it meant. As for Ryder, on certain melancholy nights I’d hear about him. She had so few memories, she always returned to the one good summer on Lake Erie, stretching it out until it seemed like a marvellous history. When he took her on his back, she said, she didn’t fear the water. The way she spoke of Lake Erie, I sometimes felt she was still waiting for him to take her back and finish those lessons. Meanwhile Nickelodeon became Disney, and Disney became Fox. And then the Chasm script arrived, on fresh white paper. It was the first script she wouldn’t let me read until she’d finished. From the very beginning, she was doing this for an idea of herself. Now fifteen years old, it was time to choose: orient yourself toward Oscars, or be an unserious girl forever. The Chasm set was unlike any I’d ever been on. They weren’t creating this movie to be happy, or to make others happy. Lying awake that night in the honeywagon, I heard the crew’s drunken laughter, the hiss of someone pissing on the sand. And Dot didn’t come. I said a prayer for her, alone in the night. She was still so unknown to herself. * Van Buren suddenly took Xavier Braun and a small unit up into the mountain caves. They were gone for days, but Dot and I still didn’t get much done. Ryder would scoop her up after breakfast and shoot through the desert toward the cliffs or the Indian reserve. They’d fire off guns together, blowing up the Joshua trees, or skid around on ATVs with a recklessness I’d begun to see as common to them. By the time she got back, she was more depleted, more useless to me, than after the most violent Van Buren workdays. Yet nothing was so contemptible as what Ryder asked me as I filled my flask at the water station. “Pascal,” he said, “what exactly do you teach my daughter?” He’d accosted me outside the shade, the white sun hovering, a pitiless disc, above his head. I said, “A standard Californian curriculum.” “And more besides.” “Well, of course. The state mandates that studio teachers be certified welfare workers. I manage Dot’s well-being, whether it be getting her inoculated, or discussing the morals of the script, or just keeping her company—being there for her, you understand.” “I don’t want to offend you,” he said, “but Doretta seems, sometimes, a little stunted.” “Stunted.” “Basic things—things she should know—she doesn’t.” “And you’re to judge what she should know.” “The names of presidents, yes. The cause of the Civil War. All fifty states.” “American things.” “It isn’t only American,” Ryder said. “She’s slow with simple math. She knows nothing about tectonic plates, or how tornadoes form.” “I assure you, Mr. Howell, Dot’s developing perfectly well.” “Then why can’t she take the proficiency exam.” I’d been in Hollywood long enough to get guarded when a parent mentioned the exam. The fact that he even knew about it already betrayed him. If an underage actor could test out of high school, she became eligible to work longer hours, overtime, even through the night. A sick green glow always emanated from the heart of a Hollywood parent. “You’d better leave that up to me,” I said, and began to walk away. He put a hand to my chest. “All the same,” he said, “I’d like to sit in tomorrow afternoon.” “I don’t think that’s a good idea.” “I’m her manager,” he said, “I have the right.” He’d kept me there just long enough for my nose and cheeks to burn. * Dot was dabbing pink paint on the little princess when he entered. She dropped her brush and Ryder sat, ridiculously huge, in one of her chairs. In French, I said, “Your father is going to spend the remaining time with us.” And Dot answered, in American English, “I know.” I clucked and reminded her to sustain the French, as we’d agreed. “But it isn’t fair. He won’t understand what we’re saying.” “As you wish,” and I looked to Ryder. “But you see, there was something being taught here, and now, no longer.” “Noted.” I didn’t dare give her Skittles. I handed her the math textbook, and told her to work on the algebra. At first she was confused, thinking she’d seen the problems before, but then she settled in. As I stared at Ryder, I gradually perceived that he was struggling with the conditions in the honeywagon. Everyone thinks they understand what it means to work on a movie. It was pushing a hundred; the walls were sweating. The toilet was close, unclean. Soon he was fidgeting. I’d applied cold cream to my face, and could sit there for hours, deriving austere pleasures from how Dot gripped the pencil, how she turned it idly in her fingers and nibbled the edge. I only broke my pose upon hearing the commotion outside. For days, the set had been held in a kind of scorched suspense, but now there were shouts and laughter, cars swooping through camp, refreshingly. Van Buren had returned from the mountains. Ryder seized upon my distraction to shoot a spitball at his child. “Hey!” I turned to see Dot clutching her ear, Ryder laughing like an ape. She balled up a page from her notebook and rang it off his dome. Now he was looking at her with appetite, and in one brute motion, he cleared the desk away and grabbed her at the waist. She let him pull her to the carpet, laughter breaking into hiccups. I moved the castle to safety and watched them roll around. Ryder caught my eye, and he must’ve read my satisfaction there. He disentangled from her and righted the chairs. He said, “I don’t know what came over me.” Dot was still heaving on the floor, hair strewn over her face. She blew it off her lips and said, “It’s fun here, isn’t it?” I said, “Isn’t it?” “Get back to work,” he ordered. “Start working, Doretta.” * Ryder befriended Van Buren. At night, I’d see them, crackling bronze figures by the bonfire. They’d pass the Jim Beam, and when it was empty, set the bottle out in the clear moonlight and blow it to smithereens. Van Buren had come back changed by the caves. He said The Chasm cohered for him there; he was throwing out most of what he had. In the day, producers waited anxiously outside the tent while Van Buren rewrote the script, ash dropping into his chest hair. They called the studio; they tried to explain what he was doing. At day’s end, he’d have the latest scene copied, and issue it like law. Drunk in that infernal light, he and Ryder unfolded Dot Howell’s future. If she got The Chasm right, there would be more projects, all the awards, unimaginable money. I could hear them howl together—“Yes, yes,” went her father, her manager—and more gunshots. * I found the pink pages on my desk. She’d left them for me. I took them out to the plastic chair beneath the parasol with a view of the hills. They were just piles of Martian-red rocks, as if a giant had ground up mountains in his fist. As the sun set behind a dusty film, the sky purpled and dimmed. At once, I saw why she’d left the new script, why she didn’t want to face me as I read it. The Chasm was darkening; it was becoming real horror. Before, the relation between Dot and Xavier was all innuendo, arresting suggestions between cuts, but Van Buren had made it explicit. So this was what you learned in caves; so this was genius—the molestation of a child on film. When the night had gathered around the camp, I went looking for him. There was no one by the bonfire, but I heard the pop, the breaking glass, and followed them out to where Van Buren and Ryder were shooting. The light of the moon was so pure, the men seemed to stand on stage, the sand flat and crossed by the shadows of the Joshua trees. Off to the side, three women sat on lawn chairs, smoking in fur coats, their legs bare and blue. They noticed me first, and their silence alerted the men. I stood with the pages, observed by Van Buren. Behind him, Ryder reloaded. I said, “You have a wicked heart.” Ryder hooted, plunking in the bullets. “What did you say?” and the director stepped forward, close enough that I could toss the script against his chest. He caught the wad, glanced over it, and threw it aside. “I said there’s a worm in your soul.” All the while he was coming toward me. “What do you know,” he said. “What could you possibly know.” “Ease up,” called Ryder. “It’s only the teacher.” “I know she won’t do the scene,” I said. “But she will.” “I won’t let her.” Van Buren shoved me with both hands, and stumbling back, I tripped on bramble and landed hard. He sent me back down as I tried to scramble up. I felt his drunk, elemental strength. I managed to say, “I’m not afraid of you.” “You’re a fool, Pascal.” Now he crouched down and slapped me, once. I briefly saw the women, and then my cheek was to the sand. I thought of snakes and scorpions. “You’re a fool.” The shots rang out in rapid succession—a woman yelped—and Van Buren stepped back. “Enough,” said Ryder. Dot’s father hoisted me to my feet, and brushed me off, motioning for Van Buren to stay where he was. “Why don’t you go to sleep, Pascal.” I was staring at Van Buren, his eyes full of moonlight. “She won’t do it,” I said, to myself. * I couldn’t find Dot in the morning, and everyone had a different answer. They sent me to makeup; they might’ve seen her with the first-assistant; she’d just biked by—see the tracks? Finally, I approached the chapel, where they were setting up the scene, and over a producer’s shoulder, I saw her. “Dot!” He cut my angle off. “You can’t keep me out. I’ll have this whole thing shut down. Dot!” I snagged her eye, and she said to let me through. The chapel smelled of fresh sawdust, but was staged to signal years of decay: a collapsed wall, the Virgin caked with grime, doves in the rafters prodded by the handler on a ladder. And Dot—her dress was bloodied and torn, blotched with black fingerprints and sticking with sweat. “You don’t have to do this scene.” “Pascal—” “I know we haven’t talked about it.” “We don’t have to.” “Can’t you see what they’re doing?” Van Buren was riding the camera like a dark horse, and Ryder stood nearby, reading the pink version. How could he let the scene play out in his mind? “Don’t let them do this, Dot.” She seemed confused by how I took her hand. Van Buren tapped her on the shoulder, and without even looking at me, said, “Let me explain this to you.” Actor and director angled away. I got as close as I could to the scene. It was just a squalid mattress by the altar. Dot sprawled as if drugged, eyelids thick and heavy as a toad’s. Her legs were bare, bruised. I’d never seen her thighs, and I remember wondering, absurdly, where she learned to have thighs like those. Van Buren called for action, and Xavier squatted down. He was strangely clean, grey hair wet, pulled back. The beads dangled from his neck like grapes. It wasn’t artifice—it was lust. It was real in his eyes, and on his fingers, and blazing through his lips. Van Buren thrust the camera forward. I heard them murmuring. Xavier pinned her by the wrists, and she writhed—not against his strength, but within it. He cupped her chin—her soft cheeks bunching, lips squeezed into a square—and leaned into a suctioning kiss. Her eyes closed voluptuously, horrifically. Then she put his hand to her breast and pulled him back onto the bed. Suddenly Dot sat up straight and shook her head. My heart thrilled. Van Buren yelled cut. The director wiped his mouth. Someone brought Xavier a cigarette, and the actors lounged there on their elbows. Van Buren crouched down to Dot and called for Ryder. The four of them had a quick conversation. Ryder came back to me through the crew. He said, “She can’t do the scene.” “I can see that.” “She’s asking you to leave.” Doves shuddered on the roofbeams. “What.” “She can’t do the scene in front of you. Will you go back to the classroom, and wait for her there?” I looked to Dot. She put her eyes everywhere else. From a distance, Van Buren was watching me. “Let me talk to her.” “You’re wasting everyone’s time, Pascal. Now she’s asked you nicely—go.” * I’ll never know if she came back to the honeywagon afterward. I’d taken the bottle to the hills. My sister sometimes sent me Calvados from home, though I almost never found occasion to drink. I’d been working through this bottle for a year, but that evening, I sucked it worshipfully, as if it were the very pith of Normandy. The desert stars came out, and my mind turned to Roxane. I wanted to pray to her, but the stars were cold, withdrawn. I knew I’d disappointed her. She’d urged me to take her daughter; shaking, she’d pressed the beads into my hand. It was a promise, soul to soul. And the old picture came, man and wife on a little plot of Normandy. He’s reading in the shade, apples dropping from the tree, the castle in the distance, tall. The children sprint past and she calls to them, still a child in her heart. But I found no direction there. The picture hovered in two dimensions. The Calvados tasted thin, even putrid at the edges. Instead a story Roxane once told, chasing Stoli with milk, invaded me. Ryder would have her smear lipstick on his erection, she said, as if his penis were a cheap whore, and then she’d suck it like a woman’s lips. And I thought of the women, naked under fur coats, and I thought of all the money Ryder had now, Dot’s money. I broke the bottle on the stone, and the liquor burst over my hand. I knew where he slept. The jagged edge of glass caught moonlight, and I felt like Roxane, way out on some private rampage, pursued by journalists. But I didn’t realize how drunk I was until I stood and moved unsteadily, rock by rock, down the hill, and then all I wanted was to be buried underground, asleep. * I grew formal over the coming days. I’d taught adults before. No Yoohoos, no Skittles—and where had the castle gone? Doretta knew I was angry—there were times I thought she sensed the rest—but didn’t attempt a reconciliation. It would’ve been the death of the woman she wanted to be, the icon looming over her, beckoning her out into the world. So it was already written. She failed at the new lessons I gave her. She had to stay late, do them over. She put on a show of not minding. She tried harder, but still wasn’t ready. Meanwhile The Chasm was collapsing—that’s something that never made the papers. The producers tried keeping rumour in check, but the studio’s anger was known; it had seeped into the cast and crew like guilt, everyone but Van Buren. He only responded with further provocations. But in private, as we’d learn during the trial, he was tormented, blocked. The Chasm had no climax. It needed something spectacular—a permanent image—and it was then that water, black and deep and strong as steel cables, began to rush across the desert sands of his imagination. * On the morning of the stunt, he had us up before dawn, and announced that we were going to the sea. It was all arranged; he’d sent the crew ahead. Now Doretta, Ryder, Van Buren and I piled into a truck, and headed west, dust blazing up behind the wheels. I remember Doretta was excited. This was why you worked with Edgar Van Buren—so you could reminisce, later, to The Hollywood Reporter, all about the time he had you up at dawn and took you to the sea because he’d seen the movie ending in a dream. In the truck he passed around the mint-green pages. Escaping the murderer, the orphan would plunge into the cove. Later, they’d shoot her underwater on a stage at the studio, feeling her way into a cave. But for the drop, the location was perfect, said Van Buren: a little cove of ink-black water. He said, “A shot of you falling—it could be immortal.” With the stunt, The Chasm would be whole, at last. “We shoot at sundown.” But his star was staring out the window, the stooped desert trees rushing past. In sunglasses, and with a kerchief tied around her head, she looked like a woman twenty years older, twenty years ago. “What’s the matter,” he said. “Don’t you like it?” Doretta’s head turned toward me, but she said, “I love it.” “The audience will know you’ve given them everything,” said the director. “The Academy despises doubles. They want to see you act every frame.” Only I knew what she was thinking, but I also knew she didn’t want me to speak for her, not anymore. In her shades, I could see myself, just a small man in the corner of the truck, indistinct, like the memory of someone you knew as a child. * After weeks in the desert, I relished the breeze that pulled off the sea. All day was spent setting up the stunt, the crew bobbing in lifejackets down in the cove. The water swirled around them, black and deep, like a pit. Doretta would drop from the cove’s rocky wall. No one ever asked if she could swim. I wandered away from the set, over to where the sheer cliffs plunged, and stared out to the hovering line of the horizon. Already the sun was lowering and flashing off the water. It wouldn’t be long before the stunt. I heard: “Pascal.” It was Ryder. He came to my side and peered into the wind. “Everything takes forever,” he said. “But I guess you’re used to it.” “Yes.” He laughed, “Don’t be so high-strung, Pascal. I come in peace. I know we got off to a bad start, but I’ve been thinking—I was wrong. I mistook her excitement for immaturity.” “Excitement.” “For me to be here. She was just being my girl, like before.” I wanted to say there never was before. “Shake hands?” he asked. I’ll never know for certain, but in that moment, I sensed he’d had me fired, that in the morning, I’d be recalled to Los Angeles. Over blinding water, Doretta Howell’s future stretched out to the vanishing point. We shook. Ryder stepped to the very edge, and looked straight down. The rocks pointed up like bayonets; the current ripped into the open sea. I remember my hands felt light, inspired, primed to push. But the spirit deflated. He’d prevail, anyway. The bulb inside her had finally split; a powerful stalk had broken through. I saw the mud she’d slung beside our castle. It piled up before my eyes, incompatible with life. There was a call: “Pascal!” I turned to see Doretta’s first-assistant, and Ryder and I came running to the makeup truck. We found Van Buren leaning over the chair where she shivered and gasped for breath. “What is it,” Ryder asked. “It just came over her.” “Give her space,” I said, and knelt. “Breathe easy. You’re safe.” She’d gone bright red, and hot tears issued from the corners of her eyes, though she wasn’t really crying. I took her hands; the wrists rapidly pulsed. “You’re safe.” “We were reviewing the stunt,” said Van Buren. “She’s never been this way before.” “What is it, Doretta,” asked Ryder. She was regaining composure, I thought, or a sense of audience. She said, “It’s nothing.” “Maybe the water,” the assistant offered. There was a brief silence while the men decided whether to take her seriously. “But she can swim,” said Van Buren. “Of course,” said Ryder. “I taught her myself—you remember, Doretta, on the lake.” She nodded. “I remember.” Later, no one would recall how they all looked to me, even her. But if I forget every other instant of my life, I’ll still remember how I said, “She can swim.” “Maybe it’s the drop,” said Van Buren. “But the water’s deepest right where you’re landing, and anyway it’s not as high as the window. Alright?” She touched the tears from her eyes, and pushed out a smile. “Alright.” Van Buren clapped. Ryder helped her up. “I’m sorry to be so childish.” The first-assistant cooed, “Not at all, darling, not at all.” Van Buren was out the door. “She’s fine,” he reported to the producer outside. “I’ll put you on my back,” her father joked. “Just get me to the set,” Doretta said. “Then I’ll do it on my own.” * I remember the light was perfect. From where Ryder and I stood, we could just see her pressed against the wall below, her famous rosebud hair precisely tangled. The cove whirled beneath her, swallowing. The camera lowered to the surface. I heard Van Buren’s call for silence, for action. “Go!” he shouted. “Go!” There was still something I could’ve done. Then Ryder started running, but it was a six-minute climb down to the water. The camera never stopped rolling. The footage was never made public. * My sister has set out coffee and Le Monde beneath the apple tree. The fruit is full of worms; a drought has killed her garden. This isn’t what I’d pictured, what I’d tried to make out of the girl once given to me. But I can see the castle, and the indifference of the stone—watching everything, anything—is like the love of God. In Le Monde, I find another clipping. I will paste it in the scrapbook. There are fewer all the time; soon they’ll vanish altogether. Translated into American English, it reads: A film by Edgar Van Buren, Black Water, premieres in Paris this week. Critics say the film subtly reworks the tragedy of child actor Doretta Howell, which derailed Van Buren’s last production and nearly cost him his freedom. Black Water has been nominated for Best Picture and Best Director at the Academy Awards, and has grossed over $40 million in the United States.
I didn’t realize, when I drove a U-Haul packed with all of my belongings 1500 miles away from home to a new apartment and a new city on the East coast, that I was leaving the sky behind.
The sky dances, but only for me. Lying on brittle sun burnt grass, I can stare up into that untouchable ocean and see it move. On the North Texas plains, where I grew up, nothing interrupts the sky; if I stand on a road that’s long enough, both horizons are visible just by looking right and left. That sky is giant, looming, and unbroken. As a child, I thought I could see the air, could visualize the wind. Ribbons flipped over, and lines squiggled and bunched and drifted left and right in front of me. The air became permanent inside my eyes, my brain registering something real, something alive. I asked my sister, my parents, my friends to look at the sky with me, to see the strange movement that mesmerized me on days when the sun was high and the air thick with heat that radiated back up from the ground. But a glance is not enough to see the sky. It takes focus, and boredom, and the ability to let your eyes glaze over and see nothing but a shining, shaking, panel of blue. I didn’t realize, when I drove a U-Haul packed with all of my belongings 1500 miles away from home to a new apartment and a new city on the East coast, that I was leaving the sky behind. All skies, I thought, were the same, until I moved and realized that can’t possibly be true. * In early photographs taken with long exposure times on clear days, the sky washes out, becomes a lightbox, stark, backlit. Looked at for long enough, it disappears. The sky is more void than substance, more air than material. It has almost no mass. The sky is not the crisp azul of morning. It is not the amber of sunset. It is never truly the blush of dawn. We say the sky is clear when it is vacant of clouds, but the sky itself is actually clear. Air molecules have no color, possess no character or influence. The sky exists only because we do. The molecules of the sky, those tiny bumper cars of atoms, scatter the light of the sun, forcing it into smaller and smaller waves. Blue light has the shortest wavelength and so we see it the most clearly, our eyes performing a conversion of the world in front of us. We replace a mile of gas particles with a sea of cerulean. We build a perimeter for our world. We make the sky only for ourselves. In every season, I know what the Texas sky looks like. Show me a photograph from the plains where I grew up and I can tell you the month. My brain reads the muted gray blue as January. The fluffy cotton candy clouds floating in a sea of Byzantine blue are May. A powder blue backdrop is October. Boyhood could only have been shot in the summer, probably July. No Country For Old Men must be May. Same for Dazed and Confused. The sky is more legible than a timestamp, more consistent than the follow of a shadow. The sky, in theory, is universal. It connects us all, hangs over us all, is something we all share. Except that my sky is special: my sky, the sky I crave and miss and dream about in my boring dreams. The sky I grew up with is the same one that stretches from the Gulf of Mexico up into Canada. It is the sky of the Great Plains. These are flyover states to some, middle America to others, Big Sky Country to everyone who lives there, whether they know it or not. In his 1834 travel journal-turned-guidebook, German settler Detlef Jordt described it as, “The clear, Italic sky, of which we can form no idea in our part of the world…” For visitors, the Texas plains inspire awe. “I am loving the plains more than ever it seems—and the SKY—Anita, you’ve never seen SKY—it is wonderful,” the painter Georgia O’Keeffe wrote to her friend in 1916 during her four year stint in the Texas Panhandle. “It is absurd the way I love this country.” This obsession with the sky, the love of it, is embedded in the state’s pride. Like a long A in speech or cowboy boots, the sky deserves pride just for being there. The first two lines of the state’s favorite song, “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” are: “the stars at night are big and bright,” and “the prairie sky is wide and high.” Deeply ingrained in the state’s identity is access to this big, smooth, unchanging thing, this reminder that no matter how big our problems feel, or how bad the world gets, we are always small, always barely a blip under the dome of the heavens. “Like being close to the ocean,” Pulitzer prize winning author Lawrence Wright writes in his new book God Save Texas, “the sky [serves] as a natural point of focus for the contemplation of eternity.” You grow up a soothsayer under that sky. On a clear day, when no clouds dare to interrupt the sweep of that cornflower backdrop, it’s almost as if you can see the future. Look at the horizon and any affront, any storm or shade, can be recognized and prepared for. With these storms, the ones that come from the West, there is time: time to finish a game, or swim another lap in the pool, or go down the slide one last time before walking home. These are the storms with personality, that don't start with light rain, gentle sounds of approach, but with flashes of light, some snaking like varicose veins across the navy of approaching clouds, some bolting downward to earth. As a kid, we learned to count after the flash. One-Mississippi, Two-Mississippi, Three-Mississippi, Four-Mississippi, Five. If the boom came at five counts, the sound of the crash sometimes loud enough to make the earth feel like it shook, the storm was a mile away. Any closer, and it was already too late. The weather is volatile that way, surprising. Its worst moods can produce hail the size of softballs and tornados that mow down entire homes in neat, seemingly calculated lines. But that is a weather system. The sky only gives rainbows. It is stable. The sky does not change, does not move, does not ever disappear. Drive straight enough at 90 miles per hour through West Texas and it tracks you. Lie down on the ground in your front yard, and it might just dance. It makes sense there, that heaven is above us. Of course it must be. The ground dries out and kills things that grow. The sky never does. The sky is so blue and so rich and so unreachable that it must be a holy place, a home for no one but deities. “I still feel sky-deprived when in the forested places. Many, many people born to the skies of the plains feel that way,” Larry McMurtry, author of Lonesome Dove, once wrote. * The first step of cultural adjustment, according to social psychologists, is euphoria. My first summer in Washington, D.C., I chugged euphoria. I saw the fireworks over the Washington monument and read in the grass. I found a new grocery store, and a new favorite restaurant. And then, the temperatures dropped overnight and it snowed before Thanksgiving and the cute pea coat I had worn in Texas became about as useful as a down feather bikini. Even in this city of short buildings, the sky felt distant, a panel where a dome had been. Instead of feeling like a protector, it felt like a background. Even when clouds moved across it, it looked one-dimensional. It appeared briefly between buildings like a hole in the world, which was here on the ground, here in the deadlines and the errands and the freezing wind. Even when this city’s sky was blue, it felt restricted, limited. I stood on the two bridges near my house just to get a better glimpse, to try and see the curvature of the earth above me even though the world felt flatter than it ever had on the prairie. Winter came quickly and I floundered. A tidal wave of clinical depression tried to drown me, and I entered the second phase of adjustment: “culture shock.” The grocery store didn’t sell any real salsa, I realized. Days disappeared more quickly than I knew they could, the sun rising after I walked through the hazy morning light to the office and gone before I headed home. Maybe time moves slowly on the plains because you can see it, see the sun emerge from the other side of the world and drift lazily up and across and back down again: every moment of it visible from any part of the tortilla-flat land. Here on the coast, the gray winter clouds sat on top of the short buildings like a lead blanket. And the sky was gone. The muscles in my neck started to shorten when I moved. All day, I looked down: down at my phone; down at the sidewalk threatening to trip me; down at my hands while they flew over the keyboard anxiously; down at my dog while we walked. I could feel them shortening, before I knew that was what it was, could feel a tightness around my vocal cords that disappeared if I lifted my head a little to look straight, that pulled when I stretched my head upwards. I never realized what that blueness, a clear sky, seeing the sun does to my mood until I went home for Christmas that first winter. The sky greeted me, open and giant. “It is strange to see the plains again with nothing to break the view in any direction as far as we can see,” Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote to her husband in 1919. She had forgotten, during her years living in the Ozark Mountains, what it was like to disappear “under the sunset and starlight of the prairie.” Returning to that sky was like chopping off six inches of hair. I felt lighter, leaner, expectant. “Room to make a big mistake,” the Dixie Chicks called the land with that kind of sky, maybe because there’s less risk there, fewer people watching. Promise is all above you, in the sky, far away, glimmering, easy to understand. What is the opposite of claustrophobia? Of needing something so big and so much that it hurts to be returned to it? Is that just homesickness?
I thought I could escape my jail kid past in an idyllic southern city. But trouble found me, and not everyone I knew got out alive.
Never before had a late-afternoon knock on the front door meant trouble. Friends and transients alike walked freely through the Italianate homes of other students at the Savannah College of Art and Design. This was college in the south and lingering throughout Savannah were open doors, gentle hospitality, mint juleps, artillery punch, and the inclination that something extraordinary might happen, the desire that it would. Mike, Miles, John and Sean thought, at first, that the knock, on October 28, 2010, was a joke. Then the housemates saw that the two boys at their door demanding weed and cash were armed. They let the young men inside. On this Friday afternoon, the air liberated the city from a compressive heat. Empty beer cans rattled in the breeze. Lining the streets, live oaks ached. The elegance of the exterior of the house belied its insides as an active drug center: Seedlings and mature marijuana plants, sheets of LSD, containers of ingredients to make hallucinogenic and party drugs, a functioning drug lab and a device police later suspected was explosive. One of the armed men, not much older than Sean, led him to the back of the house. Sean was stripped of drugs, cash, and his cellphone. He did as he was told. He obliged in a way that seemed honorable, displaying compliance with the stoicism reserved for situations of unfathomable fear. Yes, he’d do it, but grudgingly. Yeah, take the stuff, but you’ll regret this. Everyone would. The armed men bolted. Outside, in a Honda CR-V around the corner, a driver sat waiting. The license plate county tag read FULTON. The home off Barnard was in Chatham. Fulton meant the gunmen were from Atlanta, roughly four hours north. Who were these boys? Why had they come all this way? How did they know about the home, about what it held inside? Sean—who could have been any number of people in the city, a young man with a medium athletic build and the casual nonchalance of an art school student—wanted to go after them. He wanted answers. Mike cautioned him. “They’re not going to shoot me in the middle of the street,” Sean said. He ran out of the house and trailed the robbers on foot. Mike, like any friend, followed. Miles went after them. John, on crutches with his leg in a cast, brought up the rear. Students didn’t attend classes on Fridays. Most slept in on the fifth day of a four-day study week. The holly streets were empty and absent of life. Sean and Mike caught up to the two men beside the Honda. The gun discharged four times. They were both struck. John was shot in the hip and arm. He fell alone while Sean and Mike fell together. Miles was unharmed. The dark grey Honda disappeared down West 35th. Later, Mike would remember holding Sean in his arms. He asked him if he knew who the men were. “And that’s when he started to fade.” * It was hard for me to imagine anything going wrong in a city like Savannah, a place of upholstered beauty and tender manners where people were kind even to their consonants. We were far from anyone and anything. Languid tidal creeks swept clear the troubled minds of travelers and residents and students alike. Everyone was aloof and dumbstruck with tranquility, a high you could never escape. Coastal winds, healthy gulps of air off the Lowcountry, filtered through walls of wheat grass and old brick and stucco and settled into delicate whistles of the many ceiling fans. Students observed strict geographic boundaries. Martin Luther King Blvd. to the west, East Broad Street to the east, Bay Street to the north, and the top of Forsyth Park, or Park Avenue, to the south. Per southern decorum, we never spoke of why. No matter, there was a general resistance against lessons learned. A thriving drinking culture, a disenchantment about secluded life, a restlessness of youth and a history of statutory disregard for authority was a bad mix for anyone coming to Savannah, looking for slow living from a past of anything but. And like anyone in college, we never imagined our privilege could end. Slowly, then suddenly, it did. In 2009, I moved to the south from New Jersey in an attempt to escape my spiral as a jail kid. It was the start of what you could call my life on the run. Instead of vandalizing cars, breaking into homes, fighting and boozing and selling drugs, I wanted to attend college, meet a sweet southern girl, graduate, get a respectable job, buy a house, start a family. The kid in shackles was someone I was certain I could replace. In New Jersey, the police referred to my friends and me as six-oh-ones: juvenile delinquents. We spent time in lockups across the country and in hardscrabble Trenton alternative schools and youth detention centers. After one release, I moved into a dingy, ramshackle two-bedroom apartment—littered with whiskey bottles, holes broken across the walls by angry fists and the ground littered with greenery in tight dime bags I helped sell on the third floor of a housing complex on the northern skirt of the city center. Other than a putrid, yellow- and red-stained mattress on the ground, from alternate nights of pissing myself blotto or fighting through bloodshed, my possessions, gathered over a full eighteen years, were crammed into the backseat of a Chevy Malibu. I lived with a trio of friends who made their money selling ounces. I sold small amounts when they were gone. It was easy. It was quick. It also made me feel essential to people who otherwise would have never needed me. I became part of something instead of languishing as part of nothing. Sitting there in the apartment, I’d play video games until the door bell rang and someone or a group of people would ask whether I was holding. I’d invite them inside and take their money and soon they would be gone. It was a harmless enterprise that supplied me with friendly interactions and free drugs. As a teenager, what could have been better? Eyes were on the apartment. I didn’t know that then, but I had an inkling. By the time agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration raided it—as most of us were certain they would, having noted the strange reappearance of men whose dress seemed clean and pressed and unfit for where they stood hunched in poorly lighted areas on the block, translucent wires hung from their ears—I had moved into my car and readied a structured flight path out of town. Between delivering pizzas and sandwiches, I scheduled and attended GED and SAT tests. I applied to an art school in Georgia, the Savannah College of Art and Design, also known as SCAD. By some divine miracle they accepted me. Bloodshot eyes and foggy mind be damned. From there the door to what I hoped was prosperity and calm had opened. I ditched the car and all my possessions and hopped a plane. On my way to Savannah I continued telling myself how lucky I was to have escaped from that apartment when I had. I believed I was far superior to those men I lived with and that I wasn’t destined for the fate many of them met: prison, poverty and ruin. It was a fake pronouncement on its face, because we can never be more than the people who surround us. Enamored as I arrived in Savannah, stepping out from the armory building on Bull Street used for student admissions, I called my mother. “Mom, you’ve got to see this place. It’s like a fairytale.” She was happy that I had made it there safe, made it there at all. Her son, the college boy. What a dream. It seemed that way, too. That idea of a new life was more attainable in a new place, a fallacy I now realize alcoholics tend to call the “Geographic Cure.” I believed I wasn’t an alcoholic, just a kid who removed himself from bad elements. I was a lost, tattooed, dark-haired city boy with baggy eyes, a hoodlum who did not sleep, drank too much, mismanaged his anger. But I thought I still had time to change. The devil found work for idle hands, my mother always said, so my first order of business after moving into the dorms was finding employment. I had no skills, but from my time delivering sandwiches and pizza I could navigate a city well. I remembered seeing a young man peddling down Bull Street. He wore a strange multicolor pinwheel hat and a periwinkle T-shirt. His khakis were shorn above the knees. His eyes, like mine, were dirty ice. He towed a pedicab. One day I followed him and found myself also donning a periwinkle T-shirt. Every day I staged out of a tin-sided warehouse with a blue corrugated roof on the far east side of the city. I paid a rental fee for the cab, took a laminated card, printed on which were landmarks frequented by tourists, and chimed the handlebar bell through the city streets. Peddling, clattering through downtown, I navigated a swampy heat, the air like an elixir. I biked to the spot where I stood on Bull Street, talking to my mother, and peered up at the large live oak outside the converted armory. I felt comfort, safety and assuredness in my decision to go south. I biked farther down Bull Street, away from the admissions building. Taking a sharp turn, the bicycle cart hopping up on two wheels. I dipped through one of the city’s squares, peddling faster. Twenty-two squares cordoned off Savannah, swabbing the streets with green oases. In each were fountains and monuments, erected to commemorate various wartime heroes or, in one case, the abolishment of slavery. Obelisks poked fun at the lively canopies overhead, sometimes tangled in moss. Birds flitted in rusted fountains in the shadows of steeples and rooftops, cornices and cupolas. The geometrical gardens were the brainchild of James Oglethorpe, who founded the city and settled on the layout before he’d arrived from England. It took its inspiration from a Roman military camp: five squares fell on Barnard Street, five on Bull Street, four on Abercorn Street, four on Habersham Street, three on Houston Street, and one on Montgomery. Two had fallen to a highway bypass. Along Jones Street I picked up a man and woman who had stepped from Mrs. Wilke’s Dining Room. They were tourists on some foodie kick and wanted me to peddle them to Clary’s, a diner at the far end of Jones Street. We pedicabbers called our service Tips for Trips. I knew of Clary’s, its walls lined with student artwork for sale. Small rickety tables held plates of homemade food and the sweetest desserts, like the Elvis: peanut butter and banana served between French toast, dusted with powered sugar. On our way, I tried giving my fare a righteous tour. But while I described gardens and squares, I imagined giving an alternative history. Since pulling into town I’d heard about how, as SCAD grew beyond the one armory-turned-admissions building on Bull Street, it pushed out many lifelong historic district residents as rents skyrocketed. New developments replaced decades-old housing. By the time I arrived in 2009, many poorer communities had been relegated to the fringes of the historic district. The housing projects were where the pedicab boundaries ended and another world began. * There are always dueling narratives. Like my own story, there is the one that people might tell you and the one I know myself to be true, the one with all the good intentions later misshapen by poor choices. For SCAD, the official version goes like this: In 1978, as the brainchild of Richard and Paula Rowan, SCAD brought life to what was no longer a glamorous port city but instead a place long since fallen into decay. Savannah had become a shell of a town, the entirety of the historic district composed of crumbling buildings, an incubator for transients. When the Rowans arrived from Atlanta, they took out a $200,000 loan and with it bought thirty-eight buildings: 19th century stuccos, an Art Deco diner, the redbrick armory on Bull Street. Once the couple renovated the armory and opened the school, seventy-one students flooded downtown in 1979: classes were in session. The Rowans bloated the local economy with tens of millions of dollars a year as the student population swelled to two thousand in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. “They laid a golden egg,” a former staff writer for the Georgia Guardian, the administration’s newspaper, told me. From the very start the Rowans—he wore suits, she wore blazers and skirts—foresaw the school as something of a direct competitor with Parsons and the Rhode Island School of Design, a RISD of the south. The difference was that SCAD focused on a more marketable cadre of curriculums. They stressed pragmatism over artistic value, dollar signs over snobbish reproach, mass production over bespoke craftsmanship. Graphic design and computer animation, not completely eliding the fine arts, stressed the importance of living wages. Artists, and so the Rowans’ students, needed to eat. During this time the Rowans public appearances became sparse. The couple conjured a sultry admonishment from locals, critics and students for their unavailability and lack of transparency. Many felt the couple’s enterprise was expanding too fast, taking in too much money: outsiders and locals felt the Rowans had become power-hungry and were seen as making more money than was at the time normal for owners of a private nonprofit art college, especially one with limited reputation, and far fewer accreditations than its rivals.. Then, in the autumn of 1991, things started falling apart: an architecture professor died by a very public suicide. His body was discovered by a student, Julie Lansaw, outside the school building from which he jumped. Students sought answers about the circumstances surrounding their professor’s death, but were told to keep calm and quiet. Violence erupted. Students and faculty questioned the school’s quickening expansion and the paranoid atmosphere on campus. Lansaw went with other students to confront the administration about its secrecy, beginning their inquiry at their contributions to “student activity fees” that seemed unused. Students began asking why professors at this “new Bauhaus” were only contracted for one-year positions, never tenured. Students decided to form a governing body for themselves, and a student newspaper, the Georgia Guardian. Students wore T-shirts that read “Rowan Potato Ship” and “Dictatorship” and marched at rallies. Accounts of secretive student governance meetings were videotaped, but also publicly supported by local booksellers and the Rabbi Arnold Mark Belzer, who oversaw the congregation at Mickve Israel synagogue. The Rowans pointed agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms to student leaders like Lansaw. Two pipe bombs, which some speculated were linked to the uprising of students against the administration, exploded downtown. One sent shrapnel into the Wallaces’ home, another blew out six doors at the Civic Center. Anyone who talked to the press about the professor’s suicide saw SCAD security or administrators waiting at their doorstep. “They sued anyone,” a bookstore owner told me. More than six hundred students rallied again at the Civic Center after the bombing there. But eventually, the riots were settled and students resumed classes. A student body was formed, but it had no governing power. For students, it became a mouthpiece without an administrative ear to hear their wishes, but time lapsed and people graduated. Life seemed to move on. * When I arrived at SCAD in 2009, everything was sponged with magic. Part of the allure and beauty of the town and, by extension, the school, was inoculation. As students, we felt pacified and cloistered inside this holistic and artistic shelter. But I came to wonder whether it was possible, even advisable, to neglect your blighted past and the people you once knew in pursuit of a better future. Because they inform, histories also define. The school avoided any mention of the crime and violence attributed to the proximity of student housing to the city housing projects surrounding the Historic District. Students were often mugged, the victims of car thefts and home invasions. Before my time, stories shared like lore: a student refused to give a mugger her money and was shot and killed. Another graduate student was placing a call to his family in Taiwan when he was gunned down where he stood at the payphone. His murder was part of a suspected gang initiation. But the crime came and went with the news and soon afterward the young man was forgotten. In this way, the history of the city and the school was a patchwork of concealed tarnish. Clues unearthing the city’s use of beauty as its veil were scattered everywhere. The fertile, manicured lawns of Forsyth Park hid beneath them the catacombs of yellow fever and death. Hundred-year-old branches still groaned, having long since endured the city’s lynchings. A dog park was once the site of gentlemanly duels. For everything beautiful, a sin. To every home, a ghost. * The blacktops of Whitaker and Drayton streets sloped downward to meet with the redbrick and cobbled stone along Jones Street as I pedaled the tourists through the city. “You go to the art school?” the woman asked and, with her palm, fastened a floppy sun hat on her head. “Just started,” I said, sounding exactly like I’d come from New Jersey, having not mastered a southern cadence. “What are you studying?” the woman asked while I struggled. “Haven’t. Given. That. Any. Thought.” I heaved up an incline. For good measure toward a tip I added, “Ma’am.” “Well, what is it you like to do?” I was certain I would like for the ride to end. But since I failed to point out one of the oldest willows in Savannah, and failed to give a brief history of Clary’s, which was supposed to be the reason for tipping at all, I obliged. “I used to be into drugs. Well, I still am. Trying to clean up. Far as I know, though, you can’t turn that into a career.” “Musicians do drugs, honey,” the man whispered to his wife and adjusted the brim of his straw hat. “That’s right, you could be a musician.” “Can’t hold a tune; don’t got any beat.” “Well, you’re awfully handsome,” the woman said with glee. “Maybe there’s something you could do with that.” I unloaded the couple at Clary’s and thought about how escaping the past would be a neat trick. * Unknown to me then, my good intentions toward a new life fell away when I returned the pedicab for the year, started classes, and began spending more time with Kevin, my roommate, drinking and selling and smoking pot. Kevin—hooked nose, sun-scorched complexion, brown-eyed and angle-jawed and grungy—came to Savannah from Wilmington, North Carolina, to study film in his mid-20s. He was much older than the teenagers I expected to meet. But he was a second-year, a transfer. He’d spent the years prior working as an electrician for his father’s company, sometimes earning credits at a community college. He’d been arrested, once or twice, dealt with cops, every instance a simple mistake he annulled with a joke about police and pork. He was self-conscious about his age. “Just tell everyone I’m 25, or 23. Think they’d go for 23, an older guy?” Moving to Savannah for him seemed natural, far enough in mileage but with enough recognition to temper feelings of displacement. He arrived the same month I did. We started classes on the same day. We moved into the same dorm our very first morning in town. Our first conversation started over a twelve pack. We hadn’t stopped drinking since. Kevin’s curly brown surfer hair, the worn sandals, the floppy way he walked and used his hands and knees to depict the slightest curtails of a story about drinking with friends, his abundant merriment toward life and love, an acceptance of being and recklessness fostered in me the misguided first impression that he was an ideal role model, someone to tear me from my own troubled past. Kevin had already found an endless supply of friends. I wanted to be like him, grow into someone as revered by his peers, even though these people traipsed in and out of his life, always seemed to follow him but were never really there. I was always there. We unfroze the bags of stew provided by his mother and sat down to lengthy meals over which we discussed business strategies: how best to go about cooking a batch of edible pot brownies, how we might sell to kids on the park bisecting the city, whether or not we could trust our roommates to know we were keeping more and more product on campus. We dated girls who were friends, more or less intentionally, so if ever we needed to flip a bag or ounce, one of us could entertain the women while the other handled business. The cops were called to the dorm one night as Kevin put down his bong. A resident assistant had spotted the glass paraphernalia through an outside window. The police arrested Kevin, making no show of whisking him off in manacles in the back of a squad car, the lights passing over the van in which I sat selling off the last ounce of the stockade we kept in the dorm. Not long after, I arrived at the jailhouse with the bond. He was summarily banned from the dorms, never allowed into campus housing again We drove home, where he would collect his things and begin his search for new living arrangements, and shared a cigarette knowing that the only way the racket would be worth anything was to go bigger. At eighteen, my risk tolerance was at an all-time high. I knew we could keep getting popped for little weight, or move more weight and make the risk nearly negligible. Somewhere along this tangled route, Kevin met Sean and Mike. * We’d been dry for some while. What had begun with a single knock on the door, a single customer and friend every few days—people with whom Kevin and I were vaguely acquainted—had turned into a revolving door of characters we’d never met before and sometimes would never see again. When we were dry, as we had been now for three days, we started losing business. And losing the business meant risking our friendship. I wasn’t ready to lose either. This seemed the way of most friendships that I had in Savannah. I knew Kevin because he was my roommate and my business partner. He knew all of his friends through selling or buying drugs. It’s how Kevin came to know Mike and Sean. Our small network relied on drugs for more than beer money and a stash we could smoke on our own: it supplied us with felicity, a mutually shared relief against uncertainty. Kevin knew a guy who might be able to sell us the kind of weight we needed, George. I drove towards the bar to meet Kevin and George in my beater, an old white pickup truck with a manual transmission, broken mirrors and a bench seat with the foam exposed. It chugged and stalled only once, on the hill outside the dorms. I could have turned back then. Not old enough to enter the bar, I climbed a fence up onto the second-floor where people gathered on an outdoor patio. I grabbed an abandoned half-full glass of beer, drank some, and carried it downstairs. Kevin shadowed everyone at the bar, talking like a maniac, spilling beer. As I neared, I became self-conscious and felt eyes on me from every direction. I had to reassure myself that this was how everyone makes friends. Through Kevin I found belonging in places and situations where no one should belong. Kevin seemed comfortable in his skin, and introduced me to George as his business partner. George was almost twice my age, with dark hair and a head that was wide between the ears. They talked like old friends for some time as I nursed the stolen beer. I was held outside the conversation—this was something Kevin was more experienced with, the haggling and dealings. I was a wheel man, an action man, never sitting still and always glancing over my shoulder wondering, always wondering, always looking back. When they settled their tab, we decided to head back to the dorms. We left the bar and climbed into my truck, the three of us crammed across the bench seat with Kevin in the middle, operating the manual shifter between his thighs. I pointed the truck toward the dorms. Obscured by Kevin’s tall forehead and receding hairline, a pair of headlights turned onto the truck and began following. I nudged Kevin, signaling to drop the gear into second as I engaged the clutch. That’s when I noticed him press his hand against a backpack beneath the bench seat under George. I hadn’t seen them bring a bag into the truck. I turned onto Victory Drive. Kevin and George faced off for a few minutes, exchanging opposing arguments about different strains of pot like two surly barristers in a spectacle of marijuana madness. Kevin dropped the stick down into first gear and we cruised beneath a green light. I edged Kevin once more, into neutral, and dumped the clutch. We rolled to a stop under a red traffic light. The pair of headlights following us from the bar pulled behind close. I squinted in the mirror, leaning over Kevin. The red and blue lights atop the police cruiser filled the truck. The officer in the car behind us spoke into his intercom. “Pull over to the shoulder.” I grabbed the stick and dropped the truck into gear. We edged to the shoulder and I turned off the engine, placing my hands instinctively on the dashboard, as I had countless times before, fearful of what a nervous cop might do at night when approaching three animated men crammed inside a truck. “I’ve an ounce on me,” George said. I said, “Great, fucking great.” “Well, boys. Never a dull moment, that’s for sure,” Kevin said. “I’ve an ounce on me,” George said again. He shook, unsure what to do with his hands. Rookie. “Shut up,” I said, “Just shut the fuck up. He’s coming on my side.” “Coming from the bars?” The officer was direct, looking around the car and at Kevin, George, then back to me. “License?” “Yeah, sure.” I reached for my wallet slowly. “Have I done something wrong, sir?” I handed the officer my license. “Registration, insurance?” “Yes,” I said. “In the glove box, can you—” I motioned toward George, who fumbled through the paperwork and handed me the slips of paper. “I thought the speed limit was thirty five, sir. This thing can’t go faster than fifty.” George and Kevin started talking, shifting with unease. I said, “Would you two shut the fuck up, please. Just stop talking, please. For fuck sake.” “I pulled you over for an obscured license plate.” “I just bought this thing. Maybe I can get out and clean—would you two shut up please, fuck—I’m sorry, I just went to get them at The Rail. They called me for a ride, now I’m stuck with this,” I motioned to the two now rigid men beside me. “We’re just heading to the dorms. We’re all students.” “SCAD?” “That’s right, yes, sir.” “Which dorm?” “Boundary Village,” I said, knowing this was a test; students were always granted mercy. I turned and glared at Kevin and George, who were muttering to one another. I hung my head over the steering wheel, frustrated. “It’s midterms and I stepped away from midterms for this shit and they—would you two shut the fuck up, Christ.” The officer said, “Alright. Just get them home.” He handed me the paperwork. “That’s my only intention. And as soon as possible.” “Have a good night.” The officer walked back to his car. “Holy shit dude,” Kevin said. He took a sip from the plastic to-go cup he’d filled with beer before leaving the bar, held between his thighs. “Ken motherfucking Rosen.” George said, “Jesus Christ, dude—” “Shut the fuck up, both of you. Just shut the fuck up.” I dropped the truck into gear and eased back into traffic. Kevin would later be arrested for possession of marijuana, and let off with nothing more than a citation, which we believed was the result of his being a student: we were coddled and secure. But one year later, our tangential friends and distant partners in crime Sean and Mike were an example of what could betide us. From what I gathered, Sean and Mike had a similar business model to ours, discreet but slipping up on occasion at parties when feeling generous, blathering more than is safe in a business whose success hinges itself on tenebrous relationships and discretion. At these parties, they had often crossed paths with Kevin. Only days after we had met, Kevin suggested we pool our resources with them to widen our base. I trusted Kevin, but I didn’t know Sean and Mike. It sounded best to me if we went it alone. When I read in the local paper about the way Mike pursued Sean despite the potentially grave consequence—how the bullets struck him and killed his friend, how John hobbled around the crime scene with his leg in a cast—I was stricken by doubt. My secure world shifted off-balance. And yet my classmates traipsed about town as though nothing and no one had been lost. It made me feel a grotesque yearning for the shepherded freedom by which I would attend class and do my school work and prepare for the next day’s assignments without fear or worry. I remember thinking it could have been Kevin outside the Italianate home with the beer cans strewn about the porch, dying in my arms, not knowing who the home invaders were, why they shot him, and whether his family might make it to his side before he left them forever. Or it could have been me. Would we have had the same commitment to each other? It seemed so simple, being somewhere good before it turned bad. It seemed equally impossible to know when to end a friendship, when to relinquish someone still breathing. It is a thought that first seems facetious and bloated—the way someone mourns a person they have not lost, an overstepping of empathy. But it was in this period, trying to feel some sort of sorrow towards these tertiary friends, that I learned that Kevin wished to die. Just two months after we’d met, Kevin and I were drifting apart. He was nearing his own fulcrum of insanity after his arrests. He found success outside the dorms by living with some friends, but was met by failure in his short film ventures. I was expelled from the dorms for dousing my roommate with cold water while he showered, filling his shampoo bottle with maple syrup. I took a bottle or two of whiskey each day and retreated into my work, a darkened apartment, and a cat who I swore would be my one and only companion. I began to realize that I had spent two too many months beside a man who cared very little about anyone beyond himself. Kevin went on selling, despite Sean’s death, and I retreated into my hole. I wasn’t there when Kevin drank all day and swallowed a bottle of Adderall and laughed as night swept over him. Later, he said he laughed because, somehow, he knew it would not work, especially after a first botched attempt, many years before. Call it a gut instinct, a higher power. Nothing could go his way, even suicide. It was such a shame it didn’t take, he said. He could not die and because of that he could not save himself. Curious similarities between the two attempts he would never see: each time someone else was there to save him. This time it was our friend Rob, who dialed 911. When the police and paramedics arrived, Kevin told the police he had not taken drugs, had just been drinking heavily all day, wanted to assess the limits of his friendship with Rob. After a psychological evaluation and returning to his sinking apartment—walls draped in terrycloth, ornate tapestries, scrawled with poetry—Kevin did the next best thing short of suicide. He went on living as though he were already dead. Fearing I’d lose him if I didn’t, I joined in. I caught a glimpse of myself in Kevin’s struggle. I believed that saving him would have been my own saving. I lacked the mettle, however, to save us both. And yet, improbable though it seemed, we lived when others died. Not learning from the hard road taken by Sean and Mike, we risked more by drinking more, by exposing ourselves to opportunities through which wary onlookers might see what we dealt. On drunken nights when Kevin or myself were not threatening to paint the walls with our brains or hang limp from the ceiling fan, we might find ourselves tearing through the park in an SUV loaded with pot and women and good old boys howling out the window, trying to keep the beer inside their plastic to-go cups. On those drunken tears we walked a fine edge together and in those years we were lucky. * In the wake of Sean’s death, administrators issued a statement about the availability of grief counselors. Nothing more. Everything outside of our own lives as students seemed outrageous, unimaginable. People focused on their own degrees, their own friends, and kept their heads down. Alex Cowart had fired the gun that killed Sean. Daniel Izzo drove the getaway car. A third man, John Andrew Adams, was in the car. I liked to imagine—wondering, always wondering—the boys felt devoted in their friendship. The trial dragged on for two weeks before a verdict was issued, then hauled through the sentencing phases and into the inevitable appeals that offered little reprieve. Cowart and Adams were sentenced on felony murder charges during the commission of a crime. Cowart received two life sentences running concurrently, plus 25 years; Adams received life plus five years. Izzo pleaded to a lesser murder charge and turned state’s witness. Mike and Miles and John, Sean’s surviving friends, were placed on probation and for all outward appearances, their lives went on. During his testimony, John, the housemate whose leg was in a cast, said, “I was very upset because I felt I didn’t do Sean as much good as I wanted to.” That is how I feel when I now think of Kevin and how life for him has found little variance beyond well-worn homes, stale drugs and cheep beer—long after we had all left Savannah. After Kevin and I went our separate ways, I got a glitzy job in another city. I quit drinking, never dealt again. Kevin traveled west to trim marijuana plants. But we met once more, even as I was cultivating new and more fulfilling, healthy relationships. Fearing that I had neglected my duties as his friend, I decided, against better judgment, to visit Kevin a few years after he graduated. I found myself on a plane heading west. In a white-walled den that I had rented for us in Los Angeles for a weekend, I fell asleep after my red-eye flight sometime before dinner. I dreamed. There I am, or the person I think I am, the one I tell myself I am, standing somewhere with Kevin, surrounded by a mad gaggle of people, everyone shouting with large mouths and pointing their fingers the way teachers threaten children with yardsticks. My mother, father, sister, boss and every editor I've ever had is looking on. There's someone with a gun or knife or cloth slowly moving toward me and I'm powerless to stop them. “Awww, look at the little boy, so tired.” I heard Kevin outside my dream and when I opened my eyes he was pointing and laughing. He looked like he always had, with the torn backpack filled with books and the long gaunt face of a man who never wanted to put down the bottle. When I saw him, I jumped and hugged and tackled him onto the bed, just like I knew I would because I'd always done this with him and he knew it, he was expecting it, too. I was predictable around him. We'd known each other too long and had become like brothers. He passed me a beer from the six-pack suffocating in a black plastic bag by his thigh. I took the frosty thing on the hot day because what choice did I have? I sat on the couch looking intermittently out at the speckled horizon, scared as ever—scared as I've always been, because then I remembered what it was that frightened me most, and that was what we’d do together that night. I asked him then about what went wrong in Savannah, or if we did OK, considering that we were alive and well and out of harm’s way. He believed we never would have taken anything as far as the other boys had. I asked him, What about that suicide attempt. He asked which time. I told him the first time, the very first time. He laughed, that same humbled and soothing laugh, and told me, “That time? That time doesn’t count.” A knock came at the door and I opened. Kevin had called her and she strode into the room wearing neon pants. It was nighttime now. She did not remove her clothes though I suppose that would have been the plan. Kevin walked over to the tall dresser, its doors of wood and clasps of aluminum shimming. We’d stowed some cash inside earlier, and Kevin counted it for the woman to see. She seemed pleased but said she needed something from downstairs and took the money with her. Kevin couldn’t get there in time to stop her. She walked down the hallway and he followed. Outside, a scuffle, a clamor, a struggle by a sedan. The woman had slipped into a car, and a man in the front seat was reaching for a gun when Kevin made the downstairs landing. He saw the handgun, stopped, and came upstairs panting. “They took the money.” “I know.” “They took all the fucking money, man.” Kevin sat down. “They could have shot you.” “Yeah, man,” Kevin said, “But they didn’t.” With a bottle of whiskey between us, we sloshed toward morning.