Hazlitt Magazine

The Kiss

“Tell me what man would drive all that way if there wasn’t something waiting.”

Pregnant During the Pandemic: Three Stories

A COVID pregnancy is riddled with small, subtle losses.

'There's Still Time to Save It': An Interview with Charlotte McConaghy

The author of Migrations on connecting to the natural world, activist privilege, and creatureliness. 


The Kiss

“Tell me what man would drive all that way if there wasn’t something waiting.”

Brigid could see the stoop of her former writing professor’s shoulders—she’d once remarked to her husband that his posture was like a heavy coat on a wire hanger, he looked so dragged down. Her novel was in his hands. He was fifth in line at her book signing and now she couldn’t focus on what the woman in the red coat was saying. She narrowed in on the woman’s equally red lips—“I really hated your book at first”—but her former writing professor’s stare was as concentrated as a lover’s. He was old when he had been her professor and he was older now, his skin as grey, lined, and tough looking as elephant hide. The elephant man, she thought, even though he was still handsome, a certain sophisticated elegance, an old-fashioned movie-star quality, Sean Connery-like. He even had the soft, marbled voice of a Scotsman. “Could you also,” the woman in red said, leaning in so that her perfume wafted like a gust of wind, “write the first line of the book, too?” Why? That would take forever. She thought of how her former professor’s aching hips must feel on this snowy night in Manhattan, his knees; how awful it must be to wait in line to speak to her, his former student. All this hoopla about her debut novel, all this bubbling about. The introduction that had made her sound as if she’d conquered the world. Her former professor had written six books. They had done moderately well. A writer’s writer is what a person would call him. What was she? A woman’s writer. Someone scheduled to appear on morning television. God, shut up, she wanted to say to the woman in red. You’re turning this into a spectacle. Stop laughing! Stop looking so fucking unhinged! She did as she was told: she signed the book, then wrote the book’s first line: All the women of Barra are dead in their beds. * * * “Brigid. Hi.” Her former writing professor held out her novel, and she took it. She knew whatever she wrote needed to be full of gratitude: it was what the moment called for. Was she grateful? What had he done for her? Given her an A. Pointed out her country way of speaking—youse guys—but in a sweet, flirtatious way, so it hadn’t stung. She liked this man. She liked him enough. With love and indebtedness, she wrote, then drew an absurdly large B, which managed to look lewd, like a teenage boy’s rendition of giant breasts, or, worse, a ball sack. * * * When she returned from the reading, her husband, Jack, was outstretched on the hotel bed, his legs crossed at the ankles. Even in this New York hotel room, he looked like the Oregon poet that he was—dirty-blond hair falling into his face, wire-rimmed circular glasses, a navy-blue sweater with a hole in the elbow over a white button-down shirt, the collar askew. Like Kurt Cobain, she thought, if he hadn’t shot himself in the face. Her husband had removed his pants, and the hair on his legs stood at attention. He had on his elf boxers, a gag Christmas gift from her. Christmas had been three months ago. “Jack?” she said. Her husband had his faraway look, his face angled downward, his eyes elsewhere, not seeing the white duvet cover but something else, either from his past or in his future. She sat on the bed and twisted his leg hair. She could make it stand up in coils. “Ouch,” he said and moved away. “So, did he show up?” “Who?” “You know who.” She brought her knees to her chest. Jack was suspicious of all men but especially her former writing professor. “Yes,” she said. “And why would he do that?” he asked. She was suddenly exhausted. “Because he was my professor.” “He lives in Ithaca.” She wormed out of her clothing and burrowed under the white duvet, wishing it were a porthole to another world. She waited for Jack to interrogate her further but instead his hand found hers. “Listen,” he said. “I got a phone call while you were out.” Out. At the book signing. Not just at a coffee shop or buying pantyhose. “And?” It came out a little shrill. “I got the fellowship,” he said. The fellowship. A year in Glasgow to research his third book of poems. Her book had taken place in Scotland, too, but she hadn’t gone, had only done a significant number of Google searches. The faraway look—she recognized it now—was about whether he wanted her to go with him. * * * In August, they arrived. From the airplane, Scotland looked like the Grand Canyon, only smaller and covered in grass. Little white things, which looked like lint, littered the hills. She squinted—sheep. All the razzle-dazzle about her book was over. It had sold two thousand copies—a failure, although no one would tell her that until she tried to sell the next one. The publisher wanted to change the jacket art for the paperback. “To appeal to the book club crowd.” Who were they? They were somewhere in the wilds of America, dipping their hands into bags of potato chips. She and Jack were above it all, their plane about to touch down. “It’s Glas-go,” Jack said. The wheels hit the pavement, and the engine roared. “What’s that?” she said. “You keep saying Glas-gow.” “Oh,” she said. “Sorry.” They rented a flat beside a church with the skinniest spire in Europe. To turn on the hot water, she had to push a button that looked like it would set off an explosion in a distant land. No air conditioning. A fridge the size of a hotel-room minibar. No freezer. Their neighbor, Alastair McCullough, told them people bought things fresh. When she asked, “what about ice cream?” he said people went out to eat it. All details that should have been in her debut novel. It hadn’t come out in the UK. To her knowledge, no Scotsperson had read it or would read it. Jack’s first book had chronicled the death of his infant son—an event that had broken up his first marriage but also skyrocketed his career. The world was discovering that men could have a tender side, and Jack’s book was part of that discovery. His second book had sold well (for poetry), earning him a modest advance and this fellowship for what he was doing now: mining the Kelvin River, which was full of garbage. What he found in the river would be the subject of the poems. Every morning, he put on waders, tied his hair into a topknot and walked the length of the river in the August heat, trawling for trash. It was supposed to be a portrait of Glasgow, as told from the river’s garbage. But also a meditation on humanity. And also something else. She wasn’t trying to be glib when describing it to Alastair. She believed in Jack’s work, particularly his first two books, which were stunning. Still, she and Alastair were eying each other, lips quivering, on the verge of something—possibly dangerous, explosive laughter. * * * The first week behind them, she and Jack sat in the kitchen in their underwear, the bay window open, hoping for a breeze. She could hear Alastair’s voice through the thin walls. An argument. A lot of stomping. Then silence. “They’re fighting,” she said. “Who?” “Alastair,” she said, “and Ezra.” “Who?” He was utterly uninterested in their neighbors. She, however, couldn’t get enough of them. Well, of Alastair. Alastair’s boyfriend, Ezra, was an artist. He made sculptures that resembled large pieces of beef jerky in a studio around the corner, and Alastair worked twelve-hour shifts at Scottish Meats. Each must take some inspiration from the other, Brigid said to Jack, then waited for laughter, but he was busy cataloging what he’d found in the Kelvin that day: a toothbrush; a pacifier; a retainer. “Mouth things,” she said. “Hm?” said Jack, holding the pacifier, not looking up. “You know, he used to be a model,” she said, thinking of Alastair’s chiseled jaw, his eyes as blue as a Siberian husky’s, salt-and-pepper hair with an undercut so she could see the dark mole behind his left ear. “Huh?” “Alastair. He still does it sometimes. Modeling.” “Oh.” “He’s not just a meat guy.” * * * A double date. First to the “chippy,” then to a movie. They walked down Great Western Road, Alastair holding Ezra’s hand and Jack holding hers. The evening was cool. Two childless couples in their late thirties out on the town, Brigid thought. She was a veteran of two miscarriages. She had earned the right not to have a child. She was even wearing lipstick. It didn’t matter, though: Alastair eclipsed them all in skinny jeans, a tuxedo shirt, jean jacket, and cowboy boots. She thought he’d been joking when he told her Glasgow had a thriving cowboy scene, but indeed it did, and Alastair and Ezra were a big part of it. On Saturday nights they went to a club called the Grande Ole Opry. She and Jack had yet to join them. You had to be in the right mood to play cowboy, and that mood never seemed to strike. “This one,” said Ezra, pointing to a bleak-looking takeaway joint. “They have the best cheese.” He was shorter than Alastair, with a round, milky face and dark curly hair. He was a research fellow at the Glasgow School of Art, an exhibition in the Scottish Pavilion of the Venice Biennale already under his belt. But Alastair was the masterpiece, Brigid thought. She looked at Jack, waiting to feel an ignition of the heart. His hair had grown shaggy and he’d slicked it back with water. Fresh from mining the Kelvin River, he wore cargo shorts and a t-shirt, New Balance running shoes. Stripped from the pretence of his “rising star of Portland poetry” clothes, he looked like a guy who was exactly where he was from: the wilds of Eastern Oregon. They walked inside the takeaway shop and ordered two “chips ‘n cheese” to share. A drunk man in the back was eating deep-fried pizza. They sat at a grubby table, her facing Alastair, Jack facing Ezra. She felt Alastair’s eyes on her. She was wearing a black-and-white striped blouse, black mini skirt, and black pointed flats. “You look like a French porn star,” Jack had said before they left the flat. “And you look like,” she replied, “an American.” “You should see more of Scotland,” said Alastair, his Glaswegian accent repressed by a decade of modeling in London. “Edinburgh. Skye.” “Skye,” said Brigid. “The Isle of Skye?” “That’s the one,” he said. The drunk man rose to his feet, abandoning his pizza. He walked to the counter and leaned against it. “Deep-froyed dog fer takeaway,” he said. “Oh jeez,” Brigid whispered to Alastair. “Oh jeez what?” he whispered back. “I thought he was ordering a deep-fried dog!” “He did.” “No, a dog dog. Dog dog. Dog dog.” It was happening again. She felt something like carbonation rising inside her. Alastair’s eyes locked with hers. They laughed soundlessly, secretly. She glanced at Jack, who was peeling the cheese off his chips. “Should have gotten the pizza,” he said. If given the gift of time travel, she thought, her husband would use it only to order different things from restaurants. She imagined herself stopping some awful Amtrak accident—Don’t get on the train!—while Jack wandered back into the chippy, saying, "the chips have too much cheese." “Get the pizza next time,” she said, trying to recover. The drunk man pivoted on one foot, barely able to stand. * * * And then to the movie theater. They sat in the lobby and each drank a beer. The only thing to eat was something resembling sponge cake, so Brigid bought one. Jack was in the bathroom; Ezra buying the tickets. “What is it,” Alastair said, putting his hand over hers, “that you write about?” “Men,” she said. “Men who kill women.” “Right, then,” he said. She launched into her spiel about The Women of Barra. A virus kills every woman in Barra. Six hundred women. “The book tells the story of who invented the virus,” she said, “and how the island copes afterwards.” “A man did it, yeah?” Alastair said. She moved her hair from one shoulder to the other. “You’ll have to read it if you want to know more.” Too bleak, a reviewer had said. She had no new ideas. Her brain was a hollow vessel where nothing grew. “I will.” Ezra returned with the tickets, and Jack emerged from the bathroom. He’d lost sight of where they were sitting, and Brigid watched him scan the lobby—hands on hips, looking miserable—before he spotted her. They were here to see The Saddest Music in the World with Isabella Rossellini, then Guy Maddin was giving a talk. Alastair and Ezra were big Guy Maddin fans. Neither Jack nor Brigid had heard of him. “Can’t take that in with you,” Alastair said, gesturing at Brigid’s sponge cake, and then he and Ezra were hurrying into the theater, Alastair’s hand firmly on Ezra’s butt cheek. She offered the sponge cake to Jack, but he was glaring at her. “What?” she asked. “Tell me what man drives four hours—when it’s fucking snowing—to see his former student read.” “Please don’t start this right now,” she said. It was the beer. It made Jack paranoid. “Brigid,” he said. “Tell me what man would drive all that way if there wasn’t something waiting.” Something waiting. She shook her head. No. Not this. She could feel Jack’s jealously like a fog, wrapping around her neck, around her wrists and ankles. “Why are you penalizing me for something he did? I didn’t ask him to come.” He paused to work the sponge cake out of his teeth. “You’ve done nothing but humiliate me tonight,” he said. “What are you talking about?” “You’re practically humping Alastair’s leg.” “Jesus, Jack.” Her cheeks flushed. “He’s gay.” “What difference,” said Jack, walking into the dark of the theater, “does that make?” * * * She woke to a horrible sound, like a bomb. She rushed to the kitchen’s bay window and scanned the Kelvin River, Jack somewhere within, trawling for inspiration, then over the bridge and past the subway station. The buildings were dirty and soot-encrusted, Dickensian. The bombing sound had stopped. All she could hear was the distant whine of bagpipes. “The sound of Scotland,” Jack had said when they first arrived. More like the sound of a thousand mosquitoes, she thought now. She looked the other way, over to the Mackintosh cathedral and the other flats that looked just like the one she was standing in. No bomb. Her hands were shaking. The sound had been so loud. The smell of meat. She could smell it under the door. Alastair usually didn’t get home until midnight—a day off? She checked her reflection in the mirror, shook out her hair with her hands. He answered the door in a bathrobe and white cowboy boots with spurs. “Hold on,” he said and disappeared. She heard the click of the stove being turned off. Loretta Lynn was playing in the background. The meat sizzled and popped. Her mouth watered. Her nipples grew against the fabric of her shirt. “You didn’t hear it?” she said when he reappeared. “Hear what?” “The big boom.” He went to the window, and she followed him. “I don’t see anything,” he said. He opened the window and leaned out. She could hear sirens now. “Oh,” he said. “Oh no.” He left her in the hall and returned fully dressed, his face red with either anger or shame. “I have to go.” “Go?” she said, but he was already headed down the red-carpeted stairs, then opening the huge front door. The bright light of day shot into the foyer, and then he was running down the street and around the corner, toward, what she could see now, was a scene of absolute chaos: ambulances, fire trucks, police cars—all surrounding a building, much like the one her flat was in. “Wait,” she called, but she found herself in a swarm of people, soot on their faces, fire fighters snaking white hoses through the crowd. She looked up and saw helicopters hovering like bees. The heat was unbearable, and she brought her hands to her face, as if to save the skin from peeling off. Above her, smoke poured into the sky. It wasn’t like in the movies—no one had blocked off the scene with yellow tape. No one seemed to be in charge. In front of her was a mountain of burnt rubble. No one stopped Alastair from climbing over it. “Alastair,” she cried. “What are you doing?” He disappeared into the darkness. In an instant she knew she was standing in front of the building where Ezra’s studio was. She remembered now—Ezra had been rambling about his latest art project after the Guy Maddin movie. Something about making a cube out of durable material, with a hole where Ezra would pipe gas into, then another tiny hole, big enough for a match head. It was supposed to make a big boom but then fizzle out. She couldn’t remember what it was supposed to symbolize or how it was related to the beef jerky. People hurried by, wearing masks, headlamps, carrying big red medical bags. She thought she heard someone yell at her to move, but the accent was still difficult for her, like everyone’s mouths were full of rocks. She turned to a woman who was leaning against an ambulance. She felt as if she didn’t speak to someone she would start weeping. And it would never stop. “My friends,” Brigid said, “they’re in there.” The woman shook her head and pointed to her ears. She was deaf from the blast. * * * She stood in the hallway with Alastair, listening to him tell her about Ezra with a raspy voice. Jack was in the shower, washing off the muck of the Kelvin. It was almost midnight. Ezra was alive. In hospital, as Alastair put it, on a respirator. His lungs full of soot and blood. He told the doctors he thought he was dead until Alastair touched his hand. “He fell,” Alastair said, gesturing upward. “He fell three stories.” She looked up. She imagined a ragged hole in the ceiling, revealing the smoke-filled sky. The floor disappearing underneath her feet. Falling. Her hair streaming out above her. A gas leak. It would have happened eventually. Ezra’s art hadn’t caused the explosion—he was just the first to light a match. In a gesture so bold she gasped, Alastair took her hands. He brought her so close their noses were touching. His whole body was shaking. “Alastair,” she said. She let his body rest against hers. Through the flat’s thin walls, she heard Jack turn off the water, then the slosh of his wet footsteps approaching. “He’s going to be okay,” she said and placed her hand on Alastair’s heart. * * * That night, Brigid lay in bed with Jack, the moon illuminating the room. White fitted sheet, white comforter. No one used top sheets here. Or dryers. She’d hung the fitted sheet out the window to dry, and it smelled of beer and vomit, of Alastair’s sizzling steaks. She turned to Jack. Her attraction to Alastair had reduced her self esteem to that of a crushed soda can. She kissed Jack’s lips, hoping to reanimate herself. They had fallen in love during their MFA. Back then Jack was a handsome, slightly broken-seeming guy from Oregon, his debut book of poems “making waves,” it being about the death of an infant, but from the perspective of a man. The father. It was hard not to fall under his aloof, west-coast spell. The life they would create together, the baby they would raise—here, in this Glaswegian flat, she replayed what he’d said the night he proposed. How lucky she’d felt. Now what she felt was nervousness. She took a lock of Jack’s hair between her fingers. “Time for a cut?” she said. He turned away. “Did you sleep with him?” Jack asked. “What? No.” She sat up and gathered her hair in her hands. Just as she had pulled away from Alastair, Jack had come into the hallway, a towel around his waist. “He’s a meat guy.” “I don’t mean Alastair,” he said. “I mean him.” “No,” she said. “Goddamn you, no.” “I’m allowed to like people,” she said to her husband. “And they’re allowed to like me. I’m allowed to like people—even as much as I like you.” He turned to her. “But not more than me.” “If that’s the rule,” she said, pausing to breathe in the beery sheets, “I haven’t broken it.” “Haven’t you, though?” “It’s our anniversary,” she said, lying down again. “This weekend.” “I know,” he said. He took off his glasses and moved toward her. Without his glasses, his eyes were darker, bigger, like someone else’s eyes. They had been married for five years and she still felt uncomfortable when he took off his glasses. “You hate me,” he said. “I don’t.” “You hate all men.” “That doesn’t include you.” “So many footnotes,” he said. “What?” “Everything with you has a footnote. You hate men. But, footnote, not me.” Two miscarriages, she wanted to say. I’ve had two miscarriages because of you. “Please don’t do that thing,” she said instead, “where you confuse what I’ve written with who I am.” “As if you don’t go looking for yourself in my poems.” “There’s nothing to look for,” she said. “You don’t write about me.” An old argument. Nothing more to say. He rolled onto his back and she put her head on his shoulder. She felt his muscles relax, the familiar letting-go as he started to fall asleep. “Let’s go to Skye,” she whispered. “What’s there?” he whispered back. His fingers came alive on her skin. He lifted her leg over his. * * * To her left lay a barren and craggy landscape, flat. Behind her and to the right sprawled a field overgrown with bluebells. In front of her: the Atlantic and the islands Rum, Muck, and Eigg, or the Hebrides—where Barra was—or Canna, she didn’t know, one of them anyway. The sky was perfect, big white clouds above their heads. She took a picture. All the houses on Skye were white. They walked with their heads down to avoid sunstroke. After two hours, they were nowhere near anyone or anything. Defeated and thirsty, they ended up in a little cove. White sand, turquoise water—as though they were in the Caribbean. She was sunburnt. Jack took off his shirt and tied it around his head. She’d slipped an hour ago and her jeans were ripped at the knee. Her former writing professor had told her that if she attended a few private tutorials with him, her writing—particularly on the sentence level—would improve vastly. He had an apartment that was as shabby as she’d imagined: teetering bookshelves, a faded Persian rug, an ancient gas stove. He offered her a cigarette, lighting it with the blue flame of the stove, and she took it, not knowing yet that she was pregnant for the first time. Now, he said, gesturing to the kitchen table, where an early, terrible draft of her novel sat. Let’s attend to these adverbs. She got an agent after he’d heavily edited her manuscript, then a book contract. Nothing. Not a kiss between them. Not a hand placed on a leg. Still, the night of her reading in Manhattan, after she’d given him back the signed copy of her book, the B of her name made lascivious by her own hand, he had lingered a moment. Then he passed her what at first looked like a credit card but was, upon closer examination, the key to a hotel room. “Hope to see you,” he said in his gentle voice. He gestured to the next woman in line. “She’s all yours.” How she wanted to tell Jack about what her former writing professor had done. How she wanted to share with him how swiftly it had ruined everything—her book, her writing, her sense of agency in the world. Instead she’d thrown the room key in a trashcan. She hadn’t told Jack a thing. He’d have lorded it over her. Told her he’d been right about the guy all along. Tell me what man drives four hours . . . Perhaps the marriage had ended for her that night in New York City. The moment she realized she would have to keep secrets. Secrets worse than infidelity. Secrets about pain. There was litter on the beach. Anchors, chains, that sort of thing. She picked up a chunk of green sea glass and handed it to Jack. “For your book?” she said. “I’m only interested in the Kelvin,” he said. A different sort of man would leave her. Would have left her a long time ago. She hadn’t provided what had been expected. Her belly, as flat as the day she met him. And she had desires. Desires that spanned beyond him. Miles to go before I sleep, she said in her head. And many more men to sleep with. A different man would beat her with the sea glass, until it was embedded into her brain. A different man would throw her into the sea, hands bound behind her back. “Should we keep going?” he said. He took a swig of water and passed her the canteen. To the lighthouse or in general? She couldn’t bear to ask. Her phone buzzed. “He’s okay,” she said to Jack, waving the phone at him. “Ezra’s out of surgery and he’s okay.” “Sure,” said Jack. “You’re not happy?” “It’s not that,” he said. He put the sea glass in his pocket. “It’s just a crush,” she said. “It’s not the thing with Alastair that bothers me,” he said. He looked at his feet, kicked some pebbles around with his shoe. “I understand crushes. I get them, too, Brigid.” She scanned her mind for all the people he could have crushes on. His agent, yes. His editor. His publicist. All the women of publishing. “What is it, then?” she asked. But he was walking toward the ocean, his cargo shorts billowing in the wind. “What is it, then, that bothers you?” she called out. “Tell me, please.” “I have given myself over to you,” he said, turning to her. He folded his arms. “But you. You have always kept a part of yourself separate.” But that’s right, she thought. You can’t have all of me. You don’t get to have all of me. Before she and Jack had left for Skye, Alastair told them that if they looked across to Mallaig, they would see a shaft of light at the entrance of Loch Nevis. The light was nearly always there. Nevis in Gaelic meant “heaven.” She walked to where her husband was standing, and she took his hand, and together they squinted for a long time. * * * When they returned to their little flat, Jack fell asleep, exhausted by the journey. She lay on her back and thought of when they’d visited the Necropolis by Glasgow Cathedral. A boys’ choir had been there, singing among the tombstones. One tombstone was so big she’d thought it was a smokestack. Jack talked about him sometimes—the baby. His baby. Until she’d met Jack, she thought that men didn’t care very much about babies, or children in general. The baby’s name had been Mercury. Jack had come up with it. The perfect, celestial name for a poet’s son who hadn’t lived even one day. It surprised her—the way, every now and then, Jack wept. That was another thing she didn’t think men did. She thought crying was to women what masturbation was to men. Every day, each bent to their respective tasks. She looked at her sleeping husband. His eyelids were twitching. She felt his familiar warmth beside her. Something happened, Jack, and it undid me. Something happened, Jack, and I feel like I can’t tell you. But let me tell you anyway. Her first miscarriage was nothing more than a giant period. Nothing gory. No embryo held in the hand. And hardly pregnant at all—she’d even gotten out a magnifying glass to see the faint, second pink line. Maybe that one didn’t count. The second happened a few weeks before Christmas. The day she’d bought Jack the elf boxers—not just elf boxers. She’d also gotten him a five-hundred-dollar Movado watch, taken out of her advance from The Women of Barra. She bought the gifts, then decided to walk home instead of taking a cab—she felt good. She felt alive with life. A little bean within her, nine weeks along. It was a two-mile walk, no hills or rocky terrain, just straightforward Portland sidewalks. Overcast and in the 40s—an unremarkable day. In her head, she went over what she would write in Jack’s Christmas card. She didn’t want him to make fun of her. He was against sentimentality of any kind, in life and in art. When she opened the door to their apartment, Jack’s cheeks were rosy from wine, and the smell of rosemary and tomato sauce was in the air. Some other poets were over, and he said he hoped she didn’t mind. She did and didn’t. She hid the gifts in her dresser, then walked into the kitchen. She told everyone she was pregnant. They cheered and clinked glasses. She held her belly even though there was nothing to hold. In the morning they had breakfast, and Jack hurried off to teach his last class of the semester. She worked on a story, then a Q&A for a magazine to help promote The Women of Barra. When she saw blood on the toilet paper, she texted Jack. Are you sure? he texted back, which seemed ridiculous, then and now. I’m sure. I have office hours, he texted next. When she thinks of it now, the memory slides in and out of focus. The feeling of something tearing, something moving in her that wasn’t supposed to be moved. The sense she didn’t have anymore—the sense of feeling alive with life. That’s the part she wished she could tell Jack. She wanted to tell him how strongly she’d felt the little bean’s spirit inside of her. But he would laugh it off. Accuse her of magical thinking. He might even invoke Mercury—how he had been the one to know a child’s spirit, if there was such a thing. But, no, Jack. She had felt him. She had felt him as strongly as if she’d once known him—like someone you remember, from a lifetime ago, suddenly and without warning, brought to you by a scent, someone’s perfume maybe, or the taste of something sweet in your mouth. * * * u up? It was Alastair. She looked at Jack, snoring beside her. Yeah. Why? She texted back. the moon, he wrote. She looked out the window. The moon was twice its usual size and blood red. lunar eclipse, he texted. She thought about waking Jack. He would like to see this big red moon. Instead, she found herself knocking softly on Alastair’s door. Alastair and Ezra’s flat had a little balcony. She wanted to watch the eclipse outside, in the cool night air. “Hi,” Alastair said, and stepped back to make room for her. He led her through his apartment, then onto the balcony. They stood together, eyeing the moon. She’d read somewhere that a blood moon was supposed to signify the end of the world. “Did you see it?” he asked her. “The light. The light at Loch Nevis.” “No,” she said. “We didn’t see heaven this time.” “Ah well,” he said. He sat on a folding chair and stretched out his legs. He was taller than Jack, model tall. “Jack’s been to Greece several times,” she said. “He said the light there is better.” “Oh,” said Alastair, laughing. “Sorry to disappoint him.” Across the street, a drunk couple stumbled by, arm in arm, oblivious to the moon. “I missed you,” said Alastair, his voice soft. “Did you miss me?” * * * Once the fellowship was over, they returned to Oregon. Jack finished his book and sold it, and the day it came out his publisher organized a big book launch at Powell’s. The book had generated enormous advance praise—blurbs, profiles, puff pieces—stuff normally reserved for the idiotic fiction that she wrote. The book was called Blood Moon over Glasgow. There was a poem for every day he’d trawled the Kelvin River—listing every item he found. A portrait of our city, a Glaswegian reviewer wrote, Jack Geoffrey has done for Glasgow what Joyce did for Dublin. At the end was a coda. A long poem—some reviewers would refer to it as an epic—about the love between Ezra and Alastair. And how a woman had come between them at the end. How Ezra, returning home from the hospital a day early to surprise Alastair, had seen the kiss between Brigid and Alastair from the window of his taxi, the night of the blood moon. A kiss so sudden it almost hadn’t happened at all. The question was, how did Jack know about it. Had Alastair told him. Had Ezra. Jack was walking to the mic now, after a long introduction by a local poet. He’d cut his hair. A sort of neo-Nazi look, she thought, the hair shaved on the sides but long on top. His signature round glasses and threadbare sweater. Rumpled pants. He reminded her of Woody Allen—or some quote about some person like him—it takes a lot of money to look this cheap. No, that was Dolly Parton. Well whatever, she thought. Same idea. “Thank you,” he said. “After that kind of an introduction, I can only disappoint you.” The crowd laughed, as they always did. “This is a poem about heartbreak,” he said. “I won’t read the whole thing. We’d be here for hours.” Again, laughter, although hers was nervous sounding. “The real trouble,” he began, “when you are married to another writer,” and at this he paused; he was good at suspense, “is you never know what they’re seeing and what you’re missing.” She scanned the crowd for someone she knew. But Jack’s newfound fame had brought with it only strangers. Their friends were at home, not wanting to stand in a line that looped around the block. She had started a new novel in Glasgow, but it was in its nonsense stage—plot-less, self-indulgent. She supposed this was the way life would go now. Her in the audience, Jack on stage. Marital secrets and transgressions mined for material. Infidelity immortalized on the page. He’d changed everyone’s names to ones from Greco-Roman mythology. Alastair had become Aeneas. Ezra was Dido. He’d changed everyone’s name but hers. I am sorry, she said after she’d read the poem for the first time—the proofs on the kitchen table, due back to Jack’s publisher in two weeks. I’m really sorry. It was so quick. Alastair was in shock—I mean, he was still so shaken up from what had happened to Ezra. I think he wanted to feel something, you know? Or be comforted. Maybe that. Maybe it was more of a comfort kiss. Jack stood and poured himself a cup of coffee. It was eight a.m. Too early for an argument. Too early to say the things that needed to be said. He sat across from her, slid the coffee cup her way. She took a sip and slid it back. The page proofs sat to her left. “Well, good,” he said. “Hm?” she asked. “I mean, I don’t regret putting it in the poem anymore.” “The kiss?” “Yeah,” he said. “It was a big risk.” She took the cup but her hands were trembling too much for her to take a sip. “We can recover from this,” she said. “Okay,” he said. He had his faraway look again, as though he were looking not at the floor but into another dimension. “Nothing happened between my professor and me,” she said. “And the thing with Alastair—you said that you get crushes, too.” “Well, that’s the thing,” Jack said, his eyes focusing now on her. “I made it up.” She looked at him as intently as he was looking at her. “I made up the kiss,” he said. “It seemed like a thing that would happen, but I didn’t know that it had.” She took the page proofs and flipped to the poem that contained the kiss between her and Aeneas, as he was referred to in the text. This part would be written about extensively by critics, it being so explicitly in the style of Robert Frost—even lifting some of his exact phraseology: And I saw them, or thought I saw them, Aeneas and Brigid,She wasn’t moving away from the kissHe asked with his eyes, not his lips But it hadn’t really gone like that. The night of the blood moon, she had stood on Alastair’s balcony, looking up at the alien sky. She was wearing a gauzy nightgown, and she could feel Alastair’s eyes running over the length of her body. “Yes,” she said. “I missed you.” That part was true. “Come here,” he said. He reached for her from his spot on the folding chair. “What?” “You heard me.” His voice was a whisper. She felt a ripple through her body. It was happening. She took his hand, felt the weight of it, the hair on his knuckles. His unmistakable smell—both desirable and repulsive—of meat. His undercut. That mole behind his ear. And yet. “No,” she said and drew back her hand. “I’m sorry. I can’t.” He frowned. She took a step backward. He reached for her again but this time with purpose. In one fluid motion, he had a firm grip on her arm. “You know you want to,” he said, and brought her down onto his lap. “No,” she said. She sprung to her feet but he had her by both arms now. He pulled her toward him, and she lost her balance. “You want to,” he said and again pulled her down onto his lap. She could smell the mint stink of his toothpaste. “No,” she said. She let the full weight of her body rest on him a second, then sprung up once more. Below her, she saw a taxi idling at the curb, the milky face of Ezra in the backseat, staring up at them. You know you want to. Did she? Sort of. But also no. And did she kiss him? No. * * * But it was more powerful to let Jack think that she had. “His tongue was like an eel,” she said to Jack after his reading at Powell’s. They stood in their kitchen in their socks. There was an after party in an hour and they were home to get changed. She thought about what she had worn in Glasgow—her black-and-white blouse and mini skirt—but this time with boots. “I can still feel it in my mouth, twitching, slimy, serpentine.” She opened her mouth and let her tongue hang out. “Like this,” she said and wiggled it back and forth. “Alastair’s tongue. It was really awful.” “Not like an eel,” Jack said. “A snake.” She slid her tongue back inside the safety of her mouth. “What’s the difference?” “Snakes are loaded with symbolism,” he said. “You can do something with the simile. But an eel—an eel is just an eel.” “An eel is just an eel,” she repeated. Their kitchen was small, with white subway tiles and white countertops, white appliances, and a white tile floor. He looked at her expectantly. She stood up. He looked at her longingly. Seven weeks now. She’d gotten out the magnifying glass. Not far enough along to tell anyone except Jack. Jack’s phone buzzed. His agent. She was at the party already. “We should get ready,” he said. Her husband was the nicest man she knew. So much had been written about the ends of marriages—the poignant domestic scenes; the moments of bitterness and cruelty and tenderness; the sweeping final paragraphs. So much had been written about violence and love. She thought, suddenly, of Othello smothering Desdemona. “You go,” she said to Jack. “I’m going to stay home.” “You’re not coming to my party?” he asked. He began to walk toward her. She thought of her former writing professor in his Manhattan hotel room, eyeing the door. All the hours that must have gone by. The snow falling in clumps outside. “No,” she said. “I’m not coming.” You’re not? And why? I’m trying to save my life.
‘I Want to Argue with Everything I’ve Ever Thought’: An interview with Catherine Lacey

The author of Pew on confession and original brokenness. 

If there’s one thing that rivals the discomfort of small talk, it’s an awkward pause. It’s a lull that either leads to conversational filler or oversharing. People really risk it all instead of being quiet, which is why that uncomfortable silence is exploited by HR people, priests, and journalists alike. In Catherine Lacey’s third novel, Pew (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), the titular character and novel’s namesake already complicates conversations because they have no identity: their ethnicity and gender are described as indeterminate and confusing. They have no memory or backstory. But it’s Pew’s silence that seems to rattle others most; instead of fixating on Pew’s origins, they project onto Pew, and confess their secrets and their sins.  Pew could be post-body, beyond human even, but in a conservative and religious town in the American South, they are interpreted as an uncooperative patient, stranger danger, an archangel, and more ominously, a sacrifice. These communities are founded on conformity, where the right answers to a line of inquiry lead to acceptance and assimilation. It takes only a week for Pew’s muteness to rattle their foundation and saviour complex. Over email, I talked to Lacey about the origins of Pew and, more importantly, if a novel and its characters can originate in a body or somewhere else.  Sara Black McCulloch: You had a very religious upbringing in Mississippi, and I wanted to know how that influenced writing Pew, especially when it comes to shedding identities? Did this start with a voice or something else? Catherine Lacey: The person at the center of Pew is an impossibility—a person without qualities, a person whose appearance is changeable, impossible to define. I think to some degree the desire to inhabit the sort of simultaneous visibility and invisibility that such a body would give a person would appeal to most people, regardless of their background. As a child, I took to religion with a kind of seriousness that made childhood strange, or rather it revealed that American hypocrisy of being a country founded on Christian systems of morality while also claiming to be secular. As a kid who took the Bible very seriously, I was understandably frustrated that moral goodness had no currency at school, in fact it was a hazard. But eventually the Bible came to feel inadequate, full of its own paradoxes and cruelties, so perhaps the book was an attempt to create a kind of annihilated space in my hometown, my home-area-of-the-country.  Pew is also not someone who is shifting between identities because they don’t have one, which frustrates people to the point that there is a breakdown in communication. I read in your interview with the Paris Review that you think a lot about the body and posture—how they influence the rhythm and voice in sentences when you’re writing. To Pew, the body is where so much dysfunction and other bad things start. Did that approach to writing change when you were writing the character? On a purely creative, personal level, the book was an attempt to argue with myself over that point. Does the book have to be in the body? Does the voice necessarily come from a body? I truly am not interested in setting parameters or concerns for myself that remain fixed. I want to argue with everything I’ve ever thought.  The only time Pew really does speak to someone, it’s with Nelson, who warns Pew not to say anything because the community will only hear what they want to hear and twist their words. There’s a pressure for Pew to assimilate as Nelson did, but there needs to be a trauma narrative first. I wanted to know what you thought about trauma narratives and the ideal victim. Does Pew’s silence threaten this community because it challenges their saviour complex?  This phrase, “ideal victim,” is scarily apt. In the last several years, partially from the way the internet provides such an easy confession chamber, the act of sharing a traumatic story has become so common that doing so—personal, public exposure—has, at times, felt requisite. Of course, some people don’t have the option to expose or not expose a personal story, so I’m not talking about that. But I feel strongly that one shouldn’t be required to expose personal trauma to be seen as worthy of equal treatment, or justified in their anger over an injustice. In some ways, this is the way American society has instinctively responded to the increased opportunity for telling trauma narratives. Essentially, trauma is treated like capital, and you must spend it in order to increase the value of your position. I felt this particularly around the time #MeToo first became a thing. I did not want to describe personal experiences in order to participate, but at certain times it felt like that was the price of admission—even when some tried to say it wasn’t required. It seems to me that many BIPOC Americans may often feel this way, that there’s a heightened value being placed on sharing the details of times that your life has been denigrated and if you’re not willing to share that then you have less of a right to complain, to have a voice. Of course, there’s no centralized authority in society that is setting that pattern—it’s emerging from us collectively, which makes it the kind of problem that fiction is best suited to deal with.  I was not directly thinking of any of this as I wrote Pew, but looking back I can see how this concern slips in. They’re not willing or not able or simply not sharing what has happened to them, so the system is breaking down. Nelson didn’t have the option to suffer privately and he resents it. He resents the community around him relishing in their personal experiences of “doing the right thing,” because he recognizes it as the same kind of noxious righteousness that leads people to commit violence in the name of their government or religion or hate group or whatever. Righteousness is so dangerous. It erases nuance. Many people fill in for Pew’s silence and start revealing more about themselves. What they confess to Pew is, at times, much darker and honest than what comes up at the Forgiveness Festival [in the novel]. This made me think about performative public apologies. In a way, when someone asks for forgiveness like that, they seem to be asking people to forget about their harmful actions rather than asking for help or learning from them. Even at the Forgiveness Festival, everyone’s eyes are closed, so the apology never reaches the person it’s intended for. What does forgiveness mean or look like to you? Is it about being good or bad, a fear of God, or just someone understanding how to be in the world? There’s this Protestant concept of being wiped clean, of being redeemed through private confession to God. As a child I was so interested in Catholic confession, in the booth with the priest—we did all of our confession silently, alone. Maybe Protestants repress their shame and guilt more than Catholics do? I would absolutely read that psychological study. I do think there is an increased societal preoccupation with forgiveness right now in the culture and maybe that’s part of the reason I wrote this book now rather than years ago. Perhaps the most useful thing I learned from Christianity—but perhaps even more from my mom than from church—was that there is no point in holding a grudge, that you’re usually better off forgiving someone rather than carrying around anger for them. But it’s also odd to me that I find it easier to forgive individuals than collectives. I remain pissed off about Mississippi’s general hypocritical disregard for the poor and the suffering while they all claim to be Christian but I’m fully ready to forgive individuals for individual things. I don’t think that’s necessarily the best way to be, but that’s what I’m working with these days. The epigraph is from Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” and while I know the reviews of Pew have focused on the unnamed narrator and the summer festival at the end, it also centers on the idea of the scapegoat. I wanted to talk about Pew’s role in the Forgiveness Festival because while they won’t identify themselves, the community abandons them at the end, rendering Pew an outcast full of the town’s confessions and sins. Pew is the scapegoat. I hadn’t thought about the story that way but I think it's a valid and interesting take. There’s this idea in Christianity that all people are born broken and sinful, that faith in Jesus makes a person whole. So, in a sense, by sending Pew to this festival, the question is being raised of, what would Pew have to confess to if they were human, but without history? What is the nature of that original brokenness? The question of innate sinfulness is fascinating to me. What does it really mean to be born incomplete and what is this state of completion people supposedly are striving to reach? While Pew is a narrator with no identity, they do ask us, in a way, to make a choice: do we go along with conventions, or do we abandon them so we can change and grow? This question is especially prescient right now, at a time when we’re being forced to reconsider our relationships to power, money, and each other. Have you been reevaluating your own relationship to and participation in any of these now? Oh, absolutely. I think it’s difficult to accurately or honestly describe how “the now” is changing me, but I think the process of writing Pew helped me defamiliarize myself with my own body and by doing that I see other people’s bodies differently and I suppose that’s all I want reading the book to do. I hope it made me a slightly less shitty, slightly more kind person in the world. I think there are many ways to read the book, to be frustrated by it, enjoy it, to not enjoy it, but the only stance in the reader that I am willing to say is a failure on their part is wanting to know “what” the person at the centre of Pew is. It wasn’t a secret I wanted to keep; it’s the problem I’m asking the reader to approach. And there’s no answer to the problem, or at least I don’t claim to have it.
‘There’s Still Time to Save It’: An Interview with Charlotte McConaghy

The author of Migrations on connecting to the natural world, activist privilege, and creatureliness. 

Birds are having a real moment right now—bird-identification apps, newly converted birders, repurposed Instagram accounts. And even if it’s brought on by all that birdsong we can finally hear, this moment is well overdue. But it’s also terribly fragile. In the last three decades, over a third of North America’s birds have vanished—that’s three billion birds. In India, where I live, the first nationwide study found that 80 percent of observed species were declining. In the UK, where I used to live, nearly a quarter of bird populations face extinction or steep decline.  In Migrations (Flatiron Books), the moment of the birds has passed. Along with that of the bears, deer, wolves, fish, bees, and trees. Set against a landscape of immense loss, Charlotte McConaghy’s evocative new novel charts the story of Franny, who attempts to follow the last flock of Arctic terns as they fly from one end of the earth to the other. Together with the wary crew of a fishing boat, Franny finds herself immersed in terrain that’s as unstable and precarious as her interior world. As McConaghy writes: “There is hardly anything wild left, and this is a fate we are, all of us, intimately aware of.” And if we have any hope of salvaging the natural world, Migrations suggests that we may have to uncover our own wildness first. Richa Kaul Padte: There’s a moment when your narrator Franny is explaining the immense journey of the Arctic terns—from the North to the South Pole and back again, all in a single year. She says, “I think of the courage of this and I could cry.” What, in turn, is the sort of courage required by humans to face the world of Migrations—one in which practically all the animals, birds, and insects that once populated the earth have died? Charlotte McConaghy: Great question! I like to think of the courage of the terns’ journey as a metaphor for the courage that Franny—and all humans—need in facing the looming animal extinctions. It’s so hard not to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of this crisis, and to feel hopeless or apathetic in the face of it. It seems too big for any one of us to be able to stop, but I wanted the book to be a battle cry of sorts. To say no, we can make a difference, we can take up this fight, and in fact we have an individual responsibility to do so. Franny’s journey (without giving too much away) is one of hopelessness to a reclaiming of hope, and it requires a lot of courage from her to reach that point; this is what we will need in order to reclaim our own hope—and not only hope, but the energy required to take on a journey as vast as the flight of the terns.  Do you think this hope and energy partly comes from noticing—and in the case of Migrations, remembering—the remaining wildness in the world? There’s this moment when Franny sees the terns and thinks: “Easy to forget how many there once were, how common they seemed. Easy to forget how lovely they are.” Is paying attention a way to energize ourselves in the face of despair? Absolutely! The more we notice these beautiful creatures the more we will value them. And we don’t have to look far. Go for a walk and really look at the trees you see, study their leaves and try to spot the birds that hide among them. Find some water and sit beside it, it won’t take long for water birds to come and sit on its surface or dive below for fish. Sit quietly and listen to the sound of the wind. Spot the little bugs that find their way into your home and instead of squishing them, help them on their way. Everything has an important role to play. Take pleasure from all of these living creatures; every one of them is a wonder. We have the capacity to take such joy from the natural world, and I think you’re absolutely right that this helps to stave off the despair we feel when we think it’s all gone. It hasn’t gone yet. There’s still time to save it. Woven through your book is a “nameless sadness, the fading away of the birds...of the animals.” Franny remarks: “How lonely it will be here, when it’s just us.” This reminds me of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s concept of “species loneliness”—a “deep, unnamed sadness” arising from human estrangement with other species. Both Franny and Kimmerer describe this loss as unnamed; what, if anything, shifts when we try to name it? Perhaps the attempt to name it is what separates us from other species—the need for language to define and understand how we feel and what we yearn for. For animals there is only instinct. One of the things I wanted Franny to be, while thoughtful and contemplative, was more instinctive than most people, wilder, maybe, or more in touch with her wildness. This allows her to connect more deeply with the natural world, but also means she feels the loss of it keenly. I think we all must strive to connect more deeply with the world if we have any wish to salvage it and perhaps lessen some of that unnamed sadness. Whether we have the ability to identify it or not, it’s something that lives in us as deeply as instinct does, and maybe it’s a sign of our creatureliness, and hints that reconnection has the potential to nourish us all. Oh, now that makes me wonder if it’s actually reductive to try and name this sadness! In the sense that maybe our constant need to name, classify and categorize everything—including our feelings—prevents us from forming the sorts of connections we need the most? Yeah, I sometimes think that might be the case too. Overanalyzing and overthinking can feel like the occupation of a writer, which is why it was such a bone-deep relief to write about a character who doesn’t try to analyze what things mean, but instead tries to experience each moment, to really feel them. Franny is guided by emotion and I tried to let the writing process be that way. It’s a difficult thing when your job is to put language to emotion, because you must also know when language has its limitations and try to allow something deeper to shine through on the page.   Something you resist a lot in your text is the idea of human centrality—for example conservation efforts being focused on what benefits us the most. In Migrations, the work to save bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and other pollinators is well underway, while “no-hopers” are allowed to “fade into extinction.” But, as Franny asks, “wasn’t this attitude the problem to begin with?” Yes, it really upsets me to think about the extinction crisis only in terms of how it will affect us humans. Sometimes it seems like the only argument that ever gets through to people is how damaged our food supply will be when there are no more pollinators to help us grow that food, or the thought of our homes being destroyed by flood or drought or fires or rising sea levels. It distresses me because we are not the only living creatures on this planet, nor the only ones with a right to safety. We are sharing this world; if anything, we are its caretakers. So I didn’t want this book to become a dystopian look at how our lives will be affected, I wanted it to be an existential exploration of how it will feel to be the only living things left here. I think it will be devastating. The thought of a world with only humans is a horrifying thought. The animals deserve to be here as much as we do, and not to serve any purpose, but to exist in their own right. There is a growing tension in your book between climate activists and fishing communities, with the latter often positioned as enemies of the sea. Franny, for example, is shocked when the captain of the The Saghani—the only fishing vessel that agrees to take her aboard—releases a large catch to free a sea turtle caught in its net. I think the only thing that shocked me, though, was her shock. I’ve lived near fishing communities for a long time, and in fact just last month, fishermen in my home state of Goa, India, freed several Olive Ridley turtles.   Is there a truth in the terrible way some conservationists view fishing communities—a truth other than activists’ own privilege?  I think there is huge division between people on this subject, and unfortunately a lot of that stems from a lack of understanding of the other party. I’m a vegetarian, while my father is a beef and lamb farmer. There could be division between us but instead we have enough knowledge to understand each other. For Franny, in the world of Migrations, the seas have been even further ravaged than they are now (although we are headed that way swiftly), so she is aware only of a certain greed on the part of those who continue to fish despite the terrible state of the oceans. She just doesn’t understand why they carry on. For Ennis and his crew, there is even more desperation than there is for fishermen today—fish are so scarce they aren’t really able to make a living from it anymore, and this journey is a kind of last chance for them all, which is perhaps why Franny assumes that their need will outweigh their compassion. What she must learn is that there are complexities to us all; it is the systems that have been put in place that need to change. I’m really interested in how knowledge operates in your book. Franny says of her scientist husband: “Niall has always wanted me to study the things I love, to learn them...in facts. But I’ve always been content to know them in other ways….the touch and feel of them.” This makes me think of the biologist who refuses to believe that a flock of crows befriended Franny in her childhood. At the same time, we see that Franny’s instinctive love of birds and the sea is deepened by Niall’s research, too. Are these two ways of knowing contradictory, or can they compliment each other—even when what we are trying to know is wildness itself? I think part of Franny’s journey is to understand that they can complement each other. There is certainly a sense of contradiction to her—she is hungry for knowledge of birds, sitting in on classes she’s not enrolled in just to learn more about them, while at the same time resisting the thought of making this learning official by committing to any kind of study. She’s frightened, I think, that the science of things might tarnish the magic she sees and feels in the wild. It’s her creatureliness that makes her disinterested in normal societal values—career ambition, wealth, etc.—but she comes to slowly understand that committing to learning about her passion doesn’t have to take the magic from it, and I think this is one of the gifts she gets from her husband. Just as he learns a kind of optimism from her about our potential impact on the natural world—and as we are all inevitably enriched in some way by our partners’ views.   “Creatureliness” is a word you’ve mentioned a couple times now, and it makes me think of Franny “reach[ing]…for poetry, for Mary Oliver and her wild geese and her animal bodies loving what they love.” What is creatureliness, and is it linked to how “we don’t always have to be a poison, a plague on the world…[how] we can nurture it too?” Yes, I think so. I’ve always taken a great deal of inspiration from Mary Oliver’s poetry and her extraordinary ability to recognize how our connection to the natural world can feed and sustain us. I read recently that it’s our separation from nature that makes us harmful to it. That as we advanced technologically, we lost our ability to be harmonious with the rest of the world. I think there are those with a more natural ability to connect with animals and wild spaces, and maybe it’s because they are able to remember their own animal natures. The quiet we are capable of. Perhaps it’s only by reconnecting with our animal sides, or our “creatureliness,” that we will remember what it means not just to exist for our own sakes, but as part of a greater, vibrant, interconnected whole. Our place here can be nurturing and gentle, instead of destructive. This is a very important theme in the book and in Franny’s life. The realization that she, and all of us, can help instead of hinder, gives meaning and purpose to her life, and I hope readers can take a little of this from the novel.
Pregnant During the Pandemic: Three Stories

A COVID pregnancy is riddled with small, subtle losses.

I. Maria—Pregnancy Monday was a bad day. Four patients in the ICU ward where Maria worked died of COVID. The patients had all been in the ICU for two to three weeks. Maria, a licensed clinical social worker, hadn’t seen or spoken with them directly; they had been on respirators, tubes in their mouths, unable to communicate, but she wasn’t allowed in the rooms with COVID patients anyway. She provided support to their families, facilitating end-of-life discussions in Spanish and preparing them for difficult news. When she’d met with the families, they had been more concerned for Maria than themselves: “They saw my belly and were shocked.” No one expects to see a six-month-pregnant woman working full-time in the ICU ward of a busy urban hospital during a global pandemic. “They say, ‘We were worried to come into the hospital, and here you are working here.’ It’s a weird position to be in, ‘cause here I am, trying to provide support and help them process the information being told to them by the medical staff, and trying to help them through the grief process. And they’re worried about me.” This happens more and more with Maria’s patients. Worry over her developing baby serves as a temporary distraction from the loss of their loved ones—a chance to worry about new life in the face of a painful death. “A lot of the families tell me, ‘We’ll pray for you.’ And it’s like, ‘Wait a minute, I’m supposed to be here to help you.’” Maria has become accustomed to being the object of such anxiety. Her patients regularly fret over her. Other hospital staff express concern. Her friends and family send well-meaning texts with unsolicited advice and links to articles. “‘You’re putting yourself and your baby in danger,’ they tell me.” Such interference is normal during pregnancy; just ask any woman who’s tried to order coffee when she’s showing. America’s culture of pregnancy-related fear-mongering and body policing can cause prenatal anxiety under normal circumstances. COVID has served to magnify this. Many pregnant women are experiencing an increase in depression and anxiety under the pandemic as a result. Maria hasn’t been particularly worried about working in the ICU, though. Her years of work in hospitals have left her feeling prepared for a situation like COVID. “I’ve been trained to look at the research, and all of it says there’s just not enough evidence. So really, I just have to protect myself like I would with the regular flu or any other contagious condition, like TB.” She washes her hands, wears her mask, keeps her distance. She also feels supported by her supervisor, who doesn’t require her to enter patients’ rooms or do anything that makes her feel unsafe. She found out she was pregnant in January. It wasn’t planned and the father wasn’t in the picture, but she decided to go through with it anyway. Her doctor began talking to her about COVID at her first prenatal appointment, even though there had been no documented cases in the US yet. He urged her to stop going in to work at the hospital. Working from home wasn’t an option for her position, though. Because she’s preparing to become a single mother, quitting wasn’t financially feasible either. Maria also had that particularly American quandary of wanting to save her sick days until the baby came. “If I use all my time off now, what will I do when the baby’s here?” Maria likes her job—she likes working face-to-face with families not different from her own, likes being a source of calm and support during a crisis, likes the distraction for the disappointment and loneliness of a COVID pregnancy. “What would I be doing otherwise? Just sitting at home.” A COVID pregnancy is riddled with small, subtle losses. For Maria, there’s no prenatal yoga classes to go to. No big baby shower. No birthing classes and making friends with other moms-to-be. No friends touching her belly and remarking on how big it’s gotten. There are instead quiet mornings with her dog. There’s a bag packed with snacks to fuel her through the long shifts at work. There are texts with other pregnant friends sharing resources. There are plans for a drive-thru baby shower. There are evenings watching movies with her parents with the subtitles on. There’s a stillness and a waiting. Her biggest fear is being separated from her baby at birth. Her hospital’s policy is to quarantine any mother who tests positive for COVID for 14 days—and that includes being quarantined from her own baby. “I worked in the Labor & Delivery ward for a year and a half, and I saw the strain on moms whose babies would go to the NICU. So, it’s a real fear. I get really emotional thinking about it.” There are other labor fears. She is planning for her mother to be her one allowed support person. “But my mom is in her sixties. I worry about exposing her while she’s in the hospital.” She also worries she won’t be prepared for labor. In-person birthing classes have been canceled and the online ones don’t have the interactive element. “I wonder, am I gonna be ready for the delivery? I haven’t been able to prepare the way a mom normally would.” She’s largely alone with these feelings. She lives by herself, so she makes a point to see her parents almost every day. “My pregnancy was a surprise, you know, and it’s just me. As much as I wanna say I don’t need those things—having people around, having a big baby shower—I do. I’ve felt very isolated. Friends who would normally come around haven’t. It’s out of concern for my safety, but I still wish I had that support. I wish I had all the pictures to show my daughter, ‘This is what we were doing to prepare. This is how excited we were for you.’” Instead there is Maria, in her mask. Work serves as a welcome distraction, a place where she can be useful to people in a time of need. “There’s a lot of grief at the hospital right now. A lot of suffering goes on with COVID, and it’s a very stressful situation.” Her hospital serves largely immigrant populations, who’ve been deeply affected by both the pandemic and ensuing economic shutdown. “They come to this country with big hopes and dreams. And then COVID happens to them, and it all ends.” Maria’s been crying more about her patients during this time, though it’s hard to know whether it’s the stress, grief, or pregnancy hormones. “Probably all three.” She tends not to be an emotional person. Her role requires her to stay level-headed, and usually she’s able to hold it all back. But after that Monday with four deaths, she couldn’t take it—she went back to her co-worker’s desk and broke down in tears. “There’s just so much pain right now.” She talks to a therapist once a week. And she talks to her baby, telling her how strong she’s going to be, how excited she is to meet her, how strange the world is right now. “I keep telling myself, ‘At the end of all this, I’m gonna have a beautiful baby girl.’” It’s a strange triangulation: work distracts from her pregnancy disappointments; pregnancy distracts from her work stress; and her pregnancy distracts her patients from the loss of their family members. It’s a COVID-carved shape, with a sleeping fetus at its center. That Friday, there’s finally some good news. Two people with COVID leave the ICU. “Not many people get to leave. And even though I’ll never see them again, it made me so happy. There’s not much good news these days, so I try to focus on that.”  [[{"fid":"6707271","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]]   II. Kate—Labor Kate first thought of going to Canada when they were in line at Costco. It was early March and the line snaked the length of the airplane-hangar-sized store. Kate stood next to her husband Steven, her eight-month bump bulging. She looked at the line, the mountains of toilet paper in everyone’s carts, and felt an anxiety rise up her spine. She turned to Steven and asked, “Would it be crazy to go to Canada to give birth?” “Yes,” he answered. After all, they had a birth plan: a hospital they liked, an OBGYN they trusted, a doula they’d paid for. They had a baby-proofed apartment and friends who’d promised to deliver lasagnas. Could they uproot everything to return to Kate’s native country, where she hadn’t lived in since high school, because of a fearful hunch? A crazy premonition about a pandemic sweeping New York City? “I had to admit, it sounded crazy.” But she couldn’t ignore the mounting sense of dread. Kate had started to worry about COVID in December. Her job required her to follow the news closely. At first, it was a low-level, analytical worry. She read articles, amassed information, figured out what they needed to buy online. “It was like, ‘Do diapers get made in China? Let’s order 300 diapers, just in case.’” She felt like she was playing the stock market. “My mentality was, ‘Let’s just play it safe.’” She started buying living supplies as well, canned foods and toilet paper. Steven went along with it, indulging the pregnant lady. By mid-February, the worry became a constant buzz. She began reading reports of people in the US who were displaying symptoms but were unable to get tested. “I realized it was here and no one knew.” Soon, she was only reading COVID stories.  The buzz got louder. “In early March, I realized, ‘Oh, I can’t leave the apartment anymore.’” She sent an email asking her boss to work from home. His initial response was dismissive; four hours later, he wrote back saying that the higher-ups wanted her to remain working from home. By the next week, the entire office was working from home. Next was the run on toilet paper. “I felt like I kept being proven right.” All the hunches she had, everything she kept doing “just in case”—it all was turning true. “That’s when I said, ‘We need to go to Costco today.’” In line, the idea of driving home to Canada occurred to her. Later that night, their apartment crammed with stockpiled baby supplies and canned food, Kate went online and ordered facemasks. Steven watched her from the doorway. “Kate, I’m worried about you,” he said. “I’ve never seen you like this.” “I had to ask myself, ‘Am I going crazy? Is this all in my head?’” She wasn’t an anxious person; her pregnancy prior to that point had been worry-free, relaxed, “like sitting in a warm bath.” But this new anxiety kept getting louder. It was worse at night. She’d wake up to use the bathroom, check the news, then lie in bed in terror. Outside her window, she watched her block change, the restaurants shutter, the soup kitchen close down, the sidewalks empty. She heard sirens all hours of the night; countless ambulances kept returning to the halfway house across the street to take away sick residents. Soon she couldn’t even get groceries delivered. Then at 37 weeks pregnant, she got her first symptoms. First it was a sore throat. Then the chest pains began. When she called her doctor, she asked her to come in. Kate walked the 45 minutes across the deserted city, no one but the homeless on the streets. “It was eerie.” The doctor ran a slew of tests that all came back negative. The office didn’t have any COVID tests so, based on the color of her phlegm, Kate was diagnosed with bronchitis. She was relieved, but couldn’t shake the anxious feeling that stalked her. “I knew that we wouldn’t be able to get care, even if we needed it. And we had insurance.” Later that week, she found out her husband wouldn’t be able to accompany her in the hospital. She was devastated, livid. “I was doing everything I could to stay safe, and I just felt so powerless. New York is an amazing city, but New Yorkers don’t listen to their government. America is a country founded on ‘fuck this tyranny,’ and that’s not where you want to be during a pandemic.” Then, Cuomo held a press conference in which he shared the projected date of infection peak in New York City: April 8. The day after Kate’s due date. The fear was screaming now. She couldn’t shake it, couldn’t convince herself she was being crazy or paranoid. She kept thinking about the story of the frog that got boiled alive, the temperature of the water increasing so slowly, he never thought to jump out. And all of a sudden, she knew. Steven was taking a shower. She walked into the steaming bathroom. “We need to go to Canada now.” It didn’t feel like her speaking the words, but some other force. Steven looked at her from the shower stall. “Okay,” he said. “You’ve been right about everything else so far, so I trust you.” Everything fell into place. A co-worker lent them a car for several months. Her uncle found them a place to rent. Her cousin in New York took their cats. They left at noon the next day, their car packed with all the baby supplies and canned goods Kate had amassed over the previous weeks. They made sandwiches and stopped only to use the bathroom. “We wore facemasks and everyone looked at us like we were crazy. But we were just a week ahead of everyone else.” It was a ten-hour drive to the border, and the whole time, well-meaning family members kept sending texts. The border was going to close at midnight. No, the border would be open, but the provincial border would close. Steven, who wasn’t a Canadian citizen, wouldn’t be able to get in. “We were driving through the countryside and didn’t have internet, so I couldn’t look any of it up.” All they could do was drive and hope, while fear drummed in her veins. They arrived at the border at 11 p.m. The officer didn’t know what to do with them. “I have to call my supervisor and see if we can let you in.” Kate sat on a hard wooden bench inside the border control office, 38 weeks pregnant, and surrendered to the fear. What if they didn’t get let in? When the officer told them they could enter the country, she started bawling. All the terror and anxiety of the previous weeks sloughed off her. “I realized how scared I’d been. In New York, death felt closer than it ever had.” Labor and delivery is already a time when one walks with death. Despite relatively recent modern advancements in maternal and newborn care, when labor approaches, one still feels the dark edges of mortality closing around themselves, and their baby. COVID and the American response only magnifies that primitive fear. Driving through the Canadian night, Kate felt a weight lifting, death’s shadow receding. Out of the window, she saw grass and trees, instead of abandoned city streets. It was a sharp contrast. Everything felt safer, the intersections and stoplights wrapped in the knowledge that she would be able to get the care she needed. “I was just so grateful we weren’t going to die.” It turned out to be a good thing they’d brought so much canned food—they were required to quarantine for 14 days. They shut themselves inside the apartment her uncle had found and subsisted on tins of tuna fish and beans. Given their exposure and her unconfirmed bronchitis, Kate’s new OBGYN wanted to get her tested for COVID. “I was just so glad to be able to get tested.” It was another stark contrast. In New York, the hospital where Kate had been scheduled to deliver had released photos showing nurses wearing garbage bags and bandanas. “I couldn’t believe how much better the health care in Canada was. I always thought, ‘Oh, I’m in New York, I have great insurance,' but it turned out it didn’t matter.” The results came back the next day. Both Kate and her husband tested positive for COVID. “I didn’t have time to freak out.” Kate was due in two weeks.The town she was in hadn’t had a single case of COVID, let alone an infected pregnant woman about to give birth. As her husband’s symptoms worsened, she began talking with the doctors every day, trying to figure out a plan. She felt like an imposition, an entitled New Yorker bringing the world’s problems back to her hometown. One day while Facetiming, the doctor started crying. “We’re just so happy you’re here. We know the journey you’ve been through, and we just want to help you and your baby.” “I feel like such an asshole for bringing COVID here and putting everyone through this,” Kate said. “You’re doing what’s best for your child,” the doctor said, “and that’s what every mother does.” Steven’s case worsened as her due date drew near. Throughout all her fear, he had been her rock; now it was her turn. “We’re so much safer here,” she told him as his breathing became labored. “We can get care here, and the doctors know us.” Their marriage had never felt stronger. She was hoping that her baby would stay inside until after the 14-day quarantine elapsed and they were no longer contagious. The contractions began several days early, however. Kate would have to deliver without Steven. “I was devastated. It was so hard saying goodbye and going into the hospital without him.” They tell you not to get too attached to any birthing plan, because labor is unpredictable. Kate had lots of ideas of how she wanted her birth to go: she had a doula booked, had taken hypnobirthing classes, wanted to go natural. Just a month prior, Steven’s presence at the birth had been assumed, so much of a given she hadn’t included it in her birth plan. Kate didn’t have any of those supports when she went into active labor. All she had was her notebook from the hypnobirthing class and the peanut ball she’d managed to bring. She directed the masked nurses, who’d never heard of hypnobirthing, on how to adjust the peanut ball, unsure if she was doing the positions correctly. “I just kept thinking, ‘I have a husband at home with COVID who can’t walk; I can’t have a C-section.’” She didn’t have to. Her daughter was born at a healthy eight pounds, eight ounces, COVID-free. Being reunited with her husband upon discharge, several days later, was one of the happiest moments of her life. The first time he held their daughter, she felt a mix of deep joy and profound terror—was he still contagious? He wasn’t. They had to struggle through the first weeks alone, as her husband painstakingly recovered. They couldn’t have relatives come help, lactation consultants visit, grandmothers and grandfathers hold the baby. But they were safe and had each other. And a month’s supply of canned tuna fish.  [[{"fid":"6707276","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"2":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"2"}}]] III. Lauren—Postpartum Five weeks after our daughter was born, the world shut down. Very little in my life changed. Lockdown was exactly the same as having a newborn, I told friends, only better. I was already terrified of the outside world, already living in my sweatpants, already worried about money and washing my hands like a hypochondriac. The only difference was that now my partner was home with me. So actually, lockdown improved my life. Our daughter was born in early February, three weeks early and barely five pounds, her skin covered in a rash of pustular blisters. Nothing to worry about, the team of pediatricians told us. A bad case of a fairly common response to the hormones in the womb. Everything was normal then. My doula coached me through the pushing, my partner stayed with me the entire four-day hospital stay. Our parents visited. An incessant cast of nurses, social workers, lactation consultants and doctors rotated through our hospital room, until we finally hung a Do Not Disturb sign. There were signs, in the elevators and hallways, warning to get care if you had a fever and had been overseas, but they got lost in the clutter of all the other notices for breastfeeding groups and domestic violence call lines. We fell into the newborn haze: all-night feeding marathons, diaper changing, rocking and hushing, wondering who this stunned, howling stranger who barely opened her eyes was, and how she could fit into such a small body. With an early-term, underweight infant, the outside world suddenly became terrifying. I refused guests, and made the few family members who visited wash their hands. I didn’t even want to leave the apartment to go sit in the garden. She was so small, I wanted to shove her back inside. She should still be inside me, I’d think whenever I looked at her. Her rash made her seem even more fragile. The waiting room at her two-week check-up was filled with sniffling children and crying babies. Each one seemed like a contagion threat. We stood in a far corner, pushed the elevator buttons with our elbows, and squeezed sanitizer on to our hands at every interaction. She was gaining weight, looked healthy, but the pediatrician was concerned about her skin. “The rash should be resolving by now,” she said. “She shouldn’t be getting new blisters.” We were referred to a dermatologist, who told us the rash was likely the symptom of a rare genetic disorder. I cried. My partner took charge, refusing the skin graft and the herd of young residents who wanted to take a look. The dermatologist gave us a printed-out PDF and told us to watch for seizures. There was a blur of next steps—geneticists and neurologists and ophthalmologists—and a series of appointments, each one brutal and wrenching in its own particular way. The ophthalmologist needed to dilate her eyes for an exam; they swaddled and held her down while the doctor inserted Clockwork Orange goggles to keep her lids open. Our daughter screamed louder and harder than anything that tiny ever should. The geneticist ordered a blood sample to confirm the diagnosis. I used my arms and hair to create a wall around her and shhh’ed while the lab technician pricked her foot and squeezed out blood. She writhed and howled, her mouth a tiny cave of pain. I tried not to cry. In the background of each of these appointments, there was a succession of increasing safety precautions, a time lapse of COVID preventatives. Hand sanitizer appeared at the reception counters. Screenings questions were asked. Masks were worn. Temperature checks administered, plexiglass barriers installed, waiting rooms emptied. The world around us spun out, but we were able to maintain a singular focus on our little girl. It was almost a blessing. The week before the world shut down, my partner’s office sent him to work from home. It was a welcome change after his too-short paternity leave. We’d been joyous, gleeful. He whistled while he set up the computer monitor on the dining table. When shelter-in-place began, my single friends grappled with loneliness and isolation, and I felt like I'd won some secret prize. I was relieved to not have to leave the house, relieved to not have guests, relieved to not be alone all day. My boyfriend cooked breakfast every morning. I wore milk-stained nursing tanks and rarely took showers. We binged new TV series and rubbed $60 medicated ointment on our daughter’s skin. We told no one about her pending diagnosis. The outside world sank away and it was just the three of us. It might have been one of the happiest times of my life. Most times I could ignore the lingering disasters waiting in the background, but they found ways of creeping in. I checked the news on my phone while I fed her late at night, watched the death toll in Italy rise and the images of overcrowded New York hospitals. I Googled images of other children with her same condition, examined the discoloration of their skin and conical abnormalities of their teeth, and cried. I watched my boyfriend suit up in quasi-hazmat gear to go stand in long supermarket lines at 7 a.m. I studied charts of developmental milestones and anxiously watched for her to smile and track objects. COVID was in full swing by the time she was scheduled for a laser eye surgery at seven weeks old. Only one parent was allowed to accompany her, and she was required to take a COVID test. I caught the technicians in white hazmat gear exchanging nervous glances when they saw how small my daughter was. “We have to keep the swab in for 15 seconds,” they told me. “You’ll need to hold her arms down.” The swabbing woke her up. She thrashed her head, let out a cry deeper and more pained than I had heard yet. Her small body wracked with sobs. I couldn’t comfort her—I didn’t want to take her out of the stroller in the middle of the COVID testing lab, and I didn’t want to pat her with my gloved hands. She cried all the way back to the car, until I could squeeze out hand sanitizer, take her out of the stroller, hold her to my chest, and cry with her. When had the world become so painful and terrifying? The surgery ended up being easy. The surgeon showed me images of her eyes, where they lasered the problem areas: “We were able to save her vision.” I chatted with the nurses about furloughed shifts and weak unions. They told me how pretty she was. The effects of the anesthesia were worse than the surgery. She fussed and cried for two days. On the second day, I overheard my partner in a Zoom meeting. “Can I ask what the criteria was?” “I understand.” “If there’s ever an opportunity to return.” He came and stood in the doorway. “I’m sorry,” he said. His company had lost a series of large accounts. It was nothing personal; they hoped to hire him back when this was all over. He sat down on the bed next to me. I felt our world tremble, start to crack. I put my arms around him, cradling our daughter between us, and we made a little cave like that—an island in an unraveling world. Ten minutes later, the geneticist called with the results of our daughter’s blood work. She was officially diagnosed with incontinentia pigmenti. Up until that point, COVID and the effects of the shelter-in-place existed outside of us. People died, lost livelihoods, couldn’t see loved ones, and I too exhausted and consumed to feel any of it. I’d been waiting for life to go back to normal, living a kind of denial. I realized then that life wouldn’t be going back to normal, not for us or the world. COVID, motherhood, and our daughter’s condition were altering us irrevocably, in ways I knew I didn’t even understand yet. I cut my maternity leave short and returned to my job as a high school teacher—cue the Google classrooms and Zoom live classes while breast pumping below the screen line. It wasn’t the vision of early motherhood I’d had. There were no Mommy and Me yoga classes, no smiling strangers congratulating us, no pushing a stroller to cafes on weekday mornings. All the ideas and sense of security I'd had had evaporated, and I was left with what was. Sometime in May, the newborn fog began to break. We started getting more sleep. My partner picked up freelance jobs. Our daughter began laughing when we kissed her, smiling at us first thing in the morning, putting everything in her mouth. Her rash faded into swirls of marbled discoloration. One day I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror—same stained nursing tank, eyebrows grown out and hair undyed for a year, bags under my eyes and wrinkles in my forehead—and wondered what the hell happened. Where was the person I knew, and would she ever be coming back? No, I realized. Life wouldn't always be like this, but it would never be the same as it was. The lockdown that at first felt like a blessing has become stifling. Our daughter has gotten older, sturdier, smilier, and I want to share her with the world. My parents haven't seen her in months, and most of my friends haven't met her. She rarely leaves the apartment or sees faces other than ours. How will that impact her social development? There’s so much uncertainty. How will the rest of her symptoms present—tooth abnormalities, alopecia, learning delays? What will happen when the extra $600 per week of unemployment runs out? Will I even be returning to teach in a classroom this fall? Will our daughter be teased for her discolored skin? When COVID finally ends, what kind of world will we awaken to? Sometimes it feels like standing on the top of a very high mountain; if I start running down, I don’t know if I’ll be able to stop. So I have to stay in today, in the present moment. She laughs and babbles and fusses. Right now, we have health insurance and enough money for food and rent. We have each other. “Daddy invented COVID so we could all stay home and cuddle,” my partner tells her. And sometimes, it feels true.
Outside, People Were Crying, Or They Weren’t

Is that bizarre? he asked. That such a brief experience of love was too much?

It was autumn in Michael’s apartment, but August everywhere else. Noise from the neighboring units jutted through the walls like slow-motion fists. I was seated on a chair in an otherwise bare corner, facing Michael; behind him was a tiny world, none of the items in which caught my eye. Light pooled between us on the carpet. It looked like a stain. Outside, people were crying, or they weren’t.   * I wanted to begin with an explanation, as if the body before Michael, in the shape of a bent exclamation point, were a kind of riddle. I told him I would be conducting interviews with a handful of folks from the area for a novel I intended to write: relatives, acquaintances, people of interest like him, and I hoped it would amount to an autobiography of a town, of rural Alberta. At this point Michael angled his head away from his shoulders, such that they weren’t flush anymore, then squinted. He asked how I would manage to write both an autobiography and a novel. Confidently, I said I was interested in how the emotional rhythm of a singular voice, when heard from a sociological distance, implicates a larger population, however wondrous or devastating or simultaneously wondrous and devastating. I did my best to clarify that I was suspicious of the notion that the autobiographical is an individualistic mode, that I believed every person is made up of a community’s memories. I wanted to make use of the form of the novel because it would allow me to sculpt a reality instead of photographing or duplicating one. It also guaranteed a degree of privacy and anonymity, modes through which the rawest kinds of language can surface. I wouldn’t be using voice recorders nor would I take notes, I told him, as either could introduce an aura of formality that might inhibit relatability. Veracity wasn’t the project’s primary artistic concern anyway, I had decided days ago. I was far more interested in the inestimable ways place governs the moods, atmospheres, and climates of confession and self-fabrication. Under certain conditions, I hypothesized, everyone participates in a genre of anthropological speech that breaches the fog of unknowing that, as it turns out, is also what it feels like to sputter out in the ruts of everyday life. The affective slip between stuckness and becoming alert to the force of history against one’s back was what I wanted to attune to. I winked upon describing this framework, in fewer words, to Michael, to suggest I assumed he was following along, that he thought my logic was sound, though it occurred to me immediately thereafter that such body language could be misconstrued to my detriment. So as to disavow a tiny jolt of shame, I rushed to add that writers generally agree one must suspend belief in the factual in order to get at whatever comprises the textures and tones of selfhood, which some remain ignorant to their entire lives. I spoke by way of generalizations without fear he would cross-examine them and therefore me. Sometimes a gesture toward truth, I said, could be more powerful than a simple description of it. Inside a moment of something like but not definitively suspense I analyzed Michael’s lips, which looked like a red smudge in the middle of a dark grey beard. It was as if someone had rubbed a wet thumb under his nose in one swift motion. His mouth seemed to be the work of a careless artist. All faces are still-drying paintings, I thought, when glimpsed from both ends of a long decade. I tried to picture Michael thirty, forty years ago. I wanted him to be beautiful, which meant I was okay making the present into something of a tragedy. Michael had heard some of the project’s premises before, when I rang him up at work last week (he is a newspaper publisher), so I was puzzled by a vacant expression that indicated not boredom but unease. I noticed then that the sleeves of his shirt were rolled up asymmetrically, one to his elbow, the other just above his wrist. I scanned the rest of him; his hair, slicked back with water, extended from his head unevenly. His clothes hung loosely from his thin frame, as if they had just come out of the washing machine. The total effect of his appearance was that he seemed struck by a gust of wind, like someone had plucked him from the air, mid-fall, and sat him down in front of me.  Michael said there wasn’t much he could tell me that wasn’t already in print in the archives back at the office. This town isn’t a literary spectacle, he explained, though I hadn’t believed otherwise. Michael has reported on what matters to the region for most of his adult life, and what matters has often had to do with mundanities and clichés. The stories he runs repeat every year. He suspected it was buried scandals and gossip I was after, he admitted, and that if this was the case the meeting should end sooner rather than later. He said this less accusingly than decisively, crossing one leg over the other. I was, however, of the opinion that a cliché could be an anchor, that it could bind us to the world, to one another. A group of clichés is a reason to live, I said to Michael with an enthusiasm I hoped wouldn’t embarrass him. Michael stared at me searchingly, likely turning over the sentiment in his head, investigating it for its plausibility. Was it intellectual nonsense masquerading as sympathy? Was there something more sinister beneath my performance of eagerness? Or was it something that could knot us together, if only briefly? As if deciding against the latter, Michael said irately that if I wanted him to rehash the last half century of store openings and closings, of council elections and athletic achievements, of industrial developments and petty crime, that he could have sent a digital file of his newspapers and saved me the drive up from the city. Caught off guard by the absence of generosity in Michael’s voice I resorted to a different register, one more exacting and emotional. I told him that I was the interviewer, which made him the interviewee, a position I knew he was unfamiliar with. I didn’t see him as the place where local history was stored and nothing else. I wasn’t driven to distinguish the sayable from the unsayable so as to be controversial. I wanted to illuminate how deeply entangled the two can become. I reminded him I too called the little town home, that it tailgates me like a shadow, despite my having left a number of years ago. I could feel my language flickering, aching. For a long time it made a racket inside me as if someone were striking a rock against my ribcage, I said. I worried it would consume me, but I left when I had the chance. My voice shook as the words leapt from my mouth. I imagined I’d have to sweep up the words later. If this were the case, I continued to imagine, what if anything would a twentysomething find important enough to say to warrant making a mess? I left so I could be as brief as any town, I added. I left so I could be as interminable too.  Silence befell us, but it was interrupted, or intensified, by the faint sound of a pop song from a car stopped at an adjacent intersection. I watched Michael watch me. It was like I had suddenly become un-blurry to him, as if the weather between us had taken a turn. For the worst? I couldn’t yet tell. Almost imperceptibly, he nodded with unblinking, serious eyes, which I took to signify fellow-feeling, empathy, and permission to proceed, however much ambiguity had filled up the room. I want to talk to you about regret, I said. *  Suppose a body were trapped between two parentheses, made out to be an aside, a distraction, a trace of another narrative possibility. Would you set it free, set it loose on the world?  * I admitted to Michael that as a teenager the sight of him had felt like a second chance. Nothing about him was conventionally gay, but he pivoted away from the codes of normative masculinity in quiet ways I embellished in my mind to represent a grace and liberty I might inherit. Where most men were a kind of noise pollution, something akin to TV static, Michael was reserved, thoughtful, calculated. Additionally, surrounded by those for whom joy was a vocation, a task yielding material consequences they felt they were owed, I was fascinated by the elegiac, non-arrogant register in which Michael inhabited the world. This is what constituted sociality for our species, I reasoned. Even his grief was a lighthouse to a boy whose future had no shape to it. Maybe early on I determined I didn’t have to live, Michael said, in a plangent tone, I just had to be alive. It was a difference so precise I had to close my eyes to hear it. What drives a person to make that sort of compromise? he asked. A question I inferred was rhetorical, a question he had to hear himself pose, had to know was inside him all along. Michael explained that for him there are days where all that matters is that he made it from the middle of one century to the start of another. This is because sometimes it feels like yesterday is still ahead of him. It was like someone had taken a photograph of him before he was an autonomous, thinking-feeling subject with an instant camera, the kind that immediately spits out a photograph, but it was taking years and years to develop. Not enough light had hit the surface, so he lived like negative space. By the time he caught a peak of himself, he had already faded. What this meant is that I was a gay man listening to a gay man who hadn’t been listened to. Why have you never formally come out? I asked. During the summer of 1980, Michael said, I fell in love with a boy, a classmate. It happened unthinkingly, against common sense. They had put themselves in danger. Perhaps having a “we,” however fragile, to endanger empowered them to rationalize the irrational in the first place, I thought. They would lay in his bed and hold hands until dawn, nothing else. Michael would squeeze his hand so hard it went numb, but he never protested. They seldom spoke in his bedroom, he clarified. It was as if there were things the dark made it impossible to utter. All sensory faculties fell away except touch, the language-ness of it. In the absence of speech, he told the boy everything. I knew what he meant. What is inside a letter if not light?  They were boys who knew only how to fail at boyhood. It sounded to me like an ethnographic spectacle. They were as afraid of being found out by one another’s parents as they were of the encroaching season. There was a summerness to their little love. The sweat of June and July and August glistened in the small of their backs, is what I heard Michael saying. Did he want to put his tongue to the boy? Was he afraid it was forbidden, that it was a sheet of icy metal? Did the passage of time feel like a personal affront? Did they crane their heads toward the sky so as to believe they had transported to another world? Without warning, Michael said, the boy disappeared. Rumour had it his parents sent him to a conversion therapy camp a few hours away. People didn’t say “gay,” Michael added, afraid it was contagious, that it would sit in the air. Michael waited for him. Michael waited as if he was put on earth to wait. When the boy finally came back, weeks later, he was no longer a person but an outline of one, no longer flush with humanity. Michael would knock at his door and no one would answer. One evening he pounded on the door until he heard sirens in the distance, until all of him turned red and blue. Days later the boy enrolled in a high school on the other end of town, so Michael moved on. It was all he knew how to do, he said. He was still someone’s child and children didn’t get to plunge into their solitude. Unless they did. The boy killed himself that winter; he used his father’s belt. That’s what Michael heard. At the funeral Michael wept and wept in the church bathroom because the truth of the death was lost in a place outside admission. He wept until he was no longer human. Like an animal, he wanted his mourning to be an enormous display. Michael began to cry, softly—to mention a history of tears often had the effect of bringing someone to tears. I held my gaze. The thesis behind my project was that people turned into musical instruments when encouraged to testify about the conditions of their lives. My success hinged on my ability to endure whatever song was sung, so I listened with both eyes, with my hands clasped tightly in front of me. People didn’t kill themselves, not around here, Michael continued. No one forgot. They remembered and remembered. It triggered something powerful in him, a survival instinct. Back then, he wanted to live. He wanted to live because it was the only thing expected of him, of everyone. My god, I didn’t want to die, Michael said with a grimace, as if the thought was a new one, as if its newness disturbed him, challenged the bedrock of his worldview. Perhaps he wasn’t ready to live differently in the wake of that sort of revelation. You know, he went on, that dead boy is more proof of my continued existence than anything else. Do we make ourselves into tragedians trying to accrue proof of our aliveness in retrospect? I thought. Somewhere between love and loss we pitch a tent from which we only look backward.   Was it then that you decided to sublimate whatever longings you had, to live a kind of repressed life? I asked. Yes and no, Michael answered. It was accretive, he explained, a slow build-up of small decisions made in haste. I didn’t shun the gay parts of myself for good, if that is even possible, he said. He always deferred the day he would get the fuck out. With age, immobility turned out to be something he didn’t have to resist anymore, it gave him context, which he thought he had irreversibly forfeited. The future stopped feeling like something solid thrashing against him. The generations that preceded his were socialized to believe homosexuality was a crime. It was only removed from Albertan criminal law two years after he was born, in fact. The sentiment didn’t magically vanquish when reform happened. Heterosexuality was where identity began and ended. So much so that when the AIDS epidemic ravaged gay communities all over the world, the town only caught bits and pieces of the circumstances. What made its way out here, north of the last major city, north of anyone at risk, was enough to piece together an intoxicating myth of gay impurity. To be gay was to be dead, dying. Worse, to harbor the ability to kill. It became easier to clock in and out of Michael’s body than confront the heaviness of his desires. He was unsure what devastation they might wrought. At some point, I thought, he convinced himself he was a stray bullet that silence had clenched between its teeth. Perhaps he was thankful for his captor. Michael’s oral history reminded me of Judith Butler’s observation that we sometimes choose to stay attached to what injures us rather than gamble with what it might feel like to be in the world without the attachment. The psychological investment is so large it seems counterintuitive to relinquish it, irrespective of its consequences. I was also reminded, perhaps un-usefully, of the story of Yellowknife’s arsenic. Let me explain. There are currently 237,000 tonnes of arsenic in the mines near the city. For decades, men hunted gold and, by extension, happiness, another world. Left unchecked, the arsenic production skyrocketed and seeped into the snow, into the surrounding environment, so it had to be locked away. Were the chemicals to escape the chambers in which they have been frozen, biological life would cease to exist. Don’t we all tell ourselves that what’s inside us, our wanting, is annihilative to this degree? Don’t we all suspect our most volatile yearnings, when freed from the pits of our stomachs, could upend a world? What if desire is one of the few forces that troubles the idea of continuums, meaning we are either entirely absorbed or wrecked by it? Don’t we all have it in us to destroy ourselves? In response to the Butler note, Michael produced his own analogy. He mentioned the method of disembodied writing, which is when the writer is made invisible. It’s an approach he trusts, because it doesn’t paint a target on himself or his staff. It occurred to him the other day that we sometimes practice a kind of disembodied living. Like a ghost trying to accentuate its ghostliness, he said, chuckling. It appears I have mastered the art! To remain, I thought, to settle down, to stay put meant that the act of being inhibited, of being forestalled, became the larger ebb and flow of life writ large. Isn’t geographical fate, then, nothing but an obstacle one has to surpass? If a home was a monument to what you lost or were losing out on, wouldn’t you run away?  I felt compelled to reel Michael back into the room. To keep us both from wandering too long in the abstract. Did you ever fall in love again? I asked. At the abruptness of the question Michael turned his head away from me and toward a wall adorned with a degree and nothing else.  I reminded Michael he could pass on any question that discomfited. He smiled. Not exactly, no, he said. Throughout the nineties he had the habit of driving down to Edmonton for weekends at a time to try to breach the prison of indecision and regret he made of himself. He would linger at the gay bar, terrified he would run into someone he knew—which never happened, he clarified— until one or two in the morning. All he wanted was to be seen in a place where exposure was a kind of currency rather than a death wish. Men made advances, most of which he rebuffed. He accepted a blowjob here and there in bathroom stalls but no one had names, including him. He thought about staying in Edmonton, but in the end he had lost the power to be anything but complacent, self-sacrificial. Most importantly, though, even in his thirties and forties, he felt haunted by his first, and only, love, and the thing about memory is you can’t extinguish it. It is as automatic as the spinning earth. He decided it would be wrong to not be as close to that history as possible, as if it were a dying language only he could speak. His love for the boy was so contested and fraught and tragic he is still awash in it. The emotional intensity was enough to last a lifetime. Is that bizarre? Michael asked. That such a brief experience of love was too much? For a second or two I thought Michael expected an answer from me. His eyes were pleading, but whose wouldn’t be? Who wouldn’t bruise themselves in the drama of self-documentation? How could anyone hold such a jagged memory up to the light and not wince? I decided against letting the interview naturally dissipate and asked Michael if he had ever felt empty, like something vital was missing, to which he said emptiness wasn’t something to run from. We all begin with emptiness, he argued: an empty name, an empty house, an empty life. Mine is a life of beginnings, he said. Every morning I start over. I explained to Michael that I experienced emptiness in two ways: either it was an echo from the past boomeranging around a room or it was the sound of air plummeting to the ground upon being sliced through. In both cases, around me it rained emptiness. I would be drenched in it. Perhaps that is a good way to understand our generational differences, Michael said, with an air of self-satisfaction. Michael, without prompt, said he doesn’t nauseate on what his life could have been. It’s his small act of refusal, his silent rebellion. Maybe when he looks in the mirror, he see who he is, which is someone who’s running out of time. All those years of evading death were preparatory. Without knowing it, he was practicing death, a ritual unto itself. Just then he closed his eyes, not in an effort to abate tears but as if succumbing to exhaustion. So I did too. For a short while we were alone in a shared world where nothing needed to be said to grasp one another’s emotional possibility. * Michael walked me to the elevator and then to the front entrance. I thanked him for his time, for his candor and vulnerability, to which he said it was nice to get things off his chest, that I could follow-up if need be, that I knew where to find him. At the edge of the parking lot, I turned back to get one last look at him. Because it was five o’clock and the sun gave him a new face, or because I was twenty-four and lonely in a town that made me feel like a shipwreck, I wanted to kiss him. Instead, I said goodbye for a second time. Now, alone in a hotel room, it’s as if I can still hear desire clamouring inside Michael. It’s like a bird’s wings rattling against a cage. It’s a beautiful and terrible melody I suspect he will die to.
‘America is Always in Therapy and Not Getting Much Out of It’: An Interview with Jason Diamond

Talking to the author of The Sprawl about teen rage, community disconnection, and building better suburbs.

When pressed via Instagram poll to describe what an America with defunded police would look like, congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez responded, “It looks like a suburb.” Initially, the manicured montage of a bland, probably white family living in a spacious house behind a white picket fence with 2.5 kids and a station wagon in the driveway seems like an odd characterization for a non-carceral state. But on further examination, the comparison makes sense. In this imaginary suburb, crime is relatively nonexistent because the community’s affluence is funneled towards resources and social services such as education, libraries, and public pools, instead of the overpolicing of its citizens. Between Ocasio-Cortez’s reclamatory metaphor and Jason Diamond’s defense of the urban fringe, The Sprawl: Reconsidering the Weird American Suburbs (Coffee House Press), the suburbs are undergoing a bit of an image overhaul as of late. From their inception post-WWII, the suburbs have formed the bedrock for a rich American mythology based on secrets and lies, normalcy and conformity. The first modern suburb, Levittown in Long Island, New York, was initially conceived of as a place where every young soldier returning home from the war could afford to own a home. The result was a tract of 17,000 near-identical homes built on top of fields that once yielded potatoes and onions that fed the very soldiers they now housed. Yet part of the planner’s desire to create an idyllic residential paradise involved consciously excluding Black and brown people; even today, Levittown remains 88 percent white. Diamond acknowledges the suburb’s exclusionary history and argues they can be redeemed. To him, the suburbs are not “a great big boring monolith of conformity”; rather they’re like Anakin Skywalker, a “flawed, imperfect but ultimately good person.” The Sprawl is part melancholic meditation on the meaning of the suburbs, part encyclopedic survey of the suburbs in pop culture references, and part futurist reimagining of the possibilities of suburbia. At its core, it’s both a paean to the place that formed Diamond and a wistful epitaph to where that childhood was discarded. But an underlying spirit of optimism prevails. If Diamond can overcome the trauma of his past, then perhaps there’s hope—a future that looks like a suburb might not be such a bad thing after all. Isabel Slone: The book is heavily rooted in place, yet it’s arriving at a time when most people have been suffocating inside for months. Has shelter-in-place affected the way you perceive the suburbs at all? Jason Diamond: It’s been really strange to see this sudden wave of people start thinking about moving back to the suburbs. There’s this acceptance, on the part of a lot of people my age, that they’re going to move back to the suburbs because they can no longer afford to live in the city or they just feel it’s safer outside, virus-wise. I have mixed emotions about it because I’ve been researching the suburbs for so long, but I didn’t hope for something so tragic as a pandemic to come up and make the book seem timely… You could almost argue that the entire theme of the book was mixed emotions. It’s clear you have a deep appreciation for the suburbs even though your experience growing up there wasn’t wholly positive. Did you feel like you were grappling with the idea of loving something you don’t really like? One of my favourite quotes, and I’m paraphrasing it so I guess it isn’t actually one of my favourite quotes, but Aaron Cometbus said that the two most nostalgic types of people are old punks and Jews. I’m both an old punk and a Jew. I’m a nostalgic person who tries to take a critical approach to things. It’s like with anything you write, you have to be as honest and careful as possible. My childhood in the suburbs wasn’t the greatest, but I do appreciate the idea of the suburbs, so I’m not going to come at them with my knives out either. I’m interested in your use of the term “reconsidering.” Why were you drawn to reconsidering the suburbs in the first place? For me, early on, I was like, “The suburbs suck. I don’t want to be here.” Then I started getting a little older and found myself in the suburbs more often and became really interested in the things I had previously overlooked. When I wrote my first book, Searching for John Hughes, I found myself going back to the Chicagoland area I grew up in, and was really stunned by how beautiful it is and how much interesting stuff there is going on. I didn’t realize the Steppenwolf theatre, this famous American theatre company of the last 50 years, was founded in the suburb right next to mine. Then I started unwinding every little thing that I like and realized that 90 percent of it comes from the suburbs. Lou Reed might be associated with New York City, but he’s from Long Island, you know? Steve Albini moved from Montana to Evanston, Illinois. It’s the same thing with Danzig. I visited his hometown, Lodi, New Jersey, and was like, “This is where Danzig is from?” It wasn’t some weird, creepy bat cave; it was suburban New Jersey. I really just started reconsidering the suburbs for myself. I got to this point where I decided that nothing is 100 percent bad. It's really easy to think otherwise, but I just wanted to expand on what makes the suburbs good and what could make them better. Do you think part of the desire to reconsider is getting older, slowing down? When you’re a teen, suburbs provide this context of something to rebel against. If teens have to move away to find their identity, are the suburbs where parents go to be themselves? I think it's less that they’re trying to find themselves, and more that it's just easier to live there. I can’t speak to suburbs outside the US, but here, there’s definitely this idea that the suburbs are safer and easier to manage. You just get in your car, you don’t have to walk, or deal with any of the spontaneous happenings on the street you experience—for better or for worse—in a city. But it’s important to consider who this ease is built for. Suburbs have not been a friendly place since the get-go. Levittown in Long Island, the first modern American suburb, was built on a foundation of racial exclusion. Suburbs have a long history of excluding Black and brown people. Even my own family: My nana kept these letters she received from the country club saying, “Thank you for applying, but we don’t let your race into our club.” Anything built on a foundation of keeping people out isn’t going to be able to hide that forever. The suburban story is a very American story because we keep sweeping stuff under the rug and haven’t been able to reconcile with it yet. When I visited Celebration, Florida, a suburb originally owned by the Walt Disney Company, it felt like everyone who lived there was doing PR for the place. It’s a very weird, tight situation. For a place that promises space and happiness. It's usually the opposite. Despite all the pop culture references devoted to them, I got the sense that suburbs actually aren’t that much more interesting than any other place. Are we wrong to imbue so much imagination and symbolism on them? I don’t think that impulse is wrong, necessarily. You can take anything and mold it into a book, or an album. Geographically, the suburbs dominate so much of America that it's only natural they dominate much of the conversation. Not to get too off track, but I’ve always found Moby-Dick to be this fascinating book because it’s a about a whale, it’s about a guy chasing a whale, it’s about obsession, but at the heart of it, it's about America coming to grips with being this new, young country. So much of our art is concentrated on trying to make sense of this really bizarre country. I could point to so many different works of art and demonstrate how it explains America at a specific point and time. Basically, America is always in therapy and it's not getting much out of it. It needs to change its therapist, I think. Damn. I didn’t grow up in the suburbs—I’m from a rural area—but sometimes I feel like I did because so much of my favourite music from my teen years was centred around the desire to escape them. That always makes me wonder, why does teen rage feel almost endemic to the suburbs? I would never go out to the suburbs and be like, “Hey, 15-year-old jaded punk kid, you should really like your hometown a little bit more.” When you’re that age, you’re never going to like your hometown. Maybe if you grew up in New York City—I read the Beastie Boys Book and hearing them talking about growing up in NY, it sounds like it was a wonderland. When you’re a teen there’s so much pressure, and if you keep squeezing, that pressure is going to make them explode, either through creativity or through violence. I got lucky that I was more drawn to the creative side. I remember the summer I turned 15, I had a friend whose dad passed away. He and his mom were away for a month to take care of family business and I remember, with his mom’s permission, my friends and I built a skate ramp in the back of his house. How did we learn to build a skate ramp? None of us were carpenters. My one friend just had this skateboard zine that had directions on how to build a ramp. We just kind of used what we had as cobbled it together. It took us maybe a month to build it. It made my friend’s entire life. We spent the whole summer hanging out skating on it. I wish I would have thought of that before I wrote this book because I would have gone back and reconstructed that entire summer. That’s incredible. I was surprised to learn that Gen Z is apparently obsessed with suburban shopping malls. It got me thinking, now that kids grow up with the internet and are able to ease the sense of isolation by finding friends there, does that suburban ennui that feels like a feature not a bug of the suburbs now cease to exist? I don’t think that will ever cease to exist. What has changed, I think, is the concept of regionalism. Growing up in the mid-’90s, I caught the last dying days of any sense of regionalism. Back in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, there were certain garage rock or hardcore scenes that sounded a little different—Chicago had the ska-punk scene, stuff like that. Now that we have the internet gluing everything together across the world, I don’t think that sense of regionalism will remain. I don’t think there will ever be another Dischord Records that only puts out DC bands. But I do think the ennui you speak of is always going to be there. If there’s anything I’ve learned from watching TikTok, or just paying attention to stuff I’ve seen on the internet, teens are more in touch with their emotions these days. But teens are always going to be sad. They’re going to have that kind of energy I am thankful I will never have to experience again unless I have my own kids. Speaking of Dischord, some of the best punk rock records hail from suburbia. Why do you think that is? And what do you make of the criticism that punk’s suburban roots somehow invalidate it, as if privilege and punk rock don’t go together? If we strip away the semantics, we can now safely say that Black Flag was a great American rock band. With every singer they had, they took the rage and anger they were feeling and distilled into something super brilliant. And they were 16- or 17-year-old kids at the time. It's fine to say punk rock comes from a place of privilege, but would people really prefer these kids to sit around on their butts and be boring? To conform and become like the people they didn’t like? I’m glad they didn’t become middle management. In a way, they were using their privilege in a positive way by saying, “Hey, I’m a middle-class white kid and I want to speak out against the things I see.” That’s what a lot of hardcore is. Politically, everything we’re seeing now, I feel pretty prepared for it because I grew up listening to ’80s hardcore. Everyone is just discovering ACAB and I’m like, “You’ve never listened to MDC?” They’re literally called Millions of Dead Cops. I had an MDC pin on my jacket when I was a kid. That’s why I’m not shocked by the current moment. Sure, everything sucks right now, but this has always been the way it is. Black Lives Matter is really galvanizing support and demonstrating how Black people are treated unfairly and white Americans are like, “This is a thing?” That to me is weird. But I’m glad early on I had people say to me, “Listen to Public Enemy. Read Howard Zinn.” There were maybe five people in my suburb that would have told me that and I’m really lucky that either I found them or they found me. I don’t know if I would have had that same luck if I’d grown up anywhere else. There's a quote in the book that goes, “The sprawl has consumed so much of this country with its ugly houses, chain stores upon chain stores, forgotten shopping plazas, and endless stretches of road. But it wasn’t supposed to be this way, and in that fact I see a chance, an opportunity.” Opportunity for what? Sustainability and community. I think these things are severely lacking in many suburban places. I don't like the idea of a place just being built and that's it. There's no nurturing or building that actually helps people that live in these places. We don't need more car dealerships or big box stores; we need libraries and gathering places, for when that sort of thing is acceptable again. We need natural grasses, not turf lawns. We need places to walk and cut our dependence on cars. If suburban places can embrace change like that, I think it would have a huge impact in countless ways, from environmental to quality of life. Community seems like a crucial part of the equation that is currently lacking in suburbs. So how do we go about creating one? There's a chapter in my book where I go to Avon, Connecticut, and talk to locals who organized against a developer. What fascinated me was the two of them had lived two houses down from each other for well over a decade and had never met their neighbors. The more people I talked to in suburban places, the more I found that was the case. So, the simple answer would be, "Talk to people more!" But obviously it needs to be more than that. It's important to note that as the suburbs rose throughout the second half of the 20th century we saw a decline in our social structures, whether that be churches or PTA, we were disconnecting from other people long before we all had smartphones to blame for our lack of attention span. Now, I'm not saying church or the PTA is what's needed to cure what ails suburbia, but getting people together is. It would take a grassroots effort, finding ways to engage people in the suburbs, getting them out of their homes, going out and getting to know other people. How, exactly, we do that with all the things currently taking up our focus is hard to say, especially in the age of social distancing, but I think one of the big things we can do is start by looking backwards, to the ideas of planners like Victor Gruen, who designed the American mall to be something more like the kind of spaces he knew in Austria at the start of the 20th century. It would be nice if our government would start to realize how important the suburbs are to America and work to make them more sustainable, healthier places, but I don't have much faith that will happen anytime soon. We need to rethink the suburbs we already have and figure out how to make them more than just places.
‘Haunted Literature Can Be a Powerful Medium for Looking at the Ignored’: An Interview with Laura van den Berg

The author of I Hold a Wolf by the Ears on spectral encounters and exorcisms, America’s rejection of history, travel literature, and boxing.  

Laura van den Berg’s stories frequently toe the line of the uncanny—the landmarks are all recognizable, but something feels off, like the tension built up by the droll repetition of the daily grind is about to break into a nightmare beyond imagining. Though van den Berg now lives in Massachusetts, the hopelessly humid atmospheres of these stories seem more suited to the Florida climate where she was born and raised. Van den Berg’s last book was a surreal-literary remix of a pulp mystery, The Third Hotel, a meditation on grief, slasher movies, and marital landscapes. Her latest work, I Hold a Wolf by the Ears (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is a short story collection that bounces between Italy and Iceland, Mexico and Florida. A woman abruptly begins pretending to be her sister while travelling abroad. An artist becomes suspicious that her husband has been lying about his upbringing. A photographer notices something odd in the corner of photos she’s taken. Its weighted, packed-to-bursting prose invites inquisitive readers to explore the dark depths between its spines. Nour Abi-Nakhoul: After your success with The Third Hotel, you return to the short story collection. It’s been referred to as a homecoming of sorts. Did it feel this way to you? Laura van den Berg: Lots of writers move back and forth between the story and the novel, and some writers start with stories and then go on to exclusively write novels. I love the novel. It’s a very separate form than the story, and I love all the ways in which it is very different from a short story. But the short story is the first form of literature that I ever fell in love with. Reading short fiction made me want to be a reader, which made it possible for me to be a writer. For reasons both artistic and deeply personal, it's a form that's super close to my heart. I can't imagine an artistic practice without the short story having a place in it. A common trajectory is debuting with a collection of stories and then following up with a novel, but I published two collections before I published a novel. In that way, it can feel like going back home. Was it difficult to write a novel? Did you have this drive to turn to short stories instead? It was incredibly difficult to write my first novel and it took quite a bit of time, but I knew that it was going to be a novel if it was going to be anything. It felt like a dystopian novel with many moving parts in terms of plot, with more material than can be held by the scope of a short story. The issue was that I was approaching the novel as though it was a short story; I was working on it and revising it in the way that I would if it was a short story. It took me a while to really reimagine my process essentially with a novelistic scope instead of a short story scope.  One of my teachers said he felt that a short story was closer to poem than it was to a novel. At the time I really didn't understand what that meant, because I was thinking of it in terms of verse in contrast with prose. But when I attempted a novel, I understood it. There’s a deep compression inherent to the short story, and I think that's true even in long, capacious stories. A story needs to be uncorked a bit to be a novel, and it took me quite a while to figure out how to do that.  You’ve been very public lately in your affinity for boxing. The sport was, however, notably absent from I Hold a Wolf by the Ears. I am working on a project now that involves boxing. For a long time, I would talk to friends who are writers about boxing and they’d advise me to write about it. But I wanted to have something completely separate from writing, I didn’t want it to be contaminated by turning it into an artistic project. But at this point I spend so much time in that world that it has inevitably leaked over into my writing. I started in the first place because I was seeing a therapist for an anxiety disorder, and the therapist told me that I needed a hobby. I ultimately ended up at a boxing gym with no background in the sport, and no athletic background at all. A few years ago, walking was a sport to me. I started from the ground up. For my first couple of group classes, everyone else was so much more advanced—they were doing all these cool exercises, and I was literally just walking forward, backward, left, and right for an hour. Had this happened at a different time I think I would’ve found it very frustrating and tedious, but it was a particular kind of tedious that made me think of revising a sentence over and over again. After the first couple of classes when I left the gym, I would feel calmer than I’d felt in years. Boxing helped me start sleeping again, and helped me get my anxiety under control. It’s a deeply challenging sport; you have to have patience and decisiveness and it humbles you. These things have helped me as a person and implicitly help my writing practice. I also hydrate now in a way that I didn’t used to.  Can you tell me about some forms of media that had bearing on the stories in this collection? I think of the collection as a gathering of ghost stories. In some stories that ghost is literal, like in "Slumberland," and in others the haunting is more abstract in nature. A lot of the contemporary practitioners of the ghost story and of haunted literature are near and dear to my heart. For me what is so compelling about haunted literature is that it can be a powerful medium for looking at the ignored, the repressed, the unspoken, the unseen and unacknowledged. I'm interested in how the movement of these kinds of stories can compel characters to look in directions that they are disinclined to look at on their own. I love Julio Cortazar’s short story “House Taken Over,” which is in many ways an archetypal haunted house story. I love Mariana Enriquez’s story “Adela’s House,” which is another haunted house story. In different ways, both stories deal with landscape and structure, history and hauntedness in beautiful and powerful ways. I admire Carmen Maria Machado’s story “The Husband Stitch.” There are a couple of ghost stories in Helen Oyeyemi’s collection What is Not Yours is Not Yours that I thought about quite a bit while working on some of stories. The way that hauntings can animate alternate lives, shadow lives, paths taken and not taken. Looking at the popularity of writers like Carmen Maria Machado, for example, people today seem very drawn towards the ghost story. Why do you think that is?  One reason why writers keep coming back to the ghost story is that, like the fairy tale, it is endlessly flexible. It can be reimagined and recontextualized again and again, which is why I think the form has such incredible endurance. Contemporarily, we’re at a moment where, for white America, the unwillingness to look, listen, learn, study, and engage, is having disastrous consequences. Historical truths and realities and how they shape the present are being denied. In that sense, I think that that this is a perfect time for the ghost story. As I was saying before, the form is very adept at looking at what the characters don’t want to look at. What about actual physical ghosts? Have you ever seen one? I don’t know if seen is the best word for this. Or, experienced? I've always had a healthy respect for the supernatural. I lived with my grandmother when I was a teenager, and she 100 percent believes in ghosts. One of the first things that she said when I moved in with her was, there’s a ghost in the house from long ago, if you see her come down to the kitchen in the middle of night and turn on the water, don’t worry. I never saw the ghost and just chalked it up to my grandmother being eccentric. So, the idea of supernatural happenings wasn't necessarily foreign to me, but it was not something that I had experienced. And then when I was working on my first novel around 2013, I spent a summer at a residency in the Florida Keys that was horribly, terribly haunted. The manifestation wasn't visual, it was more auditory, and I wasn’t the only person that was affected, several of the other residents were as well. We heard doors shaking, cabinets opening and closing, crying and screaming outside when there wasn’t anyone outside. We would wake up in the middle of the night and all our chargers and lamps would be unplugged. We would plug them back in, and the next time we woke up they would be unplugged again. We had an exorcism ceremony through the residency because the affected people were absolutely losing their shit, as you can imagine. The exorcism fixed the problem because we were unaffected for the rest of the residency.  What did the exorcism consist of? It’s a little hazy because at that point I had not slept in maybe 10 days, and this is July in the Key West so it was 102 degrees outside. The whole experience was fairly hallucinatory. In my memory we had agreed on something to communicate to the ghost, a ritualized saying that we would repeat again and again. There was a lot of lighting of candles in different places and making requests of the spirit while they were burning. We lined all the doors and windowpanes with salt. It was some sort of special salt that the exorcist brought with him—but maybe it was just sea salt, who knows. I felt sort of ridiculous when I was doing this but then we didn't hear a peep for the weeks that followed. That’s all so scary. It was terrifying. I have a healthy respect for the supernatural, but I want it to stay in its lane and I’ll stay in mine. It was genuinely very frightening and not something I would necessarily be keen to experience again. I have one other story, which is a little less sensational. After my father died about a year and a half ago, I arrived in Florida and was staying at my sister's house and one of her dogs, Champ, slept with me. I had a dream that my dad was speaking to me through Champ. I woke up at dawn and this dog, who usually sleeps like a log, was sitting upright beside me. And his mouth was opening and closing, and it looked as though he was talking. We just stared at each other like that for a little while, and then he laid back down. There can be such a desire to try and figure out what it was. Was it a supernatural thing? Was it grief? Was it exhaustion? But I think I’ve given up on trying to explain moments like that, and just allow them to the inexplicable things that they are. That's precisely the kind of moment that I'm drawn to writing into fiction, these experiences that can't be explained. Toni Morrison has this beautiful quote from an NPR interview she did, where she says, “If you’re really alert, you can see the life that exists beyond the life that is on top.”  There’s so much in that beyond that’s deeply mysterious to me, but I believe that it's there, and that it matters. I’m interested in allowing the presence of the beyond in and thinking about what it has the capacity to communicate to us that cannot be conveyed through more corporeal channels. These questions were of deep interest to me when I was working on this book.  Do you think it might be dangerous in a way, to remain open to the beyond like that? Dangerous how? Emotionally, psychologically, spiritually. I think one's relationship to whatever dimensions that exist or don't exist outside of corporeal life is deeply personal. For me, I do think writing fiction requires a degree of emotional or psychological risk. If I'm not risking something, I feel like the story isn’t risking anything. And I do think stories need to be willing to take risks. This can manifest in all kinds of ways. I always want to be very thoughtful about the risks that I'm taking in fiction and not just risking for the sake of risk. That’s what boxing is for [laughs].  A lot of the stories in Wolf did take risks. “Hill of Hell” was an emotionally difficult story to write, and there was emotional risk there for me. I also hope that the spirit of that risk is felt and present in the story. A lot of it is waiting for the right time to write something. “Last Night” was the most autobiographical story in the collection. It's a story that I had tried to write many different ways and many different times. When I wrote the draft that’s in the collection, it was the first time that I tried really writing in an autofiction kind of style. But I was also just ready to write that particular story. Some of it was technical barriers, but it was also emotional readiness. I wasn't prepared to be that raw and vulnerable with that material. I had to wait for the moment when I did feel like I could go there. Questions of risk are questions of timing as well. When you're speaking of unknown terrains, I'm reminded of how your characters frequently find themselves as tourists in foreign countries. Why is this a setting you find yourself circling back to? I think that there are specific ways shifts in location can disorient the gaze. There’s a part of my experience with that exorcism that’s glazed into my memory more than anything else. If you can imagine the residency was set up like a compound that took up about half a city block. There were six of us there, and half of us were affected, which is to say we experienced the haunting, and the other half did not. I asked the exorcist, why did these people get off so easy? Why was it just us? And he said, with absolute authority, “you have the wedge.” His theory of hauntedness is that every place is haunted, there are ghosts all around us at any time. Inside each of us is a wedge, and some ghosts can fit into the wedge and others can’t. Which explains why five people could go into a quote unquote haunted house, and maybe only two would say they felt a chill.  I think that travel, and the very particular ways in which it can dislocate and disorient the self, can create new wedges that new types of things can get inside. I was really interested in that in the titular story, and the way that the protagonist taking on her sister’s identity causes her own sense of self and her own life to go completely haywire. I think that travel, because we are removed from our usual context, allows for things to happen that would not have happened at home. That can be very good for fiction. I was thinking about this with “Karolina”: on what terms could these two women meet each other again? They could have encountered each other at home, but there is a kind of charge and intimacy and privacy that can happen between these two women because they're in a hotel room. Because there is this temporariness. Everything is intensified, everything is heightened. Speaking more broadly about form, I was really influenced as a younger writer by abroad novels. I still really love great travel literature, and at the same time I think the history of the of the abroad novel is riddled with problems. Whiteness that’s unexamined, imperialistic urges and so on. It’s up to readers whether this project is successful or not, but one thing that I've been alert to is trying to find new shapes and imagine new possibilities for travel literature. Is this desire to place characters in alienating positions why they all seem so disconnected from each other? It seems very difficult for your characters to find any authentic social connections. They’re all very solitary, and for many of them we’re meeting at times where their lives have been horribly fractured by loss or secrecy. This has given way to a deeper alienation to those around them. A lot of these characters are in the liminal space after a really formative loss. The kind of loss where you walk into the moment one person, and walk out a different kind of person; and maybe you don't know what that means exactly, you just know that something somewhere inside you has fundamentally changed forever. Maybe these characters have walked out the other side of that door, but they don't yet know what that changed self means for them. When you're in that state of profound limbo, it's hard to make connections with the people around you. I was really interested in writing into these metamorphic, mysterious emotional landscapes. I wanted to circle back to something you were saying at the beginning of our conversation about America's rejection of history. This seems juxtaposed with the fact that for your characters memory is something that's always present on an endless loop.   These characters have pasts that are really bearing down hard on them, and because of that, memory is very activated. The word looped does feel apt. There's a whirlpool effect, and they're circling and circling and trying to not get sucked down into the center. But this individual memory is very different than national memory, than having a collective understanding of our true history as a country. There's a lot of people who are receptive to trying to figure out how to meet this moment, but still don’t understand how we got here. The answers are all there, it's all encoded in our history: a history that has been undealt with, unconfronted, and unrectified, in any kind of public institutional way as well as in the context of people's private lives. That was something I thought about in “Lizards,” where on the one hand what the husband is doing to his wife is really horrifying and unforgivable. But on the other, she is a character who is enraged by Kavanaugh's presence as a likely Supreme Court Justice yet is all too eager to blank out at the end of the day and to avoid the harder questions. What is she as an individual willing to change in her life? What is she willing to give up? What is she willing to do differently to prevent another Kavanaugh from being in such an immense position of power? The answer to that question is probably not that much. She’s a character whose relationship between her own life choices and the larger power structures that she's kind of starting to notice is really, truly unexamined. “Karolina” is uncanny in its prediction of how mainstream liberal feminism would treat Tara Reade. There’s a criticism in there of a selective politics, where there’s no real application of politics to one’s own life outside of a specific agenda. “Lizards” and “Karolina” are the two stories where that relationship was the most on my mind. The narrator in “Karolina,” for instance, would consider herself to be a feminist and a Democrat. She would be completely horrified by Kavanaugh and Trump. And yet the patriarchal violence in her own family, in terms of her relationship with her brother, has gone completely unexamined and unconfronted. Moreover, she has been complicit in the abuse of her sister-in-law. That’s something that so many people are wrestling with in their own families. The application can’t just be external: protesting, donating, making calls, writing emails. That work is vitally important, and we all need to do it. But the application must be internal as well. That comes down to the power dynamics within our own family structures. This character was never physically violent, but she helped to cultivate an environment where violence against her sister-in-law was possible or even permissible. I was thinking about personal relationships to power and how what goes unexamined can have consequences in powerful and terrible ways as we move through our lives in the greater world.  
‘As Writers, Do We Have a Responsibility to the Dead?’: An Interview with Sara O’Leary

The author of The Ghost in the House on acts of grace, territorial tendencies, and the silver lining in things being temporary.

Sara O’Leary’s debut novel The Ghost in the House (Doubleday Canada) is a dark comedy about self-awareness, existential dilemmas, and life after death (especially the sort of life that has somehow kept going and wants you to bear witness to how everything has rearranged itself to cover up the gaps you left behind). Thirty-something Fay, the novel’s narrator, realizes that instead of her life being on the cusp of something bigger, it has abruptly ended without her permission. Her husband, Alec, has a new love, and teenaged Dee—who isn’t sure if she wants to belong to the living or the dead—is Fay’s key to communicating with the real world. Also a screenwriter, writer of short stories, and children’s book author, O’Leary’s dialogue delights in what our miscommunications say about ourselves. She uses short, shimmering sentences to play a who’s-really-been-left-behind riddle from chapter to chapter with the reader.  What follows is less a coming-of-age story and more a coming-to-terms-with that slyly upturns the traditional who’s-who of ghost stories. “Fay is 37 when she dies and assumes that she still has lots of choices left to make,” O’Leary says. The novel pokes and prods at the denial that often comes with grief, “reconciling yourself to…the fact that life continues even when you’re gone—a sort of It’s A Wonderful Death scenario.” Sara and I spoke in the lead-up to the book’s release, and unpacked the responsibility, desire and motivations behind processing life (and death, and grief) by writing ghost stories. Nathania Gilson: What sparked your desire to write a ghost story?  Sara O’Leary: I’m not sure I believe in ghosts, although I’ve lived in a number of haunted houses. The characters in The Ghost in the House are fully imagined but the house itself is the one I used to live in before leaving Vancouver, and I think of it like a lost love.  I’ve always really been interested in girl-meets-house stories. Manderley, the setting of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, was based on the house Menabilly that she discovered and brought back to life. Similarly, Lucy Boston bought a house called The Manor and used it as the setting for her Green Knowe books. Both are stories of hauntings and in both cases the house itself becomes a character in the story. I’m not particularly frightened of my own death but I do find it somehow shocking that a person can be in the world one moment and then gone. How can that be? A very dear friend died the year we both turned 36, and while I face constant reminders that I am growing older, she stays fixed in time and now seems impossibly young to me. All the things she was planning to do, all the places she was going to go, the children she wanted to have—all of that went with her. I think it’s fairly common after losing someone to have that dream where they are suddenly there with you, saying that no, no, it was a mistake, and that they never really died. Or sometimes it’s not as explicit as that—just a dream where you walk into your kitchen and there they are, sitting at the table. I suppose that’s what I wanted to explore—how something that’s finally one of the only certainties in life can feel so terribly unreal. And because of my innate sense of the absurd, it made sense to me to tell the story from the perspective of someone who had just died. It’s hard to talk about all this without making the book sound terribly dreary and woe-some, and I really hope it’s not. It’s a story about dying, yes, but I think also about growing up, and truly loving someone, accepting (as my mother used to tell me when I was a child) that life is not always fair. There’s a constant sense of negotiation and bargaining throughout the novel: the desire for more time; wanting to be heard and seen; escaping loneliness. Even sometimes, expressing or acting out on pettiness because of the shield that invisibility and not being “in” the world affords you. What drew you to exploring these feelings from a female character’s point of view? As someone who writes for children, agency is something that naturally interests me. These two streams of my writing crossed over when a book I was writing set in a dollhouse started showing up in the house in my novel. There is something genuinely unheimlich about dollhouses that seemed to fit this story, but they are also very connected to agency. Rumer Godden wrote, “It is an anxious, sometimes a dangerous thing to be a doll. Dolls cannot choose; they can only be chosen; they cannot ‘do’; they can only be done by.” I think that Fay’s sense of powerlessness is paralleled by that of the thirteen-year-old girl suddenly inhabiting her house. Fay sympathises with Dee’s feeling that decisions are being made about her life, but not by her. They both feel that they cannot do but only be done by. It felt natural to tell this story from the female perspective. And I think Fay struggles—as many of us do—with the notion that we should be able to have it all. There’s that whole art monster question from Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, whether it’s possible to be both mother and artist. This got me thinking about how sad it is to forgo one and never achieve the other. Fay is full of dreams and aspirations and plans for the things she always expected to have time to do, and I was interested in exploring how it would feel to see all that vanish before your eyes. What would you regret? There’s that Raymond Carver line: “And did you get what/you wanted from this life, even so?” Fay feels she has been cheated. All her bargaining and negotiation is in answer to that, but, ultimately, it’s a futile gesture. She’s had her life and all that’s left to her is a final act of grace.  Being embodied is a theme in this novel—specifically, being comfortable in the body you’re given and navigating the world with confidence. Fay seems to struggle with this. What work do you turn to when looking historically to how women’s sense of autonomy and confidence has been expressed?  When I still thought I might pursue an academic life, my main area of interest was writing by female modernists, and Djuna Barnes in particular. There’s a little nod to Nightwood in the first sentence of the novel. In fact, you’ve just reminded me that at one point I started a novel set in the 1920s about a girl from Unity, Saskatchewan who runs away to Paris after her father tells her she can’t stay out until midnight on New Year’s Eve. Maybe I’ll go back to that! I do love that period, and interestingly, it was a time when spiritualism was very prevalent. Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows looks at that in such an interesting way, and I think a similar mixture of doubt and belief found its way into The Ghost in the House. The Fountain Overflows is also a book about agency, which is certainly part of its appeal for me. I share the attitude of the main character, Rose: “She found childhood an embarrassing state. She did not like wearing ridiculous clothes, and being ordered about by people we often recognized as stupid and horrid, and we could not earn our own livings.” In my story, Dee and Fay both exhibit frustration with their lack of autonomy over their own lives, and as Fay says, “The only good thing about being thirteen is that unlike being dead, it doesn’t last.”  Navigating the world in a female body naturally presents its own set of challenges, but Fay has moved beyond her body, which is in itself a form of freedom. There are three poems I think of as the invisible epigraphs to the book: Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,”  Stevie Smith’s “Away, Melancholy,” and Emily Dickinson’s “The Things that never can come back, are several.” The movement in these poems follows aspiration, loss, and ultimately acceptance, that I think (hope) is also the arc of the novel. It was interesting to me how introspective Fay is for a ghost. She’s wondering how she compares to other ghosts who may or may not be stuck haunting the houses they used to live in; wondering where she sits on the Kübler-Ross grief cycle. What role did humour play in upturning our idea of what a ghost story could be? For me, humour plays a role in everything! There’s always been something intrinsically comic about this story to me, although I think I lost several of my favourite jokes somewhere along the way. At one point I had Fay examining her inability to shake off her attachment to her house and possessions by musing: “If you can’t be Zen about things when you’re dead, then when can you?” Is Fay introspective for a ghost? She does spend a lot of time in the past, but I imagine ghosts have a lot of time on their hands—the original self-isolators.There’s also the question of whether Fay is really a ghost at the beginning of the novel, or is imagining she is. The burst of electrical activity in the brain at the time of death could explain that old truism of one’s life flashing before their eyes. For me, it’s more interesting that the brain’s desire for narrative might mean that those moments are spent constructing an alternate reality—in this case one where life goes on, but you don’t go with it.  I do think at the beginning of the novel Fay is guilty of a sort of solipsism that may be what held her back in life and that she initially views the new inhabitants of the house as projections of herself. She does have difficulty in reaching the acceptance stage of the grief cycle, but perhaps it is different when the one you are mourning is yourself.  The people who can see and talk to Fay while she’s a ghost are not always kind to her. How are ghost stories a way to explore resentment or unfinished business that might not have been possible otherwise? Are we kind to the dead, I wonder? Or do we often resent them—after all, they left us, didn’t they? Perhaps we would extend to a ghost the same selfish attitude we are often guilty of when encountering those who are bereaved or facing a terminal diagnosis. We’re all too often frightened of our own mortality and can be clumsy and churlish in the face of reminders. Ghost stories appeal to us because of that frisson of fear and unease, and the reflex to “other” Fay as a ghost seems natural because the living are territorial about things like houses and bodies. In Fay’s case, she’s a revenant who finds that there’s no longer room for her in the home she has left behind. Her husband has married a woman who in many ways seems like a perfected iteration of Fay, and with her she brings a child to take the place of the one that never was. The only way Fay can fully return is by displacing others, and so if the living beings in the house are sometimes unkind to her, then it is partly in the face of her refusal to accept the natural order of things. For novelists wanting to delve into these dark, difficult waters, how can they approach the challenge ahead of them? As writers, do we have a responsibility to the dead? If so, the responsibility of the fiction writer is necessarily different from that of the journalist who must concern themselves with facts, or that of the memoirist who is staking a claim against mortality. Of course, our own death is the one thing we cannot write about experientially (apart from those heaven tourism books that purport to describe life after death) and so it follows that books about death are much more likely to be witness accounts. When I think of books about death, I think of Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave, written about the loss of her entire immediate family in a tsunami. It is difficult to be so privy to someone else’s grief in the face of an almost unimaginable tragedy but I came away from the book feeling enriched by the enduring quality of the different forms of love. And one of the more moving pieces of writing I’ve read is Lucy Kalanithi’s epilogue to her husband Paul’s When Breath Becomes Air in which she talks about facing death in our death-avoidant culture. It seems to me in each of these cases the impulse in writing about one’s loved ones must be to keep them alive just that little bit longer. So where does that leave writers of fiction? I don’t think it’s possible to answer that without considering the larger question of the function that fiction serves. C.S. Lewis wrote “We read to know that we are not alone” and I’ve always felt that to be true. That is also perhaps as good a reason as any to write—as I chose to do—about grief.

The videos were different from anything I’d ever seen. Rope, leather, buckles, straitjackets, Lycra, latex, gas masks, ball gags. The women had ideas and Vanessa let them act the ideas out.

I dropped out of college at twenty. I got so depressed the words blurred on the pages of the PDFs I was supposed to be reading, even when I printed them out. Books were out of the question: I’d read the same sentence over and over again and get through a thirty-page chapter in a week and a half. All food tasted grainy, mealy, grey. I stopped going to the dining hall and ordered pizza instead, which tasted the same as the food in the dining hall. I emailed professors saying I was sick and they responded kindly, offering to set up times to meet with me during their office hours. My philosophy professor said she’d meet me at a coffee shop over the weekend if that was more convenient for me. She added that “we all run into hard times, especially in college when we’re away from our support systems,” and that I should please let her know if I needed to be connected with a counselor at the student health center. I got too broke to keep ordering pizza so I didn’t eat much. I let the professor help me set up an appointment at the student health center, where I saw a therapist with a PhD named John Neely. John Neely asked about my childhood trauma and I told him I had none. He said to please be honest with him, everything I said would be kept confidential. Desperate to come up with something, I said that both my parents had had affairs. He asked if they were divorced and I didn’t want to disappoint him but I told him the truth anyway, that they were still together and that their marriage was maybe even stronger as a result. “All mental illness stems from childhood trauma,” he said. “You have to understand that.” He told me to come see him next week but I didn’t. For three days, I didn’t get out of bed except to pee and rummage in the kitchen for peanut butter. All the professors emailed me, and when I lifted open my laptop I saw a few emails from the same professor, the French one I had five times a week, with the words How are you doing? and then Where are you? and then This many unexcused absences is going to result in a failing grade. I looked up at the ceiling of my dorm room, which I shared with a girl named Abby who stuck little plastic diamonds around the contours of her eyeshadow. She didn’t talk to me much but she didn’t seem to mind me. On the ceiling was a crack that made me think of an artery traveling the length of a body. I followed the crack from where it began above my bed to where it ended above Abby’s bed. I thought of blood moving through a body. I thought of the fragility of bodies. A body crushed under a fallen tree. A body crumpling to the ground from a blood clot in the brain. All the ways a body could kill itself or be killed. I thought of freak accidents where someone’s artery gets opened and blood jets out. Blood draining from a body. I didn’t shower for two weeks. Abby started staying over at her boyfriend’s on the weekend, and then during the week. I watched Netflix on my parents’ account, shows I couldn’t remember watching minutes after finishing them. My mom called me and I didn’t pick up. My dad called me and I didn’t pick up. Eventually Abby told someone—I have no idea who—and a “wellness check” was performed. Campus security with walkie talkies and chunky belts. But by then the semester was over and I’d already failed all my classes. I was placed on academic probation. I lost my partial scholarship. I told my parents I didn’t want to go back and my mom told me that was OK and my dad said, “Why are you saying that’s OK? What are you teaching her?” And my mom said, “She’s clearly suffering.” And my dad said, “She’s already cost us a small fortune.” And then he looked at me and said, “If you drop out of college, you can’t come back home, do you understand? We’re not going to support you anymore.” My mom cried and begged him not to be so harsh with me. My dad shrugged and said, “Play it as it lays.” I wound up in Chicago, two hours north of college. Someone I kind of knew named Jules had an apartment in Uptown that she was sharing with four people. I had a “room” in the living room made out of bedsheets with a mattress on the floor. Jules had been two years ahead of me in college, graduating around the time I flunked out. I knew her from a production of Edward Albee’s Seascape the drama department had put on where she played one of the lizards. I had done some tech for the play but didn’t really like doing it and never did again. Jules wanted to get famous doing improv in Chicago and so did all her friends but all of them were nannies or dog walkers making googly-eyed gourds and Smash the Patriarchy needlepoints for Fiverr and Etsy and working as “teaching artists” in after-school theater programs. I got a job at Oly’s, an all-night burger-and-quesadillas-and-gyros place on Granville. I made $11 an hour. My mom texted me every day and my dad every week and I sent the shortest responses possible. At night when Jules and her friends were out or asleep, I made little welts in my arm with a pocket knife. I grew my nails out and scratched into my wrists, seeing how close I could get to a vein. It made sense that one day I would be all alone, my phone turned off and the door locked, and I would finally get close enough. I was a virgin. I had never even kissed anyone of any gender. One time in high school a guy tried to finger me in his car and I hit him in the head and ran home. He never said anything about it because he was the kind of guy who’d be embarrassed about being beat up by a girl. When she did talk to me—or rather, at me—Abby described how big her boyfriend’s dick was and how great it felt inside her. She had a nickname for his dick: Dwayne Johnson. She asked me how many dicks I’d sucked and I lied and said twenty-four. She looked worried and told me she could tell I was lying. She said that if I stopped dressing like the guys in Pineapple Express maybe I’d get some. She said, “I honestly think you might be too messed up to fuck. You need to get that fixed.” Jules had a boyfriend who lived in Pilsen, which took hours to get to by train, and she had threesomes all the time without him, sometimes with her friends, sometimes with other people she knew from improv classes. The living room was next to Jules’s bedroom, and I could hear her through her wall and my bedsheet. If the noise of the fucking made me feel bad, I took the pocketknife to my arm. Sometimes I took it to the tops of my thighs. One night I got off work early and Jules was in the apartment alone. All her friends were at the screening of an independent film. They all knew the director but Jules was in a fight with him so she’d stayed home. When I walked in and hung up my coat she was sitting on the couch looking at her phone wearing a tartan crop top and black jeans with a hole in the right knee. Her hair was up but a strand had fallen loose and hung next to the curve of her jawline. I hadn’t noticed her jawline before, but now I couldn’t stop looking at it. “Hey,” she said. “You busy tonight?” It was nice of her to pretend I was ever busy. “No, actually.” “Do you know what a speakeasy is?” “Like, in the ’20s?” She laughed, so I laughed too. “Yeah, I mean, that’s sort of the concept behind them. Except we don’t need them for alcohol anymore, obviously.” I nodded. “There’s this one in Albany Park. You can only get into it if you know someone who’s already in. And you can only bring one guest.” She looked at her phone and began texting, briefly absorbed in some drama. Then she looked back up. “Wanna be my guest?” The speakeasy was underneath a boring-looking liquor store on the block across from a bunch of Victorians. Jules knocked and waited to be assessed through the peephole. A guy who was maybe in his 40s opened the door, the kind of guy who would roll into my place of work around 3 a.m. after a Weezer show. Jules said “Kenny,” and then she said, “Don’t water the flowers,” and the guy nodded and stood aside. Inside was what looked like a garden apartment made into a performance space: there was a three-person band playing in one corner, high-quality photos of oiled bodies having sex in another. People were walking around drinking and talking. There was a couch and two easy chairs in the center where people sat and smoked, and on the coffee table were massive, purplish nuggets of weed. The walls had been painted with Day-Glo paints: flowers and dinosaurs and elves and hairy monsters. “Oh my god, machine elves,” Jules said, pausing at a scene of squinty-eyed elves piecing together a human body out of gears and electric wire. “Yeah,” I said. “Do you know what those are?” I shrugged and gave a half nod, trying not to lie while not revealing my ignorance. She smiled. “You see those when you do DMT,” she said. “God, I want to do DMT.” A guy in black glasses and a T-shirt which pictured what looked like a demon making out with a ’50s housewife came over to us. Jules hugged him and said, “Kenny!” “Who’s this?” Kenny pointed at me. “Oh, this is my roommate. She moved here a few months ago.” “Nice,” Kenny said. “You know, everything here’s free. Like, literally. Whatever you can get your hands on, you can take.” “Even the photos?” Jules asked. Kenny smiled and puffed out his chest. “Even the photos,” he said. “I took them, actually.” Then he grabbed Jules’s hand and pulled her close and whispered something in her ear. “Hey,” she said to me. “Kenny needs to show me something. Are you gonna be OK on your own for a minute?” I worried I wasn’t going to be, but I nodded anyway. “Cool,” she said. “I’ll be right back.” I watched Jules and Kenny disappear into the crowd. I decided to do what I had done at parties before, which was get a drink. It was harder to get into awkward situations when you were holding a drink. The surface area of the kitchen island was completely covered with liquor bottles, and people were taking and leaving them at a steady clip. A girl in a dress made of newspaper gave me a cup of what she told me was hot buttered rum. An inch of newspaper on her left boob had gotten wet and the ink was starting to run. I sipped the rum, unafraid of roofies because a girl had given it to me. It tasted thick and sweet. I stood against the wall and nodded back when people smiled at me in passing. I began to think then. I thought of drinking moonshine and going blind. I thought of drinking so much my organs would begin to shut down. I thought of getting my stomach pumped and choking on my own vomit. I drank faster. Then there was a woman leaning against the wall next to me. She looked older than everyone else there, and her face was thin but in a glamorous way, with creases from her chin to the corners of her mouth like Charlotte Gainsbourg. She wore a maroon velvet jacket and metal bracelets on her wrists that disappeared beneath her sleeves and reappeared as she ran her hand through the uncombed length of her hair or raised her mug to drink. Her legs were wiry and crossed at the ankles, and she wore leather shoes with massive buckles and low heels, the kind that belonged in the 19th century. I wanted to look at her for hours. “Do you like it here?” she asked. “Like, at this place?” She tilted her head to one side. “No, like in Chicago.” I became anxious that I’d already messed up the conversation. “Yeah,” I said. She smiled and I looked straight ahead. I could feel her gaze traveling from my feet to my face. “I’m Vanessa,” she said. I told her my name. “You ever see someone and like them instantly?” she asked. I wanted to say I had but I hadn’t and knew I probably never would. I stayed silent, downing the last of my drink. “Of all the people here,” she wagged her index finger across the length of the room, “I think you’re the most interesting.” I swallowed and then barked out a laugh and then got embarrassed and rubbed the rum from my lips with the back of my hand. “OK, well, that seems wrong.” Vanessa smiled. “Why’s that wrong?” “Because I’m a fuckup.” She laughed. “I’m going to get another drink,” I said. “You’re very beautiful,” she said. I felt my heart begin to race. “Are you hitting on me?” I asked. “Is this a trick?” She shrugged. “I’m not beautiful,” I said. My hair was boy-short, shaggy, my legs thin and my stomach thick enough that I had a small belly. I wore sneakers and skinny jeans that were too tight at my waist and, over my long-sleeved shirt, a hoodie for a mediocre metal band that Abby’s boyfriend had discarded in our room. “You are, but I’m not going to sit here arguing with you. I can’t convince you of anything. I’m just some idiot in a drug basement.” I didn’t know how to preserve my dignity. “I am too,” I said. She brought the mug back to her lips. “Sure, and you’re also beautiful.” I drained my drink. “I’m gonna go find my friend.” She grabbed the sleeve of my hoodie and pulled a flash drive out of her back pocket. It had what looked like her name and number taped on the side. “Take this home and tell me what you think. It’s my work. Or, at least, some of it. If you like it, give me a call.” I put it in my pocket. She looked down at my shoes, Timberlands my mom had gotten me for my 19th birthday. “Do you lace those up every time? Or slip them on?” I looked down with her. “I slip them on.” “Yeah,” she said, and grabbed my hand and squeezed it. “I could tell.” Kenny and Jules had taken molly. They were making out in the Lyft and made me sit in front with the driver, who tried to talk to me about how he never went south of Roosevelt because “thugs live on the South Side.” When we got home, Kenny and Jules tore their clothes off in the hallway and he started fucking her against the wall, his pants at his ankles. I watched for a minute, my hand around the flash drive in my pocket. It was like a video of praying mantises I’d seen in the fifth grade, the female’s body bobbing a little up and down while the male stayed relatively still. Jules’s face screwed up when her eyes met mine. “What the fuck?” she said. “Stop looking, seriously.” I stopped looking and went into my room, where I could hear Jules moaning. Eventually they went into Jules’s room and the moaning got a little more muffled. It felt like the barometric pressure had suddenly dropped in my head. Involuntarily, I imagined Kenny stabbing Jules, Jules stabbing Kenny. I imagined stabbing myself, stabbing them both. Was it possible to accidentally stab someone? Was I someone with such awfulness inside of me that I was capable of accidentally stabbing someone? I used the pocketknife to make a little slice in my forearm. I took my pants off and made another one on my thigh. I felt sick and restless, like a swarm of bees was pressing to be released from under my skin. I got a knife from the block in the kitchen and brought it back to my room and set it next to me. The blood from my forearm and thigh was starting to drip. I didn’t do anything about it. My mom had texted me I love you sweets. I hope you’re having a good night. I turned my phone off. I opened my laptop. I had watched everything on Netflix. I had streamed every movie and show that wasn’t on Netflix. There was nothing left. There was no use for my laptop. Might as well infect it with the malware that was probably on Vanessa’s flash drive. The laptop would make screeching dying-robot sounds that, if blasted at full volume, would drown out the noise of the fucking. The flash drive was called OPUSES and there was one folder inside: TO WATCH. I clicked on it and the thumbnails of a bunch of files showed up with names like TheInquisition.mp4 and AnInquiry.mp4. I thought about Vanessa again, thin in her velvet jacket, and imagined her filming a beheading like ISIS. I pressed my thumb into the knife and drew a little blood. I felt disgusting, the kind of person who would end up grabbing people’s wallets on a train platform, begging on the corner for someone to buy them a pack of cigarettes from a bodega. I decided I would watch one video and then try to find a vein. I chose NotesFromUnderground.mp4. The screen read “Vanessa Redwire Productions” in Metropolis font. There was the thick staticky sound of a video without music. Then the title screen vanished and Vanessa was sitting on a folding chair in shorts and a tank top in a room full of soft white light. Behind her was some kind of metal frame, like a medieval torture rack but friendly-looking. Vanessa was beaming. She crossed and uncrossed her legs. “How are you feeling about this?” said a man’s voice behind the camera. It, like the rack, was friendly. “Amazing,” said Vanessa without hesitation. The man laughed good-naturedly. “I’m glad to hear that.” Vanessa adjusted the straps of her tank top. She was acting at least ten years younger than the woman I’d met at the speakeasy. “Can you tell me when this started?” “Well, as a kid I always wondered what it would be like to be tied up. And then as a teenager I wanted the room quiet and dark while I made myself come. And then in my twenties I bought a sex swing to use with my boyfriend but…” They both laughed. “I’m guessing that didn’t work out so well?” the man said. Vanessa grabbed the edges of her seat and rocked forward and back. “Obviously not.” Then there was a cut and Vanessa was in a full-body black suit made of what looked like Lycra. Something about her bare head made me feel like I was watching an explorer-queen, someone beautiful who didn’t care about her beauty when she was cutting through thickets in an uncharted wood. The Charlotte Gainsbourg creases at either side of her mouth were softer in the white light. A black-haired woman in a shiny latex dress and very high heels was standing next to her holding a leather hood with buckles on all sides and a hole for the mouth. Vanessa stood still as the latex woman put the hood over her head. The latex woman had a hard time getting it on, and Vanessa, the latex woman, and the man behind the camera all laughed. Once the hood was on, the latex woman began to buckle the buckles and ask repeatedly if the buckles were too tight or too loose. Vanessa directed her and the latex woman responded promptly to her direction, a look of worried compassion on her face. Then the hood was secure and Vanessa was giving a thumbs up to the camera. Another cut, and Vanessa had been tied to the rack and was completely suspended. She pretended to be struggling. She made moaning noises as she struggled. The latex woman had gone offscreen but now appeared onscreen again. She was holding a vibrator that looked like a massive microphone. She asked Vanessa if Vanessa liked being tied up and Vanessa nodded. She asked Vanessa if Vanessa wanted to come and Vanessa nodded again. The latex woman held the vibrator to Vanessa’s crotch and Vanessa’s muffled moans intensified. Then the latex woman took the vibrator away and said, “Not yet,” and Vanessa made a whining noise. The latex woman laughed. She turned the vibrator on again and traced Vanessa’s breasts over the Lycra. She traced the inside of Vanessa’s thigh. She teased her like this for a few minutes. Then she pressed the vibrator to Vanessa’s crotch and Vanessa’s muffled voice said, “Oh, oh, oh!” and I didn’t really notice what happened next because I was feeling better than I’d felt in a long time, something bright and colorful was flooding my brain, and there were stars on the ceiling, and my whole body was shaking. * * * I watched all twenty-four videos in the TO WATCH folder that night and then started watching them again and fell asleep on the fifth. I had seen porn before: on my parents’ computer as a kid, when TorontoDude87 sent me a picture of a woman licking an erect dick on AOL messenger; when my friend Trish had dared me to Google “hardcore porn” sophomore year of high school and we’d watched a video of a man thrusting into and choking a woman who wheezed, “Thank you daddy”; when Abby showed me her “dream,” which was a video of a woman on all fours with one guy’s dick in her mouth and another guy’s dick in her ass. I didn’t understand porn, and on the rare occasion that the subject of porn came up in my parents’ house, it was referred to as “degrading” and “obscene.” I decided not to watch it because, I told myself, I didn’t want to be involved in something that was degrading and obscene, but really it was because I didn’t like it. The women always acted scared and worshipped the men. There was always a close-up shot of the man coming on the woman’s stomach or her breasts or her face. Sometimes the women would come and scream and the men would put their hands over the women’s mouths and tell them to be quiet, especially if it was one of those storylines where the woman was cheating on her husband and he was in the next room. Trish told me she could make herself come without touching herself. All she had to do was think of her boyfriend naked and cross her legs together really tight. A lot of people’s boyfriends made them come multiple times in one session: the highest count I’d ever heard was thirty-one. At night while my parents watched PBS I lay in my bed wearing the oversized T-shirt I’d gotten from sleepaway camp and no underwear. I’d touch myself and think of Jake Gyllenhaal and Channing Tatum. When they first appeared in my mind, they were fully clothed. I tried to undress them but I couldn’t imagine them without clothes for some reason. Sometimes they had my dad’s upper body when he walked around shirtless in his towel after a shower (in which case I stopped touching myself immediately and pulled the shirt over my knees and cried), and sometimes they had the oversized biceps and thighs of bodybuilders. They were usually in mid-conversation with me when I imagined them, saying their lines from Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time or Magic Mike XXL, and I felt rude for interrupting them. So I tried to imagine Trish’s boyfriend instead, his peach fuzz and hi-tops, but that was somehow worse than imagining my dad’s shirtless body. Then I tried imagining erect dicks, veiny and hairy, but whenever I tried that I’d start laughing because I’d be thinking of bratwurst or elephant’s trunks. By the time I left for college, I’d stopped trying altogether. Vanessa’s videos were different from anything I’d ever seen. The women had ideas and Vanessa let them act the ideas out. Rope, leather, buckles, straitjackets, Lycra, latex, gas masks, ball gags, rubber gloves, hoods, duct tape, vibrators, swings, saran wrap. And when the women came no one told them not to make noise. And other women made them come. And they talked to each other, told each other their ideas, said they were feeling great about their ideas. For a few days, I woke up, watched the videos, went to work for nine hours, came home, watched the videos. I felt sick and dizzy when I was away from the videos. I felt like I was falling in love. I barely saw Jules and her friends—I barely took the time to take my shoes off in the hallway before running to my room, closing the bedsheets around me, and watching the videos. Sometimes I would come up for air—get a glass of water, pee, change into pajamas from work clothes—and wonder what it meant that I liked the videos. Before I could draw any conclusions, I’d whisper You like the videos because you like the videos, and then I’d plunge back in again. I came constantly, involuntarily. I decided this was feminism, and that I was a feminist. I began reading feminist sites: there was one I liked in particular that talked about how women’s sexuality should be respected by men. Then I read an article on that site called “The Seeds of Sexual Violence Are Planted Early.” It told the story of a serial rapist and pedophile who remembered being five years old and fantasizing about the way Jabba the Hut put Princess Leia in shackles. “When you’re five and already thinking about shackles, where do you go from there?” the rapist asked. I stopped reading that site and all the rest of them. I thought about destroying the flash drive. I thought about telling Jules and asking if she could help me. But ultimately I made an incision in my left forearm and told myself to stop thinking about it. When I couldn’t stop thinking about it, I decided I owed it to myself to call Vanessa. I called on a Friday, my only day off, around 10 a.m. When she answered, her voice was foggy and tired. She had either just woken up or been up all night. I told her I was the girl from the speakeasy. “Beautiful girl,” she said. “How are you?” I told her I was fine. “Did you watch the videos?” I told her I had. “Very nice. Did you like them?” I was silent. I had no idea how I would begin to say the things I wanted to say. “Well,” she said dreamily. “I know you did, because you’re calling. I don’t give flash drives to a lot of people. If I did, people would think I was a pervert.” She laughed but the word destabilized me and I could feel myself beginning to sweat. “I’m guessing you want more of them,” she said. I could barely say yes, but I did. She gave me an address. I promised I’d be there next Friday. * * * The house was in Humboldt Park, a Chicago Greystone with a neon pink-and-green palm tree filling a corner of the lower left-hand window. Someone was smoking on the porch, a blond girl in a striped hoodie. She was frowning at her phone. When she turned so I could see her face, I recognized her from DontJudgeItUntilYouveTriedIt.mp4, in which a woman in a latex dress puts her feet up on the back of a woman in a full-body cast who is serving as her ottoman. In the video, the blond girl wore full makeup and her hair in ringlets. Now, she wore smudged mascara and strands of her hair stuck out from under her hood like straw. I was worried the blond girl would see me and think I looked suspicious, so I checked my phone, too. I had no new messages and no new notifications on any social media app. I scrolled through my own camera roll: covert pictures of other people’s dogs, a poorly lit picture of some plastic-wrapped food lump whose label read HAM AND RESINS, a picture I’d taken of my arm right after a fresh cut. The blood had swelled to the surface and begun to trickle out the edges, which was always something I liked to watch. I looked at it for too long and then, feeling as though I was about to be found out, put it away. “Hey!” the blond girl was shouting. Her voice was hoarse and deep, not at all how I’d expected it to sound. “Are you watching me?” I shook my head and halfway raised my arms as though I was about to be arrested. “I’m here to see Vanessa,” I said, quieter than I probably needed to. I crossed the street and stood in the front yard and pulled the flash drive out of my pocket, my hand shaking as I did. “She gave me this.” The blond girl looked at me skeptically. She extended her arm and I gave her the flash drive. She inspected it, rubbing her finger over Vanessa’s name and number. “Who are you?” she asked. I said my name. “That’s a horrible name,” she said. “I never heard of you.” “I’m sorry.” She smiled and then wheezed out a laugh. “Thanks for apologizing. Vanessa’s not here right now.” This sent an explosion of adrenaline through my stomach and chest. The buzzing under my skin picked back up in full force. “I’m Andie,” she said. “Spelled with an I-E.” “Nice to meet you.” “Yeah,” she said, and took another drag on her cigarette. “Do you want to sit inside and wait for her? She’ll be back in twenty.” The walls of the living room were crowded with photos of women tied to beds, gagged, wearing collars. They were all tamer than much of what I’d seen in the videos. The couch was large and stiff but obviously expensive, and I more balanced myself on it than sat on it. Where a TV would have been in front of me was a photo blown up to be larger than all the rest, of a woman in Lucite heels and a latex bodysuit with a circular cutout in the chest that showed her cleavage. She was standing facing away from the camera but turning back to wink at the photographer. In her right hand she held a riding crop. Andie went into the kitchen and left me sitting there, surrounded by the pictures of beautiful women. How could Vanessa possibly find me beautiful when she had so many pictures of women like this—well-proportioned, with perfect hair and teeth, capable of holding your gaze even in a photo? I began to feel self-conscious. I was here because I wanted more videos. I wanted them so badly that I was willing to be humiliated by these photos of beautiful women to get them. Vanessa came in through the front door wearing jeans over a leotard patterned with images of outer space. When she saw me, she ran to sit on the couch next to me and held my face in her hands. “Beautiful girl,” she said. “I’m so glad you came.” We went into the kitchen where Andie no longer was and Vanessa made me tea. For herself, she pulled a bottle of Miller High Life from the fridge. She slouched against the counter as she drank, squinting up at the ceiling. I looked up there with her and saw only drywall and light fixtures. “I’m so glad I found you,” she said. “I think I’m a fairly good judge of character, but I didn’t know quite how good until I took a gamble on you.” “I really liked the videos.” She nodded. “I know you did. I knew you would.” “They were like my favorite thing I’ve seen all year.” “My videos? Really? I think that’s one of the highest compliments I’ve ever been paid.” She rubbed the back of her long neck and looked at a point on my face just below my eyes. She was thinking, and it felt as if I was somehow helping her think. She raised her eyes to meet mine. “Have you ever had a boyfriend? A girlfriend?” I shook my head. She frowned. “Have you ever had sex?” I shook my head again, slower this time. “Been kissed?” “No.” She clucked. “My poor beauty.” She got out her phone and began texting. I looked away, as if texting were as private a thing as getting undressed. She put her phone back in her pocket and a woman appeared in the doorway between the kitchen and the next room. She was the most beautiful woman I’d seen in my life, and not because she was wearing silver gradient eyeshadow or a shiny latex halter and miniskirt. There was a softness about her, a fullness, a warmth—the way her thighs pressed together, the way her bangs fell within exactly a few centimeters of her eyebrows, the way she ran an index finger over the edge of her shining lower lip before smacking both lips together. She tilted her head and looked at me as though I were an interesting toadstool she’d found in the woods. “This is Stella,” Vanessa said. “She’s taking her fifteen. Right, Stella?” Stella smiled and nodded. “Davey treats me well.” “Yes,” Vanessa said, assessing me once again from the ground up. “We all love Davey.” Stella took a step closer to me, then another. Her face was inches from mine. I could feel her breath on my chin. “Hi,” she said, and grabbed my hand. My first instinct was to pull my hand from hers, but I didn’t want to disrespect her or Vanessa, so I squeezed her hand instead. She laughed. “You’re cute,” she said. And then suddenly Stella’s tongue was in my mouth. I felt panicked at first, suffocated, but as her lips folded over mine I started to shiver. I started to like it. I kissed back, wanting to be soft, too. I got her lip gloss on my own lips. I grabbed her other hand. “Very nice,” Vanessa said. I’d forgotten she was there. Then Stella was holding the back of my neck and I was leaning in deeper to the kiss. Heat flushed my cheeks, my hands, my chest. There was a tightness in my crotch, the kind I’d felt while watching the videos. Then Stella’s hand was on my chest. She pulled her lips away from mine to kiss my neck, my collarbone. She pulled down my shirt collar and kissed the tops of my breasts. I felt dizzy. I felt warm. I grabbed her by the waist. “Well done, beautiful girl!” Vanessa said. I should have been bothered that Vanessa was still there, but I liked it. I wanted to be watched. I wanted someone to bear witness to Stella and me. To what we must have looked like locked in that kiss. I had nothing to compare it to, but Stella must have had one of the softest mouths in the world. She pulled her lips away from my chest and said, “Is this your first time?” I told her yes and she grabbed me by the waist and pushed me onto the counter. Then she was unbuttoning my jeans and pulling them down to my shoes and pulling down my underwear and I didn’t even think about the cuts on my thighs because I was holding onto the knobs on the cabinets and her tongue was inside me, and Vanessa was saying with a little laugh, “I’m going to leave you two to your business.” * * * The new flash drive of videos was somehow better than the last one. I watched them every moment I was awake and not working. I thought about Stella, too. The way she had electrified me and then come up from between my legs and put her forehead against mine and said, “You’re wearing my lip gloss all over now. It’s peach.” And we’d laughed and I’d put my pants back on and she’d poured me a glass of water and we’d talked about Illinois winters and growing up with dogs and then she’d told me that I was welcome at Vanessa’s house anytime. I composed texts to her in my head. Do you like getting your arms wrapped up? Do you like the way Vanessa laughs? Do you like me? I typically worked the night shift at Oly’s, and the guys working with me were both in their mid-30s and had been there for years: Miguel and Dustin. Miguel, solidly built and bearded in a Cubs snapback, led and Dustin followed. If Miguel wanted to talk about girls, Dustin talked about girls. If he wanted to talk about baseball, Dustin talked about baseball. I usually stayed quiet. Sometimes they called me Lil Sis and made jokes about me burning my hand off in the deep fryer. I laughed along even though they weren’t funny. The night after I got the second flash drive was slow, and Miguel was asking Dustin if he’d seen a subreddit called r/weirdshit. “Yeah,” Dustin said, clearly a lie. Miguel snorted. “Yeah man there was this fucking pervert on there. He fucked his dog, apparently.” “No shit.” My head pulsed. “Yeah he like, was so in love with his dog that he fucked her and she got pregnant.” Dustin paused, the limits of his understanding tested. “I think that’s impossible?” “Well, yeah, but he like put dog semen in his dick. So like the puppies aren’t his but he did the fucking.” I put some cheese curds in the deep fryer. They hissed and bubbled. “That’s fucked up.” Miguel nodded an exaggerated nod. “I mean yeah. There are people who do all kinds of sick shit out there.” Dustin considered this. He put a pasty, floury tortilla—the only kind we had in stock—on the stovetop and sprinkled some cheese on it. “I saw this one movie where this woman wanted to get fucked by a mechanical dick.” Miguel laughed, childishly high-pitched. “Yeah, man. A movie.” “No, for real! It was like a movie in theaters. Like a mainstream movie. She wanted to replace her husband with this, like, machine. And then in the middle of the night her husband leaves because he’s been cucked by this machine-thing and this other guy breaks in and like blindfolds her and tapes her mouth shut.” I retrieved the cheese curds and let them cool on the counter. I tried to think of Stella. Miguel wasn’t saying anything. “So like,” Dustin persisted, “this guy uses the mechanical dick to fuck her but she can’t say yes because she’s blindfolded and gagged so he’s just raping her, and then he basically makes the thing go so hard it kills her.” “Sounds like a bullshit movie.” “I swear I saw it in theaters.” “Yo, Lil Sis,” Miguel said, and tossed me a loaf of frozen garlic bread. I caught it close to my stomach like a football. “You OK with this? We being too weird for you?” “I’m fine,” I said. “Because we can stop. We can stop talking about this fucked-up pervert shit.” I involuntarily thought of Stella’s tongue while looking at Miguel and my face flushed. “Aww shit you’re blushing! Listen, we don’t have to talk about this. But, OK, this is the last thing I’ll say. You need to be careful.” “Yeah,” Dustin said. “These streets are dangerous.” “Like, seriously. This girl who lives a block down from me on Argyle got raped two days ago. By some random dude she didn’t even know.” He lowered his voice. “And they found a child pornographer in Uptown.” “Fuck!” Dustin spat. “Dude, fucking be quiet. We’re gonna have customers in like six seconds and you’re gonna be up in here yelling FUCK like some idiot.” Dustin shook his head. “This dude was doing shit to infants. We’re talking like some kind of Hannibal Lecter sicko. He was tying kids up.” I swallowed and put the brick of garlic bread in the oven. “So I just want you to be safe, OK?” Miguel’s voice came from behind me. “Just carry your pepper spray or your brass knuckles or whatever. There are too many messed up people walking around this city.” When I got home, I didn’t go straight to my room. I sat on the couch and sent my mom a picture of a new pair of shoes I’d gotten. Doing my duty as a daughter. She wrote right back: Wow! Looking good! Getting such an earnest text from her made the skin on my hands prickle with anxiety. Jules wandered into the living room with a bowl of ramen and asked me if I wanted to watch some old Sailor Moon episodes with her. We sat on her bed and I tried to focus on the screen, on Sailor Moon’s ribbony hair and pink mouth, but I kept feeling sick. Maybe I was a bad person. I should stop being a bad person. Maybe all the things I did and said were wrong. I imagined Jules taking a sledgehammer to my head, my skull breaking apart in pieces, frothy spumes of blood. I told her I was getting tired and went back to my room. I made a cut I had to really focus on this time, testing to see how deep I could go without opening a vein. I never cut when there was a risk other people could see my silhouette against the bedsheets, but I wanted to get this one in really quickly, because I was going to be sick if I didn’t. The blood came up fast and thick. I panicked. It was dripping on my sheets, the floor. I tried putting a towel over it, then a pillow. Five minutes in and it looked like someone had been killed in my bed. Crying, I ran to the kitchen and twisted a rubber band around my arm above the cut. I pressed a wad of paper towels against my forearm and looked out the window. In the building across from ours, a greying man in a green sweater was drying dishes. I was pathetic. I was so fucking pathetic. The sound of Sailor Moon paused in the next room and Jules was in the doorway, looking at me, her mouth open. “Oh my god. Do you need any help?” she asked. I shook my head, still crying. “What happened?” I didn’t know what to say. There was no way to explain it. Blood dripped on the floor. “I did it.” Jules’s eyes widened. “Seriously?” I nodded. “OK,” she said, backing away, her fingers curled at her sides. “Feel better.” I couldn’t go to the ER. Bad things would happen if I went to the ER, because they’d see the other cuts. I got out my phone and called Vanessa. “Beautiful girl,” she said, sounding half-awake again. By then I was crying so much I could barely speak. “I had an accident,” I managed. “I’m bleeding a lot.” Her voice sharpened. “What happened?” I made a mewling noise. “Where are you?” I gave her the address. “I’ll be right over.” I was waiting on the front steps, my arm swaddled in paper towels, when Vanessa pulled up. She got out of her car, saw me, and then went back and came out again with the kind of rubber tie phlebotomists tie around your forearm to make your veins pop. She tied my arm off and sat next to me while we both watched the bleeding stop. Then she wrapped me in what felt like yards of gauze and told me to get in the car with her. We sat parked in front of my building, both of us staring ahead. Snow began to fall around us, smudging my view of the streetlights. “You have a lot of scars on your arm,” Vanessa said. “Show me your other.” I rolled up my sleeve. She ran her fingers over the bumps. “I saw some on your thighs too. The other day.” She sighed. “We can’t have this, beautiful girl.” I began to cry again. “I know,” I said. “What makes you do this?” I shook my head. “I don’t know.” She put her arm around my shoulders and pulled me into a hug. I cried into her chest, which was moist and warm and smelled like rosewater. “I’m going to be seeing a whole lot more of you, I think,” she said. * * * What happened next happened fast. I went to Vanessa’s that night and met Davey, who was thin in a button-down and tight jeans and thick glasses. As we shook hands and he said, “Pleasure to meet you,” I recognized his voice from the videos: the man behind the camera. When I told him my name, he shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he said, “please don’t take this the wrong way, but that’s an awful name. It doesn’t suit you at all.” He turned to Vanessa. “Do you see her hair right now?” Vanessa collected a few loose strands and tucked them behind my ear. “Yes,” she said. “Short and slicked back like that, doesn’t it kind of look like Warren Beatty?” Vanessa burst into an awkward caw, but quieted quickly when she looked at me. “I mean, it kind of does.” “You’re probably too young to remember any Warren Beatty movies, hon,” Davey said to me, “but right now you kind of look like Bugsy. I was so into Bugsy when I was a kid.” Vanessa clapped her hands. “Oh my god, Bugsy!” Davey held my chin and gently swiveled my head back and forth. “You look like a gritty gangster lesbian. Like a dykey Al Capone.” “I love it,” Vanessa said. “Can we call you Bugsy?” “Sure,” I said.  The rest of the house was dark, so as we walked through it Davey kept running ahead of us to flip on lights. Here were the wooden stocks in which the girl in the sensory deprivation hood had been locked. The rack from which Vanessa had been suspended. The table to which the girl in the full-body Lycra suit had been strapped and tickled. There was tons of equipment: high-quality cameras, boom microphones, and the kinds of lights I’d seen in pictures of movie sets. We stopped upstairs, in a completely bare room with nothing but white sheets attached to the wall. “We still have to light and stock this one,” Davey said, hands in his back pockets. “Vanessa tells me you’ve been liking our videos.” “I have.” “Well, I knew she would,” Vanessa said. “I know a freak when I see one.” I wanted to ask her what “freak” meant in this context, but I was feeling so good after feeling so bad that I didn’t want to ruin it. “So, I’m the producer,” Davey said. “But really the girls and Vanessa are the directors. And actors.” “Davey’s an aromantic asexual queer,” Vanessa explained, moving to put her arm around him. “He feels neutral-to-negative about sex and he doesn’t get off on anything we do. But he does like filmmaking.” Davey smiled and shook his head at the floor in an enough-about-me way. “Have you seen our page? It’s called Our Hands Are Tied.” Vanessa tsked him. “Why would I make her go to our page? There’s a paywall. She’s a kid working a minimum-wage job.” “Maybe when you get a raise you can become a monthly subscriber.” Vanessa shook her head and slid her fingers through my hair. “Bugsy’s not going to lose money to us. She’s going to make money from us.” I stayed there that night, on an inflatable mattress in what I’d come to think of as The Bare Room. The next morning, Vanessa woke me up with black tea and a croissant. She told me they were shooting four scenes that day and asked me if I could be the boom operator because they were always getting one of the girls to do it and it would be good to have them all free. I said yes, trying not to make it seem like it was the one thing I wanted most in the world. I wore headphones in which I could hear the amplified sounds of the girls moaning, putting on latex mittens, wrapping each other up in chains. I stood by Davey while he sat behind the camera, stepping closer to or farther from the scene as he wished. After that, I thought I’d never feel the buzzing under my skin again. Vanessa cut me a check for $120 at the end of the day and told me she was paying me $15 an hour. I went home that night and could barely sleep from excitement. I went back the next day to be the boom operator, and the next. My supervisor at Oly’s called to ask what was wrong with me. When I called back, it was to tell him I was quitting. I saw Stella again. She lived in the house, along with Andie and three other girls: Dolce, Lea, and Missy. I memorized their names and how they looked wrapped up in straitjackets, taped to poles, suspended from racks. I learned what fetish objects were—girls who were immobilized and deprived of sight and sound and forced to orgasm repeatedly—and what orgasm belts were and what it meant to top and to bottom. Andie, who had grown up the daughter of mechanics, looked babydollish during shoots with red cheeks and full lips and preferred to be enclosed in cages with her head taped up so only her nose, lips, and ponytail stuck out. Dolce was the smallest of the group, a former nurse, and liked to be suspended in the air, blindfolded, tickled, and fingered. Lea had been a runner in college and loved anything that tested the limits of her physical endurance: she would be taped to wooden crosses or hung upside down, or forced to stand for hours with her legs apart as she was edged by a vibrator in an orgasm belt. Missy had escaped a Mormon family in Utah and loved to wear the kind of leather hoods with metal-ringed mouth holes that allowed dildos to be slid down her throat and showed the full edges of her lips as she sucked on them. And Stella did everything: scenes where she was hog-tied, scenes where she was a helpless gagged fetish object, scenes where her legs were spread apart with clamps and one of the other girls fingered her. After we filmed a scene and Davey let us take a fifteen, Stella and I would go into the upstairs bathroom and make out. Sometimes she’d have rope burns on her arms or imprints on her forehead from tape or a gas mask, and that would make it hotter. I slept on the inflatable mattress more often than I slept in my apartment, and I’d arranged the few belongings I had around my new bed. I went to sleep looking at the soft white walls around me and thinking of the sky, or of outer space. I always woke up feeling better rested than I had since before going to college. One morning Davey was standing above me, pushing his glasses up his nose and saying, “Bugsy, if you’re gonna sleep here every night, you might as well stop paying rent at the other place.” When I told Jules I was moving out, she told me that wouldn’t be possible, because I was covering one fifth of the rent and there was no one to replace me. “I didn’t sign a contract,” I said. We were standing on the front steps and Vanessa was in her car next to the curb, smoking and watching us. Jules crossed her arms. “You signed, like, an emotional contract. You moved in with me at the beginning of the year and promised you’d still be here when we renewed the lease.” I looked at Vanessa and then back at Jules. Jules was wearing a too-thin jean jacket and her eyeshadow was smudged above her right eye. Her shirt read The Fantasticks All-Stars 2015, the iron-on letters cracking. “I’m breaking that promise,” I said. “Fuck you!” she spat. “You can’t just break promises like that! I tried to make you my friend!” I stood back, watching her. She was small and furious in the cold. “God, you psycho bitch. This is because you cut your arm open, isn’t it?” “Fuck you too, Jules,” I said. I felt as good as I did making out with Stella, but in a different way. Slowly, Stella told me about herself. She was six years older than me. She had lived in Chicago most of her life. Her father was a county judge who drank and beat her mother. He’d recently ruled in favor of a cop who’d shot a black teenager from Altgeld Gardens eighteen times, continuing to fire bullets into his back long after the teenager was lying face-down on the pavement. Stella hadn’t spoken to her father in ten years. Her mother, who had wanted only to be a well-treated and well-kept woman, had done sex work—that was how she and her father had met—and had died of brain cancer when Stella was fourteen, long before Stella had known she’d wanted to go into the business herself. But she’d always known she wanted to do something that would make people stop what they were doing and watch her. She wanted to be on people’s minds even when they weren’t looking at her. She’d read in a magazine that scientists had discovered that people could have whole clusters of neurons dedicated to recognizing a single celebrity. “You could go inside someone’s head,” she told me, “and point to the cluster of Lady Gaga cells, or the cluster of Rihanna cells.” She wanted people’s brains to have a cluster of cells for her. She decided that changing her name from Abigail Hermann to Stella Hardwycke would be a good start. The thing about Stella, though, was she didn’t want to be famous. At least not Lady Gaga or Rihanna-famous. She wanted to be known and worshipped by people she didn’t know, but she didn’t want to be what she called “sugarpop,” which meant that the barrier to loving her would be so low that virtually anyone walking around in Target or in line at the McDondald’s drive-thru could come to know about her and love her. She wanted her people to have to find her. She graduated high school in Oak Park and went to New York for a few years, doing scenes in straight porn for $1,000 each and escorting on the weekends. In the scenes, which were elaborate, she was dressed in tartan skirts and given a girl to act with, the producer’s twentysomething girlfriend who had no industry experience and whom the producer constantly referred to as “pure.” Stella and the pure girlfriend would pretend to be gossipy teenagers texting on the girlfriend’s bed when Rico or Shane or Johnny would appear in the doorway and summon Stella to him by saying, “I don’t think you’re a very good influence on my daughter.” Ignoring the girlfriend’s protestations, Rico or Shane or Johnny would take Stella into his room, rip off her skirt and tights, and spank her. Oftentimes there’d be a close-up shot of Stella’s squealing face next to a bedside picture of the spanker and his wife and daughter. Then Rico or Shane or Johnny would pin Stella to the bed and fuck her from behind, saying, “I don’t want you in my house, you filthy little slut!” There were several variations on that scene, some of which involved the wife watching and insulting Stella, too. The scene work came regularly for a year but then started to wane when the producer’s eye wandered to different girls. Stella was not deluxe enough an escort to be able to afford her Brooklyn studio without the scene work. She moved back to Chicago and got a job with the civvies as a server at a steakhouse in River North. On weekends, she saw shows at a place in Humboldt Park called The Empty Bottle. It was there during a noise show that she met Davey, who happened to like the same band. He gave her his card in case she ever wanted work. I told her I’d met Vanessa at a speakeasy and Stella laughed. “I swear those weirdos always do their talent scouting in the grodiest places. Who do they think they’ll find?” I snuggled up closer to her. “Well, they found us,” I said, and she kissed the top of my head. Before I spent my first night in her bed, Stella told me we weren’t going to be exclusive. She didn’t believe in monogamy. She’d tried it too many times and it had been stupid every time. I told her I didn’t believe in it, either, even though I’d never done it. I was embarrassed when her room started to smell so much like me, but she didn’t seem to mind. Sometimes after we’d had sex for hours she would hold my forearms in her hands and rub her thumbs against the scars. Sometimes she was quiet when she did this and other times she said “shit,” and other times she said, “I’ve been depressed, too, but it’s never been like this.” Sometimes we strayed from the strap-on and going down on each other and did different things, the kinds of things I’d seen her get to do in Vanessa’s videos. She wrapped me up in tape. She tied my arms behind my back in a binder. Once she tied me to the bed and made me wear a leather hood that blocked out all light and let her lips hover above mine, breathing her Listerine-and-Mountain Dew-and-cigarettes breath into my mouth, and then denied me kiss after kiss. She ground up against me while I was tied down and screamed and spasmed and then I felt a pressure welling in me, an incredible pressure, and saw flashes of light behind my closed eyes and felt my legs begin to twitch and then in my brain every single Stella Hardwycke cell lit up, all cells were Stella Hardwycke cells, all cells were exploding. She took the hood off but left me flush and tied up and kissed me on the cheek. She asked me why I was so cute. I didn’t tell her I was in love. On weekends, I played Catan with Lea, Missy, and Dolce. I ran errands for Davey, to Ace Hardware for a special type of screw whose name I would have forgotten had I not written it in my phone, or to Target to get Lysol or a broom for a scene in which Vanessa was going to buzz Missy’s head. In the credits for each video I was listed as “Bugsy….Gaffer, Key Grip, and Best Boi.” It was some film joke Davey was very pleased with that I didn’t get, but I never asked about it. Sometimes Stella and I went on long walks through the park, or to Garfield Conservatory to look at plants. She told me about monocots and dicots and how bivoltine bees were her favorite pollinators. She said in another, less interesting life she would have been a botanist. Sometimes we went to Wicker Park to get tacos at Picante Taqueria and talk about how the earth was created and why we’re all here and what emotions are made of. She called me Little One, which bothered me, but I didn’t stop her. When my parents texted, I told them how much better I was feeling working my job and living with Jules and that I might even consider going back to school. My dad made it clear I’d be paying for it this time. I told him sure, that was fine. We were set up for a scene in which Vanessa was going to seal Lea in a vacbed and take a vibrator to her clit. I was in my bulky headphones wearing my toolbelt and holding the boom when Vanessa came up behind me and hugged me around the waist. I jumped and set the boom down as carefully as I could. “You scared me,” I said. She laughed in my ear. “I’m always scaring you, Bugsy. I’m scary, you’re jumpy.” Then she let go of me. “Do you want to do this scene and I’ll hold the boom?” “Like, do your part in the scene?” She nodded. “I’m—” “Say yes,” Vanessa said. “You know you’re beautiful.” “I have a potbelly,” I said. She shook her head. “Doesn’t matter. It’s better that way, actually.” “Are the subscribers going to want to see a potbelly?” “Yes,” she said without hesitation. “Our subscribers will.” It should have taken longer to convince me but it didn’t. I got into the latex, which stretched and wrinkled in places it maybe wasn’t supposed to, and sat on my knees with a big smile on my face as Lea breathed audibly through her tube. Davey asked me if I was excited and I told him I was and bounced on my knees a little. I did the scene, giggling the way Vanessa and the other girls did while they were domming, watching Lea writhe. Occasionally I pinched her areolas, hard beneath the black latex, and she squealed and shifted and Davey said, “Good, good!” When I had made Lea come a few times, Davey stopped rolling and everyone clapped for me. Vanessa de-pressurized the vacbed and Lea slid out and wrapped her ropey arms around me and told me she’d never had better. Vanessa proposed we all go to Picante Taqueria and then go dancing to celebrate my debut. I wore three-quarter length sleeves without even thinking about it. I sat next to Stella and we all laughed when she dripped sour cream down her chest. In the club I danced with Lea, Dolce, Missy, Andie, Vanessa, even Davey. Stella and I snuck into the bathroom and did bumps of coke and my head felt clear and my ideas were coming fast: We should recruit in coffee shops and boba places, where the hot queers go to mope. We should film a scene where Lea’s hog-tied and suspended from the ceiling and there’s a dildo in her mouth and Stella slides it in and out and denies her any pleasure. We should lower the subscription rate so more people working at Whole Foods or Petco and making zines could have the money to see our content—more subscribers over time would recoup any losses from lowering the rate. We should make Davey dress as Elton John for Halloween and we could all go in drag as his lovers, except Vanessa could stay female and go as his beard. Stella kissed me and told me to stop talking. She wanted to have sex with me in the bathroom stall. She locked the door and pressed me to the wall and shoved her tongue in my mouth. I had never felt happier in my life. Then Cody showed up. He was just at dinner one night, in jeans and a pink hoodie that read MY MANTRA in a blocky mauve font. He had a sprinkling of acne at the base of his chin. I could see very clearly at least one whitehead that hadn’t been popped. He wore a double-undercut with his hair slicked back on top, which reminded me of Hitler youth. He kept complimenting the food, which no one had made: we were eating Chinese takeout. He sat in between Stella and me. When he made a joke—an unfunny joke—about trying to pop and lock as a white fourteen-year-old, Stella laughed and laid her head on his shoulder. The old buzzing started under my skin again. Vanessa told us that Cody was doing some kind of web development at Venmo and wanted a part-time gig on the side. He was going to redesign our website and boost our social media presence. He was going to fiddle with the SEO so we would be the first or second hit when someone googled terms like “forced orgasm” or “multiple forced orgasms” or “lesbian BDSM.” Vanessa titled her head and smiled and said Cody had big ideas for us and was going to make magic happen. Cody deflected her praise with his brittle-looking hands and said he was no magician, he was just a nerd who believed in sex positivity. That night, Cody slept in Stella’s room and I slept on my neglected air mattress. I hated the sound he made when he came: a strangled, breathy noise that would have been good as a soprano but was disgusting as a baritone. I hated the little murmurings they did in between rounds. I hated seeing him walk out into the hallway in his pink hoodie and polka dot boxers and look my way, staring long as if he could see me in the dark, as if I was a dormant threat that could spring to life at any minute. I hated when he showed up the next day and the next. I hated the way Stella checked her phone, waiting for his texts. I hated how Stella and I could only have sex during our fifteens, or in the mornings, and how distracted she was, how fast she made it. I hated his jokes, the way his ugly haircut grew out, the way one night he taught Vanessa how to Lindy Hop, saying he’d learned it in college because he was such a huge nerd and beer made him break out in hives so he’d found other ways to pass the time. And I hated the way everyone applauded them as they Lindy Hopped and Davey said, “I didn’t realize teaching a girl to Lindy Hop was the new spitting game.” I asked Vanessa if maybe it was distracting having Cody around, citing the fact that Missy, Lea, Andie, and Dolce never invited the people they were sleeping with to dinner or to shoots. For the first time since I’d met her, Vanessa seemed annoyed with me. “Unlike those people, Cody’s working for us.” I told her I knew that, but maybe it would be better if Cody got some perspective on the whole thing. He was too close to it. “Bugsy,” Vanessa said. She was chopping carrots, and she quickened her pace. “Stella likes to mix work and play. You of all people should know this. Do you think maybe you’re a bit jealous?” I said I could never be jealous of Cody. “Why not?” I didn’t know how to respond. “Maybe you’re too close to it, Bugsy. Maybe you need some perspective.” I wanted to be better than Cody but I had no way to be. I couldn’t do anything funny unless people were already convinced I was funny, couldn’t be charming unless people already thought I was. I worked extra diligently on set, setting up key lights and fill lights before Davey could ask me to, helping the girls apply their hair and eyelash extensions, buying organic makeup remover for Dolce, who was convinced that carcinogens were seeping into her skin at all times. We filmed what Vanessa called a Solo Series, where the girls were just alone onscreen being tortured by someone holding a magic wand offscreen. Sometimes I was holding the magic wand, but most often it was Vanessa. In one video, Stella was cuffed to a suspension bar with a full latex bodysuit and I was supposed to wear black—not even latex, just clothes—with my back to the camera and rub the magic wand against her clit. The goal, according to Vanessa, was to give the impression that the girls were getting off on the efforts of a nameless, faceless torturer who could very well be the viewer. As the camera began rolling and I kneeled in front of Stella and turned the vibrator up to its highest setting, I could’ve sworn she stiffened. I jammed it against her clit and she moaned and flinched. Davey told me to go easy so I turned it off altogether and waited a few seconds while Stella whined and twisted back and forth. Then I set the vibrator to its lowest setting and traced semicircles around her upper thighs, listening to her muffled gasps. I thought of Cody. His skinny legs. His stupid jokes. I thought of her in bed with Cody, his dick inside her, her arms wrapped around his back. I thought of him breathing into her hair. I switched the vibrator up to high again and circled her labia, teasing her clit. She moaned, deeper and less self-conscious than she usually did onscreen. She had moaned like that before, but it had been for me only. I felt a pressure behind my eyes and blinked out a few tears. I made her come once, then again, then again. I thought involuntarily of the Garfield Conservatory and then of how raw her clit must be and made her come a fourth time, a fifth. Davey told me I’d done a great job. That evening, she texted me to meet her on the front porch. When I came out to see her sitting alone with a blanket over her lap, her face pale and scrubbed of makeup, I was excited. I thought maybe she’d dumped Cody and I’d be the first person to learn about it. I thought maybe we’d kiss. “Hey,” she said as I sat down next to her. “You were savage on set today.” “Thanks.” “You’re just savage all around, aren’t you?” I shrugged. She tilted her head and looked at me like my mom used to when she was worried I was coming down with a cold. “How are you doing?” “Yeah, I dunno, I’m fine,” I said. “Making money. Living the dream.” “Are you taking any time for yourself?” “I guess so, yeah.” “Can you take my advice? As someone who cares about you a lot? I think you need to tell Vanessa and Davey that you need a few days off. I’m worried you’re not sleeping enough.” There were pins jabbing the lining of my stomach. “I’m fine,” I said. “OK. I’m just worried.” We both looked ahead at the house across the street. I counted the cars as they went by. Six until she talked again. “It’s getting serious with Cody,” she said, not looking at me. “I think I’m going to try and be exclusive with him.” My brain began to swell. It felt like I’d just been given a diagnosis of stage four cancer. I clenched and unclenched my fists. “I thought you hated monogamy.” “I know, I know.” She looked me in the eyes again, putting a hand on mine. “I feel like everyone says that until they’ve found the right person.” “It’s kind of traditional, don’t you think?” She laughed. “Little One, things change when you get into your late twenties. You start to want stability. You get it, right? He’s smart, he’s got a nice job, he’s cute. He makes me feel good about myself.” I nodded. “And seriously, you need to sleep with more people besides me! There’s a whole world out there.” She nudged my shoulder. I was rigid. “You gotta get that bang count up.” “OK.” “You get what I’m saying? No hard feelings, right?” I shook my head. I felt like I was underwater. “No hard feelings.” That night, the house was silent. My room was no longer The Bare Room: Vanessa and Davey had gotten me a cheap full bed and some plastic shelves from IKEA and hung a few old movie posters on the walls. My favorite was Who Framed Roger Rabbit because I loved the way Jessica Rabbit looked in her sparkling dress and blue eyeshadow with the sultry curtain of hair over her right eye. I lay in bed looking at Jessica Rabbit, feeling the buzzing under my skin and imagining for the first time in a long time the ceiling collapsing in on me, a single point of drywall becoming knife-sharp and stabbing me in the chest. It would be better to be stabbed than crushed, I thought, because a stabbing would preserve my body and Stella would have to see it when they all heard my screams and came running. She would have to think about how my dead fingers had once been inside of her and my dead lips had once kissed her all over. And the next day Cody would try to comfort her but what would he know about death? Some rich tech dude who cares about a website’s SEO? If we were living in purgatory and the only way out was suicide, Cody would be the last to catch on. The sun could collide with the Earth and he’d be sitting at his ergonomic desk playing League of Legends. I felt as if all my energy was being directed to maintaining my corporeal form. There was nothing left inside of me, no guts, no brains, no emotions that Stella and I had once speculated were “half chemical, half spiritual.” There was a void, and that void was hurting me physically, as if I’d ripped a tendon in half but all over. Lying on my back hurt and so did sitting up and so did lying on my side. My head and feet were so heavy that it became difficult to change positions. My eyes throbbed. My wrists throbbed. I lurched from my bed, making my blocky feet step painfully one in front of the other. At one point in the hallway I had to lean against a wall to catch my breath. The stairs took a long time. I had to sit down repeatedly, but eventually I got to the kitchen and then the laundry room, where Vanessa kept the first aid cabinet. I shook my hands, thinking I’d be better able to use them if they were “looser,” whatever that meant, and opened the cabinet. There was a bottle of sixty capsules of aspirin. I opened it up and saw that not all sixty were left, but there were certainly enough. I took the bottle and staggered into the kitchen and then swung open the fridge, where Missy was keeping a bottle of Smirnoff. I opened the Smirnoff and, gulp by gulp, swallowed a quarter of it and the entire bottle of aspirin. Then I slid to the floor and blinked. Next, Davey was looking into my eyes and there were bright lights behind him. I couldn’t talk because my throat felt torn apart and full of something thick. My stomach was cold; I was cold. I discovered I could breathe out words, so I asked him why he was here. “Why I’m here?” he asked, and he sounded angry. “Because it’s the hospital, Bugsy. Why would I not be in the hospital if you are?” Vanessa was next to him, crying, asking me why I’d done what I’d done. I could see Missy next to her, texting, looking up at me and then down at her phone. She said something about Dolce and Lea taking the next train they could from Hyde Park, where they had apparently been at a party, and Andie getting someone to take her shift at Strange’s—it wasn’t a big deal because most of the patrons had cleared out for the night and no money was hitting the floor—so she would be arriving wherever we were as soon as she possibly could. Then Stella and Cody were at the foot of my bed, and Stella’s face was round and wet, and she was grabbing my ankles and saying “Jesus, Bugsy,” and Cody was holding her around the shoulders. I had to stay in the hospital for a week. I sat in groups with other people in hospital gowns who wanted to talk about their cheating spouses or their theories about the president’s methods of mind control or their hatred of the other people in hospital gowns. I ate roast beef slathered in gravy that looked like frosting. I got up at 6 a.m. so a nurse who called me by my old name could take my vitals. When I told her my name was Bugsy she told me that’s not what it said in my file. I took 200 mg of Zoloft every morning out of a paper cup. When I was released, I was told to keep taking the Zoloft or else I’d end up back in the hospital. When I got back home, Vanessa told me I wouldn’t be working on shoots for a few weeks but she would be paying me anyway. My mom was anxious that I hadn’t called or texted in a week, so I spent hours on the porch telling her made-up details about my life: how I was applying to office jobs, how I was looking into taking a few classes at DePaul, how I had just been taking a “tech cleanse” for a week and I was sorry I hadn’t warned her about it beforehand. I avoided seeing Stella as much as I could, only spending time in the house at night or when I knew she wouldn’t be home. I ignored her texts. I spent time in coffee shops reading books I had been assigned but hadn’t read in college: Sula and Written on the Body and the selected works of Guy de Maupassant. I got myself cheap dinners at McDonald’s or Taco Bell and ate under bright lights, reading the news on my phone. Sometimes I looked at social media and saw pictures of Jules—she hadn’t blocked me for some reason—at parties or music festivals or improv shows, her face painted with Day-Glo paint, flowers in her hair, a cigarette between her lips. The Zoloft made me feel cocooned. I could think about the videos I’d watched or help shoot, or about Stella naked, and I still wouldn’t want sex. My potbelly got bigger. I spent enough time at the Taco Bell that I began to recognize the regulars. There was a couple, a man and a woman, who came in almost every night I was there, sat a couple booths away from me, and argued. The woman sat with her back to me, so I saw only her shoulders in her red, fake leather jacket and her green hair, roots growing out at the top. The man wore plugs in his earlobes and black-frame glasses and had a full beard. I listened as the woman said, “I just think we should try,” and he said to her, “No, babe. I’m sorry, but it’s fucked up. It’s against my personal morals.” One night I moved booths to be closer to them and they didn’t notice me. “Seriously,” the woman said, “it can’t be so weird if other people are doing it.” “Rule 34,” the man said sternly. “What’s rule 34?” He rolled his eyes. “If it exists, there’s porn of it.” The woman’s shoulders slumped. “I just think it would be cool if we could use some toys.” He raised an eyebrow. “Toys?” “Yeah.” “What kind of toys?” “I don’t know.” “So my dick’s not enough for you?” “No, babe! No, I’m not saying that.” “Lesbians use toys,” he said. “We’re not lesbians.” “I’m just saying I saw this video. Just hear me out.” He opened his hands, encouraging her to go on. “There was this girl and she was, um, tied to like a wooden cross. And someone came in with a riding crop and was like, slapping her on the breasts.” He gave an exaggerated nod. “Right. That’s porn. Not what we do.” Then they started talking about how hard a time the man was having at work, how he had all these ideas but his boss wasn’t listening to him. A thought entered my head: Andie was supposedly twenty-two, but she could’ve been seventeen. What if she was lying about her age? What if she was younger than me? What if we were technically making child porn? I lay in my bed that night thinking about it, running through my head every single time I’d seen Andie and what she’d been wearing and how she’d been standing and what I’d thought about it. I asked myself several times whether I’d been attracted to Andie and the answer was yes, I had, I had definitely found Andie hot. If Andie was seventeen or sixteen and I found her hot, then I was attracted to a child who couldn’t give her consent. What if she was fifteen? She had sometimes looked fifteen in certain lighting. At 3:30 a.m., I knocked on Andie’s door. When she didn’t answer, I knocked again. I heard a whine of complaint and footsteps and then she opened the door, blinking herself awake. “Bugsy, I went to bed like half an hour ago,” she croaked. “What do you want?” “Are you twenty-two?” I asked. Her eyes were suddenly wide, which sent ice down my spine. “Of course I am.” “Why are your eyes wide?” “Because I can’t believe you’re asking me this at 3:30 in the morning.” “But it looks like you’re surprised. Or guilty.” “Fucking A. Go to bed.” She tried to shut the door but I held it open. “Show me your driver’s license.” “Are we really doing this?” “If you’re under eighteen, we’re making child porn.” “You’re younger than me. Maybe you’re the reason we’re making child porn.” “I never said we were making child porn. I said if—” “Jesus Christ!” She stumbled back into her room and emerged carrying her purse, which she fished around in until she’d found her wallet. She opened it to show me her ID. “See there? Born December 27, 1997. Are you happy?” It occurred to me that it was a fake ID. “Is it a fake ID?” Her face soured. “What the fuck is wrong with you?” Then she closed the door in my face. I laid in my bed but I couldn’t sleep. Why would Andie try to deceive me like this? Deceive us? When it was light outside, I tried to wake Vanessa up. It was entirely possible that she was unknowingly making child porn, but I still cared about her. What did that say about me, that I cared about a child pornographer? I pounded on her door and listened. No noise. I pounded again. She was probably out. I texted her We need to talk. I waited a few seconds, then a minute, then five. No response. Davey wasn’t home, either. I didn’t try to text him, though. It felt more heinous to talk to a male child pornographer than a female one. I spent all day at the Taco Bell, waiting for the couple. When they didn’t show up, I went to Myopic Books, where one of the workers, obviously genderqueer, started following me. They wore granny glasses and a chunky black-and-white sweater and had a round, red face. I disliked them instantly. Luckily, I was able to move quickly to avoid them. And as I moved, I was reading: a paragraph from Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, a poem from The End of the Alphabet, six pages from a book about an angry accountant who’s lost in another dimension. I felt myself becoming stronger, smarter, increasingly prepared to fight a life-defining battle. “You’ll have to put those back,” the worker said. I told them I would and then didn’t. They watched me run out of the store. The fact that they cared about the arrangement of books in a store was sad to me, and I felt bad for them. I didn’t sleep the next night, or the next. Colors were brighter. Cars seemed to be moving faster. I started a group chat with Vanessa and Davey, telling them I knew about Andie’s lies and just wanted to take measures for everyone’s protection. They sat me down at the kitchen table and asked me why I was making false accusations. I told them I was trying to be protective of the empire they’d built. Davey asked what empire. I told him to take what I was saying seriously, that Cody had made us bigger than we ever were before and if Davey didn’t understand that then I was just going to have to take matters into my own hands. “What matters?” Davey laughed. “Have you been blowing rails of someone’s coke?” Vanessa looked worried. “Bugsy, honey, I know it hasn’t been an easy month for you—” “It’s been a fine month for me,” I said. “You’re either with me or against me.” I didn’t sleep the next night either. I avoided Andie, which meant I was avoiding both her and Stella, which was difficult to do when I was living in the same house as them. I homed in on the Taco Bell, which was open 24 hours. Finally the man and the woman were back, the man in a black hoodie and the woman in her same fake leather coat. They finally sat down so the woman was facing me, and I noticed she was beautiful: round-eyed, with black lipliner and thick red lips, a slim nose, a mole on her right cheek. I took her beauty as a sign. They weren’t talking, just eating their Supremes. I sat down in the booth next to the woman. “Sorry if this is awkward,” I said. “But you were talking about porn a few nights ago.” “What the fuck?” the man said. The woman laughed. “I remember you,” she said. “You’re the girl who’s like always here.” I nodded. “I happen to be in the industry and I’m trying to solve the problem and clear up everyone’s names.” “Get the fuck away from us,” the man said. “No, no, no,” I said. “I mean, I realize that child pornography is an FBI risk and I want to make sure we’re not creating the potential for a major sting, as all our names are attached to everything we make. I need you to know that we are normal, well-intentioned, hard-working people who do normal, well-intentioned, hard-working things.” The woman frowned. The man said, “Are you a child pornographer?” A few people looked over at us. I ducked my head. “Can we speak in private?” I asked. “If you don’t leave this table, sicko, I’m going to call the police on you,” he said. I left. I felt the woman’s eyes on me. I felt she might be falling in love with me as I had fallen in love with Stella. It occurred to me that maybe the FBI was monitoring my bedroom because of what I’d said and done in the past few days, that my laptop was being keystroked and that the authorities had already found all of the videos Vanessa had given me. I stayed out all night, wandering around Humboldt and Wicker, giving what little change I had to homeless people, blessing them back when they said God bless you. I was the most afraid I’d ever been, since I was a felon, but also the happiest I’d ever been, since I didn’t need to sleep anymore, since I was smarter than everyone, since I could solve perhaps the greatest problem that was hanging like a specter over the industry: that everyone thought we were child sex traffickers, when really we were not. I could outsmart the FBI. I was going to outsmart the FBI. After five nights of not sleeping, I began to notice giant security cameras attached to buildings on every corner. These cameras seemed to have the ability to see that I was a freak, that I liked “unnatural” sex. If I didn’t have missionary sex with a man in twenty-four hours, I was going to be arrested. It would of course be better to be arrested for being a freak than for being a child pornographer but to be arrested at all was a bad thing. I had accumulated tons of missed calls and texts from everyone during my night out. I ignored them all and called Vanessa. “I need a car,” I said. “I need your car.” “Bugsy! Where are you? What’s wrong?” “Don’t ask. Please, for your own safety.” “Tell me where you are. I’m coming to get you.” “No!” I shouted so loudly that people on the street were looking at me, and I realized that maybe they were spies, too. That maybe it wasn’t just the cameras. “Just, please, no. My phone’s being tapped. My laptop’s being keystroked.” “What are you talking about?” “What we’re doing is illegal on accident and I need to get out of town. We should all get out of town.” Vanessa started to say something else but I hung up. She was useless. I would take the bus to the Metra and then I would take the Metra to a different part of the state. I was riding the bus downtown, avoiding calls from Vanessa for her own protection, searching how to stop my phone from being tapped on my phone that was being tapped, when Stella got on the bus. She was more beautiful than I had ever remembered her being. There was actual light coming off her body. I had never believed in god, but she looked like god. I realized she was god. She was god living under the same roof as me, pretending to be a human woman. I’d had sex with god. “Don’t let any of them tell you what you want is wrong,” god-Stella said. “But what I want is wrong,” I said. “It’s very wrong.” She shook her head. “Don’t be scared.” I stood, edging closer to her. The closer I came, the farther away she appeared to be. “Stella,” I said. She raised her glowing head. “Yes?” “I love you,” I said. “I’ve been in love with you for a long time.” The bus screeched and I jolted forward and god-Stella walked through the wall of the bus and I stood at the bus’s pressurized doors, waiting to be let out, waiting to follow her, and I yelled at the driver, “Open these doors, shithead! You’re keeping me from the fucking love of my life!” And then I was in an ambulance. * * * It was the Zoloft’s fault, apparently. They gave me a different pill they told me was an antipsychotic and they changed my diagnosis. More nightgowns, more frosting-gravy, more boring groups. Vanessa and Davey came to visit me every day. The girls were all working during visiting hours, which were typically at night. After a week, my parents showed up. My dad had grown a beard and couldn’t bring himself to make eye contact with me. My mom hugged me, but her hug was tense and resistant. “We got a phone call,” she said, sitting down across from me. “We came here as soon as we could, sweetie.” My dad screwed up his face. “Are you doing drugs?” I told him I wasn’t. “Then what’s going on?” I told him I didn’t know. “Sweetie,” my mom said, “We got a phone call from a woman named Vanessa Redwire. We looked her up.” My dad’s eyebrows arched. A look came across my mom’s face that resembled the looks lawyers in TV shows give to clients who they know aren’t telling the whole truth. “Are these the people you’re associating with?” I looked down at the table. My dad grunted. “You’re my only child,” he said. “And you’ve flunked out of college and started hanging out with pornographers. How do you think that makes me feel?” My mom put her hand on his. “We just don’t want this for you. These people are dangerous, and what they do for a living is morally wrong. We want you to come live at home until you get back on your feet.” My dad withdrew his hand from hers. “I never agreed to that.” “Kevin,” she hissed. “If the options are live with us or make pornography, then what do you think we should choose?” “Make pornography,” I said, raising my eyes to meet hers. “No,” my mom said. “Sweetie—” A nurse came in to announce that visiting hours were over. My parents tried to linger, but she told them they needed to leave. “You’re making the wrong choice,” my dad said. “Think of your future,” my mom said. I told the nurse to take them off my visitors list. I ignored their calls and texts when I got out, responding only to say I’d made my choice. I don’t consider you my daughter anymore, my dad wrote. My mom fell silent. Every day I took three pills in the morning and two at night. I went to yoga classes with Vanessa. I ate a spoonful of peanut butter and drank a glass of milk before going to bed so I wouldn’t wake up hungry. My sleep was important. Seeing a psychiatrist was important. Davey found me someone I could talk to, a counselor who worked in West Lakeview. The counselor was named Randy: he was thin and knobby-jointed with a lilting voice and an eyebrow piercing and told me within the first ten minutes of meeting me that he specialized in LGBTQ issues. I talked to him about college, and the buzzing under my skin, and the pocketknife, and how the videos changed my life, and how I’d fallen in love with Stella. After a few months, I started doing shoots again. The girls threw a party to welcome me back. Stella baked a cake for me. Cody, who was apparently a hobbyist cake decorator, wrote our long national nightmare is over in green frosting on top. He had done something to the SEO to make us the first result for “girl-on-girl bondage,” the third result for “forced orgasm,” and the second result for “forced multiple orgasms.” Subscribers were coming in by the hundreds: at the end of three months, we’d netted a little over 2,000. My hourly rate went up to $20, then $30. On Sundays, Vanessa and Davey would do something called Girl of the Week, where they’d film a live scene with one of the girls for the “elite club” subscribers. They usually let me sleep in during Girl of the Week, deputizing whoever wasn’t in the scene to do the gaffer work. Once I woke up early to find Stella sitting on my bed in the same latex bodysuit and Lucite heels the woman in the giant picture in the living room was wearing. The one difference was Stella’s bodysuit had a hood, with cutouts for her eyes and mouth. “You look good,” I said. She laughed. “I know. It’s a classic look.” “Are you Girl of the Week?” She nodded. “They’re setting up now.” She gave me her hand and I took it, sitting up. “I feel like I haven’t been able to talk to you in a long time,” she said. “Like, really talk to you.” I shrugged. “I haven’t really talked to anyone.” She put a latex finger under my chin, her eyes blinking in their cutouts. “You know I love you, Bugsy.” My heart swelled. “Yeah.” “And I know you love me too.” I nodded. “But you understand why maybe you’ve got to live a little more life before you’ve decided I’m the one you need to be with, yeah? Like, I don’t even know what I’m doing.” I nodded again. She took her finger from my chin and held my hands in both of hers. “I talked to Cody, though. A girl gets tired of monogamy all the damn time.” “What do you mean?” She kissed me, the same way she’d kissed me in the kitchen when we’d first met. Then she pulled away, her lipstick smudged. “He wants me to be happy. And he thinks you’re pretty cute, for what it’s worth. Would you do it with a man?” I laughed and looked at my hands. “No pressure, of course. He’s getting used to everything, too.” I rubbed my fingers over the imprint of her kiss. “Don’t forget about me when you and your wife get rich and famous, OK?” “I won’t.” “Promise?” “I definitely won’t.” “Get some rest, Bugsy.” Then she went downstairs, her heels clunking, and I heard Davey’s muffled voice cracking a joke, giving her directions. I lay back down and listened through my pillow: Stella saying, Hi everyone, I’m Stella Hardwycke and I’m your Girl of the Week! And then buzzing, cooing, moaning. Sounds I’d heard so often they’d become background noise, as much a part of my daily life as a spinning ceiling fan or falling rain. I rubbed Stella’s greasy lipstick off my cheek. Then I closed my eyes and breathed deeper and deeper until I fell asleep.
‘In Isolation, Everything Has More Meaning’: An Interview with Ottessa Moshfegh

The author of Death in Her Hands on putting characters in blank spaces, crime solving, and consumption. 

Ottessa Moshfegh is famous for writing about uncomfortable characters experiencing uncomfortable circumstances. When I received the press copy of her latest novel, Death in Her Hands (Penguin Press), COVID-19 was, in North America, a penumbra hovering over the early weeks of 2020. By the time I spoke with Moshfegh in early June, the world had changed—becoming, at least for many, a distinctly more uncomfortable place.  The protagonist and narrator of Death in Her Hands is an older woman named Vesta Gul (her surname, perhaps tellingly, is oft mispronounced as “Ghoul”). A 72-year old widow, Vesta lives modestly in an isolated cabin in the New England woods with her dog, Charlie. At the beginning of the book, Vesta finds a note that reads: “Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.” There is no body nearby, but discovering the note sets Vesta into motion as an amateur detective. Fleeting impressions of rural neighbours, highway police officers, and strangers from the nearby town, Levant, commingle with dark memories of Vesta’s late husband as she knits together the story of the purportedly murdered woman’s life. Facts blur with Vesta’s imagination as she races to solve—or write—the mystery. Often projecting her own life and identity onto the mysterious Magda, Vesta develops a rich and writerly character study. Suddenly the individuals Vesta encounters in town, the books she finds at the library, and her own path through the woods are enriched with a sense of unforeseen purpose. By turns suspenseful, ominous, and eerily self-reflective, and with dashes of Moshfegh’s signature macabre comedy, Death in Her Hands takes the reader deep into the mind of a troubled narrator. Esmé Hogeveen: At the beginning of Death in Her Hands, Vesta’s life is self-contained and regimented. Vesta’s routines and repetition reminded me of the narrator’s intense desire to retreat in [your 2018 novel] My Year of Rest and Relaxation. May I ask if the experience of boredom—or a lack of external stimuli—is something that interests you?  Ottessa Moshfegh: I would never think of Vesta as bored, per se. By typical measurements, her life is empty and we might get bored of being her, but Vesta survives on the food of her mind. Her life in the cabin with her dog is in some ways very similar to her former life with her late husband, Walter—though Walter was disloyal and Charlie is mostly loyal. The main difference is that now Vesta has her freedom.  When you ask about boredom, the first thing that comes to mind are limits or feeling stuck, whether due to self-imposed or external forces. Like when you’re a kid and nothing good is on TV. I think that, when the book begins, Vesta has just emerged from a period of great boredom and is ready to be fascinated. Now that Walter has passed away, and she’s alone and in isolation, everything she does has more meaning and weight behind it. Her thoughts matter now.  I was intrigued by Vesta’s self-aware, almost writerly perspective. It often feels like she anticipates the reader’s attention. I think that comes from having been watched so closely her entire life. Vesta was scrutinized by her husband and before that by her parents and society. She always felt obliged to behave according to other people’s prescriptions and now that she’s alone, she’s still addicted to certain habits of social decorum. For instance, she feels ashamed to leave the house without brushing her teeth. But she’s also finding ways to break free of those pressures and to pursue her own story.   I imagine this topic has come up a lot under present pandemic circumstances, but I’m curious if you think that Vesta’s willful isolation gives her imagination extra license? Specifically, I’m thinking about when Vesta completes the character profile questionnaire from the “TOP TIPS FOR MYSTERY WRITERS” website and thinks, “Magda’s past was mine to discover and know, and I felt I knew her so well already. All I had to do was think.”  I think that Vesta’s curiosity about Magda is really a way for Vesta to be curious about herself. Vesta’s depiction—and invention—of Magda’s personality is a projection of who Vesta wishes she herself had been. Like any kind of creative fiction storytelling, the writer invents what doesn’t exist, so the note functions as a prompt for her imagination. On the topic of imagination, I found the line about Vesta choosing to downsize after Walter’s death enlightening: “I felt I needed to hide a little. My mind needed a smaller world to roam.” Do you see comfort and independence as complimentary or juxtaposed in Vesta’s quest for freedom?   Before Magda appeared in her life, Vesta tried to structure her time in a way that felt comforting. Without a plan or a loose structure for the day, I don’t think Vesta would know how to function. I think she really fears going crazy or having her mindspace  expand beyond her control. Vesta’s experience of mental expansion interests me, because I’m curious about people being afraid of their own minds. I like to think about what aspects of personality are innate, like what exactly is the spirit or the soul or whatever you want to call it? And how much of it do we create, whether via intentional cultivation or in response to situations that force us to adapt?  I enjoy putting characters in blank spaces, separated from any worldly attachments, and then seeing how free they are to be themselves. Then I can ask: Who is this character really? And who is she in relation to the world that she inhabits? Vesta, for instance, may be elderly, but I felt that she was very young in spirit. Magda’s note becomes Vesta’s excuse to explore a new environment and to enact Vesta’s twelve-year-old self’s fantasy. I really do think that when Vesta goes into the woods, she knows it will hurt her—like a child leaving the nest. I think she anticipates that the journey will be painful, but will take her where she needs to go. The walk in the woods ultimately leads Vesta to her death, which is where she needed to go.  Shattering!  Yeah, she had no life left to live, especially after her dog, the only creature left on earth who knew her, is gone. Death in Her Hands deals quite explicitly with crime and mystery genres. I’ve been reflecting that many of your readers may be millennials who grew up watching CSI, Law and Order, or other grisly procedurals, which were then widely accepted as appropriate family entertainment and a way to learn about plot and storytelling. I’m curious whether writing this book led you to rethink crime storytelling and its place in pop culture?  I can’t say that I have ever really read a crime novel, but I am a huge consumer of true crime documentaries and always have been. I watched America’s Most Wanted all the time as a child. I think people enjoy feeling scared, but we also like to think we can outsmart a criminal or prove their guilt. Psychologically, solving a mystery can be empowering. It’s a variation of the salvation narrative—like, “I was once clueless, but then I got really smart!” And I think mystery novels and movies and CSI help viewers feel smarter than the criminal and the victim, or at least that’s part of the appeal whether or not it’s true. Within the mystery genre, there is often a crime fighting partnership between an obsessive, intellectual, mystery solver—the Sherlock Holmes, if you will—and a more tempering, self-aware sidekick, who has better social skills—the John Watson. In lieu of a human sidekick, Vesta has Charlie, the dog, with whom she has an alternately doting and abusive relationship. Did it feel important to keep Vesta’s allies in the non-human realm? I’m also curious whether you envisioned Magda as a kind of quasi-sidekick?  Not having a witness is an interesting predicament. Consciously or unconsciously, I think people act very differently when they know someone’s observing them and I think that Vesta’s witness is actually the reader. Sort of like [Moshfegh’s 2015 novel] Eileen, there’s the sense that we’re being delivered a story specifically meant for us. It’s not a diary; it’s a directed story that’s trying to convey something particular. It’s measured and well-behaved storytelling, which reflects Vesta’s character. Even in her private thoughts, she tries to be well-behaved. From the very beginning of the novel, we’re introduced to questions around storytelling and the narrator’s integrity. On only the third page, Vesta muses: Nobody will ever know who killed [Magda]. The story is over just as it’s begun. Was futility a subject worthy of exploration? I’m curious if you think there’s a certain kind of detective or narrator—perhaps these are one and the same—who would prefer that the mystery remain unsolved? In other words, does keeping the mystery of who killed Magda open give Vesta a much-needed sense of purpose?   Definitely! Vesta’s crime solving becomes a solipsistic process, whereby things that she imagines somehow become real. Whether or not that reflects an element of her own madness, or whether there’s a strange conspiracy, or whether Magda is a ghost whispering clues—we’re meant to question these possibilities. The book’s clues are not traditional.  It’s hard for me to talk about the book as a detective novel though, because as I was writing it I had no idea what the mystery would be. I think there are various readings of questions like: Who left the note and why? Was it left by the couple who host a murder mystery party? I felt more invested in allowing my narrator to feel and see things, and to try to make sense of them for herself, than in trying to represent a mystery that could be, at least conventionally, solved.  There’s a recurring theme of consumption in your previous writing and food comes up a lot in Death in Her Hands. There’s something kind of sad about Vesta’s sense of what she deserves. Early on, she makes a point of explaining that she shares a diet with her dog for mostly utilitarian purposes. At one point, she describes the bagels she eats every morning for breakfast: I hadn't bought myself a toaster. It seemed like an unnecessary luxury when I had a perfectly good oven. But who wants to heat an entire oven just to warm a bad bagel? It didn’t matter. I ate them cold, one every morning, Tuesday through Sunday. Is reflecting on what, and how, an individual consumes an important aspect of your character-building process?  You’re right, consumption is something that I tend to write about a lot! In [2014’s] McGlue, it’s alcohol. In Eileen, it’s alcohol or food, or the magazines she reads and the movies she watches. And then in My Year of Rest and Relaxation, there is the narrator’s constant calibration and consumption of medication, as well as Reva’s eating disorder. I think a lot can be said about a character when we talk about how he or she eats a meal. I mean, it’s something that we all have to do. And for some people, eating or otherwise consuming can be especially expressive.  I can relate to Vesta’s disinterest in pleasure and how that manifests in willful self-neglect. I think there’s something chemical that happens when you’re always a little bit hungry. When you don’t allow yourself to be fully satiated, hunger spreads out into the rest of you. You become a little agitated and more mindful of the clock. You start asking yourself: How am I spending my time? It made sense for Vesta to be a little underfed and it also plays out in her judgment of the women in town. Their lives are so completely different than Vesta’s, and she feels both disgust and awe when she sees them filling their supermarket carts. I interpret Vesta’s judgment as also reflecting a great deal of envy and a bit of defensiveness about her own anorectic mindset. Part of how I understood Vesta is that she deprives herself in certain ways in order to delineate a unique identity. But if what’s accomplishing creating that identity is not toasting your supermarket bagel, it’s pretty sad, you know?   Several of the characters Vesta interacts with—including the gas station attendant, the police officer, and the middle-class couple hosting the murder mystery party—represent some of the different identities, class positions, and ways of living associated with New England. I know that you’ve had various experiences living on the east coast, so I’m curious if you were consciously interested in considering that setting from an older character’s perspective?  Yeah, an older character and also an outsider with no allegiances, who doesn’t trust anyone, especially not the police. I tried to resist identifying the specific locations of Levant or Bethsmane, but I drew from memories of rural Maine, where I’ve spent a lot of time. My family has a cabin, well, a small camp, on a lake outside of Bangor. I don’t know if you’ve read my short story collection [Homesick for Another World], but there’s one story, “Slumming,” about a middle-class teacher from the city who buys a foreclosure in a poverty-stricken town and treats it like a fancy getaway. She goes there every summer and feels really rich. In that story, I also drew from my experiences around Bangor, because as an outsider who could afford to use that space to vacation, my perspective was different from the guys who worked at the gas station. I relate to that town as an outsider and yet it still feels like a kind of home.  This is all to say that in Death in Her Hands, I tried to relate to a rural setting from the perspective of an outsider. This is perhaps paralleled in Vesta imagining that Magda is a young girl from Belarus who gets a summer job at a McDonald’s. That idea was also based on a real thing. There are programs that hire Eastern European teenagers to work in highway fast food restaurants every summer in New England as a way to practice their English. It always struck me as the weirdest thing. Imagine coming from Ukraine and suddenly being in rural New Hampshire. How would someone in that position experience America? Returning to the idea of the crime or mystery genre, it’s a cliché to say that “time is of the essence,” but it does seem like time is often mentioned as one of the most valuable resources when tracking a missing person. The events of Death in Her Hands unfold quite quickly, but it’s rare that Vesta expresses urgency around time. As you’ve mentioned, the book’s setting is somewhat vague. Did you also set out to write a narrator with an ambiguous relationship to time?  Absolutely! Vesta keeps track of the days based on how many bagels are left in a package. In a way, it’s similar to how many of us are living now, at least those of us who aren’t leaving the house to work, that is. I think that when you’re alone and you have no external responsibilities, time starts to pass differently. I know that I’ve become less aware of the clock and have maybe begun paying more attention to other physical cues. Like, oh, it’s not hot out yet, should I go outside? Or, is night falling? Should I take my walk now? Moments like that. In part, I think Vesta becomes more attuned to the natural world because she lives as a vulnerable human in a rural area. But I also think that she constantly experiences a very subtle sense that someone might be out there, and her lack of responsibilities mean that her sense of time can easily become disordered. When it’s dark, Vesta’s fears become more poignant. She feels more alone in the darkness, which I think is kind of cool. I also like that she orders a darkness suit as armour, and that she equates safety with being invisible or inconsequential is quite telling. I read your recent piece in The Guardian reflecting on the COVID-19 lockdown. I thought it was fascinating when you observed that the narrator of My Year of Rest and Relaxation is “isolating herself towards wellness.” Given our context speaking now when many people fear a second wave, I wanted to ask if you have any thoughts or feelings about how the pandemic context will influence people reading Death in Her Hands?  This whole thing is so weird, and what’s happening right now with the protest movement across the country and what has happened to precipitate that in the recent past and in the entire history of our country… I mean, a story about a little old lady in the woods does not seem all that important, so I feel very humbled by this moment in the history of our culture. I’m praying my ass off that this is a revolution toward something more human and just. So, if this book can provide any moment of quiet time for someone, I’ll be happy. Reading is very therapeutic, even when what you’re reading doesn’t speak to what you’re struggling with. For example, I adore the novels of Anne Tyler, not because what she writes about solves any of my problems, but because it’s comforting to allow yourself to be taken over by a work of fiction that you know you can put down. So, I don’t know, I mostly just feel so sad for everybody and all the people who are in danger right now. That feels really, really real.
‘The Promises of Pleasure, Freedom, Excitement, Opportunity, and Encounter’: An Interview with Leslie Kern

The author of Feminist City on intersectional urban planning, care work, and feminist geography. 

Turns out, snow plows are sexist.  Not the machines themselves, per se, but the way our cities go about using them. See also: our bus schedules, street lights, or that urban classic, “a disgusting basement bathroom down a treacherous flight of stairs.” All are examined in Leslie Kern’s Feminist City (Verso Books), a work of feminist geography exploring the ways gender and other identity valences complicate the experience of living and working in the modern city. The book examines the city’s paradoxical ability to oppress and emancipate—how an environment teeming with gendered inconvenience, racial discrimination, and sexual violence can also be a locus of queer independence, community care, and emancipatory feminist world-making. Heavily researched but accessibly written, Kern cites Baudelaire on one page and extols the virtues of a teenage day at the mall on the next. The book is a dynamic mix of high and low, facts and feelings, research and reality. Reading it, I spent a lot of time grumbling, “god, that too?” as more and more daily inconveniences were revealed, not as flaws in the place I pay $1800 per month to live, but signs it is functioning as planned. Kern, an associate professor and director of women’s and gender studies at Mount Allison University, grounds her book in “the geography closest in”—that is, her own experience. Traversing a childhood in Toronto, family trips to New York City, new motherhood in London, and an academic career in Sackville, New Brunswick, Kern examines times she has encountered the city as, to borrow a phrase from feminist geographer Jane Darke, “patriarchy written in stone, brick, glass and concrete.” Aware that these experiences are necessarily limited in scope and directed by her various privileges, Kern visits other cities and perspectives through case studies and the work of other critics, writers, and activists. She’s also refreshingly realistic about the extent to which academic discussions of issues like gentrification or the housing crisis can help, looking often to the practical work being done to solve these problems by everyday women, people of colour, queer and non-binary communities. Giving equal space to formal urban policy and improvised methods of community care, Kern’s work acknowledges that studies and statistics don’t guarantee institutional change, and that privileging the well-being of marginalized people is a responsibility of citizens at every level.   From our homes in two very different shutdown cities (London, UK, and Sackville, New Brunswick) Kern and I corresponded about feminist-worldbuilding, what COVID-19 can teach us about community, and whether my “Golden Girls commune” retirement fantasy is problematic. Monica Heisey: Let’s start with the city. What, historically, have been some of the promises of the urban environment? Leslie Kern: The promises of the urban environment—and whether they’re kept or not—depend a lot on factors like gender, class, and race, but for most people, the promises would probably fall mainly into the categories of work, finding community, and accessing the public realm. By “public realm” I mean everything from the world of politics to the basic public infrastructures of education, health care, and social services. Less tangibly, the promises of pleasure, freedom, excitement, opportunity, and encounter run through narratives of the city historically and today.   The city promises anonymity in ways that small town life can’t, which should open up a lot more possibilities for women to live their lives in ways that don’t conform to strict social norms. Paradoxically, though, women also experience a sort of hypervisibility in public space. You don’t feel very anonymous when you’re being cat-called on the street or groped on the subway. Perhaps the greatest paradox is that whatever freedoms the city does offer depend a lot on women being more like men in terms of their roles and lifestyles. As soon as you “fall” into the traditional roles of mother, caregiver, wife, the city is much less supportive of your needs. For me personally, my first inkling that sexism might have a relationship to the built environment came from my experience of motherhood, of trying to navigate cities—London and Toronto—with a baby. The former seamless mobility of the city for me as an able-bodied person, punctuated by the occasional bout of sexist harassment, was suddenly a maze of barriers that made it very clear that the city wasn’t set up for me. One of the heartening takeaways from your book is that solutions for one demographic—say, new mothers—often benefit others. Accommodating a stroller can make the subway easier to navigate for people with walkers or wheelchairs, for example. There are lots of ways that improvements for one group can benefit others; the converse is also true, though, and that’s where an intersectional analysis is crucial. Policies that, on their face, are supposed to contribute to women’s safety, might actually just be ways to expand policing, extend the reach of the criminal justice system, and justify the harassment and surveillance of poor people, homeless people, queer and trans folks, and people of colour. If “taking back the night” makes the city less safe for people like sex workers, drug users, and homeless people, then there’s nothing particularly feminist about it. If efforts to increase access and safety for public restrooms reproduce a regressive and strict gender binary, making them unsafe for trans, gender fluid, or non-binary people, or anyone not fitting into a narrow box of gender presentation, then those efforts also aren’t feminist, in my opinion. So, for me, the idea of feminist city has to be germinated out of the experiences of those who struggle the most to find a place in the city.  Feminist geography is a relatively new field. Can you explain a bit about what your work involves, and what it means to envision a “feminist city?” In many cases, we’re still struggling just to add women and non-men to the picture, for example by gathering gender sensitive data, as Caroline Criado Perez’s book Invisible Women details so well. Then there’s the level where we’re trying to figure out how gendered and other identities are constructed in relation to place. We’re also concerned with how power circulates and gets built into the human-made environment. Envisioning a feminist city means thinking about all the ways the spaces of the city and their social norms uphold gender inequalities, and doing it intersectionally, so it doesn’t just reflect the needs of, for example, relatively privileged middle-class white women. I’d also note that even though feminist geography is relatively new, women have been proposing their own designs for homes, neighbourhoods, and cities since the 19th century. They recognized that the organization of these spaces contributed to women’s inequality, and that movement toward women’s education and financial independence would require new spatial arrangements. While reading your book I was struck by urban planners’ insistent failure to understand the needs of their own demographics. You write that cities are designed for a “typical citizen” who’s white, straight, male, able bodied, works a 9-5 job, etc. Surely every census would make clear that the “typical citizen” as he’s been imagined for so long is anything but; cities have access to so much data about their residents! What’s going on here? Part of the answer might be that planning—along with associated professions like architecture, urban design, and even urban politics—is still a male-dominated field. The range of perspectives that are at the table is much narrower than the range of identities that make up the modern city. There’s also the paradox that planners, while thinking ahead to the needs of tomorrow, are very much working with the built environment of the past; buildings are durable, they last long after the social norms that produced them in many cases. And planners are also steeped in social norms, which are not as progressive as many of us would like to imagine. After all, there’s still stigma attached to being child free, single after thirty, divorced, a single parent, polyamorous, living with multiple generations in one home, renting, being queer, etc., even though taken together we are likely a majority in most places.   What’s behind this urge to detach the social world from the built environment?  Well, the social world is messy, isn’t it? It’s complicated, it involves bodies and feelings and all kinds of “irrational” behaviors, driven by fear and love and desire and greed and compassion in unpredictable and confounding ways. Planning is, by its nature, forward thinking: you’re planning for something, and in order to do that you need the world to seem ordered, predictable, and rational. Too many variables make the map too complicated. But it’s also about priorities. For many cities, economic development, expanding tax bases, and growth have been the highest planning priorities. Next to these goals, social concerns are secondary. The book returns a number of times to co-op community models, and, in the female friendship chapter, to Golden Girls-style retirement communities. I really related—my friends and I imagine this often. Why do we all reserve this fantasy for retirement? Because men have shorter life spans? I jest. Let’s face it, friendship is pretty much forced to take a backseat to romantic relationships and parenthood for a good chunk of many peoples’ adult lives. It’s maybe only at retirement that we can imagine a time when the kinds of friendships we had in our teens and twenties can truly re-emerge. Maybe for women, this is when we start to imagine—or hope?—that some of our endless caregiving responsibilities will let up and we can have more time for ourselves and the relationships that energize us. So many of the potential solutions outlined in your book are about accommodating increased demand on women for care work; is getting men to carry more of this burden an option? How do we get them, like... interested in that? If I knew, I would’ve written that book and made a million dollars. Thinking about it makes me tired in my bones. There might be some things we can do in our individual households. In my first marriage I stopped picking up after my husband or washing his clothes. Effective, but we did get divorced. Ultimately, we have to build a society where it’s impossible for men not to do their share of care work, and that is totally revolutionary. It would mean eliminating the wage gap, so households don’t default to men’s work being more important. It would mean that care work wasn’t looked down upon and devalued. It would mean setting up our cities in ways that didn’t make it seem easier for women to stay home or work from home. It would mean that there is no economic punishment for doing care work—women are supposed to, and do, accept this; men never would. Another group the book doesn’t have much faith in is government. You return often to the reality that we can’t rely on state or urban policy intervention; what can we do to make our cities more liveable for everyone in them? It’s fair to say that I wouldn’t put all my eggs in the urban policy basket. Over the last several decades, cities all over the world have embraced neoliberal agendas designed to put profits over the needs of people, resulting in crises of affordability, privatization of services, and the militarization of public space. How’s that working out for us? Not so great, as this crisis has shown. What’s remarkable is that under this intense pressure, nations and cities have miraculously been able to find ways to fund certain kinds of social services. Imagine! So, while I definitely look to more community-based efforts in general, this crisis reminds me, and maybe all of us, that the state is not powerless to act to redress inequalities. Let’s have a long-term freeze on rent increases. Let’s pay everyone a living wage. We can do it. A favourite passage of mine: Feminist visions of the city have been here all along. Some were never fully realized, and some are in the past, but there are examples of both practices and ideals that are being lived right now, under our noses. What might exist as pockets of resistance or simply alternative ways of organizing care, work, food, and more are sites of possibility for a broader, more transformative vision. It’s empowering to remember that so much of this work is going on already, whether or not it’s formally recognized, and that anyone can decide to be a part of it. Although I would love to see gender truly taken seriously at the urban policy level, I don’t think we have to wait for that shift before we start our feminist world-making projects in our own backyards. For example, artist OlaRonke Akinmowo created the Free Black Women’s Library, a mobile pop-up trading library of books by Black women, especially feminists, that circulates through Brooklyn and beyond. People come to trade books, talk, ask questions, and socialize at the library, which embodies a feminist, anti-capitalist ethos. Another example is the work of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre, which serves an extremely marginalized community that includes sex workers, recent immigrants, Indigenous women, homeless women, women escaping violence, and women with addictions. They’re located at one of the geographic centers of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women crisis. Their recent Red Woman Rising report centered Indigenous women survivors in a compelling call to action on gendered colonial violence and a life-affirming focus on healing. These two very different examples both highlight intersectionality and embody a grassroots, women-centred approach to making women’s urban lives more liveable.  “The non-sexist city” often sounds like a bunch of connected but independent supportive communities. Is it possible that we just need to re-envision the city as a cluster of small towns? Yeah, it’s very tempting to see all of this as a problem of scale. But for many, the city is an escape from the confines and problems of small town life. There are things that people really value about the city—anonymity, diversity, a productive clash of cultures—that aren’t readily available in most small towns or communities. Any community, no matter its size, reproduces inclusions and exclusions of various sorts. But it’s true that within the city, people do create smaller scale communities that include face-to-face relationships and networks of care. It might not always be possible to scale those up, but I do think we as a society could find ways to better support and value those networks. I relocated to London recently, in part because I was feeling disillusioned with Toronto. It sort of seems like the benefits of living in a big city aren’t reliably accessible there, while the negatives are multiplying by the day. My friends and I talk fondly about moving to the countryside or a small town, and in London at least, the movement of young creatives out of town to places like Margate is already happening. Do you think that’s going to continue? But also, is this just a kind of new twist on the gentrification impulse? Basically: am I part of the problem? Well, yes. But focusing on you or me or our friends doesn’t actually get us very far in our analysis of the problem. My love of avocados is not responsible for Toronto’s condo boom any more than your romanticization of Margate is responsible for the outrageous levels of property speculation in London that have left the city with a tiny vacancy rate and the “opportunity” to rent someone’s walk-in closet for two hundred quid a week. The things that have left you disillusioned aren’t merely matters of taste; they’re serious problems that affect how you and many others live, work, care, and survive in cities. Many people simply can’t afford to do it anymore. Now, perhaps you have a little more choice in terms of when and where you might go, and that might entail some responsibility to think about what you’re bringing to a new community, how you’ll prioritize the needs and knowledges of locals, etc. But overall, we have to worry less about individual choices and more about the structures that drive displacement. Okay, this is sort of a COVID bonus round: is this pandemic an interesting time to be an urban geographer? What do you hope to learn from this global lockdown? At the moment I’m a little removed from the direct urban experience, but the question of what “we” have learned is so interesting because it really depends on who the “we” is. Broadly speaking, “we” have learned what feminists and people from marginalized communities have been shouting ourselves hoarse about for decades: that care work, broadly defined, both paid and unpaid, is literally what allows all of THIS to work, and when it’s disrupted, a crisis can become a catastrophe. So, the organization of this work in terms of both who does it, and where it is done, becomes really important to acknowledge and reconsider. Have we set our cities and social safety nets up to sustain us when crisis hits? Clearly not. So now we have to figure out what we must do going forward into the next pandemic, and into that other crisis that’s already here, climate change. I started self-isolating sort of excited at the possibility that this would involve a major social restructuring. These days, I’m not so sure. Do you think the pandemic will alter the way we think about “key workers,” and maybe force policymakers to prioritize—or at least accommodate—their needs? I’d also like to think that we won’t immediately forget people like grocery store workers and cleaners as we move beyond the immediate crisis. A lot of how we value work, though, depends on who does it and how we see those people and their contributions to the economy and to society. So, if that work is done by women, people of colour, immigrants, youth, and older people and in general we devalue their contributions, then we might not see a major shift. This could also be a moment where some places actively roll back gains; we’re seeing opportunistic right wing states and nations take hold of the crisis as a chance to limit abortion access and LGBTQ+ rights. I think it’s too soon to say whether we’re barrelling towards the Handmaid future or something else, but you know, the discourse matters. The fact that we can talk about universal basic income without the idea being laughed out the room instantly is a good sign.
Water or Sky?

This wasn’t the first time I had become obsessed with drowning.

Last winter, I took a train to Höchst im Odenwald, a small town an hour south of Frankfurt. Clusters of white rooftops poked above the trees, spindly pines scraping the pale blue sky. The air smelled of chimney smoke. Forests gave way to wide pastures, where cows and sheep grazed and starlings swooped low in search of seeds. Elke Hilbert picked me up at the train station in a wheezing stick shift and told me families took summertime boat trips on the nearby Main River. Her family took a boat there once, when her son Max was a child. She thinks about that trip often. We took a roundabout route to Elke’s home. She showed me Max’s primary school, the traveler’s hostel where he worked as a teenager, the soccer pitch where he used to practice. Later, in the house, I sat at the kitchen table, and Elke brought me coffee and a tray of heart-shaped muffins she’d baked for Valentine’s Day. A neighbor rang the doorbell and gave Elke a basket of black and white cookies. “Please, eat them,” Elke said, pushing the treats toward me.  I pulled out my recorder, and for the next five hours we talked about Max. He died in 2015 at nineteen, an apparent drowning in a Galician fishing village. When I visited Elke, he would have been twenty-three. My age.  I learned about Max after I walked the Camino de Santiago to Fisterra, a village on Galicia’s Costa da Morte. Fisterra means End of the Earth in Gallego, the local language. The landscape there is austere. Rugged cliffs cut into choppy water. During the wintertime, waves can reach up to forty feet high. The regional delicacy is a barnacle called percebe, and percebeiros risk their lives scrambling down rocks to collect them. Residents told me Fisterra saw a handful of drownings a year—most often pilgrims who underestimated the power of the current, but sometimes fishermen and percebeiros, too.  The rocky coast was also notorious for shipwrecks. With any tragedy on the sea, the first to arrive on the scene were fishermen, the people who knew the coast best. Later, a local poet would tell me, “We know death well here.”  *** After I left Galicia, I spent a few hours browsing the Internet for reports of drownings in Fisterra. One webpage provided a list of people who died walking the Camino each year—heatstroke, heart attack, a twenty-six-year-old run over by a train. Further searching led me to a news article about a young German man named Max who had gone swimming in frigid water, and the fisherman who had spent weeks searching for him when he disappeared. I googled images of Max, and photos popped up: Bright blonde hair, piercing blue eyes. More searching got me his mother’s email address, and a month later, Elke responded to my interview request.  “I think that speaking with you about my beloved son Max could be a kind of ‘psychotherapy’ for me, an effective medicine for both my soul and my heart,” she wrote.  We spoke by Skype in October of 2018. I took the call in my pajamas. It was two a.m. in California, where I was visiting my family, and I spoke quietly from a dim corner of the living room, wary of waking my parents. Elke had white-blonde hair and blue eyes like her son, and she apologized repeatedly for her English, though it was near-perfect. As we talked, she told me about Max’s penchant for philosophy and his lust for traveling. She was more reticent to speak of his mental health problems. She mentioned a “psychotic break” and marijuana use but didn’t want to say more. *** People usually have a personal reason for walking the Camino de Santiago, a ready-made answer to the question, “Why are you walking?” Some people walk because they have quit their jobs; others quit their jobs to walk. One man I met while walking had just broken up with a long-time girlfriend. The summer I walked, I walked because I didn’t want to do anything else. I wanted to think of nothing but my surroundings. I wanted to be in motion. Max’s friend Jenny Gast told me he walked because he felt stifled at home. He’d lived there the year after graduating high school, uncertain about his future. He’d excelled in school and considered studying philosophy or literature at university. But after he graduated, his sense of self and purpose began to deteriorate. Sometimes, Jenny told me, Max would come over to her house. They would sip tea on the balcony and talk about the future, their families. His parents were strict, suspicious that his friends were bad influences. They didn’t know how to help him. During one of his examinations the year before, he felt his mind go blank and bolted from the classroom. After disappearing for several hours, he showed up at home, soaking wet, his cellphone damaged. He’d taken a train to a nearby town and stood in the river, contemplating drifting away with the current.  Just before he left for Spain, in April of 2015, Max and Jenny, who then lived in Munich, took a meandering drive through Höchst. Why don’t you move to Munich, where doctors could help you? Jenny asked. She thought it was a bad idea to walk the Camino de Santiago, given his mental health. But Max felt that nothing was helping: not the pills doctors made him take, not the time spent resting at home. He was stuck in his head. I need to do something with my body, he told her. I need to walk.  *** I visited Fisterra again in December. It rained every day, pounding rain whose roar blended with the crashing surf. The pilgrims were gone, the hotels shuttered, the only remaining people locals. The town was a dreary shell of its summer self. I met Guillermo Traba, a fisherman who had searched for Max and who claimed he could hold his breath underwater for fifteen minutes. When we met for coffee at a dim restaurant on the port, he told me the water was murky the day he started searching for Max. Shadows of algae on the sea floor had looked like ghostly bodies, rocking in the current.    Guillermo spent his days diving for razor shell clams and suddenly found himself leading the search for a missing German pilgrim, spending every morning swimming and scanning the water for clues. That search ended, two weeks later, with the discovery of a body floating in the sea.  *** This wasn’t the first time I had become obsessed with drowning. A few years before, I had spent a summer writing about deaths on the Kern River in central California, following a rescue team around the valley as they raced to save stranded swimmers and search for bodies. I saw the power and terror of water firsthand. Water could snatch a life away. Bodies sank, released gases, then floated. Professional divers were trained to recover corpses. They trawled the sea, sped down rivers in boats. It was divers like this who had recovered the body of my friend Haley Rue when she drowned. She had fallen into a whirlpool the summer after our first year in college. We’d been backpacking in Europe—she in Austria, Hungary, and Germany, I in Spain and Portugal. We talked every day. I would send her messages from bars and cafés, recounting to her the day’s adventures and the interminable loneliness I felt while traveling from city to city. Once, I wrote her from a corner store in Ibiza. A few hours earlier, I had missed the last bus from the the north side of the island and walked twenty kilometers along the side of the highway, arriving back to my hostel just as night fell. You’re crazy, Haley wrote me, then asked how I was doing. She, in turn, would tell me about the quirky people she met in her hostels and her favorite foods from each city—schnitzel, chocolate cake, cherries. One day in July the conversation stopped. That evening, I read about her death on Facebook.  There was a post from a family friend. It said something about prayers, and a river, and Haley. The word drowned.  In the years after, I couldn’t stop imagining my friend’s death. I had a running list of questions. How long did it take for her to die? Had she been conscious? Did she know what was happening? Did she struggle? What was the last thing she saw—water or sky?  *** After I spoke to his mother, I started thinking about Max as though he were alive. As I wrote alone in my small bedroom, staring at the walls when I felt stuck, I would speak to Max. I’d sit in the grey morning light and throw my questions into the air—Why didn’t you go to Munich like Jenny asked? Why did you keep swimming when the water was so cold? His presence in my life was a constant. I had just moved to Barcelona, my fifth city in two years. I had no friends, no sense of direction. I sort of just ended up here, I’d say when people asked—explanations are always too long. When I wasn’t sending story ideas to editors, I walked around the port of Barcelona and watched the boats come in and out, trying to keep my mind off my loneliness.  Writing about Max gave me purpose, a way to spend my days. I turned to his friends, his text messages, his diary, spoke with the last people who saw him alive.   Natalie Kapahnke, who had walked for a week with Max through Cantabria, wrote me an 1,800-word email. Max felt like a little brother, she wrote, “the little brother you look after and care for.” They walked with a group, exploring lighthouses along the coast and talking deep into the night. On one of their last evenings together, they made pizza and salad at a hostel. “Max told me that he understood that he has to change and that he misses his family,” she wrote. “Still, he knew that the Camino and the distance was the best for him at this moment.” Asli Hanci, Max’s girlfriend at the time of his death, sent me a few of their last Facebook messages. The messages are quotidian updates, small windows into Max’s mind. In one, Max describes finishing forty kilometers in one day—his longest stretch of walking—and going to eat a quarter-pounder as a celebration. In another, he feels homesick and ambivalent about having left Höchst. He tells Asli to call his parents and let them know he’s fine. He sent his last message to Asli on May 28, arranging to meet her back in Frankfurt or Höchst once he finished walking. He did not mention he planned to go to Fisterra the following day.   Juan Mayan had been in Fisterra the day Max disappeared. That evening, while relaxing on the beach, Juan and his wife had seen a young man sitting nearby, smoking a cigarette and staring out to the water. After a while, the man left his backpack on shore and waded into the sea. He swam farther and farther until his body became a speck. When daylight began to fade, Juan and his wife left. The next morning, Juan took a stroll along the beach and saw the backpack untouched. Later, he would learn that though the sea had been calm on May 29, the water was frigid: twelve degrees Celsius—cold enough to cause a body to go into shock.   I got a coffee with Max’s friend Jakob. We sat on a terrace in a village north of Frankfurt, drinking in the late-afternoon sunlight. Jakob rolled a cigarette and told me that during high school, he and Max would walk through the forest. They’d sit under a peach tree, or climb a tall oak and lounge in the branches, talking. Jakob still struggles with Max’s death. Did Max want to die? Did he have a psychotic break when he was alone on the beach? Jakob shrugged. It didn’t matter—nothing would change Max’s death. But he wanted to know everything. He wanted to go to Fisterra, see what Max saw. I told Jakob about Haley, how I wanted to know what she’d seen too. As we talked, I thought about one of the first times I’d written about death, when I was a freshman in college and a student had killed himself. After we published the story in the student newspaper, I kept speaking with his friends, even though their quotes would never leave my notebook. It was nice, we thought, just to have someone to talk to, someone who would listen.  *** After a few hours at the table with Elke as she recounted the worst days of her life, I felt I owed her an explanation. Why did I want to write about her son? she asked. I told her about Haley. We had met in our first year of college and would have been roommates the following year. We were both from the West Coast and, that first college spring, had experienced a shapeless sense of loss. We missed home and who we had been at home, a world away from the pressure of academics and college social life. On a sunny April day, we skipped class and went to a park. As we were looking at the sky, Haley told me she wanted to move to the Grand Canyon. She liked how big it was, how it was so far away. What would you do there? I asked, and she was quiet for a minute. Maybe be a guide, she said. That sounds nice, I said. An escape. She smiled with her whole face. I like the way you talk, she said. That’s the only sentence I remember in her voice.  In July, when I was in Lisbon, Haley went to Innsbruck, Austria. She was in love with everything: the job, the food, the landscape, the people. In Innsbruck, Haley bought a carton of cherries and ate them, one by one, as she walked barefoot on the hot asphalt back to her hostel. In Innsbruck, Haley hiked up a mountain, ate strudel at the top, and tripped a few times on her way down. “In Innsbruck,” Haley wrote on her blog, “I’m a little girl.”   A week later, I sat on my hostel bed fanning my face. It was 11 p.m. and hot. I opened my laptop to check Facebook. I saw the post. I couldn’t close my laptop. I tiptoed to the hostel kitchen for a glass of water and screamed. I lay face down on the wood floor and breathed dust until I choked. I texted Haley but the messages didn’t go through. They appeared on my phone screen with a red exclamation point. A few days later, I learned she had fallen into a whirlpool in Germany. She was nineteen. In 2018, I went to Munich to visit the place where Haley died. A friend who had been with her at the river picked me up and drove me to the mountains. We stopped at a forest. The earth was damp from a recent rainstorm, and lightning had felled several large trees. A guide showed up, and he gave me a wetsuit.  The friend went to read in a restaurant, and the guide took me up the river. As I clambered and slipped, he showed me how to look out for dangerous rapids. A safe rapid was formed by a pillow of water that rushed against a rock’s surface. A dangerous rapid looked like nothing special: a rock wedged in the current. But moving water needs somewhere to go. If a water pillow wasn’t there, that meant there was a hole in the rock. A hole sucks things—twigs, leaves, animals—with a crushing force. I didn’t want to think about the rocks, but they surrounded us, on the banks, on the riverbed, under my feet.  I heard it before I saw it. Crashing water. A wall of sound thundering against my ears. The sound was hidden behind a mass of rock. The whirlpool. There was a hole in the rock, at the bottom.   As I sat with Elke, I thought about rivers, and currents, and water that steals young lives. I’d outlived Max and Haley by four years. I told Elke I wanted to write about her son because I was figuring out how to live without Haley. Writing was a way to process, to understand, to mourn. Speaking was, too. Over pizza that night, Elke said that Max and I would have been friends.   *** I started writing about Haley. Piecing together nearly five years, recounting all the times I thought about her: when I was hot and facing an open window and a breeze cooled my skin; while lying on grass and staring at the sky; while eating a handful of M&Ms or waffles with whipped cream. I thought of Haley at the beach, in the mountains, on dusty paths that cut through the countryside. I thought of Haley when I stole packets of hazelnut cream from hostels. I thought of Haley when I bought cartons of cherries. I thought of Haley when I wore my traveler’s backpack, when my sandals gave me tan lines, when I sat at a bar alone, when I craved a piece of cake, when I went for long walks. Haley Haley Haley Haley Haley Haley Haley Haley. The story never felt finished. But I thought by letting those words live outside of my head, something else might start. Maybe a stranger would send me an email and we would speak on the phone about the friends we had lost. Perhaps someone would ask for Haley’s mother’s email, or Elke’s email, and they could start correspondences with people around the world. They could discover new ways to think about their children. Strangers could know about Max. They could know about Haley. Imagine: a dozen of us talking into the early morning, across time zones, in our pajamas, making new meaning. The dead could keep on living. Last summer, when the air grew humid in Barcelona, I left Spain. In Berlin, I walked twenty miles in a single day. In Bratislava, I walked down a path until I ran out of road. Being in motion distracts me. I think I’m going somewhere. Fisterra. Fin de Tierra. End of the Earth. Max Hilbert had heard of the town before he began walking the Camino de Santiago in April of 2015, but he didn’t know much about it. As with most good things on the Camino, like the best places to spend the night and the mysterious water fountains that poured red wine, Max had heard about the town through word of mouth. He had been walking for a month and felt stronger than he had in a long time. He wanted to keep going.  “I have the feeling, somehow, that I have not finished walking,” Max wrote in his journal. “So I’ll go to Fisterra.”  *** Every year, on the anniversary of Haley’s death, I send an email to her mother. I write to her about all my new cities, all the places I’ve visited and people I’ve met these past five years. She writes to me about life in Tacoma, where Haley was raised, and the hours she spends in the garden, thinking about her daughter. During the springtime, after her mother had picked fresh fruit, the two had a ritual. “The first ripe radish, raspberry or cherry tomato,” Haley’s mother once wrote to me, “would always be divided down the middle to share.”  A few years ago, I caught a plane to Seattle. Haley’s mother picked me up at the airport and took me to Tacoma. Puget Sound glinted under the late-afternoon sun and the lavender Mount Rainier hovered in the distance. At the house, I put my backpack in Haley’s room, and her mother drove me to Haley’s elementary school, the boardwalk where she had liked to walk, the places where she used to go running.  The next morning, I woke up late. I sat at the kitchen table and looked out the window. Haley’s mother, wearing a pink bathrobe, was in the garden, crouched over a bush. When she returned to the kitchen, she set a bowl of blueberries on the counter and searched the cupboard for flour. I haven’t made blueberry pancakes in years, she told me. We sat at the table and ate slowly. I took another pancake, relishing the long, quiet morning, the way the sun streamed through the window, the sweet smell of butter and fruit. I wished I could stay at that table forever. For the first time in a long time, I didn’t need to walk away. I didn’t need to move. There was nowhere else to be.