Hazlitt Magazine

'History Unaddressed Recurs': An Interview with Isabel Wilkerson

Speaking to the author of Caste about the insufficiencies of the term “racism,” objectivity versus balance, and the opportunities America’s coming demographic shift presents.

Concerning the Many Legends of the Cyclone Named Jack Trice

He was a hero, a man who broke a barrier, but everything that’s happened since he died has way more to do with us than him.

'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.  

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‘History Unaddressed Recurs’: An Interview with Isabel Wilkerson

Speaking to the author of Caste about the insufficiencies of the term “racism,” objectivity versus balance, and the opportunities America’s coming demographic shift presents.

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, a Pulitzer-winning journalist, is a landmark study of the Great Migration, the period between WWI and the 1970s when millions of African-Americans fled the Jim Crow South. It was an epic subject and an epic task. Told through the lives of three individuals, Wilkerson spent fifteen years exhaustively reporting and conducting interviews. Curiously, despite the subject matter, the word “racism” does not appear once in The Warmth of Other Suns. In the course of reporting The Warmth of Other Suns, Wilkerson realized the term was insufficient for describing the elaborate framework that organizes U.S. society. What she was writing about was actually a caste system, and this became the subject of her second book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Caste is no less ambitious than Wilkerson’s first book. By comparing the racialized system in the U.S. with the millennium-old one of India and that of Nazi Germany, Wilkerson distills what she calls the “eight pillars of caste.” She describes caste as a hierarchical system that assigns roles to members of society at each rung of the social ladder. In a caste system, consciously or subconsciously, everyone knows their place and the place of others simply by looking at them. In a caste system, it is dangerous to act out of place, to break from the script. I spoke to Wilkerson about how the U.S. caste system was born from slavery and how it has mutated throughout history, her choice to include personal experiences, and why the 2042 census projection, which predicts white people will become a minority, could be a turning point for the U.S. caste system. Connor Goodwin: I'll begin with the obvious. The U.S. is not usually viewed as a caste system. What convinced you that caste was the best way to frame how U.S. society organizes itself? And what insight does this caste fretwork provide that, say, race or class alone, does not? Isabel Wilkerson: That’s a great question. It started with my previous book, The Warmth of Other Suns, which was about the exodus of six million African-Americans from the Jim Crow South to all points North, Midwest, and West. In other words, it was the out-migration of people who had been born to and trapped in a caste system known as Jim Crow. I was describing the world anyone [in the Jim Crow South] was living in, whether the people were in the dominating caste or the subordinated caste—and what life was like in that world. A lot of people who’ve read the book in intervening years have often described it as a book about how they were fleeing racism in the South. But I do not use the word “racism” in the book. Racism did not feel sufficient to describe the organized, multi-layered, fixed repression of the people in that world. That repression was bigger and deeper and more far-reaching than [racism]. So the word I used was “caste.” [“Caste”] was a word that had actually been used by anthropologists and social scientists who went to the South during the Great Migration, primarily in the 1930s—the word they come up with time and time again was “caste.” So when sociologists and anthropologists went to the South and studied it when the caste system was in full force, in its most formal and brutal iteration, they used the word “caste.” In writing about the experiences of people in the twentieth century who were fleeing that caste system, only to arrive in the big cities outside of the South and to discover a different kind of hierarchy that they then had to navigate, additional restrictions that they might not have anticipated, that actually arose because of their arrival. In other words, fleeing the caste system did not free them from the caste system as it existed in other parts of the country. It shadowed them wherever they went. As a result, the language I have come to use is “caste” because it speaks to the structure, that often hidden and unrecognized hierarchy, and the boundaries that the structure imposes to keep the parts separate and ranked. That is why I use the word “caste.” What I found most convincing was that a caste system ascribes roles to people at each tier and everyone subconsciously knows these roles. Can you speak to this idea of scripted roles and what happens when someone steps outside their role? Well, there’s so many examples. Perhaps that is why the word “caste” is so appropriate, because it reminds of just what you said—the roles that we’ve been assigned. We did not choose these roles, they were assigned and affixed to us. In many respects, they hold everyone back because we often don’t get choices as to how we’re viewed, how we’re seen, what our potential is viewed to be. One of the metaphors I use is that of being in a play. If you have a long-running play, everybody knows who’s in what role, and people have been in the roles for so long they know where someone is supposed to be on the stage before they even step on the stage, because that’s what happens in a play. It’s interesting that the word “cast” is applied to a play; “cast” is what’s put on an arm when there’s a fracture to hold the bones in place. So the idea of holding someone or something in place is a hallmark of what caste means. The origins of the American hierarchy of caste began with enslavement. Literally what you looked like determined the kind of work that you would do in the country for 246 years of enslavement and then for 100 years after that in the Jim Crow caste system, [which] did not end legally until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. For most of the country’s history, it was very clear who was doing what based on what they looked like, which signaled where they stand in the caste system. The dirtiest, most dangerous, most dreaded jobs were assigned to people who were enslaved, who had no choices in what they might do, had no choice over their bodies, and this went on for over twelve generations. Even with Covid-19, studies have found that Black and brown people were getting sicker at a higher rate and dying at higher rates. Much of that had to do with the occupational caste hierarchy that became evident during the crisis, especially in the early going, when there was limited protections, limited masks for anyone. These were the people who were on the front lines: the ones stacking shelves at the grocery store, the ones who were driving the busses and public transportation, the ones making deliveries. They were on the front lines, exposed to the public without the protections we now know were necessary and advisable, and allow[ed] others to shelter-in-place and be safer from the virus. Every other week there seems to be another example of someone, generally from what would be viewed as the dominating caste inserting themselves or intruding as an African-American is going about their life and calling the police on them for something that would be seen as perhaps benign by someone else. Someone called the police on two African-American men waiting for a friend at a Starbucks. Someone called the [campus] police on a student at Yale University who was studying and resting her head on her books. There’s police being called on people who are at a pool. These are the current-day manifestations of policing the boundaries and the instant recognition of or belief that certain people belong in certain places and others do not. Is there a way in which the ongoing protests as part of the Movement for Black Lives is challenging the caste script? I think that all the liberation movements that have occurred throughout American history have been an effort to challenge the pre-existing caste system. This is part of a continuum. History unaddressed recurs. American history is one that can be characterized by the underlying structure that we live with, but then these advances that have occurred over time that were often swiftly followed by retrenchment and backlash and a long period of plateauing. It’s this cycle that seems to be recurring and this is a continuing manifestation of the efforts to bring light to, and to somehow transcend, the hierarchies that have been the basis of so much injustice and inequality in the country. You speak of caste as a rigid organizing system that seeks to keep the dominant members on top and the subordinate ones on the bottom. While this organizing system is rigid, what constitutes someone as a member of the dominant caste has changed over time. In what ways has the U.S. caste system reconstituted itself throughout history? The essential hierarchy—the structure—remains the same. But who qualifies to be in the dominant group, who can be permitted, admitted, into the dominant group is one of the focuses of any caste system. The people who qualify to be in the dominant group have changed over time to meet the needs of changing demographics and infusion of people into the country. In 1790, the people who would’ve qualified to be in the dominant group, the people who qualified as white, would be completely different from who would’ve qualified in 1890 or 1924 when a major immigration bill passed that actually restricted people who were coming in from Southern and Eastern Europe and other parts of the world outside of Western Europe. The fact of a dominant group has been ever-present. The fact of a bottom rail has been ever-present and has been more static in its membership—descendants of the enslaved have always been consigned to the subordinated bottom of the caste system. The changes have occurred in the top. This is the reason why [we talk about] the idea of race as a social construct. But we have been so acclimated and so socialized to believe in [race] as [a] law of nature that it has come to be seen as the way things have always been. But it turns out race is not actually that old of an idea, only four or five hundred years old. It arose as a concept with the populating of the Americas which brought together people from different parts of the world who otherwise would not have been identified on the basis solely of their color. They would have been identified as Ethiopian or as Polish or as Hungarian and suddenly they get to the United States and they are put in a queue based on what they look like, based on where they fit in the hierarchy that was created as a result of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. People who had not needed to think of themselves as white, not needed to think of themselves as Black, are suddenly assigned to racial categories that did not exist before, that did not need to exist before. This is how relatively new [race] is, but it has been around long enough, become so much a part of how we think of ourselves, we don’t question it anymore. The language of caste is this new language for understanding ourselves, for understanding our history, understanding how we interact with one another, how we relate to one another, and how we have inherited this framework. No one alive is responsible for creating [and] it’s not anyone’s fault they were born to a particular place in the caste system. This is what we inherited. But once we become aware of it, it is our responsibility to see how it affects us, how it hurts all of us and what we can do to work together to transcend it. In Caste, you reluctantly introduce some personal experiences. Why did you choose to include these, and did that choice in some way resonate with the recent discourse around “objectivity” in journalism? The idea of objectivity was not an issue for me. There’s a whole long conversation that could be had about objectivity. We are a species known for our capacity for emotion, for empathy, for taking in information and inputs from many different sources in order to survive. By definition, it means that we are not machines that can be seen as objective. We are, by definition, taking in inputs and sensory information that we then encode subconsciously and consciously that affect how we see a particular thing. Objectivity is not the same as authority. Objectivity is not the same as doing the research. Objectivity is not the same as doing the hard work to create a document that reflects the research one has done. The goal should be balance. The goal is not to pretend we are machines. We fool ourselves if we think any one person, or any one group, has a lock on objectivity. My work has always been about telling a bigger story through the lives of other people and not making it personal so that someone would think this is singular to her. I’m more accustomed to and feel very at home with focusing in on the stories of others in order to tell a larger story through narrative nonfiction. That’s what I do, that’s who I am, and that’s what I prefer to do. In the process of doing the work that I have felt called to do, I have also run into the very phenomena I am writing about, so that’s the reason why it seemed necessary, reluctantly for me, to include examples from my own experiences. Your last book, The Warmth of Other Suns, told the history of the Great Migration through the lived experiences of three individuals. Whereas that book was very biographical and consisted of extensive in-person interviews, your new book relies more heavily on archives and academic studies. How did this affect your reporting for Caste and did it present any unique challenges (like you couldn’t go back for more interviews)? That’s a really good point. There was a mix of all those things. I did do extensive interviewing and interaction and conversation with people who were dealing with caste in their own ways. The difference is that this is not the same kind of focus on just three people like The Warmth of Other Suns was. This is a chorus of people testifying to the experiences that they might have had of caste. In addition to that work of listening to, hearing, searching out, and being attuned to the stories of people that I was meeting or talking to, I also was looking to the other disciplines that touch upon caste in order to understand it as fully as I possibly could. Anthropology, psychology, sociology, history, economics—all of these various disciplines. I was awash in books. Books, books, books. Books that were written about caste from, say, the nineteenth century. British scholars writing about caste. Indian scholars writing about caste. There was a point where I was having to read a book a day because there was so much coming in, so much that needed to be done. The work was massive to study, absorb, and then distill these disparate cultures, different disciplines, [and] try to condense this into something that would be readable, absorbable, and perhaps illuminating to people. Throughout the book, you bring up the 2042 census projection, which predicts white people will become a minority in the U.S. In what ways might the 2042 census upset the current caste system and, since it is based on race, how might the caste system reconstitute itself if whites, the dominant caste, become a minority? The country will be facing a turning point in its identity and it has a choice to make as to how it will move forward, how it will perceive itself, how it will reconcile a demographic combination that it’s never seen before. If projections hold, this will be a new experience for everyone wherever they might be in what I call a caste system. What I’m trying to say is it will affect everyone and the choice is whether to embrace this change and become stronger for it or to further retrench and reconstitute the caste system as has happened in the past. When you look at the 1924 immigration bill, the response was to shut down additional immigration to keep the country constituted the way it had been. The country is facing an existential question about what it will be, how will it constitute itself, will it embrace a demographic that’s different than what it’s done before. The caste system has been in place from the beginning and has shown itself to be incredibly resilient and enduring and, unless there’s an awareness and enlightenment about that, the possibility is that, without enlightenment and awareness, it will just reconstitute itself as it has in the past.
‘People are Grappling with Losing the Life They Had Before’: An Interview with Karolina Waclawiak

The author of Life Events on grieving, exit guides, and the way we think about death. 

In 1967, British psychiatrist John Mark Hinton tried to outline dying in just 144 pages. Brief as it was, Dying didn’t discuss finality with euphemisms, but centred the experiences of terminally ill patients. And while the book guided the implementation of palliative care in hospices, it did little to acknowledge how those institutions conceal death and illness. Over fifty years later, and in the midst of a pandemic, deaths are not only abstracted in statistics, but we’re being forced to move on without grieving that loss. In her third novel, Life Events (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Karolina Waclawiak considers the pre-grieving stage of loss. Her narrator, Evelyn, is at a crossroads: her marriage is ending and her father is dying, so she becomes an exit guide. It’s in meetings with death doulas and afterlife conventions that she learns how to provide companionship to three terminally ill “clients,” and helps them die. Exit guides help restore dignity to the dying by letting them dictate it or, as her boss proselytizes, “[d]eath isn’t something that happens to you, it’s something you do.”  While Evelyn struggles with her avoidant relationship to pain and grief, she ultimately makes peace with her failures and choices—something Waclawiak’s characters have evaded at all costs. In her two previous novels How to Get into the Twin Palms and The Invaders, they are outsiders, constantly faced with the pressures to pass as much as they can in order to be accepted. Life Events ends on a more hopeful note, with Evelyn playing back old voicemails from her parents, wondering what will happen when they can no longer ramble on. Sara Black McCulloch: How is everything in LA right now? Karloina Waclawiak: When I went to get my dad out of Texas, because the numbers were going up there, California was fine. And then we drove to Connecticut to bring my dad to my brother, and in the time it took for me to do that... I returned to California and it’s now a disaster. Life Events deals with grief and death and with everything going on with COVID, has this changed your views on grief or shifted the way that you were thinking about a lot of this before the pandemic? In the early weeks of the pandemic, I saw a lot of young people and people my age start talking about health directives, feeling like anything could happen. They started to think about, what would happen if they died? And it really felt like a mass movement that I've never seen before. I think in general, Americans certainly have an uncomfortable relationship with death, if they have a relationship to it at all. And to me, in American culture, it feels like death is really hidden away. Aging is really hidden away. And aging is seen as a threat and something to fix if possible. And so, it was really interesting to me to see the pandemic as this sort of great leveler—where everyone had this acute threat of, what happens if I die or my loved one dies? To me, that's been really the striking moment of the pandemic. And it felt like, wow, everything I wrote about in the book, just their energy, has come to the fore. But with that, you know, I had anxiety. Everyone is already feeling terrible. A book about grief? Do people really want to confront grief? But it is an inevitability. Recently, I saw tweets where people were talking about writing wills just in case, and few people, especially young people, have had to consider that until now. Because of COVID, hospitals have instituted a no-visitor policy, and now a lot of people have been dying in hospitals alone. Their families can’t properly mourn or even hold a funeral. Even during this pandemic and this monumental loss, a lot of us are still not seeing it. It’s so heart wrenching having someone you love die. I lost my mother in September, and talked to my family about this. It was awful, but the idea of... just, what so many families are now facing, like you said: if she were in the hospital and we could not be with her, that would just have added a whole other layer of grief. I can't even comprehend what families are going through, especially if it's somebody who was not previously ill, that sort of dramatic turn, and then having them go to the hospital, not knowing what's happening and really being cut off. And then, you know, being told they're gone. It's just so shocking, and I think, with the pandemic in general, we're all suffering from a collective grief as a society. I truly don't believe it will ever go back to the way It was and a lot of people are grappling with losing the kind of life that they had before. I certainly heard from people who said, “I'm okay right now,” and who are expressing gratitude. I feel the same way—that my life has changed significantly—but I also feel grateful for the life that I have. That collective grief of not going back to the way it was and having to sit with an uncomfortable feeling of not knowing when and then the added layer of grief that comes from watching so many people die. Even if you're not intimately connected with someone who has passed away, just seeing the numbers climb is really debilitating. All of this is to say that I think it is unreal to me to not be able to be with your loved one as they're dying. That was an experience [losing someone] that I had with my mother and my grandfather who passed away over a decade ago. It's such a profound experience. It's really terrifying, and it changes you, but for people to not have the opportunity to mourn feels like another kind of grief. The way we talk about death is through so many euphemisms. We have this urge to compartmentalize it. And the language for death distances us from it. Did you ever struggle to give a language to grief and to that kind of mourning when you were writing the book?  I tried to be clear-eyed about it. During the editing process, my mother passed away and even though I had lost my grandfather, like, the level of grief when it comes to losing a parent is not something you really understand until you go through it. So, the purpose of the book was to try to capture that anxiety of pre-grieving and knowing something is coming. And so, it is a book about grief, but it's a specific time: it's not the aftermath. It's the wave that's coming to crash down on you and what that anticipation feels like. I just didn't think that hiding behind euphemism or being particularly flowery about it was going to serve the purpose that I wanted the book to serve. I read Joan Didion's work on grief, and to me that also was so plainly written and so direct. And so, I really wanted to do something similar in capturing the time before and just create work that people could find and just be straight with them about what that grappling looks like. Did you speak to any death doulas while researching the book? The origination of this whole project actually came from randomly listening to the Criminal podcast and there was an episode about an exit guide, and I was so shaken by the episode because I had never heard of volunteers who work as exit guides. The only understanding I had around assisted suicide was Dr. Kevorkian in the ’90s. And so, this woman’s testimonial of why she was providing this service, why there's a whole network of people providing a service, gave a nuanced understanding of that work. I'm certainly a writer who does research. I want to, hopefully, sound like I know what I’m talking about so I did take courses with a death doula and it's interesting because there's certainly a break between people who are okay with assisted suicide and the larger death doula community, so I certainly don't want to conflate the two because death doulas really sit with people as they're dying. They're really going through the whole process of helping someone die naturally. And that was an interesting tension too. I tried to nod to that in the book. I had a bit in there about people’s comfortability with assisted suicide. It is a transgressive act, and it's not even legal in most states in the US. It’s obviously legal in Switzerland, but I really was thinking about the idea of control in death, and how long we allow ourselves to suffer. And taking back that sense of control—not even putting a value judgment on it—just thinking about, how long do I want to live? How long if I know I'm terminal? Do I want to suffer? Is that suffering needless? Is there another way out? And so, I did immerse myself in death communities. I really went deep into the people who attend afterlife conventions. I even attended one myself and wanted to understand what level of grief drives people to even seek out psychics—to really believe in people who say they can give you access to the afterlife. I wanted to provide an empathetic picture of the world of death without necessarily taxing value judgments. In the book, there are discussions among the exit guides—where they assess their own quality of life in percentages, and what “weaknesses” they could live with. For instance, one person says they want to go at 20 percent, which means that they would be fully reliant on an IV, a feeding tube and intubated. It made me think about how in many narratives about death, especially in illness narratives, there’s an honour in suffering and here, people are determining at what point their quality of life is severely compromised and not worth living. We don’t really talk about this or even assess it for ourselves and even now, we’re hearing about people being intubated and how painful that is even though it’s supposed to keep you alive. We don't examine these procedures because they’re tied to a cure, and to medicine and hospitals. They do good, they keep you alive, but not necessarily in the best way possible. And that’s a controversial opinion. I’m okay with people not agreeing with me on that, that at a certain point, if your loved one is dying, and it's terminal, a lot of times people are kept alive, because the family can't let go. I've had friends whose parents have died. It's really hard to make that choice, to say: okay, pull the plug (so to speak). But you really do have to start thinking about quality of life, which is what's really interesting about making a health directive saying, I don't want to be intubated. This is the quality of life that I'm willing to say, like, past this point, I'm not interested in living. The fact that more and more people are thinking about this and actually making those decisions, especially if they have children... that's something that I put in there, too. You don't ask someone who is really close to you to make that decision because they're going to be thinking about their wants and needs over yours. It’s human nature and it’s complicated. But when do you say enough is enough? And when do you really give up? It's almost like you're giving up hope on the person, which feels so loaded, but when it’s clear they're suffering and there's no “what's next?” I remember thinking about that, like where are they going to go from here? There’s no up!  I remember reading an excerpt of Life Events back in 2015—“Late-Night Bloomers”? I remember it being written in the third person. I wanted to know why you chose to write it from Evelyn’s perspective instead or what had prompted that change?  I worked on that with Paul Reyes, who is a brilliant editor, and that was sort of a selection from the book that I was writing at the time. And it was all in the third person. I wrote to the end and I actually showed it to Paul and asked what he thought of it. The main thought was that perhaps it shouldn't be in third person. And writing that whole draft... I felt so distant from the why—why would Evelyn do this? What was going on in her life that she would make the choices that she made? And it was a totally different book. I just didn't feel like I had access to the characters in the way that I wanted. I threw that whole draft away and I kept Evelyn’s name, what she did, and I kept maybe like a dozen pages, and I totally started over. And it was terrifying! I was under contract for the book. They were really pushing me to publish it within the year. And I felt such a sense of anxiety. Basically, I didn't want to put out a book that I didn't want to write, so I got out of my book contract. And it took getting out of my book contact to feel the freedom of, like, “Okay, I'm gonna take the time I need. I'm going to write the book that I want to write. And who knows, maybe it'll take me ten years. I just don't want to feel like I'm being rushed.” I aged Evelyn down—in “Late-Night Bloomers,” she's in her fifties, I think, and I really thought about, what age is someone at a crossroads? I felt like since this was such a big life event—to want to be around people who are dying, like, what else is going on in her life? I started thinking about the big life events like marriage, children and the markers of progress and stuff. I started thinking about a woman who felt like she had gotten all of those things wrong and really felt stagnant in her own life and was using this as a catalyst in a way to selfishly wake up, along with trying to desensitize herself of her parents dying. I had her going through a divorce and edging towards forty, which is a pivotal year for women because there are a couple of years left when you can actually have children. But what happens when your whole life blows up later in life? And thinking about the sort of life you're supposed to have by the time you're nearing forty, and stripping that from Evelyn, and really thinking about somebody who even in her career hasn't had those highs and what that looks like and then giving her something that really becomes her obsession. It took me six years, but I'm really proud of this iteration. It really took me having to throw the first draft and getting out of the contract to get here. You empathize with your characters, especially the women like Evelyn. Do you always extend that kind of understanding to them, or do you have to come around? I love my characters. I feel like I have to, warts and all, especially if I’m spending so much time with them. It always bugs me when critics are like, “Karolina always writes unlikable female narrators,” and I’m like, “I write them all!” It's hard because in all of my books, I've always written complicated women who make choices that are often transgressive, that are going against the grain of what you're supposed to do as a woman. And so that does rub people the wrong way. I personally find complex women really interesting and I wouldn't want to write about women who aren't making mistakes. But I also never want to torture my narrator. I want to take them as far as they can go and make them uncomfortable. And I definitely know that in making them uncomfortable sometimes it's uncomfortable for readers. I never do it just for the hell of it. They learn something about themselves, but not in a corny way. So much of the book became a question of how you avoid pain and seeing the way Evelyn dissected the ways she avoided pain her whole life, and part of that was getting married and seeing how much more pain that caused her. I think this is probably the first book where my narrator has been able to face herself. I was going to say! [Laughs] I mean, I have women who avoid themselves, or trying to figure themselves out but the willingness to really face yourself, I don't think has been there as much as it has in this book and that felt even scarier! In your two previous novels, I was especially thinking about Cheryl (from The Invaders) who stayed in her marriage because she didn't want to start all over again. But Evelyn ends her marriage and deals with the uncomfortable realities of starting from scratch at thirty-seven. And I think in the past, your characters have dealt with passing in communities—they’re outsiders dealing with their identity but not fully confronting it so they try to assimilate instead. Usually the endings are so explosive because the women are self-destructive. But Evelyn forgives herself. It feels like a natural progression to have your narrator confront herself and forgive herself so she can move forward. I was like, “maybe I'll end this book with a hopeful ending”—a totally new challenge for myself. I really do feel like this book is this journey of self-discovery for her, and the end of that self-discovery is just forgiveness. I think that forgiving yourself is the hardest thing you can do. Giving up resentments against other people is really difficult to do. Seeing the part you played in your issues impacting other people in your life and then saying, “I own that, and I forgive myself for it.” It's growth! And I really wanted Evelyn to start in one place and change. It's not this explosive change, but it felt important to me to end somewhere in forgiveness because she really blamed so much of the way her life turned out on herself. And that fear of making choices, but through being around people who are dying and trying to leave without resentments and leave without unfinished business, for lack of a better term...I think she really wants to learn how to live consciously and take ownership over her actions and ownership over her life instead of being evasive. In The Invaders, Cheryl certainly felt like an evasive character. With Evelyn, while saying that vulnerability was the hardest thing for her to ever do, she was being so vulnerable with the reader, which was something that I felt could also provide nuance to her. It didn't seem reasonable for me to withhold from the reader and, I think in other books, I certainly have withheld in how much you got to know about each woman. And I really love those kinds of books. I love Rachel Cusk’s trilogy because you learn virtually nothing about her character, but I wanted to almost do the opposite of that, where you’re watching the machination of Evelyn try to confront herself. I do feel that in those moments of forgiveness, she is setting herself free and that to me feels like a beautiful endpoint that feels less tragic than the other books I’ve written. At the end of Life Events, Evelyn listens to old voicemails from her parents and it’s a gesture of pre-grieving—of revisiting someone’s voice when and if you lose them. It’s weird because a lot of us dread voicemails, but they can also be a connection to someone we’ve lost. Their voice can have so much more impact on you than, say, a photo. Totally. My phone right now probably has twenty unlistened-to voicemails… Right? Have you saved any voicemails that really matter to you? Especially now that you’ve been grieving? I think you either have denial about what's going to happen, especially if your parents are aging and you don't think about building an archive of what you’ll miss. For me, I certainly wasn't thinking in that way, but I now wish I was because I don't even have any videos of my mom. I remember we would go on trips together and I was always documenting everything because I had my phone. But I was deleting stuff because I needed more memory and so I don't have videos of my mom on my phone. I have some “Live Photos,” which I’ll watch sometimes where I'll see some movement. I deleted so many of her voicemails for the same reason, like where is this message going? And I cleaned up in my inbox, but rarely did I transfer files. Who has a “Mom” file in anticipation of her passing? I certainly wish I had, but I do have a few voicemails that I've listened to when I want to feel really emotional, but it made me think about how memory functions and what we collect of the people that we love. Of course, there was an era of home videos and everybody had a camcorder and stuff but we really only have our phones now and there's a finite amount of memory there. So even thinking about what has value and what doesn't—I have so many stupid photos that I could have deleted to save videos, but I didn't and it's impossible to prepare. Who the hell wants to prepare? I’ve been thinking, with static photographs, that memory is faulty. It’s also a question of access: if you’re looking at photos, it could be you when you were younger with your parents and you have a perception of what was happening but you don’t have that other person’s input and maybe you remembered incorrectly—maybe you’re blocking out things that were painful about that memory. Having a video or voicemail of it feels like a more potent archive than just a photo because you can overlay whatever you want over that photo, but it isn’t necessarily the truth. I think that after someone dies, you’re looking for the truth, but the access to the truth is cut off. There are so many things I wished I had asked my mother that I’ll never know the answer to and I’ll never get that truth. I can ask my dad, but he has his own truth of whatever that was. You’re losing access to someone’s inner life, even if they didn’t give you a lot. With Evelyn and her clients, it’s all about access and access to those intimate moments, in a way. She takes something from a client’s house—it’s such a random object, but in a way, it’s her wanting to preserve a memory of that happening or that the event existed, that the person existed. Even in the training session, there’s a moment where people are asked to give things up and I think a lot about inheritance and which objects have meaning. I used to go to vintage shops all the time and even swap meets, and just looked at family photos and items that have been passed down. You don’t know the journey of that object, but it was always weird to me to go through boxes of people’s photos. How does this stuff end up here? These are all someone else’s memories. We lack that context. It’s interesting because as much as Evelyn clings to objects, when she is helping her clients clear up their spaces, it’s in an effort to help out the people they leave behind—so they don’t have to deal with someone else’s stuff, so to speak. Things can mean something to us, but with enough distance from those objects, they’re simply clutter to someone else. So many things provide painful memories and part of that empathetic gesture of helping people exit their lives is trying to take the pain away from the loved ones who have to live with this choice and live with the death of their loved ones. It’s easing their pain and suffering too. For Evelyn in her divorce, she really doesn’t take that much from the home even though her husband is trying to give her things. That transference of wanting someone to remember a relationship—a relationship that Evelyn is trying to forget—that’s a pain-avoidant thing, too. Sometimes people do it for us or we do it for ourselves; we self-select what we surround ourselves with and often having objects without context is taking a layer of pain and understanding away on purpose. Were Evelyn’s three clients—Daphne, Lawrence and Daniel—inspired by any experiences or people you met in these meetings or the afterlife convention? Daphne was someone who was going to spur the most feelings about her mom and that was the most painful experience for her—looking at the frailty of an older woman. Evelyn was trying to impose a relationship on Daphne. They didn’t know each other, and yet, she really wanted to create memories with her and deviate from what you’re supposed to do based on the training. I was thinking about what it means to be a person alone, having to reckon with the end of your life, so someone like Lawrence, who was at once on top of the world and now at the end of his life, he’s this old, anonymous man in an apartment building where, who knows? You burned bridges. It was about what it means to be no one, in a sense, after you’ve been someone. With Daniel, she was really confronting the type of men that she had fallen for. I think Evelyn is trying to reckon with what it means to try to save people, putting herself in situations knowing that it’s impossible. In a way, that’s a selfish act for her, too, to try to put herself through these trials in an attempt to force herself to learn something. The people that I met travelling in these worlds certainly were trying to prepare for their own parents’ deaths and feeling anxiety about what to do, as if there’s some textbook that you follow of how to be the perfect kid as your parent is dying. There’s only so much preparation you can do. Also, you have to give somebody the dignity of their own experience. You could be trying to have your loved one accept death and be okay with what’s happening and they could be absolutely not okay with what’s going on, not wanting to have some big conversation towards the end of their life or wrap anything up tidily. There is a sense of agency there, that we don’t get to choose how someone dies or what their experience is like, and that goes for either end of it, whether you’re taking care of somebody or you’re the person dying. A lot of this book, for me, was about letting go of that control, of what you think your life should look like. And what the end of it should like. Exactly. The end of life experience and all those expectations. I think that in popular culture, we’ve seen so much of this internal reckoning, where everybody gets to say goodbye. I talked to people who were completely crushed. I mean, we were talking about this earlier, what’s at the fore of COVID right now—their loved one died and they never got to say goodbye. They have no closure. They’re never going to get closure. And you have to find a way to move on anyway. Death is really messy. Death doesn’t necessitate enlightenment either. I don’t mean to be insensitive, but sometimes you get sick, and there’s no narrative you can attach to it to ease that pain or even understand it. And some people don’t want to assign a greater meaning to it. We’re all accepting some profound experience at the end of life—and it is a profound experience, I don’t want to take anything away from that—but you can’t plan for what’s going to happen! It’s such a complicated relationship. I was born in Poland but grew up in America, in American culture. I know what the Polish relationship is with death, just from going back to Poland and having Polish parents. When we visited, we went to the cemetery to see our relatives and pay our respects. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think that’s something that happens here. It’s a cultural thing and I’ve always been, in a way, death-obsessed and just thinking culturally about how we navigate death. At the end of the day, we’re all human beings and we all have different needs and wants. We just can’t say what these things are going to look like. We put a lot more effort into hitting targets and milestones instead. There’s no energy or time devoted to death or those health directives. It’s even crazy to me how quickly you even have to go back to work! The bereavement leave? Yeah! The fact that we have very little space for mourning or it’s such a prescribed amount of time: you get x amount for bereavement unless you decide to take more. Grief is such an out of control process and it goes on for a long time. Even just trying to put parameters around something like that. Personally, grief has been physical, emotional and it comes in waves. I can be fine for months and then feel like I’m back at square one. I really wanted to investigate our relationship with mourning and death and why we haven’t made a space for thinking about these things more readily and not figure out the best way to do it. To me, there is no “best way.” I want to raise those questions: what do you want your relationship with death to look like? I don’t really believe in that kind of closure, either—that a formula for grief will help you get there. I don’t think of it in terms of goal-setting either—that’s so strange to me.  And what is closure, anyway? That you don’t get to feel this anymore? That speaks to how we as culture don’t want to sit with our uncomfortable feelings, we want to know what the end is and we’re really being tested now because we’re in a situation where there is no end in sight. It’s ultimately about acceptance. You don’t get closure. You don’t know when something is going to end. The way someone you love dies doesn’t look the way you want it to and most of us just don’t get closure and we have to be ok with that. It doesn’t mean we’re happy about it. Acceptance doesn’t mean, “I love it.” Have you been feeling any pressure to be productive or work on anything else? I feel like that’s how a lot of people have been grappling with that uncertainty lately. I wrote one essay since I finished my book. I have not started writing a new book. I’ve been thinking about a new book, but I’ve been absolutely unproductive during this time. I really had to give myself a break about it. I only just started reading again. I haven’t really watched TV. I was telling a friend the other day that I can barely bring myself to watch reality TV. I’m trying to spend a lot of time outside because being in your house all the time is so hard and having to tell yourself things are okay all the time to just get through the day is so exhausting that I don’t have time to be productive.
Concerning the Many Legends of the Cyclone Named Jack Trice

He was a hero, a man who broke a barrier, but everything that’s happened since he died has way more to do with us than him.

Dozens and dozens of college football stadiums are named after people, and there’s a story behind each. Those backstories are often pretty simple: Some guy gave a lot of money to a university, or a lot of people died in a war. Not much room for mystery there. Well, most of them are pretty simple. Jack Trice was the grandson of enslaved people and the son of a Buffalo Soldier. In 1864, Tennesseans named George Wallace and Phyllis Trice gave birth to Green Trice, the man who would become Jack’s father. Two years later, the federal Army Reorganization Act called for the formation of regiments composed “of colored men.” These calvarymen, who would be given the nickname Buffalo Soldiers by Native American tribes, became part of America’s bloody conquest of the West. Green joined the United States Army in 1882 at Fort Davis in Texas—a fort named after a former U.S. Secretary of War who’d since been the president of the Confederacy. Davis’ Confederacy had then lost a war against that same U.S. Army during Green's lifetime.11Green Trice death certificate We do not know where Green served, only that he helped win the white man’s war against Indigenous people. Green would eventually leave the military and return east. He would marry a woman named Anna, and they would reside in a small town about 30 miles outside of Cleveland. In 1902, their son Jack was born. Green died when Jack was just a young boy, leaving his mother to raise him alone for most of his life. Anna was fearful for him. She wanted her son to know what he would be up against and worried that Hiram, Ohio, a town with very few Black families, would isolate him from racial realities. When Jack was ready for high school, his mother sent him to live with an uncle in Cleveland. She wanted “to get him among people of his own kind, to meet the problems that a Negro boy would have to face sometime, and to give him an opportunity to make social contacts with people of his own race,”22Steven Jones, Football’s Fallen Hero according to a childhood friend. That friend said Trice “was always a part of our school parties in various homes, with never a thought of any difference of color of skin.” But it’s folly to assume any Black child in America didn’t feel racism’s sting, as those in predominantly white upbringings often feel isolation they do not or cannot show. In Cleveland, Trice attended East Tech High School and became a multisport star. The football coach was former Ohio State player Sam Willaman, and the team was nearly unbeatable throughout Trice’s career. One of their few losses was a de facto high school national championship in 1920, when the team rode a train to play in Washington state. Trice played tackle, making him a lineman on offense and something like a modern DE on defense. He was all-state. In 1921, he was one of East Tech’s two Black football players.33Joshua Kagavi, The Jack Trice Story “No better tackle ever played high school ball in Cleveland. He had speed, strength and smartness,”44Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 1979 said Johnny Behm, a high school teammate. Another teammate, Harry Schmidt, said Trice was skilled enough to become all-conference at the college level, even All-American. His barrier against playing football in college was skin, not skill. Deep South powers didn’t integrate until the ’60s and ’70s. Some Black players starred closer to his home, but were usually exceptions. As Jack was completing high school, Iowa’s Duke Slater was an All-American. Near Jack’s hometown, Fritz Pollard was becoming the NFL’s first Black player-coach—but the league wouldn’t hire another Black head coach for 68 more years. After Trice graduated in 1922, Willaman got the head coaching job at Iowa State. Two of Trice’s teammates at East Tech, brothers Norton and Johnny Behm, turned down Notre Dame to join their former coach. A few other standout Cleveland players also became Cyclones. Trice was working road construction when Willaman came to invite him to join the team. Football looked to be Trice’s ticket to a better life. His dad, a farmer, doesn’t appear to have started the first grade until after turning 20. Trice was poised to become the first Black athlete in Iowa State history. The school’s first Black student and first Black faculty member had been George Washington Carver, who’d received a master’s degree in 1896 and gone on to deliver agricultural innovations to Southern farmers.55Kansas City Star, August 2004 Jack enrolled in Iowa State’s animal husbandry program with the goal of earning a degree and using it to help Black farmers in the South. The Des Moines Register called Trice one of the best linemen on Iowa State’s freshman team (until 1972, most college football governing bodies banned freshmen from varsity games). He also won a shot-put event in a Missouri Valley Conference track meet. By 1923, his sophomore year, he was a varsity football starter, which was especially noteworthy. Per that era’s rules, if a player subbed out in the first half he couldn’t come back in until halftime. If he subbed out in the second half, his day was done. After what amounted to a tune-up against Simpson College, Iowa State’s student newspaper recapped his varsity debut: The big colored boy, Jack Trice, is by far the most outstanding performer and gave evidence of being one of the best tackles in the Missouri Valley this year in the last weekend’s play against Simpson. Trice is fast, strong and a heady player. You can find accounts that describe Trice as damn near a Black Paul Bunyan, listing him as 6’2 and 200 pounds, quite big for the era. A program from his first varsity game had him at 182 pounds,66Joshua Kagavi, The Jack Trice Story already the third-heaviest Cyclone. When Jack returned to Ames for his sophomore year in 1923, he’d brought along Cora Mae, his wife. The two had married the year prior. Black people weren't allowed to live on Iowa State's campus, so the Trices lived upstairs in an off-campus Masonic Temple that still stands today. They did the things young lovers do. Jack worked a side job as a janitor, so he had keys to the campus pool, and the two would sneak in to go skinny-dipping, according to the family’s telling. In a letter Cora Mae later wrote to Iowa State, she recalled a conversation they had just before he left for Minnesota, the site of his first major-level college football game. “He came to tell me good bye,” Cora Mae wrote. “We kissed and hugged and he told me that he would come back to me as soon as he could.” Now picture Trice in his Minneapolis hotel room, the night before the game. He sat down on Friday night and wrote a letter on hotel stationery. There’s no telling whom he intended to mail it to or if he intended to mail it at all. The emphasis is his: To whom it may concern, My thoughts just before the first real college game of my life. The honor of my race, family, & self are at stake. Everyone is expecting me to do big things. I will! My whole body & soul are to be thrown recklessly about on the field tomorrow. Every time the ball is snapped, I will be trying to do more than my part. On all defensive plays I must break thru the opponents line at stop the play in their territory. Beware of mass interference & fight low with your eyes open and toward the play. Roll block the interference. Watch out for cross bucks and reverse end runs. Be on your toes every minute if you expect to make good. Jack It is a poignant note. It’s also the only thing I could find written about Trice by Trice. It looks like something a Hollywood screenwriter would dream up and in your head you can hear soft strings building toward crescendo. Maybe some drums as the scene cuts to the pregame locker room. Trice knew he was about to be the only Black man on the field, probably the whole stadium. He knew Minnesota was especially imposing. The Gophers already had a national title in their history, and this year’s team would finish 5-1-1 with two All-Americans. And Trice surely knew the risks of football. For decades, football had been killing people on the field. During the 1905 season, President Teddy Roosevelt had met with college leaders and told them to clean the game up. That season, at least 19 high school and college players died, and another 135 were injured, according to the Chicago Tribune, too much even for the ol’ Rough Rider: I have no sympathy whatever with the overwrought sentimentality that would keep a young man in cotton wool, and I have a hearty contempt for him if he counts a broken arm or collarbone as a serious consequence when balanced against the chance of showing that he possesses hardihood, physical address, and courage. But when these injuries are inflicted by others, either wantonly or of set design, we are confronted by the question, not of damage to one man’s body but of damage to the other man’s character.77The Washington Post, October 1905 The next year, admins overhauled football’s rules, which had only evolved so much since the game’s origin as a brawl with a ball. The biggest change was to allow the forward pass—even though incompletions were penalized, which discouraged one of football’s few tactics that didn’t resemble trench warfare. Along the way, college football got rid of some dangerous mass plays like the flying wedge, which meant slamming together tight packs of bodies at full speed. Yet as of 1923, other mass plays remained. Helmets were still leather, and shoulder pads were still insignificant. In 1923, over a decade after the partial implementation of the forward pass, the toll remained similar; at least 18 college football players died that year from injuries suffered on the field. Most accounts of Iowa State’s 1923 trip to Minnesota agree on a few things. Trice was injured on one of the first few plays: a broken collarbone and dislocated shoulder. He stayed in the game. According to the rules, if he left, he couldn't have returned until the second half. At some point in the third quarter, Trice got hurt again. This time it was his abdomen, and this time he was unable to continue. Later, some reports would say doctors found lung hemorrhages and internal bleeding. Trice likely downplayed what was happening inside his body. Multiple accounts say he protested to keep playing but was helped off the field by two teammates and taken immediately to a Minneapolis hospital. A doctor there said his condition was serious, but allowed him to go back to Ames. The injuries were not professionally diagnosed until after Trice rode home on a straw mattress in a train. Perhaps that doctor failed Trice. But note this: We have no way of knowing whether anyone investigated it. Trice arrived at Iowa State’s campus hospital. Sunday night, a specialist determined there was nothing they could do for his internal bleeding, not even emergency operation. Cora Mae was in the campus cafeteria Monday afternoon when one of Trice’s fraternity brothers summoned her to the hospital. “When I saw him, I said Hello Darling," she later wrote. “He looked at me, but never spoke. I remember hearing the Campanile chime 3 o'clock. That was Oct 8th, 1923, and he was gone.” If that first doctor missed Trice’s injuries, what else might be missing? What do we know? The answer depends on which account you’re reading, and when the account was written. Sunday, October 7, 1923 Three stories from reporters who’d attended the previous day’s game reference Jack’s injury directly: Minnesota’s student paper, the St. Paul Daily News, and the Des Moines Register. As part of play-by-play details, each reported Trice was on offense as Iowa State got to the 45-yard line on a reception by a Behm brother, though they differed on which one—two said Johnny. Each described Trice getting injured during that play, then leaving because of it. The Minnesota Tribune’s Sunday edition only has a reference to Trice being substituted out in the third quarter in its box score, but its play-by-play is generally less comprehensive. Monday, October 8 The Ames Daily Tribune said, “Jack Trice, colored tackle, was forced out of the game in the third period with internal injuries and it will probably be four weeks before he will be in condition to scrimmage again.” By mid-afternoon, Trice was dead, as a late edition of Iowa State’s student newspaper reported. He had been trampled in “an off-tackle play.” Tuesday, October 9 In reporting his death, the Minnesota Tribune added to the list of outlets referencing Trice playing offense at the time of the injury, also describing him as one-on-one blocking downfield: “Late in the third period another play was directed at his position and Trice broke through to block the Gopher’s secondary defense. He blocked his man but he failed to get up.” But in other outlets, the particulars of the play that killed him remained vague. “The Minnesota team piled on top of him in an off-tackle play,” the Des Moines Register said. “Trice was crushed in a play through his position,” the Associated Press said. “Crushed in an off tackle play,” per the Cedar Rapids Gazette. And the Minnesota Star differed significantly from the initial reports by attendees. It moved Trice to defense and described him engaging in a dangerous action: “Trice playing a defensive tackle position dived into the interference of an off tackle Minnesota play and was crushed under the weight of several members of the Minnesota team.” Wednesday, October 10 An AP story held up Trice as a sort of martyr. The headline in bold letters: “DEAD FOOTBALL STAR’S LETTER, WRITTEN BEFORE GAME, PLANS SACRIFICE” with a subheading: “Jack Trice intended to use his body and soul recklessly for honor of his family and Negro race.” At this point, the narrative had shifted to fuse not only vague and opposite recollections of what Trice had been doing during the play, but also a grand interpretation of his letter, found in his jacket pocket after he’d died. Recollections of Trice’s death have gotten more confusing over the years, evolving into nothing like those initial reports. Even former teammates ended up saying Trice had been on defense. In 1973, former linemate Schmidt, then in his 70s, recalled the play: Well, [Minnesota] had a powerful offensive drive with good interference, and they had three blockers ahead of this runner. Jack had said in [his] letter that he would throw himself before an interference. He did a roll block. And someone just happened to step on his stomach.88Dorothy Schwieder, The Life and Legacy of Jack Trice  He maintained that any stomping wasn’t intentional. Johnny Behm—one of two brothers described by press box reports as catching the ball on offense during Trice’s injury—remembered it like this in 1979: In the third quarter they tried a power play over him. I was in the defensive backfield so I can’t tell you for certain what happened. But I’d swear the Minnesota end who had to block Trice tackled him instead. Jack landed on his back and the Minnesota fullback ran right over him. Maybe the interference did, too, I’m not positive. Around this time, Trice’s freshman coach William Thompson added to the foggy recollection: Jack used a block against the Minnesota backfield. It was a dangerous block to use in my opinion and it was safe enough if you had the good fortune and the strength to end up on all fours. This was called a roll block. You had to roll under the backfield and that had a devastating effect on the runner, you see. It trips him right at the ankles. The interchangeable nature of football terms and positions from that era can also lead to confusion. What did Trice, Schmidt, and Behm mean by “interference?” John Wilce, who’d coached Ohio State when Willaman played there, wrote this in 1923: Many people do not seem to understand the term ‘interference.’ Interference simply means blocking by players immediately in front of the runner. […] The man with the ball is usually close behind his interference. [...] The roll block by one player followed by a similar block by another, the break block, the combination hard-shoulder block, and the running side-body block are most commonly used by interferers.99John Wilce, Football: How To Play It And Understand It By that definition, which comes from a coach who taught Trice’s coach, interference and the roll block are strictly offensive terms, similar to lead blocking by a modern fullback. But Trice’s letter leads you to believe he considered the roll block a two-way term or perhaps a defensive one, since he mentioned it right after describing his need to be vigilant “on all defensive plays.” So were the initial reports right? Or were the later recollections right? Are Jack’s letter and these football terms helpful in reconstructing the scene? Does Jack’s letter even need to be injected into what happened against Minnesota? And since the most popular version of the story is at odds with reports written by witnesses, what else don’t we know about the play that killed Trice? One would think all these differing accounts, even within the week after the game, would help warrant an investigation. But the day after his death, his school declined a request to investigate. That request came from the head of Minnesota’s conference. John L. Griffith, Commissioner of Athletics for the Intercollegiate Conference, sent a message to [ISU] officials: ‘Associated Press Dispatch from Ames states that your boy died from injuries received when most of the Minnesota line piled on top of him in an off tackle play. Would you care to issue as to whether or not injuries were result of unfair plays?’ An [ISU] official replied to Griffith the same day, stating, ‘Willaman and the men under him advised me that they did not discern any special massing on Jack Trice. He was an exceptional player and of course made trouble for the Minnesota team.’1010Dorothy Schwieder, The Life and Legacy of Jack Trice That response arrived in a letter with no name or signature. Two weeks later, October 24, Iowa State dean S.W. Beyer sent Griffith a curious note. Inasmuch as Mr. Trice was a colored man it is easy for people to assume that his opponents must have deliberately attempted to injure him. In my experience where colored boys had participated in athletic contests I have seen very little to indicate that their white opponents had any disposition to foul them.1111Jaime Schultz, Moments of Impact: Injury, Racialized Memory, and Reconciliation in College Football The lack of official investigation is why we will never know exactly what happened on the play that cost Trice’s life. In general, everyone has since gotten the benefit of the doubt. Ten days after Trice’s death, Minnesota’s president Lotus Coffman sent a letter to Iowa State’s president, offering condolences and saying the play happened directly in front of him. “It seemed to me that he threw himself in front of the play on the opposite side of the line,” Coffman wrote. “There was no piling up." It’s also worth noting Coffman would later ardently defend segregation in campus living at Minnesota, writing Black people desired it: The good sense and sound judgment of the colored students and their parents with regard to this matter has been a source of constant gratification. The races have never lived together nor have they ever sought to live together.1212Minnesota Star-Tribune, September 2017 It is not hard to suppose Coffman wanted to just move on. And any school would have motivation to avoid dwelling on it. Who knows what else an inquiry might have dredged up? Many players died in those days, but if conclusive evidence emerged that a player had been killed with intent, it could have started a second great referendum on the sport, 18 years after Roosevelt put his foot down. The theory of Trice’s self-prophesied roll block leads to a confident conclusion that the whole thing was just an accident. This is the result of a century-long game of telephone. If he screwed up a maneuver and got stepped on, then oh shucks, it’s just a darn shame. It also boosts the poignancy of his letter, creating an eerie prescience. And it could have been an accident. But it also could have been murder. It is not far-fetched to believe the only Black player on a field in 1923 was targeted. According to many reports, Minnesota players deliberately injured Iowa’s Ozzie Simmons 11 years later. They knocked him unconscious as many as three times, forcing him to leave the game by halftime.1313Jaime Schultz, Moments of Impact: Injury, Racialized Memory, and Reconciliation in College Football "[Simmons] took quite a lot of physical abuse around the Big Ten because he was Black," said former Iowa sports information director George Wine.1414Chicago Tribune, October 2001 In 1935, Iowa governor Clyde Herring told reporters that the rematch might get out of hand.1515SB Nation, October 2017 “Those Minnesotans will find 10 other top-notch football players besides ‘Oze’ Simmons against them this year. Moreover, if the officials stand for any rough tactics like Minnesota used last year, I'm sure the crowd won't," Herring said.1616Minneapolis Tribune, November 1935; Minnesota’s governor would respond by attempting to cool tensions (and missing the point). He bet Iowa a prize hog. This would later evolve into the bronze Floyd of Rosedale trophy, which the two teams still play for. Simmons would tell a Minnesota newspaper in 1988: “I really had the feeling they were after me because I was good. Oh, I think me being Black added a little oomph to it.” Simmons, like Trice, was a talented player, naturally a focal point for any opponent. So the lines of guilt blur when you try to discern whether the Gophers targeted Simmons because he was talented, because he was Black, or both. At least Simmons lived to tell his side of the story. Wanna know what I think? Forget about the damn letter for a second. Laud it as a beautiful note about what he felt he was up against, but set it aside instead of grafting it onto the facts. We know four of the earliest reports have a consistent version of events, three of them published the day after the game. We don’t know whether Trice was attempting an especially dangerous technique or not, although if you want to theorize he tried a roll block, then perhaps he was engaged with a defensive player and realized the play was particularly screwed, so he chose to “roll block the interference,” which might have played out like a modern-day cut block. And we don’t know why or how key details of the narrative shifted to a certain consensus. The attempt to figure out what happened to Trice is not about trying to find whitey guilty. A probe would have likely reached an inconclusive end, according to a former Iowa State professor who spent years lobbying the school to name the stadium after Trice. "Well, if I were prosecuting the case," Charles Sohn told the Kansas City Star in 2004, "I suppose the best I could get out of it was manslaughter. I don't think there was an attempt to murder. I think there was an attempt to injure." But the clearest failure is this: Trice’s institution didn’t attempt to dig for answers. Members of the Minnesota team were reportedly “grief-stricken” by Trice’s death. And their head coach said, “I don’t know hardly what to say. He was a wonderful player. It doesn’t seem possible. It is something I wouldn’t have had happen for anything.”1717Minnesota Journal, October 1923 Without details, we can neither hold Minnesota culpable nor exonerate anyone. If Minnesota’s players were innocent, then they deserved an investigation that could’ve made that clear. The fact foul play apparently wasn’t evident to Williaman or Coffman doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. After Trice died, Iowa State immediately canceled football practice and took a half day to allow mourning. Four thousand students attended the funeral. The Behm brothers and Schmidt were among his pallbearers. The school president read Trice’s pregame letter aloud. Cora Mae and Anna accompanied Jack’s body home to be buried next to Green. Anna later wrote to Iowa State’s then-president that Jack “was all I had and I am old and alone. The future is dreary and lonesome.”1818Anna Trice letter In some ways, Iowa State publicly did right by Trice. The school collected money to pay for funeral expenses and help Trice’s mother pay off her mortgage. In private, however, Iowa State reminded us of Jack’s place in the world, whether dead or alive. Two days after Trice died, Beyer, considered the godfather of athletics at Iowa State, received a telegram from Missouri athletic director C.L. Brewer, an old friend, about the upcoming Saturday’s game in Columbia: We understand from newspaper reports that you have a colored man playing with your football squad this Fall. I am quite sure, Professor Beyer, you know conditions here, and know it is impossible for a colored man to play or even appear on the field with any team. This has been discussed in the Missouri Valley for a good many years and I know that you understand the tradition that a colored man cannot come here. This whole question is bigger than our athletics and there is no alternative for us other than to say that we cannot permit a colored man on any team that we play. The Iowa State admin responded: We had no intention of using Jack Trice in the game with you. However that is all settled because Jack's injury resulted in his death Monday afternoon. I am handing you herewith copy of letter Jack wrote the day before the game. From the letter one would not help feel that Jack must have had premonition of what actually happened. A year later, Iowa State put a plaque on its gym, an abridged version of Trice’s letter. And then Jack Trice began to fade from memory. Until 1957, when sophomore Tom Emmerson came across the plaque while working on a project for class credit. He might have been the first in a while who was moved enough to research why it was there. He’d been wandering around the gym while waiting for a meeting with a school employee. “Then I went into Harry Schmidt’s office and said ‘Harry, what about that?’” Emmerson told me. “And he said, ‘You don’t know about Jack Trice?’ And it turned out that Harry was on the team in 1923, and he told me the story from personal memory. I then went directly to the library to look it up, and to tell you the truth, I just copied a lot of stuff from articles in the library.” He ended up writing a school magazine article. When asked what happened next, Emmerson said flatly: “nothing” … until Iowa State began building a new football stadium in the 1970s. By that time, student activism was en vogue amid the Vietnam War. Professor Sohn was having a small group discussion with some English students. He shared Trice’s story. The class took up some research projects about Trice’s life, and Emmerson’s story re-surfaced in their findings. Someone suggested naming the stadium for Trice. Even after the class ended in 1974, the stadium idea had taken hold. It’s impressive how hard Iowa State’s students worked to keep it alive. There were over two dozen related stories, editorials, or cartoons in Iowa State’s student paper from ’74 onward, which doesn’t include stories in other papers like the Des Moines Register. Students petitioned. Iowa State’s student government was unanimous in favor. Students would graduate, and others would take up the cause. But Iowa State was still holding out for a big-money donor to essentially buy the stadium’s name. The money never came, and the students never shut up, not even after Iowa State tried to “cut the baby in half,” as a Newsweek article put it, by naming it “Cyclone Stadium/Jack Trice Field” in 1983. Students argued people would default to just calling it Cyclone Stadium. Students also pushed to get a Trice statue on campus. Multiple organizations said no, including the alumni association, because “people thought it was too political,” according to a former ISU student body president.1919Dorothy Schwieder, The Life and Legacy of Jack Trice Iowa State’s student government unanimously allocated $22,000 of student fees and commissioned the statue, which featured Trice reading his famous letter. It went up in 1988 outside a building named in 1966 for George Washington Carver. What gave the stadium movement its final win was, indirectly, Iowa State naming a building for alumna Carrie Chapman Catt in 1995. She’d been important to the woman’s suffrage movement, but once wrote white supremacy "will be strengthened, not weakened” by that movement. Her backers argued it was taken out of context, but she also spoke of Indigenous people as savages and said uneducated immigrants shouldn’t have the right to vote. Honoring her caused protests on campus, including one student going on a hunger strike in 1996. While all of this was going on, an ISU advisory committee for the naming of buildings recommended in late 1996 the change to the football stadium’s name. In February 1997, Trice became the sole namesake. Administrators objected to speculation that the renaming was a strategic maneuver [to counter Catt Hall protests] as opposed to their acquiescence to student requests or an abiding desire to honor Trice. ‘The name change recommendation was based on its own merits,’ protested university spokesman John Anderson. ‘It’s an idea that’s been around a long time.’2020Jaime Schultz, Moments of Impact: Injury, Racialized Memory, and Reconciliation in College Football But it had only been around for a long time because Iowa State’s leadership hadn’t acted. The school’s president Martin Jischke had been around since 1991. “If Jischke had responded earlier, in a more positive way to Jack Trice, he would have had a great win,” Emmerson said. “He would have had ammunition when it came around to Carrie Chapman Catt. He could have said ‘wait a minute, we named the stadium after Jack Trice; we’re not racist.’” For buttoned-up administrators, the unchallenged narrative of Trice’s life was free of anything likely to make overly sensitive white people too uneasy, and still they delayed for decades. For mobilized college students, his short story had a tragic hero and cause for genuine concern, so they fought for him. “I was really surprised actually, when it kept being an issue after it was named Cyclone Stadium/Jack Trice Field,” Alma Gaul, an editor of the student newspaper in the 1970s, told me. “I just figured that was the end of it. We’d got something here. We got the Jack Trice Field. And the fact that, in 1997, they reversed their decision and made it Jack Trice Stadium—even today when I read the sports section and I read ‘Jack Trice Stadium,’ I just shake my head and smile. I can’t believe it actually happened.” Jack Trice Stadium remains the only FBS stadium named after a Black man. Part of his legacy is this: More than a century after he died, activists across the country are fighting the same fight Iowa State’s students did. The naming of streets, buildings, and statues is about what we wish to glorify as a society. It is a front-facing display of our values. That weight demands constantly measuring those values. But change is never easy, particularly when racism is built so firmly into the foundation of the United States and its declared heroes. Trice is a hero, a man who broke a barrier, but everything that’s happened since he died has way more to do with us than him. Those who knew him describe him as shy and quiet. One teammate said, “Jack appreciated his status. Generally, he spoke only when spoken to,” and another said, “He kept his place.”2121Dorothy Schwieder, The Life and Legacy of Jack Trice He’s inoffensive and two-dimensional because we don’t know all that much about him. In many ways, Trice was an easy Black man for white people to rally around. For white audiences, a docile Black man is a palatable Black man. The Jack Trice of 1923 is forever preserved in that state. We’ll never know exactly what led to Trice’s death two days after the first real game of his college football career. When facts are scarce, all we have are versions of a legend. ___ Excerpted from The Sinful Seven: Sci-fi Western Legends of the NCAA, an ebook about how college sports came to look the way they do today, with non-fiction stories and fiction tales that <shh> tell their own truths about how the NCAA operates, by Spencer Hall, Richard Johnson, Jason Kirk, Alex Kirshner, and Tyson Whiting. You can preorder the ebook here for a minimum of 99 cents (or whatever you want to pay), with 20 percent of those profits going to Feeding America, the nationwide food bank network. It comes out August 1.
‘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.
Bugsy

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.
‘Misremembering is Productive’: An Interview with Harry Dodge

The author of My Meteorite on interconnectedness, chaos, and a sense of magic.

There’s a theory in quantum physics that two particles can affect one another no matter what distance you put between them. This is referred to as entanglement, or what Albert Einstein once dismissed as “spooky action at a distance.” Though we can’t see the mysterious links, parallel dimensions and communication channels, that interconnectedness extends beyond the quantum realm. The proof is in the little particles that have recently forced us into a collective stillness, maintaining a safe distance between ourselves. In his new memoir, My Meteorite, Or Without the Random There Can be No New Thing (Penguin Books), multidisciplinary artist Harry Dodge explores the tiny links that influence the rhythm of our lives. Here, the connections are built around the ways we cull meaning from repetitions and coincidences. But the book’s catalyst is randomness—the way we’re initially shielded from the attachments, completely awestruck by the universe before we start to reason it. I talked to Dodge just before California instituted a lockdown in March. We discussed his book, but also how this pandemic has drawn attention to our interconnectedness. Sara Black McCulloch: I wanted to start by talking about memory and forgetting, especially how they play out in the book. Memory isn’t stable, and when people remember something, it’s reactivated in many ways. How does that tie in with virtual reality? Harry Dodge: Historically, whenever anyone has announced to me, “Hey, the work is about memory,” it would put me off—ugh—like everything is going to be sepia-toned photos on cross-dissolve, you know. But I read some science writing on memory and consciousness a couple years ago and that was when I started to think about it differently, as biological, as constitutive of intelligence, all that. Everything we know and do—even, or especially, our intelligence—is built on memory and recall. Mental and physical habits both qualify as memory—walking, putting on a pair of pants, all that. Identity, who we understand ourselves to be, is obviously built from things we remember consciously or unconsciously. When my dad got sick, his memory was in decline, I was surprised and fascinated by the deterioration. I don’t know what I expected, something purely physical I guess, some faltering with speech, or inability to walk, but the manifestation of the illness—the part I could see—was this ghostiness behind the eyes, his selfhood, was, in my estimation, more diaphanous, if you know what I mean. I started thinking about the nature of the relationship between one’s memory and one’s ability to feel and/or project a sense of self.  Simultaneously, I was reading on matter, materiality and interconnectedness, quantum particles, and trying to think through this concept of the plural subject, the idea that we’re more permeable than we know and are formed by pressures we can’t even imagine, a plurality of forming forces. I wondered if this biding theoretical interest—the “melty self,” as it were—could map onto observations I was making about my dad. There’s that. But maybe you’re talking about something else, this weird way that misremembering is productive? The text certainly revolves around the idea of misremembering and the idea that that is generative. And there is the hovering related question of what exactly constitutes reality—is it something material, mental (virtual), or several things at once. I’m really interested in mental worlds and the imaginary—and the question of how, qualitatively, that can rhyme with, more or less, this idea of a virtual world. Your sculpture focuses on how we pair words with the use of an object, and if someone no longer has the ability to recall that function breaks down. So if I have a broom that is normally used for sweeping, and I can no longer remember that, then now this object has lost that intended use for me. That opens up a new realm of possibilities. Yes! There's a kind of surreality provoked in some of the sculptures, perhaps caused by a kind of refusal of the original purpose. You know, many years ago, someone said to me, “your work looks figurative, but it's actually really abstract.” Right? I try to defamiliarize objects—which suggests they were familiar in the first place. I am not what you call me. And my sculpture definitely does that—if it's functioning the way I want it to. Though the familiar, or nameable, is less and less a part of the set of terms that comprise my sculpture, it still occurs; I take bits of lumber or buckets especially or other planes, scrap wood, and kind of smash them into the space of strangeness. And, you know, a mode of defamiliarization in order to puncture holes into the banal is definitely important to me, though I think I handle it really differently in the book. The book, as I'm sure you noticed, once in a while, ascends into a poetic space, becomes poetic. (And by poetic I mean something so specific that it is still moving and therefore uncaught, or untamed.) The book is a long sculpture and, as such, builds on itself. There's a bunch of objects and fragments and pieces laid end to end. The book isn’t excerptable, it’s not a memoir, there are no slices that function as representative of the whole, one must read it all if one wants to experience the project. Things—by which I mean themes or say structural forms or word play—are repeated, slightly off-register, and they land in piles, eventually generate shapes like temporal diagrams of chaos almost repeat. Aperiodicity. (I have also, alternately, referred to the structure of the book as a fugue, a musical term describing a composition that adds novel maneuvers section-by-section, and—bit by bit—abandons phrases.) So the end song is a different song than the one we began, but there are connecting rods, linkages, segues and those obviously vary. The idea that there's something unspoken and unwritten starts to resonate: the figure emerges, but as anti-matter, this content I'm trying to evoke. Prose is a tool defined almost exclusively by an expectation of legibility. And I’m into that, but I’m also interested in one-to-oneness in an experience of language, prosody, poetics, specificity, unmastery and defamiliarization, like some 3-D sculpture, or a poem. It happens a lot faster in a sculpture, obviously, a viewer is like, “I know what that is—a bucket, and then the longer they stand there, maybe a minute and a half, it stops being a bucket. Now it has dimension, color, it’s no longer a bucket, it’s this weird thing. The comfort of mastery—this experience we crave—is only unmade at length...or reconfigured. Touching on that: no defined chronology in the book either, but a repetition of scenes. Is that right to say? Does that help us build into it? Because I think there's a lot more of an emotional register to these scenes the more we come back to them. Was that intentional?  I have some favourite colours, in sculpture, for example—I use red, orange, yellow, and black a lot, gray too. If I bring in a colour, like blue or green, it's for a reason, an accent, some percussive conceptual messaging, a divider. And I also have emotional modalities, things I deploy again and again, in my videos, the time-based work. I am aware that those modes have been employed in the book too! I often open with something disorienting, a kind of survey—in media res, jumping into this weird spot. Hopefully you're drawn in by something, a kind of allure, you know, whether it's sentence structure or some image, and then you sort of read on into things that are sad or funny. Or gripping somehow. I think as a reader spends time with the work, trust builds, the idea is that a reader will allow the text to bring them into a very deep emotional place. The refrains help with that. I think they convey a sense of artistic intent. [Laughs] I don't ever want to get operatic or melodramatic or anything. I’m trying to let the reader, you know, find the emotional pockets—understated, unexpected and powerful. A kind of surprise, “Oh, for some reason that just killed me.” I'm into giving people space, whether I’m teaching, or parenting, or making art, you know. I’m trying to bring people to very deep places but with a light hand. From my understanding, you were working on User while you were writing the book, and there’s a short film in the exhibit called “Late Heavy Bombardment.” I watched it after reading the book and I don't know if I'm reading into this, but a lot of the things that you touched on in My Meteorite — transhumanism, AI and cyborgs — come up in both the book and the film.  Were they influencing each other?   When I'm making artwork, I am trying to—whether it's a book or a movie—I'm trying to find something hot inside myself, these pockets of interest, places where it's hot, you know, like a fever of sadness, or a fever of confusion. I believe in hanging around with confusion. Any sort of cognitive dissonance, apparent paradoxes in my thinking, are always great places to burrow into, for example. I just try to find those pockets and write from them, make from them no matter what I’m making. I think I was still finishing My Meteorite when I went to write this little short video last spring. It’s a great short animation with all these 3-D virtual characters in this lecture room trying to figure stuff out, share tips on bullying or whatever. So of course, while writing the script for this, all of these things are still hot for me and they're still on my mind, and they're still things that I'm wrestling with. Absolutely. And I'm glad that that's legible and it's because I'm telling the truth about my interests, my bewilderment; I’m scraping up or manifesting real-life thought processes, problems I’m working on. Trying to make meaning. As I see it, I’m lifting figures from the primal ooze. I always think that good artwork comes from that kind of hot confusion. [Laughs]  Hence the volcano at the end of the short film. Yeah, exactly! Now we're in that volcano, we’re clinging to the side of the cone! [Laughs] The volcano at the end of that was symbolic of, like, the stress-testing of democracy, one, and climate change, two. I mean, right now, this pandemic, we’re at the beginning of it, it’s awful. Sad—should have been dealt with better. But also here we are again needing to balance our desire for safety with a preservation of our civil rights, and by that I’m talking about deep extreme surveillance, apps on phones that take our biological stats on the hour, track our whereabouts. Stuff like this is always a trade-off; we want measures to be temporary and they might turn out to be, but note that authoritarian regimes have plans ready for just such times and are all too happy to pull the trigger on some mind-shattering executive powers. Not to be a downer. Also Trump’s obviously planning on revving up hate and scapegoating—repurposing fear to amplify dischord. That's a big problem.  Yeah. And it's still weird to me, that Bernie Sanders’s idea of universal health care, especially in a pandemic, is still being referred to as something radical, as opposed to something necessary. Yeah, I mean, you know, it's kind of crazy, but these ideas are flexible, and subject to transformation just by force of labeling or contextualization. Lamar Alexander blocked a bill suggesting taxpayers should pay furloughed workers, not the private sector, which may or may not be a good point, but what is that? Socialism. Not a stereotypically GOP modality. I’m into one-for-all. There needs to be more socialization, obviously, which is partially what the book is about: interconnectedness. We’ve got this sudden clear feeling of it, as we apprehend that a particle has travelled around the globe in a few months, the magnitude of the spread is overwhelming. And there’s aspects: some are affirmative like emergence and creativity, but also the awesome, sort of sublime part, which is our shared vulnerability. Navigating our vulnerability, our porousness, or “impressionability” is what gives life meaning—it’s some essential component from which a sense of meaning issues. Were you ever tempted to write My Meteorite from a different point of view? When I was writing My Meteorite, no, I mean, it was not something that I was tempted to do. The first person was enough! But moving forward yes. I am writing a book now where there are a few different characters, like a poetic short fiction.  I just read Olivia Laing’s Crudo this summer, and it blew me away. I just loved the way she lightly pretended the whole time—the character of the author—that she was Kathy Acker. Have you read that book? Someone actually recommended it to me earlier this week. It blew my mind off! She also kind of flips from the first person to the third person really quickly—in one sentence sometimes!—it's super awkward on page one, but by the time it’s page two or three, turns out it’s a super beautiful magic trick. I’m very inspired by the way she flouts convention in the most unassuming way in the course of that short novel.  Were you trying to challenge your reader in a similar way? Your book doesn't have a set chronology and we're used to that in a book, right? Were you ever also thinking about how readers interact with books and their expectations? I was saying to people, “I'm pretending to write a book,” which meant that I was taking notes on experiences through 2016 around the time my dad decided to move to California. I started writing in earnest at the moment he died. I understand the chronology of the book to be that 2016 and 2017 are intercut and generally in a forward progression, so my dad dies at the beginning and also at the end. I think that if the book is at all legible and easy to read, it's because there are a few stories, if you could say such a thing, that progress in linear fashion, which maybe is how most of us experience time. I don’t know. [Laughs]. I was trying to write something I would like to read and I don’t enjoy things that are straightforward really at all. I suppose I expect my readers to want the same thing: space to think in, a lot to think about, you know, fodder. Have you ever watched True Detective? Matthew McConaughey’s character says that “time is a flat circle.” [Laughs] Exactly—a flat circle. Not a linear progression, some kind of pooling of time, or sedimentary situation, and the book is about that, how we’re always deploying things we’ve learned, the past arrives into the present, constitutes it; deforms it, pluralizes it. Also there's these other things in the book, slipped in, that are out of time, that punctuate, for sure—things I always think of as “ugly legs.” They kind of hang off. And to tell you the truth, I didn't worry too much about that, it's just the way my brain works. Writing, finding form, there was something sculptural, about dimension, and motifs. That did seem like it was going to make the book better and more interesting, not necessarily super complex, more just a book I would like to read. We adapt. I think we underestimate how much we can adapt. We're not as hardwired or stubborn as we think. We're not that stubborn! A book teaches us how to read it and, you know, I believe in that. I trust the reader. I try to give people a reason to stay with any work of art that I offer. I'm a social being, my strategies oscillate between disorientation and familiarity or comfort, and I think of it as social—all the work I do. I’m interested in how you title your work because, with a book especially, it’s your first encounter, that’s not the right word—it can be a guiding principle sometimes? How does that come about? Is that something that you have in your mind? Or are you avoiding it until you’re finished writing? When I make a body of work, say sculpture and video, I'm usually reading a lot of theory and thinking about a lot of philosophy and even if the sculptures aren't diagrams or even rhyming structural messaging systems, and usually they’re not, I was still thinking about something when I made each one. So when I finish a body of work, I will sit for two or three or four days and do all the titles at once. And those range from weird theoretical allusions to low brow — I can't think of the word —cuss words just kind of staccato things. All the titles in the show taken together will also make a kind of text or texture. While writing My Meteorite, a lot of titles were coming to mind and they showed up at the beginning of the document. Sometimes there were up to 10 or 11 of them honestly. And so, as the first draft was winding down, I started to pare them down, canvassed a few people. Initially, I thought that My Meteorite was maybe too simple a title for me but it stuck. Working title during the intial draft was Without the Random There Can be No New Thing, a Gregory Bateson quotation by the way, and of course that was eventually relegated to subtitle. The short title, it can be thrown around, you know, like, “Have you read My Meteorite?” [Laughs] rather than this complicated mouthful. So again, something more legible and palpable, paired with something that's a bit more abstract.  Throughout the book, there is magic in randomness, more specifically coincidences. Science works to dispel that magic; to explain it with logic. We're humans, so we seek out patterns, and not randomness. And that kind of takes the magic, I would say, from coincidences. What is your relationship to coincidences now? [Laughs] Science can be a bummer sometimes? Yeah. You know, in the book I was trying to evoke in readers a sense of the magic, of these natural constants even, the habits of matter—matter has stuff it likes to do! Amazing. I mean, if you've ever seen a documentary about gravity or the magnetic field that surrounds the earth, who cares if it’s measurable or knowable. It's still crazy. It's mind boggling. “Marvel” and “what is scientifically knowable” are not mutually exclusive. I wanted to crack that open, you know, re-enchant the material world, not necessarily peel away the magical from the palpable, but to just sort of like, smash open a sense of astonishment in the everyday.  But there are these words that circulate in the book: this idea of the random, which could create a new thing versus this idea of pattern. The patterns, I write, are postulated to be the results of the habits of matter, which if they are absolute, would suggest a kind of predetermined—if unimaginably complex—world, and this scenario also sort of precludes free will. Right? It would mean that humans are just bags of vital particles and the particles have their own agenda. Philosophically this also does away with ethics and on and on, it’s pretty extreme. There’s a lot there let’s say. Too much for an interview like this. Some people think the book is a pro-randomness manifesto [laughs] but I don't feel that I've come down on one side or the other. Although I am pretty convinced by Bateson’s idea of the stochastic processes. He wrote that he thinks there are nonrandom elements that preserve this or that random event or flow. And according to him the dynamic is relevant not only to like genetic variation, but also macro-things like learning. Secretly just between you and I—I do feel that these natural habits of matter are more in charge than anybody is comfortable believing.  I mean we’re freaked out by our own replacements and we made them—uncanny valley? It’s bizarre because it’s not quite right but it’s also too on the nose. And I think that in some ways, children do notice a lot of things in the world that we grow out of as adults. I'm really interested in amazement, this idea of marvelling. I reject the notion of a direct correlation between knowledge and mundanity. Édouard Glissant wrote, you know, that though we can't know everything it would be foolish not to try to know and that there's a kind of poetics—like a feverish poetics—we practice that is actually that, striking out into the unknown trying feverishly to know.  When you were writing the book, because you do talk about events in your life, were you at all worried about the truth, or skewing it a little bit to test those theories out? Yeah, that was part of what I was doing. I'm aware that by all of these framing devices and word choices, juxtapositions, that I'm constructing something. And so there is an adjacency or a proximity or a rhyming with my life, rather than some presentation of facts, facticity—that was something I intoned—some broth I sipped while writing—but I wasn’t fretting about it, no. I was interested in being just a little surreal, which was why I didn't look consult the internet continually, and part of why I sometimes paraphrase or misquote this or that. The fact checkers—God bless them!—they would find things and query me, “You know, that wasn't really how many rings the tree had—the oldest tree in the world.” Because I well, yeah, I know, I’m doing this from memory. That was important to me, the fecundity of imagination. I didn't go back to look at the article I read about the guy cutting down the oldest tree in the world. I thought I was writing fiction, and just using the details of my life as ready spirited fodder. [Laughs] There were definitely a few things I corrected. And there were a couple things I didn't correct because the book is obviously about the misremembered sculpture, the rippling maw of possibility related to the figure of the birth mother. I just was trying to make a little space for this idea of the virtual, to try to tease some thoughts out about the virtual. You also unpack quite a bit of Blade Runner 2049 at the end of the book. I don’t want to give the ending of the book away, but with the movie, everyone went into it expecting some questions would be answered, but that doesn’t happen. It left us asking more questions. I wanted to know what you thought about legacy and how that connects to lineage. I was really moved by Agent K’s sudden strong desire to be Deckard’s son. He was like, “Oh my God. I'm actually born and you're actually…” you know, he went there! You’re kind of rooting for him, Yeah, it is true! You were born and you’re real! [Laughs] And so we felt awful when the facts started to bear out other realities, the fantasy started to fade...I write this all out in the book, but I did find it very moving. Watching this intense psychic world rev up, you know, once it was launched in his head, Agent K, he was like, “You’re my dad,” and he felt it, and after that, well, facts on the ground didn’t matter much. Love had happened and you know, the changes it wrought in him were unretractable. He was like, “Well I felt it man, and it filled me up for good.” In what way?  Experiencing the joy of belonging, even if it’s illusory—or was it love. Even misapprehensions change things, have effects. I find that so fascinating. The idea is that this love—it budded in him, right? and regardless of facts on the ground, this love—the effects of it, the joy?—were already in motion, were not particularly flimsy or quenchable. My Meteorite is, in large part, a meditation on love, this thing that draws us into relation, and it’s about interconnectedness. In the book I’m puzzling through all manner of connection: touch; the fabric made by discourse; genetic linkages that evolve over decades without regard to time and space; in-person meetings which are constituted by the amplitude of risk; family bonds constituted by repetition, time and attention; the incredible remote connectedness of quantum fields which also do not heed the logics of the local; and even reverberating gravitational waves—centuries old—made by black holes colliding. It’s wild to be talking to you at the front end of this big, awful pandemic: a world in which everyone is suddenly flung into hyperawareness of how interconnected we are. A virus spread by touch, creature to creature, over the globe in a few months is breath-taking, because we can comprehend some part of it, the durational aspect of it, and the figure—a sometimes lethal virus—is frightening. I’m trying to put together thoughts right now, but it’s just so odd the way we want (and need) to disconnect physically but it’s also a kind of grand experiment in socializing remotely, by screen.  For the technoparanoid, I think we’re going to be surprised at what’s possible. And, aside from the obvious, and though most of the results of this—economically-speaking—are a hazard for anyone living paycheck to paycheck, you know, something about the manifest failures might work as negative space around modalities that are promising for the future. Certain images cannot be unseen. Which is to say that we might batter open some new doors of relation, we might learn something amazing about what matters in our relationships, in the conveyance of our relationships, by this awful dress rehearsal and that is a hopeful tendril I’m trying to hang onto. There are choices about how to respond to the fact of interconnectedness, there are lots of ways to go, shame is one place to land, or fear, but balancing that with courage and service and the ecstasy of permeability is another—as is finding the affirmative possibilities of our bodies and our world as interdependent and co-constituting.
‘A Little More Like a Career and Less Like a Stunt’: An Interview with Robert Kolker

The author of Hidden Valley Road on true crime reporting, family secrets, and finding stories. 

Robert Kolker's first book, Lost Girls, is a heartbreaking and methodical account of women whose bodies were found on an isolated Long Island beach. It's a true-crime book, but one where the violence is not the point. There is a tremendous amount of heart in Kolker’s writing and reporting: he makes you care about the people whose lives are destroyed by violence. In his new book, Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family (Random House Canada), Kolker takes on a difficult subject and once again infuses it with heart and analyzes it with his characteristic perspicuity. The book revolves around the Galvin family of Colorado. Don Galvin, a rising star in the Air Force, and his wife, Mimi, a dedicated homemaker, had twelve children starting in 1945. Then, tragedy began to dismember the Galvin family, and six of the Galvins's sons were diagnosed with schizophrenia. The compassion Kolker brought to Lost Girls is also evident here, now an Oprah's Book Club pick, which is a penetrating story about how mental illness affects families.  Lisa Levy: The book is fantastic. What's happening with the book is fantastic. You must be over the moon. Robert Kolker: I am, it's really mind-blowing, and especially great for the family, who put themselves on the line by going public this way. To get this kind of response is a wonderful thing for them as well, so I'm really happy for them.  How many of the kids are still around?  There are nine living siblings, three of whom are mentally ill. The other six are all involved in the book. This wasn’t my first question but it seems natural to ask now. How did you convince them to do the book?  Well, the sisters were ready. They had been talking for decades about the best way to let the world know about their family, and they were also curious about any sort of scientific contributions the family could make. Finally, they decided to ask an outsider to come in and report on it independently. By the time they called me, they were energized and excited to be talking to me, and so there was this funny disconnect in that first conversation where they were talking about these horrible, horrible things that had happened to them and to their entire family over many, many decades and yet, they were so pleased to be talking about it at all. It just seemed curious to me. I was like, wow this is such a sad story and they are so happy to be talking about it. You must have had that feeling a little bit with Lost Girls. Some of those families also seemed like they were on a crusade to get the story out.  That’s true. In Lost Girls, the families had a lot of fatigue from media attention by the time I was working on the book, and they did not necessarily see the value in a book. It was me saying it's worth it for the world to get to know your lost loved ones in a way that's more detailed and more realistic than what's out there already. It took a lot of pushing on my part and a great leap of faith by all of them. But in this case, the family was really ready from the very beginning and it was I who had to try to get my arms around the story and understand exactly what it was and how to tell it. Well, let's talk about that a little bit. How did you meet them? How did you come to the story? Lindsey, the youngest of the 12 siblings, went to high school with an old friend of mine who edited me at New York Magazine for 10 years. His name is Jon Gluck. And among many other stories we worked on together, we worked on the story that was expanded into Lost Girls, so he understood that I had a lot of experience writing about people in crisis, people facing adversity, people who had been through difficult situations. So, when Lindsey contacted him in 2015, she said that she and her sister had been talking for years about this, that now they thought it best to ask a journalist to work independently and take the story wherever it went. He thought of me and thought I would be a good match, and so he connected us by email. I took it from there. Were you looking for another book or did this come along and you said, I have to do this? I was very much looking for another book, but I also was very happily fully employed at the time at Bloomberg Businessweek as an investigative reporter. When I first got to know the Galvins my thought was, well, obviously, I wanted to write more books one day. Nothing happens overnight with books, so why not take this very, very slowly, get on the phone with everybody in the family over a number of weeks just to make sure that people were as enthusiastic about this as the two sisters were, because there are medical privacy laws in America and all it would take is one family member to stand up and push back and suddenly it would be less feasible. It only takes one person to yell HIPPA [the primary medical privacy act in the US]. Exactly, right. I was very skeptical, but at the same time, I knew that it's a slow-burner, these book projects. So why not give it a shot? I was amazed and pleased to see how enthusiastic they were about talking to me. Others were ready to do it because they respected the sisters’ wishes and believe the sisters had really been through some of the worst of it and deserved to have their story told. And Mimi was on board, which was a bigger deal than I realized at the time. She was very pleased to be speaking with me, but I learned later that she was not always interested in a book or public attention, and so it was a relatively new thing for her to be into it, so it was good timing, that way too. Well, she's a fascinating character. Over the course of the book, she's more and more willing to talk to people and accept help. At first, she definitely feels like a very closed ranks, family business kind of person, but as things sort of disintegrate, she realizes that she needs help. Exactly. The best way I think I can put it is that the children's view of both their parents changed over time and so does the book’s. Readers may feel one way about Mimi in part one and start to feel a different way about her in part two.  She reminded me of my grandmother and that generation. Something like mental illness is not something you were going to talk to even your friends about.  She reminded me of my grandmother too, in that she always had a sunny disposition and was not necessarily interested in talking about unpleasant subjects and had become very good at deflecting unpleasant subjects. That much they shared for sure. How long did you work on the book? About two and a half years, but you could add an additional year of really going full-time on conversations and meetings with the Galvins before I came up with the book proposal. By the time I started I was really up and running because I had a whole year of prep work beforehand. Was this easier because you had done Lost Girls and you were used to this sort of blanket reporting, where you had to keep a lot of narratives in your head at the same time?  It was a little easier. I definitely still had huge dead ends and weird conundrums I had to deal with where I would sit there and go, now what? Or, how do I handle this? But the big way that it was different is my attitude. Lost Girls was my first book, so I had all kinds of stress and impostor syndrome and doubt and self-doubt. And because of that I kept a lot of the work to myself and didn't really share bits and pieces of it with friends. I just tried to keep a happy face on while, privately, I was really sweating it. I decided this time that I was going to take really active steps to have a life while I worked on it. I said to myself that if I'm going to write more books in my career, they can't all be these soul-crushing seismic difficult events. It should be a little bit more like a career and less like a stunt.  Jumping from one trauma into another. Right. I created some balance. I shared large parts of the book with lots of friends, and I took a cooking class and because I was at home all the time, it was the right time for our family to get a dog. So we got a dog, and that was life changing.  Every writer should have a dog, I think. Exactly. I had never been a dog owner before, so it was all new to me. But just to be able to have a well-rounded life while working on it was important to me. I also should say that there is more hope in this story than there was in Lost Girls, even though it's a terribly dreadful story for the family. There are little bits of hope. I kind of held on to that too as I was working on it.  What were the main things you had to learn so that you could report the book? The book was a really good mix for me of work, the sort of work I had done before, which is talking to vulnerable people about difficult situations they faced, and something entirely new, which was the science of schizophrenia. One reason why I got into this line of work was to learn new things. It was intimidating, but I was really, really excited to have the chance to learn something from scratch, and I really was starting at zero. And I had lots of incorrect notions about it. The biggest misconception I had was that I thought that the drugs that people were using to treat schizophrenia every day were as miraculous as the drugs that treat depression or bipolar disorder. I learned that they really weren't, that they were certainly helping in some ways, but they weren't really working toward a cure and that was a big eye opener for me. Then just being able to look at the science of schizophrenia as a narrative, to see how it changed and evolved in the different debates over the years was really, really a terrific process for me. I really learned a lot. Brain research in particular is fascinating because it's so primitive. They are constantly finding out new things by accident. That’s the way a lot of drugs were developed: it turned out that the drug didn't work for one thing but it worked pretty well for something else. It's like throwing darts blindly and then if you're lucky, something happens that you aren't expecting.  It certainly is like that for a lot of mental illness drugs as well. It was something that was developed for something else. Lost Girls was about abuse and trauma and the things that we take away from our families that are negative. So even though the family is, I think, generally trying to help the brothers who are ill, there's still a stigma attached to what's happening to them. The subject of abuse and childhood trauma is an interesting one for me because I really don't wake up in the morning thinking, “What next story about trauma and abuse should I tell?” It isn't the thing that is driving it for me. And yet, these two books both have it, have a lot of it. Perhaps it's simply because I'm drawn to stories about people facing adversity. It's certainly not out of anything in my life personally that I'm resolving. More families are like that than not. Certainly, that's true. The things I really like to write about best are intimate personal stories. I'm not a pundit and while I've done investigative reporting, it's usually because I'm motivated by the people in it. I'm not an essayist or ideas writer, and I don't do first-person stuff. I really want to do narratives about people so the people are going to be going through something tough and this is as tough as it gets. Yeah, when I was comparing your two books, that's where I landed. I landed on trauma, I landed on marginalized people. The mentally ill are marginalized, much in the way that the women of Lost Girls were, some of whom were probably also mentally ill. I am purely operating out of an established playbook by idols of mine. Alex Kotlowitz or Katherine Boo or Adrian Nicole LeBlanc is amazing. Or David Simon, using these amazing nonfiction narratives that are about marginalized people or people who we might overlook even if they aren't officially marginalized. I'm trying to do what they're doing. Well, you're doing what they're doing. What's interesting is that the writers you just mentioned all have written really incredible books that somehow tell a universal story, even though they’re about marginalized people. And I hope to do that too, for sure. To me, that's one of the things that journalism can do. It can make the world smaller, and help you relate to people who you've never thought you'd have anything in common with. These are some of the amazing things that good non-fiction can do. One of the other similarities I felt in these stories is a lot of them break down to be stories about mothering. I think we both blame and venerate mothers. When people have troubled lives we still look at mothers and think, well, what's going on there?  I was alarmed by that with this book. I was worried because, god knows there are enough family stories out there, fiction and non-fiction, where the mother really takes it on the chin. And I was not interested in that trope. In conversations with all the children, I learned that they were re-evaluating both parents as life went on, and so fixated on that and decided to make that a big part of the story. Well, it's hard because Don sort of drops out of the story because he becomes ill. That's exactly right. By the time it came to make some really serious decisions about his sons, he was no longer the decision maker. [Mimi] has sole power. Once one son died in 1973, there was no way she was going to be overruled on any decision. It would have been an interesting and different story if there were two parents there continuing to work on this issue, but it just wasn't that way. Why do you think they had so many children? It was unusual for them and their families. There were other large families in Colorado Springs at the time but the Galvins were the first to do it. Not all the Galvins have large families. So even their own families were wondering why this was happening. I think I arrived at two ways of looking at it. One is that the Gavins like having a life of distinction. Don liked being the guy who flew the falcons and they liked being known as this large family, this model family. Mimi, who had given up the life she had wanted, could build a life that was more interesting to her and made her feel special. I think she also was filling a hole in her life. I think she had some losses that she was trying to gloss over, like the loss of her father who left the family in scandal and the loss of her husband who became more of an absentee parent and the loss of the future she thought she could have. And so here was a way to create a lot of new company for herself to stave off abandonment. I think it worked for her in a lot of ways, and not just because she wanted people to look up to [them] as a model family. The Oprah’s Book Club people are starting to read the book and some of the commenters there are interested in the idea that she was competing with Don, which isn't something I really explored, but it's an interesting idea. She's this very intelligent woman who is going through what a lot of women in that generation are going through. She's relegated to a homemaker role when she could have gone to college. Her husband is this big shot who's really accomplishing everything professionally and she's at his mercy in terms of what kind of money they make, where they live, everything that happens. And so maybe she is doing what she can do to accomplish something too. It’s hard not to think about how, in the beginning, he is the star and as the book goes on, she takes the reins. But where he gets to be this fun, larger than life public figure, she's just trying to keep it together privately. Yes, and she's adjacent to his public life. She's on his arm at these events and stuff, but it's not really her life, it's his life.  Do you think in a different era she would have made different choices? Did her daughters talk about that at all? Yes, I think as kids, they grew up saying, Why on earth is my mother neglecting me and choosing the six sons over me? Why did she put me in harm's way? The two sisters now look at her and think, What were her choices? Now that they are both married and have children of their own, and have been able to make lots of decisions about their lives, they realize that Mimi’s choices were limited, her tools were limited, the understanding of the illness is limited. She may have made some colossal errors of judgment but she also was operating with real limitations. At this point, the sisters are filling the role that she had to and making decisions about their brothers’ care, I would imagine. Yes, and we see two different ways of dealing with that in the two sisters because they are not alike. Lindsay is aggressively trying to do what her mother did in terms of caring for the brothers and there's a price for that, which is that she has a certain amount of mania about it and ends up having some difficulties with the people around her because of it. Margaret goes the other direction where she feels that it's a bottomless pit dealing with the family issues, and so she creates some boundaries. But there's a price for that as well because then others begin to resent her.  I would think the resentment started when [Margaret] went away. This is actually something else I think will be interesting with the book club readers: what do you make of a mother who sends a daughter to a family that they're not super close to? It's very unusual but actually a very shrewd thing for her to do. I think there's so many ways of looking at that. In the beginning, I looked at it as something out of Charles Dickens, like this mysterious wealthy benefactor pulling one of the children out and it just seemed so larger than life. But as you said, there's the resentment of the people left behind. Then there's Margaret’s own feelings of alienation and abandonment, being sent away when it was really the brothers who she thought maybe ought to be sent away. She feels penalized and deprived of her family for reasons that she doesn't understand. There's the culture clash of her being in this wealthy family, and then looking back at her family. The sisters’ lives are different from then on because they aren't together, but they are both cursed with a certain hypervigilance, like they're walking on egg shells, because they're ready for the worst to happen at any time, and that plays into every decision they each make. Still? Still, absolutely. If you were to meet Lindsey or Margaret today on a ski slope or at the Whole Foods they would seem like anyone else. Perfectly congenial, nice, intelligent, friendly people. But in their emotional lives and the legacy of their childhood, there's a certain walking on egg shells feeling that they both have and will continue to deal with. And I'm sure the brothers feel that way too. I mean, as kids, they all woke up every day wondering if they were going to go insane like their brothers. I don't think you ever really get away from that.  What do you want from your next book? You reported these two very intense, very moving stories, which are also very bleak in some ways. But I don't imagine you’re going to turn it all around and do Mary Poppins. But you're obviously drawn to a certain kind of story. How would you define that? What kind of stories do you like to tell?   I love non-fiction narratives, and I prefer to tell stories about ordinary people who are going through something extraordinary so that readers can sort of follow along and put themselves in their shoes. And as an added bonus, it would be nice also to be able to learn about a completely unfamiliar world while experiencing this narrative in the way that one does when reading Katherine Boo.  I'm happy to write another true crime book, but it doesn't have to be true crime. I'd be happy to write another book about mental illness. Really, the priority would be human stories that lift a veil on something that you may not understand immediately. Do you think you'll continue to write about families or is that sort of incidental?  I think it's incidental. If there were an amazing story about someone where the family didn't come into it, I wouldn't shy away from it, but I will say that for years and years and years, I wanted to find some way to report on a family that had a estrangement because I am interested in the subject of family estrangement. If you talk to my [former] co-workers at New York Magazine, my close friends there from years ago, they would all say, oh yes, Bob said that he wanted to do that a long time ago. How amazing [is it that] this presented that chance?  Do you have another book in mind or you just sort of like sitting back and taking all of this in? I have nothing right now. I have a couple of ideas that might end up being shorter things, but I really don't know. No big promising book project at the moment. And that's a mixed blessing. On the one hand, I think it would be nice to have the promise of something new to work on, while promoting something that exists. But on the other hand, in the middle of a global pandemic, it's probably nice that I'm not feeling overworked. I have one job right now and that's to support this book and also keep the family feeling okay during the quarantine.
The Keeper of the Bees

I followed a desire to witness, but not control, the inner workings of living things.

I’ve been obsessed with animals since childhood. Though I grew up in a rural-ish area and was a bona fide horse girl, it wasn’t enough. I tormented my parents by keeping outside fauna in my room for companionable observation. A common housefly? My friendly pet. A caterpillar? Temporary roommate. I kept it in a jar and provided milkweed until it formed into a chrysalis and later a monarch butterfly, at which point it was released into the backyard to expend its little life. During a farm visit, I was gifted a fertilized chicken egg which I then kept inside a mitten and warmed under a desk lamp until my father turned the light off, probably due to mounting hydro costs. A chick was on its way, the weight of the egg a telltale sign. One more pet opportunity lost. Though to be fair, I doubt I had much of a plan beyond the egg hatching. The thing is, these creatures would’ve gone through natural, preprogrammed, yet seemingly impossible processes with or without my interference. I recall aptitude test results as I wrapped up secondary school that put me in the ninety-ninth percentile for a future in both the arts and agriculture. I chose books, but a deep curiosity about that other path remained.  Last year, after a few seasons of reading about homesteads and honeybees, I signed up for the Beekeeping 101 course at the University of Guelph, which has become so popular that people set alarms and join waitlists to vie for a space in two spring sessions. It taught components of biology, apiculture, and hands-on skills. The curriculum was geared toward hobbyists. The stress of farming for income did not factor in. Our instructor, a beekeeper with some thirty years’ experience, told the class that if we wish to keep bees in order to “save the bees,” not to bother. However, if we want to keep bees because we’re interested and wish to learn about and care for them, great. A line was drawn between the endeavours of animal husbandry and conservation.   *** Honeybees are not native to North America, but were imported by European settlers in the seventeenth century. The most popular breeds for honey production are Italian (the archetype honeybee: yellow and black) and Carniolan (a hardier, Eastern European honeybee). Where I’m writing this, in Canada, any wild honeybees are feral descendants of those that have escaped from domesticated hives. Wild, native bee species that do not produce honey are less recognizable but vital pollinators. Emerald-green sweat bees (often mistaken for flies), carpenter and leaf cutter bees, and bumblebees get overlooked. By keeping a honeybee hive, I learned, backyard beekeepers are not necessarily contributing to the strength of local bee populations, but potentially creating more competition for wild pollinators where sources are scarce.  It is honeybees rather than native bees that have become symbols of conservation. Perhaps because they’re undeniably fascinating, the intricate combs and social structure, the miraculous honey. Perhaps because we’re terrified: there is no single accepted cause for colony collapse disorder, and we’re agriculturally dependent on honeybees for current farming practices. Bees, trucked across the continent to pollinate monocrops, like almonds in California or blueberries in Atlantic Canada, face unfamiliar environmental conditions, travel stress, and a lack of variety in their food sources which wreaks havoc on their digestive and immune systems. As a University of Guelph honeybee biologist explained by comparison, it might be like eating only applesauce for your entire life. Will you live? Yes, but you will not thrive. *** In the university bee yard, the honeybees seemed unperturbed as students fumbled through implementing our lessons with hive inspections (this is the term that’s used: inspection). Intentional movement and smoke work best. Bees probably don’t “smell fear,” which relieved the anxious in the group, but they do take aim at dark, shiny things, like sunglasses. No posturing while beekeeping. After taking the course, and reading all the materials I could access, I volunteered to help load spring nucs at a beekeeping supply store. A nuc, or nucleus colony, is a small colony of a few thousand bees and a queen. Around two-hundred nucs came to the shop on pallets, in ventilated cardboard boxes. The storage area hummed and grew humid with their unique, warm, waxy scent. Because the boxes weren’t sealed tightly, thousands of bees began to escape inside the warehouse, barreling toward the light of the loading dock. Beekeepers arrived to pick up their orders, unphased by the swarms. One farmer teased me for wearing a hat and veil as I Tetris’d twenty-five nucs into his Toyota Yaris and bees pinged against the windows inside. When I asked if he’d be alright on an hourlong drive, he responded: What are they gonna do, sting me? Beekeeping needs patience. It’s not a practice of instant gratification. The best time to inspect a hive does not often align with one’s own schedule. Weather conditions should be ideal so that many of the workers are out foraging and the bees remaining inside are disturbed as little as possible; it’s easier to see brood, find the queen, and statistically avoid stings. So, sunny. Not windy. Not about to rain. Warm. I installed my own hive on an agreeable family member’s property, nearby enough that I could check on it weekly. I didn’t sleep the first night after I left my hive. Something to do with the idea that I suddenly had sixty-thousand lives on my hands. After two weeks of letting the colony situate in its new surroundings, I lit my smoker and opened the hive. I held the brood frame up into the sunlight and saw the queen’s eggs, like tiny grains of rice in the comb. I’m fairly certain I said, She’s laying! out loud, proudly, to no one. As I replaced the frames, bees crawled over my hands and were gentle. I felt completely vulnerable, my inadequacies on display as I was forced to learn by doing. I learned procedures, but caring for bees meant observing. I would have no words: nothing fully explained. With beekeeping, one is mostly deducing. Inevitably, I would make mistakes. I would have to trust myself and my instincts, and this alone was frightening. And isn’t it so terribly human, to immediately think of how animals make us feel?  Protective: when a large wasp aimed for the hive entrance and guard bees sacrificed themselves to kill it. Guilty: when half the hive swarmed. Astonished: when the bees raised a new queen and she, too, began laying healthy brood.  ***  If I think about it too hard, I balk at the idea that we engineer how animals may respond to us, and what they give or provide us. In the narrative of optional, hobbyist animal guardianship, there are motivations that are elided, mysterious even to those who act upon them. Did I take on beekeeping because my apartment won’t allow dogs? Did I cave to some latent need to nurture? I hope that I followed a desire to witness, but not control, the inner workings of living things. One flawless August day I performed an inspection. Some frames were heavy with capped honey, in others the comb held nectar, shimmering wet in the light. Nurse bees attended to larvae. There was no evidence of mites, but I applied preventative treatment. The harshness of the medicated strip results in some bee mortality, which I had to come to terms with. Opening a hive, even briefly on a good day, creates a lot of disorder for the bees. It is rather exposing to realize how out of tune one can be with nature. To notice how dull certain senses are to complement my quotidian life. Weeks later, I had to remove the mite treatment, but the conditions were terrible. It was humid, overcast, one of those swollen Ontario afternoons that bursts into thunder. Because of my procrastination, moving slowly and carefully wasn’t possible. I rushed through the removal of the mite strip, and as I replaced the box lid, I felt a sting on my ankle—my first of the season. I started to trust that I had learned something. What does it mean to care for an animal that isn’t a pet? As a hobby, maybe it means to ascribe value without expectation. To focus on what is visible, objective, rather than sketching out interiority. Is the queen laying? Are the foragers active and providing? Staring at bees who act for their collective benefit, their wellbeing has evidence. This, a counterpoint to the emotional logic I’d imposed about my own shortcomings and self-absorption. Maybe domestication should remain strange. According to my 101 instructors, novice beekeepers, or even well-meaning conservationists, occasionally install hives in their yards as though they’re birdfeeders: to enjoy and observe. And it is wonderful to watch a healthy hive on a summer day, bees returning with pollen packed onto their legs like pants in the colour of whatever flower they’ve attended. I think of sheep, across generations barn-raised, shorn, and attended to by veterinarians. An Australian merino ram escaped from his paddock and was rediscovered five years later. Such domestic sheep are bred not to lose their coat and need to be shorn regularly, so his mobility was impaired as a result of the five-year weight of his fleece. Domesticated bees shouldn’t simply be left to their own devices without human intervention and care. Honeybees are vulnerable to predators, pests, and diseases, and if left unattended, infections have the potential to be spread to feral colonies. Good intentions can leave us with nothing to look forward to. *** As autumn leaves dropped and mornings frosted over, my bees become cranky and retreated. In these winter months, bees cluster—shiver around the queen to keep warm. As the temperature rises and falls, the cluster expands and contracts. Undertaker bees carry out the dead. I wonder if my bees will survive the winter, if I provided the best conditions. When the temperature creeps to spring-like in January, bees fly, dopey and confused as we all are from the climate change flux. I remember, back in the full blooming summer, I added a super to the hive to make space for more honey storage. After, I took off my veil and long sleeve and lay down in the grass a few steps away to feel the sun heat my skin. A bee bumped into my head and rebounded on her way. Another landed on my arm for a minute, maybe regarded me but probably not, cleaned her antennae, and took off again. I watched their flight patterns zip across the sky and tried to trace them; it was impossible.
The Hazards of Carpooling

This was a real friend. Like old times—better times. When your chip bags spilled over and your idols reeked and all your friends tried to kill you.

“I found one,” Rory said, rubbing soft, grey pills of skin up from between her eyebrows, loading them against her thumb pad and flicking them into oblivion. She looked younger in the glow of the computer screen, sweetened by absolute trust in the machine. “Can you not please?” Simon asked, nodding at her projectiles. It didn’t actually bother him, but he was feeling particularly clean and self-righteous tonight, freshly showered, good, tight socks on his feet. “It’s Korean,” she said in defense. “Look,” she squirted a jewel of product into her palm from a small white tube. “You rub it on your face like this.” She unhinged her jaw, skin stretched tight as canvas over her cheekbones, and rubbed firm circles just below her eye. “And it pulls up all the dead skin, see?” She launched another pebble into the air. “No, I get it, I get what you’re doing. That’s exactly why I’m asking you to stop. It’s gross. Can’t you just sprinkle them into a tissue or something? It’s like flinging your toe nails around.” “Okay it is not like toe nails.” “It’s close.” “If you got down on your hands and knees you’d find a toenail, probably one of your toenails, way before you’d find any of my little pods. It’s dead skin, Simon, it’s already everywhere, it’s like being annoyed by the air.” “Fine,” he said, “just shower our whole house in it then.” “I will. And you will too. And so will Audrey because it’s just what bodies do.” Simon pinched the bridge of his nose, amazed at Rory’s ability to be defensive about something so objectively foul. He’d always found her physical habits disgusting: the way she zoned out on the couch and futzed with her body hair; how she let her razors decompose in the shower, scummy heads bristling with quills, constantly in the way, demanding to be handled. When she was younger it struck Simon as good disgusting: bohemian, radical, defiantly unfeminine. Now it was just regular disgusting. “All right, show me what you found,” he exhaled. “This guy, Ben, works in in the same office park as you. He lives a few blocks away, leaves at seven in the morning every weekday.” Simon crouched into the aureole of Ben’s profile. The light flung a shadow of false rage from his glasses. He and Ben were the same age. Both of them married with young daughters. Ben worked in sales at some kind of environmental start-up. Simon worked in legal at a bank, proofing the deliberately boring documents people sign without reading. “I don’t know,” said Simon, standing up. The shadows retreated back into his eyewear. “I don’t want to make small talk.” “Talk isn’t small forever. It gets bigger.” “I still don’t know.” “Why don’t you just try it? What’s the alternative, you drive an hour and a half each way on your own? Every day? It’s bad for the environment, first of all, and secondly, this’ll be nice. Imagine we make a new friend out of it. Just down the street, too, someone to check on the house if we ever go on vacation again, someone to watch Audrey or pick her up from school if we need it.” After over a decade in The City, Audrey’s birth and all of its demands on their money and space and time finally expelled them to The Burbs. They’d said goodbye to their friends, swearing they’d be back in town often, making them all promise to come visit, seducing them with vast yardage, for bocce ball and barbecues and margaritas, hanging by their pits over the plastic lip of a modest aboveground pool eventually, once Audrey learned to swim. But of course everyone is busy and everyone understands and the threads of a relationship over text are just strong enough to get you through weeks and then months of not seeing someone’s face or hearing their voice and it’ll always be the same when you see each other because you get hammered and it’s fine. But it would be nice to have friends here in town, Simon agreed, so he clicked the blue message box just below Ben’s profile picture: smiling, holding a beer at the end of a long dock over some glittering northern lake. Simon’s picture was almost identical, but his was staged, modelled secretly, shamefully, after a Bud Light ad. Ben is the un-staged version of me, Simon thought, and he turned the pulsing cursor into a friendly introduction. They scheduled their first carpool for Monday morning. Ben said he’d be by at 7:15. Simon had been ready since 7, nose pressed to his front door’s decorative glass insert. He could hear Rory upstairs, singing to Audrey, blowing raspberries into her unfathomable softness. He and Rory had bickered this morning. Simon had locked the bathroom door so he could masturbate in the shower, exorcize a few gobs of nervous energy before sitting in a car with a perfect stranger for an hour and a half and as a result she’d missed her only opportunity to take a shit all day. Usually he left the door unlocked so she could go while he showered, a routine he loathed but couldn’t really argue with. Rory, bunged up and furious, tried to make him late with her arguing, but he’d refused to engage. Imagine being late for a carpool. He wouldn’t be able to live with himself. If this all worked out, it would be proof that people really were decent, that they could do nice things for one another, work together towards a greater good, maybe even fix the planet. This drop of positivity rippled across his face and down through his body, spine straight, stomach firm. A climate change hero. An action figure in fashionably plain frames and a Banana Republic pea coat. At exactly 7:15, Ben pulled up in a sensible grey hybrid. He rolled down the passenger side window as he slowed to a stop, smiling as he had in his picture, wide and genuine. Simon was impressed he could summon that same summer day smile on a Monday morning in February. It was infectious. Made Simon feel satisfied. Mighty. A trace of the warmth he felt on his first day back at work after Audrey was born, happy to be able to provide for his small family. “Howdy,” said Ben, and pushed open the passenger side door. “Hi,” said Simon. The car was comfortable inside. Warm. Fabric interiors, heated seats, the dashboard a crown of interlocking rings and neon data. It wasn’t a fancy car, but it was tasteful. Simon began to dread next week when Ben would be seated in the 2006 Ford Escape he’d moved himself to The City in way back when, which had, since Audrey, always smelled slightly like a refrigerator’s crisper drawer. He’d tidy it up before next Monday, vacuum the creases, spray the seats with air freshener. “I call it The Italian Job,” he’d joke on Monday when Ben sat down into the unmistakable fug of a frenzied, half-assed cleaning—a mostly self-deprecating, slightly racist reference to a generational touchstone (an Italian shower… for your car), and Ben would find it funny because Simon found it funny, because weren’t they, profile-wise, basically the same person? “Wasn’t sure what you took in your coffee,” Ben gestured at the cup holder with his elbow as he turned right toward the main road. A take-out coffee cup, waxy brown bag of cream and sugar on top. “Oh wow, thanks. You really didn’t have to do that.” “Happy to. You have no idea how glad I am to finally have some company for this drive.” “I have some idea,” Simon laughed. “Oh right, ha, you’ve been doing it too. It’s a fucking bummer, right?” For some reason Simon found himself thrilled by the curse word, not that he cared one way or the other about swearing, he and Rory did their fair share, but to drop it so immediately. Thrilling was the only word for it. He noticed too that Ben was a very good driver. Confident. Intentional. Clear, without being pushy or aggressive. His fists travelled the wheel easily, his foot fluid on the gas. Simon felt momentarily overcome with the sensation that the road was moving beneath them as opposed to the other way around. “I don’t think I’ve ever said this to anyone before, but you’re a very fine driver.” “Stingy with compliments, are you?” “What? No!” This was something Rory had accused him of, trying to appear more competent by withholding praise. “I’m just kidding,” said Ben. “Thank you. I’m glad you feel that way. Because I was actually going to say, I really don’t mind driving every day. In fact, I’d prefer it if it’s all the same to you.” “No, really? I couldn’t—” “Really. I would prefer it,” he glanced at Simon. “I’m just looking for the company. You don’t even have to kick in for gas if you don’t want.” “Well I’m going to kick in for gas.” “Honestly, I’m heading in this direction anyway.” “Your profile really should have just said, free ride with coffee, just, you know, from an advertising standpoint. You wouldn’t have had to wait so long for a response.” “That’s true. Except maybe that sounds too good to be true.” “Well I’ll supply the coffee. Then it’s just good enough.” “Deal,” Ben grinned. “So you just don’t like being a passenger?” Simon snapped the tab back on his coffee, blew a buxom swirl of steam to smithereens and took a sip. It was too hot, too bitter. He normally took it with cream and sugar but he was nervous to perform such a dexterous operation in the car. “Nah, not really. My dad and I got into an accident when I was a kid. I was fine and everything, but his back was destroyed. Three operations, then he got hooked on painkillers. It was ugly. Anyway, now I get really agitated when other people are driving. I hope that’s okay.” “Shit, of course. I’m so sorry.” “Ah it’s okay, didn’t mean to bring all of this up,” he laughed, sipped from his coffee. “I usually don’t. Guess it might be too early in the morning for company after all.” “The hazards of carpooling. How is your dad now?” “Oh he’s a mess. Still an addict. Qualifies for disability at least.” “Shit. I’ve never met an addict before.” “You may have. A lot of them are good at hiding it. Not my dad of course. He looks like he haunts fucking bridges.” Simon snorted. “Oh, I’m sorry.” “No, it’s okay,” said Ben. “It’s funny. He’s fucked.” Ben merged into the left lane to pass a pickup truck loaded with dubiously secured wood. “I still see him sometimes. Because it’s not their fault, right? That’s what they say.” “That is what they say.” “And it’s not their fault. I can see now that it’s not. It’s a disease. I acted like I believed that before, just because, you know, it’s the kind of thing someone like me believes: addiction is a disease, corporations are a scourge, immigration will save the post-industrial world. But I could just never really wrap my head around it, that you could choose your disease every day, that you could cure yourself by just not choosing the disease. But it’s not like that, I know that now, I see the way it gets its hooks in people, the exact same way a virus gets its hooks in your cells.” “I know what you mean.” Simon realized he was about to open up to Ben, reveal a way in which his personal experience conflicted with the way he presented politically, or, more accurately, he was ashamed to admit, the way he presented aesthetically. He didn’t even do this with Rory, in front of whom he was an aggressive and unwavering liberal: wiry, bespectacled, armored in raw denim, leather boots, lavish perversions of iconic labor-wear. The way he policed her innocent slips of ignorance so mercilessly, knowing deep down he was punishing her, jealously, for a year off work with Audrey. The price she’d pay on the other side of her mat leave would be a feeling of total alienation from the civilized world. “My mom’s ex-husband, before I was born, I never met him, apparently he was addicted to gambling. He spent all of their money, every last dime and then some. It took my mother half a decade to crawl out from under the debt, then he left her. But the way she talks about him, it’s like, he’s the victim. Like he was sick. And I would agree with her, the way she explained it to me, it did make sense, and I know I’m supposed to feel that way, but I still can’t help hating the fucking prick. And I could never really understand how she didn’t hate him too.” Ben nodded as he merged onto the next highway and settled safely into the center lane. “People are complicated animals,” he said, and Simon hummed in agreement. They enjoyed a miraculously comfortable silence, considering they’d just met, sipping their coffees, knocking knuckles when they both went to deposit their cups into their holders at the same time, which kick-started the next conversation, about how things used to be. Roomier. Better. When chips overflowed from bags and rock stars never showered. Ben recalled an incident from those days, a time he’d forgotten a freshman in the shower after force-feeding him Jell-O shots till he shit himself. The next morning the kid emerged from the bathroom pale as chalk, curled beneath a crusty towel. I could have died, he said to Ben, and then the two of them laughed till they cried. Still friends today. Ben spoke warmly, awed by the strangeness of hazing: humiliations executed carefully as spells, with the promise of being made real. Bona fide. Part of something. Unless it killed you instead. Simon admitted he didn’t have much experience with things like that, but he was sure Ben did. Ben shrugged, confessed, jokingly, to having the perfect physique for all sports, to being on every team, including debate, because even his brain was ripped. Simon watched Ben’s car pull out of his office parking lot. A connection. The kind he used to make easily as a child: 4 a.m., bloated and delirious at a sleepover, laughing hysterically, relieving yourself of yourself, easily, into someone else. A friend. Which he realized now he didn’t actually have anymore. He had people he’d known in The City, those people he got blind drunk with then didn’t see again for months. He had people he texted with a lot but never saw. He had people he cared about but couldn’t stand; people he wished he saw more but didn’t. This was a real friend. Like old times—better times. When your chip bags spilled over and your idols reeked and all your friends tried to kill you. * At 5:09 Simon stared out at the office parking lot, his breath appearing and disappearing with increasing frequency on the glass. Hadn’t they planned to meet here at exactly 5 p.m.? Simon checked his phone, refreshed his inbox, thumb triggered tic-like, involuntarily, he confirmed, re-confirmed, 5 p.m. was the plan, in writing, in the carpool app’s message center. The thicknesses of his chest and throat merging, manic, resisting the pacifying effects of his shallow breaths. His cheeks, he could see in the glass, were red. Rosy, for Christ’s sake. And then there he was, Ben and his car, one sleek entity prowling the lot for a spot. Simon exited the building, gulping cold air. As he got closer to the car Ben honked the horn, launching Simon in a spasm of terror which, once done, left him completely calm, as though it had ejected every bit of built-up cortisol from his body. Ben was laughing as he opened the door. “The look on your face,” he managed to spit. And Simon, depleted, rubbery, burst out laughing too. “You asshole,” he said, and Ben shrugged, thumbed a tear from his eye, and entered the rush hour crawl from the lot. On the long ride home, they talked about their firsts: drinking and drugs and sex, details Simon hadn’t thought about in a long time. The slope of his high school girlfriend’s breasts, her tough grip on his penis, smooth, dry, because neither of them really understood or could commit to the true mess of good sex in their parent’s basement or pressed against the laundry room door while a party thumped in the background (though Simon had made that last one up—he was rarely invited to parties in high school and wouldn’t have dreamed of leaving the nucleus of one for sex in one of its furthest rings of energy). Ben had alcohol poisoning twice in college. He’d loved mushrooms, ate them constantly, preferably laced with MDMA when he could get it: a hippie flip, he called it. “Remember that?” Simon admitted he’d never tried it before. Ben said, “We’ll have to fix that.” When Simon walked through the front door, Rory shoved a soft, sweet potato encrusted Audrey in his face. “Take her,” she demanded, and ran up the stairs. He heard the thud and spatter of the shower and to the empty room he said, “Well, hello to you too.” Audrey looked at him, smiling, slow, probing starfish fists along his cheek and he was overcome with a painful, breathtaking love for her, buried his face in the pressed flesh that hid her neck to her wild, screaming delight. He ran a cloth under hot water, rubbed the sweet potato from her skin, changed her diaper, buttoned her into a striped onesie. Rory didn’t like the button-up onesies because they were harder to fight with during middle-of-the-night diaper changes. Simon didn’t care. This one was his favorite and today he’d been reminded that he was still a human being. Rory trotted back down the steps, soaked strips of hair leaking into a towel over her shoulders. She’d restored to her wardrobe a particularly unsightly nursing nightie that he hoped he’d seen the last of when Audrey tagged it in a spray of seedy, yellow feces. “Thought that one was trashed.” “Nah. Somehow the gross stuff that comes out of babies doesn’t really stain.” “Small miracles.” “You hungry?” “Yeah.” “There’s Kraft Dinner in the cupboard. We ate…” she hunched forward, stared at Audrey, infecting her with wide-eyed anticipation, then swooped in and stole her from Simon’s arms, “… sweet potatoes!” Audrey, grinning, flung her arms above her head. “That’s it? You’re just gonna eat sweet potatoes for dinner?” He felt Audrey’s sudden departure from his arms as plainly as a burn. “I had some other stuff too.” Simon nodded. “What is it, Simon.” Exasperated. Annoyed already. “Nothing, just, I don’t know. Don’t really feel like Kraft Dinner.” “Right,” she replied. “Well, I’m sure you can figure something out. How was the guy? Ben?” “Yeah, Ben. He was really cool actually. Sort of excited to see him again tomorrow.” “That’s great! What’s his wife’s name?” “He didn’t mention.” “His kid?” “Didn’t mention her either.” “Did you talk about us?” “I don’t remember, Rory, Jesus.” “I’m just asking.” “Yeah, I think I did—I think I mentioned that Audrey’s made our whole car smell like a refrigerator drawer.” “She haaaaaas,” said Rory, kissing Audrey’s nose. “Somehow she really has. All right, well, I’m going to put her to bed and hit the sack myself.” “Already?” “Yeah, I’m tired.” “Night.” “Night Simon. Love you.” And she padded off to bed, up the stairs, Audrey’s face over her shoulder staring into Simon’s eyes till she disappeared into the ceiling. I’m sure you can figure something out. As though he’d been asking for her help. As though he were a child. As though he’d starve to death without her. As though she were the only one who did anything around here. How far that was from reality, but of course this is the way it is in a marriage, the way it’d been in his parents’ marriage too: shared delusion the key to co-existence, destroyed when exposed to the cruel light of truth. Babies brought light. Truth. And sometimes it was wonderful but other times it was very bad. Right now things were very bad. Rory and Audrey retreating into dark delusion together, leaving Simon out in the light. Suddenly it was 11:30 and Simon was staring into the patchy dregs of an empty wine bottle, too drunk from forgetting to have fixed himself dinner. * The next morning Simon waited, hands full with steaming travel mugs, while Ben once again pushed open the door from the driver’s seat. He deposited the mugs in the holders, relieved that they fit. “Thanks man! That smells fucking great.” Ben lifted the travel mug to his lips, sucked steam into his nose and took a sip. “It’s pretty good stuff,” bragged Simon, rubbing his coffee-warm hands into his thighs. He cleared his throat, shivered. “What’s wrong,” asked Ben. “What? Nothing’s wrong.” “I can tell something’s wrong,” said Ben, pulling out into the street. Simon and Rory had bickered again that morning, more or less a continuation of the fight from yesterday. It was annoying of course, got his blood boiling, but he didn’t think it’d had such an obvious effect on him. “Rory and I got into it this morning. Usual stuff.” “What’s your usual stuff?” “Oh, I don’t know. Who does what, I guess, who’s more tired, whose back is more fucked up.” “Sounds like me and Paige.” “Does it?” “Oh yeah. Kids, man, you’re just so beat, so frustrated sometimes, the work never ends. It gets better though, they say, when they’re older. And if it doesn’t then you get a heater for the garage.” Simon laughed. “Right.” He’d never imagined himself as one of those guys. One of those man-cave guys. One of those bloated sacks of loneliness, pacing the perimeters of their yards and basements and garages, moaning about everyone else’s incompetence until they fell asleep in a sopping easy chair, haunting their families like some ogling ghost, dispensing twenty-dollar bills, occasionally used for heavy lifting (but not too heavy) or running errands (so long as they weren’t too complicated). But right now he couldn’t deny the allure of a warm garage, a man-cave, so like a womb. So like the womb he’d found for himself in Rory, if you believed that kind of thing, evicted from it by Audrey, which was fine, but of course now he had to figure something else out and maybe that would be the shoddily heated garage. Nothing wrong with that, really. A womb of one’s own. “I found this playlist last night,” said Simon, scrolling through his phone at a red light, Eddie Vedder beginning to bray from the speakers. Simon smiled. “I haven’t heard this in forever.” “Now this man never showered.” “Hell no.” Simon closed his eyes, pictured the walls of his warmed garage, plastered in posters. Eddie Vedder crouched in work boots, spray of hair, cut off at the ends by the paper’s edge; Chris Cornell, may he rest, staring into a fisheye lens. A Clerks poster. A still from Pulp Fiction: Jules and Vincent, side-by-side, guns drawn. His heater, bright orange, sitting on top of a mini-fridge next to that greasy old easy chair. A vision both nightmare and salve. The heater spits a wayward ember, the chair goes up in flames with him in it. He opened his eyes. Distance from Rory, even though it brought him closer to work, felt good. More than that, though, it was this good conversation with Ben. Simon had to remember that he was entitled to this kind of connection, a perk of the species, to really connect with another human being. Like your life depended on it. Because your life did depend on it, relationships proving time and time again to be the key to a long and healthy existence. And Simon had never really had this before. He’d belonged to a group of friends in college, but he was more a peripheral character. He had a way of simply being around, like a vine, careful to look enough like them, speak enough like them, move enough like them, but never actually be close with any of them. With Ben it was different. With Ben he was alive. Alive. And he carried this beating, bloody feeling with him into work, which, despite its excruciating dullness, seemed briefly as though it mattered. For the first time in god knows how long the morning flew by. He looked up at the clock only when his stomach rumbled. One o’ clock, a late lunch! Usually he was counting down the minutes till he could sit quietly with a sandwich in another, slightly less depressing setting. At 5 p.m. Ben was waiting. Simon opened the car door, got in, a flash of something in Ben’s lap, formless, aquatic. It took Simon a moment to realize it was his nut sack oozing from his unzipped pants. “Jesus!” Simon shrieked, pinning himself against the door. Ben burst out laughing and Simon did too, the both of them in tears, wheezing, a brief lull to catch their breath until eye contract triggered another eruption. “What the hell is the matter with you?” Simon finally managed. “Thought it would make you feel better. Worked didn’t it?” “You’re fucking sick.” “I know.” He hit play on his phone, resumed the playlist from this morning. “I used to know what all my friends’ dicks looked like. Remember that?” Simon couldn’t fathom why he’d know what anyone else’s dick looked like, but didn’t want to seem prudish or as though he hadn’t had a full and enriching childhood full of casual nudity. He opened his mouth to say something like, “Oh yeah,” but was saved when Ben continued talking. “We really grew up in the sack whapping renaissance, wouldn’t you say? With Jackass and all that. It’s nice to whap another man’s sack, to know that he’s your friend, you know what I mean? Nowadays I don’t know whose sack I could whap. I don’t think anybody’s.” “You could whap my sack, if you wanted. I mean, don’t. But you could.” “Well, thanks buddy. You’re gonna regret that.” “Your balls are a deathly white, did you realize that? They look terrified.” “Your balls aren’t that white?” “Not even close.” “Really? Let’s see.” “I’m not gonna show you my balls.” “Why not? I showed you my balls.” Simon was silent for a minute, and then surprised himself by saying, “Honestly, I hate my balls.” He gulped and glanced over at Ben. “Well I’m sorry to hear that. Balls are a very special part of the male anatomy.” “Mine are too coarse. Like avocados,” he pulled off his glasses, cleaned them with the bottom of his shirt to avoid eye contact. “Lots of balls look like avocados. See, if you knew what all your friends’ junk looked like, you wouldn’t be worried about your avocado nuts.” “That’s true.” “Simon, nothing about men’s bodies is supposed to be beautiful. This is why we’re so fucking lucky.” Simon nodded. Thought of bones. Perfect bones. Heaped in so much nastiness. He often wished he were just a skeleton. A nice, simple, nut sack-less skeleton. Ben reached over, touched his arm. “Are you okay?” “Yeah,” said Simon. “Listen, those avocado balls produced a beautiful baby girl, didn’t they? Can’t be too mad at them.” And just then a pregnant woman walked in front of the car, arched and waddling, hands flat against her lower back. “Can you imagine having that happen to your body? And then, not only that, being told that it’s beautiful?” Simon laughed. “Honestly, you saw it. It’s not beautiful. It’s fucking animal. It’s insane. But they have to walk around with this idea that what’s happening to them is some gorgeous miracle. We’re lucky to have our ugly nut sacks and our hideous dicks.” “It would be nice though, wouldn’t it? To have the reproductive biological function of your body be praised instead of shamed?” “Please, give up your seat for this masturbating man.” “Make way, man masturbating here, hold the door for the masturbating man.” “Look at him,” Simon pulled his chin into his chest. “He’s glowing.” * That night after Rory and Audrey were asleep, Simon dug one of the Polaroid cameras out of the crawl space. Rory’s friends had bought them for her baby shower, the idea being that people could take pictures, tape them into an oversized scrapbook alongside well wishes and words of wisdom. When he got home that night he and Rory hadn’t fought, but they hadn’t really spoken either, handing Audrey off to one another while they finished up the myriad chores and duties of home ownership, readying the space for the next day’s chaos. This disinterest, it was worse than a fight, Simon knew, but he hustled it out of his mind, removed the shade from a bright desk lamp in the basement, and took a photograph of his dick. He waited patiently as the black square became his soft, squidgy mass. The angle was all wrong, it seemed too small, more coral than penis and balls. He pulled it out more, didn’t want it to seem hard or anything, this wasn’t sexual, but it could use a little something. He tried his methods of bringing it to attention, only just, so it knew it was being photographed. Consent. He wanted it to look as though it was giving consent to this. He took another photo. Better, but still not perfect. Another. Good. Funny. Made you want to rest a pair of sunglasses on top. This might be the one. Another and another and another until the camera wheezed, empty. He inspected the photos, found the one he liked, and buried the rest in the crawl space with the empty camera. The next morning when Ben came to pick him up, Simon said, “Oh, I got you something,” and very casually handed him the best dick pic. “Jesus Christ!” Ben shrieked, laughing, but Simon could hear it, unmistakable: confusion, disgust. It seemed so obvious now: showing your friend your balls was funny, but taking a picture of your dick and giving it to your friend was not. Something he would have known if he’d ever had any real goddamn friends. “Oh fuck, is this fucking weird? It’s weird isn’t it.” Simon reached over to pluck the picture from Ben’s hands, but Ben pulled it away. “Listen,” Ben said solemnly. “Those avocados have gone bad.” He flung the picture back at Simon, who fumbled it to his chest, then bent over and growled, his embarrassment physically painful. “Okay thanks yes, I get it, I’m going to kill myself now.” Ben laughed as he made his way to the highway. “Don’t do that. It was funny!” Simon’s face red. Rosy: “You’re lying, you thought it was fucking weird.” “Well it was fucking weird. Doesn’t mean it’s not funny.” Ben leaned over and turned the music up, exactly too loud to keep talking. Simon winced at the familiar riffs, lyrics as intimate to his mouth as a prayer, knowing that in this moment Ben was quietly processing his complete and irreparable revulsion; formulating strategies for ridding himself of the rosy-cheeked pervert squirming in his passenger seat. Ben would endure one last ride with him after work, get Simon home safe because that’s the kind of guy he was, then later, after dinner, he’d send a text, saying simply that this wasn’t working out, or more likely make up a lie, his hours are changing, he’s switching jobs. He’s accepted a carpool companion who specifically does not hand him dick pics at 7 a.m. At the end of the day Simon swayed forlornly in his office window, his mood black and dangerously low. When he saw Ben’s car he swallowed a deep, steadying breath, stepped outside, and got in. To his shocked delight, Ben immediately asked him whether he had any plans tonight, being as it was Friday and all. “No!” said Simon, too loud. “Never,” he added, and wished he hadn’t. Ben grinned, glanced down into his lap where just yesterday his deathly white balls had pooled. Now there was a brown bag, paper, what Ben might pack Audrey’s lunches in one day. “What’s that?” asked Simon. “See for yourself,” said Ben, leaning back. Simon cocked an eyebrow, reached into the bag, felt something smooth, squeaky between his fingers. Plastic. A Ziploc bag. He pulled it out. Squeezed its contents. A substance both dry and pulpy, shavings and knobs; the inside of the bag coated in brown dust. “What’s this?” he asked. “Keep digging,” said Ben. “All shall be revealed.” Simon laughed and reached in again. Something warm, pliable, alive. “Oh my GOD,” Simon shrieked, realizing what it was. He yanked his hand back, held it out as though it were coated in Anthrax. “You fucking sicko! You fucked up fucking sicko!” Laughing, exhilarated, pranked back by Ben, his friend, the fucking asshole! And this meant that the dick pic wasn’t too much, it was bang on, the exact right thing to do, because here Ben was fucking with him back, upping the ante like friends, real friends, do. It’s nice to whap another man’s sack, Ben had said, to know that he’s your friend. Back when you knew what all your friends’ junk looked like. A better time. One that Simon had missed once but wouldn’t again, because he’d been lucky enough to answer a random carpool query late one night. Life, man. You had to laugh. That’s what people said, and it was true. Ben, laughing, muttering, “Ah, you dummy,” plucked the bag off his pants, offered Simon a glimpse as to how he’d altered it, and zipped back up. “Those,” he said, nodding at the Ziploc, “are for hippie flipping.” “What? No. I can’t do that,” said Simon. He tried to force the Ziploc back into Ben’s lap but was deftly blocked. “Sure you can. You know how to eat, don’t you? It’s the same idea. Put them in your mouth. Chew. You’ll figure it out.” Simon started to drive out of the parking lot. “Ha, ha. No. I seriously can’t. Rory will murder me.” “So don’t tell her.” “I think she might know if I walk in high on mushrooms.” “And MDMA, don’t forget. That’s the dust. But it’s cool, we’re gonna go to the park first, we’re gonna hang out. You’ll be fine by the time you get home.” “I can’t. I’m sorry.” “Simon, come on.” “What?” “Live a little, you ever hear that expression?” “Of course.” “Honestly, I like you, I think you’re cool as hell. I want us to get fucked up together and have a kick-ass fucking Friday night, don’t you?” Desperately. More than anything. There was nothing Simon wanted more in the world than to be hippie flipping in the park with Ben. “Fuck it,” he said. “She’s not going to divorce me.” “Probably not.” “I’ll just text her. I’ll text her and tell her we’re hanging out. I’m sure she’ll be happy to have the house to herself.” “Of course she will. Dig in,” said Ben, nodding at the mushrooms. Simon reached into the bag, procured a fat pinch of damp, sickening softness, shoved it in his mouth and gagged. “These taste,” he gagged again, eyes watering, “worse than actual shit.” “I know,” said Ben, procuring his own wad, chewing and swallowing easily. “They’re really good. Eat more.” So Simon did, shoveled gobs of rancid organics into his mouth and smiled. I’ll get you back, Ben, he thought to himself. Just you wait. * An empty lot, the car parked in a dark hourglass between two pools of light. Ben’s dick in Simon’s mouth, and he’s sucking him off exactly the way he always wished Rory would suck him off, really huge mouthfuls of dick, really soaking wet, and he’s got both hands going too, a real performance, the drugs have him firing on all cylinders so it’s as though his mouth and each hand are being operated by totally separate brains, like getting a blow job from three different people at once, and Ben is fucking loving it, moaning till his lungs empty and only groans are left. Simon’s brain functions in flashes: his high school girlfriend, her body, his own body. Ben’s body, the coolest fucking guy he’s ever met in his life, standing at the end of that dock like a beer ad come to life, and Rory smiling, when they first met, adventurous and hilarious and adorable and he’s fucking alive again, the meaning of prime finally clear to him, he’s in his PRIME and this is how it feels to be in your fucking prime, this dick in his mouth and these hands going and this is so fucked and incredible and he’s not gay of course he’s not gay but he’s alive and open to everything. Experiences. These are experiences, THIS IS FUCKING LIFE RIGHT NOW. And Audrey little Audrey with her perfect chin and cheeks and gums, her smile, her soft fleshy face, a whole lifetime of experiences ahead of her to mar it. To mar it. Tomarit. And then everything turned: he was nauseous, tangled up, his hands and brain, not working the same way they just had, he’d lost it. He didn’t want to be sucking a dick. Sucking Ben’s dick in this park, he didn’t want this, he didn’t want this, he never wanted this, “Don’t stop,” Ben muttered, “I’m close,” and so Simon, despite desperately wanting to stop, needing to stop, didn’t stop, he kept going. But this wasn’t his idea, none of this had been his idea: you know, men don’t really get to have self-esteem problems. Not like that. You can’t sort of, wallow in it. Or feel bad for yourself. Or even really talk about it. Because if you do you’re a pussy and you should feel like shit, you know, for being a pussy. The world thinks that’s a good reason to punish you. Pussies get punished. But maybe they shouldn’t. I don’t know. What’s wrong with being a pussy, you know? It would feel good to be a pussy I think, to just let go and be a fucking pussy and do all that pussy shit and not give a shit. It’s like, this is the perk of getting older right? You stop giving a shit, you just do what you want to do. Simon’s head, rhythmic, the hair on Ben’s stomach crawling like bugs until he wailed, filling Simon’s mouth with a piping hot gush and Simon jumped, startled, and spat it into his travel mug. “That was fucking, holy shit Simon, that was the best blow job I’ve ever had in my fucking life, that was incredible, honestly, holy shit.” Ben yanked on his seat lever and fell backwards, staring through the sun roof at the stars. He started to laugh. “Look,” he said. “They’re screaming.” Simon looked up, adjusted his crooked glasses and launched his own seat back. “They are screaming,” he whispered. Like machinery. Like lice. Like people trapped in a burning house. His eyes filled with tears. “They are screaming, Ben, so why are you laughing?” * He finally got home at 3 a.m., hours after he’d promised Rory, who, asleep now upstairs, had left several of his penis portraits strewn across the kitchen table. Simon’s eyes and mouth went wide, the mushrooms making it difficult for him to process what he was seeing. His own dick. Looking like a monkey wearing board shorts; like a Groucho Marx mask on a dead body; like a senile old man caught shitting in a centerpiece; like an adult who needs help getting off a horse. The mushrooms were poison, they were killing him, and the sight of his own dick, captured within the four white walls of the Polaroid, that was killing him too. His pubic hair, thick and serious. Orthodox somehow. A laugh hijacked his chest. Look what you’ve done to your poor, serious dick, Simon. And he laughed again. This was funny, he’d been right, this picture was fucking hilarious. No wonder Ben liked him so much, how well he’d fit in. Because he’s doing it right, the whole thing, a real hazing! Ben getting him to suck his dick, the ultimate, what a legend! And now they were friends, best friends. He’d just one-upped him, that motherfucker. This is just how it was done among men. He’s testing you, Simon, challenging you for maybe the first time in your life, to step up, to rise to the occasion, to get him back and be a man. He got you good, he got you so fucking good, you should be grateful to have found such a gladiator to spar with. He opened his laptop, which was vibrating irresistibly, hot whirring breath somehow mirroring his own, the mushrooms, he kept forgetting that this wasn’t real, none of this was real life. So bright. Too bright. He opened the carpool site. Good one, he was going to write. Ha ha ha. He clicked the search field, typed in Ben’s name, but nothing came up. Mushrooms. He steadied his fingers, checked every letter before hitting enter. NO RESULTS. Which wasn’t true, stupid fucking website. He checked the message center, where they’d first exchanged information, where that picture of beer ad Ben in front of the glittering lake would have the most calming, perfect effect on him, if he were any man at all, it would, and he was, so it would. But the space where their exchange had been now said USER REMOVED. Ha ha he typed into nothing. Ha ha ha. Hilarious prank Ben, so funny, hazed, me, Simon, a hazed person! Hazed so hard! And he laughed some more, out loud this time. The sound hollow. Strange. A cadaver whose joy synapse was being stimulated by an electric prod. Audrey whimpered upstairs. Simon pulled his head into his shoulders, stared up at the ceiling in hallucinogen-amplified alarm. He carefully placed his laptop on the floor, pulled his knees into his chest, listened to the hallway wince beneath Rory’s tired feet. And with absolute horror it dawned on him: tomorrow, on top of everything else, he’d have to tell her that he lost their two best travel mugs.
‘I Don’t Think the Artist Longs For the Emergency’: An Interview with Olivia Laing

The author of Funny Weather on publishing a book during a global pandemic, the eternal appeal of outsider artists, and living with an oncoming sense of catastrophe.

When Olivia Laing was putting together the manuscript for her fifth book, Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency (W.W. Norton & Company), a manifold collection of her columns for art magazine Frieze and original essays, she was imagining the possibilities of art as a soothing balm for an era riddled with gun violence, political turmoil, and the oncoming threat of climate change. That was before the plague. As COVID-19 raged around the globe and rearranged present-day life in a matter of weeks, Funny Weather became a prescient and strangely even more relevant book. Charting the lives of itinerant artists like David Wojnarowicz, Agnes Martin and Arthur Russell, Laing explores the generative power of art through biography. Rather than directly answer the question, “What is the purpose of art in an emergency?,” Laing provides all the tools for the reader to come to their own conclusion—examples of resistance are embedded throughout like the titular character in a Where’s Waldo book. Like much of Laing’s work, Funny Weather functions as an exquisite, erudite fan letter to the artists who have influenced her the most, seeking to present innate truths through the medium of biography. The quality I most associate with Laing’s writing is a melodic contemplativeness. Her first novel, Crudo, which fictionalized the itchy experience of absorbing bad news online, felt markedly different from her nonfiction work. Crudo was the literary equivalent of picking a scab; urgent, weird, and painful but compelling. Funny Weather is a return to form, holding it’s own against the languid prose of To The River and the somnolent emptiness of The Lonely City. Each sentence is entrancing, intoxicating and rewarding, like taking a dip in an Olympic-sized pool and emerging utterly refreshed. In the chapter memorializing Georgia O’Keeffe, she writes of the artist’s cow-skull portraits, “Bones were beautiful, with their apertures and cavities, their bleached resilience,” a tumbling masterpiece of adjectives and subject. Laing writes the adult version of I Spy books, lush tableauxs crammed with so many objects the eye doesn’t quite know where to look. But a dedication to combing through the pages is always rewarded with a painstaking view of the exact thingamajig one was searching for. Ultimately, what emerges is a generous portrait of artists not merely functioning but thriving amidst difficult circumstances—and a potential answer to Sheila Heti’s prodigal question, “How Should a Person Be?”  Isabel Slone: The fact that Funny Weather happens to be about how art can soothe in an emergency makes it all the more prescient. How do you think the current social conditions will affect the reading of the book? Olivia Laing: The sort of conditions that I was writing into five years ago that seemed distressing at the time now seem like, “Wow, that was a nice nostalgic time.” I think people are existing at the moment in conditions of intense anxiety and isolation, and also that they’re thinking about how the world is and how they want it to be in a very open and unguarded way. I wrote this book for times like this, and though I wish we weren’t going through a pandemic I do think the message of art as a tool for clarity and for imagining other possibilities still holds firm. Has climate change has taken a back seat to other concerns during the pandemic? How do we weigh those concerns equally? Everything’s taken a backseat during the pandemic, which is understandable. But the thing that gives me hope is that we've been told for years that the kind of drastic changes needed to deal with climate change were impossible, and yet in the space of a few weeks the world has changed utterly. People have found that they can work without flying around the world, and we’ve all had to reconsider things like global supply chains and where our food comes from. I hope that when we emerge from this particular crisis we can pivot and feel energised to face the far greater challenge ahead, which imperils not just human life but the natural world too.  We’re experiencing this time of extreme distress and yet ironically there’s been a lot of suggestion that it’s a good time to do creative work, like we’re all theoretically supposed be writing the next King Lear or whatever. How do you approach maintaining creativity when doing just about anything feels insurmountable? I saw you’ve already filed a draft of your next book.  I was really lucky, timing-wise, in that I was right at the end of Everybody. Five years in, I’ve built up a huge amount of momentum and it’s easier to go to my desk, lock down and spend those hours writing than to do anything else. It’s really a huge luxury to be able to escape day-to-day reality like that. Even though I’m writing about very dark material, it still feels like an escape hatch. As for the pressure around creativity, I think there’s something sadistic about the pressure for people suddenly to be very creative when they’re clearly terrified. People are anxious about themselves and their families, they’re cut off from their support systems. Yes, we have got an unprecedented amount of time and that does feel very freeing in a funny way, but at the same time we’re also under extraordinary pressures. I think most people probably feel the opposite of creative, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Do you usually write two books at a time? I never used to, but I’ve been working on Everybody, the book about bodies that I’ve just finished, for about five years and it has been very, very difficult. I wrote Crudo as a sort of explosive reaction to it, as a way of expressing some of the fears that confronting violence and the body were bringing up in me. And then I put Funny Weather together at the very beginning of 2019, while I was still slogging away at Everybody. It was really a way of just having something else to do while writing this very difficult, recalcitrant book. My publishers are always saying, “Why are you giving us this? We didn’t ask for it!” I have a history of turning in unexpected books.  Funny Weather feels like the opposite of Crudo, in a way. I’d say they're a funny sort of pair. Crudo was written in a frenzy, over six weeks, and is basically unedited. I wanted to preserve the raw texture of what seemed at the time like a very disturbing political moment. The idea for Funny Weather came to me about six months after Crudo was published. It struck me that many of the essays I’d written over the years were about art as a force for resistance and repair, and I wanted to put them together and make them available, as a kind of antidote to the fear and anxiety I’d been documenting. I’d like to ask about your research methods. You always manage to unlodge these incredible historical facts, like the delightful mise en scène where Joseph Cornell and Yayoi Kusama are having a youthful romance and Cornell’s mother finds them kissing in the backyard and dumps a bucket of water on them. Where do these arcane historical tidbits come from?  I spend a huge amount of time in the archives, reading my way around things. Sometimes I’ve read a line or found something so brilliant that I’ve yelped out loud in the library because I’m so excited. That anecdote came from Kusama’s memoir, Infinity Net—a gripping book in its own right. I stumbled across those lines and thought, “Well, that absolutely sums it up.” What I’m doing as a researcher really is prowling around, going through lots of material, both to understand chronology and how things happen, but also on the lookout for scenes that encapsulate something, that I can use. I love it when I’m writing a book that has multiple characters and I find somewhere where they intersect. Or sometimes it’s just a line that’s so beautiful, or when the subject expresses something very purely in their own voice. I like people speaking in their own voice. How much time do you spend researching versus writing? If I’m working on a book there could be a year or two, maybe more of archival work. Then I write a draft that is really shitty. At the beginning, I care much more about trying to get the information down than particularly attractive writing. There comes a point where I feel free enough with my understanding and then I can move very quickly in terms of writing. That work in the archives is really what propels everything for me. I spend lots of time looking at the work, reading catalogues and biographies, turning up letters and diaries. That sounds kind of nerdy, but I find that sort of work ecstatically enjoyable. It’s like being a detective, following up hunches and leads.  The one quality that seems to unite all of the artists you write about in Funny Weather is this sense of being an outsider, being too weird to belong. Is that something you were conscious of while writing?  People keep pointing it out so I am becoming deeply conscious of it, yes! That’s the kind of person I am, and it’s also the kind of artist I’m drawn to. I’m not Googling "outsider artists" or "weirdo artists" and going, "Right, that one next." It’s more that I’m drawn to them by way of some sort of subterranean pulse in their work. I’m interested in finding out why they felt that way and how they’ve resisted it or responded to it by way of their own artmaking or community building. It’s interesting, to go back to your first question about the book coming out in this particular strange and frightening moment. People don’t have their friends around them, they haven’t got their family and I feel like right now this aspect of Funny Weather seems to be particularly appealing. Here’s this group of people who have struggled, presented with quite a lot of intimacy. I think people are quite open and vulnerable at the moment in how they’re responding to it. We’re all outsiders now because we’re all unable to connect with the people we usually connect with. Also we’re not being reassured and built back up by our friends and our communities. It’s a frightening experience to be stuck with your own resources and nothing else. Although the book is centered on the ways art can soothe in an emergency, I got the sense that the emergency is almost irrelevant and it’s just as important to find pleasure in art during times of stability as well as unrest.  I think that’s true. I’m probably not so personally familiar with times of stability, but yes, I believe they exist! Absolutely, art can emerge from stability, art can emerge from calm, art can emerge from happiness, art can emerge from love. All of those things are possible. In this book, I was slightly more interested in people who have been adrift in some way and are trying to create that feeling of stability when it isn’t available in their personal life. For example, Agnes Martin, who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and had complicated personal relationships, is at the same time making work that testifies to joy, love and stability. She doesn’t necessarily possess those thing, but she can still make work that testifies to their existence.  But is difficulty a necessary component of artmaking?  You don’t need to be depressed or traumatised to make work, and often those states prohibit doing anything at all. At the same time art is for many people a way of making something coherent or whole out of a sense of fracture or loss. It certainly is for me, as well as a way of reinforcing love and joy. That kind of reminds me of the time after Donald Trump was elected in 2016, when some people’s response was, "Well, this is bad but think of the art it will elicit." I’m disgusted by that. I hate it. That makes art feel so rarefied, like the suffering of immigrant and impoverished people is worth it because somebody who has more wealth can create great art. To wish ill on the world in order to make good art feels pretty gross. I don’t think the artist longs for the emergency. I think the artist wants a better world, and art is a way to get there. But to be longing for the emergency in order to make good art feels like the equation is backwards. Every time I read your work, the essay you wrote in 2011 about your experience living outside for The Guardian is always at the back of my mind. As an environmental activist, you’ve always been attuned to the world as being in some sort of emergency. How do you think those experiences inform your work now?  There are two things. There’s growing up in a gay family during a very homophobic era in British history, and there’s having this terror about climate change and environmental despoliation and deciding to become an activist at a very young age. That sense of oncoming catastrophe has stayed with me through the decades, as I’ve shifted from becoming an activist to an artist. It’s still with me, the sense that we’re heading towards crisis, and I still feel compelled to do something about that. I do have a sense that the artist has duties and responsibilities. I know that’s a very old fashioned and in some ways unfashionable thing to say, but I believe it very strongly. Artists have to bear witness, both to what is happening in the world and to reality as they see it. But does that sense of catastrophe ever feel like too much to bear? Do you ever just feel like you’re ready to ignore it?  I mean, sure! But what’s happening to the environment is unignorable. It’s like a background hum that’s slowly become so loud it’s painful. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate pleasure, but I am aware of the cost. One quote in the book that absolutely stopped me in my tracks was Georgia O’Keeffe saying, “I’ve been absolutely terrified every single moment of my life and I’ve never let it stop me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.” What sort of truth do you feel she was getting at with that? I feel like that quote is really at the heart of the book. You exist in adverse conditions, but you bloody do it anyway. Push over the border, take risks with your work. Invent what you need. I’m not a massive fan of O’Keeffe’s art but her life story knocked me out. When Hilary Mantel told you, “The best weapon against the devil is ridicule,” some other weapons I gleaned from the book are positivity, generosity, reflection, disruption… Very good! I did the reading! What weapon do you find to be most useful?  Alertness and generosity are the two that feel the most powerful to me personally. I loved Hilary saying ridicule. It’s so fierce. But ridicule isn’t a weapon I use very often at all. The idea of being generous, the idea of giving things freely, of sharing resources feels to me like the most radical possibility, especially in this moment of selfishness and individualism.
Mommy Queerest

Mom wasn’t interested in being the type of mother—or wife—who put her own life on the back burner

"Don’t bother me, I’m meditating!” Growing up, I knew that if Mom was lying upside down, I was not to disturb her. She would strap her feet under a belt at the top of a black vinyl reclining board and lie back at a forty-five-degree slant. This was her version of meditating. Mom first dipped her toes into spiritual waters in the early '80s, after I was born. While working on her master’s of education, she signed up for a Transcendental Meditation class. She would leave the house with fruit and flowers (offerings for some deity) and come home with a secret mantra. Mom said she became interested in meditation because her fight-or-flight signals were constantly spiking. “I was always on the defensive. I needed to slow down,” she told me. But she was soon turned off by TM’s hierarchical structure, so she moved on to Zen meditation—and then found it too restrictive. “They made me sit cross-legged on the floor!” she complained. Mom eventually settled on Vipassanā, which is all about seeing things as they really are: “I took to it like an anxious duck to clear water.” She was also into Iyengar yoga when I was little. Mom was always folding herself into various poses around the house—doing a more comfortable version of downward dog, for example, where she’d bend forward and rest her outstretched hands on the kitchen table. Or she’d drop down on the living room carpet and kick her legs up into a shoulder stand. There are baby pictures of me climbing up on her, mid-pose, as if she were a human jungle gym. Mom’s proclivity for meditation and yoga was considered odd back then. We lived in the mostly Jewish, upper-middle-class Cedarvale neighbourhood, where head-to-toe Lululemon and an over-the-shoulder yoga mat were still decades away from becoming de rigueur. Mom was a teacher. We lived in a nice house with a pool. We certainly passed as normal. But I always had a feeling that Mom wasn’t like other moms. Case in point: I remember in senior kindergarten coming home and announcing that I needed a Halloween costume for school the next day. After a few minutes of scrounging, Mom’s face lit up with an idea. “You’ll be garbage!” she proclaimed. She got a black garbage bag from under the kitchen sink, threw it over my five-year-old body, and used her hands to tear holes for my arms and head. It was her next move that was really inspired, though. She started fishing through the actual garbage bin for dry pieces of authentic trash that we then threaded together with string before festooning me from top to bottom. As a Jewish kid, it was as close as I ever got to trimming a Christmas tree. The next day, I couldn’t have been more embarrassed, surrounded by My Little Ponies, He-Men, witches, and ghosts. How on earth did Mom think this was a good idea? There I was, with an empty box of our dog’s Milk-Bones dangling around my neck. My teacher, Mrs. Winemaker, looked me up and down before making a concerted decision to declare—a little too enthusiastically—that next year she wanted to be garbage for Halloween. Goddess bless. Mom was very caring and loving in her own inimitable way, but she wasn’t much of a capital M Mommy. As a joke, she would sometimes refer to herself as “Mommy” when she’d catch herself performing something quintessentially motherly. But it was always said in self-reflexive jest. She didn’t bake cookies. She didn’t brush my hair. She didn’t put sweet notes in my lunch box. In fact, Mom never even packed my lunches. I distinctly remember when she said to me, “You’re in senior kindergarten now. It’s time you made your own lunch.” We were standing in front of the fridge. I looked up at the towering shelves of food with utter confusion. “What should I bring?” I asked. “Your cousin Sarah brings a yogurt,” Mom replied. For much of elementary school I’d pack a cappuccino yogurt and a box of Smarties; when lunchtime came I’d pour the latter into the former and stir until the dye bled into a colourful swirl. Sometimes I’d bring mini pitas stuffed with Nutella. I usually rounded things off with a Mini Babybel, a Coke, and a Caramilk bar (for dessert). I was very popular in the lunchroom. But even more than I enjoyed my signature concoction, I loved going to my friend Alimah’s for lunch. Her mom, Barbara, was a stay-at-home mother, so Alimah could go home every day for chicken noodle soup, tuna sandwiches, and sliced-up carrot and celery sticks. Seeing Barbara in action was fascinating. She was more like the moms on TV: aware of Alimah’s school assignments, making sure she did her homework, limiting how much TV she could watch. Their home was an oasis of routine and predictability. Barbara even assigned meals to days of the week. Wednesday was spaghetti night. Friday was pizza.  There wasn’t much cooking going on at our house. Much later Mom would insist she’d been “chained to a stove for eighteen years,” but the rest of us remember differently. For dinner we’d usually go out to restaurants, order in, or Mom would pick something up on her way home from work. Every so often Mom would courageously attempt to concoct something interesting, like Greek fish or chocolate pasta. But it would be more of a performance than a bona fide meal. “Mommy made supper!” she’d sing.[[{"fid":"6706766","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"}}]][[{"fid":"6706771","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"}}]][[{"fid":"6706786","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":{"3":{"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":"3"}}]] [[{"fid":"6706796","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":{"4":{"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":"4"}}]] She certainly wasn’t interested in being the type of mother—or wife—who put her own life on the back burner, but she’d also made a conscious decision to not be “too overinvolved.” She’d felt smothered by her mother growing up and was afraid of even coming close with me. Literally. Sometimes she’d look over at me lovingly and pet the top of my head. “Pat, pat,” she’d say, careful to never intrude on my physical space. Mom had had a list of things she’d do differently when she had a daughter one day. She would never tell me what to do with my hair. She would never make me feel guilty for choosing to do my own thing. Above all, she would never lean on me. “I never want you to feel like you have to take care of me,” she’d say. Mom believed it was important to teach me things. She explained how her mother always wanted to do everything for her when she was little, which she interpreted as a power play to make her extra dependent. With me, the pendulum swung. Mom wanted me to be independent. Ultra independent. I was often left at home alone, and was the only seven-year-old allowed to walk up to Eglinton—one of Toronto’s major arteries—on my own. I routinely made that six-block trip to do my errands. I’d go to my favourite candy store, The Wiz, and fill up a large bowl with Pop Rocks, Fun Dip, and Bonkers, and then head across the street to Videoflicks to rent a comedy like Heathers or Ruthless People. On the way home I’d stop off at China House for a bowl of wonton soup. At first the waiters were a little weirded out by a child dining solo, but they soon came to recognize me as a regular—who paid in quarters and dimes from her piggy bank. When I inquired about Mom’s free-range approach to parenting years later, she happily defended herself. “I taught you how to look both ways and cross the street, and you were very good at it. So I let you go off on your own!” I was allowed to eat as much Häagen-Dazs, watch as much TV, and stay up as late as I liked (I even had a TV in my room). Mom treated me like a mini adult. When I wasn’t in school, I could do whatever I wanted with my time. I relished my freedom—I wouldn’t have had it any other way—but there were times when I’d fantasize about having some authority at home. Time to take your medicine, I’d say to myself as I popped my daily Flintstone vitamin, imagining an adult was forcing me. To fit in with the other kids at school, when I’d get grass stains or rips in my pants I’d pretend to be afraid of Mom’s wrath. “Man, my mom’s going to kill me!” I’d say, mimicking what I’d heard on the field. I knew Mom couldn’t care less. (If anything she was proud of me getting rough and dirty.) I loved Mom so much, but I’d sometimes wish she was more like Barbara. Once when I was sick and she didn’t offer to bring me anything, I admonished her: “When other kids are sick, their moms bring them orange juice!” (“You don’t want one of those other moms,” she’d snap back. “I’m more fun!”)  Mom may not have been like other moms, but the truth was I wasn’t like other daughters. As I grew up, people mistook me for a boy. I was a tomboy—or what Larry David would later call “pre-gay.” I had short moppy hair, wore only jeans and T-shirts, and felt a profound sense of disappointment with the girls’ shoe section. I was pretty happy in general—I had friends and did well at school—but I always had a feeling of being on the outside. I didn’t feel like one of the girls, and I knew I wasn’t really one of the boys. The only other kid who reflected my gender was Casey from Mr. Dressup. And Casey was a puppet. Once, when I was six, Mom attempted to put me in a dress for shul. I resisted. We struggled. She even tried to sit on me. “Please, Rachel! It’s the High Holidays!” she begged. “I don’t want to!” I yelled back, squirming my way out from beneath her. Back then Mom still cared a little about what people thought and didn’t get that it was actually humiliating for me to wear feminine clothes. Thankfully, she quickly gave up, and I emerged triumphant in ripped jeans and high-tops as we left the house. Staying true to the list of things she would do differently from her mother, it was the last time Mom ever tried to dictate my sartorial choices (or any of my choices for that matter). When I was seven, I told my parents that I wanted to join the local Forest Hill hockey league. Back then there were only boys in the league, so the organizers were apprehensive. But no one said no. Even when I got two penalties in one game, Mom was so proud of me for being the only girl in the league. Her little girl being called a “goon”? She couldn’t have been more pleased. She loved it when the other mothers would tell her that their sons were intimidated by me. “Way to knock ’em dead, sweetie!” she’d cheer. Mom was an out and proud feminist, and she wanted me to be one too. She’d order children’s books from the Toronto Women’s Bookstore featuring strong female characters. (There were only a handful at the time; my favourite was Molly Whuppie, about a clever girl who fearlessly outwits a giant.) I was fully on board with being a baby feminist. I remember Mom teaching me the word “assertive,” although I didn’t need lessons in how to embody it. Mom recalled how, when I was three years old, she tried to scare me into submission. “I’m counting to three!” she warned. “One . . . two . . . three . . .” Apparently I just stood there, unimpressed. “What are you going to do?” I asked. Mom laughed and gave up after that. “I learned I had to go at things slant with you,” she explained yearsl ater. “I couldn’t go head to head. You’d win.” When I was eight, I decided to switch schools. I was bored at my neighbourhood elementary school. I was already able to multiply in parts and do long division, so grade two math just wasn’t doing it for me. “I’m sick of counting animals!” I complained. One day I went to checkout an alternative school called Cherrywood with Barbara and Alimah, who was considering transferring there. What I saw amazed me. There were no walls, teachers were called by their first names, and students could work at their own grade level. Their system made perfect sense to me. That day I came home having made my decision: “I’ve found a better school and I’m going there,” I declared. Mom was totally supportive. She didn’t want me to feel held back, and besides, she was an alternative school teacher herself. On PD days Mom would bring me along to City School, where she taught English and drama. There were posters on the walls with slogans like stop racism and being gay is not a crime, bashing is. I’d stare wide-eyed at the older students with their rainbow mohawks, lip piercings, and knee-high Doc Martens. Teenagers didn’t look like that in Cedarvale. They fascinated me. And they all loved my mom, their rebellious role model. Elaine was an unconventional teacher, even by alternative school standards. She taught a course called “Nature Writing as a Spiritual Path” and got her students to meditate and hug trees. She’d take her writer’s craft class out to cafés to work and encourage them to write freely about whatever was going on in their lives, pushing them to go further than they thought they could go as writers. Mom thought it was important for students to own their education, to be involved, and to have a lot demanded of them. She was incredibly supportive of her students and treated them with more respect than adults usually did. “I wish your mom was my mom,” they’d say to me. I’d roll my eyes, even though deep down I knew how lucky I was. To Mom’s credit, whenever I seriously asked her to change her behaviour, she listened. Unlike her mother, she wanted to be able to hear us. She stopped reading books during my hockey games after I told her I wanted her to watch; she refrained from gossiping about me to her friends when I asked her not to; and she even started bringing me juice when I got sick. “Mommy brought you orange juice!” she’d sing.  But the learning curve sometimes seemed like a gentle slope. I didn’t always feel heard. When I was really upset with Mom, I had to find creative ways of getting her attention. On one occasion when I was about seven, angry about who knows what, I took a pad of paper and wrote “Fuck” on every single sheet. Then, while Mom was out, I went around the house taping up my expletive art—on the walls and furniture, inside drawers and cupboards. There must have been a hundred sheets. I didn’t want to be cruel—I considerately used masking tape so as not to peel paint off the walls—but I did want to get my message across. She’ll see how mad I am, I thought. She’d open the front door and be greeted with “Fuck.” She’d walk into the hallway and see “Fuck.” She’d open the fridge, “Fuck” again. I didn’t get the response I was imagining. I sat at the top of the stairs and watched as she stopped in her tracks, gazed around with wide eyes, and burst out laughing. “Get the camera!” Mom shouted. I came downstairs and joined in the laughter, cheekily posing next to my “Fucks.” I was satisfied to at least get her attention. Like goys finding Easter eggs well into May, mom continued to discover my four-letter treasures for weeks. “I found a ‘Fuck’!” Mom yelled out as she opened the china cabinet to get the Shabbat candles.   My parents weren’t religious, but we still lit candles on Friday night and kept kosher in the house. I resented not being allowed to have Lucky Charms—the marshmallows were considered treif. When Mom actually did make rules, they seemed so arbitrary. I can eat all the sugary cereals I want except the one that’s magically delicious?  By the same lazy logic, I was sent to Hebrew school every Sunday: apparently it was “what Jewish kids do.” I hated it. The idea of God was preposterous to me, the stories were way too far-fetched, and I definitely wasn’t into all the male pronouns. Mom would bribe us with a bacon-fuelled pit stop at McDonald’s on the way (she wasn’t one to care for Commandments of any kind). Mom went along with the kosher thing at home. But when we were out of the house, it was a different story. She’d sometimes buy delicate slices of prosciutto before picking me up from one of my extracurriculars, and on the way home we’d park the car and dangle the mouth-watering strips of meat into our mouths, laughing like criminals. [[{"fid":"6706801","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":{"5":{"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":"5"}}]] In an effort to get my parents to allow me to quit Hebrew School, I emerged from my bedroom one Sunday morning having taped crucifixes all over my clothes (I was crafty with the masking tape). I walked up to Mom and said, “If you don’t let me quit, I’ll marry a Christian!” “So what?” she said, unfazed. “Okay, well then I’ll marry a Nazi!” I shouted. Mom burst out laughing. I’d won her over! They eventually acquiesced, but not without warning me that I wouldn’t be allowed to have a Bat Mitzvah. That was more than fine by me. I wasn’t interested in selling out for some gold bling with my initials on it. And I certainly wasn’t interested in becoming a woman. Although Mom exposed me to sophisticated culture—art galleries, museums, libraries, and culinary adventures—my interests veered more toward puzzles, riddles, and logic games. My teachers thought I might even become a mathematician. But if there was one game that defined me, it was chess. (One of the best parts about going to Cherrywood was that playing chess counted as math.) I started competing in tournaments when I was ten, and would regularly spend my weekends in hotel conference rooms playing with nerdy boys. I was consistently ranked fourth in Ontario in my age group. What I liked most about chess was that chance had nothing to do with it. No need for lucky cards or dice or troll dolls. It was up to me to use everything in my arsenal—logic, calculation, memory, even psychology. Mom would remark on how I never got flustered when I was down. “You don’t give up. You become even more focused,” she’d say with great admiration. I learned to rely on my strategic-thinking skills on and off the board, believing I could think my way out of any problem. In our family, if I argued my case well enough, I could get whatever I wanted. I remember saying to my parents, “If you guys can have coffee in the morning for your caffeine, I can have a Coke.” For some reason, that one worked. “You’re going to make a fine lawyer one day” was a familiar refrain. Mom spent most of her time at home reading. I can still picture her sitting in the living room by the fireplace, a book in one hand and a pink Nat Sherman Fantasia in the other. She wouldn’t even inhale—the thin, pastel-coloured cigarettes with gold filters were just props in her one-woman performance of “I am a Parisian.” She’d put on one ofher French records—Serge Gainsbourg or Edith Piaf—and escape into her French fantasy world. I can still hear Georges Moustaki singing “Ma Liberté.” She played that one a lot.  *** When I was thirteen, my parents divorced, and Mom moved into a bachelor pad she’d inherited from a fellow divorcé. It had one tiny spare room, which became my room. When I stayed with Mom, it was just us. She was now living on only her teacher’s salary, but we’d still go out to restaurants in the neighbourhood. At home we did ear-candling treatments for each other and played a card game that featured feminist writers like Louisa May Alcott, Phillis Wheatley, and Emily Dickinson (Gertrude Stein was the wild card). While I’d be focused on collecting sets of four, Mom would tell me about her literary heroines: “Little Women is really the story of Louisa and her family. Louisa was Jo . . .” Often we’d just talk. More than anything else, talking was our thing. To this day there’s no one in the world I’ve ever had an easier time talking to. What I liked most about Mom’s new place was that we didn’t have to keep kosher. For breakfast I’d often heat up a can of Chunky clam chowder, although most mornings Mom would go out to the corner and bring me back McDonald’s Hotcakes. She’d plop the golden Styrofoam container down on the kitchen table and sing “Mommy made breakfast!” To most people’s surprise, the divorce wasn’t initially that distressing for me. It only really started to hit me once my parents began dating. Just as I was entering adolescence, the two of them began behaving like full-blown teenagers. Mom fell madly in love with a man who was about to move to Albany to be the director of the New York State Museum. She took a sabbatical to study holistic ways of teaching and began a long-distance relationship with him, regularly leaving town for weeks at a time. I missed Mom like crazy when she was gone. It was hard being without her. I would often call her crying, pleading with her to come home. She’d listen to me and lovingly calm me down, but she wasn’t about to get in the car and drive back. She explained to me how important it was for her to have a full life of her own. “I’m not just a mother,” she would tell me. “I need passionate love too.” As gross as it was to hear her say that, I understood that Mom had her own needs. I tried my best to respect her wishes, but there were times when I needed her to be there for me and she wasn’t.  *** It was during those three and a half years while Mom lived part-time in Albany that her journey of self-discovery really took off. The northeastern United States is a hotbed of spiritual retreat centres. Mom began frequenting New Age havens like Kripalu, Omega Center, Zen Mountain Monastery, Insight Meditation Society, and Elat Chayyim, a Jewish renewal retreat in the Catskills. (There, she told me, they’d sit in a circle, with their index fingers touching their thumbs, and chant “Shal-Ommm, Shal-Ommm.”) She often slept in dorm rooms and chopped vegetables alongside college students in exchange for what would otherwise be a thousand-dollar yoga vacation. Mom didn’t need a large income in order to have a large life. Her retreats gave her time and space to work out her issues. She still had a lot of childhood resentment, even though by then she was getting along well enough with her own mother. She was proud that she’d taught her mother to treat her more respectfully. “It’s important to set boundaries,” Mom told me. Before her father died, he’d apologized to her in his Polish-Jewish accent for having not acknowledged her feelings enough. I know that meant a lot to her. But still, Mom was desperate to free herself from her family patterns. She would write unsent letters to her parents as well as responses from the perspective of her ideal mother or father. I was happy that Mom was working out her shit, but sometimes I felt like I had to compete with her inner child. My heart would break every time she drove off in her cappuccino-coloured Honda with its one nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day bumper sticker. I spent a lot of time crying on my own, until one day I decided I wouldn’t cry anymore. I’m not sure if it was due to my natural temperament, my gender identity, or my parents not being fully attuned to my emotional world, but I resolved to toughen up and be a little man. Throughout junior high, I kept a busy schedule with sports and chess. I was on all my school’s sports teams, including the boys’ hockey team, and played competitive hockey, soccer, and softball on the side. I was the city’s school chess champion two years running. [[{"fid":"6706806","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":{"6":{"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":"6"}}]] It was also in junior high that I experimented with being a girl, albeit only part-time. I was invited to friends’ Bar and Bat Mitzvahs almost every weekend and could no longer get away with wearing pants to shul. When Saturday rolled around, I’d trade in my jeans and T-shirts for pantyhose and a dress. My friend Jane helped me pick out girl party attire at the mall and taught me about shaving my legs. My friend Sarah gave me a nudge when she’d catch me manspreading in a skirt in synagogue. Being a girl didn’t come naturally to me, but I passed well enough. Boys liked me, and I even had crushes on them. Though, looking back, I think my attraction was probably more about me wanting to be one of them (or because at that age they looked like cute little baby dykes, with their short hair and smooth cheeks, like little Justin Biebers). Mom brought me along with her to Albany a couple of times. On our last trip there she took me hiking in the Adirondacks. We climbed a steep, rocky trail up Crane Mountain, scrambling our way to the summit. We both felt a great sense of accomplishment as we looked out over the forest-covered mountains below. Mom was proud that she’d taken me, at thirteen, hiking up a three-thousand-plus-foot mountain. “When I was thirteen my mother took me discount shopping for our bonding time,” she told me. On the way down we came to a large pristine pond where we decided to take a break, sitting next to each other on a giant boulder in the shade. Mom pulled out a watercolour set along with some paper. Together, both painting quietly, we stared out at the glistening water and tall beech trees in the distance. It was a serene moment we would often look back on fondly.  A couple of days later Mom broke up with her boyfriend. She’d felt increasingly torn between being with him and being with me in Toronto. I vividly remember seeing her break down in tears as we got in the car to drive home. She was always so conscious never to lean on me that she rarely showed any vulnerability around me at all. Years later, Mom would admit that although she’d wanted a great love, she was scared. “I had a strong feeling that if I married him, I would be happy for a year and miserable for the rest of my life.” When I was fourteen, I decided to live with Mom full-time. By then Mom had moved into the Hemingway. She made a concerted effort to make me feel welcome. This time, she gave me the bigger room. It was during this period, in the mid-'90s, that Mom’s alternative lifestyle began to rub off on me. I went to yoga classes with her and wore a crystal aromatherapy necklace she’d given me as a gift. She took me on road trips to Buddhist monasteries and silent meditation retreats. In the car, we’d take turns listening to her folk music (Joni Mitchell, Phil Ochs, the Stone Poneys with Linda Ronstadt) and my Ani DiFranco, Tracy Chapman, and Indigo Girls tapes. We visited the Kushi Institute for Macrobiotics in Massachusetts, where we sipped twig tea and learned how to cut a carrot properly (from tip to stem) so as not to kill its life force. My teenage curiosity and idealism latched onto these alternative doctrines. I was drawn to the rules and guidance they provided. But for Mom, soul searching was more than just a teenage phase. She was always trying out something new. Trance dancing, magnets, meridian tapping, past-life regression therapy, colour therapy, cranial sacral therapy, chakras, crystals, rolfing, reiki—she would embrace each fad with the same enthusiastic yet noncommittal curiosity every time. Her perspective was, Why not try everything? It doesn’t hurt, and it might lead to unexpected wisdom. And hey, if they kept her looking younger, all the better! She regularly did these Tibetan exercises called “The Fountain of Youth,” where she’d spin around with her arms outstretched. (Mom said that when she first saw “spinning” classes pop up in New York City, she mistakenly thought her exercises were taking off.) I saw the marvel in her New Age dalliances, but I definitely took them with a big grain of Himalayan salt. For Mom, spirituality was like a buffet where she was free to pick and choose what she wanted—she could create her own narrative blend that suited her personality and her needs. It was all about knowing herself better, being able to laugh more about her frailties, and becoming as real as possible. As a feminist, she wanted to own her spirituality without giving herself over to dogmatic ideas or practices. Mom was a badass Buddhist. Of course, she believed that rules were optional, even the ones the yogis wrote. Her Four Noble Truths were coffee, wine, reading, and talking, or what Buddha might call “contraband.” When she was supposed to be staying silent on her meditation retreats, she’d leave me hushed, long-winded voicemail messages: “Hi darling, I’m not supposedto be talking, but I just wanted to let you know I’m okay. Um, it’s so weird to be speaking. . .” She would smuggle in novels and escape to nearby villages to get The New York Times and a cappuccino. When she did a work exchange at Thich Nhat Hanh’s monastery in the south of France, she led a group of fellow volunteers through the surrounding vineyards on a wine-tasting tour. “I was like the pied piper,” she told me. “They all followed!”   *** On my seventeenth birthday I set out on my own journey of self-discovery. My best friend Syd had lent me her copy of The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education. Essentially a recipe for teenage anarchy, the book became our bible. The Good News? Rather than being confined to classroom walls, teens could reclaim their natural ability to teach themselves by following their own curiosity and having real-world experiences. I had seen the light! After reading a few more books on “unschooling,” I knew what I had to do. That January, I finished my last exam of the semester and flew to San Francisco. There, Syd and I hung out with an older anarchist couple we’d met who took us around to protests with their giant papier-mâché puppets. Like Mom, I learned to live large on not much. We couch-surfed at intentional communities in Santa Cruz and Palo Alto and travelled up the west coast of the U.S. on a backpacker bus called the Green Tortoise. We hitchhiked across B.C., working on organic farms in return for accommodation and three wholesome meals a day. As a city kid, it blew my mind to see what broccoli looked like in its natural habitat. To say that I was self-righteous about my decision would be the understatement of the decade. If anyone ever said I was “dropping out of school,” I’d diligently correct them. “I’m not dropping out,” I’d say. “I’m rising out.” I’d always gotten good grades, but I didn’t want to learn that way. I wanted to see the world and have adventures. Mom was a little anxious, but she understood where I was coming from. She was ultimately very supportive, even seeing me off at the airport. “You have guts,” she told me. For the next two and a half years I travelled around the world to hippie hotspots with Syd and some of our other “unschooled” friends. I took silver jewellery–making lessons in Mexico, learned Spanish and taught English in Guatemala, trekked the twenty-day Annapurna Circuit in Nepal, and attended talks by the Dalai Lama at his temple in Dharamsala, India. I was living the teenage dream. I would come home in between my long excursions and stay with Mom just long enough to make the money to go back out again. I worked at a bohemian gift store in Kensington Market that specialized in Ecuadorian sweaters and Circle of Friends pottery. Sure, I’d quit school. But it wasn’t like I was doing drugs—I was mainlining brown rice and Spirulina Sunrise bars. My form of teenage rebellion was being a hippie fundamentalist. I was a strict vegetarian. I used only “natural” body products. I refused to take any pharmaceuticals (not even Tylenol). I hung out at the health-food store as if it were the mall. My uniform consisted of second-hand jeans with colourful patches, striped Guatemalan shirts, and hiking boots—even in the city. And, if that wasn’t bad enough, the surest sign of my hippie cult status? Dreadlocks. It hurts to admit it, but I had ’em. In my meagre defence, it was the late ‘90s, when they were “in style” (and before I learned about cultural appropriation). I also theorize that my Manic Panic–dyed dreads were an expression of my dormant queerness—a gateway to the short dyke-y haircut I subconsciously knew I was moving toward.  ***  One of the biggest perks to ditching high school was that I didn’t have to deal with normal teenage things, like dating. I could totally avoid it. And I did, even if I couldn’t avoid the subject altogether. The first spring after I quit school, Syd and I found ourselves pitching in at a women-only community near Nelson, B.C. This lesbian idyll was on a mountainside, up an old logging road, entirely off the grid. Even their bathtub was wood-fired. One evening a bunch of short-haired wimmin arrived in their trucks, giddy with excitement. One of them had a VHS tape in her hands that she was cradling like some sort of Holy Grail. Our host let us in on the commotion: they were congregating to watch the “Coming Out” episode of Ellen. It was essentially the lesbian moon landing of 1997. They all rushed into action. One of them peeled back a macramé tapestry to reveal a hidden TV in the corner of the livingroom. Another got the generator going. Everyone gathered around for the momentous—if pre-recorded—occasion. For one night only, we would plug back into civilization for the sake of Ellen DeGeneres. I watched as Ellen finally got up the courage to say to Laura Dern’s character “I’m gay,” only to accidentally blurt the words into the airport P.A. system. I laughed out loud, but on the inside I was freaking out. It was the first time I remember seriously thinking, I think that’s what I am. I was a vegetarian who played competitive hockey and softball, who in that moment “happened” to find herself in a room full of lesbian separatists. How many more hints did I need?   *** After many months on the road, bouncing from place to place, the idea of staying put and going to university started to seem appealing—an exciting new adventure in itself. I had some older hippie friends who went to Trent, a lefty liberal arts university just over an hour’s drive from Toronto, and would sometimes visit them there. Their courses in feminist philosophy and alternative media sounded way more interesting than high school. Emboldened by my “bible,” I booked a meeting with the dean and presented my case for why my self-education was just as valuable, if not more, than a high school diploma. He listened to my arguments and asked, “What if we said that if you go back to high school and get your senior year English credit, we will then consider your application?” I shook my head. “I’m not going back,” I said. “It would be compromising my beliefs.”  I was cocky, stubborn, and defiant. I told him that if he wanted to know whether I could read and write I’d be happy to provide some samples of my work. He agreed, and a couple of months later, in the spring after my nineteenth birthday, I received a letter of acceptance. Mom was impressed with how I’d subverted the system, but she was even more in awe of my steadfast—if not insufferable—confidence in myself. “You have a strong centre,” she told me.   *** In stereotypical Sapphic fashion, I met my first girlfriend in my freshman women’s studies class. Anya had short red hair and a wallet chain, and she rode a skateboard. I liked that she was five years older and didn’t seem to give a shit what anyone thought of her. We flirted for several weeks before we finally kissed. I was building up the nerve to tell Mom about Anya when I was home one weekend in December. I knew she’d be accepting, but I was still terrified to come out to her. I was only just starting to come to terms with my sexuality. Besides Ellen and k.d. lang, there weren’t many celesbian role models back then. This was pre–L Word; it wasn’t yet cool to be gay. Same-sex marriage hadn’t been legalized. Matthew Shepard had just been beaten to death. As good as I had it, I was still scared. Mom and I talked about a lot of things, but we’d never spoken about my dating life, or lack thereof. Afraid of prying, she never asked me overtly personal questions, and I never offered up what was actually going on inside my head. At one point that weekend, we were sitting in her sunroom when I finally blurted out, “I’m dating someone.” Before I could even mention Anya’s name, or her pronoun, Mom replied, “Wonderful! Invite her to Solstice!” She didn’t even flinch. Sometimes Mom was too cool.    *** Mom had been planning an intergenerational women’s winter solstice party, which that year happened to fall on a full moon. It would be the first time I’d be introducing my new girlfriend—essentially announcing “Yep, I’m gay!”—to twenty of our closest friends. I didn’t think it would come as a big surprise to anyone, but I still felt nervous and self-conscious. In any case, it soon became clear that I needn’t have worried about being the odd one. When our guests arrived, Mom led everyone through a series of activities. First she got us each to light a candle and share our intentions for the next year. Then she got us all to hold hands, walk around in a circle, and chant, over and over, “Freedom comes from not hanging on, you gotta let go, let go-oh-oh!” (She explained that a witch named Sophia had taught her the chant.) Next she got us all to stand in a circle and make a human web by tossing balls of yarn to one another. We ended up tangled in a big stringy mess. Anya couldn’t stop giggling. Mom thought she was high. I imagine Anya thought the same about Mom. For the pièce de résistance, Mom ushered us all outside into the back parking lot. “It’s time to howl at the full moon,” she announced. We huddled around in our parkas and stared up at the night sky. “Aaah- woooooh, aah-woooooh!” Mom led the group in a series of loud howls. A neighbour soon yelled down: “Shut the fuck up!” “It’s just me! Elaine!” Mom reassured him cheerfully. Anya and I stood on the sidelines howling with laughter. I could see, from Anya’s point of view, how this party, and my mom, might seem a little bizarre. I’d always written Mom off as quirky or eccentric—until I came to realize that she was just as queer as me, if not more. Considering the word’s traditional meaning—“strange, peculiar, off-centre”—I’d say Mom managed to outqueer me at what was ostensibly my own coming-out party.  When I look back on everything now, as someone who’s more comfortable in their genderqueer skin, I remember feeling confident and self-assured about so many things and yet totally strange and unknown to myself. I didn’t quite fit in with either gender or in a world where people just followed the script handed down to them. But Mom’s out-there-ness made it okay for me to be myself and to live life on my own terms, just as she did. I’m immensely grateful to her for that. But in the end, the pendulum may have swung too far—in her approach to me, and more consequentially, to herself.     Excerpted from Dead Mom Walking by Rachel Matlow, available now from Viking.