Posted on November 25, 2015
Note to self: don’t drink fancy local trade coffee at 8pm and binge-watch Jessica Jones. You’ll stay up until four in the morning, flipping through episodes on Netflix while reading through Pank, comforted there are others who write strange, miraculous fiction.
I’ve just finished a draft of an exciting new project. I’ve got the words down but the visual and multimedia aspects aren’t quite there–essentially this is text with customized/commissioned illustrations and images, not the full spectrum I’m trying to achieve. I’ve published a few pieces here, which you can read at your leisure. Part of me wrestles with the joy this project has brought me and the desire for people to read my work–it’s not a new struggle by any stretch of the imagination, but I have to prioritize lasting and fleeting joys. The deep joy is in the creation, collaboration and assembly. The fleeting is in the work’s reception. I have to remind myself, daily, that the success of what I do is not predicated on the velocity of its online movement or perception. If I tether myself to the applause I also have to accept the jeers. I also have to remind myself that I’m playing in a space where inbalance still exists, where women are perceived as good if they’re writing toward white men. I have to wonder if my work will be harder to push into the world because I’m not popular, I don’t have a writerly tribe, I’m not part of the elite, I’m not purely white, and male. But on I go, you know?
The story of my life is wanting what I cannot have or, perhaps, wanting what I dare not allow myself to have. —Roxane Gay
I started seeing a psychiatrist this week (I don’t plan to go into any detail here other than to say I’m focusing on getting well), and he asked me what I wanted from our work. I said two things: not to feel this way, and, more importantly, not to use the words love and loss interchangeably. To return to the things that bring my joy (baking, cooking, photography). Last night, I spent hours on Stocksy (check out my friend Lauren’s work–isn’t she marvelous?!) and I marveled over the talent of teenagers in Slovenia and women in Nebraska. How they have the ability to make you see by the photos they take with a lens. That’s what an artist does–makes you see how they interpret the world, and I wish I had the ability to move through image and type seamlessly. Perhaps because it’ll make this project I’m working on easier. If I could just do it on my own.
I suppose that’s my view on most things–why can’t I just do it by myself, alone?
This morning I baked a bundt cake, trying slowly to return. I curled up next to my cat, existing between the space between sleeping and waking, the space between loving to bake and making myself do it to feel. So that I could see.
INGREDIENTS: Recipe from Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito’s Baked Explorations
3 cups gluten-free flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 large eggs, separated
2 cups organic cane sugar
1 cup plain yogurt
3/4 cup good quality extra virgin olive oil
freshly grated zest of 2 oranges
1 teaspoon vanilla paste or 1 1/2 teaspoons of pure vanilla extract
1/4 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted for dusting
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Generously butter and flour a 1o-inch bundt pan
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.
In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the egg yolks until they are pale and light; slowly pour in the sugar until it is completely incorporated. Add the yogurt and olive oil and mix until thoroughly combined. Add the orange zest and vanilla, and mix until just incorporated.
Add the flour mixture to the wet ingredients in two parts, beating after each addition or until just combined (this will take about 10 seconds). Scrape down the bowl and beat again for 5 seconds.
In another large bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Scoop 1 cup of the egg whites into the batter. use a rubber spatula to gently fold them in. After about 30 seconds of folding, add the remaining egg whites and gently fold until they are almost completely combined. Do not rush the folding process.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 40 – 50 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through the baking time, or until a small sharp knife inserted into the cake comes out clean. Transfer the pan to a wire rack to cool completely. Gently loosen the sides of the cake from the pan (I sometimes use and offset spatula for this) and turn it onto the rack. Just before Serving, dust the cake with the confestions sugar. The cake can be stored at room temperature, covered tightly for about 3 days.
Posted on November 23, 2015
Millie (Credit: Lauren Naefe)
Girl, please. Everyone remembered Felicia, that black girl who jumped out of a window. Lived with her mother and that hustle man Marlon in the projects. Homegirl was half black, technically, although you’d never know it because she had the kind of face that belonged on milk cartons. But that hair, shit gave you whiplash with the double take. White girls don’t have rough hair, all thick and tangled. Like wires. White girls don’t have it like we do.
I remember because I was there, said Sakima digging through a bag of cheese doodles. Back then fifty cents got you a proper meal—a bag of chips and a grape juicy juice. Onion rings and plantains cost you extra but we didn’t play around with that shit because stupid. Back then we flashed our bus passes or hopped the turnstiles on the R train to scrounge uptown for quarters. You’d be surprised how many people left change in the payphone, and we slid our fingers in, and it was just like being in a box of Cracker Jacks only we didn’t get those treats until Christmas, and then you had to go and share your shit because you were Christian (whatever that means) even though you fell asleep in church when you went and woke to your mom slapping you in the face for being insubordinate. Where did you get that word, you snapped back. Doing crossword puzzles? That type of smart mouthing got you a backhand slap and no dinner. Everyone in the house was scheming, perfecting their eye-roll. Everyone hissed: you did this to yourself.
You was there, ‘Kima? Bugging. I was with Millie trying to sell this Walkman we found at Sunset. The plan was hot dogs and a pretzel but then we ran into Thomas and Judy and they were like, let’s listen to some tapes, and we ended up in their apartment dancing to Taylor Dayne. When we left it was dark out and we knew we were going to catch the beats for certain. But there was Felicia, waving at us. Like she knew we were coming. Like we were supposed to be there all along. And we waved back because we’re not anti-social. Her moms would sometimes sneak us hot muffins when the Greek wasn’t looking so Felicia at least deserved a wassup. So we gave it, and then we saw her knees on the ledge, and she was waving but not to us, not to nobody, and then we started to wonder what was up. We thought maybe we should go over and ring her bell—but then no. Then she fell or jumped out, I don’t know, and then her body was on the ground and her neck broke and you wouldn’t believe the blood and I remember that night because nobody caught the beats. Everyone got a free pass, because what business did that white girl have breaking out? (She half white, stupid! Bitch, whatever.) We remember Felicia and the books she carried around with her in that blue backpack. We remember how her mom dressed her up like a baby, but she wasn’t a baby. She was ten and why did she jump out of a window?
You think Marlon was her father? Shit, girl. He’s everybody’s father. What do it even matter? He wasn’t behind her, pushing her out. He was out, hustling for the pipe. The only reason she made the news was because oh the tragedy of a white girl in the projects. Half white, she was half white. Yeah, but you know white people—they don’t know the difference. You heard what happened to her mom, right? Came home from work and found her daughter, eyes wide, on the sidewalk. The police didn’t even cover her proper, they just stood around her, taking pictures, writing things down, and yelling at us to stay back. Stay back? We live in that building. Anyway. Her mother took all the books out of her backpack and off the shelves and tore out the pages. Crumbled them up and shoved them in her mouth so we couldn’t hear her scream. Come to think of it, we never saw her mother cry. She just went back to waiting tables, writing things down, and yelling at us to stay away from the fucking muffins.
How old was you? Hmm…ten, eleven, I think. But that wasn’t the first body we saw—it was one of the few we remember. Because she white? Nah, it was nothing like that. Sakima laughed. She turned away from the midday sun because it hurt her eyes. She thought about the shades in her backpack if they would be useful, and then she decided against it because shades weren’t appropriate for the conversation. This kind of talk required eyes. Maybe I remember because that’s the age when we started losing people, Sakima said. Or maybe it was how she looked. How she look? Happy.
The girls from the neighborhood (Credit: Lauren Naefe)
I talked to her once, said Millie, playing cat’s cradle with Luz. Luz wore red lipstick and was used to always winning. But Millie kept on playing because the idea of a single victory, something she could shout up and down the block and then some, kept her going. Even if a victory was an impossibility, even though Millie was the kind of girl who would be there when a girl they sort of knew fell out of a window but couldn’t tell the story about it, she kept playing. Look at Sakima, acting all philosophical. As if she knew Felicia. As if she knew what was going on in that girl’s head. As if we didn’t all know that she copied Felicia’s poems and passed them off as her own. Millie didn’t know much, but she knew this: we don’t know anything about the people we do and do not know.
¿Qué dijiste, Millie? Millie shook her head. She didn’t remember, but she did, but how could she tell her girls about the time when Felicia pointed to one of the books she carried, one with two white girls on the cover wearing soft sweaters and pearl earrings, and wondered aloud if she could jump in. Millie didn’t understand. Jump in as in fight, as in dive in the pool? White girls were always saying crazy shit. No, Felicia said. Would it ever be possible for us to go in and stay there, in their world, their life? In a life where their greatest fear would be losing the money they would never lose because happy ending.
Right then Luz fell on her back, eyes wide, mouth open so you can see the molars and crooked teeth, and said, was this what she looked like?
Disrespecting bitch, this ain’t the Land of Make Believe. She looked like someone would look if they fell out of a four-story window. Everyone had bars on their windows now. Unless you lived in the basement because who cares, you didn’t have windows to fall out of.
Cálmate. Next year Luz had a baby because she wanted someone to love her, and a year later the baby crawled out of its crib, hungry, and broke its neck when it landed on the floor. Luz was at a house party in Brownsville for a few hours and ended up in Jersey at some brother’s house, a rock hustler who told her she was the kind of woman made for making babies. She came home a day later to find her brother smoking in the living watching MTV on the hot box and he said, it’s weird your baby’s mad quiet. Did you leave it with titi? No, she did not. In juvenile detention, she told her sister to take the dead baby’s clothes for the new one she was carrying. What if it’s a boy? Luz shrugged her shoulders because who cares until they can walk anyway? Everyone filed in, shaking their heads. You could’ve been somebody if you hadn’t fucked up your permanent record. But now, right now, Luz lay on the grass, playing Felicia. Playing dead.
She told me she read all those books because she thought she could get in them, Millie said. That’s what she said. She lived for the possibility of not being here and when she found the possible, impossible, she wrote her own happy ending. What does that even mean, Millie? Millie pulled on her sweatshirt and held her elbows in, close. The fabric had started to wear, but Millie liked this, the feeling of skin under cotton—like feet under sheets. Protected, safe. There was the math test she didn’t study for and the personal essay she couldn’t write because how do you explain what it felt like when your mom stopped looking for work—I’m stupid, why bother, and guess what, you belong to me so you’re stupid too—when she waited in line the first and fifteenth of every month, and how those two days would be the happiest her family would ever know. Millie wore Sakima’s old shoes and read the poems her best friend stole from a dead girl, passing them off as her own.
What happened to Marlon? Stupid question. What do you think happens to a young brother selling rock? He got cut, in the neck, but check it—he didn’t die from the knife. He drowned in his own blood. That’s what you get when you go fucking with Dominicans from The Bronx. Never get high on your own supply, we chorused.
Felicia was a white girl who could pass, said some random who just rolled up. I never knew her, but I lived in her building. I never talked to her, but I saw her play jump rope with herself a couple of times, so we definitely met. She asked me to play once. She held out her rope. But I said nah, I have somewhere to be, and she looked down at the ground like she was studying it, and said, no problem, and went back to jumping rope behind the gate. I felt bad about that because I didn’t have any place to be—I just didn’t want to be seen with some white girl playing rope. Know what I mean?
We nodded in our own way.
Remember that party her mom had in her house when she was dating Neysa’s man, Keith? Everyone remembered that. We didn’t because we were maybe 5 or 6, but our parents still talk about it. It wasn’t that Felicia’s mom ignored her because what parent didn’t. We were forever being told to shut up, go to your room, go outside, don’t bother me, and don’t you have something to do? Don’t your teachers give you homework? You want to end up in this shithole like me? Since you got a smart mouth you asked, is that a hypothetical? Lesson: you’re never too old to catch the beats. Anyway. Maybe Felicia didn’t get the memo on account of her being so young and all, but she kept taking sips of Barcardi from everyone’s cups and there she go—a little girl holding a bottle of Brut, drinking out of it, like she on the stoop. She was drunk and pretty and funny and she was five and it was sad because no one told her what we were only here because having children was something women did. You weren’t something your family paid attention to or loved. And that was the hurt—everyone in the room knew this except for the child who didn’t. That’s the kind of shit you shake your head to because it damn near breaks your heart.
What you girls got going on for tonight? Nothing much. The usual—chill.
Later that night while Sakima slept Millie opened her binder and removed all of Felicia’s poems. Millie read them and felt a kind of sadness that she would spend her life forgetting. In magic marker, Millie wrote Felicia’s name over and over like she was at the blackboard getting punished. Sakima woke to find Millie out on the fire escape smoking a loosie she got at the store for ten cents. Kicking pigeons in Sakima’s old shoes. What you doing out here in the cold? You didn’t write those poems, Millie said. You need to stop telling everyone you did. It’s not right. Millie was crying—her face was a mess of tears, and Sakima didn’t know what to say to her best girl she known since they were little. Their mothers said they crawled to one another. Millie fell over because Millie, but she crawled under Sakima and Sakima liked to think about that especially now when Millie looked at her like she was a prison from which she sought her escape.
Luz came home and pressed her head up against the bars of her window thinking that Felicia was smart. Felicia had an open window to jump out of while Luz had the possibility that she might be pregnant. That her period was the one thing she actually missed. Maybe if she asked the girls and they all got the change together she could buy one of those tests from the pharmacy so she could freak for real. She cried, and after her mother ripped the hair out of her head for not taking out the garbage, she looked around their apartment and then at her tiny stomach that would inevitably bloom. Her house was a prison and her stomach…well that was freedom.
After a while, everyone forgot because there’s always another Felicia. A little girl named Shareen who was thrown down a flight of stairs because her mom was high and thought that was the logical thing to do. Shareen was five with pink barrettes in her hair and people could hold onto a tragedy that wasn’t of one’s own making. The possibility of Shareen made headlines. Nobody remembered Felicia’s mother, the woman who still worked at that diner, who wore those white nursing shoes, pad in hand, asking in a voice that had flattened with age and the sadness that only loss could bring, can I take your order?
Two posts in one day, crazy? Here’s another taste from the new book. Enjoy! –FS
Posted on November 22, 2015
Leave me alone. Let me have my wine and my poison and let me be done with it. You tantrum your way through a screen to let me know you can see the stains on my mouth, the amber liquid in my glass — reminding me of what I can and cannot have. I am on a spit, roasting, turning and turning from your admonishments. Let the darkness that surrounds me rise up, and watch me fall out of windows and claw under doors. Can you see my desperate fingers stained black from your reprisals? You once worked your way through my hair while I apologized. I’m sorry everything with me takes so long. You send me papers that instruct me to Get Well Soon and I think: and then what? What happens in the space between wellness and not wellness? Do we mime our despair? Perhaps winter will breathe out my sadness, diminish it. Do we stand under deciduous trees with mouths gaped wide? Do we harvest what’s in the earth in hopes that we can pry the cobwebs out of their sleeping mouths so they can tell us what they’ve learned? We plunge those desperate fingers inside to only feel the rough edges of cold coins. Notice where your fingers go when you say your mother’s name, a doctor tells me. I want you to know that I tried to play happiness, but the graft didn’t take, and the fingers become hands that lock doors, and open faucets and bottle caps and sharpen razors and then finally, I feel the embrace of the clean and cool quiet. I will purple. I will sleep with hands in tight fists. My subtractions will multiply multitudes. The glass of still water on my desk warms while I cool. There are no temperatures here. There is a yard of me and I feel hideous and weeded.
Where is the rain when I’m feeling this brave and reckless?
Can you give me permission to go? No, I will not. You have traveled screens and now you orbit a room that resembles a womb, only it’s white and there are bars on the windows. You tell me I was once happy, coaxing what you need from my dry mouth. Yes, I was happy but I was mostly unhappy and what would be the point of living for a number of smiles I can count on one hand when I’m drowning in oceans that are my tears and the sorrow of others who’ve had to bear the burden of my grief. I look outside. The day pulls taut and sours. While the nurses take my temperature, I tell you that I’m tired of being necrotic. I was momentarily purple, but you discovered my cooling body and now I’m back to fucking black. Look at my fucking face, all covered in ruin — everyone’s minor injury. Speak your white noise and leave. Please? You say: did you know you took enough pills to spell out the words I tried so hard to be happy. You say did you know this? And then the razor, the fucking razor I sigh. Of course, I did. I made the words. I’m not one of those cry-for-help types.
The doctor swans in and announces that visiting hours are over. He administers the drugs and you fall out of focus. The days don’t make demands of me so why do you? Why do you insist I go on, I can’t go on?
Doctors scan my skeleton and I ask them what my bones say. Are they trying to hold on to my entropy? Watch for the edges, they’re perforated. Big shock, my appendages are sad.
Make me understand, you say. I shrug. It’s simple, really. I am sad because I’ve never become acquainted with happy. I drink because I am sonnets — my body is too small to house all of this pain so I fill bottles. I’ve been flickering off and on, on and off, what else is there to know? Why do you want what I can’t give you? Trust me, my body is a province and it’s in revolt. If I walked in the world I would crack. Now do you see? Next time can you bring me a carton of eggs? Why? I want to count the children.
One day you come and tell me stories. You stole someone’s laundry. There was a shirt you wanted to buy a few years ago and by the time you had the money it was too late, and wouldn’t you know there it goes like a Ferris Wheel in the dryer in your building, and the shirt was the only thing you took and you’re wearing it now and I say that it suits you. You ask me why I’m smiling; it’s been ages since you’ve seen that shape on my face. It never occurred to me that you would be capable of taking. You have been here for a month and all you do is eat tacos, browse surplus stores, and fit your feet over the cemented footprints of stars. Go home, I say. My father will take the night shift. You ask me if this — the bed, the doctors, and the drugs — was about my mother, about not having time.
It’s simple but not that simple. Don’t reduce this to the sum of someone else’s parts. Does the crack of ice in a glass resemble the crunch of bones underfoot? I don’t say this out loud because I need to leave this place so I can go home and do what I need to do. I need to complete. The woman across the hall practices her primal screams. The color of her pills is different from mine — this much I know.
My father tells me that he has no idea what I’m thinking. My father’s favorite word is coffee. Coffee was a demand, a question, and an answer. Coffee opened and closed are conversations and was the blanket we were tethered to. What are you thinking? What were you thinking? There are tears in his eyes. There is a photograph of him on a horse and he is shimmering and young and I cry independent sad movie tears when I say, coffee.
There’s no going home to the home we think we know. No, no, no home for me. I hold a blank book in my hand and it is filled with your memories. Do you remember the photographs of us — few exist — and we are ghost white and smiling? Knowing that one would soon follow the other to our natural conclusions?
My father doesn’t understand. I was so solid. Things were going well. (All those Get Well Soon cards and well wishes!) I shake my head because I am not a canister. I am the lid of a coffin opening and closing to the hum of the telluric dark. He doesn’t take the joke well. I am a wound where no flesh comes with its warm coverlet. My father tells me he needs me to get better. I nod because I’ve taken inventory of everyone’s needs.
We need you to get better soon. We need you to not open bottles and drink them. We need you to not open pill bottles and swallow the contents. We need you to ignore certain “contents”. We need you to steer clear of sharp objects. We need you to tattoo the shape of a smile on your face. We need you to kick this, snap out of this, forget this, move on from this, and be better than this.
I’m aware of what you do and do not need.
My friend flies home because she’s run out of money and I send her a credit card check for my limit. My father reasons that I’ll be fine with fresh air and walks on the water. Months have passed and I am tired now. I approach a mailbox and it’s hard to see and walk straight and I mail him the Polaroid’s of my slow wave goodbye and there is the water behind me and I write coffee over and over in black ink. You are right. I’ll be fine by the water and under the air. They will carry me coffee, home, coffee.
Author Note: Going forward, I’ll be publishing short pieces of fiction from my new short story collection, multimedia thing, here instead of Medium. If you like what you’ve read, let me know! :)
Posted on November 10, 2015
Nobody told Marlon that he would grow up hustling rock. He was thirty years old when he died, but he had the face of a boy fresh out of the crib leaping onto the playground. Kicking sand out of sandboxes and twisting the iron chains that held up tire swings. Yet underneath his skin you’d find scales webbing from his hands to the small of his back and cartons of cigarettes smoked down to the filter. Meaning, he came out of the womb all Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? even though he was far from the aging actress whose star had managed to darken an already black sky. You know how the story ends and how it wasn’t supposed to be what it was, but if you’re game and have the time lean in for a listen. Because nobody did suffering like Marlon—he reached for the dark far more than he stood in the sun.
Marlon was the miracle child, a stone that held its weight. Eve was set to have her tubes tied because what did she need with another girl in the family when she already birthed three of them? Children were a chorus of puckered mouths clamoring for the teat. Smacking their lips with that wet sound they make. The years had cradled her in sorrow. Kids she knew hopped off roofs and fell out of windows. The junk-sick lay, arms outstretched, their eyes and the tips of their fingers jaundiced. And although the police finally arrived three hours later from the time you called them, they still managed to toss lit matches into burning buildings. There they go covering the bodies with soiled sheets because they ran out of tarp, but you could still see a row of toes, a patch of unblemished skin peeking out. Cancer and tumors emerged as the new breath-robbers because who could afford to go to the hospital and wait the night it took you to see a doctor who would only tell you that the swarm advanced, your body was a contagion of growths, and here are a few things left for you to consider. Have you thought about your final days? We thought about the dolls we used to have and how we hid coins, marbles and baby teeth in the trap doors that were their insides. Flip open our flap of fabric and there goes death multiplying. Did we think about our last days? Sure we did. Hand me my smokes, do my hair good, dress me in my Sunday best, and leave me out with the rest of the trash because no way can we scrape together the bills needed for a funeral. Slow-sing over the heap of us, will you? Sing me Nina Simone, as loud as you can.
People laughed during episodes of Good Times that played on televisions suspended from the ceiling, although we knew that times were far from good. Somewhere, in the distance a phone rang. The forecast called for thundersnow. A woman studied a piece of paper, a form she was supposed to complete. I can’t read. We have these forms in Spanish, the receptionist said with a kindness that made the woman who held her frayed purse close grip it tighter. The woman shook her head and stared at the floor. Come here, mamí, the receptionist said. Let me read it to you.
What kind of lie are you living, said Eve’s friend when she learned that Eve was pregnant again. There you go thinking that another kid will increase your monthly check. Eve was carrying a boy and the father was who knows because it was 1974 and there was a party every night, and Eve sang the Chi-Lites on volume ten to all the boys in the room even though she didn’t have a movie star voice. Instead, Eve had the kind of body you wanted to wind around bed sheets. Eve swore this was the last one and what she was going to do—kill the boy in her body? Girl, please. Pause your nonsense. Marlon wasn’t about a paycheck; he’s going to be good to his mama. He’s going to be the one man who stays.
The night Marlon was born Eve threw her 8-tracks out the car window on the way to the hospital. Eve drove with one hand at the wheel, breaking lights. Her water broke twelve weeks early and she knew this couldn’t be good. Her body hurt like Riker’s, and Eve wondered if this what happened when you were a mother to a child making a prison break from the womb. In the emergency room Eve sprawled across two plastic chairs and pushed out a small mess of a child that weighed three pounds while the girls behind the desk were snapping their fingers to Rose Royce, and will you bitches get out here because there’s blood on the floor, blood everywhere, this black boy is fucking blue, and will someone call a doctor? Will someone cut the cord?
Marlon was a black boy gone blue, but he kept on breathing. Two months later Eve brought him home and the girls rubbed the sleep out of their eyes and wondered how five pounds of hostility could cause so much ruin. Behind his back, the girls called Marlon the leftover child because he was what remained when your mother got passed around one too many times. Even Eve knew that her child would be like all the other men in her life, a body that slept on top of sheets, never between them. One foot poised at the edge of the bed, ready to run. Six months in the womb, and already the boy was making a break for it—Eve had all the evidence she needed.
Notice how no one’s claiming him, said one daughter whose father came by once a month with Starburst and coloring books. Someone beat him hard with the ugly stick, the other two laughed while Marlon crawled around the linoleum. They kept the shades drawn; they lived a house where the light couldn’t get in. The girls sidestepped his groping hands while Eve worked the night shift. Rarely was he kissed. Rarely was he held.
Bitch, what did I tell you about touching me, said Marlon riding a girl called Lenny. He was thirteen and spent his days bussing to a magnet school in Park Slope and hitting up any girl who had grass on the field come evening. Marlon preferred girls who looked like “before” photos because they were grateful for the crumbs while the “afters” were throwing attitude in every direction. Marlon pushed Lenny off the bed to work on his exponents. Why did everyone need to get physical? You can at least help me with my homework, she grumbled pulling on her clothes. Peering over his shoulder, Marlon laughed. Are you wearing Care Bear underwear? Shit. You need to take your ass back to remedial because the only way you’re going to learn math is by lying on the bed issuing numbers to the homeboys outside the door. Now go on and get the fuck out of my house.
Marlon rode the bus to Bed Sty to hang with Eric, who was putting together the money to make a record. Marlon amused Eric because of the way he could do complicated math in his head. You threw numbers at the young brother and he gave you an answer on the exhale, and Eric thought some kid speed-balling multiplication tables in the chorus might make a rhyme worth repeating. Why Marlon wanted to mess around with the corner boys mystified Eric, but he never mentioned it and always slipped Marlon a twenty just for stopping by. Eric knew it took two trains and a bus for Marlon to stand on the corner shuffling his feet and eating Dipsy Doodles while all the base heads on the block lifted their shirts for a piece of the rock, thinking their skin was going to help the cause. You’re going to catch the fade, the boys hollered back, shielding their eyes with their hands because they all knew the story of Medusa and they didn’t want to turn to stone. One day Eric leaned in and said, I heard about your mom, and Marlon shrugged his shoulders because, so what, he hardly knew the woman. You don’t miss what you don’t have, even when the woman’s body whittled down to a mess of scraggly limbs and bone and flashing going out of business signs. You don’t love what you don’t know, even when the lesions told the story of a woman who’d been passed around one time too many. When Eve died no one rented the apartment she lived in, even after the super bleached the place and repainted the walls because no one wanted to live in the same place where a disease you couldn’t cure had festered and bred.
When Eve’s body was laid into a casket, Marlon ate stolen hog dogs in the park, crying his own quiet, miracle baby tears. That summer there was no shade, only sun, and it was gold and blinding. That summer Marlon slept naked on a bed stripped of sheets because even the fabric hurt. Cotton threatened his skin. Everyone was watching reruns of Good Times, talking about when times were good. Girls were discussing their tag names—Coco, Sugar, or Queen Lethal—because no one wanted to sit in their skin.
The year Eve died we found out our pastor got the sickness too and was on his knees praying for forgiveness. The Lord ain’t got time for that bullshit, said everyone on the block, passing around cups of Folgers from Ginny’s pot. Some cowboys from the Bronx shot Eric at point-blank range because everyone was having greed for dinner. Nobody made a record that year. The corner boys filed into Eric’s house for potato salad and pork cutlets, and Marlon was so tense he couldn’t speak except to whisper the times table in front of Eric’s high school graduation photo taped to his mom’s fridge.
Marlon was a black boy born blue, but he kept on breathing.
The black and white television cast the room in blue and Marlon leaned over the edge of the bed to where Felicia watched a late night movie about a man who killed a woman and got away with it, and said, I could be your daddy if you want me to. Felicia stared at the television screen, unblinking when she said, that’s not what I’m looking for. She was eight and he could tell she appreciated the sentiment. You’re a little young to be watching a movie about girls getting killed. Felicia shrugged her shoulders, smiled and pointed to the screen covered in snow. What’s on there is no different than what’s out there. They sat alone in the dark like a Hopper painting, and Marlon had to agree. You had to give it to the girl—she had a point. Marlon heard her mother spray the perfume that smelled like real flowers instead of the fake ones everyone had in their homes, and Felicia said in a small voice, how long are you going to stay, Marlon—longer than the rest? I don’t know, he said. Maybe I’ll hang a while.
Earlier that day: you remember my boy, Eric? Oh, you don’t? But you know your son, right? Little T? Here’s a picture I took of him—I like to think of this as the before because the after snap you don’t want to see. It’ll be one the coroner takes once they fish your boy out of the river. I wish you were there to watch Little T beg for his life, but don’t worry, I made you a tape and I’m going to play it for you twice. Marlon lived for the unexpected plot twist.
Marlon’s home became a revolving door of need. You’re crazy for selling crack where you rest at, said his boy Jamal. There was his eldest sister who was already burning a hole through the door after cashing her check. Maria was angling for a family discount, and if that didn’t work they could negotiate a friendlier rate. Put your clothes back on, Marlon said, shutting his eyes. Maria wrapped a blanket around her and cried playground tears at the kitchen table. They’re coming for me because my baby girl died in her sleep. I can hear them, she said, knocking on the wall. They’re in here, in the walls, listening. We have to be quiet; you have to give me a little taste so they go away. So I can to sleep. Remember mama and how she used to sing us to sleep? Marlon shrugged his shoulders because the only songs he remembered where the ones she sang on the other side of his wall, never in his room.
Marlon held his sister’s trembling hand over a bowl of spaghetti. Maria begged for darkness and unmolested sleep. Felicia turned nine and from the other room she said: just give her what she wants. Maria passed out on the couch. Marlon held his head in his hands while Felicia drew tears under Maria’s eyes with a ballpoint pen. In a year’s time, Felicia will lie in a morgue with a hangtag tied around her wrist and Maria will lie unconscious, a price tag swinging from her bedpost like a pendulum. But now, right now, Felicia was crying the tears she drew on Maria’s face. Sometimes your sadness scares me, Marlon said. Sometimes it scares me too.
Sad wasn’t a good enough word for what Felicia was—Marlon would sooner or later learn this.
Marlon didn’t like pools because they reminded him of oversized coffins. But he liked to swim so he took a pretty girl named Luz to Brighton Beach. Luz was the kind of girl you got when you were big enough to sell rock on consignment. What was she going to do in Brighton? There were no fun house mirrors, cyclones, and Nathan’s Famous—at Brighton Russian grandmas, overcharging for the air you breathed, surrounded you. Marlon and Luz split a knish when Marlon asked if she ever considered that a single haircut could ruin a whole doll’s life? When he was small his sister passed down a life-sized doll called Big Michelle whose eyes had fallen out. He carried Big Michelle everywhere until some B-boys hanging out behind the A&P knocked out his front teeth because boys don’t play with dolls and you should happy we’re teaching you a lesson. Marlon dragged Big Michelle along the pavement and when he got home he set fire to her hair and cut where the flames didn’t go.
When you’re small your mother tells you to be careful when you cross the street. Look both ways. But sometimes your mother isn’t there or she looks away when you cross or doesn’t say anything at all. Boys who broke out from the womb were bound to find their way, right?
You’re creeping me out, Luz said while perfecting her hair flip. Tell me about Felicia. I heard you were the one who found her body. I heard they found pieces of her skull in the alleyway. Marlon punched Luz in the middle of the street, and everyone looked the other way. When she got home she told everyone who would listen about what Marlon did, and then she called a brother in the Bronx and told him a story about a boy named Little T. A month later neighbors reported a smell and the police found Marlon in the bathtub with a knife in his head.
Marlon was a black boy born blue, and one day he stopped breathing. The police found a notebook he kept, and inside was a torn piece of paper and the words: you stayed longer than most. Know that you did the best you could do. –Felicia
*It’s been challenging to write in this space over the past month because I’ve become so absorbed in this story collection. Right now I’ve 140 pages of stories about women in and out of peril, tentatively titled, Women in Salt. The stories span decades, class and racial boundaries, and it’s been a joy to move in and out of voices. I’m living off meager savings, but I believe in this project so much that I’m commissioning custom illustrations and photography to take these pieces to another level–for you to feel something deeper about what’s written on the page. Right now I’m using images from Unsplash.com as place-holders but I’ve got exciting plans for this. I’ve published a complementary story, “Broke Land”, on Medium and There Was No Shade, Only Sun. And while most might think this endeavor to be silly or not financially sound (because story collection), I’m enjoying this. I’m enjoying this regardless if people read it, regardless if it’s published in book form. I hope you enjoy these stories as much as I love writing them. If you love this, why not share it with someone else? –FS
Posted on November 8, 2015
I read a post this week, one of those exhausting listicles from someone who purports to have learned universal truths and feels impassioned to pass them along. I hate these lists because they carry an assumption that life is neatly demarcated, as if a decade of years can be excised and put under a microscope for observation and analysis without realizing that truth doesn’t reveal itself in a linear continuum. I never compare decades, rather I think of what I’ve learned, and more importantly, unlearned, in the context of a complete life. We’re forever trying to figure things out; we’re always students and teachers at once–the only difference that age brings is the shifting balance between the two. In Hridaya Yoga, there’s a concept called spanda, or the primordial tremor of the heart, and I like to think of this in terms of pulsation between points in time–a present heart oscillating between the past and future, and life feels as if you’re always reconciling the two. There are things I knew about life intuitively when I was 10 that I struggle with now, at 39, and vice versa.
When I was ten I started to realize that you could lose people. Kids hopped off roofs and fell out of windows. The junk-sick lay, arms outstretched, in the park, their eyes and fingers jaundiced. And although the police have covered their bodies you could still see their toes, a patch of skin. People took pills, lots of them, and fell into a dark, undisturbed sleep. Cancer and tumors serve as breath-robbers and we lie on the pavement trying to memorize the license plates of cars that read, I keep on living. Time doesn’t take it, rather it shows you the inventory of what has been lost and how you’ve navigated your way through sorrow and fear, how you continue on as one of the living until you’re the one somebody cries over. You have become paper-thin, ash, a figure in the past tense. In the space between you will lose and you will be lost, you exist in the phrase, I am here. In the present, I order $400 worth of end-of-the-world supplies (iodine tablets, masks, 3,500 calorie food bars and packaged water) because you never know. In the present, I meet an extraordinary poet, a fellow introvert who skulks in corners and writes operas, and I think it used to take me a bottle of wine to walk into a room and wonder if meeting people, the excruciating fear of it, will get easier.
It’s easy to meet people but hard to cultivate a tribe, and while part of me aches for my friends back home and the ease with which I could see them, I love being in California because it affords me the thing which I thought inconceivable–a fresh start. And what I know at 39, I knew at 10–sometimes it wonderful to know someone without the burden of your history. The burden of that specter–who you used to be–no longer exists, and there is the only the present and the future and you’re retelling of your history.
I’ve spent much of my life as the caretaker of my own company. This is not a cause for slow-singing–I prefer solitude, however, I know the downside of that: the fear of never finding where I fit. The unease that accompanies an odd sort of voyeurism–while I prefer to be distant from things I sometimes long to be a part of things, and my struggle is achieving a balance between the two. Facebook is sometimes terrible in the way that it reminds me of all the things of which I’m not a part while at the same time providing a forum for which I can meet new people. Facebook reminds me that I’ll have to get blurbs for my book at one point and it’s harder because I’m not part of the “club”. Facebook reminds me of all the conversations I feel intimidated to participate in because I’m not part of the conversation. Most times I feel like an interloper, eavesdropping on conversations, skirting the edges. Most times I’m reminded that I’m not a part of something. Part of me is fine with this because belonging has its own set of rules, etiquette, and potential baggage, but what I knew at 10 is the same as 39–we yearn for people, we long for a place to lie down our head.
Last night I met a few extraordinary artists. One of them approached me as I was studying my story, head-down in a corner. Another came over because she preferred the quiet of corners too. An old friend, the host of the event, interrupts the conversation and I talk to her about her work. A decade ago she published a remarkable story collection and time and the business of work has altered her affection for work. We talk about the installation she’s created on the wall–a visual odyssey of her zig-zag journey across the country–all in an effort to understand and reconcile loss. She’s struggling with the project because the journey wasn’t (and isn’t) a linear one. The story doesn’t start at point A and ends with point B, rather depending on where you are in your life when you enter the story you might cleave to point C. Or point D may be your beginning. The narrative alters itself based on your experience (or point-of-view). I told her that I started the installation at one place, the middle, and the mess, and found myself reading not from left to right, not to establish a point of entry, rather I tried to understand her journey as a kaleidoscope, where one oscillates between confusion and clarity and the only thing that time brings is an accumulation of experience. And while she’s back in Los Angeles and has some sort of roots planted, she’s still traveling and I get it. I’m here, but I’m still traveling. I moved here because it offers the advantage of geography–physical and emotional space on terrain that is new, undiscovered, and alive.
At 10, at 18, 24, and 39, I’m still nomadic. I’m still trying to find my tribe.
1 qt (2 pints) low-sodium, organic/local chicken stock (or you can use vegetable)*
1 shallot finely diced
2 tbsp unsalted butter
1 tsp chopped fresh sage
1 cup of arborio rice
5 tbsp of pumpkin puree (you can use canned pumpkin, but DO NOT use pumpkin pie mix. This is a common mistake as both products are merchandised alongside each other)
2 tbsp truffle goat cheese (you can use regular goat cheese, as well)
1 tbsp pecorino romano cheese
1/4 tsp sea salt; 1/2 tsp white pepper
*1 quart is the equivalent of 32oz or 2 lbs
In a large pot, bring the stock to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Keep this pot next to our sauté pan, as you’ll need to continually ladle from the stock to the skillet, so proximity is key.
In a large sauté pan (translation: a skillet that can hold 3-4 quarts), sauté the shallots and salt on medium heat until translucent (1-2 minutes). Add the sage and stir for another 30 seconds. Pour in the rice and cook until the rice is translucent and browns slightly, approximately 1-2 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low. You do not want burned onions or rice, so if this starts to happen ladle in liquid immediately. Do you want to sob over burnt risotto? My guess is NO WAY, NO DAY.
Add the stock, 1/2 cup at a time, and stir, and stir, and stir, until all of the liquid is absorbed. Keep ladling in the liquid in increments until all of the water is absorbed and the stock is thick and creamy. Remember, risotto isn’t a dish that will cook itself, it requires dedication, so be prepared to stand in front of the stove stirring for 20-30 minutes. I’ve been blasting Lil Wayne’s “I Feel Like Dying” in these sorts of parallel parking scenarios.
Once all of the water has been absorbed, stir in the pumpkin and pepper until the risotto transforms into a satiny orange. Mix in the cheese. Stir for a good minute and serve hot.
Posted on November 4, 2015
“At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace. It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your heart, your back, your brain, and then — and only then — it is handed to you.” –Anne Dillard on Writing.
Eleven years ago I sat in a small office facing Nathan Englander. He held two copies of a short story I’d written: one was unblemished and the other was a massacre of red ink. I remembered staring out the window, staring through it, as Nathan spent the next two hours recounting the bloodletting.
This was at Columbia—I had returned to the writing program from a two-year leave (parenthetical: don’t do drugs.Don’t) and found it changed. Line writing had come back into fashion and everyone was obsessed with the architecture of the sentence. Stories became less about people and the things that happened to them, instead they morphed into complicated maps, the kind you fold in sixteen, the kind that took you more time than you were willing to spend to find where you were. In the time it took to find yourself, you’d become exhausted from the journey, because who wanted a map, a compass, and a CIA operative just to find your way around the block? That’s what line writing felt like, and I found myself editing stories that read beautifully but meant nothing.
I wasn’t that kind of writer. I’d been writing since I was a child, only I didn’t have a voice because I’d spent my life swallowing it. I wrote sad stories where everyone had complicated feelings and died. I lived in a dark country where lights would flicker and inevitably flare out. This was a place I knew; I’d spent the greater part of my life navigating the terrain, and the only challenge was how much further I’d be willing to go.
I think about the controversy that surrounded the movie, Kill List. Viewers were furious because Ben Wheatley didn’t turn the camera away from extreme violence. He boxed you in, forced you into a place of anguish and discomfort. He made you see. I remember watching the film and feeling sick, but then I understood what Wheatley was going after. We spend so much time as protecting ourselves from the dark—whereas art doesn’t have constraints. Its meant to take you to places you sometimes don’t want to go.
I think about Kill List and Nathan because both put a scalpel in my hand. Both made me butcher and maim until I got to what was honest. Both made me see the complexity in the simplest of sentences. Lately I feel subsumed by the extreme nature of the culture around me. Stories are over-written for effect. The only risk is how one could shock, bait, and attract (I slept with my father! I dated a racist!). What I see today is what I saw all those years ago at Columbia—the noise of style trumping substance.
Quiet in prose rarely exists. Listening, instead of waiting for your turn to speak (or type, as it were), has become obsolete. In one of the most remarkable essays I’ve read on writing and ideas, Ursula K. Le Guin talks about the notion of patience, of allowing a story, a world to whisper to you before it makes its complete presence known. Ultimately, Le Guin returns to Virginia Woolf, arguably one of the masters of modernist fiction (DYK that her work influenced G.G. Marquez?), and surmises that ideas have a rhythm to them, much like a wave:
Beneath memory and experience, beneath imagination and invention—beneath words, as she says—there are rhythms to which memory and imagination and words all move. The writer’s job is to go down deep enough to begin to feel that rhythm, find it, move to it, be moved by it, and let it move memory and imagination to find words.
In that, I imagine this work requires a certain kind of quiet, a deliberate surrender. Maggie Nelson (my fucking hero) likens it to creating space in an effort to get specific and real. She says,
I love John Cage’s line where he says something like “love is making space around the beloved.” I think that this idea of giving people some space, which I think is something that is, hopefully, a kind of poetic or elliptical writing style can do. It’s kind of an illusion. You’re using other people’s stories for your own ends, but at the same time, as much as some might call that “exposing” myself or others, I don’t experience my writing as exposure. I experience it as a kind of articulation of specificity as well as trying to make space for other people’s mysteries, as well as my own.
And I can’t imagine that kind of work jutting up against our demands for velocity, one’s ferocious need to produce and accumulate affection and validation based on likes, fans, and followers.
I’ve finally found my voice, but it exists amidst so much noise. I read this piece on the clickbait nature of Medium, and I’m inclined to agree. Apart from literary journals and a handful of good publications, it’s been challenging to sift through the bad writing, bullshit and noise to find good work. I had a long conversation with a new friend today about growing audience and how far I’d be willing to go to do this without changing or sacrificing who I am and how much I’m willing to give to strangers, and I find myself resolute in the sense that I know I’ll never be mass market or largely popular, but that’s okay because I live and create on my own terms. So instead of sharing stories on Medium (I tried this experiment and didn’t feel I got the interaction I craved), I’m going to share them privately, with you.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been feeling blue. I’m slowly (and privately) getting out of this slump, but I managed to write this story (newsletters subscribers only, however, I just wrote this piece I posted on Medium), which is part essay, mostly fiction, and one of the most honest things I’ve written in a while. I was put on pause by this podcast relating to Instagram and depression, and I thought about our demands for happy! positive! pretty! and how life doesn’t neatly fit in those boxes, ascribe to those terms. My story is about what we’re willing to share, what we want to see and how that collides with the pain we sometimes feel.
For those of you who are curious, I’m aiming to finish a story collection, Women in Salt, by the end of the month.
Finally, I know I’m forever coming to the party in last decade’s clothes, but I’m infatuated with The Leftovers. Setting aside my taste for stories that emerge from an apocalyptic event (brief aside: please buy Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold, Fame, Citrus), the show is one of the finest meditations on loss, depression, and emptiness I’ve seen in some time.
Like what you just read? This is the first + only one of my weekly newsletters I’m publishing online. If you’re interested in a weekly email with links, thoughts, new writing–subscribe now!
Posted on October 30, 2015
There’s been silence on this space but I assure you a lot of good, healthy things are going on. I’m spending time with friends on the phone, on Facetime and in-person. I’ve been making calls to find a person who can help me sort everything out and get me back on track and I’ve been producing. A lot. I wrote an email to my agent relaying that I will likely have to drug him to read a story collection, but the work I’ve been producing, and the velocity of it, excites me in a way that you can’t imagine. In three weeks I’ve 120 good pages of a new story collection.
Also! I’ve decided to launch a weekly newsletter. It’ll be a sweet compilation of links, finds, and oddities online + off. And I promise–no spam. One email, once a week. I’d love for you to subscribe!
Photo Credit: Unsplash
Posted on October 27, 2015
I write my pop and I tell him I think I have depression. I check my mail for my insurance card so I can make an appointment with a doctor to find out what’s what. I can feel the sigh and sadness in my father’s words when he responds that he’s concerned. I know he’s probably thinking that I’ve turned all these corners, I’ve been sober for nine years (except for that one time, that one time two years ago), that I was so close to what I don’t know, but perhaps I was close to something that resembled fine. I should be a poster girl for joy, and I genuinely feel this on so most days but then there are other days. The days when you look at the internet and it tells you to be happy, can’t you just be happy, and you’re trying the best you can but you’re one person in an ocean and my god your arms are so tired of flailing. On those dark days you feel the ground give way and the fall feels bottomless. I don’t know if this is depression, a blue phase, or who knows what, but moving to Los Angeles scrubbed away all the noise and there is only the clarity of silence and all the good and horror it brings.
On airplanes I wait for the seatbelt sign to go off. That sign tells me I’m okay. I tell my pop that I’m waiting for a card which kind of feels like Waiting for Godot, but my dad doesn’t get the joke because he hasn’t read Beckett and I tell him that it’s going to be okay because I’m going to nip this thing in the bud. I actually use that phrase because I am nothing if not efficient. I need to know what this is because this, what I feel, the idea of leaving my home being unimaginable, is not normal. I don’t understand how I went from so unbelievably happy to so sad in a span of two weeks. But I’ve got a plan and that’s that.
Today, I come across an old interview with Mary Karr. I love how she boldly talks about booze, meds and how her writing is affected as a result of her relationship with the two. There’s no romancing sadness, she says. Rather, good work comes from your kind of balanced, Karr says:
Depression makes you half alive—how does that shape a better writer? People have different ideas of what natural is. Since the romantics we’ve all been big fans of the natural, as though natural equals good. Shitting in your pants is natural, wanting to boink the pizza-delivery kid is natural. Stabbing people who get in front of you at the cafeteria line—that’s probably a natural impulse. Where do you draw the line between what’s good natural and what’s bad natural?
While I wait for the card (the seatbelt sign to go off), I think about all the things that happen when you write a raw, vulnerable post about being blue.
1. The friend of ten years, the one who broke my heart, randomly likes one of my Instagram photos after 7 months of no contact. That gesture is a joke and we’re nearly 40, not 5, and this is not what I will accept. After ten years of friendship, I deserve more than a Like.
2. I think, fuck. This is something else I need to deal with. I think about insurance forms, meeting with therapists and hoping this isn’t what I think it is because I’m not a fan of pills, of taking them.
3. People write: “How’s your amazing, sunny L.A. life?” So I say, I’m fine, and they can go back to feeling like they did something and I can go back to wondering why they wrote in the first place. Please also give unsolicited advice when you never asked for it.
4. People tell me to “be happy”. Is that it? God, you’re a genius. I should have thought of that. I’ll just subscribe to all those positivity newsletters and read listicles about living in my truth. Problem solved. P.S. Don’t you think I’ve already been doing that?
5. Strangers offer a deeper kindness than the people who have been in my life for decades. It’s incredible how strangers can breed so much comfort. I’ve been crying a lot lately, too much, over what I can’t quite understand, but some of the comments, notes and emails puts my heart on pause, in a good way. This compassion braces me and makes me feel less alone.
6. Here’s a sad truth: social media demands the happy. They don’t respond to sad. No one wants the burden of your grief and people go on hiatus until you’re “back to normal”. My friend N writes today, and she agrees with this. As a result, she’s shied away from her online life. I think about this some more, and see complexity in it. I write, Social media is terrible. Actually, it’s terribly beautiful in the way that it can bring alternating joy and sadness. It’s bipolar in the sense in that you see what people cheer on and what they shy away from. The megaphones and silences are deafening.
During the day the sun is blinding. I’ve accepted that it doesn’t get cold here and the days are repeats of themselves with minor variations. I’m okay with this because when I’m balanced I’ve something beautiful to come back to. Though I do feel this tension because I’m conscious of time, how I’m wasting it hiding under blankets, holding books, and that’s the odd tension within myself. I have to get up and move but some days it’s nearly impossible. When I came back from Seattle, I didn’t leave my house for two days and I’ve made myself go out and do yoga, buy groceries and sit in cafes surrounded by people because I know doing these things are healthy.
What disturbs me a little is the pace at which I’ve been reading and producing work. In the past three weeks I’ve written nearly 100 pages of new work. Typically, I write a pile of first draft garbage, where only a small percent can be salvaged.
I’ve written 100+ solid pages.
I’ve been experimenting with how images can impact type, specifically photography and how and where it can take a story. Imagine writing a story to Holly Andres’s mercurial photographs? I’ve been downloading random images from Unsplash and using them as story prompts. When forced into a box you suddenly get crafty. You imagine all the things that could happen in that box instead of staring at a blank canvas. The picture is a something–it’s up to you to define what goes in, around, outside, under, over and below it. I wrote this latest piece in two hours and it’s strange and scary and I absolutely love it. I’ve been afraid of merging my affection for the macabre (horror) with fiction and language, and for a few hours each day I feel slightly euphoric. I’m allowing myself to go places I didn’t imagine going because there are no stakes. No wants story collections, few people read these pieces on Medium–so there’s little risk. There’s only the reward of having created something that gives you a momentary feeling of joy. And if that’s all I get, I’m okay with that.
While I was in Seattle, I bought many of the books in this pile, and I’ve already finished Sonya Lea’s remarkable memoir, Wondering Who You Are–by far one of the finest books I’ve read this year. Lea’s story is the very definition of love, commitment, and devotion. Today I tumbled into Stacey Levine’s The Girl with Brown Fur: Tales & Stories, and reading Levine is like reading Aimee Bender, Kelly Link, and Borges all over again. Stories that are wild and full of wonder. I discovered this magical piece via Twitter and yet another book is finding its way to my home. I’ve read 56 books so far this year and I show no signs of stopping.
Part of me feels an urgency to produce. If you’re producing, learning, at least you’re productive.
When I’m not reading, I’m listening to stories while I walk or hide under the covers. I’ve always been drawn to understanding neurological disorders (I do miss Oliver Sacks) and how minor injuries can have major impact on our brain, so this podcast was fascinating and I’m excited for the follow-up. That episode had me down a rabbit hole of Reply All podcasts and this one, combined with a photo, inspired a story where I fused my Medium essay with meeting a fictional teenager online.
Finally, I found this excellent profile of SNL star, Jan Hooks via Sandra Allen’s superb weekly newsletter. I admired Hooks, who managed her life and fame on her own terms and found herself the happiest in her solitude:
Although she kept a small apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, most of Jan’s final years were spent in Bearsville, New York, a tiny hamlet within the town of Woodstock, where she bought a shabby 130-year-old farmhouse on 66 acres in the late ’90s, and which became her refuge. There, she watched and rewatched terrible old films (the worse, the better — she loved, for instance, The Oscar, featuring Frank Sinatra), drank untold gallons of Robert Mondavi Sauvignon Blanc (nicknamed Bobby Mo), rode her albino horse (also named Bobby Mo), and puttered around the property as her dark green 1983 Jaguar sat rotting in the garage. Two German shepherds, Frank and Kitty, kept her company until they died. An unabashed smoker, she purchased boxes of her favorite brand, Merit, on the cheap in neighboring Pennsylvania. Friends say they never heard her talk of quitting or using a nicotine patch, both of which she considered laughable.
Some might find her solitude sad, but I find it to be really beautiful.
I apologize if this post is all over the place. I’m all over the place. So there’s that.
Posted on October 23, 2015
For a man can lose neither the past nor the future; for how can one take from him that which is not his? So remember these two points: first, that each thing is of like form from everlasting and comes round again in its cycle, and that it signifies not whether a man shall look upon the same things for a hundred years or two hundred, or for an infinity of time; second, that the longest lived and the shortest lived man, when they come to die, lose one and the same thing…As for life, it is a battle and a sojourning in a strange land; but the fame that comes after is oblivion. –Marcus Aurelius
I’ve had the most extraordinary few days in Seattle. I spent time with old friends and bought a tower of new books written by new-to-me authors. I wore bulky sweaters; I feasted on sandwiches that had both bacon and prosciutto, and I cuddled with all the animals. Yet…I feel really sad. And old.
I came to Seattle to see Sarah Hepola read. Reading her book put my heart on pause because I felt as if she had described my life-long love affair with booze. Like Sarah, I thought it was perfectly normal to pre-game (economics!), drink hard and fast (I can keep up with the boys!), and lose time (because everyone has blackouts when they drink, right?) Drinking was fun until it was no longer fun and by then you’re finding excuses to remain in a committed abusive relationship rather than make plans for escape. I’ve spent nine years sober with one really bad two-month relapse, and not drinking has been the best gift I’ve given to myself. And although it doesn’t do me any good to think about regrets, to talk about what I’ve lost, I can’t help but feel as if I lost so much time, and I’m now racing to fill the gaps the drink edged away. I have to write because there were so many years I didn’t write. I have to create, produce. I have to…I have to…
And then I sit in a chair, by myself, before Sarah’s reading and a woman next to me makes small talk. She’s new to Seattle, new to books, and talks about all the people she needs to meet, all the people who are good to know. I nod and don’t say much, only that I live in Los Angeles and I was moved by Sarah’s story of addiction and recovery. The woman smiles and it occurs to me that she’s young, nearly half my age, and I spend most of the evening talking to friends, enjoying readings and parties, but all the while thinking–you are not young.
You’ve lost so much time.
Trust me, I know all of the antecedents. All the ways in which I could respond to those words: you’ve lost so much time. While others are frightened of aging, so much so they’ll slather cream on their faces and inject botulism in their body, I don’t mind my age–I only regret the time I lost. All the years I simply do not remember. All the mistakes I’ve made, people I’ve hurt, words and time I can’t get back.
Yesterday, I spent most of the day in my friend’s co-working space, working on a new story. I met a recent transplant from New York, and as it turns out we both worked at HarperCollins and we know many of the same people in book publishing. We talked about the business of books, but mostly books, rattling off authors we haven’t read and the many we’ve yet to read. Our refrain: There’s not enough time! In that room of three, I felt the most at home. I felt like when I was 24, right before I started the Columbia program, and I read books for the simple pleasure of enjoying them. I didn’t read them to social climb, to know the sometimes unseemly details behind the books–I read books because I felt less alone. So for a brief moment I tried to forget the fifteen years that span not knowing and knowing and it felt good to be suspended, trapped, in a kind of guileless wonder.
And while I spent an evening with really lovely people, heard a host of talented writers read–I felt…small. And alone. I listened to a young spoken word poet and I envied his fresh face and verve. His was a world filled with so much possibility, while I felt like the old woman in the back smoking a cigarette, coughing that deep guttural cough, telling the kids there’s no Santa Claus. No fairy comes down and swoops under your pillow. It’s your mother exchanging your teeth for spare change. New doesn’t exist anymore, and if it does it’s hard to find. New is what you need to create for yourself not what you so casually encounter. Because, by now, people have their opinions of me and my work, and much of that is hard to change or undo and depending on the person I don’t have the energy to do the work. To say, yeah, this was me ten years ago but I’m not that person now. I’m this person, who writes these things, and lives this life. And even though I met extraordinary people, part of me just wanted to crawl home and under the covers, clutching my pile of books.
And this image, my want for it, made me so fucking sad.
I read an article last week, about a man who died alone. A whole life reduced to mystery. I read the piece, heartbroken, and the first thing I said after was, ha, that’ll probably be me. There will exist a time when everything I write here will be erased, my small books will be out of print, the stories I write which few people read will be replaced by some other social network, and I will have no children because I’ve made a conscious decision to not have children. Because you don’t have children because you’re frightened that your life didn’t have meaning or won’t be remembered and passed on. You have children because you want to shepherd a new life into the world and hold their hand along the way.
My friends in their 50s and 60s still call me a kid even though I’m in the nascent stages of talking about purpose. Even though I lament about what I lost and how little time I have left to do what I need to do.
Do I wish I could be that young spoken word poet who has the privilege of having the world unfurl in front of him anew? You better fucking believe it. Do I wish I could have done so much over? Yes. Do I know the antecedent story of all! the! things! you! can! do! now! Yes, yes, yes. Of course. But it doesn’t make this sadness, this loss, any easier to bear.
I stayed up late last night curled up next to my friend’s cat (below–isn’t he ADORB) and felt a kind of peace.
And yes, I realize this post is self-absorbed, emo, and kind of sad, but that’s how I feel right now. Sad.
Posted on October 19, 2015
In the 90s, I was obsessed with Gregg Araki’s teen apocalypse trilogy. Back then there was no internet or reality television shows, and the biggest scandal was Brenda Walsh having to deal with a teenage pregnancy on national television. This was an age where teens were fresh-faced, feckless, and optimistic. But here was Araki and his dark ingénue, Rose McGowan, ushering out a bleak reality that made Bret Easton Ellis’ nihilistic vision of California downright precious. In Araki’s eyes, the world was falling to its knees and the goth in me was having all of it.
Fast forward nearly twenty years and I happened upon his atmospheric and magical, White Bird in a Blizzard, adapted from Laura Kasischke’s novel. Araki treads familiar ground–familial discord, sexual awakening and internal disquiet–but his work is quiet and all the rage simmers just below the surface. It’s sort of the difference between witnessing an outright war versus the one that plays out inside of us every day. I loved the movie so much that I ordered all of Laura Kasischke’s books, and I promise you that she does not disappoint.
Writers are always looking for others who share their strange view of the world. Most of us make sense of the world by writing about it. Writing, for us, is discovery, meditation and mystery, and we’re content to spend our lives playing detective and surgeon–all in an effort to ferret out life’s meaning. When I was small I would purchase maps and I started to write stories about the places I’d never been. Back then I’d never traveled beyond the gilded cage that was New York, and I imagined landscapes that I’d found in books, people who revealed themselves to me. The maps were initially about places and how I’d imagine them to be because I was a child who was often alone, lonely. But then the maps morphed into something different, they became a journey. Would it be possible from me to travel from A (alcoholic) to B (recovering), and how long would that trip take? What would I need to pack? Who would I meet along the week? And soon the maps became something that was interior.
Writers are always looking for beacons to shine light in the dark. I’ve private relationships with the writers whom I admire, living and dead, and I honestly fear meeting them because I don’t want the person who created the work to somehow cloud my relationship to their work. My affection is private, sacrosanct–this is mostly why I don’t attend many readings but I will purchase books and shout about them from the rafters.
Laura Kasischke is one of those lights, and I consumed Mind of Winter in one sitting. Her work is incredibly quiet, wholly terrifying, and her meditations on mother/daughter relationships mirror themes to which I find myself constantly revisiting. The novel spans fifteen years, but much like Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway or Cunningham’s The Hours, we observe the life of a woman, Holly, over the course of a single day, Christmas, as she prepares a feast. She wakes with the fear that something has followed them from Siberia–the place where she and her husband adopted their daughter thirteen years ago. Holly is a woman who can no longer write but wants to. Holly is a woman who comes from a lineage of women who are genetically disposed to an incurable cancer. Holly is a woman who is unusually fixated on her beautiful daughter, whose skin is so fair it’s nearly blue. We follow them over the course of a day that has everyone stranded by a blizzard, and as mother and daughter are trapped in a house, we begin to see Holly unravel.
I’ve been long fascinated by the line between the supernatural and one’s altered psychological state, and how confinement only serves to augment or amplify the tension skirting just beneath the surface. That, under the right circumstances, we can all go a little mad sometimes. I’ve been reading Daniel Olsen’s fascinating and microscopic examination of The Shining (Kubrick’s film adaption). A definitive tome filled with cast and crew interviews and fastidious research, the book makes Room 237 look like a compilation of crackpots who see Jesus in microwaved pot pies.
I fucking hated that poor excuse for a documentary. The only thing that prevented me from walking out of The Anjelika was the fact that I’d spent $ for this movie and I was seeing this shitshow through. Call me when the shuttle lands.
But I digress. Kubrick was notoriously known for deliberately excising parts of his script that would’ve given enormous clarity to his pictures (2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining are prime examples), and he often asked larger questions about the relationship between society and social structures and the recesses of one’s mind and personhood. People often wonder, was Jack Torrence crazy before he camped out at The Overlook, or did the shining bring out a side of him, which he fought so desperately to control. White-knuckle sobriety, teaching.
We all like to think we’re good, honest people, but what if? Do circumstance and society and history shine a light on who we are at the core. In On Kindness, Freud posits that we are kind to others out of selfishness rather than true altruism. Our kindness is a means of satisfying our desire to not deal with discomfort. In short, we are kind because we don’t want to deal with unkindness. While I’m not certain I agree with an argument so binary, I think people aren’t completely aware of certain aspects of their character until they’re placed in extreme or distant circumstances. We all have varying faces we present to the world, and my writing seeks to unpack that multiplicity. Recently, I came upon this excellent piece on authenticity, and it challenged a lot of what I’d previously believed about online perception vs. reality. And, ultimately, checked me on my perceptions of what should be considered authentic and my own bias. Deb Schulz writes:
But the real problem with valorizing authenticity is that, in the absence of actual information about the person in question, the perception of who they are is filled in by societal norms and biases. We see this is the gendered nature of authenticity described above—men are automatically more authentic than women…The failure mode is not just that we perceive a disconnect between the public persona and the individual; it’s that our perception of who they are is wrong. And it’s easy to see why this would disproportionately affect groups (women, visible minorities, LGBTQ people) that are less well-represented in the media, because our mental models of them are far more likely to be shaped by stereotypes than for cis straight white men.
A few weeks ago I saw an old friend I hadn’t seen in awhile. Jason knew me as a heavy drinker, a woman who published a literary journal and cruised the book party circuit (I’m wincing as I type this), but time has passed and we spent a couple of hours together talking about our new lives here. Who we were, what we used to value, and who we are now. I visited his office and after I told him that when I’m blocked I often read poetry or children’s stories for two reasons: 1. economy of language 2. story pacing. I find both the hardest kinds of books to write because you have to sustain interest while being downright surgical with the words you use. Jason shared with me this wonderful book, which I’ve purchased and have read daily since it arrived. Buy this book, even if you don’t have children, because it’ll make you see all the small things in the world you’re missing but need to pay attention to. This book challenges what we think we know, see and believe, and I got excited because I’d never read anything this sophisticated as a child. The book reminded me of one of the first scenes in The Shining when Jack is lying in bed and Wendy comes in with breakfast. We think we’re seeing a wife bring her husband breakfast, but really we’re encountering an inverted Jack, a man observed through a looking glass. All is not what it seems.
I’ve also been reading a lot of traditional genre fiction lately, and I’m floored by how other writers are so deft at story pacing. Ever since I arrived in California, I feel open, awake. I used to want to write the BIG BOOKS, tell the BIG STORIES, but what’s a big book anyway when our perception of size and worth is wholly subjective and often biased. What I’ve been ignoring is this specter, this voice inviting me to merge forms and create something new and different. I’ve come to the reality that I really love writing dark, introspective, strange stories. Stories that are the equivalent of Kill List, a film that refuses to turn the camera away from scenes which would normally be cut from all other films. You see everything because this is what is.
I want you uncomfortable.
Last week I wrote the strangest story and I want to keep writing them, and keep reading beacons who shine lights along my yellow brick road.
Posted on October 17, 2015
“Lay still,” Jack said. “Keep quiet.” He stood over his daughter’s bed with a ball-peen hammer in his hand. He didn’t see his Tasha rubbing the sleep out of her eyes or the way her mouth quivered, as she cried, Daddy, no. He didn’t know she still existed in the space between sleep and awakening; her night terror made real by the figure perched over her bed. He didn’t see her small, balled fists punch her arms and her small cries of Daddy. Wake up. Wake up. Tasha couldn’t wake. Jack only saw a piece of cool metal, a bit of handiwork he needed to perform. All the nails must be found. They must all be pounded into the floor. What if his Tasha stepped on them? She was ten, prone to infection. It was nearly dawn and the wind blew in cold through the open window. It was late, or early, depending on how you looked at it. Jack could hear the men at the door.
The men were in the house. They were coming up the stairs.
Jack had to protect Tasha, just as he did his wife, Ramona, who lay facedown in their bedroom, having drowned in her own blood.
“This is for you,” he said to Tasha before he struck her in the head. Before her face converged into itself, before it became a mess of cracked bones, ruptured skin, and black hair matted claret. Sleep, sweet girl. It was at that moment when his daughter no longer appeared to him as a thing relegated to toolboxes. It was when he saw her teeth gleaming white did he reach in his pocket for the syringe and the Nembutal. He had to be efficient and quick about ending his life. Before he fell into his final sleep, he bounced Tasha’s ball on his bed. Not on the floor, not in the house.
When they found the doctor, they pried a crumbled piece of paper out of his mouth—a note that read: evil is the proof of god. Inside a book of poems found by his bedside was a photograph of his family. On the back, scrawled in blood: three blind mice.
I spent the past week on this story. It started as a diversion because I got lost in the all the books about math and architecture. I felt overwhelmed and sickened by American history revisited. It started as a bridge–maybe I’ll occupy myself with this strange thing because the idea of writing a new novel felt like too much to bear. I wrote ten pages and deleted eight of them, and, one morning, I received an email with dozens of lush photos from Unsplash. I scrolled through them and made a game of it. I would pick a handful of photos that evoked a specific mood and I would use them as a base to write a scene. And here we go. A very raw, unedited draft of something strange.
I don’t know what this is or whether it’s any good, all I know is that I enjoyed writing it. And that’s all that matters.