Smoking in Pediatrics

When Jake opened his eyes he was too aware of the monitoring electrodes on his chest and belly. They peeled off easily and quietly, but he was disoriented, fuzzy in the morning light. He was naked apart from sticky padded hospital socks and they stuck to the dirty laminate floor. In front of him was an ancient mural of off-brand cartoon characters gathered together in unrealistic harmony. He pulled himself out of the bed, dragging his feet to the open window – he needed a fresh gulp of air. Outside and a few stories below the ebb and flow of the ocean tide lapped unnaturally against what was once the hospital’s circle drive entrance. He licked the salt spray from his lips and pulled out a cigarette from the pack he had hidden in the window frame, behind the curtains.

He would turn 18 next week, but it wasn’t soon enough. Water was eating away at the foundations faster than his surgery wound could heal. Jake was the last patient left in pediatrics after the emergency retreat order. A responsible adult would have to come get him, but he didn’t know any of those. The port where his morphine dripped started to itch, but he couldn’t spare a hand between holding the IV stand with his right and smoking with his yellow-stained left. As the nicotine rushed into his muscles, he wondered whether a hospital bed would float.

Carly stirred from under the sheets. “Come back,” she purred between her still glossed lips. They had met on the ward – she had leukemia and he had something as-yet-unidentified that required exploration of his abdomen. Jake loved stroking her downy soft hair, blonde and curly and cropped close to her skull after rounds of chemo.  Carly loved that Jake smoked around her totally unafraid of her delicate constitution. Her parents had signed her out to take their chances at home on the first day of the retreat. They were not supposed to be together and yet here they were. “Last morning, come back,” she pleaded again.

Jake got himself back to the bed in the careful way he had learned. Hold the spine just so to not feel the squishy agony of the staples in his lower left side; drag the left leg because putting weight on it meant contracting muscles that were currently cut in half. As he slid in next to her, Carly danced her fingers just above the wound dressings in their practiced way and squeezed gently. They fell into each other in the manner only teenagers in love can.   

“He’s gonna come,” she whispered into his shoulder.

“Not a chance,” Jake replied on a smoky exhale.

“He has to. Like, you have to go somewhere. Literally.”

“Nah, Father Michael and me are finally gonna get it in.”

“Shut up! So gross!”

“You’re just jealous of what we have.”

They laughed easily. Father Michael, the chaplain for pediatrics, was one of their favorite targets but they bonded over terrorizing everyone. They had a few long-haul friends before the evacuation – Paulie with pneumonia, Sara recovering from tonsil surgery – but mostly they were two punks against everyone else: other kids, doctors, nurses. As the water got closer, Father Michael came around more for comfort and his serious intensity earned him a new nickname from Jake and his gang — The Priest Who Fucks. They joked, but they were all starved for normal teenage flirtation and found themselves with secret crushes on this impossible man. When Jake and Carly had their first clandestine encounter in his room, messing around about The Priest Who Fucks discovering them made the weirdness of navigating open wounds and IV ports a little more fun.

Suddenly, there was a clatter on the closed part of the window. Tap, tap, tap. “There he is now, coming to whisk me away,” Jake joked knowing full well what this sound really meant. “They can wait,” Carly replied quietly. The two lay in silence for a few moments as if that choice alone could make time stop. Tap, tap, tap, tap. “Carly!,” came an impatient voice from below, “Come on, before they find you!” Carly kissed Jake lightly on his patchy, bearded cheek before slipping out of the bed and over to the window. Jake hid his quivering lower jaw as she brushed past Minnie and Mickey Mouse on the mural wall. They held each other’s gaze as Carly straddled the windowpane, half in and half out. They didn’t know the right words yet to express how it felt to know you would probably never meet again.

“Bye,” she said.

“’Kay,” he said.  

Once she had shimmied down the drainpipe and into the dingy raft her friends ferried, it sunk into Jake that this was it. It was his last day at Holy Cross Health and he didn’t have a grift to get out of this one.

Florida was filled with towns like Juno Beach. By the time Jake was in middle school, it was painfully obvious that strategic retreat was the only way to beat the water. He had gotten used to wading his way to school and navigating certain streets by paddle boat. When he was young it was even fun – there was still an excitement to figuring it out. But, slowly the charged feeling in the air changed from determination to despair. When he started to become aware of such things, Jake realized that town was too small to know that many people who’d jumped off the same bridge. It all felt like the steady off-balance of surfing.

So, Jake never much worried about growing up and charged head first into how far his body could take him day to day. He was hard smoking and drinking and drugging in his first few years of puberty. Almost every visible patch of skin had a scar from some stupid idea he had had. Tumbles off of skateboards; run-ins with the law; and one very memorable airboat accident. By the time he got sick, he wasn’t as worried as the doctors about what it was that was making him lose weight and feel weak and go feverish – he always knew something was wrong and this just felt like the next thing in a line.

His father, Adam, took it differently. Juno Beach was his home and unlike so many other families from the neighborhood he was determined to stay even after the land was taken back by the sea. A shrimper many generations deep, he made it his mission to teach everyone in town how to live on the water. And it was a thriving mission at first, but as the tide gained on the coast people began to give up on the promise of a new kind of life as they sought familiar comforts.

Adam himself retreated into familiar comfort at the bottom of a bottle and grew over years to bitterly view anyone leaving Juno Beach as a coward, traitor, a personal affront to him. Jake’s journey to Holy Cross Health was no different. As Jake’s friends loaded him into their kayak to sail across the sound to the hospital for surgery, Adam stood carefully at their waterlogged porch and delivered an ultimatum: “You leave town and you will never see me again. You were born in this town and you should die in this town.” He hadn’t seen or heard from his father since.

Jake never thought again about where he would die until today. It seemed reasonable that if no one came to pick him up by sunset then future scientists would just find his bones here in the underwater ruins, next to these shitty cartoons. He didn’t like the idea and shrugged it off by lighting a new cigarette. He would think of something. He always thought of something, even if it was profoundly stupid.

The hallway was empty and they had already turned off the overhead fluorescents which made Holy Cross Health look post-apocalyptic. And it was. The playroom at the end of the hall was filled with blue-gray natural light bouncing off the water that only made it worse. Eerie silence on the ward was only broken by the rusting wheels of Jake’s IV stand and the distant rolling tide. Walking the halls was not giving him the brilliant plan he needed.

He sat on the musty playroom couch and looked out the floor to ceiling windows and beyond to the sea. Why couldn’t the order wait a week so he could turn 18 and take his chances with a makeshift dingy? Earlier in the week, Jake and Carly had stayed up late dreaming up all kinds of plans — stealing an ambulance boat and running away without permission; convincing The Priest Who Fucks to adopt him; giving in and leaping into the surf before someone on the skeleton crew could stop it. But, something always kept him from making talk into action. He could still feel this stinging nettle of boyhood in his belly; a potent mixture of fear and hope that maybe the good thing could happen anyway. Jake gritted his teeth and spit out a taste of tobacco.

“That’s not sanitary. Don’t you know you’re in a hospital, dipshit?” Jake recognized Paulie’s raspy voice immediately and it meant his girl Sara wasn’t far behind. “Be nice, Paulie. We’re here to cheer him up. You want one, Jake?” When he turned around Jake was met with a 40oz can of Natural Light beer and Sara’s still intact hospital bracelet. He felt that fear again; a hesitation to take it knowing that there would be consequences and yet wanting to abandon the rules. He grabbed it and cracked the tab. “’Sup?”

“We broke in! To see you on D Day! Had to break into the freight elevator and everything. Aren’t you psyched, dude?”

“Not really. I feel like shit. Did you bring a boat?”

“We came on the jet ski. But, we got you a carton for the journey. Used protection and everything.” Right on Paulie’s cue, Sara tossed Jake a sea-sprayed gallon-sized Ziploc bag with a carton of Marlboro reds in it. Jake turned it over in his hands and gave his genuine thanks without sounding terribly grateful.

“He’s gonna come,” Sara said as she shuffled her feet awkwardly.

“No. He’s not. But, it’s cool. Glad you’re here. Have enough beers to get fucked up?”

Always prepared to cause trouble, Paulie pulled a six pack of Bud Light out of his backpack. It was something he always managed to do when he was on the ward, too. He seemed to have an unending network of friends and inside connections who ferried him cigarettes, beer, and the really good drugs throughout his whole pneumonia spell. It was probably the reason they kept him for two months and his doctor nearly quit.

What followed seemed to happen in double time while Jake sat still. Paulie and Sara making out against the windows. Empty cans flying through the air or being crushed under fist. Cigarettes lit, burning, and then gone. Jake lay back on the couch and tried to breathe easy; sipping slowly on the cold beer and thinking about his dad. It hadn’t even been that long and he found it hard to imagine the guy’s face. It was easier to endlessly recall the sound: “You will never see me again.” Every time he repeated it Jake tried to look for a face and something revealing in it – the hint of regret or lying. He played it again and again until it started to sound like The Priest Who Fucks. It took him too long to realize that what he was hearing was actually The Priest Who Fucks.

“Paulie. Sara. I bet you thought you’d never see me again. Go now before I grab the National Guardsmen and have you escorted back to dry land.”

Paulie and Sara packed up without making excuses, offering Jake conciliatory pats on the back as they went. The Priest Who Fucks took his place behind Jake and waved after the others as they snuck back down the freight elevator at the end of the hall. He was a tall and imposing figure, but with a cooing tone in his voice. He wore small circular sunglasses inside like a blind man; it complemented his long gray hair and beard. He moved slowly, with purpose. He had the countenance of a punk who suddenly found God and devoted his life to service because that was precisely who he was. He was really fucking cool.

“Go with God, kids,” he bellowed gently. 

Being walked back down the hall to his room wasn’t not like being walked to his own execution, Jake thought. His knees wobbled a bit from the Bud Light he shotgunned and the anxiety he felt about not having a cigarette in his hand. “Easy,” The Priest Who Fucks offered. “There is still time.”

Jake eased his was into the bed, careful not to get tangled up in the IV line. He turned his face away from where The Priest Who Fucks sat near his right ankle and stared at the maniacal looking cartoon duck on the wall. His stomach started to hurt when he remembered that this was not where he was sleeping tonight and that he didn’t know what he would open his eyes to tomorrow morning. He tried to imagine The Priest Who Fucks’ voice coming out of the duck’s mouth.

“How are you, Jacob?”

“S’all good.”

“You shouldn’t be drinking or smoking during your recovery. And you shouldn’t be bringing people back here. Especially Carly. You know all of that.”

“They came to me. It’s not my fault. But, yeah.” Jake shifted uncomfortably to look at The Priest Who Fucks. “No one is coming to get me, Father Michael.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure about that. Life is mysterious and you have to give it the opportunity to surprise you. Sometimes those surprises are disappointing and sometimes they are so good you wouldn’t believe it.”

“No surprises after the end. This is it, huh?”

The Priest Who Fucks was practiced in offering calming advice to the patients here, even in the face of imminent death. But, the threat Jake was referring to was so large and so global that it held them both in an icy grip. It felt briefly like the water already had them, pulling them down and pressing down with unimaginable pressure. The Priest tried anyway.

“No way to know the end until it comes to pass and then we will be at peace. Until then, here’s some personal advice: let yourself be young while you still can. The drinking and the smoking and what I am sure is intimate acts between you and Carly … that will all come. Be a boy.”

“I’m not though. Never been. Listen: I’m 18 next week and no one … no one is coming to get me. Right? Know what I mean? Besides it doesn’t matter. If the water doesn’t get me, my guts will so … fuck it. Right?”

The Priest Who Fucks knew that Jake’s agitation would not be soothed. So, he did what he thought he would want at a time like this. He reached out and held the boy’s hand. “I’m scared,” Jake whispered, barely audible. “He will come,” The Priest replied. Jake said nothing and instead pretended to fall asleep. A tear welled in the corner of his right eye and trailed down the side of his face. After some time, The Priest Who Fucks rose and left the room. This is when Jake fell asleep for real.

“Jacob. Jacob, wake up.”

When Jake drowsily opened his eyes, he assumed he had beaten the system: it was the next day and somehow, he had been allowed to go down to the bottom of the sea with the hospital. As his vision sharpened he realized that The Priest Who Fucks was back and shaking him awake in the golden light of sunset.

“Your father is here.”

This seemed so dreamlike impossible that Jake just went with it, packing his things and pulling the IV cord. It was surreal to take off the hospital gown and socks, and change into the old jeans and t-shirt he came in. Paulie probably devised some scheme; hey-mistered some bum into pretending to be his dad. Whatever worked. If this was real, he was happy to be getting out and would worry later about where he would stay when the grift wore off.

The Priest Who Fucks escorted him down to the first-floor lobby, which he hadn’t seen in weeks. It was filled with a shallow layer of water having already been evacuated when they announced the retreat. Two National Guardsmen in wet gear stood guard at the doors. He could just make out tiny fish and shrimp underfoot making their home in this new reef. The Priest Who Fucks waded him through carefully, wearing gaiters underneath his robes. “Through here, he’s out in the circle drive.”

When they went through the doors, the image in front of them seemed impossible for so many reasons. There was a beaten-up metal pontoon boat barely floating on the rise and fall of the tide. It was tied up to one of the circle drive columns with one of two National Guard-issued hook-ups. The boat had a handmade sail, stitched together from what looked like old windbreakers. It flapped dramatically and caught the dwindling light of the sun. And there in the center of it all was Jake’s father, Adam, looking every inch like the expert sailor he used to be.

“Sorry I’m late, son, had to dry out,” he said. “Have to go now before we lose all the light. And I’m gonna need your help, too. You all healed up?”

“Mostly,” Jake barely breathed out in his shock.

“Father, would you bring him over and throw his pack in? I need to show him a thing or two.”

The Priest Who Fucks pushed Jake forward through the water as it got deeper and deeper, wetting his jean legs up to the knee. As The Priest lifted him up into the boat, his father reached out a hand and pulled him confidently inside. What he found was that he was sitting not in a safe and dry vessel, but one that was lightly sinking. “Be well, Jake,” The Priest Who Fucks said as he waded back into the hospital. “Go with God.”

Suddenly alone with his father, Jake could only think of one thing to say. “Got a lighter?” He pulled the damp carton of cigarettes from its hiding place in his pack as his dad passed him a barely functioning bic lighter. “I’d say you were better off not, but the way things are … smoke ‘em if you got ‘em. Gimme one, too,” Adam said. As they both lit up, Adam took a hard look at his son for the first time in a while. Jake, too, finally saw the face he had been looking for: regret and the distinct look of guilt over something for which you have no intention of apologizing.

“So, here’s where we are, son. There is a hole in this boat that I thought I patched. It didn’t hold. What I am gonna need you to do is take this cup here and bail out as much water as quickly as you can the whole way home.” Adam handed Jake a large empty McDonald’s cup. “You got it? That’s the only way this is gonna work.”

That fear welled up in him again and the boy who would turn 18 next week felt very much like a boy again. “Are we gonna make it back home?” His father gritted his jaw hard in a way Jake found familiar – he did it, too, all the time. It was stupid determination; deciding to do something that would almost definitely not work but you were pretty sure you could pull it off, anyway. “We won’t know if we don’t try, right?” said Adam.

Jake started to take cups of water from the bottom of the boat and toss them out as Adam unhooked them from the columns. The National Guardsmen waved them off and radioed in that the hospital’s last patient was out; all clear. As the man and the boy sailed off into the orange and yellow light they could faintly hear the steady instructions. Delivered distinctly from the mouth of someone holding a cigarette in the corner.

“Bail, son. Bail. Bail. Bail. Keep at it.”

Strange Oeillades

The theme park hypnotist did say I would find you. He didn’t say how or when or what you would look like – only gave me your name.

I was eight-years-old when it happened. I hold all these details of the day so I can’t forget. Hot, sticky sweet with spilled cherry Icee on my hands. Chubby black sneakers on my feet soaked with sweat. I remember walking through the gates of that theme park, the one that they tore down years ago and no one could ever figure out why. I always drive past the empty field where it used to be and wonder about you. The gate had those off-brand cartoon characters that must have been all they could afford. My family walked through this cool misting arch and in the distance, I could just make out the stage underneath towering metal of coaster after coaster. And there he was, under a sign right out of the movies: PROFESSOR HYPNO HORTENSIO!

My mom didn’t want to spend the five dollars on a hack, but I dragged her up to the front of the stage anyway. He looked like a character from one of the old cartoons that played late at night when I couldn’t sleep. Dressed all in black in the blazing sun with a ridiculous mustache and opaque eyeglasses on his face. “Ladies and Germs, Friends and Foes, gather round for the hallowed … the hawkish … the haughty and handsome, Professor Hypno Hortensio!” He called to the sparse crowd, but it felt like he was only talking to me. “No takers I take it?” I pulled at mom’s pant leg in a desperate plea that I only know now was for you, for you, for you.

“Boy!,” he called to me. “Come right up!”

Continue reading “Strange Oeillades”

Horror & Hegemonic Love

By her own admission, Susan Sontag was in a state of despair over the Vietnam War when she wrote in 1967 that “the white race is the cancer of human history.”  It was a characterization she would openly regret a decade later in Illness as Metaphor, but it was seemingly the most accurate rhetorical device she had at the time. It provided a memorable shorthand for her criticisms — that whiteness “eradicates autonomous civilizations wherever it spreads” and “now threatens the very existence of life itself.” She later clarified that the metaphor was a cheap shot at comprehending radical and absolute evil. We search for adequate metaphors, she wrote, because “we have a sense of evil but no longer the religious or philosophical language to talk intelligently about evil.” If she had lived long enough to hear it, perhaps Sontag would have instead taken up Slavoj Zizek’s peculiar proposition to reckon intelligently with that evil through, well, love. 

Zizek — in his uniquely frenetic tone — extemporized in a video interview about quantum physics that love (or, a phenomenon he calls love) is cosmically violent:

what we call creation is a kind of a cosmic imbalance, cosmic catastrophe that things exist by mistake, and I’m even ready to go to the end and to claim that the only way to counteract it is to assume the mistake and to go to the end, and we have a name for this, it’s called love. Isn’t love precisely this kind of a cosmic imbalance? I was always disgusted with this notion of “I love the world, universal love”. I don’t like the world …. But the whole of reality, it’s just it, it’s stupid, it is out there, I don’t care about it. Love for me is an extremely violent act, love is not “I love you all.” Love means I pick out something, and you know it’s again this structure of imbalance, even if this something is just a small detail, a fragile individual person, I say I love you more than anything else. In this quite formal sense, love is evil.

Superficially, it is difficult to disagree with Zizek’s logic. Indeed, there is something perverse about choosing one of an endless number of things to love in a universe with no inherent organizing principles. To protect and care for that thing above all others is a cosmic kind of evil — an impulse that could easily lead to the eradication of autonomous civilizations and destruction of all other life, as Sontag feared. However, Zizek predicates his provocative improvisation on another unstable metaphor — the love Zizek refers to is a particular kind of love, representing in shorthand a particular kind of ideology. Not a universal love, but an individualistic, conquering, hegemonic love. A love I will explore here as an expression of whiteness.

Taking up Sontag’s struggle to comprehend radical and absolute evil, I want to examine how two recent films portray this kind of hegemonic love as horror. Neither Ari Aster’s Midsommar (2019) nor Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020) explicitly connect the existential (and literal) horrors at their center to whiteness. However, my hope is that this short essay will demonstrate how whiteness as an ideology, an ontology, a social reality is not a cancer, as Sontag wrote, but exactly what it professes to be — nothing. Nothing constantly imbuing itself with something-ness. A cosmic imbalance bringing itself into untenable, Lovecraftian being. And thus it creates a kind of love that is metaphorically a nightmare. 

— 

It snows throughout I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Kaufman makes exceptional use of the desolate vistas of the far northern states. The horizon goes on forever under a blanket of snow as our main character Lucy looks out a car window and whispers to us in narration the line we’ve been waiting for: “I’m thinking of ending things.” It resonates immediately at two registers — an impending break-up with her partner in the driver’s seat, Jake, and a passing fancy of suicidal ideation. I immediately think, yes, they sometimes feel the same. And I think of a statistic I read recently that the leading cause of death for white men in Montana is despair. All around our two central figures as they sit in the tension that comes before calling it off is endless, endless white snow. 

Susan Sontag warned us that illness is not an adequate metaphor, and yet recently rising rates of loneliness and deaths of despair have been taken up as a public health epidemic. Though they are by no means the only ones impacted — despite what you may have gathered from media coverage — white men without college degrees experience the most extreme and unexpected effects. But, as Michael L. Cobb notes in Single: Arguments for the Uncoupled, loneliness is not a pathogen occurring naturally, but rather an affect produced from the perception of aloneness and singleness, of being uncoupled. And Arjumand Siddiqi, et al in their 2019 study conclude that this decline for white men similarly comes not from real relative social disadvantage, but from the perception of disadvantage. 

As the film goes on, one comes to realize that Jake and Lucy are an invented couple in the mind of The Janitor, an old white man obsessed with romantic comedies. Jake is a manifestation of the Janitor’s ideals — young, intelligent, accomplished, coupled, not a janitor. Lucy is the projection of a woman he met once; a well into which he poured every romantic desire as he failed throughout his life to find a partner. 

Prior to this revelation, one sees The Janitor walk the high school where he works catching glimpses of rehearsals for Oklahoma! This should be funny to anyone who knows musical theatre well. Oklahoma! is famously, painfully white; an encapsulation of settler colonialism and American exceptionalism. And the film makes cheeky use of this legacy by casting the Janitor and his avatars into its central love triangle — Jake as Curley, Lucy as Laurey, and The Janitor as Jud. 

As the film reaches its climax, dancers representing Jake and Lucy eerily dance together in a pas de deux with multiple meanings, much like the film’s title. The dance itself is easily recognizable and emotionally uncomplicated European ballet choreography. It is idealized. It is a symbol of impossible heavenly perfection. It implies that the Janitor never found partnership because it could never meet this level of romantic expectation. It also directly references Oklahoma’s famous dream ballet, which stages Laurey’s contrasting anxieties about sexuality and a violent conflict between her suitors, Curley and Jud. By the end of the film’s dream ballet, indeed, The Janitor collapses all of these references by stabbing Jake and thereby destroying his expectations for good. 

Afterward, we see the Janitor stumble into his truck outside of the school, in the middle of a fierce blizzard. In what is apparently a fantasy, we see Jake give an acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize and top it all off with a performance of Jud’s solo from the musical, “Lonely Room.” The song is full of resentment, shame, anger, and longing to possess Laurey. It is followed by uproarious applause. It is a finale suiting the horror movie slasher The Janitor has become. The final shot shows his truck covered in snow; one can presume Jake’s singing was a feverish vision before freezing to death.  

So as many pop writers have pointed out, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is an expression of frustrated old, white, straight men. But, I think understanding it as such renders it less desperate for sympathy and more an opportunity to articulate that which so often masquerades as the inarticulable, as the basic, as the default. 

Cobb argues that “there is a totalitarian imperative to try and dwell within the punishment of love” — a totalitarian imperative dictated preeminently by white supremacist ideology and its demand for hegemonic, heterosexual partnership. Through that paradigm — one that knits up coupledom, monogamy, heterosexual marriage, and patriarchal modes of providing — there is more space to err than to thrive. Aloneness is made into loneliness, middling income made into failure. There is a wound where hegemonic love should be. And so as the dyad cannot survive without its twin elements and heterosexual reproduction is necesarry to further the race, under a white supremacist ideology to be single is to be as good as dead. Poor Jud’s dead, as the song from the musical goes.  

As with any good horror story, there is a trick here at the end, however. Even if The Janitor were to have found his “other half,” as Cobb writes, it would have required that he “first be halved, then prompted to find that ripped off half” only to “be forced to enter into a deathbed in order to become whole” — an admittedly fatalistic characterization of the marriage pact.

This entire concept of hegemonic love is an existential monster, so where does one go in search of new kinds of love?

Five years before Susan Sontag reckoned with evil, James Baldwin was reckoning with love. Both were trying to understand the horror of whiteness. In his 1962 New Yorker essay “Letter from a Region of my Mind,” Baldwin wrote — as Sean Kim Butorac puts it — about whiteness as a condition of lovelessness. Or, rather, I would counter, about lovelessness — a Sisyphean struggle for hegemonic love — as a condition of whiteness. 

Opposite Cobb’s totalitarian notion of love is Baldwin’s liberatory, vulnerable alternative — one which “takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.” The distinction between the two, I would venture, is the distinction between being an individual against the world and being an individual within it. When discussing whiteness, it is always tempting to tend towards an oversimple binary of individualism versus collectivism. I am tempted toward it now. However, what Baldwin is suggesting is not the universal love that so horrified Zizek but rather a state of being seen and truly seeing. Not something to be achieved or not, but something relational that emerges from the self. And it’s very relationality is anathema to the confused logics of white supremacy — that the individual fails alone and the race succeeds together. 

Baldwin writes:

a vast amount of the energy that goes into what we call the Negro problem is produced by the white man’s profound desire not to be judged by those who are not white, not to be seen as he is, and at the same time a vast amount of the white anguish is rooted in the white man’s equally profound need to be seen as he is, to be released from the tyranny of his mirror. All of us know, whether or not we are able to admit it, that mirrors can only lie, that death by drowning is all that awaits one there. It is for this reason that love is so desperately sought and so cunningly avoided.

He concludes profoundly that racism will no longer be needed when white people learn how to accept and love themselves, as well as each other. That like lovers, as Butorac summarizes, we all must insist on, or create, the consciousness of others. In other words, to resist hegemonic love we must do what should be obvious — practice a love that recognizes and prioritizes the consciousness of others equal to or above our own. For some that will mean facing the monster in the mirror and trying not to drown. 

I think nasty breakups are the primary horror of hegemonic love. 

The ending of Ari Aster’s film Midsommar (2019) was the subject of much internet discourse after it was released. Why did the protagonist Dani smile in the end amongst the carnage? What did it all mean?  “I was happy when he burned,” I said to my boyfriend at the time. He looked at me strangely; a mix of disgust and fear. “He was an asshole. He was a bad boyfriend,” I asserted. He did not agree. I would think about this moment more than once after he abruptly walked out on me a few months later. I was happy when he burned. I deeply understood the smile on Dani’s face, but it’s a seductive pleasure I now think I should resist.

At the time, I shared in the delight of fellow horror fans that we could have such a disturbing film with such a “happy ending,” shot in the full light of day no less. But now as I consider the cultural implications of horror and true crime’s white heroines in my dissertation research, I find myself skeptical that Dani is the empowered feminine hero we are seeking after all. Honestly, she leaves me wondering about the value of post-break up “empowerment” for a girl like her. For a girl like me. 

The plot of Midsommar is undoubtedly centered on Dani’s journey and, thereby, her triumph. We follow her as she follows her terrible boyfriend Christian to far northern Sweden to visit a small, pastoral commune set apart from time in the endless midsummer sun. The commune is a tribute to the ancient, pre-Christian Nordic traditions romanticized not necessarily by American white supremacists, but certainly by their European counterparts. Runes; heroic senicide; cult-like devotion to tradition; violent repudiation of challenging outsiders. The commune is all-white and welcomes white Dani — mourning the death of her entire family following a brutal murder-suicide — with open, ominous arms. She, in turn, concedes to their violent, uncanny traditions. This could be her new beginning, we are led to believe. We also grow more and more aware that the horror of the cult is no more disturbing than the horror she lives. She is grasping at Christian’s barest affection as he thinly veils his sense of obligation to her after her family died. This cult could be her new family and a much better boyfriend. 

At the climax of the film Dani is crowned May Queen, which resonates with me as bridal in ways that I should unpack elsewhere. In the background, Dani’s friends and other outside visitors to the commune have been quietly picked off. Not coincidentally, three of them are people of color. One of whom is discovered flayed, in the style of the Viking “blood eagle” — a distinctly Nordic death. As far as we know, these deaths were not required for Dani to earn her crown. However, her crowning, we learn, is part of the elaborate sacrificial rite that led to them and her title empowers her to choose the final sacrifice. She chooses the last living remnant from her old life: her (terrible) boyfriend, Christian. Named without subtlety in contrast to the commune and Dani’s future with much older gods. As she watches him burn — along with the other visitors to the commune and a few volunteers — she cries, exclaims with mournful relief, and for the last lingering shot she smiles. 

Dani is set apart from her fellows for her abandon and willingness to literally burn down the life that hurt her so deeply. One could even say that she rejects the hegemonic love of coupledom for a more complex love found in her new community — one in which marriage is singularly unimportant. However, that this cathartic burning comes only through sacrificing people of color and embracing an implicitly white supremacist cult always gives me pause. Yes, Dani comes into a kind of power — it feels so good to watch him burn — but, at what cost? 

Empowerment is often wielded as an inherently good concept, an admirable goal for feminism. This has always struck me as strange given that feminist philosophy so often critiques structures of power. Empowerment, of course, does not have to come from hierarchies or conventional notions of “power,” but it requires deep skepticism not to be seduced by the hegemonic. The hard truth is this: “white privilege” and “empowerment” can feel like the same thing when you’re a white woman. Maybe even more so after a break up. It is evocative that the commune’s burning sacrifice takes the form of a wooden pyramid. When racist hierarchies of power have yet to be toppled, I wonder whose hands you are crushing, whose corpses lie beneath you on your way to the top. 

And so Dani’s smile ends the film on a note of profound, unsettling ambiguity. I think it is more productive to read it generously here. Dani’s smile expresses satisfaction, yes, but also relief and peace. If, as Butorac argues, Baldwin prescribes love “to reclaim an uncorrupted sense of oneself through self-examination and a restoration of one’s capacity for sensuality,” then Dani’s smile betrays how loving recognition from the cult restored her to herself. But, the horror lies in what precisely that love restores. Midsommar is simultaneously skeptical of what loneliness can do to us and skeptical of what collectivity can compel us to do. Rightly so. However, it is critical to see that this skepticism takes place within the prison of hegemonic love, in the engrained evil of whiteness run amok.

To read Midsommar generously is to depart with this warning: that horror can masquerade as empowerment, revenge can masquerade as healing, that loveless hegemony can enmask even as it claims to reveal us …. relieved, peaceful, and smiling.

The Pool Ends Up in Us

Leyla was hot and she hated it. She could feel the sweat soaking under her arms; at the small of her back; between her legs and behind her knees. This outfit was chosen specifically for tonight and she had not prepared for sweat stains. Only an idiot wears white out in summer, she reminded herself. They only tell you to wear white before Labor Day because they want you to fail. She shifted underneath her skintight t-shirt dress trying to hide growing wet spots from the guys across the bar; the ones she was watching without looking. Maybe she could kill two birds: walk to the bathroom nonchalantly with a perfect hair toss just as she passed their table. A few strategic dabs with some paper towels and no one would be the wiser. But, she had to consider the shoes. Her new platform sandals were not exactly broken in and made her gait frankly embarrassing. The little hobble every time she stepped with her left foot felt like she was a newborn pony. She could not have that tonight and definitely not in front of boys with potential. It felt like they kept looking over at her and she so badly wanted something to happen later in the night. At some point she would just have to have one of the girls ferry her some napkins and she would find a discrete way to fix this. She would sit and then the boys would have to come to her. A better overall strategy anyway, she concluded.

“Elle, are you okay?” Kara asked with genuine concern. “You look, like, really pale all the sudden. Are you fucked up already?” She had met Kara at Transfer Orientation on Monday and they became such fast friends that she already had a nickname – “Elle.” Leyla had had a few panicked exchanges where she tried reciprocating by calling her “Kay,” but it tasted like wet garbage in her mouth. Kara was breezy and too sweet. The kind of girl who makes friends quickly, talks fast, and wants to include everyone in her little gang. She had adopted Leyla from the back wall of the auditorium where she had been hiding for most of the first day. Leyla appreciated it as she was happy to be a sidekick most of the time. Being near Kara’s easy glow had been keeping her calm, but the dread was setting in as she dreamed up impossible expectations for the boys across the bar. “I’m good,” she said. She hated her own transparency; she could feel how hard her nails dug into the palms of her clenched fists. Tonight was going to be perfect – it was her first Friday out with the girls.

There were at least four boys and three of them – Leyla, Kara, and Chelsea. These odds were good as she figured at least two of them would fight over beautiful Kara; she and Chelsea would only have to divide up the other two. She wasn’t entirely tragic looking, but she had enough college experience to know that attracting men she’s not lumped together with in a small private high school would demand more than her passable face. She took an inventory of the positive feedback she had received thus far; a ritual she practiced in bars when she got nervous. She had long legs; a cute laugh; put together outfits; one guy last year said her eyes were nice. It was enough. It was workable.

It was time. She turned to get a good look at the table of boys since the bar was dark and she had earned it for her restraint so far. Leyla felt this magnetic charge; smoke in the patio air was stirring. As she glanced over her shoulder the psychedelic indie music busting the speakers’ bass seemed to slow and thicken, like she was suddenly moving through water. Her eyelashes fluttered up lazily and met the gaze of one boy about her age wearing sunglasses under a neon sign for some local beer. He was handsome and not cute – high cheekbones, pillowy lips, an aura of trouble. A bolt of electricity coursed through her as she realized he had already been looking at her. Smiling tranquilly, he took a sip from his beer without looking away. It seemed like romance, but she also felt this vice grip on her guts telling her to run. He mouthed something to her, slow and distinct: “Come … here.” She inhaled sharply as Chelsea tapped her on the shoulder and she realized she had been holding her breath.

“Wait, Leyla, where did you transfer from again?” Chelsea asked, pulling her away from the boy and his gaze.

“UST, right, Elle?” Kara answered for her. Leyla nodded.

“Why did you leave? It’s really hard to get in there, isn’t it? I didn’t,” Chelsea probed.

Leyla tried desperately to remember if she had already given Kara an explanation. She would call it out if she used to the wrong excuse, since she wanted to know everything about everyone and she certainly wanted to be right. Another deep breath. “Money stuff,” she lied.  

“That totally sucks, Elle, I hear that. It’s so hard being a college student right now. It’s just everything all at once. Adulting is stressful,” Kara said.

“Those guys are staring at us,” Leyla successfully evaded.

All at once their three heads turned to meet four sets of eyes looking back at them. Now she could make out the other three guys in the group. One standing extremely tall and gaunt with dark shaggy hair. Another aggressively normal looking with wire rim glasses and a soft physique. The last wiry and nervous, tapping his sneaker-clad foot incessantly as his eyes furiously scanned the girls. All bathed in neon light and most sitting impossibly still, like stones in the stream of their own cigarette smoke.

“You might as well come over here,” the handsome one projected to them across the bar. “Don’t think about it too hard. You’re coming over eventually.”

Leyla was instantly enraptured by his languid confidence, and she wasn’t alone. Chelsea and Kara got up just as she did and started to walk over to their nearly rotting picnic table. Out of habit she sat herself as far from the most attractive one as possible, but instead he gestured for her to sit directly in front of him. She could feel Kara buck at the obvious violation of social hierarchy as she sat to Leyla’s left, across from the tall one.

“Pool?” He asked from behind his sunglasses.

“ … What? What do you mean? Like, play billiards? Do they have that …” Leyla nervously scrambled. She took a breath. She instinctively felt for the prescription bottle in her purse, but then she remembered.

“We have a pool. At the complex. And you’re gonna get in it with us.”

“Y’all are so sweet, but we don’t have our bathing suits,” Kara said as she slid her hand across the table for a little attention.

“It doesn’t matter,” said the nervous one as he took a deep drag off his cigarette.

“Just strip down when we get there,” the tall one offered.

Chelsea stiffened at the idea. “What? Are y’all insane? We don’t even know you.”

“It feels good. We’re all literally dying. It’s so good,” the normal one added with a laugh.

Leyla wanted to think it over and consider all the potential dangers. It was Friday and class started Monday; this would be a terrible distraction for all of them and especially for her. She needed to start fresh on even footing. She had no idea who these guys were and what they wanted from her. They are just random men in a bar which is exactly the kind of men she should be avoiding. They were sketchy. They were weird. She wanted to think these things over carefully and yet her mind was already made up.

“What’s your name?” she asked the sunglasses.

“Unimportant,” he replied. “Just come.”

She looked to Kara for permission. Kara shook her head in the subtle way women have developed to get themselves out of scrapes. But, there was still time for Leyla to have something fun happen before the semester started in this new place where no one knew about what she did. What was the harm, she thought to herself.

“Alright, I’ll go. Ladies?” Her voice shook with fake assurance. She had never wanted a pill so badly.

Their complex looked like someone had renovated one of those motels from the movies. It reminded Leyla of the postcards her grandparents sent from Palm Springs. The block it sat on was lined with palm trees and the building itself was a blinding peach pink with turquoise details. It was a bright beacon in the dark of night. But, she noticed there were no cars in the parking lot and no lights on in the apartments. Must be brand new.

“Do you all live here?” She threw the question into a silence that followed them all the way from the bar. Chelsea and Kara walked in a quiet huff, resenting Leyla for dragging them along. The boys seemed content to just be as they headed towards this apparently legendary pool.

After some time the nervous one responded bluntly, “No.” But, the normal one followed up quick to clarify: “Kind of. Kurt lives here and the rest of us just got stuck.” He play-punched the handsome one who hardly registered a reaction.

“Let’s party,” Kurt said flatly as he pushed the exterior gate open. No need for a key since it was being held open with a brick.

“You don’t actually live here, do you?” Kara asked with crossed arms.

Kurt pushed forward without acknowledging Kara’s question, which only made her fold her arms in more tightly. She pulled in close to Leyla as they walked toward the interior courtyard and whispered in her ear, “15 minutes and then we call an Uber, right? These guys are weird.” Leyla nodded. She couldn’t turn back now without at least seeing this pool.

And there it was. She had to admit there was something about it, even if it was just the way the lights gave it an otherworldy aquamarine color. It was in the shape of an eight, with steps leading down from the narrowest divots. There was a pristine set of pool chairs and a glass table with a huge pink umbrella. Two stories of apartments faced into it, but no one was there as far as she could tell. It was silent and still; the only movement was wavy light from the pool shimmering on every surface.

“Is it okay if we just sit here?” Chelsea asked from the seat she had already taken with Kara at the glass table.

“It doesn’t matter,” the nervous one shot back from his seat, the first step into the pool.

The boys started stripping down and Leyla was holding the last shred of torn feelings. If she took her clothes off now, all bets were off with these boys and she would be identifying herself as a particular kind of person to these girls who she had just met. They knew her as mousey, quiet Elle who just wants to blend into the background and silently worry. This version of her was an altogether different shade; more like the self she was running from who couldn’t cope. But, this time was different. She was in control and her old crutches were safely far away. She only had one drink tonight. This was fine; it was safe fun.

She stripped out of her dress, down to her bra and panties without checking to see whether Kara or Chelsea would join her. She was suddenly self-conscious. She was nearly naked in front of handsome Kurt and what if he saw her body and realized that he didn’t want her here after all. She might look hideous to him. Had she shaved her legs? Was this a terrible mistake? She started to shake. When she looked back at the pool, she saw Kurt standing there in his boxer briefs holding out his hand to her. His sunglasses now gone she could see his icy blue eyes piercing through the dark. Deep breath. She approached carefully, waiting for him to change his mind but he kept his hand firmly extended and his eyes directed right at hers. She placed her hand in his and they approached the edge together. Without counting or discussing it, simultaneously they jumped.

When she hit the water it was surprisingly warm, like a soaking tub after a long day or that moment where you get perfectly cozy in bed. It hardly even felt wet – it felt like comfort, like nothing. It reminded her of the first time she took Xanax. That was it; she felt relief. Her mind was entirely focused on this moment, the here, the now. She could be nothing and no one as she sank deeper toward the bottom with Kurt’s hand still gripping hers. It felt like they were suspended there for blissful hours before she bobbed finally to the surface. Her first breath was effortless; she was drunk on weightlessness. The only thought in her head was that she wanted him to kiss her so badly.

“Elle, the driver is gonna be here in five. Would one of you boys get her a towel, please?” Kara’s ringing voice came as an unwelcome alarm ending Leyla’s epic moment. She didn’t have to think about it this time.

“Actually, I’m gonna stay. I’m having fun. I’ll see you girls on Monday.”

“… Are you sure?” Chelsea piped up already halfway to the gate.

“Yeah. Trust me. I’m good.”

“Text us when you get home, okay? Seriously.” Kara insisted. “Seriously, Elle, promise me you will.”

“I promise. Go.”

Kara rolled her eyes and grabbed her purse. Leyla was relieved when they disappeared from view. Her mind was sharply focused on one singular thing. She looked back around for Kurt and caught him watching the nervous guy floating face down like a dead man just below the surface of the deep end. He was too still. “This guy,” Kurt laughed. She felt a dull, but stinging worry in her chest disrupt the joy.

“He does this every night,” the tall one said nonchalantly.

“Should we pull him up? Is he okay?”

“None of us are okay,” Kurt answered as he slid his arm around Leyla’s waist. When he kissed her deeply in the middle of the lukewarm water, she started to forget about what she had even been worried about. Her mind was clear and every part of her felt warmly held. Their bodies melted into an indistinguishable mass of flesh sinking, sinking, sinking to the bottom of the pool.

She woke up on one of the pool chairs in the blazing morning sun. She couldn’t remember how she got out of the water or how she got to the chair or whether she had even left the courtyard. She waited for the panic to well up inside her, but felt only one thing. She was hot.

“It’s hot,” she said to the cloudless blue sky above her.

“Of course it is. We’re in hell!” The extraordinarily normal one belly-laughed from a speedboat shaped pool float.

She sat up in a daze and took in the state of the pool. In the daylight it was a sparkling sapphire blue; a perfect piece of sky sunken into the earth. The tall one was just standing in the deep end staring at the vomitously pink door for apartment number nine. Kurt was leaning his elbows onto the edge, treading water in his sunglasses and looking as always at Leyla.

“Good morning,” he said.

“Where’s the nervous … where’s your friend? Did he finally give up?” She giggled, only somewhat afraid that her joke was too personal and too familiar. Keep it light, she reminded herself. Be cool.

“Yeah, I think he died,” Kurt laughed. The normal one started to laugh so hard he was holding his ribs and Kurt soon joined him. Leyla didn’t understand. They laughed so violently that they started to hyperventilate and press on their bellies to make it stop. The tall one had no reaction at all. “It’s not funny,” he said eventually. He wasn’t chastising the boys; he was explaining to Leila.

She felt the echo of panic. There was something that she heard just now that made her think she was in danger, but she was having a hard time remembering what it was. It was just the anxiety talking – isn’t that what her therapist said? A feeling is just a feeling and it will pass. You don’t need to cover it up with anything. You just need to feel it. Maybe she was just hungry.

“Do y’all want to get some food?”

Kurt was suddenly still. The mood shifted entirely as he leaned in a little harder onto his elbows and looking very serious. The whiny, playful tone that came out of his mouth surprised her: “Nooooooo! I literally can’t leave this pool. And you can’t leave us alone here. That would be really uncool of you. Besides. It’s Sunday and everything is closed.”

“It’s not Sunday. It’s Saturday.”

“It’s Sunday,” the tall one confirmed.

“It’s Sundaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay,” yodeled the normal one.

She felt dizzy. She felt sick. She swallowed too much pool water and she might throw up. She had lost days before, but she had lost them at the bottom of pill bottles furiously prepping for exams that could only be mastered with chemical study aids. This didn’t make sense – she had only had one drink! Classes started tomorrow and she couldn’t be here. Breathe. A feeling is just a feeling. It will pass.

“Relax! It doesn’t matter!” Kurt pushed off from the edge of the pool and grabbed a bright pink pool noodle. “Come float with me.”

“I’m going in,” the tall one said suddenly with a splash as he leapt up the pool steps. He walked with determination through the pool gate and towards apartment number nine. “Suit yourself,” Kurt hollered back, “We’ll be here when you get back.” With a scowl, the tall one opened the apartment door without a key and slammed the door behind him.

“Idiot,” the normal one said mostly to himself.

Leyla got her breathing pattern back to normal as she focused on sensations. The sound of the slamming door. The taste of sweat dripping from her upper lip. The smell of steaming chlorine. The sight of Kurt once again offering her the pool noodle. She needed to feel something now. She moved to the edge of the pool next to Kurt and dipped her feet in. There it was – relief, reverie, warmth and calm. Five senses complete; a whirring mind set back on its axis.

“Get in,” Kurt coaxed. She did and wrapped the pink noodle around herself to float. They lay in silence for some time as she drifted off to a quiet corner of her mind where not much of anything happened. They let their hands drift together on and off; hook pinkies and index fingers. It was bliss. The light had changed to a cooler golden glow before Leyla realized the sun was setting.

“School starts tomorrow,” she whispered.

“I used to have this job,” Kurt whispered back. “It was great. I was teaching art to elementary school kids and they loved me. And I loved that job. But, it doesn’t matter now, right? None of it matters. Let go.”

“I got kicked out of my last school. I was caught stealing a prescription pad from the student health center. Adderall. Third strike. And this was it. This was my chance. I was going to go back and finally do it right. It had to be perfect. It has to be perfect.” She was saying these words that she had kept buried under her skin for months. Fears and foibles that she couldn’t bring herself to admit until now in the breathiest whispers, barely audible. The words left her mouth as easy as breathing – it was mechanical and signified nothing.

“Doesn’t matter now.” He smiled again like he did that night in the bar; with tranquility but without happiness. Her body went limp as she surrendered to it. She closed her eyes and allowed herself to drift away again. When she opened them she was looking at the stars.

All was perfectly peaceful until the tall one reemerged from apartment number nine, still soaking wet as if he had never left. He moaned something low and animal as he collapsed on the concrete floor sobbing into his hands.

Daylight again. The pool. This time the tall one was gone.

Kurt and the normal one were challenging each other to some underwater breath holding contest. Leyla sat on the steps watching them and counting the seconds with Mississippis. She came here with clothes and a phone, but she couldn’t remember what happened to them.

“… Four Mississippi … Five Mississippi … Six Mississippi ….”

The boys sat determined under the surface. She kept counting as she wondered about the apartments all around them. She never saw anyone come or go. She never saw stirring behind the dark windows. If she did, she would wonder whether the tenants were watching. And if they were, why did none of them ever come down to the pool. It was so warm and the perfect place to spend summer days. Why else would you live in a place like this – if not for the ease of slipping into this magical pool for a fix at the end of every boring, relentless day.

“ … Seven Mississippi … Eight Mississippi … Nine Mississippi … “

The tall one went into apartment number nine. Maybe there was something or someone there that was worth seeing. Maybe she could towel off for a while and take a break; find her clothes or her phone. Sleep off the sun, which made her feel more and more exhausted all the time. Something in her compelled her to go, but it was hard to motivate herself to get out. She was so comfortable and it was so easy. What’s the point?

“ … Ten Mississippi … Eleven Mississippi … Twelve Mississippi …”

Go, a stray thought told her. Go now. Her mind was at ease, but her body was bolting, suddenly crawling up the edge of the pool and running through the gate. It was like she was standing outside herself watching it happened. She remembered this feeling and she had missed it. She was even smiling as she observed her fists banging on the door of apartment number nine. It was all so absurd – slapping on the door with an open palm, scratching at the sickening paint. She briefly wondered about what was going on with the boys – how long had they been under now? – as her hands found the doorknob and turned it, pushing her way inside.

When she stepped in her bare feet met the hot concrete again. She was once again outside the apartment door as if she had just stepped out rather than in. It was night again and she had a clear view of the pool. She saw the normal one’s body floating just at the surface of the pool; his form created a shadow on the walls of the courtyard every time it passed the pool lights.

She turned and walked through the apartment door again and found herself outside in the daylight. Once more. Twice more. Day. Night. She started to laugh. She opened and closed the door a dozen times as her laughter grew to a maniacal screech. It was all impossible and unbelievably funny. It hurt as her lungs burned and abdominal muscles pulled on her ribs; it felt like the laughter could tear her apart.

“Please. Please stop. For the love of God. Please!”

Kurt was alone in the pool. It was night again. His voice was different – childlike, vulnerable. She stopped still and walked back through the pool gate. She moved like a child herself; like she had been caught doing something she should not have been. Leyla stepped lightly to meet Kurt on the top step. She sat close to him, leaned her head on his shoulder, and interlaced her fingers with his.

“Don’t leave me here alone,” he said.

“I couldn’t if I wanted to,” she replied.

She giggled as she pulled them both under the surface. When they came up, Kurt asked, “Why did you bring me back? You should just hold me under until it stops.” It was her turn to be serious. “You don’t get to leave me. You brought me into this.” He nodded. They lay on the steps, holding each other until the light changed again and they forgot. When they found themselves in the sun again, Kurt offered Leyla his sunglasses and she took them.

Night again. This time back at the bar.

Kurt and Leyla sat under the neon sign, enveloped in cigarette smoke. She couldn’t remember when she started smoking, but she was enjoying it. She took in a drag and breathed out a fiery sigh of ash. She was back in her t-shirt dress and platform sandals, but this time with Kurt’s sunglasses. She was content. They surveyed the place, watching for someone who would be watching them. Something had to happen tonight. And then suddenly it did.

“Elle, oh my god! Where have you been?” A beautiful young woman was marching up to them with an angry look on her face. She was perfect. “You didn’t text me back that night and I had to call campus security and the whole thing has been completely traumatizing. The entire campus has been looking for you for months and you are just here at the bar? Are you fucking kidding me? Get your stuff – I am getting you away from this … maniac.”

Leyla knew that she should recognize this girl, but she didn’t. She felt this thing happening inside her, this discomfort. Like she had forgotten something really important that she just couldn’t remember anymore. It was like this dream she could almost recall: she’s woken up for school way too late to make it on time and no one is there to give her a ride, so she has to run the whole way or something. When she gets there her bag falls to the floor, books spill everywhere, she misses the pop quiz, and the teacher yells. She thought, this was always the part right before she woke up.  

“You didn’t show up for any of your classes that first week and when we came looking for you the complex was empty! I had a heart attack! Where have you two been running around? Please tell me you haven’t been trafficked. Has this man been trafficking you, Elle?”

Leyla shifted in her seat and placed her hand on Kurt’s knee, looking for a quick hit of reverie. He was still, calmly taking in every detail of the girl screaming into his face. She wanted to get back to the pool. “Sit down,” she said to the girl.

“I will not sit down. You have been missing for months. Your parents are looking for you. Your friends are looking for you. Your face has been plastered on the news and on Facebook … like, how do you not know this? Why would you do this? I just … I am so glad you are alive, but what is wrong with you that you are just sitting at this bar when the entire country has hashtagged your name? Where have you been?”

Leyla searched for the answers that she felt she should have, but came up empty. “It doesn’t matter,” she sighed. “Pool?”

Old River // Big Sky

7. Old River
“Each small bullet makes a sound”

It was sticky sweet in the dark night air, brewed potently from humidity and sea spray and petrochemicals. Davis stood with his hip cocked toward Tripp and watched flames lap up into the sky. They parked the bike on the side of FM 146 and started watching the refinery glow from across the street. It was peaceful in its way — whirring and working while everyone else is tucked-in asleep. Something about it was ominous, too. It left Davis with pinpricks of fear in the deepest parts of him. 

“Hey,” Tripp said with an implied dare to look. 

Davis couldn’t bring himself to look away from the endless maze of pipes and fittings. He was reminded of the life he used to live, working twelve-to-sevens out in the Permian Basin. Being a roughneck calloused any soft spots that survived high school and the teen rodeo circuit. It made him feel worn in like a good pair of boots; so busted up that you hardly feel like you’re wearing anything at all. He never really thought about how all the oil he drew out of the ground ended up here to be processed, perfected. 

He felt Tripp move in closer at his side. Felt his fingertips brush and caress near the belt loops on his jeans. It was tender, intimate. Still not looking, he could feel the intensity of Tripp’s stare. It was searching for something definite — a joke to break the tension or that look you get right before you kiss. Memory of a time out in the patch elbowed in: the boy with the turquoise belt buckle; fingers drifting to interlace being pushed aside; nursing a broken heart with burning swigs of Fireball. Suddenly Davis couldn’t play the part he knew he should; couldn’t give in to what he knew should happen next. He stared deep into the orange light of the refinery as the pinpricks of fear in him widened into snarling maws that could swallow him whole. Tripp’s fingers fell away and slid across his chest as he crossed his arms in a pout. 

“I have a gun,” he said after some time passed.

“Bullshit,” Davis spat back. 

“No lie. I keep it for protection.”

Tripp stumbled backward toward the bike trying on his best impression of Davis’ swagger and pulled a Beretta M9 out of the saddlebag. “Lifted it from my Dad before I left,” he bragged as he handed it over. Davis felt the weight of it in his hands and its smooth, inky metal. Without thinking he gripped the trigger and aimed it out across 146 at the refinery. 

“Fuck, boy, are you trying to get us arrested?” 

“Maybe,” Davis mumbled back, trying to sound flirtatious. 

“Here,” said Tripp as he waded through the tall grass of the shoulder. He picked up a six pack of empty beer cans and set them up on a large construction drum. After skipping toward Davis, he grabbed his hands and pulled him just in front of their new target. “Let me show you.” Standing behind him, Tripp wound his left arm around Davis’ waist and ran the other down from his shoulder until it found a firm grip on his trigger finger. “Both hands now, Mr. Marlboro.” Davis brought his left hand to the gun and let it rest on Tripp’s — something like holding hands. “And ready, aim … you know the rest.” On cue, Davis squinted one eye and took aim at the cans. A deep breath. Some fear. Tripp pressing his fingertips into the soft indent of his waist. “Now shoot.” 

It was a sharp, tinny ringing sound; like a bell stopped short. The can flew so quick that it seemed to disappear into the smokey air. “Hot damn,” Tripp whispered so closely that lips touched ear. “You really are a cowboy, huh?” The sound brought some clarity. It made Davis want to try something.  

He dropped the gun and pulled himself into Tripp, nearly clawing at his shoulder blades. Their lips found each other easily. He slipped in his tongue and felt out a conversation in flesh. They gave and took; pressing and releasing; biting when it was right. They stayed tangled up together for some time before Davis gave up on finding the clarity of that tinny sound in Tripp’s kiss. It wasn’t there. It was like touching through glass or making love in a dream — closeness without contact. 

When he pulled himself away it was with the distinct feeling of wanting to go home.   

8. Big Sky
“Heartbreak is a warm sensation when the only feeling that you know is fear.”

She was drunk on it now. Not the daquiris, but the power of how deeply he wanted her. Her mind was whirling and her body filled with electric glee. She dug her toes into the sand as the tide rolled in on Stewart Beach. 

He had his hand rested on the widest part of her hip, lightly caressing the curve there as he told her about ships on the horizon. “That one’s an oil tanker and, see, the small triangular looking one? That’s a fishing boat.” She nodded politely, but found it impossible to listen. All she could think about was that hand and where it would like to go. “And that’s obviously a cruise ship, but I bet you see plenty of those around here.” She liked the look of the ships. She liked the warm, golden light and how small they looked from far away. She didn’t care for the technicalities; it was better to imagine them as tiny paper boats on the skyline.

He was midsentence on the next line of shipping vessels when she pulled him down to the sleeping bag laid out on the sand. She wanted him to make the next move, so she stared up at the sky and left her hand dangling empty next to his. It was a rare clear night when you could see most of the stars in the sky and even a few planets. As a child growing up out west she had always felt afraid of how impossibly quiet the night could be; how it was just you and these stars looking back at you like they knew something. Here she felt the charm of it, with the gentle sound of crashing ocean waves and the warmth of a man laying so close she could feel him breathe. Something big was about to happen. She had to have something wild to tell Davis when he got home. This man was going to grab her hand and confess something powerful. Love, or something like that. Patience, she told herself. No sudden moves. 

He shifted and her heart raced with anticipation. She willed him to say it. He turned his head to face her and she did the same, locking eyes for what she realized was the first time. They were nice eyes. Dark, but shimmering with golden light; tiny paper boats on the skyline of his face. He sighed through a smile. Tellmeyouloveme tellmeyouloveme tellmeyouloveme, she prayed. “I should be getting on back to my hotel.” It was blunter than her fantasy. Trying to get her back to his hotel seemed like the kind of line that she would have settled for in younger, prettier days. Now she was aching for romance, something real. But, still, he wanted her badly and that was something. One last something before everything unknown that would come with sunrise and the start of an indefinite lockdown. 

“Would you like a ride home?” 

“Home.”

“Well, sure, I don’t want you out here walking in the dark. It’s the least I can do.”

She held her breath for a moment. Disjoint in time, she was transported back to the doorway watching Bachelor Number 5 walk out for good; to the one before that kicking her out of his car for the length of her skirt; to her homecoming date sneaking under the bleachers with Mary Clare Lewis. She clenched her jaw and felt her fingers tighten into a fist. He let out a frustrated groan as she got up and grabbed her shoes. 

“I don’t get it.” 

“You’re done with me, right?”

“It’s not like that. I thought you knew what this was, sweetheart.”

It was when he gestured out to her that she caught his wedding ring reflected in the starlight. She wasn’t sure if she was just too stupid to notice or she had tried not to look. Either way, she was pulling the veil of loneliness over herself again; retreating back within and far away from this man whose face suddenly changed to something cruelly unfamiliar. She towered over him as she decided whether to take him up on his very practical offer. Her feet were once again sinking deeper into the sand.

“Just let me take you home. I swear, I’m not a bad guy.”

She knew it was wrong even as it was happening. He screamed when she kicked up the sand into his face — it got in his eyes, his mouth. It swirled in the wind, rushing past her and grating her skin like a million tiny cuts. She was already a good distance away by the time he started calling her a bitch between spit takes of wet sand. She was only a little afraid he would follow her. Holding her shoes in her left hand, she brought the right to her heart as she giggled and then belly laughed and walked in the dark toward home. 

THESE ARE THE SEVENTH AND EIGHTH CHAPTERS OF A SERIAL STORY I’M DEVELOPING CALLED
QUEEN OF THE RODEO.
MORE CHAPTERS TO COME, SO DON’T TOUCH THAT DIAL.

Queen of the Rodeo // Kansas (Remembers Me Now)

5. Queen of the Rodeo
“Don’t get down, girl. This world is a bummer.”

She had never noticed just how much of yourself you could see in the cooler-lined walls of Daiquiri Time Out. The blue-white light suited her face, reflecting back eerie halos in her eyes. She was lost now taking stock of the figure before her who did and did not feel like herself. 

She cut the kind of figure that made you nostalgic for what it once was. It had curves and lines that traced better times despite being more than attractive in the here and now. Still, it was haunted by the sense that she had once been extraordinary and then something happened. She delicately pushed her shoulders back with the tips of her finger, lifting her chin and pulling her head up as if by a golden string. This was closer. This was better. 

“Miss?” It was a voice from the bar. 

Still on a string, she turned her head elegantly to the left. It was a handsome-sounding man sitting at the end of the bar closest to her. He beckoned gently with his right arm. His face was obscured by a black face mask and he wore a cowboy hat inside. A tourist. Or worse: one who fancies himself a cowboy. 

“Excuse me, miss. I know this is forward, but seeing as the world is ending and all I thought I might buy you a drink. What the hell! What’d you like?” 

As he was talking she started running all the possible scenarios. He’s an out-of-towner playing cowboy for the weekend at the worst possible time and looking for one night of fun. He’s someone she knew in high school who is wearing a disguise to humiliate her. He’s a serial killer trying out a new routine. He’s impossibly handsome under that face mask and he could just be the love of — 

“Do you like strawberry daiquiris? I hear that’s what they do here.” 

She nodded and took the empty seat to his left. She asked where he was from and he asked for her name. By the time her nuclear pink daiquiri arrived she was nearly certain he wasn’t a serial killer. He was charming and just superficial enough to make her feel like she had cleaned up well. He was still drinking through a straw under his face mask so she couldn’t tell if what sounded like smiles were genuine or threatening. He claimed he was being cautious; that the news said it was a good idea. Maybe it didn’t matter. She needed a man to break this streak before the bars closed for good, for a while. 

“So, miss Harriet, how’s it that a woman like yourself is alone in a bar on a night like this?”

“I’m not alone. I’m with you. You can call me Tink, if you like.”

“I do. I do like that.” 

There was a silence just then. A potent silence where something was being decided without being said. She could just barely make out his eyes in the dark, but she could see that hunger that she knew so well. It’s the same look a man gets when he’s just been served an oversized steak and he’s working out where to start cutting. She had him now. 

“Neon Moon” came on, finally ending the silence. Someone must have requested it on the jukebox, nostalgic for a honky tonk that didn’t exist around here anymore. It made her sway and she hoped he would get the sense she was trying to give off. Right on cue he offered her his hand for a two-step. She had to pretend like she was taking her time considering it. 

“I’m not the best dancer, but I can spin you around the floor for a few. Only if you want.” 

She had missed this too much. Feeling like the most beautiful woman in the room, even though she knew she wasn’t. Not anymore. Still, she knew how to play the part and let the guy think it was all his idea. A breath in. A breath out. One more glance to the side and back, and then she’d accept his hand. 

As they moved to the floor she was pleased to feel how confidently he pulled her in for a close hold. Liar. He was playing humble cowboy, and she was playing coy queen of the rodeo. She kept thinking about Bachelor Number Five and the last time they’d touched. He patted her on the shoulder as he walked out the door like it had been a nice try. It reminded her that she was dancing with a stranger. He moved his hands lower to the small of her back and subtly pushed her hips against his. Brooks and Dunn sang, there’s always room here for the lonely.

“You are beautiful,” he whispered in her ear. She placed her head on his shoulder so she could close her eyes and enjoy the moment. She felt the rush of ego tense and then ease her muscles. She couldn’t contain her shivering, adrenaline-fueled grin. It might be worth it, she thought. She never goes out anymore and she hasn’t done this in a few years. She would tell Davis all about it when … if he ever came home. 

“What kind of car do you drive?”

“Black Suburban. Nothing fancy.”

“Oh.” She paused strategically. “I’d like to see it.” 

She didn’t need him to take off the mask to see that smile. 

6. Kansas (Remembers Me Now)
“Come, last leg of sunset. Nothing left to hide.” 

Good evening, Galveston County … It is midnight and you know what that means … We’ve been reporting all day that today marks the official first day of our stay-at-home, shelter-in-place order … Now, you know that we won’t leave you in a lurch so we’ll keep bringing you the best of classic country with the fewest commercials … Stay safe out there … 

The radio played but Tripp and Davis couldn’t hear it over the sound of the motorcycle’s engine. Tripp drove his bike and Davis held on tight to him. They put their drunken faith in the safety of a good time. No helmets, no leathers — just dumb luck. They were screaming down the Causeway on I-45, coming up fast on Ocean’s Cabaret. It was the strip club his father always promised to take him to on his 18th birthday. His father never said it, but it always seemed to him that it was a threat more than a gift. Over the strip club loomed a billboard with a picture of the hurricane memorial statue from the seawall; “Jesus Saves” layered over top it. It made him laugh. He nestled his face and his vodka breath against Tripp’s neck. Lifted his chin up to nibble at Tripp’s ear. 

“You’re going to make me crash this bike, boy,” Tripp said with delight. “Jesus Christ.” 

… Coming to you live from the seawall as the bars close down indefinitely for the shelter-in-place, stay-at-home order … reports saying that there are two confirmed cases in the county, no deaths yet … Experts are saying that the best thing you can do right now is stay inside and remain calm … keep interactions with those outside of your household to a minimum … 

“Can you put on some music or something?” Tink knew she had to try that one again. “I’m having a wonderful time; it’s just so scary.” 

He turned it back to the classic country station and then they went back under his spare sleeping bag. She couldn’t remember the last time she had fooled around in the back of a car, but it certainly had not been this spacious. She was laid out on the backseat as he lavished her with touch. Mask and hat long forgotten, he was working his way up from her toes. The radio played “Walkin’ After Midnight” and a clear sky cast moonlight across the crinkling polyester. She was pleased with herself.  

Throwing her arms expectantly overhead, she glanced up through the window to see stars and feel the light on her face. She wondered where Davis was right now. She arched her back and got on with it. 

… And that was, of course, THE Patsy Cline with Walkin’ After Midnight … It’s after midnight, Galveston, do you know where your children are? … We’re kidding around, of course, but remember to check on friends and family from a distance over the next few days to make sure everyone’s accounted for … we’re all in this together … Next on, we’ve got “I’d Love to Lay You Down” by Conway Twitty … 

The pack of red wolves walking down The Strand turned their ears to note the new song. They were indifferent to it. They moved silently down the deserted cobblestone road toward East Beach. They looked and sniffed and inspected this place they had never been safe to explore before. They pushed over big gulp cups of alcohol with their noses. Tripped over discarded plastic bags. Picked up and carried off half-eaten hamburgers. 

The wolves had no idea why all the people had suddenly disappeared. But, they were sniffing something on the night air that suggested change. It smelled like sea water and smoke. 

THESE ARE THE FIFTH AND SIXTH CHAPTERS OF A SERIAL STORY I’M DEVELOPING CALLED
QUEEN OF THE RODEO.
MORE CHAPTERS TO COME, SO DON’T TOUCH THAT DIAL.

To the one I will love —

To the one I will love –

This is me. I promise to always come to you as my authentic self, as soon as I figure out what that means. You will get exactly what you see and as soon as you demonstrate the slightest dissatisfaction I will change. Compromise is important in successful long-term relationships.

We will meet once I open myself up to loving others by investing in myself. When I take a sabbatical to focus on me I will finally have enough time to practice new moon spells for manifesting you into being. My angels and spiritual team are reassuring this YouTube medium that next month is going to be a big one for us. By then I will have stopped caring about dating, you will walk into my life, and then I will need to learn how to care about dating again.

I will have a clear vision of what you and our relationship should be like – I have standards! I will leave myself open to the possibility of unexpected people and situations  — I have standards, but they can change!

I will know right away whether you are the right person for me and I will need to wait to see how you are around your friends; how you treat me in front of your family; how we navigate the hard times together to decide whether you are a keeper. It will be important to give it at least two or three dates before deciding, but it’s so important that neither of us waste our time. The clock is ticking.

If things are going well, I will make it clear that I want to take things slow unless we really feel the vibe, in which case I will go for it or I will let things simmer into a slow burn. Either choice will be wrong. The right answer is keep your cards close to your chest while being an open book while preserving the mystery while being spontaneous and fun. It’s simple, if you don’t think about it too much.  

After a set number of weeks or maybe never, we will have to talk about what kind of relationship we want or we won’t. I will be clear that I expect you to be as invested as I am, but if you’re not, there are at least five ways to get your attention back after a period of no contact. There are a series of strategic texts I will send to make you commit. When it really comes down to it things will just fall into place.

Once we are together-together I am going to be clear about my intentions and demand you do the same, but stay flexible and not worry too much about where things are going. I will live in the moment by instantly panicking about whether this is the right moment to live in the moment. I will carry with me all the lessons learned from previous relationships, but never weigh us down with all my baggage. I will know that things are working because you are treating me the way I deserve to be treated and I will question at every turn what I deserve, really, when you get down to it.

When we fight I will focus on listening and not be defensive. I will also stand up for myself at the first sign of a slight and not let you walk all over me since you could not possibly respect me after that. Since we will both always know exactly what we want in any given situation, this should work fine.

I won’t read too much into your behavior and I will really only have myself to blame when I neglect to notice the red flags. I won’t read too much into your behavior and I will really only have myself to blame when I neglect to notice the green flags. Maybe the lesson I will learn from you is whether red and green flags can look the same or I have severe dating colorblindness – every encounter is a learning opportunity!

Most importantly – through it all – I will never ask you to be someone you’re not. I will only ever project my own sense of who you are and constantly be confused why you are not the person I thought you were.

I can’t wait for the day when we finally meet. Unless we’ve already met, in which case obviously we will figure it out eventually.

Yours-to-be – faithfully –
Me

Demo Day

I’m here again and you’re not.

Usually, I stand at the start of the path up to the house and wait for signs of life inside. You have a way of giving up your position. I’ll see a stirring in what’s left of that ugly powder room or whatever and then I’m off. You scurry and hide when you hear me dragging that sledgehammer through the gravel. Remember when this used to be fun?

Instead I’m here in the middle of the living room staring at the kitchen island. It’s been slow going to get it down to its constituent parts. I’m sentimental since the thing gave me a place to hide when you were It. I could nestle in between the record box and the china storage, under the bar. I would be so quiet that you didn’t even notice when I blew patterns in the dry wall dust. That wasn’t my intention when we built it, but thank God for small mercies.

I tick and tock my toes from left to right, following the pattern with the sledgehammer. Left and right, left and right. I’m bored and where are you?

There is so little left now. The second floor is gone now; it’s just a staircase to nowhere growing up from the foundation. I recall when we first came here, first to dream up what our life would be and then to build it. I always used to sing to you about this haunted house with a picket fence and you would work away on making the damn fence. That was first, wasn’t it? A literal white picket fence – what a joke! You were so proud of it and I lied about how it made my dreams come true. You didn’t understand my song and you never understood my dreams. When I got around to ripping each of those white stakes out of the yard I laughed the whole time.

When did it turn? I think it was here on the upstairs landing. I somehow missed when we pulled the ceiling down. But, this is where it started. House shaped up, details tended to, and then breaking things started to feel better than building them. I will swear to my grave that you did the little things first. I noticed you were poking a nail into the shower tile grout, so I started scraping paint off the walls an inch at a time. Then tiny tears in the curtains. One doorknob unscrewed. A brick surgically removed from the fireplace. You confronted me or I confronted you or we confronted each other right here on the top stair when you kicked a piece of railing clean off. Suddenly, you were It — we were out for sawdust and metal and blood.

We never discussed the game. It just made sense. You got your fair shot to find me and I got mine to find you. It didn’t seem fair that you got the sharp ax, but you always get to play by your own set of rules. It was fun – even hot. There was a crackle like we had when we first started coming here. I was proud of that big swing that went through the laundry room to the utility closet and right over your head. It was a game before it was a hunt, wasn’t it? By the time you really started running from me I had lost track of whose turn it was.

There used to be an adorable reading nook here in the back. You’re not there either. I’m back in the kitchen and start wailing on the island before I realize what I’m doing. You aren’t underneath, but I keep smashing through the quartz countertop anyway. I think I have earned a round that’s just for me. I start to forget why I was looking in the first place just as I notice movement out the corner of my eye.

I swing so hard through the air that the sledgehammer’s weight pulls me with it and I fall on my face. Fuck. You’ll pay for that one wherever you may be. You seem to have gotten better at hiding as the house disappears around you. Now that I’ve dispatched with the island all you have left is the stairs and the fireplace. I pull the sledgehammer around the staircase to no avail, so I cross to the fireplace and put my hand gently to the bricks. Tap, tap. “Come out … wherever you are,” I say. Tap, tap. I gave you fair warning, so I make the heaviest swing I’ve made all day. An explosion of sound and brick and soot as the room turns to black. When I get back up I taste carbon and copper in my mouth. Seems like my blood.

Where are you?

I get up exhausted, but I do a round of the perimeter. The place is so flat apart from the staircase that it looks like a groundplan. There is nowhere left for you to hide. It’s a cold trill down my middle when I realize that I can’t remember the last time I actually saw you. When I try to conjure the last time we made contact all I can see is plywood smashed to pieces, and the vague outline of what must be your face through the rubble. Worse, I realize: I can’t know how much of this place I destroyed trying to get to you after you were already gone.

Climbing the stairs a final time feels right. From the top I can sit with the sledgehammer between my legs and survey this disaster. I’m surprised by what catches my eye. Out past where the fence used to be is a mailbox where we wrote and then crossed out the various iterations of our future last name. The only thing we agreed on is that we wanted a totally new one – the thing is covered in dozens of names and strikethroughs. Alongside the mailbox is a road I never noticed before. We had no use for one; this was our place to ourselves alone without visitors.

I briefly consider that you left it as a parting gift to me and decide just as quickly that you were never that generous. I briefly consider staying since there’s still a staircase to dismantle. But, instead I descend the stairs and drop the sledgehammer in the doorway. I’m alarmed to find that with every step away from the house I hope that you’ll leap from somewhere with your ax, ready to play.

I kick the mailbox over as a parting shot just in case. I’m so bored and I don’t miss you at all.

The Nothing

The Nothing is spreading,” groaned the first. “It’s growing and growing, there’s more of it every day, if it’s possible to speak of more nothing. All the others fled from Howling Forest in time, but we didn’t want to leave our home. The Nothing caught us in our sleep and this is what it did to us.

“Is it very painful?” Atreyu asked.

“No,” said the second bark troll, the one with the hole in his chest. “You don’t feel a thing. There’s just something missing. And once it gets hold of you, something more is missing every day. Soon there won’t be anything left of us.”

I always hated the end of The Neverending Story film when I was young. Existential dread always lingered at the margins of my mind when I watched it; although, I certainly wouldn’t have called it that then. I felt this strong sense that The Nothing threatening Fantasia was more than just people giving up on books and imagination. It was inevitable like the heat death of the universe. It was this thing that consumed you whole, so that you and everything you had ever thought would be forgotten. It was as simple and complex as nothing — a horizon at which your life does not exist.

The Nothing is represented in landscape form, which might be why I thought of it as so immovable. It is huge and amorphous. A storm rolling in as you watch it consume everything in its path. You can see it, but do nothing to stop it. Our hero Atreyu is pained to look on it because it makes no sense. It is as incomprehensible as existence because it is its negative twin. The opposite of existing.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about that lately for some reason.


The phrase keeps drifting into my mind … The NothingThe Nothing … as I simultaneously feel as if I am frantically doing more than ever and really not much at all. I work consistently on my dissertation and my side projects. I am connecting with friends often. I am spending more time with family than ever. I am adrift in a tide of activity and yet I can’t help peaking back at The Nothing on the horizon moving steadily toward me. It’s time slipping away into a void of unpredictability.

Seven months into the Coronavirus pandemic, it is basically cliche to say that “nobody knows.” But, seriously: nobody knows what’s coming next. And while that can be said at any time in human history, it is particularly apt now. So much so that it is even foolhardy to guess. And so the machinery of our lives that usually whir and spin frenetically to piece together the future are spinning out.

I am luckier than most in this regard. I never lost work. I had a place to quarantine comfortably. I didn’t have to cancel a wedding or give birth without visitors. I am still alive. And for that I am both grateful and guilty. The Nothing looms larger, heavier as I ponder how I’ve squandered my privileges.

I find it hard to make sense of the world through writing now. That’s always been my safe haven, but now when I sit down to work I am consumed by possibilities for which I cannot plan. It is unfortunate to be an academic in this time. It is doubly unfortunate to be a theatre practitioner in this time. It is triply unfortunate to be a theatre academic whose career has not yet started in earnest during this time. I know I am not alone in this and so I feel guilty expressing this dismay and then feel guilty for feeling guilty about my inconvenient emotions.

I paddle with one arm in the stormy seas of my mind, moving in circles like this. I curse myself for my choices and for not foreseeing the unforeseeable. I rage at the futility of torturing myself for antiquated academic practices that matter to a perilous few, who nonetheless disproportionately matter to me. I self-flagellate because even at my best I help no one and contribute very little. And all the while I somehow do nothing. I create nothing. I say nothing. I think nothing of consequence. The grooves and divots where my needle used to find beautiful music have worn flat.

The Nothing moves closer every day and I am afraid that I won’t feel anything when it takes the last piece of me.


I am unsure of my imagination now, but The Neverending Story insists that the only way to beat The Nothing is to be creative and imagine a new world.

This involves a fair bit of mourning. There was a future I imagined, of course, that didn’t include a pandemic and its million tiny disruptions. I know that to fight The Nothing I have to have faith that a future is possible …. even if it does no good to plan one. The podcast Our Plague Year had a poignant quote on this topic recently: “You’re planning a future again. And we don’t do that in this house. Not anymore.” It’s not a bleak sentiment if you underline it with faith — you can move into the future without a plan so long as you trust that you will meet it, whatever it is.

I am working on a theatre project that took on a mantra from the earliest days: “We’re building the plane while we fly it.” This would usually terrify me. But as The Nothing casts a shadow over the whole proceeding, I am comforted by the process of figuring it out. I can’t worry about the final product because it is impossible to have one in mind. We have to do it to find out. As we work together to pick narrative seeds from the stems, I find the Nothing is forced to retreat. Because there is definitely Something here, even if I don’t know what it is yet.

There is some retreat, too, when I remember the wise words of G’Mork in the film: “People have begun to lose their hopes and forget their dreams, so The Nothing grows stronger … people who have no hopes are easy to control.” I am finding freedom in surrendering to my failures. “Failures.” I can do things the right way and the way that I planned them, or I can find hope and dreams in devising something new. At this political moment it is vital that we are not easy to control. To fail with joy and curiosity is, in a sense, to resist submitting to the way things have been — we desperately need something new.

I write these words like an incantation. I’m not yet putting them into emotional play, but I fiercely want to. I am still wading through the Swamps of Sadness with you as The Nothing leaves holes in me. But, I have hope that someday Bastian will call us by a new name and a new story will begin. And then we’ll keep The Nothing at a distance, even if just for a short while.

Under Fig Leaves

When my dog feels sick he hides under the fig tree. He lays on his back with his round, pink belly up to the burning sun. He pants lightly and slowly and steadily. From time to time he nibbles at the low-lying leaves to settle his stomach.

I have come to love the taste of figs; not even their taste, but their texture. They grow from these hard, bright green bulbs to soft purple, juicy, and delicate to the touch. I love the patience of waking every morning to check whether they are ripe. I reach high and deep into the tree to test every fruit. Just before they’ve grown heavy enough to break their stems and crash to the ground, you have to pluck or lose them to the squirrels. I love cutting them in half with a paring knife to see the bright pink flesh inside. But, I’m always a bit afraid to find a wasp there. I read once that figs can only ripen by consuming wasps that find their way inside. It eats and incorporates them, so in every bite there is a bit of wasp.

Continue reading “Under Fig Leaves”