Hell is Other People

and I wonder what else you believe,

that I don’t believe,

that I don’t know about yet,

that would scare me to know you believe.

And when will I find out about that.

And then I wonder if someday you’ll convince me of what you believe.

And then I sit here and I think about me,

a version of me, say, two years from now.

And she believes what you believe,

and she believes what I don’t believe, not right now.

I think about that future “me,”

and I think about that future “me” thinking about the “me” I am right now.

That version of me thinks I’m stupid for thinking what I think now,

but also,

I’m here thinking that she’s so wrong,

and I don’t want to think something so different from what I think now…

…because there’s a slipping that happens.

The Christians, Lucas Hnath

As a young adult I developed a slipping phobia. One of my friends called me a “moral hypochondriac.” I clutched one version of truth, afraid of catching anything else. Something had to be right or wrong, it could never just be something. Of course, there was no love for God in this, only tide after tide of fear, and eventually I was like, “screw it, I can surf on this.” And so I did. Not surf. Slip.

Yes, I spent years slipping into the glove of addiction until I thought the glove was my hand. I was trying to heal a wound by covering it, which works to a certain point, when it begins to fester, to infect. You have to expose it to air, so it can breathe. But then it gets too much air, too much wind, its gets windburn and it wants everyone to burn, burn in the light of its truth.

What is it again?

The wound, yes, the wound that wants everyone to hurt, but for a good cause.

Even when I was in the cycle of sin-sorry-not-sorry-sin, the thought was if I reserved the serious infractions for once or twice a year, I was still superior to others who were racking it up; I was still winning the numbers game. But there was no attempt to stop, to turn around, to start again; just making a paper chain of the days until the next deviation, and then rip, rip, rip.

Repenting has meant setting both sides of my freeway going the same direction, away from the natural disaster. I expect Christian friends to understand, but most seem to think the disaster isn’t nature, it’s nature gone awry. If it was contained within a certain area…

“A quiet resentment can creep in that comes from believing that they’re sacrificing so much for God, while others get off easy,” writes Rob Bell. “Hell can easily become a way to explain all of this: ‘those people out there may be going to parties and appearing to have fun while the rest of us do ‘God’s work,’ but someday we’ll go to heaven, where we won’t have to do anything, and they’ll go to hell, where they’ll get theirs.”

Like Bell, I am actually not a universalist, or a relativist, or any kind of ist. I am an ict. An addict. Someone who doesn’t know when the party ends. So they don’t want anyone to have parties. “Is it weird,” a friend asks, “that every time I see you, I want a beer and I want to go to church?”

I’ve been listening to Lucius’ latest album, Good Grief. The booklet unfolds to form a poster of the lead singer against a black background, embracing a black figure that blends in completely. “I am lost,” she sings, “in my own home.”

Prayer

Lord,

out of the depths we cry to you

our souls melt for heaviness;

they are weary with sorrow

they are downcast

bowed down to the dust.

Our tears have been our food

day and night.

 

We mourn for the loss of Your children

who came to what they hoped

was a space where they could be safe

and the space was violated.

 

They were teachers and parents

great friends and brand managers

overprotective brothers and army captains,

contagious personalities and pharmacy technicians

good kids and assistant producers

blood brothers and ride operators

the best godmothers and Target employees

beautiful souls and high school graduates

cancer survivors and baristas

dancers and the kindest people you could meet.

 

But first and last and always

they were, and are,

Your children.

We mourn for them.

We are in mourning.

And we will not move on

we will not move on

no matter how undignified it may seem

or how uncomfortable anyone becomes

we will not move on

we will not move forward

we will not move away

we will not move from this spot

until we have flooded our beds with weeping

until we have soaked the dirt with tears

until the roots of injustice are permeated with grief

and while we grieve we wait.

 

We wait for you, oh Lord,

more than watchmen

wait for the morning.

 

And we ask, “who can show us any good?”

 

Let the light of your face shine upon us, oh Lord.

for only You can turn our darkness into light.

Surround us with songs of deliverance.

Cover us with Your feathers,

give us refuge under Your wings,

prepare a table in the presence of our enemies:

for those we have mistaken for our enemies

but are brothers, sisters

whom we are called to love

because we are the Church

even if we don’t understand

even if we don’t agree

if we can live in complete unity

then the world will know

You are Love

and they will know us

by Your Love

the Love only You can do

for You are Love

and Love

is a promise that preserves our lives,

everlasting to everlasting,

unfailing,

full of redemption,

always protecting,

always trusting,

always hoping,

always persevering

always displaying your power

among the people

the people whom

You Love

You Love

You Love

with a

jealous

dangerous

amorous

scandalous

Love

Love

Love

 

One thing we ask

this is what we seek:

for Your children lost,

Your children here,

Your children here who are lost,

let us dwell in Your hiding place

the shelter of Your tabernacle

high upon the rock of our salvation

let us dwell in Your house

Forever and ever

Amen.

Pulse

“I was looking at their ages…[they] might’ve been out for their first night at a gay bar…” someone says on the radio. “Seeing, you know, what I consider to be children have to face this…”

I consider them to be children, yes. Older than the children at Sandy Hook, at Columbine, but still children. I consider myself to be a child at that age. In my early ‘20s. In 2005. In Orlando. In Pulse.

“We went there,” a friend says on the phone, “we went there all the time.”

I remember going there and pacing around the block for an hour before deciding to go in. Or was that another club? That was another club. It could have been any club. It could have been me, it was not me, it is with me, it is over me, a large black umbrella that was handed to me a long time ago and it was not heavy at first but I’ve been holding it so long that my hand is shaking.

“You seem focused,” a roommate says as I unload groceries.

“I lived in Orlando.” I say. “I was at that club every weekend.” The roommate is holding the refrigerator door handle but I don’t realize and reach for it; I accidentally grab his hand, he instinctively pulls away, I open the refrigerator. I place bags of celery and carrots on cold shelves.

I reread the names, the ages. I look at their pictures again. I feel as though I am attending the ceremony of the dead in Sartre’s The Flies, where the departed souls return, enraged. They are rattling me like a chandelier in an earthquake. I want to sit in a gay bar and drink. I want to go to a gay club and dance. I want to have sex with as many men as possible. But I am in recovery. I am celibate. I am not going to do any of these things. So I get a Judy Garland film from the library. I Could Go On Singing.

Judy plays Jenny, a part written for her, a part that is her. Dirk Bogarde plays her ex, David. “I can’t be spread so thin. I’m just one person,” Jenny says to him, slightly drunk but getting sober. “I don’t want to be rolled out like pastry, so everybody get a nice big bite of me. I’m just me. I belong to myself. I can do whatever I damn well please with myself and nobody can ask any questions.”

On the radio they are interviewing someone who is placing white carnations and notes on the car windshields of family and friends of victims as they meet with the FBI. The note says, “You are loved.”

David starts to say he loves her, but Jenny places a finger on his lips. “Don’t – don’t say it. Because if you said it now, and if you didn’t mean it – I think I’d die – I think I’d die.”

Expected Result

I was at my parents’ house, otherwise known as the supply depot, looking for a legal pad. “Why do you need a legal pad?” Dad asked. “Because it fits in my padfolio,” I responded, though in truth the padfolio was his and as we’re being truthful I didn’t know it was called a padfolio until consulting the Internet during this writing. “But that’s 8 ½ by 11,” he said, “legal pads are bigger.” “When you say legal pad, people think of yellow and lined and bound at the top,” I replied, sounding like a riddle. The answer was dad giving me a different kind of pad: a “Project Planner,” published by Priority Management International. There were fields such as Project, Objective and Expected Result.

That last one pissed me off. I sat on the porch in April, shivering, wearing jeans, two shirts, a bathrobe, a winter coat with hood and sunglasses. This is an Expected Result of living in Wisconsin. After Valentine’s Day, any time the temperature reaches 40 degrees, we autorreact by proclaiming the arrival of spring. Basically we are Corky in Waiting for Guffman, absolutely sure the honored guest for which we have waited has arrived.

It was in this seasonal denial I returned to Wisconsin, almost ten years ago, in defeat. The Result was not Expected, then, either. Where I had been and what I had done is irrelevant, I suppose, and could be swapped with anyone’s Roaring ‘20s. But it was the first time a dream died in front of me. The grief prevented me from functioning and then functioning prevented me from the grief.

In Truly Madly Deeply, Juliet Stevenson’s husband comes back from the dead and she doesn’t know what to do with him. I can relate to that. Every day now I wake up and the dream is beside me, warm and breathing, for the first time in years. But then mirages often form out of a desire for relief. An oasis for the thirsty. Stability for the insecure. Which brings us to the Result of now, also not Expected. The key investors since returning here, those who spent their time collecting interest in my life, are withdrawing. Roommates are moving out, collaborators are moving away, friends are moving into houses for their children, and I am moved to emotions I cannot express.

My parents’ dogs were panting and pawing at the door, molesting my permission to be released. They wanted to greet the neighbor’s dog wandering through the yard, a Labrador Retriever whom I call Black Beauty because she is the size of a miniature horse. When I opened the door, they tore across the lawn, leaping at her, growling and yapping. “What’s the matter with you?” I snapped at them. “You know her.”

The next day I shared this incident with my grandma; an attempt at in-flight entertainment as we were destined for yet another doctor’s appointment. Occasionally she spasmed, then squirmed, trying to wrench from the grip of an unspeakable pain. My father informed me they had an hour-long conversation about assisted suicide. “If there was a number to call,” she said, “I would call it.”

The dogs and I came inside, to lose the chill, or regain it. As the songs were already playing in my head, I decided to actually play the final album from School of Seven Bells, a duo comprised of Alejandra Deheza and Benjamin Curtis, who died from a sudden attack of rare cancer during recording. The music is a lake at sunset, reflecting light from the surface of formless dark. “We are free to dream,” sings Alejandra. “This is our time of our becoming.” I have to believe her.

Beton Brut

“The author of the James Bond books, Ian Fleming, named Goldfinger for a real person—an architect by the name of Erno Goldfinger, who made giant, hulking, austere concrete buildings. Fleming disliked these buildings so intensely that he immortalized their architect as a villain in pop culture…Some people refer to this building style as Brutalist architecture, but Brutalism is a big, broad label that’s used inconsistently, and architects tend to disagree on a precise definition of the word. Furthermore, the word brutalism has intense connotations, even though it’s not actually related to brutality. The word originates from the French béton brut, which means raw concrete.”*

– – –

April 26, 2007

We slaughtered the small talk and closed in on my favorite conversational prey: dysfunctional relationships, with a side of sexual deviancy.

I blamed it all on Nabokov, citing both of my quasi-sexual experiences with a forty-two year old and an eighteen-year-old as evidence. She laughed – the way someone laughs when they haven’t read Nabokov and don’t understand just how devastating it can all be – but I didn’t mind.

It felt like we were David Niven and Kim Hunter in the opening scene of A Matter of Life and Death – when she’s on the radio with him as his plane is going down and they experience this gorgeously spontaneous connection.

By the time we were done she’d massacred the muffins and I’d had even more bubbly thanks to that damned waitress. I realized I’d reached “the moment” of the conversation when I either mystify the participant with glamorous ambiguity or intrigue them with contradictory complexity. I remember picking a tactic, then saying something altogether different. It went something like this:

“My pelvis wants a man and my mind wants a woman.”

Her gaze was fixed, as if through intensity she could lift the hood of my head and see if the oil needed changing or if the transmission was toast.

– – –

“When Boston City Hall was built in 1968, critics were put off by the concrete style. It was called ‘alienating’ and ‘cold.’ And since it was a government building, this criticism became impossible to remove from politics. Boston City Hall became a political pawn as mayors and city council members vied for public support with promises to tear it down. But tearing down Boston City Hall has never come to pass. Doing so would take an incredible amount of effort and money. And so, government officials have largely chosen to ignore the building. This so-called active neglect happens with a lot of concrete buildings—they are intentionally unrenovated and uncared for. Which only makes the building more ugly, and then more hated, and then more ignored. It’s a vicious cycle wherein the public hate of a building feeds on itself.”

– – –

February 4, 2009

“Do you like to make out?” He asks. Do I? I’ve done it before. Maybe if I do it again I’ll have a definite opinion. I tell my body to look busy. Is he thinking this is the countdown to copulation? I wonder. I told him “I’ve never done anything”; maybe he interpreted that as “I’m a slacker”?

His hand goes up my shirt. My hand goes up in the air. “Uh, no.” I say. “What?” he says. “Just, no.” I say. He leans back and says, “why are you so insecure?”

I close my eyes. “I don’t want to be a book with just pictures and no words. Or a book with just words and no pictures – that’s probably what I am. Why are you insecure?”

He looks slightly away. “I used to get made fun of a lot.” I nod, then ask: “What’s the worst thing someone did?” He pauses. He says, “This one time a guy made fun of my mannerisms in front of the girl that I liked, and she laughed.” I nod. “What about you?” He asks.

I pause. “When I was a freshman in high school my class voted me on homecoming court as a joke. All my friends told me. Which made me wonder if they were my friends, but it made sense. For the next month everybody was sarcastically high-fiving and spanking me,” I say, poking at the past with a stick…yes, it’s dead. I look at him. He is tired, and tedious, and I want to shove his head in a fishbowl and watch the bettas swim in and out of his mouth, and try to kill one another.

– – –

“When people built these mammoth concrete structures, no one really thought about maintenance, because they seemed indestructible. In the early days of concrete, people assumed it was an everlasting material that wouldn’t require any further attention. This has not proved true. But, it can be hard to tell when concrete needs repairing, because its decay is not visible on the surface. Concrete deteriorates chemically, from the inside out. Part of this has to do with the metal rebar reinforcements that help to hold up most concrete buildings. The rebar can rust, and the rust can eat away at the overall structure.”

– – –

June 2, 2010

“Now, put on the first outfit,” the photographer says, demonstrating how a whisper can be a command.

“All right,” I say, looking through the outfits. They are overpowering; they are overdone; they are just over. But he’s a friend, so I put them on. Like Ben Folds, I do the best imitation of myself.

Soon he is telling me to do things I don’t do anymore, while making it look like I do…”give me a cocky pose.” I do. “No, like this.” He does it. I do it. “Umm, not quite, here, mirror me.” He does it. I do it. “No, come stand where I’m standing.” He does it. I do it. click. “Done. Next outfit.”

Years ago I saw Paris is Burning, a documentary about vogue balls in New York City. The participants try to pass for their opposite gender or social class. All I know is they walked down that runway like they were walking away from their old selves.

– – –

“Photography is allowing a new audience to appreciate these buildings for their strong lines, crisp shadows, and increasingly, the idealism they embody. ‘[Concrete buildings] represent a set of ideas about the state of the world and what the future was imagined to be that we want to preserve,’ says Adrian Forty, author of Concrete and Culture. ‘We should remember what people were thinking 50 years ago. If we tear these buildings down, we will lose all of that.'”

 

 

*All selections are from Roman Mars’ fantastic article on Brutalist architecture for Slate magazine.

Just Like Me

Your-own-private-Bose-Idaho headphones are on, canceling the noise you don’t choose for the noise you do; they are connected to your iPhone, which is connected to your hips, which are connecting the bops of Betty Who:

I heard she’s beautiful
A 20 out of 10
That doesn’t keep me from
Wondering how you’ve been

She is in St. Cloud. It sounds like the safest place. It sounds like the name of a TV drama. There was one called that, wasn’t there? In a hospital? No, that was St. Elsewhere. Perhaps that is more accurate. The cop who pulled her over said she did not know who she was. Now she cannot call you. She cannot text you. Her husband calls you. Her husband texts you. You both talk about her like a place card at a table setting; you wonder when the real person will be there.

So if you think you’re falling apart
And I’m the only one you’ll call
If you keep reaching for me in the dark
And can’t stand it anymore

You are doing the dishes, spinning the scrub brush around the outline of the plate, like a tone arm and turntable reversed. At the moment you are happy, because for momentary happiness, Betty Who is your Captain Picard: she makes it so. Especially when you first heard “Somebody Loves You” as the soundtrack of a flash mob marriage proposal between Spencer and Dustin Stout-Reese. It simultaneously went viral on the internet and in you, infecting with false hope. Someday, you think, they will release a study that concludes gay marriages are unnatural and unhealthy. What a terrible thought, you think, and you tell the thought so. It was not you thinking it, you decide, setting a Tupperware container aside to soak. It was a character – a character without an arc, drowning in a flood, because all the other animals have their partner. “At least she is married now,” you told the pastor earlier. “She cannot be alone. I’ve known her for years and I’ve always known that.” “I met her at a performance of your play,” the pastor replied. “she said, ‘it’s so funny that we’re meeting here, because this play is about me.'” In the bead counter of your mind, you try to calculate what is more narcissistic: her imagining your play is about her, or you insisting it is about you.

Then you just call my name
I will do the same
You can look into my eyes and see
If you’ve got a broken heart
Then you’re just like me

At the beginning of the breakdown, she wrote to you in an e-mail, “GOD can play with pretty, fragile, tragic, desecrated, dishonored, shamed and histrionic messes like ‘us’ – and you and I know our heaven was granted because it would not be again the night I feel in love with the band that captured all the songs I shared with you waiting for him…and the songs would have been forgotten if I didn’t know in my heart that you secretly loved me more than you thought I loved you – and I let you in whatever way you wanted because I was always water and I could transcend whenever the world was too much for me to share…This is not good-bye, this is I will find you again when God wants to remind us of his story as he would tell it – but we have to establish what we think our narrative is – so we predict what we don’t want – in the deepest hope that we get everything we need before what we want, because I can only hold the things that are truly cherished in my heart – as you are my darling Ben.”

Just like just like me
Just like just like me
Just like just like me
Just like just like me
Just like just like me
Just like just like me

For Sale

REALTOR: So here we are.

WIFE: Oh my God. It’s so clean.

HUSBAND: Whitewashed.

WIFE: Yes. And quiet.

HUSBAND: Like a tomb.

WIFE: Don’t be morbid. (To REALTOR) He’s a writer.

REALTOR: Ah.

WIFE: Now who did you say lived here? A meth dealer?

REALTOR: Oh, um –

HUSBAND: She didn’t say that.

WIFE: I know she didn’t say that, we know she didn’t say that, I’m saying it now, to spare her the embarrassment of having to say it.

HUSBAND: How would you even know if a meth dealer lived here?

WIFE: I do watch television sometimes.

REALTOR: It was a man named Matthew Jones. (Beat.) And yes, he was a meth dealer.

WIFE(To HUSBAND): You see? (To REALTOR) Did he also use?

REALTOR: Yes, but –

WIFE: A dealer and a user. That’s a regrettable combination. The dealing is bad enough, but the using is just unprofessional.

HUSBAND: Well you have to believe in your product.

WIFE: I don’t think humor is appropriate now, do you?

HUSBAND: It never is. That’s why I like it.

REALTOR: He’s clean now.

WIFE: Excuse me?

REALTOR: Matthew’s clean now. He went through the Teen Challenge program. He’s on staff, actually.

WIFE: What?

REALTOR: He’s on staff at Teen Challenge. He’s speaking at their banquet at the end of the month.

HUSBAND: Is he the one Fox interviewed who said addiction was demon possession?

WIFE: You know that’s the first sensible thing I’ve heard about addiction. All this silliness about it being a disease.

HUSBAND: Everybody wants it to be something that can be exorcised or cured. They don’t want to believe it’s a part of them, like a pancreas or a spleen.

WIFE: The body can function without a pancreas or a spleen.

HUSBAND: It can also function without sex, but where is that going to get us?

WIFE: Somewhere better than here.

HUSBAND: Where the grass is greener?

WIFE: Yes, grown with love instead of bullshit. (Beat. To REALTOR) Excuse my language. It’s just been happening lately.

REALTOR: I understand.

WIFE: Do you?

REALTOR: No, but I find that pretending to understand makes both parties feel better.

WIFE: It does. Say it again please.

REALTOR: No.

WIFE: Thank you.

(Beat.)

HUSBAND: Wasn’t he in the bathtub for three days?

REALTOR: What?

HUSBAND: The meth dealer. Wasn’t he passed out in the bathtub for three days?

REALTOR: I think that was his wake up call.

WIFE: How could he even hear the phone ringing?

REALTOR: Well he did and now he’s speaking at the banquet with the Lieutenant Governor.

HUSBAND: You mean the Private Lieutenant Governor.

REALTOR: What?

HUSBAND: He wants to privatize everything.

WIFE: Including prisons. Just think how much money we would save in taxes if the prison system were being run like a good business.

REALTOR: If it were a good business we’d be trying to keep people out of it. Privatization would have the opposite effect.

WIFE: I wonder if the meth dealer knows about all that.

REALTOR: If not, I’m sure they won’t tell him before he gets up on the platform with the Lieutenant Governor.

HUSBAND: He knows. He’s in support of privatization.

WIFE: I really admire this meth dealer.

REALTOR: His name is Matthew.

WIFE: Who?

REALTOR: The meth dealer – the man who lived here before. His name is Matthew.

WIFE: From demon possession to local politician. I suppose it doesn’t get much better than that.

We Have Always Lived in Hill House

“No live organism can continue to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill house itself, not sane, stood against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, its walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

– – –

“I feel very empty, like an eclair with all the creme sucked out of it,” I told the group. “I mean, I know the creme was awful, it was full of high fructose corn syrup and artificial ingredients. But I’m so hollow without it. I don’t know why I’m coming here. I did not want to come tonight. But I will keep coming.”

“That was really genuine,” my sponsor Scott said, a few days later. “I know you struggle with performing and it was significant for you to be so real.”

“I don’t feel real,” I said. “I feel like a motel of all vacancies. Just empty. I can see things are better: almost a year sober, not staging a rebellion, not plotting a relapse, truly repented. I can see that, but I don’t feel it.”

“You’ve been making progress,” Scott said, “but ‘it’ keeps changing. Or, like, your perception of ‘it’ keeps changing. You thought it was sex addiction. You were quick to label yourself that. You talked a lot about it at the beginning. Of how bad you were. Not so much now. What you’ve done is not who you are. And you’re not a bad guy.”

– – –

“The writing was large and straggling and ought to have looked, Eleanor thought, as though it had been scribbled by bad boys on a fence. Instead, it was incredibly real, going in broken lines over the thick paneling of the hallway. From one end of the hallway to the other the letters went, almost too large to read, even when she stood back against the opposite wall…the doctor, moving his flashlight, read slowly: HELP ELEANOR COME HOME. ‘No.’ And Eleanor felt the words stop in her throat; she had seen her name standing out there so clearly; it should not be on the walls of the house.”

– – –

Driving home from the gym, there were two men attempting to push a stalled car out of traffic. One looked up at me, his eyes asking a question, his hand raised halfway. I turned onto a side road. By the time I parked and approached, they had slid the car into a legal spot.

“And you’re already done. Sorry I wasn’t more helpful,” I said.

“No, no, thanks for stopping,” the one who had waved smiled, opening his arms. “I’m a hugger,” he said, advancing, and I could not retreat; I could not strategize; I was artless of war and the hug was declared. He turned back to the car and opened the trunk. “I just got this car 2 days ago. I put all this shit in it,” He muttered, motioning to several containers of fluid that appeared to be intended for automobile use. His eyes followed mine to a plastic head with synthetic hair. “I do hair,” he said. I imagined the head rolling around the trunk every time he stopped, or turned, or accelerated; the painted eyes staring into darkness.

“Hey,” he said, “we were going to the club. Could you give us a ride?”

“Oh,” I said. “Sure.”

I moved some things to my trunk. The other one sat in back. The one who waved sat in front.

“Can I ask you a personal question?” He said.

“Sure.”

“Are you gay?”

“That is personal.”

“Then I’ll ask another. Where were you going?”

“Just home.”

“What were you going to do?”

“Just go to bed.”

“How’d you like us to come with you?”

I tried to swallow. It felt like I was swallowing my whole throat.

“Um, no,” I said. “No. I’d like to, actually, but I’m – trying to be good.”

“Oh,” he said.

“Can I ask you another question?”

“Sure.”

“How big is your cock?”

“It’s not. I’m not into size,” I said, insecurity disguised as pretention. Then his hand was on my crotch, a layman taking measurements.

“You’re huge.”

“No, I’m not,” I smiled, trembling, pulling his hand off of me slowly, as though I were removing a band aid. Exactly how many times he touched me and I said “no,” I tried to remember; the other one touched me once and I said “no” too, I remember that; I tried to remember everything as I told Scott:

“I said no. I did. But obviously I didn’t mean it, otherwise he wouldn’t have kept doing it.”

“That is not true,” Scott said.

“I pulled over to help them. To help them.”

“Yes, and this is a victory. You dropped them off at the club. You didn’t take them home. This is a victory.”

“It doesn’t feel like a victory. I feel manipulated. I feel conned. I feel…”

“Yes?”

“I feel like – like – ” I was shaking now, with the hyperventilating sobs of a toddler who has been cheated for the first time and is telling a guardian. “I feel like – God doesn’t have my back.”

– – –

“‘You will recall,’ the doctor began, ‘the houses described in Leviticus as ‘leprous,’ tsaraas, or Homer’s phrase for the underworld: aidao domos, the house of Hades…it might not be [too] fanciful to say that some houses are born bad. Hill House, whatever the cause, has been unfit for human habitation for upwards of twenty years. What it was like before then, whether its personality was molded by the people who lived there, or the things they did, or whether it was evil from its start are all questions I can’t answer…there are popular theories, however, which discount the eerie, the mysterious…people…are always so anxious to get things out in the open where they can put a name to them.'”

– – –

“My first time -” I started. “Well, not my first time. I haven’t had a first time, really. But the best time…I was 20 and he was 42,” I sipped a third glass of champagne, more buzzed than a cicada. The champagne was the most expensive I had tasted; the wedding was the most expensive I had attended. It was the perk of being plus one to my friend Tina. Smiling, she listened to my romantic math: “that’s a 22 year age difference, for those who are counting. Who are not us, Tina. You won’t hear me protesting you and your new old beau.”

“I’m sorry, is this a trigger?” She asked, a little concerned.

Im the trigger. And the gun. And the shooter. And the shot. This is why I’m in recovery. I’m the problem.”

– – –

“You worry too much, Nell. You probably just like thinking it was your fault.”

“It was going to happen sooner or later, in any case,” Eleanor said. “But of course no matter when it happened, it was going to be my fault.”

“If it hadn’t happened you would never have come to Hill House.”

“We go single file along here…Nell, go first.”

Smiling, Eleanor went on ahead, kicking her feet comfortable along the path. Now I know where I am going, she thought…I will not be frightened or alone anymore; I will call myself just Eleanor. “Are you two talking about me?” She asked over her shoulder.

After a minute [he] answered politely, “A struggle between good and evil for the soul of Nell. I suppose I will have to be God.”

BWB

In our neighborhood, if you are outside, you are open for business – and the children will get in your business. I was sitting on the front stoop like Baby John in West Side Story, trying to be tough but totally harmless. The children, on this day represented by Dreana, came tumbling towards me.

“I’m going to paint your nails,” Dreana announced.

“No you’re not.” I countered.

“It’s boy nail polish.”

“That doesn’t exist.”

And so Dreana began painting my nails with her spit. I was going to ask her to stop, but it didn’t seem important. The next day she was back with the boy nail polish. To her credit, it was blue; a bright blue that has never cried. She also brought a boy, Anthony, as if this might prove persuasive. Again she asked and again I refused, so she started painting the siding.

“Please don’t do that,” I said. She paused for a moment. Then continued.

“What did I just say?” I snapped.

“Yeah!” Anthony matched my tone and made a grab for the nail polish, and Dreana made a fist, and the bottle didn’t want to pick a side, so it fell, spilling the candy blueberry polish all over the porch. With a squeal the kids scattered. I muttered all the way upstairs for a rag and sighed all the way down. As I rubbed repeatedly, the polish gradually transferred from concrete to rag, until the rag appeared as though some blue-blooded cartoon animal had bled on it.

It was the same color I saw at the Ebony fashion exhibit, in a far outfit of swimsuit, coat, scarf and stockings that was not suitable for any occasion. My friend Althea and I wandered through the temple of black goddesses, who were wearing fabulous ensembles and arranged in rows, like ornate columns supporting a vision. “These mannequins must have DNA, they are so lifelike,” I said. “That one looks like Naomi Campbell.” We approached some casual wear that was too coordinated to be casual – every piece similarly patterned in blocks of black and blue and trimmed with white lines – and I pointed at it, declaring, “I could wear that.”

A week later I returned from work and tried to close the distance between the car door and the front door as quickly as possible. Anthony shouted from down the street. “Wait up!”

“I’m waiting,” I said, not slowing or stopping. As I was unlocking the door he limped up the steps, holding something under his arm. “I broke my leg,” he said.

“No you didn’t.”

“This is my crutch.”

“No, that’s a snow shovel handle without the shovel,” I pushed the front door open.

“Hey!” Anthony leaned down, grabbing my pant leg and pulling it up a little. “What shoes are you wearing?” He asked.

“Adidas,” I said.

“Those are for black people.”

“That’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard.” And with that line, I exited inside, eager to be alone with my backpack, as it contained the love/hate letter Dear White People. It’s “a satire about being a black face in a white place,” but really it’s a chiaroscuro of characters at an Ivier-than-thou University. Among the students are Coco Conners, a black blogger with the nickname “blue eyes” because she prefers white men and helps one of their fraternities throw a blackface party so she can live blog the proceedings. “Tell me,” she mockingly implores the camera, “why are white folks so obsessed with being black? Hell, why are black folks addicted to blonde Barbie doll weaves? It’s a strange symbiosis that we’re here to investigate.”

“Can I destroy this terrible exegesis?” my roommate demanded the following morning, standing in the bathroom doorway, gripping a page torn from a Sunday School coloring book that had been taped on our refrigerator. I put down my toothbrush and examined the picture. The face of God floated in heaven, wearing a beard composed of the surrounding clouds. A child had bore a crayon back and forth across the face, likely Ultramarine, a shade which is based on Lapis lazuli, the semi-precious stone coveted since ancient times for its intensity. “Blue is fascinating,” according to Yale ornithologist Rick Prum, “because the vast majority of animals are incapable of making it with pigments. They have evolved a new kind of optical technology, if you will, to create this color.”

Handing the picture back to my roommate, I said, “let’s keep it,” and together we left for work. Despite a week of rain, the polish on the porch had not faded.

Carrie & Lowell & Sufjan & Me

The 39-year-old boy, Sufjan Stevens, is bent over, his back almost to us. He is finding the keys and pushing them down, on a piano that looks like it came from an attic and it probably did. The band quietly assembles, accompanying him, but only in presence. The song, “Redford,”* is from an early album, Greetings from Michigan. We are in Wisconsin, which isn’t so far from Michigan, and yet, so very far.

I first listened to Michigan while I was in New York and unhappy, to which Hannah Warren would say, “nobody’s happy in New York, but they’re alive,”** although it’s unclear whether I was that, either. On streets, in head shots, through the casting office, I watched people who had sculpted and hardened and polished themselves into beauty. Inspired, I ransacked the internet for the right diet and died to it, denying myself food and repeatedly purging my system with “natural” cleansing protocols. Then I wondered why my body became a stick figure, my face a red acne bomb and my heart a lead balloon. I listened to track number 13 of Michigan, “Oh God, Where Are You Now?” over and over again, until I was crying, until I was crying and groaning, until the Spirit was groaning for me.

Spirit of my silence I can hear you, but I’m afraid to be near you
And I don’t know where to begin
And I don’t know where to begin

And so begins the next song, “Death with Dignity,” first on the album this tour is supporting, Carrie & Lowell, named after Sufjan’s parents, the former of which died three years ago. There are a series of separate panels behind him, like chapel windows, displaying home videos of a family that we know, and don’t: the mother, who battled addiction and mental illness and retreated from her family; the father, who moved to the front line of his children’s lives; the result, a crossbeam with only one support, upon which the children had to balance. But to balance you have to lean on something.

I leaned on my own understanding. After a crash landing back in Wisconsin, I was a survivor who didn’t want to survive. A mild depression dominated for a time and then was disgusted by me, so it departed. Sexual addiction arrived, committed to drug, impoverish and wreck me, ’til death do us part. I pronounce you man and man and man and man and man… you may kiss the lie.

In a bleached-white light, moving through the audience as though a search and interrogation is imminent, Sufjan’s T-shirt, branded with one word, can no longer be ignored: Hustler. His voice, an apparition of a whisper, sings “All of Me Wants All of You.”

Shall we beat this or celebrate it?
You’re not the one to talk things through
You checked your texts while I masturbated
Manelich, I feel so used

Suddenly my eyes are memorial fountains, the water pumping from the past and splashing into the present. The teardrops are shadows on my pants. The pants are not mine. They are from a production of Oleanna in which I played Carol, a student of “doubtful sexuality” who “want[s] understanding.” I went on a gender bender shortly after birth and could not stop until a few years ago, although I had waited until legal drinking age to buy a dress at the thrift store. I packed it in a bag for a trip to Illinois to visit my friend. Upon arrival I asked her to wait in the living room so I could change into it and make an entrance. When I did, she smiled and said something no one else ever had, not even my parents: “I think the dress looks nice on you.” We drank vodka with her boyfriend and watched Hedwig and the Angry Inch and at the end he made a joke and she made a face at him and tried to make me mad at him with her and I said, “This isn’t a movie, this is my life.”

Now I’m drunk and afraid, wishing the world would go away
What’s the point of singing songs
If they’ll never even hear you?

“The first funeral I attended was my great-grandmother’s,” Sufjan speaks, 45 minutes into the concert, for the first time. “She was all made up, like a homecoming queen, like Glinda the good witch of the north…I had this beautiful image of death, of my great-grandmother transcending with the angels…and so I’ve always thought of death as womanly. Maybe because, women sort of have to die to themselves to give birth.”***

Three days before, in group, I said, “I’d like to open my sharing by showing a picture of a polar bear. Isn’t this the saddest polar bear you’ve ever seen? I feel like this polar bear. I’m so sad. I’m so tired of being sad. Finally I understand why people want to end it. I’m not going to, I never could, I just mean, you get so tired of trying so hard. Of waiting so long. To be healed. But things are better, really. I’m not going on craigslist anymore, which is difficult, but good. But I don’t know why I’m here. I don’t know what I’m recovering from.” Everyone was quiet. The leader nodded. He said, “keep coming back.”

Now the stage is empty, but we are standing, clapping, like schoolchildren trying to create the sound of rain; a rain dance performed by hands, to bring the reign of Sufjan back. Just as the possibility is about to become obsolete, he comes on.

The opening notes of “Chicago” have never sounded so entreating, but nevertheless Sufjan bursts into the beginning and blazes to the end. “I made a lot of mistakes,” he sings. “I made a lot of mistakes.” Behind him, the panels are hanging – still divided – but bearing images of light.


*The song inspired an entire album, Undun, by The Roots.

**From California Suite (1978), written by Neil Simon and directed by Herbert Ross.

***Thanks to Piet Levy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for a complete review and set list.