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.

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.

The Bachelor and the Baby Fox

12/19/14

So my sister had a baby – or, judging from the damage, a grenade. “There was more blood than Carrie,” she said over the phone just hours after the birth. “Why are you calling me?” I asked. “You just pushed an entire bowling alley through your vagina.” She laughed, more in agreement than amusement. “I wanted to call you,” she said, “because he has red hair like you.” “Are you sure?” I said. “Maybe that’s blood.”

12/25/14

“Are you looking forward to holding him?” My cousin asked. “I’m not going to hold him,” I replied. “Oh come on, of course you will,” she persisted. “You’re projecting a lot of humanity onto me right now,” I said. “This is not some cynical exoskeleton protecting a bleeding heart. That thing did some serious shit on the way out. It’s a Small Assassin. I am concerned for my sister.”

12/26/14

“I got the TDAP or CPAP or pap smear or whatever,” I said to a friend. “I was like, ‘but I’m not going to hold the baby,’ and they’re like, ‘but you still have to get the shot.’ So I got it. And a book: Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue: How To Raise Your Kids Free of Gender Stereotypes. That is as involved in their parenting as I’m ever going to be.”

12/27/14

“I wanted to tell you,” I started to tell my sister as my mother started to tell me about the baby room. “Come see it. You have to see it.” I smiled with a few too many teeth. “I was about to embark on a topic beyond the baby,” I raised an eyebrow, “which is a little scary, I know.” The joke sounded angrier than I’d intended.  Fleeing the scene I’d just created, I said, “let’s see it.” It was a four-walled forest with painted trees and little foxes, getting into trouble and looking cute doing it – a strategy which, I felt compelled to explain to them, will only work so long. My sister asked what I was going to tell her before. “Oh, just that I’m reading A Series of Unfortunate Events,” I said, “which really should be retitled A Series of Stupid Adults. They are so stupid. They keep doing the same stupid things.”

12/28/14

The iPhone illuminated my face like the light from an open refrigerator. “A Wisconsinite in Missouri: the sign says Deer Run. I thought it said Beer Run,” I texted to him, since he is from here. “How long will you be there,” he texted back. Our here and there would be the same place for a few days. We set a time to meet. Just for a drink, I thought, and it seemed to echo in my head, a mockingbird in a small cage. I strolled down the middle of the road, guided by Christmas lights. The front of one house was flooded with undulating rainbow flecks of light, broken candy floating in water. I stared into the houses and watched people live. It seemed like voyeurism but felt like intimacy; as a girl cares for her dolls and dollhouse, I cared for them. Instead of ear muffs I wore Bose noise canceling headphones and listened to Book of Love: “I want to be where the boys are / But I’m not allowed / I’m not a boy / I’m not a boy.”

12/30/14

Tossing the baby to our parents, we went Into The Woods. The lyrics and music carried us even as they made us walk. “Mother cannot guide you / Now you’re on your own / Only me beside you / Still you’re not alone / No one is alone, truly / No one is alone / Sometimes people leave you / Halfway through the wood / Others may deceive you / You decide what’s good / You decide alone / But no one is alone” On the ride home, my brother-in-law said, “this musical means a lot more now.”

12/31/14

“The baby looks like you,” a mutual friend of my sister and I said. “Hopefully the resemblance is only physical,” I said. It was New Year’s Eve at Missy B’s, a place just as trashy as it sounds. The friend bound her breasts like Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry and shaved her head like Sinead O’Connor in everything and people thought we were a couple and we did not correct them. An adorable doofus found me on the dance floor around midnight and tried to kiss me. Our beards brushed as I shouted in his ear, “I’m not that kind of boy.” I should have added “anymore.”

1/1/15

“Apologies, but I must cancel. A good friend of the family has died so we are leaving early,” I texted the boy from here. Not a good friend of the family, really, only of my father, but it sounded better, and I felt better, like an animal caught in a trap and released into the wild again. I was even ready for the Anne Geddes photo shoot. The baby was naked and someone was aiming a hair dryer at his ass. It was a whole situation. My family had held steady for a week in their requests for me to hold him, so I did. Long enough to snap a few pictures, then I passed him back to the professionals. The red shirt I had been given for the occasion – World’s Greatest Uncle – could be taken off. I left it on.