Ein Traum, was sonst?
I fell asleep in Portland. “You’re still so young” was the last thing I’d been told on that worst night. Rain in the drainpipes
woke in a bright place. Sounds of machines scrubbing the air. A constraint about the head, my mind shied from it, it might be pain. In motion, a companion under each arm holding me upright. Clean bright floor. Moving
a place of passage. Dimness. No windows no weather. Sound of a running fountain on loop. Beatrice helped me fall upward into the raised bed. How’s your pain? They wanted a number. Patches were stuck to me. Have a sip of water. My hands were enormous, too big to move the cup around my face. A splint on my nose, bumped it, no feeling in the lower lip. It will be like that for a couple months. How’s your pain? Pain was the constraint about my head, I knew it. Do you want to try a pill
ingenious, the rigid ring that held the plastic bag open while I vomited, water ran over my chin, I couldn’t feel it. Virgil was holding me upright. I don’t think that Tramadol was your friend. We’re going to put you on a drip. Here’s your phone if you want it
phone face down, the world was there and I couldn’t look into it. The false fountain ran along my hearing. Beatrice sat at the foot of the bed, Virgil stood at my elbow and fed the IV. This is for pain. This is an antibiotic. This is for nausea. We’re going to keep you on the drip for now, since you had emesis. I was propped against a headrest pillowed with ice packs. It’s like trying to fall asleep on an airplane. They didn’t understand me. I reached for the water cup, sipped, rain soaked the dead planet of my mouth. But I had to keep my mouth open to breathe. I shut my eyes and woke dry. The stitches inside your mouth will dissolve in a few weeks
three things before you’re discharged, you have to walk, you have to urinate, you have to drink water. Can we go for a walk? Long corridor, quiet, Virgil gone and a new Beatrice at my elbow. What time is it? No windows no weather. My gown was coming loose in back, she refastened it for me. Do you want to try using the bathroom? I was left alone with a catchment dish in the toilet bowl. A burn where the catheter had been. I stood and went to the sink, bent my nearsighted gaze to the mirror and saw the splint and plaster cast, tape holding it in place and around it no, wrong
a phrase from Faulkner, a balloon face slick and distended
not human. But if human then a woman. But not human, not here. Don’t look. This is the wrong place to look. Walk and urinate and drink water. I washed my hands with soap, dried them on a paper towel and dropped the towel in the wastebasket, surprised that I could still do these things
back along the corridor. How’s your pain now? The medicines were keeping the door locked against pain, forcing it to wait outside. Virgil was back with more. This is an antibiotic. This is for nausea. Fall upward into bed, headrest and ice packs, rain in the mouth. I shut my eyes and woke dry. Beatrice and Virgil were discussing the nurses’ strikes in low voices, I wanted to say something in solidarity
phone face down with the world inside it, not yet, the running fountain
a balloon face slick and distended
place of passage. I had fallen asleep in Portland
(In micro, with more turnover, at @email@example.com.)
A lei stessa
November 20, 2003
Dear guy at metameat,
I need to write to you now, at your worst, because this is the moment when you’re most in need of it. The good news first: you’re not the horror you think you are. The bad news is that you’re also not as important as you think you are, not by a mile; and knowing you as I do, you’ll take this to mean that you’ve gone up against the world and been defeated. Maybe so. But you don’t even know what this world is that you think you’re fighting, and you haven’t come round to understand that no one, really no one, is totting up these victories and defeats other than you.
I’m not here to chastise! I feel tender for you tonight, walking the wet streets of Portland in your tent of a black coat. Reading the taped-up neon flyers with everyone else’s happenings, readings, meetups, shows; halting on the sidewalk outside a corner bungalow because you hear OK Computer playing inside; offering your arm to the ghost of Elliott Smith every time you pass one of the streets, Alameda or Division, that he named in his songs; yourself haunting the door of the café where once, during rain, a girl shared your table, you exchanged two sentences about the novels you were reading and never met again; letting go your last dollars on someone’s new novel, a Sibelius LP, a cup of Stumptown because those transactions are the only connections you know how to make. I wish I could take you out for that cup of coffee. I know what a gift you’d find it just to be taken out for an hour, especially by a woman. By another woman, I ought to say, but you’re in no place to receive that. With these latest happenings that you think of as defeats, you’re not allowing yourself even to dream of it, and won’t for decades. You poor, touchy, proud, envious ball of need. Someone needs to undo your knots.
Gifts are coming to you. I’d like this message, which you can’t receive, to herald another message you’ll receive very soon, that you half understand you built this blog in order to receive. Read her carefully when she writes, and don’t outsmart yourself when you answer. You have no idea how much you’ll learn from her, nor how much you need to learn it. It’s a little painful to read what you’re putting on your blog right now, because you’re not yet writing well, and it’s obvious that you think you’re writing well, that under the raw pain you still pride yourself on knowing the way of the world, when you don’t even own an atlas. A couple years from now, around 2005, that will change. Your phrasing will start to settle into something recognizable as style, sometimes even recognizable as thought. But you’re not there now, and that really is another chapter. I need to show you the gift that will be deferred the longest.
Tomorrow I’m going to change your face. More than anything else that’s happened, this feels like it’s going to sever a connection with you; and I’m sorry I have to do it now, just as that connection is coming back to light. When I tunnel into the dark backward and abysm of time, it’s you, at this your worst moment, that I keep uncovering; because although you will get smarter, although you’ll put in the work to learn your discipline and craft and bring up some treasure from it, although you’re going to learn your existence is not a range of endless solitude, right now you are alive, and part of that life in you is about to go to sleep. At the same time that you clear the woods to make your own dwelling in a little corner of the world, something you never thought could be yours, you’ll enter into a slow path of abandoning your body. You’ll get heavier, shaggier and grayer, and you’ll tell yourself it makes no difference, that anything you’ve lost was never worth having. You’ll give yourself over to a stoicism of duty and compromise, something that you want to call Dante’s Paradiso but is really just the fate that was always threatening, that of Henry James nodding off under endless layers of misdirection, a head full of imagined scenes and a life unlived. And yet—I need you to know—despite all your years on that path, it will never narrow to a point, and in the worst crisis it will widen again. When I look back per angustam viam, through the whole span traveled, and see you there, it won’t be unthinkable to claim you for the addled girl you didn’t know you were. It’s not wrong for you to have hope.
When I tell you that someone is about to grind down your mandible and brow with power tools, cut a saucer out of your frontal bone and staple it at a new tilt, shift your hairline and crop your nose and whittle your chin and fillet the masseter muscle till you’re hardly recognizable, you’ll think that I mean to destroy you. Just now you’d probably welcome it; I know there’s a lot in you that wants to be destroyed. But that’s not the thing at all. It’s not sophistry or false consolation to say that I’m doing this to make you whole, to bring up what is suffering latent in you. That the end of this exploring is for you to arrive where you started and know the place for the first time. That there’s no wholeness this side of Eden and still it’s the limit toward which our twinned arc tends, hand in hand.
Dear girl at metameat, noli timere. I’m holding you.
“You broke my will / oh what a thrill” was somehow rattling in my head a day before the obituary came out. I don’t know why, I didn’t have anyone in mind.
Arguing with the insurance company is not edifying. The best I can say is, it confirms some priors about the force needed to get through the world, day in day out.
Guy from Eritrea talking to a woman and child just arrived from China, all of them in functional English, another day in front of the branch library. He knows “nihao” and she compliments him on it.
You have to get comfortable saying Mass in a half-built cathedral.
Riding the e-bike uphill is like dreaming of flight in childhood; riding downhill you’re Icarus. Zipping down O’Shaughnessy from Twin Peaks to Glen Park I was keeping pace with traffic, which is to say, thirty miles an hour in a school of two-ton cars unable to stop on a dime, and it was revealed to me that if I hit an obstacle at the wrong angle a polycarbonate helmet wasn’t going to save my neck. And still the word that went through my head was “freedom.” Let us be clear, freedom can be pretty dumb.
Arthur Lee responds in my head, "We're all normal..."
Thirty blocks down Geary, short ones. Sushi, churches, nail salons, guy arguing with the police in an Irish accent. Forced myself to keep unmasked, an experiment: nothing happened.
They were playing Pink Flag at the wine bar. I told the server I hadn’t heard it in a while, and he asked me what I was reading. I handed over The Story of the Stone, volume three, and explained the deal. He said he’d check it out.
After Pink Flag it was London Calling. Going for an era there, aren’t we. That's how it was, freer and lonelier. I hadn’t wanted to go on that way.
Green Apple Books with a glass of rosso in me. J. had said, you're a woman writer now, you should think through what that’s going to mean to you. Eyes on the shelves. Hello Adrienne Rich, hello Annie Ernaux, Maggie Nelson. “You’re a woman writer” says something that is trivially true, and then things that are less trivial. It’s occult why anyone would turn away from the common world to spend years building word castles—you never get a good look at the engine behind it—but in my case it had something to do with an incongruity between the common world and the felt world, and now that the relation between those worlds is changing (and on course to change further) the working of the engine is changing also. More than that I don’t know. I haven’t gone this long without writing since—well, not ever.
Three more weeks with the face—I was going to say, that I was born with, but I wasn’t at all, that’s the whole thing. J. encouraged me to get away for some thinking on my own, so I took my pretty new blue e-bike over to the city and met a dark riddle in the BART elevator at Powell Street. Every time the doors slid open there was someone new sitting inside on a folding chair, as if in Kafka, bellowing for us to come in, there was no point in waiting around. But the bike and I were a tight fit so I waited until the doors slid open on the same man twice in succession and he apologized for having yelled earlier, it was just the day he was having. He had a clipboard: did he work here? He was talking about overtime pay with another man standing next to him, a new resident in the elevator, punctuated with sorry ma’am, sorry ma’am, to me. At the end of the ride I wheeled my bike out and the seated man said, look at me, I didn’t even say goodbye, you have a good day, and mimed kissing his own hand. I do get the ma’am treatment with the mask on. It will be something if this surgery causes it to happen with the mask off.
Riding the bike down Market felt delicious, like something that shouldn’t be allowed even with the lane marked green underneath me. Due west on Golden Gate, the power assist vanished the hills like a dream, and as J. always says the Outer Sunset and Richmond are like a dream anyway, weird sun and fog and the quiet blocks that go on repeating longer than seems possible.
Couple of dharma talks online. Impermanence, aging, apt stuff. I think Dogen’s concept of time would help if I understood that concept better. Coyotebush in full plume at Land’s End, shedding afternoon gold everywhere. “We are enlightened in the midst of birth and death.” A hawk poised still in the wind.
Rabih Alameddine, The Wrong End of the Telescope
This is an award-winning novel about the 2010s Syrian refugee crisis, set among aid workers on the isle of Lesbos and told by Mina, a narrator of the same diasporic background (Lebanese-American) and generation (post-Nakba) as the author. If you have heard anything about this book, you will have heard about the two traits that Mina does not share with her creator: first, she is a doctor, and second, she is a transgender woman.
Both in and out of the book, Alameddine has been very open about his difficulties in writing it. During the worst of the crisis he traveled to Lesbos with a vague intention of volunteering aid, and found himself staring into the usual moral abyss of the notebook-carrying cosmopolitan: suffering was all around him, he was powerless to alleviate it, and his natural impulse, to make a literary project of what he saw, seemed fatally exploitative. Ironic autofictional layering couldn’t finesse the tangle. He was on the verge of abandoning the whole effort when, as he tells it, the figure of Mina appeared to him and showed a way out. In the completed manuscript she is not only an agent of compassion and wisdom, dispensing physical and spiritual relief to every soul she encounters, she also sits in judgment over the author himself, skewering him in the second person as he cowers incapacitated in a motel room, unable to carry out his self-appointed errand or to imagine any errand of greater worth.
Once the author has shown up he proves hard to dislodge. As the book goes on the author, who continues to be addressed as "you,” comes to overshadow both the “I” of Mina and the refugees who pass in and out of her care like faces in a gallery. Mina’s relation to the author is never exactly explained; we have to take her epistemic privilege for granted. Yet it is the author’s childhood, the author’s immigration to the United States, the author’s experience of 1980s gay culture that land with the force of reality. Mina’s own past experiences are more cursory and removed, with an air of best guesses. Apart from her relationship to her brother, which is touching and deeply felt, the scene that is most uniquely her own is, unfortunately, the worst scene in the book: a frankly preposterous episode involving an orangutan. At this point, if the question hasn’t come up already, we are bound to ask: what is Mina doing here? Why is she transgender? What is her necessary function that the author couldn’t fill on his own?
It’s of course familiar duty for trans characters to be put to work as devices, either allegorizing an imagined social sickness (through-line from Myra Breckinridge to all those damn horror movies) or standing in as maximally abject victims (Poor Tony in Infinite Jest). Alameddine is doing something subtler and better intentioned. Mina is himself and not himself; she starts out with a Lebanese boyhood like his own and ends up with an American womanhood that he doesn’t share, and the thinness of that womanhood on the page is our clue that we are still dealing with a device of some kind. Mina’s doubleness, I think, shows up the contradictory work that Alameddine needs his fiction to perform, to be real and unreal at once. As a doctor she does the practical good that the writer can’t, and as a fictional echo of the self she redeems what might have been a gauchely exploitative crisis memoir. Because she is like him, we trust the project; because she is not him, she can engage with the refugees as he can’t, and resolve their varied stories in ways that are far too neat for nonfiction—many of these anecdotes must have roots in reality, but outside a novel we'd never believe them. We are meant to end up feeling that Mina’s good work casts back over the fiction itself, that perhaps it’s enough after all to put words on the page, perhaps even that once the allegory is decoded, the male author will turn out to have been a healer in his own way.
The ignoble art of fiction has to be carried out in disguise, and at its most extravagant asks us to speak a foreign language as if we were natives. How foreign is too foreign? It depends on who’s listening, maybe. On who, when you inevitably slip up, will smile in understanding. My intentions were good. I had a tight spot to get out of.
I was running a TypeScript linter for work and crying, and J. said, sorry you have to code and process decades of sorrow at the same time, and of course I said that’s why they pay me the big bucks. I could also have said, it’s the unlovely money that gave sorrow the room to stretch out at all. Cry-coding can’t be that uncommon in this demographic of mine.