Cat Fitzpatrick, Sophia Shalmiyev, Michelle Tea
Wednesday, February 6, 2019
The Best, Last Day of My Life
I wasn’t scared to fly on airplanes until I had my son. Before that, the occasional terror that accompanies a burst of turbulence was a fantastic opportunity to put my philosophies about life and death, my scant Buddhist studies, to the test. I counted my breaths, dared myself to be present for what all of our lives are leading up to: the great mystery of what happens when we die, revealed. Keep your eyes open! I’d exhort myself. Stay present! Wasn’t I an adventurous spirit, wasn’t this truly life’s biggest adventure? Didn’t I believe in a power greater than myself? Wasn’t I psyched to shake her hand? I said a bittersweet, mental goodbye to whoever my current love was, sent a psychic message to my sister to stay strong, internally thanked my mother for doing her best. Goodbye, world! Inevitably, the plane did not crash, never even did the oxygen masks tumble from above. I sunk back into my book, my magazine, the tarot cards that freaked out my seatmate. I felt floaty and mystical, like I often do when flying, the literal disconnection from earth inspiring in my brain lofty thoughts and a feeling of spiritual well-being. All is as it should be.
Not anymore. Now that I was responsible for an actual life, a person I had with great effort and great expense willed into the world, my in-flight existential crisis had a different flavor. Immediately after birth I had experienced a new emotion, a sort of mystical, love-soaked sadness, the tender weight of mortality, a sense of the real preciousness of our time here on earth. There is no English word for this new feeling, and though it faded away with my post-partum blues it can return when I’m on a plane. It hits me even before the jet starts surfing the turbulence. Airborne, lifting, looking out the window as the earth drops away, tracing the strange, tiny shadow of the airplane on a tuft of cloud, I feel the awful tug in my heart, stretching like an overworked tendon, something that will snap back and leave me wounded, ugh, why am I going away from my baby? Why? It feels like that passage in The Golden Compass where Lyra, the hero, tests how far her beloved daemon companion can stray from her before she feels like she’s going to die and her chest fills with a desperate, physical need for closeness. The first tears spring to my eyes and I press my forehead to the window – well, actually, not now that that poor woman got sucked right out of her window a while back, nope, won’t actually be pressing my greasy, melancholy forehead to any airplane windows anymore because, as is the point of this essay, I have a baby and I need to live!
I know why I leave my baby. Because I am a writer, and I am often called to visit other places, read from my books, teach a class. Because I have been a writer for decades longer than I have been a mom and this is the only way I know to live – coming when called, remaining in service to the work. Back when I sold my first book for one-hundred-dollars, and my second for one-thousand, I understood that this writing thing that I was born to do probably wouldn’t be a huge money-maker, but if it allowed me to travel the world, to see places I wouldn’t have seen, have these miniature adventures, get laid by a stranger, get put up in actual hotels, sleeping in rooms that got cleaned every single day, stretched out on crisp beds sporting enormous, perfect pillows that do not cramp my neck – well, this would be my payment. It felt like enough.
Then I had a baby, and suddenly the humble way I measured ‘success’ seemed flawed. Being possessed of this strange, certainly pathological need to write, I get to be the one who works. My wife, harboring no such mysterious compulsions, happy to vacuum the home and do the dishes, happy to nap with the baby and retire at the end of the day before a sixteen-hour episode of Castaways, she stays at home with the child. Her work being of the wage-slave variety, not a mental illness trussed up like a ‘vocation,’ she is happy to have her days filled with sweet, chill, domesticity.
Meanwhile, I get to work.
I get to work moving the family to Los Angeles. There, I hear, a writer can make a real living, not this pastiche of grant money and speaking honorariums that managed to buy me a designer purse in childless singlehood but today seems frighteningly deficient. In Los Angeles, a lucky writer can get health insurance, of the same caliber enjoyed by United States senators. And I am a lucky writer, am I not? Born into poverty, into a family who thought art was flights of fancy undertaken by rich people with too much self-esteem. Deprived of a college education and all the networking opportunity it provides, possessed of a queerness and a host of bad attitudes and, not to mention a genetic dispensation toward alcoholism – in spite of all this I am a writer! I have written books and managed to get them published! Though only having ever won a single award, at the start of my career, the phrase award-winning writer will be tacked onto my bio for the duration. And, my books have readers! They get reviewed, sometimes in quite prestigious places! After decades commanding one-thousand, five-thousand, ten-thousand, then back to two-thousand, one-hundred, two-thousand dollar payments, I finally score a couple big checks. So what if the books don’t earn out the advances? The publisher can’t make you pay it back! Isn’t that incredible? I am a lucky person! Surely I will be able to claw my way into Hollywood and live my new dream, put this deep need to write in service to my family’s well-being. Be a fucking hero.
I got a deal right off the bat! I wrote up an idea for a show, based on one of my books. My entertainment agent, a preternaturally thin, silver-haired yogini who I was obsessed with, said it was great. A hot-shit showrunner took me directly to a TV exec and said, You gotta buy this, this is one lucky writer! And they did. Because I didn’t know shit about writing for television, the showrunner plucked a more experienced writer from her show and said, Hey you guys, write it together! This seemed like sort of a great idea. I loved this writer. They are my friend. Their writing is some of my most favorite writing on the planet. Together we would take my book and we would turn it into a smash television show and the riches would fall from the sky and it would be fine, just fine that my wife had quit her very lucrative job at a top tech company, that I had dragged us away from the charming little home with the wood-burning stove, by the ocean, a house we owned, and brought us to famously soulless Los Angeles, where dreams come to die. It would be fine.
The reason I love my friend’s writing so much is because it is full of guts and truth and warmth and heartbreak. It roils with the pain of life and also if guffaws with the pain of life because, at the end of the day, what a fucking joke, right? My friend is a writer, a real artist, born that way, possessed of the chronic depression that does not have to plague writers for them to be geniuses but, let’s face it, it usually does. And my friend looked at this television show I had conjured up – a sort of commercial, sort of mainstream, dare I say Sex and the City-ish rendering of a life that vaguely resembled my own, and her depression deepened. While I attempted to write a popular show that would make me rich and buy me a swimming pool, she endeavored toward a dark and gritty exploration of addiction, with a gallows humor shared only by those who have logged a lifetime of hours at midnight AA hours populated by women who’ve cut their hand off while drunk or tattooed spiderwebs across their own faces while on speed. While I was writing Younger, she was writing The Wire. It wasn’t going well. And that’s not all. The producers couldn’t see the humor in having the crack-addict take a crack shit behind the register of her sober best friend’s organic grocery. It just wasn’t resonating. They weren’t sure what would work; they pitched us hours of ideas and story that turned in on itself, eating its tail, leaving us dazed. I feel like I just remembered I was molested, my friend said darkly. In the end, our script had the main character hallucinating on PCP, tearing off all her clothes and bum-rushing the stage of a prestigious literary event while reciting Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. The network declined to buy it.
A friend who went to film school told me it takes three years to break into Hollywood. I’ve got five months before we consider moving to Sacramento, where a person can live like a king and where I would have oodles of free time to be creative because there isn’t very much going on. Meanwhile, I hustle my ass off. I get brought into a preliminary writers’ room for a show that might get picked up. The pay is shit but if it goes I’ll make money, get that health insurance. And lo! It does get picked up! But I am left behind, left with little but fodder for an essay I can’t actually write, for fear I’ll never work in this town – not again, but to begin with.
A production company options a script, paying all my bills for exactly one month; from there, the project languishes, radiating possibility, like a princess in a coma. Maybe somebody will buy this kid’s show I’m developing. Maybe this production company will buy the screenplay I’m writing. Maybe that magazine that wants to start a streaming platform will give me my own show. Los Angeles is the land of Maybe. It’s the land of It Could Happen. So many people it’s happened for live here! I hob-knob with them, I coffee with them, read their tarot cards. They answer my emails, my text messages. They swim in my pool. I have a pool! The dream is half-built. I only have to, somehow, get paid.
Meanwhile, there’s a book career I worked so hard, for decades, to build. Some people think that I am famous, and I correct them and say, gaymous. I say I’m a sub-lebrity. Most people will never know who I am. I keep tending to the career of the books, which is really my only career thus far and the thing I have put my whole life into, while trying to make this other life happen, a life where I can actually make money and pay our bills. As I see how little this project of writing – which can not really be separated from the project of my life, itself – makes, you know, financially, it can feel sad. Three nights ago, I laid in bed when I should have been sleeping, tears streaming down the side of my face. My wife was way on the other side of the bed, her body a mountain range mirroring my own, our baby who’s not a baby anymore sprawled in the valley between us.
I’m sorry I’m doing this. I’m sorry I said I would go away to this writing conference and it’s not paying me hardly any money and it doesn’t make sense, I’m sorry I said I would go. The things that made sense once don’t make sense anymore. The culture’s validating proof of success – you know, money – which I’ve known to be bullshit my whole life, is getting to me. At a publishing panel I sat in on the other day – it paid $100; my Lyft to and from was $50 – a student, a young, blonde, white male whose shirt read WYOMING, asked how I measured success. I wanted to murder him. How the fuck do you measure success? I tell him there is no thing as success and failure. I have the same birthday as Yoko Ono, and some moments are What Would Yoko Do moments. There is no success. There is no failure. This is probably all a dream. We’re definitely going to die. How do I measure if my life is worth anything? How do I measure the success of the project of having lived? I wish it didn’t send me down an existential k-hole, but it does. The boy was annoyed by my answer, and my follow-up elaborations didn’t help. But I thought I could feel in other students, the weird-looking ones, the ones with funny hair or an obvious queerness, the ones whose femaleness seemed to ooze from them, the ones who looked broke or were fat, I think I felt something radiate from them, a psychic rope that lassoed itself around this idea. That there were other ways than money and huge readerships to claim success. There will have to be. Because we can’t all just be losers, right?
That night in bed my wife murmured lovingly, tossing words like darts at the bullseye of my anxiety, missing every time. We’re spending our savings what is going to happen to us. I didn’t say it out loud because I didn’t want to make it so real, pass her my worry like a cold. Even in the best of times my native scarcity fears can rise up and choke me. Can I really ever know when I’m okay and when I’m not, financially speaking? As an artist, will it ever not feel permanently unstable? Even if I score a fat book deal again, what about after that? I dream of a ledge that I can somehow climb up onto and once I’m there everything is somehow fine, forever.
I am invited to a literary conference at the other end of the country. It’s gay. I would be the headliner. This is a nice thing. They’ll pay for my flight. They’ll try to put me in a hotel, but if not, would I be okay staying in the director’s home? They have an extra room. They’ll apply for a grant that would net me four hundred dollars, and they could charge at the door for another event that would probably drum up another hundred. Hopefully both of these things will happen.
The childless, single me would have hopped on the invitation from the get-go. Because it is truly an honor to be invited to speak to your community. To know there are strangers thousands of miles from you scrambling to score a hotel room, dashing off grant narratives, all because they think your work is important, that to have you at the conference would be a boon. This is everything, no? This is the point.
But, what is the price of a weekend away from my son? What is it worth to me? It’s a creepy question, but surely it’s worth more than five-hundred dollars. But, five hundred dollars is all that is possible. It’s always irked me to hear writers pontificate about how they must be paid, like their being paid is a civil rights issue. Certainly, if there is money, they should be paid. Shouldn’t everyone be paid? Shouldn’t Walmart workers and Subway sandwich artists be commanding more of the profit? In many cases, with community-based art events, there isn’t money. Opting out means you deprive your community of your art, you deprive yourself of your community. Being a writer is more than a j-o-b, it’s a life, and it’s worth is not determined by economics. Sure, there are some creeps that want to produce an event and pocket the profits, neglecting to pay the artists, without whom there would be no event in the first place. That happens. But mostly there isn’t money. Or if there is, it’s tucked away too tightly, and I don’t know how to fight for it.
I sold a weekend away from my son and my wife for $500. I had a new book out. When I agreed to come the conference seemed far away, and the book’s release was close. I very much like to pledge my energy to something that feels bigger than myself. When I was younger, it was activism, awakening at dawn to lend my body to abortion clinics that needed pure physical mass to keep the Christians away from its doors and off its patients. Later it was my work, the books themselves, traveling to any lengths to further my career, quitting day jobs if they got in the way of a luminous reading. Now, it was my son. But I didn’t know – don’t know – how to stop the wheel of my career, by now self-perpetuating, as I forever hoped it would become. Because money could never be the measure of my success, but community could be, I say yes, again and again, even as this begins to feel like an indication of a failure it might be too late in the game to solve. I say yes to a hundred-dollar reading across town and spend fifty dollars each way on a Lyft. I say yes to a five-hundred dollar reading across the country, because hooray, the money did come through, and so did the hotel, a fine place, really totally okay, even though I think maybe a bug tumbled out of my hair as I was falling asleep, causing me to hop up in an adrenalin rush, smacking myself in the face, then urgently searching the sheets for evidence of what I felt, stumbling to turn on a light, searching the dizzying casino-carpet for something small that scurries but finding only semen stains dripping down the bed skirt. Yanking up the fitted sheet and the protective sheet beneath, digging into the yellowy seams of the mattress, searching for bed bugs, finding none, thank goddess. Grabbing my cell phone and Yelping the hotel, looking for bed bug warnings, finding only five-star ratings that praise its cleanliness. Going back to sleep. Sleeping fitfully.
I got the money, I got the hotel, I got on the plane, and I could feel the distance between me and my son pulling out from my body taffy, like I have a soul and part of it is wadded up and stuck on his soul, and the rest of is lays beneath my skin like fascia, taffy soul-fascia stretching like a ribbon across the country as I fly, my whole body longing for him. I cry. The plane begins to lurch. For five-hundred dollars I will make my child motherless. I know that we love one another and I know that our love is the most pure, golden thing, it is opulent, it is everything, and he will be cut off from it forever. Who cares what happens to me. I will go out like a snuff or else I will haunt him eternally, tormented – either way I don’t care. What will happen to him. Motherless baby. So many people are motherless, I tell myself, and they are fine. They are truly okay. Their lives have joy and meaning and contentment and whatnot. Okay. I can accept this, intellectually. But it does nothing to quell the panic inside my body of being a mother about to die in a plane crash and leave her child behind. The searing fearful hurt of it. I think of how this is a universal human experience. Mothers die, violently, peacefully, when their child is very young and very old and all the ages in between. What about the mothers in this country right now who have had their child torn away from them at the border, who are being housed in some cold cell with no idea who might be hurting or helping their child, where their child even is. Through this painful, mother-love inside my body I feel connected to all these mothers, but instead of making me feel calm and connected my freak-out intensifies and I realize I’m having a panic attack. Before I started taking Lexapro, I tried to soothe the intense anxiety I would feel, say, getting my teeth cleaned, by thinking about all the people who really had something to be anxious about – people in Guatanamo, still, after so many years, men who arrived as boys, boys whose entire life was wrong place, wrong time, who have endured unimaginable torture. Why did I think this would help my panic attack? Indeed, it only exacerbated it, until I was sobbing through my fluoride treatment. I want to believe there is a comfort in shared experiences of pain, and there is, I guess, but it is intellectual, so who cares. The heart still hurts.
After the plane stopped bumping around I peeked through my tiny porthole to the sky, keeping a safe distance should a major streak of bad luck hit and I get sucked out the window. The earth below fills me with an awe. It’s so beautiful! The slight curve of the planet at the horizon. I’m on a planet! I’m in outer space! Below me passes the red, blue and gold of a Southwest plane, looking like a toy. We are up so high. The ocean shimmers like a skin upon the earth, blue then black then gold. Cargo ships like white driftwood. Later the southwest, the rise and fall of its rust-colored topography, the occasional river shining like a mirror beneath the sun, like glass being blown, undulating, radiant. The plane moves and my angle changes, and I can see the air doing reiki on the water, goosebumps of waves. The earth is so beautiful. So, so fucking beautiful. I start to cry. Again. Great. How can we trash this planet as we do? As I do. I understand that I regard my own complicity in the earth’s degradation with a blame that should be reserved for Monsanto and DuPont, but isn’t the big picture made up of a bazillion tiny atoms? The way I go through paper towels. My hoarding of beauty products, in their useless packaging. My inability to get it together to take our money out of Bank of America and dump it into a credit union. I am killing the frigging earth, me, with my financial scarcity issues that push me to buy conventional over organic, and then my first-world guilt that pushes me to beat myself up over it. And then my loathing at seeing myself convulsing with first-world guilt for using so many fucking paper towels. I’m a bougie liberal white lady cartoon of our times. Though I came up broke and didn’t get an education, my anxieties have jumped class.
This is my mind’s chatter as I confront the pure glory of the planet from up high in an airplane that’s doing its own part to melt icebergs and whatnot. A heavily forested region dotted with homes, how lucky the people who live there! How green their lives! I watch chunks of wildness connect with one another out as far as I can see, and imagine the animal life that use it like a freeway. I see the neon blue of swimming pools, it’s an affluent area. And suddenly, we are above a strip mine. The southwestern ombre of rust seen earlier, but dotted with acid-yellow pools, unnatural. It’s fascinating, and beautiful in its way. And, so close to the affluent area we just passed over. Does it feel far from them, I wonder? Do they not think about it? At this vantage, they might as well be living inside it. Up here it’s easy to see it’s all connected.
Later, walking through the airport, everyone looks so hot. Humanity. Maybe hot isn’t right – better than hot, somehow. Alive. Energized, embodied. The old Japanese man, the way his hat fits so close to the curve of his skull, the kindly lines in his face. That hulking man, eastern European, I’d seen him sleeping on the plane as I que’d for the bathroom, the wrinkles in his white face deep like the strip-mine; the thickness of his greasy, graying hair, his full mouth. He and the man next to him had fallen asleep upon each other, cuddled like children. His giant shoulders in his tight suitcoat, the mass of his eyebrow. I reverse-engineer him into a boy and then he is like my son and a bizarre love for him floods me. I think that mothers are the closest thing to god upon this planet.
Later still, after I’ve left the airport, I get my period and everything makes sense. To have such a body, a body that does such a thing! To be dosed, unwillingly, by these psychedelic hormones each month. Forty-seven years old, three-plus decades into bleeding and I still can’t recognize the signs of its approach, can’t find a way to track it, even in 2018 when surely I could do so on my telephone. Forever in this life it will catch me unawares. My tombstone, a slab of red jasper, reading, It was just PMS. I feel tender and sad and vulnerable to the tender sad beauty of absolutely everything. I want to have deep, meaningful, connective sex with everyone. For some reason, I’m supposed to feel these feelings. It’s how this body was designed. Made to be a mystic and to surge with emotion.
For the entire weekend at the conference I am haunted by how I could be with my son. Could be sitting on the hard wood floor with him, my bones aching, making me feel old, playing with his animal figures. He has a million of them, but only some of them are special. I know which ones are, and it is my job to pull them from the box and build them into a giant pile. Aardvark, platypus, moose, nyala, markhor, highland cow, longhorn steer – all the horned animals, even the giraffe, which I never really think as having horns, though of course they do. The horned animals, in this pantheon, are the good guys. They use their horns to butt away the bad guys, the carnivores. The cheetah, black jaguar, tiger. For some reason, the lions aren’t special, and I get to play with them. Likewise puzzling, the horns of the dairy cow do not render her special. This is what I could be doing, parsing these mysteries, and arranging the animals in great, snaking lines across the living room. Maybe they are lining up to receive medical care from the lions, maybe to receive admission tickets to an amusement park. I could be sitting with my son on the couch, him naked and pulling at his goddamn penis because he is three and a boy and I guess this is normal, him doing this absorbed in a cartoon while I, in a t-shirt and underwear, read books. I could be playing tag with him, letting him chase me through the house. I could be collecting the clothes hangers he calls ponies and cutting lengths of yarn for him twine around them, setting elaborate traps for me and my wife. At night, I could sleep beside him, loving the way he rolls into me as if I am a piece of furniture, another pillow to flop around. The weight of him in the bed was first a miracle and now a constant comfort. My wife and I joke and complain about having to have sex on the couch, or on the mat beneath the loft bed he refuses to sleep in. On the living room floor, amongst the animals. It is ridiculous and annoying, and we sleep terribly, my wife especially, but while at the conference, the wide, empty bed I thought I would delight in feels empty, haunted. I miss my family.
At the conference, I meet people, writers and readers, all queer, all lovely. I perform on a wooden stage in a bar and succeed in making people laugh. I participate in a panel on trauma that is fascinating. I get to read from my still-new book for twenty-five minutes – the luxury! – and then answer questions. I get high talking about myself like this, I can’t help it. Afterwards I am a guest on a podcast, me and the hosts and their sparse equipment locked into a spare room at the LGBT center, a box of pastel-striped trans flags, bulk plastic jugs of snacks. Then, I’m done. I join a group of people for dinner in a very fancy restaurant, brick walls, wide wooden tables, tiny plates of lamb meatballs and potato gnocchi, fried catfish, wide, flat papperdelle, creamy risotto. Great conversation about the mansions of Pasadena, California, the coming Antarctic land war, titanic-inspired iceberg-breaking routes. We are all too full for dessert, but on the way home I stop into a quaint gelateria and make the man behind the counter tell me which are the best flavors. I eat Valhorna chocolate and marscapone berry at a marble table, across from students and families. My life is not tragic. The night is warm and the streets are filled with people. The buildings are old and covered in plaques. Everyone seems gay, and mostly not white, and the air hums with an every-day, Saturday-night joy.
It didn’t make any sense for me to come to this conference. The amount it paid has been eaten away, by Lyft rides and meals, the magazines I had to have for the plane, the coffees I had to drink. The way money slips more easily through my fingers when I travel, as if I’m dreaming, or rich. The toll it takes on my family – my son missing me, my near-hysterical missing of my son, the extra work for my wife, who I also miss, especially when I Facetime her from the LGBT center, cooing over her familiar beauty, her David Bowie haircut, the way her eyes glow with love for me, the ropey, swaggery way she moves inside her body. The worker at the reception desk barks at me to leave the building, no speakers allowed inside the lobby, and I am swiftly embarrassed by how easily I broadcast my life, my obliviousness to the spectacle I make of myself. I push through the glass doors to the farmers’ market buzzing right outside, standing by a smashed-open watermelon, the sun too bright for my eyes, the burn of it on my arms. The humidity, my hair seems to never have dried from my shower the night before, I imagine returning home, my strands coated with lichen. My wife tells me to come home early, pay the fee. It breaks my heart. If I pay the fee and come home early I will have really made no money, maybe even lost some, so what was the point? I sold three books, to my knowledge. It made some people happy that I was there, which is nice. I felt, at moments, connected. Is it enough? It used to be. If it isn’t, does that mean something bad has happened to my spirit? Have I become, like, a capitalist? Is this simply growing up? Is it why growing up is bad, why no one under thirty should be trusted, why Peter Pan stayed on Neverland? When I agree to come back early and pay the change fee, relief pours through my body.
My 7:00pm flight has me getting at 10:00pm on the other side of town. My son will be asleep by the time I get home. But the 7:00am flight that would get me in at 10:00am. Maybe I will be in time to join my son and wife for a trip to the beach with our preschool. Certainly, I will make it to my nephew’s sixth birthday party. I am filled with giddy excitement, the sort of giddy excitement I used to have about attending out-of-town literary events. The night before I go I pack up my things and call the airline. The airline lady tells me the morning flight is booked, but first flights almost always have no-shows, and if I show up I can almost certainly fly standby. I set my alarm for 4:30am. No bugs, real or imagined, tumble from my head. I sleep.
At the airport, the kiosk won’t give me a boarding pass. This happened on the way in, too; my ticket was purchased from a travel agent by a third party, it’s adding extra nonsense. I go to the counter. You’re at the wrong airport. No, I tell the woman, as if I could will it to be untrue. I pull up the emailed itinerary on the phone. Where? I demand. This is the airport I flew into. Where does it say I should be somewhere else. The observing part of my mind can see I am heading down a fruitless path, and being an asshole besides. I can’t see it, it’s too small, the woman says. Why do I feel like she is getting pleasure, just a touch, from my problem. From saying no to me. Am I crazy? I certainly feel crazy. Look, I say using my fingertips to stretch the image. You go like this. I can’t touch your phone, it’s not allowed. I see it then, the airport code. I’m at the wrong airport. They will not put me on their 7:00am flight, I have to fly from the airport I’m ticketed at. They tell me to call the travel agent.
I call the travel agent. I sit with my phone on speaker-phone hold, blaring awful saxophone. I read my tarot cards. A little past an hour, a women answers. I have nothing she needs – not the card number the flight was purchased on, not the name of the person who purchased it. She finally finds me. She confirms there’s a flight leaving in five minutes, but the airline won’t let me fly standby from a different airport. There’s a flight leaving in an an hour from the other airport, but the other airport it a half hour away. It would take me through Colorado but I’d get in at 10:00am. However, the airline won’t let me fly standby for a stop-over flight if my original ticket was for a non-stop. Who makes up these rules? I think, as I often do, that once upon a time there was none of this – no countries and no government, no currency, no rules. We could have done anything. We could have set it up any way we wanted, and this is what we came up with. I hang up and cry, then run to a taxi.
The interior of the taxi is busted. It was once white. A piece of the door is held together with Scotch tape, which I wouldn’t have thought could be helpful. The driver is surprised to be taking me from one airport to another. He phones his wife to tell her he will be late. A device on his dashboard tracks the fare, an electronic voice announcing various amounts as it rises – seventeen eighty-five. Twenty-five fifty. Forty-six. My anxiety rises. My five hundred dollars is being whittled away, a pile of peelings and shavings at my feet. Finally, sixty-eight fifty-seven. I tip thirteen dollars in a flurry of panic, half-thinking I’m over-tipping and making myself poor, half thinking I’m under-tipping and ripping off a working person.
The airport is so empty. The kiosk actually gives me a boarding pass, because I’m supposed to be here. There is no one in line for the counter. A tarot card I picked as I cried in the back of the taxi had said, Victory. I have a good feeling about a man with a thick moustache and glasses. I also have good feelings about a woman. Instead, a man I hadn’t noticed waves me over. He looks like a funhouse mirror version of a person who once broke my heart. He is not going to put me on the flight to Los Angeles, the one leaving so shortly, the one I could still maybe make if he helped me out. All the ways to organize the world and we did it like this. I start to cry. I’m not doing it to be manipulative, but if it pulls at his heartstrings I wouldn’t be mad about it. I’m not pushing back, I have too much pride to beg a corporation to act like the human they fought in court to be recognized as. I pay my baggage fee crying and put my ATM card back into my little leopard purse crying. Another worker, a man, notices me crying and looks at me again and again, worrying. I wonder if he is worried because he is kind and human or if they think maybe I am up to no good, acting erratically, wondering if I am an If-You-See-Something-Say-Something situation. I move all the way down the counter where it’s empty and cry some more until I can get it together enough to pass through security.
I feel a little restored by a cup of actual, if bad, coffee, and some yogurt. One of those bars that have only egg whites and dates, my son loves those bars, we get them for him all the time at the café around the corner. But this one tastes like maybe it’s the first one they ever made and it’s been sitting here a couple of years waiting for someone to buy it. I read Glamour.
I always think I should deny myself nothing when I’m in an airport, because I could die on the plane. Why not get the Quarter Pounder with Cheese and a Super-Sized fries? It could be your last meal! Buy three chocolate bars with your Vogue. This could be it. Instead, I buy cashews. The I could die today loop that for years has been my in-flight narrative has been replaced with You cannot fucking die and leave Atti, you will not fucking die, you will see Atti tonight. I make a healthier choice, the choice of a woman who now wants to live forever. And I see Atti immediately, when my wife Facetimes me as I eat my cashews. He’s sitting on the couch, naked, as is his way. I briefly worry about publicly Facetiming with a naked preschooler but no one is really here. He’s watching a new cartoon about birds, he really wants me to see it. He has my wife turn the phone around. Oh, the scene of it, the swoop of the coffee table, stained with yogurt and strewn with toys and paper towels. The animals on the floor, pillows heaped on the couch, his extra-fluffy Lion Guard blanket. The black and white cat sleeping in the window. The row of Johnny Angel figurines beside the television, the cluster of potted succulents beneath. I want to be there so badly.
We have to explain to my son that the phone cannot be just propped up beside him on the couch so that I can watch this cartoon alongside him, like some maternal sequel to the movie Her. I tell my son I tried, I really tried, but I won’t make it back before bedtime. I ask if I can wake him up when I get home to hug him. Yes, says, but there’s a catch: he will butt my head with his head. He’s mad that I’ve went away.
My wife brings the phone into our son’s room. Incredibly, it’s clean. A new shelf, donated by a family moving to Vermont, holds half his toys; the old shelf holds the rest. Amazing. My son comes in and demands his marble run. My wife lifts it from the shelf. My phone, low on battery, fuzzes in and out, giving me a dead, blank screen, or my wife, blurry and frozen in smile. We hang up.
I walk into a gift shop and find a small stuffed eagle wearing a t-shirt that says FUTURE PRESIDENT in wonky, fake kid-script. The shirt comes off. I buy it for my son. He doesn’t have a stuffed eagle, though he does have two eagle figurines. One has outstretched wings and is special and I am not allowed to touch it. The other has folded wings and I can play with it. In the store, a shelf of MAGA coffee mugs face off with a shelf of Obama mugs that read Miss me yet? The tone is wrong on the Obama mugs. He knew we would miss him immediately and forever and would not mock our love and pain like that. I buy a refrigerator magnet that says MICHELLE OBAMA 2020, and decline to make a donation to the armed services when I check out.
My wife had enthusiastically suggested I use this cursed day to work, like a little airport retreat. But I am so tired, I can’t imagine what would come out of me. In fact, my eyelids will not stay up, and I lurch around the terminal, looking for a place to hide, to sleep. My gate is empty except for a man in a security uniform staring into space. I walk along the wall. I see khaki legs spread out behind a bank of chairs, and some food. It looks like a little homeless encampment, probably a guy in the same desperate throes as myself. I walk a good distance away. I try to move the bank of chairs to block me in but they won’t budge, so I lay down on the scabby carpet in the aisle, my feet pointing toward the wall. I pull a sweater from my duffel bag and wrap it around my shoulders. I remove stack of used homosexual memoirs I bought at the conference from my bag: The Motion of Light in Water, by Samuel Delaney. City of Night by John Rechy – just reading the author’s introduction yesterday while eating chicken in a Peruvian restaurant made me want to make a movie. Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters. I stack them near my head and take off my glasses. I settle my head down onto the stuffed eagle inside the bag. I immediately worry that a man will take upskirt photos of my while I’m sleeping. I’m wearing a dress, I’m inviting unconsciousness, am I asking for it or what? Just thinking about up upskirting, that it’s a thing, that it has a little name like it’s a trend, like dabbing or ghosting. That it’s legal. How can it be legal? How in the world can it be legal? There is no such thing as justice, we decide what justice is. This is what we’ve decided is justice. If a man comes and upskirts me I fill stomp his face in with my foot. I will bash his face until his nose crumples and my loafers are covered in blood. I will crush his eyes back up into his brain. I’m too worked up and won’t be able to sleep if I keep thinking about upskirting and my contingency plans. I think about the man sleeping down at the other end at the wall. I think about him molesting me with his fingers while I’m sleeping. Because this is actually a fantasy that is in pretty heavy rotation, my body, poor confused thing, gets turned on. Fucking bodies. Hormones. I’m menstrual and sleep deprived and my body is vibrating and I feel hollowed-out and if I was home I would jerk off but I am lying on the floor at Gate 79 hoping nothing bad happens to me if I take a nap. I fall asleep. It is a weird sleep that embraces the odd occasional noise from the airport, which is not as noisy as airports usually are. I know I really sleep because I have dreams, though I can’t remember them now. Eventually there is a loud beeping noise, a child’s toy, a sort of beeping ball and the child is playing with their dad at the empty gate and the dad is hollering to the mom and I can tell by the feeling of cold air that my dress has tangled up my legs – yep, there’s my underwear, threadbare and covered with little cartoon pizzas, from Target. I don’t really care, in the abstract, if anyone sees my underwear. I never understood why it was fine to be witnessed in a bikini but not in underwear. I do worry it will signal to a man that I would like to be upskirted – noskirted! – or molested. I yank it down but can’t ever again find the weirdly almost-comfortable arrangement that had allowed me to fall asleep in such a miserable fashion. Probably now that I’ve actually napped I lost the edge of desperation that made such a miserable sleep possible. I resign myself to getting up.
It’s noon. I decide to get a massage from the Be Relax kiosk in the center of the terminal. If I die in a plane crash I am going to make this the best, last day of my life. I reason that I was going to spend the money on a changed plane ticket so why not get a massage, which, BTW, I totally need now, after napping with a copy of Killers of the Flower Moon wedged into my back, on a floor. Be Relax is not cheap. The prices make it a little challenging to Be Relax but I decide on a forty-five minute full-body massage. The woman explains they don’t do that there, they do that at the other Be Relax down the terminal. All I have is time. I stroll down the wide, white boulevard. After sleeping on the floor in this terminal it feels sort of like my home, like I have a special, secret relationship with it that these interlopers around me, pulling their wheely bag and wrangling their children, do not. I feel like I own this terminal.
At the empty Be Relax a woman emerges from the back and tells me their one massage therapist called in sick with a family emergency, but if I want I can sit in a massage chair for forty-five minutes, for free. I might fall asleep, I warn her. That’s okay, she says. The chair actually has a setting called ‘sleep.’ I pick that setting. I take off my loafers and slide them into the sock-y foot rest. I let her recline the chair all the way back. When the mechanical kneading begins it lifts my back way up in the air and strains my neck. I ask her to bring me up a little. She does. She hands me the remote, telling me I can opt into the butt massage if I like. I do like. I push the butt button. I close my eyes. It feels as if a giant Manga-style tentacle monster has been captured and stuffed into this chair and it is trying like mad to get to me. Every part of my back side is being pushed and bumped and rolled and squashed. There is no way to sleep through this. Just the spectacle of my reclined body, in the middle of an airport terminal, having my back arched into the air by a robot machine seems really perverse. I can’t relax. I write this entire essay in my head. It was better in there, frankly. Funnier. The woman promised me she’d be back to wake me in forty-five minutes, but when the machine stops I get up and leave.
I pass a Kiehl’s. I still have the money from the massage that was the money from the ticket change which is really no money at all but a sort of theoretical fine I’ve made a windfall in my mind. I go into Kiehl’s and get my wife the face wash she ran out of and I get myself the microdermabrasion scrub I ran out. I find a Starbucks. A Starbucks! They have sou vide eggs, which are eggs cooked, I don’t know how, with a hot vacuum perhaps? It is a magical process which turns egg whites, which are gross, into these little savory, creamy bursts of decadent deliciousness. I get some. I get a latte and ask them to put extra espresso in it. I sit down at in a little faux-cane chair at a faux-marble table right outside the shop, in a little fenced-in area as if I am in a sidewalk café in Italy and not in an American airport. I stay here and I write this essay, and eight-thousand-plus words of it. I write it because it was writing itself in my head, and I’m not sure why that happens except I think it is a type of mental illness, a neurological glitch. It doesn’t make sense. I do not believe it is very good, yet I plan to make people read it and am even entertaining fantasies of a new book it could perhaps be in. My plane leaves in two hours. In eight more hours I will see my son. I will be home. Next month I will get on a plane to New York, to Kansas, to St. Louis, and I will do it all again.