The Story of Real Person

Has it ever, in the history of Real People, been a good idea to mend old, wretched, unrequited love? Real People are not people in stories. Things don’t work out for Real People the way things work out in love stories. A packaged ending does not neatly appear before Real People. The last sentence of a love story might be their expression of a love that never died, and fade out to a description of the sun setting, the street slowing down, his face betraying some glimmer of a shared emotion and hope for the future. This is a beautiful finale for a love story! Wouldn’t the reader prefer one of these stories? Go away. Leave this tragic tale aside. Leave it to crumble or blow away or wait for the language to die so that nobody else need be subject to whatever you will find at the end of this story. Go read your story with the beautiful ending, when the man leans over to kiss the girl and the last rays of sun sparkle in a show of silent fireworks. Sadly, Real People are left standing in the street as a possum scurries under a car, a man hocks a glob of spit on the sidewalk, facing an old flame who, in the dimming sunlight, was easily confused as bearing a tender expression. But now in the drooping darkness a Real Person can see that the expression on his face was disgust and pity all along. A confession of this caliber is best done as the Real Person pitches herself off a high peak and shouts their admission to the old lover over one shoulder, so as to never face the consequence and total shame of clinging to a love for someone who doesn’t love them back.

The reader can think of many stories that feature unrequited love as a central theme, a literary ‘carrot-on-the-stick’ to drive the reader towards the answer to the question ‘will they or won’t they?’ This happens to Real People too, but in Real Life, it is neither comedic nor tragic, but it is very messy and rarely resolved in a satisfying way. Real People must choose a life of sorrowful remembrance, to fill the void with someone who will treat them good and kind. Or the Real Person will take the alternate route, which leads them right into the path of the old flame, where there is opportunity for confrontation and confession. Or they can go to jail. Real People understand the aftermath of a passionate speech, which would be so romantic if followed by a deep physical fusion between the two, but could also result in a lawsuit.

But this is not the Real Person we’re dealing with. This Real Person has goals, ambition. She is not dumb. She is merely conflicted. And you, my reader, are in charge of the outcome of this story.

The Real Person is the person in this story. She has her life somewhat together, like a Real Person who survives heartbreak would. She is not some two-dimensional character with three or four descriptive eccentricities, like the way she rakes her flyaways back on her head when she is anxious, or likes the feel of pins and needles in her hand when she sleeps holding her breast, out of habit. What kind of Real Person would she be if the author told the reader she orders almond squares from the bakery and scrapes off the slivered nuts before eating, seeking out the gooey texture of the pastry and not the almonds themselves? Perhaps positioning the reader to empathize and relate to her in ways predestined by the author is not fair for this character. She is a Real Person, and you can decide her best and worst qualities.

For the sake of narrative ease, the reader may choose the name of a woman they loved once and now find absolutely contemptible in every way. This will give the reader a chance to reevaluate their conceptions about the Real Person as they come to love her again, or at least acknowledge her imperfections as part of a greater, more complete whole. Her name will also create empathy for the character of the man she once loved, because the reader will be in the position of the man she confronts at the end of the story. Do whatever you want. But the name you assign her should be the most loaded name for a woman you can think of, a name that makes your heart quiver with a strong emotions—any strong emotion, really, because emotions that are brought up to their absolute peak resemble other emotions that, on a lower end of the emotional gauge, are the total opposite of the one you feel. Try it. Give this Real Person a name.

So which is it? Who is she? Is her name Miriam, or Jane, or Rachel, or Taylor, or Rue, or Hua, or Prophecy, or Paige, or Ming, or Donna, or Katarina, or Ash, or Jess, or Bette, or Susan, or Mona, or Louise? Have you said the name aloud, to make sure you are not giving this Real Person a name that peels off your tongue like a bitter leaf? Right now the reader probably feels many things for the character with the same name as a woman in their life, among these feelings is a deep respect for the authors craft and manipulation of the readers mind, an admiration for bringing up a painful past in a graceful way. What a gift! The Real Person in this story will bear the name of the woman whom the reader feels little charity towards, a cause to donate their passing affection to when the mind gets bored with something else. Now that she has a name, practice saying her name to yourself until the hard edge of your contempt softens a little.

Close your eyes and remember clearly who she was.

One day she disappears. Your Real Person stops being real to you and she becomes a character. I can’t tell you how it happens. She becomes a character you can point to and describe in one or two dreary sentences what it was like to watch her try on a sweater, or drive you around with sunglasses on, her arm stuck out the window. She becomes a puppet hanging off strings, dressed in signature clothes you will always remember her wearing, but the animation is gone. She hangs on her strings, suspended above your stage in the shadows until you recall a quality about her which is starting, in your memory, to fade. Recall her now, and the puppet springs to life! Her dancing legs carry her across the stage, waving wildly for your attention. All she wants now is a space in the sunshine of your memory, where she can live on in tact, mended at the busted seams and in her party clothes, in the wan spotlight where you will always be sort of thinking about her.

So that this story does not address the authors own case of unrequited love—a story nobody wants to read—let’s switch over to our Real Person and see what she thinks of the whole sappy matter. She wrinkles her nose at the bunch of cilantro glistening under the sprinklers of the market. Light bulbs, she heard once, are different in supermarkets. There are special light bulbs that make red apples look redder, green kale shine in verdant splendor, all thanks to the coating of the light bulb above. She tilts her head to the ceiling, distinguishes glows from the bulbs she thinks differ from each other over the pineapples, the oranges and garlic. She picks off a rotted brown leaf and stuffs the cilantro into a plastic bag. It has been five years since her heart broke, and then the two pieces that used to fit together changed shape and sizes, never to press up against the other flush again. What she feels she has now are two distinct hearts, one that grew and evolved and became more complete, pounding at her chest like a cannonball shot over and over. With this heart, she moved forward, got the blood flowing again, picked herself up and started over. This heart is the heart she uses to love herself, to love others, which took a lot of practice. This is a strong and powerful heart and the love in her life now proves it. This heart is a hard-won heart, and this heart refuses to be broken again. Now, when she carries love around inside her, it must pass a rigorous test of loyalty to be admitted beyond the heart’s iron walls.

But even when she could feel the full force of the love this strong heart produced, the love was never complete. The second, smaller heart, the one she lost in the detritus and mud of an intense love that suddenly ended, beat too. Anyone can learn to live with two hearts. The second heart is not all that helpless, really. The second heart lives in secret messages. It has sprouted roots and grown a coarse skin around it, like a beet in a garden, throbbing underground. With tendrils in the dirt, her second heart soaks up the clues of everyday life and interprets them as secret messages to broadcast to the steely other heart, a plea to soften her, to fall in love recklessly again. Hidden information leads our Real Person around the city, tugging at the leash of her second heart. What our Real Person sees is a beat up paperback, but what her second heart sees is a message from the past. The Real Person is fed up with her second heart sometimes, wishing the heart would begin to see the world as logical and indifferent rather than sentimental. But, any Real Person knows it is necessary for at least part of them to be hopelessly romantic, even if the romance lives inside them alone. It’s one of our riddles.

At home, our Real Person unpacks the paper sack of fruits and vegetables, now somewhat dull under her home lighting, made homogenous by the flat glow of the kitchen bulb. She falls back on the couch and sighs, slips her shoes off her feet so her warm socks cool under the breeze of the slowly turning fan above. She picks a magazine off the windowsill from atop a pile of torn envelopes and leafs through the thin pages. She stops at Contemporary Arts and Culture, intrigued by the image of a huge green snake with yellow eyes staring vacant into the camera. The sculpture is seven feet tall, carved from stone and coiled menacingly around a warped Earth. She reads the caption. It’s you.

Her stomach falls. In the warm sack of fluids in her abdomen, breakfast bubbles and churns. She runs to the bathroom and vomits, the dairy curds filling up the toilet bowl, clenched up in the cold water from the temperature change. She wipes her mouth on her arm, leaving a snail trail of milky slime that pastes her hairs down to the skin. She stumbles back to the magazine and throws it in the trash, then removes it from the trash and throws it in the recycling. She needs fresh air, or to lie down, or both. Outside, in her socks, she sits on the porch in the shade and waits for the trees in her vision to steady themselves against the earthquake in her mind. Her minor heart bloats with secret messages.

You, the artist, are in town for a show. You have come back to torment her, to smear your success across her window of sanity. She wants to extract herself, to squeeze out of the city before it closes in. To hop in a car or plane before you arrive with your art and posse in tow, with your svelte girlfriend from some beautiful Caribbean island. Or maybe from Los Angeles. Nope. She should get out, get on the highway and go stay with her parents ten hours north, sleep until noon in the guest room and take up with dull but moderately handsome boys from her high school who work for Allen-Bradley and play in a ping-pong league on weekends. Here, she should find herself drinking big glasses of red wine and watching the convoy of fishing boats return from the lake, patched with discolored paint from the polluted waters at the edge of a collage campus, where the fishing is bad but the chance to impress girls is good. The Real Person with the name you gave her should find old photographs of her parents, standing beside a bicycle under a palm tree, or leaning out of a Cadillac to pet a Saint Bernard, photographs from before she was born, or maybe shortly after. She imagines this world in the photographs and longs to be dropped from the sky, from the time she is living in, and begin fresh in a time and place where the events in her life did not add up the way they did. It’s a silly idea.

Instead of all this, our Real Person makes a pot of rice and watches a TV show called When We’re Gone about the plants and animals that take over earth when humankind dies out. She sprinkles soy sauce and parmesan cheese on her rice and thinks about the last surviving human, how part of her is kind of jealous.

Night arrives. Our Real Person isn’t dumb. She understands there is love and there is Love. This kind, she thinks, the kind that makes her vomit, is Love. But the thing about Love is this: it changes, mutates like her two hearts, and one day feels the same as Hate. Just like you, reader, must have felt when you gave her a name. When opposite strong emotions converge, they feel pretty similar. Real Person is not interested in starting the process over again, but she imagines a chance to finally close a door and rest her little heart for a much deserved eternal sleep. She lays down in bed, chest pressed against the mattress. Before she curls into her favorite position, she listens to her two hearts beat softly against the mattress. The mattress is a drum. Her heart is a hand that taps the drum.

***

The day comes when she decides to confront you. She tells everyone so she will actually do it. Her therapist says this is a bad idea. Her mother says this is a bad idea. Her girlfriend says “who?” Her big heart says “please don’t” but her little heart, the stupid one, says “hooray!” Her dog looks back at her and thumps his tail. She puts her face in his neck and tells him exactly what she is going to do. He groans and lays down. He is never sure when she is being serious anyway. The day arrives and our Real Person has second thoughts. She paces the room. She drinks too much coffee. She takes a shower and turns the water all the way to cold. By the end of the day, she has prepared what she wants to say. She looks decent, too. It’s not something you would have picked out for her, but you barely know her anymore, so you don’t have a choice. Go ahead and imagine her now in a nice outfit that you would not have chosen.

Here we go, reader. This is your Real Person we’re talking about. She’s about to take a leap off a high peak and land on her feet or on her face. Here we are in the gallery, with the green snake from the magazine magnetically pulling the crowd of people into its pee-yellow eyes. The person Real Person is about to approach is you. Now you must imagine your best outfit, your most attractive friends, your most winning smile, and go stand by a piece of art you are proud of. Be brilliant and modest. Everyone is here for you. Real Person takes the last gulp of wine. She feels like an athlete, ready to sprint the long track, to run ahead at top speed as her peripheral vision blurs out the crowd. Her flyaways have gone rogue again and she rakes them back into place with one hand. They spring right back up.

Bear with me, reader. It’s almost time.

Say her name. Just for practice. Say it with a smile as she approaches you, awkwardly at first, then something in her step changes and she regains confidence, a confidence you saw in her when you first met at that party. You imagine Real Person in the same plaid brown skirt and thrift store white top she was wearing the night you met. How young you both were as the room swirled around you! How dear it was to conceive an origin story there, at some party, when both of you started a whirlwind ride with no clear end. Maybe I’ll tell that story next. Or better yet, I’ll let you tell it. As the sun leaves behind a periwinkle sky, Real Person comes forwards, looks into your eyes, and speaks.

Real Person says something you never thought you would hear, something that fills you with one of the emotions that fits right back into the space she left, in your own heart, your own life, like a puzzle piece.

She said it. You heard her. Don’t ask her to repeat it.

The room moves to give you space. It’s your story now.

What do you say back?

The First Humans

The older I get, the fewer stars I see. It must be the glasses, something in the lenses. Or the frightful thought: something in the eyes. On our backs in the camp, the start of the night sky appeared overhead. All four of us wore some kind of corrective lens. There were seven stars, and then there were eight. I counted as many as forty-five until I decided the number was less than I had seen in skies years before. Astronomers believe space is rapidly expanding, moving away from our galaxy faster every year. The first humans must have seen the night sky glittering with stars so bright, they could not have stared all night. If telescopes could see this and predict the distance of the stars over time, the fault was not in our lenses. It was definitely something in the eyes.

We left home without a lot of things we needed. We had enough food for a week for the weekend. Not one of us remembered the water. It was cold and humid in the morning. There was dew on the oven mitts, reflecting the sun in lime green drops, one bit of light at a time.

If we had Pat, he’d chop us some wood. If we had Courtney, she’d build us a fire.

If we had. If we had.

We drank beer so we wouldn’t think about water. Thoughts of water turned into thoughts of a lake of water, of a fresh spring that flowed into our campsite, as if we could will one into existence.

We wouldn’t make it through the weekend without water.

We turned over a stone with the beginnings of a sculpted leg. Da Vinci was just a torrential rain, we said. Michelangelo was a tornado of sand and wind. Lambs ears sprouted in the creek bed, where flat black spiders darted under warm stones when we were posed to step down. Drowned and dried up weeds looked like tattered clothes in a violent way, as if the dry rocks and trickling stream was complacent in a struggle. But they were only plants caught in a flood. But the only tattered clothes were on our legs.

To emphasize our group potential, each of us had a job at the site. The men strung ropes between trees with loops interspersed to hang wet clothes or—jokingly—ourselves when we got too thirsty. The women, used to their morbidity, rolled their eyes and cleared spider webs off the picnic table with sticks of fragrant cedar. Snowy ash from the fire fell into the guac. At least we remembered the guac. We heard a round of bullets fire into the woods, and somewhere in the park a bird left a space in the sky.

At night, a creature walked through our campsite when we turned off the flashlight. We held still at the edge of the woods in the pitch black. The animal moved slow as if stopping to pick fallen berries off the ground. I held my breath when it grew close enough for me to hear her grunts and grinding teeth. When she was beside me, I still could not see. The tip of a soft ear brushed my arm. Danger, fear of wildlife took over, that existence almost exactly like our own, but feral, indigenous. Life was meeting life in an arena with no rules. I closed my eyes to see the sun. I thought please be tame, please be kind as the ear ran across my arm, then my cheek. For a moment, the only thing in the world anymore was the connection of that fur and my skin, the meeting point between girl and unknown animal in the blinding dark. I felt like the earliest human, like I was meeting the world for the first time, like I could look up and the sky would be all white with stars.

Later, in the tent, I put my face into a moist armpit and felt the emptiness of the open night around us settle, turning, in my dreams, to water.

In the morning we left the site in damp boots and unbrushed hair. Our tents were wet, the floor was quenched, but we were not. At the nearby stream, we built a ship. We called her The Mermaid and released the ship into the drink. A maiden voyage, we shouted. Long live The Mermaid! The Mermaid went over a waterfall and drowned in the river.

What we never realized was this: The Mermaid was only a float prepared by thirsty friends. That the stars are there until they’re not. That fur and skin are the only separations between us and the deeper connective tissue of the world. That this life was our maiden voyage.

In This Profession

I’m a 26 year old woman working and (almost) making a living as a writer. There are some things about me here you might know, even if you don’t know me well. But more importantly, there are some things young professional women (and femme-identifying) face all the time that really needs to be addressed and I’m not sure it has yet.

I have spent a lot of time focused on my career and I’m willing to talk about my passion for writing anytime. Lots of us are met with blank stares when we talk about our work, but more than anything, I meet people who’ve “always wanted to write” or are working on a story themselves. Although I have deep doubts about people who say they’re going to do something, I try to be supportive. This usually leads to my encouraging inquiry, because I know what it’s like to be laughed at, and I want writers to succeed. Sometimes I get great conversations that end naturally, and other times, conversations that end with me feeling degraded and hopeless for opening up about my work, and feeling very self-conscious about my body. I know I’m not alone. I know the young women on the job/career/self-starter/professional trail experience professionally couched sexism everyday outside of the workplace.

Let’s talk about this.

I want you to know how dedicated I am. I hardly read for pleasure anymore. They say don’t go into a field you love, because the thing you love will become work, and then you won’t love it anymore. Love reading? Don’t become a writer. Want to be a writer? Stop reading paperback bestsellers for fun and suffer through the work that is indisputably the best written fiction in the language of your choosing—and pay attention. Then, subscribe to a magazine and read it every week. Buy books by new authors published by small presses. Take extensive notes. Replicate paragraphs by writers you love word for word until you understand exactly why a comma goes here, and a period goes here. It’s a job in itself, and it could take the joy out of reading, but I do and I want to do these things. Have you ever loved something so much, you would stop loving it if it meant other people would love it harder? No, because it’s completely contradictory to what we think of as love. But if I could suck my enjoyment from reading out of my life to guarantee that I produce fiction that brings other people immense joy, I would do it today. I don’t know other people who share this extreme (and unachievable) value, so I don’t bring it up in mixed company. Often, I feel dry inside. I feel like I’m pursuing an art nobody partakes in, going into debt and pushing myself for an idea nobody shares, to be published in a dying medium, to be read only by people who are in the same fucked up sinking boat as I am. I don’t talk about writing to my friends, because it hardly concerns them. I don’t connect with local writers because here they are few and far between. I too-heavily rely on the surprising and insightful conversations of strangers who happen to share a passing interest in the thing I love most. Nobody really wants to hear about what I do.

To get to the point, fiction and criticism are the only two things I have really felt I’ve been good at since…ever. In my life, I’ve tried on lots of creative and professional hats, but the only thing I care about and will continue to care about is being an active, intelligent, well-developed writer. That said, I’m a huge advocate for emerging and aspiring writers. I’m new to this too. I need encouragement too. Aspiring writers are maybe the only people I can connect with who’ve had the same number of people in their lives look at them as if to ask, “are you crazy?” These are my people. I encourage my people, and I am sometimes starving to connect with them.

But I have had to stop. I can’t do it anymore. I cannot encourage fellow aspiring writers, poets, and authors. I don’t have it in me anymore. Want to know why? Because some people make me feel that my profession, my intelligence, my age, my history and knowledge and overflowing bookcases and notebooks and emergency hardcovers under my pillow are not worth as much as my body.

Yes, it’s because I am a 26 year old woman. No, it’s not up for debate. I’m kinda bright-eyed, up-and-coming, possibly naive, susceptible to the wisdom of older writers and artists. In my age group, I have painfully few peers. I’ve felt at home in literary conversations with strangers, talking Chekhov or Hempel or Atwood or Marquez, holding my own against someone older and, therefore, with more time in their past to become cognizant of what we’re discussing. But at the end of these conversations, when I am basking in the rare sun of (what I think is) another dedicated writer, I become objectified.

“Let me take you to dinner,” says one, a man I trusted.

“No thanks. I have to meet a friend.”

“Blow her off. Come have dinner with me.” He pressured me further.

I grew uncomfortable, wanting to dodge the situation but taken so off guard by the sudden shift from dazzling literary discussion to being reduced to my mortal, female form. All the times he asked about how the writing as going and what stories I had in the works, all the times he complimented my latest art review, all the times he said something that sounded a little too friendly all came falling back on top of me as I tried to pick out specific moments in our years of conversations where I felt he really, truly, respected what I was saying. Why couldn’t we just move on to something non-literary as the conversation came to and end? Anything! Anything but asking me out. It felt like a real betrayal, to me, to my career, to my success, and to my friendship. Creatives struggle enough under their own self-effacement. Did I really need an outsider to make me feel like my task was worthless because I still had the youth and looks and vivacity that mattered to him?

Several months went by. I had to stop by a party to pick up a paycheck for some maintenance work I had done. I folded the check for my pocket and pumped myself a beer from the keg, deciding I’d stick around to see the first few songs of the band. I didn’t know anyone at the party, everyone else being over the age of forty-five (and amazing dancers), so struck up a conversation with a guy at the snack table. Ok, I was wearing shorts that showed my butt cheeks and a braless top, because it’s a hundred goddamn degrees in this city and I’m usually focused on much bigger things. I know what I wear, and I know how it makes people feel even though I don’t care how people feel. I’m not saying this is a definite factor in our continued conversation, but it crossed my mind after the fact. Our small talk turned to poetry, which turned to writing, art, books, and other things I love. We sat in canvas folding chairs with our beers and talked literature, politics and philosophy. Honestly, our conversation was very pleasant, and we did share a lot of ideas, although applied to or learned in different decades. He mansplained or age-splained a little but it’s common in his age group, so I didn’t call him out. He was nice enough and I was just there to briefly enjoy myself. He wrote out his email address and I gave him mine, then I left on my bike to go get Chinese food and head home.

In my non-profit days, I interacted a lot with his demographic and grew comfortable with an older crowd, because they were creative too, and I respected them and I was respected by them. I learned to put aside my scoffs at poetry that referenced the ‘60s and the unending parade of Bob Dylan style imitators. It’s not my place to decide what form self expression takes, so I try to be kind and learn something from everyone. He initiated an exchange of emails and we went through a brief critique of each other’s work. He sent me some poems and I sent him some fiction, like a good modern-day penpal-ship. Then, the emails started to edge a little too close. I became reserved with my responses. Instead of seeing his changed language as fatherly or endearing, I felt I was again approaching a wall in a vehicle I had lost control of. I stopped responding, and sure enough, the last email he sent was an invitation to take me to dinner.

“What do you say? Dinner?”

It seemed innocent enough on the screen, but I kept wondering what that dinner could possibly look like, and that’s when I started questioning the phenomenon. How could I—in my abhorrent financial and empty-refrigerator state—decline an invitation with a man who would probably let me order whatever I wanted and then pick up the bill? Knowing this, how could I talk freely and with confidence about creative pursuits without feeling indebted to this guy, or that he was expecting something more from me? Was there any situation we would find ourselves in that wouldn’t result in my feeling denied intellectual camaraderie and him feeling denied a piece of my love? From the way the exchange sounded, no. He was dangling a free dinner in front of me, just as a different guy had months before, under the veil of being interested in what I had to say and contribute to the world as a professional writer. He was using his age or his funds as a symbol of authority, and I was the hungry young writer who needed to feel flattered and full. I thought back on times long ago when an innocent dinner turned out to be something tipped far away from my favor and level of personal comfort. Even though I’ve physically pushed men away after they walked or drove me home from dates, I felt like I was in a debt I could never pay out of. I’ve come to learn a valuable lesson: there is always a catch.

I felt stupid and used. I declined the invitation very professionally, but inside, I was screaming. I had to pedal it out. I hopped on my bike, ready to spit at anyone in the neighborhood who dared to catcall me in my terrible mood. The air was strangely cool after a stagnant humid week and the bicycle was running like a dream. I’m proud of my bicycle, an instrument I rely on everyday. It keeps us both in good condition. It is a tool I bought brand new with my own money that I worked for, and I use it daily to reaffirm my independence. It’s a symbol of my will and strength, my refusal to stop moving forward. But that evening the ride only felt half as good. As I rode through my neighborhood and the blocks surrounding, I was filled with questions. Was I too generous with my energy? Was my encouragement for others detrimental to myself? Were all those advanced literary conversations just a trick to get me to open up?

Is anyone going to take my work seriously?

***

This is more than “just a thing that happens” to young female professionals. (This isn’t a gender-specific issue, but I can only speak from my experience.) This is a constantly-in-your-face example of the way older men of their field treat the ambitious and intelligent young women who work like hell to make something of themselves. If I were a man of the same age, I guarantee dinner with me would be far less appealing to the men who proposed them. We might go to dinner. We might talk about business, or tactics to succeed, or I might receive valuable tricks of the trade that would allow me to climb higher in my quest for small-time publication. We might have a drink and clap shoulders and toast and say “God, it’s so good to finally have someone to talk to,” and then split the tab and go to our separate homes without any creepy sexual tension hanging in the air like a noose. This is how I picture the male professionals in my field at my age finding their mentors and peers. Unless the one who proposes dinner with me is a women who respects my work, I will continue to decline. It’s too much work for me otherwise, and now, it’s no wonder I feel the most comfortable in the company of other professional women. I wish personal history didn’t limit me to feeling this way, but there it is.

Beyond the two big personal accounts, I’ve found myself at the tail end of many stimulating conversations on a topic of my passion or interest, only to discover it was all a trail of crumbs leading to a lame or threatening pickup line. (Once, a man even promised to buy a sculpture of mine at a show, then tried to kiss me. He didn’t buy the piece.) Maybe it isn’t always as cut-and-dry as sexual harassment. Maybe it isn’t as simple as distilling the problem to loneliness, or intimidation, or power. Maybe sometimes, it is completely genuine and honest. But this isn’t an isolated incident. We women, especially the young professionals of their field, view it as a matter of time that this will happen rather than a lucky break when it doesn’t. At some point we will all be vulnerable, because it is not our job to be alert and wary of every conversation we enter into, and we will find ourselves facing an offer we know is couched in systematic sexism so putrid we can taste it.

Maybe my cases are too specific, but if anything happens more than once, I start to analyze the why. This account doesn’t include the multifarious times I was legitimately sexually harassed by older men at my job or otherwise, because the topic is so widespread and pervasive, it would take a whole dissertation to unravel some of the atrocities I and nearly all women have experienced. What I’m saying is much more focused on the individual in the creative arts, and that weird, intangible thing that blends creative passion and professionalism that makes us easy prey. Maybe it’s easier to take advantage of young women in the arts because they’re less likely to have an office and a paycheck to prove their intellectual or societal worth. Maybe it’s easier to target those who are carving out a path for themselves, because they are easier to ambush from the untamed brush.

I feel like we have to shout it in the professional world. Don’t ask us to a private dinner. Don’t pull some weird romantic gesture out of your hat and expect us to reciprocate. Don’t hold our income status or our empty stomachs against us. We know what we’re feeling, and we know it sucks, but that temporary shit will end while the men in our fields try to bait us under the guise of genuine interest. If it’s a date, make it a goddamn date. If it’s professional, get to the same swanky party and talk shop in a crowded room. If it’s about the art, buy some, or read some, or encourage people you know to buy and read some. Don’t lead us on through a smokescreen of shared intellectual interests in the hopes of reaching our bodies. The professional women you betray today will not forget it when they rise to power.

The Timepiece

Hanan looked at her watch at eleven o’clock. The timepiece on her wrist felt lighter than it used to, although the old silver was heavy with old fashioned gears and a thick glass face. When she removed it at night, she thought her arm would float up above her head and stay there like a helium balloon. But on her wrist it felt natural, a sheath she had grown into. By some miracle, it still worked. Hanan wound the watch each day until she felt tension from the main spring inside. At eleven o’clock, she tied her hair back, wrapped a burgundy scarf around her head and pulled on a long garment that touched her ankles. She was uncomfortable and hot. Hanan found her shopping bags and left her apartment for the crowded Friday market. Her feet ached in the women’s slippers that blistered her ankles until rivers of hot, clear pus burst from the skin. She longed to go home and change into the plush leather shoes made for men. Hanan wondered why men’s shoes were so comfortable when it was the women who did all the walking, while men sat in cafes, judging what was appropriate for others to wear.

The men in the square used to laugh at her hair until she covered it. They had laughed at her men’s shoes until she switched to the women’s slippers. The men in the square laughed at her watch—her father’s watch—but this, she refused to relinquish. Each time she walked by, the lazy men who sat on the roundabout curb chortled and gaped at the big silver timepiece wrapped around her wrist. A men’s watch! She wears a men’s watch! A woman must wear an appropriate watch, one that is dainty and covered with false diamonds or gold, or one that cracks easily like a woman’s emotions. Her father’s watch was wide, sturdy and discolored in places the silver had started to patina. The tick of the minute hand was loud and authoritative, appropriate for a man who wanted the world to know his time was important. Hanan ignored their comments, preferring to retreat into her personal history with the watch, which, her father said long ago, originally belonged to a powerful woman. Who was she? Hanan never knew.

Hanan was examining potatoes when a fisherman slopped a bucket of sardines beside her. A careless wave jumped the cart of ice and sloshed Hanan with the fishy juices.

“Smeh-li,” the fisherman said and continued the job while Hanan dripped with sardine water.

“Really?” she said to the fisherman, but he pretended not to hear her. Have compassion, she heard her father’s voice in her head, as she often did. You be quiet too, she told the voice. She paid for her potatoes and rushed home to change. Stray cats followed her at a distance, delighted by the odor.

Hanan unclasped her watch and patted the leather band dry with a towel. The smell endured. She set the watch on the windowsill to let it air in the sun. Hanan removed her dress and changed into jeans and a t-shirt, took the scarf off her head and let her curls of dark hair fall back into a natural order. The thought of changing back into cumbersome clothes on this hot day made her weary. Hanan dropped onto the bed with a sigh. A flea landed on her skin and she smacked it down. How did a flea get into her room? She glanced at the windowsill, where an orange cat perched, looking at her. Two pieces of soft leather hung from its jaws as the cat clamped down on the silver face of the watch. With a cry of protest Hanan lunged for the window, but startled the cat, who hopped off the sill and galloped out into the street, watch in its jaws. Panicked, Hanan slipped on the nearest shoes—the men’s shoes—and dashed after the animal. The orange tail slipped through her fingers as the cat made a sharp turn into the streets of the lively medina. Hanan raced after it.

***

When she was a girl, her father would let her wear the watch around the house. Back then it was heavy on her wrist, almost slipping off her on the tightest clasp. Before she could tell time, she stared into the face and watched the thin hands tick around the numbers, sometimes for a full hour, only for the pleasure of the movements. During the Revolution, her father’s work took him to rallies and secret meetings, or into hiding in Madrid or Lyon. When he left town, he would let her keep it, and she would sleep with it under her pillow at night. Each muffled tick of the hand was a reminder of him and his eventual return. As she drifted into sleep, lulled by the reliable stroke of the watch, she imagined her father lying awake at the same time, feeling his wrist for the timepiece. She would have rather lost a front tooth than lost her father’s watch.

When unrest bubbled in the region, each loud tock of the watch became a reminder of the fragility of power, the delicate line that separated life from death. Her father’s work during the Revolution cost him his life. With his death, the wisdom he taught her slipped into a similar fate, a little at a time, until Hanan had a partial graveyard of old values spread out inside her. Hanan now wore a scarf around her hair, traditional slippers on her feet, and covered her eyelids in black shadow. As the years went on, she betrayed her father by blending in, by doubting her own strength in the world. But through her transformation, through all the cultural rules she learned to accept, the watch remained on her wrist.

When watches were still a new invention, men wore them on chains in their pockets and women wore them on their wrists. As a little girl, Hanan laughed when her father said this, pointing at the silver piece wrapped around his wrist.

“You’re wearing a girl’s watch” she said. Her father smiled.

“That’s because it belonged to a fearsome female pirate,” he answered and unbuckled the thick leather strap, soft from time.

Before the industrial era, women pirates controlled the river that ran along the southern border of the town. Hanan’s father told her stories of the ungovernable women who took the river as their own and ruled the waters with violence and compassion. Riches entered the city in the hulls of hulking boats, absconded from Italy, Spain, and the sub-Saharan nomads. Men stockpiled the treasure and transformed overnight from modest workers to living like pharaohs. They bought enormous houses and exciting clothes and wore diamonds and gold on every finger. As long as the pirate women—who had no use for material goods—continued to raid the Mediterranean sea, the city would brim with riches. This was the lifestyle, until the kings of other countries sent boats and men out to recover what was stolen from them. Roundups lasted years and many foolish men died protecting their ill gotten means. Only those who were discreet and resourceful slipped passed the search while everyone else was stripped of their gold. Hanan’s father tapped his watch with one finger and winked at his daughter.

“And they never could find all the treasure. Some pieces are still missing.”

Hanan’s mind filled with tales of the Mediterranean marauders, who inlayed ivory and gold in the city walls. She gazed at the silver watch with amazement. Her own father possessed an item of particular value. Who knew how the watch came to him, or his father, or his father before. Hanan longed for every detail.

Then the Revolution came. The old walls exploded, leaving only a cracked and colorless canvas for the soldiers to vandalize. Propaganda still flaked off in ugly tatters years after the fighting ended. When she closed her eyes, Hanan could still see the images of these stories imprinted in her mind from when she was a child, but when she opened them again the city was nearly in ruins. She wanted to go back, to be a pirate untamed by society, to be a woman who was more fish than human.

***

Silver flashed past a pen of chickens. Hanan leapt over pools of grey water feeding into the gutter. The medina ran through the city like an artery, pumping the lifeblood of commerce to the little roads and alleys that fed the seaside port. As she chased the cat past the half walls of the old quarter, where ancient women crouched in doorways and muttered prayers at passer-bys, she imagined she was in the old city under hanging baskets of silver and gems. Instead, more cats watched the chase from their window perches overhead, like tabby gargoyles, indifferent to the outcome of the hunt.

Suddenly, she couldn’t see the orange cat. She halted in the middle of the medina, the center at which all roads converged. When she stopped, she realized she had left the house in men’s shoes, with her hair down and legs stuffed into jeans. The whispers began, then grew louder until they filled her ears. She caught her breath and spotted the cat under a cart of onions. The cat had the watch on the ground and was licking off the sardine slime that still clung to the face. A-ha! She leapt and once again the cat picked up the timepiece and took off down a narrow side street, one that lead deeper into the residential slums. Hanan ran past closed doors made of heavy wood with great iron rings dominating the façade. Family quarrels thrummed on the other side of barred windows. The cat bounced ahead of her, its thin hips protruding, moving like pistons beneath the skin. Just as she was closing in on the animal again, the cat launched itself up to the top of a wall and disappeared down the other side. Thinking quickly, Hanan continued down the residential path. A few more turns and she was on the trail again, chasing the swift animal through the colored light filtering through the blue tarps that covered the narrow street. They ran between shops under banners of hanging green peppers and pale dead chickens, naked of feathers with beaks locked open. They skidded around corners populated by bags of black and red spices. They ran together between women with only their eyes showing, eyes that cut to Hanan’s modern clothes in disapproval. When she caught up with the cat at one final turn, it was by the river. Hanan was out of breath. Had she really run all the way to the river? The sparkling waters lead to the Mediterranean and out into the old waters once commanded by the pirate women. If the watch was swept into the stream, Hanan would never see it again. It would be fished out by a toothless old man who would pawn it for a net, or it would drown under the waves until the loud tick was silenced forever. The cat dipped to the water and released the watch from its mouth. Hanan dove to the bank to grab the timepiece and plunged her hand into the cold river, but she missed. She watched it sink to the bottom, the watch that survived her girlhood, the Revolution, and her father.

Before it touched down on the silty sand of the riverbed, something happened. The leather band stretched out. The face became an eye that studied her. Amazed, Hanan caught her reflection on the surface of the rippled water, her black hair spread wild around her determined face. Like the pirate women of old drawings, she looked dark and formidable. She just had time to gasp at her reflection before the watch made its complete transformation. As she caught sight of her fathers old timepiece again, the watch joined a school of sardines rushing by, and swam back to where it came from, where Hanan suddenly felt herself rushing towards.

Oh, How We’ve Failed

This morning, The Kansas City Star published a spectacularly destructive article by Laura Herrick on the ways in which women can adjust their lifestyles and actions to prevent rape from happening to them. Here, you will read the original article, titled “Women can take action to prevent rapes” in italics and the responses below each section. To write a letter to Herrick, reach her at oped@kcstar.com.

(Update: The Star has removed the original article from their website. If you would like a PDF of the original article, send me an email. I saved it.)

With a long history of publishing awful fluff pieces and generally obnoxious clickbait, The Kansas City Star and whoever approved the original article reached a new height of incompetence when deciding to run this dazzling number. Here you go.

Let me preface this by saying that I empathize with women who have been raped. These women have endured terrible experiences and need to know that what happened was not their fault and that whatever they did to stay alive was the right thing.

I would also like to remind men that “no means no” (and if someone is too drunk to say no, then no is implied); that no matter what a woman wears or does, she isn’t “asking for it”; and that if men witness a woman being treated inappropriately, they need to step in and attempt to stop what is happening.”

Stop right there. Your article is over. As many times as I read and considered this garbage piece of writing, this was the only part I kept coming back to and thinking “at least she said one good thing before the turgid swirl of bad rhetoric came out like from a broken sewage pipe.” If you haven’t read the original piece, be prepared, because that’s what it is. Sewage.

“I saw a quote on Facebook that said, “When a woman drinks too much she expects to wake up the next day hung over, not raped.” I agree.

But as women, shouldn’t we take responsibility for our bodies by not becoming so intoxicated that we don’t know what is happening? Every woman should know her drink limit and stop there.”

Props to you for finding reputable news sources to agree with. Nevermind Facebook uses algorithms harvested from your friends, your internet browsing, your online shopping, etc to structure your content. So, good for you for finding a Facebook quote you agree with. But by the lizard-logic of your next sentence, I can only conclude that this was as far as you went into navigating the wide-spread discussion of the harmful perpetuation of victim blaming you can find almost ANYWHERE on the internet. I imagine this is how it happened: You saw a quote on a page designed by experts to filter and tailor content to your liking, had a blip of a thought about blame cross your mind—which has no doubt been conditioned by other blips of idiocy you found by whiny men’s rights activists crying over their perceived loss of power—and you spent what I assume was the better part of an otherwise unproductive day to cobble these thoughts together into one, gloriously ignorant Star-appropriate op piece about the fault of women in accepting responsibility for the history of sexual violence that has targeted them from multiple sources for the entire history of humanity. I try to imagine this, but honestly, I can’t.

“No, she’s not asking to be raped by being drunk. But isn’t it her responsibility to reduce the risk by not getting to that point? And if you wake up the morning after doing the ‘walk of shame’ don’t yell rape if you regret your actions of the night before.

Accept your role in what happened, learn from the experience and move on.”

 I wish I could remember what my reaction was when I read that little gem of a statement for the first time. I might have lost consciousness from the blow of backwards reasoning and, when I came to, found my kitchen table flipped over on fire. That’s an exaggeration, but I did—and I’m sure I’m not alone—release a cry of absolute pain into the world at the evidence another woman who lives in the same world as I do could connect such appallingly oppressive ideas together to form words I so naively expected could still only come from non-woke men. A part of me died a little inside. The only way I can recover from this is to take your harmful statements apart piece by piece in hope of preventing such harmful hypothesis from you ever inflicting them on the world again.

It’s really quite fantastic to hear an educated and eloquent woman such as yourself refer to the journey home after a sexual encounter as a “walk of shame.” Because for a woman, sex is a shameful and degrading act that was only invented to please the male kind no matter how you slice it. Thanks for that, patriarchy!

Regarding responsibility, let’s use this analogy. When men drink, they have to be careful not to operate heavy machinery. (Note: gender has nothing to do with it. Don’t operate big stuff drunk.) Luckily, heavy machinery can be largely avoided if one has limited access to construction sites, airplane hangers, leisure boats, the keys to their car, stuff like that. When women drink, they have to be careful in every situation you can think of. Sexual assault happens in public and in private places. It happens at house parties, at the club, at a friend’s house, at your own house, outside, inside, in the presence of others and in the presence of nobody. If the only way to prevent operating heavy machinery is to not do it, why don’t we view rape the same way?

Accept your role? What role? The role of existing in the world? The role of going about one’s day unmolested? The role of there’s a 26% chance a woman will be raped in her lifetime? The role that nearly half of all women will experience some form of sexual assault in their lifetime? What role are these women accepting in the violence they, you have so beautifully stated, could easily prevent? And what makes you believe it’s so easy to simply “learn from the experience and move on?” Does the fact that 54% of rapes go unreported add up your conclusion that women should just learn and move on?

“Women want to be treated as sexual equals when it comes to desires, the ability to have casual encounters and the enjoyment of sex. But some women act on this freedom then want to deny their involvement later.

Every woman who falsely accuses a man of rape makes the battle harder for women who are actually raped. And the lives and reputations of the men who are falsely accused are often irreparably destroyed.”

Bringing desire into a conversation about rape and sexual assault is the most offensive, juvenile, retrogressive piece of whatever-you-can-even-call-this-hot-mess I have ever seen. The only thing ANYONE can assume about ANYONE ELSE’S sexual desires is this: Even in fantasies, nobody wants to have sex 100% without their consent. Saying “women want to be treated as equals when it comes to sexual desire” ONCE AGAIN removes the responsibility of not raping from rapists.

Furthermore, the notion that women lie—that anyone lies—about being raped is incredibly damaging and undermining to an event that alters someone forever. Who do you suppose was the first person to claim a woman was lying about being raped? I’ll give you two hints: it was probably someone who felt their power would be taken away by the truth, and it probably wasn’t a woman.

It is not women who lie about rape that make the battle harder for women who have been raped. It’s you. It’s people like you who continue to shirk your responsibility to educate yourself against the pervasive culture of toxic masculinity and the patriarchical grip of victim blaming, shaming, and dehumanizing. If you give even one single shit about the reputations and future success of rapists, you need to seriously, hugely and forever, fucking check yourself.

“When men drink, their decision-making abilities are also limited. If a woman was too drunk to know what she was doing and should be excused for what happened, then why are men not allowed to be too drunk to make good decisions?

And if a woman is so intoxicated that she can’t remember giving consent for sex, then how can she know that she didn’t give consent?

If she was so drunk she was unable to make good judgments, then how can we be sure that she has any idea what actually happened?

Maybe she forced herself on the man. Or maybe she initiated the encounter.”

Did you read anything before deciding to push this garbage out into the world? A chance of a woman being raped is 1 of 5. For men, that number looks a little different. Only 1 of 71 men experience rape in their lifetime, and while it’s not impossible for a woman to force herself on a man without his consent, it’s way, way less likely to happen. Giving consent while intoxicated is a tricky grey area for everyone, but educating men to be respectful and use good judgment in these situations is more important than teaching women to moderate their impairment or stop drinking altogether. Also, ever heard of date rape drugs? There are some levels of impairment a victim of sexual assault just cannot control.

Many of us have been there in the morning when a sense of deep regret sets in, but you cannot assume everyone who has been in this position will automatically leap to accuse someone of this especially heinous crime. Sure, we all make mistakes, but one night of drunken consent does not send most people into creating revenge-seeking lies about what happened.

I’m puzzled by the question, “why are men not allowed to be too drunk to make good decisions?” Men can make good decisions when they are drunk. Anyone can. It’s hard, sure, but it’s not impossible, and it’s definitely not an excuse for rape. Drinking impairs judgment, but at no point in anyone’s life should that judgment slip so far as to justify the rape and assault of another human being. The fact that this is something you use liquor to excuse—implying that it’s already in the man’s brain to rape, booze just helps it along—is super fucking harmful to everyone of every sex and gender.

“I am not talking about the extreme situations like group rape or the Stanford incident. Those men should be held accountable for their inexcusable actions.

I am talking about the casual encounters many people have had — waking up the next day and realizing they are next to someone in bed and being embarrassed and regretful that it happened.”

Why not stop worrying about other people’s casual encounters and individual regret and start having a productive conversation about sexual assault, rape, reeducation, equality, and all the other things you clearly need help understanding.

“I hate that I have to tell my son that if he sees a drunk, unconscious woman, he needs to either run the other direction or find women to help her.

Men should be able to help a drunk female without thinking about calling a lawyer first. And people should be able to interact sexually with someone they are attracted to without fear of being convicted of a crime.”

Wait…didn’t you just admit you tell your son to run away from a woman when he sees she needs help? Are you implying already that it is mentally and evolutionarily engrained in your son to rape an impaired woman? This hands-off approach to education because “what can be done?” is the biggest problem we as a society have when discussing how we should teach people not to rape. If you truly believe men should be able to help that crafty wild animal, “a drunk female,” don’t educate your son to fear the ~*~irrational female brain~*~ that has only evolved secondary to the ~*~male brain~*~ to make his life more difficult. In the space of three sentences, you a) admit to educating your son the same way the toxic patriarchy has educated us all for hundreds of years, b) complain about the lack of helpful and progressive education of young men, of course for which you are in no way responsible for creating, and c) connect the two in a conclusion about the complex and ever-changing web of human sexuality as a whole.

“Bottom line: Men, stop acting like animals and having sex with anything that breathes, and intervene when you see a situation that you know is wrong.”

 This is one of the oldest and most harmful assumptions we have in our culture of toxic masculinity: that men “just can’t help themselves,” or “boys will be boys,” and other familiar adages that excuse the system for not educating young men to not rape.

“And women, take charge of your bodies and your sexuality by being sober enough to stop unwanted advances and sober enough to actually enjoy sex when you choose to have it.”

 Fuck you.

Morocco: Daily Life

There was a nest of birds outside the kitchen window. I heard the little ones peeping, their cries rising in urgency when one of the children in the yard climbed the ladder to prod them with a finger. From my terrace apartment, I could hear the mother shouting to her children. They responded with a shriek: “LA!” they said, the Derija word for “no.” It came from the house with come frequency. The mother would call again. Something wooden would clatter on the concrete floor of the back area where the laundry was hanging to dry. I did my laundry too and dried my clothes on the rack outside, but everything came out stiff. Those children were monsters. Like other children in Morocco, a designated bedtime was not on their schedule. I heard them up and screaming at all hours, harassing the swift nest. I saw bird cages around Tétouan, holding the sad animals with featherless heads and thin wings. Stressed birds are ugly birds.

Evenings were otherwise pleasant on the terrace. My apartment was small but the view spectacular. I brought a chair and sketchbook outside and drew the tops of buildings around me. Seagulls cried and swifts bounced through the air. Once in a while, the sky grew quiet as a single crane went gliding by, backlit by vermillion clouds. The street below livened in the evenings. I grew familiar with the distinct calls and voices of each vendor competing for the most airtime. A river of locals pushed through the street and in and out of the medina. A few times I braved the crowd on my own, but the speed and urgency of the shoppers (people who actually had a purpose in being in the busy market) overwhelmed me.

At the busiest hour, I was invited by another resident to wander around and we wove like bees around the maze of the medina. Actual bees were trapped under film-wrapped sugary pastries. Everything in Morocco is dipped in honey and rolled in nuts or seeds, but I don’t have a sweet tooth. I do have cravings for heat, but I never encountered a decent hot sauce. I ate olives everyday and never got sick of it.

The vendor outside the studio has peddled several different kinds of fruit, from peaches to cantaloupes, onions and strawberries. I became most familiar with the sounds from the vendors below the studio, who started their days closer to noon, allowing me a few morning hours of relative peace. One young man’s aggressive calls boomed above the others, cutting through their words with his important message. The weird thing was, the vendor shouted (what sounded like) the exact same phrase over and over since I arrived. I thought he was calling out the price of peaches, but then the food changed to apples and the calls were the same. I looked down over my balcony and try to make out what on earth he was saying. My best guess was he was calling out price by kilo, which apparently never changes (at least not to my untrained ears). After deciding this was right, I peered over the rail the next day, only to see the man leaning over a cart of watermelons.

When the voices of the street vendors don’t drown it out, taxis honk and screech along the other road. There seemed to be a custom of holding down the horn for as long as one can to get someone to move. No gentle taps here on this side of Tétouan. Sometimes, although it was rare, I heard cats meowing or fighting with each other. Most of the cats were pregnant, nursing, or leading a parade of kittens down the sidewalk. In the evening, everything gets loud. The birds screech overhead, cutting the sky with their pointed wings, sharp like the edge of an arrow. The streets fill with vendors, raising their voices over one another in competition. Cocky students leaving the language school for the day enter the crowd walking abreast. Men came in from the desert and spread out blankets in the square. They had very black skin and wore deep blue—lapis lazuli blue—robes. They brought objects from the edge of the Sahara into town, statues of men and animals beside huge neck pieces with rough stones.

The tortoise shell cat had her babies outside of my studio. She was so pregnant, and the day before she had the kittens, I saw her lounging in a doorway, the pink nipples on her fat belly poked out toward the street. When I returned to studio from the medina one night, the man who sold fruit under my studio handed me a newborn kitten, a little orange one with tiny flaps for ears and eyes that were not open. It didn’t make noise, but searched for a nipple as I held her. Her mouth was hardly anything more than a little hole for sucking. She fit right in the palm of my hand.

At the end of my time in Morocco, I wanted to cast even my beloved jeans into the ocean. They made my flea bites itch and I still wasn’t allowed to wear shorts. I wanted to shred the long, sensible dresses I thrifted from Kansas City and change into a crop top. It was hard to tell if I was gaining weight or losing it. The Moroccan diet is a strange one. I reminded myself it would be easier to eat well in Spain, where I wouldn’t have to sterilize my fresh foods, or watch out where it came from. I frequently saw greens on the street, on pieces of cloth, as the man from the shop next door swept particles of dirt from the street landing on the dark leaves. My heart sank a little each time. I went to get ice cream on the corner by the plaza. The girl had a spot of chocolate on the back of her hand. She lifted it to her mouth and licked it off, flashing her braces, before diving back in to scoop my order. It was uncomfortable, but I knew I couldn’t be too squeamish. I also couldn’t be too careful, as I’ve been sick abroad before. I took a risk and ate my ice cream anyway.

Morocco: Food and Dreams

IMG_3813Cous cous family meals are a traditional Friday affair in Morocco, but for lack of blood relatives, Green Olive Arts invites our makeshift intellectual family. Artists and writers from the area join us at the long table where we will partake in the age-old tradition of sharing a meal. Two towering dishes of cous cous are set on the table, ringed with boiled or steamed vegetables, rich and juicy from broth, piled high atop the quartered chicken marinating below the mountain. Caramelized onions and chickpeas with a brown sauce of sugar, cinnamon, and cumin top the grains and drip with sweet molasses. I had come to learn it was not a proper Moroccan meal until there was something sweet in the dish. Bowls of a salty, fatty broth passed around the table and ladled on the sections of the cous cous we claimed as our own. There are no plates, no borders between your food and your neighbor’s food save for the dam that naturally forms between the areas carved out by the spoons. Everyone is given a traditional glass of room temperature buttermilk and encouraged to dig in.

The multi-lingual meal is best complimented by arguments over which region of Morocco makes the best cous cous. Some add cashews, some use a fattier hen as the meat. Others have acquired a taste for seasonings more exotic than the traditional cinnamon and cumin. Most of this conversation occurs in Arabic, but friendly heated dinner conversations fall into a sort of predictable pattern no matter what language is spoken. Even the Arabic-illiterate Americans at the table understand the tone and timbre of friendly competition as we all stuff our faces. Conversations sprout off and become more focused between two or three people at a time, turning to anecdotes about religious upbringings that could be sinister in a certain way, but are lighthearted at the table. The buttermilk sits heavy atop piles of food in the stomach, but it’s hard to stop eating.

The sugary chickpeas and onions melt down into a thin and pleasant caramel on the tongue. The savory chicken bathes in its own broth, collecting in pools at the very bottom of the bowl, where all the flavors concentrate. As they say, this is where you get “the mouth of the goat”—the last of the meal that has spent time collecting flavors from the rest of the ingredients. The gooey center. The good stuff. When the not-even-close-to-empty bowls are taken away and stored for leftovers, steaming pots of mint tea are poured a foot above the small glasses. Bubbles form on the surface of the liquid, the “turban” of the tea, the aim of which is to cool and aromatize the traditional drink. Mint tea is semi-sweet, like an herbal agave, and aides the digestion of the meal and the offense of the breath. Post meal, since it is 2016, everyone pulled out their phones and exchanged facebook information, promising to stay in touch. I held a conversation about the challenges of being left handed that was entirely translated, but one thing that didn’t need to be translated was the fellowship of perfect strangers.

 

 

One night, two dreams disturbed me. In one I squeezed a pimple in the mirror and the head of a larvae emerged, wiggling. I squeezed more and it started to come out of my skin and then I reached up and pulled it out. It was two feet long and plump and writhing in the sink. I kept squeezing the spot and little maggots poured from my skin without end. I was screaming and crying and disgusted with myself and the contents of my head. I woke up and that spot on my face buzzed as if still trapped in the dream.

In another, I was alone in a dark hotel room. I could hear all my friends having a party in the room above me, heard them all talking and laughing together. I got up on the bed and pounded on the ceiling to let them know I was there and I wanted to come up, but the ceiling and walls were made of stone and nobody heard me. I tried to turn on the light so I could dress and leave, but I was trapped in the dark.

I did not anticipate the settling in of intense loneliness. It was the kind of loneliness that felt like an injury from which I might never fully recover. Even as I imagined my homecoming, as I eased myself back into the lives of the people I love, I couldn’t imagine ever feeling full again. I felt an unoccupied space in my mind, closed off like the haunted room of a castle, or that my body was missing some necessary nutrient. Yet, at least my prose did not suffer. I remember getting off antidepressants years before. My body made pounding waves as it craved the drug, but as time went by, these spells decreased.

It’s amazing how a month by oneself can shine light into corners you were too afraid to peer into before. I know I was afraid, but I had nowhere to go to avoid it. I was in the Deep Zoo of my mind, my work, my fictitious world.

But then, things changed. I stopped feeling some of the more intense edges of my emotional world after I had faced them. It was as if the edges flattened as my world expanded, a light rising higher above my head to illuminate a wider space that never was a drop-off at all. Now the things I am afraid of, the circumstances that make me feel vulnerable, are refreshingly new. I found new ways to love the people in my life and new ways to make peace, in the space of my mind, with others.

Is there any greater fear–to believe you are withholding love from the ones who deserve it most? I can think of few other personal disappointments that take up so much space in the inner life. What I discovered and am trying to put into practice is something I always believed: love doesn’t have an end point, only degrees of intensity. I sometimes dream of love as a circle. Now I feel an urge to deepen the emotional aspect of my work. As my own sense of self and emotional capabilities expand, I need to discover how it fits into the writing.

____________________

Dear readers,

If you’re looking for short stories, be patient. The stories I wrote at Green Olive Arts will be available one at a time as they are edited by myself and my expert team. They will be published chronologically to give you the sense of how the work changed from the first story (a cat steals an important watch) to the final and longest piece (a woman goes searching for her mother). The landscape and emotional ambiance of Morocco plays a role in every story, and characters are built off of traits in locals and foreigners alike. There are more women than men, more pirates than not, and more questions than answers about the consequences of love.

Morocco: Getting There

I purchased a train ticket in Casablanca during my 14-hour layover and waited in the long dank tunnel with few other passengers. Birds, misplaced, or on their own purposeful visit chirped in the wooden beams above the rails. I wondered if, like the birds, I had flown into a new place and became disoriented by all the newness of it all. I stood on the tiled platform and waited in a humid silence for the train to roll up to the airport. Doors opened and then I was being whisked away in a flood of strangers, chattering and rolling baggage along the hall so quickly, the wheels on their bags over tile like rattlesnakes being shaken awake. The bags I carried carved their marks in my skin, making indentations in my neck and shoulders. A moment with the weight removed brought about a swift and stubborn stiffness in my upper body. My lower back felt compressed and sunken under the weight. At the airport in New York, I was told my bag would make it to Tangier and I would retrieve it there, but I had no idea where it could be now. What was the bag limbo of this long layover? Did it sit behind a desk until the plane loaded? Did it sit outside in the brief rain on a canvas cart? Was it revolving lonesome around an empty carousel waiting for my return? I supposed I would find out soon enough.

My next destination was Tangier. Then, in another two days a car would arrive from Tétouan to take me to my final stop, Green Olive Arts. The hunt for a residency began early the previous year when I decided to postpone graduate school applications and hone my skills by the determination of my own instruction. I was denied entrance to every colony until November, when Green Olive Arts, the residency in Morocco I applied to on impulse, contacted me to schedule an interview. I was accepted within the week and used the next five months to organize and prepare for May, the month I committed to set aside to write and travel. On principle, I don’t apply to residencies that charge a fee to their artists, but since it was the first one I had been accepted to, and would scratch the itch for exploration I had been putting off for years, I couldn’t find an appropriate reason to turn it down. I crowd-funded, organized a public fundraiser, wrote grants, and eventually raised all the funds I needed to travel to and pay my way through the residency program. Support came from everywhere, and although I began planning my journey with strategies in place to overcome the obstacles I anticipated, few presented themselves. I was funded, well-researched, and had a clear and unstoppable vision for what my month of creative output would look like.

On a whim in Casablanca, I followed a young man through the steady stream of rails and markets, lit by tempered sun from a cloud speckled sky. Our introduction happened in a small courtyard, palm trees with dead fronds like long unwashed hair stood sentry for the kids kicking soccer balls around. I had gotten off the train at a stop that looked somewhat metropolitan, and was slouched on a park bench no doubt looking dazed and bewildered. A young man sat at the other end and after a while asked me if I spoke French.

“English,” I said.

And to this, his response was: “Do you like ‘Game of Thrones?’” We quickly discovered a commonality between us and he offered to show me around the part of Casablanca I had accidentally happened upon. We drank kiwi juice, warm from the fruit stands, and rode the ambling light rail to a place with espresso where we could sit with our backs to the shop and people watch. After 20 hours of traveling, sitting knotted in uncomfortable chairs, I propped up my feet in a savory moment of total relaxation and drank in the new scenery. When the waiter came by with our coffees he tapped my feet off the chair I was using as a prop. He muttered something to my friend in Arabic, which he then translated to me: “I’m sure it’s normal in their culture.” My legs tangled back into the familiar crossed position and denied me a little longer the ease of rest after cramped and consistent traveling. Soufiane and I exchanged facebook information, because that’s what you do these days, and when the afternoon was coming to a close I re-boarded my train and rode to the airport.

My mind began to fade on the return train. I dozed with my head against the shivering window and found I had no control over my thoughts that threatened to mutate into dreams while my eyes could still be forced open. My bowels were full and tight, responding to every scrape on the tracks underneath as if they would burst like the skin of a plump sausage. I was out of it when the ticketing agent came through. I handed him the ticket for him to punch and waited for him to leave me alone.

“What is this?” At least I recognized those words in French. He flipped around the stub of my last airplane boarding pass, a similar size and shape as the train ticket he had asked for, but wrong for the journey. I dug out the correct document and he punched it impatiently. The man across the aisle looked at me through my thin and pitiful fog. The airport where I was to spend the rest of my long layover had loose rules about lines and customs. My second time going through gates, I flashed my passport and smiled as an apology when met with a question in French. It felt like an old acquired habit. Poorly designated or vague numbers on my boarding pass led me through the twisting rope of terminal one, only so I could be angrily denied access by a man who shouted in English, as if it were a swear, “Terminal two!” He leaned forward into my face, his outstretched hand wagging my passport like an object of scorn. More stairs and lanes, questions from me in English and answers from others in French finally led me to the correct gate. As I approached the lagging conveyor belt that represented Moroccan security, the two guards observed me with little interest and resumed their conversation. Fearing I was, again, predictably, in the wrong place, I waved my boarding pass and stepped through the scanner. One guard glanced at the time of my departure, still many hours away, then up at the pathetic wasted traveler with bad breath and snarled hair that I had become. “You know once you are in, you cannot leave,” he delivered in dry but passable English.

“Yes,” I sighed. “I know.”

I brushed my teeth in the bathroom, neglecting to use bottled water instead of tap water because I had not exchanged any money and could not purchase any. I tried to make myself comfortable in the airport chairs. Once or twice I fell into a strange and disrupted sleep, waking up to cloaked men and covered women staring across the room at my still obvious otherness.

After six hours, a man started screaming in Arabic amidst the flashing lights of the transport van outside the airport window. For a moment, everyone in the airport—or at least everyone who could not understand the man’s words, tensed up as if ready to act. I sat helplessly with my crumpled New Yorker and too much weight in my bags, not exactly ready to turn over the chain of cold steel chairs as a barrack if something unspeakable happened. His voice and anger escalated. Would-be passengers to Marrakech, Rabat, and Chefchaouen stiffened and took a step back toward security. Whispers rang through the room and I strained without avail to understand the foreign words. Three uniformed men in badges and flat hats moved in a brisk walk toward the angry intervener. This is not an American airport, I remembered, and for better or for worse this type of outburst was probably not uncommon to witness. An airport, especially one so far away from every custom and language and person you have ever known, is not a good place for surprises. My nerves settled when I overheard a peppery haired man on a different link of chairs at my gate say to his neighbor, “missed his plane.” Missed a plane. Only missed a plane.

I have been on two other planes in my life that match the size of the plane I rode from Casablanca to Tangier. When it was time to board, we all scuttled from the gate aboard a bus that wheeled us across the tarmac to the pint-sized aircraft that waited with stairs unfolded. Our time in the air was brief and noisy, the engines and propellers making a racket in the sky as we passed over midnight and into the next day. I put my head on the tray table and had bursts of vivid and unsettling dreams, images that had been denied the two consecutive nights I had gone without sleep. When I arrived at the hotel, I didn’t even turn on the light before I hit the pillow and slept straight on through the next twelve hours.

Popular Modern Games

There is the one with the bowling balls. Not bowling. Only the balls and an open field or empty parking lot. Five or six people get together as at team and lob bowling balls at one another. So each team brings a bowling ball to an empty area at the designated meeting time. The Sparrows face off with The Tornadoes or The Unwed Mothers. On a good day, Big Man Boy’s show up and give them all a real work out. Using the finger holes in the bowling balls, each person must throw the ball at the other team in hopes that the opponent won’t catch it. Points are scored by catching the thrown ball, one point for using both hands, two points for using one hand, and ten points are awarded if you can catch the ball by sliding your own three fingers into the holes of the oncoming cannon. Tournament season is very short.

They call it Crazy Ball. The oddest thing is that Crazy Ball involves no balls or bats or oblong bullets that fly through the air. Nobody is really sure how Crazy Ball is played, but it has become a very popular sport among the young adults. Players have been spotted wearing makeshift clothes from leaves and sticks, digging holes in the backyard of friendly neighbors.

Twice a year, the ski team meets on the mountain. Once in December and once in mid-July. They don their poles and skis and line up together on the peak. The pop of a starter gun sends everyone into a frenzy, pushing and pulling each other to the edge of the peak. Hair in fists, jacket sleeves in teeth, they try to send each other down the hill while remaining on the top themselves. A whack to the face with a ski pole earns two points. Crossing the opponents skis before toppling them over is a six point gain. In the end the points don’t matter. Parents are separated from their children, who are light and easy to toss over the edge and watch them flail, skis tumbling over poles over snow pants over hats in a puff of fresh snow, down the steep side of the mountain. At the end of the game, the two remaining skiers on the peak of the mountain are escorted into the cocoa lodge where they undress and have a nice big window out to watch as the other players untangle themselves from the sticks and the snow, retrieve their escaped mittens and gloves.

The object of this game is to not look him in the eye. The old man in the doorway stares out at passerby, but if you make eye contact, you lose. Nobody has lost in recent years, but trust me. You do not want to lose.

If you can outrun the tractor, you get to keep it. All year a team of rag-tag mechanics work on the engine and body of the tractor. A favorite sport in rural townships, Run Away is usually played in an area of great historical significances. Battle fields with grave markers that stick out of the prairie grass or henge formations made of petrified wood are popular sites for Run Away. While one team works on the tractor, another team picks a Runner to train. They complete obstacle courses, weight training, timed sprints, distance jumps—the complete package if they want to survive the excitement of Run Away and win the super-charged tractor that chases them through the field.

For those with athletic minds, there is Competitive Contact Negotiating. Teams are given topics to debate and a chest full of blunt objects. The arena for Competitive Contact Negotiating is flexible, more so than other sports that have risen to popularity among those born unusual (the only exception being Blind Quest, which has a very strict set of rules). A team wins the debate by knocking the other teams unconscious with their rounded objects and then alerting the other players with a shrill banshee screech that simultaneously supports the thesis of their debate. Audience attendance is low this year.

Over the years, these sports grew out of a very human need. Traditional games evolved through wildly physical experiments that lead to the games we know today. And as the Sedentary Age set in like a cramp, we invented these escalated games to remind us of our roots. We play because at the center of our being we are hungry for human contact, determined to win, determined to feel something.

Thoughts on Loneliness

aloneOne evening I realized I had gone the whole day without speaking more than a dozen words—a mix of English, Spanish, and Derija. Think of twelve words, a twelve word sentence. Think of a going a day using only twelve words, or a week, or a month.

I was not entirely prepared for all the loneliness I feel here.

If you think you can handle being alone, go traveling by yourself.

I didn’t think it was weird to spend more time than usual in the mirror until I realized I was trying to fill a certain degree of loneliness, unconsciously using my reflection as my own company. Disgusted, for two days I couldn’t look in the mirror.

I felt the same as I did last month when I realized I had obsessively worried a bald spot onto my scalp. Living in the mind does this.

In my daily life back home, I spend a good deal of time by myself during the day. I wake up, make coffee, look out the window, and start to write. This routine suits me and my work. It helps me focus and settle comfortably into the contents of my head. I like being by myself and solving the minor problems I create. I have a harmless practice of diving as deep as I can into certain pools of emotion then resurfacing for air, writing it down, and going in again. As long as I don’t have to spend every waking minute deep in the parts of my brain I access to write, I am a functioning human. Creative people know there are places in the mind that need to be tapped into in order to produce meaningful or interesting work, and it takes practice to be comfortable with these places in ourselves, because we are conditioned to believe they are socially unacceptable. You learn how mixing creative waters with social waters can upset a civic balance. Get in, get work done, and get out. Without an exit from these ‘pools’, the mind can take an unexpected turn.

The residents I was hanging out with before have been gone for a week, taking my social life with them. Tétouan is a male dominated town. Women aren’t allowed to socialize in the ways men are. It is not socially acceptable for a woman to sit at a café by herself, or even be alone on the street. She is accompanied by a man, her children, or other women. I hardly see them alone. When I walk around I feel a little unsafe, especially as the light fades. I’ve been followed, grabbed, harassed, and watched suspiciously as I unlocked the door to my apartment by a man or group of men lingering by the entrance. It’s sad how women learn to acclimate to this, to experience isolation on a social and personal level and then be expected to adapt, move on, and burden no one.

To relieve myself at home, I take evenings off to bike around, hang out with one person or a few people, relax my mind with company and exercise. Even going to a job in the evening helps my mind take a break from the creative problems of the day. I think, up until now, I underestimated how important those breaks have been for me. I often declare boldly and confidently “I love to be alone.” I’m realizing now, yes, I still love to be alone, but I need a balance to keep me productive. Here in Morocco, I don’t know anyone, I don’t speak more than three words of the language (yes, no, thank you) and finding a healthy release from being enmeshed in my brain all day is more difficult than I anticipated. My day here looks different from my days back home. I get up, walk to studio, lock myself in my room, emerge for a light lunch, and at the end of the day walk back to my apartment to sleep. Between these movements, I write, read, and try to come to terms with myself, and then there is nothing to distract me from my own intensity.

What I’ve come to realize about myself and my creativity is that without social anchors to my routine, I start to unravel a little. The brain changes when we’re alone, and it changes more drastically when we are lonely. I chose to roll the dice this year and do things I know I’m not entirely comfortable with. I’m in a strange country by myself. I tentatively left my job with no back up plan. I lifted some blocks and created others. I am consciously choosing uncertainty over familiarity. A lot of this is coming down at once here in Morocco. I am trying to connect what I know on an intellectual level to what I feel on an emotional level and apply it to my work. I have had one downright howling emotional breakdown that accumulated from a series of minor punctures I tried to ignore. My work is changing. My immunity to solitude is being strengthened. Maybe with a little more distance, these things will seem minor. But here in the depths of the experience, even the smallest changes feel titanic, as if I am operating on a cellular level. A new condition of being embryonic.

Emotional distance is crucial to writing effective prose, otherwise it sounds precious and self-absorbed. One day all these intense highs and lows will find a way into my writing, and by that time, I will try not to forget what it took to get there.

Uncensored honesty is a growing importance in my life. The dark places in the mind reveal more slowly for a reason. We keep secrets from ourselves until we’re ready to face the truths, and that makes for a greater depth in creative work. I read Blake Morrison last night. He divides people into emotional and psychological terms: those who have lost a parent and those who have not. I think creativity can be divided into those who have accepted who they are and those who have not. Unlike death, a linear condition, self-awareness is a circle and involves a series of smaller deaths. We’re never finished discovering who we really are, because we accumulate experience, love, people, degrees of sadness. It takes a certain amount of loneliness to unveil new dimensions—not just in our personalities—but in our capacity to feel and understand. You don’t really know who you are until you have: a. lost part of yourself and b. gotten time to know yourself. I have found two things to be the biggest contributors to this kind of death: isolation and heartbreak. (In 2011, I experienced both at once, and it changed me on an elemental level.) Parts of us don’t really disappear. They evolve.

My final thoughts are to try it. Destroy your notion of comfort and your grip on yourself. Sink into your mind and your work. Be the deep sea diver of your own emotions. If you wait for life to decide loneliness for you, you will be completely unprepared.