a story about the post label on a copy of a community newsletter from 1997

In 2017, I was finishing my undergraduate degree with a project for an XML course where we were directed to digitize a piece of analog media. I discovered that my university had an archive of documents from the women’s movement. Among those documents were several years’ issues of a local lesbian newsletter. I descended to the archive to scan the yellowing documents and stitched together a PDF so that I could transcribe the content. For this task, I used my notebook laptop the size of a day planner, which was cracked from a fall off the hood of my family’s moving car. I sat in the cinema-coffeeshop on campus, or in a bar downtown where a presumed tattoo artist with stretched lobes and a lichenous beard doodled on a napkin beside me.

The newsletter was full of community advertisements for women-owned house-painting businesses, mediocre but excited erotic poetry, charming cartoons without good punchlines, Tee Corinne photographs. I felt extremely tender toward all the women who had submitted to the paper, collated and read it, even the ones I thought were a little dramatic, like the lesbian pastor who expressed hurt in her letter to the editor that women were uncomfortable in Christian churches: some Christians, she wanted to insist, were all right.

At the time, I was talking to a woman I had met in a summer course on the Nazi propaganda director Leni Riefenstahl. This woman had gone off to Japan on exchange and we would text when time zones conspired that we were both awake. I took a circuitous bus route that went directly from my house to my workplace. This route always seemed miraculous, since its existence was inexplicable from a city-planning perspective and most of the time I was the only passenger. Once, when I was on the bus in a golden morning, this woman was also on a bus in the middle of the night. Crossing to Osaka or somewhere. She texted me at the rest stop where she had stepped off to stretch her legs, maybe to smoke; she wrote that the stars were very beautiful. I remember this fondly now, but because of the circumstances of our meeting, and a wrong I did her early on in our relationship, she would later tell me she remembered it bitterly.

From the archived newsletters, I selected to transcribe a run of one year, basically at random, I think from April to April. On the back of one of the later editions, a post label was still affixed, on which a woman’s name and address were printed. The name looked vaguely familiar to me, but I couldn’t think why. A little later, however, I passed a room in the Student Union Building that I hadn’t ever taken good note of and saw the same name printed in silver caps above the door.

Some type of prudishness prevents me from saying that name here: I guess I’m too aware of the voyeur quality of my fascination with this woman I never met. There isn’t much public information on her, so my attachment to her is mostly speculation, which objectifies her in a way. My projection onto her might embarrass her surviving partner or her ghost. But her name isn’t difficult to find.

She was a lesbian-feminist economics professor who organized significant firsts at the university for women’s activism. She landed there after she was discharged from another university for being too radical or too gay–or so everyone speculates in the articles that were written in her memory. In the black-and-white photograph I know of her, she has short-cropped dark hair and smiles recklessly. She died of cancer at the age of 46. The year she died was 1997. The post label on my newsletter was from February 1997, or thereabouts.

I don’t remember the exact date anymore. To save space on my injured little laptop, I had to delete all the files. But it was just near enough for me to take notice of the fact that, in this particular edition of the newsletter, there was a posthumous publication from a woman who had also died of cancer. Her partner sent it to the newsletter for publishing. This was a small letter that the woman who had died wrote to her community and her partner while she was in the hospital. The letter was about knowing she was going to die and being afraid of dying.

I only barely remember the specifics of how this was conveyed: a window looking out over a green lawn; a candle; boredom in the hospital, a woman walking hallways with flecked white tiles. I don’t remember that she ended the letter with platitudes, like that she would see them all in the next life, or that she was being brave. In my memory she makes no attempt to coddle the recipients of her letter. She was dying and she was afraid to die.

According to the economist’s Wikipedia page, she didn’t have an official cancer diagnosis until April 1997, but the postmark on this newsletter was noticeably ahead of that date. I wondered if the public diagnosis date was wrong. I could speculate that a loved one told her about this edition of the newsletter and she ordered it to read this other woman had written about what might happen to hear.

Then again, maybe the diagnosis date was correct, and she didn’t know she had cancer when she read that piece. If she was a regular reader, the presence of the posthumous letter in this issue might have been a coincidence, a piece of indelicate foreshadowing. Or she might have known the deceased, or her partner, and ordered the issue in memoriam. Back then, the city would have been even smaller. Or maybe several months beforehand, she sought out stories of illness because she suspected already that something was wrong.

After ordering the edition of the newsletter I digitized, the economist would move to a small island with her partner to live out the remaining five months of her life. As it turned out, about five months after I digitized the edition of the newsletter she ordered, I took a weekend trip to the island with the woman I met in the Riefenstahl class. We stayed in a trailer on a farm by the ocean, and it rained the whole time we were there. We fed horses treats from our hands and we had to walk up and down the shoulder of the highway everywhere we went.

On our way back to the mainland on Sunday afternoon, as we walked onto the car ferry, we overheard small talk between two women our same age who were boarding behind us: a local and a backpacker from Spain. The backpacker asked the local why she was going away, and the local said, to visit her girlfriend; I’m gay, she said, after a dead moment, to clarify. The backpacker said, oh! in a tone of great surprise, which all women who visit their girlfriends are familiar with and dread. My own girlfriend and I looked at each other in dismay or hilarity. But after a moment of finagling her second language, she said, me too!

We sat on one end of the walk-on passenger compartment, and they sat on the other. We waited, but nobody else came; the ferry began to pull away from the pier and it was just the four of us shut into our little room. The other pair might not have been conscious of us as we were of them, but maybe they were. We always held hands. My girlfriend and I cracked jokes about the lesbian boat just loud enough that our friends could eavesdrop, if they wanted.

I felt that same gripping, soppy love for the backpacker and the local and her faraway girlfriend that I felt for the economist and the economist’s partner, and the women who wrote the mediocre erotic poetry, and the lesbian pastor. Love that is almost miserable; love whose opposite is not hate but loneliness.

I’ve tried to read the economist’s work before, but I’m not an economist. I tried to compose a piece of blackout poetry with the posthumous piece in the newsletter, but I’m not much of a poet either. I wrote to the library archive trying to find out if anyone knew who had donated the box of newsletters in the first place. Was it in the economist’s will, or did her partner bring them to the university where she worked? I never heard back. Now I’m trying this. None of it seems to crystallize what I want to do with my emotion.

For me, what is so moving about history is not just looking back at our neighbours there, but imagining how they might have looked forward for us. When my brother came back from Pompeii, he showed me pictures of the plasterized corpses, lying on the ground with their knees drawn to their chest and their hands over their faces. It’s vertiginous to remember the depth of time between us. You would imagine as the ash burned the back of your neck, that you were completely alone; but instead, it turns out that Canadian tourists however irreverent are passing you centuries later and thinking of you for the length of a pang of a heart.

I think it would soothe the terror, a little bit, to somehow discover this at the moment of your death. But then, I’ve never died. To me, it’s all theoretical.

I don’t know where any of these women are now, not even my then-girlfriend, though we parted on all-right terms. I don’t know where the local or the backpacker are; I don’t know where the economist’s partner is and I certainly don’t know where the economist is. Nevertheless, my love for them remains so strong.

Sometimes I have a strong involuntary impression that I can feel somebody else loving me back, without knowing where I am. Or if not love, then a fond and complete attention. In all likelihood, this is a neurological quirk of human empathy — a way for us to comfort ourselves, social beings that we are, in times of deprivation. And I do find it comforting. I savour it when it occurs, usually at night when I look out at the yellow globes of the streetlights from the window of my warm bedroom or of a car on the freeway.

Simone Weil describes the love of God in terms that remind me of this feeling in a 1942 letter to her spiritual mentor Father Jean-Marie Perrin. The letter was written the year before she crossed the ocean from occupied France to America and then died at the age of 34. Rather than cancer, the cause seems to have been tuberculosis, exacerbated by general ill health due to a practice of self-starvation that nobody is apparently willing to describe as anorexia mirabilis.

Before all that, she wrote that as she was reciting the George Herbert poem “Love”, which had become a kind of catechism for her, she experienced “a real contact, person to person, here below, between a human being and God … in this sudden possession of me by Christ, neither my senses nor my imagination had any part; I only felt in the midst of my suffering the presence of a love, like that which one can read in the smile on a beloved face.”

Personally, I doubt it’s God, either. Supposing it’s anybody at all, I don’t know who it is. To her: If you’re reading this, I hope you’re doing well.

music about movies

Mitski’s new single, “Working for the Knife”, uses the psychic relationship with film to talk about the psychic relationship with art under capitalism. While Mitski is sometimes laundered down to a confessional writer, she often states in interviews that she writes more usually about the process of making music, the process of making art–about which she sings with desperation in Geyser that despite her desires and her best efforts, “it’s not real\ it’s not real\ it’s not real enough.”

In the music video, she acts out a variety of filmic archetypes, from the sinister competence of the chain-smoking cowboy with her invisible cigarette to the manic ecstasy or fear of the tortured female horror movie protagonist, who stomps and flails with her hair flying around her face to expiate whatever enormous terrible emotion it is that lives inside her. (This figure is the “unhinged woman” in the Internet parlance of the moment. Overuse of a word causes what linguists call semantic bleaching, the invisibilization of the embedded metaphor. What comes through the door that sits off its hinges?) What’s terrible about capitalism, she might want to say, is that it commodifies not only the actual product of your creative spirit, but even the very reason you want to create, if you are an artist working in a certain stream. Capitalism causes you to buy and sell your only tool to make life mean anything, to force yourself to manufacture such meaning-making or to fake manufacturing it.

Sufjan Stevens’ new album with Angelo de Augustine, A Beginner’s Mind, is also about movies. The set of movies that he and de Augustine respond to is very particular: a Zizekian mix of high and low culture with a focus on fantasy and crime film, what I guess we used to call “cult classics” before everyone was the cult. Of course the high/low culture dichotomy is problematic, but it points at a real difference at least in creative intention or cultural reception, and I’m not very interested here in playing language games about it. Writing an album exclusively about Wim Wenders movies at this point in the culture would maybe seem pretentious at this interval, but you buy goodwill by juxtaposing them with Point Break so as not to pretend you’ve never enjoyed a blockbuster.

My personal version of this album would include a lot of supernatural action horror from the years 1995 – 2005: a second Reeves vehicle, Francis Lawrence’s Constantine, particularly Tilda Swinton as the ethereally androgynous and vaguely sadomasochistic archangel Gabriel, was very formative for me. The way we enjoy these movies is certainly different from the way they were meant to be enjoyed, though it’s not quite ironic in the meanspirited way sometimes meant by early Internet pioneers of the sport. We are sincere in our appreciation of the feelings they arouse in us, but we aren’t a passive audience. We want to re-use the sometimes flimsy archetypical material that is being offered us to derive new insights or synthesize new theories. I think this is probably a more holistic approach to media criticism than the hoity-toity refusal to look twice at anything made for the masses or for money. It just seems to me we all started doing it at once.

I read the revelatory Girls Against God earlier this year, which had me wandering around in a daze nearly the whole time I had a dog-ear in it, savouring a new and previously untapped hatred of artistic pablum and the mediocre. I examined it with somewhat impressed alarm on the bus or the sidewalk. I had never found the guts to label this emotion as hatred before, partially because I’m well aware that I myself am probably mediocre, statistically speaking, and it is distressing to hate yourself. Hating the mediocre is very different from hating the bad. Hating the mediocre leaves plenty of room for deep-reading art that produces an intense emotional reaction in you even if it’s formally scattered or incompetent, even if it’s silly or overwrought, or relies on Keanu Reeves to do too much emoting. Jenny Hval, who I first knew as an experimental musician, writes about black metal and avant-garde film as the same impulse — an impulse to break through art and access the Real, to destroy the falsehood of fiction and somehow force art to do what we want it to do. What is it we want it to do? You can only stomp and flail in response.

(She describes, close to the end of the book, an imaginary hours-long movie with a single shot of a black metal band standing still. It’s funny, but the description of this movie is almost more effective than it would be to actually make the movie, which I wouldn’t want to watch. Similarly, I often tell people about Annea Lockwood’s River Archives, three-hour-long sonic pieces that track the flow of particular rivers from source to sea, but I’ve never listened to one all the way through, even though “Sound Map of the Danube” is available for free on YouTube in its entirety.)

Recently, I decided I want to get serious about reading theory, and I downloaded a film syllabus and a textbook to begin a self-guided wander through critical film theory. I did this even though I have no intention of making a movie. Other than writing, I’m interested in working on a game, maybe. I draw in my spare time, but have no intention of pursuing it in any way seriously. Of all art forms that produce objects, maybe the only thing I’ve never considered making is a movie. It’s not because the possibility seems too obscure to me. I know several women who have directed short films and have played in several practice efforts on their protosets, once as a drowned ghost in a black silk robe, for which role I dunked my whole head in my filled kitchen sink. Maybe I don’t want to make movies because film is a social and communal pursuit at its heart, and I don’t want to cede control of creative output to anybody else. Nevertheless, it’s movies, and not literary criticism or games or visual art, that I intuitively decided was the angle I’d choose to expand my understanding of media studies.

I have a few more examples of this type of thing–Weyes Blood wrote “Movies” as far back as 2019, and Baths wrote “Adam Copies” about Neon Genesis Evangelion a year earlier. But I could put a million examples forward and they would all have the same empirical problem, i.e., that I am already a person who’s interested in film, who’s in fact working on a manuscript for a fiction novella that leans heavily on film for its metaphorical infrastructure, so it’s obvious why I would notice any increase in non-cinematic art that intertextually summons cinema. I’m not making a claim that this represents a sweeping culturewide trend, or that it even necessarily represents a change. Maybe I just haven’t listened to enough music from before 2010, since that was approximately when I bought my first-ever CD (Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated”). But I do wonder. Is there a reason that we are all so interested in movies, as opposed to books, or dance, or textile art? Why aren’t two major albums coming out this year that are about video games?

I would like to hazard that many of us who are interested in art are exposed to more film and TV than anything else, through our multiplicity of streaming services, which we put on every time we sit down to eat a tofu stir-fry for dinner alone in our rooms in front of our computers. I don’t know whether to point at the supply or the demand side to try to explain the fact, and the suggestions I have I can’t effectively investigate. It could be more cost-effective for capitalism to sell us infinitely restreamable TV than anything else. Our Twitter-winnowed attention spans might demand fast-moving input. These aren’t suggestions I can effectively investigate beyond speculation. It could also be purely the stochastic effect of interesting thinkers becoming interested in movies and the rest of us following suit.

I’m not sure. I’m only asking. Is something happening to us? Should I be worried? I just want to watch movies.

midsummer story

I’ve now officially moved out of a city I lived in for my whole adult life, where I did a great deal of personal and creative work and learned different kinds of connection and tenderness. Last year I wrote this story in that city and although I only sent it around once or twice, it felt right to give it a public funeral by posting it here. I wrote several other pieces about or featuring Victoria, including Strange Places in the City and a couple still in the grinder, but I like the circannual quality of this one. Things are different for me now than they were the last time I touched this very slightly disguised piece of fey memoir. My last two weeks in Victoria were full of love, touch, care and community. I said thank you and goodbye to the house with the apricot tree that is described in this story, and somewhere in the dusk a band was playing, but I couldn’t find where.


Midsummer Story

In the summer neighbourhoods, where the cicadas went in their fallow years, syrphids and nymphs shimmered in the unmown yards.

The rest of the city napped in the sun. Every day the summer repeated itself, yawning.

I found chairs and plant-pots abandoned on street corners, and once took home a sewing machine. Students smoked hookah and played guitar on their front lawns in Fernwood. The news had said pot would be legal by July, but then time stopped and all the office-people were upisland anyway. Late at night, ambulances blared wearily past my apartment. No need to complain to us. We wish we were sleeping too.

While the city wasn’t looking, things came out. At night, raccoons ate cooling compost and never got sick. In the evening, swallows and mosquitos ruminated in nimbuses. The prime minister of crows and the king of deer held truce every noon in an alley off Cook Street. They argued their territories: lilac-bushes, bottles left empty on garbage cans, the diminishing lawns. No progress made, the Times Colonist reported.

The orange poppies at the side of the highway were called California poppies. They were far from home. I was too. We had all graduated in May. I wasn’t going home, so I clicked around for retail jobs and distracted myself from my bank account by taking long walks. My friends were packing to leave the city.

From the oak trees, summer caterpillars descended imperceptibly on long pendants of silk to disembark on me. I’d find them on my thighs and in the cuffs of my jeans. People who grew up in the city called them silkworms. They obviously weren’t, but I didn’t know what they were. Names slipped in summer.

I was wondering if I should get a new name, too, with everyone moving away. They were going to law school and to the North and to Hong Kong to teach English. It had never been easy for me to make friends. I foresaw long loneliness. I floated between nicknames, suspended like a dust mote in a beam of light. My common and feminine birth name felt flimsy, like a peasant skirt. I wanted a denim name, a leather name. I tried truncating it at various points but often the sunken pieces emerged without my meaning them to when I introduced myself. On my walks, I felt tender to the strangers I passed because I didn’t have to introduce myself to them. At the same time I wanted them all to hug me and remember my birthday.

I didn’t know where I was going. There was nothing to see but houses and imagined lives inside them. It was safe in the evening. You could look in windows and see impassive furniture: bookshelves, lamps, old men reading on couches. That way, you remained in contact with the people in the normal city.

But in the hot afternoon, everybody went inside and covered their windows so the sun didn’t gush in and flood their apartments. The windows were black and the shadows were short and blue. You could go a long time without seeing anybody at all. Even if you passed a human, you were both wearing sunglasses, so it was hard to say if your eyes met or if you even saw each other at all.

Soon I had drunk all my water and I realized I didn’t know exactly how to get back.

When I finally encountered a figure I said, “Sorry to bother you. Where am I?” My voice was muffled by the summer air like the wind off the ocean, born cold in May, that dies hot in July.

The figure reclined on a floral couch in a porch curtained by bedsheets. From the shadows, it lifted its cigarette in the direction of a street sign. The street signs had names on them, but I couldn’t say what names. “Do you have Wi-Fi?” I asked the figure, just in case. It tilted its head. Not solid, that motion revealed–a shaped cloud. From the tip of the cigarette smoke, buzzing things dispersed and burrowed back in under the armpit or the ear.

“Do you want to come inside and use the phone?” it said. The voice was a dissonant chord. It half-stood, its outline trembling.

I didn’t want to see what was in the house. “How do I go back?”

“Sorry,” the figure said. “You just have to wander and wait ‘til you see something familiar.”

“For how long?”

“Are you sure you don’t want to use the phone?”

I demurred. I could wander. I had an audiobook.

Six chapters on, the light hadn’t changed. The rainbow mirages at the horizon fled upsidewalk as I approached, but they often seemed to linger a second too long.

A triangular park unfolded at the other side of a disjointed intersection. I still looked both ways before crossing the street, though I hadn’t seen a car in paragraphs and paragraphs. To rest my feet, I lay down on the grass under a not-quite-oak tree. I put my baseball cap over my face; it would be good to nap. Bugs hopped in the prickling grass. If I had to guess I’d call them crickets or gnats but they weren’t either of those. They lived out their whole small lives in days that must have unstretched like decades did for me, slow like the pour of honey. Then in hindsight, too short. Well, they probably had ways to spend the time I didn’t know.

Along came the buzzing noise. I shifted my cap and the cloud was walking toward me. “How long have you been following me?” I said.

The cloud pointed across the park to its bedsheet-veiled house. “You came in a circle.”

This type of thing would have never happened in my hometown. All the neighbourhoods were centrally planned. There were deviations from the grid, to indulge aesthetics, but they capped in cul-de-sacs. The worst you could get lost was because all the streets were named the same things. Sagecrest Crescent, Sagecrest Lane, Sagecrest Close, Sagecrest Drive and so on.

“What’re you called?” said the cloud.

I shrugged. It didn’t seem wise.

“Okay—“ shrug—“you have cousins or something here?”

“Just walked too far.”

“You might have some. We should check the phone book.”

“I’m going to get going.”

“Want some help?”

“I can’t use the phone,” I said. “Well, the truth is I really don’t have anyone to call anyone.” To say this felt like pushing my face into one of those boards of pins at the science centre.

“Let’s walk then.”

There was no point saying I’d prefer to walk alone. I probably wouldn’t get anywhere. I took out my headphones and the cloud and I left the park in an uphill direction.

“What do you do?” said the cloud.

“I defended my honors thesis two months ago. It was on little free libraries.”

“What did you find out?”

“Not much. I did this computational analysis. With neighbourhood income.”

“Really into computational analysis, are you?” the cloud said, mildly.

“Originally not.” I was surprised to remember still. “They don’t have them where I’m from. So when I ran into one…”

The little free library there was hidden away behind the reservoir. I could only reach it if I walked a long path through a tilted neighbourhood of tall houses. Lichens and mosses grew into their dark rooves.

“I noticed the different people who used the library. One who read Pulitzer Prize winners, one who read natural medicine, one who read war novels about Newfoundland. I loved them. And in my thesis I wanted to handle the books that had been handled by other people. To touch them and see them. It was too much data, though, it would have been insane. Also I think there was ethics issues. But maybe my supervisor just told me that because she didn’t want me to push it.”

We were going downhill now, through a segment of streets where every intersection contained a roundabout, like dozens of empty plinths, or miniature parks. From above it must have appeared like that optical illusion of the circles in the grid where the lines seem to bend unbelievably. “Why do you want to know?”

“I’m curious,” said the cloud. “You can ask me something if you want.”

“I don’t have anything to ask you. I don’t know anything about how you live out here. No offense.”

“That’s not my problem,” the cloud said. It sounded amused, which did strike me as alarming.

“What do you do?”

“Not much,” the cloud said. “There’s not much to do.”

“I wish for that sometimes,” I said.

Everything had begun to seem slippery, and I couldn’t think of anything else to say, so we walked in silence a little while. The cloud said, “You know, we’re almost out, but I know where we could find a little free library, if you want to go.”

I was a bit tired because everybody was always telling me about their local little free library and because I’d spent the last fourteen months of my life having breakdowns. Sometimes I’d resign myself to suicide over crises like being locked out of the university library system for entering my password wrong one too many times, or my supervisor’s email signed off Best instead of All the best.

This habit didn’t alarm me until I looked back on it a few years later, from somewhere else. In the city, everybody jaywalked wherever they pleased, so it was pretty easy to think as you skipped off the sidewalk and looked into the headlights of the oncoming vehicle, I dare you to run me over—see if I care!

In addition to the bad memories, I had counted so many little free libraries that I felt I’d seen every little free library available for seeing in my summer or any other. But the cloud sounded enthusiastic, and to be honest, I’d been very lonely the last few weeks and nobody had sounded enthusiastic about me in a while. “Sure, let’s go,” I said.

We came on the box. I was now a connaisseur of the types of handmade latches that are put on little free libraries, but this one fit into none of my taxonomies. The cloud seemed to watch me with excitement, although honestly, it was hard to tell. The library was well-trafficked. From the titles I’d estimate there were five or six people who dropped books here regularly. I could read some of them, so I assumed that the cloud and its kin sometimes borrowed books from the little free libraries on my end of the summer. There was a 2002 edition of an Ottawa quarterly literary magazine and a half-colored children’s coloring book, and other treasures.

The cloud brushed past me in its eagerness to pick out one of the books and we touched for the first time, though to this day I don’t think it meant to touch me, and I experienced a thrilling rush from the top of my sunburned scalp all the way into my nail beds, a feeling of the membranes of my cells loosening and diluting. I think it might be the way that the year feels when Daylight Savings Time kicks in. My friend who went to Hong Kong to teach English once called it the undead hour—the one between 2 AM and 2 AM that gets daylight-saved. He said that an hour isn’t real anyway, so if legislation skipped the day ahead four or six or three hundred hours instead of one, it would still have to be true. In Hong Kong, there’s been no Daylight Savings Time since 1979.

“Sorry,” the cloud said, handing over a slim paperback. “It’s just this is a book I dropped here, so I thought it could be fun if you took it.”

“That’s really sweet of you.” I stared at it but couldn’t decipher the text. “I’m sure it’s good.”

“I won’t spoil it.”

I knew when we were back in the last sliver of the general summer because the light was occult with the smoke of a distant fire upisland. No texture to the clouds. All the office-people would have come back downtown. Nobody sat out on their lawn because the air would itch their throat.

“Thanks,” I said to the cloud. “I know where we are now.”

“That’s funny,” the cloud said, but then when I realized what a strange thing this was to say, it was already gone.

I arrived back at my door, panting, my neck damp, I entered, I sat on my sofa. The stillness cocooned me. No cars passed. I filled a glass of water and drank it, and I felt the summer’s hand slide off the back of my neck in that moment.

I picked a silkworm out of my hair. It squirmed off my thumb and explored the quilted landscape of the back of my hand. I brought it to the doorstep and let it crawl off me onto the concrete.

The letters in the book I’d gotten were familiar now, but it was gibberish. Strings of glyphs, occasionally interspersed with spaces and other punctuation, and printers’ ornaments. I mean the kind that weren’t shaped like flora but were just ink strokes and didn’t pretend to represent any object in the natural world.

The book comforted me because it reminded me that things have an existence beyond their interpretation. In previous years I had hibernated in winter, but it was too lonely that year. I swiped right on Capricorns and Geminis and when they came over I hid the book under my bed or in my laundry basket, like a journal I thought they might try to read. After they left in the morning, I would take the book back out and caress the shapes of the words, which were like unmapped territories loved by the shape of the air. I curled up inside the valley of tksourk, admired the Martian enigma of xqex. I marvelled especially at the last word on the last page, which was ps? It made me think the whole book was a question, a bewildered whisper, in the back of a theatre during a confusing avant-garde movie maybe, when you can’t really hear what your friend is asking you, but you nod and laugh, and somehow a communication occurs between you regardless that makes you more fond of them.

Later, I lost the book when I moved out of town. I’d gotten used to forming ps? in my mind and would say it aloud to myself sometimes, quietly, even in public, for instance if I found something that puzzled me in a pleasing way—a rock shaped like a jaunty little hat, or a lapel pin for a Czech technoband. As you would expect, whenever I shaped it with my mouth, it didn’t sound the way it did in my head. It just sounded like ps? This wasn’t what I heard at all.

I wasn’t distressed to have lost the book, because I couldn’t derive any more meaning from it, anyway, than I already had, having plucked out my favoured words like the apricots from the tree that grew in the backyard of my landlords when I lived in that city. It turned out that the apricots ripened on a July weekend when the landlords briefly disappeared, and I picked them so they wouldn’t bloat, fall, split and bleed. I went out in my bare feet and up the ladder, into the cloud of the tree that tasted like the month, and I brought them back in my popcorn bowl. I washed the cute, irregular little apricots and ate them wetly one after another over the sink. They tasted still alive. But after you’ve picked all the apricots, there’s none left–except in molecular terms as their juices seep through your cilia and vessels–and that was how I felt about the book that left my possession.

Besides, I expect it didn’t want to leave home. It must still float as jetsam among the stout thrift shops and bookstores and occasionally wash up in the home of a curious somebody who takes something they want from it, and I even imagine who these people might be sometimes, but I can’t see their faces.

Maybe it came back to the cloud, who I think of fondly, although I wouldn’t know enough of its lifestyle or affections to say if it would remember me, as much as any of us remember anything. I class this story with other kind interactions I had with strangers in airports and marijuana dispensaries, and I wonder what things I’ve forgotten that strangers hold close to their hearts. I’d be embarrassed if the cloud retrieved the book and read those words I loved–I think they might mean something silly. I comfort myself that there’s something remarkable about any word. Words only exist by accident, and it would be easier for them to mean nothing.

Anyhow, after I moved out of town I learned the worms were called oak leafrollers. I’m sorry to pass this on to you, because the instant after I was told this, a profound bereavement passed over me. I still mourn silkworms in some obscure alcove of my heart.

ugly sexy

My short story “You Two Should Feel Very Lucky” went up in Iridium Zine in April. I didn’t write a blog post for “Borrowing Ark Sutherland” earlier in the year because I already thought about it in the author interview for Luna Station Quarterly (which you can find here). But I also have lots of thoughts about this one.

My relationship to this story has changed somewhat between its writing and its publication. The reason for this might seem tangential–I lost weight. Not a lot of weight, but enough to bring my body into legibility for a general audience. I was never heavy enough to experience the strongest cruelty of the informal social regulation that lays over all interactions between our bodies and other human beings, but I was heavy enough to feel ashamed when I ate in public. And I grew up heavy. I grew up ugly. Disheveled and often unshowered if I’m being totally honest.

The experience of living in that body and living in my current body were very different. I didn’t lose weight to love my body more–I loved my body already. I lost weight for other people. People smile at me more often. I fit into more clothes. I plan to lose enough weight that I can enjoy myself if I go to an onsen someday. Enough weight that when people’s gazes cut my way I never have to think, is it because I’m fat? And I could say, for my health and so on, but honestly, I was young enough to have no health issues related to my weight; my movement and the internal sensation of my joints and muscles don’t feel any different. In essence, all I did was purposefully normalize myself.

At that time, I had also stopped shaving my body hair. But the terror that shot through me when I went through US border security in a tank top and had to lift my arms for the indifferent young TSA agent was a dent in my confidence. I might still go back to au naturel; I liked honoring my second-wave Dykes To Watch Out For lesbian foremothers, and I spent less precious time in the shower. But at this moment I can’t handle it. It leaves you vulnerable and too seen. It stings like a nerve open to the air in a worn-down tooth.

The things that I escaped by normalizing myself are the results of a body-surveillance that I was thinking a lot about when I wrote “You Two Should Feel Very Lucky.” This surveillance is about womanhood, but not exclusively so.  Certainly women are more heavily surveilled, but people will bring down the brunt of their judgement just as quickly on men with inconvenient and unattractive bodies. (Every neckbeard joke ever tossed out on Twitter by girls with perfect eyeliner still pricks at me. I’m not trying to one-up their oppression credentials or whatever, I just want to make a note.)

The surveillance is centralized and intense on people of all genders with “marked” bodies, in the sense of the opposite of unmarked. Many of them are people with visible disabilities, which is not an experience I can speak to. But there is a category adjacent to that category, the “neckbeard” category, of “voluntary” ugliness, “fixable” ugliness, that betrays an unwillingness to conform to standards of public viewability and is, therefore, deeply offensive to many who believe that they have a right not to view bodies that surprise or alarm them.

So–in some ways this story used to belong to me and now it only belongs to a past me. But even though I no longer look like a person who should have written a story about being in a bad body, the experiences I had and didn’t have as a possessor of that neckbeard type of ugliness shaped me intensely. And probably it belongs to a future me as well. I’m very aware that my public legibility as a young, able-bodied, normal-weight white woman with her eyebrows plucked is fleeting and will be gone before too long. We all get old, and for all I know I’ll end up spliced in a teleporter too.

One last thing is that other than the strangenesses of living in an illegible body, when I was writing this story I was thinking about us ugly people loving each other. It astonished me when I read somebody express, on their 2009 sex-positive queer poly feminist blog (remember those?), that you didn’t have to be sexy to have good sex. Isn’t it bizarre how it had never occurred to me? That sex and love more generally wasn’t something that happened for a camera, or for an audience, or for surveillance. That you didn’t have to self-check for ugliness when you were undressing alone in your home. That you could be ugly and still find joy in your body, and appreciate the body of another ugly person.

When you kiss somebody, you don’t experience them as a visual object. You experience them through your skin. There’s no ugliness to the touch. I guess I thought that was worth writing about too.