SPARK Magazine Issue No. 20: Labyrinth

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Issue No. 20

A complex network of paths in which it is difficult to find one’s way; a wonderlandish maze.

editor in chief kai-lin wei managing director yeonsoo jung

design director jaycee jamison

layout director melanie huynh assistant layout director ava jiang

assistant layout director colin cantwell

director of videography maddie abdalla

graphic design director caroline clark

editorial director amelia kushner

senior print editor kunika trehan

associate print editor carolynn solorio

associate print editor ella rous assistant print editor aaron boehmer

senior web editor ellen daly

associate web editor sonali menon

assistant web editor katlynn fox assistant web editor nysa dharan

creative director alex cao assistant creative director laurence nguyễn-thái

co-director of hmu lily cartagena

co-director of hmu meryl jiang assistant director of hmu averie wang

director of modeling maliabo diamba

assistant director of modeling jillian le assistant director of modeling yousuf khan

director of photography rachel karls

assistant director of photography mateo ontiveros

director of styling vi cao assistant director of styling miguel anderson assistant director of styling saturn eclair tejada

business director jackie fowler

co-director of events divya konkimalla

co-director of events anh tran

director of marketing emely romo

assistant director of marketing brenda chapa

co-director of social media elain yao

co-director of social media olivia abercrombie

assistant director of social media lea boal assistant marketing director brenda chapa


noura abdi, mariana aguirre, brandon akinseye, adreanna alvarez, sophia amstalden, caro arredondo, shreya ayelasomayajula, binny bae, ella baldwin, jeremiah baldwin, eunice bao, ava barrett, zayit barrios, alex basillio, bridget beecham, jean-claude bissou, leah blom, laena bodovsky, chloe bogen, ren breach, charlotte brown, jacqueline bui, jackie bush, leilani cabello, stacey campbell, cristina canepa, via ceaser, katie chang, hayle chen, morgan cheng, candice chepda, victoria cheung, camille chuduc, daniel clenney, cameron coburn, thomas cruz, trisha dasgupta , ale de la fuente, kenneth delucca, lina duchene, seth endsley, anWwna escher, frida espinosa, dakota evans, andreana joi faucette, samantha firmin, alvin fofanah, nia franzua, belton gaar, izabella galindo, liz garcia, elvia garcia, julia garrett, irina griffin, dylan haefner, hafsa haider, safiyya haider, adeline hale, jereamy hall, sara herbowy, audrey hoff, paige hoffer, alex howard-tijerina, tyson humbert, estelle isaac, gabrielle izu, jordyn jackson, rhionna jackson, maddie jewesson, jeffrey jin, rahul kalakuntla, kameel karim, sriya katanguru, payson kelley, maryam khan, joanne kim, annie kim, grace kimball, alija koirala, jane krauss, anjali krishna, tyler kubecka, amy lee, ashley lee, lucy leydon, cynthia lira, luci llano, lauren logan, fernanda lopez, sophia lowe, enrique mancha, liv marbury, catalina marquez, olivia martinez, emily martinez, eric martinez, evelyn martinez, molly masson, anastasia mccants, faith mcnabnay , angela mendiola, mariela mendoza, safa michigan, noa miller, pebbles moomau, nizza morales, kyndal mosley, azucena mosqueda, vivian moyers, arliz muñoz, natán murillo, pranav myana, miles nguyen, maya nguyen, jessica north, kelsey nyandusi, tasmuna omar, emilie opoku, deborah oyawe, bryn palmer, ruth par, river perrill, claire philpot, ainsley plesko, sarah poliuc, athená polymenis, victoria porter, angel quinn, sai veda rallabandi, anagha rao, tarsus rao adeoye, reagan richard, joy richardson, angelynn rivera, julian rodriguez, caitlyn ruiz, renata salazar, nikki shah, vani shah, sonia siddiqui, presley simmons, adalae simpao, peyton sims, isabel sitar, ian saejun smith, caroline st. clergy, ellie stephan, tiffany sun, avani sunkireddy, summer sweeris, katherine tang, leah teague, rachel joy thomas, remy tran, tyler tran, princeton tran, rey tran, andre tran, vianey trejo, vy truong, claire tsui, zayana uddin, cem verploeg, emily wager, eileen wang, gracie warhurst, samuel weiss, wynn wilkinson, xavi williams, melat woldu, megan xie, jonathan xu, grace xu, miranda ye, hairuo yi, elsa zhang

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from the editor Here it comes: the dreaded farewell letter.

To say SPARK has changed my life would be an understatement, and to say that in May, I’ll be able to walk away from it for good without looking once (or twice) over my shoulder would be a lie. I’ve spent most of my college experience uncertain about every aspect of my life, except for the singular adoration I hold for this magazine, sparked (ha ha, one last pun…) almost instantaneously when I first joined staff.

There is, after all, so much to love about SPARK: its gloomy elegance, its rebellious streak, its erudite irony. The well-dressed people! The glitzy book release parties! Most of all, I loved the way it welcomed an entourage of larger-than-life personalities through its metaphorical halls, and that it welcomed me, too — a gawky 18-yearold who had long laid her pen to rest by the time she stumbled across that initial info session in 2019.

As Editor, I’ve certainly grown to love SPARK’s less glamorous, more endearing parts: the cramped general meetings with aisles overflowing with well-dressed people, the breakneck pace of shoot season, and even our Narnia-esque office, with its mountains of cardboard boxes and lockers full of inventory from bygone issues and eras.

We chose “Labyrinth” for our 20th issue concept because, in many ways,

that’s what being a part of something as vast and ever-evolving as SPARK feels like: mazelike, dreamlike, labyrinthine . There will always be something new or interesting waiting for you at the next corner. And no matter how far you go, there will always be more ground to break, more doors behind doors to discover.

During these last four years, this place, this community, and these people have been something of a North Star around which I’ve oriented my creative center of gravity. I say it every season — I’ve said it every season — but I am so, so proud of this one.

Welcome to the Labyrinth. We hope you enjoy your stay.


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07 15 23 31 39 47 57 63 69 pulp of my heart pickton, texas once dreamed of snow nostalgic paradise cults of kore outer heaven / inner hell bunny is a rider in search of the perpetual self barbie’s dreamhouse 77 85 95 99 107 113 119 127 135 egodrunk sojourn on sixth m+ fangirl dream of one’s own a bad faith reality material void star-spangled fugue the mouth of the desert R.E.M BLISS contents 3 spark
143 Imani Tatum: sacred skin 153 161 167 175 183 191 197 maneater the high priestess ring of fire vanityinsanity sans issue haunted house! that freeway 207 213 221 227 235 243 249 257 263 needleskull be not afraid katabasis somnum exterreri sell you the world the ritual consuming mortality mosaic of broken everything you, too, shall perish NIGHTMARE END SINISTER FEATURE spark magazine issue no. 20 labyrinth 4 labyrinth




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’m spoiled rotten. my skin so soft. so pretty, go through me like a worm. it’s so easy in the rot of your perfect hands.

you left me here, blind, hands outstretched, murmuring like a fool, calling: darling, darling—you have my whole heart! you have it all darling! my whole, rotten, pink, heart.

white knuckles, or baby’s breath, i overwater, i think, i find myself with fingers in your mouth pulling daisies one by one from your throat.

and you, like oak & ivy you sprout to the touch of me though

the imprint of my fingers makes your skin come apart

but you look so beautiful. i want to pick you even then.

just to feel you, close and little, between my two fingers. even though i make you split in two.

i will love you.

you’re beautiful. you’re honeydew eyes, clementine cheeks, pomegranate lips apple of my eye, your ribs will diverge. your heart, then, open and gaping for me.

you overwater, say,

here is all of me; here is my peach pit here is the pulp of my heart, it is yours, now, –take it. ■

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PEARL NECKLACE | Big Bertha’s Paradise
BEJEWELED NECKLACE | Big Bertha’s Paradise SILK SHORTS | Flamingos labyrinth
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STRAPLESS JELLYFISH TOP | Emily Martinez WHITE BLOSSOM SKIRT | Emily Martinez RUFFLED SCARF | Emily Martinez HAIR BOWS | Emily Martinez
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ickton, Texas, 2014.

The moment I stepped into the house, I wanted to leave. It was as if I’d entered a time capsule, but not the cool type: dingy overhead lighting made the popcorn ceiling super obvious, while wood paneling and red floral wallpaper made the place feel like a haunted dollhouse. It didn’t help that the wallpaper was Asian-themed — I thought the coincidence was a little weird.

Mom told us it was beautiful, but she said a lot of things that didn’t make sense.

We fought constantly — Mom had been away for most of the school year, and at 10, I found her intentions rather confusing. She claimed to want the best for everyone, but I’d watched Dad all year, sallow-faced and sad while he drove me around to all the places she’d always taken me to. If she loved us as she said, why would she leave us for a dusty farmhouse in the middle of nowhere?

It turns out that a decade of suburban housewifery had taken a toll on her, a naturally enterprising woman, and the real tragedy was neither her discarded career or failing marriage. It was her children. No matter how hard she tried to pass down the values instilled in her, her children were growing up to be American kids: kids who expect their lunch to be packed and rides to be covered, who only visit their grandparents during the holidays, who don’t learn what gratitude is until it’s too late.

So, she wanted to change things. I can’t quite recall what she told me, but I remember sitting on the couch the way she hated — on top of the back pillows — when she turned around in her desk chair.

“You know, Mommy grew up on a farm—”

“I know,” I interrupted. I knew where this was going; I had eavesdropped on her and Dad. “I'm not moving schools.”

“Don’t worry about that,” she said, changing the subject. “I found this place that’s not too far. It’s 120 acres and there’s a historic farmhouse right next to a church and…” she trailed off.

“You know, lots of kids raise cows there. They even have a competition. You can win money if—”

“I’m not moving schools,” I interrupted again. “Also, raising a cow is weird.”

As it turns out, raising a cow is weird. It’s also difficult. But that was the point. The point of the farm was to teach us the things Mom learned in her childhood — the things we couldn’t learn from packed lunches and chauffeured rides. She wanted us to know the sulfurous stench of cow shit and the soreness from sowing fields and the stinging of the sun, because there is something beautiful about putting yourself into the fields and putting the fields into your animals and watching your animals bear offspring. There is something beautiful in watching your animals die, too, and returning them to the ground that had long fed them. To be a farmer is to bear witness to the rawest of life — to wake up each morning at the break of dawn and break your back feeding and feeding, but to sit down as the sun dips below the horizon knowing you’ll be fed back.

Or at least that's what Mom told me — I never did raise a cow.


Throughout the school year, Mom spent weeks restoring the farmhouse and sowing the ground for the growing season. Every so often, we’d meet her halfway at Cracker Barrel, where she’d tell us how cute the new piglets were and how many veggies she could grow once the USDA approved her grant request. As we’d part ways in the parking lot, she’d always say she wished to come back soon, but there was just so much work to do.

Only later would I realize that the work was much harder than she let on.

The house had been abandoned for a decade, and the family member who’d been helping grew disenchanted, leaving Mom to manage everything alone. Money was tight. Mom tried to come back home as often as possible, but it wasn’t easy — poor people in Pickton were never kind to a house left by city folks.

By the time the grass had grown tall and the piglets fat, I had graduated fifth grade.

WHITE DRESS | Flamingos RED BOOTS | Revival Vintage RED BELT | Revival Vintage

One afternoon under the limelight of the late summer sun, I strode through the fields behind the house. The wind tangled my hair and tickled my nose with the smell of wild grass, and every step I took set a hundred grasshoppers aside; their wings fluttered in applause, their shrieks rang out in triumph. This was my royal procession, and in my hot pink Nike shorts and Dollar Tree rain boots, I was every bit a queen.

The next day, I was a country singer. Lounging around the chicken coop, I belted out Taylor Swift’s “Never Grow Up” while our dogs barked and my brother searched for eggs. The day after that, I was a bird, chasing my brother (who was a worm) around the church parking lot.

Outside of the house, I was free to be who and what I wanted to be, free from the sound of my parents bickering about finances and parenting philosophy. Outside, I could find plenty of ways to entertain myself.

Besides, no one could babysit but Mom, and she was constantly working.

Only once in a while would Dad come to visit, and those were the days Mom could hand him the handyman work and take us to pick veggies. It wasn’t easy work — my jet-black hair would burn under the sun and my hands would ache from scissors holes and bucket handles — but I recall one evening we all sat down for dinner made from our harvest.

“Mmm, do you taste how fresh the kale is?” Mom asked.

“I hate kale,” I said, my mouth filled with whatever at the table had carbs. In reality, I didn’t mind kale, but I couldn’t tell her that.

“Katherine. It’s good for your brain. Plus, this is the kale we picked.”

My brother perked up. “I like the kale!”

Mom smiled. “That’s mama’s boy. Katherine, even your brother is eating the kale.”

“I’ll eat the tomatoes” I said.

A few minutes later, Dad spoke. He didn’t speak much at dinner.

“Looks like the AC is working well.”

“Yep,” Mom said. “You did a good job with it.”

Dad didn’t reply.

“Did the insurance company get back to you?”

Dad sighed. “No. I told you, the house is old—”

“I know. But someone will cover it.”



By mid-July the USDA was due to notify Mom about her grant application, but it seemed things were starting to work out on their own. Mom’s veggie garden was so abundant with produce we had to learn how to preserve it all — Mom canned tomatoes, my brother and I made kale chips, and in preparation for the upcoming farmer’s market, Mom bought a blank business name sign for us to decorate with veggie-people and cartoon cows.

At the end of the month, Mom received two manila envelopes. One of them was the approval for the grant. The other was my Dad’s request for a divorce.

All Dad ever wanted was a wife, kids, and a steady

job, and the moment Mom stepped onto the farm, bright-eyed and bold as the cattlemen before her, he knew his dream had come to an end. Every time he’d visit, he’d tell Mom how wonderful her progress was — the hardwood flooring looked great, the greenhouse was impressive — but the more Mom put herself into the farm, the less she left for him. He was losing her.

He didn’t want to lose us too.

Of course, Mom didn’t tell me anything. Dad didn’t either — he wasn’t there. He’d left a few days prior. Soon enough, his gray Honda Fit was in the church parking lot to retrieve me, and then I was home.

We never finished the sign for the farmer’s market.

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Pickton, Texas, 2018.

Somewhere around Sulphur Springs on a drive back from the East, Dad turned to me from the driver’s seat.

“We’re pretty close to the farm,” he said. “Do you want to stop by?”

The farm. I, like all of us, avoided any mention of the place. Why would Dad want to visit it now?

“Sure,” I said.

As the sunset cast the world in soft red, we pulled into the church parking lot and headed towards the front door. Dad knocked. The new owners showered us in Southern hospitality.

When I walked in, I expected to see the house I remembered. Mom said the new owners wanted everything as it was—my childhood desk in the bedroom with the patchwork wallpaper, the heater Mom stuck into the fireplace during the winter, even the collection of outdoor decor in the corner of the living room.

But I walked into an American home, Civil War paintings and all. The couches were covered in cowboy-style pillows, the walls in photos of family members and show horses. The only thing I recognized was the wallpaper, that garish wallpaper — fruit motifs for the dining room, florals for the bedrooms, red Chinoiserie for the living room.

I always thought the Chinoiserie was odd, even when I was 10. Really, what business did hanfu-clad women and lotus gardens have in a 1940s Texan farmhouse?

As it turns out, not much. ■

CACTUS BOLO TIE | Revival Vintage 22
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FUR HAT | Revival Vintage
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RED HAT | Prototype Vintage YELLOW BUTTON UP | Prototype Vintage

Fresh meat pies sit on the counter, African face masks hang against the walls, lavish beaded jewelry put on display, and the sound of Ghanaian music echoes across the room. The Afribbean market is my mother’s favorite shop for one reason alone: it’s where her dreams begin. I follow her around the store as she starts throwing typical items into the cart – cocoyams, plantain, fufu mix, goat meat, and kobe fish.

At least twice a month, my mother and I go on scavenger hunts. We’ve done this for as long as I’ve been able to walk, and this time is no different than the last.

My mother is notorious for taking hours upon hours to complete simple errands. Time is simply an obscure construct to her – if you’re willing to step out with my mother, you might as well clear your schedule for the entire day. There’s no way to quantify how long the excursion is going to take. She takes as much time as she pleases, collecting everything she needs to return her home. I often find myself riddled with impatience for my mother’s ridiculous shopping habits. But if you ask her, it’s an exhilarating adventure.

While we’re at the market, Serwah’s mind leaves the present and sneaks into a realm of familiarity, into a nostalgic paradise. I’m holding the basket for my mother as she gallivants about the room. She pauses our shopping to make conversation with an old friend from our small community. I shake my head in annoyance. We’ll definitely be here for a minute. They start speaking in Twi, catching up on the usual.

“What are you doing here?”

“How are your kids?”

“When are you going back to Ghana?”

This woman is chatting as if we don’t have a mile long list of groceries.

Joyce Serwah Opoku is the epitome of a Ghanaian woman. My mother grew up along the streets of Ejisu. While she never had much to begin with, her mind has always been one of the most valuable assets known to man. This woman will change for

no one. I’ve never seen my mother do an American thing in my life. Eating every meal with her hands is the only way of life my mother knows. She walks to the beat of her own drum. When it comes down to what matters the most in this lifetime, Serwah Opoku has always known that she can only rely on her intuitions to carry through.

A wave of relief washes over me when I hear the conversation end.

“Bye bye yooo.” Like, we came here for a purpose. Girl, stay focused.

We walk over to the produce stand. Serwah notices how the price per pound of yams went up. She calls for Mr. Jacob, the owner and a dear family friend. They start bargaining back and forth in Twi. As they speak, I try to keep up but I’m not quick at translating. My mother gets her way eventually. I take that as a cue to make my way over to the register, because we do have other places to be. Serwah snaps out of her blissful state, and finally realizes it’s time to move elsewhere.

Next, we head down to the 99 Ranch Market. The smell of fresh seafood swarms around us as I witness my mother dipping back into a state of nostalgia. Here we go again.

Serwah strolls over to the counter. She picks out a couple tilapia and asks for the fish to be cleaned properly. We continue to shop around until the fish is ready for pick-up.

My mother loves frying fish. It’s one of her specialties. I remember afternoons of sizzling oil hitting the pan. She raves about how she used to sit outside back home, just frying fish. There were always polarizing forces trying to block Serwah’s inner peace. The stress of living paycheck to paycheck and taking a second job to make ends meet had nearly sucked the life out of her. Frying fish offered a moment of tranquility amongst all that noise.

Surrounded by a world of intangible realities, my mother wasn’t about to let the typical American diet be imposed upon her. It was already hard enough that she wasn’t able to attain higher education, so she had to settle for working in retail. Once she became a mother, all her other aspirations fell astray.

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RED TOP | Prototype Vintage
GREEN HEELS | Prototype Vintage 37 spark

It was more important to Serwah that her children make something of themselves. She refused to compromise whatever parts of herself she had left for a burger, french fries, hot dogs – any processed food, for that matter. So long as she had God on her side, Serwah could create her own Ghana in America.

This is my mother’s sole mission. By sticking to her traditional patterns she is able to transverse from the intangible into a realm of familiarity — a place providing her safety despite appearing foreign to the white American eye, whose gaze looks at her and tells her to abandon Ghana, to abandon her home, to abandon herself.

Even though I find the smell of seafood nauseating, I don’t mind the place because it gives my mother a dose of serotonin. As they bring out the fish, she smiles wide with her gap teeth. We pay and depart for the India Bazaar — truly a cross-cultural adventure for us today. This place holds a rich essence, similar to that of the Afribbean Market; both of them lack any aspect of whiteness. We listen to Bollywood music play over the speakers while looking for the tea my mother cannot live without.

Every night before my mother left for work, she had me prepare piping hot tea. It was a soothing force, as she would come back in the morning to get ready for her second job. All I wanted to do was make sure Serwah was taken care of, because she’s constantly taking care of everyone else. So long as she carried that tea with her, she would keep pushing through our everyday struggle. It wasn’t anything fancy but two tea bags, mixed with evaporated milk and a splash of honey. She’s been able to conquer homesickness, depression, and worst of all, grief after the passing of her mother & father. My mother is like Superwoman to me, but even superheroes get exhausted sometimes. The heat of the tea forged a strong fire within Serwah’s heart, and I am in awe of how determined she is to keep that fire lit.

Then we step right into Fiesta. Serwah meticulously picks out dozens upon dozens of habanero peppers. A random woman watches as my mother grabs handfuls of peppers.

“What are you planning to do with all of that?” The woman asks.

My mother blankly replies, “Oh, nothing.”

I give a slight chuckle. A woman of my mother’s magnitude prides herself on never revealing secrets. These precious, powerful peppers are sacred to her for their richness in color, flavor, and quality of life.

When I had COVID-19 last year, Serwah had crafted the perfect pepper soup to help me get better. I was taking my medications, of course, but nothing hit the spot like my mother’s home remedy. That soup opened up my airways and cleansed my aura. She finishes bagging up her peppers and heads over to the produce aisle for banana leaves.

“Why are we getting these again?” I ask.

She replies, “Heh, I need it for my banku.”

Personally, I’m not a fan of it, but banku is a traditional dish made of cassava flour. I used to watch Serwah spend hours in the kitchen making it. She used her hands — calloused from working day in and day out — to knead the dough. Then she would divide the dough into smaller sections, and use those dark green banana leaves to wrap it up.

In the end, venturing across town for an entire day is somewhat worth the chase, though I wish she could put a little bit more pep in her step. We visit a couple more places before we finally make it home. The backs of my feet are aching immensely. I’m worn out. I look over to my mother and roll my eyes as she grins from ear to ear. The scavenger hunt fuels my mother’s desire to continue living in a country that feels foreign to her. It gives her the powerful feeling of familiarity, harnessing and protecting her cultural identity as a Ghanaian immigrant living in America. She bargains for goods, has routine conversations in Twi, and makes sure to pick up things of pertinence to her everyday life.

Serwah isn’t fazed at all as she lays down on the couch and says to herself , “ye da Awurade ase. ɛnnɛ ya yɛ adeɛ.”

We thank God. We’ve done well today. ■

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My highest highs and lowest lows will always be found on the dance floor.
“It’s Friday night and I’m anxious.”

xhilaration, ecstasy, and communal vision are the gifts of Dionysus, god of wine. Alcohol’s enhancement of direct face-to-face dialogue is precisely what is needed by today’s technologically agile generation, magically interconnected yet strangely isolated by social media.”

Drain the glass by the time you’re done with your makeup. Before you know it, you’re irresistible. Congratulations! You’ve made it from a state of frenzy

to the state of ready. Treat yourself to a cigarette for good behavior.

A few friends arrive and I’m already a few deep. We roll dice, trade cards, perform rituals designed to make us drunker faster. We draw pictures, bounce balls, slap hands and slam spoons. We’re artists, we’re acrobats, we’re athletes, we’re dancers. We willingly get wasted; we don’t believe in danger.

My first weekend in Austin, I found myself in an abandoned-church-turned-rave-location for an impromptu house party hosted by resident stoners


and burnouts, kids who’d graduated from the local high school a few years back and hadn’t yet found their way out of town. Nervous and outof-place in my choice SHEIN crop top and white frat Filas, I watched in awe as stick-thin girls in fishnets with facial piercings passed around a bottle of Bacardi and a blunt. I set my intention right there: the party girl, the image of effortless glam, the girl who’s too pretty to give a fuck — that is what I would become.

Two weeks later, I stumble up the stairs at my first-ever co-op party in a drunken search for a bathroom. At this point in time, I have long bleach-blonde hair and my eyes are dusted with glitter and my legs wrapped in fishnets leading up to a zebra print skirt. I feel sexy in my body, and the eyes of the beholder confirm my suspicions. I’m stopped in my tracks.

“Oh my God, you’re, like, a real-life Jules!”

I could’ve cried. The feeling brought on by some random co-op kid comparing me to The party girl I’d been mentally moodboarding since that summer’s release of the hottest new HBO teen drama could be described as nothing less than euphoria. Jules was everything I wanted to be: unapologetic in her style, confident out-of-place at a new school, desired by everyone, stick-fucking-thin.

I’d learned by trial and error in those first few weeks that frat parties were just too aesthetically vapid for me. I needed a party home, an area for the self-expression I pursued in my performance of the party girl, a suitable setting for the character I was building. On a certain September Saturday night, that home was found.

On September 17, 2019, I made a five-song playlist containing “Venus Fly” by Grimes, “disco tits” by Tove Lo, “Vroom Vroom” and “Girls Night Out” by Charli XCX, and “I Don’t Want It At All” by Kim Petras. It was a quick and noncommittal attempt to ideate what songs would play in a dream world where I had the AUX at a party. It was thoughtless and unintentional, a mere concept of a fantasy. On September 21, the DJ at New Guild played precisely those songs, alongside the likes of Nicki Minaj, Troye Sivan, BROCKHAMPTON, Cascada, Fergie, and, of course, Earth, Wind & Fire.

A fire was lit within me. I belonged. I’d embodied the party-girl archetype in a mere matter of weeks and I was rewarded with the DJ set of my dreams. The high of hearing my favorite songs,

ones I’d never imagined I’d hear at a college party, was unlike one I’d ever experienced. It was physical, it was bodily, it was intimate, it was spiritual. It wasn’t just me, either — everyone there was jumping and bumping and singing along. I’d found my people.

I’ve chased that high every weekend since. I’ve found it in mere microdoses at gay clubs, co-op parties, and tunnel raves, but never quite to the extent I did that night at New Guild. I became addicted to the performance of the Party Girl, the girl with enough perceived sexual and social capital to entertain the illusion of power on weekend nights. She’ll entertain any man but never go home with him. She says no to drugs but she never pays for drinks. Her bony body both sexualized and starved of its womanhood, she’s effortlessly cool in a way she used to think only boys could be.


Upon arrival at the club, I beeline to the back patio to light a cigarette and kiss the hands of adoring fans. I begin by asking older men for a lighter when I already have my own.

I’m offered rides home, glasses of wine back at hotel rooms, raves that go until 5 A.M., and, occasionally, trips abroad. I wonder what went wrong in these men’s lives, what brought them to be forty or even fifty talking to twenty-year-old girls in clubs. (As a performer, however, I’ll always entertain.) I’m the youngest, blondest, the hottest piece of meat — I’m the it-girl, the cheer captain, I run the regime.

The cigarettes are sobering so I accept the offered drink. I don’t need it but I do. To get through this moment, to blindly hope for better music and release and rebirth. I slurp it down, throw it away, and follow the disco ball back to the dance floor.

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“Holy fuck, I’m in love — with life.”
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“I’m eternal, I’m immortal, I’ll never feel pain.”

Holy fuck, I’m in love — with life, with the song they’re playing and the girls I’m dancing with and the fact that I can escape the monotony of the day-to-day to this seemingly illusory purgatory of a place. I scream and I jump and I shake my body and spin. I hold onto my friends because I never do otherwise and I don’t let go of their hands. I’m eternal, I’m immortal, I’ll never feel pain.

By the time I feel like crashing, the Uber’s already on its way.

Mornings are warm, fuzzy, anxiety-inducing, and dizzying, spent sipping coffee and swallowing regret. Memories of the night are painted with equal parts narcissism and euphoria, neurosis and radiance, friendship and fear. A certain remorse must be felt, a shame inflicted by bodily pain.

Brunch with friends followed by hours in bed remedy the curse of the hangover. You remember you’re loved, you remember you’re normal, you remember that if you get one single life to live on this Earth you’re going to spend it finding every way to experience everything and feel too much and meet everyone and love deeply and laugh and dance and scream because one day it’ll all be over. I love movement. I love conversation. I love looking people in the eye and asking questions I wouldn’t be bold enough to ask otherwise. I’m an anxious social butterfly with an insatiable zest for life. For me, and for many, the sweet release of Saturday night just works. It scratches that itch to transcend the ordinary and enter a world of wonder and whimsy, or at least the illusion of one. I know one day I’ll be over it, that I won’t need the sexy outfits or the adrenaline rush or the gossip or the people-watching or the pursuit of the other, but for now, the chaos offered by the club is one I pursue willingly. ■

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“equal parts narcissism and euphoria,

neurosis and radiance, friendship and fear.”

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BLACK LINGERIE DRESS | Prototype Vintage BLUE VELVET SHOES | Prototype Vintage 57 spark
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SILVER HEELS | Protoype Vintage
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PEARL NECKLACE | Revival Vintage WHITE SILK SHORTS | Flamingos WHITE GARTER | Emily Martinez


BROWN HEELS | Prototype Vintage



A laissez-faire attitude guided much of Hefner’s life and work with Playboy. Rules were boring, propriety was stifling, it should be OK to say whatever (and sleep with whomever) you wanted “as long as you weren’t hurting anyone,” and the emergent generation of young American men ought to be intellectual, progressivist, and liberated — just like the gentlemen who subscribed to the Playboy lifestyle. Unlike the cheap stashes of “porno mags” lining the lower shelves of gas station stores, Playboy was sexy, classy, and sophisticated. Right alongside spreads of nude women were incisive op-eds and interviews with the likes of Malcolm X, Stephen King, and Al Pacino. Hefner himself spoke out against segregation often — Black and white Playmates lived together, worked together, were paid the same — and advocated for freedom of speech.

“It was such a lifestyle,” Pamela Anderson once said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “Playboy Mansion was like my university. It was full of intellectuals, sex, rock ’n roll, art, all the important stuff.” It was this interweaving of sex rituals — something perceived by Hefner’s preceding generation as shameful, dirty, and forbidden — into a cultural ethos that held its head high in the light of day that ultimately earned Hefner his cultural preeminence as a “sexual liberator” in the ’50s and ’60s. Sex was now something clever people had, enjoyed, and owned up to; and at least as it related to Hefner’s doublesided legacy, the pushing of this needle certainly paints Hefner in his most flattering light.

Unfortunately, all that makes sex desirable, from its midnight phantasmagorias to its uncontrollable ecstasies and agonies, also makes it dangerous. Hefner did perhaps set out to challenge sex culture in the early days of Playboy — an argument can even be made that he succeeded. But he also invited something more monstrous than he knew into his house, and by extension, the new psychosexual culture which he had embedded into the American conscience. The surrealness of sex makes tangible accountability difficult, something Hefner in his later years liberally exploited. Running like a scar along the underbelly of Playboy Mansion’s celebration of sexual freedom was the cycle of abuse that kept the party going: repeated allegations of the sexual assault and even suicides of Playmates first emerged in the ’70s, then were successively disappeared by Hefner’s “cleanup crew.”

Much of the abuse happened in a psychological twilight zone: in the disorienting, drug-addled moments leading up to sex, during the unwilling act of it, and afterwards, when it was all over — when, waking to the cheerful

morning light shining upon the lush acres of Hefner’s estate, it felt like you must have only woken up from a bad, bad dream. Somewhere along the way, Hefner must have realized this truth, too: that you could buy and sell sex at your leisure, or use it to invoke in somebody any primal human emotion you’d like, whether it was love, shame, guilt, or terror, and it would all go more or less unpunished. It was astonishing what could be forgiven and forgotten in the light of day, what little effort was required to keep these sorts of unsightly narratives from rearing their heads in public.

Even today, in a world that is becoming increasingly unrecognizable to our evolutionary faculties, sex has retained a core position in our collective human culture. It proliferates in an otherwise austere cyberspace and enmeshes itself within our sophisticated economies. We need it, we crave it, we would do unspeakable things to get it. There is, after all, a reason why men in power almost always use that power to realize their sexual desires. Sex is the one part of our original humanity we can’t seem to originate from. The need to feel good is simply too strong, too permanent. What ensures our survival, it seems, also ensures our cruelty.

Following Hefner’s death in 2017, more accounts of sexual assault, drug abuse, and underage prostitution within the mansion have come to light. We, of course, condemned the deadman, sold his estate, and quietly seized his assets to split amongst ourselves. Now both the Playboy Mansion and its landlord’s legacy sit shoulder-to-shoulder in our cultural graveyard: emptied out, decaying, another plain-faced relic of the deceitfully fabulous past, cautioning us against a worser nature we all deny we possess. No wonder why we despise sex so much: it runs countercurrent to what makes us different from animals, undermining our seat of power as self-possessed creatures. It shows us the truth about ourselves. And when we say, “Maybe we can learn from this,” it is the little voice that quips, “Or maybe not!”

Make no mistake: Hefner’s refusal to separate reality from the sensual fantasy which his franchise popularized and profited millions off of was only an early omen of our continued participation in the intimacy economy today. We stake everything — morality, connection, control — on only a few brief moments of ecstasy. How, we ask ourselves with disgust, could we have let this happen?

The answer remains the same each time. How could you have not? ■

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When I arrive home in Combray that winter, my mother offers me the warmth of my childhood home, petites madeleines, and a cup of tea, which at first, I refuse. There’s a weariness set down to the marrow of my bones, a dread that I cannot seem to shake about the promised monotony each new day holds. I ladle a spoonful of tea and break off a morsel of the cake to place in the liquid. I lift the spoon to my lips, and no sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate… An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. Joy erupts in my soul; mortality no longer befits me, I am interminable. How do I generate it again? I assemble the concoction once more, bringing the spoon to my lips once, twice, thrice. It is in vain. The moment is gone.

For Marcel Proust, dipping a madeleine in tea catalyzed his discovery of involuntary autobiographical memory — a phenomenon that, because of his vivid documentation, is charmingly referred to as a “Proustian moment.” To experience this moment is to have a memory triggered by means of olfaction or gustation, suddenly and unwittingly.

For me, it’s miso soup, lemon scented Pledge and rain soaked pavement on a humid day. Each scent evokes a hyperspecific recollection: my Chinese grandparents shuffling around in the kitchen as I sit in the dining room tracing characters in a workbook, damp hands dutifully scrubbing clean the kitchen table before a summer crawfish bash, and the cadence of a basketball as it bounces on asphalt during fifth grade recess in the springtime. The nostalgia of each memory grips me into a stupor – I startle in bewilderment and then fall, scrape my knees, and continue sprinting, chasing the elation of recalling the sweet purity of adolescence. When the aroma eventually shifts, the poignancy of the memory fades, but the wonder does not. At the behest of a scent, I step through a portal into my past. Memory is a fickle thing. She is prone to flights of fancy, she is unrelenting, she is unearthed in the most peculiar of ways. Sometimes, she is spontaneous. Every memory is made flesh for a fleeting moment until I encounter it unexpectedly again. Briefly, I am infinite. But then, as is human nature, just as we remember, so too do we forget. The bliss of my childhood abates, the memory fades.

So where do the memories that we no longer have go? Do they slowly wane as time passes, a full moon sliced away night after night until it’s but a meager crescent? Perhaps the aging mind overflows from its overabundance of keepsakes, spilling out in waves that drown in the ether. Neuroscience tells us that the details of a memory dim as the brain’s synapses functionally decline with age. Retrieval becomes difficult with advanced maturation and the vibrance of a memory often deteriorates over the course of a lifetime.

It’s easy to regard memory as a series of absolutes, succinct dichotomies that possess positive and negative denotations: possessing good recall or bad recall, good memories or bad memories, having or not having. But involuntary memory subverts this mold: the Proustian moment grants us a memory when

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we are not actively searching for it. Triggered by external sensory experiences, these memories are thought as the body’s nature’s compensation for the decline in voluntary and strategic retrieval that accompanies aging.

To experience and to forget is the fate of man. So what does it mean that what is lost can still be found, even when we don’t know we lost something in the first place? A taste, a smell, a touch, a view, and a sound – they can catalyze a memory, invoking the past and thrusting a forgotten moment into the present. We are a homemaker’s antique hutch, filled to the brim with knick-knacks and valuables; we are a gardener’s bucket with a hairline fracture, slowly losing our stale, tepid water as time passes by.

We have a human tendency to want to endure, to have a life well-lived if only so others will remember us, lest we be omitted from history entirely. We labor in hope of being memorialized, but we rarely consider what memories lie dormant within ourselves. It matters as much that we remember who we are as it does that others remember us. While Proust remembered various moments during his childhood in IlliersCombray the moment the pastry touched

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his palate, when a beam of sunlight shutters into a dark room exactly right amid the smell of colored pencils and permanent markers, I’m transported back to afternoons sitting on the living room carpet at my cousin’s house, folding paper airplanes in preparation for a flying contest. Each specific appeal to my senses — only emerging in perfect, unreplicable conditions — evokes a moment lost in time profoundly outside my current temporality. My past self lives on in the present, my present self pulls forth the past.

We often think what is forgotten is forever lost, but in the spaces we inhabit, the people we touch, and the feelings we have, we leave remnants of ourselves – and we keep some as well.

A Proustian moment is a gift, an offering at the altar that is our mind, presented by our childhood selves. Memories are prioritized, filed and stored and retrieved when necessity dictates that remembering a certain action, event, or experience would aid in survival. Our mind delineates: shortterm, long-term, suppressed. But what is forgotten can be rebirthed. We can recover a poignant memory because,

in essence, it is never truly lost. The senses transcend ephemerality; the mind is elastic. I am not mediocre, accidental, or mortal. Layers upon layers of myself exist, are hidden and may be unearthed and cherished as long as they last. Perpetuity exists. She is inaccessible, she is elusive, she does not heed the commands of Routine and Structure. She exists; she lives in the self.

Rich miso, the sharp citrus of Pledge, a sidewalk drenched after a thunderstorm. My childhood comes flooding back. ■

“Perpetuity exists. She is inaccessible, she is elusive, she does not heed the commands of Routine and Structure. She exists; she lives in the self.”
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LACE BUSTIER | Prototype Vintage PINK EARRINGS | Flamingos PINK NECKLACE | Flamingos
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environment COLIN CANTWELL




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Show me your hands — their skin, their shape. Would you believe me if I told you there are things they could not dream to hold?

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Look at me! Slipping through this gate just in time to hear the night begin her well-deserved bout of laughter.

And here I am — unlaced and nauseous-sweet — and I can be nothing but drunk tonight.

Come, come! cut me open, you will see — I am a genius and bigger than any cup you could pour me into for liquid is always the sufficient mode and eye-for-an-eye is the perfect vow.

“and eye-for-an-eye is the perfect vow.”

I can admit that I am not above being crazy visible from time to time — but even so I am far far too famous to stand being recognized in moments like these. Instead, I will use whatever sharp things are in my mouth and tear open this senescent state this regurgitation.

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O — did you know? that survival depends only on being gorgeous gorgeous gorgeous Well lucky me, I am just that — swan-necked and spinning so fast I become a circle stopping only for mirrorlooking.

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“stopping only for mirrorlooking.”

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Now see: The wicked nurse has come to stitch me back together leaving me with nothing but a small stone — a pity gift, poor imitation of moon. By high morning I will be wrecked and rolling it between my fingers hoping it will loosen up my chest or rearrange me into an apple or a seed. ■

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t must have been 8 in the morning when I opened my eyes to a sickening sensation — to an ax which had split my brain in half.

I looked around at the dimly lit room and at the dull walls painted a beige hue. I looked at the clothes lying all over the floor — those skin suits I already resented wearing now that I must clean them. Perhaps if I threw myself in the washing machine with them, I would forget.

I would forget about the migraine, about the foul smells emanating from my trash can. I would forget about that stranger’s text, about the two Advils I would have to swallow, and about the apologies I will have to make. I would forget about —

the joy I felt.

I looked down at my body, at the suit clinging onto my back, as I remembered the girl I was the night before. She bared more skin than usual, exposing a saccharine surface from someone’s spilled cocktail, on which the shimmers of a mandarin-scented body lotion danced around beads of sweat. I regretted having to peel it off, despite how foreign it now felt on me. But at the same time, I wanted to cover up and cry myself back to sleep. I wanted the suit that made me carefree to be acceptable to me in the daylight.

I liked that the drunk me did not care about speaking a little too loudly, smiling a little too widely, and dancing a little too disorderly. I liked that she forgot about tucking her stomach in and rolling her shoulders back. I liked how easily she opened up to others, and how she was bold enough to say the wrong things. I liked how unafraid she was to fall because she knew she could count on herself to pick up the pieces. I liked that she could be me if I were willing to look at myself a little differently.

Alcohol’s most enticing feature is the possibility of abandoning one’s responsibilities. In a way, drink-

ing is the ultimate liberation. Who would pass up on that?

I used to believe that drinking alcohol was submitting to a different set of rules; it was giving into peer pressure and betraying your morals for social acceptance in its shallowest form. Why should I dance and pretend to be friends with people who do not know who I am — who will act like I wasn’t there the next day? I did not believe that I could be myself if I lacked awareness.

For the entirety of my high school years, I did not have a single alcoholic beverage. I felt great discomfort with the idea of forfeiting self-control for an ephemeral taste of freedom. I convinced myself that I could have just as much fun as anybody else in the club. All I had to do was sway my body to the rhythm of the godless crowd and submit to the midnight sky. All I had to do was pretend that nobody was watching me — not even from the heavens — because no one was.

But I grew up and realized that I was no longer capable of releasing my inhibitions and letting loose for the night. Imagining my body and the space it took in the room, dancing and having fun and being happy, horrified me to the point of denying myself these simple pleasures. I became increasingly ashamed and felt it necessary to become quiet and disappear. During the rare evenings when I would go out, alcohol became my remedy.

Growing up was believing I could no longer refuse that shot of tequila. It was far easier to relinquish my better judgment for the sweet sip of deliverance, ignoring its bitter aftertaste, than to flirt with the fact that I did not like myself. The first time I got even remotely tipsy occurred during my second year of college. That night was the most fun I had in a long time. For a $12 shot, I could pretend everyone around me had vanished and I was dancing on the pink rug of my childhood bedroom once more.

Drinking is a slippery slope. When I recognized how good I felt, there was no such thing as one drink too many. The first drink was always the most dangerous: it dissolved my initial reserve and lulled me into a state of false safety. When I believed drinking was the closest I could get to being

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myself, I didn’t quite understand the shame. If I was having fun, why was I embarrassed the next day? Although there exists a carefree version of myself buried within me, I am not whole without my rationality, earnestness, and calm. Rather than embrace the carefree lifestyle, I merely became a caricature of the “party girl.” While there is nothing wrong with her, she is not who I am. Drinking is the kind of liberation that allows me to forget myself rather than

embrace myself.

Then came another wave of sensations: migraines, nausea, partial amnesia, and aches all over my body. My limbs scolded me for my thoughtlessness. What were you thinking? You have class at 9 a.m.! The worst feeling of all was regret. Drinking made me feel comfortable in my body by harming it on the inside. I could not keep gambling away my tomorrows for a shot at a perfect night. I needed to learn how to tune out the self-inflicted noise on my own rather than resort to this deafening medicine.

Though I haven’t taken a vow of sobriety, identifying why I was drawn to alcohol and what I liked about myself when inebriated have taught me control. I will allow myself a drink or two of alcoholic beverages I actually enjoy and let the mood seduce me for the evening. It has been a potentially lifesaving compromise. I can learn to feel natural in unexpected places but I can also remember —

the joy I felt.

I never needed a brand-new suit. I simply needed to decide how I wanted to wear the one I already had. So, I slipped on my party skin suit and went back to the club, not necessarily as a changed person but as one who was changing. Feeling slightly buzzed with warmth spreading across my cheeks, I waited patiently in line and quietly hummed the tune of the music blaring inside. I remember the remainder of my night: dancing and jumping around, trying to sing the lyrics of songs I did not know and talking to people I would have never approached otherwise. When the street itself decided to call it a night, I took an Uber home with a smile tugging at my lips the entire way back. ■

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M+ M+ M




It was an abnormally bright day when we took the C1 exit at the Kowloon Station in Hong Kong. Following signs to the M+ museum, we walked down Nga Cheung Road, a thin sidewalk next to concave land and construction lifts. We didn’t talk much, just squinted, at the blinding light of the towering apartment buildings, all twisted and turned like a rubik’s cube. I told my friend that it felt like we were entering the Capitol in the Hunger Games, only, well, we were going to see art.

You could tell West Kowloon Cultural District was new. Besides the orangesuited construction workers, pedestrians were all museum-goers clad in typical Hong Kong fashion: platform shoes, solid silhouettes, and draped fabric. The district started building its foundation nearly a decade ago, on artificial land filled with thin earth. Urban designers layered the museum atop the Airport Express railway tunnel — which would take you into mainland China, though that gate has been closed for the past two years due to the pandemic.

The M+ museum opened in 2021 as Asia’s first global museum of virtual culture, boasting 700,000 square feet with 8,000 works of contemporary Asian Art. Jacques Herzog of Swiss architectural firm Herzog and de Meuron describes the M+ project as literally “emerging from the city’s underground.” For art to enter a city “like Hong Kong,” he says, it must come from


And what of a city “like Hong Kong”? Perhaps most directly, Herzog was referring to a city lost in transition, with so precarious a sociopolitical position it could collapse any second. Torn between British colonialism and its motherland, Hong Kong has endured decades of identity crises. The political maxim, ‘One Country, Two Systems,’ at first promised a semi-autonomous status apart from mainland China, including freedom of speech and artistic expression. As China became more powerful through its increasingly capitalist economy, though, this promise began to fracture.

When the M+ museum opened, Beijing’s iron wall of censorship fell upon them, imposing a national security law in response to brewing local protests. This means, displayed art cannot be blatantly counterrevolutionary. Soon enough, the museum censored artist Ai Weiwei’s Study of Perspective, which pictured him raising a middle finger in front of significant institutions such as the Tiananmen Square. Local and global criticism followed, because how does art exist without freedom?

Freedom of speech is a Western ideal, yet its influence runs deep in China. Chinese university students famously raised their own “Goddess of Democracy,” modeled after the Statue of Liberty, during the pro-democracy protests of 1989. It stood 33 feet tall in the center of Tiananmen Square until the Communist Party’s army destroyed it when they stormed the square in the dead of night. We don’t know how many were killed, anywhere from hundreds to thousands. To this day, the Chinese government fails to address it.

Walking around M+ in my now last year of college, I came across a photograph of a man lying down in Tiananmen Square in subzero conditions. The label said he remained for 40 minutes until the condensation from his breath formed a thin layer of ice (Song Dong, Breathing, 1996). Unlike Ai Weiwei’s middle finger, Song Dong’s commentary was subtle, as fleeting as the click of his camera. As I hovered over the photograph, I began to understand that subtlety was not just a form of artistic expression; it was the only medium for any artwork that exposed China’s past. Lying on the ground, the artist reminded me of the sense of helplessness that permeated Beijing the summer of ‘89. My dad conveyed this much to me when he would vaguely speak of China’s dark history, and what propelled him to move us to the US not soon after.

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I remember taking a photo in Tiananmen Square some time before we left Beijing. I was nine, and my mom handed us mini Chinese flags. My mom said I looked “too serious,” so I smiled and waved and chewed a bit on the plastic straw holding up the flag. In the background, Mao sported his infamous soft smile in his portrait at the center of the building. I felt uncomfortable with the godhood of Mao, but could never pinpoint why. I was young and naive, with a family who — like many other Chinese families — didn’t talk much about our ancestry.

One of M+’s many Mao exhibits showcased a Mao suit from Vivienne Tam’s Spring/Summer 1995 collection. The fabric consisted of a checkerboard of black and white Mao portraits, alternating with Xray filters of him. It wasn’t my first time seeing Vivienne Tam’s work — us young creatives liked to call it “camp,” a word referring to anything exaggerated or amusing in an unexpected way, largely optimized by trendy fashion pieces.

There was something different about seeing it here, though, as the Mao suit stood awkwardly next to a collage of propaganda from the Cultural Revolution. Such slogans were once plastered on every school and building in China: Closely follow the great leader Chairman Mao…, all must think of Chairman Mao, all must obey Chairman Mao… All around, the exhibit had traditional depictions of Mao as the rising sun and more of Mao with pink lipstick from contemporary Chinese artists. It became evident to me then, how Mao was once, and still is, an object of worship, and how art made him less of a god. The word “camp” took on a deeper, subtler, more urgent meaning.

As the sun set, a pool of people piled in front of the

third floor to take photos of the golden construction site outside, as if it were part of the museum. It seemed to be showing the promising new Hong Kong, atop its modernized land and fancy Swiss architecture. To the right of the window, another group gathered to watch a film projection — Seven Sins: 7 performances during the 1989 China/Avant-Garde exhibition. The exhibition immediately shut down when artist Xiao Lu fired a gun in protest during her installation, and the film looped back to the beginning with no further commentary. The parallel of these two groups showed the obvious — the museum lived in a contradiction of its past and future, modernization and tradition. Exiled artist Kacey Wong called M+ “a museum with part of its hands tied behind its back,” especially compared to the artistic variety of other premier art institutions like the MOMA or the Tate Modern. Like Hong Kong, the M+ museum’s existence is precarious.

And yet, it stands in West Kowloon. I found freedom the day I visited, in a way I haven’t been able to. I don’t think we can demand democracy in art when there is little in its country. It was enough for now to know that art survived in a culture set on erasing its past, that the exhibitions in M+ revealed a bit of forgotten history and answered questions I was too afraid to ask my parents.

When my friends and I left the museum, we walked outside to the Kowloon District’s promenade. Colors from the M+ Facade, a huge screen that overlooked Victoria Harbor, lit up our faces, its watery LED stripes reaching towards something. ■

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inherited my love of The Beatles from my mother, who regularly played their compilation album 1 when I was younger. I think they wrote beautiful, compelling songs about love and loss that transcend space and time. They’ve even soundtracked many critical phases of my life. We’ve taken Beatles-themed tours of London and Liverpool, and we collect kitschy memorabilia. We’re definitely fans.

In January, I drove home to Shreveport so my mother and I could attend a show by a tribute band called Liverpool Legends. I learned they were hand-picked by George Harrison’s sister Louise to honor her brother, which meant they had to be good, but I didn’t expect the startlingly uncanny resemblances their physical appearances and voices held to those of the actual band. I surprised myself by sobbing and even screaming, especially when the George impersonator played the famed guitar solo in “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

Part of the show’s set design was a projection of video clips I recognized as footage of Beatlemania. The clips were black and white scenes of total madness, colored by uninhibited desperation not entirely sure of what it desired. Girls and women waiting outside venues and hotels screamed, sobbed, and fainted, bewildering security personnel and the media.

“This is Beatleland, formerly known as Britain, where an epidemic named Beatlemania has taken over the teenage population,” a newscaster in one of the clips said.

Watching the girls, I wanted to scream, too. In my teenage years, I could’ve been one of them. I’m confident I would’ve been hopelessly sick with Beatlemania in the 60s. I understand why they screamed. I know fangirling doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

In its disastrous wake, World War II left a fractured geopolitical scheme. The psychological trauma of the war, the apocalyptic power of the atom bomb, and the desperation of capitalists, colonizers, and imperialists to maintain their hegemony infused the world, particularly the West, with a deeply entrenched paranoia. In Britain and America, the 1950s introduced the teenager as a social category. British youth navigated conservative culture, economic anxiety, and fear of an arms race. In America, those in power produced a culture defined by hypernationalism, conservative and traditional values, and the nuclear family. With their long hair and soft facial features, The Beatles represented the possibility of rejecting conformity, embracing joy, and living an authentic life.

Within two years of their formation, the band left behind their working class neighborhoods in Liverpool to embrace nationwide fame. A year later, Beatlemania reached America, and 73 million people tuned into their 1964 performance on The Ed Sullivan Show. When asked what he thought about American fans, John Lennon responded, “They’re the wildest.” During their 1965 concert at New York’s Shea Stadium, the band couldn’t hear themselves perform over the cacophony of screams.

At first, this is what they wanted — knowing that fangirls are fueled by the glimmer of hope that their favorite might notice them someday, The Beatles directly addressed their young female audience with songs like “Love Me Do” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Fame and attention quickly exhausted them, though. Most mortals (un)fortunate enough to taste deification cannot withstand its weight. Within six years, The Beatles had become global superstars on a scale no one could have warned them about—because they were the first. Partly due to fear for their own safety, the band made the decision to stop touring for good.

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Male writers, psychologists, and political analysts held female Beatlemaniacs in pejorative contempt. To them, these girls were crazy, dull, useless, stupid failures. I think these critics feared unbridled feminine emotion, and I think some of them were just jealous. I also believe American Studies professor Allison McCracken’s theory that fangirls are positioned at odds with white male masculinity, the kind that demands emotions always be kept in check, controlled, and stifled. She believes their emotional excess represents an association with those on the margins of society, including working-class people, people of color, and of course, teenage girls.

The Beatles’ young female fans became the architects of their own dreamlands that would free them from the strangulation of the cultural repression that demanded their docility and their dullness. Their screams, tears, fainting spells, and energetic heartbeats were a collective performance of somatic resistance to social control.

The stereotypical fangirl is a female teenager with a wall full of posters of her favorite boy bands and male pop stars. Back in the 60s, she waited for The Beatles outside venues and hotels, screaming and crying, holding a hand-painted sign proclaiming her love. She always had the radio on and tuned into every television performance, if she wasn’t able to be there in person (if she wasn’t able to be there in person, standing for hours in a mile-lone queue). She was Jan Myers, who on an October day 1965 descended into the sewers of northwest London with the objective of crawling her way under Abbey Road Studios, where The Beatles were recording their last album Rubber Soul. A couple years prior, Jan had skipped school to ride her bike 20 miles to Heathrow Airport so she could personally welcome the band home to England.

In the twenty-first century, the stereotypical fangirl isn’t too different from her ancestor, but she has the Internet, which altered temporality forever and awarded her the illusion of constant access to her favorite. The fangirl

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The sky is painted a wet, rainy gold on the day Frida Kahlo is impaled with a handrail. A streetcar, at full speed, slams into the bus she’s riding. Frida doesn’t immediately know to balk at the piece of iron shooting through her pelvis and spine; its severity doesn’t seem remarkable. She doesn’t even realize she is wounded until a bystander attempts to pull it from her. Her screams are so loud she drowns out the ambulance’s siren.

The accident leads her to a desert wasteland where her body matches the landscape. She paints “La Columna Rota” almost 20 years later, and she is the titular broken column. A pillar of the ionic order shoots through her center, holding her up but tearing her apart. Nails decorate her, reaching to embellish what is unbroken by bloody wounds. Frida thinks herself Jesus Christ nailed to the cross, or St. Sebastian, shot with arrows for his faith: she’s a saint, a martyr, holy in her pain. She cries, yet stares down her viewer with knowing eyes, asking them to acknowledge her hurt and revere her for living through it. At just 18 years old, she has deemed herself an immortal sufferer, a Sisyphus to be worshiped.

Though she wishes she were well, she won’t let go of her injury, if only for the sake of her art. She is no goddess to pray to. Frida is just a person: a person with a debilitating injury and a paintbrush who chooses all the wrong things and copes in all the wrong ways. When tragedy crawls to her, she delves deeper into it. The battle in her blood cells, between sickness and health, inspires her. It consumes her. It becomes her.

Of 143 marvelous paintings, 55 are self-portraits. Frida found her best subject in herself – the tragedies that devastated her and the loneliness that engulfed her served as abundant material for her work. Her reality informs her art: vivid colors and organic lines, monsters and magic, creatures and folk tales. The supernatural, to her, is part of the real world. Only through a sensual, magical realism is Frida able to de-


pict to the average viewer her daily reality. The stuff of others’ nightmares is now her truth, and it makes her absurdity in art all the more heart-rending. Or, at least it’s supposed to. She reveres herself for trekking through her hurt, for masterful painting against all odds. Through her work, she invites our pity. It becomes her oxygen. She lives from it.

But Frida has always been drawn to destruction. She meets her future husband, Diego Rivera, at 15 — precocious beyond her means, shamelessly flirtatious with a man of 37 in front of his jealous wife. She sits for hours and watches him paint a mural at her school. In the way of young girls, Frida whispers to her friend that she will one day be his wife.

They’ll meet again years later, after her accident. When they do, her lifelong obsession begins:

Diego = my husband / Diego = my friend / Diego = my mother / Diego = my father / Diego = my son / Diego = me / Diego = Universe.

She’s nervous the first time she brings Diego to her childhood home, “La Casa Azul.” She must be; he’s 20 years older and a known cheater. She can picture Diego well in her veranda, among tchotchkes from Mexican folk stories, the brightly colored objects of her country that would inspire her half-human/halfanimal notebook sketches and the monsters on her canvas. She can see him wooing his mother with his national pride. But she can’t exactly picture Diego with her father, with his German-accented Spanish, or in front of La Casa Azul’s French facade.

The dinner (or lunch, or afternoon tea) goes badly. Her parents are upset, and Frida has seen him glance at her sister one too many times. Still, they wed: “The Elephant and The Dove,” her father calls them. Her childhood home never houses them together. They live separately through both of their marriages and Frida bleeds for him in red brushstrokes.

Diego is nothing but canvas and oil, but he is her third eye: part of her, essential. “Diego and I” shows her heartbroken with her notorious womanizer of a husband. Her own hair, rarely so wild and loose, lines her neck as if to strangle. She cuts it all off after finding him in bed with her sister.

Diego and her are as cursed as Frida paints them to be — otherworldly, pagan, and everything to each other. In their wrongness, she revels: painting after painting, “Diego on my mind,” obsessive love letters hidden in her diary, animals adopted as surrogate children. Frida finds herself infatuated with her own

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suffering. Her and Diego’s tumultuousness doesn’t deter her from continuing their relationship; it encourages her. She remains with him for years in their own twisted form of love.

As much as her heart breaks, she’ll cheat too. She’s nothing to look up to, this Frida. She sleeps with Leon Trotsky, whom Diego brought into his house for safety from extradition near the end of their marriage. She obsesses over Joseph Stalin, painting “Stalin and I” after his several thousand murders are revealed. She writes about the men and women she loves next to “mi Diego” in her diary. Her independence fell in the face of romanticization, at men of power and creativity. Her character faltered when it came to her idols.

She wakes one morning and across from her in bed is herself. “The Two Fridas,” she whispers, two mirror images of herself, as different as they are replicas. A thin vein wraps around two versions of herself, connecting European Frida, who is trying to stanch the bleeding of her torn heart, to Mexican Frida, who is in traditional Tehuana dress and holding a photo of Diego. Both are somber, but only Mexican Frida is healed. She is who Diego wants: a fellow Mexican muralist, a good woman with a sensible mind and healthy creativity. European Frida holds forceps to clamp her vein, but blood still spoils her clean white dress and their marital bed.

She’s neither and she’s both, torn between her worlds: Mexican or not, Diego’s or not, healthy or not. She’s somewhere in between.The Two Fridas join hands, but still, she bleeds.

In her storied life, there is no perfect Mexican artist or American capitalist icon. There is no broken body or healthy figure. There is no feminist symbol or “wife of Diego Rivera.” She is a study in duality, a question of faith. Frida’s own self is the art—wrought by tragedy, shaped by injury, and finally, encased in paint. She is devastated, so she turns to art instead, painting as a catharsis just as the Surrealists did. But she was never interested in being part of their movement. She painted from her life, not dreams and latent feelings in these dreams as the Surrealist title would have suggested. She’s a deer shot to death in the woods, a mangled body held up by a column, thorns piercing into her neck. Her monsters don’t remain on canvas or come from her unconscious: they lie with her in hospital bed and home.

Her words are cruel, crude. She knows she is selfish, she knows she is unkind, and still, she is an artist. She sits, holding hands, staring into your soul. She bleeds, yet stares. She looks at you, however, and sees herself. She sees Diego, she sees Mexico. She sees dreams, and nightmares, and she’s haunted by the fact that this is all, somehow, while she’s awake. ■

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Almost everything in life is socially constructed, including race.

But, as we ’ re stuck with it, we may need to rethink the wayweconceptualize the “race problem.”

My mother and I are on the same hill, looking down from the summit to what awaits us. Two boulders, lying next to each other, greet us at the foot of the slope. Two boulders for two women, stuck on the same hill.

My mother was the first to show me the slope, and the boulder that naturally accompanies it. It was my birthright, as my mother had the scars to prove this as an inherited fate: growing up surrounded by racist peers, married to a man who demanded evidence of the racism she experienced, working for those who refuse to understand the futility of the post-racial delusion while facing constant discrediting of her status as a Black female doctor. As I did, she inherited this same boulder from her mother and father. This boulder inherited is one that particularly plagues the new emerging Black middle class, the doctors and lawyers working and living in white society as a status symbol that they ‘made it’, who are finally able to afford the luxury of the better neighborhoods and schools that the generations before them didn’t have access to. Here, the boulder is our penance for ‘white acceptance.’ We enter spaces newly accessible, but find that their exclusive foundations are omnipresent, our bodies never welcomed unless they can be subject to critique or commodification.

This boulder inherited is one that particularly plagues the new emerging Black middle class, the doctors and lawyers working and living in white society as a status symbol that they ‘made

it’, who are finally able to afford the luxury of the better neighborhoods and schools that the generations before them didn’t have access to. Here, the boulder is our penance for ‘white acceptance.’ We enter spaces newly accessible, but find that their exclusive foundations are omnipresent, our bodies never welcomed unless they can be subject to critique or commodification.

While on the hill, you encounter those who refuse to accommodate a racial perspective of any kind. Ever the rationalists, the torrents of people who assail you on this slope will explain how you’re being overdramatic. They will suggest a different boulder, one easier to push up so that maybe your incessant complaining will stop. These suggestions are insulting — they conveniently avoid an attempt to debase the task itself, and even rationalize the pain it breeds. They build the boulder, construct the hill, and ask why you haven’t found yourself a more ergonomic boulder.

What they ultimately fail to realize is that their attempts to rationalize your experience will take you both nowhere. Instead, they must walk up the hill alongside you, exert the full physical demands necessary to push the boulder, and watch it fall down. They must live in absurdity with us to see it in full.

Applying reason to the absurd is something entirely illogical, yet we feel as if we must in order to control the inexplicable forces in our lives. It’s impossible, yet we insist that each racialized reality lay itself out in a manner that is ‘proveable’

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— empirical, calculated, subject to peer review and eventual certification of the truth. Yet, like the Sisyphean task of Greek legend, this practice has no meaning. Nothing productive comes of it — no consensus, no definitive answer. Still, we demand the racial minority to strip themselves of the controversiality that has been imposed upon them and stand naked as we mull over what to do with their unwanted presence.

The boulder I carry is a merciless one, it taunts me as I try to understand why I resigned myself to this hill, why I can’t see past the summit or beyond the valley. It consumes me until I cannot think of a life beyond my condemnation. In the prolonged ascent, it is easy to accept the boulder and give up on abandoning it. Yet, I began to notice passersby on my hill, walking freely alongside me with no boulder of their own. They would occasionally converse with me, imploring me to be critical of the slope I traversed and the supposed ‘purpose’ of my task. They took my pain and transformed it into language and prose, speaking of the hill in the terms of how I understood it — without berating me, as my past assailants had. They took my hand and led me away from the boulder, deconstructing the arbitrary racial hierarchies that created the hill.

These passersby were writers, visionaries, and filmmakers. They cultivated the art of Afro-Surrealism, and they were the ones willing to help because they knew the unique fury that comes

with the Sisyphean task of race. Here lies the beauty of Afro-Surrealism, and the art that strives to explain the inexplicable in life. How it contorts the present, revealing the hidden crevices of our reality we regularly take for granted: those incongruencies that leave us feeling dissatisfied without the language to describe it.

Boots Riley wasn’t the first Afro-Surrealist whose work I admired, but he left a lasting impression the moment I saw “Sorry to Bother You.” Riley’s work is unique, vibrant, characteristically insane, and demands to be known. His protagonist, Cassius Green, is much more subdued, but Riley uses him to take every Afro-Surrealist practice to its extreme by following Cassius’ attempts to rationalize the absurdity in his own life.

Cassius has own boulder: he sits at a call center, listlessly shifting through calls as he tries to keep a customer on the line long enough to buy something from him despite his subliminally labeled ‘too Black’ voice. An older Black gentleman next to him offers Cassius some advice, telling him success at the company is as simple as using the ‘white voice.’

With this voice, jarringly detached from his body, Cassius is propelled into the upper echelons of the characteristically white upper class of his world. The price to enter these white spaces, however, is the ongoing choice he must make to kill his true self for the sake of his white ‘benefactors.’ Every time he makes

this choice, he becomes more dissatisfied.

My years in PWIs were condensed to one moment: the slight surprise at my ‘articulate’-ness, the comments on how white I was for conforming to the standards of success and behavior that had been forced upon me, having to explain, for the millionth time, why slurs are racist, and the other givens in my life that were suddenly up for debate. I recognized in Cassius Green a struggle I have long harbored inside myself: our being forced into or out of our Blackness at the whims of the taken-for-granted ‘norm’ of whiteness. We had both been divorced from our bodies by never being able to conform entirely, and scorned for conforming too much. Cassius Green is a testament to exactly why I, and many others, have found the fantasy of conforming to white society leaves us feeling empty. No matter how accomplished we become, our Blackness still alienates us, commodifying our bodies for the entertainment of others until we become nothing else but the performance of whiteness.

The tiny details in media like “Sorry to Bother You,” “Get Out,” or “Atlanta” are made for a Black audience, giving us the privilege of visual language that speaks to the unspoken moments in our racialized reality. In this process, Afro-Surrealism is able to accomplish something that has proven elusive since the conception of race: nurturing understanding in those who don’t live in the realities it portrays. By confronting the absurd and speaking in its language, Afro-Surrealism is able to explain what rationality never could. It resolves the boulder problem by giving others the experience of its pain to implore an abandon-

ment of the slope altogether. It does this, however,on the terms of those who push the boulder, refusing to conform to a reality that purposefully shuns race and its continued significance in our lives.

Riley’s absurdity works so well because it takes the prejudice and systemic struggles we face, the things that have been sold to us as rational for so long, and reveals how they become totally nonsensical when accommodating the racial perspective. I related to this crass absurdity — Riley’s vibrant insanity spoke to me in a spiritual sense that surpassed language. He forced me into rebellion, into the rejection of the racial dichotomy and the knowledge that there is a life — a joyful, full, beautiful life — beyond it.

I cannot blame the generations before mine for following the definitions of success that I have deemed necessary to abandon, as our present is a product of people doing their best to survive with their own Sisyphean hill. After all, I owe where I am right now to their work towards these ideals of success and conforming to race-exclusionary rationality. I can instead take the sum of their work and use it to ensure a future generation for whom the hill I have faced my entire life will be nonexistent.

My experiences are real, and so is my pain – but the actions that cause it won’t always make sense, because neither does race. Accepting my reality as one existing outside the mainstream has given me a newfound comfort in living, free from the strife of trying to conform to a reality without my best interest. ■

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Iopen my double panel French windows to a gust of fresh Parisian air. Blossom Dearie’s vocals float from my gramophone turntable as I tread gracefully across my room at the Ritz. Today will be full of reporting on the top designers’ Spring/Summer collections. I am a revered journalist at Vogue Italia. My boss flew me out to report from the front row at Paris Fashion Week.

This isn’t some whimsical dream.

I don’t want it to be. One day, it will be my reality. Each day until then I am plagued by my overarching desire to have it.

This mentality lasts a lifetime. Little Bryn wanted the famed Holiday Barbie doll, and when she got that, her heart’s desire was to mother an American Girl doll. After that, she graduated to wanting the real stuff: money. It never stops. Even my father, in all his glory at 51 years of age, still wants more. Visit his office and you will find “MONEY: Master the Game,” “Rich Dad, Poor Dad,” “Who Moved my Cheese?” and other self-improvement titles perched atop his bookshelf. Despite dabbling in recruiting, car dealing and even authoring several children’s books, he still ardently pursues monetary prosperity. He

still longs to fill an evidently everlasting lack. Only the ink from the Fortune 500 list can strip him of his emptiness.

The overshadowing discontent that looms from an unreached goal kills the ecstasy of aspirations. Our minds birth gold-plated dreams, all shiny and new. We stop at nothing to get them. We devote treacherous amounts of time to achieving these goals. But soon after, the gold rusts away, revealing a facade. Only brass remains. All that is left is costume jewelry.

But the desire never fades. We continue to search for the real gold — everything we want but are never supposed to have.

Material desires turn into forbidden fruit. We are told to be content with what we have, but capitalism leaves us to wander the frivolity of Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights.” My garden overflows with the glitz and glamor of stars parading on red carpets, cloaked in dresses meticulously crafted by the world’s most renowned designers. Sirens infiltrate rivers of gold and wine, seducing me with hymns disguised as affirmations: You are a magnet to prosperity and Everything you want shall be yours. My dad’s vegetative estate reflects wisdom and wealth. The very air

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penetrates the field’s inhabitants with vast knowledge. The garden houses the world’s best libraries, shelved with the works of his favorite philosophers like Machiavelli. In the orb’s capital lies his headquarters. On the top floor, towering over the entire realm, lies the office of its millionaire boss: Johnny Palmer.

Just as capitalism teaches us, we don’t solely tend to the garden – we plant ourselves in its soil. Our internalizing of this economic system births a severe malfunction of insatiability within every earthly being. The allure of my garden entices me to curate my very existence around its imaginative world.

It starts with one goal. But upon achievement, the goal manifests itself into something bigger and more unattainable. We keep digging and digging at this desire until we get to the gold-plated core of the Earth, shiny with the appeal of our forbidden fruit. We barely relish in our fruitfulness before re-arming ourselves with the shovel. We hollow out a void in the planet — and in ourselves. Our corporeal void condenses into a dark fog, polluting our minds with an anxiety of deprivation.

Enter: Greed. Since the beginning of time, humans have sought the material. Eve’s greed was literally the birth of all sin, for Christ’s sake. In the Gilded Age, industry giants like J.P. Morgan dominated the economy with their ever-growing profits. Bearded, pot-bellied men drowned themselves in layered suits as they paraded around an industrialized New York to signify their abundance in profits. Their wives donned nothing less than the finest silks: figure-hugging gowns laced with frills, buttons and bows. Decadence prevailed, and it

still does. Even today, tech moguls like Elon Musk accumulate net worths of nearly $200 billion dollars as their companies rise in market value. Yet they still seek to maximize profits and expand their influence.

We continuously seek more because the opportunity sends us an invitation to take it. Greed becomes a sinkhole that never leaves. Its soil camouflages itself according to the eye of the beholder. The more you achieve, the more its score grows, expanding constantly until it destroys all obstacles. Greed is the root of all evil.

This is the Collier-Hoeffler model for the “greed vs. grievance” theory in action. Typically used to break down the motives for war, we can enlist its concepts to break down the root of our desires.

Welcome: Grievance. In a world where we get lost in the plethora of highlight reels broadcast via social media, it is easy to find ourselves comparing our lives to others. Instagram feeds are filled with 20-somethings telling you to quit your day job and invest in crypto or pursue a career in social media to generate a six-figure salary. They’re telling you that at 22 years old, you should be financially stable enough to afford $2,000 monthly rent and a brand new BMW. It’s exhausting. For a majority of the population, this lifestyle is unattainable. You can invest all your time and money into following the teachings of these self-proclaimed prophets and still be left with nothing but hope, a dream, and the feeling of inferiority.

Grievance conditions us. Already overwhelmed with a job, school, and extracurriculars, I originally did not want an internship during the school year. After watching my peers post about their successes on

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LinkedIn, I became insecure. This feeling only grew with time. Compelled to compete, I landed a job as a blogger for a sustainable online retailer. To my demise, I was flooded with work and eventually had to quit. Instead of staying true to myself, I misplaced the root of my insecurity and convinced myself that I wanted a job just because other people did.

We need to eradicate this Gilded-Age mindset. While the inevitability of this lust persists, what matters is whether we al- low it to drive us or de -

compose us.

If we don’t dispose of the dark clouds that plague our mind with feelings of unfulfillment, we will find ourselves trapped in the hell of Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights.” Our dreams lead to our demise, transforming into a never-ending nightmare.

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I open my eyes to my beloved photo wall, ambushed with framed photos of my favorite pop culture icons from Shrek to The Weeknd. SZA’s vocals float from my record player as I trudge across my room to get ready for class. I don’t know what the future will hold, but I find com- fort in knowing I freed myself from the unrelenting pursuit of material pleasure.

This isn’t some whimsical dream. I am content in knowing this is my reality. ■

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“Spirituality is a cytoskeleton for anarchist, nomadic community building.”


Between twin bureaucratic bastions is the hotel I work at, a human golgi apparatus. Here I’m a barista, food runner, and server—Bukowski’s Factotum. I tend to herds migrating with seasons of college football. In our benthic workplace ecosystem, I am a detritivore, a creature between dust and sentience.

So I befriended the “temps”: non-contracted employees who use an app called “Instawork.” Some use the flexibility of gig apps to take trips, spend time with family, or pursue creative interests, while others choose to live as modern nomads, roaming herd-less about America’s blossoming gig economy. One of my favorite transient coworkers was an ex-journalist who worked over 100 different gigs across the states in a year, writing about the people and inner workings of kaleidoscopic industries.

“Have you read Kerouac’s On the Road? The one about 50s hitchhikers?” I asked, polishing wine glasses in a windowless room. “He’s my favorite author.”

“Girl, we read Kerouac in middle school. The ’80s were a different time,” he replied. Maybe that’s why our nation romanticizes the road, planting seeds in asphalt fissures.

The Beatniks, “angel-headed” creatives and wanderers, are not an obscure historical fact: their unhinged hitchhiking and backpacking adventures cracked the plastic conformity of the ’50s, igniting the hippie counter-cultural movement. Beatnik Jack Kerouac’s books explore the euphoria and fugue of American nomadism, entrancing our collective psyche with the dream of an eternal road trip. His semi-autobiographical Duluoz Legend, compo sed of works written over decades, shows a development of thought on nomadism, beyond the epileptic flashes of On the Road.

between New York City, San Francisco, and Mexico City. Its adventurousness collides head-on with the moral certainty of the newly hegemonic, post-war USA. Kerouac and his friends value experiences above material goods, scorning suburbia and its TVs. His muse, Dean Moriarty, exemplifies this: so in love with life that he’s a cheater and alcoholic.

Dharma Bums expands on the spiritual aspects introduced in On the Road, as Kerouac becomes a mountain-climbing Buddhist, a “religious wanderer”. In the midst of an urbanizing, technologically developing America, Kerouac finds humanity in nature and walking with his own two legs. This is no apolitical monkhood. His friend, Japhy, imbues Zen Buddhism with “anarchist ideas about how Americans don’t know how to live.” While hiking, they dream of setting up a self-reliant camp of their friends: inspiring the cascade of hippie communes. Dharma Bums shows how counterculture can strengthen itself through spirituality, which is difficult to police. Spirituality is a cytoskeleton for anarchist, nomadic community building.

In Desolation Angels, Kerouac’s summer alone on Desolation Peak erodes the spiritual optimism of Dharma Bums. “My life is a vast inconsequential epic,” he writes. A stranger steals his manuscripts while he sleeps in a Greyhound Bus. Confronted with the futility of existence, Kerouac finds comfort in his friends, “angels”. Kerouac’s existentialism shows the need for a social support network, especially with the ephemerality of a nomadic lifestyle. We need friends for mental well-being and counterculture. Together, the Beatniks screamed poetry into the void, their echoes shaking Puritan stalagmites. They turned angst into wonder, channeling disgust to destroy—or at least confront —homophobia, violence, and censorship, and to create a kinder world.

A stream-of-consciousness novel, On the Road narrates Kerouac’s first hitchhiking trips

The tectonic plates are shifting. How can we adapt activism to match the hyperspeed evolution of in-

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ground beneath us disintegrates into stardust: untethered from the maternal embrace of gravity, are we free?


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dustrial capitalism? The radical labor movement can take cues from Kerouac’s ever-changing ideas. Beat art subverts neoliberalism, prioritizing human experience over efficiency, raw, foraged fruit over microwave TV dinners.

The Beatniks wrote a Golden Gate Bridge across the Pacific, to Lahore, where my parents were born. Beatniks made an Americanized Eastern spirituality. Western hegemony – our sooty aorta, pumping capitalist blood. The Beatniks’ vision combined the American dream of freedom and Buddhist compassion. They smoked hashish, sat on floor pillows, used lotas, and lived in timeless “island time”— like my people. They loved their nation and wanted to nurse it back to health, even if that meant a heart transplant. Culture is our murky subconscious, where evil and good are born. To alter reality, we need to confront our deepest values, like the Beatniks did.

At the same time, Beatniks cannot be separated from their context: the economic prosperity of the 50s allowed them to find jobs in any city, and coast on savings while traveling. Now, the cost of surviving is brutally rising, while our wages are stagnant. Financial stability is a ghost. Also, Kerouac was able to fund his free-spirited lifestyle partially because of his mom, who worked in a shoe factory and sent him money. The generational wealth of white Americans grants them more economic flexibility, i.e. freedom.

Though the Beatniks were inspired by African-American jazz, Peyote, and

Eastern spirituality, they did not embrace people of color and women in their social circles. This dissonance was a deadly parasite that tore them apart from the inside. For Beatniks’ American-Eastern values to permeate our ethos, we need to dismantle white supremacy. We must make space for minorities’ voices in social movements. We’re an alien colony with houses built on stolen land. By not making permanent settlements, American nomadism can challenge settler-colonialism, but it must center Indigenous peoples.

Beatnik values were popularized in 60s and 70s counterculture. But mortality is pernicious: the Baby boomers grew up, settled down, and sacrificed their youthful ideals for oily money and stability. The inchoate neoliberalism the Beatniks once fought became entrenched.

The digital gig economy offers a solution to these problems, making nomadism accessible. The apps are free to use and available to anyone with the internet and a phone. Instawork allows planning ahead of time, as workers can book shifts up to about a month beforehand. CouchSurfing, Workaway, and WWOOF allow workers to find free accommodations or a seasonal gig in advance. This gives more reliability than traditional gig work, adapted to our current stormy economy. One of my coworker’s friends uses Instawork to live a van life while supporting his family. We have the internet: now Dean Moriarty does not need to be domesticated. His children can attend online school. More importantly, women are able to be more nomadic now, as they often have to be more responsible for children and family issues than men. Problems of childcare and safety persist, showing again the need for a support

system among nomads.

The digital gig economy shows that the internet can change our lifestyles. However, the internet is morphing into its own abstract world. This is a threat to revolution. Even online leftist spaces sometimes warp into hyperreality. Still, fearing technology is more regressive than revolutionary. Beatnik values can help reconcile this – sensation and spontaneity allow us to use technology to connect to the world around us, rather than dozing off into cyberspace.

Gig work offers hope, but could be coopted by capitalist forces if we are not class conscious. Many of the Instaworkers and Uber drivers I talk to view their jobs as “freeing”, and themselves as isolated outsiders:

“I love having the freedom to make my own schedule,” they say in the submarine glow of employee’s only tunnels. “Working 14 days in a row to have a week-long break is worth it.”

If we want more agency than a virus relying on its host, we need to rethink these liberal notions of freedom and individualism. Beatniks offer an alternative, community-based framework. The Internet provides a petri dish for “gig” work to form a culture, especially post-pandemic. News reporters prophesy that AI will fester its growth in its exodus of traditional jobs. The labor movement should include nomads as a new socioeconomic class.

Syndicalist organizations have a history of limiting their efforts to factories with

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many workers, the “industrial proletariat”. Karl Marx envisioned “improved means of communication that are created by modern industry,” liberating workers. Now, most people work in the service sector, and more people are working gigs, so this seems myopic.

Growing our vision is possible. Though their workplaces are delocalized, Black domestic workers and sharecroppers unionized on their own, through their strong community, as Angela Davis discusses in Women, Race, and Class. The Starbucks union is revitalizing the labor movement now, which I wholeheartedly support as an ex-Starbucks worker. The organizers used the internet to climb over labyrinth walls of communication barriers. We should extend this energy to gig work.

Gig workers are a growing class who hold the hope for revolution. Nomads can change the structure of our class system. Our collective consciousness has already absorbed Kerouac’s “road”: there’s so much to explore, if we are humanist and thoughtful, rather than detached and individualistic. We need social and labor movements to be dynamic — a resilient biofilm.

Beatniks, proto-hippies, embody the freeing nomadism that gig work could enable. If we avoid landmines, we can be a perennial superbloom, feeding on sunlight instead of death.

“Safiyya! You need to learn how to lucid dream before I leave! This is what I teach everyone,” said my ex-journalist coworker on the last day I saw him.

Pen your dreams before they evaporate in the sun. Repeat seven times. Then write, “I want to control my dream.”

“If you could lucid dream every night, imagine how powerful you would feel waking up.”

Chasing freedom, we dream of the “sea-journey on the highway across America” in “Howl”. And we will wake to a luminous Daydream Nation ■

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Ifirst fell in love with the desert when I was just a child. I was born under an endless Texas sky — a deep and cloudless blue that stretched beyond comprehension, bleeding into the dust-choked horizon. There’s no sky quite like it, so big I feared it could crush me. Standing under that heavy emptiness, there was a sense of self-recognition in the longing mirrored beneath. The miles of cracked earth were desolate save for the memory of rain.

In one of his rare moments of intimacy, my father took our family to the Sedona energy vortex. High above the Arizona desert, pillars of swirled rock point towards the heavens, polished smooth by millenia of wind and sand. Locals believe that cosmic energy emanates from the red cliffs, spiraling into the sky in New Age energy-healing fashion. As we stood on the mountain watching the stars rise, my father put his arms around me

and asked if I could feel the energy.

“This is a sacred space,” he told me. I believed him, but I wasn’t looking up at the sky. My eyes were fixed on the twilight-blue land stretching below us. My heart was filled with an unspeakable loneliness echoing from the red rocks.

Sometimes, when I’m on the edge of sleep, I see that landscape purpling against my eyelids. Something about the desolation of the desert compelled me. From the emptiness, it gained the power of possibility — from nothingness, anything can emerge. It was a place of total freedom — an inhospitable wasteland stripped of everything but dreams. In a place where only they can live, dreams accumulate and slumber. The barren earth turns fertile with their presence. It is the home of revelation: a destination for

prophets and hermits to go in search of God.

When I drove alone into the desert I was 19 and full of anger. I felt young and self-destructive; the hot air scorched my lungs and filled my head with fire. Squinting against the sun, it was a selfimposed exile of sorts — a pilgrimage without a destination. Within the first few hours, red dirt towns and God-fearing billboards gave way to flat rock and dust clouds. Through it all, the highway snaked, tracing veins and arteries across the heart of the Southwest.

My memories are defined by absences. No people, no houses. Every rock was burnt by the sun and swept by the wind until the whole landscape was majestic in its desolation — no trees, no clouds. Even the birds had abandoned these skies; the sound of their wings was replaced by an interstate highway map fluttering on the seat beside me.

After a few hundred miles, the sky and the road started to blur together. As dust danced in the heat waves rising from the red earth, the horizon shimmered, porous. I loosened my grip on the wheel to let the car sway in lazy curves across the road, rocking like a boat upon an asphalt sea. I’ve always thought of driving as a meditative activity, with the repetition of the roads and hum of the motor transforming into a mantra. It’s the hypnotism of motion, the mind wandering as the body continuously travels forward.

There’s something special about this land. It swallows you whole and spits you out, changed. Under the sun, every pretense I held slowly melted away. I left my anger abandoned miles behind me. Surrounded by the age of the landscape, a timeless quiet entered me. I had been emptied out, purified, and I was ready for revelation.

In the desert, hope and fear are two faces of the same coin — the hope of discovery only tempered by the fear of what you might find. Perhaps that’s why I saw it: the flash of red on the highway, darker than the desert rock. Before I’d even realized what I was doing, I had stopped the motor and pocketed the keys. Pulling off the side of the interstate, I staggered from the car, blood rushing into stiffened legs. I had no choice but to look.

The first thing I noticed was that he was beautiful. Tawny eyes, narrowed in pain but still shining with animal intelligence. Foam flecked his mouth, and his chest heaved with every red and ragged breath. It was gruesome and tragic, yet I couldn’t pull my eyes away. Although he was dying, it was the only presence of life for miles.

We were alone.

While the coyote’s broken body lay motionless on the edge of the road, his eyes raised to meet mine. He bled scarlet against the copper dirt, particles of dust hanging in the air. This was a creature that belonged to the dirt and sand. And now, struck by a vehicle just as foreign to its home as I was, it lay dying.

It must have been a hit and run, some unknown and unlucky driver who happened to be on the same highway at the wrong time. Perhaps they didn’t even know what that crunching sound came from as they burned through the Southwest at 70y miles per hour. Perhaps they didn’t care. There was a brutal nobility to the coyote that moved me to tears. Through all his pain, I could see the peace that came with resignation. I was standing outside myself, watching my body move closer.

And then we were face to face, me and the coyote. I looked it right in the eyes. And in those eyes, in those dark eyes I saw it looking at me.

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For a moment, I couldn’t tell which of us was the animal.

A gasp of breath rattled from the shattered rib cage, crawled out the twisted neck, and escaped into the desert air. The chest rose once, and then was still.

It was a silence that defied words. I felt hollow and wordless, filled with an unspeakable grief. The idea of dying alone out here, in the emptiness of the desert, filled me with strong emotion. The urge to reach out into the emptiness, to see and be seen in return, is as old as humanity itself — to prove to the universe: I lived once. I had meaning.

In the following weeks, I would try to tell the story of those hours in the desert, only to give up halfway through. I struggled to understand

what it meant — why the sight of what was likely roadkill had moved me so deeply. Even now, the words evade me. All I have is the memory of light. In the mouth of the desert, where the sun turns the sand to gold, the weight of time is everywhere. You feel it in the soaring red cliffs, in the shafts of light, and in the beating of your own heart. Driving westwards, the sunset bleeds red and orange light across the thirsty earth. In the haze of dust on the horizon, the land seems to come alive in a glowing shimmer.

I know that everything dies and returns to the dust from which it came. But maybe under the desert sky, everything that dies will someday

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mani Tatum is a curator by nature.

She likes things that are bold, interesting, and beautiful. She likes things that are nostalgic and remind her of childhood. She likes vintage loveseats that are more pretty to look at than comfortable to sit on and she likes scouting thrift stores to find

Seated on a slightly stiff but undeniably charming vintage couch in her studio, I ask Imani what she considers a valuable trait in a tattoo artist.

“Definitely empathy,” she responds. “It’s a sacred thing we’re doing…we’re changing people’s lives forever, so you have to have some care and understanding. You want to make an experience sacred with your canvas. It’s an honor to be able to change people’s bodies forever, so we should act as such.”

As soon as you catch sight of Imani’s hand-painted dancing ladies decorating the facade of Nana’s Prayer’s Tattoo studio, you feel her devotion to her vessel, her space, and her practice. Inside, walls overflow with paintings, masks, photos, and shelves housing everything from sketchbooks to her child-

The whole thing is just as chaotic and radiant as she

One day [my friend and I] are getting tattooed by my tattoo artist, who later became my friend, and I’m just having a crisis in this poor man’s chair.

I’m like, “I don’t know what to do with my life, I hate my job, and I don’t want to do it forever, and I just don’t know what to do!”

And then he’s like, “Well, you’re an artist, why don’t you learn how to tattoo?”And I’m like, “Who’s gonna teach me?”And he’s like, “Oh, I’ll teach you!”And I’m like, “Really? I don’t know, man…”And he’s like, “Well, what else are you doing with life right now?”And I’m like, “You right.”

(laughs) Like, literally nothing! So, over the quarantine, I was learning how to tattoo, and by the time it settled down, I was ready to take on clients.


It’s kinda weird! The pandemic affected tattooing in a positive way… we were forced to stay still for a bit and see what we want to do with our lives, and so many people realized they weren’t doing what actually made them happy. So, it piqued interest in tattooing because a lot of people were like, “I never got a tattoo! I haven’t been actually living!”

How do you think your practice of body art and having body art affects your self-perception?


That’s so broad! I do a lot of things: I breathe, I poop, I shower…. but I try to fill every aspect of my life with fun and meaning, so, just fun and meaning all around! That’s all I want

Well, sometimes senseless— or, nonsense, nonsense is fun. It’s not always


It was June of 2020, and the world had just ended, and I was having a crisis. I didn’t know what to do with my life but I was still, like, doing my best and just having fun in Texas…

I feel like with tattoos and body modification, it gives us autonomy with our bodies, because a lot of things about our body we can’t control. I can’t control how I look or what happens to me, but with tattooing I can give these parts of my body meaning and love and decoration. Kind of gives me a reason to, you know, like myself.


The art of tattooing connects me to the ancestors, as Wookie as that sounds. It makes me feel like carrying on something that people of color and indigenous people have been doing since the beginning of time, so it makes me feel, I dunno, cool. (laughs)

I feel like it’s my meaning, or my purpose, or whatever.

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I mostly do nature pieces. I love nature. She’s the best artist in the world. I just wanna be like her! She makes me happy. (laughs) Like, she made me. She is Mama. So I do my best to embody her when I tattoo.

Also, the ancestors — the art that was created before I was even a concept. I like old African art a lot. My life is very inconvenient because I’m constantly buying things that are breaking. They’re old and cute. Old, cute, and African is, like, my whole thing.


Yeah! There are these symbols in West Africa called Adinkras, and they tell the stories of people’s lives. You can see them on textiles, you can see them on orna mental tattoos when you look at indigenous culture in Africa. I try to incorporate them as much as I can with my ornamental work.

Wish there was more of a market for it in Austin, but everyone’s white here, so. (laughs)


Complete chance. I lived in a van and traveled for about a year, and I was in New Orleans, and I had a friend in Austin, and she was like “yo, come see me! You’re only six hours away.” And I’m like, “Hell yeah, but only for a little bit, I’m going to Arizona because I have a big sister there.” Like, this is cool, but I’ve gotta keep it moving. And then my van exploded on I-35.

So I got the first apartment I could find and I just never left. Oh, and then the pandemic started, so I got stuck here, technically. Like, literally got stuck here.


Yes and no. There’s a lot of [very white] old-school Texan culture here, but there are places in town who are definitely trying, like No Good Tattoo, Loveshop Tattoo, Serenity Tattoo — all the places fighting the good fight to diversify tattooing. So, yes and no.


a license?”, they’re like, “fuck you, no!” It’s hard. Do ing my best, though. Texas is very outlaw so it’s dumb easy to get a license here. Like, they’re keeping tigers here. They’re fine with anything going on with tattooing. (laughs) I’m very lucky to have started tattooing in Texas.


It’s pretty scary being a person of color getting tattooed because you never know, [with] who’s tattooing you, if they respect your skin enough to understand it. The shop gave alternative Black people and Black people who are interested in getting tattooed a home, so that makes me feel good.

It’s a different process, tattooing people of color. You have to understand color theory and how our skin’s keloids react to ink. I’ve gotten fucked up by some tattoo artists that are good but don’t know what they’re doing on people of color.

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I really want to open a program or a school for people of color to get into tattooing. Once I get my licenses and have a bigger facility, I would love to open an apprenticeship program where people won’t be turned away based on their skin color or sexual orientation or gender. Tattooing came from people of color, so all of us need to be doing it, you know? It’s crazy that white men just took over the market.

And they don’t know how to tattoo people that aren’t white…

Make it make sense! Because even the best of the best will see darker skin, pigmented skin, and they’re like, uhhh, I don’t know what to do with that. Like, the majority of the world is melanated. It’s crazy.


Don’t give up. If there’s a will, there’s a way, and I have a lot of manic energy that I can do something with. So, don’t quit. And be prepared, because you have to have thick skin. Like, I found myself kind of crying a lot. So I would be like, don’t do that! Just keep on.

In the time since we spoke, Imani has found a new home for her art and her practice: Philadelphia. “It’s a fight that’s gonna have to happen,” she says, speaking to the ongoing struggle of diversifying the tattoo industry. “But it feels more doable in cities like Baltimore, Kansas City, Philadelphia.”

I have no doubt that Imani will continue to carve out comfortable, safe spaces for Black people and people of color to explore self-expression in the years to come. It’s not an easy fight, and there’s a lot left to do, but she’s armed with good spirits, infectious laughter, and an all-encompassing passion for the work she does. After all, she “wouldn’t want to be doing anything else in the world.” ■

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brings us to Her feast. GOLD BOOTS | Austin Pets Alive 155 spark

Our Mistress, Our Queen, clothed in skins and spikes. Call her Lilith, call her God -

Who are we to see Her ways?

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Of all the men in all the world, She has chosen me.

To be chosen is a blessing. I do not want to be blessed.

She turns her face to me and I am ashamed.

Shame is expected. She is always hungry, and hunger is all Iknow.

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It is enough to touch her lips. Her scarlet lips.

O my Lover,

O my God. I give myself to you.

She Opens. ■

Touch me, so that I may know perfection.
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Everyone tells you not to be in a relationship during your freshman year of college. I ignored that advice, as I usually do to most, and threw myself into one for an entire year and a half before it came tumbling down.

The night my world seemed to end, I screamed at her, threw her clothes down the trash chute, and stole her keys to stop her from leaving. The day’s final hours concluded with me sitting in a frigid waiting room at the local emergency center, cheeks stained pink with tears and the remnants of my hysteria.

Things got worse before they got better. My trip back to my hometown for Thanksgiving break brought forth days during which I was unable to eat, or do much more than wallow in the comforting confines of my plush childhood bed. Slowly but surely, after days during which a hollow emptiness had begun to settle within me, the end of the week came, and I was on my way back to the comfort of my college apartment. I sat on my cheap Amazon rug with bloodshot eyes and tearstained cheeks, staring at my tarot deck.

I begged it to tell me something — anything. I begged the stars and universe to align and send me a divine message of reas- surance. I went through the motions, shuffling the cards as I always did. Taking a deep breath in to steady my racing heart, I prepared myself for the heavenly message I was about to receive. The first card lay in front of me, face-down, and I eyed it momen-

tarily before flipping it over. I glanced over the figure on the face — a woman cloaked in ornate white silks, carrying a torch.

The High Priestess.

The feminine manifestation of mystery, intuition, and stillness. I surveyed her as I sat, pondering the pull for what must have been a half-hour. I even took out my journal and scribbled her name in big black letters on the top of a new page. I was utterly stumped at the message, dismissing it as a fluke. After that

night, I found myself seeking comfort in the wise words of other women — on the internet, at school, at home, and anywhere else they’d speak with me. I found myself spilling the details of my pain,

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trying to make them see how fundamentally broken I was — and always had been. But their answers were always the same — knowing looks, a gentle head nod, and something to the tune of “this, too, shall pass.” And yet, I felt alone. I was frustrated, convinced they simply didn’t understand my hysteria, or the fact that I was incapable of salvation. The feeling festering inside me was so strong, so stifling, that I might very well have fallen over and died.

As time passed, though, my resentment turned to understanding. I began to feel a semblance of solidarity in the responses they’d offered me. I began to believe that “this, too,” would indeed pass. A few weeks after that, I traveled back to my hometown, my personal reflection chamber of sorts. I poured myself into distractions, seeking refuge in any hobby that came my way — reading, writing, dancing, and gardening. I had been reading Sandra Cisneros’ “Loose Woman”, a book I’d begged to receive that Christmas. Around halfway through, I came to a poem whose title made me chuckle a bit. “I Am So Depressed I Feel Like Jumping in the River Behind My House but Won’t Because I’m Thirty-Eight and Not Eighteen.” I laughed because I saw myself in those words, in a woman I’d never met before.

I envied the space that Sandra Cisneros had taken up in those uneven lines of poetry scattered onto the otherwise blank page. I imagined what it may feel like to be her — to take the sadness that crawled up my throat at night, constricting my windpipe, and laugh in its face; to write about it in a poem and look

back, years later, and realize that it was never that serious. I wondered if there were other women like this, who were able to harness that madness deep within them. I wondered if there were women who embraced that madness instead of running away and hiding in the dark corners we’d been given.

Then I read Elana Dykewomon and she said “Almost every woman I have ever met has a secret belief that she is just on the edge of madness, that there is some deep, crazy part within her, that she must be on guard constantly against ‘losing control’—of her temper, of her appetite, of her sexuality, of her feelings, of her ambition, of her secret fantasies, of her mind.”

I fell down a wormhole searching for these women, and found fragments of what they could’ve been. There is a specific type of feminine freedom in madness, and endless roadblocks to keep women from enjoying it. I first identified the madness that lived inside me in Angelina Jolie’s character in “Girl, Interrupted”. Lisa was portrayed as incurably frigid, but in a way that seemed to attract all those around her. One moment she was cruel, and the next she was loving and caring like a mother. Her coolness was likely a result of her personality disorder, of course, but the nuances of those sorts of things get lost when you’re vulnerable (like after a breakup), young, or impressionable — or all of the above. It seemed as if she moved through the world without a care for what others thought of her or what she “should” have done. Perhaps this was because her world was

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confined to the boundaries of an inpatient psychiatric facility. She had already been labeled “mad”, so there were no more expectations for her to follow. She could laugh wildly, cry wholeheartedly, scream violently, and exist in the freedom of those expulsions.

Such freedom seemed unattainable to me, but I soon realized that women like me seek strength in numbers. In the depths of my depression, I found solace through the similarity of me and these other women — these mad, hysteric women.

What does it mean to be one, anyway? I thought of the example my mother had given me, which I was never explicitly told, but rather observed through the lens of a naive child. To be a woman was to be caring to a fault, and to give and give until there was hardly any of you left for yourself. To be a woman meant being a good daughter until you were a good wife until you were a good mother. I felt the muted sparkles of womanhood in the moments when their mothers pulled too roughly at their hair, or at the comforting touch of another woman while crying, but also in the harshly lit fitting room mirrors as I poked and prodded my body, distorted by too-tight clothing. I knew the women in the stalls next to me were likely doing the same: poking, prodding, and frowning at the rolls of their bellies or stretch marks on their thighs, hoping to somehow do something to change it at that moment. They couldn’t, though. Neither could I. My body was marred by my mind. My body was my cage.

Why is the extent of our sense of community built on our collective pain? Why do I have to accept the lot I was given, and be forever condemned and looked down upon by critical peers for the same emotions that surely live in them? Why is being a woman a life sentence of suffering?

A few weeks later, as life would have it, I was brought back to my tarot deck. Back where I’d been before — on that damned green rug — I shuffled the cards

briefly before pausing, reconsidering my intentions. I had no pressing questions, none that they could answer for me, not this time. I fanned the cards out face-up in front of me. It took a few moments for my eyes to scan the deck. I thought back to the High Priestess — her eyes solemnly staring back at me. She seemed... Lonely.

She was the ideal, meant for us to strive towards becoming, so why did she look so sad? Was it truly lonely at the top?

To be a woman is to suffer. To be mad is the bravest choice a woman could make because she dares to reject that suffering, despite the consequences she knows she will face. She knows she will be ostracized, rejected, and criticized. She knows the other women in her life will trade knowing whispers behind her back, and others will scoff at her when she passes. She knows all of this, and she dares to embrace her madness anyway, because she knows the path to divinity is paved with the freedom it brings.

The High Priestess represents the divinely feminine ideal, one that is at once elusive and terrifying. She embraces the madness, living unabashedly and moving through the world with utter confidence. She is all at once Lisa and Sandra and Me.

She is a mad woman, and I yearn to become her. ■

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Flames and smoke have always coated my field, even when I've tended to it. When will I learn that nothing grows in burnt soil?

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We’re given open fields when we’re born.

We’re expected to make something of them, to fill every nook with something of our own. Some create gardens that stretch toward the horizon. Others decorate with extravagant blooms. No one can touch your field but you.

I had to burn mine.

Aimlessness has suffocated me since before I can remember. I was molded with a heavy hand that crashed down on wrong decisions. It seemed like every decision I made came with a crash. At six, I discovered writing, and my thirst for words could not be quenched. I showed my garden blueprint with pride, but I was met with cocked heads and furrowed brows. How are you going to pay for all that land? I lost care for my field, myself. I didn’t bother exploring other options; I was young, stubborn, and immediately discouraged. To an outsider, I was easygoing, go-with-the-flow. In reality, I was lost. It was only natural. My lack of a green thumb and the world’s worst allergies left me unable to grow anything substantial. I was an actionless visionary, wandering in a lavender haze.

Soon, wandering stopped being cute. No one tended to me, but I was suddenly expected to grow a stunning array of foliage, perfectly placed, with little room for error. At 13, I charted an acceptable life and tried everything I was supposed to. I thought it would be easier to place the foliage given to me than to try to grow my own, but ill-fitting career paths and personality traits shriveled up faster than lilies in a Texas summer. At 18, faced with college, the implications of my choices became too imminent, too real. I couldn’t fake it anymore. On a whim, I plucked everything I’d worked for and started anew. Everyone had thriving meadows, blossoming with lilacs and recognition, while I was obscured among dead grass.

I spotted smoke dancing in the distance. Cackles filled with glee pierced the air, and I followed them. With every self-deprecating word my friends uttered, the air bloated with the stench of burned grass. They reveled in the smell, running with torches of self-hatred. These supposed gardeners were wrecking their fields, but they were at peace. In giving up, they abandoned their anxieties about the future. They frolicked as if they weren’t moments away from incinerating themselves. I realized it might be better to point out your flaws before others noticed them. Their free spirits were enchanting, and they offered me a hand. For a little longer, I didn’t have to figure out my place in the world. If I couldn’t create myself, why not destroy?

For a year, I picked flames instead of flowers. My blistered skin bubbled with every bridge burned, every charred petal. My plot was ablaze, and all I felt was bliss. It was destructive, but it was perfectly placed. I no longer wandered but ran. Time was still, and I let my self-loathing envelop me. It filled my insides, and the spillage tethered me to others. The reasons they were here were unimportant to me. We were united in the insecurities we wore like badges of honor. People on the other side didn’t get it – their gardens were too pristine. They were wound so tight that they were bound to snap. We were free! We were real!

After a while, it felt like I was running in circles. It was harder to convince myself that I wanted this. I told myself that this was who I had to be, but I realized that I shunned who I wanted to be: a dreamer. I walked towards my first field and smelled a familiar perfume. I forgot how the satisfaction of achievement felt. Deep down, I admired the painstaking effort it took

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"Fire's volatility makes it a shallow defense. One day, you're invisible. Next, you're burning."

to grow orchids, the beauty reaped as a reward. Now, blackened grass stabbed my blistered heels, and it was even harder to envision my future. I was afraid of failure, but didn’t feel good enough to deserve anything else.

Starved for success, I spent the next year turning into a voracious gardener. Walking past my burned field, I tilled fresh grass and found the girl I used to be. It was easier to dream miles away from authority, but I would make sure they saw how great I could be. This new me attracted genuine friends – people that actually cared about me. But with genuineness came realness, and soon my actions were psychoanalyzed with surprising accuracy. Their understanding smiles at my overwatered succulents were off-putting. I was insecure about how late I was figuring myself out, but I couldn’t let anyone know that. I couldn’t risk regressing into old habits. So, I surrounded my field with what I knew best – a ring of fire.

The ring of fire protected me. I could garden in peace without worrying about anyone getting close and hating what they saw. I was oblivious to everything but my gardening. In becoming consumed with progress, I neglected my emotions. Months passed, and I didn’t cry. After a year, I couldn’t. I wore my coldness with pride. My desperation and inadequacy singed my heart, but I ignored them. Nothing would stand in the way of my dream garden.

Trails of smoke crept into my nose. Soil blackened in the distance, but I didn’t remember burning it. I spotted burns on my lilacs, and I turned to see the ring of fire creeping up on me.

I almost had everyone fooled, even myself.

Fire’s volatility makes it a shallow defense. One day, you’re invisible. Next, you’re burning. I thought I could keep my friends at a distance and become successful on my own, but the fire that I used to keep them at bay soon blew back on me. Everything on my plate suddenly became too much to swallow. Blinded by an influx of emotion, sparks lunged for my ankles, and I winced as they blistered. Tears trickled and then drowned my cheeks as I wept in agony. I wept for the growth I self-destructed, the growth that was never there to begin with. I hyperventilated on the smoke that blanketed me. I swatted at my flaming thighs and scalp, hating how human I was for burning. I had to isolate myself for a weekend to recuperate, and my plants slowly died around me. That one night left me shaking, unable to tend to the progress I had so carefully cultivated. I was stagnant, and my dream had turned into a nightmare. In obsessing over the end goal, I sacrificed my sanity.

What happens when we don’t live for ourselves?

Hellish characters are created in our incompleteness, and we’re forced to bear witness to their inevitable destruction, no matter how much we try to control them. I faced my plot to see a familiar wreckage. Was it worth it? It all came to the same end. With all this effort, I still didn’t get what I wanted. These roaring blazes were nothing but performances. I either ran or hid because of someone else’s rules. Flames obscure us until we let ourselves reach for what we want.

As I stare into the spitting fire, I realize that I want to keep gardening, even if I don’t quite know what I’ll grow. I gather

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a bouquet of the few flowers alive and extinguish the ring of fire. I spot the hellish character on the other side, but I don’t run or hide. She glances at my bouquet, and her face softens.

Shrouded in smoke, I gaze into the eyes of my maker. I stare at the arc of singed grass beneath my calloused feet. Her snarl eases into lips that look like mine. Ringlets of hair bury her now disintegrating horns. She lifts my heavy hand and guides me through the smoke, but on the other side, I am alone.

The grass is pristine. ■

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"Flames obscure us until we let ourselves reach for what we want."

I itched in my skin, the fleeing from myself worsening the rash.

I itched in my skin, the fleeing from myself worsening the rash.

Oh, how I yearned for beauty.

Oh, how I yearned for beauty.

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y first doll: an American Girl.

The American Girl Doll Store was a place of excitement and personalization. The doll clothes cost as much as regular ones, but the magic of “countless possibilities” made it all worth it — possibilities I quickly found to be limited when it came to picking a doll that looked like me.

My parents practically begged me to get a Black doll. It wasn’t that I didn’t want one; it was that the only Black doll at the time was a slave. Don’t get me wrong, Addy was beautiful, but I didn’t want to be associated with her. Was that all my Blackness had to offer? Struggle? Her backstory was fleeing from the South for heaven’s sake!

I wanted the doll with light skin, green eyes, and straight brown hair, whose hobbies were riding horses and reading. Now she was beautiful. After mustering up a few fake tears and making negotiations in the middle of the store, my parents gave in. They bought the doll I wanted, and Addy, too, for their sanity. I left spoiled rotten, smiling ear to ear.

The first taste of my ugliness was something I had chosen.

In Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, main character Pecola similarly experiences the first marker of beauty and its parameters with her first doll. She dissects every part of the prized possession. She rips apart its blonde hair and blue eyes, attempting to find some explanation for what was so damn special about it. What made it so precious and desirable? What did this inanimate object have that demanded people’s respect? Why was Pecola the polar opposite of it?

I grew up in Frisco, TX, a very white suburb in the DFW area. Ignorance manifested blatant racism and prejudice. Even though I was just

a little girl, a clear narrative existed — one where it was nearly impossible to be content, let alone confident, in the skin I lived in.

My desire for the doll who looked nothing like me wasn’t random. The people who deemed her green eyes and straight hair beautiful and me ugly skipped around my playground, taught lessons at my school, and lived across the street from me.

Our neighbor used to foster dogs. For years, I distinctly remember thinking dogs could smell my race.

“Ms. Laura told us the dogs can smell that we’re Black since they’re colorblind,” I told my dad. “They aren’t used to smelling people like us so they might be a little scared! The little dog likes me, though. He got used to me.”

My dad nodded quietly in sheer disbelief, listening to how Ms. Laura imposed onto her dogs the true feelings she held about “people like us.” Who in their right mind would say that to a kid?

Raising Black kids was no small feat. My parents ensured to embody and surround my sister and I with examples of Black beauty and excellence. However, there was fleeting control outside of the home. What they taught was constantly challenged, and the classroom was no exception.

Kids were kids, and their curiosity and genuine lack of knowledge mixed with their parent’s ignorance created a miserable environment for the only Black girl in their class.

With hands prodding at my hair every which way, I felt like I was the main attraction at a petting zoo. I was asked if I tasted like chocolate — which was just plain stupid. Classmates often questioned what I used to do in Africa (yes, the entire continent!) and the type of exotic animals I saw before coming to the U.S.

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Nerves took hold of my spine every time I had to walk into class knowing the curriculum at some point had to cover Black history. My teachers would nonchalantly flip through slides of Black pain, concluding that racism was no longer an issue because Harriet and Lincoln freed all of the slaves.

Anything that could possibly represent me came from a source of fear and ignorance. Their version of my history lacked color and life. It seemed as though beauty wasn’t even a possibility.

I felt like a mystical figure amongst the community that was supposed to be mine. I knew no different — it was my home — but different was all they saw in me. They’d only heard of, read about, or seen people like me in the news. I didn’t actually exist to them. And even more so, I was never a child in their eyes.

Innocence was a privilege. All I wanted to do was hide. I’d do anything to conceal the expression of my melanin in order to be viewed as what I was: just a kid.

to be like them?

I prayed to the God I was introduced to and questioned Him on how He chose to reflect His image upon me. I accepted what I was told: That I was made in His image and perfection only lay in Him. But I yearned for perfection and beauty in every facet of life, and when I looked in the mirror as a child I felt deficient in both. How could His grace pass me by?

My disdain for something that was such a huge part of me led to an attempt to silently assimilate. I felt my ugliness like a paralyzing crick in my neck. From the minute I woke up to the time my head hit the pillow, I was stiffened with insecurity.

I succeeded in blending in by being quiet and playing dress-up: Sperry, Abercombie & Fitch, Hollister, and Justice pieces filled my closet. I listened to anything within the Pop genre, screaming Taylor Swift lyrics even though I found them painfully unrelatable and dramatic.

I was the carbon copy of a typical pre-teen girl and it was actually ugly — not because there was anything inherently wrong with beauty or the interests of those around me, but because I was obsessed with the desire to be perceived as conventionally beautiful. The cost of joy and individuality was a small price to pay for normal — until it wasn’t.

Through Black art and literature, I discovered beauty with a depth that could only be found in Blackness and the stories behind it.

Authors like Toni Morrison took the blood from her wounds and struggles and created murals. She articulated what it means to be a Black woman in such a poetic way, inspiring

me to find healing and self-love through writing. I found that creating something beautiful was a lot more satisfying (and peaceful) than yearning to meet others’ standards.

Instead of feeding a monster that ripped me to shreds, I became more intentional with what I fed my mind.

Lyrics from neo-soul and rap music spoke to me. Songs like “Appletree” by Erykah Badu, “Don’t Touch my Hair” by Solange, and “Reality Check” by Noname were on repeat. The affirmations and unapologetic pride in Blackness and womanhood truly awakened something within me.

I took control. Creating a real sense of style was a new way of expression. I became my own real life doll! With accessories like hoops and stacked rings, my hair in braids one day and a fro the next, bold eye shadows, and thrifted pieces — normal wasn’t the objective. Though my outfits didn’t consist of plastered brand names, the confidence I experienced for the first time was incomparable.

My confidence and self-love created a powerful new meaning for beauty in a world demanding the opposite of me. I could only discover beauty for myself through a complete love for every part of me.

To me, The Bluest Eye represents the danger of surrender. Pecola and so many Black girls like her, including myself, are victims of innocently accepting what is imposed, turning over their power before becoming aware they had any.

I was liberated in finally meeting myself, my Blackness, and most importantly, my God. No longer idolizing beauty, I relinquished the deadly sin of vanity, and the fog that once blinded me from seeing my true self in the mirror was finally cleared.

What an insult it’d be to only be remembered for the wrapper of my physical body. It is with immense gratitude that I greet my God today. I thank Him for the beauty of the

world around me and within, and for what physical beauty, in all its unique forms, truly represents: Him

Today I look in the mirror and think: What a beautiful woman I’ve become. She has chocolate skin, a charming smile, a low bridge button nose, and a dimple on her left cheek. What a privilege it is to greet this woman every morning.

The arms and thighs I used to complain about are the arms and thighs of the women before me, who held and cared for generations. I see a reflection of myself when I pass the framed photos of them scattered about my parents house. The way my nose crinkles when I smile, the moles and freckles sprinkled across my body, and the way my melanin welcomes the sun all continue their legacy.

From the women I knew to the strangers in my blood who passed down their quirks and features, they lived lives full of love — setting an example for me to do the same.

Wow. What a privilege. ■



I‘m writing the Next Great American Novel. I haven’t written the end yet, but I’m picturing something grand.

My protagonist is charming, if a bit strange. She’s this hedonist insomniac, the type to say yes to the after-party and the after-afterparty and then whatever comes after that because something about walking home as the sky lightens feels romantic. She likes the moments life offers up little absurdities like sharing sidewalks with early risers entering the first hours of their day while she rounds out her last. She especially likes that she is the absurd one in this situation. It fills her with a sense of accomplishment, like a night lived to its fullest is a penny in the bank she will someday retrieve. To her, it is vital to be rich in experience.

She’s flighty, but it’s fine, because she’s more of a free spirit. She’s im-

pulsive, but it’s okay, because she doesn’t really believe in regrets. She can’t commit, but it’s perfect, because she likes her life to be full of variety. Her story’s a little tragic, but not in a way that you feel sorry for her, just in a way that’s mysterious and adds an emotional depth to her character.

[Estelle told me my evil powers come from my hair.]

I’ve been working on the story for a few years now, but it’s taking me a while to figure out. The narrative is hard to pin down, you see; it is ever-changing, because of her. She does that, she swings wildly, she slips out of time and feels rotten for a month, then wakes one morning to the sun hitting her eyelids just so.

So easily, her heart falls back into rhythm.

[Is what I’m looking for real? Can I make it myself?]

Last winter, my particular neuroses found comfort in the face of a French artist’s obsession. The exhibit, titled L’obsession d’un peintre, showcased the work of the eccentric, troubled Sam Szafran. The first room offered an introduction, some background on Szafran: he was born to a Jewish family in Paris in 1934 and spent his early years on the run, fleeing the Nazi regime. He bounced through a series of bad living situations, which led to a rebellious adolescence, characterized by aimlessness and troublemaking.

Szafran didn’t begin taking his art seriously until young adulthood, and it wasn’t until middle age that he gained any sort of notoriety in the art world. Following his death in 2019, this retrospective exhibit housed the largest collection of his work ever shown. After wandering through a few more rooms, I found myself facing a wall of staircases.

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There is so much to say about Szafran’s spiraling staircases. They bend and collide, pare down to thin lines, balloon into cubic panoramas. I’d never seen anything like it. The placards beside paintings revealed an even more dizzying truth: Szafran fashioned these stairwells, modeled after those in his Parisian apartment building, to reflect the terror he experienced as a young boy,when an uncle he’d been living with dangled him by his ankles above the stairwell — cruelly, to inject fear.

Framed by this context, the works allude to an obsession with perfection informed by a childhood lack of autonomy and control. Szafran’s staircases, endless and beautiful as they may be, possess one unifying quality: we cannot see a way out. They end and begin someplace beyond our perspective. Though he replicated them over and over and over again, he could never draw

himself an exit. And so he was condemned.

[It’s just getting started, you know.]

The obsession that drove him to create and recreate, to capture it and capture it differently than anyone else, felt like the obsession that drives me to fill pages in notebooks with slightly different descriptions of the same smile.

[I’m not sure what I believe will happen when I finally find the right combination of words to convey the curl of your lip, but I come back to the page and you’re there.]

To frame a collection of art through the lens of the artist’s obsession invites an exploration of the nature of artistic expression — how does shaping it into a disciplined practice affect the psyche? An artist striving for perfection has assigned themselves the impossible task

of capturing the ephemeral. No wonder they have a reputation for going mad.

[How much of love necessitates letting go?]

The staircase might go on forever. The green tendrils might never drape correctly and the hard feelings might never quite make it into the right words. But Szafran and I, we try. Anyone who tries to create something does. It is frustrating, sometimes painful, to fall just short of capturing its essence exactly. In the case of Szafran, and of so many bruised, neurotic artists, these failed attempts become powerful works in their own right.

It’s not that the pain feeds the beauty so much that the attempt to put something as raw as the pain into art is beautiful.

We try. And it is beautiful.

[Oh my God. I’m not writing enough of it down.]

Walk a little further, turn the gallery corner. There is Lilette, Szafran’s wife, draped in a red kimono and framed by a gargantuan rhodeodendron. Its leaves take many shades and forms — greens and blues, delicate and sweeping, frantic and crazed. But there again is Lilette, appearing over and over, a lover-shaped anchor in the sea of his obsession. His desire for perfection surrounds her, engulfs her — made virtuous by her presence.

Flip the page. There you are, shaped in musings and in memories, inked in morningsafter and nights-before. There you are, fresh as I could catch you. I never think much about the things I am capturing in writing until I return to them and they’re all I have left. Each page reads so much more to me than what I’ve remem-

bered to write down. Between moments of despair, in blank stretches, there is love. In scrawled grocery lists, there is care. In the way I paint your name, curling the end of each letter with flair, there is something inexpressible being expressed.

[The leaves have all changed color without my noticing. Somewhere in between dreary rooms, the green outside burst into candylike shades of orange and red and yellow.]

I’m writing the Next Great American Novel. My protagonist has no fucking clue what she’s doing.

[And so it begins.] ■

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Control is power, and though it’s a delusion, it’s magnetic.


That freeway existed long before Maeve and Erin were born and long after W.D. Bedell and Erin died.

That freeway was the first freeway to exist in Texas. It was unveiled in 1948 with an anonymity that seemed strange for how impossible it was to ignore. Thatfreeway pounded and drilled and stretched its limbs as it displaced Houstonians in poor neighborhoods and stirred excitement in businessmen and yet, when it was unveiled, it had no name. Some newspapers came to call it the Interurban Expressway, poor people just called it “that damned road,” and later that year, Miss Sara Yancy of the Houston Heights won $100 for calling it the Gulf Freeway in a Houston freeway naming contest.

So, it is the Gulf Freeway for a while.

It is the Gulf Freeway when W.D. Bedell writes about it in 1957. Bedell’s position as a columnist for the Houston Post runs on the waning power of a personal favor. He battles a popular radio show that sensationalizes the American Dream, because apparently only one segment can sensationalize the American Dream. Bedell believes writing does something speaking can’t do, and he intends to prove it to that radio show, to that boss losing faith in him, and to you.

Bedell is at the unveiling in 1948, when that freeway is exciting.

A group of five hundred is swallowed by the vastness of that freeway and the flat space that expands out on all sides of it. Mayor Oscar Holcombe gives a speech about progress and plays “Happy Days are Here Again,” on a phonograph. The music loses its volume as it travels through the air. To Bedell, it’s like an eerie baby shower for something that has the potential to end the world or save it. It doesn’t have predecessors or a name, but there is a sense it is something.That freeway makes him feel anxious yet imperceptibly excited perhaps because he can raise and name that something by immortalizing it in his image. When people drive home on thatfreeway for the first time, they move faster than they’ve ever moved before.

By the summer of 1992, when Maeve drives up that freeway from her poor suburb to Erin’s richer suburb for the summer, it is called I-45.

Maeve and Erin have spent many summers together. They’re cousins related on their mother’s sides. Maeve lives immediately off the left side of I-45, universally known as the poor side. Erin lives in the nicer suburb, the right side.

This drive to Erin’s inspires a hypnotizing sense of power in Maeve. It’s easy to move faster than I-45. It takes only the flex of her foot and the slight of her hand to make the cars whizz past her. She’s sweating; she’s picking up speed, adding numbers onto that 80 mph. 85 mph. 90 mph. If only for a moment, she controls it.

And then the drive is done, and she shakes off the feeling. She exits the freeway, slipping between residential streets and is disturbed by how quiet and still Erin’s house is.

But then, Erin is there. Her cousin is sitting in that big, reclining La-Z-Boy like she always is, and she’s smiling coyly reading a magazine like she always is, and Maeve breaks down into part of a whole like she always does.

“Can we drive?” Erin says.

Of course Maeve wants to drive. In the suburbs, there’s not much else to do.

In the time before boys, they could entertain themselves for hours in the car, absorbed in their interior world. They would toss McDonald’s fries at each other, giggling. With Erin, Maeve actually liked sitting in traffic because they would roll down the windows on I-45 and sing Janet Jackson to strangers stuck in cars.

This summer is different.

This summer, Maeve and Erin find it particularly exciting to taunt older men from the car. At a light, they wave men in cars over to a hotel. They make their eyes big and enticing, batting full lashes clumped with drugstore mascara. When the men pull into the roundabout, Erin and Maeve peel

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out, laughing like girls. Their laughter hangs in the air after they roll up their windows to coast down I-45. Maeve turns in the passenger seat to face Erin.

“Has anything happened with the boyfriend yet?”

Maeve, at the time, was curious about Erin’s boyfriends. Maeve dated guys her age, but Erin’s guy was older. To Erin, the notion of having sex with him

seemed much more exciting when she was doing things like applying mascara in the mirror or reading magazines barefoot on the Lay-Z-Boy. Maeve’s mention of him outside of something future and speculative was gross.

Of course, when she responds to Maeve, she frames it as a joke — a funny addition to the things they like and dislike about the new and curious things happening with men.

By 1992, that freeway was very different than in 1948 and 1957. In 1992, it was suffocating underneath writhing overpasses that stacked and stumbled over one another.

Where the overpasses fell, they bled into commercial centers and swallowed tiny towns. The freeways had to grow to survive. Their existence depended on continuous expansion,

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and if the towns got too big to exist independently of the city’s resources, the freeways were unnecessary and left behind. It is for that reason Houston bears the marks of its growth like stretch marks on a body that grows too quickly to contain itself, looped by 610, then Beltway 8, then Highway 99.

For a while, though, that freeway did shine. It shone brightly in 1957 when cars moved through space unencum-

bered by future outlet malls and gated communities. When it was the Gulf Freeway, the road buzzed with potential energy. As the cars drove over it, they could feel the future coming. W.D. Bedell was the one who was going to eternalize it.

He exits, slowing the car. He’s brought a multicolored, rusting lawn chair and his typewriter with him. He parks the car in the grass bordering the road. He

unfolds his chair, lifts his suit pants, and sits facing I-45 with a typewriter on his lap. He sits without knowing when he will move again. He begins to type, ThisisHouston.Itisacitythatrefuses tostandstillforanybody…

In the summer of 1993, the boyfriend stumbles to the right side of the car and opens the door for Erin. She concedes that sly, sideways smile and guides her lanky, slumping limps into the passen

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ger seat. The boyfriend reverses.

…Itisacitywheretheold,exceptinitssturdiestforms quicklydisappears,inwhichthenewquicklybecomes theold,inwhichchangeisrelentlessandrushing…

The boyfriend merges onto I-45. The alcohol does something strange to the course of the night; they dance around control and their lack of it — a hand on the wheel, a contained car on an open road. He moves across four lanes in a string of jerky motions, just missing a car.


Erin knows Maeve would disapprove of this boyfriend. She still keeps Maeve’s voice with her even though they’ve grown apart. Maeve didn’t like the drinking, fine. Maeve got a job, fine. Is this what happens? Erin looks at this boyfriend driving. She drinks in his movements: the way his fingers grip and loosen, the way he looks toward her. Erin does not love this boyfriend, but she loves when he looks at her like this: not at or into her, but toward her. More exhilarating to Erin is the sense that she is free, and rich, and high, and drunk, and alive, and those things texture the air with a feeling like love.

…Pause, if you safely can, somewhere beside the Gulf Freeway…

The boyfriend sees that she’s enjoying herself, so he

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speeds up and Erin laughs. 80, then 85. She laughs first to make him feel secure, and he smiles. Then it becomes funny how reactive he is to her, how weak he looks in the driver’s seat, and she throws her head back and laughs harder. A raspy, deep laugh, like she’s gurgling asphalt. Erin is reclined, looking up at the sunroof, liking the feeling of being dizzy with the velocity of the car. She feels light. In this moment where control has been ceded, Erin is most powerful. She feels divine: she is the first person, the only person, to be completely absolved from the limits of her corporeality.


The overhead fluorescent lights burn an artificial orange against an otherwise black night. The houses dotting the frontage road emanate faint yellow lights that look like a chemtrail tracing her path. She stares at the blur, and it begins to feel sad and untrue. The boyfriend has stopped watching her.

…Butdonotstandstillfortoolong,youmightgetrun over.Orwhatisworse,inHouston,yousurelywillget left behind…

The boyfriend was going ninety when he hit the barrier. At that moment, in 1993, Maeve was asleep. W.D. Bedell was under the ground, weighed down by the perennial motion of cars above him. And the freeway, rather impersonally, had expanded but never moved and did not intend to. ■

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environment COLIN CANTWELL




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Twenty-change long years alive, the grand old Age of self-possessèd souls, of private City Zen, serene yet roused by quiet Rapping at my gray, galvanic threshold.

Countless bugs— do aphids swarm the rose-stem Sapping life-propelling sacch’rin liquid, Rich synthetic phloem-drawn food scraps, wicked, Ejecting dreamers in their buds from REM?


My lying eyes see ladybugs and midges Seeking, slaking stigmas, all-intrusive, Overeager, gnawing necks, abusive. I fear perhaps I yearn to burn my bridges.


Noxious, caustic, metastatic colonizers, Make of me a feral hog, truffle-hunting, Starving, ashen sepal underbrush, wanting Feasts of callous, raw pretender supervisors.

Ripping out defiled nerves and neurons, wherein the coward Parasitoid wasp has birthed her larval brood. In Loathing I am pure. Putrid rot, necrotic kin, Cerebellar growth— a fetching, flowing-forth hate has flowered.

Eternal, flailing tongues have flogged our fragile, branded forms, Captured, lens and chain, then etherized, my gore left clotting by the limestone. Define, Leviathan. Define your thirst past breath and blood, body and bone. If my own thoughts are left untouched, my switch-torn skin is yours to keep, O dust, O worms.

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The garden weeds have taken root in me, Sprouting thin and thirsty, sucking salt, discarded Projects in a lick, my tongue is charred, my mind is charted. You bathe in dirt beneath the knowledge-bearing pomegranate tree. America the dreamless, locust, tumor, baku come to feed, Banging at my door— my door is locked, my door is salted. I cling tight to every thought of mine you’ve faulted; When splinters fly, you’ll lie that I’ve been freed.

When lab rats dream, the cage

(I’M SAFE IN HERE I’M SAFE IN HERE) Remains. Their cell is all around.


In dreams they’re chained to rage; (I HOLD THEM CLOSE I HOLD THEM DEAR) Dear God, to nightmares they are bound. (MY BRAIN IS MINE MY THOUGHTS MY MIND)

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I’ll walk to the mossy-green lake with you (Eloi Eloi) and gaze at our glossy reflection Our milky-white cataract eyes above (Eloi Eloi) what’s left of our smoky-gray teeth, the Last remnants of failed fumigation, and (lama lama) addiction to azure-stained slides, full With boundless amoebas, bacteria, (sabachthani) all patriots under the microscope.


I’ll set out the vinegar traps like you asked. I’ll wash the dishes you left on my bedside table by the ballpoint with which I draw up my escape plans, manifestos I shred and burn daily. Each morning you rummage through my filing cabinet and cover my flat in far-flung papers. I wait until you leave and clean them up. I tidy my ivory-walled apartment often now; I’ve gotten used to guests. I’m draped across my bedbug-ridden mattress holding the telephone receiver to my ear, handset cord wrapped around my body like a too-proud boa constrictor. I’m calling again to ask if I look pretty when I’m in opisthotonus. The phone’s not plugged in— you tore the coax cable out ages ago. Later tonight, tangled together in sweaty limbs and filthy sheets, I’ll ask one more time and you won’t answer. I won’t mind. Every day I sweep up woodchips. ■

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Be Not Afraid

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At age six, I was obsessed with Harry Potter to the point of mimicking his accent. The magic enchanted me, and as a lonely, bookish child, I adored growing up alongside the characters. Most interesting, though, was the delivery of the Hogwarts letter — the recognition of exceptionality, uniqueness. This breathless anticipation, greedy for wizardly validation, led me to perhaps the most breathtaking philosophical epiphany of my young life.

Brushing my teeth in the mirror, lazy, nude, staring at the face I’d learned recently was my own, a thought slithered into my mind like a certain serpent: I could very well be the chosen one. Mind too raw for archetypes, I never made the connection to my literary fascination du jour. Taking charge, my blooming ego spoke: “Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind,” and there crawled countless beastly thoughts of the same genus. Maybe I’m immortal. Maybe the sun won’t rise tomorrow. Maybe some spirit, some ghost, will show up in this bathroom to warn me.

As the iris needs both sun and rain to bloom, maturing to young adulthood consists necessarily of equal parts ecstasy and existential dread.

Yet even adolescent joys, like heightened independence and academic validation, have enhanced my anxiety that the nihilists were right: that there is no higher purpose, and that the burden weighs on us alone to create what we will of life.

Fine, we can all play artisan. But when my hands are too weak and withered to craft, the commandment becomes cruel! Even in the rhapsodies of ignorant childhood, I’ve always sought triumph — to be more sociable, more experienced, more

loved, more, more, more. My stomach is stuffed full of more, and all throughout this endless cultural banquet hall, there’s not one morsel of enough. I rush to the vomitorium to clear space.

No, then, this cannot be the nihilist command. It is the capitalist one, stealing and defiling Nietzsche’s Übermensch (all-too-susceptible to fascistic interpretation, it seems), puppeteering it to say “there is nothing to life but what you can produce.” And how impossible I’ve found it to resist this harsh, inflicted raison d’être! How naturally has it been imposed upon my juvenile psyche in the rosy language of dreams, and how casually it has abused me with the crop of aspiration, forced me to gallop through pain!

The road to escaping capitalist societal pressures includes, I feel, a Kierkegaardian leap. It almost seems too simple: inner peace is possible if I believe that it’s worthwhile. Yet the modern positivist in me surveys the yawning chasm of doubt and struggles to accept that just living, just being, is sufficient. Anyways, this side of the abyss — this chaotic striving — stirs the desires of that ego which so yearns for purpose but shudders, increasingly fearful that purpose might not be synonymous with status. Wouldn’t it be so much easier, it wonders hurriedly, if some God or another appeared and just told us what to do?

This “God” vernacular wasn’t in my vocabulary at the time of my bathroom egoist eureka moment. Growing up agnostic but studying religion, I’ve irreversibly corrupted my mind with divine imagery which has molded how I now understand that urge. I now contextualize this childhood desire to be the “chosen one” not within the arrival of Hedwig to Harry, but from the archangel Gabriel to Mary at the moment he announces the Incarnation of Christ. Fittingly titled the Annunciation, this favorite subject of countless Italian painters became the lens through which I stared across the chasm and into the deep amber fog which shrouds purpose, divine or otherwise.

ecstasy and

existential dread “

The fantasy of divine visitation and subsequent bestowal of a holy mission or cause has followed me from that bathroom to adulthood. I have lingered countless times at the mirror, lazy and nude, wondering whether my archangel has deemed me unworthy or is simply caught in celestial traffic. It’s true! The wild musings of a freshly minted preschooler have too frequently spurred me to action, convincing me that omitting any inane obligation might bar me from the final key of knowledge needed to unlock the door of revelation, to entice my Gabriel to me.

Sure, it keeps me focused. But my goals only feed my ego’s hunger for more, and if my hope for divine apparition — a hope which I recognize as logically impossible — is rooted in a valuedriven conception of self-worth, then I will die a failure, without ever experiencing the Annunciation. I will die never having been enough.

This vain daydream, then, sheds sick pale light upon my ego, who has fashioned the ore of a schoolboy’s misguided ruminations on Harry Potter into a cold, mature sword of solipsism and greed. We must be enough, it reasons frantically, otherwise another might see our vision. A different inner voice— that of the superego, perhaps— rings out over the din of clashing blades, deeming this clear act of selfishness metastatic. Left unchecked, it shouts, this nauseating approach to other people will destroy my interpersonal relationships and eventually, my entire life. The debate over my boyhood desire takes on the colors of a holy war.

At some point, I noticed that the more severely I scolded the ego and shunned the quiescent

Narcissus it seeks to awaken, the further I transformed into the very demon of more which I elsewhere justly reproached. Spending more time attempting to teach my ego obedience just meant more time trapped in my head, more time navelgazing. Hypervigilance is evidently no means for escaping the binds of solipsism, and I can’t exactly amputate my ego from the brain. The just war is doomed — all victories are temporary at best and Pyrrhic at worst, and it seemed the ego had clearance to cling to whatever comfortable childhood caprice it pleased.

My initial reaction to this defeat is despair. Must the daily struggle to exist as if I deserve it be haunted ceaselessly by the threat of total selfabsorption, by my ego’s self-serving propaganda? Concession, no matter how partial, is never easy. The thought that I may be a slave to this irrational, gluttonous lower self, that it can overpower my will to release even the most arbitrary of fantasies, is frankly terrifying. Fated, apparently, to relinquish absolute agency in personal growth, I crumbled at the prospect of lost self-determination.

After years stumbling about in the desert, falling for mirage after mirage, I now drink from what I believe is an oasis: there is no defeat in forgiveness. The ego is a villain by nature, not by malice — it’s a toddler in a candy store, distracted by the smell of sweets and digging her unwashed hands through barrels of saltwater taffy. There’s no need for a grand “get thee behind me” — not that it would work anyway.

Accepting imperfection is an act of loosening the bonds of capital, and if I cannot exorcize the ego, perhaps I can excuse it. And if its sweet tooth remains, perhaps instead of extracting it, I can regain some control by deciding what to feed it. My Kierkegaardian leap, in the end, looks a lot like humoring the enemy I once cursed for holding me hostage. Salvaging both a sense of divinity and identity, I turn again to the Annunciation for guidance, and tell my ego that it

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can stay — on a certain few conditions. My ego rejoices in its conquest and pays little attention to the details of the peace treaty.

My stipulations are as such: I acknowledge the Annunciation not as a historical moment, but as archetypal of every moment. The blinding appearance of Gabriel occurs incessantly — so often, in fact, that we grow bored and look elsewhere for meaning. The gorge separating us from divine experience is hardly a pothole. And why not? Why shouldn’t the divine telos — which I waited so impatiently in the mirror for — just be experience, senses, breath?

Mary, who I once envied so desperately, is infinitely appeared to, infinitely blessed, infinitely shocked and comforted in each miraculous heartbeat. We inhabit a world reborn every instant, teleological in the completeness of its moments and not in the way that birth leads to death. Each millisecond the angel Gabriel appears to us with good news, and every living soul reacts with autonomy.

Maybe I am absurd, and this is another cowardly recoiling from inanity; so be it. The divine occupies the absurd, too. Besides, as far as Sisyphean tasks go, you can do a lot worse than reverent appreciation. I forgive myself my whimsy; let the capitalists beg me in vain to hate myself when my rock rolls to the bottom of the hill. ■

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Our hunt for self-discovery in the subconscious

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may reveal more than we’re ready to confront.

The Pythia descends.

She must step carefully across the fissure-stricken dirt floor of the chamber beneath the temple of Delphi. The powerful fumes rising from a massive tear in the soft Earth are attributed to Apollo’s slaying of the legendary Python; to the massive snake’s slow decomposition at the bottom of the pit.

As she inhales the fumes, she begins to sway on the tripod stool that balances over the chasm. Her eyelashes flutter madly, her lips open and close like a dying fish, and she chants fervently. At last, she falls still. She has spoken with the tongue of the gods.

The Pythia’s power is not intrinsic, but rather granted through the intricate procedures that foreground the moment of possession. It is the submersion in the Cassian springs, the slaughter of the baby goat, and, probably, the inhalation of dangerous amounts of ethane that allow for the god Apollo to inhabit an unremarkable mortal body.

For a single moment, her skin was a vessel for holding godhood. Her body grew in size, her hair stood on end. Time collapsed in her hands, allowing her access to the past as well as the future. Her mind, omniscient and all-powerful, expanded rapidly, nearly shattering in the process of pressing against its mortal bound.

Physically spent, she collapses. The singular strength it required to host a god within her has shaved a year from her lifespan, but her mind dances in exhausted ecstasy. She has come back from the land of the extraordinary bearing strange gifts.

This is the oldest story there is.

Scholar Joseph Campbell’s monomyth is the formula for every hero’s making: the figures of myth, legend, folklore, and religious canon. It depicts the procedure following the hero’s descent into the world of the unnatural and sublime, and the subsequent journey back to the mundane world with untold wisdom and self-understanding. These narratives (Gilgamesh, Orpheus, Dante, Muhammad, King Arthur) form the canon of humanity’s favorite story. It is a story of descent and discovery, of other planes and places that are not here. This is KATABASIS.

The human desire for descent exceeds (or perhaps, provokes) our storytelling compulsions. KATABASIS, conceptually, eclipses the literary structure and its underworld destination: it’s the movement of our intellects to places that are unfamiliar, powerful, and raw. Our hunger to let loose our souls and engulf our tired lives in enlightenment has long guided the stories we tell about what we’re made of.

We have an intuition that our selves are not really our selves; that we connect with the real world through a conduit or medium that is a constructed artifice. It seems that the realm of

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the extraordinary is less interesting to us than the journey there, the procedures involved in invoking it. We’re looking for ourselves underneath ourselves, the heart within the heart. We’re tracking the ghostly flit of the true self across the subconscious.


In the Amazon basin, Davi Kopenawa Yanomami imbibes the yãkoana powder and becomes spirit.

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My soul, my soul,

on the forest with an ungodly body. This, Davi reports in his book, The Falling Sky, is often the experience of Yanomami shamans, who from a young age feel a spiritual intensity, an otherworldly awe and terror, a calling to honor the memory of the universe that lives deep within them and needs no written transcript. The ritual trip is only a single facet of the world of visions and dreams that Yanomami shamans walk.

The yãkoana analog ayahuasca has drawn the attention of the rich and famous in America. “Hollywood’s hallucinogen” has enticed the likes of celebrities with promises of life-changing revelation. In short, it promises a quick hit of KATABASIS for the KATABASIS-starved soul. Pharmahuasca pills won’t cut it for these lost Westerners: the sterility of a therapist-office trip does not lend itself to soul-searching. It is the ritual that draws them. They want authenticity and legitimacy and a real shaman!, even if they couldn’t begin to tell you what a shaman is, or does, or how practices vary significantly from culture to culture.

A powerful fear drives the phenomena of ayahuasca tourism. Our lost Westerners come from a place where empiricism is king, and even our stabs at self-discovery are controlled, measured: we know the outcome before we’ve begun. The hunger for KATABASIS has been redirected into safer, gentler outlets, which tell nice, easy stories about our lives. Tarot decks at Barnes and Noble, influencer-recommended gratitude journals, and flights into the Amazon to hire a real shaman!, if you’ve got enough money to toss at the problem.

I know where you can find the real you, the self-discovery industry says. She’s in there, and I know where you can find her. We’ve tested it, and proven it, and peerreviewed it.

It sounds a hell of a lot nicer than the voice saying: What if this really is all there is? What if I look for the real me, and I never find it?

What if I look and I’m not there? ***

“My soul, my soul, where are you? Do you hear me? I speak, I call you – are you there? I have returned, I am here again. I have shaken the dust of all the lands from my feet and I have come to you. I am with you. After long years of long wandering, I have come to you again…”

So Carl Jung writes in the first of seven journals, which would later be published as “The Black Books,” on a No-

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where are you? Do you hear me?

vember night in 1913. Since his induction into the spiritualist movement in 1899, he has been fascinated with the unconscious. He draws up academic papers on the matter of moving towards the dead, on the psychical elements which are the substances of the spiritual body. He is enamored with realms beyond conscious comprehension and with accessing what lies within us.

I speak, I call you – are you there?

“The Black Books” are Carl’s attempt to map the inner workings of the mind. The psychic material against which the ship of his mind runs aground is, he realizes, the material which causes psychosis and insanity. It is an unending well of image, it is the vein that ties the psyches of the world together. He sees oceans turning to blood, the destruction of civilization, and observes the emptiness in the wasteland. He hears a voice assert that he, indeed, looks on reality. The visions last for hours.

Psychosis? Insanity? Carl’s descent into himself is inscrutable, impossible to understand or replicate. He may have just been crazy, sitting perfectly still in his living room, hallucinating a desert, a voice that sounds like God, searching for his lost soul in the images. He may have been a scientist, conducting strange experiments: what happens if I accept my wildest imaginations as the truth in reality?

What caused Carl’s confrontation with the unconscious? Were Davi and the Pythia encountering the divine, or were they encountering a chemical cocktail strong enough to knock out your average ayahuasca tourist? These are the questions that don’t matter. KATABASIS fuses the illusory with reality, the explicable with the inexplicable. It is unpredictable, unverifiable, sacrificial, permanent. To undergo it, you must forego all expectations and illusions of control.

If you stand on the precipice of yourself and find that looking down scares you, there’s surely a YouTube video on beginner manifestation to soothe you, or a flight to the Amazon that leaves tomorrow. KATABASIS is not, after all, a procedure of finding yourself.

It is one of losing yourself.

Will you still choose to descend? ■

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HEADPIECE | Elsa Zhang BLACK TOP | Elsa Zhang

If I were to look it in the eyes — directly, without fear or hesitation — I’m not sure if I would survive the confrontation. Its evil lives on the inside of my skin; it sounds like me, breathes as I do. The evil that paralyzes me is my child, is the devil living in the center of my eye.

And yet, I could never look into theirs.

Fear is my neighbor, my oldest friend — and it’s trying to kill me. Living inside me, it makes me heavy and dark. Masterfully slicing my flesh wide open and drawing blood, spelling out its message of hatred in the sticky fluid as it drips down my rotting skin. I know this beast. I am Her. And yet, I could never hope to conquer the poison it has unleashed upon my life, the venom that has seeped into my veins.

I tried talking to it, once.

The room always smelled of cinnamon. The lamp always had one bulb out. I don’t remember much else about my only therapist’s office, other than the fact that I became utterly attached to it. As I sat on the couch, letting the fibers prick my evil skin awake, I stuck the needle in my arm and let her words replenish my health, desperate to finally be made good again. I was an adolescent bacteria, desperate for a host — a mother who wasn’t my own. I longed for guidance from the mouth of anyone who wasn’t my parent.

It became a weekly revival — a rebirth. I refused to let my fears meet my gaze outside the sanctity of those four walls. Surely, if I ever did, they would split my body in half, and you’d find a message of warning spelled out in my entrails over a mosaic of blood. They never leave me without a

scar, without a wound to remind me that I would never be strong enough to defeat their control.

I would never find the strength to overcome them on my own. So, I let a white woman in her 40s convince me that they didn’t exist. I fell into the trap — deep and headfirst, the way dumb naive girls do — and began to believe that I no longer needed to exhaust myself with these daily battles. I shoved the small, blue pills down my throat and slept a full eight hours each night. I began to believe that the only anecdote I needed was a positive attitude, an official diagnosis and a refillable prescription.

“You are your own worst enemy.” She wrote it on the board the first time we met, and turned to me in silence. I returned her awe, mouth agape and mind rewired. It was like seeing God. I am my own evil, I thought, and so I executed my internal demons and was determined to leave the fog of war behind. I was a warrior, a victor. I had destroyed the evil, and taken enough medicine to choke it out from the inside.

I should’ve known it lived in silence still.

If they were to have truly vanished, truly died, then I would’ve, too. For they’re an extension of me, my inner evils manifested. If I am alive, so are they. Not dead, only hidden. They waited in the deepest and most desolate ridges of my mind — feeding off the darkness of the horrors I refuse to confront. Eventually, it evolved beyond my recognition, and once it escaped from the shadows it began to unleash its revenge.

It had been almost two years. I never missed a session. I was always early, desperate for a fresh dose of her elixir. I was eagerly waiting for her to heal me, convinced that this woman had rein-

jected a sense of life into me that no other person alive was capable of replicating — even myself. She had done it, that witch! I’m cured! The weight of the world lifts off the aching back of a troubled teenage girl when she finally finds the brave soul who’s willing to rip it off of her.

But the sun set on that day. I never saw my therapist again. Calls were never returned. Emails were left unanswered. My savior left me in a void, turning me loose to the cruelty of the world. The worst powers were left undead within me. And so, as the needle was ripped out of my arm, so went the medicine streaming out of it.

And it — stronger than ever — came slithering out of the shadows.

No one ever thinks about taking their own life until they do, and then nothing looks the same. The only way to survive was to exchange my life for theirs, to become an empty carcass to be pumped full of its thick, crude oil. I had tried to kill them, thought I did, and was reminded of their immortality. I renounced salvation and devoted myself to the terror that took its place.

Now, I live alongside it, in a state of eternal submission. Waiting for a God — a woman with a listening ear — to remind me that it doesn’t truly exist.

Woman, if you hear me, and have any mercy left in your wings, please alleviate me from this eternal suffering. Make me a warrior worthy of sacrifice, and one strong enough to claim death instead of complete control. I live in destitute, deprived of the joy of someone unchained from these cruelties, and crave the freedom granted by your fibrous couch. By your cinnamon. By your faint, flickering bulb.

“I renounced salvation and devoated myself to the that took its place.”

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Silence. Always silence.

The ribbed skin on my knees is raw from prayer. You have left me. I must submit to survive. I am incapable of salvation, and their infection reminds me of my inferiority.

So I have no choice but to submit completely, and become the monster myself. I know this beast. I am Her. I drink the poison — and I don’t spit. Instead, I swirl it against the walls of my mouth and swallow. ■

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If beauty is the end, then the knife is the means — and I’ll give you a spoiler up front. There is no end, not really.

What does exist in the pursuit of beauty is an insatiable cycle of fixing a perceived imperfection, then finding a new one, and eventually trying to fix that one, too. For some, it’s a process akin to character customization: you remake your self-concept again and again in search of something true. For others, it’s a process of detoxification: eliminating impurities from the body one by one. But while the gap between the actual self and the ideal self is infinite, the flesh is not. A body can only take so much.

In the global West, concepts of desirability are seeded in binary gender norms and the white racial frame, distributed along the axis of wealth. Ethnocentric features are marketed to wealthy buyers but rebuked when they occur naturally on the nonwhite working class. As soon as a procedure becomes widely attainable, the goalpost is shifted. By the time the average Jane is getting anesthetized for a BBL, the models on her Pinterest boards have reverted to Y2K thinspo. And the A-list celebrities those models are imitating? They’re covertly buying out the ozempic injections that Jane’s diabetic mother can only afford through Medicaid in order to drop their belly fat overnight.

So sickness becomes beauty becomes sickness. Smoking clove cigarettes is topical, as is vaping, but Marlboros are for trailer trash. Cocaine is

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Cancún, but meth is just Meza, AZ. Lipo ferries the same few ounces of fat through different checkpoints on your body until septic shock rudely intercepts the delivery. If the idea repulses you, pop an Ativan and sleep it off. With any luck, you’ll wake up in the phase of the cycle where your diagnoses are back in fashion. Chasing a standard that’s always subject to revision will catalyze your transformation into someone you don’t

with urban society in general, the insidious pressure to concede to desirability will haunt you without respite.

This is around the time we get a little desperate to

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make sure to set aside a hefty chunk of it towards researching which piece of your anatomy will land on the chopping block tomorrow.

From this perspective, we can understand beauty as annexation. Just as the Eurocentric standard of attractiveness in the global West is married to imperialist history, each and every iteration of “the look” is crafted to coax you into giving something up for fear that it will be taken from you. Ample flesh on the feminine body was fashionable when it signaled you were rich enough to never go hungry; starvation became coveted when wealth meant you could skip meals on purpose. Perfect martyrs forsake bread and wine, run that extra mile even when they know they’ll puke afterwards, and refrain from laughter, lest the vestigial traces of their joy one day become evidence to corroborate accusations of self-neglect. We say, “you’ve let yourself go.” We mean, “you’re supposed to die still holding that leash.” We mean, “don’t ever think no one’s watching.”

Thus, if beauty is the means, then the material journey to a traditionally successful end starts to make a lot more sense.

There’s a reason the term “face card” caught fire online: your appearance is social currency, and in the malleable digital landscape, you can theoretically launder it through a barrage of filters until you’ve established a large enough audience that your eventual exposé bears no lasting consequence. Beauty is capital: social, then financial, which over time becomes generational. Being pleasant enough to look at can herald a dizzying slew of opportunities through your door, many of which are unimaginable for someone average. Beautiful people can star in beautiful movies, endorse beautiful brands, register beautiful trademarks, and write beautiful checks. Their faces and bodies are reified as magnetic commodities that attract more and better.

The pursuit of beauty is endless — approximating universal attractiveness is the ouroboros of personal ambition. Meanwhile, the digital voyeur delights in knowing that these efforts will never bear fruit. Chasing after trends earns sneering contempt, as does attempting to play meteorologist and predict their next incarnations. Successfully keeping pace with them means tethering yourself to their evolution forever. And if your only reward for doing well is the expectation to do better, consider why you’re doing it at all.

Should you decide to walk the beautiful path to reach your destination, then do so with extreme prejudice, and remember that people will stare — but know also that beauty cannot be reached, or ended, or held, or killed. There is no weapon to defeat it. The knife has only ever pointed back at you. ■

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White walls and white floors decorate the Room. Two white doors stand at opposite sides. At the Room’s center sits a sevenfoot-long, white table with two white chairs at each end. The table is covered with a white cloth too big for its size; the cloth pools onto the ground, concealing whatever lurks beneath.

The Room is a vacant stage, uncanny in its simplicity. Aside from the hum of fluorescent lights, this Room is silent. It is sterile and unwelcoming. No bodies sit in its chairs. Yet, this Room will soon be filled — it must, for it is the only room that is said to exist. And so, with open doors, this Room waits for new occupants.

This Room waits for you.

From the shadows, you enter. Your eyes strain against the blue glow and sadden at the emptiness. You walk forward and sit in the chair at the end of the table nearest to you.

The silence continues. You are alone. You know what must come next. The Ritual takes two. You, too, exist to wait.

You sit patiently with your hands joined together. Your stare is plastered to the open door situated opposite you. In the silence, you hear all: the lights buzzing, the tablecloth spilling onto the floor, the atoms flying in the air, the energy emitting from your very body, and the footsteps approaching.

You are no longer alone.

From the shadows, I enter. I walk into the room and take a seat in the other chair.


I see you now. You are a friend. I put on a smile. You do the same.

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We assume the role of Participants. The empty pleasantries of the Ritual commence.

I ask how you are doing. You answer. I nod in recognition. You ask how I am doing. I tell you I am fine. I ask what you have done today.

As you talk, I see movement out of the left corner of my eye. I am careful not to break eye contact with you; I don’t want to be rude. I nod as you speak. The movement is red and slow, oozing out of the ceiling tiles. I keep my eyes on you. I decide when it is best to widen my eyes, furrow my brow, and then smile again. I want you to know that I hear what you are saying.

You do not seem to notice the movement on the wall. Or maybe you don’t think I notice it. That would mean I am performing well. Or is the substance coming from you? Why are you doing this? To scare or distract me? Are you in danger? Are you hurt? Is that blood?

It doesn’t matter. It can’t. I must remain engaged in the Ritual. When you laugh, I laugh. When you cry, I cry. When you shudder at the cold air, I shudder all the same. I tell myself I am happy to do this. You tell yourself the same. But the substance grows further down the wall. Its shape is slender, curving and crawling toward the center of the Earth. I remain unrelenting in my commitment to ignore the substance — which I can only assume is a Creature of some sort.

At one moment you are talking, and the next you are silent. You continue to stare at me, like you are awaiting a response. You must have asked me a question. That’s my cue.

“The empty pleasantries of the Ritual commence.”

I must respond quickly so you don’t notice that I am on the verge of breaking our conversation to scream because a Creature is about to eat us — or eat me. For all I know, you could still be the Creature. The only thing I am certain of is that the Creature is not me. It can’t be — there are no mirrors in this Room.

You release a nervous laugh. It’s now been too long since your question. I know I need to answer — that the Ritual can only continue with my response — but the Creature has built a house in my periphery and left me stunned. All I can do is smile.

You wince for a second, as if I punched you in the gut with my lack of verbal response. The Ritual has become vulnerable. The Creature quickens its crawl. Now I must save the place I claimed for myself in this interaction. I must save my face.

I correct my wrongs to regain order. I present an offering to you in the form of an apology. I make a guess at how to respond to your question, keeping it general and positive. I offer some information about myself, hoping to manage your impression of me.

My offering seems to give you reassurance. Your wince settles into what I perceive as contentment. The Creature’s movements relax. For now, the Ritual is restored.

But the Creature has not ceased moving altogether. Having completed its descent down the wall, it now leaves a stain on the ground. I keep my eyes on you, continuing to react accordingly.

The Creature is dangerously close, now halfway between the wall and where I sit. This is all becoming too much — too much to manage, to perform, to protect.

My instincts take hold. I break my focus. I look at the Creature. But when I do, I do not see the substance that once lived in the corner of my eye. I do not see the liquid that crawled down the wall. I do not see the red and slow.

In its place, I see myself — beautiful and human.

Then I look back at you. This time you do worse than wince. I observe frown lines between your eyebrows and at the corners of your mouth. I read the creases of your face. There is a scowl on the page. There is vengeance in your eyes. But I did not cause you injury. All I did was break your expectations of me. And yet, you name me Other.

I have breached the Ritual beyond repair.

All at once, I know. I know that the substance was never coming from you. My true self — the self stuck in the depths of my consciousness — sent a mirage to my senses in the form of a Creature. Red and slow, my Creature begged me to look.

When the begging didn’t work, it turned into my predator. Though I did not listen then, I listen now to what my Creature tried to tell me. My true self haunted me from the corner of my eye: not to scare me, but to disrupt my perception of reality — to disrupt the Ritual.

However, escaping the Ritual is not as simple as a sudden moment of realization — a single glance at your Creature and you are freed. To rid oneself of the Ritual is far easier said than done. The social order conditions us to villainize our true selves into Creatures, casting them to the wall and ignoring their attempts to return to us.

Sociologists warn us of this Ritual. The likes of Du Bois, Goffman, and Mead have long told us about the truth of social interaction. We live in a world — a Room — made sterile with some of the very materials which build social order: inauthenticity, suppression, and hidden selves.

In the place of who we really are sits the Participant. We are expected to portray the role of the Participant as though it is the real us, all the while our Creature yearns for air. In every interaction, we must perform — on purpose, as a reflex, to surveil one another, or just to make it out alive. Your script changes based on who sits across from you; who you are to your friend is not who you are to your boss is not who you are to your lover.

“I am performing well.”
“I must save my face.”
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How elaborate a performance you must put on is determined by what you look like, who you are, and the conditions you find yourself in. In this world — this all-white Room — white and man and straight are the standard of performance. The further you are away from that casting call, the more you are expected to perform, correct, and save face — the more you are expected to villainize your true self into a Creature, the more you must adhere to the Ritual of social interaction. And the further you are away from that call, the more you are named Other when you do break the Ritual.

This Ritual is not to be obeyed without question. It is an exploitative delusion. With a veiny underbelly of chords and cameras, this Ritual surveils your every move. This Ritual is a cult. This Ritual crafts life into a labyrinth of rules, regulations, and falsehoods. Any shift in the rocks — any stain on the Room’s white walls — must be dealt with. Or so mandates the Ritual.

And so I tell you this: do not expect to see a Creature when you shift your gaze to the left. The true Creature is the Ritual itself.


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“...who you are to your friend is not who you are to your boss is not who you are to your lover.”


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The morning bleeds through the blinds in your room, littering the carpet and wallpaper with specks of sunlight, signaling that the day has begun, and thus, you must rise. You tear the covers off of your body and make your way to the bathroom to get ready for a long 24 hours. Brush your teeth and floss them too. Evidently, not often enough: after swirling the sharp mint mouthwash a few times and spitting it out, the acid green is mixed with red. You watch as it flows down the sink, disappearing into the drain without a trace.

It is seven in the morning and blood has already been spilled, but you have a shower to take and breakfast to eat. Making your way through the motions, you burn your skin pink with the steam and squeeze yourself into a dress that’s too tight. The seams strain at every stitch. No time left to dilly-dally, you head to the kitchen and drink straight out of the carton. Milk spills over the sides, softening the wax-lined cardboard. The milk bleeds into the carton’s dark blue ink, dripping off of the edges until you can no longer tell the expiration date or the name of the child that’s been missing for three years now. You grab a paper towel and wipe the counter, erasing any remnants of the blue-tinged milk and the 7-year-old boy.

Later, at the office, the work day drones on. The minutes stretch to hours as you go about your duties, desperately waiting for the clock to strike five. The air conditioner groans above you as you kill time, ripping staples and scratching paper with ink. Luckily, you have your saving grace, granted to you by the podcast you downloaded the night before. You put your earbuds in and listen excitedly. The snapping of a neighborhood girl’s neck gives you release from the cyclical, clinical sounds of the sterile office atmosphere.

All in a day’s work.

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Finally, the sky has darkened, and there is only one more stop before home — the grocery store. You rifle through the celery and lettuce and radishes and carrots, picking at the rotten bits that evaded inspection.





You keep a close eye: you have to with these pesky vegetables. It’s hard to tell the decaying from the fresh under the harsh fluorescent lights.

You finalize your pickings and check out. You are headed home at last. As you pull into the driveway and get out, you realize the pavement is marred, a pathway of red coming in from the street and up the stone. You lean over and find the culprit: remnants of fur and tissue stuck to a back tire. With a shrug of your shoulders, you grab the grocery bags and head inside, deciding that the blood will have to wait for the garden hose to come out on Sunday morning. It’s Friday night, and you’re hungry, after all.

Inside, you prepare your feast, chopping and steaming and boiling and burning. You make your selections and dress your spoils on the table. Platters of turkey legs and steak. Loaves of bread, bowls of stew, and plates adorned with oysters. You set the television at the end of the table and it clicks on, humming awake.

Finally, after a long day at work, you sit down to eat.

The screen lights up and you listen to your stories: tales of unassuming young lovers and housewives who didn’t see the ax coming. You crack open an oyster and begin feasting on flesh while watching it being torn apart on screen. You interject with commentary, holding a one-sided dialogue with the voice feeding you the narratives.

“It’s the husband!” you yell, certain you’ve solved the crime. “C’mon! It’s always the husband.” You cheer and jeer as if it’s a sports game — a fumble of the football instead of fate.

The ghosts on the television start to grow as you continue to eat, crumbs falling out of your

gaping mouth. Your hands are covered in sauce and jam. The spirits on screen reach out, The ghosts on the television start to grow as you continue to eat, crumbs falling out of your gaping mouth. Your hands are covered in sauce and jam. The spirits on screen reach out, shattering the screen, spilling out onto the table, and escaping into the room. They keep you company as you feed.

The dining room is barren, bar the shadows on the walls stretching and distorting in every inch of your periphery. The ghosts waltz, run, and sing. They smile and grin and throw their heads back in laughter. They nurse their babies and cry to their fathers. They make friendship bracelets for those they hold dear and braid each other’s hair. Their laughs reverberate between each other: back and forth, back and forth, getting more and more shrill. Suddenly they are screaming, but you can’t remember when they stopped laughing.

When did they stop laughing?

Their screams grow louder. The dissonance shatters the fine china, spilling boiling stew across the freshly washed tablecloth. Bone marrow seeps into the stark white linen. You dip your spoon into the cracked bowl because you haven’t actually noticed the chaos that’s broken out. You can’t seem to tear your eyes away from the ghosts on your wall, made to dance and perform their deaths over and over again. The spoon reaches your mouth, and you take a sip and swallow, apathetic towards the ceramic shards and blackened meat entering your system. The soup rots on your tongue and the steak sticks to your teeth, dripping from your red-lined lips.

The table is covered in blood now, too, seeping through the linen in outward-reaching streams, like rivers searching for an ocean to pour into. The plate of ribs has been ripped apart like a carcass, carelessly

discarded and left vulnerable to the elements. Every plate, every dish has been destroyed but you don’t remember eating any of it. You look to the ceiling and windows. The ghosts are still dancing but there are no signs of a break-in, no feathers or prints signaling a creature nearby. The vulture didn’t come from outside, no — it’s been here all along.

Its you.

You devour death, and your appetite is insatiable.

You devour death, and your appetite is insatiable.

You partake in the normalization of violence — violence that is seeping into the culture and into the eyes and ears of those who are slowly becoming immune to the gore, intrigued rather than disturbed by the death of innocents. The market for true stories of real people, young and unassuming, dying in unthinkable tragedies has grown exponentially, and no one can seem to get enough. With no nuance and no ethical obligation to victims, industries have been built on exploiting death and stripping the dead of their humanity. Their tragic endings are commodified, packaged into entertainment.

You eat a mother’s grief for dinner, wash it down with the tears of the bereaved, and yet, it isn’t enough. You go about your days, churning blood in your mouth, constantly awaiting the next time you can plop a headphone in and hear the sounds of screams echoing in your ear, set to copyright-free easy listening music and the soft voice of an equally enthusiastic narrator. Is death easy listening to you? You wake up, you go about your day, you eat and eat and eat, and yet, it isn’t enough. Every night, you go to bed hungry, your thirst for the macabre unquenched.


Is this how you want to live?

You look around and smell the stench of rotting flesh engulfing the dining room. Bones and blood litter the broken table and cracked wood floors. Your eyes dance around the space. The shadows scream and sob, performing for you over and over again. You squint, taking a closer look at them. They aren’t characters.

They’re girls. They’re kids. They’re mothers, fathers, daughters, and sons. They’re the same as you, but their dignity has been stripped away from them, and their deaths capitalized on to entertain the masses. You realize, somewhat startled, that there isn’t much stopping you from suffering the same fate, bar your still-beating heart.

The question, then, isn’t ‘is this how you want to live?’


Is this how you want to die?

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tanding by the bus stop, I feel you sneak up on me. I don’t want to look at you but I can feel your arm next to mine. I can see your breath, hot and heavy in the cold January air. I wave down the bus as you tell me you love the color of my hair in the winter. You reach out to touch it but your fingers don’t make it that far.

It’s been over a year since you told me to lose your number. I was in denial for a while, texting you and letting the messages fail to deliver. I’d tell you about new shows you’d probably like, new movies we’d love, people we could make fun of. I’d imagine what you’d say to me in response.

The night before your birthday, two months since our demise, I was getting ready to go out for the first time without you. I thought about driving by your house after, the same way I did the last time I saw you. New Years Eve spent in my car before you ruined everything. So much of you consumed my mind. It was overfilling, spilling out into my room, my world, my whole life. My future looked like a white canvas covered in your red handprints. Sitting on my bed, you asked if I needed help zipping up my dress. I was scared shitless [HOW DARE YOU SHOW UP LIKE THIS?], but hearing your voice plugged the open wounds I’d been walking around with for so long.

“Did you wear that just for me?” you asked. I hesitated, averting my eyes from your burning gaze.

“Everything I do is for you,” I responded.

Bebe texted me she was outside

and I left you alone. By the time we made it to the restaurant, you were already inside waiting.

You showed me this place, a panAsian fusion in the middle of Corpus Christi, Texas. You were the first person to get me to try something different. I still have your order memorized. Would it be wrong to tell her being here reminds me of you, that your ghost is in the chair next to mine, staring me down like an animal? She used to know you well, but I don’t think you’d ever claim her now. [YOU LIKED ACTING AS IF WE WERE LOWER THAN YOU.]

“You need to stop simmering in it.”

Bebe’s words snaked up and wrapped themselves around me, pulling me down and planting my feet on the ground.

“I know you’re not here with me,” she said. “Stop simmering in it and start getting over it.”

“I am getting over it.”

She laughed at me, her expression dripping with pity. But I wasn’t lying to her, I was getting over it. Who knew me better than I did? How could I possibly be healing my own wounds wrong?

I get it, you’re showing up wherever I go. It’s unnatural. But what if this is the best I can do? I am a mosaic of every person that has ever left me. I sit in my agony for much longer than anybody else would and that’s just how it’s always been. I’m shaped and broken and put back together at the mercy of those I love. If I disentangle myself from you I’m not sure how much will be left of me.

I hoped moving back to Austin would be enough, but you’re still here.

Every time I see you it feels the same. It’s like the smell before rain, unmistakable. Sometimes when I’m cooking I hear the fizz of carbonation from the Ramune you used to drink, or late at night when I’m smoking alone I’ll hear a lighter clicking in the distance, or the sound of joysticks popping as you mutter expletives under your breath when I’m trying to sleep. It’s an unshakeable feeling. I get on the bus and pray to God you don’t follow me, but of course you do.

The bus is full but you find room to stand next to me. Your breath tickles my neck and your voice is full of honey. Words drip down my back, coating my sweater, filling my ears. I can’t hear anything else. The world goes dark and I’m back in your Nissan where we’ve parked by the shore back home. We knew that place better than anyone else. It was public and a tourist trap and the dirty bay water made everything smell like shit but all that mattered was that it was ours. I remember sitting on the beach and pulling a brown seashell out of the wet sand. It was bigger than my hand.

“Doesn’t this remind you of me?” you asked.

“Of course it does,” I told you.


I don’t know how much longer I can take it. I haven’t slept. My dreams are haunted by the ghost of

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you: my best friend, my ex-friend, “the love of my life.” We went through hellfire [JUST FOR YOU TO FORGET IT ALL]. We fought together and against each other, got torn apart just to find ourselves again on the other side of the war, adorned with the same scars in the same places. I remember how much you hated your ex-boyfriend and how much I hated mine. We talked about it endlessly, and I remember thinking what we had was so special, so different. I was honored to be the level-headed person in your abrasive world. I was honored that you loved me when it seemed you were incapable of doing so with anybody else. I used to think it was sweet how everyone hated you and, eventually, the both of us. I don’t blame them; we were germs, full nihilists, poisoning every well we came across. [YOU SHAPED ME OUT OF A SIMILAR MOLD TO YOURS, FILLED ME IN WITH YOUR COLORS, JUST TO THROW ME OUT ONCE I LOOKED TOO MUCH LIKE YOU.] But none of it mattered to me because we had each other, we un derstood the world in ways no one else did, and I believed those outside of our orbit deserved to suffer for it.

We were both writers and I always loved everything you made. The first time you published a piece of yours, it wasn’t about me. But every one that came after it was. [GOING THROUGH YOUR WORK FEELS LIKE WALKING THROUGH A GRAVEYARD WHERE EVERY GRAVE HAS BEEN DUG UP AND DESECRATED. YOU NEVER REALLY UNDERSTOOD LOVE, DID YOU?] The way you carried yourself and talked about your art was mesmerizing. When I watched you it was with the eyes of an artist. You were my muse, my reference photo. The best pieces I’ve ever written have you splattered all over them. Half of my words are yours. [WORDS STOLEN OFF THE BACKS

OF THE DEAD YOU LEFT BEHIND. YOUR ABSENCE HAS PROVEN MORE FRUITFUL TO MY ART THAN YOUR PRESENCE.] Now it feels like writing is all I have. Translating my pain into words put onto a blank page and hoping you find yourself trapped within them. [A FITTING JAIL CELL FOR YOUR TYPE OF PRISONER.]

Healing is not, has never been, and never will be defined by one schema. This is how I heal, by letting you haunt me indefinitely.


The bus stops and I’m briefly brought to Earth again. I thank the bus driver and step out into the biting cold. It’s gray and sad and freezing, our favorite time of year. A year since the last time I saw you, I make my way to my first class. I head to the back of the room, where you’re waiting for me.

Let me take ten years to forget you. I won’t mind it. [I HOPE I HAUNT YOU IN WORSE WAYS THAN YOU HAUNT ME.] ■

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FRIEND, ‘ th OF M y L ifE.’ “

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When your soul is crushed in stone and eroded by the wind, will you finally be free?

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BLACK FEATHER SHAWL | Big Bertha’s Paradise BLACK PANTS | Big Bertha’s Paradise
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When they find what is left behind, My evil fossilized in the dirt that haunts the Earth, I will laugh. My molted feathers thickly coated in the oil between your teeth Will shake free and slice your skin

Open. They will liberate you, and release the darkness That resides in the depths of you, so you may finally fly with me.

My eyes, that pierce the veil of innocence you put over me Will sneak out of my skull. And carve out the trail of salvation That you have refused to share with them.

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Then, we will all fly, and navigate the blue, pulsing veins that line the Earth’s skin, and haunt You instead.

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SILVER NECKLACES | Big Bertha’s Paradise BLACK BOOTS | Big Bertha’s Paradise

Why are you afraid of me? I am you. I am what you created me to be. Don’t you feel the bullet hole in your back right at the blade — where they shot off your wings? Aren’t your lungs on fire from breathing in the veil, and letting its silk stick to your insides? ■

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We are each other. And since you already know who you are It’s time to forget.■
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