Or, how to survive a world on fire.
Lately, I’ve been craving men.
That sounds weird. I’m not just talking about the simple act of fucking—I don’t want a one-night stand with a stranger from a bar that ends with a 3 am scramble down a long hallway to pee in an unfamiliar bathroom in just my underwear and one of his t-shirts, having done the mental math of risk of embarrassment vs laziness when considering his two roommates.
I mean the kind of dance that has build-up, the kind you know from the start is no good for you even though it feels so goddamn good in the moment. The Narcissus-like spark of recognition between the two of you.
(Is it the implode-by date that makes it so hot? The guarantee of impermanence?)
What a relief it is to give in to desire, to lay bare your basest instincts and construct a world together: small, selfish, self-referential. A world of two.
That kind of world can’t be sustained, not for any real length of time. Even if you try—if you marry, commit to recommitting—one of you will eventually break that mutual delusion. Real life will call, there will be rent to pay. Someone will stop pulling their weight with chores, and someone else will hold a crush for themselves when they would have shared it before.
Eventually, we always un-cleave ourselves.
I could (and probably will) write an entire essay on what I love about fucking women. But not today. Today I’m all red-blooded desire. That spark of recognition is so hot because of what it contrasts: all the things we don’t know or understand about each other.
Every time a man and a woman fuck is a hate fuck on some level.
(I think this is what creates the desire, the need, and it’s what can so easily grow ugly when there’s not enough love present to balance it out.)
A few weeks ago I spent some time with a male friend, one of only a handful of straight male friends I have. That feral side of me clawed its way free despite the platonic nature of our friendship. I was surprised by how long it’s been. I’d forgotten the game of it, the edge to the attention, the intense awareness of each other.
I’m someone who almost always splits the bill on dates, a top-leaning switch in my queer relationships, someone who shudders at the word chivalry, but god I’d missed that feeling of being completely seen and completely opaque all at once. How good it felt to catch his noticing, satisfied smile when I laughed a real laugh at one of his jokes, the way he projected himself into the place of one of my dates as he listened to the story I told of yet another gone wrong.
It’s a relief to set myself aside for a while, to escape into the role I’ve been taught for as long as I can remember.
So many of my days lately are spent in pursuit of growth.
I study obsessively, take note of everything I read and watch, and tear apart the inner workings of every story I come across so I can know how to put them together. I wring every day dry for inspiration. I go to work and I live as frugally as I can in an attempt to guard my writing time. I go to therapy, where I’m unflinchingly honest week after week, riding out the temporary discomfort in service of undoing old and unproductive defenses.
I do my best to move through the world, as Zadie Smith said, not with an identity to fall back on but by taking the harder road of evaluating each decision, each situation, each judgment anew.
I let people in, I set boundaries, I am kind as often as I can be and I try to give myself grace and learn from the rest.
And so, at this moment, nothing sounds better to me than surrendering it all to pleasure.
At some point in the semester, I lose the ability to finish anything.
It’s strange; I’m doing some of the best writing of my life. I’m alive with it, constantly lost in the world of ideas and craft.
And yet, somehow, I never hit the point I’m usually able to in a piece where I know there’s nothing left to do but throw my hands up and say “here, do what you will with this” to some unspecified world at large. (To you?)
I can’t even finish reading the books I enjoy. I make it halfway, three-quarters of the way through and then I pick something else up and vow I’ll come back soon. I never do.
This is bad news because this kind of slump is always my unraveling. My brain becomes stunted, a tire in the mud. It becomes almost compulsive: I start and start and start but nothing ever materializes. It all stays confined to scraps of paper and abandoned Word docs, ghosts of ideas recorded in my Notes App (the grief inherent in getting what you want, your aftershave on my pillow, the meaning of life in liner notes, Jesus billboard.) The less of it that sees the light of day the closer I feel to derealization. As if I’m not so much a person as I am a collection of ink and pages folded into the shape of a woman.
The story I’m working on begins to suffer for it. Ironically, it’s about a woman speaking to her splintered possible selves, versions of her that might have existed had she made different decisions at various points in her life. When I begin writing it’s small, manageable, something I have a good feel for. But as I follow it to what I expect to be its conclusion I realize I’ve lost the thread. My inability to finish anything has infected the story I was so excited by and all I’m left with is a solid beginning, a good end, and in between them is a shallow and unconvincing hole.
My advisor tells me not to worry about this. He listens patiently as I try to explain that I can’t seem to hold on to anything lately, that all I can manage are fits and starts. I tell him that even though I never like anything I write I can usually tell what’s working enough to get out of my own way.
We sit on a bench in Prospect Park and he pulls out his phone to play a clip of “Satisfaction” by The Rolling Stones. “Listen,” he says. I do, but I can’t hear anything other than the usual riffs. He plays it a second time and I can just make out a muffled hitch, kind of a thump.
It’s Keith Richards stepping on the amp, he tells me, a mistake that was never intended to make it into the finished song. They’d planned to layer horns over that section and so they hadn’t bothered to clean it up. By the time they realized it was there it was clear the sound added depth and character, subtle but undeniable.
I know what he’s trying to remind me—that imperfections infuse life into our work, that they’re natural and even necessary. That holding out for something perfect stops us from tapping into our intuition and instinct.
Later, I research the story to make sure I’m relaying the details of it correctly and I come across an interview where Mick Jagger mentions the song. Keith Richards was never convinced it should be a single, he said. He thought it was too basic and not commercial enough. “I knew Keith was just too close to it though,” Jagger recalled, “he was too close to see it for what it was.”
I wonder sometimes if we become writers because on some level we all feel that our folded ink and paper selves are the most real. That without them we’re doomed to walk around feeling perpetually unheard and misunderstood.
I remember a day early in the first iteration of this newsletter when I queued up a post to send on the train on my way to work. Around 9:30, after diving into my first batch of tasks for the day, I carried my then-cold coffee over to our disgusting shared microwave. Seeing me walk past one of my coworkers said “it’s crazy. You say hi to me in the morning and you’re your normal, cheerful self, and then I open my inbox and it’s like BAM, so intense and devastating.”
I was shocked. My head is always full of dozens of competing thoughts, many of them intense and arguably devastating, or at least benignly nihilistic. The thought that the people I interacted with on a daily basis had no idea of this was at once reassuring and indescribably lonely.
Esmé Weijun Wang recently wrote an Instagram post in which she described the ways her body has been rebelling as of late. She talked about how frustrated she was to be waylaid by the litany of symptoms plaguing her. Sleepless nights she woke from screaming and feverish. Long crying jags. Intense dizziness and nausea.
Then she recounted that one of her friends, upon listening to all of this, reminded her of a passage from Joan Didion’s The White Album. After sharing her dark psychiatric evaluation Didion said: “By way of comment I offer only that an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968.”
Sleepless nights, crying jags, dizziness, nausea—does any of that really seem an inappropriate response to the world we live in right now?
The day my story stopped working, the day I fell deep into the rut, was the day the Roe v Wade memo leaked.
I remember making this connection the next morning and feeling a surge of annoyance at these fucking awful people for not allowing a single stone to go unturned. A few days later when I had started to find my way back I was crossing the street and a finance bro in an expensive suit stopped me.
It was not a violent exchange, nor was it an especially egregious one. “You’re lovely,” he’d said, and I ducked my head with something between a wince and a placating smile. I sped up. I may have even said “thanks” because agreeableness has been hammered into me on a much deeper level than self-preservation.
He angled his body in front of me and told me his name. He asked for mine.
“Sorry, not interested,” I said.
“Come on, can’t we at least talk?” He had that incredulous tone, the one that suggested I was being completely unreasonable.
I ignored him, crossed 17th, and disappeared into the crowd at the Union Square MTA station. It wasn’t until I got to the L platform another two levels down that I exhaled and felt the rage filling me. This one short interaction tugged at the gash of Roe and it overflowed me once more. I raged at how close I’d just come to getting to enjoy my writing again. I raged at his words, the way he’d made me something negotiable. The sureness with which he believed he had a right to me, to my body and attention.
And then over the coming weeks, the shootings. Each horrific enough that a month, a year, would never have sufficed to mourn them properly, but we didn’t even get that. We didn’t get that for shootings that should never have happened at all and that will likely happen again soon.
When my phone went off with an emergency alert noting the search perimeter for the Brooklyn subway shooter a couple of months ago and I was on one of the streets listed I forced myself to find a covered area before doing the mental math of the cross streets—was I a block away, or a mile? The longest 30 seconds. The chill was the inevitability in my veins, my own fight-or-flight response’s lack of surprise.
Like a ghastly car crash on the side of the road that we can’t take our eyes off of, these horrors pile up and drain the life from us. And then somehow we ask, “what’s wrong with me? Why can’t I focus? Why can’t I function?”
We ask it with the world on fire because we want to keep at least one thing for ourselves. We want to keep what remaining hope we’ve eked out.
When we say goodbye at the corner of Vanderbilt and Pacific my advisor looks me in the eye and says, “I want you to know I’m not worried about any of this. All of the roadblocks you’re hitting, none of them have to do with you as a writer. They’re all normal, natural. They’re part of the process. I’m not worried about you making it.”
It’s not until the next day that I realize how deeply I needed what he’s just given me—the reassurance from someone whose opinion I trust, yes, but also the lightening of the load. The gift of two hours in which I didn’t have to worry about where we were going or the state of the world or whether I was safe.
For the first time in weeks, I feel myself relax and my mind begin to untangle.
It’s strange that two such opposing things—the complete exhaustion from living in a world drowning in toxic masculinity and white supremacy and my desire for a very particular, very male kind of sex—can co-exist so simultaneously.
But maybe it actually makes perfect sense. Because to engage in that intimate act, to create a world where only the two of you are allowed in, is to bet that against all odds the nature of the beast can be overridden. It’s an act of (maybe delusional) hope, one that’s not so different from getting up every morning and continuing to make our lives in a world that’s completely inflamed.