let’s start not at the beginning
a very bad place to start
the middle of a busy highway at rush hour
cars zipping by at 80 miles per hour in a 55 zone
with honk if you’re sexy bumper stickers and metalica blaring from rolled down windows
this is what frogger feels like, you muse
as your fringe ruffles in the hot dry breeze belching out of the exhaust pipe of a semi
as it clips past, one millimeter from your right ear and HONKS
as if you’re the problem
as if you haven’t just arrived here
as if you weren’t just hatched into this hot and sweaty speedway
with no helmet and no car seat and no one to pass you gummy snacks and fruit juice and ask if you can feel the air conditioning on your tiny baby face
my sciatica is acting up again
for real, this time
not like usually when i’m just depressed and don’t want to explain it to people
it’s fascinating how much more appropriately people respond
to pain that they find visible and “valid”
either way it gets me upstairs, under the cover, and without interruptions
so i’m happy
or well. not happy.
not the opposite of happy, either
my back hurts like a MF
and i’ve done literally nothing physically strenuous for the past week or so.
fucking stupid body
fucking precious vessel
i want to start over again
and tenderly acknowledge every inch of myself, reverently
as i hobble up the stairs, rubbing aspercreme into my ass
or whatever it’s called.
i obviously know what my ass is called.
ass ass ass.
my cat doesn’t care that my back hurts, because she is a cat
it doesn’t bother me so much that she wants the same things no matter how much pain i’m in
or if i’m horrifically grumpy
or crying my eyes out
there’s something nice in the familiarity of a paw batting my nose
and her reedy little meow (not cute)
no matter what i’m about.
i threw out my back sometime in 2017 during a dance class
and when i told the teacher about it
she patiently and meticulously explained why it was my fault
for not doing the movement right.
maybe she was on to something.
i went to the hospital then, because i was told to
and england has the NHS so i wasn’t terrified of bills.
they checked me out
and told me it was sciatica
which i thought was something old people got, or maybe something to do with your eyes
(it is not).
i took the tube back “to my flat”
but two stops before i got there, came the stop for my stupid ass drama school
and the doors opened and i felt my whole upbringing flash before my eyes
and i knew what i would do before i’d even made the decision.
and i got off the fucking train
and went back to school
because the devil works hard.
and i -
i hope you don’t mind the lateness of the hour
but sometimes i can’t sleep at night
because i am haunted
by the knowledge that this life isn’t it for me
i see my future unfolding as a series of days
and i don’t know that i’ll ever get to where i want to be
and it haunts me
i spend my days moving stacks of textbooks from one shelf to another
and i am an actor
i spend my days lifting heavy packages and sorting mail
and i am an artist
does any of this matter?
some months ago, while writing
my collaborator made mention of that story about a person walking down the beach
throwing sea stars back into the waves
it’s especially of interest to me, this story, because i was born on an island
and live on an island
and every time i sit down to make something
i imagine myself, standing at the shoreline, a delicate starfish cupped in my calloused hands
and i am the hero of that story
but it’s late and i’ve been sad all week, remembering things from the past that i did poorly
and things that it’s far far too late to go back and change
or apologize for
and i am suddenly struck by the feeling
that i’m not the person on the beach at all
but one of the starfishes, dry and gasping and waiting to be rescued, gently.
like a ghost, the knowledge of my smallness haunts me at nights
and stands over my bed, making it impossible to sleep
so i reach for my phone to text my best friend.
at this late hour, i can admit things freely
my fingers flying fast across a luminous phone screen
i’m scared that i’ll never be successful, whatever that means.
i’m scared that people are not interested in my art, my words, my thoughts.
i’m scared that i will never become the person that i want to be
i am haunted by visions of my future, and the knowledge that there are parallel universes
where my left sock is red instead of blue
and i have everything that i ever wanted at my fingertips.
my best friend is smarter than me, and better, and she always has been
so she writes back (many things)
and of all of it, i hear this:
“life matters, too.”
and so maybe it’s enough to strike that fine and flinty matchpoint balance
and swallow down one hundred disappointments
and show up: not backlit, or on the silver screen, or in a limelight
but on sidewalks and roadsides and train station platforms
and wait softly as the tide creeps ever closer.
She moved into The Lighthouse a few years ago, after seeing the ad:
For upkeep, cleaning, and minor necessities.
No prior experience necessary.
She was working at a Gilligan’s Island Themed Cabana Bar before that
and the manager had her dressing up as Mary-Ann
in a red crop top and Daisy Dukes, with her hair all in two pigtails and little red bows.
She carried trays and trays and trays of beach-themed cocktails
Sex on the Beach
East End Delight
Ocean Spray Tonic
Just What the Captain Ordered
Beach Glass Gummy Shots
and Whiskey, on the Boardwalk Rocks.
Lots and lots of beer.
Her tiny shiny new white Keds stuck and unstuck to the floor with each unsteady step
“At least I’m not in heels,” she thought up to the sky, and gripped her tray tight.
“Thank God, Thank God.”
The men at the bar all fancied themselves sailors or pirates
Ready to carouse and guzzle and plunder
And stumble their way out into the summer warm night, zig-zagging and bellowing Billy Joel at the top of their lungs, til their growls and belches rang out against the walls of the yacht club.
They owned yachts, not frigates or schooners or Brigantines or Galleons or Barques
And the length of ones boat has nothing to do with the length of ones dick.
Not that she cared.
In all of her life, she had only loved one other - a lover beautiful and strong and gentle
Who rocked her in their arms like a gentle tide swelling
And fucked her in their bed like a gale wind blowing
And was gone with the high tide, leaving only space and cold sheets and emptiness
And a locket, with their name carved in the back and nothing inside.
She wears the locked tucked into the high shoulder neckline of her tiny red crop top as she makes her way across beer sticky floors, nimbly dodging pinching fingers and wayward palms and shouts of, “Mary-anne! Marry me!”
“I can make it one more night,” She thinks up to sky, and grips her tray tight.
And thinks of her lighthouse, waiting.
“Thank God, Thank God.”
The Lighthouse is taller than she thought it would be
And looks completely alone.
She places a cautious hand against the outside, like a child in a museum
Pushing past velvet ropes to stroke the Mona Lisa’s cheek.
It’s warm, and she’s flooded by the feeling that she’s exactly where she’s meant to be.
“I’m lonely too,” She speaks aloud,
But her words are carried off by the wind and gone into the sea.
There’s no one around as she moves her things in - just two suitcases and a backpack,
But she doesn’t feel afraid.
Ghosts don’t scare her.
Silence doesn’t scare her.
The creaking of floors and the clanging of pipes doesn’t scare her.
And neither does the wind
or the raging sea, outside.
She cleans up what she can, and gets her bed made - neat.
And makes her way up, up, up to the cupola.
It is the kind of dark, chilled, and empty that speaks of years waiting.
But she is not intimidated or afraid.
She finds the right switches and knobs easily, and soon the beacon is shining.
She stands at the rail, wrapped in a blanket, clutching her portable radio in hand
and lets the wind do what it will with her red-bowed pigtails
As Leonard Cohen croons over the radio, “And she lets the rivers answer, that you’ve always been her lover, and you want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind, and you know that she will trust you, because you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind.”
And when a ship light appears on the horizon,
she clutches her gold locket in wind-chilled hands and thinks as hard as she can,
Are you there too?”
The first Neopet you ever made was a yellow Kau named Kauliflower.
And you thought that was so clever, you giggled while pressing the name button.
And for a long time,
Kauliflower was almost just like a sort of real pet.
You would feed her and clean her. And dress her up in little boots and hats.
And make money and spend money, almost like a sort of real adult.
But then you discovered the Ice Cream Machine.
And instead of taking care of Kauliflower,
Your world zoomed in
in in in in in in
to tiny scoops of ice cream:
pink scoops, and green scoops, and white with hot fudge, and white with chocolate chips, and mint with chocolate chips, and white with caramel sauce, and yellow with a cherry on, and blue scoops, and red and purple swirl, and the special scoops to make you smaller or faster or the machine slower
You began to dream in ice cream scoops.
They came at you
Slowly at first and then faster
And all the time you were dodging, dipping, diving, ducking, dodging, you found yourself
I’ve forgotten something.
Maybe...the Walkman is still spinning circles on my nightstand
Running down the juice on those double double AA batteries
Or the button on the Hit Clip is pressed against a Lisa Frank folder in my Jansport
Tinnily blaring out the same sixteen bars of
Bye Bye Bye by NSYNC
Dancing Queen by A*Teens
Who Let the Dogs Out by Baha Men
Aaron’s Party by Aaron Carter
Lucky by Britney Spears
Or my cat chews on the carefully braided hair of my Barbie Doll, half-dressed and forgotten between the dresser
Feet pressed into the permanent shape of high-heel shoes
One time I tried to brush my hair with a Barbie hairbrush
The one you got with each doll
And the prongs came off in my curls and the back of the brush ripped off and I cried
in my lonely heartbreaking
If there’s nothing missing in my life
Then why -
Do I feel like I’m missing something?
As I dodge ice cream scoops: dressed in a blue snowsuit, blue pompom-ed hat, and purple gloves.
By the time I remember that Neopets is about NeoPETS, Kau is long dead.
She has a halo, so you can assume that she went to Neopet heaven.
This is not the same as dog heaven. Or people heaven,
You gather up all your Beanie babies, and Cabbage Patch dolls
And have a funeral.
During the eulogy, Kau’s ghost hovers close above your head
And all the Tamogatchis you ever killed sing quietly in an angelic chorus:
Now life is one big party when you’re still young
And who’s gonna have your back when it’s all done
It’s all good when you’re little you have pure fun
Can’t be a fool, son, what about the long run?
It’s okay. They’ll be waiting for you.
when i was maybe 12, i used to do these music competitions
and years later i wonder why my anxiety is so bad.
i remember one year, playing in the driveway with my sister
like the child that i was
and stepping haphazard on a skateboard
and falling down
and breaking my finger
the joke is that i skinned my knees so bad
and the pain there was so sting-y
that i had no idea my finger was broken
until i sat down at the keyboard of this music competition.
all i know is: there are three events in my life that i have no memories of
despite being there at the time
and one of them was that day, at the piano.
my only memory is the very end
when the judge approached me with a tissue box
and i realized i was weeping.
and they shook my hand, squeezing tightly my broken bone
as i sobbed.
i don’t know what the conclusion to draw from this is
even these days i sit down to play piano and i weep
and when they said become an artist
i never realized that i’d one day wake up
with no knowledge of where the artist ends and i begin.
i wrote you a song
partially because i was deeply in love
and partially because your name is so easy to rhyme
nothing rhymes with my name
and people don’t write songs
about people like me
i am brash and you will have to tackle me to the ground
to get me out of the driver’s seat
i do not bend
and i do not yield the pen
i became a writer
despite the years i spent at college parties, yelling over too loud music
“well i WRITE but i’m not a WRITER”
like one letter made all the difference.
one person once wrote me one song
and i would much rather they had never made a sound at all.
am i so hideous to you?
i can see clearly how horrible
the black and white staved spine of my life
extends without measure
please - it’s enough to sit quietly and pretending that our feelings are soft, together.
if we can make it one night, cooking dinner side by side
and no feelings are hurt, i can go to bed happily
and sleep through the night.
turn off your fucking alarm
stop poking me before nine am
and let me get some rest.
in the morning, it is best to be soft and quiet and together
and forget the meaning of music beyond the stillness of breaths
and our fingers tips softly touching.
i wrote you: a song
and realized in the end what i knew from the beginning.
it is not enough
it will never be
we try to dance together at parties but you are a slow and slinky foxtrot
all West Coast shined shoes and perfect hair and dustbowls
and I fist pump and accidentally knock over a lamp.
I arrived After The First, which notified me that something had gone wrong the first time around.
Something wasn’t quite perfect.
Enough was left un-perfect to try again anyway, and so I arrived in a tumble of mucky and afterbirth, screaming my displeasure into the world.
Hello, here I am.
I am the second, and this means some things:
I may one day rise up, overtake the first, and claim the things that were promised to them instead of me, only because they were a faster fish swimming through a fertile sea, which is not a very compelling reason, in my opinion.
I am extremely likely to be ugly, unlikeable, nasty, and forgotten. I will wear a magenta gown to the ball, with a hideous frill to cover up my below-average sized breast, and a dumpy bow to make up for my unfortunately flat rear. I will hardly catch a glimpse of the prince, and at midnight I will return home with only blisters to show for my labor, and a tea-stain on my left glove.
I will certainly have a height complex,
and I will more than once be left behind at a major railway station, or a bus terminal, or on Christmas Eve when my family is rushing out the door to catch a plane to Paris and everything has been derailed to a severe late night storm and power outages across the greater city of Chicago.
To make up for my inherent secondness, I will come first in everything.
I will score a minimum of 102 on all of my quizzes and examinations. The two extra points will invariably come from procuring all bonuses on offer, or catching a mistake that an errant tutor let slip by their drooping spectacled eyes.
Of all the boys in my year, I can jump the highest and of all the girls in my year, I can run the fastest, and of everyone, it is widely acknowledged that I am the best chess player in the county. I quickly ran through all of the semi-eligible opponents and now content myself with facing off against myself. The matches end in stalemates. Neither of us can slip anything past the other.
I came first in Science Olympiad, the Mathletics Cup, The Academic Quizbowl, The Geography Trials, and every Spelling Bee I’ve ever competed in. I was accepted into all of my unis early: first choice.
I have a hazy memory of one summer hols, driving in a car with my family on the way to the seaside. It is so long ago now that I was strapped into a carseat, wearing a humiliating striped bib and a sunhat with a crab on it. My legs were fat and one of my shoes had fallen off. It’s quite nice to have your tiny socked feet flailing out in the open air, I thought. And kicked my chubby legs harder. After some time, I grew bored and I looked around and saw you: there.
Just across the expanse of seating, old enough to be buckled in with a big kid belt.
Wearing a baseball cap, a pair of blue shorts, and a shirt reading “Sea You Later!” with a cartoon drawing of a sea lion waving on it. Sea lions are not native to European waters, I thought disdainfully. And then you looked at me, and we caught eyes.
And After The First.
You saw me. And I saw you.
Then a seagull flew past our car squawking and you broke the standoff to point and shout out “Duck!” and Mum said, “It’s a seagull, ducky. Not a duck.” And in that moment, I knew I was going to destroy you.
After all, Nothing comes After After the First. I arrived here complete.
I filled in the gaps that you left aching, wide, open, hungry.
I am hungry too.
I feed and I grow and I eat and I devour
And I come back
When I can’t sleep, I come down to the kitchen for a cup of tea.
It’s happening more and more often these days,
I stare up at the ceiling of my room while the clock tick tick ticks it’s way towards 1 AM.
2 AM. 3 AM.
It’s tea time.
This tea is supposed to “help me get my zzz’s the natural way” and “gently lull me towards blissful rest.”
It’s only Monday and the rest of the week looms large
And I suddenly remember Edinburgh, and the way the hills rolled out into the mist
And the only high tea I ever went to, which ended in disaster.
To avoid remembering those things, I ask myself questions:
How did you help this week? How did you hide this week? How did you hurt this week?
How many days are left til January 20th?
It’s only Monday, still. It’s only Monday.
Tea-minus 9 days.
Tea-minus 8 days.
Tea isn’t supposed to be drank alone, in your kitchen, at 3 am.
Tea time Is supposed to be: surrounded by people that you love,
even one person would be enough
With a pot the perfect size for sharing
And cookies for you to fight over and laugh about it
And crumbs tumbling into laps
And milk in little saucers
You don’t put milk in your tea at 3 AM.
To avoid remembering these things, I ask myself questions:
How are you going to help this week? How are you going to change? How are you going to be braver?
How many days are left til January 20th?
How’s the weather in Palm Beach?
How’s the weather in Mar-a-Lago?
Tea-minus 7 days.
Tea-minus 6 days.
Tea-minus 5 days.
If you can’t sleep, come on down to the kitchen for a cup of tea.
If you’re like me, it may be happening more and more these days.
I’ve got extra mugs, and the kettle’s already on
And this tea is supposed to “help us breathe a sigh of sweet relief.”
We can have tea together, and I’ll keep watch, while you rest.
It’s only Sunday, still. It’s only Sunday.
Tea-minus 4 days.
i’m sitting at a rough table except it’s at the bottom of the sea. there’s a man or a woman, it’s hard to say, with claws for hands and a wooden peg leg, cooking up some soup on the stove. it smells delicious. i say “how can there be fire at the bottom of the ocean” they say “do you like crab bisque” i do. i do. they ladle me up a bowl and it is delicious. and warm. “you’re looking for your soul, are you” i am. i am. “how did you know?” they laugh but it sounds like a wet fart coming through their noise. “that’s the only time i ever get visitors. if they’ve lost something. it’s kind of sad, but i don’t let it get to me” i try to nod in a sympathetic way. i don’t know if i pull it off. they clank their way up from the table and suddenly there’s a magnificent collection of lobster pots hanging from hooks in the ceiling. i blink. they scuttle about looking in this one and that and muttering and then “ah. here. this is you?” it’s a small round pot. it doesn’t look like it could hold a lobster at all. “would a lobster fit in that” i ask. they squint at it suspiciously. “ah, no. it looks like a sugar bowl, doesn’t it?” it does, it does. i reach out to touch it, but they pull it away. “sorry i can’t just give it to you” i’m confused. “why not? then why am i here?” they look confused too. “i don’t know. you’re not drowned, are you? you’re not dead? how did you get all the way down here?” a current begins to build beneath me. i try to respond but the waves are rushing me back towards the surface and i’m spat out, into the warmth of my nighttime bed. dripping dripping dripping. my sheets are wet and there’s a puddle on the floor and my chest feels so so cold.
i open the sugar bowl. there’s one sugar cube inside. should it be salt? i wonder. that would make more sense. the bottom of the sea. and i don’t think that i am sweet. i don’t think my soul would take this shape. it does make sense that it’s food. i love food. and i’m so hungry. i take the sugar cube out and let it dissolve on my tongue before i’ve fully considered if that’s the right course of action. as it melts to nothing i wish that i could slow it down, make it stop. what if i’ve done the wrong thing? then i swallow and it’s gone and all that’s left is the sweet aftertaste coating my tongue. and i still feel cold. i look into the empty sugar bowl and touch the bottom. empty. a voice whispers into my ear, unasked, “well? did you find what you were looking for?”