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?”
Ask her to dance, gently.
She’s been waiting all night for someone to ask her
Standing there in her pink tulle gown
That sweeps the floor and tangles in her brittle tail.
The tail - straw-like - flicks from side to side in time with the waltz
An oom-pah-pah of swishing tulle
May I have this dance?
It’s a good moment to ask
The orchestra has crescendo-ed, and reaches a tentative hush
And you speak it out into the quiet
“May I have this dance?” and hold out your hand.
Gently she takes it, and lets you lead her out into the center of the dance floor.
The lights are dim, and the sequins on the bodice of her dress sparkle softly
As she gets into position
And you put your hand on her waist.
It’s lovely to dance with an elephant
Because she is sturdy and solid
And has a perfect understanding of rhythm
Yes, she’s got two left feet
But she’s also got two right feet
Four perfect feet perfectly trampling in time to the
So you let her take the lead
And it’s good to let go sometimes, isn’t it?
While she whirls you around the dance floor
And lifts you with her trunk.
It wasn’t always like this.
Once upon a time, she arrived at the waltz club
Eager and expectant in somber black silk
Her puff of straw tail done up in a bow
And she waited all night for someone to ask her
Standing there in her somber black gown
Gently, so gently.
And she swayed in the lamplight
And flickered her tail
And nobody asked her, or saw her, or cared.
And as the orchestra crescendo-ed, and drew to a sudden hush
She heard it like a slap, like a scoff, like cut
“What do you do with an Elephant”
Well I say: it’s simple.
You ask her to dance.
You reach for her hand.
After all, opportunity knocks seldom, then rarely, then not.
And it’s lovely, so lovely, unbearably lovely
To dance with an elephant.
in order for any of this to make sense, it’s important that you understand the standard of perfection that’s always been required of me.
that’s probably enough for you to get a clear picture of what my life has been like.
gifted perfectionists are basically all the same, at the center of ourselves.
there’s something very peculiar about the word special. it can mean so many things.
sometimes i feel like i’m split into two people straight down the middle, and all they do is stare each other straight in the eye.
and one of them is very rigid and cold, like a sheet of ice.
and the other one is a pot of boiling water wearing human skin.
and they stare each other straight in the eye all day for all eternity
and they hold their breaths
and they think at each other:
“you fuck up.”
“no, you fuck up.”
When you spend as much time around actors as I do
You almost start to believe in the power of words to move the universe.
Or I do.
Let me speak from my own experience and keep my words out of your mouth.
I almost started to believe in the power of words to move the universe.
Not in the way that I think they meant it, but
In some small and significant way, I’ve always understood the power of language
There are things that have been said to me that I will never in my life forget,
Words that have nestled so far into my heart, my blood, my bones
That they are a part of my DNA.
They say that every seven years or so, every single cell in your body regenerates
And is new again.
And some people find this important and healing,
I have found this important and healing.
I do. I have.
I wonder if in seven years those deeply embedded words will begin also to leave my skin
In a sort of filmy ooze, coming out of my pores like sweat
Like the summer of 2019 when I had just returned from London
And hopped in a car and drove all over, visiting the people and places I had missed.
I sat outside my AirBnb in Salem MA, drenched in my own sweat
And I watched it run sideways off my arm, like rainwater
And I kept a photo for evidence.
All of that water was inside of me, coming to the surface.
So back to words:
I wonder if one day the poisonous words you spat at me, calmly
As if you were spitting sunflower seed shells into the dirt
Will unstick themselves from my soul
And leave my body, like rainwater.
Or if every time I see your face, in ten years, in twenty years, in forty years, tomorrow:
I will think, “You have cursed me. And it lingers still.”
I don’t know the remedy for these types of curses, not the way I can sort of guess at remedies for other things:
I think in order to defeat a curse or a demon, you must first call it out by name.
Excuse me: I’ll remind myself again.
I think in order to defeat my curses or demons, I must first call them out by name.
This is difficult, for some days I can barely remember my own.
And some nights, I stare into the darkness of my room and let the resentment seep into the shadows
And think up at the night sky, “Oh teach me how to curse”
And spit venomed words into the still quiet of my lonely room
Or my frost-cold car.
They say that words have power.
I do believe it.
you tickle me
for so long
i worry that my soul has left my body through my ribs
and i kind of hover near the ceiling looking down
at you, tickling.
me: laughing. not happy.
i hurdle over the barrier of meaning
and to see what’s on the other side.
i reckon it’s nicer over there, anyway.
the years have piled up between us, dear friend
and the last time i saw you
it was a cold day and snow was falling.
i am not good at goodbyes and i was weeping, blotchy and ugly.
and you smiled at me, dear friend.
i wonder how we wind and wander so far from each other
and i wonder how we come together again,
like branches of a river
like branches of a tree
meandering limbs of a single whole.
where do i begin and you end, dear friend?
and i don’t deserve your kindness
or your questions
or your letters
or your interest
or the fondness in your eyes
i have walked in many shadows and i have lived many lives
and the person that you knew then
(that i was)
i’m not sure they survived.
the memories grow dusty in the attic of my mind
and i think upon them often, and then sometimes, and then not
but today the snow was falling
and i opened up your letter
and you asked, “have you forgotten me?”
oh, dear friend -
i have not.
There is a terrible, terrible thought in my mind.
And it doesn’t act like a terrible thing.
It doesn’t jump or scream or run it’s spindly nails down the inside of my skull.
It sits, silent and solid in a corner. And it watches. And it waits.
It catches my eyes every now and then and I try to glance away quickly.
After all I have no ill wishes. I’ve never been malicious.
The terrible thought grew in a garden of terrible words, terrible weeds.
And it rattles when it breathes. And it pops its knuckles in the quiet.
And it watches. And it waits.
And it promises, “You will regret me. One day, you will regret me.
And it will be so delicious.”
This is how I let things fall by the wayside: I click into messages, then back out.
I swipe left, I mark as Unread, and I never return to respond.
I’m Sorry is not a big enough phrase for how I feel about these pushpin relationships.
I’m Busy I’m Lonely I’m Overwhelmed I Forgot, the litany of excuses I scroll through like a postmodern rolodex of Instagram feeds and Tumblr threads and iPhone messages.
None of it is true, and none of it is big enough.
Someone told me once that human beings are meant to sustain a maximum of 50 well cared for relationships at any given time. I don’t know when my Facebook Friend List went over 1k - have I even met 1k people in my life?
When I hover through the minefield of bolded, unanswered messages from friends and acquaintances, I sometimes wonder about that number: 50. Am I meant to include myself in it? If my dance card is full up and I’m jumping from arm to arm, is it as if they’re dancing with mist
With a shadow
With my ghost
With my Facebook Profile Picture, on a smiling happy day where I felt…
It’s okay if you never answer my email. Or my message. or my text.
If my letters disappear down the crack between your bed and your wall.
Gone by the way of the wayside: I understand.
I am there too.