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Femme and Sundance

I was 19 when I met Tommy. A day and a bit into a two-day Greyhound trip from bumfuck, Nevada to Saint Paul, Minnesota. Going to meet some trick from the internet. Thought it was true love. Funky and itching for a smoke when we pulled into a truck stop in a one-road Nebraska town called Hendrickson or some shit. Big fat moon was high over the cornfields, and the diner gleamed all silvery. I was hungry, hadn’t eaten nothing since a McDonald’s outside Reno, so I finished my Newport and went in. You ever walk into a place where they hate everything you are? Them white folks stared at my fuchsia naps and mesh shirt like they couldn’t decide if they were gonna call me “faggot” or “nigger”. I sat at the counter, gave the waitress my biggest “y’all sure fine people” grin and asked, “That good smell the meatloaf?”

She didn’t smile back. “Meatloaf’s the special today. We also got fried chicken if you like that better.”

Ol’ racist bitch. “I’ll take me a meatloaf with extra gravy on the mashed potatoes, and a Coke. Where’s the head?”

She pointed with her chin past the booths. “I’ll get your order right in. Mind you don’t miss that bus. Liable to leave without you.”

What passed for a men’s room was a dank closet with a toilet cubicle, one urinal and a sink someone’d pissed in. A naked lightbulb attracted moths overhead. I pissed in the urinal, worked fine, and easier access than the sink. Didn’t wash my hands though. Looked myself over in the scratched-up mirror. My hair was flat on one side where I’d pressed my head against the bus window. I pulled a pick out of my back pocket. I’d locked the door, but it flew open with a bang. Big, blond, cornfed-looking motherfucker. About six feet tall, with freckles across his nose. Fuck. I’d left my Vaseline in my bag on the bus. If I was in for an ass-beating, I’d want something to keep his class ring from scarring up my pretty face. I clenched my fists and pushed my back to the wall. But the big boy’s face got kinda soft and his lip trembled. He looked me up and down in a way I know damn well. “You’re like some kind of angel from…”

I cut him off by kissing him hard. Whatever he saying was gonna be corny. Had to stand on my toes. He banged into the cubicle door. Fumbled with my belt. I pushed him down on his knees.

Half an hour later Tommy followed me onto that bus without even a change of clothes, his hair rumpled and shirt misbuttoned. We left that meatloaf congealing in its gravy right on the counter. I never did get to Saint Paul.

Most people look at Tommy think he’s simple. He got them big blue eyes and that baby face and an aw shucks way of standing that makes you trust him. Looks like he ain’t never had a devious thought in that head. But it was Tommy come up with the masks. He knew a curandera lived about an hour outside of Greeley, and to hear him talk, she had some tricks Sherlock Holmes couldn’t never figure out. Tommy also had an Uncle Joe who was a mechanic and fixed up cars he got cheap at auctions. He sold us a Honda Civic for a song and an understanding that if we was up to no good we wasn’t gonna say we bought it from him.

The bank was my idea. Big enough that we’d take in more than knocking off a couple of convenience stores, and far away from everything that we could get scarce before the law came down. We needed cash. Turning tricks in Wyoming won’t fill anyone’s pockets, and at 25, I was starting to get a little long in the tooth. Tommy’s cigarette-ad-boy in a pick-up thing might last longer, but the prices he charged ain’t never going back up. It don’t cost much to rent a two-bedroom in the middle of nowhere, but when you can’t count on pulling in nothing, not much gets expensive. I didn’t always want my big Saturday night to be clean sheets at the Motel 6 and a bottle of Jim Beam.

So, one night after not much of nothing and rent coming up due, we decided we was getting out, and headed out towards Greeley, Colorado.

Big-ass sky overhead going down to Colorado. Always seems like purple clouds in the distance bristle with lightning. Pretty, but like driving through a picture. Motherfuckers get restless.

“How you know this bruja?” I asked, watching the light move like honey over some fucking amber waves of grain.

Curandera.”

“Whatever.”

Tommy scratched at his chin. “Remember I told you about Spike Jimenez? Miz Boudreaux is his grandfather Hector’s widow. His grandma died young, same as his ma. Hector and Miz Boudreaux practically raised Spike after his daddy went to state pen up in Lincoln?”

I grunted, and focused on the road. Tommy don’t talk much, but when he gets going, he’s like a dog with a bone, just jawing on and on.

“Anyway, one time in a game against the Sherman High Whirlwinds—they were our rivals, remember?—Spike gets sacked by this monster of a boy, musta been nearly three-hundred pounds, and just goes down with a crunch. They pull him off the field, but his arm is going into angles it shouldn’t go, and just looks wrong. Miz Boudreaux pushes her way down from the stands, nobody stops her, she takes what looks like a dried frog from out her purse, puts it on Spike’s arm and just kinda sings. You hear a snap like biting into a pretzel, and his arm is just fine. That’s how I know. She’s the real deal.”

Wasn’t nothing to argue with there.

We pulled up to the Curandera’s house at dusk. The clouds low against the far-off jagged line of the Rockies, like smoke escaping a ragged smile. Little ranch-style house. Yellow clapboard. Chain-link fence. Big neon blue and red fortune telling palm. The words Ms. Boudreaux’s House of Healing painted by the door in red turned orange by the prairie sun. Tommy charged up the gravel front path, clambered up the porch, and then opened the screen door. He shouted in, “Miz Boudreaux?”

A voice from inside called out, “Thomas? Come in. Bring your friend. Sit down. I’ll only be a moment.”

We entered her living room. House smelled good. Like gumbo and lemon furniture polish. Old-people furniture covered with doilies. Paintings of saints, Martin Luther King, and angels. A miniature version of that famous statue of dead Jesus being held up by his mama was a cookie jar. It rested in the middle of the coffee table. Miz Boudreaux swept in through a beaded curtain across the doorway to the kitchen.

She looked like my auntie Josephine, a light-skin woman Uncle Jasper married a week after he met her in Houston. She said she was creole. Mama said she was a witch, and told me not to eat her spaghetti or anything red she made. Miz Boudreaux had that same coloring, the same high forehead, and the same sleepy, heavy-lidded eyes. Tommy popped off the virgin’s head, and pulled out a crumbly almond cookie. Crunched.

Miz Boudreaux sat across from us. Rings glittered on her fingers. She pursed her lips. “Thomas! Your friend is very handsome.

“I’m Davion, ma’am.”

She smiled at me. “Handsome and polite. Good. I worry that you end up with some no ’count trifling stoneheart. This soothes my heart.”

I looked at my fingernails. Miz Boudreaux made a clucking sound. “No need to be shy.” Her smile faded. She stared at Tommy pointedly for a second. “Now, this thing you want. We have already discussed my fee, but you must also both be aware of the costs.”

I bit my lip. Ain’t the first time I come across some extras raise the sticker price. Tommy furrowed his brow. “Now Miz Boudreaux, I promised you pretty much everything we got, honest.”

She raised a hand. “I want no more of your money, Thomas. I can do things, yes? I can make charms that confuse the mind, I can enchant these things so electronics fail, I can do this. But it cannot come from nowhere!” The lights in the room flickered, long shadows danced across her face. “Your car, it need gasoline? My charms need fuel. The cost, my dears, is that for each minute you wear these masks, it will burn through a year of your life.”

Tommy and me looked at each other. He grabbed my hand. Wasn’t much of a life the way we were living.

“You must decide, both of you, how much life you want to give up. To make it work, I must bind that life into the charm. If you want this thing. If you do not, I understand.”

I looked her in the eye. “Reckon fifteen minutes would do it.”

Tommy nodded.

When I say we dressed for the robbery, I want you to know we dressed. My jeans were Girbaud, my button-down Ralph Lauren, both our hats were Stetson, and we had on the nicest pairs of embroidered boots I could mop from the big leather outlet in Chickasaw. Tommy looked like a cowboy’s dream in a red silk western shirt with fringe and roses. Ain’t nobody going to remember what we wore or what we looked like thanks to the masks, but we knew, and I swear it made me walk a little taller, put a little swag in Tommy’s chest.

We pulled into the parking lot of the bank on a Monday afternoon, just after the few shitty nightclubs in Jackson Hole had deposited their weekend takes, and before the ranchers down from the badlands came to take out cash to hide under the beds or whatever. Synchronized our ugly-ass digital watches. I opened the box with the masks. Tommy’s had a long nose and crooked smile. It reminded me of the moon in that old McDonald’s commercial. Mine was a sobbing face. Big blue, painted on tears on its cheek. We nodded. Set the watches. Counted to five. Put the masks on. It was like jumping into a cold pond on a hot day. My body shook and I felt my heart stop. A moment, then colors flashed gold and green and the world felt normal. I looked at Tommy through the eyeholes, but my vision kept sliding off of him, and when I tried to remember how he looked, all I could see was that damn McMoon. He said, “They work.”

Right. Time was ticking. I grabbed the duffel bag. Out of the car and across the parking lot, duster flapping in the wind where no one could see it. Pistol in my hand, shotgun over Tommy’s shoulder. Even if they couldn’t focus on us, they’d know we meant business. Tommy kicked open the plate glass door. He trained his shotgun on the portly security guard who’d been chatting with a Miss Clairol redhead wearing an ugly string of fake pearls. There were screams. People hit the floor and hid under tables. I walked up to a teller, pistol aimed at her chest. A purse skittered across the room and landed at my feet. I kicked it away. I said loudly to the room, “We’re planning on making a withdrawal. From the bank.” I passed the duffel bag over to the teller. “No small bills, no marked notes, no little canisters that turn the money funky colors. Now, I’m not interested in your money, folks. Just the bank’s, and all of that is insured. No one tries anything heroic, we all walk out of here nice and friendly.” The tellers shoveled stacks of money into the duffel bag. I glanced at my watch. Three minutes, forty seconds gone. Stuffed near bursting, the teller shoved it back across the counter with some effort. I smiled, said, “Thank you, kindly.”

Then there was a sound like thunder, and a smell like the fourth of July. Then I couldn’t hear nothing but a high-pitched mosquito whine. I turned in the direction of the thunder crack. Tommy had blown a hole in the Clairol red, and much of the wall besides. She dropped to the ground. A dainty pink revolver spun away from her hands. Plastic pearls skittered across the floor. Tommy grabbed me by the wrist, and we both ran out the doors.

Masks off in the car at five minutes and forty-three seconds. Mouth tasted nasty, like I’d been sick. I started the engine, but couldn’t hear nothing but that high-pitched whine. Tommy pulled out a pair of binoculars from the glove compartment and scanned behind us. I tried to put distance between us and the bank quick as I could without wrapping us around a telephone pole or ending up in a ditch. At some point, he switched on the radio, but the girls singing sounded like they fell into a tunnel, and I snapped it off.

 Didn’t stop driving until we reached the switch-off point about twenty minutes into Colorado. Ears rang the whole time. Didn’t see the point of talking. When I closed my eyes, I saw fake pearls on ugly carpet spattered with blood. At the switch-off, we stripped. Girbauds, western shirt, gloves, boots, all into a pile in the back seat. Switched the money from the duffel bag into a couple of JanSports. Tommy splashed gas from a jerry can over the things, while I carried the JanSports to the cab Ford pick-up. He tossed a lit match. We sat in the flatbed of the truck bare-ass naked, pink doughnut box of masks between us, and watched the little Honda burn.

I turned to Tommy. “You think you shoulda maybe put that shotgun with them clothes?”

He shrugged. “It’s a good gun.”

“It’s a murder weapon!”

“Well, I reckon it is.” He spit on the ground.

Once we got past Denver, Tommy stopped looking over his shoulder every six seconds. We passed the big green sign for the turn-off to Buffalo Bill’s grave and I heard snoring. I drove through the Rockies in the dark with Tommy’s rumbling for company, and felt less heavy each time we passed a turn-off or a junction. Time we got to the Eisenhower tunnel, I was almost back to my usual state of chill.

We stopped at a motel just outside the Siren city limits called the Lon-Tiki Inn. Big plastic Easter Island heads outside the office. Pool was drained and fenced off. Grey-faced old guy at the front desk handed us our key without any questions.

Room was mostly clean. Dusty red and orange carpet with a faded trail to the head. Palm trees on the wallpaper. King-size bed. Gideon’s Bible on the nightstand. Wasn’t neither of our idea of a tropical getaway, but I drove all night, and we weren’t never gonna find a hotel with room service in Siren.

Tommy lugged the JanSports into the room. He picked up the purple one, unzipped it and covered the bed with cash. He pulled his shirt over his head and swung it around before flinging it onto a chair. Pulled his jeans and drawers down over his hips without unbuckling his belt. Kicked them off. Flopped down butt-naked in that pile of money. “Come here,” he said. Then he plunked quarters into the slot for Magic Fingers machines atop the headboard.

You ever screwed on a pile of money with a bed bucking beneath you like a mechanical bull? I was still mad about the fuck-up at the bank, but wasn’t like I could say no to that ass. Tommy’s bigger than me, but I grabbed him by the hips and tossed him onto his stomach like he was some bird-boned twink. Bone-tiredness forgotten in my sudden need to fuck. No time for lube, I spit into my palm and slathered my dick. Tommy spread his thighs, desperate for it. The bed creaked and moaned beneath us, bumping up as we bumped together.

An hour later, we were sticky with cum and sweat, and plastered with Mr. Franklin’s portrait in damp places. I was in need of a smoke. I peeled a $100 off my upper thigh, crumpled it and threw it in Tommy’s face. “That shit did not go to plan.”

He just laughed and twisted the cap off a bottle of Maker’s Mark we picked up in Eagle. Took a swig. No chaser. “You think I was going to let some dried-up hero-playing bitch shoot you because of the plan? Baby, when I said I would kill for you—”

“I get it, Tommy.” I stood up. Scratched my ass. “Don’t think I ain’t grateful. But in my head everything was so smooth. Now it ain’t.”

Tommy leaned back into the not-so-crisp money pile. Tried to make money angels. “Looks like smooth sailing to me, babe.”

I scowled. “I need a shower. I smell like pits and ass.” Put some of the money back in the JanSport. “It still spends. Jizz ain’t the worst thing it’s had on it.”

I headed into the bathroom, grabbed a clean, threadbare towel. The back of my neck itched. There was an irritating sound like someone had the TV tuned to a dead channel with the volume all the way up. I figured I was just tired from the road. Hot water was soothing. I used one of those bullshit motel soaps and a washcloth to scrub the dirt off me. Turned off the shower. The itching and the sound was worse. I headed out to the main room. Tommy was sitting on the bed, jeans on, gun in his lap. He was facing the window. His shoulders looked tense. That sound got even louder. He half-turned towards me, mouthed “gun”. My gun was sitting next to the TV, masks on either side of it. The masks, though, they were shaking. Like they was in tune with that stupid fucking static sound. I grabbed my gun, crouched down low behind the TV stand. Tommy rolled back down behind the bed. The itching spread down my spine, and up my jaw through my back teeth. I inhaled. The window shrieked. Glass cracked down like a lightning bolt. The door flew open, chain popping off. A smell like burning hair. Two figures entered. Black visors. Black padded jumpsuits covered with crazy silver stitches that twisted and glowed without any light. On their chests a triangular badge with the letters A, S, A at each corner. One was holding a thing that looked like a cross between a Geiger counter and a mute trombone, the other carried a big black box that made that sound. Box guy spoke. “We’re only detecting six thaums. You might as well give it up. You’ll die easier if you don’t fight.”

Tommy popped up from behind the bed. I heard three quick shots. Box guy fell back. Geiger counter turned his trombone on Tommy. I squeezed my trigger. One. Twice. Three times. Four. Hit him dead center. He fell back too.

I grew up with guns. My uncle taught me to shoot. Picked off coyotes that got too near his ranch. I ain’t never shot a man before. My stomach turned. I tasted bile at the back of my throat. Doubled over, managed not to hurl. Tommy was cool, shrugged into his denim jacket. Grabbed the JanSports. Looked me in the eyes. “Davion, we got to go. Can you get the masks?”

I clutched both of the masks, still vibrating, to my chest and walked out into the early morning. Police sirens wailed in the distance. Tommy kicked the black box. The masks stopped vibrating. We put them on. Ran out to the pick-up past a fat man in a dirty wifebeater who stood at his motel room door, arms crossed. We piled into the pick-up and pulled onto the interstate, crossing over into Utah long before the Siren city police had time to figure out what had gone down at the Lon-Tiki.

Some hours into Utah, after we traded the pick-up for a plum-red Chrysler from a shifty dealer outside of Green River who took too much money in exchange for a pointed lack of any sort of nosiness, we turned off into the back roads, and stopped for a picnic. We climbed a big, beautiful, dusty red rock almost as perfect as God made it, except for a small pile of whippits glittering near the edge. The rock seemed to drink in the sun’s light, positively glowed. Tommy spread himself out on a blanket, took a bite out a sandwich and pointed at a cloud. “Looks like a really fat llama.”

It did, and I laughed, and he laughed. The sound echoed out over the rocks. Black-winged birds with white throats scattered overhead. I took a bite of my cold, bullshit gas station cheese-and-bean burrito and a swig of warm Coke. My guts been clenched like a fist since Siren, and everything felt loose and light on that rock. I ate that trash burrito like it was my momma’s banana pudding. I scooted close to Tommy on that ratty blanket and he wrapped his arms around me, and pressed his nose into the hollow at the top of my spine where my skull begins. The light was like honey.

“We fucked up. But everything’s gonna be alright,” I said. He nuzzled my neck. I rested my eyes for just a moment.

Tommy nudged me awake. “We better get off this rock afore it gets dark. I’m liable to break an ankle.”

The day had turned orange and gold, and the sun was low. “Momma ain’t raise no mountain goat,” I said, and we packed up the blankets and the last bits of our rest-stop picnic. We scrambled down that rock with no more mishaps than a false step and a scuffed shoe.

I spotted a plume of dust kicked up by something and snatched up Tommy’s binoculars. Off-road, in the distance I could see something a like a mail-truck but black, with a big version of the trombone thing from the Lon-Tiki on its top. “Fuck. Them assholes from Siren sent more a they busters after us.”

“How’n the hell they find us again?” Tommy scowled.

The pink donut box rattled a little in the back seat. We looked at each other. “Masks,” Tommy said.

I snatched them up out of the backseat. Made as if to fling the box into hell, but Tommy said, “Wait.” He opened the box. The masks vibrated. “We leave these intact and we don’t know if someone else could use ‘em. We gotta bust them up.”

Felt like a lump in my belly. I knew we wasn’t coming back for them, but there was almost ten years left in each. Tommy picked up a big rock and brought it down on the masks. They howled. A coyote got into my uncle’s rabbit hutch once, and the sound was like them rabbits, high, mean, and sharp. I felt a hitch in my chest, and the masks cracked when Tommy hit them again, then crumbled. He pitched the box away from him, put some spin on it. It tumbled down into a gulch.

We ran to the car and peeled out in the opposite direction. Tommy watched the black mail-truck thing through his binoculars. while I pushed that raggedy-ass Chrysler until it shuddered.

“They’re following the box,” he said. And I relaxed a little.

We switched the Chrysler out for a sky-blue Datsun, and after some detours and switchbacks, no more of that itchy feeling in the back of my head. We figured the trail had gone cold without the masks, but just in case I steered clear of Reno; too much of my own history tied up there. No plans and still with more money than two bodies ought to rightly have, we found ourselves heading towards California and the dream of canyon roads and beaches.

Tommy and me stopped off at a hustler bar called Tuco’s at a truckstop about a half-hour outside of Barstow along I-15. Had a neon peacock flashing his tail feathers on the sign outside. Windows blacked out for privacy. On the inside: wood panelling, red pleather booths, velvet paintings of Crystal Gayle and Dolly Parton, a horseshoe hanging over the front door. Wasn’t too busy when we got there at about two in the afternoon on a Tuesday. Two boys grinding on each other to a Deep House remix of Johnny Cash. Two others nursing beers on tap, one sucking the salt off roasted peanuts.

Tuco’s was run by an old, mean queen named Sammy Ray who took over everything when his man, Big Tuco, got sick. Big Tuco got called that ’cause he looked like a meaty version of Eli Wallach in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Sammy Ray wasn’t no bigger than a poodle, and had a sweet, round face besides. But I’ve seen him deal with trouble in his bar with a baseball bat, and I know which of them I’d rather cross.

Sammy Ray ain’t ask no questions about why we was flush, but we were buying rounds for the four sad-eyed boys waiting for the right kind of truckers to pull up, and he was pouring ’em stiff. I threw back a whiskey sour and wriggled on my bar stool to get a little closer to Tommy. We twined fingers. Sammy Ray reached up over the bar and clapped Tommy on the back. Rare bit of emotion behind Sammy Ray’s steely eyes. “It sure is a good thing to see you two boys still together.”

“Tommy’s my ride-or-die,” I said.

“We’re like Bussy and Clyde,” Tommy said. A little bit dizzy from whiskey sours and too many days on the road, we looked at each other and laughed until we gasped for breath. Tommy beat his chest and coughed. I wiped away tears.

“Femme Cassidy and the Sundance Kid!” I said. That set us off again.

Sammy Ray grinned. “I’m just glad you nasty boys didn’t say something about For a Fistful of Dollars, because first of all—” He squinted his eyes and looked at the door. The horseshoe glowed a dull red, like a cast-iron skillet left on the burner too long.

A boom rattled the windows. Daylight flooded the room. Tommy shoved me off my stool. As I fell I saw a triangle of men in black padded uniforms storm in through the booted-open door. They opened fire. Tommy crumpled back against the bar. Drunk, on the floor, I wiggled to get my gun from under my shirt. Noise and smoke filled the room: screams from surprised twinks, breaking glass, and gunfire. The thundercrack of Sammy Ray’s peacemaker.

One of those fuckers shouted, “They’re not stunned!”

I turned towards the voice. I fired without aiming, into the light. My ears rang. I covered my mouth and coughed on the smoke and dust. Pulled myself upright, blinked. The horseshoe over the door cracked and fell to the ground in pieces. The twinks were crying. One of them was dead, slumped over in his booth. Spiderweb cracks laced the mirror behind the bar. Another twink clutched his stomach and howled. Tommy looked pale, one hand clamped his left shoulder, his shirt was red with blood. Sammy Ray stood over us, shotgun in his hand, his lips narrow and a vein bulging in his forehead. I moved over to Tommy, noticed a trickle of blood at his hips. Sammy Ray’s voice sounded like it came from a bad long-distance connection. “What in the chicken-fucking hell did you dumb sumbitches do to pull a team of gotdamn arbiters to my bar?”

I tore a strip off my shirt and pressed it to Tommy’s hip. My voice sounded like it came from an old floor-model TV. “What the fuck is an arbiter.”

“Goddamn magic police. Called out for bad juju, not whatever chickenshit you two artless clowns was up to. Used up the interception charm on my horseshoe in one go. Only reason your dumbasses are still able to explain.”

I pressed down on Tommy’s wound. He gasped. Through gritted teeth, he said, “We might have pulled something using magical disguises. Don’t know they found us.” He winced. “We ditched them.”

Sammy Ray’s face softened. “You boys gotta get the fuck out of here. I can take care of this here mess, but they’ll chase you anywhere in the States.” He paused. “On the way out, check their trucks.”

“Can you walk?” I asked Tommy.

He nodded. I helped pull him to his feet. He put an arm across my shoulders to steady himself. Outside was one of those black mail truck things we saw in the Utah desert. I peeked in the back. Our masks had been glued back together and stitched with silver thread and hooked up to wires on some sort of panel that looked like a submarine sonar from the movies. A radio crackled. A weird clock-looking thing with nine hands turned without any regard to the actual time. A pentagram was marked on the floor with LEDS at each juncture. Big silver pyramid on the wall with an eye like on the dollar bill with ‘Arbitration Service of America’ written in a circle around it. There were pictures of Miz Boudreaux and a map with glowing pins following our path from the bank. Tommy scowled. “What do we do?”

It ain’t hard to find gasoline at a truckstop. Before those fuckers’ backup showed up, we lit the masks up, and hell’s mail truck along with it.

The Datsun died somewhere in Riverside county. Tommy’s shoulder started to bleed again, and he was in no fit condition to walk to the next town, so we stood on the shoulder of I-15 with our thumbs out. Hours passed without much more than some curse words and half-empty big gulp thrown in our direction. The itching in the back of my teeth was back. Feeling cornered on the open road is not something I recommend.

Tommy turned to me, his big blue eyes wide and trusting. He coughed. “Maybe it’s in my head. But do you feel that itching. Do you hear a sound like a cat scratch?”

I kissed him on the forehead. It was clammy. My heart thundered. “Naw baby. I don’t feel nothing,” I lied. “I think maybe you need to get some rest.” I heard a squeal like the one before the windows rattled in Siren and sucked in my breath. A shadow loomed over us, and I prepared myself to go out fighting. But the squeal was the breaks of an eighteen-wheeler, and a big friendly-faced trucker in a plaid shirt leaned over to open his passenger door. “You boys looking for a lift?”

I gave my biggest smile. “Sure are, sir. Really appreciate it.”

“Hop in.” We clambered into the truck. Tommy leaned against me and shivered. He felt hot. The itching got stronger. I slammed the door shut.

“Where you boys headed?”

“To Mexico, sir. But as far as you can take us would be grand.”

He laughed. “Wish I was young enough to enjoy Mexico like I bet you fellas will. I’m going to San Diego, but I figure that’s close enough for you boys to find your own way south.”

I pulled out a wad of cash from one of the JanSports, desperate to put some distance between us and the itching.

The driver shook his head. “I didn’t pick you boys up with any expectations. Keep your money, just do someone else a good turn.”

Tommy moaned softly. He needed a doctor, but it wouldn’t do him no good if we couldn’t get away from them arbiters. They had to be close. The driver pulled back onto the highway. I kept my eyes on the road and tried to ignore the bad taste in the back of my mouth. Fifteen years gone. What if Tommy was only meant to live fifteen more years? Shania Twain was on the radio, but the itching drove out the bubblegum brightness of her song.

Tommy looked bad, and the driver sang along, and all I could think was to pray that nothing happened to this kind man as I looked in the rearview mirror. But nothing looked like a black mail truck, and slowly the itching subsided.

So, Mexico. It’s been almost two years since we crossed the border. We settled on a little town in Baja. Tommy’s learning to fish and I’m learning Spanish. It’s slow, and folk mostly laugh at my pronunciation, but I can understand what’s being said to me. Tommy don’t hardly speak English no more, them Spanish words slide off his tongue without a pause in-between them. He ain’t never recovered the full use of his left hand, and he walks with a limp, but he plays fútbol with the muchachos on Sunday and can pound out masa into a passable tortilla. JanSport money ain’t going to last us forever. But I got me a job at the carnicería cutting up hogs, and we make do. We watch the sun go down over the ocean together most nights. In the spring, sometimes you catch sight of a whale.

We ain’t never tired of each other’s company. We both know our time together is going to be shorter, but damn if that don’t make the silliest things have meaning. Each time Tommy tells a bad joke or tickles my neck is a blessing. And if sometimes we jump at an itch at the back of our necks, or my stomach drops because a stranger stands in a shaded alley wearing all black, well that don’t seem too high a price to pay.

 

(Editors’ Note: “Femme and Sundance is read by Matt Peters on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 38B.)

Trash Fantasias, or Why Mass Effect 3‘s Ending Was Bad Actually

I think the moment I realised something was amiss was when a fellow named “El Spiko” filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)1. This is not a sentence one would expect a video game critic to say, of course, unless one is familiar with the overwhelming tantrums that rock the gaming world like seasonal hurricanes.

In 2012 the release of Mass Effect 3 (ME3), the conclusion to BioWare’s legendary sci-fi trilogy, was met with much fanfare and then, suddenly, a cavalcade of outrage. The problem? The game’s ending. It was an infamously minimalist affair that saw the heroic Commander Shepard deciding between one of three fates for the galaxy: ‘Destroy’ the invading Reapers outright, ‘Control’ them and use the titanic space cephalopods to rebuild the galaxy they’d destroyed, or effect a ‘Synthesis’ between all organic and synthetic life, turning the galaxy’s sapient population into cyborgs. Red, Blue, and Green endings, respectively, in line with the colours they were assigned in game. In every case, Shepard seemed to die, and there was no happy ending available with your companions or romantic interest, despite building those relationships over three games spread over five years. And each ending involves the destruction of a sentient race, culturally or physically.

The reaction was furious—the FTC complaints were merely the tip of a massive iceberg of tears—abuse, bitter arguments, harassment, and threats were the order of the day in what was, at the time, perhaps the biggest freak out in the world of gaming. There was no question that the cause was, at least in part, the same gamer entitlement that leads to studio employees being doxed and harassed2 for making changes some players disapprove of. The ME3 explosion simply seemed to be another wave of this. There could never be sober or sensible criticisms, only volcanoes of outrage. My natural reaction was to regard ME3’s ending as a flawed but misunderstood piece of art, and argue that it had its merits.

Reflecting on the matter years later, however, after having replayed the entire trilogy amidst 2020’s unending quarantine with the pandemic as an especially relentless context, I’ve been forced to reassess things.

I wasn’t alone in doing so this year. Fanbyte’s aptly-named Kenneth Shepard also revisited the trilogy and made what was, perhaps, the best argument in the ending’s favour3: it refused players the simplistic fantasy of straightforward, cost-free solutions. A crisis as big as a Reaper invasion necessitates compromises and hard choices. “There are no perfect outcomes. There are no ‘best’ endings. Mass Effect is a series about making a choice and living with the consequences,” he writes.

I would have agreed with him in 2012. But now, on the eve of Mass Effect’s long-awaited remaster, I’ve come around to a more nuanced point of view with implications for how we understand pulpy sci-fi like Mass Effect, and its inherent value.

My partner, a brilliant sci-fi writer in her own right, bitterly scorns the ending of Mass Effect as “choose-your-colour genocide.” That phrase, when she first used it a couple of years ago, went through me like an arrow. It all seems so obvious. The Destroy ending destroys all synthetic life in the galaxy, not just the Reapers. So you exterminate AI like your robot companion EDI, and the entire cybernetic Geth species. Control, meanwhile, effectively means enslaving the Reapers (the mechanics of this, and of Reaper consciousness, are not made clear but the overtones are unpleasant to say the least). Synthesis seems like the “best” ending where everybody (except Shepard) lives. But it requires every being in the galaxy to submit to a kind of cyborgification, for all synthetic life to take on organic qualities and vice-versa, which I’d find cool, personally, but I imagine there would be billions with profound personal, moral, and spiritual objections to such a radical change.

My fellow critics, like Mr. Shepard, have often tried to argue that this was a necessary rebuke to the power fantasies inculcated by most mainstream video games and an attempt to tell a more mature story. The problem is that, in all-too-typical video game fashion, the ending is less an effortless payoff for good storytelling than a heavy-handed attempt at aping profundity. Contrary to Kenneth Shepard’s assertions about the game, Mass Effect is in fact a game about achieving ideal outcomes. For its players, the fantasy is about being a world-historical hero(ine) who is able to truly save the day: stopping wars, saving whole civilisations, et cetera. Where you are forced to make a hard choice, that force is undeniable—for instance the choice between saving Ashley or Kaidan on Virmire in the first Mass Effect game—and you feel railroaded into a trolley problem. This is many things but subtle storytelling it ain’t.

By and large, “having your cake and eating it too” is the core fantasy fulfilled by most BioWare RPGs. This is ripe for deconstruction and satire, of course, but not via a whipsaw ending that feels wholly disconnected from the themes of over a hundred hours of gameplay up ’til that point. Games like Love Conquers All’s Hate Plus, or Knights of the Old Republic 2, go a long way towards deconstructing power fantasies in their respective genres. But they were built from the ground up to do so, making it a theme that manifests throughout the story and through the player’s experience of it. This was not Mass Effect’s destiny. Its excellent sci-fi writing pointed, instead, to the bombast of a heroic space opera, not to the existential shattering of 2001.

And here is where a possible lesson for spec-fic more broadly may be found: let trash be trash.

The last few years have seen a renaissance for “trash”. One might, for instance, describe something as “my trash”, using it as an only slightly-self-effacing version of “my shit”. There’s an admission, of course, that the work in question is not ‘high art’ but that it has value and personal resonance all the same. This is all to the good.

There are gems to be found in the mulch of pulp, and limitless comforts besides—which 2020 has violently reminded us of the need for. In a world suffused with cynicism and poisoned by irony, sometimes one needs a Jupiter Ascending to remind one that fantasy can be elevating and buoyant. That it can be fun.

Amidst the gathering storms of our age, irony and bitter cynicism become constant, unavoidable companions. Most trash is nothing if not cloyingly sincere. Sincerity—the honest belief, say, in the triumph of good over evil, or in the possibility of happily-ever-afters—despite its association with childish naivete, is a necessary balm for dark times. What is 2020 but a year that reminds us, with the relentless scale of history, of just how bad things can get? When we seek to escape, we seek sunnier pastures, something that comforts us. Even something wholesome. Animal Crossing: New Horizons was always going to be a hit, but the obliteration of our social lives by COVID-19 made it into a lifeline-cum-phenomenon. And thus it was that in this year’s sickly light, I saw Mass Effect afresh and appreciated everything it was doing, on a deeper level, right up until its fateful epilogue—which I came to see as a betrayal of its uplifting sincerity.

How else do you describe an ending that forces you to kill billions?

In some significant ways, Mass Effect was not terrifically creative. Its aliens were all profoundly human, for example. But, as with Star Trek, that trope can be used to tell fun and engaging speculative stories—and Mass Effect 3 actually did manage to have big payoffs for some of its key storylines. These are so well written, spanning at least two of the three games, that despite the unavoidable death of popular characters they feel like triumphs.

The death of Mordin Solus, for example, is the only way to save the Krogan species from a eugenicist cultural genocide imposed on them by Solus’ people. But because his story feels so complete by that point, his death feels meaningful rather than random. This, too, is part of the game’s fantasy—that sacrifice can have a greater purpose. 2020 is a year that has, as all plague years do, surrounded us with not only death, but with agonising reminders of its senselessness and randomness. One of the great comforting fantasies of fiction lies in its ability to make death appear purposeful and meaningful.

Meaning-making is, indeed, at the heart of trash fiction. It makes the world make sense, gives the simulation of sacrifice, loss, and even desolation a larger meaning.

In order to make that work, however, Mass Effect had to move people with its character-driven fantasies, where different characters in their caricatured personalities and struggles felt like a Buzzfeed quiz come to life, with characters, moods, and vibes to suit any taste—as well as romantic fantasies aplenty. Far from being a neg, this is actually a high compliment to the game’s excellent characterisation. Garrus’ quippy depression or Tali’s awkward genius feel relatable in a genuine way; the caricatures surface certain characteristics that, when combined with the series’ well-designed art, make for characters one wants to connect with.

Which Normandy crew member are you? Press Start to find out.

(Liara, always and forever, if you were curious.)

This was, of course, a bit of a muddle in a game that also sought to appeal to the jingoist fantasies of countless first-person shooters. The “hoo-rah” aspect of Commander Shepard’s space marine-ness and the running-and-gunning that defines much of the series’ actual gameplay is a sometimes awkward fit with the often soulfully comedic interpersonal drama that propels the series. The soap opera element reaches its apotheosis with what many fans consider to be the ‘true’ end to the series, the Citadel DLC of ME3, which focuses on telling more stories about all of the game’s characters, held up by a comedic main questline that parodies the series in a loving way. It’s no grittily serious deconstruction, but it’s far more tonally consonant with the rest of the game than the ending turned out to be.

The game feels most truly itself in its optimistic and heroic guise, and most like a small child trying on her mother’s clothes, when it attempts to be serious about the “horrors of war”. In trying to pursue an abstract gloss of seriousness, grit, and profundity, the game loses touch with its core themes at a critical moment, like a classical orchestra playing Tchaikovsky that suddenly veers off into a John Cage number. Dissonance itself is an artform, but done haphazardly it just becomes noise. Indeed, this is not just dissonance: it is incoherence.

I won’t say Mass Effect 3’s ending was pretentious—the critique has been levelled so often at so many works in bad faith that it’s impossible to salvage—and I mean no disrespect to the ambitions of the game’s writers and developers. But it serves as a grand lesson in the importance of hewing to your story’s strengths, and avoiding the shame that gathers around pulp fiction like so much dust on a bookshelf. The moral repugnance of the implied genocide is also a shock to the senses in a game that always seems to offer at least one nominally virtuous option at every moral hinge-point. Yes, it’s unrealistic to suggest that there’s always a good option where everybody wins, but that’s core to the game’s fantasy. To swing in this other, catastrophic direction is violent dissonance.

Far from critiquing a power fantasy, as other critics have suggested, this ending is actually the most toxic power fantasy writ large: empowering the player character to decide, without any real alternative, to exterminate entire species and/or ways of life. There is no textual challenge to any of this, no implied moral struggle with the obvious horror of such a decision, much less any attempt to reconcile it to the rest of the game’s story.

The conceit of RPGs like this, which sees the player take on the role of the Chosen One, is invariably an individualist fantasy where you single-handedly solve vast problems and make decisions that affect equally vast populations. But Mass Effect 3’s ending does not deconstruct this; it inflates the player’s self-regard to Brobdingnagian proportions. That it was rejected by precisely the legions of entitled players such fantasies often cater to was an ironically bitter harvest.

But there were many more sensible critiques from legions of fans, of all backgrounds, who, in their quieter, sober criticisms that did not grab headlines, recognised there was something morally hinky in all this. To them, and to this tragic year that drew the game’s fantasy into such sharp relief, I owe the realisation that the attempt at crafting an artistically profound ending undermined everything ME’s story was trying to do up ’til that point. In this, there is a warning for all spec-fic writers.

If you’re writing something pulpy, just be your best trashy self.

 

 

[1] Sterling, Jim. “EA Reported to FTC over Mass Effect 3 Ending.” Destructoid, 18 March 2012, www.destructoid.com/stories/ea-reported-to-ftc-over-mass-effect-3-ending-224101.phtml.

[2] Crecente, Brian. “Destiny Developer Startled Awake by Police, Sheriff’s Helicopter after Faked 911 Call.” Polygon, 7 November 2014, www.polygon.com/2014/11/7/7172827/destiny-swatting.

[3] Shepard, Kenneth. “The Suicide Mission Was the Best and Worst Thing to Happen to Mass Effect.” Fanbyte, 26 January 2020, www.fanbyte.com/trending/mass-effect-2-10-year-anniversary-suicide-mission.

Interview: Paul Cornell

Paul Cornell has written episodes of Elementary, Doctor Who, Primeval, Robin Hood and many other TV series, including his own children’s show, Wavelength. He’s worked for every major comics company, including his creator-owned series I Walk With Monsters for The Vault, The Modern Frankenstein for Magma, Saucer State for IDW and This Damned Band for Dark Horse, and runs for Marvel and DC on Batman and Robin, Wolverine and Young Avengers. He’s the writer of the Lychford rural fantasy novellas from Tor.com Publishing. He’s won the BSFA Award for his short fiction, an Eagle Award for his comics, a Hugo Award for his podcast, and shares in a Writer’s Guild Award for his Doctor Who. He’s the co-host of Hammer House of Podcast. “Distribution” is Cornell’s third appearance in Uncanny—an examination of government regulation and human nature, set in a darkly imagined future.

 

Uncanny Magazine: “Distribution” is packed with ideas: free minds, consent, human nature, religion. Did you start from wanting to explore one (or more) of these concepts, or did you have a different inspiration?

Paul Cornell: As I get older, I’m increasingly aware of the generational tension in all the different media and genres I move in, so I’ve started to consciously write about futures that spring from youth. I offhandedly and as a matter of policy tend to take the side of the younger generations when it comes to cultural faultlines, and I’m always on the lookout for the moment when that starts to look ridiculous, when I’m the old guy getting the slang wrong. That moment has to come, right? It may have already. I don’t get to judge that. And ‘I don’t get to judge that’ is kind of the theme of this new body of work. I think we’re at a hugely exciting moment for our species, albeit one that’s also tremendously frightening because of how entrenched the reactionary reply is turning out to be. The increasing freedom of personal identity in terms of gender particularly speaks to me. It’s the promise of Bowie fulfilled. ‘Identity politics’ have been enormously helpful to me personally. They’ve given us not just a new way to look at who we are but (maybe this is just an English thing) permission to do so. But the most important thing is, I need to find a slightly different place to stand for these stories, because they’re stories where the figure I’d normally identify with is no longer the protagonist. I don’t want to do something as simple as make myself the villain, though I do indulge in that a bit, because my generation hasn’t covered themselves in glory. So it’s about putting the pieces together in a different way and seeing what suits now. I’m excited. Your mileage may vary.

Uncanny Magazine: There’s wonderful tension in this story, with Shan continually on edge, waiting for something bad to happen as the situation becomes increasingly unsettling. You do dark fiction and horror quite well—what draws you to this type of story?

Paul Cornell: Thanks. I just think that’s where we are now. Social media lets us, for the first time in history, look human nature right in the face every minute. Fuck. That’s what we’re really like.

Uncanny Magazine: If you lived in the world described in “Distribution,” would you want to be part of the co-op or off on your own?

 Paul Cornell: Ah, that’s the most brilliant question, because it really gets to the heart of the story. I love the idea of such co-ops, and would like to be able to spend time there. I love big government. Good law, humane law, is my favourite thing. But then again, I think we all have a thing inside us that says we want to light out for the frontier. I like to think that the best futures we can imagine allow both, because liberty and social duty should not have to be mutually exclusive.

Uncanny Magazine: You started out writing Doctor Who fan fiction, and have since expanded into a wide range of projects—novels, nonfiction, comics, screenplays—both within the world of Doctor Who and outside of it. What advice do you have for writers who are starting out in fan fiction?

Paul Cornell: You’re in the best possible place, keep at it. Fan fiction is an amazing space for you to get critique of your work and improve fast. And you get to learn characterization and tones of voice. And fan fiction is also worthwhile purely for itself.

Uncanny Magazine: Do you find it difficult to keep your various projects from bleeding into each other? Alternately, do you like to include references to different worlds or franchises as Easter eggs?

Paul Cornell: Not really, I like the variety, though it means, horribly, that my name doesn’t mean a specific genre to readers, which limits me. And I absolutely do not include such references, that would be horrible. I like to write whatever I’m writing thoroughly and properly, and it’d undermine it somehow to put exterior stuff in there.

Uncanny Magazine: What are you working on next?

Paul Cornell: I have a hard SF novella out in 2021, part of the body of work I mentioned at the start, as well as four creator-owned comics, two of which have been announced. I’ve got a finished YA SF novel and a movie screenplay being shipped around too. Bit busy.

Uncanny Magazine: Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us!

What The Time Travellers Stole

It was a knife, that first time we noticed, the old one that fitted

so well to my hand. These things happen, you said, thinking it merely lost.

I worried the landlord’s kid broke in, took it for kicks.

 

My glasses, two weeks later, the only thing they gave back. All day we searched

in a blur. That night they bounced on the living room carpet.

We found them iced over, steaming. After, they never quite fit.

 

There was that folder with your visa application for the trip to China.

The annotated Beowulf. The Oyster cards. Saint Agatha’s

icon, bought in the shadow of Mount Etna.

 

My wisdom teeth, next. Ghoulish to keep those anyway, you said.

Who but you would want them?

I replied: maybe they’re cloning us? Are they taking souvenirs?

 

Are they adjusting the dials on days gone by? Maybe there was an accident

with the knife. That big fire downtown, was it the day we spent looking for Beowulf?

Or maybe, you said, we’re overreacting.

 

Still. You took the important documents and Nanny’s ring to a safe deposit box.

I left a list in my desk: dates, deaths, regrets.

Our share in the commonwealth of avoidable tragedies.

 

The time travellers left packets of beet seeds. Trout lures, and a recipe for mead. Water

purification tablets, a map of cottage country, with one

cold town a remote circle, scrawled in rusty brown. And Nanny’s ring.

 

Fantastic, I said, we’ve started a conversation.

You replied: how soon do you think we should start packing?

Leaving me to say it: we’re overreacting. It was my turn, after all.

 

But I didn’t stop you pulling up Muskoka real estate listings.

And you just snorted, and kept browsing cottages and mortgage rates,

when I queried Amazon for fishing rods and hit Subscribe on survivalist YouTube.

 

(Editors’ Note: “What the Time Travellers Stole” is read by Joy Piedmont on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 38B.)

Hayao Miyazaki’s Lost Magic of Parenthood

One of life’s great joys is watching your children play. Through a kitchen window overlooking your backyard, at the beach, exploring a park. There’s great pleasure in observing the unobserved. You see their joy, watch them solve problems, navigate complex social situations, work together, fight, hug, laugh, run. Be free. You become lost in their imagination and for a fleeting moment recapture the wonder of a long-ago childhood. Watching your children play is an opportunity to see the world through excited eyes.

It’s this warm, emotive sense of simplicity and well-being—as though, somewhere deep within your heart, life’s purpose becomes something you can finally grasp. It’s fleeting—like a soot sprite captured between clapped hands, gone the moment you try to examine it, smudged palms the only trace of its existence.

As I struggle to articulate these feelings in a way that doesn’t feel contrived or artificial, the cinematic works of famed Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki call from the back of my mind. Particularly loud are his triumvirate examining these themes with ageless, crystalline clarity: My Neighbour Totoro, Spirited Away, and Ponyo.

The beating heart of these films are the children around whom the story warps, and the interactions they have with the magical and natural worlds around them. A small boy named Sosuke meets a magical goldfish; Chihiro explores a bathhouse home to myriad spirits; sisters Satsuki and Mei befriend a lovable troll called Totoro. Miyazaki is well loved for his evocative recreations of rural and urban Japan throughout the 20th century, but the magical additions are what make them classics.

Central to these films is the way their magical worlds are revealed to their young protagonists, leaving the parents—obsessed with the things that haunt all adults—unaware of the wonder under their very noses. Miyazaki loves to explore how we forget the magic in our world as we’re crushed by the weight of societal expectations and capitalistic progress.

It’s difficult to ascertain in Miyazaki’s films whether the magical elements occurring on screen are real—or a figment of the beautiful imaginations of children untainted by responsibility, unjaded by social pressures of adolescence, unburdened by the backbreaking demands of adulthood.

Ask any child and they’d tell you the magic is real. These are stories told through the eyes of children. To them, massive oak trees sprouting overnight, goldfish that turn into little girls, and soot gremlins inhabiting shadowy corners are, of course, a facet of reality. Their reality. If you look more closely, however, you can see the adults skirting the edges of these films are also affected in small ways by the natural magical world.

The children and their parents are living in different worlds, and the truth lies somewhere between them.

“The most important thing is, I think, that even within such an environment, children grow up, they learn to love and they enjoy living in that environment,” Miyazaki told FanBolt1 in 2010. “I think what is most important is that parents and children see each other as being very valuable and very precious to each other.”

Miyazaki believes imagination is important for people of all ages, Miyazaki told Tom Mes of Midnight Eye2. “We shouldn’t stick too close to everyday reality but give room to the reality of the heart, of the mind, and of the imagination. Those things can help us in life.” But he also urges caution about “fantasy,” which he likens to virtual reality. “We need to be open to the powers of imagination, which brings something useful to reality. Virtual reality can imprison people. It’s a dilemma I struggle with in my work, that balance between imaginary worlds and virtual worlds.”

And so as we watch films like Ponyo, we have to ask ourselves, is it the children and their fantastical adventures who are denying reality, or their parents?

As the film’s fantasy world comes to life, many of Ponyo’s adults–from Sosuke’s mother, Lisa, to the residents of the old folks’ home where she works–meet the bending of nature’s laws with the same sort of nonplussed glee as the children. Sosuke’s father, Koichi, watches from the deck of his long-haul freighter, remarking with awe at the towering size of the moon. Though the retiree Toki surrounds herself with skepticism, a barrier against the unknowable dangers of a world that’s passed her by, none of the other adults show signs of fear or anxiety at the improbable events brought about by the girl Ponyo’s mischief and magic. They’re a reflection of the childhood wonder that so fascinates Miyazaki. Ancient Devonian Era fish swim beneath their feet by the film’s end, representing the past meeting with the future—childhood colliding with adulthood. Humanity’s innate sense of wonder, its yearning for some higher purpose, our secret wish that magic is real, removed from the choking expectations and routines of modern society.

Contrast that with My Neighbor Totoro’s Tatsuo Kusakabe, father of Satsuki and Mei, who encourages his children to explore the natural world around their new home. He speaks respectfully of the relationship between forest spirits and humans, and listens with a kind ear to his daughters’ stories of totoros and soot sprites. But he also remains distracted from the magic occurring around him by the demands of raising two children on his own while juggling a busy career as an archaeologist.

Even in Kusakabe’s career, Miyazaki seems to be trading a sly wink with his audience. The harried father spends his evenings mining the past, trying to uncover forgotten truths, but at the expense of not noticing what’s going on in the present. While he works inside, swatting flies away from the lamp on his desk, back bent and stiff over piling spreadsheets, Kusakabe’s children join three totoros outside. Together the five of them magically grow several acorns into a towering, megalithic tree, casting a long shadow over their father’s forgotten youth.

This phenomenon is not contained to the parents within the films, but viewers as well. I fell in love with Miyazaki’s films in my late teens. However, what I took from them during that maelstrom between childhood and adulthood was remarkably different than when I started watching My Neighbor Totoro with my children years later. An experience that felt grounded in escapism to a teenager revealed itself to be a nostalgic reminder to not to willingly trade innocence for responsibility. Seeing my children reflected in Satsuki and Mei reminded me of the reality of imagination. I don’t see my daughter’s plush toys come to life; her adventures look like rambunctious play; and the monsters under her bed are just shadows and toys to me—but they represent loneliness, bravery, and worry just the same. It’s by connecting with these emotions that we learn to understand our world, and that doesn’t go away no matter your age.

It’s not an inherent innocence or naivety that opens children to the magical world of the totoros, argues Austin Gilkeson for Tor.com3, for they are flawed and vulnerable, just like adults. Rather, it’s that they don’t know the door to the spirit world is supposed to be closed. “Mr. Kusakabe may need to visit the camphor tree shrine to speak to Totoro, but Satsuki and Mei don’t—they can find their way to him from their own yard,” Gilkeson points out. “Adults see what they expect to see. Children have few expectations for what is and isn’t lurking out there in the world; they’re the ones who glimpse shadows moving in the gloom of an abandoned amusement park, a goldfish returned in the shape of a girl, or a small white spirit walking through the grass.”

Remember this the next time you shush away your daughter who fears lurking shadows, or tells you of the wolf howling outside her window. To you, they are only shadows and sounds of a passing truck—but to her they are real.

Undercutting Satsuki and Mei’s childhood is the spectre of their mother’s illness. Confined to nearby Shichikokuyama Hospital, Yasuko Kusakabe battles tuberculosis. Like Satsuke and Mei, Miyazaki spent much of his childhood visiting his mother’s bedside at a hospital while she battled spinal tuberculosis, wishing for eight years she could come home.

“The interesting thing [about My Neighbor Totoro] is that you gradually realize that the girls are in a kind of crisis,” describes Margaret Talbot, speaking to The New Yorker4, “their mother is in the hospital for a lengthy stay, and they are having to cope with her absence and the unpredictability of her return. Their fantasy world is one that they enter partly to find comfort. The creatures aren’t as anthropomorphized as in a Disney film—they don’t talk, and their sheer size suggests that they aren’t quite tamable—and the girls are not as idealized. The little one throws a tantrum, the older one yells at her. They are emotionally vulnerable but physically brave, as well as powerfully imaginative and sometimes spacey—like real kids.”

There is a blurred line between bravery and blissful, youthful naivety. To escape the family’s crisis, Tatsuo Kusakabe throws himself into his work. He intuits that the idyllic village to which they’ve relocated will protect his children, which, of course, they do in his absence during the film’s emotional climax. The children, however, escape into something much more daring than mundane work.

At one point, Granny, a neighbour who cares for the girls when Kusakabe’s in Tokyo for work, helps the girls harvest vegetables. “They’re very good for you,” says Granny. “They’ve soaked up lots of vitamins and sunshine.” Satsuki asks if they can help her mother recover. “Of course they would,” Granny assures the girls. “If your mom eats my vegetables, I bet she’d get well right away.” Perhaps in Totoro’s magical world, such words are true.

However, 11-year-old Satsuki already begins to express doubts about the reality of Totoro’s world. When Mei visits her at school, Satsuki is embarrassed when her younger sister begins talking about Totoro. The morning after sprouting the enormous tree, Satsuki and Mei rush to their garden to find the acorns they planted have indeed sprouted.

Satsuki: I thought it was a dream!

Mei: It wasn’t a dream!

Satsuki: I thought it was a dream!

Mei: It wasn’t a dream.

Both girls: Yay! We did it!

Was it a dream? Who is correct?

“Call them kami, or gods, or spirits, or woodland creatures, or Mother Nature, or the environment,” says Gilkeson. “They are there if we know where to look, and their gifts for us are ready if we know how to ask. We have only to approach them as a child would—like Satsuki, Mei, Chihiro, and Sosuke—with open eyes and open hearts.”

There’s more to this than simply injecting joy and wonder into viewers, points out Doug Schnitzspahn at Fatherly5. “The biggest reason why My Neighbor Totoro is so important to kids,” he says, “the reason they need to see it before they grow too old and jaded by the demands of young adulthood that tell them to reject everything childish, is that it’s about feeling safe. It’s as simple and as complicated as that. And once your kids see the movie, Totoro will always be there, sitting on the top of a tree branch in the back of their minds.”

Sosuke experiences his own kind of crisis. Just five years old, he’s often left on his own by his caring but overworked mother, Lisa. His father is a longshoreman who takes too many overtime shifts, and, over the course of the film, communicates with his wife and child mostly via morse code as his ship passes shore. There’s an intense closeness between Lisa and Sosuke, but also a loneliness. And so Ponyo, an effervescent ball of happiness and magic, emerges from the ocean as an imaginary friend might: instantly familiar and an immediate part of their family. As a dangerous storm rises outside, Lisa tells Sosuke that he’s the man of the house as she races out the door to help the residents of the retirement home. Sosuke, with Ponyo at his side, is unflustered.

The next morning Sosuke and Ponyo, now a little girl, embark on a mission to find his mother. Along the way, they run into hundreds of other villages aboard boats—there’s no panic at the fact that the moon has sunk their village beneath the ocean, just a feeling of togetherness and joy at the change. When Sosuke finally finds his mom, she’s in discussion with Ponyo’s mother, a goddess. This is the only moment among the three films when any of the parents directly acknowledges and interacts with the magical world.

It’s almost startling to watch a Miyazaki film about childhood and see adults accept the magical world. But it’s in these ways that the legendary filmmaker continues to surprise and delight us.

Contrast this with Chihiro’s journey through Yubaba’s Bathhouse in Spirited Away—a location bursting with magical creatures, but also a sense of otherworldly dread. Where Mei and Satsuki almost feel like they belong in Totoro’s world—where there’s almost no differentiation between the magical world and their own—Chihiro is an outsider in the bathhouse. Her entire quest revolves around escape and finding a way to return her parents to their true form.

Like Sosuke and the Kusakabe girls, Chihiro is left by her parents to fend for herself. Hers is a story about finding independence and companionship, in understanding that the world is a complex place, and that that status quo can never be restored as we grow up. Chihiro’s journey requires her to leave the safety of her parents, to discover a strength within herself that would have remained hidden as long as she was within their protective bubble.

“There are two scenes in Spirited Away that could be considered symbolic for the film,” Miyazaki told Mes. “One is the first scene in the back of the car, where she is really a vulnerable little girl, and the other is the final scene, where she’s full of life and has faced the whole world. Those are two portraits of Chihiro which show the development of her character.”

Despite being known for his whimsical films—many of which are filled with hope and wonder— Miyazaki shared with Xan Brooks of The Guardian6 an anecdote about what he described as his pessimistic views of the world. When a coworker welcomes a new child, Miyazaki said, he can’t help but wish for a good future for them. “Because I can’t tell that child, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t have come into this life.’ And yet I know the world is heading in a bad direction. So with those conflicting thoughts in mind, I think about what kind of films I should be making.”

When asked if this is why he makes films, Miyazaki agreed. “I believe that children’s souls are the inheritors of historical memory from previous generations. It’s just that as they grow older and experience the everyday world that memory sinks lower and lower. I feel I need to make a film that reaches down to that level.” If he could make such a film, Miyazaki said, he could die happy.

“Is someone different at age 18 or 60?” Miyazaki once asked—a curious question, but he supplied his own quick answer: “I believe one stays the same.”

The magic’s out there, we just need to open our eyes.

 

[1] curlie731. “Interview: Hayao Miyazaki from ‘Ponyo’.” FanBolt, 5 March 2010, www.fanbolt.com/12319/interview-hayao-miyazaki-from-ponyo/.

[2] Mes, Tom. “Hayao Miyazaki.” Midnight Eye, 7 January 2002, www.midnighteye.com/interviews/hayao-miyazaki/.

[3] Gilkeson, Austin. “Gods and Spirits (….and Whatever Totoro Is): Exploring Miyazaki’s Fantasy World”. Tor.com, 27 September, 2017. tor.com/2017/09/27/gods-and-spirits-and-whatever-totoro-is-exploring-miyazakis-fantasy-world/.

[4] Talbot, Margaret. “The Animated Life”. Interviewed by Daniel Cappello. The New Yorker, 10 January, 2005. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/01/17/the-animated-life.

[5] Schnitzspahn, Doug. “Why You Need to Watch “My Neighbor Totoro” With Your Kids”. Fatherly, 7 July, 2017. https://www.fatherly.com/play/my-neighbor-totoro-must-watch-kids/.

[6] Brooks, Xan. “A god among animators”. The Guardian, 14 September, 2005. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2005/sep/14/japan.awardsandprizes.

Making Accommodations

 

A paper can be folded seven times.

Each crease across my origami skin

is sharp enough to slice. I’ve tried to thin

my bones and sinews, ink myself in lines

 

so small, so shrinking, safe to overlook—

passed between palms, a secret note in school,

crumpled and cast into a fire as fuel,

or pressed between the pages of a book

 

and fast forgotten. Still, I seem to spread

like maps of unmourned continents, shredded

confetti scattered to the careless wind.

Whole sheets of me unfurl above your head,

stretch out beneath your feet, a carpeted

offense. Forgive me. This is my last bend.

 

(Editors’ Note: “Making Accommodations” is read by Joy Piedmont on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 37B.)

The Span of His Wrist

From behind the desk-cum-checkout counter, Lucy said, “I’m sure you’ll find some good pieces. The family was super eager to clear the estate or I wouldn’t have been able to snatch the whole lot, and I’ll give you a deal, because obviously I overshot.”

Hangers scraped on metal as Katrin sifted through the items on the opposite side of the rack. A scrum of colors and textures and cuts tussled for attention, crammed into every possible centimeter of the consignment shop. Charlie ached to give each of those discarded pieces a glancing brush of recognition before time and circumstance separated them all from one another.

“Thanks, darling,” he said from the corner of his mouth.

“Just look at this place, it’s a mess,” Lucy continued in a personable drone.

He swept his thumb over the shoulder seam of a crème blazer with peach trim. An impression flitted through his curious fingertips while he stroked the lining at the pinned waistline, wafting across his mind’s eye like dust and perfume: a mistaken acquisition that survived one mediocre dinner engagement then got parked in the corner of a closet. The Gucci tag might attract a purchaser but the piece itself had no real life.

Katrin’s inspection routine involved squinting, picking at hems and sequins, testing for pulls and pilling. As for Charlie’s approach—he said it was holistic when customers asked, women from the suburbs with fat pocketbooks crooning over the vibe of his Northside storefront. His eye, Katrin insisted, was impeccable.

Though he agreed that his taste was refined and particular, that was a matter of practice. Charlie relied on more than simple taste to curate his pieces. He flexed his feet in his slides (Balenciaga, candy red) and the prior owner’s worn-in divots prickled his toes with remnant summer pleasure, the extravagance of a gift from a doting, mature lover. While the average customer didn’t possess his skill for eavesdropping on the whispered histories loitering within his hand-me-down selections, the effect worked on them regardless. Subtle and permanent as the scent of smoke, the lingering memories were friendly ghosts.

He moved forward to handle another piece on the rack, buoyed along on the shoes’ reliable borrowed affection, then touched the next, and the next, all zeroes. The phone rang. Lucy answered it—“Hello? Hi Jan, what’s up,”—with the cordless tucked against her shoulder while she got up to prop the door, letting in a breeze that rushed off the distant lake.

Katrin said, “Did you check out that room Davey’s renting?”

“No,” Charlie said.

“I’m sure he’d be a good roommate.”

“Katie,” he groaned. “He’s best friends with Annie, and Annie is still Rich’s best girlfriend. There’s no way. Just absolutely no way, okay?”

“Okay, okay,” she said. The next hanger clattered.

“It’s not like I’ve got the money, anyway,” he muttered.

“Cissy, it’s been two months. When’re you going to get out in the world again?”

“Yeah, it’s barely been two months, so give me some room to work.”

Silence returned between them as he continued to sort his touch across mild old memories attached to mild old clothes rather than dealing with the unpredictable present. Katrin lifted up a shimmering grey evening gown with miniscule pearl detailing on the shoulder caps.

“This one?” she asked.

Charlie stood tiptoe to reach across, the bare strip of belly between his low-slung slacks and high-cut blouse pressed onto the jumbled murmuring fabrics. The gown was butter-soft, purring with satisfaction in the afternoon sun like a happy cat; he nodded and plopped back onto his heels. Someone would whisk it to a fresh home within the month, without knowing precisely why it caught their attention. Katrin draped it over her arm.

She’d let the matter of Davey’s spare room drop but it stung regardless, nettles at the root of Charlie’s tongue. Rich had found an apartment over in Edgewater that Lucas told him had a big, bright living room and built-in bookshelves. Boring steady income could do that for a guy. Charlie slept on a futon in his storeroom and brushed his teeth in the employee bathroom.

“I saw him last week,” Katrin said.

“Who, Davey?”

“Rich,” she said. “He was out with Lucas and Miranda, I ran into them at the Melrose.”

The blazer in front of him oozed the distasteful exhaustion of too many board meetings. He uncrimped his lips, flicked it past, and without meaning to said, “How’s he doing?”

“Hon,” she started.

“Why’d you tell me if you didn’t want to talk about it?”

Katrin snapped her fingers and he met her stare over the rack. “He’s fine, and he asked how you were holding up, which was very awkward for me, if you have to know. He wondered if you wanted to come see Stevie sometime.”

Stevie, their six year old calico who had no business living in an ambitiously ratty Chicago storefront with her erstwhile owner. She must have been enjoying the big apartment with the big bookshelves and Rich’s bed—which had been Charlie’s before, too. He gave Katrin an unimpressed look to cover the prickle that crept across his arms like the worst cousin of goosebumps. She returned a comical face of concession that telegraphed sorry, nothing’s going to make this not weird via the scrunch of her eyebrows and a flattening of the dimple on her left cheek. He snorted.

“That’s a terrible face, very ugly, would not recommend repeating,” he said.

“Fuck you.”

Big city, small circle—a hundred thousand people around but a handful he could call his own. Less now, as most of them refused to choose a side. He skipped past another set of blazers, which Lucy had at least made some concession in stocking together, and paused. Stuffed between a high-button-collar blouse and a winter-weight sweater he spied the tiniest burst of sunset.

“Lucy, I forgot my watch, what time is it?” Katrin called.

“Four forty-five,” she hollered back.

“Shit.” Katrin sighed. “I’ve gotta go, Cissy. Shift starts at five-thirty.”

“Yeah, sure,” he said while she crossed the shop and deposited three items of her choice on the desk. One bustling smack of a kiss on the cheek then she was out the door without a pause for reply, striding across the street as if there weren’t a crosswalk a half-block down. Lucy rolled her eyes and flapped open a paper sack, folding the gowns between tissue paper before stacking them into it.

Against logic, whirlwind-Katrin’s departure constricted the room. Charlie shoved the sweater aside. The spark of fabric that had caught his eye belonged to a burnt-orange silk robe, pale blue flowers stitched in cascades over the length. The lining, too, had the color and texture of a sunrise sky. The contrast smacked him in the stomach. He plucked the hanger, lofted it overhead, and crossed to the window to catch the best light.

Lucy said, “Wow, that’s gorgeous.”

One hand cupped the bottom hem—worn at the edges—and he spilled the length brimming with home through his fingers in a caress: evenings spent reading with feet on a partner’s lap and head on a pillow. Sedate tenderness. It had been loved, deeply loved, soaked through with ages of adoration. He dropped the hanger on the floor and slid the robe over his shoulders. The bridge of his nose burned. Stevie used to sleep on his stomach while he read and Rich rubbed his calves. He’d had that, settled into it for good, but as abruptly as it had begun it was done—and here he was alone, older than he’d ever been and certainly older but less experienced than half the boys he saw at Berlin.

Too strange a man for Rich’s sedate preferences on a few levels, not limited to his habit of knowing secret feelings from a glancing brush of belt, collar, button. A pang of habituated distaste caught him when the sleeves strangled tight on his biceps but the radiating constant of love buried it again fast. The door to his left swung further open with a metallic scrape as he reveled in the ghost of someone else’s safe, perfect moment preserved in the amber of silk and thread.

“Lucy, I have to have this,” he said in unhindered awe.

“You look amazing in it, Cissy. Fits you like a charm.”

“It’s really lovely,” a man said.

Charlie jerked his head to the side to blink owlishly at the stranger standing a step from the doorway. His suit was pressed, fresh, charcoal and slimming; plain brown eyes, plain brown hair, clean-shaven face. The cornflower silk tie didn’t match his lace-up high tops in forest green. A flush rose to his cheeks as Charlie continued staring.

You’re really lovely.” The tremble in the stranger’s voice crossed between embarrassment and candor. “Sorry, that’s not the best start, sorry. Hello,” he said.

“And you are?” Charlie replied in his best dowager impersonation.

“Making myself look like an idiot. I saw you in the window with the kimono, I was walking outside. I know how this is going to sound, but would you happen to have plans for dinner?”

Charlie raked his gaze over the stranger again. His knuckles were prominent and his hands veined. The watch on his wrist hadn’t achieved hideous ostentation but it was worth six months of Charlie’s rent. Older, not too old—the mature end of his thirties to Charlie’s latter twenties, he guessed. The contrast of the robe’s domestic bliss with his own regular loneliness ached in double-time. He glanced at Lucy, who flashed him an okay gesture and waggled her eyebrows like this was a humorous interlude he should roll with, some daddy picking him up.

The man said, “No expectations, I promise. I’m only here for the night?”

An uncertain lilt, as if surprised that he’d propositioned a total stranger in a women’s consignment store. A guy with a watch like that should have had plenty of confidence to spare but instead he held himself like a pane of glass about to crack. Fissures spread at the edges of his winsome smile.

Charlie muttered, “This is a very awkward pickup.”

The stranger snorted, self-aware and self-deprecating, then rolled his shoulders. His hands hung at his sides. Fashion made the man, Charlie thought, reaching out to tap his mismatched tie for a stolen glimpse past the surface. The silk sighed grey drizzling rain, solitary afternoons—a familiar sort of emptiness. He swallowed. The robe’s neckline cradled his frightened, tripping pulse. Charlie pictured the lumpy mattress in his storeroom, a month’s overdue rent slip on the desk waiting for him; he compared that surety to the breathing human potential of the narrow chest under his fingertip. The adrenaline that pumped across his nerves was far headier than salvaged feelings bought secondhand.

So he found himself saying, with a slight tremor, “All right, why not?”

The imitation smile pasted on the stranger’s face spread boxy with relief, unearthing wrinkles at the pinched crescents of his eyes. The cut line of his jaw hinted at a solidity that Charlie allowed himself to pause on. His mouth: thin but not unserviceable. Just dinner, he’d agreed, but—

“Thank you.” Subdued and sincere gratitude, not a trace of presumption.

—Charlie was out of his depth. He hesitated. “I just need to, uh, get my stuff?”

“Of course,” the gentleman said.

Two steps to traverse the room and Lucy forked over his satchel from behind her counter. He whispered, “Not to be weird, but could you call me at the shop in the morning? Just check, you know.”

“Gotcha,” she said. “Wear the robe out, seems like he likes it.”

Charlie glanced across the stuffed shoebox of a store. The stranger had turned to face the front window and the sun haloed the crown of his head in burnished auburn filaments.

“Seems like he does.”

On the sidewalk, the stranger tucked one hand in his pocket in casual contrapposto. Charlie adjusted the strap of his satchel across his chest and tucked the bag behind his hip. The sunlight beat down unforgiving with the barest sweeping breeze to lighten it. He wasn’t sure who was going to speak first and judging from the pursed mouth, neither was his companion.

“I was thinking about treating myself to the Signature Room,” said the other man.

“What’s your name?” Charlie asked.

He shifted from one heel to the other. The angle of his chin tilted as he swept a glance across the length of the street, and said, “Could we wait on that? I’m not saying no, but for a while, I’d like—”

“Okay,” Charlie cut him off.

The thump of his pulse kept up a persistent clip. He wrung his memory for the name of the restaurant and it came to him in a splash: a review in the paper of the new face of the 95th, last month, when it opened up under a fresh name with fresh staff and linens.

“That’s pretty high end,” he ventured.

The stranger leaned into the street, sticking his arm out with his elbow cocked at an uncomfortable angle. Charlie tipped onto his toes, the slides unsticking from the soles of his feet with a slap, to see the topper of a cab approaching. His companion said, still waving like a marionette and laser focused on the cab, “Is that okay? I wanted something, I don’t know, memorable.”

Charlie’s ears went hot. “And you want to take me there, looking like this.”

The cab rolled up. Charlie slid onto the sticky leather seat first with the robe bunched up in his hand to keep from dragging it; the stranger blurted their destination louder than necessary through the barrier. The driver muttered a bullshit warning about traffic and cost that Charlie was almost one-hundred percent sure meant he would drive them the longest route he could get away with, but it wasn’t his money on the line when the stranger agreed. After they merged into the stream of afternoon traffic his companion cocked a knee up onto the seat and leaned his spine against the door.

“What do you mean?” he said.

“I mean, you’re not looking to go somewhere in Boystown,” Charlie said. Tousled blonde-streaked hair in fluffed waves but perpetual stubble on a square jaw; plump mouth but thick arms and flat broad hips stretching at the limits of his slacks and blouse; bony feet and ugly-bright shoes. Charlie knew his mismatches with intimate displeasure and had been reminded of them often.

The stranger’s expression narrowed. He said, “You’re handsome. Or beautiful, whichever, both. Stopped me dead to rights on the street.”

“Going to get some stares,” Charlie muttered, flushed with the tickle of handsome/beautiful, and propped his chin on his hand to break the tension. The stranger’s reflection in the window frowned again.

“Well, fuck them,” he said with surprising vehemence for a guy who looked clipped out of GQ.

Charlie flopped against the door too and kicked one bare foot up. His toes touched the leg of the suit pants, disappointingly so new they had gathered no impressions but storage rooms and tailor’s pins. “In town for business?”

“No, personal time. Putting some things in order. I thought I’d see the sights, have the coffee and doughnuts, trawl the bars a little later.”

“That’s a very crisp suit,” Charlie said.

He tugged the hem of his white sleeve, long under the charcoal jacket. The turn of his wrist flashed light off the watchface.

“First time I’ve worn it. It’s certainly slimming.”

“Bless the new style,” Charlie murmured.

A flint-spark pause. Charlie’s throat clicked on a swallow. Fabric tickled his damp toes, the ball of his foot. The rhythm of the city flowed along outside, crowded and exuberant, a hundred sights to see—even if he’d lost touch with the how of risking himself within it, retreating to his borrowed cloth-textured ghosts instead. The stranger’s hand slipped across his own knee and calf, stopped for permission, then two fingers passed over Charlie’s ankle to curl around the crest of his foot. He allowed the contact while the stop-signs skipped past, breathing in the stale air conditioning.

Dinner crowd at five-thirty was sparse. The host seated them in a small booth with a sweeping view of the cityscape, one candle flickering in the centerpiece. Charlie touched the table linen and appreciated the dense weave of harried serving labor with luxurious relaxation. His companion ordered a bottle of wine from a crisply-pressed waitress who smiled at them with empty eyes and clicked across the floor to the kitchen in low heels. Charlie winced to imagine running a supper shift in them.

The man said, “Here we are. A little like a blind date, I guess. Tell me about yourself?”

“Huh, all right.” Charlie paused. “So I’m not from Chicago originally. I have a bachelor’s in fine art. I restore and sell vintage clothing.” Another hesitation. Might as well—“I’m broke. I’d never consider coming to eat here in a million years.”

“Glad to share my best day with you, then,” he said.

Charlie made an inquisitive noise, flicking his glance up from the menu.

The stranger wrinkled his nose in thought, a tic Charlie noted, charmed. “I’m trying to do that. Have a best day, today. Otherwise I wouldn’t have, just…” He trailed off with a gesture flicked at the room.

“Picked up a guy you don’t know?”

“Well, I might’ve done that tonight if the mood felt right.” He flashed another performed-though-warm grin. “But not coerced a gorgeous young stranger into letting me buy him a nice dinner.”

“I don’t feel coerced,” Charlie returned with a smile of his own.

The waitress returned and both ordered. A seafood appetizer, steak for the stranger and roast chicken for him, an ambitious pre-dinner decision on chocolate cake for dessert. She poured their wine into spotless narrow glasses, mahogany-tinged red, and Charlie plucked the glass up to tilt for a toast.

“Me either,” he said. “I mean, I also don’t do this, things like this.”

The stranger clinked rims. “Why’d you say yes if you don’t mind me asking?”

“It’s like, cinematic,” he said.

He hummed in agreement and said, “Our moment out of time.”

The wine coated Charlie’s tongue, acidic and smoky. He resisted the urge to smack his lips like a heathen and, under the tablecloth, crossed his bare feet on top of his slides. The high daylight complimented his date’s cheekbones, the shadow of a morning shave starting to come in over his top lip. Those human details, one at a time, colored in the stolen moment he’d found himself caught inside. An island of time where he was someone else with someone else, not the same Charlie as when he woke up and not the same Charlie as he’d be when he went to sleep. The poetry appealed to him in his core. Rich was an accountant with a set of five plain suits of the same shade and two pairs of leather flats, one brown one black. Poetics hadn’t been his strong suit.

“What brought you to Chicago?” his date asked.

The second mouthful of wine allowed a moment to consider before he answered with the truth. “A boyfriend. My college boyfriend, actually.”

“Current?”

“No,” he said. The relaxed softness of the stranger’s expression keyed at the dull pain in his chest. The softer version of the tale, the one he rehearsed for friends, tumbled out: “He left me a couple months ago. No one’s fault, that kind of situation. He said he needed more stability. I haven’t had it in me to try to like, meet someone else yet, with everything going on.”

“I keep having to thank you,” he said, grasping Charlie’s hand on the tabletop once then withdrawing. If Charlie’s insides were a cinched knot, each moment spent wearing orange silk that breathed lovelovelove in his ear unwound him another centimeter.

“Thank me for what?”

“You’re giving me a lot. Your first date as a single man,” he said.

“God, you’re too nice to be real,” Charlie sputtered through a laugh.

The appetizer came; their waitress arranged the plate of fresh mussels between them, turned on her heel, and left without a word. The stranger crimped his mouth at her back. “Unlike some people.”

“Like I said, you might pass but I sure as hell don’t.”

He snorted and plucked up a mussel. “And I wouldn’t have asked for you to. I’m perfectly happy to be seen out with you. If they’ve got a problem they can suck my dick, figuratively speaking.”

A steel surety lurked beneath his pronouncement, one Charlie relaxed within, remembering his own nights staring at the stars in the middle of fucking nowhere before he made it to a place he could breathe. The stranger popped the mussel into his mouth. Watching his jaw work as he chewed and swallowed the fleshy piece of meat plucked a nerve in Charlie’s guts he hadn’t felt in weeks, had gone so far as to morosely entertain worries of never feeling again. The invisibility he’d languished under dissolved at once, a slipped knot, in the face of being improbably seen.

“When you noticed me, what made you stop, honestly?”

“The look on your face when you put that pretty robe on, all lit up in the sun. It was unreal.” Swipe of tongue over his lower lip, dart of his glance to the side. “And if we’re being honest, you reminded me of someone.”

Charlie asked, “Someone important?”

“Yeah, they were.”

Charlie nodded, allowing the matter to drop, and his date’s charming smile belied his relief at the lack of pursuit. Conversational pirouettes around the use of past tense had become a familiar dance among friends.

After a moment the man said, “Tell me more about your clothing business.”

The meal unfurled, glorious in spite of—or, the echo of they can suck my dick ringing in his ears with pride, a little bit because of—the silent judgement of the waitress. Charlie spoke at length as the wine and the freedom of being unknown loosened his reserve: the shop he needed to succeed, his misplaced sense of futurity, the cat he missed, the bracelet he had to sell because it wouldn’t fit his wrist, the boy before Rich in high school who would suck his cock but not date him because gay was one thing but whatever Charlie had going on was entirely another, all of his friends still being Rich’s friends, his favorite spot for late-morning coffee. The stranger opened to him in bursts also, though detail remained sparse—he worked in academia, he was not from Chicago, he’d chosen the city for its distance from his home. He’d been in town three days and this was the last night. He was a reader and he’d already finished the book in Charlie’s satchel, The Secret History, the week it came out while Charlie had waited for the public library. He was having his best day, whatever that meant.

Charlie asked, finally, “How do I fit into this day you’re trying to have?”

“I guess there are things—” the stranger said over their decimated dessert plate, hand trembling enough to wobble the line of his wine. “There are things you need to do on your own terms. But you don’t know what the terms are until the moment they set themselves up in front of you. I didn’t know I’d share this dinner ’til I saw you, and I couldn’t have guessed how much I’d want to know you until I talked to you.”

Charlie scraped the delicate spoon across the last crumbs of cake and syrup. The check folder sat at his elbow, paid in crisp big bills from the stranger’s wallet.

“I do miss Rich,” he blurted out. “But not as much as I did. So, yeah, I’m glad I said yes to you too. I didn’t know I needed this.”

The stranger laced their fingers and Charlie squeezed, their hands the same size to the centimeter. Touching bare skin alone left him blind and guessing, outside of his comfortable habit. But he felt matched. Their eyes met, locked with magnetic and embarrassingly nude potential. Charlie’s stomach flopped. The clock in his head ticked closer to the end of this unexpected mapping of himself against the man seated across the table.

The man who then said, “Time scrambles when you lose someone. You get stuck. Even if he’s still there he’s someone else, and so are you.”

The meal was over. He caught a fortifying breath.

“Take me to bed?”

The stranger’s hand twitched. “You don’t have to.”

“I don’t think our night should end here. I promise, I want to.”

“I won’t say no to that,” he murmured, allowed hunger glowing from his lowered pitch.

The silk of the robe caught between a solid palm and the strip of skin at the dip of Charlie’s spine as his date ushered him from his seat, leaving without their change. A thumb found the divot of his hipbone from behind and pushed into it. He shook with one aggressive tremble from head to toe and smacked the button for the lobby in the elevator. The stranger laughed, airy, rubbing his wrist over his mouth in a nervous motion.

“I’ve seriously never done this before, so don’t be disappointed,” Charlie reminded him.

He said, “Then let me take care of you. That’s all I want to do tonight.”

The stranger paid for a room at a hotel two blocks further on the Loop while Charlie perused the lobby décor. His insides pitched with delighted horror as he heard, at proud volume, “No, it’s just one bed for us, thank you dear.”

In the elevator, Charlie said, “My ex was always worried if we looked too together or if I was too much when we were out. Like, fair enough, but—”

“But you’re not the quiet type.”

The floors pinged past. He leaned enough to touch their shoulders together, flame-silk against shade-wool. “No, I’m not. I’m strange, I guess.”

“Strange is good. Sounds like maybe he wasn’t what you needed, either,” he said.

No one else was in the hall as they picked down the row of numbered doors. Holding his own forearms inside the robe’s sleeves gave Charlie the illusion of calm while the stranger unlocked their room and stepped inside. The lights clicked on, lamps with gold shades. Dusk pitched itself in the corners. Charlie kicked the door shut while his date walked across the room and sat the keycard on the end table, face in profile. He left the slides behind and walked barefoot to sit on the edge of the bed. The clunk of the stranger’s watch on the table drew his eye and he watched as the suit jacket slid off, slick with practice. He pressed his hands between his knees, big and gangly and small and unsure. The comforting whispers from the robe had nothing on the abrupt understanding that he’d made himself available—come upstairs, sat himself on the bed—without doing the conversation.

“Hey,” the other man murmured.

His shoulders hunched like a startled bird; in an instant the stranger took two steps to join him, cupped his cheeks in careful hands. One cuff was unbuttoned, the other still held firm. He bent at the waist, an awkward angle that let Charlie keep his legs together, to press a kiss to his forehead—dry and slight—then another to his left eyebrow. He choked on a nervous giggle.

“Sorry, I’m so nervous,” he said.

“Don’t be sorry. If you’re still into this, all I’m aiming for is to take care of you. Nothing that won’t be safe, I swear,” he said with a certitude and gravity that unlocked Charlie’s risk-stiffened shoulders. Mischief lit the other man’s eyes as he continued, lightening the moment, “Just promise you’ll wear the robe.”

Charlie found himself able to smile as he snagged the stranger’s wrist to unhook the second button. He wished he could steal another peek, but the fresh cuff told him nothing. Instead skin spoke in the language of a tan-line wrapping a pleasant forearm, a smattering of dark hair lightly pricked with goosebumps. He put his other hand on the man’s waist and stood eye to eye, toe to toe, then nose to nose. Breath coasted over his lips.

“Tell me your name now,” he whispered.

“Will you let me lie?”

Charlie tipped his chin in languid invitation and murmured, “All right. And call me Cissy, like my friends do.”

“Then call me Marcel, or Oscar, or—“

“I refuse to fuck someone using Proust’s name, sweet Jesus,” Charlie burst out, the moment breaking into a hundred giddy pieces as he tucked his face against the stranger’s throat. Hysterical snickers shook his whole frame. The man huffed once in affront. “Next you’ll ask me to call you Richard. Worse, Frances!”

A nudge of nose on his cheek. Both men moved at once and the kiss stopped his laughter in his chest. Charlie made a bitten-off sound into the wet plush seam of his mouth while he remembered in all his cells what it meant to be wanted. The mattress dipped at the back of his knees and a hand on his thigh pulled. He collapsed onto the bed in a flutter of silk, visions of cinema in his head again, stubble burning his chin.

“David,” his date said. The plain handsomeness of his face was startling from below. He was anyone, everyone, futures bundled reckless into the present instead of the reliable echoes of a past left behind.

“Nice to meet you, David,” Charlie repeated.

“And you too, Cissy. A pretty name for—you, you’re so pretty.”

“Oh,” he gasped. Teeth skimmed the tendon that strained in Charlie’s neck as he tossed his head.

“Do you like that, darling? Being pretty?”

The question held implication nestled as careful as the fingers skimming his blouse up his belly. He yanked at David’s dress shirt to palm his waist. He’d touched the same body for almost seventy straight months and this was, notably, not it. His heart soared and swooped in time with the pulse taking up residence in his dick.

“Yeah, yes,” he admitted. “Call me pretty.”

Charlie’s clothes vanished to the floor a piece at a time and took their stories with them. He scooted to the center of the mattress, blushing to his chest, bare-ass naked except for the robe pooled at his elbows and strung out around him in a cloud. One hand half cupped and half covered his erection. His fingertips rested ticklish on his balls while David stood at the end of the bed and flung his shirt and tie in the direction of the windows. Streetlight and sunset touched the hollow of his belly as he undid his belt and stepped free of his pants. His briefs were Calvin Klein, straining against the weight of him.

“We don’t have to talk about it or go further if you don’t want to,” David said.

The chain dangling above his pectorals held two gold rings. Charlie’s knees pulled together then relaxed. The mirth drained from his lungs. He leaned onto his elbow and offered his hand. David took it, solid and sturdy, to climb onto the bed. Each moved for the other on instinct: David’s arm beneath his neck, his knee between David’s, tucked at perfect angles. The rings slid to one side on their slender loop of gold; Charlie resisted the urge to read them for himself.

“Are those for someone you’re still with?” he asked.

“No,” David said. His free hand skated across Charlie’s stomach, drawing sloppy circles. “It was for the person I mentioned before, who you, well—” He trailed off.

“It’s okay, keep going. I don’t mind hearing,” Charlie said.

David’s hand joined his, nudged him to stroke himself. He watched their fingers woven together, knuckle against knuckle. His hips kicked in reflex. David hummed into the mop of his hair and kissed him there, then his ear, then his jaw. As the pleasure built with domestic ease he hid his face in the crook of his elbow and sipped for breath. David paused to lick his palm wet before taking over entirely, leaving Charlie to grip the sheets in one hand while the other curled between their chests.

“He was so vibrant. You looked like he did the first day we met,” David confessed in a reverent hush. An arrow of tenderness pierced him, scraped a jolt of unexpected desire across his nerves.

“Oh, fuck,” he groaned.

“But I’m thinking about you, Cissy, just you right now, thank you.” His bent knee splayed over David’s thigh, underside of his leg pressing him through the briefs he’d left on. He reached to reciprocate but David nudged his hand onto his own chest again. “We didn’t grab anything to use, darling, I’m all right. Just let me do this for you.”

Charlie melted. The stranger held him close while he played him with his fingers saliva-slick and, at the end, as far inside him as he could fit. At the last moment Charlie curled his pinky into one of the rings and the resultant rush of bittersweet longing tipped him past his limit. He came with a hoarse grunt and a shudder, letting go of the ring in an instant. David’s thumb drew streaks through the mess on his hip and stomach as their ricocheting, panting gasps began to settle.

“Hey,” Charlie protested when David rolled to stand.

He smiled over his shoulder, adjusting his underwear, and said, “I’ll be right back.”

Charlie drowsed until his companion returned from the bathroom to wipe him clean with a damp towel. The lamps clicked off one at a time as David made the circuit of the room. Charlie slipped the robe off and folded it at the top corner of the bed, unstained except with the fresh experience he’d certainly imprinted onto it: delight, discovery, simplicity. He’d relish in that later, when he needed a reminder of the merits of the world outside his shop.

But inside the quiet dark he asked, knowing better than to hope, “Was it a breakup?”

David shook his head and Charlie wrapped his arms around his stomach, tucked up against the other man’s clothed butt. Strong fingers clutched at his. Despite the early hour, sleep loitered with the palpable intention of a kid needing to bum a cigarette; he was fuck-drunk and exhausted—tenderized enough to hear the memorial that he knew needed to be given.

“I lost him a year ago, this week,” the stranger confessed.

“But you’re not going to forget him, and neither will I,” Charlie murmured against the nape of his neck. He guided their hands to the dangling rings and closed their tangled fingers around the warmed, endlessly looping metal radiating that pained adoration. “I promise I’ll remember.”

“Our moment out of time. You don’t know how much you gave me tonight, truly,” David agreed in a hoarse murmur.

After a pause, Charlie said, “You know, you’re only the third guy I’ve ever slept with.”

“No shame in that. And it was good, right? Something we could do for each other,” he said.

Charlie woke disoriented and sore at moonrise. The keycard and the watch sat together in a pool of light under the bedside lamp. David’s clothes were gone. The robe fell loose and freshly sensual around his shoulders when he shrugged it on; David had helped him create that comfort for himself. Under the watch sat a note that said, Thank you for helping me get through my best-worst day whole. The trails of bites and kisses on his body twanged sweet.

Metal retained less impression than fabric, but when he took the watch onto his palm its bleak, exhausted echoes startled a knotted inhale. The coffee mug untouched in a dish rack for months, boxes half-packed and left to sit in defeat: those were the brutal daily indignities the watch remembered without the buoyant romantic symbolism the rings had to imbue more pleasant impressions. After a settling pause he strung the linked band open to read the interior plate inscription: “DL to RK 8/89.” The watch fit loose. He latched it anyway, platinum banging the knob of his wrist bone when he let his arm fall slack.

If nothing else, their night together had offered David the chance to pass those stone-solid memories along. He’d cherish the watch as a remnant of RK, one man from thousands, gone but held alight in him and in the man each of them had shared. Lingering stiffness as he walked to the bathroom grounded him to his bones again. He started the tub running then used the room’s phone to dial Katrin. Her machine picked up after ten rings. He hesitated. I fucked a stranger and I’m never going to see him again and it was the most beautiful thing to ever happen to me, will you be at the store in the morning—he wasn’t going to leave that on a recording. They’d talk tomorrow; by then he’d have the whole experience neatened into a tale about pasts and futures. He hung up, snagged the book from his satchel, and climbed into the steaming water. The watch clinked on the porcelain at the whispering turn of each page.

 

(EditorsNote: Lee Mandelo is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)

Interview: Lee Mandelo

Lee Mandelo is a writer, critic, and occasional editor whose fields of interest include speculative and queer fiction, especially when the two coincide. They have been a past nominee for various awards including the Nebula, Lambda, and Hugo; their work can be found in magazines such as Tor.comClarkesworld, and Nightmare. Aside from a brief stint overseas learning to speak Scouse, Mandelo has spent their life ranging across Kentucky, currently living in Lexington and pursuing a PhD at the University of Kentucky. “The Span of His Wrist” is their second appearance in Uncanny, a beautifully written story of fashion, relationships, and healing.

Uncanny Magazine: I love the description of the consignment shop and the varied assortment of items on the rack there. Do you like to shop at vintage and/or thrift stores, and if so, do you have a favorite find?

Lee Mandelo: Thank you! Fashion has always been a part of life for me from baby-goth phase on, which I suppose is a common thread for gender-nonconforming and/or queer folks: either attempting to mitigate your strangeness or to emphasize it, depending on the day. But I also grew up poor and have spent most of adulthood on graduate school salaries, so I’m a promiscuous shopper where the bottom line is how on sale is the thing? Consignment stores, thrifting or vintage, the discount rack—it’s all good to me. I get a real victorious satisfaction when I find something decadent for cheap.

As for a recent favorite, maybe it was a black waffle-knit extra-soft, extra-long sweater I’d describe as “boy-witch chic”—found it on a designer-consignment rack by chance. On the other hand, for a love lost: I missed out on a pair of Chelsea boots last month on Depop. Full of regret, there.

Uncanny Magazine: What was the most difficult part of writing this story? What was the easiest?

Lee Mandelo: Easiest would be the emotional core and the argument it’s making on behalf of queer desire and ambiguous forms of attachment. Some background: I started working on this piece right after reading the ten-year anniversary edition of Cruising Utopia by José Esteban Muñoz from cover to cover. That was such a good experience for me—I was swinging between tears and a blazing sense of being seen the whole time. His embrace of intersectional queer masculinities that are liberatory and sensual, and of a critical future built on those specific ‘ways of knowing the world,’ is the absolute shit. Folks should check it out, especially given the moment we’re existing inside right now both in a hostile wider world and with the recent uptick of assimilation or purity-culture oriented narratives popping up in digital queer spaces.

As for the difficult part: the prose and what’s left implicit versus what is made explicit. I intended for this piece to be what we might call internal in its direction—written assuming readers who are familiar with some of the histories and spaces and concerns of queer cultures—rather than explaining to an outsider audience. But as all the people who’ve ever edited me can attest, sometimes I overshoot on the implicit to the point of opacity. (Or undershoot? Whichever.) Also balancing the poetics of desire with the politics of danger, dealing with the ambiguities of gender and sexuality, all of that. Several finicky, finicky prose-level decisions to make.

Uncanny Magazine: This is a slow-building story, with information about the characters gradually revealed over the course of the story. Did you know everything about them when you started writing the story, or were there things about them that you discovered as you went along?

Lee Mandelo: To get into the drafting weeds—I don’t tend to begin the actual writing process, particularly with short fiction, until I’m confident in the material. I sketch and journal and outline a lot before I get to the writing itself. But to answer from another angle, I understood Charlie and his gift and his stresses from the start—self-projection, we all do it—but developing from the image of the lover to him being a full person, though a person we don’t know much about, was more of a process. Writing about sex is also an intimate thing, so you’ve got to pull on some mental strings to unfold the feelings for the reader. So that was a form of discovery, in a way.

Uncanny Magazine: The Signature Room features prominently in the story—have you ever been there? More generally, what drew you to Chicago for the setting?

Lee Mandelo: Chicago is a beloved but kind of liminal place and space for me—I’ve never actually lived there but I’ve built a hell of an affinity for the city. For one thing, it’s the closest metropolis with a thriving queer scene to all the homes I’ve had in Kentucky. On a more personal level, one of my best friends lived in Chicago for several years during and after graduate school; while they were there, I visited as often as possible. So, the city has that “doesn’t belong to me but is a place I resonate with and miss when I’m not around” vibe. I’ve got friends and memories there, and I’d like to make more.

As for the Signature Room: no, I haven’t been, but man I’d like to. Part of the research process for “The Span of His Wrist” was digging into the places I was already fond of, then seeing if those places existed in the early ’90s. Simultaneously, I was reading up on the restaurants and clubs that were in the news at the time—and realized this famous restaurant had also rebranded during the same year I was intending to set the story, so that made perfect sense.

Uncanny Magazine: “The Span of His Wrist” examines the process of healing, and it has a lovely balance of sadness and beauty. Is this a common theme in your work? What ideas or elements do you find yourself returning to repeatedly?

Lee Mandelo: Full disclosure, I’ve been circling this question for…like, several days. I agree that healing is a big part of “The Span of His Wrist,” and it’s a form of healing through, well—cruising and fucking as a form of communal care? I find that trauma and desire, sadness and beauty, tend to hold hands pretty tight. The passing of time itself, the privilege of surviving on but not knowing what adulthood is supposed to look like if we make it there, can be a thing of sadness and beauty for queer people. That’s part of this story, too.

In broader strokes I’d also say I’m often concerned with relationality: how complicated our attachments to one another and the spaces we inhabit are, how impossible (or inadvisable) it is to flatten those things into a pleasantly simple narrative, how important it is to make room for ‘bad’ affects or rough feelings alongside our good feelings. It for sure gets uncomfortable to hold things in the heart or mind as both/and all the time, to stay in a space of multiplicity and wiggly contexts, but to me that’s where the potential for healing (and solidarity, and growth, and generative critique) comes from.

Uncanny Magazine: What’s next for you?

Lee Mandelo: Attempting to maintain some semblance of calm or functionality during pandemic time while the republic crumbles around us? But aside from that mess, on the good-news track, I’ve got a novel forthcoming from Tordotcom Publishing in fall 2021 called Summer Sons. It’s being described as a “sweltering, queer Southern Gothic” that mashes together The Sound and the Fury and The Secret History with The Fast and the Furious, and that sounds ambitiously cool to me so I’m stealing it.

Uncanny Magazine: Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us!

 

This Isn’t the End: On Becoming a Writing Parent

We live in interesting times. 

Some of us have always lived in interesting times. What’s different now is we can all agree that these times? They sure are interesting. There’s trauma and pain everywhere you look. Even a casual greeting at the grocery store includes an implicit shared understanding that this shit sucks.

Yet, we still wonder why we can’t create. Why we can’t read. Why we can’t relax.

I started this essay in February. I wanted to tell a story of hope, of rest, of kindness to others, but most of all to ourselves. I wanted to tell new parents: you’re not alone. Rest isn’t failure. Life is about ebb and flow, stop and go, rush and relax. This isn’t the end. This is just a pause.

Then the pandemic hit like a hurricane that we haven’t even reached the eye of yet. Some of us were able to pause our lives, some of us barely managed to hang on, and there was hope, yet, that we might return to normal, even if it was a new normal. We gritted our teeth and kept our kids home and stopped everything else because what else could we do? But the situation kept changing, keeps changing, the world shifting like sand beneath our feet, and there’s no end in sight to this perpetual state of holding our lives together through sheer will and spit.

It’s exhausting. Demoralizing. Impossible. 

Like many parents, I found myself torn between identities that had been at odds even before the pandemic: stay-at-home parent and work-from-home employee and author with a book out soon. On top of that, I was also struggling with an anxiety disorder while cut off from all of my support systems. I dropped a lot of balls and we discovered which had been rubber and which glass. It wasn’t pretty, but we survived. Are surviving.

I almost didn’t write this essay. Retaining your creative self while parenting seemed so inconsequential while the world was on fire. But in our new reality, it’s more relevant than ever. What is parenting if not an abrupt upending of your old life, replaced by a furious scramble at understanding the new one, constantly getting it wrong even when you get it right, constantly exhausted even when you sleep, and always—always—five steps behind where you think you should be?

This essay was going to be a reassuring hug of words to new parents, but it applies to us all now more than ever. We are all in this new world together and despite the sometimes apocalyptic foreboding, this isn’t the end. 

Many of the new parents I’ve talked to in recent years have echoed a similar feeling: that their lives have changed beyond all recognition and they will never be able to create like they once did. And they’re right: it has and they won’t. But “not like they once did” is not the same as “never.” In parenthood there are a dizzying multitude of ways to be and experience parenthood, but they all share one thing in common: change.

Change came for me with the popping sensation of water breaking. In the following months, I had to learn a new language, one with decidedly less words than English and quite a bit more screaming. I had to figure out how to do everything one-handed: fold laundry, scrub sinks, cut vegetables. I had to relearn how to sleep whenever and wherever I could. Sleep when baby sleeps quickly became the running joke of our household: might as well clean when baby cleans or write when baby writes.

Every habit I’d consciously constructed and every habit unconsciously maintained were dismantled. New parenthood stripped me down to the basics and forced me to create a new way of existing during a time when everything else was raw, emotionally and physically. 

And in case that wasn’t hard enough, I was on deadline.

My first mistake was pretending nothing had changed. I tried to write as I had before and I failed in almost every way. I failed at NaNoWriMo for the first time in a decade and I failed at the daily goals I set for myself afterwards. Self-imposed deadlines slid from my grip like the sleep I craved. None of the processes I’d learned and committed to before worked anymore.

But slowly, tentatively, I found a process that worked. I discovered upsides to the new parent life—long stretches of time to think, to plan, to create, so that when I did have the energy and space to put fingers to keyboard, the words were there, waiting for me.

Miraculously, I turned in my book before deadline. I thought I knew what I was doing. 

Then my child changed.

Where a newborn had meant using every minute my hands were not filled with child to instead fill them with words, an older baby and eventual toddler meant my hands were empty but my mind was full of her. At any moment, an alert toddler could pull on the cat’s tail, highlight the wall, or stumble down the basement stairs, while a sleeping toddler could wake at any moment, screaming because no one was there. Naps became more predictable, but at the same time, less: you knew they would fall asleep, but never for how long. 

Toddlerhood ushered in a desperate fight to squeeze in writing during any moment she slept. As her schedule shifted, mine shifted with it. I grasped for any multiples of minutes when I could guarantee she wouldn’t be awake. My biggest struggle became pinning down a solid window of time where there were no interruptions, no breaks in flow. Even when I cornered and trapped that time, I was primed for the sound of a small child waking up, crying out—needing me. I had to learn how to write all over again, but this time with a lack of focus instead of a lack of sleep. 

But even when I didn’t figure out how to make it work, it wasn’t long before everything changed again. A few weeks or a few months, all I needed was to be patient with myself, with her, and there would be a chance to try again.

My child changed and changed again, but it got easier each time. Stability lingered longer and longer, allowing us to not only create routines, but appreciate them. The toddler became a child and learned how to play on her own. I trusted that I would have ten uninterrupted minutes, then fifteen, then longer, until I found I was interrupting her.

Other parents I’ve talked to have echoed the shape of this path, that it gets better in fits and starts, but it’s always different. That, yes, sometimes we can’t create. We’re too tired, too distracted, too goshdarned sick. Or better—we’re too enamored with the way our kid is playing, their babbling incoherence a story if only to them, their fingers and arms turning just so, finding the ways that a human moves and plays.

But always, always, we will be able to write again. Everything changes, but we will write.

If I could go back in time and give my new parent-self advice, it would be:

Rest. You will have time again. You can ask for an extension. You are doing your best. Let others care for you.

Find what you need that is absolutely necessary to work, to create, to feel like yourself, and fight to make room for that. For me, it’s time enough to think of plot and energy enough to put fingers to keyboard. More than those two things was a luxury, but one I still ached for. But getting down words, even a handful at a time, gave me hope, and hope was enough to see me through.

Try again tomorrow. Try again next week. Just because today was a wash doesn’t mean you’re a failure. Just because this month was a struggle doesn’t mean you’re weak.

In all this you will learn a secret: that losing your ability to create or write or do what you love is temporary. Breaks are natural. Even though they can feel like a failure of will, they are part of the ebb and flow of creativity. We’re in a particularly large break right now and the world is even scarier than usual. 

If you step away, you aren’t giving up; you’re making room. Room for yourself to exist. Room for yourself to grow. Room for yourself to still be here in a week, a month, a year.

Dare to show yourself the same kindness and patience you show your child, your spouse, your friends. 

It feels like now will last forever, but this, too, will change. And as one parent to the world: this isn’t the end. 

Traveling Without Moving

Paul: “What’s in the box?”

Rev. Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam: “Pain.”

 

The summer after my tatay died, I went into his study and pulled every single science fiction novel from the shelves to send to Reading, Pennsylvania, where I was moving to start high school and live with my mother’s oldest brother and his family. Both of my parents had been avid readers, but Tatay was the one with a personal book collection, which spilled out of haphazard stacks on bookshelves amidst an obstacle course of unfiled paper piles and model battleship boxes littering the floor. Unlike my mother’s sunlit sewing room, with its bins of neatly folded fabric and shelves of supplies and everything grouped by size and color, none of Tatay’s books were organized by title or author or even genre, so I grabbed anything and everything with familiar names on spines and covers with spaceships, galaxies, and silhouettes of humans in spacesuits. These were the books he talked about at dinner parties, whose plots he told me as bedtime stories. While our relationship had become strained in the two and a half years between my mother’s death and his, SF/F remained one of the few ways we could communicate without stumbling into another cycle of resentment, disappointment, and recriminations. I never felt closer to him than when we watched and talked about Star Trek, Robotech, or Doctor Who, so if he’d loved these books, I thought I could, too.

At the very least I wasn’t about to let them end up in the garage sale my stepmother was unaware I’d overheard her talking about.

I found several of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels, which I would bounce off multiple times before finally giving up in my 30s. There were hardcover copies of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010 and 2061, but oddly 2001 was nowhere to be found. I’m sure there were a few Year’s Best collections from the 1980s and dozens of other books that would be considered part of the SF/F canon. I packed them all. But the ones that mattered most were all six (at the time) of Frank Herbert’s Dune series.

While I didn’t actually read Dune until after Tatay died, we still had a shared love of the story since I’d watched David Lynch’s 1984 film adaptation of Dune with him for the first time when I was seven. Unlike Star Wars, the world of Dune was dark, morally ambiguous, violent, and utterly, unapologetically bizarre. I was fascinated. I dug up earthworms to bring to the playground sandbox to play “Arrakis” and pretended I had a weirding module. I still think of Patrick Stewart more as Gurney Halleck than Captain Picard. And because Tatay recorded Dune on VHS when it was broadcast as a two-night movie “event” on network TV, we would watch it together repeatedly. He taught me to recite the Litany Against Fear from memory by the time I was in second grade. I still have some of my old notebooks from junior high and high school where I’d jotted down the Litany on the blank untreated backs, nestled among lyrics by Metallica and Megadeth and Joy Division and snippets of poems by Sylvia Plath and Allen Ginsberg.

I remember reciting the Litany under my breath when the plane carrying me away from Chicago took off while I cried silently.

Bene Gesserit proverb: “Survival is the ability to swim in strange water.”

 

Tatay didn’t talk much about his childhood in the Zamboanga Peninsula of Mindanao in the southern Philippines. I know that my lolo was a prominent local doctor and that my lola was deeply involved with the Catholic church, and they had adopted my tatay from a Catholic-run orphanage when he was a toddler. I have vague memories of meeting two Filipinas visiting from Canada who were his sisters, but that singular visit is the only time Tatay ever mentioned his birth family. The only paternal aunt I really knew was the daughter Lola and Lolo had a few years after adopting my Tatay.

Despite growing up close to the coast, Tatay hated the ocean only slightly more than he hated the jungle. Every story he ever told about being out in nature ended with him stepping on pissed off eels or getting blisters from fire coral or falling off the back of a runaway horse into a patch of what he swore was “razorblade grass.” The last time I visited the Philippines, we went on a beach resort vacation with his family, and he refused to go any farther out than knee deep in the water. After treating my arm when I accidentally swam into a swarm of jellyfish and got stung from fingertips to shoulder, he admonished that the best way to avoid jellyfish stings was to stay out of the ocean, and that’s why he’d never been stung. I got back in the water the next day, bandages and jellyfish swarms notwithstanding, while he sipped martinis at the beach house.

Tatay preferred to keep his adventures mostly imaginary, reading anything he could get his hands on. He often lamented the loss of his collection of Prince Valiant and Superman strips, which were left behind when his family had to pack up in the middle of the night and escape into the mountain jungles. Tatay was 14 when the Japanese armed forces invaded the islands at the end of 1941 and declared Manila an occupied city in January 1942. The Japanese military initially overlooked Tatay’s family since Lolo was a well-respected doctor whose skills they thought they could make use of. Lolo, however, was apparently treating Filipino resistance fighters on the sly, and eventually someone let that knowledge slip. Tatay and the whole family fled their home to avoid retaliation. By the time the family returned from the jungle after Japan’s surrender to the US in 1945, Tatay was no longer a child. His comics collection had burned to ashes, along with everything else in the house.

At some point, Lolo moved the family to Manila, and Tatay immigrated to the US to attend medical school after graduating from the University of the Philippines. He eventually became a naturalized citizen, got married, divorced, married, widowed, and married again. From the time I was born until Tatay’s death, we only visited the Philippines three times. The last time was when I was 13, shortly before Lola died, so that Tatay could introduce her to my future stepmom. He died a year later, and I haven’t been back since.

Maud’dib: “There is probably no more terrible instant of enlightenment than the one in which you discover your father is a manwith human flesh.”

 

I started reading Dune as soon as it arrived with the rest of my things at my relatives’ house. Here’s the thing about reading Dune if you’ve already seen the 1984 movie: familiarity with the movie doesn’t actually mean you’re prepared for the full depth of the book. It’s like thinking once you’ve waded in a pond, you know what it’s like to swim in the ocean, and finding yourself utterly unprepared. Everything that I’d loved about the movie was magnified and deepened in the book: the complex relationship between economics, religion, politics, and propaganda, the scheming between Houses and the Bene Gesserit, the fascinating weirdness of Herbert’s vision, and in particular, Paul’s uncertainty and his struggle to carry the weight of his father’s legacy and mistakes.

I didn’t realize until reading the book that Paul was in fact nearly the same age as me when my Tatay died, nearly the same age as Tatay when he fled his familiar home to find refuge in an environment he’d learned to see as dangerous and unpredictable. Like Paul, the end of Tatay’s boyhood was marked by war and exile, and an accelerated path to adulthood. I wondered how much of himself my tatay had seen in Paul, what he thought about losing his childhood to another country’s dreams of empire, if he had allowed his fear to pass over and through him to see a path forward with a clear eye.

I wondered what kind of legacy he’d wanted to leave for me, or if he’d even thought about it at all.

While Tatay occasionally talked about being a teenager during the Japanese occupation, I didn’t actually learn that his family had spent that time in hiding, and why, until years after he’d died. It was his first wife who shared that story when I was visiting with my oldest brother and his family on a holiday break in college. When I asked her why he never told us, she shrugged and said that Tatay was just the kind of person who preferred to avoid talking about “unpleasant things” at all costs. I couldn’t argue with her assessment. She’d had to be the one to initiate the divorce after Tatay had started dating my mother (while he was also still seeing another woman with whom he’d had one of my older brothers).

Knowing that Tatay had actually spent his young adult years not just living through war, but actively hiding his identity from hostile occupiers, put a different lens on the ways he expected my younger brother and me to behave after our mother died. He would abruptly leave the dinner table and retreat to his study if we talked about her “too much.” I wasn’t allowed to look unhappy when I was around him and my stepmother because it was “rude and disrespectful.” Apparently after my mother had died, Tatay got into arguments with some of our closest family friends when they pushed for him to send my younger brother and myself to therapy. Therapy, in his view, was unnecessary, and his children “needed to learn how to weather the slings and arrows of life.” He might as well have said he wanted us to endure our own gom jabbar.

I’d like to think that this was my tatay’s way of protecting his kids, teaching them how to survive shock and loss. Maybe for him, trauma and pain were just something you learned to live with, processed or not. I wonder if he was afraid of the path we might find if we had guidance through our own fear and pain, rather than being left to fend for ourselves.

I eventually finished the series with Chapterhouse: Dune somewhere around sophomore year. I didn’t exactly end up loving it, and I couldn’t feel satisfied at having completed a series that was itself unfinished. All Herbert had left were notes and sketches, a vague outline of his intentions. Piecing it all together might complete the story, but it was still just an approximation.

I kept reading Tatay’s books, and when I finished them all, I bought more books by the same authors, and books I thought he would have liked, more than enough books to fill the space and time I was left to myself, but never enough to forget where I was, or that he was gone. I rewatched the same shows and movies we’d seen together, staying up late at night to use the one VCR in the house after my relatives had gone to sleep, volume low, seated close to the TV screen in the dark. Returning to familiar stories is its own kind of time travel, although that’s no guarantee you’ll find what it is you went back for.

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