Black Ribbon Award

SKIN, NOISE, AND SHIT

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Woodstock ’99 was not the most significant event of the 1990s. It wasn’t even the most significant event of 1999. Though it provided striking images and opportunities for rhetorical hand-wringing in the immediate aftermath, it could not equal the gravity of the Columbine shootings that preceded it in April or the Seattle WTO riots that followed it in October. By the following year it was pure trivia. And yet it also laid dormant, as all traumas do, for nearly two decades until a trigger event (the Fyre Festival) made us 15 again, watching Kurt Loder and Serena Altschul gaze grimly upon ever-multiplying lakes of fire in the sea of bodies on that dismal July night.

Woodstock ’99 was surprising in the moment. In a time and place of relative economic abundance and minimal prospect of protracted war, when issues of supply chain disruption, plague, and techno atomism were all but unthinkable, nothing could have been more incompatible with the national mood than the total destruction and virtual lawlessness that ended the third and final Woodstock. It was very easy to look upon the smoldering husks of exploded trailers, the flipped cars, the vast stretches of trash and human waste, and the remains of raided ATMs in mortified astonishment and fuming indignation. There is at its heart a kind of psychic appeal, as though it was a culmination toward something in the final year of the millennium and in the waining days of America’s vacation from history. It was fair, in that mood, to go out like hooded vigilante in search of blame. And everyone had their favorite scapegoat: the artists, the organizers, and the audience.

Blaming the artist was actually a very popular reflex in 1999. It attended the Columbine shootings when the media had erroneously linked the shooters to the “trench coat mafia” and their industrial rock tastes. Marilyn Manson was condemned by congressmen. KMFDM shirts were blacked out. This carried over into Woodstock ’99 which, in a bid for both relevance and maximum ROI, dipped heavily into the glut of nü metal and related rock radio acts. The Offspring, Korn, and Bush played on Friday. Kid Rock, Limp Bizkit, Rage Against the Machine, and Metallica played on Saturday. Limp Bizkit in particular were at their peak, they were inescapable if you watched MTV or listened to KROQ enough. Their set reflected this momentum with Fred Durst working the 250,000-strong crowd into a frenzy, to the point that they ripped plywood off of a sound tower and crowd-surfed on it. Though it hardly constituted a “riot,” at least compared to the following night, Durst’s populist bluster was a magnet for critics.

The recent documentaries on the festival, on HBO and Netflix, are less eager to make that claim. In part because it’s not a good look, but also because there’s plenty of evidence to counter this. Many of the nü metal acts had played together on the Family Values tour around the same time, the only hiccup of which was Rammstein being arrested in Boston for being German lewd and lascivious behavior. And while those bands still (amazingly) make for good copy, they represented a only fraction of the otherwise eclectic roster, which included DMX, Dave Matthews Band, Los Lobos, and The Tragically Hip. Moreover, the actual bonfires that preceded the riots happened in the crowd of the comparably mellower Red Hot Chili Peppers, while the concurrent Megadeth set on the lesser stage was more or less unperturbed.

The organizers are the easier culprits, specifically the figureheads Michael Lang and John Scher, who represent the different expressions of the baby boomers’ Janus-faced personality. Lang, the 1969 organizer, beamed with idealism and naivety about rock n’ roll’s power to change the world. Scher countered Lang with his pragmatism, cynicism, and unwavering commitment to making a profit. Most of the literal and figurative accelerants of the festival’s breakdown derive in some way from decisions they made. For instance, Lang wanted a humane, relatively non-imposing security staff, which Scher assembled from anyone he could find regardless of experience and with a loose certification process. Couple that with the tarmac-laden airbase venue, the subcontracted amenities, the rupturing toilets, and the contaminated water, these accumulated undertakings created an environment that was exorbitantly expensive, unsanitary to a level unprecedented by first-world standards, and bound by few if any rules.

But it was the audience who were let free. And it was the audience who made all the damage, which far exceeded even reasonable riot expectations. Woodstock ’99 attendees have been subject to as much diagnosis as blame. They were overcome with an End of History-style malaise, with no great cause to direct their immense energy, while at the same time they were exhausted, physically and mentally, by the rigors of the festival. Scher keeps referring to “knuckleheads” who are afraid of adulthood egging on the crowd to greater extremes. Lang was disappointed that the kids were not “able to embrace the social issues of the day” he handpicked for them (gun violence). Today the assessment only complicates. Not many are interested in letting the predominantly white male crowd off the hook for shifting its tenor a certain way. But the extreme conditions, the poor or pricey amenities, and the almost passing concern for safety managed to render undomesticated pretty much anyone unwise enough to stay the full three days.

Apportioning blame only matters if you can convincingly show that the disaster in question was anomalous. Perhaps there is a version of Woodstock ’99 that doesn’t have a body count or go down in literal flames. But much happening around it would have to be different in order for that to be the case. Vast environmental factors far outside the festival grounds were at work in order to assure that Woodstock ’99 both existed and took a certain course. It would be melodramatic to say that events and attitudes over four decades in advance had “led up to” the festival; rather it is better to say that the festival was the most logical outcome of those attitudes. It is like the fiery period of a run-on sentence proclaiming the death of hypocrisy.

Of all the projects undertaken by American postwar liberalism, ending hypocrisy was the most sweeping and perhaps the most ambitious. It demanded nothing short of the reform of the national personality and it required a generation of pioneers bold enough to claim that that national personality was far removed in deed from its professed principles. These pioneers saw the American spirit fall from its moral high ground into a pit of decorum that enabled both repression and extreme violence. Those pioneers are made of several civil libertarian heroes and martyrs: Hugh Hefner, Lenny Bruce, Abby Hoffman, Terry Southern, Gore Vidal, Kurt Vonnegut, William S. Burroughs, and so on. They believed that a society that was more honest about its baser impulses (which, of course, were natural, not base) would in turn be freer, happier, more just, and more at peace with itself. Their approach was negative, using shock tactics to avert the United States from the fate that befell the United Kingdom a century earlier. It was the subsequent generation, Michael Lang included, for whom ending hypocrisy became a creative endeavor. With the repressive neo-Victorian decorum safely dispatched, in came the liberating neo-Romantic authenticity.

We know this much because running exactly parallel to the creative-destructive project were scores of social-critical tomes pointing out its obvious, long-term-consequential defects. If none of those critics foresaw precisely what had unfolded in July of 1999, the best of them (who admittedly were mostly dead by that point anyway) would surely have been the least shocked at the sight of it.

One of the repeat criticisms of Woodstock ’99 is how far removed its spirit was from the original festival. Obviously because the musical environment had widened significantly in that 30-year span. Punk broke and was broken; Spin put Fred Durst on its cover and Kid Rock on Rolling Stone’s. To add to that, Scher spared no effort to cover the military-industrial wreckage in corporate logos. And the rising generation, a cross-section of later Gen X and early millennials, was coming of age in a different world, in which boomers were the people in power, no one was getting drafted, and the fervor for revolution was as low as it could possibly get. Performers made explicit references to the 1969 festival during their sets. Wyclef Jean performed the “Star-Spangled Banner” on his guitar à la Jimi Hendrix and set it on fire; Creed featured Robby Krieger of The Doors. Though it is assumed that these references were lost on the audience. Fred Durst put it succinctly when he implored any nostalgists in the crowd to “take your Birkenstocks and stick them up your fuckin’ ass.”

In truth there were probably more nostalgists in the crowd than would be assumed. You don’t grow up with The Wonder Years and classic rock radio without developing a perfectly natural, if misguided, wistfulness for a fake past. And the boomer backlash would not crest for another decade, when it was clear to us that they didn’t ultimately have our best interest at heart. But nostalgia is the not the same thing as a spirit, which was in no way hindered in 1999, it had merely assimilated.

Michael Lang could bemoan how the young people had not lived up to his own expectations after they destroyed everything he’d built. But he could not, at the same time, have said that he failed to accomplish the broader goal. The audience, whether they realized it or not, had perpetuated the values set forth by the generation of the original festival. They had sought to participate in a free, uninhibited communal experience. And they did. The 1999 attendees rejected hypocrisy and repression as their predecessors had done. And they exerted radical candor in doing so. They were several measures more aggressive in its expression, of course. They were vulgar, nihilistic, willfully stupid, and cruel to one another. But they never lied to themselves in the course of doing so. They were entirely without shame, reservations, or anxiety. There was no past they cared to pay mind to more than they had to, nor was there much of a future. They were in the moment. The moment was awash in skin, noise, and shit.

The documentaries that make this discussion possible have come out in a time that is fraught with anxiety and filled with people almost too ashamed to function and who have, at best, a clinical attitude toward skin and shit. Everything depicted is cast in an unfriendly light. What is actually to be done with this understanding is left unsaid, though perhaps not unthought.

If the late-1990s were marked by a higher measure of candor than usual, that candor did not automatically engender those other outcomes the pioneers of destruction thought were necessary to carry society forward. It did not make people freer, or it did not distribute that freedom equally. It did not make them happier; it caused them to confuse respect with tolerance and peace with indifference. Indeed, by simply being honest, you could do whatever you want and everyone would have to tolerate what you did. Rather than propel society to new heights, it put it in a holding pattern. Late-1990s America was the most boring dystopia until the crowd at Woodstock ’99 took a torch to it. But once creators fall back into destruction, the creation phase starts anew.

The purest conservatism is always accidental, always innate, and morally uncomplicated. Though both the documentaries, with different levels of emphasis, plead for progress and equity in the face of the many wrongs committed at the festival, there is just underneath them a humming sort of desire for a specially skewed, manners-based conservatism. There is the tacit admission that the war against hypocrisy had taken too great a toll on the citizenry. Engorged on authenticity, they became somewhat ugly, they reverted to adolescence, they ate ice cream for breakfast. Honesty, when you come right down to it, is fucking gross. Soon you come around to Jonathan Swift in one of his more earnest moments, promoting, without success, the moral reform of his own age:

[U]nless it should be thought, that making religion a necessary step to interest and favour might increase hypocrisy among us: and I readily believe it would. But if one in twenty should be brought over to true piety by this, or the like methods, and the other nineteen be only hypocrites, the advantage would still be great. Besides, hypocrisy is much more eligible than open infidelity and vice; it wears the livery of religion; it acknowledges her authority, and is cautious of giving scandal.

Dishonesty preserves civilization and promotes the good. Honesty may be morally correct and may make you feel good; but it only gives you license to behave worse.

This civic dishonesty could not be called “conservatism.” Not simply because its proponents are put off by conservatism proper but because the main current of that conservatism is closer to Woodstock ’99, having embraced a kind of combative vulgarity that sees manners as not being sufficiently based. The only difference is that they do not appear to need $4 bottles of water to burn things down if it came to that.

Woodstock ’99 was the final collapse of the Millsian “experiment in living.” People in 2022 are too burnt out to want to be free. They will willfully give any freedom they have to the lowest bidder. No one knows for certain what they want; or they will not admit what they want. Secretly desiring order, they will settle for the perception of order, a lazy, suburban kind of order that puts the Leviathan in a Fred Rogers cardigan.

At least the shit will stay where it is supposed to stay, and only the best Woodstock ’99 would be possible: one that never happens.

GOING OUT OF BUSINESS

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Taken from here.

It should be evident at this point that anything I’ve written about punk—and there is a lot of it—is neither definitive nor entirely recognizable to punks of any generation. My only real virtue here is that what I write tends to be more interesting on average than competing punk musings. You may attribute this to the astounding number of liberties I take with the concept. You can, in fact, spend hours teasing out scores of suitable stand-ins that should rightly go in place of “punk” had it not been for many fateful glitches in my human, moral, and intellectual odyssey. In that frame of mind, what I write is not about punk, but about a life that, by all reasonable accounts, was never supposed be lived.

But even I have to desist from what is fun and interesting and do a little housekeeping. For I know just enough to interject into the wider discourse, where so many greater but less interesting errors flourish, to offer necessary clarification and course-correction. The purpose of this humble, imprudently assembled essay is to offer just that and to prevent many and repeat renderings of punk by more prominent voices in ways that are not just wrong but boring. I have done this by assessing three distinct types of punk (the critic, the devotee, and the marginal) and matters related to these types (polemic, censorship, and gatekeeping).

To be sure, these are not to be considered as rigidly separate. A marginal punk is by necessity also a devotee punk, though not a critic. A critic can be a devotee but not a marginal for the same necessity. A devotee can be all three at once and still basically function. I have also avoided the “rock journalist” tendency of being encyclopedic. This is not out of any desire to be more helpful; but I will let the curious reader determine what model I have taken up in its place. This should set the record straight as well as anything else can, though.

The Critic
The first gesture a punk makes, once it is made clear in themselves that that is what they are, is a rude one. They take an assessment of their surroundings and find much to be rude about. Many of the nascent punk’s entry material—Sex Pistols, Green Day, Ramones, Stooges, and even some Clash—reinforce this initial impulse. There is nothing worth giving a fair hearing that won’t hear you to begin with. The early punk is brash, impetuous, and disorderly. They are decadent in their tastes and polemical in their style of expression. In every sense, they are critical.

Even the self-harm the early punks engage in is an expression of outward hostility to a culture that made them and wanted to exert total control over their bodily integrity. Danger, disregard for manners, simplistically radical politics, and general existentialist if not fatalist thinking drives the punk critic. Punk criticism presents itself loosely, though the punks themselves, out in the world but more intensely among their peers, practice that criticism to a high degree of purity. A punk learns—or perhaps intuits—early on that the punk’s only true vice is compromise. Yet on the whole, this mode does not last but a few years. Some punks, long on excess for its own sake, will die out of it. Some punks will exhaust themselves into retirement. Others will ascend to a more sophisticated understanding.

Even so, the critic is the platonic ideal of the punk. It cuts closest to pre-existing countercultures and, not unrelated to that, pre-existing marketing strategies. Its crude formulation easily latches on to echoing youth-centric emanations that seem every bit as awkward and as aesthetically distinct from its contemporary mainstream as critical punk was.

Critical punks can replicate widely, but they degrade the more they multiply. Antiauthoritarianism is their only consistency, which, never clearly expressed to begin with, tends to degrade as well into sheer solipsism and perpetual, directionless antagonism. The punk critic always risks delinquency on the one hand and indolence on the other.

A Digression on PolemicsArgument alone may not separate man from animal, but rigorous and spirited argument might. Anyone so educated can point to examples of polemic of greater intricacy, erudition, and intensity than that which is offered by punk. Punks are not one to indulge in sophisticated discourse bespeaking of nuance and a desire to persuade. Nor are they any more willing to embrace deliberate rhetorical conceits that suggest satire. (Satire is not unheard-of in punk, but it is not natural to its stronger impulses.) Punk does not engage in argument properly so-called.

Punk polemic is undomesticated polemic: instinctual, immediate, reactionary in the strictest sense. It disdains grace and does not find virtue in patience. It feels no camaraderie with its interlocutors. It prefers to hound its opponents into silence. It resisted the discipline of democratic and representative process. Even Jacobin rhetoric in the National Assembly appears liberal by comparison. It is too moral to be tethered to procedure. It is too anxious to arrive at consensus. Its end is to arrive at clarification against the obscurity of the culture punks are resisting.

There is something pre-modern in its character; moved by a logic that many thought was rightly extinguished in the march of progress. If punks are humanist in principle, they carry it through the mouth of the barbarian, and the inquisitor.

The Devotee
If a punk matures without lapsing out of it, they become committed. Commitment instills devotion. Devotion reorients how they think about and act within punk. The net-positives of punk become more concrete with the solidifying and more sustained connection with the punk community. Devotees are less inclined to recklessness. Inarticulate and directionless destruction (in deed and in rhetoric) decline in their appeal. Devotees see perpetuation of a good as the better method of resistance to societal evil, even as good and evil are not usually in their vocabulary. They move to create; where they can’t create, they shore up the creations of others.

Devotees assume a protectiveness, even a territoriality, as a result, and can easily reconcile themselves with impulses not typically or happily associated with the punk mentality. A devotee can, in the name of their community and its creations, assume the role of guardian or censor. They can, if need be, “pull rank” in order to undo disruptions or get ahead of any threat of disruption. Punk devotion is authoritarian in the main. Punk devotees defer to higher figures as readily as they assert their force over anyone perceived to be lower; though how that lowness is arrived at is never clear or consistent across scenes. But the will of the collective carries; and ethics are handed down by decree.

Consider Fugazi, who had decreed that a punk should no longer have to define themselves by the pain they endure or inflict on other punks, by imposing limitations on the behavior of the audience. Moshing and similar outbursts were forbidden while they played, and no exceptions were made when they occurred. No punk was free who took a cavalier attitude toward the space of others. These acts were beyond the limit of tolerance, even when dealt with humorously and reluctantly on the band’s part. This mentality carried the day throughout the 1990s and the early-2000s.

The peak of the devotee collapsed as the 2000s gave way to the 2010s and the internet gained in influence over mass culture. The devotee is a humanist, pre-digital type. It is, moreover, anti-irony and anti-detachment. People affect a stance or style of devotion without the responsibility or intimacy that gave it substance. The critic has reasserted itself but has not matured. Without physical spaces, there is nothing concrete to maintain and no people with whom to cohere in any meaningful sense. Post-digital punk deals in rhetoric and signal.

A Digression on CensorshipNo one in their singular conscience believes themselves to be capable of censorship. Certainly not the censorship they imagine, handed down across the decades like civil libertarian lore. No one wants to reflexively suppress ideas they find repugnant. No one wants to ban pornography, violent video games, obscure perfectly natural nudity, or edit out swear words. They would never, in the words of Allan Bloom, “bolster corrupt or decaying regimes.” Even the sympathies that attend account suspension and other combat tactics against “disinformation” seem half-hearted and barely real. These are the self-soothings of people with no apparent communal obligations beyond carpooling, let alone any serious beliefs. People, in other words, who would not last long in punk.

Punk is not, in spite of popular conceptions, a mere label. You cannot affix it upon select attitudes as one would affix a USDA label on meat. You cannot attach it to utterly anodyne activities (like voting Democrat; or Republican for that matter) like a proxy baptism. Punk is a peopled collective. And like all peopled collectives on the face of the earth, it is rife with conflict, dissension, and chaos that goes beyond mere performance. It is brought together under the shared conviction of its rightness. But punk is not, at the same time, a constitutional order with articulated rights. Its “ethics” are duties by another name. Application of those duties manifest differently within the collective. The community and the individual are sometimes at variance in this process. This puts onus on the community to achieve its own cohesion and to clarify the proper ethical approaches. Under such solemn auspices, censorship is punk as fuck.

The Marginal
A subculture takes shape when enough people escape from a social center and into its margins. The margins are a dark place where new styles and customs may assemble themselves as resources and imagination dictate. Punk is no different from other subcultures in this respect; yet its understanding of margins within its own community takes a different, indeed, more functional and fundamental understanding.

The punk space is identified by its own kind of center: a mass of furious activity in which custom and instinct are intwined. Both for those in the moment and those looking at a certain remove, the center is the culmination of punk, the total and purest expression of the freedom for which punks make constant claim through more rhetorical means. Even when, as mentioned before, that freedom is put under restriction, it is no less a significant conveyance of punk culture. It is spontaneous and uninhibited to degrees both envied and feared.

But punk has its own margins, to which many punks sequester themselves on their own accord, either out of temperament or out of some greater need. Those of the former camp will more easily notice the wall that the latter camp form around the more vola

An Interruption on GatekeepingGatekeeping and censorship tend to be conflated as at least coming from the same kind of mind. Censorship and gatekeeping go together like vinegar and oil. But in truth they are not only distinct concepts, but entirely opposed. Unlike censorship, gatekeeping appears good on paper, demonstrating courtesy and sensitivity toward the needs of others. Diversity is not a light issue to the gatekeeper; quite the opposite, it must be handled with the greatest delicacy, which is to say, an exacting vetting process. Gatekeeping, purely conceived, is a kind of custodial duty. In practice, of course, gatekeeping is too localized, too arbitrary, and too petty to meet proper custodial standards. The gatekeeper’s idea of custodianship is to cover any mess with sawdust and power up the buffer to move in randomized patterns. Gatekeepers are insecure; they exert an influence that is mostly pretended against outsiders while they themselves feel like they are barely accepted in the community they keep clean. As such, they hold to a level of purity that is impossible to exist outside the imagination without a series of freak historical opportunities falling into place at the exact right time. Gatekeeping is a sweeping, savage, yet simultaneously imprecise anti-migratory policy, policing one set of values while overlooking other, often more malicious, factors in the community.

tile activity. These form specific functions to better accommodate the mass they surround. They tend the doors, they man the merch tables, they provide security, logistical support, financial and labor support, and other managerial tasks on which the center depends.

The marginals are not limited to the show venues themselves. They are on the album liner notes, in the press releases, in the contracts, and other paperwork and attendant materials that keep scenes running. This, even to me, is the most boring part of this essay. But punk should be a place where boring people—or people who can tolerate doing boring things—should be welcome. Punks can’t do without systematizers, bookkeepers, and chaperones. Should it ever reach a place where it can do without them, then it has reached a point past its own humanity.

An Appendix on Death
When I was 19, I got knocked on my ass in Philadelphia. It was 2004; my college friend Ryan and I drove down from our quaint steel town campus to see The Dillinger Escape Plan play at the Trocadero. This incident took place before Dillinger had even got on stage. We were still enduring The Locust’s set when a burst of energy erupted from the crowd in our exact direction. Ryan was standing directly in front of me, and we hit the floor like dominoes.

I recovered from the shock fairly quickly, but it was shocking. We were standing at the far back edge of the crowd where I had assumed we would be more or less unperturbed by the maelstrom at the center. But when I peered over the people in front of me, I could catch glimpses of the manically flailing bodies in hooded sweatshirts with bandana-obscured faces, and that safety seemed rather tenuous. It was indicative enough at the other end as well. At some point in the set, Locust singer Justin Pearson stopped the show to direct his attention square into the pit. “I just want you to know that everyone here thinks you’re a bunch of assholes,” he said. The cheering crowd drowned out the rest of his chastisement. They resumed playing to no discernable change.

Even in my naïve sense of security I knew any intervention into the crowd violence would proffer next to no results. Perhaps it was because The Locust is not the kind of band you can enjoy while sitting still, if at all. Perhaps it was because Pearson was haranguing the crowd in a bug costume made all the more ridiculous by how it accentuated his rail-thin frame. Perhaps it was because it was Philly, and Philly shows are like that. The year before at a matinee show at the much smaller First Unitarian, American Nightmare flat out left the stage because multiple, and seemingly very personal, fights kept breaking out in the pit.

Or perhaps it was because the moral authority The Locust was trying to exert over the crowd was already a spent force by that point. Mid-2000s rock culture was struck with an anxiety that vacuums left in the previous decades needed to be filled by the next available substitute. Everything that seemed spontaneous and anarchic at the time—such as Aaron North of The Icarus Line smashing a case in the Hard Rock Café containing Stevie Ray Vaughn’s guitar and trying to play it—looks now like recitations of ritual. Homages to the past—such as Bob Mould performing at a tribute to himself with No Age, Ryan Adams, and Dave Grohl—seemed to double as auditions. But each failure only widened the vacuum. And every gesture was expended as if from a carpet emporium during a going-out-of-business sale.

It is typical to cope with these changes by accepting their Spenglerian inevitability and to rationalize to the point of fawning every fashion that is ascending in their place, whether irony or the digital age or a new generation or just progress qua progress. To mourn what is lost and irretrievable is barely thinkable. Mourning is arrogance. Becoming a corpse is nothing to be proud of. But sometimes a corpse just wants to say “Fuck you.”

ELIZABETH STREB’S DANCE OF DESTRUCTION

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NOTE: This essay appeared in the fourth and final issue of Biopsy (winter 2013). I have made light edits to smooth over some easily reversed blemishes while doing absolutely nothing to broaden the limits of the maturity under which the piece—influenced more by Maggie Nelson on cruelty than any appreciation for, or even sufficient knowledge of, the movement arts—was written. Incidentally it was the last piece in the issue, and an appropriate jumping-off point to all that followed.

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Though conscience, emotion, and language are all cherished attributes among a whole swath of humanity, it’s really the body that gives them a sense of reality and purpose. Man, many believe, is nothing without his body. This is not solely due to the fact that the body encases what makes him conscious, but because he believes in its architecture, he believes that organic life is no more perfect in design than the human design. To nearly all humans, a well-toned body, whether from birth or from effort on his or her own part, is an affirmation, a prize even, for his or her own existence; whereas a largely imperfect body is cause for damnation. This is the popular sentiment and it is marketed as such, and as it has been with every other status quo sentiment, this too must be subject to hatred soon enough by the malcontents of the creative class.

And yet so revered is the perfect human form that it seems impervious to the jaundiced eye of artists Jenny Saville and Diane Arbus. Francis Bacon, to his credit, worked with well-toned bodies but managed, through intention or instinct, to degrade them into ugliness, so far as I can see. Perhaps, though, their mediums are insufficient. If one is to make the case that the toned body is every bit as breakable as the flabby body, it is only sensible that it be done in a form less passive and silent than painting or photography

Elizabeth Streb thinks of herself less as a choreographer and more of an “action architect.” To her she is not merely an orchestrator of dances but a builder of movement, her primary building materials being the human form. As insufferable as that description sounds no one can deny its essential truth. Streb and her company of performers have lent themselves a staggering reputation for pulling off complex acts of movement, often given the audience the idea that some of her performers can walk on air. But then again so can the Cirque de Soleil, and so can the more traditional acrobatics.

What, then, truly draws people to Streb’s work? Her performers for the most part do not where costumes outside of uniform tights, the machinery she uses impresses in performance but would merely confuse if left dormant. All Streb really has to work with is the human body and the many ideas she has with which to take it to the absolute extreme of physical exertion, and perhaps beyond.

I am, I should note for safe measure, not privy to the workings of Ms. Streb’s mind. It is more than evident that she is a professional as well as artist who has a firm knowledge of dance, acrobatics and so on, which certainly informs her work. That being said, though, not all choreographers can boast her creative or coordinative abilities, in fact very few can. We are given the impression, through films like Black Swan, that all choreographers and directors are sadistic and perverse; they reconcile their sadism and perversion with arrangements of grace, romance, and tradition, but with a dash of “passion” on par with most trailer park dwellers. Streb counters these notions with an exposure of the sadism of staged dance.

The key to seeing how Streb uses the body is in the way a perfect body presents itself. Those with perfect bodies—that is, with fully developed muscles and minimal fat—are wont to flaunt their figures whenever possible. On the surface its language is one of affirmation. “I’m beautiful,” the body says, “this is my merit.” And this is what registers to those with the bodies and those who see the bodies. But as with every gratuitous exhibition there is an underlying negative language that, while not readily acknowledged by the fit bodied, beckons to those who can detect its call. “Destroy me,” it begs, “I can go no further than this form, I feel nothing at the sight of it, so tear me apart.” People have answered this call before of course, people like Ed Gein and especially Jeffrey Dahmer have ably dismantled the human form in impressive, if not exactly legal, ways. Similar Streb’s lack of restraint may be to Dahmer’s and Gein’s efforts, it is altogether distinct for its equal lack of crudeness and plethora of subtlety.

Like the bodies themselves, Streb’s work offers an interior and exterior message. The exterior message deals with notions such as man’s desire to defy and overcome gravity. The interior message, though, addresses and wages war on man’s delusion of physical perfection. She elaborates on this by using bizarre and complicated arrangements that stretch her dancers’ bodies to the utmost limit of their abilities making both physical harm and mental dysfunction not risks but conditions of the job. Dancers lie in a circle and duck a rotating steel bar; dancers leap and dodge swinging cinder blocks; dancers contort in boxed-in spaces; dancers run into invisible walls; dancers climb onto, into, and over massive gauntlet-like machines, one of which a dancer admits has a “guillotine” effect in the event of even a slight misstep. Every movement wears the performers down, as if they were being dismantled cell by cell, tissue by tissue. What ensues, if one looks past one’s own awe, is not so much avant-garde choreography but torture, a torture to which the performers willingly, whether out of masochism or out of not knowing any better. It is a torture that is both far more enhanced and far subtler than the type of transgressive performance art being undertaken in America’s military and clandestine prisons. And like the generic methods of torture, much of the creative center of Streb’s work is derived every bit as much from the conceiving of such tortures as it is from the carrying out of them.

When we step back and really look at Streb’s place in performance history, it seems better understood when compared to the British in-yer-face theatre of Sarah Kane rather than the ballet of Pyotr Tchaikovsky. There are no delicate princesses with dark sides waiting to be unleashed, but slabs of electrified meat which Streb takes hold of and prompts in whatever direction, stance, or position she chooses. The amount of control she exerts over the players should be considered as much a part of the show as the players themselves. It is a testament either to their absolute obedience or their open-mindedness (possibly both) that they allow this otherwise intrusive dynamic to take shape. The control is so overbearing that the only option of rebellion is bodily injury, which happened at least once in 2007 when a dancer fractured a vertebra during a performance of STREB VS GRAVITY. It’s a rather pyrrhic rebellion in any case. Even if control is wrested away from Streb it still gives her the desired result.

This is the ideal fate of a Streb dancer. But even if nothing along those lines occurs either in the long or short term, there is still the message her choreography sends to the audience. Some of them, to be sure, will still be purely stricken with awe by the spectacle like adolescent lovers, but others will take the hint. The era of the body-as-temple is over. Anybody as fit as those they saw on stage must be in constant vigorous activity to be of any use, activity that must put their very fitness at risk if they want to justify that fitness. In this new era the “hard bodies” of our society deserve only punishment, either self-inflicted or provided by someone else. Anything more is gratuitous; anything less is ugly.

Streb drives the point home all the more with her signature performance—strangely it is her simplest one as well. In Wild Blue Yonder (2003), seven dancers stand atop a platform high above the stage, and one by one they dive off onto a mat below. They are each in a stiffened, horizontal position resulting in a hard, facedown landing. Everything that makes Streb’s work so fascinating and perverse is rolled into this one number. She might as well be pushing them off herself, like throwing chum into a black ocean. Some in the audience are likely to be enchanted, while others might be perplexed or unsettled, but it is doubtless that a few remaining audience members will be disappointed that the platform wasn’t set higher.

RADIOACTIVE DISCOURSE

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NOTE: The saga, against all odds, continues.

As I’ve said elsewhere, the urge to undertake schemes of mass death, whether for policy or pleasure, is not naturally born in women. And if the historical record says otherwise, you can be assured that the more brutish gender is not far off prompting the heinous acts. But it is worth repeating that once the gynopocene is established, this will no longer be possible. All violence, in fact, will be obsolete. For it would take a stroke severe mental illness, something that will also be nonexistent, for a woman to see another woman as an enemy.

I had laid this truism out pretty straightforwardly. Or so I had thought. Lately the sisters have begun to stir. And like hatchlings in a nest, they chirp and chirp for me to vomit my wisdom into their mouths.

The question that started it all, at one of our lunch meetings, was this: is it possible to “go nuclear” after the fall of men?

A matter relating to personal experience, I thought! I could recall a good handful of times, at least in the last year, in which I had “gone nuclear,” usually at the coffee shop, when my cup bares the incorrect name, and contains the incorrect order. But as I was relating this instance and how it bears upon the gynopocene policies regarding names and coffee, the sister posing the question clarified that she was being a bit more literal. A discourse ensued of such confusion that I was forced to reschedule a manicure.

“How,” asked the sister, who shall henceforth remain nameless for more reasons than that there are no names in the gynopocene, “how will we deal with nuclear weapons after we have dealt with those who made and kept them?”

After a moment of perplexity, I spoke. “I shouldn’t think they would need to be dealt with at all. Conflict will be so rare as to be beyond the interest of whatever ‘law enforcement’ emerges or of statisticians. And when it does, it could never rise to the epic masculine-normative proportions. ‘Going nuclear,’ if that is even an appropriate term for the emergent womanhood, will never be more intense than a game of Uno … or Sorry.”

But it was clear the [REDACTED] was not satisfied by my answer. And her surrounding sisters were no less stirred.

“So, okay,” I continued. “I think I know what you’re trying to get at. We women being naturally incapable of causing wide-scale slaughter would be just as naturally indifferent to minding the toys of wide-scale slaughter left behind in the wake of the marginalization of their makers and primary users. Without the proper means of disposal in the near term, and with even the few remaining servile men not being trustworthy enough in this instance to keep watch over them, a vulnerability of exceptional irony is created.”

Here I saw the [REDACTED]’s point. “I suppose it is not unthinkable that a sister of sufficient purity could happen upon one of the country’s derelict missile silos and, being mesmerized by so alien a sight might feel as if she’d been transported to a different, decidedly more phallic, dimension. In such a state it is fair to assume that her faculties, maybe never so sharp to begin with, may dull further. She would become careless in her surroundings. She may push the wrong button or just knock over a chair and set something she does not understand into motion. The annihilating hardware comes to life, soars up and out, condemning an unfortunate section of our community to total devastation. The trauma would be without equal, I’ll give you that. But to what extent do we punish this sister for her crimes of butterfingers and childlike wonder?”

“I don’t know, to be honest,” the [REDACTED] answered with the confidence of the least-contributing member of a group project.

“Of course you don’t know,” I said. “None of us know. Negligence of this sort would be easily prevented in the gynopocene with the power of education. It is a matter of setting proper boundaries. All women are free in the community, but some parts of the community are less free than others. This we have to instill in everyone. No exceptions.”

“Instill or coerce?” [REDACTED] asked more sharply.

“There’s nothing wrong with a little coercion,” I said. “Anything can be coerced if you make it fun.”

I’d hoped that would put an end to [REDACTED]’s concerns. But as I was about to leave for my fast-approaching nail appointment, [REDACTED] threw everything into chaos.

“Shouldn’t we … I guess … learn to control them?”

The Panera dining area fell silent.

Humoring [REDACTED], I asked “Why would we do that?”

“Well, I just think it would be good to do on the safe side of things.”

“I and I’m pretty sure the rest of us are still a bit lost here. No one will have the desire or need to use them. Women will never sink to that level. The sex that does will not be around to use them. They are not even worth being made a special example of compared to other things—like porn, football, Unitarianism, and all that.”

“So … speaking of the men—”

“What about the men?”

“If I can just offer a hypothetical.”

“You have the floor.” The sisters nodded in agreement, however timidly at this point.

“I’ve been thinking about your point about the men. How, once we’ve gained dominance, or at any event when their weaknesses can no longer be concealed, that they will be easily cordoned off; and once they’ve been cordoned off, they will degenerate as if by some habitual, instinctual clockwork. You conceive them as the type of animals that are attuned to their own superfluity and carry out their own extinction accordingly.”

We all nodded and begged her to continue.

“What I’ve been thinking about is … what if they are not that type of animal?”

“What type of animal would they be?” I crossed my arms to accentuate my impatience, though [REDACTED] seemed unperturbed by it.

“The types of animals that don’t necessarily do that. Say, again hypothetically, that they just adapt. Like maybe their brains don’t really improve, taking on the texture, size, and flavor of a boiled dumpling. But what if their physical strength and collective resourcefulness heighten in direct proportion to their mental degeneration? They could be total morons in isolation, but together they could be quite formidable. Like adult-sized bipedal locusts. It wouldn’t be impossible in this state for them to escape from the confines we put them in and overrun our cities—or communes or covens or whatever. Conventional defenses may be ineffective. And no man so enslaved by us may be that willing to go out of his way to fend them off, if not out of solidarity then certainly out of cowardice.”

Over the course of this explanation all the sisters present began looking to me with panic boiling under their faces. I was left watching as [REDACTED] filled their minds with nightmares in real time. I do not remember exactly what was said at this point as I tried to tend to these unfortunate witnesses. But [REDACTED] trailed me around the tables with follow-up questions about launch protocols and possible deliberations that go with deciding when and where to launch. Will they be done by a special council or entrusted among the whole population?

By this point I had adjourned the meeting and sent the sisters tearfully off to their humdrum pre-gynopocene existences. Meanwhile, I kept the [REDACTED] on as I walked down to Starbucks. I linked my arm with [REDACTED]’s and through my sudden headache I told [REDACTED] that I was grateful for [REDACTED]’s candor and bold thinking. The post-male era would be dead-on-arrival without [REDACTED]s like [REDACTED]. I said that we were, in fact, assembling a kind of central council to undertake these momentous decisions, that it was in the formation stages as we spoke, and that I’ve decided that [REDACTED] should be taken on as a moral consultant. [REDACTED]’s face beamed as I ordered my venti mocha frappuccino. I told [REDACTED] to go to the parking lot of the Helping Hands Mortuary on I-65 at half-past midnight. We embraced; I think I missed my name.

[REDACTED] was nothing short of well-meaning. But those who are well-meaning are very rarely well-acting. This has been the man’s way for all time. Once they get away with being well-meaning once, they will coast on it for epochs and epochs. Being well-meaning betrays a latent masculinist mentality.

I felt my cranial pressure lighten with the thought of two people knowing the full measure of “going nuclear” as I, Eva I. Coke, and not Suzie Connolly, Shelia Baker, or Randall Yamamoto, prefer it.

THE SANCTUARY

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Michelle’s last memory of Erika played back in her mind like a damaged tape. Damaged and arbitrarily recut out of sequence. Each replay delivered a new sequence, perpetually confounding the proper order of events if not also their meaning and context.

She knew she was home for her first spring break from college, Erika was just out of rehab, or some similar kind of treatment, and it was after 11:00 PM. Yet she always remembered the last part first.

Michelle woke up the following afternoon. There was a yellow envelope on her desk with her name on it in Sharpie and a skull design that Erika would draw on any surface. Holding it in both hands she already knew what it was.

“Here,” she said to her brother. “Take it.”

“What is it?”

“Something I— … Something Erika found last night. I don’t want it.”

“Really, where?”

“That hospital by 22.”

“The one near Sante Fe Tavern? You went there with Bag Lady?” he said taking the envelope. “She didn’t try to kill you, did she?”

“Do you want it or not?”

Her brother opened the envelope and examined the picture. His eyes widened.

“Woah, creepy.

“I’ll take that as a yes.”

“Ah come on; it’ll be a neat dorm poster I bet.”

“Whatever,” she said as she shut his door behind her.

***

Brett ventured toward the faint glow that throbbed from the den, where he saw his older sister in a familiar state, splayed on the couch before the television, one which she’d held without error since she returned home. A stack of Blockbuster DVD cases was placed on the end table in such a careless fashion that the slightest draught could send them tumbling to the carpet. Brett took them in his hands, assembling them more neatly and examining each title.

Disturbing Behavior, Wolf Creek, Saw II, I’ll Always Know What You Did Last Summer, Human Centipede.”

Michelle nodded indifferently.

“Which one is this?”

Darkness Falls,” she said, and pointed to the opened case on the floor before the DVD player.

“Funny how things work out.”

“What’s that?”

“I remember pretty clearly you interrupting Evil Dead to tell me that the only people who like these movies are dickless man-babies who refuse to grow up. I think it was Christmas break. 2005.”

“Must’ve been pretty savage for you to remember it so vividly.”

Brett snickered bitterly.

“But turns out being a dickless man-baby isn’t so bad.”

“Only these movies are far worse than what I watched.”

“I’m on a learning curve. Do you need something? I’m a little preoccupied”

“Only to tell you I’m going to Starbucks to study.”

“Grand.”

“So I’m taking the car.”

“Splendid.”

“But Mom’s 10-speed is in the garage.”

“And?”

“I know you’re going through … a thing … of some sort. But it would do you some good …” he stammered and cleared his throat, “it would do you some good to get out for a bit. Get some air. Otherwise I think you’ll just sink into the couch at this point.”

“Well if that’s the case then you’ll have everything to yourself again.”

Brett chose not to acknowledge the flagrant self-pity and made his way to the stairs. In a more defeated tone told her, “I’ll be back in a few hours.”

Michelle gave a limp wave he likely did not see.

Brett’s continued resentment of Michelle’s return had instilled in Michelle a continued feeling of having newly arrived, but only now did it occur to her that the leaves were changing, the air was smoky, the wind stung in the cheek, and pumpkins and gourds were lying on doorsteps. She had showed up unannounced the month before with only a roller case and a very substandard explanation for an extended Labor Day. The event planning firm that employed her as an administrative assistant did not need her assistance in administrating much of anything. And her studio in Park Slope, to say nothing of most of the objects she put in it, no longer suited her. Officially she was “housesitting” while her mother traversed the western United States, enjoying the fruits of retirement. Though unofficially she was herself in a state of retirement.

Michelle ruminated on the idea of being ingested by the worn tan faux-leather couch. That would have given her some comfort at 19. Only now she was 29.

***

Erika struggled to widen a gap in a chain-link fence knotted with vines.

“My arms are getting tired, Erika,” Michelle whined, holding the flashlight, shivering in her JV field hockey sweatshirt, regretting having turned down watching any of her girlfriends faceplant on the mechanical bull as they undoubtedly were to help Erika achieve her long-held dream of breaking-and-entering into a condemned building.

“Sorry,” Erika grunted back as she pulled out a reem of vines. “Explorer Forum only said that this was a security blind spot. It was pretty vague on the rest of the details.”

“But they’d seen the place, right?”

“Well, if the pictures don’t match the inside, then we’ll know,” she paused to pull the fence further out.

“Kinda makes it more fun.”

“When did this place close?”.

“1980 … 1981, maybe.”

“Before we were born.”

“And it will outlive us.” She pulled another vine out and faced Michelle, catching her breath. “When we’re gone, when all this,” she gestured outward presumably to all of civilization, “is gone … this will remain. This will be our ancient ruins. This and Sears, I guess. And Arby’s.”

***

In all her time in New York, Michelle had never received more unsolicited epithets than in the space of time she was lodged between incoming and outgoing rush hour commuters on the stairs of the Brooklyn-bound train. She had not realized the sheer variety of style and timbre in “Pick a lane, you dumb bitch” before that moment. The courtesy one receives when trying not break their neck lugging a box of their official belongings.

Before she could even rest herself against the wall on the platform for a moment, her Blackberry was abuzz. After digging it out from within her now useless desk contents, she audibly and dramatically growled at the message: “can u plz come back to office? u forgot to turn in ur blackberry. thx Aimee @ hr”

Michelle looked around for any sign of commiseration at her anguish but found only a platform full of commuters similarly fixated on their own devices. She considered doing what the message politely demanded of her, as if she was still employed, but was stopped in that thought by the appearance of the one human that did seem to acknowledge her: a burly, unkempt older man, clearly homeless, his thick hair in a hopeless matted tangle, his cheeks smudged with soot, and whose odor became more putrid, almost corpse-like, the closer he approached. His gait was agonizingly slow at that. Michelle braced for another unwanted intervention into her space, and for money that she now very dearly needed. But the man said nothing, and passed by her as if she was a bad car accident. His mouth was agape in a vacant smile, that were it not for the four of his remaining yellow teeth emitted no indication that anything but darkness was inside of him.

And while time had felt elastic in that moment, he passed her, and went seemingly onto better things. Until he moved in front of a woman in a dark blue pantsuit 10 feet or so away from Michelle, who as if in a spasm swung her handbag at the man’s head, immediately knocking him down on the platform. Though of notably smaller build than the man, she was able to pin him down, straddle him, and press both hands on his mouth. The man struggled but appeared more inconvenienced than alarmed.

“I can’t let it out,” the woman said through grit teeth. “I can’t let it out.” Her face darted around the station, everyone on the Brooklyn platform cleared from her, everyone on the Manhattan platform gawked from afar. “Night sickness! HE’S GOT NIGHT SICKNESS,” she screamed out as if she was alerting her fellow commuters to a commonplace notion. This continued until a male cop, a female MTA employee, and a male civilian in a fleece and loafers, converged to attempt to pull her off the man. Her strength was not any less subdued by this force, and Michelle could swear that she nearly knocked the cop onto the tracks just swinging her arm at him. They got the better of her when she stood up and appeared to want to gouge the man’s eye out with her stiletto heel.

“Don’t let him go!” she yelled. “He’ll darken us. He’ll darken everything.”

Michelle had never understood what was meant by “blood-curdling” screams until she heard that woman’s inner-torment reverberate into her veins. The three held her until the next train arrived, where they shoved her into the nearest car. “Walk it off lady,” the MTA employee advised as the door closed. As it passed by Michelle, the woman was no less calmed, banging at the window like a captured animal.

Everyone moved on as if nothing had transpired. Except for the homeless man, still lying on the platform, his head craned back at Michelle, laughing.

When she arrived at her apartment, she resolved to get her affairs in order. The first matter being to toss the Blackberry into the East River.

***

With only a night sky over them and a single flashlight beam ahead of them, Erika led Michelle through a campus of disused, boarded up, heavily marked buildings. In that darkened state they hardly feel built, but natural. Curious rock formations, an earth-made labyrinth.

Erika had less trouble entering the side door an anonymous stranger on the internet had told her to enter. They walked through an auditorium, an exercise area, a hall of classrooms with some hand-shaped cutouts still tacked over the chalkboards, a games and recreation area with a busted TV hanging from the wall and dust-covered folding chairs scattered in disarray.

“Yeah … yeah, they weren’t kidding,” Erika mused to no one in particular.

Michelle had only seen the Blackstone Sanctuary for the Infirm from the road on the way to some lesser amusement. From the several hundred-foot distance it was hard to grasp the immensity of the hospital’s sprawl. Sitting a mile out of town, on a 145-acre island cut out of the earth by three roads linking the area’s major highways, Blackstone was one of New Jersey’s largest centers for the treatment of tuberculosis and other respiratory ailments, many of their patients being children. Since the ‘80s, though, the complex was a husk, battered and decrepit. At a certain time of day, when the sun shone down on it, the full scale of the decay was revealed like a grand exhibition. Michelle remembered being not especially pleased to see it on the few occasions she was cognizant of it. For Erika, who Michelle thought had a talent far above anyone else in New Jersey for finding the uncanny in the most mundane of spaces, it was a fixation.

***

Michelle hunched over her plate of leftover macaroni and cheese, sloshing her fork in a downward-spiral motion to mix the very hot parts at the edge with the very cold parts in the center. At that moment she had escaped her earthly identity of a self-exiled urban woman into a Father of Lies in yoga pants, preparing to transfer to additional toil the souls entwined and writhing beneath her in molten damnation. For that is what the microwave had rendered what was a mass of congealed fat and rubbery carbohydrates in the refrigerator. The searing heat of those souls did much to disabuse her of that fantasy. Her view from the kitchen table did the rest.

Erika’s house had eluded her gaze since she came home; or rather she had not allowed herself to consider it much. After all, the house was never much to look at. The wood panels were painted a pale blue, but the acquired grime rendered it a sickly, ashen grey. The brick work had faded from a fresh red to brittle pinks and browns. Some had simply fallen out of place, suggesting the rest could come crashing down in with them at any moment. The only lawn furniture was a folding chair in the middle of a concrete patio, from which Erika’s mother, draped in muumuus of indistinguishable floral patterns, smoked and stared up as if lost in some meditative trance. Possibly considering the state of the uncleaned gutters. It was lived-in, but not strictly livable.

Yet it was also an appropriate habitat for someone who painted her nails black with sharpie, dyed her hair red with Kool Aid, wore jeans with legs many sizes wider than her waist, and who wore long-sleeves regardless of season, under a short signifying a grammatically improper band. Shabby, dark, and awkward. It was a stable presence at the top her and Michelle’s streets where they waited together for the bus.

Michelle had no exact word for the nature of their interactions, rooted in and largely limited to their residential proximity. On school grounds, even in classes they sometimes shared, they were virtual strangers. Michelle and her friends referred to Erika and her friends as “the whippits,” for the trail of the little cannisters of the inhalant they reliably left in their wake wherever they gathered. Erika specifically was “Bag Lady” for her constant presence at the end of checkout counters at ShopRite. If Erika had any name for Michelle’s neater crowd, she was never told. Erika never seemed very interested in others, which could account for a self-centered aloofness, only that Erika never exhibited it with her before school. Michelle credited Erika for instilling her early smoking habit, offering her drags of her cigarette with a neighborly lack of transactional solicitation that she could not refuse. Their conversations, when they happened, were loose and unburdened by herd expectations. In those moments Michelle thought that must be what it was like to be an adult in the best sense. This would disappoint her in time.

“I can’t wait to get my license,” Michelle said, taking a drag of Erika’s cigarette and handing it back to her. “But I think if I could drive to school, I wouldn’t actually stop. I’d keep going till I couldn’t go anywhere else.”

“Where would you go?” Erika asked.

“I don’t know, the East Village? That’s where it ends, right?”

“You could cross the bridge into Brooklyn.”

Michelle chuckled. “Brooklyn?”

“I had a great uncle who lived there. Never met him, but he was a taxi driver,” Erika took a drag, dabbed out the ashes and passed the cigarette back to her.

“Cool,” Michelle paused to take another drag. “Where would you go if you could go anywhere?”

“Well, I’d have to take more shifts to buy a car.”

“I think you’d have to carry over into another location to get more shifts.”

Erika laughed with such force she coughed up some phlegm.

“I’d also have to pass the written test one of these days.”

“Okay so if you had all those things taken care of …”

“Well,” she turned her backpack around to her front to take out a creased copy of Weird New Jersey. She turned to one of its pages. “I’d want to go here.”

Michelle leaned in and scrutinized where she was pointing. “The Devil’s Road? Where’s that?”

“Somewhere in Bergen.”

She looked at the accompanying photo: a narrow, black triangular opening between overgrown shrubbery, and scattered with discarded beer cans and fast-food containers at its entrance.

“I think it led to an old sewage treatment plant or something. If you stand just outside the entrance of the road, right under the blinking street lamp, and at 12:34 in the morning, you’ll hear the wails of the children.”

“What children?”

“The disappeared children.”

“Disappeared how?”

“Uh … taken somehow. By a secret cult.” She took a long drag and stubbed the cigarette with her Vans. “Sacrificed and all that. And if you stand on the road—past the light—you can see one of the children. Faintly. I’m told.”

“Who told you?”

“Some guy on Explorer’s Forum.”

“And you think you’ll find something if you go?”

“Something there is better than the nothing that’s here.”

Michelle could not wrap her mind around the logic of practicing child sacrifice at a sewage treatment plant. But Erika’s enthusiasm was singular. It seemed more like a power of projection. If a place looked grave enough or felt unseemly enough, it fired Erika’s mind, no matter how functional that place’s purpose used to be. The Overbrook asylum was as near to them as anything else in those magazines, and bore a much darker glamor than Blackstone’s tubercular colony, but Erika seemed especially awed by Blackstone.

Michelle wondered what Erika would have made of her own house, now unmistakably deserted sometime in the seven years she’d lived in Brooklyn, if not before that. The windows were boarded up. The grass, yellow and spiky, had overgrown and formed a perfect wall against her own property. Indeed, the two-story house, almost a glorified cottage, was dwarfed by the increasing number of mass-produced remodels surrounding it. It was doubtless a bane to anyone who cared deeply about property values, which was everyone. But Michelle also relished the added irony of it. In time, Erika’s cherished hotspots would disappear. Blackstone was bulldozed to make way for an office park and a luxury gym. Overbrook would probably be condos in due time, and even the Sears became a megachurch. The golden age Erika hoped to be memorialized by these ruins had been done over in uncompromising plastic.

***

There was Erika, Maglite in-hand, in the room with all the filing cabinets. All various shades of green, so far as she could tell then and now, though most were darkened by rust, some were knocked over, some were piled on top of each other, as if graffiti artists were using them to tag high walls. Their contents spilled all over the floor, as if an explosion had occurred, revealing relevant data on patients long ago dead, either in that location or, she hoped, after discharge and entirely unrelated to why they are on file in the first place.

***

Brett returned home at dusk expecting Michelle to be in the same position as she was when he’d left, assuming his prediction of her being subsumed into the furniture had not come to pass. To his surprise, however, she was back at the kitchen table, still looking out through the sliding glass door onto Erika’s darkened, overgrown property. When Brett approached the table, he saw laid before her the group photo of the Blackstone nurses Erika had gifted to Michelle against her wishes.

“Where’d you find that?” Brett asked.

“In the crawl space in the basement.”

“What was it doing there?”

“Clearly you put it there, I was looking for your cigarettes.”

“That was your stash space if I remember correctly,” he said as he rifled through the fridge. “Why would I hide my smokes where you can find them? Where’s the mac and cheese?”

“Inside me.”

Brett let a “fuck” out under his breath, took out a water bottle, and took a seat at the table. “So what, you’re taking up smoking again. Is that how you’re coping?”

“I was thinking about it.”

“Most people just go to therapy.”

“I put my therapist in self-storage with everything else.”

Brett took a long swig of his water and thought for a moment. “What …“

Michelle’s eyes darted nervously to Brett’s causing him to shift his wording more delicately.

“What brought you here? Really.”

Michelle sank in her chair and stared coldly at Brett as if to transmit a clear, sharp memory from her consciousness to his. It didn’t work.

“Well …” he said breaking his gaze, and appeared to drop the matter.

“When did that happen,” Michelle motioned outside.

“Bag Lady’s house? One day it was basically normal-looking. Then at some point it wasn’t.”

Michelle looked absently at the photo.

“No one really noticed when she just stopped coming around. I thought maybe you’d know.”

“I didn’t have a psychic connection with her,” Michelle said with a hint of defensiveness.

“As far as I can recall, you might have been the only person she actually talked to. Have you seen her talking to anyone else, even in her peer group?”

“How do you know I was the only one she talked to; you were never around.”

“I remember seeing both of you chatting it up in the back yard.”

“I don’t remember that happening.”

“I’m just telling you what I saw.”

“You’re my caseworker now?”

“How could you forget so much about your friend?”

“And I didn’t forget about Erika. I just put her out of my mind.”

“What are you going to do with that?” Brett motioned at the photo.

“I didn’t even know this was still here. I have no interest in it.”

“Maybe they are interested in you.”

“That’s not funny,” she got up from her chair and took the photo under her arm. “Where did you keep your cigarettes?” she said standing at the kitchen entrance. “Just out of curiosity.”

“I think last time I taped them inside my bottom desk drawer.”

***

Erika smiled like a dad holding a widemouthed bass at a lake, only she was emerging from a corridor ensconced in darkness save her pale gaunt face, white long john sleeves, the faint red of her ShopRite t-shirt, and her hands holding a dusty leatherbound book about the size of one of their high school yearbooks.

***

“So do you like people?” the teenager working the checkout register asked Michelle, standing stiffly at the bagging station.

“Sorry?”

“Y’know, what are your feelings on the human race? Do you want to push it collectively into the ocean or are you fine with it?”

“I never thought about it. Maybe in certain moods.”

“Fair,” the teen said, not listening very intently. “It’s just that it helps for this kind of job. To not like people very much.”

“How so?”

“You’ll be less disappointed.”

Michelle thought this was wise if not especially hard-earned counsel from a girl in a nose ring and racoon eyeliner, and whose acne took on a viral aspect under ShopRite’s fluorescent lighting.

“But you don’t need to worry about it too much on the vampire shift. We don’t expect much from anybody, and they don’t expect much from us. And everyone who is here … belongs here, even Doug.”

Doug had been surveilling Michelle throughout her first night shift from the customer service counter. Michelle sensed he was younger than she was a good margin, though it was hard to tell. His face was boyish with smooth, swollen cheeks, but offset by a baldpate and an ill-managed stubble on his chin. He was like a boy trying to will himself into middle-age. If things looked a little too relaxed for his liking he would walk at a sustained, almost charging pace, an intense presence somewhat reduced by his pleated Dockers, and monitor Michelle directly.

“You’re double-bagging, right?”

Michelle nodded in affirmation.

“It’s our policy to double-bag even if they don’t ask.”

“I think she knows, Doug.”

“Keep an eye on her, Brianna,” Doug decreed solemnly and returned to his post confident that what little chaos he could prevent had been kept at bay.

“I don’t know if he’s an actual demon,” Brianna wondered, “or if he’d just really enjoy Hell if he ever went there. I’m not even sure which would be more interesting.”

The “vampire shift” did not merely signify the span of time between 4:00 PM and 10:30 PM that Michelle had been assigned by the general manager to work in the store for three days out of the week, but also a sort of grace period for the less valued customers to be served by the less valued employees.

She recalled sitting across from the general manager in his office as he inspected her application like an untranslated sacred text, muttering observations about her as if she was not present. “Administrative assistant … takes direction well.” He did not ask uncomfortable questions pertaining to her pivot from white collar city work to hourly wage suburban work. He only glanced at her with a rapidity that looked at first like a reflexive twitch. “I don’t want to sound un-PC or anything, but please wash your hair before coming onto the premises.” He went into the corner filing cabinet and took out a label-maker. “Now is that ‘Michelle’ with one ‘L’ or two? You wrote it both ways.”

Brianna took out a cannister of Altoids from her apron and held it out to Michelle.

“Not my flavor.”

Brianna helped herself and swirled it around her mouth.

“You’ll get the hang of it. Pretty soon you’ll start having dreams about the place. This one dream I had I kept getting the same old woman and she kept buying Pepto Bismol. Only it was shaped like other products …”

Michelle forced a chuckle and turned to look out the front window. The orange twilight had all but faded, leaving a black reflection of the storefront for her to look at. Brianna was still talking and didn’t notice that there was a woman waiting at their checkout. But when Michelle turned to alert her, it was apparent that the woman was only in the reflection. Her face was distorted, but her white nurse uniform was unmistakable.

“… like rotisserie chicken-shaped Pepto Bismol. Stuff like that.”

***

Erika and Michelle found an office in the main administrative building where they laid the book on the desk to examine its contents. In it were names of patients, with their admission dates, their release dates, notes on their symptoms or condition, and whether they died in treatment.

“It’s a ledger,” Erika said.

“Look at how young some of these people are. I can’t imagine having to keep track of this.”

“Yeah.” Erika took a more leisurely scan of the office and spotted something of interest in the corner. “Here we go.” She approached it and picked it up. “Check it out,” she said handing Michelle the object. It was a photo of the nursing staff from the early half of the 20th century. All dressed in white, with prim hairdos, and severe expressions. “Take it.”

“Take the picture?”

“Yeah, as a souvenir.”

Michelle looked down at it more closely and winced. “I don’t know, it doesn’t feel right.”

“It’s no big deal.”

“I know … I just … I went with you, I’m here, I don’t want to do much more than that.”

There was a tense pause between them. Erika was holding the flashlight upward against her face that shaded her eyes and mouth in darkness.

“Fine, I just thought it’d be cool.” She took the photo back and put it in her bag. “Maybe I can auction it or something.”

***

Michelle sat at the edge of her bed holding the group photo of the nurses, looking at it more intently than she ever had since it was left to her. Though she did not know what she was hoping to find by doing so. The more she looked at it, the more benign it seemed, as it was designed to be. In the decayed complex from which the photo was removed, the expressions of the women took on an eerie aura that, under the natural lighting of her bedroom, looked professional. It felt wrong to fall into Erika’s habit of imposing the sinister on what was merely sober. A necessary sobriety for the task of treating people with what used to be a dreadful disease.

She hoped that whatever she saw in the store window’s reflection the night before had appeared to her by some error. Its intentions, she reasoned, had been scrambled and only gave unease by some inference or unchecked prejudice on her part. Haunting is a matter of perspective. There were plenty of photos hanging at the edge of her own mirror that had more apparitional merit than some healthcare workers, some of whom were probably not even dead.

For some reason she never thought to remove the youthful photos. It being easier to, in Michelle’s words, put it out of her mind, and let things fade at their own pace. It almost worked. Looking at them for the first time in over a decade gave her the feeling of having broken into someone else’s room. She was a voyeur of her own past. The significance of the bond she had with Jenn, Lacey, Helene, and, she wanted to say, Emma had since left her. She pulled one photo down that was taken during the senior trip at Dorney Park. She and the other girls were shot linking arms around their waists before the Steel Force ride, and wearing matching pink “Class of 2002” t-shirts. Michelle cringed at the gesture, as matching commemorative t-shirts were not provided for the rest of the class. If any of these girls, let alone her younger self, had appeared in the store she would have dove headfirst through the window.

Michelle felt a distance from that version of herself yet also fell into a state of brooding to which that version of herself was often prone and which only had one remedy.

Michelle dug into the bottom drawer of her desk and found her Walkman in what seemed like passable condition. The Used CD left inside of it was not ideal but it was her only viable option so far as she was willing to go in relitigating her forsaken taste for her atmospheric needs.

The afternoon was chill and gray as she set on foot down the pristine row of her neighborhood. This, too, she could only consider at a distance, as a guest or a charity case or some other indentured object whose privilege was of being there rather than living there. Though inwardly she always felt more entitled to that environment than she would ever admit. She could imagine herself returning to it properly, like a good citizen does, with a mortgage, and improving upon its past errors of taste and maybe even morals. Passing these houses, they took on the shape of zoo cages. She could peer into the wide front window of each house, most of which were fitted with wall-mounted televisions that blasted the searing colors of cable news, and find plenty to deride and judge with the superior air of a pornography viewer.

But coming to one such “cage” she noticed it had undergone a significant remodeling that was as unusual in its downward aesthetic direction as it was by its rapidity. She better remembered the three-story plaster house painted a soft yellow, with Spanish tiles on the roof, and decorative light fixtures edging the backyard patio. She had not known its occupants, but understood the house to be no less lively than its neighbors. Maybe more so given its elaborate Halloween display, with a Styrofoam cemetery, an inflatable ghost, and an inflatable Dracula. Only now, all evidence of festivity or habitation had been entirely undone. The yellow paint was now a faded grey, the windows were either broken or boarded up, the grass was rough and unruly. Only the home model remained the same. Otherwise it was a near-exact replica of Erika’s house, yet achieved in a far shorter time span.

Michelle turned off her music. A breeze rustled dead leaves across the pavement. Children yelped and laughed in all directions. Life had not just stopped at this location, but had been removed. And yet it had no effect upon the surrounding ambiance. It was as if this one section of town had been torn out and taped over by something new and worse, but made to seem utterly mundane, even natural, like a rotted tree no one notices for years. Michelle wanted to take a closer look, and even felt compelled, like something was taking her by the shoulders, but her inner logic, the very impulse that kept her from thinking more of these realities of existence than required, had not fully failed her. But the more she considered the house, the less benign it seemed.

***

Erika placed the ledger book into her trunk. “Thanks for giving me a hand,” she remembered her saying with an extra touch of earnestness. “Let’s hit the diner. My treat.”

***

It was still dark when Michelle awoke in the den. The only light sources came from the digital clock on the wall reading 3:17 AM and the glow coming in from the high window, a faint but still intrusive brightness emanating from somewhere in the backyard. She emerged into the kitchen; the light was brighter through the slits of the blinds covering the sliding glass door.

When she split two of them apart, she saw that a floodlight on Erika’s house had turned on, beaming a perfect circle onto her former neighbor’s ragged grass. At its center stood a figure that Michelle could not make out, shrouded as a silhouette. But the broom-like shape, slender at the top and wide at the bottom, was familiar enough. It was standing in complete stillness, like a figurine. Though obscure, Michelle took the figure to be looking in her direction, waiting for her, specifically, to come out, to meet or to follow.

A layer of frost had accumulated on the deck. Careful not to slip, shivering under the ShopRite uniform she forgot to take off after her shift, she approached the figure, which was resolute both in its frozen, shadowed state.

“Hello?” Michelle whispered, seeking to deny the figure’s obvious personhood for as long as her reason could sustain it.

As she neared the edge where her yard met Erika’s, the figure should have been coming into clearer view, but it retained its abysmal aspect, and as Michelle moved into the overgrown grass, the figure moved out of the light and toward the house in a glide, as if it was not touching the ground.

“Wait,” Michelle said, “don’t go.”

But it went, and Michelle could do nothing else but to go after it. She touched the back wall of the house and found an open door to continue her pursuit.

She had never seen the inside of Erika’s house, but Michelle was certain that it was nothing like the long, tiled hallways of the Blackstone Sanctuary. Yet that is where she seemed to be, only it had returned to its original functional state. Everything was clean and habitable and the hallways were adequately lighted. Not that they seemed to go anywhere. Each turn Michelle made just led to a new, longer passage. Doors did not open and she found not a single patient or staff member. She heard the echo of footsteps clacking, but they came from all directions, as if the shoe-wearer could walk through walls or be in two places at once.

Michelle started to panic and began to run through the increasingly labyrinthine corridors that served no apparent purpose but to trap her. She was lost, in her work uniform no less, with no possibility of escape.

She came to an exchange that led out into several additional hallways. She dizzied herself trying to make what was surely to be a futile decision only to be stopped by the screech of static coming from the one hallway with no light whatever. With better judgment suspended for the duration, she charged into the blackness. The static became louder and she ran deeper. Soon there was evidence of light. A white outline of a door from which the noise was emanating. She opened it to find an office, or in any case a wooden desk and chair under a flickering florescent light in a room painted green. On the desk was an intercom and a book she’d seen before: the ledger book Erika had taken from the hospital.

Standing before the desk she turned the book toward her and opened. But rather than the entries of admitted patients she expected to find, she found only one entry repeated in every column, page after page, in elegant cursive: “You did fine.” Michelle was engrossed flipping the pages, reading and rereading Erika’s last words to her, when the intercom jolted her out of.

“Do you want to come with?” the voice said under a howl of feedback. “Do you want to see inside?”

Michelle looked back down at the book and saw drops of a black, inky fluid accumulating on the paper. She looked up to determine its source, and found the burly bearded man she saw accosted on the subway platform standing inches from her face on the other side of the desk, greeting her with that familiar, unsettling smile oozing the dark fluid. She let out a shriek that resounded back out into the corridors she ran through to get to that moment.

Michelle woke up back at the den in daylight and gasping as if a boot was pressing on her throat.

***

Erika sat across from Michelle at the diner, sipping weak black coffee and picking at a plate of disco fries with a tremor in her hands. Her hospital bracelet slipped out from under her sleeve.

“It’s funny that you just got out of the hospital only to go into another one,” Michelle said.

She didn’t remember her response.

***

Michelle came home from her shift with the urge to watch The Last Exorcism, purely for research purposes. A notion had crystalized in her mind on her bike ride home that an exorcism was going to place the following afternoon, in the middle of Starbucks, and she was to play a significant part. Though the assignment of roles as to who was possessed and who was exorcising was less clear to her. She only knew that Jenn’s appearance hours before at her checkout station had an occult air around it. Or anyway it felt very contrived.

The high-pitched astonishment in Jenn’s voice as she looked up from unloading her shopping cart onto the conveyer belt, the musical intonation of her name, “Mich-elle? Is that really you?” carried the sound of rehearsal, possibly on the drive over. Word had likely gotten out that Michelle was back in town and Jenn, who had never left, was bound to hear about it. The feigned surprise was unnecessary even if it, at least in Jenn’s mind, was more polite. Still, Jenn’s ingratiating charm, conveying an easy friendliness that was more charitable than social, had not lost its potency, and when Jenn inquired if Michelle had time to spare tomorrow “for coffee and to catch up” though everything, at least in Michelle’s mind, seemed pretty self-explanatory, she could not say no.

The exorcism analogy was difficult to sustain in her mind as she considered it. It was rather the feeling of release that most fixated her. This forcible expulsion of a burden or of being freed from bondage. Each applied equally and respectively to Michelle and Jenn. Though Michelle never saw fit to say it, she always thought Jenn was a loser. She was a curious specimen, an obvious extrovert who was best suited to enclosure. Anything that taxed her comprehensive limitations or that was beyond her immediate control could not excite much interest in her. She was a fount of energy, the driving force and focal point of their clique yet inert in almost every other human respect. Michelle pictured a lever: Jenn who was incurious on one end, Erika who was infinitely curious about nothing on the other, and she the fulcrum on which they pivoted, having lost the capacity to learn anything new long ago. Pop culture had no lessons to impart beside the fact that characters trapped in exorcism narratives hardly ever reached the end of it entirely unharmed. Release came at a steep price. Michelle despaired at having to face the horror of the ordinary.

It had rained in the morning and Michelle biked cautiously around puddles and over slick pavement. The sky had not cleared and cast a dismal coating upon everything she passed. Thought it was not to such an extent that it could camouflage the increase of homes, and even business properties, that resembled Erika’s in its neglect and silence. A trend in living had captivated the town. Trends of all kinds move at a pace and by a logic that no individual witness to them can easily grasp. It is only clear that they are intent to perpetuate widely and any single gesture of resistance is both pointless and deviant.

Michelle spotted Jenn in the far corner of the Starbucks, sipping from a steaming latte, wearing a sweater with a Jack o’ Lantern in the center, her hair restrained in a tight ponytail, and staring down at an iPad. Her relaxed nature and her prim appearance bore a strong contrast, one Jenn herself could not help but react to nonverbally when drawn up from her screen, to Michelle’s disheveled appearance of straggly hair, damp tennis shoes, and her ever present employment apron. Nevertheless, Jenn rose to embrace her like the old friend that she still was, at least in spirit.

“Are you working today?” she asked noting Michelle’s attire.

“No,” Michelle said meekly as she sat down.

“Oh … well, I didn’t know what to get you so I just got what I got. We’re matching!” she said handing her the latte. “I hope it’s still warm.”

Michelle took a small sip. “It’s fine, thank you.”

“I have to say it was a surprise to run into you yesterday. But I did hear through the grapevine that you were around. I didn’t think it was permanently.” Jenn stopped herself in that thought, having over-assumed. “Or, I guess, for an extended time?”

“I can’t say exactly at the moment.”

“Well, I think it’s nice you came back.”

The one thing Michelle always had over Jenn was that she knew Jenn at her least ideal. The Jenn that she knew was prone to vomiting like her life depended on it. Vomiting by the dumpsters of the Sante Fe Tavern after several ill-gained shots and a session with the mechanical bull. Vomiting behind the bleachers at the homecoming game. Vomiting in Terry Greco’s parent’s bidet. Vomiting into the jousting arena at Medieval Times. If Michelle hadn’t known any better, and of course she did not, she’d think Jenn had something of a drinking problem. And yet any evidence of that past appeared entirely expunged from this version she was now facing, whose comportment embodied every broad characteristic of “adult” she’d formed from childhood. She was pleasant and curious; a little patronizing but with a generous, patient spirit. The kind of spirit one might gain from having two children, Jayma (age four) and Preston (age two), whose images she showed Michelle on the iPad she cradled very much as she would a baby.

“I’m not keeping them from you, am I?”

“Oh no, they’re with my mom … who says hi, by the way.”

A vague version of the Jenn she knew appeared soon enough, in her anodyne inquiries into New York life; or rather into life in Midtown and the financial district, of which Michelle went out of her way to understand as little as possible. It always amazed her privately how people she met in New York and people she knew in New Jersey each saw the other either as being on distant planets with utterly backwards conceptions of physics and social custom or has each possessing different versions of the same highly repulsive disease. Jenn, however, boasted a special kind of sheltering that made her seem better suited to Ohio, a tourist in what was ostensibly her own home. Michelle fell into a kind of fugue state gesturing affirmations at Jenn’s various conveyances of selfhood: her large ugly house that looked more like two houses fused together, her husband’s Taco Bell franchise ownership, her dream vacation to Hawaii, and other details she was boiling in her tepid verbal soup. Until one comment snapped her out of it.

“You know what I hadn’t thought about in ages? Erika Knight.”

Michelle sipped her now-cold latte and mumbled something.

“The Bag Lady. Jeez, what were we thinking? I guess you sort of reminded me … if that makes sense.”

“Yeah.”

“You had some interactions with her, right?”

“A few. We kind of lost touch.”

Jenn’s cheery expression shifted downward to one more skeptical. “So it seems.”

“I don’t really know what happened to her. Do you?”

“Well, not really. I’d always heard she’d run away or moved out. I’d heard some people say she OD’d on something. But that was just the safe assumption.” Jenn’s face turned grave a she looked out the window, but finding nothing uplifting, turned her gaze back to Michelle with a smile that was at best serviceable. “I guess we didn’t treat her very well … Erika.”

“Why do we always do that?”

“Excuse me?”

“Why do we always admit those things long after they happened, and especially when someone is dead?”

“I never said for cert—”

“It’s like an easy out. Like debt forgiveness for forgiveness.”

Whatever remaining charity Jenn had for her friend had been vaporized in that instant and her look settled on a chiseled severity.

“And so what is all this?” Jenn said, gesturing her arm in a circle around Michelle. “Is this you paying your debt? Leaving your career in flames? Spending all your time with a new generation of paint thinner addicts?”

“I’m not spending all my time with them,” Michelle protested, having felt that her solitary movie marathons and the intrusions of the otherworldly upon her space had been unfairly overlooked.

“You know I could never put my finger on you for the longest time. Then I went to FDU and majored in psychology, and learned about this thing called compartmentalization. And suddenly it was all clear. You like putting things in their own containers and keeping them very separate. I guess that’s how you cope. It made it hurt less when I stopped hearing from you after freshman year. Or when my wedding invitation went unanswered. Or my Facebook friend request.” Jenn choked up and stopped herself again. “I really wanted not to bring this up.”

“Jenn—”

Jenn held a finger to her while she composed herself. “Maybe in a couple of years none of this is going to matter. Maybe this is just a late-20s thing.”

Michelle felt a weight drop in her chest upon realizing that the truth of Jenn’s observation was almost certain.

Outside the Starbucks, Jenn waited, draped in a bright yellow raincoat and matching goulashes, as Michelle unlocked her bike.

“I can give you a ride,” Jenn noncommittally suggested. “I can probably make space in the jeep.”

“That’s okay.” Michelle removed the lock and approached to receive a parting hug.

“It was good to see you … really,” Jenn said with a slight but meaningful smile.

“Thanks.”

“You know, wherever you’re going, I hope it’s right where you need to be.”

“Is that on your wall at home?”

“No … it’s just something people say when they have nothing else to say to someone.”

Michelle rode home absently wondering who the demons they each let loose in the Starbucks would latch onto next, and if they would be just as merciless.

***

Erika drove her back home. Nothing was said between them. Michelle leaned into her window in the driveway of her house.

“You’ll be okay? You don’t need anything?”

Erika looked at her, her face still earnest but blighted of the bright sense of accomplishment of an hour before. “You did fine.” She rolled up her window and drove away.

***

“Have any dreams about this place yet?” Brianna asked Michelle as they sat on the floor of the frozen foods section.

“In a matter of speaking,” Michelle replied, looking above Brianna as a nurse’s reflection pulsed in and out of view in the frozen peas right behind her.

“One time I had a dream where I left this place, but the music came with me,” Brianna gestured above to the speakers blaring a limited playlist of contemporary easy listening. “Like it followed me wherever I went. Even if there wasn’t a speaker to play it. Like it was in the air. Can you imagine a Train song playing and refusing to leave you alone? Like it’s stalking you.”

“Actually, I kind of can.”

“It’s so fucked, right?”

They chuckled at each other.

“What the hell are you two doing?” Doug asked charging toward them. “Get back to the register.”

Brianna groaned petulantly and rolled her eyes. “It’s 10 after 10, Doug. No one’s coming in here except depressed bachelors, armed robbers, and old people who are sundowning. If anyone’s coming here, they are the least-essential people on earth, and they’re almost certainly not coming here to supply themselves.”

“What are they coming here for since you know so much?”

“I don’t know, to exist?”

Doug shook his head. “That doesn’t change anything.”

“I know it doesn’t,” Michelle flatly added. “But you can still join us.”

“What?” Doug said, the walls of his defenses, for once, crumbling to earth.

“Have a seat.” Brianna slapped the floor.

Doug put his back against a freezer door and slid down to the floor next to Michelle.

“What if someone wants,” he looked back quickly, “what if someone wants breakfast sausages?”

“That’s not our adversity to overcome,” Brianna said.

Doug sat with his legs outstretched like a discarded mannequin. His head darted in all directions to find something to focus on. He, too, looked above Brianna and pointed.

“Ah, frozen carrots are 40 per—”

Michelle waved her arm to lower his. “Just … be in the moment.”

Doug stilled himself but could not suppress his natural fidgetiness for not even 30 seconds.

“Nope,” he said rising up. “Screw the moment. I gotta keep moving.”

They both looked nonplussed as their superior speed-walked back to his comfort zone. At one time Michelle could pity Doug in that blandly snobbish way she could pity anyone else she could not bring herself to respect. Now she envied his ability to find solace in claustrophobia. Doug, she thought, was worse than Jenn. Even the town was too much world for him.

“Where does Doug live?” Michelle asked Brianna.

“I’m not sure. A condo maybe. Though I had a dream he was living with his mom. And that I was his mom.”

Michelle laughed so loud the whole store must have heard it.

***

Michelle peered through the sliding glass door that led out to her back deck, where the back of Erika’s house, on the adjacent street, could be seen through the still-leafless trees. She’d never been inside of it but always presumed the top left window, the one whose shade was always drawn down, was hers. And it was on as she looked at it that night. A figure crossed past it. Then it went dark. She got a Mountain Dew from the fridge and turned on Cinemax in the den.

She held up her can in the general direction of Erika’s house. “Spring break,” she droned. “No rules.”

***

Michelle knelt before the object hunched over in the couch of the den and considered at first that a prank had been pulled on her overnight. The object was equal in size and in figure to Brett. It bore his clothing style and his facial features. Though the face had notable differences. Prominent wrinkles had appeared under the eyes and at the side of the mouth. The flesh was coarse and pallid. The eyes themselves had been removed and replaced with only a stark blackness. The mouth was agape with the same condition, free of teeth and tongue and all that followed.

Brett had no aptitude for pranks or humor. There was no other evidence of him in the house. His phone was on his night table. His car was in the driveway. She held the object’s hand in hers, feeling its cold clamminess, its limp muscles, its collapsed veins, and was forced to conclude that this was her brother, in a lifeless state, a literal shell of his former self; but not, she hesitated to accept, dead. She sat up against the television and ran through the scores of dead relatives she had seen: some great aunts and uncles, two of her grandparents, her father, and tried to place Brett’s condition against theirs and found it unequal. This seemed an entirely distinct condition brought about by an unnatural process. The body presented itself not as having been killed or deteriorated by any disease, however rapidly, but rather that it had been abandoned, foreclosed on, evacuated. It was more akin to the derelict condition of the houses around town than any corpse. We don’t mourn what is simply left behind, and Michelle could not bring herself to do so here.

Standing in the front yard, she saw that the trend that began so modestly before had now become ubiquitous to the point of being total. Every home on her street was entirely deserted and disused, as if they had not been lived in for decades. In that moment she realized that she had just left her own home for the last time. So took to the street without bothering to look back.

The condition was no different in the rest of the town. Everything had been abandoned, boarded up, broken down, layered in ashen decay. She presumed that everyone else was inside in the same condition as Brett’s. Walking down the middle of the road she felt neither the urge to call out nor the urge to investigate more closely. She only kept moving to the place where anything made sense anymore, even as she knew that the ShopRite would not be spared. It may have, in some covert way like the carrier of the virus, been the seed of the phenomenon. In any case she was not going inside, choosing instead to sit upon a row of shopping carts in the middle of the parking lot. The day was clear and mild, but carried with it a feeling of airlessness. The natural atmosphere was hanging on by threads, waiting for permission to give out, once a task was complete.

Michelle looked out at the expanse of the shopping center and found evidence of movement. A figure was approaching her at a casually paced gait. The whiteness of its attire was clear enough. The nurse had finally decided to materialize, to make herself fully dimensional. She was walking straight in Michelle’s direction before she stopped 10 feet before her. It was not quite what Michelle had expected, but it was familiar. The woman was as she was in the photo: stern, professional, sober, but not menacing. Her face bore no distinguishing characteristics of a phantasm or something that was otherwise dead. She was a person, albeit a person from another time.

“I don’t think we’re open for business,” Michelle said drolly.

The nurse did not speak, but held her arm out directing Michelle to follow her. And Michelle complied, being taken back up the road and out of town. Though it had been the afternoon when they met, Michelle noticed that a darkness was covering the path they had already walked in as unnatural a succession as any of the preceding events. It was evident where the nurse was leading her, pictures of the same ground being covered a decade before, under complete darkness and from the passenger seat of a rickety used car, came to her in flashes.

Soon she was led through two stone columns that served as the main street entrance to the Blackstone Sanctuary, which along with the rest of the sprawling complex had reappeared as it was erected more than a century before. While the entire town was falling silent and emptying out, this structure was returning to its original glory. As the nurse led her to the high point of the property, just before the administrative building, Michelle looked back from where she came and nothing, just absolute darkness, not even the far-off lights of the city or the highways. As she stood on the only source of light in the foreseeable expanse, she had a strange thought, that New Jersey had darkened, and spread itself beyond its legal territory.

The nurse approached Michelle and delicately placed her hands on her shoulders to turn her away from what was no more and faced her towards the front steps of administration. Walking up the steps, Michelle looked back one more time to see the last remnants of the nurse dissolving into the darkness herself, and for the first time that day, or in many days, she was saddened.

The interior was as pristine and as empty as it was when she dreamed it. But the urge to be frantic had subsided, having given way to an acceptance that there was not better place to be, at least in comparison to literally anywhere else. She walked up to the front desk and rang the bell, whose tone resounded down every corridor like concentric circles of water. In a moment the clacking of shoes could be heard, but more focused and determinate this time. Michelle backed away from the desk and saw a new woman approaching from one of the hallways.

She was not nurse as such. She was wearing a white lab coat over a red dress. Her hair was done up in the same neat vintage style. She was carrying the ledger-book in her arms. Though her composure was more assured and authoritative than the awkward shuffle Michelle was more accustomed to, not to mention the lack of hygiene and traditional makeup, the woman bore the exact likeness of Erika. It was as if she had not aged from the moment she was last seen at 20.

“Hello, Michelle,” the woman said.

Michelle said nothing.

“Welcome to the Blackstone Sanctuary. You’ll be taken good care of here.”

Michelle stammered momentarily then asked “Am I sick? Do I need help?”

The woman smiled with an unnerving sweetness Michelle had only seen Erika smile once before.

“There’s no sickness here.”

***

“Peanut M&Ms, Mountain Dew, Pringles. I don’t know if anyone’s told you, but Healthy Choice isn’t all that healthy.”

“Do you do this to every customer?”

“Only preferred customers.”

“Do I get a discount?”

“Only Excellent Customers get a discount. And they don’t exist.”

“Ha. Ha.”

“So you’re off to a rip-roaring spring break.”

“Uh … yeah. I was originally supposed to go to Florida, but that … uh … didn’t happen.”

“Left behind?”

“Not really. Jenn and others are going back to Sante Fe, but I’d really rather not. It already feels old. So you’re mobile now?”

“Yep.”

“Have you gone out to Bergen yet?”

“Bergen?”

“The haunted sewage plant or whatever.”

“Ah, nah. I lost interest.”

“Ah well.”

“But … I was thinking of going a little closer to home. You know what I’m talking about?”

“The hospital?”

“Yeah. I looked into it and found a way good way in.”

“Oh really.”

“Yeah, should be interesting. Hey, do you want to come with? Do you want to see inside?”

“I don’t know, it doesn’t sound exactly safe.”

“Spring break in Florida does?”

“How long do you think it will be?”

“20 minutes. Enough to get some cool stuff.”

“You know what? Sure.”

“Awesome, I get off in 20, I’ll swing by your place right after.”

TWO SAD BOYS

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People of the jury: over the past several weeks, your sight has been inundated with countless exhibitions of evidence, much of it minute and technical but which, when so assembled, makes a most grim mosaic. Your ears have heard the precise, and sometimes moving, testimony of forensic experts, investigators, eyewitnesses, and even a victim. No doubt the evidence was collected and presented to you with the utmost care; and no doubt, also, that the testimony given was done so with the fullest capable candor. None of this, for the record, is contested by the defense.

But, people of the jury, I would like you to set all that to one side of your minds, at least so long as I have you, and look at the two young men seated beside me throughout this process. I know it’s difficult, and would not be advised by the prosecution, but study them carefully, perhaps as you would a mannequin at Dolce & Gabbana, or the wax replica of a more interesting person. Consider their slumped, deferential frames, their resigned downward stares, their pale and sullen cheeks, their starkly curved frowns leaving the surrounding parts of the lower face almost like rubber. And while you can’t see them from where you’re sitting, picture their eyes: dull and melancholic, losing strength under these harsh courtroom lights, all liveliness fitting to their youthful age dimmed into a compulsory maturity. I’ve witnessed their deterioration from the first day I took on their case. These are two sad boys.

The prosecution does not see it that way, of course. “Don’t let Mr. Defense Attorney fool you,” says the State, “for these are two of the most unhinged, the most ferocious, the most narcissistic people you will ever have the displeasure of encountering.” But you know what, jurors? Fair enough. The State certainly has them pegged, and I’m not going to say otherwise. There is no use asking you if these boys in their present state look like killers, because the answer is plain enough: they look like nothing else.

Of course killers look as the State described when they are in the act of killing. Place restrictions on their ability to act, such as putting them on trial for it, and that fervor dissipates into mere description. While the prosecution has regaled you with all the unpleasant details of their deeds, the doers of those deeds have grown morose in their mandatory abstention from that which gives them the greatest joy in the world. To be sure, the abstention has considerable benefits for the wider public, who lack the enthusiasm for their pastime but, had they not been apprehended, could just as easily have been made a part of it by its lopsidedly inconvenient nature. And these boys do not profess any desire to limit their homicidal palette. Anyone qualifies: you juror number three, you juror number eight, that court reporter, the bailiff, the stenographer, myself. But I want you to consider the mindset with which my clients sought out their passion, and I use that word advisedly. You might find that there isn’t much that separates their mindset from your own with any other activity.

D.H. Lawrence described the American soul as being “hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.” If that was even remotely accurate and not just modernist horseshit, that would put everyone here in an awkward position. But, for much of their early lives, hardly any of that seemed to apply to my clients, despite their “all-American” appearance. Family, acquaintances, even the authority figures tasked with scrutinizing them, found little foreboding or perverse about them; relative, in any event, to other males their age.

At the same time, you all remember that age well enough. And you all remember the feeling, perhaps not so acute as with these two, of being misunderstood and adrift in a society that seems insufficient to your needs, and of being lost in a culture that poses only the most vexing existential questions as to your purpose. There was only so much a loved one or a teacher could know about you or do to help you. And there was only so much you could know about yourself without finding, so to speak, your other half, a perfect reflection.

Such is what happened with these two very much sad-looking boys, whose lives, I remind you, are in your hands. Though they grew up only a few neighborhoods from each other, were similar in social background and intellectual capacity, they did not meet until well into early adulthood, at a party on holiday breaks from their respective colleges. We are told of ideas whose times had come; so it is with fateful partnerships. Having bonded like long lost brothers, and discovered enough overlaps to seem more than mere coincidence, they proceeded to go off on an adventure—strange and twisted though it was.

The adventure did not come to them immediately, but involved a typical mutual exploration, in which potential interest after potential interest, activity after activity, was considered and rejected before the final discovery. The State has provided the diaries and personal communications between the two boys. Trading their … uhm … vivid fantasies is certainly one way of putting it. But so is articulating each other’s hopes and vulnerabilities, egging each other on to become the most ideal versions of themselves, as boys who form strong bonds tend to do. It may be, people of the jury, that I ask you not to set my clients free as such, but to give them the time to be nostalgic for this exploratory period, which manages to be more fulfilling, if not as momentous, than the final result of it. I digress, for result it did.

We know the facts. On March 27 two years ago, my clients went out into the world for most murderous purposes, which they fulfilled in full and later only in part. For as we have also seen, passion does not instantly confer proficiency. Once the first victim had been dispatched as the crime scene photos have shown, they deposited his corpse into a stream. This was prudent insofar as it degraded crucial evidence but less so in that the stream led into a park ground where the body was discovered without difficulty by multiple joggers, dog-owners, and urinating vagrants, two days after the incident and one day after the missing person report was filed. You have seen the library card found on the victim’s person, later linked to one of these two heartbreakingly sad boys, and you have been told of the check-out history filled with true crime books and the most heinous horror fiction literature has to offer.

This discovery shortened their dismal collaboration, not that it was progressing very well on its own. The State has shown that on April 5, my clients acquired a second victim, who managed to escape their designs. It will be difficult for you to forget her harrowing testimony of their incompetence. And if I had framed my defense differently, I and my clients would have been massively screwed.

I did not accept this case because I believe my clients to be innocent of abominable acts, or even basically good people. Frankly, I find them unseemly even if they’d harmed no one. I would not in a million centuries let them bag my groceries. Rather, the circumstances of the case posed a perplexing dilemma about the conflicts between personal potential and the rule of law. Just as a murderer has no limitation on victims, save the ones he self-imposes, personal potential has no limitation on the range of activities it can affect. Is the law obligated to restrict those potentials that pose a public threat? Maybe. But to what extent are we to punish people for reaching, or trying to reach, that potential? Are we vested with the power to redirect someone’s demonstrable, if still-maturing promise to something incompatible with his interests because it makes the surrounding society safer?

Is not murder a valid craft in spite of its problematic characteristics? Consider the words of Thomas De Quincey on this very subject:

When a murder is in the paulo-post-futurum tense, and a rumor of it comes to our ears, by all means let us treat it morally. But suppose it over and done … suppose the poor murdered man to be out of his pain, and the rascal that did it off like a shot, nobody knows whither; suppose, lastly, that we have done our best, by putting out our legs to trip up the fellow in his flight, but all to no purpose … what’s the use of any more virtue? Enough has been given to morality; now comes the turn of Taste and the Fine Arts. … Therefore let us make the best of a bad matter; and, as it is impossible to hammer anything out of it for moral purposes, let us treat it aesthetically, and see if it will turn to account in that way. Such is the logic of a sensible man, and what follows? We dry up our tears, and have the satisfaction, perhaps, to discover that a transaction, which, morally considered, was shocking, and without a leg to stand upon, when tried by principles of Taste, turns out to be a very meritorious performance.

The law, not being privy to any notion of taste, disapproves of the killing of one person or persons by another or others. You would be hard pressed to deny that the potential of my clients in doing just that has been irreparably stifled. This leaves us to speculate on its trajectory had it gone unhindered. The evidence before us gives strong hints that it wasn’t going anywhere. And indeed, it may have come to pass that they’d already reached the precipice of their skills and turned back to less legally questionable distractions. On the other hand, they could have righted themselves, as all committed craftsmen do: learning from their mistakes, becoming more sophisticated, more discriminating, less cruel. True, history shows us that this is not the case exactly. But who knows? They may have been sui generis, rife with innovations to expand the range and nuance of homicide. Alas, their potential is very much a closed book. Your potential, people of the jury, is another matter.

If the prosecution prevails with a verdict of guilty, the inevitable must then follow. These two sad boys will be sadder still by having to pay for their unmet promise with a sentence of execution. The follies of private killing would, on the face of it, be corrected by the efficiency of public killing. I repeat: on the face of it. “[M]an has not grown less cruel with the passage of that illusory thing called time,” Charles Duff wrote in his Handbook on Hanging. “I have reached the conclusion that no people can point to a method which is more beautiful and expeditious, or which is aesthetically superior to time-honored British practice of breaking their necks by hanging.”

By demanding this outcome, the State wants to attach you to this awesome responsibility of maintaining public order; of keeping alleged third-rate sadists like my clients off the streets. But whether the State knows it or not, it also risks nurturing the very empathy with the defendants it expounded so much of its momentum to discourage. Who’s to say that you, people of the jury, in sending these two sad boys to whatever execution method we now use, will not discover a potential in yourselves for this very craft of life-taking? It is not impossible to find yourself going away from sentencing with a newfound purpose. You may reorder your entire life to perfecting this one practice: imposing your citizenship from state to state; making yourself available for jury service on as many murder trials as will have you. God knows there will be no shortage.

I’m not gonna lie, jurors: sometimes I lay up at night wondering if D.H. Lawrence isn’t full of shit. That the American’s urge to kill knows no bounds to an extent unprecedented in human history. Maybe that’s our curse rather than our genius; and maybe this trial is only the prologue to something even shittier. But I know one thing to which Americans have an inborn allergy: irony in all of its nefarious manifestations. No American of robust spiritual health and well-stocked patriotism will ever succumb to irony’s glittering deceptions.

Though clearly the prosecution is putting all of its hopes on your weakness in this regard. The State wants nothing more than for you to be so frenzied with irony as to make you swerve from the road to justice and into a muddy ditch of all-purpose ill-repute. Nothing technically or constitutionally prevents you from doing that, and many people will neither judge you nor envy you for making that choice. But once you do there’s little stopping the United States from becoming both a killer society and an ironic society. All I’m asking you, people of the jury, is to pick one, and to pick wisely.

A SIMPLE QUESTION ABOUT FREEDOM

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You are a good citizen. The society from which you derive your citizenship is a robust one. It may not be an ideal society in the strict sense; that is, a society that instills love. But you’ve had no reason to be at odds with it. You accept its codes with ease. The bond you have with other citizens is strong; you basically respect them, and they you.

In being a good citizen, you know that you are entitled to a certain level of freedom when it comes to living out your civic life. This is all fine and sensible. Freedom is the condition in which the finest fruits of citizenship can ripen without rotting. And when society takes it upon itself to scrutinize the freedom of this or that citizen, you know that society does it under the greatest reluctance and at the invitation of the citizens they scrutinize. In this elegant arrangement, goodness and freedom flourish, practically hand-in-hand.

Not that you haven’t lately noticed that elegance becoming somewhat vulgar. For a good citizen is also a sensitive citizen. For instance, you’ve noticed that a gap has appeared between goodness and freedom, and that gap is widening. No one has come out and said that either are bad per se, only that there is less synonymity between the two. To be one and the same is not so favorable compared to being one or the other. There is a choice to be made. Each choice precedes its own set of outcomes. This is first disconcerting; then it is embarrassing. For a good citizen, however sensitive, is not always an aware citizen.

If a good citizen is entrusted with freedom for a long enough time, it is easy for that citizen to overlook situations where their counterparts were not so fortunate. Indeed, even societies contemporary with your own may lack significantly in the amount of freedom they have. They may have none at all. These may also have existed for so long that those citizens may be just as ignorant of your good fortune as you are of their bad fortune. But fortune it is, as these situations are never left to some logical process that determines one area as being better suited to one type of condition and another being better suited to an alternative condition. To go from one condition to another may befall a society, and citizens, good, free, or whatever, must navigate it and determine their new set of outcomes.

You being a convinced good citizen, and ever entitled to live in equal measure as a free citizen, have a hard judgment to make. But you are not yet at full awareness. You need a sort of test to determine the present health of your society.

It was long the custom that the limit of acceptable freedom was based purely on its appropriateness to a given situation. For instance, it was generally agreed that shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater crossed the red line. You could not do that, and woe unto those who did. But this seems inadequate to you. For one thing, in a time when any number of burning or exploded objects could impose inconveniences to large gatherings, the intentions of fire-yellers are usually pure. But even if they are doing so because it is fun and nothing else fills their life with meaning, this is still a very narrow conception of testing the bounds of freedom. It suggests that the vanguard of absolute freedom is made up of loudmouths, carnival-barkers, and others who conduct themselves with hostility and bad faith towards their peers. You know that absolute freedom is more nuanced than that. So it’s a good thing you have concocted a new test to reflect that nuance.

The test is based on a simple foundation: that freedom is not isolate. It does not grow, as a tree, on its own; it needs willing interlocutors among the surrounding citizens in order to thrive. No one really cares that much about one asshole yelling inanities about burning to death en masse. Connection is crucial if freedom is to mean anything. The test, moreover, involves a simple question. Though administering it involves some delicacy.

In order to test freedom successfully, you’ve resolved to go out into the citizenry. It isn’t enough for them to come to you. In many cases they may not have developed the same level of awareness, so you see it as your own mission to bring that awareness closer to the surface. You pick a house and you ring its bell. An occupant answers. Though the owner is better than just anyone who happens to be in the space, you suppose it’s not necessarily required. A guest or a house sitter is every bit the citizen as an owner, for the most part. If they look basically agreeable, you are sure to be equally so; that is, as someone in need of them, which you are, as opposed to someone who is trying to take something away from them. Lord knows they endure enough of that. “How can I help you?” the person at the door will ask with a slight but inviting smile. To which you will answer, “Would it be okay with you if I burned down your house?”

Now, though the question is simple and time-saving, you know the work it took to arrive at the most optimal language. If you’d blurted out something in the neighborhood of “Hi, I’m about to commit some arson rn” you’re denying your fellow citizen’s entry into rational discourse. No greater understanding between you two will be arrived at beyond your simple desire. Desire does not prompt dialogue.

By formulating the question in the way that you have, expressing your interest candidly but not unilaterally, the person at the door will not be alarmed or threatened; you are not threatening them. They may even be intrigued. In any case, the fate of the test is in their hands, not yours. You know that the test is going well if they ask “Why?” and you proffer any number of reasons: “I have an excess of [accelerant goes here] that I need to get rid of”; “The structure on your property transgresses [ethical/aesthetic/supernatural/zoning axiom goes here] and needs to be rebuilt more soundly; “I have determined through my [bespoke dialectical system goes here] that this house will be brought to completion by a baptism of flame;” and so on and so forth.

From here, the test can go in two directions. The occupant with whom you are discoursing may consider your reasonings and refuse your request. They may consider them and accept it. Either way, an equitable exchange between co-citizens has taken place. Freedom flows unobstructed. A passing grade is awarded for the test. Nothing more need be done, more or less.

Then again, the occupant, possibly of a weaker constitution, could be just as put off as they may have been with a more abrupt, earnest-seeming question. They could slam the door in your face, closing off pretty much indefinitely a once-fruitful undertaking of civic intercourse. That, anyway, is the best case for you. Worse still would be alarming the occupant to so high a level that they bring the full-measure of society’s scrutiny upon you for simply proposing a course of action. The outcome could result not simply in having your good citizenship made suspect, but having it transferred entirely into bad citizenship. What bad citizenship actually entails you’ve never considered, so focused were you on the glories and duties of goodness. You might say you’re almost curious, perhaps even driven by curiosity.

Not that that matters too much. Even questions you didn’t ask will be answered. What was obscure to you will be clarified. The situation was basically as your anxieties indicated. The confirmation of anxieties enables freedom of a sort, though one that is not nearly as joyful or extensive. It’s the freedom to consider the state you’re in: how unpleasant it is, how much more unpleasant it’s bound to get, and the far-off hope of ever seeing the correction of this terrible misunderstanding. A saner generation awaits; one for whom this test will be of more substantial use than your own, who have failed to understand it or apply it, and are probably even a little scared of it. But so be it.

These and other thoughts run in your mind in an endless circle. I’m just a voice in your head that’s supposed to tell you it’s going to be alright, that your aim was true, your path, though entangled, was navigable, and you will be vindicated some time hence. I will be with you as they tie you to the stake. I may even be with you when you’re stuck on a pike. I don’t know how that works, though; I’m not a science person.

A DELICATE BALANCE: REALIZING THE GYNOPOCENE

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Note: Having gone about this like a moron, it’s better to begin here for context. Then go here, here, and here.

***

What is a man?

In all my time in being a woman it had never occurred to me to ask this question. I consider everything that came before its asking to be my Dark Period, a time in my life defined by adherence to willful ignorance, living in a cloud of unknowing. For it was in this ignorance that I became complicit in perpetuating one of the longest and most heinous crimes one half of the human population could commit against the other half. It was only when, in a solitary moment, sobbing in a zoo bathroom for reasons I am not obligated to disclose here, the question flashed in my mind from an uncertain but still very acute source.

I ask again: what is a man? The question begets no one simple answer. But I spent every minute between dabbing my mascara at the zoo and typing the first sentence of this essay considering all of them.

So I’ve actually forgotten most of those answers. But that’s because they’re not especially important for the conclusion I’ve arrived at. Something I’ve learned in this process, and which will be more evident in the course of this treatise, is that deciding what goes and what stays is the most essential virtue of societal upheaval, and something that must be cultivated from the smallest instance.

And so I ask for a third time: what the fuck is a man?

A man has both more hair and less hair. A man sows but does not reap. A man is first and last and, somehow, the center. A man is seemingly all places at once: guiding and perceiving and following and constructing. A man handles the front-end of life. A man is expected to place great importance on his having a penis as if he and everyone around him have forgotten that he has one at all. More importantly, a man is not a woman. Maybe the more interesting question is how this distinction came about, second only to how was it that we came to endure it for as long as we have.

Theories around the first question are several and inconclusive. Some say men were prescribed their role in simpler societies through their tasks as hunters and providers against the females that gathered and gave care. Others insist that men were the heretical outcome of a utopian past, either as the spoils of a thoughtless female sage’s experiment or a conscious rebellion brought about by a corruption of moral hygiene that proved destructive and irreversible—a thought experiment that mutated into an extinction-level virus. What we do know is that men proved so adaptable and resilient across the ages that they were able to obscure the questionable context of their origins and persuade even the strongest of us that not only was there some valid point in their existence, but that their existence was dominant and ours subordinate.

But in the carrying out of this astoundingly long con, women held back and adjusted accordingly. We developed the skill of biding our time as one humiliation lapsed into new and more exacting humiliations. In our silence and acquiescence, we all but challenged the opposing gender to prolong the charade. We knew, of course, that this was not going to last, because people at the top of a pyramid are always lacking an advantage possessed by those at the bottom, and of which they don’t even see the reality until it’s too late.

Through the previous millennium, women have made tactful advances in social roles. This created a sort of “grace period” in which men and women were on plausibly equal footing as individuals as opposed to communal custodians. The notion of “exclusive” male spaces appeared increasingly fanciful. The Industrial Revolution permitted women to endure its occupational hazards alongside their male counterparts. The proliferation of corporate work after World War II made the woman a permanent fixture in the workplace. That place remained largely subordinate, but it was not as stubborn as the subordination of the past. It was now unthinkable that women could not seek higher education for the purpose of pursuing a more fulfilling career, allowing women greater latitude in their lives, such as being able to delay marriage or children, or to relinquish both altogether.

Yet that “grace period” seems at the same time to be coming to a close. The gender roles of the forgotten times reassert themselves like a relapse of a long-kicked addiction. A fear of the future is answered with a fetishistic conjuring of a darker past.

Just as the subordination of women throughout history inadvertently allowed for our advancement into more fulfilling, nuanced roles, the dominant place of men has proved much more limiting. The man today shares office space, even boardrooms, with female equals. The man is less relied upon for funding and securing a household. This is not new to women, but men having been slower on the take are responding to it in such a way that highlights an emerging personal and social burden.

“The crisis of the modern man” sounds like magazine bullshit—but it is a crisis and its impacts cannot be understated or unaddressed. We are witnessing a shift in our society in which men are fixed less and less within it and of diminishing influence over its course and conduct. Left at the bottom of the pyramid, women had no other option but to ascend; while men being so long at the top, and so bored (at least implicitly) with being at the top, could only go down, and could only go down in the most baroque fashion. The more men come to realize this, then, the more they hasten their decline. The more we ignore it, the more they pull women and the rest of society down with them.

Now for a fourth time: what is a man? The answer has narrowed considerably while also having grown more troubling. A man is an impediment to progress. A man is a child with a credit score, yet still doesn’t know how to tie a tie. A man is a machine with a defective engine requiring costly upkeep. We now know all there is to know about men, of what they were and what they are degrading into. It is more important to determine their position in a new era that, through fits and starts, is flashing in the minds of more and more women of sense.

Who, then, are these new women? These new women, in addition to being better equipped for modern living than their counterparts, are less reliant on fear than their foremothers. With increased courage comes reduced hesitancy in considering ideas which previous iterations of women were not as eager to engage with, even abstractly. Greatest among them is the idea of keeping men at a more severe distance from the more functioning elements of society.

Thinking the Unthinkable
Even now, segregation-by-gender has an aroma of the quixotic. The more skeptical among us must wonder how it is to be carried out, and at what possible end is it meant to arrive. Sound and brave women need the more skeptical sisters to keep them honest and humble. They will observe that men have not completely displaced themselves from societal functions, and even have many crucial administrative roles. Well, sure, if we’re being super-literal about it. There’s plenty of evidence that the fall of man is a bit of a ways from completion. But it is completing at a steady enough pace that we must prepare as much as we can in advance to stave off disaster and conflict.

Since finding my own clarity I convened with sisters who’ve had similar ruptures of understanding. From there, a series of intensive and instructive discourses were engaged in. Steadily we arrived at consequential steps of forging what we’ve all agreed should be called the Gynopocene Age.

At Work
Segregation-by-gender begins where it is already being implemented: in the office. Human Resources have made pathbreaking strides in this regard: remapping the framework of productivity along the new rubrics of its most essential and assertive adherents. No longer conducive to the rational, instinct-driven style of male office-workers, the office falls under the direction of its more cerebral and intuitive employees. Collaboration is key to accomplishment, but collaboration among incompatible workers is a recipe for poor-quality work and total productive freefall. New workspaces will be constructed to maximize that productivity. Office floors will be rearranged or assigned by gender. Individual desk spaces will be reconfigured to minimize distraction of any kind. Communication between workspaces, when necessary, will be conducted by monitored internal electronic servers or through Human Resource intermediaries. It goes without saying that office socializing during hours will be discontinued and afterhours socializing will be discouraged and penalized if discovered at any point.

At Home
This mentality extends to the bedroom. Modernity having fostered mutual disappointment in sexual relations, the genders have come to rely increasingly on bespoke, self-administered remedies for their satisfaction. If this is not ideal in a classic sense, it is optimal in ushering in the future where interdependence is no longer taken as granted or even desirable. Divorce for the sake of maintaining normalized separation of the genders will spread and become customary; those who hold out will be looked upon and treated as exceptional in a disadvantageous and censorious way.

Once this is achieved, custody allotment will be simple. Male offspring shall be given over to male parents; daughters will be given over to mothers. Should this situation inadvertently give way to offspring who are parentless and vice versa, a new adoption system will be put in place to move orphans into new homes, provided each party consents to be housed or granted new parenthood.

In Public
Public space has long agitated the relations between the genders, but aside from self-policing, the burden of which is far out-weighed on one gender, this seems highly unmanageable. To segregate public space in a very deliberate way is not possible, but once the workplace segregation trickles from the offices to the service industries—the bars, the diners, the night clubs, etc.—the segregation will occur organically. New business districts will be erected serving men and women exclusively. Women will no longer have to endure the imposition of men in bars or the condescension of male bartenders and servers. Female bartenders and servers will be spared the countless indignities of male customers. Instances of catcalling or other untoward breaches of decorum will be fully and finally abated in this new redistricting of our space.

Founding Sisters of the Gynocracy
The idea of male-based governments with all-male constituencies and female-based governments with all-female constituencies will, with time, become conventional, with all but the most committed never having realized it.

Given what I’ve said about the state of the male in this era, in real terms, the female-based government will be all too aware of the nature and health of the all-male society. Each all-male commune will be monitored by female administrative attachés—our deputized Human Resources officials. We expect that the conditions of the all-male communes will vary. Based on their makeups, some will be more dejected, depressed, and difficult to manage than others. All manner of deviancy, crudity, and foulness one can think of will be more likely to occur the more unruly the commune is. Not much can be done about their occupants other than to allow them to phase themselves out and be kept docile in the interim through some sort of a humane drugging regimen via the water and food supply. Leftover Xanax most likely.

Men with evidence of lingering potential are to be observed more strictly, their physical and psychological heath to be routinely guarded should either be required for manual labor, defense action, or extraction of reproductive material. (Additional discourses on this subject are forthcoming.) These are regrettable compromises of a new society’s birth pangs. But progress under the post-feminist regime will be constant, welcomed, and managed capably.

The Balanced Society
The post-feminist society is one where women, lifted of what remained of their chains, are finally free to dream. Not just to dream, but to realize. It is as terrifying as it is enchanting to envision just how much is possible in this new society. Ideas once mocked, even by feminists at the peak of the “grace period,” will become commitments that will form conventions.

Consider a society that has finally achieved the dream of automation. Long feared in the male-dominated world, automation of industry and service will liberate us from our dependence of the remaining competent and semi-competent men and of less desirable forms of work and interaction. Our new generations of scientists and engineers will design and build the most sophisticated and lasting machines making the workplace, the supply stores, and the household more efficient and bearable.

Consider also a society that has achieved the holy grail of feminist world-building: all-female reproduction. Generations have been delighted and inspired by this idea. Its status as a reality remains very far off, but stripped of the male-scientific anxiety too long restricting us, we inch further away from mere idea and closer to a shocking and revolutionary new paradigm. More sophisticated fertilization and cloning technology feels much more within our reach than it ever was, perpetuating generation after generation of sisters.

Lastly, consider a society that has transcended equality. Our sisters and foremothers speak and have spoken eloquently of achieving it at some undetermined juncture. I was once taken in by its promise as well. But in the course of waiting and waiting, it rang phony to me. What the post-feminist society means to achieve is not equality but balance. The true craft of the feminist is achieving the right balance of society, determining with confidence and commitment to her inherited principles: what is needed and what can be set aside, now on the largest possible scale.

Yet in establishing the post-feminist order, I don’t see us as setting aside the entire male gender to make way for a gynotopian revolution. The only people who can set aside men are men; they have been preparing for this descent for generations. It is up to the women, as good neighbors, to set up the proper fences to allow them to complete their cycle in peace and to allow us to take the reins of society into a brighter future.

Once their cycle is complete, in however much time it takes them, the women will keep what records they can, passing on the story of this once abundant species, proud and powerful and undone in kind: the greatest cautionary tale ever told; that once-living-and-breathing warning sign that current mothers and future daughters must avoid at all costs.

FATHER’S DAY AND OTHER CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY

I. THE DAD MYTH

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Being the instigator of a new post-male paradigm means also having to cope with the presumption of what science calls the “maternal instinct.” I ask myself: was this a common thing among our foremothers? Maybe I just answered the question. But this rings false to me.

At what point a woman accepts that “mom” is not in her bones, or her womb, depends on the woman. For me it was very early on when every doll I was given ended up in different parts all over the room in a matter of minutes and without much thought. There’s just not much that’s “mom” about me under the surface. Yes, I have what is called a “mom coat” because it is long, black, and suede and I wear it in 80-degree weather. I take care of a cat that self-harms and vomits on my bras every time I put on Kacey Musgraves. Every night I look in the mirror and tell myself “There’s someone who, if it came to that, should push her produce right over a bridge, because they’re going to do it in 20 years anyway.”

Against this aura, however, sisters find no resistance at all. Daily I am accosted by one or two, sometimes three, of them who softly touch my arm or tug at my semi-famed “mom coat” and look at me wide-eyed, poorly holding back tears. (They fear me too soon; I worry they will love me too late.) It’s really awkward.

After several minutes that feel like hours of very light prodding as to what it is they want, they lean in (that is not a pun) whimpering just below my ear and just above my cheek, “… Dad …”

Don’t worry, we have not careened into some absurd upside-down zone. This is something I have to confront more and more often. It was difficult early on but I have managed to slip comfortably into a ritual. When a sister makes the approach, I can usually stop her before she says anything, rush her over to a lonely place to give her what can only be called The Talk.

The Talk begins with an apology. I’m so sorry, I say, for having misled you. (I don’t think I have, but this humility is very rhetorically effective.) I confess that maybe I’d been a little too abstract about the men, about the hopelessness and decrepitude of the men, about their descent into neo-Neanderthal degradation, how their memories of their past way of life will (mercifully) dissolve into a perpetual midnight of masturbating communally into a pit dug by hand for that precise purpose. There’s a lot I leave open to suggestion in these teachings. Sisters fill out these men the only way they know how: exes, teachers, rude baristas, youth pastors, current boyfriends, boundary-breaking vagrants, etc. Eventually, though, they fall on Dad, and the entire framework comes crashing down.

Maybe this really is my doing. I had not properly configured the complicated feelings that the Dad injects into my scheme. All Dads are unique to the offspring they beget. They could be loved or hated by them but the stamp they leave is such that he remains elevated some degrees above all other men. Not him, they implore me whether in righteousness or in pity. He was so reliable or unstablemy hero or a scoundrel. This sputters out very quickly into the various stages of grief—mostly denial and bargaining. I hear this out for a few minutes more until I make my final pitch, in terms far more delicate than I put it here.

The capacity to tell stories has always been one of the most significant gifts of our species. In future herstory, sisters will learn of a sagess having come from the desert in a flowy dress, perfect cheekbones, and enormous sunglasses to tell us how “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Stories can aid and clarify what we experience when pure reason is absent or antagonistic. Stories are meant to serve us when we need them. But sometimes stories can get spun into myths. Stories ignite our strengths; myths shock our weaknesses—they dictate to us.

This is how the Dad came into our minds and overstayed its welcome. This idea you have of an ever-present, attentive, dimensional entity, whether benevolent or malevolent, is fictive. It’s not even an exaggeration, it’s just plain made up. Here you must think hard on your real experiences. Have you ever in your life heard a “Dad joke”? Do you remember having laughed willingly at anything any Dad has ever said? In any context? Has a Dad ever aided you with his homespun, simplistic wisdom that, given time, your own intuition could just as easily have resolved? Have you ever, in fact, eaten a well-grilled steak?

But go deeper now. Look at “daddy.” Does that, too, not seem somehow self-manifested? This “role” he “plays” as a guide, taskmaster, and lawgiver is itself a kind of phantom. For what were you trying to compensate? You tell me you weren’t compensating for anything, but that is my point.

As women transcend from a former reality of subjection to the triumphant sisterhood, their first task is at once very simple and seemingly impossible, but essential to the forging of any momentous enterprise: getting their stories straight. What is the true story of the Dad? There is none. Nothing. It’s absent. It’s a void. If a Dad is exceptional among men it’s due to his lack of presence than in his abundance of it. The Dad is a resigning figure, a stationary object. From a distance he bears himself very regally, holding all of the pieces of your complicated world into one idyllic position simply by blowing leaves from one side of the yard to another. But inspect closer and that man with the leaf-blower is just a life-sized cumbersome figurine in God’s model train set. That man enthroned in the den recliner, watching the Browns game, is a scarecrow with blinking Christmas-light eyes and stuffed with teeth, cum, and credit card debt.

The sisters balk; accusations of gaslighting are fired in my direction. Okay, I’ll bite. Gaslighting might have taken place, but it is the purest and most original kind: gaslighting of the self. We are every day doing this, and I can find no corner of my reason or in my heart to object. How else can we cope with what is staring right in front of us—or rather, not staring? Feminists have come to over-rely on “patriarchy” as a term of art. It’s something that means whatever a sister needs it to mean at a given moment, when the fact that it has no meaning at all is its most damning aspect. The patriarchy is this hole that emits no light but plenty of cold. It has no force pulling you in but it has plenty of depth if you happen to fall over. We cannot save those sisters who have fallen so totally into that hole, we can only patch it up with a glue gun and carry on.

How do we do this? My easiest remedy is this: picture the silverfish. Picture it scurrying in your basement or your shower; in your books or your sock drawer. You feel little toward the silverfish compared to other household invaders like the centipede, the spider, the mouse, etc. It does not inspire disgust or fright. You don’t really know what it does or why it is the way it chooses to be. It’s just there, and it’s pathetic. Too pathetic even to be granted some modicum of pity. It is annoying; something you have to deal with but through no demanding effort. You want it to go, it goes, even if it reappears in some other corner, waiting to be rediscovered and to repeat the tedious ordeal.

The silverfish can serve as a stunning metaphor for any aspect of existence, but most fittingly for the Dad as a concept. As one by one each sister internalizes this, the Dad is lowered closer to earth, becomes nearly indistinguishable from the exes and baristas and what have you, and can go forth into the Process.

To maintain this reality, it is important to do two things. First, never to establish a “matriarchy.” This, too, is over-relied on by our sister-influencers, who fill impressionable minds with tailored delusions. The patriarchy is a negating nonentity, but it’s still detectable in the world. The matriarchy, stifled in a male-dominant society, exists as a thought-experiment where the Dad is replaced by a corrective counterpart, the Mom. It’s the same trite thinking in which a rotten authority is repaired by the implementation of an upgraded model. In my writing I have never used “matriarchy” and never intend to beyond this context. In the gynopocene age there will be sisters and nano-sisters; there will are no Moms.

Yet even as Dads are off in the pastures, “dad” may yet linger on in the synapses of the sisters. That cannot be helped; so secondly, it is up to the wisest among us to pivot the word another way. “Dad” will be stripped of its authoritative veneer. Once starved completely, only its negating elements remain. “Dad” becomes a weapon of immense punitive debilitation and an impressive deterrent for sisters tempted to gaslight the existence of our laws. The gynopocene will be an age without sl*ts, c*nts, wh*res, and c*m d*mpst*rs. But there will be d*ds.

II. ANSWERS TO CRITICS

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When I first articulated my program calling for the establishment of the gynopocene age, I was not prepared for the flood of accolades that almost immediately followed. My inbox was overwhelmed with notes of gratitude and catharsis. Sisters wrote practically in tears, some have claimed, at the joy of having their near-exact thoughts finally articulated with a force that they never dared to speak themselves.

My teachings spread quickly across the internet. They were upvoted on Reddit threads, used as ammunition in the Jezebel comment sections, quotes attributed to me were emblazoned over pictures of Imperator Furiosa and Leslie Knope. Almost as moving were the replies from men who, in precocious and enthusiastic agreement with their wretched state as I described it, pledged their allegiance and would come when commanded. As the nano-sisters sometimes like to say, “I’m screaming.”

Amid all the rejoicing, some pushback managed to make its way in, but I came prepared for that. No great vision ever reaches greatness entirely unscathed. I only wish its critics were worthier of its wisdom.

Men didn’t fail to meet my expectations; and their complaints were just as unsurprisingly stupid. “So it’s all men’s fault, then?” the men ask me. “You’re going to dish out ‘justice’ and we’re supposed to take it?” To which I reply: “Yes.”

In fairness, it is not often that blanket condemnation is ever called for or even persuasive when it is, but on rare occasions fate deals you a situation where it happens to be both. This is just what we are dealing with here. Never in my discourses have I never explicitly stated that men are “at fault” for the world’s ills, nor did I ever use the term “justice” in describing my remedy. But having reiterated as established fact the centuries-long course of male dominance in civilization, it would logically follow that men would have a greater share of negative influence.

It could be argued that much of that negative influence is gender-neutral, the sad turn of events that unfold regardless of how well-intentioned the original actions were. Fine. Lots of people fuck up. But there are outcomes in the world unburdened by that nuance, and which are both sinister in intent and unmistakably male in their conception. Things like college, Tampa, wellness, Lifetime movies, timeshare condos, Maggie Rogers, physical attraction, polyamory, and recycling.

While the Sexual Revolution was not a male creation, it allowed men the opportunity to spread clinical depression to the female population after extracting it from the prostate gland where it dwells and refining it into a venereal infection, therefore achieving total gender equality as they conceived it. And it very nearly succeeded had it not been for ingenuity of Scientology and the mainstream implementation of extreme counteroffensive sexual adventurism.

Another invention with male characteristics is genocide, which some are trying to make female through hostile readings of my work. Both men and women have laid that very word at my feet. It appears to them that I am encouraging the setting up of a rigorous system of discrimination and marginalization with the ultimate end of annihilation of a particular identity group. This has caused unbelievable distress among the sisters who see only good in the plan I’ve set forth. It is for their reassurance, rather than my personal integrity, that I answer this charge.

The post-feminist gynopocene age is not founded on genocidal thinking. On the contrary, the gynopocene is anti-genocidal and seeks nothing less than the total erasure of that concept from human activity. Why and how that is so is very simple.

Once an act of genocide is committed and made public in all its ugliness, two things happen: (1) we promise that it shall never happen again; (2) it happens again.

When it does happen again you can be assured that a State made up of men can be pointed at as the culprits. You are skeptical? Look at the history. The Ottoman Empire, Nazi Germany and its satellite states, the Soviet Union, the Khmer Rouge, the post-Soviet Balkans, Rwanda: all perpetrated by governments composed almost entirely of penile humans. China, where there are no women, now seems intent on perfecting that tradition.

Now compare that against the most successful non-male head of government: Margaret Thatcher. Lady Thatcher, in her nearly 12-year capacity as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, was uniquely primed to wage a genocidal campaign. She had the opportunity, she had the tenacity, and she had the public sentiment in her sway that could have empowered her to turn every square meter of Ireland into overflow parking. She did not heed that call of destiny, choosing instead to be a standard-issue post-imperial British scullery wench with a pearl necklace.

Maybe it was because Thatcher’s Irish enemies were very courteous in never demanding her to lift a finger simply by dispatching themselves yonder. This example is instructive as it is that very mentality that I wish to make use of more ambitiously once the post-feminist order is established.

Men are the genocidal sex. It’s easy to conceive by plain observation that very little else gives them greater sense of purpose. They seem to think in no other terms; their logic leads them to no other end. For eons, non-males have been trying to avert this imposed thinking with very little success. It could continue for many eons more without drastic thinking, which is what my own proposal hopes to apply.

What critics are confusing for a discriminatory scheme is actually more of a bespoke service. We know how the people being “served” think and operate, we respond to their patterns preemptively, in ways they will recognize but which will also narrow their capabilities. We can’t stop a group from behaving in such and such a way if it is so ingrained in their habits. But what we can do is to limit their options so severely that there is no one else on which they can exert those habits besides themselves. We’re not sitting around pitching cruelties to throw at them; that’s beyond our conception. We’re allotting the space for the men to foist their preconceived atrocities as they see fit.

In a way I completely understand why there is so much pushback. This is something basically unheard of in our species. There are no clear ethical imperatives in which to frame it. There will be no historical record to mark it or the way of life that preceded it. There will be no resources available for it to be taught. Who is left to record and memorialize a group that has committed genocide against themselves? It’s almost like there should be a totally new word for it. Maybe “autoextinction” or “mass self-cancelling.”

I don’t find that to be much of a tragedy. If a group is so annihilating in its customs that it will annihilate itself with no other recourse, that’s a very straightforward story, on which no further comment need be added. If that seems radical and not just conclusive, then let it be radical and let the custodians—we sisters—carry on the necessary work of sending off the self-destructive mass to do what it does best and, for all intents and purposes, what it was destined from its first breath to do.

On this score, the sisters can rest easy knowing that our critics will eat their words and look in awe on the world we remade. And the way they’re headed, the male critics especially will probably not have a whole lot else to eat. But we can only guess at this point.

TRAGIC, NECESSARY MEASURES

Note: The following are further extracts from an abominable experiment I have opted to unearth in a spirit of derangement and self-destructive vanity. The more perverse among you, who I am counting on for healthy engagement metrics, may revisit previous examples here and here.

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I. THE LAST DAYS OF TOLERANCE

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Previous generations of feminists have never questioned the relationship between feminism and humanism. In fact many of those feminists had gone so far as to believe that feminism is integral to humanism or vice versa. Who could blame them? Feminism and humanism have shared lineage in the Enlightenment, and endorsing such ideas as the human rational capacity, the demystification of oppressive superstition, and the natural equality between one human and all the rest.

It was very kind of those male philosophes to have invited their sisters into the fold. Now, whatever the candlelit corridors of the convents and cloisters had in store for us are matters on which we are free to grimly speculate and nothing more.

But the reasoning woman knows deep down that this Enlightened equality cannot persist. In part because the welcoming was only so warmly extended; but also because the longer we stayed, the more constricted we felt.

Equality is not the endgame for applied, triumphant feminism. I move to suggest still another cherished principle of the humanist view that we feminists must set aside lest we obstruct the completion of our design for living: tolerance.

Tolerance has been the cornerstone of liberal humanism since its very inception. It is also the crowning virtue for Americans of a certain age. From the 1990s on, for proponents and detractors alike, it was an age of toleration. A Good Society was both diverse and cohesive. That cohesion was made possible through the tolerance we felt for the differences of our neighbor, whether in the open or in private. Though never mandated by law as such, tolerance was the guiding principle behind our anti-discriminatory laws and our general moral conduct as a community of individuals. Women were expected to benefit by this in their continued advancement out of subordination. True to its intentions, women were tolerated at previously unimaginable levels. Yet at the same time those supposed benefits were easier to grasp in spirit than in practice. I can’t say that anyone—even men—have ever really benefitted from tolerance in any concrete sense.

The Good Society that would arise from our tolerance grew instead into an Agreeable Society on top and a debating society underneath. For the agreeable, the Big Questions—the ideas—had profit margins too minuscule to give much attention to them; while the debaters took to the Big Questions like boys to G.I. Joes. In any case, on all matters we agreed to disagree. It was an impressive sleight-of-hand. It was easy to go along nicely with it, at least while there was reason to be nice.

In that era, intolerance was simply out of the question. It was something you heard about and categorically repudiated. It was a folkloric phantasm. You never knew anyone who was intolerant and never sought to foster intolerance in yourself. To do so was to succumb to corrosive thinking and bigoted attitudes. And in fairness, most wish that they could be anything but intolerant. It’s not a pleasant thing to be. But if someone is particularly sensitive to cultural ambiance, particularly if that ambiance is forged in tolerance, the likelihood of coming to not tolerate something to an intense degree is strong. Once the nice times give way to a time that is less nice, those little intolerances amass into a larger one.

Such is the burden of the intolerant, the definition of which, when we set aside the blinders of agreeableness, is one who is confirmed in the power of the idea. An idea is not a commodity, a plaything, or a personality affect. It is a potent infector. Yes, some ideas are worthless on their face and require no additional anxiety, but there are just enough to which so many are vulnerable. At the right time and with the right person, an idea can change someone from the inside out until their authentic self is no longer recognized by themselves or anyone else.

You have seen this, haven’t you? That daughter—the honors student with a fondness for animals and an empathy for many kinds of humans. Very practical but also idealistic, wanting, so you thought, to go into teaching, like you—perhaps in a low-income urban area or among migrant children, while somehow having a home in the suburbs. Something along those lines. Yet something went wrong. She slid away from that dream into the nonprofit cesspool of DC, carousing with a bad crowd who all carry Great Books by the likes of Malcom Gladwell and Michael Medved on the Metro. You keep thinking she’s moved by The Bell Jar, and you are silently mortified at her correction. Every holiday is now a nightmare. She espouses putrid intellectual garbage as though it was small-talk about the weather. What do you do? You debate her; you agree to disagree. You bring out the turkey and the presents. A photo-finish of perfect tolerance. This is what you have been taught and what you have been teaching. What more can you do? You accept that she is a puppet of men, and a slave to one man in particular who smiles politely, wears a college football fleece all the time, is self-conscious about his thinning hair, and provides for your child with gains gotten through you know not precisely what means, but surely not honorable ones. Soon she will give him offspring; you will be a grandmother. Then it will be too late. But to do what? “Cut the strings”? To become “corrosive”? It never occurred to you in all your tolerance.

You would not be alone in feeling this way. Having moreover considered the consequences, doing nothing—agreeing to disagree—constitutes a form of abuse. In order to protect the dignity of our daughters or sisters, or the respect of our mothers, we must become corrosive to ideas that deserve such a penalty. We must not argue ourselves into an abyss. We must bring those we love and everyone else in turn out into the light, into freedom and into the truth, forcefully but lovingly. It’s demanding work seeking out the most abject intellectual lapses and scorching them with the purifying napalm of your intelligence. These are damnable, ugly things not fit for consumption in any population. You alone, the intolerant righteous bitch, are able to confront them and banish them and all who are incurable of their influence. It is fair to say that you will earn little more than ire of strangers and loved ones. This is your sacrifice, but you do not bow to the fashionable or the conventional or to civility—the heating pads of the agreeable—you have a long game. For that you will be thanked and lauded, even if you are not around to receive it.

The gynopocene age will be forged by the efforts of such heroines of intolerance. The post-tolerance society we will foster will be one unencumbered by the obscurantism of civil mutual respect. Respect needs no emphasis, it is assumed, because so much will have been streamlined down to the essentials, or settled entirely. All but two primary lines of debate will remain to be addressed.

Or I should say two lines on one issue: men. Pleased as men always are to know that the womenfolk are arguing over them, for once it is a necessary matter related to them that cannot be handled carelessly. My foresight is not the sharpest, but broadly, the greatest minds of the Senate of Sisters (or whatever we’ll call it) will break down thus on the issue: gradualism vs. accelerationism.

The gradualist (or liberal) faction would favor a program basically in line with my own in spirit but minimalist in execution. They will perhaps favor familial re-allotment, select zones of segregation, and a more nuanced classification of the males between functional and useless. They will find it more prudent and less burdensome to just allow the males to degenerate at their own irreversible pace without our interference or close observation.

The accelerationist (or extremely liberal) faction, on the other hand, will be in favor of the complete and much more vigorous program of male disposal: systematic segregation, compulsory divorce and familial re-allotment, monitored and rigidly classified male communes, monitored reproductive activity, population regulation.

This will not end debating as we know it; but it is a debate with a clear purpose in mind: disposing of men; or rather, non-women, which is going to happen no matter what we decide. In the gynopocene age, society will reach a point where it is impossible, logically, for a sister to betray the sisterhood. Not that we will be unprepared for certain lapses of judgment: such as when a sister starts to exhibit symptoms that cause her to see the non-women as redeemable. Such a sister will be taken to a convalescence center and given the most attentive care that will cure her delirium and reorient her to the task at hand.

I guess humanism was right about one thing: we really can educate ourselves out of any problem.

II. BABE RUNNER 2049

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I’m every day more inspired by the curiosity of my sisters, a thing they’ve turned into something like a renewable resource. Question after question pours out their minds, eager for knowledge and understanding, for speculation and conjecture. They want to know what awaits them in the gynopocene; the possibilities for happiness and enrichment. They look to me, the architect, and other wise sisters, to be confirmed in the hope they are holding out for. I admit that it’s all very overwhelming sometimes. I fear that as the questions multiply and deepen, my answers will dwindle and atrophy. And where will that leave us?

A very interesting exchange along these lines occurred at a recent gathering. A sister stood from the crowd and asked: “So when we’ve finally got r— … When we’ve finally dispatched the men, and they are no longer a part of our lives and even, I guess, our memories … is sex work still okay?” The sisters sitting around her chirped in seeming unison as if waiting for this question for a long time.

You can imagine how I felt in that moment. I’d been vague about work of any kind that didn’t involve dealing with the men. I had the look of a deer behind the taillights. The pause between us grew tenser as it widened. Then a sister next to me held up two hands making a kind of spirit-fingers gesture that I didn’t recognize or approve of, and I just told her to stand up.

“Sex work,” this wise sister began, “was the greatest abomination of the male gender. Without men, it could never have persisted or spread as it had across time and land. Their tenacious efforts all but reframed the vagina as a recession-proof product. It is a tragic, necessary measure that sex work must be a part of … a part of the …” She looked down at me.

“The gynopocene.”

“Sex work must be … we cannot avoid sex work as being a part of the gynopocene.” She stammered into silence and looked down for a moment, before rising with a look of icy resolve that froze even my blood and continued. “But we don’t have to just repeat the cycle of despair. We can reform it, repurpose it. We can make it so that it is more just than it ever was under the gaze and grip of men.”

There was some applause at this, but just as much rumbling commotion that didn’t seem satisfied by this wise sister’s assurance. She looked at me with a perplexed expression. I’d considered her comments for a few seconds and rose to speak my own mind.

“I agree with what our wise sister has said, and am thankful for her clarity. I hope she will pardon some elaboration.”

She nodded in passive approval.

“For sisters who support sex work, the gynopocene age will not be a place that disapproves of it. Its sisters will not shame, disclaim, profane, or detain sex work or those who practice it. Doing so would just replicate the attitudes of men who, as both customers for and policemen of sex workers, made the demands of them and set their limits. We are not going to make that mistake again. And so for both supporters and non-supporters of sex work, the gynopocene will usher in an age were sex is not a service, but the thing served.

“We will create new employments for this task. Sisters can be accountants for sex, janitors for sex, receptionists for sex, sales managers for sex, reference librarians for sex, UX writers for sex, copyeditors for sex, departmental vice presidents for sex. There will be sex branch offices, sex marketing and public relations gurus, sex quality control. We will corporatize sex; sisters will gain franchise rights for sex. In this act, the economic shock feared by some sisters to occur after the mass exit of males from the market will be abated, or at worst dulled. The customer is still right in the gynopocene; even if the customer is sex.”

I crossed my arms and took my seat, contented by the substance of my counsel.

But the commotion resumed. And another sister in the crowd stood up.

“So that’s really cool, but … what about sexbots?”

The wise sisters and I all looked at each other.

“I was not aware there were that many out there,” I admitted.

“Well, sure, but like the other sister said … in the future, like a long-ish time from now. Surely sexbots will have become more common, and become more advanced in their design, to the point that the look basically real—human, I mean. And when the men are gone, presumably a lot of sexbots owned by them will be left behind and assume lives pretty much independently, and as if nothing has changed—no gynopocene, not Sex Corporation, none of that. They are orphaned, probably stealing our money somehow.” She stood silent and stiff, the sisters around her clamoring again for answers.

“Sister, you make a strong point,” I said after a few seconds’ more thought. “If it is as you say, we can’t abide orphaned machines in our society. Sexbots, like sex work, are the manifestations of the male mindset. I speak for myself here, but maybe might find agreement among my wise sisters, when I say that sexbots could be every bit as subject to special confinement as the men who made them. Maybe more subject because they are walking perversions of the female form, insults to our natural aura and charisma. Therefore, we will set up an agency to assess the characteristics and patterns of roving sexbots and to track them and apprehend them. In such cases we will apply an empathy exam; though if they have cunningly acquired authentic female traits in their independence, they could evade this. A ‘cut test’ of some kind, say on the arm or in the eye, might be more conclusive. When they are apprehended, we will take them to a public square and burn them. We will advertise these burnings with collectible posters.”

“So,” the sister responded, “it will be like Blade Runner, but also medieval times?”

“Oh so you’ve seen that movie, too!”

This wise sister stood back up. “It will be more just.”

My sisters never cease to inspire me with their erudition.