Black Ribbon Award

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MY “LEAVING NEW YORK” ESSAY: A MUSICAL WITHOUT MUSIC

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MAN: I crawl to the top of the tallest building in the city and ask if it will eat me.

THE CITY:

***

MAN: Back in Indiana, Grandma takes out her teeth and holds them up to the phone.

GRANDMA: The city is always hungry. Its mouth is wide and black, like an introverted star.

MAN: Dad shoots a beer can with an air rifle.

DAD: Eat or be eaten. It’s your life. Need money? Just kidding.

MAN: Mom sends a Jello-O mold the shape of Robert Moses.

MOM: “The city won’t eat you if you’re not tenderized. XOXO, Mom”

***

MAN: “The tallest building in the city” is a four-story brownstone in Clinton Hill.

*** 

THE MAYOR: Everyone in the city is the neighbor of everyone else.

COMMISSIONER OF CULTURAL AFFAIRS: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods,” I’m told.

THE MAYOR: That’s a jurisdictional matter. You’re not in Port Chester anymore.

COMMISSIONER OF CULTURAL AFFAIRS: Sir, I’m from Mystic.

THE MAYOR: “Port Chester” is a play on words, from a Basque term meaning “your dad’s balls.” The Neapolitans have a similar expression. Few know this.

***

MAN: The Brownstone feels a door for heat.

***

MAN: The performance artist ties a bluefin tuna by its tail and hoists it in the center of the loft. A man in a black rubber suit holds a baseball bat.

THE PERFORMANCE ARTIST: BIGOTRY! INCEST! MURDER!

MAN: The rubber man whacks the fish.

THE PERFORMANCE ARTIST: ROBBERY! ARSON! BROADWAY!

MAN: The rubber man whacks the fish again.

THE PERFORMANCE ARTIST: PATREON! VENMO! PAYPAL!

MAN: The tuna erupts in candy, confetti, and mackerel.

***

THE CITY: 🏢🏬🏣🏛️

***

DATE no. 1: I read The Economist for the tits.

DATE no. 2: MEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE

DATE no. 3: In my short story, your name is “Man.”

DATE no. 4: I’ll know I’ve made it when my penthouse apartment has a washer-dryer and a model trainset in every room.

DATE no. 2: EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE

***

THE BROWNSTONE: “It Happened to Me: Tao Lin Was Inside Me for a Weekend.”

***

MAN: A homeless man sits on the bench across from me in Madison Square Park reading a used copy of Slaves of New York and chuckling to himself. A Guardian Angel walks up to him and commandeers the book and reads it in front of him, also chuckling.

HOMELESS MAN: No spoilers!

MAN: The Guardian Angel returns the book.

GUARDIAN ANGEL: Thanks, I’ve been meaning to read that one story.

MAN: The Guardian Angel walks away, the homeless man resumes chuckling but not reading.

***

THE MAYOR: This city is a glorified corridor.

COMMISSIONER OF CULTURAL AFFAIRS: How many “corridors” can accommodate both expressionist yoga and intersectional dodgeball?

THE MAYOR: What this city lacks is a gesture of hope, a reason to smile in unison, the biggest group selfie known to mankind.

COMMISSIONER OF CULTURAL AFFAIRS: I’m putting on as many slam poetry competitions as space will allow. I need more resources!

THE MAYOR: We can go without 911 for another season.

COMMISSIONER OF CULTURAL AFFAIRS: Gregory’s Coffee employees are burning you in effigy.

***

MAN: The brownstone checks itself for ticks.

***

MAN: In Indiana, Grandma prays the Rosary using a necklace of SweeTarts.

GRANDMA: The city only knows hunger. It does not know how to picnic. Bring the city out to Missouri, the picnic capital of the More or Less Free World.

MAN: Dad tears up over FaceTime.

DAD: All I ever wanted was an archetype. But what I … what I got was … an idiolect. And Mom says hi.

MAN: Where’s Mom?

DAD: Alaska. I don’t know.

MAN: In Alaska, apparently, Mom tells Dad to tell me she says “Hi.”

***

THE CITY: 🔥🔥🔥🔥

***

MAN: Two cops play hooky to ride the Cyclone.

COP no. 1: You see, Cruising isn’t a very good movie on its own. But the best part is, bad movies invite some really interesting readings.

MAN: The second cop nods and bites his hot dog.

COP no. 1: So when you think about it, like really think about it, Cruising is really a misandrist manifesto. It’s not about murders in a gay subculture, but the beastly self-destructive arc of all men. There’s only one female in the film, that’s not a coincidence.

COP no. 2: I like the soundtrack.

COP no. 1: I think it’s about the future, a not too distant future, than any present or even past we recognize.

MAN: The second cop vomits on a child. Children being by law a symbol of the city’s purity of spirit, the second cop is stripped of his pension and forced to live out his days on Hart Island.

***

COMMISSIONER OF CULTURAL AFFAIRS: Sir, every attendee of the Governors Ball self-immolated!

THE MAYOR: Did they leave a note?

COMMISSIONER OF CULTURAL AFFAIRS: The detectives think that it seemed more authentic not to.

THE MAYOR: Even so, they should have left a note.

***

MAN: I lie prostrate on the couch while the TV gaze back at me.

SAMANTHA GUTHRIE: Gregory’s Coffee employees took to Park Avenue this morning, marching northward to Grand Central Station, where they hoisted up a black flag and underwent ritual suicide.

HODA KOTB: The event follows a series of “resistance actions” taken against the city’s Tim Hortons locations, reducing their number from two to zero. The Secretary of State has been sent to Ottawa to apologize and ease tensions.

SAMANTHA GUTHRIE: It’s hairy out there today.

HODA KOTB: It really is.

***

THE CITY: 🌚

THE CITY’S THERAPIST: I’d like to explore that further in our next session.

***

THE MAYOR: This city has become a reflective surface of my inner pain.

COMMISSIONER OF CULTURAL AFFAIRS: All Gregory’s Coffee locations are now public utilities.

THE MAYOR: I mask my inner pain with outer pain, but the city reflects my outer pain now, too.

COMMISSIONER OF CULTURAL AFFAIRS: They are now used to store everyone’s unsold Dash Snow pieces. And for holding cells.

THE MAYOR: Holding cells?

COMMISSIONER OF CULTURAL AFFAIRS: For play purposes. Sometimes interpretive dance goes on. You will be given the Congressional Medal of Freedom for your decisive leadership. Marcia Cross will play you in the TV miniseries.

THE MAYOR: That is a higher threshold of pain. The city won’t know what to do with itself.

COMMISSIONER OF CULTURAL AFFAIRS: Give the city the key to itself.

***

MAN: I stand on top of the brownstone as it takes a dick pic.

***

PERFORMANCE ARTIST: THE DOG PARKS BELONG TO THE PEOPLE.

RUBBER MAN: BARK! BARK! WOOF! WOOF!

***

MAN: A woman takes a picture of me in Warby Parker.

WOMAN: Congratulations on being given the key by the mayor!

MAN: She posts the photo that goes sufficiently viral that it requires me to write letters to amNew York, Time Out, and Vulture to clarify a substantial misunderstanding.

***

DATE no. 5: I’ve learned you need a good routine. Even if you can’t afford it, you can get a good routine. Not that I can’t afford one, I can. It’s just that the one that is most affordable for all works best for me.

DATE no. 6: Before I moved to New York I had a language problem. I didn’t have the right language to express myself authentically.

DATE no. 5: I buy a 30-pack. I stand in front of the mirror behind my apartment door and do 10 squats wall holding the 30-pack.

DATE no. 6: But living here gives me the tools I need to feel good about feeling dead inside and saying so often. I wasn’t able to do that back in Hazlet.

DATE no. 5: I drink 15 of the 30-pack and donate the rest to the Unitarian Church who distribute it to orphans.

DATE no. 2: E.

DATE no. 5: College-aged, gainfully employed orphans.

***

MAN: The brownstone does not text back.

***

MAN: The performance artist earns plaudits from Jerry Saltz when she falls into the city’s mouth along with several traffic enforcement agents, a garbage truck, tourists on Citi Bikes, the Commissioner of Cultural Affairs, the casts of Dear Even Hansen and The Deuce, all of Hudson Yards, and Saltz himself. The rubber man goes to Washington University in St. Louis to earn his MFA in Picnicking.

***

MAN: I pack my things and write a letter explaining most of everything. Before I go to the Port Authority, I walk to the brownstone to leave it on the door. When I get there, though, I find an empty lot with a swivel chair in the center of it, upon which a letter is place.

THE BROWNSTONE: “Sorry, not sorry. But, really, sorry. 😛 XOXO, The Tallest Building in the City”

***

MAN: A Gregory’s Coffee employee sits across from me on the G train, wearing a balaclava and reading a bloodied copy of Speedboat. The train stops somewhere under Queens and won’t start again until the Gregory’s Coffee employee finishes reading. He reads every word aloud, with appropriate feeling. I exit somewhere dark, moist-seeming.

***

THE CITY: 💃

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MY FELLOWSHIP

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Pictured: My distinguished fellows.

Not long after I founded the Chris R. Morgan Memorial Fellowship for Inner-Meaning and Personal Greatness, people have occasionally stopped me to ask, “Chris [or ‘Mr. Morgan’ depending on the contextual formality], why is it you came to found the Chris R. Morgan Memorial Fellowship for Inner-Meaning and Personal Greatness? Understand that I don’t mean to be rude. I’m mostly curious. My basic impression of you is not the kind that goes around founding fellowships. There are, in life, people who are capable of founding a fellowship and people who aren’t so capable. In my observation of you over the years, I’ve never considered you to be eligible for the former category. You don’t display any notable gift for organization. I’m not saying, please be assured, that you are totally, hopelessly, cripplingly disorganized; only that you are not special in that regard—going, again, by my extensive observation of your faculties. Other fellowship founders, who I’ve also had the distinct pleasure of having observed extensively, are master organizers, committed managers of people and resources. Seldom do they ever abuse or waste either, and when they do it is never their own doing or intent. A fellowship is like any other institution, which are like giant beasts. It needs to be soothed, validated, and catered to by the most compatible overseer. Compatibility doesn’t seem to be a part of your skill set from the looks of it. Neither does discipline. Discipline is key, Chris/Mr. Morgan. Though maybe determination is more key than that. You need to get out of bed every day prepared to face down the fresh regimen of challenges that founders of fellowships tend to face. I don’t know any specific examples off the top of my head, but I’m fairly confident that they are myriad. Though I’m also guessing that appeasing donors is a big challenge for fellowship founders. Here I also question your capacity. It doesn’t look as though you’ve monetized a single thing in your life. As soon as I reach the point in my life where I am able to consider turning over parts of my income to invest in something, I’m going to make sure that the idea that I want to invest in has viability. I want to make sure that its vision is far-reaching but also that its means are practical. I would not want to lend my hard-earned money into a dead-end or a bottomless pit; not that it is always easy to tell one from the other, but that is a question for someone else and for another day. And sure, no investor is free from being compelled by a vague, even faulty, premise. But often the flimsiest, most blue-sky proposal must be grounded by sound metrics, tangible projected outcomes, and basic competence. None of that seems to be your forte, in addition to your earlier mentioned deficiencies. Again, Chris/Mr. Morgan, I mean not the slightest disrespect. If I had I would withhold my honest feedback and conceal my skepticism of your plans with total accolades, setting your ego completely afire and putting the few people of whom you’ve been able to win trust at risk for monumental embarrassment. And never would I wish on my worst enemy the frazzling that comes with trying to meet impossible demands and unreachable expectations. While I’m here, I’m curious about the ‘memorial’ part of your fellowship. You appear not to be dead. You are standing in front me, in imperfect but still dignified posture, your chest expanding and contracting in the expectant rhythm. This leads me to assume that you bleed when cut, defecate after eating, are prone to base desires and instinctual urges, and pay taxes as a result of being a living citizen of this particular nation. ‘Memorial,’ I must tell you, sounds not a little solipsistic and prematurely pompous, doubtless not the most attractive form of pompousness. The only way you could possibly get away with it is if you had died in a cultural, social, or otherwise abstract sense. By this I mean, in the present American milieu, you no longer feel signs of life. You are a ghost walking against the march of progress and sit on the outside of the ever-widening sprawl of prosperity. I guess that makes me just as curious about standards, guiding philosophy, selection process; things you’d normally have to deal with as the founder of a fellowship. But, and I cannot emphasize this enough, I don’t want to be rude. You don’t seem to have a giving nature about …”

They trail off at some point. I ask them to repeat the question. Once they do, I give the following answer.

“In the back of my house,” I begin, “there is this porch. I like to sit out there sometimes and drink my coffee. While doing this very thing one spring day, a gopher crawled out from under the porch. Rather than run away into the surrounding woods, as may often be the case, this gopher calmly walked around me until we were face to face. Standing on its hind legs it told me that I should divert my efforts and energy from whatever I am currently doing (nothing, as it happened) to founding a fellowship program, and that that program should be called the Chris R. Morgan Memorial Fellowship for Inner-Meaning and Personal Greatness. In fairness that is not word for word what it said, limited as we were by our mutually incomprehensible dialects. A more literal translation might be the Bipedal Object Merit-Based, Obligation-Attached Credit Dispensary for All Eternity. This setback aside, the gopher, being wise and modest, gives me a free hand with the course of the program. I notify him on a routine basis of our doings as a gesture of professional courtesy, and he has not voiced any objection so far.”

When I am finished, they usually reply, “Wait, really?”

To which I tend to respond, “No.”

Then they would in all likelihood say, “My dream investment would be a new, disruptive zipper. The kind that zips and unzips more seamlessly than regular, analog zippers. Also it never gets stuck. Hopefully that idea—or something like it—will crest at the same time that I have the money to put into it.”

Then I’d say much more definitely, “Huh.”

They would then say, “Zippers are recession-proof, you know.”

This continues for an extended period (just under two hours is the current record), then they apply to my fellowship.

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Pictured: The enchanted gopher. (REËNACTMENT.)

DISHONESTY HAS ITS USES

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1. MAKEUP

I look at the clock. I need to finish my makeup soon or I’ll miss the train.

This morning I received a text: “8:45 the usual place.” And just after that: “but *think* 7:00.” That’s the signal, to which I respond: “;-).”

Every couple of weeks I have this exchange with my husband. He thinks convincing myself that I am extremely late will electrify my thinking.

“I don’t think you lack imagination,” he’d say.

“I wasn’t saying you said I had a lack of imagination, but now that you are saying it—”

“What I mean is that you’re more visual. I’m more verbal.”

I look into the vanity mirror. All the physical needs are met. My blush is healthy, my lipstick is subdued, and my mascara is neither fierce nor weak.

But the makeup is not done.

He’s not wrong, my husband. I get by on aesthetic choices. I am an aesthete. I was a graphic designer out of college and now I am an art teacher at a charter school. My husband is a lawyer and gets by on stories. We live together in New Rochelle. He commutes into the city and I work a town over. On occasion, meaning this one, he calls me in, though he does not expect me, exactly.

I lay my options out on the bed, things I’d acquired over time as a shrewd bargain bin and thrift shopper. A ratted blue t-shirt with the RC Cola logo on it. It’s about two sizes too large; I could probably wrap a belt around it or tuck it halfway in. A plaid-pattern farm dress that I have never ironed. A striped tank top that reminds me of my mom sitting in the sunroom on days off from school. I think to myself that mannequins might make this easier.

I don’t think my “lack of imagination” is entirely my fault. My husband expects certain things. Suspension of disbelief and poetic license are not things a lawyer would be comfortable with, in most cases anyway, and he is no exception. He likes things that are tangible to him, but barely; someone on the street that catches his eye, someone from his past he regrets not having known better. He tells me these things, often at night when I’m reading an article or just about to fall asleep.

I look at the tank top and think college reunion. We went to his 10-year reunion two years ago and he had a return car ride’s worth of possibilities.

I look at the t-shirt and think fresh startup intern. But that cuts too close to something I’ve already done. Maybe two things. Then I think sweet-natured barista, new to the city, hungry for experience, naïve but resourceful. I laugh.

My husband’s inspiration is sparked by his clients: an auctioneer, a pharmaceutical executive, a middling suspense author, a prodigal trust-fundee, a plastic surgeon with an avant-garde streak. It’s not that he does these poorly, quite the opposite. His income depends on inhabiting their worlds almost as much as they do. But I sometimes wish he’d work with different clients.

He once told me about this public defender acquaintance of his. “They call him ‘the UPS man,’” he told me, “because he practically delivered his clients to Rikers. It got to the point that they’d sing that ‘Mr. Postman’ song whenever he approached the metal detectors. He took it in stride, outwardly.” I suggested taking up that role sometime and his face froze into this pained expression as if a needle was going into his arm. He doesn’t respond well to sadness.

I look at the farm dress. There was this girl in art school who would wear things like this, often under a thick, oversized cardigan, colored stockings, and black sneakers. Her dirty blonde hair was long, thick, and poorly combed. Sometimes she’d double-braid it and it would look like steel wool. I think her name was Emily or Elle. We had a painting class together, she would use a light, sometimes pastel color palette for paintings with vaguely religious imagery: hands clasped in prayer, figures in Christ poses silhouetted by the sun, crying virgins in an empty field. “I think she was in a cult out west, like the ones that live in silos or something,” my roommate said, “and she’s guilty about something.” My professor hated her style and themes and criticized her especially hard. The only time I talked to her was outside after class when she asked me for a cigarette. As we smoked she asked me who my favorite painter was. I said Andrew Wyeth, which wasn’t true. “I like Munch,” she replied, “and some Renaissance stuff.” Later she tried painting with darker colors and more abstract themes which only made the professor’s critiques harsher. The last I saw her she was waitressing in a diner off-campus.

I pick up the dress. I turn to the full-length mirror on my closet door and hold it over me. I think it doesn’t need to be too drastic or melodramatic. Maybe it just needs to be mysterious. I don’t have to provide all the answers. I remember there is a pack of Natural American Spirits I haven’t used in years in the junk drawer.

Did I miss the train? I look at the clock. Of course I did.

2. CASUAL INTIMACY

“What is this music?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Is it jazz?”

“Some form of it, I guess.”

“They’ve changed the music.”

“Oh, you’re one of those people, aren’t you?”

“Who are those people?”

“People who don’t like jazz.”

“I like jazz just fine.”

“Who is your favorite jazz musician?”

“I don’t know … Dizzy Gillespie?”

“How are you spelling ‘Dizzy’ in your head?”

“Look, I like jazz. I just don’t like change is all. I like the old music.”

“I see.”

“I like the old décor, too. What is this? Much less … contemporary than it was, like, a week ago.”

“It reminds me of a speakeasy.”

“I don’t understand the appeal.”

“They’ve changed management maybe.”

“I don’t recognize the bartender either.”

“You’re here a lot?”

“Often enough. I’m reconsidering some life choices. Theme of my week.”

“Your one of those authenticity bros.”

“What the hell is an ‘authenticity bro’?”

“Broadly it is someone who does not have a sense of humor.”

“I have a sense of humor.”

“No one who has a sense of humor has ever said that.”

“You never said if you liked jazz.”

“You never asked.”

“Do you?”

“Not especially.”

“Hypocrite.”

“Identifying a type while omitting your membership is not hypocrisy. Dishonest maybe.”

“Ah.”

“Do you find one worse than the other.”

“Dishonesty has its uses.”

“I don’t see how it does.”

“If it’s being used without malice. It’s possible.”

“As in … how?”

“If something is boring, you can make it interesting.”

“Am I more interesting as someone who might like jazz?”

“If you could convince me it is a passion of yours.”

“I’m passionate about Ranier Werner Fassbinder.”

“I’ve never read his books, but I am now interested to do so.”

“He’s a director.”

“I’ve never seen his films, but I am now interested to do so.”

“What is your passion?”

“I am passionate about other people’s passions.”

“You do have a sense of humor.”

“I have a flight of fancy … that may be more accurate.”

“What’s the difference?”

“I can’t quite explain it. It’s just something I do. In the same way people watch sports.”

“Okay.”

“But I can have a flight into a life where I am someone who likes to watch sports. In these instances I tend to become someone who likes to watch the Chicago Bears.”

“We’re nowhere near Chicago.”

“I know! That’s kind of great about it.”

“It’s like you’re willfully dissociating.”

“Kind of.”

“There are people who do that pretty maliciously.”

“Fair enough. But let me put this to you.”

“Okay.”

“Hold on. Sir?”

Another gin and tonic?

“I will actually have an Amstel Light.”

Another for you, miss? Whiskey sour, right?

“I’m fine for now.”

“Without getting too personal into things—think of this as a hypothetical—what do you think is a more interesting fantasy casual encounter: one with someone you don’t know or one with someone you know well?”

“I never actually thought about it.”

“I only thought about it very recently myself. Virtually everyone on this planet is a stranger to one another. Strangers are the least endangered of all the species. And it seems rather easy to meet a stranger and to be … casual.”

“That’s one way of looking at it.”

“To wit, people living in the same space for God knows how long can be mutual strangers to on another. Like, deep down. That doesn’t stop them from sharing a bed and even procreating a new generation of strangers.”

“Well …”

“And think about the flipside. How rare friends are. How much rarer still it is for friends to become casual.”

“That would be intimate, not casual.”

“Casual intimacy?”

“But … fantasy?”

“Yes.”

“Not real.”

“Never.”

“Not once?”

“Once is more than enough.”

“I agree.”

“It is splendid to agree.”

“Are we becoming friends?”

“What if we already are?”

“Ah ha.”

“And have been for some time. We’ve developed rapport, established mutual respect, and a comfort between the two of us that is, I guess, unique.”

“Why do you keep looking at your phone?”

“To check the time.”

“You have a watch.”

“It’s not my watch.”

“Are you meeting someone here?”

“Someone might come with the hope of meeting someone like me. But of course you know this.”

“What time is it?”

“8:42.”

“Almost time.”

“Very nearly.”

“Sir?”

Yes, mam?

“I will have … a black Russian.”

Black Russian, right away.

NEEDS

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Hey! Just a few things I need from you:

  • an open-minded attitude toward environmental curation
  • an unambiguous, preferably nonverbal, commitment to live out basic, cherished principles, even if you do not agree with/comprehend them line by line
  • adjusting your expectations to be less expected
  • to hear conflicting points of view
  • to orient yourself to different/new skill sets as they are required
  • alertness to varieties of calls and a uniform affirmative response to any call
  • to avoid gestures of discouragement
  • honest, unflinching opinions regarding interesting movies or articles upon request
  • knowledge and sensitivity to the vulnerabilities of those nearest you
  • commitment of certain tension-defusing jokes to memory
  • acquiescence that more is less
  • to see every day as an adventure
  • to facilitate debate upon request
  • a positive attitude or a nearest approximation thereof
  • to choose your words carefully
  • to put on a brave face upon request
  • anticipation of revised or additional needs over time, which will not contradict or undermine the aforementioned committed principles
  • flexibility, exfoliation, endurance
  • to put these needs in a place where you can see them often

I have made copies of this and can provide more. Thanks!

WHO’S AFRAID OF WHATSHERFACE?

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If Lauren Duca did not exist, it would be necessary to invent her. Truth be told that’s kind of what I thought was the case when I originally heard about her. Though to the extent that she did not exist was a bit imprecise on my part. Was she, on the one hand, an algorithmic concoction made to generate clicks? Or was she, on the other hand, a satiric concoction, like a version of Carl Diggler, made to lampoon the thirst for a certain kind of click? The latter is more compelling for me from a narrative aspect, as it appears she rebelled against her creators. As I later learned, she is as fake as the sky turns pink and rains down gummy worms. Not that I can be blamed entirely for assuming otherwise.

For those who do not know, Lauren Duca is a young writer who started out with a lifestyle and culture beat at places like Huff Post before transitioning with considerable fanfare to political commentary. Her essay for Teen Vogue, “Donald Trump is Gaslighting America” went viral and made her a media star. As such, she is a polarizing figure, with the hostile opinions coming from different sides. One side sees her as the nadir of a media environment long in quality freefall thanks to ideological hegemony. Her entanglement on Tucker Carlson’s show embodied this side, and it was as informative and life-affirming as you’d expect. Another side sees her as a hypocrite and a grifting opportunist who overshadows her more able peers. Duca “absorbed all the accolades—a column, a book deal, a teaching gig—was shilling 1,236 words of warmed-over editorial with none of the scorched-earth analysis the headline promised,” according to Soraya Roberts.

An effective way, I’ve found, for writers to get clicks is to write about another writer who garners much more attention than you. It can be in any way you wish, good or bad or as a non sequitur, so long as the many people who have considered opinions about the writer see it, they will get their fix from you. I don’t know if this is morally right or not, or even professionally expedient, but it works in this instance seeing as I don’t actually have any strong opinion on Lauren Duca.

This is not so much a pose of aloofness as it is an acknowledgement of my limitations. Duca is a different kind of writer, who meets different demands and has a different, better defined, and much larger audience than I have. Any assessment I can make as to whether her writing is good or bad would be spectacularly off-base. I didn’t even have a reason to know who she was until her legion of critics kept pointing her out for exceptional censure. And as it turns out, this is a case where the haters are more interesting than the object of hatred. And so let us examine each side, clinically and coolly, as a recall specialist would examine two crashed cars.

The first side I mentioned is the least surprising side. It comes from the right with antagonisms long built-in and well-known by the side for whom Duca writes. This side’s adherents see Duca as the perfect portal to lob their attacks against the much broader target of Teen Vogue. Since the ascendance of Donald Trump to the presidency, the magazine has become surprisingly active as a hub of his political opposition and the progressive worldview generally. It includes articles critical of Trump’s immigration policies and praising more vigilant gun control and recognition of transsexual rights. It also includes interviews with communist activists and primers on Karl Marx. At the same time, it hasn’t discontinued its lifestyle coverage that veers decidedly consumerist. “A publication which can promote the most extreme covetousness of luxury lifestyles and goods, while simultaneously advocating the end of capitalism raises many questions,” Douglas Murray writes. “Some of them must be counted above Vogue’s paygrade. Such as the question of how post-free market economies are meant to be run.”

Hypocrisy is always a tempting and cathartic charge to level. But in order for that charge to land convincingly, the thing being charged must possess some manner of belief in what it is espousing. “What is good for thee is not necessarily good for me, but it’s still good,” is the hypocrite’s mantra. I do not see this in Teen Vogue, whose pivot is more in line with opportunism or pragmatism. In the already languishing print media of the mid-to-late-2000s, teen magazines seemed especially sickly, because magazines seemed to be the last things teens were reading. It was also a small market, titles like YM, Teen People, Elle Girl, CosmoGIRL, and Teen all shuttered between 2004 and 2009. The biggest titles were the institutional Seventeen, self-consciously cool and more mature NYLON and NYLON Guys, and Teen Vogue as the shallow, flighty sibling. Then Rookie came along to redraw the blueprints, which Teen Vogue evidently … noticed. For a print entity (that actually stopped printing in 2017) to pull off what MTV has been doing for decades is an impressive feat—Spin couldn’t even manage that—but to say that Teen Vogue as acquired a conscience, however ill-thought, might be going too far.  Teen Vogue is not a political publication, but a lifestyle publication thriving in a hyper-politicized era. At least one person in editorial or ad sales needs to monitor the sentiments of its target demographics, especially if they are notably unpredictable from season to season. It may be, for instance, that teens in the next few years or so might tire of the sincerity that Teen Vogue is now hawking and will clamor for edgier content. Teen Vogue, desiring survival, will be glad, or at least willing, to accommodate.

The second side is more complicated, as it comes from Duca’s own. For the leftist media set, Duca represents a type: the privileged non-achiever who leaps over her colleagues through shrewdness, luck, connections, or, as some have claimed, bullying and harassment—anything other than merit. “To watch Duca’s brand of zero-tolerance feminism being undercut by old colleagues was to watch the emperor being revealed in all his nudity,” Roberts writes, “there was an almost unanimous sense of schadenfreude among the feminist, progressive journalists with whom she had aligned herself. It was justice built on a bed of resentment over this derivative voice having been lifted at the expense of many others’ (many of them better). Someone else’s success may not be your failure in the meat-world, but it is online.”

Envy is an insatiable, omnivorous animal; far be it from me (who has a veritable farm of such beasts) to tell anyone to tame it. Still, there’s something about it that seems misdirected in this case. Much of the recent controversy surrounds Duca’s NYU summer class, The Feminist Journalist. The course description includes such terms as “mental Napalm,” “ongoing American dumpster fire,” “intersectional perspectives,” and “fully-conceptualized social media presence.” Indeed, the syllabus notes that the “professional Twitter account project” is 20 percent of the grade. Otherwise the concept is pretty loose with Slouching Towards Bethlehem and So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed as required texts and basic introductory-level assignments to instill “journalism’s core ethical values” and “clear, accurate, and engaging prose in an audience-appropriate manner.” It’s fine as far as it goes but seems to benefit NYU more than anyone else. Duca’s kind of success—rapid, early, and far-reaching—is as much a curse as it is a gift. It makes someone a lightning rod not only for criticism but for institutions desperate for relevance. It’s celebrity spokesthing-as-sacrificial object or scapegoat, kind of Gerardian, I guess. I think about people upon whom I would wish this fate, it’s usually those whose talent I would rather see stunted and whose ideas I would rather see diluted. Such a situation is worth being contrasted against those of more seasoned and substantial journalists—Caity Weaver, Brian Phillips, Kerry Howley, Aaron Lake Smith, Rachel Monroe, Ezekiel Kweku, Lucy Steigerwald, to name a few—whose work is available in seconds and from which much can be learned without ever having to pay tuition to anyone.

Whatever the tenor of the criticism, approaching Duca like a cosmic anomaly that vomits hate-clicks overlooks how primed the atmosphere was for such a person to gain so much influence. And she is by no means the most egregious practitioner within it. Frank Rich and Virginia Heffernan are both respected media critics who have pivoted to becoming shills for Trump anxiety disorder. I’m not sure why Teen Vogue deserves ire when the New Yorker, a legacy publication that should know better, turned its online wing[1] into an intellectual red light district for the prejudices and vulgar desires of the open floor plan mafia.

“Journalists write because they have nothing to say,” Karl Kraus wrote, “and claim to have something to say because they write.” I’m not sure which is worse: that the vast majority of media is the same debased infotainment it’s always been, or that its current practitioners have gaslighted themselves into thinking that it’s noble this time. In any case, there is virtue, possibly even wisdom, in playing the long game with your professional hatreds. Or at least wait until after they’ve turned 30.

1 FULL DISCLOSURE: from time to time I’ve submitted pieces for their Daily Shouts section that have all been rejected promptly, considerately, and with good reason. That’s not going to happen anymore, obviously, but credit where it’s due and all that.

GOING NOWHERE

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Hot Coffee, Mojave Desert, 1937 by Edward Weston

I lost my house keys at Blockbuster Video.

I developed a habit of going to Blockbuster from 2006 to about 2009 or 2010; I’d say I went about every weekend. One of the clerks noticed this, possibly because he noted my pattern of rental—horror films, which I will get to momentarily—and pounced as any decent pitchman would. “You’re here enough times,” he told me more or less, “that this could benefit you.” He was talking about a customer “loyalty” program that would confer “rewards” the more I used it. I signed up for it and was given a small plastic card to monitor my status. At some point in my membership, the keys to which the card was chained got separated from me. Blockbuster was the last time I remember seeing them.

My membership card was attached alongside a small, shiny whiskey bottle keychain I’d been given at a work event around that time. So my house keys had a distinct look that could easily be described and retrieved had I lost them there and had they been found.  (And, sure, probably not a lot of people are dumb enough to lose their fucking keys at a video store.) But I put off calling for whatever reason. Then Blockbuster went out of business, so I’d never know, and then the door of my house was replaced, so it didn’t matter.

I was never known for my accurate sense of cultural timing. Sometimes I was very early, most times I was very late; but in this rare instance the planets aligned just right. The future that played out in the late-‘00s was very different from the future that plays out in the late-‘10s. It was a very Philip K. Dick kind of future, and literary Philip K. Dick not cinematic Philip K. Dick, where cumbersome devices served limited practical ends but many psychic ends. A community based around corporate loyalty and incentive is something Dick might have appreciated. Few save the most stringent coupon hawks could say with any exactitude what rewards if any they reaped from their loyalty memberships, but doubtless all felt less alone or adrift while doing so.

“Adrift” was one thing you could feel in the midst of the late-‘00s. For much of that time, adrift was probably the worst it got. There was something very static about the late-‘00s. But it wasn’t the dissonant, roaring static of finding a signal, it was more the ambient, crackling static heard in-between voices. Not that a voice could be heard. People in the late-‘00s were speaking to nothing, from a frequency that was nowhere.

Nowhere is something that is at once widely disparaged and hard to describe before you’re there. Though once there, you know it when you see it, and it is disparaged even harder. I hesitate, however, to call nowhere a place, or even an absence of place. Think of nowhere as a state—a state of exhaustion—or maybe a void. No one goes out in search of nowhere. No one knows where nowhere is, and if someone claims to know where nowhere is, they’ve wildly misconstrued the concept and are possibly in need of help. Nowhere is somewhere you just end up for lack of anywhere else. Choices bring you there; so does shit luck, at least in most cases. Sometimes, though, nowhere has a way of finding you.

For me it was a bit of both. I graduated from college into nowhere, yet nowhere seemed to be waiting to take me and the rest of us in. Not that I was conscious that it was “nowhere,” it seemed more like “anticlimax.” The concept of a future, let alone a promising future, seemed to dissolve into a kind of mist. Everything was at a standstill; no one was interested in going forward and those who were didn’t know how. It was a low-key, “let’s just ride this out” era, a “the surged worked” era, an “I’m voting for John Edwards” era. Almost nothing was good. I strain to remember what Pitchfork considered cool then. Return to Cookie Mountain sticks out but that’s as good as it gets. What I remember seeing on HBO at the time—Hung, Bored to Death, True Blood—deserves to be there. Idiocracy was good, but it took me years to meet more than one other person who cared.

What I remember most clearly are those rentals. In the late-‘00s there was a sort of mini-boom of horror, riding the coattails of a few surprise successes of the earlier half of the decade: Hostel, Saw, Wolf Creek, The Descent, several Asian horror remakes ranking from brilliant (The Ring) to offensive (Pulse), and a bunch of hyperviolent French films I will never see. Below was not a hit, but I like it just fine. This boom was guided by a self-consciously cut-rate sensibility, geared toward a bored, half-sophisticated audience (again, good timing) with no time or interest in planting themselves in a theater; it was a kind of glorified direct-to-video. Eli Roth held the most aesthetic sway at the time with his fusion of Quentin Tarantino and Herschell Gordon Lewis. The resulting knock-offs include the suffocatingly earnest and grossly wrongheaded high school revenge film The Final, the Michael Fassbender-starring Deliverance but with chavs Eden Lake, and the Josh Duhamel-and-Olivia Wilde-starring Deliverance but with Brazilian organ traffickers Turistas. This is to say nothing of the slew of half-assed and dour paranormal films like Fragile and The Abandoned trying, quixotically, to replicate the aura of Guillermo del Toro’s cult hit The Devil’s Backbone. Then Paranormal Activity came out and reordered everyone’s priorities for the next, like, four or five years.

It was a period defined by low stakes and lower expectations. Finding bright spots was something of a roulette game. The feminist (and vaguely sex negative) horror comedy Teeth stands out, achieving all of the satire that Roth could never reach with half the violence. Lake Mungo takes the found footage/mockumentary gimmick and weaves a methodical mystery with a meditation on loss; its scares are spare but lasting. From Within is a solid idea executed well enough, with a fine, albeit brief, Jared Harris performance. The minimalist home invasion film The Strangers was probably the biggest hit of the era with any staying power. But even these decent-to-good films got pulled back under the morass out of which they came. For something that’s nothing, nowhere has an irresistible gravitational force.

This paints a narrow picture, to be sure. Horror movie marathoning was not the only thing that happened in the middle of nowhere. Nowhere can have a vast reach. I made frequent trips to Brooklyn, walking along block after block of empty warehouses in Williamsburg to get to a “loft” where troves of hipsters of the “Dos and Don’ts”-era-of-Vice variety partied to terrible music and promoted their projects to each other. It left me with the (extremely generous) impression that this once-coveted marketing demographic was energetic and ambitious but insular and distracted. I saw Radiohead but had to endure a gauntlet of Animal Collective and Kings of Leon. (It was for free, so I can’t complain, it was just very much of its time.) I amassed an extensive library of advanced review copies of CDs for “fresh” talent that I’ve mostly forgotten. I worked for several places where I really didn’t fit in, getting paid in “exposure.” I grew a beard. I interviewed Moby.

Looking back on it, I had a lot of energy in the middle of nowhere. It makes sense, of course, as nowhere is where I tend to thrive. With little or nothing provided from without, the responsibility to provide comes from within. As such, you have the burden and the blessing to make a lot of mistakes in nowhere trying to get just about anywhere. This is how it is with most culture and most lives. Nowhere feels like a holding pattern going in endless circles but in truth it is a slow buildup and, almost without noticing and in spite of itself, nowhere is nowhere to be seen.

The horror fever broke in 2009 when Ti West released his debut The House of the Devil. It‘s a low-budget slow-burning film with a 1980s setting and the graphic, visual, and sonic aesthetics to match. It balances a careful narrative buildup with a tense atmosphere—the perfect product of having to spend most of your film in one place and very little special effects to throw around. It got an especially unnerving performance from Tom Noonan, not to mention a breakout performance from a then not-at-all famous Greta Gerwig whose 15-minute or so screen time has its own energy. It would be wrong to say that before this moment no one was trying, but the elements were all so-ordered as to make the greatest case for incentive to keep trying. So the dam broke. Drag Me to Hell came out the same year, Insidious came out in 2010, Cabin in the Woods and Kill List in 2011, Sinister in 2012, The Conjuring in 2013, then the indies took over from 2014 onward.

There is so much content as of right now that the rut of 2006-2009 and the Blockbuster Video rental records that went with it can be safely forgotten along with my old house keys. But I don’t forget. In fact, I find myself rewatching them from time to time, even the bad ones. They conjure a certain mood. Not fright, obviously, or anxiety or unease. This is an escape of a different kind.

I’ve said elsewhere that nostalgia is triumphalism running behind schedule. You can’t really romanticize a void, but you can appreciate the room you had to move around in so empty a space and the many ways you tried to fill it. A moment where everything is good, as we have now, creates its own problems. The static goes from a crackle back to a roar, and one void becomes several bubbles crowding you it. Putting on The Final or Teeth, or God forbid an episode of Masters of Horror, constitutes therapy more than entertainment proper. It’s a futile attempt to capture a feeling that doesn’t seem like mine to have anymore.

But the cultural wheel is ever turning. Bubbles can’t blow forever. I couldn’t tell you which pops first: the podcast bubble, the YouTube bubble, the feminist bubble, the “new punk” bubble, the true crime bubble, the self-help bubble, the “friend group” bubble, the anxiety bubble, etc. The popping of the horror bubble is making good progress, though. Hulu’s Into the Dark film series has familiar echoes of the 2006-2009 dead zone. Halloween was remade (or rebooted?) for, I want to say, a third time. The Haunting of Hill House series showed how you could easily go from not trying at all to trying too hard. How this does or does not resonate to the rest of the culture, I have no idea, but if it’s any indication there’s a new void tearing its way toward us.

And I welcome it, even if there’s likely nothing for me in it. If young people were to ask me for life advice, and God help them if they ever see the need to, it would be two-tiered. First: don’t join any brand loyalty programs. Second: go nowhere, fast.

A UNIQUE VOICE

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The Frozen Windchime is the kind of debut novel that ushers in, like the bells of a bright blue morning, a unique new voice in American literature—or any literature for that matter. ‘Meryl Moser’ is a name we shall not soon forget if her masterful, rhapsodic prose is any indication. Its humor is too dignified to laugh at; its pathos is too shocking to cry with.” –Donatella Spalding, author of The Cheesemaker in Belfast

“Meryl Moser has offered us a splendid novel, whose subtle insights into the longings and hopes of a new generation explode across every page like claymores in a doorway.” Chase Ray McMullen, author of The Moose and My Mom: Essays and Allusions

“In The Frozen Windchime you will find sentences that stun, sentences that slash, sentences that choke, sentences that throttle, sentences that tease, sentences that poke, sentences that cross-examine, sentences that caress coldly against that very sensitive part where your waist meets your abdomen, sentences that lick it up, sentences that gulp it down, sentences with one word, sentences with a couple of words, sentences that reflect back at you your innermost violence and not always controllable gas, sentences I find myself rewriting in a way I’d prefer to have them written, sentences that will be on posters but not on people’s wrists, sentences you can take home to bed and come to ‘an understanding’ the next morning, sentences you can sauté with a decent wine. It has a lot of sentences, basically.” –Jason Cipriani, author of Retaking the Hive: Why Bee Extinction is Good for Us

“What Meryl Moser hasn’t written in The Frozen Windchime speaks volumes.” –Mary Ortmann, author of Graham Greene: A Cut-up Biography

“Necrophilia is very illegal and disgusting. It’s wrong. I’m not saying that necrophilia is right even if it doesn’t really hurt anyone at the end of the day. But you know what also doesn’t really hurt anyone at the end of the day? Reading The Frozen Windchime by Marilyn Moser. Something to think about.” –Shep K.B. Worthington, author of The Shank Man

The Porcelain Windchime is a daring novel. It dares to ask us, to demand to ask us, even, ‘What if Dunston Checks In was a gut-wrenching epic of the human need to search for truth? An indictment of society’s moral lapses and banal evils? A celebration of the radical imperative of the heart? And also, what if it was a book?’” –Oceania Dawson, author of Nothing Happens: A Diary of 2002

“I have been following AUTHORTK with interest. I saw his/her/other potential early on as my student in the MFA program at UNIVERSITYTK where doubtless this MEDIUMTK took root. TITLETK is a haunting, eloquent, and utterly parallax contribution to modern GENRETK. The struggles and resilience of PROTAGONIST(S)TK are sure to resonate with this generation and possibly many generations hereafter.” –George Saunders, author of The Virgin Suicides

“Meryl Moss’s debut is the Valentine’s Day card I’ve been waiting for since the fifth grade, made just for me by an ethereal stranger who wore the same floral kaftan no matter what season it was and who was always watering a mound of dirt in the middle of our apartment courtyard where nothing grew.” –Sheila Beasley, author of The Lazy Matriarch and Other Stories

“Mary Mosley is an exceptionally courageous new voice. Well, she’s a courageous new voice. She’s a new voice. She has a voice of some kind. Can you come back to me?” –Michelle Rose Kim, author of Circling Back to Me: Essays

“I lent the copy you sent me out and I haven’t gotten it back, so that’s probably good, right?” Kevin Cortes, author of Teaching My Dad to Code: A Memoir

The Frozen Windchill is a reminder that some people can process emotions better than others. Not that I can’t. I’m good at that like everyone else. So the novel is very relatable and graspable. Thanks.” –Jennifer Egan, author of Less Than Zero

INFORMATION REQUEST

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Dear Sir,

You have written inquiring as to certain details related to the Great Horror, the purview of which falls under this department. Such requests, as you’ve probably guessed, are frequent and overwhelming. As such, we have developed a procedure to process these requests more efficiently.

Our assessment procedure allows us to distinguish those requests we consider substantial from those less substantial; the serious, in other words, from the frivolous. This letter is to inform you that your request has been deemed sufficiently substantial and serious.

There are matters relating to the Great Horror that remain highly sensitive. Full clearance is a rarity even among the department staff. Clearance is color-coded, from white (no clearance) to aqua (absolute clearance). Your clearance level is yellow (incomplete but not inconsequential clearance).

Before we proceed to your specific inquiries, an important note about style. When referring to the Great Horror in writing—and in speech as best as you are able—the definite article (“the”) must always precede the noun and must not be capitalized. The following renderings are not acceptable: “Great Horror,” “great horror,” “The Great Horror,” THE GREAT HORROR” (with selective, pre-approved exceptions), “The great horror,” and “the great horror.” As to hashtag use, #greathorror is not acceptable; #thegreathorror is acceptable but #theGreatHorror is preferable. The official standard was arrived at after extensive, sometimes heated internal debate. It is not strictly enforceable in any legal sense, but it is maintained as a courtesy, out of respect for those most affected by the Great Horror.

We at the department cannot emphasize enough how mindful we are to the plight of those directly affected by the Great Horror. The department carefully considers as many points of view and perspectives as are available. The points of view with regard to the Great Horror does tend to be less polarizing compared to other events. On the whole, we’ve found, it is in the negative. Specifically, the sentiments associated with the Great Horror include cataclysmic, devastatingtraumatic, infernal, paralyzing, pulverizing, sickening, repulsive, arousing (in a bad way), and indescribably repulsive. These are important views, but they are by no means the only views of the Great Horror. Some have views to offer that are somewhat or entirely different from that of the majority, and it is a disservice of the department to the people it serves, whether in the majority or not, to overlook them.

The department has records of some accounts that have deemed the Great Horror interesting. This does not mean that it is thought good, let’s be clear; interesting can mean a lot of things. In such accounts, however, the Great Horror had elements that, again good or bad, stuck out. It had certain quirks that the people submitting the accounts could not, possibly despite their best efforts (we didn’t pry), get out of their heads. For instance, one account found it very interesting at how efficient the Great Horror was. It came quite abruptly and unexpectedly, yes, we all agree on that, but left just as abruptly. To some it was impressive. Allow me to quote from one.

I think of The Great Horror [sic] like a wedding. You know? Like not a very good wedding, where you don’t really know the bride or the groom but you kind of end up there. You don’t know really what’s on order so it’s going to be a little weird. Then things get really really weird in ways you did not at all expect. But at the same time, things are kind of organized. It’s machinelike and coordinated. It works somehow. It was kind of like that. There was all this [EXPLETIVE DELETED] flying around me, all these people running away or piling up, but god[EXPLETIVE DELETED] did it seem to know what it was doing. It had this kind of old school mentality. Nothing is like that around here anymore.

But let us not limit ourselves to just this one response. To others, interesting does not even begin to describe their comprehension of the Great Horror. Some accounts went one (or two) further and said that the Great Horror was challenging. This, again, does not mean that the Great Horror was good. Some challenging things can be good and some challenging things can be bad. Whatever the case, though, the event left a “unique” impact that forced a change in some people that seems, on the whole, for the positive. Again, don’t take my word for it. Allow me to quote from another submitted report.

When I think about my life in relation to the Great Horror, I always go into this pre/post kind of thinking. My life before the Great Horror was way different from how it is after. It wasn’t going great if I’m honest. I was kind of trapped. In a bad place. I was hanging out not with bad people exactly, but not great people. They didn’t have my best interest at heart in hindsight. I was not living well: eating poorly, transient in my relationships, took for granted a lot of stuff, and almost constantly on edge. Then one day, all this happens. All the bad stuff in my life gets caught up in it and sort of left me there. It was scary, really. It felt like being on my own for the first time. So I used this opportunity to right myself. I started treating myself better: eating better, working out, pursuing serious, sustained personal connections, and coming to work with a positive attitude no matter what. I learned to love myself again. I learned to breathe. I learned to forgive. I eventually forgave the Great Horror for what it did. But I thank the Great Horror every day. Every day I look up at the sky, point and nod my head like “You know what I’m talkin’ about!” I’m so blessed.

Inspiring! But don’t think I’m willfully misdirecting you away from the grimmer accounts. There were some people who came to us in a greater state of woe. They thought that the Great Horror was disappointing. I’ll just get right to the quote.

I guess like everyone else I was stunned when the Great Horror came. Not in a million years did I ever think I would see something like that. I don’t think I’ve fully processed it. I don’t think I ever will. In fact I can’t stop thinking about it.

Before it happened I had a pretty standard view of life. I had no problem with the status quo. Sure, things could be better, but are they ever perfect? I was pretty content to go the rest of my life with this mindset. Then this happens and throws everything into relief. I was nowhere near it when it happened, I saw it on screens mostly. I visited the site of its appearance after the fact. I feel bad for the people who came out on the wrong end of it, but in a way, I came out on the wrong end of it, too.

I don’t actually think that the Great Horror actually meant us harm. I think we harmed it … in a way. I think it had a message for us, but found us unwilling to listen. I think we missed something pretty great, like legitimately. I’m not an entrepreneur or anything. Like, I know how to borrow money but not how to make something out of it, but if I was one, I’d put all I had and all I could get at trying to reach it, to say, “Hey, I’m listening.”

With these accounts we are able to look not beyond the tragic nature of the Great Horror, but perhaps beside it. Beside the established quantitative findings: all the data of casualties and compromised infrastructure. Next to the numbers, tables, and whatever else we’ve been able to gather, we find a more nuanced, even subtle way of looking at this event. It’s very easy for us to understand the Great Horror as something that happened to us; as a disruptive occurrence that hard facts can readily contextualize for us. Easy, yes, but limited. With time and sensitivity our awareness can only expand to see it as something that was always within us. Some of us like to see the Great Horror as sort of like an attitude, or maybe a paradigm.

I hope that this letter was able to satisfy the nature of your inquiries. If you have additional inquiries, do not hesitate to resubmit your request no sooner than six months from the receipt of this letter with no less than three additional recommendations and the clearance renewal fee of $49.95-plus-tax.

Thank you so much for your continued interest in our work!

Sincerely,

DATING IN HELL

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The most shocking part about Hell is that Hell is actually pretty nice. Something about this seems kind of intentional. We go into Hell with certain preconceptions handed down over the centuries from people to whom we bestowed untold trust. Imagine disbelieving in Hell and being underwhelmed by it. Imagine believing in Hell and wondering what you’re missing out on elsewhere. It’s almost like eternal damnation does its job for us.

Make no mistake: Hell is serious business. Hell has hellish aspects aplenty. Like reversal of fortune. If, for instance, you lived with expansive views, you will be damned to look out at adjacent walls on either side. If, however, you lived in a more cramped situation, you will have all the space you need but nothing with which to fill it. A workaholic will have endless leisure time and access to every—literally every single—streaming service. A lazy person will have to fill out unending and absurd paperwork for permission to use the bathroom, by a certain deadline. If he or she doesn’t meet the deadline, they will be punished and have to start over. A distracted person will have nothing but a Rubik’s Cube. A focused person will moderate Facebook. And so on.

All this seems pretty daunting, but an important, and again very surprising, part about Hell is that it is flexible. You are damned in Hell, not imprisoned. The managers of Hell understand that the logistics of deathless toil are a little loopy. It turns out it is as challenging for them to oversee it effectively as it is for you to endure it consistently. So there are some outs, temporary ones, to be sure, that are not given willy-nilly. They have to be worked for or, even better, discovered when you’re not even looking for them. This is no less true when it comes to dating in Hell.

***

Couple no. 1 

Ex: What a lovely scarf.
Oh: Thank you! That is a gorgeous sweater. Is it cashmere?
Ex: Thank you. And yes.
Oh: It suits you.
Ex: Your scarf suits you.
Oh: Never in my life did I think I’d wear such fine clothes.
Ex: Yes, I never managed that myself.
Oh: How does it feel?
Ex: Dismal.
Oh: I agree with you that it feels dismal.
Ex: Very dismal.

They touch hands.

***

So far as anyone can tell, dating was not built into Hell’s original scheme. It was a safe assumption that romantic entanglements made in Hell were directly related to the earthly circumstances that got you there in the first place. For anyone else to engage in them seemed like a glaring enough glitch that, if it wasn’t reported, was certainly noticed. That it continues likely means that Hell’s managers allow it to continue for an end they don’t care to disclose.

Hell’s managers probably understand the human view of dating in the broad strokes. They understand its base difficulty; that it is consistently humiliating, contingently pleasant, and very easy to become wrapped up in its pursuit. There are probably just enough relationship experts under their observation to tell them that. But Hell’s managers are a lot like most other managers. They have their blind spots; they understand things mostly insofar as they are useful. I don’t think Hell’s managers actually know that much about life on Earth. I don’t think they’ve wrapped their head around the miasma of survival, need for security, biological imperative, and personal aspiration in which we bathed ourselves in finding a partner. And in fairness, it probably took the damned a while to realize the extent of their own liberation.

Something you realize not long after coming into Hell: you are a bad person. That hope of redemption inherent in us all did not come for you. Why? I have no idea, what did your caseworker say? That you didn’t believe it? That you believed it but didn’t take it seriously enough? That you thought it’d be easier to get? There’s not much you can do about it now. But once you accept that you are, until the last star burns out at the earliest, a bad person, you find that you are not alone. You are among an endless supply of bad people, a great variety of them, in fact. Bad people from all walks of life and degrees of severity, from the morally oblivious to outright sociopaths. You are now on a resolute spectrum of badness. Being human, you will want to find your place on it, to compare yourself against others, and, seemingly without even trying, meet new people.

***

Couple no. 2

Ex: This is my lake.
Oh: This whole lake is yours?
Ex: Every inch of it.
Oh: That’s amazing.
Ex: Every day I sit on this bench and look out at the lake.
Oh: The bench is yours, too?
Ex: Yes. My son’s name is on it.
Oh: How sweet.
Ex: If you look closely enough you can see my son drowning in the lake.
Oh: Is that so?
Ex: Dead center of it.
Oh: I’ll be. That’s sort of impressive.
Ex: Sometimes I’m not even mad.

They softly embrace.

***

Dating on Earth, as in politics or really anything in human life, is a language game. It is a process of pitches, propaganda, evasions, quality tests, and countless unsaid sayings to determine the worth of prospective mates and to obscure or dress over anything you felt made you unworthy. It seems all very nefarious when laid out in this way, but it was a natural outcome, about which most of us were greatly ambivalent at best. If you were lucky, you’d find someone who would make all the inevitable sacrifices and compromised you’d never have made on your own somehow worth it. Hell is a different matter. The terrible secrets you’ve long kept in the dark are fully disclosed, and all the pettier embarrassments you worked up your blood pressure to conceal are laughably trivial. Better yet, language is significantly streamlined in Hell. It is a place of few words; in my cases no words at all. Everything you relied on to not be lonely on Earth is entirely superfluous. In Hell, loneliness is the least of your worries.

Some other things mitigated in Hell:

  • There is no actual money. As needed, there may be experiences based on money. One person might be panicked at the lack of it, another paralyzed by its abundance. Hell has no goods you can consume or services you can render. There is certainly nothing to do; there is no amusement or recreation, no ultimate frisbee.
  • There is no need for employment; none in the traditional sense anyway, that facilitates a business and acquires profit. Your business is what’s given to you, it defines you, it’s yours in perpetuity. There are no pink slips, there is no severance, and no retirement.
  • There are no ailments, no health scares, no surprise crises; no debacles over insurance premiums, deductibles, or preexisting conditions. There is no pain in addition to the pain you are already in.
  • There are no children in Hell, which is a plus.

Still, dating in Hell is a difficult thing to get into. There are issues of compatibility and of long-term cohabitation. Can one damned persona and another damned person be vulnerable in a dire situation and then sustain it over eons? These are fair questions, to be answered in the absolute affirmative. I can’t think of a better place to develop relationships—again, quite by accident in its design. Hell is a place where no one grows, where no one changes or adjusts. No hugging, no learning, as they say. It removes every incentive or obstacle to growth but one, perhaps the most important as it is the most equalizing: our penchant for suffering. If there was one language fitting for this world it is “mutual suffering,” the bond of which is stronger than any walk-up apartment lease or dual checking account.

***

Couple no. 3

Oh: Excuse me. I’m so sorry. But I must use the restroom.
Ex: But you just got back from the restroom.
Oh: I know.

They rupture into maggots.

***

You’ve probably heard the idea that “Hell is other people.” It’s a compelling idea, but pernicious in how badly it misleads, as I have demonstrated. It was put into circulation by a man who knew nothing of Hell and everything about pursuing people. Not lately, anyway. He’s around here somewhere, in serious need of companionship.

SOME NOCTURNES

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I’m ziplining with Chad. It was actually Chad’s idea. Chad usually generates the ideas. Chad foots the bill. People see me and Chad. They see Chad on his longboard, weaving with poise and confidence through foot traffic or actual traffic. I trail behind on a Razor scooter. I ride it better here than I do while awake, but I only know one trick—a kind of 180 kickflip—that I do adequately but not enough to impress people, let alone overshadow Chad.

From the looks of it I make up Chad’s entourage. People recognize Chad in some vague way and nod at him respectfully.

Chad likes to speak in buzzwords. He talks like he’s my life coach. He seems interested in getting me closer to personal transcendence. “There’s more than one way to transcend,” he tells me with a sincere, if overeager, grin. “That’s a trade secret.” Today I am transcending through the zipline.

I am more experienced here than I am in real life, but I still haven’t gone ziplining. Chad prizes ziplining above all else. It is not just a means to an end for him. When he goes down it looks like he’s flying; like he’s fucking Superman or something. He unhooks himself and starts waving his arms from the other end like he’s directing a jet on a runway. “Don’t look down!” he yells back at me. Of course I fucking look down. There are six red cougars or panthers pacing the ground and growling up at me. “Pretty sick, right?”

Remember, I’m a normal person so I do the zipline with little obstruction. But I close my eyes tightly as I do so. It’s a rush. Chad catches me at the other end and unhooks me. I start telling him a shameful secret that I’ve never told anyone. Chad nods rhythmically, smiling. “Can you repeat that, dude? I didn’t really get the last part.” This is his catchphrase, it has an autotuned cadence. His grin is perfect paper-white, but only white, no teeth. I tell him my secret with a few details omitted.

I actually just think Chad is really assertive in an exhausting way and I’m the last person who tolerates it.

***

There’s this hospital. It’s closed now, has been for a few decades. I’m in the hospital but it’s as it was before it was closed. The floor tiles have an ivory sheen. The walls are mint green-colored. I walk freely in the hallways. Nurses in white uniforms and hats with red crosses smile and call me “Your excellency.” Orderlies in light blue scrubs and tattoos nod and call me “Right Honourable.” I am wearing a brown suit with a rose in my lapel. My room has a wooden desk and a small flag at the corner of it. I don’t recognize the flag and knock it to the floor.

An orderly knocks on my door and tells me it’s time. He takes me gently by the arm and leads me down to an auditorium where people in yellow gowns tied up the back sit in folding chairs before a projector screen. Their hair is buzzed down to the same length; they sit in the same downfacing hunch. There is an empty chair in the section to the right of the projector screen where the orderly places me then stands behind the slide projector with his arms crossed. A thin man in a grey suit walks into the room and stands beside the projector screen. He wears a pink mouth mask. He points to the orderly who turns on the slide projector. At the man’s direction, the orderly clicks the button that changes the slides. Each slide is some variation of children playing in a yard, or a family sitting down to dinner. The man says nothing. He just signals and the orderly changes the slide.

The orderly clicks to a slide reading “THE END” and is directed to stop. The man silently opens the floor to questions. No one says anything for several seconds. So I stand up and say “Fuddle duddle.” And sit down. The man nods and exits.

I sit at the head of the table at lunch. My tray is grey. The food—scrambled eggs, toast, rice pudding, whole milk—is also grey. People in the same yellow gowns look at me from their seats. The two seated nearest to me is get up to whisper things in my ear. I can’t distinguish what they tell me, but I nod to them as if I do.

I return to my room with a different small flag and a pile of papers. I shuffle and straighten the papers and knock the new, still incorrect flag to the floor.

An orderly comes into my room again and takes me back to the cafeteria. The tables and chairs have been pushed to the walls. Yellow-gowned people stand in a circle in the center of the room clapping in a slow rhythm. A nurse stands in the circle pointing to random yellow-gowned people and directing them to go in. The clapping rhythm speeds up. One yellow-gowned woman goes in and stands still for a few seconds before jolting into a flamenco. A yellow-gowned man goes in and does an Irish jig. Another does a Russian folk dance. The nurse points to me and I go in. I can’t think of what to do, the clapping rhythm seems very slow, almost plodding. My mind is blank. The nurse is getting impatient. The clapping seems to have stopped. Then, seemingly without a thought, I put my fingers on top of my head, raise my right leg to my left calf and twirl into a pirouette. I twirl and twirl and twirl, not mindful of the speed of the clapping or the possible censure of the nurse.

I am back in my room, seated at my desk. It is night. There are more papers in front of me. They will have to be dealt with in the morning. I look at the corner of my desk to find the correct flag. I hold it over my chest in the mirror and take it to bed with me.

***

It’s Dot Day, and I am a boy again. I’m walking to school. My mom set aside the appropriate Dot Day attire. I walk along houses adorned with all manner of dots. Small dots, large dots, medium dots, plastic dots, paper dots, aluminum dots, dots painted on walls, dots hanging by threads, dots spinning on wheels.

Michelle stands behind me in line on the blacktop. She kicks me in the ankles. I turn around. She laughs and smiles. I wave and smile back. She has on more dots than anyone.

The teacher stands before the class in a shin-length denim dress, loafers, and a brown blazer with no immediate evidence of dots. Michelle sits a few desks up from me at the row to my right. She turns to me with a cold look. She raises her hand, and when called upon asks the teacher—whose name I don’t know—where her dots are. “Oh dear!” the teacher says, and goes into her purse and takes out a yellow button and pins it to the lapel of her blazer. The children clap.

Everyone gets up from their desks and goes into their backpacks. Michelle appears in front of my desk holding with both hands a card with my name written over a big blue dot. She places it on my desk and waits. I freeze realizing that I left my Dot Day cards on the kitchen counter. They are generic store-bought Dot Day cards for the entire class. Michelle returns to her desk in tears. The teacher ignores this.

At lunch, the dots multiply. The menu is dot-themed: dot-shaped waffles, dot-shaped Jell-O, dot-shaped mashed potatoes, dot-shaped tuna salad, dot-shaped pizza with dot-shaped toppings. I eat a dot-shaped cheeseburger. Michelle’s feelings are bitter, directed at me in sharp but doubtless dot-shaped glances. The principle walks up and down the cafeteria presenting his wide dot-patterned tie. The custodian has a hat with a dot. They pose for a photo. The children clap.

Back at class, the teacher passes out cupcakes with chocolate dots placed over the frosting. Michelle sits cross-armed looking down at her cupcake as if she was trying to make it combust. There is a knock at the door. It is my mom carrying the grocery bag containing my Dot Day cards. The teacher lets her in and I go to meet her. As she hands me the bag, I hear Michelle yell “No dot” indignantly. I look at my mom and see under her raincoat the top of her dog-patterned pajamas. “No dot” says another student, then another, and then the whole class chants it in unison. Michelle picks up her cupcake and hurls it at my mom, hitting her in the arm. The other children pelt her with their holiday-themed baked goods. I stand in front of my mom but it is futile. Two of my classmates push me aside as the rest arise and throng upon my mom until she is subsumed under a pile of children. The teacher is at her desk reading a Redbook. Michelle giggles and jumps in place as the pile flattens to a crowd. She turns to me smiling, her eyes like bulging black marbles. The children clap.