Self-Portrait (1944) by Dorothea Tanning
Once this is done, I’m driving straight out to the desert, all alone. Minute by minute, the trees get shorter, the grass succumbs to dust, the car dealerships sprawl out in every direction, then yield to outlet malls and casinos. Parking lots and warehouse stores emerge on every horizon, then surrender to wind turbines and tumbleweeds. Then there are just pointy rocks and weeds and skinny roads leading upward into the brilliant sky, like a rocket ship aimed straight at the sun. That’s when I’ll remember how to breathe.
And next, there are weird little roads winding through narrow passages, down into the valley and then straight up to the stars, launching me like a satellite, off the ground and into some sparkling abyss. That’s when I’ll remember what I believe.
You could just go right now, my mind starts whispering. Throw one bag in the car and go. I have friends out there who never leave the house, just like me. I have friends with giant dusty backyards, one fire pit dug into the ground, three white plastic chairs lingering awkwardly around that circle of ashes, mourning the place where the fire was, waiting for the sun to set, hoping for more.
It’s been so long since I hoped for more. What does it feel like? To slip past the burger joints and the Costcos, to escape the reach of strip malls and old men without masks who yell at you as you walk by, even though you’re quietly minding your own tedious business: “I’m glad that thing makes you feel safe!” You want to ask them, “Who feels safe anymore?"
It looks like such an easy trick now, to weaponize the whole world’s contempt. Anyone can do it, you can start today, working from home part-time. Anyone can sharpen long-standing resentments into a shiv, pack neglect and frustration into a dirty bomb. Once this one is finally gone, they’ll find us that special anyone all over again, America’s new sweetheart. He’ll pull off the same easy trick, this time with more feeling, try it again like you mean it. Can’t you picture him now? A baby-faced boy who grew up with nothing, pulled himself up by his racist jackboots and made an honest homicidal maniac of himself.
Everyone is looking for something fun to do as the world burns down, a neat way to pass the time as the tides roll in for good. Everyone wants to capitalize on the rising dread, the falling stars, the desperation, the longing, the isolation. We’re all lonely now but in the most claustrophobic way, knowing that our days are numbered, knowing that we have to squeeze every last drop of joy out of the smallest things, now or never, now and forever.
I just need to focus on what I own: tear ducts, heartbeats, these weird little veins still winding toward the sun. Just give me a stretch of empty days outside the reach of families trudging into the mall like nothing has changed, while the same woman asks, “Why aren’t you at home?” into the same microphone over and over, talking about catastrophe and death somehow without closing essential fashion boutiques and vital cupcake establishments along the way.
But none of us make sense anymore. We’re all knotted up in contradictions: ambivalent, haunted, confused. Just give me a few hours in the car by myself, listening to my own music, blasting it into my ears until the mountains cut a jagged edge across the sky, until jagged shadows chase my car across the sand. My cells escaped invaders shaped like a shiv, neglect and frustration sprouting up in fields where crops used to grow, contentment surrendering to fear. I think I won, I think we won, we did it together. Let me declare victory all alone, in the morning, in some windy nowhere land. Now that we trust each other completely, now that you know me better than anyone, I want to see the edges of my own shadow against the rocks, breathe in the sparkling light, and belong to myself again.
I need to remember how it felt to take the risk of being misunderstood: by you, by the whole world. In the past few months, I’ve been shrinking, slowly becoming someone who wants to be understood by everyone, as if everyone has a vote, as if I can win the whole world over at last, working from home part-time: Strike the right tone, humble myself, question my motives, rip myself into some shape that someone else might appreciate or want to become.
This is the danger of shipping your words to strangers at a rapid clip. You find it echoing everywhere these days: all words sound instructional, aspirational, every writer slowly taking the shape of a scold, a guru, a fish wife, a pocket knife. Each instruction manual is made of earnest words, so certain, so absolutely sure, insisting that you to take the most appropriate shape: Do this. Never think about that. Become safer and better. Become smaller and wiser. This is healthy, that is not. Listen only to the sound of my voice, your special anyone. Smooth this jagged edge, focus on salvation — but not yours, you selfish rat! Be better, be less of you and more of me, form yourself in my holy image, look at how much I’ve sacrificed, watch me weep, let’s try that again with more feeling this time, throw yourself into the sea for the greater good, knowing that you were brave and valiant, knowing that you were obedient and pure, a righteous hero, a falling star.
I’m glad those words make you feel safe, but I’ve surrendered too much of myself already. Now I need to honor my own cells instead. Animals don’t blame themselves for breathing, or tell themselves that their needs are toxic. Animals walk out into the cold air and follow the odd logic of their heartbeats through the dark hills, breathing in without requiring a blessing, breathing out without requiring absolution.
I don’t know how you should do it. I don’t know anything at all. I want to celebrate that, all alone, sunrise pink and orange across the dome of sky, celebrate the place where the fire was, jagged lines across my skin, hope for more, jagged shadows on the sand, ashes kicked up by the warm wind. Tired teeth, strong limbs: I’m still alive.