Breadcrumb #493

LAURA HENRIKSEN

Maybe it was all those Lutheran summers by the river, but I can think of nothing more romantic than destiny, than fate foretold. Not even to be the chosen one necessarily, just to be proximate to them somehow, participating in the fulfilment of a prophecy. It’s been a real problem for me.

Slowly I learn how the language of inevitability is always a trap. But then listen to me, “always.”

What I mean is, any situation could have been otherwise, whatever is begun could have gone another way, could have been avoided entirely, but at every step a decision was made and enforced, often by forces entirely outside of the participants’ control, and then what happened happened, as if naturally, as if unavoidable. But the violence, the tragedy, the failure, none of it had to be that way. Something else was possible.

When I get too utopian in front of certain relatives, talking about how things could have been, could yet be, they’ll say, well it’s just human nature, to be greedy, selfish, whatever, as if that means anything. Human.

***

Have you seen the movie Dead Again? It’s a 1991 LA noir horror romance, directed by Kenneth Branagh, starring Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson. In the film, Thompson plays a woman who has lost her memory and Branagh the shady private eye who is hired by an idealistic nun to help her. The nun character never returns, but an antique dealer gets involved, providing his services as a regression hypnotist in an attempt to help Thompson reclaim her lost memories and uncover the secret of her mysterious identity, her unknown origins. While undergoing this treatment the film switches from color to black and white flashbacks — an effect added during editing to make the narrative more clear — relaying the story of a glamorous but tragic 1940s Hollywood marriage between a jealous composer and a celebrated pianist, also played by Branagh and Thompson, which ends in murder by household scissors. We come to realize that the mysterious amnesiac and her devoted private eye were this married couple in a past life who have now found each other again, and are now again falling in love, in the same town but fifty years later. Destiny. It’s very complicated, and includes a fun gender swap I bet was pretty wild in 1991, as well as something to do with an expensive anklet, narrow escape from Nazi Germany, and Robin Williams as a disgraced therapist turned grocery clerk.

While they were filming the movie, playing two pairs of lovers who were really perhaps one pair of lovers, Branagh and Thompson were, in fact, lovers in real life. They were married, but divorced not long after when Branagh cheated on Thompson with his co-star in another movie he directed and starred in, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Helena Bonham Carter. The romance not of who you are but who you can pretend, for a time, to be.

I watched Dead Again late one night lying in bed, stressing about something, illuminated by tv light, and I was disappointed that it wasn’t more scary. But once I turned it off I could barely sleep, and when I did I had the strangest dreams, which I have now mostly forgotten beyond a sense of forest green and a sea of disembodied lips.

***

Or you know when you hear a song you used to love, love with your whole heart as if your love meant something about who you were as a person, and now on relistening you no longer hear what you had heard, and you take it as proof you no longer are who you once were? I mean around what shifting and molten or solid and deep core do you cohere across all these discrete events and instances? Watching a stranger sleep on the train, standing in front of a bar or at a party, wading into a pool, waiting for a movie to start and wondering why you’re there, why you like anything you like, go anywhere you go.

I dreamt I got an email from one poet about another poet, and despite the suspicious clue that I could not remember when or where I read this email that perhaps should have been enough to confirm for me that this event didn’t really happen, I could nevertheless recall the email’s contents so plainly, I remained convinced it was real, and I searched for it for days, afraid I had made some sort of mistake, and eventually had to send a strange email of my own to someone I barely know, admitting I was afraid I deleted a message that maybe never came.

This is one example of why memory is totally unreliable as a measure of identity over time. I remember so vividly things that didn’t happen, or didn’t happen to me.

I am not all of myself, complete and whole, in any one moment, because parts of me are spread out across my life from my birth to my death. I’m multiply located, child parts of me in my childhood, elderly parts of me in my old age, and those parts aren’t here right now, because they’re there.

Or, perhaps they are here right now, time folding over, shapeless and swirling, because I am here, and I am there, not that I am in both places at once, but both places here at once. Or both things are true. And all the parts of you too, here with me. Now and then.

So this is why I think the image of the road, metaphoric or otherwise, is, for me at least, so endlessly appealing, so irresistible. A clear, coextensive line from who you were to who you will be to how you will die and how soon you will be forgotten. For example, in Amanaz’s 1975 “Khala My Friend,” almost the only line in the entire song, repeated over and over, is “the road you're taking / it has no end / Khala my friend come back to me.” My first impulse would be to imagine that a road without end would be a good thing, freedom maybe, something one would wish for their friend, but when Keith Kabwe sings it, the endlessness is the trap, it doesn’t mean no death, it means no rest, no peace, no reunion with your friend who loves you and calls to you home. This endless road just goes farther and farther away forever and then you die, at which point you are either farther away or finally closer again, I’m not sure.

A clear, coextensive line from who you were to who you will be to how you will die and how soon you will be forgotten.

I compare it to Gram Parsons’ “Return of the Grievous Angel,” where Parsons sings with Emmylou Harris, “Twenty thousand roads I went down / And they all lead me straight back home to you.” That’s that destiny I was talking about, its particular comfort being that I imagine it suggests a bond so undeniable it doesn’t matter if you fuck up, it doesn’t matter if you leave, it’s meant to be and so it will find a way, destined, inevitable, love. But that’s not true, of course it matters, relations are fragile and if we are careless they will break, there is no meant to be. And also why do I find the vision of this Annie Rich figure who forgives and welcomes the singer for leaving her twenty thousand times so romantic? Shouldn’t I long for her refusal of his return? Well that one’s easy, it’s the idea of a home you can return to after you leave, something that can’t be lost.

But then the problem of identity over time doesn’t feel so urgent as the problem of losing yourself, or losing hold of yourself, or losing touch with yourself, your true self, so vulnerable to external force or tragedy.

***

After all those Lutheran summers and evangelical holidays, one comfort I found was in repeating some version of “everything happens for a reason,” or “all is as it should be,” whenever everything appeared to be a fucking disaster. Then in college I read about modal realism, a theory which explains that our world is but one world among many others, each existing at no spatial or temporal distance from this world, but in no way causal or otherwise connected to it. In On the Plurality of Worlds, David Lewis explains, “There are so many other worlds, in fact, that absolutely every way that a world could possibly be is a way that some world is,” which means there are countless worlds where I’ve died already, worlds where I am a bad mother or a good mother, worlds where I’ve killed people, worlds where I am almost exactly as I am in this world you and I share except in this other world my favorite color is a more cerulean blue. If this is the case, as I believe it is, then of course we can no longer say as a comfort that everything happens for a reason, because everything that could happen does happen, somewhere, and all we can say of this way is that it’s the way it is happening here.

Famously, when asked by a fan about Zayn Malik’s departure from One Direction in 2015, Stephen Hawking attempted to provide some comfort by reminding the fan that according to theoretical physics, which postulates the existence of multiple universes, there is a universe where One Direction remains constant, the boys together forever, boys forever. But there are also so many universes where the band never formed, never got famous on the internet, maybe even universes without any pop music at all. Useless universes.

I also loved boy bands, like so many kids in the nineties. Totally unable to understand the ways in which they were produced, their images or personas manufactured to meet my requirements for them, I followed their friendships and rivalries, novelty basketball games, I wondered about their lives, I imagined being a part of it, totally devoted. But gradually the unbelievability of it became intolerable — How could four or five boys simultaneously find themselves again and again in the exact same romantic entanglement as their closest friends? Happily in love at the same time, in love with the wrong person at the same time, ending an affair at the same time. The coincidence was too much, and I grew to fear these singers did not mean what they sang. Perhaps instead I could have learned something about empathy.

Or, harder to believe but much more intriguing, perhaps I could have found an answer in the way their voices harmonized, such that without training and the most careful attention, you could not distinguish one singer from the other, and even then not with perfect certainty. Perhaps the boundaries between the boys were so blurred they were no longer separate and self-contained, but one heart, one consciousness, spread across five bodies, dancing in perfect choreography, singing about feeling. I mean maybe.

***

Sometimes a trap looks like an escape, which is fucked up.

If I am not sure of being identical with myself over time, if I am confused by the other possible Lauras in all these other possible worlds, I suppose the romance of destiny is not so surprising. Even Gary Oldman and Winona Ryder’s hypersexual Victorian repression via 90s coked-out Hollywood excess — it thrills me. Their love destined across time and death.

As an experiment I look at my backwards face in the mirror and say “I am not Laura” over and over and sometimes “you are not Laura” and other times just “not Laura,” like I’m casually summoning a personal Bloody Mary. It’s unsettling, exciting, and boring all at once, in that standing on a tall balcony over an abyss kind of way. As semantic saturation takes over and words betray themselves as random mouth activities, I know it’s true, Laura isn’t me. Not so much a devastating revelation as a little window that reduces me to this string of metaphors. You should try it sometime.

• • •

Breadcrumb #489

REBECCA VAN LAER

In middle school, I took Chorus as an elective. It’s what all the popular girls did; I remember standing behind them and looking at their ponytails, the length of their shorts, their tennis shoes. I was still learning to mimic their looks: I wore New Balance tennis shoes even though they’d moved on to Adidas, and I had some clothes from the Gap, but my parents had yet to drive me to the Abercrombie & Fitch in the upscale mall an hour away in Atlanta. I enrolled to observe them, but the opportunity hardly felt worth the embarrassment I felt every time I opened my mouth.

We were graded on participation, and on our voices. The choirmaster sent us one-by-one into a private recording booth where we sang into a tape recorder. In that room, just off the main classroom, my hands trembled as I hit “record.” I could hardly bring my voice above a whispery rasp as I sang “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” My heart beat in my chest with the fear my classmates would hear me through the glass windows of the tiny room.

I felt shame often at that age, over everything from the way my thighs spread to the margins of my shorts when I sat down, to my freckles, to the blush that spread across my chest every time I was anxious, exposing me all the more. But I wasn’t the only embarrassed by singing: even the gifted seem to struggle with it. Even my friend Ashley, who had thick red hair and a beautiful soprano voice.

Ashley was more popular than I was, and I was grateful to be her friend. I don’t know how it started, but one day, she began talking to me. Before I knew it, I was over at her house watching movies; I went to my first school dance with her, and she helped me do my makeup. Once, I got my period during a birthday sleepover at her house. Too embarrassed to tell her, her mom, or anyone else, I went to the bathroom over and over again to clean up rather than asking for a pad. Eventually, I fell asleep, and when I woke up in the morning, my yellow pajama pants, decorated with cartoon sheep, were stained an ugly brown at the crotch. I was the first up, so I changed out of them immediately, and hoped I hadn’t stained the sheets I’d slept between.

Ashley was the most gifted vocalist at our school, and our teacher and our peers treated her accordingly. She always got the solos, and I listened to her sing them in class over and over again, rapt.

When we were assigned parts for our performance at the school’s pre-Christmas assembly, one note in the arrangement was so high that only two girls could hit it: Ashley and Sarah. While Ashley was well liked, Sarah was not. She lacked the self-consciousness needed to survive one’s early teenage years. Although she wasn’t skinny, she wore shorts: a middle school sin. At school, she was friendly even when people rolled their eyes at her, tried to let her know she wasn’t welcome at their table, or in the corner of the gym they’d occupied during the school dance. She was mocked often, but it seemed to have no effect on her. I heard people whisper about her, and the pity I felt was mixed with fear for myself.

Like everyone else, I was rooting for Ashley to hit the note with clarity. But when it came time, we only heard Sarah’s voice soar above the school band, reaching the rafters of our school’s gym.  

**

The men I’ve dated have all made comments on my voice. They’ve had ample opportunity to. As I grew older and more confident, I started to sing in the shower, in the car. Every time Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” and Taylor Swift’s “Love Story” comes on the radio, I belt along with them, although sometimes an octave too low, trying to avoid the high notes where I crack and falter.

In college, my boyfriend told me just before I met his family that I should avoid singing in front of them. He told me it wasn’t that my voice was bad—it was that I got “too serious” when I sang. Too into it. His parents would be uncomfortable if they heard me, he told me. (I understood: he would be embarrassed.)

Years later, I met someone playing Rock Band at a party. I sang to No Doubt and then we held hands on the couch. He was in a band and told me he really liked my voice. He played Rock Band all the time, but usually not with someone else who could sing. My voice was the first thing drew him to me. Not my appearance, or even my mind. And this was my favorite thing about him. While we were dating, my stepmom asked me what he was like. I had almost nothing good to say. “Well, there must be something great about him, right?” He didn’t call me when he said he would. He was hardly available. But for a few months, I listened to the same songs over and over again in my bedroom, singing until I drove my roommate insane.

Two years ago, my boyfriend and I drove from New Orleans to New York. As usual, I sang and he laughed. I asked him for what felt like the hundredth time, What’s so fucking funny? I went on: Is it the way my voice sounds? Or the way I switch keys? Or your own discomfort with the fact that I’m singing at all.

Maybe all three, he said.

I like to sing! Stop teasing me, I said.

I like it when you sing, too, he said. My laughter expresses my joy.

What does he like about it, though? The tone and cadence, or the fact that I’m going for it, windows down, even though I sound awful? I know what stopped Ashley, all those years ago, from letting her voice reach new volume. The sounds we emit are unruly: an aspect of the self we can do very little to control or shape. Leaking out like the blood on my pajama pants, and also leaving a stain somewhere inside. It is sometimes easier to stay quiet than to try and fail.

• • •

Breadcrumb #488

MADDY BURNS

I have to say “Drive safe” when my husband leaves. If I don’t, he might get into an accident.

    I have to say “I love you” at the end of every phone call. If I don’t, and my mom or dad die, they might die thinking that I didn’t love them.

    I have to text “I love you” to all of them before I turn off my phone on the plane. If I don’t, they might think that I died mad at them.

    The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, is the go-to reference for diagnosing mental illnesses. It contains approximately 297 diagnoses of mental illnesses, under a bevy of codes. They include codes for:

  • adult psychological abuse by nonspouse or nonpartner, suspected

  • adjustment disorder, with disturbance of conduct

  • mild neurocognitive disorder due to multiple etiologies.    

    I’m still looking for the applicable code for a two-year old girl who thinks she killed her mom with her thoughts. The code for a little girl whose mother disappeared a week after she wished her dead. The code for a little girl who doesn’t understand what spinal meningitis is or what a hospital quarantine means. Because everyone knows that little girls can’t hurt people with their thoughts.

     Except  . . .

     When I say “Drive safe,” my husband looks at me and sighs.

    “I will,” he says, his eyes tired.

    When I say, “I love you,” my mother pauses a little through the phone before saying, “I love you, too.”

    When I text “I love you,” they know what I really mean.

• • •

Breadcrumb #483

ISABEL ANREUS

My abuela and I share the same Orisha, the santo Obatalá. Adorned in white; the eldest and wisest. The Orisha that preserves justice and reckoning. The diplomatic voice amongst a constant discord of sibling rivalry. The androgynous white knight. Obatalá is both male and female, both a Catholic and African deity. Every member of my family has an Orisha to protect and watch over them. My mother’s so accurately is Yemayá, the mother of all living things. She is all blue and resides in the ocean. She takes care of her other siblings’ unwanted children. My brother’s is Changó. He is fire, lightning, and thunder. Smudged red. Power, strength, and aggression are his most prized attributes.  He was once king of the whole earth, and Changó, like my brother, has an appetite for all things decadent. My father is the luckiest, his Orisha is Elegguá, the most powerful. Children of Elegguá are blessed; they have access to the twenty-one roads. He is the connecting agent, the negotiator with fate. Elegguá is also the trickster; the child with an incessant fervor for candy. His shrines are the easiest to spot, always covered in sweets, money, and liquor.   

Santeria translated from Spanish is roughly, “devotions to the spirits,” but most who practice it don’t use this term to describe it. The more familiar term is Regla de Ocha which translates roughly to, “Ruler/Rules of the Bark.” Orishas (spirits) are the children of Olodumare, the ultimate creator.  The tale goes that Oldumare got bored with Earth so she moved on to create other universes across the galaxy. She left behind her eldest children, the sixteen Orishas, to keep an eye on humanity, whether they do so righteously depends on the Orisha.

    My first real exposure to Regla de Ocha happened when I was five years old. My mother hauled me and my entire family to the Cuban capital of ‘90s New Jersey, Union City, for an official reading by a babalawo (a priest). His partner answered the door in a hot pink silk robe with matching slippers. A bright red boa wrapped around his neck. I remember I reached out and grazed one of the feathers with my index finger. By the front door was a coconut covered in Puka shells resting in a bowl filled with loose change, individually wrapped pieces of candy, and mini bottles of Bacardi.

The tale goes that Oldumare got bored with Earth so she moved on to create other universes across the galaxy.

     From a time beyond my own, it stems from the Yoruba tribe in West Africa, Regla de Ocha is commonly misinterpreted as a blend between two religions—Catholicism and the Yoruba tribal ceremonies— but it exists as something else entirely. It is a religious syncretism, creating a parallel, an alignment in the obtuse patterns of mysticism. After being forced to convert to Catholicism, many of the slaves kept their own traditions and rituals, attributing its similarities to the Catholic faith. Practiced in secret, Regla de Ocha was passed down through the tongues of those most persecuted, using the steady beat of the sacred batá drum to plant the roots of their religion that traveled all the way across the Atlantic to Bayamo, Cuba.  

     My abuela’s sister first introduced her family to Regla de Ocha back in Havana. The youngest of ten children, it must have been quite a game, matching each Anreus sibling with their Orisha counterpart. Finding one’s Orisha is not just based off of similar personality, but about capturing someone’s aura, their spiritual energy. It is about an individual’s connection with the universe, highlighting one’s inner truth and recognizing it as a larger sense of purpose. My great-aunt’s Orisha is Oyá. The warrior and protector of the dead. She guards the cemetery. The female counterpart to Changó, and the only Orisha who can control him. Full of sadness, death follows her everywhere. Her magic number is nine, for the number of still-births she’s had. She finds solace in few things, one of them being chocolate pudding.

    When I visited my abuela at the nursing home during the last several months of her life we developed a routine. I would rub Shea butter all over her hands and face, fold up and feed her an extra piece of Wrigley’s Freedent gum, and take off the garish nail polish the aids painted on a weekly basis— hot pink, fire engine red, burgundy, colors my abuela would claim were, colores de putas. When I cleaned her nails she wouldn't speak to me, she would just surrender each finger one by one. I clipped, filed, and buffed; scraped out the dirt and old food building between the edge of nail and skin. Then, I would coat each one with a glob of clear polish, exactly how she liked it. Her nails were shaped exactly like mine.

• • • • • •

Breadcrumb #482

KRYS MALCOLM BELC

Every few weeks you shave my head in the bathtub. I sit naked on the wood stool and you stand behind me, cutting so close to my head I look bald in certain lights. The moment after one of your haircuts is the closest I come to religion. In the damp bathroom church I step out of the tub covered in discarded hair and trim my beard in the sink mirror before showering. Samson has been growing out his hair for over a year. For months his bangs have fallen in his eyes and he wears pins clips ties headbands and sweatbands but still wild blond pokes through and through. Samson says he will never have a beard but also says he likes mine. He rubs his hands along my face and calls me beautiful because that is the word I always use for him. His name feels fuller in my mouth now that I worry one day he won’t want it. Samson. I tell you it makes me anxious to think about how different he is from most boys, from our other boys, and you say Well, that’s on you. It is my job to be ok with what I made. He is sweet and soft in a way I’m terrified of crushing. In his little white drawers dresses stack on leggings stack on jeans. There are bracelets and LEGO creations scattered on his windowsill. You wonder if Sean would have needed his leg braces, if he would need speech therapy, had anyone else made him. Sean looks just like your mother. He is skeptical of me just like she was. But what good is the wondering, we know. We know it does not help our children who are alive, so alive, in front of us right now. They are us and they are their donor but mostly they are themselves.

His name feels fuller in my mouth now that I worry one day he won’t want it. Samson.

When I shaved my head for the first time everyone was shocked but I did not care. You said you were surprised how perfectly round my skull was. It was the first time anyone ever said the word perfect about my body. Your long fingers on my head felt new and wonderful. You held my hand as we walked across campus, heads turning. The air so cold so good rushing all over my scalp. What did we know, then? Samson says other children do not believe in dads who make babies. When he says this my stomach turns like it did when he was old enough to eat something other than my milk because that meant we were separating. We are separating. Thread by thread I am letting him fall away from me. There are no stories of his life that could begin without me but many that could end that way. I do not like to write about Samson as he is now because I cannot make him a character like I’ve made you into one. You can handle it. I can only handle writing about the Samson who used to smear berries all over his face. You stuffed them lovingly into a little mesh feeder and taught him to wrap his hands around food that wasn’t me. His eyes so blue, like mine, his face smudged all over with red and purple sweet. Samson says he doesn’t want to be the only child on this Earth made by his dad even though I’ve assured him he isn’t, showed him pictures of dads and children I’ve only met on the internet. They don’t always seem real to me either. Samson is older now, holds dark berries gently in his fingers before placing them on his tongue, sacred like. The Samson who needs me constantly is as gone as the me who made him. I miss the way his head felt when he used to let me shave it. So round and prickly, so much like mine. My heart burns looking at old pictures of him. I gave him this wild life.

• • •