A friend from Auckland came over to Melbourne today. It must be summer. The past always comes to visit before the beginning of summer.
Vaibhav, who has actually been living in Adelaide for almost as long as I’ve been living in Melbourne, looks exactly the same. Exactly. We wind our way through the laneways and smells of lunchtime in the city to a tea place in Block Arcade, which has apparantly been there since the 1800s. Lots of chai tea, chicken salad, zucchini flowers and raspberry cheesecake later, we felt well acquainted with the minutiae of our everyday lives.
How was my research? How was his Spanish? How were his exams? His family had moved across to Australia a few years ago and now his younger sister was also in Adelaide. They had moved in together in a shabbier suburb. He’d almost gotten mugged once.
Hopes and dreams was an art gallery thing. The red cobble of the upper National Gallery fountain looked from afar like autumn leaves, which was confusing. We wandered around upstairs in contemporary art, then at photographs of urban sprawl from the 1990s. A security guard snuck us into a preview of Unnerved, an amazing exhibition of New Zealand art.
At the end of it all, we ended up at Cafe Segovia, staring out at the rain dripping off the eaves in lane and people trying to pass in the narrow sheltered spaces without getting dripped on. As we’d left the gallery low hung rain clouds had made the world seem like a dream. Towers reached into the sky and disappeared. I thought, we’re in Babylon and we the world might be divided again.
My tummy rebelled at the thought of wine. We began this trek into the past. First with lovers, then with love, then to those we loved, namely N who is common to both of us, and the places where we loved everything, everyone - namely, Auckland.
He laughed as we walked to the place where we would part. “Do you remember the time when I dropped you at your house — your old one? As I backed out of your driveway I ran over a recycling bin and dragged it with me up the road. I just remember you laughing so hard on the curb as you saw me. You had a look on your face that said, oh Vaibhav.”
I laughed too.
I love our common past. In Auckland, you could do anything. Or maybe it was the age, before we became communities with professional/personal boundaries and eyes and ears that were pasted to the wall. People who don’t call you back, and people who you don’t call back because you are afraid of being hurt (who you think about with guilt constantly).
Perhaps it’s an age thing more than anything.
But I like that we’re here now, in Melbourne and Adelaide. He told me that it was only when he saw me that he started to think of all these things and I realised it was similar for me too. Our everyday lives held us up to the present: “When I leave tomorrow, we’ll both go back to ourselves.”
We hugged on the corner of Little Collins and Swanston. I had a lab dinner in Chinatown that couldn’t be missed. So early to part, and yet so late. I took a photograph.
That’s what I’m blessed with. I’m so grateful that I’ve been loved my entire life. Good years and bad. A legacy of love.
"This is Melissa, a medical student," Jack says to the patients at the shared lodging houses.
I’m standing behind him, hands cradling my elbows, trying to make sense of the place. He’d warned me it was a strange sort of environment and he was right. It looked like a giant boarding house or hostel, or the halls at university but smelt of stale smoke and sweat.
The response to Jack’s introduction varies from “I’ve met her before. On board a UFO. She’s from another planet,” (Jack: “I don’t think she’s from quite that far away.”) to “Is she your girlfriend?” (Jack: “No suck luck.”)
Jack is my boss, a lovely and rather shy general practitioner and entrepreneur. The lodging houses mostly people with Schizophrenia, who’d previously been institutionalized in the days when mental institutes existed. I read an article once about isolation and mental health, and while in years passed they were isolated by society in mental institutes they were isolated once again by sheer avoidance once put back in the suburbs they once lived in.
It’s the holidays now, so I’ve been upping my hours a little. Being paid at the rate I do is pretty worthwhile compensation for missing some of the sunnier days, although the spring rain hasn’t been kind to us this month. When I’m not working I’m reporting echocardiograms for my study, and thinking of Prof R’s offer to pay me being like a bargain with the devil. “I expect to work you like a dog.”
That, and the extreme pleasure of housing inspections and imminent lease ending and the need for a car as soon as possible has made this an unpleasant transition into what should be the best two months of the year.
I’m relieved though. Relieved that the year is done. Relieved that my life under Prof R. is almost over. Relieved at the thought of starting final year. Relieved it’s summer again.
'Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close', by Safran Foer
12 September 2003
I am writing this to you from the airport.
I have so much to say to you. I want to begin at the beginning, because that is what you deserve. I want to tell you everything, without leaving out a single detail. But where is the beginning? And what is everything?
I am an old woman now, but once I was a girl. It’s true. I was a girl like you are a boy. One of my chores was to bring in the mail. One day there was a note addressed to our house. There was no name on it. […]
I took the letter straight to my room. I put it under my mattress. I never told my father or mother about it. For weeks I was awake all night wondering. Why was this man sent to a Turkish labor camp? Why had the letter come fifteen years after it had been written? Where had it been for those fifteen years? Why hadn’t anyone written back to him? The others got mail, he said. Why had he sent a letter to our house? How did he know the name of my street? How did he know of Dresden? Were did he learn German? What became of him?
I tried to learn as much about the man as I could from the letter. The words were very simple. Bread means only bread. Mail is mail. Great hopes are great hopes are great hopes. I was left with the handwriting.
So I asked my father, your great-grandfather, whom I considered the best, most kindhearted man I knew, to write a letter to me. I told him it didn’t matter what he wrote about. Just write, I said. Write any-thing.
You asked me to write a letter, so I am writing you a letter. I do not know why I am writing this letter, or what this letter is supposed to be about, but I am writing in nonetheless, because I love you very much and trust that you have some good purpose for having me write this letter. I hope that one day you will have the experience of doing something you do not understand for someone you love.
Next I went to the penitentiary. My uncle was a guard there. I was able to get the handwriting sample of a murderer. My uncle asked him to write an appeal for early release. It was a terrible trick that we played on this man
To the Prison Board:
My name is Kurt Schluter. I am inmate 24922 I was put here in jail a few years ago. I don’t know how long it’s been. We don’t have calendars. I keep lines on the wall with chalk. But when it rains, the rain comes through my window when I am sleeping. And when I wake up the lines are gone. So I don’t know how long it’s been.
I murdered my brother. I beat his head in with a shovel. Then after I used that shovel to bury him in the yard. The soil was red. Weeds came from the grass where his body was. Sometimes at night I would get on my knees and pull them out, so no one would know.
I did a terrible thing. I believe in the afterlife. I know that you can’t take anything back. I wish that my days would be washed away like the chalk lines of my days.
I have tried to become a good person. I help the other inmates with their chores. I am patient now.
It might not matter to you, but my brother was having an affair with my wife. I didn’t kill my wife. I want to go back to her, because I forgive her.
If you release me I will be a good person, quiet, out of the way.
Please consider my appeal. Kurt Schlater, Inmate 24922
My uncle later told me that the inmate had been in prison for more than forty years. He had gone in as a young man. When he wrote the letter to me he was old and broken. His wife had remarried. She had children and grandchildren. Although he never said it, I could tell that my uncle had befriended the inmate. He had also lost a wife, and was also in a prison. He never said it, but I heard in his voice that he cared for the inmate. The guarded each other. And when I asked my uncle, several years later, what became of the inmate, my uncle told me that he was still there. He continued to write letters to the board. He continued to blame himself and forgive his wife, […]
[…] I went to my piano teacher. I always wanted to kiss him, but was afraid he would laugh at me. I asked him to write a letter.
And then I asked my mother’s sister. She loved dance but hated dancing.
I asked my schoolmate Mary to write a letter to me. She was funny and full of life. She liked to run around her empty house without any clothes on, even once she was too old for that. Nothing embarrassed her. I admired that so much, because everything embarrassed me, and hurt me. She loved to jump on her bed. She jumped on her bed for some many years that one afternoon, while I watched her jump, the seams burst. Feathers filled the small room. Our laughter kept the feathers in the air. I thought about birds. Could they fly if there wasn’t someone, somewhere, laughing?
Seven years later, a childhood friend reappeared at the moment I most needed him I had only been in America for only two months. An agency was supporting me, but soon I would have to support myself. I did not know how to support myself. I read newspapers and magazines all day long. I wanted to learn idioms. I wanted to become a real American. Chew the fat. Blow off some steam. Close but no cigar. Rings a bell. I must have sounded ridiculous. I only wanted to be natural. I gave up on that.
I had not seen him since I lost everything. I had not thought of him. He and my older sister Anna were friends. I came across them kissing one afternoon in the field behind the shed behind our house. It made me so excited. I felt as if I was kissing someone. I had never kissed anyone. I was more excited than if it had been me. Our house was small. Anna and I shared a bed. That night I told her what I had seen. She made me promise never to speak a word about it. I promised her.
She said, Why should I believe you?
I wanted to tell her, Because what I saw would no longer be mine if I talked about it. I said, Because I am your sister.
I had gone to him when I was trying to learn more about the forced laborer. I had gone to everyone.
To Anna’s sweet little sister,
Here is the letter you asked for. I am almost two meters in height. My eyes are brown. I have been told that my hands are big. I want to be a sculptor, and I want to marry your sister. Those are my only drams. I could write more, but that is all that matters.
Your friend, Thomas.
I walked into a bakery seven years later and there he was. He had dogs at his feet and a bird in a cage beside him. The seven years were not seven years. They were not seven hundred years. Their length could not be measured in years, just as an ocean could not explain the distance we had traveled, just as the dead can never be counted. I wanted to run away from him, and I wanted to go right up next to him. I went right up next to him.
Are you Thomas? I asked.
He shook his head no.
You are, I said. I know you are.
He shook his head no.
He opened his right hand, which had NO tattooed on it.
I remember you. I used to watch you kiss my sister.
He took out a little book and write, I don’t speak. I’m sorry.
That made me cry. He wiped away my tears. But he did not admit to being who he was. He never did.
We spent the afternoon together. The whole time I wanted to touch him. I felt so deeply for this person that I had not seen in so long. Seven years before, he had been a giant, and now he seemed small. I wanted to give him the money that the agency had given me. I did not need to tell him my story, but I needed to listen to his. I wanted to protect him, which I was sure I could do, even if I could not protect myself.
I asked, Did you become a sculptor, like you dreamed?
He showed me his right hand and there was silence.
We had everything to say to each other, but no ways to say it.
He wrote, Are you OK?
I told him, My eyes are crummy.
He wrote, But are you OK?
I told him, That’s a very complicated question.
He wrote, That’s a very simple answer.
I asked, Are you OK?
He wrote, Some mornings I wake up feeling grateful.
We talked for hours, but we just kept repeating those same things over and over.
Our cups emptied.
The day emptied.
I was more alone than if I had been alone. We were about to go in different directions. We did not know how to do anything else.
It’s getting late, I said.
He showed me his left hand, which had YES tattooed on it.
I said, I should probably go home.
He flipped back thorough his book and pointed at, Are you OK?
I nodded yes.
I started to walk off. I was going to walk to the Hudson River and keep walking. I would carry the biggest stone I could bear and let my lungs fill with water.
But then I heard him clapping his hands behind me.
I turned around and he motioned for me to come to him.
I wanted to run away from him, and I wanted to go to him.
I went to him.
He asked if I would pose for him. He wrote his questions in German and it wasn’t until then that I realised he had been writing in English all afternoon, and that I had been speaking English. Yes, I said in German. Yes. We made arrangements for the next day.
His apartment was like a zoo. There were animals everywhere Dogs and cats. A dozen birdcages. Fish tanks. Glass boxes with snakes and lizards and insects Mice in cages, so the cats wouldn’t get them. Like Noah’s ark. But he kept one corner clean and bright. He said he was saving space.
I wanted to know from what or for whom, but I did not ask.
He led me by the hand. We talked or half an hour about what he wanted to make. I told him I would do whatever he needed.
We drank coffee
He wrote that he had not made sculpture in America
I haven’t been able to
We never talked about the past
He opened the flue, although I didn’t know why.
Birds sang in the other rom.
I took off my clothes.
I went to onto the couch.
He stared at me. It was the first time I had ever been naked in front of a man. I wondered if he knew that.
He came and moved my body like I was a doll.
He put my hands behind my head. He bent my right leg a little. I assumed his hands were so rough from all the sculptures he used to make. He lowered my chin. He turned my palms up. His attention filled the hole in the middle of me.
I went back the next day. And the next day. I stopped looking for a job. All that mattered was him looking at me. I was prepared to fall apart if it came to that.
Each time it was the same.
We would talk about what he wanted to make
I would tell him I would do whatever he needed..
We would drink coffee.
We would never talk about the past.
he would open the flue
the birds would sing in the other room
I would undress
He would position me
He would sculpt me
Sometimes I would think about those hundred letters laid across my bedroom floor I f I hadn’t collected them, would our house have burned less brightly?
I looked at the sculptures after every session. He went to feed the animals. He let me be alone with it, although I never asked him for privacy. He understood.
After only a few sessions it became clear he was sculpting Anna. He was trying to remake the girl he knew seven years before. He looked at me as he sculpted, but he saw her.
The positioning took longer and longer. He touched more of me. He moved me around more. He spent ten full minutes bending and unbending my knee. He closed and unclosed my hands.
I hope this doesn’t embarrass you he wrote in German in his little book.
No, I said in German. No.
He folded one of my arms. He straightened one of my arms. The next week he touched my hair for what might have been five or fifty minutes.
He wrote I am looking for an acceptable compromise.
I wanted to know how he lived through that night.
He touched my breasts, easing them apart.
I think this will be good, he wrote.
I want to know what will be good How will it be good?
He touched me all over. I can tell you these things because I am not ashamed of them because I learned from them. And I trust you to understand me. You are the only one I trust, Oskar.
The positioning was the sculpting. He was sculpting me. He was trying to make me so he could fall in love with me.
He spread my legs. His palms pressed gently at the insides of my thighs. My things pressed back. His palms pressed out.
Birds were singing in the other room.
We were looking or an acceptable compromise.
The next week he held the back of my legs, and the next week he was behind me. It was the first time I had ever made love. I wondered if he knew that. It felt like crying. I wondered, Why does anyone make love?
I looked at the unfinished sculpture of my sister rand the unfinished girl looked back at me.
Why does anyone ever make love?
- Chapter 4: ‘My Feelings’, from "Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close" by Jonathan Safran Foer (Penguin Books, 2005)
"Mia and Stacey are two queer disabled diasporic Korean women of color in the process moving from the South to the Bay to create home and community with each other." These are two of the bravest, most inspiring people I’ve come across. What an amazing (and ongoing) story of love and humanity.
I am supposed to be in bed, asleep, so that I can get up tomorrow and pack the rest of my house into boxes. I am exhausted, but I can’t sleep.
This last week, I have been slowly realizing that my time in Atlanta, as I know it now, is coming to an end after twelve-plus years, after arriving here when I was 17. Even if I come back later, it will never be the same; it will be different and so will I. I am realizing that my “lasts” are quickly approaching: the last time to sit on the east-facing benches at Candler Park, the last ATJC meeting, the last trio night, the last long talk with L on my couch, the last Saturday afternoon spent with the door open to a cool breeze.
I have been taking the long way home lately, looking purposefully around me, taking in a city that has birthed me in to my queerness, held me through some of my deepest sadness, and where I skipped class on a whim to go to my first political disability event, which changed my life forever and catapulted me in to disability justice work. A city where I found love and lost love, lost myself and found myself, again.
I have been driving up and down streets, trying to burn the memory of them into my brain for good. The way the air smells, the trees, the thick pillars that carry the MARTA rail through the sky from one end of the city to the other. The way I know these roads like the back of my hand, remembering my first year learning them in the passenger seat beside Adrian.
Atlanta was the first place that ever really felt like home, it was the closest to belonging that I had ever been. It was the first time I had ever experienced queer people of color community, all four (state-side) seasons, and the longest amount of time I have ever spent in the states. It was the biggest highway—road—I had ever driven on and I was terrified. Our highway in St. Croix is four lanes, two for each side. When I first saw the 14 lane highway that is 75/85, I never imagined I would be able to maneuver across it with ease.
Atlanta was where I learned about my self as an organizer and leader, where I learned about the deep, resilient history of the South, and where I first found reproductive justice. It is where I got to witness first-hand the way the South is (and Southerners are) forgotten about, ignored and blatantly under resourced in our movements and funding. It is where I began to connect the histories of the Caribbean, the US South and the global south. It is where I finally found a landing place, a political home, for the legacy of work I had been carrying with me around sexual violence and child sexual abuse, taking the form of the Atlanta Transformative Justice Collaborative. It is where I could finally understand the violence I experienced as a disabled korean adoptee girl within the medical industrial complex as just that: violence.
These days I cry a little everyday for the city that I fell in love with and that I will love forever. And I take it all with me: the way Dekalb Avenue at the Krog St. tunnel looks as the sun sets and the feeling of winding down Ponce. The two trees at the corner of Clifton and Ponce that grew side-by-side in perfect-mirrored reflection, making the illusion of one giant tree, that watched over me when I totaled my car under them and came out alive without a single scratch on me. Sitting on the quad with Liz all day and into the evening just days before she killed herself. Mrs. Nelson and her 32-plus cats, a garden and a melon. 141, 745, and 659.
I hope someday I can show you some of it, Heck. I think you would have liked it. It is part of what has gotten me here today and it is a part of this dream too.
I made it to California late last night. I will reach the Bay area tonight.
The last four days I have been in constant movement, no time to be still. It still sometimes feels like I am just on a long adventure, after which, I will return home to Atlanta. I don’t know that it has sunk into me yet, that I am not going home.
Moving out of my loft was so overwhelming, I had no time to feel the regular crip panic, anxiety, shame and guilt of not being able to lift boxes, carry heavy furniture and having to depend on people. Usually I am strung so thin on moving days, feeling every possible emotion: anger at my body for everything it isn’t; jealousy and awe of other people’s bodies for all they can do, the ease of their movements and the security it provides; enormous gratitude and appreciation for the people around me who offer their time and love to help me move; and alienation from the acute internal isolation of an entire crip world on to itself playing out inside of me, always on the verge of cracking open, spilling over and exposing me.
But instead, my heart was full and my head was racing as the rain fell outside and one by one, friends and loved ones came through the door to help. Sarah, Carol, L, Moya, Cara, Glo, Mara, Jillian, Lewis, Connor, D, Jocelyn. They made the load-up so smooth and easy, so loving and gentle, so full. Little by little, I watched my house empty. I was the last to leave, looking around a bare and dark loft, feeling an emptiness and a sadness I hadn’t felt since the first time I came home to the loft after my ex had moved out. There was no turning back now. There was no returning. I let myself cry for a moment before turning off the last light and slowly closing the door.
Since then, I have been driving. Watching the landscape change and the highway signs fly by. “Welcome to Alabama,” “Welcome to Tennessee,” “Welcome to Oklahoma,” “Welcome to New Mexico,” “Welcome to Arizona,” “Welcome to California.” Driving through the deep south to the desert has been beautiful. I have seen giant wind turbines, stretching up through the Oklahoma sky, fields of cotton in Alabama and Mississippi, huge red rocks in Arizona and shooting stars in the night sky. I have left Atlanta, I have turned 30, I have changed.
I keep wishing you were with me. I had dreams about us making this journey together. I had dreams about moving in with you once I got to California, about being able to unpack and set up a home with you to hold my heart, heavy with leaving the South, heavy with leaving home. I know it is ableism that keeps us separated still, patiently waiting to find a crack in the concrete, in which we can plant a seed together. I know if we had different bodies, we would have found a home together already and possibly driven across country together, driving in shifts, listening to music, navigating roads. I think about this all the time.
In many ways, I feel like I am not just leaving the city I love and have been formed in, but I am also leaving an able-bodied-washed version of myself behind, ready for the clearer—crisper—version of my crip self that lies ahead. Excited to be fiercer and more bold. Excited to hold more in letting go and remember the leaving as a hope sent out across state lines, shooting through the night sky, bold with everything that has every been possible.