My greatest weakness when writing crossword clues is a failure to recognize words’ common roots. This is neither very radical nor very horticultural of me, though I have only ever claimed to point my compass at one of those orientations to the world, despite the pothos whose long leg dangles from a hook on the bathroom wall; despite the spider plant I repot from a bubble tea cup to a massive faux-willow-pattern plastic pot from the 99-cent-and-up store. What radicalized me was a desire to be like Lisa Simpson at the age of three, and I have been grasping at roots—sometimes like crazy straws—ever since. And yet, I shine a light in a puzzle’s row and overlook a bird alighting on an adjacent column. Filled-in squares declare DONE and, hinting, I whisper, “Don’t.” “Girls” and “gals” walk hand-in-hand through the garden of clues. I try to approach this blind spot systematically, calmly, but consistently, I cannot pick out the figures standing centered in this linguistic carnival’s hall of mirrors. It’s enough to make a man want to quit. Too bad about how I need health insurance if I want my breasts taken away.
When Homer Simpson escapes into the third dimension, which is neither the shower nor the linen closet, he calls it, “I’m somewhere where I don’t know where I am.” To explain where Homer is that isn’t the linen closet, Professor Frink begins by illustrating his roots, drawing a chalk square, to which Chief Wiggum protests, “Woah, woah, slow down, egghead,” gasping for breath at the shock of having his own two-dimensionality shown to him so plainly. The square, the root, grows branches, until we see its final evolved stage: a cube. This is what’s happened to Homer. He was the root okf himself, and then he amassed outgrowths, becoming something that at its heart, does still fold down to the same flat Homer; only I, with my blind spot, can’t see it.
Woah, woah, slow down, egghead, I think, when told that I used both “use” and “usual” in one puzzle, and that this is a verboten move.
In Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, Roland Barthes notes how “the age of Photography corresponds precisely to the explosion of the private into the public, or rather into the creation of a new social value, which is the publicity of the private: the private is consumed as such, publicly.” What age, then, does this Treehouse of Horror Simpsons short belong to, where the public explodes into the private rather than the other way around? The townspeople unfamiliarly flood the pink domestic space of the Simpson home, turning Homer’s mutation into a spectacle, though a spectacle that can’t be seen: gossip, but a documentarian sort of gossip, with Homer speaking and hearing. The walls have mouths and ears. What age is this? Not the age of Photography, but the age of special effects? The age of animation? Of abstraction?
I’d like to argue, for my own purposes as endlessly a diarist, for explosion of public figures into private life as emblematic of the age of the mad and the transsexual.
After the computer-generated third dimension collapses in on itself into an inescapable traffic-cone shape down which Homer falls, Alice-down-the-rabbithole-style, his component parts temporarily separate—the milk-fat in an over-aged candy bar turning to a stark white skeleton, or a contact lens leaving the eye—but he does not return to flatness. This is something post-verbal, more aligned with my faulty linguistic understanding of where roots are hidden beneath the earth. There are too many ways now, to slice him, and who’s to say that any given paper-thin sliver of his whole body is the one true way to go? We are thrust with him into our third dimension. His body remains computer-generated, yellow, and in his words, “bulgy,” but the world against which he’s set is the plain, square, sunlight-on-concrete of a real city.
The light first shines on a dumpster, into which Homer’s screaming bulge of a body shoots. But he pulls himself up and onto the street. The people on the street are the people on any street that I might walk down at this moment, excepting that they are unmasked and dressed for 1995, only a year after I was born, and I was not born that recently, by my own estimation, not like this body of Homer’s was (within the timeframe of him skittering shyly down the street, eight fingers twiddling, whimpering his fear of these faces that were very much not generated by a computer). This is the image I return to whenever I dissociate in public: so aware of the dimensions of my body that I become fully detached from their reality, I envision myself as taxi-colored, bald, and pleasantly round. A blob of clay pushed and pulled and painted in primaries, an alien alone and afraid and surveilled skeptically by extras. I am our grotesque star.
Barthes’ focus on photography as pulling private into public and the associated fixation on celebrities’ private lives in the press—the paparazzi of it all—makes me hyperaware of how no one is photographing Homer. That’s the other difference between 1995 and the same scene enacted now—clothes would alter, there would be masks, and every person would be pulling out their phones to snap proof of this aberration. We have to assume that in 1995 none of them are armed with the necessary technology, not a one of them a photographer, amateur or expert. Tornado-eyed in thoughts of a childhood photograph of his mother, Barthes contemplates, “This is the only time I have seen her like this, caught in a History (of tastes, fashions, fabrics): my attention is distracted from her by accessories which have perished; for clothing is perishable, it makes a second grave for the loved being.” Everyone around Homer, to my eye, is caught in this History of tastes, fashions, fabrics, revealed faces, empty hands, by the relatively photographic nature of his new world.
Yes, I recognize the differentiation between cinema and photography, cinema the more relevant name for this animal I am dissecting, but if we ask, which is more photographic, beige-clothed extras in a generous heaping of Hollywood, or the yellow four-fingered Simpson (whether flatly drawn or technologically blobbed), we, I think, know the answer. And I am practicing locating commonalities, seeing through dirt to roots, and then tying together roots that don’t touch, like Frankensteining a rat king. Just for familiarizing myself with the feel of that in-the-shadows growth.
From Sakiya’s Northampton, Massachusetts attic bedroom, we hear a bird cry like a cat—what I’m tempted by flat verbal form to call “caterwauling” for the mirror of it, but accuracy triumphs: the sound of it is me and ow. To know the crying throat by name, we comb through birding websites, play songs we hope will match, and her sleek, squash-shaped kitty’s head rotates furiously on a bunched and glossy neck, darkly striped. We reach no name, identify no double. The bird copycats on, free from the albatross of being identified.
A war waged quietly between our South Hadley, Massachusetts neighbors over a decomposing possum corpse. One day the creature lay, a fat grey blob like a giant’s kneadable eraser, inert on the lawn next door, soul fled from its flesh God-knew-how. The next, the house’s inhabitants had flung the remains—I pictured, by the wormy tail—to the sidewalk, which was mostly disused, except by me and my roommate, rare pedestrians in this car town. But someone threw the body back, and on the disagreement went, grass versus cement as the least objectional surface on which an animal might rot.
An alternative framing: private vs. public. Was the dead possum everybody’s problem? It takes a village to lay a pest to rest? Or was it the sole responsibility of the people on whose property it had passed away? Last one left holding the bag (of bones) does the time (calling Animal Control)?
While these questions were debated in pantomime on the stage of our sleepy street, that mammalian kneadable eraser began, itself, to be erased. To fester. To be consumed. Flattening, liquefying, fly-ing and maggot-ing. All the usual suspects of animal death in the wild, even if this wild featured two different convenience stores within a minute’s walk. And a Friendly’s, and a cemetery, while we’re mapping the territory.
I was a twenty-year-old woman. I was very, very sick in the head. Sick to my stomach with years of pent-up trauma cracking through my body’s once-thick ice. Doused as if curatively in garish full-face makeup, green-tipped hair, leopard print, costume jewelry, and velvet. Glamour meant to soothe my panicky, roiling guts and disguise the always-terror in my staring eyes with their clumsy black wings, too thick to fly me anywhere, let alone in first-class, drawn with hands that shook at the slightest provocation.
And then I came home from my position as a teaching assistant for a course called Images of War to find vultures in the yard next door, flinging the possum between them. A game of Monkey in the Middle without a present Monkey, except maybe the Grim Reaper, hovering unseen. Or maybe me.
The corpse became a snack and a toy at the same time, like a Wonderball or Kinderegg, or Barbie shoe for the particularly orally fixated. Tossed from beak to beak, inscribing gymnastic arcs in the air. I leaned my elbows on the window, transfixed, taken, for a moment, out of my nervous breakdown that had stretched for months, the long Alaskan winter of my insides shattered with light made from the knowledge that all things end.
The scattered skeleton bridges both sides of the road cutting past our campground at Harriman State Park. Sakiya wanted bones to take home, and she is getting lucky; we sift through dirt and grass and rocks, seeking sharp curves and planes of sun-bleached memoriam. We locate in this mass of wild the small skull, a femur, assorted other bits of body that I don’t know how to name, excitedly calling out to one another each time a new fragment shows its ghost-white face. We can’t know for sure, but we’re thinking baby deer, tragically hit by a car and its body pieced apart by soaring scavengers, dragged around, flung to the far corners of one small patch of world as it was picked clean.
A family on the campground stares at us and our arms full of bone. Sakiya calls to them, liltingly jokey, “We’re making soup later if y’all wanna come by!” They laugh, uncomfortable. Back at our tent we lay our finds out in the grass to sun-bleach further, thinking sunshine will kill anything that ails them. A morbid display, maybe, but I feel at peace with our bones baking, our tent a soft warm mass of sleeping bags and pillows and flashlights and tarot decks—things for seeing by—each of us with a journal to write in and the sun a high, watchful eye.
After getting out of the psychiatric hospital in Philadelphia, I went to South Street Diner. A friend from high school worked there as a waiter, and she asked me to take her written regrets across state lines and burn them so that they wouldn’t burden her anymore. She penned them on the back of a receipt, and I was dutiful, carried those regrets, unread, back to South Hadley. Near our caterpillar-green-walled apartment, a pond wore a winter coat of ice, and I cracked it open with a stick like an egg against the frying pan’s lip, crouching, to form a pocket of water in which regret could disappear.
Michel Foucault writes, in Madness and Civilization, in reference to madmen confined to boats on the ocean, that water “carries off, but it does more: it purifies. Navigation delivers man to the uncertainty of fate; on water, each of us is in the hands of his own destiny; every embarkation is, potentially, the last. It is for the other world that the madman sets sail in his fools’ boat; it is from the other world that he comes when he disembarks.” This embarkation was the last for C’s regrets, setting sail for the other world, heading somewhere that they don’t know where they are. Not the linen closet. Not the shower. My BIC set the rueful receipt aflame, and I dropped it, Viking-style, to be swallowed by this deep blue, wet New England throat, hoping I’d done something to help hollow her out in the way we all deserve, free as bird bones.
The bones were meant for Kiya, but when she drops me back off in Brooklyn, she insists I take a few, and I do, a fragment of skull, a femur, and another unidentified animal object. At the dollar store, I buy Tupperware containers sized for cakes, and bottles of rubbing alcohol and cheap dish soap. In my room, I soak the bones in soapy, alcoholic water to kill anything growing inside of them. And so I have two souvenirs: the purifying-in-water bones, and a sprig of goldenrod, pricked from a fieldful, flattened between my diary’s pages like if you put the Treehouse of Horror episode on rewind. Like if you erased the extra lines Professor Frink draws on the square, the root. Uncubing. Unsimpsonifying. Simplifying—one folding, goes the etymology, the rootedness, or same folding. Folding clean sheets in front of the mirror. I transform this bright bloom into a book’s dogeared page—a reminder for later to revisit something stunning,
Later, I find mold in the baby deer bones. Fluffy, white, like cake icing, almost, but I only see it after the first resultant pseudoseizures say their piece, after I convulse hysterically on the kitchen floor and skip out on my veterinary receptionist work that morning. The doctor who first diagnosed my pseudoseizures, tics, fatigue, and pain as sensitivity to mold exposure told me that I would need to go live in the desert if I ever wanted to feel free of my body’s propensity to tear itself apart. Ideally: no bodies of water to set me mad and captive upon; no bodies of water to purify. Only flat and dry as a saltine, the ideal snack for the sickly. Yet I pull up stakes from Massachusetts to Brooklyn. From by-a-pond to bordered-by-rivers. I spend hours daily on the water-damaged MTA. I bring bones home. I do not do my absolute best to not get hurt, but I do my absolute best to be alive.
In the deep rectangle carved out above “my” dresser in the hospital, like a false, hollow book containing a gun, I fit myself in my leopard print, my home-markered crop tops, my faceful of chapstick (I forgot to pack lotion) topped with lipstick, and read, diligently, my stack of a dozen books. Some of them were new to me, but some, like You Are Not Dead, a slim lake-blue collection of poems by Wendy Xu, were a retread. Flat in my rectangle, a gun waiting to become pertinent to the plot, with my two-dimensional (textual) friends, easy to find when observed every fifteen, I reached the words, “You are still a coyote,” and paused, fingertip on the page, flesh made punctuation or a stain. I thought, When I get out of here, I am getting those words tattooed on me, and dogeared the page like filling it with goldenrod.
A printout of the poem in question, “You Think You Are Something Less Real Than You Are,” title inked in red, used to be scotch-taped above my dorm bed.
But it isn’t until rereading it here at this kitchen table years later that I realize the sneaky transformative power of that word “still.” At no prior moment has it been established that you are a coyote. Rather, “You/put on a bigger coyote. You put on all/of the coyotes.” But now I sit with the “still.” You have been a coyote. When did put on become became? Did it happen off-screen, or simultaneous with the still’s introduction? Is the power of transformation so weightedly verbal? So much less waiting than you would think. In this poem, you put on a lot: wings, howling, the darkness, “some stars and also what/is between them.” But aside from “you,” a coyote is the only noun depicted as an “are.”
The upper limb of the Y in YOU on my thigh blurs with use; it makes a perfect marker for where to stick my weekly testosterone-filled needle. As though reenacting the tattoo’s initial birth. I stay away, these days, from that exact point, not wanting to build up tough scar tissue, but am grateful to know that anywhere in the blurring’s neighborhood should be safe to puncture. Who is still a coyote? The reflection in a shower-foggy mirror. The reflection in a mirror so clear it could manslaughter a bird. When compared with my reflection the day I emerged from the hospital and set to planning fonts for this beloved line: my features have squared off, become more rough-hewn, and my cheeks and jaw sprout dark curling hair in sporadic patches. The “still” carries a heavier weight now that I am not still, now that I am shifting, flitting, putting on and putting in, weekly re-enacting a medicalized St. Sebastianing, a fitter, happier faggot.
Before that Monkey-in-the-Middle moment, I hadn’t quite realized that vultures were real. Inside of that moment, maybe, I still wasn’t sure. Pumped full, adrenaline-ishly, of an awe reserved for meeting myths. Those might as well have been unicorns stabbing the possum with golden spikes—or a self who was happy and wanted to live—I was so bowled over, so hesitant to believe my eyes, this new terror they were taking in. But rather than a traumatic terror, an image of war or of my own body under threat, it was a terror so perfectly natural, so cyclical, so worms-turning-damp-dirt correct.
Animals die. Vultures arrive. And in flinging the corpse between them, a sweet moment of communal feasting, they allow the deceased to share in their wings. To take flight too, escaping possumhood, the maggot-snack existence. Heading heavenward.
Funny to remember that paparazzi might be disparagingly called “vultures,” that it’s not only death they carry on their wings but, metaphorically, the explosion of private into public. Is the erasure of privacy a kind of death? In the hospital, observed and catalogued, did I die after all? Slip from one form to inhabit another, taking flight?
There exists a photograph of me with Homer Simpson—in the moment of its capture, a theme park employee in a suit, but in the preserved digital frame, essentially the same as the Treehouse of Horror Homer whom I turn to in search of something to embody my dissociative episodes. This photo is of my old body, of my girl body, the summer before the day I meant to kill myself, head-hair chin-length reddish fluff, facial hair nearly entirely unpresent besides the blonde lip fuzz I used to ashamedly Nair, breasts unbound in a crop top, legs shaved. The friend from high school whom I’m visiting in Los Angeles and my girlfriend at the time both flank me, but it’s my corporeal form with which Homer interacts. His hand, having just ruffled my hair, hovers above the top of my head, and russet strands follow with it how Hell follows Johnny Cash’s coming-around “man,” static-attracted. We are bound together, bodies entangled, bulging into one another’s realms.
A friend tells me that in fourth grade they tried to bring in a VHS of Homer’s Halloween transformation for the class to consume as a whole, but they were censored. It’s dangerous to awaken children to the possibility that they too might step into new bodies simply by hiding behind a bookcase and shoving gelatinously through a tongue-pink wall. That they too might one day find themselves somewhere where they don’t know where they are—or worse, realize that that’s where they’ve always been: a land of lines, cones, and dark, chaotically swirling. But at the end of the tunnel: light, long and strong and rooting. A new city, a new self.
I shine a light in a puzzle’s row. A bird alights in an adjacent column. In its mouth, a rotting possum. In its mouth, an end and life-giving entwined.
The air outside Griffith Observatory, as the sun set, smelled like iron and gingerbread. From so high above the distant city, I could see Los Angeles’ bright man-made constellations shivering, as though a mirage. And coyotes howled. Hungry creatures that did not yet live on my thigh, did not yet braid together with my identity, did not yet blur with repeated piercing.
Like vultures, coyotes scavenge. Like vultures, they fill my inner winter with sun. They share no etymology, so I can place the two in the same crossword grid, intersecting at the T or E, two forms of the same thing making eye contact, or kissing, or killing, but coming together, regardless. Saying, “You’re someone that I know who you are.”
My skin was exposed to the glare of the sun. My heart was exposed, a throbby messy mass of maggots. I had not yet aimed to die in South Hadley, Massachusetts. I had not yet been reborn in a splayed card deck’s worth of spaces. The coyotes howled and I wished to howl with them, but I did not see them. They remained myths.
Erase: a corpse, my breasts, regrets, the mold in my body, a VHS tape, the line between private and public life, the line between the then and now.
Do not erase: my stillness of coyote, my repetition of light, repetition of flight, the lines that make the square a full and breathing cube.
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Raphael Rae is a queer and trans essayist, poet, painter, and editorial assistant. Originally from Philadelphia, he holds a B.A. in [unintelligible] from Hampshire College, and now resides in Brooklyn. His work is forthcoming in Toho Journal, and he publishes a newsletter at notjudydoll.substack.com.
featured art by Raphael Rae