Since moving to New York I’ve owned six copies of Valencia, but I keep losing them to girls.
The first and most important came from Bluestockings, a feminist activist bookstore coffeehouse hybrid, almost too good to be true. It’s a place no one tries to kick you out of if you don’t buy anything, so I end up there often. I met Stephanie Schroeder there once, and Michelle Tea. They both signed books for me. Unfortunately I sent my signed copy of Valencia to Canada when I was drunk one day. There was a girl there whose mind I was in love with, who wore waistcoats and read Hume and studied medieval German architecture and so I immediately pictured a beautiful future with her, drinking coffee and reading in bed in cold winter daylight under dark blue sheets. But all I really did was get rid of my only signed copy of Valencia. On top of that, I’m not sure she ever read it.
I never gave Leigh a copy of Valencia, or a copy of anything. Leigh sent me soup when I was sick and had answers to questions post office- and tax form-related, but whatever emotional situation she was in made her absent. Drinks soon? would be met with silence for days at a time while updates of her internet activity faithfully rolled in, all this made that much more insulting by the fact that she lived five blocks away. I didn’t understand how she could research “humane mouse extraction” so quickly after I discovered Hans hopping around the spikes in the dishwasher and still never want to stay the night after sex. He was the closest thing we had to a pet.
Still, Leigh was my operative girlfriend, so when I found out a film adaptation of Valencia was going to run at the queer film festival, I bought two tickets immediately. It looked like a bunch of filmmakers had gotten together and dissected the entire novel so that each was responsible for rendering a chapter according to their own vision. Twenty-one chapters, twenty-one different Michelles. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. In general my favorite books are the ones you can’t make films out of, but the very idea of Valencia played out in all these iterations of race, gender, voice and physical material, united only by the story, felt massively important. The voice of a generation stepping aside in favor of the portrait. I felt like rereading the book in anticipation but at this point couldn’t bring myself to buy a seventh copy. I resigned myself to trusting my memory.
The inside of the warehouse was a neural metropolis. Huge plush beanbag somas scattered all over, video canvas LCD screens all backlit black-lit like a beatific power grid, performance artists in all manner of body paint, their ropey muscles rippling under color in shades of sunrise. Sex-sweat in the ether, crimson-lit dark. I had gone in a black lace dress with a faux leather bodice I found for four dollars in a thrift store, coal-powdered eyes and hair still wet. Leigh wasn’t there yet. I located the bar, paid three dollars for an evil-tasting vodka grapefruit and walked around the gallery. I didn’t know anybody and didn’t know what to do with myself. I stood in front of a tampon stuck to a board for about twenty minutes.
It was a tampon, stuck to a board. One of those old-school cylindrical ones, not the new kind with the wings that puff out to keep it in place but just the plain cotton tower that goes up and down. Just stuck there. There was not even blood on the tampon, or gravedirt, glitter or liquid latex. It was not pickled inside a mason jar or made into a heroin cotton. There was nothing at all going on with it. I thought of the tampon in a teacup Margaret brings to her remedial art class in Ghost World, but there was nothing here to suggest repressed femininity, or anything else. It was mounted on a piece of particle board, stained and moldy at the edges. No sign of a title.
Eventually Leigh showed up when I was starting to feel buoyant, at which point my vision was already beginning to swim. She fed me some more drinks, because every time she asked if I wanted one I said yes. Of course I want a drink, there will be times when there will be no drinks and you have to drink in anticipation of those times, and these drinks are so tiny, and so weak right, so yes I need six of them, and also where have you been? I wanted to ask her this last question for real but I supposed there was a reason she wasn’t telling me, which meant I didn’t want to know.
The enormous lounge area had the highest concentration of beanbags, tossed haywire all throughout the periphery, along with these white blood cell-looking fabric constructions stretched floor to ceiling that made the red-bathed space look like muscle interior. The beanbags were smothered in people, drunk rolling blissed out strung out twos and threes and fours suspended in various stages of ecstasy and disarray, kissing spooning laughing napping in their own fucked-up little eden. A knot of ache took root in the pit of my stomach. I felt too upright, too standing, all lines and hard angles, all out of place. The two girls directly in front of me were lost in a kiss so tender-sweet I thought at any moment they would simply collapse into each other, atoms shifting just so in an impossible flourish of quantum phenomena. I grabbed Leigh’s hand and pulled her down on a beanbag with me. We kissed for a moment, distracted, as she shifted to try to get a decent balance on the awkward surface, her fingers dragging over the rubbery material of my bodice.
Valencia started and it was nothing like I’d pictured, and it was everything. Each scene was a whirl of light and color so magnificently weighted it was hard to fully process what you were looking at. I was at the point of drunk where everything became infused with this crazy life-force energy, prana gone electric, the scenes so comfortable and familiar it felt like I could reach through the screen and create a home inside of them, Michelle was me and I was all parts of Michelle. Michelle with choppy green hair underneath her whore’s wig, throwing it in the corner before taking her friends out for margaritas. Michelle introduced to knife play, a virgin despite her experience, the swell of her fist disappearing inside a woman for the first time. Michelle spinning out, lights and bass and heartstop after one too many of something and not enough of something else, midnight calling for the Greyhound schedule and pulling last exit money from the toes of her boots. Vegetarian Michelle stuffing turkey in her mouth alone in the kitchen on Thanksgiving, vomiting bile-slick muscle into the toilet.
At some point during the Claymation scene, Leigh leaned over and said she didn’t feel well and had to go home. I nodded, transfixed by the screen. The sheer number of artists who were connected enough to Michelle Tea’s work to take it apart and make a goddamn movie, refashion her words into a creature of living color was so momentous, so immediate and disarming that I started to cry on the spot. I mean how fucking great, to be loved that much. I hoped I would one day be able to make something luminescent like that, life-giving like that, that I had something sleeping inside me with a similar capacity to lighten and solidify, that one day I would be asked to do an opening sequence to a film based on something I’d done that had made someone, a bunch of someones, feel less cosmically alone, the camera zooming in on my fingers like it did on Michelle’s alternating up and down pink hearts, one on each knuckle, as she arranged the opening credits. It was hard to breathe I was so excited, that subterranean cooking feeling that perks up when you suddenly have DIRECTION and know you are DOING SOMETHING and that something’s about to HAPPEN and all you needed was that one crystal moment and now it’s there, you can turn around and pick up right where things started to get sludgy, out of the hole where it got dark and you couldn’t see the bottom, except now you have some answers, the key to the poem, that light shining thing in the distance you couldn’t find while searching but when you stopped straining your eyes you began to see clearly, hold onto it, everything’s going to happen if you maintain your grip and keep coasting, if you can distill the calm shaking euphoria of having your present past and future selves all gathered up in your hands like night-blooming flowers, you can move the credits around with your ink-stained fingers before a room full of angels if you stay lit up, stir an iota of the universe if you don’t let the energy dissipate, hold onto the pearl handed to you along the line in the mad rush toward excellent danger, if you can always feel like this.
I had started to sweat. The little plastic cup I’d been gripping had flattened in my hand, empty, the remainder of an ice cube squeezing out near the top. I remembered Leigh saying something to me. I turned to face her but she was gone.
Valencia ended and everyone filed out of the theater after the extensive thank you speeches. Or maybe the speeches happened before the film started, I wasn’t sure. But I was freshly alone and decided it would be reprehensible to call it a night right then, after everything. The festival had apparently been going on all week. There were people who had been floating around this infrared cave for days, venturing out only for drugs, snacks and cigarettes, underground angels practicing soul communion on the beanbags, closed-eyed in the courtyard catching rainwater in their mouths.
Which was where I decided to go. It was time for a smoke. I sat down on what I thought was a ledge of some sort but was actually the ramp of a truck. I sat there indeterminately, sipping the last drink I could afford with my money, so methanol-strong I couldn’t take a proper swallow without a shudder, I mean real sterilizing fluid variety. Maybe that’s how I managed to stay healthy and disease-free. Cheap vodka just killed everything inside me. I sat. I drank. I smoked. I smoked again. I was planning to quit when I moved here but changed my mind for practical reasons. Smoking is the savior of the directionless. It gives you a reason to hang around someplace you have exactly nothing to do in. A sense of purpose, even if that purpose is to cremate yourself from within.
I sat there with my cigarettes a while longer and thought about Michelle. About how badly she wanted Iris, and how badly she didn’t want Iris, and how she just wanted to be wanted by Iris, and how ultimately she just wanted to hold onto herself. Iris the hypnotic pool that gave no water. There was an Iris in every eye.
I watched everyone. Friends and strangers and lovers exchanging lighters and kisses and phones. A girl with long brown hair and a smooth, pretty face sat down next to me. We talked about nothing. She bought me another drink. I lit her cigarettes for her.
In the morning I woke up next to her in one of the beanbags, dress pushed all the way up around my torso, tights and underwear bunched in a sad roll halfway down my ass. It looked like the girl had passed out from exhaustion while attempting to wrestle them off. Tights are difficult, I don’t blame her. I located my phone next to her shoulder. Five a.m.
I scrolled through the unread texts, head heavy with metallic vapor. Nothing from Leigh, not even a got home safe. No get home safe? either. I blacked out the screen. I didn’t know what sort of words I was expecting when it had always been clear that I didn’t, and wouldn’t, and would never move her. What are you supposed to do with words. In a language where “love” is for taking a bullet and also a particularly good piece of pizza, the best you can do is take aim and wish.
I peeled myself up from the beanbag, buried so deep it was almost an ab workout, and reassembled my clothes into a suggestion of propriety, picking up all the bits and pieces I had come with scattered around. The entire room was still asleep, comatose angels in twos and threes and fours strewn over the beanbags, each other, the floor. The audio portion of whatever performance piece was going on last night was still running on loop, some sort of S&M scene between two girls. You like that, you like that you little whore? Look at me when I’m talking to you! bouncing off the empty walls. I thanked the high heavens for protecting my belongings and the company of the night for not stealing anything, even though I had made it so damn easy. Queer people are generally not assholes, especially not to each other, but you never know what the universe is going to do. You make an offering and take a step back, and whatever meets you halfway is destiny.
The warehouse floor is vast, bigger than it was last night in the red light, an iron gray lake in the bright stillness. I take small, light steps to avoid waking anyone, a handful of condoms from the basket near the door just in case, and emerge at full height into the sunlight.
“Valencia” is excerpted from Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover, out on November 15th from Split Lip Press, and available for pre-order now.