HELLO, DOWNERS GROVE!
All right, ladies! Woo! Are we having a good time? I can’t hear you, I’m sorry. ARE WE HAVING A GOOD TIME?
Most of you still refuse to answer the question, which is a shame. But I did hear you back there on the far right! What’s your name, pretty lady? Jacquelyn? Thank you for committing to having a good time, Jacquelyn! Toby, head over there and give Jacquelyn a beer koozie, on me.
That’s on me, Jacquelyn. Hope you enjoy.
For the rest of you Sour Sallies and Debbie Downers—Debbie Downers Grove, AM I RIGHT? Ah, now I see that you’re alive. I can hear the blood in your veins when you laugh, ladies! Don’t let that blood stop flowing! Don’t push your foot on the heartbrake! Do you like that? That one’s not actually a joke. It’s the name of a song by one Catherine “Kate” Bush of Sidcup, Kent, England, United Kingdom. My entrance music, in fact, if you were wondering. A lot of people have asked if it’s “Tubular Bells,” you know, the theme from The Exorcist. I guess I can see how they sound alike, especially since Toby cuts it off before Kate starts singing in that one-of-a-kind voice of hers. Toby, you think maybe we could tweak that? Just let it play until Kate gives her first squeak? Thanks! You’re a doll.
Ladies, I’m here today to tell you that keeping the blood moving through your veins is your number one imperative. Your absolutely numero uno responsibility to yourself. Because you are the most important person you know. Did you know that? No one else. Not your kids, not your ex, not your husband, not your friend Molly who’s always calling you in tears. Not your god-love-‘em spoiled-to-death pets! You put everybody else ahead of yourself, and then what do you get? You get blood sludge.
Can you say it with me? BLOOD SLUDGE!
What is blood sludge? What does that feel like? Can anybody tell me? Okay, you there in the center—you, with the black bangs and flowy blue skirt. I love how it matches your fringed shawl. Cute! Look at you—you’re doing your best, aren’t you? And I appreciate it. What’s your name? Francie? Ladies, can we get a hand for Francie doing her best? THANK YOU.
I’m sorry, I drifted. I get so distracted by all of your fabulousness! Francie, did you want to tell us about blood sludge? What is it? You look like you know.
Uh-huh. Did everybody hear Francie? Did anybody hear Francie? Just kidding, darlin’. You know the drill, Toby: koozie for Francie, because she is absolutely right! Already done? You’re the best, Tobesters!
Francie told us that blood sludge is a terrible feeling, ladies, but not a simple one. It’s not sadness, or depression, or anxiety, or anger, although it has elements of every member of that fearsome foursome! It’s a kind of emptiness, Francie said. A way of knowing there’s nothing left to know. The sense that your life has become a series of morose and repetitive routines whose meaninglessness becomes more pronounced with every go-round. That all of your future—everything it contains, every new friend, every professional accomplishment, every move, every new apartment or house or houseboat to live in, every possible child or grandchild, every vacation—will ultimately add up to less than a whole. A case of diminishing returns. A quiet crisis, for really, there is no crisis, is there? Nobody’s sick, unless they are, nobody’s dying, unless they do, etc. It’s not the same thing as losing your house or your baby’s life. That’s blood panic, blood pain. Blood sludge is different. But just as deadly.
Blood sludge kills, ladies. And Blood sludge kills ladies! It is a leading cause of lady-death in our great nation. Don’t believe me? Then why are so many women addicted to pain pills? What phantom hurt got them there in the first place?
Why have life expectancies for poor women with low rates of education sunk, despite the fact that we live in the wealthiest country on earth? I mean, aside from the fact that our nation is long overdue for an old-fashioned proletariat uprising?
Don’t get any ideas, Toby, ha ha!
Why, all over the country, are hardworking women in their thirties and forties and fifties just dying, dropping out of the lives of the people who love them, leaving an overworked lump-shaped hole in the hearts of their friends and family?
How many of you have lost a friend to blood sludge? A sister, a mother? I see the cost on your faces, in your wet eyes and cheeks. Too many tears. Put your hands down, ladies. Let’s condemn it, not count it. Blood sludge: the silent killer. We count your casualties in our wrung hands, in our sore low backs and aching knees. We see your cruelty in our fear of our own lives. Poor women are the most vulnerable, but blood sludge doesn’t discriminate. The rich survive longer because they can soothe it away with various unguents, that’s all. Everyone has their own measure of the disease. It makes us revile and flee the greatest power we are given at birth: the right to joy and the talent to find it?
I wish you away, blood sludge. I banish you.
Why do men seem to relax as they get older, settle in like comfortable leather armchairs, while so many of us winnow out on angst and lettuce leaves or swell up on crap food and fury, anesthetized by costume dramas and handicrafts and cat videos? How come, if you’ve managed to avoid the pills and the booze and the needle and the smoke (or not), do you hit midlife and still want something to get addicted to, still yearn for oblivion in substantive form? Why can’t you seem to get away from wanting?
For how many of us—I’m going to whisper this, because it makes even me feel bad—for how many of us has shopping become the thing that fills the empty space and distracts us from our blood sludge? How many of us have been made textbook examples of the very midlife stereotypes we hoped to avoid? Maybe this tiniest joy was even part of your decision to come here today: the thrill of buying the tickets, planning to get here, staying in a hotel. I know several of you are joining us today from Wisconsin and Michigan—so sorry I couldn’t make it to your great states on this tour! Next time, I promise!—and maybe it was a flinty little draw for you, buying your way here. Taking a little trip. Treating yourself.
Or maybe, if you’re lucky—after a fashion, I guess—it’s exercise. The gym, that place that sounds so much like prison. They keep telling you it’s going to get better, that you’re going to feel great! They keep saying that after this umpteenth rotation on the updated torture device, you’re going to break through into pure joy. The “runner’s high,” maybe you’ve heard of it? I don’t know, ladies. I’ve only ever heard of it, never felt it. When I sweat, I feel wet, that’s all—and not in the good way.
But maybe the gym works for you, or shopping does, or both. I’m not judging you. Everybody deserves something to look forward to. I just know we all deserve much, much more.
Why isn’t there any blood sludge in France? French women don’t get blood sludge! Actually, I actually came straight from St. Tropez to be with you today, and I can tell you for sure: French women definitely get blood sludge. Don’t even get me started on the Brits. They practically invented it. The Germans have a very pragmatic way of dealing with it. The Russians try to blast it out of their system with various extreme behaviors. In Brazil and the Philippines, it is most often treated with body modification. Blood sludge is global.
Everywhere in the world, you ask the average woman if she’s happy, truly happy, and she looks at you like you caught her with her tampon string hanging out of her bikini bottoms. Been there, ladies! It’s okay to laugh, or to cry, or both—I see a lot of both right now, and that makes me happy! Not your unhappiness—that makes me sad—but the fact that you are unhappy with me. Because there is a solution, my dears, and I brought it here to today to share it with you!
You are not damned to blood sludge. It’s your blood, it runs in your veins, it powers the machine that is you. You have a choice. You have power. You do! And by the time we’re done here today, you’re going to leave with such an improved sense of your own power that you’ll be able to get a boy to drink it right out of your body.
Your blood, I mean. It will flow into his mouth easy as guava nectar, right from the source, you pick which one, it doesn’t matter, and the sludge will be nowhere to be found. You will have become an inhospitable environment. You will have chased it out!
Your blood is going to run through you like fawns in springtime.
Who am I talking about, boys drinking your blood? Not vampires, that’s for sure. I’ll come right out and say it: this conference room is a vampire-free zone! We also don’t have any passive-aggressive billionaires masquerading as dungeon masters, abusive bosses whose psychotic antics are somehow sexy, or princes of any variety here. We’re talking about a much more common and delicious male type, a natural resource that’s all around you, just waiting, if you only know how to access it. And you will.
Ladies, I am here today to tell you about your own power. I’m here to tell you that you have it! Yes you do, ladies. You have it in spades and droves and kittens and combs, that is abso-fucking-lutely certain. What? Why do you look surprised? Did some man tell you he didn’t like it when you swore? Didja just want to say, Fuck you, Paul?
I see a lot of nodding.
Fuck you, Paul! Say it with me, say it proud: FUCK YOU, PAUL!
Ladies, I have been there! Let’s remember that he doesn’t matter. Paul ain’t got shit. Because there is a species of man—of boy, we’re going to call them boys, don’t let me get off my own script, although I am of course engaged on the issue of getting off, me or you, ha ha—there is a species of boy who does not give one single flying fuck how many f-bombs you drop. There is a species of boy for whom your sweat is absolute motherfucking ambrosia. Because to him you are one. A goddess. You have that power. It’s inside you. You don’t need a makeover or vaginal rejuvenation surgery or new shoes or a goddamn cold-pressed juice fast to get at it. You have it right there with you, right now. In you. To access it you just need to learn a few things. Things I’m here to teach you.
Ladies, I am a teacher and a leader. These roles are my path to fulfillment in this life. In my last go-round on this crazy orb, I may have been a humble Venetian cobbler, piecing together beautiful shoes for the illegitimate daughters of the Doge, sweet girls destined by cruel dint of their birth to become courtesans for his cronies. In the one before that, I may have been the Neolithic shamanness who alone could climb into the mammoth’s skull and become the voice of the Great Sky, who led my people across the ice bridge to the other place. In the life before that, I was a sage in a culture so long lost that it lives only in the memories of stones and water, but in this life I am a goddamn teacher and a motherfucking leader!
It’s true! It’s all true. I am true. To you. No, no applause, but thank you, it does mean a lot to me. Thank you.
You guys! You’re the best.
I am a teacher and leader only because I know two things that you will leave here knowing too, ladies. And those things are: how to find a boy, and how to keep him.
I’m not talking about keeping a boy in the way some other less imaginative people talk about keeping a man. No ma’ams, plural! No, I mean keeping like you keep your kitties and puppies. I mean keeping him happy and safe so that he comes and eats right out of your hand. I mean bringing him to you and keeping him there because he doesn’t want to leave. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
First, we need to establish what a boy is, how to recognize one, and all that magic jazz.
Toby, can I get a cue to “All That Jazz”? Just kidding, Toby, don’t freak out, we’re still on plan. Play my next cue, will you?
Okay, okay, ladies, anybody know that song? Are we sensing a theme here? That was “Moving,” also by the incredible Kate Bush, the first song off her 1978 debut The Kick Inside. Kate was nineteen years old when the album was released. She had been working on it since she was thirteen. Six years of adolescence! That’s precocious persistence, my lovelies. That’s how long it takes to make a work of art. I hope to inspire you to follow Kate’s lead and believe in your own interior voice and keep going. Towards your boy, who is going to make you feel as ecstatic as Kate sounds when she hits those high notes.
Get your butt out here, Toby, it’s your time to shine!
Ladies, please allow me to introduce Toby Green. Toby is not short for Tobias; his parents named him Toby, only. Toby hails from Tacoma, Washington, where his mom is a fourth-grade teacher and his dad is a police officer. He has a little sister, Becca, who’s still in high school, if you can even believe that. He went to a little college in California whose name I always forget, where he majored in something called Media Studies. Don’t think that existed when I was in school, ladies!
Toby’s from a different generation. He’s twenty-six years old but looks about nineteen, am I right? If you can believe it, he looked even younger when I first met him. He was twenty-two but looked about sixteen. I had never seen anyone quite so yummy.
Don’t blush, Toby. Or do. It suits you.
Look, ladies, I never bought into the whole cougar thing. I think the term’s bullshit, to be frankly honest. I don’t mean to offend any of you who might have found the idea liberating or fun, or used it to find some primed young man company for an evening or two. I don’t begrudge you any joy you find in this life. But the cougar thing? It’s dehumanizing, for one thing. Cougars are beautiful animals, but they’re animals. You are not.
When you think the word, you don’t even see a stunning wild cat anymore, do you? You see a gussied-up Jill in her late fifties. Spray-tanned décolletage in a low-cut black jersey dress and cheap pumps. She does her own highlights with a kit from the drugstore and subsists on a diet of clementine segments and canned tuna packed in water, not oil. There she is at the bar, behind the girls in their twenties who at least want to be there, propping herself just so to catch the eye of some juiced-up weirdo beefcake named Derrick or Milt. Some handsome sad sack out for his own self, looking for a story to tell their borderline psychotic bros in the weight room, or a hetereoerotic cover to loosen them into their truer desires a little later, in the sauna.
Oh, ladies! There I go again. I shouldn’t be so harsh on these imaginary cougar-seekers. Whatever frees their own blood is kosher, is it not, especially if Jill is happy, if she has a good time? Aren’t we all just humans on this crazy spinning blue globe, seeking a little succor before the hammer comes down? We only get one go-round, remember. But the thing that sticks in my craw is that the cougar label has nothing to do with the woman to whom it is applied. If she chooses to embrace it and embody it, she’s still plugging into a storyline written without her specific needs in mind. She’s stepping into a generic space, learning lines and blocking scenes laid out by a man who had to twist his mind into a joke to imagine how an older woman could be sexy.
That’s claptrap, as I imagine Kate Bush might say. Claptrap, my good man! Toby, is that funny? Aw, Toby. I love to hear you laugh.
Your sexiness is in you, irremovable from your you-ness. It doesn’t degrade or ebb with age. What does recede, sadly, is too many ladies’ ability to feel and know their own appeal. But it doesn’t have to. It’s not natural. Nothing is natural. The notion of naturalness relies on teleology, and in this room we do not give into the weak-minded notion of a linear, teleological worldview. We believe something different. I’ll get back to that in a minute. Don’t let me forget!
Toby, where did we meet? That’s right, the Reed College bookstore. I remember it like it was yesterday: the fluorescent lights, the stack of Noam Chomsky tomes. Noam tomes, ha ha, sorry! I had never been to Portland before and never have since. I was there for a kind of writing conference. I used to try to be a writer, before I figured out my purpose in this life, back when I worked in customer service for the phone company in a big red brick building in a suburb of Chicago just like this one.
I took smoke breaks at eleven, two, and four every day. I put on my big black parka, the one I’d had for a million years, the one with salt stains on the bottom hem that got just a little bit more raggedy every winter, and struggled out into the miserable cold to watch beat-up cars navigate past the gray curb-boulders of frozen snow. I smoked hard, imagining the little lines taking shape around my mouth. I knew I wasn’t supposed to like the little lines, but I did. They meant something was happening, at least, time was passing, and I was changing myself, even in a bad way, even in a way that made me less beautiful. I wanted those little lines. I thought of them as tiny knives, cutting up my face. Doing something, for chrissakes.
Oh, the blood sludge, ladies. I had it bad. You have no idea. I had four pairs of pleated khakis and two blazers, one gray and one black, and, on the advice of my personal shopper, twelve wrinkle-resistant oxford shirts in fun colors. To brighten me up, she said.
I had a knee-length black cocktail dress I wore to weddings, a sack with sleeves made of, yup, in my karmic retribution for being mean to imaginary Jill, you guessed it: jersey! I had a gray-and-green plaid sundress, a sack without sleeves, that I wore with a big floppy straw hat on those days in summer when I wanted to feel like the sun shone for me. But it never did.
I tried it all, don’t think I didn’t! I joined the book club. I joined the garden club. I took a cooking class. I took a swimming class. I went to church. I went to five different motherfucking churches, and their singles events, too! I Jazzercised at the community center. I took bus trips to national parks and cruises to Alaska and the Caribbean. And all of it just stuffed me deeper down in my black garbage bag coat and held the cigarettes to my mouth like a third hand.
My blood swelled and heaved in my veins. Soon I was going to be dead. I knew it. I felt it. They’d zip the bag up for good and slide my drawer into the wall and lock it. Just like that. That was how it would happen. I knew it. Everything I did was an attempt to not know it, to think that there was some point, some meaning.
If I said I never thought about ending my life, I would be lying to you.
The writing workshop at Reed was another attempt to make it all fall in line. To make it make sense. Listen, I was trying to do this the responsible way. I didn’t buy into the cougar claptrap, as I said. I had been divorced for seven years at this point. Maybe you’ve read about it in the book, but I was married at twenty-four to a fine fellow named Hector. Toby, can we show the picture from the wedding?
There it is. Hector was so handsome, wasn’t he? Me, meanwhile, yeesh. Why did we all think strapless gowns were the way to go? We had the reception at a banquet hall in Norridge. I hated the outside of the building—you might know it, it has a tiny leaning Tower of Pisa on top—but I fancied the inside almost Mediterranean: wax grapes, jugs of Gallo red poured into discolored faux brass decanters, Jordan almonds in little net bags, etcetera.
I bought into classical allusions back then. I thought my husband, a son of the Quad Cities, as fine and chivalrous and honorable as the son of Priam and Hecuba, and I wasn’t wrong. He was not a bad man. He was even what most would call a good husband, I think. But ultimately we were two people who made each other more unhappy than we did happy, which is a bitter thing to know. Like salted ice in the mouth. It took us seven years to learn it. To figure out the nasty taste on the back of the tongue.
The whole time I was Hector’s wife, I believed that we were engaged in a meaningful quest to know more about one another, to grow closer in understanding. I believed that it was possible for two people to resolve the tension of initial attraction into an unbreakable golden bond, a marriage of agápē and érōs both. And perhaps this is possible, but not for Hector and me. He started working all the time, taking every out of town trip the tire dealership would give him. I had an indiscretion with the man who taught my writing for children workshop at the community center. Hector never found out, but still. One day in February, we couldn’t look away from it anymore: we were over.
Our divorce left me feeling as exposed as a nomad in a torn tent. Hence the subsequent seven years of shitty board work. If I hadn’t met Toby, I think I would have gone to a sperm bank next. Not because I did or didn’t want to be a mother. I had simply become convinced that motherhood might be the only emotionally deepening sensual experience left to me. But even that was freighted with fear, and sadness. I knew it wasn’t the right idea—having a baby just for the sake of it. I wasn’t even sure I could.
I wanted to want something, but it didn’t seem that there was anything left to want.
And then I went to Reed. I didn’t care much for the conference, which was the usual conglomeration of women like me looking for people to feign interest in their sadness. There was a bar that sold eight-dollar beers, and readings every night where people who had accomplished their dreams stemmed us out on hits of their own success, and a pack of young people writhing and climbing over each other for the chance at a few stolen moments of illicit fun. Most of them were so young that they didn’t yet understand how brief an interlude their youth would be, how quickly it would recede in deference to the great vacuum of tasks that is adult life.
Oh, ladies, you can even hear it in my voice. How bad the blood sludge had gotten. Even now, removed from it, I can feel the ache, the way it made me stiff all over.
Oh, Toby, you’re too sweet. Thank you.
You see, my friends? The night was darkest before the dawn. If you had told me four years ago that I would be on stage in front of all of you now, with this handsome young man embracing me and handing me a mentholated tissue for my runny nose—well, I would have told you that you were nuts. But you’re not, and I’m not, and there is a way forward. A better way.
When I first saw him, Toby was manning the register at the bookstore, carefully building a contraption out of folded paper, a kind of Rube Goldberg machine. A quarter dropped in the top tube underwent a series of charming little transitions through a pinwheel, a catapult, and so on. It was really quite clever. I stopped to watch it, forgetting whatever it was I wanted to buy or ask. As the quarter went through its construction-paper maze, I thought of nothing other than the childlike excitement of what would happen next. It wasn’t until much, much later, when I was lying in Toby’s extra-long twin—oh yes, ladies, we are getting there, we will go there!—that I remembered this important first step. For us, it is the first rule. I know most of you have read the book and this will not come as a surprise, so maybe we should just all call it out at the same time.
Toby’s ready with the Powerpoint, because he’s just the best.
The first rule is REMOVAL FROM CONTEXT OR “MAGIC MOMENT.”
That’s your first step, ladies. I didn’t know mine was coming. I had no idea. But happiness isn’t a football that hurtles at you. You can create it for yourself. All it takes is a step back. When you let go of all of the strain and hurt of your daily life, you can access beauty and meaning anywhere. My anywhere just happened to be a fanciful device constructed by a bright young man in the Reed College bookstore. And as I watched the quarter make its way through its unlikely physics-defying route, I felt genuine excitement, genuine interest—those precious gems of aliveness. Already the sludge was losing its grip on me.
There’s no shortage of places the magic moment can occur, ladies. It can be a place you already love to go lose yourself, the museum, the movies, even the gym, but I encourage a departure from routine. It doesn’t have to be fancy: a bus you’ve never ridden before, a walk through a part of town with no sidewalks. Just take yourself out of your context and into the realm of the possible. Remember that the possible is real. It exists and breathes just as you do. When you feel yourself exist and breathe with it—when you feel your purpose as just those two things, and not any of the crap you’re normally freighted down with—then we’re really talking. Then it’s time for the second rule, which came as much of a surprise to me as the first.
In the Reed College bookstore, I looked up for the wondrous device of paper and quarter—the latter having made its final deposit into a large glass jar whose purpose remains obscure to me now as it was then—and into the friendly brown eyes of one Toby Green. I didn’t know his name yet, of course. Reed College is too iconoclastic to issue employee nametags. But I knew he was handsome and smiling, a combination that up until that moment seemed to be lost to me forever.
When do we accept that, ladies? That feeling that beauty and desire are somehow not allowed anymore, not granted us? That a young man’s loveliness must somehow be measured against our own, squared, earned? Why?
The second rule is QUICK RIGHT ACTION OR “JUST DO IT.”
What did that mean for me and Toby? It meant I reached across the counter and took his slim wrist in my hand, just like that. Without even thinking I shut down the part of my brain that would restrict that action, I turned it off, and I reached and took Toby’s wrist in my hand where it hung there over the jar and his Goldberg machine and held onto it for dear life. I didn’t know why I was holding it, exactly. I only knew that I wasn’t about to let go. In that minute, dear ladies, I decided that I would let go of everything else, if need be. My burgundy 1999 Hyundai Sonata with the tan leather interior, my neo-Tuscan style two-bedroom in Vernon Hills, my membership in the outdoor exploration meetup group, my Costco card, my yearly trip to visit my aunt Betsy in Destin, Florida.
It doesn’t sound so great, does it? It wasn’t. I was right to want to chuck it all. Of course it wasn’t that simple. The car I recognized as a tool of my own agency, and so I kept it. The house took two and a half years to sell, and the people who bought it basically stole it from me—but what was I expecting? It had always been too big for me. I choose to think of it like this: the universe compensated me for the portion of the house I truly occupied. The rest of it was lost to me, empty space, and so I was wrong to expect to be paid for rooms that would have held only my surfeit of things, a gallery of possessions I lazily defended by purchasing larger and larger spaces to in which to house it.
Everything else could fall away. Everything else did fall away. I took Toby’s wrist in my hand, and what did I say, Toby? What did I say?
I’m sorry, ladies, Toby is not miked. Why don’t we mike you, Toby? Another note for next time, let’s remember: cut intro music a few measures later, and mike Toby. Thank you, Toby—I know you don’t love being onstage like this. Thanks. You can go get the next cue set up while I share what you said with the ladies.
Ladies, a hand for Toby!
The lights are coming down, ladies. We’re sinking into darkness to watch Ms. Bush’s “Babooshka” video, which I like to screen at this point in the evening or afternoon or morning or whatever the hell time it is—two-forty-five? Who knew? AM or PM? Who cares?—to emphasize my point.
What Toby said just now—what I said to Toby back then—was, “Let’s get out of here.” And then: “Do you have a place we can go?”
He had a place we could go, my friends. Roll film, Toby! Let’s take a little break and enjoy.
That song just brings me to life! I hope you feel the same way, ladies. Maybe some of you are discovering Ms. Bush’s oeuvre for the first time today. If so, I’m so glad I could make the introduction! I hope you find her music useful. I certainly have. It’s hard to pick a favorite among her albums, and downright impossible to pick a favorite of her songs, but Never For Ever is close. I show “Babooshka” here because it illustrates an important turning point in Kate’s career and in my message today. You see how sexy she is in that video, how free? That exotic costume like the glittering sails of a ship billowing on the mast of her body.
For the casual Kate Bush fan, the success of “Babooshka” might be said to be her career highpoint, after her breakout success with “Wuthering Heights,” of course. “Babooshka” reached number five on the British singles chart, and the video established Kate as a bit of a sexy tart, which was a pleasant surprise to men who’d been baffled by her modern dance-heavy videos, all of her swishing about in scarves and bodysuits, none of which seemed to leave much room for them. The song was a creative turning point, but not because the video confirmed that Kate was a regulation hottie, as the lead character in a certain film from my youth might have said. No, “Babooshka” matters because Never For Ever was the last album before The Dreaming, the first that Kate produced by herself, which she called her “She’s gone mad” album.
On The Dreaming, we go much deeper into a sonic realm of mythic feeling. It’s a very theatrical record. You descend into an emotional underworld with no assurance that you can return. It’s a lock-the-door-and-throw-away-the-key kind of album, one that demands you put your fear aside, take a deep breath, and dive under the water. And on the way there we get this delightful, deceptively light video in which Kate herself dramatizes the bifurcation of her identity between black-cloaked crone and resplendent succubus.
Which brings me to my third and final rule, ladies. The last rule for keeping a boy. Perhaps the only one that truly matters.
GO TO THE SECRET PLACE WITHIN AND RETRIEVE YOUR ACTING SELF.
Discard my seminar, discard the Doubletree Downers Grove, forget your koozies beneath the seats. Toby will collect them. Do not buy my book, or do, or buy it and return it, or steal one from the merch table; Miranda, my niece who runs it, has been instructed not to pursue obvious thieves.
I want to free you, ladies. I want you to go into the world of your favorite song. I want you to flicker between identities like Kate in “Babooshka” there, and then I want you to leave this room feeling that flickering still within you and go into the streets and have your “She’s gone mad” album. Make it now. Your “She’s gone mad” album is your life. You’ve only got one, which causes me such pain. I don’t know how I manage it.
I’m going to tell you what to do. I’m going to tell you how to get to the place where no one will disregard your pain again. I’m going to tell you how to make a man drink your sweat like wine. I’m going to tell you how to make him like it better than wine. I’m going to give you the power you already have inside you. But that’s only what worked for me. Maybe it won’t for you. Maybe it’s not a boy you need. Maybe that’s just what I think.
What is a wizard? The principal of my elementary school used to ask. A wizard is someone who gives you something you already had, but you wouldn’t have known you had it unless the wizard gave it to you. This phrase never made any sense to me. Our mascot was the wizard, a friendly triangular line drawing of one, anyway, and I didn’t see how the drawing of a bearded man in a peaked cap could give me something I already had. I still don’t understand. I never came to understand how anyone else could save me. I only came to understand that it was possible to save myself.
Or no. I’m lying. It is impossible to save yourself. It is impossible to save anyone, just as it is impossible to fly, or to make whole again with love that which has been rent by time and neglect and pain. All we have are our bodies and their memories, their memories of pain and pleasure. Pleasure, body-joy. It may be the only true kindness humans can give one another. It may be the only place you can go together.
Your acting self is the doer of quick right action. Your acting self is the self that takes your Toby’s wrist in hand and allows itself to be led back to his narrow dorm room. Your acting self is the one who lies on the tiny bed and braces herself for a pleasure she knows will pass. Your acting self closes her eyes and tells herself to memorize this. Your acting self sends away fear, sends away regret. Your acting self has power. Your acting self may have said she didn’t want to go swimming, but she still wanted to be tossed into the pool. Your acting self’s eyes well with tears at Toby’s gentle ministrations. He laps like a kitten between your acting self’s legs and you press your hand against the base of his skull. Your acting self remembers that she can swallow him like a venus flytrap swallows a fly, like a snake swallows a mouse, like the earth swallows a corpse. Your acting self remembers that she has the power also to do none of these things, to leave the beautiful young man as he is when he wishes her to leave him.
Your acting self knows that people lie and desires change and colors fade, but she also knows that, just as pleasure may be the only kindness humans do each other, desire may be the only truth. Desire is of the moment and life is long. The conflict is implicit. You have to make a choice. I am telling you which choice to make. Do not disregard the pull of your desire and the succor of your pleasure.
Be the succubus sailing on her mast of skin and bone. Find the young man whose body liquefies under your hands, whose nose runs and orifices squeak in his eagerness to get to you. Find the man whose submission to your desire comes in the form of aggressive lust. Seize on that sudden, delicious moment. Memorize it with your hands. Scratch it into Braille on your skin. Find the pattern of touch that presses the blood in your veins out of sludge and into sluicing thin liquid, sweet and fine as currant juice. Watch him press his mouth to the source.
I want to free you, ladies, but I don’t have all the answers. I can only tell you to fear the monsters, the blood sludge and the loss, and to look to the lights, Kate Bush and Toby’s Rube Goldberg machine and a foam covering to keep your can of beer cold, for if the beer stays cold until it’s gone, isn’t that answer enough? Isn’t that, after all, what we’re hoping for?
In my favorite song, “Suspended in Gaffa.” Kate sings, “They've told us / Unless we can prove / That we're doing it / We can't have it all.” Can you prove it, ladies? Can you keep your very own boy? Can you have it all?
You’ll have to excuse me, ladies. I get a bit winded when I’ve been wound up like that. A little teary. I am really just an old lady after all. Thank you for bringing the chair out, Toby, and for this wonderful coconut water. You really are such a dear. I hope you’ll forgive me if I stay seated from here on out, ladies.
Close your eyes. We’re almost done. Toby’s going to bring the lights back down and cue up “How To Be Invisible” for you now, one of Kate’s newer songs, to help with your transition back to the outside world. Take her advice. There is a way. You can move toward your desires without anyone ever knowing. You and only you can keep the sludge from your blood. You are the wizard who can give yourself the boy you did not know you needed. You are the alchemist who can transform your body’s every fluid into something your boy cannot live without. Into the cure without which none of us—without which the world—cannot survive.
You’ve been amazing, Downers Grove! Goodnight!