1 essay

by Oliver Scialdone

Oliver Scialdone is a queer writer from Farmington, NY, whose work has appeared in publications including Crab Fat Magazine (under the name Oliver Rad) and ImageOut Write. They like to make things and spend time with their queer family. Oliver received a dual MFA from The New School in the spring of 2020 and currently resides in Brooklyn, NY.

Like the Heron

            Every other year or so, I decide to think about witchcraft. I am not a witch. But I take comfort in ritual and in holy objects and an oddly gothic aesthetic like a true Roman Catholic. I retain something different after each foray into magic: a quartz pendent I crafted myself, a set of tarot cards with art like a punk rock crypt, a tattoo of Artemis slaying a deer on my left bicep, a reproduction of a classical sculpture that always gets compliments.

            I’m not a witch. But it’s good to pretend.

            New York, the city, was an adjustment for me, not because of the size and the noise and the people—I did that once before. It was the permanence of the move this time, the understanding that the things I always had at my fingertips—trees and fields and streams—would become largely unattainable by way of simple geography. I never wanted to change the land or use it. I just wanted to observe and experience. That’s where the magic came in. That whole tied to the earth thing. My whole deal with witchcraft isn’t even about witchcraft. It’s about a sense of belonging to a place. It’s about the searching.

            Many things, I’m glad I left behind. I traded high school lacrosse bros and ranch houses and people who stopped talking to me because I’m queer for dyke parties and places where I could share my writing and people who make the kind of art I’m interested in making. It’s been years since I moved but sometimes the longing still creeps up on me. Like salamanders. I miss salamanders.

            And I miss the herons, with their beanpole necks and sunset beaks.

            Most recently, I tried herbal magic. Herbs can be burned or stuffed them pouches to carry. Each one has different properties, and used in the correct combination under proper conditions, they synthesize their magic and grant the user luck or love or happiness.

            Instead of doing magic, I smoked them.

            I rolled herbal cigarettes on my windowsill. Lavender, elderflower, thyme, camomile. After some tweaking I found I liked those four best. I stopped using them for magic. Now I just roll the cigs and smoke them. I like them better than tobacco cigarettes; I only smoke tobacco when I get really drunk and the people I’m with are also smoking cigarettes. Certain people compel me to smoke, people who I elevate above myself in my head because they’re just so cool. Other people because I’m in misguided love with them and I crave an excuse for us to share something, even if it’s cancerous.

            But the herbal cigs are only me. They smell sweet and toasted. Taste like tea.

            Rolling them is an ordeal. I roll poorly. I hold the papers the way I saw once in a tutorial video with my index finger molding the cylinder shape, and then I sprinkle the herbs inside. Tucking one edge of the paper between the botanic mound and the other edge of the paper, licking the adhesive, and twisting everything together all seem simple enough in theory. Except what happens is that the dried plant parts tumble from the paper and onto the windowsill, or I’ll roll the cigarette, but not tight enough, and then I need to rip the whole thing apart and start again. The papers I buy come in packs of fifty sheets, but I always waste half of them.              

            I try to roll five or six at a time so that I have some whenever I want, but that means I need to set aside at least a half hour just to roll. The process requires more forethought than I can muster. I will remember that I need to remind myself to start rolling the cigs with filters, but in the moment I always forget. When I smoke them I need to stop and pluck little pieces of herbs from my lips and my tongue and my teeth. Dried and dead, but they look and smell and taste the way I am when I feel like I’ve found something to live for.

            I have a thing about lavender. Lavender’s gay. Like Rita Mae Brown in her Lavender Menace shirt at the Second Congress to Unite Women. I’m not even a woman, but I’m a dyke, so I think that counts. It always gets me when I hear phrases like Lavender Menace and Lavender Scare. If the straights wanted to paint the queers as menacing, they should have chosen a different color. I’ve always liked something about Lavender Menace. I like it for the same reason I like to call myself a dyke.

            Lavender is everywhere. I remember being Confirmed and picking Joan of Arc to name myself after in the Church. During the part where I had to justify it to the Bishop, I said I picked her because I wanted her courage, but in retrospect I picked her because she was the queerest saint, and I needed that in my closeted Catholic school fish tank, even if I barely understood why.

            Lavender does wonders for my jealously. I don’t have evidence for that other than how I feel, but in cases like this, it doesn’t matter. I get jealous so easily over things I don’t have the right to be jealous about. Pointless things. People who want to date my friends and not me or people my age who make more money than I do even though they’re demonstrably more useless. Wall Street people and people who work in HR, pharmaceutical reps and people who write for fascist newspapers.

            I never tell anyone I’m jealous. Keep it all hush-hush.

            Jealousy feels like a worse sin than murder. Three out of the Ten Commandments deal with jealously, even if they’re further down the list. I’m not even a Catholic anymore but that stuff sticks with you.

            Now, I don’t covet people or possession or property. My focus has shifted to jealousy over feelings. People who feel certain things and don’t feel others. My brain gets ahead of itself trying to quantify all of it. It cranks in the background when my body goes through the motions of work, hygiene, home. I want to bring these examinations to a halt. Stop the feeling altogether. I’m like one of those women in Victorian novels who needs to sit down because she feels too much.

            Emotions are exhausting. 

            After the lavender, I add the elderflower. My friend D used to drink elderflower liquor and we had it at her parents’ house once during the summer. Upstate summers always felt hazy and light; the air tasted like the wildflowers that grew around her family’s property, smelled like the flaps of firefly wings, whatever that smells like. The opposite of our house in Oswego. The flowers that sprouted from the trees that lined the path to our place looked like white lace and smelled like a crypt. It was downright Victorian. I used to walk down path and think Fuck yeah, we’re crypt keepers, and now some other sad kids who go to our alma mater are probably walking down that path, thinking Fuck yeah, we’re crypt keepers.

            But I liked hanging out at D’s. Her parents always treated me like one of their own. Once she said her brother told her I was his favorite of her friends, and that was probably the nicest thing anyone’s ever said about me.

            City summers are different. I hate getting drenched in sweat after walking three blocks. Might as well dump a bucket of it over my head.

            D wasn’t out when we first met, and we both liked each other in that fluttering type of way back then. I never said anything because I had this echo scratching at my insides, telling me that I didn’t deserve someone that cool, so I sabotaged both of us by never bringing it up until she finally did, years later, when our paths had diverged too much for it to work, even if we tried.

            We used to be wrecks. I still am in my own more adult way.

            We both grew up near Rochester, where we had a ferry that sailed between there and Toronto. This was before Rochester became sort of trendy, with all the breweries and restaurants. Ten years before, when people were still angry about Kodak and Xerox. But the company that owned the ferry owed another company a lot of money, and they sold the ferry off and the new owners never figured out how to manage it. That’s why it went under. That was our deal. By the time we figured out how to manage ourselves, it was too late. But then not really because she’s one of my oldest and dearest friends now, even though we live so far away, and I think that’s so great.

            Years after we missed our window, she said she wanted to take me out to make up for the date we never had. I worked at the mall, so we met up after my shift and went to a restaurant in the complex that was mostly full of people in suits drinking expensive bitter wine. I ordered the least expensive dish because D insisted on covering everything. And then it wasn’t any different than any other dinner she and I had together, and we talked about how when senior year rolled around and we lived in a house with two of our other friends, we both enabled each other’s substance abuse and poor coping mechanisms.

            It makes sense that we both like elderflower. The plant aids in healing and prosperity, and we each needed some.

            We did some acid in college because this girl named Teagan who D was kind of seeing used to supply it. I wanted to see things, and I know that D and Teagan both did because I spent hours watching them stare at walls. Once, I saw a mite on our ceiling that may or may not have been there. That was it.

            We smoked weed in the house too, even though our roommates hated it. We all used to be friends, but then Sarah had some disagreement with Jackie and then one with D and then one with me. Weed became a D-and-I thing. Special. It kept me buzzing even if it made it near impossible to emerge from my J6 cocoon. That was where we lived. House J6. We had a sign on the front door that Sarah made as a joke. Covered in glitter with the words Bad Bitch Alert scrawled in big letters across the center. Bad bitches indeed.

            And of course we drank. I had some other friends who I also drank with, for different reasons.

            Once at a party I drank an entire bottle of rum, and I told my friend Jessi to take it from me so I couldn’t get at the swill left at the bottom. So she tried to take it from me and I ripped it back and screamed at her. I can’t believe I screamed at her. My body had a high tolerance for poison then. These days I’m on the floor after three drinks.                                   

            Another time at a bar on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls on St. Patrick’s day, Jessi snatched a full pint of green beer from under my nose even though I had just ordered it. Apparently I did a lot of other things that night, but I don’t remember them. Things like puking in a snowbank and kissing boys.

            I don’t talk to those friends much anymore. I still love them dearly but I think we were bad for each other.

            D and I wouldn’t have been good together back then because we both hated ourselves too much. But if I had just said I really like you, D, maybe she wouldn’t have spent the first few years of our friendship dealing with her own internalized queer hate, and maybe she would have been happier sooner. I maybe wouldn’t have started dating a girl who berated me in public until I cried and became irate when she wanted to fuck and I said no. I think maybe if we dated then we wouldn’t be friends now, and that prospect makes me want to go dig a hole in the backyard of my parents’ house and crawl inside and never come out.

            I remember when we were watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer on my dorm room bed and we had only been friends for a few weeks. I remember asking if we could lie down but not doing anything more. I remember when we walked into her room and our friend was talking with D’s roommate and they both stopped and stared all slack-jawed because we caught them discussing if we were fucking.

            Lavender and elderflower taste sweet, so I add the thyme to give the cigarette a bite. I can’t use too much because it overpowers the other flavors, but the right amount makes the difference between a good herbal cig and a bad one. I read somewhere that thyme can get you high if you smoke it. I don’t think that’s true, but I always have that thought in the back of my head when I spark up. Placebo effect or whatever. Illusion is just as good as the real thing, like when I order a nitro brew coffee at seven in the morning and pretend I’m drinking a porter at eleven at night. I need to do those types of things because if I didn’t, I would probably just drink a porter at seven in the morning. I can’t let myself drink a porter at seven in the morning.

            When I have thoughts like that, I get afraid that I belong in some death town like Oswego, New York, where I lived for four years. I call Oswego a death town because almost everyone who lives there is sad. Like the cavernous void type of sad. Almost hopelessness, but not quite. The only things to do there are go to the movies and go bowling and get wrecked, so that doesn’t help. The girl who made me cry in public went to the college but was also from Oswego, and it doesn’t excuse anything but her life was fucked up and the lives of all her friends were fucked up and everyone was just so miserable and did whatever dumb shit they could do to cope.

            I’m afraid that I belong somewhere where everyone is sad. I’m afraid I’m not good enough for happy people.

            Oswego is like the thyme. In small doses, I like it. The independent bookstore and the nice coffee shop and the sunset over Lake Ontario. But smoking a whole thyme cig would taste like biting into a lemon without washing or peeling. I think about the sting on my tongue and my insides churn.

            Most of the worst things that have happened to me happened in Oswego.

            I admit to my biases.

            You can’t be queer in Oswego without getting kicked off the bus. That happened to my friend Emily and I once. We got really drunk at a party and had sex on the bong-water carpet of a crumbs and ants type of place at four in the morning after everyone who lived in that house went to sleep. On the bus we weren’t doing anything; we just sat close to each other, but I looked like a dyke and we were maybe too close, so the driver kept bellowing at us to stop or he’d kick us off.

            A couple days later this guy named Matt accosted me about me and Emily when we went to a bar called The Sting to celebrate Jessi’s birthday. He got close to me and I smelled the Rolling Rock and tobacco on his breath. Emily had also hooked up with him and he wanted to make sure I knew. Maybe he felt like I had insulted his masculinity. I don’t mean to brag but Emily she told me that she talked to her friend Taylor about how she hooked up with the hottest person on campus, and Taylor spread it. By hottest person on campus she meant me. I felt good about that but also I didn’t.

            But I can see how Matt might’ve been pissy, hearing that stuff around. But then he told me that when she and I were upstairs, he had been listening.

            I staggered away and didn’t talk to him for the rest of the night. I wanted Jessi to talk to me because around that time she was maybe my favorite person in the world and I was stupid and a little in love with her, but it wasn’t even that late and she had already stumbled into the bathroom to puke into the sink.

            The girlfriend who made me cry was named Danielle and after everything with her had finished, I used to hope that maybe someone would steal the tires right off her car. She had this grey Taurus from the 90s, and I still get all deer in the headlights when I see that model cruising around. In Oswego, after I left her, I used to see a grey Taurus and peer inside the window to make sure it wasn’t hers. I wouldn’t be safe unless I knew it wasn’t hers.

            Once it was.

            I stopped peering after that.

            Another time, I thought about casting a spell on her, even though I knew it wouldn’t do anything. Performative revenge was the only kind I could muster.

            The only kindness Oswego had to offer was hiking, but you could only get to the trails if you had a car or if you had a friend with a car who wanted to go with you. I had a bitter thyme tongue back then. Too sour to ask anyone.

            I used to hike all the time when I lived with my parents for a year or so after undergrad to save money. Their place is near some trails that wind through cool shaded woods and flower-crown fields. Small farms. D’s cousin and her husband have a farm that I miss visiting. They raise goats and use the milk to make soap, and they make kombucha that was distributed to all of us when we met up for our Dungeons and Dragons game.

            I sobbed once when I saw a heron in Central Park, in the North Woods. That place mimics my Finger Lakes forests as well as anything in Manhattan can.

            The heron had these long, creeping legs and stood about as tall as me, and its blue-grey feathers gave it the look of rolling fog as it drifted through the water. It bent its head and slid its beak into the stream, which rippled and settled around each moment of motion. The heron rooted around for its next meal, searched and searched and searched for the thing that would keep it alive.

            I cried because something inside me decided that the cosmos had sent the heron with a blessing, and that blessing was meant for me and me alone. For a while, no one else even noticed the heron. Our modes of existence converged and formed an iridescent banner that blocked out everything.

            I was also pretty fucked up on psychedelics.

            I say fucked up because telling people that I had some transformative and spiritual experience while doing shrooms in a park with my friends makes me feel like a dumb hippie. But I did and I guess it’s time to admit to myself that I can’t always be as cool as I want to be. I want to be all like, whatever. But I can’t. I kept saying that Artemis had sent the heron for us. I told my friend that she and I met because it was fate and destiny, and she agreed. I knew, for those hours, exactly how to cure my depression and anxiety, and then forgot once the effects wore off.

            I experienced the mushrooms, a literal poison attacking my body, the same way I experience my fake magic. Magic to me is the intersection of reality and wonder. Magic (fake magic) makes it okay to feel things out in the world, and that’s what I like best about it.

            When I was a kid, my dad would drive my brother and I to school past sulfur-drenched wetlands. We always saw herons, the three of us together. The same route for thirteen years. The herons have been with me since day one.

             I didn’t bring my herbal cigs to the park. I rolled some the day before, but then I left them on my windowsill in the rush to meet my friends early. Early, especially considering that I had.collapsed over my mattress just three hours before.

            When I arrived I really wanted to suck on some camomile smoke. I tried to wake myself up with sips of iced coffee and a cigarette, both bummed from the fate and destiny friend. But those just made me anxious, and the anxiety didn’t settle until about halfway through the trip.

            Even before I started with the cigs, I loved camomile. I had a point once when I decided I didn’t want to drink coffee anymore and I didn’t want to drink beer anymore. Those decisions didn’t stick and the camomile tea I drank in an effort to replace my minor vices instead became an addendum to them. Everything is always about finding something to replace something else. Something that used to be there but isn’t anymore, or something that never was there to begin with, or something welded in place that needs to separate and melt.

            The camomile is the best part of the cig. It feels honest to me in a way the other herbs don’t. Calm and quiet, just there to do its best. It gets the participation ribbon every time.

            The week after the shrooms in the park, I rolled some more cigs and lit one and shared it with some friends on a day when the whole city felt like it was melting. We passed a bowl around, and the cig followed, and we all laughed and grinned big. Now, I only talk to one of those people.

            The other thing I get jealous about. People who aren’t searching. People with some semblance of certainty, people who aren’t trying to replace one thing with another, over and over again.

            I just want to stay still for half a second before I need to go find the next thing. Stay still and want for nothing. I don’t even know what that means. Even people who have everything just want more of it. Wanting scares me. I never ask for the things that I want because I’m terrified over what’ll happen when I get them. But I still want.

            Compulsion.

            I don’t allow the person inside of me enough agency. I am me, but I am not. The surface of wetland waters stands between one me and the other. I want of myself. I search for myself.

            I creep towards it like the heron.