by Raphael Rae
Raphael Rae is a poet, essayist, painter, body horror enthusiast, and crazy transsexual. Their writing appears or is forthcoming in Delicate Friend, Arts & Letters, Passages North, and elsewhere. Originally from Philadelphia, they now reside in Brooklyn. Find them online at raphaelfrae.com.
Rooted, Lit, Boned: An Unerasure
My greatest weakness when writing crossword clues is a failure to recognize words’ common roots. I shine a LIGHT in a puzzle’s row and overlook a bird ALIGHTING on an adjacent column. Filled-in squares declare DONE; yet, penning hints, I whisper, “DON’T.” GIRLS and GALS walk hand-in-hand through my puzzles. I try to solve this obliviousness systematically, but consistently, I cannot pick out the figures standing centered in etymology’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 better articulate the situation, scientist Professor Frink begins with Homer’s roots, drawing a chalk square. Chief Wiggum protests, “Woah, woah, slow down, egghead,” gasping at the shock of having his own two-dimensionality shown to him. 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 of himself, and then he amassed outgrowths, becoming something that, at its heart, does still fold down to the same flat man; only I, with my root-ignorance, can’t see the smoothness of transition.
Woah, woah, slow down, egghead, I think, when told that I placed both USE and USUAL in one grid: a verboten move.
Roland Barthes notes, in Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, 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 does this Simpsons episode belong to? The public explodes into the private rather than the other way around. The townspeople flood the pink domestic space of the Simpson home, turning Homer’s mutation into a spectacle, though a spectacle that can’t be seen, only heard (and hearing). The walls have mouths and ears.
What age is this? Not the age of Photography, but the age of animation? Of abstraction?
I’d like to argue, for my own navel-gazing purposes, that an explosion of public figures into private life is emblematic of the age of the mad and the transsexual.
After the third dimension collapses in on itself and Homer falls, Alice-down-the-rabbithole-style, his component parts temporarily separate, altering what counts as his roots when they reassemble. We are thrust, with Homer, 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 sunlight-on-concrete of a city to which I might travel. To which I did travel in 2014.
The light first shines on a dumpster, into which Homer’s screaming bulge of a body shoots. Then 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, not like this body of Homer’s that skitters shyly, whimpering in fear, twiddling eight fingers.
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. 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 photographs Homer. That’s the other difference between 1995 and the same scene enacted now—now, everyone would pull out their phones to snap proof of an aberration.
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 Simpson, I think we know the answer. And I am practicing locating commonalities, seeing through dirt to roots.
I tie together roots that don’t touch, like Frankensteining a rat king.
From Sakiya’s Northampton, Massachusetts attic bedroom, we hear a bird cry like a cat—what I’m tempted to call “caterwauling” for the mere mirror of it, but accuracy triumphs. The sound is me and ow. To know the crying throat by name, we comb through birding websites, playing songs we hope will match, and her sleek, squash-shaped kitty’s head rotates furiously on a bunched and glossy neck. We reach no name, identify no double. The bird copycats on, free from the albatross of being identified.
Our South Hadley, Massachusetts neighbors wage war over a decomposing possum corpse. One day the creature lies, a grey blob like a giant’s kneadable eraser, inert on the lawn next door. The next, the house’s inhabitants have flung the remains to the sidewalk, which is mostly disused, except by me and my roommate, rare pedestrians in this car town.
Someone throws the body back.
And on this goes, grass vs. cement, competing to not host an animal’s rot.
An alternative framing: private vs. public. Is the dead possum everybody’s problem? It takes a village to lay a pest to rest? Or is it the sole responsibility of the people on whose property it died? Last one left holding the bag (of bones) does the time (calling Animal Control)?
While these questions are debated in pantomime, that mammalian kneadable eraser begins, itself, to be erased. To fester. Flattening, liquefying, fly-ing and maggot-ing. All the usual accessories of animal death in the wild, even if this wild features two different convenience stores within a minute’s walk.
I am a 20-year-old woman, and I am very sick in the head. Sick to my stomach with years of pent-up trauma cracking through my body’s once-thick ice. Each day, I douse myself in 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, drawn with hands that shake at the slightest provocation.
Then I come 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 clear Monkey, except maybe the Grim Reaper, hovering unseen. Maybe me.
Tossed from beak to beak, the corpse inscribes rainbow-esque mid-air arcs. I lean my elbows on the windowsill. Transfixed, I am removed from the breakdown that’s stretched for months. The long Alaskan winter of my insides shatters, struck by light: the knowledge that all things end.
Just past our campground at Harriman State Park, a scattered skeleton bridges both sides of the road. Sakiya wanted bones to take home, so we sift through dirt and grass and rocks, seeking sharp curves and planes of sun-bleached memoriam. We locate a small skull, a femur, and assorted other bits of body that I don’t know how to name, excitedly calling out to one another each time a new fragment flags ghost-white. We can’t know for sure, but we’re thinking baby deer, tragically hit by a car, its body pieced apart by scavengers.
A family on the campground stares at us and our arms full of bone. Sakiya calls to them, “We’re making soup later if y’all wanna come by!” They laugh with a tinge of discomfort.
Back at our tent, we lay our finds out in the grass to bleach further; sunshine should 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 and the sun a watchful eye.
After getting out of the psychiatric hospital, I go to South Street Diner. An old friend works there as a waiter, and they ask me to take their regrets across state lines and burn the list to lighten their burden. They scribble the regrets on the back of a receipt, and I dutifully carry that receipt, unread, from Philadelphia to South Hadley. Near our green-walled apartment, a pond wears a winter coat of ice, and I crack it open with a stick to form a pocket in which regret can 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 is the last for my friend’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. Not the L.A. dumpster either.
My BIC sets the rueful receipt aflame, and I drop the fire to be swallowed by this blue throat, hoping I’ve done something to help hollow my friend out in the way we all deserve, free as bird bones held aloft.
The bones were meant for Kiya, but when she drops me back off in Brooklyn, she insists that I take a few. A fragment of skull; a femur; another unidentified shard. I buy Tupperware containers, bottles of rubbing alcohol, and dish soap. In my room, I soak the bones in soapy, alcoholic water to kill anything growing inside of them. Two souvenirs: the purifying-in-water bones, and a sprig of goldenrod, flattened between my journal’s pages like if you put the Treehouse of Horror episode on rewind. Erase the extra lines Professor Frink draws on the square, the root. Uncubing. Unsimpsonifying. Simplifying—one folding, goes the etymology, the rootedness. Alternatively: same folding. Folding clean sheets in front of the mirror, doubled. 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 bones. Fluffy and white like cake icing. I spot it after my pseudoseizures say their piece, after I convulse on the kitchen floor and skip out on that morning’s receptionist shift. The doctor who first (mis?)diagnosed my pseudoseizures as sensitivity to mold told me that I would need to live in the desert if I ever wanted to be free of my body’s propensity to tear itself apart. Land flat and dry as a saltine, ideal snack for the sickly. No bodies of water to set me mad and captive upon. Yet I pulled 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 home bones and let them fester. I do not do my absolute best to not get hurt.
I do my absolute best to be alive.
I fit myself into the deep rectangle carved above “my” hospital-room dresser, like the gun in a false book’s hollow. In my leopard print, my home-markered crop tops, my brown lipstick, I diligently tear through a stack of books. Some of them are new to me, but some, like You Are Not Dead, a slim collection of Wendy Xu’s poetry, are not. Flat in my rectangle, a gun waiting to become pertinent to the plot, hanging with my two-dimensional (textual) friends, and observed by nurses every fifteen minutes, I reach the words, “You are still a coyote,” and pause, fingertip on the page, flesh made punctuation. I think, When I get out of here, I am getting those words tattooed on me, and dogear the page like filling it with goldenrod.
It isn’t until 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.” I sit in wonderment with the “still.” You have been a coyote. When did put on become became? In this poem, you put on a lot: wings, howling, the darkness, “some stars and also what / is between them.” Aside from “you,” a coyote is the only noun depicted as an “are.” The only slippery space in which identity is something to hold and slip into.
The upper limb of the Y in YOU on my thigh has blurred, marking where to stick my weekly testosterone-filled needle as though reenacting the tattoo’s initial birth. Enter sharpness, and the tattoo bleeds its own sharpness, going soft as coyote fur.
Who is still a coyote? The reflection in a shower-foggy mirror. 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, and my cheeks and jaw sprout ginger curls. 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. I make me a fitter, happier faggot.
I didn’t fully understand, before, that vultures are real. Watching their game, I’m still not sure, pumped full of an awe reserved for meeting myths. Those might as well be unicorns stabbing the possum with golden spikes, I’m so hesitant to believe my eyes. Rather than a traumatic terror, an image of war or of my own body under threat, I am witnessing a perfectly natural terror, cyclical, worms-turning-damp-dirt-correct.
Animals die. Vultures arrive. And in flinging the corpse between them, they allow the deceased to share in their wings. To take flight too, escaping possumhood, maggot-snack existence. Heading heavenward.
Funny to remember that paparazzi might be disparagingly called “vultures.” Vultures don’t only carry death on their wings, but the explosion of private into public as well. 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, from this past summer, a photograph of me with Homer Simpson. In the moment of its capture, he was an actor in a suit. In the preserved frame, he becomes the same as the Treehouse of Horror Homer to whom I turn in search of something to embody my dissociative episodes, so many years before my pseudoseizures will be rediagnosed as just that: not a response to mold exposure, but an attempt by my nervous system to bring dissociation into the physical realm.
This photo is of my girl body with its red bob, facial hair nearly absent besides blonde lip fuzz, breasts unbound and legs shaved. A friend and my girlfriend 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. We are bound together, bodies entangled, bulging into one another’s realms.
Yousef tells me that they once brought a VHS of Homer’s Halloween transformation to school for their fourth-grade class to consume. They were censored. It’s dangerous to awaken children to the possibility that they 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. 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, The End and new life entwine.
The air outside Griffith Observatory at sunset smells like iron and gingerbread. From so high, I can see Los Angeles’ bright man-made constellations shivering. Coyotes howl, hungry creatures that do not yet live on my thigh, braiding together with my selfhood and blurring with repeated entry.
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, two forms of the same thing making eye contact—or kissing, or killing. Regardless, coming together. Saying, “You’re someone that I know who you are.”
My skin’s exposed to the glare of the sun. My heart’s exposed, a throbby mess of maggots. I have not yet aimed to die in South Hadley. I have not yet been reborn. The coyotes howl and I wish to howl with them, but I do not see them. They remain private, myths.
Erase: a corpse, my breasts, regrets, mold, a VHS tape, the line between private and public life, the line between 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.