I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
When she told N she was leaving, his response was that doing so would ruin him—financially. They shared an apartment in a sometimes-maintained building in Washington Heights just straddling Broadway. The street marked a sharp divide between Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Russian families crowded amid 99¢ stores, nail salons she’d been warned not to enter, and a particularly active Baptist church on the east, and young white families too culturally inept for Park Slope on the west. Moving is expensive and stressful, N argued, especially in Manhattan, and she’d dragged him there all so she could become an art writer.
If she left, his credit would be ruined, he protested, sitting on the couch as she packed heavy books and art magazines into plastic cartons and equally distributed their dishes and silverware into two piles. He couldn’t afford an apartment on his own, would default on his student loans. He sank deeper into the garish ’80s upholstery, nervously shuffling bank statements and business cards. He needed her, couldn’t keep track of the bills and rent and maintain the apartment and monitor his precarious emotional wellbeing without her. If she could just be a little merciful, show a little care, he’s sure he could keep his connections and credit, tolerate the relentless mundane drudgery of the city.
This was the deal she’d agreed to without having known it: she maintains his body, his mental health, insures his personhood against the odds of a competitive world. The more emotion she is able to produce, the more he is able to sustain the flow of capital into and out of his life.
They’d kept loose change in an empty Patrón bottle wedged on the bookshelf between a stack of exhibition catalogues and wilting succulents she’d picked up at Target. After they began working in the city, her money was nearly entirely virtual—siphoned via direct deposit into her bank account, channeled through routes invisible to her to the electric company, the landlord, the bodega where cats hid in cardboard banana boxes. His was increasingly physical: tall stacks of small bills lined their living room, a constant reminder to him of the value of sociality. Smile and chat, make a connection, and increase your tip. This meant that the Patrón bottle’s contents belonged mostly to N, but he refused to take it to the sublet she’d found for him, left it in the middle of the kitchen floor. She lugged the cumbersome thing to Brooklyn. Nickels and dimes spilled everywhere when the U-Haul she’d rented hit potholes on Canal Street.
In late August, after several weeks of not speaking, N got in touch—he wanted the Patrón bottle back, needed its contents acutely. She offered to send him a check, or better yet, to Venmo the cash straight to him. The less real their interaction could be, the better. He refused, though: the change was physical, heavy, and it demanded an in-person encounter.
They met to split the cash at a mutually convenient Coinstar of her choice in outer Brooklyn, and he gave her a little extra money than he took for himself, although he undoubtedly needed it more. The parking lot had the suburban heterotopic feel of late-summer sublimity, candy-colored sky and warm asphalt reflecting neon on their skin. Patrón bottle empty, they took a nearly unoccupied M train back toward the Myrtle-Broadway stop. She and N sat side by side, carefully not touching, and she prompted and orchestrated a heartrending recounting of his psychological struggles, performing sympathy perfectly on-tone. There were a few self-help books she’d ordered on Amazon recently; perhaps he’d like to borrow them. There was a free clinic she’d heard about in the Village; she wrote down the address, enacting absolute attention and interest in his self-development and health to prove that she has any purpose there at all. She’s an emotion-production machine: the perfect disappearing girl.
The Instagram user KillerandaSweetThang rose to sudden Internet stardom in January 2016 after the NY Post featured her in a typically scandalized, scandalous article, titled “I fuel fantasies of men who want sex with young girls.” IRL Eileen Kelly is twenty years old and unquestionably beautiful, pouting, perfectly self-packaged for a precipitous ascent to online fame. The thing about Instagram celebrities is that you can go back into the archive, find posts from before the user in question received the amount of likes and follows you’re used to seeing associated with their profile now. It’s kind of unsettling to see Kelly posing provocatively for just a handful of admiring viewers.
In a post made shortly after she achieved notoriety, Kelly poses for a selfie in a lingerie store in West Hollywood wearing a light pink, transparent, feathered number. “Someone buy me this,” she captions the post. “DM your credit card number & billing zip code.”
Kelly trades in youth. She is a high-stakes investor in the stuff, the currency of thin legs, smooth skin, exposed ribs. Photographs of her seem to stop the flow of time as her physical body becomes liquid capital: her image regresses in maturation, diminishes in weight, her physical presence growing less and less substantial as she circulates and proliferates digitally. This heightened presence of disappearance is her personal brand, and KillerandaSweetThang is paid well in immaterial currency—follows and likes. Though she gets plenty of free products, hotel rooms, and travel vouchers from sponsors (so long as she shills them on her profile), Kelly has no real power: no money, no control, no voice. She still has to (or, it fits into KillerandaSweetThang’s brand to need to) ask anonymous men to purchase her expensive lingerie so she can maintain this extraordinarily visible disappearance.
A few minutes after KillerandaSweetThang requested the robe from her followers, she posts a video of herself wearing the garment, which is now hers thanks to a transaction of virtual cash that entirely bypassed her own account. She is practically floating across the dressing room, the video set to T.I.’s “You Can Have Whatever You Like.” Stacks on deck, Patrón on ice, and we can pop bottles all night, baby, you can have whatever you like … you want it, I got it, go get it, I buy it. Anything is available to Kelly—though pink and see-through is preferable—so long as she asks her legion of digital Daddies for it nicely. Kelly doesn’t have to dip her foot into the dirty stream of money: a shimmering, unreal icon, she’s above it all. She stripper-squats and gives herself a winning smile in the tri-fold mirror. A friend who’d accompanied her to the store wearing baggy jeans and a sweatshirt records the performance, his face obscured in the mirror by the iPhone he holds to film her. Moments like this sometimes find their way into her posts: comparatively and remarkably unlacquered friends appear reflected in bathroom mirrors, in car backseats, sometimes even posing alongside their much-vaunted contemporary. KillerandaSweetThang gives her audience enough of a glimpse into the fact that she might be a real teenager with a gangly cohort sucking down extra-large sodas for her followers to convince themselves that their pedophilic fantasies are credible.
V and B’d had a rough day at work trying to get the projector for an upcoming exhibition to work: the machine would zoom in infinitely, focusing more and more clearly on details of the images they fed through it, but refused to zoom out. The image could never been seen as a totality. This infuriated B to no end, but there seemed to be no way to fix it. Although V sat next to her in the office for the entire afternoon, helping B process her emotions on the situation and exchanging art-world gossip to distract her, B was inconsolable. She’d needed to go home before dinner, change her outfit, have a drink in order to calm down.
V’s tasks at work included: writing press releases from the disembodied and abstract perspective of the “brand”; writing essays and letters under the names of various higher-ups; giving tours and extemporaneous art historical lectures to visitors in a highly refined pedagogical persona; and speaking to B’s clients on the phone in a soothing feminine voice. She was tasked with going into B’s email account several times a day and corresponding on her behalf to make sales offers and soothe disgruntled buyers, order books and sell old clothes, make weekend plans with friends. V felt herself becoming a shadow-self under the umbrella of B, whose persona had grown too expansive for one person to manage. The two women were like clones, or identical twins with that weird psychic connection, but with a distinct power hierarchy. She ended up knowing what B wanted for lunch before she’d ordered. She knew where B was all the time, even when she wasn’t supposed to. To outsiders, it might be hard to tell from which body B was operating at any given time.
In exchange for her work, B liked V, even loved her, and brought her along as a plus one to all kinds of events. It’s important to have a girl by your side at these kinds of things. It helps social interactions go well.
That night, they were going to a high-intensity dinner held by the coolest downtown nonprofit space. V arrived appropriately late, she thought, but not late enough: B was still trying on suit jackets in SoHo, and V didn’t know anyone at the restaurant. Feeling more in common with the sharply dressed waiters, who kind of looked like mimes, than anyone in the crowd, she managed to latch onto several of B’s friends (Her friends by proxy? They didn’t seem to think so.) for several long minutes before B’s arrival. Thank god you’re here, V whispered, and B steered her toward the bar by the elbow. B operated in the uppermost social echelons, and to these people V had nothing of value to offer in any active role. Passive listener, empathetic gossip receptacle—these things would only carry her so far. Actual agent? Out of the question—no one really wanted to talk to her. There must be someone here, V thought desperately, in need of a young-girl.
The young-girl: the best person in a room to either humiliate or hit on, and nothing else, because everyone assumes she’s just doing things to please the people around her. V could sometimes be that, not because she wanted to be, but because she wasn’t old, or serious, or dignified enough to be anything else yet. The truth was, it was hard to avoid being the young-girl: V had no pretensions of being exceptional, of being able to escape the narratives of global capitalism and the snares of the art world and the roles thrust upon her—able to rise above it all and watch all the other young-girls struggling, drunk, tripping over themselves and giggling and being fondled in clouds of disco-ball smoke below. The exceptional woman is a fiction, or just another role in the game. V was in the same mess as everyone else.
XX emerged from the teeming crowd all gossip and flattery and intimate touches on B and V’s forearms, waists. They immediately entered the kind of dialogue that’s more like a tennis match than a conversation, each player showing off how scandalous they could be, how clever. V was exhausted by having to keep up with all the laughing she was expected to do: it’s one thing to have to laugh at a single quasi-boyfriend, but managing the facial strain to gratify two is quite another. When B left for more gainful company, XX stepped closer to V and asked: So, what’s your goal in the art world? What could she say: she wanted to write. And who’s your favorite writer?
Chris Kraus, she’s the only writer I’ve read who seriously acknowledges that as a woman, you’re complicit in your subjugation in hetero relationships. Instead of resigning herself to erasure, she affirms and even flaunts all of the things women are usually taught to be embarrassed of, to hide. Such a complex complicity! I’ve been thinking a lot again about Eileen Myles’s intro to I Love Dick, where she talks about how you are absolutely condemned if you agree to be a woman. It’s interesting, that idea of complicity. It’s similar to the complicity involved in addiction of any kind—you make a decision that continually effaces itself as a decision. It’s like neoliberalism. What kind of decision is it, deciding to be a woman, really? I’m in so many ways required to avow to be this thing, to perform this decision daily in my clothes, my gestures, how I lend my emotion to everyone and sometimes even get out of trouble because I’m so harmless, and then I’m bound to all the subjugation that it implies. But it seems there’s no way out of this type of agreement. Driven by fear and anxiety over my role, over being a “good” subject, a “good” woman, I govern myself, develop myself accordingly. Girls can embrace this avowal more entrepreneurially now, made possible and magnified by the publicity and reach of the digital, by the culture of self-promotion and networking. The avowal feels lighter, more malleable, less connected to our selves. After all, according to self-help books, you can disconnect for a few hours, self-care using Aesop soaps and Netflix marathons until you feel okay, and then, rejuvenated, go back to being a girl. But CK takes the feminine avowal way past the point of being “good”—and writing, for her, isn’t really a way of telling some kind of deep, unchanging truth about herself, her individuality and identity underneath her various personae. The pages of her books become an additional skin, another CK added to the mix. All the available personae are tried out, their capacity for movement and emotion and narrative tested. The text is a site for experiment, moving always toward singularity, even as its writer adopts the most universal of personae.
XX, bored, looked over his shoulder at the darkened wall, twirled the little red cocktail straw in his drink, thin voice cracking under the pressure of having to respond to V’s unexpected holding-forth. So you like CK? he asked, impatiently, getting back to his purpose in this conversation. Let me introduce you to her. We’re good friends. She works with the gallery all the time, we can all have lunch in LA next time you’re there.
XX was unable to find CK right away, and so he had to keep V by his side all night just in case he caught a glimpse of her. V understood that she hadn’t done well at first in the conversation, but it was easy to fall back into the rhythm of listening to gossip, laughing appropriately, standing the right way, caring very deeply about who’d slept with whom and who hadn’t shown up to the party. It wasn’t until the night was almost over that XX spotted Chris. Chris! he called, and she was flustered, a little too busy, maybe even annoyed. But she graciously shook V’s hand. And at that precise moment, when V was about to ask CK about indebtedness and artistic microcultures and the authorial voice, XX reached down and pinched V’s ass, getting as much flesh as he could and holding on until CK turned away.
Date: Tuesday, September 6, 2016 at 7:08 AM
Subject: Ellen felt she was spiraling out of control…
Maybe you’ve felt this way too:
Ellen used to feel so in control of food. She felt in control of herself. She was balanced and virtuous, she went on long runs and talked to her mom on the phone and made delicious dinners with her boyfriend every night. She wore the right clothes. Men never hit on her inappropriately. She never said the wrong thing in public. She even looked just like Grace Kelly! And then something changed…
Ellen couldn’t put her finger on it, but something caused her to start going crazy. Her clothes started sticking to her skin, literally. She couldn’t get them off at night, so she just put on more and more clothes. She began eating a lot, but the food disappeared as soon as it entered her body. She craved this disappearing food constantly. Every night, she dreamt of a disembodied male voice telling her that she wasn’t real; she was actually just an obscure actress in a commercial for organic products. She began to believe the dream-voice, and she couldn’t stop thinking about the usefulness of supplements and high-power blenders. She followed her boyfriend around all day, murmuring to him about organic food and proper exercise and the need to purchase things to help with this. People recognized her face, but they weren’t sure from where. They touched her body as she followed him, and the small bits of flesh their fingers came into contact with dematerialized and faded into fine, filmy threads that trailed behind her like a gossamer cape of exposed nerves. This kind of hurt, but she didn’t care: she cared about nothing besides her boyfriend’s health and financial integrity. Her doctor told her that this phenomenon was common among women of her age, and it was nothing to worry about. Her body and mind were simply preparing for the final stage of disappearance. She would exist only virtually from then on.
Ellen was not so sure about this advice gleaned from Western medicine. The situation seemed incredibly complex. She needed real guidance. She wanted to feel as if she had access to some sort of embodied physical self. She wanted to feel as if she had time and space to think. She knew that restriction and deprivation wasn’t the answer. (She had tried that. She thought she had tried everything…)
Valerie, so many of us get off track. We feel out of control. Our health suffers, and we don’t know what to do. We are willing to try anything but mostly just restrict what we eat and work ourselves into exhaustion. I made a program that can help with these exact problems. I hope you’ll join me for the next Cravings Cleanse and Mindset Makeover, starting on Labor Day weekend. I made this program simple and easy to follow, but also focused on things that really work. We use Positive Psychology tools to help your brain concentrate on what’s going well, and how to grow your resilience and strength. Your right to an identity can be expressed through endless market freedoms and options, unlimited choices about how to live. We can and should exercise our choices constantly, and this program can teach you how. Ellen loved the supportive, calm, clear structure of the program. Finding control wasn’t about restricting. It was about getting clear about what choices worked for her.
“It was about so much more than just food,” she told me.
Ellen found ease in the world, not hyper-rigid control. Radiant health, not restriction. She was an exceptional image of calm and beautiful transcendence. Her debt disappeared. Her skin glowed from the inside. All women everywhere wanted to be her. You might feel life-crippling shame that you aren’t her already, but don’t worry—I am sure you can find what Ellen found too, Val.
I began taking long walks in the middle of the workday. I told my manager that the doctor’d said I needed more sunshine, more vitamin D—as if that’d solve the problem of my productivity and, more urgently, my love and connection to my work. I moved upstairs to a desk adjacent to the office kitchen with a tall, beautiful window in front of it. The look of the world was different from behind the desk. Proust, convalescent, observed the world supine through his bedroom window in a state of rapture with the screen of tree branches and patches of blue sky. The office window, which I can crack open with the agreement of my desk mate, overlooks the unbearably civilized Upper East Side. Marble banisters and church steeples obfuscate my view.
Another essay’d come in talking about the creative Genius Great Man’s struggle for eternity and dominion and all that, and S and I sat dumbfounded in front of our iMacs, reading. We, language seamstresses, make small interventions, our words mending and repairing and altering the text, invisible hands and minds crafting the words of Great Men into Great Writing, a bunch of educated European guys talking over each other. My manager often implored me to avoid “getting all political” about my work.
Getting political is hard to avoid, though. In New York, everyone fits somewhere in the grid. On my restorative breaks, I walk the quiet residential streets of the east seventies where even the sunlight is filtered through a sieve of wealth and good etiquette. Big, leafy summer trees and white-curtained windows and ladies in orthopedic shoes and heavy fuchsia blush and Prada. The pinnacle of Western civility and order, every other door a psychologist’s office or plastic surgery MD. Flowers burst out of delivery vans stuffed to capacity with pale green blooms shipped in from wherever, greenhouses organized in geometric plots of expertly and chemically tended-for flowers. Two or three deliverymen, the driver directing them, stagger under the weight of the arrangements being carted into 930 Park Ave. The deliverymen are Latino, the driver black. It’s time for school to let out, and all the nannies congregate outside the charter schools, women, Latina or southeast Asian, wearing cheap polyester shirts that convey the appropriate maternal, conservative, nurturing look. Hair pulled tight in buns, light coats of Vaseline on their lips and eyelids, smelling that warm, downy, powdery mother and baby smell. A young blonde boy with curly, angelic hair poking from underneath a silver bicycle helmet sticks his tongue out and blows rude noises at his nanny, refusing to move. Eastern European doormen wearing ill-fitting but elaborate, sometimes even tasseled, uniforms, stare at me. They’ve learned to nod, greet me, say “hello” in the most kind and respectful way. Construction men, emboldened by a different kind of uniform, ask me why I look so mad, tell me that I’m beautiful even when I’m half-running, sometimes crying, usually feeling like my skin is crusted in city scum and my intestines are distended and wringing and the caffeine has led to this vertiginous feeling of each moment dropping off into the next, totally surreal, adrenaline pumping to my head and making my brain feel swollen, hyperaware and on high-alert.
Do I have girl thoughts, I wonder, or are everyone’s thoughts are like this? Tenuously connected threads, tendrils of ideas horizontally spreading, able to observe with such acute detail only because of the coffee feeling. I notice the caffeine in my cheeks and eyes and mind most of all, a kind of strange subcutaneous tingling and expanding, blood so close to the surface of my skin that it could seep out and spill onto the cool marble sidewalk.
On Labor Day weekend, V met up with C to get out of the city. They borrowed his friend’s old van and drove to Montauk. The friend was an artist living in her parents’ loft in SoHo, long after the area’s facades and cast ironwork had been uniformly painted gorgeous, cool blues and grays that glowed clean in the afternoon light. She gave away small felt pins she’d created by hand to strangers, and they’d sometimes see men towing Halal carts or young couples in Washington Square Park with her pins affixed to jacket pockets and bicycle-wheel spokes. In exchange for the van, C’d let her use his apartment to shoot a film. She’d be holed up there for the weekend in an ecstatic reverie of creation.
It’s not possible to be an artist, to be part of an avant-garde, anymore, V said as they merged onto I-495 E, thinking about how C’s friend was kidding herself. Avant-gardes have been cannibalized by the scene, a kind of reverse anthropofagia. Art is no longer operative. It follows only the logic of the market.
C disagreed. For him, life was a series of relations, of alternative coalitions made on the basis of agreements and commonalities. He knew plenty of artists—but maybe what they made didn’t look like art, so much. Sometimes there were elements like paintings, sculptures, films, sure. But it was about how things related, circulated. That’s where the art was. That’s where you could really act. The scene didn’t circulate; it vibrated with the intensity of a viper’s pit, each interaction so laden with power and cash that nothing could really move for fear of total collapse. C, on the other hand, navigated people and systems so lightly, generously, carefully drifting toward and away from things. V wanted this way of being to swallow up the whole world.
They found a spot to park the van for the night on a road that headed straight to the sea, where the police wouldn’t bother them, tangled between cattail swamps and loose gravel paths. After the beach-going day is over the Montauk streets empty out and various houses and restaurants hum with concentrated throngs of human energy. V and C sat on the beach until they were too hungry and cold to stay any longer. They stayed so long that they felt they existed outside of time, voids of indeterminate space engulfing them.
When he looked at her and said tender things, his eyes got kind of glossy and the muscles around his mouth went soft, like a Renaissance painting of a beautiful nymph or prince. She thought about a poem she’d read, about how sad and hard / It is, and how rare, to undertake an act / That’s truly free, and not just a response / To a confused surge of drives and fears.Ariana Reines, “[Trying to see the proportional relation]” from Coeur De Lion (Fence Books, 2007) She said she didn’t want to be a part of that paradigm, that jealousy and debt and possession paradigm. She couldn’t stop saying that word and mentally noting it every time she said it, and she hated herself a little bit for it. But then he started saying it too, like language was infectious, like they were trying to become each other, edges between them collapsing by saying the same things. She remembered the cab ride home with Aliza and how she’d said that feminine language and vocal inflection was like an embrace: it spread out to everyone, it was so protective. It included and then metabolized the overflow, the remainders. This was, she thought, the opposite of a scene, which has all kinds of rules and codes for entry, punishments for noncompliance.
Leaving the beach on rented bicycles, V and C decided to swap clothes—he in her soft cover-up and shorts and she enveloped, protected, able to move freely in his men’s clothes. They floated toward and away from each other in a vertiginous sensorium. She was flowing in all directions, hairs on her arms matted with droplets from the damp fog. Police lights on the beach, crowds of strangers, neon signs in store windows: these all became droplets in the air, penetrating her experiential field. They were losing, gaining, relinquishing, swapping their various distinct and overlapping selves. Everything was pure interiority, not so much seen as felt.
She thought of what S had said to her once, something that had really struck her: that she shouldn’t write about catastrophes or invented places, but should instead focus on the mundane, trite aspects of being a woman in the world, having to appear and act a certain way. Might as well be specific, address the problems at hand. She and S would write about money and shopping and exes, about walking around New York, about art, about clothes. After all, everyone has to wear clothes.
Riding her bike hard, very hard, through the pulsating red and blue fog, she felt she was about to break some kind of spatiotemporal barrier. He might not be able to find me if I keep going, she thought as she rode farther, having no idea how long she’d been gone or toward what abyss she was pedaling. Dressed in C’s clothes, and he in hers, they circled the labyrinthine beachside paths calling each other’s names into the fog. She coasted past cops in their cars monitoring drunken beach fires, thinking that she might not be so legible right now as a young-girl, swaddled as she was in C’s soft, oversize linen shirt and encased in the thick fog.
She found him again outside the small German deli, hot sauerkraut and pickles and fries in hand. They sat on the crumbling parking blocks, his jacket spread underneath to prevent their pants from getting wet. Would what they gave to each other ever come back to them? No matter: reciprocity was uncertain, the logic of the gift was pure, generous chance. They extended forward into the indeterminacy of the future.
Valerie Werder is a writer and editor currently at work on a novel about shoplifters, forthcoming in 2018. She lives in Brooklyn.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee