Tilt by Gil Lawson

​Nathaniel Flagg. Twins 1

Nathaniel Flagg. Twins 1, 2014, graphite, ink, watercolor, and gouache on paper. Courtesy of the artist.

I attended every single event at this year’s Left Forum.

I wore a sort of dress, though it wasn’t really a dress—that would be insane. It was a long shirt styled to look like a dress, styled to be worn as a dress. That is to say it was a dress intended to be read as a shirt, and it cost me eighty dollars. I can pull it off. My high-soy-diet breasts, or appearance thereof. At least two spatial disruptions underneath the heavy fabric of the dress I wore to this year’s Left Forum.

It was very difficult to move around freely. Each year they hire a number of volunteer seraphim. It is easy to tell. They wear the blue lanyards. It is their responsibility to make sure no one attends any event for which they did not pay, and to make sure that no men are caught in dresses. I paid for nothing and wore the dress I just described.

To avoid the seraphim, I had to crawl underneath a number of chairs. While I was in this compromising position, men fumbled at my knickers. They did this by extending one long arm beneath the seat, down to where I was crawling, all the while with their heads cocked as though listening. Early on I would yawp when they touched me, but it quickly became apparent that this was not entirely kosher. I learned to move quicker so I was touched less frequently and for shorter periods of time, and that was how I responded to the long arms of the men.

I don’t mean to make it sound as though I had an entirely hard time at Left Forum, which used to take place at Cooper Union, before moving to Pace University in 2008, and this year to the John Jay College of Criminal Justice on West 57th Street. I found a number of the talks extremely edifying, and I can’t fault the volunteer seraphim for doing their jobs. The highlight, for me, was when a Gazan spoke about new class lines arising from discrepancies in applied skepticism, wherein the breed and magnitude of anatomical criticism one brought to bear upon the disparate aspects of one’s own personality, as a function of education and professional experience, was the primary factor determining the power dynamics of a given field, such that different social clusters formed in response to how their constituents related to demonstrating plausible protagonism, both to themselves, within the confines of their group, and across the lines formed by the presence of those classes. Another highlight was when a man from Harvard discussed “mattering,” the verb, what it meant for something to “matter,” as in to be of the state of being matter.

At the end of the day we collected in the small plaza in front of the building, the walls of which look like large-scale Venetian blinds. The seraphim and I shook hands to show there was no bad blood; I respected them for their work, and they respected me for successfully eluding them. They retired their lanyards. We laughed and reminisced and hugged and said goodbye, until next year when we’d meet again to learn some more.

Lyra the dog.

When I spend Thanksgiving at Render’s, his dog walks around the house with a large tumor hanging out of her mouth. No one acknowledges it. The next time I visit, she is gone.

A classic story about lawyers.

There were two lawyers. One was old and grizzled. She had an idea of “old law”—the law the way it used to be. The other lawyer was young. His cheeks were always freshly shaved, and he smelled like Listerine—an off-brand Listerine with high alcohol content. They were enemies and argued in court; they also argued out of court.

One day, the young lawyer was drinking ginger ale alone at the courthouse bar. The old lawyer came over and sat next to him.

“How old are you anyway, kid?” the old lawyer asked.

“I’m twenty-eight,” said the young lawyer.

“Shit. Twenty-seven to twenty-nine were the worst years,” said the old lawyer. “I’ve always wondered if it would be different if we didn’t use base ten for our counting.”

The young lawyer didn’t say anything. After a minute, the old lawyer got up and went to her car. It was a sunny day in late spring, so even though it was windy and a little chilled outside, the inside of her car was sleepy warm, having soaked in the sun all day. She slid the key into its slot in the ignition and then, overwhelmed by the thick air inside the car, released her grip upon the key, letting her arm slip down to her lap. The wind whistled outside the car and it rocked somewhat, but all of this only exacerbated the security and comfort the old lawyer felt sitting in there. She remembered when she had been a kid, when she read books in the passenger seat of her parents’ car, and sometimes when they got home from running errands her father or mother would park the car, and exit the car, but she would stay, feeling the same way as she did in the parking lot of the courthouse. She would stay there for hours, reading, and sometimes her parents would come out to ask what she was doing and to lightly make fun of her for sitting in the car alone for hours. This had probably only happened four or five times, she realized as she thought about it, but she nonetheless associated it with a whole period of her life. It had been a memory she’d quickly checked hundreds of times over the intervening years without ever sitting and considering it, like a branch a bird alit upon each time it passed a certain way, for no better reason than it was there. Years and years of a moment of contact, then off again, not to touch it for months, or perhaps years, until the next time she was coming that way. A thoughtless gesture of recognition.

She felt startled that she had only sat in the car reading like that perhaps four or five times. That was the way of things, though. The basic behavior—eating, shitting, wondering about other people—didn’t change much. The slightest variations had the greatest authority in defining the flavor of particular eras. The wind whistled outside the car.

A little patch of dry skin.

A beam of sunlight penetrates the window. Over time, it dries out a patch of skin on my cheek. I scratch it, and the skin comes right off. I don’t need to look in a mirror to know I am bleeding.

I was going to describe something else. I had this amazing idea for a romantic relationship—it was endlessly complex: both partners were jealous but considerate; they had each read Judith Butler and were able to interact maturely with their received roles within the context of their relationship without falling into a poorly conceived reactionism. They were each capable of understanding it was only natural for both sexual feelings and more abstract infatuations to develop between their partner and others.

Anyway, I can’t very well write about all of that while I am bleeding, so instead I will describe how this happened: First, the sunlight dried my skin out. Then, I used the long nail of my finger to scratch it. The skin accumulated under my nail. I used another nail to pick it out. Once I was done taking all the skin off, I began to bleed.

Why Americans can’t hold onto cats.

When Americans scoop cats up they seem to be asking, “What will you do now?” And really the only thing to do, for the cat, is to move away. One can’t do not moving. But when Europeans or Chileans scoop cats up they continue on; they are talking or writing or watching something else. The cat is expected to do nothing and will just sit there.

When I awake.

When I awake, I wake in the attic. It is frequently eight o’clock. Once I’ve cleaned and shaved I take the east-facing stairs down to the floor below, where I check in on the man who was sleeping. The next room over, I check on the man who sometimes eats. There are other men on that floor, but I ignore them for the time being. I take the east-facing stairs down, into a room where I check on the man who collects information on all my friends.

I go on and on like this, checking on a number of men (and some women in refrigerators) in a number of rooms, leaving a number of men in a number of rooms unchecked, always taking the eastmost stairs possible, until I come to the basement. There, I check on all the men before leaving the floor: the man who is tired of loving women until he meets them, the man who is tired of feeling like confidence is something that must be regained rather than made new, the man whose muscles always tense in response to questions of money.

Then I take the west-facing stairs out of the basement to the ground floor, where I’ll check on the man who sorts his desires for how well they act as curios in mid-party conversations, or the man who is choosing which vice he’ll sacrifice next. I check on all the men I missed when I was descending, then I ascend to the first floor.

It goes on like this until I am back in the attic, at which point I clean, shave, and go to bed. It goes on and on like this. I don’t always take the same route, and the men sometimes change places or faces in the night. For a long time this was enough to interest me, but not now. I do not care anymore. Some days I lie in bed, totally nude, and cough at the rafters.

Bad knees.

A friend of mine says he has very bad knees. He groans when he sits down and again when he stands up. Sometimes I forget and ask if he would like to go for a jog or play some tennis next Sunday. “I can’t,” he says. “I have bad knees.”

A few weeks ago, we were walking to the above-ground train. The track above our heads began to rattle. It was our train. “Come on,” I said. “We can make it if we run.”

“My knees,” he said.

Last night Wendy and I were over at his apartment. We were all going to go to a concert together. It was time to go. Wendy and I stood. My friend with bad knees tried to stand, and he made a horrible face and screamed, “Ah! Fuck!”

I realized then that I had thought that he was lying about his knees. I had thought he simply did not like to move very much. I felt bad that I had assumed he was lying.

“Are you okay? Do you need to go to the hospital?”

“No, no.” His face was red and drawn. Wendy and I helped him into bed. She pulled the blankets back, and I arranged the pillows. He seemed embarrassed. He still had his socks on, which really bothered me, but I thought it inappropriate to take them off without him asking. I can never sleep with my socks on. I hate how they feel between sheets.

He asked us to turn off the light, even though it was still early, and he had all his clothes on. We shut the door, then Wendy and I went to the concert without him.

Almost certainly.

I wear “men’s clothing,” but too large, so as to conceal secrets. I do not eat, and I wink at women that are attracted to me. When a man is attracted to me I kiss him on the lips and then dive beneath a pool or excuse myself to smoke a cigarette with some other men that happen to be nearby. I am not making light. I drink only water so I will live forever; I rub jojoba oil into the skin of my face for full, feminine lips. I slouch around so people will think I am a boy, then prance, suddenly, as though hooved. What can they know about me?

I feel as though I’ve earned myself some space to be a little more explicit. I wish there was a way I could be to indicate I am both genders at the same time. Instead, I am left with either very much one gender—the only gender that can be “brutal,” if one is stupid enough to believe everything one hears—or not clearly any gender. It is like wishing for both a clear day and a dramatizing storm, and ending up with a grey shrug like a low-ceilinged room.

The situation.

I spend most of my waking hours working a job I do not enjoy. The job does not really have to be done. It performs a service, but can only really be thought of as “necessary” under very stupid and desperate political frameworks. I do not work the job because it has to be done; I work the job because I need the money it furnishes for me. I need the money to pay for food, rent, clothing, train fare, and so on. After I have paid for all of these things, I have money left over, which is always very perturbing to me. It means that I spent unpleasant time working for money that is not “assigned” to anything; now I have to come up with something on which to spend this money. Whatever I spend it on then sits in my apartment and reminds me that I do not care about it very much, and that I spend my money in a stupid way.


I have never hallucinated, not once in my entire life. I am able to leave my apartment in any weather, no matter the temperature, and walk north or south on Franklin or Classon for many blocks. When I pass people either they do not look at me, or smile a little, shy but warm, eager to make a friend. They do not know what I know: most of the people you are going to meet over the coming years are already friends with a friend of yours. That is to say there’s basically no use dealing with strangers; the odds of getting along with them are very low. If you’re talking to a stranger, you might smile and imagine that they have interesting opinions about Brueghel. This is an empathy lifehack. If someone seems extremely normal, imagine a secret, small walk-in closet in their apartment filled with very admirable Brueghel reproductions. There! Well! Isn’t that nice!

My hair is not too long. I love my stocks—I know what they are, and I know how they work. The president? Well, some of his policies, sure. I’ve thought the phrase, “pert, pink nipples,” in my life. I use it with the guys. Or, “nipples down to here.” Absolutely.

Haw, haw, g-spot. If we were pressed, it might be possible to define a person as “a thing possessing one human body.” When she scratched my back … I dunno. I flipped.

We have a queen now. No, I do not know what happened to the president.

“The queen wants you to come suck on her toes.”

“Oh, GREAT!”

Suck on her toes for a few hours.

“Excuse me, you there, boy.”

“Yes, your highness?”

“Who taught you to suck?”

“I don’t know, your highness. No one, I think.”


“I mean—”

“Stop stammering and spit it out!”

“I suppose my mother and father did, your highness!”

“Hmph.” She turns to her clown. “Have them brought here immediately.”

Now I have to sit off in the corner of the throne room and wait for my parents to show up.

I got all my genes from my parents.

Oops, I’m crazy now.

Meeting a writer.

A friend is going to introduce me to a writer whose work I have admired very much. I am excited and a little nervous. In a flurry of activity, I reread a novel the writer has written, a few essays, and some short stories in a collection I bought when I was a teenager. I remember liking her writing very much the first time I read it. This time, my enthusiasm is a deeper, slower animal. I feel less thrill but a more profound respect.

There is one passage, in particular, that I want to talk to her about, though I have no idea how I will do so. It appears in one of her short stories. She is describing a cousin of hers, a basically good person who is nonetheless very selfish. The language is casual and offhand, but she describes this person so well that I feel as though I knew him first and read her description of him second, rather than the other way around. I do not know what I will say to the writer about this experience, but I feel very strongly that I have to say something.

Finally, I am at the party. My friend touches my arm and guides me to the outside of a circle of people. I recognize the writer from the photograph on the backs of her books, though she is much older. She is in the middle of a conversation; my friend and I idle outside the circle, listening for a natural lull in the conversation, like ships waiting for their turn to dock.

While we wait, I eavesdrop. Someone I do not recognize is telling a story about a coworker’s blunder, about how this blunder is perfectly indicative of the ways in which the coworker is basically deficient as a person. There is a wave of laughter, then the writer begins speaking in response to this story. She says the coworker sounds like the sort of person who—and here she uses that same phrase with which she described the selfish cousin, the same phrase I loved so much, almost verbatim.

There is a lull. My friend says hello and introduces me. I say hello, that it is a pleasure, and that I enjoy her work very much. She says thank you. She, my friend, and I discuss a movie we all saw recently. I say thank you, that it really has been a pleasure, then go to find my coat.


Tommi moves in. Render doesn’t. I spend eight hours in a room as the light yellows and then blues again. At the bar, Moira and Michael argue about radical forms of domesticity, but each leaps at the first penny on either track. Milo wants to know if he should be trying to get Amy back, but I don’t know how to make that question-shaped for myself. I cannot believe there is all this information pertaining to objects. I have a crush. She’s with someone, so I get a new crush. My standards of living inevitably produce themselves as capitalism unfurls to show it has always contained … [sentence unfinished]. The weather was good (cloudy, breezy) and now bad again (direct scream). I overhear someone I don’t know telling someone I’d be more fun to hang out with if I weren’t so curious about what people are saying. I have to know. I asked Nick if his friend was single and he said, “No, but things are rocky” and he’ll let me know. I said, “Oh, no, it’s not like that.” And he said, “Okay, well, I’ll just put it behind my ear.” I like that phrase. I put it behind my ear. I’m trying to give an example of what it looks like I’m living. The dust has come to stay. You may stay or pass on through. The people around are showing their colors by arguing abstractly in favor of positions they hold. They’re proclaiming their worth. The light yellowed, but it’s bluing again. I sleep and wake up. Each day an ambulance comes across the street. It’s not for me; there’s a man who needs help with the steps. It all blends. The problems don’t change so they become the air. No one is sexually satisfied, but that is something, at some point, we’ll all click right into. The first word you hear someone use to criticize someone else usually aptly describes the speaker, but people like it when you say things, even mean things, so long as it seems accurate. It’s not in what they know of the thing, but rather in the shape of the statement. Insightful thoughts have a certain rhythm; once you’ve got the hang of it you can say insightful statements about anything. Like Mozart and piano music. Everything can boil down to a relative gesture or counter-gesture within the conversation of what’s done. It makes you good, but then you have to fight back up to an enjoyment. And once you’re there you can’t just linger.

Gil Lawson is from Santa Fe, NM. His writing has most recently appeared in Triple Canopy, n+1, The Millions, Imperial Matters, and others. He lives in New York City.

Three Voice Overs by Joanna Howard
​Andrew Waits