Fiona Alison Duncan [Duncan, Fiona Alison]
"An unapologetically raw account of coming of age broke in Trump-era Los Angeles in the social media–saturated Now, this meditation (almost manifesto?) on materialism, media, power, performance, and sexuality uses inventive, of-the-moment language to tackle that circuitous route to self-discovery that is your twenties—in a startlingly original way." —Lilibet Snellings, author of Box Girl: My Part Time Job as an Art Installation
Given the initials F.A.D. at birth, Fiona Alison Duncan has always had an eye for observing the trends around her. But after years of looking for answers in books and astrological charts and working as a celebrity journalist to make rent, Fiona discovers another way of existing: in the Real, a phenomenological state few humans live in.
Fiona's journey to the Real takes her to Koreatown, Los Angeles, where she sublets a room in La Mariposa. There, in the aftermath of a reality TV deal gone wrong, Fiona asks...Formats : EPUB, PDF
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Praise for Exquisite Mariposa
“Ecstatic and painful, Exquisite Mariposa is a diligent search for the heart of
The Real, taking its place alongside the great Young Girl books of becoming,
from Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps to Sally Rooney’s
Conversations with Friends. To Duncan, The Real equals self-knowledge,
compassion, and perception. She is a genius, and I’d follow her anywhere.”
—CHRIS KRAUS, author of After Kathy Acker and I Love Dick
“Exquisite Mariposa is like if Eve Babitz wrote Weetzie Bat: luminous,
loopy, magical, and picaresque. It’s an honor to even live in the same Los
Angeles that this book describes.”
—CLAIRE L. EVANS, author of Broad Band: The Untold Story of the
Women Who Made the Internet
“Fiona Alison Duncan will raise your consciousness and spirits with her
unworldly presence, her sensuous and intense perception, her free-floating
mind. She may be an alien, but she is a friendly, peace-seeking alien who just
wants to talk. I could listen to her voice all day.”
—SARAH NICOLE PRICKETT, founding editor of Adult, contributor to
Artforum and Bookforum
“If you described it to me, there’s no way I would read it. It’s everything I
hate in life and literature, but somehow it’s really good.”
—DEAN KISSICK, Spike Magazine
“Exquisite Mariposa is one of those books that had me from the first sentence
to the last and beyond. Duncan churns up all the digital, performative,
hypersocial chaos of our present ‘reality,’ even of the near future, and
crystallizes it into dreamy and raw poetry. Page after page, paragraph after
paragraph, this story, built on jewellike insights, sometimes made me laugh
and sometimes made me sad and always registered as true.”
—JARDINE LIBAIRE, author of White Fur
“An unapologetically raw account of coming of age broke in Trump-era Los
Angeles in the social media–saturated Now, this meditation (almost
manifesto?) on materialism, media, power, performance, and sexuality uses
inventive, of-the-moment language to tackle that circuitous route to selfdiscovery that is your twenties—in a startlingly original way.”
—LILIBET SNELLINGS, author of Box Girl: My Part Time Job as an Art
“A funny, thought-provoking novel that levels pointed critiques at gender and
class inequality and captures what it’s like to be a young person today . . .
The novel’s ideas and voice are a pleasure . . . Exquisite Mariposa is an
incisive story about the struggles of sensitive, artistic young people as they
figure out how best to live.”
—REBECCA HUSSEY, Foreword Reviews
This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are
either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Copyright © 2019 by Fiona Alison Duncan
First published in 2019 by Soft Skull
All rights reserved
“I Want to Believe” © 2016 by Maggie Lee. Image courtesy of the Artist and Real Fine Arts, New
York. Photograph by Joerg Lohse
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Duncan, Fiona Alison, author.
Title: Exquisite mariposa : a novel / Fiona Alison Duncan.
Description: New York : Soft Skull, 2019.
Identifiers: LCCN 2019008878 | ISBN 9781593765781 (pbk.)
Classification: LCC PS3604.U5268 E97 2019 | DDC 813/.6—dc23
LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2019008878
Cover design & art direction by salu.io
Book design by Jordan Koluch
Published by Soft Skull Press
1140 Broadway, Suite 704
New York, NY 10001
Soft Skull titles are distributed to the trade by Publishers Group West
Printed in the United States of America
1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2
Who rescued who?
I have always been a girl.
I have never had a strong sense of reality because I’m a girl.
—KATHY ACKER, unpublished notebooks
Episode 02—“It’s a trap!”
Episode 03—“Love loves to love love”
Episode 04—“It’s a trap!!”
Episode 05—“F is for Fake”
Episode 08—“Fizzy ill logic and taut! oh law gee”
Episode 09—“Angels Flight”
Episode 11—“All the Real girls”
Episode 12—“This is when the Real fun begins”
THEY INVITED ME INTO THEIR home and within a week I was
discussing its telegenic potential with a reality show producer responsible for
nothing I’d heard of. The producer was interested, and he wasn’t the only
one. “It’s like The Real World meets Instagram,” cooed an ash-blond writercurator. A strawberry-blonde suggested selling it where I eventually did, to
this branding agency I’d worked with before. Their slogan: Be Human. We
were in one of Ed Ruscha’s once-homes in Brentwood or Malibu, some far
West forestial place, eating sancocho, a Dominican stew our friend Rivington
Starchild served warm with whole avocados thanks to his mom, who coached
him through the family recipe over the phone. It was American
Thanksgiving. I was heartbroken, broke, and delighted with life, telling
everyone about the phenomenon I was sleeping in.
“There are three rooms, four beds, and five residents,” I’d begin. “I’m
subletting a bed in a room with two. I wake up next to this beauty—she’s an
oracle, I swear. All of these women, man. They’re all so brilliant, so
beautiful, and so different!”
The first night I hung out with Nadezhda she drove me between art openings
on the back of her motorcycle. I’d silently promised my father I would never
be a passenger on the back of any man’s bike after he told me once about a
woman he knew who’d died that way. But Nadezhda wasn’t “any man.” She
was chiseled and statuesque with Soviet subway art tattooed on her right
biceps. The night of our first ride, she was clandestinely young, twenty, a
surprise I liked watching people register. People kept mistaking her for my
I didn’t know to put the visor on my helmet down when we went over the
highway. In the bathroom at Night Gallery, I found I’d amassed an eye mask
of dirt. The art that night was predictably forgettable, unlike Nadezhda, who
seemed to me like the matryoshka nesting dolls she kept on her desk, except
every new layer revealed someone brighter and bolder. Later, she revealed
she was terrified she would kill me. Her hands had cramped perilously as she
gripped her ’85 Honda handlebars. I learned, or remembered, because I
should know this by now: I have a tendency to see what I want to see.
Nadezhda’s apartment hallways were overripe banana yellow. Little
white butterflies decorated the building’s brick-red awning. The place was
called La Mariposa, after the street where it was located. Two teenage girls
were skating outside when I first walked up. Their black hair, which swished
straight down to their sacra, flashed like mirrors in the sun.
I had been in Los Angeles for three weeks, trial living in my new friend
Amalia’s Koreatown studio while she was away at an art fair in London.
Nadezhda lived nearby. Before I’d even arrived in LA, she had DM’d me an
invitation to come over, which I ignored, because I didn’t know her; she was
But then, I’d had the most exquisite three weeks. Night swims in heated
pools, two beautiful new bedfellows, chauffeured rides through Laurel
Canyon, long walks alone. Cigarettes were six bucks at the bodega, where
plantain chips were sold in unmarked ziplocks and brain-sized avocados
came ripe. Trees were flowering—it was October. I was feeling unusually
trusting of what was coming to me, and more than that, I was dying to talk
about it. So, on my second-to-last day in LA, I wrote back to Nadezhda, a girl
with whom I shared no close mutuals.
None of her four roommates were home when I came by that first day,
though their presence was evident in the knots of clothes on the floor.
Nadezhda let me talktalktalk, which turned into dinner, a drive, and an offercum-plan. In two weeks, I’d return to live in La Mariposa temporarily as I
looked for more permanent digs in my new crush, Los Angeles.
The first time I met Morgan she was eating dry flakes of nutritional yeast
straight from the jar. She reminded me of my best friend, Simone, whom I
had lived with in Montreal when we were around Morgan’s age of 21.75.
Simone and I had been roommates in an apartment we called “Hermie
Island.” We lived among moldering art installations, communal clothes, and
several overflowing garbage and recycling bins. It was a long way out of the
apartment—down a haunted staircase, past the neighbor who resented our
borrowing a Persian rug of his we had found, through a snowbank in winter,
mud in spring, and better-things-to-do in summer and fall, my happiest
seasons in Montreal. Eventually, we dedicated a whole room to the trash we
were too lazy to take out.
I guess I was nostalgic for this. I saw Hermie Island in Nadezhda,
Morgan, and Co.’s household—in the mountains of bananas, the hall of
mirrors, the dropout work ethic, and the frequent friend drop-ins. More than
ten people owned keys to Hermie Island. At La Mariposa, I was introduced to
new guests weekly. Like Jonas, an angel in thigh-high heels. And Mía, a
beautician who’d make herself up like a train wreck, shading in bruises and
liquid-lining cuts. Morgan was home less than some of these guests. She had
a boyfriend with a place in Silver Lake, a car, and an ArtCenter degree to
Alicia intimidated me. Composure does. Those who can pose. Alicia Novella
Vasquez, aka @lightlicker, likes to shoot herself from below eye level. This
angle imparts power. She told me she’s wary of men who selfie from such a
vantage point. (See: Adolf Hitler framed by Leni Riefenstahl.) All of the
residents of La Mariposa are attentive to codes and slippages, the subtleties of
self-presentation, especially online stuffs. They see beyond base
programming, analyzing filters, comments, and composition, how often you
post, in relation to whom, and with what probable intent, conscious or not.
When I only knew of her, @com.passion was Alicia’s Instagram handle. By
the time I moved into a bed next to hers, she had become @lightlicker.
In person, I started to see how Alicia sees. Good models do that: they
stare back. Alicia, which is pronounced with a see—not a she—at the center,
has this intensity. Morgan says that’s what all the residents of La Mariposa
have in common: We sense. Intensely. That is, we’re attuned to detail.
Take for example: Walking for pho one evening with Nadezhda and I,
Alicia pointed to some writing on a wall on Wilshire Boulevard. In
downtown Koreatown, below a Deco stone mural of three figures—a man in
a tux, a man in a turban, and a woman dressed as a chef, her head bowed, one
tit out—someone had scrawled: You have 24 hours, Los Angeles & not 1
minute more, so(w) help me, God. The paint was fresh-blood red. To the left
of the three figures was more: or do you need ANOTHER ACT of God to
The three of us stood before the threatening words for a moment.
Nadezhda’s face was polka-dotted pale pink. She’d left the house with an
acne-spot treatment on knowingly, like mock editorial beauty. The
streetlights seemed to bend, aquamarine to teal. I remember thinking, It’s so
like Alicia to spot something like this. Alone, I probably would’ve walked
I watched Alicia’s gaze closely after that. Her irises scoured the world the
way my little brother’s did when I used to watch him read as a child—line by
line, charging through new information. Months later, when I brought this
moment up with Alicia, she told me, “The writing’s still on the wall! Or at
least the part that says”—I’d missed this—“‘The only path to heaven is to
transcend and ascend each and every time adversity strikes.’”
I wore Miffany’s clothes while she was away. It was her bed I was subletting:
$350 for three weeks. I think she made a profit off me. Balance it against the
clothes I borrowed. A Playboy-logo hoodie, a shearling jacket, the bluest blue
jeans. Her bed had four dense pillows and three fleece throws I’d wake up
tangled in every morning. She hadn’t made her bed before my arrival, which
made me feel welcome, already in the fold. I’m trying to remember if I’d met
Miffany IRL before I wore her clothes, but that’s a thing about the now: Our
selfies precede us. You may think you know me, but I don’t even know me.
Yes, we’d met. Once, in passing, at Gogo’s show at the Ace. I was wearing a
white Vejas dress the designer had gifted to me after Beyoncé’s stylist
returned it stained with makeup. I remember Miffany strutting in, a barbell in
her belly button. September 2015, New York Fashion Week Spring/Summer
2016, just months before I took over her half room.
Miffany and Alicia shared what would have been the living room. Their
beds were maybe six feet from each other, another six and you were in the
kitchen, a few more to the front door. Safety-pinned sheets partitioned the
space, poorly: permanent sleepover. I loved it. From Miffany’s mattress, I’d
look out over Koreatown to the Hollywood Hills. Every morning and night,
through a series of cathedral-round windows, I’d pray to these sights: a highrise crowned with the word EQUITABLE; another one, which read THE
GAYLORD; and a billboard that said BADLANDS—the name of a publisher
I was working with at the time.
I was, and still am, very into reading signs. The world is full of them, and
I’m full of it—convinced of reality’s divine design, believing in magic,
magnetism, the Wishing Machine, and maybe, that everything happens for a
reason. That last bit I’m still skeptical of, as I am of “reason.” I’ve
experienced its exploitations and recognize its—or my perception’s—
limitations. I guess what I really believe is that it serves me to believe that
everything happens for a reason, meaning-making being a reason, or a way,
to live. I don’t know! I’m shy to share existential meandering like this—
intuitive, experience-sprung, flirting with flaky vocabularies—around most
people. My father’s a strict empiricist. At La Mariposa, though, I found a
home for what I had long feared might be my lunacy.
(Did you know lunacy means “moonstruck,” from the late Latin
lunaticus? Influence, too, has an astrological root: “Emanation from the stars
that acts upon one’s character and destiny.”)
In Alicia and Miffany’s room, we’d talk about it all: infinity, etymology,
astrology, spirituality, empathy, epigenetics, trauma, rape, race, class, sex,
gender, technology, fashion, art, Justin Bieber, black holes, souls, The
Matrix, fractals, spirit animals, family, branding, anxiety, the economy,
conscious capitalism, collective consciousness, consciousness raising,
Kundalini rising, twin flames, nail care, nicknames, rage, age, real estate,
acid, Vine, love, and what we should make for dinner.
It was our talk I wished to capture. Truth seemed to be spoken nonstop
from within this apartment. I loved how it flowed. One could join in and drop
out at one’s convenience or interest. Sometimes three of us would be talking
at the same time and, somehow, we’d all still hear what the others had said.
Often, another one of us, who we didn’t think was listening, would chime in
through a wall.
Our conversations, I felt, were in great contrast to the kind of talk
trending online—the declarative, opining, often whining sharing on social
media, which, for me, can individuate painfully, or twist into violent
groupthink, bullying, and othering. Voice matters. Pitch and pace. More
information is conveyed aurally/orally than in text. Hesitation, flirtation, pain,
parroting, conviction, heart: One hears these things. I wanted the Internet
—everyone—to hear us. That’s what I told the girls: “I want to give you a
I could visualize it, and so I thought it was right. That’s what a famous
R&B singer told me when I interviewed her at the Hotel Bel-Air: “I could see
it all,” she said, “like it had already happened, and so I knew my dreams
would come true.”
I saw us waking up before the camera. In the morning—or afternoon in
Nadezhda’s case—yes, but also like what I thought people meant when they
used the word woke. That term was trending at the time. I’ve always been
attuned to trend. After all, my parents cursed me with the initials F.A.D. I
thought woke referred to a kind of consciousness, a mindfulness, an
awareness of one’s shadow and ego, a caution about our capacity for
projection and delusion. I thought it meant an ability to perceive what was
really going on, to situate oneself with regard to power, desire, economics,
family, history, et cetera—to know oneself in relation to others, and to act in
kind. It turns out many people were using the word to refer to someone who
reads and can repeat trending news with a social justice bent. Even in their
thinking, Americans are materialistic. La Mariposa wasn’t, or not only. True,
we loved fashion and music—broadcasting our taste. But all the women in
this household also saw themselves as sharing states of becoming. And when
we were home, we didn’t fake anything. On the bus, we may have worn bitch
faces to ward off male gazes. At part-time jobs, we probably smiled at shit we
hated, because it was energy efficient. And online, we certainly pretended to
be more successful than we were, because that was the game. But here, at La
Mariposa, we allowed ourselves to process uncertainty. Fear! Nadezhda
called it an incubator. “I like it,” she said, “as a place girls come to, to grow
to be themselves.” Many of us have and will phase through; there are
It was ready-made media. The apartment’s themes were even reflected in
its structure. There was a body—the living-cum-bedrooms/open kitchen—
and to each side of that, two bedrooms—like wings! The layout of La
Mariposa is like a butterfly.
All I saw were signs.
And then there’s Max. I feel less bad about neglecting Max since he told me
he deliberately dons a cloak of mystery. “I think I have more of a sense of
who my housemates are than they do of me,” he told me once over coffee.
“I’m something of a withdrawn person.”
Still, now, when I think of Max, I think of how little I know about him.
Most of what I know has come through Nadezhda, whose room he shared.
She called him her husband or wife, primary partner, roommate, boyfriend,
friend. They met on a dating app in December 2014 when they were both
nineteen. Max had been bumming around America: Alaska, New England,
New York, Montana. He was passing through LA when he and Nadezhda
matched. They went on a few dates, she says, “then he left, kind of into the
void.” Come summer he came back, and, “I told him he should move to LA,
find some roots.” He stayed in her room for five months, including the first
three weeks I was there.
Maxime Flowers. Given name: Saoirse. His Instagram may be my
favorite. It’s all black and white, filled with cats, graphs, biblical snakes,
requests for soup delivery, and poetry. Once I watched him edit a post. In
under six seconds, with a single nimble finger, he edited a selfie
unrecognizable except that it was in his signature degenerate grayscale. In
person, Max speaks casually of rockets propelling him and time as an abyss.
He has many twelfth-house placements. I’ve seen him wear a face of gold
dust to a party. Topless under a fur coat, tight leather pants, foulards. His
daytime look, when we lived together, was like Hunky Dory David Bowie.
During our only real one-to-one convo, Max informed me of a 1973
futurist text called Up-Wingers. It came up because we were talking
transience, the nomadism La Mariposa supported.
“Up-Wingers is about a new living structure, the mobilia, based off jetset, or hostel, travelers,” Max explained. “It’s a manifesto—” He paused. “I
don’t care much for manifestos.” Still, he recommended this one. “If only
because it’s interesting,” Max said, “to read what predictions for the future
have come to pass. I find, for the most part, we overestimate our capacity for
progress or velocity. We move a lot slower than anyone really hopes for.”
Within a month of moving in, I had a contract drawn up for a “multimedia
documentary exposé” on my brand-new beloveds and their communal home
in Koreatown, Los Angeles. It would be Reality Bites meets Tumblr, The
Virgin Suicides but healthful. Young-Girl, art world, recession America,
Survivor! A real Real World. The IRL World. We would co-create it, socialmediate it. A trial in intersubjectivity. A critique of youth as commodity. A
vision of zeitgeist really embodied. It would be truthful, lifelike, amazing.
“Why?” Nadezhda, the youngest beloved, asked shortly after I signed the
contract. I took another toke and felt my ego disassemble.
“I don’t know,” I replied.
Later, I would claim, “I just wanted to do what I always try to do, to share
what I find beautiful.”
Later still, I would bawl over my “sellout” “exhibitionist” “opportunistic”
“incapable of real love” “fearful capitalist” animal instincts.
Why did I think to frame and display this place, these people, their
privacy, for the whole world to see? Why was my first instinct to turn new
relationships into paid labor? It was like the Hollywood hippie I called
heartbreaker said: “Why can’t you just be, Fi?”
It was in Morgan’s underutilized bed that it dawned on me how truly fucked
this reality show of mine might be. I woke up from an afternoon nap,
midweek no doubt, still stoned, and saw her room for what it was: Real. The
ceiling, the sunshine, the boxes of Pukka tea, the stacks of unwrapped
chocolate, the crumpled hoodies, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Ethics of
Ambiguity—everything in there was Real.
This is difficult for me to explain.
I didn’t use to believe in “the Real.” Like in the Lacanian sense, or how
Franco “Bifo” Berardi or Slavoj Žižek refer to it. Beyond the symbolic. I’d
even published essays countering it. Fantasy is Real, I insisted. Fake tits are
as real at being fake as natural fat sacs are . . . Which is true. But there’s
also: the Real. It’s real. Indisputably now, I know. The Real is a mode of
perception that makes all others seem like altered states. It’s a mode I’ve been
practicing living in. Microdosing psilocybin helps get me there, ditto a topshelf indica, a hard-earned Savasana, the ocean, trees, and being with Amalia,
Lucien, or Simone. The Real is like pure presence. Resistance-free. It feels
like a shift to lucidity within the dream of waking life. It can look like a shift
from 3- to 4-D. Space surpasses time as your prime dimension. Perhaps the
defining characteristic of the Real is not trying. Like athletes and musicians
say, it’s when you’re in the flow.
I know when I’m in and when I’m out of it—that’s the most I can really
say of the Real. Now I’m still more out than in. Mostly I’m in this inbetween, knowing at least that I’m out, which is better than being wholly
unconscious, which I’ve been—how embarrassing.
So I woke to the Real in Morgan’s bed. It was a queasy awakening (first
times tend to be). Truth rushed in like, Hello, Nowness! My real eyes realized
“I” had been showboating. Seasick. Mental. I’d been projecting a Hermie
Island sequel, this spin-off sitcom. Californication, 90210, La Mariposa,
Friends. Situation comedies!? Bad girl, Fifi! It’s the Situationist International
you revere, remember? Visibility is a trap. The revolution will not be
televised. Hollywood gobbled, I’d been scripted. Damn, girl. LA. Hell A. It
Why can’t I just be?
Episode 02—“It’s a trap!”
I BROKE THREE CONTRACTS IN 2016. The first was verbal, a
monogamy clause. But he was fucking around too, and I knew, because
everybody is psychic; I’d just become attuned to it. The second was an NDA.
A man who gave me money asked me to sign it when we first met at the
Hyatt near LAX. But he got my name wrong, took my Twitter handle for the
real thing, so I signed smiling. The third and last was this reality show deal.
Making a documentary about my new, younger friends and their home in
It’s been one year since I signed my friends’ lives away during my
temporary stay, and two months since I officially joined their lease. As is the
nature of La Mariposa, most of them have since flown the co-op. Morgan is
living with her parents in the Bay. Alicia is in New York. Miffany’s been all
over. Ditto Max. I can’t keep up. The only one left is Nadezhda, the one who
initially brought me in.
Our relationship is sisterly. I never had one. She keeps asking me if I’m
going to do something with this writing. I was sharing it with her and the
other girls as it came to me, checking my mirror, so to speak. They consented
yes, always. I was told I was trusted, which is a large part of why I knew I
had to break our contract—I didn’t want to risk compromising that.
In many ways, I feel even more than a year older now. I have been Saturn
Returning, which is an astrological concept I’m no longer sure I believe in.
I’ve spent much of the last two years trying to determine how belief
determines reality and how much. Just last week a Kundalini instructor in
Santa Monica speculated that one’s beliefs manifest as event and
circumstance. She was raised by a Vietnam-born mother, she said, who
followed the Chinese zodiac. Her mother believed that those years forecast to
be bad for her astrological sign would be. She feared them. And they turned
out to be fearsome. “Looking back,” the Kundalini instructor said, “you can
see a pattern. The years my mother thought would be bad were—stress,
calamity, loss. But I never believed. I don’t know why, I always thought the
idea was silly, that the Year of the Goat could be bad for me. I don’t have bad
years. My mother has retrospective proof of her belief. As do I. What’s true?
Maybe we make it up.”
That’s what my comic book artist ex-boyfriend thought of the afterlife:
that what we believe it to be will be. Fire and brimstone? Heaven is a place
on Earth? Gold-gated clouds? Absolute nothingness? Anything you want,
you got it. I think he read it in a book.
Saturn is said to “return” when a person is between twenty-seven and a
half and thirty years old. It happens again after another twenty-seven and a
half to thirty years—for me, if I’m lucky enough to live that long. Western
astrology is based on the belief that individuals, at birth, are imprinted with a
set of influences emanating from the planets, stars, and other stellar bodies,
which act upon one’s character and destiny, determining stuff like how you
communicate and experience beauty, your relationship to power, order, flora,
fathers, and mothers. The planet Saturn is said to be Father Time, Kronos,
dominating, reality-checking. He’s cold, impersonal, and wise. And when he
returns to the place in the sky where he was when you entered the world, he
bullies you into your next life stage. Some don’t make it out alive.
It’s a fun game—asking elders what happened to them between ages
twenty-seven and thirty. The stories tend to be epic: sudden career changes,
international moves, surprise inheritances, marriages, divorces, deaths, births,
travel, great works made and lost. So far I’m halfway through, and my
changes have been mostly internal. Despite great effort on my part to shift
my material circumstances, I am still chasing nominal freelance checks to pay
rent, still loving boyish beings with suicidal tendencies, still plotting revenge
on the capitalist patriarchy, and still fantasizing about never writing again.
Nothing has changed, and everything has. That’s what happens when you
come to believe in God. When you learn to be grateful to just be, every
conscious moment in this realm, even loss and debt, feels like a gift. You
sense, at least, that you’re no longer afraid of death. Chronic time becomes
illusive, a joke. The body is alien, an avatar, borrowed. The simplest actions
bring pleasure. Walking. Cutting carrots. Sweeping cat litter. The sky is my
favorite movie. This whole trip, though, is filmic. A play of shadow and light.
Moment to moment to moment is Now. Forms change and there are essences
I call this living the Real. The more in it I am, the more like-minded lifers
I attract. For a minute, I thought our reality show could be about that—about
Millennials or Digital Natives or whatever you want to call us in our struggle
to be Real. It’s endemic in America.
Our apartment looks like a stage set. Something about its height and the light
in LA. We’re on the top floor overlooking parking garages and a cluster of
high-rises. Beyond that are palm trees and the hills. Built on a slight incline,
our apartment seems tilted forward from the entrance, threatening to descend
into the concrete below. The place is painted pale institutional avocado and
lime green, and decorated with the kind of cheap fixtures that look fake. Our
ceilings are tall enough for a camera rig. Nadezhda now lives in what would
be the living room were we not the kind of girls who tape posters to our walls
declaring, WHAT DO WE WANT? NO JOBS! WHEN DO WE WANT
As of today, we are three broke girls and a cat, Noo, a rescue who selfharms or self-soothes (maybe one and the same) by licking her ginger mane
away. Her preferred haircut involves a shaved tail. Sometimes she’ll follow
that fade up her spine. The resulting look is like a reverse mohawk. Before I
adopted her, Noo would hit skin and not stop. Now when I catch my cat
manically licking, we play. I pet her and whisper, You’re so beautiful, you’re
so lovely, I love you, I will protect you, I promise you, you sweet divine,
regal, beautiful creature. A cat whisperer once told me to do this. “Cats are
very vain,” she said. (They are, epigenetically, royalty.)
I probably would’ve risked the reality show had the budget been better.
But the youth culture industry relies on our selling ourselves short, on lit kids
trading in their creativity, vitality, and taut-skinned desirability for a good
party, tenuous social validation, and the false promise that cultural capital
may translate in time to a source of real income. Many of us are happy to take
the onetime check. A Calvin Klein campaign. Why not? Or maybe I’m a poor
negotiator. My Saturn is afflicted in the second house of resources—money’s
the most mysterious thing to me.
Alexa K. was set to direct. The girls and I were stoked. Alexa is a real
artist, market-vigilant or German-like, her cynicism services a sublime
idealism. The branding agency said they couldn’t afford her, though, even
when Alexa said she’d do it for free.
At the time, I had been smoking so much weed my veins turned green. I
had also been compulsively taking Voice Memos on my iPhone. Existential
epiphanies, creative plots, intersubjective dialogues, and jokes—I felt the
need to document it all. In one recording, I went off on what I was then
calling The Real Real World, or The IRL World.
“Our show,” I go, “it’s about—”
How much of what I think I know was learned from media or other people
versus from firsthand experience?
How many single images do I consume in a day?
Where do our beliefs come from and how do they organize our lives?
If we were to watch what was going on in most offices, bedrooms, and
homes, what would we see? What are we seeing?
Like, today I saw all over the world and back and forth in time. I was with
friends in several countries. This is so cool, but what happens to the body
when it thinks it’s experiencing all of these adventures, romances, and
horrors, but really it’s sitting still?
It feels like we get flooded with the appropriate response stimuli to like, a
physical threat or the wish to make love, but then . . .
What are we doing with that energy?
If we could afford to adventure more offline, what would we do?
How would we feel?
Why are we poor? There’s so much abundance about. Why are we
pouring money into VR? Who cares.
WE ALREADY LIVE IN VIRTUAL REALITY.
We know so little of the machinations and magic of this realm. What is
consciousness? The Real. Who said it . . . that quote . . .
[Thumbs through iPhone.]
Few women ever experience themselves as real. —Andrea Dworkin
But really—why don’t I feel real? What makes me feel real? Mass
shooters don’t feel real. We want to have influence. We seek to test reality.
Actions have consequences.
I feel Real when I talk about the Real with other people. Sometimes.
You can’t look more than one person in the eyes at the same time.
Why is there so much suffering? When it could be so simple. IT IS
I have all these beautiful, brilliant friends and family. WE’RE HERE.
Right now. Alive.
Yet we’re stressed and depressed and some say lonely or lost.
Why do all these kids write to me saying they’re lost?
The show is for them. What if we collected them? In one place where we
could learn to recognize each other. Learn to Be. Truthfully. Mirror mirror.
The world is a mirror. Don’t you see?
I had been walking around Koreatown alone taking these oral notes. It
was late. My period had just come on and she was wavy. A mournful
orchestra of milky, knotted energy was rising from my pelvis, its notes
culminating meters beyond my body. I sat on an apartment stoop on South
Harvard Boulevard to finish my monologue. Becoming conscious of where I
was and what I was doing, I started to describe the scene around me: the full
moon, the oceanic traffic sounds, a nearby Dr. Seussian garden, and all the
passersby who looked oblivious to my madness. (Few of us out here allow
ourselves to really recognize one another.) As my tearful in-breaths became
laughter, I felt the same channel-change as in Morgan’s bedroom. It was as if
my eyes widened, letting in more light. Depth chiseled the edges of my
vision. The movie clunked into 4-D. I’d gotten there. To this blessed realm
that my friend Clara, who we’ll come back to later, had been breaching too.
Once, at a farmers market, Clara and I got there together. I remember Clara
turning to me and saying, “Some people live here!” The Real. “It’s really
When I first moved into La Mariposa, among its six residents, including
myself, our three-room apartment housed twelve different kinds of eating
disorders, stacks of unopened letters from debt collectors, racks’ worth of
Goodwill treasures, and drawers full of stolen Sephora. We had addictions: to
fuckboy drama, selfies and likes, deli wine, cardio, and anything oral. We
shared desires: for True Love and Universal Basic Income. Our traumas: the
psychic schism of routine objectification (body dysmorphia, surveillance
paranoia); over-media-ation (mercury poisoning and ADHD); date rape
(dissociation, anorgasmia); debt and joblessness (insecurity, anxiety, and
shame); and parental migrations, depressions, deaths, addictions, and divorce
(attachment and abandonment issues). This was all out there. Talked about.
Art was made about it. It decorated our floors and walls. After living in New
York for four years, where the “artists” I met were so professional—rich
kids, groomed to continue to profit—I was refreshed by the candor, idealism,
diversity, and genuine artistic talent I witnessed in this Los Angeles home.
I met the residents of La Mariposa at that age where differences of class
and related values start to show themselves. When you’re young, in your
teens and early twenties, in an arts scene, you can all seem the same.
Everyone spends everything they have. Living in a dump is just like, you
party a lot and don’t care to clean. You can process crap food, drugs, and
alcohol, and still have radiant skin. You look cute in everything. As you age,
this begins to change. Around twenty-seven, I started to notice who could
afford to have babies, buy houses, and invest in their careers, who had the
start-up capital and contacts to launch a small business, buy canvas, hire
assistants, and travel. And who couldn’t—who got sick and disappeared. I
realized all these kids I’d hung around with at parties in New York City came
from low-key dynasties. Politicians’ kids, CEOs’ kids, famous artists’ kids.
I wanted to belong. Before I knew what was going on, I thought it was
possible. I remember being out to dinner—I was twenty-four and had just
moved to New York—with some new friends in a neighborhood called
NoLIta, where rent on studio apartments was $2.5K easy, and every other
shop was staffed by Australian fitness models. I was always tense at these
things, choosing the cheapest wine and saying I wasn’t hungry, when really I
just couldn’t afford the steak my anemic body craved; I ate from the bread
baskets others ignored. I didn’t understand how everyone could go out all the
time, and live where they did, and look as they did. Radiant! At this dinner, I
remember, a typical NoLIta clique walked by, models and girls who trained
to look like models, and I said, “Everyone is so beautiful here!” And my
friend Susan, who was always right, replied, “No. They’re just rich.”
“Oh.” I swallowed the moment, not fully processing it until just recently,
when it dawned on me that these people weren’t, as I’d thought, better than
me at what we did. I thought they’d earned their wealth by working harder
and being smarter and more innately creative, talented, graceful, and godly
than me. Worthier. When really, America’s class system is a caste system. At
this point in capitalist history, wealth has consolidated such that class
mobility is anomalous and still: the promise.
It’s like we’re all forced to play this rigged game of Monopoly where
some of us start off with a little stack of money and one property, some with
stacks of money the height of hotels, a few run the bank, and many are in jail.
Money, in this game, is no longer just paper, it’s coded numbers on screens
that most of us aren’t educated to read, let alone trade in. And the rules of this
game—they keep changing. People who consider themselves “winners,”
those who can afford to, make up the rules as they go. They make deals with
each other and the bank, to suit their established interests, to win all the
(The earliest version of Monopoly was known as the Landlord’s Game,
patented in 1904.)
Money, now, can buy so much. It can buy beauty. You wouldn’t believe
the subtle cosmetic procedures the daughters of socialites I know get. Money
can buy a false sense of desirability. A majority of my friends have escorted,
dated, or otherwise traded their genetic beauty for cash, which is dangerous—
the delusion of a man paying for it, his repression, resentment, and rage.
Money can buy you a career in the arts. Once I started paying attention, it
became obvious—how many young so-called creatives, from painters to
magazine editors, were just uninspired rich kids. I wonder if they thought I
was one of them, the trust-funders and hangers-on I spent time with.
I met the first lot through my model friend Cupie. The rich are
impressionable to beauty. I’m not beautiful enough to qualify on looks alone,
but I have taste. Impeccable, covetable—even salable—taste in theater, art,
music, literature, and most of all: fashion. I love clothes! I’ll be the homeless
woman talking to the sun by the Pacific Coast Highway in a vintage
Lagerfeld blazer, Fiorucci jeans, Yves Saint Laurent hat, and Lucchese
cowboy boots—they’re embroidered with flaming phoenixes, eternally
returning in style.
“Oh, you’re just Canadian—” is how well-to-do Americans write me off
when I get all rah-rah class-conscious lately.
“I can’t believe it’s like this!” I exclaim. “And y’all accept it?”
But I didn’t know it. Not when I moved to New York and worked ninety
hours a week at various gigs trying to keep up with the cool kids. Not when I
experienced a masochistic mental breakdown from the inevitable burnout.
Not when I rehabilitated care of yoga and other healing-industry goods. And
not even when I killed our reality show contract, mostly because I was
ashamed I couldn’t negotiate a livable budget. I still thought it was my fault. I
still believed “success” was based on merit. On True Talent. And that I didn’t
Of course, at the same time, I also didn’t believe all that. That’s the thing
—it’s like deep-dish-pizza down we always know. Even when we can’t
articulate it, or act on it, we know what’s true, just, and beautiful. What’s
Real. Love. Our souls will it, which is why we have so much mental illness,
cruelty, and violence in our culture. Our true natures are repressed by
manufactured desires and fears, by the temptation/frustration cycle of
consumerism and power-as-domination. It’s like my sixty-nine-year-old
mentor Steven Klein says, “The ego industry is a mass conglomerate!” You
will never be satisfied.
Even when I was a teenage camp counselor, I couldn’t help it: I always
played favorites. At La Mariposa, I loved Alicia’s art the most. One of my
many jobs in New York was to report on hype things for “cool” magazines. I
was always looking for a feeling, a spark, someone putting experiences into
forms until then unexpressed. If the magazines I worked for back in New
York were really cool, they would’ve put Alicia on the cover, and assigned
me to profile her for a good three thousand words, but these outlets aren’t
after what they pretend to be. Like authenticity and art—they act like that’s
their deal, when really they’re looking for accreditation and validation.
Trading in existing cultural capital, they don’t know how to generate it. Real
artists are generators, not traders. My editors were always asking where else
my proposed subjects had been reported on; how many social media
followers they had; and/or what famous people they’d collaborated with or
were born from. There’s a checklist. Alicia doesn’t qualify—yet.
When I was subletting the bed next to hers, Alicia was always churning
out images—digital collages, fashion editorials, portraits, still lifes, and
videos—that reflected the violence of desire, attachment, and healing. That
feeling of wanting to destroy the one you love. To consume them. Knowing
you’re acting evil and watching yourself do it anyway because you don’t
believe in the goodness of yourself, or because you’re attached to people who
behave the same way. Alicia was especially good on loving men—masculine
hetero men. She figured animal sex. Instinct, aggression, and loyalty.
Divinity. Looks of abduction, eyes blackened. Her manicured nails looked
like blades and shields. There was melancholy and beatitude.
Even in my dArkest, Alicia once captioned one of her Instagram posts,
there sparks burning in my mouth, which is as concise a description of her
work as I can come up with.
I wanted to see what Alicia would do with a budget. It’s hard to say who
was the most broke among our lot. It would’ve been a difference of a couple
hundred bucks a month, which to us was a lot. In Los Angeles, Alicia patched
together rent from miscellaneous bartending and modeling gigs, which got
her out of the apartment. Otherwise she was at home, which was affordable.
Alicia made art the way I did when I first started: from need, love, and
naivete. When the feelings are as big as the information is chaotic, you put it
into physical form in order to better see it, rearrange it, and maybe change it.
Computers and their offshoot tools, like editing apps and social media, had
given Alicia a near-free medium to work with. Grateful for this, Alicia
constantly gave all her work away for free on social media. Her giveaways
were more interesting than most movies being made, but they were
ephemeral, diffuse, not reaching all they could touch. While they were
helping her process, packaged like this, they weren’t going to build her the
artistic career she said she wanted.
I wanted to help. Blame my Virgoan servitude, my bleeding Leo Moon
heart, and my burgeoning maternal instinct—and maybe also, I was
projecting. You know the myth of discovery? Someone sees in you
something you can’t see yourself or don’t have the resources to cultivate, and
they make it happen for you. Classic story, the crafting of a leading lady.
When I was younger, I so wanted that to happen to me. Soon after I signed
the contract, enacting the part of discoverer, I realized how sick that story is.
Casting agents, headhunters, and commercial producers are opportunistic
creeps. What I envisioned for Alicia and the rest of La Mariposa, for our
show, was less creepy than it was delusional. I was attempting to put on their
oxygen masks before I did my own. I was faking it, so they could make it.
Nadezhda did this, and it drove me crazy: she performed the role of “hacker
girl,” when she only knew basic html. (Even I bought it for a minute; the girl
dressed and talked the part.) I had fancied myself as a patron of the arts, like
my second-wealthiest friend, Henry Gaylord-Cohen, was always telling me:
“You’d make the best rich person, Fiona.” Clad in vintage Mugler and local
handcrafted clothes by Lou Dallas, I would throw Jean Stein–worthy dinner
parties; fund-raise for sexual liberty, affordable housing, right-to-water, and
education; and you know I’d collect the heaven, hell, and Earth out of Real
Now in New York, waitressing full-time and so tired, Alicia’s pretty
much stopped making work. Many of the best are striving in the shadows.
Spotlight’s full of frauds.
Episode 03—“Love loves to love love”
THE OTHER NIGHT LUCIEN CALLED to talk about our relationship.
When he tells me he loves me, I say I can’t feel it. “If only you believed . . .”
he repeats, leaving me to fill in the blank. I can feel my love for him. When I
meditate, this patient rush will come spreading through my heart center, and I
have angel wings. This is Real. And when we’re together, in person, and I
can lock eyes with him, or hold him, then I can feel it.
But he’s only intermittently here. He’s like my favorite TV shows from
when I was a teenager, before streaming on-demand: I only get him once a
week, on his schedule. Predictably romantic and always ending with a cliffhanger, I’m left longing for more. Usually I wait patiently between episodes,
because I’ve come to think—and because he tells me this is so—that his
absences are deliberate lessons in restraint, self-knowledge, and God. And I
do experience heavenly ecstasy in the waiting, when I “stay in my heart,” as
he tells me to. But then sometimes, when there’s a longer gap in our
programming, my mind will start to believe all these other things. He doesn’t
really see me—know me—love me. How could he? What’s there to love? I
pick fights and act out; drama, lies, cheating. He insists he’s faithful, equating
godliness with monogamy, and suggests I work on my faith.
We’ve been on and off for a year and a half.
The night of his call, I was in what used to be Nadezhda’s bedroom,
where I now live with Noo. It had been weeks since our last conversation.
When I told him I’d been struggling—lacking work, money, him—he asked
if he could read me something. Lucien prefaced his reading by saying it had
been his mother, who he knows I admire, who first shared the piece with him.
“It’s a letter by Rilke,” he said. “Written from Rome. This one is fairly
common. Maybe you’ve read it?”
I hadn’t. Lucien always seems to share exactly what I need. The perfect
song, a myth, a memory. It’s one of the things I love most about him. He tells
me it keeps him coming back to me, despite the repeated hurt. “I
communicate more beautifully with you than with any other,” he says. “But
you—” Often, I have to tell him, I’m not really here right now.
The letter was about love and solitude and men and women. Individuals
must “become world,” Rilke writes. We must learn to live in our solitude—to
ripen and cohere—before we can really be with another. I know, I’ve been
trying, I thought. Because I know if I don’t, I’ll continue to use men and
media to fill my void. Feeling my influence—how I can delight—that makes
me feel Real for a minute. Performing sexy or cute, dream girl, bad girl,
generous, bratty, mother, savior, sweet. It’s so retrograde, but I love fulfilling
these roles, witnessing how even Lucien, who claims to want me to be this
autonomous Rilkean woman, buckles under the pressure of his boner when I
pout, or how he warms when I listen rapt to his monologues, the problematics
of which (his classist judgments, for instance) I only clock in retrospect,
when I’m alone again.
In the letter, Rilke writes about “the girl and the woman in their new,
individual unfolding.” Dumbstruck and identifying, I started bawling as
Lucien read the following:
Women, in whom life lingers and dwells more immediately, more
fruitfully, and more confidently, must surely have become riper and more
human in their depths than light, easygoing man, who is not pulled down
beneath the surface of life by the weight of any bodily fruit and who, arrogant
and hasty, undervalues what he thinks he loves . . . someday there will be
girls and women whose name will no longer mean the mere opposite of the
male, but something in itself, something that makes one think not of any
complement and limit, but only life and reality: the female human being.
Playing the role of guru, Lucien read this letter as a riddle, offering no
interpretation of his own. We hung up with I love you’s, and I lay down in
my bed, a hand-me-down mattress on the floor, which I’d been sharing with
dog-eared library books and maps and charts—plots to fix the world. I’d been
drawing these maps, of histories of technology, of wealth as it’s distributed
now, of value systems and where I fit in, all to try to figure out how I might
help enact some kind of change that would bring me a life I could like. A life
that would allow me to be Real 24/7.
That Lucien read that letter seemed as prophetic as the letter itself.
According to my charts, Western women have been stuck in this phase that
Rilke described as “imitating male behaviors, misbehaviors, and male
professions” for half a century, if not more. I want independence as much as
the next girl, but I don’t want to have to fake bossiness, bitchiness,
ruthlessness, or selfishness, or sell my sexiness, to get it; that’s a trap. So I
stay in bed. But Rilke got me all revved up.
“Tomorrow, I will leave the apartment!” I declared. “But tonight, just a
And so, at the top of a convoluted map on “the advent and dissolution of
private property,” I wrote this guy:
She who opposes
force with counterforce alone
forms that which she
opposes and is
formed by it.
In the desert last year, shortly after I killed our reality contract, I took
mushrooms with this kind boy I’d been dating for three weeks named David.
I felt in love with both him and Lucien at the time. I’d been sleeping with the
two of them, sometimes both in the same day. Neither of them knew. David
seemed to offer what Lucien lacked and Lucien, fucking Lucien—I kind of
hated him then. I felt like I could say anything to David and he’d get it or at
least try. While everything Lucien said felt like It: godsent, genius. I envied
him. Articulate and persuasive, with friends in high places (Lucien’s mother
was famous), the kid lived my fantasy: sleeping under a Cy Twombly, he
only diaried on hotel stationery, as he traveled frequently to Moscow, Buenos
Aires, Paris. The desert was basically his backyard—he, only twenty-six, had
been glamping in it for decades.
I’d been microdosing mushrooms for months, so I was familiar with the
trip. The feeling of lungs like wood. Breathing slow as a tree. My feet on the
ground, every step a massage. The concrete or sand or soil beneath just as
much a part of me as my heart, whose simple knowing would finally hush my
brutal, greedy mind.
In the desert, I stretched on a rock as David played jazz saxophone while
his friend Sofia coiled herself in copper sheets. They were in art school, and
this performance was purportedly why dozens of young people had
congregated in the desert, but from my stoned perch, it looked like Sofia was
doing it for the photographs; David because he was generous, or unsure of
himself, and Sofia had asked; while the rest of us were there for the beer and
After the performance, I ate more mushrooms. In David’s car, en route to
the campsite, I sat on his cute friend Milo’s lap and psychically had sex with
both him and David, who was driving. I thought I was planting seeds for later
in the tent, but when we got to the campsite, David and I walked into the
desert. I’d never seen so many stars and I was obsessed with the spaces in
between. They seemed to represent suffering or a natural emptiness we fear
to plumb and so suffer from. Birth, death, the womb, void. It was cold and
impersonal and universal, and I understood how I was host to it.
David was having a great time. In the dark blue his face became a mask
of birds and then a lizard. He laid a blanket down and we had sex on it. I had
visions of myself as a painting by Marjorie Cameron. Split tongue out, on my
knees, cat-cowing. I’m Inanna, I thought. There were slithers. I am the Earth.
“But don’t forget”—I remembered Lucien saying—“at her center, Earth is
After—what? Did we cum? I can’t remember. I was the Universe until
David started talking—why did he have to start talking about what a shame it
was that few people still practiced the art of oral storytelling? That’s Lucien’s
art. It’s one of the things I love most about him. I thought: I should be here
with Lucien. The Sky chimed in, “When you try to have everything, you end
up with nothing!”
I told David I was “gnarly tripping.” He didn’t let it bum his high down. I
loved that about him. David is trustworthy, kind, and self-caring. I started
shaking then about the stars and the alphabet—how language organizes, how
reality may be a collaborative script, how if only we’d author it more
responsibly, blah blah blah—and David said he could tell I was onto
something, that most everything he’d heard from me seemed to be geared
toward this something, and it felt real and worthy and like it was going
somewhere. I cried. David held me in his arms and told me I was really,
“And,” he said, “I don’t think you know it.”
I’m nothing, I thought, not self-pitying, not pleading for attention, like I
had so many times before. It was just true, free-feeling.
Why do few women ever experience themselves as Real? All my life, or at
least since puberty, it’s been easy for me to see that others were alive and
hard for me to feel it except in extremes—feeling fatally beautiful, getting
hurt, loving like it’s a service. This led to crisis.
Most of the women in my life seem to be similarly afflicted. We have
anxiety disorders, depressions, bipolar swings, and furies. We wear cosmetic
defenses, like BB cream and overcompensatory intellect. High achievers, my
girls are public successes, even famed. But I’ve seen them in their living
rooms, with hollow cheeks and sallow skin, telling me that if they didn’t
perform as they do, they’d kill themselves, and that they’re convinced they’re
dying or will soon, anyway, which is probably true, if they think it.
When I met the women of La Mariposa, maybe because they were
younger and better at faking bravery—or maybe because I’d spent the six
months prior in a retreat of self-care where I had visions, real experiences of
true freedom and creativity—I thought we could make something great
together. As I got to know them, though, I realized these young women were
a lot like I still am: limitingly self-conscious or prone to self-protective falsity
in public, which now, thanks to social media, all feels like publicity. We
effusively interrogated our passions in private, but feared that none of it
would be taken seriously by the powers that be.
We weren’t ready to make something Real together. Nadezhda was
controlling. Almost dictatorial in her distaste, she could list all these things
our reality show shouldn’t be but offered no alternative vision. Meanwhile,
Morgan froze. At our first and only photo shoot, I melted all the more in love
with her. The branding agency had sent a photographer to the apartment.
Before the camera, Morgan, who is Andreja Pejić–striking with big attentive
eyes, jujube-plump lips, and a long straight nose, didn’t know how to hold
her face. She looked as though she had mean gas, which she might’ve—we
both get IBS when tense. I couldn’t stop laughing at her sweet impossibility.
When we got the pictures back, no one looked like themselves. Nadezhda
loaded a group shot in Photoshop and swapped everybody’s heads around so
Max grinned above Miffany’s cleavage and Morgan farted on Alicia’s musicvideo-babe frame. Sharing it in our group chat, every room in the apartment
I want to take my beautiful, brilliant friends’ pain away. I want to eat it
like I do my feelings, slathered in nut butter, and then shit it in the form of
writing. (Everything I write is shit—why do I think this?) I want my friends
to breathe easy, to recognize their genius and not take it personally, to feel
loved, not like they have the world to prove, and to nurture fearlessly—
there’s this sense we’ll be exploited if we care too much, especially about
men, so we other, blame, and rarely let our guards down. Most of all, I just
want us to be able to hang out and make stuff without going into the trauma.
We talk so much about what hurts.
Language-free experiences are rare for me. I like to converse—it’s a big part
of my social life and work—but I love love love feeling free of words even
more! That’s my ultimate Real. When I’m spinning on news cycles
(headlines stick like pop refrains), my mind often summons this visual: I’ll
fold rooms full of pastel cashmere sweaters.
I practice taming the voices daily by repeating mantras, stretching my
heart above my head, painting, singing, meditating, and the bad habits:
smoking, binge eating. I was a low-key sex addict for a while because sex
was the first exercise I found that would shut the voices up. The voices, the
voices. Sometimes they’re beautiful, but it can be too much! In New York,
where I lived for almost four years, I heard e V e R y T h i N g. Police
choppers, screaming, gossip, honking, put-downs, ads, and catcalls. Ass so fat
you can see it from the front, Hey red, wanna ride on, So I texted then he
texted then I texted then, Can I take your picture for a Japanese style blog?
My agent says, It’s just like when you’ve got some coffee that’s too black,
which means it’s too strong. What you do? You integrate it with cream—you
make it weak, Next stop Canal Street, That’ll be $26.18. $454.14. $2.99.
$106.66. $12.80. $9,000. I can feel your halo (halo) halo, I can see your halo
(halo) halo, our tears!
The loudest voices are real-world silent. Like inner bullying and my
paranoia—sometimes I think I know what everyone’s thinking: the subtext of
conversations, the motivations behind actions; these come through without
my wanting them. People tell me shit—maybe that’s it. I hear it again and
again: “I don’t know why I’m telling you this,” or: “I’ve never told anyone
this before.” Maybe I’m unconsciously asking for it. I don’t really say
anything, but I listen.
This is all to say that sometimes I become so full of voices, I’ve
considered smashing my head on my apartment’s brick walls to make them
stop. Or I’ll climb as high as I can go and scream because it’s not just voices,
it’s The Words.
Sitting on La Mariposa’s roof one afternoon, wanting to just be, my
senses bounced all over on the scene naming: Azure, Queen palm, Jacaranda,
Airplane Airplane Airplane, Streeeeeam, Mockingbird mocking car alarms,
Roses, Thorns, Pricks, When roses are delivered, they shave off the pricks,
Dicks, I Love, Gratuitous, Lascivious, Luscious, Limits, Cerulean, Fire ants,
Sting, All wisdom is remembering. Shut Up!!
Kissing Lucien, this all gets quiet, so I love him. I’m drawn into a trance
from the way our tongues dance. When we hug, his breath gets long and loud,
reminding me I have lungs too, and when he moans, it’s with repose, like
how he tells stories, like he’s never worried about wasting someone else’s
time. I’m practically mute in his presence; I don’t want to interrupt; the intel
is too valuable; I’m routinely dumbstruck. God, how I love going out of my
Freud believed something like, Traumatized people don’t remember their
trauma, they reenact it. I’m not sure what happened to me to make me so
crazy. My crazy being: not being Real. I fake a lot. Lucien calls me phony
when I don’t sound like myself. On the phone, he’ll say, “Can I talk to Fiona,
please?” (Miles Davis said [or so the Internet says he said], “Man, sometimes
it takes you a long time to sound like yourself.”)
I’ve had dreams of child molestation. Sometimes it’s my younger brother
who I’ve failed to protect. Once it was me. I have no waking memory of this
happening, but I have few memories of life before ten. I don’t know if it
matters what happened. Past is past is fiction like future. While the now just
is—if I meditate on that, I can get free. Suddenly, the channel will change.
And I can just be. Often, though, I catch myself acting out scripts and plotting
fantasies to fulfill. I write my reality. Desires manifest. This is cool when it’s
conscious, but we have underworlds within. When you find yourself in the
same situations and relationship dynamics again and again, that’s a sign!
A few months ago, I ate an award-winning cannabis candy called Cheeba
Chews. This was the only time in recent memory when, having none, I would
yearn for words. Can a hallucination be guttural, sensational? This experience
wasn’t visual, not beyond splotches of colors and a penis-like form. I was
lying on Nadezhda’s shearling throw in the middle of a vacant Mariposa,
unable to open my eyes. What I experienced had no setting or plot.
Characters, yes—or a person, someone I know, but I’ll never tell who. The
feeling: inescapable burning shame and a shamefully pubic turn-on.
Suffocation. Familiarity. A disgusting, sticky, sick shame raged. The look
was that of light coming through squeezed-shut eyelids, I later realized. Red,
pink, and black light flickering obscurely. I couldn’t escape the feeling.
Engulfed, I thought maybe it was a memory of Nadezhda’s. She
experienced rape in young adulthood. Or maybe a collective consciousness of
sexual trauma. It could be birth—the first sexual trauma. I let myself explore
it. I wanted to be brave, to see if I could touch the truth. Does it matter if it
really happened? Wasn’t this stoned summoning real enough? The feeling
was of a child sexually used by an elder. I couldn’t move. Was it me? Was it
a repressed—or could it be, a false—memory?
I imagined my Jungian analyst’s cat-lined eyes lighting up, extracompassionate, hearing about how I may have been sexually abused, as if
she’d discovered a cracked black obsidian egg up my—
But isn’t that what she’s trained to look for? Childhood sexual abuse is
the story of trauma and healing. Have we been set up? Did Freud really
reveal something common, or did he script it into our cultural consciousness?
It also occurred to me, paralyzed on Nadezhda’s throw, that this could be a
media memory. I’ve watched enough episodes of CSI and Law & Order:
SVU, re-watched Mysterious Skin, and read Heather Lewis—maybe I’d
confused those stories as my own, embellishing. My imagination is such that,
last year at Joshua Tree, a Burner type was tightrope walking ten stories
above me, and though I was sitting on the ground, I swear I could feel the
wind on his skin.
I called my friend Susan. She said, “It’s not real, you’re stoned.”
Susan has this certainty about reality: Drug experiences are not real. Only
sober, live, immediate, here, now, a priori experience seems to be “real” for
her. She’s a performance artist. Up until then, I’d considered everything as
real. Every hallucination, projection, dream, fantasy, and magazine story—all
were part of my vision of reality. It’s multidimensional. REALms.
A month after my bad Cheeba trip, Nadezhda invited over a boy she
wanted to sleep with. Jordan’s the type who’s stoked for virtual reality; he
said he’d happily trade in his body for programmatic freedom. Nadezhda was
twenty-one to his thirtysomething. It was late afternoon on a Sunday. I was in
my bedroom as usual, when Nadezhda, feeling shy in her seduction, asked if
I’d join their hang.
We sat in the exact same place on Nadezhda’s floor where I’d gone
under. Jordan offered to smoke us up. As he rolled a spliff, I explained my
decline, omitting any real details: “I don’t want a bad trip again.”
“Bad trips bring up stuff we need to work through,” Jordan suggested.
“Of course,” I replied. “But I’m not ready . . .”
Jordan smoked alone on our roof. When he came back down, Nadezhda
showed us an iceberg graph of conspiracy theories she had found on the
Internet that she thought we might like. On the triangle above the water it
said: 9/11 was an inside job, The Illuminati, and The US elections were
rigged. Underwater was: The Holocaust was faked, Michelle Obama has a
dick, and The Earth is flat. Even lower: The Roman Empire still persists,
Satan controls the Earth, and as deep as you could go was: Reality is Story.
“That’s what I believe!” I exclaimed.
Episode 04—“It’s a trap!!”
THE BRANDING AGENCY’S OFFICE WAS in the East Village. Three
floors of high rent. The company was founded by a bro, some early-thirties
white son of money who wore streetwear and a Rolex. The company made its
money creating “brand experiences” for other companies: fashion labels,
boutique hotels, cosmetic conglomerates, and the occasional car thing.
“Brand experiences” meaning parties, fashion films, social media ad
campaigns, pop-up shops, and artist collaborations—the kind of insidious
advertising that tries to pass as generous, artful, and authentic. For “creatives”
by “creatives.” The work looked like popular art from the eighties, street style
from the nineties, and Internet trends two years too late. Up to ten interns
worked there at a time. One of their unpaid tasks was to troll social media for
“inspiration.” They’d screengrab what cool kids were wearing and sharing,
then present it as market research.
When I first moved in to La Mariposa, my new friends were already
being ripped off by this agency. I thought: might as well cash in.
The agency had a “culture” front. They’d finance little not-ad projects to
look like they cared, like an interactive whaling tour of Hawaii, a map of
Bushwick delis, and our reality TV show. I’d worked with this agency before.
I wrote their Books column when I lived in New York. Imagine fifty bucks
for a four-hundred-word column (typical rate), and $1K in rent. At one point,
it felt like buckets of words were being funneled down my throat. Letters
have sharp edges! Choking hazard! And my intestinal tract—devastated.
The first budget the agency offered us for the show was okay. Meager
split between the six of us, but since we were all pretty much otherwise
unemployed, the few thousand was exciting: something to work with. It kept
getting cut, though. Then it was no Alexa, they wanted us to work with one
of their commercial directors. Fuck no. We settled instead on doing it
ourselves. Shooting on all our cell phones, we’d bring the footage together at
the end, like a great Exquisite Corpse. A trial in intersubjectivity! Merging
our Realities! MirrorrorriM MirrorrorriM on the screens, what does it mean
to be seen? I loved the idea of a Real Life social experiment we’d then edit
The unknown made the branding agency, and some of the Mariposa girls,
nervous, though. Nadezhda was accustomed to preplanning all her selfies.
Her commanding self-consciousness extended to public dialogues, in which
she’d assert grand statements, masking the personal with conceptual
knowledge, or she’d act mute, observing with obvious judgment. She spent
half her childhood in Russia—she has trust issues. Morgan, meanwhile, was
unaccustomed to being seen at all beyond the Real Real. She didn’t like to
put her form on display or use the tools common to our age. No selfies. They
freaked her out. “But maybe that’s a good thing,” she said. “Maybe that’s
why I should do this?” The branding agency, of course, wanted the product in
advance. That’s how advertising works: you pitch an existing idea, then
execute it precisely.
“Tell me,” Alexandre, my main contact at the branding agency, said at the
outset of our first and last office meeting, “who are these girls?” (Everyone
always forgot about Max.) “Who are these characters?”
“They’re not characters!” I said. “They’re real people—infinite, everchanging, composed of generations of genetics and the histories we’ve been
taught, of every experience we’ve had, of our dreams—where do they come
from? Why do they feel . . . so solid?”
“Right,” Alexandre said. “But that doesn’t help us. We don’t know them.
You have to introduce us to them. Here, let’s play a game—”
He wrote down the names of all the residents of La Mariposa, one of
them incorrectly, on a piece of scrap paper. He pointed to the first one.
“Anastasia,” he said. “Who is she? In one word, describe Anastasia.”
“Nadezhda. And no.”
I closed my eyes and summoned Nadezhda. Her face is china-doll
symmetrical, creaseless and refined, as if photoshopped. When she smiles,
which is usually with a laugh, you get to see gums and crowded teeth,
mischievous wrinkles burst on every side of her pale blue eyes. Her smile is
gawky like how she dances, not like you’d expect, thin limbs noodling from
elbows and knees, her solid core pogoing as her head cranks from side to
side. Nadezhda can be mean, deliberately so it sometimes seems. She’ll ask
you about your greatest insecurity as you’re walking out the door to a job
interview, or she’ll bring up the similarities between your ex and your new
lover in front of the new one. She’s a shit disturber, just like my dad used to
call me. A punk. Nadezhda and I could be sisters. She threatens my prideful
ego like one—repeatedly cutting me down to humility. But then she can be so
compassionate and wise, offering better counsel than my Jungian
psychotherapist ever has. Nadezhda diaries daily in eight-point font, likes
trompe l’oeil clothing, hoards stationery supplies, throws temper tantrums,
and learns fast. Growing up in Russia, the foundation of her English came
from reading and writing rather than speech so she’ll sometimes pronounce
words funny, like ka-veet for caveat. She was twenty when I first met her,
and she’s fated, I’m certain, to make way more money and material-world
difference than I ever will. Stubborn, willful, judgmental, and justly
intentioned . . .
“A force,” I said.
“Forceful, um . . . Dictatorial. Like the Brain in Pinky and the Brain.”
“Great!” Alexandre wrote the Brain next to the name Anastasia.
He had me do this for every “character.” Alicia was reduced to the
Sphinx, Miffany to the Muse, and Morgan to the Hard Body. Alexandre’s list
had the same aura as that group shot from our first photo shoot. A dysphoric
almost-likeness: MirrOr mIrrOr.
I felt like puking, and then Alexandre made a proposition: “What if,” he
said, “we placed this brand-new very cool Australian ginger beer in a bunch
of scenes in the show? We just signed with them. They’re . . .”
I’d tuned out at “Australian.” It was so funny—I’d already seen this
movie! It’s called Reality Bites, from 1994, directed by Ben Stiller. It’s one
big ad for the Big Gulp. (“Why can’t you just be, Fi!?”)
“You’re the devil!” I exclaimed. “This is pure evil!”
Alexandre smiled. I liked him a lot. He had an education in neuroscience,
a French wife, and a fat newborn. I thought for a minute. Evil is in devil, just
as God is in good.
“I would accept,” I pronounced in my bullshittiest voice, “a sponsorship
from Bragg Premium Nutritional Yeast, or Vogue.”
An hour later, Miffany walked into the Chinatown dumpling parlor I’d
reserved for our interview. I’d been conducting one-on-one interviews with
all the members of La Mariposa. This early research was designed to guide
my role as the creator and host of our show. Miffany—who’d been in New
York for two weeks, overeating in a dark apartment with a friend who, she
said, was “really going through it”—was the last on my list. It was snowing
outside and Miffany was wearing an XXL T-shirt over an XL hoodie with
rave-wide corduroys and thin shimmery jewelry.
In Ottawa, Ontario—fall/winter 2001—I wore a uniform of JNCO raver
jeans, cropped tank tops, and a faux-fur parka from Abercrombie & Fitch that
didn’t cover my midriff. Every day, I’d arrive to computer class, first period,
grade eight, with the bottom ten inches of my jeans frozen solid. They’d melt
inside, soaking my Airwalks and socks. I was dressing for post-surf SoCal in
minus-twenty-degree Canada. (That’s minus four Fahrenheit.) My parents
called me a fashion victim, and I pouted back: “You just don’t understand!”
They didn’t. They couldn’t remember that kids don’t feel the cold. My belly
would be pink from exposure, and I didn’t feel it. I felt cool.
I served Miffany hot tea and ordered Chinese broccoli. Since it was her
bed I was subletting, I knew her the least well. Also, maybe because she was
seemingly the most girly. Until recently, I’ve had a hard time connecting with
girly girls, maybe because I’m often told I’m girly myself. I don’t feel it.
Girly is vapid, frivolous, and dangerous, ripe for exploitation—or so I was
raised to compute. I knew how girly girls were judged and dismissed, as if we
hadn’t given this yawning world a good think, as if we were asking for it.
What I am that might come across as girly—being gentle, dressing in
ruffles with exposed lace lingerie, luxuriating in pastel, giggles, grooming,
and gossip—is actually rooted in great wisdom. It comes from a recognition
that the power games that pass for intellect, strength, and import in this world
are rote, wasteful, and ouroboran in their chase. Lonely, oppressive.
Seriousness. No thanks. Life is short! And beautiful. Water’s like liquid
crystal. I wear a rose quartz egg up my pussy every few days to connect with
my heart chakra. Tongue kissing vortexes me through the cosmos. Dry
brushing your skin before showering enlivens the senses. Moisturizing too.
And as the great spiritualist Jean Vanier knew: The closer we are to the body,
the closer we are to spirit . . . relationship is hand-to-hand, eye-to-eye . . . the
Word became flesh, God became flesh.
I knew all this and still a part of me circa thirteen to twenty-eight judged
others who acted girly in public—talking only about relationships, for
instance, with little lilts at the ends of their sentences—if they hadn’t also
figured out a means to money and/or other measures of consensus reality
power because that is dangerous. I know how Just a Girl codes are read, and
lately, I’m performing them all the more exaggeratedly because of it, even
when it’s to my detriment. Lucien diagnosed it: Oppositional Defiant
I wish I’d known better than to judge the likes of Miffany. I wish I’d
known since forever how little judgments reveal about the objects of their
scrutiny—it’s on us, baby.
Miffany and I sat at a corner table between two windows in the dumpling
parlor. Condensation had collected on the glass. As soon as she sat down,
Miffany started doodling into it. Little naked devils with round butts and no
genitals, butterflies, and what looked like doughnuts and a deconstructed
American flag surrounded our tiny table, which was now crowded with
slurpy rice noodles, shrimp dumplings, steamed pork, and fried sesame buns.
Miffany didn’t order or touch any food until I noticed and said, “I’m charging
it to the agency.” A lie worth every penny.
I didn’t know what to interview Miffany about until she started talking
about what I’m usually too ashamed to: boyfriends. (Classic girl talk.) My
Lucien and her Josh, their substance abuse and subtle abuse, and how we
loved them regardless. We talked about how it could be “spiritually
productive” to be in a “low-key abusive” relationship, a way to work through
familial and cultural trauma. “The sex is so good!” (When it also hurts.) At
the time, we both thought we were “actualizing through their gendered
“It’s like Josh and I are the same soul,” Miffany said, locking eyes with
me with such intensity that I was just like: “Totally.”
“But he keeps trying to make me his mother!”
“Ugh. I know. Like Lucien says he wants to, but he doesn’t get how to
love my soon-to-be woman. Before Lucien, I always had like, educated, older
lovers. Now I’m having to learn to explain my priorities, desires, and
boundaries. It’s actually helping me in business negotiations.”
The most astounding revelation of my conversation with Miffany—and
this was always happening at La Mariposa: my diseases, habits, and pain
articulated as gendered and cultural as I learned I wasn’t alone—came during
a talk about body dysmorphia. Miffany was “feeling disgusting” from all the
“trash snacking” she’d been doing these last few weeks.
“I know I haven’t put on weight,” she said. “But I feel out of shape, and I
have to remind myself, that’s okay. Don’t obsess”—because when she used
to, and this has happened to me too—“I would feel like I was a Hans Bellmer
doll.” Every limb was a thigh, her breasts and belly ballooning and
multiplying, until she was just orbs and orbs. She’d float out of the room, or
she’d shrink into a spit bubble that would pop in her own mouth, and then she
couldn’t eat at all.
Body dysmorphia, as we experienced it, is beyond low self-esteem. It’s
not about not loving our bodies, the answer to that being: Every body is
beautiful, equal opportunity objectification. No, this disease came from a
recognition of the truth that We are not the body, without the embrace of it
being practiced. When you’re granted so much attention for your form, and
you like aspects of that—validation, I exist!—it’s easy to get confused: to
mistake the form for the feeling, the body for the being. You can get
superficial. Self-objectify. Let men and media, who assume you are your
body, use it, and so: What does that make you?
Lucky for us, the body is wise, a messenger. It will act up, in an attempt
to wake us up, if our minds give in to falsity, like if you accept and repeat the
language virus: You are your body, little girly.
Miffany told me that about a year ago, when she was living at La
Mariposa, partying a lot, and working part-time at a juice shop, she had
started seeing from a God’s-eye perspective. Outside of herself. Vertiginous.
She’d been tooling around with makeup, trying to diet on free juice, and
daydreaming of real careers. “I was bored, I didn’t know what to do,” she
said. “I thought if I looked better, my life would be better.”
She became obsessed and, once the idea crept in, it took over. The
language virus had Miffany caking on makeup and skipping even juice meals
as her body clammed up in acne and started holding water in weird ways.
You can’t control me, the body retaliated, can’t wield the world this way!
The language virus wanted her to be seen as the ideal of beauty, but she—
her Realest of Real she—didn’t want to be seen like that. She wanted eye to
eye, God as flesh.
“It got so bad,” Miffany said. “I would try to go where I used to be fine,
like to the same parties, with the same friends, but I wouldn’t be there. Later,
when I would try and remember the party, I realized I couldn’t picture myself
there, I couldn’t fathom my body in a room. I didn’t know what
conversations I had, who I was talking to, my mouth moved but . . .”
It was as if her spirit had fled the scene, and Miffany couldn’t see through
all the shade and noise, the assumed judgments, who’s looking at who. The
language virus had Miffany trying to see herself through everyone else’s
perspective, those being imaginary though—not Real. More like magazine
gazes and beauty contests. Close-ups of celebrity cellulite on rags in the
grocery store checkout line. Hot or Not. Who Wore It Better. Hierarchies of
beauty fortifying class divides. If she’d been calm enough to receive it,
Miffany and I agreed, she would’ve felt beautiful, as in loved, how those
around her loved her.
This is why I feared being a girl and being close with other girly girls.
You have to be vigilant in engaging with girly or else its associated language
viruses can infect you. There are so many ideas of what a girl means—false
ideas repeated to consensus. Even if you were raised to question them, they
get inside of you, they organize your thinking and doing, your being. For a
long time, I tried to inoculate myself against these viruses by repudiating the
feminine. I wore my hair short. Didn’t flirt. I was hyperrational. Cool. And
then someone fucked me like a woman and all that blocked Mother Nature,
fatal-femme energy rose, and since then, I’ve been day-by-day learning to
revere my femininity, while surviving in this dickhole reality. I’m terrified of
being taken advantage of.
Before I left for New York, Alicia had told me the one thing she didn’t want
was for our show to be marketed “as anything even related to a sleepover.”
During our meeting at the branding agency, I relayed this to Alexandre, who
When I got back to LA, I received an e-mail from Alexandre with his
notes from our meeting. Cc’d were four male names I recognized from the
agency’s contact page. The subject line was: “Cool Girls Sleepover :)”. I
marked the e-mail unread and crawled into bed.
Episode 05—“F is for Fake”
HOW DOES THE REAL FEEL? Every time I get there, it feels like a
landing, like Earth to Fiona. It’s humiliating, because you know it was there
all along. We’re in it even when we’re not. Like, you’ve seen someone drunk,
right? Their sloshy speech, clumsy limbs, and lizardly libido, and you’re
sober, at least with regards to alcohol. The Real’s like being so sober, you
realize that anything can be an intoxicant. Stories are, and characters. Ego
trips. Social pressure. Most people are out here tripping on their own personal
cocktail. What’s your fix?
Throughout my teens, I dosed on straight girlfriends and straight As. In
my twenties, I tried everything I could think of: nicotine, sugar,
amphetamines, psilocybin, LSD, ecstasy, cannabis, Valium, Xanax, DMT,
alcohol, sobriety, monogamy, polyamory, abstinence, sluttiness, sleeping
until noon, rising with the sun, semesters off, one B- (in a seminar called
“Boys Dudes Men,” duh), raving, lazing, waitressing, publishing, traveling,
volunteering, sugar babying, consumerism, Buddhism, masochism, vengeful
feminism, feminist solidarity, Catholic studying, popular science studying,
workaholic-ing, like Mom, like Dad, Protestant work ethic unlearning,
queering, neo-Marxism, New Ageism, Taoism, fashion journalism. I tried
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Brian Greene, Richard Dawkins, Camille Paglia, Susan
Sontag, James Baldwin, Alan Watts, Sun Ra, Philip K. Dick, Courtney Love,
Chris Kraus, Durga Chew-Bose, the Quran, and on and on. I tried way too
Before I moved to Los Angeles, after spending a summer in Toronto, I was
almost twenty-eight, growing my hair long for the first time since fifteen and
having vivid dreams. My dreams often feel as real or more real than waking
life. I got off for the first time in a dream—this, when I was an anxiously
anorgasmic sexuality studies major. A month later, I orgasmed with a partner.
Repeatedly, my dreams have awakened me to true possibility.
It is a fact that no one wants to hear about other people’s dreams. It’s like
we can’t even. When I’m reading Jung, whose work I otherwise love, as soon
as he starts detailing a dream, the letters get all scrambled, it’s just weird
shapes on a page. Given this psychic block, let’s pretend this dream was Real
Life, because that’s how it felt.
It was the night before my flight to LA, and I was a wife and mother, like
my mother’s mother, a stay-at-home mom. It was the 1950s. My dress was
hard to run in, and I was fleeing. Dear life. I sprinted out of my suburban
bungalow into the front yard, barefoot and screaming, as my husband pursued
me with hands to kill. Not an uncommon scene—cinematic—but what was
unusual was the feeling. Sometimes in dreams, as in Real Life, you register
little sensation. Other times, like in this nightmare, you’re re-sensitized: the
most decadent feels seem to flow beyond your control. I screamed, knowing
no neighbors would help as panic fired my limbs to fight. Scattered,
searching for my children, my heart hurting so precisely—it was Real enough
to wake me up, changed. I understood something now that I hadn’t before.
And I knew it had something to do with my new long hair.
The thing I hate about being a woman is how I’m made to be one. On
Themyscira, Wonder Woman’s Paradise Island, hair is just hair, a natural
outgrowth of the Divine, like everything else. On Earth, it’s a signal to harass
us. When I had short or shaved hair, if I got hit on, it was as an equal or a
revered one; almost everyone I dated identified as queer. I started growing
my hair out during my last year in New York when my budget became about
spending close to nothing. Now I attract Republicans.
The last man I fucked was this Australian model who party plans for
Peter Thiel. I met him at a sex party in the Hills, and since everything is
relative, he seemed great. Both there “by accident,” we made fun of the scene
until we were a part of it, fucking in a darkened corner of a garden
mezzanine, overlooking all of LA. It was good for me—he had a beautiful
cock and practiced stamina (she-comes-first manners)—but then, when we
met again, he was all like, “My friends tell me I should marry you.” I know
I’m kind of asking for it by the way I behave—simple, sweet, and perverted.
(Fake.) (“You’re cool and hot,” a different bimbo once said, astounded, “fun
and smart.” “Yeah, I know,” I replied, “I work really hard on being ideal so I
don’t kill myself.” I.e., I’m insecure.)
After the marriage scare, I ignored the Thiel guy’s texts for a week, but
answered his call.
“It’s shit or get off the pot, Fiona!” he said, trying to bully me into
“I’ve always hated that expression,” I replied.
Does this work for you guys? I’d never been treated like a thing a man
can corral before LA and the hair.
In the months before I moved to Los Angeles, I was also experiencing
hallucinations while meditating. I wonder if hallucinations, like dreams,
aren’t made to share—will you receive them? These hallucinations were full
picture shows. My eyes were closed as I watched scenes stream as if on an
IMAX that was tapped into my nervous system. I didn’t have to do anything
but observe. I had been consciously practicing being more receptive. The Tao
was teaching me how. Honor your yin, your dark matter, the feminine. I
wanted to walk the Way.
The way I’d been moving through life before—willful and reactive, in
drag, or mute, shy—had inspired duress. In the years prior, I’d been panic
attacked and suicidal; addiction-prone, yearning, manic, and then bitchy,
lonely, and ashamed. I was vain, and so, as had happened with Miffany, my
spirit sought to rouse me to Reality by challenging the body: I got acne,
rashes, allergies, fevers, gas, and unusually dispersed weight gain. I was sick.
Now I was getting better thanks to a new language virus: I give up! I
couldn’t care anymore about things I used to, like developing a career,
pleasing men, looking good, or even having a home. I was crashing where I
could, relying on the kindness of others. Working as little as my hunger could
afford, I studied astrology, Eastern religions, and magical esoterica as selfhelp, and learned to meditate via yoga. A common scene (Eat Pray
Embarrassing!), but I didn’t care, because of the feeling.
I’d started to smell like I hadn’t since twelve, maybe thirteen. Humid and
elemental, it was the smell of spontaneity. Pierce that thick cloud of
unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love! I just was. Still often anxious
but learning to ground down. I hadn’t yet met the Real—that humiliating
bliss—but these months were like foreplay for that climax. Sometimes, it
takes us a long time to get there.
The two most persuasive hallucinations occurred within a week of each
other. During the first, I was in a queer yoga studio, guided into restorative
poses, with props all around me, as an elderly woman walked around
performing Reiki. During Savasana, our final corpse pose, I’d experienced a
feeling of total safety unremembered since kindergarten: I was a child about
to nap on a mat.
Calm and alert, body at ease, my mind summoned, in visual detail, all
these scenes of Fiona aching, from puberty to the present. I watched my past
play for me, in a series of medium and long shots, all these moments where I
had betrayed some inner knowing. This knowing was represented by a
second me, who acted upon my past reality. I kissed the top of my head. Put
the blade down. Walked away from the car. Apologized. Made tea. Tucked
myself in. Made love with myself—sweet, gorgeous love, the kind that’s both
fast and slow, reassuring whispers and carnal gropes, every move instinctual.
Fiona on Fiona :P
The uncanny thing was “I” wasn’t doing any of this. The more my active
mind surrendered, the more memories were summoned and taken care of. I
watched in titillating awe, and understood how, in every masochistic
moment, I’d always known what better to do.
The second hallucination took place on a sunny afternoon. August 14,
2015. I was told, by a man livestreaming on my computer, to close the
curtains, turn off the lights, and lie down with a soft cover over my eyes. For
forty-five minutes, he guided me and a thousand-odd others around the world
in a meditation into the Underworld. We were figured as Inanna, a Sumerian
goddess of love, sex, procreativity, and war. As Inanna, we ventured through
a forest to a tree with a door. Through the door, we descended down flights of
stairs, stripped of all vestments, until we hit hell. There we were killed and
laid on a cool stone table. Each of our organs was inspected, cleansed, and
put back. People I’d loved, like exes and great aunts, visited me as my liver
was washed and my heart massaged. (I paid eleven dollars for this livestream,
timed to a Leo New Moon.)
The surprise was Ash, a girl I’d half-consciously competed with in high
school, whose bare, engorged breasts I’d once caught a side view of. At the
time, the desire had been so strong, I imprisoned it. Ash was the leader of our
five-girl clique. We didn’t do drugs, watched our drinks, got straight As, and
were virgins. We played board games and planned field trips to do activities
like skiing and sailing. I was the group outlier. I read feminist erotica and
comic books, liked punk music, and had a history as a bad girl. Tween Fi
offered boys double-tongue blow jobs, holding her best friend’s hand. At
thirteen, I went good—joining this clique—after my great-aunt died. Bad-girl
Fifi didn’t go away though. She’d sneak out occasionally, flirting lasciviously
with younger-grade members of the football team, or making comments to
the clique about clits. This seemed to disturb my friends. They’d “ew,” and
once one of the girls told me, “You better not be a lesbian.”
So I had loved Ash. Inanna made this obvious. I had loved her
romantically, sensually, devotedly. Any ill feelings I had held—like resenting
Ash’s frigidity and perfectionism, her Katie Holmes looks back when Katie
was more famous than Michelle Williams, and her innate understanding of
math and science, like my father, who was so impressed by her—were but a
shadow of the love. I really did love Ashley Anne Cooper. And this was
okay. It was beautiful, actually.
Recognizing this, beauty surrounded me. It energetically lifted me, like
for Real. My chest rose from the floor, neck and jaw too, until my upper body
crested, making a half-moon of empty space between it and the floor.
Orgasmic feelings waved in, out, and around my core, piercing my limbs and
holding me up. I felt an ecstatic calm culminating in a great bliss like I’d
never heard anyone speak of or write about. For three or five or who-knowshow-many minutes, I was lifted, while bright white light poured through my
I’ve come to believe this was what’s called an “energy orgasm,” the first
of many I’ve had since. It was maybe also my “Kundalini awakening.” (A
snake lies dormant, coiled at the base of our spine—our Chi, Eros, vital
mmmm yummm me God-given energy—waiting to rise. The meditation was, I
later learned, led by a Kundalini instructor.)
Since this experience, what I most want is to get pregnant. If I had to act a
sad part, all I’d need to do to cry onstage is think about this new life that may
never come from me. Longing tears for suckling babes cleanse my face
regularly. The desire is so deliriously motivating, I’ve basically stopped
smoking, and the reality show deal, I see now, in retrospect, probably came in
part from it. My instinct to nurture these people younger than me, and to get
me some money. That’s the only reason I’ll publish this story, if I ever do—
I’ll sell my soul to get the money it takes to raise a family.
I had told Lucien I was moving to LA for him. I had told myself it was to
research a book on my latest obsessions: Kundalini yoga, Western astrology,
and other New Ageisms. I grew up in a household, the ideals of which I
followed into my canonical Great Books undergrad, where such flaky,
unsubstantiated quackery was derided. What I discovered in singing Sanskrit
mantras, breathing into my heart, and charting astral maps was great practical
knowledge—cures for my diseases. I’d started to suspect that the derision of
New Ageism was misogynistic and imperialist, marginalizing truths we
should rather honor. I still wanted to be validated by the people and
institutions who raised me, though, so, instead of just enjoying practicing
yoga and astrology, I rationalized it into work.
As I prepared to leave Toronto, this was my plan: I would study the New
Age movement, its history and contemporary practice, its scientific research,
and its language viruses, from its hotbed of Los Angeles. I would go
undercover, immersing myself in this world, with the excuse of a popular text
I would then write and publish to save myself from the dead-end career I
thought I was in.
What I ended up doing instead was an even greater Los Angeles cliché: I
fell madly in love with the child of one of my favorite celebrities and started
working in TV!
Lucien’s mother was a great dancer, poet, and painter, someone who
straddled popularity and esoterica. Her name was spoken often at our family
dinner table in Canada because my parents loved to tell my origin story:
“You were conceived in an early Frank Gehry house in Point Dume, Malibu.
Our next-door neighbor was . . .” Lucien’s mother.
“The night I met your mother at a Venice Beach bar,” my dad would
recount, “she got drunk and dropped her only dollar bill in the toilet. She
fished it out and paid her tab with it.” This charmed him, as did the fact that:
“She was the first woman I met who could eat a whole box of Chips Ahoy! in
My parents moved to Canada when my mom was eight months pregnant.
They were twenty-seven and thirty, artists who couldn’t afford to give birth
in the US. Lately, Dad likes to tell me they immigrated because of politics.
“We left Los Angeles the year people started shooting up freeways for no
apparent reason, and it’s only gotten worse.”
My parents wish I’d “come home,” but Los Angeles is my home. I
understood, within a week of being here, why people fight over land, how
you can feel so attached to a parcel of earth, you’d risk dumb shit for it.
Lucien’s mother bought the house I was conceived in the year after my
parents left. Two years later, Lucien was born. He lived there, in this house
that was storied to me, until he was twenty. This is just one of many
coincidences we’d later read as serendipity. He’ll say it’s like he doodled me
and there I was: his dream girl. I’ll say the same, but it was writing. I wrote
him: my destiny. Lucien tore Reality open for me more than any other. He
decimated my ego, and I loved it.
Our relationship was more than low-key abusive at times. I went from
believing I would have your children, Lucien once texted me, to now
absolutely fucking hating you. I should honestly slap you hard across the
Part of me loved Lucien’s verbal abuse, the same Oppositional Defiant
part who would cheat on him, convinced he was doing the same. (He was.)
It’s not exactly the same part of me that’s writing this, well-knowing that
Lucien may see it as the ultimate betrayal, which I get. I was cautious with
our love, respecting his privacy, slow to commit. I wanted to be sure that I
loved him-him, not what he was born into. (People use famous people like
they do hot women—objectifying, flattering, worshipping, manipulating, and
getting off as they cut us down.) I do. Love him. I’ve consulted every organ
of my being, in every state of being, and no matter the mood: I love him. We
have this elemental connection: eye to eye, flesh as God. I pray daily that the
world delivers all the beauty, knowledge, and happiness possible to that little
fucker. One of the smartest and most sensitive creatures I’ve met, and
tortured. So cute!
Part of me also recognizes, though, that my love may be Stockholm
syndrome. Lucien’s not the only patriarchally diseased boy I’ve been turned
on by. (The morning of Trump’s election, I found myself ramming a red
jasper dildo up me to channel our new president’s Chi.) I get off fiercely
abusing abusive boys. I take my hatred of patriarchy out on them one by one
—making them fall in love with me and then crushing them with swift
breakups excused because “I’m a feminist and you’re not.” Instead of
schooling the boys in all the insidious things they’ve done, I let my
resentment quietly build until I can no longer take it, then I’ll shout, “Read a
book!” and I’m gone.
Lucien discerned this in me early on and called it out. “Kali dominator.”
“Feminist punisher.” “I’m not your punching bag, Fiona,” he said. “I only
take it because I love you—”
“I LOVE YOU!” he used to scream, as if saying it was enough. “Let me
love you! Let me love you!”
(Every concurrent Justin Bieber hit was a theme to our early relationship.
“Sorry.” “What Do You Mean?” “Love Yourself.” “I’ll Show You.” It was
charming at first—the songs were always on the radio—but it’s time to grow
Lucien has repeatedly told me the reason he wants to be with me, and
only me, is because he’s already done “the fuck everything thing.” Once he
told me he used to call it “bag over the head” sex. He could sleep with
anyone if he pictured a bag over her head. “But it felt horrible, Fi,” he
moaned. “I never want to do that again.”
Lucien’s beheading confession was so fucked-up and banal. Typical LA
fuckboy. Hollywood dreamboat predator. Equally fucked-up, though, was
how my body, instead of reacting in disgust, was turned on. I took to
fantasizing about sitting on Lucien’s face, smothering his golden-boy beauty
under my goddess squat, or picturing him with other women: his whimper,
our power. I cum so easy and BIG for this kid. For the last year of our onagain off-again, I’ve pretty much masturbated to Lucien exclusively. Even
when I was with other people, I thought of him. And mostly, my fantasy was
of the reality of our lovemaking. Our connection, beneath all the rubble of
gendered conflict, is soulful. We Tantra together. It’s wild! Sacred Energy
eXchange. Our lovemaking is so sweet. “I love you I love you I love you,”
we repeat. It’s Lucien’s babies I want. If only he’d wise up.
But what about me? When will I wise out of my patterning? Attracted to
friction, I don’t go for lovers who are plainly good to me. I like to be pushed
around too much, beaten even. The first “great sex” I had left me covered in
delicious bruises. An easy explanation is that I was beaten as a child. I
remember once being spanked in front of my friends at my sixth birthday
party. I’d been loud, bratty, acting out—I can’t remember why. I do
remember I was deliberately escalating the conflict with my father though. I
knew what was coming, because this was our pattern, but it wasn’t the public
spanking that upset me, nor was it the sting from my biggest toenail getting
caught on a doorframe and torn off as my tiny body was swung around the
room and into his lap—it was that he let that happen. It was his inattention.
ONE OF THE PREMISES OF Western astrology is that we choose our lives,
the time and place of our birth, and our parentage. Harmony, a dancer I
know, says this is true in African cosmology too. Life is like a game we set
ourselves up to play. We select certain givens—the imprint of celestial
bodies, in astrology—which direct our play, to a point. When I was in my
pre-LA healing phase, I found this idea empowering. Some greater I than “I”
could totally discern chose this for me. Canada; parents who never said “I
love you”; a tendency to self-sabotage; and a body built for gymnastics: I
chose these, pre-destinies. This meant that, beyond my Earthbound
personality, the constructed nature of which bored me (Just a Girl, brought to
you by Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy), there was . . . a
soul? A me-being who was free!
It meant I wasn’t victim to the bullshit of consensus reality. I was, rather,
an active player in a game of life I’d decided to play in my own particular
way. Maybe I’d even chosen to be brainwashed! Stockholm Syndrome,
brought to you by the soul of Fiona Alison Duncan.
This explained why a part of me was entertained by my pain. Why reality
felt so ephemeral; The Matrix glitches, déjà vu, and premonitions. It even
explained my yogic hallucinations. There was a part of me—a loving-light
part, unstuck from ego—who knew what better to do in all situations. My
own guardian angel. Supreme Fi.
I saw the study of astrology as a way to self-actualize into this higher-
level self. If I understood the patterns of my personality—like how my Leo
Moon, my emotional center, is magnetic, playful, and showy, and can make
me fall in love with almost anyone, and vice versa; but is also victim to
illusion, vanity, and pride—then