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Exquisite Mariposa


"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

Year: 2018
Language: english
ISBN 13: 9781593765798
File: EPUB, 754 KB
Download (epub, 754 KB)
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An Amish Christmas Kitchen

Year: 2017
Language: english
File: EPUB, 5.86 MB

Exquisite Mariposa

Year: 2018
Language: english
File: PDF, 884 KB
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 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

“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

Cover design & art direction by

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

Phone: 866-400-5351

Printed in the United States of America


To Noo,

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 01—“Pilot”

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 06—“Simone”

Episode 07—“Bob”

Episode 08—“Fizzy ill logic and taut! oh law gee”

Episode 09—“Angels Flight”

Episode 10—“Noogenesis”

Episode 11—“All the Real girls”

Episode 12—“This is when the Real fun begins”


Episode 01—“Pilot”

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 writer-curator. 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 big sister.

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 a follower.

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 offer-cum-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 complete.

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 convince you?

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 right by.

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 high-rise 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 platform.”

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 perennial subletters.

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 jet-set, 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, social-mediate 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 top-shelf 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 in-between, 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 hit me—

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 Koreatown.

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 that remain.

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 THEM? NEVER!

As of today, we are three broke girls and a cat, Noo, a rescue who self-harms 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? Actions? Consequences?

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 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

Oh brother.

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. Ripple. Ripple.

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 real!”

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 wealth.

(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 have it.

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 artists.

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 cliff-hanger, 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 poem—”

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 counter-

force 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 party favors.

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 Fire.”

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, really special.

“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 music-video-babe frame. Sharing it in our group chat, every room in the apartment laughed.

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 mind!

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, extra-compassionate, 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 into TV.

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, ever-changing, 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.”

“Just try.”

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.

“How so?”

“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.

“Aren’t you—”

“Cold, yeah.”

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 Disorder.

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 ignorance.”

“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.”

“Ha ha!”

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 replied, “Sure.”

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 hard.

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 hanging out.

“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 self-help, 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-knows-how-many minutes, I was lifted, while bright white light poured through my still-covered eyelids.

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 one sitting.”

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 face.

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 up.)

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 on-again 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.

Episode 06—“Simone”

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-actuali