I buy my ticket to Mexico City.
It seems like the key somehow. It’s like watching a movie where the detective returns to a crime scene over and over, hoping that he can sense something new, something he’d missed.
I’m going back for absolution. I want to go back so that everything that’s happened makes sense. I would understand why my family was so sad, so desperate, so anxious. I’ve been here before. It feels like the more I know the more elusive the answer becomes.
The last time I was in Mexico I was 19. I lived in Oaxaca for a month. I didn’t want to go, but I forced myself. It was wrong that I wanted to go to Europe instead of Central America, I convinced myself. Europe represented something new, something different, levity, a different version of myself - one that could forget.
Mexico represented home. I’d spent all my childhood carefully curating an elaborate escape from home. Ambition was the best story I could come up with. All the trophies, the business suits at 15, the obsession with reading about colleges, the refusal to allow my parents to buy me a Nintendo. I was “precocious.” I was frantic. I was singularly obsessed with getting away. I couldn’t even understand it at the time.
Everything was happening as it ought to have. I had friendships. I had crushes. I laughed and cried. I was made fun of for being fat. I had best friends. I ate lunches. I felt hunger. I recited speeches. I told jokes. I wore leggings. It was all happening, but it was also make believe. This was just what had to happen until I could start my real life.
I step outside. It’s 2 in the morning. I can smell the ocean for the first time in months. Salt frilled with grainy blue pungency.
I walk to the beach, and the waves are high. I normally feel a twinge of embarrassment for the surfers who frequent Ocean Beach, who paddle meekly through 1-foot waves as if through sheer, undeterred determination they could make the waves rise higher. Or maybe they like the 1-foot waves. Maybe they prefer them. I see these high waves and think, “these are real waves, the kind real surfers must like.”
It’s foggy. Like old San Francisco, a curmudgeon I’ve convinced I share some intimacy with. “I know the old you, the real you. You’re not pretty, and I like you just like that,” I think.
I stick my hand into the fog, and my feet sink deep into the sand. I am big, and I sink further into the sand than I used to.
I walk to the edge of the beach, and the fog gets thicker, scarier. I can’t see in front of me, but I can hear the ocean. I climb up the side of the cliff, into the forest. Land’s End. I used to sit here and eat picnics on the cliff. My feet dangling off the edge, with a block of cheese in my hand with my crazy friend Rachel who staged her own kidnapping in high school. She’s the first person who ever encouraged me to skip school. We’d go to Jack in the Box and have milk shakes. We’d leave giggling messages for each other on the school’s absence hotline. Sometimes we’d go to her house and talk to men on the internet, while she ate nacho cheese flavored Doritos. “How can you eat? This is too exciting. I’m nauseous,” I told her.
She laughed at me, the way a grown up laughs at a child.
When she went missing she was on the news. I was embarrassed when they described her “5’5’’, black hair, dark brown eyes, heavy set.” Heavy set. Almost as if that description made the whole thing less serious. Like it wasn’t happening.Our fatness was a secret we shared.
Then she came back.
I called her. “Tell me everything. Did you have sex?”
She was thrilled to tell me what had happened, the wanted and unwanted parts melted together. My parents were upset, and so were other people at school. She had run away with a grown man, an old man she’d met on the internet. They made it sound so typical, like this is exactly what a fat girl would do. And I felt guilty for having shared the delight I knew she felt in the experience. I felt embarrassed for her and for myself.
I called her again, telling her I was wrong for having condoned what was clearly sexual predation. Telling her she was a victim, but also somehow telling her that enjoying the experience made her wrong. She told me she preferred the older conversations, the ones where I asked if she had done anal.
I’m in the fog, and I feel someone take my hand. I know this hand. It’s small. It’s my grandmother’s. And then my other hand is taken by my mother.
They’re my children, just like always.
They’re telling me their life stories. My mother is telling me she’s sorry. She hands me toys made of that same putrid fog, toys for a toddler that she thinks are for me, toys that let me know she’s not so much sorry that I am lonely because she left me, but more that she’s sorry she isn’t the 21 year old who had the power to leave anymore. My grandmother tells me about the time that her mother died when she was 9. She tells me each time as if it was the first time. She tells the whole story and then she stops, and takes a deep breath – a look of momentary amnesia - and then she tells the exact story again.
“Everything fell apart then. I was never myself again. I died there. I am a ghost, just as you had always suspected.” But the words become part of the fog too, until I’m not sure what she’s said and what I’ve thought. Just like always.
I lie on the wet ground. They ask me to get up. “Get up. Get up. Please.”
“I’m tired,” I tell them. “I’ve listened to your stories and I want to sleep a little. I promise to wake up again and we can go for a walk.”
“What if you wake up and you forget who you are? What if you wake up and you’re different than before?”
“I’ll never change. I’ll stay here always.”
We're listening to Nina Simone.
"Americans are obsessed with being the heroes of their own stories. We can't even imagine what it would be like to be nothing, to feel like the speck of dirt that we are. No one else in the world seems to have this obsession with triumphing over something. It's so.. puerile (she loves using that word, and she always pauses for a second before she utters it, never sure how exactly to say it... poo-err-isle.. pwer-isle). What is wrong with them?"
She still uses "them" like through language we can speak away our complicity.
I always knew it would be like this. She would be just like this. We'd be peeling mangoes with our finger nails and listening to Nina Simone, and there would be tea that came to a boil on an open flame. We'd philosophize about American self-mythology with an awareness that critique doesn't grant absolution, and she would pause before she said words like puerile.
I used to do this exercise where I would ask people to close their eyes, and imagine their utopia. What does it smell like? What does it feel like? Who's around you?
In my utopia there were never any men. I had done the exercise about 30 times before I realized it, though. It made me feel strong, a little proud and then instantly not those things.
"Sometimes I think my womb is poisoned.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean. I mean… that I think about raising kids. I think about marrying a dude with kids. I think about loving these kids, how much fun it would be too see them grow up. I think about caressing their faces, and hugging them. I think of making them tea sometimes and grilled cheese sandwiches. I think about my heart being filled up with love, but in my fantasy they are never mine. They are someone else’s. I ask myself ‘do you mind raising kids?’ and the answer is no. And I ask myself ‘would you mind marrying someone with kids or dating someone with kids?” and the answer is no. And then I ask myself ‘do you want to have kids?’ and the answer is no.
And I mean it’s possible that ‘not minding’ having kids or raising kids is different from ‘wanting’ those things, but I’d actually like those things, just not my own kids. And when I ask myself why, where’s the gap between that want and my body, the answer that comes out is that that something about me is tainted, that something about us – my family – is wrong and it shouldn’t go on like this.”
“My grandmother told me her dad died of sadness. Do you think that’s possible?”
“Sure, but it was probably like one of those bible stories.”
“What do you mean one of those bible stories?”
“Like when someone is telling you a story about one thing but it’s really a story about another thing, like how lambs represent humans and innocence and snakes represent dicks and apples represent lust or pussy or whatever.”
She's smug. Her capacity for a good turn of phrase is endless.
"I'm pretty sure your womb isn't tainted or whatever. Maybe you just like kids. Maybe you just particularly like other people's kids. That doesn't have to mean something's wrong with you - or your lady business area."
The strings of the mango are in my teeth. That's the problem with biting the mango rather than cutting it up. It gets stuck, but it tastes better this way.
"My friend says that my womb is 'occupied' by like my colonial ghost baby. Do you think you can be pregnant with a ghost baby?"
"Do you think I am pregnant with, like, Christopher Columbus' ghost baby?"
"I guess that would explain a lot."
It's Monday. Grief counseling day.
When I first started grief counseling, they gave me the option of going to the San Francisco office or the Sunnyvale office. I could only pick one. My boyfriend lives closer to the Sunnyvale office. I live closer to the San Francisco office.
I decide to commit to having a year of grief counseling at the office near his place. This is the closest I can come to admitting I want us to be together for another year. In my mind I am doing this out of convenience and logistics. In truth I don't trust myself so I set up external mechanisms that mimic the rhythm of intimacy.
"Do you want water or tea?" my grief counselor always asks me this.
The tea feels exhilarating. I will get to pick from a box that is filled with 1000 teas, each with a different experience. Seeing that box full of tea reminds me of winning a game I played in kindergarten. There are ten tasks I have to complete. One task is learning to tie my shoe and showing my teacher, Mrs. Marks, that I can do it. Another is counting to ten outloud. For every task I complete successfully I got a pastel-colored construction paper ice cream scoop stapled onto a brown construction paper ice cream cone with my name on it. If I got all 10 scoops I could stick my hand in a candy jar and pull out as many candies as I could hold onto. I reached my chubby hand inside, opened it like a claw, sure that no one had ever grabbed more candy than that in their first. But I could not pull my fistful of candy out of the narrow mouth of the jar.
The orange spice tastes just like apple cider without sugar in it. The raspberry tea is tart and feels silly. I don't pick the earl gray because I'm convinced that the caffeine will make me lie. The chamomile feels too bland. There is a clone of this exact faux bamboo wicker flattened picnic basket box of tea at the San Francisco grief center. I saw it when I went there last month for a special seminar on dealing with your dead love one’s place setting at Thanksgiving. It feels important that I realize this is the same tea box as my tea box, that I spotted the similarity. "Ah, I see. I know."
I usually pick the water, convinced that this could be a moment I prioritize unceremonious hydration over eccentric ritual.
I like to have the little, hemp-colored pillow on my lap. I prefer that to resting my hands on the armrests, and I worry that she thinks that my fat is some kind of security blanket that I've created to hide myself. "No I was fat before I wanted to hide myself." So I feel awkward resting my hands on my belly because I know (I think I know) that thin people think this looks uncomfortable and the almost-knowledge of her counterfactual analysis makes me feel fidgety without the pillow.
"I had a dream that my mother, my grandmother and me were one person. I was laying on the air mattress, and there was like this roulette wheel of thoughts, and each time the wheel spun my mind would just get flung in whatever direction, and then the wheel spun to them. I guess I usually think of them as two parts of one whole. One of them is the good half and the other the bad half, and they can never be both at the same time. One has to be the better one, or else it all stops making sense. But I stopped myself and said 'what if we're all the same person?'"
My grandma says that when she was 14 and ready to have a boyfriend that none of the Mexican guys in California liked Mexican girls. "No, they all wanted blondes. They were too good for las morenitas." My grandmother is fair with a slender nose, but she has black hair and brown eyes and that makes her morenita. And when she went back to Mexico she was too fat for all the boys there. My grandfather told her he was going to marry her roughly 30 seconds into their first ever exchange. He was a body builder wearing slick suits and bolo ties then, but he used to be fat too. His nickname growing up was "gordo." He didn't have a name for years and years, and he finally got sick of it and became a body builder, all muscles. She told me that she didn't think anyone would ever ask her again. I know his strident cockiness. I know her frail wish.
My mom is convinced she's an alien who wasn't supposed to be born, a uterine tumor that through ghastly metaphysics had been turned into a baby. My real dad made fun of this mole on the side of her face so much that she had it cut out, and there's a scar there that never went away. She used to tell me that one day I could get surgery and be as beautiful as I wanted. She said it the way that maybe some mothers tell their daughters that someday they can become concert pianists or pilots - with genuine affection, and the fluffy hope of their own biggest dreams in their voice.
"In the dream we stopped being separate, and we weren't nesting dolls. We were blended together, and there was no separation. It didn't matter who had done what anymore. It didn't matter who had hurt me, and who had saved me, who had left me, and who had kept me. I didn't feel guilty for leaving. I didn't feel ashamed for never having really left. We shared more than we didn't share, and I didn't not want that to be true because it would be ok, because it wouldn't mean I was weak because I couldn't be weak; whatever caused this feeling was also part of me."
The hardest part about growing up with sad people is the sense that there is something you can do to stop it, to end it.
And you can for a little while, but then you get tired and you want to go away. “I want a life of my own,” you say. “I want a chance to make myself happy. Or at least try to make new sad people less sad.”
You think in your logical American mind that sadness is a negative experience, and therefore the people who are sad must want it to end, and therefore all they need is someone to show them that they are capable of unceasing happiness, and all you have to do is show them that you can be that way and then they will, of course logically, follow suit.
And then they won’t be sad ever again, and then you can leave them and say,
smiling, “See! That wasn’t so hard was it?! Isn’t this life better?” And they embrace you and say “Thank you, and we’re sorry that we took up so much of your time.” And then you say “No, not at all. It was my pleasure.” And you close the door behind you, and outside the sun is shining through red and brown leaves, and you inhale, and a tickle of elation is in your throat because you succeeded and now you’re free.
But it turns out that you have misunderstood.
Because the sadness isn’t something inside of them, like a virus or a baby. They are inside of it. It is the air and water and food, the songs and the sunshine and the wiggly worms. It was naive of you to imagine that smiles and dances could transport you. Do you think you are bigger than air and water and food, songs and sunshine and wiggly worms?
And yet all you want is freedom from the sadness that is older than worms, and the only way you know - you think, you are convinced - that you can have it without the sense of cancerous failure is if you teach them to see the world the way you do.
“Look at the butterflies and hummingbirds,
cookies shaped like poodles,
tiny crustaceans that look prehistoric,
the way grass feels,
kissing soft fat cheeks,
the jagged teeth of infants,
peanut butter with chocolate,
looking closely in the mirror at the flecks in your brown eyes,
painted finger nails,
lighting birthday candles,
feeling your freshly shaved leg,
the bounce of breasts,
the way it feels when you open the window and the air blows on your sweaty neck,
scratching that dry patch of skin near your vulva.
What about that? Why isn’t that enough?
Why settle for me when you can have all that?”
According to this book I read about being Mexican, sadness and suffering are cornerstones of Mexican existence. This Mexican lady with green eyes who left crumbs in my bed told me once that Mexican women suffer because it makes them more lady like. “Suffering is the ultimate in femininity.”
Mexican women die for a very, very long time. 20 or 30 or sometimes 40 years. I guess maybe in the US this might be called anxiety or obsessive behavior or depression. These Mexican women who die for 40 years don’t care what it’s called here. It’s just called life as far as they’re concerned.
The manically happy child of American psyche looks at this Mexican woman who dies for 40 years and thinks “I can be a hero, just like all the best people in the world are.”
I sit in my grief session and the blue-eyed counselor asks me if I miss my grandfather.
“The problem is,” I tell her, “I’ve been mourning him for so long, I don’t even know exactly how his death is particularly different from his life.”
“There’s something wrong with this place.”
I’m leaning in to talk to my friend, like I’m telling her a profound secret. I feel exhilarated that I know something is wrong, that I’m about to tell her. And I also feel exhilarated about the wrongness itself. I love the process of discovering all the wrongs in people and places. They remind me that the world is big and full of bad things and there is something terrifying and safe about the inevitable unveiling of it all.
I watch horror movies for sometimes 6 hours a night, watching faces get slashed and goiters get popped and vomit – there’s a lot of vomit in horror movies, have you ever noticed? I don’t exactly understand my appetite for horror movies, but it feels unnatural and meaningful. Sometimes I think I watch them because I can sense violence all around me, but it’s folded into tiny places and words and looks and I can’t see it all the way. Somehow watching someone poke another person’s eye out feels like catharsis, like honesty.
“Yeah, San Francisco is dead. Everyone interesting is too broke to do anything interesting anymore,” she says with authority. She’s interested in culture and scenes, finding the newest ones. She’s a connoisseur of novelty.
“Right yes, totally,” I am saying while I trace the word “interesting” in cursive on my thigh. It’s this compulsion. I can’t stop myself until I catch people watching me do it and then I feel weird. She looks at me do it, and then I stop, quickly proffering something up to distract from my leg writing. “I mean, sure the art scene is dead but it’s more than that. Like the people here are pathologically ambitious. It’s ambition for ambition’s sake. The other day I started freaking out because I was worried that my curtains weren’t nice enough and that they were going to drive down my neighbor’s property value and they were going to call my landlord and say ‘there’s this fat lady who lives across the street from us and her fatness as well as her curtains are driving down the property value of our home and we’d like if it you moved her out.’ Like, I had a legit meltdown about it. It gave me anxiety dreams and I went out and bought better curtains. I mean, the fact that I even thought about it means something, right?”
“Yah,” she says smiling with those blue cat eyes. I’m not novel enough. I can tell. “Well, I’m moving to Mexico City. D. F. Deh Effe. I went down there to write an article and shit was crazy down there. Wild. It’s the new Berlin. You should come see me. I can teach you Spanish. I speak really good Spanish.”
I feel that old shame. I think my grandparents wanted to teach me Spanish but they didn’t know how to teach anyone anything. I could tell they were kind of trying, and my failure to learn Spanish somehow compounded their failure to teach. I wasn’t sure who felt more guilty.
My grandfather would lecture me on the value of being bilingual. He would show off, speaking Spanish and then English. “See?” he’d say, as if this had been my first lesson. It was always my first lesson.
“That would be great,” I say. “Maybe I can come down there in the summer.”
“I’m leaving next week. I’ve already put my apartment on the market. I realized I was working 2 jobs just to make rent, and I had no energy to do anything. I thought it was bullshit. So, I made a decision. I can’t live in a place this boring anymore.”
“It’s really hard to be around people whose primary purpose in life is to accumulate wealth. Or a Tesla. But then everyone feels the same way and then I feel like the weird outlier with cheap curtains who, like, mostly wants to go to the beach and eat buttery toast.”
“You care too much.” She says it with maybe disdain, or boredom? I can sense that I’m boring her with increasing speed and I tell her I should go. I’m walking down 24th Street, past panaderias and Philz and shops that sell Mexican religious fetishes, and that little place with the soda fountain and the counter.
I’m thinking about the way she said “care.” I wanted not to care. I wanted to be ok with just being a toast-munching iconoclast, but I couldn’t do it, not all the way. It made me uncomfortable being so simple, wanting so little. I was just like my grandmother and my grandfather and my mother. I was addicted to the story of myself, and it couldn’t be without turmoil. It had to be difficult, punctuated by martyrdom, disappointment and despair.
I hate that part of my relationship to my family, the way that it feels like I never know what I am going to get. “Am I talking to the real you or the story-you?” I could never ask because there was this thing between us. Some people might have called it a language barrier, but I knew it wasn’t. It manifested through fumblings with words, changing from English to Spanish, a lot of “huhs?!” (or more like “eh?!”) but the problem wasn’t that they spoke Spanish and I spoke English. The problem was not the words themselves, but what was between them and what was holding them together.
I was American and they weren’t. Americans believe in the cult of the individual. Americans don’t talk about death at the dinner table.
They were Mexican and I wasn’t. Every Mexican knows another Mexican who’s died of sadness. Mexicans believe that fate is God-made, not man made. We fundamentally did not understand each other, and no amount of translation could fix it. My inability to speak Spanish was both a product and a cause of our stunted intimacy.
I pulled out my phone and started looking up flights to DF.
The cafe is small, narrow like a railroad, straight as a pin.
There is a counter with black stools that look cold and hard, like they're made of wrought iron but maybe wood. There are dudes who make coffee. White - mostly. Dudes exclusively. And they are, I guess, anarchists. They are doing some kind of disgruntled, youthful masculinity that is new to me.
Seeing unhappy white men feels new, I mean.
White men in San Francisco tend to exhibit a jovial aloofness. I feel their pride, derived from a sense that they participate in the world with the conviction of their level headedness. To them there is one reality, and only one. They have an unshakeable sense of their place at the future's healm. Their humanity is unquestioned - by themselves or anyone else.
These coffee dudes consume me. They don't smile. They are irritated if I ask questions. They demand tips. They take their time. They don't like it when I laugh. They turn the ugly weird dissonant music up when I talk too much to whoever is with me.
They treat just about everyone this way, but it feels personal because little in my life doesn't.
If they were women their behavior would place these coffee bar guys squarely in the domain of "bitter," but they're not, so it's something else - mysterious or aggressive, but alluring. Definitely alluring.
They made me mad at first, but I always wanted to know why they were upset. I spent hours talking about them, theorizing with my friends about them.
I think I wanted to know if they were like me. Were they mad because their parents had taught them how to be ashamed of themselves? Were they mad because they were jealous of the effortless joy exuded by the elite all around us? Or were they performing this for no reason, just because they could, because "fuck respectability and fuck you too."
People come from all around San Francisco to watch this spectacle. The exhilaration of flagellation. A moment to play at feeling unimportant, to slum it.
The coffee here is perfect. Smoky and strong. Some coffee makes me edgy, humming with fidgety paranoia. This coffee makes me focused. I think it even inspires me.
This coffee story is about to turn into an allegory for colonialism.
I order iced coffee and a man who looks like a boy wearing a beanie yells "ICE IT" into air in front of him to another man who's behind him. He's got a chipped tooth. I pretend he can't afford to fix it. This is how I pretend that he's mad for a reason.
I guess the reason that a single coffee shop could change my neighborhood - any neighborhood - is all the lingering that’s involved. It’s not like a clothing shop or a gas station. People linger for hours sipping and chatting.
If they were all brown or black people it would be called loitering. But since they're not it's something else. It's not criminal behavior because these are desirable people.
They made a parklet, and all of a sudden there were people lingering all day on a tree that had been twisted and turned into a sort of long tendrilous bench. They were all mostly the same kind of people. White people. Thin people. People of color who love white people, drinking with their white people friends. People with corgis. People like me, popping between an ambivalence borne of my own politicization and alienation, and the safety of a sense that sometimes I am seen as a white person or a person of color who loves white people who drinks with her white people friends who have corgis.
And even though no one ever said anything I knew – I knew – that these lingering sippers were supposed to be aspirational to me. They were supposed to signify that desirable people had come to save my neighborhood. That I should be happy and grateful that they were there. But I wasn’t. I wasn’t happy or grateful.
I don’t dislike these people or anything, but I’m suspicious of what they represent - the progress of my neighborhood. Progress is a Western construction, a meaningless word used to explain the importance of Westerness itself. This idea has been used to justify all kinds of things – from war to circumcision to Kellogg’s corn flakes, and to parklets in neighborhoods that nobody liked, until they did.
I moved to San Francisco when I was 24 because I was peer pressured into moving into the small room of an apartment in the Outer Sunset. I had said no to my friend N* about 8 times because I was sure that our living together would be the end of our friendship. She was really smart and affectionate, but got angry unexpectedly and it reminded me of being around my mother.
I finally caved when she said the rent my rent would be $400. I had been living with my parents for 8 months while I taught at the continuation school adjacent to the high school I had attended. I was so depressed I would stand in the shower before work and fantasize about being hit by a car so I didn't have to deal with traumatized kids throwing desks across my classroom. They taught me how to spot an alcoholic and what it's like when people you love die all the time.
I couldn't imagine a world outside of that classroom and my childhood bed, where I spent hours watching television and crying. I was too embarrassed to see my boyfriend, but he would call and ask how I was doing.
"It's totally normal to cry every day," I would reassure him.
"No it's not," he would inform me.
N* and I had a tenuous few months as roommates and then two important things happened. First, she got a job in Berkeley teaching reluctant white people about how they were actually racists and decided the commute wasn’t worth the struggle. Second, she got a small black cat – and thought WE had gotten a small black cat – and when I refused to take care of it fulltime, it got worms, and the worms just poured out of its tiny cat asshole until I just couldn’t take it anymore. I called her and politely asked her to take care of him, and she was “so angry she was shaking” at the request.
I knew that living together would end our friendship, but I didn’t know that I would go on to inherit a lease in what was then a shady, and resolutely undesirable part of town. There was a 7-11, a laundromat with a payphone where old dudes would have phone sex while Anderson Cooper played on the 50 year old television, and there was a karate studio with greasy windows out of which no one was ever seen to enter or exit.
When I first moved to San Francisco I had no idea that there was such an entrenched hierarchy about the neighborhood in which one resided. I presumed that I would never be able to afford to live in The City, and my thought was that it was like a yacht club (which I’ve never been a member of, so this comparison means literally nothing): once you’re in, you’re on that other side of the line.
So let me explain to you – if you’re unaware of how San Franciscans communicate this hierarchy. It begins with this question, asked in a lilting kind of way that teeters between anticipatory schadenfreude and the possibility of a moment of faux intimacy, while the appraisal happens:
“Do you live in San Francisco?”
This question immediately puts the non-San Franciscan on the defensive while also positioning San Francisco as the center of the universe, a place from which all people deviate or to which they belong. Think of this as a flow-chart:
If your answer to this query is “no,” then there is a slightly condescending and pitying nod or “oh.”
If your answer to this query is “yes,” then this leaves room for the follow-up query: “Where?”
Having grown up in the Bay Area – the “east bay” as people not from here call it or as people who are from here say to explain to people who are not from here – this sniffing out process felt harmless, if not a bit odd. I went with it for the first twenty times, until I realized that the fact that I lived in the Outer Sunset – though technically still within the city limits – in the minds of other San Franciscans placed me outside of the social borders of the “real” San Francisco.
I learned from someone that the Outer Sunset was the last part of the city to be incorporated. It used to be called Outside Lands. The dunes went on for blocks and a biker gang used to run the area.
For a long time I was always on the lookout for a different place, a place closer to downtown, farther from the ocean and the trees. I was looking for a place that wouldn’t lead to that conversation that would place me and my apartment at the bottom of the pyramid.
This reminded me of growing up. I used to love getting home from school, taking off all my clothes and running down the hallway of the house naked and jiggling. I would do this Flash Dance style jiggle finale at the end of the hallway as it opened up to the kitchen, where Mom was always cooking. I would stick my arms out and spread my legs wide so that all my fat could get a chance to be part of the show. Mom would look up and laugh, and I remember how good it felt to feel myself jiggle. My body could vibrate like the jello my mom made. My fat made waves like the water in the bathtub..
And then I had dozens of exchanges that taught me that those things actually weren't fun, that those jiggles and waves meant I was ugly and weird and wrong.
I don’t know how in the mind of these people who had not grown up here, who had aspired to live in this place for so long, who saw it as a place where people “got them,” that the ocean and the mile and a half of trees and ponds and squirrels could ever mean something unworthy in their mind. But it did.
Then a coffee shop moved in down the street, and my neighborhood changed.
As the contract on this book was being signed and delivered, my grandfather passed away. His name was Jorge. He was 78 years old. He died quite suddenly after being hospitalized for another chronic condition of the kidneys. My grandmother says he turned over and cried out like something had burst inside him. And he took his last breath. He had apparently been dying for quite some time, but in my family, that’s what you do. That’s what life is: waiting for awful things to happen and then dying when they do.
When I first proposed the idea for this book, both of my grandparents were alive and I had never experienced the grieving process associated with death. I was expecting the process to be terrifying, overwhelming, unbearable. But it was not really any of those things. There are strange moments of intimacy, humor and the kind of familiarity that takes over when you’re with the people you grew up with. There was uncontrollable crying, but also putting on of shoes, sleeping, breathing, trying on 8 outfits for the funeral and trying to determine with my boyfriend which was the least slutty or whimsical (a difficult task with my wardrobe). A black tutu? A strappy tight LBD?
My grandfather wouldn’t have liked it if I wore something boring. He knew that wasn’t me, but my grandmother would want me to look like I make more money than I do so her family would know she hadn't failed. And she was the one who stayed behind, after all.
My grandfather – who raised me, and who I usually call Dad – was what I would call a drama queen and a gossip monger. A chismoso if I ever met one. Anglos hate chisme. It’s like a documented fact. But ethnic whites and immigrants and people of color, we gossip. Apparently some academics have studied this and concluded that gossip functions as a way to share important information in a sort of underground fashion, hidden. Gossip is the language of intuition, not empirical. Anglos hate shit that isn’t empirical. Empiricism makes them feel in control. I understand the impulse.
He gossiped about everybody. He hated most people. It was how he controlled his world. He also used to make predictions about inevitable things – usually awful things. And it turns out that if you predict your own death or the death or illness of others, one day you end up being right. He had been predicting his own death for years and years. My grandparents bought their burial grounds about 20 years ago, back when you could still buy anything in the Bay Area for less than 3/4 of a million dollars. The land they bought was about $3000 when they bought it and now it’s $10,000. It seems so odd that the tech boom even changes the way that death functions.
Café in San Francisco, 2015
“I can’t write fiction.”
We’re at this café where laptops aren’t allowed because there are actual people who bring their laptops and sit on a narrow slat of a bench at a community table for 8 hours a day. Their office space overhead is, like, $8 per day – and that’s if they get the bare-minimum 2 espresso drinks. Some of them just get coffee, straight up, and that totals to $6.
In a political science class in college I learned that this situation is known as “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Most people want to do a little work on their laptop while they’re sipping a cappuccino, and then they leave. Most people. But it only takes a committed minority to ruin it for everyone. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the mathematics of sociopaths. Like how many sociopaths does it take to tip a population of 10, 100, 10,000, a million. I’m not really numbery, so it’s all just conjecture, but I imagine it’s not many. How many of these laptop squatters does it take to tip the policy of an otherwise level-headed café into zero tolerance?
Some of these squatters even Skype. Skype is an internet based telephone service that includes voice and video options. Sometimes these people edit photographs because they are graphic designers. Sometimes they take meetings on Skype. I even knew a guy who was on a webcast telepanel at a café one time. He was answering questions about what it means to be the co-director of a film that had such significance to the history of Black cinema while he was on Skype in a dimly lit café with a bust of Sun Yat Sen behind him because he didn’t have an office and shared a communal living space with 7 other screenwriters, editors and one straight dude who just lived there because another dude wanted to fuck him. That dude went to gay clubs to gain confidence after he got weight loss surgery. He wasn’t ready to try out his “new body” on ladies, he said. He might be open. He might be “heteroflexible.” That’s a thing.
So, rather than take notes on a laptop, I take notes on my phone, typing with one finger on a tiny digital keyboard, probably giving myself cataracts or cancer with each tiny little, infantilizing click.
“It’s too vulnerable, you know?”
She doesn’t know.
She’s read the other shit I’ve written about sitting on men’s faces and that time I went 3 months without wearing pads as a statement of my feminist autonomy and she doesn’t know. She can’t imagine that writing about fake people is scarier than writing about orgasms and poop and menses.
“You write about orgasms and poop and menses, Virgie.”
I knew she was going to say that.
“Right, yeah. That’s true. But, like, when I’m telling a story – a real story – about that stuff, I can edit it to suit me. I can leave out the parts I want to. Memoir is about cutting the story down. It’s expository. It’s about editing. But fiction is building. It’s building not paring down. You know? And when you build stuff it’s all there, all the secrets, all the awful things you truly believe, all the things you can’t bring yourself to admit that you really want. So, yes, some people might rather die than write about that time they sold their poop to a coprophile from Craig’s List, but I would rather die than have someone read about a character I made up who has stifling anxiety and decides to parent the inner child she was never allowed to be. Like being that earnest.. I just don't want to pull an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind bait and switch, like everyone was a little weirded out by Jim Carey after that. I mean, not to say that I’m like Jim Carey because that’s obviously a stretch, but you know what I mean.”
“Right. You’re worried that everyone’s going to hate you if you don't give them something they want.”
“Way to just say it like that.”
“Well, you don’t owe anybody anything. You don’t owe anybody entertainment. You can just do what you want and people will either get it or they won’t.”
“My therapist tells me that I perform all the time because it feels safe because that’s what I learned to do as a child to make everyone happy. Fat girls are supposed to be funny to deflect all that hate. Fat girls and immigrants. But I even hated Jim Carey for fucking up my relationship to his career, like I didn’t care that he was probably a comedian because his father was a sadist.”
“Maybe you can compromise. Maybe your character can do all those things and sell poop on the internet. Maybe that will feel better.”
My mother says that my grandmother stole me from her. I went directly from the womb into my grandmother’s arms, she says. She was struck with a fit of uncontrollable laughter the first time she saw me.
My grandmother had a phantom pregnancy. She lactated while my mother was pregnant with me.
My grandmother says my mother left me.
The real story is probably somewhere in between.
My grandmother does like stealing children. My mother is prone to forgetting people.
As a God-fearing child, I believed that my mother was possessed by a demon. You can pray demons away, and if the demon doesn’t leave then it is your fault that you didn’t believe enough. As I grew up and became more American, it seemed likelier that she was mentally ill.
So I became the child of a woman with an undiagnosed mental illness, who was prone to abandoning me for long stretches without fair warning. I grew up in what 21st century Americans would call a “dysfunctional” family. I learned how to control my emotions, to measure my hopes as a way to manage my world.
I decided to write a story about myself, my grandmother and our world. I decided to write a story about all the things I must do to protect myself from the grief of my grandmother’s future death. That’s not totally true. I decided to write a story about my grandmother that would help make her life and her dreams and her obsessions make sense to me in a way that they actually don’t. Either way, I became absorbed into the historical Mexican obsession with death and the ceremony of mourning.
I realized then – as I do now – that writing an entire book about dealing with the grief of a living person’s death sounds kinda sinister. It’s not that I don’t get that. It’s not like this idea seemed like something a perfectly normal person would do. But in my mind it became this way of metabolizing something that seemed so likely to throw me into an uncontrolled emotional state. So I had to premeditate the whole thing.
I am still writing the book. It is in a state of becoming. It is, I think, becoming a book about the complex relationship that my grandmother and I share and the symbolism of our stunted intimacy. And it is becoming a book about what it means to straddle worlds – Mexican and American, magical and empirical, thin and fat, white and brown, fiction and non-fiction. But maybe it’s becoming something else. Maybe.
If you’re the empirical sort, you will hate me (and this book) because I make claims that were derived from part-truths or semi-lucid conversations with people of questionable character who also care little for the western obsession with facts. This is partially a work of fiction, and even if it weren’t I have decided that I can make any claim I want. If it makes you angry that this claim is based in nothing then it is your responsibility to fix it in your own head.
I am a product of the West, but I find many of the characteristics upon which Westerness is based to be inane and non-sensical. It makes sense to do things that make me feel good and excited and happy. Sleep. Fuck. Piss. Shit. Take long baths. Eat delicious things. Fall in love and out of it. Write. Get my toe nails painted. Pop zits. When you live in pursuit of the avoidance of death – as Westerners do - you are already dead. Death already owns you. You are here but you are not. Or maybe it is part of pleasure too.
Maybe the contemplation of one’s own death is a form of vanity that I could come to feel affection for.
It took me so, so, sooooooo long to finally publish this as the introduction. It became really clear very early on that this was going to be a non-linear book of fiction-memoir in which I was not an aspirational character - or even a character whose intentions and trajectories were particularly clear or lucid. I felt compelled to publish it as a serial in blog format because I had this desire to chop up the narrative, to reject the notion of the forward-moving ("progress-driven") novel, to make it harder to keep track of but "easier to digest."
Parts of the story are set in present-day San Francisco in the midst of the Tech Rush, and my life/livelihood feels so undeniably tied to interfacing with the internet - a medium we understand as both transient but also somehow permanent.I liked the idea of publishing it as a blog, the idea of having to go backwards to find the beginning.
Almost all of my (other) work is non-fiction and commercial. I take a very clear stance as an expert. I think I write myself as a kind of hero who has triumphed over some evil thing (diet culture and body shame). This need to be the hero, to write neat stories with endings that comfort me/others, is a learned desire that is very American. That feels very comfortable to me. It is not messy. It is clean. This work is not that. That feels super scary. Stay tuned.
ABOUT THE BOOK
I release a new chapter a week on Thursdays - unless I'm exceedingly overwhelmed or whatever I write is so epically terrible I'm too embarrassed to put it on the internet.