By Michelle Tea
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What’s more narcissistic than writing your own memoir? Writing an introduction to your own memoir. Welcome to it, people. Right before I began writing the stories that would become Valencia, I was coming down from an inspired poetry high that had allowed me to write one to five poems a day, all of them ruminations on my thoughts and my opinions and my experiences. I was twenty-three years old, had just moved to San Francisco, and these poems had allowed me to plug myself into the roiling early-’90s street poetry scene, a scene that overlapped neighborhoods, that erupted in crappy bars and coffee shops and art spaces, and that included anyone shameless and histrionic enough to clamber up to the stage and perform their life for the enjoyment of a bunch of romantic drunkards. I was psyched; I had found my dream community, and all I had to do to be part of it was run my mouth about what and who pissed me off. Incredibly, no one told me to shut up. They clapped. The mixture of butch dykes, shy girls, ex-bikers, crackheaded misogynists, recent hillbillies, slumming academics, former communist party members, junkies, bike messengers, waitresses, Gothic club kids, sex workers, tattooed fags, Kathy Acker acolytes, Bukowski, Ginsberg and Rollins wannabes, hardcore punks, shabby bon vivants, and other intellectual miscreants was astounding. Writing was often the only thing we had in common, but our obsession with it was profound enough to keep us bound together like a real tribe, if one that occasionally split into violently warring factions.
The inspiration for the poetry came out of nowhere and raged in me like a mania. As it started to subside I found myself wanting to tell longer stories, and was a bit confused and worried about what to do next. The thought that I could lose this excellent life in San Francisco—a place I’d moved to knowing only a single person, with nothing but $1,500 I’d earned hooking, an army bag stuffed with really ugly clothes, and a hand drum—was the worst. I felt compelled to scribble some short stories based on real things that had happened to me: vignettes about my nutso ex-girlfriend, about when I was so in love I ran away to Tucson on a Greyhound bus, about how I did speed at the Dyke March and picked up that girl from Canada. But was that literature? In the house I grew up in literature was Stephen King, Jackie Collins, Jacqueline Susann, and whichever horror paperback at the drugstore had the creepiest cover. A person didn’t write about their own self and try to pass it off as writing; how egotistical!
Then I read Eileen Myles’ Chelsea Girls, a collection of precisely such short stories, pieces that rang with detached but urgent truths and realities, written by a writer who handled the massive ups and downs of her past with coolness and style, never afraid to reveal harshness, seemingly oblivious to how she came off in the text, narrating herself like a god looking down at a fascinating life. It didn’t hurt that the author was a dyke, or defiantly class-conscious, or that she hailed from the same slab of New England I’d recently escaped from. I’d found my literary soul mate. Reading Chelsea Girls was an electrifying experience. I could do this. I could write about my own life as if I were creating a character in a novel, letting my mind capture all the details it craved to capture, not giving a shit about how I or anyone else looked, just slamming a bunch of messy, crazy, fast life into my notebook. And I found that in the process of transforming my world, my life, my self into literature, my world, life, and self became elevated, seemed to occupy a space it hadn’t previously, one more noble and romantic, the struggle of it all meaningful now, all past mishaps and future tragedies redeemed by this magical practice. Everything I touched turned to story, and it was golden.
And like the fairy tale, having everything turn to gold—or to story—has its downside, too. I think the weirdest side effect of Valencia, and the memoirs I wrote before and after, isn’t people getting pissed at the way you represent them—oddly, most people were tickled to find themselves inside a book, barely fictionalized. Iris, Valencia’s main squeeze, was nothing but awesome about my compulsive rendering of her, even when our breakup was totally old news, but I still couldn’t stop pouting about it and bitchily icing her and her girlfriend. Her girlfriend, Emma, was also psychotically generous about the way I not only wrote about her, but read about her, all the time, at events she was likely to turn out at. After one such reading she left the art gallery, kicked a bus shelter and broke her foot. Because I was a small-hearted, bad person, I delighted in this. Years later, reading an Emma excerpt from Valencia at a seven deadly sins-themed event (my sin was jealousy), I was horrified to learn she was in attendance. I’d prefaced the excerpt by telling the audience what a jerk she was, how she stole my girlfriend, blah, blah blah. This had all happened years ago, but because it had been cemented into narrative by this book, the character of Evil Emma lived on, forever trashing my love life. Except she was a real girl, there in the audience. I felt like the most stunted asshole ever, performing my ancient resentments. I apologized to her afterwards, and as always she was gracious, but my Sorry felt weak in comparison to the years of literary torment I’d subjected her to.
That’s the strangest part of turning your life into a story—not the social fallout, the way you over-expose yourself, the way others will inevitably think you’re a narcissistic egomaniac who can’t get enough of herself. The hardest part is how writing it down petrifies your experience, freezes it in time. You have to believe the story is true to put it on paper, at least I do. But for normal, healthy non-writer people, the way you view your life ideally shifts with time and perspective. If you’ve rolled your history into a book, and then performed that book over and over, it can be hard for distance to set in and nuance the past. And when it eventually does, it feels confusing, embarrassing, and humbling. Valencia is a bug trapped in emotional amber. It’s a snapshot, more or less, of my twenty-fifth year on earth, written not how it happened but how I felt it happened, and how I felt about it happening. I could not have written it without the inspiration and guidance unknowingly provided by Eileen Myles, who continues to be a mentor and favorite writer. And it could not have been written without Emma, who was a catalyst for drama the way we all are for each other, like it or not. Our lives make awesome stories, especially if you don’t get too attached to the thread of your own narrative.
On a Plane Above the U.S.
I sloshed away from the bar with my drink, sending little tsunamis of beer onto my hands, soaking into the wrist of my shirt. Don’t ask me what I was wearing. Something to impress What’s-Her-Name, the girl I wasn’t dating. She had a girlfriend, she didn’t need two. She needed someone to sleep naked with and share some sexual tension, and for that position I made myself available. Apparently it was a temporary position. Let me tell you right away, just so you understand the magnitude of my experience, that I was truly obsessed with this woman. This was no mere crush, this was something huge, feelings taking the form of a hot, wet gas that filled the bar and I had to move through it with my drink, wading through the fog of my heart. I had met Petra back in February, at the start of the rainy season, at another bar on an intensely crowded dance floor that throbbed with the weight of so many slamming boots. My friend Ashley shoved me into her. Again and again. To this day Petra thinks I asked my friend to do this, but it’s not true. Ashley would get this look on her face and wham her hands shot out and I would go sailing into this woman who danced so good, kind of bouncy, but contained. She had her hands balled into fists and she shook them in a discoey way like maracas, and managed to look tough while doing so. After a little bit of the shoving, people got the idea that I was trying to start a pit so everyone started shoving. Girls were just careening across the floor, into the wall, spilling drinks, burning each other with their cigarettes. This was at The Stud, so lots of boys were dancing too. I would beat them up. For dancing like jerks, all shooting fists and skanking kneecaps coming up and hitting the poor girls who were already slamming the shit out of each other, it’s true, but that was different. They were girls. I would skip around the dance floor twirling and kicking in my particular style, looking very caught up in the music but really strategizing. And aiming. Pow—my boot flew out and connected with this tall boy’s kneecap. Then another boy, right in the tush. They’d leave the dance floor, or grab me by the shoulder. You keep kicking me! What? It was so loud in the bar. Bikini Kill, L7, fucking Joan Jett. Girl music. The boys had no right. You keep kicking me! What?! What?! Sorry! A light shrug. I’d go back to dancing, kick them in their asses when they turned their backs. Laugh, hahahaha. I was doing the goddess’s work. A girl pulled me over, I saw you kicking that boy. Thanks! Once, a guy grabbed Candice like a fucking piñata and just spun her around, up high in the air because she is little. Just swinging her around. Candice hates to be touched. The guy ended up on the ground and I was on top of him, my fingers knotted in his hair, pounding his skull into the dance floor. Sweaty, my shirt off, hanging out my back pocket, I felt great.
But the night I met Petra I was being good. I was wearing this really weird dress, red, pretty bright, with a couple of black stripes. It was a knit dress, a sweater dress, tight with long sleeves lazily unraveling at the wrist. And I had this wig on my head, which was bald. A synthetic black wig, Cleopatra-style with a thick fringe of bangs that bounced on my forehead as I danced. They were playing that Pixies song that is so fast, I was trying to dance just as fast to it in my weird, kicky dance, really spastic, reaching up now and then to straighten the wig. The dress was so hot, stupid for dancing, but it looked good. I looked different that night, so when Petra asked me to go home with her I felt like an imposter. Maybe if she knew how I really looked, bald head like a sick bird, she would not want to take me home for sex. How could an attraction rooted in such insecurity not result in obsession? Petra had a truck and since I was her special guest that night, I got to sit in the front. In the back were a couple of dogs plus five or six girls I had surmised were Really Cool. They were very confident in their different fashions. I knew that one of them was in a band, and another was a stripper. I sat in the truck that smelled like dog, and fidgeted. All those girls knew Petra was taking me home to fuck me. They probably knew more about it than I did, in terms of what to expect.
Shortly after we arrived at her house, Petra pulled a knife on me. It was the scariest knife I had ever seen, a thick, jagged curve like a sinister smile, with a heavy black handle. Do you like knives? she asked. I Don’t Know, I’m sure I whimpered. I’m not going to hurt you, she assured me, I’m just going to scare you. Sounded like a good plan. Petra passed me the knife so I could be on that end for a minute, feel its weight. It was very heavy, with that cruel, curving tip. There were things lodged inside my brain I had always figured would just have to stay there. Things I wasn’t sure could stand to pass into the real world. Petra laid the knife to my throat and pressed it softly into the skin. She took the hooked tip and traced it down my neck, down to the dead end of my red sweater dress. It’s like a sexy Charlie Brown dress, the boy at the thrift store had said. The front was laced up with red yarn that Petra worked at like a puzzle, pulling at the tangled thread so she could get at my tits. She placed the knife flat on my nipple and went at my throat with her teeth, all the while making these urgent little animal noises. Petra was really into the knife. I got the sense that I could have been any body beneath her, it was the knife that was the star of the show. I was really into processing the knife. Like, was I encouraging violence against women, was I “part of the problem,” was she going to get frenzied and just stick the thing into my ribs? It was a hunting knife, strong, made for ripping through gut and muscle and bone. I tried not to enjoy it too much. I would be an observer. I observed Petra. She was magnificent. She wasn’t so much a person as an event, a gigantic presence. Long knots of hair scraggled over her shoulders, black with some red staining it here and there. A sharp face and clear blue eyes. Petra was older than me. Who wasn’t? Thin lines fanned out from her eyes, and she was covered in tattoos, dark, murky claws swirling down her shoulders and curling under her tits like spindly fingers. Like someone spilled ink down her front, letting it make these precise, blurry paths. She put the knife away and we rolled around on her bed, banging into her dog, who was spread at the top of the futon, watching with her bored dog face.
Petra was fanatical about safe sex. She had a thick ball of latex gloves rolled up in each other, and she told me not to touch any part of her if I had my pussy on my fingers. I had never had safe sex with a girl before, but I acted like I knew what was up because I didn’t want her to think I was diseased. I stretched the white clingy glove over my fingers, and I slid them one, two, three, four, up her cunt. Put your fist up me. What? I had read about this once, in a lesbian book. Your fist. God, the energy shooting off her chest was intense, she was a ball of electricity. This was the girl for me. This crazy girl with the crazy cunt that sucked my fist inside with a slow slurp. My whole hand. I saw my elbow, then my forearm, then her cunt. She had the fattest metal ring jammed through her clit hood. All you had to do was jiggle it and she went nuts. I thought about the bouncy way she danced and thought about this chunk of metal tugging on her down there. I thought about my hand that had disappeared into her hole and I thought about the quantum physics theory that once something leaves our view we cannot prove what has happened to it, or if it even exists. I think too much during sex, my mind just whirs with the whole new landscape of body spreading out beneath me. I was barely moving my theoretical hand. I was afraid of breaking Petra. Hard, she groaned, so I started up some small thrusts. I still couldn’t see my hand. Hard, she groaned, insistent. Really hard. I started punching Petra, her insides, the part I couldn’t see. Thump, thump, thump. My clingy latex fist hit up against some strong, female part of her. She writhed and played with her tits, punched the bed beneath her, howled. It was pretty incredible. Knife-wielding Petra, more a force of nature than a girl like me, impaled upon my humble hand. I was really happy. I tugged on her jewelry until she had me stop everything. I don’t think she came. I don’t even know if that was the point. My fist left her cunt with another wet sound. I didn’t know what to do with it. It was the hand of god. I turned the glistening glove inside out and crawled back onto Petra. What do you like? she asked. Oh god, how the fuck do I know? I had no more reference points for sex. Petra had destroyed them. I had never had sex before. Not if this was sex. I wanted the knife again, but I just couldn’t bring myself to ask for it. I Don’t Know What I Like, I confessed. Petra had a shelf piled with instruments, black rubber things, leather, studs, stiff handles, thin straps. A perverse doctor’s office. Especially with the gloves. Petra kneeled between my legs and tinkered around with my pussy. She tried to stuff her hand up it but there was no way that was going to happen. We fell asleep wrapped around each other, tightly smooshed together. My wig was tangled up in the sheets and her chin rested on my bald head. She had these piercings in her chin. They jutted out like sharp little fangs, and all night she ground her teeth and kept stabbing me in the head.
I can tell you more about Petra, but it’s the aftermath I want to get to. We made out on a pool table at this really divey bar, and when we came up for air she told me she bought my poetry chapbook at this little cafe, and the poems were really intense. She couldn’t see me anymore. She had a girlfriend vacationing in New Zealand. They could fuck other people but not have crushes, and she had a crush on me. I Have A Crush On You Too, I said. She drove me home in her truck. Then I saw her again at another bar and she asked if I wanted to go home with her. I talked to my therapist about it, she said, and she said why couldn’t it just be something light and fun and playful? Yeah, Why Not, and I was in her bed again. Up in her loft. The walls were covered with pictures of Petra. With her dog and with her girlfriend, who was bleached blonde and really sex-radical. The girlfriend was a sex worker, and she did performances about sex, and she wrote about sex and talked about sex with a slight lisp from her tongue piercing. Me and Petra fucked. I had been so filled with regret after that last session with the knife, I knew it would never happen again and I wished desperately that I had gotten more into it. I was getting a second chance, and I still couldn’t ask for it. The knife sat on the shelf with the other sex toys, gleaming its evil gleam. We did other stuff. When I launched my fist up her this time, I knew to do it hard. Petra can fist her own cooch. She told me. She can’t really get the motion, though. That was the last time me and Petra did it. I guess she liked me too much, or she worried she would. So we hung out a lot. She had me come over to her house for dinner, and she fed me amazing vegetables, stuff you really had to use your hands for. We plucked petals from an artichoke and dunked them in thick melted butter. We tore into raw red peppers and peeled juicy fat pomelos. Her dog was there. She would get horny and Petra would stretch out her leather leg and the dog would hop up on her leather boot and grind. Petra laughed. I loved her. I don’t know why she thought cutting off sex would extinguish the emotions. We were like boarding school girlfriends. In one last desperate act of seduction I wore the wig and a little majorette outfit to a party, and sat on her lap all night drinking tequila. She burned herself with cigarettes. On purpose. Held the smoking thing to her arm and gasped her little sex gasps. What a mystery she was. I was sitting on the lap of the sphinx. Unfortunately, Petra seemed immune to the majorette outfit’s charm. It did smell like mothballs. She left the party with a quick hug.
Later, we would drive to the beach in her truck, and on the wet sand she would dance with all the dogs, let them dive and leap at her like she was the great dog god. We talked about books. When my twenty-third birthday came around, I was working two jobs, all morning at a courier company, taking orders on the computer, and all afternoon at an ineffectual anarchist labor union, managing the office. I didn’t show up at the union on my birthday. Petra said she had a history of getting girls fired. She didn’t work, and got her money through scams, dyke porn movies and occasional under-the-table work. For my birthday Petra took me for Thai food and then to the women’s bathhouse on Valencia, where we sat naked in the steam and listened to this bitchy girl she knew go on and on about how one of her “slaves” was expecting too much emotionally, and the agreement was that the girl would just clean the house and that’s it, do the floors and the dishes, and now she was just getting too needy and was about to get fired. I began to understand what I had gotten myself into. Petra’s world wasn’t my world. What had I been thinking? I watched her listen to the slave owner, her matted hair hanging damply. I still felt like an imposter. I wanted her so badly, my heart hung out of my chest like some hound-dog’s tongue, pant, pant. We would see each other at bars and sit close and giggle. We’d go back to her loft and sleep together, no clothes, folded together. No sex. Then she stopped bringing me over and just drove me home in her truck after last call. Then came that final night, when I sloshed through the dark pumping bar with all the whirling girls. Petra was beside me and she was restless. Like she thought she had to be next to me but maybe she didn’t want to. I was an obligation, the little sister she had to take around with her. On the dance floor in front of us was a girl moving like a belly dancer, gyrating her hips and extending her fingers like the wings of a bird. Petra was lusting after her. She wanted to take her home, I could feel it as thickly as I felt my own hopelessness. I was a lump beside her, a little pal. She couldn’t cruise in front of me. We weren’t going out but we sure were doing something. I’m going home, she announced. Yeah, Me Too. I tried to sound bored. We walked out of the bar. She had a leather cap on her head, all her scraggly hair poking out in tangles. Petra smelled bad. Maybe she never washed. Sour scalp, b.o. and pussy. My nose ate it up. Desire, I’ve been told, is all about stink. Well. . . . bye, she said on the sidewalk. You can catch a bus right over there. She pointed to a shelter at the corner of Haight and Filmore. A quick hug and then her little strut up the street. I knew where to catch the fucking bus.
I dove onto a plastic seat and cried. I hated San Francisco. All the sex-radical girls and their slaves and their leather. I cried and wished for cigarettes. I thought I would run away. To Tucson, Arizona. I’d only just left the place. Flipped a penny when I found out my Tucson girlfriend had acquired a boyfriend. “Heads” was Javalinaland, the plot of lesbian separatist land out in the Arizona desert where I could build a shack out of scrap wood and dead cactus and spend a few months falling to the dirt with heat stroke, avoiding rattlesnakes and bonding with wimmin. “Tails” was San Francisco, where I could start smoking again and walk around lonely in the drizzle writing vague love poems in my head. It had come up tails, but I was losing my faith in the penny. Tucson would be bright and warm and slow. San Francisco was filthy. The rainy season had started and I’d be damp for months. In Tucson I would be dry, I could sit in a cafe and be far away from Petra. I would be in exile. I would need a Walkman. For the Greyhound.
I sank some coins into the pay phone. I had to let my friends know I was leaving. It was about two in the morning. Ashley’s machine picked up. Ashley, I’m Going To Tucson. If You Wake Up And Get This, Can I Borrow Your Walkman? I called Ernesto. Ernesto, I’m Leaving. Called Vinnie. Goodbye, Vinnie. A bus came and I got on it. I arrived back at my bright little bedroom in the Mission, a small, carpeted square. All my money was in a hiking boot in my closet, a tight little bulge in the toe. I took about half of it, grabbed some clothes and stuffed them into my black army bag. I took tapes, but nothing that would remind me of San Francisco. I was out of my head and probably a little drunk. The light in my room was so bright, it was manic. I called Greyhound, How Much For A Bus To Tucson? One way or round trip? Outside my window I heard some noise on the street, a woman yelling. Hold On, I said to the Greyhound lady and threw the phone on the rug, flung open my window. I saw a car, some men trying to pull a woman inside. I grabbed one of my candles, a pink candle in glass I had bought to magically seduce Petra, and I hurled it out the window. Leave Her Alone! The glass cracked on the pavement and the people at the car all laughed. They were just kidding. The pink glob of wax rolled sadly into the gutter. I got back on the phone. Sorry, I said to the Greyhound lady, who now thought I was insane. Seventy-two bucks for a round-trip bus to Tucson. I’ll Take It, I said. Who else did I have to call? My jobs, fuck them. The labor union was driving me nuts. I left a message on its machine, Sorry, I’m Going Nuts, I Have To Go Away. One of my roommates worked at my morning courier job. I left her a note to give to our boss: I Know These Are The Type Of Shenanigans That Get One’s Ass Fired, But I’d Really Like To Work Full-Time When I Get Back. I called Gwynn to tell her I was running away, and she picked up the phone on the first ring. Gwynn, I’m Going To Tucson. I’ll come. For Real? Oh, Gwynn was tragic. Michelle, there’s blood everywhere. Gwynn sometimes cut herself. Not in a suicidal way, just when she was really sad, which was often. She’d been up all night digging into her arm with a razor. Over the girl in the apartment upstairs. Oh, I wanted Gwynn to come so badly. It changed everything. It would be an adventure. Gwynn was a warrior, she was deeply wounded and she was beautiful. And indecisive. Oh, I don’t know, she said, picking crusty blood off her razor. She kept cursing as she nicked the tips of her fingers. Oh Gwynn, It Will Be So Good For You! Where will we sleep? I told her my friend Julisa would put us up, and if that fell through we could sleep outside, by the dried-up creek that ran through little tunnels beneath the city. I’d heard the Manson gang had hung out in those tunnels. Hideaways for outcasts. Oh, I don’t know. Gwynn didn’t like the idea of sleeping outside. It’ll Be An Adventure, I promised. You Can Write About It. Gwynn was a poet.
I took a cab to her house, on the toughest block of the lower Haight where boys grabbed her ass and threatened her with pit bulls when she walked alone. I found her on her mattress with the yellow sheets, her arms slowly scabbing. There were brown smears by the pillow. What Happened? I asked, hugging her. Justine, she said sadly. I had been in love with Gwynn once. I had wanted to save her. Then I realized Gwynn wasn’t meant to be saved. At least not by me. I got her out of the house, which I couldn’t believe. Gwynn is difficult to impossible to inspire. She was just so sad. Her whole face hung with it, like sadness was her personal gravity. We walked to the Castro to catch a train. The morning was taking shape around us, the sky slowly brightening into the deepest blue. It was the color of hope. We stopped at a gas station for cigarettes. If I was going to take a Greyhound, I was going to smoke. Romantic cigarettes on the side of the road. I was thinking that maybe I should leave for good. I’d never meant to stay in San Francisco. By the time we got to the Greyhound station Gwynn had decided to go to Oregon. Oregon? What The Fuck Is In Oregon? Eugene, she said. A town, not a person. Oh Gwynn, I sighed weakly. I knew how hopeless it was to persuade her. My energy was waning. I hadn’t slept, I was in the same clothes I’d worn to the bar, my feet squishy from sweat and last night’s rain. Before we’d left the ticket counter Gwynn decided not to go anywhere at all. We bought Cokes from the machine and smoked cigarettes while waiting for my bus to board. I’m Going To Get A Tattoo, I said. A Heart. Right Here. I touched my chest. Oh Michelle, Gwynn said mournfully. Don’t get a tattoo that’s going to remind you of a girl
- On Sale
- Jan 8, 2010
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Seal Press