Okay, so like, this “visitors” thing is making me feel like a visit to the states is approaching like a meteor, and by that I mean I will either collide with it imminently or explode it to pieces.
And I’m not really in the mood to interrogate it, so instead, I just want to tell you about some things that I miss in the States.
As it turns out, though I wrote about it at length, it would seem that The Bar at the End of the Universe is getting sold, and I’ve been wondering what will be left by the time I do eventually go back. The list gets shorter everyday, but there are a few left.
And hopefully they’ll still be left by the time I eventually arrive.
You prolly wouldn’t take me for someone who makes a vegan restaraunt their local, but that’s exactly what we did in Chicago. I don’t even remember exactly how it happened, but I remember already frequenting it when my 38th birthday rolled around and I elected to go after getting tattoos with my girlfriends. Speaking of tattoos…
Taylor Street Tattoo
I have had a couple of ideas on deck that I swore I’d take to Taylor Street as soon as I got home from Johannesburg in February of 2020. That didn’t happen. But I’m still, to this day, saving the face of my left forearm for a specific piece I’m dying to get there. And if my next visit coincides with Friday the 13th, all the better.
My local in Bridgeport barely made it through the pandemic, only kept afloat by two successful GoFundMe campaigns that covered the mortgage, bills, and the liquor license. I’ve spent way too much time perched on one of Bernice’s stools, which is insane when you realize I only even went for the first time in like…2018. It’s been just shy of four years, but it feels like home.
Do I already have a dress from Knee Deep that I’ve only worn once? Look, that’s not the point. The point is that every single time I go in there, I find something I can’t live without. This happened the last time I went, in November of 2019, and that dress is in my bag right now, here in Belgrade. And I love it.
Imagine it’s summer, it’s probably about 90º, and you and your besties are pounding White Claws by the museum, next to the lake. I imagine this about every other day.
Look, any Target will do, but the one that has popped up in my literal dreams is the one on Jackson. I used to go there up to five times a week, sometimes only to buy one thing. One time I went drunk and bought a $40 toothbrush. I threw that toothbrush away, finally, in Albania, tired of carrying it around without the ability to buy replacement heads for it. It was bound to happen, and I have no idea why I bought it in the first place, but that’s just how Target works.
And I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but all of these places are in Chicago. San Francisco and New York have long faded from my memory. Even Austin feels foggy these days, and as soon as The Bar at the End of the Universe sells, Seattle probably will too.
But Chicago is vivid in my mind and I fantasize about it daily. In the States, it’s the closest I have to a home, and I know it better than Jozi, and Istanbul, and even better than right here in Belgrade.
I miss all of it and everyone in it, especially now that it’s getting cold, and I miss that feeling of having your mettle tested, of bracing yourself against the snow and those winter, white-knuckle drives to the airport.
And I thought of this a few days ago when I dragged myself away from work, finally, and up to Makedonska to buy everything I’d need for winter. And I bought a pair of boots, and a coat, and new tennis shoes, and all I could wonder was what boots Callie and Cara and Yo would be wearing this year.
But it’s a trip, because as much as I am Chicago As Hell, I wonder if I would be happy building a life there, or anywhere.
But I really do miss all of you in it. Every one of you. Every day.
Lisa is coming.
Like, for real. Like she has plane tickets and booked apartments and everything.
If you don’t know who Lisa is, she’s my absolute biggest fan. She’s read damned near everything I’ve ever written; that’s how we met actually. I was 24, working at a coffee shop in San Francisco, and was in the middle of an, *ahem*, Blog War that I was mediating on my old blog between a group of Canadian high schoolers.
I don’t exactly know how it happened, but in those years in SF, between the day that we talked about my dumb Blog War exploits and the day I left, we became best friends. And we still are.
It’s weird, because without those Canadian high schoolers, I may not even know Lisa today. I’m still friends with one of them, we met in person in Seattle a bunch of years ago. He’s married now, and has a baby. He works in an obscure and fascinating niche of neuroscience that I adore reading his posts about.
I last saw Lisa in Kyoto, near the tail end of my birthday trip, when I was on my way back to Tokyo, and she to Osaka to fly back to SF.
And soon I will meet her in Venice.
But it’s weird, right? Like, I feel like I manifested this. I wrote something down just four weeks ago about being sick and tired of having to always be the one to fly around everywhere to meet people. And within a couple of weeks of me writing that down, Rajiv flew to meet me in Baghdad and Rianne showed up in Istanabul.
But like. Is this really happening now? Or have I just finally curated a circle of friends who actually show up?
The last time I was in Venice, literally more than 21 fucking years ago, I found myself following the throng of tourists through the narrow streets that lead to Piazza San Marco. And on the way there, tired of the crowds, I dipped into an empty Jazz bar.
I have no other plans in Venice than to try and find that bar.
Because once inside, the barkeep served me an enormous beer in a hexagonal glass, something unlike anything I had ever tasted. He told me it was from Belgium, but I remember having a hard time pronouncing the name.
The following year I found myself in Belgium for the first time. In Brugge, specifically, and on one afternoon I dipped into a grocery store to find that beer. Find it I did, and I bought a six-pack, and I carried that six-pack to Paris and Barcelona and Madrid, and finally home to Seattle in my un-checked backpack.
That was six months before 9/11.
Anyway, I got that six-pack all the way back to the states. And a few days later, we cracked them open at Sunday dinner. My brother-in-law swore up and down he had had it before, that maybe they sold that beer, draft, at a bar on Aurora.
And no, I don’t really need to tell the rest of that story right now, except to say that: isn’t it just weird how shit shakes out? Because if it wasn’t for that weird little jazz bar in Venice, I may not have gotten the other text I got a week ago, because I probably wouldn’t even know him.
“Let’s meet somewhere warm in December,” he said. And the irony here is that this was from none other than Ben “Buenos Aires” Harrison. And yeah, in the 10 days since he sent that text and now it looks like the dates will almost assuredly change. But here’s the thing.
This feels nothing like the Argentina promise from 10 years ago that he never fulfilled.
This feels different. Like, I think it’s going to happen this time.
I have no idea what’s changed in the four weeks since I wrote that piece and now, but everything feels different.
And I’m seriously beginning to wonder if I’m ever going to go home.
Because why should I if everyone comes to me?
I went to the Athens Biennale yesterday.
I know, I know. This is my first time in Athens, and I should be talking about seeing, with my own eye, the Acropolis for the first time. A place I have dreamed of going since I was a child. But there are some things that visiting the Biennale did for me that no bucket list item could replace, so hear me out.
First off, and definitely not least of all, this will be the third year in a row I haven’t gone to Basel. In 2019, I was fresh from Japan, and, since I was gearing up to move to Johannesburg [for forever or something] I thought it wildly irresponsible to be spending the most expensive week there is in Miami not working.
But I made that decision in the before-time, when I had no doubt in my mind that I would be able to make my triumphant return to Miami for Art Week in 2020.
But while most people make resolutions somewhere around January 1st, I always make mine the first week in December, when, while surrounded by art and thousands of creatives, I find myself reinvigorated to hatch new ideas.
And I hadn’t realized exactly how desperate I was for new ideas.
Anyway, so it had been a while since I’ve been to a large-scale art exhibition of any kind, and there I was, in Albania a couple of months ago, wondering why one of my favorite curators was posting on Instagram from Greece.
Before I saw that I had no idea Athens even had their own Biennale, let alone one that would employ the expertise of a Ghanian-American curator.
And it’s hard to explain, guys. But walking in, and seeing work that reflected my own experiences back to me? It was fucking overwhelming. I knew the co-curators, I knew, intellectually, what it would be like. But. I didn’t anticipate how I would feel surrounded by work so Black and so queer. It was like coming upon an oasis after being tempted by mirages for years.
There were a lot of folks displayed that I already knew: Zanele Muholi, Tourmaline, Hank Willis Thomas, and a fucking spectacular garden installation courtesy of none other than Ebony G. Patterson.
I had no idea she was even exhibited here, and my breath caught in my throat when I walked in and saw her work hung larger than life on the garden walls.
But then there were all the people I had never heard of before.
Like Zohra Opoku, who makes these huge painting-collages that are, literally, stitched together. And I was so struck because they’re as much practice as they are work, and you can see that practice all over her pieces.
And I got so emotional because I used to have so many practices.
But you are currently reading the last one I have left. And even this frequently proves so difficult for me to keep up. Even now, writing this to you, I feel like I should be working.
Like, “job” working.
And when I saw her pieces it just suddenly clicked into place for me: how it’s already so difficult to just be Black under capitalism, how It is nothing shy of a miracle when some of us can find the peace to have the thoughts that turn into work like hers.
And maintaining a practice is even harder.
Because that means you need to find consistent peace. And I don’t even know if I remember what that feels like anymore.
For me, the best piece in the entire show was by Ndaye Kouagou; an installation called Where can I feel comfortable in this changing world? The only place where I feel comfortable is in a corner, so I brought my own. Will you feel comfortable in my corner?
The piece is, as you might have guessed, a corner. Like, he built a corner you can stand in.
But then, in a video, he presents a question: do you feel comfortable in my corner?
I’m a good person, he assures you. And I trusted him; his video convinced me that this corner would take it all away: the pandemic, my warped sense of safety and home, my complete inability to engage with people how I used to. Like in the before-time, when I was more vulnerable and willing.
He’s a good person, I was thinking. Certainly better than me, that’s clear. And he’s brought this corner all the way from Paris for you.
So I stepped inside the corner.
And I cried.
Because here’s the thing: I don’t know if I felt comfortable in the corner, and I don’t know if I felt uncomfortable in the corner.
Because for as risk-averse as I have become emotionally, the entire rest of my personhood is the exact opposite. I will push things to the very limit of my abilities frequently, to the point where I know that if one thing went wrong, then I would be risking my literal safety.
Discomfort has become comfortable, especially in the last couple of years out here in the wide world. The two, for me, have become so intertwined that I can’t seem to distinguish between them anymore.
And so that’s how I found myself in two corners: one, of Ndaye Kouagou’s design, and another that I had built for myself in my mind from where there are no clear paths out.
I wanted this life to become simple, I wanted to get to a place where I could spend months, years away from the States and feel satisfied. I wanted to fill my life with constant change and new experiences that would quell some of my unceasing curiosities.
And while I can still see exactly why that’s a place I wanted to get to, I never even considered that maybe this isn’t whom I want to be. And I hadn’t realized before stepping inside of that corner how irrevocable this version of me feels.
Training myself to tolerate discomfort, like the longing to return to normalcy by embracing things like spontenaity and messiness: these were the things I was supposed to gain in order to aid my practice.
But. I fear that the search for discomfort has become my practice, and it is not the one I had intended to cultivate.
And maybe most frightening, I’m way too fucking good at it.
I didn’t write anything for a while surrounding my birthday last year; I spent it in Egypt, and when I landed in Hurghada I felt like I had escaped Istanbul in the same way I had escaped Johannesburg just a few months earlier.
I had spent the last few months in Istanbul barely scraping by, and the amount of money I made right before buying my plane ticket to Egypt was so small that, in hindsight, I shouldn’t have gone. But relative to what I had been pulling since the pandemic had started it seemed like a fortune, and I figured it was best to trade my expiring visa and somewhat existential dissatisfaction with my life in Istanbul and trade it for something warmer and cheaper.
I could go look, but I won’t. I don’t know for exactly how long I failed to write this weekly missive, but from somewhere starting in the middle of October until sometime in November I just felt paralyzed about putting anything I was experiencing into context. Getting to Egypt was simultaneously exhilirating and confusing, and though I felt it a little bit then, I’m sure now that this is the time when a lot of my real recovery – meaning from all of the trauma of lockdown in Johannesburg – began.
So. Let’s think back.
First, I want to think back to a hillside in Panama City, where I first met Rianne at a colorful, hodgepodge hostel. Is anywhere even like that anymore? That’s where we met each other, yes, but also Carolina and Oskar and Kat and Kev and Ollie all of these people that we still talk to from time to time.
And last year on my birthday I met…well. There are some legitimate assholes on that list.
And what I’m saying is like: what the fuck is going on out here? Is it the region I’m in? The pandemic?
Is it me?
Like, I feel like I’m not too far from the person who landed in Panama for basically no reason all those years ago, so why can’t I fucking stand most of the people out here right now?
What I’m trying to say is that, having Rianne in town was this stark reminder that this, meaning all of this: the traveling, the confidantes, the friends you make along the way, this all used to feel a lot different. And seeing her face and remembering what it used to feel like made me want to fucking forget all of this bullshit forever.
I have a few options here.
- I can go back to the states. There I will almost assuredly remember why I left, and though I romanticize things like hugging all my girlfriends and crossing beneath the transom of the Bar at the End of the Universe™, the United States, like a lot of English speaking countries, always feels fun until it doesn’t. Anyway, it’s this precise feeling of discontent that I hope to leverage into making my life feel exciting and cool again.
- I can apply for residency somewhere, and dig in for a while. This, actually, is probably a good idea: it would give me the chance to do things that I’ve seriously missed – like paint and sew – that just aren’t really feasible on the road. Plus, I have the “wall fantasy” so frequently these days, as in, I collect things to hang on a wall that I don’t have. I just got two more of these in Iraq to add to the increasingly weighty pile. I’ve also been lingering inside stores that sell rugs, so there you go.
- I could just be like, nah. Fuck that. I could just decide that I’m going through a phase, and I could hightail it to like 20 countries between now and February.
And if I chose the latter, I could crawl slowly back to the Ukraine from Romania during a month when I would have plenty of time to have a look around to see how long I might want to stay.
The first option has to happen at some point. I know. The question is just when. But it gets harder to answer when I have a friend coming from the states who can bring me things I need, like a SIM card and a phone and maybe a new laptop and jeans and…
It’s the middle one that seems the most tricky, because it’s not only a commitment to some version of this life, but also to a base. And put simply, the world is fucking big and I am fucking fickle.
A year seemed like an eternity when I left Cairo.
But here we are, having almost spanned that time, and it’s crazy because I’m not sure what happened in between. And while I don’t yet much care that I managed to turn 41, it seems like these years are flying by, and I don’t know if it’s because of the pandemic or my forties, but I just have to find a way to start packing more stuff in all of those days lest they all fly by, and feel like they never were.
I’ve just made it to Nassiriyah; they weren’t having Rajiv and I staying in the same room, so I have what seems like, to me, a palatial room to myself: an acre wide bed with crisp white sheets. A marble floored bathroom with both a squat and a western toilet.
Welcome to Iraq.
This room was expensive compared to what I usually pay: about $45 when you do the conversion. But I shudder to think what a room like this elsewhere would run me. Even in Istanbul, which is “home-ish” these days, I feel like I’d pay at least twice as much.
This trip has been expensive in general: by the time this week is over I will have spent nearly $100 on PCR’s alone. That I even have this money to spend indicates the fact that we have, definitely, entered into a new phase of the pandemic. There’s more work, and sometimes, as Biggy might tell us, more problems.
Now, unlike the early stages in the pandemic, coming to Iraq for a week is a choice I’m making against going back to the States. I’m flushed with cash, and it looks like it will stay that way for the near future, inshallah.
Every day, I wake up and chose to be out here instead of back there, and from the repose of this crisply sheeted bed in Nassiriyah, there are not a lot of reasons I can find to go back. And, reflexively, a lot of insecurities I can stack on top of each other surrounding my return.
Have you ever seen Return to Oz? I won’t judge you if you haven’t. It performed poorly in theaters when it was released in 1985, and though it was marketed as a children’s movie, it’s pure nightmare fuel.
Like, this movie is goddamned terrifying.
But it is equally compelling, and I loved its weird ass when I was a kid.
There’s this scene toward the end, when Dorothy, played by a then-child Fairuza Fucking Balk (what a goddamned legend!!!) is tasked with rescuing her friends via an impossible riddle. She is led to the Ornament Room: a hall in an ornate palace filled with all kinds of objects. There are kick-knacks and lamps and jewels, each possibly representing one of her kidnapped friends.
Her task is simple. Among the hundreds of ornaments in the room, she must find the ones that her friends have been transmogrified into. A correct guess will grant her another turn, while an incorrect one represents a strike, of which she can only accumulate three.
After two incorrect guesses, she spins aimlessly in the middle of the room with her arms extended, and with her eyes closed, feels for the closest object near her. Her palms land on small gilded statue of some sort of bird, but as soon as she opens her eyes to investigate it, she sees a deep green jewel just next to it. Abandoning the bird, she grasps the jewel in her small hands, closes her eyes tightly, and says the word meant to undo the spell: Oz.
From this jewel, her friend, the Scarecrow, appears.
Back in Baghdad, on my first whole day in town, we were making our way to the Al Mustansiriyah, the oldest university in Iraq, dating all the way back to 1227. And winding down a series of increasingly narrow, crowded streets I saw, just to the left, a covered alleyway that looked like it was filled with stalls. “What is that?” I asked Rajiv. “Should we go down there?”
I have no idea what this market is called, nor exactly how to get back there should I ever want to return, but I could probably stumble upon it eventually with a little effort. But to me, having never been to Baghdad before, it seemed so hidden and surprising, so we wove through the motorbikes and rickshaws of the main drag and crossed beneath the archway to take a look inside.
There were hundreds of booths within, all sandwiched next to each other alongside a series of corridors that, to my eye, seemed to go on in every direction forever. And among all the stores selling textiles and car parts and various electronic ephemera was one overflowing with hundreds of objects, many of them made of brass and copper.
We stopped to take a look.
Everything inside was shiny and polished, with items stacked on top of one another in a way that that seemed haphazard, but I got the clear idea that the shopkeep kept a detailed log in his mind of exactly what lied where. And perched within this mountain of brass was one very interesting item: some sort of plaque, resembling stained glass but filled with enamel, and it was covered in dust, a huge departure from the rest of the reflective, methodically polished items inside.
Only about four or five inches wide, it depicted a mallard taking flight from the water, surrounded by clouds.
“Where is this from?” I asked, and though I meant some kind of specific provenance, the shopkeep merely said “Iraq! Everything here is from here. All of this you see,” he said, gesturing broadly, “is from right here.”
But it clearly looked like it has spent years on somebody’s wall, or possibly, as the tiny holes at its edges denote, nailed to someone’s cabinet, maybe in their kitchen or bathroom. And though I never did find out where exactly it came from, I knew instantly that this thing was me.
If I had been transformed by some great force into an object in that store, this was the thing that I would be.
Because exactly like that mallard, I am a little out of place, nearly lost to the ravages of shifting times, and waiting patiently for someone to see my value.
I’ve left pieces of myself all over the world. Every time I’ve compromised or cut my hair or survived a breakup or whatever, there’s a little piece of me that stays in that place forever. And as I’ve found out, out here in the wide world, it’s quite the quest to retrieve them.
So you see, I couldn’t just leave myself in that store to get lost again.
I overpaid for it, I know that. But I have it here with me in Nassiriyah, and soon I will take it with me back to Baghdad, and from there it will come with me to Istanbul and beyond, where, one day, I may again have my own wall or cabinet that I will nail it to myself.
I spend a lot of time carefully curating the things that I own, and I rarely purchase things that aren’t strictly useful.
And I can’t exactly explain it, but this weird thing serves a purpose to me. Owning it is like a vow to protect all of those parts of myself that I’ve left far too vulnerable, and to nurture a brand new me that serves me far better than she has in the past.
Here’s to Friday.