THE FAMILY-ROOM TELEVISION came to us through fire and smoke like in the old miracles.
It was the mid-aughts, and my father was working at a building restoration company, which is one way to say he waded through disaster for a living. Fire, smoke, water—the words emblazoned on the side of his car read like promises. In the evenings the crunch of our gravel driveway announced his return, and I’d watch through a window as those promises climbed the hill toward us, bringing to mind plagues, desert myths.
My father appeared to people standing amid the wreckage of their lives and spoke to them about course-correction (as in the company’s name, Restoration) and by his work my family prospered. But he—and by extension, we—played both prophet and vulture, claiming castoff possessions in the aftermath of fires and floods. One day, somewhere in the nearby city, a building caught fire, and my father was dispatched; this is how we gained our treasured possession.
The size of the new flat screen, when he marched it through the door, shocked us. My mother screamed. We called the TV a blessing from the Lord.
The new television was so much larger than the old one that we had to discard our TV cabinet. My father, a talented woodworker, decided to custom-build the replacement, spending the next few months in the garage building a TV case that stretched from floor to ceiling. He built it according to the measurements given unto him by my mother, who drew it in her sketchbook. He built it to be worthy of the thing it would contain. It included a desk, shelves, and cabinets, in addition to a massive recess for the TV. My father stained it cherry to bring out the wood grain, inlaid it with bowties made by hand. The cabinets had hammered iron rings for handles, and the desk had a sliding keyboard shelf. The cabinet doors retracted into the sides to reveal a beautifully stained interior. It was a breakthrough piece in his practice; for a few years, it was the most stunning thing he’d ever built. When we finally lifted the TV into its space, it fit as rightly as a god in its shrine, gazing serenely upon us.
In the house where I grew up, the TV and its cabinet claimed the physical center of our home, around which spread our foyer, kitchen, and dining area. My family traced vectors through the space, orbiting the television like planets. As in many families, our television carried a set of commandments, astrological laws pertaining to time and our heavenly bodies. Chief among them was that we align ourselves every Sunday to watch a film or show together, no exceptions. TV time came with its own rituals and habits: my mother and father settling into little spoon/big spoon positions, my brother arranging stuffed animals according to secret hierarchies, and my sister and I passing popcorn, tucked into cushions that had memorized our bodies. As in any family, our rituals drew us closer, intensified our particular gravity.
Then the TV would flare to life and speak.
In opposition to my parents’ views, I was taught in church at a young age that my TV screen was a portal through which demons could climb into my home and then my heart. To me, this theory explained the more typical restrictions on age-inappropriate content imposed by my parents and other adults. Something was off-limits, and that’s because I couldn’t be trusted to guard myself from a real threat, a menace.
But I was unsure of what this was, exactly. On clear days, if I stared at the darkened screen and an eye floater happened to cross my vision, its little shadow jerking away, I would think: demon. Eventually I read the story of Jesus casting the legion of spirits from the demoniac, throwing them into swine. I imagined their many voices running into wild, grinding static, and my picture of these demons followed suit: one shadow with many voices. If my television gave these voices entry, a thousand shows peeling down from the screen and whispering toward me in terrible shapes, I would be forced to call on God for deliverance. I would need to watch TV with the moral vigilance insisted upon by my pastors, and thus avoid becoming a drug addict, adulterer, or, as it was later emphasized to me, a sexual deviant.
Still, I was not vigilant. At home, I traced my orbit around the TV screen and attended to its laws. I can only describe this as deep loyalty to the medium, which seemed to arise from a nascent instinct for finding and clinging to stories, stealing and remaking them in my speech and mannerisms. My parents have a book of childhood photos that used to embarrass me because of how obvious it is that I always identified with the most flamboyant characters on screen. In one, I’m wearing all of my mother’s headbands around my torso, a towel flows down from my waist, and I’ve smeared something purple across my forehead: Ursula the Sea Witch. In another I’m wrapping a blanket around my head to be Jafar, probably rolling my eyes and yelling at my sister, Patience, Iago! Patience!
As I grew older, this instinct developed into a knack for mimicry, which I relied on whenever I judged some part of me to be wanting. I made lists of TV characters from The Cosby Show, Friends, Lizzie McGuire, All That, Even Stevens, That’s So Raven, and many more, and ranked them for “coolness.” I concluded, after watching an episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, that cool boys always play basketball, so I mapped out a two-year plan for learning to play and making varsity. (I accomplished neither.) I untucked my shirt like the guys in Sabrina the Teenage Witch. I took notes on Cory and Topanga’s romance in Boy Meets World and imagined scenarios in which I could put those notes to use.
As I sat before the TV in its magnificent cabinet, I felt a growing sense that a spiritual test was taking place, one I was failing, in which TV was a borderland between self-creation and corruption. On top of that, the general culture at the time seemed highly suspicious of TV. It’s easy to forget that before streaming services and the Golden Age of Television, the most common wisdom passed down about the medium was “it’ll rot your brain.” Think about how in the fable-like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the first three wicked children represent gluttony, greed, and envy—and the fourth represents TV consumption. Only recently has it become acceptable to admit to loving and consuming numerous TV shows. If you were a teenager before this time, and were possessed by this habit that was generally considered lazy, stupid, and possibly corrosive to your mind and soul, you might have, like me, started splitting off the piece of you that loved the offensive thing and stowing it in the dark.
One night when I was fifteen, I snuck downstairs to watch a particular show that even my parents had forbidden, for its questionable morals, as they put it: The O.C., a teen melodrama my best friend taped for me on a blank VHS cassette. I had written “Science Class” across the label, just in case my parents found it.
I angled one of the cabinet’s sliding doors outward to block the screen on the side my parents might surprise me from, then popped in the cassette, sitting on the floor with the remote control in hand, ready to change the channel if I should hear footsteps. As the pop song played over the title, I mouthed the words, my face washed in the light of the screen. This was a hidden life. I held a cup of ice cubes, which I removed one by one and ground with my teeth, knowing that this was a bad habit. On screen, a wealthy family was ceasing to function. Not like my family, I assured myself, which wasn’t as wealthy or troubled by disaster.
The story was usually predictable to a beat, but this night one of the characters suddenly dove for a character of the same gender—and they were kissing. I remember this as a narrowing of vision: the cabinet around the screen dissolved into a cloud. In the cloud something ancient was howling. One blue soul hovered over me. Footsteps overhead! I flipped the channel, heart thumping, missing whatever came next.
In 2007, around the time I turned sixteen, a kid named Danny Noriega auditioned to be on the seventh season of American Idol. His audition would air early the following year.
Danny and I are the same age, and at the time we sort of looked alike, each thin and shaggy-headed. In the first shot of him leading up to the singing audition, he’s sitting in a waiting room with his hands clasped together, elbows locked. Unlike so many other contestants, he’s sitting alone. He’s chewing gum very quickly. The host tells us that Danny buckled under the pressure during season-six auditions, and then Danny stares into the camera and tells us that this year he’s ready to knock the judges out.
If I saw this audition tape when it originally aired—which is possible; I was watching the show that season—I probably squirmed and blocked it out.
When he enters the audition room, Danny draws out the word hello—hell-oh-oo—in a way that reveals everything at once. He answers the judges’ questions gesturing with his whole frame, and his face lights up like a carnival ride. His shoulders are narrow, his necklace girlish, and the purple keychain hanging from his jeans seems provocative. At sixteen, I would’ve winced at the whine and pitch of his voice, the way it hid nothing, the way he stood there as transparent and glittery as a fish scale. I would’ve hated his unchecked hopefulness. I would’ve read his transparency as fragility, his fragility as betrayal.
“I’m going to sing ‘Proud Mary,’” he announces to the judges.
“Of course,” says a judge, as in, Of course you are. We all know Danny is a proud little Mary. The judge throws a knowing glance to someone off-camera, who almost certainly returns the look.
I might’ve seen this in the basement of the Aho family home, a few miles north of mine, where I watched TV with my friends almost daily that season. The Ahos had an open-door policy for teens from the church we all attended, so as soon as I got my driver’s license, I was up at their house, down in their basement four or five times per week, watching shows we all considered safe—almost exclusively reality series like American Idol, Biggest Loser, and Survivor. I didn’t help choose and didn’t care; I often fell asleep in the corner. But I was in need of escape from my home, where my family’s very own disaster had finally rolled in.
Having watched so much reality TV, I find it tempting to believe that I will eventually get to hear from each of my family members about that year in one-on-one interviews, perhaps set up in front my father’s magnificent cabinet, perhaps with a box of tissues on hand, all of us powdered to a matte finish. Each person would start at the beginning and finish at the end, and I would finally get to sort through all the milestones and dramatic nuances from each of their perspectives, edit them together, and decide whether the total picture amounted to something more or less true than my personal account. Having grown up on reality TV, I also know this is a fantasy. These beloved members of my family are impossible to capture this way. They tell their stories in an untranslatable language.
But in my version, it began when my mother’s right eye started twitching.
Quickly followed by her left eye.
And her hands and feet.
The year Danny’s audition aired, my mother, just forty-one years old, developed a medical condition we didn’t understand much at the time. It seemed like it could be multiple sclerosis or brain cancer or early-onset Alzheimer’s or the side effects of poor sleep. It was either neurological or hormonal, if it wasn’t muscular. It was possible that it had to do with a long-past car accident or childhood trauma or laboring for many years at a desk or that it was genetic, cosmic and untouchable, or none of these.
At the Ahos’, I whispered these details to my friends during commercials, the most vivid drama of my life sidelined and fitted into sixty-second interview clips. The American Idol host would look at us, saying, “Results coming up right after the break,” and then I’d turn and tell a story:
One night, my mother was in bed resting—she was so tired then, at every hour—and I was writing a school essay in my bedroom when I heard her calling my name. When I stepped into her room, there was a lamp switched on behind her head like an aureole, like radiation. She had adjusted several pillows for support under her knees and the crook of each elbow. An episode of Dr. Phil or Oprah ran noiselessly on her television. She said she was hungry, but her room was upstairs from the kitchen, and she wanted to know if I’d make her a sandwich. I did, and later I took her dinner plate downstairs and washed it, and then I went back to my homework. An hour went by before she called my name again.
I was the only other person home that night, so I didn’t find the repeated call strange. But this time I found her in her room sitting upright. As I walked in, she looked at me like an animal from within a cage. Begging for something. She asked me to make her a sandwich for dinner.
“But you already ate dinner, Mom,” I said, the hairs on my neck rising. “You just ate a sandwich.”
She looked entirely lost. When she spoke again she sounded like someone else, like a little girl.
“Something’s wrong,” she whispered.
When my mother’s mind went foggy, she took a leave from work and locked her bedroom door. Weeks went by and I never saw her, though I occasionally heard people talking from her television. When her forty-second birthday arrived, she told us through the door that she couldn’t celebrate this newly impossible life, being so young and now, trapped in her body, so old.
Mostly, she slept. She had little energy or will to be awake. I know the guilt of her abdication was crushing her (guilt our family assured her was baseless). The doctor’s diagnosis was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, a two- to five-year neurological deterioration ending in death. We did not cling together in the wake of this news.
My father took a second job cleaning Jacuzzis every weekend to offset the cost of her joblessness and the medical bills for her many tests and procedures. My little brother seemed to draw inward like a damaged sea anemone, and my sister moved away to live with our biological father. I blamed my biological father for this and screamed at him over the phone. I signed a copy of my mother’s last will and testament, which named me at sixteen as the backup executor of her estate and guardian of my siblings.
I started taking on many responsibilities at church to get out of the house. On a given day, you might’ve found me at one of three different youth groups, meeting with my friends one-on-one for coffee and spiritual gossip, watching kindergarteners while their parents worshiped, writing worship music, composing notes on my spiritual progress, painting religious allegories, or gathering for a weekly Bible study with two other teenage boys and a youth pastor I’ll call Tristan, who couldn’t have been more than twenty-three at the time, with the stated goal that we all might increase our faith. I practiced the religion of compartmentalization, maintaining an increasing number of lives, carefully unhearing the yelling in the other room, unseeing the medical bills stacking up on the counter and the court documents surrounding my parents’ attempt to get my sister back, which sometimes required my testimony. I gave my testimony and immediately erased the memory. Erasure became easier and easier. On a personal blog, I spun vague stories of unwavering belief to the media of my own attention. I reread them every night before bed and eventually started dreaming them—episodes in which I starred and always, always won out.
If I were interviewed now, I would say, I wish we could’ve known then that her doctor’s diagnosis was incorrect. Then we might’ve allowed for the possibility that my mother would survive this season. We might’ve begun to separate the larger course of this disease in our lives and relationships from these momentary events, might’ve seen not only the snapshots of our wandering in the desert after five, ten, fifteen years, no end in sight, but the entire sweep of our restoration. I’m sorry to say that the false diagnosis went undetected for some time, and for that reason, my mother’s illness cleaved truth from reality. And I grew adept at living in the myth.
In my Bible study, one of the first assignments Tristan gave us was to reach out to someone in our lives who seemed far from God’s voice and invite that person to pray with us. For this I chose a boy I’ll call Erik, whom I’d befriended at school and subsequently spent a lot of time with, who came from a Christian family but resisted my cheery conclusions about God, who made me CDs of songs about lonely people, who stood six inches taller than me and exuded a sweet smell I’ve never forgotten. Erik kept a sleeping bag in his Jeep so he could spend the night at my house if we stayed up too late talking or playing guitar or watching television, too late for him to reasonably drive home. Erik was so blond his eyelashes were translucent, but showed up to school one day with his hair dyed jet black. Naturally, I worried about Erik’s soul.
And I loved him. I kept a handwritten record of his texts that year:
Heyy. i so hope this doesn’t wake you up. I just wanted to tell you that im really glad we had a serious talk today. Ive always been to sacred to talk to someone like that. Im so glad I was able to talk to you in that way. Im so glad to know you. : )
His typo blending sacred and scared is one of those accidents that sucker punches me out of the past, bringing it all back—the way I invited him to wander in the woods near our houses, the way we left our phones in the car, the way we climbed down a trail until I felt my heart hurt with its beating as I asked him if he wanted to pray with me. And how he said yes, and I felt every string in my body being tuned. I had seen this before, I thought—here there would be a kind of death or epiphany. Salvation, I prayed. My teeth chattered with adrenaline. We sat together on a tree stump and wrapped our arms around each other like a hug. I pushed my face into the space by his neck and whispered to God.
and i don’t know what id have done if i never met you : but in a good way.
I don’t know what to call an epiphany that begins as nothing and gathers momentum over many, many years—perhaps the truth. I wish I could be here long enough to see it all. At this point I know fire, smoke, and water. You march into the desert and enshrine your list of rules and despite your trying, despite the gift behind and the promise ahead, your crowd disassembles, breaks out into argument. The many-voiced god, we range the whole land with our quarreling, kicking up sand with our heels, unable to leave a real trace, fighting over the meaning and direction of this trek.
We make and dismantle art. We tell and untell stories.
In the sanctuary of the Ahos’ basement, I watched or didn’t watch Danny Noriega, a boy like me, jump up and down as he was accepted to the semifinals of a televised singing competition. After his first appearance, Danny would begin to show up on screen in button-downs and leather jackets and boots in an effort by the producers, he explained years later in an interview, to “butch him up.” Watching clips now on YouTube, I find this hilarious and sad, how poorly constructed these costumes are, how they only serve to emphasize their own forgery. If I saw Danny when these episodes aired, I certainly joined in the efforts of those who remade him—not only not seeing him, but unseeing him. Splitting him from himself and keeping the versions I was capable of holding. I would’ve multiplied Danny as I was multiplying myself, filling up with the multitude of my creations.
Some time before my mother’s illness arrived, the church I attended launched what I believe was called Living Hope TV, a cutting-edge evangelical initiative that streamed church services to the family living room. I remember trying this out: my mother drinking a fruity, nonalcoholic cocktail juice, my brother and me eating Wheat Thins. On screen, the worship band played “Only God,” an original worship song written by the lead vocalist. The lyrics were superimposed on the video, not very different from the projection screens I was used to seeing around the church stage. We were too embarrassed to sing together. Maybe the pastor spoke of fire, a great pillar of fire on the horizon recasting the land in its harsh and strange light.
In 2016, I am sitting on a red leather couch at a gay bar surrounded by TVs on every wall. I’m not on a date, though I have dated the boy I’m sitting next to, and I don’t mind how handsy he is because I’m tipsy and still making up for lost time. In the corner of the bar, a drag queen is fake-bawling into a mike, midway through a joke whose beginning I missed. The temperature is noticeably rising as more and more men stream inside, and I remove my jacket. Every TV is a swirl of pink and music and we are all cheering. We call this gay football season, but I sometimes think of it as gay church: RuPaul’s Drag Race is back on.
I am not used to gathering with other gay men yet. Looking around, I do not think I am alone in this. The excessive attention to style and grooming betrays a general fracture between presence and presentation, and within the fracture I recognize a frantic mind. Some days I watch Drag Race only to hear RuPaul say the closing line: If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you going to love somebody else? When he says this, everyone in the bar shouts Amen! Self-love is the queer community’s greatest challenge and perhaps our greatest lack. Having so long unloved our souls, that locus of our unique loving, we find our predicament is personal dislocation. We are cursed to wander, to navigate by stars, to channel surf. Gay boys all over the country have mastered the text and ritual of TV (that’s both a stereotype and a real phenomenon) as a consequence of being so rarely invited to the table: you pore over pictures and memorize every piece of food, every gold-rimmed plate, every lipstick-stained glass. Gay boys spend their lives mastering costumes and postures and inflections, cloaking and uncloaking, shimmering like mirages. Is it any wonder that they take to art so naturally? They spend their lives cultivating attention to the dramatic, to the meaning behind the line, to the symbolism of lights, camera, action. This is, for many of us, a matter of acceptance and humiliation, love and rejection, life and brutal death.
RuPaul’s show is about men who compete as bewigged amalgams of pop culture—figures from throughout history melted down and poured into new, blasphemous identities. They use their queer skill to carve out safe spaces, claim some territory, push at the boundaries of who we understand ourselves to be, and envision a new world. Most often with humor. They shapeshift into Marie Antoinette on acid, Madonna from the Black Lagoon, Kim Kardashian with a beard, black Carol Channing, Hello Kitty in stiletto heels. Drag performances mock the culture that pressures queer people to stay camouflaged, that excludes them while it profits from their material, that is “fine with them as long as they just don’t act so gay.” By performing the queer imagination they are rewriting political, cultural, and physical boundaries. The system that forced them to shapeshift has left them with all the skills needed to become anything they can imagine.
For a night. On a stage. Mastering those figures and images is a way of saying they are not on the margins, and a way of fighting the reality that they often are. I watch them because these queens are wading into a sea of disparate voices, incorporating them, and transforming them. This practice, as the drag queens would say, is giving them life.
I recently rewatched another queer artist’s attempt to mythologize her life and thereby render it more coherent. In her show One Mississippi, comedian Tig Notaro plays a slightly fictional version of herself the year she experienced three disasters in rapid succession: her long-time girlfriend broke up with her, she developed breast cancer requiring a double mastectomy, and her mother unexpectedly died. On screen, she is playing herself alongside actors playing her real-life relatives, as well as her real-life wife playing her fictional love interest from the year when they were nothing more than friends. To me it all seems just as familiar as it is convoluted.
On TV, Tig absorbs the fact that her mother is really gone while lying in bed in her childhood bedroom. The impending funeral has plucked her out of her fast-paced life as a radio jockey in LA and plopped her back down in her southern hometown. Now she’s lying in a room with floral wallpaper, and her too-helpful girlfriend is scooting closer on the bed and trying to make tender jokes. She wants Tig to let her see underneath the bandages of her mastectomy, but Tig hasn’t even looked yet herself, and Tig is not in the mood for joking about this, so her girlfriend turns out the light and says, “Well, you need to get some sleep. Tomorrow’s a big day.”
“Tomorrow’s actually a very small day,” Tig replies, “because my mother’s not in it. Every day from now on will be smaller. The town’s smaller. I’m smaller.”
As she stares into the dark, the camera backing away, I am sitting on my living room floor with my dinner half-eaten, and what she says sluices down me like cold water.
I can’t understand why I’m crying now or what it means to weep on the colder side of a screen a world away from Tig. My mother did not die, but in our myth she did, and I feel smaller in that grief, like dying. Aren’t I, as the drag queens say, living the fantasy? I grieve her death and my family’s dissolution; I grieve that we couldn’t hold that experience, still can’t hold it, that the monolithic disaster we avoided will return, always returns, and makes orphans of us all; and when I half-twist toward the truth I grieve the depths of my utter fraudulence. I am playing my story on reruns to my own attention: my mother is locking herself away, my sister is heading out, my brother has shut down, my father is gone, and I am lying like a mantra. I am afraid I have left this screen on now for far too long. I have for too long been a willing part of this production. I have seen too much and heard too much to ever recover. Night leaks in through the windows and finds me, once again, cross-legged on the floor before the face of the deep. What strikes me is that I am Tig and not-Tig, living here and somewhere else in myth, and that the force of this abstraction upon my life, foisted upon me by others and perpetuated in my own episodic retellings, has already divided me from me, the demoniac’s disarticulation. I will never make it out of the desert of the real where we parade and argue bitterly. I am too late.
Tristan asked me once to make a list of every sin I’d ever committed, annotated like episodes in a TV guide. He gave me a week to do this and bring it to our Bible study to read aloud.
“In thought, word, or deed,” he reminded us. God bless him. I know he meant well.
I arrived the next week with a piece of paper in hand that made me physically shake. Tucked in the very middle of my list (penciled lightly as if to say, nothing to see here) was an admission that I had been watching TV I wasn’t supposed to be watching, especially videos of men in their underwear on my computer. I have since forgotten my helpful annotation, intended to hide the fact of my queer attraction, but it must have been so convoluted and thin that it’s hard to believe I bought it. But I did; with an unnerving level of conviction, I still believed myself straight. To be many is a quality of evil, I thought; I clung to my single narrative with all I had.
Tristan easily saw through this.
That Sunday Tristan read my admission of sins about my TV habits and same-sex lust as a warning for the congregation. With projector screens streaming his image on either side of the stage, Tristan towered over me, God in triplicate, and directed his gaze downward to where I sat.
He changed my name, but I assume many knew.
Tristan, triune god of my revelation—he fell like fire and burned me in my seat, burned shame in my face and gut. I burst into flame and cracked and expanded, every inch of me red.
A contemplative says that in the perfection of the present, time streams through you, neither past nor future; you are like a screen framing the multitude of experience. I remember this moment as a widening of inward vision: I saw us all in the room from the trek to the end. I felt that I loved us then, us as me, even our quarrels, lies, and trying. I could hear a ringing in my ears. For one minute I was only half-here, my being in God as mine and not mine. To be many and one is a quality of the divine. I streamed fire sitting very still. I felt the bodies of my friends sitting around me, relived their myths, allowed my myth to be given to them.
When I walked to the altar to receive a sip of wine, I felt dizzy, hot, and defiant. I stood at the front of the stage, looked up, and saw myself cast around the room on every screen.
In gay church, I light a candle in my way. I share a glass of clear alcohol with the boy I’m not dating. Today, on this episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race, a queen named Adore Delano walks on screen, and I raise my hands. She is my favorite queen. Her face is multiplied around the room, oval and bearing grace. Adore is the stage name of Danny Noriega—older now, pronoun flipped for effect, wearing orange eyeshadow and braids. She has jumped from one reality show to another, swapped her costumes, located herself in this crossfire of references: TV, fashion, music, history, parades, disasters, fire. She has found someone there—no doubt splintered—and loved him. Her queer self-love is her gift unto the world. She stomps that runway as if to make desert rock spray water.
On March 5, 2009, I waited in the family room for my parents to come home from the doctor’s office where my mother’s conclusive test results were being read to her, explaining that she did not, in fact, have Lou Gehrig’s disease and would not die. I tried clicking through TV shows but ended up sitting in silence.
I flipped opened my phone to text Erik, then closed it. By my choice we had recently stopped talking, which would be the end of our friendship. After months of hanging out and enduring my proselytizing, he had chosen to be baptized, and I was overcome by profound disappointment. He began pursuing a female friend of mine romantically and confiding the details to me. I got very busy. I started running to turn off my mind. I admitted nothing to myself.
My church friends were not fond of Erik, so the sanctuary of the Ahos’ basement remained uncomplicated for me. We gathered there more often than ever, adding Saturday Night Live to our weekly ritual. One sketch we loved more than the others starred Kristen Wiig as a woman at a fancy Jazz Age party with many friends gathered in a parlor around a baby grand piano. Wiig’s character has just one line, repeated over and over with increasing volume to attract everyone’s attention: Don’t make me sing. Completely oblivious to the room, she keeps saying this in a way that suggests of course she wants to sing, please, please ask her to sing. My friends and I loved to scream that at each other, that lie bursting with its opposite—I couldn’t, I shouldn’t, I won’t, don’t make me sing!
I pressed Delete on the thread of Erik’s texts.
I finally heard my father’s car pulling up the driveway, home from the doctor. I stood up and then sat down. When my parents came through the door, I saw their faces and instantly knew. It lit into me and then flew between the three of us until we were shaking with nervous energy, laughing, howling, pounding our feet with the news.
As we ran through the details, which didn’t amount to much more than a negative test result for a single disease, we knew nothing had been restored. Surely we knew it resolved very little, that my mother was still crippled and saddled with a mysterious illness now more mysterious than ever. But for one minute, we cracked up with the relief of this—death deferred, the absurdity of being here at all. We pressed palms to our eyes, staining our hands with the joy of it. When I remember this, it becomes present again. We are conducting this parade even now, the oldest miracle, each blue soul spilling uncountable grains of light as we march on. Soon our laughter passes away, and we realize it’s getting late; we are huddled in the family room with no sense of where to go next. My father closes the blinds and opens the TV cabinet. We sigh and settle into familiar positions, too exhausted to talk. Our television flares to life. I want to fix things but I don’t know how. I’m starting to see something form on the horizon.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.