ISSUE THIRTEEN | FALL 2019
“And so if in our family we don’t even know when we’re burning like logs in a fireplace it can only mean that our bodies abandon us, that maybe we are spirits, and it’s not clear when we stopped being ourselves and became something else.” —Fleur Jaeggy
The light is brown and the air is dirty. Notre Dame is burning 5,711 miles away. I’ve googled how many miles. We are in a hotel room in Mexico City that costs $48 a night, but it’s not accurate to say “we” in such a way that sounds monolithic or sacred or that our togetherness is something that has withstood the test of time, because I only just met Seth yesterday. He was sitting next to me on the flight from JFK. Heat swarmed my face when I instigated the conversation—something I’ve never done before in my life. As I turned to face him, I thought, today is the first day of the rest of your life, one of those stupid things my dad used to say, and now I keep saying it, trying to keep some part of him still in me. I am still baffled at why he chose to leave so completely, but I realize it wasn’t necessarily a choice of will, such that he comported himself toward an intended, agential, telic conclusion, because I’ve realized that the idea of will—a will to live, a will to die—is a sort of collective delusion we’ve all decided to labor under. We think we need it, will. But, surrender. That’s actually the only thing, the only law. When it went well with Seth, I suggested we get a room together when we landed, but since I’ve never done anything like that before either, I can only assume it went well because he said yes.
I’ve never been to Mexico City, I said.
Seth said he’d been a lot. For work, he said, shrugging, as if work were a frivolous hobby he’d taken up to pass the time. Seth is white.
Oh cool. What do you do?
I make death masks of people who haven’t died yet, Seth said.
Huh? The heat in my face twitched it into a smile.
He laughed. I’m an artist.
Oh. Right. Cool.
We kept talking, and I was happy I was doing okay at it. I leaned toward him a little. My aura and his commingled, yellow and purple. The heat in my face started to slide down my throat, sticky like blood does when you tilt your head back during a nosebleed. How do you become who you are? Google says that you shouldn’t tilt your head back anymore, you should tilt it forward. I googled it this morning, just curious. I don’t have a real nosebleed. Just some other kind of mess in my head that won’t stop.
Seth said his name was Seth but when I glanced at his boarding pass I saw his name was Jason.
I’m still calling him Seth, though—I told him my name was Adrian even though it’s Chris.
Who are we, why are we here.
Lol, oops, I said “we” again.
Seth and Adrian are in Mexico City, are in love, are in deep with nothing they’ve ever known, are in a new phase of their lives, are in the process of becoming who they were meant to be.
My phone gets live updates from a few newspaper apps. The fire started while we were sleeping, but the spire fell when I was awake. My phone dinged the live update and filed it in on my locked screen like all my other updates, your debit card transaction, you have a new memory, Notre Dame spire falls in blaze.
The room cost enough that it’s likely the bed doesn’t have bugs, but really how should I know. I’ve never traveled. Never had the money or reason to. I’ve never lived this way, with so many new things but without the most important thing. The sheets have a few stains, faint yellow, but not too many, not any more than my own. They smell hugely of laundry soap. The brown smoke spilling out is like the light in this room. Dusty and liquid. I feel like we are swimming in ash, everyone I mean, certainly me.
Even before we’d started speaking I saw that Seth’s eyes were huge and black and unnerving. He stared at the seat in front of us from the moment we boarded the plane and sat down. His eyes yawn open into somewhere, one of the most successful silences I’ve ever seen. When he first set them on me, I wanted to retreat, I didn’t want to be pulled even more toward this kind of place. But I told myself to keep going, if I must learn it I must learn it. He pulled his T-shirt off with one hand, and through the dim light I saw that his torso was gaunt and covered in black-ink tattoos. One was of a skeleton draped in a ragged robe. Another was of a body being dragged down his ribcage, its feet chained to a cinder block. He said he had a connection in Mexico City that could hook us up.
I have enjoyed letting myself go out of control.
The smoke from the fire looks as if it’s falling into the sky, as if gravity has inverted. The feeling of being sucked into the air: it wouldn’t be falling, it would be surrender, an actual example of fate. It would feel like an exhilarated swooping decision had been made to dissent the regime of the Earth’s gravity, and it wouldn’t stop until you reached the black hole at the center of our universe which is pulling everything to it, space and time and light included, it doesn’t make a distinction between things that want to go there and things that don’t.
Five days before the fire, the first photograph ever taken of a black hole was released. We’d had to turn our entire planet into a camera to take the picture and even then it was blurry. I took great solace in the fact that the black hole in the photo was 55 million years old. It’s taken that long for its light to reach us, good thing, because it took us this long to figure out how to capture it when it got here. By now, the black hole has eaten all of the light in that photograph to the point that nothing of it is left. Total extinction. And that’s not even the one at the center of our universe. One day, that—extinction—will happen to all of this, it’s already happened to my father.
My father always wanted to visit Mexico City but could never afford it so, after the funeral had been paid for and the taxes got taken out, when the inheritance came through, I indulged the sentimentality of using the money to book a ticket as if I were doing something to honor him. The ticket cost $823.46, which leaves me $3,176.54 of his legacy. When Seth brought us—sorry, he just brought me, not us—to this hotel, I offered to pay. I’ve never done that before either, never been in a position of having enough money, let alone a reason, to be with someone at a hotel.
Everything is different now, I’m different, the person I used to be has been eaten by a mouth of nothing, which means I am in the process of becoming who I was meant to be, which is something my father used to say I should do. But did he consider the possibility that I would be a person whose spire has fallen in?
I wonder about how two things converge, I google asymptote.
The Wikipedia article notes: “Some sources include the requirement that the curve may not cross the line infinitely often, but this is unusual for modern authors.” I like that the modern authors dissented, but I can’t help but know that what we inherit from our fathers is the lesson of how surrender, despite spending a lifetime willing yourself in its opposite direction, is the only law that can’t be broken.
I imagine my father watching us fuck and take the pills Seth scored. I imagine my father getting sucked into the sky.
He, a lapsed Catholic but a sentimental one, would have been upset to see the big church on fire. Since his death, these small mercies keep coming to mind, filing in with other thoughts, don’t forget keys, gotta do laundry, it’s good Dad wasn’t here to see that, but they don’t necessarily make me feel better. They make me think of how my dad no longer gets to do what he wants, or not do what he wants. He doesn’t even get the choice.
Of course Seth was a top—but he was a service top, which is rare, so I didn’t know what to say when he asked me what I wanted. And then he kept asking, repeating the words but also asking in other ways without speaking. I didn’t know I needed that.
The pills made the surface of the walls pump slowly as though they were full of blood. I loved how furry the air felt around us. Around me.
Seth was still awake as I fell asleep, his big eyes unsettling the ceiling. I imagined him dreaming, falling through darkness until light and thought were extinguished. Would he dream of his childhood, his father, or of elaborate hallowed buildings with vaulted ceilings and high sonorous corners where birds get trapped? It felt like a great gesture of trust, an exhilarated swooping decision, to let myself fall asleep next to this stranger in this strange room in this strange city in this new part of my life. In terms of surrender, what is the difference being letting yourself go out of control and letting yourself get very, very close to something that will extinguish who you are? How do you know when you need to do that? Do you do it intentionally or do you let it happen to you, and what really is the difference?
He could slit my throat and take my wallet and drain my bank account of its $3,176.54 and that would be the end of what is left of my father, his life and what he made with it—me—extinguished forever, as all light will someday be eaten by the infinite hole that is our universe’s 13.8 billion-year-old heart.
On the plane, a white mother and her young blonde daughter took a very long time climbing into their seats. The line behind them backed up. The mother said calmly to her daughter, “Everyone on the plane hates us right now and it’s your fault, do you understand?” I thought of how, whether she wants to be or not, the daughter is irrevocably entangled with her mother for the rest of her life. She will grow up and not be able to distinguish between what she needed from her mother and what her mother needed from the universe. On the plane, the daughter started squeaking and mewling, and her mother sighed. “Get used to it, honey, sit down, and let these people live.”
Seth is gone when I wake up and my phone is alive with news of the cathedral. I lie naked on the stained sheets, I google how to stop a nosebleed, I delete the Facebook and Instagram apps from my phone. I’d deleted my accounts before I boarded the plane, while I was waiting at the gate. Every comment, of the praying hands emoji or three hearts in a row or “I’m so sorry for your loss, Chris. Your father was a great man,” felt like watching my father disappear in new, even more terrifying ways. These commenters didn’t know him, didn’t come from him. Their typing thumbs don’t hold shit. It’s not that my heart is broken or that I am devastated by grief. It’s that on a cellular level the very structure of who I am is now radically different, it’s so radical because the origin of where my cells came from is now extinct, which means that something sinister pulls my eyes and brain and who I am toward a darkness that I won’t be able to return from.
I re-read the CNN article. It proclaims that it is offering live updates. Proudly, it says, “Updated: 1 MINUTE AGO.” My father has been dead longer than one minute but it’s hard to accept that as being true, it feels like he’s still alive. I experience his death as a delusion, such that I need a live update every minute to remind me that he’s dead. I can hear him cluck his tongue and inhale his breath about what a tragedy it is that Notre Dame should burn. I can see him shake his head and pinch his lips together. He might even throw up his hands to suggest how futile it is to hope for beautiful things to persist, how futile it is to hope at all.
This sentimentality lights up my face, the same heat when I talked to Seth. It’s the only thing I have right now that feels different than everything else. I sit up with purpose.
You know what. I should do something to honor him. I should do something bigger than me and him, bigger than us. I should make sure his life will remain.
I google around for a minute, then find a website taking donations for the fire. It’s in English. It has several photographs of the cathedral on fire, the brown smoke has eclipsed the building, and the sky above is fluffy with it.
I donate $2,000. There is a section for notes. I write, “In memory and honor of Christopher Garcia, loving father who died too soon.” There is an urge to screencap it—it’s the kind of thing I would have posted to my social media accounts—but I stop. I have no one to show it to now. Never knew my mother. Only child. Dad’s relatives have never been close. So I look at the screen until it sleeps. I see my father’s name and the amount of money he left. Legacy. Honor. Those too will be sucked into the black hole, but not yet.
The door opens. Seth comes in. His big eyes lock onto me.
Hey. He sits down on the bed and puts a plastic bag between us. Did you see that Notre Dame is burning?
Yeah. I’ve been getting live updates.
Fucking people are actually donating money to rebuild it. Idiots. He throws his stare at the wall and then his hands, the futility of hope. The fucking Catholic Church is the richest institution on the fucking planet! They can afford to rebuild fucking Notre Dame! People should donate to people who really need it. I mean, how many mosques and Black churches are bombed and burned down every fucking day?
He pauses. No, they’re not idiots. That’s wrong. They’re naïve. It’s action predicated on despair. They think their money and where they put it matters. They need to feel as though they still have a choice, and that good is still an actual thing in the world.
Nah, good and evil don’t exist. They’re arbitrary concepts, pure abstraction. Hashtag there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism, but it’s still true.
I want to google what the word is for the feeling that the origin of my cells has disappeared so completely that nothing, not even capitalism, can touch it. There’s a concept in physics about it, but I need google to think.
I say, Is that because we’re all going to get sucked into a black hole someday?
Haha. That’s a pretty long ways off. The problem right now is American imperial empire. We think it’s the only possible configuration of society, but it’s not. Collectively, we’re having a failure of imagination.
I say, I thought we were having a collective delusion that will exists.
Yeah, that’s what I’m saying.
But we managed to photograph a black hole.
What, do you have a thing for black holes?
Did you bring me breakfast? I poke at the bag.
Huh? Oh. No. I just bought myself a toothbrush. I forgot mine.
I didn’t think you were coming back actually.
His eyes dilate with severity.
Yeah, me neither. Sorry, I don’t mean to hurt your feelings by saying that. I’m trying this new thing where I don’t lie.
But you lied last night.
When you said you make death masks for people who haven’t died instead of saying you were an artist.
That’s not a lie! That’s my new piece. I am making death masks of people who haven’t died yet.
Yeah. It’s about temporality and impermanence.
Maybe indulging in sentimentality is the same thing as not believing in impermanence. Or, is it the same thing as believing so much, so terribly, in impermanence than your entire purpose becomes an attempt to dissent against it?
I say, I’m trying this new thing where I let myself go out of control.
He rolls off the bed and goes to the bathroom with the plastic bag. Is that why you fucked a stranger you met on a plane? he asks. He brushes his teeth and stares at me through the mirror.
I try to keep his gaze but I can’t. I think to myself, it’s about temporality and impermanence, but I don’t say it.
He’s still staring at me. His eyes are fathomless and he lowers them to spit in the sink, then brings them back to me, through the mirror and then, turning, face to face, the asymptote. It occurs to me that the tattoo on his ribcage of the person chained to the cinder block is going in the opposite direction of the one I feel like I’m going in. Swimming in ash, gravity inverted.
He stands near the door. Well, I think I better take off. It was cool hanging out, Adrian. Guess I’ll see you around.
I see him sinking to the bottom of the sea and me getting sucked into the sky and the hot sentimentality makes my face sticky with what I can only assume is pure will, fate dissented.
Don’t go, Seth. Stay. Or, or—can I come with you?
Um, he says then goes quiet. His eyes skate around mine. It occurs to me that they are asking me what I want.
I don’t know what to say so I say, Today is the first day of the rest of my life.
My phone gets a new update. French Billionaires and Corporations Pledge At Least 600 Million Euros to Rebuild the Notre Dame Cathedral.
Seth looks down at my phone and his eyes crucify the headline. I also heard that people are getting scammed.
They think they’re donating to Notre Dame but it’s just some fuck who set up a website.
He looks back at me. There is a grave black shadow around him but also softness. I guess you could come with me to this thing I’m going to. It’s on the other side of town. Some friends will be there. But I won’t promise anything. I can’t really become involved right now. My therapist says I tend to get enmeshed.
As I gather my things, he watches me without pretending to be doing anything else.
Last night I wondered if you’d kill me in my sleep.
Is that part of letting yourself get out of control? To sleep with your murderer?
It’s more that I was okay if that was the outcome.
So, you’re a freak.
I also wondered what you dream about.
I’ve been having the same dream lately. I think I’ll make it into a piece for my new show. I’m in an apocalypse where the earth is scorched and there’s a war. Everyone can control an army of drones with their phone, so the sky is huge with all the buzzing. The source of the fighting is: there’s a new app that allows people to form governments and to dissent against them. All democracy is done via the phone, and it’s automated, based on how the algorithm reads your data. So what keeps happening, because everyone’s attention spans are so fucked, is there’s new governments in power for 15 minutes and then automated coups-by-app. That’ll be the title. Coups-By-App. What do you dream about?
I have nightmares.
Maybe the fuck who set up the website needs donations, maybe he needs to pay for therapy because he’s been struggling with a sense that the only thing a person can ever do is surrender, which makes it impossible for him to persist as either a beautiful thing or a productive thing, which means he violates the laws of both aesthetic or perceptual purpose and American imperial empire, but he can’t afford to get treatment even if he wanted to because he works two minimum wage jobs that don’t give him healthcare, has neither the time nor the money. Maybe he needs to pay for his father’s funeral.
Seth opens the door and holds it for me.
We walk down the hall in silence, then I grab his hand and say, But are you okay with me needing you? I want to say it won’t be for long, my needing, but I don’t because I can’t promise anything, and I’ve never done this, my future, before, so how should I know? I can’t say if this is the first day or the last day of anything, life or death, because time, like an asymptote, is a thing that gets very, very close to another thing but they don’t necessarily become the same thing, or even ever touch other, though they can do nothing else but face each other and be irrevocably entangled and give each to the other its telos.
We face each other, zero, infinity. Without speaking he tells me he doesn’t know what he wants.
Then he speaks. Careful, Adrian. We don’t know each other yet.
I nod. I follow him to the other side of town thinking of how he attached a yet to our “we.”
Johanna Hedva is a Korean-American writer, artist, musician, and astrologer, who was raised in Los Angeles by a family of witches, and now lives in Los Angeles and Berlin. They are the author of the novel, On Hell (2018, Sator Press), and their writing has appeared in Triple Canopy, The White Review, and Black Warrior Review. Their essay “Sick Woman Theory,” published in 2016 in Mask, has been translated into six languages. Their work has been shown at The Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, Performance Space New York, the LA Architecture and Design Museum, and the Museum of Contemporary Art on the Moon. Their album The Sun and the Moon was released in March 2019.
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