Enjoy this excerpt by Michelle Tea from This Is How We Come Back Stronger: Feminist Writers on Turning Crisis Into Change, releasing today from Feminist Press! Available for purchase now through Bookshop.
March 2, Moon in Gemini
It’s my seventeen-years-sober birthday. Seventeen years ago today, one of my favorite people in the world brought me to my first AA meeting, and I listened to a missionary, of all people – an old white cisgender straight, have I forgotten anything, missionary – talk about his alcoholism. If I could create a pastiche of an individual I am more at odds with in our world, I don’t know what it would be. And yet everything that he expressed wrong with him was wrong with me also. The cheeks of the people in folding chairs around me were flushed and smooth. Mine were splotchy, both dry and oily like my hair, which no longer held on to the colors I applied to it and looked vaguely green, not in a cute way. I say that vanity got me sober. I wanted what these people had, even the horrible missionary – health, a flush of life in their faces, glossy hair. When the secretary asked for newcomers to raise their hands, my favorite person assured me I didn’t have to. I could just listen, take it in. But I’ve always been a joiner. My hand shot up. I was the most important person in the room. All my life I’d thought my defining story was my girl-ness, my poverty, but I was wrong. All my life it had been this.
Tonight, on the stairs, my spouse halted. They’d forgotten. They were on their way to their girlfriend. The look on their face, they’d failed me again. Yesterday, when I was meant to take a cake, my spouse had tensed – they had a date. Fine. Never mind. Who cares. Of course, it was manipulative, but I was doing us a favor. I was providing them an opportunity to walk back to me and take my hands, look into my face and say, No, this is so important. You are so amazing. You’ve done the hardest thing. Go and get your cake and then come home and we’ll celebrate. I was always arranging the setting for something cinematic to occur. I could see a scramble of stress like a child’s scrawl in the air around their face. No, go get your cake, I’ll go on my date a bit later. But after the cake, I would want to celebrate. Go get a taco at the place in Los Feliz, the one with the picnic benches arranged under a tarp. I imagined rushing into a Lyft to relieve my partner from childcare duties, so they could go see their girlfriend. It made me feel sad and heavy, self-sabotaging. Fuck it, I don’t want a cake. So I didn’t get one.
I did get a donut. Because I had a boyfriend, one who didn’t identify as a boy, exactly. A theyfriend. They came over with a little cardboard clamshell from Donut Friend and some bags of sugar-free gummies from Sprouts. We sat on the couch and ate. I planned to leave the Donut Friend trash on the table for my spouse to see when they returned, hoped that it transmitted ‘sober birthday celebration’ vibes. My theyfriend was not eating sugar because their body was very somatic; they had become shut down after we had expressed our love. After a spell of sex that had suddenly, powerfully, fallen into a sphere that felt luscious and Plutonian, I mean dark, as if we had been leaning our full weight on a tank of perverse fantasy and suddenly tipped in and drowned, emerged dazed, in my case, delighted. In my theyfriend’s case, walled. I was trying to work with it, but between my spouse barely touching me – coming back from each date with their girlfriend wearing a new piece of matching jewelry, falling asleep early on our nights together versus pounding Red Bulls and dashing out the door in their new wardrobe of animal prints to complement their animal-printed lover – between that and my theyfriend’s haunted libido, I was distraught. My theyfriend had recently stroked my arm while lying beside me in bed and claimed that it felt just as intimate to them as sex. Despair plumed inside me.
That was right before everything fell apart, the season of pre-destruct, but I felt it all in my chest. When my theyfriend showed up at my house unable to do more than give me a thin-lipped kiss, I asked them to leave and then broke up with them via a lengthy, hysterical text message, as is my way. The medium ruins the message. We got back together and went to a play party, having sex for what felt like hours on a chair tucked halfway behind a sofa and a hobby horse-like contraption. They had taken a Xanax, and had felt loose and easy and somewhat mischievous, until the madam who was having a birthday got into the sling and began receiving a round of birthday fists in her vagina. The noise of it got to them, and we left. After that, everything between us went away again, if it had even ever come back. And my spouse. Despite all proclamations to the contrary, and the knowledge that made my veins itch, they were also already gone.
Friday, 13, Moon in Scorpio Sextile Pluto in Capricorn
All day I walked around Silverlake and Echo Park with Ben, hanging posters for our show – a live talk show with mystical themes. There would be feminist writers and queer artists, a tarot creator, an herbalist who taught plant medicine to people of color. A podcast influencer. I would host alongside an Aries co-host, a comedian who had recently scored a role on a broadcast show. It was Aries season, we’d broken out of Pisces, that doldrum, Charybdis, rumble fish. Ben was adamant that the world was going to shut down, even as we invited the world to come to our show in the little black box theater on Hyperion. I scoffed. I had mistaken Ben to be an Aries, but really he is a Taurus, grounded, attuned to the earth’s movements. I am mostly Sagittarian, and never believe the worst will happen. Perhaps it renders me a little bit simple, but I wouldn’t change it. Our show would be fine, I thought. So would the one we’d just booked in Portland, and San Francisco and certainly we should be curating one in New York City, don’t you think? ‘You watch,’ Ben said.
That night I met my ex-theyfriend for a Coca-Cola at the Hermosillo because they wanted the dignity of an in-person breakup, even though once I was there they couldn’t say the thing they’d wanted to say because it didn’t feel safe. But when were breakups safe? I bristled at the suggestions I was a monster. I was simply cold, as was appropriate. Inside the Hermosillo, at the dark, wooden bar top, my eyes watered. I was annoyed that they had brought me out in the rain to withhold their processing from me. It seemed they most wanted to communicate that when they told me I had bad breath the other night, they were only trying to help. Their shaman had suggested I avail myself of our polyamory during this period of shutdown, and so I had swiftly booked two dates on Lex with an ad that referenced Dirty Dancing, a movie I had never actually seen but that my dating demographic seems to hold dear. Upon learning this, my ex shared with me the bad news. The bad-breath news. When I got home, I told my spouse what I had learned. Their face fell a bit in empathy. ‘Well, it’s your teeth,’ they said knowingly. ‘You have tooth problems.’
After I finished not-talking to my ex, I called a car to take me to Akbar, where a new ‘they’, one who had responded to my ad, was having a birthday party. This ‘they’ drank coffee and smoked cigarettes and drank alcohol in spite of having recently been in AA; they’d realized they were in the wrong twelve-step program, and their problem was people, not booze. I shrugged, open to becoming a problem. We had met earlier that afternoon, when I had arrived in the rain at a home, where they were cooking Frito pie for the first phase of the night’s celebration. Akbar was phase two, and phase three would be, they said with some bravado, maybe an orgy. I wondered if being informed of an orgy equaled being invited to one. The new they made me a French press and read my tarot cards, and eventually I climbed on their lap and kissed them. I had hoped to bring a friend to Akbar, as I feared it would be awkward, but my friends were spooked by whispers of the world shutting down, and had opted to stay in, and so I sat on the sofa at the rear of the bar, where people were definitely not six feet apart, and fielded such questions from the new they’s friends as, ‘Where did you guys meet?’ (an app) and ‘How long have you known each other?’ (a few hours). When the scant revelers willing to brave the strange moment and blustery weather went home, I and the new they walked across the street to the twenty-four-hour Del Taco. The streets were empty and the graffitied stretch off Sunset felt like an abandoned section of Brooklyn, not LA. The Del Taco was closed. Because of the thing, the cold. ‘Weird,’ we said, and they lifted me off the ground with their kiss and got into their Lyft, while I waited under the narrow fast-food awning for my own.
April 11, Moon in Sagittarius Opposition Venus in Gemini
This was after I had started therapy to learn why I was so unhappy all the time; why I cried; how I could be better, not provoke my spouse with my emotions, not be so triggered by their polyamorous choices; how could I hear them when they told me everything was OK; what was this alarm system that had been tripped, ‘bitches’ intuition’, it had never failed me, but now it seemed to have gone haywire, hadn’t it, hadn’t it, hadn’t it. My therapist affirmed that my spouse should probably come to couples counseling but if they didn’t want to – and they didn’t, because of the money, they would say, though they injected botulism into their face regularly to ease the effects of their aging, no judgment – there was no use nagging them, since such visits rarely paid off. This was after I had tried to talk calmly to my spouse and they had mocked me, which had made me cry, and I had gone into the living room where our child sat on the sofa in a YouTube haze, and I tried not to cry, and I couldn’t believe they would leave to go to their girlfriend’s with me in such a state, but it would not be the first time and they just had to get out, and when I told them it was very hurtful, what they had said, using a phrase my therapist had suggested, they turned to me and mocked me again, in front of our child, ‘Oh, I’m very hurtful, am I very hurtful?’ in that voice, like I was a fucking idiot, like I was the stupidest worst person to ever be married to and I watched it like watching a movie, wow, but one I was maybe psychotically invested in, because look how I cried, and they left and somehow I got the baby to bed, he’s not a baby, he’s five, and I thought that for someone who is able to leave the house, for someone who actually has someplace they can go, a different environment, a new face they can look at, make out with and fuck, for someone with such privilege, they should be a whole lot nicer to someone like me, who has not left the house in nearly a month except to risk my life buying organic chicken at Whole Foods and smoking cigarettes and crying in the alley around the corner.
This was after that night, when I moved into the guest room with the little bathroom, when I moved my toiletries onto the shower floor, when I moved all the books I was reading, and my perfume bottles, my department-store boxes filled with eyeliner and lipstick. When I moved that little barrel I bought on the street in San Francisco and used as an end table. When I moved a deck of tarot cards and a journal, a little ceramic dish filled with lavender and amethyst and that piece of heart-shaped glass found half-buried in the muck of the LA river, the tiny piece of pink rhodochrosite my spouse had given to me. And I texted my spouse that we were separating and that I had moved into the guest room, and they called me and wanted to come back to the house and I said, ‘No, no, don’t, I don’t want you to,’ and then sat on the front porch smoking, waiting, as I had set the stage for another cinematic moment to happen, for my spouse to come bounding around the corner, their bleached hair lit white by the streetlights, rounding the box hedges and coming up the path to tell me they’d ended it, they’d ended it with their girlfriend because it wasn’t working, something about it was not working, it was tearing us apart, they couldn’t bear to see me like this and they were so sorry for the way they had treated me and we would start anew, in couples counseling, we would get back to what we were the day after our son was born, a bulb packed tightly into the earth, tight green petals clutching at one another, we were so beautiful and strong and fragile and my heart broke for us, what would become of us, what an undertaking, a family, what ridiculous hope, so many forces could tear us asunder, not the least ourselves, we were more precious than I could articulate then, hormonal and morphined, but truly I saw it, I saw us glow in the dim hospital room, like light beings, benevolent and blind. And my spouse did not come home. I sat on the white wicker chair and smoked until I shook, talking to Ben. ‘They have got to come home,’ he said. ‘They have got to get their shit together.’ But I knew, even as my heart leaped each time a suburban white SUV rounded the corner, that it was beyond them.
July 13, Moon in Taurus Sextile Mercury in Cancer
My ex-spouse sat on the sofa while my child detailed the mechanics of the Lawbringer, a Nerf gun I had not only now allowed into the house but also had purchased for him on the internet, because my ex’s new house, where they live with their girlfriend, has a swimming pool and a dilapidated but useful trampoline, not to mention the sunny vibes of two people in love, whereas my house, my ex’s ex-home, has a scrubby backyard littered with crusty mounds of poop and bloody tufts of feathers from the resident dog and cat, respectively. My house is minus the vibes of two people who stop to hug each other and play in tandem with a child, an only child, a Libra who basks in the rays of beloved dyad attention. My house, I fear, feels cold, as if blown through with November weather; imagine some awful neighborhood, say a financial district on a Friday evening, the heartless buildings creating tunnels for the wind to race through, paper trash rustling in the gutter. Into this house must come, well, anything the child desires, for now anyway, so guns, and Minion gummies and Minion sunglasses and camo clothing and the expensive grapes that taste like cotton candy, and more gummies, these in weird shapes and combinations, like witch’s fingers and strawberries. A Slip ’N Slide. A Would You Rather? book, a horror coloring book, slime, sticky hands, squishy sea creatures, a pouf to sit upon, anything you like, kid. I didn’t know this woman seven months ago and now she’s raising my child. The school won’t reopen next month. I’m moving my mother in to the guest room, she can’t work anymore, not with her lungs, a nurse. I think I am going to get a Black Lives Matter flag for the house, I mean we have a flagpole, we should use it. I applied for Medi-Cal. I applied for rent relief. I applied myself. I mean, I know I did, because it’s just how I am, and the way you do anything is the way you do everything. I did what I could, because my Venus is in Capricorn, my Saturn in Taurus, I’m loyal that way. John Waters says not to fuck people with no books on their shelves and this is the advice I shall take into the future. Don’t think that someone locks down their emotions because their feelings are so raw and deep. They might simply be an accumulation of cat dander and dust, the way those cysts grow from hair and teeth and excess fat inside the body. Don’t marry someone for whom emotions are a cyst. Eileen told me they’d never been left for someone who was their equal. Which soothes my Leo rising and bristles my Aquarian sun, but also, they wrote, ‘I / write because / I would like / to be used for / years after / my death. Not / only my body / will be compost / but the thoughts / I left during / my life.’ And Stevie sang, ‘So I’m back to the velvet underground / Back to the floor that I love.’ And Yoko sang, ‘Bless you for your anger / It’s a sign of rising energy . . . Bless you for your sorrow / It’s a sign of vulnerability / Bless you for your greed / It’s a sign of great capacity . . . Bless you for your jealousy / It’s a sign of empathy.’ Locked in my house for the duration, all I have are words. Good thing they’re everything. And what do I say? Bless me. I kiss my floor like a beloved country I’ve been returned to. At the end of the pandemic, I am my prose.