I’m a Survivor

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I’m sitting with colleagues at a business lunch. I don’t often get to lunch with coworkers, as most of my work happens out in the field with foster-care clients. But, once a month we might all meet up for a sensitivity training to learn about transgender needs, or how to be racially sensitive, or how to let women do their jobs without bothering or condescending to them all day long. I don’t usually look forward to these type of meet ups. I’d rather be in the field, working with my clients. Some smug part of myself, too, always walks into these trainings thinking I know everything already, but some other more rational part of me knows it won’t kill me to keep my ears open – and I do. I try to do that. I listen. I have to remind myself, but I make the effort to listen.

Today’s an okay day. I like the people at this lunch table. I’ve known them for a year and a half now, but because we only meet once a month, we’re in that nascent-acquaintance honeymoon phase. Everyone should savor those first few weeks of a new friendship, I think to myself. Before the person, group, or lover trusts you enough to do something truly revelatory. That first moment they say something a tiny bit hurtful, and you’re reminded – oh, right – humans are a stain on the planet that deserve their small, petty lives of self-doubt, mired in indecision. I smile at this thought. Even when I’m overblowing my criticism of humanity, it’s really just a silly, exaggerated criticism of who I am, myself.

Also, it’s an exaggeration to say humans are a stain. Stains, you can get rid of.

They’re talking about global warming, the other social workers, and I’m waiting for a chance to chime in some type of clever joke about how I’m hoping for a pandemic to solve things for us. A pandemic would take care of a lot of things. Imagine, say, 9 million people survive, total. The population of NYC, roughly, but spread across the globe. Well, that’s got global-warming solved, isn’t it? Overpopulation? Solved. Systemic poverty? Solved, my friend! No more competing for resources. Don’t like the rules of some little hamlet that springs up? There’s arable land, buddy! Go build your empire. Leave us the technology, but let’s have fewer people competing for resources. Sure, I’m saying in my head, as the three dudes talk about rising tide measurements and carbon removal – it would suck that you would have to see catastrophic suffering, and watch society grind to a halt. I imagine large swaths of the world would be left to be reclaimed by the wilderness. Suddenly a thought flashes, briefly. Footage from a documentary I saw years ago. How quickly Chernobyl was swallowed by vines, and trees, weeds sprouting up through cracks in the concrete, bound to cause eventual rifts in buildings. Radioactive bunnies hopping around.

They’re talking about Trumpy now. For some reason they’re lingering on moral stuff, which I think is unfair. If Bill gets his blowjob, and JFK gets all those mistresses, we can allow a leader to cheat on his wife without making it a scandal. It’s part of what I don’t like about our landscape. There’s enough to criticize – stick to the job performance and watch where the money goes, I’d like to say, but I’m distracted by another thought.

What if I don’t survive the pandemic?

This thought is easy to dismiss. I take a moment to process it and think, that’s okay, I’ll just die.

I don’t want to die, right now, at this point in my life. I have, during some brief dark spots in my life,wanted to die, but I’ve always been way too much of a coward to commit suicide. Post apocalypse, though – that’s a game changer. I think to myself, okay, I’ll fight as hard as I can to survive this bleak new world, but not to the point of pity. If things get extremely grim, I know what to do. Maybe, I find a garage with a car, lower the door. Leaf through X-men comics while waiting for the end to find me, but only after it’s clear I’m going to die of the pandemic, or of some wound sustained by fighting with someone for the last charged iPad.

Reduce carbon emissions, I say to the social workers, absent, but still participating, hovering in-between worlds right now.

It’s okay if the pandemic takes me. Not ideal, but okay.  I can fantasize about Iceman one last time while the fumes take me. I can make this sacrifice, even in my own dystopia fantasy. It will be difficult, but I’ll bravely face the end, for the sake of my surviving family. It’s fine, I’ll say to my family. I’ve had every slice of pie, sang every song, kissed every boy. This way you can move on to the rumored utopia of New Atlantis, which is a cool way that everyone is now saying “Atlanta.” 

On the outskirts of New Atlantis, I’d face my fate with a grin, imagining myself slowly dying, serving up movie set realness while bravely suffering the ravages of the primeval disease unearthed in the Arctic permafrost, which fuses cartilage into bone, slowly calcifying the blood. Petrifying people into living, dying statues, it’s soon called the Redwood Flu. Frozen bodies litter the landscape, grim reminders of our late stage capitalism excess.  

Maybe they heal me, after someone bursts in with some super antibiotics they boosted from an abandoned research lab, and the next day our group is back on the eerie, abandoned highway, amidst drivers frozen solid in their cars. Tattered Chanel clinging in scraps to hairless, stony corpses. 

Leave the Chanel, a loved one might say, as they catch me trying to undress one of the Remnants, but take the Louis Vuitton purse. Just because the world has gone insane doesn’t mean we have to lose our minds.

I’m hauled back into the real world. The social worker’s luncheon. It’s kind of worth it, I think, I look at Korean Ben and think immediately about his nickname, which emphasizes his otherness. Korean is a distinguishing factor, indelible, and there’s another Ben at the table. He’s Mexican, but I don’t know why he’s just Ben and not Mexican Ben. The answer is probably “something something something white privilege,” I think, but that’s just a punchline to a joke I made up that everyone repeats around the office as a catch-all. I briefly wonder if he sometimes resents the nickname because it puts his otherness front and center but I quickly dismiss that thought as none of my business. They called him Korean Ben before I got hired.

And anyway, you can say the name of a country, snowflake.

Cory is there too, who is half-white, but will only ever describe himself as half-black. He explained this to me early on in my tenure here, over happy hour drinks one afternoon. I’m half-black, he said. Not half-white. Why pretend the world sees anything besides the blackness, Cory said, and smiled, like he’d been really clever, and we both laughed, but I could feel that – underneath that – there was a naked, unapologetic bitterness that Cory had every right to. I get it, I almost said to him, trying to draw a connection between a straight person of color, and a white homo. But, I didn’t mention any of that. I didn’t  want the conversation to devolve into equivocation. Cory likes gin collins, of all things, which kinda vouches for the white half, I joked. He laughed. It seemed honest, and not pained. I was drinking club soda, because drinking aggravates my chronic-but-not-acute hypomania, so I’m not allowed to anymore. Also, I don’t want to anymore. I did dumb, ugly things when I was drinking. I mean, it started out as cute and clumsy, but there was a rapid shift at some point, after a few back to back to back traumas.

And anyway, I just described a daydream of a pandemic flu. I’m probably crazy enough, sober.

Suddenly, Ben, Ben, and Cory have switched subjects. They’re talking Beyonce, now. The Coachella performance. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Stewing. I finally join the conversation. Blurting out:

“I’m so annoyed about her right now. Keep in mind, I’m not angry at her. I’m angry about her. Specifically, her relationship to the gay community. Specifically, how the gays deify her categorically, when they ought to be off somewhere discussing the finer points of Rufus Wainwright, or that gay K-pop star who killed himself. I like Beyonce. I can see why she’s a star. I think she’s a one of a kind talent and should get all the acclaim and success she has. She deserves to win the pop game. I respect her quite a bit.”

(It’s tumbling out of my mouth now, and I’m inadvertently doubling down on the awkwardness I’ve caused.)

“But, I guess that’s part of the point. She’s nobody’s fool. She’s not an idiot. She isn’t naive or girlish. She isn’t obsessed with cultivating her own cred, the way other pop stars can be. She just is cred. She is aware of the pretty things floating on the surface of American culture, sure, but her staying power comes from exposing some of the uglier things churning just underneath. She’s brilliant.”

(Oh shit, maybe a joke will help?)

“Also, marching bands don’t just magically make something transformative. I mean, maybe in the absolute literal sense, but the real transformative thing is her ability to see the gay community after marriage equality was passed in 2015, but somehow, not the decades preceding that.”

(Nope, they still hate me right now.)

“Which makes it suck so much more when she collaborates with a someone like Philip Anschutz, who donates to the Republican party, and to religious right anti-LGBT organizations. When she hands him the money he turns around and hands to the party of Donald Trump. The party of marriage inequality, the party of misogyny. The party that has worked so hard to normalize their (selling points) flaws that they can now get away with operating a completely corrupt kleptocracy.”

(Seriously, Korean Ben can’t even believe himself right now. As the other gay person in this four top, he’s shocked I’m betraying The Queen)

“They don’t even try to cover it up anymore. The rich have always oppressed the poor. Men have always oppressed women. The white majority has always twisted the roots of humanity to its will in the Western hemisphere. Straight people have always oppressed, demoralized, erased, lied about, scapegoated, killed, poisoned, threatened, condescended to queer people. Put us in concentration camps. Driven us to suicide. Ostracized us from our own families. Took away our livelihoods and tried to bring us low by ignoring a very real pandemic – a silent holocaust that will never be properly recorded because our minds were too feeble to fully remember, our mouths split with sores, our fingers too brittle to even hold the pen.”

(They are visibly uncomfortable. That’s LA. Be a walking nightmare, sure, but wear clean clothing and don’t ruin lunch. An inconvenient overshare with coworkers might fly in Brooklyn, or somewhere “authentic” but in this town it’s a sin, and it’s a cardinal sin.)

“That was the legacy of Ronald Reagan. That is the legacy of the party of Donald Trump. That is the legacy the owner of Coachella regularly donates money to. And now, I can not separate that legacy from Beyonce Knowles. At least, not while everyone is worshiping the golden calf.”

(Korean Ben is trying to change the subject. I can see that look in his eye. The understanding. The disappointment. It’s like I’m telling a secret he doesn’t want known about himself, even though I’m pretty sure he doesn’t agree with me. He’s trying to save lunch, whereas I have made the mistake of trying to be right.)

“Beyonce is a human being. She is not a deity. She, though her marketing tries to suggest otherwise, is not a walking embodiment of a goddess on earth. She is a person like you or I, and when she has dirty hands she needs to wash them. And make no mistake – when you give money to the people would would make us less than human, who would quibble about how much equality we can have before equality becomes ‘special rights,’ when you give money to someone who will then turn around and use that money to limit our rights, to maximize human death and suffering for monetary profit – when you do that, even indirectly –  you have sullied your hands. You have made yourself nakedly complicit in the ongoing task of the ‘haves’ breaking the spirit and the bodies of the ‘have nots.’”

(At this point everything has ground to a halt. There’s no plodding through any salads anymore. Nobody is eating.)

“Anyway,” I say, “The guy who runs Coachella is a homicidal maniac who donates to the right wing, and I’m not going to watch the video.”

There is an ugly pause. Everyone is gobsmacked. Myself most of all. Ben stammers out something like, hey, maybe she doesn’t know how he spends his money? I tell him he can Google “Coachella bigot” and see for himself. I remind him that Beyonce has a smartphone like everyone else, and implying she is unaware of the controversy swirling around this festival, and her helping to sell it out so quickly, might let everyone off the hook, but it insults everyone’s intelligence at the same time.

Korean Ben looks nervous. He just wants everyone to get along. He starts telling a story about how he was sad this weekend and how he watched the whole Coachella video and then binged all the online Beyonce videos he could find. He adjusts his posture. He plays victim. He was sad for a few hours, and only Beyonce could keep him from heading into the garage, and starting the car with the door down, and now I’ve taken that away from him! But, behind that victimhood is a quick calculation of social hierarchy. His eyes are already growing sharper. Colder. They start talking about the Coachella valley, and how hot it is. They start talking about Destiny’s Child. They don’t, won’t, everything-but-can’t look at me, because he’s done it. He’s thrown me to the wolves. Maybe I’m right and maybe I’m wrong, but Coachella is fun and this is the opposite.

We all say polite goodbyes, but I hang back at the table. I can see them filing out of the cafeteria style restaurant. Right before they leave my sightline, Korean Ben says, loudly, some quip about how people take homophobia so seriously these days, and how it’s not really even a big deal anymore, compared to how it used to be. He is giving them permission to treat me like one of the crazy, broken, militant ones. Which is fine, I’m not broken, but crazy, militant? Sure.

But wait, that’s not true, either. I’m not “crazy.” I have a mental illness. I’m treating it. Take your gaslighting and shove it up your ass, Korean Ben. I’m steaming pretty hard.

Gay people do it to each other so often, it’s not surprising anymore. The undermining. The minimizing. The gas lighting on social media, so that those good straight folks can enjoy their lunch, their Beyonce, their bigoted, violent belief systems – in peace. You can’t fault his intentions, either. He just wants to go along to get along.

Still I’m disgusted, a little bit. With myself, with Ben, with people in general. It was clear they didn’t care. That they saw this as a moment of gay drama. Yeah, sure. Gay drama caused by the indignity of a life unobserved, a life destined to be constantly erased by the indifference of a straight, mediocre world.

In the car I flash to another memory of Korean Ben, of him laughing out of sheer joy in the office at a joke we were sharing. The look he gave me when I made him laugh. The gratitude. Something behind the gratitude. A glimmer. Something in there. Hope, or love. It isn’t long before I’ve forgiven him for selling me out in that small, huge moment. It was just part of our day. Later on I send him a short email, saying “Beyonce texted me, and she says she’s sorry about the dirty money, but it’s totally okay if you binge watch her videos.”  He texts back that he’s having a hard day, too. We both get back to our clients in the field.

Back to tending to these foster children. Of doing small, procedural things their (presumably straight) parents couldn’t or wouldn’t do. I’m not even annoyed at Ben anymore. It happens so often, that I have learned to let small betrayals fly off into the wind. They can condescend, but they can’t truly minimize my pain, my truth, my joy, my struggle. By the evening, it’s almost like it didn’t even happen.

If you expect nothing of people, you get everything you ever wanted. What do I expect of people. What good can come of high expectations? Wouldn’t I just take the money, too?

All this, I smirk to myself, just so Beyonce could have more money. An extra helicopter.

As I’m driving home, I am transported.  In my mind, Korean Ben and I are in the pandemic world, me helicoptering him over the Coachella valley. His eyes twinkle the way they did in the office that one time, when I could still make him laugh. Beneath us, petrified bodies, desert floor, tattered banners. Horse blankets and prospector’s hats. I reach out to touch Ben on the arm, but I lose my nerve and wind up awkwardly fiddling with the radio, which is stupid, because the radio stations in this world have stopped transmitting years ago. Yet, there it is, as clear as day, Destiny’s Child, on the radio. I’m a survivor. We share a moment of shock, of surprise. Pure joy in the sudden appearance of music that disappeared years ago.

I check our altitude, clear my throat. We start to sing, at the very top of our lungs. Beyonce is telling us she is a survivor. She’s gonna make it.

That’s more than obvious, I think to myself, singing along, setting the coordinates for New Atlantis.

But, what about us?