The ‘dead’ of night—why do we call it that? On a bench at the edge of the world in Wisconsin, I am trying to make something of the fact that I feel haunted. Autumn and the lake has not yet frozen. I’m thinking about my old name, Ilse, which begins with the first person—i-i-i—but in certain typefaces looked like a double-L, like llamo, me llamo llse, and I hated it for that, for being unreadable in that way. Whoever she is, neither dead nor alive, I feel guilty for her absence. Dear starlight, dear runny yolk. Dear Orion. Dear i-i-i. Dear certain dynamics of pulse. Dear pulse. Dear my entire sense of being a man. Dear matter.
When is an opposite an absence? When I finally introduce light, I want to be loved for it. I want to stare out into a crowded room, the spotlight so blinding I have the feeling of being alone even though I’m not, when someone shouts from the back of the room, “What do you love?” I tell the room how much I love to fall asleep in the presence of others. I. I tell this entire bright-dark full-empty room about the time I fell asleep at an Aretha Franklin concert, not because I was bored, but because I wasn’t.
By the time I encounter the findings from the German study, I already know that I experience depression as color and light receding. Not “the blues” at all, but grey. What I want to know is whether this is an absence or an opposite. I have found that being a man is a lot closer to being a girl than one might realize. Researchers find that for people with depression, visual perception suffers across the board. Starlight washed out. Tell me something new.
I go to a performance on campus. Ushers shoulder the crowd into a tight ring. At the end of their performance, in the dark, Cassils cannot find the door, so they circle around the room instead. Tripping over backpacks, stumbling disoriented, hands covered in clay from pummeling. They exit through the wrong door into fluorescent lights. Students look up, startled at the sight of a nearly naked artist covered in clay, neither he nor she quite right.
When I walk out of the theater into the evening, Orion greets me, so much lower now, when only a few months ago the hunter was directly overhead. I read somewhere that a person needs to see exactly four hundred and fifty stars in order to be moved by it, to really feel infinite. That a dozen or even a hundred is not enough. I lean against a cold wall, looking up. Orion is only seven stars. Is this why I don’t feel infinite? Light pollution?
Restif de la Bretonne, who called himself the “owl,” wandered Paris after dark, declaring, “Everything belongs to me in the night.” I know the night does not belong to me. Even me llamo does not belong to me. I’m a girl, I’m a boy. Hunter and the hunted.
That night, I dream I am moving around a lake in darkness, clinging to the back of a boat. The current swirls me around and I am trying to dock in the exact same spot I slipped into the water. The current makes it difficult.
In the morning, I read about the International Dark Sky Association and their fight against the urbanization of the sky. I want to know if they have meetings but it seems they don’t, only a webpage that glows in daylight. I learn about “light trespass” which is not, as it might sound, a soft or slight violation, but rather, the cast of light where it is undesired. I want your light, which also does not belong to me. I want to stand close enough to feel it.
Why do we remember what we remember? Why is it scary to let another person get used to us? Why do some endurances need so many interruptions? Hole’s the size of this entire world.
Is it ever exhilarating to arrive somewhere new in the dark? Darkness offers to exempt us from certain things, like belonging to our surroundings. As though what we cannot see cannot see us.
And then sometimes light is the absence. I sit in a window of a café, shoveling a curtain around in front of me to maximize the washout of sunlight; I want to cook myself, my nervous feelings. The girl next to me dips her toast into runny yolk, and I hate runny yolk, hate the way the sun makes it fluoresce, hate that I can’t stop looking, can’t dull it, can’t look away, I can’t stop the absence. I hate the way people forget to argue fairly, and the runny yolk: I hate runny.
I spend an entire weekend trying to draw a crack of light under a door.
Day after Christmas, I walk along the river the way the river lets me walk along it. A warm and empty intersection. Roll through empty streets, a dark blue sky. The stoplights blinking yellow empty yellow empty yellow. I do mind stopping in an empty intersection, but I can’t say exactly why. There must be a good reason.
I am still thinking about that question Lynda asked me. What could it mean to be whole? In Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, the left hand of darkness is light, and inhabitants of the planet Gethen assume a gender only a few days out of the month, in order to mate. The rest of the month, they’re something in-between or not at all. He or she not quite right. The left and right hands of gender are of the same body. This is what I mean about opposites.
My early artwork was mostly abstract portraits, enough parts of the body to render it basically intelligible as a body: my grandfather, for example, whom I drew as two ears; my sister, a small root vegetable shape with her arms outstretched, dancing against a paper-white sky. In Indiana, I lead a workshop on body parts and body wholes. I am aware of the homonym, Some corners of the internet call trans men “bonus hole boys.” I like to imagine it this way: “Bonus! Whole Boys.” Whole entire boys. Left and right.
There are certain kinds of light that seem like the opposite of darkness. For instance, the brightness of the clinic where I get my first shot of testosterone. There is a photograph of me on the exam table: juice-box, thumbs up, pants around my ankles, snow boots: It was winter. A bowtie: it had been an occasion. It was still the good part. No acne yet, no sensation of being a werewolf growing hairier in the night. Just a little lightheaded, craving a pork sandwich. When I tell people about the photograph, they say they want to see it. I say, I don’t even know where it is, but this might not true.
Late November, the valley near my parents’ farm is pink and brown with trees, like hatch marks tallying up the earth and sky. The pink and brown of bareness. I look into the valley and watch two dogs run in circles, a game of chase. Then the dogs approach me, and suddenly they’re not playing, they’re attacking. The two things seem so close, except that one ends in yellow light, the other in darkness, climbing a fence. Tallying up gratitude in my head because my mother, this year, doesn’t ask us to name our blessings. She has tick marks like lines on an aging face. I’ll go in pink, not scaling a metal fence but standing atop it, my arms outstretched beside me. Isn’t howling dogs the most amazing thing you’ve ever heard? The way it echoes against the darkness? Isn’t a pink bonanza how we all should go? I keep finding emptiness in magnitude, magnitude in emptiness: neat little tally marks on the horizon long after I’ve forgotten what I’m counting.
Some animals can see a full range of color, even in the dead of night.
In this house I share with no one, I am calculating the damage as the train passes through in darkness. Does the train ever wake you up at night? White Wisconsin fallen, and the smell between two lakes. It felt pioneer. Screech. Dear conductor, dear star alarm. Dear Aurora. Dear overdraft, dear artistic practice. Dear sideburns. Dear jelly donut, dear silver spring.
As a child, I am afraid of two things in particular: men, and the dark. Know your own darkness, Carl Jung insisted. He tried to know his. He kept fastidious notes in a red leather-bound journal during what some suspect was a psychotic break. Jung called this his “most difficult experiment” and his “nocturnal work.” Nocturnal because he maintained a full schedule of clients during the day. “I gave all my love and submission to things, to men, and to the thoughts of this time,” he writes in the red book. “I went into the desert only at night.” Dear dimming desert. Dear witchcraft. Dear boy clit. Dear warm-up, dear hand and mind, dear someone who has absolutely no idea. Dear.
Tips for stargazing:
- Get away from light pollution.
- Put the town to your back.
- Look north.
- Let your eyes adapt to the dark.
I flew to Sweden for a conference. Even in Northern Sweden, it’s not dark enough to see the Northern Lights. I look north, but at what? A difficult experiment. I had painted every slide—my subject was the transgender hand as a metonym, a digital device. I had forgotten to write a talk to go with it, so I stood there at the podium, clicking through my slides. I think I mumble that I am transitioning. After my talk, one of the keynote speakers—an American living in Denmark—asks me, Which way? How can I answer her question when I don’t believe in opposites? Later that night, we draw on a napkin together, getting drunk. She turns to the person next to her and says, gesturing to me, He thinks in color and shape! Which I suppose I must have told her and it’s not untrue.
Dear this time around, dear secret pronouns. Dear the things that go on in darkness. Dear this world. Dear this world. Dear the work of love.