I’m home, but I can’t sleep. My parents are away, so my grandmother is babysitting. We’re sharing a room, and she’s snoring loud and hard. I’m only seven, but I’m a serious child, awake with anxiety. I’m pondering my fate. I wake her and she tells me a tale about a woman who becomes the first great empress of China. Her name is Wu Zetian. She first enters the palace at age fourteen as a lowly concubine, a common path for girls of her breeding and stature. She’s smart and educated, but pretty girls in the palace are a dime a dozen. She doesn’t quite manage to catch the emperor’s eye, so she spends her time reading instead, about government and politics, literature and music. She is admired by many other men of the court. When the emperor dies unexpectedly, she is sent to a nunnery to serve out the remainder of her life, a customary fate for concubines who had not yet produced children. It’s a waste, but it could have been worse. My grandma tells me that when an emperor died, many of his wives and servants were entombed with him—alive—so they could continue serving him in the afterlife. It was considered their destiny. Rows and rows of women, wearing gauzy white gowns, sealed into a beautiful tomb. The lucky ones were gifted a length of cotton and a footstool so they could hang themselves once the doors were shut. Others were given a fast-acting poison. Others simply had to starve to death. They were supposed to consider this final act a privilege. But this Wu Zetian, my grandma exclaims, is wily. When the emperor’s heir, his son by another concubine, visits her in the nunnery, she promptly seduces him. He commands that she be allowed to leave and return to the palace. She births his first son, the crown prince, and becomes the queen consort of China. And when her second husband (conveniently) dies, she becomes the child’s regent. She ascends to the throne. It is a long and scandalous journey, peppered with vicious scheming and cruelty. She puts two rival concubines to death. She chops off their arms and legs and places the bleeding stumps of their bodies in giant vats of fermented vinegar while they are still alive. I’m fascinated, I beg for more, but my grandma makes me go back to sleep. “You’re lucky,” she tells me matter-of-factly. “If you had been born a century ago, that could have been your destiny, even if you were a good girl. Starving to death in someone else’s tomb. Cheating your way into a better life.” She shakes her head. I frown. It seems to me that this empress fought to become exactly who she was.
After all, in all the books I’ve read, about the West or otherwise, you can only fulfill your destiny once you overcome many terrible dangers.
Is destiny just what you call living despite being doomed?
I’m 16, a girl on the internet. I’m locked in a school in the faraway West; it has iron gates and a dress code that’s long, one whole sheet, double sided. It’s my destiny even if I don’t know how I’ll survive it. I wear my hair in pigtails. I double knot my tie and tuck it into my kilt. Between classes I read stories about gay teen hustlers working in the porno theaters of Times Square when New York was a different city. I write fan fiction in long, sticky trails on LiveJournal. Comment by comment, I develop a vocabulary of orgasmic expressions. I can describe any florid sex act with starry-eyed detail, even though no one has ever made me come. I let my boyfriend touch me between my legs at the movies, popcorn stagnant on his breath. I imagine myself as a boy, like him, on my knees in a filthy theater with someone else’s cock in my mouth, blue jeans slipping easily off my slim hips. I’m in the laundry room at school, letting another girl feel up my thigh, her face in my neck, her tinny breath catching in my ear.
I’m in Philadelphia with a friend who works at an X-rated movie theater, the Forum. (It’s out of business now, its doors shuttered with a bashful, ladylike wheeze.) On Wednesdays, after everyone’s left the theater, he tells me he finds a small pile of fried chicken bones underneath the same seat. Carefully balanced on top of it, there’s a smaller, neat, even stack of acrylic nails. He’s never been able to figure out which patron it is. Is it a ghost? A vicious teen queen? We delight in conjuring identities. My favorite: a construction worker too embarrassed to publicly indulge his fetish for donning acrylic nails. He gets manicures once a week and admires his flawless cuticles for an hour and a half before slowly destroying them in a blur of white meat and grease.
I’ve always thought the French expression for orgasm is apt even if overly precious—la petite mort. It’s a singular moment in which you cease to be yourself. You manage to find, in someone else’s meat, a portal to somewhere distant, a place severed from reality. An orgasm is the perfect disassociation. The little death: a temporary respite from the horror of your big-picture destiny. I’ll take any freedom I can get.
I look up. I’m at the movies. The woman on the screen clutches a purple dildo with her curled and precise red talons, her face looming large. She scoffs at my tiny, sharp silhouette, my crooked and wrinkled nose.
It’s years later and I’ve moved to California. I’m not yet assimilated. I’m itchy and uncomfortable. I don’t yet feel at home. Back in New York, Joey’s started calling me Rainbow and threatens to mail me a bunch of hemp bracelets and weed paraphernalia. Back in New York, there are decadent karaoke sessions at Sing Sing that end with the bartenders giving out free shots and Holly performing air guitar to her epic rendition of Heart’s “Magic Man.” I tell Joey that I’m sorry. I miss everyone, but I was miserable and unhealthy, and I wanted to live; I moved to California to work on my life.
Joey tells me that back in New York, friends and enemies alike can’t stop joking about how I moved to the West, where they’re always seeking revolution. I still don’t know what that means. Maybe seeking revolution is a way to make the world livable when it feels complicated, when there are so many moving parts. Bodies joined in protest can literally embody our collective vision of the future. Fantasy can be an imperfect solution; it’s why we have the cinema.
But it’s all a story we tell ourselves nonetheless. Something imaginary.
Shamefully, I did not come to Patricia Highsmith by way of Literature. I came to Patricia Highsmith by way of Homosexuality. The first work of hers I encountered was The Talented Mr. Ripley, initially the 1999 film based on the book of the same name, then later the book itself. In this story of a stolen identity, Tom Ripley (played by Matt Damon) is an unremarkable young man and occasional con artist who befriends Dickie Greenleaf (played by Jude Law) at the behest of Dickie’s father, in an attempt to get him on the right path. Dickie is a spoiled, wealthy playboy Tom is envious of. It does not hurt anyone that both of these actors are extremely easy on the eyes. Tom and Dickie forge a tumultuous and deeply homoerotic friendship. Eventually Tom murders Dickie and impersonates him, taking over his glamorous and affluent life—he merges the two of them forever into one.
In 1999, Singapore is a place where homosexuality is still socially unacceptable and any act of “gross indecency” between two men is technically punishable by law, even if this is rarely enforced. My friends and I watch movies every week because that is how nerdy children conspire together to learn more about the world. We are children of questionable, and flexible, sexuality. One of us does not get aroused by anything except pristine sound engineering—specifically, the gun-related sound effects in the blockbuster movie Once Upon a Time in Mexico. Discovering The Talented Mr. Ripley, a charming tale of homoerotic friendship turned murder, felt, to us, like a beacon. Obviously, we did not wish to murder and impersonate our future lovers. But this narrative felt affirming nonetheless. It was the first gay romance we encountered in which the romantic element wasn’t melodramatic or overblown. In which eroticism was not a revelation, but repressive, so latent it could only sublimate into fatality. The Talented Mr. Ripley was a manifestation of the forbidden longing we each felt consumingly, but for which we were too afraid to find a form.
In Highsmith’s pulp lesbian novel, The Price of Salt, the way Carol and Therese fall in love is painfully casual. It’s not graceful or fortuitous. It just happens the way life happens, for no reason at all. They spend time together because of senseless, mundane events. One woman sends the other a Christmas card for no particular reason, the other happens to respond. They drive to Utah because it’s literally just something to do. I love how haphazard the narrative is, the way it seems as though they can’t ever remember why they’re doing what they are. Nothing fits. They can’t help the way they gravitate toward one another; it happens as a simple consequence of going about their lives. In Carol and Therese’s romance, nothing seems new even though they both know everything will now have to change. And as strange as it is, their love becomes the reason anything makes sense anymore. It becomes the ground.
I’m falling asleep, dreaming, I can’t remember about what. When I wake, my nose is bleeding. No surprise, since I am a defective and sickly child. Alongside my asthma and vertigo, I have inherited weak blood vessels in my nose. My mother had hers cauterized, a red-hot rod prodded deep into her nostrils so the delicate, veiny frills would flatten and cease to bleed. I was a replicative mistake, the blood gushing out of my nostrils. I’m kicking and screaming. My grandma’s pulling my head back by my hair, her pudgy fingers strong against my scalp. I remember projectile vomiting, miles and miles of red. I’m dying. I swear it. I pass out from the panic. The next morning, my grandma shows me the basin I remember choking the contents of my body out into. On the pink plastic, there sits only a single tiny blood clot, shriveling in the morning air. I can hardly believe I’m still alive, or how wrong my own experience can be. I can barely believe the lesson I’ve just learned—that what I’m certain I know will rarely be perceived by others as real.
Hannah Arendt once wrote that “storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.” There’s no better way to describe the way homoeroticism functions in Patricia Highsmith’s work. Sexuality is not a defining quality for her characters—the way someone is described as cruel for kicking a cat to the curb, or kind for taking it in. Homoeroticism in a Highsmith narrative happens nonchalantly. It’s a product of a precise and fortuitous series of events, part of a character’s unfolding response to a given situation rather than a permanent obstacle to overcome. Sexuality is woven into the fabric of how each person chooses to negotiate the world. Tom Ripley is a charming people pleaser known for his accurate impersonations of others. His desperation for Dickie’s love turns uncontrollable and murderous because of his class anxiety. Whether or not Tom is gay is basically irrelevant, but the quality of his desire for Dickie is relevant and highly so—it reveals the nuances of the resentments that drive him.
Indeed, there are no “classically tragic” or “gleefully punishable” gay clichés in Highsmith—make a list, and in comparison to her work, each seems more gauche and conspicuous than the last. Instead, she leaves us with a staunch refusal to let sexuality, or any identity, dictate the story of a given life. And without this prescriptive weight, we are forced to free-fall into the fickle human psyche, the arbitrariness of the material conditions it finds itself in. We’re moved beyond assumptions we would otherwise be tempted to make. It’s a better story. Most of the time, to describe a Highsmith character as “gay” is such a gross reduction of their circumstances as to almost be a lie. Sexuality, for Highsmith, is more character development than it is identity politics, and honestly? It seems to do more that way.
Like I’m at home, reading Patricia Highsmith’s biography, when I learn she had a love for snails. She raised a large colony of them in her garden when she was living in France. When it came time to go home, she discovered customs laws prohibited bringing the snails back to the US, so she ended up smuggling a large number of them across the border. She hid the snails under her shirt, along the underside of her braless breasts. Sure, that’s not an identity, but it’s the most lesbian thing I’ve ever heard.
“What a strange girl you are.”
“Flung out of space,” Carol said.
In 1970, a forty-five-foot, eight-ton dead whale is blown up on a beach in Florence, Oregon. Whale flesh and blubber raining down from the sky in large, dangerous chunks. People falling to the ground, stunned by the stench of briny, decomposing entrails. Do you know how big a whale is? Have you ever wondered about whale skeletons and where they come from?
I’m at a talk by curator Hamza Walker at The Lab. He’s telling us about a piece he once acquired, Leviathan’s Edge, by the artist Lucy Skaer. The piece consists of a single whale skull, mounted against a white background and enclosed within a long, narrow hallway. The bone is delicate and hollow, translucent under the staging lights. Along this hallway, freestanding walls block the visitor’s sightline, meaning there’s no angle from which one can get a full view of the skull. Instead, there are only slithers of visibility as one gets closer and closer—an eye socket, a mandible, part of the maxilla. A poignant comment upon man’s relationship to nature, the restricted vision of Leviathan’s Edge suggests our inability to grasp the extent of humanity’s impact upon the environment, its diffuse cruelty. We cannot fully comprehend the gentle dignity of the whale’s almost-extinction, even if we can recognize the skull for what it is.
Walker tells a story about obtaining this piece for the show. He calls the artist on the telephone. “Great,” she says, when he extols the virtues of the piece, puts forward a proposal for him to show it in Chicago. “Great,” he says, in return. There is a pause. “Great,” he says, “and how shall we arrange for transport for the piece?” “Oh,” she says. There is a pause. “Well, I’m happy for you to show the piece, but obtaining the piece, that’s your job. It’s all part of the artwork. You have to want to show it enough to find one. You know, your own whale skull?” Pause.
Walker goes to great lengths in order to obtain this item. He calls several different whale specialists, a profession he previously did not know existed. As purveyors of aquatic mammal specimens, whale specialists are not simply merchants who sell and rent weird skeletons. Their profession also involves carcass removal, which allows them to more easily obtain and preserve the rare and specialized bones. When a beached whale dies and rots away on the shore, its body ballooning with carbon monoxide, you can call a whale specialist to properly dispose of it.
There are many ways to dispose of a whale carcass. You can drag it back into the ocean and let it decompose in its natural habitat. You can bury it until all its flesh melts away. You can cut it up and burn pieces of the flesh, strip by strip. You can blow it up, but after Florence most whale specialists disavow that method of disposal for the sake of the surrounding township. For the sake of a more tourist-friendly “beach aesthetic.”
Either way, I’m not in Chicago. I’ve never seen a whale skull up close. But to me, what’s stunning about Leviathan’s Edge is not the rarity of the near-translucent object. It’s not even that the piece contains within itself a long and arduous quest that must be undertaken by the curator. To me, the beauty of Leviathan’s Edge is that no matter how much you long to, you can never see this sought-after skeleton, its contours and edges, in its entirety. Rather, like any identity, it has to be believed in order to be seen.