Black Wave

Michelle Tea

September 21, 2016 
The following is from Michelle Tea’s novel, Black Wave. Tea is the author of numerous books, including Rent Girl, Valencia, and How to Grow Up. She is the creator of the Sister Spit all-girl open mic and 1997-1999 national tour. In 2003, Michelle founded RADAR Productions, a literary non-profit that oversees queer-centric projects.

Remember When I Was A Lesbian? observing Michelle recalled as she watched herself slip into a bathroom with a boy in a sideways baseball hat. Where did all these men come from? This one was young, twenty-two, though he had told her he was twenty-three, as if it made a difference. She slipped into the dream with ease. She was always lucid now, crossing over as if into another life, one as solidly real as the other.

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Michelle and the boy were inside a brick building in the summertime on the East Coast of the United States of America. When Michelle looked out the window she could see dirty water—not apocalyptically dirty, just the regular soiled and oily water people had become accustomed to in the years before things became irreversible. Michelle saw a greasy harbor and clouds gone pink in the sky. The light was golden and she took a picture of it with her cell phone. It looked like an oil painting on the little screen. There was a long green bridge and beyond that a water tower sat upon a hill. That’s where I’m from, Michelle thought. Michelle felt a great swell of nostalgia for her life—it had been hard and strange to belong to such a place, but looking out at the piers rotting in the scummy water she knew it to be beautiful, the sort of beauty an ugly place will teach you to appreciate.

Michelle was dreaming of an art party. The old brick building housed a gallery that was having an inappropriate-themed costume party, though from what Michelle could see no one had really bothered with a costume. Michelle had bought a pair of cheap white stretch pants at Target and created a very realistic blood stain on her ass, dripping deep-red paint into the crotch, truly striving to replicate the Rorschach patterns of menstrual blood. At the party everyone thought she had really gotten her period and was bleeding all over herself.

And You Didn’t Try To Help Me Out? Thanks A Lot, Sisters, she scolded the lady artists gathered shamefaced around the inappropriate snack table, where tropical punch bobbed with plastic tampon applicators and a giant rubber rat sat in the center of the cheese plate.

The twenty-two-year-old was named Reinaldo. He was an artist and a break-dancer. His break-dancer name was Fly. Michelle wondered if he was the verb, the noun, or the adjective, but he was too drunk to ask. Reinaldo had been sampling the tampon punch bowl, plus drinking cans of Mexican beer. His pinned and reddened eyes were evidence of having smoked a blunt before even arriving at the party. Like everyone else, Reinaldo had thought Michelle’s ass a sad catastrophe, missing the joke. He hung out with her anyway. His hair beneath the baseball hat was a Medusa of curls, his cheekbones could peel the skin from an apple. He gave Michelle flyers for a show of his artwork, at a café in Chelsea. Now Michelle knew she was dreaming. Chelsea, the city that had birthed her, hazed her, and chased her out did not have cafés or art of any sort. Well, someone had bronzed the garbage lying around the city square but that seemed more a cynical prank than art. What Artists Do You Like? she asked the boy, and he blushed and shrugged, looking extra stoned.

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You know. Picasso, Dali . . . He trailed off. All those Spanish cats. And, what’s his name. M.C. Escher.

Oh, said Michelle.

Reinaldo was special because he was from the same place she was from, and so few people were. The City of Chelsea was filled with people from the City of Chelsea, but Chelsea is where they stayed. Michelle had not encountered any since running away, and now here was this boy. His accent was Latin and New England at the same time. It dizzied her, made her feel like she’d been sipping from the tampon punch bowl.

Michelle had invited Reinaldo into the bathroom for a kiss, but soon they were naked on the floor, having sex like frenzied animals. This is so excellent! Michelle thought. Reinaldo the break-dancer was smacking her ass, grabbing her hair, and pulling her face down to his junk, which was surprisingly pretty. I’m so not grossed out by guys anymore, she dreamed wonderingly, taking it into her mouth. Nothing about Reinaldo’s body bothered her. He was petite, his chest hairless, his muscles like the caramel ropes of a candy bar. She couldn’t wait to text message all her friends and tell them how she’d gotten it on with a twenty-two-year-old break-dancer named Fly.

Outside, women were banging on the bathroom door. Bleed through your tampons, bitches, Michelle thought. See if I care. Under the ruckus of their impatience was Reinaldo, calling her girl. As in, C’mon, girl. C’mon, girl. She felt like a gorgeous horse—enormous, magnificent, potentially unbroken. Reinaldo wanted to be slapped. Harder, he said, but Michelle couldn’t get the angle, her hand on his ass. She hit him in the face, but that was too much. He liked when she bit him on his shoulder—Leave a mark. He was trying to make his ex-girlfriend jealous. They still lived together, neither knew what to do, who should move out. He would come home tonight with his shoulder chewed off. His penis, too, apparently. He had to move Michelle’s mouth from his crotch, she was too rough. Michelle turned red and felt sick to her stomach—she gave bad head! It was because she was a lesbian, used to sucking silicone cock for show, just getting crazy with it, gnawing on it, gazing up at her lover with the wide-eyed stare of a pornographic Keane painting. But Reinaldo’s cock was attached to his body forever, and she was hurting it.

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I’m So Sorry, she said, I’m Usually A Lesbian. This did the double trick of honestly explaining her sexual deficiency and letting Reinaldo think he was King Casanova of the known universe, scoring with a lesbian, who cares if she can’t suck cock, she was a lesbian, that is so hot, he couldn’t wait to text message all his friends and tell them how he’d gotten it on with a thirty-seven-year-old lesbian in the gallery bathroom.

Thirty-Seven? Observing Michelle gasped in her sleep. Is That How Old I Am? That was really old. Michelle was faintly concerned about her white leggings and plastic stilettos and fucking young boys in bathrooms at the age of thirty-seven. Observing Michelle peered closely at her dream face, saw the marionette lines parenthesizing her mouth, her mouth which was clamped around her wrist in an effort not to yelp as Reinaldo tunneled his hand into her. Her entire face was furrowed with sex, but those lines between her eyebrows would remain.

Michelle and Reinaldo went up to the roof to smoke a cigarette and kiss some more. Reinaldo pointed at a pile of bricks on the shore and told her that’s where his uncle died, he was a drunko. That’s what he called the man, a drunko. Michelle thought, Oh no, Reinaldo’s a drunko too, if he doesn’t stop drinking he’ll die like his uncle, I’ve got to save him, I’ve got to send him books of paintings by real artists—Balthus, Egon Schiele, Frida Fucking Kahlo, Takashi Murakami! Michelle realized her knowledge of art rivaled her knowledge of fellatio, but Reinaldo desperately needed help and no one was stepping up to give the break-dancer the education he required to get out of Chelsea. She resolved to send him packages. They kissed more and Reinaldo pulled more beer from his backpack, and downstairs in the art gallery the women were aghast at how strongly the bathroom smelled like pussy.

Reinaldo said, You should write a story about me, and Michelle laughed.


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I’ll paint a picture of you. He paused, thought about his art studio in the back closet of the house he shared with his ex-girlfriend who was still pretty much his girlfriend, really, I mean, pretty much they were still together, even though it had been so slutty of her to text those photos—it wasn’t like he hadn’t wanted to hook up with people, too, he’d had opportunities, he was so cute, he knew he was cute, but he just wasn’t a dog like that, and though he didn’t know how he could keep her as a girlfriend when she’d been such a slut, Reinaldo knew he would, probably, and so Reinaldo knew he would not be able to paint a picture of Michelle, fifteen years older than him, splayed out naked on the bathroom floor. And he would not be able to paint the angry, annoyed fists smacking at the door or the way the bathroom became fogged with their sex, because he just wasn’t that good of an artist. Michelle watched Reinaldo flick his cigarette down into the water where his uncle had died. She thought, I can’t write this story. How could I write it? I don’t write erotica.

What if I stayed in this dream forever? Michelle wondered. If the world exploded while she smoked a cigarette with Reinaldo, would she remain here, alive? Michelle could feel the pull of the other world upon her, and for a moment Reinaldo was gone and Michelle was alert to the reality of her lumpy futon, her smushed pillow that stank like scalp, the sun searing through the venetian blinds that couldn’t ever be opened, not anymore, not with the dog and the man rotting in the heat right there. Michelle didn’t want any of it, she wanted the summery New England warmth, the way the air was thick with water, and the dark harbor, the way it lay calm and flat against itself, not giving off clouds of poison, not scummed over with oil so clotted you could float on it, not bumpy with the trash of history. Michelle longed to see it more and so she entered the dream as though walking into a room and she found herself walking in sandals and a flirty dress, beside Reinaldo.

Reinaldo was stoned and drinking a purple Vitamin Water. He wore an enormous T-shirt stamped with the image of Che Guevara and his hair was disheveled. Reinaldo seemed disturbed and his problems swiftly became hers, the problem of having a live-in girlfriend and no place to bring a thirty-seven-year-old lesbian to have sex with. I’m not a lesbian, Observing Michelle thought. If she would live to become thirty-seven years old, Michelle would no longer be a lesbian. What, then, would happen to this twenty-seven-year-old lesbian Michelle, the one back in Los Angeles, drooling on her futon? How did that Michelle become this Michelle? Both Michelles were baffled. The ease and comfort Dreaming Michelle had with her desire for Reinaldo was remarkable. Isn’t she afraid she won’t be gay anymore? Observing Michelle wondered. Isn’t she afraid that her friends will be upset, that people will feel betrayed, that they’ll call her a straight girl and act like she’d been faking it for the past ten years, will they not like her book anymore, will they call her a phony, will she be abandoned, will lesbians try to make her feel gross for liking a man, men, will they try to make her feel stupid? Observing Michelle observed Dreaming Michelle’s complete lack of anxiety in the situation and decided she would feel it for both of them. Her slumbering body twitched with worry.

We can go to this dude’s house, but he’s kind of crazy, Reinaldo half-heartedly suggested. Part of Michelle wanted to see the crazy dude and have sex in his run-down apartment, and she was proud of herself for overriding that part. She was so mature in her dream! Instead they hid from his girlfriend by climbing chain-link fences and navigating piers so rotten Reinaldo’s sneaker pushed straight through the wood.


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From BLACK WAVE. Used with permission of Feminist Press. Copyright © 2016 by Michelle Tea.

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