I was upset.
I was at a café in Philadelphia at a spiking hot metal table in the front. This was last year in early July. I was wearing a marigold jumpsuit, for which bees were favoring me. Or are bees around anyone at any outside table no matter the color you wear?
The wind wasn’t vigorous. It is probably grandiose to think that bees surround you in all their limited supply, but I thought that.
I wore red lipstick with purple x’s mixed into it kind of thing. And dark-green shoes. I had on very very dark-green shoes, a black-green vegan leather more like a liquid you would press from a hot tampon you are pulling now, by the lamplight, out of a toad’s omnibus of Anaïs Nin.
I had been thinking a lot lately about the role I’d played in my family, as their scapegoat. I was thirty-six now, but it still affected me and especially in this week that had brought me a reminder—a package.
People said “Burn it.”
Maurice in the adjunct office said, “Iris, burn those letters down. The play, too.” He laughed, already looking at some other stuff. Some of his stuff. People who like you so much, like Maurice, don’t naturally want to dwell on these sorts of problems with you. You’re too good for these problems, and other things, politics, the socius, other books are way more interesting.
And Hilary in Cleveland had said, “You can’t keep those in your house with you. Iris.”
I could hear her little Bialetti conjuring up a coffee over the phone. A simple yet sophisticated procedure.
I didn’t want to burn the letters though. “No, I won’t do that, Plum.”
Hilary’s name, Hilary Plum. I always thought, if someone was falling in love with her, a fruit surname like that would irresist them to her forever.
Plum said, “Oh?”
“If a package like this gets sent to my house, Plum, this evil package, I will be forced to use every last bit of it up”—I meant in my writing. Was this package the right thing for my absolute, eviscerating use? I thought about that myth of the Native person and his buffalo, how in middle school it is said that the Native person uses every last bit of a buffalo, and I would be stripping this package down and using up every last piece of it. The Native person uses, in the schooldays teaching, even the bowels of a buffalo, as a bag for weeds (herbs) or water.
It’s simple, I had to turn the negative, this dastardly package that arrived out of nowhere for me, hurting me greatly, into a positive. For a big use. When I was done with it, I fantasized, there’d be no package left as there are no bison, no wild bison any longer. This is the wrong metaphor. Maybe the package was more like a bomb than a bison, and I, instead of being in this analogy like a Native person, was more like a thirty-six-year-old white woman but a detective, too, who with my wits was meant to dismantle all this stuff. You can’t throw a bomb out in the garbage, or, as Maurice suggested before leaving for his science class designed for artists at the arts college, burn the bomb up. You have to lean in to the bomb, more a Cheryl Sandberg type than an Indigenous person. But it was not lost on me at all that we were sitting in the adjunct office on Broad St. on all this Lenape territory, and that these Lenape, contrary to plaques, never signed a treaty, and that we who live do so in a gruesome aridity.
The problem was how to use and/or dismantle it. The package’s harm was very specific to me. I was my family’s scapegoat. There was hatred I was meant to hold in the place of a loved self. The letters included in the package delivered to me last July were some of the finest proof of that anyone has ever seen. But there was nothing political, nothing topical to it. This was my own personal turmoilous history with my people. Except that I wanted, most of all, for these letters, in that package, to be made public, to become a topic, that the public should really see this, and publishing should be like that, like a tactic. A book should be like a lot of spit. But who would publish me? Who publishes a person who’s sort of soaking in pain, who can’t always walk, employed only pretty much in name?
Did writing exist in books anyway these days? I thought, perhaps very defensively. Maybe it didn’t.
Where does writing foment? Where does effulgence slip in the innerlining of which writing? That is what I meant.
Maybe writing these days, I thought, was more in the grocery lists, lately such a bunch of just wish lists, or at least with the arts students I adjuncted at, real writing flowed out of them when they wrote to me directly to a) accuse me of something and b) let me know why they could not do an assignment or any of the assignments or be anywhere or get to a reading. Why-I-can’t or, even better, Why-I-won’t writing was better, much much better, than any other writing I was currently reading. It was lively. It seemed to describe the contemporary. But I hardly read.
But students aren’t only archival pieces of detriment for an almost gen-x-er like myself to pick through. I think they knew what their literary power was when they wrote me these sometimes problematic emails, considering I was this part-time woman they were dumping all of this No energy onto as if I were their signal oppressor. Maybe in the superlative arc of the universe I was their most approachable oppressor, that’s fair, but the best writing for anyone is an accident or at least it feels like a big oblong coincidence. Maybe it does really need to be in the form of a letter. The letters in my package were an evil archive, for sure, a father who hates his own daughter???—no, who wouldn’t mind destroying her—no, who desperately needs her love and wants to choke it out of her—who thinks she could sustain these horrible letters. Worst package of my life.
So I’d rather eat this package, I told myself, and use it all up, wear it and beat people with it, than burn it for some kind of psychotherapeutic tirade. Rather smash my face in it than rip its messages like a burnt bandaid off of this earth, tearing trees and daffodils out in the process. Save the daffs. Hey, save daffs. I wanted to perversely walk around with my package, my prize, like a kid who’s got some sodden snake out of a pig pit and determines to make out with it. I’d marry this package, if I weren’t already. Yuck. I was.
I had been married for five years. Joe was a recovering alcoholic. He told me that microdosing heroin was helping him in his recovery, from alcohol, so I had been watching him do that on the couch and sitting dinnerside in the kitchen for months inside of this illusion that I was the one who was allowing it, allower, and marriage manager, and like some kind of inspector at the border of his biochemical pastures who could approve (or not) of these different things, such as heroins, and I was the one—I told myself a lot—letting heroins and methamphetamine in in small enough, in reasonable doses, passing through my controls into him, in my fucked up thinking, since it was helping him, I reasoned, with his drinking problem, and people, he told me, are actually doing this.
“They shoot up at the meetings,” he said.
He told me he went to meetings.
He told me his microheroins dealer was actually his sponsor.
He said he hadn’t drunk anything in years.
At the time of the beginning of this (me sitting at Good Karma, upset), Joe was missing. He’d been missing since earlier. After another argument about a blowjob. I don’t think he even wanted one. I think an addict wants to argue, so that they get to leave. Leaving is the first step to using, if you’ve used everything at home, and he’d torn through all cigarettes, drinks, and heroin like the house was his big wild bison in this problem of a comparison, glugging at the rubbing alcohol—alcoholism is cartoonish and garish and often passes out on its own nose, and getting married is like that, too, like entering into some kind of waking cartoon.
He said he hated me, I was a bitch, because I wouldn’t blow him. He probably went to Kensington, northerly neighborhood, with its muddy banks of homelessness and use, and its rolling mountains of charred sleeping bags in reds and oranges and greens like some kind of Montagne Sainte-Victoire of Paul Cézanne’s will, and I sat at Good Karma, having finished up my class on writing fiction, waiting for Ray Levy. The package, which sat with me like my little horrid poodle, a slim white USPS box, almost an envelope but not, so that it took on the shape of a hollowed book, contained four things:
1. A typed letter my dad had handed me, in my bedroom, when I was fourteen years old.
2. A typed letter he’d handed to me when I was sixteen years old.
3. A legal pad on which, when I was seventeen years old and leaving soon for college, I had written half of a play I’d titled “Billy the Id.”
My dad had sent these things to me again that July, saying in a note that he was clearing out drawers at the old family home in the suburbs, and he’d found these things I must have, as a teenager, taken care to place somewhere. Maybe I’d hid them. I hadn’t been back over. It was unclear if he knew what he’d sent. Maybe he didn’t know. He’d sent out to me some pile that seemed to be mine. Maybe he hadn’t really read through these things. But here they were, things that had torn through me as a teenager sent as a totally perverse encore, at thirty-six, to do their work on me again, like an insane boomerang the stars had drilled strings in.
Everything comes around, but I couldn’t believe I’d have to bear these letters twice in one life, and the play? “Billy the Id”? Oh my god! I couldn’t believe I wrote that! Who was I? You could say I had pep. I’d wanted to be a playwright. Reading it over again, shocked by what I’d written (its badness, its strange promise), it seemed I must have been reading Edward Albee and Allen Ginsburg and Naked Lunch and whatever other males available at the high school library where I remember I also read everything by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, by John Updike, by Anthony Burgess, and ok, Anne Sexton. So embarrassing though, “Billy the Id,” good thing I’d never finished it. It seemed, from one of the opening quips of the rapscallion Billy—a character I’d intended as the living embodiment of the id—I believed that John Updike was one of the great beat poets?
Why would I have thought that?
Did I think anyone is a beat poet if they use women as a metaphor? Is a beat poet anyone who exalts and so silos women? Is a beat poet someone who uses his journey as the template for human time? Is a beat poet someone who has a lot of “pubic” episodes? I’d wanted badly to be a beat poet, I remember that. I wanted to be like the great beat poet John Updike. Beat poets like that are like islands, you want to be them, you can’t quite see yourself as the drowning type. I envied, admired, and emulated beat poets and I hated my dad so, so much, and thought about killing him, but his letters to me, I mean look at them, I mean, he was the greatest beat poet by these standards, even much better than Updike.
But what I’d really wanted to know, sitting there at Good Karma waiting for Ray, was how did my dad even find my latest address?
I hadn’t talked to him in over a decade. My remaining family member—Kenneth, my slightly older brother—knew I wanted nothing to do with him anymore. He’d been begging me to come back into the fold of the family for years, saying stuff like “Things change” and “Dad’s mellowed” and “You can’t be angry forever,” and what did I do? I wore these harsh yellow outfits all the time, this linen stuff, dyed with this kind of dye you can only find or anyway I’d only found it in Tucson, sort of the molten marigold soufflé spilling out boldly onto Tilda Swinton’s complete oeuvre of Irigaray? Have you seen this stuff? Why did I always wear such a burning color as marigold? I once felt like I was being burned alive by my dad, when I was a young teenager. You should see these letters. Now I was always wearing the pelt, the harsh linen pelts of how I fucking felt. You leave because shelter is insufficient. Shelter doesn’t have all kinds of stuff. I’d been dressing like that for a while.
It was important not to have any contact with my dad, if I were going to move on in my life. I wasn’t angry, I was very protective. I couldn’t go over the edge of anxiety and panic and depression and feelings of self-abnegation. The letters were already retrograding me hard. I’d barely even looked at my students that day, in our summer class. I’d looked at them like a guilty dog. I walked around like someone was going to kill me if I looked anyone at all in the eye.
But as I waited for Ray at Good Karma, I couldn’t stop myself from thinking, Who gave my dad my address?
No, I didn’t think anything of that sort. Knowing it was Kenneth . . .
It was Kenneth, I knew.
A scapegoat escapes. You can learn a lot by looking at words. Not using etymology, something the theorist Maurice Blanchot warns us about in grave and clear terms, thank god: “Likewise, the radicalization whereby etymology’s linkages appear to promise us the security of a native habitat is the hiding place of the homelessness which the ultimate’s demand (the eschatological imperative: without finality and without logos) incites in us as uprooted creatures, deprived by language itself of language—of language understood as ground where the germinal root would plunge, and as the promise of a developing life.” Uprooted creatures, we cannot all be traced back to a source or be understood from the viewpoint of our origin.
Excerpted from Revenge of the Scapegoat, published today by Dorothy, a publishing project.