My Summer of Crisis
This summer was mild. The sunshine was feeble and the wind strung itself halfheartedly through the trees. It is natural to have many aspirations for summer. I had considered them—a Summer of Swimming, or of Pink Bougainville; a Summer of Cereal Every Day, drowning in cold, crisp milk. But one day, against my will, it became the summer that the person I love most in the world lost their mind and disappeared, and as is natural to the season, everything in my world became it. The Summer of Crisis. My laptop embraced calamity and ceased to function. My body turned light and disposable. I could not eat. My life was composed mechanically. I overfunctioned in an effort to outflank the contingencies of the healthcare system. I called doctors and begged without an ounce of embarrassment. I attempted to circumvent mental illness itself, spinning narratives of recovery with the help of the late-night internet. I stayed on the psychiatric hospital’s phone tree for hours. I cajoled and bullied. Hold music became the soundtrack to my days.
It was the Summer of Crisis, and at breakfast the day after my partner’s first hospitalization, I picked at egg scramble numbly. I wore a tennis skirt with a peter pan collar. I looked my best friend Claire in the eye and told her that in response to an overwhelming amount of trauma, I desired nothing more than to be beaten to oblivion in the most depraved of sexual circumstances. I thought of it every moment. I craved world-obliterating violence to be done to me. I wanted my teeth to shift and subsequently to taste blood.
Claire looked back at me without flinching. She said, “yeah, of course,” so I cried. She knew me enough to drive me home. Feet up against the dashboard, cigarette in my hand. Her car seats were a creamy leather, its smell a complicated mixture of biocide treatment, damp skin and grass. I breathed it in and tried to contain my own complexity. I noticed my fear, reinscribing itself, cell by cell, into an unwieldy libidinal need. I felt the ache begin between my thighs. I iced between them with a Gatorade Cool Blue from the gas station. I breathed out and tried to let it pass.
The low light found its way through the clouds and magnified itself into high-intensity sparks off the glossy surfaces of the cars in the lane. I hated it, but it soothed me.
“You can really feel this energy and excitement. It’s all about the torque,” says a serene voice in the opening shots of Zachary Epcar’s short film Life After Love (2018). The camera pans out to reveal rows of cars loitering in the heat of an asphalt parking lot. Composed of tender close-ups of vehicle interiors, interspersed with notably more distant portraits of the humans that sit, static, within them, Epcar’s film seems at first a meditation on isolation. A man in a collared shirt sits in the driver’s seat, eating his lunch out of a glass container, his eyes shaded from the light by the car’s aluminum frame. Another with messy hair trembles, gripping the wheel. He doesn’t hit the gas. The car doesn’t move.
Life After Love’s voiceover mimics the combined language of auto dealer TV ad and self-help tape—and is consistently interrupted by mechanical beeps and hums, giving the pleasant effect of car and human as smoothly integrated machine. We are lulled. We are comfortably bolstered by technology we can rely upon. “It makes you feel so connected, designed by humans for humans, ensuring that every driver experiences seamless [hummm],” the voiceover says reassuringly “It’s simply an extension of your body. The ideal position is one in which the body closely mimics [click click click...]” Through a windshield, we see a woman sitting with her eyes closed. Her lips part. ‘Yes,’ she murmurs alongside the track. The people in the film are all clearly experiencing distress—from work, from love, from unease—but their affect is leveled easily by Epcar’s aesthetic of luscious containment—the soft microfiber of the seat, the opaque sturdiness of each pane of glass. Here, the automobile becomes interiority itself—a space to restructure a functional emotional configuration rather than to succumb to the embarrassment of expression. A space, to as Peggy Phelan writes, “re-touch, revise, reinterpret how one has lost, is lost.”
Indeed, if isolation is, in part, a need to divorce oneself from feelings of intensity, what we find in this film is a hybrid vehicle of motorized intimacy. Where emotional response becomes inseparable from automatic signaling. Where mood emerges with as much depth as the reflection of a skyscraper in a piece of powder coated metal. Epcar has made a world that is, despite its calmness, continually glinting, tinged by an unsettled, lingering sense of suppression.
But where there is suppression, there is also desire, and it is everywhere in Life After Love—the desire for a better life, for a relationship lost. For each secure, shining surface there is also a wavering reflection within it, a needy squiqqle of the disembodied. And rather than any fantasy articulating itself into focus, we find in its place a stop-motion palette of color that skims past our vision before fading, inaccessible, out of sight. The dense landscape of a window peels itself away to reveal freckled human skin. An eager puppy licks a window with enthusiasm. We follow its tongue on the other side of the glass, unable to track what it is reaching for.
With emotion sublimated neatly into mechanization, where does desire lie but on the sidelines, inscribing itself strangely into an efficiently entangled web of autoresponse. Continually perpetuated in the cyclical workings of a machine, it is never able to be fully conveyed, let alone satisfied.
Perhaps what lies latent in the stillness of Epcar’s film, that despite our efforts to disperse desire’s intensity, it always reroutes itself; remains slickly mobile.
It was the Summer of Crisis but we made it to the river anyway. On the hike down, seeing a sign that said NO ENTRY with a map beside it, I obediently turned away, but the rest of the group kept going. I chased after them, and we found the perfect resting spot a little way down. I felt weird about being in a NO ENTRY ZONE. I made a joke about Althusser, whose concept of interpellation was designed to illustrate the mechanism by which repressive ideologies manipulate the subject. Althusser gives the example of a police officer who yells—‘hey, you there!’ on an open street full of people. His call may not be specific to me, a private individual, but I know how despite my politics, and fucking knowing better, I would probably turn back to answer the call.
Weeks later, I failed my driving test from staunchly refusing to make a right turn the examiner had dictated to me because of a large lit sign that said ‘NO RIGHT TURN.’ It turns out the sign was malfunctioning but I always follow the signs. I am too easily interpellated.
The desire for pain has always been my automatic response to distress, so I followed the signs. My body ached for it. Arguing with a nurse, I imagined fingers in my throat, wide enough for their nails to draw blood. The uneven feeling of my head as it struck the floor. Brain against skull. I wanted to feel spit between my fingers as I choked it up on my hands and knees, viscosity flecked with tears. Skin tearing like mosaic off my knuckles. Unable to sleep, I watched Fight Club in the darkness, Edward Norton’s bruised eyes reflecting my own.
Edward Norton punched himself repeatedly in the face. I projected my consciousness into his, played the violence of the movie like a script in my mind. I wanted an arm around my neck, systematically eking air out of my lungs. I wanted a hand twisting in the lapels of my shirt, and cock buried inside me, hard enough to rip me from the world. I thought of a fist to my gut. I called a lawyer, then a bail bondsperson. The mental healthcare system is a pipeline to the carceral one. I talked, and my jaw clicked from an old injury.
In Lisa Taddeo’s new book, Three Women, she explores, through entwined narratives, the sexual desire of three different women—Maggie, groomed in high school to have an affair with her English teacher, Lina, who suffers with fibromyalgia related to her husband’s refusal to touch her, and Sloane, who sleeps with other people for her husband’s voyeuristic pleasure. Depicted in the high detail of portraiture and with pronouns constantly shifting, we, the audience are almost too close—it becomes difficult in moments to know which woman is speaking—or if we are in fact hearing ourselves. Reading it, I like how I feel more claustrophobia than sympathy, before it turns my stomach with recognition.
Jo Livingstone writes in The New Republic that “each of Taddeo’s women suffers, horribly, through a combination of internalized misogyny that stunts their maturity and mistreatment at the hands of cruel or stupid men. They speak to themselves in the voices of their own abusers.” And what strikes me most about Three Women is that these voices do not speak purely with language. They speak too, in the fiery desire Maggie feels for her teacher via a Twilight novel and the coercive romantic norms he has taught her to embrace. They speak in Lina’s desperate texts begging her lover to meet her lest she die of need. They speak in Sloane’s polyamorous post-coital conflation of discomfort and egotistic validation.
In other words, they speak with undeniable pleasure.
The same masochistic pleasure I seek—of the breathlessness of blood in my nose, burning like motor oil, slipping darkly into a pool on the linoleum floor.
There’s an unnerving cut to found footage in the middle of Epcar’s Life After Love, a scene of four people at a dinner party. Rendered in slow motion, every tic is visible on the faces of its participants, especially those of a man and woman. Ostensibly, they are a couple. Compared to the soothing metallic palette of the film’s opening, this clip seems loud, harshly orange and lurid. The woman’s eyes scrunch up as she laughs, her mouth gaping painfully, cheerfully. The man takes a bite and looks over to the left, his gaze lingering. His teeth are bleached chips. Together, they clink their glasses. They laugh involuntarily. They insist on their unified happiness.
The moment feels crucial—a sinister X-ray of Epcar’s alluring study of motorized reaction. It seems like a split-second caution: that what appears seamless, especially in our romantic relationships—remains dictated by the skeletal structures and limits of social norm.
When I was a girl, I did not feel as though I could ask for love, or that I deserved it. In response to this, I hurt myself, refrained from eating, and eventually began engaging in extremely violent sex as a means of making visible my yearning for love. Subconsciously, I hoped that the bruises on my neck, my skeletal wrists, or my sliced-up thighs might cause someone to take notice and coax them into wanting to take care of me, out of their own volition. Because of this, many men enjoyed reminding me that I would be nothing without their sexual exploitation, disguised sloppily as care.
Years later, I may be ashamed but the fantasy of destructive sex is still my ideal position in crisis.
Desire, by nature, collects to where it’s needed. Lubricant in the machine, it may reinscribe itself onto our traumatic experiences. We design elaborate facsimiles of our worst moments in order to repeat them. We doom ourselves to respond mechanically with pleasure. We are helpless to stop.
When it is virtually impossible to experience sexuality outside of the world’s hetero-patriarchal-fucked-up conditions; outside of our own resulting internalized shame—can we call this sublimation survival?
In J.G. Ballard’s Crash, the narrator, alongside his friend Vaughn is fascinated with the erotic possibilities of car crashes. In the opening pages, we discover that their perversity is about sex because it is also about communion—“Vaughn… dreamed of… taxis filled with celebrating children colliding head-on below the bright display windows of deserted supermarkets. He dreamed of alienated brothers and sisters, by chance meeting each other on collision courses on the access rounds of petrochemical plants, their unconscious incest made explicit in this colliding metal.”
What the narrator and his friend want to mirror in the event of the crash is the inextricable relationship between socio-political ill and the flawed essence of humanity, where the depravity of the former is reflected in the destruction of the latter. Where the crash, orchestrated specifically for the person getting off on it, generates a spiritual and physical climax, that in its total annihilation, absolves them of the sins of both. Where true human connection can finally be achieved, if only in the viscera of mingling brain matter, rotting on the tarmac.
We like to think of “good” desires (for revolution, for the greater good, whatever that means), as separate from the “bad” ones, (for weird sex, or for selfish gain). But desire is nothing if psychically mobile, and I’m obsessed with how common it is for a bad desire to transmute itself to a good one and vice versa. For example: the desire to enact philanthropy may in fact be a symptom of narcissism; a teen girls’ fetish for homosexual porn may become a quest for sexual agency. A desire to crash one car into another may also be a nihilistic, sacrificial gesture against the societal evils we knowingly remain complicit in.
Perhaps the most disturbing, and most optimistic thing about desire is its indiscriminate changeability. And faced with it, I wonder—when rerouted to the perverse, the socially unacceptable, does desire itself have the strength to destroy the social structures that delineate it?
For its fickleness, probably not.
But in the throes of illicit pleasure, sometimes it feels as if the whole flawed edifice could fucking crumble.
There’s not much to Emily Chao’s 2018 film No Land. Filmed in black and white 16mm, we find ourselves amongst some trees. The grain of aging bark is beautifully rendered, the light hits the grove so it dapples through the leaves. Incongruously, there is an iPad angled outward towards us, nestled within the natural. As the camera zooms in, the machine’s dark square pulses with sharp electronic energy. Around it, the 16mm film flickers with the residue of its staunch materiality, a rejection of the flawless digital. The lattice of branches disappears, the background turns black, then white with overexposure. Light stripes the screen as contrast turns itself inside out. The 16mm pronounces how it breaks and changes with process or minor injury. And through it all, the iPad’s tiny digital square keeps on pulsing with interminable vitality, getting smaller and smaller as the camera closes in before it finally retreats.
In conversation, Chao tells me that she wanted to make a film that would feel innocuous, easily overlooked, but would return to the viewer in moments, resurfacing over time, in memory, as feeling. But for me, Chao’s film captures the very texture of desire—the way it turns constantly, coming in and out of focus. No matter how near or far, desire remains; like the static square in No Land, vivid and inexhaustible. It throbs like a lighthouse - in the beautific realm of fantasy, in the dark nihilism of despair, in the blankness of abstract hope. And in each of these contexts, desire mutates to serve a different function even as it remains constant. It can be cathartic, destructive, liberating—even if these effects are temporary—it soon turns away.
At the end of her essay on Three Women, Jo Livingstone notes that “if female sexuality is in fact a fluid and endlessly revised substance… then women’s sexuality is a learned phenomenon that can change, can be critiqued.”
Too often, I fall into the trap of believing that desire must be immovable in order to be valuable, governable in order to have any emancipatory potential. But Chao’s film reminds me that perhaps desire is best when we let it change—when we can sit quietly and feel it throb through us, let it turn as it likes, from good to bad and back again. When we can let our desire leave and return to us in new and different forms.
And what would we learn if we gave in to desire’s changeability? Could we find a way to experience it outside the automation of socially encoded response? Reprogram it outside of our heteronormative, patriarchal imperatives?
What would it mean to sit in the wrongness of our desire, and let it torque as we became aware of it? As we examine it, account for it, share it with each other? Would it turn to something simpler, something with the expansiveness of embedded respect, or mutual love? And crucially, would that neutralize the intensity of its charge?
After all, what is desire but our inability to reach the love we cannot grasp and that we continue trying to hold.
It was the end of the Summer of Crisis, and the person I loved was safe. Their mind had returned. I assumed normalcy again. I did so uneasily, like an itchy sweater, the stiff fibers refusing to settle against my skin. I kept the daily visitor’s badges from the psychiatric hospital by my bed, each one candy-striped to show how time had passed since they had been issued. Their red a gaudy indication that they ceased to be either functional or valid. I went to work. I talked to my therapist. I made dinner. I did not take any Ativan. I lived my life as I remembered it. It was alien to everything I had known. I was unable to parse one feeling from another—relief from anger, satisfaction from frustration. I could not calibrate a prolonged emotional plateau, I peppered this period with panic attacks and a lingering sense of paranoia. I desired nothing and felt everything.
Desperate to escape the discomfort of post-Crisis and wanting to make it on a weekend hike, my love and I ended up driving to Livermore an hour and a half away. It was a hundred degrees there, and the air didn’t move around your body when you walked into its stifling mass. Loathe to climb anything that resembled a hill, we found instead a tiny creek, running with ice cold water. We tripped over branches on the narrow trail down. Treading it, I noticed how suffering lingered in my body. I felt it in the friction of my joints and the way my head lopped to my shoulder, the way the balls of my ankles swiveled involuntarily towards the ground.
But when we reached the edge of the creek, I lay on the gravel, shaded by trees. The light was soft and my skin consumed it hungrily. I sensed the warmth scalding my face. A glow seeping stealthily into the dark behind my eyes. I resented it but let it in. I touched my love’s hair. I pressed by back into the floor. I didn’t know what it was exactly that I wanted in that moment, but I noticed it was something new. Something I didn’t yet know how to say. I dipped my foot in the stream, and felt the current press against it. I let it leave me. It would return.
For now, feeling it was enough.