Letter from the Editor

“What happens in a certain place can stain your feelings for that location, just as ink can stain a white sheet.”

—Lemony Snicket


This month's issue of Bright Wall/Dark Room is all about places: real, imagined, and otherwise. About visiting them and being changed by them, about living in them and moving away, about coming to terms with them or learning to define new terms altogether, about finding love, or identity, or acceptance along the way.

In the pages that follow, we'll take a rather unconventional trip across the globe, stopping off in Tokyo (Lost in Translation), London (Skyfall), New Orleans (Beasts of the Southern Wild), Texas (Ain't Them Bodies Saints), Nebraska, Connecticut (Stanley & Iris), Seattle (Singles), and Twin Peaks. We'll take a deeper look at these places—and all the various places, internally and externally, that these places call to mind—in the hopes of seeing how they leave their marks on us, and how we change by moving through them.

—Chad Perman, Editor-in-Chief


This Was in Texas

by Kelsey Ford

illustration by Sophia Foster-Dimino

illustration by Sophia Foster-Dimino

The movie opens with a title card.

"This was in Texas.”

Then the back of a woman’s head, her hair glinting with sun. She’s walking away, through a field with dying grass and trees with branches like cracked bones.

Off-screen, a man’s voice: “Ruth. Hey, Ruth.” His tone is searching, not urgent.

Bob Muldoon and Ruth Guthrie are in the midst of a fight. Ruth is angry, but not walking away so fast that he can’t catch up with her. Bob asks her where she’s going. Grabs for her elbow. She flares at his touch. She’s upset because he’d talked to a friend about going off on his own. He laughs.

“When I say on my own,” he says, “I mean you and me.”

Bob is tall and solid, silent, the kind of person you could picture standing at the edge of a room, quietly assessing. Ruth is fiery but small and fragile. Both seem coiled, as if their bodies demand the other’s.

Bob’s words don’t sway Ruth. She spits out:

“Are you going to leave me? Because I will leave you first.”

But her armor can’t last long. He laughs. He pulls her toward him, into his chest. She tells him she’s pregnant. She doesn’t want to go to jail. She doesn’t want a man that won’t be there. That night, sitting in the back of a truck, waiting for their friend and accomplice to arrive, Bob lays with his head in her lap and sings to her belly.

*

I was born in Texas. My dad had just gotten a job in Mississippi, but he and my mom had been living in Portland for the last half decade and their insurance didn't reach that far east. He dropped my mom off at his aunt and uncle’s home in Fort Worth on his way to Jackson.

It was the last destination on a trip across the country in their VW van. Along the way, they’d stopped off in Las Vegas to get remarried, eight months pregnant with me. Two years earlier, after less than a year of marriage, my mom had gone to the back of a bookstore and torn out the last page in a “do it yourself” divorce book. She'd gotten into a low-residency nursing program; with their combined income, they weren't eligible for financial aid, but she couldn't afford the program without it.

For the rest of that month, my mom floated in my great-aunt’s pool, ballooned with me. When she went into labor, my dad hopped a plane and was there before I came out. Even back then, I took my time to get places.

This is one of my favorite stories. Not just because it’s my origin story (which does help), but because it’s not about “will they or won’t they.” It’s about “how.”

*

Every movie has its own vocabulary, and in Ain't Them Bodies Saints it’s declared within minutes. The world of this 1970s Texas is one of goldenrod, unframed fields and crayon-thick twilight. Unbounded roads and broken-down houses, slats boarded across doorways. Dust swirling through slanted light.

Events happen quickly in the first fifteen minutes. Ruth tells Bob she's pregnant, and then they're caught hiding behind an old home's door frame with their friend, Freddy, while the police fire at them. Freddy takes a bullet. Ruth shoots and hits a deputy in the shoulder. By the time Bob’s whispering “Wait for me” at Ruth, as the policemen mount the steps and he’s readying himself to take the fall for his pregnant wife, the audience has barely had a chance to breathe.

Ruth and Bob are handcuffed and walked through that dying front yard toward the squad cars. Even as the policemen try to pull them apart, their chests arch toward the other. As if their hearts have become magnetized.

This movie picks up where others might leave off. We’re not given Bob and Ruth’s origin story. We’re given their aftermath.

*

I don’t remember the south. By the time my memory kicked in, I was living in the Pacific Northwest. But I am deeply familiar with that bodily need to be within weeds. For the first eighteen years of my life, the bottoms of my feet were callused, my legs used to pushing through bramble. My backyard was half an acre of grass, and then beneath that, four acres of untended wood.

Sometimes in the late afternoon, I'd go to the bottom of the yard and walk down a path, toward where the shadows grew thicker between trees. I'd taunt myself with how close I could get, alone, before turning and running back up, terrified that some rustling (surely only a rabbit or a bird) was a coyote or, worse, the mountain lion we were told had nested between branches.

My best friend back then lived down on the other side. Less than a mile that way. If I pushed straight through the wilderness, I could be on her front porch within fifteen minutes. Once, I got it in my head that we should pass letters to each other in a cleaned out popcorn tin I wedged between the ground and a fallen log, its bark covered with moss.

I can’t remember what I wrote in the letter I put in that tin, since I saw her every morning and afternoon on our bus anyway, and I don’t know if she ever put in a response, because I never thought to check it again. For all I know, it's still there.

*

Four years later, Bob escapes. He pushes his way through forests, jacks a car, hops a train. Finds his way to a bar run by his friend, Sweetie, with a small room on the second floor he can hide out in. When Sweetie asks how he did it, Bob shrugs. “I just walked out,” he says. Even here, the story isn't about the escape, but what he's escaping toward.

He writes Ruth a letter, delivered fourth hand. “Dear Ruth,” he writes. His jagged handwriting now familiar across the screen. He wants them to leave together. The three of them. Bob, Ruth, and the four-year-old daughter, Sylvie, he has yet to meet.

By now, the love between Bob and Ruth has become muscle memory. The couple exists for each other through scar tissue: recollection and lead-scratched letters. Their love is like a vine wrapped around a tree, then eaten by its bark. Preserved, while everything around it ages.

Bob makes his way through town, asking after Ruth, trying to case their escape without getting on the police’s radar. He goes to check on Skerritt, Freddy's father. Skerritt has since set Ruth and Sylvie up in a small, safe home, where he can watch out for them. Without Freddy to father, he's turned his attentions to Ruth. He threatens Bob, says if he ever comes near those girls, that will be the last of him. Skerritt knows that not only is the law after Bob, but there are also three men haunting him, searching for recompense for some past harm.

Bob barely registers Skerritt's threat. He is slowly, shudderingly, reentering Ruth’s orbit.

Ruth has more than her heart to consider. There’s Sylvie now, and the bundle of kittens they’ve adopted. Her world has become fragile. But Bob can’t understand this. He hasn’t helped raise Sylvie. He doesn’t know what it is to worry about a small thing like her. All he knows is his love for Ruthie, and his unwavering trust that that can be enough.

This is what we have to understand. Without this love, nothing would have happened. It's the reason he's put in jail, it's the reason for his escape.

But their new lives, built on memories, must bend beneath the weight of the present.

*

Years later, and now I’m in New York. There are no unframed fields here, no unbounded roads. No landscapes stretch out past the edges of the frame. All New York has is edges.

When I first saw Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, it was the middle of a Saturday and there were only three others in the small theater at the IFC. One woman, seated three rows below me, took out a banana while the opening credits rolled and slowly, too humanly, picked her way through it.

Movies have become a solace for me in this city. A way to get away from the noise of other people. I’ve been accused of being too sensitive to everything—the fervor, the emotions, the needs and elbows and smells. All of it. Going to movies alone has become an easy pill. Two hours away from concrete and stares.

I’d heard about the movie months earlier, and had been looking forward to it since. Something about the trailer, the colors and sounds, clued me in. This would be a movie I’d love. This would be a movie I wouldn’t stop thinking about for months. And my instincts were right.

The movie's vocabulary was one I understood. That sense of exterior. That space and room to breathe and want. Something in it rang like a tuning fork against my bone.

*

This was in Texas.

That Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a grandchild of Badlands and other westerns is clear, but it grows on their tradition. There are gun fights and outlaws and tracking shots during the golden hour. But Ruth and Bob don’t share the ruthless glee of Bonnie and Clyde, or the melancholic psychopathy of Sissy and Martin inBadlands. They do what they do out of necessity.

A landscape like Texas’s—so vast and demanding—forces a person to do something inside it, to somehow mark off their territory.

And Ruth isn’t Bob’s accomplice. She’s his partner. We see this when Ruth goes out to some boys shooting a pellet gun in the street. She takes it from them, and rather than scolding them, she slots the gun against her shoulder, aims, and fires. The gun ticks off, somewhere down the street. A pure, lightweight smile flits across her face. Muscle memory.

It would be so easy for her to say okay. She would know what to pack, how to hide away in the evening and leave when no one is looking. For her, doing that would be like breathing.

*

I wonder how I’ll feel when I look back at these months in five or ten years. I’ve begun to feel that pit of yearning in my stomach, the kind that makes me throw away trash bag upon trash bag of extra possessions, if only so I can feel light enough to eventually say goodbye. I’ve already begun to shed my surroundings. Every night, I fall asleep daydreaming of the trees I could be near, the overgrown grass I could push my heels into.

Something will change, but I don’t know when or how it will. It’s not a comfortable feeling, knowing you’ll only realize later that you’ve lived through an ending, rather than a beginning.

Most of this movie comes from a similar place of waiting.

“I’ve been storing up all these things,” Ruth says. “Sitting up at night, thinking of all the things I’ll say to him. Except now I have all these things, I don’t know where I’d start.” She’s sitting on the couch, in the home she should have shared with Bob. But it’s not their home, and she doesn’t know if they could survive him walking through the front door. “I’ve been saving every sentence,” she says. “I haven’t slept in four years, and I’m tired.”

*

The title, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, manages to simultaneously suggest a vernacular, a presence, and a mythos. It’s a story about bodies and survival and need.

It’s a lack. A ballad. A bruise.

While Bob gets ready to go see Ruth, he talks to Sweetie. He buttons up his shirt, chews on a toothpick, examines his jaw in the mirror. His words come out easily, almost as if he’d been practicing the speech daily in his cell, learning the words against his tongue until it would be time to use them.

“Sylvie will know me without looking at me,” Bob says. “And Ruthie, by god, she’ll feel me coming down the street. We always just been two parts of the same.” He talks about their fights, how Ruth would throw herself around like a hummingbird and he’d just sit there and laugh until she finished.

“I’d say, Ruth, you can scream at me til your voice is gone, but it don’t make much difference, because when you’re all done screaming, it’s just gonna be me and you sitting in this room. And she said, you’re right. It’s always just going to be the two of us.”

And no matter what happened, it was.


Kelsey Ford is a Senior Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. A recent Los Angeles transplant, via Brooklyn, her work has previously appeared in Her Royal Majesty and Storychord.


If You Ever Get Up This Way

by Elizabeth Cantwell

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

I went to Whole Foods and I bought some David Lynch coffee. On the back it says “IDEAS IN EVERY BAG.” Why doesn’t David Fincher have a coffee, or Martin Scorsese, or Lars Von Trier? Well, obviously. When you think about David Lynch, you think about inspiration, about surreal vistas concocted with that sort of blind optimism that we hope coffee can give us on our most reluctant days. You think about managing somehow to be awake and asleep at the same time.

You think about the town of Twin Peaks, and its small white mugs next to the tall orange ones, and the black brewed liquid pouring gloriously over everything.

*

I just used the word “surreal” because I guess you sort of have to in the opening paragraph of an essay on David Lynch, but I actually think the term is thrown around a little too freely when it comes to Lynch’s work. There is something about the way he does “surreal” that is actually more real than un-.

Look at the opening credits to Lynch’s strange supernatural detective soap opera, Twin Peaks: Bewick’s Wren, perched on a piney, Pacific Northwest-y branch. A mill. A log sawed violently in half. Water and the sound of water. A road, the road, the sign welcoming you with the mountains in the background: WELCOME TO TWIN PEAKS, Population 51,201.

These images are grounded not in imagination, but in place. A harmless place, a removed place, a small town surrounded by beautiful views. But the camera lingers just long enough on the waterfall to shift the viewer’s attention from the objective loveliness of the scene to the violence with which the cascading water pummels the waiting pool. The angle of the wren’s head matches just uncomfortably enough with the grating sounds of factory gears. This is less “surreal” than it is a trick of paying attention to the real so closely that you recognize how twisted and skewed it ultimately is. Until the horrors of the everyday become waking nightmares, and your nighttime dreams a feverish refuge.

*

I went to a reading last night with a friend that took place in a little bookstore off a relatively major LA surface street. Like many places that are warm and open to the public and have places to sit, bookstores attract their share of strange elements. There were a couple of people there whom the rest of us tried collectively to ignore, to wish out of existence by not paying them attention. During the Q and A, one of these people stood up and elaborately removed a crossing guard vest or some other sort of vest with protective glowing strips and asked the author whether she thought gender was “synthetic” and then continued to mutter obscure things under his breath about women while donning the vest again. The vest crinkled very loudly and the man seemed agitated. For a minute or two I thought something terrible was about to happen. The man would have a gun in his blue workout pants, or he’d pull his blue workout pants down and expose himself to us, or he’d start yelling and climb the tree in the center of the bookstore.

The boundaries we erect for ourselves in reality—the ones that keep us convinced that we are in a “safe” place where nothing can happen to us—were crumbling, and I could feel the sinkhole of reality’s unsafe side waver beneath the legs of my chair.

Nothing happened. The man sat back down and then left. The author continued on, unfluttered. My friend and I laughed about it later over a glass of wine because what do you do in the face of the real real but laugh?

*

David Lynch laughs a lot, I think. There’s a scene in the pilot episode of Twin Peaks where Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) is examining Laura Palmer’s dead body, searching for clues. The fluorescent light above her prostrate form is flickering—an effect not planned, but found and embraced (the light was just actually malfunctioning). Agent Cooper turns to a doctor in the room.

“Could you leave us, please?”
“Jim.”
“Uh, would you leave us alone, please?”
“Oh, certainly.”

Could you leave us, please? Jim.

Could you leave us, please? Jim.

This laughably bizarre moment was, like the misfiring light, not planned; the actor playing the doctor genuinely thought MacLachlan was asking for his name, and all MacLachlan could do was repeat his question with the tiniest hint of trepidation that this scene was going awry. Lynch loved it. It was the sort of thing that happens on film sets all the time and gets cut, but it was also the sort of thing that happens in Twin Peaks, so cutting it from this show never entered Lynch’s head.

The beauty of Twin Peaks is that the sense of place the show creates is not just that of a twisted suburbia. The show occurs in a fully-realized town, sure—a town where the pie is plentiful and the roadhouses chock full of heightened lounge singers—but simultaneously unfurls in a liminal space that is less easy to pin down. The place between dreaming and waking. The gray area where the horizon of the sea hits the bottom of the sky. A middle space between improvisation and acting, between letting “real” life unfold and performing a life not your own.

Take Laura Palmer. If you’ve seen the show, her name immediately conjures up a face, a voice, mannerisms, laughter, screams. And yet—the first time we see Laura, she is dead, and all the Lauras we see after that are dreamed Lauras, videotaped Lauras, picture-framed Lauras, flashbacked Lauras. The first time we see Laura Palmer alive, we are able to watch Agent Cooper rewind her, pause her, play her again. She is real and she is an imagined entity and she is dead and she is right there all at the same time, which is the way we all inhabit our spaces—even living, Laura Palmer was a front for something else, an idealized performance. (Our social media presences—our carefully scripted blogs, our perfectly composed Instagrams, our architected Facebook personalities—what are they doing but creating Laura Palmer myths around our own stubbornly difficult selves?)

When Agent Cooper dreams of Laura, there are shadows on his face from the window. This is real. And then he is older, and this will be real. And there is a man with one arm, and his missing arm is real, too. And Laura is placed so very carefully, arranged just so in her black dress and heels. Where we’re from, the birds sing a pretty song.

*

We turn on Twin Peaks and we drive down a road the curve of which we can’t see around. We watch actors play characters who are themselves performing parts. With each of them, there is the space of the body and the space of the mind. The space of the suburban street and the space of the forest.

(Norma wears her clean, crisp diner uniform to cover up her anxiety over how her paroled husband, Hank, will react to her affair with Big Ed. Josie has the demure appearance of a stereotypically subservient Chinese woman but the mind of a classically manipulativefemme fatale. The Man From Another Place has a body that can only manifest inside the extradimensional evil that is the Black Lodge. DEA Agent Dennis/Denise wears a dress and bears a gun. Killer BOB is a mindspace waiting to inhabit a body space. And Laura has the body of a homecoming queen housing the spirit of an abused and angry girl.)

*

For Agent Dale Cooper, though, the space of the body and the space of the mind intersect. Cooper experiences what he dreams and dreams about reality.

His body is porous.

He asks Sheriff Harry S. Truman about Laura’s autopsy and then about Douglas Firs. He pontificates about cherry pie and eats the cherry pie and is very much a physical being even as he floats off into a reverie about Tibet and asks people to throw stones at a bottle to narrow down the list of suspects in Laura’s death. He dreams of a giant man who says wise things and interacts with a scrawny man (Andy) who says silly things but means them. His body is shot, is wounded. His mind is locked up in the lodge.

He belongs in Twin Peaks: the liminal space of the town is the liminal space of Cooper’s own reality. You cannot love Twin Peaks unless you love Agent Cooper. The two depend on each other in some serious and holy way. I’m sure today there would be a grassroots internet movement for a spin-off show around his character, but you and I both know that imaginary show would be simply awful. It is impossible to imagine him anywhere but his wood-paneled room at the Great Northern, sitting at the Double R Diner’s bar, eating donuts with Sheriff Harry Truman at the conference table in the station. His primary “tie” to the outside world—Diane—exists solely in a tape recorder. In the world of Twin Peaks there is nothing outside of Twin Peaks.

Indeed, everything here, everything, feels perfectly indigenous. The trees, the birds, the peculiar interior decoration suffused through the town. Even the stoplights seem to sway in a way completely their own, completely Twin Peaks-y. (Twin Peaks-y, by the way, is totally a valid descriptor of things in our own world; a Google search turns up “Twin Peaks-y on Pinterest,” a Moby music video described as “Very ‘Twin Peaks’-y,” and a quote from M. Night Shyamalan about his upcoming TV show “Wayward Pines”: “It struck me as having a Twin Peaks-y vibe.”)

What can you do when you have dropped into a place that is so fitted to your body—a place that gives you coffee in neverending mugs and a mystery that can stimulate you and a woman as naive and curious and innocent as you are—and you run out of things to do there? To what lengths will you go in order to stay?

Would you perpetuate the search for a bodiless soul? Would you go to sleep every night hoping to dream? Would you conjure up an insane long-lost partner? Would you turn your soul over there, guaranteeing you could never leave?

Twin Peaks is a love story, but it is not the love story of Dale and Annie, or Andy and Lucy, or Harry and Josie, or Donna and James. It’s the love story of a man and a town, a mind and a forest. It’s the love story we all want to be our own as we move into neighborhood after neighborhood, packing our suitcases and our books and hoping this one will be the one we belong in. It’s the story of dreaming something and then looking around you and realizing you’re in the place you dreamed up.

And that’s why I revisit Twin Peaks on Netflix every so often, why I’ve been writing poems with the names of Twin Peaks episodes as titles. Why I bought the David Lynch coffee. I, too, want to land in a place that inhabits me. I want that for everyone I love.

When my son was born, we named him Cooper. 


Elizabeth Cantwell is the Managing Editor of Bright Wall/Dark Room. She is the author of one full-length book of poetry, Nights I Let the Tiger Get You (Black Lawrence Press, 2014) and a chapbook, Premonitions (Grey Book Press, 2014). She lives in Los Angeles with her husband (screenwriter Chris Cantwell) and their son, and teaches Humanities at The Webb Schools.


Only the Lonely

by Erica Cantoni

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

I’ve been thinking lately that travel and love are two of the most connecting forces we can know. Both can create a sense of boundless intimacy—can weave together a two-person community and a set of experiences that the outside world will never really understand.

And both can be profoundly lonely.

Once, I traveled three days by train over the Chinese mainland, through the valleys sunk like an extraction and the fields, raised as a scar. For those 72 hours, I saw no other foreigner, no one with skin as watery and untested as mine. My berth held six bunk beds triple stacked in a tiny cabin less than ten feet tall and ten feet wide. At night, I’d lie in the top bunk, too close to the ceiling to do anything but recline and listen to the quiet Mandarin chiming and gonging below me and the rattle and sway of the tracks below that.

At dusk, I’d leave the berth and walk out to stretch my legs. Past the families filling their Styrofoam noodle bowls at the hot water spigot and the old men playing games at the small round tables in the narrow train hallways. When they’d let me, I’d take an empty seat and watch the countryside pour by like old film, stained in sea tones and unraveling.

At the top of the mountains watching over the valley, workers lit oil fires in caves. Settling bank on their haunches and elbows for the night, their nests glowed like jack-o-lanterns in the slate cliffs over the lush wet banks over the river near the tracks. No one had told me China would be so beautiful and, somehow, I’d never decided to create that expectation for myself. I hadn’t expected the train station to be so English-free, or so hot, stuffed as a pierogi with a million Chinese headed to familial homes for the festival weekend. I hadn’t expected the train ride to be so endless, or to feel so overwhelmingly alone for every one of its hours.

This is just one card from a deck full of isolating and lonesome travel experiences, each of which I would quickly choose to do all over again. But you do need to understand what you’re getting into.

Lost in Translation was the last time I was ever really able to tolerate Scarlett Johansson in a movie. It’s probably not her fault; If God made you a Samuyed, it’s a hard campaign to get cast as a Beagle, you know? But back then, she was still sort of a beagle. Her Charlotte is brunette and smart and a little frumpy in her sensible shoes. Snarky and bookish and suspicious of a certain kind of woman, like we are.

Charlotte has joined her photographer husband of two years—an ADHD man named Tom (Giovanni Ribisi)—on some vague assignment in Tokyo. Young Tom is a little starstruck and increasingly affected by the euro-trash bands and brash blonde starlets he shoots. Charlotte is sweet and petty, grounded and increasingly lost.

Yet even in this most relatable role, there are times when I just want to smack Charlotte for all her whining and self-pitying and huffing. For sealing herself up in her ivory hotel tower and being so focused on not being her husband’s focus that she nearly misses an entire city waiting to court her.

Until we meet Bill Murray’s Bob. An aging famous actor, Bob has come back to Tokyo for easy capitalization on his past, mid-level fame. Two days filming a sort of degrading, sort of ego-boosting whiskey commercial. Sitting for a photo shoot in which the artist begs him for More Mystery, More Intensity, A Little More James Bond, and a hefty check is his for the taking.

At night, in between these obligations, he lingers in the hotel bar, listening to the horrifyingly earnest and self-adoring cover songs sung by a red-headed lounge singer in a slinky dress. A pretty embarrassment of a woman that he’s too good for, but later beds anyway, making us hate him a little.

Between his nights getting half drunk and his days reading passive-aggressive faxes from his never-seen American wife, Bob waits out his life like a teeth cleaning.

Until he meets Charlotte.

These two need each other—that much we get from the start. In their own ways, both Bob and Charlotte are so Lost, each with varying degrees of self-awareness and understanding about how this came to be. Lost and lonely and then, hark, here comes a lighthouse and here comes a ship. One to shine upon the other, and one to be shone upon.

I am far more afraid of being lonely right beside someone than I am of being lonely and all alone.

It’s a dupe, you know?

Being alone, you steel yourself. There is no expectation but for self-perseverance, and at least you’re allowed that thrill of pride. But if you set down your independence and let down your draw bridge and then it doesn’t work? Then you find yourself—or them—still impenetrable? Who can survive that?

You’ve been there, too. Those quiet doubting long drive homes. Those shut out, wordless, withholding trips beside a partner who’s closing down. Or maybe it’s you that has shut down this time, stuck with enduring the nearly unbearable wait for them to simply notice.

Charlotte still loves her husband (or some version of him), but she is losing him. At least what she needs of him—his worshipful focus, his rapt attention, his down-to-earthiness, his agreement to sit out the whole big superficial ride with her. And to suddenly be denied the security of such a tether and pact is a scary place in which to find one’s self. Whatever she used to be, before she was his, has grown timid as a casted arm.

And Bob still loves his wife, probably. It’s hard to know who or what they actually are outside all their machinations, but there seems to be at least a similar promise of partnership here, too. Or at least the fossil of some kind of loyal intimacy. They’re older than Charlotte and Tom and so their routines are a little more acerbic, a little less elaborate. They’ve learned the shortcuts to really wounding each other.

But they’ve also developed the fortitude to cope. Bob’s wife hides behind the royal duties of child rearing and interior design and stays home. Sends carpet samples to prove her martyred service to Bob in lieu of tenderness. And Bob stays on the road. Sends home his paycheck and half-hearted romantic overtures in lieu of responsibility. I saw Lost in Translation once, years ago, and really loved it. Loved it in the quiet, deep sort of way you love books you only read once—at a very particular time in your life—and don’t really think or speak of much ever again.

Re-watching it now, though, I find myself less forgiving of it, at least initially. Irritated that Charlotte and Bob need this dalliance, which is far less innocent than I remembered it being. What I had once cataloged in my memory as nuanced, wanting looks that went forever unacted upon were, in actuality, elevator kisses and sultry karaoke songs sung to each other, with pointed meaning and drunken swaying hips.

But then again, it isn’t much more than that—not much more than a teenage caper formed to pass a few echoey days in an electric city one million miles from home. And so I forgive them, Bob and Charlotte. I forgive them again this time and then already again for the next time I watch it, in another decade or so. Because we have been there too.

What I mostly loved about Lost in Translation the first time around, I think, were the gaps. It is a movie practically defined by what is missing. The quiet spaces and the unspoken words and, of course, the now-classic final scene. The whispered farewell between Bob and Charlotte that we’re not asked or allowed to hear.

Do you remember this? There are entire websites devoted to analyzing and breaking down what Bob says to Charlotte in the film’s final moments, his aging cheek pressed to hers—soft and taut and flawless as a whole lifetime left before you.

I really love that Sofia Coppola never told us. I want something in all this to remain pure. If it must be a secret, then so be it.

And that’s the beauty of the entire movie, really—its sort of Japanese elegance. What it invites and never forces. The line that it toes.

I am a person who can never not say what is in my guts, my overactive mind, my thumping chest. And here is this whole entire poised world. This Asian fairy tale told in elaborate gift-giving greetings and techno club dances, the subtleties of marital jousting and the choreography of old black-and-white movies amidst an insomniac’s midnight panic. The drunk-making mystery of friendship with just slightly too much more.

Give in to where you are. This might be my best travel advice and my greatest travel challenge. There is so much for a human being to fear. Not in hiking through the Malian outback alone, not in forging the medinas and the subways and the canals. It’s the connection. Understanding how to insert yourself into a stream of human connection when there is so much potential for a misstep. The rapids you misunderstand and the pace to which you are unaccustomed. The depth for which you are unprepared. And ultimately, the possibility that you will be rejected, heaved back out upon the shore.

Approaching a stranger on a train or online is not just that thing; It is everything. It is risking it all—gambling against rejection, wagering love that may spend itself down to the loneliest fibers. Risking that despite it all, knowing we may end up alone.

And that’s why you can forgive Bob and Charlotte.

Because in a wild city that doesn’t belong to you, a million literal or figurative miles from your partner, you might change. It might take something different than you think to keep on keeping on. And even if you, like Charlotte and Bob, hold on to your promises and moral fiber, you still might need to surrender to the moment. Find someone’s hand to hold and run the streets with them until you forget everything. Until you can make yourself go home again.

Finishing this essay took too long for no particular (and a hundred insignificant) reasons. Sitting on an airplane drinking gin and tonics and wondering about quinine and procrastinating it, though, I read this quote and finally pulled it all together in my mind:

“First of all, love is a joint experience between two persons — but the fact that it is a joint experience does not mean that it is a similar experience to the two people involved. There are the lover and the beloved, but these two come from different countries. Often the beloved is only a stimulus for all the stored-up love which had lain quiet within the lover for a long time hitherto. And somehow every lover knows this. He feels in his soul that his love is a solitary thing. He comes to know a new, strange loneliness and it is this knowledge which makes him suffer. So there is only one thing for the lover to do. He must house his love within himself as best he can; he must create for himself a whole new inward world — a world intense and strange, complete in himself.”

—Carson McCullersThe Ballad of the Sad Café and Other Stories

And I thought: that’s it, exactly (and yet still only a part of it). Just like traveling, we often enter into love for far different reasons than we choose to remain in that strange country. We change, they change; what we want changes. We learn them too well, the illusion burns off, they stop needing us, we let them down. Somehow, we eventually drift apart and there is an incredible loneliness left in the indecision over whether or not we’ll choose to paddle after each other.

Sometimes it takes work to love a country. Most times, it’s not what you thought it would be and there comes a point where you have to decide if you can just let it be what it is, and choose to love it fiercely anyway. 


Erica Cantoni works in the non-profit world by day and writes by night. She believes in Radical Sincerity, aims to earn admission to the Travelers Century Club before she dies and reveres movies, books and things on the internet that make her cry in the best possible ways. She and her husband live in Los Angeles with their adorable cat.


Brass City

by Brian Cremins

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

“Do you remember Stanley & Iris?” I asked my sister. Director Martin Ritt shot portions of the 1990 film—written by Harriet Frank and Irving Ravetch, and based on Pat Barker’s novel Union Street—in Waterbury, Connecticut in 1988. My sister was ten years old, so I must have been fourteen. We lived in Oakville, just northwest of Waterbury. I was finishing my freshman year at Sacred Heart High School, not far from the locations on South Main Street where Ritt filmed Jane Fonda as a factory worker and Robert De Niro as a man named Stanley Cox who loses his job when his boss discovers Cox can’t read.

I asked my mom, too, what she remembered of the film. The small protests in Waterbury against “Hanoi Jane” made national news. “Jane Fonda?” she said. “I like her workout videos.” Then she asked my sister, “What movie is he talking about?” But my sister, who now lives in Middlebury, Connecticut, instantly remembered the film and the controversy surrounding it. I asked her to watch the opening scenes on YouTube, and she sent me a long email with details of every alley and every building. That’s Pond Street. There’s Holy Land. I think that’s over near where the Home Depot is. But the Home Depot wasn’t there back then. I promised I’d send her the DVD.

Ritt opens the film with a long panning shot of Waterbury. As composer John Williams introduces a lush and majestic string arrangement to the score, we see interstate 84, a web of steel and concrete called (my sister reminds me) the Mix-Master. I see Waterbury Hospital, the clock tower. American high school students might remember the clock from Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, as Willy Loman, home from another grueling trip, describes his visit to Connecticut. “Waterbury is a fine city,” Willy tells his son Biff. “Big clock city, the famous Waterbury clock. Sold a nice bill there.” It’s not clear in Miller’s text if Loman is referring to the clock tower or to the Waterbury Clock Company, which first made its name in the late 1800s manufacturing inexpensive pocket watches. When my grandfather James Cremins first arrived in the United States from Ireland in the 1920s, he eventually found work at Waterbury Clock.

When I watch Stanley & Iris, I see two films: a story about illiteracy starring Jane Fonda and Robert De Niro, and a second, more spectral one, a big-budget home movie of the city where I was born in 1973. I watch Jane Fonda and I see her character, Iris King, grieving over the loss of her husband and doing her best to keep her family together. I also see my maternal grandmother, Patricia Budris Stango, who was born in Lithuania in 1913, and I see her older sister, Anna (Budris) Grigoraitis. Just as my Irish grandfather worked at Waterbury Clock Company, my grandmother and my great aunt worked most of their lives at the United States Rubber Company in Naugatuck, Connecticut, just a few miles from Waterbury.

My grandmother and my great aunt, sometime in the late 1920s or early 1930s

My grandmother and my great aunt, sometime in the late 1920s or early 1930s

I can’t say Stanley & Iris is one of my favorite movies. It ends awkwardly, as Stanley Cox, having learned to read, finds success in Detroit. The irony of De Niro’s character leaving an East Coast mill town for the Midwest’s rust belt is both strange and poignant. Every time I watch the film, I’m emotional at all the wrong moments: not when De Niro discovers his father has died, or at the climax of the film when, about to leave for Michigan, Stanley finally tells Iris that he loves her. Instead, I linger over the film’s long opening shot, the camera slowly sweeping across South Main until we see a building that once housed the Waterbury Button Company. In Stanley & Iris, it’s called Nevins & Davis Bakery. That building is now abandoned like so many other former factories in the Brass City, which earned its name from the brass companies that dominated the landscape for most of the twentieth century. For me, the two stars of this film are Waterbury itself—a city of immigrants from Europe and migrants from the American South—and its still luminous ghost.

Stanley & Iris is a footnote in Jane Fonda’s career. Like Waterbury itself, it’s been neglected or forgotten. Those who do remember it might recall the “Hanoi Jane” protests, which began in the fall of 1987 after the Waterbury Republican ran a story that Fonda and DeNiro would soon be visiting the city to work on Ritt’s film. After a letter to the editor from Guy Russo, a World War II veteran who took Fonda to task for her allegedly traitorous behavior during the Vietnam war, some veterans’ groups began organizing against her. Bumper stickers proclaiming I'm not Fond'a Hanoi Jane “were still being driven around the city twenty years after they were printed,” according to Jerry Lembcke’s excellent history Hanoi Jane: War, Sex & Fantasies of Betrayal. I remember seeing these faded reminders of the controversy on Lincoln Continentals and Chrysler K-Cars in the late 1990s when I worked at the University of Connecticut’s Waterbury campus—relics of my high school years, vanishing like the redbrick factories that serve as set decoration in the film.

In response to the protests, Fonda met with a group of Vietnam veterans to address the myths surrounding her resistance to the war. Her 2006 autobiography, My Life So Far, includes a detailed account of this meeting, which took place at a local church. Fonda remembers a “raw, angry, and emotional” conversation. What Fonda learned about the city at these meetings no doubt had an impact on the subtlety and depth of her performance as Iris King. Most of the Vietnam veterans she spoke with, she realized, were first-generation Americans. “For these young men,” she explains in her book, “serving their country in Viet Nam was a rite of passage into true citizenship.”

As she reflects on her time in Waterbury, Fonda adds that she has “come to feel that one reason healing doesn’t happen more often is that the two sides don’t allow themselves to really hear each other’s narratives.” This is the secret to her performance in this film. While most of the other characters in the movie are storytellers—sharing their disappointment, their joy, and sometimes their rage—Iris is the one who listens.

Critics acknowledged the film’s good intentions, but largely dismissed it. Many took issue with Fonda’s performance. “No matter how much she tries to be an assembly line worker in a bakery,” Carlton Jackson writes in Picking Up the Tab: The Life and Movies of Martin Ritt, Jane Fonda “cannot, as one reviewer put it, get rid of her ‘golden brown hair,’ and ‘California tan.’”But, as I watch Fonda’s performance now, her work eclipses that of her co-star. When I see her, I see the face of my aunt with her blond hair, so blond it was almost white when I knew her. Iris brings these spirits to life for me, the ghosts of the women who surrounded and protected me when I was a kid and my mom was teaching school as my dad pursued his law degree.

Even the interiors of the film, some of which could very well have been shot on a soundstage somewhere other than Waterbury, haunt me: the cobbler’s shop, so much like the one I remember on the corner of Davis Street and Main in Oakville, just beyond the Waterbury city limits. It’s now a computer repair shop. After an encounter at the shoemaker’s, Stanley and Iris meet again at a laundromat. The scene opens with an image of four identical Maytag washers, each mustard yellow, the color of my late 1970s childhood. Suddenly I am once again in the back seat of my Aunt Annie’s Pontiac, also mustard yellow, and we are crossing Davis Street on our way for groceries at the Pik-Kwik. I watch the scene at the laundromat and I see Stanley carrying a bag of clothes. He enters the shot from the right of the frame and he moves the way my cousin Jimmy moves, nods his head, and smiles.

As Ritt cuts to a shot of Iris, we realize we’ve been watching Stanley’s entrance from her point-of-view: the drab washers, the hand-painted advertisements lining the walls, the headlights of cars reflected on the bright and clean mirrored surfaces. This is her world. We now see Iris, her hair pulled back, a plastic laundry basket and a blue bottle of Yes detergent and fabric softener beside her. She is reading a magazine. She looks up, grins, and glances at Stanley. What will she say to him? She hesitates. “Can I buy you an egg roll?” he asks. “You sure can,” she says.

She’d like to take a day trip to Boston this year. “See, I like bright lights and a lot of people,” Iris explains. As they finish their meal, Iris breaks open a fortune cookie: “‘Make new friends and trust them.’ Did you write this?” She urges Stanley to read his fortune, too, but he frowns, shrugs, tucks it away in the pocket of his gray jacket. “Nah, no point in opening mine. I’m not lucky.” Maybe they ought to check on the clothes. “Ok,” Iris says. She looks disappointed, confused. There’s another story here in the look of concern and confusion on her face. Williams’s score plays in the background, but the scene would work just as well if it were silent. Fonda works magic in the abrupt silence between her and De Niro; the expression on her face conveys sadness and discomfort and optimism. Maybe she is still thinking about that day in Boston. Maybe De Niro’s character likes Boston, too. Maybe they’ll have adventures.

The film’s critics were wrong. Jane Fonda’s brilliance lies in her ability to make me believe that she is a woman like the women I knew when I was a child: funny, compassionate, tough, glamorous. But, in calling Jane Fonda’s characterglamorous, I know I must sound sentimental, nostalgic. Am I remembering my Aunt as I would like to remember her, idealized, a fantasy like the film itself? No. I think I’m right. One of the definitions of glamour, after all, is “a magic spell.”

And, anyway, isn’t nostalgia a kind of magic, a charm that revives the past and transforms it into something ever present?

I saw my aunt Annie, my grandmother’s sister, for the last time in the spring of 2000. In those last few hours we spent together, she was there with me, then suddenly somewhere else, telling a story about my grandfather or my grandmother, and suddenly it was 1940, 1959, 1960. A few minutes into the conversation, I realized she didn’t recognize me. Maybe she thought I was her brother-in-law, my grandfather, who looks a little like me (or, I should say, I look a little like him). She shared a room with another woman in the nursing home on the corner of Bunker Hill and Straits Turnpike in Oakville, just across the street from a gas station, a bank, and the Kmart where I’d shopped with her and my grandmother in the 1970s.

In the last few years of her life—she died in May 2005, at the age of 94, just a few weeks before I moved to Chicago—she started painting pictures of flowers. Her brother Eddie was a painter, too, and for years one of his still lifes hung over the staircase leading to the second floor of her house. Her husband had been dead for decades. She painted flowers, I think, because she missed the garden behind the house on Bamford Avenue. It was filled with roses, hydrangeas, and chrysanthemums. In the summer there were cucumbers and tomatoes, too. She must have been painting her memory of those flowers, and what a privilege, I think, to see what she saw when she looked outside of herself. 


Brian Cremins is a writer and comics scholar living in Chicago. He is working on a study of the original Captain Marvel for the University Press of Mississippi.


Being Alone: There's a Certain Dignity to It

by Michelle Said

by Ian M.

by Ian M.

Janet Livermore works in a coffee shop in Seattle. Not a “diner-coffee shop” like you’d see in a Quentin Tarantino movie, but a coffeehouse-coffee shop. You know, a shop that sells coffee: a creation so novel in the early-90s that they called it a *movement*. (“They,” whoever they are, also called them espresso bars and bean grinders.) Anyway, back to Janet. She’s just a girl who works in a coffee shop. She’s 23 and she wants to go to school for architecture one day. And she loves grunge music and the guys who make it.

Janet is one of the many characters in Cameron Crowe’s Singles (1992), an ode to mid-twenties malaise, centered around the strain and drain of modern dating. It’s basically like Friends before Friends was Friends. Kind of like Threesome orReality Bites before they existed. These characters went to Starbucks before Starbucks was Starbucks. So in a way,Singles kind of started it all.

[SIDE NOTE: The soundtrack is the only thing 95% of the general population remembers about this movie. Take a poll of your friends and see if anybody could tell you that it actually featured Kyra Sedgwick in one of her very first roles. See if they remember that it also had Paul Giamatti, Jeremy Piven, Bill Pullman, and the guy that played Prezbo on The Wire in bit parts. I pretty much guarantee you they will not, since this movie also happens to feature cameos byan almost boyish Eddie Vedder and a fledgling Chris Cornell, live performances by Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, and a soundtrack that included all of these bands, as well as Mudhoney, The Screaming Trees, and the Smashing Pumpkins. /SIDE NOTE]

The film is full of the developing Seattle music scene that was bursting, popping, oozing into the nationwide consciousness at the time. It was dirty, it was raw, it was underground. It was grunge. And Cameron Crowe, the man behind Say Anything and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the man once credited with finding the pulse of Young America in the 1980s, gave us Singles - which merged a fringe music scene with a big Hollywood movie.

And what was that movie about?

Feeeeeeelinnnnngs.

More specifically, relationship feelings. Disgusting, annoying, whiny single-people feelings. Nobody-will-ever-love-meeeee feelings. The feelings of a generation (specifically, Generation X) trying to find love.

Singles is all about people on that edge between youth and adulthood. Fifty years ago, this would have happened in the period between high school and college, but by the early 90s, Generation X (followed by the Millenials, and then whatever kids these days are called) decided, Hey! Adolescence is too short! Let’s keep this party rolling! So, the movie tells the tale of what it’s like to have a job—and be ostensibly independent—but still searching for a greater purpose. About going out to bars and gigs, bopping your head to the music while acting like you don’t care, gazing across the room at the guy with the eyes (and oh, what dreamy eyes!) and hoping that he looks back. And in that split second as you’re looking at him, you, trained by all of those years of watching all of those horrible Hollywood movies with their pat resolutions and the triumph and the struggle and the lightning sent from heaven above, wonder, “Is this it? Is that him?” And then you avert your eyes because, “What if it is?” And then, a moment later, “What if I’m not ready?”

It’s a movie about what it’s like to not know what you want, or even what you’re supposed to want.

When you’re single in your twenties, and have a relative grasp on self-sufficiency, you are basically free to do whatever you like. Would you like to live in another country for a year? Sure, why not? Would you like to bounce from city to city? No reason not to. Sleep with whomever you want! Who cares? This is the time of your life to enjoy all the freedom the world has to offer! But then, when you’re up in the air, you’re so free that you don’t even know if there’s any place to land. You’re searching. You want to find a place of your own. You want to find a person to come home to.

And the thing is, for most people, this is not easy. In fact, it’s ridiculously hard and painful. You will fail. You will get your heart broken. You will break somebody’s heart. But then there’s that ever-present whisper in your ear telling you that you have to keep working and keep putting yourself out there. That anything that’s really worth anything in life doesn’t come easy. But that whisper also reminds you that the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results. So maybe that’s it. Maybe that period between 20 and 30 is really just a period of constant insanity. You keep moving forward as best you can, you keep trying to shove square pegs in round holes, and you keep dating the same unsuitable suitors that have always failed you. Your twenties may very well be the most dangerous and (literally!) crazy decade of your life.

This truth—this feeling of failure and trial and struggling—takes up the first two-thirds of Singles. And I was actually quite stunned by the clarity and realism that Crowe distilled here. I mean, aside from the convenient plot device of four young people living in one apartment complex who all happen to date each other, a la Melrose Place. (Although, to Crowe’s credit,Singles preceded Melrose Place. Don’t you feel like you’re discovering the Adam Kadmon of popular culture from 1991 to 1999? I do.)

I love the scene where Janet (Bridget Fonda) bounds up to her rocker paramour Cliff (Matt Dillon) at the end of his band practice, oblivious to the fact that he has about as much enthusiasm for her as a pair of khakis. Remember: this is a pre-He’s Just Not That Into You world. She asks him when he’ll be free. He deflects and then says, “You know I’m seeing other people, right?” This admission doesn’t faze Janet. “You don’t fool me,” she says. “We made the connection, and when you make the connection, the chemistry takes care of itself. I mean, it makes its own decisions, you know?”

She debates with herself as to whether or not she should call him, she excuses his behavior when he stands her up, and she subsists on a diet of cucumbers and lettuce in order to be attractively thin...for him! For a guy named Cliff with stringy hair in a local rock band called Citizen Dick, a guy who won’t commit to her! It’s so ridiculous. It’s also depressingly real. I’ve known this girl. I’ve seen her in action. Maybe I’ve even been her in my younger days. And it’s not really all his fault, either; she’s putting herself through this mental tailspin of desperation when walking away early on would have saved her a whole lot of trouble.

At the height of this pursuit, she notices that he has pictures of big-bosomed women plastered all over the walls of his apartment, because that’s just the kind of guy he is. “Are my breasts too small for you?” she asks. “Sometimes,” he says. She then goes out and books herself an appointment with a plastic surgeon for a breast augmentation. Here Crowe seems to be telling us that liking a person has no bearing on whether or not that person is actually any good for us. It becomes more of a pursuit of self; a quest for approval, instead of a healthy relationship. Eventually, Janet tames these urges and comes to her senses, but not without the help of her plastic surgeon (Bill Pullman) who, inexplicably, happens to have a crush on her. (Really.)

But Janet isn’t actually the main focus of Singles. That distinction belongs to Steve Dunne (Campbell Scott) and Linda Powell (Kyra Sedgwick). Linda’s been hurt before. It may be because of the emotional wall she has erected to protect herself against being hurt again that Steve finds himself inextricably attracted to her. I mean, who among us have not been there? You meet a person and this person is so damaged and tortured by his or her past that we feel (we hope!) that we can save them. We will save this attractive individual with whom we also want to have sex! The internal monologue does smack a bit of a hero complex. Steve pursues Linda gingerly, each of them tiptoeing around the idea of commitment, until they eventually fumble their way into something like a relationship. But then life happens. (She gets pregnant.) They find themselves closer than ever before. (They talk about marriage.) And then, in an instant, they are torn apart. (She has a miscarriage.)

All of this is so beautiful and so staggering that I just wanted to cry because I felt like I knew these people and their stories so well.

That is, until we get to the end.

There’s comes a point, in the final third of the film, where it starts to become pretty obvious that some Hollywood honcho has placed a clunky chokehold on the story. You can almost picture them sitting in a conference room, muttering, “Yes, yes, but isn’t it all a bit, I don’t know... Depressing?”

As a result, we are left to believe that every single person living in the same apartment building ends up happy and joyous and in a committed relationship. Somehow, Janet switches the flip in her brain and becomes a completely different person, one who doesn’t care about the waste of a man that is Cliff. Once this about-face happens, he begins to aggressively pursue her, leaving rose petals on her bed and calling her constantly. And then he unknowingly happens to do the one thing she mentioned earlier in the film that she was looking for (a guy who says “Bless you” after she sneezes) and she starts making out with him.

And then there’s Linda and Steve. After becoming close to engagement due to an unintentional pregnancy that is lost after a car crash, Linda leaves Steve in a lurch and retreats back to her ex-boyfriend. He winds up lying on his kitchen floor in a pile of filth. He stops going to work. He stops taking calls. He calls her and leaves a message on her machine begging for her to come back but the voicemail machine eats the tape. Of course, as often happens in Hollywood, she comes to the epiphany that she should really be with him and dashes over to his house in the middle of the night. “Look, I don’t want to be your girlfriend or anything...I just want to know you again,” she says. “What took you so long?” he asks. “I was stuck in traffic,” she says. And then Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant, taking on the form of enormous man-eating pterodactyls with gigantic teeth, swoop in and eat the entire apartment complex.

Just kidding.

When I saw Singles for the first time, I was a single lady in my twenties and I had been having bad luck with love for most of that decade. I hated that every single character in this movie found a happy ending, all at the same time. I was alone in the world, and my time spent trying to find companionship left me bitter and disillusioned. I would find men who would constantly disappoint me and leave me in a lurch. Or else I would be constantly disappointing men and not calling them back for a variety of reasons, all of them kind of bullshit. (You should always call someone back, even if just to say that you will not be calling again.) I was disappointing and I was disappointed and I was scared that I would never find love.

I think what angered me so much about this film was that it was tied up so neatly. Every person finds a person in 90 minutes. For a movie that dealt with such universal, powerful themes like (unintended pregnancy, depression, finding your own self-worth) it felt like a huge cop out. The last third of the movie traffics almost entirely in romantic comedy clichés, like running over to your lover's house in the middle of the night to ask for forgiveness—which, as far as I can tell, has never worked, unless you want your lover to call the cops.

A few years after that first viewing, though, I can see truth in the power of forgiveness and for standing up for yourself and your beliefs. That emotional honesty is a necessary tool in the arsenal of a real and honest relationship. And that, sometimes, the difficult moments in life can throw you for a loop from which only the strongest relationships can recover.

But the thing that we all need to know is that you can’t force any of it to happen. And that’s what Singles gets wrong: as much as we might want to be, none of us are ever really on the same timeline. The random messiness of life prohibits a tidy ending where all of our friends find someone at the same time. Sometimes you are the single friend, and sometimes you are the one happily coupled. Even in Friends, that touchstone of television romantic comedy, Phoebe and Joey are left single at the end of the series. A dating life is a cycle of events: meet-cute, date, establish relationships, break up. It goes on and on until we find someone that likes us as much as we like them. And even then, it doesn’t quite stop.

Despite my frustration with the last third of the movie, watching these twenty-something characters tripping and falling through the world of romantic relationships—lost and searching, just like I was when I first watched it in my twenties—stuck a few lessons into my heart: don’t put up with anyone who treats you badly, trust in love, and, if something is really, truly worth it, it will all work out. And I suppose those kernels of truth are all worth knowing in the end. 


Michelle Said was one of the original founding editors of Bright Wall/Dark Room, and later served as media director and podcast hostShe currently freelances and works on her novel in New York


Nebraska, Northern Ontario and the American Road

by Lawrence Garcia

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

The winter of 2014 was the longest winter of my life. Beginning in January, I moved from Vancouver to the sleepy, snow-laden town of Lively in Northern Ontario, on the outskirts of the Greater Sudbury Area, for a four-month work placement. Not twenty minutes from the main city of Sudbury, a mining town which greets you with large factories and looming chimneys that jut out against the formless sky, dwarfing the industrial banality of the landscape below, I found myself moored just along Lively’s main road, on the second floor of an old but spacious house, home to a lady and her two cats. Roads upon roads upon roads wind about the sparse landscape, connecting the main city to outlying areas such as Lively. “Welcome to Walden,” heralded an outdated sign as I first passed through the town. Thoreau would have been proud.

In this landscape, uniformly gray and expansive, I found myself preoccupied with the idea of simply being on the road—an idea informed by films and books, art and anecdote, as well as brief childhood vacations in California. Whether going west to California in The Grapes of Wrath, or escaping to the far reaches of Montana in Badlands, the road remains at the forefront, the essential experience that, to me, always seemed so distinctly American. It was a yearning that had lain dormant for years, stirred up now by an inexplicable wanderlust.

In those months, while working in a physics laboratory deep in a mine 6800 feet below sea level, I would learn the difference between a Majorana and Dirac particle (and what it would mean if a neutrino were one or the other), and while going between work and home I would also learn what a “white-out” was and what it felt like to try and drive in one. It would also be in that short time, not long after watching Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, that I would travel across snowy roads under sunny winter skies and learn the meaning of distance—not as walked, or as flown—but as driven. It was then, in the far reaches of Eastern Canada, that I experienced a glimpse of the American road.

To me, the single most striking aspect of Nebraska—and of the entire American landscape—is the road. Distances of hundreds of miles stretch across the uniform topography, imprinted with grey, smooth highways that cut through brush and dirt, flanked by prairies that stretch out in rolling expanses as far as the eye can see. Cities are bridged not by plane or by boat, but by bus, car and train. Distances too far to walk, but also too close to fly, connect town to sleepy town, each with its unique rhythms and social grammar. Extended family is dispersed across the scattered, landlocked geography, just close enough to seem connected, but just far enough to be inconvenient.

Reflected in the highways and freeways that I traveled along was the American road that I knew from films and books, that I saw now in Payne’s return to the Midwest. Strange as it may seem, between Nebraska and Northern Ontario, I found the American road.

*

The film opens with a man walking along a busy road, a lonesome figure amidst the familiar sights and sounds of midday activity. Wide-angled shots foreground trucks driving slowly past. Stopped cargo trains and smoking factory chimneys fill the background. Later we learn that the man is Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an elderly, cantankerous fellow who plans to walk from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska—a distance of over 800 miles—to pick up a million dollars in sweepstakes winnings—which everyone but him quickly recognizes as a scam. As the film progresses and his son, David (Will Forte), decides to drive him to Nebraska, it becomes a film that runs deeper than expected; a moving portrait of family life, and an elegiac ode to the American Midwest.

As cinema that firmly establishes a sense of place, Nebraska succeeds like few others. The flat Midwestern landscape stretches out in fields upon fields, awash in unfocused grayscale. The film’s black-and-white tones, languid pace and still shots evoke a sense of nostalgia, an ambivalent longing for a way of life that, if not already gone, is slowly dying. What begins as a simple road trip to pick up non-existent prize money becomes an almost literal journey from the America that Dave knows to the America of his father, and the road that lies between.

All this and more emerges in Payne’s singular portrait of the Midwest, realized as only someone from the region could conceive. As Dave and Woody drive towards Lincoln, joined later by Woody’s wife Kate (June Squibb) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk), Dave’s anchorman brother, the places that surround them are imbued with a sense of reality as stark and crisp as Phedon Papamichael’s evocative cinematography. Years of history, forgotten or suppressed, emerge in empty streets, fading taverns and quiet living rooms, stirred up like dust kicked up along the roadside, diffusing the faint afternoon light into wistful shades of grey.

In an early scene, just after David and Woody arrive in Hawthorne, Woody’s hometown where they make an extended pit-stop, Dave is mocked by his cousins for his languid pace, boasting that they could get Woody to Lincoln in no time at all. It’s a small but memorable moment, one that pokes fun at the distinctly masculine posturing while also highlighting an expected familiarity and affinity for the road.

*

Having grown up in the Philippines, on an island that stretched no more than 140 miles on its longest axis, the concept of a road trip had always seemed quite foreign to me. The simple idea that you could get in your car and just drive for hours and hours and get somewhere (or at least somewhere worth going) never seemed practical or even possible. In my hometown of Cebu, I don’t remember ever going more than 60 kilometers an hour, hemmed in by perpetual traffic and the organized chaos of a city without a single rule of the road. Highways and freeways were virtually nonexistent. Trains were a foreign oddity. I had ridden a plane before I had gone on a road trip, and long before I had even touched a steering wheel.

While living in Canada, often traveling more distance driving in a day than I would have in a week back home, the simple fact of the road gained a special importance. Sudbury, where I made my home for four short months, was a city that grew more by organic necessity than out of any form of urban planning (a housemate of mine during those four months, a civil engineer by profession, said that the city was frequently used as an example of how not to build a city). The landscape is sprawling and industrial, with distances that make public transit impractical, and it looms large, intimidating by sheer scale. Driving is not so much convenience as it is a necessity, an activity so woven into a way of living that anything else would seem out of place.

And yet, with all the distance, it was liberating to think that if I wanted, I could hop on a bus or rent a car and go, well, wherever I wanted—or at least as far as my money would get me.

Later in those months, just before the Easter weekend, I found myself on a midnight bus to Montreal. It was a plan that grew from simply staring at a map of Ontario, from picturing the single mass of land, expansive and large, imprinted with the dark roads that I had seen weeks earlier from the window of a small, propeller-driven plane. At the bus station, where people milled about tiredly, anticipation and excitement mingled with a dull sense of banality. Perhaps it was boredom or wanderlust or a mix of both, but as I prepared to go to a city where I knew no one and no one knew me, I wondered how many people across the continent were doing the same.

*

Whether going away or going home, the road is the in-between, the bridge between here and there, between there and back again. The draw of the road is not hard to understand: freedom, reinvention, escape; but it is also imbued with a deep sense of melancholy. Woody’s single-minded desire to go to Lincoln is built on the same: a bit of freedom from his wife, reinvention—albeit late in life—as a millionaire, escape from the life that he had built—or failed to. It is also a desire founded on an illusion. “We’re not driving to Lincoln over a stupid fantasy!” says Dave in exasperation, after far too much had happened for him to be able to indulge his father for much longer. But the thing about being on the road, about traveling from one place to the next, is that even if the destination is fantasy, the journey is as real as the miles of concrete that lie between.

It is telling that of all things Woody could do with the money if he had it, he would buy a truck—a brand new truck, even though he can no longer drive. “It’s for you boys,” Woody explains. “I just wanted to leave you something.” It’s one of the most moving moments of the film, and one of Dern’s finest line deliveries in a performance chock-full of them.

In the final scene of the film, Woody drives a new truck through Hawthorne, drifting by leaves that blow across empty streets, past people and faces of a time—of a life gone by. The truck rolls along a smooth contoured road. Fields flank both sides and a small grove of trees lies in the background. The late afternoon sun peeks out from behind thick, rolling clouds. The truck stops for a moment, changing drivers, then continues along the road, slowly disappearing into the horizon.

*

Being on the road creates a strange mix of exhilaration and boredom, comedy and melancholy. It cuts things down to essentials: origin, destination and the road between, and forces us look at the passage: the stuff of life that would otherwise pass us by. Sights, faces, names, people blur into an amorphous mass of ever-changing experience.

Four days after first arriving on that midnight bus to Montreal, I was ready to leave, my wanderlust assuaged (at least for the time being). I looked out the bus as it pulled away from the Montreal station, the city lit in a rush of neon and the faint glow of the moon, and I began to think about when and even if I would return. But even if I did, I knew it wouldn’t be the same city—as I left, it was already changing.

After all, places change and so do people; but the road, the road is steady. The scenes that surround it may change, the circumstances that bring us upon it may be in flux, but at least we can, for however fleeting a moment, take solace in the familiar banality, the essential experience of the road, until we disappear: moving specks on a distant, fading landscape. 


Lawrence Garcia.jpg

Lawrence Garcia is a film-lover and engineering physics student living in Vancouver, originally from the Philippines. When he’s not building robots or trying to understand quantum physics, he writes—mostly about cinema.


Old Dogs

by Fran Hoepfner

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

James Bond sits, tied to a chair.

The film’s villain, Raoul Silva, approaches him slowly. “Just look at you,” he says, “barely held together by your pills and your drink.”

“Don’t forget my pathetic love of country,” Bond snaps.

Silva laughs. “You’re still clinging to your faith in that old woman.”

The reference is meant to be made for M—Bond’s longtime handler at MI6—but it could just as well refer to England. James Bond is a protagonist who has existed in both literature and film for over fifty years, changing and shifting with the times. There are rules, of course, for Bond films, rules that never change. Bond is always drinking and smoking and gambling. Bond is something of a paramour. Bond is a ruthless killer, but only when he needs to be. And, of course, Bond is British. He's gone.

In the wake of Bond’s death, England has changed. Skyfall, more often than not, deals with a new Bond and a new England. Both are old and strict in their regimes, a little antiquated in their nature. In a London without James Bond, M faces the consequences of her actions as his handler. Private information is leaked. She is going to be forced to retire. The British government is slowly but surely edging M out. She’s an old dog (as evidenced by the ugly English bulldog figurine on her desk); let the new guys out for a while.

Deakins paints England in grays. And for what it is worth, as someone who has walked those streets, and known that city, it is gray. It is gray and it is cold and it is an old city filled with old dogs. M returns back to MI6 following a meeting in which a younger minister (Ralph Fiennes) coerces her into retirement. The roads are blocked. There’s been an accident. M slides out of the vehicle and then—in the gray skyline of South London—MI6 explodes, a splatter of orange against a steel sky.

Even as Bond emerges from the grave, London is still a ghost of its former glory. MI6 has moved underground to Churchill’s old bunker. It’s brown and dusty. Nothing looks quite as good as it used to, including Bond himself. He’s run-down and tired, navigating a run-down and tired city.

*

The exotic locations of the film are painted in gold. Deakins portrays them as otherworldly. Shanghai is a dreamscape, neon blues and bright yellows. The hitman from Istanbul is there to do a job, and Bond is sent after him to finish his own job. The two men fight, evenly matched (Bond, perhaps, a little weaker), against a constantly changing and shifting window. They are on an impossibly high story of a skyscraper with images rolling against the side. There are letters and clouds and fish. Bond and the hitman are just shadows in this world.

Macau glimmers. As Bond enters, it lights up with money and antiquity and magic. Severine is there, draped in black and gold, her skin glittering with sweat and liquor. Everything is a little more dangerous and a little more daring. The dynamic way Shanghai and Macau light up the screen is vastly different from the way England appears: unchanging, unmoving.

*

Silva has been staying on a deserted island off the coast of Macau, and it is aswashed out and ugly as London. It’s a stark, dry yellow. There’s no one there but him and his henchmen, working to take down MI6.

Silva is truly sinister thanks to his connection to the internet-at-large—his lack of a pin-pointable home base. He boasts to Bond that he can make anything happen from anywhere with the click of a button. He has no home. He has no love of country. He is an ever-changing and shifting villain, with new goals for whomever is the highest bidder.

This is how location works in the internet age. Pitted against Bond’s “pathetic love of country,” Silva has so much more room to do as he pleases. Bond’s love of England is a hindrance, Silva argues, not a loyalty. He has no loyalty to his little island, and it shows. It crumbles all around him, as if to suggest he destroyed it, when in actuality, he just let it go to waste. There is an ugliness to this lack of pride and it seeps into every building and skyline on the island.

*

Bond takes M to Scotland to hide, of course, but also for their last stand against Silva and his men. Deakins paints Scotland like a place that barely exists—a fantastical green and brown site, as immersive and exotic as Shanghai or Macau. There is beauty in Scotland because it is old. They hide in Bond’s childhood home, a run down old country estate. The house crumbles beneath them, and when they ask the gamekeeper, Kincade (Albert Finney) for guns, all he can present to them is knives.

Against Silva’s men, knives won’t do very well, but Bond and M and Kincade rig traps and distractions. They turn the house into a puzzle. There are no machine guns. No helicopters. That’s Silva’s men. Instead, it’s just an old-fashioned game of wits and parlor tricks. Silva’s men don’t win, but they nearly do, setting the house ablaze. It burns a bright orange and explodes and crumbles, because it is an old house with old values. Bond escapes into the moors, a crackling foundation falling beneath his feet.

In the ashes of his old country estate, aptly named Skyfall, as it sits on the bank of a loch, Bond catches Silva and stabs him. No internet tricks, no elaborate firearms. He is stabbed in the back with a knife. Out with the new, indeed.

*

Skyfall is a patriotic Bond. It stands for everything good about the franchise and the setting. Each set piece is its own place and time, all linking back towards England. And, in turn, Deakins shoots the epilogue in London as a little brighter, a little newer. England may be outdated, but in the sunlight, the city’s white stone buildings are bathed in light. It is an old place, but it is also a good place.


Fran Hoepfner is a Contributing Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. She is a writer and comedian based out of the Chicagoland area.


Cryin' Won't Help You, Prayin' Won't Do You No Good

by Bob Schofield

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Sometimes we’d have a teacher tell us the city wouldn’t be standing in a hundred years. Sometimes it was less. The water, they told us, was rising. The wetlands were shrinking. It was all just a matter of time. Eventually there would be nothing to keep the Gulf from our door. We were below sea level, and that means the water wants to come in. It's simple physics. One day there would come a great wet knocking, and New Orleans was going to sink, and there would be no going back.

The teachers would drop this bomb on us, maximize the doom-and-gloom, then always weirdly backpedal. They'd try to reassure each of us scared-shitless fourth graders that the sky wasn’t really falling, or at least not anytime soon. They'd put an emphasis on how long all of it would take. The danger wasn’t immediate, they insisted. Fifty years. A hundred. Maybe more.

It never felt like any consolation to me, though. I’d look out the classroom window and see the parking lot, some nearby houses. I could imagine a giant boot heel of dirty water grinding it all down to nothing. I saw it in my head, pieced it together from bits of whatever shipwreck footage I’d absorbed through too much time with the Discovery Channel. The shape of things would be largely the same, I figured. It would just be emptier. Every surface worn to shit and barnacles. There wouldn’t be any of that sad lunar beauty you see in photos of a wrecked Titanic. At the place where the Mississippi meets the Gulf of Mexico, the water is brackish and sad. It is a brown and ugly thing, not a drop of blue in sight.

No, it would be more as if my city were left steeping in a teacup, until the foundations turned to rust and rot. I let the image of it sink to the bottom of my mind. Somehow, it made me feel better, like I had control. It was a hard lesson to absorb as a ten-year old, so I processed to it the only way I knew how: with my imagination. I tried to see it in my skull. I daydreamed of a terrible world, a drowned world. The image in my head was bleak, no question, but at least it wasmine.

*

I think of Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) hearing the same thing from her own teacher, in an early scene from Beasts of the Southern Wild. The classroom is different—swap the linoleum with slats of wood, throw in a caged owl and plenty of crawfish—but the lesson is the same.

"Any day now, the fabric of the universe is coming unraveled," says Miss Bathsheba (Gina Montana). "Waters going to rise. Everything south of the levee is going under." She props a leg up on the table, reveals a tattoo on her thigh. It’s like something you’d see scribbled on a stone wall a million years ago: crude figures with spears, fighting even cruder beasts.

"This here is an aurochs, a fierce, mean creature that walked the face of the earth back when we all lived in the caves. And they would gobble those cave babies down, right in front of their cave baby parents. And the cavemans, they couldn’t even do nothing about it. Cause they was too poor, and too small. Who up in here thinks that the cavemans was sitting around, crying like a bunch of pussies?"

It’s a pitiless lesson, but a necessary one, because when you live on the Gulf of Mexico, you’re living with the constant possibility of destruction. You have to be ready for it. There’s always another hurricane season on the way. It’s three solid months of nature hurling 400 mile wide bowling balls of unstoppable wind and rain at you. Sometimes they fizzle out. Sometimes they hit you. Sometimes they hit someone else. You find yourself hoping they do hit someone else, and then you feel like shit. There’s nothing quite as strange and guilt inducing as the days before a hurricane lands, when everyone you know is just watching and waiting, following the Weather Channel nonstop, noting every update in the storm’s projected path. You find yourself wishing it veers off at the last second, but you're fully aware that you being spared means that Mississippi or Alabama or Florida will get hit instead. And those people will be the ones forced to deal with the fallout. Because someone is going to get hit. Someone always gets hit. And there’s not much you can do about it, except build levees, build pumps. Stay tuned in, and when the meteorologist in the heavy-duty raincoat getting knocked on his ass by successive gusts of wind tells you it’s heading your way, you run. And afterwards, when it’s all over, you try to rebuild.

But for Hushpuppy, her father Wink (Dwight Henry) and the other residents of The Bathtub, there are no levees, no pumps. They’re on the other side, unprotected. It’s the front lines of a war against nature, and nature tends not to lose. Wink however, refuses to give up. The storm comes, and they’re going to weather it. The plan is simple. Hushpuppy sits in her ‘boat’—an open, beat up suitcase—with a floatie on each arm. “If the water gets real high, we going to float to the roof, we going to bust through the ceiling, and we going to ride away, okay?” Wink tells her, and he couldn’t be more confident. Hushpuppy hears the thunder, a roar through the window like a stampede of aurochs. The sound is terrifying. Wink charges into the rain. “I’ma show you. I’ma take care of that storm. Look at me Hushpuppy!” he yells up at the falling water. Gun in one hand, bottle of liquor in the other, he’s firing wildly into the air like some shotgun-toting Lear.

But for all his bravery, the rain doesn’t stop.

*

I was eighteen when the hurricane hit. I say “the hurricane,” because to any New Orleanian that experienced Katrina, there’s really just the one.

It was the summer before my freshman year of college. I remember carrying taped-up boxes into an elevator. It was the weekend of orientation at Tulane. My roommate Matt and I were dumping our last possessions into our dorm room. Soon we’d be all moved in, and college would officially begin. Presumably there would be some kind of big green light, maybe fireworks, and then voila: adulthood, independence, or I don’t know, some kind of something. Things would be different at least, shiny and new. That much was certain, and I was nervous about all of it.

We went down to our cars, where the last of the stuff was, and someone official-looking told us orientation was being postponed. There was a hurricane on the way, and they’d called a mandatory evacuation. Matt and I just kind of shrugged. It’s New Orleans, these things happen. We'd both been there all our lives, almost two decades of this same routine. There was nothing special about an evacuation. You just leave for a few days, stay with friends in Baton Rouge or East Texas, or Mississippi. The whole thing blows over, and then you go back to your life.

I tell Matt I’ll see him Monday. I don’t see him for maybe six months.

*

You could call what they’re sailing on an ark, but that would be generous. It’s a truck bed strapped to a propeller. Wink and Hushpuppy steer it through an expanse of flat, brown water. A few lucky animals have taken to high ground, stranded on tiny islands, surrounded by the tops of some of the taller trees, and floating pieces of tin roofing. This is what the storm has left behind.

Wink and Hushpuppy lean off the edge of the boat/truck, and he teaches her how to pluck fish from the water bare-handed. You can tell he’s basically prepping her for doomsday. That might seem excessive, but for these people, whose lives are so deeply rooted in a now-vanished community, that’s exactly what it is.

Throughout the film there's a tendency for characters to refer to The Bathtub in cosmic terms, talking about this small collection of shacks as if it spans the width and breadth of the known universe. In many ways it does. If you've never stepped outside it, even a single room qualifies as a universe. And Hushpuppy has never left The Bathtub. She's brushed its outskirts, but that's all. There's an early scene where she and Wink sit in their boat staring at a massive oil refinery on the other side of the levee, a knot of steel and pipework, hard lines and noxious smoke. It’s the opposite of The Bathtub in every way, and the two just can't understand it. Why would anyone want to be there, and not here? The Bathtub is a place where a celebration can spring up at any moment. The opening scenes are a testament to that wildness, a sprawl of quick cuts, brass horns and fireworks, lights popping into the sky like newborn constellations. A voice says, "Me and my daddy, we stay right here. We who the Earth is for," and the little girl from The Bathtub rushes toward the camera, a sparkler burning in each hand, so bright you could mistake them for a pair of stars.

But the thing about stars is, they all eventually burn out.

"That’s my beautiful place under that water," says Wink. The Bathtub is gone and the water isn’t receding. The levees that protected everyone on the other side, what Hushpuppy calls "the dry world," is keeping the water right where it is, right on top of The Bathtub, and the salt is slowly scorching away whatever is still left down there.

*

It was on my way to Baltimore, to stay with my grandparents, that I started getting the first messages from friends. The phones hadn’t been working for a few days after the storm hit, but now we could at least text. Seemed most everyone had evacuated to Baton Rouge. Matt was there, and he told me he'd be staying there for the foreseeable future. No one really knew when or if we’d get to go home again. All we knew was what we’d all seen on TV, that New Orleans was well and truly fucked.

Sometime after getting these texts, sitting in the backseat of my parents’ minivan, it finally sank in how drastically everything had changed, and in such a short amount of time. A blink, and the world had turned upside down. Every expectation I’d entertained about what my life was going to be like was suddenly put on hold, or thrown out altogether. Most of the people I cared about were now a thousand miles away, starting new lives in a new city, while I was headed toward an indefinite internment in my grandparents’ basement. It felt like I was marching off to prison. I could feel myself turning into a frog in a mason jar.

I’ve never in my life felt so helpless, before or since. I was confronted for the very first time with just how absolutely I lacked any control over my own life, and how, in this respect, I was no different than any other human being on the planet.

We are all still those tiny cavemen, and there’s always some giant aurochs coming to gobble us up. “When you're small, you gotta fix what you can” says Hushpuppy, and I know exactly what she means. I knew seven years before ever seeing this film, learned that lesson while staring into a clamshell phone in the back of a silver minivan. I learned that control is an illusion. It feels real, feels weighty, but only because it’s habitual. We get used to the world we move through. We get comfortable in our lives, our cities, day in and day out. But that world we cling to can disappear in the time it takes a drop of water to cover the distance from cloud to pavement. We are, each and every one of us, so damn small. All it takes is a little wind and rain, and everything you’ve ever known, everything that defines you, is gone. But at least, we share this frailty. There’s some consolation in that. We can deal with our cosmic tininess. We can help each other, and we can build ourselves back up. Try again, and try harder.

*

After losing her home, and with her father chronically ill, Hushpuppy heads out to find her mother. She meets a cook on a boat that stages some kind of floating burlesque. Is this woman really her mother? It’s impossible to say, but she dispenses the toughest kind of maternal advice.

"Let me tell you something, when you a child, people tell you that life is gonna be all happy and hunky dory and all that bullshit, but I'm here to tell you that it's not, so you need to get that out your head right now. Because yeah, life's a big ol' feast. But you? You ain't nothing but a stupid little waitress. One day everything that on your plate gonna fall on the floor. Ain't nobody gonna be there to pick it up for you. One day, it's going to be all on you. So smile girl. Ain't nobody want a pity party ass woman."

It's the advice that runs like an undercurrent through the entire film, which is that it's time to grow up.

*

I realized there was no point feeling sorry for myself. I had to work with what I was given. So my friends were gone, alright. So I’d be alone, fine. I decided to lean into it. Turns out you can get a lot done when you’re alone. I didn’t enroll in any of the local colleges. I took the semester off, stayed in that tiny little basement, and filled it with books. I was there for months. I barely went outside. The creative side I’d been halfheartedly nurturing all these years—little more than a social affectation until now, a tool to make me seem more interesting to anyone I wanted approval from—finally got the attention it deserved. I dove into it completely. Writing and drawing stopped being my hobbies, and became my religion. I couldn't control the world, couldn't dictate terms to the weather, but I was still the boss of myself. There were a few things I did still have control over, like my values, my priorities, what I did with my free time. I didn't want to waste a second. Life is short, and precious, and I wanted mine to have meaning. I just wanted to be good at something.

*

The final shot of the film always makes me cry. The remaining citizens of The Bathtub marching toward who knows where, over a road half-beaten with waves, Hushpuppy in front, everyone waving ragged flags, their faces wrapped simultaneously in sorrow and steel and triumph. Ultimately, those are all the same thing. One stage of grief flows into the next, all the way down to acceptance. Losing something is hard, it's always hard, but it's also the only way we really grow. "When it all goes quiet behind my eyes," says Hushpuppy, "I can see everything that made me. I'm just a little piece of a big, big universe."

I came back to New Orleans a different person. I spent the next five years there. Went back to school, and eventually graduated. I did my best to blend in, spending a lot of that time with my friends. We'd do what we always did, go drinking on the levee, or down in the French Quarter. I'd sweat through my t-shirt, sip from a brown paper bag. But most of the time I was alone. I learned to like it. A lot of my friendships began to wither, and I let them. It sounds sad, because losing people you like is sad, but I still see those years as the most fruitful of my life. Not many people can say they have a clear purpose in this world, a role they've chosen for themselves, but I could. My writing and drawing sustained me. Books kept me going. I felt saved. Lean and loose, like a wild animal, and always pointed in one direction. I never stopped moving, haven't since. And it was that damn storm that set me on my way.

In so many ways, I owe that storm, and my poor sunken city, for making me the person I am. On a good day I'll find myself actually glad it happened, which is an absolutely selfish thing to admit, considering how it took so much from so many people. I know I'm lucky. I know I was spared. But then I'll stop, and think about my own years of self-imposed loneliness, the flashes of bitterness and resentment I'll randomly feel towards other "happier" people. I think about how it has taken me a very long time to establish a healthy relationship with another person, because of all the trouble I have believing people are capable of sticking around, or that anything good can really last. I think about how I keep a little duffle bag packed at all times, just in case I have to take off at a moment's notice. I think about that, all of it, and I think back to that storm, and all my years in that sad wet city, and know that the good and the bad always travel hand in hand. When the aurochs is bearing down on you, it's up to you how you react. You can let it trample you, or hold your ground, stare it down like Hushpuppy, and let whatever happens make you stronger. Because the world will give just as much as it takes.

"You're my friend kind of," says the little girl to the beast. And she's right.


Bob Schofield is the author and illustrator of The Inevitable JuneHe likes what words & pictures do. He wants to be a ghostly presence in your life.