NOTES ON READING FROM THE AUTHOR:
This piece was very much written in situ: on a Riverside Park bench, likely a few paces away from a bush I’d freshly pissed behind. It poured out, more or less, in one sitting, from the thick and damp of my immediate experience. And for that reason, it has been sitting in the dark for a few years. It seemed too personal, too raw, too different from the other things I was writing at the time. Essay writing, for me, usually relies on the perspective of time and distance. Also, quite a bit of research and outlining. But with this piece, I had no plan of where I wanted it to go when I started and felt bewildered and electrified by the end. In that way, the process felt more like writing a poem than an essay. After it sat for a while, I put it through many revisions, but the piece ultimately resisted my attempts to tame the chronology or shifting tenses. It insisted, instead, on the integrity of its own unruliness. I learned from it. This past fall, the time finally felt right to take the thing out of hiding and send it out. I couldn’t have known that it would be published just as my engagement would break off. The words strike me now as a letter written to my future self, this self, in this moment, reminding me it will be okay, reminding me how words are a love letter that keeps unfolding. I haven’t been pissing outside much this go-around—I’m in swampland now—but the piece reminds me to create other rituals that keep me vulnerable, even while I’m afraid and hurting. I’ve been getting low and kissing cypress knees. It helps.
WHAT'S YOUR FAVORITE AND/OR STRANGEST PLACE TO WRITE?
I nest on benches to write, after much flitting around. For me, walking is connected to writing, movement of legs with leaps of mind, and benches are the faithful friends who catch my backside when ideas strike. Faithful, yet usually anonymous. However, there is one bench I call by name and have returned to countless times. It’s stone, like a grave with a backrest, and overlooks the Valley of Hell. Sounds dramatic. It absolutely is. It sits by the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, yet apart from it, just outside the wall, in an empty space at the center of a madly spectacular triangle: the Western Wall; Al-Aqsa Mosque; Abbey of the Dormition. For a year, it was my weekly ritual to hike up there, a few hours before sunset, with a notebook, a little canteen of wine, and let some words happen. I am not Jewish, Muslim, or Christian. And that outsiderness is always riddled, problematic, and a little painful. Yet also freeing, and, on that bench, an open window to the rich worlds around me on all sides—the bells, the prayers, the birds, the screech of tour buses, the high blush on the stone graves as the sun would dip down— all felt like a conversation between outsider and insider. That tension is important to me when I write. It’s to see something and to see yourself seeing it, an invitation to immerse yourself as well as a reminder of your particular and limited vantage point. I physically felt that tension every time I sat on that sun-warmed bench above hell in a swarm of the holy.
Piss on Heartsick
I AM A RECREATIONAL urban urinator. What started as an emergency has since bloomed into intimacy, for cities of 8 million people are not kind to girls with bladders the size of walnuts, so that such a girl has a decision to make: to potty-dance through life, or to engineer a certain cat-sharp awareness of her surroundings—the dark corners, closest parks, the widest bush, the unlikely, barracky, and abandoned. Originally from the exposed, scant-shrubbed desert, I had a snake-like knack for it. Yet it remained a craft of last-resort, a tight-spot art. Nothing to be cultivated for its own sake. No, it wasn’t until last year—winter, heartbreak—that I suspected I wasn’t just taking care of business. Pissing openly was doing something to me.
Living in a hard-assed city has only made the surrender more crucial. It happens that there is something about making your body small and low that lays claim to something big and old. I’m not talking about that manly genre of urinating in sweet nature. I mean pissing against the jagged nature of a city, where to make a body vulnerable to its environment is to subvert its environment. You are literally the flesh among steel, the fluid in the gravel, a crack, if you will, in the system. You are a woman, and your body has ever been unstoppably itself. It has been bloody and pissy and bloated in turns, and it fills you now with wonder to let yourself go, right through the cracks of the gum-pocked cement and into some softness of deep-down dirt. And if it is dark out, and there are black tree branches wiring the sky, and a distant rush of cars like a cold river, and maybe a moon, like a flap of skin that makes you suck in your breath, then, on those nights, with my naked backside seated on air and riding a breeze, I feel as if the world is pleased with me. Pissing is not a choice, but here I have chosen to make it part of something beyond square walls, to look carefully around and up and down and side to side to get down low as a prayer and be this body as honestly as I can. I always look first. Left, right, left, sky, dirt. As if my body is a child I’ve taken in hand to cross soundly to some other side, and you passing by, I don’t want to cause you to harm me and I don’t want to harm you, so I do it deftly, alertly, no derring-do, no up-yours. I respect you, stranger. You are part of the secret orientation of my pissing, along with the trees and the shadows and the buildings. And it is from this my small bare place among you that the feeling arises that I have done all right. The rush comes. I am pleasing in the sight of the world that hides me.
I saw a man’s penis reflecting the daylight in Riverside Park, him looking me bold in the face, and disgust and rage flared like a sunburn under my skin. You piss standing up? Against a wall, whatever, whenever, anywhere, and without a second thought? I am not impressed by the urinating man. Because, if I didn’t get low, get small, get private, the piss alchemy wouldn’t happen, and I don’t know how much you’ve had to relieve yourself in cities, but I’ll tell you not so long ago I was dying in Central Park, after dark, deep fall, my legs tracing endless loops going nowhere, because I knew what would happen if I ended up somewhere. He would not be there. So I became slippery around places, taking back-alleys of reality, roaming other times like my own ghost come back to haunt me so that when I touched a tree it was a wormhole to another tree I hugged with luxurious hope years ago—20-years-old and in love halfway across the world—before I knew bitter and sweet in the cellular nuclei of my body, that is, before loving you, before losing you, and these two trees are not connected by anything but me, and I can’t bear the burden of being this node of bones where past and future fail each other. How the past would die if it knew how I live. How the future mourns.
How I stumble like a tumbleweed of snarled sobs. And believe me this girl can cry like she pisses: anywhere, openly, pit-deep and displacing dirt as she goes. You can feel the steam off her eyeballs. You can smell her murk. This night I got down, knees and forehead to the cig-butt mulch of the city, behind a bush, where many others have preceded me with their own business—I catch their dank life and body leaks on my clothes and in the sticky silk of my nostrils—but these are not my concern. My business here is this: to be dirt before what I don’t know. Because I don’t know—I don’t know—what else is mighty enough for this bodily prayer except what is too mighty to definitely be. So I get low, because it smells and it feels like the threshold where words and fears and hopes come to decompose.
And it’s mad work to cut him off, nerve by nerve in the seasons-dense patterns of him in my body, and there, where he sprawled out for a king’s nap in the grass of my mind, left a smoosh of neurons in the shape of his hard man body. That person who is so twined with my thinking that every thought frays me as I tweeze him out. And tonight it’s too much for me. I could just die, should just die. But first, I had to piss.
I set my blurred sights on a tree. The tree was a man. I quickly veered the other way, headed for a true sycamore. Further, further, near the mud cakes by the duck pond, muck and brush leaves all around, I let down the pants that have begun to sag off my hipbone sadness. When the stream hits the small stones and soil it’s a self-sauna of my own spice-hot Phosphorus, my insides like incense before my face, my Nitrogen, my Potassium, my pressurized Helpless, and it helps the flowers grow. I watch the flow curl around me, feel it seep under me. That gut-deep piss-dirt scent, like the spit and mud enough to open the eyes of a blind man. A switch goes on. Just like that. Oh. I stand up and step back. Breathe again and say in a voice I’ve not heard in too long, girl, you are an old soul, maybe an endless soul, so what’s your big idea to get through this one?
There was a day, a sunny not quite spring day in New York City, and it was my morning to Run & Be Free, to take by the balls those six, seven, eight miles—my bare thighs thunderously numb with cold and tears whipping back into the small holes of my ears—and man do I need that, like bread and water and the warmth of his palms on the small of my back. On this morning, my stomach said, No. But it was my Run & Be Free Day, so I ran and demanded the Free keep pace. About three miles in it was clear my body would not do this no matter what I did. There was a demon pain inside me clawing to get out. But I said I’ll just go one more mile and turn around. Surely I can do that. No. I started looking for a toilet. Nearest one 15 blocks away, the gardener said. Surely I could. I could, oh no, I could, oh my, oh no, shit, shit. I started looking for a bush, staggered steps. No bushes, no, no. This can’t happen, because it can’t. I can’t shit myself in the middle of the city. That would be impossible, unthinkable.
Wh-what did you do? said the friend I was telling this story to, my arms and legs wrapped around her body and my mouth to the back of her neck blowing warm story air down her spine. I massage her crabbed hands. Black desert rains slap us silly. She is shaking up and down, out of control, can’t control, and she is a very self-controlled person, whom I had to strip down ass-naked out of her layers of wet clothes and wrap a tarp around her slippery seal skin and get all of me suctioned on her like a starfish. And we got in this mess all because we wanted to drop our shit. Two crazy heartsick girls who asked the desert to kick our ass to freedom, we left behind our sleeping bags, our food, our warm clothes. Set off. We prayed boldly; we dropped heavy stones off cliffs. Howled for heaven and earth to hurt us all the way to healing. . . and then she got hypothermic.
Well, I tell her, somewhere between home and a toilet, time stopped. I felt all of me jerk still. I didn’t dare breathe lest something come loose. It was a surreal moment as I watched the city-goers walking past me, right up against me, and I knew—with a rare and total clarity—that in all the world there was no other choice but to here and now shit myself. And what is heartbreak and loss and incontinence but the moment when the unimaginable gets exclusively real? And so I shat. I let go absolutely. It was messy and gnarly and streaming down to my right ankle, and Lord knows I was wearing no underwear but the tiny betraying one of my running shorts good as cheese cloth. It happened. And then I turned around and started walking the 3 miles home. And I was—right there, I realized—elated. I couldn’t stop smiling because in a way it was such a wild relief to have no options. A lady walked past me and covered her nose, and I felt myself hold my head higher. Because what has more concentrated force than the body that is a walking, breathing, stinking mass of nothing-else-I-can-do?
Will you. Sing for me? I just. Need singing, she said. Well, I’m exquisitely tone deaf. I sing for no one, but I damn sure sang for her, belted out in the storm every verse of "Boots of Spanish Leather," and then an encore, because there’s nothing else to be done but have it all out there, all on the table, chills and dirt shimmying down our skins, menstrual blood seeping through (when it rains. . .), no food to move our bowels. But if we shake enough with the rain, we might just dislodge something—laughter. She is laughing at the story, at the shit running down my legs in New York City, and one day we will laugh at this sopping bloodknot we are. Hell, we already are. Laughing in our lost liquids, we are pure.
And honestly I’m not sure why there isn’t more talk of the ties between love and bowels. We talk about love and food, but not what happens after you put the goods in your mouth. They go down, down, into the hairy netherworld, long and tender and full of transformations, and I can barely eat these days out of hunger for you, and I think of my mother, how, back when she still had most of her viscera, her love life revolved around her intestines, so unruly and troublesome she had to strategize where and when she went out with lovers, and it’s so hard to let yourself go, to expose that soft fleshy middle where we are helplessly broken down, and I think of the time in the beginning, when I was your idol, dream girl, etc., and I was lying on my back on the ground and you stood on my stomach and I squeezed every muscle to hold you up and—pfoof—I farted. And oh the look on your face, your blue eyes like crushed diamonds and you dying laughing, and I said, When you step on me, what do you expect? And how can you love without stepping on each other, and if you are to hold the weight of the other with your tenderest parts, you had better flex every muscle, and Lord knows that creates its own winds. I thought, There’s more where that came from, I’m no dream girl, and I’ve been an idol before and know how they fall and how no one waits at the bottom. And I told you to curb your worship and hold the tongue of your promises because they don’t stay in the mouth forever. They go down, down, and all things must pass through the low places, but knowing that is not to gain an ounce of control. And oh God did I fall hard. I full-on fell until here I am just me, just me, down where the unimaginable gets exclusively real.
I’m sick, really sick. My heart reeks to high heaven, and there’s nothing I can do, can’t hold, can’t stall, can’t soothe, sorry can’t wait for a better moment. I give in and let it all power out, with respect for you, for myself, for the heartbroken earth pissing oceans of tremendous bottomless fragility, and sometimes I feel it, when I’m filthy through and through with my own blackblue heartguts: the world is pleased with me. I am doing human all right. There is an unlovely love that lives at the bottom, and you can flush it out of sight, or you can get low and give it up for the flowers. And the orientation of my heartspill is towards you who can’t see me, but I bear and feel and smell and know I’m real and that there are growing things here, unbearable growing things. And I know because later that day that I shit all over myself and beyond myself, I met up with a friend, and you know the first thing she said to me? Oh my God, you’re glowing! Are you in love?