Let’s all, for a moment, imagine we are Orpheus. Yes, people like our songs, yes we have a capacity for desire that resonates from our lyre, but we’ve just retrieved our beloved out of Hades. Let’s imagine this lover in the early, hot stages of our romance—when we can’t get away from the fact and possibility that this incredible sex and connection is happening to us. We want to know everything and can’t know everything and they might accidentally scratch the inside of us, and exchange chlamydia but it doesn’t matter because of the way they make us come and then listen to us sing about it.
Of course I’d look back.
T FleischmannTime Is the Thing a Body Moves Through
Coffee House Press, 2019
T Fleischmann, in their book-length essay Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through, wouldn’t be surprised, because this is where we have the most potential to defy authority: through our desire.
This is a slutty book, not just in content but in form. The long, sprawling essay bends prose and language to seek both intimacy and the alive body. “I don’t want to give any more of my touch to language. I just want language to generate more touch.”
The essay’s speaker—an all-gendered femme top—was born in the early ’80s at the moment the AIDS virus finally has a name. Yet T writes in the language of writers who witnessed the mass death as it happened—I think of Essex Hemphill and Hervé Guibert—and yet I remind myself again and again that T and I were born in the same year when the nationwide fear of desire washed over us in the womb.
The essay opens as T rides the bus from Buffalo where they have seen one of their great loves, Simon, after having made a decision to not have sex anymore. This years-long relationship of emotional distance and closeness was given a definite boundary and there is a sense of grief that enlivens the body. So of course we find ourselves with T, on the Scruff app, watching the profiles of potential lovers come closer and move away in distance as the bus moves. T pauses on the profile of a trio of lovers, all bottoms, seeking their top. How did this come to be, these three falling in love in this state of lack? Especially during this time where topping requires us to face our complicity in systems of power, and being in this bottom surplus can offer the option of not taking responsibility for our desires. “So many things locate themselves in lack,” T writes, and we could argue that this lack is more of a driving force than time. T is deeply moved by the writing of a critic, and when they meet in person, T’s lips are painted perfectly for the date. They share a kiss but the critic declines another date. T and their friends decide that if, “you are allowed to mourn a relationship for half the length of time it lasted, that I can take three hours at the bar for this.”
T brings us through lack by allowing separate threads of desire to intersect and interrupt each other. Each feeling of loss and desire brings us another. In this way, T creates a new sense of experiencing desire and time.
The threads are multiple: Simon, a lover we know is in the past; Jackson, a lover who still seems to be in the present; the author’s obsession with describing ice; and most effectively, the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres.
This artist, widely known for his untitled installations made during the AIDS crisis, is embedded in the author’s imagination. Each of the installations that T describes require the participation of the body—whether it is the moment of looking at a pile of gold-wrapped candies and taking one, the work of the tongue and jaw and teeth as the juice slides down the throat; or walking a curtain of golden beads, the sound of the cheap plastic clinking together like rain. These installations invite the body, where part of the experience is that the experience will end. Even if we chase after these shows in museums multiple times, our body, our sense of self, will never experience it the same way again. And yet, the collector who now owns Untitled (Placebo-Landscape-for Roni) now must keep candy present in perpetuity. How does time work then? What happens to our desire without lack?
“Because there are no limits to how much we can give each / other, when we recognize that none of this was ever ours to give, / and as we give each other the world.”
It is not unusual to wonder if we miss a former lover or if we miss the aliveness (both the pleasure and the pain) they enabled us to feel. The archetypal stories of Orpheus and Lot’s wife are often manipulated into a lesson of safety: look back and be doomed which, in a culture of capitalism and white supremacy, is really just about numbness and fear of death.
Fleischmann doesn’t use narrative to compare the ultimate dissatisfaction of one relationship and the current satisfaction of another. All relationships in the book are held and examined for what they are, including the relative eroticism that came from the emotional distance of Simon or the comfort of Jackson living on the other side of the world. Rather than use a relationship that is unsuccessful by heteropatriarchal standards to highlight a relationship that ends in a marriage—albeit one that is fantastically transsexual, and is really just a means to establish citizenship—Fleischmann invites us to see a narrative that exists outside of the notion of a destination. “[Y]ou never get there, you just keep going. Things are repeated, and sometimes we mistake the fact of their repetition for their value.”
Any relationship, human or artistic, is not that different considering that the person who loves both Simon and Jackson and countless others is technically the same: T. The transgender body knows that there is ultimately no end point or destination. And so, like the Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s piece Untitled Orpheus Twice, the mirrors slightly turned toward each other endlessly reflect all the truth and possibilities of our body.
I can make a choice as a reader to twist my neck in circles with T and notice that the moment I experience ice it is already melting, that in every excitement I have for a new lover it is partially the ending I love. My body in its unusual gender, in its movement toward death, is both linear and non. We’ve trained ourselves not to look back—or in any direction. But Fleischmann postures that turning toward the thing we desire at the risk of loss shows we are alive or, at the very least, honestly within a body.