I broke three contracts in 2016. The first was verbal, a monogamy clause. But he was fucking around too, and I knew, because everybody is psychic; I’d just become attuned to it. The second was an NDA. A man who gave me money asked me to sign it when we first met at the Hyatt near LAX. But he got my name wrong, took my Twitter handle for the real thing, so I signed smiling. The third and last was this reality show deal. Making a documentary about my new, younger friends and their home in Koreatown.
It’s been one year since I signed my friends’ lives away during my temporary stay, and two months since I officially joined their lease. As is the nature of La Mariposa, most of them have since flown the co-op. Morgan is living with her parents in the Bay. Alicia is in New York. Miffany’s been all over. Ditto Max. I can’t keep up. The only one left is Nadezhda, the one who initially brought me in.
Our relationship is sisterly. I never had one. She keeps asking me if I’m going to do something with this writing. I was sharing it with her and the other girls as it came to me, checking my mirror, so to speak. They consented yes, always. I was told I was trusted, which is a large part of why I knew I had to break our contract – I didn’t want to risk compromising that.
In many ways, I feel even more than a year older now. I have been Saturn Returning, which is an astrological concept I’m no longer sure I believe in. I’ve spent much of the last two years trying to determine how belief determines reality and how much. Just last week a Kundalini instructor in Santa Monica speculated that one’s beliefs manifest as event and circumstance. She was raised by a Vietnam-born mother, she said, who followed the Chinese zodiac. Her mother believed that those years forecast to be bad for her astrological sign would be. She feared them. And they turned out to be fearsome. ‘Looking back,’ the Kundalini instructor said, ‘you can see a pattern. The years my mother thought would be bad were – stress, calamity, loss. But I never believed. I don’t know why, I always thought the idea was silly, that the Year of the Goat could be bad for me. I don’t have bad years. My mother has retrospective proof of her belief. As do I. What’s true? Maybe we make it up.’
That’s what my comic book artist ex-boyfriend thought of the afterlife: that what we believe it to be will be. Fire and brimstone? Heaven is a place on Earth? Gold-gated clouds? Absolute nothingness? Anything you want, you got it. I think he read it in a book.
Saturn is said to ‘return’ when a person is between twenty-seven and a half and thirty years old. It happens again after another twenty-seven and a half to thirty years – for me, if I’m lucky enough to live that long. Western astrology is based on the belief that individuals, at birth, are imprinted with a set of influences emanating from the planets, stars, and other stellar bodies, which act upon one’s character and destiny, determining stuff like how you communicate and experience beauty, your relationship to power, order, flora, fathers, and mothers. The planet Saturn is said to be Father Time, Kronos, dominating, reality-checking. He’s cold, impersonal, and wise. And when he returns to the place in the sky where he was when you entered the world, he bullies you into your next life stage. Some don’t make it out alive.
It’s a fun game – asking elders what happened to them between ages twenty-seven and thirty. The stories tend to be epic: sudden career changes, international moves, surprise inheritances, marriages, divorces, deaths, births, travel, great works made and lost. So far I’m halfway through, and my changes have been mostly internal. Despite great effort on my part to shift my material circumstances, I am still chasing nominal freelance checks to pay rent, still loving boyish beings with suicidal tendencies, still plotting revenge on the capitalist patriarchy, and still fantasising about never writing again.
Nothing has changed, and everything has. That’s what happens when you come to believe in God. When you learn to be grateful to just be, every conscious moment in this realm, even loss and debt, feels like a gift. You sense, at least, that you’re no longer afraid of death. Chronic time becomes illusive, a joke. The body is alien, an avatar, borrowed. The simplest actions bring pleasure. Walking. Cutting carrots. Sweeping cat litter. The sky is my favourite movie. This whole trip, though, is filmic. A play of shadow and light. Moment to moment to moment is Now. Forms change and there are essences that remain.
I call this living the Real. The more in it I am, the more like-minded lifers I attract. For a minute, I thought our reality show could be about that – about Millennials or Digital Natives or whatever you want to call us in our struggle to be Real. It’s endemic in America.
Our apartment looks like a stage set. Something about its height and the light in LA. We’re on the top floor overlooking parking garages and a cluster of high-rises. Beyond that are palm trees and the hills. Built on a slight incline, our apartment seems tilted forward from the entrance, threatening to descend into the concrete below. The place is painted pale institutional avocado and lime green, and decorated with the kind of cheap fixtures that look fake. Our ceilings are tall enough for a camera rig. Nadezhda now lives in what would be the living room were we not the kind of girls who tape posters to our walls declaring, what do we want? no jobs! when do we want them? never!
As of today, we are three broke girls and a cat, Noo, a rescue who self-harms or self-soothes (maybe one and the same) by licking her ginger mane away. Her preferred haircut involves a shaved tail. Sometimes she’ll follow that fade up her spine. The resulting look is like a reverse mohawk. Before I adopted her, Noo would hit skin and not stop. Now when I catch my cat manically licking, we play. I pet her and whisper, You’re so beautiful, you’re so lovely, I love you, I will protect you, I promise you, you sweet divine, regal, beautiful creature. A cat whisperer once told me to do this. ‘Cats are very vain,’ she said. (They are, epigenetically, royalty.)
I probably would’ve risked the reality show had the budget been better. But the youth culture industry relies on our selling ourselves short, on lit kids trading in their creativity, vitality, and taut-skinned desirability for a good party, tenuous social validation, and the false promise that cultural capital may translate in time to a source of real income. Many of us are happy to take the onetime check. A Calvin Klein campaign. Why not? Or maybe I’m a poor negotiator. My Saturn is afflicted in the second house of resources – money’s the most mysterious thing to me.
Alexa K. was set to direct. The girls and I were stoked. Alexa is a real artist, market-vigilant or German-like, her cynicism services a sublime idealism. The branding agency said they couldn’t afford her, though, even when Alexa said she’d do it for free.
At the time, I had been smoking so much weed my veins turned green. I had also been compulsively taking Voice Memos on my iPhone. Existential epiphanies, creative plots, intersubjective dialogues, and jokes – I felt the need to document it all. In one recording, I went off on what I was then calling The Real Real World, or The IRL World.
‘Our show,’ I go, ‘it’s about—’
How much of what I think I know was learned from media or other people versus from firsthand experience?
How many single images do I consume in a day?
Where do our beliefs come from and how do they organise our lives? Actions? Consequences?
If we were to watch what was going on in most offices, bedrooms, and homes, what would we see? What are we seeing?
Like, today I saw all over the world and back and forth in time. I was with friends in several countries. This is so cool, but what happens to the body when it thinks it’s experiencing all of these adventures, romances, and horrors, but really it’s sitting still?
It feels like we get flooded with the appropriate response stimuli to like, a physical threat or the wish to make love, but then…
What are we doing with that energy?
If we could afford to adventure more offline, what would we do?
How would we feel?
Why are we poor? There’s so much abundance about. Why are we pouring money into VR? Who cares.
WE ALREADY LIVE IN VIRTUAL REALITY.
We know so little of the machinations and magic of this realm. What is consciousness? The Real. Who said it … that quote …
[Thumbs through iPhone.]
Few women ever experience themselves as real. – Andrea Dworkin
But really – why don’t I feel real? What makes me feel real? Mass shooters don’t feel real. We want to have influence. We seek to test reality. Ripple. Ripple.
Actions have consequences.
I feel Real when I talk about the Real with other people. Sometimes.
You can’t look more than one person in the eyes at the same time.
Why is there so much suffering? When it could be so simple. IT IS
I have all these beautiful, brilliant friends and family. WE’RE HERE.
Right now. Alive.
Yet we’re stressed and depressed and some say lonely or lost.
Why do all these kids write to me saying they’re lost?
The show is for them. What if we collected them? In one place where we could learn to recognize each other. Learn to Be. Truthfully. Mirror mirror. The world is a mirror. Don’t you see?
I had been walking around Koreatown alone taking these oral notes. It was late. My period had just come on and she was wavy. A mournful orchestra of milky, knotted energy was rising from my pelvis, its notes culminating meters beyond my body. I sat on an apartment stoop on South Harvard Boulevard to finish my monologue. Becoming conscious of where I was and what I was doing, I started to describe the scene around me: the full moon, the oceanic traffic sounds, a nearby Dr. Seussian garden, and all the passersby who looked oblivious to my madness. (Few of us out here allow ourselves to really recognise one another.) As my tearful in-breaths became laughter, I felt the same channel-change as in Morgan’s bedroom. It was as if my eyes widened, letting in more light. Depth chiselled the edges of my vision. The movie clunked into 4-D. I’d gotten there. To this blessed realm that my friend Clara, who we’ll come back to later, had been breaching too. Once, at a farmers market, Clara and I got there together. I remember Clara turning to me and saying, ‘Some people live here!’ The Real. ‘It’s really real!’
When I first moved into La Mariposa, among its six residents, including myself, our three-room apartment housed twelve different kinds of eating disorders, stacks of unopened letters from debt collectors, racks’ worth of Goodwill treasures, and drawers full of stolen Sephora. We had addictions: to fuckboy drama, selfies and likes, deli wine, cardio, and anything oral. We shared desires: for True Love and Universal Basic Income. Our traumas: the psychic schism of routine objectification (body dysmorphia, surveillance paranoia); over-media-ation (mercury poisoning and ADHD); date rape (dissociation, anorgasmia); debt and joblessness (insecurity, anxiety, and shame); and parental migrations, depressions, deaths, addictions, and divorce (attachment and abandonment issues). This was all out there. Talked about. Art was made about it. It decorated our floors and walls. After living in New York for four years, where the ‘artists’ I met were so professional – rich kids, groomed to continue to profit – I was refreshed by the candour, idealism, diversity, and genuine artistic talent I witnessed in this Los Angeles home.
I met the residents of La Mariposa at that age where differences of class and related values start to show themselves. When you’re young, in your teens and early twenties, in an arts scene, you can all seem the same. Everyone spends everything they have. Living in a dump is just like, you party a lot and don’t care to clean. You can process crap food, drugs, and alcohol, and still have radiant skin. You look cute in everything. As you age, this begins to change. Around twenty-seven, I started to notice who could afford to have babies, buy houses, and invest in their careers, who had the start-up capital and contacts to launch a small business, buy canvas, hire assistants, and travel. And who couldn’t – who got sick and disappeared. I realised all these kids I’d hung around with at parties in New York City came from low-key dynasties. Politicians’ kids, CEOs’ kids, famous artists’ kids.
I wanted to belong. Before I knew what was going on, I thought it was possible. I remember being out to dinner – I was twenty-four and had just moved to New York – with some new friends in a neighbourhood called NoLIta, where rent on studio apartments was $2.5K easy, and every other shop was staffed by Australian fitness models. I was always tense at these things, choosing the cheapest wine and saying I wasn’t hungry, when really I just couldn’t afford the steak my anaemic body craved; I ate from the bread baskets others ignored. I didn’t understand how everyone could go out all the time, and live where they did, and look as they did. Radiant! At this dinner, I remember, a typical NoLIta clique walked by, models and girls who trained to look like models, and I said, ‘Everyone is so beautiful here!’ And my friend Susan, who was always right, replied, ‘No. They’re just rich.’
‘Oh.’ I swallowed the moment, not fully processing it until just recently, when it dawned on me that these people weren’t, as I’d thought, better than me at what we did. I thought they’d earned their wealth by working harder and being smarter and more innately creative, talented, graceful, and godly than me. Worthier. When really, America’s class system is a caste system. At this point in capitalist history, wealth has consolidated such that class mobility is anomalous and still: the promise.
It’s like we’re all forced to play this rigged game of Monopoly where some of us start off with a little stack of money and one property, some with stacks of money the height of hotels, a few run the bank, and many are in jail. Money, in this game, is no longer just paper, it’s coded numbers on screens that most of us aren’t educated to read, let alone trade in. And the rules of this game – they keep changing. People who consider themselves ‘winners,’ those who can afford to, make up the rules as they go. They make deals with each other and the bank, to suit their established interests, to win all the wealth.
(The earliest version of Monopoly was known as the Landlord’s Game, patented in 1904.)
Money, now, can buy so much. It can buy beauty. You wouldn’t believe the subtle cosmetic procedures the daughters of socialites I know get. Money can buy a false sense of desirability. A majority of my friends have escorted, dated, or otherwise traded their genetic beauty for cash, which is dangerous – the delusion of a man paying for it, his repression, resentment, and rage. Money can buy you a career in the arts. Once I started paying attention, it became obvious – how many young so-called creatives, from painters to magazine editors, were just uninspired rich kids. I wonder if they thought I was one of them, the trust-funders and hangers-on I spent time with.
I met the first lot through my model friend Cupie. The rich are impressionable to beauty. I’m not beautiful enough to qualify on looks alone, but I have taste. Impeccable, covetable – even salable – taste in theatre, art, music, literature, and most of all: fashion. I love clothes! I’ll be the homeless woman talking to the sun by the Pacific Coast Highway in a vintage Lagerfeld blazer, Fiorucci jeans, Yves Saint Laurent hat, and Lucchese cowboy boots – they’re embroidered with flaming phoenixes, eternally returning in style.
‘Oh, you’re just Canadian’ is how well-to-do Americans write me off when I get all rah-rah class-conscious lately.
‘I can’t believe it’s like this!’ I exclaim. ‘And y’all accept it?’
But I didn’t know it. Not when I moved to New York and worked ninety hours a week at various gigs trying to keep up with the cool kids. Not when I experienced a masochistic mental breakdown from the inevitable burnout. Not when I rehabilitated care of yoga and other healing-industry goods. And not even when I killed our reality show contract, mostly because I was ashamed I couldn’t negotiate a liveable budget. I still thought it was my fault. I still believed ‘success’ was based on merit. On True Talent. And that I didn’t have it.
Of course, at the same time, I also didn’t believe all that. That’s the thing – it’s like deep-dish-pizza down we always know. Even when we can’t articulate it, or act on it, we know what’s true, just, and beautiful. What’s Real. Love. Our souls will it, which is why we have so much mental illness, cruelty, and violence in our culture. Our true natures are repressed by manufactured desires and fears, by the temptation/frustration cycle of consumerism and power-as-domination. It’s like my sixty-nine-year-old mentor Steven Klein says, ‘The ego industry is a mass conglomerate!’ You will never be satisfied.
Even when I was a teenage camp counsellor, I couldn’t help it: I always played favourites. At La Mariposa, I loved Alicia’s art the most. One of my many jobs in New York was to report on hype things for ‘cool’ magazines. I was always looking for a feeling, a spark, someone putting experiences into forms until then unexpressed. If the magazines I worked for back in New York were really cool, they would’ve put Alicia on the cover, and assigned me to profile her for a good three thousand words, but these outlets aren’t after what they pretend to be. Like authenticity and art – they act like that’s their deal, when really they’re looking for accreditation and validation. Trading in existing cultural capital, they don’t know how to generate it. Real artists are generators, not traders. My editors were always asking where else my proposed subjects had been reported on; how many social media followers they had; and/or what famous people they’d collaborated with or were born from. There’s a checklist. Alicia doesn’t qualify – yet.
When I was subletting the bed next to hers, Alicia was always churning out images – digital collages, fashion editorials, portraits, still lifes, and videos – that reflected the violence of desire, attachment, and healing. That feeling of wanting to destroy the one you love. To consume them. Knowing you’re acting evil and watching yourself do it anyway because you don’t believe in the goodness of yourself, or because you’re attached to people who behave the same way. Alicia was especially good on loving men – masculine hetero men. She figured animal sex. Instinct, aggression, and loyalty. Divinity. Looks of abduction, eyes blackened. Her manicured nails looked like blades and shields. There was melancholy and beatitude.
Even in my dArkest, Alicia once captioned one of her Instagram posts, there sparks burning in my mouth, which is as concise a description of her work as I can come up with.
I wanted to see what Alicia would do with a budget. It’s hard to say who was the most broke among our lot. It would’ve been a difference of a couple hundred bucks a month, which to us was a lot. In Los Angeles, Alicia patched together rent from miscellaneous bartending and modelling gigs, which got her out of the apartment. Otherwise she was at home, which was affordable. Alicia made art the way I did when I first started: from need, love, and naïveté. When the feelings are as big as the information is chaotic, you put it into physical form in order to better see it, rearrange it, and maybe change it. Computers and their offshoot tools, like editing apps and social media, had given Alicia a near-free medium to work with. Grateful for this, Alicia constantly gave all her work away for free on social media. Her giveaways were more interesting than most movies being made, but they were ephemeral, diffuse, not reaching all they could touch. While they were helping her process, packaged like this, they weren’t going to build her the artistic career she said she wanted.
I wanted to help. Blame my Virgoan servitude, my bleeding Leo Moon heart, and my burgeoning maternal instinct – and maybe also, I was projecting. You know the myth of discovery? Someone sees in you something you can’t see yourself or don’t have the resources to cultivate, and they make it happen for you. Classic story, the crafting of a leading lady. When I was younger, I so wanted that to happen to me. Soon after I signed the contract, enacting the part of discoverer, I realised how sick that story is. Casting agents, headhunters, and commercial producers are opportunistic creeps. What I envisioned for Alicia and the rest of La Mariposa, for our show, was less creepy than it was delusional. I was attempting to put on their oxygen masks before I did my own. I was faking it, so they could make it. Nadezhda did this, and it drove me crazy: she performed the role of ‘hacker girl’, when she only knew basic html. (Even I bought it for a minute; the girl dressed and talked the part.) I had fancied myself as a patron of the arts, like my second-wealthiest friend, Henry Gaylord-Cohen, was always telling me: ‘You’d make the best rich person, Fiona.’ Clad in vintage Mugler and local handcrafted clothes by Lou Dallas, I would throw Jean Stein-worthy dinner parties; fund-raise for sexual liberty, affordable housing, right-to-water, and education; and you know I’d collect the heaven, hell, and Earth out of Real artists.
Now in New York, waitressing full-time and so tired, Alicia’s pretty much stopped making work. Many of the best are striving in the shadows. Spotlight’s full of frauds.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Fiona Alison Duncan is a Canadian American artist, writer and organiser. She is the founding host of Hard to Read, a lit series, and Pillow Talk, community organising on sex, love and communication. She lives in New York City and Los Angeles.