Creative Nonfiction

DEALBREAKERS by Rachel Dorn

Would you date a dying girl I type in the message box. My thumb hovers over the send button. I hit delete.What are ur dealbreakers I type instead.

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We don’t say terminal anymore, Janessa, my support group leader, says on one of our monthly Zoom calls. We say incurable. Because, you know, people can live a long time with this now. What doesn’t need to be said is that not all of us will.

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In the months after I find out I have an incurable heart and lung disease, I spend a lot of time thinking about a man. All my journal entries mention him. I spend pages dissecting our FaceTime calls, the look he gives me when I say I have to go, his insistence that I call him right back, trying to mine for proof that he really loves me. That I am still lovable, despite this. 

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When I met T, a few months before I got sick, I Googled his name. The first result was a missing person report from several years earlier, accompanied by a thumbnail photo of him smiling in a black sweatshirt. Last seen in the Pine Bluff area on October 31st, the caption said, anyone with information about his whereabouts please contact the Pine Bluff Police Department. I took a screenshot and sent it to my friend: is this a red flag

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The heat in my apartment went out for three days the winter I met him. It was as cold as a Minnesota February gets; I’d been sleeping in my heavy-duty down coat and two pairs of pants, creating a ring of space heaters around my bed. He lived an hour away, across the Wisconsin state line, but he told me he’d come lift my spirits and he did. It was snowing; we ate takeout tacos in bed, drank bubbly from the bottle, curled together under the covers watching The Sopranos on my broken laptop. My bedroom was all windows—nine of them—and I always said it would be the worst place to be if a tornado struck in the night. It was the best place to be when it snowed.

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T made it clear from the start that he was someone who could never be pinned down. The attraction was undeniable, but it was our conversations that thrilled me–a nonstop game of verbal ping pong. I remember thinking I could banter with him for the rest of my life and never get sick of it. At the end of a weekend together, I found a little baggy of mystery pills in the drawer of my nightstand—Valium, maybe, left there by another man—and offered them to him. He swallowed a handful all at once and left. A couple hours later he called me. I’m fucking floatingggg, he said. And that’s how I felt too. Like I was floating.

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T FaceTimes me from a hotel in Los Angeles. He FaceTimes me from a hotel outside of Ruston, Louisiana. He FaceTimes me while driving a Benz through Cherry Hill, New Jersey. In the wake of a breakup with another man, too sick to do much of anything, I’ve moved in with my retired parents. I answer his calls in my childhood bedroom with its teal walls that my sister and I painted when we were kids and our mom never painted back. I live my entire life between these walls now. You gotta get better, he says, so you can run around with me.

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Out of boredom I download a dating app, then delete, then redownload. I’m swiping past people who are doing everything I can’t do; looking for a woman who can be someone I’ll never be again. An adventure partner, a travel buddy, someone to hike the Pacific Crest Trail with. How do I tell them that the most adventurous thing I’ll ever do with them is meet them in person?

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I match with a cardiologist on one of the apps and when he messages me I say I wish my cardiologist looked as good as you and he says lol do you actually have one and I say yeah and he says oh dang do you have an arrhythmia or something and I say nah, pulmonary hypertension and he unmatches me. Relax, I want to say, it’s not contagious.

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I have to call an ambulance one afternoon in July, after the diagnosis but before the meds start working, because my heart is going berserk. 180 beats per minute and I’m struggling to breathe. Four EMTs show up to my parents’ house and one of them is the hottest man I’ve ever seen. In the back of the ambulance I accidentally flash my tits to all four of them while they’re hooking me up to the heart monitor. It’s SVT, one of them says to the others and then the hot one hands me a syringe and tells me to blow into it. We’re gonna go fast, the driver says, turning on the siren as we bolt through the streets of Saint Paul and I’m on a stretcher, blowing into the syringe, over and over, and the hot one tells me I’m doing great and squeezes my hand and I’m thinking am I going to die in the back of this ambulance and I’m thinking this is the most humiliating moment of my entire life and I’m thinking I wonder if he’s single.

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When I tell the men from the apps that I have pulmonary hypertension, after a perfunctory that sucks, I’m sorry their responses depend on whether or not they’ve heard of the disease. If they have, and they know a little bit about it, they invariably ask if I take Viagra (yes, three times a day) and if it you know…does anything (no, not in women). If they don’t know anything and I explain that it’s a pretty debilitating heart disease, they want to know if I can still engage in, um, activities (maybe, not with you).

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I read a New York Times article about dating with chronic illness and then I read all 277 comments. I’m looking for recognition, some confirmation that I’m not alone. In the midst of people proclaiming that essential oils cured their husband’s chronic Lyme and others arguing over the right time to reveal a disability, a woman with a rare blood cancer shares a story about a date she went on. When she mentioned to her date that sex was risky because an infection could kill her, he was convinced she was exaggerating. He told me he felt so sorry for me that sex could prove problematic, but never mentioned that he felt sorry for me because I had terminal cancer...it soon became apparent that he would rather have incurable cancer than not be able to have sex.

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I wonder if it’s best to play my cards up front, to let them know what they’re getting into before we even match. In my bio I write I have a terminal illness, looking for my A Walk To Remember arc. Then I wonder if this defeats the purpose; anyone who's seen it knows that in that movie Mandy Moore’s character doesn’t reveal she has leukemia until the boy has already professed his love for her. 

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Over text, T and I reminisce about the bad emo music of our youth. He was a star football player in his small Louisiana town, I was a bookish Catholic school girl, shivering in my uniform skirt through long Midwestern winters, but our short-lived emo phases somehow synced up. Remember this one? He sends me a voice note, serenading me, screeching the words to Your Guardian Angel by The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus: I will never let you fall / I’ll stand up with you foreverrr / I’ll be there with you through it allllll

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We all have our baggage, my therapist tells me. I don’t think it makes you undateable. I’ve put on makeup, for the first time in weeks, to meet her in the portal. She starts talking at length about her husband’s struggle with addiction, about how you never really know what you’re getting into with someone anyway, because things change. I look past her, fixating on the unmade bed in the corner of her screen. If you don’t know, you don’t know, but if you do know, you can avoid it, right? 

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I ask the girls in my support group what they do about dating. A lot of them are married and I secretly resent them, but a few of them are single. I don’t, K says with a laugh. She’s the one I relate with most: we’re both in our early 30s, both had to move back in with our parents, both got broken up with by our boyfriends when we got too sick. Maybe it’s possible to have a partner that sticks it out with you, if they love you enough, but getting someone to sign up for this, well, it’s just a whole different thing. Everyone agrees.

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T slipped out of my life as quickly as he slid into it, that first winter. By the time I heard from him again I had a new boyfriend and a mystery illness. I told him about both. Our friendship rekindled, but I kept him at an arm’s length, trying to dim the switch on that light that came on inside me whenever we talked. He was moving out east soon and wanted to see me before he left. I said no, I can’t, I’m with someone. When I started to feel the cracks in my relationship deepen, I told him that too. I don’t think he loves me, I said. Well I love you, he replied.

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In the aftermath of my diagnosis, I tell T that it’s been proven that women who become seriously ill are more likely to be left by their male partners than the other way around. That’s bullshit, he says, most divorces are filed by women. Not in this specific scenario, I say. Men don’t like to be caregivers. I sent him a link to an article about it; there's a picture of the baseball player Albert Pujols, who left his wife after she had brain surgery. That doesn’t count because he’s famous, he says. I say okay and send him another article about women with terminal cancer being left by their partners. You don’t have no cancer man, he says.

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Months earlier, while still searching for answers, I read Meghan O’Rourke’s The Invisible Kingdom, which chronicles her own diagnostic journey with a complex chronic illness. She talked about the shame, as an ill person, of needing other people so much, both in concrete, material ways, and in the need for recognition. I felt a profound sense of betrayal that he did not seem to feel the urgency of my suffering, she wrote of her husband, who rarely accompanied her to doctors’ appointments. It is hard to be the partner of someone ill, at once close to the problem and permanently on the other side of the glass from it. I read these words at night, next to my boyfriend, B, who was trying to understand, but who would always be on the other side of the glass.

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A month and a half before I got diagnosed, when I was too weak to walk up the stairs to my apartment and didn’t know why yet, B dumped me. It sounds bad, to say it like that, because by then I didn’t blame him. It was my idea. I could tell he felt trapped but was afraid to abandon me, so I gave him permission to and he took it. I was already sick when we met a year earlier and had spent a good chunk of our year together searching for answers—in the fluorescent light of dozens of exam rooms, in the test results tab of my MyChart app, in the archives of niche Reddit forums. Our whole relationship felt like a series of things I wanted to do, but couldn’t, while he hung around on the sidelines of my pain feeling helpless. We might have been right for each other if we’d met under different circumstances, if I’d gotten better instead of worse. But we didn’t, I didn’t. I was heartbroken for a week, and then I was too sick to care.

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In the week between when we decided to break up and when he moved all of his things out of my place, we had sex one last time. For closure. The whole time I wondered if it would be the last time I ever would.

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The thing that nobody warns you about having a heart disease is that it makes it impossible to **** ***, I tweet. I consider bringing this up with my cardiologist, but decide I would rather die horny than tell a 75-year-old man what my heart does when I get aroused.

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A popular Instagram fashion brand is advertising a tiny brass pill canister embossed with the word Viagra. The algorithm shows it to me over and over until eventually I buy it. Beautiful women take Viagra has become my little motto, my bit with friends and family whenever I pop one in their presence. If I’m going to be taking it for the rest of my life, I might as well own it.

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T tells me that before we can have sex again he needs to see me run a mile. Or do a power clean. Your choice, he says, but I’d go with the mile. Less blood pressure action. I know he’s joking, but I know there’s a deeper part of him that’s a little serious. Okay coach, I say. I don’t want to tell him that these things still feel so out of reach.

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Maybe, I think, the reason T is so important to me is because he was the last person to meet me when I was still healthy, the last person who would ever get to know the version of me that could pop a bottle of champagne after midnight and drink the rest on a lazy Saturday morning, the version with energy and verve and dreams for the future, that could plan a trip to Palm Springs on a whim, that didn’t have to take supplemental oxygen on the plane, that didn’t have to take pills four times a day just to stay alive. The version that could get high without sending my heart into overdrive, that could fuck without sending my heart into overdrive. That could do a power clean, or run a mile, and not think twice about it.

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By late August, the meds are starting to work. I can go on walks again, slowly, in the sticky heat. Senator Amy Klobuchar tweets a picture of herself at the Minnesota State Fair, posing with four shirtless firefighters. State Fair pro tip: You don’t want to miss the Minnesota firefighters. The post has millions of views. One of the men in the picture is my EMT, the hot one. I send it to my group chat and nobody can agree who the hot one is. I think it’s obvious.

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In the fall, I suggest to T that he visit me. I haven’t seen him in well over a year, but lately we’ve been talking all the time. He hems and haws and eventually gives me a half-hearted excuse about feeling as if I’m only talking to him because I’m bored, because of my situation, and that if my life hadn’t slowed down like this I wouldn’t even look his way anymore. I can see through it, and I press him, until eventually he admits that my lack of mobility isn’t compatible with his lifestyle of spontaneity and constant travel, that we could never be together because of it. I’m gutted, angry, ashamed. Most of all, as much as I want to believe he’s wrong, to change his mind, I know there’s some truth to his words.

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T was there; when I knew I was sick but everyone else was starting to suspect I might just be crazy, he had a plan for me, an investment in my recovery. Stop eating this, start eating this, everything from scratch, spring water only. You don’t have room to slack, he told me. I rolled my eyes. Deep down, though, I was grateful that someone cared enough to want to help, to not just shrug their shoulders like my doctors had been doing for months. And when my MRI report said myocardial fibrosis and right ventricular hypertrophy and I landed in the hospital, when I lied flat on an operating table with a catheter in my heart and saw the grave expressions on my doctors’ faces, when he texted me how did today go lil mama, when he called me immediately after I told him, when he looked like he might cry on my phone screen, I felt it. But there’s a limit, I’m learning, to what some people can bear.

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I long for a love that is not contingent on how well my body is working, one that understands how this illness makes both spontaneity and planning ahead more difficult, that celebrates the wins and grieves the losses alongside me. In one of my pulmonary hypertension groups, a man is posting updates about his wife’s double lung transplant recovery. She’s up walking today! or Well, we had a bit of a setback. I wonder about my future, if I’ll ever need one. I wonder what it would be like to go through it alone.

Fiction

“TORN BETWEEN THE PAST AND THE FUTURE […] UNSURE IF ANY TANGIBLE PRESENT EXISTS”: An Interview with David Leo Rice

The artistic ambition and imagination of David Leo Rice seem to know no bounds. His latest novel, The Berlin Wall (Whiskey Tit, 2024), carries forward investigations and ideas worked out in his earlier books while exploring new landscapes, deeper heresies, and alternate means of storytelling. I’d heard rumblings of this novel’s existence quite a while ago, and was excited to finally get my hands on a presale copy earlier this year: it did not disappoint. David was kind enough to sit down with me for a conversation about the book, its generation, genre, fanaticism, heroism, and various “hatchings” of selves (among many other things).Danny Elfanbaum: The Berlin Wall —an alternate history of 2020 — nevertheless brought up a lot of what I remember from that year and the early days of the pandemic, with resonances about the news, missing- or misinformation, and the memory of a kind of passive, omni-present terror, but I gather that this wasn’t strictly intentional.David Leo Rice: I actually wrote the first draft in 2018, after traveling in Norway. It was written then as a work of near-future speculative fiction about what 2020 might look like, and then just because of the nature of editing and publishing, it ended up coming out in 2024. So it’s become a work of revisionist history instead, which is maybe more fitting because the book itself is so much about revisionist history, driven by people arguing about what did or didn’t happen in the recent past.In terms of how those arguments tell the story, and how that might relate to our real experience of 2020, I wanted YouTube to almost be the narrator, a voice that on the one hand feels neutral — like it will just tell you anything, with no agenda, because it’ll take all comers, a very promiscuous type of narrator, and one that’s not conscious of the meaning of what it’s saying — but also a narrator that you fear does have a hidden agenda, in which all these clips and partial stories are coming together to lead you somewhere. Maybe they’re leading you in an exciting way toward the “truth behind the illusion,” or in a sinister way toward a horrible conclusion that you’ll then be stuck with.Through this lens, I hoped the reader would experience some of the news paranoia that I think everyone experienced during the first Trump years, where you could never be sure if what you’re taking in is converging towards a kernel of what’s actually real, away from nonsense and spin and propaganda, or if it’s all divergent and you’re just going through the wood chipper, spraying your mind across the screen. This is a version of the cosmic question about whether the universe converges if you understand it deeply enough, upon something like God or a singularity, or if true wisdom means overcoming the illusion of convergence and accepting the totality of chaos for what it really is – though what if this acceptance itself is also a kind of convergence? And on and on, maddeningly.I wanted this narrative approach to create the feeling that something horrible was happening offscreen, but so far off that it might not be happening at all, and therefore the horrible thing might be the idea that it’s happening, seeded in your mind by forces seeking to control you. In a series of essays that I wrote at the same time as this book, I called this aspect of the 2010s and 2020s the “Unworkable Equilibrium” — the feeling that we’re always on the edge of total collapse and abject horror, and yet never all the way over that edge (at least not in America and Western Europe), so the fear that we’re on this edge might itself be the root of the problem. Are we pretending things are worse than they are, or denying how bad they’ve become?When you reach the end of your rope with this question, you can admit that you just don’t know — which is in some ways more honorable — or you can latch on to just about any ideology, which can become the root of fanaticism.DE: And there is plenty of fanaticism to contend with in the book! But first I’d like to ask you a little bit about the Wall itself, the “Living Wall,” as its believers call it. Why the Berlin Wall, and what does it mean in this book when characters refer to it as “living” — or in fact literally embody it?DLR: As a central controversy or heresy in this version of 2020, I thought about what if the Berlin Wall had been a living entity and, when it was destroyed in ’89, the pieces wandered off and began to live their own lives on the margins of Europe? What might they be doing in 2020? This is the question that my dubiously omniscient narrator deals with at the start of the book.When I first heard about the Berlin Wall as a kid, I pictured it as an insane medieval monolith that was a thousand feet high — something you would be in awe of if you ever saw it. But that’s not true; the actual Wall was only something like 15 feet high in places. It’s therefore telling that its legend is still so grandiose, because it means that it stood for something beyond itself. How could it supposedly change the whole world when such a small wall was built, or when it fell? I wanted to transpose this disjunct between physical and narrative realities into a science fictional conceit, where an idea becomes a real thing, and then you take it from there.And I wanted this book to be about the present, where all the characters are in a specific moment. The idea was that the year 2020 would be a character in the novel too, asking what it means to be this far beyond the Millennium but still litigating the same things, still fighting between socialism, capitalism, and fascism, and dreaming of the end of history while arguing about whether it’s already come or could ever come. Why doesn’t 2020 feel newer? Is there something in the recent past that still has to be resolved before we can actually move to a new era, or have we reached a kind of temporal wall we can’t see beyond? This has been Germany’s question since the ’40s, right? Is there something in that culture that still has to be resolved, or do they have to admit that they can’t resolve it and find a way to move on anyhow? And if that’s true, are they always going to exist in a haunted state, overcompensating for something they can’t heal from?There’s the actual “Living Wall,” but the book is more about how people would respond if they thought something like that was possible. I like conceits that let you think about real life in a new way, rather than “genre” books that are more about the conceits themselves. I like the way my father put it when he read a draft: he said, “This is a book about people trying to put their lives back together.”DE: The book flirts with various notions of “genre”—sci-fi, horror, video games—but definitely isn’t a “genre” novel. Were you thinking about genre when you were putting it together?DLR: I never think about genre explicitly, and I even try not to think about it as I’m writing, though I’m certainly influenced by it and I let that influence come out however it wants to. I feel like if you’re aiming at a genre, you’re already losing the project — the genre is taking it from you, whereas if you’re trying to make a genre-inflected conceit feel as real as possible, that’s where exciting developments can occur, because you’re swimming against the current.From a marketing point of view, it could be useful to serve fans of a given genre, but I’ve always aspired to “be a genre.” I want people to read my books because they want to read my books, not because they want to read sci-fi or horror per se. When I’m writing, I try to see if I can peer into a nickelodeon or a microscope into a world where these events are what’s actually happened. Rather than trying to make the fantastical aspects seem real, I try to find a realm in my imagination where they already are.DE: “Peering in” feels right, especially in this book. The other novels of yours that I’ve read and that we’ve talked about typically are told or follow a single point of view, but there are a handful of characters we follow throughout The Berlin Wall. What prompted this change?DLR: The goal was to write something more distant from my own experience. There is the geographical distance from where I live in that this book takes place wholly outside America; then there’s the alternate history dimension, which is distant from the things that have actually happened; and then using multiple point of view characters meant that none of them could exactly be me. I felt more like a journalist reporting this story rather than an avatar experiencing it.Still, even though they’re motivated by their own needs, all the characters are dealing with the problem of how to reach terra firma in 2020. They’re all involved with the way that the Berlin Wall exemplifies both of the tendencies we were talking about earlier: On the one hand, the Wall was built as a concrete signal that times had changed — that WWII was over and the Cold War had begun — but on the other hand, a wall is a symbol of stasis. Walls are some of the most static things on earth, both immobile in their own right and designed to arrest the movement of others. So everyone in this book is torn between the past and the future, between racing to move on and fighting to stay put, and unsure if any tangible present exists in between.DE: And while all of what I’ll call the “point of view” characters respond in different ways, there’s one character, György,  who responds with a violent, intense fanaticism, joining up with one of the major (horrific) social movements/undercurrents within the world of the novel.DLR: It’s probably strange to say, but György is kind of the moral center. Everyone in the book has to deal with the lack of grounding in the news they consume and the uncertainty they feel in the world around them, but he’s the one who has the greatest crisis about it. He’s the youngest and least established, and thus the one who, in theory, has the greatest stake in the future, though he can’t find any means of embracing this fact. He can’t deal with the condition of 2020 except by falling into fanaticism, white nationalism, and so on. Which of course doesn’t help him deal with it, but it does provide the illusion of unshakeable grounding in a mythic past that will become a mythic future after enough violence is unleashed upon the zombie present.As a corollary to his conundrum, I wanted the style and structure of the book to create this frustrated yearning for something definitely true in the reader. Almost to draw out the reader’s latent fascism, a desire to force a definite meaning onto the events that are occurring, no matter how much violence that requires. So the question becomes what’s good and what’s bad about this yearning?There’s something natural about wanting to know what’s real and where you stand, and wanting to stand for something that endures throughout time and context, whether that’s honor or community or your word or faith, just as there’s something natural about wanting to understand the book you’re reading, and trusting that all the pieces will fit together in a satisfying way. These things aren’t intrinsically bad, but I wanted to ask, How do they turn bad? Why, in the 2020s, do we fear these desires in ourselves and others?It’s something about the nature of this polarized time period, wherein one facet of society says that to want these certainties at all is evil and you should just be comfortable with pure relativism and fungibility and an infinitude of non-convergent opinions, while the other facet of society that continues to want these things starts to pursue them in a way that is evil. As in any polarized moment, each side eggs the other on to a more extreme and eventually more grotesque version of itself, until no one can act in their own best interest, let alone that of the larger society.And therefore the final question is if there is something in between, a third option whereby you could rehabilitate ideas of the definitely real and the transcendent, something larger than ourselves, and be honest about the fact that this is a legitimate human craving, maybe even a human necessity, while also saying that not every way of trying to reach this is acceptable.DE: For many of the other major characters — here I’m thinking specifically about the Chancellor and Anika, the academic who becomes a kind of propagandist for the status quo — part of the response seems to be a constant donning and shedding of selves, as if identity — ontological or otherwise — is almost a non sequitur.DLR: Maybe one of the central questions in everything I’ve done is to ask what it means to act now, in the world, today. The world that, as a writer, I’m trying to participate in too. For me, it’s too easy to just say, “Well, I can write” as my way of participating. I don’t want to only write about writers, so I’m trying to think about other, more direct forms of participation, even if I can only enact them from a remove.Thinking about characters who are trying to act in the world as it appears today unifies questions about character and about place, and the ontological instability of both. It’s the question of, What world? Where are you mounting your attack from, what are you defending, what are you trying to conquer? Or is that way of thinking about the world just hopelessly antiquated?This relates to my understanding of mysticism, in which individuals try to access eternity not by looking away from the specific times they live in, but by looking through them, hoping to catch a glimpse of Time itself within the messy present tense that happens to bound their lives. In terms of selfhood, the question becomes, How do you come into your own, or how do you find out who you really are, given that part of you is specific and temporal, and (you hope) another part is universal and eternal? And this is related to the question of heroism: What journey do you go on such that your disparate or latent selves get unified or hatched? Many of my characters yearn to become heroes, at least in their own eyes — as all mystics do, and as I do by completing the lifelong writing project that I’ve embarked upon — but they also doubt that heroism is possible and fear that it’s a childish yearning they need to overcome. Perhaps overcoming this yearning is the route to heroism.DE: And depending on which iteration of self the characters in the novel are in, the answers to these questions change dramatically. What was interesting though was that these iterations are not progressive, in the sense that the identity that comes next might not be as good, or as useful, or as stable as the identity that had been assumed before.DLR: Absolutely. Once you start asking the book, or the universe, to “swap you out,” all bets are off. You have to view change as a good, or a necessity, unto itself. You can’t hope for what the prior identity would have viewed as an improvement. I’m drawn to characters who reach the point of total necessity, where it’s not a matter of hoping for a good change, but rather a matter of needing any change at all in order to go on living. I made an animation in college that ends with a title card reading, “Then we reached the point where we could go no further as ourselves,” and I’ve kept that sentiment as a kind of mission statement ever since.There’s a lot of hatching imagery in The Berlin Wall, which goes back to Dodge City 2, where there was the question of how do you really get born? In that book, people are always being born but then aborted, or aborted but then born, and there’s an underlying question about whether you’re ever born for real, or if you’re always living in an on-deck situation where you’re waiting to be made real by forces you can’t call upon. How do you actually get deployed? This is a strange thought, but sometimes I feel that my characters aren’t really the characters they seem to be, like they’re waiting for the actual characters they’re supposed to play to get called onto the field of action, which the book may or may not allow to happen. In the meantime, as you say, there’s a constant donning and shedding of selves.So the question then is if not through violence — which would be the traditional meaning of the word “deployed” — then how? It can’t be just sifting through endless screens and feeling like you’re acting in the world from this peripheral, meta position. And so if it’s not that, and also not the fanatical response of killing a bunch of people on the orders of some figurehead, then what other way is there? Everyone in The Berlin Wall grapples with this question.We’ve talked before about the idea of a post-postmodernism, where postmodernism mocked the idea of heroism, because when everyone in the modernist era tried to be heroes they ended up destroying themselves. So the postmoderns sort of sat back and patted themselves on the back, showing why it was ridiculous to yearn for this kind of direct, unironic relation to reality.But irony was its own dead end. Maybe it’s a curse and a blessing, but I think there’s something good about the fact that we were born after this work in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s was already done. We don’t have to reveal what was ridiculous and dangerous about modernism anymore. Therefore the burden of writers today is the question of what else can we do, or what does a new kind of heroism look like that is not just a return to the ideas of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound and such, which led to fascism, nor a debunking of those ideas? Speaking again of a third option, how can we accept the work that those generations did and evolve the conversation forward again?DE: And how might you come to any kind of conclusion when there’s no real stable ground or reality upon which to build up some kind of edifice, or a metaphysics of heroism?DLR: Part of what the post-postmodern means to me is that the grounding no longer matters. It’s no longer salient whether you can prove that everything is a simulation or prove that supernatural phenomena are genuinely occurring. Some characters in The Berlin Wall claim they’re acting within a gigantic video game, but I wanted the world of the book to function in a way that makes this claim irrelevant – it doesn’t matter whether it’s true. I think we’ve moved past the point where it feels productive to do something like point out in a novel that “this isn’t really a character, it’s just words on a page,” the same way the claim that “Twitter isn’t real life” is kind of moot as well. It may be true, but if Twitter functions like real life for enough people, then something about its reality has to be recognized. The 2020s feels like a time where disparate worlds have bled together into a mishmash, and the work of separating them back out is a recipe for madness.So when it came to this book, speaking of continuity of character, I didn’t want that to be an easy out. A character might say, “Oh, I’m just a part of some propaganda machine,” or “All of this is a simulation,” or “I’m not my real self yet,” but the operative theme is not whether any of that is true. It’s “You still have to live and act in the world, so what do you do?”To take an example from the slew of movies that came out right before the Millennium, which I’ll group under the heading of “The Matrix,” The Berlin Wall is considering something like, What if inside The Truman Show and outside the show are the same? There’s the “real world,” and there’s the “fake world,” but all those worlds have leaked into each other. It’s no longer cathartic to picture Jim Carrey going through a door between them.So how do people respond? Extreme neofascism is one way, and extreme neoliberalism is another, but what if you could just enjoy this fact as it is rather than trying to solve for what is true or suffer from being unable to? Maybe heroism for my characters comes from finding a way to play within the perverted realms they’re stuck in, rather than escaping or redeeming them. It’s not a means of finding stable ground, but rather of surfing the instability.DE: And the book itself, structurally, sort of refuses to try and solve for it. I laughed out loud when I realized that you’d stuck a 50-page epilogue on there. If that’s not taking pleasure in a kind of indeterminacy…​DLR: Yeah, definitely! I wanted it to be so that you could read the book without the epilogue — the book really does end. And I was trying to have the most grandiose, lyrical, operatic moment be the end of that last main part. Then the epilogue is a return to a kind of banal reality, and I think that’s a large part of what the book is going for — this question of how do we normalize the most extreme events? What does it mean that everyone survived the apocalypse that the book seems to point to, and survived it so easily that many won’t believe it even occurred?If you think of this book as an outsider’s testament to contemporary Europe, and you think about the continuity of people and place that the epilogue lays out, that to me is the fundamental uncanniness and uneasiness about Europe: how could it have proven to be so resilient? How could WWII and the Holocaust, the worst thing that’s ever happened — at least as we’re taught it — have happened there, and happened recently, in living memory, and yet Europe has still turned into the most normal place in the world?It makes you think either that the things that happened there weren’t so bad, or today’s Europe is not as normal as it appears. And neither of those options are very comfortable to consider, right?
Fiction

MISTER INTERNATIONAL INCIDENT by Kirsti MacKenzie

“Told you,” says Dirt. “I knew he’d lose his shit.”I’m not losing my shit. Annie doesn’t say anything. She keeps her eyes trained on the gym bag under the desk. “Pay up,” says Dirt.“Fuck off,” says Annie. Dirt’s desk chair squeals as he leans back, lacing his fingers behind his bald head. The chairs are old and broken, an afterthought. Like everything else here. I’ve got my jacket halfway off and a glass container with dinner in my hand. I put the container on the desk, then grab it again.“He can’t get it,” scoffs Dirt. “He’s a raccoon, not Garfield.”“How do you know it’s a he,” says Annie.Dirt rolls his eyes. I put the container down again. “I dunno,” says Annie. “They’ll do anything for food. They get garbage bin lids open, those fancy ones in Toronto. With their little paws.”I scoop the container again, furious. “I thought you said it was knocked out.”“It is,” she shrugs. “But if it gets hungry, I’ll feed it.” She taps a granola bar laying in front of her dusty keyboard. “I’m thinking rabies,” Dirt says, “and this guy’s first thought is but my lasagna.“No,” I say, “what if there’s an emergency?”“This is an emergency,” Annie says.“Like a real one,” I say. Annie cuts me a look under her beaten Habs ballcap. She folds her hands across her belly, straining against her camouflage vest. Plants her hikers and rolls her desk chair back and forth, back and forth across the carpet, carpet so worn it’s greasy under the wheels. The job requires a certain kind of tolerance for mess. Nobody’s here unless they fuck up, or they’re fucked up. You’d think, given the gravity of it—intercepting terrorism, foreign interference, war strikes, cyber attacks, all that shit—they’d give us better digs, but no. Somehow the most important, least important station there is. The gym bag shifts slightly under her desk. Dirt eyeballs it, but Annie stares me down. “Guess you’ll handle it, bud,” she says evenly. 

***

 “Annie showed up real early,” Dirt says. Dirt is always on time. It’s his one redeeming quality and the only thing Annie and Dirt have in common. “They drilled that shit into us,” he repeats, like I don’t know they’re both former military.“Hate rush hour,” Annie says. “Leave early, when the roads are—”Dirt goes, “Jesus Christ, Annie, I’m trying to tell a story here.”“You’re telling it wrong,” Annie says.Dirt goes, “I get here and you know what Annie does? She shushes me. I think she’s being a bitch so I go, fuck off Annie, real loud, right? Then she goes, Two things: One, shut your mouth. Two, I called animal control. And I’m about to go off cuz I think she means she’s calling me an animal. But she points to her GoodLife bag under there. Now I’m confused, like, maybe, it’s the first day since basic training Annie decides she wants to grind out some pushups—”“Holy fuck,” Annie says, “you’re a moron.”“You tell it then!” Dirt says.“He didn’t believe me so I unzipped the—”“—and I go, shit you weren’t kidding—”“—anyway it was just lying there on the road, and I jammed on my brakes, and poor thing, its foot was at a funny angle and it was breathing funny so I called animal control, and they said they can’t be bothered with roadkill, they’re backed up with a coyote problem in Gloucester and someone reported a black bear in Orleans so I’m standing there arguing, like what kind of person would I be if I just left—”“—so she grabs the GoodLife and a granola bar, what a fuckin’ hero our Annie —”Annie holds up a finger. “Dirt,” she goes, “you’re a sick bastard and you’re a troll, but I know you wouldn’t have left him behind, neither.”“No,” Dirt says, after a beat. Annie cuts me an emphatic look. “—so,” Dirt says, “she rolled this little guy into an old sweatshirt in the GoodLife bag and fired him into the passenger seat and drove to work, still got the operator on Bluetooth in the car, mind you, kept this poor sucker on the phone til she got downtown, parked, marched her ass upstairs holding the bag like a newborn—”“—trying not to shake him—”“—him!–”“—it, whatever—”“—and she swiped her pass all the way up and into the office and she put the bag under the desk and said to the operator, get this—”“—now it’s no longer a roadkill problem; there’s a live raccoon in a government building and I am requesting your assistance; here’s the address. See you soon—”“—and she hangs up.” 

***

 Dirt follows me into the break room, leans against the counter rattling a protein shaker. Ka-chunk, ka-chunk, ka-chunk. Stories followed him from DND. Burpees and jump squats and incline sit ups with his feet hooked on stairwell railings. The grunting, the smell. Dirt’s first computer monitor is for work; his second one is for gambling; his third one is for porn. Sick shit, too. We know because he leaves his computer unlocked when he takes a shit, unlocked when he goes on mid-shift dates, which are frequent. Somebody at DND threatened to report him—the smell, the gambling, the porn, the dates—and legend has it Dirt got his name because he just laughed and said go ahead, make my day. Dirt’s the one who told the legend, so take it with a grain. “She’s not supposed to tell them where we are,” I say, watching my lasagna spin in the microwave. “That’s like, rule number one.”“They have to get that thing out of here,” Dirt shrugs. “They don’t need to know what we do. She’ll just meet them in the lobby.”“Why haven’t they come yet?” Dirt gestures broadly with his shaker. “Coyote problem. Black bears.”I pull my lasagna before the microwave beeps. Burn my tongue on the edges but the middle is still cold. Another thirty seconds to get it right.“What if it gets loose?” I ask.“Yes,” Dirt says. “Gimme rabies. Time off. Big fat workers comp settlement.”“She could get fired,” I say.“Not Annie,” says Dirt. I chew my lasagna slow, shaking my head.“Annie’s name isn’t Annie,” he says. “You should ask how she wound up in this shithole.” Stories didn’t follow Annie the way they did Dirt. All anyone ever says is that she’s a tough broad. Good soldier. Best kind. Everyone here has some kind of story: they buried the wrong document or threatened a director or brushed their teeth with a fifth of something high proof before the 9 a.m. priorities call. Not Annie, though. This is the first I’ve heard anything of Annie’s story. “Still,” I say. “Nobody here gets fired, man,” Dirt laughs, spraying chocolate shake. “You know that better than anybody, after what you did.” 

***

 “Dare you to look,” says Annie. I grimace and shake my head, staring at my phone. “Tim’s run says it’s hentai this week,” she says. “Thought I heard squeaking earlier.”Dirt left for his midshift date. We have five minutes after he leaves. On my first shift, Annie asked me to lock Dirt’s computer and laughed and laughed when I found the gambling, the porn. Said everyone who stays here long enough winds up a bit of a sicko, so don’t judge.Annie looks like some kind of back-camping, born-again Christian bush mom so I thought she’d be shocked, but she just bets me double-doubles on what kind of kick he’s been on, or whether he’s losing money on the Oilers again. “Squeaking,” I mutter. “That’s probably your new pet.”“Jesus,” she says with some degree of awe. “You’ve really got a stick up your ass about this.”“You brought a fucking raccoon into the office—”“What would you have done?”“I don’t know,” I say. “Leave it?”Annie snaps her fingers into a gun, fires it at me. Cold expression settling into her weathered face. “You sure about that?”“Look,” I say, “Something bad happens in the country, anywhere in the world, we’re the first to know about it. We’re supposed to focus—”“Don’t need you explaining the job, bud.”“—so doesn’t it seem like if a raccoon gets loose in an office—this specific office—it’d draw a lot of attention? Nobody takes us seriously. Now you drag a raccoon in here? If that thing gets loose it’s not only a cliche—it’s a legit national security risk—like, total shitshow—”“Yeah, no, for sure,” she says. “Don’t want another one of those, do you.”I suck my cheeks in. Bite down hard. Not gonna take the bait.Annie dons a pair of leather driving gloves, takes the granola bar from her keyboard and breaks the wrapper. She reaches under the desk and I hear the zipper peel back slowly. Slowly. Faster now, all the way to the end. There’s no squeaking, or rustling, or munching sounds. “Shit,” she mutters.“Dead,” I scoff. “Nope,” she says. “Shit. Shit.” 

***

 Annie gave me the sweatshirt and gym bag as defense. I didn’t want to touch them at first, and she called me a pussy. Sometimes Dirt takes naps under his desk with this ratty old quilt and she asked if I’d rather have that. It looks and smells like PigPen’s blanket. I put my jacket back on and took the sweatshirt and bag.“He couldn’t have gone far on that foot,” Annie reassures me. “He was pretty out of it.”“Probably juiced on adrenaline,” I say, like I know what the fuck I’m talking about. We creep around the office. Annie takes the lead because, logically, she was the one to pick him–it, whatever–up in the first place. Maybe she has some kind of bond with it. Maybe it’ll recognize her smell, or something. “Any word from Dirt?”I check my phone. Dirt’s got a system for the mid-shift dates. Takes ‘em to a movie theatre around the corner, mostly to hook up. He has Annie text 9-1-1 half an hour into the date. If they’re ugly or boring, he checks his phone and uses the text as an excuse to bail. Tells ‘em it’s a matter of national security. But today the text came from me, and the response I got was nice try, fucko so either his date’s really hot or he doesn’t take my 9-1-1 for real seriously because national security events never happen that often. Well, almost never. “I don’t wanna mention about the raccoon because he’s on his work phone,” I say.“Like texting 9-1-1 every single shift isn’t heatbag enough?” gripes Annie. “Nobody’s monitoring our texts.”“What if it gets in the news?” I protest. “What if some animal control person spills that there’s a fuckin’ raccoon in the national security comms centre?“Right,” she sighs. “I forgot they sent you from narc city.”We creep around cubicles, checking all the corners, and under the desks. We have the whole floor to ourselves but only a corner of it gets used. Most of the office looks like what I imagine a crypt might. Everything covered in a thin layer of dust from the ancient central air system. Even the cleaners know we only use part of the floor; they’ve given up on the offices that line the outside of the building. I move to open one but Annie sighs.“Don’t bother with the closed doors,” she says. “Raccoons can’t open doors. This isn’t Jurassic Park.”Feeling like an idiot, I take my hand from the knob. I lean against the office door, scanning the hallway. Dull fluorescents hum overhead. Red EXIT/SORTIE sign glaring at the end of the hallway. It’s the exit Dirt uses for his incline sit-ups, for his dates. Only one with a broken security camera. Straight shot from our desks. “What if he—it, whatever—tailed Dirt out of the office?” “Maybe that’s his date today,” snorts Annie. “Better than his Tinder. He swipes right on some real uggos.”“Look, Annie,” I say, “Dirt says your name isn’t—”But Annie’s neck snaps to the left, toward our cubicles. Something grey and black streaks across the hallway toward the break room. Surprisingly fast for something fat and furry and limping. Annie takes off after it and I take off after Annie and when we round the corner we see it scramble up the break room cupboards, clamoring for my dirty lasagna container on the counter. It looks at us with big, panicked eyes and for the first time I can see why Annie couldn’t leave the stupid thing behind. Annie gives me a shove.“Get it into the sink and get the bag over it!” she yells.Her cellphone starts ringing.And goddamn her, she answers.I lunge toward the counter, but between me and the cellphone the raccoon shrieks and lunges at me so I shriek and feint with the bag covering my face and it bolts off the counter, shrieking even more as it lands on its busted foot and skitters under the table between metal chair legs and I drop to a crouch and hold the bag open muttering it’s okay you know her smell now and all the while Annie’s hollering the address and directions and can’t you get here any faster for fuckssake it’s been hours and just as she hangs up I lunge again and the raccoon shrieks and blazes past me and I shriek and bump my head on the break table, hard, swearing, as it tears past Annie and back into the hallway.She hangs up, shaking her head.“They’re on their way,” she says, adjusting her ballcap. “Lost it again,” I huff, rubbing my head.“I think I know where we’re gonna find him,” she says. 

***

 We crouched first. Came down slowly, so we wouldn’t scare him. It, whatever. He watches us with sad eyes while his paws work the granola. It’s one of those Nature Valley bars, the ones that crumble the second you touch them.He scoops little bits out of the green wrapper and shoves them in his mouth. We’re blocking his exit from the cubicle, bag and sweatshirt ready to grab him if he makes a move. Annie peels her gloves off.“Think that’s wise?” I ask.“He’s too tired to bolt,” she says. “Guy told me he’d be here in twenty minutes anyway.” We sit silent and watch him. He finishes the granola bar but paws at the cellophane, looking for more. He’s dextrous enough that I think he probably could have opened a door, if he wanted to. Like if he’d been on the shoulders of another raccoon. Or little stilts. “Get your gun,” she says.“What? I don’t—”“My name isn’t Annie,” she says. “They named me Annie Get Your Gun a while back. When I was still serving.”I can’t take my eyes off the raccoon, but I glance at her. “You know that day on the Hill?”“The shooter?”“Yep.”I whistle. The raccoon’s ears prickle, and he crouches defensively.“Some shit went down that day that you don’t hear about,” she says. “I know about the shit.”“That’s why—?”She nods.I swallow hard. “I know I said sorry before, but I just wanna say again—or like, thank you—I don’t know, sorry and thank you, I guess—”She waves me off, then points to the raccoon. He’s still crouched, watching us with sad, wet eyes.“When I walked into that shift you looked exactly like that,” she says. “Scared shitless. And you know what, yeah. You fucked up real bad. Three nations? False alarm? Holy shit did you fuck up.” I wince. Tears prickle the back of my eyes.“But they’re never gonna fire me,” she says. “Union says so, for one thing. But more importantly—”“You know about the shit.”She nods.“That’s why you—? For me—?”“Yep,” she says. “Dirt says you’re nuts,” I say, staring at the raccoon. His eyes are drooping and I pray to fuck he’s just tired and not dying. “Says he would have thrown me under the bus in a heartbeat.”“Well, they’ve got enough to can him,” she says. “The porn, the sports betting. Don’t think they don’t know about the movie hookups, either.” “But they can’t touch you,” I whisper. “Nope.”I study the stitching on the GoodLife bag, trying not to cry.“So you fucked up,” she says. “So what.”“Twice.” “That just means you won’t fuck up again.” She snorts, shaking her head. Rough smoker’s laugh rattles her chest. “China and Iran, fuck. You really know how to pick ‘em. Mister International Incident.”Somewhere down the hall, the door opens. All three of us turn our heads toward the noise.“Animal control?” “No,” she says. “I have to meet them in the lobby.”“We should tell him,” I say.“Nah,” she says, pointing at the monitor above the raccoon. Dirt’s ragged stressball and protein shaker are next to the set up. It’s his cubicle. She slaps my shoulder and rises, creeping around the partition, motioning for me to follow her. “Not yet. Tim’s run says he screams like a girl.” 
Micros

2000s MOVIES ARE AS OLD NOW AS 80s MOVIES WERE IN THE 2000s by Tanner Armatis

Dallas Jones tweeted. The fear washed my wrinkles in goosebumps. I Know What You Did Last Summer now as predictable as rain. I am my brother maxing out his credit card. American Psycho is being remade. I am my father wondering about the vote. Idiocracy now a prophetic tale. I am my mother cleaning dishes for different reasons. Lord of the Rings lives on forever. I am the door to other lives. I scrolled. 
Micros

WE DIDN’T EVEN NOTICE THE ASTRONAUT by daniel joseph

we didn’t even know we were in a rickshaw-type town, but it was a good thing we were, being out of time & money & the rickshaw seeming quicker than walking & like a pay-what-you-can type operation. we were already confused on so many levels – in a real uncertain bind, our heads bouncing along the ground behind us. we didn’t even notice the astronaut when we climbed aboard & about sat on him – as little as he was. but he said he didn’t mind the company, that he was just riding around for the ride of it & that is when he told us about being an astronaut & all. he looked more like a  tree-topper to us. he didn’t have a suit on or boots or a patch or one of those hats they tend to wear, but he went right into telling us about being the only composer to ever see the sunrise from the outside of a spaceship on the other side of the moon – about how he had been sent to space on a singular mission to write a symphony about what it feels like up there, an opera about what it looks like up there, a fugue about what it is up there & that in a roundabout way was why he was here on this rickshaw; or, at least, that is what we think he might have said, the rickshaw being a bumpy, noisy ride & us not really hearing well to begin with & worrying about when we should jump off on account of us forgetting just where our stop was or if these things even had stops or what it was we truly owed. 
Fiction

THE SEWING KIT by Chad Sullivan

Grandma spoke to ghosts and refused her dentures. She’d shit herself and call us thieves. She said her dying was taking forever and that Grandpa stopped loving her, and both those things were true, but only because Grandpa was dead. At sundown, she’d turn werewolfShe’d call me Donald and flash her gums. I’d go to the garage, disturb Grandpa’s tools, taste corrosion; thumb old magazines, and smell decay. I’d sit amongst rot (avoiding the rot in Grandma’s brain) and tie knots in Grandpa’s sewing kit just to feel closure.Grandma’s mouth puckered like an asshole. She’d eventually miss Mass, but never her coffee.

by Benjamin Niespodziany

Perfect bound | 100 pages
Paperback | Die-cut matte cover | 6×6″

Read a page before sleep and thou shalt dream insanely.

–Alex van Warmerdam
Director of Palme d’Or nominated film ‘Borgman’