It’s the little things that for the briefest glimmers make you feel like you matter. All it takes is a second or two of forethought on the part of a stranger, and the world is not implacably aligned against you, or worse yet, completely indifferent… That is, until you die in the least dignified manner possible because you just know that’s going to happen because that little touch made you normal for a second. That is just the universe’s calculus.
The place I stayed in Louisville last week had a few of those touches: there were not TOO many rules; a white noise machine canceled out traffic noise; the “art” on the walls was actual art and didn’t consist of shiplapped words like “family,” “laugh,” or “wine;” among the hardback books with the jackets removed to make them more Instagrammable was a copy of David Rakoff’s Don’t Get Too Comfortable, the title of which is pretty cheeky for an Airbnb. They knew me.
But there was one touch in that charming cottage convenient to Bardstown Road that made me feel human at the moment I was sure I was shuffling off this mortal coil in the least dignified manner. My pants were down around my ankles. I was in the middle of the worst food poisoning I’ve had this century. But when I looked up…
They put incandescent bulbs above the bathroom mirror!
Look, I get it. You’re a busy Airbnb host. You have a lot book jackets to remove and fake epiphytes to arrange. You can’t be wasting your time swapping out 60 watt Soft-Whites. I can’t imagine what it must be like to get a message in the middle of night because some bachelorette party down from Cincy for the weekend can’t use that one light in the corner of the living room. You don’t respond right away, so they start rewiring your eclectic bungalow for 220. Who needs that? Just throw in a bunch of compact fluorescents, and be done with it.
Staying at my Grandma’s place in Wisconsin began to get problematic as I started my teens. The light in the only bathroom consisted of a pair of fluorescent tubes, one on either side of the mirror. They would flicker to life, and you would flicker to death. It was like a monster transformation montage in a cheap horror flick from 1952. Every single blackhead and whitehead, greenhead and yellowhead pulsated under those cool-white, unforgiving lumens. I was as ugly as all those Young Life a-holes at my school told me I was. I lived under the assumption that “Faggot Face” referred to some inherent deformity so troubling to others that it could only be spat out while punching my head from behind to emphasize the “Face.” The punch really drove the point home, and it was hilarious for them.
But I could get thru the abuse somewhat because, when I returned to my home with it’s proper incandescent bathroom lighting, in the master bath, I could look in the mirror and see a kid who wasn’t half bad. Yeah, I’m slightly asymmetrical, my eyes aren’t a real color, and my lips are weird. Not THAT weird; it’s more of the angle my mouth opens to make smiles —too much horizontal, not enough vertical. But at least my complexion wasn’t a shitshow. I had the the occasional zit to pop —about one real humdinger every six weeks. Those were kinda fun, a satisfying Before/After.
There really was never any reason to call me Crater/Mayonnaise Face. Anyways, Faggot Face had alliteration. Everyone likes alliteration.
However, that fluorescent glow left me feeling exposed, bus ride home exposed. I wasn’t alone; my cousin Susan and I used to complain about it every time I was up in Wisconsin. The only thing that made the bathroom mirror bearable was to flick it on and off really fast so they would get stuck in that limbo where they don’t go on all the way: It cuts the brightness in half, and you can stare at pulsating gas tubes until you don’t care about your ugly, ugly face anymore. I was reminded every visit that doing so wasn’t good for the lights.
Thankfully, since I gained control of my own illumination strategy, I have been blessed with a pretty good complexion. I credit it to sunscreen, hydration, not smoking, and, in the immortal words of the gender-f*ck performer Dina Martina when asked about her youthful look, “Slow, steady weight gain!” She said that to a crowd of bears in Provincetown. It killed.
Beards are very forgiving.
Everything was going great, at least in terms of being able to pop into most bathrooms and convince yourself you don’t look that bad, are not THAT bad a person. I mean, you wouldn’t expect uplift from the bathroom at a gas station or an Arby’s. I understand the need for fluorescent tubes in an institutional setting, but for the longest time I could be assured of good lighting in pretty much any bathroom in which I was the sole occupant. Even my bathroom in the mental hospital where I spent the better part of 1999 had incandescent bulbs above the mirror. And a previous occupant had used a diamond ring or something in an attempt to X out their reflection, which is hardcore self-erasure. A flattering warm light can overcome even that.
But then the planet began to spiral into the sun, getting hotter and hotter. Sacrifices would have to be made. Won’t somebody think of the children?!?
It was decided that we should all replace our incandescents with little spirals of plastic, glass, shame, and mercury.
Almost overnight, self-affirmation disappeared from decent restaurants, shops, even hotels. The harsh coiled light eventually came to guest bathrooms in the private homes of boring people who always have the heat on too high. When I’m bored, stuck, and hot, I need affirmation every six minutes.
Affirmation has now been replaced with an accusatory klieg. Look at how absolutely wrong you are! You can’t hide!
I was hoping this few days down in Louisville would help me reacclimatize to being around people, especially in a queer capacity. For months and months, especially since I began to actively confront it, the trauma from getting sexually assaulted has rendered most social spaces extremely frightening.
Could I duck into the bathroom to chill and collect? No, all I see in that fluorescent harshness is a non-entity who’s only good for providing basic friction to idiots. The flickering, little microbursts of darkness and glare won’t let my brain calm down. It was best just not to go out.
But maybe a few days in a fun town with my friend Damian, with no chance of that creep showing up, could help me feel human. I could go back to doing things I did before the assault —like just hang with a friend with no expectations. I got in just before dinner on a Tuesday. We had some Canes chicken fingers. Damian’s one of those people who never eats at chains; he would rather bob for questionably-sourced falafel balls in a bodega fryer than step foot in a chain. I love nothing better than seeing him walking his food on a tray. It was real nice of him to do that for me.
After dinner, we won trivia at Chill Bar. Nothing makes me feel more human than regurgitating factiods at a rapid clip. For the first time in months, I didn’t feel ugly and useless.
Before I headed back to the very conveniently located Airbnb, I asked around about late night munchies. The trivia host suggested a place called The Back Door. Damian practically barked, “Back Door sucks!” I should have listened, but I was drunk with power after watching him eat the Canes. I was also drunk.
I got a few boneless wings and a quesadilla (with a plastic ramekin of guac). Nothing major. I ate about half of it in front of the TV and went to bed. Put the rest in the fridge.
During the night my intestinal track was replaced with a very gassy crazed weasel. I spent the next twenty-four hours trying to drive it out the nearest available exit —high, low, both. When I wasn’t writhing around on the oh-we’ll-just-use-it-in-the-Airbnb mattress, I was in the bathroom.
Whenever I came up for air, I would splash my face, swish some water around in my mouth, and then check the mirror. The first time I looked I braced myself. Every room in the Airbnb had very harsh compact fluorescents. One of the first things I did when I checked in was toss t-shirts over the lampshades to cut down on the glare. I was sure the bathroom was no different. I would see every broken blood vessel, every bad decision, everything that made me wrong in full contrast.
But when I looked, I didn’t recoil. Yes, I still looked like crap, but I was warm, soft crap. And I could look at my crap face with “soft” eyes, drift away, and relax. The flickeringflickeringflickering wasn’t resetting my brain ten thousand times every second. I could be somewhere else than that Airbnb bathroom.
As a bonus, the bulbs were on a dimmer switch. One of the first useful things I was told after I came out was to get dimmer switches. Dimmers only work on proper incandescents. Those other bulbs stutter as they move between levels. How is that romantic? If anything’s going to be stuttering between levels during romance, it’s going to be me.
Between the dimmer switch and the flecked antique glass in the mirror, I could imagine that I was no longer suffering food poisoning. I could now be ill from some vague 19th century malady. Instead of looking forward to weeks of friends tittering from hearing that I got sick from “eating at The Back Door, now I could look forward to a fainting couch and some nice laudanum.
I’m not broken, just weird. Incandescents let you be weird.
Ever since the assault, I’ve been searching for justice. Rather, I’ve been searching for JUSTICE, some grand gesture on the part of the universe that tells me that I have value as something more than convenient friction for some loser to relieve his brokenness upon. Certainly I would be treated to an entire room turning on their heals to point at him, shaking their heads, then casting him out to wail and gnash his teeth. But he’s really well-liked in “the community” so………….
But I can’t be the one cast out. I need to stay around. I am not worthless.
Maybe the best way to get justice —or at least justice-adjacent —is to pay attention to the small little fragments of niceness that drift down like the aftermath of sorority pillow fight. These are the hearty , but not too hearty, hugs; the passive-aggressive yet friendly acquiescences to eat fast food; the just letting you sit quietly for moment; the letting me change lanes while I was driving in my car; the incandescent bulbs in the bathroom.
The best thing about these is that people can do them for you, and they don’t even have to know you’re broken. These small justices are for you because you’re a person.
Nothing like a little justice to make you think you look good.
The mirror in question. You can hardly see the burst blood vessels.