In The Wake Of David Bowie’s Death, Nothing Feels Right
By July Westhale
“I remember, I remember, when I thought all artists were good people.”
— Mary Reufle, I Remember, I Remember
Everything feels wrong. As I look outside my bedroom window, there are 16 palm trees and a Jacuzzi made of fake stones. Mesquite bushes and mountains I can’t name. I can always name mountains.
Last night, I dreamt I was very pregnant, ready any minute to give birth. I was walking around my high school, barefoot, feeling the grit of the asphalt and the heat of the burnt ground where the sun had entered and fallen asleep. There were girls everywhere, from my classes, girls I knew through social media/real life, who had already had babies of their own — boys, like mine would be. But somehow, I knew they knew my boy was different.
“I want it out already,” I remember saying in the dream, but feeling the opposite. I was conscious, in unconsciousness, that I was only saying something because it was something people say — that by the end of pregnancy, you’re ready to be done being pregnant. But in truth, (in dream-truth?) I wanted to be big and full of baby forever, because I loved the largesse of my body against the graininess of the ground, the permission and space I took up — and because I was afraid of what would be born.
I heard a phone ring — I woke up saying out loud, “I need to take this.” It was my alarm.
Did you know that Nevada looks like Mars, or my imagined Mars, in the predawn light? After hearing the alarm, I stumble into the bathroom. This is not my room. This is a hotel room. I am in Las Vegas. I am on a work trip. I have been crying — I’m not a crier.
“You have been saying that for the entire four years I’ve known you,” my therapist says. “And I hate to police your identity, but that’s just not true.”
I want to call her, and tell her that David Bowie has died.
Nic, our David, I’d texted before going to sleep. Nic is my brother. Though he’s not my blood brother, we have sworn it true, walking over the Brooklyn Bridge one summer together when we were both broke and in grief-doom, and I’d remembered thinking about the Bob Hicok poem, “To speak somewhat figuratively for S,” about a male speaker imagining what it’s like to live in the shadow of sexual assault.
I am applying mascara over and over. I am suddenly 18, and getting ready to walk in the predawn hours to my baking shift at campus dining. I put on my headphones, leave my sleeping, complicated love-situation in bed beside me, warm and pretty, and turn on “Oh You Pretty Things.”
This time, here in Vegas, I turn on “Life on Mars” and put on my makeup, trying to make my face less swollen. In the yellow light of the casino hotel bathroom, I look distended, and full, moon-faced and celestial. Am I full of baby? No, it’s just a dream.
Look, I’m like you. I did the lightning bolt. I fell in love. I sang “John, I’m Only Dancing,” and screamed “Rebel, Rebel” like all of my queer, genderfucked friends, all my femmes. I listened to “Diamond Dogs” while traversing the Andes of my home country — which don’t belong to me — while writing letters to friends I wished were siblings, and mentors and poets I wished were parents.
David Bowie, I didn’t love you, but I loved the me in you. The you in me.
In my grief, I wrote to our editor and asked if I could write about David Bowie. I’d actually wanted to write about him on his birthday, so recently passed, and about how, in college, my lumberjack neighbor and I baked a lightning bolt-shaped cake and ended up fucking on top of it.
I went to work. Vegas is dry, hot, full of the same asphalt sun of my dream. I taught medical students about trauma awareness during pelvic exams with my pointy, cunty black nails and too much mascara, and all through the sessions I saw peripheral spiders (from Mars). By noon, a message from the editor — still interested in your “Bowie’s influence on the transfeminine community” pitch . . . but how should we handle the rape accusations? Neither of us had known about his sexual assault history — a rape accusation, and a rather well-documented tryst with “Lori Lightning,” who was part of the “Baby Groupie” scene, in which Bowie was a fixture. (Check out Issue #5, page 72.) Lori says she was 14 at the time when Bowie took her virginity in a bathtub.
The thing is, as I fall in between the years of my life, I realize that while so many of my memories are threaded together through the music of David Bowie, I don’t actually think of him as a hero. I wanted a rock and roll father for Nic and I, someone who could give us a small (fun-house) mirror — the kind that stretches you taller and bigger than you see yourself. I don’t actually mourn the man, and my heart, when I hear about his actions, is the thing that stretches monstrous and untenable in the fun house of my mind palace. I don’t believe in excusing predatory behavior. I don’t believe in holding celebrities up, whole and un-nuanced. And I also don’t believe in purity.
When I say I don’t believe in purity, I’m saying I believe that bad touches on good, and that one does not exist without the other — I am not saying, excuse this man, for he has sinned. I’m saying I am guilty of harm — of a different order (not sexual assault). I’m saying that I struggle to divorce the man as a flawed human being from the things I took from him — my queerness, the permission granted by his femininity, my first baby impressions of femmeness and what it could look like.
Growing up southern Baptist, not understanding gender as existing on a spectrum, Bowie taught me femininity was a thing to be celebrated, makeup is a savior, and performativity is a blessing. I’ve learned to divorce the man from his actions, and the sharp and gutting sexuality of an era before my time — one I can’t confess to have experienced, though my sexual trauma feels like a tendon to the bone of the past.
Am I making sense? No, not in any way. I’m trying to say — I feel complicated, and complication is the landscape of grief. Everything feels wrong. And this article, published yesterday on the site, does begin by recognizing this complication — how do you hold someone accountable for their participation in rape culture, and also acknowledge his presence and influence in marginalized communities? How do I reconcile the importance of David Bowie to my community, my experience with his art, and the undeniable tension between the socio-cultural mores of the ‘70s — i.e., this sex was consensual, according to the 14-year-old who had it — and the very laws of our country, which say these women were children.
So I’d like to say, the story is bigger.
I have a literary theory background — if I was any good at it, I’d say the artist is dead. It’s the work that matters. But I don’t believe that. Instead, I believe in the self, and the great experience of art, as imperfect and flawed and shitty as it is. As delusional. As intertextual and synesthetic and reclamatory and damning.
“I am not David Bowie,” Tori Amos sang, and me along with her. And yet, there is fear there, because I have harmed and hurt — through art, through an abuse of power, conscious or unconscious.
My therapist, who loves dream interpretation, gets out her yellow legal pad every time — and even though we now live in different states and talk to each other on the phone, I can hear the yellow lines in her voice, her frantic pen. I remember laying prostrate on the floor of her office, telling her about another pregnancy dream, one in which I’d bled everywhere in a white wedding dress, and given birth to a big-eyed baby with a full head of black hair. Me. I’d given birth to me.
My therapist says pregnancy dreams are the beginning of a birth and the end of an era, and last night, during a musical collage of my twenties — of coming out and loving people enough to ask them to be my family, of my grief, of my walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, of waking up the next day after a party with a broken belt loop — I became anxious to push out a new self, a new birth, and end an era.
Featured Image: Flickr/ Brandon Carson