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Chelsey Johnson


The more pressing question I keep asking myself is when am I. I don’t mean the amorphous days, or the shock of realizing that I last held class in person on March ninth. I mean that time is collapsing and unfolding itself at strange angles. The present feels physically suspended. The new future is incomprehensible—no longer a time when things come to be, but when things cease to be. The recent past feels eviscerated, naive. So I find myself repairing and restoring a deeper past. Although I literally cannot remember last week, I’ve spent hours in, for example, New York in 1999[1], or Portland in 2003[2], several lives ago, old spaces and people materializing with surprising vividness as I reconstruct vanished and mostly analog lives.

In early March we moved into a log cabin around the dirt-road bend from our previous house, and a few days later, full lockdown hit. So I simultaneously began to inhabit an entirely new space and time—I’ve never known what we used to call “normal life” in this house. And unpacking during quarantine means redistributing and physically handling literally every material thing you own, trying to figure out where it now belongs. For the first time in an itinerant few years, I’ve shelved every journal and notebook and photo album, every book in my library. In the intimate space of these log and rock walls that themselves feel almost sentient, the cabin has become a strange capsule of quarantine time and of reinstalling, reanimating, my archives.

Like so many writers, I’m deeply susceptible to nostalgia in its most etymological form—an aching to go home—but this isn’t that. There’s no pain or yearning. The feeling is more like travel. Curiosity. What’s in there? I must be trying to make sense of something. The prefix re keeps affixing itself to my verbs. Something about rehearsing for a future, or for a present I don’t understand, unprepared as in a bad dream. Something about trying to resituate myself in a sense of continuity. I don’t want to revert or regress. I don’t want to return to those times. I just want to reinhabit a feeling of time, and maybe then I can figure out the strange nature of this one. To, impossibly, retrospect the present.


[1] I’m flipping through clattering CDs at Rocks in Your Head and Other Music. I’m walking down the dark stairs into the cozy chamber of Fez to see a show, hoping for a booth to slide into. I’ve eaten that tofu burger at Dojo and regretted it, again. I’m stepping into the elevator on Greene Street and taking it to the sixth floor, the ramshackle offices Out (run by gay men) shares with HIV Plus (run by lesbians). And little insignificant details leap to mind: a knit hoodie with cub ears I found at Todd Oldham, the vintage embroidered cardigan a date’s roommate gave me in femme solidarity. My retro work email address (OutMag@aol.com) and the inherited password (doggy.) The one bolt that stuck out from my futon frame and refused to go in. The finicky shower in my girlfriend’s kitchen, her fourth-floor walkup in an East Village tenement. The smell of Kiehl’s coriander shower gel. The particular click of turning a key in a heavy brass deadbolt on a worn, gloss-painted front door. Playing pinball in the back corner of smoky Dick’s Bar, gay porn on the tube TV mounted above the bar. The narrow Chinatown arcade where we’d play Dance Dance Revolution and outside someone selling tiny live turtles in a plastic bin of water. My cat Foot Foot batting around a small cockroach in the kitchen. Polaroids on my dresser. Etc. [2] I live in a one-room cottage built with cedar shingles, salvaged windows, and Dutch doors, rented from two exquisitely dear gay artists; the first tomatoes I’ve ever grown spill profusely out of their cages and every morning I pluck slugs from their leaves and throw them over the fence into the Subway parking lot. Borrowed red desk, thrifted round Formica table, new mattress on credit, skylight mornings waking me with the sun. In Portland I’m utterly at home and utterly broke, my permanent condition here. Which records will I sell down the street at Jackpot and on eBay so I can pay my phone bill? Farewell, Heatmiser 7”; farewell, live Guided by Voices; farewell, free Pearl Jam tour shirt I would never wear anyway. At the Verizon store I change my cell number from 917 to 503, swap translucent plastic phone with light-up numbers and pull-out antenna for pocketable gray flip. Every day I walk down to the Fresh Pot in Powell’s and get a $1 refillable Stumptown coffee and read the New York Times in a booth. Out assigns me a piece about Gigli but the movie’s so bad the company won’t send anyone screeners, so I riff without having seen it, flailing, and the document dies and vaporizes halfway through, and in a burst of dismay I start from scratch a day before deadline and turn in maybe the sharpest piece I’ve written for them. Foot Foot learns to climb the vertical ladder to my loft bed and Seven’s outside for the first time since her stray years. Etc.


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