1 by donald dunbar
A Beginner's Guide to Sex in the Afterlife
I have had dreams of fucking angels. I was a teenager. I dreamed too about
becoming an angel after I die, getting promoted up the ranks of angels, and
eventually, after millennia, executing God for treason.
Most young people dream about becoming rich and admired, and most old
people hardly dream anything. “. . .and then my boss, my mentor, pulls in his final
breath to tell me it is all mine; his empire, his daughter, his jet,” dreams the young
man, “and I become a god.” “. . .I will eat this same stuff for breakfast tomorrow,”
dreams the old man, “and I will poop well.”
Do aged believers imagine what it’ll be like as an angel? Your grandmother
designing her heavenly robes, how they’ll be hemmed. Your great-uncle hoping to
make a good impression on the cherubim. Your third-grade teacher wondering how
she’ll maintain her plumage.
My third-grade teacher, Mrs. Samuelson, was losing it, though I didn’t have
perspective on that at eight. Most egregiously, she decided that there was probably
one third-grader who was doing all the farting. She had us fill out questionnaires
about what we ate at home, breakfast and dinner—“. . .beans? fruit? cheese?”—and
would patrol the archipelago of desks to try and discover who the little farter was.
One day, while she was hovering right next to him, my best friend Jay farted. He was
immediately marched down to the principal’s office, where he called his mom to
“Mom, it’s Jay,” Jay said.
“Are you okay? Is everything alright? What’s wrong?” Donna probably
“I farted,” Jay said, “in class.”
Another boy in the class, Sean, who, beginning that year, tormented me for
nearly a decade, died earlier this year, age 30 or 31. I thought a lot about his death,
and tried to figure out how I should feel about it. On one hand, I don’t want to
rejoice at the miserable life he had; “In lieu of flowers, please consider a memorial
contribution in Sean's name to SPERA (hope) Recovery Center.” I don’t want to feel
that his cruelty—nor his skill at inspiring cruelty in others—still has gravity in my
life. On the other hand, if anybody had to die, I’m glad it was him.
When I was in grad school in Tucson, my mom and I were sitting at
Firecracker Bistro and talking about how I was making my way as a writer. I said,
kinda joking, “I’m a little surprised I didn’t become a junkie or something.” And she
said, kinda joking, “Me too.” We laughed, surprised at our shared anxiety, and I felt
loved. That despite her seeing my most pathetic parts, here was my mom, glad to be
Heaven is kitsch. And while most other kitsch is contextually kitschy to a
general space/time, the kitschiness of heaven is forever. Public prayers are kitsch
but private ones never. Burning a flag and saluting a flag both. Now, append “. . .in
heaven,” to the end of every previous sentence.
A flag, having no real text and no artist’s statement, is synonymous with its
culture’s prevailing values and dialectics. Maybe this is why one sees so little
experimentation in flag design. A semi-transparent flag, an optical illusion flag, and a
plagiarized flag walk into a bar in heaven. The bartender has a couple large stripes
and is billowing proudly even though there’s no wind. Out back, three young flags
are studding themselves with twinkling Christmas lights. And somewhere, an entire
nation is performing the stunning humility of requesting their flag be always laid
and left on the ground.
Once, to impress Nicolia, I refrained from standing during the national
anthem. We were in our early twenties, in Waterfront Park on a blanket in evening
to listen to an orchestra. I think it did impress her, and she joined me in sitting
through the song, and a guy standing up just near us said shitty things in our general
direction, which made us feel close, like conspirators. For some reason, the
performance ended with fireworks. Later, we fucked behind some large rocks
beside a walking path on the other bank.
A truly accurate memoir would be a transcription. Today I separated my
students into groups of two, and secretly instructed one of each pair to
misrepresent themselves to their partner; talk in a different manner, use different
body language, display a new temperament. Even the students who are leading very
different lives at school than elsewhere—kinksters, criminals, celebrities, etc.—fail
at this. The only ones who’ve ever really succeeded were writers or actors. Memoir
is foremost about the time spent writing it. And a person is five thousand people
scrambling over each other.
I dreamed I got an email from Geri saying, “Amick mentioned you to me and I
wanted to write,” and then I dreamed I bumped into Leslie on a sidewalk and the
way recognition formed on her face was exactly how it felt for me too.
It’d be tough to have a disinterested dream. Dreaming an inventory of
some German guy’s luggage, dreaming somebody else’s snoring. Spreadsheets,
soil, stars, etc. Not being the subject of the dream would be disturbing enough, but
understanding you aren’t even the observer of your dream—that your sleep is being
used to dream, and you are not privy to it—would be terrifying. Contrariwise, lucid
dreams in which the dreamer is able to influence the dreamworld, to control the
shades, are usually extremely pleasurable. But what if one dreams well enough that
the inhabitants of that world gain souls? To wake is to murder, as in, to pay taxes is
In editing one’s life to fit into words, into story, onto a page, one edits many
lives. In many cases, these edits will actually alter the people living those lives. If I
were to shape a public memory of a friend’s episodes of cocaine addiction, it could
affect her career, as well as the lives and freedoms of the people she now represents
in court, and if I were to write of my wildly boring sexual encounters with another
friend, it could conceivably affect her marriage and her self-image. In both cases I
was intimately involved enough in the memories that they are mine. And both of
these people have written memoir.
Jay and I used to talk about dying fighting brigands. It’s a lot more probable I
will die in a hospital bed or a car. It’s more probable I’ll die in my bed, sleeping, and
maybe dreaming. It’s possible I will die having sex. I might die in a hijacked airplane,
in a burning building, in a classroom, in a war, in a prison.
When a public tragedy is edited to fit into words, into story, onto a page,
there is a sense of the sacred attached. This is, in part, to show compassion to the
victims and their loved ones, and, in part, to show the collective responsibility we
have for the care of the rest of us. But when words, stories, pages, are sacred, they
are not open to revision. Even questioning the sacred is blasphemy. Even when the
story is consecrated by a commercial news corporation.
I was quoted in the Ann Arbor News, age 17, saying “I was shocked. Mildly
shocked.” My whole life already was shame—for being bullied, for being so weak
and helpless, for the bad things I had done and was doing, all of which, I felt then,
God knew about and was judging me for—and now here was permanent proof, in a
newspaper, that my even my words were foolish. I was sure my life would continue
to be ruined forever.
DONALD DUNBAR lives in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of Eyelid Lick (Fence Books, 2012) and Slow Motion German Adjectives (Mammoth Editions, 2013). He helps run If Not For Kidnap, and edits poetry for draft: The Journal of Process.