I have food poisoning and it’s about to snow.
I have food poisoning and for some godforsaken reason, I’ve left my house.
I’m bundled up tightly, bracing against a strong wind. Tears fly off my cheeks as I blink into the cold.
It’s ill-advised for me to be out of bed, I know — let alone trundling into an oncoming snowstorm with my stomach prone to turning itself inside out every half hour or so. But my friend Ivoire Foreman has some sculptures in an art show and I gave my word that I’d attend the opening tonight. Besides, after a day spent tethered between my bed and the bathroom floor, I’m itching to roam free, even just for a little while.
Before leaving my house, I issue an executive order on behalf of my body to pause the tumbling act for long enough to get me through a short excursion. So far, my body seems to be cooperating in this hallucination of control.
The Saturday night air feels good. To be headed anywhere other than a bathroom floor feels good. The address is a basement storage unit in Gowanus that has been transformed into an exhibition space by haul gallery.
Arriving at the location, I spot a glowing cellar door that leads to the underground space. Descending a set of steep metal stairs, I emerge in a concrete room. The first thing I notice is a sculpture that I know right away is my friend’s work.
I recognize the bold colors and simple, graphic drawing style. A hot pink bonfire radiates from the base of what appears to be a vintage wooden paper cutter. The object hangs on the wall across the room from me, its broad handle jutting into the space.
I approach the work and lean in.
A drawn black figure rests in fetal position, nude but for a pair of pink ruffled bloomers. The figure’s chest is pressed into their knees and their arms extend outwards behind them. What I mistook for a bonfire is in fact a flourish of pink feathers, sprouting from the figure’s elbows and culminating in a pair of full, magnificent flamingo wings. The wings loom over their body as though shielding it from the elements. Painted plastic feathers run from neck to scapula, jutting out from the flat wooden surface. On the figure’s chest, a nipple is visible. Under the nipple, a top surgery scar.
The figure’s neck ends at the edge of the paper cutter. The figure has no head. Their head has been chopped by the paper cutter.
I instinctively check the floor for a head. There is no head.
I stare at the floor a moment longer, a dizzy feeling in my chest.
On my way to the show, I had texted one of my housemates to inquire about a serious burn she incurred earlier in the week. While staying with friends in Maine, a pot of boiling lobster water spilled from a sink onto her thigh and ankle. “A very Maine injury,” she joked.
I receive her reply in this moment: “My burn has been hurting but maybe that means it’s healing?”
The doctor had instructed her to wrap the burn in gauze and leave it alone. With this type of wound, the skin and damaged nerves heal themselves.
I look back from the floor to Ivoire’s sculpture. The work is titled “There wasn’t any more cake,” a nod to Marie Antoinette’s notorious rumored statement. It’s a sly reference, especially given that this type of paper cutter is called a guillotine.
A question floats to mind: Who severed the figure’s head?
The paper cutter seems to point its metal blade out at the room, accusingly.
Another question, this one stranger: How do we tend to a wound like a beheading?
When we incur a burn, the skin goes from unburnt to burning, then burnt, then healing, then healed. We tend to it by leaving it to morph, uninterrupted, through these stages.
When a head is severed, it goes from unsevered to severed. No further transformations, no unsevering. So how do we tend?
I know it’s irresponsible to assume that a work of art is autobiographical, but this figure looks a lot like my friend. The dizziness drops into my belly. Where is my friend’s head? I wonder. Where is my friend?
I glance around the small space and I don’t see Ivoire.
I’m at the gallery, I text them. Where are you?
Two nights ago, Ivoire and I met for dinner. Over a spicy curried mussel dish, they told me their partner had gifted them a set of owl pellets for their birthday.
I'm forced to admit that I have no idea what an owl pellet is.
They explain that owls, like most birds, swallow their food whole. Owls have two stomachs, one of which processes the digestible parts of their prey while the other stores the indigestible teeth, skulls, claws, and feathers. These indigestible materials are compressed into a tight pellet that the owl later regurgitates.
This regurgitation is a form of self-protection. Without it, the owl’s food would wound it internally.
The image of an owl expelling a compressed pile of bones that my friend later receives as a birthday gift looms in my mind as I turn back again to the guillotined flamingo piece. I notice that the position of the figure is similar to that of someone hunched over on a bathroom floor.
I suddenly feel that that someone might be me again, soon. I concede, internally, that my time at the exhibit may be limited.
Still I try to walk through the space slowly. As I wander, taking in the various works, I think about a Mary Oliver line that’s been in heavy circulation since the poet’s passing: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Others have pointed out that in the poem, Oliver’s answer to her own question is nothing grand or ambitious, but rather to simply stroll through a field, noticing the environment around her and remarking on the behavior of small creatures.
It’s no field, but I’m glad to be strolling through a concrete bunker under a city sidewalk noticing artworks with my one wild and precious life tonight.
I’ve missed Ivoire, who hasn’t arrived by the time I reach my limit. I text them to apologize for leaving early. I tell them that I like the flamingo piece a lot.
“thanks,” they write back. “sometimes as soon as things are done, they are ‘art,’ no tweaks needed. flamingo was that.”
I say I appreciate the title of the work, too. They respond, “yea. cause of the head chop...get it?”
I want to ask why they chose a flamingo as opposed to any other creature but it’s starting to snow and my hands are cold so I put my phone away.
My front steps are blanketed by the time I get home.
I’ve just collapsed in bed when my housemate — the one with the lobster burn — knocks on my door.
I invite her in and she drops onto my couch. We immediately plunge into a discussion about such breezy topics as: toxic dynamics in romantic and sexual relationships, how difficult it is for people to recognize when we’re acting through old emotional wounds, and how often we end up using one another to re-enact our wounds without necessarily meaning to.
An hour later, she heads off to bed. I open my phone to a photo I took of the flamingo work.
What kind of wound does this piece portray? I wonder.
An untenable wound. A wound its subject can no longer act through.
Looking at it now, the piece appears as a sculptural crime scene, its black trans and queer subject suspended in space and time. The murder weapon looms in plain site, an integral component of the landscape it inhabits. Scanning the rusty handle, I envision white America as the guillotine that enacts the fatal wound even as it points its long blade elsewhere, accusing. Deflecting. Erasing. Denying.
How do we tend to an untenable wound?
The piece charges its viewers, too, to examine our own complicity in the act. With its bulky wooden arm protruding into a crowded space, any passerby could have grasped it to make a cut before slipping off unnoticed. It would be easy, too, to bump the handle accidentally into violence. Afterwards, how expected it would be in a quiet gallery space to remain silent and walk idly along, letting the weapon itself accuse another passerby even as it continues to beckon more into its brutality.
In an essay published in 2017, Cassius Adair writes about the Animorphs books as they relate to trans-ness. Animorphs, a young adult series written by K.A. Applegate and popular in the '90s, revolves around a group of young teenagers who can morph into animals and are tasked with saving the world from an invasion of evil alien mind-controlling slugs.
One unfamiliar with the series may still recognize the books’ distinctive covers, each featuring a teenager progressively transforming into a wild creature.
Adair describes reading Animorphs in secret long after it was socially appropriate to do so. The books, he writes, helped him to make sense of his experiences as a young trans person. Early in the series, one kid, Tobias, remains in the morph of a red-tailed hawk beyond the allotted two-hour time limit, rendering him unable to return his human form. The experience of Tobias learning to live as a human in a hawk’s body is described at great length, as are his efforts to determine who in his environment is trustworthy and who is being controlled by an evil alien slug that wants him dead. Adair remarks that, for these reasons and others, many trans and non-binary kids resonated deeply with the character.
As someone who also read Animorphs long after it was socially appropriate, I recall an account of Tobias devouring his first mouse that’s so graphic it still rattles in my gut despite not having experienced the description in over fifteen years.
I’m zooming in to inspect Ivoire’s detailed penwork on the feathers when I become curious again. Why a flamingo?
I make a quick mental list of everything I know about flamingos: Flamingos are extravagant. They can fly. They wear elaborate, Marie Antoinette-style feathered dresses. They travel in flocks. They are born gray but turn pink due to their diet of wild shrimp. They parade. They lay eggs. They stand on one leg and gulp water into their beaks. A group of flamingos is called a flamboyance. They’re queer. They like swamps. They’re commodified by the lawn ornament industry. Their bodies are on fire.
What kind of wound is a flamingo severed from its flamboyance?
I squint at the figure on my screen. It somehow manages to appear both headless and throbbingly alive. The wings loom, prominent and towering. Clavicular feathers spill out into the z-axis. It’s as though the figure was in the middle of transforming from human to flamingo or vice versa when the guillotine struck, at which point their transformation simply shifted outwards into another dimension. Now they exist in a state somewhere between human and flamingo, two dimensions and three, headless and alive, ultimately collapsing these binaries altogether.
The snow outside turns to rain or ice or something in between.
The steam-heater near my bed has come on at full blast.
I take a few gulps of water and imagine myself as a thirsty flamingo tilting its beak into a lake.
Many years ago, Ivoire and I watched a documentary about flamingos called “The Crimson Wing.” I try to recall what I can but only one more fact comes to mind: the creature’s name may have been derived from the Spanish word "flama,” meaning flame.
My body, too, is on fire. I stand and remove layers of clothing.
Undressing, I wonder,
Would the missing head be a human head or a flamingo head?
Or would it be a flame?