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When I told Matthew about I Know Where I’m Going!, he said, “I already know what you’re going to write about.”

I asked, “What?”

He said, “You know.”  He meant the time I drove from Houston to Denver and nearly ended up in Oklahoma.  Or the times he’s sat quietly as the highway exit we needed to take passed by.  Or the time I drove around a mall parking lot for what seemed like hours, unable to navigate its labyrinthine entrance-exit system.  I am, as Matthew puts it, ‘directionally-challenged.’

While in Scotland this summer, however, I knew exactly where I was going.  I knew which bus to take (Lothian Buses #49, The Mary Queen of Scots) to get to Edinburgh from where I stayed in Lasswade.   I knew that Craigmillar Park, Mayfield Gardens, Minto Street, Newington Road, Clerk Street, Nicolson Street, South Bridge, and North Bridge were all the same road, and as I traveled along it (them?), I noted the bed-and-breakfasts dotting the route:  Thrums, Airlie, Heatherlea.  In the city, I navigated between music stores:  Hog’s Head, Avalanche, Underground Solush’n, Fopp.  I conquered the bend where Victoria Street becomes West Bow, and where a roast pig sits in the window of Oink!, its skin crackled and scored into diamond-shapes, awaiting my delectation.

But, to be honest, I lost my way once — just once! — my first full day in Lasswade.  I was walking from Hawthornden Castle to Bonnyrigg (which we residents had dubbed ‘the Brig’) for Internet access.  The map I had been given was a speckled and faded seventh-generation photocopy.  Streets faded at the edges.  Nonetheless, I made my journey, confident that I would find my way.  And I did.

On the return trip, however, I got turned about.  A landmark church somehow ended up on the other side of town.  I counted  intersections until I was supposed to reach the correct one, but they didn’t add up.  Still, I forged ahead.  This was, after all, suburban Edinburgh; I didn’t fear football hooligans or the Corryvrecken.  The sun didn’t set until well-near 10.

But it was getting late nonetheless.  I had nearly walked to Loanhead, almost 2 miles off course, and acres of grasslands opened around me, dotted by occasional patches of poppies, a red tide, when I turned back towards Bonnyrigg.  Still couldn’t find my way out. Flustered, I stopped into a pub, The Laird and Dog, where the locals regarded me with pity, curiosity.

“I’m trying to get to Hawthornden Castle,” I said.  The name didn’t register with the bartender or wait staff.  I repeated myself, slower, as if this would translate English into Scottish Gaelic.  A red-nosed bar patron said, “Ah!” and explained to the others.  The bartender looked at me — Why didn’t you just say so? — and explained the way.  Or so I think — his brogue was opaque, nearly impenetrable.  But I followed his hand gestures:  cross the creek? — no, bridge; turn left; keep going past the Polton Inn.  Can’t miss it.

I returned, just in time for dinner.  As it turns out, the Hawthornden Castle administrator had driven past me as I was striding towards Loanhead.  He had considered stopping and giving me a lift, but, he said, “You seemed like you knew where you were going.”


Early in Black Narcissus, the English agent working for the Indian General, Mr. Dean, sends a letter to the nuns, describing Mopu, the palace high in the Himalayas where they are to establish their outpost, and how to reach it.  “It’s not a comfortable spot,” he writes, “and it’s at the Back of Beyond. First you have to get to Darjeeling and then I have to find you ponies and porters to take you into the hills.  Mopu is nearly 8,000 feet up.  The peaks on the range opposite are nearly as high as Everest.  The people call the highest peak Nyanga-Devi; it means, ‘The Bear Goddess.’…  Mopu Palace stands in the wind on a shelf in the mountain.  It was built by the General’s father to keep his women there.  It’s called a palace, but there may be a slight difference between your idea of a palace and the general’s.  Anyhow, there it is…  The wind up at the palace blows 7 days a week, so if you must come, bring some warm things with you.   [The caretaker] lives there alone, with the ghosts of bygone days.”

To get to Darjeeling, he could have added, you can take the narrow-gauge ‘toy train.’  The train winds up 88 km from Siliguri for an eight-hour journey.  It’s pulled by an honest-to-goodness steam engine, with someone to shovel the black chunks of coal into a fire and everything. The whistle can blow out your eardrums. If you have your window open, each time the engine belches out a thick burst of steam, tiny pebbles of soot will buffet your face.  As you ascend higher and higher, the green of the tea plantations take over the hillside, and after you cross bridges and duck under tunnels so tight that they could be a tube, the tea plants await you on the other side.  Halfway up, you pass through a cloud barrier, and, perhaps for the first time in India, you feel cold. At noon, no less!  The clouds become a mist, a veil obscuring the tops of trees and darkening the sky.  Or you can take a taxi for a 3½ hour ride along treacherous roads edged with concrete barriers to serve as a bump before you tumble to your doom.

To get to New Jalpaiguri, he might have pointed out, you fly into Bagdogra Airport, which is about 14 km from Siliguri.  Inside the terminal at Bagdogra, which at one time was an Indian Air Force base, all the television stations are tuned to the 24-hour global news cycle.  You can stay up-to-date on which Bollywood stars plan to marry, and see their pictures framed in clip-art hearts that bounce around to the theme of Chariots of Fire.  Cats lounge beneath the rows of formed-plastic seats.  They eat only meat products, though they’ll sniff anything you put on the ground.  On average, only four flights come in and out of Bagdogra’s three runways each day.  Take your pick:  Delhi, Kolkata, or Guwahati.  Where you go after that, Mr. Dean surely meant to say, is no concern of mine.

My knowledge of Peeping Tom will forever be incomplete.  For some reason, my disc freezes and refuses to play from about the 75-minute mark to the 85-minute mark.  (From what I understand, I miss two crucial scenes:  Mrs. Stevens’ confrontation with Mark and the psychologist’s explanation of scopophilia.)  And now that Criterion’s version is out-of-print, I can’t easily go out and buy a new one.  I looked to see if the disc was scratched, but no:  all I could see was my horrified reflection staring back at me, screaming No, no!

Even with the commentary track switched on, no go.  Shortly after Laura Mulvey says, “It was Andre Bazin who first pointed out the relationship between photography and death,” she cuts out entirely.  Even stranger:  when I went to check out Visual and Other Pleasures from the University of Delaware library today, it was listed as ‘missing.’

The world conspires to keep me ignorant.

I know just enough film theory to pontificate convincingly, but not enough to do it with conviction.  My lack of conviction, however, wasn’t enough to keep me from presenting a paper at the 8th Annual Lambda Rising Queer Studies Conference at the University of Colorado, Boulder.  (I don’t believe that a 9th Annual Conference ever took place.)  This was in the spring of 2000, after I’d already decided to attend the University of Houston for my MFA in fiction writing.  I don’t recall ever taking a formalized class in film as an undergraduate; most of what I knew was self-taught.  I was a dilettante.  Still, I thought, it would be fun.

So the Saturday morning of the conference, Matthew and I made our way up to Boulder.  I’d practiced my presentation — a running commentary on the film Sleepaway Camp — with the ease of a man trying to pass off a cubic zirconia as a diamond.  And I wonder if my nervousness that day was akin to the nervousness I feel the first day of classes every semester:  all those faces, waiting for you to feed them knowledge.

My presentation, admittedly, was an unholy mish-mash of Laura Mulvey, Carol Clover and Harry Benshoff — not to mention that Sleepaway Camp hardly merits critical attention.  But as I lectured, I could almost believe my own theories:  the camera as not just a male gaze, but a homosexual male gaze; watch how it travels beneath the partition of the bathroom to peek at the occupant, how it lingers on the bodies of the male skinny-dippers.  Oh, Camille Paglia would have my head on a platter, but theory is nothing if it isn’t a way to look at the world, and while I spoke, I understood the world of Camp Arawak, and the foothills sunshine of the city outside me, and the audience that sat before me, who gasped as that curling iron really went you-know-where.

My sister had a book of Hans Christian Anderson fairy tales — a gray hardcover with watercolor illustrations for each tale.  I devoured them repeatedly (except for “The Snow Queen,” which seemed exceptionally long).  Fairy tales, in my mind, were supposed to be short and aphoristic — and the Brothers Grimm were certainly so.  Hans Christian Anderson was different, though:  his tales were moody.  In the film version of The Red Shoes, impresario Boris Lermontov describes the end of the titular tale as follows:  “Oh, she dies.”

Well, not quite:  in the version I remember, the cursed dancer begs a woodcutter to chop off her feet, and after he does, the shoes dance away with her severed feet still in them.  And then she lives happily ever after.  As a nun.  Repenting.

Powell and Pressburger transform a cautionary tale about vanity (the girl insists on wearing her red shoes to church) into one about artistic imperatives, but, to me, “The Red Shoes” will always be about vanity.  To wit:  my own pair of red shoes.  They weren’t ballet shoes — my ankles would crack long before first position — but a pair of Airwalks.  (Nowadays, everyone wears has a pair of Day-Glo Pumas, but I bought mine over 10 years ago, when I lived in Washington, D.C.)  The red had a metallic sheen, the type of color you see on a Ford Taurus to make it ‘jazzy.’  On the soles of the shoes was a design of interlocking arrows, like a dance pattern.

Those shoes were my first statement of sartorial personality.  Before that, shoes were simply a vehicle to protect your feet.  It was OK if they were from Payless Shoe Source made your feet stink.  It was OK if they stained your socks when they got wet, because they didn’t signify anything.  All this changed, of course, when I found that first pair that I loved.

How I held myself changed; how I moved changed.  The shoes were the first things my former beau, R____, noticed about me.  You walked in wearing your ruby red slippers, he’d say, recounting our meeting.  I wore those shoes while I DJed:  I had to be on my feet all night and sometimes danced in the booth.  After my shift had ended, I moved over to Badlands, where the dancing continued.  My shoes didn’t glow when the lights hit them (and they certainly didn’t have the luminous quality of three-strip Technicolor), but when the music was right, they could have been dancing me, for all I knew.  One night, the DJ at Badlands grew annoyed at the requests for Madonna’s “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” and proceeded to play the Pablo Flores mix of the song continually for 45 minutes straight.  Good times.

But the more you love something, the more it falls apart.  The sheen on my shoes cracked and flaked off from overuse.  I staunched the damage by painting the cracks with nail polish, but it didn’t look quite right.  The shoelaces, after years of mangling by DC Metro escalators, frayed.  The arrows on the soles melded into one another.

No need to cut off my feet or to leap in front of a train — I knew it was time to retire the shoes.  But my feet kept dancing nonetheless.