The Prompt: Victory by Michelle Tea

For our first edition of "The Prompt," a creative writing series inspired by modern and contemporary art, writer Michelle Tea riffs on Sanya Kantarovsky’s 'Resistance,' 2017.

For our first edition of "The Prompt," a creative writing series inspired by modern and contemporary art, writer Michelle Tea riffs on Sanya Kantarovsky’s 'Resistance,' 2017.

Sanya Kantarovsky, Resistance, 2017. Sold for £2,772. Wired: Online Auction.

Written by Michelle Tea


The ink was all over my hands. My hands: chipped nail polish. Right hand middle finger humped from writing into a notebook, exploded ink mottling the ridge. Also, yellowy from cigarettes. By ninth grade my habit was solid – though, if I really trace it back to my mother, in labor, sitting in the red leather rocking chair provided by a kindly Irish nurse, smoking and rocking, smoking and rocking, bringing me home, mid‐February, to a house sealed against the New England freeze, sheets of plastic adhered to the drafty windows and all the relations who came to gaze at me through the nicotine haze, both of us squinting at one another through the curl of smoke dangling from the grown‐up’s face, just above my own – well, by ninth grade I was a goner, and could only get through lessons at my Catholic school by grotesquely sniffing my smoking fingers, inhaling an echo of the Marlboro Light enjoyed that morning behind the library or on the train tracks. Introducing me to the embarrassing pleasure of sniffing one’s fingers – a dirty joke, isn’t it, but it retains so much subtle odor: metal, garlic, soap, sex, certainly, cigarettes, sugar, scalp, rubber, coffee, cologne, dog, an olfactory diary of your day.

In the café on Sixteenth when you could still smoke inside, I would get my coffee and the Weekly or Guardian, this when the Weekly was not owned by that one newsprint mouth that gobbled all the others, reading the horoscopes and the sex advice, the personals, then the rest. Smoking with coffee and the paper and waiting for my crepe to arrive with the potatoes they fling a scoop of garlic on, from the garlic jar. I would like a tall jar of smashed garlic for my own home but then how would the smell of it ever stick to my fingers? Eating the breakfast food ravenously, as it was the only thing I would have eaten since the same time yesterday when I’d consumed the same thing, the one with the spinach and the cottage cheese stuffed inside me, the woman at the register knowing me now and nodding. Then, fold the paper away and bring out my notebook and leaky pens and write, and smoke. Once a woman asked if I minded. Did I mind, she was eating. The entire café was a haze worthy of my birthplace. Did I mind? I stubbed it out and sniffed my fingers waiting for her to leave. Soon enough she would win, and I would help her – Did I think this was great, smogging the world with my epigenetic coping mechanisms? No, I did not. But I would destroy myself and take the rest of you with so long as I was allowed.

I had taken to the streets of my city before, with others, but never in joy, and never since.

Days following elections, the gloomiest days, because nothing my city wanted would ever happen. If me, if the people of my city wanted something that you knew it would not happen. And all of us would gather sadly in the cafes the next morning and ingest the details of how and why it didn’t happen and what terrible things happened instead. It would be a heavy day, thunderclouds topping everyone’s head until it subsided, leaving us exactly as we were before, more or less, that was the comfort, I suppose, it wasn’t much different as we’d all learned to cope, poorly or well, with being a city so out of synch with the rest of the culture. But occasionally good things occurred. One day as I ate some soup and a croissant a person I hardly registered sat down aside me and left just as quickly, with my vintage purse in his hand. It was boxy and shiny with a little knob of a fastener that was a pleasure to open and close, and inside it was as red as a vampire’s coffin, and hardly anything was in there. My cigarettes, of course, and a tiny bronze bell with a fairy on top. A box shaped like a cherub with the results of my cashed paycheck folded up inside. House keys. Pay stubs. I cried for my lost money and cigarettes and I did love that little cherub box and the bell. My roommates let me into our shared home and gave me cigarettes. And then the next day, at the café, a man walks up and asks me if I am my legal name, and I say yes. He asks me to verify my address and I do and he hands me over my shiny vintage purse and says he found it on the train, and then he’s gone. I’m ripping the little fastener open and there is my bell and my box, and all of my money within it, and there is my Marlboro Lights, though coffee has been spilled upon the pack and some smoked cigarettes have been replaced by another brand. Go, give him a reward! my boss urged me, and I ran up and out onto the street and looked up it and down it but the man was gone.

That was almost as good as the election we won. It was a tremendous win and yet initially felt strangely anticlimactic, as it was a landslide and won so quickly. My friend had promised pizza but it all wrapped up before we could eat more than the apple and nuts she’d put out on the table. I heard there was a gathering in the town square but could find no one to go with, and so I went home, but once in my bedroom I heard something, the white noise of a constant cheer, and I walked out to the boulevard and yes, the people of my neighborhood had gathered, they were drunk on champagne and victory, the champagne was being passed about in fat, gleaming bottles, victory as well, and people hung from their windows, and when the streets became too clogged for traffic the drivers abandoned their cars and danced to the marching band that had appeared with horns and drums, blotting out the radios and other noisemakers revelers had pulled out into the street. I had taken to the streets of my city before, with others, but never in joy, and never since. Though the city had changed so much at that point that the café was long gone and cigarettes all but banished, there were other places that served coffee and papers, though people mostly sat on their phones pushing though the news with their fingers, and the morning after the people of my city sat and reveled in the details, even the flies buzzing above our heads as celebratory as confetti.


Michelle Tea is the author of over a dozen books for children, young adults, and grown-ups, including the PEN/American award-winning essay collections Against Memoir, the speculative memoir Black Wave, and the cult classic Valencia.


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