Sunset House by Marshall Moore

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Another evening, another livid sky. I’m gazing out my home-office window at the horizon again. Cornwall’s towering clouds dwarf the shiny cotton balls that scud across the sky in my native eastern North Carolina. Backlit with electric danger, these massive clouds — slate blue grey and limned around the edges by the setting sun — are too big for simple shape names to fit. They’re more like empires, or archipelagos. The sky fades through various shades of salmon and ultramarine. It’s quite late, almost ten now. Night comes reluctantly here.

Off to the west and a bit to the south, atop the crest of a low hill, dots of red light strobe on a broadcasting tower. I see it every day and night but Google thinks it’s not there. I’ve checked Maps and done a web search. Nothing shows up. I imagine the tower serves some arcane military purpose. Maybe it’s a Cold War-era numbers station still spitting out synethesized digits for spies on passing ships. We’re not far from the sea. This part of Cornwall is far from everything but the sea. Perhaps this idea isn’t as far-fetched as it seems.

I moved here in 2020 after spending 12 years in Hong Kong. Unless you’ve been in hibernation, you will have seen the headlines and the carnage. Early on in the protests, a new thought formed in my head and stayed there: I’m no longer sure I know who I am. The notion of being lost to yourself recurs in song lyrics and literature. I always scorned it as a pop-music cliche: rhyming angst in a trite, saddish chorus. At some point I stopped getting so wound up about things like that; as an adult, I have more age-appropriate concerns. Even so, when friends and relatives found themselves in relationships they’d sacrificed cherished parts of themselves to maintain, a bit of that contempt would glimmer in the back of my mind. How could you let that happen? What were you thinking? What’s wrong with you? Since karma doesn’t miss much, naturally I ended up as one of those people myself.

When the final digit of your age is 9, you’ll have questions. Possibly fears as well, depending on your circumstances. For me, those transitions have always been upgrades. I enjoyed being 19 because my teenage years were awful and would end soon. Turning 29 came as a relief because my 20s were a decade-long struggle to overcome disasters past and present. Good goddamn riddance. I liked 39 because although my 30s were better on average, there was the shattering breakup, the financial implosion, and the ensuing nervous breakdown. I only stayed out of the hospital because I’d just written a novel about that and didn’t want to be a case of life imitating art. My 40s were actually sort of okay. Then I found myself at 49 in a burning Golgotha of tear gas, mass arrests, and urban warfare. As events there spiralled beyond what I thought it would be possible to live through, that question intensified: Who the hell have I turned into?

Some of it was simple stuff, the kind of thing you take stock of after a decade with the person you’ll go on to marry. My partner-now-husband didn’t like my wardrobe full of grey and black clothes and pushed me to explore the virtues of color. He worked in fashion, upper management. I attempted to teach essay skills and grammar to yawning college students. I told myself it was okay to let my boyfriend be right about things now and then. Years passed. While I didn’t hate the plaids and checks and other patterns, they didn’t look like me, and when Hong Kong’s protest movement adopted black (bloc) as its emblem of resistance and mourning, something clicked.

What other compromises had I made for the relationship? What else had I changed? Certain things were much-needed improvements. A year after S. and I got together, I had half a dozen ugly moles lasered off my back. I didn’t like them, but I didn’t have to see them every day. They grossed him out, though. One session at a skin clinic later, they were gone. I didn’t miss them. I still don’t. But: Did I actually alter my body for this man? Isn’t that the kind of thing I swore never to do? I also stopped getting tattoos, or put it on pause. How much of that was about never getting around to it; how much was about his vague revulsion? Yet that coil of uncertainty stayed in its subcellar, twisting amid a growing lack of recognition: Who have I become? Who am I becoming? And as the images on TV got worse with every passing week, as everyone we knew got gassed and finally we did too, as I ran from cops to avoid getting beaten and arrested, as we had the inevitable “what has to happen to make us grab the cat and go to the airport?” discussion, as I sat crying and often drunk in my armchair in the living room watching fires and brawls and tear gas canisters shot at civilians in metro stations on TV, as the cops collectively lost their minds and went on the rampage, as the rumors of murder and rendition and gang rape and dismemberment spread, I kept coming back to that question. That simple, unanswerable question: Who am I? The answer: I am surviving this. No longer a person but a process.

Then the pandemic started.

*

I took a year off in college to, as my mother tended to moan in a Valium-laced haze to anyone still listening, find myself. I started university at age 16 and would have graduated at 20 had I not taken that year off and flunked a few classes along the way. I’d just come out. It was traumatic. If you were one of those kids who get bullied relentlessly at school and home’s not much better, you’ll know what I mean. So much work goes into constructing an identity based on the negation of something both painful and painfully obvious. Worse, straight people think you’re flaming if you’re even slightly legible as gay. The decision feels made already, fait accompli, imposed long before you’re ready. That year I took off was less about searching than it was about shoveling away the silt of inauthenticity I was suffocating under. Self-abnegation is exhausting. But I couldn’t explain any of this to my mother. Newly divorced and full of cascading emptiness, she drank, took pills, and fell down a lot. She’d surrendered an identity at the altar, and now that her marriage was over, all she found inside was a darkness and the urge to scream.

Being American means you tend to conflate who you are with what you do. I learned that at an early age even if it took moving overseas to begin untangling some of those threads. Like any bookish, gifted gay university student used to being good at everything that didn’t involve human interaction, I smugly thought all questions had been answered. I was out, I was relieved, and I was free to go on being the sum of my accomplishments past present and future rather than this hiding, cringing other thing. I’d always had a strong sense of self. But during this interval, another question emerged: Can you really know yourself when your life has been so focused on that pivotal task of not-being?

During this time, I took a lot of long late-afternoon drives through the countryside. The best time for these drives was around six, after the heat of the day and the silver-grey glare off the clouds had retreated, but before it got dark — and before my mother’s drunken, screaming meltdowns or fits of near-catatonic depression would commence for the evening. I knew those roads well; I’d lived in that part of the state most of my life. I knew how fast I could go, how well the tires would adhere to the pavement on certain curves, where speed traps were likely to be. There were fewer shit lagoons — the massive tanks of manure created by industrial hog farming — back then, so the air was fresh except around the big Weyerhaeuser pulp mill off highway 43 on the way to New Bern. Now and then I’d take the ferry across the Pamlico River from Aurora to Bayview, and circle back home from there. There were seagulls to feed. Cute backwoods gas stations where I could stop for a Pepsi and a candy bar. Even if I was speeding, I wasn’t in a hurry. The journey itself was the destination, even if I sometimes got a little bit lost.

*

The seagulls stop their bickering at sunset. The racket they make still feels like an anomaly. Being from a coastal region, I’ve heard that sound all my life. On ferries, my mother loved to tell and retell the story of how her father liked getting seagulls drunk. He would plan in advance, soaking bread in beer before tossing it off the back of the boat. The birds would get hammered, flop around the air, and fall into the water. “KerPLOP!,” she would screech. Heads would turn. Lacking self-awareness, she would burst into benzodiazepine giggles at her own punchline, repeating it to get us to laugh too, which, as we got older, tended to happen less.

I did my PhD at Aberystwyth, a charming seaside college town in Wales even more remote than where I live now. Fittingly, the main road there is Great Darkgate: it ends at the ruins of a castle, well lit at night. A wide promenade arcs along the seafront. At low tide, the seabed is a lunar scramble of jagged rock. From time to time, storms blow in off the Irish Sea and batter the town with waves the size of houses. Rocks as well: the waves hurl them ashore, smashing windows out of buildings and cars. It’s spectacular, at least if you can watch from the comfort of YouTube. The gulls of Aberystwyth are the size of tablecloths, almost as white, and rapacious. They will take your food. They will shit on your head. Fear them.

During my time there — I was a part-time student and stayed in Hong Kong for the degree, travelling to Wales once or twice a year per the uni’s requirement — I was always in a fog of exhaustion and cognitive dissonance. How am I actually here right now, doing this? Someone’s going to find out. Good things are not allowed to happen. In the library, I’d often nod off in an armchair, doze for a few minutes, then jerk awake, pat my chin to check for drool, and look around to see if anyone was watching. I’d look out the narrow window I always sat next to. There was a view of the sea. What am I even doing here? Isolation, containment, seagulls. It was a strange time but rather lovely in its contours.

With Covid restrictions still in force — the recent G7 conference has left Cornwall sloshing with the virus — just writing about the pandemic feels repugnant, as if I’m forcing myself to swallow food I know is spoiled. But with winter finally over, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on isolation. I arrived in England toward the end of a lockdown, taught one semester on campus but have no idea what the students look like because they were all wearing masks, and spent the spring semester online, barely leaving my house. Full dark by half four, often pouring. Not much chance for exercise. When I lived in Seattle and Portland, I thought the clouds and rain were amazing. Everything about that time in my life was collapses and setbacks, but I could take unmasked breaths at Whole Foods without fear of dying in a plague ward three weeks later. I have never cared as much about sunlight as I do now, especially as the last of it bleeds into night.

*

Toward the end of Hong Kong’s summer of protests, I got an email from someone whose name I didn’t recognize right away. I was on my way home, about halfway up the Mid-Levels Escalator. I called that part of Hong Kong Airless Hill because even by the standards of the city’s miserable swelter, a trip up that system of travellators felt like the journey a lump of dough makes through an industrial oven. Chilly in tone, the email was a notification that my mother had developed dementia and was no longer capable of taking care of herself. Arrangements had already been made.

The air was acrid with tear gas the next day when I replied to find out more. The gist was that this woman, a longtime friend of my mother’s, was now her power of attorney — a role I thought had been assigned to me. There was a second POA: a former gentleman friend of hers. I’d heard of him. He was married the entire time the affair lasted. Still was, as far as I knew. Things happened fast after that: they listed the house with an estate agency and put the car up for sale, contacted someone in Raleigh to come down and auction the antiques, and set about emptying her bank accounts. An alarmed distant cousin tracked me down when he heard the news. Was this legit? Live in eastern North Carolina long enough, you’ll hear stories of estate grabs like this. I hired a lawyer. Did some checking. The US’s brutal sham of a health care system demands that everything be liquidated before Social Security will kick in and cover the cost of a care home. In North Carolina, there’s a seven-year window prior to the time of admission to the facility. The system only kicks in after your assets are spent down. They’ll demand your financials and claw back anything you’ve stashed in a trust. And the will my mother had given me a copy of? Not valid, apparently. It wasn’t notarized, something she would have known about after her decades as a notary public.

With every email and every phone call, the situation grew more sordid. My mother’s former companion disapproved of my gallivanting gay lifestyle, was appalled that I was living overseas and not back in my hometown doting on the malignant narcissist who was very good at performing normal (but we don’t talk about that because in our South you don’t), and was adamant that I be kept out of the process. The other friend, the one who contacted me, agreed and went along with it. She too thought I was deplorable. I could tell from the frost in her voice when we spoke. But at some point her conscience caught up with her. I deserved to be told, even if she couldn’t stand me.

Week after week, things got worse. The news from North Carolina, the news from Hong Kong. Fresh bombardments: The former gentleman friend took indecent liberties with my mother; Adult Protective Services had to be brought in. There was a restraining order. He was barred from the facility where she was now living. He barged in anyway. I think the cops were called. Molotov cocktails: The lawyer assured me there was absolutely nothing I could do. It would take everything I had to chase after things I had already lost. Long since lost, and in all honesty, never had. The relationship, the items in the will. Things I thought were true. The former gentleman friend stole some of her jewelry and tried to take her car. He got in trouble for it but he had paperwork and I was in Asia. Strong hurricanes hit both places.

My sister, who moved out at age 18 and proclaimed herself done, put it succinctly: “She fucked you out of six figures. She’s done something like this to literally every person in her life. You’re the last. Walk away.”

No one does the unthinkable without first having endured it. There was a time in my life I would have rushed back to North Carolina to do something. The problem was, this time there was nothing I could actually do. It had already happened. Everything: gone in the space of a few days, the mother, the lifetime of lies, the estate. Lacking other options, I’d have even consented to it all if I’d been given any say in the matter. That was taken away from me too. I spoke to her on the phone once. She wasn’t sure who I was. Reluctantly and with real grief, I took my sister’s advice.

Not long after that, the Teachers’ March, one of the dozens of individual protests that hideous summer and fall, took place in Hong Kong. It started on a muggy, stifling morning and took us up a steep hill to the Chief Executive’s residence near the American consulate. The marchers were turned away at the top, leaving the whole contingent to file down a single hillside staircase instead of continuing as planned. As a kid and in young adulthood, I swore I’d never become a teacher. Too risky if you’re gay. Time moved on, of course, and so did I, finding myself in a crowd of 22,000 black-clad, balaclava’d colleagues as we filed slowly down that hill that blistering day, two by two.

Hungry and fried, my husband and the friend who’d joined us stopped for dim sum in Admiralty. The friend, a British Hong Konger, was blase about the skin lesions she’d developed from over-exposure to tear gas. The depleted American canisters had been used up. Now the cops were using toxic new shit from China. Doctors all over the city were enraged because the government would not disclose the ingredients. They were tired of not knowing how to treat the casualties that poured into emergency rooms every week. The har gao and siu mai were exquisite. Half the patrons in the restaurant were also wearing black.

Even before all that, I wasn’t always sure I could recognize myself in the mirror. Now, that man is gone. I’m someone else. Or perhaps I don’t have to find myself because I’ve never not known who I am: a cold amalgam of loss, boarding passes, and survival. These persistent questions are the glue that hold the absences together, the white spaces on the pages of the story. I may never set foot in my hometown again. Nor do I expect to set foot in my adopted home. Neither thing would be safe. Here’s one of the secrets of trauma: it’s fucking boring. The terror and horror give way to a dull, ashy nothingness. You can survive anything when it’s just nothingness that you have to survive.

I’m looking out the window of my home office again. It’s almost eleven: fully dark now, no clouds in sight. Everything has been stripped away. From me, from the day. Whoever I am, I think I’m done now. It’s finally night.

Marshall Moore

Marshall Moore is an American author, publisher, and academic based in Cornwall, England. He has written several novels and collections of short fiction, the most recent being Inhospitable (Camphor Press, 2018). He holds a PhD in creative writing from Aberystwyth, and he teaches creative writing and publishing at Falmouth University. His next book is a co-edited (with Sam Meekings) academic collection from Routledge (2021), Creative Writing Scholars on the Publishing Trade: Practice, Praxis, Print. Following that, a memoir titled I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind of Thing will be released by Rebel Satori Press in 2022. For more information, please visit www.marshallmoore.com, or follow him on Twitter at @iridiumgobbler.

Previously Published Words:

Inhospitable

Tardiness: A Personal History


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