Patrick Cottrell, who “opens up fresh lines of questioning in the old interrogations of identity, the politics of belonging, and the problem of other minds,” was born in Korea and raised in Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Milwaukee. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Guernica, BOMB, Gulf Coast, Black Warrior Review, and other places. His debut novel, Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, was published by McSweeney’s last year. He lives and works in Los Angeles.
An excerpt from Sorry to Disrupt the Peace:
At the time of his death I was a thirty-two-year-old woman, single, childless, irregularly menstruating, college educated, and partially employed. If I looked in the mirror, I saw something upright and plain. Or perhaps hunched over and plain, it depended. Long, long ago I made peace with my plainness. I made peace with piano lessons that went nowhere because I had no natural talent or aptitude for music. I made peace with the coarse black hair that grows out of my head and hangs down stiffly to my shoulders. One day I even made peace with my uterus. Living in New York City for five years, I had discovered the easiest way to distinguish oneself was to have a conscience or a sense of morality, since most people in Manhattan were extraordinary thieves of various standing, some of them multi-billionaires. Over time, I became a genius at being ethical, I discovered that it was my true calling. I made little to no money as a part-time after-school supervisor of troubled young people, with the side work of ordering paper products for the toilets. After my first week, the troubled people gave me a nickname.
Hey, Sister Reliability, what’s up? Bum me a cigarette. Suck my dick. They never stopped smoking or saying disgusting things to me, those troubled young people living and dying in Manhattan, sewer of the earth! I was living and dying right next to them all the while attempting to maintain an ethical stance as their supervisor, although some days I will admit it was difficult to tell who was supervising whom.
In theory, I have always been interested in the idea of ethical practices: how to live, what to do, so to speak. Being interested in something is partially how I cultivated my talent and genius, I thought, because I wasn’t born this way, I was born instead with no natural talents or capacities, I was born as a shabby little baby, but after a long and unremarkable time, I became a virtuous woman, I transformed myself into something good, and one by-product of this particular nature was behavior that seemed to land mostly on the ethical side of things and, at worst, the retiring and overly apologetic side. Pragmatic, I have always preferred to be in the background, unobserved; I preferred to play the role of the detached observer/receiver, the way one would live if one lived and spoke and shat inside a puffy white cloud floating along above the world harmlessly like a balloon.
Think of me as your balloon, I would tell my troubled young people, I’m always next to you or hovering right above you. After I said that, I noticed some of them didn’t seem to know what a balloon was, they looked at me so confusedly, I was compelled to assume they had never even seen a fucking balloon. So one bright afternoon a few months ago, I drank a few gin-and-tonics before work, which I do not often do, and then I forced them to watch a DVD of The Red Balloon at our after-school facility. We were not allowed to sit alone in darkened rooms with the troubled young people, all of the overhead lights were on, making it difficult to see the screen. My face was bright red, like the balloon, which one of them observed astutely. I told them to focus on the beautiful film I was screening for their viewing pleasure and to stop looking at me. Then I broke the rules and turned off the lights. I spent the next five minutes or so pointing out for them how each scene was so artfully composed, it was almost like watching a painting come alive.
It’s a painting come alive, children, do you see it? I said with excitement.
Halfway through the film, I felt nauseous, ran into the bathroom, locked the door, and threw up for almost an hour. When I came out, the lights were on, the movie shut off, and they sat there in silence, staring at me with their mouths opened. I must have been making really loud retching sounds.
The point is I always knew my talents would be useful one day, I said to the coworker who asked me what I was doing showing a group of at-risk Latino and African American teenage boys The Red Balloon. Then I employed a strategy I have honed throughout my life when asked a difficult question: to respond with a question of my own. I asked my coworker pointedly what the troubled people’s race had to do with it, couldn’t Latino and African American people watch and enjoy The Red Balloon? And what I said previously was true: I always knew my talents would be helpful to someone, someday.