The flicker of her eyes will be featured in
Sky Island Journal’s Issue #3,
their Winter 2018 release.
Campbell, Judith. Skeleton angel [Image]. Los Angeles, 27 Dec. 2017.
The flicker of her eyes will be featured in
Sky Island Journal’s Issue #3,
their Winter 2018 release.
Campbell, Judith. Skeleton angel [Image]. Los Angeles, 27 Dec. 2017.
Crumb of Eternity will be featured in
Sky Island Journal’s Issue #3,
their Winter 2018 release.
Panis Angelicus will be published in the upcoming issue of:
You can purchase a printed or PDF copy by clicking on the following link:
As soon as the words “with mouth” left my lips, her head began its slow descent towards my lap like a discordant apple falling from the branch of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. We had created our own vocabulary. Our own language: part verbal, part body. She was in a long-distance relationship with a man who lived across the world, in Singapore, her home. Close enough for sexting and dirty show-and-tell via Skype, but far enough for her to seek supplementary companionship. She craved the warmth of physical contact. While we lay in each other’s arms after having made love, she used to tell me that her boyfriend refused to have sex with her. Vaginal. I asked why. She didn’t know. I brought up the slight possibility that he may be gay and using her as a beard. No, that wasn’t it, she assured me, as if I was the one who needed assurance. He liked doing it in every way, fill all her holes, except for the one that mattered most to her. He was a devout Christian and would not lose his virginity before marriage. Having been raised in that sexually stunting, hormonally frustrating climate— with balls as blue as the Virgin’s cloak— I totally understood his apprehension and guilt.
I was raised to fear the villainous and venereal woman’s vagina as if it were Satan’s filthy mouth itself. To plunge my virginity into it would swing open the gates of Hell and drag me in, kicking and screaming, digging my bloodied finger nails into the landsliding abyss. However, she was a friend in need and aside from having learnt the lesson of divine chastity, I had also learnt that of divine compassion. Now, this compassionate heart of mine had given me the task of filling not only her woman-sized hole, but the one the size of the Atlantic. One that needed an ocean of love to fill. So there we were, fucking under God’s watchful, wrathful and vengeful eyes. We didn’t hide our naked bodies in shame. Instead, she opened her mouth and took a mouthful out of my apple.
* * * *
Music was our drug of choice. It always seemed to get us in the mood, playing with our emotions. We liked the same bands, and the ones whose affinity we didn’t share we accepted because we trusted each other’s taste. We were sitting in my car listening to Foxygen, and the song “San Francisco” came on. My eyes began to gather tears as my throat closed up. She noticed that I had suddenly gotten quiet. She touched my clenched hand on the steering wheel, and I relaxed it.
“Are you OK?” she asked.
“It’s just that this song reminds me of my ex-wife,” I replied. She looked confused. “It reminds me of her because that was the last place that we went to as a couple.” It was our last resort to make things work. It was also the place where we hit rock bottom and broke up for good.
“We can just skip this song if you like.”
“No, it’s fine.” I looked over at her. In the blurriness of tears I could see a concerned look in her eyes. “Just keep your hand on mine and sit here with me.” I wanted to listen to the song and mourn in silence. So we did.
* * * *
We were lying on a blanket on the floor. I was lying on my side, propping my head up with one arm and placing the other on my thigh. She was sitting on her calves— inside the curvature made by my legs and torso— perked up looking down at me. The lights were off, and the only light was emanating from an old Bed Bath and Beyond pine-scented candle I dug out from under the bathroom sink. The candle’s dimmed brilliance reflected the tears welling up in her eyes, as if there was a feeling she was trying to disguise. I smiled and asked her what was wrong. She nodded away my question with a soft hum. I could tell that she didn’t want to make eye contact with me. I placed my free hand on her thighs, and she looked down on it. She bit down on her bottom lip. I felt a single, sultry tear sprinkle on my knuckles like the first raindrops of summer.
“What’s wrong?” I asked again. She let out a flustered sigh and wiped the tears from her face and the secretion from her nose.
“It’s hard to explain,” she answered. It was difficult because her English was pretty good, but not good enough to express a complex emotion. An emotion that even a native English speaker would have a hard time explaining. I dragged my body closer to her knees and outstretched my hand to meet hers.
“You can tell me anything.”
“I know,” she sniffled. But it wasn’t so much a matter of intimacy as it was a matter of fluency.
“Just say it in Malay,” I said. I didn’t care if I couldn’t understand it. All I understood was that she needed to vent. She had been building up so much pressure in her heart for so long, that it seemed impossible to release it. At first, she began to speak softly to me. Slowly. Then her speech became louder and faster. Violent. She was looking at me in a way she hadn’t before. Flailing her arms, clicking her wrists, gripping her palms. I felt conflicted. Sad because of the eruptive catharsis I was beholding and aroused because of the level of intimacy we were reaching. That look in her eyes. Those dark, soulful eyes.
I propped myself up into a seated position and buried her in my arms. Her body was shaking. She felt warm and cold. Stiff and frail. I held her close and tight, suffocating any doubt in her mind. She continued to speak in a language I couldn’t begin to decipher, let alone understand. However, I understood everything she was feeling, everything her heart was expressing. Every single word.
* * * *
It was a steady, slow-building orgasm. It had been welling up inside of me like tears held back from a repressed emotion. The care and passion with which she was tugging at my penis had the charm of wanting to do a good job that comes from inexperience. It was naïve, coy and playful. She was pushing buttons without knowing the type of reactions they would trigger in my body. It reminded me of the first time we had been intimate, when we used to meet in her apartment to listen to The Beatles and drink Japanese wheat tea. At the time, I didn’t know if it was the sweetness in her eyes, the bitterness of John Lennon’s singing or the savoriness of the tea, but I felt the need to invade her lips with mine. To occupy her mouth with my tongue. At first, she pulled away— half appalled, half pleasantly surprised.
“Why did you kiss me?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “I saw it in your eyes.”
“Well, in case you didn’t know, I have a boyfriend.” She said it more so to remind herself of the fact than to get me to stop. She was still within firing range, and her eyes were still conveying the same message as before.
“OK, can I just have one more kiss?” This time, I was the one who had to pull away. We decided to forget the whole incident and go back to listening to music, each of us sitting at the couch’s extremes. She kept looking over, smiling nervously. I knew what she wanted, I could see it in the way her slightly crooked teeth were digging into her bottom lip. In her quivering silence I could hear her screaming for another kiss. For what she had so strongly opposed and at the same time couldn’t get enough of.
Her lips were starved for love, the kind of love that only I could give her.
“Do you want to kiss me?” I asked. She nodded her head affirmatively. I slid over to her end of the couch and placed my arm around her. I wanted to take her to a secluded place, a place beyond shame, beyond judgement, beyond inhibition. A place beyond love. What we felt wasn’t just love. It was lust. We kissed each other like it was going to be the last time. I placed her hand on my thigh, and she started to slide it up towards my crotch, which by this point seemed like it was going to burst out of its seams. I heard the sound of my zipper becoming undone slowly. I felt her digging inside, removing the layers of cloth between her hand and my stiffened flesh.
She took its content in her hands without questioning. All of the questions, the doubts that she had from when we first kissed had dissipated by now. Her willingness to humor my hormonal urge compelled me to help with the unzipping and simply pull it out and place it in her hands. By this point my heart was throbbing with desire, and I didn’t care whether things were moving too fast. We were ready. She welcomed me in her hands. Part of me felt that she was jerking me around, using me as a surrogate lover. Her touch felt cold. Almost robotic, as though she was simply going through the motions. We both wanted the same things, but each for very different reasons.
We looked at each other and realized the murkiness of the situation. I placed her face in my hands and gave her a kiss. I felt her grip get tighter and the rhythm of it getting faster and warmer. It told me that she finally understood what this was about. She treated my body as if she herself was a man, stroking with the skill of a chronic masturbator. As if my penis was her own and she was going to be the one who would climax through it. I felt strong in her hand. In its clasp, that hardened tissue had a purpose, and its purpose was to be the best it had ever been. Not for me, but for her. For all of the hard work she was investing in my happiness and pleasure. There was something lodged inside of me that I needed her to help me get out. I was full of love for her and filling up more and more with every one of her kisses. I was about to reach a breaking point. A point of rapturous rupture. I felt a feral, starved beast trying to claw its way out of my urethra. It was my turn to release the pent-up pressure.
It came as a surprise, as it always does. I didn’t know how to feel, so I just felt. I simply was. It was an out-of-body, ethereal experience, losing myself in the moment, letting go of conscious thought and welcoming chaos.
As I came back to coherence, I realized that she was still toiling away. Throughout my life, I have always been told, if it feels good, then go with it. So, I did. It was electric. A religious experience and a celestial dialogue with the divine. This was her way of thanking me for being there for her. For treating her like a woman and not just like some stupid Singaporean girl with no say in her sexuality. That night, I returned her generosity and helped her release her tension and turned my hands into instruments of torturous pleasure. The sight of her face writhing in the exquisite pain of sex told me more than her words— in English or Malay, from human or demonic tongue— ever could.
* * * *
In the months that we spent together, we created a little world for ourselves. A four-walled Eden in a one-bedroom-one-bath apartment. We fought, made love and learned many things about ourselves that we wouldn’t have had our paths not crossed. She taught me how to be intimate with a woman and how to tend to her emotional needs. I taught her how a man likes to be touched and that it’s perfectly normal to have sexual thoughts and feelings. The only lesson we forgot to teach one another was how to live life without the other.
Bilicko, C. (2017). Bridging the Gap [Painting]. Acrylic on wood, Long Beach, CA.
The heist was all planned out. We knew what we needed to do and what we needed to take. My brother and I were own our way to Sacramento, California with one thing on our minds. Our mission was to take as many toys as we could carry. It was the strategy that we had devised while sitting in the backseat of my parents’ car, on our way to my Uncle Venus’ house. My cousin Jose and his brothers had troves of action figures— more toys than any eight-year-old could ever want. All of the ones that my brother and I drooled over while perusing the toy aisles at department stores. All of the ones that would elicit a firm ear-pull from our mom after begging her for them unsuccessfully.
We had already stolen some smaller items, like weapons and Happy-Meal-sized toys, but this was the big sting. The one that, if caught, could get us a leather-belt-on-bare-butt-cheeks spanking. This operation required pockets larger than those equipped on a pair of standard jeans. We needed to bring in the big guns. Taking a full-sized action figure would require a garment with additional cargo room. That was why we decided to bring our bulky winter jackets. These would aid our effort of concealing and carrying the contraband.
My cousins were very generous with their toys, which gave my brother and me a perfect in. As we played in their room, my brother and I would take turns slipping a toy into one of our many pockets. At first, my cousins were none the wiser to our slimy scheme. But soon my cousin Jose noticed that I was sliding something into my jacket. He was a smart kid and soon let out a loud yelp that brought our parents into the room. He told my uncle that I was stealing his toys. Our dads looked at each other and started to laugh. Some sort of brotherly inside joke. My uncle yelled at Jose to stop crying, that there was no harm done. I was pulled aside by my dad and told that he was going to kick my ass when we got home. I could already hear the sound of finely-crafted Mexican leather making contact with tightly squeezed flesh. That night, my brother and I came away with pockets full of threats. Enough to keep our kleptomania at bay. Well, until it was time for my cousin Jose and his brothers to visit us down in LA.
* * * *
When you come from a culture where the scrotums are potent and the wombs fertile, you don’t simply get one person named ‘Little Bastard Jr.’ or ‘the III,’ you get a swath of ‘Little Bastards’ named after the grand master bastard— the grandfather that can never remember who you are. It defeats the whole purpose of even having a name. “Hey, you!” becomes a more comprehensive way of distinguishing you from the rest of your similarly named cousins. Any certified arborist would take one look at our family tree and deem its long branches ripe for firewood and demand that the rest of it be chopped down and interned in an insane asylum.
* * * *
His hair was long and silky, dark and lustrous. It draped down between his shoulder blades to his mid-lower back even as he wore it in a ponytail. The light mustache and goatee on his upper lip and chin, along with the sharp cheek bones still bore vestiges of his boyish face. Since I last saw him— ten years ago— it had blossomed into that of a handsome young man. I remembered the times when he used to curse out my other cousins and their mothers with anger in his eyes. Now those eyes, interlocking with mine, were deep and soulful. He had a timid smile and quiet grace. As soon as he became aware of my presence, he instantly remembered me. I didn’t really know how to approach him without looking weak or coming off as slightly gay. I wanted to mirror his calm and collected energy. I had to repress my feelings of admiration and longing for a cousin who, for all I knew, could have been dead this whole time. I was mourning my inability to express my true emotions in words. I wanted to tell him that I missed him and find out about what he had been up to.
The occasion for our meeting was the wedding of our youngest aunt in Tijuana, Mexico. My cousin and I were 22 and 21-years-old. She was two years younger. He was wearing a form-fitting suit that added to the elegance in his demeanor. Since we last saw each other, my dad had been imprisoned and we had moved a couple of times. His dad remarried and had a couple of kids with his new wife; Uncle Venus used to pick us up from school from time to time, maybe because he felt he owed it to my dad to take care of us while he was locked up. I think my siblings and I saw my uncle more often than Jose did. I didn’t want to make the same mistake of going years without hearing from my cousin, so I gave him my address. I figured that we could open up an avenue of communication by writing to one another. After a few letters back and forth, the silence between us began to set in once again.
* * * *
The tradition of genealogical nomenclature is meant to bring the family closer together. By having various reminders of the patriarch peppered in each of the extended family units, the children of the elder attempt to create an immortal bond. A man is not his song and his name should end when he does. It should be remembered only if he himself did something worth remembering; summoned by memory when his presence is craved for and not thrusted upon his descendants by means of filial guilt.
* * * *
Jose invited me to a local pastrami place in Seattle. It had been yet another long serendipitous 10 years since I had last seen him. As I was making my way there, I didn’t know what to expect. Was he the indomitable, incorrigible kid who used to nosh on bright red radishes as we fought and lusted over a young Sofia Vergara— bouncing around on the beach— kissing the warm, bulbous television screen? Or, was he the elegantly poised young man with whom I had a brief, dreamlike conversation about nothing in particular?
The closer I got to the pastrami shop, I kept looking around to see if I could spot him. Did he even wear his hair in a ponytail anymore? Nervousness began to set in. The thoughts in my head were barraging me with an infinity of questions. They were reeling a movie in which I once again was playing a character too cowardly to express his true emotions. Part of me wanted to turn around and run away from the situation. Maybe it was better that we didn’t meet. There was a reason why we hadn’t in the past decade. And out of nowhere, there he was, standing right in front of me. My cousin Jose. I could see in him the boy and the young man I met on two separate occasions, two lifetimes ago. He waved me down from the entrance of the place as I crossed the street. We instinctively embraced as if not a single day had passed since the time we saw each other last. As if we were no longer 32 and 31-years-old, but 9 and 8 again.
As we were ordering our meal and even as we sat side by side, few words were exchanged. I asked him about his dad, and he said that he hadn’t really heard from him in years. I told him that I was in the same situation with mine. The silence could be cut thicker than the sliced meat on our paper plates. It was the loss of words that came from the meeting of two lost souls. It wasn’t our fault that this deep and wide valley had developed between us. We were like two falling leaves, helpless in the air, ripped and flung by the torrential winds of our parents’ shortcomings.
My eyes were full of curiosity, but I kept filling my mouth with cured meat and bread. Sitting there with him, listening to him tell me about his wife and three children, I made the decision of breaking with family tradition. The age-old stipulation that our fathers needed to be around in order for us to have a relationship, as family or friends. I wanted to eschew all of that firstborn-namesake bullshit and reach out my hand to my cousin and be a family. I wanted to welcome my cousin back into my life. Our relationship— as children and teenagers— suffered, but that didn’t mean that we had to continue suffering. Before we departed from another brief encounter, I invited him to visit me in LA sometime. I felt that it was time to take charge of my relationship with my cousin.
My brother Jose.
Oseguera, J. L., Jr. (2017). The Sweet Scent of Garmonbozia[Painting]. stripSearchLA, Los Angeles, CA.
A couple of weeks after Chris Cornell died, I stumbled upon a YouTube video of him covering Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U“. His performance was angelic, prophetic, haunting. I had heard it sung before by Sinéad O’Connor and by The Artist himself, but the emotions transmitted by Cornell’s raspy raunchy baritone voice, were visceral and raw. They denuded him, stripped away his rock star pretension, leaving behind his voice and guitar. He may have been a pop icon, he may have been a sex symbol, he may have been dead for under a month, but it wasn’t until I heard him sing “It’s been so lonely without you here, like a bird without a song, nothing can stop these lonely tears from falling,” that the weight of his absence truly made my heart and tear ducts heavy with blood and tears.
I don’t react to these kinds of things immediately. It took me months to process my grandparents’ passing. The only two people I have lost. I’m slow at feeling the feelings I’m supposed to feel. It’s not emotional numbness; it’s more like emotional dumbness. Sometimes I don’t know how to feel. I just sit there, through experiences, taking in the life-altering stimulus, not knowing what to do with it.
I first heard of the news via a Twitter hashtag (#ChrisCornell). As soon as I saw it, I feared the worst. My life started to flash before my eyes. At least the parts in which the music of Cornell played in the background. I thought of childhood summers in Tijuana, Mexico, running around in my grandmother’s asymmetrical lopsided house. My uncles, then angsty teenagers, blasted grunge music through loud speakers, whose sound made every window in the house shake to a point just below shattering.
I remembered the countless times I spent hanging out at my cousin Melly’s house, watching music videos on MTV. Melly and I were very close; she was like an older sister. I don’t know if it was because she debriefed me before I began my first year of middle school or because we used to make out with each other when we were younger. In any case, the week before school started, her kissing mentorship reached its point of culmination.
“If a girl asks you if you want to scam, you always say ‘Yes’,” she advised.
“What if I don’t like her?” I asked.
“You still want to do it. If you don’t, then people will think you’re gay.” That made sense. In the same way that I saw her as an older sibling, she saw me as her little brother, and at times, her little sister.
“Why are you putting make up on me?” I asked her as she applied eyeliner à la Brandon Lee circa “The Crow.”
“‘Cause it makes guys look really hot,” she answered emphatically. Her enthusiasm and intrepid application were good enough reasons for me. “Besides, Chris Cornell and Kurt Cobain both do it too.” I smiled with the unabashed smile of a blind man. I was obsessed with Cornell’s band, Soundgarden and their latest single at the time, “Black Hole Sun.” Both the song and the music video haunted me like nothing before. It felt emotionally heavy, yet it was as easy to listen to as a lullaby. It sounded familiar, like a Beatles or Led Zeppelin song and at the same time like nothing else I had ever heard.
I had a pretty refined ear when it came to rock music, having been raised by my mom’s brothers on a diet that consisted of classic rock. Soundgarden and Cornell’s voice fit in seamlessly into my frame of reference like my ass did into my cousin’s Levi’s 501 jeans.
Mourning Chris Cornell’s death was, in part, the mourning of a death that had taken place long before his. That of my relationship with Melly. Of a time when I used to look up to people, like Cornell, and not down at their most deplorable flaws. His death reminded me of Melly, how she was always there for me and how she didn’t care about my fucked up family situation. Partly because she was so cool and partly because hers was as fucked up as mine. Our mothers were sisters, after all.
I felt disappointed in myself because I let both of my friends slip away. I abandoned them. I never went to see Chris Cornell perform live when he toured LA. I didn’t even try. I took him for granted. It’s been a while since I’ve reached out to my cousin and her daughters, the oldest now the same age we were in the nineties, back when we were wearing eyeliner and trying to be cool. I don’t want to make the same mistake twice.
In my mind’s ear, nothing will ever compare to Chris Cornell’s powerful soulful singing, one that hooked me from the first listen. A voice that had been an invisible playmate in our sororal gatherings. The sun will wash away the rain, but never the raindrops falling from my eye. The tears for a man that took the sunshine with him and left behind a black hole.
Someone once told me that Portland is a combination of San Francisco and Seattle. Having been to San Francisco twice before and spent a few days in Portland, my excitement to experience Seattle came as no surprise. It was like meeting someone’s mom and younger sister and imagining how that person would look like based on how attractive those two people were. On the long four-hour train ride there, I started to get a jittery feeling in my stomach the closer we got to the downtown station. I could hardly wait to get there and see it.
Visiting other cities—in the US or elsewhere—brings up the question of “Could I live here if the opportunity presented itself?” I’ve discovered that a city, while you’re vacationing there, behaves similar to a person on a really good first date. Seattle, Washington was no different. Everything you say is funny, every quirk is adorable and nothing about them can be considered negative. Even their curt assholeness is seen as assertive, as charming. Seeing another city? That’s totally fine with Seattle, because it will do things that the city you’ve got at home will not. Seattle will be a slut for you. You know your home city too well. There are no surprises, no fireworks.
Seattle didn’t care to know why I was considering leaving LA, and I really wasn’t concerned with its past either, or its crime and homelessness. The grime on and under its streets or the time I’ll have to waste on its trafficked highways and crowded public transit. Seattle and I wanted to start something fresh.
I booked a small room for four days in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Each day was an opportunity to get to know this place a little better, like going on back-to-back dates. I wanted to spend all day and night getting to know Seattle’s streets and shops and explore its seductive and supple body of water. To take in its beautiful Sound. There was this intense creative energy in the air. One that made me feel at home.
Like most annoying qualities in a person, most are not apparent at first, even though they have always been there, in plain sight. Maybe we choose to ignore them, or the person we like does a great job at suppressing them. In any case, when these qualities do reveal their ugly heads, they do so with an unperceptive slowness. The things that were once cute about them soon become unbearable. Initially, I really enjoyed having mini conversations with coffee-shop employees. They were courteous and took the time to shoot the shit. But after a few days, it started to become a chore, an obligation. Sometimes, I just wanted to order coffee, pay for it and leave. That’s it. Their shit-shooting also started to distract me. Their deconstruction of how faithful the adaptation of Captain America from its comic-book source material to the cinema screen was piercing through my every thought.
“You just have a bunch of ripped dudes running around,” a bearded beanie-wearing barista ranted, “fighting each other and they pay no attention to what the characters really stand for.” The other barista and customers at the counter agreed, anxiously awaiting their turn to get on a soapbox of their own.
This sense of urgency coursing through me is probably something that rubbed off on me from LA. It’s a quality that Seattleites don’t really appreciate and one that I myself hate in other people. It seemed strange to think that in just a matter of days I could already fantasize about living here. I’m only human. Besides, LA and I haven’t made anything official. I haven’t bought a home there yet. She’s making it really difficult to do so. I can barely stay in my apartment, with a few measly things to call my own. In Seattle, I felt as if I could live a better life.
It was love at first sight and as such, it was over in the blink of an eye. As I folded the shirtsleeves on which my heart was worn, I could see myself loving my life and work in Seattle. The new habits I would form there, the new paths I would walk and the stuff I would get used to. LA still has my home, my heart. I couldn’t just leave her. There’s too much baggage. I missed her. Her smoggy breath, urinous perfume, sultry weather and asphalt forests. I will miss Seattle like one misses a past lover, continuing to fantasize about it while still inside of LA. However, even after I visit other cities in distant lands and relocate there permanently, I will always go to California with an aching in my heart.
Oseguera, J. L., Jr. (2017). Tazza di Caffè [Painting]. stripSearchLA, Los Angeles, CA.