I’m Cold, Please Touch Me: The Freezer Door by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
It’s the week before Thanksgiving and I’m limping along. I might literally limp; sometimes people notice a foot drag, a shortness in my stride, a bit of a wobble. In NYC, they shut down the schools again. We are so deep in the pandemic it feels like a hole we might never climb out of it. The president pouts and sulks. His lawsuits are a joke we endure. Every woman I know in the city is depressed and/or in the middle of some kind of “episode.” The men are pretty sad, too. This binary does not hold, nor should it. I am working on my generalizations, the essayist’s forever need to claim something bigger, but to be careful in her use of “we.” There is no we anymore, and yet we still traffic in this pronoun. We pick and choose our groups, our affiliations, our germ pods, our food, our lovers, and our art. Or, maybe those things choose us.
In July, when things were different, at the tail end of the first lockdown and in the wake of the first wave of summer protests after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, I read The Freezer Door by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore. I clutched it a lot and sighed heavily while I read, underlining so much of it with my stubby pencil that it’s now a field of text, gray smudge, and exclamation points.
I love everything I’ve ever read by Sycamore. Most people who read her work do. It’s easy because she’s a genius and writes as if she doesn’t care all that much about genre, so the pleasures are without constraints. The Freezer Door is like a novel that reads like a memoir. It’s a treatise that feels like a long prose poem. It’s fragmented and yet it skips along like a pop song. It’s aphoristic and daily at the same time. It doesn’t worry about your hang-ups because Sycamore is beyond that shit. She’s too smart for that, and we should be, too.
Sycamore writes about community, gentrification, white supremacy, queerness, being trans within queer spaces, fucking, love, housing, Seattle, San Francisco, cities and our love for them, trauma, sexual assault, chronic pain, solitude, and longing—all with rare candor. Which is to say, she’s writing about the things that matter most right now. We are deep into pandemic time and for those of us on the margins, there is a great need for touch, community, healthcare, and kindness. Sycamore wrote this book long before pandemic time, and yet it couldn’t have arrived at a better moment. You need it. I did, and still do.
The book alternates between long and short chapters, many of which begin in action—walking, dancing, thinking, talking to someone on the street, remembering. They are all ongoing, in the moment, as if we have been dropped right into Sycamore’s life. The effect is intimate and immediate. Running through The Freezer Door are also small interstitial chapters in which an ice cube speaks to an ice cube tray. Here’s one such moment: “People talk about the Ice Age like we’re not part of this world, says the ice cube. Are we, asks the ice cube tray.” And another:
I worry about you sometimes, says the ice cube tray. I worry about you too, says the ice cube.
Well I guess as long as we’re on the same page about this, says the ice cube tray, there’s nothing wrong with a little worry.
But what about a lot of worry—sometimes I worry a lot, says the ice cube.
I know you do, says the ice cube tray.
The cube and the tray—what to make of them? The depression and the body? The puzzle piece and the completed puzzle? The part and the whole? The heart and the brain? I don’t want to reduce the complexity of Sycamore’s work, but for me, these passages are allegories for connection. I think of the Joni Mitchell song, “Come in from the Cold,” and our need for touch, warmth, human kindness, and attachment. It’s cold in the freezer of (insert late capitalism, insert this pandemic, insert this country, insert this supposedly inclusive queer community, insert Seattle), and this is a book that asks you to touch it, love it, and keep it warm.
I would like someone to touch me. I have a child who touches me and that’s a lucky thing these days, but I crave intimacy, connection with another human adult, a lover who is not so fleeting, who has some presence. In my fantasies, these lovers sit on the couch with me and we watch TV, they make me dinner and fuck me hard. We don’t have to talk about what I am or my past. There is no wrong way to begin. I can be the slut that I am, and no one cares. They listen to me, we talk. Is this a wild fantasy? You tell me. I no longer understand relationships and dating. I’m not sure Sycamore does either, and the book is so frank about this, it’s a gift.
What’s most revolutionary about The Freezer Door is the sex. Not that it should be revolutionary—I mean, fucking outside is a great pleasure, as are hook-ups, and really any kind of physical connection. But still, we are policed and self-policing, especially in straight spaces like public parks. Even more so in this eightieth month of pandemic and fear of contagion. But there’s a casual kind of porousness to the sexual encounters in the book, as if lovers can be close friends and strangers, and why not? These passages have stayed with me long after reading it, because they are kind, warm, intimate, and real. Sycamore writes about an encounter in the park:
We choose the closest thing to a place where people can’t see, and then yes I’m on my knees again, trusting he’s watching out for both of us, my craving for words long past, my mouth past language and into another language, the thickness of desire feeding me, the taste of my spit on his skin, the taste of his skin, the feeling of his hand on my back of my head. And I place my hand over his, so he’ll keep it there and then he’s pumping yes, he’s pumping, yes, please, and then there it is, the moan the shuddering until he pulls away.
And later: “If the experience of loneliness inspires the search for connection, why is it that the search usually results in just more loneliness? Maybe desire is always a circle—sometimes you’re inside, and sometimes you’re out.”
There are many more moments I could have chosen to write about, but these two get at both Sycamore’s beautiful rendering of the blow job and the aphoristic thinking that girds so much of the book. I appreciate this ouroboros of an idea about loneliness and desire. There’s a similar feeling in the book around housing, as Sycamore buys her own apartment:
I don’t believe in real estate, but I don’t believe in not believing enough to believe. I know that I don’t have what I need in terms of relationships, in terms of the queer dreams I once thought would hold me. And so I fantasize about this other kind of stability…One fantasy about real estate is the fantasy of control. That’s the fantasy I’m drawn towards now, now when I realize my rent has gotten so high that I could pay the same amount, and have my own laundry. I could pay the same amount, and live farther from people smoking outside.
The queer dream begins often as community and a chosen family, and sometimes if we are lucky enough, some kind of home and perhaps (the illusion of) control. In a book sometimes about gentrification, Sycamore is remarkably candid about why and how she came by her apartment, and the very real role that housing plays, especially in the lives of marginalized people.
At forty-eight, because of the CARES Act, some of my retirement money became available, and I was able to purchase a one-bedroom apartment for my daughter and me. Finally, I had a down payment, but that it came to me during a time of death and financial instability is not lost on me. As a single, queer, disabled woman, I never dreamed I could do such a thing. Had it not been for this shitty twist and the taxes on it—which may also pull me under—I’d never have my own home. Sycamore’s apartment comes with help from her mother, during a conversation in which they dance around her father’s sexual abuse. “That was his problem, not yours, I tell my mother,” and there’s the ouroboros again. The trauma eats the house and the house eats the trauma. The apartment becomes the relationships we don’t have. Maybe capitalism just never lets us have enough of anything—love, housing, food, health care, stability, and so much more.
It’s January, and I’m very late to finishing this review. Like so many Americans, I’m depressed and overworked. My writing has mostly taken the form of autofiction because I can’t think very deeply or make much up. We have a new president and, finally, a vaccination plan, but still everything is a mess. The Freezer Door has gotten the attention and accolades it deserves—and, finally, Sycamore got a review in the New York Times. YES. When the radical hits the center with its radicalness intact, it’s such a joy. I add my essay to the many existing excellent ones, and hope that if you haven’t read this book yet, you’ll go and get it today. The Elliott Bay Book Company has unionized and I know Sycamore would love it if you supported one of Seattle’s own.