Heat Maps

Desire in the dark

Alex Marzano-Lesnevich

Oscar Vincentelli, still from La sangre es blanca (Blood Is White), 2020. Courtesy the artist and Devein Films


the filmmaker informs us he has found a new way to record death. The next slide he shows is of his equipment: a thermographic camera that renders heat as light, its body black and shiny, its edges curved and seductive. Below, in capital letters, the brand name: FLIR—which I misread as FLIRT. Flirting, I think, is a way of seeking heat. We are at an arts residency in France, gathered in a room named for an ancient military guardhouse. I have birthed and killed off so many selves in pursuit of heat. Phantoms and personas and performances, the me’s I wanted to be and the me’s I was willing to be. For a moment I imagine them lined up like toy soldiers, tipping backwards into each other as each in turn dies its little death.

24. On screen, men glow hot and bright as ghosts. Matadors, they wear bolero jackets of rich brocade that the camera renders dense and cold, deeply black. We are each of us swaddled in threads of story that burn and shimmer, but the threads that sheath each matador swallow light. Into the frame wanders a man wearing a hoodie, his clothing disturbing our sense of time. Its empty hood flops and lolls behind him, darkness pooling in its mouth.

23. Then off the men stride. The screen goes completely dark. I feel its cold pass over my skin and grope soundlessly under my seat for the cup of hot tea I have tucked there. It is tepid now, and I hold the liquid in my mouth without swallowing. Next to me, a woman shifts in her seat. I think of her warmth and imagine her glowing. I think of the person I have been texting each day alone in my writing studio here, trading longer and more elaborate notes. I am not their lover, but they have told me of their desires, their love of being tied in rope and suspended. As I hold the liquid in my mouth, still not allowing myself to swallow, I think of the rope. Perhaps it is cold sisal and scratches. More likely it is black silk and slips. I think of their skin, warm when their lover tightens the knot, perhaps hot and smarting if slapped. Then how it cools as they are left to hang. I think of meat hung to dry, coldness stealing over it slowly. I think of the first dead body I ever saw, in a room silent, bright white, and refrigerator-cold, and how its flesh pooled and settled.

On screen the faces of the mat­adors are lit white by the heat of life.

22. A bull has appeared on screen, white hot. It stands strangely still, and, knowing what I know, knowing that I am here to watch a new way to record death, I am instantly tense. Yet the bull seems unbothered. Only his testicles sway, soft and heavy, a sunflower head in a breeze. Then an answering swing of his tail. Bright white shit plops from his ass.

21. A matador approaches. At first, how near he comes to the bull is a surprise, but why should it be? Surely death will be an intimate dance. The ground is splotched in glowing shit. The matador shuf­fles close, then further away, brandishing his cool cloth flag until the bull lowers his head and charges. Light smears into brush­strokes that paint the ground.

20. We have been told we will watch death. With each flourish of the matador’s flag, the dance seems more pointless, a mockery. Cruel. The bull, we know, will die. Why be this near and not act?

19. The screen wipes black again. Now there are three bulls, three matadors, each couple performing the same dance. The bulls’ hooves thunder and thwack. The sound is too loud, amplified, and I remember, as a child, watching men clomp coconut halves on a stage as they demonstrated how film was scored. Sound becomes proof of action. For a moment I imagine the filmmaker, bent for­ward in his jacket, half a coconut in each hand, poised to tap out the bulls’ rhythm—an image so ridiculous I nearly laugh.

18. The woman next to me laughs.

17. At the sound I startle. What has traveled from me to her? But then I see the cause. A white-hot chicken has wandered into the bottom right of the screen. His gawky strut looks comic against the bulls’ muscled mass, yes, but his presence—unnoticed by the men and the bulls—is itself a visual joke. A new way to record death—but not his. Not he whose body we have so often felt between our teeth.

16. Again I think of the not-lover I have been texting and of their lover who trusses them. I have heard the not-lover’s voice in recordings they make for me. I have seen their face, caught by a camera’s lens. I know of their job, their pets, their travels, their past. Yet they are still spectral to me, existing most vividly in my imagination.

15. So I imagine flesh for them. I imagine them and their part­ner caught between each other’s teeth. I had a lover once who delighted in marking me that way, and delighted even more when I begged him lower, lower, so the mark would not be visible. When he laughed at my worry and clamped down too high, how quickly I surrendered, an animal pleased to be shown its own meekness. For days blood pooled under my skin. My submission, my defeat, a pleasure.

14. The bull, alone now, thunders on. I know how this will end. But he is mesmerizing in his bright white heat, thrilling in the lie he makes of the filmmaker’s announcement of death. When the not-lover and I began texting, we chose each other off an app of faces because we were both trans. Perhaps our griefs, too, would be sim­ilar and, in their echo, finally ease. As the heat between us grew, we imagined that I might travel to them. That I might knot the rope. That I might cup my hands around their neck. But too quickly we began to snarl at each other, our private griefs twisting our words, making us clash. I will never meet them. I will never make the fist that bruises their face. I know this. Just as I know the cold loneli­ness of the bed that awaits me when I return home and the feel of the pillow indented only by my own head. The apartment in which everything misplaced has been misplaced by me, no surprises and no one else to anger against.

13. I can feel the shift in the room as clearly as though it were spo­ken. When, we who are watching think, and are answered only by the flicker of the film, the way it must march toward conclusion. When, we think, and our impatience shames us. We have been told we are watching the last moments of this bull’s life; would we wish them away? Why not stay in this moment in the Batterie forever, forever at the guardhouse of death. On screen the faces of the mat­adors are lit white by the heat of life. Except their teeth: black cold as bone. Except their noses: black cold cartilage. The camera has rendered them skeleton.

12. I think again of the not-lover suspended by rope. I picture their wrists bound in an x. I picture beads of sweat at their hairline and the bulbous shape of their rope-squeezed ass. Such pleasure there is in waiting. But when does it spoil, the fruit overripe, the sweet­ness too sweet, the solitude too long?

11. Still, we sit. Still, we wait, watching the light. I clock my own heat. The heartbeat I feel in my crotch, blood pulsing through the femoral artery, from thinking about the not-lover bound. The soles of my feet, sockless and sweaty against the smooth rubber clammi­ness of my sneakers. My hands, warmed by the testosterone that changes me.

10. I told them I love surrender. I told them I love to be made to give in, to beg. To lose. But that I love surrender is I think not quite right. More that I love the moment just before, love to roar against it, feel the anger and the hot rush of blood. It’s that roar I desire.

9. Once I visited a library that had a core of glass within it, its blood­less heart. Within that chamber were the dearest books, yellowed and faded, pages rippled and gossamer with age. I sought stories of the transgender past, stories that would speak to who I am, who the not-lover is, the transformations our bodies and names and lives have made. I sought history for us. When I requested a book, a man would step into the library’s glass heart. The shelves parted like chambers then. He plucked from their center my wanted book. When I spread the book open between my palms, often what I sought wasn’t there. I knew we had always existed, but we had been left unrecorded, unseen, erased by history.

8. But sometimes we were there. The words used to describe us were violent, the words spoke of our murder, the words called us monsters, but—we were there. Reading, I could feel my heart beat faster. The pain was proof we had lived. It was beautiful. Those nights I came home to someone. I asked to be bound, held down, hurt. Even then I knew that we would leave each other, that the self I was at that very moment living would soon be lost to me.

Make me hurt, I begged.

Never begged to be hit. Maybe hit would have gone too far.

But god, how I wanted to hurt.

7. I have missed it. Rather, the filmmaker has skipped it. A slen­der black blade now lives in the bull’s neck. Where it has pierced, the light spouts, streams, pools from his body. Gushes from his mouth. As his body darkens, the men relax. They stand with hips cocked, legs asunder. Their gazes wander. Their respect, attention, elsewhere.

6. We are watching death.

5. “It’s hot,” the not-lover wrote, simply, when I asked them to describe the feeling of being hung in the air. I think of a writer I love who wrote a story where pain is a brilliant white light that pours visibly forth from bodies. In the story, pain made visible made people care. In the story, a world with visible pain was a world where pain was recognized, was tended to. But I understand better now. We have come in search of this spectacle. And in my sorrow, all I want is to watch again.

I know, they mop death, but it looks like they mop light.

4. I think of the steak of the not-lover’s cunt, the way when they hang tied it must redden, swell, drip. The field of the screen is whitewashed with shit and blood.

3. Why the blade’s pierce skipped? Why this choice to present us with death but not the harm that did it?

2. Once, I traveled with a lover to Oaxaca for the Day of the Dead. Her father had died, and she wanted to mourn amid friends. When the festival night arrived, I painted our faces in white bone and black cavity. The next morning, our teeth furry from mezcal, our hearts laden with loss and our skin smeared with the pollen of marigolds, I fucked her in the shower as we scrubbed our bodies. My fingers deep to the hot blood pulse of her, we forgot the water through her cries, didn’t hear the way it went from a trickle on the bathroom floor to the muted entry of a pool, flooding not just the bathroom but our whole room, which by the time we noticed had become a lake. The lake might have spawned a moss a reed a fish a world. It might have drowned us in our ecstasy or our pain.

1. On screen, men mop. They mop blood and shit, I know, they mop death, but it looks like they mop light. They smear white across the screen like paint in reverse, until slowly it is absorbed, until the screen becomes again void. Until the world is blackness. Until the carcass is dragged off, no longer bull but body. Somewhere the not-lover’s partner unbinds the ropes from their ankles. Somewhere other feet stand on the floor once flooded, somewhere those I have loved and grieved lie awake in their bodies, somewhere my empty home still waits. In the Batterie, we pull up our folding chairs. I step into the dark night, my life ablaze.

Alex Marzano-Lesnevich is a 2023 United States Artists fellow and the author of The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir and the forthcoming Both and Neither. Their essays appear in the 2020 and 2022 editions of The Best American Essays.
Originally published:
March 4, 2024


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