“Don’t live with your hand on the stove.” —Dave Hickey Emergency Exit When you were barely one year old, I fled to Las Vegas. It’s not like I walked away from my first hit and straight to McCarran. I…
I used to think I could write like a man.
This was in my late twenties, when I lived in Las Vegas. It was a confusing time during which I partied and taught and wrote beyond my true abilities. The male authors I admired then—Dave Hickey, Denis Johnson, Hunter S. Thompson—were all white males who wrote with no hint of societal pressure or discrimination or familial duties or even real jobs. I wanted that freedom. I want it still.
The way I articulated that desire was to try to write like them. It was in Las Vegas when I invented Vegaboy—a narrator who was pure privilege, a Teflon-male, a foil for all the bravado and hubris and fuck-it vibes I lacked. It was a kind of fantasy fiction. These men consumed drugs and slept with whomever and pursued “handsome ransoms” as I dreamt of doing. My sentences were brawny and tough. My narrator was sad but not that sad. The child he left behind was sort of a shadow-baby; a barely perceptible tug on his heart, a melancholy that struck him when he was coming down.
Eventually I had real babies—girls, both of them. They came from my body and they destroyed me every day with their love. I couldn’t imagine that distant fatherhood of my stories; I only had motherhood, real and raw.
Then the world pulled down around us and our family, like yours, was under lockdown. During the long months of COVID isolation, I imagined consuming lots of hard drugs and escaping the drudgery of motherhood. Instead, after bedtime, I dove into research about female addiction and I rewrote every Vegaboy chronicle from the point of view of a runaway mom—a different genre of fantasy fiction. When the novel was suddenly told by an addicted mother, it became populated, like the world, with other vulnerable, marginalized people. It’s shameful how scary life can be for people of color, people living in poverty, people discriminated against for their identities, people living with addiction. Inside each story, I found a new bleeding heart.
It’s hard to write so close to the bone, especially when it comes to gender and motherhood and drugs. Thankfully, now we have Claire Vaye Watkins and Billy-Ray Belcourt and Zoe Whittall and Saeed Jones and Kaveh Akbar and Terese Marie Mailhot and Alissa Nutting and Ling Ma and Jason Reynolds and Jamel Brinkley and the dozens of other writers who can show us their bleeding hearts, and ask us to momentarily hold those hearts in our hands. These writers are teaching us to be brave, to be ourselves. They are teaching us to see our privilege and to look out for the vulnerable around us. They are teaching me that I don’t have to write like someone I am not. Sometimes even just writing it can make me feel free.
LEAH BAILLY lives on the unceded, stolen territory of the Coast Salish First Nations of Vancouver, Canada. She holds a PhD in Creative Writing & Literature from the University of Southern California and an MFA from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Other Vegaboy stories have appeared in PANK, Joyland, River Styx, Hobart, subTerrain Magazine, and The Rupture. This past summer, she completed the manuscript for the novel Vegaboy while in residency at MacDowell. Find her on Instagram @leahbailly.