Life on Mars
By Miah Jeffra
Life on Mars
(after David Bowie)
You stand in a space, a no space, gleaming white background light. You wear a powder blue suit, so long on the thin of you, as if your limbs were mere piping for the hang of fabric. Royal blue eyeshadow pales against your flat gray eyes, orange rocker mullet, pink lips.
“He looks like a girl,” my father says. I am inches from the cathode tube of our MTV, in the living room of our ranch-styled duplex, in the center of Kane’ohe Bay Naval base, Hawai’i, my father’s Marine Corps biceps repetitively flexing in the reflection of the screen as he lifts the dumb-weights of his ego. “Must be gay,” my father says behind me, his forearm rising and falling like a breathing machine, like a machine, like a non-breathing machine.
I can’t quit staring at the video. Simple, no story, you in makeup. You sing directly into the camera. You face me. And I know, somehow, this is not about you looking like a girl. It’s about something bigger. I am 7 years old.
You made the video to “Life on Mars” in the mid-70’s, when your alter ego Ziggy folded into your entire self, where only corners of Davie Jones were peeling away from the celluloid. This was your most prolific time, full of concert tours and cocaine, of simulating fallatio with Ronson’s guitar and songs of capitalist exhaustion. Of course, I may not have known most of this at 7 years old, but what I did know was that you were mine, one of my tribe, even though I didn’t know what that meant.
I didn’t know this until much later, but you began writing your life story on the very day my life began.
Before Prince, before Siouxsie Sioux, before funk singer Betty Davis, was you. My first icon. Idol. While God demanded we make no images in the likeness of the divine, I wanted to paint myself into Ziggy, lightning bolted and spikey, neon and ghost. I would align my face with yours on the screen, match our delineations, our features, until my eyes blurred from the bright knowledge.
I didn’t know this until much later, but you once told the press that “Los Angeles should be wiped off the face of the Earth.”
My time of knowing was that in-between, after the nude be-ins and before the real revolution began, before metrosexual and genderfluid, before trans and queer. There was man, there was woman. There was gay, there was straight. There was baseball and baking. And then, there was you. An in-between. A nothing in particular, and yet a glimmer of all those things. I felt safer in the nowhere space, that ambiguity. I didn’t color within the lines. Never danced to the steps. I looked across the flat concrete military base horizon, and knew that you were precisely on the other side of this round planet, that if I dug below my feet long enough, the tunnel would be the spine of our world.
I was certain we were part of the same whole. You were a dancer. You loved commedia, the harlequin. You lived for funk records, said you “heard God” when you listened to Little Richard. Your mother’s name was Peggy. I mentioned this to my Peggy. She said, “he is a really good musician.” She said, “he knows a lot about outer space.” She said, “he is a bit weird, though.” And she ran her fingers in my auburn mop, and winked a wink that could be seen across a galaxy.
I didn’t know this until much later, but you were a fairy-taled Tin Man, pushed by a bulldozer. To where? You never let us know. Ashes to ashes, funk to funky. I have felt the metallic chase of that machine for so long. I guess neither of us knew where it would end us up.
My second-grade class portraits. My mother dressed me in a white Oxford and black slacks and a smooth cowlick. She sent me off “spiffy,” as she would say. But I knew you would never allow the camera to capture you in something so boxed, so buttoned. When I arrived to school, I pulled out the sleeveless mesh top with a royal blue bolt across the chest that my friend Amanda found at a yard sale. I ran water through my auburn mop and pulled it to the sky. I walked to the flashing bulb and faux forest backdrop with “Fame” pulsing in my blood-beat head. Snap. When the pictures came in the mail, my mother was amused, my father was harumph, and the last word from his lips that night was “gay.” At least, that is what I remember being the last word, even if there were more. He had called you that once. But I knew you were bigger than that. And that meant I was bigger than that, too, somehow.
When I first moved to Los Angeles for grad school, I called my mother and said, “Peggy, this fucking place should be wiped off the face of the Earth.” She winked through the phone.
When my father emerged from a ten-year absent tenure, lifting the dumb-weights of his bulldozed ego—never creative enough as you to alter one—I realized I was face to face with a man who could sell the world. And when he extended his hand kindly—he indeed was kind, but to be good you need to be more than that—my own olive branch hidden behind my back, I sang to him, I thought you died alone, a long long time ago.
I didn’t know this until much later, but I was strong. That is why my father stayed away. That is why my mother winked at me. Strength is a thing summoned, to face what comes. My father could not look me in the eye. I was a thing to face. I wish I had known that, then. But I didn’t read Virginia Woolf’s letter to Leonard until twenty-two: To look life in the face, always, to look life in the face, and to know it for what it is...at last, to love it for what it is, and then, to put it away. I guess that is why I write this essay. To love my father for what he is. That is the strength I give to him, to me. And then I put it away, accept it into the rest of whatever time is left. Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming.
I guess that means we weren’t exactly the same after all, you and I. I remain surprised that you didn’t face the end the way Ziggy would: head on, electric one-liners, not knowing where you’re going, but assuring it wouldn’t be boring. But that doesn’t mean I am drawn to you any less. And perhaps there is a strength in your final silence that I have yet to understand, and will one day. No matter. You gave me some bright knowledge. And I will forever be grateful.
Our history is a lightning bolt first across the chest, and then across a field, and then a continent. I never saw you live, and life has traveled far, but you’ve lived in me all this time. And when you strung out in heaven’s high I thought I had hit an all-time low. But that was brief, this sigh one must release for a star man, the necessary wailing grief of a changed fairly-taled world. I knew the heart of you was here, within your thin white duke, within your tin machine. It echoed in the cathedral of my memory—as a child, dancing, as an adult, dancing. Your gleaming white background light, and now this time you the one winking, as you sang,
Let the children lose it. Let the children use it. Let all the children boogie.
Miah Jeffra is author of The First Church of What's Happening (Nomadic 2017), The Fabulous Ekphrastic Fantastic! (Sibling Rivalry 2020), The Violence Almanac (Black Lawrence 2021), and co-editor, with Arisa White and Monique Mero, of the anthology Home is Where You Queer Your Heart (Foglifter 2020). Awards include the New Millennium Prize, the Sidney Lanier Fiction Prize, The Atticus Review Creative Nonfiction Prize, the Alice Judson Hayes Fellowship, Lambda Literary Fellowship for nonfiction, and 2019 finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Outstanding Literary Anthology. Most recent work can be seen in The North American Review, Fourteen Hills Review, The Atticus Review, Wasafiri, The Forge and Fifth Wednesday. Miah is founding editor of queer literary collaborative, Foglifter Press.