Words and photos by Clarissa Villondo
“In the end, it’s never what you worry about that gets you.” – Chuck Palahniuk, Guts
When it comes to BYT shoots, I’ll go through dozens of ‘What if’ scenarios in my head, especially if it’s something of which I am very excited. What if I got to shoot [enter person I’m shooting]’s portrait? What if I got a chance to interview [enter person I’m shooting]? What if something goes wrong with my camera? What if something goes wrong at the door and I can’t even get in? What if…
The same thing happened for Chuck Palahniuk at Sixth & I. All of the ‘What if’ scenarios spun in my head, but I didn’t even think about the one scenario that was very likely to happen.
I had a cocktail with a couple of coworkers before running to Sixth & I in the humidity, soon enough finding myself sitting in the very hot balcony trying to find Chuck Palahniuk over the crowd of tall people. Palahniuk first admitted that it was always awkward for him to be doing readings within religious institutions. He pooled the crowd, seeing who was at their first book event. He threw Halloween fun-size bags of candy at the crowd and guilted people into sharing the candy. He tried to explain how book events work and the prizes. He told us that every first drink we have from now on would be terrible but that every second drink was going to be unbelievable. He tried not to ruin the finale of the night. Palaniuk gave someone’s dog a platypus.
He asked for the lights to be lowered and he told the first story, The Facts of Life.
Lincoln got a squirrel.
Palahniuk took questions from the crowd, giving book prizes to people good questions. The first few were about holding things back in his writing and what he wouldn’t write about. Palahniuk told a story in which he stopped an event because some people decided to buy mice, put them in a tube and throw the tube around, hitting Palahniuk with dying mice. The gratuitous killing of animals is the only thing he said he didn’t want to write about.
The baby gets a black skull piggy bank.
It happened. Palahniuk said that he couldn’t not read this story. “It’s like The Beatles not playing… anything,” Palahniuk said. Guts. He was reading Guts. Guts is one of those stories that has a history. Specifically, it has a history with people fainting while Palahniuk is reading it.
Then, there’s me with a history of fainting at least once every summer.
As I listened to Palahniuk read Guts, I felt fine, at least for the first fifteen minutes. I was good. It was hot, but I wasn’t going to faint like the 70+ people before me. I was good. When he read about how it must be a sea monster, I started to feel lightheaded and rested my head on my date. Then, Palahniuk started to read, “‘I need that like I need a hole in my head…’ Russian people say: ‘I need that like I need teeth in my asshole…’”
My date tugged onto my arm, pulling me out of the pews. He was supposedly convinced I was going to blow chunks onto the entire balcony. “Clarissa, let’s go,” he said, pulling the camera and moleskine away from me. At this point, I was still conscious, but I couldn’t see where I was going really. My vision was just blotches of bright white. I’m pretty sure I ran into the wall a few times, at least with my bag.
Still convinced that I was going to puke, he led me down the stairs into the main floor. I heard someone tell him, “Can you hold onto her? I think she’s going to faint.”
Another person said, “Clarissa, hi?”
I had no idea who that person. I knew I had still been wearing my ID for work, but my vision was just a giant blotch of white. “Maybe he read my ID,” I thought. All I knew was my date was pulling me to go to the bathrooms and throw up there. I wasn’t going to throw up though. I knew that. I thought I was going to faceplant onto the floor. As soon as I splashed water on my face, my vision started to come back. I was convinced that it was just my annual summer faint. My date, only having ever seen the aftermath when I’m surrounded by people who knew to catch my camera trying to have me suck on oranges and drink bottle upon bottle of water, didn’t understand this history.
As I walked back up the stairs, I knew the person who called my name. I knew the girl he was with who fainted as well. I hadn’t seen them in months. It was a reunion brought together by the fact we fainted during Guts. Two ambulances were called for the five people who blacked out. The Palahniuk 5 of DC. Everyone explained that this is very common when Palahniuk tells stories, especially during Guts. They said that the heat didn’t help either. “Alcohol lowers your blood pressure,” my date told me. I heard a woman with a walkie-talkie in her hand say that this is why she didn’t want Palahniuk telling many stories. I counted as blacking out, but I went back in for the rest of the event.
“This is only the second story? There’s one more?”
Palahniuk was told that five people fainted. He was taken aback to see the ambulance lights. He took more questions from the crowd and awarded more people with books. The last story he read was Zombie and he dedicated it to the five people who fainted. At the end, he asked, “Do you five people forgive me?”
The finale included beach balls with people’s names being thrown into the center of Sixth & I to Whitney Houston singing. Beach balls were chosen and the names on each beach ball won a prize – a leather bound copy of one of Palahniuk’s books. Few were able to win the leather bound copies, but many more were able to walk away with Palahniuk’s signed hands.