It’s Okay to Talk About Leaving

I drove back up to the Pacific Northwest alone. I drove up the 101 with the mountains to one side and the deep, blue expanse of the pacific ocean on the other. Then I headed inland in northern California through the Shasta mountain range and pine forests. From then on the drive was harrowing. I wound through narrow mountain roads with sharp curves and steep cliffs beside eighteen wheelers and signs warning of rockslides and precipitous inclines. I leaned forward in my seat, gripping the steering wheel, certain I’d go careening off the side of a mountain to meet my end in a deep ravine at any moment.

“Just let me get over this mountain.” I prayed to no god in particular. But as soon as I was past the mountain….THERE WAS ANOTHER FREAKING MOUNTAIN!

Things didn’t level out until Eugene, Oregon. By then I was shell shocked and just ready for the trip to be over. An indicator that one or more of my tires was low kept blinking on my car’s dashboard. I don’t know how to put air in a tire, or how to change a flat, so in addition to all of the other things that deeply concerned me, I was also afraid of being stuck on the side of a mountain with a flat tire, waiting for AAA to come.

I spent two nights in cheap motels. One in Fairfield, California and the other in Cresswell, Oregon. In Fairfield, the room was nice, and I watched cable television while some terrible children above me yelled for no reason until their terrible parents yelled at them to “shut the fuck up.” In Cresswell the only room available was a smoking room which smelled like stale cigarettes and misery, and the room was shabby and outdated. I lay in a lumpy bed with lumpy pillows, worried that someone was going to break into my car and steal my meager belongings, or that I’d wake up to a flat tire or both. At 3 am I listened to a man and woman have sex. The way the woman was screaming, I’d have been concerned that she was being murdered rather than made love to, had she not kept yelling, “Yes! Yes! Yes!”

The weeks leading up to the move were hard. I was unhappy, and my unhappiness was a gray cloud that covered the whole house. Santa Barbara felt like a prison, and I felt guilty that I wasn’t happy, that I wanted to leave. We were no closer to getting a place of our own and still sleeping on couches in his parents’ living room. He was frustrated that I wasn’t trying harder to fit in and I was daunted by the prospect of spending $1600 a month on an apartment in a town where I had no friends, where there were no coffeehouses and bookstores, where everyone was tan and smiled toothpaste commercial smiles.

“You should go back to Seattle.” He said one evening. “You talk about it all the time. You miss it.”

It had become clear as time passed that we didn’t want the same things, or to live in the same places. I’d already been thinking of escape before he suggested it. Seattle was the last place I was really happy before we’d begun our haphazard, cross-country odyssey. Once the words were said aloud, it became fact. I was leaving.

We spent the last couple of weeks taking pictures of beaches and streets lined with palm trees. Of red-tiled rooftops and ocean sunsets. We sat in the garage watching the same shows or playing the same video games as if nothing was changing, but a distance was already growing. The invisible miles that separated his heart from mine.

His family had one last dinner for me before I left. C deep fried tortillas, and we had tacos. We drank wine from the glasses his mother had given us for Christmas.

“I really appreciate how well your family treated me,” I said.

“They’re your family too.” He said.

I didn’t cry until the morning I drove away. Then I sobbed, hard, wracking sobs onto his shoulder. He cried too, and we just stood in his driveway holding one another.

It’s very hard to leave someone you still love.

When I got back to Seattle, it rained. I drove up hills lined with wooden houses with rosebush front yards sporting “Black Lives Matter” signs, “No One is Illegal,” “Love is Love,” and I knew that I was back.

My friend Bill had been kind enough to allow me the use of his guest room. I unpacked my few things, my computer, a handful of books, and my clothes, and got settled in. After months without, such simple things as a closet and a bed that I’d taken for granted became precious. To have a room and privacy again was a gift I can never repay.

I couldn’t help but think about C still living with his parents. Still on a couch, still having no privacy or space of his own. Without me, he can’t afford to move out, and without my car, he has to rely on them or buses to get to and from school. He makes plans to transfer to a school in Northern California where the rent is cheaper. We talk about me going to visit at the end of the month, to see if that’s a place I might want to live for the next three years until he’s finished school. But I don’t know that either of us really believes that’s going to happen.

Being back in Seattle is strange. The city I used to live in has been replaced by a newer, more expensive one. I walk down gray, rain slicked streets, past the new restaurants and bars that have taken the place of my old haunts. The old city and the new city are superimposed over one another, so I see both at once. I feel like I’ve fallen out of linear time, and the past and present exist at once, giving me a never ending sense of deja vu.

I sit in a coffeehouse that I used to sit in when I lived here before. The barista is the same barista that I dated 10 years ago. “I haven’t seen you in a while,” he says. “How’s life?”

“Interesting.” I say.

Suddenly I’m overwhelmed by joblessness, the temporary room, the drastic change and stark absence of him beside me, sharing this with me. I weep a little as it rains outside and hipsters in wet jackets walk inside shaking umbrellas. I wonder if coming back was the right decision, or if this will be another in a string of decisions that I regret. I wonder if I’ll ever live the settled life of people with families and houses who have made better choices than me.

I sit in coffeehouses and walk to bookstores. Already I’ve reconnected with friends I haven’t seen in years. I’ve had brunch and drinks, I’ve made plans for dinners and happy hours. Piecemeal I try to reassemble the life I used to live. I sit in the same corner of the same cafe I used to sit in, and for a moment it’s as if I never left, as if the last 7 years never happened. But they did happen. The weight of them creases the corners of my eyes in wrinkles that weren’t present the first time around. The cities and the people I’ve encountered have left their mark inside me, invisible maybe, but present like scar tissue criss-crossing my heart. I look for jobs while folk music plays in speakers overheard, while people younger than me sit illuminated by smartphones and laptops, hoping that this time, I’ll make good decisions. That the second time around I’ll be able to do everything right, and that everything will finally work out….despite historical precedent.

For now the sky is heavy with dreams and the future unfolds like a map, clouded with uncertainty, but, for the moment, full of promise.

Holidays on the West Coast

stockingsDowntown the Boy Scouts are selling Christmas trees. People walk past in board shorts and sandals. Cars roll by with surf boards strapped to their rooftops. Little Mexican markets sell horchata with cinnamon and breakfast tacos. People are wrapping the palm trees in their yards with strings of Christmas lights.

On my days off I walk to the beach and back in my unfashionable anywhere else carpenter shorts and gray hoodie. I walk to the beach to be alone. I walk because I find the sound of crashing waves to be soothing. Sometimes a hot, shirtless guy will walk out of the water, chest glistening in the pale sun, and sometimes tan guys are playing volleyball, or surfers are climbing into or out of their wetsuits. Usually though, the local beach is only littered with older couples, retirees from the UK, pasty in sun hats. I walk to the beach because there is nothing else to do here besides walking to the beach.

A few weeks after moving I landed the best job I’ve had in a decade. It pays well, and doesn’t involve me interacting with any people, so it easily eclipses the string of entry level positions I’ve had since we first started bouncing from city to city. During the week, we wake up at 6 am, get dressed in the cold garage where our clothes are still in boxes and bags, and C drives me to work. Since we share one car, he drops me off in case he gets called in for a job interview, or wants to go somewhere while I’m at work. I work from 7 to 3:30 in a cubicle where no one speaks to me.

After work, I walk around the corner to the gym and work out for an hour. A little-person with frat boy hair and Iron Maiden tattoos sold me my membership, which I took as a harbinger of good tidings. The locker room is full of unabashed old men who stand naked and sagging as they talk about golf and the upcoming marriages of their adult children.

After the gym I walk down to catch the bus back home. The buses don’t seem to run on any kind of schedule. Sometimes the bus is crowded, and I sit crammed next to an Asian kid in a suit who falls asleep on my shoulder, and sometimes I sit alone and listen to a couple of men argue about politics. I stare out the window as the dark gets darker, and the wind whistling through the windows grows cold.

On our seventh anniversary we drove up the coast and spent the weekend in a cheap hotel in San Luis Obispo. We had sex for the first and only time since we’ve moved, taking advantage of the brief window of space and privacy. Then we wandered the city, spending money we shouldn’t have on clothes from overpriced shops, and browsing through book and record stores. We wandered all over looking for a sushi place, but the first place we went to had an hour wait, and the next place we went to ignored us until we left, so we ended up having an anniversary dinner at a bar and grill where we waited for over an hour for food, only to walk back to our hotel to discover it was right next door to a sushi place where we could have eaten in the first place.

I didn’t want to go back to his parents’ house. Not because they are unkind or unwelcoming, because nothing could be further from the truth. They’ve been nothing but warm and accommodating. I just didn’t want to sit in their cold garage, watching re-runs of cartoons we’ve seen a dozen times which has become the new normal. We’ve looked at some apartments, but until C gets a job,we can’t actually afford to move out of his parents’ house. Even once he gets a job, I don’t know how we’re going to possibly afford an apartment here that isn’t really far away from my work, and/or a total dump. We’ve started talking about maybe buying a home because the mortgage would be lower than the rent, but then we’d be living far out in some small town, even more isolated than we are right now.

Back at his parents’ house, we watch home movies from when C and his little brothers were young. C was a surly, little smart-ass. (Not much has changed). We watched him rollerblading down the sidewalk in 90s clothes with feathered hair. We watched his brother Jesse playing soccer, and his brother Anthony running around as a naked toddler through the sprinklers.

“My weiner is a lot bigger now.” Anthony says.

“Anthony!” His dad yells, and we all laugh.

On Thanksgiving his mother makes a turkey, and I make cornbread dressing like my mother makes back in Texas. It doesn’t come out very well, but everybody says it’s good anyway. I sit at the table eating turkey and green bean casserole, wishing instead that I was back home in Texas, sitting at the kid table and arguing about the recent election with my republican relatives.

Being the odd man out in someone else’s family has left me with with a constant feeling of homesickness.

The day after Thanksgiving is C’s birthday. I got him a Kindle and some yoga shorts, and we we go out for breakfast at a small cafe, and then drive to Santa Barbara and walk along a beach that’s overlooked by tree-lined cliffs. We walk past the pale tourists and the leather skinned locals, looking for starfish and seashells. We want to go out for a late lunch, but all the Sushi places that he wants to go to are closed, so we settle for a bar and grill that has an “adults only” section, eating overpriced Mexican food with a view of the ocean.

Back home, his parents barbecue ribs for dinner, and we sit in the back yard around a chimenea. Back in Chicago I’d still be wearing short sleeves in the 50s and 60s, but in California, the cold seems colder. We shiver around the fire with glasses of wine and bottles of beer. C gets very drunk and demands that we watch Sleeping Beauty, so we sit in the living room while he sings along to Once Upon a Dream. I put him to bed in the fold-out couch while I curl up in a blanket on the couch opposite him. At night I listen to him snore as his dad snores down the hall in unison. I doze off for an hour at a time, and wake up feeling lost in still unfamiliar surroundings, wishing more than anything that I still had a big, comfortable bed like the one I had back in Seattle.

After Thanksgiving, C’s mom puts up the Christmas tree and hangs stockings on the fireplace mantle. I see the green and red stocking with the letter L, for Lance, and my eyes well up with tears. It’s touching that I’m included in their holiday, that I’m a part of their family. But it only makes me feel more homesick for my own dysfunctional family who I won’t be able to spend Christmas with this year.

Today it rains, and we sit on the back porch and watch the rain.

“People go crazy when it rains here.” His dad says. “Because it never happens.”

The clouds roiling over the mountains look surreal, like a landscape from a dream. Oranges are ripening on the tree in the corner of the yard. The dog refuses to go outside for a walk. C looks at me and says, “I’m never going to drink again.” I sit in a corner on the couch that at night becomes my bed and play a video game on my phone. When the rain stops, maybe I’ll go for another walk along the beach.

Until then, I sit and listen to the din, the rain, C’s little brother saying something about vaginas and laughing to himself, and C’s dad yelling at his little brother, and the dog barking, and his mom clanging pots and pans in the kitchen.

I wonder if we’ll have an apartment soon, and if not, how long I can handle the lack of space before I collapse into a puddle on the garage floor, or load up the car and drive away to parts unknown? I wonder if we’ll buy a house and settle here, if we’ll become proper Californians, sun tanned and sitting in cafes demanding organic, gluten-free everything. I wonder if I’ll ever stop being homesick, and will actually just be able to feel like I’m finally home.

Mi Familia

“It feels two thirds as good with a condom on.” I’ve walked into the kitchen as C’s little brother is apparently talking to their mom about the pleasures of bare-backing.

Seeing my horrified expression, C’s mom says, “We’re a very open family.”

I smile and nod and retreat to the garage where C and I have appropriated his father’s man-cave for our own. We sit in office chairs with the boxes of our belongings stacked around us like a miniature cardboard fortress. The garage is lit with neon signs that say “Blue Moon” and “Coors Beer.”  There are bicycles, an unused treadmill, Beatles posters and skateboards. C takes a beer from the refrigerator, and we sit in front of the TV in the garage, which is bigger than the TV in my parents’ living room, watching horror movies.

His family has been nothing but warm and welcoming. At meal times we all sit around the dining table, C, his parents, his two little brothers, his brother’s girlfriend. We sit, and they talk, and laugh, while I remain quiet and try my best to not slink off to a corner somewhere.

My family didn’t do this. At meal times growing up, my mother would read a romance novel at the table while my dad and I sat in silence, scarfing down our food as quickly as we could so that we could retreat to different rooms and watch different TV shows.

C’s father starts to tell a story about a soccer match from his youth where he scored 5 goals and became the hero of the big game. The rest of the family lets out a communal groan, and he says, “But Lance hasn’t heard this story yet!”

They’ve done many things to make me feel at home. To make me feel included. They welcome me to their table, and his mom buys the drinks and snacks that I like. I wish I was a normal person who could join in the banter, and laugh, and drink, but I don’t know them, really, and around people I don’t know, I become a silent observer.

We’ve been in California for two weeks now. They live in a small beach town just south of Santa Barbara that looks like it was lifted from a postcard. The main street is lined with palm trees. There are mountains to one side of us, and the blue waves of the Pacific ocean to the other. Every day I’m floored that this is the view that C grew up seeing.

Back in the small, Texas town where I grew up, there were coastal plains, and gnarly thickets of oak trees. Everything was flat, a uniform horizon of grazing cattle and windmills.

Every morning I get up early and walk to the beach and back. I go, partly for the exercise, partly for the view, but mostly to have an hour of solitude to think. I try not to dwell on the life and the job I left behind, and to focus my energy on the uncertain future in front of me. As I round the corner, there is a mentally challenged gentleman sitting on a deck chair who always says, “Good morning, Wendell,” as I pass.

“Good morning.” I say, without correcting him, and keep on walking.

When I come back, C’s father is shouting, “Mijos! I made some chorizo and some bacon for breakfast.” I sit at the kitchen counter and watch everyone fill plates with tortillas, beans, avocado. I feel guilty about eating their food, and using their water and electricity. But until we are gainfully employed, C and I aren’t able to get an apartment of our own.

I’ve had two job interviews. I sit awkwardly in an ill-fitting suit with sweaty palms and try to justify to some 23 year old HR rep why I’d be the right fit for whatever entry level position it is that I’ve applied to, to explain why I’ve lived in 6 different states in the past 7 years. They smile, and shake my hand, and lead me to a door with promises of call backs soon to follow that never seem to happen.

The first weekend that we’re there, C’s parents drive up the coast for a weekend getaway. While they’re gone, C and I sit on the patio with his little brother, and his brother’s girlfriend drinking wine with a string of lights crisscrossing above our heads, the palm trees and the mountains looming over us. I’m drunk and giggling, and the girlfriend convinces me to split a pot cookie with her, which is probably not the smartest decision for a person actively seeking employment, but I want her to think I’m cool, so I do anyway. I have almost no experience with pot and can’t tell if I’m high or just drunk until I turn my head, and the scenery skips by like film that’s missing every other frame.

“Your eyes are bloodshot.” C says and kisses me on the forehead.

We sleep in the living room, C on the couch, and me on a fold-out bed. In the mornings we’re awakened by the small dog who barks to be let outside and who barks again to be let back in.

On most days we drive up or down the coast to the local attractions. We go to Solvang, a small Danish tourist trap that sells short-bread, where we are minorities among busloads of Asian tourists taking pictures of every building. We visit different missions, with their red, Spanish tile rooftops. We go hiking to a place called Seven Falls which, because of the ongoing drought, is bereft of waterfalls. The creeks are all dried up, and the earth is cracked and dry. Because the hiking I’ve done previously was in the Pacific Northwest with it’s towering trees and lush greenery, the trek up the mountains in the bald, open sun feels like a forced death march.

Almost every day we visit different beaches. We take off our shoes and walk in the wet, grainy sand along the shore. I let the cold, salty water wash over my sandy feet, while C excitedly looks for seashells, starfish, and sand dollars. I do my best to not seem bored, but after a while, the beaches all look the same. I feel guilty for not being more appreciative of the paradise that surrounds us, but at heart I’m still that little goth kid who hates the never-ending sunshine, the outdoors, and the friendly people who are constantly telling us, “Good morning.”

C’s parents come back from their trip and we sit around the dinner table. C’s father regales us with a story about his brother’s bachelor party. “I don’t want to talk about that day!” He says, several times, before the family talks him into telling the story. He tells about the massive quantities of tequila his brother imbibed that left him curled fetal on the floor in a pool of his own vomit, and the judgmental wedding planner the next day, his angry mother who blamed him for letting his brother drink. How C’s mom came home from the bachelorette party with a pair of edible panties.

“I remember those panties being in the freezer for years.” C says.

“Until one day Papa broke down and ate them because he was craving chocolate.” His mother says.

Everybody laughs. C laughs so hard the dog barks and tears are streaming from his eyes. I laugh.  C holds my hand under the table. His mother takes my plate away. For a moment, I don’t feel like an awkward outsider, intruding in the lives of other people. For a warm, golden moment, I feel like any other member of the family.

Mi adopted familia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

California Part II.

At 3:00 am, I was jarred awake by the sound of my own heart beating in my chest. I couldn’t breathe and my heart raced and my thoughts raced. Am I having a heart attack? Should I call 911? Should I go wake up my roommate so that he isn’t alarmed when the paramedics arrive? Can I afford an ambulance trip and an ER visit? I this how I die?

Then I realized I was having a panic attack. It had been years since I’d last had one, so I didn’t immediately recognize it for what it was. I was weirdly relieved by the realization. But whatever the cause, if I didn’t lower my heart rate, I was going to have a very real heart attack. I’m 40 now. I’m a person who is of an age where these things can happen.

I breathed in deeply. Counted to five. Exhaled. Repeated until my heartbeat normalized. I drank some water, but I was rattled. Sleep didn’t happen again for the rest of the night. When my alarm went off at 6:45, I was still awake. It was to be my penultimate day of work, but I called in anyway. I was afraid of having another anxiety attack on the train and horrified by the thought of being wheeled off the Red Line in a stretcher.

I spent the day trying to distract myself from the all the things that were making me anxious, but they were unavoidable. All around me are boxes of things I’ve been putting off shipping to C’s mom, and the furniture that I keep meaning to make Craigslist ads for. My clothes are all in suitcases beside the bed. The walls and the closet are empty, stark, and naked.

I try not to think about the fact that this time next week I won’t have a job, or an apartment. I’ll be sleeping on a couch at C’s parents’ house, where we’re staying until we have jobs and a place of our own. I half-heartedly apply for jobs. I look at apartments in San Diego that we can’t afford. I try not to wonder how we’re going to pay our bills when neither of us has an income.

When I talk to him later in the day, C tells me not to worry. “It’ll all work out.” He assures me. He’s sitting on a patio with a glass of wine. They’ve just gotten back from a farmer’s market. I can hear the sunshine in his voice.

“Everybody keeps asking when you’re going to get here.”

Despite his reassurances, I continue to worry. Irresponsibly quitting a job and moving across the country is cute when you’re in your twenties, but much less so when you’re in your forties.

The first time I moved to California, I was 27. I was living with my ex-boyfriend in Austin, and when he got accepted into grad school at UCLA, I ended up tagging along. I didn’t want to live in Texas my whole life. And although L.A. had never been on my personal radar of places I’d like to live, it was at least some place different. It wasn’t Texas, and that was enough for me.

Our apartment was across the street from the Veteran cemetery. I thought that meant the neighborhood would be quiet. What we didn’t realize was that a block away there was a fire station, so firetrucks were constantly speeding down our street at all hours of the night. Coyotes howled in the rolling hills on the far end of the cemetery and some Sunday mornings we were awakened by 21 gun salutes.

I got a terrible job at a brokerage firm where the only saving grace was the view of the Pacific Ocean. Once I was sitting at my desk and suddenly felt dizzy. I thought I was sick until I looked up and saw my co-worker bracing herself in the doorway of her cubicle. Then I realized we were having an earthquake. I saw the palm trees and the ocean swaying outside the window and thought “I can’t die in this building with these people,” and made my way down 11 flights of stairs in less than 4 seconds.

I rebelled against the mundane job by wearing studded belts and dying my hair purple.

Everyone I met in L.A. told me that I didn’t belong there. L.A. was a surreal and shallow place. The weekly coupons in the mail were all for teeth whitening, plastic surgery, and botox. Everyone kept asking me what kind of car I drove. I felt like I didn’t belong, and L.A. agreed.

And my Daewoo impressed no one.

I dated a guy in PR named Strip Checkers. Well, not so much dated. I’m sure he has an actual name, but he’s gone down in the annals of my personal history as Strip Checkers for obvious reasons. We’d drive down Wilshire in his red convertible to his studio apartment in Korea Town. We’d play checkers on his floor, losing an item of clothing each time one of our pieces got jumped, until we were both naked.

Then there was the nice, Jewish doctor who was going to take me to Paris and then ended up getting back with his ex-boyfriend. The musician who’d call me and say, “You. Me. Sex. Now,” and would be knocking on my door five minutes later. He convinced me to strip with him in a burlesque show, and when I left L.A. all I had to remember him by was his little, black butt plug.

There were always movies being filmed in our neighborhood, and once a week there’d be a movie premier, a red carpet and paparazzi blocking my route home from the gym. We’d go to some vegan restaurant, and an over enthused waitress would tell us in an excited whisper, “Jodie Foster is here!”

Once, walking to my car after work, a pasty guy with long hair said, “Do you model?” And handed me his card.

I stared back at him blankly before stammering, “I’m a writer.”

Like everyone in L.A. I was toiling away on a screenplay. I sent off spec scripts for imaginary episodes of Will and Grace. It seemed like everyone I met was “in the industry.” But nothing ever came of any of it. I mostly sat at Starbucks with my second hand laptop and dreamed of being someone. Someone shiny and pretty with perfect teeth, a tan, and a red sports car.

But instead I was pale, purple haired, and skinny. I kissed a guy at some club, and he asked if my  parents were professors because I had more than a monosyllabic vocabulary. I didn’t like him, but I kissed him anyway, while some horrible pop song played, and tan, toothpaste commercials danced with one another beneath the pulsing lights of some bar in West Hollywood.

I irresponsibly quit my job at the brokerage firm. I left my badge on my boss’s desk on a Wednesday afternoon. I walked down to the beach, took off my shoes and my tie, and sat staring at the ocean, wondering what to do.

I was lost, and I felt rejected by the city.

At least once a month I got a parking ticket.

I was constantly getting lost. The first time I saw the Hollywood sign was by accident. I was trying to get home from a job interview downtown and stopped at a gas station in East L.A. to buy an actual map because there weren’t smart phones back then. After a number of wrong turns, the big white letters (only ever so slightly obscured by smog) were there in front of me.

I sat in Jewish deli’s pretending to write, and danced at 80s clubs in Hollywood. I went to bars in Los Feliz and Silverlake.  I met some genuinely wonderful people too, but by then I was already on my way out of the city and planning my move to  Seattle.

I never thought I’d move back to California. I’d felt like such an outsider the first time around, an encore hardly seemed warranted. But in less than a week, I’ll be in Southern California again. This time around I’m armed with experience, which feels like a double edged sword, and I just don’t know what to think, or how to feel.

The biggest difference is that this time C will be with me.

“My mom bought you a bag of Muddy Buddies.” C texts me, as I was typing this.  “We’re recording American Horror Story for you.”

I text him that I love him.

He texts me that he loves me too.

This time around we have a support network. I know that they won’t let us starve or be homeless. So, despite my fears, which are numerous, I’m trying to be optimistic that this time around will be a different experience, because he’ll be with me.

So when my heart begins to race, I breathe in. Hold it. Breathe out. Think of him, and know that everything is going to work out.

Home

IMG_4288There’s always that moment of panic as I’m walking down the steps at the Austin airport, and I see my parents standing, anxiously awaiting my arrival, where I have the overwhelming desire to turn around and get back on the plane.

This trip was no different. In the airport bathroom I’d changed from the dapper hat that my parents hate, to the baseball cap that they find acceptable. My mother, for one, still hasn’t forgiven me for going bald, despite the fact that it was her family’s genetic legacy that has left my scalp bereft of natural covering. The hat is one of the many ways I feel I have to change myself to make myself acceptable to them. I lower my voice. I dress like a frat boy. I limit my conversation to my job and the weather.

On the plane, I’d sat next to a woman who apologized for smelling strongly of lavender. The scent reminded me of C who is always diffusing some concoction of essential oils in our bedroom. I decided the woman was probably a yoga instructor and wasn’t sure whether this revelation should make me like or dislike her.

We sat on an exit row. The flight attendant reminded us of our responsibility to help other passengers out in case of an emergency.

“We paid more for these seats, but in an emergency we’d be the last ones off the plane,” the woman said.

“In an actual emergency, I’d be the first one out of the plane.” I said. “The rest of these jerks can fend for themselves.”

“Who am I sitting by?” The woman asked, before adding, “Of course if the plane really crashed, it wouldn’t matter because we’d all be dead.”

After that I put in my headphones, even though they’d stopped working, and pretended to listen to music to discourage further conversation. I just wanted some time during the course of the flight to try and sort my life out before I was thrust into my family’s quiet chaos.

The first thing my mother said when she saw that I’d grown a beard was, “What’s that on your face? I don’t like it!”

That set the tone for the rest of the car ride home. I sat in the backseat of my mother’s car, and stared out of the window at silos, yellowed pastures with hay bales, grazing cattle…while my parents sat up front bickering about how fast to go, what lane to be in, and where to stop for gas.

My father is losing his hearing, and so every time he asked me a question, I had to shout back at him. My answer to nearly every question was the same. “I don’t know.”

“Huh?”

“I DON’T KNOW.”

What are you going to do in New Orleans? What is your roommate going to do? How are you going to afford the move? When are you going to start saving for your retirement? When are you going to settle down and stay in one place?

The two and a half hour drive from the airport to my parent’s house out in the country was longer than the flight from Chicago to Austin. We stopped on the way and had Mexican food for lunch. When I lived in Texas I never wanted Mexican food, but in the nearly 15 years that I’ve lived in various northern towns, after having been deprived of actual Tex-Mex, it’s suddenly something I crave in much the same way I imagine that junkies crave smack.

Once at my parent’s house, things mellowed. My dad puttered around outside, and my mom sat at the kitchen table reading a romance novel. I sat in my old bedroom, now home to my father’s guns and hunting trophies and my mother’s library and extended closet. The past and present were superimposed over one another. Two rooms overlapped when I closed my eyes. The current one that my parents have repurposed, and the former one with my posters of Trent Reznor and Kurt Cobain, Lego blocks, and Super Metroid.

The next day my dad had to drive back to West Texas for work. I was relieved when he left, because the dynamic is always more relaxed when it is just my mother and I. We watch shows where people renovate houses, and then we retire to separate rooms to read until it’s time to eat something.

Most of the trip we spent at my grandmother’s. My grandmother’s house is small with wood paneling, and is cluttered with pictures of her children, grand children, and great grandchildren. In the guest room there are two pictures on the wall. Jesus and John Wayne. Two snarling bob cats are mounted on either side of the entertainment center, decaying gifts from my uncle, the amateur taxidermist.

One of my aunts recently left her boyfriend and has moved a travel trailer next to my grandmother’s house where she lives with her four chihuahuas. My aunts and my mother all take turns taking care of my grandmother who is suffering from Alzheimer’s.

“Let’s go out and sit in the swing.” My grandmother says.

“Mama, it’s too hot right now. We’ll go out this evening when it cools off.” My mother says. It’s disturbing to see their roles reversed. My mother making my grandmother dinner, bathing her, dressing her, giving her her medicine and telling her when she can and can’t go outside.

“I can go out if I want to!” My grandmother says.

“Alright, old woman.” My mother says. “Go outside then.”

My grandmother and I go outside and sit in the swing. We’re there for less than 5 seconds before my grandmother says, “Oh lordy, it’s hot out here! What are we sitting out here for?”

“I don’t know, Maw Maw.” I say.

We sit for a little while in the shade, sweat dripping down my back. The still air is unmoved by even a hint of breeze. A gold and black butterfly skitters out of the sky and dies at my feet. We get up to go back inside, and, once there, my grandmother says, “Why don’t we go out and sit in the swing?”

She’s like a cat who can’t decide to stay or go.

She has too much money and too many assets to qualify for any kind of assistance, but is too poor to hire someone to care for her, so my aunts take turns spending the night and staying with her during the day.

When she turns 91, they throw a party to celebrate, but my grandmother keeps thinking it’s Thanksgiving.

“Are you making the stuffing?” She asks my mother.

“It’s not Thanksgiving, Mama,” my mother says for the 15th time. “It’s your birthday tomorrow.”

“My birthday?” My grandmother says. “How old will I be?”

“Ninety one.” My mother says.

“Oh lordy!” My grandmother says.

The change in routine confuses her. “What am I supposed to do?” She asks. She is red faced and confused, and shuffles back and forth, clutching her wrinkled hands.

She and I are watching the Ellen show. She keeps getting up and walking over to a picture of my cousin from his high school graduation. She reads and re-reads the graduation program. She sits down and she stands back up.

“You’re not supposed to do anything, Maw Maw.” I say. “Just sit here and talk to me.”

She becomes more and more agitated. “Should I take the pictures with me when I go?” She asks.

“When you go where, Maw Maw?” I ask.

“When I go home.” She says.

“Mama, you are home.” My mother says. “You’ve lived in this house for 40 years.”

“I’m staying here?” My grandmother asks.

“Yes.” My mother says. “You’re staying here.

My grandmother laughs and throws up here hands and says, “I guess I’ll just camp out here then.” She reads and re-reads the high school graduation program. “I just can’t make any sense of this.” She says. “Everything’s all mixed up.”

I stay for five days. We go back and forth between my mother’s empty house with it’s immaculate furniture, to my grandmother’s where everything is worn and cluttered. At my grandmother’s I sit in a chair in front of the TV while my mother and aunt put a puzzle together.

One night my mother spends the night with my grandmother, and I stay home alone. I feel giddy like a teenager who has been left alone again. I take pictures of myself in my underwear and post them on Instagram. I don’t know why I’m doing this. I took one picture of myself with no shirt on and it was strangely liberating. Now I’m addicted to exhibitionism. Me, the prude, who sleeps in pajamas, who is barely naked in the shower, the scrawny boy who was always too embarrassed to get undressed in the locker room, is suddenly taking pictures of himself nearly naked and posting them online for strangers to gawk at. I don’t even recognize myself sometimes.

The time passes by quickly, and before I know it, it’s time to leave. Despite the fact that I can’t really be myself, that I feel like a complete alien around my born-again, open carry, registered republican extended family, these people and this place will always be part of me. No matter how many cities I live in, the other countries I visit, the skyscrapers I work in and taxi cabs I ride in, a fundamental part of me will always be most content among dirt roads, cicadas, with country music playing on  an AM radio.

My mother drives me back to the airport. We pass double-wide mobile homes, cars on cinder blocks, horses in fields, churches, John Deer Tractors. We pass yards with Trump signs prominently displayed. Trucks with gun racks and confederate flag decals.

“Why don’t you stay here?” My mother says when it’s time for me to go. But I can’t even imagine staying. I’ve become a city boy. Accustomed to the hustle and bustle. The excitement of strangers and possibility.

She starts to cry as I get my bags from the backseat of her car.

I tell her that I love her as I rush to get my boarding pass for the return flight.

On the way back to Chicago, Dan Rather is on my flight. He looks old and frail in a suit with a hearing aid. A young, Asian woman travels with him. I resist the urge to take a picture of him. On the flight he is in first class, of course, and I’m at the back. The flight isn’t full, and there is an empty seat between me and the pretty, blonde woman beside me.

At first I’m reassured by Dan Rather’s presence on the plane, because what are the chances that a plane carrying Dan Rather will crash? Then I become anxious as I imagine the headline, “Beloved  veteran news anchor killed in crash, along with a hundred nobodies.”

The plane doesn’t crash. I change back from my baseball cap to my weathered, gray ascot. I catch a taxi back to my apartment. Because of rush hour traffic and lane closures, the 20 minute ride takes over an hour.

Back home C kisses me and takes my bags. I can tell there’s something on his mind before he says anything. His long, black hair is pushed behind his ears. His fuzzy beard tickles against my fuzzy beard as we kiss.

“So I’ve been thinking,” he says. “Since you can’t work from home anyway, why don’t we just move to Santa Barbara?”

He goes on to tell me that he misses his family. He wants to be close to them. He wants a support network. He thinks we’ll be happier there with the beach on one side of us and mountains on the other. His family is already working to find us an apartment and jobs. They’re so excited for us to move back.

The thought of moving again fills me with anxiety. Since we’ve been together we’ve lived in 5 different states. Every couple of years we’ve moved to a new city. We’ve exhausted our savings, and I have to find some new job and start all over in a new town. We never stay long enough to make friends, or put down roots. I feel as if for the past 7 years we’ve only been squatters, moving from place to place.

I want some stability. I want to stay in one place. To buy a house. To have people over for dinner. To have longevity in a career. To not have to start a new entry level job again. I don’t want to max out my credit card to pay to move our belongings to a place where neither of us will have jobs.

I tell C that I want to stay in Chicago for a couple more years.

C says that he absolutely will not spend another winter in Chicago.

“You’ll love Santa Barbara.” He says.

I’m unconvinced, and suddenly no place feels like home.

Home.

You can’t go home again.

There’s no place like home.

Home is where the heart is.

But right now my heart is torn between the past and future. Between what feels like home to me, and what feels like home to him. I try to imagine myself on sandy beaches, with palm tree moonlight, and clay tile rooftops. Bright smiled Californians and avocados.

Try as I might, I just can’t picture it. Home is just a word on Lifetime specials, and holiday greeting cards. I thought the two of us could make a home anywhere, with second hand furniture and thrift-store prints. But home for him will always be the Pacific Ocean, landslides, and tennis courts, and home for me will always be a Texas thicket, an overgrown pasture, and dirt roads, always winding into the distance.

Always leading me back home.

Music for the Middle Aged

PBKD5675Sitting on the train on my way to work, “Pictures of You” by The Cure started playing. I had my iTunes on shuffle on my phone. The song instantly evoked memories of teenage me alone in a stuffy bedroom, surrounded by stacks of books and CDs. Even though The Cure was one of the most important bands of my late teens/early twenties, it had probably been years since I’ve last listened to them. Now, hearing them for the first time in my 40s, I was dismayed that the lyrics no longer resonated the way they once had.

I think most songs are written for a teenage audience. But by the time first love becomes the sixth or seventh love, all those hormonal highs that left teen me weeping trails of eyeliner across my cheeks have leveled out into the flat expanse of nostalgia. Despite the latency that has prevented me, thus far, from going full blown suit and tie, I wonder, is it time to cave in, surrender to fate, and finally break down and buy some Neil Young albums?

The highlight of my morning was scoring a seat on the train. Usually at the beginning of the week, the trains at rush hour are already so crowded when I board that I have to stand, hanging onto a filthy, gray strap, crushed between gorillas in Cubs jerseys. This morning there was a seat available, and I made a beeline to it, narrowly beating out a bony woman in scrubs who surely deserved it more than I did. I sat anyway, with not the slightest remorse because sitting > standing.

In front of me, a tall, handsome man stood, oblivious to my existence. I looked down at his large feet to avoid staring directly into his crotch, and immediately began to wonder how large his penis was. I think how ridiculous it is that I’m 40 now and still think about these things, and wonder how long it will be until my mind will finally move on to other things, like politics, or poetry, or bird watching. Or will I be, as I suspect, a frail 90 year old, sitting on a train, wondering what handsome strangers look like naked? Is he hairy or smooth, hung or not, cut or uncut? What music does he listen to? What things make him laugh? Do touching Youtube videos make him cry? Has he ever lost someone that he loved?

I’ve recently become even more ridiculous than usual. More pathetic in my desperate attempts for validation. I find myself posting pictures to Instagram of me, throwback Thursday pics of me when I still had hair, and recent pics of me in sleeveless shirts with biceps bulging so that strangers on the internet will see, and will ‘like’ this image. Every like is a heart. And every heart tells me that I’m still someone that someone else desires. That I may be 40, but I’ve still got it. Whatever it is.

I smile at men in gyms, and I maintain profiles on apps like Scruff (the hairier, bear-ier version of Grindr). Not because I want to meet men, or hook-up, because I don’t and I won’t. In nearly 7 years, C is the only person that I’ve slept with. I do it because I still need other people to tell me that I have value. And value, in my mind, comes from knowing that someone, somewhere, still wants to have sex with me. Not C, of course, because he loves me, so he doesn’t count.

Maybe music made for teenagers is exactly what I should be listening to. My nights have become sleepless again, and my days have been grayed out with uncertainty. Everything in our lives is up in the air right now. I may be getting a promotion, but it isn’t definite. My company may let me work from home in New Orleans, but haven’t given me the final answer. C may look for another job. We may be able to find an apartment we can afford with just the salary that I may or may not have. The only thing that is certain about my future is that at the end of August, our lease will be up, and we can’t stay here.

When faced with anxiety, my go-to response has always been to flee. This almost certainly explains the number of jobs I’ve irresponsibly quit, and the number of states I’ve lived in over the past decade. Even now, a bigger part of me than I’d ever admit to C, fantasizes constantly about loading my car up with my clothes and my books, and just driving away. The destination doesn’t matter as long as it’s not here. The desire to flee, I know, I understand, it’s imbedded into the pattern of my pulsing neurons. But lately there’s a new desire that manifests more often. One that leaves me bewildered, that fuels my uncertainty. The wholly unfamiliar desire to stay put. To renew a lease. To put a ring on C’s finger. To buy a house somewhere in a suburb, with a yard and a fence. Then, suddenly, I want to flee even more.

Instead I sit on the train in a pair of slacks, and nice (for me) shoes. I stare at the feet of the man in front of me, and wish that there was some new soundtrack to my life. Music for the middle aged. Songs about a stalled career, an aging relationship, impotent desire, where nothing is ever high or low, it’s all just the same flat monotone.

Then the train stops at Grand and State where I get off. I squeeze past young men in messenger bags, and when strangers smile at me I smile at back, then look immediately away. I walk past dirty blue tiled floors, and up sticky stairs. Pictures of the me I used to be fade into memory, and pictures of me now come into crisp focus. Posted on apps and social media to be dissected by strangers. A bearded jaw. Receding hairline. A pair of glasses, each prescription with thicker lenses than the one before. When the day comes, sooner than later, when my words and my images elicit no response from my indifferent audience, will I then be forced to finally grow up? Will I finally have found out how to love myself by then? Will I finally listen to music for grown ups?

As I walk up the stairs onto the bustling sidewalks downtown, Pictures of You fades, and the next song in my queue is a song by Taylor Swift. I do not take this as a sign from the universe. But I don’t skip to the next song either.

 

 

Existential Crisis Road Trip

IMG_3870The week that I turned 40, C took me on a road trip to New Orleans. We got up early on a Saturday and loaded up my little, second-hand black car. A screw fell out of my glasses, and the right temple fell off. I spent the whole first part of our trip with them carefully balanced on the bridge of my nose so that they wouldn’t fall apart.

We ate terrible snacks from suspect gas stations in shady towns where people drove pick-up trucks with Trump bumper stickers, and meals from fast food places that we’d never go to in a non-vacation setting.

C drove, and I tortured him with 10 year old hipster music. The Handsome Furs. Helio Sequence. Ra Ra Riot. I sat sweating behind tinted windows, looking out at corn fields, at rusty barns and grazing cattle, wondering what I’d done with my life. How could I possibly be 40? I didn’t feel like a forty year old. I felt as young, as directionless, as lost as ever. Wouldn’t a 40 year old have his shit together by now?

My friends who are my age all have houses, children, and careers. All I have for 4 decades of existence is a growing list of cities that I’ve lived in, of jobs that I’ve irresponsibly quit, a savings account with less money in it than when I was 20. I’ve rationalized the string of poor decisions that have led me to this place by citing the fact that I’m an artist. But I just haven’t had the time to get around to writing that alleged novel that I’ve been working on. I’ve lived a life rich in experiences that looks terrible on a resume. Now that I’ve reached my life’s half-way point, I can’t help but wonder what might have been, if only I’d stuck with that decent paying job that corroded my soul, if I had stayed put and put down roots, if I hadn’t cashed in those 401(k)s to fund all of those cross country moves. Would I be happier or more fulfilled?

I wonder if I’ll ever write that novel. I wonder if C and I will ever stay in one place. If we’ll buy a house together somewhere on the California coast. Or if I’ll go from cubicle to cubicle in some two-bit town or other. If we’ll decide to call it quits and go our separate ways. If I’ll spend my autumn years struggling to eke out an existence in a town I’d rather not be living in. Alone with my no longer cool MP3s, a collection of other people’s books, re-posting pics of me when I was younger and still someone that someone else desired.

When you’re sitting in the passenger seat of a used car whose check engine light is perpetually on, on a 14 hour road-trip, there is a lot of time to contemplate one’s failures.

We stopped for the night in Memphis. Since it had just been a place that we were going to spend the night, and not a destination, we were surprised at how quaint a little city it was. We checked into a 3rd rate hotel where the elevators didn’t work. Our room was across from a pool that was crowded with people who obviously weren’t guests of the hotel.

IMG_3745We walked down to the water, the fecund stench of the green, bloated Mississippi permeating the air, trickling down our backs, hot and sticky. Sweaty brides were having their engagement photos taken. We took pictures of the strange, pyramid stadium, the bridges, and the skyline. We walked back up to Beale St. with it’s blues joints and barbecue places. We had drinks and watched horse-drawn carriages covered in Christmas lights clop by with fat tourists, glistening in the neon sky.

That night we lay in bed at the sleepless hotel, with re-runs of the Forensic Files playing, telling one another how we’d kill each other and get away with it.

The next morning we had a southern breakfast at a place called The Blue Plate Cafe.

C said, “You order. You speak the language.”

We had homemade biscuits and sausage gravy.

Then we were off again to New Orleans. The cornfields turned to scattered trees and coastal plains. The gas stations and rest-stops remained uniform in their evocation of the movie Deliverance. We drove over a long raised freeway with nothing but swamp beneath us, and no exit for miles. The car’s cruise control worked every other time we stopped and started.

We drove into New Orleans late Sunday afternoon. Our hotel in the Central Business District was much nicer than the place we stayed in Memphis. There were art-deco chandeliers in the lobby, and elevators that worked.

After we freshened up, we walked directly to the French Quarter. I was crossing my skeptical fingers that I’d like it, or, barring that, that I could tolerate it, since C seems determined that we move there, even before either of us had seen it. I was pleasantly surprised when it surpassed even my most hopeful expectations. The French Quarter was magical. It was purple, and blue lit, otherworldly, with an energy that reminded me of parts of New York City, of San Francisco, of Paris. There was a sort of crackling vibration that tinged the air, that rang through the cobblestone  streets, the iron gratings of balconies, the decaying, old-world buildings, out of place in a southern, new-world state.

We ate alligator, gumbo, crawfish omelets, red beans and rice, beignets. We drank ridiculous cocktails on Bourbon St. where an unsuccessful hustler told us, “Come on, fellas. It’s titty time!” And a half-hearted prostitute asked if we were looking to have a good time. We sat in an outside courtyard and listened to a middle-aged man (like me) sing Frank Sinatra. He even sounded like Sinatra. Our waitress there was liberally drinking every time she walked back to the bar, and was hammered when she misplaced C’s drink. Later she came up to us and said, with a slurred, southern accent, “I gave your drink to those Chinese people! And they aren’t even drinking it.”

Another sleepless night in another hotel room. Another marathon of Forensic Files.

The next day, after breakfast we took The Saint Charles St. Car to Uptown, and walked down Magazine Street. A developmentally disabled woman on the train warned me to watch out for black people, because they don’t like white people. On Magazine Street we walked past funky little shops and restaurants. In a record store called Peaches, C picked up an album of Stevie Nicks’s greatest hits. We stopped by an optometrist and I had my glasses fixed. We ate snow-cones while we waited, my lips stained cherry red, and his stained hand-grenade green. The drink, not the explosive. We walked through parks with trees, branches heavy with hanging, gray moss, past white-columned mansions and pastel colored houses.

IMG_3869That night we took a haunted tour of the city conducted by a woman who professed to be a fifth generation Voodoo priestess. She was a charismatic storyteller, and took her 25 odd charges on an enjoyable tour of the seedy, sinister past of the old city. As we made our way to the tour’s apex, the house of Madame LaLaurie, there was a violent, southern thunderstorm. We huddled under awnings as it rained, as thunder rumbled the iron gratings and window panes, and lightning streaked across the sky. A Scottish couple, perhaps unfamiliar with the thunderstorms of the southern U.S. squealed and moaned in terror every time the lightning flashed or thunder cracked. The tour was the best $50 I’ve ever spent.

The next day was my birthday, and we spent the day in Museums and sculpture gardens. It rained again that afternoon, and we stood in the entrance of a parking garage while I talked to my mother who had forgotten my birthday until my dad reminded her.

“I can’t believe you’re 40!” She said. “That’s old.”

It rained, and a pair of tourists played “Heads Up” on their iPhone, and my mother berated me for having accomplished nothing with my life. “You should be saving for your retirement!” She said.

“Why should I save when I’m the sole heir to the Brister fortune?” I asked.

Back on Bourbon St. a pair of street hustlers conned C into paying for an unsolicited shoe shine.

We walked to Frenchman St. where the Voodoo priestess said that the locals went instead of Bourbon St. The said locals eyed us warily as we walked past tattoo parlors and goth clubs playing 80s music.

When it was time to check out of our hotel we didn’t want to leave. On the drive back to Chicago C made me listen to Cat Stevens, Fleetwood Mac, and Pink Floyd. We drove all the way back to Chicago in one day. The gas stations and fast food all blended together.

On Wednesday I went back to work. I sat in an office, staring out the window. My office mate was lamenting the fact that she had turned 29 and hadn’t accomplished anything with her life. I didn’t point out that she owns a home, has a husband and a child, and has a higher-paying position than I do, 11 years her senior.

On Saturday we got up early and drove to Toronto. I didn’t want to go. I wanted to stay in Chicago and rest after the trip we’d had the week before. But C wanted to see a Lebanese pop band that was playing Toronto’s gay pride. So we piled in the car again, and C drove us north to Canada.

The toll way to cross the bridge into Canada was backed up, so we sat in traffic for a long time before we even made it into customs. A douchey Canadian customs officer in mirrored sunglasses asked us why we were going to Canada, where we were staying, and for how long.

In Canada the roads were noticeably better maintained than the roads of the U.S. I felt like a poor relation visiting my better-off relatives. They called their rest areas On Routes, and there were Tim Hortons’s everywhere. The farmland, at least, looked the same, the barns, the silos and the houses could be anywhere in the U.S.

Outside of Toronto there was a traffic accident and we sat in traffic for a while again, and ended up getting to the city hours later than we’d expected to. The city was beautiful with it’s distinctly Canadian buildings of green glass mixed in with European style architecture, the iconic CNTower. We walked down Yonge St. pleased to see how diverse the people were, to hear languages other than English, and to have food options other than the deep dish pizza and hot-dogs of Chicago.

The official website of Toronto Pride wasn’t nice enough to say what time any of the acts performed, so we weren’t sure whether the band had already played, and if we’d driven all that way for nothing. Luckily a kind Canadian at the information booth assured us that the band didn’t play until 10, so we walked down the street and had Korean food. All around us, polite Canadians were having politically correct discussions about philosophy. Straight people had brought their families in from the suburbs to take part in the Pride festivities.

We walked back to the stage where an Iraqi-Canadian rapper was rapping. Some preppily dressed, and well coiffed men sat down from us, discreetly smoking a joint and ogling the hairy, muscular men who passed in too short shorts. As the band began to set up, we made our way down to the front, past the tattooed tank-top with his hipster beard, and tall, thin Lebanese men who couldn’t stop kissing one another, past the progressive white girls, and settled in to watch a band called Mashrou’ Leila perform.

Belly dancers opened for the band. They waved colored scarves, and shook, and smiled, and balanced candelabras on their heads. A smoke machine kept going off right in front of us, and everyone waved their hands to blow the smoke out of their faces. Someone in the crowd kept bouncing a balloon back and forth, until, after the third time it hit me in the head, I removed the balloon from circulation, and shoved it to the ground at my feet.

IMG_3898The band was comprised of beautiful men in black, shiny outfits who sang in Arabic, but who introduced every song in perfect English. The music was fantastic, and I fell slightly in love with the handsome violinist with his beard, and sleeveless shirt, and goofy smile. But it was the lead singer who evoked Freddy Mercury that amazed me. They were wonderfully talented, and though I didn’t understand the words, I felt it. Introducing a song called “Ghost,” the lead singer talked about Orlando, describing mass shootings as a particularly American phenomenon, and I felt ashamed and defensive.

We walked back to the hotel after the show. Through the well-behaved revelers, the throngs of rainbow colored denizens of Pride. Toronto boasts the biggest Gay Pride festival in North America, which cannot be disputed. But even though it is certainly large, Toronto is still distinctly Mid Western, and despite it’s diversity, suffers from the same watered-down blandness that Chicago Suffers from. There wasn’t the grit, the people cutting loose, that you might see in San Francisco, for instance. And I wondered if this is just the way of the world now. Gays are so mainstream that even Pride is just a watered down, unshocking version of what it once was. Or maybe I’m a middle-aged man suffering from a case of the back in my days.

In the hotel, a deluxe suite much too big for the two of us, we spent another night unable to sleep, watching terrible, Canadian TV. No Forensic Files.

In the morning we had a nice enough Canadian breakfast at a restaurant called The Senator. We got sugary drinks from a Tim Hortons and walked down to the waterfront. This too was beautiful but boring, and after an hour, we walked back to the hotel, to get in our car and drive back to the states.

The drive back went much more smoothly than the drive there. The blonde, American customs officer was just as brusque as her Canadian counterpart. But she waved us through, and we were relieved when we got back to the familiarity of our own country, that despite its problems, and despite the fact that a disturbing number of it’s citizens are pro-gun conservative Neo-Nazis, was still our home, for better or for worse.

As we drove home there were early fireworks going off in the Chicago suburbs. Red, white, and blue lights flashing in the sky. My forehead lolling against the dusty window, the lights of the skyscrapers spread out hazily before us beneath a purple sky. C played Mashrou’ Leila on the stereo, and I sang along with words I didn’t understand in a language I didn’t speak, in a city, and a life I didn’t feel I really belonged to.

I may not ever write a novel. I may not ever live in a house by the sea. C and I may not grow old together. I don’t know what the future holds. But for the present, at least, I can look back at my life, now half-way over, and feel that maybe my mistakes haven’t been quite that bad, driving in a car, with good music, with a beautiful man beside me, and an open road ahead of us, pregnant with possibility.

 

 

Once in a While a Protest Post

IMG_3652Every now and then I forget that there are people in the world who, although they have never met me, believe that I deserve to die. Usually I go about my day taking this fact for granted. I wake up, and get dressed in the dark while C is still in bed. I kiss him goodbye, and he tells me to have a good day at work. I take the train downtown. I sit in an office. I take the train home. We have dinner. Maybe we watch a movie or play video games. We go to bed. Our lives are probably not unlike your own. Except that due to the roll of genetic dice, we were born into a minority group that is attracted to people of the same sex.

I was at the gym when I saw the news about a shooting in Orlando. Fifty people had been killed in a gay club. I was shocked and horrified, and then, when they started showing pictures of the victims, I began to weep. Admittedly it was not the first time I started crying while on the treadmill.

I thought to myself how lucky I’ve been to not have been the victim of such overt homophobia.  After all, I’ve never been beaten up, fired, discriminated against, or, lord knows, killed for being gay. Yet. Then I thought about how fucked up it is that I feel lucky because the instances where I’ve been hurt and threatened for being myself didn’t result in something worse.

Just being yourself shouldn’t require an act of bravery.

The first time I ever encountered homophobia was at church. I was 12, and I’d already known I was gay for a few years by then. I was sitting in a pew at the small, Southern Baptist church in my small, southern town, half-listening, when the preacher started talking about homosexuals being a threat to the country and Christianity. I felt like I had been kicked in the chest, like the preacher was talking directly to me. It was the first time I’d ever been made to feel ashamed by the very act of my existence.

I don’t know what happened in the late 80s/early 90s (AIDS?) that made gay people the go-to villain for the religious right. I just know that the church never talked about homosexuality before then, but suddenly gays were the Christian boogeymen. People like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson were blaming gay people for things like hurricanes, and floods, and the scariest part was that people seemed to believe these outlandish things.

I don’t know what other religions teach, because I grew up in a community that was entirely Christian, almost exclusively Protestant. I suspect that followers of Islam are similarly indoctrinated with ridiculous, medieval ideas. I know that a single, violent person doesn’t represent an entire religion. I can say that every Muslim person that I’ve ever known has been lovely, and tolerant, and warm toward me. I can say the same for most Christians that I know. To their credit, I’ve never met a homophobic Jew. I’m sure they exist, but if they do, they’re outside my realm of experience.

But I do know that when moderate and tolerant members of a religion don’t speak up when a Priest, or Pastor, or Imam, or Rabbi spread these hateful ideas, then they are also part of the problem.  We’re told to respect people’s beliefs, even if they’re hateful. But silence in the face of hate is complicity.

I wish that I’d stood up back then, when the preacher first told me that I was an abomination, deserving of death. I’d have told him it was utter bullshit. But I didn’t. I was 12. I went home, and for the rest of my life, instead of getting up and putting on nice clothes on Sundays, I stayed home and played video games, and my life was the better for it.

 

In high-school, I was bullied a little bit, but no more, I felt, than anybody else. I did confront one of my bullies, and I asked, “Why do you pick on me?”

He said, “Because I think you’re gay, and I don’t want you to be attracted to me.”

Although I never officially came out in high-school, everyone knew that I was gay, and it didn’t seem to matter. I was still relatively popular (President of the Drama Club!). When the bully told me he was picking on me because he didn’t want me to be attracted to him, I wasn’t even mad. I just looked at him square in the eye and said, “Believe me, you’ve got nothing to worry about.” And that was that.

I don’t know why it should have worried him that a guy might be attracted to him. Especially me, since I was just shy of 5’5″ and barely over 100 lbs. It’s not like I could have forced myself on him. In retrospect I imagine he probably had some feelings that made him uncomfortable, and it was less about me and more about him.

I wonder if the shooter in Orlando had feelings of attraction to other men that, due to his indoctrination with idea that gay people deserve death, led to his lashing out, out of self-hate. Or maybe it had nothing to do with his religion. Maybe he was just deranged. We can never know his motivation, just the aftermath of his actions, the lives lost, the families destroyed, the futures wiped out of existence.

In college I belonged to the university’s LGBT group. During orientation my sophomore year, our group had a booth along with all the other groups on campus. I remember one girl bouncing up to the booth manned by myself, and another guy who, I suspect she thought was cute. I remember when she asked the name of our group, and I said, “Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Aggies,” there was a look of horror on her face, and she didn’t say anything. She just slowly backed away. I thought it was funny back then, that she seemed to think being gay was something you could catch.

A straight guy on the school’s track team who was in my French class came up to me to say hi, and maybe to ask about an assignment. Later, when I saw him in class, he said that after he’d talked to me that day, he’d been harassed by members of the Corps of Cadets who’d shoved him and called him a faggot. I was mostly amused that the only person who was gay-bashed at my school, that I heard about anyway, was straight.

I had a t-shirt back then that said, “Nobody Knows I’m Gay.” I wore this shirt a grand total of twice to school, and both times I ran into a girl I’d gone to high-school with. The second time, she made a point to tell me that even though she thought my lifestyle was disgusting, she still loved me. Because this was twenty years ago, I can’t remember now if I told her to go fuck herself, or if I just thought it.

Around that same time, I was driving my first boyfriend to a study group. When we were stopped at a red-light, we kissed. I looked in the rearview mirror, saw the police car behind us and said, “Uh oh, a cop just saw us.”

“It’s not like we were sodomozing.” He said. Back then sodomy was still illegal in Texas.

But after I dropped him off, the cop car kept following me. It followed me for several blocks, and then it pulled me over even though I hadn’t done anything wrong.

When I asked the cop why he’d stopped me, he said, “Just a routine check.”

He looked at my license and registration. He ran my plates. He didn’t give me a ticket, and after a while he let me go. He followed me for several more blocks, and I understood it for the threat it was. He was intimidating me because he could. Because he had a position of authority and I did not. Because I had made the mistake of kissing my boyfriend in public.

If something like that happened to me today, I would have gotten his name and badge number, and at the very least have filed a complaint about him. But I was 19 and scared, and easily intimidated.

The same boyfriend and I were holding hands in downtown Bryan, TX. A gruff looking cowboy stormed up to us, and we braced ourselves for some kind of assault. We were both completely caught off guard when, instead, he said “I’m really glad that y’all are able to be so open.” And then he turned and walked away, leaving us bewildered.

Then my friend Andy killed himself because his family wouldn’t accept him.

Then Matthew Shepherd was tortured and beaten to death, and tied, naked and bleeding, and frozen to a fence.

Then Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed.

Then Christians in America funded a campaign in Uganda to kill gays.

Then some Muslim countries continued to punish homosexuality with death.

Then the United States Legalized Gay Marriage.

Then a terrible shooting happened in Orlando when a Muslim man walked into a gay club and killed 50 people. And as a country, we can’t even engage in an adult conversation about gun control, about religious extremism. We can only bluster at our right to bear arms, and the idea that you must respect people’s beliefs. Well a belief is just a thought, and if your deeply held beliefs don’t stand up to scrutiny, if they crumble when confronted with facts and the modern evolution of our understanding of ourselves and our world, then maybe you should re-examine your deeply held beliefs.

After the gym, after crying, after laying in bed with C and tracing the fine, dark hairs of his arm with my fingertips, I make my Sunday phone call to my mom. She doesn’t refer to the news, because she doesn’t acknowledge anything connected to being gay, my relationship, C, any of it. But I know that she saw it, and I know that she’s worried because she ended the call with, “Be careful, there’s a lot of meanness in the world.”

And then she told me that she loved me.

I still live in hope that time will change even her attitude. That one day she’ll accept me for who I am. That she’ll ask how C is doing. I have the same hope for my country and the world. When I was in college, I never thought that gay marriage, or marriage, as we now refer to it, would be legal within my lifetime. But people’s attitudes continue to evolve. Maybe religion will catch up, or maybe it will be discarded as a relic of the past.

If being gay means that just being yourself is an act of bravery in an often hostile world, the most active way for me to help change the world for the better, is to continue to be myself.

To let people know, every now and then that I exist.

 

Super-Connected

superstarYesterday I received a friend request from a friend of mine who died three years ago. It was unsettling. A few weeks ago I was whittling down my friend list to include only people that I actually care about, or people that I find entertaining in some way. When I came across her profile, I thought it was time to un-friend her.

I don’t know what the etiquette is, in these strange times when everyone has a presence on social media. Do you remain “friends” with the deceased forever, or do you let them go? She and I weren’t besties. She was a person who I used to know, who belonged to a group of people who spent time together. And then she moved to Detroit. And then she died. And then three years later I un-friended her.

And now there’s a new request in my inbox telling me she wants to be my friend.

I can only assume that she faked her own death. She’s been living in Aruba, drinking exotic drinks from coconuts with little paper umbrellas. I’d like to imagine her lying on a beach somewhere, and not cancer-riddled, decomposing underground.

I’m guessing the reality is, that whoever maintains her page, somehow noticed my absence and invited me back into the fold. Is the number of friends that we have on Facebook still important, even after we die?

After work, I met up with a former co-worker who was in town for a conference. We hadn’t seen one another in 15 years. He looked exactly the same, and I felt shabby, bald, and chubby by comparison. He had access to the Executive Lounge, so we sat across from one another catching up with complimentary finger foods, he in his suit and tie, and me in an embarrassed sweater.

After we both got fired from our former job back in 2001, he went back to school and got his doctorate while I wandered aimlessly from city to city. We asked one another if the other still remembered so and so, but neither of us remembered any of the same people. Still, it was nice to spend a couple of hours reconnecting.

He and I had never been friends outside of work, and if it weren’t for Facebook, we wouldn’t have stayed in touch, and we wouldn’t have found ourselves 15 years later, sitting in a hotel in Chicago, talking about the horrors of the presidential primaries, racism, and Postmodern Jukebox.

We hugged goodbye as he left to go see the Keynote Speaker, and I walked through the snow to catch my train back home. I was struck by how beautiful the city is at night, the ornate buildings near the Magnificent Mile lit up against the black backdrop of sky.

He is an awesome guy, and, under other circumstances, we could probably have been good friends. But as it was, we were two people who used to work together, who are still connected by the tenuous tether of the internet. I can’t help but think that all this connectedness is unnatural.

The train is still crowded, long past rush hour. I stand as the commuting zombies sit in overstuffed coats and scarves, gazing, hypnotized into their tablets and their phones. When I see someone holding an actual book, I immediately warm to them, even if the book in question is a terrible pulp novel. Especially if the book is a terrible pulp novel.

At home C is sitting on the couch with a close-captioned Futurama re-run in the background, his face blue lit by the rectangular screen of his laptop. He has this guilty expression that I’ve come recognize all too well.

“What have you done?” I ask.

“How can you tell?” He no longer bothers trying to deny it when I’ve caught him up to something.

He’d been doing research online and has changed his mind, again, on where we’re going to move next. This time I’m on board, though he’s sworn me to secrecy regarding our prospective plan. We never seem to stay in one place long enough to really connect to it.

Another city. Another set of ghosts to haunt. Of memories typed into an electronic page to try to make our lives seem somehow better than they are. The past is never out of sight and out of mind, because it’s always Throw Back Thursday, and the older you get, the more dead friends you collect.

C sticks his head inside the door.

“Are you busy?” He asks.

“No.” I say. I’m never too busy for him. He keeps me in the present, always pointing forward.We never dwell on the past, just focus on the future that we want to make together.

So when my friend who died asks to re-friend me, I do not accept the request.

 

 

Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain – Seattle, 2006

wifebeaterface2“Large, soy, no-whip hot chocolate!” The barista exclaims as I approach the counter, obviously pleased with his recollection of my hot, tasty beverage of preference.  It’s impossible to hold it against him with his soft blond curls. That he has memorized my order has less to do with his anamnesis than the fact that I am, if nothing else, a creature of habit. I am horrified to realize that I have become a coffee shop regular.

When I talk to her later, Hannah points out that there are worse things than patronizing a coffeehouse. “You could always be the “Norm” of the VD clinic.”

“Your usual double dose of penicillin, sir?”

We laughed about it, but still, it bothers me that I am so predictable.  I start to tell the barista, “No, this time I’ll have a mocha,” but think better of it.  I really like hot chocolate.

My green t-shirt smells like him. His scent seems to permeate every thread of the fabric. Masculine and strange. The disconcerting sense of his presence in his absence.

I sit at a table by the window. The reflection of my face is superimposed over the building across the street. Rust red brick building covered entirely by thick, green ivy. Swollen clouds of a ruptured sky bleeding the orange and purple brush strokes of sunset. So beautiful it doesn’t seem real. Downtown, above the jagged spine of skyscrapers and construction cranes the clouds are dark with rain. My reflection in the window is faded like a rub-on tattoo, disconnected from my being and any meaning. A pair of chapped red lips, upturned in an absent smile and newly formed wrinkles at the creases of my mouth. Cheeks darkened by the scruff of 5 o’clock shadow. A face that’s punctuated by a pair of eyes, blue, that are themselves windows. The reflection of a reflection, an infinity of coffee cups and longing.

I do not like the taste of coffee, but I love the way it smells, in seas of teacups steaming. Despite not liking coffee, I spend an inordinate amount of time in coffee shops, honing my mythology. The night before, he’d said, with stalwart certainty, “You are a Buddhist.” I don’t remember what prompted this assertion, but I remember thinking how little he must know me. I explained that Buddhists are interested in surrendering the sense of self, and I spend more time than anyone else I know analyzing, contemplating and inhabiting myself.

My anachronistic desire to be a writer, despite the fact that no one reads books anymore. The string of foolish decisions that have led me from being “Most Likely to Succeed” to sitting in cubicles and coffee shops and on park benches, counting joggers, counting leaves, counting the wrinkles on my hand. One more wrinkle than my wrinkled heart can stand. Counting every breath I breathe. Anything to keep from thinking.

I’m supposed to be working on my alleged novel. But instead I pull out an old journal from five years ago and read about what I was thinking and doing then. A worn, brown journal full of the black felt tipped scrawl of my messy handwriting. Words that become more tiny and insistent spidering toward the edges of the page, because it’s so important that I fit in as many of them as I can, to describe how I feel to my perennially fascinated audience of one.

I wonder if I’d been raised by apes or wolves, how I would perceive the world around me. How could I differentiate between objects and feelings if I didn’t have the words for them? What would thought be comprised of without words? Can you feel lonely if you don’t have a word for loneliness?

Maybe one day we’ll evolve beyond the need for language. We’ll be able to telepathically communicate our needs and desires directly from one brain to another and be intrinsically understood. All of the untranslatable longing and confusion will be unnecessary. Words obsolete.

In the coffee shop there is a dark haired young man with a black jacket and a red scarf. He is both a young man, sitting in a coffee shop alone, and at the same time he is the idea of a young man in a coffee shop alone. Which is more provocative? The young man with his individual likes and dislikes, a distinctive voice, a distinctive smell, a body and a mind full of faults and desires. Or the idea that a young man in a red scarf is sitting in a coffee shop alone?

Either he will leave, or I will leave and neither of us will have spoken to the other. If noticed at all we will remain archetypes, filed away in the other’s subconscious. The idea of a man sitting in a coffeehouse alone.

I cannot speak. I cannot connect verbally with other people, which is why, no matter how meaningless, how counterproductive, I am bound to the dream of being a writer. I don’t have a choice. Writing is simply the best way that I’m able to connect with people. I understand this about myself. That without my words I’d be stumbling around like a man with no senses, touching no one and being touched by no one.

A blond woman with fake fur around her collar sits between me and the young man in the red scarf, which is just as well. He’s already served his purpose.

Walking home from work the other night, in the rain, I was stopped at an intersection when I witnessed an accident. A car skidded on the wet street and rear ended the car in front of it which was stopped at a traffic light. I thought how lucky they must feel, on some level, to have momentarily escaped the mundane routine of their daily lives. To have made a connection with another person.

I am sitting across from a girl with pink hair, pink eyebrows and a low-cut pink blouse. She smiles at me and I smile back. I put my journal away and pull out a book he’d given me. Letters to a Young Poet. An early birthday present. He’d given it to me the night before, and no sooner was he out the door, than I’d pulled the iridescent ribbon away and ripped apart the white wrapping paper. I am an only child, and I have no patience. I am touched by the thoughtfulness of the gift, and the understated inscription on the front cover. “A special book for a special person.” He signed it “Fondly.”

My shirt smells like him. Remembered, his kisses, so insistent. Remember falling momentarily out of myself. Out of the moment. How I started thinking about the story I was writing, and my mind wandered into the safe, familiar territory of my impotent prose. Curled naked on my bed. His fingers tracing my spine.

Earlier I’d had brunch with the faggles. We sat in the Broadway Grill, a bright blue building decked with rainbow flags in honor of Gay Pride. Ducky comments on how buff my chest has gotten while I preen like a spoiled peacock. I sit at the edge of the table, and seem engaged, scooping up my eggs and home fries with a piece of french toast, and try to be engaged, but my thoughts are elsewhere. Clouded and sporadic as a vagrant storm. A long wait for food and a longer wait for the bill, no refilled drinks. Hugs all around and nice to meet yous.

I go from there to home to the grocery store and home again. I go from coffeehouse to coffeehouse. Illuminated by my laptop, or hiding behind a book. Every time the doorway opens, hinged and gasping like a startled ghost, I look up to see who has walked in. I fold up discarded poetry and drown it in my coffee cup (full of hot chocolate.) Write “I sit across from you in coffeehouses too afraid to speak to you.” Then delete it. A young man sits across from me in a worn, blue, western style shirt. And Willie Nelson sings “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” And it rains. But just a little. And I want so badly to feel the touch of another person against my skin. To really feel it. Fingers that flicker across my flesh, that bore holes into the very fabric of my universe and unravel it. Unmaking my mythology until every object is divorced from all meaning. There are only lips and hands. A body pressed against another body.

I want to talk to the man beside me, smiling over his newspaper.  His fine features, reading glasses, stylish, square toed leather shoes.  Now he speaks on his cell phone to someone else.  Now he stands.  Buttons his jacket.  Leaves.  I want to speak to the barista who wipes down the table.  His pale, white back visible when he leans over above his studded leather belt.  Later I do speak to him.  He asks if I’d like to try a gingerbread latte.  I say “No thank you.”  Now I sit across from a handsome man with dark, spiky hair and blue eyes.  He is the kind of man I expected to grow up to become.  He sits near me, but miles away, a distance I can’t imagine crossing.  The gap that divides the beautiful from the ordinary.

My thoughts are crabs that sideways walk along the beach of coffee seas. The embarrassed sinking ships of long misspent poetry. Tracing trails of cheesecake crust across a plate. Find myself staring at the hint of dark brown hair at the unbuttoned collar of a stranger’s shirt. His jaw. His lips. His eyes. He sees me seeing him, and he smiles. I look away. Fold in on myself like a Japanese bug of paper origami, drowning in cooling coffee seas. Close my book and put my laptop back inside my bag. Roll up the power cord. Put away my cup and plate. The air disappears from the room, and I’m outside. Blue eyes crying in the rain.