Meanwhile, the Present

IMG_1629No city can make you feel like the nobody you are like the Big Apple. Every day I’m reminded of my insignificance as I walk down to catch the ferry that takes me from Staten Island to Manhattan. Every morning I’m engulfed by a human swarm of tourists with European languages and expensive cameras around their necks, and locals going to the city for work; men with newspapers folded under their arms, women trailing rolling suitcases behind them. I’m jostled by elbows, by handbags, breathing stale morning coffee breath, sick to my stomach and claustrophobic.

I leave the tourists to the top levels, the sea air, and the spectacular view, and I go downstairs to the ship’s belly and sit on an out-dated wooden bench, reading some science fiction paperback from the library for the 25 minutes it takes to make it to the city. When the announcement comes that the ferry is docking, I mark my place with a wooden bookmark and join the swarm again.

The swarm takes me up steps, then down steps into the subway where I catch the R to Long Island City in Queens for work. Men in orange vests aggressively try to hand me a free, daily paper, which I always decline. I slide my metro card through the slot on the turnstile and join the thousands of other people on the subway platforms. The air in the subway is hot and stale with the slightest hint of hobo urine. In the morning I count the cockroaches and in the evening I count the rats. You can always tell the time in the subway tunnels by what type of vermin is scurrying underfoot.

I’m nearly always able to get a seat on the R, even if I sometimes voluntarily give it up to a pregnant or elderly woman. Mostly I sit in a corner seat so that only one other person can possibly sit beside me. I listen to music on my phone and pull out my book again for the 35 minutes it takes to get from Lower Manhattan to my office in Queens.

I like when they change the posters in the subway just to see what creative ways punk kids will think of to defile them. The floppy penis drawn with a black sharpie, dangerously close to Meryl Streep’s lips on some innocuous poster for an even more innocuous romantic comedy is pretty uninspired.

The building I work in was hastily converted from an old warehouse, a big, gray, windowless box with gray carpeting and gray cubicles. The work itself is largely data entry, which is to say it doesn’t require much in the way of thought, a dangerous thing, because it means my mind is free to wander. The fantasy worlds that I retreat to during my 9 to 5 become more and more elaborate. In Lance-world I float through walls, through time, through earth and steel and concrete in an amorphous bubble that blocks out noise and pollution, and that can travel to any point in space and time. Sometimes I rob banks and sometimes I float down to the bottom of the ocean to take a nap with giant squid.

On my break I go to the 7-11 and get a diet coke even though I know it isn’t good for me. I walk past the smokers huddled outside, talking and puffing. Every time I see them I think of my last job where I was a smoking cessation counselor, where I sat at home in my pajamas and talked to smokers over the phone to help them make a plan to quit. I never suspected that I’d look back on that job with so much fondness and regret.

At six o’clock I walk back to the subway to repeat my morning commute in reverse. My paperback, a stranger sitting next to me, our shoulders touching. Sometimes kids will break dance, or a mariachi band will play a quick song between stops, but mostly the trip is unbroken by distraction.

On the ferry home I don’t sit in the bowels of the ship. I stand on the deck. The cold, sea air makes my eyes water, even behind my glasses, threatens to blow the hat from my head. I watch the sun setting over the Statue of Liberty. When the uniformed ferry worker in the starched, white shirt and blue shorts pulls back the rope, I’m the first one sprinting off the boat, and up the hill. Home.

Sometimes when I come home Carlos has made dinner, and he shoos me from the kitchen because it’s “his” domain. We sit in our big, empty apartment (a table and chairs is the only thing we have in the way of furniture so far), and have dinner, looking out of our sea view at the water below, and Manhattan in the distance, a shiny, glittering dream.

Sometimes when I come home Carlos is still at work, and I get Chinese take out and watch a zombie movie and pretend to work on my supposed novel. Mostly I’m too tired to do even that, and just lay on our air mattress and retreat to my fantasy land again. My bubble comes and takes me up, through the ceiling of our apartment, into the atmosphere, into space, past Mars, past the moons of Jupiter, out further, beyond the edges of the galaxy and into interstellar space. I’ll disappear in the vast comforting blackness and doze off.

Every now and then I hear the bells from the church down the street that chime on the hour. Here on the island you can even hear crickets chirping, and are far enough away from the city to see one or two stars. Thinking of the vastness of space somehow makes me feel more significant than being in a crowded city street. In the vastness of space, even the Earth itself, as big and troubled as it seems, is just a speck of astral dust. I feel lucky that the conditions were favorable for life to begin, and that simple organisms managed to evolve, and somehow I managed to find myself alive and in this amazing city.

Carlos comes home and slips in bed beside me, doing his best to be quiet and not wake me, because it’s late and I have to get up early to go to work. I roll over toward him and butt his shoulder with my head like an insistent cat. He scratches the back of my neck and leans down for a kiss. This is significant. This is something. The weight of this feeling gives my life meaning, and gives me the spark I need to put on my  tie and dress shoes at 7 am and do it all again.




The Time Andy Killed Himself

76b“Did you hear about Andy?” Anisha asked me, leaning close to my ear so I could hear her above the throbbing bass coming from the speakers. Her vinyl dress squeaked against my vinyl pants. Her eye make-up was welded on, her hair crimped like Cleopatra’s. Her breath was alcohol and cigarettes. I felt it on my cheek as she whispered in my ear, “Andy killed himself in my bathroom last week.”

She started sobbing then, uncontrollably, as two of her friends pulled her away and walked with her outside the dance club. I stood on the dance floor beneath the strobing lights and watched her disappear. Other students continued dancing, oblivious.

Walking to my car later, a frat guy catcalled, “Hey space girl, nice pants!”

I drove home to the duplex I shared with college roommates, parked, and curled up in a fetal position. I felt like I should cry, or feel…something, but all I felt was numb. The whole world had lost it’s color, and my car, my apartment, the trees, the people around me were all the same dull gray as suppressed tears.

It was only later, when Anisha finally started attending class again, that I learned some of the details. My image of Andy was impossible to reconcile with the reality of his death. He was a year younger than me. Cute. Every time I’d seen him, at parties, dancing, or at the coffeehouse that we both frequented, he was smiling and laughing. But I understood, better than some people, I imagine, how someone could seem happy, and still want to die.

Anisha knew him best. She told me that when his parents found out that he was gay, they’d disowned him. He’d been completely dependent on them, and they’d cut him off. He couldn’t afford tuition for the next semester. He couldn’t afford his apartment, or to even feed himself. He got laid off from his part time job at a nursery. He was failing his classes. His world was falling apart.

Anisha had taken him in, given him a place to stay, and fed him, and even though she assured him that he wasn’t a burden, he felt guilty for accepting her charity. I’ll never know what was going through his head the night he pulled the trigger. Why, as a college sophomore, he’d felt as if there was no hope that his life was going to improve. I can’t imagine how horrible it must have been for Anisha, who loved him, to have found him, a red, bloody mess on her pale, blue tiled floor. But I think I can relate to what must have been his mindset.

Not a day passed in my teen years that I didn’t think of killing myself.

My own parents had abandoned me when they found out I was gay, if not financially, emotionally. In the 90s I had no gay role models. No “It Gets Better Project” to tell me that things could change, or improve. I thought that being gay was being doomed to a life devoid of happiness. I’d never fall in love.  I’d never marry. I’d never raise a family. I would exist in shadows with other deviants, living some half-life, cut short by disease at best, or endure a life of loneliness at worst. I could try and pretend to be straight, marry a woman and ruin someone else’s life too, or I could accept the fact that I would have to swim against the stream for the rest of my life. Either decision seemed unbearable and exhausting.

I don’t know what finally gave me the strength to keep going, or why Andy lost his. We were both lucky enough to have loving, supportive friends. I’d like to say it was courage that kept me alive, but I think in the end it was curiosity. I was just too interested in seeing how things would ultimately play out.

In 1996, the year Andy died, I was 20 years old, and I couldn’t possibly imagine the world I live in at the age of 36. Now there are major television shows with openly gay characters who love one another, are loved, who have families. In real life, there are happy, well adjusted gay people who live their lives, not in the shadows, but alongside everyone else, in the subway, the office, the grocery store. The fact that gay people can legally get married is something I didn’t think I’d even see during my lifetime.

Even I’ve changed. I live, openly gay, in the city of my dreams, with a (sometimes) sweet, handsome man at my side. The biggest surprise to me, after 16 years of life, and watching the world evolve around me, is to discover that I’m actually happy. I never thought that would be possible.

Sometimes I imagine what it would be like to travel back in time to talk to the teenage me. To tell myself that everything was going to be okay. I could have saved myself years of anguish and depression. (Although maybe I’d shield myself from the knowledge of my inevitable, premature baldness). Sometimes I wonder that if I talked to Andy, would it have made a difference? Would I have been able to convince him that life was actually worth living, that things would get better? It’s impossible to say. But I can’t help thinking about it sometimes, and wishing that the world had changed just a little bit sooner.