Hot in the Middle-Ages

Today is my 45th birthday, and coincidentally the hottest day in Seattle’s recorded history. I spent most of the past three days smoldering in front of a fan with a package of frozen blueberries on my chest. Like most people in Seattle, accustomed to temperate weather, I do not have air conditioning. Even the fan had only been ordered on a whim the week before. Now I find myself getting up in the middle of the night to soak my feet in cool bathwater in an effort not to die of heat stroke.

Last week I flew back to Texas to visit my parents for the first time in a year and a half. We were all finally vaccinated, so it seemed like it would be safe enough to make the trek. I sat on various planes inevitably surrounded by obnoxious families and inwardly fumed at their seeming inability to pull their face masks over their respective noses.

My mother picked me up from the airport in her white, Jeep Cherokee. I was in my customary black, face mask and all, a hold-over from my erstwhile goth phase.

I looked into my mother’s face, at the lines beside her mouth and eyes, the loose flesh of her neck, her thin, gray hair. She was starting to look like an old lady.

“Your beard is going totally gray.” She said, when I took off my mask. She quickly added, “but that’s okay!” And I realized she was just as unsettled by my own aging.

Back at my parent’s house, my mother warned me to always shake out my shoes before putting them on because the place had been overrun by scorpions after recent, heavy rain.

“I’ve already killed six,” she said, with some pride.

I looked around warily for any predatory arachnids scuttling across the floor.

The week passed as weeks with my parents usually do. I sat, watching marathons of HGTV and My 600lb Life. I watched people buy five bedroom mansions in Mississippi for less than I’d paid for a tiny, one bedroom condo in Seattle. I ate way too much and vowed that once I get back to Seattle I’m giving up sugar and carbs.

One evening I went out with my mom and aunts for Mexican food at a place in Madisonville, Texas with a giant, fiberglass horse out front. I watched as they gossiped and complained about how long it took the wait staff to take our order. Considering the abundance of Karen haircuts, I shouldn’t have been surprised at the constant grousing. My extended family are largely Trump supporters who believe that Covid is a hoax, so I prepared myself for an off handed comment that would make my head explode. Luckily the conversation remained apolitical. I had a watermelon margarita which helped soothe my frazzled nerves. When the meal ended, I added a bit extra to the meager tip they’d left as an apology to the beleaguered waitress.

The next evening I stumbled upon a scorpion skittering across my bedroom floor. I searched for something to clobber it with, and the only thing nearby was my mothers bookshelf, so I ended up repeatedly slamming a romance novel on top of it. My mother quietly came in and scooped the squashed corpse up with a paper towel.

One day my mother and I drove to the cemetery where my grandparents, and now two uncles, are buried. Another uncle, not much older than my mom, is in poor health and is suffering from dementia. I watch my mom throughout the week for any signs of memory loss or personality changes, but thankfully saw none. My big fear is that she’ll end up like my grandmother and I’ll have to move back to Texas to take care of her. The cemetery was too hot, so we didn’t stay long. My mother left some food scraps beside the far fence for stray dogs, and then we drove back down the narrow dirt road, a white cloud of dust billowing out behind us.

The town that I grew up in has become a ghost town. Even the few remaining stores and restaurants that were still around on my last trip have mostly closed. It is sad to see the derelict buildings crumbling in the Texas sun. As we drove to a nearby town to fill her truck with gas, my mother conducted a tour of our surroundings. She pointed out dilapidated buildings surrounded by rusting old junk cars, overgrown with weeds. I try to imagine the thriving small town of her childhood, but it’s impossible. It was already well into its decline when I came along.

On my last night, my dad arrived. He’d been off at work in Oklahoma and couldn’t get off. It was nice spending the week with just my mom. My father always adds an energy and tension to my visits.

“You should retire and come back home,” my mother told him. “And you should move back too,” she said, turning to me. “You wouldn’t even have to work. You could just watch TV all day.” My father and I both just stand in the kitchen guiltily. If it weren’t for my parents, I’d never set foot in Texas again, and the thought of living in a tiny, dying town is the worst fate I can imagine.

The next morning they drove me to the airport and I did my best to not seem too eager to be leaving. But as soon as we had hugged goodbye and my mom and implored me one last time to stay in Texas, and my back was to them, I felt an immense relief to return to my life in Seattle.

Now I’m back, and 45, and wilting in unaccustomed heat. My mother and father each called to wish me happy birthday. Sassy Bear sent a series of disturbing gifs. Otherwise the day is passing unremarked. I guess deleting Facebook has done a lot to leave me off the radar of my friends.

I took the day off work before I knew about the heatwave. Otherwise I may have gone into the office to spend the day in air conditioned splendor. Instead I sit in my living room in front of a fan. I bought a portable AC online, in case these high temperatures become more normal. I also bought a new laptop for myself, because I’m middle aged, with no children and a disposable income.

I’m ambivalent about being 45, so steadfastly fixed into middle age. Some days I feel like the same man I was in my early twenties, uncertain, romantic, full of dreams. Others I feel cynical, tired, old.

My birthday always coincides with with Pride. I ventured out to pick up takeout, and was surprised that so many people were out, sweating in the outdoor seating. There were no parades or booths, but it was heartening to see the young people clad in rainbows, making the best of things. I do my best to follow their lead, smiling in my too short shorts. A smile beneath a mask that no one sees, but that I know is there nevertheless.

Homeless/Spring

Before work the other day, I walked to the grocery store to buy a breakfast sandwich. I noticed that for the first time since the riots last year the plywood had been taken down from the store windows. The Urban Outfitters that had been next door for as long as I’d been in Seattle is gone now, and in its place a salon and spa is being built. I was noticing the mural on the walls in swirling, pastel rainbow hues, and was only peripherally aware of the homeless man walking toward me.

I heard him before I saw him, yelling incoherently, and skirted around to the edge of the sidewalk to give him a wide berth. Apparently not wide enough, because he veered toward me and shoved me against the brick wall of the grocery store. I walked quickly inside the store, pulling my jacket more tightly around me for comfort.

“Are you okay?” The security guard asked me. He’d witnessed the whole thing.

“Yes.” I said, and kept walking before he could engage me in further conversation. I wasn’t hurt, just startled. I was already running late, and was afraid of some kind of conversation that would cause me further delay.

The security guard moved past me, out the door, his phone in his hand, shouting after the homeless man who had already shambled up the street by then.

They were out of the kind of breakfast sandwich I’d wanted, with sausage, egg and cheese, so I got an omelet with Swiss on a croissant instead.

I grew up in a small rural town in Texas with only a few hundred people, none of them homeless. So it was a shock when I first moved to a city and realized how widespread homelessness is. And how seemingly unwilling cities are to solve this problem. Back then I still made eye contact with people, and if they asked for change I gave it to them and didn’t just walk quickly past, ignoring them.

One evening, not long after I’d first moved to Seattle, I was walking back home from having eaten out, and a homeless man asked for my leftovers. We were on Pike St, the purple and blue neon signs of night clubs casting carnival spotlights, as throngs of skinny-jeaned hipsters walked from bar to bar. I handed him the white, cardboard box of leftovers without thinking.

The homeless man opened the box, and as soon as I saw his look of confused disgust, I realized the mistake I’d made.

“What is this?” He’d asked.

“Tofu and vegetables.” I’d said, embarrassed.

The homeless man turned the box upside down and let the food splatter to the concrete at our feet.

I made an audible gasp. I was poor, myself, and that food was going to be my lunch the next day. If he hadn’t wanted it, he could have given it back, I thought.

After that my compassion toward the homeless was diminished somewhat. I learned to not make eye contact. To not pause. To walk quickly with purpose. Then I catch myself and feel guilty about my own heartlessness. A lost job, a large hospital bill, the lack of a parental safety net, and I could just as easily be out there myself. But as badly as I feel, my change remains in my pockets, and my leftovers remain firmly in hand.

Last week it was sunny and warm. I took long walks in the evenings after work in shorts, down residential streets overgrown with flowers and green plants. The sidewalks were littered with the pink petals of cherry blossoms. Looking downhill, you could see sailboats on the lake, fluttering white sails trailing a shimmering gold wake.

Young men jogged by, their chests glistening with sweat and heaving with the heavy breath of exercise. I smiled beneath my Dr. Who face mask. The pleasures of spring. More from nostalgia than any kind of lasciviousness. Everyone looks so young to me. If someone is under 35 it’s impossible for me to see them as an object of desire.

Last Saturday I had dinner with Sassy Bear. We were going to grab some burgers, but the burger place wasn’t doing indoor dining yet, so we had Thai. His hair was orange that week. A blue haired girl complimented him as she walked past and returned the sentiment. We scanned a barcode with our phones in order to see the menu.

I had pork belly with basil, and a runny fried egg adorned my sticky mound of jasmine rice. We talked about books and movies and our jobs. My job has been especially busy this past year, a stressor tempered only by the fact that I mostly do it from home these days.

Aside from this little divergence, I’ve mostly continued my anti-social, isolated existence. I’ve had the first dose of my Pfizer vaccine though, so I’m hoping that by later this year, we’ll have veered slightly closer toward what used to pass for normalcy. That said, I think the days of dance clubs, and crowded bars are now behind me.

After a week of sunshine, the sky has turned gray and it’s cold and rainy again. I don’t mind the backsliding. The dreary weather and the rain is the main reason I moved to Seattle in the first place. Still, it’s reassuring to see promises of spring, and the hope for better, brighter days ahead.

Disconnected

I deleted FaceBook on a whim.

Later, when asked by a friend about my sudden disappearance, I’d vaguely alluded to concerns about privacy or the way users’ information is shared. To be fair, I had seen a pretty disturbing documentary on Netflix about this very thing. But if that played any role in my decision to delete my account, it was only a small one. Let’s face it, there are pics of me in my underwear on my Instagram. How concerned about privacy can I actually be?

The truth is, I found myself becoming more and more annoyed with my so-called “friends.” Back in it’s nascent stages ten years ago, when we’d all collectively left MySpace for the newer, cleaner site, it was mostly pictures and updates from my friends about their lives. Since I’d moved around so much in my twenties, I thought it was a great way for me to stay in touch with my friends from out of state who I could no longer spend time with IRL.

Fast forward a decade, and most of my actual friends had either deleted FaceBook already, or rarely posted anything. Those that remained were mostly people I’d worked with, minor acquaintances, and people that I’d never met at all. My dad and my aunts were on FaceBook. I was getting friend requests from cousins that I hadn’t seen in twenty years, and from people who hadn’t liked me in high school.

Scrolling through posts had become a daily ritual. I was in the habit of waking up in the morning, reaching for my phone and thumbing through bland memes, snarky observations, and far more political commentary than I could stomach. I was quietly horrified by the weekly alerts from my phone letting me know by what percentage my screen time had gone up from the previous week. I spent hours a day sifting through posts from people who I largely didn’t know or care about. I looked at it on and off throughout my work day, in the evenings on the couch, and in my bed before I went to sleep.

I’d become dependent on “likes” for validation. If a post didn’t receive many, I’d delete it in shame. But that was the draw of FaceBook. It was a reality you could curate. The selfies I posted were all flattering. (The ones I was tagged in never were). I posted pictures of meals and cocktails in nice restaurants, and never the fast food at home alone in front of the TV. In FaceBook reality I was surrounded by smiling friends, vacationing in lovely cities, and my jokes always landed.

In the month or so after it was gone, only three friends messaged me to ask about it. For a while I’d still find my finger searching for the app when I opened my phone. There were times when a funny observation would occur to me, and I’d reach for it, and remember it was gone, along with my perpetual affirming audience.

I texted C and said, “I deleted FaceBook, and now I don’t have any friends.”

He responded, “Those friends were an illusion.”

And he was right.

After a while I realized that I suddenly had more time. I was paying more attention to my real life instead of trying to nurture a persona. I was more present, and I felt better. I wasn’t comparing myself to others as much, or feeling some nagging longing for a more real and substantive connection.

Now if I could just ween myself off of Reddit, I might actually have time to work on my supposed novel.

 

When the Snow Melts

When the snow melts, the sidewalk seems cleaner. Washed free of clumps of rotting leaves. I go for a walk through the neighborhood, partly to take advantage of the brief splinter of sunshine that creases the clouds, but mostly just to get out of my stuffy apartment and be somewhere else. Anywhere else.

A woman dressed as a harlequin in black and white, with face paint and black dimples skips down the street smiling. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen her, and I find myself grinning goofily beneath my black face mask. She represents the quirky city that I fell in love with. Seeing her skip past me is like the promise of spring. But she also evokes the memory of dancing in crowded clubs, when social diseases were the only ones I was concerned with catching.

Hard to believe this disease, and the isolation that defines these stillborn days, has been lingering for a year. It started like the punchline of a joke stuttered by a thrift store god. I called it an apocalypse of inconvenience and we thought it would last two weeks and disappear. But it didn’t go away. It doesn’t go away. And the joke is no longer funny, if it was ever funny.

For a while I missed my friends. Then isolation became grooved in routine. Then I found myself shrinking away from invitations to safely socially distance in some outside bar, not because I’m concerned for my safety, but because I’ve trained myself out of the need for human contact. Spend asexual nights wrapped in a comforter on the couch watching true crime documentaries on Netflix.

When the snow melts, everything that had been hidden beneath a glittering, white glaze becomes visible again. Brown and trash littered. I mark the passage of time in the number of tents erected by the homeless in the parks and little patches of green that dot the city. In the little park at the bottom of the hill, first one, then three, then eight. Misery multiplies and it’s the same all over town. Buildings are boarded up and homeless tents continue to pop up like bandaids in a swimming pool.

One morning I walked by to see one of the tents had caught fire in the night. Was reduced to a black circle of ash that was covered for a couple of days by the snow.

One morning I walked by to see one of my neighbors, an old man in a rumpled jacket, smoking a cigarette in the rain, his blue surgical mask around his chin. He used to smoke in the stairwell, but people complained that it was a fire hazard, and voted to make the area a non-smoking zone. I voted for it, myself, because in the summer with my windows open his smoke had left my bedroom smelling like an ashtray. Then he moved to the front steps, until people complained about that too, and he was forced to stand out in the rain. I feel guilty and make a habit of telling him good morning as I walk past.

“Good morning.” He mumbles back, gruffly.

I never stop for further conversation. Good morning is pretty much the extent of my ability to make small talk.

When the snow comes, the old man is outside smoking in the snow. I wonder about the homeless people shivering in doorways, and I wonder about all the people in the multiplying tents and what their daily lives are like, and what they eat (or don’t eat), and if they’re warm enough, and how can we allow people to sleep in tents, or in doorways, but I know my compassion is just a thought that flits across my eternally guilty conscience. And when a homeless man asks me for change outside the 7-11, I only say, “Sorry.”

Think, I can’t solve the worlds’ problems!

Go home and obsessively order running shoes, and books, and moisturizer from Amazon.

For months I didn’t sleep. I’d doze for thirty minutes or an hour, then would wake up mind racing. Eventually waking and sleeping both seemed like the same hysterically gray daze.

I went to a pot shop to get something to relax me and help me sleep, but then I got intimidated and walked back out again.

All my Facebook promotions became ads for eye-bag concealer. I stayed home and obsessively ordered eye-bag concealer from Amazon.

I talk to my mom back in Texas. The winter-storm has left them without water and with spotty electricity. She and my dad camp out in her kitchen with a little propane heater he uses on his hunting trips. One of my cousins stops by to check on them, and I feel guilty for living 1,800 miles away and not being able to check on them myself.

When I call my dad on his birthday he complains that Biden is taking away jobs. He works in the oil industry. I tell him he should retire anyway.

“What will I do if I retire?” He asks. He’s a person who has to DO something.

“Nothing!” I tell him. “If I could retire right now, I absolutely would.” All I long for in life is the time to do absolutely nothing.

“I know you would.” My dad says. They are both convinced that I’m the laziest person who has ever existed.

I want to explain that if I was ever imprisoned, I’d do anything I could to get placed in solitary confinement. To me it would neither be cruel, nor unusual. To be alone with my thoughts, without stress or obligation seems like a heavenly existence. A reward for putting up with all the injustice, the nonsense and bullshit that permeates our waking days. Then I think that quarantine has been akin to solitary confinement for me. Days spent alone in my apartment, punctuated by Zoom meetings at work, and the errant Amazon delivery.

“Did you see those fools at the Capital?” My mom asks, referring to the fur clad, shirtless insurrectionists.

“Yes.” I say.

“Someone should line them up and shoot them all.” She says. She is not exaggerating. My mother hates disorder more than anything. She has no political affiliation and no ideology. She just wants people to behave civilly, and becomes disproportionately angry when they do not.

I have inherited her anger. Find myself reading the headlines of articles on news aggregates smoldering like a butted cigarette. Parcel memes through slitted (and apparently bagged) eyes. I feel like I spent four years waking each morning with the query at the forefront of my mind, “What are we angry about today, hive mind?”

That anger that held me like a balled up fist for four years, seems to have largely dissipated with a single election. Or maybe I just became too tired to be angry. Or maybe all of my emotions are flattening out with middle age.

When it snowed this year, it piled up more than a foot outside my window. I watched people in fluffy, orange jumpers shuffle past on skis, and I watched people dragging children on the lids of garbage cans, and sliding down the steep hills in makeshift sleds. For the most part they were wearing their masks, and keeping their distance, but there was a feeling of sudden, unexpected freedom after a year spent confined.

I did not slide down the hill on a garbage can lid, even though one of my neighbors set some out in the foyer for anyone to use. Other people saw snow dappled thrills, and I saw broken bones and hospital bills. My back hurt just thinking about it, and I took some Ibuprofen in quiet, middle-aged protest.

A friend from Texas, now living in Portland texted me in his excitement at the winter wonderland. I admonished him that there was nothing wonderful about snow. It is cold and wet and inconvenient. It’s basically sky garbage. There is nothing romantic about it!

Later, after he texted that their electricity had gone out, I responded that I was too good a person to rub it in his face that he’d wanted the snow and would now have to deal with the repercussions.

Despite my contrarian words, I find myself taking pictures of the snow covered neighborhood. The evergreens dusted in white, and the glistening powder covering the hills, the cars, and the rooftops of houses. The beauty is irrefutable. Even for a curmudgeon like me. I post a pic on Instagram in a desperate bid for likes.

When the snow melts, it feels like the past is dissolving with it. The years of stress and solitude, the pent up anger and sleepless nights break into crystalline particles, spread and disappear. When the snow melts there is green beneath, quiet as a promise, and it feels like an ending. And a beginning. Then again, maybe it was just frozen water that had nothing to do with hope or renewal. But I’m my mother’s son, always looking for order, for poetry in the littered gutters. Whether it’s routine or stark stupidity, I look forward to the melting snow, and the opportunity to venture out again, to walk the streets and find the fragile beauty of another of the Earth’s finite revolutions. To catch it on my tongue, crisp and disappearing. Always too quickly.

The Best Worst Year

The Sikh gentleman behind the counter kisses the lottery ticket before he hands it to me. For luck. I worry silently behind my mask about germs, but I am already committed.

Once when I’d come in to get my daily dose of diet soda, he’d asked me how much I make an hour. At first I thought I hadn’t heard him, because, being from the south, one simply does not ask a stranger how much money they make. After I got over my shock, having inwardly collapsed onto an imaginary chaise lounge, fanning away the vapors, I answered him. I found myself awkwardly apologizing and telling him how grateful I am to be gainfully employed when so many people are struggling.

Because he is literally the only person I’ve spoken to in real life in months, I don’t hold his impertinent question against him. I even forgive him for charging me full price for my refill.

“Goodbye, my friend.” He says as I leave, from behind a gold bandana that matches his gold turban.

I slip the lottery ticket into my wallet and walk back home so I can login and start my work day.

I only ever buy lottery tickets when work is especially stressful. I took statistics in college. I know that I’m more likely to be struck by lightning than to win big. I don’t expect to win. But for $2, I can spend about 24 hours imagining that my life could be a dream.

Not that my life is all that bad. Since I’ve been working from home, I’ve lost 10 pounds. I’m running more, and snacking less. My workout from home seems to yield the same results I was achieving at the gym. I’m slowly fixing up my place. The biggest problem in my life is trying to decide whether to hire an interior designer to remodel my kitchen, or to attempt to coordinate it all myself.

I love being able to work from home. To sit in my room, with warm lighting instead of glaring, overhead fluorescents. To shuffle around in slippers. I love spending weekends watching bad TV, playing video games, and listening to the music I loved as a teenager. I discovered there is such a thing as single-player boardgames.

I love watching movies curled up in a blanket in my living room.

I love getting takeout and eating by myself.

I love working in sweatpants.

I love having a ready, and totally valid excuse to not have to see people.

As a completely anti-social introvert, my personality type has probably been among the best suited to deal with a global pandemic that requires the bulk of society to isolate itself.

Now I live in fear that with the vaccine, life will revert to the way it was. That I’ll have to go back into the office. That I’ll be obligated to be social. To sit in crowded bars with too loud music, struggling to hear inane conversations that I don’t actually care about.

I totally want companies to thrive, and the service industry to rebound, and the people who have lost their livelihood to be able to regain it. I want people to be able to go to bars, and concerts, and festivals again. But…part of me, let’s face it, a big part, has found this year to be the best year of my life. And I selfishly don’t want it to end.

So I find myself sometimes picking up a lottery ticket. Not with dreams of Scrooge McDucking into a vault of gold coins, but with the vaguest of hopes that I could live a life of comfortable leisure, isolated in pajamas in my living room forever.

Anger

When I was 19, I drove my college boyfriend home from school, and we kissed at a red light. Looking in the rearview mirror, I saw a police car stopped behind us.

“Uh oh.” I’d said.

My boyfriend laughed it off and said, “It’s not like we were sodomizing.”

At the time sodomy was still illegal in Texas, though only for gay people. After I dropped my boyfriend off and continued on my way, I noticed the police car was still behind me. The car followed me for several blocks, and then finally pulled me over.

When I asked why he’d stopped me, the swaggering, white cop had said, “Just a routine check to make sure your license and registration are in order.”

He made me get out of my car and hand him the aforementioned license and registration. After making me wait while he took my paperwork back to his car, he eventually came back and said that I was free to go.

He followed me the rest of the way home.

I understood he’d only stopped me to intimidate me. To exercise the power of his authority over me. To put me in my place.

I was just a kid then, and afraid of what someone in his position could do to me. If something like that happened now, I’d get a name and badge number. At the very least I’d file a complaint and at best sue for discrimination. I would not have any fear that a cop might murder me.

Having the luxury of not having to feel terrorized by the people who are supposed to protect and serve us should not be a privilege afforded only to straight, white people.

I have no idea what it must be like for people of color who have the legitimate fear that a routine traffic stop could kill them. I don’t know how the repeated headlines of yet another black person being murdered by police must affect their psyche. I can’t imagine the trauma that must cause.

But I think I have an inkling. The barest sliver of an inkling. Coming from a deeply racist small town in Texas, I have witnessed overt racism my entire life, but I’ve never understood it. The concept of it has never made sense to me. Human life began in Africa. We are all part of the same family tree. The idea of assigning value based on the amount of melanin in one’s skin is insane.

The times we are living through are insane.

I don’t know why the murder of George Floyd by police was the watershed for what I hope is radical reform of a deeply racist, authoritarian institution. It seems like every other week for as long as I can remember there has been a news story of someone meeting a similar fate. There’d be a flash of anger. A Facebook furor. But nothing ever changed.

This time feels different. Maybe the heightened anxiety of dealing with a global pandemic already had everyone on edge. Maybe outrage accumulates. Maybe enough was just finally fucking enough.

Even my mother back in Texas was angry. “They should round up all of those police that did that and shoot them.” She’d said. Of course, she’d also suggested that the people looting should be shot as well. True to her Texan heritage, her solution to most of life’s problems is to shoot them.

I get the anger.

I feel like I’ve been angry every day for nearly four years. I walk through town with my shoulders hunched. I clench and unclench fists. I’m angry at work. I’m angry at home. I go to sleep angry and wake up angry. My anger is a giant, red ball. A flashing police siren. Red. A splash of graffiti over the boarded window of a closed shop. Red. The spilled blood of another murdered black man. Red.

I do not know what to do with it.

I anxiously watch other people go to protests. Anxiety is an easy excuse when there is a deadly virus still rampant. But probably not the whole truth. If there was no virus, would I be out marching in the streets, adding my voice to the angry masses? Or would I still be curled up on the couch watching the last season of Supernatural, “liking” my friends’ posts to defund the police on Facebook?

In Seattle parts of the city look like a war zone. At 4:00am in my neighborhood, streets were fogged with teargas. The police station has been boarded up and abandoned. Tonight in the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone people are calmly watching documentaries on a cordoned off street outside the empty station.

At 8:00pm the neighborhood cheers to support our healthcare workers.

I am at home, watching Sam and Dean battle wayward Angels. I respond to posts on social media with the red faced anger emoji.

I am angry in a general sense at the society that voted for the current white supremacist in chief who has used his platform to normalize bigotry.

I am angry at the machinery of institutionalized inequality.

I am angry about gerrymandering and marginalizing.

I am angry that the people who are supposed to protect us are often the biggest threat to our safety.

Then there are the little angers.

I am angry that having a middle aged body means that turning over in my sleep can screw up my back for two weeks.

I am irrationally angry at people who litter.

I am angry at people who don’t seem to know how to walk down a sidewalk.

I am angry at guys on gay dating apps who describe themselves as “chill.”

I am angry that my ceilings are so high in my living room that I can’t hang my mini blinds.

At any given moment, one or more of these big or little angers (or any number of greater or lesser angers in between) is fighting for dominance in my selfish, middle aged, white mind.

Most of all, I’m angry at myself. I’m angry that I have lived for nearly 44 years just accepting the status quo. Of allowing these atrocities and saying nothing. I may not know what to do with my anger or my anxiety. But I know the very least I can do is say something.

Sorrow

IMG_9699She died on the last day of March.

My best friend from high school told me that morning via messenger. I was “working” from home which translated to sporadically checking emails between bursts of packing up cardboard boxes for my move.

I sat on the edge of my bed, staring at my phone, waiting for details. At first I assumed it was due to Covid-19, because that was the monster on everybody’s mind, but it wasn’t. She’d passed from complications of a long suffered illness which I’d known about, but hadn’t thought was all that serious.

“I’m just shocked.” My friend had said.

That made two of us. It didn’t seem real that someone my age, a member of our tight little high school group, could possibly be gone.

“I’m just…shocked.” My friend said again.

And really, what else could be said? I hadn’t even known she wasn’t doing well. I tried to remember the last time she and I had spoken. The last time I remembered I’d been living in New York City, which had to be five or six years ago. We’d exchanged a few messages, and she talked about some day visiting, though she never did, and now never will.

The last time I saw her in person was probably eighteen years ago. She’d come to a party at my apartment in Austin with some friends. Back then I was a person who threw parties. I was getting ready to move to Los Angeles. It was strange to see her in the city, so far removed from the tiny, farm town that we’d grown up in. I remember standing outside with glasses of wine and feeling so sophisticated even though some unruly guests were trying to set fire to a bag of Cheetos on the sidewalk.

It didn’t occur to me that that time would be the last time I’d ever see her. When we were kids, I’d stupidly thought that our little group, the Deadbeat Club, would be close forever. How could any five people who loved each other so much, who went through adolescence in the Bible Belt together ever drift so far apart?

But drift we had, and it hadn’t even taken very long. Three of them were a year ahead of my friend and I. After they graduated, the last year in high-school had been a long, lonely one for the two of us left behind. Three of us lived together in college for a while, but the drift, once it had begun, was irreversible.

I remember being in Kindergarten when she was in first grade. My older cousin Josh had told me that during recess I was supposed to call a girl a name so that the girl would chase me. I didn’t question the reasoning behind this, but I distinctly remember going up to her and calling her “chicken legs” and running away squealing in delight while she chased after me.

We spent our high-school classes passing obscene notes back and forth which, had they ever been read, would have gotten us suspended at the very least. Because she and I were neither a cheerleader, nor a football player, respectively, it somehow fell to us to raise the flag during Friday night football games. I remember standing on the edge of the field, slowly raising the flag while the National Anthem blared squeakily through the loud speakers. She stood with her hand over her heart, and when people cheered, she and I would yell, “Hail Satan!”

I remember a group of us driving the two lane farm roads one weekend night, stealing the flashing lights from construction signs. My best friend saying, “We’ve hit the motherlode,” her eyes moon big as we drove up to a row of ten or so signs all flashing yellowly together.

Other memories. Backstage at one act plays. School field trips. The time in her bedroom where I saw her birth control pills, and she panicked, not realizing that I had absolutely no idea what they were.

The summers back then seemed so long. The school year, endless.

The years since graduation are a blur.

She married. Got her PhD. Had three (four?) boys. I had a string of boyfriends, and lived in a string of cities, worked a string of dead-end jobs. We “liked” the occasional post on one another’s Facebook.

Several people from high school got in touch with me the day she died. People I hadn’t spoken to or thought about in twenty-five years. People I had never been friends with, and had barely known messaged me. Even her husband took time out from his own grief to send me a message. That was the most surreal part. That anyone would think of notifying me when I hadn’t seen her in nearly two decades.

Even if there hadn’t been a global pandemic, I wouldn’t have flown to Texas for her memorial. I couldn’t imagine what I might say to her family or her friends. Part of me was glad to have the ready excuse to avoid it altogether.

Because I’m a self-centered asshole, it was impossible to think about her death without also thinking of my own mortality. In the God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy called 31 a viable, dieable age. If that’s true, then 43 must be even more viable and dieable. I’ve reached a point in life where it isn’t unheard of for someone my age to die.

I was sad for her, for her life that had been cut short, and sad for her husband, her parents, and her boys. But mostly I found myself grieving a time in my life that exists only in memory. There are now fewer than a handful of people that really knew me when I was young. When they’re gone, then that boy will not have existed at all.

I packed my things into cardboard boxes. My condo closed early, and in mid-April, I moved into my new place. Things were so hectic that there were days I didn’t think of her at all. Then suddenly, while unpacking glasses, or struggling to hang curtains, I’d remember she was gone and feel guilty that I’d been happy.

Weeks later, I’m mostly settled into my new place. Sometimes I just stand in the middle of my living room, marveling that this place is mine. I never thought I’d be able to afford a place in this neighborhood and this city. Teenage me had dreamed of owning an apartment in a city, but the adult me who’d spent years struggling just to make ends meet had never really thought that it could happen. I remember sharing that dream with her, back in the days when anything seemed possible, and things like death, and middle-age were as far removed as the stars in a small town, Texas sky.

 

An Apocalypse of Inconvenience

IMG_9580Then things got worse. Shelves in the stores were empty. The bars and restaurants all shut down. No one was out on the streets. The stock market was crashing. There were terrible people who hoarded toilet paper and hand sanitizer, and even worse people who stockpiled it so they could re-sell it at trumped up prices for a profit.

But there were good people too. Healthcare workers who put themselves at risk, working long hours to help others. Strangers who bought groceries for the elderly, and volunteers who got together to make sure that poor kids got enough to eat outside of school.

As usual, I fell squarely in the middle. Of course I don’t want anyone to get sick (well, maybe old, straight, white, male republicans), and I recognize that social distancing can at least slow things down enough so that our hospitals don’t get overwhelmed, and the most vulnerable people can be protected. But mostly I’m just annoyed that I can’t get Thai food when I feel like it, and concerned that with the gym closed, my chest is going to deflate.

On Sunday I met with the Co-op board about my condo. The president (a self described drag queen real estate agent) held out his hand for me to shake. I was mortified, but I shook it anyway, because I wanted to seem friendly and agreeable…and I really wanted the apartment. I was relieved when the other board members bumped elbows with me in greeting, and spent the whole meeting reminding myself not to touch my face until I could go home and douse my offending hand in bleach.

Afterward, I went to the grocery store to pick up some frozen dinners for the week ahead. Standing in front of an empty aisle of cleaning supplies, a fellow shopper caught my eye and said, “This is crazy!”

“Yeah.” I agreed.

It is crazy.

It is absolutely insane.

My mother called from Texas and told me to stock up on bottled water and canned soup. To not leave my apartment.

“Don’t go to brunch.” She said. “Talk to your friends online.”

I did not explain to her that I’m already basically a shut-in, and that social distancing is par for the course for me.

At work things were getting really tense. Employees who were at risk were justifiably angry about having to take public transportation and go into an office when they could just as easily work from home. They were worried about themselves, and about their families. I didn’t blame them. I was worried too.

When management finally gave us the go ahead to work from home yesterday, the team was still ready to riot. I think the anxiety of not knowing what’s going to happen just has everyone on edge, and it burst out during a shouted and incredibly awkward meeting that left everybody dazed and uncomfortable, but which I voyeuristically enjoyed.

Today I worked from home, cozy in fuzzy slippers. I watched videos on YouTube and wept a little at clips of Italian and Spanish people playing music and singing together from the balconies of apartment buildings. It was endearing, but I couldn’t help but acknowledge that if my own neighbors started doing that, I’d yell at them to knock it off.

The one great thing about being home was that I’d be there to accept a package I was expecting from FedEx. Or so I thought.

I watched the tracking all morning, and then half past noon it said my package had been delivered. Supposedly someone named R. Barnes had signed for it. I’d been home the entire day. My buzzer never rang. There isn’t even anyone named Barnes in my building. I looked outside and there was no package to be found.

While I recognize that there are people with real problems. People in the service industry who can’t work from home, and others who have lost their jobs altogether. People who are struggling to make ends meet. People who are literally dying…for me personally, this has all just been an apocalypse of inconvenience.

Packages not delivered. Brunches canceled. The gym closed.

I try to remind myself that this is only temporary. New cases are already going down drastically in the regions that were first hit. People are recovering. But I worry that things are going to get worse before they get better, and that many of the businesses that have had to temporarily close down may never be able to recover. I wonder what the long term effects are going to be.

For the time being, I’m glad that I’m still gainfully employed. That my apartment purchase is going along smoothly. That my family and friends are healthy. That there are people in the world who are kind. That FedEx is still delivering…just not to me.

 

 

 

Safe as Houses

eUzl8ji1TMCnje0aRkRbbA“I saw on the news that Seattle is the epicenter of this thing,” my mom said during one of my thrice weekly phone calls home.

“This thing” was cases of the novel coronavirus in the United States. For about the billionth time, I wished my mom didn’t have access to a television or the internet. Now she’s going to spend every waking moment in a state of anxiety over what must surely be my imminent death from the plague.

Because I’ve inherited her temperament, I will also spend every waking moment in a perpetual state of panic. Though my anxiety has less to do with the global pandemic, and more to do with the purchase of my first home.

I’d first started toying with the idea of buying a condo last year. I was finally earning a decent living and not just struggling to survive. A friend had told me about a program to help first time home buyers in Washington state. After looking at a couple of studios that were each too small to fit my bed into that were both going for more than $300,000, I’d surrendered the fantasy and resigned myself to the fact that I was just going to have to be a renter forever.

I still looked at real estate apps longingly, not really expecting to find anything I could possibly afford. I get by, but I’m not making tech industry bucks. So when I saw an open house for a one bedroom in my neighborhood, I popped in for a look more as a lark than any serious expectation that I might end up actually being able to buy the place.

The place was adorable. A historical building. Hardwood floors. Twice the space of my tiny apartment. I immediately started imaging my life there. Movie nights with friends. Chopping vegetables for wine bottle dinners with Nina Simone playing. Dancing in socked feet and working away at my supposed novel.

After that tings began happening at a disconcertingly rapid pace. A bank pre-approved me. An offer was made. An offer was accepted. Earnest money was provided. An escrow was opened. Forms to complete and sign and initial were emailed to me and emailed back.

Now I’m faced with the near certainty of home ownership. I say near, because it’s a co-op, and I still have to go through a process of being vetted by strangers who’ll decide if I’m financially sound and a good fit for the community.

Because of the worldwide panic over the virus, and the tanking economy, I ended up with a rather obscene interest rate, and for the first time think I may be able to actually afford this place without falling into abject poverty.

For the time being, I’m just waiting for the closing so that I can finally relax and breathe again. As the virus impacts more and more aspects of my daily life, I try to decide how much panic I should allot to home buying and how much I should divest to the disease. The best I can do is continue to wash my hands obsessively and hope that the next 30-45 days pass by quickly and painlessly, and hope that the grocery store gets a shipment of toilet paper sometime soon.

The Promise

The other day C texted me saying, “Remember how I said if I ever became fat I would need you to kill me?”

I said, “That sounds vaguely familiar.”

He said, “The time has come to fulfill your promise.”