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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

The Bath -Texas, 1997

76bMatt has already gone to bed.

I am curled up on the couch, pale and blue-veined as a fetus, waiting for a talk-show epiphany to cure my insomniac dreams.  But tonight’s offerings are stale and unsatisfying.   30 minute advertisements for useless exercise equipment, teeth whiteners, and hair restorers promise self improvement broadcast through radio waves, all for the low, low monthly installment of $19.95 plus shipping and handling.

Heavy hoofed, I hear the sound of Matt goose-stepping down the hallway and see his face around the corner, cheeks as red and breathless as an Aryan peasant.

“Are you coming to bed soon?”  He asks, yawning, all freckles and lips.  “I can’t sleep without you.”  He scratches his shirtless stomach and squints beneath the flickering blue rectangle of the television.

“In a minute.”  I say.

“Would you like a bubble bath before bed?”  He asks. “It might help you sleep.”

“Sure.”  I say.

For weeks it seems I’ve been on edge, like there’s lightning pulsing just beneath my fingertips, always on the verge of exploding.  I sit in classrooms and coffeehouses vibrating. The air around me hums, and I feel like even a pin prick could send me spiraling into space. The prospect of a warm, soothing bath sounds enticing.

He marches me into the bathroom, suffocating me with sulfurous kisses.  As Matt runs a bubble bath, I stare at my reflection in the foggy mirror.  All I can see is myself at odd angles, an ugly boy with a face full of flaws.  I touch my cheek and wonder what Matt sees as he stands behind me kissing my shoulder with rose-petaled tumors, the lips I’d once thought to be his best feature. I feel like there must be two of me, separated twins masquerading as a single person, the sweet, shy boy that Matt is allegedly in love with, and the real me who observes all of this from a distance with the cold detachment of an imbedded journalist.

Matt sits on the side of the bathtub and looks at me,  my blond curls, too thin frame, my hands clasped behind my back. I trace the squares of faded blue tile with my toes, self conscious beneath his unwavering gaze.

“At school today a girl saw my necklace and asked me if I was in the Olympics,” I say, fingering my freedom rings.

“What did you tell her?”  Matt asks, grinning.

“That I was on the luge team.”

“Do you even know what that is?”  Matt asks, laughing.

“No.”  I say.  “But I guess she didn’t either, because she believed me.”

We laugh and whatever strange tension was lingering in the air between us is dissolved, disappears into the shadows, creeps behind doors, and settles into corners of the apartment, teasing our periphery with a presence I know can make itself manifest at any moment. For months it’s been like this. We talk about everything that’s not important and go through the motions of a relationship and behave the way that men in love are supposed to behave. Robotic dinners in Italian restaurants are followed by mechanical sex and nights devoid of sleep, just half closed eyes and the grinding of gears.

“Who couldn’t believe you?”  Matt asks.  “You look like a cherub.”

“But I’m not.”  I say, smiling up coyly through long lashes.

“Believe me,” Matt laughs. “I know.” He dips his hand into the water and says, “How’s this?”

I test the temperature with my big toe.

“Fine.”  I say. “Did I tell you I hurt my ankle today getting off the bus today?”

Matt seems non-plussed.  “I once broke my foot in three places on a skiing trip,” he says.

I frown.  Matt pushes up my chin to kiss my pouty lips.

He says, “Now into the tub.”

I obey.

He bathes me as if I  am a newborn, holding my head, the navy washcloth gliding hot, and wet, and gentle against my skin.  Every motion is Freudian blue, familiar.  Lost in the shallow wrinkles around Matt’s eyes, I remember the way the two of us were two years ago when things were new.  The midnight walks, roses, first touches, kisses, the excitement of exploration have all become routinized.  I long for the warm, unknown touch of a stranger’s fingers against my skin.  Even roses when expected as an everyday occurrence take on the role of a lesser symbol of Matt’s laminated love.

Two years ago, the furtive late night drives to Matt’s apartment, through swirls of fog and hints of chrome, I felt alive.  Wearing only my high-school letter jacket and nothing else, racing barefoot up Matt’s stairs and hoping no one saw me, I rang the bell, breath white puffs of steam in the chilly air.  When Matt opened the door  I dropped the jacket and stood naked in his doorway, bathed in florescent light, an unexpected invitation, a live wire of sexual impulses, all hormones and heat.  The thrill of being alive, and young, and sexual was still new and I thought that it would last forever.

“What are you thinking?”  Matt asks, rinsing the soap off of my forehead with hands full of warm water.

“Nothing.”  I say.

“Nothing?” Matt asks, looking pointedly at my burgeoning erection.

His hand closes over my penis, slowly moving up and down.

He washes the soap off of my neck, sending unexpected chills through my stomach.

“Lets drive to the beach,” I say, sitting up in the tub.  “Lets drive to the beach and watch the sun come up over the ocean.”

Matt lets his thick wrist fall into the soapy water.  “The beach?”  He says, surprised.  “That’s five hours away!”

Caught up in the idea, I go on, “We could take a blanket,” I say.  “We could have a picnic.”

Imagined, the wriggling of toes through wet, salty sand, seagulls and concession stands.

Matt shakes his head.  “It’s late,” he says.  “I have to work tomorrow and you have school.  We can’t just take off like that!”

The back of his hand brushes my cheek.  I watch a thick drop of candle wax drip down the side of a candle in the windowsill in a mean, red blob.

“Oh.”  I say, looking at my legs clouded and barely visible in the milky water.

“Maybe we can plan a trip sometime later when we’re not so busy,” Matt says.  “It was a nice thought, though.”

He smiles, splashes me.

I smile too, having learned to mimic the motions, if not the feeling.

“I’ve never seen the ocean.”  I say.

Outside rain slips against the window in a slow, thin drizzle, and the roar of the wind through gutters sounds like an imagined ocean.

Later, in bed, wrapped in Matt’s red, flannel sheets, I stare at his shoulders, the smell of him, masculine and strange, his good night kisses a stale film on my lips.  I stare unblinking at his freckled shoulders and listen to his even breathing. I cannot sleep.

The phone rings, violently, startling us both. I stumble over Matt’s sleeping body in a tangle of cotton sheets, trying to find the phone on the nightstand by feel and knocking over picture frames, candles, a pair of handcuffs.

The phone rings again, vibrating beneath my pale, thin fingers, startling me again, though I know exactly who it is, and exactly what has happened before I pick it up.  I let it ring one more time before I answer.

On the other end of the phone is my mother’s voice, a voice that recalls scoldings, kitchen smells and bed-time stories.  “Its me.”  She says, “Paw Paw’s passed away.” A long pause.  “The funeral is Tuesday,” I hear her say.  “We’ll have to buy you some decent clothes.”

“Okay.” I say.

“We’ll go tomorrow morning before your classes,” she says. “I don’t want you to miss any school.”

“That’s not important.” I say.

“Yes it is!” She sounds angry. There is another long pause before she says, “Anyway, I’ll call you in the morning.  Mama and Daddy love you.”

“I love you too.” I say.

Matt holds my shoulders in his thick, stubby hands.

“Was it about your Grandfather?”  He asks.

I nod, still holding the phone in my hand.

“So?”  He asks.

“His condition has stabilized.” I say.

“Well that’s good isn’t it?”  Matt asks.

I smile sadly in the dark as Matt drifts back to sleep.

When I come home from school the next day, Matt has dinner waiting for me.  Roses, a ransom of guilt and supplication are slowly dying in a vase of water on the dining room table.  Insistent, suffocating love proclaimed in petals beaded with water that seem to say, “I love you. Don’t leave me. Love me.” Cobalt blue, a pair of wine-glasses full of expectations and ulterior motives sits in wait.

“Its filet minion.”  He says when I walk into the kitchen.  “Like we had at the French restaurant that time after the opera, remember?”

Last night when it was my turn to make dinner, I’d brought home Chinese.

“You always have to out do me.”  I say, looking back and forth from Matt’s red face, the butterfly magnets on the yellow refrigerator, the fake marble countertop, the microwave.

“What?”  Matt’s lips are a tragedy.  “Don’t you like it?”

The dishwasher begins the rinse cycle.  “I’m a vegetarian.”  I say.

“Since when?”

The fish on the windowsill swims around and around above its black rocks in depressing circles, its fins like red and blue flame.

Stupid fish.

I make a mental note to feed it.

“Since always!”  I say, hearing my voice go high and shrill.

The fish opens and closes its mouth.

A bottle of red wine.

A corkscrew.

Two clear blue plates.

“I’ve known you for two years, and you’ve never been a vegetarian!”  Matt  says, a wooden spoon in his thick hand.

“Well, I always meant to be!”  I say, slamming my keys on the counter.

The microwave beats.

The oven light turns on.

The dishwasher pounds.

My head throbs and the fish swims around in depressing circles.

“You don’t know everything about me!”  I say.

“Well, I want to.”  Matt says softly.   “What’s this about?  Is it your Grandfather?”  He touches my face.  I force myself to stand perfectly still, when every cell in me instinctively recoils from his touch.

“Yes.”  I lie.

Matt’s arms around me crush me.

“Oh sweetie,” he consoles. “I know.”

Perspiration drips down the cold wine bottle in perfect little drops.

“You didn’t notice my haircut.”  I say.

“Yes I did.”  He rubs his thick fingers through my hair. “It looks good.” He says.

“My mom made me cut it for the funeral tomorrow.”  I say.  “She wants me to look normal.  She doesn’t want me to embarrass her.”

My mouth opens and closes.  I swim around in depressing circles.

Funeral.

My cousins, lanky and awkward in borrowed ties, don’t know what to say when they see me.

“How’s college treating you?”  They ask.

“Fine.”  I mumble and we all stand around on the patchy grass of the cemetery looking at our feet.  I notice with dismay that almost all of them are going bald, only a few years older than myself.  Standing pale beneath a sky that’s seven shades of gray, beneath a bucolic spattering of rain that doesn’t quite settle the dust.  As a child I was sheltered from this.  Death.  Premature baldness.  But I am no longer a child.  I have obligations, responsibilities.  I must behave.  I don’t want my mother to be ashamed of me.

Later, strangers who know my name and my familial ties shake my hand, ask about school, and all I see are grinning skulls, cracked lips, and the baring of teeth.

“What are you going to do when you get out of school?”  An old man asks, his wax lipped smile and firm handshake gripping my hand like a claw.

“I’m going to be a Time Traveler.”  I tell him.

My mother is several yards away, her arm around his grandmother’s bony shoulders, handing her a white carnation of long forgotten birthdays, casseroles, and Christmas eves. My grandmother is an old, gray turtle out of it’s shell. She looks so fragile with white hair spiderwebbed around her head.

“I dye my pubic hair blue.”  I say, and the man’s eyes widen and he thinks he must have misheard.

I smile as if nothing is wrong.

Strobe light.

The low throb of techno music.  Bone jarring, brain numbing music.  I dance.  I close my eyes and let my body fall into the bass, twisting and shaking in spasm after spasm of insistent, drug tinged desperation.  My black t-shirt clings to me with sweat.  Artificial smoke oozes down from the ceiling.  Hard bodies, wet and shirtless brush against me, throbbing, moving, spinning.  My eyes dart from body to body, from face to face.

Across the crowd, I see a familiar face in a dizzy, writhing sea of faces.  A face brown and Egyptian and far too serious.  The face belongs to a girl I know from class, from coffeehouses, raves, and late night, after hour parties. The face sees me and smiles in recognition and we move through the crowd toward one another.

“Hey, Anisha.”  I say as she presses against me with a kiss of greeting.  Her black vinyl dress squeaks against my black, vinyl pants.

“Did you hear about Andy?”  She asks, leaning close to my ear.  Her hair is like Cleopatra’s.  Her eye makeup is turned up at the corners in black and purple and silver lines.  Her breath is alcohol, cigarettes, and afterthought breath mints.

“What?”  I ask, the music pounding in my ears.  The dizzy glare of the strobe casts disjointed, jerky shadows.  People are grinding against me.

“Andy committed suicide last week.”  She says.  She is drunk.  She hangs onto me for support.  Her eye makeup is smeared, running down her face in black globs.  Andy was her best friend, a toothpaste smile, a GAP commercial.

“He shot himself in my bathtub.”  She says.

I don’t know what to say.  Andy was a year younger than me, cute, and always smiling.  I remember him playing board games at a party, remember talking once about a book I saw him reading, remember a lingering hug one drunken night as we were leaving, of Matt driving home, the two of us not speaking.

Anisha is still clinging to me, too tightly, grabbing my shirt, burying her face in my chest.  I go rigid as she slumps against me, until her friends pull her off and carry her away sobbing.  The dancers keep on dancing, oblivious.

All I want to do is get away.  I push myself through the crowd of bodies, of white faced zombies, mumbled apologies, and stumble out of the club, ears ringing.  At the door a girl grabs my arm and says, “I like your pants!”  I finally break away into the night, gasping for breath. On the drive home I pull over to the side of the road beneath the dim, yellow glare of a suburban streetlights.  Leaning over in the front seat with my knees pressed against my chest, I cry for the first time in years, but there is no sense of release. I’m still tight as a balled up fist and faded as a star that’s already been wished on and spent.

Months pass.  Another semester ends.  Holidays come and go. I move out of Matt’s apartment into an apartment of my own. For the first time since I was a teenager, I am single.  I don’t know how to fill the time. Time passes in a  string of nights, of feverish aching nights, one night stands with tall impostors, reckless and pressed against walls and bedsprings.  Promises are whispered into the folds of sheets and then forgotten. Loneliness is a phone that never rings.

Visits to my parents’ with baskets of laundry and grocery lists. We visit my grandfather’s grave, and later sit in different rooms watching different television shows, and I wish that I could tell them about Matt, or Andy, or about anything important, about the dull gray shade of loss that follows me like a stillborn twin. But there are things they don’t want to know, truths that they refuse to hear,  and comforts they can’t offer.

Anisha dropped out of school completely, and later, when I ran into her picking up some Indian food at a hole in the wall across from campus she told me about Andy. She told me that his parents, upon learning that he was gay, had disowned him, had cut him off so that he couldn’t afford school, or food, or his apartment. He’d been staying with Anisha for a couple of weeks, feeling like a burden, even though she’d assured him he was no trouble. And then one day she’d come home from class to find him in her bathtub, a gunshot wound to the head. She told me how she’d scrubbed and scrubbed with bottles of bleach, but still couldn’t completely remove the stain he’d left behind. There was really nothing left to say, just a final hug goodbye and wishing each other all the best.

Outside, lightning flashes, searing the summer air with clean, white heat.  It is night. The low bass of the neighbor’s car stereo rattles the naked glass of the bathroom window.  Steam from the full bath rises up, gray and snaking and hot in thick tendrils, fogging the window, the mirror, clinging to my skin.  The air smells like rain, wet leaves and bleach.

Next door the neighbors scream at each other in Spanish.  Thunder cracks through the summer night like a chemical explosion, rattling the windowpanes, shaking the stained white walls that smell like Play Doh, like crumbling chalk, like peeling paint.

Next door a baby cries, shrill and insistent into the night like a screaming cat.

In front of the mirror I take off my shirt.  My skin gleams gold and pale in the gentle light of one red candle.  The tiny hairs on my arms and chest glisten gold and blond in the shadows as I move.  I stare at my face, looking for wrinkles, a receding hairline, some mark of my inevitable decline.  I lean forward toward my reflection and whisper, “I love you.”  Close my eyes.  My lips meet the cool, steamy glass of the mirror.  If I keep saying it, I think, maybe one day I’ll believe it.

I step out of my jeans and underwear, and then, not satisfied, I step out of my skin, and leave my flesh, and muscles, and bones in a pile on the bathroom floor. I listen to the neighbors speak rapidly in Spanish.  My body spreads out like a stain across the tile. A baby cries. Tejano music plays next door. I sink into the bath up to my chin.  I imagine getting in my car and driving to the ocean before the sun comes up. Of shedding my clothes and walking naked across the beach into water until it covers me.

To let the ocean lull me to sleep.

To be carried away by dark and silent waves.

To drift off to a place where dreamers meet.

To meet my lover there beneath the waves.

And kiss him in the dark of endless sleep.

California -Austin, 2002

venicesurfersHannah left on Thursday.

I was the only one to help her move because I didn’t have a job, and because neither of us had any other friends.  She was wearing a bubble gum raincoat, just in case. Her dark, curly hair was pulled back out of her face. Her lips were red. She always made a conscious effort to dress as if she was already famous, an undercover celebrity hiding behind a pair of oversized sunglasses, out of place in the dismal gray cubicles we found ourselves working in.

We struggled downstairs with her hand-me-down furniture.  We laughed when the bottom fell out of her box of dishes.  We laughed when we got stuck, half in and half out, one of us on either side of her bulky couch.  We laughed when I tripped and fell and bounced on the springy mattress of her bed.

There was no room in the moving van for her chest of drawers so she left it on the sidewalk.

“Someone will take it,” she said and shrugged.

We went back inside for one last look around.  Empty, her apartment was as stark and embarrassed as an unmade bed.  She held my hand and gripped it tightly. I didn’t have to ask what she was thinking, we were too close for that. She expected me to follow her out there, to lay my beach towel down beside hers and soak up the bright, California sun. We’d talked about it, and I’d agreed to think about it, but I wasn’t sure. I couldn’t imagine a place for myself in Los Angeles among the mannequins driving down Rodeo Drive.

“I should go before it rains,” she said.

“Yeah.”  I agreed. There was no point in telling her not to go, or that I’d miss her. I knew that her mind was made up, and that I’d miss her was understood.

“I hate this,” she said, squeezing into the front of the moving van.

“I’ll see you soon,” I told her, holding her tattered, blue backpack until she was settled.

“When?”

“Soon.” I couldn’t look her in the eyes when I said it. She didn’t believe me, but she hugged me anyway and kissed my cheek.

She drove away slowly honking her horn, blowing a starlet kiss to the rearview mirror.  I stood watching her drive away, and I stood for a while after she was gone, waiting, for what I couldn’t say. A sign. Something to point me in the direction of my next bold move.

The sky turned from gray to darker gray.

The security lights all came on at the same time, orange and dull.

I didn’t leave until one of Hannah’s neighbors asked me in Spanish if she could have the chest of drawers.

I told her in English that she could.

A drop of rain hit the back of my neck and startled me.  The second hit my arm.  I squinted at the clouds as more and more drops fell.  The wind turned cold, so I turned to leave.

Driving away, I saw the woman dragging the chest back to her apartment.  The rain made her white dress cling to her brown arms.  I thought I should stop to help her, but I didn’t.  I just kept driving away.

Friday afternoon I fumbled through the week’s worth of dirty dishes, crumpled newspaper, and soiled clothes for a pair of not too dirty underwear.  Opening my mouth was like peeling up linoleum.  I wanted to go back to bed, but thought I should look for a job.

I went across the street to the little market owned by Ali and his son Nazim.

“Hey Chief,” Ali said, when he saw me. “No vegetarian left.”

Every day I came in for a breakfast taco and a cup of coffee. Today I’d gotten a late start and missed my chance for the taco. But the coffee was hot and black. Ali stood up with effort.  He smelled like incense and cheap aftershave. The top few buttons of his shirt were unbuttoned, revealing a thicket of gray and black hair tangled in gold chains. His foot was in a fracture boot.

“Anything else?” He asked.

“Just this,” I said, handing him a copy of the New York Times.

“Want these?”  He asked, holding a box of condoms.  “Someone take just one,” he said.  He showed me the tampered box with two remaining condoms.  “Or these?”  He added, holding a box of similarly tampered cigarettes.

“That’s okay,” I said, smiling and embarrassed.  He was always trying to give me half-empty egg cartons or cases of wine coolers with one bottle missing,  juice about to go bad, overripe fruit, milk a day after its expiration date.

“Want a bag?”  He asked me.

I always answered, “No, thank you,” but he always gave me a bag anyway, no matter what I purchased, even if it was a newspaper.

I paid for my paper and cup of coffee, and when I got back home I noticed that he’d slipped the condoms and cigarettes into my bag somehow without me noticing.  I threw the cigarettes away, but kept the condoms, just in case.

I sat at my table and turned on my laptop. There was something comforting about the familiar tone as it turned on. I sat, waiting for my coffee to cool, and looked out the window into the courtyard of my apartment complex. The view was limited to a small patch of bright green grass, and a smaller patch of sky blue swimming pool that it was still too cold to swim in.

Every day, I’d sit at the table with my coffee, with or without a vegetarian breakfast taco, and peruse the online job boards for something, anything. But with a degree in Sociology, and little experience or marketable skills, there were few prospects. Since college I’d been in and out of one cubicle or another, the only thing differentiating them was the shade of gray carpeting the walls.

Hannah and I had met while working at one such call center, the billing department for a third rate credit card company. Since I was working largely to pay off my massive credit card debt, I was ostensibly an indentured servant. Our cubicles were adjacent and we became fast friends, bonding over our shared love of The Cure and black and white French films about death, and our disdain for the public at large.

We worked there for nearly a year as our friendship blossomed. We started going to movies together, Hannah acting out the most dramatic scenes as we drove home and having me critique her technique in her parent’s hand-me-down SUV. Then we’d go dancing, sometimes to clubs where she could meet guys, and sometimes to clubs where I could. When we weren’t together we were on the phone, spending hours analyzing our relationships or the lack of them, our childhood, our dreams.

We became so close that I couldn’t imagine a time when I hadn’t known her. She became superimposed over my own history, so that the two of us were sitting together in the high-school cafeteria, the homecoming game,  the senior prom. The thing that Hannah most wanted was to be a famous singer, but despite a smattering of gigs in Austin, she hadn’t been able to build any momentum with her music. She thought that in Los Angeles her style would be better appreciated, and she’d have more opportunities.  My own dreams were less defined. I wanted to make a living as a writer. Nothing glitzy, just a modest living in a small, cozy place surrounded by books. But while Hannah had discipline to spare, constantly working on new songs and practicing her instruments, I’d barely written anything since college and wondered if my dream was misplaced, a thing to get over so that I could finally grow up and find some proper, grown up career.

Then two months ago Hannah had been fired for repeatedly shouting an obscenity in earshot of a client who’d complained, and I’d been fired shortly thereafter for writing a scathing comment on an employee discussion forum about the disparity between our salaries and that of the CEO. Hannah took this as a sign from the universe that it was time for us to move on. I was mostly panic stricken about what was sure to be my inevitable eviction and starvation.

The job boards were not forthcoming. No one was hiring. I couldn’t even get the temp agencies to call me back. My initial relief at being free from the job I hated quickly turned to anxiety that I wouldn’t be able to find another job to hate. In the first weeks of my unemployment I spent hours sending my resume to any employer advertising a job I was even remotely qualified for. But as the weeks became months, my motivation became apathy, and the intensity of my search waned and became half-hearted searches punctuated by frequently miserable bouts of wallowing in self-pity.

After spending a few minutes looking for jobs, I turned instead to the entertainment news, the funny memes of the day, and porn. Part of me felt like I should take advantage of the time off to finally write that novel I’d been thinking of for years, but I couldn’t seem to get started. Instead of writing I bought a canvas, thinking I could get out my creativity in this other medium. But the easel and canvas remained untouched. I told myself that I was just too anxious about being unemployed to focus on my art.

The truth is the blank page and the bare canvas are too too full of promise. Nothing I can create can be as perfect as their blankness.  In my mind images pulse and writhe, bodily.  My fingers twitch to grab the brush to just paint for the sake of painting, write for the sake of writing.  But my mind refuses.  As long as the canvas remains empty there is the idea of beauty, of something substantial, a body that bleeds and sweats.  But the second paint from my brush touches it the potential is diminished.  A canvas is too small and ordinary to carry the beauty of my dreams.

If I don’t paint, then I can’t fail to realize my mind’s landscapes.

I can remain full of promise, like California, a dream.

Plus I realized that I seemed just as cool by merely keeping an easel in my living room, a glass jar full of paintbrushes on the windowsill, and telling people at parties that I’m an artist.

Hannah wanted me to move with her to Los Angeles. She tried to sell me on the beauty of it. In her eager, angelic voice she described the two of us in a red convertible, driving down Highway 1, with cliffs on one side, and the blue expanse of the Pacific ocean on the other, the trees and flowers that line the boulevards and avenues of the residential areas, the skyscrapers that sprout in a jagged toothed jungle downtown, the iron skeletons and lidless eyes of glass faceted windows designed to tower over the twisting palm trees, to outshine the dim and hazy stars.

“We can live together in L.A.,” Hannah told me one night when I was sitting in her bathtub as she cut my hair.

“You can write” she went on, “and I’ll land some gigs.  We can share a studio until we’re both working and can afford something better.  You can write anywhere really.  Lift your head a little.”

She held my chin.  I saw the tiny blond hairs falling into my lap.

“California is the last place where you can really live the American dream.” She said.

“Only because the American dream is getting your own reality show.” I said, joking, but only halfway.

“I’m serious.” She said. “What do you think?”

“It sounds great,” I’d told her.

“Really?” She asked, rubbing wax into my thinning hair and styling it.

“Yeah.” I said.

She had it all planned out, but I couldn’t whole-heartedly commit. California was her dream, not mine.

Hannah.

My Russian ballerina.

My bubblegum raincoat.

The unheard siren, singing to a captivated audience of one.

I didn’t expect to miss her so much. But her presence was everywhere, coiled in bedsprings, floating like motes of dust in patches of sunlight, pressed between the pages of the New York Times. Suddenly I found myself alone without someone to join me for cheap, Chinese, or to go on a 4 am donut run. Without her there was nothing for me to focus on but myself, and introspection was always a recipe for an inevitable downward spiral. I was disappointed when it rained, and I was disappointed when it didn’t.

That night I had a blind date with a man I’d met on the internet.  We met outside an all night diner that Hannah and I had haunted. He looked older than he had in his picture.  His face and stomach had gone slack.  I was worried that I wouldn’t recognize him at all, that we’d somehow miss one another amongst all the other late night strangers. But he smiled and walked right up to me.  There was an awkward moment when I wasn’t sure if he was going to shake my hand or hug me, so I extended my hand, and we half hugged.

“Should we go in?”  He asked.

“Yeah,” I said.  “I’m starving.”

I could see right away that everything I said was going to be wrong.  I knew that I’d be uncharacteristically honest, that my confessions would baffle him. I led the way into the diner.  His hand was on my shoulder, an intimacy I felt he hadn’t earned and I disliked him immediately.

“So what do you do again?”  He asked while we were waiting for the waitress to bring our drinks.

“I’m an artist,” I said, fidgeting nervously in my seat amidst the young couples with strollers, the lonely coffee drinkers with cigarette-stained fingers, the old fashioned amber colored hanging lamps.

“Are you showing your work anywhere around town?”  He asked.

I said, “I’m very protective of it,” hoping that this would sound more mysterious than pathetic.  I was grateful when the waitress brought our drinks.

He was a personal trainer, though he’d taken some time off after a back injury.  “All healed now,” he assured me with a wink.

I repeatedly stacked and then toppled tubs of late night butter while blathering about a horror movie I’d seen recently.  I described in unnecessary detail the plot, which consisted of a group of teenagers being stalked by a maniac in a remote forest.

“Are you nervous?”  He asked.

“Why?” I asked. “Should I be?”  The butter toppled.

He reached across the table and put his hand over my own, his thick, tan fingers weighing down my thin, pale ones.  I pulled my hand away.

“I can’t read you.”  He said.

Spittle wet the creases around his lips.  His face was ruddy, and blotched.  His shirt, taught over his once impressive chest, his slack stomach.  I was repulsed by him.

The check came.  We split it, to my dismay.

Outside I walked to my car.  He followed me.

“So.  What now?”  He asked, leaning into me, his smile a leer.

I pulled back, was silent.

“My place?”  He suggested.

“Sure.”  I heard myself saying.  “Why not?”

Afterward, I couldn’t stop shaking.  I was sore. I saw myself reflected in the mirror.  My thin, sweaty hair.  My neck bruised from too many hard kisses.   My mouth, swollen and red. I tasted like someone else.  Like milk about to sour, like fruit that was too ripe.  My eyes were dry and stinging.  My shirt smelled like strange cologne and sweat.  I peeled it off.  And, unsatisfied, I peeled off everything.  I wanted to be a blank canvas, white and full of promise.  But it was impossible to undo the days, the years of strange apartments, the collected dust and detritus of dive bars and dance clubs, to buff out the oily grooves of so many fingerprints.

I crawled into my bed and lie there, sleepless, staring at my ceiling until the sun came up, pale and orange as a ball of thread through the sliding doors that led out to my balcony. Eventually I dozed off for a while and woke up, hot and sweaty, and couldn’t fall asleep again. I wanted to just keep lying there, forever, but I’d made plans so I forced myself to get up.

“Which do you like better, Indian girls or Pakistani?”  The one without glasses asked. Sometimes Ali’s daughters were behind the register. I never learned their names and just differentiated them by thinking of them as the one with glasses and the one without.

“Which are you?” I asked.

“Pakistani.”  She said.

“Then Pakistani.”  I looked at the shy one with glasses and winked.  They both giggled as I left with my coffee.

I squinted, unaccustomed to the pale sun that shined before noon on a Saturday. I had plans to meet my friend Scott who lived across town, and who didn’t have a car of his own. When I got to his apartment, Scott was sitting at his coffee table on the living room floor, rolling a joint. I was meeting up with him to go to a protest, of the war, or the disparity between the rich and the poor, or Gay rights. I was unsure of the particular cause. Scott was an equal opportunity attender when it came to defending the underdog.

“Hey.”  He said.

“Hey.”  I let myself in, scanning his apartment, dimly lit, the avuncular pad of a longtime bachelor.  The patchwork sofa, celestial rug, the Coca Cola magnets on the refrigerator of second hand beer and frozen pizza.  Sunlight stained glassed across the fake marble counter top in patches of orange and red and purple on the beige hemp mat in front of the sink, giving the impression, as you stepped inside, that you were entering a place of worship.

I sat across from him at his computer desk.  He lit up and offered me a drag.  I shook my head and thumbed through his CDs.

“Why do you keep all these?” I asked, since all of the music was on his computer, and the physical CDs seemed unnecessary.

“I just like the act of playing a CD,” he said. “I like the ritual of it.”

I didn’t get it, but I’ve never really understood him. Most of the times we’d hung out with one another, I’d felt as if the two of us were speaking different languages. I didn’t understand him, but I liked the idea of him, the intense, bearded young man who cared about social causes and justice, who wanted world peace. If you listened to the music I like, read the books I enjoyed reading, and watched my favorite movies, you’d probably know everything about me. There was nothing else beneath the surface. I was just an empty vessel, a reflection. But Scott cared about things, and was involved, and even if I wasn’t sure why, I liked this about him. I imagined him turning that same passionate intensity toward me, of him seeing something in me that I wasn’t even aware of myself.  We’d made out once, drunk at a club, but nothing else had happened, and as time passed, I worried that the window of opportunity was closing.

“What is it today?” I asked, as he got in the rumbling, green car I’d inherited from my mother.

“The war.” He answered. I didn’t ask him which one.

Arriving at the protest provided no clarity. Crowds of determined progressives, college students mostly, white guys with dreadlocks, and girls in sandals, but also some holdovers from the sixties with their long, gray beards, and awful, tie-dye t-shirts were already lining the street by the lake. The signs were a hodge-podge of familiar slogans, “No blood for oil,” “End this War,” “Keep Your Laws Off My Body,” “We Are the 99%,” “Legalize Gay Cupcakes.”

We joined the growing throng by Town Lake and then made a slow walk down Congress Avenue to the capital. My eyes darted through the crowd of  protestors, the vaguely curious onlookers lining the avenue, the annoyed drivers sitting in their cars at blocked off intersections, unaware of the day’s scheduled march. We walked down Congress, Scott joining in chants, and me tagging along in silence, stealing glances at any attractive, pseudo-hippies in the general vicinity.

We assembled on the steps of the state capital and listened to the speakers give their speeches, local politicians and community organizers. I zoned out shortly after the first of the seemingly endless parade of windbags got started. Politics have always bored me. Scott’s handsome, bearded face was intent, his brow creased. Everyone was similarly focused, and I wondered what I was doing there. It was becoming increasingly obvious that I wouldn’t meet anyone, that Scott’s interest in me was due entirely to the fact that I had a car and he did not, that the protest would offer neither romance, nor inspiration. I started formulating plans for the evening which involved overpriced cocktails at on overpriced club with music too loud for conversation, and a dance floor too full to accommodate dancing.

A row of police in riot gear stood behind the makeshift podium just in case things got out of hand. I stood, imagining them advancing on the docile crowd like I’d seen on television. I imagined the peaceful crowd erupting into chaos of tear gas, and people getting trampled and beaten with batons. A big part of me longed for this to happen, just to feel like I was part of something. Just for some kind of real human contact, just to feel something aside from my usual existential angst. But nothing happened. The speakers spoke. The crowd chanted and cheered. The police stood, and then all of us quietly dispersed to middle class cars to drive back to the suburbs.

I asked Scott if he wanted to do anything else, but he just shrugged, so we walked back to my car.

“It was a good turn out.” I said, and he agreed, and even though we had nothing to say to one another, I still thought we might end up making out.

But when we got back to his place, he just unfastened his seatbelt and said, “Thanks for the ride.”

Not knowing what to do, myself, I drove back to my own apartment. I thought I’d stop at Ali’s for a soda, but there were police cars outside. For a moment I panicked irrationally that the police had somehow come for me, even though I’d done nothing wrong, but I realized that they weren’t there for my sake. Someone had broken the windows of the store and spray painted the word “Terrorist” in big red letters across the side of the building.

Inside my apartment, I found myself upset, without really understanding why. I wanted to somehow exorcise the feeling, but it was too primal to write down. I wanted to paint. Not with brushes, but with my bare hands. I wanted to feel the paint on my fingers, to run my fingertips across the bare canvas, and to pour this image that existed in my mind out onto the white expanse before me.

At first I didn’t know how to start it. I just stood in front of the easel, wondering where to begin. Red was my key to getting into it. Once I started with red, the rest followed. Images that bled and sweat, corpulent masses of color. Hannah’s hair, her bright red lips, the swirling lights of dance clubs, the bedrooms of strange men, the loneliness of crowds, the helplessness, the brutality of vandalism. My fingertips smeared color across the canvass. The colors of regret, the unbearable devastation of rejection. First red, yellow, green, gold, and from the side, black and blue, a cloud, a bruise, a threat. I painted, my fingers stained, a blue, satisfying smear on my cheek.

I stopped when Hannah called to tell me she’d made it safely to Los Angeles.

“Are you writing?”  She asked.

“Painting.”  I said, wiping my hands on a towel, my body smeared with blue, and brown, and gold.

“That’s great,” she said.  “I don’t want to disturb you.  I just wanted to let you know I’m here.”

“I’m nearly done, I think.”  I said.  “I’m glad you made it okay.  Was the trip hard?”

“No.” She said.  “The longest part was just getting out of Texas. But now I’m here, too exhausted to unpack anything, but too keyed up to go to sleep.”

“I get that.” I said.

“When are you coming out here?”  She pressed.

“Soon,” I said. I didn’t tell her about my date, or the protest, or Scott, or any of it. There was really nothing worth talking about.

I painted for a while after we’d stopped talking, and when I felt like it was done, I stood back and regarded my first creation in years, feeling this bubbling thrill of accomplishment at having actually created something, of following a project from start to finish, of taking something that existed in my mind and making it exist in the real world.

When I stepped back to get a good look, my heart sank. The painting I’d poured all of my energy and emotion into was nothing like the image I’d had in my head. The lines were unsteady. The confidence of my college years was gone from lack of practice. The painting was amateurish at best. I was disappointed, but more than that I was afraid. If I couldn’t paint and I couldn’t write, what was I going to do? Who was I if I wasn’t an artist, except a twenty something failure with no job, and no prospects?

While it was still wet, I took the painting with me to the bathroom.  I stood beneath the florescent lights with all of my faults exposed. The sudden shock of first cold, then hot water covered me.  I watched my pale skin turn red.  The colors of the canvas ran together, colored the water at my feet in purples, reds, browns and blue.  I rubbed the canvas with my hands smearing the colors together, obliterating my disaster, the watercolor running together in blobs, coloring the bathtub, but, once paint smeared, the canvas could never be made white again.

I stood in the shower long after the hot water had disappeared and wondered, how much water and how much time it would take to cleanse us both?  I wondered if enough time and enough distance could take my illusions, my lies, my deceits and make them true. That maybe instead of just calling myself an artist, I could actually be one, if I just had the right inspiration, the right location. Maybe not here, but in a sunny state.  A dream.  California.