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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.

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Hot Chocolate – Chicago 2015

hot chocolate

The morning of our anniversary, I wake up before he does, shivering. During the night he’d managed to wrap himself up in the blankets, leaving me uncovered and cold. Six years ago I’d have just quietly suffered rather than wake him, but at this point in our relationship I feel comfortable enough to yank the blankets back over to my side of the bed.

He rolls over toward me and I feel his beard on the back of my neck, his arm around me.

When my alarm goes off, I roll over toward him and kiss his bushy face.

“Happy anniversary.” I say.

He stays in bed while I get dressed in the dark. In the dim light I can’t tell if my socks match, and stare at them for a long, sleepy moment before deciding that it doesn’t actually matter whether they match or not. As I shrug into a blue, wool sweater and spray on some cologne, he sits up in bed and says, “I got us reservations tonight.”

“Where?” I ask.

“It’s a surprise.” He says. He’ll tell me no more, other than to instruct me to catch the blue line after work and take it to Wicker Park.

The train to work is packed. I stand, crushed between an Indian man in loafers with a mothball jacket and two talkative, older women who spend the entire trek speaking animatedly in Spanish. A homeless man is splayed across five seats with a newspaper over his face. In NYC someone would have yelled at him to sit up so that other people could sit down, but in the midwest no one acknowledges his existence. I don’t acknowledge his existence other than to quietly resent him for smelling like moldy garbage and taking up so much space.

As I leave the subway, the stairwell smells like vomit. I hold my breath and rush upstairs, relieved when I feel the cold, bracing wind against my face.

I walk from the train to my job up Michigan Avenue. In the courtyard some representatives of Quaker Oats are aggressively trying to give passersby free packets of instant oatmeal. I just keep walking past them, past the fountains that have been covered now that the weather is growing cold, past the newly leafless trees lining the walkway to the tower where I work.

The days are getting shorter. The sun is just coming up, pale and yellow between two gray skyscrapers. I sit in my cubicle and eat a banana and a granola bar for breakfast as I start my computer. I can’t stop yawning. I spend the entire morning working on a project only to discover that the account manager has sent me the wrong spreadsheet, so I spend the entire afternoon correcting the mistakes I made in the morning. My job is pointless, but I try not to dwell on it, lest I spiral into yet another bout of existential angst.

At four thirty I shut off my computer and push through the throngs of downtown shoppers to the Blue Line to catch the train to Wicker Park.

The evening train is even more crowded than the morning one. After two trains go by that are too full to board, I finally manage to catch one and squeeze in beside a woman going to the airport with an oversized suitcase. She spends the entire train ride on the phone talking about the clubs she wants to go to and the friends she does and doesn’t want to spend time with once she arrives in Atlanta.

C meets me at the Damen stop.

“Wicker Park reminds me of everything I hated about SoHo.” He says.

We walk past crowds of hipsters in scarves and ironic t-shirts going in and out of trendy bars.

“Chicago is so quiet.” He says. Compared to the constant noise pollution of NYC, Chicago does seem duller, more subdued.

“Only because you can’t hear cholesterol.” I say.

We walk past upscale perfume shops, boutiques and restaurants.

“Here we are.” He says when we’ve arrived at our destination.

We walk into a quaint looking, dimly lit place called Hot Chocolate. The wall is plastered with James Beard award nominations for pastry chef. Because we are early we sit by the door as the servers stand at the bar, getting prepped for the night’s service.

The two of us had gotten hot chocolate on our first date, six years ago back in Seattle. I’d taken a long lunch, and the two of us sat at a table at Peet’s sipping on hot chocolate and talking about our previous lives, both having lived in Southern California, and both eager to leave the gray, Pacific Northwest.

At the time I’d already had two phenomenally failed romances that year, and was skittish to get involved with someone else. But he was cute and funny, and what I thought was going to be a fling stretched out into a full fledged relationship with a joint bank account, and multiple cross country moves.

The waitress gives us a table by the window. We sit across from one another, looking out at the yuppies walking by with double strollers. A little girl wearing a fur coat and her overbearing mother sit at a table behind us. C orders the fish, and I get the pork chop with a sweet potato puree. The waitress dissuades me from getting hot chocolate until after dinner because it’s so rich.

We talk about work, and where we want to move after Chicago. The east coast seems to beckon once again. We finish our entrees and have the most amazing hot chocolate with homemade marshmallows. I concede that the waitress was right in counseling me against having it with dinner. The chocolate is so rich I can’t even finish it.

After dinner, we take the bus back to our apartment to snuggle on the couch with a scary movie. Six years ago, watching a movie was a flimsy pretext to start snogging, but at this point in our relationship, we actually watch the movie. It’s nice, being curled up beneath a blanket, his legs across my lap holding his hand while we watch a horde of zombies messily devour a group of annoying teenagers.

In bed, we fall asleep talking, making jokes. No one in the world can make me laugh the way that he does. We both drift off to sleep beside each other, for the moment both covered in a warm, maroon blanket. Our future spreads out before us across the sky as we mark another of an undetermined but growing number of years together.

lanceandcarlos

 

 

On Birthdays and Rainbows

IMG_2890The day after your birthday sucks. You’re just older, and there are no more presents.

The days leading up to my birthday, on the other hand, were fantastic. There were presents every day. Because he’s a better boyfriend than me, C surprised me with gifts hidden under my pillow. Underwear from the store in NYC that I miss now that we’re no longer there. A new pair of headphones (he’d gotten the not so subtle hints I’d been dropping about how dissatisfied I was with my old ones). A bottle of cologne.

Usually in the weeks leading up to the anniversary of my existence I spiral into a birthday induced depression at having reached another year without having accomplished anything. Whether I’ve finally accepted my life’s mediocrity, or I’ve just mellowed out in my dotage, my birthday this year came and went without the usual panic and despair.

I did still have moments of evaluating my life and the decisions I’ve made and comparing myself to my successful and happy friends, and finding my life wanting. No house. No kids. No career. But even though I haven’t written that novel, and I’m still doing an entry level job, I own nothing, and have nothing but debt to show for my 39 years of existence…I’ve still managed to enter the last year of my thirties on a hopeful note.

I’ve traveled. I’ve lived all over the country. I’ve had adventures. I’ve run a marathon. I’ve been with the man I love for nearly six years and he still hasn’t gotten sick of me. Things are actually…okay, and…most surprisingly of all…I’m okay with things. Just as they are.

This year, my birthday coincided with the Gay Pride Parade here in Chicago. Despite living with my boyfriend, and everything that that entails, my life is otherwise…not all that gay. It’s been years since I went out to clubs hoping to meet someone. When our friend Dean visited from Austin and we went with him to a club in Boystown with Go Go Dancers, I was mostly just mildly embarrassed for the dancers and annoyed by how loud the music was.

We usually don’t do much in the way of celebrating Pride, because our life is already a celebration of who we are and how we feel about one another. But this year, after the Supreme Court Ruling, and gays all over the country being one step closer to actual equality, I felt like celebrating a little more overtly.

The ruling, even though I expected it, left me overwhelmed with joy. Twenty years ago, when I first came out to my parents, I never could have imagined Gay people having the right to marry happening during my lifetime. When I was a teenager, there were no gay, celebrity couples I could use as role models. In my formative years, my classmate in college killed himself after his parents disowned him, an entire generation of men was decimated by the AIDS epidemic, Matthew Shepherd was tortured and left for dead, and I didn’t know it was possible to be gay and be happy.

When I read the news of the ruling in my cubicle at work, I wept.

Because C had to work that afternoon, I walked to the parade by myself. People were thronging the streets of Boystown. A young, black woman with a mohawk wore a t-shirt that said, “You ain’t no queen!”  I smiled just seeing the young people in their rainbow colors, holding hands, excited to be among so many other people, sharing that moment. But the crowds were also overwhelming. I couldn’t see, and the sidewalk wasn’t big enough to accommodate all of the people who turned out. Feeling a panic attack starting, I pushed my way through the crowd and walked back home.

Later, my friend Steven and his boyfriend went with me back to the festivities, where we watched from a less densely populated vantage point near the beginning of the parade route. It felt good to have that solidarity, and that moment of celebration, but at the same time I still felt isolated. I don’t listen to pop music, and I’m not a snappy dresser, I’ve never felt like I really fit in with the gays any more than I did with our heteronormative counterparts.

As a kid I, I couldn’t wait to get to college. Even though I was the only gay I knew in the small town where I grew up, I was sure when I got to college I’d meet other gay people, and I’d finally feel like I belonged. And I did meet other gay people, but it was such a crushing disappointment that I had as little in common with them as I did with the straight people I grew up with. I thought they’d be sensitive, bookish people who talked about philosophy and played video games. Instead they all seemed like body and youth obsessed mannequins who didn’t read for pleasure, who all listened to terrible music, and seemed to exist solely for sex and drugs.

I realized that what really set me apart wasn’t the fact that I was into guys instead of girls, it was that I’m a total nerd. I’m the fringe of the fringe.

So it was with mixed feelings that I attended pride and cheered as the floats with their corporate sponsorships marched down the confetti strewn street. The people watching was fun, (the highlight being a hirsute young man who had pierced nipples who had dyed his underarm hair green). Most of the crowd seemed to be comprised of straight, young girls with face paint and rainbow colored socks.

C ranted extensively about the appropriation of gay culture over a fancy, Italian birthday dinner. I guiltily ate lamb (so tender it was like butter!) and told him about the people I’d seen. He joked that he and I are going to get married in every state now…except Mississippi because he refuses to set foot there.

C doesn’t like parades. He doesn’t like segregation and thinks that everyone should just be able to be themselves, that who you sleep with shouldn’t be any more big a deal than the color of your eyes.

I hope that one day that’s the case. But right now, there are still states where gay people can get fired or evicted by the sheer virtue of being themselves, and places where it isn’t safe to walk down the street holding your boyfriend’s hand, where anyone different is marginalized or made to feel somehow less than human.

So for now, pride parades continue to be a necessary reminder of how far we’ve come, and how far we’ve yet to go.

These are things we talk about over dinner, sitting outside of a bistro on Lincoln avenue as a bee buzzes through the flowers hanging beside our table. Across from us, another gay couple is sitting with a toddler in between them. A passing cloud spatters the people outside with gentle, summer rain. People reach for umbrellas, and couples run beneath the awnings of buildings holding hands. For a moment, it’s nice to feel integrated, to be part of the group, and to be happy with things just the way they are.

Cities

 

IMG_1837Spring comes, even to Chicago. The snow has melted. The trees lining the boulevards are lush with green leaves. Every sidewalk is thronged with pale people in shorts, over-eager for any sign of warmth after a long winter spent indoors.

On sunny days I walk home from work instead of taking the train. The trek from downtown to our apartment takes me an hour and a half. I walk past the Magnificent Mile with its upscale shops and small boutiques, past the bistros that have pulled out their patio seating, past the planters with brightly colored flowers, through Lincoln Park with its brownstones and kids drawing on the sidewalk with pastel chalk.

Yesterday I walked past a park near the Loop and crossed paths with an elderly Asian woman on a cell phone, pushing a Shih Tzu in a baby stroller. The woman was wearing a parka even though it was warm, and the dog was decked out in a little, pink bow. This is what I love most about living in cities. The random intersections of strange lives, all of the different characters one sees in passing.

The first real city that I lived in was Los Angeles. I was still living with my ex-boyfriend in Austin at the time, and when he got accepted into grad school at UCLA, I was faced with the choice of finding another roommate or taking the plunge and heading out West to sunny California. Even though L.A. had never been on my radar of prospective places, at that point I was ready to experience life anywhere that wasn’t Texas.

Los Angeles was sprawling and strange. The weekly junk mail was littered with coupons for Botox, teeth whitening, and plastic surgery. Every time I met new people, they asked me what kind of car I drove. It seemed that everyone worked in the movie industry, drove a sports car, and had impressive stories of brushes with celebrity. I did temp work at a brokerage firm, drove a Daewoo, and impressed no one.

At my job, I was forced to wear a tie and sit in a cubicle doing mind numbingly boring data entry work. I rebelled in little ways at first, by wearing cheap, studded belts I’d bought downtown beside the men in track suits who were selling bootlegged DVDs. Later I rebelled more openly by dying my hair blue, or magenta, or purple.

Once an old man drove his car through the crowd at the Farmer’s Market on the Third Street Promenade across from the building I worked in. When our building was surrounded by helicopters, police, fire engines, and ambulances, our first thought was that there was a hostage situation. We scoured the internet for any news, and then watched in horror at the first responders carrying bodies away on stretchers. I’d had lunch at the Farmer’s Market not a half hour before, and shivered when I thought about how easily it could have been my body, limp and lifeless beneath a sterile, white sheet.

I experienced my first earthquake in that building. I was sitting in my cubicle and thought I was having a strange, sudden dizzy spell, when I looked up and saw a co-worker across from me bracing herself in the doorway of her cubicle. Beyond her I could see the horizon with the palm trees, the beach, and the blue waves of the Pacific ocean tilting back and forth as the building swayed. In a panic, my first thought was, “I can’t die in this building with these people,” and I ran down eleven flights of stairs in less than four seconds to the street below. (I would later learn this is what not to do in an earthquake since there could be falling glass and downed power lines, but I was willing to take my chances).

A few months later I left my access badge with a note on my boss’s desk telling her I quit, and walked down to the Santa Monica Pier and sat on the beach with my pants rolled up, holding my tie in my hands, my purple hair blowing in the breeze.

A few months later, a friend and I took a road trip through the Pacific Northwest. We were nearly into Portland late one night when we saw a giant ball of fire in the sky. It was neon green and larger than a full moon, and hurtling down toward the city in front of us. It was so big, in fact, that as it disappeared below the tree line, we braced for impact and expected to pull into the city to discover it engulfed in flames. But when we arrived, the city was intact, and there was no sign of the meteor. The local news mentioned in passing that several people had reported seeing it, and that it had most likely burnt up in the atmosphere as it descended.

We liked Portland, but kept driving past the lush green forests and gorgeous vistas of Multnomah falls, past the snow capped peak of Mount Rainier, to the picturesque city of Seattle. As soon as we arrived, I felt like I’d come home. A fat, colorful rainbow stretched across a pale blue sky to mark our arrival. It felt, on that first day, like the city was embracing us.

I stayed in Seattle for seven years. The friend I moved there with couldn’t quite take the long, dreary, gray Seattle winters, and after our second year decided to move back to Los Angeles. I spent a couple of lonely years after that inhabiting coffeehouses, looking for a connection. After Los Angeles, the people of Seattle seemed timid. The times I tried to strike up a conversation in a coffee shop with a stranger, I was met with an inevitable look of horror as the person I was trying vainly to engage panicked over the fact that someone was speaking to him. I grew so accustomed to being stood up on dates, that I started to take my laptop with me, so that when I was left sitting at the agreed upon place…alone, I could at least be productive and write a blog about it.

I did eventually manage to collect a group of friends who made Seattle feel like home again. I got a job where I worked from my apartment. I became gym obsessed and was in the best shape of my life, culminating in the running of the Seattle Marathon.

Around that time I met C who had also lived in California. We hit it off by trading war stories and bonding over our shared dislike of everyone who wasn’t us. After a year of not getting sick of one another, he suggested we save our money and head East, to New York City. A year after that, we got rid of everything we owned, and took the long flight to the Big Apple.

My first night in the city, we went to Times Square. I was immediately overwhelmed by the noise, the bright lights of the big screens advertising Broadway shows, M&Ms and Coca Cola. There were so many people everywhere we went. On any given block I was surrounded by languages I’d never heard before, and people from all over the world.

We bounced around from Queens, to an overpriced room we rented in Brooklyn from a vegan lesbian who made a living giving colonics. We spent a summer in Brooklyn sweltering with no air conditioning, lying naked in front of a fan circulating hot air. We ate $1 pizza slices and hot dogs in Central Park on our days off work.

Eventually we settled in the slightly cheaper, but considerably less convenient Staten Island. We took the ferry to Lower Manhattan. When Hurricane Sandy devastated the island, we went for a week with no electricity.  I was amazed at how the city came together after this disaster. How everyone was willing to help one another. Several times I got rides to and from Manhattan from neighbors I’d never met while the ferry and the subway were out of commission.

We spent a year and a half in NYC. I loved the excitement of exploring the city, the museums and shops. So much of the city seems so magical. There really is no place like it. What wasn’t magical was the constant crowds of people, the piles of garbage everywhere, the filth, the rats fighting in the subway, and the increasing rents. So I convinced C to leave for a place more affordable where we could still have an urban life, but also space, and the money left over to actually enjoy ourselves.

He hasn’t quite forgiven me for our departure. And now that we have nearly a year under our belt in Chicago, (after a lost, ill-fated year in Austin, TX) we’re starting to get that wanderlust again, a longing to head off into parts unknown.

These cities, my cities, are all stacked on top of one another, are superimposed in my memory, so that some mornings I wake up, thinking about going to get a breakfast taco before realizing I’m not in Austin, or walking down to the Farmer’s Market for some flowers only to remember that the market is across the country in Seattle.

Now strangers walk down streets I once walked down. New places crop up and replace the ones I used to haunt. Other people are having their own experiences, and their cities are not my cities. These cities are ghosts. They exist only in the past, only in my memory. But I love every one of them, and all of the scary, fantastic, amazing, wonderful experiences I had when I lived in them.

Hard Times

IMG_2761On Saturday nights our landlord and upstairs neighbor stand outside in the alleyway behind our apartment drinking and shooting rats with a pellet gun until 3 am.

I’ve never seen any of the alleged rats, but apparently they’re attracted to the dumpsters of the Mexican restaurant around the corner, and the warm underbelly of the landlord’s sports car that he’s constantly revving in a vain effort to drive them out so they don’t chew through the wires in his engine. Sometimes C and I will be awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of firecrackers going off in one of the dumpsters in an effort to chase the rats out. Personally, if I had to choose between the rats and the landlord, I’d choose the rats.

Outside, the weather’s grown cold. The other morning it was 9 degrees with a wind chill making it feel like negative 9 degrees as I drove to work. My body has acclimated quickly to the new temperature reality, so that now when the temps are in the 30s or 40s it seems warm. The orange and yellow leaves of fall have all turned brown and are piled in mushy clumps on the wet sidewalks. The branches of trees are dismal, gray skeletons.

The transition from Texas hasn’t been as smooth as we’d anticipated. We’d rented a moving pod and spent more moving our cheap, IKEA furniture than the furniture was actually worth. Once the pod made it to Chicago, there was no place to leave it, so we had to hire movers to move our things from the warehouse to the apartment, an unexpected expense we weren’t prepared for. While he waited for the main office to tally up the invoice so that I could pay him, the head mover and I were forced to make awkward small talk. I have zero knowledge of the local sports teams, other than I think the Cubs are a baseball team.

Because we live down the street from Wrigley Field, there’s no parking on my street when the Cubs play, so I was forced to pay $75 a month to park the car behind our apartment. The car is the bane of my existence. After leaving Los Angeles, I swore I’d never drive a car again, and in Seattle and NYC I didn’t need one, but once we’d moved to Texas, we couldn’t get around without one, so it had been a necessity. Now it’s just a burden I can’t get rid of.

When we moved, I thought I’d be able to transfer my position in Texas to the company’s Chicago office. I interviewed the first week we were here, and had been offered the position at the downtown office. I was supposed to start October 6th, but they pushed the start date back to November 3rd, and then they called and said they’d have to push it back even further to November 17th, and by the way, for my first two weeks I’d have to drive to Westmont, IL for training, an hour and a half drive away.

I spent two months with no income walking around Lakeview, or down to the waterfront, just exploring the neighborhood. I saw Lana Wachowski riding a bicycle down Addison with her vibrant pink and purple hair. I walked to second hand bookstores and coffee shops. I window shopped in Wicker Park and Lincoln Square.

We went to see the Joffrey ballet perform Swan Lake. We left after the second intermission, thinking the ballet was over, and walked across the street to a Dairy Queen for ice cream, only realizing then that there was another act, and rushing back to our seats just in time for the house lights to go down for the finale.

When my friend Bryan came to visit for a few days, I felt shabby and poor, and in an ill position to entertain him. We sat in coffeehouses while he worked, and I pretended to work on my supposed novel, but mostly just drank hot chocolate and wondered how I was going to make ends meet until I had an income again.

We were the poorest we’ve ever been. Having moved across the country five times in five years has exhausted all of our savings, and made it hard to get ahead. Even if the winter is totally brutal, and we end up hating Chicago, C and I have made a vow to stay put for at least three years. For five years I’ve lived a life rich in experience that looks terrible on a resume, and I find myself in my late thirties taking entry level positions I never would have even thought about accepting back in Seattle.

Having no other choice I was forced to borrow money from my parents, but not without a deserved lecture from my mother.

“You should be saving for your retirement!” She says. “You’re thirty eight years old, and you’ve got nothing to show for it!”

I can’t argue. I’m very aware of my situation every time I see my dwindling bank balance, and a stack of unpaid bills.

Three days into my commute to Westmont, my car’s “check engine” light comes on. I can’t afford to take it in to see what’s wrong with it, and I definitely can’t afford to have it fixed, so I’m taking the train for an hour to the south side to get a ride from one of my co-workers for the remaining time in training.

Next week is C’s birthday, and I feel terrible that we’re too poor to really celebrate.

Life has been a struggle, but I’ve managed to get another job offer from a company downtown for a position more suited to me that begins on December 1st. Hopefully in another month we’ll get caught up and life will swing back to our usual, more manageable poverty level.

This weekend has been warm and gray with temperatures in the fifties. I walk to the gym in shorts and a hoodie. I walk past the sign for Dinkel’s bakery and resist the urge to go in on my way home for a slice of cheesecake or box of cookies.

Despite the minor setbacks, I’m optimistic about the future. We’ll both be making more money than we did in Austin, and we managed to get by just fine there. More than anything I’m looking forward to living in a city where we can stay put for a while. To make new friends. To put down roots. To find a place that I enjoy and stay there. For a while.

A Good Man

IMG_2459On the way to get my lunch today, I was stopped by a man who proceeded to ruin my entire afternoon. When he tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Excuse me, sir,” I assumed he was about to ask me for directions. Eager to show off my vast and newly acquired knowledge of Chicago (at least the safe, northern, middle-class, white bits of it), I stopped and made the huge mistake of saying, “Yes?” When I should have just kept walking.

Back in NYC I’d have kept on walking, regardless, because other peoples’ problems are not my problems, and who has time for that? But I’m a mid-westerner now, and people in the midwest are polite, so I foolishly stopped and asked the man how I could help him.

He reeked of cheap booze, and I immediately regretted stopping, because now there was no polite way to brush him off, and I would have to hear what he had to say. It took him twenty-five minutes of backstory to get to the point and tell me what he was actually wanting from me, which was $18.50.

“You’re a good man,” he said. “I can tell, because you’re the first person who hasn’t told me to fuck off, excuse my language.”

He’d ridden a bicycle from downtown, presumably stopping people along the way to ask for $18.50 for a train pass (which doesn’t cost $18.50, so I’m not sure where the figure came from, but didn’t want to quibble). Apparently no one had given him the time of day, except for me since I’m a total sucker. A shop owner had suggested he come to my neighborhood with it’s tree-lined streets of three story brick buildings, and blonde yoga moms with double strollers, because there were “a lot of good people here who’d be willing to help him out.”

The story he told me was a sad one, regardless of how much was actually true. He’d recently been released from a maximum security prison, he’d said, after spending 10 years in jail for being caught selling 10 kilos of cocaine. Prison, had naturally been a horrific place of unspeakable violence and things a man like me, no offense, couldn’t even imagine. He’d been serving time with murderers and rapists, and all he’d learned from his time inside was how to become hard and violent himself.

He repeated himself a lot during the telling, and contradicted himself a bit as well. He said he’d come to Chicago in 1984 from Tarzana California after having been a student at UCLA. He was naive and didn’t know how difficult life could be until he met a homeless man and his family living in a box, begging for food. He gave them a few hundred dollars, and wasn’t it ironic that he was now in a position where he was having to beg for money?

He stated that he’d basically been tricked into selling drugs since he was what his father called an “intellectual dummy.” He wasn’t street smart, and was just a kid who didn’t know any better. (Later in his story he said he was 51 years old, so if he’d been in prison for 10 years, he’d gotten caught when he was around 41 which was hardly a naive kid fresh from college, but I didn’t want to press that point). While he was in prison his parents had both passed away, and his wife and children had fallen into poverty, and now his wife was dying of colon cancer.

At this point he broke down and started crying while I stood there, feeling helpless and embarrassed and wished that I could think of some polite, but reasonable excuse to get away. My neighbors, all white and middle class in jogging suits and designer sunglasses all hurried past us without the slightest hesitation.

His story went on. He told me that prisoners used to get a bit of money upon release to help them get reestablished in society, but due to recent budget cuts, this was no longer the case, so when he was released after ten years, they sent him out into the world with nothing.

They did help him get a job which was the crux of his problem. He couldn’t afford the train to go back and forth to work, his job wouldn’t advance him the $18.50 for the ticket, and if he didn’t go to work, he’d violate his parole and have to go back to prison.

I didn’t ask him why he didn’t just ride his bike the rest of the week, since the weather’s nice. I didn’t ask him why he’d spent money on booze when he needed a train ticket. (After 10 years in prison and re-adjusting to life outside I could hardly begrudge a man a drink).  I just smiled and nodded and resisted the desire to flee as he went on.

He told me that his wife and children were living in public housing and he’d used the last money they had just to get to work that morning. He told me about the polyps they’d found and the two hysterectomies his wife has had. (My knowledge of women’s reproductive systems is pretty limited, so I didn’t pipe up that I thought you’d only have that the once). He talked about prison again, and how it was full of innocent men like him, and how he was watching his wife die before his eyes.  He told me about how he’d been considering suicide because life was too difficult to bear. (He stopped to sob some more, while I stood helplessly by, wondering what the appropriate response is to being present while another man cries.)

Then he said, again, that he could tell I was a good man, and he just had a feeling about me that I would stop and listen to him. He told me that if I’d just kept walking like everybody else, it might have pushed him over the edge, and he might have gone postal. He said he understands now how people can just be pushed to the limit and do bad things.

At this point in his story, I went from feeling uncomfortable and annoyed, to quietly terrified that eventually I was going to have to tell him I didn’t have any money to give him and he was going to “go postal” and kill me.  I didn’t have any cash on me, and I wasn’t about to have him follow me to an ATM to get any. And my job doesn’t start for three more weeks, and we just spent our savings moving across country, so I didn’t really have the money to spare anyway. I thought about just giving him my VENTRA card since I’d paid for a month’s worth of transit that I really wasn’t going to use, but I’d registered the card, and it was tied to my online account, so I wasn’t sure I could just give it away, and I’d paid $105 for it, so I didn’t really want to give it away anyway.

Then the gentleman, who said his name was Daryl Something, shook my hand and got my name, and re-iterated that he could tell I was a good man. He felt that God had brought him to me in his time of need.

And there I was on the spot with a desperate, admitted convicted felon, on the verge of going postal, who was looking to me to solve his problems via a non refundable cash donation of $18.50.

The thing is, I’m not a good man.

I’m kind to animals, sure. And I don’t go out of my way to intentionally hurt people. Usually. But my commitment to social causes is “liking” them on Facebook. And I spend untold hours imagining how wonderful things would be if Ebola wiped out a sizable portion of the population, completely destroying society as we know it, so that I’d never have to sit in a cubicle and could eat Twinkies and read books all day for the rest of my life.

I do not like other people, and I especially don’t like being forced to interact with them, or to be made to feel guilty for not giving them $18.50.

So I told the man that he was right. This was a good neighborhood, full of good people, and I hoped that some charitable person would be able to help him out, however, I was not that person, being unemployed myself (which is mostly true.) I told him that I hoped things worked out for him, wished him the best, and walked away.

The look on his face was one of total defeat.

I felt guilty all the way to the Thai restaurant down the street where I got takeout, to take with me back home to sit on my comfortable couch and watch a documentary about Tunisian refugees. This way I can feel good about myself for having compassion for others, as long as they have the decency to be unfortunate very, very far away.