The Insomniac

Sleep doesn’t come.

Sometimes I lie awake on a bed of dinosaur bones, staring at the purple gray of my apartment’s ceiling. Mind racing. There are Mexican children in cages. Children that have been separated from their parents, and no one is doing anything. I personally am not doing anything. Another angry white man has gunned down another dozen people. Thoughts and prayers. And climate change is rapidly making our planet uninhabitable. And the rainforest is literally on fire.

I toss. I turn. I throw off the blanket because it’s too hot. I pull it back up to my neck because it’s too cold. I lie with one leg uncovered as a compromise. I toss and turn some more.

Other nights the lyrics to Taylor Dayne’s 1988 hit, “Tell it to My Heart” replay in my head on an endless loop, and I somehow know every single word.

Some nights the sun comes up and I am still awake.

Some nights I’ll fall asleep for two or three hours, only to wake up with my heart racing. I’ll get up and drink some water. Practice deep breathing. After that I’ll doze off for thirty or forty minutes and then wake up again. This will repeat until my alarm goes off and I have to get up to get dressed for work.

I feel like I slept better when I was sleeping with somebody. But I’ve been an insomniac for so long that it’s difficult to recall if I’ve ever actually gotten a full night’s sleep. It’s probably only nostalgia.

During the hottest part of summer I flew back home to Texas. My mother and I sat on opposite ends of her couch, watching reality TV in her pristine living room that somehow always manages to look unlived in.

I thought, “Now I can finally catch up on my sleep.” A week free from the stress of work. The crisp, cool breeze of air conditioning and the ceiling fan of my teenage bedroom. The pitch black, country dark. The still, quiet nights, disrupted only by a passing train or the lonesome howl of a neighbor’s dog.

But I couldn’t sleep there either.

I chatted with men on apps on my phone, my limbs heavy with unspent desire.

“We have to do something.” My mother said, as we were sitting at the 50’s style soda fountain breakfast table in her kitchen.

Our options within a comfortable driving distance of their rural, Texas town were limited. We ended up going to a flea market in a town about an hour or so away with my aunt and younger cousin. At the entrance there was a booth sporting a giant oversized TRUMP flag on one side, and a confederate flag on the other.

When I stopped to take a picture of the Trump flag, my aunt nodded her approval, not realizing I was taking the picture ironically to post on Facebook to the horror of my liberal friends back on the West Coast.

We walked past stalls selling rusty, old junk. Pot bellied denizens walked by in camouflaged shorts and sports jerseys with confederate flags on ball caps. I felt unsettled and unsafe, but my mother and aunt and cousin were unfazed. I was further disturbed by the fact that no one else was disturbed.

I wonder what they, or any of the people at the flea market, would think if they found themselves suddenly in my neighborhood in Seattle. Would the multi-pierced and polyamorous hipsters, the men holding hands, and the drag queens on unicycles (I have actually seen more than one), disturb them as profoundly as Trump supporters disturb me?

I realized the extent of the liberal bubble I exist in back in Seattle. The extent that social media has allowed us to divide ourselves into these self-selected groups and create filtered realities of the world around us. Alternate facts. Fake news.

I walked from stall to stall, trailing behind my mother, aware of my surroundings, half expecting some General Lee Neo-Nazi to shout, “faggot” as I passed. Of course this didn’t happen. My aunt bought her dog a collar. I talked my mother out of buying another racist “mammy” figurine. We ate cheeseburgers at a picnic table beside a booth where a man made delicious, sweet smelling kettle corn. Then we went back home.

Later that day, my best friend from high-school stopped by on her way from Dallas to Houston.

When we were kids, she’d come by and pick me up in her old, brown pickup truck, and we’d drive to cemeteries and talk about Interview with the Vampire, and poetry, and…more than anything, escape.

Twenty-five years later she came and picked me up again for old time’s sake. Now we talk about equity, jobs, motherhood. There were wisps of gray in her dark hair, and laugh lines beside her cheeks. I have no hair, and my beard is going gray.

I told her about the horrors of the flea market, and she commiserated.

“I have to live here!” She said. Houston, not the small town where we grew up, but still…Texas. “If it weren’t for our group of friends,” she said. “I don’t think I’d have made it.”

She drove me back to my parents’ house. We vowed to stay better in touch, but of course we didn’t.

“What did y’all talk about?” My mother asked, when I got back home.

“About how we’re middle aged now.” I said, rooting through cookie jars for the candy my father is no longer allowed to eat.

“You are not middle aged!” My mother said. “Because that would make me elderly, and I’m in the prime of my life!”

My father asked how my house hunt was going.

“It isn’t.” I’d told him. The condos in my neighborhood are all out of my price range. The ones that aren’t are tiny and overpriced. The places I can afford are so far away that I’d spend hours of my day commuting.

My only hope, aside from my parents finally winning the lottery, is that the supposed coming recession tanks the housing market, and I can take advantage of some desperate seller’s misfortune.

They are selling my grandmother’s house, and we stop by so that my mother can check the mail. The little house that used to be full of memories stands empty. Linoleum worn bare where her couch used to be.

“It’s sad to see it like this.” My mother said, and I agree.

When they drove me to the airport, I tried not to seem too eager to get back to Seattle. They hugged me goodbye, told me they loved me. “Just stay here.” My mother always says with tears in her eyes. This never ceases to gut me.

In the tiny, two plane airport, a young man chatted me up on one of my aforementioned apps. I saw him walk by, checking me out, and instead of speaking to me, he sent me a message telling me he thought that I was cute.

He sat behind me on the plane to Dallas, and when we landed, he suggested we get together for a quickie. That our connecting flights were in different terminals provided me an easy out. While being propositioned by a cute guy in his twenties did wonders for my self esteem, I’m way too big a prude to engage in an airport “quickie.”

I bid him a safe trip to Miami where he was going to spend his birthday. Then I headed back to Seattle.

When I got back home it was late, and I was exhausted from a day of layovers and flying. But Ducky messaged me to meet him out, and since it was his birthday, I found myself splashing some water on my face, brushing my teeth, and heading back out again to spend a few hours in a crowded bar with he and Gar-Bear.

At the local bar, no one hit on me. I stood between the muscle twins in their short shorts, ignored.

Months passed. The summer ended. I got promoted at work. I finished my supposed novel, which is absolutely dreadful, and began a new one. I go out less and less often. Aside from my weekly brunch group, when I hang out with friends, it is because I’ve run into them on accident.

Most recently I had lunch with a friend, his husband, and their six year old son. He and I talked about books, and his husband and I talked about an upcoming event in a particular fetish community. I offered to buy raffle tickets. Because it is Seattle, the six year old asked me my preferred pronouns.

Still, night falls and I cannot sleep.

I go to bed the same time every night. I put blackout curtains over the window to make it dark, though my apartment is never really dark with the varied glows of speakers, surge protectors, game consoles.

Outside there are city noises, randomly yelling homeless men, police sirens, a party in the building next door, the loud bass of a car in the parking lot, a motorcycle revving its engine.

I try earplugs. White noise. But whether there is silence or not, I cannot sleep.

I stop looking at screens an hour before bed. Read. Take melatonin like it’s candy.

I do relaxation exercises.

I try meditation.

Now I think about not falling asleep. I look at the clock to see another hour has passed. I count the hours left that I might sleep if I fall asleep immediately. I absolutely cannot get comfortable until about thirty minutes before the alarm is set to go off. Then my bed is perfectly soft and comfortable. The air is the perfect temperature. My pillow is a fluffy cloud, and I am drifting into the cool sky of a dream.

Then the alarm rings.


We counted seven deer grazing in a field in front of the airport. My mom came by herself to pick me up. Me in the front seat in jeans and a black hoodie, a pair of oversized headphones wrapped around my neck since they wouldn’t fit in my overstuffed bag.

“Texas is so ugly,” a woman behind me had said as the plane from Seattle landed in Dallas. There was no denying the ugly, flat brown expanse of it. I felt strangely defensive anyway. It may be big, and flat, and ugly, but it’s still home.

The flight from Dallas to College Station was mostly taking off and landing. We were only in the air for about thirty minutes. A handsome man had sat beside me reading a novel in some nordic language I didn’t recognize. Danish or Norwegian maybe. His long legs were folded up like origami, and he smelled like heaven. I sat for thirty minutes, achingly aware of his blue jeaned knees brushing against my own shorter ones. I’m always thankful for my stature when I fly.

The plane touched ground and he turned on a cell phone whose home screen was a summer photo of a pretty woman with a brown ponytail. Just as well. I looked for my mom in the parking lot, and couldn’t find her, so I texted her to honk.

Minutes later I was in her little black car, and we were driving past brown deer, nibbling, unconcerned, on brown, dead grass. It’s probably lucky for the deer that my dad was working, otherwise they might have ended up strapped over the roof of my mom’s car to later have their heads mounted on the wall of my old bedroom. There were precedents.

In my parents’ house I settled into my childhood bedroom, now occupied by my father’s hunting trophies, and the overflow of my mother’s closet. My father was working in West Texas so it was just my mother and I. We spent the days driving to College Station to shop and have lunch at chain restaurants I’d never have eaten at in Seattle, and evenings curled up on our respective couches in fleece blankets watching television.

“I wish A Christmas Carol would come on,” my mother said. “Or the Grinch. The old one.” Instead we mostly watched reality shows about people living in the Alaskan wilderness which has become my mother’s new obsession.

“I’d like to live off the grid like that.” She said. “Except with electricity and running water. And a grocery store nearby.”

“So exactly the way you’re living now?” I asked.

“Away from people.” She clarified.

When we weren’t watching people surviving the brutal winters in Alaska, we watched British mystery shows on PBS.

“Get off your phone!” My mother felt compelled to yell at me periodically.

I’d put my phone down momentarily and then pick it up again. Scrolling through profiles on a gay hook up app had become a compulsion. Interchangeable bearded men with muscular torsos with poorly written blurbs about what they’re looking for.

I’m just as guilty. My own profile pic is a filtered version of me with bulging muscles, chest hair damp with sweat after a recent workout, thick beard and baseball cap. A version of me that exists only in pictures. A profile that makes hairless twenty three year olds message me, “Hello Sir.”

But I’ve found that if I post a pic with a shirt on, I get no messages, and I am, above all else, an attention whore.

In actuality, I haven’t had sex, or even a date since June. I scroll through profiles hoping to stumble across a handsome man around my age who enjoys reading and quiet evenings at home with Netflix. But, as time passes, it becomes more and more difficult to even imagine a man who could possess all the qualities of someone that I’d look for in a potential mate. And, as time passes, I become less and less certain that a mate is something that I want in my life.

I spent the nights in my old bedroom, on a twin bed that felt like it was slanting to one side. The first few nights I was getting over a cold, so I took cold medicine that ordinarily would knock me out, but that instead had the opposite effect. I lay in bed, unable to sleep, my mind racing, imagining various endings of my supposed novel, of super powers, apocalypses, kinky sex, and sweet, romantic sex, and of a person who I could wrap my arms around and drift to sleep.

In November I participated in National Novel Writing Month. For that month I was dutiful and disciplined. I wrote every day, and managed the 50,000 word count with time to spare. Then the month ended, and I stopped writing again.

On November 16th, my grandmother died. She was 93. She’d raised 11 children of which my mother was the middle child. Five boys in a row, then six girls. She’d been sweet and vague. A kitchen presence that made fried potatoes and banana pudding. A collector of nic nacs. Of family photographs. Then she’d become cranky and forgetful. Then she’d spent years deteriorating until  she no longer remembered where she was, or who she was.

My mother and aunts had given up years of their lives taking care of her around the clock. She died at home, surrounded by family. The funeral was officiated by a man from my graduating class in high school. We’d grown up together, though had never been friends. He was a jock, most famous for having a large penis that I regretfully never saw. Of keggers and cocaine. At some point he’d become born again, and now is a youth pastor. His discovery of Jesus only made him more insufferable in my eyes, not less.

“He did a good job.” My mother told me over the phone. I didn’t fly home for the funeral.

One afternoon on my trip home my mother and I visited my grandmother’s grave. The cemetery was down a long, muddy, one-lane dirt road. It didn’t really hit me that my grandmother was really gone until I saw her grave. The fresh mound of loose earth. The headstone, already purchased years before when my grandfather passed, now with the date of her death filled in. So granite and finite.

My mother picked up a little Christmas tree the wind had blown over that was placed between my  grandparents’ graves. Red and gold ornaments glinted through fallen leaves. I picked through them and handed them to my mother. My mother staked down the tree so it wouldn’t blow over again, rearranged the fake poinsettias that someone else had left to her liking.

Nearby my uncle Bud’s tombstone had a cowboy hat on it. I wondered if I’ll have a grave, and what will they use to memorialize me? An iPhone. A muscled torso. A Lego. A book?

That Thursday my Father came home. Everything shifted to accommodate him. He watched old John Wayne movies in the living room, the TV blaring since he’s going deaf. My mother and I watched Poirot in her bedroom.

“Get off your phone!” She said.

We celebrated Christmas the Friday before. My job wouldn’t approve me to be off during the week of Christmas, so I had to go home a week early. The holiday wasn’t the same with my grandmother gone anyway. We’d always spent Christmas Eve at her house, filled to capacity with my aunts and uncles, my cousins and their children. Now the family splintered. My aunts all have grandchildren of their own.

I feel guilty for not having been the son my parents wanted. For not giving them a daughter in- law to complain about and grandchildren to dote on.

It’s just my mom, dad, and I opening presents in front of a tiny, artificial tree that my mother decorated alone. My mother opened the gift from me, a bracelet of gold hearts that she picked out and purchased herself. My father got shirts and accessories for his new, decked-out pick up truck. My mother gave me money and gift cards. My father gave us all scratch-off lottery tickets. I tell him I’d rather have the money that he’d spent on them.

We sat in the kitchen scratching off our lottery tickets. I won $5. I asked my dad how much he spends on lottery tickets every week, but he wouldn’t say.

“Stop squandering my inheritance, old man!” I told him.

I wonder what he would do if he won big. They already own their house and vehicles outright. He already refuses to retire because he doesn’t know what to do with himself. I wonder, but don’t ask him what his dream is. At this point in our relationship, a natural conversation seems impossible.

Over breakfast my dad asked if my clients at work are all black.

I was completely confused by the question, since I work at a cancer center, until my mom clarified. “He thinks you still work for the welfare office.”

I yelled at my dad for being racist. Then I yelled at him again for voting for Trump. “Republicans want to get rid of Medicare and Social Security. What are you going to do?” I asked.

“I am a lifelong democrat.” My dad said. “I just didn’t like Hillary Clinton.”

I was actually speechless.

The truth is…I voted for the first time at the age of 42.

When I was younger I wasn’t interested in politics. I thought it was one, rich white man who didn’t represent me or my values going against some other rich, old white man. Seeing the intelligent and capable Al Gore win the popular election, only to have the Supreme Court stop the recount in a very close race in a state governed by his competitor’s brother just made me believe that it was all fixed. Voting was pointless. The victor was predetermined by the powers that be, and choice was an illusion. I was apathetic.

When Obama ran the first time around I actually intended to vote. I filled out my mail-in ballot, but I accidentally circled in the wrong response on one of the local initiatives, so I didn’t want to send it in. When Hillary ran against Trump, I wanted to vote, but I was registered in Illinois, and we were living with C’s parents in California at the time of the election.

So finally, in middle age, I became engaged, and for the first time became actively involved in my governance. I still feel unrepresented, unvoiced, and apathetic. But, until we take to the streets in open revolt, it seems that voting is my only real recourse, so…I’ve become a voter.

My mother made Christmas dinner for the three of us. We sat around the kitchen table, which is metallic rimmed in the style of a 50s diner.

I scooped up cornbread dressing and deviled eggs with a giant roll. My mother collects 50s, red plastic kitsch, and has recently begun to amass a disturbing number of “mammy” figurines.

“Please stop buying these racist things.” I asked her.

“They aren’t racist!” My mother said. “They’re collectibles.”

She went on to tell me that she’s going to start taking pictures of all of her collected items with prices indicating how much they’re worth so I can sell them after she dies. “If your daddy shacks up with some floozy after I die,” she says, “Don’t let her get her hands on my chickens.”

On Saturday they both drove me to the airport.

I hugged them both goodbye. “You don’t have to go,” my mother said, holding back tears. “You can stay here.”

I feel guilty for wanting so badly to get back to Seattle, to my own tiny apartment, my own bed, my friends and my life.

On the flight from Dallas to Seattle I was dismayed to find myself sitting beside a chatty, young member of the armed services. He was in the Air Force, and noticed me playing my Switch. We talked about video games and discovered that we share a favorite game in Skyrim.

“Back at the base I play it on Oculus Rift.” He says. “I’m usually the only one in the officer’s lounge. Everyone old enough to drink goes off base, and everyone else is too young, so I have the video games all to myself.”

He talked to me at length about astro physics while I occasionally said, “that’s really interesting,” or “I didn’t know that.” Ordinarily I’d put on my headphones to discourage conversation, but his loneliness was palpable, and I didn’t have the heart to ignore him.

As we left the plane, I wished him a safe trip back to Alaska.

On Christmas Day, two of my faggles and I had Chinese food for lunch in the International District. The first restaurant that we went to was so crowded that we decided to find another, less popular place to ignore the birth of the baby Jesus. The place we ended up didn’t seem very busy, but an hour and thirty minutes after we arrived, we still hadn’t gotten our food. Brian ended up going back to his car and getting some cookies another friend had given him for us to snack on until our food finally arrived.

Despite terrible service, a ridiculously long wait for food, and finally being overcharged when the bill arrived, it was wonderful to be able to spend Christmas Day not with my biological family, but with the family of my choosing. The rag-tag bunch of misfits with whom I can actually be myself. We talk, and laugh at the ridiculousness of our surroundings. With them beside me I look forward to the year ahead. To love, and laughter, brunches and Bloody Marys.

My family will always be complicated, my love life may always be feast or famine, but my friends can always be counted on to love me for me. And to them, I remain hopelessly and happily devoted. Although if Sassy Bear ever reads this, I deny everything, you filthy whore!

Holidays on the West Coast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mi Familia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mi adopted familia.







A Christmas to Forget

xmas2010The night before the night before Christmas we opened our presents to each other. He got me a new pair of headphones, and Ninja-bread cookie cutters. I got him an overpriced workout hula hoop and some essential oils. He’d considerately sent me the links to each in the weeks leading up to X-Mas in his completely unsubtle way of letting me know what he wanted.

We’d attempted to go out for holiday sushi, but the internet led us first to a Japanese place that was closed, and then to one that didn’t seem to exist. After driving aimlessly, we finally ended up at Kirby Lane which is our default restaurant when nothing else pans out. Christmas music played overhead as I ate a bison Frito pie and listened to his little brother quote lines from Will Ferrel movies like some b-grade comedy savant.

Back at our unfurnished apartment, our stockings were hung over the fireplace, empty because we’d raided them repeatedly for candy in the days leading up to X-Mas. The lights on our tiny tree blinked on and off in epileptic fits of holiday cheer. When C opened his present, he smiled and hugged me, but I couldn’t help but feeling like a failure. Last year I’d gotten him an iPad. Then again, everything about this year is watered down, a more disappointing version of what was expected, so why should Christmas be any different?

On the morning of Christmas Eve, C and his little brother drove me to meet my parents. Because C had to work that evening he needed the car, so my parents volunteered to come pick me up. But because they’re terrified of “the big city” they wouldn’t come all the way into Austin, so we met them in Bastrop.

To her credit, my mom got out and shook C’s hand and told him it was nice to see him again, and did her best to smile as if she meant it. My dad, on the other hand, didn’t even get out of the car. C and his little brother drove away waving, and I looked back, wishing that I was spending the holiday with them at the Alamo Drafthouse watching the Hobbit sequel.

On the ride home my dad asked what C did for a living, and asked if the car was in my name or both of our names. My grandmother called every few minutes, asking what day it was, when she was supposed to take her pills, which pills she was supposed to take, where her pills were, etc…

“If I ever get like this, I’m going to kill myself, so you won’t have to deal with it.” My mom says over her shoulder to me in the back seat.

We stop at a grocery store to buy some coconut flakes for a pie, and my dad declares that it’s “The Bad HEB” because only Mexicans and blacks shop there. The store is bad, run down and poorly stocked, and there is a disproportionate number of blacks and hispanics shopping there, but I don’t point out the fact that this doesn’t imply a causal relationship.

After the store my aunt Sally calls my mom to tell her not to get coconut flakes because she has some already.

We go to the Post Oak Mall in College Station and I let my mom buy me some new shoes because it makes her happy, and because I need them and can’t afford any on my own. We eat lunch at a Mexican Restaurant in the mall, and my dad tells me once again that I need to get a wife and give him a grandson. I tell him that C might have something to say about that, and my mom changes the subject.

On Christmas Eve we always go to my grandma’s. When we were kids there’d be a mountain of gifts under the tree, and it felt like torture having to wait until everyone arrived before we could open them. This year the kids and presents were sparse. Now they are my little cousins’ children who can’t wait, and the adults are mostly bored and resigned and ready to go back to their own respective houses.

As per my usual, I sat in an inconspicuous corner and tried my best to blend in to the scenery. I wore a baseball hat that I only wear when I visit my family, and sat by a shelf of old photographs in my green, wooly sweater. My cousin Clint asked about C, and how much he likes Texas.

“He hates everything about it.” I said. Which is true. We were barely in Austin for a few weeks before we’d started planning where to move next.

I go back to the kitchen repeatedly for piece after piece of my mother’s homemade Christmas candy.

Before we leave my grandmother asks me to come sit on the couch with her. She asks me where I’m living now, and I tell her I’m in Austin.

“Austin?” She says, surprised.

We sit and talk a bit, and then she turns to me asks, “Who am I here with?”

I tell her, “Maw maw, this is your house. You live here.”

She smiles absently, and asks, “Am I here with Jean?” That’s my mom.

So I just nod.

When we leave she says to my mother, “I’m just bunking here, then?” My mom explains again that she’s home. That this is the house she and my grandfather built over thirty years before. But it doesn’t seem to register.

Back in my room in an uncomfortable twin bed, I cannot sleep. I toss and turn all night wishing he was beside me, unaccustomed to the absence of his heat, the sound of his breathing, the feel of his skin on my skin.

Christmas morning at 6 am the television in the living room blares to life and I hear the keen of gunshots from the old western my dad is watching. At 7:30 he comes in without knocking as I’m putting pants on because he wants to open presents.

I got my mom a book I knew she wanted, and my dad scratch off lottery tickets (He won $32.) I, in turn, got money, which is good, because without it I wouldn’t be able to pay the rent, and socks and gift cards to Amazon, and the requisite candy.

We loaded up the car with a turkey, rolls, bottles of soda, deviled eggs and pies (my mom ended up not making a coconut one), and headed back to my grandmother’s.

“I like that sweater.” My mom says.

“C’s mom got it for me.” I tell her. Which is true, but I make a point of saying it so that she feels at least a little guilty for never having gotten C anything, and barely acknowledging his existence.

At my grandmother’s house, my aunt Linda, uncle Tommy and his wife Lori were trying to get my grandmother out of bed. She refused to get up, or put on clothes, or come eat breakfast. My mom made coffee and toast and brought them to her, but she refused them too, so my mom made oatmeal which she also wouldn’t touch.

She was talking at first, but then became incoherent, and then she stopped saying anything, closed her eyes and became unresponsive. After several minutes of her seeming to be semi-conscious, my aunt called 911. They were worried that she’d had a stroke.

We waited for the ambulance to come, hearing the siren wailing down the quiet, country road long before we saw the lights. Two paramedics came in, a man and a woman, wheeling a stretcher. They asked some questions about my grandmother’s health. When the woman paramedic attempted to find my grandmother’s heartbeat with her stethoscope, my grandmother perked up enough to ask, “Who are you, and why are you in my bedroom?”

Then she drifted out again, and became unresponsive. They loaded her up onto the stretcher as my mom struggled to put on her socks and shoes, and wheeled her out and into the waiting ambulance.

My mom and aunt and uncle Billy rode after them, while the rest of us piddled around my grandmother’s house, uncertain what to do. Other relatives arrived, and my aunts busied themselves with making dinner. Toddlers I didn’t recognize ran around the living room with shiny new Christmas toys.

My dad and I ate while we waited to hear something from my mom about how my grandmother was doing. My mom called while we were having dessert. My grandmother was talking again, and they were awaiting the results of a CT scan, though a mini stroke wouldn’t show up on it anyway, if that’s what she’d had.

My dad and I went back to my parent’s house. He watched some John Wayne movie, and I retreated to my old bedroom and watched episodes of Dr. Who. Later he was snoring on the couch, and woke up with a headache saying, “This drummer in my head must be a nigger, because he doesn’t miss a beat.” I remind myself that one day he’ll die and I’ll inherit his money.

My mom comes home. They’d released my grandmother from the hospital saying they could keep her for observation, but there’s so many sick people in the hospital, she’d be better off at home.

My parents drive me back to Austin in a gray, drizzle. We ride in silence. My dad had me re-set his password on his e-mail on his phone, and change his phone’s background image for him. I wonder what’s going to happen next year, or the year after, or whenever the time comes that my grandmother passes away what our family Christmases will be like. All of my cousins now have families of their own, children, spouses, extended families. But my parents only have me.

Because C and his little brother are at the movies, my parents have to drive me all the way to my apartment. One road leads all the way there. They only have to take the exit for South 1st, turn right onto South 1st, and my apartment is right there. It’s the easiest thing in the world, but my mom acts as if she’s having to navigate a T-65 X-wing star fighter to blow up the Death Star.

When we make it to my apartment, she proclaims, “I’m never coming to this hell hole again!” Referring to Austin.

We hug goodbye and wish one another merry Christmas. My dad doesn’t get out of the car. I walk up the stairs to my apartment wishing that I could just forget this Christmas. Without the childhood luster of excitement, the adult holiday is comprised entirely of stress and disappointment. I almost envy my grandmother, because of all of us, she’s the only one who isn’t going to remember Christmas this year.

Inside I eat some Christmas candy and turn on my computer, waiting for C and his brother to get home so that we can make a post Christmas feast, so that they can tell me what their parents sent them. So that we can sit down together and laugh, and quote bad movies. And then it dawns on me. I have my own extended family too. Maybe not the one my parents hoped for, or the one that I expected, but the one I love, and the one that loves me.


IMG_1842You could drop me anywhere in Texas, and, without having to be told, I think I could tell instinctively that I was there. Despite being a large and diverse state, it has a presence so distinct that I could recognize it immediately, even if I’d have arrived blindfolded. No matter how much I try to deny my heritage by living thousands of miles away, Texas courses through my veins. It resonates with something fundamental in my being.

This was my thinking when my plane arrived from New York City for my first visit home after living nearly a year in The Big Apple. I’d spent an uncomfortable ride aboard a plane full of douche-bag indie bands heading to Austin for SXSW, bragging that their song was number five in Israel, and acting as if they were arriving to fanfare on par with the Beatles.

In the airport terminal, there was country western music playing, the smell of BBQ, and pot bellied men wearing camouflaged baseball caps. The culture shock was great enough that my first instinct was to turn around and get on the first plane back to New York City.

I saw my parents before they saw me waiting downstairs by the baggage claim. In the time since I’d last seen them they seem to have aged considerably. Both were grayer, more stooped, more frail looking. I took a deep breath and then walked down the stairs to greet them.

My mother hugged me. My father stood back with a disapproving once over at my clothes, but was remarkably restrained, because he didn’t actually say anything. I loaded my bags into my mother’s new, black car, and we began the long drive home.

Miles passed with brown, winter fields, wind-mills, the rusting tin of old barns, grazing cattle in green pastures, scrubby, leafless trees. The absence of people, and skyscrapers, and taxi cabs and concrete was disconcerting.

My parents asked me what I wanted for dinner. I said, “Anything but pizza.” So of course we ate at a Pizza Hut. They asked a few questions about New York and my flight, but mostly they talked and I listened. Since high school I’ve felt so guarded around my family that I find it impossible to have a natural conversation with them.

I listened without really paying attention to what was being said, just hearing southern drawls, picking out the “y’alls” the “fixin’ to’s” the “do whats?” New Yorkers have an entirely different syntax, different words and ways of speaking, so clipped and aggressive, that my parent’s Lone Star vernacular seemed like a foreign language.

My parent’s house is newly remodeled with hardwood floors, and a rustic elegance that  seems incongruent with my father’s hunting trophies and my mother’s paperback romance novels.

That first night I fell asleep in my teenage bedroom and couldn’t get over how quiet it was, how dark. Without the light pollution of the city, the sky was full of stars, and the country air seemed so clean and fresh. The night was so still that when a train rumbled past in the distance, or a neighbor’s dog barked, it startled me awake.

The next morning we drove to College Station, early, because my mother had an appointment with a specialist to remove some cancerous growths off of her face and arm.

“It won’t take long,” she assures me. “He just zaps them off.”

It didn’t take long. Before I knew it we were shopping and having lunch at an Olive Garden. “I just love their breadsticks.” My mother says. I agree that they are good. “Tonight’s my night to spend with Maw Maw.” She tells me, over bread sticks, never ending salad, and eggplant parmesan.

My grandmother is suffering from Alzheimer’s, and now my mother and her five sisters are taking turns spending the night with her. They set out her pills for the following day in little plastic cups beside the times she’s supposed to take them. They make her meals. But they can’t spend every waking moment with her, and for the hours when she is alone, she calls my mom, or aunts, sometimes fifty times a day asking what day it is, or when she’s supposed to take a pill, or saying that she lost her hearing aid.

“She’s driving me crazy.” My mom says.

My grandmother’s house is the same, except she no longer has a bath. Now she has a shower with a rail and a chair so that she doesn’t fall.

“Come in she says,” when we come through the back door. “Don’t get too close hon, I have a cold.” She says.

“No she doesn’t.” My mom says to me.

We sit in my grandmother’s living room, and I think to myself that she doesn’t seem as bad as my mother has made out.

“Where are you living now?” She asks me.

“New York City.” I say, loudly because even with her hearing aid she has trouble hearing.

“Oh me oh my!” She says, shaking her head with a look that says jet planes and skyscrapers are too horrible to think of.

A few minutes pass and she asks again, “Where are you living now?”

And when I answer again, “New York City,” she has the same shocked and horrified expression. Over the next hour she asks maybe three or four more times, and each time she is just as genuinely surprised as she was the time before.

One night during my visit, my mom and dad and I drove to Madisonville, TX to have dinner at a Mexican restaurant with my aunt and uncle, my cousin Clint and his wife and their two small children.

Taking a cue from my uncle, aunt, and cousin I order a margarita with dinner. We live in a dry county, and as far as I know, my mother has never even tasted an alcoholic beverage. Neither of my parents drink, and this is the first time I ever had a drink in front of them. Because I don’t really drink all that much, myself, I’m tipsy fairly quickly, and I begin regaling them with stories from the big city.

Real Mexican food made by real Mexicans is a treat as I’ve become accustomed to Mexican food in New York being made by Chinese people who serve it alongside General Tso’s chicken, and who have no idea what an enchilada actually is.

The food is amazing, and the conversation is the first “real” one that I’ve had in years, even if I omit large chunks from my history that I imagine my family might not feel so comfortable with.

One day my mom and I drive out to the old place where we lived until I was in high school. I was surprised to see that the old, windy dirt road has now been partially paved. We drove onward after the pavement ended, past mobile homes, cattle guards, beside barbed wire fences and slowly passed the old homestead.

It was completely overgrown with brush, the driveway barely a trail, and no hint of my mother’s old, immaculately landscaped lawns and flower beds. My entire childhood, the place that I’d grown up in, had been erased. Was overgrown with weeds and left in ruins. We turned around and drove back home, and all my mother said was, “Maybe we shouldn’t have come.”

Carlos calls me from California where he’s spending the week because his own grandmother is dying. I wonder what it would be like to bring him to Iola. To introduce him to my family. They would probably like him if they knew him. He’s ridiculously charming.

But instead I edit him out of my life out of habit. The pictures I show them of New York City are all of buildings, the Statue of Liberty, Rockefeller Center. When my aunt tells me I should get a dog so I’m not so alone in the city, I don’t correct her, because I know my mother would be horrified by my honesty.

Downtown Iola, the town where I grew up, has become a ghost town. All of the old buildings are boarded up, or torn down. There’s hardly anything left of main street. Driving past the Iola Missionary Baptist Church there is a marquis that says, “Pastor out of town. Come hear some good preaching.”

“Isn’t that an insult?” My mother asks.

She and my aunt and I take my grandmother to the cemetery to visit my grandfather’s grave. We drive down a single lane dirt road to Lake Grove Cemetery. My aunt and mother point out houses as we drive past and talk about who lives there now and who used to live there, and whose wife ran off with who, and who is crazy, or crippled, or sleeping with a black man.

At the cemetery my mother takes the Valentine’s roses from my grandfather’s grave and replaces them with Easter lilies.

“This is where I want to be buried.” She says, nodding to a plot not far from my grandfather. My grandmother is looking at her own headstone, which has already been engraved beside my grandfather’s.

“Look at this.” She says, upset and pointing to her tombstone. “They were too cheap to finish it.”

“What are you talking about, mama?” My mom asks.

“Why doesn’t mine have my date of death on it?”

My mother closes her eyes and pinches her nose before answering, “Because you’re not dead yet, mama.”

My grandmother mutters to herself about people being cheap, and seems to exist entirely in a world of her own.

“You know she burned all of her checks.” My aunt says to my mother as we’re walking back to my aunt’s truck. My grandmother has taken to throwing things away, or burning old papers for no reason.

“She needs full time care.” My mother says, but there is no consensus among the daughters on how this should be handled.

On the drive back to her home, my grandmother perfectly recalls walking down this dirt road when she was a child, the school she went to, and the names of her old classmates.

In the afternoons my mom and aunt drive to a gas station ten miles away and buy fountain drinks and scratch off lottery tickets. I sit up front beside her round dog who has to have daily insulin shots for his diabetes.

“You shouldn’t waste your money on those things,” I tell my mom. But the statistical improbability of winning doesn’t deter her. “Somebody has got to win,” she says and shrugs. So they scratch off their tickets with quarters, and give me one to scratch off too. My mother wins $4 and feels vindicated despite having spent $10 on tickets. “See?” She says.

Days pass with drives to town for lunch with family, or to have prescriptions filled for my grandmother or father. At another gas station another cousin tells us from behind the counter that another aunt has been diagnosed with cancer, but she doesn’t want anyone to know.

“She looks good.” My mom says of my cousin when we leave. “She’s lost some weight.”

I look out windows…of my mother’s car, of my childhood bedroom. In our backyard my mom puts flowers on the spot where she buried my cat who died this year. There is a little cat statue made of cement with his collar around it’s neck.

I get an e-mail from my cousin Clint. He Googled me, he said, because he realized that we grew up together, but he feels like he doesn’t even know me as an adult. He stumbled upon articles I wrote for the Huffington Post and blog entries and stayed up reading them, teary eyed. He feels terrible that my mom wasn’t more accepting, but he wants me to know that my mother loves me, and that the younger generation is accepting. “What is normal anyway?” He asks. I appreciate it, though inwardly I’m cringing and wondering why I never thought of writing under a pseudonym.

On the day I leave to go back to the city my mom and I have breakfast with my grandmother.

“When do you have to go back, hon?” She asks.

“Today, Maw Maw.” I say.

“So soon?” She asks, dismayed.

“Why don’t you just stay here?” My mom says. “You can break your lease. People do all the time.”

“What would I do here?” I ask.

“You can get a job somewhere.”

I don’t say anything. The truth is, I needed this week in the country. The stillness. The space. The quiet. The clean, country air. Mornings with biscuits. Family. All of it felt so good. I didn’t want to go back to the city, the noise and the filth, and all the people.

But I have a life in New York City. In Texas I only have the past. Disjointed. Eroded and rusty. Everything turning gray and faded around the edges.

“When do you have to go back, hon?” My grandmother asks again.

“Today, Maw Maw.” I answer.

“So soon?” She says. Surprised every time.

Lance’s Annual Holiday Special!

The morning of our departure.  Puffy eyed and exhausted.  My plane was boarding at gate C24 and his at gate E16.  A, B, and C gates have a different security checkpoint than D and E gates, so we reluctantly split up.

I take off my shoes and hat and go through the full body scanner.  Unnecessary radiation.  A strange TSA agent looks at my junk.  But I am too tired to care about these things.

A text from him, “I don’t think I’ll see you after the checkpoint.”  A sad face emoticon.

His plane is starting to board and mine is about to.  I reply, “Have a safe trip baby.  I love you.”  Disappointed that we didn’t get to say goodbye in person.

Then my phone rings and he says, “I can’t leave without a proper goodbye.”

So we run toward each other through the terminal.  Me from the C gates and he from the E gates.  We run, shouldering our suitcases, past families with strollers, security guards, old people in wheelchairs.  We meet in the D area, breathless and sweating in our winter coats.  Wrap our arms around one another and kiss goodbye.

He says, “I love you.”  I say, “I love you too.”  We run back to our respective gates to board our respective planes.  Him to Santa Barbara and me to Austin.

6 am.  The Estée Lauder flight attendants smile as I board.  Blue skirts and red lipstick.  I sleepwalk to my seat.  Behind me a baby begins to cry and is soon joined by other babies so that they are shrieking in surround sound for the duration of the flight.

I change planes in Denver.  The flight is delayed.  We sit on the tarmac for nearly an hour because the lavatory is being serviced.  The captain says over the intercom that the toilet will only flush while the plane is in the air.  I guess I am the only one that realizes the simple solution would be to fly the plane.

My parents pick me up from the airport in Austin.  See them standing at the bottom of the stairs.  Hair grayer than I remember.  My father’s arm around my momther’s shoulder.  I breathe in deeply and brace myself for the criticism I’ve come to expect.

“You look ridiculous.”

“You look awful.”

“You look like a refugee.”

These are some of the phrases I’ve been greeted with in seasons past.  But this year, a Christmas Miracle.  They only hug me, and my dad asks if he can carry anything. So I hand him the heavy bag, and we walk to his truck.

Admittedly, I’ve gone out of my way to do nothing that might elicit a critique.  I’m wearing blue jeans that are neither too tight, nor too baggy.  A dark green sweater.  A baseball cap.  My closest approximation of traditional masculinity. Being home means being unable to be myself.  I try to project the least disappointing image of myself that I can muster.

“Where can you eat?”  My mother asks sometime during the two and a half hour drive from the airport to my childhood home.

“Anywhere.”  I say.

“A steakhouse?”  My dad asks.  Every year it’s the same.  For eight years I was a vegetarian, and my dad is such a jerk about it, that I’ve vowed I’ll never tell them that I started eating meat again.  Two years ago.  We end up eating at a Pizza Hut in Caldwell, TX.  My dad stares at my mushroom and black olive pizza in disgust, and asks how I can live without meat.

My mom, who knows about my recent forays into sushi says, “Fish aren’t vegetables.”

“What did you get your girlfriend for Christmas?”  My dad asks as we’re waiting for the check.  This is a new thing.  I came out to them as a teenager, and in previous years he’s asked if I had a boyfriend, but in the past two years, he’s started to ask about girlfriends.

For Christmas I got Carlos a fancy kitchen knife, and he got me a nice coat to wear in NYC.  We both got new iPhones and signed up for a family plan.  A two year commitment.  We’re now contractually linked.

In lieu of an answer, I just stare back at my father blankly and my mother immediately changes the subject.  We’re all relieved when the check arrives and we can leave.

That night I’m lying in my teenage bed.  The rockstar posters of my youth have been replaced with racks of my mother’s clothes and my dad’s old hunting trophies.  Her growing shoe collection and his growing arsenal.  Lightning flashes, bright and blue through the bedroom windown.  Then thunder, so loud it rattles the window panes and sets off car alarms down the street.

My mom creeps through the dark house unplugging appliances.  I lay in bed counting the time between when the lightning flahses before the thunder rumbles to gauge how far away the storm is.  The Pacific Northwest doesn’t have storms like this.  I count the time between the lightning and the thunder.  The thunder and lightning is followed by rain that lulls me into the deepest sleep I’ve had in months.

It rains the whole time I’m in Texas.  My mom complained all summer about the long, lingering drought, and she complains all week about the rain.

We spend the days shopping and eating.  The mall.  Two different Super Wal-Marts.  Morbidly obese people ride around on Weasels trailing their sausage toed children.  We eat at Olive Garden, Taste of China, and Casa Olé.

If I was drugged and dropped off in Texas, I’d immediately know exactly where I was just from looking at the old ladies with their football helmet hair and welded on make up.  The Wrangler jeans, and chain restaurants.

We buy groceries for my grandmother.  The next day she sends us out again for things that she forgot to add to her list.  “She’s driving me crazy.”  My mom says.  My grandmother is 86 and forgets things more and more often.  When she can’t balance her check book, or remember if she took her pills, or find the television remote she calls my mom, sometimes at 4 am.  I wonder, when my mom is in her dotage, will I be there for her?

Christmas Eve I’m surrounded by blond toddlers.  My cousins are all now married with children.  There are too many of them for me to distinguish among them, or to learn their names.  My mother is the only one of her sisters who is not a grandmother.  She dotes on her sister’s grandchildren.  I feel guilty that she is unlikely to have any grandchildren of her own.  I gorge myself on pie to make up for my inability to please my parents.  The pie loves me just the way I am.

My father had already opened his big Xmas gift, a deer blind to aid and abet him in the stalking and murdering of Bambi.  So my mom and I got him a giant toolbox for the back of his truck.  We’d hidden it in my grandmother’s barn, and on Christmas Eve we loaded it ourselves into the back of his pickup.  My mom put a big, green bow on it.

On Xmas morning he got a card that said, “Go look in your truck.”  We all walked out together in the cold, and all he said was, “You wasted your money.”

My mom and I made out a little better.  She liked (or pretended to like) her camera, perfume and bathrobe.  I liked (or pretended to like) my money, sweater, gloves and gift cards.

Then it was back to my grandmother’s for Christmas lunch.  My mom made turkey and stuffing and vegetarian stuffing for me.  I sat in a corner beneath a picture of a blond Jesus and listened to my family with growing horror.  My uncle was bemoaning the fact that the American Kennel Club wouldn’t let him register his dog under the name “Osama Bin Laden.”  My closeted cousin made an awkward comment about how hot some chick was, despite the fact that he’s nearly forty, has never had a girlfriend and collects antiques.  Then they engaged in our favorite family pasttime:  Telling racist jokes.

Sometimes someone would ask me where I’m living now, and what the weather is like up here.  The conversations never deviate from work or weather.  Don’t ask, Don’t tell is still in full force at family gatherings.

After Christmas we shop some more.  Eat at other chain restaurants.  We visit my grandmother.  But mostly we sit in different rooms watching different TV shows.  As the week progresses, I find myself watching P90x infomercials for all the wrong reasons.  I feel like a teenager again.  Staying up late, hoping for a random Bowflex commercial.  Long, aching nights.  The barking of dogs.  The constant rain.

In the days leading up to my departure, my mom starts saying things like, “Why don’t you move back to Texas?”  Or, “Don’t leave.  Just stay here.”   I don’t know how to respond.  I cannot wait to get out of there, and back to my real life.  To sleep in my own bed.  To be surrounded by my things.  To be able to be myself.  To be with him.

When I call him he is going to the beach.  He is having a great time with his own family.  I try to imagine a time in the future where I bring him home with me to celebrate the holiday together, but find it impossible to merge my life with him and my life with my family.   The two are magnets that repel one another.

Driving back to the airport on my last day, I stare out at the central Texas landscape.  Flat, barren horizon.  Short, scrubby, leafless trees.  Brown fields, dotted with grazing cows or blackened from summer fires.  Wonder, what is it about this place that my parents love so much?

The whole trip I keep waiting for the right time to tell them I’m moving to New York, but the time never arises.

When they drop me off at the airport, my mother begins to cry.  I hug her, and walk briskly inside before I start to cry too.  If I were to describe our relationship in Facebook parlance, it would be “It’s complicated.”  I love her.  I wish I was able to be closer to her.  I wish I was able to be the child she’d hoped for, and not the one she ended up with.

Flight back to Portland.  I’m sitting between two middle aged women who spend the entire flight grilling me about every aspect of my life.  They ask me all the questions that my own family is afraid to ask.  And I tell them everything about Carlos, and New York, and my growing excitement and nervousness about the futre.  They tell me they are envious of my adventures.  Wish me a Happy New Year.

Strangers know more about me than my family.

Carlos comes home the same night.  Our clothes are coming off before I can set my bag down.  Afterward we lay in his bed and watch Pee Wee’s Christmas Special and Garfield’s Christmas Special.  We watch the Goonies, and he falls asleep holding my hand.

His mother got me a hat for Christmas.  My mother doesn’t acknowledge his existence.

On New Year’s Eve we debate going out somewhere, but can’t rationalize spending $20 on cover to a club we wouldn’t ordinarily want to go to for free.  So we meet at the grocery store and pick up some food for a dinner at home.  He cooks and I mostly try to stay out of his way.  Red wine and laughter.  French pop songs.

We try to stay up until midnight, but by 11:30 we’re both exhausted, and decide to go to bed.  He says, “It will still be a New Year whether we’re awake or not.”  This is all the rationale I need to cuddle up with him in bed.

Maybe next year when we live in New York we’ll be able to make it all the way to midnight.  But for three years running, we’re at home in bed before the fireworks go off.  And there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.


“My dad wants chicken and waffles.”  He texts me.  “What was that place we went to on your birthday?”  I text him back, “The Sunshine Tavern.”  He responds with a texted kiss.  Says, “Thanks bebe.”

I seem to have become one half of one of those disgustingly happy couples I’d see in restaurants while sitting alone, pretending to read, silently shooting blasts of imaginary acid at their smug, lovey dovey faces.  Now I’m fully immersed in the complacency of couplehood.  Making future plans a year in advance.  Ending text messages with emoticons.  Sometimes I don’t even recognize the person I’ve become.

On Thursday I met his parents.  His boisterous, Latino father, and blonde, German mother.  They drove up from California to see him, his little brother in tow.  When we got to their hotel room, they hugged me.  His father offered me a beer.  I sat stiffly on the loveseat with my hands folded in my lap, quietly bewildered.  They are warm and genuine despite my complete inability to make small talk.  When Carlos went to the bathroom and I was left alone with them, I ran through a thousand possible things to say, but ended up asking them if they knew that in Oregon it’s illegal to pump your own gas.

Later, we all walked along the water front, and when a photo-op presented itself, his mom had me pose for a picture with Carlos and his dad and brother.  Carlos gave them a tour of downtown, and we ended up in a dimly lit restaurant that I was relieved to discover was too loud to encourage further conversation.  Carlos and his family all ordered beer with dinner.  I ordered a strawberry lemonade and felt like I was intruding on “Family” time.  Wondered suddenly what I was doing there, and had to curb an intense desire to flee.  Carlos’s hand beneath the table found my knee and gave it a reassuring squeeze that told me, I am family.

Impossible not to imagine him meeting my own parents at some point.  The one horse, Texas town where I grew up.  My mother standing with arms folded, staring at him blankly.  My dad asking him if he’s my girlfriend.  Dinner at a Golden Corral.  Sleeping in separate rooms.  A moratorium on personal displays of affection.  Introductions to extended family as my “friend.”

I first realized the depth of our commitment over a year ago when he suggested we get a joint bank account.  The idea of it intrigued and disturbed me in equal parts.  Even though I’d had relationships before, there’d never been any kind of financial co-mingling.  It was the first time I realized he was serious about being with me.  A seriousness that would continue to reveal itself in surprising ways.  How we’d stopped using protection when we had sex.  How I’d moved to a new town where I knew no one, just to be close to him.  How, to my surprise, I’ve never come to regret any of these decisions.

With the passing of time comes intimacy.  But there are some drawbacks to this much comfort.  We used to put in a movie as an excuse to have sex.  Now we actually watch the movie.  We used to be reserved.  Now we are people who are unembarrassed to pass gas in front of one another.  We used to have pet names for one another.  Now these names have devolved into things like “Bamboozle” and “Fuzzy Wuzzle.”  I try not to dwell on these things.

“How do you feel about moving to New York next year?”  He asks.  Imagine the two of us struggling to survive in a small apartment in Brooklyn.  A fold out bed that pulls down over the kitchen sink.  Neighbors screaming at one another in unknown languages. He and I cramped into this small space in this unknown city.  Tell him, “That sounds wonderful.”