Sorrow

IMG_9699She died on the last day of March.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The years since graduation are a blur.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

Good Times For a Change

This winter there were record breaking snowstorms in Seattle. The entire city was blanketed in white, and everything shut down. There was snow on the ground for weeks, and I watched hapless people sliding down steep hills on my way to work, only chuckling briefly at their misfortune.

Aside from the freak snow, the winter overall was fairly mild. I barely used my long, striped scarf or the heavy coat I’d worn so frequently in Chicago. Now that it’s Spring nearly every day has been sunny and warm. Summer promises to be long, and hot, and dry. Thanks to climate change, Seattle’s usual, gray dreariness has seemed to evaporate. I wear moisturizer with sunscreen like a responsible adult.

I find myself, approaching the age of forty-three, in very unfamiliar territory. For the first time in…possibly my entire life…everything is actually…pretty good. Normally when I feel that things are going well, I become nervous and wait for the other shoe to drop, but even my perennial existential dread has flattened out in middle age. A worrisome optimism has taken its place. This idea that if something terrible happens…I’ll deal with it.

A few months ago, I paid off the last of my lingering credit card debt from my years of living dangerously. Suddenly I was something I hadn’t been for over twenty years. Completely debt free. My job continues to chug along tolerably, and I feel the strange, and heretofore wholly unfamiliar sensation of actually thinking I might, sort of, have my shit together. Even more remarkably, I’m in a place where I can, possibly, buy an apartment, something I didn’t think was going to be in the cards for me. At least not here in this overpriced and gentrifying city.

Creatively, I’ve nearly finished my supposed novel. I’m almost at the point where it ceases to be an imaginary project I’m embarrassed of, and becomes an actual accomplishment…that I can be embarrassed of.

My romantic life is still basically non-existent. I still go on the occasional first date. And with decreasing rarity, I still occasionally have sex followed by varying degrees of regret. But I no longer feel that I’m held captive by the idea that I have to have a partner to be happy. If anything, the idea of arguing over the remote and listening to some guy snoring beside me for the rest of my life makes me feel that maybe a life of singleness is actually the better of the available options.

Middle-age continues to be a strange plane to navigate. I’ve come to terms that my body is no longer the body of a man in his twenties, and it never will be again. But that’s okay. It’s kind of a fantastic body. My beard is becoming increasingly gray, and the creases beside my eyes have become full blown wrinkles. But for the most part I’m enjoying growing older, even if I have absolutely no idea who most of the “celebrities” are in my recommended YouTube videos.

In my misspent youth I constantly longed for a fantastic life in a big city full of sophisticated, artist friends, wild adventures, and cocktail parties. What I’ve wound up with is very different. The friends I have are (mostly) not sophisticated, and (pretty much) not artists, but…they’re real. And I look forward to spending time with them, and talking about terrible music and politics over brunch while we ogle the cute guys walking past outside, and then getting ice cream and going on Pokemon raids.

While I was waiting for some fantastic life to happen, and dashing from city to city for years, chasing some dream of the life I thought I wanted…a life I actually love has taken root. A life in the present. One that’s green, and glowing, and full of wonder. I love having my own place in a beautiful city. I love being able to spend my evenings reading, writing, listening to music, and playing video games. I love learning things about myself, and I love the fact that after almost forty-three years…there are still things about myself to learn.

So maybe the other shoe will drop, and I’ll have some new catastrophe to try and bulldoze my way through (or ignore and skirt around if historical precedent is any indication). If it does, it will at least make for an interesting story. But I have the burgeoning suspicion that things are going to be just fine. And I no longer find the idea of being fine unsettling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Three Strikes

“I’m never going to date again!” This was what I proclaimed to my faggles one Sunday over brunch.

Our table was a hangover of Bloody Mary’s, Diet Cokes, and guacamole.

“Liar,” was Sassy Bear’s succinct response, no-nonsense snark in a scarf with a pierced labret and Unabomber hair.

Of course I didn’t really mean that I would never date again for the rest of my life. But I did think it was probably a good idea to shift the attention away from boys for a while, and focus on myself. The rest of my life was going really well for a change. I managed to stay in the same job, the same apartment, and the same city for over a year. After years of wandering aimlessly around the country with C, the stability was welcome. So I vowed to forget about boys for the foreseeable future. I was going to save money, work on my supposed novel, and continue to enjoy some welcome solitude.

Almost immediately after imposing my moratorium on dating, I went on three dates with three boys in one week.

The first was thin and blond with designer glasses. Thirty-five and put together in a way that I admired, and I looked like I crawled out of laundry hamper by comparison. We met at the same Mexican restaurant that my faggles and I have brunch at every Sunday. In the evenings it’s crowded and trendy with long waits.

We stood outside amidst clusters of other couples and waited for them to text me that our table was ready. I know that we made small talk but the only thing I can remember of our entire conversation was the confirmation that his nipples are pierced.

I made the mistake of ordering an “Ultimate” Margarita with my meal which was entirely more tequila than I was prepared for. When the check arrived, I dropped the credit card slip on the ground without realizing it, and spent 10 minutes looking for it. When my date finally pointed out, I dropped my pen trying to pick it up.

As soon as we left the restaurant I realized I’d forgotten my leftovers that had been so carefully boxed up, and also my date’s name. While both the meal and the date had been pleasant, it didn’t ultimately seem worth it to go back for either.

Date number two was a ginger with a fondness for kink. We made plans to meet at a bar conveniently within walking distance for both of us. As I stepped out of my apartment, a tall, thin red head in a yellow t-shirt walked past. I was pretty sure it was my date, but not completely certain, so I didn’t say anything, I just creepily stalked him the two blocks to the bar. The muscles of his back beneath his t-shirt. His pale neck.

Even after we both walked into the same bar, I still wasn’t entirely sure it was him, so I ordered a drink and studied his pics on the app where we’d met. Finally I opted to trust the statistical probability and introduced myself. We had a fun conversation about fetishes and the flakiness of men in Seattle. The bar was playing 80s music, and I periodically paused to sing along.

In the middle of “Heart and Soul” by T’Pau, he told me, “My mom really likes this song.”

I couldn’t help thinking that his mom and I probably would have had more in common. Not long after that, because we lived on the same street, he walked me home and kissed me on the cheek at the door to my apartment.

The third, and final, of my awkward dating triumvirate was with a 39 year old man, who owned his own home in West Seattle, and who, via APP at least, had engaged me with his witty banter.

He had dark hair, and wore glasses. Taller than me, but so is everyone. He dressed like a J Crew mannequin, but it suited him. We met at a neuvo-Southern place that boasted booths made from old, church pews.

As he sidled up to me, he said, “Lance?” I could tell from the inflection that it was recognition, and as soon as we were standing face to face, I recognized him too. We’d briefly dated 13 years ago when I’d lived in Seattle the first time around.

I was surprised that he recognized me since, back then, I still had hair, didn’t have a beard, and wasn’t nearly as buff as I am now. He looked basically the same. I remembered exactly two pieces of information about him. 1). He was obsessed with Tina Turner, and 2). His father had killed himself. After the initial, awkward realization that this wasn’t our first date, we settled into a comfortable spot outside, and caught up on the past decade plus over fried pickles and poutine.

I told him about C, and living in NYC, Chicago, and Santa Barbara. He told me about his recent trip to Morocco, and another trip to Europe where he saw the world premier of the Tina Turner musical. Neither of us could remember why we’d stopped seeing each other before. While there was no spark of romance, the conversation flowed easily, and the evening was enjoyable, if a bit surreal.

Afterward we vowed to stay in touch this time around, but proceeded to do just the opposite.

When I got home, out of curiosity, I read through my old journals to discover why he and I had broken up. Apparently he’d had a falling out with my former bff, a musician, because he’d had the gall to talk during one of her shows, and this had been enough to drive a wedge between us.

One evening C called. We caught up. I listened to his complaints about life in San Diego, while he listened to my assurances that things would get better. He asked if I’d been on any dates lately. I admitted that I had. He told me about the guy that he’s been seeing. Ben. I tried to keep the conversation light, but I have to admit I was a little winded. It had been more than a year since I’ve even seen him, and of course both of us were going to date again. But hearing about it caught me by surprise.

Apparently he and Ben fight a lot, a stark contrast to the two of us who never fought, not even as I was getting ready to leave. While I wish C only happiness, and want everything to work out, I am just petty enough to take some satisfaction in hearing about his dating difficulties.

After three strikes, I renew my vow to take time off from dating. From all the bluster and bravado, the spilled drinks and awkward silences. I decide to spend more time with my friends. I go to movies. Play board games. The faggles even convince me to go to a Karaoke bar in a sketchy part of town called The Orient Express. It’s comprised of a bunch of old train cars spliced together, with surprisingly good food, and very stiff drinks. Our group reserved the Hong Kong room, which was wallpapered in  gold. We drank Mai Tais and ate Chinese finger foods. We took turns singing pop songs I’d never heard of. I was very disappointed that they didn’t have the Social Distortion song that I’d spent the week previous practicing in the shower.

In the end we all sang A-Ha’s, “Take on Me” together, and the thought of boys was expunged, replaced with camaraderie and the seminal hits of Mariah Carey.

The next night I was still basking in the warm afterglow of platonic companionship, and was content to curl up in bed with video games and a terrible horror movie from the 80s. Yet, I somehow became convinced to meet a 28 year old for drinks at a bar down the street.

“You’re even cuter than your pics.” He said, sitting across from me at the bar, half a drink in, his hand already on my knee.

He was absolutely beautiful, 6’2″, a fuzzy blond beard, hair pulled back over his forehead. I was all flailing arms and fidgety. He was charming.

I bought us blue jello shots from men in jockstraps for some unknown fundraiser, and no sooner had they slid down our tongues, his tongue was in my mouth. Making out with him, I tried not to overthink why a tall, gorgeous, 28 year old was actually enthusiastic about making out with a short, balding, angry, soon to be 42 year old. To my surprise, I was mostly successful in this regard. We kissed what I can only describe as an obscene amount at the bar.

He asked if I wanted to go get burgers with him.

I said I had to get up early the next morning, and should probably go.

We kissed some more outside. Me standing on my tip toes to reach him. Him hunched over in a stylish brown jacket.

The next morning I did get up early to go work out and to cheer on a friend who was running a marathon. Walking to the gym, down rain dampened streets where the homeless people were still sleeping, huddled in doorways, I got a text from the boy. His name is A. He thinks I’m cute and wants to make plans to see one another again.

So I decide to put a moratorium on my moratorium and to give the gorgeous man who is interested in me a chance. I know that I’ll continue to be a walking pile of insecurity, but the benefits of continued making out with said gorgeous man, for the time being, outweigh the fear of impending heartbreak and rejection that I’ve come to expect.

 

 

Super-Connected

superstarYesterday I received a friend request from a friend of mine who died three years ago. It was unsettling. A few weeks ago I was whittling down my friend list to include only people that I actually care about, or people that I find entertaining in some way. When I came across her profile, I thought it was time to un-friend her.

I don’t know what the etiquette is, in these strange times when everyone has a presence on social media. Do you remain “friends” with the deceased forever, or do you let them go? She and I weren’t besties. She was a person who I used to know, who belonged to a group of people who spent time together. And then she moved to Detroit. And then she died. And then three years later I un-friended her.

And now there’s a new request in my inbox telling me she wants to be my friend.

I can only assume that she faked her own death. She’s been living in Aruba, drinking exotic drinks from coconuts with little paper umbrellas. I’d like to imagine her lying on a beach somewhere, and not cancer-riddled, decomposing underground.

I’m guessing the reality is, that whoever maintains her page, somehow noticed my absence and invited me back into the fold. Is the number of friends that we have on Facebook still important, even after we die?

After work, I met up with a former co-worker who was in town for a conference. We hadn’t seen one another in 15 years. He looked exactly the same, and I felt shabby, bald, and chubby by comparison. He had access to the Executive Lounge, so we sat across from one another catching up with complimentary finger foods, he in his suit and tie, and me in an embarrassed sweater.

After we both got fired from our former job back in 2001, he went back to school and got his doctorate while I wandered aimlessly from city to city. We asked one another if the other still remembered so and so, but neither of us remembered any of the same people. Still, it was nice to spend a couple of hours reconnecting.

He and I had never been friends outside of work, and if it weren’t for Facebook, we wouldn’t have stayed in touch, and we wouldn’t have found ourselves 15 years later, sitting in a hotel in Chicago, talking about the horrors of the presidential primaries, racism, and Postmodern Jukebox.

We hugged goodbye as he left to go see the Keynote Speaker, and I walked through the snow to catch my train back home. I was struck by how beautiful the city is at night, the ornate buildings near the Magnificent Mile lit up against the black backdrop of sky.

He is an awesome guy, and, under other circumstances, we could probably have been good friends. But as it was, we were two people who used to work together, who are still connected by the tenuous tether of the internet. I can’t help but think that all this connectedness is unnatural.

The train is still crowded, long past rush hour. I stand as the commuting zombies sit in overstuffed coats and scarves, gazing, hypnotized into their tablets and their phones. When I see someone holding an actual book, I immediately warm to them, even if the book in question is a terrible pulp novel. Especially if the book is a terrible pulp novel.

At home C is sitting on the couch with a close-captioned Futurama re-run in the background, his face blue lit by the rectangular screen of his laptop. He has this guilty expression that I’ve come recognize all too well.

“What have you done?” I ask.

“How can you tell?” He no longer bothers trying to deny it when I’ve caught him up to something.

He’d been doing research online and has changed his mind, again, on where we’re going to move next. This time I’m on board, though he’s sworn me to secrecy regarding our prospective plan. We never seem to stay in one place long enough to really connect to it.

Another city. Another set of ghosts to haunt. Of memories typed into an electronic page to try to make our lives seem somehow better than they are. The past is never out of sight and out of mind, because it’s always Throw Back Thursday, and the older you get, the more dead friends you collect.

C sticks his head inside the door.

“Are you busy?” He asks.

“No.” I say. I’m never too busy for him. He keeps me in the present, always pointing forward.We never dwell on the past, just focus on the future that we want to make together.

So when my friend who died asks to re-friend me, I do not accept the request.

 

 

Just Like Heaven – Seattle, 2007

“Look, we’re wearing the same underwear,” he says. His mouth is swollen and red like the splitting skin of a squashed plum.  He finishes pulling down my pants.  There is no denying the unembarrassed redness of our briefs.

“So we are.”  I agree.

His pale skin is a stark contrast against his flannel sheets.  I slide on a condom.  His hand is on my chest.  Red.  I close my eyes.  Red.  When we kiss, we are reduced to a pair of red, open mouths.

Earlier, I’d been sitting in a coffeehouse, pretending to read, silently willing him to ask me what I was reading, to ask my name, to say something, anything.  Outside the sun crept blood red across a purple sky like a fuzzy spider.  A ray of light set all the trees lining the boulevard on fire.  My reflection was superimposed over the empty, gray street below as I stared dully out the window, surprised by the intensity of my own longing.

Later I sit naked on the edge of his bed.

“Can I snoop through your bag?”  He asks.

“Sure.” I say.

I start to put my clothes on.

“Which is which?”  I ask, holding up identical pairs of red underwear.

“At this point does it really matter?”  He asks.

At this point, I have to concede, it probably doesn’t, and I shrug into one pair and hand him the other.  I put on my pants and sweater and look under his bed for my socks.

“Can I borrow this?”  He asks of the book I’d been pretending to read when we met.  An impressively long, French novel, that after five years I’d never finished reading.

“Sure.”  I respond.  I put my hand on his naked shoulder and kiss the top of his head, gently.  I cannot find my socks.

“Good.”  He grins.  “Now you’ll have to see me again.”

Outside it has gotten cold, and I walk with my hands tucked under my arms back to Hannah’s apartment.  I walk up Pine Street, toward Broadway, where the homeless people huddle in doorways, where empty syringes litter the sidewalk of an abandoned lot, where young men in leather jackets walk from one bar to the next, where the sky is red and black like an infected wound, and no one expects any kindness.  A homeless man asks if I have any change, but I shake my head “no” and keep on walking.  When I rub my nose I notice that my fingers smell like him, and I smile into the cold night.  My breath hovers in front of my face like a lonesome ghost.

When she feels sad, Hannah puts on high-heeled shoes and plays the piano.  I hear the music echo down the hallway before I get to her door.  Once there I pause and wonder if I should go back to the coffeehouse.  I slip in, anyway.  She sees me and smiles, and once she’s finished with her song asks, “How was the coffeehouse?”

“Good.” I respond, taking off my shoes.  I leave my wallet, watch, and keys in a neat pile.  I try to be as unobtrusive as I can.

“Like the ones back home?”  She asks, sitting on her piano bench, draping an old, fringed blanket over the keyboard.

“No.”  I say.  “But promising.”

“That’s good,” she says.

I ask about her day at work.  She is the bookkeeper of a retirement community.  She relates a story about Herman, an alcoholic, paraplegic war veteran who came down stairs in his wheelchair with no pants on, covered in feces when they were showing some new prospective tenants the facilities.  She saw him first and wheeled him back up to his apartment before anyone else had a chance to see him and had an aid give him a bath and dress him.

“I guess we’ve got something to look forward to!”  I say, but Hannah just snorts and shakes her head.
“No,” she says.  “We could never afford a place like Victorian Gardens.  We’ll end up in some state run place, smelling like pee and talking to the walls.”

“I’m glad we had this talk.”  I say.

She grins at me with her crooked smile and says, “Let me cut your hair.”  I acquiesce and she leads me to her bathroom.  I sit on the edge of her bathtub with no shirt on.  She stands behind me with a pair of scissors and a comb.  “You were out late,” she says.  I feel her cold fingers on my scalp, on the back of my neck.  “Sit still.” She says.

I watch the tiny blond hairs fall into my lap.

“I met a boy.”  I say.

“That’s good.  That’s just what you need.”  She says, “lift your head.”  Her hand is under my chin.  After a while she says, there.  “How does it look?” I stand holding her compact and look at the back of my head in her bathroom mirror.

“Great.”

Then she says, “Want to go grab some hot chocolate?”

Walking to the French café across the street from her apartment we see that they have lit the Christmas tree on top of the Space Needle.  In the café we eat croissants filled with nutella and carols play and we joke about how Christmas music is inescapable.  We watch people walk by from the shops downtown with their arms full of shopping bags, packages tied up in neat, red bows.

Then we see him, her imaginary boyfriend.  He’s tall and thin, with sideburns like lightning bolts wearing all black.  She slips out of her seat and runs out after him.  They went out twice, and then he stopped returning her calls.  Nevertheless, she is convinced that he is her soul-mate and has spent hours sitting on her couch with me, analyzing the possible reasons why he hasn’t returned her calls, and relating why they are perfect for one another.

I see them standing in the street below beneath a streetlamp, her red lips and red shoes, the coal black shock of her coiled hair, her pale face.  I see them shout at one another as shoppers pass by hurriedly, as a homeless man sits waiting for a bus.  I look at my spoon sitting in a pool of pale brown chocolate in my white saucer.  I look up again and the imaginary boyfriend is gone, and Hannah is standing in the street alone.

In her apartment I curl up with a blanket on her couch.  After hours of her crying, after she stands on her balcony setting fire to a dried rose he had given her, after she leaves two sobbing, incoherent messages on his cell phone, after rubbing her back, after consolations and good nights and see you in the mornings, sleep becomes impossible.  Sometimes at night I turn into a giant, red monster, and I stomp around, smashing things and crushing entire buildings beneath my red, monster feet.   I stomp through memories and smash them.  Smash the face of the young man from the coffeehouse.  Smash Hannah’s bathtub.  Smash the  weathered awnings of the French café.  Once the night has been ripped to pieces so that only blackness remains, then finally, fitful sleep.

The entire city is underwater, blue and bloated as a mermaid’s lips.

“Get used to it.”  My coworker warned me.  “You won’t see the sun again for months.  Winter makes everyone crazy.”

Puget Sound is the same slate gray as the sky, as the sidewalks and the buildings, and there is no horizon, just muted shades of the same headachy color.  I walk to work shivering, my jacket damp from the wet, misty air.  The warm, rumbling thunderstorms of Texas seem like an imagined landscape from another world.

I’d left Hannah’s the week before and moved into an apartment of my own.  I’d traded a small space cramped with wires, electronics and musical equipment for the emptiness of stark white walls and unpacked boxes.  I’m relieved to no longer be sleeping on someone else’s couch, to have a place of my own again.

 

“I can hear you smiling.”  He says, as we lie curled up on his bed, afterward.  I can tell that I like him, because of my willingness to spend the entire night squished into his single bed.

“Did I happen to leave a necklace here last time?”  I ask him.

“I don’t think so,” he says. “What does it look like?”

“It’s blue.”

“I’ll look for it.”  He says.

“Thanks.”

“Who’s Jeremy?” He asks in the quite dark.

A question can fold space, can Medusa your whole body.  Your skin, your sinew and your organs can all solidify.  Dreams can be awakened from and realities can implode.  I feel myself sinking into his bed, stiff as stone.  “Why do you ask?”  Words forced through petrified lips, and even they seem heavy and solid.

“His name is written on the inside cover of that book you loaned me.”  He says.

“Just someone I used to know,” I say. He turns over, satisfied.  I feel the flesh of his arm against the stone of my chest.

Morning.  He and I go to a Russian bakery and get piroshkies for breakfast.  We walk down to Pioneer Square and take the underground tour of the city.  We walk through narrow walkways, the concrete of the city sidewalks above us, sunlight filtering in through purple skylights.  He holds my hand.  Mice scurry in the stones and rubble near our feet.  Ghosts shuffle down the abandoned avenues propelled by the memory of warmth.

We stand on the corner and he asks if I want to go see the Van Gogh exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum.

“I’m helping Hannah put up fliers for her show next week.”  I say.

“When is her show, again?”  He asks.

I tell him that the show is on Saturday.  I tell him he should come.

“Is it 21 and up?”  He asks. He stands in front of me, his hands in the pockets of my jacket to keep them warm.

“I guess so.” I say. “I don’t know.  Why?”

“Well, if it is I can’t go.”  He says.

I don’t immediately understand. “Wait?” I ask.  “How old are you?”

“20.”  He answers.  “How old are you, 23?”

“Oh god.” I say.

“24?”  He ventures.

I look at him, horrified. “Oh god.”  I say again.

Hannah and I are walking up Pike with a stack of fliers, advertising her show.

“You’re dating a 20 year old?”  She asks, laughing, and I immediately regret having told her.

“We’re not dating.  It’s just sex.” I say. “Only now it isn’t anything.  I’m cutting it off.”

She asks me to hand her the tape.  The newspaper beside us has a picture of Mount St Helens puffing a curl of thick, gray smoke into the sky.  Hannah tells me that she thinks Twenty is a good distraction, exactly what I need.  She and her Imaginary Boyfriend have reconciled and he’s coming to her show.  Besides, none of it will matter if the volcano explodes.

I tell her that the volcano is too far away.  Probably.  We imagine the city turned to ash.  The people will all be frozen, mundane figurines trapped in their everyday tasks like the citizens of Pompeii, to be rediscovered by some future archeologists.

“They’d think I was an accountant and you worked in a cubicle.”  Hannah says.  “No one would ever be able to tell who we really are.”  This is her biggest fear, invisibility. I realize that every action of Hannah’s stems from her desire to be seen, from her need for an audience.

“Who are we?”  I ask, and the question hovers in the air between us, unanswered.

Back at my apartment building I run into my neighbor, a drag queen with beautiful, caramel colored skin and a fondness for old soul music.  She sasses by in a powder blue dress and blue, high heeled shoes, a feathered boa.  I struggle with my key.

“Girl, I know you’re going to come to my show on Saturday!”  She says.

“I’ll try.”  I say, and I open the door to my apartment and go inside.  The walls are all still bare and white and the boxes all unpacked.  On my phone there is a text from Twenty.  He found my necklace behind his bed.  I should go meet him for Vietnamese and he’ll return it to me.

I meet Twenty for Vietnamese.

“Is this yours?”  He asks, holding the blue, beaded necklace in his hands.

“Yes.”  I say, eyes glistening.   The familiar feel of the necklace in my hands again.  I run my fingertips over the bumpy ceramic tile of the tabletop.

“It must mean a lot to you.”  Twenty says.

I agree that it does.

We order Pho, and sit across from one another, the steaming bowls of broth in front of us.

“You don’t look that old.”  He says, squeezing a slice of lime over his soup.

“Thanks.”  I say, stirring bean sprouts and basil into my broth, waiting for it to cool.

“Age is just a number.”  He says.  Over dinner I am surprised that I forget that he is twenty.  We talk about movies that we both love, and how he wants to study linguistics, that one day he wants to have children of his own.  Seeing a couple walk by outside with a baby between them, we smile, and his hand crawls across the table and finds mine.  “I really like you,” he says.

Outside we’re walking down Broadway, debating whether or not to stop at the chocolate shop for tiramisu.  I’m fingering my necklace, walking away from a warm, remembered past into an uncertain future.  The universe expands and contracts, and in that moment it seems possible that there is space enough for both the past and the present all at once.

 

“Will you buy me a Guinness?”  He asks, as we sit in a dark corner of the Karma Café waiting for Hannah’s show to start, our knees touching.

“So now I’m supposed to supply alcohol to a minor?”  I ask with feigned indignation.  I squint at him and then go to the bar and order a Guinness and a gin and tonic and carry them back to the table where Twenty waits for me.

“You’re the handsomest man here,” he says when I sit down beside him.

“Flattery will get you everywhere.”  I tell him, and hand him his beer.  The taste of gin on my lips as Hannah comes onto the stage in a black, low-cut dress.  Her hair is done up in ringlets.  She sits at the piano in high heels and begins to play.

“She’s good.”  Twenty whispers to me.  His knee is pressed against my own. Our shoulders are rubbing against one another.  I taste the sweet alcohol on his breath,  the smell of his cologne.

Hannah plays piano with a desperate intensity.  She sings, her thin voice rises high above the candlelight above the assembled audience and echoes in the rafters.  I look at the pale, candlelit faces of the audience as they look at Hannah.  There is the sound of glasses and bottles clanking, of people talking at the back of the bar, of pool balls smashing against one another from the other room.  I look outside and see two men passing a joint back and forth in the blustery, anemic night.

When the show is over, the audience stands in lingering clumps, looking in purses for cigarettes or checking the time on their cell phones.  A man begins disconnecting the microphone and amps and is rolling up cords.  Twenty and I walk up to Hannah and Twenty says, “You were great!”

I nod my assent, and say, “Really, it was a great show.”

Hannah scans the audience, now disappearing, or milling about in small circles.  “He didn’t come.”  She says.  “He said he would.”

“I’m sorry, sweetheart.”  I squeeze her hand.  “Do you want to go grab dinner somewhere?”

She shakes here head, “No. You two go,” she says.  “I’m going to talk to the owner about another gig.”

Walking with Twenty down the street, he says, “You and Hannah must be very close.”

“We are.”  I agree.   But since moving to Seattle, I feel almost like we are strangers who know too much about each other, that all we have in common now is history, that if we hadn’t spent our twenties together, we probably wouldn’t be friends at all.  The only language we have in common is disappearing, being replaced with new words and new memories.

“You’re getting a bald spot.”  He says, his finger tracing a smooth place starting to form at my crown.  “It’s cute.”  He kisses the top of my head.  I’m sitting cross legged in his apartment, looking through the music on his phone while he picks up some homework to work on at the coffeehouse.

“You have terrible taste.”  I tell him.  I’m suddenly so afraid that he’ll stop liking me that I have trouble catching my breath.  The heart is such a stupid organ, I think.  It just keeps on beating, even though, at this point, it must be made entirely of scar tissue.  I imagine myself in a giant bubble, like the Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz.  I imagine floating down to the bottom of the ocean, alone and safe in inky blackness.

“Lets go.”  He says, wrapping his fingers around my hand like a giant squid and pulling me up again.

At the coffeehouse an Asian girl sits in a corner, setting the timer on her digital camera to take a picture of herself.  We watch her smile, watch the camera flash.  She looks at the picture, and, unsatisfied, sets the timer again.

A young man with unwashed hair walks by wearing a red, Che Guevara T-shirt.  “Do you want me to do that for you?” He offers.

She nods, says “Thanks.”

“Smile,” he says, and she smiles.  The camera flashes.  The two of them look at the picture together.  They smile at one another and the waitress smiles, and I smile.  A deaf couple signs to one another, and they are smiling.  Everyone in the coffeehouse is smiling.

Twenty is sitting at the table across from me, working on trigonometry.

“Who is this?”  He asks when “Just Like Heaven” begins to play on the speakers overhead.

“The Cure!” I exclaim, shocked.

“Never heard of them.”  He says, and goes back to studying.

My narrow bed requires spooning.  My arm is wrapped around his chest.  The aching awareness that all that is separating us is a remarkably thin pair of underwear.   Outside the steady traffic on the interstate has become an impostor ocean.  Concrete, sprawling and gray.  The occasional blaring of a horn, a police siren, the revving engine of a motorcycle.  City sounds.  A discordant lullaby that does nothing to soothe my insomnia.

The drag queen next door arrives home from the club.  She plays “Sunday Kind of Love,” and sings along in a rich, baritone voice.  When the song stops, she plays it once again.  Someone in the apartment below her bangs on their ceiling with a broomstick and she turns the music off.

“Tomorrow we’re listening to nothing but the Cure.”  I tell Twenty.

He rolls over and kisses me, and he kisses me again.

My mind races. “I can’t believe I bought alcohol for a minor!  I can’t believe that I bought alcohol for a minor who I then had sex with!  I can’t believe that I bought alcohol for a minor who has never even heard of the Cure, and then had sex with him.  Twice.  What am I doing?  I’m a 31 year old man and he is 20.  20.  He was not alive when The Challenger exploded.  He doesn’t recall a time when there was no internet.  He has never mailed someone a letter.”  And then, “He has never lost someone he loved.”

Sunday morning.  He convinces me to walk with him in the rain to Pike Market to The Seattle Cheese Festival.  I let him drag me through the crowd from booth to booth.  He hands me cubes of cheese on toothpicks from different countries.  After about the 10th Gouda, I stop eating them and put them in my pocket until I can discretely throw them away.

Walking home, it is still raining.  I round a corner and stop in my tracks.  Standing across from me is a wolf.  Or anyway, I tell myself, it’s just a dog that looks like a wolf, a white, hulking beast straight from Siberia.  Twenty has already left me to go study.  We kissed goodbye in front of all the cold, wet tourists at the market, so I am alone.  The street near my apartment is deserted, eerily barren of Sunday traffic.  The wolf and I regard one another.  His black eyes meet my blue ones.  I am standing close enough to see the moisture on his coal black snout.

An ambulance passes in the distance, and as the siren wails, the wolf closes his eyes and howls in unison.  When the ambulance has passed, I turn, warily, and the wolf turns, and the two of us pad away in opposite directions.

At her apartment Hannah and I order Chinese take-out.  We eat with wooden chopsticks in front of the white light of her television.

“A wolf?”  She asks.

“Not a wolf,” I say uncertainly.  “A dog that looked like a wolf.”

“No fortune cookies.”  She says, disappointed.

“Maybe that’s for the best.”  I say.  She laughs and lays her head on my shoulder.

“I really wanted him to want me.”  She says.

“I know.”

She cries.  I can feel the wet tears seeping through my shirt.  I lay my head against her head.  I smooth her hair.  For a moment, we are in our twenties.  Sitting in the bedroom of my old apartment,  listening to The Cure on my stereo.  I feel suddenly larger than myself.  Like I’m too big for my own body.

“I love you.”  I whisper into her hair.

Night.  Twenty is in my bed, asleep.  I stare at his pale, white back.  The light brown freckles that spill across his shoulders.  The curve of his thigh, white leg against white sheets.  I want to memorize him.  The knobs of his spine.  The uneven line of his dark hair across his neck.  Nothing on earth is as smooth and soft as the small of his back.  I kiss him between his shoulder blades.  He wakes up, slides out of bed to go to the bathroom.    He stops in front of the window.  The blind is rolled up so that we can see the outline of the city stretching out below us.  I see him bathed in the orange light of the security lamp outside.

“It’s snowing.”  He says.

I crawl out of bed and stand behind him.  Outside, the trees and cars and buildings are all blanketed in white.  Glistening.  His skin.  White.  The walls of my apartment.  White.  The sidewalks and the streets.  White.  I want to memorize this moment.  To record it.  To be able to replay it on some future night, when he is, or isn’t there.  When it is, or isn’t snowing.  Think, how delicate time is.

He turns to me and smiles.

I put my arm around his naked shoulders and together we watch it snow.