It’s Okay to Talk About Leaving

I drove back up to the Pacific Northwest alone. I drove up the 101 with the mountains to one side and the deep, blue expanse of the pacific ocean on the other. Then I headed inland in northern California through the Shasta mountain range and pine forests. From then on the drive was harrowing. I wound through narrow mountain roads with sharp curves and steep cliffs beside eighteen wheelers and signs warning of rockslides and precipitous inclines. I leaned forward in my seat, gripping the steering wheel, certain I’d go careening off the side of a mountain to meet my end in a deep ravine at any moment.

“Just let me get over this mountain.” I prayed to no god in particular. But as soon as I was past the mountain….THERE WAS ANOTHER FREAKING MOUNTAIN!

Things didn’t level out until Eugene, Oregon. By then I was shell shocked and just ready for the trip to be over. An indicator that one or more of my tires was low kept blinking on my car’s dashboard. I don’t know how to put air in a tire, or how to change a flat, so in addition to all of the other things that deeply concerned me, I was also afraid of being stuck on the side of a mountain with a flat tire, waiting for AAA to come.

I spent two nights in cheap motels. One in Fairfield, California and the other in Cresswell, Oregon. In Fairfield, the room was nice, and I watched cable television while some terrible children above me yelled for no reason until their terrible parents yelled at them to “shut the fuck up.” In Cresswell the only room available was a smoking room which smelled like stale cigarettes and misery, and the room was shabby and outdated. I lay in a lumpy bed with lumpy pillows, worried that someone was going to break into my car and steal my meager belongings, or that I’d wake up to a flat tire or both. At 3 am I listened to a man and woman have sex. The way the woman was screaming, I’d have been concerned that she was being murdered rather than made love to, had she not kept yelling, “Yes! Yes! Yes!”

The weeks leading up to the move were hard. I was unhappy, and my unhappiness was a gray cloud that covered the whole house. Santa Barbara felt like a prison, and I felt guilty that I wasn’t happy, that I wanted to leave. We were no closer to getting a place of our own and still sleeping on couches in his parents’ living room. He was frustrated that I wasn’t trying harder to fit in and I was daunted by the prospect of spending $1600 a month on an apartment in a town where I had no friends, where there were no coffeehouses and bookstores, where everyone was tan and smiled toothpaste commercial smiles.

“You should go back to Seattle.” He said one evening. “You talk about it all the time. You miss it.”

It had become clear as time passed that we didn’t want the same things, or to live in the same places. I’d already been thinking of escape before he suggested it. Seattle was the last place I was really happy before we’d begun our haphazard, cross-country odyssey. Once the words were said aloud, it became fact. I was leaving.

We spent the last couple of weeks taking pictures of beaches and streets lined with palm trees. Of red-tiled rooftops and ocean sunsets. We sat in the garage watching the same shows or playing the same video games as if nothing was changing, but a distance was already growing. The invisible miles that separated his heart from mine.

His family had one last dinner for me before I left. C deep fried tortillas, and we had tacos. We drank wine from the glasses his mother had given us for Christmas.

“I really appreciate how well your family treated me,” I said.

“They’re your family too.” He said.

I didn’t cry until the morning I drove away. Then I sobbed, hard, wracking sobs onto his shoulder. He cried too, and we just stood in his driveway holding one another.

It’s very hard to leave someone you still love.

When I got back to Seattle, it rained. I drove up hills lined with wooden houses with rosebush front yards sporting “Black Lives Matter” signs, “No One is Illegal,” “Love is Love,” and I knew that I was back.

My friend Bill had been kind enough to allow me the use of his guest room. I unpacked my few things, my computer, a handful of books, and my clothes, and got settled in. After months without, such simple things as a closet and a bed that I’d taken for granted became precious. To have a room and privacy again was a gift I can never repay.

I couldn’t help but think about C still living with his parents. Still on a couch, still having no privacy or space of his own. Without me, he can’t afford to move out, and without my car, he has to rely on them or buses to get to and from school. He makes plans to transfer to a school in Northern California where the rent is cheaper. We talk about me going to visit at the end of the month, to see if that’s a place I might want to live for the next three years until he’s finished school. But I don’t know that either of us really believes that’s going to happen.

Being back in Seattle is strange. The city I used to live in has been replaced by a newer, more expensive one. I walk down gray, rain slicked streets, past the new restaurants and bars that have taken the place of my old haunts. The old city and the new city are superimposed over one another, so I see both at once. I feel like I’ve fallen out of linear time, and the past and present exist at once, giving me a never ending sense of deja vu.

I sit in a coffeehouse that I used to sit in when I lived here before. The barista is the same barista that I dated 10 years ago. “I haven’t seen you in a while,” he says. “How’s life?”

“Interesting.” I say.

Suddenly I’m overwhelmed by joblessness, the temporary room, the drastic change and stark absence of him beside me, sharing this with me. I weep a little as it rains outside and hipsters in wet jackets walk inside shaking umbrellas. I wonder if coming back was the right decision, or if this will be another in a string of decisions that I regret. I wonder if I’ll ever live the settled life of people with families and houses who have made better choices than me.

I sit in coffeehouses and walk to bookstores. Already I’ve reconnected with friends I haven’t seen in years. I’ve had brunch and drinks, I’ve made plans for dinners and happy hours. Piecemeal I try to reassemble the life I used to live. I sit in the same corner of the same cafe I used to sit in, and for a moment it’s as if I never left, as if the last 7 years never happened. But they did happen. The weight of them creases the corners of my eyes in wrinkles that weren’t present the first time around. The cities and the people I’ve encountered have left their mark inside me, invisible maybe, but present like scar tissue criss-crossing my heart. I look for jobs while folk music plays in speakers overheard, while people younger than me sit illuminated by smartphones and laptops, hoping that this time, I’ll make good decisions. That the second time around I’ll be able to do everything right, and that everything will finally work out….despite historical precedent.

For now the sky is heavy with dreams and the future unfolds like a map, clouded with uncertainty, but, for the moment, full of promise.

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.

Clean – Austin 1999

046Jeremy likes it clean.

On Valentine’s day I decorate our whole apartment with pink and red construction paper hearts. On each heart I write down a reason why I love him. I make a romantic dinner from scratch, light candles, and run a bubble bath. I sit on his third degree sofa and wait for him to come home.

And wait.

And wait.

When he finally arrives, long after dinner has gotten cold, the candles have all burned out and the bubble bath is just a tub of tepid, soapy water, he takes one look at the hearts, the trail of rose petals leading to the bed, the balloons with streamers hanging from the ceiling and says, “You can clean up the mess tomorrow.”

He likes it clean.

The next day, when I come home, he hands me a heart shaped box of chocolates.

“They were half off.” He says.

The box is already mostly empty, crumpled foil wrappers.

We’d met online only a few months before our graduation from separate colleges. I’d driven to Houston and he’d snuck me into his parents house after they had gone to sleep.  We crept up his stairs and whispered quietly in his childhood bedroom, and had awkward sex, crouched on his bathroom floor, careful not to make a sound.

He played piano, studied French and wrote poetry, so of course I fell in love with him.

When I got a job in Austin after graduation, he drove down to look at apartments with me. When I realized that he wasn’t just there helping me find an apartment for myself, he was looking for a place for the two of us, I knew that it was probably a mistake. But I made it anyway, because my heart is a stupid pump.

We go to concerts and he disappears without saying anything. I spend hours looking for him before finding him back at the car, or sitting on a corner bench a few blocks away. I try to acclimate to his quirks and his moods, but I feel that we never speak the same language. We sit in some chain restaurant (he is too intimidated to go to restaurants he isn’t familiar with) and the powder blue waitress acts as our interpreter.

We sleep in twin beds like a 50s sitcom couple. Every night I lie awake, hard, when all I want is his touch. I fantasize about him ripping my clothes off, of plowing into me because he is so consumed with passion. When he puts in his retainer, I know it is all over. Nothing will happen. He’ll fall asleep and I’ll listen to him snoring from across the room. I touch myself and pretend that it is him.

The first time we broke up we were in Paris.

I spent the entire trip pretending that everything was okay. I smiled for photographs. I trailed after him through museums, through catacombs and cathedrals, beneath the Arc d Triumph and up the Eiffel Tower, and on the last night, as a dubbed American cop drama was playing on the hotel TV, I told him I didn’t want to be together anymore.

We furiously packed our clothes, and I frantically ran after him as he hailed a cab, afraid that he’d abandon me in a foreign city.

But by the time we made our connecting flight in Newark, NJ, we had reconciled.

For a couple of months things were okay.

He began to stay up all night and to sleep all day. I see him briefly in the morning as I leave to go to to work and briefly when I get home. Our schedules barely overlap. He’s made no attempt to find a job after college and is relying on a dwindling trust fund to sustain him. Any time we have any kind of conflict he locks himself inside his car or in the bathroom.

Once when I was walking through the living room eating a sandwich, Jeremy was behind me with the vacuum, following my every step, sucking up the crumbs.

“Now, how am I going to find my way back to the kitchen?” I ask, but he doesn’t laugh.

When he is done working out is when I want him most, sweaty and hard. But Jeremy has to shower first. He’ll wash his hair seven times, boil the heat from his skin and anything that smells like him, until his skin is red and tight.  He likes it clean.

One day I came home from work and he had rearranged the living room.  He asked me how I liked it.  I said that I couldn’t tell what was different.  Jeremy says that I must be the least observant person that he’s ever met.

I am transfixed by the tiny hairs on his arms that move with the rhythm of the ceiling fan, up past his chest stretched t-shirt, the hole in the collar, the marble white throat, blanket of three day stubble, chin cleft, pouty lip blushed and heavy as a cloud full of rain, the arched nose, invisible bump that Jeremy thinks makes him less beautiful, nostrils flaring, the thin, high cheekbones, deep set, black eyes, the bushy eyebrows, sweeping forehead, inky black disheveled hair.

“Yes,” I said. “I never notice anything.”

When we make love it’s with as little contact as possible, me on my knees, and Jeremy behind me, arched away from me.  I come to him pasteurized and sterilized.  He comes to me with latex gloves and I’m just thankful for his touch.  He likes it clean.  So he sprays me down with disinfectant, turns me round the washing machine and leaves me spinning.

The second time we broke up it was his idea. He was moving to another city without me. I wondered, but didn’t want to wonder if he’d met some other boy online. Someone younger, more interesting, more attractive than me.

For a month after we broke up we still lived together.

On Sundays, I ease out of bed, creeping to the living room.  I sit in front of a muted television while in the other room, the Sleeper sleeps.  I’m too afraid to eat or rattle around the kitchen for fear of waking Jeremy up.  So I wait patiently for the day to pass, passing the time in fingernails and unlaced shoes.

The air conditioner rattles discontent.

The ticking clock, the television, the sunlit blinds, the dishwasher begins the rinse cycle, the kettle in the kitchen, the pot is ready to boil.

The microwave beeps.

The Sleeper sleeps, and I am awake.

I drive from coffee shop to coffee shop.

“Let me guess, chocolate coffee cheesecake and a cherry Italian Soda?” The tall barista with the crinkly, blond hair asks.

They were out of cherry syrup, so I order a hot chocolate instead. The barista turns the froth into a heart. I sit at a table alone, and when The Smith’s “How Soon is Now” comes on I mouth the words. I read a couple chapters of Catch 22, waiting for it to be late enough to go dancing.

Atomic Cafe plays 80s music on Sunday nights.

At the club I dance to Depeche Mode and Joy Division, and when I stand by the bar, a boy in a black t-shirt stands beside me, but he doesn’t say anything and I don’t say anything. A chubby woman with a blonde ponytail invites me to spend the night with she and her husband, and I politely decline, and when the boy in the black t-shirt leaves, I leave.

When I get home Jeremy is watching a movie. He doesn’t say a word to me as I walk in. When we pass one another in the hallway, we flatten ourselves against opposite walls as if even breathing the same air is painful.

I imagine floating out of my clothes, out of my skin, leaving myself in a corpulent mass of twitching this and bloodstained that.  To be nothing, ephemeral, to lose myself in the atmosphere, to break apart and become nothing.

We have sex one last time. After we use the very last condom it sinks in that it is really over. We sit on opposite sides of the room, carpet burned and cathartic. He sits on the side of the bed clipping his toenails and I stupidly still love him.

When I come home from work the next day to find Jeremy’s posters off the wall, his side of the closet empty, a yellow post it on the refrigerator telling me goodbye, I don’t cry or scream.  I just turn off the television, close the door and falls against it, winded.  Because when Jeremy left, even the break was clean.

 

Hot Chocolate – Chicago 2015

hot chocolate

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

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

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

“Happy anniversary.” I say.

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

“Where?” I ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

C meets me at the Damen stop.

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

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

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

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

We walk past upscale perfume shops, boutiques and restaurants.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

lanceandcarlos