Anger

When I was 19, I drove my college boyfriend home from school, and we kissed at a red light. Looking in the rearview mirror, I saw a police car stopped behind us.

“Uh oh.” I’d said.

My boyfriend laughed it off and said, “It’s not like we were sodomizing.”

At the time sodomy was still illegal in Texas, though only for gay people. After I dropped my boyfriend off and continued on my way, I noticed the police car was still behind me. The car followed me for several blocks, and then finally pulled me over.

When I asked why he’d stopped me, the swaggering, white cop had said, “Just a routine check to make sure your license and registration are in order.”

He made me get out of my car and hand him the aforementioned license and registration. After making me wait while he took my paperwork back to his car, he eventually came back and said that I was free to go.

He followed me the rest of the way home.

I understood he’d only stopped me to intimidate me. To exercise the power of his authority over me. To put me in my place.

I was just a kid then, and afraid of what someone in his position could do to me. If something like that happened now, I’d get a name and badge number. At the very least I’d file a complaint and at best sue for discrimination. I would not have any fear that a cop might murder me.

Having the luxury of not having to feel terrorized by the people who are supposed to protect and serve us should not be a privilege afforded only to straight, white people.

I have no idea what it must be like for people of color who have the legitimate fear that a routine traffic stop could kill them. I don’t know how the repeated headlines of yet another black person being murdered by police must affect their psyche. I can’t imagine the trauma that must cause.

But I think I have an inkling. The barest sliver of an inkling. Coming from a deeply racist small town in Texas, I have witnessed overt racism my entire life, but I’ve never understood it. The concept of it has never made sense to me. Human life began in Africa. We are all part of the same family tree. The idea of assigning value based on the amount of melanin in one’s skin is insane.

The times we are living through are insane.

I don’t know why the murder of George Floyd by police was the watershed for what I hope is radical reform of a deeply racist, authoritarian institution. It seems like every other week for as long as I can remember there has been a news story of someone meeting a similar fate. There’d be a flash of anger. A Facebook furor. But nothing ever changed.

This time feels different. Maybe the heightened anxiety of dealing with a global pandemic already had everyone on edge. Maybe outrage accumulates. Maybe enough was just finally fucking enough.

Even my mother back in Texas was angry. “They should round up all of those police that did that and shoot them.” She’d said. Of course, she’d also suggested that the people looting should be shot as well. True to her Texan heritage, her solution to most of life’s problems is to shoot them.

I get the anger.

I feel like I’ve been angry every day for nearly four years. I walk through town with my shoulders hunched. I clench and unclench fists. I’m angry at work. I’m angry at home. I go to sleep angry and wake up angry. My anger is a giant, red ball. A flashing police siren. Red. A splash of graffiti over the boarded window of a closed shop. Red. The spilled blood of another murdered black man. Red.

I do not know what to do with it.

I anxiously watch other people go to protests. Anxiety is an easy excuse when there is a deadly virus still rampant. But probably not the whole truth. If there was no virus, would I be out marching in the streets, adding my voice to the angry masses? Or would I still be curled up on the couch watching the last season of Supernatural, “liking” my friends’ posts to defund the police on Facebook?

In Seattle parts of the city look like a war zone. At 4:00am in my neighborhood, streets were fogged with teargas. The police station has been boarded up and abandoned. Tonight in the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone people are calmly watching documentaries on a cordoned off street outside the empty station.

At 8:00pm the neighborhood cheers to support our healthcare workers.

I am at home, watching Sam and Dean battle wayward Angels. I respond to posts on social media with the red faced anger emoji.

I am angry in a general sense at the society that voted for the current white supremacist in chief who has used his platform to normalize bigotry.

I am angry at the machinery of institutionalized inequality.

I am angry about gerrymandering and marginalizing.

I am angry that the people who are supposed to protect us are often the biggest threat to our safety.

Then there are the little angers.

I am angry that having a middle aged body means that turning over in my sleep can screw up my back for two weeks.

I am irrationally angry at people who litter.

I am angry at people who don’t seem to know how to walk down a sidewalk.

I am angry at guys on gay dating apps who describe themselves as “chill.”

I am angry that my ceilings are so high in my living room that I can’t hang my mini blinds.

At any given moment, one or more of these big or little angers (or any number of greater or lesser angers in between) is fighting for dominance in my selfish, middle aged, white mind.

Most of all, I’m angry at myself. I’m angry that I have lived for nearly 44 years just accepting the status quo. Of allowing these atrocities and saying nothing. I may not know what to do with my anger or my anxiety. But I know the very least I can do is say something.

An Apocalypse of Inconvenience

IMG_9580Then things got worse. Shelves in the stores were empty. The bars and restaurants all shut down. No one was out on the streets. The stock market was crashing. There were terrible people who hoarded toilet paper and hand sanitizer, and even worse people who stockpiled it so they could re-sell it at trumped up prices for a profit.

But there were good people too. Healthcare workers who put themselves at risk, working long hours to help others. Strangers who bought groceries for the elderly, and volunteers who got together to make sure that poor kids got enough to eat outside of school.

As usual, I fell squarely in the middle. Of course I don’t want anyone to get sick (well, maybe old, straight, white, male republicans), and I recognize that social distancing can at least slow things down enough so that our hospitals don’t get overwhelmed, and the most vulnerable people can be protected. But mostly I’m just annoyed that I can’t get Thai food when I feel like it, and concerned that with the gym closed, my chest is going to deflate.

On Sunday I met with the Co-op board about my condo. The president (a self described drag queen real estate agent) held out his hand for me to shake. I was mortified, but I shook it anyway, because I wanted to seem friendly and agreeable…and I really wanted the apartment. I was relieved when the other board members bumped elbows with me in greeting, and spent the whole meeting reminding myself not to touch my face until I could go home and douse my offending hand in bleach.

Afterward, I went to the grocery store to pick up some frozen dinners for the week ahead. Standing in front of an empty aisle of cleaning supplies, a fellow shopper caught my eye and said, “This is crazy!”

“Yeah.” I agreed.

It is crazy.

It is absolutely insane.

My mother called from Texas and told me to stock up on bottled water and canned soup. To not leave my apartment.

“Don’t go to brunch.” She said. “Talk to your friends online.”

I did not explain to her that I’m already basically a shut-in, and that social distancing is par for the course for me.

At work things were getting really tense. Employees who were at risk were justifiably angry about having to take public transportation and go into an office when they could just as easily work from home. They were worried about themselves, and about their families. I didn’t blame them. I was worried too.

When management finally gave us the go ahead to work from home yesterday, the team was still ready to riot. I think the anxiety of not knowing what’s going to happen just has everyone on edge, and it burst out during a shouted and incredibly awkward meeting that left everybody dazed and uncomfortable, but which I voyeuristically enjoyed.

Today I worked from home, cozy in fuzzy slippers. I watched videos on YouTube and wept a little at clips of Italian and Spanish people playing music and singing together from the balconies of apartment buildings. It was endearing, but I couldn’t help but acknowledge that if my own neighbors started doing that, I’d yell at them to knock it off.

The one great thing about being home was that I’d be there to accept a package I was expecting from FedEx. Or so I thought.

I watched the tracking all morning, and then half past noon it said my package had been delivered. Supposedly someone named R. Barnes had signed for it. I’d been home the entire day. My buzzer never rang. There isn’t even anyone named Barnes in my building. I looked outside and there was no package to be found.

While I recognize that there are people with real problems. People in the service industry who can’t work from home, and others who have lost their jobs altogether. People who are struggling to make ends meet. People who are literally dying…for me personally, this has all just been an apocalypse of inconvenience.

Packages not delivered. Brunches canceled. The gym closed.

I try to remind myself that this is only temporary. New cases are already going down drastically in the regions that were first hit. People are recovering. But I worry that things are going to get worse before they get better, and that many of the businesses that have had to temporarily close down may never be able to recover. I wonder what the long term effects are going to be.

For the time being, I’m glad that I’m still gainfully employed. That my apartment purchase is going along smoothly. That my family and friends are healthy. That there are people in the world who are kind. That FedEx is still delivering…just not to me.

 

 

 

Safe as Houses

eUzl8ji1TMCnje0aRkRbbA“I saw on the news that Seattle is the epicenter of this thing,” my mom said during one of my thrice weekly phone calls home.

“This thing” was cases of the novel coronavirus in the United States. For about the billionth time, I wished my mom didn’t have access to a television or the internet. Now she’s going to spend every waking moment in a state of anxiety over what must surely be my imminent death from the plague.

Because I’ve inherited her temperament, I will also spend every waking moment in a perpetual state of panic. Though my anxiety has less to do with the global pandemic, and more to do with the purchase of my first home.

I’d first started toying with the idea of buying a condo last year. I was finally earning a decent living and not just struggling to survive. A friend had told me about a program to help first time home buyers in Washington state. After looking at a couple of studios that were each too small to fit my bed into that were both going for more than $300,000, I’d surrendered the fantasy and resigned myself to the fact that I was just going to have to be a renter forever.

I still looked at real estate apps longingly, not really expecting to find anything I could possibly afford. I get by, but I’m not making tech industry bucks. So when I saw an open house for a one bedroom in my neighborhood, I popped in for a look more as a lark than any serious expectation that I might end up actually being able to buy the place.

The place was adorable. A historical building. Hardwood floors. Twice the space of my tiny apartment. I immediately started imaging my life there. Movie nights with friends. Chopping vegetables for wine bottle dinners with Nina Simone playing. Dancing in socked feet and working away at my supposed novel.

After that tings began happening at a disconcertingly rapid pace. A bank pre-approved me. An offer was made. An offer was accepted. Earnest money was provided. An escrow was opened. Forms to complete and sign and initial were emailed to me and emailed back.

Now I’m faced with the near certainty of home ownership. I say near, because it’s a co-op, and I still have to go through a process of being vetted by strangers who’ll decide if I’m financially sound and a good fit for the community.

Because of the worldwide panic over the virus, and the tanking economy, I ended up with a rather obscene interest rate, and for the first time think I may be able to actually afford this place without falling into abject poverty.

For the time being, I’m just waiting for the closing so that I can finally relax and breathe again. As the virus impacts more and more aspects of my daily life, I try to decide how much panic I should allot to home buying and how much I should divest to the disease. The best I can do is continue to wash my hands obsessively and hope that the next 30-45 days pass by quickly and painlessly, and hope that the grocery store gets a shipment of toilet paper sometime soon.

Sleepless in Seattle

004-5The other night I was awakened by a loud, booming sound. I wasn’t sure if it had been a gunshot, an explosion, or maybe a car crash on the street outside. I lie there, stock still in bed, my heart thudding in my chest, listening for further sounds that could clue me in on whether or not I was in any immediate danger. There’d been a number of shootings recently downtown, and I was imaging my parents having to clean out my apartment after I was taken out by a stray bullet. Imaging my mother wondering aloud at the possible purpose of the clear Fleshlight on my bedside nightstand. It’s always out, partly out of convenience, and partly because it’s too big to fit into the nightstand’s drawer. What can I say? I’m a single man who lives alone and is too ashamed to ever have someone visit his apartment. Anyway, compared to what’s actually inside the drawer, the owner of a mere Fleshlight would seem like a paragon of virtue.

I heard someone on the sidewalk outside say, “Hey buddy, are you okay?”

The response was just a loud moan emanating from much too close to my window for comfort.

I slipped out of bed with the lights still off and peeked outside through the narrow slit of a slightly raised blind. Beneath the unnaturally bright light of a security lamp, the reality of the situation revealed itself to me. A man, who had the appearance of a homeless man, had climbed over the chain link fence surrounding the parking lot of my building, and had fallen gracelessly onto the fiberglass roof of the carport outside my window.

He was now trapped in the parking garage, possibly injured from the fall. The police were there in no time, and for the next 45 minutes or more red lights flashed outside my window. I tried to listen to the muffled conversation of a police officer who was attempting to calm the homeless man who was now pacing back and forth in the parking garage like a trapped animal.

I went back to bed, but couldn’t sleep for a long time. At 5:00 am, two hours before my own alarm was set to go off, I could hear the alarm of my upstairs neighbor begin to chime. It went on and on until another neighbor banged on her wall, prompting her to turn down the volume of the alarm (though I could still hear it going for at least another hour). I spent the hour imagining dropping a grand piano on my neighbor’s head over and over. After that, falling back to sleep was impossible.

At this point in my life, it’s impossible for me to know whether I have some kind of sleep disorder, or if living in a city renders the recommended eight hours of snoozing a night an impossibility.

I grew up in the country, and during my formative years, we lived in a little house out in the woods. At night it was pitch black, and the only sounds I heard were the occasional barking of dogs, a distant train whistle, or the hum of cicadas in late summer.

As an adult, I’ve lived in a string of cities where sleeplessness is the only constant. I’ve been awaked by fist fights, marathon neighbor sex, yelling crackheads, sirens, bowling elephants, and terrible music. I’ve been awakened to the sound of a drag queen singing, “Sunday Kind of Love,” and to a gay couple arguing about the fact that one had left the other unconscious in a bar…to go to another bar.

During the daytime, I love living in the city. Mostly for the nearness and diversity of restaurants, but also for the art, the culture, the diversity of people and experiences. But at night, I can’t help wishing I lived in a little cabin in the middle of nowhere. Someplace quaint and quiet where crackheads fear to tread. I don’t know whether androids dream of electric sheep, but I dream of an entire night of uninterrupted sleep.

 

The Shortest Month

fullsizeoutput_a7bOne of my New Year’s Resolutions (I generally make about 20-30 a year and immediately break them in quick succession) was to stop eating sugary sweets, snacking at work, and to basically starve myself until I’d lost about 10 lbs and no longer felt ashamed to shower with the lights on.

To my credit, for the first few weeks of this year, I actually did all of those things, only to discover by the third week I’d GAINED five pounds. So I immediately reverted back to a diet consisting almost entirely of Diet Coke and chocolate chip cookies.

Concerned about my thickening waistline, I recommitted myself to adopting a healthier diet for at least the month of February. February being the shortest month, I figured if I could go any month without added sugar, it would be this one. I admonished all of my enablers at work, and rallied behind the mantra, “New month, new me.”

Prior to deleting it…again…a man on the gay dating app, Scruff, had unironically called me “Papa Bear.” This only solidified my resolve to try to get back down to my birth weight before the coming swimsuit season.

Then February 1st rolled around and I immediately scarfed down not one, but three jelly donuts. Now I’m torn between wanting to try to be healthy, or better yet, skinny again, or surrendering to destiny and auditioning for My 600lb Life. I guess there’s always next month.

Fitness for the Middle Aged

IMG_4720Tonight the gym was more crowded than usual, which is saying something, because it’s usually so filled to capacity that I wonder that the fire marshall doesn’t shut it down for public safety concerns.

Apparently the bulk of the New Year’s Resolutioners haven’t given up and dropped back into their old routines yet. While I support anyone’s desire to take control of their health and well-being, I’m still selfish and narcissistic enough to wish they’d just do it somewhere else.

I’ve noticed that the older I get, the more angry I get about things that I know don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. Minutiae that in the moment make my blood boil, teeth grind together, and the veins in my neck to throb with unconsummated rage.

Aside from overcrowding, my biggest gym pet peeve is people on cell phones. I’ve had to physically restrain myself from pushing someone down a flight of stairs who is staring into their phone and suddenly stops in the stairway in front of me. I see people, mostly younger than me, who sit on machines that I never see them use, staring into screens, and feel my hands clench into fists.

Since I’m a weirdo who listens to audio-books while working out, I almost never look at my own phone. So tonight, when, between sets of bicep curls, I took out my phone to check the time, I was completely surprised when a fellow middle-aged crank yelled at me to get off my phone or get off the machine. I put my phone away immediately, and sped through my final set, wondering to myself in horror, Is this who I’m becoming?

In addition to my burgeoning anger management issues, there are other disheartening aspects to working out in middle age. In my forties I have to work out a lot harder than I did in my twenties with diminished results. The body of forty-something me is just not the body of twenty or thirty-something me. It is hairier and thicker. In my mind I still have the body of a twink, and it’s always a shock when I see myself reflected in the locker room mirrors and see some muscle daddy staring back at me.

As a young guy, I always marveled at the old men in the locker room and how nonchalant they were about nudity. The dangling scrotums of those manatees always engendered in me a strange mixture of embarrassment and dread. As I’ve gotten older, I understand more where they are coming from. When you’ve seen it all before, you just harbor fewer hangups about letting it all hang out. Who cares?

In other ways, I’m much more relaxed about working out than I used to be. Fitness is still an important part of my life, but I’m not going to get bent out of shape if I miss a day now and then. I’m less attached to the idea of abs that I’ll likely never see again, and happy just to feel healthy. I may have to pop Ibuprofen like Pez in order to move my back without doubling over in pain, but at least I’ve got a nice rack.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

De-Voted

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!

The Fall

Summer ended in a day.

One day I was ogling the shirtless men jogging sweat drenched in the park, the next I was kicking through fat, orange leaves. All the blues turned to gray and the air grew cold.

In the summer I celebrated my 42nd birthday alone in an afterthought cafe. Friends had made lukewarm suggestions to hangout, all easily averted. My perennial desire for a happy birthday blow-job went unrequited.

My fling with A was unsurprisingly short-lived. A week of increasingly flirty texting led up to an evening of kink that somehow managed to strike a balance between sweetness and filth. He in a leather harness and me in a chastity device.

Later, standing naked at his window, looking out over China Town, he came out of the bathroom and remarked on the view.

Another week of decreasingly flirty texts followed by an awkward walk through the throngs at Pride. His hand kept reaching for mine, and my hand kept pulling away. He seemed to know every tall, beautiful man there, and the only people I recognized were the people I wanted to avoid. We ran into his friends and were unable to extricate ourselves from them. A quartet of Millennials all determined to be more minutely unlabeled than the next.

If you ever want to feel old, go day-drinking with a group of 20somethings.

Every time they spoke, all I could see were a school of toddlers with pacifiers in their mouths. They were all still idealistic, pretty and perfectly diverse, uniform in their smooth, unwrinkled skin. Even though they were all significantly nicer than me, I disliked them all both individually and collectively. Impossible not to feel like a cynical, withered gnome, alarmingly out of place among them.

After drinking all day and standing in the sun, A got sick and went home. I walked him to the street car, and walked back to my apartment distilled with the prescience  that our romance was over.

There were other men as the summer bore on. A string of happy hour dates where the line between desire and desperation was rimmed in the salt of Margarita glasses. Nice men with 401(k)s and Mexican vacations. But none of them thrilled me.

I am concerned that I’ve become incapable of being thrilled.

A bleak future where my corpse is devoured by a dozen angry cats in a dingy, studio apartment stinking of urine seems increasingly likely.

My mother calls to tell me that she and my aunt toured the nursing home that they intend to deposit my grandmother in. She’s become more and more unmanageable for my mother and her sisters to take care of on their own.

“I hope you got a good look around, because you’ll probably end up there.” I tell her.

“I will kill myself before I get like that,” she says. Then we have an actual discussion about the best ways for her to kill herself when the time comes.

“I can’t shoot myself or cut myself,” she says. “It’ll have to be pills.”

“But pills are so unreliable,” I say.

“Not if you take enough of them.” She says.

The day they put my grandmother in the home, she calls me crying.

“I know you feel guilty,” I say. “But it’s for the best.”

Her very first day there, the nursing home calls my mother to tell her that my grandmother had a fall from her wheelchair. They are legally obligated to inform her. This does not instill any confidence in my mother.

“They aren’t watching her.” She says. “They aren’t feeding her the food she likes.”

Less than a week later my grandmother is back home. My mom and my aunts are back to watching her in shifts. To bathing her, changing her, doling out her medications. Some days she sits catatonic in her wheelchair and others she is lively, chattering away and seems almost like her old self. Some days she curses at my mother and aunts as they try to change her clothes. Other days she’s docile.

For her 93rd birthday she eats ice cream. Melting and sticky in a hot, Texas August. Back porch flies and hotdog buns. My grandmother, the forgetful matriarch. Mother of eleven children, and an uncounted number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Widow. The sweet and simple maker of banana pudding, has become purse lipped and confused.

“Who’s going to take me home?” She asks.

“You are home, mama.” My mother says.

On her 67th birthday, my mother vows that she isn’t getting older. “I can handle being in my 60s,” she says, “But I absolutely cannot fathom being 70. I’m staying 67 forever.” I agree with this plan.

In lieu of a romantic life, I workout obsessively.

“I can’t get over how buff you are,” my friend Matt comments one day when I run into him on the way home from the grocery store.

I casually flex. We talk about our jobs. His writing gig. My promotion. The novel I still sometimes pretend to be writing. I agree to watch their cats when he and his boyfriend (also Matt) spend a week in Hawaii.

Instead of dating, I spend evenings with friends. Movie nights with tator-tot casseroles and le boisson de le maison. Game nights around comfort food tables with obscene Pictionary and rated R card games. Dinners and brunches where the conversation turns to politics, and I absently check my phone to see if anyone has messaged me who I could possibly be thrilled by.

After months of no contact, I begin to play Dungeons & Dragons with a queer group with none other than A acting as Dungeon Master. It’s a warm, fun group. Hot tea and snacks. The rolling of dice. Although I’d initially hoped that the group would be a conduit for romance, it ends up being something else entirely. A nice excursion.

One day C calls crying. He’s broken up with his new boyfriend. It feels very strange to comfort a man that I spent over 7 years with, moved to different states with, tried to build a life with, as he is heartbroken by someone else. But, despite everything, he is still my best friend and I want him to be happy. So I become his long-distance confidant.

The days grow darker earlier.

I spend evenings listening to rain hit the fiberglass roof of the car port, curled up in a red, patchwork quilt that my grandmother made when she was around my age. I sip hot chocolate and watch movies or play video games. But there is the undeniable sense that all of these things could be improved with the addition of a co-conspirator. Some funny, sexy misanthrope to grow old with, to shake our bony fists at children traipsing across our imagined lawn.

Fall is my favorite season because I love weather, and sweaters, and striped scarves, and coffee cups, and pumpkins, and the changing colors, scary movies. Because in every coffeehouse, around every corner, buried in piles of leaves, and dripping off of rain drenched awnings there is this bristling energy, the possibility of romance. Not even just a possibility, a meaty, muscular thing that for a season seems not just potential, but inevitable.