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the only room available was a smoking room which smelled like stale cigarettes and misery, and the room was shabby and outdated.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.

Mi Familia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mi adopted familia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

California Part II.

At 3:00 am, I was jarred awake by the sound of my own heart beating in my chest. I couldn’t breathe and my heart raced and my thoughts raced. Am I having a heart attack? Should I call 911? Should I go wake up my roommate so that he isn’t alarmed when the paramedics arrive? Can I afford an ambulance trip and an ER visit? I this how I die?

Then I realized I was having a panic attack. It had been years since I’d last had one, so I didn’t immediately recognize it for what it was. I was weirdly relieved by the realization. But whatever the cause, if I didn’t lower my heart rate, I was going to have a very real heart attack. I’m 40 now. I’m a person who is of an age where these things can happen.

I breathed in deeply. Counted to five. Exhaled. Repeated until my heartbeat normalized. I drank some water, but I was rattled. Sleep didn’t happen again for the rest of the night. When my alarm went off at 6:45, I was still awake. It was to be my penultimate day of work, but I called in anyway. I was afraid of having another anxiety attack on the train and horrified by the thought of being wheeled off the Red Line in a stretcher.

I spent the day trying to distract myself from the all the things that were making me anxious, but they were unavoidable. All around me are boxes of things I’ve been putting off shipping to C’s mom, and the furniture that I keep meaning to make Craigslist ads for. My clothes are all in suitcases beside the bed. The walls and the closet are empty, stark, and naked.

I try not to think about the fact that this time next week I won’t have a job, or an apartment. I’ll be sleeping on a couch at C’s parents’ house, where we’re staying until we have jobs and a place of our own. I half-heartedly apply for jobs. I look at apartments in San Diego that we can’t afford. I try not to wonder how we’re going to pay our bills when neither of us has an income.

When I talk to him later in the day, C tells me not to worry. “It’ll all work out.” He assures me. He’s sitting on a patio with a glass of wine. They’ve just gotten back from a farmer’s market. I can hear the sunshine in his voice.

“Everybody keeps asking when you’re going to get here.”

Despite his reassurances, I continue to worry. Irresponsibly quitting a job and moving across the country is cute when you’re in your twenties, but much less so when you’re in your forties.

The first time I moved to California, I was 27. I was living with my ex-boyfriend in Austin, and when he got accepted into grad school at UCLA, I ended up tagging along. I didn’t want to live in Texas my whole life. And although L.A. had never been on my personal radar of places I’d like to live, it was at least some place different. It wasn’t Texas, and that was enough for me.

Our apartment was across the street from the Veteran cemetery. I thought that meant the neighborhood would be quiet. What we didn’t realize was that a block away there was a fire station, so firetrucks were constantly speeding down our street at all hours of the night. Coyotes howled in the rolling hills on the far end of the cemetery and some Sunday mornings we were awakened by 21 gun salutes.

I got a terrible job at a brokerage firm where the only saving grace was the view of the Pacific Ocean. Once I was sitting at my desk and suddenly felt dizzy. I thought I was sick until I looked up and saw my co-worker bracing herself in the doorway of her cubicle. Then I realized we were having an earthquake. I saw the palm trees and the ocean swaying outside the window and thought “I can’t die in this building with these people,” and made my way down 11 flights of stairs in less than 4 seconds.

I rebelled against the mundane job by wearing studded belts and dying my hair purple.

Everyone I met in L.A. told me that I didn’t belong there. L.A. was a surreal and shallow place. The weekly coupons in the mail were all for teeth whitening, plastic surgery, and botox. Everyone kept asking me what kind of car I drove. I felt like I didn’t belong, and L.A. agreed.

And my Daewoo impressed no one.

I dated a guy in PR named Strip Checkers. Well, not so much dated. I’m sure he has an actual name, but he’s gone down in the annals of my personal history as Strip Checkers for obvious reasons. We’d drive down Wilshire in his red convertible to his studio apartment in Korea Town. We’d play checkers on his floor, losing an item of clothing each time one of our pieces got jumped, until we were both naked.

Then there was the nice, Jewish doctor who was going to take me to Paris and then ended up getting back with his ex-boyfriend. The musician who’d call me and say, “You. Me. Sex. Now,” and would be knocking on my door five minutes later. He convinced me to strip with him in a burlesque show, and when I left L.A. all I had to remember him by was his little, black butt plug.

There were always movies being filmed in our neighborhood, and once a week there’d be a movie premier, a red carpet and paparazzi blocking my route home from the gym. We’d go to some vegan restaurant, and an over enthused waitress would tell us in an excited whisper, “Jodie Foster is here!”

Once, walking to my car after work, a pasty guy with long hair said, “Do you model?” And handed me his card.

I stared back at him blankly before stammering, “I’m a writer.”

Like everyone in L.A. I was toiling away on a screenplay. I sent off spec scripts for imaginary episodes of Will and Grace. It seemed like everyone I met was “in the industry.” But nothing ever came of any of it. I mostly sat at Starbucks with my second hand laptop and dreamed of being someone. Someone shiny and pretty with perfect teeth, a tan, and a red sports car.

But instead I was pale, purple haired, and skinny. I kissed a guy at some club, and he asked if my  parents were professors because I had more than a monosyllabic vocabulary. I didn’t like him, but I kissed him anyway, while some horrible pop song played, and tan, toothpaste commercials danced with one another beneath the pulsing lights of some bar in West Hollywood.

I irresponsibly quit my job at the brokerage firm. I left my badge on my boss’s desk on a Wednesday afternoon. I walked down to the beach, took off my shoes and my tie, and sat staring at the ocean, wondering what to do.

I was lost, and I felt rejected by the city.

At least once a month I got a parking ticket.

I was constantly getting lost. The first time I saw the Hollywood sign was by accident. I was trying to get home from a job interview downtown and stopped at a gas station in East L.A. to buy an actual map because there weren’t smart phones back then. After a number of wrong turns, the big white letters (only ever so slightly obscured by smog) were there in front of me.

I sat in Jewish deli’s pretending to write, and danced at 80s clubs in Hollywood. I went to bars in Los Feliz and Silverlake.  I met some genuinely wonderful people too, but by then I was already on my way out of the city and planning my move to  Seattle.

I never thought I’d move back to California. I’d felt like such an outsider the first time around, an encore hardly seemed warranted. But in less than a week, I’ll be in Southern California again. This time around I’m armed with experience, which feels like a double edged sword, and I just don’t know what to think, or how to feel.

The biggest difference is that this time C will be with me.

“My mom bought you a bag of Muddy Buddies.” C texts me, as I was typing this.  “We’re recording American Horror Story for you.”

I text him that I love him.

He texts me that he loves me too.

This time around we have a support network. I know that they won’t let us starve or be homeless. So, despite my fears, which are numerous, I’m trying to be optimistic that this time around will be a different experience, because he’ll be with me.

So when my heart begins to race, I breathe in. Hold it. Breathe out. Think of him, and know that everything is going to work out.

Elephants – Seattle, 2009

invertedchest

“Should we talk about the elephant in the room?” He asks.

We are sitting in his bed in our underwear. I am absently tracing the geometric design of the green and gold tattoo on his chest.

“Sure.” I say, leaning in to kiss his pale, freckled shoulder.

The night before was our third date and all of the expectations that this relationship benchmark entails.

I was wearing a red t-shirt that said “Kiss me.”

He was wearing a brown t-shirt that said “Let’s Experiment.”

I thought we understood each other.

We eat at a vegetarian Thai place downtown. Even though I’m not strictly a vegetarian anymore, I pretend that I still am so that he’ll like me. I think he’s the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen. Every time I look up, I get caught up in his bright, green eyes and lose my train of thought. I’m mostly able to ignore the pestering question that keeps bubbling up in my subconscious that wonders, but doesn’t want to wonder, what someone as beautiful as him is doing on a date with me.

After dinner we watch a movie. It is a quirky, independent romantic comedy. Our knees are touching and I am acutely aware of how close he is to me. I manage to resist the overwhelming urge to reach over and hold his hand in the dark of the movie theater, though more out of cowardice than self-control.

When the movie ends, we take the elevator down to the parking garage where he left his car. We are alone in the elevator, and I want to lean over to him and kiss him, but again, I’m too afraid to make the first move.

“Can I have my ticket stub?” He asks when we get to his car.

I reach in my pocket and hand him one of the gray, torn stubs.

“I want to keep this.” He says.

He drives us back to his apartment. We listen to his terrible music that I convince myself that I actually like, because when I have a crush on someone, I find it impossible to be myself, and instead spend every moment agonizing over how to be the person I think he wants. In the car he puts his hand on my knee. His touch makes my stomach churn with a giddy feeling I’ve learned to associate with being smitten.

Back at his apartment building, a light has gone out in the foyer. Because he is the apartment manager, he tells me that he’ll have to change the light bulb. He pours me a glass of water before he heads downstairs with a replacement light bulb and step-ladder.

While he’s out, I rummage through his bookshelf. His collection is comprised mostly of books on Eastern Religions, vegan cooking, fantasy novels with dragons on the cover and more than one book by Eckhart Tolle. His apartment is full of windows with long, climbing ivy plants and hardwood floors. There is a mountain bike in the hallway. I stifle my innate need to judge others based on the books they read, and content myself with the fact that he is sensitive and outdoorsy.

When he comes back from changing the light bulb, he says that he feels sweaty and decides to take a shower. I sit on his hand me down sofa and wait for him. He emerges clean and damp in a pair of boxers. We sit on his couch and kiss.

“You’re a great kisser.” He says.

I love the feel of the red hairs of his beard against my face.

We talk about our lives before Seattle. He shows me pictures of him when he was in the Navy. He looks so clean-shaven and young in his white and blue uniform. He shows me another picture of him back then with no shirt on, all rippling muscles and pale skin.

“One day I’m going to be buff again like you,” he says, squeezing my pecs with his long, thin fingers.

I flex my bicep while he wraps his hand around it.  After years of forcing myself to go to the gym against my will, my body, for the first time in my life, is not a source of embarrassment for me.

Upstairs, one of his tenants starts to play loud electronic music. The bass reverberates through the walls of his apartment.

His demeanor suddenly changes. His face reddens and he slams his fist against the wall, cracking the plaster.

I pull away from him, alarmed by the anger emanating from him, the ferocity of his reaction.

“I’m going to go put a stop to that.” He says.

“It’s Friday night.” I tell him, trying to soothe him. He is as tight as a balled up fist, standing, ready to go yell at the tenants to turn off their music. “We probably can’t even hear it from your bedroom.”

He begins to relax, and smiles, embarrassed.

“I’m sorry.” He says. “I didn’t mean to get angry in front of you.”

“It’s okay.” I say. But I’m a little unnerved by how quickly his mood shifted.

In his bedroom the music is stifled. We both relax a little. He pulls off my shirt and slides down my pants, and we crawl into his bed and kiss some more. He turns out the light beside his bed, and we face one another touching in the dark. He has the smoothest skin that I have ever felt. It feels so good pressed against my own.

I feel his long eyelashes brush against my naked shoulder as he blinks, his head laying against me. I can feel how hard he is inside his boxers as he presses against me, but neither of us is bold enough to go any further than touches outside of our underwear, long kisses and caresses.

After a couple of hours of making out, he says, “I’m sleepy.”

So we go to sleep. Or he goes to sleep, and I lie beside him, hard, wanting him. We doze, wrapped in each others arms, until our body heat is too much, and we pry ourselves apart, sweaty and sticky, only to cool down and find ourselves pressed back together again.

When I finally fall asleep, I dream of elephants. Elephants with bodies like greyhounds. Long and sleek. Muscles tight and glistening in rain. Walking in line down a nighttime city street. I stand on a corner and count them as they pass. Slate gray rain the same color as the elephants. The smallest one comes only to my knee. Curls himself around my legs and goes to sleep.

We wake up when the pale sun comes through his white curtains. We touch some more, in the dim light before we’re fully awake. We touch one another through our underwear without speaking. His green eyes stare into my blue ones. I’ve never wanted another person as badly as I want him. But nothing happens.

We are sitting up in his bed in our underwear, and he says, “Should we talk about the elephant in the room?”

“Sure.” I say, kissing him gently on the shoulder.

“What do you think of my plant?” He asks.

Caught off guard by the question, I look around the room at the high, comfortable bed, the patchwork quilt, the black and white, framed photographs on the wall. In the corner, there is, indeed, a plant, spindly and leafy, but otherwise unobtrusive, and nothing at all like something that I might have an opinion about.

“Is there something special about your plant?” I ask.

“Yes.” He says.

I draw a blank.

“You know what kind of plant that is, right?” He asks.

“Bamboo?” I guess. I know nothing about plants, and because I wanted to look cuter, I am not wearing my glasses, so I’m more than a little nearsighted.

Then it dawns on me the type of plant that an outdoorsy, sensitive man with anger issues might have growing secretly in his bedroom.

“Oh.” I say. “Is that legal?”

“No.” He says. “It isn’t.”

He said that he’d planted a seed and hadn’t expected it to grow, but it did, and now he wanted to get rid of it, but didn’t know how.

“It’s harder than you’d think to get rid of an illegal substance.”

“It’s ridiculous that it’s even illegal,” I say, which is true enough. I never understood why marijuana was illegal in the first place, but alcohol wasn’t. I was never really invested in the topic enough to investigate. It’s legality or lack thereof hadn’t impacted my life one way or other.

We shared our respective drug histories. Mine was prudishly short. I’d smoked pot a grand total of once with my college roommates when I was nineteen. We’d passed a joint around in a little circle, and we’d giggled, but otherwise I hadn’t felt any discernable effect, nothing like the euphoria claimed by my roommate who assured me it made her “soft in the middle.”

His own history played like an afterschool special. He was in 6th grade when his uncle gave him his first joint.  He smoked for a year, then stopped.  In high school he started again and smoked regularly up until he joined the navy.  He smoked once or twice while in the navy, and afterward he started up again, and now he smokes every day, more than once a day.

“If you enjoy it, and it’s not hurting you,” I say, “then I don’t think it’s a big deal.”

“It is hurting me, though.” He says. “It makes me lazy, and it’s totally wrecked my libido, as you’ve probably noticed.”

I had noticed. Part of me was relieved that there was some reason for our lack of sex other than the fear I’d been nursing that he just wasn’t attracted to me. But just because there was a reason for it that didn’t hurt my ego, didn’t make the fact that we hadn’t consummated our relationship much easier to bear.

“The conversation is about to get a little heavy.” He says.

He tells me about his abusive childhood.  His mom kicked him in the chest so hard once that he passed out.  His step dad beat him with a belt leaving welts and lesions all over his back and legs at the slightest provocation, or, more often than not, for no reason at all.

He goes on to tell me that he’d tried crystal meth back when he was seventeen. His older brother was nineteen and heavy into drugs, and his brother’s best friend and his brother got into a fight over a girl while high and the best friend stabbed his brother killing him. His testimony sent the friend to jail, and since he’s up for parole soon, he’s afraid that the guy will come for him, wanting revenge.

He is trembling, and quietly weeping as he tells me this.

“I’m sorry about you brother.” I say.  “Were you close?”

“We’d gotten close,” he says. “Right before he died.”

He tells me that on Thursdays he goes to see a therapist.  He is trying to overcome his sudden uncontrollable bursts of anger, his dependence on self medicating, and his toxic friendships.

“It’s okay if it makes you uncomfortable.” He says.

“No,” I assure him. “It’s cool.” I put my hand over his in a way that I hope seems reassuring. But to be honest, it does make me uncomfortable. A little. I feel out of my depth.

“Will I see you again?” He asks, as I’m getting dressed.

“If you want to.” I say.

“I want to.” He says.

I walk home in the same clothes I wore the night before. I’m sleep deprived and cotton headed. A blond guy in a blue hoodie smiles at me. I smile back, but don’t slow down. I walk down a residential street, the pale sun shining in disjointed beams through the green leaves of trees, casting leaf shaped light patterns on the sidewalk.

I think of elephants, marching one by one, never forgetting. The pain of childhood. The horrors of adolescence. The agony of adulthood. There is something in me that wants to help him overcome his past. There is an attraction I don’t care to analyze to a man even more fucked up than I am, who makes my own hang ups seem nearly normal by comparison. I think that he is no less sweet, or thoughtful, or fun to kiss, or nice to hold because bad things happened to him, because he is damaged.

If he is an elephant who never forgets, I’m the goldfish that never remembers that you cannot fix someone who is broken.

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

Wolves – Texas, 1995/NYC, 2013

lancewolvesIn New York City the wind howls down the stairwells leading to the subway. Scarecrows in designer shoes pull their black coats tightly as they descend. They travel in packs, in their gray suits fresh from Wall Street. There is a hunger that drives them to early meetings, to bars and back to apartments in Chelsea, Midtown, and the Upper West Side. I see it etched in their gaunt faces, shining blackly in their dark, feral eyes. We stand, starched and freshly pressed in subway cars as young people break dance between stops and walk through collecting change. We stand so close together that we can feel the heat of one another’s breath, and smell the barest hint of aftershave that lingers after a day spent in cubicles and conference rooms. All lonely hunters, searching for the same thing. All driven by the same, dull ache. Everywhere I go, there are wolves.

I come from a family of hunters. In the fall when I was growing up, my father would come home from a hunting trip with a  deer strung up on a tree, skinned, it’s blood draining into a stained, white bucket to be cut up into venison. My grandfather trapped mountain lions to kill them for their pelts. Once he’d even trapped a wolf, a skinny, gray she wolf. After killing her, he’d heard a rustling in the nearby leaves, a tiny whimper, and discovered that she had a little pup. My grandfather coaxed the little pup out of the brush and took it home to raise it like a dog.

But Wolf was not a dog. Though he’d started out looking like any other puppy with his oversized head and clumsy paws, as he grew up and became leaner, hulkier, there was a wildness that came out at inconvenient times. He was protective and snarled and growled at strangers like the mail man and the gas meter reader. No matter how well fed he was, he behaved as if he was starving, nipping at my grandmother when she came home with bags of groceries. My cousins and I were wild too, rowing across ponds in old, rusty wash tubs,  building forts in the same brush where wild hogs rooted, and bob cats padded along with shining eyes, climbing trees and jumping into piles of leaves.

My grandfather’s property was bordered by train tracks that ran along the northern edge, and one night my grandfather said that he found Wolf’s body lying beside the tracks. He’d been hit by a train during a lonesome, late night walk. I always wondered if that had really happened or if my grandfather had shot him because he knew that the adult wolf was going to be too dangerous to live among people, and too unused to fending for himself to survive on his own. I never asked. As children we were told so many stories to protect us from the harsh realities of life.

I was learning to lie, myself.

I was collecting Jasons and desperately trying to lose my virginity. I was 18, and the prospect of turning 19 and still being a virgin was too humiliating a fate to subject myself to. Jason II and I had been dating for a few weeks. Because I was living with my parents during my first year of college, I had a curfew of 1:00 am, and there was a 45 minute drive from Jason II’s dorm room back to my parent’s house. Every time things were just getting good, I’d have to stop and leave. We were both frustrated with pent up desire.

His M.O. was always the same. We’d go to a movie, then have dinner, then sit on his couch and make out in front of the TV, his hand slowly creeping up from my knee toward my inner thigh. The first two times we’d nearly gotten to the moment where we’d begin to shed our clothes when I’d have to leave to drive the thirty five miles back to my parent’s house. The night it finally happened we’d watched a movie like we always did, our knees touching in the theater, our hands accidentally brushing one another as we both reached for popcorn at the same time.

When the movie ended this time, he asked, “Are you hungry?”

I said. “No. Not really.”

I was starving, but I’d had enough dilly dallying and was ready to get it over with. Not because I was intensely attracted to Jason II, because I wasn’t, or that I was in love with him, because I didn’t even like him, really. He didn’t read, or listen to cool music, or talk about philosophy. He listened to hip hop, and had a blanket with a southwestern print draped across his couch. But he was there, and willing, and had a room of his own.

We went back to his place as usual. Even though he was a senior and I was a freshman, looking back, it’s clear that he wasn’t much more experienced than I was. Sitting on his couch, we listened to terrible, mid ninety’s club music in front of a muted nature show. He was kissing my neck while I watched a lion ripping the throat out of a wildebeest. We went through the motions of our standard mating ritual. I talked non stop nonsense as his hand crept up my thigh until it rested between my legs and I froze.

“Why’d you stop talking?” He asked, smiling.

He was khaki, a fraternity, a polo shirt. But I let him kiss me anyway.

When he took off his pants, his underwear were so soaked with precum that I thought he’d already ejaculated. His penis was short and sort of pyramid shaped, with a thick shaft and tiny head. I wasn’t sure if I should touch it or not, but he seemed to expect me to, so I did. It was warm and sticky. He pulled my own pants down and took my penis in his hand and I gasped again. It was the first time someone else had touched me and it was scary and thrilling at the same time.

“Let’s go back to the bedroom.” He said.

After three weeks of shedding our skins I was ready to finally slither into one another’s systems. I watched him sliding on a condom and covering it in lube with a certain detached curiosity. I looked back over my shoulder on my hands and knees in front of him, clueless as to what I was supposed to do. When he slid into me with no preamble, it hurt. I inched up further and further on the bed until I reached the headboard and could go no further. I stared at the red numbers on his digital clock until they were burned into my brain so that I could see the after image of them when I closed my eyes.

The Prêt-à-Porter soundtrack was playing as he rammed himself into me. To me that was the worst part, not the pain, not the lack of feelings, but the fact that I lost my virginity to “Here Comes the Hotstepper” by Ini Kamoze.

Driving home afterward the sky was seven shades of gray whether my eyes were closed or open. Traffic lights stretched across rain swept streets, blood red like a baby’s scream. I had to remind myself to breathe, to drive when the light turned green, thinking over and over, “What was that?”

It felt like the bones of butterflies were turning to dust in my stomach. My insides ached and I felt like I was full of some gray and burning sediment. All I wanted to do was crawl into my own familiar bed and cry. I never wanted to do it again. The idea that this was what sex was, what adulthood was, was devastating to me.

“Never again.” I repeated to myself over and over on the long drive back to my parent’s house like some pathetic mantra.

When I got home they were in the living room waiting for me.

“Who were you with tonight?” My mother asked, her eyes were already puffy and red, and her voice was stretched taut like a fishing line, accusatory.

“Sara,” I’d answered, cautiously. I knew something was up, guessed what it was, and knew it wasn’t something I was ready for.

“That’s not true.” My mother said. “Sara called looking for you.”

I cursed my dumb luck. Sara had always been my alibi on the nights I’d spent cramped on Jason II’s couch, and usually I’d let her know what I was up to, but on that particular night she was out of town and I hadn’t expected her to call. I was uncertain what to say, trying to think up some convincing lie to explain where I’d been.

“Who is Jason?” My mother asked.

“No one.” I said. I was in full panic mode, and there was nowhere I could go, no place to run, nothing I could do but stand there.

It all came out then. A girl I’d gone to high school with had seen me go into the gay club one night and had told my cousin, who told my aunt, who told my mom. My mother had gone into my room and found Jason’s name and number written on the back of a cocktail napkin inside the drawer of my nightstand.

“How can you let a man touch you?” My father asked in disgust.

I didn’t have an answer.

“Do you have somewhere you can go?” My mother asked.

“Are you kicking me out?” I asked, terrified. I knew they wouldn’t like it, but I didn’t think even my parents could kick me out for being gay.

My father intervened. “No one is kicking you out.” He said.

Instead, they took away my phone. They forbid me to leave the house except to go to school. I wasn’t allowed to talk to Sara, or to anyone. I was grounded. For the first night in my life, my mother didn’t tell me that she loved me before she went to bed.

At school the next day I had a calculus test. I bubbled in circles on my Scantron without looking at the questions in a room that was vomit green. In the parking lot, a black sports car hit my car, and because I didn’t see any damage, I told the driver not to worry about it. Only when I tried to drive again did I realize the axle was bent and I had to turn the wheel sideways to go straight. This didn’t stop me from driving 80 miles per hour home and getting a speeding ticket. I sat in my car on the side of the road with the red and blue lights reflected in the rearview mirror. Everything in the world was wrong.

For weeks, we sat across from one another at the dinner table in silence. My mother wouldn’t speak to me at all unless it was absolutely necessary. We went to the grocery store in silence, and to my grandmother’s house in silence. My father went away on a hunting trip, and it was just the two of us in a house, her wrapped in a depression quilt on a couch in the living room, and me in my bedroom with my headphones on, listening to The Cure, R.E.M., Tori Amos, Nirvana, and Nine Inch Nails, finding escape where I could.

One day Jason II called and my mother answered the phone.

“Never call this house again.” She said.

I never heard from him again.

“From now on you’ll act normal.” My mother said, still wrapped in a quilt on the couch, red eyed and sniffling. “From now on you’ll be normal.”

But I wasn’t normal. I was a hurt, feral thing, rejected by the people who were supposed to love me unconditionally. I stumbled from relationship to relationship, interspersed with one night stands, all looking for the love that I didn’t get from the people who had mattered. I graduated from college and found myself adrift, going from job to job, city to city. From Austin to Los Angeles to Seattle to Portland to Chicago to New York City. I was always on the move, searching night scenes for love leaning against a bar room wall, on an internet chatline, on an app on my phone, in coffee houses, and used bookstores. Nothing else mattered except filling this overwhelming desire to be desired. My life became full of gray, cubicle days, and black, strobe lit nights. The cities changed, but the scenery was always the same.

New York City was as far as I could get from my childhood home in rural Texas. But designer clothes and subway cars could never dilute the country blood that pulses through my veins. Despite years spent carefully removing any trace of an accent, despite my travels, the foreign films and novels, the exotic restaurants I visited to try to exorcise my country upbringing, the skinny boy from Texas is always there, wide eyed and trembling. All I have to do is close my eyes when I’m on the subway and the city melts away, is replaced by a childhood of mobile homes, windmills, rusty cars on concrete cinders in the overgrown lawns of the neighbors’ houses.

I howl. Am howling, silently at the gym, in my apartment, in my cubicle at work. Padding along on my furry feet. Solitary. Hungry.

Back in Jason II’s apartment, twenty years ago, the night I’d lost my virginity and my parents had found out I was gay, throbbing and sore, carpet burned and cathartic, I spilled a glass of wine on his nightstand. He said not to worry. He’d clean it up. It wouldn’t stain. And I knew that it was true. There was no mark of it’s passing. Just a shirt on the floor that smelled like him, an empty glass, and one less claim to innocence.

The Time I Went to Paris

eiffeltowerWhen I was 22, I quit my job and went to Paris with a man who didn’t love me.

At the time I’d just recently graduated from college and was working at my first real job, qualifying people for Medicaid and Medicare for the state of Texas. Just two months into the job I already hated it. I felt like I couldn’t help the people who really needed it, and was obligated to help people who were manipulating the system. I felt embarrassed, being so young and green, and wondered if having to be interviewed by me was as humiliating for my clients as it was for me.

So when Jonathan said he’d found a pair of really cheap tickets to Paris online, I didn’t hesitate to give my notice, to leave the harsh reality of public service to go on a whirlwind romantic vacation to the city of lights.

Jonathan and I had met a few months prior after chatting online on IRC, back when that was a thing. We’d only known one another two months when I told him I was moving to Austin, and when I went to look at apartments, I was surprised to find that he came with me. So we shacked up, having barely even dated, and a couple of months later we were on our way to Paris.

I lied and told my mother I was going to the Grand Canyon because I didn’t want her to be unduly worried that I was going to be on an airplane, flying across the Atlantic to a foreign country. I left instructions with Courtney to inform her of my whereabouts should I not return a week later at my scheduled time.

I’d never been on an airplane before. I’d never even been out of the state of Texas. For twenty two years I’d barely ventured beyond the tiny, 500 person town in rural Texas where I grew up. Our first flight took us from Houston to Newark. We sat beside one another, and I gripped the armrest, excited and terrified. As the plane climbed into the big, blue, Texas sky, I saw the ocean for the first time. The blue expanse of it spread out below me and I couldn’t help imagining the plane crashing into the dark depths of the gulf, of using my seat as a flotation device. The flight attendant’s safety speech really made an impression on me.

We had a layover at the Newark airport, so I brought out a book of questions I’d gotten, thinking it would be a fun way to pass the time and a good way for us to get to know one another better. One of the questions in the book was, “If you died right now, what would be your biggest regret?”

After thinking for a moment, Jonathan responded that he’d most regret never telling some other guy how much he loved him.

My biggest regret, as it turned out, was having asked the question. The last thing one wants to hear in the first blush of a new relationship is how much the object of one’s affection still cares about some other guy. I was devastated, and suddenly, in Newark, New Jersey, I began to realize how little I knew the man I was living with, and started to question the life decisions that had brought me to that place.

On the second flight, our seats weren’t together, and for this I was thankful. I had seven hours to collect myself. I had a window seat, and looked out on the gray tarmac with my head pressed against the window, watching it drizzle. When the woman beside me ordered a Bloody Mary, the flight attendant accidentally spilled tomato juice all over me. I barely noticed as he wiped my shirt with a small, white napkin. All I could think about was that the man I loved loved someone else. “He’s pissed.” The flight attendant said in a French accent that sounded like “He’s pieced.”

I managed to get myself together. Having already become a master of compartmentalization, I decided that I would pretend everything was fine and thoroughly enjoy my week in Paris, because who knew when I’d get the opportunity to go again. So the plane landed, and Jonathan and I reunited, our bags slung over our shoulders, a camera in my hand, a map in his, and I smiled as if nothing was wrong.

April in Paris is as beautiful and romantic as the movies suggest. We walked down narrow, cobblestone streets, past pale, stuccoed buildings, through parks covered in cherry blossoms, and over ornate bridges. It rained every day we were there. The Parisians walked past in stylish, black jackets with umbrellas, beneath street lamps, statues, and awnings. My fragile heart was forgotten amidst the beauty and crumbling grandeur of that ancient city.

Jonathan kept us on a grueling schedule so that we could see and experience every historical site, landmark and museum in the short time we were there.  He kept his map carefully hidden because he didn’t want us to look like tourists, ignoring my protest, “But we are tourists.” When some obvious tourists asked us for directions in the Père Lachaise cemetery in horrible French, we were both pleased that we seemed like real Parisians. When I answered them in English, the woman said, “Where are y’all from?” It turned out they were from Texas too. They took our picture in front of Oscar Wilde’s grave.

I may have somewhat exaggerated my ability to speak French prior to our trip. I’d taken four semesters of it in college, and while I could readily understand everything said to me in French, I was completely incapable of responding in French. Jonathan understood nothing, but if I told him what to say, he could say it in French, so between the two of us we were able to communicate more or less effectively.

We would say, “Un billet pour le metro, s’il vous plaît,” and a bored, French attendant would roll her eyes and say, “Here’s your ticket,” in perfect English. The only person we were unable to communicate with was the maid in our hotel who didn’t seem to speak English or French, and who only stared at me, bewildered, when I asked her for more towels.

Paris is famous for its cuisine, but Jonathan was too intimidated to order food and would only eat at chain restaurants, even in the states. So we mostly ate pain au lait we got at a market, and McDonalds. Having had enough of this, I ventured out late one night on my own, and got some Lebanese food. I pointed at some meat behind a counter, and the clerk assured me it was chicken, so I had him put it on a pita with some feta and onions. I got lost on the way back to the hotel, and only found myself in front of our building an hour later by sheer chance. It was only after I got back to the hotel that I realized it was chicken livers.

We saw the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, protected by glass, and surrounded by Japanese tourists snapping pictures of it. We walked past tulips, yellow and red, at the Jardin du Luxembourg. I saw real Van Gogh paintings at the Musee D’Orsay. We walked across the Pont Neuf. We stood atop the Arc de Triomph. We ventured into the catacombs below Notre Dom cathedral.

We had awkward sex in the strange, hotel bed, Jonathan rushed and afraid the maid would come in with towels at any moment. We took cool showers in a claw foot bathtub, with water that seemed softer and saltier than the water back home. We played pretend that we were French, that we belonged.

We saved the Eiffel Tower for the last day of our trip, and we’d done so much unaccustomed walking by that point that I could barely climb up to the top of it. The sun was setting, and the city spread out before us. Twinkling lights and rivers, both beautiful and strange.

Back in our hotel the last night we broke up. I asked him to move out of our apartment once we returned to Texas. Surreality took over as T. J. Hooker was playing on the TV in our room, dubbed over in French, and Jonathan was furiously packing his bag. I was terrified that he was going to leave and go back to the airport without me, so I frantically packed my bag too, uncertain of my ability to find my way on my own. We walked to the street in silence as the sun was just coming up over Paris. I took my first ride in a cab to the Paris airport with my now ex-boyfriend.

As the third airplane I’d ever been on took off from Charles de Gaulle, I wondered what was going to happen when I got back home. Suddenly, in the space of a week, I was unemployed and single. But I’d been to Paris. Me, the small town boy, was now a traveler, if not quite worldly and sophisticated, at least a little less naive and romantic than I’d been when I’d left Texas.

 

 

Alien

“We’re all just made of stardust!”  My friend Betsy proclaims over brunch, like she’s the first person to have ever reached this conclusion.  She sits back from her seasonal fruit and granola plate, smiling with smug triumph beneath the yellow umbrella of the cafe outside.

So I stab her in the face with a fork.

I can do this because I just made Betsy up so that I could have someone say a line in my blog about stardust.  Because I don’t have any girlfriends a la Sex and the City that I have brunch with.

In the city I hardly ever see any stars anyway.  In the city, the bright lights of jagged toothed skyscrapers, of cars and street lamps change the sky to an empty, dull purple sheet at night.  Hazed over by clouds, pollution, and car exhaust.  Skimmed by airplanes and occasionally a helicopter search light, scanning the streets for some fugitive.

I always find myself looking up.  Searching.

I had my first existential crisis at the age of 6.  My mom took me to get a haircut, and for the first time, the hairdresser asked me how I wanted it cut.  Prior to this point she’d always just asked my mother.  Without missing a beat, I told her, “I want half of it shaved and the other half dyed black.”  The elderly hairdresser turned to my mom and said, “Is he joking?”  My mom said, “Yes.  Just give him the usual.”  So I got the same bowl cut, and we drove home in silence, until my mom finally asked, as we turned into our driveway, “Where did you come from?”

I didn’t know, but had often wondered this same thing.  Surrounded by the cowboy boots, the county fairs and 4-H meetings,  the blue ribbon show pigs, and chicken fried everything of my youth, I couldn’t help but wonder how these people could spawn me.  I looked to the heavens and prayed for an alien abduction.  Every time I saw the night sky I half expected the mother ship to beam me up and reunite me with my true people.

I’d like to say that adulthood has given me this greater sense of connection to my fellow man.  As a grown up living in Los Angeles, where the stars were all on movie screens, walking down red carpets, eating in restaurants and shopping at my local grocery,  where everyone had year round tans and there were plastic surgery coupons in the weekly paper.  I still found myself wondering where I’d come from and how I’d gotten there.

I was on a date with an entertainment lawyer in West Hollywood.  We were standing outside beneath the Dr. Seuss palm trees that lined the boulevard.  I asked him what the last book was that he read, and he looked back and said, “You don’t belong in L.A.”

Then we made out in an alley behind some bar and I never heard from him again.

Last night in Portland Carlos and I were waiting for the late night bus to take us back to his apartment.  A toothless woman wearing tie dye and polka dots came up to me and asked if she could use my phone.  I say, “No.”  Because I value my phone more than I value not seeming like a dick, and she walks away and borrows a phone from some rotund teenager who is twirling two wrenches tied to the ends of shoelaces.  They get on the bus with us.  The bus where everyone smells like cheese and has loud, public conversations with their parole officers.

Carlos turns to me and says, “Who are these people?”

I turn to him and say, “I know, right?”  The bus is the mothership that takes us home.  I can’t speak for the rest of the world.  The senselessness of racism, wars, poverty and inequality.  The absurdity of life.  But sometimes when I look into his eyes I see it.  Stardust.