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 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.