A different ending

Tomorrow is the fifth anniversary of my state-sanctioned big gay wedding. It was beautiful. I hadn’t expected it to feel different from my outlaw wedding in August, 2011, but it did, and it continues to feel different. Legal marriage is more powerful, which is probably why certain factions are trying so hard to hoard it.

Last night, at 3 a.m., my wife and I had a long, meandering conversation that we tend to specialize in at 3 a.m. And she told me something that I wanted to set down here because I can’t stop thinking about it.

We all work from patterns. You know this. We do things in the way we do them because they are familiar to us. We take our route to work. We show up for our kids at the times they expect us. We anticipate our routines because we created them. We built the patterns in our lives.

And, of course, our pattern in relationships has caused us to suffer. That seeking of home — of familiarity — often means that we end up with the dysfunction, dishonesty, and poor boundaries we grew up around. At first that familiarity is comforting. I know this! This is so great! And then we quickly remember that this is a story we have lived over and over. We know every detail and climax and revelation. We know exactly how it ends. And here we are again. Living the same fucking relationship.

That can be discouraging. It can begin to feel like there is something deeply wrong with us. Isn’t it enough that I came here with my best intentions? How do I keep picking the same same?

But here’s the thing. We are the shiny light in the dark. We are. We are chosen because we are glowing. Our compassion and empathy and kindness make us appealing. And sometimes our best intentions, our desire to love and care for another person, are used against us. And we begin to worry that we have drawn that pain deep into our center because we are broken and small and destructive.

Love is a story. Relationships are built on patterns. And we tell ourselves the story of love because we are going to write the ending that we want. We are. That is the endeavor. To live according to our best choices. To love according to our most ambitious desires. To earn the person that we love by being the person they deserve. We write each other into being.

My wife is the person I see most clearly in the world. And that is sometimes difficult for her. Nobody holds up to scrutiny all the time. I don’t always appreciate the way that I am seen.

Writing the story is hard. Sometimes my wife just refuses to participate in my storyline for her. Sometimes I have to remember that I am only writing my self, and she is writing her self, and the storylines twist in and out of orbit. We are not planets. She is the most familiar unfamiliar story that I have. In a constant edit. Unfinished. Unknown.

Anything might happen.

Anything.

Five years ago, I might still have said that she was my path home. To the place we have made together.

But it’s more than that. She’s the story I can’t anticipate. The one that tests every part of my skill and character and resolve. That shows me the ways I am not my best. But allows me, always, the chance to be better and do better, and be loved as though there were nothing wrong with me. As though I, too, am constantly rewritten, a more complicated sentence guiding me into another curious place. And somewhere ahead, a glowing light.

 

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On hatred of the artist as a young person

I was listening to Neil Gaiman discuss why he waited to write the Graveyard Book until he was a good enough writer to do the story justice. He told about two aborted attempts to get into the characters. The years of thinking it had taken to try a third time, and how he’d been disappointed with that effort, too, until he’d shown it to his daughter and she’d asked for more. It’s curious to hear this story just days after my friend tells me that she hates when people love her early work because she hates her early work. She can’t even look at it without feeling ill.

“They don’t want anything to do with work I’ve done in the last ten years. They want me to be the same artist.”

I don’t think this is true. They aren’t thinking about the artist. They are thinking about the art. They are thinking of the way the pieces spoke to them. They are thinking about how the pieces felt. They are thinking of themselves at the time when they first discovered the art, and the way the art can take them right back to that self like a teleporter.

And for us, the artists, those people are gone. I can look at paragraphs I wrote and not recognize a single word. Was that really me, writing those sprawling sentences? At the time, it had been so urgent to get it all down, and now I can’t even be bothered to remember what it felt like to need to express it in the first place.

I wrote Red Audrey and the Roping as a short story when I was twenty-one. Half my life ago. The girl who felt that aching despair doesn’t exist now. But that book is like music, I can remember the exact road I was on when I felt so love sick that I might have been poisoned. I can remember days up on the hill with the dogs when I was trying to obliterate my narrator. Days when I scarred her body. Days when I played the same song on repeat because it was the only path through this chapter.

It would be a tragedy if we were the same artists now as we had been. And it would be odd to find that we could carry everyone along with us each step. No one can grow at the exact same rate as the artist grows. Even the artist, when discussing the third book with a reader, will find herself thinking instead of the fifth book. We are outpacing ourselves and each other all the time. We are wanting, always, to understand a little better. To make something more perfectly beautiful. To make something we haven’t got quite right yet.

The nomadic girl who made everything a myth as she tried to explain suffering to herself is nowhere to be found now. We aren’t a single volume, or even a shelf of books, but entire cities. I remember a time when I thought recurring chin acne was the worst thing that could happen.

Sometimes art feels like a spear. That it tears through people and just leaves this gaping wound. An injury. And we work not just to find a salve, but to find more art that will injure us as gloriously.

I used to believe that martyrdom was the highest form of love. I did. That is a thing I believed. And then I wrote a small, intimate tragedy about it and realized that I’d had it all wrong. I love that story. I love how wrong I was. I love the books I read to find more rigorous truths about love and tragedy. About myself. About you. About this whole weary place where we keep getting it wrong and have to gather up our tools and start to find a way to get it a little more right.

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The Cure

On my side, I’d stretched across one of the war memorials on the parade ground. When I’d arrived, the stone had been warm from the fall afternoon, but now it was dusk, and colder. My Walkman played something earnest, and I’d decided to go inside when I heard my name called. I slid my headphones off.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Are you posing?” he repeated.

I laughed at the ludicrousness of posing in my cross-country sweats and slid off the stone memorial. He was half the field away from me, and hurrying. I had time to notice that he wasn’t dressed like a bible salesman anymore. He wore red Converse, jeans, a letterman jacket for Monmouth Regional High School. What had he lettered in? I’d have to ask his brother, Mark, who rode the bus to middle school with me.

“Aren’t you cold?” He’d arrived at my side, and promptly threw an arm over my shoulder.

“A little,” I admitted.

He grabbed my Walkman and tried to see the tape inside. “What are you listening to? Please say it isn’t metal.”

His dark hair fell in his eyes now. That was new too. He was taller than the last time I’d seen him. Mark had told me his brother was in a band.

“It isn’t metal,” I said. He had a soccer pin on his jacket. I’d forgotten he played varsity soccer.

“What kind of music do you like?” he asked.

“All kinds.”

He still had his arm around me, and began to walk us back toward the officers’ housing. He talked about punk bands. Here, as the night fell, over tidy Army streets where the rest of the boys wore Megadeth and Metallica t-shirts.

“Do you know the Cure?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said, “Just Like Heaven.”

“That’s right.” He smiled at me. “I’ll make you a tape. Everything good. But especially the Cure.”

When had he gotten so cute? We used to play manhunt in the summer. Hide-and-seek with teams. And when he brought his friends, they were always huge boys, football-player sized, but sweet. One of them went over all the cyclone fences face first like a Ranger.

We stood in the trees, talking. The night draped over us. Where had he come from? In the parade field on a school night? Where were all the other kids? I looked around. The lights in our quarters were on. I could see my mother setting the table. Late. I was late.

And then he kissed me. Leaned over, not touching me, except gently on the lips. I looked up and he assured me he’d make me a tape. “The Cure,” he said again. “You’ll love it.”

And then he was gone. And I felt conscious for the first time. Certain. A girl in middle school sweats, holding her Walkman with a discreet piece of electrical tape on the back where I’d cracked it. A girl in the trees, late for dinner.

He didn’t give me a tape until the next spring. He came out the back door of their quarters, said he was sorry it had taken ages, and gave me Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me. The tape was too long for the album, and I had to fast forward the B side for twenty minutes. I took it to basketball camp with me that summer. Walked around the Rutgers campus with Robert Smith’s baleful love in my ears. It was like this. It was just like this. A terrible, beautiful mess. All our gorgeous hopes drowning and cheating and sobbing. The world imploding to a righteous bass guitar.

How had he known? How had he known that I needed that tape? That I needed a way out of the parade grounds, and the manicured lawns. The metalheads and the long runs that burned my lungs until I tasted blood. His Black Flag t-shirt like a passport. You little fucking punk. You gotta get out of here. You gotta get out!

He gave me a story. A mutilated love story of punk music and adolescence. Of a beautiful, surprising boy who handed a girl on the cusp of something a key to somewhere else. I listened to the Cure and heard exactly how to love that terrible way. To a thrumming bass guitar. To a wail of distress and misery and poetry and night crowding out that most intoxicating girl there at the edge of the sea. How I wanted her. How I wanted. How I’d sing for her. The child’s eyes uttered joy.

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Boutique, 1992

The summer before my senior year in high school, my girlfriend drove me to a little boutique in Honolulu and told me she was going to buy me a bikini. She explained what she wanted to the saleswoman; they both peered at me for a bit and then started going around racks picking out various suits. That is a generous word for them: suits. I hadn’t yet hit my stride as a confident nudist. I was still more giraffe than girl if we’re being honest.

I’d started to weigh in on some of the selections but was quickly shushed. It seemed clear that I’d have to veto from the fitting room.

“Start with these,” the saleswoman said, giving my girlfriend a pile. I stepped forward to take the pile and was instead shoved with girl and pile into the dressing room, door locked, my shirt lifted over my head.

“Hold on now!” I wiggled to the farthest corner, and held out my hands. “I’m perfectly capable of dressing and undressing myself.”

From somewhere beyond the tiny booth, the saleswoman laughed.

“Keep your voice down!” And then, just like that, 8.76 million bikinis were dragged on and off me. And I was made to pose as though I might be anyone, and could certainly imagine her, as I had my top adjusted and was directed to “Stretch!” and “Crouch like someone’s just spiked a volleyball at you!” and “Pretend you’re swimming!”

Eventually we would forego the locked door altogether and the saleswoman and my girlfriend would helpfully adjust various suits as though a little more managing were all the situation required.

“Stand up straight,” they’d command.

“How long are her legs?” the saleswoman whispered to my girlfriend at one point.

“Three quarters of her body,” she replied.

If you’ve ever tried on bikinis, you know there’s no place to hide. There’s just you, and your underpants, and a saleswoman, and your girlfriend, and a palpable desire for pockets.

By the end, we’d discovered someone who hadn’t previously existed. Someone less giraffe and more girl and possibly even the sort of girl who could walk into a girls’ bathroom without any fears at all. We didn’t uncover a single curve, except my terrible posture, but the girl staring back at me from the mirror wasn’t me at all, and so they found her perfect in her blue and black bikini.

That was the summer I got a cocktail dress.

That was the summer I began to realize that bossy girlfriends were my favorite kind. But that was the summer’s only true discovery.

If we tell ourselves lies to grow into the people we imagine, it takes longer to get there. More costumes, more parts. I can still see the scathing way that she looked at me, hiking one cup and then the other up. The real disappointment of trying to make me a little more something than I was. I look best in lipstick when I’m wearing a 3-piece suit. That’s the takeaway here. We are complex.

I remember us in that little boutique, before the illness that would take my tonsils, before the hurricane, before either of our families had any idea that I was in love with a girl, and would give up everything to stay with her, and then give up everything to get away from her. Before my injuries. That’s how I remember that boutique.

But already in this story, there’s corruption. And I find myself unwilling to let it be heartbreaking.

I got something out of both of those girls in that little booth in Honolulu. The one who insisted I could be different. And the one who was willing to try it for a time.

It took me longer to find my way, but I got to wander down so many streets I’d never have found any other way. Girl 101. A little less giraffe. A little more underwire. Legs for days.

 

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Tomboy

I hate the word tomboy. It lands on me like a blow. Sometimes I actually flinch. You’re so determined to tell me I’m not a girl that you have come up with a word that literally means male boy. You are redundantly doubling down on my absence of girl.

I fucking hate it. In that single word I see every old lady chasing me out of bathrooms since I turned six.

My wife loves the word tomboy. Today, in a swirly dress that hung down to her boot heels, she told me, “I am a tomboy! In my heart.” For her it’s a kind of rebellion against perception. She will climb a tree in a dress. She will put on makeup to go outside and fix the scooter.

She says the word with such pride that I sometimes find myself softening to it.

In my vocabulary, I’ve replaced tomboy with rough and tumble. My granddaughter is rough and tumble. She will launch at you in her adorable summer dress like a goddamned tsunami.

Tomboy holds so many of the difficulties and contradictions of my work to be out. To be comfortable shaving my head and dressing like my grandfather. To walk into the women’s bathroom casually singing to put every woman in there at ease. To save me having to assert who I am to strangers.

“Oh,” the woman said, appraising me at 7, “you’re the one who doesn’t like pink.”

Not anymore, man. Now I’m as comfortable with pink as I am with a wife who is tougher than I am.

Sometimes a word gets tied up with all your shame. With what it has cost to be the you that is most essential. I’ve given that word too much credit. It’s not as heavy as it used to be.

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Thirteen

When I turned 12, I took a certification class with the Red Cross, and started babysitting. All the money went into my college fund, but eventually I used it to buy one terrible car in high school, and then one miraculous one that I’d drive for the next decade. I loved babysitting. Little kids can rocket from joy to abject misery in a single sentence. They seem, always, on the edge of space travel. As though a new and better planet were one leap over the couch away.

I know you don’t like babies, but imagine someone handing you a rare and powerful Yu-Gi-Oh! card, or a kitten. That is how delighted I am about babies.

In the hospital, they handed me an angry little burrito and I was already moonstruck. Dazed with love. To meet you at last after singing and dancing and walking and laughing with you for so many months beforehand. My beautiful boy.

So tall now that you can put your arm around my shoulder without leaning. So tall now that you can boop my nose while you stand several feet away. How I love you. Your refusal to do anything quickly. To sit and stare at your cards when you’re supposed to be getting ready for bed or school or an outing. How you are so busy remembering things for me that you forget things for yourself. How you never remember the names of the kids around you. “I think it’s either Josh or Dan? I don’t know. He has brown hair I’m pretty sure.”

I love your terrible jokes. Your painful puns. I love the way that you have a joke ready for every situation. I love that you play trumpet like a battle cry.

Yesterday my friend told me about this thing Mr. Rogers said, “Everyone has someone who loved them into being.” That is what you did. You loved me into being. You beautiful boy. Happy birthday.

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The end

After my son was born, I told everyone — my husband, my mother, my friends — anyone who would listen, that I was not okay. And everyone told me I was fine. That I was fine, and doing well.

Now I can recognize it as postpartum depression, but at the time it was just a long, terrifying panic attack. I was convinced my son was going to die in my care. I thought that every time I walked into his room. Every time I leaned over his crib. I would dream of a blue baby. A dead baby. My fault. He would die and it would be my fault. Every day. Every hour.

But everyone said I was fine.

I wasn’t sleeping. I was alone for nearly 20 hours of every day. Alone except for a baby. But that is a different kind of alone. I had no internal monologue. I would tell my baby what we were doing. I’m reading you a story. I’m playing guitar for you. I’m bathing you. But in my head there was just a distant sound of screaming.

But everyone said I was fine.

My hedgehog died several weeks ago. He’d been ill, and had already lived longer than most hedgehogs. But I’ve found his death difficult to process. He was the most cantankerous creature I have ever met. He bit me whenever I held him. He bristled and hissed at me when I fed him. He ran around his terrarium looking for me when he wanted more food, and then got angry with me when I gave him more. I began to think of him as my unhappy self. Always a little past knowing what’s best for it. Too hungry to eat. Too thirsty to drink. Too lonely, but bristling at all contact.

Being intuitive means that I know more than I want to know.

My hedgehog died and I looked at his opened eyes through the terrarium and I was filled with sadness for both of us. For my love for him, and his reliance on me. For the difficulty of relationships. For the well of sadness that people want to assure me doesn’t exist.

I am having a hard time.

And as is often the case, I am having that hard time on my own.

I am alone with the burden of being me. The sadness of wanting human connection and intimacy in the age of electronics. Headphones and screens and the endless hustle of busywork. Where we mistake social media for real life. I am tired and I am sad.

I realized something today and it bothers me. When people assure you that everything’s fine, they mean for them. It’s fine for them. I used to think they couldn’t see me, but what they are saying is that they can’t see our relationship as I see it. Everything’s fine from their point of view. And everything is not fine from mine. We are in a different relationship. That is so much worse.

But, Jill, you’re talking about perspectives. We all have perspectives. We all struggle sometimes and that struggle comes at each of us differently. We’re always in a different relationship. That’s why your story of what happened is different from mine. 

Yes. Yes, that’s true. But in my relationship, I’m not OK. And in yours, everything is fine. And those two things are not compatible.

Not today. They aren’t compatible today. Last week everything was on fire, and today there’s rain. 

My life isn’t like the climate.

It is, Jill. Your life is exactly like the climate. Temporary and lovely and unpredictable. Sometimes heartbreaking.

You’re being reductive.

I meant to comfort you. This mess is yours for a while. A while is all you get. When you woke to the sound of rain this morning you were happy, remember?

I remember.

Right now you feel paralyzed with sadness. And that feels real and you are miserable. This evening you’ll walk through the black streets and the trees will stand like sentinels and you’ll love the day a little more. It’ll feel like a secret. Yours to keep.

Maybe.

Even your sadness is beautiful. Surely you can see that. How else would you make space for your joy?

I don’t know. I don’t know how to make space for my joy.

You are. That’s what you are doing right now. You are typing it into being. You are telling yourself a story of joy and sadness and love. Like all stories. Of the death of a small, hostile creature and the way it reminded you of your suffering and your love. You are frightened that your unhappiness is permanent, so you are telling yourself a story of impermanence. Life as climate. 

I see.

And now you feel better, don’t you? 

I do. I do feel better.

All these things are inside you. And they are yours and they are true.

Yes.

And that is why.

Why what?

That is why you feel better.

 

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I can see more from out here

I thought girls actually used pencils to darken lines beneath their eyes. The same pencils we used to take bubble tests. That seemed so brave to me. Like something a pirate would do. Lined up in the hallway, waiting to march out to the playground, I could see them leaned over sinks, drawing emphasis.

Girl 101. I studied it from the outside. Girls with their hair products, their Keds, their bangles. When Jimmy Stewart told Katharine Hepburn she was lit from within, I nodded. They all are. Every one of them. Shocking as a lighthouse though a moment before I had been alone at sea with the stars overhead.

My wife has potion bottles on every surface of our house. She’ll swab her skin and then press her wrist to my face. “Do you like this one?” And suddenly she smells like winter solstice. I can feel the snow beneath my boots and then, all at once, evergreens. Or she’ll lean down to kiss me before she leaves for work, and everywhere there is sandalwood.

“Why do you always take my photo before I have makeup on?” she’ll ask.

Because I can’t tell.

Because you are a lantern to me in every condition.

Not alien, exactly, but as an apprentice. That’s how I approached women. As a kind of nautical chart to set a course. A path of wonder.

Skin like cream.

I wish I had seen my wife pregnant. Not in the photos but in fact. I wish I’d eaten waffles with her after her labor. I can imagine it. The young hippie woman with her plate of waffles.

On Sunday, the 20th, she will be my longest marriage. Though we are only getting started. What is six years but a beginning? We’re still somewhere in the Pacific, getting a handle on the currents, on the rigging.

I woke once, with an idea of her, just an idea — a sketch really. A woman in outline, sitting at a small, round table, with coffee before her. One leg crossed over the other, and an arm raised toward me in greeting. A homecoming. The way she pulled me into her so that I couldn’t keep to the periphery. Safe from any collision. Safe from the bold fact of her. This inevitable woman. How she has drawn me over the decades. A line between us of story, and nets, and cities, and rivers. Of wild flowers and starlight. Of a cold room with deer just across the window pane. The dogs wakeful. The day so nearly broken. And I am awash with light from the woman beside me. It spills out of her, and cuts me. Look how I’m dashed with it. Glowing from my injuries.

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Intimacy

My sadness is a tail that shakes
out behind me. What have I ever been
but certain?
Watch me bring these walls down. Thrashing
even as I walk from room to room.

I check all the windows,
and out on the porch.
I check the driveway.
I check my phone.

And when I find you, at last,
it is worse than not knowing.

Startling.

I want that word to be a bird. Startling

To take flight from my chest and sail up

up

up.

Later, you’ll hunch in some
adjacent room.
A drink in one hand, a phone in the other.
All hail America! How grand we are.
Our opiates as dull as ever.

I saw a porcupine hit in the road tonight.
The driver followed behind it with her brights on. She didn’t even
step out of the car as it stumbled into a field.

The news channels fill with riot. Riot and riot and riot.
How much does it matter that I grew
this tail?

That I cried as I tried to tear myself free of it.
To make startling a bird, shearing
away from this house.

I am all out of love songs.

Isn’t that timely?

One of the dogs walked up the bones of my left leg in the night and I thought,
whatever holds me together
has built a dragon rather than a bird.

This armored tail.

This armored tale.
Every soldier to her quarters.

Drawn and quartered.

Small, and frightened.

Here at the end of the story.

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Rings

I met Ruly when she was still called by another name. This was in 2005, when I managed a bookstore. She had a jewelry store upstairs, and came down with a banner that she needed to hang from the air duct several stories above the main floor. I held the banner while she rigged it, and an exchange of maybe fifteen minutes led to my visiting her store for the beautiful silver she carved. Waves, and trees, and moons, and stars. Streaks of resin. Ravens. Owls. Skeletons laughing their way down a river. I loved her work. Started hucking it at a series of girlfriends as though that were romantic.

Who needs a U-Haul when you have hand-carved silver jewelry?

After break ups, I burn everything. But I couldn’t figure out how to burn the silver. Ruly let me use the welder to torch out the resin, flame against the silver to burn it clean. New. By then I was working for her, keeping her books. We’d sit in the studio and talk art as though we were still in graduate school. Reference books everywhere. The tumblers shaking in the background.

I’d already met my wife, and Ruly was the first person I read my vows to. When I’d finished reading, everything was silent, and I thought, “Fuck. They’re terrible.” But that wasn’t the silence. We weren’t even friends yet, Ruly and I. That was still forming. If we were gangsters, you’d have called it an association. The way I dropped in to create order, and she was deep in a spin of chaos.

She’d tell you a candid story of her addiction, but I will tell you that her work got angry — coffins blooming from hearts, holes in everything. She drew skeletons swallowed into the earth. And then all at once she was done. Sober. Resolved to pay for everything.

Sometimes we’d hand guilt back and forth, the way you do when you’re in the middle of a redemption story. Trying to be good when being good seems like such dreary fucking work.

What are you working on?
Myself.
Fun.

I’ve known Ruly for twelve years, and worked for her for seven, and today she gave me a new wedding ring because I outgrew my last one. Yesterday her cat died. She started crying when she was telling me about it. And then I started crying because that’s the fucking worst, man.

“I know you know how this feels,” she said.

Of course I knew. And she knew I knew because we’ve been friends a long time. Long enough for me to see her work become the most astounding hand-made art ever. She’s making me an anchor heart complete with arteries and rigging. It’s funny how the rigging has come full circle. Full heart.

I don’t think we get as many friendships as we expect. The kind that feel like a mitt. As though you can actually see evidence of the ball striking — the wear, the comfort, the aptitude. My wife is covered in Ruly’s jewelry. And I have this small, perfect ring that winds on and on. A loop of pain and joy and love and art and waves of leaves winding round and round and round. She calls it her Growth Ring. Oh yes, sister. Yes.

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