Misreading

We were in the blue station wagon, my head in her lap. We’d come to this park near the basketball courts in Honolulu because the sky filled with shooting stars. One after another, for hours, as though the world were ending in failing light.

She had her hand on my belly, and we hadn’t done anything yet. Not really. I’d grown sleepy from stars, and her hand making circles, and then I felt her hair on my face and then gently her lips on mine. I rose up into the kiss. My hands in her hair, and I had yet to imagine what that would feel like. To be both submerged and holding my breath while simultaneously rising up weightlessly, unbounded.

Have you ever tried to read subtext in every social encounter for years? Have you tried to decide when flirting is just a fun conversation and when it has an actual destination?  Have you spent years trying to decide if you are simply misreading things? Because that is the way I remember being a queer teenager. Even in the middle of a kiss, always wondering if this was real real or just wishing.

I listened to the actress who played Barb in Stranger Things read Leah on the Off Beat yesterday, and those old anxieties of trying to suss out not just whether someone is into you, but whether it is safe to be into that person yourself, kicked me in the throat. You beautiful anxious kid. Always overthinking.

Because, you know, you had to.

You had to overthink everything.

I didn’t meet an out lesbian until I was in college.

High school was guess work. The girls like geometry. There’s a solution! Keep solving for X! Use your theorems!

And then, sometimes, one would lean over you in a station wagon, and you’d open your mouth to protest her itchy hair in your face, and suddenly everything would stop as she covered up your protest with something miraculous. And it sounds like fiction but the stars kept falling over both of us, and it was a terrible thrill to wake up this person inside me who had been trying to breathe and keep quiet while being stuffed in a sad, tiny space deep at the back of my chest.

When scientists announced they’d discovered a hidden organ in our sternums, I kept thinking, Oh that spot where I hid being queer. Yeah, that organ is surprising. There and not there like queer camouflage. Is this a spot where I should wear desert or forest fatigues? The exhaustion of costume changes. You gotta learn to blend in with girls better! You gotta find some way to separate from girls because they are calculus and you are still algebra.

Please stop mixing math and costumes and metaphors. Just say what you mean.

Say how heartbreaking it was to be in love with someone who hurt you.

Say how scared you were to approach a girl who kept flirting with you when she might just be friendly. Kind. She might just be kind.

Say how terrible it was that stars fell over the station wagon and you were ending and beginning and not at all yourself while finally letting that poor, frightened girl take a breath inside you at last. You were letting her climb up and out of the scary place inside you and kiss back. You were letting her respond at last. And it was the bravest thing. To let her respond. To let her inhabit all of you, and that kiss, as herself. No costume. No theorem.

It was only a kiss. It was only a kiss. And there you were at last. Terrified. Tender. Filled with that most frightening of impulses: hope.

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Word jumble

It’s the middle of the night. And you are turned toward me in the dark, listening. I am describing the path to you. How much I loved a woman two decades ago. How I kept sort of showing up to something deeply confusing. Like discovering that you have blood on your hands and worry it might be your own. You know, romance in your twenties. How you want things with a fierceness you can barely articulate but aren’t really certain what those things are. The wanting is so much.

I want you.

That last word was always hardest for me.

Most of my life has been a battlecry of I WANT.

I’ll never get this story told the way I mean it.

Do you see? I am more myself because I love you.

I don’t regret the tantrums. The miscalculations. I was headed in my fractions toward something whole.

You told me that you are always a little worried that I will say whatever is in my head. “At any moment, I know you might say anything.”

And I might never get near the telling. I might sidestep into the wrong story.

When you leave the house at 5 a.m., I listen for the door to close, and open again when you remember your keys. I watch for the light of your phone as you navigate the house in near silence. It’s like a love song. Like marriage. To ninja your way through the darkness in silence to let the other woman sleep.

Sometimes she does.

But often she listens for you. Watches the light recede. Feels the dogs resettle the bed around her. Loves you a little harder from this distance.

Once I met a girl whose collarbones hurt me.

A girl whose head I shave, bent over the sink, the razor huddled against her tiny ears.

A girl I think of as mine. And hers. And no one’s.

Marriage is all these things. Leaned into your right hip, the woman playing her piano from stage. It’s midnight and you leave for work in four hours. Urgently alive.

Yours. Mine. No one’s.

I’d write you a love song. And get all the words wrong. And hum a few bars, waiting to get a little closer to it. Once a girl fell into me laughing and I held both of us up. Her eyes darkened and she had her arms around my neck. Her face turned up to mine.

I want you.

Simple. So simple. And not at all what I hoped to say.

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Yoga

For years, I resisted taking up yoga again. And I couldn’t have told you why, exactly, except that the resistance was unrelenting. And then, a month ago, the tendons of my right arm, from the base of my skull through to my finger tips, stopped working. I couldn’t grip a cup of water, or use the 10-key. I couldn’t pet the dogs without feeling like my palm had a razor blade at its center. I stopped doing any strength training for a week.

And there, stretched out in front of me, was yoga.

It wasn’t until I put the disc of Rodney Yee into the drive that I realized why I’d resisted. After my surgery, when I was too weak to hike the trail, or walk the dogs around the neighborhood, I’d ordered this disc and tried to put my broken self back together. I’d stretched out on the speckled carpet in the living room, with the dogs flanking me, and watched his chest open wider and wider.

I reached for the nails of my toes. For the ceiling. For the speckled carpet. I leaned over the dogs, and back into the couch. I breathed as though it didn’t hurt me to walk from here to the bathroom. As though holding myself in a sitting position didn’t cost everything. I leaned into my own body and wished and wished and wished.

Not even to be well. Not even that. Not be well or be strong. Just be. Exist. Please continue to exist. It was like a cliff face, my body. I had to climb back up it. To grip my knees, and hip bones. To rest against my pelvis. To claw into these ribs, and breasts, and collar bones. Wrap myself around neck. Bury face into hair.

I had to learn to be broken and alive and recover.

I had to lean into my body and breathe deeply and love my self. This fucking trainwreck of a self. This traitor. This scrawny girl clawing her way back.

I have so much love for this body now. For my terrible posture. For my aching arms. For the way I lean over my own knees in cross-legged forward bend, and then slowly, lean even deeper. So that I can feel the muscles expand and contract and support me. So that I can feel the breath push in and out.

Alive. Not always well. Not always strong. Alive. So alive. Grasping at myself for all I am worth. Holding on. And then letting loose again as though I were nothing but atoms. Nothing but breath. Nothing but this unrelenting desire. This love for every every every thing.

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Empathy

I had my earbuds in and Dermot Mulroney reading me part three of the last Denis Johnson collection as I climbed from the car Friday morning. A man called out to me.

I paused my story. “What?”

“Do you park here and then walk into town?”

“Yeah.” I nodded, and started the story back up.

He said, “Parking downtown is a clusterfuck.”

I nodded, but the stranger kept talking. I stopped the story again.

“I was a nurse eleven years on a cancer ward, but now I’m taking a break,” he said.

I pulled my earbuds out, wrapped them around my neck, and crossed to meet him on the sidewalk. He was a huge man — easily 6’5″ — with a giant Nike duffel over his shoulder. We fell into step.

“Are you headed to work now?” I asked.

“No, I worked eleven years on the cancer ward, but now I’m taking a break. I’m just headed to the gym.”

“At 8:30 in the morning? You’re hardcore.” He reminded me of the giant prisoner I’d taught to write 3-paragraph essays years ago in medium security. That prisoner told me he was doing 25 years for killing a man when he was 19. “I was lost,” he’d said, “but now I’m a child of Jesus.”

“I come from a competitive family,” the guy beside me says. And he starts telling me about his brother the litigator and his other brother the federal investigator. “They’re savages,” he says. “They will fuck anyone over and not give a shit. We were raised in a household without empathy.”

“How’d that look?” I ask.

“Well, we grew up in a military family.”

“Me too.”

“And empathy is weakness in a military family.”

“You have to be ready to fold up and go at any moment,” I agree.

“And our dad, he went to Korea, and then three tours in Vietnam, and he used to tell us, ‘Boys, the military needs men like me. I love killing!'”

“Oh wow. Yeah. But you worked on a cancer ward. That sounds like empathy.”

“My ex-wife asked me why I was going into nursing. ‘You don’t like people, and you don’t like helping anybody.'”

“Jeez.”

“I don’t know why I went into nursing. But I was on the cancer ward for seven years before I felt anything. I had this patient, she was dying of breast cancer, and I sat with her and felt this sadness. And it got bigger. And I realized it was empathy. I felt terrible. When my shift ended, I just stayed there, sitting with her. Everything got worse after that.”

Yeah. Yeah of course. Empathy is hard. Heavy.

And I’ve been thinking, lately, that the thing about empathy is that it isn’t about us. It’s not about figuring how to put yourself in someone’s situation or feel what they feel or anything like that. It’s about getting out of the way. About listening to the person who is suffering, and loving them.

It’s not about you.

What would it be like for a dude to grow up in that family, and go into nursing? I’ve been thinking about that all day.

I liked him. He shook me out of my story, out of my solipsistic morning commute, and told me something important. The precise moment where he recognized his feelings of empathy, and how much more difficult his life became because he learned to empathize.

It’s not about me.

I could see him in that hospital room when he told me the story. I could see her, too. And I had all this love for both of them. Seated together all this time later.

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On beauty and Denis Johnson

When I was 22, I picked up Jesus’ Son at my favorite bookstore in Seattle. It was a slight book on a recommended table in the middle of the store. I read the first few stories standing there and realized afterward that I was holding my breath. That the slight book felt like redemption.

Denis Johnson read from that collection at the first literary festival we held at my graduate school. We weren’t calling it Get Lit! yet, but eventually we would. He read the short story, Emergency, and we all laughed and laughed and it felt like crying. By then I’d read his poetry, too, and been unraveled and kicked by it.

Johnson writes about people who keep failing. People who are difficult to love. And in their pills and alcohol and frantic, messy attempts to understand one another, there is so much beauty that it hurts you. The way real human interactions do. The way you hurt yourself with your hopeful efforts to live a little better and truer with the people in your orbit.

When he died last year, I immediately read Jesus’ Son again. And cried. Both at the girl I had been when I first discovered him, and the man he had been reading to us from that podium years and years ago. And the stories themselves, held together almost effortlessly like a fine black suit.

This week, I discovered that his final short story collection, finished before his death, has been published. And like David Bowie, and Leonard Cohen, his final work, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, is filled with the end. The end is everywhere.

What if we are lucky for the difficulty of our lives? What if the fact that I spent most of December and January so sick that I couldn’t think is why this week I am happier than I have been in a long time? Not because suffering is good for us but because staunching our injuries is the entire fucking point. I held myself together and kept walking until I could jog a little bit. Until I could enjoy these overcast days where we’re all inside too much. When I finally remembered that winter is a season and not my fucking life.

There’s beauty in the mess because there’s beauty and mess. The both at once and sometimes just the one that stretches on so long we can’t remember that there was anything before it. Until there is. Beauty again. Beauty over and over. The way you are kissed sometimes in your sleep, and the kiss draws you up into waking and you are unaccountably grateful, as you remember the kiss bringing you to consciousness, and then immediately wonder if the kiss was real, or just a story you told yourself to make waking feel like love.

 

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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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