A Message from the Minor Chord

LiftoffI am an astronaut.

I’m an astronaut without a mission.

I type these words on the only working console in the dim-lit, womb-like control room of the space station Minor Chord, circling an unnamed moon of an unnamed planet in an uncharted galaxy.

Hello.

I await my orders.

I was never like other boys. I never wanted to be an astronaut. I was always too afraid of this world, let alone any others. I was trained and selected for this mission without my knowledge. I went to sleep in my own bed, beside my husband. I woke up here, out here, alone, save for the chihuahua that we’d rescued from the streets of central California. My husband brought her home and we named her Agnes of Bakersfield. Apparently she was selected for the mission too. Or she selected herself.

She took to me immediately, followed me around our house back in San Francisco. (When I type the words “San Francisco” I have to close my eyes and steel myself against the longing.)

Agnes now follows me as I pace the long empty corridors. The lights flick on and off automatically, marking our progress. She’s my sole companion. Agnes curls up at my chest at night, a small, soft source of warmth. When she curls up she makes a noise that kills me. It’s the noise of surrender, the noise of a creature who feels safe.

I want to cry when I hear that noise. I do not feel worthy of such trust. But I’m unable to cry. This is an issue that I would like to rectify.

Before bed each night I talk to my husband through the video screen in the control room. His image flickers and his voice comes to me across a hundred trillion miles, full of space dust and distortion.  I’m an astronaut who nearly failed high school physics, and every night I smack the side of the monitor. My husband continues to flicker. I’ve put in a work request through the proper channels but my anonymous employer has yet to reply.

“When are you coming home?” my husband used to ask. A year later he no longer asks. Still he remains optimistic. He tells me that all of this is a temporary setback. He tells me to be patient.

Every three weeks I’m allowed a twenty-minute video conference with my appointed psychiatrist. She has dyed hair and tattoos and a statue of Buddha on the shelf behind her. I’d like to think that in real life we’d be friends. I’ve asked her where she lives, where she speaks to me from, but she always deflects my attempts. “Why don’t you tell me about yourself instead,” she says. A stopwatch on the margin of the screen counts down our remaining time. Seventeen minutes. Twelve minutes. Three.

“I feel like a ghost,” I tell her. “I feel like I’m already dead.” She makes a note on her pad.

Drones deliver my new medications, along with boxes of Triscuits, Life cereal, and countless packets of Crystal Light.

I would like to be a Buddhist. I’ve read about and thoroughly understand the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of meditation but can’t stand being alone with my thoughts – I’ll do anything to distract myself from my own head.

Sometimes after my psych appointments I scroll through the medical records to which my anonymous employer has given me access:

  • ASYMPTOMATIC HIV INFECTION
  • HYPERTENSION (HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE)
  • GERD (GASTRO-ESOPHAGEAL REFLUX DISEASE) (HEARTBURN)
  • MAJOR DEPRESSION, RECURRENT

One day I log on to find that MAJOR DEPRESSION, RECURRENT has disappeared from my record. In its place is a new entry: CHRONIC POSTTRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER.

I scroll back and forth to be sure. It’s gone. Maybe you are only allowed one of the two.

For a few days my record is clear of MAJOR DEPRESSION, RECURRENT. I resolve to ask my psychiatrist about this, but keep forgetting. My short-term memory has been severely compromised. Another temporary setback, I hope.

A few days later the MAJOR DEPRESSION, RECURRENT appears again, above the CHRONIC POSTTRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER. I keep forgetting to ask what happened to it.

At night I climb into my bunk and roll onto my side. Agnes jumps in and curls up next to my chest. She makes that noise I told you about. I used to lay awake for hours, tossing and turning, always picking up the chihuahua with calm hands and placing her again at my chest. But a new medication arrived, and I fall asleep quickly now.

Who’s Your Perp, Bro?

Worse…

…………….gets worse…

…It gets worse before…

……………………………….it gets better.

I heard these words as I fell – an astronaut sucking on a near-empty oxygen tank

plunging down a rabbit hole.

flyingsoldiersWho said them? I can’t remember. Ground Control, maybe, on whose couch I’d been riding for 60, then 90 minutes a week, spilling my guts for the discounted rate of six 20-dollar bills, which I’d remove from an ATM up the street on Castro before each session, later ducking into Walgreens for a Cherry Coke Zero, all the while feeling like someone behind me was getting set to toss a grenade at me. Do people get grenaded on Castro Street? I mean literally grenaded? No. But reason couldn’t touch me in those days, just after I’d found the father-son-incest-erotic-skincrawling-get-the-fuck-away-from-me stories on the fucking internet.

Grenades at work, grenades on Market Street, grenades on MUNI. They were all flying my way, the poor astronaut in a sweat-soaked business casual shirt. More than once Ground Control found me hiding in his waiting room a good 90 minutes before our session. I’d wave my iPhone at him, ear buds firmly in place, as I pretended to rifle through my bag. “Don’t worry, plenty to do here, I know when our session starts! Haha!” Truth was I just felt safer in there.

…gets worse…

Maybe I heard those words from some other poor rabbit-hole-plunger, one of the shut-in dudes I’d chatted with in online forums where those of us in various stages of the shut-in process hung out, dudes who spoke their own shared language, using words like perp, as in, “Who was your perp, bro? Mine was my uncle.” Or simply letters. for therapist. As in, “My t tells me it gets worse, bro, before it gets better. Meanwhile my disability is about to run out.” I got pretty good using bro in a sentence without irony.

I kept falling. I told Ground Control that I couldn’t remember what a feeling felt like. He eventually figured out that me getting molested by Hank the Blank at the age of nine was merely one event in a chaotic childhood. That my favorite childhood memories were the ones where I was alone. That all I felt growing up was lonely and that today I only felt empty. That I couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t focus, couldn’t get my work done at work, couldn’t write, couldn’t find the word for..for…fuck it.

But I could talk on his couch, that much I could do. For 90 minutes I’d fill that oxygen tank and hope it would last me the remaining 6 days, 22 hours and thirty minutes…

Then a package arrived from my father.

I had a feeling. I just knew he would send me something. “How did you know?” asked Ground Control, after the fact.

“I just sensed it coming.”

Hank the Blank had disregarded my plea to leave me in peace for the rest of our lives, and sent me a package that contained everything, he said in the accompanying letter, that he could find in his “Mike File.” Old family photos, graduation ceremony programs, newspaper clippings. He told me he thought I might want these things, as if what he were giving me was a gift, though it felt like a sucker-punch. Here’s everything I have of you. I don’t want it.

The rest of the letter was such a masterful example of…what’s the word? I can’t…can’t… fuck it, here’s what he said:

1.  Hank the Blank was in a lot of pain because I no longer wanted to talk to him, and he really wanted me to know exactly how much pain he was in, and how all of it was my fault.

2. He would like to have a relationship with me, but only if I agreed to “shield” him from my anger.

3. He and my stepfather were getting married in the spring, and all the family would be there, but I wasn’t invited unless I could agree to number 2 (see above).

4. He hoped my therapist would help me see the “big picture,” a.k.a. all the things he had brought into my angry, ungrateful life aside from child molestation.

5. He assumed that I no longer expected to be included in their will. In either case, he and my stepfather agreed that I shouldn’t be “rewarded” for blogging about this very delicate matter, which I had entirely misconstrued and then advertised to the internet.

6. No matter what I said or did, he’d still be my father.

Yeah, so.

I’d like to say that I was all like, psssht, no sweat off my…don’t let the door hit you in the…

And maybe I pulled that off for about 48 hours. But I kept falling

…faster now…

Couldn’t think for shit at work. Sat paralyzed at my desk, as if I getting up and moving would lead to my death. Sometimes got up and moved and didn’t die but found an empty office, closed the door, barricaded it, turned off the lights, and lay on the carpet for two hours.

Went home at night on BART checking my six for grenade-tossers, the Fireplug still at work, locked the front door behind me, climbed the stairs, took the dogs out back to pee, then back upstairs, into the bedroom, closed the door, pulled the blinds, lay in bed getting kissed by dogs, flipped on Netflix streaming and watched docs about soldiers coming home all fucked up from Iraq.

Then one morning I pulled myself out of bed and emailed work and said that I couldn’t come in for a while, I wasn’t sure how long. And for the second time in a year I went to Kaiser and told them that despite my totally amazing husband and my loving dogs, and my house, and my friends, and my punch card at the pharmacy, that I couldn’t stop thinking about ending it all.

The Homosexuals in the Second Row

binocularsA reader left a comment asking my take – in light of recent events – on erotic stories, particularly those involving, well, a daddy. I’m glad he asked, because I’ve given this a lot of thought.

My father, Hank, once took me to a men’s gymnastics meet at the University of Minnesota. I was maybe twelve. Thirteen. His partner joined us. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a non-Olympic men’s gymnastics meet, but you pretty much have your choice of seats. Hank steered us to the second row. And this is where it gets, from the point of view of a 12-year-old boy, batshit creepy.

He broke out the binoculars.

Oh my fucking god we are sitting in the second row and Hank the Blank is looking at the gymnasts through binoculars. Every time he raised those fucking things to his eyes I felt like a huge million-watt spotlight swung over and fixed us in its glare, while a loudspeaker boomed:

HOMOSEXUALS SITTING IN SECTION A, ROW 2!! THREE HOMOSEXUALS!! YES, THE BOY IS ONE TOO! HE WILL NEVER AGAIN BE NORMAL! IN FACT, SECURITY, PLEASE ESCORT THE HOMOSEXUALS FROM THE BUILDING!

The handful of times I’ve recounted this memory to friends I’d stop there, framing it as nothing more than a squirmy-funny anecdote of What It Was Like to Have a Gay Dad.

But there was so much more.

I remember that the gymnasts took my breath away. I remember the smell of sweat and powdered chalk. I remember their smooth round muscles. I remember their nerves and their power – the fluid impossible beauty of their mid-air contortions. I remember my scrawniness, and how small and clumsy and ugly I felt sitting there beside my father, from whom I’d inherited that scrawniness. I remember the yearning – peculiar to gays, maybe – of wanting to be what I also desired. I remember knowing that all of it – my yearning, my father’s yearning, the fucking binoculars – was wrong.

My sexuality was waking up alongside my father’s coming out. And I didn’t want it. I didn’t want to be like him – I didn’t want to be a child molester.  A creep. A blank.

I remember how the gymnastics coaches would step in, and help lift the gymnasts up to the rings, and then step back.

I remember how desolate I felt, sitting there, imploding with feelings I didn’t want, and that the man who could have helped me understand them, the man sitting next to me, had proven himself, one night, three years before, to be utterly untrustworthy. The man who had abdicated his fatherhood of me.

Few fathers help their sons understand sex. Or at least, that’s my guess. I don’t mean to suggest that I was special.

Only that I wanted to pull away from Hank, and from the binoculars, and climb somewhere higher in the stands, somewhere up near the back, so that I could watch the gymnasts on my own, not just the parts of them that the binoculars could show, but the whole fucking thing, all of it, the crazy, heart-rending, mid-air opera. The men stepping in, lifting the boys, and stepping back.

For several years after that day in the gymnasium, I’d steal Hank’s porn mags. First Hand, they were called. I was a teenage boy. I’d read those stories and then slip them back in his dresser drawer.

Sex is a goddamn mystery. It’s a distant alien star pushing and pulling us, and we deny it every step of the way. Until we don’t.

It’s funny in a squirmy kind of way to admit that when my father first told me that he’d been writing erotic stories and posting them to an online site, I knew exactly which site he was talking about, because I’d visited it many times.

I never wanted my sexuality to have anything to do with Hank. And so for many, many years I tried very hard never to wonder why I had a thing for older guys. And in recent days, when I’ve forced myself to sit with that wonder for a while, I feel confident in saying I never desired Hank.

Rather, I wanted what I never had. I wanted what those gymnasts had, someone to step in and lift them up to the rings. Someone who’d step back and make room for their miracles.

So this is a very long, digressive, muddled answer – there is nothing wrong with reading those stories. There’s nothing wrong with writing those stories. We all have our shadow sides, and it does us no good to deny them. Consenting adults, be free!

I want that to be clear. My pain and skin-crawling horror of recent events has little, really, to do with the stories themselves. If I’d found out, accidentally, from some other source, that Hank the Blank had written stories about incest and posted them on the internet, it would have been awkward and weird and yeah, I’d probably wonder a little about his inner self.

But that’s not what he did. Hank the Blank wrote stories about incest and then decided to share those stories with the son he’d once molested. A series of decisions that made a couple of things clear:

  1. He had no remorse, or even the barest understanding, of the long-term effects of molestation.
  2. Someone that unaware was dangerous.
  3. His disinterest in attending therapy or examining his actions in any kind of sustained, supervised way, made it unforgivable.

This took some time to put together. Immediately after reading his stories, in those first few weeks, I walked around, shell-shocked and hollow. I couldn’t see anything, let alone make connections.

My own sanity, my own sense of being a man, a human being walking around on the planet, demanded that I leave him, separate myself, climb up, somewhere higher in the stands, so that I could see not just the separate parts, but everything.

A Story About a Very Bad Thing (Part 3 of 3)

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(Part 1) (Part 2)

The little boy stayed up too late one night in front of the TV, transfixed by a movie about pod people –  emotionless replicants taking over the planet. Humans could only escape detection by walking around, stiff and flat and drained of emotion. This terrified the boy, who’d always been one big ball of emotion – sensitive, they said. Thin-skinned. How could one survive a world stripped of feeling? Where the hint of emotion made you a target? Where someone you loved could be replaced by an alien hostile to love or tears? Every night for the next month, and for years afterward, he had nightmares about replicants coming for him.

***

The man now leaves the train, his entire body shuddering from feelings he can neither name nor control, and the center he’s trying so hard to maintain breaks open as he drifts up San Jose Avenue, and noises come out of him, animal, primitive sounds of a very old pain.

In the safety of his house his dogs, alarmed by his noises, climb all over him, pushing him to the ground, where they lick the hot, stupid tears from his face.

* * *

The next night he and his husband drive to their regular 12-step meeting. The man sits hunched over in a metal folding chair in the back row, silent, a dull, brutish anger pulsing within him. It moves through him like a virus, infecting every organ, every nerve ending, every cell. The meeting is meant to keep him steady and sober and true, but he’s no longer there. He’s infected with a rage, and to protect his husband and the friends around them, he leaves his metal folding chair and tries to cool his flat, hot skin outside, in a courtyard, sitting in the dark on a bench.

He feels the full deep sickness of his family. He comes from sickness, and he sits, sick, in the church courtyard, scared of himself. He needs to throw a punch.

The man pulls out his phone and texts Hank the Blank.

I read your stories. Fathers and sons having sex?? Barbers?? Why the fuck would you think that I would want to read that shit? You are not human. You are the most selfish man I have ever known. You are sick. You will never be my father. We’re done. I am through keeping your secrets. I am through paying the price for your actions.

He hits “send,” and feels the rage within him dim, leaving him heavy and sad and cold on the bench. His husband finds him and together they drive home.

The next day on the train after work he reads the email his father has sent him:

1.  I accept the fact that my stories are not your cup of tea, but they have been widely praised by thousands of readers in the past three years, including many well-educated, well-adjusted people whom I’ve come to know and admire, including other more experienced writers.  Far less than 1% of the feedback I’ve gotten has been negative, and certainly none as vicious as yours.  It was uncalled for.

 2.  They are fiction.  In 12 stories there is only one instance of actual father-son sex, which I don’t endorse and which had nothing remotely to do with you.  Even famous authors write about things they would never personally engage in (murder comes to mind as one obvious example).

 3.  Yes, some of my earlier stories lacked maturity and the best of taste, but there’s long been a noticeable shift to ones that now focus on adult relationships, feelings, and upbeat endings.  Yes, there is sex, but sex is a normal human function.

 4.  I think you are a  first-class hypocrite for complaining about my little web stories, for which I get no compensation and write only for adults who choose to come to that site.  For years now you’ve been immersed in writing a non-fiction account about the foibles of the people who raised you and expecting someday to get money and adulation for it.  Maybe it was cathartic for you to write it, but it’s hurtful to many of those you have written about, including your mother who isn’t even around to agree to it or defend herself from your less-than-gracious portrayal of her.  And you have the nerve to call ME sick!  If you’re such a great writer (and you are), why don’t you write a novel instead and leave your family out of it?

 Your beef with me feels like something much bigger than my stories.  Talk to your counselor about it, but keep the above points in your mind when you do, because there are always two sides to any story.  Then I would ask that you take a few months to think it over before burning any bridges or inflicting unnecessary pain on anyone.  I can take anything you throw at me, but I’m not taking sole responsibility for this.  It takes two to make a relationship work, and I don’t think you’ve done your share.

Rage again possesses him. He flies off the train and up the hill, blowing through the front door like a bullet. His husband is there. The man calls Hank the Blank and puts him on speaker, because even now, with hundreds of miles between them, he fears his father, and right now, he fears himself even more.

And what comes out is a primal scream. He loses his mind. He screams the things the nine-year-old boy never could. He screams for every wasted year of his life, every twisted, balled-up feeling he shoved into every back corner of every internal organ.

The house rings with his screams. The dogs cower. He bawls, “Inward focused? Non-fiction? That was how I survived, you idiot. You made me that way. I’m your fucking Frankenstein.” The man is nine years old. He is 16. 28. He swings between demon and man.

“Stop screaming. You’re being irrational.”

“You’re a fucking psychopath.” The man has never, in his life, swore at his father.

“What do you want from me?” Hank says.

“I..I don’t…those stories…”

“They’re fiction. They’re fantasy.”

“THEY REALLY HAPPENED!”

“I wasn’t writing about you.”

“Are you fucking kidding me? A father and son naked in a fucking bathroom? You’re in so much fucking denial you don’t even know who the fuck you are!”

“I repeat, I wasn’t thinking about you…”

“I was your fucking son! You were supposed to fucking protect me!”

“…and the story about the barber – I wasn’t thinking about your husband -”

“Shut the fuck up!”

“I don’t know why you are so upset. The incident when you were nine years old. I didn’t plan it, it just happened. And it only took up an hour of your life.”

The man turns to his husband, who sits, crying quietly, on the couch beside him. “He doesn’t get it,” his husband says.

“What do you want from me?” Hank says.

“Nothing,” the man replies. “I don’t want anything from you.”

“Are you going to take this to a public forum?”

“Have a nice life,” the man says, then presses “End.” He sets his phone on the coffee table. Its screen is flecked with layers of dried spit. His clothes hang from him wetly. He’s hunched like a burned-out bulb.

“I’m so sorry,” his husband says.

***

Hank the Blank goes into damage control mode the next day, pulling his stories off the internet, and calling family members to corral their support. The man’s brother calls him that night. “I just talked to Hank. I’ve never told you this, but he did it to me, too.”

They talk long into the night.

***

The man searches and, after some trial and error, locates assistance. Once a week, after work, he sits on a couch in an office of a stranger, above Castro Street, staring at the Chagall print hanging on the opposite wall, and talks to this stranger. A figure in the Chagall floats near the top of the frame. Chagall liked floating figures.

The man tells the stranger that he feels like an astronaut. He tells him that his father, Hank the Blank, comes from another planet, and that the man feels at home neither here nor there. He’s floating, drifting, untethered, with a dwindling tank of air, hovering over a planet that talks about karaoke and Frappuccinos. He’s an alien.

The stranger calls the Minneapolis Police Department, and a detective there tells him that the statute of limitations has long passed, and there is nothing they can do about what happened to the man when he was nine years old.

The stranger asks the man if he believes that Hank is an immediate danger to anyone else. To other children?

“I don’t know,” the man says. “He’s a fucking replicant.”

After a few weeks the stranger has gained his trust.

I call him Ground Control.

I tell Ground Control that I don’t understand the things that are happening to me. I’m afraid all the time. I don’t trust anyone. I panic on BART. “I bought a knife,” I say. “For self-protection.”

“Your father is in Arizona.”

“I’m not scared of him,” I say. “But I ignored my gut and I trusted him, for the last ten years, and look what he did. If he could do that, what are strangers capable of?”

I’m terrified of Facebook, where psychopaths can more easily disguise themselves.

After work I return to the house I bought with Joe – I return to my haven. I close the bedroom door, shut the blinds, swallow my evening meds, and I lie in bed with the dogs breathing beside me. I watch Netflix streaming. I watch documentaries about soldiers coming home from Iraq. Soldiers hiding in their bedrooms with their guns cocked.

I am deeply fucked.

I find an online forum for men who endured childhoods like mine. I talk to other grown men whose lives have narrowed as they aged. Men who can no longer hold a job. Deeply fucked men. Some of them are all alone, in their houses, in their rooms. Talking, at least, to each other, typing on their keyboards and hitting “Send.”

Joe comes home and sees the closed blinds and says, “Bad day?”

I tell Joe that I know that I’m lucky to have him, that someday soon I hope to be a partner to him again.

In addition to the Ke$ha songs and the knife-wielding clowns filling my head, a courtroom trial runs there, and every day I flip between prosecution and defense, running down the list of evidence against my father, trying to determine if breaking off contact was the right thing. How will I feel when he’s on his death bed?

I don’t know why he wanted me to read those stories. Even if I wanted to ask him, I couldn’t trust his answer. I can’t trust that he knows even his clearest motives.

I think about fiction, and fantasy, and memoir, and how Hank and I’d hurt each other with our stories. Hank the Blank had feared my nonfiction, for good reason, and Hank’s fiction had been anything but, at least to me. I try to inch down the hall of mirrors, puzzling over fiction and nonfiction, but my head quickly grows weary and confused.

They have power, don’t they? Stories still have power.

The truth has a current, and I’ve spent eight years and nineteen drafts rowing upstream. I wrote a book that was lighter than the truth, wanting something madcap and funny, wanting to entertain with a story about a Modern Family full of same-sex love. I’d set out to write the truth, but I’d left out one crucial bit, to protect Hank, ending up with a book that I couldn’t, in good conscience, release into the world. I’d written the wrong book, and it had nearly killed me.

Eight years and nineteen drafts later, I give up. I throw my paddle into the water and let this boat drift with the current.

Fuck it, I say. I’ll write a book about a deeply fucked family –  to give comfort to the deeply fucked reader.

(Part 1) (Part 2)

A Story About a Very Bad Thing (Part 2 of 3)

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(Part 1) (Part 3)

A few days after his visit to the emergency room, the man and his husband decide to go through with their honeymoon plans, and they spend a week in a small, popular seaside town on the East Coast.

The man’s hoping the trip will distract him from the 3-week wait for his first psychiatric appointment at Kaiser, but by the second day, he and his husband are counting the minutes till home. It rains every day, which the man doesn’t mind, because he can’t leave the cottage for more than a few minutes at a time. He finds the town, even now in the off-season, claustrophobic. The glut of tourists exists solely to scrape his skin down to the bone, and the shops and the restaurants are gaudy and noisy and he returns to the cottage with snatches of songs stuck in his head, so that for the next 24 hours, every waking moment features a running loop of Ke$ha:

Ain’t got a care in the world but got plenty of beer…

“My brain is eating itself,” he tells his husband. He offers this in a quiet monotone, the most words he’s mustered all day. He’s grown thick-headed and stupid, his voice trailing off as he searches for common words, so that what actually comes out is, “My brain is eating…” Eating what? What was that word?  Over the past year his head has felt like an abandoned carnival taken over by knife-wielding clowns.

Ain’t got no money in my pocket but I’m already here!

His husband grows restless in the cottage and decides to brave the rain for an hour or two. The cottage is charming and adorable, an A-frame with skylights and exposed rafters just a few feet from the beach. Every time he shuts the door behind him, the husband hopes he won’t come back to find the man hanging from the rafters.

The man has the same thought when he looks up at the rafters, though he and his husband don’t discuss it at the time. The man thinks about one of his favorite writers, who ended his life in that exact way just a few years before. The man has brought that writer’s biography with him on the trip, a gesture that even he, in his present state, admits might seem foolish.

Ptown2But for a few days the man is able to read about the writer’s life-long struggle with an illness the writer called the Bad Thing, a name that acknowledges the impossibility of articulating its utter horrors. When he reads the writer’s biography, the man feels a little less alone in his insanity, though the end of the book is, of course, devastating, and reminds the man of the handful of times over the course of his life that he’s been this close to the Bad Thing.

The Bad Thing – accompanied all day by Ke$ha – tells him that his husband would be better off without him. His husband could mourn a little, then find himself a sane and confident new companion, preferably one with a well-paying job that includes dental and maybe even vision. His husband has told him that he couldn’t go on without him, and though the man doesn’t believe this, he acknowledges to himself that the Bad Thing can’t be trusted. So he turns on Playstation 3, which quiets Ke$ha, and allows him to make objective progress, racking up experience points as he rids a distant planet of evil.

* * *

A few weeks later, now more thoroughly medicated, the man feels the fog clearing. Every day he goes to work behind a capable facade, and having barely escaped death, he grows irritated with the Bad Thing, which has dogged him for so many years, and which has nearly cost his husband some happiness. The man is eager now to eradicate the Bad Thing, to dig out its roots, pile it up, and set the whole thing on fire.

The man keeps thinking about his father.

How can he describe to you his father? If his mother – dead now ten years – had been more than the sum of her parts, his father was less. How can he describe him? Take a man – now subtract something. That was his father. That was Hank.

Hank is a retired IRS auditor, living now in the Arizona desert with his gay lover. The man has always described Hank as the most practical person he’s ever met.  The man’s brother often has a better way with words:

“He’s got the personality of a calculator.”

Hank the Blank, the man called him privately, the blankness not only a reference to his father’s flat personality, but to the void that the man feels within himself whenever he sees him.

The man has never in his 42 years reconciled in any sustainable way the things Hank the Blank had done to him when he was still a boy. Ten years ago he’d made a veiled reference to it on his brand-new blog, which Hank the Blank found quite easily a few months later. Hank the Blank had fired off an email from his computer at the Internal Revenue Service in Washington, D.C., demanding to know just what the man meant by the veiled reference.

“Okay,” the man thought, “Let’s do this.” In clear language the man set down, in his reply, a detailed account of his memories.

Hank the Blank wrote back: “I’d like to continue this discussion from my personal email account at home.”

Over the next several days, in a dozen emails, they discussed what Hank the Blank had done to him. And after the man had backed Hank the Blank into a kind of virtual corner, his father kind of, sort of, apologized.

The man, a member of both contemporary culture and a 12-step alcohol/drug recovery program, felt enormous pressure to cave into prevailing and conventional notions of forgiveness. The man felt that he could not be a good, spiritual, evolved person unless he forgave Hank the Blank. So he did. Or rather, he thought he did. And for the sake of their improving relationship, the man ignored a great many things inside himself, such as the overwhelming urge to punch his father in the face every time he saw him.

* * *

And now, ten years later and more heavily medicated, the man keeps thinking about the last time he saw Hank the Blank, when Hank had told him that he’d spent some time following his recent retirement from the IRS (30 years, of course, with full pension) writing stories and posting them on the Internet, and that these stories had garnered Hank the Blank thousands of fans, who wrote him tens of thousands of emails full of praise. Hank the Blank told his son that he’d like to share these stories with him now, adding that the stories were posted on an erotic stories website, but that, “They were really about the emotional connections between the characters.”

Despite this emphasis on the emotional connection between the characters, Hank the Blank could see a kind of reluctance on his son’s face, and despite the fact that he’d always been rather creepy and clueless when it came to proper notions of sex and family, appeared now to hesitate, questioning – maybe – the wisdom of sharing erotic stories with his grown son.

“Perhaps another time,” said Hank.

The son, who’d been fighting the urge to punch his father and flee the state of Arizona for good, exhaled for the first time in ten minutes, and nodded his head in a show of compassionate understanding.

* * *

But during his most recent Battle of the Bad Thing, the man had dropped out of contact with everyone, including Hank the Blank. And Hank had begun to send him worried emails from a new account, the one he used to post the erotic stories to the Internet, the one he used to correspond with his thousands of fans. “You can write me here,” Hank the Blank assured him, in case there was something the man needed to say to him alone, something that Hank’s gay lover wouldn’t read.

Which meant that the man now has everything he needs to find the stories himself, which he knows he probably shouldn’t do, and yet which he can’t help but doing, one evening at work, after everyone has gone home for the day. And after a 6-second search on Google, the man finds what he’s looking for.

For the past three years, Hank the Blank has been writing dozens of stories for his thousands of fans, and the man begins to click and scroll through each one. The stories are all about incest. Father/son, uncle/nephew, brother/brother. Each story with a dozen or more chapters. Stories in which the boys are all eager participants in their own “awakenings.” Stories where a tender coming-out talk between father and son morphs, two pages later, into a steamy encounter in the shower. Stories that mirror what Hank the Blank had done to him. There are stories about a barber. There are stories about a character with the man’s own name, a character described as a “hot, hunky stud.”

Ain’t got a care in the world, but got plenty of beer…

The trembling begins in his head.  He shuts down the computer and drifts through the building and out onto the streets of downtown San Francisco, amid the rush of commuters, seeing everything around him in a great blur of color and noise, heightened and unreal, as if he were encased in a game on a distant planet, everything just out of reach. He is an astronaut, sucking down his last tank of oxygen as the aliens close in.

He makes his way to the train, and though he holds onto the handrail as tight as he can, willing his center to hold, his body betrays him, and the tremors now shake through every part of him, and the commuters around him begin to move away in fear.

(Part 1) (Part 3)

A Story About A Very Bad Thing (Part 1 of 3)

vertigo

(Part 2) (Part 3)

In the fall of his 41st year and five pages from the end of the book he is writing, a man walks into the emergency room at Kaiser-Permanente hospital on Geary Boulevard in San Francisco and tells the woman sitting behind the bulletproof glass that he can’t stop thinking about killing himself.

In that moment he’s less concerned with whatever pain he’d been enduring than with the woman’s reaction. He blushes when her eyes widen at his words, but she recovers quickly, consults his insurance card, and tells him to take a seat.

He assumes it’s bulletproof glass. Emergency rooms probably attract a high percentage of the insane. He takes a seat beside his husband. If the definition of insane means the absence of sanity, then he, too, was a member of the club.

Certainly the song in his head is driving him crazy. Every waking moment of every day for the last year he’s had a song stuck in his head. Different songs on different days. A radio station he can’t switch off. Today it’s Lionel Ritchie.

Oh what a feeling, when we’re dancing on the ceiling!

Not a whole song. Five seconds of a song repeating on an endless loop:

Oh what a feeling…

He pictures everyone in the emergency waiting room dancing on the ceiling, a multicultural conga line of the wounded..oh what a…the image, like everything else these days, exhausts him.

The doctor who examines him gives him two options. One, the man could voluntarily commit himself to the mental ward of San Francisco General. The doctor assures him that this would not be a pleasant destination. Two, the man could wait for the next available appointment with a staff psychiatrist, three weeks from today.

…dancing on the ceiling!

Three weeks in his condition feels like three years. But what choice does he have?

He’s been writing the book, a memoir about his childhood and family, for eight and a half years. For eight and a half years he’s been climbing this mountain. With each page the trail ahead grew steeper.

Twenty pages from the end, wiped out, he rested for a week. Fifteen pages, he rested a month. Ten pages, three months. He gripped onto small stones jutting from the face of the mountain, his face pressed flat against the crumbling dirt, holding tight against the howling wind. Songs played in his head.

There goes my hero, watch him as he goes…

The songs interfere with the writing. They crowd out the voice in the back of his head that loves nothing more than to wrestle a good sentence onto the page.

There goes my hero, he’s ordinary…

Five pages from the end, his strength depleted, he comes to a wide gap in the trail, a deep crevice plunging a mile down the middle of the mountain. There goes…

Vertigo grips him, pulls him an inch or two over the edge. He can’t see the bottom. He pushes back and puts his head down in the dirt. He must go on. He can’t go on.

Watch him as he goes…

It’s only now, clutching at the edge of the crevice, that the man recognizes the weight he’s been hefting up the side of this mountain. He’s been carrying, on his back, his own father.

There goes my hero…

He can see now at the edge of the gap that only one of them can make it across. If he sets his father down the man will make it. If he stops protecting his father. If he tells the whole truth, he alone will make it.

Watch him as he…

But how can he leave his own father behind? How can he abandon him to the wind and the rocks and the plunging abyss? He fears the truth will kill his father. But if he stays here, the son will die. This is the choice he must make.

And it’s only now – there goes my – 32 years since his father molested him, eight and a half years since he started his book, crouched at the edge of a deep crevice that pulls at him, the wide blank void that wants to swallow him, it’s only here, with his own life at stake, that he makes the choice.

He sets his father down, and he jumps.

(Part 2) (Part 3)

The Right Direction, a.k.a. One White Dude’s Confession

About a week before we moved into our new house, some guy broke into a home about four blocks away and killed an entire family. I saw the headlines while, um, researching something online at work, then texted the Manly Fireplug.

“Five dead. But the paper says it took place in Sunnyside!” That would be the next neighborhood over from ours, and it was my attempt to inject lame humor into the mid-level anxiety we had about the location of our new home.

But a few days later I checked again, and now Wikipedia, our greatest repository of fact, called it “2012 Ingleside, San Francisco homicide.”  We consoled ourselves with the rumor that the killer already knew his victims, because frankly, it was too late for us to turn back.

I also consoled myself with other “facts.” The victims were Chinese. The suspect Vietnamese.

This post is taking me a long time to write, in part because it’s about my own racism, and I want to be rigorously honest.  I’d rather not do such a thing, so I keep clicking away to read about Cabin in the Woods and to shop for new shower caddies. And it’s taking me a long time to write because we’ve lived in the house all of 12 days, and my thoughts and feelings about my new neighborhood are muddled.

But hey, half-baked conclusions are what blogs are for, so away we go…

Ingleside is one of San Francisco’s more obscure neighborhoods. “You know, near City College,” I tell literally everyone when they give me that blank, where-did-you-move look. Located on the city’s southern edge, Ingleside has no distinguishing landmarks, and offers few results when typed into Google. It’s also one of the last affordable neighborhoods left in the city. If by “affordable” you mean single-family homes that sell for a half-million dollars.

One night, the week before we moved in, the Fireplug and I stopped by the house. We’d done this a few times, walking through the empty rooms and picturing our future. I think it’s what people do when they buy a house. I’d always drag the Fireplug into the backyard, which was surprisingly peaceful and offered a glimpse of the bay and the Oakland hills.

On this particular night, standing in the living room, we noticed a black couple coming out of the house two doors down. The woman turned to yell something to a man in their garage, then climbed into a car and drove off. The man in the garage turned on some very loud music, and left the garage door open for the next hour. The Fireplug and I looked at each other.

“You know our to-do list?” I said. “Let’s move double-pane windows to the top.”

Just now I could have called our neighbors African-American instead of black. I’m a writer; I understand the power of words. And there’s an unrelenting pressure to be politically correct, living in San Francisco, which black people are leaving in droves. At least I think that’s still the politically correct term. I’d ask my black friends what they preferred, but I don’t have that many. Which may be part of my problem.

I’m a researcher by nature, which I’ve realized from writing a 350-page memoir is probably due to a rather chaotic childhood and a deep aversion to surprise. I like to know what’s coming my way. Especially when I’ve just committed to buying my first house.

And so I went online and looked up census figures for the quarter-mile surrounding our new Ingleside house. And I focused my search on race. And that night I presented my findings to the Fireplug.

“Over the last eight years Asians have held steady at 50% of the neighborhood’s population,” I said. “Hispanics have dropped by 8%. American Indians dropped by 37%. Blacks dropped by 30%. Whites have increased by 23%. Oh, and people with graduate degrees grew by 110%.”

I want to be clear here. I wasn’t just reciting facts. I was offering proof that the neighborhood was heading in the right direction.

By “right” I meant “safer.” I’m not saying this was a rational act. I used percentages of racial minorities to try and ease my anxiety.

I like to think of myself as an open-minded guy, able to look past skin color to the individual blah blah blah. Nobody’s asked my position on the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman mess, but it’s hard not to have one in our echo chamber. I’d say that public rushes to judgment are usually ill-advised. Off the record I was leaning in my usual liberal direction.

It’s easy to think of yourself as open-minded about race when you spend 95% of your time in neighborhoods that are 95% white. But moving into what real estate agents call a “diverse” neighborhood had ripped open my broad-minded disguise to reveal something else underneath.

The day we moved in, the Fireplug stood out on the sidewalk, directing the movers to carry stuff either upstairs or downstairs, and I stood inside, directing them to the right rooms. The Fireplug and I have this running joke about his habit of talking to strangers, a habit (surprise!) I don’t share. After the movers left, the Fireplug told me that more than a few neighbors had stopped by to welcome us.

He already knew their names. Susan, the Asian woman in the bright orange house, who dressed to the nines even when walking her little dog around the block. Brian and Rick, the gay couple across the street, who’d moved into their renovated house with two adopted kids, and who literally cheered when the Fireplug mentioned that he had a husband, too. Carlton, the black man from two doors down, who sat with two other black men on lawn chairs outside the open garage, watching the afternoon drift by.  And Austin, the Chinese man next door, who was thrilled to hear that we owned and not rented, and who told us that yes, the residents of Carlton’s house often listened to loud music, but it never went late, and in fact they acted as the unofficial neighborhood watch. They knew who belonged on our street, and who didn’t.

In other words, the Fireplug discovered things that no census could reveal. And yes, I felt foolish. And relieved. And thankful for the Fireplug’s big mouth.

Today our house is half-rewired and half-unpacked, our windows rattle, the shower’s cramped, and our kitchen won’t be appearing in Elle Decor anytime soon. But the house gets a ton of light, and I like going home to it, to our three dogs and the big backyard. I like waking up with the Fireplug.

And in the evenings, after work, when I take the dogs on our comical, leash-snarling, hill-climbing walk, I try to meet the eye of everyone I pass. Some of them talk to me. Some of them glare. Sometimes I’m glad that one of our dogs is a pit bull. (He’s arguably the sweetest member of our pack, but strangers don’t need to know that.) Every time I step outside I’m conscious, in a way I never was in my last neighborhood, of my skin color.  That’s not a bad thing.

And in 12 days Ingleside has grown on me. Most of the houses are modest. There’s trash in some yards, neglected gardens, cars propped up on blocks, “Beware of Rotweiler” signs, and acres of peeling paint. There’s a house around the corner where a young man was recently killed. It’s boarded up, with a row of candles out front, and outer walls covered in his friends’ testimonials. He was described by reporters as an “aspiring rapper,” and the articles about him, lean on details, ran for a single day. I looked him up on Facebook. He was twenty years old, and his profile says, “Engaged.”

There are “nice” houses, too, probably owned by people who, like me, sometimes pick up a copy of Dwell. But it’s the other houses I like to look at, walking the dogs, or on my way to the BART station every morning. And this is the point at which words fail me, explaining why I like them so much.

Because every possible word (“Real?” “Honest?”) sounds patronizing, the words liberal urban white guys use to romanticize the fading parts of their neighborhoods. After paging through several dozen Dwell photo spreads, after the ubiquitous bowl of green “apples” and countless Keep Calm posters, I yearn to see something a little more alive. Ingleside – whose residents show evidence of caring about things other than minimalist design- feels quietly alive.

Last weekend the Fireplug’s sister came to town and helped us do some unpacking and painting. After our second trip to Home Depot, we came home with a weed wacker, which the Fireplug used on our entire, quarter-acre backyard of 18″ grass/weeds. He also wacked the weeds out front, and Carlton, who was entertaining a few friends with a barbeque outside his garage, ran down to say that he had saved a parking spot for us on the street. He could just move his car and it was ours, he said. His barbeque was loud, but it didn’t go late. None of his parties had gone late.

More than once, before our move, I’d found myself defending our new neighborhood in a half-joking manner, pointing out new development on Ocean Avenue. “Because what’s a better sign of gentrification than Whole Foods? Ha ha ha.”

But as the 12 days ticked by, my little census research left me feeling gross and increasingly uncomfortable.

It’s humbling to see myself as a cliche. A gay white man moving into a “fringe” neighborhood, fixing up his home, paving the way for others like him. I am part of the 23% surge in white people. Which, it stands to reason, means that I’m changing Ingleside.

If there’s justice in the world, though, Ingleside will change me, too.

Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down

The Smoldering PileThe sun was coming up and the man had been circling the charred pile of belongings outside my husband’s barbershop when I started pounding my fist on the car’s horn. He gave me a curious glance, then went back to circling. I climbed out of the car and closed the distance between us.

“Move on,” I said.

“What’s your problem?”

“Just move on.”

“What do you care?” he said. “This stuff’s just laying in the street.”

“I don’t fucking care. It’s not yours, so move the fuck on.”

He looked closely at my face. “You should have paid your fire insurance.”

“Get the fuck out of here.”

“You don’t have to be such an asshole, man.”

My voice dropped. “Move on,” I said, then climbed back in my car. He stood there for a minute, still talking to me in words I could no longer hear. Blood thrummed in my ears. He turned and made his way up the street.

I’d been sitting in the car outside the Manly Fireplug’s shop for about an hour, since just before dawn. We’d left his house four hours ago, right after I’d stumbled groggily into the bathroom and heard both the ringer and the text alert going off on his phone in the office down the hall. It was late. Or early, depending on your perspective.

I peered at the phone in the dark to see the words, “Accident at the shop.” I called the friend who’d left the text. “Get down here,” he said. “There’s a fire.”

I drove us down the hill at a speed just shy of reckless, both of us still half-asleep. It was 3 a.m. Or maybe 4 a.m. An hour made vague by daylight savings time, and we drove down in equal ambiguity, holding our breath, wondering if what awaited us would come as a shock or a relief. I wanted to erase all of it, take it away from the man sitting next to me. Erase the seconds I stood in the stark light of the bedroom, looking down at my husband with the phone still in my hand, telling him once, twice, then three times, “Joe, wake up.”

We turned the last corner. Four firetrucks. “Shit,” he said.

And now I sat, hours later, in the car again, watching the man I’d yelled at shuffle up the street. He wasn’t the first man I’d scared from the smoldering pile that morning. I dug out my phone and when the Fireplug answered I said, “Do you want me to protect your friend’s pile of burned-up stuff from the crazy homeless people?”

He sighed. “You don’t have to protect the burned up stuff from crazy homeless people.”

“Good. Cause I’m getting in fights with them. And they’re winning.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault.” I sipped from a cup of cold coffee that had been sitting in my car since the day before. My hand smelled of smoke. “Are you guys going to be much longer?”

“Just a few minutes,” he said. I could hear the buzz of a saw over the line. He’d gone to the hardware store with Basil, one of the barbers, and Basil’s boyfriend, Ron, to get plywood to cover the broken windows and the two back doors that had been kicked in by the firefighters. This was after the emergency window repair service told us they’d charge $2000 to board everything up. I’d stayed behind to guard the open shop, and as it turned out, fight with crazy homeless guys over the charred pile that had been dumped in the gutter to cool.

“Crazy” and “homeless” were just words I’d used to distance myself from the men I’d scared off. Truth was, the last guy’s wounded tone had gotten to me. Maybe I didn’t need to be such an asshole. Not about burned-up crap.

I suppose I had an excuse or two. The single hour of sleep now well behind me. The holes in the floor and the wall of my husband’s shop that the firefighters had opened with their axes, holes you could peer through to see the still-smoldering pile of belongings that the Fireplug had let a friend store in the basement. The row of folding chairs I’d bought from IKEA for the literary readings that had begun to melt together. The water and the soot and the smell of smoke. The arson investigator who’d questioned first the Fireplug, then me, of our whereabouts before the fire, to whom I’d said, “Look, I know you’re just doing your job, but we are a few days away from closing on a house, and he needs a steady income more than an insurance check.”

The smoldering belongings were not mine, but I felt strangely protective of them. And exposed, as if someone had dragged our own private lives and dumped them in the gutter for the world to pick through. And so I felt relief when the Fireplug and the others returned with the plywood, and I could think about something else.

Dawn gave way to late morning. Friends showed up to help (thanks guys). We swept the broken glass from the sidewalk, and pumped the standing water from the basement. Neighbors loaned us a step ladder and an extension cord. They dropped off a box of croissants. Word spread on Facebook and every few seconds someone called or texted the Fireplug. Still bleary from lack of sleep, I kept thinking about the time I had to explain to him lyrics from a Ke$ha song:

Boys blowing up our phones…

By noon the shop had been boarded up. Later the Fireplug would call the insurance company and there’d be more inspections and paperwork, but for now we’d done all that we could do. Basil and I leaned against his pick-up truck out front and every few minutes broke the news to another shaggy-haired client. I told Basil that he and Ron were the heroes of the day. Privately I wished for not the first time in my life that I was good with my hands. I wanted to offer my husband something tangible, as they had done. All I could do, when he’d told me he was scared, was tell him that we’d get through this, no matter what.

Disheveled men and women, some of them muttering to themselves, continued to circle the pile in the gutter. I figured they were merely looking for something they could sell, something that might buy one more meal, or one more day.

But then a woman pushing a shopping cart, her threadbare slippers scraping along the sidewalk, slowed next to the pile, and I saw then, side by side, her belongings and our friend’s belongings, exposed, dragged out into the light. She looked at the pile, at the boarded-up shop, and then at us, as though measuring our change in fortune. I looked away from her.

Our friend showed up and stood stoically at the side of the pile, looking down at his charred belongings, holding the soot-smeared portrait of his parents that the Fireplug had pulled from the basement.

Another woman, her face marked by everything life had thrown her way, came over and stood near our friend, gazing down at the pile, whispering words in her own language. Then she made a noise of alarm, bent, and pulled a few burned photos from the pile. The blackened, smiling faces seemed to move her to tears, and she made low, keening noises of anguish. She held the photos out to our friend, who nodded at her, turned, and walked back to his car. The woman came over to us, grieving in her private tongue, and we looked down at our feet as she tried to show us the photos in her hands.

Prom Queen in a Chevy Truck

Writers are wallflowers. A sweeping generalization, and one that can’t possibly describe all writers, but in my limited experience the more extroverted exceptions to this rule know that they are exceptions.

We don’t quite sit right with life, filled with what Martha Graham called the “queer divine dissatisfaction,” which compels us to spend an inordinate number of hours each week either creating things for little or no pay, or feeling like crap because we haven’t done so. And since it makes my skin crawl to speak for other people, I’m going to stop. For now.

My little run-in last week with the porn industry, after a few more days of reflection, seems to fit a familiar pattern, one it took me well into my 30’s to discern. Although I’m hardwired to lurk on the edges of life, taking it all in, I’ve always had the conflicting desire to stop observing and just experience life. An internal battle between wallflower and prom queen, if you will.

Underneath, or within these two desires was another one, which seems obviously related to growing up as a scrawny little gay dude. I wanted to prove myself as a man. What this has to do with prom queens, I don’t know. I’m sort of making this up as I go along, people.

These motives pulled me in a few directions over the years:

1. Theater actor. Someone who walks around on a stage pretending to be someone else while other people watch. And applaud. In this job I pretended to be, depending on the role, more naive, more salacious, and more heterosexual than I really am. You get to be other people, without serious consequence, which explains why a lot of introverts take on this job. I have a feeling Meryl Streep is the type who needs a little alone time every day. And she still gets to be Margaret Thatcher. Let’s be clear: by pretending to be other people I felt more like a participant in life, but the urge to prove my manhood wasn’t assuaged by joining the drama club.

2. UPS Unloader, one summer in college. I heard somewhere that in the world of manual labor, this job was considered the toughest. From 10 pm until 2 am at breakneck speed I unloaded boxes from semitrailers onto a very fast conveyor belt. I came home each morning ravenous, covered in dust and dried sweat and bruises, like a guy in a Chevy truck commercial. Apparently I still did not prove what I wanted to prove (see #3)

3. Bicycle messenger. In Minnesota. In the winter.

4. Bartender. Shortly after moving to San Francisco at the age of 27, I stumbled into a South of Market leather-ish bar and watched with hunger and envy the shirtless bartenders sling drinks. Just standing there I could feel some of my Midwestern good-boy aura, which I was desperate to shed, rub off. I figured that getting hired at this particular bar would prove that I was hot in the way I wanted to be hot. I got hired, and though the external validation never sucked, I discovered that flirting for a few seconds with a long line of customers on a packed Saturday night depended upon an entirely different skill set than listening to two or three alcoholics complain for six hours on a Tuesday afternoon.

5. The boyfriend (now husband) of an International Mr. Leather. I will let your imagination fill in the details here, but let me state the obvious: this is a relationship, not a job. Still, attaching myself to a man with that kind of title, who has no qualms being the center of attention, seemed partly motivated by the same desires as above. Fortunately for me, after those desires faded a little, I found myself falling for the actual man.

6. D League Gay Softball Player. Hitting a ball with a stick in front of a bunch of people.

7. Blogger. The perfect job for the guy who wants to narrate his observations from the sidelines while courting attention. And I suppose over ten years I’ve proven something here, but it probably wasn’t my manhood.

8. Potential Porn Actor. You can see the pattern by now. And frankly I’m tired of talking about it, which means you probably got tired of it two weeks ago.

It took me a long time to understand that proving my manhood through external indicators like jobs doesn’t address the internal desire, which lingers long after you’ve punched the clock. I often forget this.

As for wanting to experience, and not just observe, the thing we call life…

I never believe people who say they have no regrets. (And if you leave a comment saying you’ve never once wanted to be a prom queen, even for a minute, no one else will believe you, either) I’m full of regrets. I’m a greedy man. I want to live, if only for a few minutes, and without consequence, every possible story. I want every road not taken.

But having regrets isn’t the same as being unhappy. I like my life, and the dude I’ve turned out to be. After seven years of writing a memoir, though, I keep thinking about the possibilities of fiction, where you can make shit up, and live more lives than the one you’ve been given.

Another Seven Days of Nakedness

Dogpoet Michael McAllister DaddyhuntA friend of mine emailed me the other day.

“By the way, I occasionally read JoeMyGod, and grinned when I saw your image smiling back at me yesterday.  You haven’t written about your career as a model!”

Mainly I hadn’t written about it because I grew up in Minnesota and calling attention to one’s “modeling career’ felt immeasurably immodest, and for a Minnesotan there’s nothing worse than everyone thinking you’ve gotten too big for your britches.

Instead I told him I hadn’t written about it because I hadn’t “figured out how to write about it yet.” But then I remembered that I’m the kind of writer who figures out what he thinks about something after, not before, he writes about it.

Plus the “modeling career” (i.e. one photo for one ad) led to another offer which dragged me straight into a moral quagmire, so maybe there’s a story there.

Long story short. The photographer who takes all of the images for the Daddyhunt site lives in San Francisco and saw my photo online somewhere. He asked if I’d be willing to model for Daddyhunt for a bit of cash.

I talked to the Manly Fireplug and he expressed concern that they’d pair me up with some other dude and splash our pictures in bus stops and billboards all over the Castro (like they’d done with previous ads) and he’d be forced to look at multiple, larger-than-life images of me with another man every time he went to work or the gym or Walgreens.

An entirely understandable reaction. I’m not exactly proud to admit that I argued with him. I was broke at the time and could really use the money, I told him, but looking back I was motivated less by money than by pure vanity. Fortunately my conscience worked its way past my vanity and I could see that stroking my own ego at the expense of my partner’s feelings wasn’t the kind of thing that would help me sleep at night. So I said no to Daddyhunt.

A few months passed. The photographer contacted me again and asked if I’d be willing to model for his own freelance business portfolio. I checked with the Fireplug, who’d recently told me he’d had a change of heart about the whole matter (I think marriage and the fact that I now legally belonged to him made the whole thing easier). He said sure, and so the guy took a few shots, then showed them to Daddyhunt, who again asked if they could use them. This time the Fireplug gave his blessing, and I signed a waiver.

And literally the next morning I woke up to find a tweet from JoeMyGod with one word: “Daddyhunt?” I was still groggy and confused and I clicked to his site and saw an ad for Daddyhunt with a picture of another guy. I clicked “refresh” and there was the virtual me, smiling as the flesh-and-blood me turned beet red.

In the next few days a couple of friends mentioned seeing the ad, and one guy said it was rather strange to see a married friend modeling for a gay pick-up site, and yes I’ve wondered what I’m implying to people by selling my image in this context, particularly to people who know me and/or the Fireplug, and the Fireplug himself has said that he himself feels a little weird when he sees the ad, and has to recalibrate his initial feelings, and I myself have avoided this dilemma by avoiding JoeMyGod’s site for the time being.

I tell myself that the vast majority of people who see the ad don’t know who I am, much less the backstory I might bring to the ad, and will forget the whole thing in a few seconds, and frankly yes, it’s rather nice that at the age of 40 I got asked to model for something since nobody asked me to model for anything at the age of, say, 22.

Then last week as I was writing my post about a local porn star, I got an email. I didn’t see the email until after I’d posted the story, which was kind of funny and surreal because when I finally did see the email it said the following:

“I just saw a pic of you in an add for a porn site somewhere. Are you interested in doing a movie for_____?  I have a project coming up in April you would be perfect for!”

The email was from an acquaintance who directs movies for a well-known porn studio, and if I told you the name, some of you would immediately picture men of MASSIVE musculature and butch handsomeness, which is what I immediately pictured, and so of course my very next thought was:

“Is he smoking crack?!?”

And then I thought, “Hey, he confused my ad for Daddyhunt with an ad for gay porn!” And I wondered how many people reached the same conclusion, and that of course raises all kinds of questions about the difference between modeling shirtless for a gay pick-up site, and having gay sex on video, and what that says about our culture and oh, hey, my reputation – even though I’m 40 and supposedly too old to be worried about such a thing.

I don’t know if straight people do this, but I imagine a large percentage of gay dudes have pondered the question of whether they could ever do porn, which I quickly found out is not the same as actually being asked to do porn.

I texted the Fireplug with my OMG WTF news. “Wow!” he texted back. “That is cool. You thinking about it?”

I don’t know if he actually thought this was cool. Texting is…well, you know. Trying to interpret his real, unmasked, uncalibrated reaction, I’m leaning towards “complicated.” In any event we agreed that the issue was perhaps a little too unwieldy for our iPhones.

But I won’t lie. I was flattered. And in the hours before dinner I found myself giving  the matter serious thought for a number of reasons, which I’ll try to break down.

  1. Vanity.
  2. The urge to confront my own fears and inhibitions. (see “raised in Minnesota,” above).
  3. The urge to flip the bird at America’s puritanical, hypocritical fear/hatred of sex, etc.
  4. The usual writerly curiosity that leads me into entirely new and uncomfortable situations.
  5. The idea that appearing in a gay porn movie might actually lead to more people buying my book, should I ever actually finish the damn thing. (Doubt me? Look at the number of Facebook followers a gay porn star attracts, versus, say, your average mid-list author.)

When the Fireplug and I finally had dinner I made my argument. We talked for a while, and he made a few counter-points, three of which stuck with me:

  1. “You’re a writer, which means you may want to teach someday, at like a university, and right or wrong, let’s be honest about how a hiring committee might look upon this.”
  2. “I know you, and I don’t think you’d like the process of actually having sex in front of a lot of people, with lights and cameras and later the whole freaking internet.”
  3. “I want to be generous and supportive, but really I’d have a hard time sharing you like that.”

None of which I really wanted to hear, and I got quietly petulant. But really he was right. On all of the above.

In the next couple of days, though, I kept giving it some thought, and I talked to a friend who’d done porn, who said he didn’t think he had performed all that great on camera and didn’t like not having control over his image, and that he’d recommend I take a pass, if I was at all on the fence. Another friend said he’d never even considered porn because he wanted to actually, you know, enjoy sex.

Then I read a few blogs covering the gay porn industry. I even forced myself to read the anonymous comments, and OH MY GOD PEOPLE, NEWSFLASH! THE INTERNET IS MEAN!

I also think about something one of my favorite writers, David Foster Wallace, once said (I keep quoting him this week). He was interviewed about what it felt like to get so much media attention for his bestseller, Infinite Jest, and he admitted it was nice but that ultimately a writer needs to observe, not be observed, and if he were to lose this skill his writing would suffer.

The email from the porn director arrived seven days ago, and I’ve spent that time thinking about the difference between shirtless modeling and porn, about vanity and morality and the value of not hurting one’s husband.

I’ve written nineteen drafts of my memoir and with each passing day I get a tiny bit more insight on my younger self. So seven days is nothing, and I don’t have much insight on my “modeling career,” as it were. I’m still vain, and flattered, and conflicted, and immensely grateful that I have one man who knows me as well as he does.