This Actually Happened

“Doing this interview frightens me, but I believe that if something makes you feel that way, you should do it.” – Hilton Als

Oh, believe me, I was scared as shit.

In the wake of the release of my interview on the This Is Actually Happening podcast, I rode waves of pride, panic, shame, and reflection. An international audience now had access to my deepest (no longer) secrets and traumas, and I’d attached my name to the whole lot of them.

Although I’d written about most of them at one point or another, many times on this blog, this was a whole new level of visibility. At one point I made the mistake of reading the iTunes user reviews and although one reviewer said it was the most impactful episode she’d every heard (five stars), another said that this type of excruciating content should be left in a therapy session (um, yeah, no stars). At several times over the past week, I’ve thought the same.

Ultimately, though, I return to my belief that there’s value in sharing dark times with others, in order to make others who have endured their own dark times feel less alone. And I was overwhelmed with the hundreds of messages of support I received through various platforms from all over the world.

Though I appreciated the ones who thanked me for my bravery (at times over the last week, I’ve replaced “bravery” with “foolishness”), I was most grateful for the ones who found their experiences reflected in mine. Dark times have a way of isolating us from others. It was good to hear that a few people found some level of connection.

The episode is a weird, dark, at times bleak series of events, edited into a single narrative. From childhood abuse and neglect to addiction to HIV to one parent’s terminal illness and the other parent’s betrayal via batshit stories posted to the internet, I’m aware that it’s not an easy narrative to endure for most listeners.

I didn’t really want to listen to it myself. I put it off until late one night, turning out the lights, crawling into bed with the chihuahua, and pressing “play.” But strangely, once I got past the discomfort of hearing my weird voice, I ended up not completely embarrassed by the story.

In fact, I’m hesitant to admit this, but I listened to it over a dozen times in the last week. Something about hearing the whole story in one hour was helping me in some way that I can’t yet articulate. Like I could finally find a through line through a jumbled chaos of painful events.

It’s also not the whole story. I mean, how could it be? A three-hour interview edited down into one hour can’t also contain all of the joy and moments of genuine human connection that made that narrative endurable for me. So many people, with their humor and compassion, helped make my life worth living. They help me still.

This Is Actually Happening

This Is Actually Happening is an intense podcast that shares stories by people of their darkest times, whether that be surviving trauma, terrorism, or growing up in a cult. They interviewed me last fall about a batshit series of events I went through in recent years, and the episode airs today. If you’ve been hanging around this blog for awhile, some of the story will be familiar to you.

If you find value in sharing stories of hard times in the hopes that it might help others enduring their own hard times, it’s a good podcast. It’s available wherever you get your podcasts. I still have to get up the nerve to listen to my own :). Listen to the podcast.

If you came here from the podcast, welcome, I appreciate your interest and curiosity.

Talk to Her

Literary magazine River Teeth has published a very, very short, dark little essay/prose poem I wrote about working on a virtual voiced assistant from a major online retailer. “Talk to Her” is part of their Beautiful Things column that limits all essays to 250 words or less. It’s free to read and to leave a comment, if you’re into that kind of thing. My gratitude to the editors.

Elevator Music

The other night I took a call from an editor at The New York Times to talk about an essay of mine he wanted to publish.

That’s a sentence that I can barely comprehend, in the sense that it relates to my actual life right now. I mean, it’s a sentence I think I’d hoped to write someday, but hope was another planet.

And I’m a few days away from launching myself into a new job that has the potential, paycheck-wise, to change my life in the ways I’ve wanted to change it for years.

I don’t think I’ve ever lived a day where my head wasn’t thrumming with the constant low mumble of money worries. Maybe a short time when I was married, with a double-income household more or less managed by my ex. But that was five years ago, and in the time since, I’ve cursed more times than I can count at the negative balance in my checking account.

So things could change. Or I could fail. The job is a big risk, for reasons I don’t want to go into. It could work, or I could fall short. But in any event, as these words clearly show, I’m not so skilled at celebrating. I’m better at doubting my worth, feeling, on the eve of a big publication, like a fraud.

This isn’t a cry for help. It’s just an old familiar song, Muzak-style, playing nonstop in this elevator as I rise from the burned-out bottom floor I’d long called home. It’s stuck on repeat, but it plays in the head of a dude who’s too stubborn to let it stop this ride. Let’s see where this goes.

Who Wouldn’t Want Both?

The first time I ever kissed a guy was in a stretch of woods called the Bird Sanctuary that ran along the edge of a sprawling cemetery in south Minneapolis. I used to cut through there walking home from school, though even then, age 17, I knew dudes went there to cruise and hook up. But I was always too scared to stop on the trails when one of them would give me the eye. Until the day I wasn’t.

He looked like a football coach with his cheap windbreaker and salt and pepper hair, and his tongue tasted like the cigarette he’d smoked while sizing me up. He kissed me hard and before I could figure out if I even liked it, he got down on his knees, pulled down my jeans, and took me into his mouth. I was too young to know how to relax into it. Too young to know yet the pleasure of rubbing the back of a guy’s close-cropped head in that position. So my hands maybe just hung there, and I looked out at the rows of headstones through the chain link fence and wondered if anyone could see us.

My nerves killed my hard-on, so he rose back to his feet and wrapped his thick arms around me. In a voice like sandpaper against wood he whispered in my ear, “You just want to be loved, don’t you?” He rubbed my arms, then turned and walked away.

I stood there like some kind of bug stuck in sap, with the wind blowing through the trees and against my bare ass. I pulled my jeans up as he disappeared down the trail. My face felt red and hot. I was pissed that he’d left me, that I’d failed at what a guy was supposed to do in that kind of situation. That he’d seen me in a way I thought that nobody could.

Back then I thought what he’d said was something of a put-down. What I wanted made me less of a man, maybe, is what he thought. A softie, in every sense. But now I know he said what he’d said because he wanted both, too. He knew what it was like to want both. He wanted the blow job and to be loved, and he’d seen both in me.

And nothing about any of that has changed. I still want both, and you, I see it in you, too. You can talk a good game, like me, but we all know what you want. And it’s ok, because we want it, too.

Three Shorts

Over on Instagram, I often pair a very short story with my photos, and I thought I’d share a couple of them (and a life update, of sorts) here. If you’re on IG, feel free to follow along.

1.

Guys, I’m interrupting the fall of democracy for a selfish reason. Today, I’ve been clean and sober for one year.

Considering I was quarantined for three months and haven’t been to an in-person recovery meeting since February, and also the cascading chaos of world-jarring events that we’re all navigating—well, I’m happy I made it this far.

Once upon a time I had many more sober years under my belt, and this one year took about three to finish, but life sometimes has other plans. I mean, look around. But the cool thing about rough times is that with some luck they can make you kinder and easier to cry and immune to bullshit and hopefully a little more useful to the people around you who may not be having, like, the best year of their lives.

As any sober person can tell you, none of this was accomplished through willpower. I don’t know why I got to a year when others didn’t. I have more resources than some and so much comes down to just plain luck, or grace, or the severity of one’s defeat. Sobriety is more than just getting by without drugs or booze. It’s closer to Dorothy opening the door to Munchkinland. And finding some traveling companions who pull you out of the wreckage of your own personal tornado.

Thank you especially Bill W., Peter, Charlie, Court and John, Todd, Patrick, Becca, Maura, Phil, David and many others, including some cool folks on here. I didn’t do this alone.

Thank you, Agnes—you endured all of it with me. I’ve tried to be your rock and you gave me a reason to go on. The world is scary and heartbreaking right now but also sort of beautiful, seeing so many people work so hard, in the face of great cruelty, to take care of each other. If you need to talk to someone about addiction, reach out to me and I’ll try in a very imperfect way to listen.

2.

I pass my neighbors in the lot behind my building, a converted factory with 50 units. We come and go, sometimes stopping for a quick chat. I know the smokers better than the others. They’re fond of my dog. One of them drove me to the tow lot on New Year’s Day when I forgot to move my car during snow plowing.

Many of the dogs in the building have cranky temperaments, so their owners and I avoid each other, fiddle with face masks, nod across the distance. I mouth, “Hello” to the deaf woman who lives beside me. I can often hear her through the walls as she scolds the new puppy.

It’s a subsidized building, all of our incomes falling below a specific annual salary per occupant, a communal detail that you don’t normally know about your neighbors. Working folks, folks on disability, young families. The full racial spectrum. A few odd, lone souls like me, climbing out of some recent wreckage that we keep to ourselves.

My salary is a bit higher now, but they let me stay. I don’t know how many of my neighbors lost their jobs in the pandemic, though fewer cars swap spots during the day, and the property manager thanks me for my rent checks with a new intensity. The caretaker, who’s repaired my sink and AC and conducts inspections while I’m at work, has a personal relationship with my dog, developed over visits I’ve never seen.

One smoker likes to tease me about all the food I must eat when she sees me lumbering past with six full grocery bags dangling from my fists every weekend. A father of two tells me, “God Bless,” every time we pass. The small girls who used to fawn over Agnes are a bit older now and have turned awkward, as if we no longer know each other.

I never thought I’d still be here, back when I’d moved in, the first building in the valley that would let me keep my dog. Three and a half years have passed and almost every day I wonder, as I make my way through the lot, how I ended up here, as if I’ve forgotten how my life had fallen apart. And the two-bricks-forward, one-brick-back pace of my reconstruction, and how I’d miss these people—in a small, sharp way—should I ever leave.

3.

The first boy I ever fell in love with lived in Nicaragua. I met Alfredo on a high school exchange trip when I was all of 15. We’d talk together in my broken Spanish late into the night after our families had gone to sleep. 

One night I sat in the courtyard as he stood in front of me, telling me about being chased by a bull in a nearby field, and I struggled to grasp his words and he leaned forward, put his hands on my knees and rested his weight there, slowing his words for me, and the crucifix slipped out of his collar and caught the streetlight. I fell in love with him in that moment, in the way that a scared, closeted 15-year-old boy could fall in unrequited love with a boy whose culture had different norms for affection between men.

I never told him I loved him, though we exchanged letters after I returned to Minneapolis, where I marched in protests against the Contra War, getting clubbed in the gut by a cop and arrested at the age of 17. I was driven, for the first time in my life, by concern for the welfare of people outside of myself. For that boy and my host family and the other people I’d met, none of whom supported the U.S.-funded Contras waging war in their country and killing their sons, brothers and husbands.

I was saving my money for a return trip when I received word that Alfredo had been drafted into the war, his truck had been ambushed by the Contras, and he’d been killed. I may have been too young for my activism to survive that blow. I just felt hopeless futility. That I could march and protest and write essays and educate my peers but, in the face of well-funded and corrupt power, none of it would matter.

I still have that ambivalence, a calibrated sense of injustice in the world around me, dampened by paralyzed cynicism. And maybe, if I took that feeling and multiplied it by a factor I’m not equipped to calculate, it would be similar to that sense of exhausted, trampled outrage that a good chunk of this country feels on a daily basis. That trip was the best thing I ever did with my young life. It gave me a lens I still use to understand the world that continues to break my heart and stir my hope.

[A longer version of this piece appeared in War, Literature and the Arts. You can read it here.]