“Let me ask you a dick question,” I said to my friend Smooth Operator. “As in, a question about your dick.”
“My particular dick?”
“Yes, your unique, individual dick.”
In the little FaceTime screen, he gave a quick go-ahead nod.
“I’m just curious,” I said. “Do you ever, you know, say to yourself…like, after a really rough day when nothing is going your way…do you ever say to yourself, ‘Well, at least I have a big dick‘?”
“My dick’s not massive.”
“It’s big,” I said, with a tone confirming its basic and objective truth.
He conceded. “It’s big.” He opened the refrigerator in his Manhattan kitchen and scanned the contents, which to me always looked excessively ordered. “Look, in reference to your question, have you met me?”
He spoke our shorthand, informed by the entirety of our friendship. What I knew about him, and he about me, and how that made us well-suited as comrades at arms. He meant our similar temperaments, quivering with neuroses, stumbling over ourselves to make life easier and more pleasant for other people, an exhausting and resentment-prone approach to life that provoked a mutual friend to say to us, in exasperation, You don’t have to set yourself on fire, you know, to make the other guy warm.
I try to avoid thinking about Smooth Operator’s dick. It had been a full year since he’d confirmed, following a brief, long-distance affair, that he did not have the same feelings for me that I had for him, something that 99% of me already sadly understood. But the 1% holdout was a wily, obsessive, fantasy-prone fuckwit that dragged us both through a too-long bout of my wistful denial.
So a year had passed since that excruciating, reality-based let-down talk, and during that year I’d tried to release my grip on those particular feelings while still clinging hard to the very real and crucial friendship that we’d built over near-nightly chats, a handful of visits, and one butt-cold winter weekend trip to Montreal. He’d propped me up during a rough stretch of road. Trying to be his friend while surrendering my more-than-friend feelings was like trying to separate two layers of paint in the middle of a hurricane.
What I’m trying to say is that reducing the frequency of times that I think about his penis is a beneficial plank in the construction of my overall mental health.
“Look,” he said, grabbing a blueberry yogurt from the fridge, “It doesn’t cheer me up on a bad day, but yeah, sometimes, if I fall into comparing myself unfavorably with another guy, sometimes, I’ll remind myself that at least I’m—
“—a top with a big cock,” we said in unison. A private joke he likes to trot out pretty much every week, mainly because he knows it contains a hint of bottom-shaming that he doesn’t actually buy into, but pokes me with, because he knows that it annoys me.
“Well,” he said. “You asked. Where’s this coming from, dawg?” (He calls me dawg. The D-A-W-G version, he’d once clarified.)
“I keep thinking about confidence,” I said.
“Is your finger covering your fucking speaker again?” he said.
“Oops.” I readjusted my grip. “I mean, we’ve talked about this. You know, when you see someone who exudes it and you find yourself wondering where it came from. When you see one of those people who act like they deserve to breathe the air they’re breathing and to take up every inch of space their body actually occupies on this earth.”
“Oh,” he said. “Those people.” Smooth Operator ate a spoonful of yogurt. “It’s okay that I eat in front of you, right?” he said with his mouth full. Rhetorical question, long ago approved.
I’d taken all those unrequited feelings to my shrink for months on end, complaining about the dull, stupid, ceaseless pain they put me through. “Why can’t I just reason my way out of this?” I asked him (rhetorically). “Why can’t I just decide not to like him?”
Then one day my shrink suggested that, instead of telling Smooth Operator every single thing about my daily life, I should start keeping some details to myself. Just a few. It sounded like a flyweight solution for a heavyweight heartache. And the strength of my friendship with S.O. felt fully informed by the all-access pass I’d given him to my internal life.
Still, I’d been so fucking desperate for relief that I’d given it a shot. Over the next couple of weeks I’d stopped talking to S.O. about a local dude I’d had a couple of dates with. And surprisingly, miraculously, within a few days I sensed a very small crack in the monument of my unrequited devotion widen just an inch, and then a few more. The obsession began to drain.
“You knew what you were talking about,” I told my shrink. I don’t often compliment him, but he refrained from pointing this out. I imagine he was close to crying from relief, that he didn’t have to hear about S.O. as often now.
“I’ve had a yogurt,” S.O. said. “Three tacos, Thai food, two smoothies, and a tuna fish sandwich already today. I’m still hungry.”
He was always hungry. A full-blooded sensualist, that one. Most nights, looking at his face, I do a little internal check to confirm that I’m no longer in love with the dude. Which I’m not. But his handsome mug on my FaceTime screen reminds me that I still do have “feelings” of an enduring and bittersweet flavor that soften my heart one or ten degrees in his favor.
I didn’t tell him that night that I kept thinking about another shrink. Hank the Blank’s personal shrink. Way back in 1980, Hank had told his shrink that he’d molested me, and instead of doing his legal and professional duty, instead of reporting Hank the Blank to the authorities, his shrink merely made Hank promise never to do it again. (Hank would do it again, later, to someone else. )
I don’t know why I didn’t mention it to S.O. that night. He knew that story. Maybe, as I felt my brain inch down that dark and crooked path, I could sense the futility of it all. Wasting time, wondering how I might have turned out, had I received intervention at the age of nine. Would I have been spared firsthand knowledge of suicidal depression?
It’s a nice thought, but given the terrain of my childhood, hard to believe. The atom-splitting, hostile environment of my family’s ongoing physics experiment, which tore us apart and threw us together in different places and configurations, had too many cracks for trained professionals to fall through. I would have missed those appointments.
Would a different childhood have made a different man? A man with less self-doubt?
What about a bigger dick swinging between my legs?
“It’s a waste of time,” I told S.O., “all these what-ifs.”
“Admit it,” he said.
“You wouldn’t trade it. You wouldn’t be one of those clueless, confident douchebags for all the money in the world.”
“Well, I said. “Maybe for all the money.”
But he was right, of course. I’d worked too hard for the lens through which I look at everything. The glass—warped in spots, crystal-clear in others—that gave me my particular view.
I think about confidence, and the confident, but never for long. It’s like staring through the bars at caged zoo animals. A nice place to visit, but nowhere you’d want to live.
My pal Tiny Dancer drove up from Providence and stayed the weekend. Saturday morning, after corrupting him with the best breakfast sandwich on the planet from Small Oven (dangerously close to my apartment in the Pioneer aka Genocide Valley), Agnes hovering at our feet for the inevitable rain of crumbs, we cruised up 91 and over 2 on our way to MASS MoCA. October leaf peeping and cultural field trip—two bugs, one windshield.
He played some 80s tunes with his Sirius subscription. We’d met three years ago when I’d crashed for a few months in my sister’s basement in Boston—he was my first New England friend, and we’d regularly drive the 90 miles between my town and Providence for weekend visits. We shared a love of dogs and Saturday night episodes of Dateline.
I told him that my first concert, back in Minneapolis, was Thompson Twins with opening act Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, circa 1985. That year I grew long blond bangs over one eye, and wore grungy, black, thrift-store clothes that didn’t meld with the overall Benetton ad of my high school, so I spent lunch hours hiding away from the Darwinian cafeteria tribes, till sophomore year, when some cool chicks in leather jackets and torn black leggings rescued me. We called ourselves, only half-facetiously, the Rebel Posse.
Tiny Dancer snapped this shot at a hairpin turn on route 2. I think I look old, but I guess I am old, and people seem to like the pic, or they “like” the pic, and the colors are pretty cool, so here.
Wikipedia calls MASS MoCA the largest contemporary art museum in the country, a rusted, renovated factory complex, a postmodern outpost in the Berkshire hills, near the Vermont border. I spent some formative years working at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (even won my first poetry slam there, ha ha), so common museum elements—flickering video in dark exhibits, somnambulant security guards, gift shop t-shirts, catalogs heavy with artworld jargon—made the whole trip feel kind of homey.
And fuck, I love October. I wish it would last six months. But I guess its brevity is what sharpens its bittersweet taste. I fell in love with October as a lonely, skinny kid in the suburbs of St Paul, a melancholiac drifting home solo from grade school, shuffling through leaves, smelling wood smoke, and finding a comforting warmth in preteen sadness. Shut up, I had my reasons.
The museum road trip was a bit of a symbolic gesture on my part. I’d landed in this valley at the long-sputtering tail end of a very long tailspin, and couldn’t quite pull myself out of the wreckage.
Instead, smoldering in its ashes, I’d taken daily inventory of all the ways I suffered here, compared to San Francisco.
Guys, I didn’t get cruised here for A WHOLE YEAR. I was an actual ghost. Humans walked through me. And when a guy on campus at UMass (where I worked for awhile) held my gaze and turned to watch me walk past, I was so startled that I smacked face-first into a door.
Between that, and the alienating, Christian-heavy leanings of local 12-step groups, and the long winters, and my inability to find work that would lift me above paycheck-to-paycheck existence, I resisted Genocide Valley. Like, picture me being dragged across the ground with my heels dug in.
Things began to shift when, instead of dropping local AA entirely, I supplemented it with a dose of Refuge Recovery, a program based on Buddhist principles. It’s currently caught up in some Me Too Movement fallout, and is quietly getting swapped throughout the country with other frameworks, but my long curiosity in Buddhism, and my increasing disbelief in an external, omnipotent god, found some solace and much food for thought there, as well as a place to practice some monkey-brained meditation every week in a room full of quiet, breathing, shoe-less folks.
I met a dude there I’ll call the Sinful Saint, a well-read, well-lived, intellectually voracious man who’d sit with me at meetings, drink coffee in Northampton, tea on my living room couch, and dig with me into our pasts, sitting in my car in his driveway as the frogs of the valley began to sing at night.
I told him the nickname was because he’d read through my blog and had texted me a line from a poem I’d forgotten I’d written:
The scattered collection of men have all had their hopes,
and, left alone, they have called themselves fools. Is that so
uncommon? Even saints dream of sin.
(In other words, I kind of made his nickname all about me. This is a recurring trait that is dawning uncomfortably on the horizon of my recent thoughts. I’m self-centered. Isn’t that what my father, Hank the Blank, once said? He could be both a narcissist and correct. That’s an entirely possible combination. In fact, they are probably connected. My excessive, self-referential introspection, which he hates, was my childhood strategy for survival. “Hello, Frankenstein,” I told him, once. “I’m your monster.” He was not amused.)
I’ve said here before that, following my split from the Manly Fireplug and my exile from San Francisco, my brain and body rife with fear, that the one thing I needed was the one thing I couldn’t sustain—human connection.
I’m a dude who wants to see himself as strong and solitary, but who desperately needs others to survive. It turns out that to endure Genocide Valley, I needed a pal.
The Sinful Saint took me to the top of a mountain. The mountain was next to my apartment. I’d lived in that apartment for three years, but that was my first journey to the summit. He began to chip away at my resistance to my locale, not through instructions but through companionship.
I left one job because it was a dead-end nightmare of bigoted dysfunction. I took a new job, my first job as a full-time professional writer, one that pays me a few dollars above paycheck-to-paycheck. Maybe someday I’ll have enough saved, for my vague plans to escape to an undecided city. Being a single gay dude here is like trekking with an empty stomach across a bleak and forlorn field to a hut built for one, leaning back in the howling wind.
Yeah, sue me—I’d like to be loved again.
But for now I have work—to squirm out of the wreckage and brush the ashes from my Adidas. To take a chihuahua for walks. To bench press steel plates. To calm the swinging monkey. To slip the armor of resistance and take scenic road trips to rural museums with good pals. To make the most of Genocide Valley, while I’m here.
Management at your new job holds an all-staff meeting to discuss office culture, and they ask everyone to write words on Post-its describing the culture anonymously.
So on one Post-it you write “homogeneous,” since the office is 100% white, and the surrounding small, regional city is not.
Everyone turns in their Post-its face-down, and Kimberly reads them one at a time, and your colleagues have written words like “fun” and “hardworking,” and she gets to yours and squints and says, “humongous?” and then Dwayne looks at it but also squints in confusion.
And there’s no way you’re going to draw attention to yourself — after six weeks on the job — by being the only one to describe the office as homogeneous, especially after your last job (your first real job in this valley) where Betsy — who once said that she could never vote for someone with the same genitalia as her own — sent texts about you to other co-workers, saying that she was sick of your bitchy gay shit.
Which stung because nobody in your entire life had ever described you as bitchy (though they’d sometimes described you as gay), and in a huff of indignation you went to HR, who launched an exhaustive investigation that led nowhere, and the weird thing is that when you look back on that job you feel guilty, which shouldn’t be right but is true, about going to HR, and now you think you never should have gone to HR, you should have just kept your mouth shut.
But now in the office culture meeting they’re trying to decipher your vocabulary and you think maybe Betsy was right, maybe you really are bitchy — after six weeks at a new job you’ve climb up on your perch of judgment to render verdict on organizational demographics.
“Homogenized?” asks Dwayne. Then he and Kimberly toss the Post-it aside and move on to the next one.
Because it hasn’t been that long since your own personal series of objective failures (divorce lawyers, zero balances, cheap whiskey) and you have the sinking feeling that yes, you’re the bitch, just pissed that you got yourself stuck in a valley where an entire company could be white and you could pass, on your morning commute, a deer who’d been hit by a truck, lying crumpled on the ground, and you’re still seeing the deer in the conference room with the Post-its cluttering the wall, the sides of its bloodied chest still rising and falling, gasping for breath, and you wish that as you’d driven past you’d looked the other way.
Attention, fractured: modern condition. Default setting. After eight hours of copywriting/essay scrawling/texts/blogs/hookup apps my head’s swimming with words.
Red flags pop with the coupled rush of dopamine: someone’s thinking of/admiring/remarking on/updating/hating on/lusting after me. Little ol’ me.
Stop life, check phone.
In the balance of my happiness, what’s the ratio of external to internal validation? No wonder we Netflix and kill. Heads, deadened. End the night of a long hard day with a couch and a chihuahua.
I’m reminded, restoring those posts, of my long-held practice. Those close to me get nicknamed here. I can think of three who need immediate naming and the naming seems impossible. How do I sum up the whole of a multilayered pal? How do I top the Manly Fireplug? Truly inspired, that one.
Take several steps back to acknowledge one fact: three pals are good. Three pals are gifts. Three years ago when I came to this valley I had….not three.
One pal headed here for a weekend stay. A tour of autumn leaves (how middle-aged) and maybe a first visit, at last, to MASS MoCA. Jenny Holzer on exhibit! We are guileless in our dreams, she once wrote. I first found her in college in the library stacks. Abuse of power comes as no surprise.
Well, yes. Kurds now being killed, left swinging in the wind. Thanks, stable genius. Must be more of that 3D chess.
And my biggest problems? Vacuuming my apartment tonight and picking up hazelnut creamer for my unnamed pal.
Playing indoor fetch with Agnes. She has her pick of nicknamed pals: Mr. Monkeypants, Funny Bunny, Flatty Patty, and Chuckie Duckie. My home’s not aflame. Just a zoo.
I’ve always been soft-spoken. Even in bed. “Are you having a good time?” is a question I’ve heard a dozen times by various men, always with discouraging timing, like right after a bout of what I think are obvious grunts of my approval. I go through life speaking, and groaning, at volume level nine, while the world hears me at three.
Enter Jake, a bold, big-mouthed braggart who’d moved to San Francisco from New York City. Talking and volume were never Jake’s problem. Even with his mouth shut, Jake communicated, like the first time I saw him, sitting across a crowded room from me, his biceps straining the sleeves of a t-shirt that read: “I Make Boys Cry.”
The t-shirt scared the hell out of me, and led me, in a burst of self-protection, to cross him out as candidate for My Next Husband. But still I found him, and the t-shirt, and what the t-shirt implied, compelling. My attraction ran hand-in-hand with my terror, skipping through the landscape of dirty daydreams. Some of us are cursed with bad boy hunger, God help us.
We started as pals. Two guys grabbing coffee after one of those meetings where ex-drunks gather for comic camaraderie. He’d listen to my latest woes, all the ways I’d let some guy treat me like a doormat. The broken promises, canceled plans, and hidden boyfriends. My mute reaction.
He’d listen for a while, then lean across the table and whisper, “You just need to get fucked. Really hard.”
It was a good set-up; I could flirt safely with him, (he had a boyfriend) till our coffee grew cold, then run back to my quiet, reserved, hopeful life. By “flirting,” I mean I’d turn red for a good hour, never breaking my guarded stance, never raising my voice loud enough to tell him all the things I pictured doing with another man, never saying what I wanted from life, because, well, that just wasn’t me.
Then I left for grad school in New York City, a double-fisted smack-down, where my writing got torn apart in workshop, and my skin peeled back on unrelenting sidewalks teeming with hyper-opinionated blowhards.
I read four books and scrawled 20 pages of text a week, downloaded pirated Brian Eno tunes in my studio apartment, hid for relief in the dim library stacks.
Jake mailed me a selfie with his pit bull, and I stuck it on my fridge, where it hung the whole two years I lasted there. I’d crawl home down Broadway and stand in my kitchen, bruised from colleague feedback, or bolstered by a professor’s “atta boy,” and I’d look at Jake and think about sex, a thing I had no time for.
It took a while, but I grew a spine in Manhattan. I stuck up for my work in class, walked against stoplights, slept through car alarms and all-night construction. When bastards tried to push onto the train before letting passengers off, I’d shoulder through them and knock them off-balance.
But San Francisco was home, the only place on the planet where I’d ever felt comfortable, a fact that only solidified the longer I was away. I moved back when coursework was done, in the summer of 2006, when I was still single.
And now, so was Jake.
It didn’t take long. We hit the gym together several times a week, where we exchanged playful grins in the mirror over sweaty sets of military presses, the two of us hooked into a drawn-out foreplay with one inevitable end.
It came the night he swung by to take me out on our first official date. I let him in and he pushed me up against the wall and kissed me. We left shirts and shoes and jeans in a long trail to my bed. I can’t remember if we even left the house that night.
Over the coming weeks, we’d spend a lot of time in bed. One night he stopped kissing me long enough to ask, “What do you WANT?”
“Huh?” I said. “What? What do you mean?”
“What do you want?”
“What? When? Now?”
And for a moment I was speechless, couldn’t say what I wanted aloud. I hemmed and hawed. I blushed.
“This,” I finally said. “I want this.” Meaning he and I, together, and what we were doing.
“Good,” he said. “What else?”
Again I stalled. We already had our clothes off, but his questions, and the answers I couldn’t give, stripped away more of my cover. I don’t raise my voice. I don’t say certain things aloud.
“Fuck that,” he said. “Tell me something sick.”
I stammered, scarlet, for a second or two, before I revealed a long-held, deeply private fantasy. “Well,” I said. “Picture us on a boat. And I’m the cabin boy…”
And that seemed to work, for both of us.
But his challenge was not confined to sex. Later, after dinner, after the plates and silverware had been tucked into the dishwasher, we stood necking in his kitchen. And he asked the question again. “What do you want?”
“What?” I asked. “In sex?”
My eyes focused on his chest. I don’t share my ambitions. I was a Midwestern boy raised on humility, shame, and superstition. To say dreams out loud is to lose them.
“I want to make a living doing what I love,” I finally said, mumbling against his neck, guarded behind the rock of modesty.
“Fuck that,” he said. “You want to be famous.”
“You want to go on all of the talk shows.” He grabbed my chin and locked his eyes with mine.
“You want Matt Lauer to fawn.”
“Um,” I said. “Well…yeah.”
And in my head strange things happened; I heard my voice crack open walls, which crumbled to the ground.
He kissed me. “Good. Keep going.”
“I want to change people’s lives,” I said, before I had time to think. The sky darkened, and a hurricane swept through a city.
“I want to matter.” A string of cars exploded.
“I want people to say, Finally, someone put that into words!”
“Yeah!” he growled.
“I want to make money.” Tornadoes tore through a stadium packed with the innocent.
“I want more money than those assholes who walk around the gym like they own the place.” Tsunami, thunder, terror.
“I want to be invited to parties.”
“And say, No!”
“Oh my God,” he said, and stuck his tongue down my throat.
I’d learn a lot over the coming months, just watching Jake, about confidence, and the heat one exudes when shedding shame.
But we wouldn’t last. Though he’d knocked me a few inches in his direction, the gulf between our temperaments made togetherforever unlikely. Are massive overhauls to personality even possible? Or do we change — if we change — in half degrees?
My days as doormat are over. I push back when struck. I tell sex partners what I want. But my voice remains measured, people refer to me as “sweet,” and I only let slip a dream or two, shielding the planet from their powers of destruction.
Spent most of the weekend restoring a ton of blog posts that I’d lost a couple of years ago when, fueled by technical stupidity and impatience, I’d attempted an amateurish update to the template.
Guys, it was a lot of work. I’ve been blogging (admittedly off and on) for 18 years. EIGHTEEN YEARS. I am prehistoric. A dinosaur of vanity. Delusional in thinking that anybody would care about my thoughts on life, let alone 18 years’ worth.
And yet here I am. I don’t quite know how to do this, or why I’m doing it, despite 18 years of experience. I kept my mouth shut the past few years because life came at me hard and left me like a wounded deer limping through a Darwinian woods, my life razed to the ground and me, shoved down a hole with the depth and distortions of Wonderland.
(I haven’t lost my taste for melodrama.)
All of my thoughts were bleak and I couldn’t stick them on the internet. Someone would have called the authorities.
A guy I know, after scanning a couple of my posts last week, asked if I tended towards melancholia, and I spit out my coffee. Dude, that’s my default setting.
I look back at those posts—after hunkering all weekend in their moody climate—and I see a guy upon whom life hung a little heavy. 18 years of posts reveal patterns. Loneliness, addiction, terminal illnesses. Embarrassing—in retrospect—to see how I fawned over a Fireplug. How I still fall prey to unrequited blah blah.
Old patterns worn into the wood. Men and dogs. Dogs and men.
God, I wanted to delete half this blog. Sometimes for content. Sometimes for clumsy, pedestrian writing. Mostly for the unvarnished earnestness. But it’s like I struck this deal 18 years ago— a deal that nobody demanded—to keep it all up. A social experiment in voluntary humiliation. A Dear-Diary-I-think-he-likes-me-back for public consumption.
It’s a Monday in western Massachusetts. I hit the snooze button four or five times at dawn, dragged myself out of bed, made coffee, walked and fed Agnes. Showered, dressed, and packed a lunch. I drove 26 minutes through relatively light traffic to Springfield, to the job I’ve held for six months, where I wield words for a living. It’s my first professional writing job, and they seem to like me enough.
I still don’t quite know how I got here.
It’s been four and a half years since I left my life in San Francisco. And it’s only now that I’ve pulled myself out of the hole. Half-blind, unsteady. My beard turned gray.
And here I am again. Not sure what to do or what to say. A more guarded man than the 30-year-old boy who first strung the words “dog” and “poet” together on nothing more than instinct. Trying to build my world up again with words. Hanging them on the line for all to see.
A few years ago, life came at me in a batshit series of events.
Worn down by a lifetime of suicidal depression, I finally got the guts to hire a therapist to help me confront the sexual abuse and neglect I’d gone through as a kid.
At the same time, I found a site online for dudes with similar childhoods, and I sought solace in my chats with distant strangers. I picked up a bit of their lingo, too; they called their therapists “my T” and their abusers “my perp,” as an indication of their ubiquity. Each of us had one of both.
As if on cue, later that year, my perp cornered me in his two-car garage during a family Thanksgiving to tell me about some stories he’d posted online. He had thousands of new fans and hundreds of emails from people who really “respected” and “connected” with his writing. He figured I might be interested in his success, being that I’m a writer and all.
He must have seen something on my face because he stepped aside and let me go.
Several weeks later and against my better instincts, I poked around online, looking for his posts during a late night at the office.
My mom had died a few years before and I’d spent those years attempting, despite the childhood abuse, to be a “good person” and to bridge the estrangement that had calcified between me and the perp through frequent visits to his house. It had been a challenge, as he’d spent most of those years questioning my life choices (my career, retirement plan, and city). I’d left every visit feeling irritable and defensive.
I found his posts and discovered that during those same years, around the time of my visits, he’d written and posted to the internet dozens of erotic stories about incest. They were all stories of jerk porn with familiar scenes — acts that had seared my nerves for the past 30 years. I knew without reading the ending where each tale ended up: a man, a boy, a bathroom filled with steam, and clothes in a trampled pile. They were lightly fictionalized versions of straight-up nonfictional events that I’d worked for three decades to forget.
My vision blurred and I clicked off the computer with a trembling hand. I left the office and took the train home, my body shuddering so much that the people near me moved away. When the doors opened and I hit the sidewalk, weird animal noises came out of me.
Why the fuck, I thought, did my perp want me to read those stories? I pictured thousands of his fans reading the stories with one hand wrapped around their pricks, jerking off to the things that had been done to me. I wondered if I knew any of those fans in real life. Within me, in a place past reach or reason, fear cracked open.
Later, I let out an hour-long, guttural scream of indictments at my perp as he hid in the privacy of his two-car garage. I pierced him with words, with three decades of pent-up grudge and rage. I screamed and swore and then I hung up for good. My shirt clung to me wetly. The screen of my phone was flecked with spit. My husband sat on the couch beside me, his face streaked in tears. I was a burnt out match.
I wasn’t afraid of my perp. After years at the gym, I’d grown much bigger than him. And anyway, he was an old man now. So I can’t tell you why during this time, my fear spread out past him, out into the world. It was primal, bone-deep terror that couldn’t be talked away. I can’t tell you why, exactly, I bought a combat knife online — delivered to me within two days, free of charge — and carried it with me on the train to work every day.
If a member of my own family could do that to me, then what could a complete stranger do?
I can’t tell you why I’d eke out a half day at work only to lock myself in an empty office, turn out the lights, remove my shoes and belt, lay on the floor, and rock back and forth for an hour. I can’t tell you why I had to take a medical leave of absence and wound up diagnosed with chronic PTSD, or why I shut out everyone in my life, including my friends, because nobody in the world felt safe. I can’t even tell you why I moved out of the bedroom I shared with my husband and slept in the spare room, why I couldn’t trace my steps back into my old life.
I guess the plainest way of putting it is this: If a member of my own family could do that to me, then what could a complete stranger do?
Over time, I became a recluse. I coped with the help of true crime. My mild, lifelong interest in the genre now turned to compulsion. It was the only thing I could tolerate, the one thing that fed me a grain of relief.
I consumed marathon stretches of shows on the Investigative Discovery channel. I watched massive, jaw-dropping amounts of true crime television. I inhaled shows with titles like Sinister Ministers, Southern Fried Homicide, and Fear Thy Neighbor.
Whatever your career, location, or income, these shows promised that you, too, could fall prey to something terrible. Thus, I gorged on crime in my bunker (locked bedroom, shades drawn) while playing Candy Crush on my phone, my dog curled beside me, trying to shut down my brain.
Here’s the thing: It worked. The shows held me back from the threshold of that abandoned amusement park in my head, where perps and knife-wielding clowns crouched in wait.
That year, while everyone was watching Downton Abbey. I’d grown nauseated by the show’s depiction of a family that stayed steadfastly loyal through multiple hardships.
Bullshit, I thought. Utter bullshit. I lost my stomach for comedies, laugh tracks, tearjerkers, and poignant celebrity bios. It was all crap for delusional suckers. The world was full of horrible people doing horrible things to other people, and anyone pretending otherwise was peddling drivel.
You could argue that watching so much crime only reinforced my trauma. Maybe you’re right. But after hundreds of hours of crime shows, I understood that I watched for the victims and their loved ones. I watched for the survivors who’d brushed death. Their tears, I bought. They made me feel less alone. They knew the wolf at the door. And more often than not, the wounds from their crimes dwarfed mine.
Of course, there’s a problem with true crime: Exploitation is inherent in the genre. Strangers’ tragedies broadcast for our entertainment. Some shows were shameless, with clumsy reenactments and pun-heavy, oily narration that made roadkill out of victims, deified the killer, and inspired the urge to shower.
Still, I watched.
I watched so much Investigative Discovery that I knew every commercial by heart. After watching constant ads for treatment centers, feminine hygiene, and adult undergarments, I wondered what that said about me, demographically speaking.
But watching live cable tied me tenuously to the world; other people watched those same shows and those same ads for rehabs, at the exact same moment. I wasn’t utterly alone. I was an astronaut tethered with one thin cord, oxygen depleting and deep space pulling me out to where, according to the tagline of my favorite movie, “no one could hear you scream.”
I left the house only for therapy. For weeks I arrived at my therapist’s office certain that this time, my T would have me committed for my own good. But he didn’t, I lived, and I kept watching true crime.
I chatted with more dudes on the abuse recovery site and read books on trauma, enough to see how much we had in common. Many of the dudes with our kind of childhoods had built elaborately constructed, impressively defended fortresses that could stand for decades. But those fortresses fell apart in our thirties and forties. We worked (if we worked) in stockrooms and empty warehouses. Some of us cashed our disability checks on the third of the month, budgeting for an Uber to our T and for smokes, booze, and Netflix.
And still, life kept coming. I suffered a divorce, poverty, and an unwilling exit from San Francisco, my home for 18 years that I could no longer afford. But as I bounced around the country in the coming months, my rocks were true crime and a chihuahua. I kept close to both, and I built new bunkers wherever I landed. I found new Ts, shut out my perp, and took jobs that kept me out of reach of the general public.
The one thing that would save me — human connection — was the one thing I couldn’t sustain.
I listened to Serial while trimming trees at a cousin’s house in Oregon. I bonded with My Favorite Murder on my three-train commute through Boston. I even smiled once or twice while driving home in western Massachusetts, as the dudes from Last Podcast on the Left broke down the tale of the Hillside Strangler.
I liked the solved cases. I craved the mysteries unknotted, the perps collared and convicted. I wanted a shot of a prison yard wreathed in razor wire, detective offering a hard-won grin, and someone saying “closure” without much faith. True crime was a fairy tale I wanted to believe.
After hundreds (thousands?) of hours, I grew familiar with the patterns of psychopaths and narcissists. Now I’d see them coming, strewing charm and butchery in their wakes. Now I’d steer clear.
I consumed so much true crime that I saw the full spectrum of people who’d lost loved ones to murder. I saw those who’d gotten stuck at the death, those who still looked like ghosts — like they were just existing, gutted by the loss of their only kid, sitting with open bottles at gray kitchen tables in the fading light of dusk. And who could fucking blame them?
True crime was a fairytale I wanted to believe.
But there were others, broken in places that would never heal but still limping forward. They wore scars and shed tears but the inner light hadn’t been snuffed out. They’d found a way. I wasn’t sure how but I doubted it involved slumping on a couch after work, gazing at crime every night. It was like they’d made a decision.
Eventually, I snuck out into the world for an hour or two at a time. I let my dog take me on longer walks. I ordered takeout from across the street. I slipped into the back row of meetings where fellow whiskey-thirsty folks gathered in blackly comic camaraderie. I made one friend in my new, strange town and he took me to the top of a nearby mountain.
I got better. Dating, in my small town, was an insurmountable challenge. So with the help of some iPhone apps I tried it long-distance, which kept dudes at a safe distance. I met a couple guys in what is called “real life.” I made mistakes, and I hurt some feelings. I mishandled my own anger — an emotion I’d squelched my whole life, which now came out of me sideways and bigger than any situation required.
Though nothing romantic lasted, I ended up with some good friends. I’d drive to Providence to visit one and we’d watch Friday night episodes of Dateline, with Keith Morrison gravely narrating how the husband did it but — through hubris and the dogged determination of gumshoes — didn’t get away with it.
Another friend in NYC would FaceTime me and we’d trash-talk certain loathsome and moronic serial killers (BTK), roll our eyes when people gushed over the “handsome” and “charming” Ted Bundy, tip each other off via texts about Dahmer documentaries, and scan our family trees to recall the narcissists who’d raised us. Within the rigid boundaries of the true crime genre, our childhood demons could be exorcised — or at any rate, diminished.
Through crime I made human connections, for the first time in years.
These days, I’m tethered to the world again. I’m bold — at times — online. I work in an office where the treacherous political waters require skillful navigation. I lift weights at a large, boisterous national gym chain. I see my T every Tuesday. I chat with my neighbors while walking the dog, no knife in my pocket.
I still love true crime. I play the podcasts during my commute. I binge old seasons of Investigative Discovery shows on Hulu. But for a couple of years, I’ve inched into crime’s close cousins of horror and mystery. Now I can even sip comedy in small doses.
I’m grateful for the company of true crime. It kept me, one hour at a time, one crime at a time, from wandering the amusement park in my head where the perps and the clowns lurked. They’re still there, now, but they’re smaller, gaunt from hunger, and hiding from the lights of the Midway, with their charms faded and their greasepaint melting in the rain.
A few weeks after my separation, I got stuck in the snow at the top of a mountain.
I’d fled the gut-punch of my husband’s rejection and the ritual monthly sacrifice of $4k that San Francisco now demanded for a one-bedroom apartment. I’d lived there for 18 years, the only place that had ever felt like home. Exiled by the gods of marriage and money, with no real plan.
My prospects were dim. I’d recently kicked over a few childhood rocks to confront for the first time the things crawling around there in the dark. Which had led to cold sweat, family fall-outs, tearful rebukes, and a dogged strain of PTSD, a word one or two doctors had jotted down on my health chart.
I’d kinda lost my mind.
The sickness had gotten strange, skewed, it had spread through my body — I’d begun to cower not from old memories, not from a single villain, not from my perp, but from everyone, from the world outside my bedroom.
I’d lost trust in the benevolence of friends, let alone strangers. I’d bought a combat knife online, black anodized steel with a locking blade, delivered to me free of charge within two business days, and I’d carried it with me on the train, because I still had to go to work. I’d avoided phone calls and emails and texts and consoled myself with marathon stretches of true crime TV, since I’d also lost the stomach for laugh tracks and loyal families sticking it out through boilerplate hardships.
I’d lost my gym-won muscles. I’d lost interest in listening to constructive criticism. I’d lost interest in sex. My husband had grown tired of this new, combined deficit. Tired of coming home to find me in the bedroom with the blinds drawn, watching reruns of Homicide Hunter: Lt. Frank Kenda, unwilling to leave my bunker, sunk down in the brutal fog that veiled those final months of my marriage. I hadn’t known that they were the final months. I hadn’t known that I could get so scared. Me, a grown man. I hadn’t known much of anything, and then my husband kicked me out.
So I packed up a rental truck and grabbed the long-haired chihuahua named Agnes who my husband had brought home and who’d fastened to me since day one, and I left the other dog, a terrier that had always favored my husband. I tried and failed not to think of either of them over the coming weeks and months.
I drove north up the coast to crash with a cousin I barely knew, in a little town in Oregon, to plot my next move.
I didn’t know where the fuck to go. Portland? Eugene? Some small cabin way up in the mossy woods? Where would I work?
My cousin’s little town struggled, broken by the decline of the timber industry. When I arrived it was trying to resurrect itself as a destination for antiques, but the stores were closed more days than not. Deer grazed at dusk in the backyard.
I bought an old 4Runner with a check engine light that stayed lit even after the intervention of a couple of mechanics, a metaphor for something that I’d never discern.
I’d grown too attached to the dog. Thinking about leaving her at home while I worked for eight hours kept me up at night, but registering her as some kind of therapy pet would feel fraudulent. I wasn’t that bad, right? Still, I took her everywhere, smuggling her in a backpack if needed.
Paralyzing fear of the greater world or not, I was running out of cash and needed a job. Thinking I could maybe make this small town work for me, I applied to a bunch of forestry jobs and landed an interview at a state park on the other side of the Cascade Mountains, which rose to the east of my cousin’s place.
I set out on a cool summer’s day with Agnes, riding shotgun in her little elevated seat, taking a road that skirted the mountains, listening to the radio, singing a few lyrics in falsetto, which always made her tail wag.
An hour later I stopped in the shade of a tree overlooking a park station, cracked the windows, told Agnes to wish me luck, and went inside, weightless and awkward in my khakis and dress shoes. My interviewers wore inscrutable masks as I tried to persuade them that my past office jobs fully prepared me for working in the woods (they’d offer the job to someone else).
I shook their hands as I left, exhaled in the driver’s seat of the 4Runner, the rest of the afternoon empty and waiting. I scratched Agnes’ ears, and told myself not to be afraid. You can drive. Just drive. You can spend another hour in the world outside your bedroom. Just put your foot on the gas. I set off with a vague plan to explore Mt. Bailey, in the Umpqua National Forest, back near my cousin’s place.
I took roads that twisted through the thick and shaded woods, cruising alongside a glassy lake and over creeks running fast from snowmelt, glancing now and then at my phone’s GPS, which grew erratic.
The sun was fading but I still felt calm, guessing at which roads to take, which only got me farther away from my cousin’s, farther up towards the peak, where snow still clung to the ground beneath the trees.
An hour after leaving the interview, I came to a spot where the trees thinned out, the GPS went blank and my phone’s four bars had long ago faded. I hadn’t passed another car in a good chunk of time.
Up here at the beginning of June the air was cold and crisp and I steered around a curve which led to a large patch of road covered in snow. I eased the car to a stop and considered the snow, trying to gauge its depth, thinking it looked passable; I’d grown up in Minnesota, after all. I was a pro. All I had to do was hit the gas and barrel thr –
I got stuck halfway through the patch.
Adrenaline flooded me as the tires spun, throwing snow and mud in the air. The truck worked itself deeper into the snow that had looked so thin from a few yards back. I went nowhere. I threw the car in four-wheel drive for the first time ever, but they spun without purchase, getting me good and wedged at the peak of a mountain that now felt as ominous as an alien planet.
I took my foot off the gas, sweating and cursing as Agnes cowered beside me. I rocked the car back and forth. Nothing. I climbed out into the fading light, found a few pine branches, and threw them under the wheels. I shoveled snow with my hands. Still I got nowhere.
Panic throbbed in my blood. I sucked big gulps of cold air and leaned, light-headed, against the truck. Old ghosts drifted through my brain.
Just tell me, I’d told my husband¸ if you don’t want to be with me.
I don’t want to be with you, he’d said.
The friends I’d abandoned. My credit card debt.
Me, nine years old and friendless, crying at the edge of the woods at soccer camp.
Waking from sleep that same summer to the sight of my father, walking across my dark bedroom, naked. Closing my eyes at his approach. Pretending to sleep.
My breath billowed out and drifted up in the clear dusk. I climbed back into the truck and rubbed the chihuahua’s soft fur. Everything’s okay, Daddy’s mad at the snow, not you. I held her till she stopped trembling. My breathing evened out. “Little Girl,” I told her, “we’re going nowhere.”
I had no map of the mountain. My phone was useless. The radio full of static.
In a few short seconds my brain had indexed the 500 reasons I was unprepared for the real world.
I sighed. A few days ago, I’d tossed a sleeping bag and a heavy wool shirt in the back of the truck. So at least there was that.
In the morning we’d walk for help, but tonight we were stuck.
I shared cold French fries with Agnes that I‘d picked up earlier that day, which she took from my hand with tiny and precise teeth. I let her pee at the edge of the road. Overhead, distant stars and one mute satellite.
I picked her up and crawled into the back of the truck, where I kicked off my dress shoes (who the fuck wears dress shoes to a forestry job?), pulled on the wool shirt, and crawled into the sleeping bag. With the back seats down, I just barely fit. Agnes curled up at my chest and I told her how good she was and how I’d try to get us out of this, knowing that in the morning I’d have to do the hardest thing imaginable: break out of my bunker of delusional self-reliance, and ask a stranger for help.
The night came on cold and fitful. Every hour I climbed back in the driver’s seat and let the engine warm the car, trying to conserve the last quarter tank of gas. Agnes burrowed deeper into the sleeping bag. A few minutes of sleep here and there. I imagined my voicemail filling with my cousin’s calls. At that moment, nobody in the world knew where we were.
Maybe I’ll get us through this. Probably. This is America — I’ll find cell coverage a hundred feet down the road.
I shifted in the sleeping bag as wind howled against the car. Every night, as I hovered an inch above sleep, the things my father did to me as a kid would shove me awake. I’d lie there thinking how, thirty years later, he’d written a series of stories about the things he did to me as a kid, packaging them as some kind of sexual “awakening” or moment of true father-son “connection”, and then he’d posted the stories to an online site devoted to amateur erotica.
For hundreds of thousands of readers, whom I pictured reading with one hand wrapped around their junk; he’d received thousands of emails (fan mail, he’d called them, with no trace of irony).
He’d cornered me in his immaculate, two-car garage in the Carson Valley of Nevada during a Thanksgiving visit to tell me about the stories, which he was sure I’d appreciate because I was a writer; and the utter wrongness of this divulgement had seemed entirely lost on him.
I’d later found the stories online, one night at the office, late, after everyone else had gone home, and my body had shook and grown slick with sweat while reading them, and weird, animal noises had rattled in my throat.
In the coming days I’d begun to wonder who out there had read those stories. Where were they, these masked men all over the world, jerking off to my rape?
How many of them did I blindly run across every day?
I’d begun to fear leaving the house, and bought the combat knife online, and Agnes shifted at the bottom of the sleeping bag and I came back to a car stuck in the snow at the top of a mountain in the dead of night.
Please let me sleep, I said.
Morning came. The snow at the peak looked blue and the trees gray in the heavy mist that clung to the mountain’s peak. I found a small trickle of stream and we both drank.
I thought back over my entire life, and couldn’t remember having ever sipped from running natural water. I was a man of indoor plumbing.
We set off down the mountain, sticking to the road. I figured we’d hike an hour, maybe a little more, till we crossed paths with some smug ranger who’d save the inept city boy and his lap dog from the mess of his own making.
We descended at a slow gait. My feet slipped in the dress shoes, and my heels blistered in a few short minutes. I was bound for pain. Every step a reminder of bad decisions.
Agnes trotted jauntily along, sniffing the air, as if we’d set off on some well-mapped, fully-hydrated adventure. She scooted ahead of me, following her little nose.
The thing about dogs is that you have to protect them from the world. They run ahead following a scent, all fur and slobber and immediacy, and you have to call them back. You know what they don’t. You know what could come around a corner.
I called her back. The sky was cloudless, the air clean. Ahead of me, a small stretch of curving road, and to the side, miles of white peaks and dark forests. Hawks spun in the air.
We passed an overlook where yesterday I’d picked up Agnes and snapped a selfie, planning to post it to Facebook so my husband could see with a bitter pang how brave and content I looked. Fully geared for a new life.
We crossed below the snowline as the sun climbed in the sky. Thin-skinned and weary from no sleep, I peered over cliffs to see the road switchbacking down the mountain, vanishing into thick lines of trees. No cars. No cabins. No cell signal.
The glint of a creek, hundreds of feet below. My stomach flipped from vertigo.
The wind gusted, crows sparred in the trees overhead, and I thought about throwing myself from this very great height.
That thought and many thoughts like it had taken up a back room of my brain. For months I could hear them fighting, fucking, thumping across the floors. They’d grown louder and more urgent over the weeks. Closer. Passed out on my front stoop.
Agnes sneezed, and I snapped back to attention. I studied her for a moment — the curl of her tail, the silky hair of her ears, her little front paws that turned out like a ballerina, She squinted in the wind. I scrutinized the chihuahua because that’s what I did when those thoughts knocked drunkenly on my door.
She glanced up at me, her tail wagged, and I stepped back onto the road.
My feet burned but we kept moving. An hour stretched into two. I pulled out the phone to no avail. How far down the mountain till the bars come back? How about one? One bar. I limped along the road, wondering how the fuck could you still get lost in the woods of America. So many horror flicks opened with scenes like this. City folk in the woods like cows to slaughter.
Where was everyone? No sounds save for the wind through the trees, a demented squirrel chittering in the underbrush, and the scrape of my shoes on the pavement. My stomach grumbled. Maybe the apocalypse had come in the night.
And wouldn’t that be easier? My biggest problem would be which store or home or field to loot. First stop: food and water for me and the chihuahua. Then band aids and hiking boots.
Easier — a life without other humans, and the complications they dragged behind them.
A pine cone fell and knocked through the branches of a tree onto the road, where it rolled to a stop. Agnes hurried over to sniff it with suspicion. The wind picked up.
I remembered sitting in restaurants with my husband, in awkward silence, fidgeting with chopsticks or forks, waiting for the food, waiting for him to ask me about my day, as I’d asked about his. Maybe that was the problem. I should have just told him about my day. But I’d wanted him to ask. I’d wanted him to wonder.
Five hours. Agnes and I drank from another stream and she sat and gave me the look when I tried to coax her back on the road. My feet hurt so badly that I feared that if I stopped, I’d never get up again. So I slipped her into my backpack, where she huddled in accustomed and agreeable silence.
Trees and more trees. Streams. Thick beds of pine needles in the shade. Cracks in the asphalt. Forcing each step, moving, trying to get off the godforsaken mountain. I could only guess at the miles we’d covered. Ten? Twelve? It felt like 50.
Agnes got restless and pawed at the backpack, and I scooped her out and lowered her to the ground.
I remembered my lonesomeness, and the deal I’d made with myself. I’d settled for the goods. The house and the car and the future in Palm Springs. The gas bills paid in full every month. The vanishing debt.
I could sit in silence in restaurants for the rest of my life, right? In exchange for that?
Agnes trotted beside me, taking a dozen little steps for each of mine. She’d been scooped from the mean streets of central California by animal control, and brought by a rescue group to San Francisco, and eventually to me, and now to here. Agnes of Bakersfield. Her unflagging optimism. Her dutiful companionship. Her implicit trust in me, which at the moment felt so misplaced that it nearly made me cry.
My husband would always tell the dogs, “We’re going to take care of you forever and ever,” and I said this to her now. I pledged to myself that I’d never disappoint her. Not like I’d disappointed everyone else. Not like the others I’d abandoned.
I’d protect this little dog, this four-legged trooper who’d, in the coming months and years, stick by my side. We’d sleep in the car and motel rooms and spare rooms in basements. We’d cross the country near-broke, and I’d stop and take selfies with her all along the way. As we pinballed from state to state I swore to myself that no matter how many hard turns life threw at us, I’d be her rock.
I’d keep breathing for her sake.
Forever and ever, he’d said.
The dress shoes dug into my blisters. I wanted to cut my feet off. I wanted to eat a squirrel. I wanted to throw the fucking phone into the woods. We’d been walking now for eight straight hours.
My heart skipped at the sight of yellow lines appearing on the road. That meant civilization. I prayed for a ranger station or a stalwart hiker. I prayed as we covered more miles, wincing with each step, my stomach now singing a full chorus.
When I heard the car behind us on the road I turned, but suddenly got embarrassed — the old fear of strangers and small talk and hidden motives rose up alongside the shame of my predicament, and I froze in place. A moment later I grabbed Agnes and waved my free hand, locking eyes with the woman riding shotgun in the Mustang. They zoomed past. My hand dropped in humiliation and I muttered at the tail lights.
We kept walking till we came to a sign: Oakridge, 24 miles.
24 fucking miles? I’d thought I was near town. Tears sprang to my eyes. The afternoon was fading. The sun would slide behind the mountains.
I checked my phone again. Nothing.
I heard the truck before I saw it, coming up fast behind us. I held Agnes and turned and before I could even raise my hand, the rusted pick-up slowed and the window lowered and a young man behind the wheel asked if I was okay.
“No,” I said. “I’m not.” I told him about my car and the long trek to town.
“Hop in,” he said. “I’ll take you.”
A cool, clear relief flooded me, and I climbed in beside him. I set Agnes on my lap, but she immediately scooted across the bench seat into his lap, put her paws on his chest, and licked his cheek.
“Sorry,” I said. “She always gets right up in your face. Agnes — ”
“All good.” He pet her head.
I rested my burning feet on the floorboard, and we set off for Oakridge.
He told me his name was Jeff, and he was shirtless and beautiful in that way that young men with scrawny mustaches driving trucks in small towns can be. He told me about growing up in the Cascades, and all about his favorite places to camp and to fish and to four wheel. He offered me his Dr. Pepper and I was too thirsty to turn it down.
“How’d you end up at the tip top of Bailey in a pair of church shoes?” he asked.
I laughed without joy. Where to start? My cousin’s place? The interview? We had 24 miles to cover, so I went way back.
I mentioned the break-up, and the move, and the job search, and I refrained from saying the word “husband,” because I didn’t want to scare the shirtless and beautifully unguarded boy. He confessed to me that he’d just been dumped by his girlfriend. “It’s awful,” he said.
“The worst,” I said.
“I’ll tell you,” he said, then glanced over at me. “My head sometimes goes to dark places.” His abrupt confidence should have felt strange. But he was our literal savior, a shimmering angel in an old Chevy, and instead it felt preordained.
We were fated, the chihuahua and I, to catch this ride.
“I know dark places,” I said, which sounded corny, so I let it just sit there. There were too many things I couldn’t say to him. I thought about the man I’d slept with behind my husband’s back. The man my husband found out about, because that’s what husbands do. How much of my predicament — how much of my life — was my fault? Likely all of it.
I’d protect the boy in the truck from my personal avalanche of batshit. I’d keep my mouth shut.
“I’m kind of lucky, though,” he said, “I’ve got Jesus Christ on my side. Do you believe in Jesus?”
Fuck, I thought. 19 more miles.
I sighed, looked out the window, shook my head. I told him the truth. “I don’t know what I believe,” I said, thinking about the higher power I’d lost faith in at some point in the recent past. Gone for good, I was pretty sure.
I held my breath, waiting for the sermon, the sales pitch, the promise of a protector that could never protect me.
I didn’t need Jesus. Just a ride down the road.
He seemed to consider me for a minute in silence. Then he let the subject drop, and he told me about the time he got stuck at the top of a different mountain, and the time he’d nearly drowned in the whitewater of a Washington river, and I relaxed and felt my feet throb as the miles passed.
We talked longer than I’d talked to anyone in months.
We coasted into town, and my phone vibrated with a half dozen voicemails from my cousin, each one escalating in fear, and I told Jeff he could drop me at the first restaurant, which turned out to be the same DQ I’d stopped at on my way up the mountain.
I slipped Agnes into the backpack, shook Jeff’s hand and thanked him as profusely as I could without embarrassing him. He nodded. “God bless,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said. “God bless.”
I watched him drive off, then ducked inside, where I ordered a massive amount of food before calling my cousin from the safety of a booth, over by the window, in an air conditioned, national fast food chain where bad things weren’t permitted through the door.
The next day, after a small band of second cousins towed my car out of the snow with a truck and a chain, I’d watch the numbers roll by on my dashboard as we drove back down the mountain.
Agnes and I’d walked together for 25 miles. Which must be 152 for chihuahuas.
But for now I stuffed my face and cooled my heels, slipping French fries into the hole in my backpack, and she took each one politely with her tiny teeth. I pushed a cup of cold water through the flaps and held it still while she sipped.
Maybe it was a mistake, her trust in me. I wasn’t cut out to rescue anyone, even a chihuahua. I’d only fail her.
But it was too late. There was no back door to this day. No return to San Francisco or the mean streets of Bakersfield. No re-dos on my many mistakes. Agnes was stuck with me. All I could do was keep her company, and watch for the things coming around the corner. Maybe that much I could manage.
The email popped in my inbox with the subject line: “Saw You Online and OMG!”
This was a few years ago, before those words had become a spammer’s ubiquitous tease. Before I’d learned that those words never lead you someplace good.
I took the bait and found my own face smirking back at me. My face and belly, annotated.
I didn’t recognize the email address. The pic was shot by some roaming photographer at the Folsom Street Fair, California’s third-largest single-day outdoor spectator event, which draws a quarter million “fetish enthusiasts.”
Though the street fair had grown in popularity and widened in its demographics, it’s rooted in the gay community, and anyone with a passing acquaintance of (a certain privileged segment of the) gay male culture knows that we’ll strip off our shirts with little hesitation at events for which straight people normally remain clothed. (Brunch? Check. Bowling? Check. Book club? I’m down.)
Anyway, I’d been drafted to sling beers for charity and had been to the gym that week, so I ended up shirtless on the internet (sorry, Lowe’s). When I stumbled across it, I promptly grabbed the pic for an online profile, which may have helped me land a date or two (thanks, Lowe’s).
Since half my life is online, I had no idea which site the troll had pulled it from. I had to Google “turistors” to confirm that they’re luggage. Baggage, bags, etc.
With the help of Photoshop, he (I assumed it was a fellow gay dude) had zeroed in on the body parts that gave me shame (two of them, at least). The parts that made me hesitate when stripping off my shirt or posting a pic. Parts to filter. Parts to obscure.
Like he’d jimmied open the back door to my brain and shone a Maglite on the one dark corner where I stash my ego. I could speculate on his motives, but that’s a dull path to take.
I could call myself, with all sincerity, my own worst critic. I didn’t have to internalize the shame he meant to provoke — it had been there for years. The call was coming from inside the house.
But seeing that critic’s thoughts (i.e., my own thoughts) scrawled over my face and body and concretely seconded by an anonymous observer (who may have known me in real life) was arguably worse.
Everyone knows the risks. Sad sacks haunt forums and chat rooms and comment sections, trailing poison with every keystroke. I’d been writing and blogging for years, and I knew the number one rule: DON’T FEED THE TROLLS.
They live off the bloodshed. They feed off the left hook/right hook of threaded comments and retaliatory emails. Faced with no response, they wither to bones, or sniff out the next sucker.
It was a rule I held to for years. I didn’t even read online comments, following one soul-debilitating presidential election cycle. But that night, wounded by the red scrawls staring at me from my inbox, I couldn’t help myself:
Sorry you’re such an unhappy person, I wrote. Good luck with your miserable life. You’ll need it.
Lame, in retrospect. I’ve never thought fast (or cutting) on my feet. Still, it was short, bitter, and to the point.
It didn’t make me feel better.
Two minutes later I got a new email with the subject line: Saw you online and again what the fuck??
Inside was another of my pics:
The bruise on my chest is a good story for another time.
He’d named this pic, “SheThinksShesAllThat.jpg” which, again, was remarkable in its precision cutting.
The thing is, I’d never in my entire life thought I was all that, about anything. At all. But I’d done something I was a little proud of. A lifetime ago, I’d arrived at college weighing 128 pounds. I’d been called Toothpick and Bones so often that if a genie had granted me three wishes, I’d easily blow the first to look “normal.”
Instead, over those many years I’d worked hard to build up to 185 pounds, and if I wasn’t all that (I wasn’t), maybe I was some of that? A slice of that? Enough to encourage moments in which beautiful strangers might want to make out with me in dive bars, Toyotas and shirtless bowling alleys?
Like I hadn’t learned my lesson. But I could taste blood. In 70 words-per-minute haste I shot back:
The image of you spending your days and nights photoshopping other people’s pictures is cracking me up.Fortunately you still have your mother to tuck you in at night, since you’re living in her basement.Please keep spending your time sending me pictures of myself. It’s flattering.
I waited, checking my email every few minutes as I made a dinner that I’d chew in glum righteousness. But that was the last I ever heard from the troll.
I didn’t feel as though I’d won. The emails had wounded me despite the deft construction of a sweet and affable personality. I’d long avoided any fusillade of criticism, forever scanning the horizon for threats, fashioning armor of helpfulness and self-deprecation, to keep me safe. I was nice to dogs and exes and I donated to charity.
And still it came for me.
Women fear being killed by men. Men fear being laughed at by women. I don’t know the top fear of white, privileged gay dudes, but having your shirtless internet pic annotated for laughs could rank high. I should add that including these pics here is the wound that keeps on bleeding. I don’t want you to see them.
As the hours passed, the sting faded, and I began to mull a fellow blogger’s tagline, which I will paraphrase: “If you post anything on the internet, expect criticism.” I have no love for this motto, though I get it.
It’s a stretch to draw parallels between beefcake pics and works of creativity that are posted with less selfish motives than future hook-ups. But that’s where my brain went on the Night of the Troll.
You make something and put it up — a blog post, a painting, a song, an idea — hoping for praise. Hoping, maybe, to connect.
You can labor on it for days, weeks, and longer, dogged by doubt and the multiple calls coming from inside the house. But to post it, to share it, to strip off your shirt — that jump takes guts.
Many never make that jump.
You run the risk of the Facebook take-down. A hundred hours of labor met with a single, Twittered, “Meh.” I’d written online for years, and every time my mouse had hovered over the “Post” button, I’d think:
This time you went too far. This time you said too much. Worse, you said it unskillfully. You’re a crap writer. You’re naked and ugly and they’re all gonna laugh at you, Toothpick.
But somehow I’d jump. Not because I had guts. Only because other writers and painters and musicians had made that jump before me, making me feel, through their best work, less alone with my flaws and faults. The luggage I’d rather hide.
I’m not all that, I don’t know much, but I’d rather exit this life having added one or two things to the world, than dwell in the basement of trolls.
Make it. Post it. Be naked and afraid. Connect with beautiful strangers when they stumble across your creation. Make them feel less alone with their deformities. Make out with them in their dark bedroom, their phone on the nightstand chirping as their inbox fills through the night.