And then you are someone you are not

Our conversation last night about limerence has me thinking about some of the boys I’ve carried torches for over the years. I think the first, years before I was able to admit my sexuality, was Alfredo.

I was 14 when I joined nineteen other high schoolers for a cultural exchange project to Nicaragua. This was in 1985, smack in the middle of the Contra War. We stayed in Leon, the second largest city in Nicaragua, far south of the battles and relatively safe. The project organizers had set us up with families in a small villa outside of downtown; a neighborhood that was benefiting from the project’s donations of supplies and labor. Dirt floors, occasional electricity, cold water, chickens in the courtyard. Toilet paper was a luxury and as such, we brought our own, along with t-shirts and other gifts. It’s hard to articulate how welcomed we were made to feel. The contras were not an army acting for the benefit of the people; quite the opposite. Nicaraguans loved us; the liberal peace-loving Americans who visited their country, but they hated our government. Go back and ask them to stop, they’d say. Every family had sons drafted into the war against the Contras, everyone knew someone killed. The family I stayed with gave me the largest room with the softest bed, fed me, played me music, answered all my near-illegible questions with good humor and kindness.

There were three daughters in the household. No boys. However, I would sit out at night in front of the house and the neighborhood boys would come by to ask questions, play me more music, impress me with karate kicks to each other’s heads. That kind of thing. Late one night a boy named Alfredo, a couple of years older than me, seemed to take a certain shine to me. Given my remedial Spanish, he took it upon himself to act out stories for me (few people spoke English). His stories usually depicted brave acts involving angry rushing bulls or the possibility of fighting the Contras when he turned 17. At certain points he would stop and repeat certain words in Spanish for me so I could understand more. I was sitting in front of him and he would lean over with his hands on my knees and his face near mine; his teeth bright, his eyes shining. I will never forget that; it was the first physical contact I had with a boy whom I found attractive. The cultural differences our countries had about physical space and proximity, him being that close to me, intensified that attraction.

We spent several more nights hanging out like that on the steps out front of our houses; the warm dark air, palm trees rustling above, the radio music drifting from down the block. Nothing more than that. No sex, no kissing, just friendly affection that to a scared fourteen-year old meant the world to me.

I cried when I left. He saw me off with the others, waving energetically and jumping up and down, “Bye, My-kol.” As friends will attest, I was not the same when I came back. The shock of re-entering a world filled with everything, combined with the distance from my first infatuation, left me sad and wistful. In some ways I had felt more welcomed, more treasured, than I did in my own family. I talked constantly about going back, and I began to save my money. I wrote a whole notebook full of poetry about my trip. I was arrested for the first and only time at a demonstration in downtown Minneapolis against the U.S Intervention in Central America. I wrote letters to my exchange family and to Alfredo, and they wrote back. I think my friends had a hard time understanding the intensity of my feelings for Nicaragua, probably because I could not yet articulate the passion I felt; the passion for another boy.

A year passed, I had some money saved and was negotiating with the project organizers a solo return trip. One day a letter arrived for me, the air mail envelope a small kick in my heart, my name drawn in cursive on the front. It was from my exchange family. My Spanish had improved over the year, and I began to decipher the formal greetings and news within. Which is to say that it took me a few moments and several re-readings, to understand that Alfredo had been drafted, and in a truck heading for the war zone, was ambushed by the Contras and killed.

In retrospect I can see that there was something about my inexpressible sexuality and the warm, immediate intimacy I had felt in Nicaragua that combined and intensified every moment of those ten days I spent in Leon. Which is ironic, given that homosexuality is not particularly accepted there. Alfredo most certainly would not have welcomed the true extent of my feelings for him. At the time, however, I would not have been able to articulate such feelings. I just wanted more, I wanted it again. Another boy’s hands, gripping my knees. It was enough.

Scratch my name on your arm with a fountain pen

After I wrote yesterday, Ski called me from his parents’ house in Jersey and told me that his father had died while Ski was on the plane. The similarity of our circumstances was hard to ignore, I tried to offer whatever paltry condolences I could, telling myself not to get worked up and make these occurrences mean something more than they do. That’s all beyond my control, and rather than make the loss of a parent the basis of a relationship, it’s probably more appropriate to just assure him he has a friend. (in opposition to this is the other voice in my head, fed up with being appropriate, throwing dishes and lip-synching to Morrisseyplease please please let me get what I want this time)

Twitch

The work week ended with me emotionally drained and my head so overstimulated from poor event planning, misbehaving dogs, and ignored grief, that I came home and played video games until midnight.

Whereupon I woke this morning to the sound of my own dog throwing up in the corner, and unsuccessfully tried to will myself back to sleep. I stumbled in a foul mood to the kitchen for paper towells and coffee, only to find the thermos empty. I opened the freezer for my secret stash of bad canned espresso and discovered that my roommates not only emptied the can, but put it back in the freezer as some sort of loser fuckhead stupid joke.

So feeling grimy and unsocial, I walked with Louie several blocks to the closest coffee shop that serves decent cofffee, and though I once before talked with romanticism about this neighborhood joint, this morning the ten-minute long line full of hipsters ordering macchiatos and breakfast bagels just made me boil.

Outside the Tattooed Monk calls me on the cell, wondering why I haven’t called yet to make plans for the day, and it’s all I can do to plead a severe case of isolationism, and retreat to my little room for more video games.

Now it’s late afternoon, I’m over-caffeinated, underfed, I have twenty dollars for the next five days, and my eye has been twitching all day.

This year just has to get better. There’s nowhere left but up.

But my self-pitying is cut in half when I learn that Ski, my friend and the only man I’ve wanted to date in the last year, gets a call from New York that his dad has taken a turn for the worse due to the tumor on his brain, and R needs to go home, two weeks after I made my own trip home. I call him and get him at the airport, where his plane ticket and checkbook have been stolen and he is just now, hours later, about to board the plane. Oh sweetie, wouldn’t I love to take all that crap away from you now, I’ve had so much lately that a little more couldn’t hurt. You’re loved, more than you know, more than I’ve felt I could say.

When you were mine

Three days back now and I’m not quite sure what I am one hour to the next. Work still needs working, of course, and I went to my first 12-step meeting since I’ve been gone last night, and saw friends and acquaintances, some who knew and others who didn’t.

I don’t know what I expect, from myself and others now. A dark mood carried me for awhile last night and then gradually lifted as I left the meeting and waited for the bus with my sponsor. There’s the selfish part that wants everything to stop and mourn with me, and the grown-up part that knows life always goes on, and do you want to join or stay put? I’m questioning my job again, wondering if I’ll always be some sort of administrative assistant my whole life as I tinker on the fringes of art-making, or if there’s something else I’m supposed to be doing. I’ve been told that big decisions shouldn’t be made following the death of a loved one, and quite honestly I wouldn’t know where to go from here. It seems wrong to continue these days working and living as though nothing has happened, yet my mother was not the type to cry in a corner and sleep all day. She kept moving, always, and that intensified as her disease progressed, and I made assumptions about her fear and a need to outrun Death. There has to be a middleground, and so I promise myself not to pretend that I’m happy when I’m not, nor will I retreat from life.

(soundtrack: track 15 of Moby’s Play, on repeat)

Valentine’s Day and another choice: resent the day and the love others have, or wish them well and throw a coin in the fountain: may that happen to me again, someday.

Tearjerk

Back in SF and back to work. More craziness here than I need. But due to the fact that I was gone over a week, I feel obliged to return full-force. At least it’s good to be back, warmer weather and the ex will drop off Louie tonight, I’ll take him out for a walk.

Mom’s service was… pretty amazing. Lee did a great job of planning it out, and the speakers captured so many facets of her. What emerged, through their stories and the others I heard from her friends and co-workers who approached me, was that Mom consistently went out of her way for others, supporting them and befriending them, never drawing attention to herself. She once ran a race with a slower friend who was just starting out, keeping her company and encouraging her along the 10K until the very end, where she fell back a bit and let her friend pass the finish line first.

I was a big mess. I suppose I should be grateful that I could cry (a lot) and not be cut off from my feelings, but it took quite a few seconds up at the podium for me to hold onto my voice and even then I lost it. Lee picked out two Broadway tunes for the solo vocalist: “What’ll I Do?” and “Somewhere (There’s a Place for Us)”. Made me cry just hearing the titles.

What can I say? I’m going to miss her so much, and the world has lost such a good soul that it seems it should slow down for a bit and take notice, but it won’t. Words fail me. But this is what I said:

Things I Learned from My Mother
Work hard for your dreams.
Stay in school.
Animals are sources of great love and companionship.
The examined life is the best life.
It’s never too late to strengthen your bonds with others.
Read books.
Travel the world.
Climb mountains.
Run, farther that you thought you could.
Surround yourself with good friends, the kind that will stick with you through the best and worst of times.
Love can be hard, but it’s worth fighting for.
Saying “no” can be hard, especially to telemarketers.
Life isn’t fair, but never give up.
Above all, treat others with respect and compassion. When you do, you will be loved, more than you ever imagined.

The following is an excerpt from Manuel Puig’s “Kiss of the Spiderwoman”

Following the death of his cellmate, Valentin the revolutionary dreams that he is reunited with his beloved.

“-Yes, this is a dream and we’re talking together, so even if you fall asleep you don’t have to be afraid, and I think now that nothing is ever going to separate us again, because we’ve realized the most difficult thing of all.
-What’s the most difficult thing of all to realize?
-That I live deep inside your thoughts and so I’ll always remain with you, you’ll never be alone.
-Of course that’s it, that’s what I can never let myself forget, if the two of us think the same then we’re together, even if I can’t see you.
-Yes, that’s it.
-So when I wake up on the island you’re going to go away with me.
-Don’t you want to stay forever in such a beautiful place?
-No, it’s been good up to now, but enough resting, once I’ve eaten everything up and after some sleep I’m going to be strong again, because my comrades are waiting for me to resume the age-old fight.
-That’s the only thing I don’t ever want to know, the name of your comrades.
-Marta, oh how much I love you! That was the only thing I couldn’t tell you, I was so afraid you were going to ask me that and then I was going to lose you forever.
-No, Valentin, beloved, that will never take place, because this dream is short, but this dream is happy.”

Money changes everything

Two years and three months ago, when my mother was first diagnosed with ALS (after several months believing it was Parkinson’s), I was busy escaping the emptiness of my life with copious amounts of whiskey and crystal methamphetamine. Her phone call instigated a rather clumsy and painful journey towards sobriety that took nearly a year. Having looked ALS up on the Internet only to see the words “usually fatal within five years of diagnosis”, I sat at the computer in a dark silence and suddenly every cliche about terminal illness was true: things would never be the same.

As any practicing drug addict would do, I went through the following days and months making most of it about me. The world owed me, now more than ever, and I quickly decided that every creditor I owed would somehow cut me some slack because now my mom was dying. Needless to say, they didn’t, and I have been under an increasing amount of debt ever since that fantasy entered my pretty little head.

I’d like to think that I’ve made progress in accepting life’s harsh realities. I know the world will not wait while you pull your shit together, nor does it care much if you make a few mistakes along the way. Sobriety can be hard if only because of the “wreckage of our past” demands clean-up. Not that I would trade my current clarity for those terrifyingly small and lonesome days. If today carries a generous amount of loss and pain, at least my head is clear, and I have companions beside me.

Working for a non-profit and living in the most expensive city in the country, I have become adjusted, if bitterly, to living hand-to-mouth, focusing my attention each month to the fifth and the twentieth days, parceling out twenties like rations in wartime. Such an income has not helped my debt, nor have the costs of my trips home over the past year. And currently, a week from payday, I am faced with a checking balance in the double digits and several bills laughing openly at me on my desk.

My mother’s death means, among other things, that I’ll inherit a little bit of money. I’m not sure how much yet, and I’m not sure when, but it would appear that it could at least take care of my debts; an understandably liberating thought. I’ve worked non-profit jobs most of my adult life, long enough to wonder if I’d ever be able to travel or buy a house. Working for something resembling the Greater Good seems to equate working for nothing but passion. The starving artist is a romantic icon. I have wondered if the possession of money would corrupt or strangle my need to write. I feared the same with sobriety. The artist/writer drowning in a sea of alcohol and drugs is another of society’s favorite icons. I still don’t really know yet the consequences of sobriety upon my writing/acting. With the Campfire, I am writing again, but it ends here. No poetry, plays, stories or novels have welled up within me. But that may change, and maybe memoir, that currently over-played genre (if you pay attention to critics) will suffice. Time will tell.

Things that I have already bought in my head include:
-A new down comforter
-New running shoes
-New boots
-A car for me and Louie
-My own little studio apartment
-A trip overseas
-A memorial fund in Mom’s name for the organization she volunteered for
-Expensive, frivolous groceries

Things I conveniently ignore:
-The actual taxes I would owe on withdrawals from this inheritance
-The cost of car insurance and gasoline
-The stock market’s bad mood
-The awkwardness that suddenly having money could produce among equally poor friends and co-workers, and my consequent desire to keep new purchases at home in the closet, where only I could see them, with a flashlight

I’ve resisted writing about this before, mainly due to the last reason. Let’s just say I feel undeserving of this inheritance, and guilty that I may actually have some of the freedom that money buys. But who knows, maybe the stock market wiped it all out, and I’ll be just as poor as always. Guess which problem I’d rather have?

Midnight Radio

My friend Crowman, whom I’m staying with through tonight, has built a sizeable collection of gay-themed DVD’s, so this whole week has provided ample opportunity to escape through film: Three, count ’em, three viewings in two days of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, one of Moulin Rouge, and my second viewing of Trick which I like simply because it captures that giddy sense of infatuation when you first meet someone who might become a part of your life. I remember seeing it awhile back, about the time I was going through my break-up, and feeling kind of…excited, that I might get that chance to feel that way again about someone, to have that initial thrill and goofiness. Despite all my talk, I guess I still want that.

Mom’s service is tomorrow. A snowstorm is expected, but this is Minnesota, and snow never keeps anyone home. Three more days, then I can go home. Just talked to my boss, who says it is clear in my absence the amount of work that I do, and how much I am missed by my co-workers, not only because I make their jobs easier, but apparently they kind of like me….or they don’t hate me. Something like that.

Hey, I can talk to Mom again, at least in a somewhat nebulous way. I doubt she surfs the Internet in heaven, but maybe she can hear me, watch over me. Mom, I’m keeping busy, I haven’t exactly dwelt on your absence, but that’s coming. I hope you are free, and happy, and reunited with your parents and your dog, and I hope you can see me. Unless I’m having sex, then I hope you can’t.

I think I’ve finally finished the program layout for Mom’s service. There have been so many small, minor changes and numerous people to organize and commit, and it’s a delicate operation, but I think it’s done and acceptable to Lee and hopefully the minister. Lee has pushed hard to make the service as un-“religious” as possible, while also honoring Mom’s spirituality. I think it’s a good balance.

My brother flew in tonight, he and Lee’s two kids and I went out for pizza and beer (well, I drank soda) at the Leaning Tower, which was smokey but low-key enough. Managed to have a few laughs, mostly about stupid celebrities. Alone, my brother and I didn’t talk much, but it was a pretty comfortable silence. I honestly have so little to say now, I mostly just want to be quiet, and be left alone. Four more days here, trying to fulfill responsibilities and see relatives and mourn, somwhere in there. I don’t exactly want to head back to work right away but I don’t have much of a choice; I’ve been gone a week already, and the workshops I was coordinating have already had a huge disaster when the keynote speaker got his dates mixed up and failed to show. I’m glad I wasn’t there.

Meet with the minister tomorrow a.m., get a haircut, hit Kinko’s in there someplace, have dinner with Dad and it sounds like his mother and brother are coming, then try to get squared away to both move over to the motel and do the service on Saturday. I’m broke, I can’t afford these plane tickets and motels. Time for bed.

Why, oh why haven’t I seen Hedwig and the Angry Inch until tonight? I’ve been so out of it for too long. Wow. wow. wow.

Sometimes I wish that I could go back in time and tell the young scared boy who was me that I’ll be okay. I’ve been feeling this new, I don’t know, comfort, with who I am, or confidence. It’s like stripping away the layers of fear one carries as a kid, through school and adulthood, and finding yourself so right that none of that other shit matters anymore.

I haven’t been updating much. I feel like those natives who viewed cameras with suspicion; I feel like the more I talk (or write), the more my soul is captured, erased, weakened. Being quiet has always been easy for me, and now more than ever I resort to that natural state of silence. Sometimes it is marked by contemplation, other times I escape into crossword puzzles and hand-held Tetris.

This week is a succession of small events falling like dominoes towards Saturday’s memorial service (or “Celebration of Life”, if you rather). Phone calls to relatives and friends, medical equipment collected and returned, bags of my mother’s clothes donated to Goodwill, a life reduced to a $6.80-per-line obituary in the paper, a chapel reserved, a program planned and typed, flowers procured, cars to share, casserole gifts to eat, movies at night, words to write for the service.

I’ve been unconsciously avoiding calls from friends in SF, reluctant to engage in discussions regarding my emotions or the brighter side of death. Bearbait left a message today telling me that “large numbers of people” are approaching him to say that me and my family are in their prayers and, apparently, how much I mean to them. I can’t say it hurts to hear that.

Tomorrow the obituary runs in the paper. It was one thing to see it written up in a notebook, it will be another to see it in the paper.