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Held All Wrong

Not long ago I was at a restaurant with a friend of mine when he interrupted our conversation. “My mother would never let you eat at our dinner table. Not with the way you hold your silverware.” I stopped mid-bite and looked at him. He was only half-joking. I knew that his mother was a former Miss Rochester, New York. Undoubtedly she’d place high premium on decent table manners. It’s true – I held my fork like a barbarian, but nobody had ever commented on this.

“How are you supposed to hold it?” I asked. He demonstrated by lifting the fork to his mouth, his palm facing upwards. I mimicked him a few times. “Like this?” He nodded. My fingers looked graceful resting against the handle, though it felt awkward.

Later that week I had dinner with Bearbait. “Have you ever noticed the way I hold my fork?” I asked. He nodded, his eyes downcast as though he had always been ashamed to tell me. “Gee, thanks for telling me,” I said.

I hold my pen the “wrong way”, as well; my fingers scrunched down around the tip. My hand cramps easily, which is why I prefer the computer. But it’s too late; I’m not changing the way I write.

Following that dinner, however, I started holding my fork the right way, palm facing upwards, my fingers cradling it rather than wrapped around it like a four-year old’s fist.

A couple of weeks ago I brought a couple of pairs of jeans into Lee Loy Cleaners on 18th St in the Castro. One pair’s zipper was broken. The other pair’s zipper would never stay closed, always sliding open as I walked around, which meant I spent the entire day doing little zipper checks, pressing my fingertip against the zipper like a nervous tic. The man at the counter took this latter pair and played around a bit with the zipper, then showed me that, in fact, the jeans were fine. He zipped them up and then turned the tab back downwards, pointing towards the ground. He showed me that there was a little groove on the back of the tab that locked with the zipper. All I had to do was turn the tab downwards after zipping up. He handed the pair back and gave me a claim ticket for the other pair. “Thursday?” he said.

“Sure.” I said, grateful not only for his generosity (he could have taken both pairs and made a little more money replacing each zipper) but excited from learning one of those little facts of life that you can go 32 years without knowing.

“Yeah, you didn’t know that?” my friend asked as I joined him outside on the sidewalk.


He admitted he had done wardrobe for his college theater department. Later that week I asked two other friends and neither knew the zipper trick, which made me feel better.

In each circumstance, especially with the silverware, I had initially felt that old insecurity of being somehow less equipped to deal with the world than most others. How come my parents never taught me how to hold a fork, I wondered. It was a knee-jerk reaction; reducing me instantly to the scrawny twelve-year old who only owned one Ocean Pacific hooded sweatshirt and who could never get his permission slips signed on time.

Over the last few years I’ve had to confront and manage many activities that I knew nothing about. Paying taxes. Renting an apartment. Buying a car. Activities that nearly paralyzed me with fear. Maybe everyone feels this way the first time they take on such challenges. But I’ve always suspected that other people’s parents held their hands through the initial stages, and it’s this suspicion that has fueled my twelve-year old self’s resentment at always being different, less able to move through this world as though he had the right to occupy it.

When I was writing my grad school admissions essays, I mentioned my love of learning for its own sake. I invoked feelings of passion, of “waking up” from the stupor that envelopes me working at a job I dislike. I spoke of classrooms and lecture halls as places that energize me. Which is true, for the most part.

But learning, true learning, can be painful. How could it be otherwise, waking up to the fact that what you thought you knew doesn’t work anymore? Whether it’s learning how to hold my fork or how to stop using crystal meth, each lesson hurt. The pain of the silverware lesson was far briefer and less intense than the lesson in addiction. But I had a moment of red-faced shame, followed quickly by self-deprecating laughter.

It’s foolish of me to look for the lessons of the past year, this soon after the game of love and prizes. Any attempt to pick apart this experience leads to self-help type conclusions, which aren’t good enough. It’ll take awhile before the lessons are fully illuminated. I can only say that I would have to be incredibly stupid not to learn something from this, even if it’s just the realization that the only promises that matter anymore are the ones I make to myself.

Learning is like that one time when you were walking to dinner through the Castro in the early evening, hordes of commuters emerging from the MUNI underground and political aides handing out flyers on the corners and it seemed like every great looking guy was totally checking you out and giving you a smile and you’re thinking you must look really hot and then you get to the restaurant and your friend points out that your zipper is down.

And then you zip up and you sit down to dinner and you pick up your silverware the right way, and then you eat.

“I’ve been thinking,” I said, taking another slice of pizza from the delivery box on the coffee table. Bearbait fed a piece of crust to Scout, the golden retreiver he was watching. We were sitting in the living room of his friend’s cute little house in Noe Valley. “I think I want to take a little road trip, someplace close. I’ve never been down to Big Sur or Monterey in all the years I’ve lived here. You know, get some writing done.” I didn’t tell him that I had the same urge when my mother died.

“That sounds wonderful.”


“Just do me a favor.”


“I don’t want to see any pictures of you walking on the beach in a baggy cable knit sweater and stirrup pants. If something like that ends up as the author photo on one of your books, I’ll know I’ve failed you.”


Like a Sad Bridesmaid

This weekend nearly 2500 gay couples were married down at City Hall here in San Francisco. They came from all over the Bay Area, and many from out-of-state. They camped out overnight in the rain as if the Rolling Stones were set to play. Today two conservative groups, the Alliance Defense Fund and the Campaign for California Families, will bring the mayor to court in an effort to protect the sanctity of marriage, which is hilarious considering the bang-up job that heterosexuals have done with the “sacred” institution.

Meanwhile Valentine’s Day came and went and I spent the weekend nursing my stupid broken heart. Stupid because it cares about nothing but its own pain. It’s a black hole in my chest; sucking up everything around me, wind howling at its edges. It doesn’t care about all of the giddy love catching hold in the City. It won’t let me read because nobody else’s story is good enough. It allows certain songs to play if only for accompaniment, a soundtrack for its soap opera. It wallows in its painful stew, sighing dramatically so that everyone around can, you know, hear it.

Seriously though. There’s no getting around it, the only way through is through, or whatever it is they say. Too close to write about it, and too distracted to write about anything else. There’s a thickness behind my ribs and a heaviness behind my eyes, though I’ve been listening to The Cure’s “Boys Don’t Cry” as if it contained instructions for becoming a less sensitive man; somebody who could move through his days more blithely, immune to the arrows slung from Cupid’s misguided bow. Someone who could lie to himself and still sleep at night.

I piece together jigsaw puzzles on my Mac, as if by completing a digital puzzle I could answer all the questions my stupid broken heart keeps asking, its needle stuck in the groove. Stop asking unanswerable questions. Finish your sentences with a period instead of a question mark. Dream smaller. Aim a little lower. Stop circling dates on the calendar. Finish off the groceries you bought. Come down and brush your feet along the ground. Give up and look around at what’s left. You still have Art. Art will never let you down. Art is more important than love, you tell yourself. Though you thought you had room for both. Let the self-pity flow, for awhile, then make it stop.

The sadness following a thwarted daydream like the sadness after you come; your underwear looped around one ankle like a ridiculous talisman.

Vanishing Suitor

A special shout out to a fellow blogger tonight. You may know Bob Mould, singer/songwriter and former member of Husker Du, who has sent much kindness and traffic my way lately. I told a friend when I first heard from him, “I got an e-mail from a famous person!” And I thought I was so above that.

Speaking of e-mails, I got an interesting one from a guy who wanted to know if there’s been any fiction or non-fiction books about gay couples, who in the end live happily ever after together. I drew a blank. I wrote back that most literature, whether about gays or straights, is usually bittersweet at best. Happily married couples don’t make for interesting art, I’m afraid. At least not good art. I’m going to go over and look at my bookshelves now to see if any of these gay couples live happily ever after. Okay, first, James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room”. Um, no. Two books by Michael Chabon: “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh”: bittersweet. “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay”, bittersweet. Three books by Michael Cunningham: “A Home at the End of the World”, very bittersweet; “Flesh and Blood”, bittersweet, “The Hours”: bittersweet, though the lesbian couple stay together. Mark Doty’s “Heaven’s Coast”, well it’s a memoir about his partner dying from AIDS, so no. Larry Kramer’s “Faggots”, hell no. Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America”, bittersweet, with differing fates for different characters. David Leavitt’s “Equal Affections”, bittersweet. Armisted Maupin’s “Sure of You” (the last book in the Tales of the City series), bittersweet, with different fates for different characters. Dale Peck’s “Martin and John”, bittersweet at best. Manuel Puig’s “Kiss of the Spiderwoman”, no. David Sedaris seems to have a decent relationship, though you have to read between the lines to see it. Tom Spanbauer’s “The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon”, bittersweet. Lyle Leverich’s “Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams”, no. Patricia Highsmith’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley”; ha, that’s a good one.

Maybe this says more about my taste for bittersweet then it does for gay characters. I don’t read a lot of self-described “Gay Fiction”. I veer away from books with half-naked boys on the cover just out of principle, and that narrows the field considerably. I’m sure I will hear a few suggestions after posting this, I will pass them along to the guy who wrote me.

Now I’m looking at my DVD’s, and guess what? Hedwig, Lost in Translation, Blood Simple, Blue, White, Red, Heaven, Crouching Tiger, Fight Club, Mulholland Drive, Magnolia, In the Mood for Love, and Grey Gardens. I think Amelie is the only one that qualifies for “happily ever after”. And she’s straight.

I’m not surprised. A couple of weeks ago I decided to enter a contest for California writers working on unfinished manuscripts. There was a 100-page limit for submissions, and I didn’t think I’d even get close. But it gave me the impetus to look back through my archives, all two years, to gather up the few gems. After reading through a few months, I was a little overwhelmed at the pervasive air of sadness contained within. I grew a little weary and defensive, as though for the sake of readers everywhere who just want a little entertainment, thanks for asking. But I stuck with it, and was pleasantly surprised that I had well over a hundred pages of halfway decent material. Very rough material, but not as bad as I’d feared. In the end I let myself off the hook; different writers have recurring themes, or moods. Mine is a little melancholy and that’s fine.

But I wonder sometimes, today, if that preference for the bittersweet isn’t a self-fulfilling prophecy. Do I bring sadness upon myself, if only because I think I understand it? Or is that my fate in life, to be obsessed with longing? I don’t know. There are many things that I don’t feel free to write about here, usually for good reason, like other people’s privacy. But tonight my heart aches, and I’m tired of keeping that a secret. So I’m giving myself permission to be a little melancholy, and to turn to my bittersweet heroes, like Hedwig, for comfort.

You think that luck has left you there
but maybe there’s nothing up in the sky but air
and there’s no mystical design
no cosmic lover pre-assigned
There’s nothing you can find
That cannot be found

And though I have it now on DVD, I’m going to take myself tonight to see Lost in Translation, for the fourth or fifth time, while it’s still in the theaters. I was waiting to take someone else, but I think it’s time I went alone.

The Woman at the 7/11 Register

“I have decided that photography is a sort of private sin of mine. As a virtue I find it really hard to sustain.”

The Arbus catalogue is full of quotes that I dutifully scribble in my own notebook after waking to rain on Monday morning. The laundry is spinning upstairs and I have a scant three hours to myself before hitting the dentist’s chair for one of my weekly three-hour sessions. Of course I am bitter and resentful about losing my Mondays to the student dentist, but the only target worthy of my bitterness is myself. One of the least sexy parts of being sober is the whole cleaning-up-the-wreckage-of-my-past project. And there’s no sense in complaining about my student dentist Adrian, who looks an awful lot like the guy in the commercial who has barbeque sauce smeared all over his face. There’s no point in complaining, because although Adrian is slow and has no dental hygienists to assist him, the dental school has a program that pays for all the work done on its clients with HIV. It’s a trade-off made almost bearable by my iPod.

I’m beginning to ask my father lots of questions, about their marriage and my early childhood. I’m not interested anymore in assigning blame for all the pain of those years. I just want to understand them. I want to understand the pressures of that time. I’m beginning to see each of them within myself; my father’s quiet, his need of order, his confusion when confronted with other people’s anger. My mother’s need for affection, her addictions, her desire to please.

My mother was raised Catholic, and hated it so much that she left the Church when she married my father, who was raised a Methodist. But she felt (of course) guilty for having done so, and lied to her parents. Each time they visited from Kansas we’d take them to the local Catholic church, pretending to be members.

I was the one who broke open the whole scam, when I was about nine. I made the mistake of mentioning Sunday school to my grandparents. How was I supposed to know that Catholics don’t do Sunday school? That was a fun day in the McAllister household.

I’m grateful to my mother for many things, including leaving the Church, as it saved me the likely prospect of more guilt than I’d know what to do with. I still inherited a fair amount of residual guilt from her. She was guilty for having abandoned the Church, for being a lesbian, for trying to be someone happier than the culture would allow at that point.

It wasn’t until 11:00 pm last Sunday that I remembered that it was February 1st, and that it had been two years since my mother died. I guess that’s progress, of a sort, though I didn’t feel particularly good about forgetting the anniversary. My subconscious brought her in for a guest appearance in my dreams that night. In the dream my stepsister and I were driving someplace and we stopped off at a 7-11 for a slushee, or Red Vines. And there was my mother, working the counter of the 7-11. I saw her as we were walking up to the front door and I broke down sobbing, wracked with guilt over the fact that my mother had to work at a convenience store. It was a little melodramatic, but my dreams aren’t exactly exercises in subtlety. In my dream she was still alive, but she was sick, which only made it worse. I was probably unemployed as well, making the contrast between her martyrdom and my failings as a dutiful son that much starker. When my mother saw us walk in, she retreated from the counter and asked a co-worker to help us, because she was ashamed we had seen her. She glanced at me quickly as she walked away, her smile an apology. In all of my dreams about her, I can never talk to her. She is always across the room. We can see each other, and she’ll smile at me, but I can never hear her voice.

On Tuesday I woke at 7. The world outside my window was shrouded in white fog, thicker than I had ever seen. I could barely make out the shape of the house next door. The trees were dripping onto the back deck. Drops of condensation fell onto the glass surface of the garden table. I was tired and reluctant, as always, to go into work. I wanted the fog to justify my desire to bury back into my bed. I wanted to call in sick. I wanted the fog to be so thick that the world would shut down. But I poured myself coffee and stumbled into the shower, because like my mother I never call in sick. And that’s why, as I drove down Roosevelt Way, around the curves that twist down the side of the hill, that I saw the fog did not shroud the entire city. As I descended it cleared away, and as I continued the cloud that lay over my house receded behind me.