Untitled Selfie

Set the tripod in your living room and slip your phone within its grip. Click the power button and open the camera app. Bluetooth the remote. Step back into the frame and gauge the lighting. Flick on a third light.

Strip off your shirt and step into the frame. Try an angle. Try another. Move the tripod. Flip on the overhead light. Move the tripod again. Drop to the floor and do 20 push-ups. Stand, flushed, and flex. Drop your arms to your sides. Smile. Cock your head and offer a second smile. Click the remote that’s hidden in your fist. Drop the smile. Tighten your abs. Click the remote. Try a half-smirk. Click. Click. Move a potted plant into the frame. Turn in profile. Click.

Open the blinds. Side light is flattering. Smooth a hand over your chest hair: 225 likes.

Delete the 23 loser shots. Try to forget the dumb, empty look on your face in most of them. Open Photoshop. Brush out the dark circles under your eyes and accentuate the curve of your bicep. Outside the window, replace the parking lot view with a glimpse of Barcelona at night. Add a man with impressive traps, cooking at the stove behind you, wearing nothing but an apron: 678 likes.

Post an ad on Craigslist for several bearded, muscular men and, after winnowing down to the five winners, put them on friendship retainer. Pay them with an early 401(k) withdrawal that cost you a 10% fee. Collect their signed contracts and file for safekeeping.

With your remaining cash, purchase six Speedos of complementary colors at volume discount. Also, sunglasses. Coordinate your new friends together through a group text. Meet the hired photographer at your neighborhood indoor pool and instruct him to make the group shots feel “candid.”

Practice all your smiles. The wry grin. The smirk. The head tossed back in laughter. The men splash. Drops of water glisten on their delts. Confused children cling to the sides of the pool.

Back home, remove the children, their annoyed parents, and the pool’s background on your laptop. Replace with the backyard of a Palm Springs mid-century modern. Tinker with the word “amazing” in the photo’s caption. Amazing weekend, amazing new friends. Play with it. Have fun: 843 likes.

Is that enough? Have you earned the right to rest? To breathe, unbothered, for the remainder of the night?

Peer at the photo. The man to your left has bigger biceps. Examine the bulge in his swimsuit. Does the eye go there first, before your own bulge? Your hairline is receding.

Look up his online profile. Scan with sinking stomach through the kaleidoscope of his charmed life. Click on pics crowded with beautiful men. Examine the particular shade of his blinding white teeth. Smile at yourself in the mirror, then turn away from what you see.

Go back to his profile and check the last pic—the man and his square-chinned husband, decorating a massive Christmas tree in their matching pajamas. Overhead, a 30-foot vaulted ceiling.

2453 likes—do the math.

Gaze at his home’s tasteful interiors. Memorize what you can see of its layout. Check his friendship retainer contract in your files, and note his home address.

Your mother calls and you let her go to voicemail. As you pull on an outfit of black clothing, listen as she tells you that the nurses in the chemo ward brought in holiday treats and packed her a plate of seven sugar cookies and three squares of fudge to bring home. Wait until two a.m., then slip in silence from your apartment.

Drive through the cold winter town, past the brilliant lights of a 24/7 convenience mart, the grim faces of closed banks, and a man slipping on the ice outside an Irish pub, his breath trailing up into the night. Stop at a lonesome station for $2.25 of gas. Check your phone while you pump. Your contracted friend just posted a pic of his square-chinned husband, sleeping on a plush California King, wearing nothing but white briefs: 3267 likes.

Pull up to the curb of the man’s home address. The house looks different. Smaller, with rusted gutters. Kill the engine. Grab the emergency pack of smokes from the glove compartment and light one as your sister calls from rehab. Turn the phone and take nine pics of your face, cocking your head in different directions in the dim streetlight, the ember of your cigarette flaring in the dark. You listen to your sister for 23 minutes as you delete the eight loser shots and filter the remaining pic, chain-smoking four cigarettes, watching the dark house, tipping the ash through the cracked window. “Uh huh,” you say. “I get it.” You wait for her to ask you a question but eventually she just hangs up.

Slip from the car and crush the smoke in the slush under your heel. Stand for a second, measuring the silence. Count 10 breaths. At the end of the narrow street, a hooded figure of indeterminate gender pushes a shopping cart over clumps of icy snow.

Circle the small house. Note with quiet alarm the absence of the pool you’d seen multiple times on his online profile. Skulk along till you find, with both relief and panic, an unlocked bathroom window. Your feet scrape against the stucco as you squeeze your head into the warmth inside. Move a collection of generic-brand toiletries across the top of a tiny cabinet to clear a place for your feet.

Drop in to the bathroom with held breath. Crouch and listen. Count 78 thundering heartbeats. Blood rushes in your ears. No voices, televisions, or ticking clocks. Nothing but your own soft noises.

Creep down the dark hallway. Detect the sound of a snoring man and slowly, gradually, crack open the door to see one man sleeping on his back on a narrow mattress, on the floor in the far corner of the room. Endure 12 seconds of confusion as you scan the room for a square chin. Nothing but the man on a twin mattress and piles of dirty clothing The man snorts, rolls to his side, and you back away from the door.

Slip through the dark house, taking inventory of its meager possessions. The claustrophobic square footage. The pedestrian design. The empty craft beer bottles on the coffee table. Wonder if you’ve broken into the wrong house, but catch sight of a pic taped to the fridge of your contracted friend standing beside an old woman huddled in a wheelchair. Neither smile. She clutches two shawls around her neck.

You find his office and rifle quietly through his desk. You pull open his file cabinet, paw through bank statements. You scan for his biweekly automatic deposit from his job at an insurance agency and blink at the number. It’s five cents more than your own salary, which is 21% below the national median household income. You blink again and squint at the number to confirm that it’s real, then gaze out the back door, empty-headed, at a black stand of trees.

A floorboard in the hallway creaks.

You rush over to a closet in the corner, hiding in its darkness, piles of boxes around you threatening to topple. You stare out through the cracked door as the vein in your temple throbs.

The man shuffles into the office in rumpled pajamas. You recognize them from the Christmas tree pic—the one in the living room with the 30-foot ceiling. At his desk, his back to you, he clicks the space bar on his laptop three, four, five times and a screen saver pic of him and the square-chinned husband appears—they’re skydiving together, a distant red canyon far below . They give the camera thumbs-ups. Behind them, three falcons spin through the thin, blue sky.

He sits at the desk, scratches his shoulder, and opens Photoshop. He plugs in his phone, and pulls up a pic on his laptop. He appears within its frame, shirtless, standing before the bathroom mirror that you glimpsed when you broke into his house. The cold hunger you’d caught in your own reflection. You watch as he trims and distorts and supplements the image on the screen of his laptop, painting layers of confidence, companionship, and bright, heartbreaking colors. From your cramped vantage point, you grudgingly admire his skills

He emails the altered pic to his phone, where he posts it online. He stands, pulls a pack of Camels from a desk drawer, and opens the back door to the patio a good three inches. He leans against the door frame and smokes. You still haven’t seen his face, but you know the slope of his delts.

Snow has begun to fall—fat, wet flakes you can hear hit the branches of the pine trees out back. Tears spring to your eyes and you realize you’re still clutching his bank statement. Cold air seeps into the room and curls around your ankles in the back of the closet as you watch him watching his phone, checking the likes piling up in the last hour before dawn.

Crying at the Gym

Having feelings about a dirty locker room mirror

I’ve been crying some lately. I cry, mostly, for about 30 seconds, and it’s always kicked off by something, a song usually, often at the gym when I’m plugged into my headphones and surrounded by swaggering, grunting hetero bros. Some song or thought that contains equal parts pain and straight-up gratitude. It’s the second ingredient that gets the tears going.

Like, this is embarrassing, but this whole fucking blog is embarrassing, so I’m just going to say it. I don’t listen to a lot of pop songs on my own generally. At the gym I listen to house music from about 1997-2002, mostly, though I’ll sprinkle in a couple of more recent tunes that caught my attention. One of them is Rihanna’s remix of We Found Love, and I like it because her voice scales these crazy octaves in a truly beautiful fashion, and because, of course, of the refrain: we found love in a hopeless place. And because it’s still, despite that refrain, a song about loss.

Which I love, because, well, duh. I know that place. I live there. Or lived there. My love life still lives there, but most of me no longer does. And I listen to it and tears spring to my eyes because I knew that place so well that it was home. I feel like, in the past few years, I really believed that life had turned its back on me, and after months and months of just batshit bad news and hard turns, I thought, oh, so this is it. This is my life, forever.

I know how that sounds. But it’s what I felt, and I thought I had the evidence to back it up. Maybe I did.

And the tears come from this mixed-up combo of gratitude and continued lonesomeness, and wanting to believe that I could still find love in such a place, and relief that I’m not dead and that, as long as I’m breathing, pretty much anything is possible.

I’ve been sober again now for just a few months. Since I once had 15 years, it’s humbling to say those words: just a few months. And it took me about four years to get those few months. And it’s a little crazy how much bigger my life got in those months, and recently I gradually woke up to the fact that I have my center back—that quiet place inside me that I go to for strength, that protects me and is worth protecting. That place inside me used to be just desolate and about as comforting as a frozen tomb.

Now it’s refuge. I built it with a bunch of odd materials—sobriety, writing a slew of stories, good work at a hard job, Buddhism and meditation, bench presses and squats, true crime podcasts, house music, poetry, new friends, thirsty shirtless selfies, and a Chihuahua.

I think it mostly came from my actions. Like, shit I’m proud I’ve done. I have a life again that I don’t want to sabotage.

Life is all change and I don’t know what the fuck is coming next. But in my center I can withstand racist Trump-voters in my local life, money problems, rocky human connections, and bouts of romantic lonesomeness. It’s mine again, I can go there when I want, it’s built for one, built for me, and for that I think I’ll cry here at my desk for another 10 seconds.

How I Learned to Hide

Six in a Cutlass in a Saint Paul suburb. That weekend visitors had come to town. Tom and Sharon, another married couple, had known my parents back in Milwaukee. Tom and Dad had written ad copy together. The visitors slept on the pullout couch that weekend in the TV room. We’d all crammed into the car at night, the four grown-ups, my brother and I, driving home from seeing some sleepy suburban sight my grown-up brain can’t recall. I was nine, my brother, four. Headlights reflected off patches of smooth ice.

Beside me in the front seat, Mom turned around to say something to her friends, but then stopped herself. Then she whispered, near my ear, “Aw.” Dad glanced in the rearview mirror. I’d never heard my mother use this word, so I twisted around, pulled up to me knees, and peered over the seat.

Tom slumbered, lips parted, his head against his wife’s shoulder.

Rugged, the world would call a man like Tom. A Newport cigarette ad—strong, tan, perfect teeth. A Sears underwear model in the Sunday paper who stands around with other men, all of them in their briefs, footballs tucked under their arms, chatting about—what? Fishing? The Vikings? What do you talk about to another dude in briefs?

“He looks like an angel,” Mom said. My little brother, pressed against the backseat door, gave a bored glance, looked away. I stared down at sleeping Tom; at his soft eyelashes, coupled with the strong, stubbled jaw, relaxed in sleep, and everything in me paused.

Through the windows, patches of streetlight slid across his face, and something moved through my chest. I want everyone to go away, I thought, so that I can look at him by myself. The rough shadow of his beard. How would it feel, I thought, to curl up against him?

The question tangled up with feelings: I wanted to be like him, to resemble him, to take Tom’s angelic face as my own, envied and admired. Later, in college, I’d read the myth of Cupid and Psyche. Her lantern’s light falling across his sleeping face. Her sudden and doomed devotion. I floundered in troubled waters, strange feelings like these, all caught up in my lungs.

The car turned a corner, and shadows slid back over Tom’s face. Even at nine I knew I couldn’t have the things I wanted from him, and that only sharpened my hunger until I had to look away. As I did, Sharon smiled up at me, and for a moment I hated her for owning him. Anxious that she’d read my thoughts, I turned back, settling against the seat, my shoulder pressed against my mother’s side.

Rays of streetlight moved over the hood of the car and up the windshield. The week before, I’d stayed up too late watching Donald Sutherland on TV running from aliens—pod people bent on taking over the planet. They looked like everyone else but felt nothing, and as we made our way home, I pictured the streetlights as alien sentinels, scanning passing cars for panic or fear.

If they sensed the things I wanted from Tom, they’d snatch me up and carry me off to their oozing nests, and lay a quivering pod beside me, an alien boy inside, his skin running like hot wax till his face matched mine.

Mom looked out at the neighbors’ houses. Dad held his hands at two and ten o’clock on the steering wheel, and his eyes kept returning to the rearview mirror. A hunger rolled off his skin. I could feel its heat. I feel it now. I’m close to 50 and it smolders.

I was a nine-year-old kid who knew nothing. Too young to grasp hunger, but still it shamed me—the naked need pulsing in my father beside me in the front seat of a Cutlass in 1980. Dad was a plainspoken cipher. An awkward man from another planet. He was all I had, the driver steering us through the these turns.

In another year he’d leave our mother for a life spent in the company of other men. I was a chip off that defective block, and he was already teaching me what not to do.

Hide your hunger. Dig a hole in the floor of your brain and throw it inside. Cover it with grave dust.

A man slept behind me. He’ll still be there when I’m 50, the thing I can’t have, softly snoring in the back seat.

Close Calls and Human Flaws

A Chihuahua at the End of the World

Got two more close-call rejections from lit mags over the weekend. One telling me my story made it to the “final round,” but couldn’t Rocky Balboa its way to victory. And the second, which arrived at 9:36 pm on Sunday night:

We regret that we are unable to publish your manuscript, but we like your work and would like to see more of it.

This was from the editors of The Paris Review, which hovers somewhere just below The New Yorker in terms of “prestige,” but since I no longer have any grasp of what makes a literary publication prestigious in our current publishing environment, my estimation should be taken with a shaker of salt.

I’m grateful that they like my work, but that was pretty much the best story I had to send them (it’s not on this blog). And a near miss is still a miss, and after 17 near misses in a row I’m discouraged.

I try to remember my years in grad school, researching Flannery O’Connor for an established author who was writing her biography, and I slipped into the shadowy rare manuscripts room at the New York Public Library and, paging through The New Yorker’s archives of typed letters, read rejections aimed at Flannery, Vladimir Nabokov, and pretty much every other writer you could think of from the 50s.

Rejection is the writer’s life. So either take the punches or hang it up. I guess, mostly, I feel like Balboa at the 45-minute mark, downing raw eggs and running up stairs in Philly. I’m often down. Never out.

Been thinking a lot about the early days of this blog, probably because, in the course of its resuscitation, I had to restore a bunch of lost early posts. Which meant reading old memories with maybe some fatal nostalgia, as times when I connected with a whole bunch of queer bloggers engaged in similar online experimentation, and getting together sometimes in the real world, which led to some real friendships.

Blogs have faded and, 18 years later, I’m a more guarded man. Unwilling to write about my new job, where I’m killing it in a way I’ve never killed it before, for any job (probably because I’m finally writing), but also where the political waters have risen up around me and submerged huge chunks of my mental real estate, about which I’d love to say more, but the precarious nature of paychecks keeps me muted.

And my experiences with family and others in the recent past have left me gun-shy about real-life humans, scanning for hidden agendas and personal blind spots in myself and others that make every real-life relationship a total piece of work. Some days, when it comes to people, I feel like my barometer is broken.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m stumbling along here, trying to figure out what I can write about freely, which feels less than what I could write about back at the dawn of blogging, when I was young and invulnerable. I’ve got a couple of posts I’m tinkering with that’ll take some time to form, but until then I wanted to say hey and make you look at my dog.

She’s always staring off into the distance.