GPS never scanned my road to manhood. It’s been a potholed, pitch-black half-catastrophe that circles back to the same bland landscapes—lessons I have yet to learn.
Take financial security. I don’t want to admit this, but since my mission here is largely to write about all the shit I don’t want to admit to anyone, it belongs. Over the holidays, I bounced an important check—a dashboard light alerting me to the blissfully ignorant fog of delusion I’d been cruising through for the past few months. Suddenly I had to scramble for funds, shifting what little I had from one account to the next.
The day before Christmas, my back right tire blew on my way home from work. I steered into a gas station lot and changed the spare, cursing in the cold night wind and calculating the overdraft fees that would follow a trip to the tire shop, where I’d be buying my holiday gift. Then on New Years Eve my car got towed.
Which I discovered as I was about to head out to a meeting regarding a side gig. I’ve been doing what I can to double my income streams, but they’re all long-term investments, so steering clear of immediate disaster is less like swerving a Mustang and more like turning the Titanic.
In the past I had a safety net or two, and I could lean on the organizational savvy of romantic partners, who had that checkbook-balancing skill more fully developed, and who could apply my paycheck to the appropriate bills at the right times. My own skills are almost deliberately childlike, as if I was (unsurprisingly) still rebelling against my father, the most financially responsible man I’ve ever met.
This particular stretch of manhood road is rockier than the rest, and I inch over it slowly, reversing every few feet to map it all again. But nobody else can drive it for me.
I never grasp my own progress, and I never rest on laurels. I’m always trying to be “better,” in multiple, every-shifting categories, like “writer,” “sober muscle dude,” “friend,” and “potential romantic target.” I never glance for long in the rearview.
At times like these I force myself to remember my time in Portland, Oregon, five years past, in the midst of a divorce, exiled from my home city, PTSD shutting me off from the comfort of strangers. Dark times can be useful tools, and I use mine to mark the distance I’ve traveled.
For a few months in Portland I delivered lost luggage, the only job I could handle at the time. At midnight, as the black-river town slumbered, I drove to the airport and crammed my truck full of bags and suitcases and downhill skis.
I’d cruise the city and sometimes the state, reuniting owners with possessions that had gone astray. My chihuahua rode shotgun and I spoke few words to few people.
I pulled up and parked at all hours of the night, rang doorbells that went unanswered. Left suitcases behind pillars and planters and boat trailers stranded in suburban three-car driveways. Scribbled on my clipboard. Returned to the dog in the truck, who greeted me anew each time.
Two or three a.m., I’d stop somewhere to eat. Some drive-thru. Nominal contact. Minimal hassle. You can survive on processed food if you really try. I grew intimate with strip malls, spent so many nights hiding in the truck from their harsh, jeweled light, unwrapping another taco.
Till dawn I made drops.
An army duffel to a shirtless, barrel-chested bro whose place reeked of cloistered pot smoke, and who made me think of fucking in a way, at the time, I could only resent.
A matching set of hardback Samsonites that I set on the porch of a farmhouse near a decrepit sawmill, thirty miles outside the city, closed-up for the night, and a weird lone light, high up on a pole, making the yard and the house glow green. On my way out of the half-dead town, I stopped to pet two pale horses standing at the fence line of a roadside field beneath the big red moon. Blood, the radio called it. Back into the city.
Hotel lobbies. Glass doors and brass handles. Bellhops who’d greet me—fellow baggage dragger—with muted respect. The pounding beats of a muffled dance floor. Strip clubs stranded amid industrial parks. Gutter punks and toothless dudes lingering in a convenience store parking lot. I waited one night at a stop sign for a mob of naked bicyclists to pass, their rides adorned with blinking lights, their breasts and testicles jaunty in the brisk night wind.
Scouting the Paradise Motor Court near the interstate at 4 a.m. A bag with busted wheels left on the steps of a doublewide.
I punched the radio presets. I knew the songs. All the lyrics.
I took my work earnestly, behaved skittishly, carting the mislaid possessions of complete strangers in the back of my truck around the city and beyond. I never broke confidence—never cracked open a suitcase. I set off each night with urgency, paid by the distance, paid by the drop, getting things back to their rightful place. A rumpled retiree opened the door to his motel room out near the ocean at dawn and smiled at his suitcase. They were grateful, mostly. Seals barked all night down at the beach. The motel had a bowl of ear plugs on the counter at reception. I drove back from the coast, rain pounding the road, my hands hard on the steering wheel. The dog trembled in my lap and there was no man in my mirror. No stars in the sky.
12 bridges spanned the city’s black river and I got lost all the time. The geography never lined up with the skewed map in my head. I never got the hang of Portland and I quit the job for no reason—or the same old reason. In the days since leaving San Francisco I could get paralyzed. Scared again of nothing I could name—the strange city, maybe. The inked baristas and the LPNs on their lunch breaks. The social media coordinators and dental hygienists, the coffee shacks and cannabis clubs, the faces coming out of the rain.
Since reading my father’s internet stories I had yet to regain my comfort around strangers. Years had passed and I didn’t know if I’d ever regain it. I drove sometimes for hours, forgetting which bridge would bring me home. I was an astronaut on a cut tether, spinning away through space.
At least, I think now, I’m no longer there, in that black-river town, map-less and friendless and paid by the mile. I’ve moved on, I think, to different terrain.