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A rising, a lightening, a liftoff. Sweating between sets, sucking in air. House tunes through my ear buds, and my face—for many years hiding—now lifted to the light, eyes keen, and bloody heart beating.
I stood and threw another twenty on the bar and my sweatpants held, the drawstring now needed. Each day, I cinch it a bit tighter in the locker room and run a hand up and over my belly. Gauge its heft.
I carry a notebook through the gym. Aging dude of analog. Dinosaur among millennials. I write my weights, my sets. Without this, my faulty brain will backfire, backpedal, delete my gains. I’ll forget I moved up to 60, and instead I’ll grab the 50. The notes say in numbers that I’m stronger than I think.
And now, a lifting. Lungs filled. Head light, lit up, happy.
What the fuck?
What’s this feeling?
Or, no. I knew it, had felt it before. Years behind me. Where had it gone? I’d lost it, and with it, belief.
I know how it sounds: “I’d given up.”
Dramatic. But dude. I had.
I’d come to believe—after five years of hard blows—that I was done. A litany I’m sick of repeating (a hopeful sign), and those who know me are sick of hearing it. But for the sake of narrative cohesion, and for those who are new here:
Six years ago I got stuck in suicidal thoughts. Which led to therapy. Confronting for the first time the pale, squirmy, hundred-legged bugs hiding under my boyhood rocks that I now kicked aside. In the light, the things scrambled for cover. A visit with a family member who’d molested me when I was nine led to the discovery of dozens of erotic stories he’d posted online. One-handed reading celebrating intergenerational incest. Stroke stories that had garnered that man thousands of fans, hundreds of emails. He’d wanted me to read the stories, led me to them, and when I read them, I’d lost my mind.
Brain hounded by those thousands of anonymous men out there in the world who’d seen me naked, in a sense. Felt unsafe everywhere, with everyone. My withdrawal led to the end of my marriage, which led to my exile from San Francisco, my home for 18 years, and the loss of everything—house, friends, shrink, garden, sobriety, and more—that had tethered me to the planet. So I bounced around the country in a state of pitch-black, barely-tamped panic and poverty, in the company of nothing but an eight-pound chihuahua.
Life had chained me to a tiny square of sunless dirt. None of it my fault. None of it deserved, maybe, but hard, fixed, and true.
Among us, souls without luck scrape by. Sad fucks who can’t catch breaks. And maybe, one day, I’d been somebody else, but now I was this. Now, I was them.
Once smart, I’d grown dumb. Once good at work, I now faltered, got fired. Once hot, now dumped. Once sweet, now scary. Desperate. Feed me, said my eyes. Look at me, said my hands. Once, people grinned at my approach. Now they looked worried, looked away, hurried off.
Easy, when you’re not stuck in that square, to hold hope. To platitude. To chide. But here’s the truth—after five years of it, I was scared as fuck that I was done.
Three years and three months ago, I checked myself into a detox center just over the Vermont border. Five days in a fog. They handed me pills in little paper cups to ease me back from DTs—I’d been drinking a liter of whiskey a day. The pills made me hazy. We lined up for the pills. Lined up for trays of food, three times a day. For chats with doctors or nurses or shrinks. I don’t remember them. A lab coat, maybe. A clipboard.
I don’t remember anyone. I know I made friends. Two men cared about me enough to say out loud during group that I should stay past the five days. They thought I needed it. But I can’t remember their faces. Their names. They cared about me, and I recall nothing about them.
What I remember: at intake, they took away my notebook. The metal spiral, they said, could be removed and fashioned into a lethal weapon. They took my pens. They took my belt and shoelaces and the drawstring to my sweatpants. I remember that I shuffled around in hospital slippers, holding my sweatpants up so they wouldn’t slide down past my ass. I remember thinking—in small, sharp splices amid the fog—how had I come to this?
I remember standing on a fenced back patio, in a small square of sun. The weak warmth of November. The men were right, it turned out. I should have stayed longer.
And now, floating.
A hard-fought floating. Eight months of sobriety, every day of which I built—slow and precise—like a house of steel cards. Good work. Good deeds. A bunch of skin-baring risks. One five-pound plate at a time. My neck outstretched, open, exposed to the jaws of strangers, bosses, money. Face now lifted to catch the light through the windows of an LA Fitness.
Where once each day was something to be endured, now, this floating. Now, something else. A year-long calendar with little doors, and behind each day a new thing—friend, fuck, chance, food, tears of no regrets. Wider vision. A glimpse of another human’s pain that isn’t my own.
Life feels different when you’ve nearly died. I’m floating, dude. Fragile, steely, but lifting. I stand from the flat bench. My drawstring holds. I throw on another twenty, to test out my strength.
I got an email this morning from the Senior Associate Editor of The Normal School—a really awesome literary magazine that’s pretty much kicking ass—saying they want to publish an essay I wrote.
And that is my reaction, above.
As I’ve written here recently, I’ve had so. many. almosts and near-misses and honorable mentions over the past four years or so, and not only did I get a yes, finally, but I got a yes from one of the best.
Lit mags are niche, I know, so here’s some background info on The Normal School from publisher Outpost 19:
The Normal School: A Literary Magazine celebrates its 10th year of publishing in 2017-18 and in just a decade, it has become one of the top journals in the field of creative nonfiction, garnering 30 “Notable” inclusions in the Best American Essays since 2010. BAE series editor, Robert Atwan has called the magazine “indispensable for anyone interested in new directions in the contemporary essay.” TNS was also named one of the top 10 markets for nonfiction in the entire country and featured in a Buzzfeed article titled “29 Amazing Literary Magazines You Should Be Reading Now.” Known for cutting edge nonfiction and striking visual design, The Normal School will serve as a primary partner for the series, providing a resource not only of potential contributors but also support staff for production, marketing, and promotions.
I will link to it once it is published (I don’t have those details yet).
Thanks everyone for your support and encouragement. This was a good day for me.
At the age of 43, during a time of debilitating terror, I built myself a suit of armor.
It was less a decision than a base urge. A man I called Hank the Blank—who’d hurt me as a boy—had come back into my life and hurt me again. The fear now filling my blood was less a grown man’s fear than the fear of a kid, or of a gazelle limping across an open savanna. I craved protection, beyond the hunting knife I’d begun to carry in my pocket.
In just a few months I built a suit from gear that would have repulsed Hank. I covered my arms in ink.
It was—like most of my actions—a gesture of mixed motives. Tattooing my skin was the kind of thing Hank would find disgusting, troubling, and pointless.
A perfectly bland member of the widest and least offensive sector of society (aside from his pedophilia, of course), he found tattoos disturbing and transgressive. Driven by money and greed, he also found them a waste of income.
A layer of Ink between us, keeping him from “getting me,” in every sense. It would push us further apart, and mark me as anything but his property. They say trauma is stored in the body. I wanted to brand that container with pain of my own making—pain that’d leave color in its wake.
But this was more than just Hank.
Though I’d had one shoulder tattoo since the age of 19, I now wanted more. I wanted to look like the kind of man I’d always wanted to be. Wanted to dump the chains of dull convention and inhibition that had kept me, for 43 years, stuffed in a box marked “agreeable.” I wanted to get marked permanently so I couldn’t easily disguise, for long, the dude underneath.
I dove down a million online rabbit holes, following local tattoo artists, clicking through their portfolios, booking sessions. I spent cash I probably didn’t have on hours of painful, meditative endurance.
I picked a script artist who inked “Still Here” on the outside of my left forearm, because I considered it a minor miracle that all the crap inside me hadn’t propelled me off the Golden Gate Bridge. In the mirror, the inked words looked like a gauntlet.
Crammed with feelings I couldn’t express, coping with my pain through stoic withdrawal, I had a skull and roses tattooed on the inside of the same forearm, asking the artist if he could give the skull a cigar and one single tear. “He’s learning how to cry,” I said.
Finally, I booked several hours over several sessions with a Japanese-American artist named Yutaro, to design and ink a full sleeve on my right arm. I told him I wanted a skull with a sword thrust through it, and when he asked me why, I told him it was because the man’s biggest battle was with his own head. Yutaro nodded at this and went to work.
Though during this time I also went to twice-a-week sessions with a shrink who specialized in PTSD, though I felt myself making incremental advances, the pain and the fear and the social withdrawal led to the end of my marriage, and an involuntary exile from the city I’d called home for 18 years. I was an astronaut on a cut tether, spinning through space.
I fled the city with an unfinished sleeve.
It’s still incomplete. The sword is just an outline conforming to the muscles and bones of my arm. Yutaro has moved to London. Maybe someday I’ll have the cash to complete it. For now it’s as unfinished as the man it marks.
In the years since I built the suit, a full sleeve has become commonplace, practically a requirement for a certain segment of a certain part of society. But I have no regrets. I love my ink, the beautiful collaborations with talented artists, etched across my skin, the permanent scars I don’t care to hide.
I don’t need the armor anymore, though I wear it like a soldier who’s endured the worst, and rests now in a pool of cool shade, smoking a cigar. Looking back at the fight with weary relief. It’s only here that I have the distance to see my own arms, and see that it was armor I’d been building.
The battle of my life is still the one with my own head, but it’s no longer a battle I’m losing. I keep Hank at a safe distance. Safe for him, that is. Safe from my weaponry. A million tiny actions I’ve taken over a long, slow slog have begun to pay off, and I’m back in the world, swinging the imperfect sword with a clumsy grace.