Literary magazine River Teeth has published a very, very short, dark little essay/prose poem I wrote about working on a virtual voiced assistant from a major online retailer. “Talk to Her” is part of their Beautiful Things column that limits all essays to 250 words or less. It’s free to read and to leave a comment, if you’re into that kind of thing. My gratitude to the editors.
Agnes is thrilled, obviously, to announce that I have a short essay appearing in the new issue of Brevity. “How I Learned to Hide” is now online and free to read. Leave a comment, if you’d like, or skip the whole thing and take a nap. It’s still a free country. I think.
I’m happy to share that my essay was published today in The New York Times’ Modern Love column. How I Got Caught Up in a Global Romance Scam explores stuff like, well, global romance scams, stolen identity, and human connection. If you came here from their site, hey, and welcome.
The other night I took a call from an editor at The New York Times to talk about an essay of mine he wanted to publish.
That’s a sentence that I can barely comprehend, in the sense that it relates to my actual life right now. I mean, it’s a sentence I think I’d hoped to write someday, but hope was another planet.
And I’m a few days away from launching myself into a new job that has the potential, paycheck-wise, to change my life in the ways I’ve wanted to change it for years.
I don’t think I’ve ever lived a day where my head wasn’t thrumming with the constant low mumble of money worries. Maybe a short time when I was married, with a double-income household more or less managed by my ex. But that was five years ago, and in the time since, I’ve cursed more times than I can count at the negative balance in my checking account.
So things could change. Or I could fail. The job is a big risk, for reasons I don’t want to go into. It could work, or I could fall short. But in any event, as these words clearly show, I’m not so skilled at celebrating. I’m better at doubting my worth, feeling, on the eve of a big publication, like a fraud.
This isn’t a cry for help. It’s just an old familiar song, Muzak-style, playing nonstop in this elevator as I rise from the burned-out bottom floor I’d long called home. It’s stuck on repeat, but it plays in the head of a dude who’s too stubborn to let it stop this ride. Let’s see where this goes.
The first time I ever kissed a guy was in a stretch of woods called the Bird Sanctuary that ran along the edge of a sprawling cemetery in south Minneapolis. I used to cut through there walking home from school, though even then, age 17, I knew dudes went there to cruise and hook up. But I was always too scared to stop on the trails when one of them would give me the eye. Until the day I wasn’t.
He looked like a football coach with his cheap windbreaker and salt and pepper hair, and his tongue tasted like the cigarette he’d smoked while sizing me up. He kissed me hard and before I could figure out if I even liked it, he got down on his knees, pulled down my jeans, and took me into his mouth. I was too young to know how to relax into it. Too young to know yet the pleasure of rubbing the back of a guy’s close-cropped head in that position. So my hands maybe just hung there, and I looked out at the rows of headstones through the chain link fence and wondered if anyone could see us.
My nerves killed my hard-on, so he rose back to his feet and wrapped his thick arms around me. In a voice like sandpaper against wood he whispered in my ear, “You just want to be loved, don’t you?” He rubbed my arms, then turned and walked away.
I stood there like some kind of bug stuck in sap, with the wind blowing through the trees and against my bare ass. I pulled my jeans up as he disappeared down the trail. My face felt red and hot. I was pissed that he’d left me, that I’d failed at what a guy was supposed to do in that kind of situation. That he’d seen me in a way I thought that nobody could.
Back then I thought what he’d said was something of a put-down. What I wanted made me less of a man, maybe, is what he thought. A softie, in every sense. But now I know he said what he’d said because he wanted both, too. He knew what it was like to want both. He wanted the blow job and to be loved, and he’d seen both in me.
And nothing about any of that has changed. I still want both, and you, I see it in you, too. You can talk a good game, like me, but we all know what you want. And it’s ok, because we want it, too.
I’m very happy to report that I’ve had a couple more essays accepted by really terrific literary journals recently, and they’ll be published in the coming year.
2020 is a strange year.
Over on Instagram, I often pair a very short story with my photos, and I thought I’d share a couple of them (and a life update, of sorts) here. If you’re on IG, feel free to follow along.
Guys, I’m interrupting the fall of democracy for a selfish reason. Today, I’ve been clean and sober for one year.
Considering I was quarantined for three months and haven’t been to an in-person recovery meeting since February, and also the cascading chaos of world-jarring events that we’re all navigating—well, I’m happy I made it this far.
Once upon a time I had many more sober years under my belt, and this one year took about three to finish, but life sometimes has other plans. I mean, look around. But the cool thing about rough times is that with some luck they can make you kinder and easier to cry and immune to bullshit and hopefully a little more useful to the people around you who may not be having, like, the best year of their lives.
As any sober person can tell you, none of this was accomplished through willpower. I don’t know why I got to a year when others didn’t. I have more resources than some and so much comes down to just plain luck, or grace, or the severity of one’s defeat. Sobriety is more than just getting by without drugs or booze. It’s closer to Dorothy opening the door to Munchkinland. And finding some traveling companions who pull you out of the wreckage of your own personal tornado.
Thank you especially Bill W., Peter, Charlie, Court and John, Todd, Patrick, Becca, Maura, Phil, David and many others, including some cool folks on here. I didn’t do this alone.
Thank you, Agnes—you endured all of it with me. I’ve tried to be your rock and you gave me a reason to go on. The world is scary and heartbreaking right now but also sort of beautiful, seeing so many people work so hard, in the face of great cruelty, to take care of each other. If you need to talk to someone about addiction, reach out to me and I’ll try in a very imperfect way to listen.
I pass my neighbors in the lot behind my building, a converted factory with 50 units. We come and go, sometimes stopping for a quick chat. I know the smokers better than the others. They’re fond of my dog. One of them drove me to the tow lot on New Year’s Day when I forgot to move my car during snow plowing.
Many of the dogs in the building have cranky temperaments, so their owners and I avoid each other, fiddle with face masks, nod across the distance. I mouth, “Hello” to the deaf woman who lives beside me. I can often hear her through the walls as she scolds the new puppy.
It’s a subsidized building, all of our incomes falling below a specific annual salary per occupant, a communal detail that you don’t normally know about your neighbors. Working folks, folks on disability, young families. The full racial spectrum. A few odd, lone souls like me, climbing out of some recent wreckage that we keep to ourselves.
My salary is a bit higher now, but they let me stay. I don’t know how many of my neighbors lost their jobs in the pandemic, though fewer cars swap spots during the day, and the property manager thanks me for my rent checks with a new intensity. The caretaker, who’s repaired my sink and AC and conducts inspections while I’m at work, has a personal relationship with my dog, developed over visits I’ve never seen.
One smoker likes to tease me about all the food I must eat when she sees me lumbering past with six full grocery bags dangling from my fists every weekend. A father of two tells me, “God Bless,” every time we pass. The small girls who used to fawn over Agnes are a bit older now and have turned awkward, as if we no longer know each other.
I never thought I’d still be here, back when I’d moved in, the first building in the valley that would let me keep my dog. Three and a half years have passed and almost every day I wonder, as I make my way through the lot, how I ended up here, as if I’ve forgotten how my life had fallen apart. And the two-bricks-forward, one-brick-back pace of my reconstruction, and how I’d miss these people—in a small, sharp way—should I ever leave.
The first boy I ever fell in love with lived in Nicaragua. I met Alfredo on a high school exchange trip when I was all of 15. We’d talk together in my broken Spanish late into the night after our families had gone to sleep.
One night I sat in the courtyard as he stood in front of me, telling me about being chased by a bull in a nearby field, and I struggled to grasp his words and he leaned forward, put his hands on my knees and rested his weight there, slowing his words for me, and the crucifix slipped out of his collar and caught the streetlight. I fell in love with him in that moment, in the way that a scared, closeted 15-year-old boy could fall in unrequited love with a boy whose culture had different norms for affection between men.
I never told him I loved him, though we exchanged letters after I returned to Minneapolis, where I marched in protests against the Contra War, getting clubbed in the gut by a cop and arrested at the age of 17. I was driven, for the first time in my life, by concern for the welfare of people outside of myself. For that boy and my host family and the other people I’d met, none of whom supported the U.S.-funded Contras waging war in their country and killing their sons, brothers and husbands.
I was saving my money for a return trip when I received word that Alfredo had been drafted into the war, his truck had been ambushed by the Contras, and he’d been killed. I may have been too young for my activism to survive that blow. I just felt hopeless futility. That I could march and protest and write essays and educate my peers but, in the face of well-funded and corrupt power, none of it would matter.
I still have that ambivalence, a calibrated sense of injustice in the world around me, dampened by paralyzed cynicism. And maybe, if I took that feeling and multiplied it by a factor I’m not equipped to calculate, it would be similar to that sense of exhausted, trampled outrage that a good chunk of this country feels on a daily basis. That trip was the best thing I ever did with my young life. It gave me a lens I still use to understand the world that continues to break my heart and stir my hope.
[A longer version of this piece appeared in War, Literature and the Arts. You can read it here.]
Just over four million cases globally, with 276,000 deaths. In the U.S., 1,327,000 cases and 79,000 deaths. With our national need to be number one, we win the Biggest Number of Deaths Contest, hands down. We got this.
It’s been a couple of weeks since I last posted. Listen, shit is fucked. Every time I went to draft a post (after ten hours working on my laptop) I felt suffocated by isolation and bad news. Hacking my way through a mile of thorns with a butter knife. Easier to lie on the couch and trade nudes with dudes in Chicago, London, and Melbourne.
20.5 million Americans lost their jobs in the month of April. The most since the Great Depression. The unemployment rate shot up to 14.7%, with no quick fix in sight. Decades, the experts say. It’ll take decades to pull ourselves out of this hole.
The federal $349 billion small business loan program emptied in two weeks. Most of it dispersed to suspect “small” outfits (publicly-held hotel chains, etc.) who refused to give it back. A Louisiana evangelical pastor who’d defied state social distancing guidelines to hold massive, in-person services, later kicked off a campaign to get his followers to donate their personal $1,200 stimulus checks to his church—the checks had been delayed in the mail just a moment while Trump had his name stamped across each one.
The pages of the Boston Globe’s obituaries have more than doubled, which reminds me of reading the local gay rags my dads had around the house in the late 80s, and scanning page after page of handsome, mustachioed men who’d died at ages younger than I am now. What a world I came out in. What a world now.
Blame China is the new plan to lead our country out of this mess. In other news, 59% of the nation’s Chinese restaurants have stopped taking debit and credit transactions, a sign they’ve ceased all operations.
One-third of all U.S. deaths are nursing home workers or residents. 50 residents and staff of a facility in the next town over caught the virus. 60 dead bodies were found in trucks outside a Brooklyn funeral home after neighbors complained about the smell. Cruise ships across the globe warped into floating, doctor-less hospital wards, stranded off the coasts of cities that wanted nothing to do with them.
For every 100,000 Americans, 40.9 blacks have died, along with about 17.9 Asians, 17.9 Latinos and 15.8 whites. These numbers make me sad and cynical about the push to reopen, and about whose deaths get to matter. This virus is bent on making life meaner for those with mean-enough lives.
A writer disguised as a daytime clock-punching marketer, I’m officially sick of the advertising phrase, “In these unprecedented times…”
If I could sum up the current state, I’d put it this way:
Scientist A: We could have a vaccine soon.
Scientist B: The U.S. could be socially distancing into 2022.
Trump: Just sip some bleach.
He’s blocked the CDC from dispensing guidelines that counter his delusional optimism, muted doctors whose level-headed advice ran smack up against his constant, snake-oil quackery, even as two people in the White House tested positive this week. If they can’t avoid it, how can we?
Under the cover of the pandemic, he’s cut environmental protections, kicked 100s of immigrant kids from our border, and dropped charges against a crony who pled guilty in a court of law. He’s such an unrelentingly corrupt, moronic trash-monster that it’s like anyone left with a shred of heart is living this shared, hallucinatory nightmare. We’re crammed into a school bus with no driver at the wheel, barreling towards the edge of a cliff. We’re a rudderless, festering cruise ship in the Bermuda Triangle.
The pandemic reaction has splintered, like everything in this country, along a deep gap between us and them. Us are listening to public health officials, wary of returning to work, and wearing face masks in public.
Them are screaming for life to get back to normal, strapping guns to their belts and protesting, mask-less, at state capitols for their right to believe that the pandemic is a deep state hoax. They think we’re scared pussies. We think they’re fucking nuts and doomed for bleak ends in red-state hospital wards.
We each have our own sources and separate facts to bolster our bulwarks. We share the same contaminated air, sucking down the same COVID, hunkered down in alternate realities.
It’s a struggle to maintain a sunny outlook, is what I’m saying. When you’re stuck at home, alone, 24 hours a day (22 on a good day) and every view onto the outer world is a window onto some separate, profound, unending pain, well, you go put on a smile. I’m saving my energy for the fight to come.
And then I got sick.
Every interaction with the outside world is a calculated risk. Do I go to the grocery store or opt for delivery? Do I hike when I’m mostly sure I can stay 20 feet away from the small town locals? Do I use my building’s laundry room? Do I break down from a shuddering need for physical connection and invite a dude over who’s also been quarantining and bears no symptoms? Somewhere in there, someone got me sick. Let’s be honest—it was the dude.
A sore throat that turned painful to swallow. Chills, then heat, then chills again. Body aches. Pounding head. A fever inching past 100. No respiratory problems, so I was on the fence about its critical, COVID-likely weight.
But it’s impossible to look at symptoms now through any other lens than COVID, so I emailed my GP, who called in a referral to the local testing site. I drove, fuzz-brained, into the next town, pulled my sensible Civic up to a tent in a hospital parking lot and a nurse in full protective gear had me inch down my window, lower my face mask to cover only my mouth, and then stuck a long-ass swab about a foot up my nose, where for ten long seconds she held the burning tip in my sinuses, rubbed it around, then sent me on my way.
Drove home in a fever, passed out on the couch with Agnes. The next day I felt a bit better, so I wasn’t shocked when my test came back that afternoon, marked “negative.” It had felt like the usual flu.
I had this weird, unpleasant experience in the following days as a couple of friends and several coworkers asked, over text, pointed questions about how I’d managed to contract the flu during quarantine. People holed up with partners and families implied that my inability to be completely alone for eight weeks was a moral failure.
(Half of this might be all in my own head. But half of everything we see at any moment of the day is in our own heads.)
What I’m trying to get at is that it reminded me of the moral quandary of safe sex, and the shame we were meant to feel every time we failed at its perfect practice. My default headspace is that everyone secretly hates me and thinks I’m a bad person, so the safe sex game, transplanted to the COVID era, is another thick, fertile patch of thorns for me to play in. The cuts comfort because I’ve long known their depth.
The sweet side effect of my sick-scare is that two friends, a couple in the next town over, took good care of me. One’s a doctor and between the two of them, I had constant texts, phone appointments for my current list of symptoms, and even a delivery from the supermarket. After my test results, I Venmo’d them the total with the memo line, “non-COVID groceries.”
My Big Brothers. Two years ago I’d been perched alone at the edge of an abyss in this town, so this was…something I can’t yet articulate, because saying it aloud will make it disappear. It’s an unfamiliar resource. Because I was raised by wolves, by a man who used me for his own needs, and by a woman who believed that movement, ambition, work for its own sake, performance for approval, were the true indicators of worth. Inaction, reflection, rest—all sins. Sickness—when you’re shut down, confined, and weakened—was a moral failure, worthy of contempt.
I think about the word mother, when we use it in the context of sickness. We want, when weakened, to be mothered. We want—in the middle of a flu, in the eye of a pandemic—to know we’ll be okay. “You are not alone,” my Big Brother texted me the night before my test results. His own life had taught him that at moments of weakness and fear, we need to hear that won’t be abandoned.
I texted the Big Bros to tell them that I loved them. I wasn’t even feverish at the time. During my mom’s death, I learned that saying such words is an act you never regret.
I don’t know how the fuck you’re enduring, but this is what’s getting me through the thorns. These little gleams of light and connection. As the whole world burns down, how else are you going to skate by?
Snapped this pic outside my apartment building after 12 hours inside, writing blogs for a client about proper hand hygiene. I almost missed the buds, coming back from a hike with my dog. The world contains everything. It’s hard to remember sometimes, in lockdown, but there’s beauty along with the pain. You have to look for it.
Worldwide cases closing in on two million, with 121,000 deaths. 547,000 cases in the US, with 26,000 deaths. New York City today revised its estimated death count to over 10,000. They’ve been burying bodies unclaimed by family on Hart Island in Long Island Sound, home to about a million other bodies. For 150 years, folks have ended up in the ground there after dying from TB, yellow fever, AIDS. I just caught myself scanning the news of these burials for actual numbers – that’s how we measure anything anymore. The number of dead.
I’ve still got my health, though COVID-19 is nibbling at the edges of my circles. A few dudes in my Facebook feed listing symptoms, one’s husband on a respirator in Vancouver. A coworker’s husband is an EMT and his partner tested positive. Another coworker’s grandparents both caught it, and one passed away.
16 million Americans tried to file for unemployment through systems ill-equipped for the surge. Disney furloughed 43,000 employees this week. Goofy and Mickey, shit out of luck. One-third of Americans didn’t pay April rent. International Money Fund projects the worst slump since the Great Depression. $1200 stimulus checks hitting bank accounts, but a whole slew of folks deemed “ineligible.” Trump demanded that the Treasury stamp each check with his own name.
I may have saved my butt this week. A client we landed even in quarantine picked my slogan for a big billboard and media campaign. A sign that, at least here in this valley, someone thinks the future will still come. That billboard bought me time, maybe.
The partisan divide on the virus keeps cracking wider: the new battlefront is the economy vs health – when to quit lockdown, with Trump, Fox News and conspiracy sites downplaying the odds of a second surge in deaths. Everyone else going, “Duh, science.” It’s coming down to governors, forming factions of fellow regional states, versus Trump, who pulls fantasy laws out of his ass: “I have the ultimate call.” A mutiny, he called the state pacts.
Gov. Cuomo shot back: “We don’t have a King Trump.” More like an emperor, and fuck – talk about new clothes. He’s resplendent.
Haven’t filled my gas tank in four weeks. Factories shuttered. Air pollution is down. Bears now roam the empty roads of Yellowstone. I wash fewer clothes but more dishes. Retailers have entered the stage of hair dye shortages. Clumsy home beauty. A million dudes Netflix-and-napping, the backs of our heads unevenly buzzed.
I can do 30 push-ups in a set, but I’m shrinking. Literally, less of a man, by some measures. I fucking miss the gym but I’m still healthy, employed, and complaining about closed gyms is the ultimate vapid gay male privilege.
A completely unscientific survey reveals that everyone I know is slowly losing their minds. Texts and FaceTimes turn moody, as I have no words to fix the lives of my friends. Not that they expect it. Not that I could. One is stuck in a city far from home. Another can’t take that job in Paris. Lives interrupted, like we’ve all missed the last flight in some empty connecting airport. Everyone stir-crazy, horny and lonesome, most of us stuck in an experience that the entire world is sharing, but enduring alone.
But others lead lives made suddenly more essential. I read a journal entry online by a New York City doctor, who can’t stop seeing the bodies piled in the refrigerated trucks idling at his hospital’s curb. The nice trucks, he wrote, have shelves. In those trucks, the bodies don’t need to be stacked.
As a longtime social lockdown professional, some quarantine measures comes easy to me. But other habits I’d thought I’d outgrown. I once shied from strangers, the fog of depression sapping the strength it took to endure small talk (all small talk demands of introverts Herculean courage).
But now, are you like me? When a stranger crosses your path, do you before conscious thought, recoil? I once saw strangers as taxing, but now they’re maybe fatal. How long till that fades? What if it doesn’t?
Still, we smile and wave from a distance, keeping our dogs pulled back on their leashes, crossing to the other side of the street. Agnes doesn’t understand social distancing.
When the weather’s good we still hike in the woods. I unleash her at the edge of the path that skirts the pond. Frogs sing in the reeds. I shake off my brain’s thickening sludge under the white pine and hemlocks. Agnes tears across the beds of needles, a burst of explosive joy. She’s my soul, scruffy, briefly set free, feeling pure thrill in our flight.
Worldwide cases stand at 1,289,000. As I write this, US deaths passed 10,000. In New York City, 653 people died on Saturday. In the next town over from me, 23 veterans died at the Holyoke Soldiers Home.
Since widespread testing is still out of reach, some of these numbers should be treated with suspicion.
The CDC, after fighting Trump’s team for days (weeks?), recommended that US citizens wear homemade masks (since even nurses can’t get surgical masks now) when going outside. On TV, he said, “You can wear them if you want. I’m not going to do it.” Later that night, someone in my Facebook feed posted a link to this quote with the caption, “Fingers crossed.”
Yesterday, he again touted an experimental drug that no doctor on the planet will publicly endorse. A few weeks ago, a Phoenix couple found a version of the chemical in a bottle of fish medicine they had at home and did a little self-treatment. The man died, the wife ended up in the hospital. “I saw it sitting on the back shelf and thought, ‘Hey, isn’t that the stuff they’re talking about on TV?'” she said.
I’m not saying the full load of idiocy here rests on one man’s shoulders.
At the end of ten hours churning copy on my couch, my mind grows sluggish, good soil for bad thoughts. When the weather’s fine, I hike in the patch of woods near my place, where I can avoid the locals. Sitting beside the pond, listening to the spring frogs and watching the herons fish—it all pulls my sanity back from the swirling drain, but I still feel vaguely ashamed. Adhering to the strictest social distancing requirements (such as “never go outside”), posting about it on social media, and shaming others for breaking these shifting rules is the new “woke.” For the first time since moving here, I’m grateful that I’m not in a bigger city. I’ll suck in the woods’ serenity as long as I can.
This week should be awful for the nation, death-wise. “This will be our Pearl Harbor,” some health official said. Others quickly trounced that analogy. The country has yet to cohere around reality. The last five states without a stay-in-place restriction are all run by Republican governors.
Someone sent me a link to a YouTube compilation of a bunch of “citizen journalists” descending upon their local emergency rooms with video cameras to show their compatriots that there’s no COVID-19 crisis in their podunk towns. The level of…oh, never mind, I won’t waste your time. I wasted plenty, fuming.
Yesterday I turned 49. Hopefully, if I survive all this (of course I’ll survive this, don’t be melodramatic, right?) I can look back with bittersweet nostalgia: my quarantine birthday. What’s weird and sometimes hard about this pandemic lock-down is that it mirrors the dark, solitary, locked-down place I endured for several years. I feel like I only just now clawed my way free. Home, alone, nearly 22 hours a day, with no gym, meetings, or in-person human contact. The future dim at best.
Back then, trying to describe what it felt like to be battling old demons who wore new skins, roiled by constant, generalized, free-floating terror, hiding from the world in my back bunker of a spare bedroom, I’d resort to the metaphor of an astronaut on a cut tether, spinning away through the yawning vacuum of deep, black space. The utter lonesomeness killed me. How easily I spun out of the reach of others, and for how long I hung out there, my tank depleting, blind to all horizons.
This is different. For the first time in my life, the whole world is sharing one experience, hunkered down at home (though stay-at-home is a privilege unavailable to many). Instead of spinning off alone, out of reach of a bustling, functioning earth full of human connection, I’m now just one of millions of folks enduring life in a bunker. I think of how gay men must have felt in the AIDS epidemic, drifting through their own collective dark space—and lovers dropping one by one—while surrounded by a silent, aloof, unaffected world.
But anyone can get this thing. And while HIV is mostly passed through fucks or needles, COVID-19 can pass through the most fleeting of human encounters. “Is this fuck worth death?” I wrote in my last post. A friend told me he had the same thought once, pausing outside a bathhouse in the late 80s. Now, it’s more like, is this carton of milk, this delivery pizza, this brisk walk through a park worth it?
Disconnection is the modern condition. Digital isolation. An epidemic of loneliness. All of this diagnosed long before COVID-19 came and chased us away from what few connections we sustained.
I made a calculated risk and invited one man into my bunker. We grabbed each other and held on like we hadn’t been touched in years. In our hours together, naked and unclothed, I thought, “This is worth it.”
I’m a year shy of 50. My life doesn’t look like I thought it would, back when I was 25, 35, even 45. I have different friends, no partner. I haven’t gathered the external markers of success I thought I should have by now. I’m trying to shake my head, clear my mind of the veils of lives I should have lived. I want to see the life I have. The real one. Willing to fight for a bit of joy, if that’s what I’m meant to have.
Maybe I’m a late bloomer, some geezer slowly coming into his own. Uncertain about a future that’s never looked less sure. Seeing beauty around me, still. Every night, New Yorkers stand at their windows and cheer the first responders, health care workers, delivery drivers and grocery clerks going to work while the rest of us are locked at home. An ovation audible in the streets, a thin path forward through the fog.