As Lost as Luggage

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.

The Carnival of Character Defects

Hank the Blank wanted back in.

A few days—or a few weeks—had passed since I’d shut him out. Those days, weeks…even years—all that time during that time got tangled up in the junk drawer of my brain after I’d read his online stories.

Hank the Blank had molested me as a kid. Then, 35 years later, he’d pointed me to some stories he’d posted on the internet. Which turned out, when I read them at my work desk in the dim, mute minutes after everyone had gone home—to be erotic stories about incest. Fathers and uncles doing shit to kids. Boys, girls, it didn’t seem to matter. All were fair game.

I lost my mind in that tangled-up time. I shut down, withdrew from life, and lost everything that mattered to me except a seven-pound chihuahua.

I sent Hank the Blank a cease-and-desist that he returned to me in protest. He wanted back in.

I wasn’t sure why, and I’m still not sure, though I’ve spent the last few years wondering. Why did he need to me to read the stories? And why did he want back in, past the wall I’d mortared overnight in panic? What did he need so badly from grown-up me, aside from some screwed up romantic image of family cohesion, like one of those stock families that come with a photo frame you pick up from Bed, Bath and Beyond?

The best I can figure is that he’d fooled a ton of people with that image­—a kind, quiet, decent man who was helpful and responsible and practical and safe. I think he’d fooled everyone. Except me. And he couldn’t stand it.

So he wanted back in, because if he could get back in, that meant I was malleable enough to shove back within the photo frame, a sad, stoic kid in a plaid collar who was kind enough to never make life hard for another human being.

He hungered for something inside me, something I couldn’t give. I fail at describing the specific hunger…emotional vampirism doesn’t cut it. More like spiritual cannibalism. Wanting something, from way down deep inside me, some internal organ he needed in order to keep living. 

If I didn’t let him back in, he told me, I could consider myself uninvited from an upcoming wedding and all other future family events. What’s more, after I let him back in, I was to always “shield him” from my anger.

In other words, allow him to skate through his retirement, free from the consequences of his own pathology.

I should have told him to drive off a cliff—according to my friends, I should have cut his brake lines myself—but I was still…what? Kind? Weak? Naïve?

Maybe, but I wasn’t a dumb shit, either. I told him he could come back in if he went to therapy.

I told him this because he was so lacking in self-awareness, so utterly devoid of even conventional wisdom around appropriate human relations, that without direct, regular, ongoing professional intervention, he couldn’t help but break the people around him, like one of those assholes who rack up so many DUIs that their mugshots pop up in the local papers as often as the Sunday comics. He couldn’t steer his lame-ass Mercedes around me.

It wasn’t a real offer, on my part. Not really. I knew the outcome. He’d go to one session, then calculate that the 50 minutes of human interaction wasn’t worth the money (because to him, all human interactions are transactional).

Besides, he was smarter than some stupid therapist, so he’d quit, and spend his time instead responding to the thousands of emails he’d received from fans all over the world, who were deeply touched by the erotic incest stories, or at least emotionally moved enough to send him a few words of atta-boy praise.

By breaking our contract, he gave me the gift of unforgiving. I froze him out in the wasteland that surrounds the walled city of my internal organs.

I think the world would be a better place if everyone were in therapy. I say this knowing that those who need it most are the least likely to try it, or even think themselves in need.

I mean, look, I know. We’re all fucked up. But we’re not all fucked up like Hank the Blank. I know from experience that the narcissists, borderlines and other Toxic Avengers of my acquaintance could not change on their own. No amount of prayer, meditation, or self-help texts glittering in the far, deep caverns of the internet can illuminate the blind spots of someone burdened with a personality disorder. They need someone standing off to the side of them, holding up a Maglite.

Because it’s in those blind spots where the cannibalistic hunger for your internal organs sharpens.

They don’t get better on their own. A few weeks ago, when a family emergency led me to crack the door open again for Hank the Blank, he seized that opportunity to lay the entire blame for our estrangement on my doorstep, as if I’d just shut him out for no reason. As if he’d had no part. Then he said that he’d been thinking of writing me out of his will, since I wasn’t as nice to him as the rest of the family.

I told him I didn’t fucking care what he did with his money. I assigned him a new neighborhood outside the wall, a hood I never visit, save for an occasional surface-level email.

I’m so edgy about blind spots that I pester my own therapist and my buddy Smooth Operator, often, asking them, “Do I have any? What are they? What do you see me doing that you wish I’d wake up to?” 

I’ll cop to it. Because of Hank the Blank and others, I’m a guarded motherfucker. And because I’m hardwired to build romantic castles around men who are deeply in love with themselves, I’ve had to lean on my rational brain to create a list of red flags to protect me in human interactions.

Like, guys who tell me I’m a good listener.

Guys who interrupt me when I’m talking.
Guys who don’t ask me any questions.

Or ask me questions and then steer the talk back to themselves in about four seconds.

Guys who want my enormously attractive body are fine, but guys who want to feast on my internal organs? Next.

The point, though, isn’t to chart my life’s course with red flags, or wall myself off like an overly-fucked character from Poe. As I get older, the scope of my dreams seems to narrow. But each dream’s intensity brightens. Maybe the world is full of Hanks. Maybe the best I can manage is to hunt and sift and hang tight to those with whom true, two-way connection ignites.

Look, I know. We’re all fucked up. We all live in deranged funhouses of our own making. But is there room for me in yours? When I step beside you, in front of the warped mirror, how many of us are reflected back?

My Beautiful Dark Rickety Contraption

I think a lot about my addled brain, with my addled brain.

No surprise, I guess. I’m a writer. We’re good at it, or if not good, relentless.

What I mean is that I think a lot about my mental health, since staving off depression and PTSD is a daily effort that’ll likely last as long as I’m still breathing. And since 1999, when I first sought help, I’ve had 20 years of false starts, smooth patches, hard stumbles, and one black-bleak multi-year crisis—like field study for what worked and what didn’t in my own personal pursuit of serenity. Or, lacking that, adequately functioning enough to leave my apartment.

And what I’ve learned over time is that I’m a complicated fuck. As in, it takes a fuck ton of village to raise this dawg.

Good mental health, for me, resembles one of those Dr Seuss-like flying contraptions with wings, wheels, gears, and cranks, all of which play a vital part in the pursuit of flight, and all of which require a tremendous amount of sweat to get rolling.

Once it’s airborne and coasting, the contraption stays aloft with minor adjustments—one or two fingers resting lightly on the steering wheel as the wind gently rustles through my receding hair.

It took about 18 of those 20 years to figure out the blueprint and hunt down the parts, and I’m constantly losing or forgetting the manual, which I should know by heart. My own personal contraption requires:

  • Antidepressants prescribed by a qualified shrink. This took a long time to figure out, and has required extensive experimentation, and many shrinks as I pinballed around the country.
  • Solitude saves my skin. If I have to go two or more days without alone time, I recommend you keep your distance.
  • Health insurance—much of the rest of this list depends upon this part, which is criminally hard to maintain, especially as I pinballed. I was one of the Americans saved more than once by Obamacare. (Miss you, dude.)
  • Weekly therapist. This is separate from the shrink, since modern shrinks give you 15 minutes tops to discuss meds, without talk therapy.
  • Sobriety. Meds without sobriety mean nothing. Sobriety without meds means nothing. That’s just been my hard-won experience. I go to traditional 12-step meetings and also recovery meetings from a Buddhist perspective, where I can be happily full of doubt about the existence of any god.
  • A good day of good writing is like…I can’t even put it into words. Like, I’m failing at doing the thing to describe the thing. It makes me feel like I’ve fulfilled my purpose on earth, or something dorky like that.
  • Full time work. I’ve yearned for more free time, and I’ve had more free time. I didn’t spend it wisely.
  • I lift weights several days a week. I should do more cardio. I don’t do more cardio. Somehow I live.
  • Friends. I need people I can say anything to. I need at least one who makes me laugh until I puke.
  • Meditation, when my monkey brain swings through the branches of my fears, lusts, dreams, and udon cravings.
  • One eight-pound chihuahua.

One or two go missing and I can skate by. Three or four and the contraption sputters and falls to the ground, where the laws of physics dictate that it’ll stay at rest, and I’ll end up with a sluggish head, barren heart, and a kitchen cluttered with empty containers of Chubby Hubby.

Massive effort is required again to get it back up in the clouds.

There’s no real order to this list. They all sort of depend upon and thrive off each other. A rickety, rusty, synergistic contraption that I continue to fuck with, depending on my current taste for enlightenment or self-sabotage.

Pretty sure this list disqualifies me as “low-maintenance.” I should just slap a warning label on my forehead. It would help weed out the idiots.

Some people have been thanking me for talking about shit some people don’t talk about. I appreciate the feedback, and I do wonder, often, if I’m ever gonna pay a serious price for this blog. Like, from prospective employers or boyfriends. Actually, no—just employers. A prospective boyfriend who backs out after reading this blog is not really a prospect. For anything.

As my rusty flying machine carries me toward the age of 50, out there on the rapidly-approaching horizon, I think a lot about acceptance—my failures and shortcomings, my minor accomplishments. My friends. My evolving dreams. If a couple of people feel a little less alone, after reading this, with their own ramshackle machines, then I’ve done something. A small job completed for a few seconds of satisfaction.

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.

Words Fail Me

1.

I read the rejection at dawn. 

Thanks for the opportunity to read… I’m sorry to say

My fourth this week. I count a couple of blessings—I used to rack up form rejections from every literary journal , but now I often get personal rejections from the most “prestigious” journals (prestigious a slippery category, made slippier by the rise of the Internets) telling me that they loved my work but that this particular piece wasn’t right for them. The Near-Miss Champ, I’ve become.

But this rejection was more like a total miss. I blinked at my phone in the dark, rubbed my eyes, shifted in bed. My feet had yet to touch the floor.

…that after review by the editorial staff, we came to a decision not to…

Who the fuck, I thought, sends rejections at 3 a.m.?

Other nightcrawling writers.

Delete. Stumble. Coffee.

2.

I spent part of that day cobbling together a character description of a good friend, to be added to a story on my blog. It’s treacherous to write about the living. To summarize in a few words the whole of a man made of too many parts to mention. I constantly misjudge. I say too much or too little. I trample or neglect.

I aimed to honor him honestly, to capture something of his growing importance to me, but without sentiment. Raw but respectful. After an hour or two of word-wrestling, it said what I meant it to say. I clicked “publish” feeling fine, flying high at the altitude and speed I only gain after a day of good writing.

3.

Prestigious literary journals? my co-worker asked. Who reads those?

4.

Massive failure.

In a measured but respectful voice, my good friend listed the ways in which my words had caused him pain. The ways in which he felt misheard. Misunderstood. His complexities, reduced.

I’d made assumptions. Said too much. Exposed him online for an audience whose motives he could only imagine. Assigned him nakedness when he preferred to stay clothed.

To confront me, he’d had to rehearse. He’d picked his words carefully, to protect my feelings. He saw my motives and stated his appreciation, repeatedly.

We’d be fine, probably. Soon.

But tonight I’m a shit friend. That was my thought.

I don’t know what he thought, beyond what he’d already told me. I knew he’d left some things unsaid. The extent, maybe, of his doubt in me. The new, tighter limits of his trust.

To endure as friends, he’d left some words unspoken.

5.

In Boston I worked for a major online retailer on a voiced virtual assistant that I’ll call Amanda. Hired to a ragtag team of language deconstructionists—linguists and English majors fracturing the sentences that consumers spoke to Amanda in the privacy of their homes. We broke down each line, annotated phrases, categorized each word. Our data was then handed to modelers who worked some kind of technical magic—mystifying to my English-major brain—that supposedly helped Amanda learn how to respond more accurately over time.

A young transgender man, whip-smart and wiry, worked on my team. A dozen of us clicking away on laptops in a conference room, in the weeks before I was made permanent and assigned a desk. Once, right in front of the young man, I slipped and referred to him as “she.” His friend corrected me, and I stammered an apology, mortified at my mistake, a spotlight thrown on my decrepit age, on my generation’s clumsy handling of the new rules for pronouns.

“It’s okay,” he told me, but his face said otherwise. He turned away and looked out the conference room window.

6.

Unlike other relationships that have a purpose beyond themselves and are clearly delineated as such (dentist-patient, lawyer-client, teacher-student), the writer-subject relationship seems to depend for its life on a kind of fuzziness and murkiness, if not utter covertness, of purpose. If everybody put his cards on the table, the game would be over. The journalist must do his work in a kind of deliberately induced state of moral anarchy.”

– Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer

7.

I reacted like an asshole.

I snapped at my good friend and walked away, paced, returned, walked away and paced some more. I pulled out my laptop and de-posted the blog. The faulty description of his persona, now hidden from view.

My high-altitude flight had smacked into a brick wall. I could see myself from outside myself, but I couldn’t pull out of this nosedive. Worse, I’d been caught in the emperor’s new clothes. Thinking I’d done an honorable thing, instead I’d caused him harm.

“No,” he said. “You didn’t hurt me. That would be deliberate. Your words caused me pain.”

How had I gotten it so wrong? How had I failed so badly, at something I was supposedly good at?

l took it the worst way possible. Personally. My words were me. Their failure was me.

8.

The strangest people assume that you’ll write about them. Usually the newest, most casually superficial acquaintances half-joke that their “crazy” hi-jinks will end up in your prose. You give an awkward smile, because the thought had never occurred to you, and now, stubborn, you secretly vow to thwart them with zero written words.

9.

The ninth of AA’s 12 steps states that we make direct amends to the people we’ve harmed, “unless to do so would injure them or others.”

Knowing when the truth will cause more harm than good takes time and a half dose of maturity to develop. The point isn’t to unburden yourself at the expense of others.

Addicts aren’t gifted in this direction. That’s why it’s not the first step.

10.

Amanda records her conversations with her owners and stores them in the cloud. Over the course of a year I heard pretty much everything one could say to her, a glimpse—I’m tipping here into melodrama—into the troubled soul of a country.

Top oven, 350 degrees. Turn off irrigation, zone one. Amanda, do I need an umbrella tomorrow? I know you heard me you piece of shit. Thermostat 68. Magic Eight Ball. Amanda, will I be rich and famous? Find me Red Lobster. Amanda, how did Whitney Houston die? How did Prince die? Amanda, play “Rehab.” Repeat. Amanda, will Antonio ever look at me? Will anyone ever love me? Do you love me? Say, “I love you Allison.” Say, “I will never leave you.” Tell us a joke. No, tell us a fag joke. Tell us a Muslim joke.

11.

Is anyone reading this? If not, do I exist?

12.

Once, after interviewing a family member, I showed him a rough draft of the chapter he appeared in. With his permission, I’d written honestly about his marriage and divorce, his affairs, the feelings he’d crushed.

Scrawny? he said in disbelief. You described me as scrawny?

In nonfiction, character is a form of murder. To create one, you must kill off half a human. To be honest is to cause harm. And you’ll never know which words cut too close, till the wounded come back around to your doorstep. Pulling from their wound the one word you’d assumed was the safest.

13.

Ouisa: And we turn him into an anecdote to dine out on, like we’re doing right now! But it was an experience. I will not turn him into an anecdote. How do we keep what happens to us? How do we fit it into life without turning it into an anecdote? With no teeth, and a sad punch line you’ll mouth over and over for years. “Oh, that reminds me of that impostor. Oh, tell the one about that boy.” And we become these human jukeboxes, spilling out these anecdotes. But it was an experience. How do we keep the experience?”

—John Guare, Six Degrees of Separation

14.

Hushed-tone praise of flawless humans is like cotton candy—sweet, cloying, and dissolvable upon touch, leaving the reader empty and alone.

You think the dead are safe. But you’re wrong. Free from the consequences of their reaction, you write an honest portrait. Later, an email in your inbox from a relative:

How could you betray her memory? You’re an ungrateful son.

15.

self-absorbed

adjective : usually disapproving

so involved with yourself that you do not think about anyone else; self-centered

16.

How do you make a White Russian? Amanda, text Jen: “I can’t pick you up from work I’m too drunk.” Where is the Middle East? Amanda, are you a lesbo? Can you get AIDS from kissing? Can you die of loneliness? Am I gonna get laid tonight? Why won’t my wife have sex with me? Why don’t you come over here and blow me? Weather, please. Weather. I said weather, Amanda. Fucking robot.

17.

I wanted my good friend, whom I’d described so painfully, to leave my house. I wanted to withdraw and bandage my ego in peace. I drove him home. He waved good-bye to me as he went up his front walk. Soon, we’d be fine. But just then, right there, all I wanted to do was to go home and write about it. To figure out how I felt. To salvage with words what my words had marred.

18.

What does “agnostic” mean? Give me rent. Amanda say “vagina.’ Add donuts to the grocery list. Amanda, help me snort this line it’s fucking EPIC. Amanda, who’s your daddy? I love you, Amanda. What is date rape? Amanda, what is consent? Amanda, shuffle. Amanda, skip. Skip. Tell me something funny. Amanda, that didn’t help at all. You’re a shit. You’re a slut. You’re the only person that listens to me.

Do Not Tease the Animals

“Let me ask you a dick question,” I said to my friend Smooth Operator. “As in, a question about your dick.”

“My particular dick?”

“Yes, your unique, individual dick.”

In the little FaceTime screen, he gave a quick go-ahead nod.

“I’m just curious,” I said. “Do you ever, you know, say to yourself…like, after a really rough day when nothing is going your way…do you ever say to yourself, ‘Well, at least I have a big dick‘?”

“My dick’s not massive.”

“It’s big,” I said, with a tone confirming its basic and objective truth.

He conceded. “It’s big.” He opened the refrigerator in his Manhattan kitchen and scanned the contents, which to me always looked excessively ordered. “Look, in reference to your question, have you met me?”

He spoke our shorthand, informed by the entirety of our friendship. What I knew about him, and he about me, and how that made us well-suited as cronies. He meant our similar temperaments, quivering with neuroses, stumbling over ourselves to make life easier and more pleasant for other people, an exhausting and resentment-prone approach to life that provoked a mutual friend to say to us, in exasperation, You don’t have to set yourself on fire, you know, to make the other guy warm.

I try to avoid thinking about Smooth Operator’s dick. It had been a full year since he’d confirmed, following a brief, long-distance affair, that he did not have the same feelings for me that I had for him, something that 99% of me already sadly understood. But the 1% holdout was a wily, obsessive, fantasy-prone fuckwit that dragged us both through a too-long bout of my wistful denial.

So a year had passed since that excruciating, reality-based let-down talk, and during that year I’d tried to release my grip on those particular feelings while still clinging hard to the very real and crucial friendship that we’d built over near-nightly chats, a handful of visits, and one butt-cold winter weekend trip to Montreal. He’d propped me up during a rough stretch of road. Trying to be his friend while surrendering my more-than-friend feelings was like trying to separate two layers of paint in the middle of a hurricane.

What I’m trying to say is that reducing the frequency of times that I think about his penis is a beneficial plank in the construction of my overall mental health.

“Look,” he said, grabbing a blueberry yogurt from the fridge, “It doesn’t cheer me up on a bad day, but yeah, sometimes, if I fall into comparing myself unfavorably with another guy, sometimes, I’ll remind myself that at least I’m—

“—a top with a big cock,” we said in unison. A private joke he likes to trot out pretty much every week, mainly because he knows it contains a hint of bottom-shaming that he doesn’t actually buy into, but pokes me with, because he knows that it annoys me.

“Well,” he said. “You asked. Where’s this coming from, dawg?” (He calls me dawg. The D-A-W-G version, he’d once clarified.)

“I keep thinking about confidence,” I said.

“Is your finger covering your fucking speaker again?” he said.

“Oops.” I readjusted my grip. “I mean, we’ve talked about this. You know, when you see someone who exudes it and you find yourself wondering where it came from. When you see one of those people who act like they deserve to breathe the air they’re breathing and to take up every inch of space their body actually occupies on this earth.”

“Oh,” he said. “Those people.” Smooth Operator ate a spoonful of yogurt. “It’s okay that I eat in front of you, right?” he said with his mouth full. Rhetorical question, long ago approved.

I’d taken all those unrequited feelings to my shrink for months on end, complaining about the dull, stupid, ceaseless pain they put me through. “Why can’t I just reason my way out of this?” I asked him (rhetorically). “Why can’t I just decide not to like him?”

Then one day my shrink suggested that, instead of telling Smooth Operator every single thing about my daily life, I should start keeping some details to myself. Just a few. It sounded like a flyweight solution for a heavyweight heartache. And the strength of my friendship with S.O. felt fully informed by the all-access pass I’d given him to my internal life.

Still, I’d been so fucking desperate for relief that I’d given it a shot. Over the next couple of weeks I’d stopped talking to S.O. about a local dude I’d had a couple of dates with. And surprisingly, miraculously, within a few days I sensed a very small crack in the monument of my unrequited devotion widen just an inch, and then a few more. The obsession began to drain.

“You knew what you were talking about,” I told my shrink. I don’t often compliment him, but he refrained from pointing this out. I imagine he was close to crying from relief, that he didn’t have to hear about S.O. as often now.

“I’ve had a yogurt,” S.O. said. “Three tacos, Thai food, two smoothies, and a tuna fish sandwich already today. I’m still hungry.”

He was always hungry. A full-blooded sensualist, that one. Most nights, looking at his face, I do a little internal check to confirm that I’m no longer in love with the dude. Which I’m not. But his handsome mug on my FaceTime screen reminds me that I still do have “feelings” of an enduring and bittersweet flavor that soften my heart one or ten degrees in his favor.

I didn’t tell him that night that I kept thinking about another shrink. Hank the Blank’s personal shrink. Way back in 1980, Hank had told his shrink that he’d molested me, and instead of doing his legal and professional duty, instead of reporting Hank the Blank to the authorities, his shrink merely made Hank promise never to do it again. (Hank would do it again, later, to someone else. )

I don’t know why I didn’t mention it to S.O. that night. He knew that story. Maybe, as I felt my brain inch down that dark and crooked path, I could sense the futility of it all. Wasting time, wondering how I might have turned out, had I received intervention at the age of nine. Would I have been spared firsthand knowledge of suicidal depression?

It’s a nice thought, but given the terrain of my childhood, hard to believe. The atom-splitting, hostile environment of my family’s ongoing physics experiment, which tore us apart and threw us together in different places and configurations, had too many cracks for trained professionals to fall through. I would have missed those appointments.

Would a different childhood have made a different man? A man with less self-doubt?

No doubt.

What about a bigger dick swinging between my legs?

“It’s a waste of time,” I told S.O., “all these what-ifs.”

“Admit it,” he said.

“Admit what?”

“You wouldn’t trade it. You wouldn’t be one of those clueless, confident douchebags for all the money in the world.”

“Well, I said. “Maybe for all the money.”

But he was right, of course. I’d worked too hard and paid too many dues to build the lens through which I look at everything. The glass—warped in spots, crystal-clear in others—that gave me my particular view.

I think about confidence, and the confident, but never for long. It’s like staring through the bars at caged zoo animals. A nice place to visit, but nowhere you’d want to live.

That Time You Raised Racial Demographics at an All-Staff Meeting

Management at your new job holds an all-staff meeting to discuss office culture, and they ask everyone to write words on Post-its describing the culture anonymously.

So on one Post-it you write “homogeneous,” since the office is 100% white, and the surrounding small, regional city is not.

Everyone turns in their Post-its face-down, and Kimberly reads them one at a time, and your colleagues have written words like “fun” and “hardworking,” and she gets to yours and squints and says, “humongous?” and then Dwayne looks at it but also squints in confusion.

And there’s no way you’re going to draw attention to yourself — after six weeks on the job — by being the only one to describe the office as homogeneous, especially after your last job (your first real job in this valley) where Betsy — who once said that she could never vote for someone with the same genitalia as her own — sent texts about you to other co-workers, saying that she was sick of your bitchy gay shit.

Which stung because nobody in your entire life had ever described you as bitchy (though they’d sometimes described you as gay), and in a huff of indignation you went to HR, who launched an exhaustive investigation that led nowhere, and the weird thing is that when you look back on that job you feel guilty, which shouldn’t be right but is true, about going to HR, and now you think you never should have gone to HR, you should have just kept your mouth shut.

But now in the office culture meeting they’re trying to decipher your vocabulary and you think maybe Betsy was right, maybe you really are bitchy — after six weeks at a new job you’ve climb up on your perch of judgment to render verdict on organizational demographics.

“Homogenized?” asks Dwayne. Then he and Kimberly toss the Post-it aside and move on to the next one.

Because it hasn’t been that long since your own personal series of objective failures (divorce lawyers, zero balances, cheap whiskey) and you have the sinking feeling that yes, you’re the bitch, just pissed that you got yourself stuck in a valley where an entire company could be white and you could pass, on your morning commute, a deer who’d been hit by a truck, lying crumpled on the ground, and you’re still seeing the deer in the conference room with the Post-its cluttering the wall, the sides of its bloodied chest still rising and falling, gasping for breath, and you wish that as you’d driven past you’d looked the other way.

Apocalypse Now, or Whenever You Might Have a Spare Moment

Loud in bed, loud in life.

photo from Pixabay

Note: This story also appeared on P.S. I Love You at Medium.

I’ve always been soft-spoken. Even in bed. “Are you having a good time?” is a question I’ve heard a dozen times by various men, always with discouraging timing, like right after a bout of what I think are obvious grunts of my approval. I go through life speaking, and groaning, at volume level nine, while the world hears me at three.

Enter Jake, a bold, big-mouthed braggart who’d moved to San Francisco from New York City. Talking and volume were never Jake’s problem. Even with his mouth shut, Jake communicated, like the first time I saw him, sitting across a crowded room from me, his biceps straining the sleeves of a t-shirt that read: “I Make Boys Cry.”

The t-shirt scared the hell out of me, and led me, in a burst of self-protection, to cross him out as candidate for My Next Husband. But still I found him, and the t-shirt, and what the t-shirt implied, compelling. My attraction ran hand-in-hand with my terror, skipping through the landscape of dirty daydreams. Some of us are cursed with bad boy hunger, God help us.

We started as pals. Two guys grabbing coffee after one of those meetings where ex-drunks gather for comic camaraderie. He’d listen to my latest woes, all the ways I’d let some guy treat me like a doormat. The broken promises, canceled plans, and hidden boyfriends. My mute reaction.

He’d listen for a while, then lean across the table and whisper, “You just need to get fucked. Really hard.”

It was a good set-up; I could flirt safely with him, (he had a boyfriend) till our coffee grew cold, then run back to my quiet, reserved, hopeful life. By “flirting,” I mean I’d turn red for a good hour, never breaking my guarded stance, never raising my voice loud enough to tell him all the things I pictured doing with another man, never saying what I wanted from life, because, well, that just wasn’t me.

Then I left for grad school in New York City, a double-fisted smack-down, where my writing got torn apart in workshop, and my skin peeled back on unrelenting sidewalks teeming with hyper-opinionated blowhards.

I read four books and scrawled 20 pages of text a week, downloaded pirated Brian Eno tunes in my studio apartment, hid for relief in the dim library stacks.

Jake mailed me a selfie with his pit bull, and I stuck it on my fridge, where it hung the whole two years I lasted there. I’d crawl home down Broadway and stand in my kitchen, bruised from colleague feedback, or bolstered by a professor’s “atta boy,” and I’d look at Jake and think about sex, a thing I had no time for.

It took a while, but I grew a spine in Manhattan. I stuck up for my work in class, walked against stoplights, slept through car alarms and all-night construction. When bastards tried to push onto the train before letting passengers off, I’d shoulder through them and knock them off-balance.

But San Francisco was home, the only place on the planet where I’d ever felt comfortable, a fact that only solidified the longer I was away. I moved back when coursework was done, in the summer of 2006, when I was still single.

And now, so was Jake.

It didn’t take long. We hit the gym together several times a week, where we exchanged playful grins in the mirror over sweaty sets of military presses, the two of us hooked into a drawn-out foreplay with one inevitable end.

It came the night he swung by to take me out on our first official date. I let him in and he pushed me up against the wall and kissed me. We left shirts and shoes and jeans in a long trail to my bed. I can’t remember if we even left the house that night.

Over the coming weeks, we’d spend a lot of time in bed. One night he stopped kissing me long enough to ask, “What do you WANT?”

“Huh?” I said. “What? What do you mean?”

“What do you want?”

“What? When? Now?”

“Yeah”

“In sex?”

“Yeah.”

And for a moment I was speechless, couldn’t say what I wanted aloud. I hemmed and hawed. I blushed.

“This,” I finally said. “I want this.” Meaning he and I, together, and what we were doing.

“Good,” he said. “What else?”

Again I stalled. We already had our clothes off, but his questions, and the answers I couldn’t give, stripped away more of my cover. I don’t raise my voice. I don’t say certain things aloud.

“Fuck that,” he said. “Tell me something sick.”

I stammered, scarlet, for a second or two, before I revealed a long-held, deeply private fantasy. “Well,” I said. “Picture us on a boat. And I’m the cabin boy…”

And that seemed to work, for both of us.

But his challenge was not confined to sex. Later, after dinner, after the plates and silverware had been tucked into the dishwasher, we stood necking in his kitchen. And he asked the question again. “What do you want?”

“What?” I asked. “In sex?”

“In life.”

My eyes focused on his chest. I don’t share my ambitions. I was a Midwestern boy raised on humility, shame, and superstition. To say dreams out loud is to lose them.

“I want to make a living doing what I love,” I finally said, mumbling against his neck, guarded behind the rock of modesty.

“Fuck that,” he said. “You want to be famous.”

“Um…”

“You want to go on all of the talk shows.” He grabbed my chin and locked his eyes with mine.

“Um…”

“You want Matt Lauer to fawn.”

“Um,” I said. “Well…yeah.”

And in my head strange things happened; I heard my voice crack open walls, which crumbled to the ground.

He kissed me. “Good. Keep going.”

“I want to change people’s lives,” I said, before I had time to think. The sky darkened, and a hurricane swept through a city.

“Good.” Kiss.

“I want to matter.” A string of cars exploded.

“Good!” Kiss.

“I want people to say, Finally, someone put that into words!

“Yeah!” he growled.

“I want to make money.” Tornadoes tore through a stadium packed with the innocent.

“Yeah!”

“I want more money than those assholes who walk around the gym like they own the place.” Tsunami, thunder, terror.

“Fuck yeah!”

“I want to be invited to parties.”

“Yeah!”

“And say, No!

“Oh my God,” he said, and stuck his tongue down my throat.

I’d learn a lot over the coming months, just watching Jake, about confidence, and the heat one exudes when shedding shame.

But we wouldn’t last. Though he’d knocked me a few inches in his direction, the gulf between our temperaments made together forever unlikely. Are massive overhauls to personality even possible? Or do we change — if we change — in half degrees?

My days as doormat are over. I push back when struck. I tell sex partners what I want. But my voice remains measured, people refer to me as “sweet,” and I only let slip a dream or two, shielding the planet from their powers of destruction.

True Crime Saved My Life

How murder and mayhem eased my PTSD.

Photo: Joël in ‘t Veld/Unsplash

Note: This story also appeared on Human Parts at Medium.

A few years ago, life came at me in a batshit series of events.

Worn down by a lifetime of suicidal depression, I finally got the guts to hire a therapist to help me confront the sexual abuse and neglect I’d gone through as a kid.

At the same time, I found a site online for dudes with similar childhoods, and I sought solace in my chats with distant strangers. I picked up a bit of their lingo, too; they called their therapists “my T” and their abusers “my perp,” as an indication of their ubiquity. Each of us had one of both.

As if on cue, later that year, my perp cornered me in his two-car garage during a family Thanksgiving to tell me about some stories he’d posted online. He had thousands of new fans and hundreds of emails from people who really “respected” and “connected” with his writing. He figured I might be interested in his success, being that I’m a writer and all.

He must have seen something on my face because he stepped aside and let me go.


Several weeks later and against my better instincts, I poked around online, looking for his posts during a late night at the office.

My mom had died a few years before and I’d spent those years attempting, despite the childhood abuse, to be a “good person” and to bridge the estrangement that had calcified between me and the perp through frequent visits to his house. It had been a challenge, as he’d spent most of those years questioning my life choices (my career, retirement plan, and city). I’d left every visit feeling irritable and defensive.

I found his posts and discovered that during those same years, around the time of my visits, he’d written and posted to the internet dozens of erotic stories about incest. They were all stories of jerk porn with familiar scenes — acts that had seared my nerves for the past 30 years. I knew without reading the ending where each tale ended up: a man, a boy, a bathroom filled with steam, and clothes in a trampled pile. They were lightly fictionalized versions of straight-up nonfictional events that I’d worked for three decades to forget.

My vision blurred and I clicked off the computer with a trembling hand. I left the office and took the train home, my body shuddering so much that the people near me moved away. When the doors opened and I hit the sidewalk, weird animal noises came out of me.

Why the fuck, I thought, did my perp want me to read those stories? I pictured thousands of his fans reading the stories with one hand wrapped around their pricks, jerking off to the things that had been done to me. I wondered if I knew any of those fans in real life. Within me, in a place past reach or reason, fear cracked open.

Later, I let out an hour-long, guttural scream of indictments at my perp as he hid in the privacy of his two-car garage. I pierced him with words, with three decades of pent-up grudge and rage. I screamed and swore and then I hung up for good. My shirt clung to me wetly. The screen of my phone was flecked with spit. My husband sat on the couch beside me, his face streaked in tears. I was a burnt out match.


I wasn’t afraid of my perp. After years at the gym, I’d grown much bigger than him. And anyway, he was an old man now. So I can’t tell you why during this time, my fear spread out past him, out into the world. It was primal, bone-deep terror that couldn’t be talked away. I can’t tell you why, exactly, I bought a combat knife online — delivered to me within two days, free of charge — and carried it with me on the train to work every day.

If a member of my own family could do that to me, then what could a complete stranger do?

I can’t tell you why I’d eke out a half day at work only to lock myself in an empty office, turn out the lights, remove my shoes and belt, lay on the floor, and rock back and forth for an hour. I can’t tell you why I had to take a medical leave of absence and wound up diagnosed with chronic PTSD, or why I shut out everyone in my life, including my friends, because nobody in the world felt safe. I can’t even tell you why I moved out of the bedroom I shared with my husband and slept in the spare room, why I couldn’t trace my steps back into my old life.

I guess the plainest way of putting it is this: If a member of my own family could do that to me, then what could a complete stranger do?


Over time, I became a recluse. I coped with the help of true crime. My mild, lifelong interest in the genre now turned to compulsion. It was the only thing I could tolerate, the one thing that fed me a grain of relief.

I consumed marathon stretches of shows on the Investigative Discovery channel. I watched massive, jaw-dropping amounts of true crime television. I inhaled shows with titles like Sinister MinistersSouthern Fried Homicide, and Fear Thy Neighbor.

Whatever your career, location, or income, these shows promised that you, too, could fall prey to something terrible. Thus, I gorged on crime in my bunker (locked bedroom, shades drawn) while playing Candy Crush on my phone, my dog curled beside me, trying to shut down my brain.

Here’s the thing: It worked. The shows held me back from the threshold of that abandoned amusement park in my head, where perps and knife-wielding clowns crouched in wait.


That year, while everyone was watching Downton Abbey. I’d grown nauseated by the show’s depiction of a family that stayed steadfastly loyal through multiple hardships.

Bullshit, I thought. Utter bullshit. I lost my stomach for comedies, laugh tracks, tearjerkers, and poignant celebrity bios. It was all crap for delusional suckers. The world was full of horrible people doing horrible things to other people, and anyone pretending otherwise was peddling drivel.

You could argue that watching so much crime only reinforced my trauma. Maybe you’re right. But after hundreds of hours of crime shows, I understood that I watched for the victims and their loved ones. I watched for the survivors who’d brushed death. Their tears, I bought. They made me feel less alone. They knew the wolf at the door. And more often than not, the wounds from their crimes dwarfed mine.

Of course, there’s a problem with true crime: Exploitation is inherent in the genre. Strangers’ tragedies broadcast for our entertainment. Some shows were shameless, with clumsy reenactments and pun-heavy, oily narration that made roadkill out of victims, deified the killer, and inspired the urge to shower.

Still, I watched.

I watched so much Investigative Discovery that I knew every commercial by heart. After watching constant ads for treatment centers, feminine hygiene, and adult undergarments, I wondered what that said about me, demographically speaking.

But watching live cable tied me tenuously to the world; other people watched those same shows and those same ads for rehabs, at the exact same moment. I wasn’t utterly alone. I was an astronaut tethered with one thin cord, oxygen depleting and deep space pulling me out to where, according to the tagline of my favorite movie, “no one could hear you scream.”


I left the house only for therapy. For weeks I arrived at my therapist’s office certain that this time, my T would have me committed for my own good. But he didn’t, I lived, and I kept watching true crime.

I chatted with more dudes on the abuse recovery site and read books on trauma, enough to see how much we had in common. Many of the dudes with our kind of childhoods had built elaborately constructed, impressively defended fortresses that could stand for decades. But those fortresses fell apart in our thirties and forties. We worked (if we worked) in stockrooms and empty warehouses. Some of us cashed our disability checks on the third of the month, budgeting for an Uber to our T and for smokes, booze, and Netflix.

And still, life kept coming. I suffered a divorce, poverty, and an unwilling exit from San Francisco, my home for 18 years that I could no longer afford. But as I bounced around the country in the coming months, my rocks were true crime and a chihuahua. I kept close to both, and I built new bunkers wherever I landed. I found new Ts, shut out my perp, and took jobs that kept me out of reach of the general public.

The one thing that would save me — human connection — was the one thing I couldn’t sustain.


I listened to Serial while trimming trees at a cousin’s house in Oregon. I bonded with My Favorite Murder on my three-train commute through Boston. I even smiled once or twice while driving home in western Massachusetts, as the dudes from Last Podcast on the Left broke down the tale of the Hillside Strangler.

I liked the solved cases. I craved the mysteries unknotted, the perps collared and convicted. I wanted a shot of a prison yard wreathed in razor wire, detective offering a hard-won grin, and someone saying “closure” without much faith. True crime was a fairy tale I wanted to believe.

After hundreds (thousands?) of hours, I grew familiar with the patterns of psychopaths and narcissists. Now I’d see them coming, strewing charm and butchery in their wakes. Now I’d steer clear.

I consumed so much true crime that I saw the full spectrum of people who’d lost loved ones to murder. I saw those who’d gotten stuck at the death, those who still looked like ghosts — like they were just existing, gutted by the loss of their only kid, sitting with open bottles at gray kitchen tables in the fading light of dusk. And who could fucking blame them?

True crime was a fairytale I wanted to believe.

But there were others, broken in places that would never heal but still limping forward. They wore scars and shed tears but the inner light hadn’t been snuffed out. They’d found a way. I wasn’t sure how but I doubted it involved slumping on a couch after work, gazing at crime every night. It was like they’d made a decision.


Eventually, I snuck out into the world for an hour or two at a time. I let my dog take me on longer walks. I ordered takeout from across the street. I slipped into the back row of meetings where fellow whiskey-thirsty folks gathered in blackly comic camaraderie. I made one friend in my new, strange town and he took me to the top of a nearby mountain.

I got better. Dating, in my small town, was an insurmountable challenge. So with the help of some iPhone apps I tried it long-distance, which kept dudes at a safe distance. I met a couple guys in what is called “real life.” I made mistakes, and I hurt some feelings. I mishandled my own anger — an emotion I’d squelched my whole life, which now came out of me sideways and bigger than any situation required.

Though nothing romantic lasted, I ended up with some good friends. I’d drive to Providence to visit one and we’d watch Friday night episodes of Dateline, with Keith Morrison gravely narrating how the husband did it but — through hubris and the dogged determination of gumshoes — didn’t get away with it.

Another friend in NYC would FaceTime me and we’d trash-talk certain loathsome and moronic serial killers (BTK), roll our eyes when people gushed over the “handsome” and “charming” Ted Bundy, tip each other off via texts about Dahmer documentaries, and scan our family trees to recall the narcissists who’d raised us. Within the rigid boundaries of the true crime genre, our childhood demons could be exorcised — or at any rate, diminished.

Through crime I made human connections, for the first time in years.


These days, I’m tethered to the world again. I’m bold — at times — online. I work in an office where the treacherous political waters require skillful navigation. I lift weights at a large, boisterous national gym chain. I see my T every Tuesday. I chat with my neighbors while walking the dog, no knife in my pocket.

I still love true crime. I play the podcasts during my commute. I binge old seasons of Investigative Discovery shows on Hulu. But for a couple of years, I’ve inched into crime’s close cousins of horror and mystery. Now I can even sip comedy in small doses.

I’m grateful for the company of true crime. It kept me, one hour at a time, one crime at a time, from wandering the amusement park in my head where the perps and the clowns lurked. They’re still there, now, but they’re smaller, gaunt from hunger, and hiding from the lights of the Midway, with their charms faded and their greasepaint melting in the rain.