Dude, No Longer Waiting (Publication News)

Very proud to share that The Normal School, a really amazing and innovative literary site, has published my true store, Just Waiting on a Dude today. It’s a somewhat different take on dating, sex, long distance relationships and friendship—the kinds of stuff that will hopefully outlive a global pandemic. It’s available to read totally for free.

I hope you’ll check it out and, if so moved, like or leave a comment.

I Blame Myself for My Reputation

“He’s so funny,” my coworker whispered as I walked away.

“Right?” said the other.

I hadn’t intended at that moment to be funny, and like most humor—a comic noise in reaction to something they’d said—it makes no sense out of context. Not worth repeating.

But aside from the pride I felt having earned that description, I noted something else. Her comment implied that my funniness was ongoing. That I was a reliably funny person.

This may not seem like much of anything. But it was another moment reminding me of how things had changed, how not so long ago I wasn’t funny, because nothing in my life seemed funny. How I couldn’t see anything beyond my own pain.

When I look back on those years I think about my buddy, Smooth Operator, who could make me laugh in spite of the mess of my life. Our long-distance texts or FaceTimes were my lifeblood. They got me through. And even though, at that point in our friendship, I had feelings that he didn’t return, I needed his humor and his friendship so badly that I endured the pain of an unrequited fool. I needed him, and his superpower of making me laugh till I cried as my life burned down around me.

And now, a year or two later, I’d been called funny. So funny.

I’d forgotten I was, could be, liked to be funny. That I could crack open the day for an inch of light. That I could make the day different, lighter, to people around me for a few seconds.

“Humor is tragedy plus time,” Mark Twain supposedly said. I’m so grateful for that time that I could cry.

Floating on the Flat Bench

A rising, a lightening, a liftoff. Sweating between sets, sucking in air. House tunes through my ear buds, and my face—for many years hiding—now lifted to the light, eyes keen, and bloody heart beating.

I stood and threw another twenty on the bar and my sweatpants held, the drawstring now needed. Each day, I cinch it a bit tighter in the locker room and run a hand up and over my belly. Gauge its heft.

I carry a notebook through the gym. Aging dude of analog. Dinosaur among millennials. I write my weights, my sets. Without this, my faulty brain will backfire, backpedal, delete my gains. I’ll forget I moved up to 60, and instead I’ll grab the 50. The notes say in numbers that I’m stronger than I think.  

And now, a lifting. Lungs filled. Head light, lit up, happy.

What the fuck?

What’s this feeling?

Or, no. I knew it, had felt it before. Years behind me. Where had it gone? I’d lost it, and with it, belief.

2.

I know how it sounds: “I’d given up.”

Dramatic. But dude. I had.

I’d come to believe—after five years of hard blows—that I was done. A litany I’m sick of repeating (a hopeful sign), and those who know me are sick of hearing it. But for the sake of narrative cohesion, and for those who are new here:

Six years ago I got stuck in suicidal thoughts. Which led to therapy. Confronting for the first time the pale, squirmy, hundred-legged bugs hiding under my boyhood rocks that I now kicked aside. In the light, the things scrambled for cover. A visit with a family member who’d molested me when I was nine led to the discovery of dozens of erotic stories he’d posted online. One-handed reading celebrating intergenerational incest. Stroke stories that had garnered that man thousands of fans, hundreds of emails. He’d wanted me to read the stories, led me to them, and when I read them, I’d lost my mind.

Brain hounded by those thousands of anonymous men out there in the world who’d seen me naked, in a sense. Felt unsafe everywhere, with everyone. My withdrawal led to the end of my marriage, which led to my exile from San Francisco, my home for 18 years, and the loss of everything—house, friends, shrink, garden, sobriety, and more—that had tethered me to the planet. So I bounced around the country in a state of pitch-black, barely-tamped panic and poverty, in the company of nothing but an eight-pound chihuahua.

Life had chained me to a tiny square of sunless dirt. None of it my fault. None of it deserved, maybe, but hard, fixed, and true.

Among us, souls without luck scrape by. Sad fucks who can’t catch breaks. And maybe, one day, I’d been somebody else, but now I was this. Now, I was them.

Once smart, I’d grown dumb. Once good at work, I now faltered, got fired. Once hot, now dumped. Once sweet, now scary. Desperate. Feed me, said my eyes. Look at me, said my hands. Once, people grinned at my approach. Now they looked worried, looked away, hurried off.

Easy, when you’re not stuck in that square, to hold hope. To platitude. To chide. But here’s the truth—after five years of it, I was scared as fuck that I was done.

3.

Three years and three months ago, I checked myself into a detox center just over the Vermont border. Five days in a fog. They handed me pills in little paper cups to ease me back from DTs—I’d been drinking a liter of whiskey a day. The pills made me hazy. We lined up for the pills. Lined up for trays of food, three times a day. For chats with doctors or nurses or shrinks. I don’t remember them. A lab coat, maybe. A clipboard.

I don’t remember anyone. I know I made friends. Two men cared about me enough to say out loud during group that I should stay past the five days. They thought I needed it. But I can’t remember their faces. Their names. They cared about me, and I recall nothing about them.

What I remember: at intake, they took away my notebook. The metal spiral, they said, could be removed and fashioned into a lethal weapon. They took my pens. They took my belt and shoelaces and the drawstring to my sweatpants. I remember that I shuffled around in hospital slippers, holding my sweatpants up so they wouldn’t slide down past my ass. I remember thinking—in small, sharp splices amid the fog—how had I come to this?

I remember standing on a fenced back patio, in a small square of sun. The weak warmth of November. The men were right, it turned out. I should have stayed longer.

4.

And now, floating.

A hard-fought floating. Eight months of sobriety, every day of which I built—slow and precise—like a house of steel cards. Good work. Good deeds. A bunch of skin-baring risks. One five-pound plate at a time. My neck outstretched, open, exposed to the jaws of strangers, bosses, money. Face now lifted to catch the light through the windows of an LA Fitness.

Where once each day was something to be endured, now, this floating. Now, something else. A year-long calendar with little doors, and behind each day a new thing—friend, fuck, chance, food, tears of no regrets. Wider vision. A glimpse of another human’s pain that isn’t my own.

Life feels different when you’ve nearly died. I’m floating, dude. Fragile, steely, but lifting. I stand from the flat bench. My drawstring holds. I throw on another twenty, to test out my strength.

Holy Crap

I got an email this morning from the Senior Associate Editor of The Normal School—a really awesome literary magazine that’s pretty much kicking ass—saying they want to publish an essay I wrote.

And that is my reaction, above.

As I’ve written here recently, I’ve had so. many. almosts and near-misses and honorable mentions over the past four years or so, and not only did I get a yes, finally, but I got a yes from one of the best.

Lit mags are niche, I know, so here’s some background info on The Normal School from publisher Outpost 19:

The Normal School: A Literary Magazine celebrates its 10th year of publishing in 2017-18 and in just a decade, it has become one of the top journals in the field of creative nonfiction, garnering 30 “Notable” inclusions in the Best American Essays since 2010. BAE series editor, Robert Atwan has called the magazine “indispensable for anyone interested in new directions in the contemporary essay.” TNS was also named one of the top 10 markets for nonfiction in the entire country and featured in a Buzzfeed article titled “29 Amazing Literary Magazines You Should Be Reading Now.” Known for cutting edge nonfiction and striking visual design, The Normal School will serve as a primary partner for the series, providing a resource not only of potential contributors but also support staff for production, marketing, and promotions.

I will link to it once it is published (I don’t have those details yet).

Thanks everyone for your support and encouragement. This was a good day for me.

A Sword Through the Skull

At the age of 43, during a time of debilitating terror, I built myself a suit of armor.

It was less a decision than a base urge. A man I called Hank the Blank—who’d hurt me as a boy—had come back into my life and hurt me again. The fear now filling my blood was less a grown man’s fear than the fear of a kid, or of a gazelle limping across an open savanna.  I craved protection, beyond the hunting knife I’d begun to carry in my pocket.

In just a few months I built a suit from gear that would have repulsed Hank. I covered my arms in ink.

It was—like most of my actions—a gesture of mixed motives. Tattooing my skin was the kind of thing Hank would find disgusting, troubling, and pointless.

A perfectly bland member of the widest and least offensive sector of society (aside from his pedophilia, of course), he found tattoos disturbing and transgressive. Driven by money and greed, he also found them a waste of income. 

A layer of Ink between us, keeping him from “getting me,” in every sense. It would push us further apart, and mark me as anything but his property. They say trauma is stored in the body. I wanted to brand that container with pain of my own making—pain that’d leave color in its wake.

But this was more than just Hank.

Though I’d had one shoulder tattoo since the age of 19, I now wanted more. I wanted to look like the kind of man I’d always wanted to be. Wanted to dump the chains of dull convention and inhibition that had kept me, for 43 years, stuffed in a box marked “agreeable.” I wanted to get marked permanently so I couldn’t easily disguise, for long, the dude underneath.

I dove down a million online rabbit holes, following local tattoo artists, clicking through their portfolios, booking sessions. I spent cash I probably didn’t have on hours of painful, meditative endurance.

I picked a script artist who inked “Still Here” on the outside of my left forearm, because I considered it a minor miracle that all the crap inside me hadn’t propelled me off the Golden Gate Bridge. In the mirror, the inked words looked like a gauntlet.

Crammed with feelings I couldn’t express, coping with my pain through stoic withdrawal, I had a skull and roses tattooed on the inside of the same forearm, asking the artist if he could give the skull a cigar and one single tear. “He’s learning how to cry,” I said.

Finally, I booked several hours over several sessions with a Japanese-American artist named Yutaro, to design and ink a full sleeve on my right arm. I told him I wanted a skull with a sword thrust through it, and when he asked me why, I told him it was because the man’s biggest battle was with his own head. Yutaro nodded at this and went to work.

Though during this time I also went to twice-a-week sessions with a shrink who specialized in PTSD, though I felt myself making incremental advances, the pain and the fear and the social withdrawal led to the end of my marriage, and an involuntary exile from the city I’d called home for 18 years. I was an astronaut on a cut tether, spinning through space.

I fled the city with an unfinished sleeve.

It’s still incomplete. The sword is just an outline conforming to the muscles and bones of my arm. Yutaro has moved to London. Maybe someday I’ll have the cash to complete it. For now it’s as unfinished as the man it marks.

In the years since I built the suit, a full sleeve has become commonplace, practically a requirement for a certain segment of a certain part of society. But I have no regrets. I love my ink, the beautiful collaborations with talented artists, etched across my skin, the permanent scars I don’t care to hide.

I don’t need the armor anymore, though I wear it like a soldier who’s endured the worst, and rests now in a pool of cool shade, smoking a cigar. Looking back at the fight with weary relief. It’s only here that I have the distance to see my own arms, and see that it was armor I’d been building.

The battle of my life is still the one with my own head, but it’s no longer a battle I’m losing. I keep Hank at a safe distance. Safe for him, that is. Safe from my weaponry. A million tiny actions I’ve taken over a long, slow slog have begun to pay off, and I’m back in the world, swinging the imperfect sword with a clumsy grace.

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?