Quarantine Day #5

Today’s headlines: 75 Million Americans Told to Stay Home; U.S. Cases Top 18K; NYC becomes nation’s epicenter in one week; Coronavirus recession looms, its course “unrecognizable.”

Trump’s embrace of unproven drugs defies science; U.S. intelligence warned Trump in January and February as he dismissed coronavirus threat.

Smooth Operator tells me over FaceTime that Trump is really through this time. “I feel like we’ve had this discussion every other month over the past three and a half years,” I replied. “There are never any consequences.”

I mean, in a rational world, yes, he’d be done. And there will come a day when even his supporters will realize that he is the shittiest shit stain to have ever “run” a country, and he’ll have to hope that he’s got a well-fortified bunker on some island he bought with his father’s money. But this week? A poll finds that the majority of Americans approve of his handling of the crisis.

Sometimes it’s too painful to hope.

In the meantime, people I know are already losing their jobs, and news reports come from all over the country about severe medical supply shortages weeks before the infections are predicted to peak.

Got pretty grumpy the other night, picturing losing my job and then my home. Feels like I only just pulled myself back from the brink of total poverty and desperation. My head goes to the worst places because in the past five years I’ve seen some of the worst places that a single white dude with one marketable skill can see. I throw that in there to acknowledge my privilege. I know many, many folks have it worse. Funny how that doesn’t always relieve one’s panic.

Later: U.S. surges cases surge past 21,000. NYC and LA docs told not to test patients unless doing so would alter their treatment (to save the insufficient supply of tests)….”Containment battle is lost, prepare now for onslaught…”

A smart, local bud calmed me down a bit over the phone, reminding me that, if one were to suffer through a worldwide pandemic in the U.S., Massachusetts is one of the best states for social safety nets, and I’d be ok with unemployment and wouldn’t get kicked out of my apartment.

Day #6

Global cases doubled in the last week to over 310,000, death total now stands at 13,000. Hawaii will quarantine any new arrivals for 14 days. It Italy, 793 people died in a single day.

After five days inside, I steeled myself for a grocery run Friday. I brought hand sanitizer (the two-thirds bottle I’d “borrowed” from work, as there is none to be found elsewhere) and leather driving gloves—less for virus protection than as a reminder to NOT TOUCH MY FUCKING FACE. The strangest part of the trip was how busy my town looked. The only sign of crisis: half-stripped shelves at the store.

Shelves once full of frozen vegetables, cheese, pasta, rice, soup, meat, cereal, coffee (luckily my neighbors haven’t discovered the best coffee the store carries, so that was left for me, while they stocked up on shitty Starbucks), bananas, toilet paper, dishwasher pods, and so on. Somehow I got what I wanted, navigated the checkout line with debit card, gloves, a chip/swiper that took five minutes to process my transaction, and a gloveless cashier who looked to be about 16 years old. I stopped at the second, smaller store on the way home. Better stocked, with smartly set limits like two boxes of pasta each visit, to curtail panicked greed.

Drove home, put my groceries away with my gloves, then peeled them off, shed my clothes, and took a shower. I used to be cavalier when it came to hand hygiene during flu season, never really adjusting my behavior. Now it’s different. I keep picturing myself, alone and sick on my couch, fighting for breath, every respirator in the valley taken.

Expecting new restrictions soon, I took Agnes for a hike yesterday to the top of Mount Tom (a short peak only five minutes from my place). There’s a very narrow crevice near the top that required me to carry the chihuahua in one hand and use various rock and tree handholds to scale to the top. Every time I touched something, I thought about its risk for transmission. Stupid? Panicky? I dunno—the basic science isn’t yet understood. It was good to get out, up to a sweet view of the valley, and sit in the sun with my dog while we still can, before stay-in-place orders come down from the governor.

But dozens of others—no doubt equally full of cabin fever—had the same idea, and as morning shifted into afternoon, I began to pass them all on the trail. Sometimes groups of six or ten or more. Each time you pass someone, you think, do they have it?

There’s something here, some obvious parallels and stark contrasts, with the AIDS epidemic, which I mostly experienced second-hand in my early twenties, sheltered at a Sarasota college campus of 600 students, reading about ACT-Up in the library. Difference being, gay men were dying by the thousands in the middle of an unaffected general population, who never gave a shit until a famous basketball star caught it. It’s too soon, I don’t have any perspective, to make any connections. Just to note that this time, it’s coming for straight folks, too.

On the mountain I passed families, college buddies talking about the apartments they’d rent on the Upper West Side, fellow dog walkers, trail runners, bickering couples, and a young man, drenched in cologne, delirious with excitement over glimpsing an eagle, coasting on the wind currents along the edge of the cliff. “Yeah, bro!” He yelled at me, “that’s one from the pocket list!”

Me, holding my breath just a second or two as I passed each of them, wishing I’d picked an even more distant hike, socially-speaking.

Quarantine Day #2

Joked this morning on Instagram that I only felt 8% crazy so far, but ten hours later my toes are poking at the edge of the abyss again. As I feared, our clients are now demanding that my boss freeze their marketing contracts with her due to the shitstorm kicking up across the planet, sending everyone scurrying inside for cover and slamming their wallets shut.

Headline: Confirmed U,S. Cases Doubled in Two Days

By the end of the day she’d made a couple of “adjustments” to our staffing, moving one PTer to contractor status, and a FT writer to PT. So far I’m untouched, but it’s hard to imagine that things won’t get way, way worse. For weeks now I’ve wondered to myself, like, if I were a boss, and I had one dude who was the best writer on the team but a bit of a quietly rebellious loner who divulged nothing about his personal life at work, and I had another writer, the fastest on the team, who was a personal friend that kissed my ass several times a day, at minimum five days a week (sometimes seven on Facebook), whom would I pick to stay?

Hard to make that call, from where I sit in quarantine, listening to my neighbor through the thin walls actively not practicing social distancing with family members visiting from a few towns away.

(I just got back from a short dog walk, hands freshly sanitized. I try to act like my hands would burn the skin from my face if I touched it. I still touch it.)

One of our more “important” clients is in the middle of their own COVID-19-related PR crisis, and I was asked to churn out a blog on the topic that would normally take me two and a half hours to write, but I kicked it out in one, with writing so good that she jumped on the instant messaging app to tell me that it brought tears to her eyes. Did that save my ass? For now? For a bit?

What kind of social posts to create for clients when nobody wants to leave their fucking house? Amazon will survive and prosper, as always. By the time I die we’ll all be citizens of Amazon.

Every state and city’s calling their own shots. Smooth Operator, still stuck in that Chicago hotel, says the mayor’s on the verge of imposing a stay-in-place citywide restriction. (Later: the entire state of California has now done so.)

Weird, too, that I can chat with dudes online in Australia, South Africa, Italy, and Argentina, and we all ask each other the same question: how you holding up?

How often does the whole world run and hide from the same, single enemy? And again—what the fuck will this all look like in two weeks?

A shred of light in the morning news—China, where the virus first hit, is reporting no new infections. But trusting 100% in China’s honesty is, well, a risky bet. (A smart friend reminds me its best not to trust any number out there completely. He also reminds me about basic science. As in, even that is not known about this virus. In other words, the odds are stacked against us.) The Washington Post took a pic of Trump’s State of the Nation script, where he’d crossed out “corona” and in its place scrawled “Chinese.”

Other bits of data in the swirling river: men are more likely to die than women. Young people in the states get it, too, and sometimes die. Italy’s deaths passed China’s. Canada closing its border. State Department urging no more travel abroad. Republicans—no doubt terrified at their political future—passing a trillion dollar stimulus package but I can’t help think that $1k or $2k will only last each of us so long. Bailouts for the airline industry. Trump insisting, guys, I knew this was gonna be real bad. Petulant teenagers partying on Florida beaches. The Times reporting on multiple missed warnings in the past three years at the federal level about our vulnerability to a pandemic with no cure.

Stories of celebrities getting tested more quickly and more often than us poor schmucks. The wealthy hightailing it to their second homes on Martha’s Vineyard and upstate New York and the locals there pissed as hell because, let’s face it, who’s gonna get the last respirator in the town clinic? California estimating that half its residents will get infected within 60 days.

I navigate doors without my hands and step out into the dusk. After 12 hours inside, the air feels alien. Or I feel alien. Like I’m a newborn animal on spindly legs. The parking lot is full but quiet. Another dog walker at the distant edge. Two boys throwing rocks in the creek behind the mill building. The air smells like skunk. As for which direction to go, I let the dog decide.

Quarantine Day #1

Actually it’s day three, but who the hell starts a plague diary then? This will be rougher than my usual verbiage. Nature, beast, etcetera.

How often do you come face to face with a time when nobody really knows what the world will look like in two weeks? Usually it has a predictable rhythm and form. A song you heard in your mother’s womb. Now we adapt. Improvise. We’re a jazz band making the walls hum in a dark basement club mismanaged by blind Republicans.

Spent the day at home, remotely connected to my PC at the agency, churning out a bunch of words for a bunch of clients in several industries. Every business now needs messaging.

Due to the crisis. Precautionary measures. Closing early. Closing today. Team working from home. Wash your hands. Maintain six feet of distance. Out of prudent concern. Sanitize. Hopefully temporary. Will keep you updated.

And spotty government messaging growing darker every day. Could last weeks. Months. Two years. Life as we know it. Stay in place. Stay inside. Hospital crisis. Respirator shortage. Market collapse.

A bud whose husband works at the local hospital said they got the first two confirmed cases today. It’s in our valley now. Thought about informing my coworkers on our instant messaging app, a little bubble of doom popping up on their screens, the two dozen of us strewn across the local landscape, but management keeps insisting that we display positivity (and other delusions). So I refrained.

I figured they’d hear the news soon enough.

An Instagram bud texted me from Rome. “The doctors are having to choose,” he said, “who lives and who dies.”

I was solid, nearly cocky, in the real recent past. I was gonna ride this fucker out. Social isolation? No sweat.

Three days later, and endless hours of writing and researching and seeing how this thing is gonna shut down nearly every industry across the planet, indefinitely, my toes peek over the abyss. Will our clients flee? Will I keep my job? My apartment? Where would I go? What would I eat? Could I feed my dog? Will I get a check from the government? How long could it possibly last me? How have six thousand hours of post-apocalyptic television left me so unprepared?

Also, as I’m learning, when it comes to the other virus, undetectable doesn’t mean unconcerned. Not way down deep, where the facts can’t touch. Will cross that bridge if needed. For now, I’m good.

The pandemic has stripped some parts from my rickety flying contraption of mental health. Gym closed. AA meetings shunned. My shrink wants to Skype. I had a mild panic attack this morning, realizing I might go months without a tight fade from the barber. First world problem? Fuck no, dude. Life or death.

As a veteran introvert I can handle the seclusion better than most, maybe, but I know from experience that it can take a toll, how far you can burrow into your own brain when there’s nobody nearby to crack the window. Smooth Operator is trapped in a hotel in Chicago following the death of his dad. We FaceTime every day, more than once, usually. Keep cracking each other up to keep from cracking up.

Single, alone in my joint save for an 8-pound chihuahua, I can’t stop thinking about the thing I can’t have–casual fucking. What will we become, if we go months untouched? It can’t be done. I’m guessing dudes across the planet will slip out and brave death for the relief and oblivion found in a fuck. For the reminder that you’re worth touching.

Rocky terrain at the edge of a cliff. Best to stay in the day, breathe, and chat with the chihuahua.

I feel a bit better, writing shit down.

I saw a video today of two quarantined musicians in Barcelona, serenading the city below their balconies. Applause rang out from the surrounding windows. Beauty and human connection still possible, maybe, if we try hard enough. Can you hear this tune I’m singing?

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.