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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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?
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.
Set the tripod in your living room and slip your phone within its grip. Click the power button and open the camera app. Bluetooth the remote. Step back into the frame and gauge the lighting. Flick on a third light.
Strip off your shirt and step into the frame. Try an angle. Try another. Move the tripod. Flip on the overhead light. Move the tripod again. Drop to the floor and do 20 push-ups. Stand, flushed, and flex. Drop your arms to your sides. Smile. Cock your head and offer a second smile. Click the remote that’s hidden in your fist. Drop the smile. Tighten your abs. Click the remote. Try a half-smirk. Click. Click. Move a potted plant into the frame. Turn in profile. Click.
Open the blinds. Side light is flattering. Smooth a hand over your chest hair: 225 likes.
Delete the 23 loser shots. Try to forget the dumb, empty look on your face in most of them. Open Photoshop. Brush out the dark circles under your eyes and accentuate the curve of your bicep. Outside the window, replace the parking lot view with a glimpse of Barcelona at night. Add a man with impressive traps, cooking at the stove behind you, wearing nothing but an apron: 678 likes.
Post an ad on Craigslist for several bearded, muscular men and, after winnowing down to the five winners, put them on friendship retainer. Pay them with an early 401(k) withdrawal that cost you a 10% fee. Collect their signed contracts and file for safekeeping.
With your remaining cash, purchase six Speedos of complementary colors at volume discount. Also, sunglasses. Coordinate your new friends together through a group text. Meet the hired photographer at your neighborhood indoor pool and instruct him to make the group shots feel “candid.”
Practice all your smiles. The wry grin. The smirk. The head tossed back in laughter. The men splash. Drops of water glisten on their delts. Confused children cling to the sides of the pool.
Back home, remove the children, their annoyed parents, and the pool’s background on your laptop. Replace with the backyard of a Palm Springs mid-century modern. Tinker with the word “amazing” in the photo’s caption. Amazing weekend, amazing new friends. Play with it. Have fun: 843 likes.
Is that enough? Have you earned the right to rest? To breathe, unbothered, for the remainder of the night?
Peer at the photo. The man to your left has bigger biceps. Examine the bulge in his swimsuit. Does the eye go there first, before your own bulge? Your hairline is receding.
Look up his online profile. Scan with sinking stomach through the kaleidoscope of his charmed life. Click on pics crowded with beautiful men. Examine the particular shade of his blinding white teeth. Smile at yourself in the mirror, then turn away from what you see.
Go back to his profile and check the last pic—the man and his square-chinned husband, decorating a massive Christmas tree in their matching pajamas. Overhead, a 30-foot vaulted ceiling.
2453 likes—do the math.
Gaze at his home’s tasteful interiors. Memorize what you can see of its layout. Check his friendship retainer contract in your files, and note his home address.
Your mother calls and you let her go to voicemail. As you pull on an outfit of black clothing, listen as she tells you that the nurses in the chemo ward brought in holiday treats and packed her a plate of seven sugar cookies and three squares of fudge to bring home. Wait until two a.m., then slip in silence from your apartment.
Drive through the cold winter town, past the brilliant lights of a 24/7 convenience mart, the grim faces of closed banks, and a man slipping on the ice outside an Irish pub, his breath trailing up into the night. Stop at a lonesome station for $2.25 of gas. Check your phone while you pump. Your contracted friend just posted a pic of his square-chinned husband, sleeping on a plush California King, wearing nothing but white briefs: 3267 likes.
Pull up to the curb of the man’s home address. The house looks different. Smaller, with rusted gutters. Kill the engine. Grab the emergency pack of smokes from the glove compartment and light one as your sister calls from rehab. Turn the phone and take nine pics of your face, cocking your head in different directions in the dim streetlight, the ember of your cigarette flaring in the dark. You listen to your sister for 23 minutes as you delete the eight loser shots and filter the remaining pic, chain-smoking four cigarettes, watching the dark house, tipping the ash through the cracked window. “Uh huh,” you say. “I get it.” You wait for her to ask you a question but eventually she just hangs up.
Slip from the car and crush the smoke in the slush under your heel. Stand for a second, measuring the silence. Count 10 breaths. At the end of the narrow street, a hooded figure of indeterminate gender pushes a shopping cart over clumps of icy snow.
Circle the small house. Note with quiet alarm the absence of the pool you’d seen multiple times on his online profile. Skulk along till you find, with both relief and panic, an unlocked bathroom window. Your feet scrape against the stucco as you squeeze your head into the warmth inside. Move a collection of generic-brand toiletries across the top of a tiny cabinet to clear a place for your feet.
Drop in to the bathroom with held breath. Crouch and listen. Count 78 thundering heartbeats. Blood rushes in your ears. No voices, televisions, or ticking clocks. Nothing but your own soft noises.
Creep down the dark hallway. Detect the sound of a snoring man and slowly, gradually, crack open the door to see one man sleeping on his back on a narrow mattress, on the floor in the far corner of the room. Endure 12 seconds of confusion as you scan the room for a square chin. Nothing but the man on a twin mattress and piles of dirty clothing The man snorts, rolls to his side, and you back away from the door.
Slip through the dark house, taking inventory of its meager possessions. The claustrophobic square footage. The pedestrian design. The empty craft beer bottles on the coffee table. Wonder if you’ve broken into the wrong house, but catch sight of a pic taped to the fridge of your contracted friend standing beside an old woman huddled in a wheelchair. Neither smile. She clutches two shawls around her neck.
You find his office and rifle quietly through his desk. You pull open his file cabinet, paw through bank statements. You scan for his biweekly automatic deposit from his job at an insurance agency and blink at the number. It’s five cents more than your own salary, which is 21% below the national median household income. You blink again and squint at the number to confirm that it’s real, then gaze out the back door, empty-headed, at a black stand of trees.
A floorboard in the hallway creaks.
You rush over to a closet in the corner, hiding in its darkness, piles of boxes around you threatening to topple. You stare out through the cracked door as the vein in your temple throbs.
The man shuffles into the office in rumpled pajamas. You recognize them from the Christmas tree pic—the one in the living room with the 30-foot ceiling. At his desk, his back to you, he clicks the space bar on his laptop three, four, five times and a screen saver pic of him and the square-chinned husband appears—they’re skydiving together, a distant red canyon far below . They give the camera thumbs-ups. Behind them, three falcons spin through the thin, blue sky.
He sits at the desk, scratches his shoulder, and opens Photoshop. He plugs in his phone, and pulls up a pic on his laptop. He appears within its frame, shirtless, standing before the bathroom mirror that you glimpsed when you broke into his house. The cold hunger you’d caught in your own reflection. You watch as he trims and distorts and supplements the image on the screen of his laptop, painting layers of confidence, companionship, and bright, heartbreaking colors. From your cramped vantage point, you grudgingly admire his skills
He emails the altered pic to his phone, where he posts it online. He stands, pulls a pack of Camels from a desk drawer, and opens the back door to the patio a good three inches. He leans against the door frame and smokes. You still haven’t seen his face, but you know the slope of his delts.
Snow has begun to fall—fat, wet flakes you can hear hit the branches of the pine trees out back. Tears spring to your eyes and you realize you’re still clutching his bank statement. Cold air seeps into the room and curls around your ankles in the back of the closet as you watch him watching his phone, checking the likes piling up in the last hour before dawn.
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.
Got two more close-call rejections from lit mags over the weekend. One telling me my story made it to the “final round,” but couldn’t Rocky Balboa its way to victory. And the second, which arrived at 9:36 pm on Sunday night:
We regret that we are unable to publish your manuscript, but we like your work and would like to see more of it.
This was from the editors of The Paris Review, which hovers somewhere just below The New Yorker in terms of “prestige,” but since I no longer have any grasp of what makes a literary publication prestigious in our current publishing environment, my estimation should be taken with a shaker of salt.
I’m grateful that they like my work, but that was pretty much the best story I had to send them (it’s not on this blog). And a near miss is still a miss, and after 17 near misses in a row I’m discouraged.
I try to remember my years in grad school, researching Flannery O’Connor for an established author who was writing her biography, and I slipped into the shadowy rare manuscripts room at the New York Public Library and, paging through The New Yorker’s archives of typed letters, read rejections aimed at Flannery, Vladimir Nabokov, and pretty much every other writer you could think of from the 50s.
Rejection is the writer’s life. So either take the punches or hang it up. I guess, mostly, I feel like Balboa at the 45-minute mark, downing raw eggs and running up stairs in Philly. I’m often down. Never out.
Been thinking a lot about the early days of this blog, probably because, in the course of its resuscitation, I had to restore a bunch of lost early posts. Which meant reading old memories with maybe some fatal nostalgia, as times when I connected with a whole bunch of queer bloggers engaged in similar online experimentation, and getting together sometimes in the real world, which led to some real friendships.
Blogs have faded and, 18 years later, I’m a more guarded man. Unwilling to write about my new job, where I’m killing it in a way I’ve never killed it before, for any job (probably because I’m finally writing), but also where the political waters have risen up around me and submerged huge chunks of my mental real estate, about which I’d love to say more, but the precarious nature of paychecks keeps me muted.
And my experiences with family and others in the recent past have left me gun-shy about real-life humans, scanning for hidden agendas and personal blind spots in myself and others that make every real-life relationship a total piece of work. Some days, when it comes to people, I feel like my barometer is broken.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m stumbling along here, trying to figure out what I can write about freely, which feels less than what I could write about back at the dawn of blogging, when I was young and invulnerable. I’ve got a couple of posts I’m tinkering with that’ll take some time to form, but until then I wanted to say hey and make you look at my dog.
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.
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.
Prestigious literary journals? my co-worker asked. Who reads those?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Is anyone reading this? If not, do I exist?
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.
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
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.
adjective : usually disapproving
so involved with yourself that you do not think about anyone else; self-centered
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.
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.
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.