Danger Returns

Since she was on campus, Lisa thought she’d ask the asshole in person. He’d been missing for a few days, and she might like to see her worst enemy in person again. She knocked on his door, and he didn’t answer, like he hadn’t answered the past few days she’d been checking on him to make sure he wasn’t in the process of killing himself. She knocked again, and again he didn’t answer. She thought nothing of pulling out the key his mother gave her and opening the door, like she did whenever he didn’t answer. She would never forgive herself if he was successful, but she couldn’t sit with him every hour of the day, especially with his sleep schedule. Maybe when he got back, her boyfriend could take a couple of shifts.  

The door swung open, and when she saw the asshole, he was scrambling, and he straightened out with his hands behind his back. He wasn’t wearing his ratty-ass cardigan, and he liked baggy clothes, so the sight of him in a yummy black T-shirt (did she just think of the asshole as yummy? Ew!) looked so good you could forget he was a walking skeleton. 

“Oh, hi, Lisa! Why are you breaking into my dorm room? I know you have a key, but you can’t—” 

“Sean,” she snapped, “I’ve been worried sick about you. I promised your mother that I would protect you, and she meant from yourself.”  

“I’m sorry,” he replied, “I’m fine. I stayed in a hotel for a couple of days.” 

“Why is your hand behind your back, Sean?” 

“It’s like that military thing,” the asshole said. “You know, at ease?” 

“Let me see your hands, Sean.” 

He raised his left hand to shoulder level. “See?” 

She breathed in and out and growled. “I want to see your other hand too.” 

He started to return his left hand to its at-ease position when Lisa pounced. She grabbed his left arm and twisted it behind his back while slamming him against the wall. He coughed. “Now use your words.”  

She peeled him off the wall and slammed him again. 

“Safe word!” he groaned. 

Now that she had him where she wanted him, she could focus on what he was holding. Was it a bottle of pills? A sharp knife again? A fucking gun? She emptied his hand, and it was not any of those things. It was a thick, round disk about the size of her palm. The disc was split down the middle on the narrow side. In the center was a wound-up slip of string. “Is this?” she demanded. “A fucking yo-yo?” 

He sat down on his bed and hung his head. “I didn’t want anybody to see me like this.” 

“How long do you think you could hide this from us?” 

“Why do you think I disappeared to a hotel this past few days?” he said. “I just wanted to try it out.” 

She sat next to him and put a hand on his knee. “Look, Sean,” she said with a sign. “Just because you’re curious about yo-yos doesn’t make you a bad person. Everyone experiments with yo-yos at some point in their life.” 

“Really?” he sniffed, finally looking up. “I thought it was just me. 

“I know how you feel. I used a yo-yo when I was younger. But I’m okay now,” she told him. “You will be too.” With the hand that wasn’t on his knee, she held his. “We’re going to get through this together.” 

He put his head on her shoulder.  

She held the accursed thing directly in front of his eyes. “Now tell me, where did you get this? Who taught you how to use this thing?” 

“It’s going to be okay, Sean,” she cooed soothingly. “Do you trust me?” 

“YouTube tutorials, mostly,” he replied. “As for how I got it, I was walking by a toy store, and in a fit of whimsy, I went inside. Toward the back was where the forgotten toys of yesteryear dwell—the wooden bock, the hula hoop, the ball on a string with the cup on the top, you know what I’m talking about. There was this employee using a yo-yo, and I didn’t know what to do. I just kept watching. He seemed so happy. There was no sign of the misery and pain yo-yos cause. I knew that yo-yos came with a price, and I knew I shouldn’t pay it, and I know a bunch of tricks now. Would I do it again? I don’t have the answers. I know I can’t keep living like this.”

“Do you trust me?”

“Of course not,” he replied. “You’re a succubus.” 

She smiled weakly. “Then it’s not going to be okay.” 

He smiled back.  

They turned to each other again, and once again, she was alarmed at how close they were. Lisa couldn’t figure out where this was coming from. Why was her heart rate increasing exponentially? Why was her mouth so dry? Why were her palms sweating? Did she get covid? 

The asshole quickly looked away and sprang to his feet.  

Her heart immediately began to slow down. She had no idea what was causing this. “You said you picked up some tricks.” 

“Why do you think I spent three days in yo-yo boot camp?” 

“Show me.” 

He dropped the yo-yo until it reached the end of its string, and it hung there, until it returned to his hand with a snap of the wrist. “Sleeper.” 

“That’s just yo-yoing in slow motion. I want to see more advanced tricks.”  

“Check it out. Walk the dog. Elevator. Cradle. Those are basic tricks. One I could never get ahold of is the loopty-loop.” 

“Try it,” she demanded. 

He tossed the yo-yo, pulled it back, and didn’t catch it when it wound back up the second time the asshole screamed, “It’s coming back!” and dove to the floor. He forgot that it was attached to him, and Lisa laughed her ass off. 

Advertisement

Don’t You Know That You’re Toxic?

I smoked an average of twenty cigarettes a day from October 1994 to May 2007. I was not a person who smoked, I was a smoker. And I was all in. I’d had a total of three Zippos in my life, and I had a hip pocket devoted to pack and lighter (currently for the cell phone). I followed the lead of top intellectuals like Denis Leary and sang the praises of smoking. And while I became much less of an evangelical about tobacco after cancer took a beloved aunt, I still enjoyed it.

I tried quitting, but I never wanted to, so every attempt was a failure. Sure, they made you cough, and sure, if enough time passes without having one, you turn into the Incredible Hulk. Sure they turned my fingers and teeth yellow, and sure they were just pumping carcinogens into my lungs, I wanted to keep doing this. I was young. I was immortal.

I enjoyed the taste of the filter on my lips. I enjoyed the pageantry of lighting a cigarette. When I was in college, anybody I knew who had a Zippo pulled elaborate stunts with them to light a cigarette. Not me—I flicked open the lighter, ignited it, lit the cigarette, and flicked the lighter closed. It was out and back into my pocket in less than five seconds. According to some, my technique wasn’t necessarily the coolest, but it was up there. I enjoyed a cigarette in my hand. I wasn’t so much holding a cigarette, as much as the cigarette was an extension of my fingers.

I was the kind of person who would say things like, “You want a cautionary tale about smoking? I bring you George Burns.” (To my Hastings College contemporaries, substitute “Darryl Lloyd” for “George Burns.”) At the time of my being the most militant about smoking, I was no better than any Trump fan. Give me irrefutable proof that the tobacco corporations were breeding and cultivating the perfect piece of toxic waste to make you keep sticking toxic waste in your mouth until you died, and I’d make up excuses. I can’t remember any of the excuses because when I had my epiphany about them (several years after I quit), I purged every single positive thing I could say about big tobacco.

I didn’t quit smoking because of the horrible things it did to me. I found out about the horrible things it did to me because I quit. For example, I’ve never had a masculine musk, and I do sweat a lot, but in the middle of August with the A/C broken was Drakkar Noir compared to how I smelled as a smoker. You can’t smell yourself when you’ve caused permanent damage to the inside of your nose. When it grows back, and a smoker is nearby, you know it. You know it before the get within ten feet. It was a Doppler effect with smell. I smelled like that. All. The. Time. How could anyone stand to be around me? How were women ever attracted to me?

I have been a non-smoker for fifteen years. I can’t say I haven’t smoked in fifteen years because I’d had two cigarettes since, a little over ten years ago. They were both really horrible, and I have not wanted to go near one in the past twelve years. One of the cigarettes was a blatant attempt to start a conversation. It worked. Cigarettes used to be really good for that. I had a lot of friends whose relationship with me could withstand five-to-ten-minute bursts every hour, and that was about it. Smoking was a solitary or a social activity, depending on how you were feeling that day. There was something magical about that. I wanted to capture that.

I was full-on smoker when I created a number of my enduring characters, and as a result, many of them were full-on smokers—in the stories I wrote during that thirteen-year period of my life. In stories I’ve written about them since, they’d either quit, or I’d completely forgotten about the smoking thing. I wrote one story last year where I paid lip service to tobacco for continuity’s sake, but otherwise ignored it.

Smoking is intertwined through much of my early oeuvre, but it’s not crucial to the story. I only call attention to it as a set piece of something cool happening. (Girl puts a cigarette out in boy’s coffee. Boy, eyes on the girl, drinks the coffee.) I’ve started writing scripts set in the time period where most of these characters would have been smokers, and I’m choosing not to write the smoking. The way I see it, I have three choices.

One: I can add tobacco to the contemporary stories. It wouldn’t be hard because I’m still in the draft phase, and I’ll be going over them several more times.

Two: I can go back into the classic stories, some of which have been quasi-published, and strip the smoking out. That would mean removing non-essential but still fun scenes and exchanges. The boy meets the girl when he creeps out while bumming a cigarette from her. This is the most important relationship in this series of stories. So I’d have to completely rewrite it.

Three: Or, I could leave the smoking in the classic stories and not include it in the contemporaries. I don’t have to explain it. Let the smoking and non-smoking characters be alternate universes. Whatever. The important thing is, this requires the least effort. Why do I want to be giving this vile habit anymore thought than I’d already put into it?

The world is evolving, and I am there for it. Popular opinion has turned against tobacco, Homosexuals have the same marriage rights as the rest of us. You cannot function without a cell phone now. The creator of the most beloved contemporary series of children’s novels is currently on blast for being anti-trans. Dr. Oz is not Senator Oz. The legalization of cannabis in New Mexico kind of ruined the screenplay Shane and I wrote about the hunt for a vicious pot dealer on the Navajo Reservation. It took us days to figure out how to fix that.

There was a time, not that long ago, when public opinion was generally cool with cigarettes. I used to smoke in my dorm room. You could smoke while you were eating at restaurants. There were ashtrays in hospital waiting rooms. Can you imagine? That’s when these characters were born. And while some of these stories have been rewritten from the ground up (one twice), they are still a product of their time.

I am definitely going with option three, for nostalgia’s sake.

B and E in DC

There’s really no way to build up to this (he said, building up to it), but my apartment was burgled yesterday. I first noticed something was amiss when I approached my building and saw my blinds were drawn. Next, I noted that the food closet was open, and the cats were happily eating the spilled kibble.

My room is right by the door, and a quick glance revealed that someone or someones had emptied out all of my drawers onto the floor. They opened my comic book boxes and threw my Lego boxes around, thankfully not opening any of them. They did not move any of my action figures. Also, they had emptied out the drawer where I keep my medications, and they did not touch the Adderall. They did not touch the bottle of Adderall on my desk so I don’t forget to take my ten o’clock pill (I forget, like, every other day). They didn’t take either of my laptops, they didn’t take my iPad, they didn’t take any of the obsolete iPhones in my room. The only thing missing is a $260 suit from Men’s Wearhouse.

That was my room. They left every other room in the apartment untouched except for Nicole’s room, which they spared most of the destruction of mine. All of her drawers were open and rummaged through, and they tripped over a stack of books when they were breaking in through her window. She has all of her jewelry with her in Romania except for some costume pieces, so those are going to be some very disappointed burglars.

They did do one thing, though, that’s left me baffled. I stared at it for a long time and got a real close look to see if I saw what I thought I was seeing (I was). Our thief removed the large plastic container of cat treats from the refrigerator, spilled half of it into our laundry machine, AND PUT IT BACK IN THE REFRIGERATOR. This is the very thing that the acronym WTF was invented for.

What had me concerned when I first got in and discovered the mess, it was that I was responsible. Maybe I left the door unlocked. See my post a few days ago about ADHD. And if it was my fault, Nicole would be justified in throwing me out, though that might be awkward with her in Romania for the next nine months. Thankfully, my neighbor discovered that Nicole’s blinds had been opened, and her screen was on the ground, and the window looked jostled.

It didn’t even occur to me to call the police for two hours. Instead, I had gone upstairs and knocked on my neighbor’s door. I don’t know if I’ve ever told you about Cleo, but I adore her. She’s a flamboyant bombshell in the apartment above me. I don’t think I’ve ever seen casual Cleo, even when she’s in our backyard, working in her kimono, she’s got on a full face of makeup and fully blown-out hair. She’s intelligent, funny, empathetic, boisterous, and she laughs at everything. I rarely bump into her when she’s hanging out outside, but when I do, our conversations are such a delight. I didn’t have anyone local to call, and even though we’re just acquaintances, she’s the closest thing I have to a friend nearby.

Cleo was amazing. She talked me through it. She acquitted me of having left the place vulnerable. She helped me clean up my room. (It still hadn’t occurred to me to call the police.) She canvassed the building, which was only one more apartment. She talked me out of panicking. I don’t know what I would have done without her.

When Cleo left, I thought about filing my renter’s insurance claim, and I realized I’d need a police report. They sent over an officer with blue gloves, and he chatted with me about everything. He didn’t scold me for half-cleaning my room. He called his sergeant, who showed up, asked the officer all the questions he asked me, asked me a few more questions, and called the CSU. Guys, the CSU was in my bedroom! How cool is that!

CSU TECH: The perp left no fingerprints. He’s a ghost, Lieutenant.

LIEUTENANT: A professional. He must have stolen something incredibly valuable.

CSU TECH: (removes glasses) He stole a Men’s Wearhouse suit.

LIEUTENANT (thousand-yard stare) My God.

DAVID CARUSO: Looks like this case … (puts on sunglasses) … is clothes.

SOUNDTRACK: BWAAAAAAAAAA!

He dusted for fingerprints, and he couldn’t find any, not even on the jewelry box I had picked up from the floor when I got home in shock. They really have nothing to go on, but they’re assigning me a detective anyway, and I’ll get to meet them after Nicole and I figure out a way to find what’s missing. I’m hoping they slam their hands on the table and shout, “Answer the question!”

I’m fine. The cats are fine—the burglar(s) were kind enough to close the window and door behind them, and after that stunt with the food, they want me to invite them over again. Nicole took it well when we FaceTimed today. I think she was relieved that it wasn’t my fault. I can’t fill out my claim until Nicole and I assess the damages together, then the officer will pass his report to the detective, who will talk to me and make their own report. I took the day off from work to deal with everything. My room was two-thirds clean by the time Cleo left, though, so I’m not sure what I’m going to do with my time today.

One of my girlfriends a little over twenty years ago had her apartment robbed. I had picked her up from the airport after she’d been in Ireland for a month (we’d only started dating two weeks before she left). I wore my best suit for her. We were holding hands and looking each other’s eyes and giggling on the cab ride home, and then we found out her apartment had been burgled, some heirloom jewelry stolen. She felt violated, and I spent the rest of the night comforting her.

I don’t really feel violated because I don’t have any secrets except for my thoughts. I think I learned this being married to someone who worked for the CIA—there was no privacy. On the other hand, I have a stack of long-distance love letters from a very precious time in my life, and I can’t find them. I don’t think for a minute they were stolen, so they must be someplace in my apartment. Still, their loss, however temporary, is a hole in my heart. The entirety of our relationship is contained in those letters, except for the part in the beginning when we met in person, of course.

My home was violated. They turned my bedroom, my sanctum sanctorum, into a landfill. My cat treats are in the washing machine. I had three police officers rifling through my home, leaving the doors open so I have to catch the cats. There’s fingerprint dust everywhere. When Cleo put my clothes away, she didn’t know where anything went, so now I can’t find anything. They closed the door and window, so my cats were safe at home. They didn’t steal any of my electronics. They didn’t steal my vital prescription that has a great street value. They didn’t break my action figures. They didn’t really steal anything. Honestly, if I’m going to get burgled, this is the way to do it.

And in case I’m not clear, I’m fine. Mostly, I’m put out by how inconvenient this is.

Walking Against the Wind

I feel like celebrating, but most people I know will hear about my accomplishment and not see what the big deal is. However, my friends with ADHD or are ADHD-adjacent will give me high-fives and pour Gatorade all over me. What did I do? I remembered to turn my roommate’s plant lights on when I wake up in the morning and turn them off before I go to bed for seven days in a row.

Odds are, you’re reading this and wondering why this is the highlight of my week. How hard is it to remember to do that? And you certainly don’t understand why I have to leave myself notes and se alarms on my phone to pull this feat off. It’s because I have to work myself to exhaustion just to function normally, and I still screw up. Note that my roommate has been gone for three weeks, and I’ve only done seven days in a row.

I come into work early because I like the quiet, and I can get through some of the ten inboxes I monitor without people throwing in more email. Today, I saw an email about licensing that I should have been CCed on, so I forwarded it to my primary account. Less than a second passed before I received a notification that I had a new email, with my name on it, and my first thought was, “Who could that possibly be this early in the morning?” This is normal for me.

I had a discussion about face blindness with a friend before work, and neither of us has object permeance when it comes to characters in TV or movies. I’ll be watching something with someone, and the actor will make a triumphant entrance, and I’ll be all, “Who the hell is that?” And my companion would be all, “That’s the main character’s brother. He’s been in every episode.”

Some people think that having ADHD is just an excuse for being a flake. My supervisor hasn’t said as much, but it’s pretty clear she believes this. She doesn’t seem to take my disability seriously. She chews me out if I forget something, which doesn’t happen an excessive amount, but it happens enough. How am I supposed to function in an office where everything feels uphill, and no one wants to give me a hand, and on top of it, I’m getting scolded every couple of days. (Note: I’m going through official channels to deal with this because I can’t deal with this.)

To be clear, I’m not one of those people who uses his disability as a crutch, and I don’t blame everything on it. It took me three years to tell anyone at work about it, and that was only after someone backed me into a corner. Also to be clear, despite this person, this place is not a hellhole. The benefits are amazing, the people are nice, and with the exception of my supervisor, nobody has scolded me for one of my innumerable errors.  

I get why people don’t really believe having ADHD is no big deal. I’m sure there’s not one among you who wouldn’t forget to turn on or off the lamp once. People who are trying to be help have told me this—everybody forgets stuff. But there’s a difference between “I lost my keys, I’m so ADHD!” and the fact that I have to set an alarm on my phone to remember to shower. I need assistance to perform basic hygiene, that’s how bad I am. I have alarms for feeding the cats, turning the lights on and off, taking my Adderall, cleaning the litterbox, taking my medication, and watering the plants. I have so many Post-Its everywhere, I look like that Charlie Day conspiracy meme. I take two medications for it, and I’m still a mess, and it gets worse the older I get. I’ve been told by people I consider family that I’m just not trying hard enough. Reminds me of people who tell you not to be sad when you have depression.

I don’t talk about it much, mostly because the skepticism is a personal insult to how hard I work. Also, I have it under control, so I don’t need accommodation. However, if you’re going back to the seventh paragraph to remind yourself that I don’t take showers without prompting or anything else in this essay and ask, “That’s under control?” That is under control for me. It could be whole lot worse, which is why I try not to miss a dose, but even with the alarm and the threat to my mental health, I miss an average of one-to-two doses a week.

I am tired. Part of the reason I don’t like to socialize anymore is that it’s too complicated. I could go to meetups or schedule coffee with a friend in the district, but I’ve been working and dealing with the escalating scolding from my supervisor. About the only things I can concentrate on are writing and work (and the drawing, it turns out).

In conclusion, I needed to get that off of my chest. It’s been a tough week.

Totally Sketch

When I was 22, I decided to learn how to draw. I started with stick figures, then I started fleshing them out. I learned to ink, and eventually I even learned to color, first with markers, then with watercolors (with pastels when I was feeling it. It took years for me to draw a decent person, but at the time, I was so excited with every breakthrough I made. I illustrated two comics of my own and two comics for a pair of untalented writers. I gave up on drawing comics, but I illustrated 56 pages of Three Stories in One.

But in 2015, a few months after we got back from Doha, after all the excitement of finally being home after so long, I crashed, and I stopped writing and drawing. When I got my mojo back, I tried drawing again, and I got frustrated. I went through looking at the stick blobs I would get so excited about to every imperfection completely ruining the art.

The joy I found in the act of drawing and painting was gone. I created for the destination, not the journey. I also ran into the problem of what I want to draw. I had no inspiration. I still did my yearly self-portrait, and maybe for about a week or so, I’d get a wild hair and make some stuff. It’s been 2 years since I’ve drawn for fun.

I just treated it as a thing I don’t do anymore,’like drinking too much or watching rock concerts at crowded bars. I’ve been encouraged to pick it up again—my parents ask after the art nearly every time we chat.

Slowly, over the course of weeks, I thought about what I could do to jumpstart that again. I found references, I bought a sketchbook that I could live with if the paper was being torn by an eraser.

I thought, if I learned how to draw with a pencil and eraser, then by God, that’s what I was going to use. I had sacrificed precision for speed, and I was going to use that. If I wanted to skip to the completed drawing, then I was going to take my time, erase some things.

Saturday, I said, “It’s time.” I sat with my sketchbook for an hour, learning to draw faces and figures from the ground up. I repeated it on Sunday, same thing with the eraser.

I feel like the old prizefighter training to get back into the ring.

Star Tropin’ Across the Universe 

I’ve loved Star Trek since I was a kid. I remember once, when my friend Alex was staying the night, my dad let us watch Star Trek while we ate dinner, which was the height of luxury at the time. A few years later, in high school, I was introduced to Starbase Gallup, my fine city’s fan club. We traded licensed paperbacks, fanfiction, and costumes. Tony, the captain of our little ship, wore a uniform every week when we met. I saw him once as a civilian, an assistant district attorney for the State of New Mexico, and it was jarring. I can imagine any of his peers saw him at Starbase Gallup, the effect would be the same. 

I started to lose my interest in Trek as I entered college. This was during the Rick Berman years, when Trek was cautious, overly self-referential, and more spectacle-oriented, drained completely of the political subtext that made Star Trek and The Next Generation the meatier among their contemporary sci-fi shows. I remember my disappointment at First Contact, when the cerebral, even-tempered diplomat, Picard, became a gun-brandishing sociopath, and I remember how much my nerdier peers loved it. Trek and its spinoffs became just more movies and TV series about lasers and rocket ships and not much else.  

I tried the JJ Abrams Star Trek movies, but they’re all flash and lens flares. They brought the bright aesthetic that made the original series great, but at the same time seemed kind of ashamed of it. The Kirk of the movies was a petulant asshole, and he never should have been let near the captain’s chair. However, in this universe, captains pick their successors. One of the movies had Kirk on a motorcycle, and later, the obscenely powerful bad guy’s only weakness was “Sabotage” by the Beastie Boys. This was Trek at its dumbest. 

When Discovery came on the air, it brought back the intellect and the politics, it brought me a character I could fall in love with (Ensign Tilly), but something still wasn’t quite there. It was good, but it wasn’t Trek enough. The show focused on a small handful of characters, but the bridge crew all had names, all had individual looks, one of them even had backstory, but they are completely forgettable. Meanwhile, Star Trek focused on its three main characters. Someone like Uhura didn’t contribute much to the story, and neither did Sulu or Chekov, but you know who Uhura is. You recognize her by the sprinkle of sass in her voice. You know Sulu and Chekov. You might have gone to sleep remembering Sulu running around shirtless with a rapier. But who are these people in Discovery? That’s a big part of it. 

All of that leads up to Strange New Worlds, which was probably my favorite show of the year so far, period. It’s got a message, it embraces the brightness, the characters have personalities (though with only 10 episodes their entire first season, they didn’t really develop), Anson Mount is exceedingly handsome and laid back, like a cool dad, and the rest of the cast definitely had a handle on the material. Most importantly, it’s episodic. There was no overarching plot to tie together in an exciting episode-ten climax. Each adventure was one and done, and the only continuity was character development.  

Star Trek is such a part of our national identity that I don’t need to tell you what a Vulcan is. However, if you’re Amish on a rumspringa, they are pointy-eared aliens whose entire culture is based on logic. Vulcans have no emotions, but more on that later. 

One of the most important characters in the entire Star Trek lore is Spock. His shtick is that he’s half-Vulcan, half-human, with both sides warring with each other for control (you don’t get to see a lot of warring; the Vulcan half appears to have won). His father, Sarek, is a high-ranking ambassador for Vulcan. His mother, Amanda (I think her last name is Grayson), is human. That’s her entire personality, she’s human. She was developed a great deal in Discovery, but she was still motivated by caring for her children and not much else. My question is, what brought Spock’s parents together? What did this paragon of logic see in an overly emotional human? What was their first date like? What was it like the first time they made love? Was he an animal in the sack? 

And then there’s T’Pring. T’Pring is the reason I’m thinking about this. When T’Pring was introduced in the second-season episode of the original series, “Amok Time,” she appeared to be an arranged marriage and a prize to be overlooked in favor of your best bro. If there were queerbaiting in the late sixties, this episode would be that. Strange New Worlds introduces us to Spock and T’Pring together, a real couple. They kiss, they have sex, they propose marriage, they make dumb mistakes together, and they’re very clearly in love with each other, even if their tone of voice says “disinterested.” Vulcans do have emotions, but it is against their religion to express them. I want to give Gia Sandhu credit for breathing life into her. It’s not hard to do cold and emotionless (even Henry Cavill can do it), but in the episode “Spock Amok,” she gets very angry. Her pose is stoic, and her tone and volume don’t change at all, but by the time she leaves Spock’s quarters, you’re more scared than if she had been shouting at him. T’Pring comes across as naïve and sometimes bored, but something like that happens, and you can see what’s boiling under the lid. You never know what she’s thinking. I have been transfixed by this character ever since that episode. 

Thinking about these things, I thought it would be fun to write a fanfiction of a Vulcan woman falling in love with a human man or woman. And then I realized, I’d done it before, in two romance novels. They’re human, but their restrained emotions and distance from humanity makes them pretty much Vulcans. I’m afraid to write this fic now because I’m beginning to repeat myself. Meanwhile, in my fantasy novels, one of my villains was so coldblooded and efficient and dry that I kept finding excuses to bring her into subsequent novels.  

What fascinates me about this trope? The sass, mostly. Delivering thinly veiled insults in a flat, even voice is absolutely devastating. Being calm and affectless is a thoroughly masculine trait, though. As boys, we’re taught to have two emotions, anger and lust, and sometimes it’s easy to conflate the two. Other than that, we hold it in, lest we have our Man Card revoked. Masculinity is so fragile. Obviously I’m oversimplifying it, but not by much. Is my being attracted to cold women—attracted enough to marry one—the intellectual equivalent of someone ogling Paris Hilton eating a big cheeseburger?  

It should come as a surprise to no one I’m a cat person. And I don’t mean because I talk about my cat all the time. I mean that I thrive on indifference. For the last half of my marriage, I couldn’t get my wife to say I love you, and yet I stayed. As someone who wanted approval all the time, I got extra points if I got it off of a cold person. If you can get a cold person to feel, then you win. The prize is the new person they turn into, who you may not like so much. You did fall in love with them when they were cold. 

It’s also a straight male power fantasy for the reserved woman to completely lose it, usually through lust, but occasionally she’ll flip a desk. Realistically, if she’s going to lose it, it will be because she’s tired of men grabbing her ass as she walks by, and what would happen next would be the exact opposite of a male power fantasy. We like to watch the cold woman absolutely terrorize her employees then turn around and fall in love with us, the only ones who can get past her force field.  

Does this make it a problematic trope? Sure, but on the other hand, you can do a lot with a trope as long as you know what you’re doing. Kate Winslet was a manic-pixie dream girl in Eternal Sunshine, but she had a soul; she had weight. She critiqued the trope. Same thing with the cool girl in Gone Girl. What does that mean? It means I’m going to continue to write these characters (I love snark), but I’m going to be a little more mindful of them. 

Without showing a single crack in her façade, maybe a slight widening of the eye, T’Pring tells us that she’s tightly coiled, ready to explode, and watching her try to hold it together is pretty entertaining. (Watching a man try to hold it together is intense and wins Oscars and Emmys.) I think there are ways to tell a cold woman’s story without her becoming a prize of some sort who needs to be tamed by a man, and I intend to do it.  

But mostly, though, I like cold people for their snark.

Blackjack Anniversary

My neighbors are all women in their late twenties, and they have the priorities people their age have, like dating and FWBs. We have a picnic table in our backyard, and they like to hang out there when the weather is good, sometimes with the company of gentlemen callers. A handful of times, when I’m taking out the trash, they will invite me to sit with them. A handful of those times, I’ve taken them up on it. I never say anything, I just listen.

On one occasion, the subject of September 11 came up. They weren’t kind. They treated it as an overrated, overhyped spectacle that people needed to get over. If I really wanted to make them awkward, I could have told them where I was that day, but I’d probably no longer get invites to enjoy their show. Plus they’re kids. When I was twenty-seven, I wasn’t a kid, but twenty-seven-year-olds now are kids. Prior to September 11, 2001, I was pretty flippant about Vietnam and the people affected by it.  

I wasn’t offended, and that’s because I’ve been writing a novel where two twenty-six-year-old women fall in love. They’re in Battery Park, New York City, and the subject of the 9/11 Memorial comes up, and it occurred to me as I was writing that the Twin Towers on fire looked just like a movie. If you were a kid, say five years old, when this happened, how would you be able to tell the difference? Maybe I should ask a Baby Millennial/Geriatric Zoomer.

My main character: “September 11 is Generation X’s defining moment, like Vietnam was for Boomers.”

Love Interest: “What’s the Millennials’ defining moment?”

Main Character. “Look around. Take your pick.”

If disaster and disaster came my way just as I’m becoming an adult or trying to settle down with my young family, and if the people in power don’t represent your viewpoint anymore and are legislating hard against people like you, somehow two buildings falling down doesn’t seem like that big a deal.

September 11 is old enough to drink or, in select states, purchase cannabis. What’s happened is that it, like every memory, grew hazy with time. September 11 was bad, but twice as many Americans died in Iraq fighting a war that was proven beyond a reasonable doubt to be manufactured by people who profited immensely from it and were never punished. Almost that amount died in New Orleans when a hurricane they should have been prepared for ravaged a US state, and many more died because relief efforts were so poorly planned. And so on, to this decade, when a virus spread through the country, killing almost a million people, which could have been contained if leadership wasn’t incompetent. Now we have mega-billionaires bending the country to their will and a reactionary minority preparing to take rights away from all of us.

All that in mind, what does 9/11 mean to me? It’s not the worst thing to happen to this country in the past thirty years. Why do I feel something heavy in the pit of my stomach every time I see the date on a calendar? Is it because I was there? Because everybody’s memory of September 11 is one tower burning while a plane crashes into the second, while mine is from a different angle, on the ground, looking up buildings so tall, you couldn’t see the top, now covered in flames and smoke.

My experience with COVID was disappointing, to say the least. I was hoping to be bedridden for a few days, but all I got was a headache. But twenty-one years ago, for about four hours in the morning, the world was on fire. Strangers would grab you and yell in your face that they destroyed the Pentagon! They’re taking out the bridges! And the guilt. I actually believed I could run in there and help people. I didn’t care how or what I did, I thought I could help. Instead, I ran. I’ve made a lot of decisions in my life, but that was probably the smartest.

This essay doesn’t have a clear thesis. Like September 11, there’s no lesson to be learned here. It reveals nothing about our humanity. My generation likes to think they’re jaded, latchkey kids who’ve seen it all. But we were spoiled. America won the Cold War and was riding high when we were young. We were the punching bags of the Boomers until Millennials came along with their avocado toast, and that’s really as bad as it got for us collectively. (Individually, I know a lot of Gen-Xers who’ve suffered unfairly in life, but as a whole, we’ve done pretty well.) Our innocence died on September 11, and as a result, the subsequent generations never really had any. Maybe that’s why I go back to that day, again and again, starting in August every year. It was the morning that changed everything, even for the Millennials and Zoomers who don’t realize it.It was the morning America got so scared that it went completely mad and hasn’t recovered since.

Imagine growing up in that.

Learned Part 6 

It occurred to me while I was listening to my neighbors, both beautiful women in their late twenties, and they’re talking about dating apps and their conquests or lack of conquests, that I interrupted them and said, “This is why I miss my twenties.” Not for the untreated, at-times-crippling mental illness, but for the fact that I wasn’t concerned about IRAs. This stuff was life or death to them, as it was for me when I was that age. There’s an innocence to it that is impossible to replicate, and if there were some way I could give my neighbors more time to enjoy it, I would.  

One of my neighbors, I’m going to call her Ethel, talks to me like she knows me. We’ve had a couple of one-on-one conversations, and we share the same pot dealer, but that’s really it. But she’ll say something that would probably impress me if I knew what she was talking about, and I’ll stand there, and she’ll cock her head like she’s expecting me to weigh in. She gave me a recently published, critically acclaimed book to read which is currently draped in a thin layer of dust.  

I don’t really read because I have yet to find the book that scratches my itch. I spent a year or so burning through Urban Fantasy novels, looking for the one thing and not finding it. Finally, I decided that I’d have to write it myself, and I currently have over two-dozen novels written. And maybe the reason Ethel talks to me like she does is because she sees me writing constantly, and she thinks I’m unraveling the secrets of the human condition when I’m actually writing a murder mystery starring New York nineties club kids.  

Ethel thinks I’m an intellectual, and she is way off. 

I’m not anti-intellectual. Ever since I was a little bitty asshole, I could soak up information like a sponge, but what I couldn’t do was process it. I would learn everything I possibly could about a subject and that’s what I want to be when I grow up, and a new subject would come along, and no, this is what I want to be when I grow up. It was exhausting, and I didn’t score high marks in grade school. 

They flagged me as gifted in the seventh grade and entered me into the gifted program where all the smart kids got together and went to concerts and played the stock market game and listened to guest speakers, but mostly it was a chance for us to miss class and hang out with our nerd friends. My first kiss was in the back of a Gifted and Talented Education van (high-five!). Looking at the GATE kids now, about half of us are a serious letdown. The reason I was in this program was because I took an IQ test well, and those things are not reliable. One of the girls I used to hang with in middle school repeatedly tried and failed to test into the gifted program, and she was smarter and more hardworking than me any day.  

It wasn’t because of GATE that I felt like an intellectual when I was a teenager. It was because of my Best Man. He was an artist from a Seattle-adjacent town in Washington, and in the time since he’d dropped out of high school and moved to Gallup, he taught himself culture. I would sit in his studio apartment for hours, learning from him. 

When I was in college, I set out to be an intellectual, but I didn’t have the discipline. I bullshat my way through the English Department. (If the English Department ever reads this, their response will be to impatiently reply, “Yes, we know!”) I stopped dressing like a grunge fan had sex with a goth and I was the product of their union, and I started dressing more like a smart person, with tucked-in shirts with banded collars. I almost failed out of college. 

The intellectual mindset followed me to New York where I was going to become a writer of a novel that was going to make critics cry. I drank whisky with a high school English teacher. I wore hound’s-tooth sports jackets. What I didn’t do was write. I got into art, and all my friends thought that was fabulous, but I couldn’t make them understand is I wanted to learn how to draw pictures of one person punching another person really hard, not canvases that contained the secrets to the universe. I wasn’t planning to write literature, just something fun with hopefully some heart, when I got around to it. 

I began my career as an editor within a year of leaving New York, and that made me feel like an intellectual, but I was editing self-published books, and a substantial portion of those were people talking about their lawsuits. A number of them were political diatribes. I read a lot of thrillers written by middle-aged white men about middle-aged white men who got shit done, unlike all this pencil-pushers in the CIA. I read a truly baffling book about a dented can of Juicy Juice that made people dance if you listened to it (but whatever you do, don’t drink it). There was no scholarly literature in the pile, but I kept up the pretense for ten years until I was fired for turning in substandard work.  

That takes me to now. When I’m not working, or when I’m working from home, I wear T-shirts and jeans. I hardly talk to anyone, but I don’t try to give the pretext of being smarter than I am. I watch Marvel movies (though I am rapidly becoming disillusioned with them) and collect Doctor Who action figures. I have a framed print of a cat in a TARDIS surrounded by framed postcards of varying sizes of John Singer Sargent paintings along with a small black-and-white drawing of Wonder Woman drinking a latte. I have one shelf of my bookshelf of actual books and seven bookshelves of graphic novels. I have Lego models. There is nothing in here that says intellectual (except for Ethel’s dust-covered novel), but the myth persists. 

Do I explain to Ethel that I’m not actually that smart? That I’m not literary, not cultured? Do I really want to dispel this myth? And my answer is no. I hardly ever see her, and I talk to her alone even less than that. I’ve heard some of her guy friends talking, and they’re as bad as I used to be. What’s the harm in her thinking her neighbor is this cool intellectual who sometimes hangs out in the backyard? This, I’ve concluded, is the smart thing to do. 

A Groovy Kind Of

I am very loose with the work “love.” I can say I loved my ex-wife, or that I love my family, or that I love The One That Got Away, and they all mean different things. There’s friendship love, either squealed at each other at bachelorette parties, often accompanied by the word “bitch.” There’s the “I love you, man,” accompanied by the most distant hugs imaginable, because God forbid anyone thinks you’re a homo.  

From the way we differentiate between loving someone and being in love with someone, the word love has many different meanings, like “aloha.” I am in love with a number of people, and it’s not because I want to marry them. I have my friend, the princess, who I will love until the day I die, and all I want to do is cuddle with her. I’m in love with The One That Got Away, and her I want to marry. I’m in love with my Best Man, Shane, my brother. I’m in love with the one who brought me out from party to party in New York and made me feel cool, and that’s mom love. I’m in love with my best friend in 1999 and 2000, and the only thing I want from her is to lie in bed together with a dictionary, spending the entire evening looking up the dumbest word.  

Same word, completely different meanings. So when I tell you I was in love with her from the moment she forced herself into my conversation, it wasn’t because I thought she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen (though, to be fair, she was), but because she radiated artistry, sensitivity, and mischief. She was a very tactile person, holding hands, stroking forearms, using one another as chairs, and it was easy to confuse a guy who’d never had a girlfriend in high school. However, expectations were set and revisited, and things were great until I started to run with a crew that viewed sincerity as a character flaw, and she was sent into exile, which wasn’t the punishment it was supposed to be because she had many friends across all disciplines, and I don’t think she missed us.  

She wasn’t gone from my life, though, and we kept bumping into her, and I wanted to keep bumping into her, but there was still a part of me that saw her as the enemy. I was awful to her. She continued to extend the hand of friendship, and I repeatedly slapped it away.  

That was college. After college, we became closer. During a celebration of a relative’s accomplishments, I told her that I was married, and I loved my wife, but I loved her too, for different reasons, and I didn’t have the language to explain, but she understood. That’s probably why I fought so hard against her. She understood me, and I didn’t want anyone to. But ten years after graduating, I wanted it more than anything in the world. 

We talked to each other rarely over the next several years, but any doubt I had about our relationship was dispelled when I visited her at her home a couple of years later, and we spent a couple of days having the kind of drama-free relationship we’d always wanted. We went back to communicating rarely, and I saw her one more time before we went back to communicating rarely.  

In May of this year, while “suffering” from COVID, I wrote my memoirs. I have known a lot of people, and I have done a great many things, so I wrote it down. I broke the book down into nineteen particularly influential individuals (my ex-wife gets two chapters). I sent her her chapter. I wanted her to see what she meant to me. I wanted to tell her how in love with her I was, but not in that way. I wanted her to understand me, more than I wanted anybody to understand me. So she read it. She had no notes. She read the rest of the memoirs because I wanted her to know everything about me.  

Now we text every day.  

For reasons I won’t go into, I’m taking what is probably my last vacation. I stopped by to see my sister in Colorado, and then I retreated to my cabin in the woods, where I was visited by the friend I was in love with. With a brief exception, we sat on the cabin couch and talked about ourselves, our past lives, our present lives, not very much about our futures, our impending disasters we had no control over, our regrets, our mistakes, our triumphs. We also talked about TV and movies. We talked a lot, is what I’m saying. I’ve become touch averse in my old age, but she got through my shields like she always belonged there, holding my hand, playing with my hair. This was our entire relationship in a nutshell. I had no idea how much I needed this. 

I live-blogged to her the rest of my vacation, the writer’s retreat with my old friend Shane, running into those people from my past who crossed social boundaries to be my friend, how I’m feeling, etc. I’d rather be sprawled out on the couch, my head on her lap, recounting the events of the day rather than sending her a text. When I think of her, I think of warmth and companionship, and never romance. It’s the perfect relationship for someone ace.  

Now that we’ve so clearly spelled out what we mean to each other, what does our future look like? I don’t know, but we have the rest of our lives to figure it out. She’s not going anywhere. 

Home Again Jiggety-Jig

When I arrived in Albuquerque, I had a few hours to kill, and I explored a neighborhood called Nob Hill, close to the university campus. I breathed in the mountain plants and beheld the adobe houses everywhere, and it had been twenty-four years since I’d spent more than a few days here, but it still felt like home.

As I approached Gallup from the east, the shapes of the buildings—the gas stations and auto parts stores and restaurants—were all the same, even though they are all different businesses than they were in the twentieth century. I drove in a car I thought of as invisible i.e. it’s so generic that it can follow you for miles and you’d never notice, and I coasted down Coal Avenue, my favorite place to go when I’m downtown. An entire block of the street was gone. Aside from that, it looked great. The coffee house that had opened up after I started college has been renamed and expanded, and the ratty, crumbling apartments that had housed several of my friends have been given a fresh coat of paint. On the other hand, the department store across the street is exactly the same, and so is the Crashing Thunder Art Gallery a few businesses down. The New Mexico souvenirs store now sells CBD products.

On day two of my return to Gallup, I started to entertain fantasies about quitting my job and settling down there. The dating scene is terrible, but I have no interest in that kind of thing. I have three friends there already, which is more than I have in DC. This would be a good place to retire.

By day five, I’d had a chance to look around. The elementary school my dad taught at is gone. There’s not a molecule of it remaining. My middle school had been expanded by erecting these Borg-cube-like buildings. My high school has been completely rebuilt, though the roof is still that familiar zigzag shape, making me suspect they built on top of the original. Lots of familiar buildings have unfamiliar storefronts, Comics, Cards & Games, for example, had been replaced by a sign that simply says “Waxing.” However, from a distance, Gallup looks the same as it did when I grew up here. The Gal-A-Bowl hasn’t changed its cheesy sign, El Sombrero is still there, the courthouse is a masterpiece of Southwestern architecture (just don’t look at the modern office buildings springing up around it).

If I look closer, the stucco on the house I grew up in has been replaced with aluminum siding, the Pic-A-Flic video store I once relied on is now a payday loan place. The theater where I went to the movies by myself for the first time at age nine (Godzilla 1985) is now boarded up. A lot of businesses are boarded up, actually, while other businesses, mostly the ones downtown, have been given facelifts. Gallup in 2022 looks like the Gallup of 1994, but it’s not. It can’t be.

Even the people I’m seeing are the same, but not really. My friend from high school kept up her enthusiasm and her bright smile, but she’s an accomplished professional now, not a giggling cheerleader. And then there’s Shane. Shane is a special case because we’ve led parallel lives that occasionally intersect. When I met him in Gallup, he was an artist and fixture in town who went to bed in the same studio where he created his paintings. When I pulled up to his place in Gallup last week, I found an artist and fixture in town who went to bed in the same studio where he created his paintings. But when I looked closer, I could see many differences. He has two children now, one of whom is twenty-four and living in New York, like I once did. He has less hair. Money is no longer the precious commodity it once was. There are hundreds, as opposed to dozens, of paintings leaning against the walls. If I moved down here, I’d have to navigate a Frankenstein recreation of the city I grew up in, and I don’t think I’m ready to do that. On my way to my hotel, there is a sign for a diner that was once a Gallup landmark. The diner itself is gone, now a weed-infested parking lot. The ghost diner speaks to me. It says, “Don’t look back.”