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.

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. 

The More They Stay the Same

May through August of 1998 is known to me as My Summer in Purgatory. My plans for my post-collegiate future were pulled out from under me, and I was so tied up in graduating and working almost full-time that I didn’t make alternate plans, so I moved in with my parents. And my two sisters, who had been doing fine without me there, thank you very much for asking. I spent most of the time being drunk and stoned, being needlessly … well, me … to a wonderful young woman who has moved onto bigger things and beyond. I was offered a hand out, and I took it, and decades later, here I am. I’ve visited Gallup a few times since then, but over the years the city has been completely rebuilt and redesigned while also remaining the exact same. Here I am, twenty-four years since the last time I’d spent more than a couple of days here, crammed into a coffin of a hotel room ten miles from town, and it still feels like home.

I’m here on a writing retreat with Shane. We want to take a 156-page screenplay and expand it out into a four-to-six-episode TV series, and thanks to his networking from being a successful painter and having once been married to literary intelligentsia, he has contacts, and he might be able to get it in front of people. If he doesn’t, that doesn’t bother me. The whole goal of this trip was to work with one of my oldest and best friends on an art project together like we used to do. We have met that goal. We have written a solid first draft of the pilot, and we’ve finished more episodes. What it needs is a fine polish, and then we’re ready to send this butterfly out in the world and see where it lands.

It’s about a hitman and his sidekick and the people they pick up along the way searching for a ruthless drug dealer in Gallup, New Mexico, in 1995, a time and place Shane and I know very well. And the thing about Gallup is, it’s weird. I know, I know, you think your hometown is weird. You’ve never lived in Gallup. It’s a curious cocktail of mixing cultures that don’t mix well, but can get along to get along. The characters, who have impressed some of the contest readers who’ve seen it, are what we’re focused on. The hitman is a professional, but he’s emotionally unstable, and pops antidepressants and anxiety meds like Pez. The sidekick is a hitman in training who doesn’t want to kill people and dresses like a 1995 rapper. The point man is a Reservation resident who acts chill but is shifty. The victim is a cute redneck girl once kidnapped by the drug dealer, and who hangs around the hitman so she can get her bloody revenge. The waitress is a high-class girl in search of adventure. Nobody knows what’s up with the drug dealer. That’s something we have to work on.

Sorry, didn’t mean to bore you. I’m proud of what we’ve done together.

Shane has been a resident of Gallup for years, after living around the country and even outside our country. The town has a certain gravity. It draws people back, like a few of my friends from high school (and me) in the years following. They all scattered to the wind, but a few more came back as adults. And I don’t mean adult like me, where I have a job and failing eyesight, but otherwise I haven’t changed. I mean adult as in married, with children, and buying houses. This was where they wanted to raise their families. Shane knows more of them than he can count. I know two of them.

The first was the cute cheerleader turned cute mom and high-ranking school administrator from my last post. She’s the one who informed me that the narrative I had where I survived high school by being invisible was not remotely true. I’d been seen.

I knew she was in town, and I had expected to see her, so that didn’t blow my mind as much as the next guy. Shane called for a break during a particularly unproductive stretch of hours, and he drove me to the UPS Store to see someone who really wanted to see me. I’m terrible with faces, so I knew that, unless he told me who it was, I wasn’t going to guess. And he took me up to the pass-through and pointed his chin at a guy wearing a COVID mask. I shrugged, and someone called his name, and I remembered everything I talked about in this entry:

tl;dr: If 1998 was My Summer in Purgatory, 1992 was My Summer of Adventure. The Lost Boy was a really good friend when his crew was away, but as soon as the crew returned, he ghosted us. I was heartbroken at the time, but as I got older and met more people who were popular when they were young, the more I understood why.

On the other hand, a member of the crew I ran with that summer was an easily offended, vindictive bitch, and he very well could have unilaterally exiled the Lost Boy.

Either way, the last time I saw him up close was when he tried to explain to me without explaining to me why he had to leave us behind. But once I heard that name, those sharp, manicured eyebrows could belong to no one else. Shane got his attention, and he came over, and they chatted. Then Shane said, “Look who I brought!” The man I used to know as the Lost Boy called out my name and ran out from behind the counter to tackle me with a hug. He looked the same—compact, in shape, no wrinkles, not a single gray hair. The only change was his mullet. He used to have the kind of mullet that would make Billy Ray Cyrus look like Sinead O’Connor. It was business in the front, very long party in the back. And now he had a respectable middle-aged-man haircut. He asked me where I was and what I was doing, and he was excited to hear I was still writing. He reminded me that it didn’t matter if I wasn’t a New York Times Bestseller, I was writing.

Beyond his sexy cool, he was one of my most enthusiastic cheerleaders. When we were hanging out alone, he was always encouraging me to write. At the time I believed that I could tell the story, but I couldn’t think of what the story should be. That’s why I was working on an idea with the vindictive bitch as opposed to my own, which I wasn’t sure I had. But my friend believed that I could come up with my own. He also had a female friend he thought would be a good match for me when the school year began (but that went away when he did). He knew I was bound for bigger things. That hadn’t changed in the slightest, even though it is literally thirty years, summer-to-summer, since we had known each other.

He gave me his number. I’m going to shoot him a text.

Gallup, New Mexico is a weirder-than-average town close to Arizona and three Indian Reservations. It’s a place where magic happens. I’ve set two novels and a screenplay here. It will always be home.

Momma Raised a Quitter

I used to have a drinking problem. I’d say I was an alcoholic, but I wasn’t addicted. My problem was that I started out with one drink, and I’d keep drinking until I ran out of alcohol. This was a real problem whenever I cracked open a bottle of wine. It wasn’t that I set out to be a binge drinker, but I was on a medication that kept alcohol from affecting me until I was about five or six drinks in, then I would go from sober to drunk in seconds. I loved drinking, though, so I kept doing it.

I loved how numb it made me while being simultaneously awesome (or so I thought). It turned off the part of me that should know better, so I was a free man. In that way, drinking was like having a manic episode. And I loved the taste of a good beer or wine. And I can’t stress this enough, I didn’t need it every day. I just needed it whenever. Whenever turned out to be most days.

Say what you will about my ex-wife, she made a lot of really positive changes to me. She found me the psychiatric help I needed to be better, she researched Chantix, the quitting smoking drug that makes you want to commit suicide, and she encouraged me to quit drinking, at the beginning of July 2007, after I fell flat on my face at a party and almost hit my head against something. I didn’t go to AA or to a doctor for help, I was just determined to do it. I half-assed it, though. I used to sneak drinks here and there and kept a bottle of mouthwash in the car (that I shared with Kate, so I had to really hide it) to shake suspicion.

This was bad, and I’m honestly not sure how I got away with it as long as I did. I mean, this is the kind of thing people who were addicted did. I didn’t need it every day, just once or twice a week—whenever I could, basically. So for the month of July, I snuck around with drinking. Finally, at the end of the month, Kate was going to be out of town for the weekend, so I could have a whole bottle of wine to myself in privacy, as long as I could get rid of the evidence.

I’ve told this story before, but something clicked in me as I took that bottle off the shelf and placed it gently in my shopping cart. It reminded me of all the times I quit smoking where I’d have one or two, just to take the edge off, then I was a pack-a-day smoker again. It asked me who’s really losing in this situation, me who definitely wasn’t quitting, or Kate, who thought the man she trusted and loved was being honest with her. It asked me how long I intended to keep this up. And mostly it asked me what kind of a man couldn’t keep promises to the woman he loved. So I put the wine back. As I’m fond of saying, I don’t remember the last drink I took, but I clearly remember the first drink I didn’t have.

Fifteen years later, the only drink I’ve had was when a bartender in London didn’t understand my order of club soda and got me a vodka and soda. It took one sip to figure out the mistake (the bartender didn’t apologize, she just doubled down on her logic, which is who goes to a bar to get a club soda?). Do I miss it? I wish I could have a glass of wine, I love a good red. I hadn’t experimented in whites before August 2007, but I’m sure I would have loved them too. I liked beer. I liked standing around with a glass of scotch, not really enjoying it, but feeling classy. I don’t miss being drunk, and I definitely don’t miss hangovers.

I don’t really pride myself on my impulse control and willpower, but in the same year, I quit smoking and drinking, both of which I was dependent upon. Maybe I do have it in me.

Chats in my Belfry

If you’ve been paying attention, I have a workplace crush. The butterflies have really settled down around her to the point where I could note her heading for the break area and not really get possessed with the overwhelming desire to go talk to her anymore. Plus, I had COVID for the month of May, and by the time I got back to the office, she was on vacation or was working from home for three weeks. I got used to not having her around to swoon over, but she is still here. We’ll get back to her.

I have been a big fan of Dr. Nerdlove since 2010, when I read Kate a number of his columns on a road trip. He’s insightful, a bit tough, and fair, as well as being (I wish this word hadn’t been coopted by the bigots) Woke as hell. Probably his best column is the one where he urged nerd boys not to date nerd girls, which wasn’t an admonishment of nerdy girls, but of the image that nerd boys tend to get into their head when they think of nerd girls. His column, though, is primarily an advice column, so people write in, and he answers their questions with a combination of pop culture references, a little vulgarity, and a lot of heart. I’ve written Dr. Nerdlove four times, and I’ve been answered four times. I’m going to see if I can get a fifth.

When I started this job, I talked to nobody. I was shunted into the corner for the temp, and I just did my job. The people around me did socialize, and they can, at times, do it to excess, to the point where I sent HR a message about it. HR’s response was to have a big meeting with our department about how to be polite to each other at work, with none of the impolite people actually realizing they were the impolite ones. Prior to the pandemic, they had scheduled a move for me to a real desk, but after we returned to the office two years later, this had been forgotten, and I returned to the crappy temp desk. The obnoxious talking resumed, though not as bad as before.

I acquired a new boss during lockdown, and she will talk to anybody about anything, no matter how asinine, which means, where most of my seating area is probably convinced that I’m going to go on a shooting spree (it’s always the quiet ones) and barely acknowledge me, she engages me in dumb, light conversation. And what this has done is make me want to be more of a presence at work socially. But the problem is, how do I start? I can carry on a conversation once it’s begun, so with the dates I was going on last year, we were there to have a conversation, so we had one. But unless the other party approaches me, I have no idea what I’m supposed to say. So I fired off another letter to Dr. Nerdlove asking for tips on starting a conversation.

Tuesday, though, was a revelation. The Publications Department shares the fifth floor with at least two other departments, and we never interact. Management came up with the inspired idea to hold a lunchtime mixer for the floor, with the instructions being not to sit at a table with anyone you already know and to play some silly games. I sat at a table with my crush and the new girl in our department, and nobody else sat with us. Unfortunately, I think the new girl is super-shy, so she was hard to talk to. My crush, on the other hand, who confessed to being shy, was a lively conversation. We discussed my novels and rejection letters, what her department does, and how motherhood is kind of a “schizo-bipolar thing” where her four-and-a-half-year-old is simultaneously her reason for being and the most difficult thing she has to deal with. And it wasn’t just her. People dropped by the table, and I chatted with all of them. One of the games was that we were supposed to introduce ourselves to two people we didn’t know and tell them something only your best friend knows. My crush and I decided that we would be person number one for each other, but we still had to find someone else, which I did, quite aggressively.

And now, I’m suddenly doing pretty well here. I’m chatting with coworkers who are going through the mail, which gets dropped in the half-cubicle near mine. I’m inserting myself into conversations with the obnoxious coworkers, and I’m saying clever things to boot. (When they were talking—not googling or even using their computers—about freckles, and my neighbor’s browser showed him an article about freckles, I said, “Whenever I know they’re listening, I feel a lot of pressure to be entertaining.”) Does this mean I’m ready to get out there and start talking to people? Not quite. These are still conversations that I’m joining and not starting, but it’s something.

As for the crush, I fully intend to have more conversations with her. I just need to figure out a good opening.

Little Sticks of Death

I remember how and why I started smoking. It was the first time Kate and I got together, and she’d left a note in my mailbox that said we had to talk. No time has that phrase meant anything good, so I was stressed. I thought about what all the peers I looked up to did when they were stressed, which inspired me to locate a cigarette from a man whose name is lost to history, and the first time I smoked a cigarette, it was horrible. It was physically gross, and it made me dizzy. Why would people money for that? How was this calming me down? The next day, I wanted to do it again. Gradually, I grew to enjoy the high, even as I craved it the whole time.

One day, you realize that you’re not even getting the high anymore. All you know is that your brain doesn’t work right, and you get the tremors when you’re not smoking. This isn’t like heroin, where not getting high off of it was a process that took months, even years. With cigarettes, you take a quick hop to dependency. You can go through a lot of cigarettes in a day, especially if you’re sitting a bar from before 2003, when smoking was kicked out of the indoors, because it’s so easy to put one to your lips and light them. Besides, if you do it right, lighting a cigarette can look insanely cool, just ask John Constantine.

Think about a time when everyone’s desk at work came with an ashtray. I used to think it was fascist to kick smokers out of all buildings, but I’ve reconsidered because smoking is really fucking bad for you, and it doesn’t matter whether or not you’re the one with the cigarette. Smoking contributes nothing to society except for death, and I’m willing to overlook my stance on banning things when it comes to that.

After I got addicted, I quit smoking about three times. The first time, I kept one or two around, just in case, to prove to myself that I could resist temptation. I couldn’t. The second time I quit smoking, I removed all cigarettes from my apartment, so I just went out and bought a pack. At the same time, Kate was supposed to be quitting, but she was also sneaking cigarettes behind my back. We gave up on giving up.

Finally, our doctor put me on Chantix, which was later pulled off the shelves because some users tried to kill themselves and then put back on the shelves because I don’t know. Maybe less users tried to kill themselves. Before the whole suicidal ideation thing, I went on the drug. It made me constipated. But the thing that it did best was block me from getting off on the nicotine. And without the nicotine rush and relief, a cigarette is just a burnt, soggy, rolled-up piece of paper. And I let this control my life for thirteen years? I very quickly settled in on the side effects of quitting because Chantix didn’t take away the side effects. Somehow my quitting smoking turned everyone around me into a fucking asshole, and once I was away from it for a while, I came to appreciate just how horribly I smelled.

And so, while I craved cigarettes, I didn’t want to go anywhere near them because a) they were disgusting, and b) I didn’t want to be their slave again. However, I did have two cigarettes since then.

The first was on the day when my beloved friend Jenni got married. I bummed a smoke as a way of starting a conversation with her maid of honor’s boyfriend, which was how we used to do things in college and at parties. I remember how awful everything about it was. It was like my first time all over again, only this time, I wasn’t tempted back.

The second was at my sister’s apartment in Ventura, California. Watching her smoke cigarettes made me feel nostalgic, so I bummed one and kind of hated it. I thought how casually I used to smoke, the cigarette dangling from my first two fingers, leaning rakishly up against the closest wall or streetlight. All I wanted to do that time was sit down until the dizziness passed.

Since then, I occasionally dream about smoking again, but when I realize I didn’t fall off the wagon, I am so relieved. Once a very important part of my life, I’ve completely forgotten about smoking, so that people who used to be badass smokers in my novels and short stories just don’t smoke anymore. I gave no explanation. If I wanted to have fun, I could write a short story about any of them quitting.

I smoked my last cigarette as an addict on May 15, 2007, so I have been an ex-smoker two years longer than I’ve been a smoker. I don’t regret smoking for thirteen years, but I don’t miss it at all. After all this time, though, I still don’t recall what Kate wanted to talk to me about.

You Can Tell by the Way I Use my Walk

Anybody who’s ever met me in person knows I have a very distinctive walk. I don’t just go from Point A to Point B, I go from Point A to Point B in style. It’s a weird kind of strut/stride/shuffle, as if I’m listening to the opening chords of “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees on a permanent loop. I walk more like a normal person now, but whenever I’m ready to have an adventure, even if that adventure is going to Safeway to buy more pancake mix, my walk is confident, with zero fucks to give.

Meanwhile, somebody might have noticed that there are no recent pictures of me. I am violently opposed to being photographed, and I really try to avoid mirrors. Even as I was doing it, I wondered exactly what it was about my image that bothered me so much. I can look at old pictures just fine. I’m comfortable in my own skin, for once, and pretty laid back about my appearance. I’m not hideous.

Finally, I figured out why. It’s because I don’t recognize the Jeremiah I see. As a novelist, I see myself as the main character in a story, and the character looks like me in my late-twenties or late-thirties (except with gray hair). Since then, I’ve put on about fifty pounds (I lost a lot of weight last summer, but I gained a lot of it back in the winter). I wear the weight relatively well, i.e. I am not obese like President Trump, I just appear to have the advanced stages of a dad bod. Again, I’m not hideous.

However, when I imagine myself in the world, like I’m on a date, I picture myself rakish and stylish. You know, the hero. But when I picture myself as I really look on that same date, I see someone bumbling and oafish because the hero is NEVER fat. When I think of myself the way I really look, I’m awkward and self-conscious, but when I picture me as the hero, I am badass and ready to take on the challenges of the world.

I think it would help if I could see other people who looked like me, but they’re not in TV or the movies unless they’re farting. What counts as morbidly obese in Hollywood is a little chubby to the rest of us in this country. When Thor put on weight in Avengers Endgame, it was treated as one hilarious fat joke after another—even his mom had to take a swing at him. I can’t look to entertainment for role models. As for the people around me, most who live in my neighborhood are extraordinarily fit. So I got nothing. I feel lonely here with my belly (which my cat loves, by the way).

Now that I’ve identified the source of my hang-up, what can I do with it? I’m fine with things the way they are, but I can’t avoid mirrors forever. Even if I manage to lose all of this weight again, that is a slow process, and I’ll be living in this body until I get to that point. Eventually, I’m going to have to come to terms with how I look.

All Tangoed Up

I tried to dance the Argentinian Tango, and it did not go well.

I made a new friend through one of the dating apps, and she is obsessed with dancing. And fishing. If this was a Venn diagram, there would be a circle for fishing and another for tango, and they would barely touch, and in that little sliver would be my new friend. She’s energetic, cheerful, and enthusiastic, and she does this thing where I remember her talking all the time, but we’re always talking about me.

She reached out to me on a dating app, and I talked to her about learning to dance. I’ve been talking about learning to dance for years, and I’ve never followed through on it. Well, she did, and after a false start, we found a place that taught the tango. We went to the class, listened to the lecture, lined up with our partners, and I had a panic attack.

Part of it was because I was overwhelmed. Part of it is because touching makes me uncomfortable, and I couldn’t power through it like I thought I would be able to. To be fair, this was an advanced class, so we were learning a few steps ahead of what I could handle, but still, I was a mess.

The instructor, who was amazing, and who loved dance, saw that I was floundering, and he stepped in to show me the basic tango moves: step, pivot, step, pivot, and so on. I figured out the stepping part, and if we had stopped there, it would have been a successful learning experience. But the pivoting, which I had to guide with my chest, baffled me. The instructor could be heard saying, “Guide me. No, the other way. The other way. Okay, you don’t need to move your feet to pivot. Step, now pivot. You need to stop moving your feet when you pivot. Step, pivot. Try to keep your feet together when you pivot. Step, pivot. You did it! You did it!” I’m pretty sure he was thinking, “Finally!”

My new friend took me out on a break, during which I told her about my touch aversion, which she felt I should have told her about sooner. But in the room where we were hiding, we tried the basic steps. Eventually, I got it, though I will need a lot more practice until I feel comfortable with it. We called it quits there, after a half-hour, so I could get home and recover from the trauma.

I’m excited to go again, and as I suspected, the more I danced, the less the touch thing bothered me, so it should go a lot more smoothly. My dance partner is practically a professional. She’s been dancing since the nineties, so she’s pretty advanced. I worry that she won’t be able to dance at her own level while I’m around, but that doesn’t seem to worry her at all. Probably because, when you’re taking the class and not losing your shit, you have to switch partners, and she would inevitably be paired off with someone with a lot more experience (but not as much as her).

For the past several months, I’ve been writing, or I’ve been editing. I wake up, I write, I clock in at work, I clock out, I write, I make dinner, I watch some TV, and I go to sleep. All weekend, I type what I’ve written and write some more. I sometimes go to the grocery store. If you’ve been paying attention at all, you know that writing is my life, and this seems like it would be ideal, but I really need to get out. My new friend gets all the points for getting me out.

Off the Old Block

There are a series of short stories I really love, by famed mystery writer Lawrence Block, and they’re all about a character named Keller. The stories were published all over the place, and they’re self-contained, but there’s a specific order to them, and with the collection I own and have owned since slightly after I moved to New York, you can follow the story. I remember I first encountered the character in an issue of Playboy (there IS stuff in there that aren’t nude pictures, honest!), and he stuck with me that I was stunned to find out that there was a whole book of his stories.

Keller is a regular lonely guy in New York who has maybe too much spare time. He watches movies, goes on long walks in Central Park, sees a therapist, and he takes up stamp-collecting at one point. Every once in a while, maybe once a month, he gets a phone call, he takes a train to Upstate New York, talks to his boss, and flies out somewhere in the United States, and murders someone. He’s not an action-movie hitman by any means. He very rarely uses a gun, he’s not a martial artist, he’s not insane, and he doesn’t kill only “bad people.” He just very efficiently figures out how to get into someone’s comfort zone and exterminate them, no questions asked.

As someone who had been raised on Tarantino movies and a lot of the crime dramas from the nineties, it was very easy for me to put aside the horrible job this character has and get to know him personally. Maybe it was that compartmentalizing I’m pretty good at. Either way, I didn’t think much about it. He’s an introvert with a rich inner life, like me, only instead of fixing spreadsheets, he killed people, and I was able to identify with him.

Around the time I got the book, I was dating a wonderful artist in Brooklyn, and she was interested in whatever I was interested in, so she watched all my favorite movies and read all my favorite books, yet she has a very low violence threshold. She really wrestled with the book because she liked Keller, but what he did was monstrous, and she struggled to reconcile that.

I’m rereading the book, trying to inspire myself to write my next novel, now that I’ve finished the one I put aside to write my screenplay, as well as the one I put aside to write the one I put aside for the screenplay, and I’m remembering something that pissed this girlfriend off about the book more than any of the murders did. In one story, Keller gets a dog, and in a subsequent story, he later gets a dog-walker. Then, in another story, he and the dog-walker hook up. One story after that, Keller gets an assignment and takes care of it, going through all the motions, until the very end, where he tells someone she left him, and she took the dog.

This infuriated my girlfriend. Why did he take twenty-five pages to acknowledge that his relationship had ended? Why was he not thinking about it and mourning it that whole week he was out of town and killing someone? Why did he not talk to anyone about it? And yet for me, this seemed to be the natural thing. This is before “compartmentalizing” became a word that people used, but what was wrong with filing grief away? There was an unexpected loss in your life, and you might as well start moving forward as soon as you can instead of dwelling on it. It’s how I handled my breakup with her, and boy did that cause problems post-relationship (she is the one ex who will never talk to me ever again—all of the others, even with their grievances, acknowledge me). It’s also how I handled my divorce. The grief spilled out sometimes, mostly because of the far-reaching financial ramifications, but mostly it was tucked away where it wouldn’t interfere with me.

I am willing to acknowledge that my muted reaction to the divorce probably had to do with the truckloads of lithium I’m on, but there was no excuse for how I reacted in 2002. (Which was twenty years ago. Jesus.) I also know that I almost had a friend break up with me last year, and I did not compartmentalize at all. I yelled, I screamed, I begged, so I’m not incapable of feeling grief. Men are taught not to feel emotions other than anger, so I wonder how much of that had to do with Keller’s reaction to that breakup, as well as mine. I haven’t lost anyone close to me in years—what’s going to be my reaction when it inevitably happens?

I haven’t made it to the offending story yet; Keller has just met the dog-walker, and they are just friendly right now. I haven’t read this book in over twenty years, so I wonder how I’m going to see it. Will I identify with Keller’s stiff upper lip, or will I be angry at him like she was, all that time ago.

The Muffled Man

A friend recently made a post about how she feels out-of-sorts with her bipolar meds. She’s not depressed, but that’s really the only way to describe her mood, “not depressed.” She has no motivation to do anything. It got me thinking about my experiences.

I’m on a ludicrous amount of lithium, and the side effect of that is that I’m pretty numb all the time. In fact, I feel exactly like my friend. I tell people I’m happy, but I’m using the word “happy” as a synonym for “content.” My life is good, I type, stretching out my hands and arms because my cat is sleeping between myself and the keyboard, but I’m not happy. I don’t even know what happiness feels like. I had an incredible time last month at my work conference, but it didn’t really affect me long-term. Likewise, I have moments of disappointment (my dating life) or despair (that really bad review I got), but never any actual pain. I’m like a Nerf ball: you can put a dent in me, but I’m back to my old shape in moments.

What’s the alternative? Well, I’m bipolar 2, which means I’m depressed most of the time. Depression, with a capital D, is brutal. It’s not just a mental affliction, but a physical one. When I had a bad depressive episode after Robin Williams died, my joints hurt, and I couldn’t walk without pain. Depression turns you into a selfish asshole who sucks the joy out of everything. Nobody knows what to do with you. And when I’m not depressed, I’m manic. Here’s the reason a lot of bipolars will stop taking their medication. Being manic feels like you do after you’ve had a couple of drinks. You’re lucid, better looking, funnier, more charming, and a royal douchebag. Whenever I had a manic episode, it climaxed in some intense behavior, and I would crash instantly into the lowest depression imaginable. What triggers my manic episodes? Unadulterated joy. No wonder I want to be numb all the time. It’s just safer.

What keeps me from becoming a zombie who sits in front of his iPad watching Netflix all day is that I have found the thing or things that bring me joy, and I hold onto it for dear life. I have Doctor Who, as I proved when I spent hundreds of dollars on merchandise in December. Seventeen-foot scarfs and a complete set of Doctors isn’t enough to give me something to feel. My real anchor, which you must have guessed by now, is writing. Making up stories, making up people, and currently, crafting a screenplay (I call if “crafting” because there is a science to drafting a screenplay; i.e. you can’t just make it up as you go along) are the first things I do in the morning, and I can’t wait to go to bed the night before to see what I will cook up tomorrow.  

I’ve lived my entire life like this, and five years ago I finally found the cocktail that works. The side effect is that I’m kind of toned down. I can tell you now that it is 100 percent worth it.

All fourteen Doctors, or the world’s largest doo-wop group?