Trigger Warning

This post has a pretty big trigger warning on it, for reasons that will become apparent very quickly in the next paragraph.

This past Thursday, during my commute home, so about four o’clock, I was sexually assaulted on the DC Metro. I won’t tell you exactly what happened because I’ve been reliving it pretty steadily for the past week, and I don’t feel like immortalizing it. I can tell you what happened after. I was in a crowded train, and I screamed at the guy, and nobody saw or heard a thing. They didn’t mind looking at me until I looked back, then it was the floor or the person next to me. I was sexually assaulted in front of dozens of people, and no one saw anything. 

My attacker sat down in the closest available seat and stared at me, who was standing by the door. When a couple got between us, he changed seats, moving through the crowd like he wasn’t even there, his eyes always following me. I knew right then that this guy was going to follow me home. Sure, I picked this place because it was right by the stairs to the mezzanine at my stop, but there was only one exit, a long escalator ride, and no Metro personnel in the station at all. This guy could assault me again or worse, and no one was coming to help me. When we reached my station, I waited until the door was closing, then I slipped out and went home.

I still spent most of the evening with the blinds closed, hoping that he didn’t backtrack to my stop to find me. When I woke up the next day, I wondered if he wouldn’t be waiting at my station for me when I would have to go back to work on Tuesday. Maybe he remembered which train I was on and which car I’d chosen, and he’ll be waiting for me when I get out of work. 

I feel like I should underscore how utterly alone I felt when I got home Thursday. I was the only other person in a crowded train car, and when I thought about who to talk to about this, I was reminded that I had no one to talk to. I have texting friends, and I reached out to a few of them, and they got back to me after an hour or so. Nicole was in bed in Romania. I called my mom, which I’d rather have avoided, but I had to speak to someone with a voice. One of my friends did call me several hours later, and she was a godsend, but for the first hour or so after the incident, I was on my own, and I wasn’t sure that was a bad thing. 

With the exception of the few of the friends I’d reached out to on Thursday, as well as an HR rep I spoke to on Friday, I hadn’t told anyone about this. I’m not ashamed—violated, but not ashamed. This wasn’t my fault. The reason I’m avoiding it is because I hate how everybody looks at me. I hate the catch in their voice when they process it. They’re not doing anything wrong—it’s a natural reaction to hearing something awful like this. But I still hate it. 

I felt alone on the Metro. I felt alone at home. And I felt alone because I’m a man. This is not someone who believes that men have it worse than women, but they don’t warn a guy this could happen, do they? No, they don’t. In fact, unless it happens to you, the only thing you are likely to hear about male sexual assault is how goddamned funny it is. From “Federal pound-me-in-the-ass prison” in Office Space to Ving Rhames getting hilariously raped in Pulp Fiction, to little kids make dropping-the-soap jokes, male sexual assault is fun for the whole family.

Victims are made to be overly feminine, like the “bitch” trope in prison (Ben Kingsley had a bitch in a Marvel short that can be seen on Disney+)    . The reason why is that a real man would never let that happen to them. Fuck that, I don’t want to be a real man. Real men are assholes. Besides, what was I going to do? Was I going to punch or kick the guy into unconsciousness? Wrestle him down and present him to the non-existent Metro cops? What if he had a knife? What if he kicked my ass back even harder? I couldn’t count on concerned citizens coming to the rescue, that’s for sure. 

I’ve chosen not to go to the police with this. It will accomplish nothing. I left him on a Maryland-bound train. I don’t have any details on the train itself that would lead them to the guy. The suspect was wearing a Covid mask, a hat, and a black parka. In this city, he’s invisible. They will never catch him, there will be no justice, and he’ll do it again. But I will not spend hours in the station telling and retelling my story to be the thing they joke about in the break room. My HR rep is kind of angry with me for this decision, and she spent most of Friday trying to talk me out of it.

I don’t spend a lot of time wondering what I did wrong because I didn’t do anything wrong. He came from blind corner behind me. He didn’t make a sound. There was nothing I could have done to prevent it, which is both a relief and a reason to be terrified. (On Friday morning, when I was still paranoid, I asked myself aloud, “Is this what it feels like to be a woman every day?”) I’m an overweight, forty-six-year-old, pale dude. This could happen to anybody.

But what makes me really sad is that I don’t really put a lot of thought into my appearance anymore, but on Thursday, I put in the effort. I wore a dress shirt that matched my beloved sweater vest and my business casual shoes, and I braved the frigid air walking from the train to my office because I knew that, when work was over, it was going to be the perfect weather for my corduroy blazer, and I looked good and I felt good, and I never want to wear those clothes again. There’s the part of me that notes it was the one thing I did differently that day. No, I don’t think the person who attacked me was attracted to me. This kind of thing isn’t about sex. It was about scaring me, and well done, sir. 

It’s not the physical act of what he did that has kept me trapped in my apartment for the past week, it’s the helplessness. The things I thought I could count on to stay safe—bright lights, public spaces, crowds, back to the wall, all failed me. And the recent break-in showed us that you can lock the house all you want, but if the locking mechanism fails in one of your windows, they’re coming in.

I’m grounding myself by writing a novel about the oldest characters I’ve created and reteaching myself how to ink and preparing for my inevitable comic book, but this weekend, I couldn’t. A lot of the initial horror of what happened has faded, and I was able to go out and buy a latte (I was concerned that the barista was my attacker because he was the same size and skin tone to my attacker) Mostly what I have is mild agoraphobia, and I don’t know if I could do that again. 

I’ll be fine. I’ll work from home this week and see if I can use the Metro again soon. There was a bit of a tug of war between my supervisor and HR about this, including the question, “Can you Uber into work?”; which stunned me in its tone-deafness, but HR won. My supervisor was demanding more information, and I think she was looking forward to having something to gossip about. I’ve discovered that I’m less willing to let things in my apartment slide. If my socks don’t both make it into my laundry basket, I now pick up the stray immediately, as opposed to letting it enjoy its freedom for a couple of days. There’s been little housekeeping projects I’ve been putting off that are now getting done.

Don’t worry, I’ll leave the apartment again. I’ll ride the Metro again. I won’t be watching out over my shoulder anymore. It might take a while, but I’ll be fine again. I got two cats counting on me.

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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.

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.