Extra Blanket, Extra Cup

Casey had been dead five years.

In the beginning, I thought that her encouraging my bi-ness was just her being a good friend, a good ally, and it was. But it wasn’t until we hooked up that first time that I found out. It was just one of those things that happened. We spent nights binging Twin Peaks in her apartment, always too hot or too cold, stripping the mattress bare and tagging ourselves as different characters. It was our first viewing, for both of us. I’ve watched it now dozens of times since her death. I remember we didn’t have any coffee in her place, but she had an old jar of these chocolate-covered espresso beans, and we made a game out of eating those every time Cooper complimented a cup of coffee, drank from said coffee. We ate a lot of those espresso beans. We’d stay up too late, hover between wake and rest, not wanting to waste a second in unconsciousness if we could help it, and the way I’d come to across from her in bed, light still on but futile, Netflix asking if we were still watching, and the unrestricted excitement of new touch, new kisses, new everything. There was inevitably trying to play it off, trying to feign experience and worldliness. And all that. Her seeing through it and ensuring that she’d quite complete my education. Coordinating days off spent restless on the couch, under Twin Peaks ceiling fan, and she knew what my family was like, how I’d never dated a woman before, and stories of Bible Belt upbringing kept away from the dangers of trick-or-treating, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Pok√©mon, and so her making me marathon them with her, a different education, and those old teachings on hell and damnation caught in my hair, tangled with it as I’d brush it out mornings when I’d wake up before her, make myself black coffee I’d bought for us and go write. Waving it away with thoughts like I think we can do it if we try, willing myself to believe it, and all the mental projections of how this would end, not if, because my brain wouldn’t give me the luxury of if.

It wasn’t something we saw, could see, even thought to be in the realm of possibility. Aneurysm, just another word among so many, easily glossed over, forgotten about, remembered only in offhand mentions in doctor shows, WebMD searches. The erasure of a human being in a single catastrophic instant, and the way that words can provide the barrier you need to get through the next minute, the next thirty seconds, the next breath.

It’s taking out the bedding and shredding it, rending the fabric in your hands and watching the resultant tatters flutter down like so many leaves, autumn dark and winter frost, letting it all turn to permafrost, and I loved her more than anyone I ever fucking loved before, would love, could love, full stop.

I’m writing this now, several seasons removed, and I can finally look at fallen leaves on my back lawn without wanting to shut myself up in my room, can hear beyond the mental white noise of grief. It’s turning now, out there, all of it shifting toward longer nights and colder mornings. So I lay down an extra blanket before I sleep. Pour an extra cup of black coffee when I wake.

Dressed Just the Same

It’s not like I thought buying a tube of Wet n Wild would magically cure me of years of ingrained heteronormativity, but you have to start somewhere, and for me that somewhere was a deep red, a shade called Blind Date, that I thought and hoped would go decent with my beard and Lynchian undercut.

I go months between expressing my nonbinary-ness, vacillating between feeling like a fraud when I’m not and being self conscious when I am. To know that I can do these things and look this way, but that there will be that part of myself that was raised the way that I was, that I can be separated from that time, put hundreds of miles between myself and the old neighborhood, but the old mental constructs still aren’t so easy to shake.

The endless yearning, the wanting, the disparity between the me in pictures and reflective surfaces and the me in my head. How I come alive with makeup on, the wig out of the box, a flowy dress and a leather jacket. How my favorite movie going back to my childhood was always Rocky Horror, how something clicked into place when I heard Tim Curry’s Frank croon Richard O’Brien’s words, namely “Whatever happened to Fay Wray? That delicate, satin-draped frame? How it clung to her thigh, how I started to cry, ’cause I wanted to be dressed just the same.”

Even back then, knowing that I was different, that I wanted to look different, but never going beyond watching that same old VHS over and over again, till the tape was worn out from overuse and even then I still played it, could point out all the minute differences between that first home video release and all subsequent releases.

Then the midnight screenings as a teen, and diving headlong into glam, discovering T Rex with a friend, wanting to be Marc Bolan, watching Velvet Goldmine and being scandalized in the best possible way, playing that soundtrack out the same as I did with RHPS on VHS all those years ago, but now with CD skips the main degradation culprit, and part of me insisting to myself that I just love the music, that there’s nothing more to it than that, but good luck making that stick in the long run.

Even acknowledging what and who I am now is as freeing as those screenings were all those years ago. I am queer, I am bi, I am nonbinary. These are just facts. I might be a late starter, but at least I’ve started. So if it’s just the occasional Blind Date for now, well that’ll just have to be enough. The rest can come later.

goodbye, goodbye, goodbye

Translucent plastic box in the basement, plastic and lidded, light filtering through it, plants on top of it, sitting idly next to an old Windows 95 behemoth. Coming back home after so much time, now masked, taking precautions, and the last of your personal effects are in this box, the stuff you couldn’t sort through before leaving, the things that reminded you of him. Now just color values and physical description–blurry shapes of belongings past thick plastic, years of dust, incomprehensible lengths of time that don’t correspond to calendars, appointments, birthdays. You have moved on and yet here are these outcroppings of a you who hasn’t.

Opening the lid and starting right away, piles separated between keep, trash, and burn, and you’re surprised by just how quick that last category is filling up. The unending process of self-uproot, plant, water, uproot again. Of having no land to ever truly call home. Your roots are spread too thin, atrophying beneath you, crackling through sidewalk cracks in desperation.

When it all comes through, you’re lighting a barbecue of photos, mementos, hand-written love notes. Sketches of the two of you, his beard snuggling yours, not caricatured but on the cusp, and browning, curling paper, shifting down to deep black, ash clippings sprinkling themselves into grill ash, gray in all that red. All the little rituals we put ourselves through.

If you could find a way to Eternal Sunshine your way out of having to remember him, you think you’d do it, but it’d probably be an in the moment thing, impulsive, the Clem to his Joel, and even that movie is tainted now because of all the viewings the two of you had, watching it every few years, after the inevitable breakup and getting back together, seeing your mirror images committed to film, and vacillating between siding with Joel or Clem depending on the viewing, the season. Siding with neither, and wanting to erase your brain, to take it all away if it’ll mean you don’t have to live with this pain of being stuck in his mental and emotional orbit.

The early days, pre-coming out, when he was a good friend, then thinking it was “just” that you were gay, as if that would ever be a “just” where and when you grew up, and finding other people, other bodies after each break up, learning to fit yourself into the configurations you thought were expected of you, the shifting serpent of sexuality, probably looking just like the one from CCD as a kid, when they tried to convince you that we’re born doomed and need external help to be saved. You haven’t sat in a pew since the mid-2000s, have no desire to, but there’s that familiar old Catholic orisonic muscle in you still, even now, trying to get you to pray it away, give it over to god, and even turning that over in your mind makes you laugh away the sting, the frustrated tears, the way he made you feel and how that could be divorced from how much and how often he hurt you, what that consistent betrayal did to you in the end.

Or maybe it’s the change itself. The changing of colors, of minds. Taking something from one form to a very different other, and to be, somehow, surprisingly okay with it in the end, if that’s what it’s going to be for now. Because it’s as much the final shot as it is the repeat, over and over again, of that shot. It’s curling your farewells into the burning, till it’s all just goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.

The Dead Friend

The dead friend shows up like a glitch in a poorly-tested video game, clipping through walls, lagging, animation wonky. He’d look real enough in a freeze frame, but in motion the physics are just off.

The dead friend shows up wearing the jacket he wore when he became the dead friend. The jacket is thick, and woollen, but its fibers cannot adequately absorb the blood from the dead friend. They were made for other things.

You can’t seem to get the attention of the dead friend, and you’ve tried everything. All that DF is capable of is to carry out glitched animations, cycling through the keyframes until he can start the next animation.

And here is the dead friend now, sitting on an invisible bench, talking into an invisible phone, asking inaudibly for help. And you can try to sit on this invisible bench with your dead friend, can fall back and onto the ground. You can crouch down beside him, get right in front of him, attempt a lip-read, wave in front of his eyes, call out to him. You can do whatever you’d like, but he won’t notice.

Your dead friend will come for you in the liminal states, too. Don’t think it will only be when you’re out and about. He will sit on your chest like some sleep paralysis demon you’ve seen paintings of, but you will only see the whites of his eyes, will only hear his underwater voice of regret, not words but still intelligible, because regret can never adequately be expressed in words anyway. How would you even begin?

Your dead friend has been dead long enough where the experience of being a person is clearly fading from his cellular memory. He has more in common with the fog coming up off the hills during your morning walks, sunlight breaking up the view through car windows as you pass, thinking always that you’ve seen him, that he’s seen you, that there is a way out of this paroxysm of grief.

Or maybe he’s not the fog, not the wind, but what’s traveling through it. A dream, something that’s been coming back night after night. Your friend is a kite floating on the wind. You are holding the string that is tethered to his foot. All of him has been hollowed out. He is paper-thin, and empty, and his eyes are holes that wind can get through if it must. You look up and the string you hold is tethered to two other strings. They connect to his arms, to the spots once cut, tethered to the places that untethered your friend from this world.

In the dream, you’re not sure how you know that things will be okay eventually, but there is this deep, all-abiding sense that that will be the case. You can bring your friend down and out of the wind, collect his string, and walk him back home when the conditions are no longer right for flight. You can both go back home.

Kinds of Stained Glass

Some days he felt his memories had been implanted in his skull, injected from somewhere near the base. It would at least explain all of the headaches. Makes the urge to drink a foreign entity that doesn’t arise in him. Something he picked up from another lifetime, one he can’t remember. Angling down and into sleep is languid and painful, like dipping toes into scalding water, then feet, then shins. He gives in sometime in the second week of this.

When he comes to again after so much time without it, one more big binge, he can almost remember the name from before. Rather the designation. To be held captive by drink is to not be alive, not really.

In bleeding early mornings he is alone. Times when his head will burn and the urge will come in like rolling sick deep in his belly, hands on knees, collecting air and hoarding it in his lungs. An image: big splasher flopping on a pier, gaggle of children huddled around it, in semicircle, watching. Waiting for it to die, and not knowing what they’ll do once it does.

The permutations of who he could be and could’ve been, dancing around him in the early afternoon, dew burnt off already, and he’s got years on his mind, ash in his hair, and he’s weighing himself on a scale he knows isn’t accurate but which he uses anyway. It’s just something he can’t seem to part with.

He’s trying to live in a way that will let him remember, after all this time forgetting. He’s trying to be a person again.

When he opens the blinds in the morning, he half expects to see the crowded block he used to live on, halogen lighting blinding at night, tracking the paths of strangers and their shadows coming in and out of view, when life wasn’t a series of days to be crossed off. He thinks he can see himself now, over there, just past the window. Can see, yes, the shape of unkempt hair, the mop of it, can figure out the era from this mop, estimate his age, through the window, and the whole block is lined with versions of himself at different ages, different branching pathways. “All the varieties of me that there might be.” He couldn’t really feel himself coming alive anymore, is what it had come down to.

He fell away into the bottle again, and when he came back to he was flat on his back in a bathtub that wasn’t his, shower curtain as blanket, and the light was on, and today’s repeat mental word was haggard. Haggard, and the songs his brain gave him, wanted him to sing, at least hum along to, and all the lyrics had to do with failing, falling, losing some intrinsic part of you in all that darkness. The way the water felt when it sputter-spilt out of limescale shower head was something like baptism, and there’s another image, of communion he’d refused after so many years of taking it, sitting in a pew he’d never sat in before, letting the late melody of half-forgotten hymns wash over, and the way to forgetting is the opposite direction of forgiving.

He goes back every now and again, to his old town, course charted, cautious turnings, changed directions, taking a roundabout way to get to his old block and only upon getting there realizing that he did it to avoid the old church. Of trying to remember these call-and-response words that they gave you there, of all the prayers and songs and affirmations that can be repeated like ingredients from an old recipe, rote memorization, and he’s pouring every bottle he’s got down the drain, throwing the last of them against church wall, and the spray that explodes on the side and even onto the window, a different kind of stained glass, and to be inside with the pain is like being an observer of an observer, a neuronal game of telephone you can never quite make sense of. He’s going to the broken bottle and grabbing a long shard, checking the way it looks against the smooth draw of flesh. Breathing. He is breathing now.

And when he’s done and it’s finished, there are carvings in the body of the old priest’s car. Words, and scratches, and reminders, all for him to find later. Something he wouldn’t forget.

Things will get better.

I want a time travel story like the thing that just hit me. I don’t want travel to dinosaur times or prehistoric man, although that would be cool. I don’t want splintering realities or historical hijinks or grandfather paradoxes. I want a book to appear, dog-eared, in the bottom of eighth-grade-me’s backpack. I want him to see his name on the cover and to wonder about what might be inside, what might be in store. I want him to sit, cross-legged on the floor in late-night TV glow, turning pages, reading his own words from fifteen years in the future. I want him to fall asleep with that story flickering through his mind’s projector, and a repeat message like a nightly mantra:

Things will get better.

Things will get better.

Things will get better.

They already have.

On Making It to Thirty

I think I one day just realized that despite what I’d expected, what I’d planned for, and what I’d even done, I was going to make it to thirty. Probably much older than that, even. I was going to live, and I was going to keep on doing so for the foreseeable future.

I’ve had a number of traumatic experiences in my life. I’ve looked at the place where my skin used to be on one side of my face, erased by cold pavement and hot friction after being dragged by a coworker’s mom’s minivan. I’ve tended my torn skin, a melange of oranges, reds, cautionary yellows, inspected empty hair follicles on my hand, purple, waiting to bud but not yet given the instruction. I’ve seen crisscross stitches like Frankenstein effects sprouting from both arms, black, blue, covered compulsively by gray hoodie. I’ve been wiped clean by the January cold of the Chicago River, spitting out cold, breathing out cold, barely alive. I’ve felt the animal fear-then-acceptance of near-death, sat in quiet waiting for it, then watched as it passed me by. I have, in my past, suffered.

So what do you do with trauma when it’s accidental, after it hasn’t been for so long? When it wasn’t something inflicted on you or something you inflicted on yourself? When it just was? The clouds shifted through the sky, the water refracted sunlight, and This Thing Happened? With each traumatic injury, I find myself getting into old mental tracks, inhabiting constructs I thought I’d ditched, letting the all-encompassing black come back and into my heart, until it’s the not-living of PTSD, the racing heart rate while sitting on the couch, the no-sleep nights, bleary-eyed and floor creaking into the kitchen, staring out the window, checking the microwave clock and being stuck between sleep that isn’t sleep and wake that isn’t wake. To be traumatized is to not be a part of your life, or any life really. It is to not be living, even while you’re taking in air. It is to be stuck in your own shadow and to not know if you’ll ever again be who you once were. At least that’s what it’s been like for me.

But this latest traumatic experience. It wasn’t as bad as the others, relatively speaking. My foot went under the lawn mower while cutting the grass. An accidental slip, then contact with the blade, then the realization, checking the wound, hopping upstairs and into the house, waking my partner, and having her dial 911 as I slowed the bleeding with a towel, already streaking and dripping it onto our nice wood floor. It was the evenness of my voice, no panic, just matter-of-fact requests, questions and answers when the paramedics came and applied a tourniquet. A simple, easy trauma.

With trauma, though, the drip brings the deluge. It was the bleeding toe, yes, but it was also the open arms, the icy cold, the engine roar as face contacted pavement and kept going. It was all of these experiences that have nearly killed me, together, all at once. It was pain in the chest at the memories, tingling in the left arm, and remembering that panic can mimic a heart attack, that just because it’s “in your head” doesn’t mean it’s only just. It’s more complicated than that.

As I sit and recuperate, thankful that it wasn’t worse, grateful that all my toes are still attached, I breathe out these variegated traumas. I watch them turn to something manageable, like dipping willow fronds in late summer breeze, chittering, ever-present, but ignorable too. Something to be left alone or heeded as the situation calls for.

There is nothing else to say. You survive, and you keep surviving, and then one day you are living. You can inhabit your body again. So I chart the timeline that’s gotten me here. I think of alternate realities where I didn’t make it through each of those traumas, branching pathways to new realities that continued on without me. A branch ending at five years old, another at sixteen. Still another at twenty-five. All of the ways I could’ve gone, but I didn’t. The unreality of surviving. The dissociation. And yet still being here after all of that. Too stubborn to leave this world just yet.

I’ve made it to thirty, and I can finally, honestly, proudly say that I’m happy to be here. I’m glad I made it.

Dry Time

Take things day by day is something they tell you when you’re visibly heading toward a future without days. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just weird that now that I actually want to be here, the entire world is crashing down around me. I go in the backyard, take a few laps, try to clear the sour taste from my mouth. When I inhale, there are notes I never sensed before, little hints of neighborhood post-crisis, and the birds are singing at night now. I’m putting down words, drinking down tea, lining up my queue and working through. I’m taking things as they come, another favorite from back in my therapy days. Scenes play out in my mind’s projector, flickering at twenty-four, showing what I’ll look like at forty-eight, then ninety-six, shuttling through the seams of life till I am the last person out in the world, streets empty, grass clear and tall, and all of the things that used to matter so much are no longer a concern, I’m just carrying on, ever-forward, designing and desiring times like these, as chaotic as they might be, even so, letting them be and become what they will. Counting each day down and watching in eon-time, using the distinctly human gift of forward-thinking. See the sprouts grow, reach their predetermined top, come back down once again, as the human rockets buzz and hum around, appearing and disappearing as the sun yo-yos up ahead, first up then down then up again, stars shifting, spinning the sky in time, and I am here again, all at once, locked in a painfully slow retelling of a life I’ve already lived and seen. These are the things that make up a life, reduced to their core functions, and here are all the rooms you’ve entered, the ones you can never enter again. Here are the people you have seen, none of which you can see right now, some of which you might never see again. Here is the great abiding grief that accompanies the ones who’ve already left you, the ones yet to leave. Here are all of the things you can feel, dry now, because you are sober and will stay that way no matter what, these things you’re allowing yourself, maybe forcing yourself, to feel. Here are all the things that make up your altered, segmented life, the segmented lives of everyone right now. Because there is no going back, and you’ve seen that for some time now, since this whole thing began, but quarantine wasn’t the beginning of the change. It was already shifting, imperceptibly, by degrees so small that you could scarcely notice. You are really alive here, even now. There it is. You’re even breathing, taking down that water, letting light refract and strike the wall behind you, picture-smooth, rippled grooves like vinyl as you wake and wait for the day to stop hitting. And here it is, as it is, right now in this perfect, terrible moment. In this snapshot that is all there is but not all there ever will be, and that’s okay.

The Idea of You

I put the idea of you into a small locket that I’d never worn before, closed it up and wore it around my neck weekends before we couldn’t go anywhere, when I would go down to the things that were happening in the city that had been mine but was no longer, so I could let it glint a little in the sunlight before coming back home. I polished and shined the idea of you weekly, or rather I polished and shined the thing that contained the idea of you. I put it on my night stand before going to bed and smoothed out its chain on waking, set it down to rest just above my heart and watched the way the LCD screen on public transit went haywire, announced that the next stop was a series of incomprehensible pixels. I painted the idea of you in a self portrait after you went away, refused to take it off for the painting because it would be there if I weren’t painting, so it had to be there if I were. I sprinkled the idea of you onto the surface of my morning coffee and stirred it in so I’d have a taste of you for the rest of the day. I put the idea of you in between the layers of all of my dresses, one after the other, till I couldn’t be sure where I ended and the idea of you began. I clawed your name off the mailbox and poured isopropyl alcohol on it and set it ablaze for a flickering blue-fire moment in quiet darkness. It erased any trace of your letters. I put you into the cleanses that I drank morning after morning, intoned the shape of your face as toxin to be purged, rinsed it down the sink like the stubble shavings you’d leave behind every other day. I practiced saying all the sentences you’d shush, the barbs left unspoken if not unearned. And there were the gowns I couldn’t afford but which I would try on, looking for a version of myself I could be okay with, and the way that you didn’t want to talk or see me after you came, how you’d go in the other room and wait for my postcoital chase. I put you down in the poems of that time, clipped events and rearranged the names but kept the idea of you intact. Couldn’t do much else. In the end, I survived on pomegranates and apple cider. Thought I saw a glimmer of you in the pulp, but I decided to drink it down anyway. I was too thirsty not to.

The Ghost of Our House

Do you remember the way our shadows collected under the awning as the rain came out of pepto sky? And something like shadow puppetry as we waited for it to stop, boxes tucked under with us but getting wet at the edges? Or what about that night, with Twilight Zone sending gray light into our new place, TV on the ground, but the mattress was there too so it was okay? Or you wanting to christen the bed, the room, all rooms that were now ours, and how I breathed through the panic, yawned through it and said I was tired, maybe tomorrow? Do you remember how I suggested another color for the walls, and the way I stomached your disappointment because that was the color she’d gone with, the woman I was with before you, but I couldn’t tell you that just then? I’m sure you at least remember waking me up that night, telling me I’d been crying in my sleep, and was I okay, would I be okay? I remember being half awake, gathering the blankets under me, and waiting for the pounding to stop in my skull, acrid breath, and wondering if I was breathing underwater–did I ever tell you all that? I keep going back to that sulphur smell in our backyard, the one that wouldn’t wash away no matter how many times I dragged the hose over the lawn, and the way it seemed to have its own ecosystem, the trauma did, and I’d be out watering the lawn at 3 am; I’m sure you remember that? I wrote love letters without the sense of sight, and I hid them where I was sure you’d never find them, scrawled them out backwards so you’d have to hold them up to a mirror just to figure it all out, but I don’t think you ever found any? It’s that time I pulled up one of the floorboards, and I found a pit–withered, too large to be cherry, too small to be avocado, and you smiled a sleepy smile and said we’d turn it into a project before going back to sleep, do you remember that? And then how I spent a week in the attic, brought food and water for the journey and didn’t sleep for five days, and the way I spoke with you through the walls so it seemed like I could be the ghost of our house, and when you cried past the sleep, I tried to wake you with cooing songs? Or the way I floated down through the basement, edging past wires and pipes and nails to get at something like machinery-hum-quiet, and the more I focus on it, the more I realize you can’t see me, can’t really hear me, and I’m stuck here, without you? It’s seeing you come back home, dressed in black, finally putting my pictures away, bagging up my clothes, and wondering: Will you remember me?