Old Moving Pictures

She said I talk like him, even though I never met the man. That I’m a lot like him. Her word was “disposition.” Ours were nearly identical, not the sharp contrast I always saw between my dad and I growing up. My grandma’s only surviving pictures of my grandpa are all black and white, an unfailing reminder of how long ago it was that he died, how much time could stretch between one life and another before common traits can pop back up again, out of the ether.

There are precious few photos of him, and the ones there are suggest a man who’s seeing beyond himself and the photo, maybe even into whoever’s looking. At least that’s the impression I get. How do you come to know someone you’ve never met, someone you’re apparently just like, even decades removed?

He was a dreamer, my grandma said. He was always coming up with new ideas, thinking of inventions or advances in technology that would soon come to pass. In the ’60s, when giant, boxy, wood-panelled, tube TVs were ubiquitous, he saw a time when TVs would be flat and wide, when they’d be able to display rich and vibrant color, and they’d be so light that folks could attach them to their walls, like pictures. He was a dreamer, my grandma said, but it was much harder for him to put those dreams into reality. He had all these concepts and plans, but he never seemed to have the time to work on them. There was always something to do, and he had the needs of his young family to think of.

I spent so long growing up piecing together the idea of who my grandpa was based on who my dad was. I hoped for a kinder, gentler version. Someone who drank less, if at all. A man with the loving kindness I saw in the precious few moments my father let it come through, and without the sudden bursts of anger that would balance them, the yelling, the railing against perceived enemies, the drunkenness and the fighting.

He died relatively young, of a heart attack. The knowledge that I’m only about a decade younger than my grandpa was when he died swirls in and pools somewhere between my chest and spine, tendrils out and settles deep in my stomach. I remind myself that grief is physical, and you can feel grief for someone you never knew. Someone you wish so badly that you knew.

Apparently, our similarities extended to our viewing habits. Well before the age of binge watching, he’d sit the family down in front of the tube for the latest episode of The Twilight Zone. His love for the show was deep, my grandma tells me, and I suddenly remember catching old re-runs late at night as a tiny kid, on my own. Then later, in the binge age, marathoning through an entire season in a day, till my inner monologue sounded a lot less like me and a lot more like Rod Serling.

I aspire to a lasting love like the one my grandma and grandpa had. He died nearly fifty years ago, and my grandma still talks about him as if he were here just yesterday. Her eyes still light up when she talks about him. She will love him until she’s gone, and beyond even that. Regardless of my own beliefs, of the Catholic faith that I questioned over the years and eventually abandoned, I have no doubt about that. There are some things that persist.

There’s only one surviving video of my grandpa, that I know of. It’s an old Super 8 that got converted to VHS and then later digital, so the quality’s not the best, and there’s the characteristic light flicker and jagged motion of old home movies from the projector era. It’s faded from light exposure, and worn, but there he is anyway, in motion, and living color, and if I take a journey into that wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination, same as Rod always said, I can almost see what it’d look like to see him in real life, right there in front of me. But for now he’s up there, on a TV that’s flat and wide, in the illusion of life that is a series of old moving pictures.

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.

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.

All I Need

Pretending there are any ideas other than this one, any places beyond where we find ourselves, now, trading traumas and swapping family war stories in the dark, under the artificial moon streaming in through the window, flies buzzing around it as it buzzes back at them, glowing orange, now red, now white hot, and we are all of us children stumbling around and searching for reason in all this fallow grace, this sickly daze that we’ve created for ourselves, this human sadness, a self-created void that’s as warm as a security blanket and just as well-worn, eating up the land, and I tell you about when I was small, so small I couldn’t talk but could watch, could see these things as they happened in my home, these horrible moments that shaped me into the person I am now, heal(ing)(ed) from these wounds, recounting them to put them in a glass box where they can be regarded like a plague contained, quarantined from its host once and for all, and I watch the way the light dances on your face as you lay down color on paper, something on in the background, but fuzzy around the edges, like a dream, and I’m similarly drifting in and out of sleep, with that nonsense thought process that comes along with it, saying things I can’t remember later but which I’ve needed to say, not to anyone but just in general, needed to speak these stories out loud so they couldn’t hold me hostage any longer, that’s what trauma is, a hostage-taker, laying claim to your body, your mind, your soul, your sanity, until it’s not anymore, until one day when you realize that you can function again, have functioned for some time now, and just realizing this is terrifying, because you don’t want to jinx it, don’t want to lose all the progress you’ve made, don’t ever ever ever want to be broken in that way ever again, and your breath hitches in your chest, vision narrows, it gets harder to breathe, and you have to go to the bathroom to catch your breath, and dry your eyes, and remind yourself, again, as many times as it takes, that you are okay, that you have been okay, and you will continue to be okay, and maybe this isn’t an exhaustive catalogue of post-trauma feelings, maybe it can’t cover it all, but it covers mine, even as I stand years removed from the trauma, years removed even from the most dangerous of episodes after the fact, as I enjoy peace in my time as they’d call it, writing and working and living and enjoying, I can see that this little parasite might always be there, might always squeal its insistence, but it’s a hollow cry, a desperation that goes unheeded, and I walk on into the night with nothing more than the stars and the moon to light the way, here in these hills, and that is, now, more than enough.

That is all I need.

Patience

As I write this, I’m listening to Tame Impala’s latest song, “Patience” on repeat. It’s the first single from an upcoming album that will break a four-year dry spell since their last one: Currents. You can listen to that song while you read this, if you want. “Patience,” I mean. Might help set the tone. Couldn’t hurt, at least.

I discovered Tame Impala during a Dark Night of the Soul of sorts, although of course I didn’t know it at the time. Denial works wonders, and we can never fully grasp the heavy shit we’re going through until we’re not going through it anymore. For me, it was being in a toxic relationship–one I’d sunken nearly a decade of my life into–with no way out in sight, and working at a job that was slowly chipping away at who I thought I was, who I thought I’d be. That and the onset of mental illness I’d been outrunning since my teens by engaging in compulsive, self-destructive behavior.

Short laps on foot around my work’s office building, at the time, maybe playing Tame Impala out of tinny phone speakers, listening to those songs of regret and loss (but hope) on repeat, alternating between that and placing calls to people I hadn’t spoken with in years, old friends I’d broken away from, trying to cling then to something familiar in the weight of all that Hurt.

Short laps growing longer, even during Chicago winters, bundling up and trudging through snow in boots, self-commentary becoming as biting as the wind, tears to clot my eyes in the cold and threatening to freeze, and having nowhere to go but going there with purpose anyway.

I fell, and when I did, I fell hard. In and out of the psych ward. Bandaged arms. Prescribed pills only taken at certain times for certain purposes. Relinquishing my dignity to get help, or so I thought, or so it felt. But going with it. Moving forward. Every day. Living life in stages and exercising (exorcising) patience.

Listening to those same Currents songs on repeat, writing out my story in fictionalized words that were basically the truth but which had been changed just enough to make me comfortable enough to share them.

But I don’t want to mask my words anymore.

So this song. It pops up in my YouTube notifications as I wake up to go to work, at a new job, in another state, a job I actually love. As I wake up next to someone who treats me right: an effortless love. As I have tickets sitting in my inbox to see Tame Impala in Asheville, in a couple months, for the first time.

It can’t be helped that I smile. All of this, all of this growth and change and experience. At the time, it felt like it took everything from me.

And yet all it really took was patience.