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.

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.

I’ve Started a New Novel

The day after I graduated college, back in 2014, I started writing Here’s Waldo. Today, the day after moving into a new place with the love of my life, I started writing The Brother We Share. This will be autofiction, a novel that tracks my suicide attempt in 2016, only in this version of events, I didn’t survive. It’ll focus on my brothers and my friends who became brothers. It’ll be a story where my younger brother CJ found Here’s Waldo before I’d been able to finish it and decided to turn it into this book instead, a hybrid of that story and the intertwined lives of my friends, family, and I. I cannot express how thankful I am to be here and to have the life and the opportunities that I now have. Life is absolutely precious, and while this book will be hard to write, it’ll also be necessary for me. Thanks so much to all of you for supporting me on my journey, and an immeasurable thanks to the folks who kept me alive when I was barely hanging on. None of this would’ve been possible without you.

Start From One

The last time I made a big, personal, maddening, heartening, and major life change like this, I felt like I had no way out, no alternative, and it was this or nothing. It’s not nearly as serious this time around, just something I really want to do for myself, and that’s both a relief and an anomaly. It’s always been that I get hooked on things easily, and it used to be that I’d get hooked on all the wrong things, ballooning in weight and stress, pre-diabetic, high blood pressure, eyes and mind myopic and bloodshot, stuck in behavior loops that seemed out of my control, dangerous and destructive, and the genuine belief that my time was running out, that I was living on borrowed time and it’d all be over soon. Unsustainable living like an engine sputtering and stuttering in the cold, smoke and fumes signifying something I didn’t want to see or acknowledge. It’s true that you can get addicted to pain and hardship, to despair, and that when you’re in that headspace, the notion of getting out of it is at best laughable and at worst the enemy of the disease you now find yourself affected by. It’s a parasite, a self-serving organism that feeds on your insecurities and doubts, your justifications and hollow ameliorations. And then you get the double-edged sword of talking about it, of sharing this struggle with others, which is especially dangerous when you’re still in the middle of it and everything you see and hear is a portent of either doom or salvation. You run the risk of turning yourself to salt by looking back that much, and there’s no sense in rewriting a story you haven’t finished yet. But now I’ll live with these feelings, these experiences and lessons learned, a lifetime covering every genre–from horror to mystery, mystery to drama, drama to comedy, always switching from one to the next, but it’s a slipstream existence, with genres bleeding at the edges, and the punchlines don’t get a laugh till it’s years later and you’ve achieved the required time and distance from the joke, till you can see how perfectly it was crafted. But there’s always that potent, monolithic, very human ability to start from one. To go back to the beginning and try again. I’ve recreated myself over and over again over the years, to the point where the me from seven years ago is unrecognizable from the me I am now. A Ship of Theseus paradox I didn’t know would happen but which I now welcome. Any rebirth requires a prior death, a doing-away of what was before to make way for what could be.

Old Habits Die Hard

Sometimes I feel like I’m making up for lost time even though I know that, realistically, I’m working myself to the grave, and that I’ve already justified my seed again and again and again, and that I continue to do so, that I proved my point years ago and now it’s all just verging on masochism. I know that. But old habits die hard, and if I’m not hurting myself physically, then I guess this is just the next step down.

I convince myself daily that this pain is okay, that it’s useful, that the suffering I’m charting now is a “grind” where in years past it was much more destructive and purposeless. And that’s true, I guess, to an extent, but I’ve never been one for moderation, so I clock 50 hours in a week and then write stories like these and craft feature screenplays, novel manuscripts, edit the work of other writers, start investigative journalism projects with local professionals, defining myself not by inner terrain but by output, by outward progress. The inner terrain bleeds out, anyway–it can’t help but bleed out. And then I sit in the dark, willing sleep to come so I can do it all over again the next day. Make no mistake–I love my life and the people, places and things I now find within it. I just haven’t given myself time to rest.

I feel I’m guiding myself by the same principle that I did when I was self-harming, only now aimed toward a productive end. I don’t know if I’ll live a long life, but now that’s chalked up more to adverse family medical history than by a potential suicide I once felt compelled to see through to the end.

And I still have trouble accepting help, and I still have trouble taking care of myself, because I lived an entire life of not doing so, of feeling like I was living on borrowed time. I don’t want to live that way anymore, and I know that it’ll take time and effort to undo habits of the past, but at least the intention is there. You can’t do anything without right intention.

I guess the thing that gives me hope most is that I’m being honest about everything now. I know that I’m exhausted, that I’m burning myself out. I know why I’m doing it, and I know I need to stop. And yet I find myself here, at this keyboard, typing up something new. Old habits really do die hard.

I think I’ll take next weekend off. I won’t work, won’t write, will do nothing but rest and recuperate. Because for once, I feel like I truly should, and for once, I feel like I actually deserve it.

 

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Slipstream Living

It’s slipstream living here, in the wake of Stonewall’s fiftieth, and I’m thinking of this year’s Pride, only maybe the third or fourth I’ve been to, it being as many years since I gave voice to something I always knew but tried to hide, maybe tried to ignore. And in going to these parades not knowing what to expect, what it would mean for me, if anything. Looking at people dressed however they wanted to be dressed, singing, dancing. The pageantry and glitter, makeup and candy. I was still self-censoring then, still outwardly heteronormative at all times, so I didn’t dance or anything, didn’t dress up. I wanted to, but I didn’t.

And the inevitable protesters, with signs reading “Born that way? Burn that way!” and “LGBT” spelling out “Let God Burn Them.” The initial disbelief that people like that still exist, then the realization of tangible, real-world intolerance, of something beyond the jokes and insults when I was a kid, when “gay” was synonymous with “stupid” or “bad,” when “faggot” was the worst thing you could be called. Something more sad, more dangerous. One of the protesters was there with his kid, the girl no older than 11 or 12 and already forced to spout the same soundbites as her father, looking like she didn’t want to be there but having no choice. Enforced bigotry. The strategy was split between two camps, generally: those who argued with the guy and those who refused to give him the attention he wanted. And that’s fine, commendable even, but I was raised to never back down from a fight, to always answer an insult–a vestigial behavior from childhood, where what was enforced then was a caricature of masculinity. Old habits really do die hard.

I want there to have been some big Rise Above moment for me, but there wasn’t really.ย  I got myself between him and the people he was trying to bother, and he casually used the word “faggot” as he argued his point, and all I could see was douche kids from elementary school, all I could think was to hit him, and if not for the strategically-placed cop standing next to him making sure no one did just that, then I would’ve.

I went to my first live performance of The Rocky Horror Show that night. I’d seen RHPS on VHS hundreds of times, then DVD when the technology changed, then midnight showings at theaters with shadow casts, but I’d never seen a performance of the play that started it all, and it just seemed like the right time to do it. Back at home, after Pride but before the show, my girlfriend was the one to suggest I show up with my makeup done, legit, like something Frank would wear. She’d do it for me. I’d like to say I jumped at the idea right away, but that wouldn’t be true. I brought up concerns like the makeup smearing when I’d put my motorcycle helmet on, that it might take too long, etc. etc. I was happy that Harmony poked holes in all my excuses. So I agreed, and sat for her, my face her canvas.

Being there among fellow fans, receiving their compliments and comparing our histories with Rocky Horror, none of them batted an eye at my makeup. If anything, they admired it. The actor playing Frank-n-Furter personally acknowledged me in the front row while singing “I’m Going Home,” and I sat there with tears in my eyes even though I’d heard the song a thousand times before. And then, when it was over, we all stood up for curtain call to join in on a reprise of The Time Warp. And being there, finally, with my makeup how I wanted, dressed the way I wanted, singing and dancing without a care in the world… It felt like coming alive.

 

Echo Love!

I have to say, it felt pretty fucking fantastic to read this email. ๐Ÿ˜ I’m happy to report that my creative nonfiction story “Enby Late Starter” was just accepted for publication in Echo, an imprint ofย @paragon_press. To say I’m excited is a severe understatement. You best believe I’ll provide linkage once this is live!