AP English

June 5, 2017
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We didn’t sit at the back of the classroom, though we were closest to the door. As the classroom was long and lean, we sat at the outer edge. The two girls on my left were new to Hawaii for their senior year of high school. I can’t remember if they were military kids, but that seems most likely. The blonde told us, on the first day, that she was from Texas, and the other girl, whose posture was so upright that she could only have been a ballerina replied shrewdly, “Have you ever noticed that the first thing you learn about people from Texas is that they’re from Texas?” And the blonde laughed and said it was true, and they were close friends in that moment and for the rest of the year.

We had AP English in the afternoon, and our teacher loved to fuck with our nerd tendencies. Our spelling test was a list of definitions and you had to know not just how to spell the answer but remember exactly what the word you were meant to be spelling was. There are, after all, many answers to adj. tireless. Once, when asked to respond to a Steinbeck story, the beautiful boy in front of me, who inexplicably called me “Malone” as though we were in a frat, said, “It gives me this overwhelming feeling that I can only describe as yellow. The landscape, the flowers, the woman, the entire story — just crushingly yellow.” And we all nodded, because he had captured it exactly.

I knew at the time that they were the smartest kids I had ever been in a room with: our valedictorian, and the five kids who were taking all seven of the AP courses available to seniors. Our teacher’s office was on the opposite side of the classroom, behind a partition, and when I had my first meeting with her, she took off the thickest glasses I have ever seen and told me she was grateful that any time I spoke, I prefaced my comments with, “Miss,” so that she knew who was speaking because she couldn’t see anything more than six inches away from her face. Posters of terrible hair bands covered her office walls; she was especially infatuated with Bret Michaels.

Later, in college, I realized that she treated us like we were already done with high school. That first month, she welcomed us all to the English Club, and assured us it was fine to declare ourselves English Club President for the sake of our college applications. That final year in school, I sat on the outer edge of everything. I dropped out of cross country, and didn’t even bother to try out for basketball. All year, I struggled with throat infections that ultimately led to having my tonsils out, missing two weeks of school, and losing 20 lbs. I was in love with a girl in college and the pull was always away, away, away.

Several nights ago, I had a dream about the girl who was best friends with the Texas blonde. I can’t remember either of their names. It’s been more than 24 years since I’ve seen them. I remember she was petite, her hair dark and stylish. She reminded me of Mary Poppins: pretty, bossy, upright, brusque, surprisingly funny. We sat next to each other the night of our graduation. And after the ceremony ended, under the football stadium lights, we were making our way to the giant M sign to meet our families and friends, when she gave me the most determined look. The stadium lights made everything dreamy, and we still had our caps on as we’d been forbidden from tossing them. Her dark hair fell down her shoulders, and beyond her the night held every possibility. We’d made it. We were done, at last. And I watched that look on her face as she suddenly sprang into my arms. Choreographed perfectly as though we had rehearsed it. Her face set, she sprang, and I caught her and lifted her up up up into the lights before slowly lowering her. She had her arms around me and dipped her head to my ear. “Have the most beautiful life,” she said, and then she kissed me.

I never saw her again. Not once until the dream. And I dreamt that moment exactly. I had forgotten that she kissed me. I had forgotten that I set her down and smiled at her, and she’d stepped back into the other Ms and vanished. It had been so dreamy at the time that I wasn’t even certain it was real. Have the most beautiful life. Have the most beautiful life. I wish I could remember her name. I wish I’d replied. And also I wish none of those things. She was so beautiful. So perfect. So light in my arms. Like a dancer.

Hundreds of people poured down from the stadium seats, and draped leis around our necks. Everywhere, the smell of flowers. Crushingly yellow.

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Talk talk

May 2, 2014
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The best advice I got when my kid was born was to talk to him. “Just tell him what you’re doing if you can’t think of anything else to say,” a nurse told me.

Language is important for brain development, of course, but there’s something much more basic going on here. You’re bonding with your baby by talking. In the same way prayer, meditation, or talking aloud to your pets lowers blood pressure and reduces stress, talking to your kid fosters intimacy.

You lean into them and talk. You sing to them. You cradle them and tell stories.

And how do babies respond? They watch you and listen. They touch your mouth. They repeat your inflections. They laugh and croon to you.

When he was big enough to ride in a backpack, he’d hold my ears while we walked. Constant contact. Touch points. You. Here you are. Here I am.

This is how I interact with my dogs too. And the gerbils and the hedgehog. I sing to them. I tell them about my wacky day. I ask questions and wait, sometimes, as though there might be an answer. This is how we love. We reassure with our voices, with touch, with eye contact.

You know this already because you fell in love by talking. You couldn’t stop talking at first, could you? There was never enough time to tell everything. To share all the stories. Suddenly it was morning again, her voice raspy, and later you’d understand it always rasps when she’s tired, or on the edge of a cold. Later there’s enough history to predict the future. But for now, you love that rasp in a new and tender way.

Like the daily walk from school with the kid.

“Oh,” he says, “so now you’re too cool to hold my hand?”
“What? That’s not a thing. There’s no such thing as too cool to hold your hand. You were holding your bag and I thought –”
“I shifted my stuff so I could hold your hand,” he says, and reaches to you again.

I just stood there and felt that. I still do.

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Crisis in reflection

April 25, 2014
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Four years ago I was a train wreck. I couldn’t sleep, had stopped eating, and was powering my way through the world with so much coffee that I’d tremble whenever I sat down. I remember that time the way I remember childhood. I remember it with tenderness.

I suspect one of the worst things that can happen to you is that you get away with it. That you palm off consequences onto other people. That you miss out on the opportunity to unlearn.

Before the train wreck, I just kept patching myself together. This is good enough. As long as I can keep going, this is just fine.

But at some point you have to ask yourself: Do I want to go on like this? How can I go on like this?

Four years ago, a generous man told me that I needed to practice saying “no” more. No. You cannot thrash when you should be listening. No. You cannot lie here and call it enlightenment. No. This line is immutable.

Yes. The broken parts of you are more beautiful than the clockwork parts. Yes. You are enough. Yes. Love is your favorite cradle. Yes. Bossy girls are fucking hot.

A crisis is an opportunity to reevaluate. In what do I believe? Is this thoughtful, deliberate living? Your heart is a locomotive, capable of revolution.

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Now we are two

August 20, 2013
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My massage therapist advises me to notice. To notice the way that my body moves, the way I hold myself. To notice where I ache, and make no judgment.

“How is your body feeling?” she asks.

It’s a lovely question. It’s a question filled with notice. Notice how your right arm stretches up up up as though you were still a child flush with joy. Notice how your heart thrums and your breath rasps through you as you climb. Notice the way you slouch into your right side as your left hand takes over. Notice your jaw.


Notice your life. The walls and their artwork. The red of the bathtub and how your wife got that exactly right. The stretch of the little dog against you. How she opens and closes her mouth as though miming urgency. Quick! The front door! Outside! Quick! The food bowl! Dinner! Notice the old dingo. How, at nearly fourteen, she still sprints for you. Delight! Her body says. How she leaps each time as though she were not more likely now to crash. But you never know. You might as well leap as though you’ll make it every time. As though you don’t know how it’ll end.

Notice your child. The way he rests against you with the kind of love there is no word for. A love so particular to him that when you think of it, the descriptor you use is his name.

Notice your wife. How she holds the hedgehog cupped in her hands as though he were gold. How she touches you as she moves around you in a room. I am base, you think. She is home. Safe.

Notice your life. The way the dust dirties your feet as you walk through the neighborhood. The way the trees stretch and curl as though they want both — the sky and the earth. Notice your hands. The ache in the thumb. The pop at the wrist. The thin, delicate scars. What a gift you have, growing older. What gifts. Notice. Notice. Notice.

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Unplug and be free

March 15, 2012
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My site got hacked, and Mary’s phone broke, and you start to suspect that maybe you should play outside more. So I gathered kindling, stacked firewood. Thought about my heart. In graduate school, I went through a brief and poorly advised period of makeup wearing. Eyeliner. Mascara. Even lipstick sometimes. I worried about my hair. I fussed with it. The good news: I’m allergic to makeup. Around 10 p.m. every night my eyes would start watering, and they wouldn’t stop until I’d washed all the crap off my face.

During this same period of time, I went out to a sketchy bar with my fiction class, and my professor introduced me to the second out lesbian I had ever met. “You should know her,” he said. She told me later that the cross around my neck was the first thing she’d noticed. I needed every protective charm I could think of. I needed makeup and crosses and a guilt complex and gratuitous affairs. I needed alcohol. I needed shields to keep myself from sleeping with girls. I needed to be a girl. Like, a real one, with a hair style and particular shoes to go with particular outfits. I was so afraid. I was afraid to be noticed. I was afraid to be seen. And so I wore the disguise I thought everyone wore. Don’t look! I’m just like you!

In 2003, I joined a lesbian book club, and after several months, a woman in her fifties said, “This is the only place where I feel safe.” It was heartbreaking. It was a terrible thing to contemplate.

Where are you safe?

You can strangle your own heart. You can shout so loudly that you overwhelm your best instincts. Your truest instincts. You can convince yourself that you aren’t miserly, that the poor are the ones who are greedy. That they want, for nothing. That they want for nothing. Isn’t it enough that you work hard? How can you do more than you already do?

How tight is the grip on your heart? When was the last time you held onto somebody and really let yourself feel loved? When was the last time you held onto somebody else to keep them from falling off the planet? Noise and distraction and shields and under it all, I remember my heart. This stubborn heart that just doesn’t learn. It defies me all the time. It ranges wherever it wants and comes back whenever it chooses. It loves in defiance of good sense. It loves the girl I tried to cloak in makeup and crosses. It loves the men who hate me. It goes on loving as though it has no choice.

Where are you safe? You aren’t safe, friend. You aren’t. You are here to risk. You are here to live. You are here to feel things and be burned and be happy and be miserable. You are here to fuck shit up. And be beautiful. And be ugly. You are here to hurt people. And apologize. And change. You are here. Right fucking here. To love as though you have no choice.

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February 29, 2012
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We’d been left in the car — a common occurrence twenty-seven years ago — and he’d taken the keys, despite the cold, to run into the post office. From the front seat, I watched a bent old woman amble down the staircase, cross the sidewalk and then slip under a parked car. I smashed my head against the window trying to see what the hell had happened to her. She slid from sight like a sheet of paper.

Though we weren’t allowed to leave the car, we did. We ran out — 10 and 7 — shouting for someone to help and the poor woman was scooted out by two men. She seemed shocked rather than injured. It isn’t heroic to orient yourself in the direction of trouble. To hurry toward someone injured or crying out. In fact, I don’t understand how you can go on, walking, as though you can’t hear suffering. I don’t know how you can watch a child wreck his bike and not check on him. I don’t understand how you can hear a baby cry, and not raise your head to listen. Alert. Watchful.

Civilization doesn’t work if we pretend to be disconnected from one another. If we pretend that your suffering is your own and has nothing whatsoever to do with me. A culture of reluctant witnesses. We were children. We couldn’t have gotten her out from under the car. But that isn’t the point. The point is that we brought help to her. That we kept a contract we didn’t even know existed: even strangers are our neighbors. They matter the same way that we matter. We don’t have the terrible task of determining who will live and who will die. And so we should behave as though we might all be saved. I don’t mean by some divine mercy. I mean by each other.

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July 4, 2011
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Even eating a brownie, across the table from me, he’s not OK.

“Do you want to tell me?” I ask.

“I can’t say,” he says.

“How’s the brownie?”

“I like it,” he says.

“Do you know about reputation?”

He shakes his head. “What is it?”

“It’s this story that some people believe about you. Like in Harry Potter when some people believe that he wants to be a hero so badly that he makes up Voldemort returning and killing Cedric Diggory.”

“So it’s a lie.”

“Sometimes. Or half truths. Harry is a hero, but he’d rather just be a regular kid, like Ron. He’d rather have parents and play quidditch and be ordinary. He doesn’t want some lunatic trying to kill him.”

“I see.”

“Maybe you’ve heard family doesn’t matter to me. Maybe you worry that you can do something, that you can be unkind, and I’ll be angry and never want to see you again. Maybe you worry that something will happen and I won’t love you anymore.”

He is crying now. The tears down his face and into his brownie. What if we lose our mothers? If there is a monster in the dark, that is what it eats, it eats our mothers.

“That cannot happen,” I tell him. “Who do I love more than planets?”

He points to his chest, and keeps crying.

“Who do I love above all things?”

“Me.” His voice breaks on the small word.

“You’re having a hard time.”

“Yes,” he says, “I am.”

“I love you more than pie. More than chocolate with walnuts and caramel. More than water.”

“More than peanuts.”

“Peanuts are gross. I don’t want to talk about peanuts.”

“You love me more than them. Say that.”

“I love you more than peanuts. I love everything more than peanuts.”

“Not mites.”

“Or squirrels. No, you’re right. But I love you a lot more than peanuts.”

“I’m having a hard time,” he says.

“It’s OK to have a hard time. It’s OK to cry and be sad. Crying is just what happens sometimes.”

“I love you more than Lady Gaga,” he says.

“Yeah. Yeah, totally.”

“I love you more than you love me.”

“Not a chance, punk.”

He has the same worries I have, which is probably why I recognize them. Family. You can lose your family. You really can. Out of meanness and disease and accident. From habit. From neglect. You can lose them while you’re hanging on. You can lose them while you’re letting go. There is that hungry monster in the dark. Waiting until you’re not looking. Until you’re tired. Until you’re certain that you’ve never been quite this happy before.

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Faux power

November 12, 2010
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Mary works as an inpatient addiction counselor. This week the clients had a secret-keeping exercise. Each was tasked to write down every secret she’d kept since entering treatment. They were separated while they wrote out their lists. Usually it’s a purifying exercise. A chance to be wholly honest and let shit go. This time, a tight group kept their secrets, and since they essentially ran the house, they expected everyone else to keep their secrets too. Not so much.

The subsequent explosion of megaton drama is the clearest case of faux power outside of playgrounds and lunchrooms. Why is it that women have been raised to believe drama is power? “She was saying shit about me to SueBeth and MaryJane.” “She iced me out.” “She told everyone I’m a bad mother.” Blah fucking blah. Coupling. Secret keeping. Rumormongering. This isn’t power. This is drama. And drama is the saddest faux power around. It’s the province of covetous underlings and tyrants.

When you’re authentically powerful, you don’t need to threaten or trash talk. You don’t need to be divisive, or splinter your social group.  You don’t need to kick anyone around. Healthy relationships don’t have secrets. (This is not to say there aren’t confidences. Different animal.) Or triangles. Drama is busy work. It’s a fucking mire. What I want to say is this, you don’t have to participate. Seriously. If the play isn’t fair, or decent, learn to separate yourself from the bullshit. That’s a power exercise.

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Open Letter

November 3, 2010
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You still have my first letter, and so you probably remember it better than I do. But what’s more important, perhaps, is what isn’t written. Not in any of them. I was bereft before I met you. Convinced, at last, that I’d always be alone in my relationships. They were sound and fury. Years of sea in every direction. And I didn’t tell you then how skeptical I was of olive branches. Of doves. I didn’t tell you that parity couldn’t exist. That strength would never be reinforced. Only coveted. Only taken by coup or petulance.

I was in a courtyard when I saw him. The pirate with blue polished nails. He told me I’d met a true partner. He said it. That we’d be level. Equals. No one looking down or up.

What I want to tell you now is that he didn’t convince me. You did. A relationship I’d never have to settle for, or be restricted by. Do you see what you’ve done? What you’ve brought me? I believe. I believe in parity. In reinforced strengths. Not the ideal, but the habit. To wake every morning to you. To a life of teeming potential. Relentless joy. Years ago, a girl walked into a bookstore. How could I know she was a beacon.

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Who hasn't left an exoskeleton?

August 25, 2010
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No one remembers the girl who made improbable
speeches. She’s like those locust shells
she used to find on trees in Missouri. A relic
to rival the Sex Pistols.

In August, the scars hurt a bit more. School kids.
The cycle relentless. I meant to achieve something
definitive. Wall hangings. An entire bookshelf of my canon.
I’m probably kidding.

What is the ego for anyway? To spurn us?
Do we have it
for absolution?
I think I am more fish now
than mammal. Comfortable in cold, sunken places.

Sometimes just being alive makes me feel like a soldier.

My devotion alternates between simple and searing.
How often can I go on
disappointing you?

If I were straightforward, I’d have a slogan.
Literal and plain as farmland.
Catchy and charming as pop songs.

It’s just love, isn’t it?
Common as glass
bottles. So why the fissure? Why the luminous sheen?

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