Thursday, November 19, 2009

Ode to Joy

I’m reading, and loving, Arianne Cohen’s The Tall Book. According to Cohen, “talls” react to their height in one of two ways. They wilt under all the attention their height garners them, holding up the wall at parties, slouching their way through life, or they develop the large personalities people expect to accompany their size.

Cohen, naturally shy and bookish, forces herself to become larger-than-life. Even though I’m not a super tall, 6’3” is in the ninety-eight percentile of height. I empathized with Cohen.

So let’s consider Cleopatra. All 5’1” of her.

When I’m out and about with Cleo, a line from Ani Difranco's “Evolve” always runs through my head:

I walk in stride with people / much taller than me.
Partly it’s the boots / but mostly it’s my chi.
Cleo keeps up. She also fills a room naturally, in a way I never could. She gets toe-to-toe with strangers. She moves through life without fear, using her cute-as-a-button face and petite frame to excuse behavior which would come across as pushy and aggressive in someone my size. I love that.

“Oh, I get it,” a crackhead who wanted money for watching Cleo’s car outside a club one night drawled, “She’s the one in charge.”

“Absolutely,” I told him.

The whole petite, cutesy, childish thing works for Cleo, but it’s also only one facet of her. People who only see that will never know the woman she is, what it feels like to drown in those huge, dark eyes.

I can’t do an “Ode to Joy” (that’s what I had in mind, an Ode to Cleopatra) because I’m not Leonard Cohen. Really, I want to have written “A Thousand Kisses Deep” before he did. Parts of it, anyway.

Cohen fills an entire mead notebook for one song, a whittling process with which I’m not unfamiliar. Although Ming basically dictated herself to me, I’ve written thousands of pages for Scratch the Dead Places, what will eventually be a three to five hundred page novel. Most first drafts of my short stories are two or three times longer than the finished product. Keeping that in mind for my Ode, I just wrote free-form, pages and pages as they came to me, knowing I would burn most of them later to find the salvageable truths.

You know the one about a hundred monkeys typing on a hundred keyboards for a hundred years (or maybe it’s a thousand monkeys for a thousand years), how one of them would produce the complete works of Shakespeare? I felt like one of those monkeys.

I’m no poet. Still, even though I can’t put it on the page, poetry healed my heart. I never would have guessed.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Couple Years Back, Another One Bit the Dust

Growing up, my best friend Jason lived within easy walking distance of my house and even easier biking distance, two and a half blocks away. We waited at the same bus stop for school in the mornings, ate lunch together, messed around in the afternoons, shared dinner at each-other’s houses, had sleepovers. In summers, camping, biking, going to different playgrounds, gaming, and movies were common activities. People constantly took us for brothers; Jason called us identical twins born six months apart.

It’s safe to say we were Geeks. Nerd, dork, and loser all raise my hackles, but I can embrace Geek. Even the coolest people in the world geek out over something. The rock star with her model trains, the artist with his encyclopedic knowledge of orchids, the sports star with the screening room showing black and white films reel-to-reel. Since Jason and I were little more than a collection of odd obsessions like these, we were Geeks full time. Whether enjoying books, movies, music, candy, soda, games, school, or (eventually) girls, we brought the same level of obsessive, life-or-death intensity.

In eighth grade, Jason’s family moved and carted him off like luggage. My family didn’t own a car. He only lived forty minutes away but it may as well have been another world. For a few years, we saw each other when we could. Then life continued.

I lost my best friend when all the cliques had already formed, and I didn’t have the social skills to make inroads. In some ways, I never recovered.

I didn’t have another best friend until ten years later. George and I worked together at Starbucks. He was gay, hilarious, disheveled, and pretty. Shai Lebouf, if Shai Lebouf was tall and Cuban. He volunteered with developmentally disabled kids. He chain smoked. He collected dolls and action figures. He had five cats and lived with his boyfriend’s family.

When I lost my job, he and his boyfriend moved in with me and my wife. It was tight quarters - four people and seven cats in an apartment sized for two - but we needed their income to survive. Living together strained our relationship, but it was still strong. When I had no way to afford it, George used connections to get me a free flight back home for our week-long family Thanksgiving bacchanal. In fact, he got tickets for all four of us.

This grand gesture killed our friendship. George invited a childhood friend to come along. Meredith paid for her own ticket and flew separately. She and I did not get along one iota. Hate is a strong word, but our mutual animosity skirted damned close. The trip veered between exhilarating fun and torture. When we returned home, Andi and I asked George and Jose to move out. We loved them, but we were afraid our friendship would die if we continued living with them.

They claimed to be fine with this decision. We continued being friends, although we didn’t see each-other as often. Then George and Jose broke up, and George moved in with Meredith. I imagine she spent her days speaking ill of me. George and I grew further apart. The last time we got together it was stilted and horrible.

The loss of that friendship was more devastating than losing Jason. High school was terrible and I didn’t have the best home life, but I was young and I survived. Miami is a tough town to do alone. It feels like a party is always happening somewhere, and if you’re not part of it then you’re just a loser. After George and I parted ways, I stopped trying to join the party.

Eventually, through whatever means these things happen, I found another group of friends. I was the oldest by several years, but I felt comfortable with them. I also had the good sense to appreciate them.

I particularly remember a trip to Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios in Orlando, the third year we’d gone. On Sunday, we had our traditional Cracker Barrel breakfast, pushing three tables together to do it. Bellies full, we talked over coffee and food sculptures made from leftovers, laughing until we choked. I stepped back for a moment. The late morning sun slanted on our table, horizontal blinds making ladders on their smiling faces. I realized I would never have a group of friends like them. So many coming together so often and so well, it never lasts. Others friends would gather around other tables, but not the same faces.

I’m glad that I took that moment.

One of the people at Cracker Barrel was Gabriel. Over a space of years, he became best friend number three. Gabriel and I mostly sat around and watched TV. Still, I was completely myself around him. He fit the bill in a way no one else did, and he moved to Seattle.

In My Big, Fat, Greek Wedding, the character of Ian Miller asks the actor Ian Gomez (on whom he’s based) to be his best man.

“I’m touched,” the actor Ian Gomez says. “I had no idea you had so few friends.”

In Tombstone, a stuntman who trained the lead actors in gun play asks Val Kilmer’s Doc Holiday why he’s doing all this for Kurt Russell’s Wyatt Earp.

“Wyatt Earp is my friend,” Kilmer / Holiday says.

“Hell, I’ve got lots of friends,” the stuntman says.

Kilmer / Holiday answers, “I don’t.”

Since my shared language with Gabriel has mostly been movies, I think using these shallow examples to express deeper emotion is appropriate.

It’s possible Gabriel had no idea I considered him my best friend. It’s even probable. The virtual age disconnects what we feel from what we express. In my case, compound that by my being a writer. To write that I love him is easy, and I’ve told him before, but I don’t know if he understood how much losing him hurt.

Moving has made him a better person. He taught himself to cook, he exercises, eats better, climbs mountains, and has become something of an environmentalist. I admire him for knowing himself. I admire him for his candor. I admire him for being the spark in a party that others gather around. He is my friend and I have missed him dearly.

Of course, a tiny, selfish part of me hates him for leaving.

I don’t know who my next best friend will be. I already know I’ll never have another friend like Gabriel.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Turning Point

Blogging is an odd contribution to my writing skills. If the differences between my first Bottega Favoritta post and the second are any indication, I’ve gotten better at it. I thank Andrea Askowitz and Lip Service for giving me the discipline I’ve needed to get my point across with fewer words.

A friend of mine who teaches at a private school of some note decried the state of his students’ papers. He tries to explain the importance of revisions to a sea of blank stares. His students’ confusion is the confusion of the novice writer: “You mean writing isn’t just dump and flush?”

In part, yes. Chuck Palahniuk even makes this comparison during his readings. He knows some writers believe writing every day is important to the craft, but he only writes when the urge is hot.

“Put it this way,” he says with a sly grin, “do I sit on a toilet, waiting until it’s time to take a shit?”

Of course, Palahniuk has eight books published. He can afford to court his muse however he likes. But to a novice, waiting for inspiration is just self-delusion. A hundred things will fill your day before you “find the time” to write. Once you’ve made the decision to be a writer, you need to write, every day, for at least a few years. Until you can just sit down and do it without waiting for… whatever. It’s just a job, a skill to be honed, not some mysterious lighting bolt from God.

Don’t get me wrong, dump and flush is an important part of the process. That’s why I began writing at five AM in the first place, before coffee, before breakfast, putting my thoughts to paper without judgment, as close to that waking-dream state as possible. I don’t rely on that so much anymore, although that’s still where my best new ideas emerge. Starting a fresh piece, it’s important to follow the muse.

Writing is revision. It’s setting your words aside for a time and returning to them with fresh perspective. Ironing, twisting, whittling. If you’re lucky, you may even have some readers you trust who won’t bullshit you about the weaknesses and strengths of what you’ve written. Don’t fall in love with your words; when people suggest edits, they’re right ninety percent of the time.

I like at least three passes at something before anyone reads it. This flies in the face of the blog, or at least the entries which are supposed to be a record of my day-to-day life. I revised the Leonard Cohen post three times in two days and didn’t lose much time getting it posted, but that’s rare. I like to take my time, which leads to some inconsistencies. I wrote Reflecting Pool with a mind for the next round of Lip Service some weeks back, but then decided it didn’t quite measure up. That’s why it has a little more behind it than some other posts, and why it sticks out as a throwback to the misery surrounding me when I settled into my new digs. Next thing you know, I’m developing feelings for Cleopatra.

If you’re reading these as I post them and they come across as contradictory, I apologize. But I need to revise.

Of course, people are full of contradictions. That’s part of what makes us fun. James Ellroy started his recent reading at Books & Books with quotes from T.S. Elliot and Eudora Welty, and called Don DeLillo's Libra a huge influence on his Underworld USA Trilogy. Later, he said he has no influences and never reads anything but his own work. For inspiration, Ellroy said, “I sit by myself in a dark room and brood.”

Now I’m pushing my blog into murky waters. What my style of posting does to the tone of “Sweet with Fall and Fish” can’t be helped, but the content is up to me. I’m dating someone special, and my instinct is to write all about it (within reason, of course). I’ve followed blogs which became profoundly boring when they try to be coy, posting without revealing too much.

How much do I write about what’s happening now? Do I take Cleopatra at her word that this blog is “my thing,” that it has nothing to do with her?

Even writing that question is odd. Shouldn’t I be asking her? Of course, she’d assure me to write whatever. We’d all like a secret window into what our friends and lovers really think of us, but what if she sees something she doesn’t like? Further, how honest can I really expect myself to be, knowing she’s reading?

Also, the creation of a relationship is largely the business of the ones creating it. If you’re curious, take a listen to Charlie Rich's Behind Closed Doors. For the time being, I’ll post praise where praise is due, but I’ll save my doubts for Cleopatra’s ears.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Story

Everyone loves to hear the story, told from lips which can’t stop smiling because they’re reddened with fresh kisses, below eyes shining with the glow of new regard. People love to bask in new relationships because everything is sunshine, rainbows, and lollipops. You’re taken back if you’ve been there, given hope if you haven’t.

We’ve worked together about a year and a half, Cleopatra and I. She’s an awesome coworker because she makes work fun. She’s responsible and always willing to help. She’s cool, laid back, and accepting, deflating stress and frustration with laughter. In Miami parlance, “Down as fuck, bro.”

I’ve never looked at her twice.

Why not? Well, I was married, stupid, what do you think?

I’m sorry, that was uncalled for. When the marriage ended, there was the age difference. Except one girl in high school, everyone I’ve dated has been older. One year, six years, ten years, twenty-four years. My wife was only two weeks older, but you get the idea. I prefer someone older, or at least in my age range. Eleven is just a number, but in years, that was a large enough number to make Cleo invisible in that way.

Consider another number: fourteen. This is our height differential, in inches. Remember, seeing women five nine and up makes my blood run hot. Strike two against Cleopatra.

At a barbeque several weeks back, everyone went inside to play a game we had no interest in playing, so Cleopatra and I stayed outside. I realized we’d worked together all this time but I barely knew her. I knew she was a single mother, but I didn’t know the particulars of the relationship. I learned some pretty horrific facts. Many try to reclaim their hardships for pity points; she didn’t. She wears the scars of her life with grace, not letting them affect who she is. We had a good rapport, and my respect for her grew.

Next week, she was one of the crowd who helped celebrate my birthday. She bought my ticket to “Where the Wild Things Are.” She moon-walked during a traffic jam in the parking garage. She drew a picture for me on a placemat at Fox’s lounge, scribbling an accurate Carole in seconds.

The following Monday while Cleo and I were drinking at The Bar, I thought I was picking up a vibe. A co-worker showed up before I could make a drunken move, a development I met with equal parts relief and frustration.

A few days later, Cleopatra invited me and another friend to Orlando for Halloween, a friend to whom I confessed my what if feelings. As I was praising Cleopatra, wondering if it was all in my head, this friend received a text message. She read it and her face lit up.

“I have to show you this,” she said.

It was a text from Cleopatra.

Before we road trip I must confess, I have quite the crush on Curtis.

I remember it word for word because I read it so many times that night. I stopped short of asking to have it forwarded to me, but not by much. I have mixed feelings about cell phones, but at that moment, telling my friend what to text Cleopatra, having her answers read aloud, Cleo clueless to it all, technology was my friend.

The next night we hung out after work again, with predictable results.

“Geez, you’re quiet tonight,” Cleopatra said.

Of course I’m quiet, I thought. I’m attracted to you, so I can’t talk to you.

Well, I’d been talking to her for months, so I forced myself back in that mode. This is your friend Cleo, I told myself, nothing to get nervous about. It worked, and we shared some laughs.

Saturday was a memorable night. From club to club, our friends did their best to leave Cleopatra and I by ourselves. I finally saw Churchill’s and Transit Lounge, places I’d heard tell of but had never seen. The venues barely registered. I was trying to work up the courage to kiss Cleopatra.

I’d read the quite the crush text. Cleo gave me signals all night which were the courtship equivalent of neon signs with letters three feet high. Example? She gave me half her beer at one point, telling me she was tipsy enough, but she’d hate for me not to have enough Irish Courage to “make my move.”

Still, I was paralyzed. Until five in the morning, when we ended up at my place.

“I’m staying with you,” she said. “It’s too long of a drive back home.”

Which it is, frankly.

“I don’t want to impose…”

“Impose isn’t the word I would have used,” I told her. “I promise to be a perfect gentleman.”

“I can’t say the same,” she said.

We giggled our way into pajamas and under the covers, still never having shared more than a friendship hug. We admitted the situation was awkward. What happened then? None of your damned business.

Okay, we shared a first kiss I’ll never forget. It was too soon for anything more.

I couldn’t sleep because her scent was so intoxicating.

The next day I spent with my head in the clouds. Staying up twenty-four hours and beyond, I should have been cranky and exhausted. Instead, the memory of an awkward night which ended so sweetly sustained me.

I have worries. Everyone at work loves her. If things don’t work out, I’ll be the douchebag who broke her heart. I could be taking one of the few reasons I enjoy my job – running into Cleopatra every day – and making it a point of awkwardness. I’m also afraid I’m Captain Rebound. My vulnerability amplifies her every move to Mach Q levels. I also haven’t met her son yet.

For the moment, I’m happy, and the more I learn about her, the more I want to know.

One day at a time, I tell myself.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Maria Show

Maria Clara Ferri has shown up in two stories of mine, “Drunk Talk” and “Happy Halloween,” and in one nonfiction piece, “Karaoke.” For a variety of reasons, some people can’t be contained on the page. There’s something about them which is beyond words, like trying to capture the beauty of dust motes in sunlight or a plume of smoke in a velvet room. Maybe your emotions about them are difficult to identify. Or maybe the difficulty is simply trying to describe something which needs to be experienced to be understood, like hearing their voice or feeling their skin. Sometimes metaphor helps. In any case, you’ll recreate these people as fictional characters again and again because they fascinate you, and you can’t pin them down.

We call Maria “The Maria Show.” The problem pinning her to page is that she’s too large. Her over-the-top personality – the kind which makes people comfortable using the word persona - can’t be captured by anything as trivial as words. Some people light up a room; Maria turns a room into a disco ball.

I’ve always enjoyed spending time with her, but during my separation she’s stepped up to blow the dust from the corners of my mind and shake me into action, she’s listened to my rambling phone calls and offered some of the best pieces of advice I’ve gotten. I’ve attached myself to her coattails, or rather the length of her flowing summer dresses, and my social life has blossomed by proximity. If Maria hadn’t kidnapped me a few weekends, I may have reached out to someone else, or someone else may have reached me, but more likely, I would have wallowed. I can’t imagine these last months without her to see me through.

And she left. She left Miami, and she took her charm, her laugh, her smile, her understanding, her candor, and all the wonder of The Show with her.

I wish her luck. With her twenties behind her, I hope she finds the man she wants. I hope she builds new friendships as deep as the ones she’s made in Miami. I hope she gets back all the happiness she gives.

And I wish Atlanta luck in trying to hold her back.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Carrie Called it the Za Za Zoo

There’s people you should date, people you want to date, people you end up with, and people from whom you should stay as far as possible.  It’s odd how seldom these categories overlap.

What is that spark of attraction?  More to the point, why is it?  Apart from nothing you can define, reason with, or manufacture.  It’d be nice and safe, and certainly easier, if we could bottle that spark, put it on a shelf, and forget about it.  I could get on examining my solitude, mending my broken heart with words and workouts, not letting my mood depend on outside sources.  In other words, how well I’m handling the breakup on a given day is directly related to hearing from my unrequited crush.  This is not healthy.  I know this.  I tell anyone who will listen (and now, apparently, anyone who will read, har-har).  Knowing it’s unhealthy doesn’t stop depression in the face of her silence, because the heart wants what it wants.

Sorry, I hate clichés, too.  Yet again and again during these past months, clichés have popped up to wag their fingers in my face.  Told you so, told you so, toldyou-toldyou-toldyou-so, they say.  One day at time, they say.  We grew apart, they say.  The heart wants what it wants?  Oh, just fuck right off.  But…yes, it does.  If I could pluck that longing from my heart and box it until I’m ready, how less dizzy my head would be, how even my emotional recovery, how neat and inhuman my heart.

Take it to another level.  Imagine pulling that spark from someone who doesn’t spark back and putting it someplace you wish it would.  I’m speaking of my friendships with some truly amazing women.

During my marriage, I often looked at these fabulous singles and wondered what’s wrong with the men in Miami.  Now that I’m single, I have two dilemmas.  First, the odds of a relationship working out are low. I value my friendships too much to jeopardize them on what if.   Second (and this is where the spark-in-a-bottle comes in), I’ve been in the Friend Zone too long.  I’m having a great old time with perfectly attractive female friends, and part of me thinks, my life would be so much easier if there was any sexual tension between us.  My dating life, at least.

Of course, sometimes you get lucky.  The spark sneaks up from an unexpected source.  Someone you never considered turns out to be exactly the person you need.  Friendship turns to flirting, laughing to longing, and there my alliterative comparisons run out.

I know it’s too soon.  I know it’s foolish.  I know there’s a reason people warn against rebound relationships.  I also think I’ve been miserable long enough.  I’d forgotten I used to be a joyful man.  The joy Cleopatra (not her real name, obviously) brought back to my life has lately felt like something more than friendship. Something like a spark.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Campfire Stories, November 2006

The sprawling branches of my mother’s side of the family are gathered around the traditional after-Thanksgiving bonfire in my Aunt Val’s backyard. AJ, my older brother by five years, and his nineteen-year-old son, Jason, are here as they are every year. My sister has a blood clot in her lung so she wasn’t able to make it, but her fifteen and sixteen-year-old sons Johnny and Steven are here. Johnny is at the age where he wants to be called John. Steven has one kidney so he’s banned from the Turkey Bowl, a fact he makes up for with a combination of martial arts and hunting. He’s also something of a Guitar Hero prodigy. By virtue of driving them up with us from Syracuse, my wife and I are in charge of them. They’re normally self-sufficient, but get them around the bonfire and suddenly it’s a challenge to keep them from jumping over.

AJ stops them with a story. He and fourteen other guys were camping and drinking and decided it would be a good idea to jump the campfire. That got boring after a while, so they upped the ante. "Let’s jump over it after it’s freshly stoked."  "Let’s jump over it after we throw on a fresh pallet."  Or two pallets. Or three.

“This guy goes up to jump it,” AJ says, acting it out in slow motion. “He slips and lands just likes this” - his arms are twin L’s and either side of his head - “face-first on a fire.” That camping trip ended with a drunken trip to hospital and a friend with third-degree burns on his face.

“Are you going to fall in?” he asks. “Probably not. Probably not ninety-nine times out of a hundred. But is it worth that hundredth time?”

The story stops Steven and Johnny from jumping.

It’s sad that my sister Cass can’t be here because my cousins are up from Florida for the first time in almost twenty years. Aunt Val is Mohawk Indian and Uncle Tim is Irish, but the Irish won when it came to naming their three boys: Shawn, Shane, and Shannon. The six of us were inseparable as children, but in truth being the youngest made me more of a hanger on. AJ and Shawn are eight months apart, Shawn having just turned forty and AJ waiting until March. I haven’t seen Shawn since I was thirteen, the year I grew taller than him to become the tallest in the family. He’s outgoing and personable and has become a great storyteller, like his father. The middle cousin, Shane, is the same age as my sister Cass. He’s the ladies’ man. Shannon, the youngest, is two or three years old than me. There’s hardly any difference between 34 and 36, but subtract a few decades and it’s a world. One eight-year-old versus five kids aged ten to thirteen. A ten-year-old versus a pack of twelve, thirteen, and fifteen-year-olds. You can do the math but you can’t measure the gap unless you’ve lived it.

More than our ages growing up, it’s a temperament, a feeling that I’m a sensitive soul born into a family of real men (truthfully, Shannon shares this same sensibility; he just blends better). It’s clear by the different stories we have.

Shannon asks AJ to tell the story about the time my brother-in-law took on four guys on Marshall Street. Marshall Street is on the hill at Syracuse University, a row of bars and pizza joints that caters to college students. Cass’s husband Eddie, Johnny and Stephen’s father, is a six-foot-one, two hundred and twenty pound ex-Marine. He sleeps naked with a machete under his mattress for home protection, but that’s another story.

We gather around eagerly.

“Yeah,” AJ says. “Four guys started some shit and Eddie beat ‘em up really quick.”

We’re all standing around the bonfire, waiting for more, but AJ’s already gone to get another beer.

“AJ, man,” Shannon says, “you need to work on your storytelling.  You got all these guys waiting around for something and that’s the best you can do?”

We all laugh.

“Well, that’s the story,” AJ says. “Four guys jumped us on Marshall Street and Eddie beat them up real quick.” His words run together, making it almost one long word.

“Okay, I’ll tell the story.” Everyone looks at me. I’ve never heard this story and have no idea what happened. By their eyes, they can’t tell whether I’m joking. “So AJ and Eddie are out drinking at 44's. It’s filled with all these jock douchebag frat boys, right? So these four guys start fucking with them, like ‘what are these broke dick old motherfuckers doing in our bar, blah-blah-blah-”

“Actually, they were throwing peanuts at us,” AJ says.

If you want someone to tell a story, start telling it wrong.

“It was this bar where they give you peanuts, and these guys were throwing them at us. We saw who it was in the mirror” - here AJ looks at Steven - “and your father went over and said something to them.”

“My father said something to them?”

Everyone knows Eddie is tough. By his tone, Steven is still surprised that his father is say-something-to-four-rowdy-dudes-in-a-bar tough.

“Yeah. So it ends up with the four of them and us in the alley. This one guy who’s holding the door open is like, ‘You’re boy just fucked up. These guys are off-duty sheriffs. He’s going to get his ass kicked.’ I’m like, “Yeah, you’re probably right.’

“It wasn’t even one at a time, they all just rushed him. The first guy, Eddie boxes him, takes him out with one punch.” AJ acts it out, holding up his fists in a classic stance, crossing a right punch over his body to pantomime how Eddie knocked a man out. “The second guy Eddie turns around and takes him out with a kick to the head.”

AJ doesn’t actually kick, he swings his body from the imaginary punch and lifts his knee to show us how it happened, one smooth, balletic movement.

“The third guy, Eddie just totally connected, laid him flat out. One punch.”

AJ lowers his body from the kick, bringing his whole weight back up into what looks like a vicious upper-cut. He finishes in the boxer’s stance.

“Eddie looks over at the fourth guy, and the fourth guy is like-” Here, AJ hold his hands palms out in the classic gesture of surrender. It’s amazing to hear, like something from a movie, made more amazing by the fact that it’s someone we know.

Eddie’s had four back surgeries. His damaged vertebrae put pressure on his spinal cord, sending constant pain down his leg and turning his foot into little more than a useless club. Three months ago, he got a handicapped tag for his car. He’s on full disability now. He’s afraid of the one fight he has left in him, what could push him to those circumstances, how easily his need to end it quickly could turn lethal.

This starts the fight stories. Shane and Shannon, drunk out of their minds, fighting two gym-muscle guys on the street because they bumped into Shane and made him drop his pizza slice. Shawn throwing a guy through a plate-glass window for calling him a faggot. Uncle Tim punched by a rowdy drunk he rousted from his bar, the subsequent beating Tim dealt which ended with Shannon cracking the drunk across the face and screaming, “Don’t ever hit my dad!” And so on, until the stories of violence are exhausted and there is silence, some of us watching the fire, some of us marveling at the stars overhead.

“Gee, I wish I had a story,” I say wistfully, and they laugh. I haven’t been in a fight since grade school, and that was me sitting on the school bus while a bully half my size punched me in the face several times. I had the inclination to punch back, or at least defend myself, but I didn’t have the will.

Their laughter makes me bold.

“This one time, a guy came into Books & Books and he didn’t have exact change . . .”

I let it trail off on a wave of their laughter. They talk about me grabbing the guy by his tie, beating him, turning into the Book Nazi and banning the guy for a year. No book for you, no book for you, they yell. 

Humor is the bridge I can build, the willingness to poke fun at our differences. Shannon is the funniest in our family, but I treasure the moments I make them laugh.

My brother can build an entire house from a hole in the ground. My nephew Steven can bow hunt and gut a deer. My cousin Shannon can lay a man twice his size flat in one punch. These are men who drink life in great droughts, who smoke life to ashes all the way down to the filter and look for more. They revel in each other’s company and in the company of men like them. They enjoy drinking and playing football and one-upping each-other verbally and physically.

I live my life behind a lap-top, alone in my room, listening to music and pushing the cursor across the page. They don’t understand how I can take or leave the Turkey Bowl, skipping this year like I skipped three years ago. A beer or two is enough for me while they rage toward oblivion. But we’re family, so we accept and love each other. We laugh together, play kick the can, look at the stars, and talk a lot of smack.

Their smacks are just more literal.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Reflecting Pool

The road is blurry. My legs are pumping hard, trying to get the bike home as quickly as possible. Breathe, I tell myself, breathe through it. Legs pumping hard. Get home, get home, get home.

I can barely see the staircase, my hands on the keys, the knob. I manage to get inside before the tears fall, barely. I pull my sweaty clothes off. I’m naked, sobbing on my twin daybed, wishing I was curled on the floor because the daybed feels too high and I should be curled in the corner but that would involve getting off the daybed and right now my body feels like lead and I’m crying too hard to move anyway so it will have to do.

I’ve been biking to work for two years. Both years, summer snuck up on me. The first year, I was biking home in July completely dehydrated, black flowers blooming in front of my vision under a brutal sun. Instead of taking it easy, my solution was to pump harder, to rush home before I passed out. I stripped and collapsed on the same daybed when it was just one of our two sofas, when we had three bedrooms and two and half baths, when there was still a we and an our.

How did that man become this man, in such short order? He was wiser than the first dehydrated biker I was last summer. Obviously not wise enough to replenish his fluids before biking home in ninety-eight degree weather under peak sun, but he’d been experiencing the slow release of love from his marriage for months. I won’t say he was learning what it felt like for love to leave his marriage, because that would imply a larger perspective. A fish in a tank doesn’t know his stagnant water is running out of oxygen, he just feels the effects. He doesn’t even know he’s wet. It’s all clear in hindsight. Blood dripping from a slashed wrist, air hissing from a slow leak in a deflating tire.

These two men, him and me, we share a similar physicality. But I’m thinner. I have more grey in my hair. My eyes are slightly rougher, because he slept sweetly night after night, content, accompanied, well-spooned, while I . . . don’t.

There are environmental differences, too. Compare the aforementioned condo with the many rooms and baths of the first man with the studio in which I live. Oh, the decorative palettes all that wall space offered him! I’m surrounded by wood. Wood is my power element. I looked at a lot of places but kept imaging myself in what I’ve come to call the Treehouse. That man had his LEBO paintings, I have my uncle’s artwork, my friends' photography. That man kicked his feet up to watch TV on a sofa which has become this man’s bed. That man’s furniture was Asian eclectic, dragged from New York to Virginia to Miami and picking up new pieces along the road. Most everything I have is new, white, and Swedish modern. Ikea is a hell of a drug.

He’s been living the DINK life – that’s Double-Income-No-Kids – since he was a teenager, while I’m living MAW; Me Against the World. He had a retirement fund and disability insurance. I have prayers I never get sick. Letting go of TV, internet, satellite radio, and a car leaves room for the things I need to be happy. Buying decent food. Going out to eat. Books. I couldn’t tell you what he spent his money on all those years, with so little to show for it in the end.

Sex . . . well, he wins. By a lot.

Besides sex, I envy him one thing. He read and wrote fiction almost exclusively, while I seem hopelessly mired in reality.

When my wife and I separated, I thought of my heart as layers of something brittle, a dried cigar or a dusty rose. I worried I would never love again.
As I biked home, blinking tears away, my heart felt like glass. Not a glass onion, and not a piece of delicate blown artwork. A solid, hefty chuck of glass dealt a heavy blow. Cracked through, separated into several large chunks, parts ground to powder at the point of impact. I will love again; I have too much not to give. My concern is how to put my heart back together. Will it be melted and remolded into a heart, looking brand new but slightly smaller because of the missing pieces? Will it be an ugly, damaged thing, the cracks plainly visible to anyone who gets close? If I can’t mend it, what happens to the pieces? They’d only be good for cutting myself and others.

I’ve begun to realize how people die of broken hearts.

It’s too soon to know what shape my bachelorhood will take. I could hide my emotional turmoil beneath unrequited crushes or too many drinks or a strained smile. I could end up married to the first person who tosses me a pity-fuck, or in jail for beating a certain ex-high school boyfriend Facebook predator into a coma. I could also follow my original plan and go monastic, keep exercising, surround myself with books, push the cursor hard, tell the stories which are my real life work and the only way I know to serve God.

Wish me luck. Sometimes the road is blurry.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Calling From the Laundromat

Last night was my first trip to the coin-operated laundry since the move. Some cute Latin chicks at the coin-operated laundry. Well, two. Also, some very aged Latin couples. Unshaven white dudes with huge guts and foot edema pushing against their sandals, clueless about laundry separation and stinking to the heavens.

I didn’t hear English once. In fact, one Latin woman in her sixties approached, rested a hand on my shoulder, and began speaking to me in Spanish. Eyes swimming behind large glasses, permed hair obviously dyed. She stood while I sat, but we were eye-to-eye.

“No habla Espanol,” I told her.

“Ah,” she said. Instead of prompting her to walk away, this led to a spiel. Normally I understand seventy percent of Spanish spoken to me, although I can’t speak it myself unless it involves ordering a cafecito, but I got nothing from her. She gripped my shoulder, not quite massaging, the way a grandmother does when she wants to impart something very important with her affection. I arranged my features somewhere between sympathy and polite interest. It worked for her.

I wonder what she said. Especially since it went on for some time.

“You remind me of my grandson. He’s doing time for armed robbery, but he’s such a nice boy once you get past the homemade tats. I wonder why he hasn’t settled down. I know he’s in prison, but those serial killers, they get letters from nice girls all the time, but not my Javier, no…”

“Do you have any change for the washing machines? I spent the last of my money on a lottery ticket at the pharmacy and my whites aren’t quite dry. I play my dead husband’s birthdays. I’ve been married four times. You know what they say about Spanish blood! I haven’t gotten lucky yet…hey, there’s probably a metaphor in there somewhere.”

“I don’t see a wedding ring on your finger, are you single? Seeing anyone? Gosh, look at your face! Not for me, for my granddaughter. That’s her over there with the Tina Fey glasses, wearing a sleeveless lavender hoodie and black jeans with the white piping around the seams. Terrible outfit but nice butt, don’t you think? I can give you her number. The best part is, one look at me and you know she’ll hold up like a rock.”

I learned a few things, too.

-When I last used a coin laundrymat, I thought it was ripoff when I saw $1.25 per wash instead of $1. Now, try $1.75 per load.

-You must dry your clothes on the same side of the laundrymat, clustered as closely as possible to your neighbors’ tumbling loads. This gathering of heat is rumored to dry everyone’s clothes faster. Any attempt to use the dryers on the opposite side, in the corner, or even on the same side as everyone else but away from the group, will be regarded as an act of hostility.

-There is no air conditioning.

-Some people have personal hygiene problems.

-After twelve years here, I should learn Spanish already.

-Undershirts with yellowing armpits look a lot more yellow when they’re being washed in public.

-Women are impressed by a man who separates.

-Reading while waiting for your laundry is an act of aggression, the willful separation of yourself from the group. If you don’t sit there with your arms folded, eyes glazed, and occasionally striking up conversations with total strangers, you are giving them permission to stare at you as though flowers are growing from your scalp. This is true even if you don’t speak the language.

-You don’t speak the language.

-If you are younger than forty and your hands aren’t actually touching laundry, you must be texting.

I also learned that laundry on the way home is heavier than laundry on the way there. Odd, as I was minus some detergent. Is it muscle exhaustion, since I’ve already lugged the laundry all the way there? Is it mental fatigue, knowing I’m so close to being home making everything that much more strenuous? Or is clean heavier than dirty?

I get the feeling weight will factor into my future wardrobe choices.

“I’d love to wear that sweater, but do I really want to carry it six blocks to clean it?.”

“I know I’ve worn this t-shirt twice already, biking under Miami’s sun in 90-degree weather, but I’m sure it’s got another wear in it.”

“People don’t actually wash comforters, do they?”

My favorite part of the evening was walking home with the big blue Ikea bag, stuffed with laundry, nodding to my neighbors as they walked their dogs. Apparently in Coral Gables, tall, dark, sweaty men carrying a sack of suspicious size and heft are looked upon with suspicion after ten pm. Go figure.