Fall

For days, I’ve watched this dead leaf hang from a mossy branch – suspended by a spider’s silken thread. The brittle carcass dances in the strong breezes, and I’m constantly left wondering when it’ll flutter along – when the thread will wrap in on itself just enough to sever the strong mooring it once had.

***

Fluorescent, sugary sprinkles captured the creeping morning light, sparkling on the black formica countertops like diamonds. I brushed them into a small pile, along with dog hair that’d fluttered up from the canine melee unfolding at my feet. Toby and Joanna wrestled briefly, posturing and provoking one another after gorging on breakfast, before tearing into the next room with a plume of dust motes in their wake.

I rummaged around in the refrigerator for the chilled cupcake box I stuffed in there the previous night, flipped the top, and selected the lone survivor – its icing hardened, the formerly moist, cakey body stiff and disturbingly crusty. When I bought the cupcakes, I was the teeniest bit buzzed, which ended up being a good thing since the cake blobs were apparently made of gold, and cost more than their weight in it. But I felt it’d be in poor taste – or worse, tacky – to show up to my second board meeting with nothing but a smile and a sweaty brow. As the evening had worn on, our business-centric conversations strayed into movie reviews while we nibbled on homemade bánh mì sliders and watermelon salad, watching the sun fracture behind the Space Needle and disappear completely beyond the mountains. Cloaked in darkness, the rooftop suddenly became a confessional; deep secrets and exhaustion-fueled confessions rumbled out. I’d pulled my knees up to my chest, appearing ball-like in my chair, and silently absorbed the commentary, realizing that I wasn’t the only one feeling a certain brand of loneliness that came with the setting sun.

With the battered cupcake dispatched, I walked out my front door without the slightest idea of where I was going. But I was fully aware that I was inappropriately dressed for the rapidly cooling evening – with its crisp breeze and intermittent raindrops. Still, I had to get out of the house. Even though it’s been my haven, my own genie bottle, it can also become intolerably claustrophobic – suffocating even. I felt like screaming down the street, spewing out all of the internal mess roiling through my mind into the uncompromising wind, feeling the burden lighten and disappear into the ether.

Tiny brick fragments from a recently demolished house crunched underfoot as I heaved up the sidewalk. Near the top of the hill, I quickened pace and crossed the street to avoid a youngster freshly weened from training wheels weaving wildly down the pavement. From the other side of the street, I glanced back as she pedaled past a rusty, pink bicycle leaning precariously against a cracked retaining wall adorned with faded chalkboard families; she smiled widely, even though no one was watching except me, the ill-dressed stranger.

I pushed into the wind, turning my head against the gusts. One yard over, a black cat lounged on a sun-dappled porch pier, and a young boy watched intently as a man replaced a window on a sprawling rambler; as if sensing the boy’s gaze, the man looked up and waved, calling something to the boy, who then laughed and disappeared into an interior room. But the man kept watching, the way a father watches their child: his gaze fixed, a smile creeping across his face – love disguised in the most mundane moments.

Without warning, my face flushed and heart raced as Rihanna’s “Umbrella” pounded through my earbuds.

…When the war has took its part
When the world has dealt its cards…

I had the strongest urge to sprint until I collapsed. But instead, I rolled my ankle off an uneven curb and stopped myself just short of falling into an old bottle garden. Hunched over, I breathed laboriously, calming my nerves and watching as the smudged, cracked glass cast a faded rainbow across the sidewalk, reminding me that there’s plenty of color in the world.

***

I’ve spent the morning doing absolutely nothing except staring out the window at the damned leaf. The sun is rising higher now, and the birds have woken fully, their songs drifting in and out of the thick bramble beyond the flower beds.

Suddenly, I decide I have to go. I grab my camera in preparation, and scroll through; the memory card is full, and I foolishly peruse the backlog, immediately regretting it.

I flick a series of switches, hesitate over the trashcan icon, and then press it until a message prompt flashes, reading “No images.”

I exhale, emptying my insides through the open windows. The sky’s blue hues seem deeper than they were moments ago, the air a little less oppressive.

I turn to go, but something catches my eye.

Beyond the open window, the silken noose somersaults in the breeze; the old leaf is gone.

Ebb & Flow

Seattle’s hallmark fall mist filters down through brittle leaves to parched soil. From a single, mossy branch at the top of my plum tree, five purple orbs dangle enticingly – the last vestiges of the growing season.

Deterred by the empty fridge, my growling stomach convinces me that coffee and plums will work just fine for a Saturday morning breakfast.

But then, emerging from the shaded side of a rhododendron, an obese squirrel lazily lopes toward my bounty, sniffing at the decimated plum skins and pits he and his brethren have littered around the yard as he nears the tree’s gnarled trunk.

Animal instinct kicks in, and my disheveled fro grows menacingly – my own hackles. The dogs scatter as I run out the back door, dragging a paint-spattered utility ladder in my wake. The ensuing ruckus from the ladder clanging down the squeaky mud porch stairs startles my nemesis, freezing him midway up the trunk, his marble-like eyes fixated on the insane person running toward him, hissing madly.

He flees. I win. Breakfast is secured.

Back inside, I slice my spoils and drizzle them with honey. Coffee steams in my mug, and Joanna sits nearby, pulling at the stitching of my childhood Care Bear turned dog toy.

On the faded, leather-topped drum table above her, a shock of pink from an African violet’s flower catches my attention. Sometime in the night, its tiny buds sprang to life – blooming quietly, elegantly, fully; the cupped blooms fill with morning light – nature’s entreating communion chalices.

***

After my second cup of coffee, I decide to check in with the rest of the world and open my email. Just a week ago, I’d refresh my inbox every five minutes – hoping for relief in the form of a subject line reading, “Job Offer.” Now that that particularly exhausting, yet satisfyingly cleared hurdle is behind me, I’ve purposefully unplugged – looking skyward, reading, working outside, painting, and relegating my phone to my mental dustbin until I need it.

A property management company rep has responded to my email about altering the lease with a sterile: “We’ll need to ensure that your income alone can cover rent. Please send your most recent pay stub.” Although the response isn’t entirely unexpected, I’m suddenly awash with anxiety – my eyes darting around to freshly painted walls, out the windows to cleared planting beds and newly rooted shrubs.

All this could be taken away with one email, one turn of phrase.

I delete “Thanks a fucking lot!” and reply appropriately, infusing my message with the requisite saccharine subservience most tenants convey to avoid falling out of grace with their landlords. I know this is a business to them, and they couldn’t care less about all of the time, effort, and expense Andy and I both dumped into this heap; that there’s still some persistent electrical problem; that every morning I clear away cobwebs, courtesy of my arachnid roommates; that I’m constantly fighting against some natural element to reclaim this house of paste and popsicle sticks. (#FirstWorldproblems)

But as unintentionally hurtful as the message was, the subtext is nothing new. Just like everyone else, I have to carve out my own niche of existence and defend it.

To live means to fight. It’ll never be an easy ride, and that’s okay.

Living in this cute, rotting house, I’m constantly reminded of the transitory nature of material things. Years from now, will someone be sitting on this sun porch, scribbling away in a notebook or chatting over coffee with friends? Or will these walls and weathered floors be splintered into the earth and overtaken by ivy, or gone entirely and replaced with a McMansion block devoid of personality? I wonder where I’ll be and what I’ll be doing. If I’ll drive by one day to remember my new beginning in this little house.

Part of me accepting the inevitability of change is acknowledging that I’m constantly in motion, colliding with possibilities, obliterating obstacles while creating life, energy, and fulfilling moments in which I feel complete – as though I’ve curled up in my most threadbare, comfy clothes on my weathered sofa with a mug of hot cocoa in hand, watching a storm roll in through the open windows.

Letting the wind blast my face, the cool air filling my lungs – my mind marveling at life’s ebb and flow.

Doh-si-DOE-si-Dough

After I throw an assortment of event envelopes, overstuffed folders, wire racks, and a styrofoam head into the backseat, I motion to my guest, letting her know the passenger seat is clear.

She opens the door cautiously, her Louboutin stilettos hovering over the floor mat for about five seconds, quivering as if she’s about to step onto a sheet of ice. My car reeks of cardboard, but her heavy perfume still manages to overpower it. I imagine the fragrance name being something like “Wealth Drops” – squeezed from the eyes of locally-sourced poor people for your pleasure.

Before I get in, I do a quick stretch-deodorant check; thankfully, my Old Spice is still holding up.

“Alrighty, off to lunch!” I chirp over-enthusiastically. Given that my colleague and I just got tasked with interviewing this prospective candidate for our boss over lunch, I muster everything I can to keep from entertaining my first thought, which is to bash my head into the steering wheel.

Her expensively manicured hands buckle the seatbelt over her Chanel blazer; she sits painfully upright, so much so that I quickly check to ensure I didn’t knock the headrest at a right angle. But when I look, I’m blinded by the diamond-encrusted Prada glasses, tipped down to her nose as she surveys the immediate area.

“So, this cafe isn’t walkable, then?” she curtly coughs.

“Nope. And you don’t really want to walk around this area. Even if you’re just running to Subway.”

I opt to leave out describing the pedestrian walkways around our building as “stabby.” After all, I’m trying to keep it classy.

Maneuvering through traffic, I try to keep the already awkward conversation moving while avoiding adding vehicular manslaughter to our lunch menu.

“So, what specifically about the position struck you – drew you in?”

I don’t really pay attention to her response, letting the canned question fall into an abyss-like chasm in my mind the minute it falls from my mouth. By the time she finishes, and I follow up with the expected, “Well, that’s great!” we pull into the parking lot.

While she and my coworker get out and grab a spot in line, I circle and search for a parking place. But after I park, I rummage through the pile of crap I threw onto the backseat to ensure the manila folder with my recently printed resumes and talking points for in-process interviews weren’t bent or mangled. Interviewing possible bosses while searching for a different job myself always makes for an interesting experience – and affords me the ability to hone my question-and-answer delivery.

***

Over lunch, the candidate picks at her spinach salad, coating the top with salt and selectively eating only the bacon from atop the leafy mound. The chunks of feta sprinkled among the bacon clash with the large pearls perfectly overlaying her blouse.

Rattling off a few more canned questions, I listen dutifully to her rehearsed answers and nod at the appropriate times, interjecting an occasional “Mhmm” or “Ah, I see.” Whether it’s because I’m full, or the day has gotten to me, I start to drift off. It seems I can’t escape the exhaustion that comes with interviewing – from either side of the table.

In my daze, I recall my most recent in-person interview, and fantasize about the possibility of leaving, of starting anew in a position where the “DOE” salary in the job announcement translates into something meaningful – either something close to what I’m currently making, or even a little more. Like most cities, Seattle’s liberal culture and attractive amenities come at an absurdly high cost of living – something that doesn’t exactly mesh with a nonprofit salary. What’s more crushingly painful is the fact that I’ve never made as much as I’m currently making, and am terrified that I’m trapped – that I’ll never escape, and be forced to spend my professional years in a gray cube.

The clang of our interviewee’s fork falling onto the floor snaps me back to the dull present. I mutter an, “Oh, I see…” in response to her latest name-dropping line, and glance at my phone.

“OH, we should probably get going!” I boom excitedly. I’m so ready for this misery to be over.

When we return, I rattle off an email to the hiring committee with my feedback, none of which is positive – the title of the email reading: No Hire.

After I hit Send, I hope that a prospective employer isn’t doing exactly the same thing to me.

***

Nearly a month later, I’m wrapping up the phone conversation with my soon-to-be new boss.

I hang up, and scream so loudly that Joanna freezes in place, and even sinks a little into the floor.

It’s happened.

Tomorrow morning, I’ll submit my notice. All the work-related nightmares of wrapping up one job and starting another will surely follow, but for now, I plan to cherish the excitement that comes from changing directions – to charting a new, needed path.

This year hasn’t been easy, but hopefully this is a turning point.

***

The HR lead facilitating my exit interview has hung her head no fewer than three times and moaned lowly, “ARE YOU SERIOUS?”

I nod, assuring her that every anecdote I’ve relayed, every painfully problematic Office Space-like bit of commentary is absolutely true.

She scribbles down everything down on her pre-printed questionnaire. With every statement, I feel a little lighter. When we finish, I return to my cubicle, exhale, and start pulling out pushpins, amassing papers into a large recycling pile.

I’d hoped this job would be the one; alas, it’s been everything but.

***

Today is my first day at my new job. Like a Kindergartner, I’m terrified, exhilarated, and sleep-deprived.

When I step out the door, I begin writing another chapter.

I hope it’s worth a read.

I hope I make a difference.

I hope I feel proud again.

The Life Boat, the Clerk, and the Wardrobe

The uneven clip clop my saddle shoes make on the polished terrazzo floor reminds me of my lapsed chiropractor visits, the muscles around my spine slowly twisting themselves into hardened knots, strengthening my increasingly frequent tension headaches and off-setting my gait.

I advance in the security line, straighten my back, and grate my teeth into a smile while being wanded by a thoroughly exasperated guard. As he tracks up my arms and alongside my head, I expect him to ask if I have anything stowed “up there,” pointing to my hair accusingly like the Atlanta TSA agent I recently had the pleasure of meeting during a “random” security check. Instead, he tells me to take my bag and go.

Consumed with Pokemon capture, the information desk attendant acts completely annoyed as I trip through my directional inquiry and stutter “filing for divorce,” my mouth contorting around each loaded syllable.

“Sixth floor,” he grumbles, readjusting himself and screwing up his face at whatever invisible creature is hovering inside the courthouse foyer.

Exiting the elevator, I sidle up to the intake clerk’s counter, stumble through my introduction yet again, and present my manila folder plumped with signed paperwork – most of which is still dog-eared and covered with Post Its.

“You don’t need this form. Or this one. Nope, not this one.”

I collate the wasted trees as quickly as he pushes them aside, muttering something about “Just wanting to make sure I have everything…”

“But you do need to go get that form over there.”

He motions to a bar glutted with stacks of paper. Like Indiana Jones selecting the holy grail, my hand hovers over the form I surmise is correct.

NO, one more to the right,” he calls from behind the counter.

I pull out the over-copied form, the Arial font approximating that of a dot matrix printer readout. He highlights a few sections, recites what I’ll need, and asks if I have copies of the other forms.

“Yes, but I left them in my car.”

He looks displeased, but allays my fears of having to start this all over on another day.

“It’s fine. You don’t really need’em. Just be sure to write down your case number.”

The litigious vocabulary of this entire process throws me off at every turn. It seems so unnecessarily terrifying. He confirms that I have all of the correct paperwork, and asks me to fill out the form I just fetched. When I step away, I dart back and forth, trying to find a private space to scribble in the appropriate information. Clearly looking like a confused rabbit, I draw the clerk’s attention again.

“You know, you can just go wherever.”

Once I sequester myself inside a reading nook near the copier station, everything starts hitting me in waves. I start sweating, feel nauseous. I want to burst into hysterical sobs. I can’t believe this is all happening.

This is when it, quite literally, becomes official.

I fill in all of the personal information, reread the short form roughly 300 times, and paperclip it to the bulky wad affixed to my manila folder.

Crossing back in front of the clerk, I park myself behind two men at the Filing counter.

“So, let me get this straight. He’s got to file, er, serve this summons form to her. And the complaint? What does he do with that, and how does all that work with getting the property?”

Smiling kindly, the clerk gently nudges one of the ubiquitous signs forward, which reads: “Clerks cannot provide legal advice.”

“Oh, well. Okay, here. I see it here on the form.”

The younger man’s eyes glaze over as the older man’s continued recitation of each form’s title fills the enclosed area with a constant, reverberating din.

I stare hard at the floor, clutching the paperwork tightly across my chest – like a pilot has advised me of an imminent, turbulent water landing and to use my seat cushion as a flotation device. At the next window over, a lawyer makes small talk with another clerk who methodically stamps forms inside each dossier he places atop the counter; his pile is a mass of gray, cardboard-like files – like those that overflow in every Law & Order office set.

The two men stuff the last of their forms into a satchel and leave. The clerk scribbles a few things down on the other forms they left, tosses them into a massive pile, and motions to me.

“Next. You can step up here.”

“Yes, hi. I, uh, need to, uh, file these.”

Like the intake clerk, she assesses everything, recites the astronomically high filing fee, and starts rapping away at her computer. A moment passes, and a coworker comes behind her and asks for paperclips. I stare down at the box of clips in front of me, just out of her view, but don’t have the energy to say anything. They disappear for what seems like three hours, and I think about all the absurd time we waste in life rummaging around looking for useless shit.

She reappears with two large booklets, and typed up sheets.

“My goodness, these aren’t as high quality as they used to be,” she says, waving the booklets at me, the bolded titles of which read “How To Ask For A Divorce.” I almost interject with, “I think we’re beyond that” but, again, the energy just isn’t there.

She glances over the two packets, and then grabs a large date-time stamp with rotating numbers and letters, methodically aligning the ink-caked numerals with a long numeric string she’s reading on her computer screen.

And then she begins.

Stamp.

Stamp.

Stamp.

I watch her dissect my freshly stamped stack of papers – tossing a form here, there, and into a box.

And just like that, our marriage begins its 90-day dissolution.

“Now, you get this, and you give this to the other party. Since you’re filing with no children, you can opt for a ‘Simple Divorce’ if you want, or you can initiate the process to have a court date set for the final ruling.”

“IWANTTHESIMPLEWAYPLEASE,” I blurt loudly, drawing the attention of a woman going through the same process with a neighboring clerk.

“Well, that office is on the third floor, and they just closed for lunch.”

I roll my eyes and laugh and say something like “Of course it is” and thank her for her help.

“And now, you both have to attend this class.”

“Wait, what? I have to attend a class?”

As she quickly touches on the logistics of this absurdly archaic practice – the “Are You Sure You Want To Go Through This?” and its legal repercussions spiel – I feel the last remnant of energy drain from me completely, pooling down my legs and onto the terrazzo.

***

Before I know it, I’m peeing out my frustration in a deserted courthouse bathroom while clutching the packets beneath my arm. I pass back by the Pokemon Whisperer and then join the droves walking through downtown.

I bustle past lunch-goers and the cafe where, 30 minutes before, I was having a final in-person job interview – and hoping that the conversation would translate to the employment life boat I desperately need. I pause momentarily, envisioning myself standing awkwardly, waiting for my interviewer to arrive – my reflection a constant reminder that this interview outfit is now my official divorce outfit .

A few minutes later, I’m buying a cheap shirt at Target so I don’t have to pay the astronomically high “public parking” fee in their garage. Surveying the sale and clearance racks, I reflect on the mundane act of buying clothes – adding to a wardrobe that’s now only mine. It’s a weird, awkward moment.

After navigating the labyrinthine parking garage, I’m so tired I can’t even cry until I get back to work and have to force myself not to cry.

The wall everyone’s been surprised I haven’t hit is suddenly smashing my nose into my face.

I can’t breathe.

***

It’s nearing 9PM, and the table lamp’s light illuminates the bushes outside, reminding me just how exposed the back of the house is with all its glorious windows. Each time I look out, I expect to see Michael Myers quietly standing just at the edge of the yard, the knife in his hand shimmering in the moonlight.

Joanna woofs lowly at a small winged creature attacking the window, determined to diffuse the cursed ball of light blazing afire in the darkness.

My eyes are heavy, and my body aches. I look down at my blank journal page, pen in-hand. But I have nothing witty to write, no metaphors to deconstruct.

Some days, just staying upright is my biggest success.

Training Wings

Perched on the edge of the planter box, I rub my eyes with thumbs roughened from my morning brier-plucking routine.

The sun has nearly set, and the moon is already hanging low in the sky – a celestial combination casting a gray veil over the yard, cajoling nocturnal critters bedded down in the bramble to rustle awake.

Large, ant-like insects flounder through the breeze with awkward intensity, smacking into the open windows, looking for an entrance through the glass before their bodies’ weight drags them closer to the dusty, browned grass.

In the distance, down the hill, the steel mill clangs methodically – sheets cascading down into piles for shipment abroad, filling the air with the sounds of a bustling industrial kitchen. With my glasses propped atop my head, I take in the blurs of green, the slight reds of changing leaves, and close my eyes – absorbing the night, reveling in the smells wafting over from a neighbor’s grill.

Before long, I hear nails scratching against wood, and peer up to the windows to see a shaking tan blob atop the worn windowsill.

“No ma’am,” I coo quasi-authoritatively.

Readjusting my glasses, I stare up into Joanna’s deep, dark eyes – marbles set within her velvety, buff coat. She stares back, and I can tell her thin tail is wagging rapidly. She sniffs the air, licks her nose, and disappears – pitter-pattering back to my room, a signal she’s ready for bed.

I rub my eyes again, shift slightly, and feel the rotted support beneath me moan – and a tickling along my neck. Looking down, I see a large wing stuck to the inside of my white V-neck. And then I know what’s on me: one of the massive ant things.

I rip off my shirt and shake it wildly. My reaction’s not necessarily out of fear, but more surprise. I’ve never done well with surprises.

Another translucent wing dusts up in my solo melee, and I hear a low thunk from the insect’s body landing where I just sat.

I stoop and watch it clamoring along the weathered edge, making its way as an ostensibly different being.

A creature whose wings will regenerate.

A beginner who will learn to fly again.

To Feel, To Touch, To Move On

Traffic rolls to a stop, and the setting sun’s intense rays glance off my smudged glasses. Sia belts out “Fire Meet Gasoline” from my battered iPod. Since I’ve never figured out the precise sequence of plugging in and starting devices in this car, I just default to the basic, knuckle-dragging predictability of the Touch’s Play button.

The perfect collision of wandering thoughts with meaningful lyrics evokes roiling waves of tears. Like shifting weight to a walking stick, I rap the steering wheel repeatedly – finding equilibrium – convincing myself, “You’ll be fine. This is all temporary.”

The drive home after therapy is never easy – a time of deep reflection, during which exhaustion often takes hold, exacerbating each toiling thought’s toll.

En route to my session, I got a call from a potential employer informing me that, while I made it to the final two, they were going with the other candidate. “Disappointed” doesn’t quite capture the series of cascading emotions that left me crestfallen.

“You know, I’ve been on the other side of the phone on calls like this. And it sucks. I’m sorry. I just want you to know it was an incredibly difficult choice.”

Following the most sincere, genuinely supportive rejection call I’ve received, I sighed, then screamed. Rather than chalking it up to “it wasn’t meant to be,” I fully embraced the emotional flood, letting it wash over me. And then, drenched and dripping in anger and sadness and dejection, I let it go. The future I thought this job would allow me to create isn’t going to be brought to fruition. And that’s okay. It has to be. There just isn’t time to live in the what-ifs.

A row of cars inches over into my lane as they approach a bank of firetrucks and ambulances spread over the two righthand lanes. As a Volvo scoots ahead of me, I see the upturned half of a motorcycle, the back half of which is about 10 feet away, smashed into a sheared-off bumper from a thrashed sedan. Four firefighters strap in the motorcyclist as two paramedics administer CPR. It’s one of those powerfully slow-motion moments, a painful crystallization of true tragedy.

And each of us passersby motors by, absorbing the devastating spectacle – silently willing that never to be us.

***

The West Seattle Bridge stretches ahead of me, all lanes backlogged. I ache to get home, to see Joanna and scrunch her velvety face under my chin. To walk around my neighborhood. To enjoy this little house as long as I’m able to stay here.

To stare out my windows and repeat the simple mantra I murmur every single time I take flight – gripping the armrest with all my might, as if it’ll effect some change:

“I’ve loved. I’ve lost. I’ve lived. I’ve made a difference.”

To remind myself that I’ve laughed more than I’ve cried.

That I’ll keep learning from this rough, taxing, spirited, unpredictable ride.

And will be better for it.

Gay Gardens

Sweat beads on my brow, and Jimmy Eat World’s “Middle” blasts through my ear buds. Brier-pricked and cut, my gloved hands receive little in the way of protection from nature’s most annoying floral bastards. My paint-spattered, dirt-coated glasses slip and fall into the growing pile of freshly weeded detritus amassing at my feet as I bend to unhook a gargantuan, spiked vine from my pilled It Gets Better tee.

Now free of unwanted hangers-on, I step back and survey the cleared areas of the sprawling stone-laid terraces. Insects dart over the freshly uprooted soil, congregating around fractured, dewy stalks and root balls. I pause my music and sink into the morning’s natural calm. Hollow, browned stalks of Japanese knotweed clang together in the wind like bamboo chimes, and dead leaves filter down through new gaps in the overgrown canopy and settle in sun-dappled piles.

Gay Gardens, the early months

It’s an uncharacteristically hot Seattle day, and the formerly shaded earth quickly dries while I sit for a much-needed respite, feeling the worn stones warming the insides of my calves. Like Kate Winslet in A Little Chaos, I’ve been methodically unmasking mature ferns, shrubs, and trees from their brambly oppressors and mapping a new, slightly haphazard order onto the leftovers.

Metaphors for every sort of life experience drift in and out of my mind as I till the soil and pull at stubborn roots. I give each thought a little slant of limelight before letting them dissipate into mental white noise.

***

Sided with weathered, warped yellow clapboard and sloppily trimmed in faded red, the cottage sits on a shoddily cleared terrace, accessible only by a rickety wooden staircase built into a steep hill just off an arterial, hilly road in West Seattle. Its seclusion is just what we wanted – the antithesis of our small Capitol Hill apartment in the center of a growing party district of young twenty-something college students.

And while the subsequent tours with the uninformed property management company’s agents brought us vis-à-vis with the cottage’s less than stellar drawbacks, we went for it – mostly because its location, privacy, and space aligned with the most desired bullet points on our wish list.

Of course, being a post-war cottage that’d been overgrown for a few years, it needed a lot of help, which hadn’t exactly been a priority of the decade-long tenant before us, or the property management company: turd-colored, faded interior paint; an illegally enclosed back deck; a disgusting bathroom; dirty, ivy-covered windows; hole-pocked walls; and more than a fair share of creepy-crawly roommates.

But even before we fully moved in, we decided to separate. Sharing a home that feels more like a staging area isn’t easy for anyone, which is why the forgotten gardens started to play such a therapeutic role for me.

Now that we’re both in our respective nests, it’s time to move forward – to take time to celebrate the good times, focus on the future. And, for me, perform plenty of internal weeding.

***

The whir of far off traffic on the bridge melds together in a wave-like, rhythmic tide, lulling my eyelids closed. Seclusion like this is beyond rare, especially as Seattle continues to boom and rental prices soar. I’m sure at some point I’ll get priced out, the cottage will be torn down by a developer, and the carefully curated landscape will be razed asunder a bulldozer.

Until then, I’ll be channeling Kate and using the landscape both as an emotional crutch and an aesthetic treasure. And will keep slathering as much lipstick – and paint – on this cute pig as possible.

Because I’d like to keep Gay Gardens full of character and far away from descending into a moldy, waterlogged lair wherein I routinely swaddle my fro in a cashmere headdress and soft-shoe down the hallway to the applause of a ragtag crew of feisty raccoons.

As my cackling drifts up through the attic, between cracked seams, and melts into the night.

The Starting Line

The orange extension cord’s serpentine coils lay across the kitchen floor, mounding at the base of the overworked, cream-colored refrigerator. A casement window hangs open, a tiny mouth breathing in the Seattle chill – a harbinger of fall.

Beyond the freshly painted sill, the yard sits upturned, its overgrown beds gutted – their English ivy and blackberry interlopers ripped out, the browned stalks and residual leaves scooped up by obese robins and thrushes for nest-making, along with the occasional displaced worm for dinner. This ramshackle stretch of existence is my Eden.

Leering over my steaming coffee cup, I’m fixating on the Mission-style, glass-fronted cabinet neatly filled with brightly colored Fiesta, the plants sitting atop cascading down like leafy waterfalls. Joanna is taking a post-breakfast nap in the bedroom, which means the house is silent and still – my favorite time of the morning.

I walk around assessing the cottage’s rooms, mentally scrawling lists of what still needs to be done.

  1. Paint trim
  2. Move dresser
  3. Add curtains

Everything’s been moved and reorganized into a space that’s now uniquely mine. From recent investigative forays into the far reaches of the house, I’m coming to know each nook and cranny. As I strip off layers of 50s wallpaper, and empty Cold War-era End Days larders of canned peaches, peanut butter, and assorted jellies from the crawl space, I daydream about the people who used to live here, and craft their backstories. I wonder if they, too, spent each morning staring out these windows, conjuring fantasies of what they’d make of their existence.

Despite the progress I’m making, I sometimes find myself overwhelmed by everything – succumbing to the numbness and ambiguity of every anxiety-inducing detail on my radar: a needy dog, an endless list of housework and landscape maintenance to complete, a social network to build, an electrical problem to be fixed.

Joanna’s wet nose startles me fully awake, making me slosh coffee out of my milk glass mug onto the weathered tabletop. In the freshly cleaned windows’ reflection, I watch as she drags a gutted seal plush to a sun spot and collapses in a heap of wrenched-out stuffing. Dust kicks up from the floor, the particles dancing in the slates of sunlight pouring in; they look like sea monkeys somersaulting in the air, disappearing in the blink of an eye, making me wonder if I ever really saw them.

I refill my mug and add milk, watching the white marry with the deep, dark roast – swirling together in a tiny cyclone, a contained storm. There’s beauty in this chaotic world, if only we stop to recognize it.

My joints ache, like a cat eternally caught arcing its back, hoping for the release a solid stretch – the most mundane contortion – will bring. A spindly-legged house spider performs arabesque arachnid aerobatics while weaving its silken tapestry from the leaves of my beloved geranium. I get up, stretch, and relocate my eight-legged breakfast companion, watching her drift down from the open window and scurry into another crevice in the board and batten.

I let the sunlight warm my face, and the breeze tousle my unkempt curls. Birds dart from nearby branches into the thicket far behind the house, reminding me that there’s so much to see, so much to explore – that there’s a whole world waiting.

Joanna sniffs at the door and circles, watching me expectantly. I shrug off the morning, the fractured thoughts tumbling around, and embrace the uncertainty of the day with a smile, open mind, and sense of humor.

Because I have a dog to walk, walls to paint, plants to grow, and cookies to make for new friends.

And a cottage with electricity that works most of the time.

Enough. Enough. Enough.

Everyone at work today remarked about how well I looked – how much more rested and less stressed I appeared. I replied with comments about the curative power of Alabama’s micaceous red clay, gave a fake smile or two, and inwardly rolled my eyes.

The past several days have been exhausting in every way imaginable – in many ways for positive reasons, with one notable exception.

The staggering toll of the Orlando hate crime seeps into the fore of my mind every other moment. The faces of the dead slowly begin to emerge; we learn about their lives, loves, passions, dreams – all cut short by the hands of a disgusting waste of human flesh. His selfied face becomes the one plastered across the subconscious of so many television viewers – not those of his victims. And it makes me ill.

So many of my LGBTQ friends are having a hard time with this one, which is a horrible thing to write – “this one,” as if the other tragic mass shootings are any less horrific. But the fact of the matter is this was a hate crime – a deliberate, calculated attack on the lives of LGBTQ people.

It is different for us.

***

A tiny bar tucked away in the far reaches of Tuscaloosa’s downtown, Michael’s was more than a bar; it was a haven for fledgling LGBTs, each like me – unsure, cautious, exhilarated, terrified. But despite those initial feelings of unease, I felt safe when I passed through the doors; these were my people.

It was one of the first places I felt comfortable in my own skin, and the first place I got groped by a crush and felt alive in a way I’d never felt before. I laughed and screeched along to horrible karaoke and stuffed dollar bills into a drag show performer’s nylons for charity; I started to transform into someone I felt could actually make a life and be happy.

And then my friends and I stepped back outside, into the cool of the deeply late evening.

“FAGS!”

“COCKSUCKERS!”

“ASS-LICKERS!”

A bottle shattered in the gutter.

My mind stopped working; my self-esteem plummeted, and I reverted to my antisocial cocoon – all while humming to myself, “Get back to the car. Just get back to the car.”

The small group of fraternity brothers hovered on the side of the street opposite the bar door; they raised their fists, spat, gave us the finger, and made sudden, aggressive moves toward us.

Just get back to the car, back to the goddamned car…

I was sobering up fast. But then, the unexpected happened.

“OKAY! YOU WANNA ROLL, MOTHERFUCKERS? C’MON, I’LL DRIVE MY FIST SO FAR UP YOUR ASSES…”

Our self-described matriarch began crowing back, which is when I realized a few things.

 We’re not punching bags.

We can fight back.

We’re in much better shape than them.

We can be scary too.

We’re family.

We took up a cacophonous chorus, each of us stitching together our entire repertoire of obscenities, and watched the band of misfits melt back into their beer-soaked truck, disappearing entirely.

For the first time, I felt I had a voice.

I felt alive.

I felt I could make a difference.

I felt right.

***

A decade later, I know there will always be broken glass to dodge. But I do know something for certain: I am right.

And so were all the victims.

Edward Sotomayor Jr., 34

Stanley Almodovar III, 23

Juan Ramon Guerrero, 22

Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera, 36

Luis S. Vielma, 22

Peter O. Gonzalez-Cruz, 22

Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo, 20

Kimberly Morris, 37

Eddie Jamoldroy Justice, 30

Darryl Roman Burt II, 29

Deonka Deidra Drayton, 32

Anthony Luis Laureanodisla, 25

Jean Carlos Mendez Perez, 35

Franky Jimmy Dejesus Velazquez, 50

Amanda Alvear, 25
Martin Benitez Torres, 33

Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon, 37

Mercedez Marisol Flores, 26

Xavier Emmanuel Serrano Rosado, 35

Gilberto Ramon Silva Menendez, 25

Oscar A Aracena-Montero, 26

Simon Adrian Carrillo Fernandez, 31

Enrique L. Rios Jr., 25

Miguel Angel Honorato, 30

Javier Jorge-Reyes, 40

Jason Benjamin Josaphat, 19

Cory James Connell, 21

Juan P. Rivera Velazquez, 37

Luis Daniel Conde, 39

Jonathan Antonio Camuy Vega, 24

Christopher Andrew Leinonen, 32

Frank Hernandez, 27

Shane Evan Tomlinson, 33

Brenda Lee Marquez McCool, 49

Angel L. Candelario-Padro, 28

Geraldo A. Ortiz-Jimenez, 25

Akyra Monet Murray, 18

Paul Terrell Henry, 41

Antonio Davon Brown, 29

Christopher Joseph Sanfeliz, 24

Alejandro Barrios Martinez, 21

Rodolfo Ayala-Ayala, 33

Tevin Eugene Crosby, 25

Yilmary Rodriguez Solivan, 24

Joel Rayon Paniagua, 32

Juan Chevez-Martinez, 25

Jerald Arthur Wright, 31

Leroy Valentin Fernandez, 25

Jean C. Nieves Rodriguez, 27

May they rest in power, their memories kept alive in the fight for justice, compassion, and understanding.

For our humanity.

Pulse

I don’t realize how hard I’m clenching the waded paper towel until I turn from the television to look out the window and lose my balance, my hold loosening as I re-center.

My parents’ dogs have just been bathed, and are rolling around in the sun-bleached grass. I try and lose myself in their simple revelry, but know I can’t. My mind is swirling with the news anchors’ voices, the phrases “domestic terrorism,” “deadliest mass shooting in nation’s history,” “lone wolf,” and, occasionally, “LGBT community.”

I can’t breathe, and start sweating; my chest tightens and face burns. I grab my camera and walk out, up the gravel drive past the dogs – the youngest’s plaintive cries to tag along drifting away as I quicken pace.

Every step on the gravel sounds like a series of crashing cymbals; everything is amplified. I snap a photo of newly bloomed flowers, and try to map on a heartening metaphor, but fall short. A turkey feather catches my eye, and I dissect it through the lens; it’s nothing special, and completely uninteresting – but I have to focus on something, anything other than the rapid-fire thoughts pounding inside my skull.

I wonder how frequently the lives of those lost will be glossed over, their identities stripped and tamed and drained of color to be palatable enough for mass media consumption; how frequently “hate crime” will be disjointed from the narrative of this horrible attack; that “domestic terrorist” will become the coward’s moniker, divorced wholly from his anti-LGBTQ bias and motivation; that the fuel to his sickening fire was never spurred by our own politicians’ hate speech and rhetoric, but rather from “over there,” from “The Enemy,” “Them.”

I worry about our future, and mourn those whose futures were ripped from them – taken in an instant that should’ve been filled with joy and laughter, part of a series of rhythmic vibrations to club music, to living. Each of them should’ve been leaving exhausted and hung-over and sore from dancing, not having their lives become part of a protracted national narrative about hate and guns.

But then I watch the lines to blood banks grow longer, and hear calls to action ring out from more than LGBTQ groups. Where ignorance inspires hateful action, hope springs like seedlings from the earth, ready to grow. We must be constant gardeners.

***

A few feet away, our childhood seesaw hangs broken and rotted, a testament to the passage of time. Behind me, the wind gusts forcefully, nearly blowing me from the molding deer stand’s ladder-like steps.

But instead of bracing against it, I turn and face it. Eyes brimming with tears, I look to the horizon, to the infinite space before me, and murmur, “Keep dancing. Keep living. That’s how we’ll prevail.”