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The Scarlet K

Mid-conversation, I see him.

He sees me.

Holdonaminute. Ihavetorunfromsomeonerightnow.”

I tighten my grasp on my phone, and hightail it across the street.

He quickens his trot down the block.

“JESUS! JESUUUUS! I JUST WANT TO SAY HI, JESUS!”

But the light changes in my favor and lines of cars drown out his messianic entreaties.

“Sorry, I just had to outrun that Jesus guy.”

“Who?”

One of the reasons we need to move.”

***

Living in a big city has already taught me a lot about people — how much we can be pushed and pulled in a given day, how we can sometimes lose our humanity. It’s made me appreciate the rough beauty that accentuates urban landscapes — like rouge on ruddy cheeks. And how transfixing people can be.

I see things that move and disturb me, and make me wonder where in the hell decency has gone.

But it also makes me appreciate how we all come to determine where it is that we belong — feel comfortable, want to put down roots.

And K-town is most definitely not it.

In fact, it’s our albatross — a scarlet K. Because it seems like we missed yet another gay memo. Which I imagine to be a glittery scroll that reads something like, “Foolish gays live in K-town. Gurl, just sashay right on by that shit hole, mmmkay?”

As absurd as it sounds, it’s sort of true.

The three gays we’ve seen here look haggard and spent, and seclude themselves in the nicest buildings. And any others just look scared, like they’ve ventured into a haunted house where you can eat Korean barbecue to your heart’s stop. I mean, content.

Every other day it seems like five dorms exploded on the street, with particle board desks, blankets, and broken televisions sprinkled down the block. Sometimes stuff sits there so long, it becomes a reference point. Like during our nightly jogs, I know we’re almost back because we pass the upended chest of drawers that’s been sitting there — tagged with graffiti — for nearly three weeks.

But then, we drive to West Hollywood. Take a deep breath. See the mo’s walking around. Drink caramel mochas. And exhale.

Homos on the range.

***

Anthropology taught me to learn from and respect differences — not to judge people, and take things in context. And, above all else, try to understand. But you know what? Sometimes, I don’t want to understand.

Because I’m at the point now where I’m a damn proud curmudgeon when it comes to certain things.

That I can’t quite go with the flow anymore, and I certainly don’t want to embrace my inner hipster and grab a PBR before flipping my YOLO hat and settling in for the uncomfortable ride.

That I prefer people clean up their messes; that I can’t stand trashy neighbors; that condoms should stay on dicks, not caked to sidewalks; that parents actually do something proactive about their screaming children running up and down the hallways.

That I want to live where everyone surrounding me is mature 98.5% of the time, and the closest thing to trashy is a daddy wearing sequined workout shorts.

In that hallowed place where the scarlet K can be exchanged for a “Haaaaaai!”

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I Can Be My Hero, Maybe?

He’s not wearing a red cape, nor is he rescuing orphans from a burning building. He’s just standing there. Smiling, watching the motorized world go by and accepting the occasional Good Samaritan’s coin.

A dry erase board hangs on the pole behind him, swaying slightly in the passing cars’ collective wake.  It reads: “I am here to support you. And you me.”

Below it hangs a framed poster – the glass cracked, shards missing – with an image of a woman with 1990’s hair leaning seductively against a Porsche, the hand-scrawled message reading: “No criticizing or complaining. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.”

The light changes, a car honks, and the mid-morning rush to work continues. His smile never breaks.

***

Radiohead’s “Karma Police” is lulling my hazy mind into mental balance, just as my stomach starts gurgling.

This isn’t a soy mocha.

This is what you get…

But then “My Humps” cues up, and I’m doing my best to twerk in the driver’s seat. Then, as I’m mouthing along with “No no drama…you don’t want no drama…” and waving my finger from side to side, I glance in my side mirror and stop cold.

Part of my mirror’s message about objects being larger than they appear is centered and framed by a white painted square on the dumpster, the subtle message reading, “Hey.”

I’m quiet. Then belt out, “…gurl, heyy!”

Then, I’m back to the music – getting this party started with Pink. But that moment – that bizarre realization of something reaching out and shaking me – has an oddly grounding effect.

It reminds me of the importance of stopping to read the world – the ways I can try to see things differently, embody them, and weave them into my day to lift my spirits. Not complaining about this or criticizing that. Just taking it all in.

To glean from the most random acts the slightest scraps of heroism – the ways we encourage one another to realize our potential, our dreams; to employ infinitesimal coping mechanisms to get through the seconds, minutes, hours, days – the vastness of time; to conjure a smile out of a sullen visage – like a rabbit from a magician’s hat; to have the courage to apologize and mean it when we’re cruel.

To reflect on where I’ve been and how I’ve gotten to this particular point in my life. And to have a little bit of pride about it all.

***

My new favorite barista has just finished calling me a slut after learning of my first tattoo’s location – her fluorescent red fingernails grazing my shirt.

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but you don’t really strike me as the kind to have a tattoo, much less a massive chest piece.”

She nods to my tattoo, exposed by my partially unbuttoned shirt. She smiles, shifts slightly in her acid wash overalls, then regales us with a few stories of her tattoos before leaving us to our sweating caramel mochas.

Andy and I smile at one another, take a few gulps, then get back to writing.

But something about the whole exchange strikes me – the way the tiniest peek of my tattoo unlocked her desire to tell us about the people behind her ink – and it makes me realize something. That I’ve always wanted to be someone who surprises people in unexpected ways – someone who has a little edge and smarts underneath it all.

***

Being a late bloomer doesn’t have many perks. Throw in jacked up teeth, a lisp, and the most protracted prepubescent period in the history of the world, and self-esteem wasn’t exactly in high reserve.

For so long, I aspired to be like anyone else – someone attractive, fun, mysterious, and a little bad ass: all of the people I never saw myself even closely resembling. So I just kept being myself. Changed with new experiences – struggled and won, got stuck in ruts, and played a violin or two in a dark apartment, thinking about how hard I had it.

But it hasn’t been until recently that I’ve realized that most of the people I aspired to be like as a youngster have since settled. And I’ve kept going. Because I have a lot to do, and only one life to sandwich everything into.

Which is maybe why the last voice over in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button resonates with me – because it reminds me of how each of us can be heroic by leading the life we want to lead.

For what it’s worth: it’s never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit, stop whenever you want. You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. And I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.

And so far – over these nearly 29 years of life – I feel pretty good about who I’ve become and what I’ve done.

I’ve taken a stand against bullies. Told people the hard truth. Been daring. Fallen in love. Soldiered through hard times and learned from them.

But most importantly, I’ve become the slightly barbed, quirky person I’ve always wanted to be. I own who I am, and draw strength from it. And doing so makes me feel excited – like the moment before walking through a door to a room full of friends.

Like I can take on anything if I pursue it with gusto.

Like realizing that the hero I wanted to be was here all along – just wearing glasses instead of a cape.

Glasses and capes.

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Urtlet Power

As I inch up to the dinosaur descendant plodding across the asphalt, I’m having second thoughts. I glance back for reassurance.

Mom turns and hangs out the Nissan’s window.

“Just pick it up and put it on the grass! Hurry, honey!”

I stare back down at what looks like a log sticking out of a slimy shell, take a deep breath, and grab both sides. My little happy dance to the side of the road draws laughter from the crammed school buses stopped mere feet from my road-centered performance.

But the alligator snapping turtle isn’t laughing. In fact, it whips its head around — mouth widened, ready to swallow my middle finger like a Combo. I shriek and throw, listening to the disturbing thwack it makes as it lands carapace up on the grass.

Everyone laughs. I wince.

Damned to be crushed asunder by a twiggy middle-schooler, the crusty reptile juts out its legs, rights its curmudgeonly self, and turns its thick head in my general direction, hissing loudly before loping downhill toward a pond. I skulk back to the truck, where Mom sits patiently and my friend Stan slouches down as far as he can.

I can tell he wishes for a shell of his own. Then again, we’ve been down that path before.

***

My felt Ninja Turtle mask is amazing: its eye holes are nearly symmetrical and it’s the perfect length to wrap around my head.

Raphael would be proud.

I round out the mask’s edges and toss the scissors back into Mom’s stenciled butter cookie tin before sprawling across my shag-carpeted bedroom floor to admire my handiwork. My mask is a thing of beauty.

On to the scythes.

A labor of love later, the kitchen is devoid of tinfoil and I have two lumpy excuses for weaponry. Still, when I lay them next to the mask, I can almost see Raphael leaping to life — out from the shag. Now, once Stan’s mom makes our strap-on turtle shells, we’ll be set.

First place is practically ours, and I can feel it.

***

A month before, our second grade teacher announces the talent show. Social cliques scurry off to room corners — each group humming with ideas about award-winning segments. Mulling over the idea of an action-packed, weapon-wielding, Ninja Turtles-themed act, I briefly disengage from a competitive game of Topple.

“Pay attention!”

I place my final piece on the unsteady plane. It levels — a sign!

Turtle Power!

But before I finish congratulating myself, Sophie — chemically unbalanced and fiercely violent — drop-kicks the entire game across the room, sending the pieces flying in all directions.

I shriek into her upturned Keds.

HEY!”

She shoots me one of her quintessential I will kill you, motherfucker stares, and walks away. Seeing as how even the teachers are terrified of her, I conclude it’s best to right the toppled Topple, and piece together ideas for who with play my reptilian counterparts.

A handful of my friends live in my neighborhood — a seventies-era subdivision dotted with pines and insidious sweet gums. Stan’s place is a few houses down, and Jess in a townhouse around the corner. After school, I meet with them to hatch our plan.

Soon, our entire group starts meeting religiously in the woods behind Stan’s house to discuss headway we’ve made on our costumes, and any new moves we can use to wow the audience — scissor-kicks, jabs, flips are all crucial components.

We. Must. Win.

Mostly so I can crush Hanna Drake and her baton twirling trio.

***

Hanna and I have recently had a falling out. Mostly because her father got moved to a different bank branch and now she knows her parents’ money can afford her a space in second grade’s upper echelon. I get no respect. Just blonde hair flips and cackles.

But after our winning show, she’ll beg to be my friend again — realize she’s made one of the worst mistakes of her life.

Groveling, then victory. Delicious.

I can’t wait to take her down.

And we’re ready. Sort of.

But who needs real costumes anyway? People with no imaginations, that’s who! Our whole strap-on turtle shell idea falls apart, and store-made costumes are too expensive.

So, here we are — night of the show: clad in our best forest green sweats, dark shoes, and homemade felt masks. At least our masks are different colors. And our weapons aren’t half bad.

Donatello has a makeshift tree branch staff. Michelangelo has actual nun chucks, which he disguises with a layer of tinfoil. Leonardo arrives with a plastic sword. And I, the illimitable Raphael, have my tinfoil scythes.

As we wait for our turn, we run through our Turtle moves.

And I measure up the competition — glimpsing snippets from behind she school cafeteria’s large stage.

Amateurs. You cannot fathom our greatness!

As it stands, our routine is strung together with a number of well-rehearsed punches and kicks. Donatello assures us he’ll do a few flips, especially since the rest of us are too short to have enough clearance to do so without face-planting.

But to ensure that no single Turtle hogs the limelight, each of us has our very own weapon-centric mini-performance.

The glitz.

The glam.

Thevictorythatissurelyours!

And for the finale, we’ll scream “TURTLES” — as we hold up the lettered cardboard cutouts we’ve positioned onstage.

It’ll. Be. Epic.

***

Hanna’s baton twirlers end their show to a roar of applause. I snort.

Her father probably paid them all off. 

We’re up.

Hanna passes me on the way out and mouths, “Good luck.” Then flips her hair.

Onstage, we face the packed cafeteria. Camcorders and cameras are at the ready. My knees get a little weak.

Steady.

Murmurs in the audience die down.

The music starts.

And it happens.

We freeze — the rehearsed routine unraveling into a blank mental void.

Doom!

Panicked, I do the only thing I can: jump up and down, like a poo-throwing monkey. And wave my scythes. Sweat trickles down my forehead.

And then I get smacked in the head by one of Michelangelo’s nun chuck butts. I turn, but Michelangelo’s not paying attention; he’s staring ahead, petrified in place — swinging wildly.

Next to him, Donatello whooshes his branch through the air, as Leonardo swings his wobbly sword back and forth.

I jump.

Thwack!

My head throbs.

I slowly inch away. But Michelangelo moves with me — all while spinning his death sticks.

Thwack!

Every move I make, he’s there — skill-crushing nun chuck close behind.

And then, the truly painful part.

Like a contagious pox, smiles spread across everyone’s faces. Whispers and chuckles build in volume, crescendoing through the audience like a cacophonous wave.

No.

Thwack!

The audience roars. And only grows louder as the theme song winds down.

We can still win!

We run to the cardboard letters laying face-down. And right as “Turtle Power!” crackles over the speakers, each of us holds up our letters.

The bottom falls out.

I spy my grandfather, father, and sister doubled-over in laughter; my mother and grandmother scold them, but stifle laughter themselves.

Flummoxed, we slowly lower the letters, and I turn mine over.

My successful maneuvering to avoid a concussion has moved me so far out of place that I’ve picked up the wrong letters.

I turn green. Knowing that I’ll forever be known as one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja URTLETS!

Mortified, we run offstage, the laughter following us.

Hanna and the baton twirlers win. I take my battered scythes home.

***

Even now, whenever I’m in front of an audience, I expect the Ninja Turtles’ theme song to blast from the closest speakers and a phantom nun chuck to whack me upside the head. And my parents still insist the whole thing could’ve qualified on America’s Funniest Home Videos.

“That damn tape would’ve won, hands-down.”

“Oh, our little Urtlet.”

The only evidence I have of the great Teenage Mutant Ninja Urtlets’ performance are two Polaroids: one of me and Stan frozen, wide-eyed; the other of me dodging a nun chuck.

But as I learned that night, sometimes the only way to get through a storm is to deal with whatever may come.

One blow at a time.

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Toned

The ringing in my ears sounds more like a gong crashing down fifty-three flights of stairs. So much so that I can’t hear what Andy’s asking me. He just looks like a sweaty mime.

What?”

“WHAT. DO. YOU. WANT. IN. YOUR. SMOOTHIE?”

“Uh. Whatever you’re having.”

He mime speaks something to the petite woman behind the counter, and she starts scooping chunks of fruit, a few roots, and a cactus pad into an industrial blender.

More whirring and ringing, interjected with a brief dizzy spell reminiscent of a merry-go-round rush. But then, I feel it.

Oh god, it’s happening.

I swallow and smile and try to keep up with the conversation Andy’s having with our friends.

I glance around. Try to focus.

But settle on the blending fruits sloshing around in a viscous slurry.

I raise my finger, like I’m about to recite a magical incantation.

“I’llbe…rightback.”

I don’t even wait for a response. I just walk out the door. Start running to the car.

Then notice the open gym door. So I dart past our silver fox trainer — back turned, assisting another client — quietly close the bathroom door, and projectile vomit all of the water I drank during our training session.

Crouched at the porcelain god of hangovers, I cough and sputter.

I’m a winner!

I reemerge, and try to sneak out. But by now, everyone is looking for me.

Even the smoothie shop owner.

***

A month later, our trainer tells Andy to watch. Then, as I lay on the mat, instructs me to point my leg, ballerina-like, to the ceiling. He leans his muscled shoulder into my thigh and pushes.  Leaning closer, closer — pushing my leg to delightfully new angles, like some pale protractor swing arm.

A scene from Bring It On dances behind my eyes.

And while I think of cold showers and geometry, he reminds us both of the importance of stretching — maintaining our form.

I wink at Andy.

“Flexibility is key.”

Our trainer claps, and I try not to envy his lack of jiggling upper arm fat.

“Alright, once around the block!”

Cajoling myself off the floor, Andy and I run out into the bright Saturday morning.  We round the first corner, and a man yells encouragement from across the street.

Huffing and slightly puffing, we keep going.

“I told you you’re supposed to stretch before running.”

“Mhmmm.”

“I know these things. I knew people on the cross country team in college.”

“I was on the cross country team in middle school. Don’t act like I don’t know what I’m talking about!”

We’re experts.

“Like you didn’t enjoy that stretching.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

We round the last corner, sidestep into the gym, and begin.

***

The closest I’ve ever come to being a gym rat was in college, right after I came out. Because I figured that a good gay was supposed to live and breathe the gym, just like in Queer as Folk.

By the time I realized my mistake, my body had already endured multiple pulled muscles and subcutaneous bruises, and experienced a constant feeling of having been hit by a Mack truck, then smashed by a falling satellite.

Why I ever thought I could become some muscly block is anyone guess.  I mean, I had pretty convincing proof from kiddie league soccer, flag football, and a really nasty fall during a particularly competitive game of kickball that I’m not exactly Sporty Spice.

Still, keeping active has helped both of us make this transition that much easier. Plus, we’ll soon be WeHo-bound, so we may as well be able to lift a few boxes, a sideboard or two.

And while neither of us has aspirations of becoming an Adonis, we also acknowledge that working toward building a better, happier us isn’t just a mental exercise.

***

Sweat flows sheet-like down my forehead — no minor trickling; no perfectly formed beads like a shampoo commercial.

Our trainer’s iPad timer reflects an insidiously long span left for these side planks — one minute, forty-eight seconds. I close my eyes to escape, but lock in sweat pools.

Somewhere in the stinging darkness, I flashback to the time I diced habanero peppers for a stew, barely rinsed my hands, then popped in my contacts.  Between screaming and frenetically tearing at my eyes, I could’ve easily recorded it as an audition tape for an M. Night Shyamalan movie.

Amid that mental noise, I hear our trainer count down from three, two, one.

Collapsing onto the map in a slopping heap, I flip to the other side — cracking open my eyes little by little, like a baby bird.  Now eye-level with our trainer’s dainty pitbull, I get into plank position as she looks on from the office doorway — her pink, faux diamond-studded collar tinking slightly as her unseen tail wagging ripples up through her neck.

Behind me, I hear Andy return from his farmer’s walk down the block, then dump the kettle bell weights on the floor with a heavy sigh.

“Three, two, one…”

Goddammit.

The pitty’s collar tinks louder, and her light brown eyes bore into me; my own furry cheerleader.  I want to steal her.

And before I start envisioning my tendons and cartilage and other gutty insides twisting and fraying and snapping, I hear that magical word.

“Stop!”

Relief.

***

One more cycle through, and we’re complete messes. But at least we’re done.

As always, our trainer smothers us with praise, and I’m reminded of why I like this place.

Because, after every single session, we realize what we need to do and do it more. We’re working ourselves out — pushing on, even when it’s hard and tiring.

“See, you’ve both improved so well.”

“At least now I’m not fainting.”

He laughs. We laugh.

Shaping up.

“You’re getting there. Re-learning how to do it, and doing it right.”

And we are — shaping up, little by little.