Untying the Knot

Sometime around midnight, I thrashed awake screaming—throwing off what few covers I’d craved amid the heatwave, pillows hitting the walls and startling Joanna awake one room over.

Something heavy lay across my torso, and in my sub-sleep panic, I’d assumed it was either a possum or an anaconda that’d fallen through one of the house’s many rotted sections.

Switching on the bedside lamp, I realized the offending creature was, in fact, my completely numbed arm. Having been contorted at some bizarre angle, it’d reached a painful numbness. I assumed my body had attempted to reopen circulation by flopping it across my midsection, rousing me awake.

I shifted and lifted it onto a supporting pillow, wincing as the blood started rushing back to it, painful pangs thrumming as I lulled myself back to sleep.

***

Hours later, sunlight was beating against the sun porch’s drawn curtains, and I flicked on my fans, turning them to their highest settings. They did very little, but at the very least, they pushed the heavy, heated air around rather than letting it hover, slowly weighing my eyelids down into unwanted naps. Opening the windows, I could feel the air outside was just as still—no hint of a cooling breeze.

While JoJo slurped down her breakfast, I saturated the garden as best as I could—watching rivulets cascade down through the cracking blocks of compost and soil churned up by nocturnal creatures mightily vying for the snow peas and beans dripping from their flowering vines. I surveyed the damage, and mourned the disappearance of three of my four strawberries. I eyed the hovering, bloated squirrels hard—spraying a plume of water tree-ward.

Back inside, I poured myself an iced coffee and lounged at the kitchen table while I chatted with a friend from North Carolina. After ruminating about the state of the country and the daily horrors that unfurl on social media and across embattled news outlets, he described a glorious buffet lunch he’d just had: crispy fatback, creamed corn, thinly-sliced sautéed cabbage, and mounds of mashed potatoes exploding with gravy-saturated centers. He’d avoided the chitlins. I longed for a truly southern breakfast.

The sun wasn’t getting any cooler, and I checked the time, telling my friend I had to get ready for Pride.

“Now, m’dear, go and sink into some tight jeans. Pull on a suffocating tee, and go to that damn parade and find Mr. Right. Or Mr. Overnight.”

We both laughed, knowing full well that I’d do nothing of the sort.

Instead, I dunked my head under the faucet, threw on my clearance Target rainbow shirt, frayed, worn jeans, and a pair of Dollar Store sunglasses. Along with my sash of activist buttons. Having entered a different part of my life, I no longer needed to cling to the false confidence that sprang from not eating breakfast, or tarting up clothes by either shrinking or tattering the life out of them.

I wasn’t going to Pride to find someone. I was going simply to be present, to reaffirm my collective belonging to a community that desperately needs cohesion. And I went because I needed to see that expression of love, compassion, and unity. I needed to see people of all faiths, races, ethnicities, and gender identities mingling and supporting one another. I needed a reminder that we, the people, would be okay—and to see the brave, upcoming youthful faces that’re contributing so much to the fight against our country’s current totalitarian regime. I needed to see that, while it hangs precariously, our democracy has future protectors.

I lasted all of forty-five minutes at the parade before I skittered across the street—past a man dressed in a condom-clad penis costume and sequined Planned Parenthood cape staring longingly at a large floating Chipotle burrito—and wound my way up to Capitol Hill. Since the divorce, I’ve been pushing myself to return to The Hill—to remember the good times, and map on my next chapter alone. Sidestepping into a former bake shop haunt, I ordered two of their savory biscuits and an iced coffee, shoveling it all into my mouth as I surveyed the desolate streets below. It hit me that a bake shop was the perfect place to go for solitude during Pride; the carbs most likely elicited twink terror amongst the most lithe, forcefully thin of the revelers.

Having devoured my brunch, I dusted crumbs off my lap and meandered to a nearby hardware store to pick up eye hooks and a few tubes of caulk for my house-painting project. Ahead of me a man with a tattooed spine dripping down his neck bought a fan, and I lost myself in a momentary daydream—imagining him shirtless, sitting in front of his spinning purchase, sweat dripping from his forehead and down his inked back. I mopped by brow, and watched as he turned the corner, disappearing into the growing foot traffic outside.

On the subway home, a crowd of young women flooded on from the downtown stop, their rainbow bikinis and fake tattoos and glitter glimmering as much as their metallic shoes. One complimented my button sash, and I said I liked all of their shoes—and did my best to quell my internal panic that they might be thinking that I was some deranged, Kiss the Girls-style foot fetishist. But then I realized that they were probably born a solid decade after that movie came out.

The ease with which they held on to one another in public, exchanged intimately friendly pats among their group of black and brown and white faces, gave me a necessary jolt of hope. I could see something similar reflected in the face of a woman standing in front of me, her National Park Service rainbow tattoo flaking slightly at the edges, a rainbow badge on her sleeve reading, “You are safe with me.”

The subway shuddered to a stop in the industrial district, and I hopped off, racing my way to the bus stop. After a solid thirty minutes, I realized the buses were probably all backed up by the parade. So instead of waiting, I walked the four miles back—across the West Seattle bridge, snapping photos along the way, letting the sun kiss my pasty white shoulders.

Every now and then I’d stop and survey the vistas, catalog the swaths of graffiti and street art—some including messages of hope.

Women are Perfect

Others, calls to action.

Rail against

And others, simple reminders that there’re other folks out there.

Hello, World!

I stopped at a rusty chain-link fence, and screwed up my face at a wadded paper towel tied and retied multiple times across various links.

Knotted

Something about it struck me—at once beautiful and unsettlingly ugly, it reminded me of how, last year, I’d knotted myself around my problems so much that my life centered them, normalized them; and it wasn’t until I started wasting away around the tied-up mass that I recognized how severely tattered I’d become.

***

A block from Gay Gardens, I breathed deeply and stared into the cloudless sky. It’d taken almost a year along the road back to find myself in a place where I finally felt emotionally grounded.

I smiled up at the open sky, the promise of it all. And then a bird shit on my sunglasses.

Once I took JoJo out and refilled her water bowl, sprinkling in ice cubes, I walked back outside, pulling a battered chair from my studio along the uneven brick walkway I’d re-laid months before. Atop the chair, I twisted in the eye hooks and hung up my single purchase from the parade. The rainbow flag fluttered in a brief, welcomed wind.

Gay Gardens

I stepped back into the cooling shade of a black cherry tree—its newly formed fruits dangling confidently—and watched the flag undulate along the weathered clapboard.

I smiled, and mopped my brow again. I was home.

From Dowdy to Daddy

A month had passed since the divorce was finalized.

“But you’re much too young to have divorce,” the scraggily Sweden announced from the front seat, cracking a semi-accusatory smile in my direction.

An awkward silence fell over the car, as if someone had released the most potent fart imaginable and wasn’t copping to it. I stared daggers into the back of his head as the shuttle driver took a left, as if hoping a change in physical direction would steer the conversation similarly.

Well, Igor, it’s not as though there’s a period of time you have to spend together to qualify for a divorce. It happens regardless of age.”

“I lucky for my friend who pays for my things. Like car problems.”

“And I’m sure you only have to undress slowly in front of them a few times a night.”

“Huh?”

“Nothing.”

Four days prior, two parts of my car’s axle broke while I was making a routine three-point turn on a residential street, just a block from the estate sale I’d planned to peruse with my ten dollars of tightly budgeted “fun money.” And as I watched my car of three months being hauled to a dealership for intensely costly repairs, I clutched mightily to my sweat-saturated five dollar bills in my pocket, realizing the semblance of fun I was having just got shot to ribbons, and that, in a few short days, I’d most likely be even more upside-down on my ten-year-old Toyota than I was already.

“Here we are,” the beleaguered shuttle driver muttered, the sound of the doors unlocking our cue to get out.

I slid the van door open slowly, letting Igor gallop ahead with gusto to charge his friend’s account.

Once the technician reviewed the suite of problems my new-old car was experiencing, I handed over my credit card, which I was two months away from paying off. With one necessary swipe, I tacked on two more years worth of monthly payments, nearly maxing out my card. I drove home in the pouring rain, stepped inside, and layered on a coat, turning the thermostat down from 62 to 60 degrees.

***

My unspoken New Year’s resolution quickly shifted to surviving in Seattle without spiraling into suffocating debt. Everything else became secondary–food was tightly rationed; personal hygiene was kept in check, but out went haircuts, new razorblades, and hair products; JoJo’s food was changed to a cheaper variety; and socializing involving eating or drinking out ceased entirely. And just as quickly, the specter of Low Self-esteem Past made a strong reprisal. I began avoiding mirrors altogether, which wasn’t an easy enterprise in a rotting house bedecked with Art Deco mirrors–hung strategically to reflect the scant Seattle sunlight into the cottage’s dark, light-fixture devoid recesses.

The physical changes my body underwent in the process of working through our divorce didn’t really register until, months later, I finally looked in one of my mirrors. I didn’t like what I saw, and resolved to change–despite my miserly mentality of not spending time or precious money on myself.

As I channeled my creative energies into inexpensive projects, I also decided to jump back in the saddle of making doctors’ appointments–of being a semi-responsible adult and managing my health and wellness.

Scraggily, unkempt hair was cut away, overextended clothes were bagged up and donated, and my scuffed glasses were retired. And I started to feel more alive, excited, and ready to reflect out the fellow that’d been long buried beneath anxiety, depression, and stress in the deep, cavernous corners of my sullied mirror of selfhood.

I’m growing to love the person I’m turning into–a slightly crazed creative trying to tackle fulfilling projects and effect meaningful change in a charged sociopolitical climate, while also basking in minor daily triumphs and practicing self care.

Almost a year ago, things were falling apart. I was unsure where I’d be, and if I’d be able to own up to who I needed to be to push on. And now I’m here–a guy who’s aware of and fully embraces his flaws while also acknowledging the things that make him unique.

Roads to self-acceptance are rarely smooth, especially when you emerge from a well-traveled stretch onto one that’s unpaved, riddled with potholes–where your years as a semi-twink are over, and life experiences have pushed you into daddy territory.

It’s been weirdly fun to embrace this new start–to revel in the absurd ambiguity of it all. And to do so authentically, owning my truth.

In Bloom

From the living room I watched as the breeze ripped through the densely vegetated slopes, rattling the tree branches and tousling their fragile new leaves.

In the distance, the Space Needle glowed torch-like and I stared on until the gusts died down and the wind-bent trees rebounded into place, cluttering the view ever so slightly. Built in the early 40s, Gay Gardens had had quite a view of the growing Seattle skyline, even before the 1962 World’s Fair raised the city’s most iconic building. And gradually, the view narrowed with the enveloping canopy, and the little rotting cottage became isolated behind a nearly impenetrable green wall of blackberry bushes and aged rhododendrons.

JoJo dozed in my lap, and I focused on the mediocre movie I’d snagged from the Renton Goodwill a few weeks prior. The wind howled again, and a thud echoed across the roof, rousing JoJo who woofed and scampered around searching for the offending noisemaker.

The next morning, as I made my rounds ripping up weeds, I noticed one of the chimney caps had gotten dislodged from the windstorm. A few weeks prior, the same thing had happened, and some wee beast had made its way into the attic, startling me and JoJo awake with what could only be described as zombie-inspired guttural cleansing. So as I clawed my way up onto the roof, I worked quickly to carefully re-center the cap, ensuring there was no available point of entry. In the process, I eyed a rogue brick that’d dislodged from the chimney stack—clearly the thud-inducing culprit from the previous night. I shoved it back into place, completing the puzzle.

With the spotty clouds opening up between intermittent rain showers, I had an unobstructed view of Elliott Bay and a faint rainbow. Just below me, pale pink buds studded the branches of a gnarled tree clinging precariously to the back slope. Glutted with promising effulgence, each one dripped and glistened in the rapidly clearing grayish mist.

I took a deep breath and slowly took stock of my little home, feeling an overwhelming sense of gratitude for having the opportunity to play a role in reviving this oasis.

A little slice of paradise.

And in my bones I felt something familiar—the sense that Gay Gardens will be where I celebrate many life-changing moments, each of which will become a part of this Eden, adding to the narrative of this secret long-held by time.

Coming Attractions

As the seemingly ceaseless rain halts and the clouds part just enough to reveal the thinnest rays of sunlight, I scurry outside and collect water-smoothed glass and metal bits that’ve eroded from the back terrace—the perennial midden of memories slowly being covered by a blanket of germinating grass and tiny white flowers.

With the heavy lifting of landscape remodeling complete, I’ve started to enjoy the simple task of tending the green spaces I’ve reclaimed from the bramble by slowly purifying the trash-glutted soil around Gay Gardens. Anything I find that’s in decent enough shape is recycled back into the landscape’s architecture or as part of my tiny vegetable garden.

I cobbled together the wee veggie garden enclosure out of cast-off building materials, and other bits I uncovered around the yard.

I cobbled together the wee veggie garden enclosure out of cast-off building materials, and other bits I uncovered around the yard.

During my latest pass over the grounds, I notice pavers protruding from the terrace bank. After a little dusting off, I track their path into the dense foliage below the house, and wonder where the path once led, and who strode down it.

Above me, a moss-covered tree that’d been completely obscured by English ivy has buds peppered along its branches—all on the cusp of blooming. Insects buzz impatiently around the unopened flowers, nudging them with their thrumming bodies before abandoning their attempts and retreating into the woods.

No longer covered with vines, the tree is blooming again. And grass is slowly springing to life where thick, sprawling blackberry bushes had rooted. I think the $10 vintage bird bath from an estate sale fits perfectly.

No longer covered with ivy, the tree is blooming again. Along the hill, grass and flowers are slowly springing to life where thick, sprawling blackberry bushes and invasive Japanese knotweed had rooted. I think the $10 vintage bird bath from an estate sale fits in perfectly.

Once I deposit handfuls of shredded plastic, shattered bottles, and unidentifiable, rotted building materials into my garbage can, I make a quick detour through the garden and pluck slugs off of my juvenile broccoli florets and toss them downhill.

As I tiptoe along the stepping stones leading around the house, water gurgles up from the over-saturated ground beneath them, spraying mini geysers onto the muddy, soaked grass. My circuit ends at the front door just as clouds clutter the sky and rain begins pouring down. From beneath my front overhang, I watch rivulets cascade down the warped clapboard, silently pooling and bubbling out from beneath the paint like lanced cysts.

I survey the yard and cleared beds and smile, thinking back to the tangled jungle it was before.

A view to the front terraces--all of which are now free of choking ivy, and sun can actually get through.

A view to the front terraces. Now freed from a canopy of ivy and vines, the plants can actually get sunlight.

As if to remind me of my body’s inability to deal with the onslaught of wind, rain, and perpetual dampness, my temples begin throbbing and my ears start ringing. Lately, I’ve come to realize that my body isn’t the one I once knew: I’ve started flirting with chronic pain, and it seems with every year, my joints and muscles conspire to contort my body into the frail figure I’ve always worried was in my future.

I straighten my back and wander back inside to deduct the latest grocery bill, and watch the balance dip into the double digits. I staple a wad of papers from my mechanic—an unexpectedly immense bill from my car’s broken axle—and tuck it into my accordion file folder. The past year has been pretty lean by necessity, and with the cost of living in Seattle creeping higher every year, I worry about how long I’ll be able to hold onto Gay Gardens. Until I’m pushed out, I’ll continue to make ends meet to keep this place all my own.

In the meantime, to entertain myself with cheap thrills, I’ve been ghosting through estate sales during their final hours to cherry-pick chipped pots, neglected lawn equipment, or unwanted garden gnomes. There’s a certain satisfaction with finding some long-forgotten piece of someone’s personal history—perhaps a gag gift, or a beloved treasure—and re-homing it to my little rotting oasis.

Mr. Pipps, the wee gnome, and the concrete planter were both partially buried in an overgrown garden (at an estate sale). When I expressed an interest, they just told me to dig it out and take it. So I did, flowers and all.

At an estate sale, I found Mr. Pipps, the wee gnome, and the concrete planter both partially buried in an overgrown garden. When I expressed an interest in them, the organizers just told me to dig it all out and take it. So I did, flowers and all.

Following a recent estate sale haul totaling $11, I settle in with JoJo for the evening, and treat myself to Arrival.

As a kid, I never favored sitting through the seemingly endless sequence of previews leading up to the featured presentation; I resented their temporary blockade of cinematic pleasure. But now, the previews are one of my favorite parts of movie-watching.

While JoJo dozes on my lap and I crack open a chocolate bar, I let myself melt into the film—let it reach inside me, and revel in how it resuscitates my heart and mind, and reminds me of the strength and courage it takes to brave each new day with hope, sincerity, and unabashed awe.

Lately, the sheer exhaustion of existing—of listening to the grinding and groaning of my car, pushing through the rigors of work, resisting and marching and railing against authoritarianism, and deducting the constant bills—has felt especially debilitating. But I know the only way to get through is to push onward—through the rust and jams and daily machinations.

And in the meantime, I’ll continue to surrender my mind to immersive daydreams—my own collection of coming attractions—that help fuel my creativity, and propel me toward my goals. But amid those fantastic mental wanderings, I’ve often been reminded that this—the fringe, the in-between of barely making ends meet, the rusty gears, and worn parts—is a wondrous privilege: a most luxurious life, a featured presentation all its own.

Bordering on Normal

Closing the front door behind me, I readjusted my crocheted shawl, and stowed the dog-walking bag. Joanna pricked up her ears, and fixated her marble-like eyes on the darkened sunporch.

Usually, that type of thing wouldn’t bother me. But whether it was the crushing weight of the holidays, the fact that George Michael had just died, or my sister reminding me hours earlier that Seattle was the serial killer capital of the country, I took more notice.

I took a step forward, and a man began speaking in an even-keeled, matter-of-fact way – exactly how I’d imagined my murderer to sound.

“It’s…”

…TIME TO DIE?

…YOUR LAST MOMENT?

…COLD IN HERE?

In one-and-a-half seconds of contemplating what he was saying, I realized two things: the sickly jade plant I grabbed was a lousy excuse for a weapon; and two, I was going to die in stained sweat pants and a moth-eaten shawl.

“…seven o’ clock.”

For a moment, I just stood still. Like the stupid friend in every horror movie, Joanna ran determinedly toward the darkened room to investigate the voice. A second later, she skittered back, sat on the rug, and stared up at me – which was when the weight of the potted plant started to register. I lowered it back onto its pedestal, and a bloated leaf broke off and fell to the floor.

Apparently, it was seven o’ clock, and the computer repair technician – in addition to downloading a Dance Dance Revolution anime video onto my desktop – configured my newly rebuilt laptop to recite the time every hour.

As my heart rate reassumed a normal rhythm, and I talked myself out of posting “YOU SHOULD WARN SINGLE PEOPLE WHO LIVE IN THE WOODS THAT THEIR REBUILT COMPUTER MIGHT TALK TO THEM” on Yelp, I pulled the shawl tighter, lit my lavender diffuser, and settled into the sofa with a mug of hot cocoa. This was it: my first Christmas as a divorcee.

The weight of it was unexpectedly heavy.

***

The day before, I’d been sitting at the Canadian border considering witty replies to the standard question: “What was your business in Canada?”

“Those dildos weren’t exactly going to deliver themselves, am I right?”

“I heard the bacon was great.”

“I was in search of some mounties.”

“Did you not see the outcome of the US election?”

After answering truthfully, however, I realized I should’ve gone with one of my alternatives. The border patrol officer’s face drew back in on itself, adding two additional chins to his third.

“Wait, so you’re telling me you came across this morning, and just went for a walk in the park, and are going back?”

I nodded.

“That’s just not normal.”

Partly stunned, I chuckled.

He screwed up his face even more, and straightened his back.

“Pop the trunk.”

“You’ll have to buy me dinner first.”

“What?”

“Certainly!”

I could tell he was eager to file away some story he could use over Christmas dinner to impress his in-laws – regale them with how he’d stopped the largest shipment of cocaine in US history.

Judging by how forcefully he slammed the trunk, my stained reusable grocery bags must’ve been a severe letdown. Without so much as a grunt, he handed back my passport and license, and dismissed me with a wave.

That evening, while eating Trader Joe’s tortellini and reading OverheardLA’s Instagram, I assured JoJo that her breath bordered on a public health hazard. She responded by timing the movements of my lips just enough to lick the roof of my mouth.

Gargling at the kitchen sink, I noticed one of my planters had blown off the back steps. I slipped on my battered Toms and stepped out into the rapidly chilling air, righting the planter and taking a walk around the house.

Remnant raindrops dripped off of my makeshift garden fence, and thrushes crashed around in the shattered Japanese knotweed rotting at the base of the terrace. Biting wind blew through a tree I’d freed from thick, choking ivy – rattling its aged, mossy branches against one another. Around the corner of the house, my rusted glider set caught the breeze and creaked awake. Beyond it, up the hill, a large holly bush’s bright red berries glistened with moisture, and a pair of robins battled over the highly sought after territory, catapulting twigs in all directions.

With my circuit nearly complete, I stopped at a tall foxglove I’d carefully extracted from a precarious niche along a neighbor’s drainage ditch. Its developed roots had cascaded down in a wispy, matted mess, and I’d worked quickly to dig a deep enough hole, and arrange it so that it was braced on two sides from the wind. Fully transplanted, it’d listed to one side, propping itself on a dying heliotrope. I’d repacked the soil around its base, and had broken off sickly, limply-hanging yellowed leaves to rebalance it – and to give the new growth beneath them room to breathe. I ran my hand along the righted, towering stalk as I turned the corner to ascend the porch stairs, and nudged one of its last pale, pink blooms.

Inside, JoJo twirled on the kitchen’s scatter rug and expected a treat for supervising my round-the-house orbit from her various window perches. I put my hands on my hips and demanded to know what should be done. She twirled again, play-growled, and ran out of the room. I kicked off my muck-caked shoes, and slipped on my flannel-patterned house slippers – necessities in the drafty, poorly-heated cottage.

For a moment, I let my eyes dart from newly-painted door frames to found objects, from brightly-colored Fiesta and stripped hardware on the built-ins to patched holes and reglazed window panes. Albeit an ice box, the cottage seemed more alive than ever.

I gave a deep, cleansing sigh – and ran toward the squeaking dog toy, into the heart of our home.

Momentous

I heave the rolled shag carpet over my shoulder and down the staircase, up the walkway and through the door. Unfurled, its frayed gold and orange polyester tendrils catch the fading light, and the floor is ablaze. Joanna spins around on the ruffled border, stuffing her nose deep within it – inhaling past lives. She stares up at me; I raise an eyebrow, and nod approvingly… 

I turn up the music and exhale deeply, fully, completely – until, like an exhausted balloon, I’m empty. With a sopping roller, I coat the last bare swatch, and the aged wallboard soaks it in like a dried sponge. Stepping back, I survey the room through paint-speckled glasses… 

Amid the workday hubbub, an email chimes into my inbox. The subject line is an expected string of numbers and letters; but still, I hesitate. When I reach the final period, I’m divorced. 

Wispy lavender plumes scent the air. The defunct heater rattles awake, doing its best to compete with the permeating chill. In the distance, across a cleared expanse, the Space Needle burns brightly, torch-like – yielding an unexpected view. On my lap, under a hand-woven blanket, Joanna chases something in her dreams…

Clawing at the freezing soil, I carve out one last spot. The air is bitterly, bitingly cold, and the temperature is plummeting rapidly. My hands are numb, and my energy is draining. Fracturing the root ball, I pack the seedling into its newly sown bed. With dirt ground beneath my nails, I give a frigid exultation – a weighted breath – into darkness…

And in this moment, I am enough.

Getting Bent

Halfway into the crawl space, my flashlight flickered horror movie style, the telltale sign of imminent, consuming darkness. I’d be alone, beneath Gay Gardens, surrounded by cast-off insulation tubes filled with mummified rat remains – their long, serpentine tails hardened, their taut, paper-thin skin stretched over hollow shells.

Above me, through the floorboards, Joanna pitter-pattered anxiously; Lassie’s antithesis, she’d likely curl into a ball and lick herself had I called out for rescue. It was just me and the corpses and the fading light.

My glasses fogged from my labored breathing, and I could feel blood dribbling across my mouth. Ever the wet blanket, my immune system was having none of this. If I wasn’t opting to turn around and crawl out willingly, my body would force me to – a nosebleed would tip the scales.

Tumbling out of the unhinged, rotted access door, I unfastened my jacket hood, tossed my dirt-caked gloves to the frost-covered ground, and pulled off my bloody face mask. I gulped down the cool air, and held my glasses away from me, watching their lenses slowly clear. Around me, piles of old wood, moldy cardboard, and rusted pipe fragments lay in piles.

A replacement mask and a new flashlight battery later, I hauled out more piles of junk, along with the insulation tubes and their desiccated passengers. The most random task on my weekend to-do list was done, and I even walked away with a few unexpected prizes: a hand-painted flower pot and a 1950s milk glass mixing bowl.

As I folded the tubing into my tiny garbage can and topped it with the bag of dead rats, I could almost feel the house breathe a sigh of relief; or, maybe that was me.

***

Cleaning has always been a way for me to center – to unplug and dust away mental cobwebs – and Gay Gardens has certainly afforded plenty of opportunities to do just that. It’s been a labor of love, and an anchor as life continues to change and unfold.

And while I don’t know what the future holds for me or this little cottage, I’m thankful every morning that, for now, I’m its caretaker. Plenty of people have asked why I’m putting so much effort into a place that’s not even mine, and that’ll most likely be bulldozed at some point down the line. My response is simple: “Why not?” I, too, sometimes question the amount of blood, sweat, and tears I keep putting into this place, but then I acknowledge the importance I’ve always put on creating a home wherever I land. The process has always been a source of strength, and right now I need this place as much as it needs me.

I often need the quiet and the calm to melt into myself, to plan out my next steps. Lately, I’ve needed more time away from the hubbub, and the growing national horror. I’ve cycled the energies I’d usually expend scrolling through Facebook feeds to other hobbies that interest me more – things that actually elicit in me a drive to start that next new chapter.

While I still have a long ways to go, I’ll enjoy each moment along the way to my next great endeavor – whether I’m scaling a mountain, crossing a border, or bending into a crawl space.

When the Ink Dries

Other than a cone of lamplight over my shoulder, the remainder of the sunporch sits in darkness. Occasionally, I hear Joanna pitter-pattering here and there, rediscovering another partially deformed toy plush to pull apart before jumping up on my leg and smacking my sweater with her paw. It’s nearly 9:00, and it’s closing in on her bedtime. She’s anxious to get to dreamland, but I have another page on the application to complete.

With surgical precision, I carefully spell out my name with the ballpoint pen – making certain I’m not bleeding over into a neighboring field, or smearing the ink with my hand. I angle the 2×2″ photo just inside the designated box, and accidentally staple right through the paper and into my index finger.

FUCCCCCK!

Joanna scampers to her bed, poking her head behind a finless Dory doll. Nursing my blighted finger, I finish the stapling exercise, infill a few more fields, and write the check with all the add-ons to get the critical part of my “just in case” plan returned before the white nationalist fascist takes our country’s helm.

I’d imagined reapplying for my passport would be much more enjoyable – with visions of scenic countrysides to explore dancing through my head. But instead, I’m siphoning the necessary funds from my “maybe I can actually save this at the end of the month” account, rationalizing the expenditure as vitally necessary.

While I’m not a catastrophist, I am paying close attention to the growing warning signs that the coming sadistic “administration” plans to act as judge, jury, and executioner – without any care or concern for the Constitution, much less the Bill of Rights, or human morality. I fully intend to fight and defend what I know to be good and true in this country, but I’m also incredibly terrified of what could come to pass, as well as the violence incited along the way.

Every single day when I leave for work, I envision a time in the near future when the final straw becomes dangerously heavy – when I’ll have to race back, scoop up Joanna, vital documents, maybe a keepsake or two, and just go, leaving my mended home and garden to the coming ravages.

I hope beyond hope that sensible, smart, dedicated, compassionate people will unite and push back against this scourge and his minions. And I fully intend to play a part in it – even if the story’s epilogue ends with me and JoJo in my Toyota, speeding north.

***

Rain cascades down in sheets, and a few shingles fly off the dilapidated roof. Boards above in the attic pop from the dry air and sudden moisture co-mingling, and heated air pipes through the vents – resembling the sounds of the open sea.

I sit and watch the moonlit branches dancing in the wind, and listen to the creaking of the makeshift garden fence just outside the windows. I rub my socked foot along the painted floor, recognizing how important this place is to me, and how much I want to grow here.

As I tuck all the documents into the large envelope and seal it tightly, another hearty gust blasts the windows, making the panes shudder.

I stare past the envelope on the tabletop and into JoJo’s marble-like eyes, and quietly murmur.

“We’re in this thing together. And while the storm may rage and weather us, with hope, we’ll still be standing when the sun rises.”

Forward-effacing

The long, expansive access ramp juts out from the midcentury rambler’s facade like a metallic tongue, beckoning me and the other circling vultures inside.

Nearing the front door, I hug the railing as a white-painted headboard bursts across the threshold, followed quickly by the footboard. The couple shuttling the bed frame makes their way to a battered Chevy Silverado as I scoot past the mattress and box spring leaning idly by the door.

Just inside, the hallway is plastered with signs reading “50% off!” My eyes dart to every fixture and shelf, each of which sports a peel-off orange price tag. This is the first estate sale I’ve ever been to, and I’m struck by its emotional heaviness.

I’m so used to seeing antiques and keepsakes wholly divorced from their context; but here, scattered among bedrooms and basement nooks, along patio edges and kitchen counters, everything is laid bare with trace amounts of significance. A couple stands behind a cash register in the living room, and I soon learn they’re part of an auction house group hired to sell off as much of the contents as possible, before the rest is donated to charity. They suggest I check downstairs in the basement, and I wind my way past other oglers coming in through the front door, and down a narrow carpeted staircase.

In the basement, tables upon tables are stacked with tools, drill bits, cigar tins, and every other sort of appliance part imaginable. I’m immediately overwhelmed by the smell of oil and leather, and make my way to an open patio door. Outside, three large wheelbarrows and massive metallic tubs are lined up like prize cattle. In a nearby shed, a few boxes of broken parts sit among an old push mower from the fifties; I briefly entertain the mower, but then counterbalance it with utility, and exit – flies swarming in the dank air behind me.

Back inside, I find a small dinette chair covered in oil-soaked slip covers, a handful of old stoneware pickling crocks, a lamp, a handmade rolling cart, and a hanging bamboo tea light holder – all of which I pile upstairs near the register.

On my last circuit around, I stop in the bedroom farthest from the center of the house. There, in a corner, stands a potty chair walker; the only other furnishings in the room are a partly deconstructed twin bed, and a Kmart shelf with old hat boxes piled on top. I don’t know whether or not I’m supposed to be in here. For a moment, it’s just me and the potty chair, and the bright pink shag carpeting.

I delicately remove one of the closest hat boxes, peering inside at the crumpled tissue paper forms shaped into half-spheres, having cradled spherical glass ornaments for decades; two lone ornaments wobble on the shelving unit below, residual glitter flaking off. Along the interior box rim, I can barely make out a name  – something with a “G,” maybe George.

Suddenly, one of the register operators pokes her head around the doorframe, and I shove the hat box back on top of the unit, give her a slight smile, and cast my eyes down to the shag carpeting – away from the walker in the corner as I shuffle out the door.

After paying, the auction group hands me a receipt, a bright stamp reading “Please Call Again” – ever the reminder of death and endings coming to pass. On my last trip out, I notice a mirror hanging by the door – reflecting so many memories and lives and futures as the past collides with the present, fleetingly out through the door.

With the backseat piled high, I adjust my rearview mirror and quietly assure the former resident that I’ll take care of all of their things, realizing in the same breath that everything on Earth is merely rented.

***

About 12 hours later, a liter of saline fluid drips into the IV plug at my wrist, the dancing light of early afternoon filtering between the slightly opened blinds. The room is dark and silent, and I fade in and out of shallow sleep, readjusting myself on the papery tarp cascading across the pleather examination room recliner.

Whenever a nurse or doctor comes in to check that I’m not dead, I rally both eyes to focus, and my speech to resemble something slightly more robust than a jellyfish slopping through a vat of peanut butter. Every single time I assure them I’m alright, and supplement my verbal affirmation with a thumbs up – the quintessential sign that things are not alright.

Later, in moments of hydrated lucidity, I startle myself awake reeling from the feeling of waking up in an alien place.

I catch my breath, and try to breathe.

In and out.

In and out.

In

and

out.

Life has gotten terrifyingly weird. No one really knows where they’ll be in a few days, a couple months, a year; everything I do now feels like it’s on borrowed time.

The week a KKK-underwritten demagogue was elected to the highest office in our nation, I was planning a fundraising party, and had to keep smiling. But It’s hard to be festive when you feel like your country is on the brink of collapse.

Even still, in the scary days ahead, we must rally and fight to build the brighter future we know is possible – that we’ve been fighting for all along. It’s hard to do – to push back. But, to pull out a Trekkie reference, “We will do what we’ve always done. Find hope in the impossible.”

Things will be getting worse before they get better.

And I must recognize every morning, that while I feel like I’m waking up in the middle of a dystopian novel’s prologue, I do have a voice, and can do what I can to rewrite the narrative.

Moored

The closing credits of A Little Chaos roll through the rain-streaked windows, the lamplight fuzzed by condensation forming inside the sunporch’s drafty windows.

Plumes of steam from the steel mill quietly explode into the night sky, drifting uphill with the wind and spreading around this sagging house.

I tilt my head back and exhale, my breath hanging momentarily before disappearing into the woods behind me. The makeshift door to the garden hangs open, and light from inside the house casts just enough of a glow to guide my impulsive, late-night garden cleaning.

I shove my hands into shadowy corners of the planting beds, lifting giant, drenched leaves off purplish kale starts. My lone celery plant’s neon green stalks glisten in the refracted light. Rain drizzles down the back of my hoodie, and soil grinds under my nails.

And I laugh into the darkness. 

This is what it feels like to be alive.

A train blasts its horn far downslope, fracturing the drip drip dripping from the rain spouts above. But the momentary break reminds me of why I came out here in the first place.

I feel around in the dark crevices of the wood pallet wall for the pot of chopsticks – the perfect mini stakes for training seedlings to grow upward. I snag a splintered one, its old Made in China sticker flaking away. I scrape off the rest, letting its gold flecks mix with the dirt beneath my nails.

After one last glance at the darkened garden, I amble uphill to the cottage’s bright red back door, and scuff the bottoms of my slip-ons across the doormat. Beneath the porch light, a tiny stream of rainwater drips down the weathered clapboard, breaking at the edges and pooling on the saturated wooden stoop. Ballerina-like, I sweep a large terra cotta strawberry planter over to the corner, situating it just beneath the cascading drops.

Everything in its place. 

The pot’s dried soil quickly saturates, and I will the bell pepper seeds just below the surface to germinate.

When I toss my shoes onto a rusted midcentury serving platter just inside the door – my own makeshift shoe tray – the clatter jars me unexpectedly. Water-logged leaves and twigs pepper the platter’s paint-flaked surface, and coat my shoes – barely distinguishable as the crisp, preppy pair I’d bought for my wedding. Now soggy messes, their sides fold in, giving the appearance that they’re imploding. I stoop and gather the leafy leavings, which is when I realize the scene depicted on the platter is a wedding ceremony.

Oh, Universe. You cheeky asshole.

Dusting off my hands, I switch off the light and head over to the drooping yucca plant – the weight of its opening leaves causing the stalk to bend in on itself and kink. I bury the chopstick alongside its base and gently tie it up with some stray string.

A little support

Over the past two weeks, I’ve felt more like myself than I have in a long time. I want to do everything at once, be everywhere. But I have to remember that, sometimes, I start growing so quickly, in every direction, that I lose my balance and nearly collapse in on myself.

And while I’ll keep striving to rebuild my life with purpose, I’ll be mindful to do so slowly, intentionally – reminding myself that a little mooring every now and then may just be what I need to flourish.