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.

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.

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.”

Authentically Vulnerable

Vulnerability isn’t something most people find comforting. It’s almost always conflated with some form of weakness – the whole, “Life is hard, so deal with it” mentality.

Not until I started therapy did I realize the importance of being vulnerable. To be vulnerable is to be authentic – my full, honest self.

What I’m still getting used to is the fallout from being authentic; sometimes, I’ll get hurt. And that’s okay, as long as I’m authentic. Bruised feelings are indeed part of life. But as long as I let the sting of a botched conversation, a misplaced phrase, an awkward moment subside – laugh it off, remind myself that it’s okay to fuck up – it won’t morph into something unbearable.

This year hasn’t been easy. Starting over is hard. Divorce is harder.

I’ve had to do a lot of thinking, and deep dives into myself. I’ve purposefully stayed away from people because I just can’t handle a lot right now. But I’m gradually opening myself back up – not because I feel guilty, but because it’s time.

Divorce has made me question a lot about myself – where I’ve been, what I’ve seen, and how I’ve become the person I am right now.

So I mapped out some of the most painful parts of my journey, mostly because I had to get them out, turn them into a collective literary punching bag that I can acknowledge – from which I can move on.

I’m a small-town Alabama kid
Nobody knows
Because I dropped my accent years ago
To conform,
To be taken seriously,
To be learned;
Forcing myself into a new, clipped
Academic vocabulary
To subvert all the things that made me
Me
In voice and expression,
Because of listening to puppets chanting
“You don’t belong here,”
“You’re not worth the time” –
That “you’ve fallen through the cracks” –
And that no one is sorry,
Except me.
Because now, every time someone says,
“You don’t sound like you’re from there,”
A part of me crumbles.

The pain takes me back to
Elementary school where I sit out of PE
To go to Speech Therapy,
Where I learn about Sally and the Seashore
And all the damn shells
That I can’t pronounce
Without making my therapist
Grimace,
And sigh –
So she makes me do it all over again
While handing me worksheets of cows with hard “C”’s
And snakes with slimy “S”’s,
Expecting that I can “just get by”
If I really try.

So I’m an impostor in my own skin,
My own mouth,
My own mind; nothing is really real.
And so I drift
Unmoored,
Believing that I’m not smart enough
That I can’t understand
That I’m lazy and inactive
And that’s why I’m not growing –
So I eat and eat and eat Boost bars
In the hopes that my height will change,
My voice will deepen;
I’ll no longer be all the names the other kids call me.

And then I walk into the house one day
And find Mom-Mau, my friend, my confidant
Unconscious,
Blood everywhere,
Handprints smeared across the wall,
A pool of blood by her head,
And the slightest moan –
Me screaming to Dad
And the ambulance sirens
And the quiet stillness of being alone with the blood,
The metallic odor crippling me
As I push our skittering dog away from the bathroom door to
Close myself in with it –
To rinse and wipe and absorb the moments of impact from the tile,
To feel her pain –
And watch, weeks later, her become a shell
Talking about people who aren’t there –
The lizards running around the floor,
Her eyes glazing, taking her somewhere else;
Watching her in the final hours reaching toward the ceiling
And smiling,
And thrashing,
And saying, “I love you” in a moment of lucidity
Before disappearing forever –
And I go home and wind her music box,
Sobbing as the music chimes
Somewhere…over the rainbow.

I’m never the same –
Knowing the truth and doing everything to deny it, and
Cutting deep when the mental maelstrom becomes too much
Or purging and binging and not eating –
And sitting down with a chilled bottle of vodka
Vials of anti-depressants,
And reaching for them both, the weight of the finality
Bearing my hands down – pushing the concoctions away, locking them in a cabinet,
As I, defeated, sigh, “Not today.”

Working out to fit into a mold that doesn’t want me,
And finally whispering the truth to myself in a dark apartment
In Tuscaloosa,
“I’m gay”
Echoing through my mind like a bullet through my brain –
And telling my family
All gathered around the long dining room table
Staring hard into the wood, hoping this self-truth will
Make itself known without me saying it,
But speaking it nonetheless
And dealing with the silence,
The tears,
The acceptance;
It ends a life, and starts a new one.

Drunk at a party in college,
I flirt with unconsciousness
When a foreign hand goes down my pants
And men mutter in the hazy background
About what I got,
The coldness and thoroughness of the search
And my dazed attempts to stop it,
Just stop,
That it’s not funny anymore
That my body doesn’t feel like my own.

Creating a chosen family,
And fighting together
For life,
Our rights,
And hope;
Meeting a man when I thought I never would,
And setting out on an amazing journey,
Taking us both away from so much of what we’ve known as
Home –
But where we’re told we’re less than – to a place
Where we say, “I do,” always and forever,
Not knowing forever’s boundaries.

And bonding and loving and building a life
And family
And arguing like all couples,
Until we can’t do it anymore
And our ride together ends –
But what a ride it’s been.

Picking up the pieces
In a different place –
A strange time in life
To be on my own again
And terrified,
And empowered,
And exhausted,
And human.

Watching each day unfold
And appreciating the little things
That make a day worth enjoying,
Worth feeling,
Worth waking up for
Tomorrow morning.

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.

There’s No Place Like Home

Good morning. Be advised: I’ve had coffee. You can approach.

As recorded in this un-posted post, I found Wednesday a little challenging:

Oh my gods. Do you ever just have those days where everything you do turns into a giant poo ball? WELCOME TO MY TUESDAY!

But really. It’s 11:30 and this is all I’ve accomplished:

(1) Sent a query.

(2) Wrestled sidewalk meat away from Toby.

(3) Sent the WRONG FUCKING cover letter for a particularly interesting job.

(4) Gone Devil Wears Prada on the asshat moving company that still owes us for fucking up some of our furniture.

(5) Deleted yesterday’s three job rejections, including the one for this job.

(6) Repeatedly screamed “FUCK the FUCKING FUCK!”

(7) Guzzled a pitcher of iced coffee.

(8) Realized that some people’s dogs on Instagram/Twitter/Facebook have more likes/followers than my blog.

(9) Read about a stay-at-home gay dad turned writer, checked out his Instagram feed, and was bombarded by shirtless photos that made me want to EAT A CAKE AND THROW IT UP JUST SO I COULD EAT IT AGAIN.

(10) TYPED EVERYTHING IN ALL CAPS.

I’m in such a foul mood. And the most annoying thing about it is that it’s one of those that I know I can snap myself out of, but I sort of don’t want to at the moment. I JUST WANT TO GIVE EVERYONE MY RESTING BITCH FACE AND END IT WITH AN ALL INCLUSIVE MIC DROP.

Not only did everything in the world rub me the wrong way, but I’d completely misplaced Wednesday.

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source

I haven’t hidden the fact that moving to Seattle has been harder than I initially thought it’d be. I figured we’d land on our feet like we always have, and I’d snag one of the bazillion nonprofit development jobs floating around, and we’d live contentedly happy lives smack in the middle of Capitol Hill and marvel at the amazingness of life.

That’s just not how it’s panned out.

Granted, we like where we live and we’re constantly marveling at the amazingness of life, but we’re also aware that this move has drained us a bit. What’s more, it’s reminded us of what we’ve been missing, and what we want.

Last weekend we ventured out to immerse ourselves in Seattle’s LGBT community (after all, one of our goals before moving out here was to get more involved), and we figured we’d do that by going to visit the location of one particular organization that seemed to be a crazy-awesome hub for LGBT activism. So, fortified with coffee, we set out with equal parts exhilaration and anxiety – because starting over in a new place is always difficult, as is meeting new people.

We walked up, got excited by the fluorescent sign, swung open the door, and walked into a tiny room stacked with books – whose keeper was completely passed out at his desk. After tiptoeing around a bit, stoking the now smoldering embers of our excitement with the slightest fuel – LOOK, THEY HAVE AN OLD, YELLOWED COPY OF SUCH AND SUCH – we started heading for the door, at which time the attendant awoke. I asked him where the “larger center with which this place is affiliated” was located, and just got a blank stare in response. This was it. Thoroughly dismayed, we donated the few bucks we had in our wallets, thanked him, and left.

To the organization’s credit, it was there – present for the community as a resource and support; that’s incredibly important and I don’t mean to minimize it.

But the fact of the matter is, over the past few years, we’ve craved community on this coast and haven’t really found it. We’ve been fortunate enough to meet wonderful people and make a few friends. Still, even in the liberal enclaves, we’ve yet to encounter anything remotely as accessible, opening, and welcoming as the community-centric LGBT Center of Raleigh – where we met, and a place we love.

LA seemed more about appearance and income brackets than community.

Seattle seems more about fragmented, insulated social bubbles into which it’s nearly impossible to break.

Naively, we were expecting that same sense of community from our Raleigh days to be amplified in these larger, more liberal cities. Instead, it’s been the exact opposite. And the very particular sense of loneliness that’s resulted has been what’s been pushing us to move around, to find a fitting answer – even when the most logical solution has been staring us in the face.

Wednesday night, after Andy surprised me with tulips and a sweet card even though I was being a monstrous beast, we chatted over pizza and peach pie. And then watched Revolutionary Road. Whenever we’re thinking intensively about the future, and any big changes ahead, we always watch it.

We watched it when we decided to venture out to this coast.

So we watched it again when we decided to move back.

Wednesday was a big day.

***

So, we’re giving ourselves a year or so before we head back – after all, we just got to Seattle and there’s a lot of interesting stuff here to explore, and things to learn.

But there’s a certain sense of relief knowing that we’ll be returning to a place that’s felt more like home than anywhere we’ve lived – a place where we can make a difference, contribute to the community, and feel a sense of belonging that’s been so lacking out here. Plus, whenever we decide to become parents, we don’t want to raise our kid in a liberal bubble, but we also have to be somewhere where we, too, feel supported and at peace.

Until then, though, we’ll keep our heads up and enjoy our time out here – with our Raleigh goal always in sight. And while our journey on this coast may end, we’ll still learn plenty of lessons while we’re out here.

And gladly take them back home.

The First Year: Lessons of the Marital Kind

I’m chasing a massive dust bunny across the living room floor when Andy calls for the fourth time in the past minute.

“Hey.”

“Hey. So they need all of our past addresses. This is so fucking stupid. What was our Raleigh address?”

I recite the street number, then quickly look up the zip code. In the background, he repeats everything to the customer service representative, followed by our Koreatown address, and West Hollywood address. The last, it seems, is the ticket. “Hallelujah! Alright. Hold on a minute.”

He mutes her, and then returns to me.

“Alright, thanks. I think that’ll do it.”

“Okay, breathe. Just think, this is the last time we’ll have to do this.”

We hang up, and I close the accordion binder bloated with our 401k paperwork. My mind drifts for a moment before a crunch-snap-crunch from the darkened bedroom pulls me back to the morning.

TOBE!

The noise stops abruptly. With his tail ducked, Toby pitter-patters into the living room, his saucer-like eyes cooing plaintively, “What can I do for you, dear father? I LOVE YOU SO MUCH. AND I CERTAINLY WASN’T CHEWING ON MY OVERFILLED TOY BASKET AT ALL. NOT WHEN I HAVE BAZILLIONS OF WONDERFUL TOYS.”

He performs his signature “I’m so cute” wiggle, and then investigates the dust bunny at my feet.

No. That’s mine.”

He snorts, then attacks his Woody doll.

I sweep up the dusty blob, and add one more item to my to-do list. The phone rings again. It’s Andy.

“I CAN’T BELIEVE THIS. I have to write a letter proving my current address. So I can request to change my password. So they can send me a new password. So I can roll this thing over…”

I reopen the binder.

This is our first year.

***

Andy and I met rather unexpectedly on May 5, 2012 – while we both volunteered for OutRaleigh 2012. We never exchanged numbers, only a handful of words and a few smiles; and then the sky opened up, and we parted ways in our respective mad dashes for cover. I didn’t even know his name until I asked a friend about him. A few weeks later, we met again, but still didn’t get anywhere. Only after I Facebook stalked him, messaged him, and waited for a week did we finally connect.

And the rest has become part of our story.

Today is our first anniversary as a married couple. And reflecting on the past year, and the years before, has been an interesting emotional ride.

Lots of people like to pontificate about what it takes to make a marriage work, but they often gloss over the less than lovely bits, making everyone else in a committed relationship wonder if they’re missing something – if their relationship isn’t sparkly-clean. Of course, every relationship has its own quirks from blending life experiences and their associated baggage. But I think there’re common threads for many, especially during the first year – regardless of who you marry. For me, I like to think back to when we first got together – trace our history through various relationship phases, and embody the lessons we’ve learned.

But before I delve into it, in reality, no particular phase was clearly demarcated or bracketed by experiences. Nothing happened in a linear fashion. After all, it’s not like Action 1 led to Action 2 led to Happy Resolution. Life’s not an after school special.

The Honeymoon Phase: Enjoying Each Other, Falling Off Friends’ Radar

Immediately after making it Facebook official, we were inseparable and I was smitten. Because he satisfied all of my major personality requirements:

Smart (we had to be able to have intelligent conversations, so he had to be my intellectual equal or smarter – and yes, I know that sounds snobby, but whatever)

Funny (laughter is wholly necessary to make it through anything)

Mature (emotional age at least equivalent to actual age)

Quietly kind (not all LOOK AT ME, I’M SO SWEET – the little gestures mean more)

Confident (confidence, not overwhelming pride)

So, we were set. And all about the selfies.

Our first movie together.

We did everything together; nothing could go wrong. Everything was popcorn and candy canes and movies and kisses and stubble burn. We were exhausted for all the right reasons.

Our first date...on a trolley pub

But part of being so engrossed with one another – discovering our loves and pet peeves, our interests and dreams – came the necessary reduction in socialization (aka: falling off the friend radar). Friends undoubtedly wondered, “What the fuck? Too good for us now, huh?” But that wasn’t the case. We were learning that maintaining and fine-tuning a relationship took more time and energy than we originally thought. And that came with a price. But that didn’t mean we didn’t love our friends. We were just trying to develop a basis for our relationship. Even if it required a million selfies.

Settling In: Combining Households, Opening Arguments

There’re two schools of thought about moving in together: “Wait until marriage” and “Just get it over with.” For many reasons, we were in the second group. And I’m incredibly glad for it. Don’t get me wrong, there’re plenty of folks I know who didn’t combine households until the rings were exchanged, and they’re just fine. But combining households was a pretty big deal for us, and I know for certain that, had we waited, things would’ve been strained.

Like most people, Andy and I had to reconcile personal tastes, aesthetics, and sentiments in creating a home that reflected us both. I wholeheartedly admit that I’m a hard person to live with because I rarely budge on any of these issues. Thankfully, Andy dove in and we shed furniture, combined DVD collections (major step for two cinephiles), and bought furniture that we felt reflected our synthesized style.

The minute he bought this, I was imagining how great it'd look in the apartment. Our apartment.

But not before we had our very first fight. Over this sideboard:

Oh, sideboard.

We had two sideboards and I was completely vehemently opposed to getting rid of either of them. Because I sure as hell wasn’t going to allow his bedroom set into my our apartment. We ended up in silence (which we both hate). And I started filing through my emotions, and then I took stock of Andy. He was clearly upset – laying prone on the floor, staring at the ceiling. And then it happened.

“We can get rid of it.”

I didn’t even realize it was me saying it. But seeing him so upset triggered something, made me realize that a piece of furniture wasn’t worth bruised feelings.

“No, it’s okay. I actually like it. I was just being defensive.”

We listened to one another. We learned. We apologized. And we moved on. This was compromise. But more than that, each of us was putting the other’s feelings ahead of our own – a critical development point for us both.

We the Couple: Everyone Gets It…For Real. Shut Up.

We didn’t mean to do it. I don’t think anyone really does. But after moving in, after resolving the first fight, we began doing things not as Andy or Matt, but as “we.”

We went to the movies.”

We had a great time at so-and-so’s party.”

We love red wine.”

We just think that’s fabulous.”

We even jokingly called ourselves “Mandy.” This phase coincided with reacquainting with our friends – the ones we thought hated us for leaving them temporarily. Everything was no longer a singular, isolated activity. The “we” was peppered through everything, over-seasoning conversations and eliciting actual or internalized eye-rolls from friends.The perpetual "we"

Everyone got it: we were together, in a relationship, bound at the hip, boos. And as annoying as it was for them, it was okay. We were creating a foundation for our relationship – simply by its recognition by the people in our lives who mattered. So this thing we’d started became more real for us and our friends.

Meeting the Mommas-and-Them

When we realized that we were in this thing, we knew that it was only a matter of time before we met each other’s parents and sister. And we did in time. I went up to New York, and he went to Alabama. We were each examined, questioned, and assessed by the parents and our sisters, and we both passed despite the expected foibles and fretting. One thing that made meeting the families easier was having already moved in together; there was no question of “Is this a passing thing?” There was clearly something substantial there, so those questions could be discarded and replaced with more probing, incisive ones. Really, everyone won.

The two sides!

Now, not only was our boyfriendom validated by our friends, but our families were woven into it too. We started commenting on familial inner-workings, and figured out how we were going to fit into it all.

Working and Living: Financials and Healthcare  

After the green lights were lit, we re-assumed business as usual – but as a bona fide unit. We had each other to confide in, and the everyday hubbub wasn’t quite as bad. We could vent to each other, and we felt like we were making something together. What we returned to each night wasn’t an apartment, it was our home. And part of making that home a solvent, self-sustaining thing was addressing financials and maintaining ourselves health-wise. Without addressing those things, we were really just playing house. Andy and I actually combined finances and apartments really early on – some would say absurdly early. But we did. And it worked.

We’re both incredibly detail- and plan- oriented, so we determined what made the most sense (whose healthcare would we use, how much to put into savings…). These were all very necessary, difficult steps. There was a lot of adulting that took place during this phase, and we both grew up quickly. Each of us swelled with pride – we’d taken these steps together. We were legitimizing this life with as much legal protection as we could.

[Finally] the Question: Yes

After being domesticated gays for a while, and moving across the country, we made it official. Planning a wedding is hard, even if it’s tiny. And it frayed our nerves. But both sides of the families met. We said “I do,” and we kept moving.

So many people say, “Marriage changes everything” – even if you’ve already lived together. And yes, there’s a distinct change – you’re officially in this relationship together. You’re no longer free agents – able to do what you want when you want it. There’s a process, a system of emotional checks and balances. The transition can be a little bumpy. Even with everything we’d already experienced, we still had more to learn after the big “M” solidified everything. It was no longer just a partnership, it was a marriage.

Peaks & Valleys: Marriage Ain’t Easy

As exciting as it was to be puttering along together – setting goals and doing our best to bring them to fruition – we had tiffs and spats and hit limits, and questioned ourselves each time.

“Is this argument the end?”

“What will I do?”

“I can do this, right?”

No one is perfect. And we all show ugliness at one point or another. All of those questions bubbled up, and we were forced to answer them. And after every quarrel, after every shouting match, we reconciled. Reconciliation is one thing that any marriage can’t do without. And while we’ve established many tenets for our relationship, one of the main ones is this: Never go to bed angry. No matter how exhausting the conversation has been, we never let the wound scab over without thoroughly cleaning it out. If there’s any shadow of a doubt that there’s still something lurking under the surface, we rip that scab right back off and bleed the grossness out. And then we heal. What I most value in our relationship is the transparency: If either of us is sad or depressed or angry, we address it. There’s no looking the other way.

We all filter our experiences – determining what’s worth getting angry, sad, or frustrated about – and it’s those experiences that matter, those that have an impact, those that’re worth sharing that should be addressed, especially if they’re impacting our moods. Sharing our experiences – the good, bad, horrifically ugly – has helped bind us together, and makes our marriage stronger. Working through the hard shit is totally worth it.

Should I Stay or Should I Go Now?

No matter how much hard shit we’ve both worked through – separately and together – there have come points where we’ve both asked ourselves, “Should I stay?”

This question is scary as fuck.

I’ve been there, and Andy’s been there. It springs from a dark place, or a particularly pointed argument – or some combination thereof. But when I got to that place, I had to disconnect for a moment, and ask some other difficult questions: “What if this ends? Will I be okay? Yes, I’ll be okay. I can manage. I’ll go on. It’ll be indescribably hard, but I won’t crumble. I’ll remain. I’ll live.”

As weirdly horrible as it may seem, this is the healthiest, most reassuring question I’ve ever asked myself. Because I’ve learned that to make our marriage work, I have to constantly maintain myself – I have to be certain that I can be there, that I can be supportive, that I can be my own person outside of being a “husband” or “partner.”

And immediately after that realization, I knew my answer to the overarching question – “Is it worth staying?” – was a resounding “Absolutely.”

Love is complex. Love is hard. And to fully understand it all, I sometimes have to break down my emotions, ask pointed questions of myself (“Am I doing enough?”, “Am I trying my best?”), and rebuild myself to fully realize how much I love Andy, and how much I love our marriage.

Wrinkles in Time: Officially Growing A Year Older Together

Today, we’re officially a year old. Andy and I have traveled across the country three times. We’ve been to the brink and back in every possible meaning of the phrase. We’ve rebuilt and recreated ourselves, and we’ve extended our life together to strengthen the lives of two furry beings.

The dynamic duo

We’ve said painful goodbyes, and heartfelt hellos in the three different cities we’ve called home.

We continue to make peace with ourselves – reconciling our own insecurities, our fears – and share a life, and enjoy everything in our own ways. We’re redefining our individual interests, and are branching out to avoid intense co-dependency – something we’ve experienced, which can lead to smothering and resentment. We’re learning to let go of the past, and embracing what comes with open eyes and minds.

One half...

...and the other half

We’re planning for our future more than ever, and are considering what it’ll mean to extend our lives yet again – this time for a less furry being.

We’re in it completely.

***

Pride was a few days ago, and we ventured out sporadically. The spectrum of life seemed to flood by our building, and we stood there like stones in a stream as Toby did his business. So many people looking for someone special, or looking to be seen – trying to find someone for the night, or for longer.

And there we were, in the middle of it, two veterans with stained tees and a pooping dog. And I wouldn’t trade any of it for the world.

Always look for the beauty...