Brushing Up

Weaving through the roundabout, my Toyota’s front end wheezed and groaned—mechanical harbingers of exorbitant maintenance bills—the volume rising as I hit a pothole, jarring the nearly life-size wooden macaw from its perch on the backseat.

Moments earlier, I’d left a yard sale where the air was heavy with the aroma of freshly laid manure.

“Sorry about the smell!” the seller’s friend shouted as I exited the car, crinkling my nose.

“No worries,” I responded.

I’d actually just spread similar smelling compost around the bases of struggling plants in my garden, willing the nutrients to trickle down and enliven their withering bodies.

As I made my way into the yard, I noticed the seller was lifting crates packed with items out of her glutted garage. After perusing the first couple of items, I spied a tag from an antique mall I frequented, lifting it to read the item description.

“Oh, and don’t pay any attention to the prices on those tags,” she called, setting down a box. “They’re just for history. They’re not the prices.”

I later learned that her mother had a booth at the antique mall, and had recently died, leaving her daughter to purge the unsold items.

Judging from what I saw, I regretted not having more cash. But since it was the end of the month and I’d be left with just a couple of bucks in my bank account after rent was drafted, I reminded myself I didn’t need anything else—that this was just for fun. Residing in an area where the cost of living is constantly climbing, and where I barely make ends meet, my fun must be measured strictly in dollars and cents.

Eying a green-tinted bean pot, I lifted it up to confirm my suspicion; it was Frankoma. I considered asking how much it was, but refrained. For a few weeks I’d mulled over the idea of starting an little online shop, re-selling cheap yard sale finds like this one. But I was wary of amassing items and having them sit while I hashed out logistics for this potential, highly unprobable venture. It reminded me too much of my fifth grade get rich quick scheme: manufacturing necklaces made from perforated shells I’d hoarded from a trip to Destin, stringing them together with mint-flavored dental floss. I’d rationalized that the mint smell would make the necklaces seem more authentic and tropical. In the end, I only sold one for five dollars to a kid named Lee, and ended up with three massive buckets of shells bleaching in a corner of my room. My gums, however, were resplendent.

I lowered the pot back down onto the throw, and moved through the other items as another picker showed up.

Immediately, I recognized the woman would be a headache-inducing nightmare for the seller. Barely entering the thick of it, she lifted up a baby doll with a melted head and demanded to know how much. I quietly continued, watching her out of the corner of my eyes. Item by item, she slowly amassed a pile, including the Frankoma piece. I nodded over to her as she picked it up, mentioning that it was a good score and throwing in a bit of history about Frankoma.

After that, she asked me about every single item she considered, prefacing each inquiry with some derivation of, “Since you seem to know a hell of a lot about this stuff…” During a lull in the questioning, the seller confided to me, “Yeah, I should probably eBay a lot of this stuff. But I just want it gone, you know? It’s an energy thing.” Her tone fading to a whisper, her eyes watering as she turned away.

I nodded and said I completely understood. Whenever I make a decision to shed something, I want it gone immediately; I quickly grow to loathe and resent the space it occupies.

A few other folks pulled up, and I wound my way back to the few things I assumed I could afford with the couple of bucks I had in my pocket—the macaw, and a thin artist’s palette. Since the macaw was on a stake, I intended to use it as a plant anchor. Three dollars later, I walked them back to my car, the sound of the bargain hunter’s booming voice drifting after me.

***

As I reached into the backseat with my free arm to shift the macaw back into place, I spied a plastic chair coming into view on my right-hand side. Closer, I noticed a paper sign reading “Fun stuff for sale” duct-taped to it, a sloppily painted red arrow pointing down a narrow alley.

I glanced down the shadowy lane as I passed, but didn’t see anything remotely resembling fun. But as I crept up to the end of the block, I circled back down the other side, determining where the alley ended and if I could see anything from a different angle. Still nothing. I circled the block again, debating whether or not to venture down the alley, before deciding to park.

As I passed the chair and followed the arrow, I told myself that I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if I came upon a naked man swirling a cracked wine glass and wearing a furry horse head with “fun stuff” painted in dripping red across his hairy, mole-covered, protruding gut.

About twenty feet down, a small driveway opened up to one side, and I noticed various items strewn across a few tables and broken fishing poles propped against a fence. I didn’t see an attendant until I was fully in the backyard.

The middle-aged man was shirtless, wearing a faded hat turned backwards. As he turned at my approach, I noticed he had plumber’s crack, and patches of thick upper arm hair.

I mumbled a greeting and quickly pored over the items, recognizing immediately that there was nothing I wanted. But he kept getting closer, making the situation all the more awkward. I felt slightly hemmed in, my southern politeness chiding, “Be respectful and give this shit another once over,” while my intuition screamed, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN AN ALLEY WITH A STRANGER? RUN!”

“Clearing things out, huh?” I said, forcing a casual tone.

“YEP YOU KNOW JUST TRYING TO MAKE ROOM FOR HER STUFF,” he boomed, motioning to a chair barely visible around the corner, presumably occupied by some unseen figure. Mother perhaps.

The way he spoke suggested an urgency to everything.

Rusted tools and tarnished silver covered one table, with a few boxes beneath housing moldy Judy Blume books, and a disturbingly old tome simply titled The Human Body—the figure on the front skinless, with exposed sinews and bulging eyeballs.

He noticed me reviewing the books, and shuffled even closer, his sagging bellybutton nearly level with my ear.

NO ONE BUYS BOOKS ANYMORE. THEY’RE ALL PLUGGED INTO THEIR PHONES AND THOSE THINGS YA KNOW?”

He made a winding motion around his ear. I nodded and said it hurt my heart that books weren’t being read as much, even though I’d just read an article about how Millennials are opting for print books over audio or e-versions. But this was all about placation.

When he turned away, I used the opportunity to put a little more distance between us, and reviewed which items could possibly be of use. I was desperate for a diamond in the rough—something that I could snag with the two dollars I had in my wallet.

“What about the extension cord?”

“AH THAT’S FIFTEEN DOLLARS.”

I tried not to laugh in his face. Judging from the taped up sections, anyone who used it would probably be electrocuted the moment the prongs touched an outlet. I inched away from it, but he moved quickly, sidling up next to me, forcing me back toward it.

“YOU KNOW WHAT THIS IS DON’TCHA?”

What you tie your victims up with?

I looked on vacantly, screaming inwardly.

“IT’S A HUNDRED FOOTER!”

“Oh, wow.”

Quickly, I pivoted to an adjacent table and rummaged through a pile of dull files, and considered how many bodies the rusted saw next to them had dismembered.

A faded yellow radio on a nearby table began playing a song with incredibly explicit lyrics, and I tried to inwardly hum something uplifting.

“THIS IS SUPPOSED TO BE THE HALLELUJAH STATION!”

He ran over to the radio and turned the song down, muttering about the obscenities before returning to the shaded corner and mumbling in the chair’s direction.

If I ran now, I’d probably at least make it out of the alley, and then I could hit my car’s panic button before he pulled me back into the alley’s dark reaches, back to Mother.

I turned and stepped on a piece of gravel, which crunched loudly and ground beneath my Birkenstocks. He redirected his attention from the radio to me, and began charging back. To deflect whatever commentary—or knife thrust—he had ready, I grabbed the closest thing and asked about the price.

What about this brush?

Its wire teeth were bent, misshapen, and rusty, and its plastic body scuffed and cracked. It was garbage, and I hoped it was less than three dollars.

“UM YEAH THAT’S TWO DOLLARS.”

Hallelujah!

“Great, um, I’ll use it for my grill.”

I didn’t have a grill.

“OH MAN I DIDN’T EVEN THINK ABOUT THAT AND I JUST BOUGHT A GRILL CLEANER.”

He ran over to a pile of tools propped against a rotting shed, as if to prove its existence.

“WHEN THE HANDLE BROKE OFF OF THAT I JUST SAID FUCK IT.”

I pondered how he’d broken the handle—most likely forcing his latest victim into a bath, scrubbing dirty, filthy hair from their supple skin, chiding in a sing-song voice that Mother demanded a clean canvas.

So not only was I buying a garbage brush, but one that was broken to boot. I eyed the hole in the center of the plastic body where the handle had broken off, doing my best to avert his steely gaze.

“Well, this will do it!” I shouted, extending my crumpled two dollars.

“OK GREAT.”

He grabbed them with his roughened hands and shoved them into his pocket.

I turned and darted away, walking quickly to the street—all the while waiting for his hairy arm to pull me back, a chloroform-soaked rag pressed to my face, the brush falling out of my limp hand onto the alleyway, like the pearls from Bruce Wayne’s mother in the original Batman.

Sunlight glanced across my face as I skittered past the “fun stuff” sign and jumped into my car, pressing the accelerator.

***

JoJo twirled and barked at the macaw as I planted it in the center of my elephant ear plant’s pot, taking care to tie the most unstable stalks to the stake. I wiped the macaw down with a damp cloth and stepped back, smiling at the bright, chipping paint—wondering about where it came from, the stories it carried.

Macaw-fully good decor

I tossed the wire brush into a bin of home improvement tools, and laughed to myself at the absurdity of the whole exchange and that, in retrospect, it wasn’t the wisest move. I wondered if he’d sold anything else.

The infamous brush

Heading out to my garden, I grabbed a bowl I’d snagged at an estate sale months before. Its roughened glaze and off-kilter shape had struck me, and I imagined the potter who’d made it, who’d scrawled their name into the base. In the other hand, I toted my partially filled kettle, and planned to use the leftover water from the morning’s tea to refill the bird bath.

Rounding the corner, I stopped suddenly. Harriet, my resident Northern Harrier hawk, stood squarely in the middle of the bird bath, cleaning her beak in the little water that remained. The wind ruffled her plumage and she shook droplets all over herself. Within moments, she took flight, fracturing small twigs in the trees above, sending squirrels darting in all directions, barking frantically at her ascent. I waited for a moment, and then filled the concrete bath—a lone puff of down floating on top of the glassy pool.

Pod by pod, I plucked peas from their wispy stalks, tossing them into the bowl atop romaine leaves. I nudged baby cucumbers and eggplants and strawberries slowly budding on their vines, willing them to bulk up—to make the end of the month seem a little less wanting.

With my bowl full, I turned to head inside, and smiled at the streak of pink emblazoned across the gray sky; a beautiful farewell to another day gone.

Inside, I cut up everything and made a salad, positioning myself with it in front of one of my fans along the sun porch’s window bank. The heat was subsiding, but the cool air was a necessary, enlivening jolt; I still had things to do—writing to complete, art projects to start.

But I just stared out at the green, watching the light fade from the sky, trying to remind myself that I have to stop racing around from project to project lest I miss the beauty of quietly simple moments. There’s a certain fullness to my life that comes from embracing the world on a very basic level, of recognizing that I’m one tiny cog in a vast, pulsing world of bizarre creatures—tormented, suffering, vulnerable, jubilant.

As I do every night before I lay down to sleep, I reminded myself how fortunate I’ve been to have the opportunity to bring some of my goals to fruition, and to keep working toward others, especially now—when so many have so little, and our country is descending further into darkness. I usually murmur this to myself while looking at a glass jar I mended as a high schooler—aspiring to be an archaeologist, which I was able to be for nearly a decade—which contains fortunes from long since crumbled cookies.

Mended fortunes

It always reminds me that, though each of us may feel like a distinct, lonely shard in a fractured mirror, only by mending ourselves into a stronger whole will we be able to protect the future we know is within reach, that’s worth the fight.

***

Embedded in the most mundane moments of a given day, there’re stories of how we’ve swept the suffocating cobwebs off our weathered pasts, refreshing them with a coat of paint—liberally brushing on vibrancy and radiance, reflecting the color we know our lives can bring. But the only way of adding them to the blindingly fantastic kaleidoscope of humanity is by sharing them—reminding one another that we’re not alone.

That each of us has the power to bridge the gap between calamity and creation—sparking beauty, love, and connection, the promise that permeates every atom around us.

Oh, Canada!

For approximately three minutes, I reveled in the low cost of Joanna’s first boarding experience. But then the intake technician returned from the back and said that the doctor would like to chat with me about JoJo’s stay, adding quickly that everything was fine. After retrieving the lil bean and hearing about her explosive diarrhea and vomiting that morning– and watching my bill double from her antibiotics and an injection–I scooped her up and took her home.

Following two unsuccessful attempts at hiding her antibiotic in treats, I finally smeared enough of the smelly prescribed food over the pill for her to stomach it. Seated at the kitchen table, I barely reached my tea before she jumped up and burrowed into the knitted blanket covering my lap.

As I felt her little body rise and fall under the blanket and scratched between her ears, she poked her head out, looked up lovingly, and waited until we were nose-to-nose to burp in my face. A few minutes later, I had to surrender all motion as her series of snores grew louder, an occasional fart interjected for good measure.

Outside, the cloud-cluttered sky did its best to obscure the fragments of bright blue behind them. The heater clicked on, and I let the steam from my tea writhe up under my glasses, fogging them slightly. On the last day of my vacation, I looked forward to nothing more than a quiet day at home. I hadn’t had a true vacation since my honeymoon, and I’d forgotten how cathartic it could be. Albeit just a few days in Canada, this mini-vacation was just what I’d needed.

***

As I stood about 250 feet in the air, the Capilano Suspension Bridge began swaying from the tourists herding onto it like fleets of cattle. I clutched the thick cable railings and figured that I’d plunge to my death screaming, “I KNEW THIS WOULD HAPPEN!”

Capilano Bridge. It's only slightly (terrifyingly) high.

Capilano Bridge. It’s only slightly (terrifyingly) high.

I’ve never been comfortable with heights, but my friends had been very persuasive in selling this particular excursion. Despite my expectation of a horrific death by falling, I took heart in knowing that, at the very least, on my way down I’d have a great view of the beautiful scenery.

Ah, the cathartic sounds of a waterfall.

Ah, the cathartic sounds of a waterfall.

After traipsing across tree house-style catwalks and chatting about the sexual promiscuity of middle-schoolers, we scampered along a few more cantilevered walkways. Soon enough, we were in the gift shop, and I capitalized on my adrenaline rush by consuming a hearty supply of fudge.

Like the evening before, that night’s dinner was filled with laughter and conversation, and more than a few drinks. Feeling heady from all the booze, I happened to look over at a nearby table where a bromance was unfolding with every pint they knocked back. The more vocal one put his arm around his girlfriend’s shoulders, but didn’t break his gaze from watching his single friend’s Adam’s apple rock up and down with every gulp. After they returned from one of their multiple bathroom visits together, I happened to catch the eye of the single guy. The “family” resemblance was instant—as it often is—and his gaze quickly ricocheted off of me to settle on my friend seated beside me. Had this happened a decade ago, I’d have quietly cried into my cocktail. Instead, I chuckled to myself and tipped my glass ever so slightly in his direction before whispering to my friend that he had an admirer.

Self-acceptance isn’t an easy thing—but with the past year’s revelations, I’ve found that having a sense of humor is vitally important in propelling me forward. I don’t know what’ll unfold in the coming years, or where I’ll be or with whom—if anyone—but no matter what, I intend to keep on laughing.

***

On the ride back home, I melted into a playlist of Radiohead and David Bowie and Brandi Carlile, and absorbed the passing landscapes—letting the welcomed sun warm my arms and face.

About an hour outside of Seattle, the sky darkened and hail began raining down. I slowed and watched a few cars pull off under bridge overpasses. Instead of joining them, I putted along and kept myself focused on the brightening road ahead. Before long, sun enveloped the car and Seattle’s skyline came into view.

Sitting at traffic lights, I rolled around sea glass collected from Stanley Park’s shorelines, feeling the worn surfaces abrading my palms; tossed and turned through tumultuous currents, their jagged edges had softened into something timeless.

I felt revived—like I had the necessary confidence and fortitude to push ahead. Like the beginning of a love story, not every vacation needs to be a lengthy sonnet. Sometimes, a haiku will capture it all.

Instead, I Smiled

The carpet contoured to my face, and I felt safe. When I closed my eyes, I flirted with sleep, and could feel the weighted liquor coursing through me, lulling me into pliable submission.

I couldn’t see the television, but registered the talking heads crowing about the latest dresses and stars studding the red carpet as the Oscars got underway. Behind me, my friends continued to carouse and sip their drinks.

Until that night, I hadn’t felt like I was part of a group, much less a welcomed addition to any social clique. With them, I started to experience something that’d been lacking for most of my life: a sense of community. Alongside these guys, I felt like I could handle being gay.

***

Grant, the host, was my first crush, and I dared to think that I loved him. He had a biting wit and sarcastic sense of humor. And unlike me, he was confident. I’d fashioned an orbit around him throughout my senior year of college; but like a distant star, I always hovered on his periphery and he never pulled me in. Still, I admired him for all the qualities I failed to see in myself.

Someone refilled his cup with cheap vodka on the coffee table nearby, and the loudest of my friends brayed about giving massages, and asked if anyone wanted one. Drunkenly, I raised my hand from the floor. I was a freshly fledged gay, and I craved being seen, and I longed to be desired—and while I wasn’t sporting a six-pack or chiseled jaw, I’d worked off enough of my baby fat to pass as cute.

Due in part to a few botched make out moments courtesy of the Myspace meat market, I’d never been remotely intimate with another gay man. The simple act of being touched seemed foreign and exotic; and I wanted nothing more. And while I wasn’t attracted to my ad hoc masseur, the mere fact that a gay man was touching me felt thrilling.

Soon enough, my shirt proved to be an impediment, and I removed it at his prompting. The spindly carpet fibers burrowed into my torso, and I continued to melt into them, and tried to enjoy the moment. A few minutes after I’d balled up my shirt, the only couple there whispered conspiratorially to one another. I hadn’t paid much attention to them, but I noticed a distinct change in the room’s atmosphere. The television boomed louder, and I wondered where Grant had gone; I hadn’t heard him speak since my back massage started. I even thought that he might’ve been jealous, and I felt some semblance of flirtatious power over him.

After a little while, the massage stopped, and my friend got a drink and started chatting with Grant in the kitchen. I continued to lay there and let random thoughts dance through my head as I closed my eyes. That’s when I felt someone’s hand caressing my side; I was incredibly ticklish and I flinched a bit, chuckling as I did. It was one of Grant’s other friends—a member of the couple—and he’d framed himself closely over me, with his other hand pressed into the carpet near my head. I began to feel claustrophobic, and started to say something when he shoved his hand down the front of my jeans, grunting as he did, his breath curling inside my ear and melding with the lowered voices of the others.

“I want to know what you got,” he’d croaked, his liquored breath burning against my cheek.

My thoughts raced as I realized my dazed attempts to stop him were actually emboldening him. He pushed and prodded, his nails scratching into me as he strained against my freed, flailing hand toward my groin. He pushed his body closer, and muttered to his boyfriend.

“He’s trying to fucking cockblock me.”

When he reached my penis, I went numb. It was momentary and jarring, and he’d done it: his violation was complete. Whether he’d satisfied his curiosity, or I’d managed to catch him off guard, I was able to push his hand off my shaft; my skin crawled as his fingers raked through my pubic hair. He got up and melted into the background with Grant and the masseur. Frozen with terror, I stayed on the floor, watching the impression from his hand slowly disappear as the carpet rebounded.

Minutes later, Grant gathered me up, and put me to bed in his back room. The next morning, everyone except Grant was gone. He wished me a good morning, and asked how I’d slept. I stared at him expectantly, but I could tell a veil of complicity was pulled tautly over his mouth. I felt a scream pounding at the back of my teeth, begging to be freed. But instead, I smiled.

******

It took me 12 years to put a name to what’d happened to me. I never told anyone about it–not my family, closest friends, or my ex-husband.

I hadn’t really expected acknowledging it to be quite so freeing; and in many ways, the catharsis I felt when I actually told my therapist was so painfully potent, that I wondered how the weight of it had contorted and morphed over the years to become so bearable.

There’s nothing normal about sexual assault, and no part of it should be normalized. In these tumultuous times, so much hate and violence is being threaded into our daily lives that it’s easy to let it transform into something else–something that can be shouldered. But it shouldn’t be. It’s toxic and debilitating, and it only serves to empower the perpetrators.

And as hard as it is sometimes to speak out, the uncompromising truth is our most damaging weapon–even in times when fearmongers try to make truth as malleable as clay, when we have a sexual predator at this country’s helm.

The truth does indeed set one free. And I intend to speak mine boldly, loudly, and fully–to break through the hypocrites’ tired reframes of alternative facts.

To thread more understanding, compassion, and empathy into our beleaguered national narrative. And remind others who are scared and vulnerable that they are not alone.

When the Clock Strikes 13

Freshly painted foamcore protest signs dry on the weathered kitchen table.

By now, I’d hoped some fragments of the innumerable magical thoughts bounding around in my head would’ve come to fruition – that I’d awaken fully rested for the first time since November, letting the knowledge that it was all a horrific nightmare fade into mental ether.

Even still, in the quiet of the night, I hope for some sort of salvation. But I know the fight back from this is up to us. Only when the people find their voices will we actually effect change. I hope that that fire grows in intensity through tomorrow and boils over in cities across the country on Saturday. I don’t hope for violence, but I do hope for discomfort – in the ways that mass organizing and large-scale protests can bring things to a crashing halt. Because only when our comfortable routines are interrupted do we actually take notice. Which is exactly what brought us to this point. We had a great past 8 years, but many of us got complacent; and that’s when the monsters crept in.

So tomorrow, I’ll most likely be in the street – alongside countless others – protesting this dawning horror.

But I’ll also be recommitting my efforts to elevating the voices of the people who are often left behind; to channeling and reflecting compassion and empathy, and leveraging my privileges for others; and speaking out and standing against oppressive rhetoric and actions.

And when I get on my bus to go home, I’ll quietly commit to living my life as fully and authentically as possible – because that is the greatest form of resistance.

Tomorrow, when the clock strikes 13, the nation will not cease to be. But a dark veil will be cast over it. And it is up to us to lift it, bit by bit, to let the light back in.

Moonlighting

Half moons carry with them something sinister. Beyond the kitchen window, the yard is silent, wrapped in a shawl of darkness – slats of moonlight fracturing through the mossy branches of the plum tree.

The meteor is just about to destroy Earth; Keira Knightley sniffles, staring glassy-eyed at Steve Carell.

“Somehow, I thought we could save one another.”

The living room fills with light from the screen; the world is gone. And the painfully apropos soundtrack cools my blood.

This is the stage of crushing realization – when the recent past seems like ancient history, and the lonesome present is an alternate reality.

I can feel the tremors rippling behind my eyes, the pulsating inhalations as my nostrils flare. The deluge is instant and heavy. And there’s no one to hear me. So I let my labored sobs fill the cottage, absorb into the walls, and filter through the cracked floors and drafty windows.

In this moment, I am fully alone – vis-à-vis with the weighted knowledge that my life is forever changed.

The sofa’s worn leather stretches under me as I rock back and forth. Joanna scuttles over, burrowing her head under my arms – licking at the salty delicacies pouring from my eyes. She’s confused, and so am I.

Behind every laugh, every tear, there’s a blend of uncertainty and loss, longing and fulfillment, despair and fortitude.

Sometimes, my thoughts get away from me and riddle idle conversation with unnecessary bleakness; I don’t really know how I’m feeling until I start talking, determining if the wavering in my voice will subside or snowball into a tumbling mess.

Even still, despite being physically deflated, I’ve never felt as emotionally full.

Now, I let myself feel the jagged edges of ugly, dark moments, and absorb the humbling, beautiful ones – all generating the momentum I need to get through a day, to pay a kindness forward. To put more good out into the world than bad – to place a dollar in an outstretched cup, to acknowledge someone who feels forgotten, to laugh at a bad joke, to dodge a snail sliming across the sidewalk; to lift up, not bear down.

***

Hot cocoa steams from my Pyrex mug as the cottage rattles from the thunderous percussion of massive metallic sheets clattering out of the steel mill downhill.

Car headlights stream along the bridge in the distance, the traffic more visible as the branches shed their burdensome foliage.

The dryer buzzes and I shuffle over, throwing open the door to amass the warm sheets.

Heated air pulses through the tiny laundry room and unmoors a large dandelion seed from a nearby succulent’s dried soil. I watch it dance and shiver mid-air, spiraling and somersaulting.

I cup my hands around it as it begins to fall, and push open a window. Slowly, delicately, I open my hands, but the cool air whips it from me with little fanfare, casting it above the trees.

I think about reaching after it, but resist.

I track its ascent, watching its feathery pappus blanch in the moonlight as it vanishes from view into the inky night.

To root and grow beyond anyone’s grasp.

Growing Season

Her bouncy hair bobs up and down as she bulldozes over to the cash register.

“CHARLENE,” she booms to her counterpart three feet away, “I’M GOIN’ ON BREAK AFTER I RING THIS GENTLEMAN UP.”

Without looking up, Charlene nods – an apparent pavlovian response to her colleague’s generously full voice.

Ears ringing, I turn back to my cardboard tray sitting atop the counter as the nursery cashier rounds the high wood island and takes her position behind the cash register. She clears her throat, as if preparing to conduct an orchestral suite. Instead, she curls her arm around the entire tray and begins scanning my veggie starts, interjecting commentary regarding the growth rates of each teeny sprout. Shoving the bulk of the starts aside, she eyes two wispy asparagus plants closely – even suspiciously.

“Well, you do know that these won’t be ready for years, right?”

Fuccccck. My face flushes.

“Oh, OF COURSE. Just figured I’d get them in the ground now!”

A card swipe later, I fasten everything into the back of the car while casting intense shade at my two albatrosses and muttering, “I may just eat you out of spite.”

***

Back home, I set my full trays down inside the piecemeal garden enclosure I spent the previous afternoon methodically crafting together – using chunks of concrete as ad hoc sledgehammers, driving corroded metal stakes and rebar into the ground for structural support; wood pallets from my neighbors’ garbage for windscreens and walls; scrap fencing and old, severed wire strands for holding things together; wood paneling from a deconstructed closet for a makeshift door; and cast-off, roadside planters for additional storage.

Adding the clearance veggie starts to the mix, I halfheartedly chuckle and call up to Joanna peering out the window.

“Well, our scavenged garden isn’t going to win any beauty pageants, is it?”

JoJo sniffs the air, then disappears inside as I begin to gut bags of soil, emptying their contents into the raised bed.

Hours later, and ankle-deep in dark, rich soil, I step back and admire the hodgepodge before me: planters overflowing with half-wilted mint, parsley, basil, green onions, and shiso, and the rotting raised bed filled with rainbow chard, beets, broccoli, purple cauliflower, and kale. Mopping my brow and taking in the scene, I realize I haven’t tended a garden since I was 8 years old.

The garden

I have no clue what I’m doing. The only thing I do know is that this is more of a necessity than a hobby. I really need this to succeed.  

***

A few hours later, as the sun begins setting, I’m toting my last full watering can to my parched starts when my super hot neighbor waves from his side yard, and ventures over. Like a deer in the headlights, I stare entranced, my vocabulary quickly descending into unintelligible gibberish.

He starts chatting about the garden, and I try to play it cool, but then I notice his fly is wide open.

There is a god! 

Quickly noticing his wardrobe malfunction, he adjusts himself and zips up without the slightest bit of embarrassment. Without thinking, I sigh loudly, dejectedly – catapulting our awkwardly stilted conversation into mortifyingly tragic territory.

But as he turns to go, he calls back.

“You know, this place looks really good. You should be proud.”

My response can only be described as 40% dolphin squeak, 60% hyena shriek. I watch him walk back to his place, and then swivel around to my ramshackle garden – and then at my little rotting house.

It is something, isn’t it?

I pull open the newly secured garden door, and wander inside my little corral, nudging planters here and there, and dousing everything with water.

Tiny beads dangle at the ends of the fragile shoots, the wilted leaves. I take a deep breath, smile at this haphazard life, and whisper to myself.

Confidence. Patience. Courage.

The Life Boat, the Clerk, and the Wardrobe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, but I left them in my car.”

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

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

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

“You know, you can just go wherever.”

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

This is when it, quite literally, becomes official.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Next. You can step up here.”

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

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

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

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

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

And then she begins.

Stamp.

Stamp.

Stamp.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

I can’t breathe.

***

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

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

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

Some days, just staying upright is my biggest success.

#adulting

The GPS navigator’s monotoned, mechanized voice orders me to Make a legal U-turn as soon as possible – although her annoyed tone belies programmed nonchalance.

I wind up a side road, through some lush greenery, and take a few sharp turns further away from the main road into an agricultural area – which is when I wonder if this churchy high school possibly worships He Who Walks Behind the Rows.

Soon enough, my view clears and I pull onto a large campus dotted with Tudor-like buildings and auditoriums. I spot the orange cones that the school’s college adviser mentioned in her email, and notice another nonprofiter scratching his head at cone-blocked spaces. I get out and move one cone, and suggest he do the same.

Per usual with these types of things, no one’s waiting for us – as we’d been assured they would be – and so I plaster on my best I-have-no-fucking-clue-where-I’m-going smile and bid the other clueless presenters to follow me – the Pied Piper of Shoreline.

***

A few days before, during one of the craziest weeks in recent memory, I’m nursing a baby migraine – cooing to it softly to chill the fuck out. Being a department of one has been taking its toll on my sleep-deprived mind, with my nightmarescapes being constructed of donor asks and website code and lost checks and droning voices nagging, “I need that now, NOW, NOWWWW!” Bags hang heavily beneath bloodshot eyes, and my stubble has grown coarse enough to grate Parmesan. I reach for the large mug relegated to one semi-clear spot on my desk, gulp down its contents, and begrudgingly remember that I’ve been weaning myself off coffee; this tea just isn’t cutting it. Still, I chock the tea up to making a concerted effort to mitigate potential stressors in more proactive, healthier ways. I shift back to the Power Point I’m creating for a Community Impact Day later in the week. Since part of the whole de-stressing tack also translates to me not taking things so seriously, I insert a few Kristen Wiig gifs, a frame from Dodgeball, and a few old high school photos as anchor points for my chat about nonprofit world – how I came into it, pointers I have for those interested in becoming part of it, and WHY TO RUN AWAY FROM IT AT ALL COSTS JUST RUN YOU FOOLS!

Kidding. I play through the animated slides, laugh a little, and think aloud to my empty building wing, “I’m so goddamned hilarious.”

***

The two elderly receptionists direct me, as well as the gradually growing group of nonprofit folks trailing behind, to the library. We gather in a large, clearly well-funded reading room and start chatting. A doppelganger for Lost‘s Hurley sidles up next to me, quickly tying back his dreadlocks into a tight bun.

“So do you, like, live here too?” he asks a sheepish student nearby. The student nods side to side, then looks back down at his phone.

“The students should each have an organization name on their paper sign,” an adviser chirps from behind him, “and then they’ll take you to your assigned room.”

My student guide, clearly engaged in judging who’s most recent Instagram is the best representation of a well-balanced breakfast, looks slightly perturbed when I pipe in, “I think I’m with you.”

I ask all the typical questions as we’re walking up the stairs to the room – where we interrupt a trio studying To Kill A Mockingbird. I stifle my urge to scream, “WHAT’S UP MAH BOOS? Get it? Boos? As in Boo Radley?”

Instead, I watch as my student guide proceeds to text her teacher, asking where she is.

“You know, when I was your age I didn’t even know anyone who had a cell phone…”

I stop myself. I’m not going to be that guy. Although I already am. Students start filing in, and I mentally assign them to a clique: jock, a/v, drama, drama, heygurlhaiiii, a/v, punks, punks, PUNKS, hayyyy.

The presentation goes well enough, with minimal eye closures and snores. I ask for questions, and almost all of them are about my years as an archaeologist, with one about the time I got stuck in a shelter dog run with a blind poodle.

The bell rings, and the next group is ushered in. They, too, seem mildly intrigued by my chatter, but most exchange knowing looks, smiling as they do.

This guy is so weird.

He thinks he’s the ‘cool presenter’ type.

What’s going on with his hair? 

PUNKS, all of them. Not really. But as I stood up there rattling off life experiences, and how I parlayed a volunteer position into a growing career in nonprofit land, I couldn’t help but feel like I was aging before their eyes.

Eyes that first opened in the year 2000.

They had no idea that most of the world was all Y2K crazed in the months before they were born. Their first years were filled with Dubya’s countenance in the White House. They’ll be asking “older people” where they were on 9/11 and “How did it make you feel?” – the same way I asked various people similarly-lined questions about JFK’s assassination, the Civil Rights Movement, and hippies.

Another ear-splitting bell rings, and I part ways with the teacher – the only other person in the room who got my Blossom reference – melting into the melee of kids in the hall. Everyone’s on their phones. A little gay shuffles past with his friend, and they both smile knowingly; I smile with my eyes and keep going, terrified I’ll smile too much or accidentally lick my lips or set off a perv alarm.

***

Back in the Subaru, the mechanical voice drones on, directing me to turn left three feet ahead. Instead, I cancel the route calculation as she, once again, begins to advise me to Make a legal U-turn.

I retreat momentarily to the horrors of high school; fun, foundational years in college; brutal self-reflective moments in grad school; bulldozing through the recession with a shovel in-hand and an empty bank account; coming into my own and finding friends, building a loving network of chosen family; moving off and starting over with my co-pilot; and melting into California, and soaking in Seattle.

I don’t mind getting a little lost. That’s sort of what my twenties were all about. Eventually, I found my way – and now in this relatively new decade, my been-there-done-that attitude acts as my guide, helping me shift from place to place – leveraging life experience and humor in equal parts to pave the way forward.

Wherever it may lead.

Helter Shelter

While stamping down the sopping, saturated potty pad into the small, overflowing garbage can, I wield a tomato red bottle of pet cleanup spray – the label boasting an ability to remove pet pheromones to better prevent repeat accidents. I coat the X-pen’s lined floor and, for safe measure, the edge of a nearby blanket. Then channel The Karate Kid.

Wax on. Wax off. Wax on…

A minute later, there’s a new pad down, and the general area around Joanna’s temporary lair smells less like fermented urine and more like fermented urine overlaid with disinfectant.

Three minutes later, a steaming turd archipelago dots the pristine pad and freshly cleaned blanket.

Opposite her deposit, Joanna stares up at us through the pen’s mesh sides – her marble-like eyes darting from the offending nuggets to us, her five-o-clock shadowed saviors.

Andy puts on another pot of coffee, and I retrace my steps back to the cleaning supplies, my eyes heavy and knuckles dragging ever so slightly.

***

Adopting a puppy isn’t something you can do on a whim and expect it to just work out. Which is why, being the planners we are, Andy and I discussed every possible scenario, every sacrifice and associated cost, and asked ourselves a billion questions before taking the plunge.

Is this the right time?

Is there ever a right time?

WiIl Toby resent us?

Can we handle a puppy?

Can Toby handle a puppy?

Do we have enough time to devote to a puppy?

Is our apartment big enough?

Will it be harder to outrun zombies with two dogs instead of one?

Each round of cross-examinations ended the same way: we could handle it – and, after all, we’d planned for just about everything.

But life often has a way of dropping trou and taking a nice hearty dump on even the best laid plans.

***

Walking into the shelter, we have a very short list of dogs we want to meet – and one is Joanna. The narrow corridor is flanked by kennel runs, and very few dogs are out enjoying the unseasonably arctic winds. Midway down, we spy Joanna’s picture and, like kids in a candy store, press our noses against the plexiglass and ooh and awe at the lithe, tan Chihuahua mix curled in a bony ball on her bed. A few moments later, while rubbing her belly and having one-on-one time with her, we know she’s ours. But we still want Toby to meet her, and we’ve intentionally left him out of this preliminary screening so that we can get a sense for her personality sans furry counterpart. So we go to put her on hold, with the familiar mixture of exhilaration and anxiety flushing our cheeks.

“Oh, actually, we can’t hold puppies. And we don’t require them to have an intro with other dogs in the house.”

While I bite my tongue about this seemingly big ass hole in their adoption process, Andy gives me the WE CANNOT LOSE THIS DOG look – mostly because three people kept hovering outside Joanna’s kennel while we engaged with her, all of whom seemed extremely interested.

It's Joanna time!

But what about Toby? We fret for a few minutes before coming to the realization that Toby will disapprove of any new addition that isn’t a glazed ham or personal pan pizza.

And after the adoption contract is signed and stowed in the car along with Joanna, and we get home, Toby doesn’t disappoint.

Sibling rivalryLike any big brother, he’s skeptical, but completely intrigued. Until Joanna makes a beeline for the overflowing toy basket, her playful growls most likely translating in dogese to something along the lines of “I’m gonna play with your toys now! BU-BYE!” And he’s all, “OH, GURL. NO.”

We observe the typical dominance dances with baited breath, and are relieved to see that, as we’d hoped, Joanna is ingratiatingly submissive. We mop our brows, and keep reassuring both of them and, quite honestly, ourselves.

This is our family now. We’ve got this.

We look at each other over the pups and smile.

And then, like a leaky faucet, Joanna spritzes the floor, and doesn’t stop for the rest of the afternoon.

***

It’s pretty common knowledge that a new puppy translates to sleep deprivation. And we spend the next day pounding back coffee while making trips to the curb every 20 minutes. Little by little, we make potty training headway. We begin feeling invincible.

And then Joanna breaks her leg.

It’s one of those disturbingly slow-motion moments – watching as she launches herself off Andy’s lap, despite his buffering attempts, and her long-limbed body’s kersplat-thwack on the floor. And then, the yowls.

Oh, the yowls.

Ten minutes later, we’re sitting in our vet’s office cradling our shocked little monster, listening to the vet’s recitation of Joanna’s injuries and feeling like the worst pet parents in the entire universe. With a tractor-adorned cast as a souvenir, Joanna heads home with us and some heavy-duty painkillers.

Puppy painkillers - yay!

After another sleepless night, we’re sitting in another vet room listening to a speech about bone plates and surgery. Joanna’s broken ulna and radius have to be mended immediately, so we hand our little baby over for the night, head to the nearest big box pet store for all of the necessary recuperation accoutrements – including a massive X-pen corral since her cast makes crating even more uncomfortable – and reflect on the joys of puppy parenthood.

***

The next day, I leave work midday, snag Andy, and collect our broken baby. We get stuck in pre-Thanksgiving traffic hell; I wear my stress like a well-tailored sport coat, and curse the congestion – my knuckles gripping the steering wheel tighter and tighter with every inch forward we take.

But then I look over to the passenger seat where Andy holds our precious, dazed, drugged cargo, cooing things in her ear and rubbing her neck.

And I remember – We’ve got this.

A Legacy

A shattered Guy Fawkes mask leers out from the murky puddle; bits of paper and food wrappers bob up and down, congealing with saturated, shredded cardboard into a slimy slurry that laps at the curb. Ahead of us, a crow hops across the street, its beak protectively clutching a shimmering condom wrapper.

Toby dances and shakes in the perennial mist that blankets Seattle’s November skies, and angles for a dried patch beneath an overhang. Across the street a vacant thrift store looms quietly – the antithesis of its former thrumming self, alive and full of hipsters squealing about some vintage jorts or acid-wash jeans. But now the door fronts are laced with graffiti, and tarp housing is rigged in one of its deep entryways.

Like crumbs, makeshift signs dot the sidewalks every morning – some quoting scripture, others soliciting drugs; but most are tragically direct: “Help.”

We’re a pretty fucked up species. We see the problems plaguing us and just increase our speed, damn the torpedoes, and charge ahead – as if pure obliviousness will actually do something proactive. We choose not to act appropriately, not to help.

Every single day, I do just that. To an extent, we all do. For me, it’s become an unfortunate side-effect of living in big cities. Throw in horrible world events, and I close myself off more, assume the worst in people – only letting random moments remind me that, at a base level, plenty of people are good.

***

It’s getting close to quitting time at work, and I glance at Facebook and notice something about Paris. So, in typical techdrone fashion, I simply Google “Paris” – nothing more, just a word, and boom; there it is: world news at my fingertips. My head feels heavy, and I turn to look outside. Cars pack the bridge near my office, and the wind-tousled trees bend this way and that. Still, I have a few hours to go. I feel trapped.

On my way home, I stop to grab some groceries and movies for the weekend. We need an escape from the week, and, as guilty as I feel for thinking it, an escape from the burgeoning Paris headlines. As I pull into the lot, I notice a man I’ve seen before. He stands by holding a familiar sign, with his faithful shepherd laying on a towel a few feet away.

I come to find out his name is David, and his dog’s name is Legacy. “Legacy” is actually an acronym, most of which I forget immediately; but I do remember “love,” “goodness,” and “caring” are sprinkled in. The duo lives in a battered Ford Expedition, visible halfway down the block. Cars pass by, and I can feel people staring. But I just keep talking to David. Legacy rouses momentarily, eyes me suspiciously, and then takes a keen interest in the bag of kibble sticking out of the grocery tote.

David and I continue our chat, and we discuss white privilege, social responsibility, and animal welfare. We just talk about life. And laugh.

“People think I’m out here begging and lazy and homeless by choice. But I work, and do what I can to keep gas in that.” He points to the Expedition. “And, you know, keep Legacy here safe.”

Completely disinterested, Legacy sets to licking his privates.

“People say ‘Home is where the heart is’ and my and Legacy’s hearts are tied together, so we can never be ‘homeless’.”

We start wrapping up our conversation. David nudges the bags behind a dying shrub, and I turn to go. But he interjects one last thing.

“You know, there’re three types of people I encounter. The ones who ignore me. The ones who stare right through me. And the ones who sort of get it and actually do something decent.”

He leans and extends his hand. I extend mine. And there, in a random parking lot, we two strangers become less estranged.

I don’t lose it until I get back to the car. Raw emotion floods out, and I lean my head against the headrest. The neon Target light blazes through the mist, drawing in hoards like a bug lamp. I snuffle some more, not really knowing why or for whom I’m crying. Maybe for David. Maybe for humanity in general.

We have a long way to go as a species – to recognize that we’re all pieces in a massive puzzle, that we all fit together. That every person, every being is valuable – that together, we accomplish amazing things.

All we have to do is remember that we can – bit by bit, hand in hand.