In Which the Sun Comes Out

Part One in the “Stories from The Big Yellow House” Series

The yellow house is much yellower now, though in my memory it is not so bright because I’m not there. Neither is anyone else I know, but it was so precious while it existed in my world, and now in my memory. I am glad that The Big Yellow House is so entrenched in my core, because it will never fade.

Because when the Big Yellow House goes, so do my memories of a lot of other people. This entry is for them, and starts with a conversation between Bryn and me regarding our “shared childhood.” Now that we’re older, we both think of each other as children back then. I was 19, so I think that makes her 14 or 15 when we met. She would remember. I can remember everything but her age. 😛

Saying Bryn’s name out loud because she’s one of the, like, three people I would entrust with this conversation at all. Anyone who knew I was talking about it with someone and cared could easily guess all three. That’s because neither of us are the main characters. We were the ones that snuck off to be bad girls.

She wasn’t quite old enough to be bad properly, and I was a computer geek. We just sat and talked, and increasingly listened to jam sessions that were mildly interesting as background music and right now I can think of at least five people who are going to read that sentence and hate my guts. And two who will absolutely fall on the floor laughing and go, “she went there.”

I was never into the banjo. I hated it. Just for the record, but no one asked me… whereas I would say that anyone who learned to play the banjo in The Big Yellow House was clearly trying to isolate me. I am certain that was on purpose (one of the only jokes I will make about my time in The Big Yellow House, because it’s a shame that I can’t. Not right now. Even a decade later, it’s still Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

It’s because I have love for some of the people I met there and still have on my friends list, and some others that are a memory. Still alive, certainly, but with no need or want on either side to reconnect. Actually, that is a lie. I do not know for certain about them. I know for certain about me. I am not willing to do anything to help things along in terms of getting closer. I am reaching out to the people at that house when I was there. I feel that my ramblings might give the impression that I mistook the part for the whole and was trying to say that everything was bad.

This series is a way to say thank you for the things that they gave me while I was also in hell. I haven’t forgotten it, and I don’t want to focus on darkness. I want to bring this into the light, because that’s where they brought me. I cannot regret coming to Portland, because I wouldn’t have wanted a chance to meet Dana and then blown it by not coming back.

I definitely would have met some of these people one time, but they would not have raised me the way that they did. I’m kinder because of them. I’m a better person because of them, even though they knew nothing about me.

For the record, some people believe that I am a liar and I am just crazy. I don’t believe that, but they do. I believe that I can express what I’m feeling better than at least half the world, so my faith in my sanity is fairly sound. However, in my tribe, no one is perfect. It’s just that the more of us there are, the more it’s likely that one of us is all right.

The Big Yellow House will look at my experiences in Portland through the lens of one particular backyard… with two particular young girls… and three particular puppy dogs (Bunce, then Barley, then Maisie in score order). We’ll look at history, both personal and American, interestingly enough. We’ll go to church, where I was basically the youth group (what’s new?). We’ll walk up 36th to Division, then 37th up to Hawthorne so we can go to trivia.

We’ll listen to Outpost at the Block Party. We’ll go to Le Pigeon. We’ll invade the kitchen at Tapalaya and drink at Biddy McGraw’s. But we’ll start with a prayer for ablution. Water is washing over me and my tears are stinging my face. We’ll start with 1997, just a snippet of a memory.


Alex

Alex was one of the first people I met in Oreon, predating the yellow house by quite a few years. She had my heart from day one when there was a party at The Little Gray House, and men were bothering her. She asked if she could be my girlfriend for a second to get them away from her. To know how funny this actually was, you’d have to know Alex and me. She’s a diva, the amazing kind that makes you pray to the voice gods before an audition that you don’t have to follow her.  I’m short and I don’t like many people. Enough said about that except to say that “Odd Couple” moment made me think that maybe I had more than one friend in the neighborhood. Alex and her husband have blessed me many times over just by being them. I have told their story before, and was crying so hard in the middle of a Starbucks that my mother thought we should leave so I could calm down. I think she thought I needed Xanax, when in reality it was the best sermon I’ve ever heard, and I will put it up against anyone, anywhere, because the structure ENDS ME to this day. I am sobbing right now just thinking about it.

At Bridgeport, we divided the service up in to different duties. Instead of always having the pastor du jour (our word for having rotating preachers and an alarmingly deep bench- mostly brilliant lesbian preacher’s kids and ordained pastors kicked out of other churches,tbh… theological academician crack) do what we called “the offering pitch,” different people were asked (generally five minutes before… not planned, but useful because people will rarely say no if you don’t give them a chance to think about it).

Greg, Alex’s husband

I’m sorry. This is going to take a minute to get out because I know this story and you don’t. I cannot breathe all the way down, and this happened such a very long time ago. It’s a core memory that is one of my blue orbs hoping to find yellow and avoid red. My emotions are turning inside out.

I can remember about 10 years ago losing my everloving mind with grief as I relayed this story to my mother, where I wailed and she said we should leave Starbucks.

Greg walked to the front of the church and stood in front of the baptismal font. He pointed and he said, “this is where I was baptized.”

Then, he walked to the altar rail and looked toward the windows facing north, and he said, “And this is where I got married.”

This is the part where I am crying so hard I think my heart is going to break. I haven’t been back here in so long, and it was the most traumatic thing that has ever happened in our community. We will never get over it. We had to learn to live with it, our entire church life beginning back over at the Book of Acts, or as I call it, The Gospel of “Holy Shit, What Do We Do Now?”

Greg turned so he was standing behind the Communion table and he said, “this is where I buried my children.”

It was true. Greg and Alex lost their twins, Eleanor and Quinn, to a rare genetic disorder. They were only about two weeks old. 

We’d bought the layette.

Today I learned that grief makes you cry out louder than you thought you could.

He used the resurrection of the Christ to show us how we resurrected ourselves. That the loss of his and Alex’s twins didn’t go unnoticed because it bonded us. Love poured out for them and back into us.

It was a sermon. And I remember it all. I am absolutely sobbing and it was almost 20 years ago.

The people who visited The Big Yellow House were often more important than its residents.

Over time, the color never faded. It just got brighter, especially with the telling of it. “A little brighter than it used to be” was “it BURNS” by dinner.

I assure you, the people who have also been there share this opinion. In fact, it seemed to shine more every year. As we got older, it got smarter. It remembered our secrets and our lies, told to each other in the dark summer nights filled with beer and conversation. 

I was 19 when I met the church at the opera, 20 when I met the church that used to have green carpeting (and is still known that among my crowd… I’m 45), and 21 when I knew that these people were my life.

By 24, I was driving up I-5 feeling like I’d been punked. This had nothing to do with the Big Yellow House and everything to do with the fact that I’d only visited Oregon in the *summer.*

Stay tuned.

Forgetting an Attachment

It’s a double entendre, that title. Earlier today, I talked about fully letting go of Sam. Then, I forgot to add all the tags I normally add so that the readers that normally read me couldn’t find me….. like forgetting to attach a picture to an e-mail when basically all you’ve said in the e-mail is “here’s a picture” and still forgot to send it. Basically, I’m writing another entry to notify my readers that there’s a new entry. The writer reader relationship in the digital age. I hope we’re in love, otherwise this web site is me being Pepe Le Pew. I am not that desperate.

I was amused when I was in Facebook Jail that I watched two women fight over my picture. They weren’t fighting over the right to ask me out. They were fighting over whether kd lang was hotter than me. I didn’t pay attention to the outcome.

Fuck yes I did, are you kidding me? I flat out won. I knew I would. People have called me a better looking kd lang since I cut my hair short back in ’95. I don’t see it, but a hell of a lot of other people do. I think it’s the brown hair and brown eyes, but mostly that’s where it ends…… except that most lesbians my age have the same resting bitch face. Maybe we look like each other in that way that when you live with someone for a long time, people think your facial expressions look alike. Therefore, it’s not even that we look like each other. It’s because we’re from the same tribe.

When I was a kid it was straight person code for “I know you’re a lesbian.” That amused me to no end, and I have gotten a lot of mileage out of it. I also can’t think of a universe in which it’s a good idea to tell you which straight people have said it, but that’s the funniest part of all. God, it sucks to be you.

Now that kd isn’t popular broadly and straight people have lost interest, I don’t get it that often. But put me in a room where everyone and their pets have listened to all her music on repeat since college and I am begging to get away from the attention. A stroke to the ego never hurt anyone, but after a while it gets embarrassing. I love attention to bits, but I microdose.

I actually think that’s why I was always so bubbly whenever Sam was around, because I was alone the rest of the time. It wasn’t that I wasn’t off doing my own thing and obsessing over her. It was that by the time she worked all day and put dinner on the table for the week, enough time had gone by that my social battery was recharged. I think it would have been a big shock for her to spend a long time with me to know that I am not bubbly in the slightest. The one thing that would never have changed, and hundreds of people will attest to this because they saw it with Dana for eight years, is the energy for me when Sam walked into a room. Time would just stop.

I had been married to Dana for four years before the accompanist at our church knew we were a couple. This is because Dana wasn’t a singer, and I drove myself to church so that I could sing and she could sleep in. When she walked into the sanctuary, all the joy rushed into my face, and it got warm. The accompanist said she just assumed that Dana and I must not be that close because I was always so happy to see her.

Quite the opposite. When we’d been best friends for three and a half years, we’d learned to talk with our eyes. She was everything I’d ever wanted and more. Neither one of us could breathe and not have the other one feel it. I didn’t tell her for a long time, because I knew I would be playing with fire. That I could destroy the most stable relationship in my life by losing myself to her, even if I was supposed to because relationships are all about compromise.

Our relationship did end, and it was traumatic. But I would go back in time and do it all over, knowing it either could or would end the same way. There are lessons I learned from Dana that she was there to teach me, because she’s the one in my life I felt was capable of doing so. Cooking was an authority I let her own. If we were in a professional kitchen, it was “yes, Chef.” Of course there were a couple of exceptions. Of course there were. But by and large, we were a dynamic team who could turn on a dime because when seconds counted, we could say things with a look. We could anticipate each other’s movements, because we had done it day in and day out for years at our house without missing a beat. It didn’t matter how a pro kitchen was laid out. Improvisation was our forte….. because Dana was loud. (I can’t wait until she sees that line and I hope it lights up her face.)

I didn’t just want any woman, I wanted Dana. It was obvious to everyone from the start, and our relationship lived on hope for quite a while in each of our minds, not knowing exactly how much platonic love had made room for romance while the other one dreamt.

I could have asked her so many times when we were alone, but I did not want to set the ball rolling on an affair, because that’s something that would have changed me and taken me away from who I was. No, if I was going to risk everything, I had to be sure.

I did and I won big. Just Kings full over Aces. To be clear, we did have an affair. We admitted our feelings to each other, and eight hours later, we told the people we were in relationships that we loved them, but that we were too close to each other to make it work with them anymore. They were unsurprised by this knowledge, and yet I apologize for the enormous amount of time it took for me to make my decision, literally and metaphorically. I’d cheated on my then girlfriend for eight hours, but I’d been leaning more on Dana for emotional support than anyone I’d dated for YEARS at that point. The clue phone was stalking me obsessively and I wasn’t picking up. Thank God I eventually did.

It took me two years to get it together, and eight hours for my life to absolutely fall apart. It was traumatic and painful for a higher purpose. We were both in relationships that were just fine. We could have been happy for a lifetime with them, but it wouldn’t be the fit we had. We weren’t breaking up with our significant others because there was anything wrong with them. Tokyo and Los Angeles are both beautiful cities but you’ll be miserable if your partner never wanted to come on the trip.

It wasn’t that they were wrong. They were wrong for us. We wanted cherry blossoms and strong matcha. They wanted Milk Bar.

Dana and I wanted an attachment we’d never forget, and that has been true. It was worth it to find the love of my life for a short time than never to have experienced a love like that at all. I reached out for fantastic, and I found it.

There’s one picture I love of Dana at my sister’s engagement celebration brunch at Brennan’s in Houston. She’s wearing a fabulous outfit, shoes, and jewelry that we spent the day shopping for, just giggling and laughing like we invented it. We’re at one end of the table smiling, and my mother is on the other….. also smiling. At the time, it was my favorite picture we took to display in our house.

Now, it is a beautiful artistic representation of what marriage looks like for me now….. my wife and I on one end of the table smiling, and my mother on the other.

It’s a shame I forgot the attachment.

Nothing You Could Say Could Tear Me Away

I’ve been waiting for seven years to say that I’ve met someone and not have it be an April Fool’s joke or clickbait.

Today is that day.

I can’t tell you much about her because she’s a mom. Her kids know she’s dating someone, but not who it is. It’s too early for them to meet me, but acceptable for them to know that if their favorite sci-fi novels are missing, they haven’t been stolen. I hope they know what their mother has done having told me I could read anything I want. 😛

Editor’s Note: This week I borrowed “out of my mind,” by Sharon M. Draper. It’s about an 11 year old girl who has a photographic memory and is trapped inside her body. She can see everything, but she can’t tell anyone about it because she can’t write. She finally gets a voice, and not everyone is eager to listen.

I can give you details that have nothing to do with my girl’s current life, though.

She has a Bachelor’s and Master’s in Vocal Performance. When she’d gotten those done, she auditioned for one of the specialized choirs in the Army, and got a secured chair as an alto before she shipped off for basic training. After she retired from the Army, she directed church choirs for a while, then reinvented herself yet again. I absolutely wouldn’t tell you what that was, anyway, because it tends to make people ask her for things as if her time doesn’t cost money.

One of the things I truly love about my girl is that she reminds me of so many people I’ve loved over the years…. The professional musicians that raised me, including my biological parents, teachers at Clifton, HSPVA, Clements, private instructors in trumpet and voice, beloved choir directors, et al. are the lights that shine behind her, strengthening our connection with shared language. She’s also from New Jersey, not Texas, so she doesn’t remind me of any one musician from my past, or any of them if we’re strictly talking personality. The Texan church musician is an archetype all its own, can I get an “amen?”

And now you’re going to ask if her voice makes me cry, and I’m going to have to decide between snarky comeback and my vulnerable truth. I’m going to go with it.

The truth is that even when she’s just driving and singing absentmindedly, my heart flips. If I was sitting in the audience of one of her performances, forget about it… I’d be gone. She’s got the kind of heart that I know she’d be singing to me no matter how many people paid to be on the front row. What really makes my heart clench is singing together…… You can coax me into crying with that mental picture almost a hundred percent of the time.

But that doesn’t stop her from giving me shit about being a soprano and a trumpet player, and I love every second of it. Because she’s a choir director, she already knows all the inside jokes that are going to make me laugh, especially because her field choir traveled with a band and that rivalry never goes away. For instance, a lot of her friends have gone from the Army Field Band to professional work all over Washington and Baltimore. I am only one degree from Marin Alsop now, and I will not tell you anything about those conversations. I will only say that no matter what I’ve heard, it’s trivial. I’ve heard it all in my own musical life. I still want to see Alsop conduct. Whether she’s Jesus incarnate or Lucifer, every time she gets excited and does that little Bernstein hop, I’m drooling like a computer programmer at a Star Trek convention.

Here’s the best inside joke according to me:

My Girl: Voice is the superior instrument with choral music being perfection.

Me: Back the fuck up, Wilhousky.

Here’s why it’s an inside joke. Peter Wilhousky wrote one of the most famous, glorious arrangements of the Battle Hymn of the Republic I’ve ever heard in my life. My choir director at church from seventh grade to ninth loved it, so I’ve known every note to the soprano, first trumpet, alto, and second trumpet part since before I could type. I have also dabbled in first tenor because I will never drop out of the the a capella section in rehearsal. It’s just too chewy.

One of the first things I asked her was, “since you were in the military, just how many times have you done the Wilhousky arrangement?” She said, “a million, and I’m not even exaggerating.” One of the reasons I like it so much is that whether I was singing or playing, it was so damn fun.

My girl and I have other things besides music and the full on church experience regarding how the sausage is made, but I feel they might be too identifying, and thus, too private for now. But if we stay together long term, I’m sure more details will be allowed to creep out. I know we’ll be having discussions about how much I can say and when, and later on if things go really well, asking the kids themselves how much they want said about them because they’re teenagers. They can make up their own minds. I would also rather sign up for shock therapy treatment than become, for lack of a better term, a “mommy blogger.”

I’ll tell you right now, though, one of the kids and I are obsessed with the same thing. I’m not aiming to be a parent. The kids already have two parents. However, if neither of them are as into this shared thing as me and the shorty, it’s on like Donkey Kong. I tease my girl about it all the time…. I get fake disgusted with her assessment of something in said activity and say things like, “if I ever meet your kid, I’m going to assure them you’re only there to hold my bag and my water.” Teasing that hopefully never even gets close to the line of actually hurting is our thing.

This is the first potentially serious relationship I’ve ever been in where we’re not thinking about having kids. She has kids already. So, time is deliciously limited and every moment counts. It’s a little bit tricky because even though we don’t live that far from each other, it’s not really close enough to meet up on a whim. This is because I live in Maryland, a few miles further northwest than the line between Maryland and The District, still inside the beltway of the city. She lives in a suburb of Baltimore that’s closer to BWI, only 30 minutes from my house by car but two completely separate transit systems. The closest I can get is taking the bus to the Metro station and getting on the MARC train, with either my girl picking me up at the airport station (which thankfully, is very close to her house), or a quick Uber ride to get myself there if she’s tied up at work or something.

I downloaded the public transit app for Baltimore and added one ticket to BWI and a funds card with a few dollars on it. It’s for both of us. I can escape if something goes wrong and I just don’t feel like talking about it right that moment, and if nothing ever goes wrong, it’s just handy to be self-reliant. I’ve also watched too many couples break up because one person always has to do the driving… or if that wasn’t the main problem, it certainly didn’t help anything.

It’s something of which I’m aware, but I’m not as panicked as I would be if I lived in Houston. Now, I don’t have to be reliant on my girl to get me anywhere in either city/suburb. Any time she wants to pick me up to save me time or to spend more time together, it’s welcome and I am always grateful. I just don’t want to feel like a big issue later on…. Driving is one of those things that’s irritating enough if you’re rarely the driver… more so if you’re the only one who does it. When the honeymoon period wears off it’s generally the first knock-down drag-out fight.

Only one piece of the puzzle is left, and that won’t get solved until we decide to get really serious. If I move to the same city or the same house, we’ll gain the ability to do one more thing that we don’t have now…. being able to call each other up and say “I’m going to the pub with the crew. Meet us in 20.” It’s still possible if plans are made early enough in the day, but right now I’m at door to door in somewhere between 90 minutes and two hours. Her town is small enough that I could walk to a pub in 20 minutes if I was local. As long as I stay put, though, 90 minutes to two hours door to door is much faster than I could do it by car, because between traffic and construction there’s no time of day where it takes dramatically less time than others.

It’s so easy that next time my girl might not want to drive here, either. Our friends in Silver Spring would haul us around or we could Uber. So much better than sitting in traffic and driving. It’s sitting in traffic, reading and cuddling. The reason it’s not sustainable as a solution is that if we’re a committed couple, I would lose my mind getting to her or the kids if there was an emergency. Anything less than immediately is unacceptable. “Less than two hours” might fly in a long distance dating situation, but in a partnership is cruel to everyone. Being reliable is important to me.

For now, it’s a delicious thing to will time to stand still; things can progress slowly… I can take things out, try them on, think about them until they’re not foreign anymore. My girl and I can create a private bubble of writing to each other and dates where we really get to know each other with more senses than just reading words on an electronic page. If we’re playing for keeps, we need to be a team, starting with learning how the other one communicates.

I find that I communicate best in writing, especially when I have to say something hard. I can take as long as I need to flip out about it, and then calmly craft a response. My emotions are enormous. Most people don’t deserve my kneejerk reaction. They deserve my response after I’ve walked off and written about it. Just one of the things that lets me be an INFJ on my own without scaring the bejesus out of anyone… and then when I get to the part where I need to say something out loud, I’m confident because I’ve worked it out on my own. I simply need input. If my girl feels strongly about something, my own conclusions need to change. If we’re chatting about it online, I have two things. The first is the ability to copy and paste my thoughts into a letter. The second is that a moment expands when I read about it later…. and in a much more beautiful way than if I just tried to think about the conversation and remember it that way. That’s like trying to read a series of novels and then being tested on which events happened in which book.

I love going back over our conversations and rereading, because different things jump out at me than they did the first time, because I’ve walked away and am looking at it from a different perspective than I was even ten minutes ago.

There’s another advantage to rereading our conversations, and it’s invaluable. Because I’m rereading our conversations and replying to things as they come up, it’s like conflict repellant, and every bit as effective as bug spray. One of my triggers is having someone tell me that my perceptions aren’t accurate. I spent so many years doubting my own perceptions and instincts when I am actually extremely astute. Not much gets by me, and doubting my abilities as a visionary and truth teller when I can bring the receipts is a flat out rejection…. yet another reason why it’s taken me so long to open myself up to a romantic situation.

Only once has this happened, but I went on a date several years ago with a woman who’d gotten the URL for this web site from my OK Cupid profile. Then, she asked me out for coffee. When I accepted, she turned out to be a drooling fangirl who wanted me to be the voice I am here. It’s something that doesn’t seem like it would be problematic. This web site is me. I am this web site. Here’s the rub. At no time during that conversation was I ever allowed to deviate from anything I’ve already written, as if writers are never allowed to change their minds. Particularly with bloggers, entries are just verbal pictures, not even videos. It’s 2D with a timestamp. She’d quote me to me and then accuse me of lying, even if it was 2016 (or whatever, I don’t even remember that much- just that it was before my mother died) and the entry was from 2014. It made me express something verbally that I’ve always known with my other senses. I love respect. I hate fame.

Blogging is a stream of consciousness first draft in which I’ve given myself permission to write absolute shit. This is nothing compared to the heights I can reach with research and dedication. In some ways, I should never have become a blogger in the first place. I laid out every problem I had, including my struggles with mental illness, in hopes of “leading from the back.” Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen, et cetera.

The pro was that people I didn’t know flocked here because I was saying things that connected. Those closest to me started trying to judge the stability of my mental health by my silly observations. I have the same relationship with my blog that I do with preaching in public. I can lead one person or a million, but not two…. as in, it’s very easy to talk to people I don’t know. People I do know tend to think that they are excellent detectives. Not once have they ever been right. They are right that occasionally I do spiral out, and as bad as they think. But not when.

The difference in my writing voice is not mania vs. depression. It’s “in the creative zone” vs. “I haven’t written in X number of days and I am itching to get everything out.” The other differences that are seen as lies are actually easily explained without being excused. I can only write one line at a time. My mind is a multi-core processor. Every time I tell a story, it includes thoughts from all the cores and not just the one I was using at the time the story was originally written. My details don’t get larger or smaller. They just get more dense…. or in layman’s terms, “I can bring the receipts. I don’t just make shit up.” Well, unless I’m preaching. One of the funniest things my little sister has ever said was “DAaad? Wassat true, or were you just preachin?'”

Returning to this moment, it’s foreign to me that someone wants to date me… will hold my hand walking down the street, will give me quick kisses and put her arm around me as if we’ve known each other our whole lives. It’s been 10 or 11 days. Nothing is being rushed about our relationship. It cannot be for all our sakes. We’re not thinking for two, exactly. Well, we are, but it’s not the two of us. I have an activity to do and she has a bag and a water to hold.

I’ve thought about kids two other times in my life, and shut the door permanently. I can’t remember what year it was that Dana and I went to the OB/GYN to check and see if we were good to go, but I was much younger then……. even still, it would have been a geriatric pregnancy. I am almost positive that if I had to make a choice between getting an abortion and having a child would be torture, because some kind of trauma was probably involved. I’ve also wanted a child since before my mother died, but I know my biological child would look like her even if the biological father didn’t. The flip side of the coin is that I would be much crazier than advertised if I decided to carry the pregnancy to term. I already have to choose between physically and mentally sick (physical drug side effects). A pregnancy would make that distinction as clear as it could possibly be. Both my medications (I think) are pregnancy approved…… but what if they don’t work for me while pregnant? Yes, I have thought a lot about this. Maryland has everything I need if something were to happen here, but I go to Texas more often than I travel anywhere else. Southern men are typically sweet and genteel. If they are liberal enough that they don’t have a problem with homosexuality, sometimes the flirting gets intense because we both know it’s not going anywhere.

If they’re a conservative crazy, and the percentage on that in Texas is not zero, it’s not impossible that they’d say they love Jesus while shooting me in the chest, or letting me live but raping me because “you’re only a lesbian because you haven’t had a real man yet.” Let me really drive it home for you. After the shooting in Colorado Springs, I had a panic attack. I was filled with survivor’s guilt. My only accomplishment that day was living in Maryland. I met my girl not long after, and it was like coming up for air after free diving. When she kissed me, I remembered what I was fighting for. I fall asleep thinking about her, and all I would do to keep myself strong so that she can lean on me. It’s all any couple wants. That the idea of support in government via marriage tax breaks and support in community through erasing prejudice is just crazy and we have to tear down all the progress we’ve already made is Looney Toons. Of the two, though, I’d rather have the love and support of the community. I’m kind of over entangling marriage and the government. Laws can move legal protections. They can’t change hearts and minds because that’s not what they’re designed to do.

As for me and my girl, we’re being careful not to become examples of the lesbian U-Haul stereotype. It’s good for the kids, but we see why it’s not that big a deal for other people (especially if it’s just the two of them in a very large house). Because of our shared language and library of images, I believe we could move in together tomorrow and with some counseling, make it work. There are multitudes of things that make us unique, but we are also extraordinarily similar. Both musicians, birthdays five days apart (although she’s four years older), both fluent in church lingo for an amazing understanding of my life before she arrived. It’s a whole bunch of things that would make us able to start off with good communication and get better at it, not constantly trying to make it work and needing counseling to keep from throttling each other. Getting by is just not the goal, though. It’s both of us thriving and growing together and not at each other’s expense.

Actually, there are ways in which it would be eerily difficult to tell us apart. There are others that are wildly different, but not in any way that would cause conflict. The kind where her life experience differs greatly from mine and brings a whole new skill set to the table. At her core, she’s the kind of peacenik musician you’d find at Interlochen and Julliard, but of course she also had to go through a program physically designed to make her fail to get into this professional-level program. It’s akin to winning a chair in a major symphony (or medalling in the Olympics). By contrast, I synthesize ideas very fast and often throw out thoughts before saying “do you have the bandwidth to listen to……” I am also highly adept at taking on the emotion of every person in the room, and thus have inside information as to their motivations. I’ve always had instincts in that direction, but I’m deadly accurate now that my bullshit detector has dropped.

Speaking of taking in the reaction of everyone in the room, my favorite thing is still being the only one not drinking. Sometimes I do, but I think it’s more exciting to relax with a non-alcoholic beer (especially in a glass) so that people forget two things. The first is that you’re not really drinking. The second is that you’re a diarist. You’re not talking to a reporter, but definitely reporter-adjacent. At parties, if I don’t know you and you have a dumbass attack in front of me, you’re probably going to become a funny story on this web site. If I do know you, I’ll at least ask you if I can write about it because you can laugh about it and I’m not hitting a real nerve. Live and learn.

I feel so good around my girl that it’s a great surprise she’s told me I do things for her that help. I don’t feel as if the relationship is one-sided. I feel wanted in a way that I haven’t in years, that I am a priority and she drops everything for me the same way she checks out of our relationship when we’re apart so that other people also get her full attention. It’s priceless, and feels healthier than trying to manage five conversations at once.

I honestly forgot how much all people need these feelings. I was so focused on independence that I forgot about interdependence, and how nice it can be as well. I’d let the pendulum swing too far into loneliness… particularly because I didn’t notice I was lonely. I used to be the real life Linus Baker, just American and not British…. also not from the Department in Charge of Magical Youth, but that’s neither here nor there.

Now, my life feels whole. I have amazing friends, and a chance at a real thing with someone I’m crazy about. It didn’t feel real until she told the kids, though. Doesn’t matter that she only told the kids she was dating someone. Fine for them not to know it was me specifically. It just made me feel important that she thought our dating life was important enough to mention. Maybe now she’ll let me have diet soda at her house (I can hear it now… “friggin’ sopranos…..”). Even if she doesn’t, there are times when I think my heart can’t get bigger; it always does.

Like when she took me to Ingrid Michaelson and held me while Ingrid sang… some dates are close to magic… when you can feel the night stretching to accommodate your wishes. We went for half smokes and fries at Ben’s Chili Bowl, then walked to Jeni’s ice cream for a “nightcap.”

The next day we took in a matinee of “Into the Woods,” and then it was time for her to go back to her real life. It was so hard to let her go, knowing that I was stepping out on faith that we’d find a way to keep seeing each other if our paths aligned.

My faith is in this being the start of something big. She feels the same way, but I don’t want to speak for her on anything more than that. Wanting to be together for keeps if we continue being successful at communication is the one thing I don’t have to fact check. How we feel is deep and intense, passionate in every color across the Scandinavian sky. At the same time, I’m 45. She’s older than me. Combining lives is not an easy process, and when kids are involved, sometimes love isn’t enough. Unclear communication regarding division of labor kills a relationship faster than lack of love ever will.

I have issues with having brilliant ideas and an interesting relationship with follow-through. Luckily, my girl has plenty of experience in dealing with people close to her that have mental health issues. My girl can recognize a coping mechanism and roll with it, or help me create one. I will never get over the idiosyncracies that my mental health presents, but I can always use more cognitive behavioral therapy to make it manageable. It’s the same with medication. I take meds to make it better, but it’s a pill…. not a magic wand.

There’s one last connection that we have that I can tell you about, because it’s probably the thing I feared the most in putting myself out there in terms of dating. My grief is deep, It is ever-present. There is no moment of any day that I’m not away from it. It’s a constant dream, waking and sleeping. Her mother is dead, too. So much I don’t have to explain when we share that particular frame of reference. You just join the shittiest club on record. It’s something you literally can’t explain to anyone else who hasn’t lost a parent, because the feelings are too deep to put into words. Losing anyone is painful. Losing a parent rewires you from the inside out. Putting things into words gets easier over time, especially for writers because they’re constantly exorcising their demons whether it’s fiction or not. My girl and I are also in roughly the same place in our process. It’s not overwhelming anymore. It’s a dull buzz that’s occasionally triggered into an alarm. It makes our music connection that much more intense and primal. If you know me in real life, you got here several paragraphs ago.

I need to write this down for posterity, because it is a moment I’ll never stop treasuring. I remember her sitting on my couch. I was kneeling on the floor so I could look into her eyes. It was too much. Too powerful. Tears started rolling down my cheeks. I said, “thank you for bringing the music back.”

Nothing you could say could tear me away from my girl.

It hit me all at once that I was dating someone my mother would have loved and wanted to adopt. James Lipton was famous for asking this question from the Bernard Pivot questionnaire…. “If heaven exists, when you arrive at the pearly gates, what would you like to hear God say?”

My favorite answer is Harrison Ford’s…. “You look just like me.” My own is a delicious smirk and “see what I did there?”

Letting Go and Letting Leslie

I know the phrase is “let go and let God.” However, I have never put myself first, and I believe the God is implied. Prayer is nothing without shoe leather. We’re a duo, not a Trinity. Jesus is the face I use the most often, but it comes as Middle Eastern. I choose Lebanese most often because the family I rent from hails from its mountains.

My landlady still has an incredibly thick accent and talks on the phone in Arabic often. When we’re in the same room, I look at her with admiring eyes. I’ve told her that I absolutely love listening in on her end of her phone calls, because I don’t know a lick of Arabic. I’m not invading her privacy, but still enjoying the lilt of the language. I’ve thought about learning Arabic many times, but haven’t started yet because it would ruin the magic.

I felt the same with my former housemate Nasim, who used to dazzle me with Farsi. Of course when she told me she was from Iran I practically jumped over two people to tell her that my favorite movie was Argo. She looked at me like, “typical American.” I wish I could tell her what has happened since then.

I could almost cry thinking about not making it to DC before Tony Mendez (spy who created the operation behind “Argo”) stopped making public appearances. He died before his last book, The Moscow Rules, came out. Two things about that, though. The first is that Tony got CIA’s approval to publish the day before he passed away, and the book was a collaboration with his wife, Jonna. Jonna was on book tour and gave a talk at the International Spy Museum, and afterwards, I looked her up and asked her to read one of my blog posts (The Spy in the Room). We’ve stayed in touch casually, and it’s been very rewarding.

Thinking about the scenario of telling Nasim all this is a schadenfreude that makes me giggle. I’ve been laughing a lot more these days.

I came to a fork in the road, and I chose light.

For nine years, I’ve dealt with the grief of losing people I still love in my memories due to being both alive and dead. Since I went to University of Houston I’ve dealt with medication that robbed me of any desire to be in a relationship unless someone broke through with enough force that I noticed. For almost a decade, I have avoided romantic relationships, because it was being willing to take a chance on upending the life I had carved for myself…. the one where I was just happy enough not to notice I wasn’t really happy. I was having good times, but not consistently enough because my dopamine receptors weren’t accepting applications.

I know this is going to sound strange, but I am now open to the idea of dating because of Queen Elizabeth II. I can hear you from here. “Say what now?” Hear me out. I’ll make it make sense.

I was watching a few short videos of Her Majesty’s funeral and for a split second, I considered my mortality. And that was all it took.

I thought to myself “this is how I’m going to tell that story for the rest of my life.” When I thought I was done, the Queen forced me to consider.the last time I had romance, making me feel old and rusty. Was I really going to die thinking I wasn’t enough?

So here I am, chatting in this Facebook group for women of my age and persuasion. My ego started getting stroked immediately, and I was dumbstruck. I am rarely speechless, but this broke me open even more. Part of the reason I’m not a joiner is that I think no one will like me. But several people told me I was cute, and it made me feel better about myself.

A few days later, many filtered down to one.

We’re getting married next week. (KIDDING. LESBIAN JOKE. KIDDING.)

I was going to end it there because it was more dramatic that way. But then I realized it had been a while since we’ve caught up and this isn’t really big news………… except for the fact that I opened my heart to her. That I was brave and she was endearing. That I could see myself having romance in my life when I couldn’t before…….. but I can’t say that we’ve met. Officially. This is because we’ve only chatted online, not in person.

She’s coming to visit in about two weeks, and then I’ll know if I actually have anything to tell you or not. The reason she’s not local and it’s still extremely early days of dating is that she’s on vacation from work and coming to DC, anyway. We met unofficially when she commented on my reply to a question from her about The District, so I’m glad this is not all about me (because Lord knows I love a staycation).

So far she’s a writer’s dream woman- unavailable most of the time. (Now I’m dying laughing picturing her reading this). However, she can leave her house in the morning and be at my house mid-afternoon/early evening, so it’s not like it’s an impossible situation. It’s just right for people who have only known each other as long as we have. We can entirely avoid that U-Haul stereotype through the cunning use of direct chat.

Actually, I take it back. I do have big news, and I’m ashamed I didn’t think of it before. I’m very excited to have someone in my life I view as a kindred spirit, so even if “it’s not there” in person, what does it matter? We write very well together, and that relationship could easily last our whole lives. I am constantly saying that friendship is underrated and this one is truly fantastic. I should have walked the walk before. If there’s anything I miss about being married or having a girlfriend the most, it’s companionship. I’m constantly looking for new ones so I don’t have to depend on the same one all the time.

We’re talking so easily and well that I’m not worried about going on a date to see if we click. The biggest part was stepping out of my comfort zone to join that group in the first place.

I have had a lot of guilt and shame over the way I treated Dana, and hurt at the way she treated me. Then, my mother died, and because one grief hadn’t ended before the next one started, they got lumped together and compounded. I shut down all of my emotions; the brain is an organ and it was doing everything it could to help us survive. My own thoughts and feelings comforted me because I had little outside contact.

I tried so hard to keep from hurting someone else that I forgot to love them, too.

Along the way, I began to take it into account that not 100% of the blame is mine (nor is it one partner’s in any relationship). After a while, I even believed it. Now, I am only talking about the part I do own.

Innately thinking I hadn’t done bad things, but that I was a bad person, I thought I was protecting women from me. That I was really doing them a favor. When the grief cleared into a fog thin enough to see, I learned that it was a lie my brain was telling me to protect me from getting hurt again. It was protecting me from another potential loss.

I’d forgotten what it was like to have a last text of the day. If that’s all it is, then I will still be extremely happy. I’ve learned to trust again, and go with the flow. Whether this is a temporary high or a daily habit is up for debate, though, and I haven’t been able to say that in sooooooo long.

It’s delicious knowing that something could be beginning, and that there is a defined date in the future in which I get to “go see about a girl.”

Here’s what I know so far. In pictures and on video chat, she’s really pretty. She’s been a social worker, and is now a chef. When she told me she was a chef, I had two reactions: “Oh, shit” and “this is fantastic!” These thoughts presented as “not another one” and “we will never shut up.” The fact that I have been married to a chef and have cooked professionally only made me wary for a half second, just because Dana was my best friend and I miss her on that level every day.

I don’t reach out because we have our peace and I’d like to keep it. Therefore, my knee-jerk reaction to umm… let’s call her Theresa (mostly because that’s her name) was that because we couldn’t shut up, this could be something. This could be more grief down the road. A chef? I could let a chef in. That wasn’t scary on its surface, but it was a red flag that this is someone I could let in enough for her to gut me. As a chef, she’d be quite good at it. Moreso because she writes plays and acts (shut up). This had the potential to be a major disaster, and my lemon of a brain almost made me miss it due to fear.

When we were chatting privately, I said, “I don’t know if you meant this to be a date or not, but I’d be open to it.” My stomach was in my mouth until she said “I didn’t know I wanted that until you asked.” Then we were off at the races planning a great and memorable first date. I excitedly told her that I was so glad she said yes, because “even if we don’t like each other or the restaurant catches fire, we’ll have good writing later. It’s a win-win situation.” I was and continue to be lucky that she laughs easily and often.

I think she has long auburn curls, she says that they’re only long compared to my hair. I see it all the time, especially in my dreams.

Like I said, it could be something. I just don’t really know yet. What I do know is that I have been unable to feel the possibility of dating open up until now. That is the real, and for now only story I’m telling. But that the story includes her real name because she said she wanted to be a real person here is telling.

Stay tuned.

Boobs! And Cupping!

Now that I have your attention, I must tell you in advance that this entry might be a bit boring. Or not. Looking at your own writing is a mixed bag. Unfortunately, what I’m writing about is not sex, drugs, and rock & roll. I mean, it should be. I’m not that old. Ok, I’m 44, and medical advice has changed. I didn’t think I’d be getting a mammogram for at least another year or two. Conventional wisdom has changed to over 40. I was officially NOT. IMPRESSED.

This is because I’ve heard so many horror stories about how much it hurts to have your boobs squished into a machine one at a time. Either the machinery has changed, or the women telling those stories were “jeweling the elephant.” In case you’ve never heard that term before, it comes from an Armistead Maupin novel called The Night Listener.

The main character talks about a friend who went to India for a wedding. It was small and intimate, but by the time the friend came back to the United States, the groom had ridden in on a jeweled elephant. Thus, a great phrase was born (the friend was not from Texas, but I assure you that Texans are not immune to this concept…. a three inch bass that had to be thrown back is a 12-inch keeper at the ice house). So what I’m saying is that it’s a strong possibility that the memory of the mammogram was maybe worse than the test itself. On the other hand, my previous point stands. Perhaps advances in mammography have led to the test being much less painful. I’m going to bet on that.

I felt pressure, certainly, but no actual pain (from the test itself…………………..). A few weeks ago, I fell and got a horrible muscle spasm in my back, bad enough to need muscle relaxers and a trip to an orthopedist and physical therapy twice a week. The hardest and most excruciating pain was just having to stand up for 10-15 minutes in a row.

I was also in a lot of emotional pain, because the date was my mother’s birthday. I haven’t felt the overwhelming grief of my mother dying in a long time (every day it’s a dull buzz that runs constantly in my head), but it surfaced mightily when I realized she couldn’t fly up to be with me, nor could I debrief with her over the phone. It was primal, four-year-old child “I want my Mommy.” Because here’s the thing. No matter whether you have family history of breast cancer or not (I don’t), what kind of breast tissue you have (mine is extraordinarily dense and required a couple of takes to get the test right), or whether the person doing the test has one year of experience or 20, the fact that it takes at least a week for the results to come back makes you nervous. You have thoughts that range from “I hope I’m okay” to “I’m probably dying.” I got them earlier this week and they were completely normal.

I also learned that I’m not interested in changing my pronouns or coming out again, but I had a moment of clarity in which I’d never felt more non-binary in my life. I was wearing my hair short and punk, had on both earrings and a cartilage piercing, and was dressed in men’s jeans and an old Ubuntu Studio t-shirt. I’d also brought my well-worn CIA baseball cap for after the test as my emotional support item. It makes me feel braver and stronger than I actually am.

As I was standing there naked from the waist up, I felt truly disconnected from my femininity. It was if my breasts had a life of their own, separate and of me at the same time. I was also completely focused on other things. My pain level was at a seven. I was trying to cover it up with jokes, which brought the pain down to a six and a half. I was also thinking constantly about how I had no idea what was happening most of the time (shut it).

And even though it was completely platonic and professional, I hadn’t been even partially naked in front of another woman for at least seven years, so that was uncomfortable as well… but not in terms of attraction. It was akin to changing in front of other women at a gym……. in seventh grade.

I told the technician that it was my first mammogram, and she said that I had come to the right place. She had 20 years of experience and would make everything as painless and easy as possible, plus, she REALLY loves her job. I said she’d have to, because no matter what the job is, you’d have to love it to do it that long. I made her laugh. Score. Witty rapport with her and endorphins for me.

I was drawn into her bubbly personality. I was wearing this (actually kind of cool) scrub top that tied in two places. She offered to let me drop one side of it at a time, but it unwieldy and time-consuming. I said, “would it be easier for both of us if I just took it off? If you’ve been doing this for 20 years, I’m going to bet you’ve seen a breast before.” She said that was the right answer and we’d be done much quicker.

The funniest part was that she adjusted the machine before I took my top off, and she said, “I have clearly miscalculated.” I laughed so hard that my stomach hurt, and the words of an old girlfriend floated through my head….. “awwww, you got the boobs I always wanted.” That moment of levity carried me through the rest of the test with ease in terms of erasing nervousness, and I think the laughter even brought down my pain more for a minute or so. The hardest part of the test was standing still for fifteen minutes.

A couple of days after the mammogram, physical therapy started. The first session was sublime, because all they did was have me lay on my stomach and massage me for almost an hour and a half. I thought they were all going to be like that.

Nope.

The second session started with 10 minutes on a bicycle to “warm up.” I am what you would call, as Jim Gaffigan says, “indoorsy.” I haven’t exercised in years. I learned something good about myself, which is that even though it had been a long time, it didn’t feel like my calves were going to drop off until the 10 minutes were up.

After that was when my problems really began to kick in. The whole idea is that my arthritis stems from a birth defect. It’s called retrolisthesis, and it occurs when a single vertebra slips and moves back along the intervertebral disc underneath or above it. The quickest way to fix it permanently is to surgically fuse the discs, but my doctor said to try Physical Therapy first and strengthen my core.

When I started those exercises, my other birth defects kicked in. I have a mild case of cerebral palsy, which hasn’t affected my brain or speech, but completely changes my movement and balance. I fall all the time. In fact, I fall so much that I’m bruised all over the place and can never match up which fall goes with which injury. So, of course, the first exercise was trying to balance on a board that sat atop a rubber ball. I could tell that my physical therapist thought I was exaggerating when I couldn’t do it, so I clued him in. He said, “I need you to try a little harder because this exercise is really, really important. Of course it was. And, of course, I was even more terrible at it when I felt under pressure to do well. I am a perfectionist, and any time I feel like I’ve done something less than perfectly, my anxiety kicks up and I feel like a total failure….. even in times where I get 70-80% right.

But this? Grading this would be a zero.

I also told my physical therapist that I saw a treadmill, an eliptical, and a bike, and to never, ever put me on the eliptical, even if God himself came down and told him it was okay. My balance is so off that I fell off the first time I used it. Thinking I just didn’t know how to use the machine, I tried it three more times, which led to (you guessed it) three more falls.

Two weeks ago, we also tried cupping. Apparently it’s supposed to increase the blood flow around your injury, allowing it a better chance to heal itself. I would be willing to try it again, but the first time all I felt was weirdness. Like, the strangest sensation I’ve ever felt in my life. Like other things, though, perhaps it takes more than one session to feel like it helped. But we haven’t done it again. I’ve laid on my stomach and used electrostim with either heat or ice.

The most frustrating part of all this is twofold. The first is that the physical therapy is helping, but I’m not getting better very fast. The second is that the longer I’m in pain, the more my mental health suffers, because nothing in my body feels good. My psych meds and the muscle relaxers help, but like my physical pain, I’m not getting better very fast. Also, don’t tell my doctor, but I’m cheating. She said that she’d like me to take the muscle relaxers instead of NSAIDS because the NSAIDS might make my acid reflux worse. After a week of that bullshit, I bought four bottles of omeprazole and a year’s worth of Aleve. Along with my back pain, I’ve had arthritis in my hands since I was 30, and my knees have been 44 since I was 19. All of it has to do with working in a kitchen. In college, I was a waitress. When I was older, I became a cook. The repetitive strain injuries have mostly gone away, except for the times when I’m typing like a madman. The arthritis is here to stay. Pretty sure it’s osteo and not rheumatoid, because my knuckles/fingers look normal.

That being said, my stepmother is a rheumatologist and a lot of her patients are women my age…. so of course I’m a tiny, tiny bit paranoid about developing an autoimmune disease.

The upside of all this is that my friends have been amazing, checking in on me a lot and offering to rub my back with Voltaren cream or Icy Hot. It lightens my mood, because since I’m perpetually single (by choice), the one bad thing about it is that I am continually touch-starved…. just not right now.

Next week I’m getting a different massage therapist while my current one goes to visit his family in Tehran. I nearly fainted when he said that because Argo is my favorite movie of all time and space. I joked with him. I said, “could you take a picture of the bazaar for me? I don’t have one without Ben Affleck in it.”

And then we laughed so hard I almost fell over……………………..

She’s Come Undone -or- “Life as a SCIF”

When I was a senior in high school, She’s Come Undone was the title of a novel in Oprah’s Book Club. Back then, you could write an essay in order to appear on the show when they talked about the book. My essay made the short list, and I talked to a producer from The Oprah Winfrey Show for about 45 minutes after school one day. You could have knocked me over with a feather, because I thought I was being Punk’d. The essay was all about looking at the book through the lens of being gay, because while the book was about an overweight, white, straight woman, the struggle boiled down to what we would now call “#me #same.” No one ever called me to tell me I didn’t get the gig, so I waited with baited breath until the show aired….. and every single person they picked was an overweight, white, straight woman. There might have been one POC (well, two counting Oprah) but if there was, I didn’t notice. What I did notice is that my rejection wasn’t personal. I just didn’t fit their aesthetic.

However, that’s not what this entry is about. It’s about this morning, and how the title absolutely fit me like a glove. I was moments away from being slumped over on the kitchen floor thinking I was going to die from an anxiety attack.

I was making pancakes and listening to the Fresh Air episode where Terry Gross interviews Cynthia Erivo. Erivo is a UK citizen whose parents immigrated from Nigeria. She was raised in the Roman Catholic Church, and right now is playing Aretha Franklin on Hulu (can’t remember the title). So, not only is she a classically trained singer, she can switch hit into traditional gospel. That’s unusual only because each has a different set of habits with breath control and phrasing that conflict with each other. Oh, and she also went to RADA (Royal Academy for the Dramatic Arts). I made a beeline for the podcast episode because I learned about her when she played fellow Marylander Harriet Tubman. Therefore, I was just excited about listening to her talk and sing. I did not expect what was coming, which was probably most of the reason I had a full-on panic attack. Speaking of which, I haven’t taken my anxiety medication this morning.

Hold please.

A quick note about anxiety medication. Medication does not stop the anxiety itself, but the physical reaction to it… meaning you still feel all the emotions, but you don’t get shortness of breath and heart/brain race. Meaning you’re still in hell, you’re just not hyperventilating over it.

If you think that I am delaying getting to the actual point, boy are you right. This entry digs deep into my past, the period of age 12 to 36. If you are in my inner circle, I know exactly what you’re thinking right now. Overall, I’m better, but there are still huge, huge triggers from which I will never, ever recover. There are sights, sounds, and smells that transport me right back to that place where I feel like a hurt little girl, particularly music. And I was listening to a podcast with a musician, a soprano, in fact.

About seven years ago, I posted a recording of me singing John Rutter’s “The Lord is My Shepard” movement from his “Requiem” on my SoundCloud account. But few people know it’s not the only movement I’ve ever sung. I’m not sure exactly what year it was, but I sang the “Pie Jesu” movement with a community orchestra in Portland, Oregon. I was so good that even I thought so, and that’s unusual. However, the recording of it was a super unusual video format, and I never had it converted. I think Dana (my then best friend, later wife, now ex) might have the original, but I don’t know and I really, really don’t want to hear it now. This is because at the dress rehearsal, the woman who abused me most of my life stood up in front of the entire choir and orchestra and told them that she’d known me since I was 12, and that hearing me sing today was akin to watching her little girl grow up. Everyone was touched by her tears and fake sincerity, because most of the time I couldn’t even get her on the phone. She would tell everyone (including me) that we were family, but her actions never matched up to her words, thus the conundrum I live with.

Pie Jesu is one of the most famous soprano solos in the world, so the best memory of it for me is that one of my best friends called my mom in Houston during the dress rehearsal and held up her phone so that my mother could hear me, and I made her cry (in a good way) from 1800 miles away. Because my mother was a church musician herself, she could never make it to my solos, and I am quite sure that she didn’t know how hard I’d been working on my vocal technique. I had finally gotten to the place where high notes came from deep within me and felt like flying over the mountains. My mother getting to experience that with me is something I will never forget. For my Bridgeport people, the friend who held up her phone was Karen Miller, who has my eternal thanks. My mother is dead now, which makes this memory even more special now.

And now we’ve arrived at the worst part, which is only the worst part in retrospect because back then, I was totally sucked into a relationship that didn’t exist. It was all in my head by design, and the person who designed it just happened to be my choir director, and the person who gave me that solo in the first place.

Clearly, there were genuine moments, but on the whole, “there was no there there.” It started, like I said, when I was 12 years old, and ended for good when I was 36. I was totally and completely obsessed with trying to figure out why this relationship made me feel so good and so bad at the same time. I couldn’t let it go, because when it was good, I felt like I was a truly important person, sunlight raining down on me. When I was in shadow, I felt utterly and entirely worthless.

Again, that was all by design. It’s what abusers do, whether it’s physical or emotional. I didn’t realize until I was 36 that I had been lovebombed into submission, and once that had taken place, anything could be done to me. Good or bad, right or wrong. Nothing was ever her fault. I was wholly responsible for whether the relationship was thriving or not. Some abusers are so good they can make it happen with fully functioning adults, but it’s easier to get them in childhood, because they don’t know any better. Our first conversation was between the summer of my sixth and seventh grade. It happened so fast that my head spun, and people who knew me at that time in my life were all concerned. All of them. Everyone but me suspected that I was being molested, but I wasn’t. It’s just that people who are being emotionally or sexually abused react in much the same way….. to the point that my dad asked Dana if I’d told her that I was being sexually abused, and had been lying about it to everyone else for the last 20-odd years.

Again, it is 100% true that I was never sexually abused. Not once. But having someone fuck with your head is equally traumatic, and in one way, and one way only, worse. That one way is that there is no clear dividing line that you can point to and say “this is where something wrong occurred.” Everything is gray area, where it could have been genuine friendship or it could have been grooming. I never knew, and I will never know. Until I take my last breath, I will be dealing with this on my own, because there has been no indication that I will ever get resolution or an apology externally. All of my validation, all of my forgiveness, has to come from me. I have forgiven her for two reasons. The first is that I was emotionally abused by a sexually abused person who was barely out of college at the time. As a 36 year old person, I was able to see how young that was, relatively speaking. The second is that forgiving her was a lot easier than carrying around all my anger and frustration.

That being said, I am almost finished forgiving myself, but I’m still not there yet. It’s not a matter of knowing whether I had culpability or not. It’s that I still haven’t put down the axiom that I was a really bright kid, made smarter by books and life experience. How in the hell did it take me so long to start processing everything? Seeing my experiences with unclouded eyes? Having someone that wasn’t close to the situation look at the facts and call it rather than being able to figure it out on my own? I haven’t forgiven myself because I just, in this one area, feel so incredibly stupid.

The cognitive dissonance truly began after we stopped seeing each other in person the first time around. During the summer between my eighth and ninth grade years, she moved to a city about four hours away. That meant letters, and in those days, extremely expensive phone calls. EXTREMELY EXPENSIVE.

And then, when I was a junior in high school, she moved even further away, to Portland, Oregon. She encouraged me to move out there to get out of the Bible Belt, and I eventually did after visiting for several summers in a row to make sure I liked it.

The thing was, though, she could keep up the lovebombing for a week or two at a time. Living there was a new level of twisted.

I should back up far enough to say that it’s not that the abuse began when I was an adult. By the time I moved to Portland, she had already handed me enough adult information to blow my little girl mind to bits. I didn’t fit in with my friends anymore, because they were interested in boys their own age, makeup, school, etc. Even being around people my own age was irritating, because I couldn’t talk about what was happening with me to them. Even then, I knew that to share my secrets with them would age them further than they needed to be, so I was in the position of having to protect them from me.

For instance, what healthy adult do you know uses a child to verbally process things like “my partner is an alcoholic and deals weed?” “I’m afraid for my job, both because they’ll fire me if they found out I was gay OR if they found out my partner was in possession of an entire pound of weed and kept it in our house?” I actually needed to know about the “getting fired because you’re gay” thing because I could cross “teacher” off my list of career options, but everything else was just cruel. I call it “cruel” because not only could I not process my emotions with my friends, our dance of intimacy revolved around her telling me things that were inappropriate for my age and then taking away my ability to talk to her about them, so I couldn’t process anything anywhere. I just had to carry around this horrible shit for years on end.

The huge “she’s come undone” came from a likely source… someone who for all practical intents and purposes didn’t know me or the situation at all. Why is that likely? I never would have believed something was amiss unless someone was reading the situation blind. We had very few friends who weren’t mutual, so the person I was talking to was only looking at facts, not invested in anyone in the situation except me. Everyone needs that friend, and if you don’t have him/her, where you’re having a problem with someone in your friend group so tight you don’t have an objective eye, get a therapist. Free advice from me to you. Free.

So, when this friend started unpacking everything I was telling her, I saw things in a different light and I just started vomiting emotions all over the place. For the first time, I could see all the way down into the core of my personality, because I couldn’t remember a whole lot of my childhood before the emotional abuse happened.

I finally got smart enough to get myself to a hospital so that I could have both medication checks and a cohort for intensive group therapy every day. I think the hospitalization only lasted three or three and a half days, but it was enough to get me started on the right track. However, I went another two years without a therapist because I had two therapy experiences that went sour almost immediately.

Therapist number one told me in my evaluation that I wouldn’t be able to work this out in a short period of time, that I would probably need continual therapy for five to ten years in order to truly be healed, and she felt she was too old to take me on. Her words wrestled me to the ground, because I was caught between her saying (in not so many words) “man, you are way too fucked up for me to help you” and grateful that she was honest with me about what it would take.

Therapist number two and I had a successful intake evaluation, and then after our second session, I never went back. This is because she said that I was so interesting she was telling all her therapist friends and patients about me. Ok, I get it. You need to unwind. But for the love of God, don’t tell me about it. Also, I get telling all your colleagues about interesting cases. If I was a doctor or a therapist, I’d do the same thing. But other patients? Are you kidding me?

So, after having been through all of this and still dealing with it occasionally when triggered, I was in front of the stove and had ADHD mind-blanked for a second (there’s a window in the kitchen…. “Danger, Will Robinson…) when Cynthia Erivo’s voice cut through the fog, singing an absolutely gorgeous a capella rendition of “Pie Jesu” from the Rutter “Requiem.” I was in awe of her voice and doubled over in pain. Like I said earlier, I hadn’t taken my anxiety medication, so the trigger went off like a bomb. When I say I was in pain, I mean emotionally and physically. I couldn’t breathe, my head was pounding, I got nauseous, and since I was doubled over, I couldn’t reach my phone to hit “pause.” So, not only was there the initial impact, little pieces of shrapnel bounced off the walls and headed straight back into my skin.

Again, I would have felt the emotional trigger even if I’d taken my anxiety medication before the podcast began, but I think that without the physical component, I would have been able to handle myself a lot better than I actually did.

My first reaction was to remember that I was not the only one in the world who wrestled with demons. I have been putting off watching the documentary about Anthony Bourdain, Roadrunner, since it came out because I just wasn’t ready to feel that vulnerable. But as soon as I recovered physically and finished cooking, I bought a digital copy so that it could sit in my library. I might watch it tonight so that I can get some of my emotions out, because it takes a lot to make me cry. As the old saying goes, “what do you do to vent your emotions?” “You’re supposed to vent them?” Most of the time, I walk through life as a SCIF, generally only choosing to have one or two close friends at a time, because sharing my life with more people than that seems frightening. I am positive that this entire mess is a component to why I don’t date.

There’s no one big, huge red flag for me and dating. It’s about fifty tiny ones that add up. For instance, my exes have all known about the abuse I suffered, and have met that person on several occasions. Thinking about having to retell that story outside my writing is enormously unsettling. I can hear you from there….. “why not just move on and leave that story out of your life now?” That’s easy. If there’s a trigger and a physical reaction, those don’t come out of nowhere, and I am done covering up the truth. DONE. One of the reasons my emotional abuse was so “successful” is that I was never told to keep my mouth shut, it just seemed like the information being shared was intimate and to share it was to betray a confidence. I should have told a lot of things, but I didn’t want to seem untrustworthy…. to her…. I lied my ass off to everyone around me because I had to protect the trail. “You always have to think about the trail.” For me, that was my eighth grade history teacher (who is now dead) was friends with this person’s surrogate parents, so there was no way in hell that I was going to tell someone who suspected that I was being abused who, what, and how. For the longest time, she suspected that I was being abused at home, but she didn’t tell me that until I was in my 30s. It wasn’t that she had any proof, it’s that when kids are being abused, the first and most likely suspects are someone in the kid’s family.

I thought I had made family of choice, and in some ways I did, which is what kept me in the relationship for so long. But too much came out from other people. For instance, to me she was saying “I want you to come to Portland and live with me for college, because you need to get out of Texas.” To her partner, she said (and I’m paraphrasing) “this kid has been obsessed with me since she was 12 and I thought that when she was 18, she would just go away.” When I first moved to Portland, some of her friends tried to get into a pissing match with me over who knew her better. I didn’t want to play, and I said as much, because even then I realized that they knew way more about her present, and they didn’t know jack shit about her past. I told her about this conversation, and then months later her partner got mad at me for something or another and said that she was tired of me getting into pissing matches with all their friends because it was just creating a problem that didn’t exist. As in, the conversation that I had with her and the conversation I had with her partner were completely opposite because she’d tried to make me look bad. And here was the kicker, the thing that made me so mad that I went nuclear inside my own head, when I should have gone and screamed in her face.

I had a friend with a 12 year old daughter. Well, I still have the friend, but the daughter is much older now. 😛 Anywho, I became friends appropriately with the daughter, the kind of friendship that an adult is supposed to have with a kid. When we hung out, I told her mom what we’d done, and most of what she said unless the kid asked me to keep a secret. And I wouldn’t have kept any secrets that were dangerous. All of the secrets I kept were classic “basic tween” problems, as well as helping her with her homework (the subjects I could manage, anyway….). Once or twice, her mom asked me to keep an eye out while she wasn’t home, because the kid was old enough not to need a babysitter, but too young to be the only one home if something egregious happened. And let’s go back to the keeping “basic tween secrets” part. What I’ve learned over time is that sometimes people need a sounding board, especially kids, because they don’t know whether they can talk to their parents about said problem or not. You’re just that adult in their lives they can open up to, and if you steer the conversation toward talking to their moms and dads, nine times out of 10, they totally will. You just have to prove to them that their parents aren’t as lame as advertised. I’ve been babysitting on some level since Lindsay, my little sister (five and a half years younger) was born, so I am very, very good with kids…. and I didn’t doubt myself on this until……..

My so-called friend called up the parent of the 12 year old and said she thought our relationship was predatory. That was before I was taking anti-anxiety medication, and I had a panic attack so severe it was like the ones you see on hospital television shows where the patient thinks they’re having a heart attack and dying. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, because it wasn’t like my friend came to me first and asked me what was actually going on. She went to the parent first, and I was confronted. Luckily, it wasn’t an angry one, and the three of us stayed intact as per our normal. But you don’t get suspected of being “predatory” and get over it. After so many years to think about it, I’ve realized that even my so-called friend knew I wasn’t being predatory. She was just trying to meddle.

Because she did what most emotional abusers do. She wanted to be the center of my universe, but she also didn’t want anyone to know that. It was a constant battle of “I don’t want you, but no one else can have you, either.” She hit her limit when I married Dana without telling her first. God knows why I felt I had to keep it close, especially because at the time we were closer than I was to my mother and father (but only because of proximity). I didn’t want anyone to talk me out of it because I wasn’t doing it for religious reasons. I was doing it because my entire family lived in Texas, save for one uncle who lived in Arkansas and worked in Alaska. Her parents lived in Virginia, and even though her sister was in California, she was still a 10-12 hour drive from us. We needed to be next-of-kin as immediately as possible, because we both realized that in the absence of family, we each wanted our best friend to make those decisions. And back then, it wasn’t federal marriage. It was an Oregon domestic partnership, so if we left the state, we would give up all our rights.

This is not to say that I didn’t want to have a religious ceremony or that I only married Dana for emergency reasons. I had never loved anyone more before or since. She was the other half of my heart and brain. For a long time after we parted, I had phantom limb syndrome. Pain filled all the places I was empty. I can’t remember how and when my so-called friend found out, but it led to her sobbing in the middle of a sushi restaurant…. and I suppose that is as vulnerable as I’ve ever seen her, the biggest indication that it wasn’t all bullshit….. but it wasn’t all on the up and up, either. In retrospect, it seemed way more about her than it was about me. She wanted to give me away. She wanted to sing at my wedding. In short, she wanted to pull the exact same act she pulled when she got up in front of the choir and orchestra and gave her touching little speech…. to make other people believe the story she was telling herself.

I could also tell that she didn’t think Dana was good enough for me, because what she saw was someone who worked in a grocery store, not a Cordon Bleu trained chef and someone with a Bachelor’s in technical theater who could run circles around Shakespearean scholars. She had direction. I had distraction. Also, she was, and I imagine still is, much nicer than I am. If anything, I wasn’t good enough for her, and if my so-called friend really wanted to screw me to the wall, that’s what she would have said, because I would have had an easy time believing it. I was lucky enough in that moment to see through mud. And even though our approaches to life were extraordinarily different, in other ways, we were exactly the same. For instance, I can’t speak to who Dana is now, because we haven’t spoken in so long, but back then we were both extreme introverts. I liked to spend my time alone, Dana liked to cover up her introversion with a mask, one so good Jonna Mendez could have made it. I called that part of her “The Dana Lanagan Show.” I knew that much to be true because growing up as a preacher’s kid, I was “The Leslie Lanagan Show.” Like recognizes like. It’s just by that point, I had been away from the church in the capacity of preacher’s kid for long enough that the mask had melted. I couldn’t make it fit, and I stopped trying…. for better or for worse. Therefore, I didn’t just know Dana, I could feel her, the essence of a Robert Heinlein “grok.”

This is not to say that I will never find that kind of love again, only that it hasn’t happened- mostly due to the fact that I haven’t put myself in any situations to meet someone. I still have a lot of processing to do, because as Sandra Cisneros has said, it takes about 10 years before you can make yourself the protagonist in a story, because you have to be able to see that time in your life as happening to a different person.

Editor’s Note: I’m lying. I did once, but it was too soon. It was maybe six months after I moved to DC, maybe eight or nine months after the breakup, and she was so incredibly amazing that I knew I’d become completely enamored quickly- and that the timing would undo any changes I was trying to make within myself. I would get that dopamine hit of the newly “in like” and put off resolving my grief and responsibility as to the relationship’s end. I didn’t want to drag old patterns into a new relationship, and it hurt to run away, but that’s exactly what I did. The lesson I did take from that experience, though, is that my lust for life wasn’t dead, and eventually the timing would be right to be in a relationship again….. but that wasn’t it.

The one good thing about figuring it all out was that I did it before my mother died. She got the resolution and relief she needed, because she’d felt something was off all those years, but couldn’t prove it because I was such an excellent magician, making the entire relationship sleight of hand. To her, it was Schrödinger’s relationship, something that both existed and didn’t until I moved to Portland. This is because I knew that if she got to the mail before me, she’d hide my letters. She was trying to protect me, and I just wouldn’t let her.

I chose to leave myself wide open to emotional manipulation, living life as a SCIF…. until I eventually came undone. For the first couple of years, it was hard to tell how much of me was breaking apart and how much was finally coming together, because I could stop mulling over the problem and start mulling solutions…. except in those tiny moments, when triggers put me on the ground and I have to work my way back up.

Muted Sadness

It is one of the darkest days we’ve had in a while. It is not currently raining, but the storm has started and stopped multiple times, and the sky still looks threatening. I have my Carrot Weather app set to “homicidal personality,” and she says I should stay home today because no one likes me and she blames me for the bad weather.

That’s my girl.

Today is both my mother’s and my ex-wife’s birthday. They’re both on my mind today, but it’s only about remembering joy where Dana is concerned and muted sadness regarding my mom.

In terms of my relationship with Dana, the reason I now choose to remember good things is that I tortured myself for a long time. Anything and everything I could possibly do to blame myself, I did in spades. It’s been six years, so about a year ago I decided to let myself off the hook… not in terms of no longer bearing responsibility, but that the time for self-recrimination had passed. It was only making me miserable to remind myself of all that went wrong. The flip side of the coin is not mistaking the part for the whole. The overwhelming majority of our story is hilarious.

The only thing that’s still hard is seeing her picture come up in my Facebook memories, because I alternate between thinking they’re adorable and feeling like I’ve been stabbed. It’s not that I haven’t moved on, it’s just a trigger, and tiny moments like that take the longest to fade.

My sister went out to the cemetery and gave me an update on Fred, the one silver lining in the absolute shitshow that is grief over the loss of a parent. Fred was the seedling that was planted next to the foot of my mother’s grave… not in memory of her, it’s just that her death and his planting happened simultaneously. It was the birth and death life cycle in front of our eyes. He gets stronger every time we visit. Whereas he used to only have “kid-sized” branches and leaves, now he spreads out over a granite bench and Lindsay got to sit in the shade. The shade. We were joking that our little boy has grown up.

I think the reason we gave him a human personality is that my thought was that I couldn’t hug my mother, but I could hug Fred so tightly that you’d think I went to Berkeley. It will be a sad and proud day when my arms no longer wrap all the way around.

There are some commonalities in both types of grief. If I mention either my mother’s death or Dana, the conversation looks like gravity’s rainbow, the image so loud I can almost hear the whistle. It is as if both of them have turned into “she who must not be named” as it makes other people feel awkward to the point of onomatopoeia. For me, it’s the old trope of losing someone and they’ve just slipped into another room. Their ends of the conversation are over, but that doesn’t mean I’ve gone all “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotted Mind.” I got divorced and my mom died in relatively quick succession. One loss compounded the other as I wasn’t really done mourning the first when the second one started.

There are good things I remember in the wake of my mother’s death, though, because I must. It doesn’t heal anything- it sort of helps. For instance, I remember being on the business side of death for the first time, and how it was comforting to pick out her casket. I know it sounds weird, but it was literally the last time we’d ever shop for her, and we wanted it to be something that if she saw it, she would have been pleased. The fact that I know her casket is her favorite color and has stenciled birds on the inside is enough for me.

The difference between losing people close to me is night and day from being a preacher’s kid and attending funerals of parishioners. This is because so much time and energy were poured into my mother and Dana that I didn’t know what to do with it afterward. I also locked down my emotions, even now but especially in the beginning. In the aftermath, I couldn’t manage to be the appropriate amount of emotional in public, so I just chose not to have them at all unless I was home alone. It was either resting bitch face silence or complete hysteria with no middle ground.

It’s just that no one knew about it unless I was willing to let them in, and at first “them” added up to exactly zero persons. I branched out to people who had also lost parents, because no matter how hard people who haven’t lost parents try, they cannot grasp the enormity of the situation.

It is because of this that I know my divorce and my mother’s death happened in the right order. The people closest to me had the ability to wound me with stunning accuracy, because if I didn’t know them that well, I could either write it off or decide to end the relationship altogether.

There’s also a special list in my head of all the people that claimed to be my close friends and didn’t come to my mother’s funeral. I don’t want to keep track, but I do it anyway. I feel that the friends who don’t show up when you are in crisis are claiming to be better friends than they actually are. I’m sorry if you feel slapped by that statement, but emotions are emotions and logic is logic. Never the twain shall meet. Even if it’s irrational, it’s my truth. My brain just isn’t capable of telling my heart what to do. However, I am not unreasonable. I did not expect my DC friends to fly to Houston with me.

I think the reason that I’ve described today as “muted sadness” is that it’s not only grief over my mother and Dana, but grief over the pieces of me that died inside at their departure. I am no longer person I was six years ago, and it doesn’t matter whether some of the pieces lost are good. Trying to get them back is futile. A dead end, as it were.

In the meantime, I have turned to books. This blog has become a bit bipolar, because I used to post quite frequently. Now, it’s hit or miss. This is because I have a binge and purge relationship with reading vs. writing. I noticed a long time ago that when I read and wrote at the same time, the tone would sound just like the last author I read. I’m not a great writer, by any means, but I do know myself well enough to know when the “voice” I’m using belongs to me. For instance, when I first started blogging in 2003, I am sure I sounded like Dooce for at least a year.

Speaking of which, I had a friend tell me that Dooce used to be good, but she’s not as good a writer as she used to be. I told her she needed to send me an e-mail when I got to that point. It was her job to tell me to retire. I haven’t gotten it yet, so unless she got bored and stopped reading altogether, I’m probably doing ok. Thanks for asking.

I have read so many books in different genres lately. Last night it was a novel in which a woman gets into a car accident, hit by a drunk driver (“A Curve in the Road”). In the emergency room, she finds out that the drunk driver is her husband. Everything unravels from that point forward, and it’s masterful.

I’m also taking my time with a non-fiction book about one of the first same-sex marriages to be recognized in the United States (“Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America”). The two women met in the late 1700s. As I quipped to a friend, “that’s impossible! Lesbians weren’t invented until 1805!” I admire the couple a great deal, because in order to stay safe, they basically gave generously to the town. It meant that the mayor and council literally couldn’t afford to piss them off. If there’s anything I adore, it’s a clever “scheme.” I’m not sure they even realized they were running that game, only that the results paid off. They managed to be together until one of them died, so I think it was 40 or 50 years…. impressive by any and all standards. The prose is a bit dry, but the subject is fascinating. I would absolutely love to teach a high school history class with it, because it’s not just focused on the couple, but the war around them. There aren’t any graphic sex scenes or violence, so it would be an important alternative perspective while also being suitable for teens.

If there’s been anything good about my silence, it has been the addition of hundreds of unique voices that let me travel all over the world. If there’s a scene from a book that transported me to the point where everything else fell away, it’s from John Brennan’s “Undaunted.” When he was in college, he went to the University of Cairo. His experiences there are humorous and convey the beauty of Egypt. Plus, it’s fun to picture a White House staffer that used to be a kind of rebel, pierced ear and all.

I’ve read those passages multiple times, because sometimes I just need to lift myself out of what I’m describing as “muted sadness.”