“Hey, hey, it’s the static age. Well, this is how the west was won…”
I didn’t know who she was, but she told me her name was Michelle and she went to my high school. She was a friend of Teddy’s. He had given her my phone number because she was nervous about making friends at a new school. She said she liked Teddy and that maybe she’d like me. Starting ninth grade felt like the first season of a spin-off sitcom that I didn’t want to be on; contractual obligations met with poor managerial choices, is how I’d have envisioned myself explaining it in some career spanning interview years later– ninth grade felt like a real low point. I didn’t know anyone outside of friends from elementary school, cast members the invisible producers decided to keep around, and everyone else was Saved by the Bell: The New Class (1993).
I knew there would be girls, and while this idea was tantalizing, it was like seeing a painfully inaccessible item on the first screen of a Legend of Zelda (1986) game. Even if it appeared to be obtainable, the methodology behind its retrieval was buried in an issue of Nintendo Power (1988) that I didn’t have; dull, aching frustration. Michelle’s phone call was that tantalizing item. I found her at her locker the next morning. We never spoke again.
“Hey Mama, look at me, I’m on my way to the promised land…”
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I assure you, the story I’m about to tell you is true- all of it. Every small victory. Every little triumph. Every lesson learned. Every mistake made. Every misdeed cast. Every bit of bullshit. Every lie. Every defeat. Every disappointment. Every heart broken. Every tear shed. Everything I’m about to share with you, it all happened. It’s all true- all of it.
Impossible for you to know the emotional toll telling you this story has taken. The long days and endless nights, restlessly searching for the right words, in the right order; hoping it makes sense; hoping to be seen. Restlessly searching for meaning; enduring moments of despair; intense bouts of frustration; fists against the wall. Desperate to be understood.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, submitted for your scrutiny and judgement, this is my story- this is my life- and I am proud to share it with you; proud to announce the release of my very first book.
“If you close the door the night could last forever”
It’s okay to do nice things, Blair explained. She had made a reservation for the afternoon at a winery operating on a working beef farm. Anything pretentious would be tempered by a kind of rustic authenticity. They’ll have cows, she told me.
Although it can be managed, it’s impossible to entirely diminish feelings of hesitancy in a struggle that I can only assume is similar to the misnomer of the recovering drug addict– the same wishful thinking involved- that one can ever, successfully, erase the footprint- bust the ghost… thoughts wander; compulsions linger restlessly. There is no recovery for true addiction.
“…but will the morning headlines even say that it’s a shame?”
They’re all liars, she told me, all of them. While we had spoken a few times, only through text, in the years since things had come apart violently, I finally chipped away at Jennifer enough for a phone call. Years had passed, and maybe the resulting body image issues- collateral damage from getting off on calling her fat- had faded enough for the sound of my voice to be somewhat less nauseating. Or maybe it was the mid-August blues; five months into quarantine and just about any option seems great- a fact that I greatly benefitted from over the summer- but even if I had been excited to catch up with Jennifer formally, this wasn’t what I was expecting.
It’s the same thing every time, she told me. It’s an act, the whole thing; it isn’t real. The eye contact, the pursed lips, hands in the hair, the inflection in tone- “baby, baby…” She’ll pick up on this and mimic it back to me- same eye contact, same pursed lips: “baby, baby…”
When you’ve lived what feels like a thousand lifetimes compared to the high school sweethearts; you’ve figured out every bit of the female algorithm- missile launch codes carved into your skull like the password to skip to Mike Tyson; right to the bedroom; right to true love, scientific discovery at the price of normalcy; at the price of family.
At the price of outliving your parents- at least numerically. Without anything else- anything to provide perspective- the single man will either self-destruct in addiction or grind himself into the ground; defiance, on the road to decay; defiance in the face of genetic limitations- trying to get muscle car performance out of an economy class. Your parents were shopping on a budget- who knew how bad things would get?
“The ghosts that roam this house, like winter air right through our souls.”
You don’t have to write about my stairs, she said, and we can only be friends if you stop hurting my feelings. I didn’t have to be in the room to know what Nancy’s eyes would have looked like- desperate to hide the depth of her vulnerability- but like every other time, no matter how hard she tried, the way she looked at you betrayed her. This was what made you fall in love with her. She stopped talking to you when you posted the piece about her house- her house as a metaphor for every bit of hurt, every battle scar, every coping strategy and defense mechanism; walls and coldness- circles that needed squaring. Parts of her life to be compartmentalized; some locked-away, some delicately framed with self-talk.
“Row like a felon, drown like a captain’s son. But say, how long can this go on?”
The goal is a clear stretch of highway long enough to keep your cruise control set at seventy-eight. Detach from the minutia of traffic while feeling connected to the reality of journey– wheels groping pavement, cutting through morning air. Not only does your attention to speed management ultimately save on gas mileage, but more importantly it provides space to sharpen the mind/body connection that’s crucial for when you walk into work at 6 a.m.- each motion light clicking to life as you pass- to sit at your desk and write in a spiral-bound notebook for twenty-five minutes before starting your work for the day.
Dana wouldn’t let me fuck her before she went on dates. Losers she’d meet from pay-to-play dating apps- ones that supposedly offered a more serious assortment of romantic candidates. The kind she’d want to bring home to mom, assuming mom were still alive. Maybe, more accurately, the kind she’d introduce to her children- on a day trip to Adventureland, where he’d spend big money on artisan ice-cream and carnival games skewed against the player.
Big smiles while riding bumper boats. This could be something real- like they advertise on TV, where aging singles find their second chance; the one that counts, as insinuated by complex smiles on the faces of couples in their forties, sipping cocoa in cozy, female-owned coffee shops; discussing life after marriage.
“A week without you, thought I’d forget. Two weeks without you and I still haven’t gotten over you yet.”
Nancy didn’t like it when I teased her about her house. Put politely, it was unfinished. What was meant to be the baby’s room, with its careful design of overlapping squares hand-painted on the walls, had become a storage-space; miscellaneous items suffering a slow transition to the garbage. Her hardwood floors had stains. Light bulbs dangling from fixtures. Things in the yard that hadn’t been moved since they were put down fifteen years prior. A storm destroyed the fence, with only the posts a reminder that her yard had once been enclosed. The front lawn with crabgrass and mushrooms.
Not that one needed to be tremendously perceptive to realize that the house, more or less, had ceased any major evolutionary activity- the kind where the first time homeowner is gifted a Time-Life “Home Repair & Improvement” book set, with plans made that foresaw holiday duties on the path to grandchildren.
“I’m breaking through, I’m bending spoons, I’m keeping flowers in full bloom- I’m looking for answers from the great beyond.”
She said she wanted a fairy tale. Not something fairy tale-like, or fairy tale-adjacent; not the kind they sell at Target, or the Magic Kingdom version with the anxious college girl sweating to death in her ballroom gown while telling you about all the books she read before the gnarly beast swept her away. Something where you’d never dream of compromising things with the words good enough to control expectations while still acknowledging the positive. She wanted the real deal.
Where it wasn’t good enough to spend your nights together laughing at jokes that only you’d both understand, between bouts of incredible sex, and looking into her eyes and telling her that she was beautiful and really meaning it. This wasn’t a fairy tale- this was something else- and if it wasn’t good enough to be a fairy tale, what was it?