The Fall and Rise of Andy Dick, Part Two – The Myth

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My wife is a tiny bit jealous – just a little.

I was spending time with one of my Wizard friends, and now I’m teasing her about it. She’s fascinated with my friend Wendell, and has been ribbing me about how I’m hoarding access to him. Somehow, without being told, she can sense Wendell is training me in sorcery, and she’s envious. She wants in. But Wendell is here at Akbar with other pals – theater writers, performance artists, radical faeries et al – and I’m not about to bother him to teach us incantations, hand witchery, or request the tricky instructional task of opening dimensional portals.

It’s too much to ask at 11pm on a Monday.

The after-show is winding down; people are starting to remember to get tired. My band played a couple of songs, (at Ian MacKinnon and Travis Wood’s Planet Queer), and we’re all basking in the after-gloaming. The boys and I did well, and now’s the time we collect our accolades out front on Sunset with the smokers, travelers, fortune tellers, and ghosts. I’m pretty confident after tonight that our show on Sunday, July 29th (at 7pm! 10 bucks!) at the Satellite will be pretty tight. Everyone seems to be feeling pretty okay.

(get tickets here!)

Then, for the second time in less than five days, there he is. Andy Goddamn Dick.

(She’s there too. The lovely blackberry-lipped pixie-faced girlfriend. The woman in the sundress from the first night. The one who kept storming in and out. She’s not angry tonight. She looks different, though, almost goth. She’s put together a simple outfit. Black shorts, tight, a matching halter top. Maybe that’s what it is. But she seems calmer tonight. More fluid. Andy is feeling gregarious. He’s shaking hands and saying hello to folks. I’m glad he’s feeling better – his cataclysmic #metoo resurfaced recently, but he seems less cagey than last time. I realize, he’s dressed just like her – that’s cute!)

Hey, I say to my wife, that’s the guy I was telling you about yesterday – Andy Dick from News Radio. Wanna meet him?

Sure.

Okay.

So, I call out to Andy. I wave. I don’t think he recognizes me, then, suddenly, he does.

Andy has always been such a bright light to me. Like me, it’s clear he has issues with his energy level, and maybe his is even worse than mine, now that I’ve encountered him a couple times? Sure, I have my hypomania flare ups, but he seems to be running pretty hot, pretty consistently. Then again, what the hell do I know? I never open the newspaper anymore. I can’t even do NPR in the car. It’s just silence and daydreams, and rattling around the old memory castle any time I have a long drive ahead of me. I just added a small, secret courtyard somewhere on the grounds. Not sure exactly what I’m going to put there. Possibly, a very fey Minotaur? A two-spirit Wendigo? The Thin Woman?

There’s still time to mull it over, I think, smirking. We only have the entire rest of our lives…

Andy comes over. I beam at him. Look who it is! Andy! Hey – I wanted you to meet my wife, Ann. Andy smiles. It’s genuine, but then his eyes narrow as he starts to shake her hand. I turn to try to introduce Lammy, but Lammy is just staring at Ann and Andy, his mouth agape. Lammy takes a while to process things, sometimes.

I think to myself, oh, maybe he’s still thinking about the show. You do that sometimes. If a show is particularly good, it can feel a bit like waking up from a dream, after, if there’s flow.

Lammy is suddenly alarmed. He points. I glance over at Ann, who looks horrified for some reason. Andy is smirking, impish, a sudden ugly, triumph in his eye. I don’t like this, but now Ann is rushing off, possibly to the lady’s room? I missed something. Lammy looks shocked. His head turns toward Ann, who is disappearing inside. Should I go see what’s going on with Ann, I ask? Lammy says, yes. That would be a great idea.

I catch her in the ladies room, wiping her ear out with toilet paper. She looks annoyed. There’s a smudge on her face I noticed earlier. One of the performers kissed her on the cheek and left burnt umber on her cheek. It looked sweet out in the street lights – like a kiss – but here in the ladies’ room, she’s rubbing it and it starts to smear into a bruise. Then, it fades – gone, entirely. She throws the toilet paper into the toilet. (Women love toilet paper. Good luck, if you sire three daughters; you’ll bankrupt yourself on toilet paper.)

She takes more, and wipes out her ear again.

Moments like this, you shouldn’t envy. She looks at me, and I look at her in the ladies room.

Did Andy do something?

Yes.

What?

Ann sighs. It seems like she is considering whether to speak to this at all. One of the things I love and respect so much about her is her incredible self-control, her wisdom about situations like these. Ann never comments unless she feels like engaging, which means, sure, you can ask her a question, but she never owes you an answer. Finally, though, she speaks.

He stuck his tongue in my ear.

Gross!

Yes. It’s gross and tiresome.

(This, to me, seems like an understatement. There’s something in her body language that looks exhausted, beyond annoyed. There’s an awfulness just beyond her blue, orange flecked eyes, and it’s speaking to me. It’s saying, Michael – this is one of 10,000 instances like this. It’s saying, this is just a small part of a lady’s daily hassle. Indeed, I think to myself, gays inflict this vulgar, pathetic type of behavior on one another all the time).

Ann, I’m so sorry! I didn’t see it. I was trying to see if Lammy wanted to meet Andy too.

She shrugs and sighs. It’s getting late, she says, and gives me a crooked smile. Andy has moved into the bar, to continue his daily binge. We sidle past him quickly, trying not to raise his attention.

We get out into the fresh air. Ann is parked across the street. I walk her over to her car. We came separately tonight. We talk about Andy a little, and how it sucks that, even supposed safe spaces are sometimes inundated with predators. But mostly, Ann wants to talk about what a lovely mini-show Evil Mutants had, and what a supportive, generous community Planet Queer cultivates.

She’s being generous. I know she’s grossed out and she’s trying to make sure my evening ends on a good note.

(In other words, she’s being a good person.)

We talk about upcoming events, meals we need to plan for the week, and I tell her I’ll see her at the compound, or back on campus. We have nicknames for the estate we’re haunting these days.

I kiss her cheek; we say our goodbyes.

I wait outside on a bench with Lammy and a boy named Robin who’s flirting with him. Ann drives by and I wave, but she’s got her mind on the road. It occurs to me – She’s no Orpheus. She’s my wife, not Lot’s – this creature does not look back.

A snippet of parchment flies out of a dusty cabinet in my castle’s study anti-chamber. It’s a private study I put retired ideas, just off the King’s quarters. He needs to be near his early writing, so he can remember what Prince-hood was like.

(bridge)

Just like Orpheus, you’re heading down the Harefield Road.

Clear out the underbrush, someday you might emerge.

But like Lot’s wife, you couldn’t help but watch it grow.

Just be careful you’re not petrified….. by the suuuuuuuurrrrrge.

(breakdown and final chorus)

You looked back!

You looked back!

Your eyes were begging, (please, oh please,)

just cut the kid some slack!

You looked back!

You looked back!

With a glance you missed your chance.

I’m never coming back.

You looked back.

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On the concrete, something I haven’t seen yet in California. Something I only ever think about in Florida – a Palmetto bug. It’s long and sleek and shiny. About two inches of hairy legs and antennae. They’re glorified roaches, but, to add a horrifying, odious layer – they can fly.

But, this one is languishing on the sidewalk, twitching, half squished. It’s clearly in the throes of death. It occurs to me – the most humane thing might be to kill it now, but there is a Buddhist principle in some sects that forbids this sort of thing. I consider the dilemma, but, presently,  I have bigger cats to skin. I turn to Lammy, who seems to read my mind. What are you going to do, he asks?

Head inside, I say.

I enter the cool blackness of Akbar. Behind me I hear Lammy mumbling something which sounds like, good idea.

I’m not sure. Maybe Lammy was talking to me. Maybe he was inviting cute Robin into his memory castle. In any case, Lammy’s opinion about this isn’t relevant to me any longer. I’ve pulled the trigger.

I’m going to beat the shit out of Andy Dick.

(to be continued)

-3

Sweet Gregory: Part Two, The Cabaret Bar – 2001

I feel threatened.

My purpose seems off. I’m incomplete. I don’t feel whole.

There’s no integrity to me, since integrity just means wholeness, completion, strength of structure. None of that exists inside me, in this moment. A jealous monster sits in a cabaret bar, listening to Sweet, Sweet Gregory sing about crossing borders. A jealous monster feels small, threatened, insignificant. Beware, the out of work actor. His spirit holds an ugly birthday candle so paltry, the very thought of casting a shadow is nearly out of the question.

And most days, it won’t even try. It will just whisper out to Trouble in the middle of the night.

Gregory’s voice sounds like that of a man, but if a man were a god. I’m flat-out livid with jealousy. My skin is gooseflesh. Envy’s green kudzu has over-run the wild, round, smoky mountains of my heart, and winnowed me down into bayou swamp land. Much more of this, and I’ll widen out into the delta, disappearing into the deepest waters. I will go live in the magma canyons at the bottom of the ocean, with the strangest, most improbable fishes.

Gregory is singing and it feels like a rock salt blast to my belly.

I feel betrayed.

Greg is brazen these days. Defiant. Years have passed, he has enjoyed every inch of his artistic growth. And now, has now looked me up to flex his muscles. To show me he has surpassed me. And indeed, he has.

He’s incandescent.

If ever was heard a perfect, operatically trained baritone, if ever was heard perfect pitch, it exists in 21 year old Gregory. Our summer affair has inspired him, I had thought, when re-connecting. I was worried he would be angry with me. Over the course of our summer, he taught me Alfredo sauce, opined philosophy,  sometimes he even paid the check! I took his blue-blooded rosebud and showed him what a garden truly is. And, honestly, on the phone, it sounded fun. It sounded innocuous.

Sure, I broke his heart in an ugly way, when he went back to Boston College –  but I thought that was forgiven? Obviously not.

Now, he has planned some just desserts for me. He’s showing me he’s better.

And he is.

He sings better than me. If a science existed to measure singing ability, it would be empirical fact – accepted law of nature – that Gregory is a much better singer than me. There isn’t any comparison. The gods don’t always have a fair hand when they give out gifts, a bitter nine year old inside me thinks to himself. A more forgiving twenty-something inside me thinks, who knows? Maybe I’ll even kiss him again?

Those kisses dry up and flake off my dashboard, though when he starts to sing. He creates that serendipity you need to really lull an audience. He really puts them in a trance. I’m simply jealous. I identify it immediately, and tuck it away in a quaint little shame pocket in my memory castle.

But, why should Gregory get all the singing talent? I know the words to write. I know how to tap into the Oracle of the Holy Spirit. Gregory learned a few tricks, sure, but so what? An ugly worm in my brain leaks out into a cobwebbed synapse.

The adrenal is thrumming. Lights flashing in my cortex. I see inky forest black -fragments.

SOS! May Day! Please send reinforcements!

(Aide-moi à avoir le petit mort, ma chère.)

A man, homeless, a shadowy figure, walks by spitting on the ground, pawing at mounds of carbuncle. He shrugs. I hate him, too. He doesn’t care. He gets to jump on the next freight train out of town – I have to deal with this garbage happening in my home base, my lair, my den. Fuck that guy. Picking at his face like a moron. No wonder he has nowhere to go.

We’re in a dive bar. It’s Rosie, Too on 10th ave. It’s the lowest-rent cabaret bar in NYC and it’s mine.

I’m the one who comes here and practices Sondheim songs, or improvises, or tries to sing REM. I’m the one who wants so badly to sing. I’m the one overcoming layers upon layers of self-hatred and shame, and trying – desperately always trying – to find my own voice. Even a rusty, hollowed out version would suffice. I chain smoke cigarettes because I want a voice like Billie Holiday. I soul search, and shoot dice in alley-ways to be like Tom Waits. I have sex in the Chelsea Hotel to be like Leonard. To be like Janice. Gregory did none of that.

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A trusted friend of mine in college once leveled with me and told me I would never get paid to sing, that I’d be much better off just doing “straight theater.” I laughed and defined “oxymoron” for him. But, I internalized it. I tended to that piece of anger over the years, singing anyway, leaving college early. I go to New York first. I forgive the man who told me I would never get paid to sing, but I never, ever forget. I wrote it all down. I’m getting behind myself. Ahead. I’m manic, and I’m blurring borders. Everything mixes together, and I’m shadowed by The Man With the Lacerated Face on the N train. He’s in my traffic pattern, and always staring at me from a threadbare green hoody.

I walk Long Island City. I argue with my boyfriend. I can feel him slipping away, and I trigger arguments so I can go have seven gin and tonics at rowdy honky-tonks. Gregory isn’t coming at the most convenient time, but I’m glad to have the distraction.

Sweet Gregory takes me out to this cabaret bar, this offshoot of a much more centrally located bar called Rose’s Turn, on purpose, with a glimmer of mischief in his eye. He’s still beautiful. More so, now.  Somehow, he has fast-tracked his artistic development. It must be the money, I think to myself. It must be his Rich Daddy paying for opera lessons. Gregory was bright and boyish, kind –  when he showed up this afternoon, and I can tell he means me no actual harm, but I’m working against an ugly Minotaur and an impossible labyrinth of a heart.

I’m happy at home, with Lovely Jeffrey, but Lovely Jeffrey is graduating soon, and his heart isn’t really in theater. I’m going to be alone again. Forlorn. Abandoned. It’s fine, though. I’m good at being alone. I don’t get lonely. I practice.

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Sweet Gregory is bringing the house down. He has the audience in his rapt spell: an upstart young mage has now become a full fledged sorcerer. And what am I? Wizened, bothering these nice folks once a week with my improvised songs? Trying to see if, magically, without any formal training, I can produce an evocative Bessie Smith cover? Trying to sing women’s songs from Mack and Mabel, and surprised I’m not getting the same effect an alto would? I’m a fraud and a liar and a poseur. Sweet Gregory is the real star. How did this happen in two years? Gin, I think to myself, but I know it’s deeper than that. I start to think of my energy level. How I always have to hide my special powers. Gregory interrupts.

He sings a song called Anthem, from a show called Chess:

[THE RUSSIAN]
No man, no madness
Though their sad power may prevail
Can possess, conquer, my country’s heart
They rise to fail
She is eternal
Long before nations’ lines were drawn
When no flags flew, when no armies stood
My land was born

And you ask me why I love her
Through wars, death and despair
She is the constant 
We who don’t care
And you wonder will I leave her — but how?
I cross over borders but I’m still there now

How can I leave her?
Where would I start?
Let man’s petty nations tear themselves apart
My land’s only borders lie around my heart

Chess is my musical. I’m the one who wanted to play the Russian. This is completely unfair. The vile, vulgar fink. No, he’s just Sweet Gregory, I chide myself. Where is your Holy Spirit? Can’t you find some sort of generous part of yourself? That’s your friend. You were his first friend. Be kind.

The crowd roars with approval, and what’s worse, what hurts even worse – Sweet Gregory baited me into this situation. I had mentioned singing here over the phone, and one could almost hear the gingham in his voice when he said, “Oh, maybe we should go try it?” All crisp and nonchalant, with old Loki behind it, winding up to become his trickster self. Pretending he’s going to help his brother, but actually making things more complicated and treacherous – just for fun. For the sake of chaos. Sweet Gregory looks like Iago, or Rasputin, or Walter Raleigh. Some person who just wants to seize the world without even knowing what the borders are.

Tense. Staunch. Conservative. Uncompromising. Gregory. No more Greggie Sweet Sweet, I think to myself, and toss a few flowers over my shoulder that I picked. Tulips on Madison avenue, outside Chanel. Across from St. Laurent.

Whereas I am simply militant. I’m a dingy, militant queer.

You could almost think he set me up, letting me introduce him to the actors, vagabonds, liars, show-folk, who work here. A rogue’s gallery! Dark skinned sirens in a cowboy hats, drinking ‘adult tea’ out of ceramic coffee cups. A brunette, buxom Greek girl with pure platinum confidence and golden engraved pipes. A jittery piano player, over-caffeinated, flirting, drinks way too much, pees way too much in the ladies room, which has a lock on the door.

“It’s a single service ladies room, and it’s a girl’s only hope for a quiet, private moment to powder her nose.”

This place isn’t Carnegie Hall, sure, but it’s dusty and somehow safe, even in the Maelstrom of west Hell’s Kitchen. ‘Clinton Hills,’ a real estate agent tried to coin it, but it didn’t stick, mostly because Bill moved up to Harlem. No doubt Bill was chasing other hills than I was. Believe me. Believe me.

This melange of joggers, pimps, mailmen, addicts, tarot-readers, street performers, beggars, clerics, and whores. Right near the West Side highway, and it’s sweet, cool, rocky waters. It’s a small offering of light, in an otherwise ugly economy, but it’s mine, and these people like and respect me.

Gregory has ruined this.

-7

He insists I go first.

I do something stupid. Comedy. My old bag of tricks. Something that gets some chuckles. Maybe I was a sea-witch singing about Unfortunate Souls, vamping and bragging about how much I like to help people, how every boon comes with a sacrifice. How, I can steal a voice and take that power and make it mine! The audience likes me. They love a Funny Girl like me. Odd, and cute, and flirty. A little weird. Maybe a pupa or a larvae. Maybe spinning a cocoon?

But, then, right after my turgid attempt at camp – an arch-angel. Connecticut’s own blessed Gregory, with the placid, kind eyes of a cow. Singing like a goddamn virtuosic savant. Fuck me.

I don’t deserve to even be here.

He’s had two Manhattans – “Never more than two drinks,” he says, all Cape Cod and Old Saybrook. “Yeah right, at least never in the same location, on the same night!” I chortle, Gregory laughs along. He’s confused. Why am I being sardonic? Aren’t I having fun?

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I’ve had too much by now. I’m jealous, and everyone knows jealously is just a mixture of fear and anger, mostly fear. Add a healthy dose of regret, and a few carefully placed blames, and you’ve got a really poisonous concoction. A really deadly venom. I want away from the jealousy. I make an excuse, and pay the tab.

There is a secondary thought. There are two ways to get rid of jealousy. You either love it away, or you fight it away – that’s the paradigm. I grab my things.

Where are we going, Gregory wants to know?

Do you like dares?

I’ve played truth or dare once or twice.

I dare you to follow me on a walk.

Where are we going?

Home.

Where’s home?

Anyplace I hang my hat.

Stop it, be serious, Barbra.

I’m not Barbra, or Liza, or Judy. I’m not any of those folks. I’m not Mike Nichols, or Sartre, or Plato. Okay?

Michael, slow down! I’m coming, but don’t walk so fast! Let me grab my cardigan.

I don’t slow down! Come on! Let’s go! Did Michelangelo slow down, or was he hyperactive? Did Michael Cunningham slow down or did he write The Hours with mild bi-polar? Did Michael Jackson slow down, or did he run around the world telling his story, and singing his songs? I don’t slow down, Sweet Gregory – you catch up! 8th avenue now, Broadway, Park, Madison, 3rd, 2nd, 1st, York.

What is the point of this, Michael? Did you like my song? I sang it for you. You said you liked it. It was a surprise.

It was perfect.

Haha, no. No, it’s not perfect but I worked on it with a coach.

No, it was perfect. The singing was perfect.

What does that mean?

I don’t want to tell you.

What does it mean?

The acting.

What?

The acting.

What do you mean?

I mean – that was a fine vocal exercise, Sweet Gregory. But you didn’t act the song. You just sang it perfectly.

But, that’s what training is! I did a professional show. I did Pippin and I was one of the leads!

So what? You did one show? I’ve done fifty at least.

(I’m lying now. Maybe at this point I have done 30 shows. I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing! The ugly toad inside my gut is croaking like Louisiana voodoo.)

Sweet Gregory is patient. Sweet Gregory chases me through the streets and to a bridge. The Queensborough Bridge. We start the incline. I’m going to make him walk me home again. Farther this time. 7 miles at least. I can outpace him. His feelings are hurt from my insult, and his confidence lags. Now, I finally feel powerful. Now I’m closing in. Gregory is telling me about journalism now. How, making a difference in the world is much more manly than doing theater. How he feels empowered, and self-actualized in that sphere. I scoff. Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs? Uh, no thanks. I took Intro, I’m good.

Who filled your head with such nonsense?

(There is a pause.)

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“Michael. You’ve heard me speak of my father.”

“Sometimes, when I can focus enough to listen. ”

“You know, then, that I’ve invited him to every show I’ve ever done – which, by the way, is many more than just the one professional musical I just finished.”

“Okay, so what?  People don’t always go to shows. It’s not for them, anyway, it’s for you.”

Gregory stops and tries to reach me. He grabs my shoulders and stares at me. He goes pretty deep. It’s intense.

“Michael, this isn’t about you. This is about me and my father. He came to my musical and he wasn’t impressed. He wants me to do something. Useful.”

“Oh really?” I ask, cheerful and bright, but underneath that, a horrible Cain raises a scythe against a Sweet Brother, coveting God’s favor of his immense, glorious bounty.

“Tell me more about what your father wants” I say, and I bound up onto the bridge.

I’m baiting Sweet Gregory to follow me to Queens. He springs my trap. We are laughing, hysterical, raw, unfettered as we race each other up the bridge. Squall and squalor behind us. Water underneath. Concrete. The air all around. The heavens above.

“You tell me,” I say to Sweet Gregory.

“Tell you what?”

“You tell me about your father, and I will tell you about bridges.”

Flotsam and jetsam swirl in the garbage laden river underneath us. It won’t cost much, I think to Sweet, Sweet Gregory, as I lure him to the apex of the bridges curve.

Just your voice.

It’s the best voice. I know all the best voices. These voices, have you seen the voices we have around here? We’re going to have the best voices. Believe me. Believe me. There’s a few people, my NRA people, that might get a little cagey come November, but we have good voices.

Where’s my bucket of chicken?

-6

-2

The Heroin Addict’s Wife

I’m sorry I didn’t text you back. A walk sounded nice, and if I’m being honest the weather was absolutely perfect for it. Right after sunset. Right between the day’s heat and the night’s chill. I couldn’t really find the energy for it, somehow. At the time I was driving past a thick, imperious column of smoke on the 105 – a textile factory caught ablaze in Lynwood.

I spent the morning glued to Facebook – so many women coming forward with testimonials about assault, abuse, rampant misogyny in show business, and also a friend posted about National Coming Out Day in a poignant, cogent way. He used to capitulate to homophobic banter in an effort to hurry it along, to move past it with blushing self-consciousness, to bury it. The eye contact he would make with women afterward. Conspiratorial acknowledgement of a darker, unsaid truth between them. Mutual ill feelings creeping up spines – forcing laughter together at homophobic jokes or hyper-masculine energy that, unchallenged, goes way too far. A shameful, empty feeling as one contributes to one’s own subtle oppression. Awfulness.

I’ve been incommunicado and that’s nearly unforgivable. I was billing hours at Renata’s house. She, a budding, bubbling teenage girl, just coming into her own special, savage power. A bright light, affable, funny, outgoing. A charmer.

I would have answered your FaceTime request, but there was apocalyptic traffic today. Google maps showed a red line all the way past the downtown area, and I was suddenly overtaken with a taxing, almost leaden exhaustion. Nearly falling asleep at the wheel, I pulled off near Rosecrans into a 7/11 parking lot, parking in a sliver of shade beneath a billboard advertizing the Hustler Casino. Liz Flynt encouraging people to “Play Harder.”

I got the Snapchat ping – you sent me a short video, but I didn’t get a chance to look at it before it went away. 

The 7/11, the angry plume of smoke rising like a bomb blast, blotting out the distant horizon. Barely able to keep my eyes open, I eased the seat back. For a while I thought sleep would overtake me. Strange, absurd visions – fantasies played out before my darkened eyelids. I couldn’t let go of sweet Renata, of the sour smell she lives in. The rankness. Inky, dark, tar-like paths cut through her apartment’s wall-to-wall carpeting. Years of oily, dirty feet tracking filth – grinding it down. Let’s be honest, if you steam cleaned that carpet you’d regret it for a week – the smell would send folks running for the hills.

I got your follow-up text. I’ll read and respond, I promise.

Renata in my mind, bringing consciousness back. Padlocks on the doors, the colony of ants, unchecked, unfettered in the bathroom, the mini fridges in each of their rooms  guarding the spoils of their monthly CalFresh benefits. Her father, moaning and shouting in the next room, (Is he drunk; it’s the middle of the afternoon?!) unintelligible even to Renata herself. She doesn’t mind. She’s glowing.

She loves when I visit, she says; I remind her of The Great Gatsby.

I saw your shout out on Twitter and I blushed at the compliment, thank you. I owe you a few likes and maybe even a re-tweet –  it’s just at that particular moment I was reclining in the 7/11 parking lot and trying to nap during an early rush hour, and it all came over me at once. The reality of Renata’s situation. Her low probability of succeeding her way out. The generational poverty morass she was born into – a life lived next to the steaming churn of a factory down by the harbor. The lowness. The squalor.

Hot, salt tears splashed suddenly, my body wracked with spasms. A gasp. A stone sewn into my heart, my gut shook to pieces. The slow tick of the Toyota engine in the heat of the cracked asphalt parking lot.

Your WeChat message came through, darling, but I was baking in the desert sun, prosessing, purging. There was a time I prided myself on having “integrity of communication.” I responded to every email. Answered every single text. I’m sorry, but I’m just not that person anymore. That isn’t me. 

This afternoon, as Renata and I were trying to cobble together an outfit to wear to her job interview, there was a rapping at the window. A wizened, crone-like woman, seemingly carved out of driftwood, tapped away at the thin, sliding windowpane. Oh, Renata said, smiling with a shrug, that’s the heroin addict’s wife. She pays my dad 100 bucks a month to park her van in the back yard. She lives back there with her husband. Renata slid the window open. The heroin addict’s wife wanted to charge her iPad. 

I rejected all your calls and powered my phone down. I sobbed and squeezed out all of today’s terror into a compact Japanese car in a 7/11 parking lot.

Forgive me, I  whispered into my black, sleeping iPhone.

Forgive me, I haven’t been myself lately.

-3

“Anwar”: Subversive Art in a Brutal Culture

 

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“Anwar” is an artist living in Bangladesh. He contacted me after I wrote about Chechnya. Over the course of the last 10 days I’ve spoken to him quite a few times. He’s bright and kind and talented. “Anwar” worked as a designer for Roopbaan, Bangladesh’s first and only LGBT lifestyle magazine. Two prominent LGBT activists (the editors and publishers of Roopbaan) Xulhaz Mannan and Tonoy Mahbub, were hacked to death in their home by religious extremists. Bangladesh legally suppresses the rights of homosexuals, and turns a blind eye to anti-gay violence.

Here are excerpts from our conversations, juxtaposed with art he made last year which he can not exhibit in his home country:

Him: My name is “Anwar.” Please don’t mention my real name. I live in Bangladesh. I’m an artist. I love to do LGBT related artwork, but it’s impossible for me to show my work in public here.

Me: Tell me what it’s like to be gay in Bangladesh?

Him: On April 25 2016, two of my friends were killed for gay activism. I used to work with them. They were very vocal online and published a gay magazine. Extremists followed them to their house. Four men entered the house and killed them with machetes. One of them was the editor of the first LGBT magazine in Bangladesh. I was the designer of that magazine.

Me: What are the laws like in Bangladesh, for gay people?

Him: Act 377 still active here. It’s an old Colonial British Law which criminalizes any gay activity.

Me: Don’t worry, then. I won’t divulge your real name. But, maybe I could help tell part of your story? Also, I’d like to share some of the art you can’t exhibit.

Him: I would like that. I limited my lifestyle after that incident. Now, I hardly go out unless it’s important. I’m scared all the time, even in my home.

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Me: Why are you scared in your home? Do people know you’re gay?

Him: Not my family. My family is very religious. We all live together.  Two of my brothers, their wives, children, both my parents in one apartment.

Me: But you still felt afraid to leave the house?

Him: Yes… most of the time. Especially in the daylight hours. Most of my friends left the country. Very few stayed.

Me: Tell me about the magazine?

Him: It was a small community. People were already afraid to be in the community before the incident happened on 25th April 2016. We launched the Magazine ‘Roopbaan’ in 2014 It was a monthly magazine. There was extreme backlash over the first issue. The government threatened us to shut down. The Prime minister was outraged. One of our close friends works in the Prime ministers office. He saw her face when they submitted the magazine on her table. It was not popular, but it was the most talked about subject at that time.

Me: What kind of content did the magazine have?

Him: Community lifestyle.

Me: So, not pornography?

Him: Oh god no – we’d all be dead!

Me: They would kill you for publishing pornography.

Him: For gay porn you would certainly die. Pornography publication is also illegal, but there’s thousands of straight porn titles on the black market. Things got worse after gay marriage was allowed in the United States. The first two or three days was awesome, when it hit on Facebook. People changed their profile photos [to support LGBT equality.] Then one Bangladeshi atheist, who lives in Germany now, posted a photo of the Pride Flag covering the Kaba, Macca, (a holy place for Muslims) and people were outraged.  I knew then we were finished. All these decades of work, vanished within a second.

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Me: It sounds like you’re angry at him?

Him: I’m fucking outraged at that bastard .

Me: Are you an atheist?

Him: Not really, but I’m not too religious.

Me: So, on some level, you still believe in Islam?

Him: Yeah … at least I want to buried in the Islamic way. So, the second issue of the magazine – we almost couldn’t find a press that would print it, and when we did it had to be done with extreme secrecy. The extremists were angry. The government was angry. Nobody wanted to risk it. The second issue was only 500 copies.

Me: 500 copies? That was enough to raise the anger of the Prime Minister?

Him: It wasn’t the quantity of magazines. It was that we existed at all that made everyone angry.

Me: How did this come about?

Him: I met a man at an art gallery opening and we wondered about each other. The gay radar, as we say. Then he approached me on a local site everyone uses to meet up.

Me: So you met a community of gay activists through this site?

Him: Yeah, that’s right. Well, also the gay community here in Dhaka is very small. Maybe 500 people in total.

Me: So how did Roopbaan magazine evolve?

Him: Xulhaz, the man who would become the publisher of the magazine, would host parties or get together several times a year. Xulhaz was a very respected person in the community at large, too. He worked at the US embassy, so that always helps. He was a good person. He always made sure everyone was comfortable in his house. In our country, we do have class racism. People are always judged by their appearance. Xulhaz was totally free from that bullshit.  He talked with everyone in the community and hugged everyone with care. I miss that so much now.

Roopbaan’s editor asked me if I had time for the design work. At that time, I was working three jobs. People in the community sometimes laughed at me because I never hung out with anybody. They said I was married to my work. I gave up one of my three jobs, actually, to work on Roopbaan for free.

Me: Okay, so then what happened?

Him: Then, amid all the stress of these two controversial issues, I had a heart attack. I had been working insane hours. Three jobs.  I was planning to have a small office of my own. My bank account went totally nil after the heart attack. I was saving all for the future office. It’s hard, really hard to save money, because you can’t earn more here. The payment for work is really small. All those hours I worked, I hardly earn 700 to 800 US dollar a month. Which was actually twice of my older brother, who is a doctor and works in private hospital.

All of the members of the Roopbaan magazine family came to see me in my sisters house. I stayed in my sister’s house after the heart attack for a month.  They came separately, not all at once. Xulhaz was very careful about this. You know what happens when a bunch of gay guys meet! Chatting gets fabulously loud!

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Xulhaz… was very careful about the content. Not a single topic could clash with our religion. Xulhaz was an atheist but he never hated religious people. There are few people  in Roopbaan team who, when it was prayer time, they prayed in Xulhaz’s house. Xulhaz always kept a prayer rug in his room.

After the publication, people started talking more about the community. Facebook trolls, people mocking the magazine. Mocking the community. People in Bangladesh were disgusted by gay people. People wished death and torture upon us.

The day that attack happened, I was in my house doing some graphic work for some exhibition. Someone on Facebook told me about the slaughter of my two friends. Then within a few hours, the TV channels and online newspapers ran the story.

I tried to contact everyone I knew from the community; most of them deactivated their accounts. We scattered. The openly gay people left the country. I tried to get a Polish or German visa, even borrowed money to try so show I had assets but I couldn’t get an exit Visa. Welcome to the third world – you can’t even get a tourist visa without lots of money, or property. 

After the attack, most people I know from community deactivated their Facebook accounts. After 2 or 3 days, I did that too. That was the most stupid decision I ever made in my life.

I couldn’t reach anyone over phone. All phones were off.

After deactivated my account, a few people I used to know were curious about me. I had to decline when they tried to friend me. Worst part of my life.

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All of my family member knew I worked with Xulhaz. The next day, all the newspaper reports that the editor of the gay magazine was hacked to death. Everyone read it in the newspaper. My brothers and sister knew that I worked with them.

My older brother had to change the locks on our house. My siblings were afraid I would be targeted. I was scared, still am, to cry for my friends. After a week, my sister asked me why I worked with them. She strongly told me not to pay any respect to these types of people. And that it’s “OK TO BEHEAD THESE TYPES OF PEOPLE”

All of my body screamed inside! Couldn’t make a sound.

Me: I’m interested in how it makes you feel, to have part of yourself your family can never know about…

Him: Yeah … it’s hurts so bad. My community was the only place where I could breathe freely. Now it’s almost gone. Moving to another city won’t help, either. Dhaka is the only city I can work and be with my family. Also, I can’t afford the cost of living in another city without my family.

Me: What’s the political climate like there for homosexuals? Do you have any rights?

Him: There are no rights for LGBT people. Period.

Me: Do you have some sort of artist’s statement about your work?

Him: Sexual fantasy is a big part of my life.  Because of living in a very conservative family, sex was always forbidden before marriage. The gap of real life experience took over inside the fantasy. I was obsessed with erotic photos online. But, those photos to me are too exposed. I like to hide the color in my imagination. The shapes of those male figures, the moves make me excited to run through those lines. No matter how the line curves or breaks or stuck in a loop, I always find myself to follow the new lines and my imagination keeps moving.

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Me: So, your community has been decimated, and those who were wealthy enough have moved to Europe. Do you think you might be able to leave the country and seek political asylum?

Him: I’m sorry to say asylum isn’t an option for me. It’s not respected, and I couldn’t do that to my family.

Me: Surely there must be some sort of community there still? Are you completely cut off?

Him: I can’t show my work – that’s out of the question. I have at least 100 outwardly homophobic people in my social media network. Most people either don’t know, don’t care, or worse – support what is happening right now in Chechnya. That’s life here. You know, a man thinks you should die for who you are, and you have to smile and shake his hand like it’s nothing.

Me: Yes. It’s not as bad here but there are similar situations. You can legislate things like marriage equality, but you can not make people stop hating you.

Him: So for now, most everything is very much underground. That’s just how life is. It’s the reality of living as a gay man in Bangladesh. There is a memorial for the two community leaders who were brutally murdered. Obviously, the police did nothing besides file the necessary paperwork. But, maybe I’ll see some old friends at the service. That would be nice. This has set our community back 20 years at least… I originally designed the hand print logo with the whole rainbow flag, but I had to narrow it down to the blue and purple in order to display it. Even the rainbow is too dramatic to show in public. Unfortunately, that’s what we’re dealing with…

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MonDATE: Bisexuals and the Right to Privacy, Part Three

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Him: Okay. I’m ready to hear it. Tell me what you think of me.

Me: No. I’ve decided I don’t have an opinion.

Him: Don’t. Yes you do. You do have an opinion.

Me: Well, I’m doing a new thing where I don’t always say every single thought in my head. I’m trying to see what happens if I’m more judicious about what I say and who I say it to.

Him: Come on. Let me have it. I sat here and called you a hypocrite for half an hour, didn’t I?

Me: Yes, you did. That’s true.

Him: So, give me a piece of your mind, then.

Me: Well, okay… You’re here because you’re a fan, right?

Him: I was, yes. I was a fan.

Me: Right, and now you feel shortchanged and disillusioned?

Him: That’s strong language, but sure – I guess there’s a truth to what you’re saying.

Me: I feel shortchanged and disillusioned by you.

Him: What? What does that even mean? What did I do?

Me: Now that is a great question. What did you do? You did nothing. Nothing brave, nothing honest, nothing remarkably difficult, nothing noteworthy. You did nothing.

Him: I…

Me: In a world where people are coming out of the closet left and right, you sat back and did nothing. Think about this, Sam – is that your real name?

Him: No. It’s not. I didn’t want you saying my name if this meeting went south.

Me: Just illustrates more of my point, “Sam.” In a world where many, many people are coming out of the closet, you chose not to do that. You chose to contact me and tell me what a supreme hypocrite I am for not illuminating every single detail of my marital life to you, but you find it nearly impossible to say that you’re bisexual to your co-workers, family, and friends.

Him: Why would I say I’m bi, or identify as LGBTQ? Gay people are the lowest rung on the ladder, why would I place myself there?

Me: Don’t you think there’s a value to coming out? Aren’t there lonely, depressed, or even suicidal teenage kids out there – people who are bisexual like you – who could use a role model? Don’t you think the first step to eradicating the ‘bottom rung of the ladder’ mentality is to admit what and who you are to your colleagues, friends, and loved ones?

Him: Get real – me coming out of the closet isn’t going to change the way people view gay and bi people.

Me: Really? You can’t see the use in everyone coming out? Seriously? It takes bravery to change the world, and we will be the invisible minority for as long as we stay invisible. What’s more, you come here and call me a hypocrite for a half hour, but you’re too much of a coward to even say what you are.

Him: I don’t owe it to anyone. I don’t have to say I’m bisexual just to feel accepted for who I am. The gay community won’t accept us anyway.

Me: No, not with that attitude they certainly won’t. You’re projecting quite a bit onto me. You’re homophobic to the core, “Sam.” You’ve built yourself a  prison of your own silence, your own isolation. You’ve allowed your actions and modes of self-expression to be determined by what other people think. You would rather follow the status quo than insist on a world that is fair to everyone – even if that means you, yourself, have to submerge and cover an essential part of your identity. You have decided to be what the neighbors expect you to be instead of what you really are, and it’s not me that you think is hypocritical. It’s not me you despise. I don’t owe you anything beyond 800 words, twice a week, and “Sam,” I don’t even really owe you that. You don’t hate me. You’re wading through a thick mire of self-hatred, and even as you choke on it you’re well aware you chose it yourself. Whatever contempt you may harbor for me is eclipsed by your own self-hatred. You despise yourself. You couldn’t possibly hate me as much as you hate you.

(There is a long pause. I look at his face, which has changed quite a bit.)

Me: I’m sorry. I didn’t want to say any of those things. Please forgive me? I’m probably off base anyhow.

Him: No. It’s pretty accurate, actually.

Me: Well, I’m still sorry. I didn’t 100% mean it.

Him: But part of you did.

Me: But part of me did, yes.

(There is another long pause.)

Him: Do you think I could have a hug?

Me: I’m married now.

Him: Oh, okay. Sorry.

Me: Just kidding. Hugs are always free.

(We hug, and change the subject, and walk a little further before saying goodnight.)

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MonDATE: Bisexuals and the Right to Privacy, Part Two

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Him: You’re being extremely unfair!

Me: I’m sorry about that. Did you see August Osage County? What did you think?

Him: Seriously, are you Bisexual?

Me: I keep thinking if I hadn’t seen the Broadway play, I might have really liked the movie. I liked it quite a bit, actually, but I might have been blown away if I hadn’t watched the Broadway show twice.

Him: Don’t change the subject! Stop it.

Me: Julia Roberts really blew the doors off the hinges. It’s worth seeing just for that.

Him: I didn’t see it yet, okay?

Me: Okay. No spoilers, then.

Him: I’m asking you a question, and you’re avoiding it.

Me: I don’t see why I owe you the information. It’s just information, after all.

Him: I read your site for years. I’m extremely curious. What happened? It seems like you’ve made a 180, and I don’t know what to make of all of it. It seems…

Me: Don’t trail off. How does it seem?

Him: Hypocritical. It seems hypocritical. Sorry.

(There is a long pause. I sit on a bench at the bus stop.)

Him: You waiting for a bus now?

Me: Only if it’s an express bus to Canada.

Him: What does that mean?

Me: I dunno. It’s about half a joke. I’ll let you know when/if there’s a punch line.

Him: Hey. I’m sorry I called you a hypocrite – just how I see it.

Me: Ha. Then you’re not really sorry! You’re frustrated about quite a few things, and I’d suspect the root of it has very, very little to do with me.

Him: You can’t just… You can’t write about the gay community for years, and talk openly about being a poly-amorous homosexual – you can’t run some sort of online ‘brotherhood of man’ pie cult for the gays, and then just get married to a woman. Just, poof, you’re married and normal again. Just like that.

Me: Can’t I? Why can’t I? Why can’t I marry whomever I want? Isn’t that the underlined point behind the Marriage Equality movement?

Him: Don’t you feel you owe people like me an explanation?

Me: Why?

Him: Because I am one of your readers. Because I’m your audience.

(There is a long pause.)

Me: Well… thank you. I’m flattered you’re reading, that you’re still reading, and that you took the time to contact me. All of these things are incredibly flattering, and part of me agrees with you. A huge part of me thinks I owe it to you to tell you exactly how my sex life is structured, what it means to be LGBTQ in a traditional marriage structure, and send you home with a slice of pie and a warm feeling of hope for tomorrow.

Him: That’s what I’d like, yes.

Me: Then again, I’ve read quite a few books on writing, and while authors agree it is important to have an audience, they seem to also agree that catering things to your audience leads to atrophy in a major way. Bill Cosby said something like, I don’t know what the formula for success is, but I know the formula for failure is trying to please everyone.

Him: Teach me, oh wise one.

Me: I’m not getting paid to teach you, or, for that matter, to tell you how to live your life, or to tell you how I live mine.

Him: Okay, I’ll admit – it’s none of my business.

Me: Thank you.

Him: But I’m CURIOUS.

Me: Yes. You’re curious. That’s exactly right. You expect me to tell you intimate details of my personal life to you, the way I would to my therapist, because you read my site for a while and you feel somehow entitled to missing information. But you’re just an audience member. You’re just tuning in. You don’t know me and you have no real right to my inner physical, emotional, or intellectual life, beyond what I publish on my site, which by the way you read for free – so I owe you even less.

Him: People are going to want to know! You wrote about your sex life for years!

Me: No. Incorrect. I did not.

Him: Yes you DID. You’re being a hypocrite!

Me: Actually, I wrote about awkward dates, urban alienation, and my disappointment in a community full of brilliant, motivated, socially broken people. I almost never mentioned who I was having sex with.

Him: Come off it. You were sleeping with all those boys who made pie with you.

Me: Incorrect. Those were models, or friends, or people who contacted me online who wanted to help. It was very rare I slept with the people on my site.

Him: What?

Me: The “Awkward Dates” happen with people I don’t sleep with. That is the whole point: Here’s how NOT to sleep with me. The irony is, it’s pretty easy to sleep with me, if you’re cute and sweet, but most gay people have no interest in being kind, gentle, or generous of spirit – at least the ones who live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn don’t. They think they don’t have to, and in some sense, they’re correct. Someone will stomach their painfully underdeveloped, spoiled, sour personalities. But that someone isn’t me…

Him: Still seems hypocritical to me.

Me: You’ve now called me a hypocrite three times.

Him: So?

Me: So take a deep breath.

Him: Why?

Me: I’m about to tell you what I think about you.

(Pause. He looks concerned. I take a deep breath and count to ten.)

TO BE CONTINUED…

 

MonDATE: Bisexuals, and the Right to Privacy – Part One

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Him: Hello, are you Michael?

Me: Yes. You’re Sam?

Him: Yes. Hi. Nice to meet you.

Me: You too, Sam, I like your shirt.

Him: It’s Hollister.

Me: I like it anyway. Wanna take a walk?

Him: A walk? That sounds so weird and creepy, in the middle of the night.

Me: Is it? I just don’t really want to go drink right now. I’m trying to shed the winter layer.

Him: But isn’t a bar… Safer, somehow?

Me: We can stick to Colorado – it’s well lit. I’ll try to resist the urge to take you to a park and chop you into small pieces.

Him: That’s what I meant when I said weird and creepy!

Me: Let’s operate off the assumption neither of us is a murderous sociopath?

Him: You don’t seem like a sociopath to me.

Me: Thanks, man! I like your attitude!

(We walk for a while, chatting. I find out things about him. He’s in medical school. He’s into extreme sports, hiking, and surfing. He seems nice enough, and he’s no dummy. He’s read most of Kurt Vonnegut, so he gets points.)

Him: So, I guess you’re wondering why I’ve contacted you?

Me: I guess I am, now that you mention.

Him: I wanted to ask you a question. Do you mind if I ask a personal question?

Me: No, I guess not, as long as you don’t mind not getting a full answer, depending on the question.

Him: Haha, fair. Fair enough.

Me: What’s the question?

Him: Well, I have a few questions. Firstly, are you bi-sexual? I read your site for a long time and I always assumed you were gay, but now you’re married to a woman, and what’s the deal? Is she a lesbian? Does she need a green card, or whatever?

Me: Oh wow. I thought personal question meant something like ‘boxers or briefs?’

Him: No. You clearly wear briefs. I’ve seen your Instagram.

Me: Fair enough.

Him: Are you bisexual?

Me: Let me ask you a question. I’ll answer yours, but let me do the rudest thing and follow up a question with another question. Does it matter?

Him: What?

Me: Does it matter? The difference between me being Gay or Bi? Or even straight?

Him: What do you mean? Of course it matters. Of course .

Me: How so?

(There is a pause. He looks confused.)

Him: Do you realize, I’ve read you for years?

Me: No, I usually go into these meetings pretty blind. When I meet with people it’s much more likely they’ve lurked or stalked me, whereas I might only have a brief email and a fuzzy photo to go on.

Him: But how can you do this? You talked about Gay dating, alienation and minority rights for years. How do you just get to marry a woman and continue on like nothing happened?

Me: Because nothing happened. I got married. It was pretty important to me, in the scope of my life, but in the grand scheme of human events, it’s not even a blip on the radar. It’s just a marriage. Most people do it at least once.

Him: But why a woman? Are you Bisexual?

Me: Again, I don’t see how that matters. It’s clear that I’m definitely a member of the LGBTQ community. Right? And, consider this: you haven’t told me your sexuality, yet you seem to think it’s fine to pry about mine and my wife’s?

Him: I’m Bi.

Me: Okay, good. I’m Queer.

Him: What does that mean? In what sense?

Me: It means I am as Gay as Kurt Cobain.

Him: What about your wife?

Me: She’s whatever she is.

Him: Stop. This is frustrating.

Me: This is nobody’s business. One of the perks of marriage is people stop prying about who does what, when, with whom, and how.

Him: But I’m curious!

Me: Well, that’s flattering. Are you openly Bi?

Him: What?

Me: Do people know you’re Bisexual?

Him: Some people do.

Me: Your family?

Him: No. My brother knows, I think, but by and large, no.

Me: Your work friends?

Him: No. I don’t want them thinking I’m weird, or off.

Me: Your friends from school?

Him: No.

Me: So, pretty much, just the people you have sex with.

Him: You make it sound sad.

Me: No, you make it sound sad. You’re the one who made those choices.

Him: It’s just what happened. I’m a victim of circumstance.

Me: You’re what? 28? 27?

Him: I’m 30 this year.

Me: Okay, well, welcome to the club. I’m going to say something, and I hope you don’t get offended.

Him: Are you going to call me a Jerk?

Me: I don’t do that anymore, Jerk. Just kidding. No, just this: There’s no such thing as a victim of circumstance. Not really. I believe life is a series of choices. It’s in the art of choosing we discover what kind of man or woman we become. If you don’t like your circumstances you have a right to make a different choice. It might be more difficult to make a courageous choice. It might, in fact, be stupid to make a courageous choice. It might make your life more of a struggle to make an honest choice, or to have enough integrity to look your family in the eye and say, here’s what I am – here’s how I was born and here’s the way things are for me. I’m sorry you feel differently about how I should live my life, but then again, my life is the only thing that is arguably entirely mine – and I’m the one who has to live it.

Him: What’s that have to do with the way the world is?

Me: To say you’re a victim of circumstance is a bit misleading when you’re the one creating your own reality.

Him: That’s arrogant. That’s incredibly arrogant, and I knew you’d say something like that. I knew you’d come up with a way to make me being down low about my sexuality my fault. My sexuality doesn’t define who I am anymore than my liking baseball defines who I am. Why do I have to make a huge issue of who I’m sleeping with? Doesn’t my mother deserve a good birthday, Christmas, Thanksgiving without me ruining everything by talking about sex with dudes? Why are people so obsessed with where I’m putting my penis? It’s nobody’s business.

Me: And yet, you’re so very obsessed with where I’m putting mine.

(There is a long pause. He starts to speak, then stops, then looks confused.)

TO BE CONTINUED…