Breaking the Silence Awards recognizes corporations and leaders who use their platform of influence to advocate for Sexual & Domestic Abuse awareness. Since the inception, the I Love Me Foundation has provided supportive services through legal referral assistance, advocate support, financial aid, employment referral and housing assistance to over 1,500 youth, young adults, sex workers, and those in the under-served communities.
Yes, that’s Kelly Osbourne and Robert Harrell – get excited! But also, please keep your cool. It’s Los Angeles and chill is what we do best, even in the heat of the day. Make no mistake…
The day wasn’t without its lively moments. Yes, we talked about abuse, survival, disenfranchised communities – all things liberals love to talk about! We also had a blast. It was a celebration of #MeToo, #TimesUp, and the transgender communities and communities of color that support their struggle.
It was about female empowerment, humanity, and rejoicing in our ability to tell the truth, so that when the artifice falls away, and we take the narrative back from our abusers, we reveal a truer version of ourselves, which is a boon to our loved ones, to the communities that support us. It was a celebration.
Robert spoke with a tremble in his voice, but a power in his spirit – about how inspired he is with his mother. About how 90% of rapes aren’t reported the first time. How, when he came to her as a boy with his story of abuse, she believed him the first time. He honored her with the Purple Heart Award, and she beamed! She was so proud of her son! He was so proud of her! It was quite amazing to watch.
I teared up, myself, during this part. Something about him emphasizing the first time struck me as incredibly powerful. I certainly wish, when I came forward with my own abuse story, people would have believed me the first time. He made an important point – we have got to retrain ourselves as a society, to stop doing the abuser’s work for them. To stop minimizing, to stop shoving people into “victim” boxes, when what they are doing is actually heroic.
I was impressed with the desserts. The food was all fantastic, and Chaz Dean was the main sponsor. He looked sleek and stylish and his table was extremely well groomed – don’t worry.
Alexander from West Hollywood Gateway, with Desireé, and my date, Steven Reigns.
Steven was named Poet Laureate of West Hollywood. It’s true! Okay, I’ll stop bragging about Steven. I was flattered he asked me. It felt like getting asked to prom. I spent last week walking on a cloud!
I was grateful, but my absolute favorite part of the day was watching 80 year old California Representative, Congresswoman Maxine Waters speak with the exuberance and stamina of a much younger person. She speaks with the clear, strong voice of someone who knows she is exactly where the universe wants her to be, because, in part, she bent the universe to her will, by climbing over, tunneling under, or going around any walls her opponents put in her path.
We were lucky enough to walk the five flights of stairs right behind Maxine. We weren’t too thrilled with the no-elevator-situation, but Maxine didn’t care. She may have mentioned getting some exercise in, but she was unflappable and determined, and by the time we reached the top floor we were all joking about what an incredible photo-op it would be, if next time the Congresswoman jet-packed in with Elon Musk. She has a sense of humor, but by the end of her speech, she made a metaphor about how, if she could take the stairs in life, the rest of us could, too. It’s fifteen minutes long, but she doesn’t stop to rest, and she doesn’t let up on the abusers. She is determined to see abusers like Brett Kavanaugh prosecuted for their crimes, and she is still determined to see the impeachment of this illegitimate, corrupt, racist dog-whistle blowing Presidential administration. She, among all politicians, is the only one who makes me want to stay and fight, and not emigrate to Europe. I can’t help it, there’s a 14 year old gay boy inside me that just loves her. She can do no wrong, in my eyes.
I’m incredibly grateful for the day, and for the reminder that yes, I love me.
Gregory is perplexed, and sort of chasing me up the hill. I’m not running, but it’s a steep climb and I’m race-walking. I don’t understand my powers yet -I can’t control them. In the years to come, I will learn that if emotionally triggered, or feeling slightly manic, raising my heart rate isn’t a good idea. Bad things happen when I do that.
Sweet Gregory is trailing behind me on the 59th Street Bridge. I am race-walking us to Queens. A mean plan has sprung up in my young mind. I’m going to make him walk me all the way home, then tell him to get back on the subway. I’m not going to sleep with him tonight, or any other night. He’s changing, and I don’t recognize him at all any more.
Which is fine. I don’t recognize myself, either.
A racing heart sits inside an awful, jealous, mean, petty version of myself. The quickening pulse thrums out my eardrums. Mania starts to rise; I’m too young to realize its power. Too young to know that if I let the mania swell too fully inside me, I can unleash a terrible force, Like Father, when he built Asteroid M. But, my powers are yet undefined. It’s 2001, and I don’t even know much about myself. All I know is that I’m different than other folks, and that I have to hide it.
An arctic, icy blast lights up behind my eyes. I pick up the pace. Gregory complains.
Hey! Why are you walking so fast? It’s the middle of the night! What’s the rush?
I’m so busy these days Sweet Gregory! I have a rehearsal tomorrow and an audition!
You said you weren’t rehearsing until Friday?
It’s another project, duh! I said I was busy! Keep up!
I don’t want Sweet Gregory to keep up. I want him to lag behind me forever, but his voice has developed two decades in the last nine months. He’s coming into his full power, and I don’t even know what my power is yet! It isn’t fair. He’s a spoiled brat from a wealthy family. That’s not who the arts should be for! The arts are for real artists who had to struggle to get where they are, not for pampered babies whose families paid for their every whim.
(No, that’s not true, another voice in my head suggests. The arts are also a place the rich place their black sheep family members. Their broken. The sociopaths that don’t have a flair for business.)
I think of the improv classes I’m taking. How I had to scrape money together at the end of the month for rent, how I kept taking classes. I think of the regional and Off-Off-Broadway musicals, sometimes for little or no money at all, just to get a chance to get some free voice practice in. Ice crystals form behind my eyes. A bluish-white whisper floats from my mouth. Sweet Gregory is confused. He notices a change in me, but he can’t place it. He’s out of breath. We keep rushing. He stumbles, but I don’t pause to help him, I race out front.
Come on! I have to get up early tomorrow, I say.
Gregory puffs and huffs behind me. Good luck with that golden voice, I think to myself. Maybe I’ll stick around and wear you out, Sweet, Sweet Gregory? Maybe, I’ll just keep you tired your whole life, so you can’t sing…
I sense something preternatural near me. A flash in my mind – two unctuous, undulating eels, twisting in East River silt, rutting up tree roots, sliding past rusting cans.
My third eye pops open. I’m linked now, with the two gargantuan eels. This happens sometimes when my powers take over. They link to whatever animals nearby that can use their base instincts to fuel my agenda. Most of the time it’s just birds, but sometimes it’s uglier animals, depending on now insipid I feel inside when the mania triggers. The third eye swells. My skin is gooseflesh. I pause. Blue white light.
Lead him to the top of the bridge, the eels whisper, I am two places at once. I am standing on the Queensborough Bridge with Sweet Gregory, and I’m cold, submerged in the inky water of the East River, amongst flotsam and jetsam, amongst moss and fishes, and discarded needles, river rocks, and sharper stones. Algae, particulate, brown earthy life, and two self-satisfied, overgrown, fear-driven eels.
Gregory catches up. Thank God you came to your senses!
I didn’t. And you thank God, Gregory! I don’t believe in your Catholic God who speaks an infallible voice through a man called the Pope. I don’t believe any of it!
It’s okay! It’s just religion! We don’t have to agree! Michael, what’s the matter with you tonight? You sang really well, back there! You’re funny! You know that funny people don’t have to learn to sing all that well? Think about all the character actors who make it on Broadway, just croaking out one song a night! It’s the dream job! Full salary for one fun song, and a few lines in the second act! Are you jealous?
Am I what???
Are you jealous of me?
Poison flows through my veins. Hatred pumped so quickly by my heart, fluttering and pounding away – endless pounding in my very soul – pounding deep into my core. Fuck you, Gregory – I’m not jealous. I feel sorry for you!
I didn’t stop so you could catch up, Gregory. I stopped so you could have a fair start. We’re racing to the top of the bridge. I feel my tongue splitting in twain as I say this. My tongue silver, my words, quick. I shift eye contact – right, left, right, left, right, left. Like a swinging pendulum on a grandfather clock. Eye to eye, I press into his mind, a bit, gently, I enter him. It’s easy. He doesn’t even know he has a third eye.
Race me up to the top!
Gregory looks uneasy, stunned, then his eyes glaze over, fuzzy, and he smirks.
Okay, he says, all Fairfield County, all bright and cheerful, but neutral underneath. It’s the tone of voice you might hear from someone who wants to talk about your problems endlessly, but offer no real solutions – it’s a classic politician’s voice – cheerful, smarmy. I’ve used my power to briefly create this moment, in order to make him chase me. It’s working. I feel in control again.
Okay? Ready, set, go!
He’s playing along now, and so am I. For a while I let us run neck and neck, but I’m a competitive swimmer, and I have been for more than a decade. Moreover, my mania will provide an adrenaline dump that usually lets me win a sprint. I’m fast. Gregory is taller than me but I pull away toward the top of the bridge. By the time I see his silhouette approaching, I’ve already climbed over the safety barrier. I’m perched at the apex of the bridge, with a slimy smile on my face. Two eels twisting inside my third eye. Two eels whisper to one another in the riverbed murk and muck, hundreds of feet below us.
Take it. Take him. We want a sacrifice. We need blood.
This takeover is unprecedented. I’ve approached animals before with my eye open, but I’ve never been hijacked like this. It terrifies me when my third eye opens on its own. I have to learn to control this. Go away! I’m shouting at the eels. Get out!
You asked us in! You can’t banish us until you grant a request. We require a sacrifice.
I don’t believe them. I think they’re lying. I clench my teeth; try to force my third eye closed. It moves a bit, then snaps back open. The eels giggle and hiss. Reflexively, I tighten my jaw again, and tear of a good sized chunk of my inner cheek.
We want blood… We need blood. We can’t get back on land unless you feed us. We’re trapped down here in the river.
Who are you?
We’re a little bit like you.
You are not like me.
No, not exactly. But we have powers like you. We could share.
I want you out.
We need blood, and we ain’t leaving.
Sweet Gregory approaches. He is red-faced and out of breath. Sweating through his Oxfords. He’s grinning.
Okay, okay, you win! Come down off there…
I’m not coming down, Sweet Gregory.
What? You’re nuts, come off it.
Come up here with me, Gregory.
Michael, I’m not coming up there. You could fall. If you fall you’ll die.
Gregory, life is about taking risks. That’s what I didn’t like about your song tonight. You sang it perfectly, but there wasn’t any risk in your voice. It sounded like you were doing something for the purpose of not being criticized, but it didn’t sound like you were pulling your own heart out. That song happens right before a character in the show leaves his home country to be with a foreign woman. You sang all the notes perfectly, but you didn’t tell the story.
Michael, I’m 22 years old. That role is written for a 40 year old man.
I want you to take a risk with me. Let’s jump into the river.
What?!?! No. Get down from there right now. This bridge is 350 feet tall, Michael. You’ll die if you jump.
I just read how someone jumped off last month and swam ashore.
Michael, did you also read that 70% of people who jump from this height, even into water, will die on impact? Because that’s an important part of the story, and I read the whole thing.
Make him join you, and push him in, the eels whisper to me, or, join him! We need blood to grow stronger – the more, the better. Both of you, strong bloods. Smells so good. Smells so powerful, crossing our river…
Help us. We won’t let you die, if you deliver us Sweet Gregory’s head, like the head of John the Baptist. We can reward you! We can show you how to control your powers!
You’re just like us, kiddo. Don’t you think we started off as people? Let us show you how to shape your own destiny. Let us unlock your power, and sip some for ourselves, to boot!
Brúttó. Þið tveir eruð ógeðslegir. Farðu úr huganum! Get out!
You’re the one who let us in. We require a blood sacrifice to leave. It’s simple. You can’t force us out until we get blood.
Gregory is nervous. He can tell I’m considering jumping, now, in a real way. He can tell he has caught me on an evening where I’m so full of self-loathing, I feel like I have nothing left to lose. He can tell I’m dangerous, but he still loves me, a little, and he wants me to stop threatening to jump off the 59th Street Bridge.
Michael, please come down.
Gregory, why are you going into journalism?
Michael, I have to tell you – I’m up for a job as an editor.
They really liked the articles I wrote for Show Music, and so it’s looking like I could be the editor of Next Magazine soon.
You’re an actor! You’re a great musical theater actor! That’s a local gay magazine that runs interviews with drag queens and has-been Broadway folks looking to rekindle something. Why would you leave the arts? Look – you can learn how to act better, but not everyone gets a voice like that, Gregory. Don’t waste it.
My father respects me now, Michael. It’s important to me. He doesn’t respect acting, as a career choice, but journalism! His son the editor? He respects it. What’s more, I can pay my rent doing it! I’m taking the job.
Bring him to us!
Gregory, come up here.
No. I don’t want either of us to jump off a bridge tonight.
Just come up. I promise not to jump, or try to talk you into it. Just take the risk with me. Just hang off the side of the bridge! It’s fun.
Gregory comes up past the safety rail to sit with me on an iron girder.
Push him. Push him over, and we’ll show you how to REALLY use that third eye.
I push my tongue into the gash I bit into my cheek – a thick viscous iron taste. Blood. My third eye swells. Sing for me, I say. Sing another song for me, Sweet, Sweet Gregory. From Chess? The show you sang from at the cabaret bar?
Gregory clears his throat.
Now, sing, I say.
“What’s going on around me
Is barely making sense
I need some explanations fast
I see my present partner
In the imperfect tense”
Keep him singing!
“And I don’t see how we can last
I feel I need a change of cast
Maybe I’m on nobody’s side
And when he gives me reasons
To justify each move
They’re getting harder to believe
I know this can’t continue
I’ve still a lot to prove
There must be more I could achive
But I don’t have the nerve to leave
Everybody’s playing the game
But nobody’s rules are the same”
Push him over to us! You’ll be so powerful!
“Nobody’s on nobody’s side
Better learn to go it alone
Recognize you’re out on your own
Nobody’s on nobody’s side
The one I should not think of
Keeps rolling through my mind
And I don’t want to let that go
No lover’s ever faithful
No contract truly signed
There’s nothing certain left to know
And how the cracks begin to show”
Join us. We work for powerful gods. They will reward you for unlocking us from this watery prison.
“Never make a promise or plan
Take a little love when you can
Nobody’s on nobody’s side
Never stay too long in your bed
Never lose your heart, use your head
Nobody’s on nobody’s side
Never take a stranger’s advice
Never let a friend fool you twice
Nobody’s on nobody’s side”
I place my hand on Gregory’s back. I slide it down to the small of him.
I could push him. I could end both of us.
“Everybody’s playing the game
But nobody’s rules are the same
Nobody’s on nobody’s side
Never leave a moment too soon
Never waste a hot afternoon
Nobody’s on nobody’s side
Never stay a minute too long
Don’t forget the best will go wrong
Nobody’s on nobody’s side”
I bite open my cheek. The blood runs into my mouth. I grab Gregory’s thigh. I could easily throw us both into the river. It would be so simple.
“Never be the first to believe
Never be the last to deceive
Nobody’s on nobody’s side
Never make a promise or plan
Take a little love when you can
Nobody’s on nobody’s side”
I widen my third eye. I spit the blood down into the abyss. It falls 350 feet to the surface of the river.
NO! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?? YOU FOOL!
Trance-like and slack bodied, I open a portal to Ragisland. I suck up the last notes of Gregory’s song into my Eye, immediately placing his voice inside a small, impish cherub statue a few miles south of my memory castle. I shoved the golden voice into the cracks in the little angel’s marble. The statue rests behind a waterfall, it makes a steady, constant sound vibration.
I’ve locked Gregory’s voice here, at the same moment as my blood sacrifice to those eels. Its mine now. I can always visit his voice. He won’t need it anymore, anyway.
I leave the waterfall, the statue, behind. In the cold spring, now, I thrust my fists into the water. I clench myself. My eyes turn opaque, translucent white icy blue. My jaw, slack, bluish white light from my mouth. The eels in my hands, squirming. I seize them. I’m ousting them from my memory castle. I take them to the portal, and fling them out of my mind, back into the East river to meet their oily bodies, rutting and churning up scrum.
The astral plane is closed, this portal sealed. The eels hiss and scream, and fight one another for the meager blood sacrifice I’ve offered. They wanted a five course meal, and I barely gave them a bite – but they got their blood.
This isn’t over, Michael Martin. We’re not going anywhere. We know who and what you are now. We have tasted you. We’ll never let this go.
Shut up, I hear myself say. You guys are real dicks. They slink off down the coast a bit
We climb down off the pylons. We’re back on the bridge. I tell Gregory to head back to Manhattan, but he insists on walking me to Queensborough Plaza to catch the 7 back to Manhattan. I feel affectionate toward Sweet Gregory again. I want to hold him and be naked with him again, but I can’t. Part of me doesn’t want to ruin the relationship I have right now (though it seems to be ruining itself). Part of me doesn’t want to corrupt him with my frantic, crazy, manic whatever-the-fuck is going on with me. My inner cheek is bleeding. I can’t control my third eye. I’m toxic right now.
Gregory hugs me at the station before heading up the stairs.
I’m proud of you, I say, and I’m surprised that I mean it.
I’m more proud of you, Michael. I know you’ll eventually make a living doing theater, or at least being funny! You’re perfect for that. I just need to do this. I like the idea of making a living now, and having my Dad’s approval.
You’re a better person than I am, Sweet Gregory.
No, I’m not! I have flaws! You’re a great person!
No, I’m not, I say, and I kiss him on the cheek.
He hurries up the stairs, but then over his shoulder – Yes, Michael. You are a great person! You’re exceptional!
You are, I say! I’m not a great person! I’m barely even decent!
Gregory doesn’t hear me. He disappears into turnstiles, fluorescent lights, ancient carved up wooden benches. His silhouette is distinguishable, for a brief moment, behind the opaque, tagged-up, art-deco glass panel that NYC’s yesteryear forgot to update. Behind the glass, his shadow merges with a sea of others. I can no longer sense his strong blood.
I walk the short distance back to my place in Long Island City. I stop worrying about the eels. I grind my tongue into my cheek and taste the blood already coagulating, already knitting itself together, patching my wound. The mania subsides.
I spend the wee hours of the morning in Ragisland, admiring a statue behind a waterfall. I’m listening to the vibratory hum of Tiny Gregory the Cherub mix with the sound of water showering down all around me, creating a shimmering barrier to hide us.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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?
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.)
“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.
Lillian has a bruise on her face when she finally shows up. She catches me on the sidewalk, maybe fifteen feet away, staring at an Instagram notification. Sliding open the tall, wrought iron fence surrounding her housing complex, she makes her way toward my car. I glance up. The bruise is the first thing I notice. Secondly, she’s about 15 pounds lighter than the last time I saw her. She smiles from the side of her face. Crooked.
This is Los Angeles, so from a showbiz lense I’d say she’s starting to look viable now, thinner, maybe even fringing on looking really good, but my social work brain says wait-a-minute this probably means she’s back on meth. I hope she’s not back on meth.
Lillian has only managed small stretches of sobriety so far. A month here. Six weeks there. I hope she’s not high. She’s incoherent when she’s high. I also hope she’s not hung over. She’s likely to flare up nasty when she’s jonesing. She stops and makes eye contact just outside the car, peering in. Smiling askew, she shoves her hands into her front pockets. Her jeans are so big on her, now. She seems sheepish, standing outside the car. Lost.
I was thinking of the dream I had this morning. Vivid and semi-conscious, I kept hitting snooze to stay in the dream of Big Sur. Of a vibrant community carved into the side of God’s Cliffs, clapboard houses, a thriving town square. There was a mass shooter in my dream, a cloaked figure with a gun who mowed down the crowd. White picket gazebos tainted with wide swaths of blood.
Lillian gets into the car. I compliment her. She smiles again when I ask if she’s lost weight, when I tell her she looks good. She’s glassy in the eyes, but it’s clear she’s put some effort in today. Her hair is wet. She showered. Okay, I think to myself -we can probably work with this.
I ask about her ID. We’re going to try to enter her into a coordinated database for homeless and at-risk youth. She wants to be able to provide for herself and her baby, when she gets her baby back. There are social service and private organizations that can help. No, she says, she didn’t bring her ID. Should she go get it? Yes, I say. You should always bring your ID and you should have your social memorized. She informs me that she has it memorized this time, thank you very much. She’s proud. She’s the same type of proud my other clients get sometimes when they ace a test, or get a small scholarship for school, or land a job – except in this case her source of pride is the simple fact she has memorized nine numbers. She is 18, and she has a two year old daughter who has already been taken away from her. I wouldn’t put her literacy past the 8th grade level. Go get your ID, I tell her, I’ll wait.
She goes back into her complex. The yard is piebald, barren. Generations of barefoot children have trodden down smooth dirt pathways, linking the units. A quick glance at the ground reveals which families are friendly with which other families, and who doesn’t seem to get along with anyone at all. Some of the lesser worn pathways have weeds growing up, in places. Keep up those connections, I say, admonishing no one. I mouth the words in the afternoon sun.
My phone buzzes. It’s a news update. The BBC News wants to tell me what Trump has in common with Abe Lincoln and Ferris Bueller. Fuck you, iPhone news client, I say to my phone. The dream creeps in, again, around the edges of my morning.
I’m there in the town square, relaxing on a park bench. Three people play frisbee, laughing, semi-joyous. They are smiling. Suddenly one of them explodes like a watermelon dropped off the side of a produce truck. The other two are horrified, but it’s only seconds before, shocked, they twist and fall. Blood splashes from them in strange angles. It seems to come from nowhere. I’m sure there were gunshots in the dream, but in my memory it’s just quiet. They buckle, and drop. They writhe, broken, pitiful.
Crowds of people being mown down, in bright preppy clothing, against a backdrop of brightly colored cliffside mainstreet businesses. A little girl and her younger brother, staring in horror at blood spattered ice cream cones dripping down their wrists. People twitching, jerking out bizarre dance moves on hot asphalt, gaily dressed in bright gingham shirts. Upbeat, inane music playing reassuringly in the background. A dazzling blue sky; the sun’s eye, indifferent to the bloodbath.
Lillian returns and we set off to the address. Only five miles away, but it’s Friday afternoon in Los Angeles, so this could easily take 45 minutes. I start asking Lillian what’s been going on with her. I didn’t get my hours in with her last month, and frankly, I’m kind of worried. I tell her as much. When she’s not hungover, it’s pretty easy to be frank and open with Lillian. She hasn’t learned the same things most people her age have learned. She’s not great with math or reading. It’s frequent that I can only understand 70% of what she’s saying when she texts me. But there’s a cleverness there. She’s not dumb, just unlearnt, I suppose. In any case, I try to treat my clients as being more clever than they actually are. Sometimes it tricks them into actually being more clever, or making better decisions.
It’s a trick I also sometimes play on myself, when I can get away with it.
We chat about her mom, about her daughter, Lizzie, who Lillian badly wants custody of. They took her away when she was staying in a transitional housing facility for young, single mothers. Lillian had been getting friendly with some of the guys from the streets. She’d disappeared for long stretches of time to do meth with guys in rented hotel rooms. This was all before she turned 18. So illegal.
After they took her baby, they threw her out of St. Theresa’s, and she went back to live with her mother and her aunt. She’s been trying for more than a year to get her baby back. She keeps failing to prove she’s enrolled in school though, keeps failing to prove she can attend drug counselling classes on a regular basis (or, indeed, pass drug tests), keeps failing to show up with any proof of gainful employment.
Lillian opens up to me now. She wants to apply for transitional housing. She can raise Lizzie at her mother’s place, but she’d rather have her own space to live with her daughter. I tell her I was glad to hear from her, finally. She’s likely to have a new cell phone every month, so I’ve become used to getting texts from strange numbers. She never announces herself, either, when she texts from a new number. She’ll say something like, “Hey, are we gonna do the thing you were talking about last time?”
And I’ll say, “Is this Lillian?”
And she’ll say, yes, and act like it was obvious it was her. It’s infuriating.
I broach the subject of custody. I’m happy to hear she’s getting her child back, I tell her. She’s been texting about that, recently, as if it’s a done deal. I wonder – is it possible a judge has adjudicated custody to her? I ask about the details. They’re going to give her back, she says matter of factly. Because, they’re molesting her – and I already told them and made a report, but the social worker lady doesn’t believe me, but it doesn’t matter because I reported it, and they can’t keep my daughter if they’re molesting her.
No, I say. The people who are keeping your daughter can’t keep her if they’re molesting her, and in fact, they’ll go to jail if it can be proven. What made you think they’re molesting her, I ask?
I notice now, at a stoplight, she’s hungover. Or, maybe still high? Her eyes are red and watery, and she’s not quite making coherent sense. She also didn’t react, earlier in the conversation when I tried to corner her and ask her about missing our appointments last month. About going incommunicado. And this new, slim, model figure, the black eye. The rushed, emotional way she’s describing things, without putting context or chronological order into any of the details. Yeah, she’s not entirely sober, if at all. She sees me noticing, and doesn’t like it. I ask again. What made you think they’re molesting your daughter?
There was all this shit in the back of her diaper. Baby shit, she clarifies, when I ask. Poop. I make a face as if to say, come on now, you said molestation – but now you’re describing evidence of neglect.
Plus, she says, they grabbed her by the neck when she was leaving with her baby. Who, you or the baby? Me. Well, that’s what happens when you try to take a baby from protective custody on a supervised visit. Who’s side are you on, she asks? Plus a mother has her intuition, and that’s just as good as any evidence.
I finally piece a story together. She’s asked the two year old if people have been touching her inappropriately, the two year old has nodded yes, and even said yes, once. But only after repeated questioning and coaching. She hasn’t supplied specific details that add up to molestation, though. She will only answer yes when asked if they touched here in certain places. When the social worker came to ask Lillian and Lizzie about the supposed molestation, Lillian was trying to get the baby to tell her, over and over. Finally the baby recited what her mother had been telling her to say. I nod. I fail to mention my doubts about this. She doesn’t have any real evidence beyond a seemingly coached accusation, a dirty diaper and intuition.
But even further than this, even if she had hard evidence the child was being interfered with – that doesn’t mean Lillian is about to get her back. One thing is not relative to another. A foster parent acting abusive or neglectful doesn’t erase the judge’s knowledge that she once disappeared from St. Theresa’s for five full days on a meth binge, leaving the staff of the facility to care for Lizzie. Or that she hasn’t been able to produce three months worth of consecutive negative drug tests.
(Or that she shows up to appointments with social service and county workers fifteen pounds lighter, with a black eye).
I don’t say any of these things, but I want to. I want to point out – the best case scenario is that she knows her child hasn’t been molested, and she’s trying to make some story up that gives her emotional leverage in this narrative. She may not be academic, but she’s good at emotional manipulation. The other, grosser possibility is that she is paranoid, but clinging to the idea that her child actually has been molested, for the idea of some moral high ground. She either knows she’s making it up, or wants something horrible to be true, for the sake of her narrative.
Lillian, I want to say to her. Being right doesn’t produce clean drug tests. But I don’t say anything. We drive in silence. Lillian puts something on the radio.
We pull into the parking lot of the Covenant House about five minutes later. Lillian starts to get agitated. I told you, she says, I don’t want to go into a homeless shelter. I want transitional housing where me and Lizzie could live together. I know that, I say, but this facility does more than just homeless sheltering. It’s also an entry portal. They have a database which records your name and age and set of circumstances, so that public and private organizations can share information. It will go out to shelters, but also transitional living organizations, and women’s homes.
She’s going into one of her spirals now. She doesn’t like entering databases. Her (paranoid, abusive) boyfriend told her it’s the illuminati controlling everything. He thinks they track poor people. Those illuminati people, they control the things like homeless shelters. They keep people sick. Doped up. Stupid, she says. I beg her, please, let’s just go up to the front counter and ask for basic information. I figure I can get a seasoned social worker to help me persuade Lillian to just sit down and fill out a profile on the database. She finally agrees, we can go inside and ask the receptionist questions.
We head in. The receptionist explains the program. Lillian would do best to enter the database, alerting all of the relevant organizations in the vicinity to her need. Lillian seems cowed, for a while. She agrees, finally, yes, maybe the database is a good idea, and the social services system isn’t run by the illuminati. I make eye contact with the receptionist and joke that DCFS couldn’t possibly be run by the illuminati – they’d function so much more efficiently! We laugh, and the receptionist affirms my sentiment. Just one thing though, she says, the Youth Entry Portal is in a building across the street, and they’re closed for lunch from 12pm to 1pm. We’ll have to kill a half an hour waiting for them to get back from lunch.
Back in the parking lot Lillian is getting agitated again. No more crooked smiles. I can tell she’s really jonesing. She’s getting sweaty, and it’s chilly out today. She scuffs the toes of her shoes on the parking lot, and says, I don’t want to be here.
I don’t want to be here either, I say, trying to empathize. But I talked to quite a few social workers and explained your situation, and since you’re over 18, with a closed DCFS case, this is the best protocol to follow for getting into a transitional housing program. Neither of us want to be here, I say, but let’s just wait the twenty minutes and enter that database.
No, she says, but this time she’s more forceful. I don’t want to do this. I don’t feel comfortable here. Take me home. She knows I can’t force her to do anything, and she’s setting in her heels. I try a few more angles of reason with her, about waiting just a few minutes and trying, for the sake of her kid, to get into this database for transitional housing. They have housing for single parents under 22, I say. But she doesn’t care, she’s made up her mind.
And I don’t care, either.
I mean. I do – it’s not the productive outcome I’d hoped for when I picked her up today, but I got billable hours, so I won’t walk away not having done my job. I’m defeated, and this sucks – today won’t end up any closer to a happy ending for Lillian, but maybe the timing is wrong for this anyhow? If she gets into one of these housing programs, they’ll require her to stay sober, to keep a job, to be in school. Let’s be honest, I say to myself, she’d bounce out of a transitional housing program just as fast as she could fill out the papers.
There is a quick flash, a memory from this morning’s dream. The picturesque cliffside community, the stores and flowerbeds, the people. The bloodbath.
Okay, get in the car, I say. I’ll drive you home then. Inside, we are icy quiet. Try again next time, I say softly-but-audibly, as we pull out of the parking lot. We have another 45 minute drive back to her place.
After about ten minutes of silence I start talking.
I hate seeing you show up with a black eye, Lillian. I hate seeing you this thin. I mean, don’t get me wrong, my God, you look fantastic right now, but I know you and this is a really rapid weight loss in a short amount of time and I have to worry that it’s meth. And meth, combined with a black eye means you’ve been seeing Victor. I’m worried about you.
You’re right, she says. I saw Victor again. I’m sorry. I know I promised I would stay away from him, but he had my stuff, and I only saw him because I wanted my stuff back and then he hit me in the face and took my EBT card.
I sigh. The last time I saw her we waited in the General Relief office for four hours for the first replacement EBT card, which was only missing in the first place because Victor stole it. Please, just stop seeing that guy? I don’t like this. You have a black eye. I’m a mandated reporter. I have to report this.
No, you don’t, Lillian says. I already called the cops this time when he hit me.
Good, I say, that’s actually the best news I’ve heard all day, hearing that you finally filed a police report. Suddenly, shaking, nearly trembling in my passenger seat, Lillian is willing to throw me another crooked smile. I laugh, and I tell her I’ve known a few people named Victor in my time. They always have to win. She thinks this is funny. Pfft, she says, fuck them!
Yes, I agree. Fuck them.
There’s something in her eyes. A twinkle of conspiracy, perhaps. It makes me feel protective. She has natural, innocent curiosity. But, not unspoiled innocence. She has a few secrets, and can probably keep a few, too. I wish I could wave a magic wand and make her cravings go away, or, more useful – I wish I could fill that empty void in her heart she thinks meth and booze is going to fix.
But, the longer I do this job, the less I wish things, and the more I focus on meeting the client where they are emotionally, that day – preferably in a neighborhood adjacent to reality, if we can make it there.
By the time we get back to her place a tender truce springs up between us. It’s not hard to forgive each other. Even if we’re not firing on all cylinders, we still almost always try to show up for one another.
We talk about her getting a job. Maybe at some place like Walmart, or Target. I think it’s a great idea. She seems buoyed by even this minor level of approval. I tell her again she looks great, and that I hope she’s eating, and that next time we’ll work on finding employment, if that’s what she’d like to focus on.
Lillian signs paperwork for our visit and goes inside her apartment complex. I pull into traffic. It isn’t quite late afternoon yet, but Los Angeles has already jammed itself up nicely on Western Avenue, down in South Central, all the way up through KTown into Hollywood, and further into the Valley. All jammed up and honking. Stuck like cold, thick molasses.
I stop at a red light and stare into the bulb. I think how powerless Lillian must feel, to be desperate enough to make up a story so horrible. Or, what an awful thing it must be to hope for – that someone is interfering with your child? I think of the dream this morning, of the people in that town square. How different that town was from Los Angeles.
I rev the engine. I go back to the dream. The cloaked figure, loading hundreds of bullets into an automatic rifle. Everyone clean and happy. Nobody shows up itchy, with a black eye, in the cliffside paradise. I see him. I can see what he’s about to do. I open my mouth. He puts the rifle on his shoulder. I adjust the rearview mirror. The people are walking dogs, returning library books. It’s a bluebird day. He flips the safety open. The light turns green. I open my mouth, but I’m unable to speak. Unable to warn these people, I ease gas into the throttle.
I can see him underwater the next lane over. He appears sharper through goggles than a person might in the real world. More vivid, bobbing, floating next to me. Ethereal and handsome -he is young, no older than 30, and lithe.
He has been swimming short, nearly frantic sprints – whereas I’ve been plodding along, more even paced, for the better part of a mile. I’m taken with him, the way you can only truly be taken with someone beautiful, who has yet to open their mouth.
And, he is beautiful. He’s a perfect, carved-from-renaissance-marble, Grade A thirst trap. His punk rock British flag speedo clings desperately, ephemerally to his human perfection, but he comports himself across the pool in semi-awkward fits and starts. Even this spastic swimming style has a way of wearing well on his frame. Strong, and broad of shoulder, his body is glossy – cut from sinew.
He seems almost unconscious of his phenomenal good looks, but that particular air has to be cultivated. You can’t pass through life that gorgeous and not have some sort of self awareness, can you?
I decide not to approach him. Having gamed it out, I’ve concluded – it can only end in disappointment. Either he’s arrogant, or an idiot, or not gay, or gay, but not into dudes in their 40s.
Or, even more likely, he’ll sniff out my own arrogant idiocy a mile away. I’ve run the numbers; it’s grim.
If it can’t end well, a professor of mine used to say, it’s better not to start at all.
I come to this decision about ten minutes after he gets into the pool, which, in a way, frees me up to fully enjoy his presence. Once I realize I’m not going to approach him, I stop being preoccupied with HOW I might do it – stop trying to rest at the wall conveniently next to him, stop trying to show off speed, or endurance, or form. Letting go of the possibility of meeting him frees me up to simply enjoy the model-of-human-perfection sharing these deserted three lanes with me.
And I do enjoy it. It’s a small joy to swim next to him – even though he thrashes a bit too much on his freestyle sprints. The whole thing seems a bit surreal, like a Dali painting maybe, or like we’re floating in space. He has faded, teal-yellow hair which might have lived a vibrant former life as a true indigo.
We continue like this for another fifteen minutes. Like astronauts but more graceful. Like dancers, but less. Being so close, almost naked with him is having an effect on me. I feel safer, smarter, more graceful, even better looking. I start to wonder if maybe I will approach him after all. Maybe, I think to myself, he only speaks some Eastern European language. Maybe we can stay this way forever, only ever communicating the most basic things to one another. Are you hungry, my beautiful darling? Are you cold? Thirsty? Would you like to have frantic, rowdy sex on this sectional sofa?
But, suddenly, he is gone. I see his smooth body slip up and out – breaking through the undulating ceiling of our small, shared universe – nullifying it. Canceling out the whole experience. A moment ago he existed, luminous, flailing, pulsing next to me in the water. Now, he doesn’t exist at all. Now, he’s just a symbol of a few brief, quiet, joyous moments. Something for me to write about later. A memory.
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.
The one from about a month ago. The one with the seahorse tattoo and the word “Brooklyn,” in the New York Times font – on his left shoulder blade. He’s Asian, or Pacific Islander I’d say. Actually, I wouldn’t say that. I won’t. I won’t mention his ethnicity until he does. Wait, will I? Will I seem like a ‘color blind’ white asshole if we go out for a few dates and I don’t ask him about his ethnicity? Whatever, I’ll gauge it later. I can mention being white on the second date self-effacingly, and see what information he offers. I’ll say I’m Icelandic and we’re good at stoicism and have a high happiness index. Nope. Won’t say anything like that. Stooge.
Holy shit, he’s smiling! Jeez! I’m being charming. This is awesome. He’s never going to put a shirt on for the entirety of this conversation is he? Oh man. Now I’m bringing up work schedules. And work. Fuck. He’s a writer. Of course he is. Beautiful. The tattoos say he has some sort of sense of humor. Of course, a writer. What else would he be? Oh fuck he works for Showtime. Of course he does. I’m also a writer, I say. OH NO my arm is propped up on the side of this bank of lockers! Jesus, I look like a villain in a John Hughes movie hitting on a timid girl. Come on, correct yourself… Open up the body. Breathe. What is he saying? What am I saying? Did I just say I even love being in traffic sometimes? What an idiot. Whatever. I’m trying. It’s obvious I’m trying.
Smile. He’s being nice. His body language is open. Now I’m casually saying how I’ve learned, since the election, to just look at the news for 15 minutes a day, and turn the radio off in the car, so I can be alone with my thoughts, and focus on serenity. What a fucking asshole! Focus on serenity. I mean, it’s true, but good lord I sound like a used wet wipe. Awful.
He’s. So. Fucking. Cute.
If someone ever approached me like this, would I go on a date with them??
Whatever. I’ve been waiting to chat him up again for almost a month. I’m asking him out, or I never will. Okay –
“Well, I’ll let you go. I just need to know when you’re taking me out for a drink.” Wow. Idiot! You should offer to take him out! Really hitting it out of the park today, fool. Still, maybe he caught the irony that I’m doing something cutely inappropriate, like offering to let him take me out for a drink. I’m not even a drinker anymore. Whatever. I’ll pay and it will seem adorkable in retrospect. I’ll find a way to make this memory of me asking him out seem charming.
Great. I bump into the towel cart, and the small brown man pushing a load of wet towels back to the laundry. I make deep eye contact and mouth the word “sorry” to him. Some of the brown men who tend the towels and squeegee the floors, some of them I never look at. The ones that seem cocky or mean, like they’d say misogynist jokes if they were alone with you, and expect you to laugh along. Also, sometimes those jokes are funny and I laugh along, and feel bad later. Also, sometimes I forget to feel bad entirely. It depends on my day.
But this middle-aged man of the towels is sweet and kind, so I always look at him and say hello. Eye contact. Mutual respect. Los Angeles runs on small framed brown people taking away the dirty towels, stocking the shelves in the grocery stores, cutting the grass. It’s easy to forget to look at them. It’s also condescending and stupid to look at them on purpose. If I really cared about them I’d hand them cash. I guess I only care about myself. I guess that’s okay? That’s okay. I help people for a living. That’s fine. I’m fine. Am I fine? Yes.
Oh SHIT. It occurs to me in this weird, lingering moment – I’m making dumb, deep eye contact with the middle aged brown man I like, while hitting on a young grapefruit skinned man I like much more. Right in front of both of them. I’m certain this is foolish behavior. I’m a fool.
Oh, shit, though. The seahorse guy is handing me his phone! Yes. He says he’ll text me. I enter my number, and text “Hi, dummy,” to myself. Yeah. That’s charming, isn’t it? Ugh.
Well it’s done. I say goodbye and go work out.
I don’t get a text.
Fuck me in the fucking face. I put the wrong number in. Asshole. Idiot. Now it will be, what, another month before I see him again? I trudge through the rest of my workout. I become inundated with sweat. I’m walking up the eternal stair treadmill, watching my sweat on the endless up-the-down-escalator turn from droplets to rivulets, now a trough of sweat. I walk back to the locker room. The kind faced small brown man who does the towels is there. He looks at me. He opens his mouth as if to say something. I hold eye contact with him. He says nothing. I touch him on the arm. It’s too much. Now it’s weird. Okay fine, bye.
I start to feel better in the shower. The seahorse guy told me his name, and the name of the last show he worked on. I can find him on IMDB and message him somewhere. He has Twitter, I’m sure. Facebook. I’ll send a message. I’ll say something charming.
Then I see it. There, in the cubby.
The showers are chrome and sleek, with doors of semi-opaque frosted glass. Always immaculate – always pristine in here. Tight marble tiles on the floor. Ceramic actually, but they’re made to emulate marble. Smooth tiles on the walls. A cubby hole for your goggles, or suit, or cell phone, or soap. In the cubby, I see it. A gum wad.
I’ve seen gum wads left in the cubby before. People somehow frequently decide they’re done with their gum in the shower, and can’t be bothered to hold the mealy, flavorless offense in their mouth even five minutes to shower. Or, maybe they’re brushing? Even so, though, they have to make the decision to leave the gum in the cubby, and I always feel a small outrage for the towel people when I see careless gum in the shower. You’re so pampered you can’t even pick your gum back up and throw it out? Gross.
But this isn’t errant, wayward gum. This gum is jammed into the back corner of the cubby. Someone smashed it in with their thumb. Someone wanted to humiliate the towel guys? Or, maybe they hate the towel guy I like with the kind eyes? Maybe they just want to know someone has to work to dig their gum out of the cubby where they lodged it? Maybe it’s pure sadism. Sadistic person at the expensive gym? Probably common. I think about a comedy set I heard last week about how some people who go to my gym shit next to the toilets, just because they can. I feel deflated. Defeated. Sullen, even. I’m not going to pick the gum out, that’s absurd. The gym membership is embarrassingly expensive. It’s a car payment.
But, on my way out of the stall I see a discarded tooth brush on the shower room floor. I grab it and take it back to the stall. I poke at the gum.
It springs open.
It has suddenly become a frizzy spider web egg sack. Spiders – glossy rust colored spiders emerge from the gum wad. Hundreds, thousands. They pour out of the angry wad and radiate up around and down. In twenty seconds the stall is mostly covered with them. Hundreds of thousands of spiders now, pouring into the shower room. It reminds me of movies, when a ship springs a leak. There are so many of them. I back out, naked, into the locker room. I drop the toothbrush. Millions of spiders now. They’re engulfing everything. Counter tops, mirrors. People running in horror, but as soon as the first spider bites they are paralyzed. Frozen in place. Like a kid’s game of freeze tag. It’s coming too fast now. I grab the kind faced brown towel man and look into his eyes. It’s time to run. He holds me fast. His eyes say, stop. You know this is pointless. It’s happening. It’s all ending right now. That’s not gum, or a spider egg sack in there – and this is the End of Things. Call it God, or a pinprick into a worm hole. But you know what this is. You know we are all ending right now.
I suddenly stop struggling. Instinctively I know he is right. Some reptile part of my brain activates enough to tell me there is no hope left. The world has given way to something different. Something much more simple and primal. I lock forearms with the kind faced brown man. His eyes are dark inkwells, with a deep azure ring around them. An optical illusion.
“You wear contacts, don’t you?” He nods. It’s barely perceivable, but he nods.
I only feel the first bite. Soon we two are as one. Covered in an increasingly infinite coating of spiders. I think, we must look like a gnarled rust colored tree. Withering. They’re eating our bodies. Our faces. His foreskin. My eye. We feel nothing. We dissolve into a writhing reddish orange goo. At some point, things go dark. There is nothing, but it’s still something. Just an awareness of nothing is something. It must be.
The seahorse guy is on top of the parking garage. He sees the dirty orange red tide start to seep up Vine and spread out into Argyle. They’re coming up to the roof. He takes his clothes off. He smiles and looks down. It is a sad, resigned smile. He rises into the sky, naked, with a seahorse on his left arm and the word “Brooklyn” stamped on his left shoulder blade. He rises more. Higher and higher he goes, up, up into the stratosphere. Beyond. But, slowly, while the ruddy stain spreads up the coast like a gunshot wound. It’s happening so fast now. Nobody is even afraid. The seahorse man curls himself up into a ball. He swells huge. Bigger than huge, and rises even further up into the nothingness.
Later that night the world takes on a black, reddish glisten. The spiders are everywhere. There is nothing else. No land mass. No oceans. Just an unctuous throbbing mass. Two moons hang in the sky bathing the writhing spiders in different colored lights. Trillions. More. So many. A whole world full of other dimension spiders.
One of the moons is stark, white and pock marked. It looks made of cheese. The bigger one is warmer. Golden.
The seahorse has become a faint whisper on the surface of a grapefruit moon. Brooklyn has vanished completely.