Sunday, January 18, 2015

in a small town.

I oughta name the novel False Starts based solely on the amount of times I've written three pages, seen nothing but flaws, and thrown it out into the electronic ether, sending its ones and zeros into some unknowable 21st century wastebasket that's quickly becoming filled with my opening lines and unearned epigraphs.

A compilation of the epigraphs I've considered are likely themselves book-length. Melville, Augustine, James Ellroy, Peter Gabriel, Kathleen Edwards, Sherwood Anderson, Nas, Roman antiquity--the list of once-selected sources is too long to take seriously.

We all know that the first line is, of course, crucial, so a disproportionate amount of time is spent on how a creakily opened door sounds. Universally, these opening salvos are pithy, ironic, and shine a spotlight on themselves as they scream "pay attention to me" with all the self-seriousness that a passionate amateur brings to their first open mic at the corner coffee shop. Every song is prefaced by a "This is a song about [a topic]" introduction meant to frame what's coming, but which only ends up distracting from it through unnecessary context and the unavoidable cloud of misunderstanding that the too-rare combination of true earnestness and true idealism so often breeds. What should stand on its own is given a picture frame that crops the image too closely, removing what seems extraneous but is in fact the crucial element of what's to come.

I cannot stop stumbling over these trappings, tripping over hurdles and scraping bare knees on literary blacktop while the 3-2-1-GO starting gun rings in too-close ears. I hop back up and get back to the race, ignoring the clock while knowing exactly what it reads, and put foot back to track while the imaginary audience remains silent in the stands, waiting to see where we're all headed.

Every single start, though, is the small town. Every single hypothetical narrative exists in my brain not as a way to examine people and journeys and the sacrifices we make for ourselves and each other and to cling to decency with worn fingertips and hands so weak we cannot even make a fist, but as a love letter to the archetypal American Small Town where I, for the last ten years, have believed to be the only place I will find peace.

Which is, of course, bullshit. I have a lifelong habit of creating heavens on earth, only to find them dismantled and dilapidated by the time I arrive. I eventually stopped trying to be there, acknowledging that even just days of reality are enough to tear down an elaborate romantic fantasy, but the effort never quite goes away. My mind still creates fantasy villages of 2,000-10,000 residents, nearly as many horses, and three main street watering holes, each serving a different emotion and thereby clientele:

The bright bar where people go to interact
The dimly lit bar where people go to be in love
The dark, quiet bar where people go to be alone

As I try to put these places on paper, to sketch their dimensions and ephemera in whatever wilted words and alliterative assemblage I can cobble together, I notice that the whole enterprise is powered only by my longing for somewhere I have yet to find in any lasting way. So I keep writing opening paragraphs about fictional towns, the kind of places I want so desperately to exist in the same way that we all hope Jennifer Lawrence is that cool or that Orson Welles would be that good of a drinking buddy, but then I, uniformly, come up short.

Because these aren't real places, and they can't be. By their very nature, they're out of physical and even emotional reach, because the longing is what I'm actually trying to articulate.

I hear people say that writers create their own ideal worlds, but I disagree. No matter what efforts I'm able to string out over a few hundred words—and no, it never really gets any further than a few hundred—everything ends up tasting like sunken eyes and hot tears dripping through a beard that needs trimming on their way to a mouth that needs to close itself and keep quiet.

But, no matter the desk at which you spend your late nights or the mythical home at which you tell yourself you'll one day hang your head, let your spirit stay unbroken, may you not be deterred.

Hold on.

And I will do what I can do.

Monday, September 29, 2014

the voices call to me, saying "gringo, go away."

In New Mexico, you can drive fifteen minutes in any direction and find yourself on a different planet, Earth to Mars to Tatooine to the dark side of the moon for a half-tank of gas. Pancake plains make way for rolling rock hills. Sandpits and sagebrush mix like palette watercolors against white sand and watermelon mountains, some otherworldly collage of the elements that look like creation set to Shuffle.

Do your laundry in a hurry and pull a crumpled ten-dollar bill out of the back pocket of your freshly washed jeans. Hold that against the patches of seemingly mile-high forest you'll swim through up through Jemez Springs, and it'll disappear against patchwork pine horizon and you'll want to rip those jeans off like tinfoil and dive headfirst into the hot springs and low rivers and go straight subterranean.

It almost feels like a real option, too: millennia have carved small caves and alcoves into the face of that scaled sediment. Take a picnic lunch and your tourist's perspective inevitably turns eternal. Eat your turkey sandwich and sip your juice box and think of how many lost souls smuggled their soaked skin into the dry cracks of mountainside you're now feasting within. Each twisting highway half-mile is its own ghost town, every now-petrified tree a tribute to those who found cover under its once-tall shadows.

Every inch of this place is lived-in. The ones who make their homes there, the ones who came before, the ones before them, all the way back to the indigenous people and even the creatures that crab-walked and sand-scuttled before anyone was really watching—they're everywhere here. Every conceivable combination of genes, every configuration of life and limb and spirit still hangs in the air like a heavy fog, monsoon season of past and future dripping with potential and possibility.

And that inescapable presence of capital-e Everything is what presents such a challenge. When every corner contains a different story and every tree shows its roots, it's a struggle to remember your own story.

It's so strange: it only takes you three Tom Petty songs to arrive in the middle of every type of terrain, and that's more than enough time for Who You Were When You Left to bear no resemblance to Who You Were When You Arrived.

Which, I think, is why I left. But after some hard-fought battles were won and the scar tissue healed over, I think I know the score now.

I think I can see the sun above the trees. I think I know the story.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Girlfriends, good dogs, growing pains, and the gold I've stashed away.

Em and I have a dog named Buster. He's not our first.

After a brief and admittedly ill-advised trial period with a three-legged pup named Elmore—who, let the record show, I still miss dearly and would write letters to if he had a second front leg with which to open them—we took the three-wheeler back to the Humane Society. That is, Em took him back to the Humane Society, since my three separate attempts at his return culminated with me breaking down in sobbing fits, hysterically weeping into the brindle of a dog too sweet and too stupid to think that anything but a backhand to his perma-grin was praise for good behavior.

This is Elmore:

Buster's Humane Society portrait. Please adopt.

He's gone now. Not gone gone, just gone to another family. Some clan for whom he is a much better fit, some motley gang of familial misfits having scooped him up like a bowl of mint chocolate chip and who is now giving him the life that his energy level necessitates, and that a heart as as his—seriously, look at those eyes—deserves.

I imagine him with a big yard, green grass catching the pads of three feet, a durable (but long) leash giving him freedom to frolic and room to breathe. There are kids there somewhere: a set of rough-and-tumble eight-year-old twins who wrestle with him. Maybe there's a cynical, brooding fifteen year old who at first scolds Elmore for scuffing his prized leather jacket but soon has his heart softened by the wide eyes and tender trust of a creature that solely to love and be loved.

This may all sound ridiculous, like I'm in love with this misfit mutt who chewed up my shoes, pissed on my carpet, and howled from his kennel every night he didn't get to sleep in the bed.

But maybe I was. Maybe I was in love with this silly animal, this hobbling bundle of canine sincerity that would only sit still so long as you were scratching behind his ears, who greeted my daily return from work with a big smile (and, often, an uncomfortably large erection).

Maybe no one has ever been that happy to see me.

In any case, it wasn't going to last. I knew that very quickly, but denial ain't just a river. The mauled furnishings, the dinners devoured right off the plate the second you turn away—it's all cute until your couch smells like a hobo blanket and your braised tilapia with red quinoa slips through the jaws of an animal you don't want to punish but can't bear to live with anymore.

So: Em took him back. And while she's one of the most absolutely compassionate people I've ever met, she doesn't miss him, and I don't blame her. I have a weakness for inherently broken things, being one myself, and someone with a reserve of strength I don't understand doesn't need that kind of dependent reinforcement.

Twelve hours before she returned Elmore to the shelter, we obtained Buster, who looks like this:

Buster in his Halloween costume, courtesy of Sarah

If you're wondering: yes, he is wearing a crocheted Spider-Man sweater. And yes, he did fit right into it, and no, he didn't nip at me when I tried to dress him like a paper doll. He likes walks just about as much as I do—a little—and he has an energy level on par with mine—relatively low—and he likes spinach and car rides and sitting on my lap and licking my face every morning.

You know what else he does? He just sits with me. Just sits. If I'm watching a movie, working at my desk, reading a book—doesn't matter. He sits on my lap, he sits at my side, he sits in bed at the small of my back while I toss and turn every night, exhausted from the day but terrified of the dreams pounding at the gates of sleep.

This dog is perfect for me. Objectively, subjectively, and wholly suited to every single need and want I've ever felt, expressed, ignored, or sublimated (usually a combination of the three).

But it doesn't mean my heart doesn't sometimes wish Elmore was still around. I think that's natural, though, isn't it? I don't daydream about something gnawing on my cowboy boots or shitting in my laundry basket: I think about how nothing made him happier than seeing me, how he couldn't contain his joy and had to express it through leaping on two back legs strengthened by necessity (he only had one front leg! it's sad but seriously HOW DAMN CUTE IS THAT).

He's happier, though. He's happier, I'm happier, Emily's happier, we're all happier. And I fall asleep with Buster at night, his long face nuzzling up into the back of my knee, legs spinning like a dreidel as he dreams of chasing intruding rabbits down a deep backyard hole.

I get used to Buster, and so maybe sometimes I don't always value him 100% that I should. Maybe he deserves more walks, more treats, more attention than he sometimes gets from me. Just falling asleep next to him every night, feeding him thrice a day, and letting him sit on the couch isn't enough. This dog is here for me, after good days and bad, and I wish I knew how to communicate just how dearly I love and appreciate him.

But sometimes that I think that maybe, at this point, it's just a matter of not screwing things up, of letting time and tenure take their place in our home and let his place in my routine become settled concrete. Maybe, right now, what I need to do is just acknowledge that I'm not always super great at making clear how dearly I value him, that I'm too distracted by my job and volunteer work and impending graduate programs and potential cross-country moves and cheap beer and good whiskey and old westerns and lingering wounds from unrelated betrayals that still sting to the touch and make me recoil from any affection, that force me to fight against crippling self-loathing installed by unfaithful ex-girlfriends or abusive partners or dogs that just can't help destroying good things.

I got home late tonight, and Buster and I went on a quick half-mile walk. The ritual: first he goes #2, then he goes #1—I don't understand or identify with the order, either—then we get to exploring. Bustie's got this thing with trees: he finds our street's matured elms irresistible, and he makes clear his admiration by urinating all over their root systems.

And though I identify with many of Buster's attributes, this is where we differ: I think I may have finally learned to stop pissing all over things that are healthy and growing.

I may not have Buster forever. But goddamn it, he's mine right now. And until something makes that an impossibility, he will fall asleep every single night knowing that my life is warmer for having him in it.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

"what is it you do?"

Twenty-eight years ago, I was born with the lungs of a malnourished dachshund and the breath capacity to match. Fear of sports and an appropriately terrible palette of motor skills nudged me from t-ball to comic books, and I became obsessed with superhero narratives, which I quickly decided were the key to personal happiness.

Eight years ago, I wrote a paper about Batman as a symbol of "radical [political] centrism," a term that the drastically underinformed, National Review-reading, 22-year-old Andy was incredibly proud of (mistakenly) believing he created.

Six years ago, I flew to an academic conference to present the paper to a group of my peers. A woman in my session took issue with my interest in a specific comic book writer as infallible evidence of my "hot rod misanthropy"—I'll never forget how awesome that phrase was—and a lovely fellow student from my university chuckled out loud at my dismissive response to the interlocution. Realizing that Fellow Student and I were sharing the flight home, I asked a flight attendant to help me ask her out, which she did. Fellow Student had a boyfriend, though, so it was a wash. Regardless, a new long-term friend was made.

Three years ago, Fellow Student set me up with a friend of hers. Her Friend and I went on two or three dates, but with about as much chemistry as a humanities degree (although I eventually, drunkenly made out with her on a twin bed during an episode of Archer and then never called her again because of my own shame. She hates me to this day, perhaps not unreasonably).

Two years ago, Her Friend started dating a guy I ended up becoming pals with, a mutual affinity for James Ellroy and fish tacos bridging our shared introversion.

Four-and-a-half months ago, when I was looking for work in a new field, Her Friend's (now-)ex-boyfriend recommended a former employer of his, where I found a happy new occupational home.

Four months ago, after scrimping quarters from couch cushions and living a Netflix-free June, my first paycheck paid for the four beers you shared with me at the local pub, first date conversation drifting to ethereal longings for home and an exhaustion at theretofore not finding what we'd both always wanted.

And now, there you are, on my couch, snoring while I watch Justified, and I'll never let anyone, ever again, say that superheroes never brought me anything.

Monday, September 9, 2013

but you more.

I get scared at night
because that's when the ghosts come out.

Cupboards creak and gutters groan,
so I sit here under this new roof,
where music drips into my open ears like wine through dry lips,
and the curtains hide a world that gives me goosebumps.

The last year has made mountains and formed foothills,
each foot of elevation a bump in a long road:
the sort that's brought me across state lines and broad outlines
but exhausted by entropy and exoskeletons
and I need to rest.

I used to not sleep so soundly.
So I'd wash dishes,
listen to sad songs from southern belles,
looking for comfort in green apple dish soap
and finding nothing but my own reflection,
the glint of my own eyes
caught in freshly cleaned cocktail glasses
and my presence only felt in tapped toes.

And I still don't sleep so soundly,
although it's different,
if only a little:

in the other room,
I still hear hymns and still get goosebumps,
but now the song the way you snore when you go bed past midnight

and my body feels so broken lately,
sniffles and sneezes, coughs and complaints
feeling bedridden on sunny days and crypt-bound on rainy ones

some days
(like today)
I don't feel particularly qualified to face the sun, let alone the day
but then I'll wash a glass and see your lip prints on it
then remember that they also lay invisibly on my cheek,
and I want to rise like the moon and grab hold of the world
so I can lay it at your feet.

but until then,
I'm going to throw words on pages,
pray quietly for the soundness of your sleep,
and save you all of my ribbons.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

the story:

it's taken a turn
and I'm processing and dismantling it while asphalt heat blurs,
the box fan offering no relief, just white noise

but there's a clarity of purpose to where
this fire is taking me

so I'm going to burn my bridges
and use the flames to light my way.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

in which I explained my Quakerism (and worldview) to a beautiful woman.

She's gorgeous in a way that words could only sully, but the way she's looking at me puts me on red alert.

"I know that look," I say, tilting my neck up and meeting her eyes. She's standing above me, and that look—that look—is a combination of confusion and curiosity, served neat with a skepticism chaser. "Let me explain."

Her arms are folded. I take it slow.

"The whole thing with Quakerism is that it's not quite like other kinds of Christianity. You can be Christian and a Quaker, but you don't have to be. An awful lot of us don't really buy into 'sin,' per se, so the whole salvation thing goes out the window—why would you need to be saved from a nonexistent problem?

That doesn't mean we don't see problems, though. No, ma'am, we see problems. We see lots of things as problems. While Christianity has the Fall and Original Sin—note the all caps—we place that degree of emphasis on destruction. Violence, particularly, is something we really, really hate. Most of us are pacifists and would rather take a bullet than send one at anyone, so war and physical conflict are generally out. The world and everything in it exists for us, so destruction of it ain't no good."

I sip from my coffee and she raises an eyebrow. I barely take a breath.

"But that's where it gets interesting, because since the world exists for us, it's a gift, and gifts are beautiful. Thus, since the world is something to be protected, it's something to be cherished. So while many of us might not believe in an afterlife, it's only because we've got something better:

right here, right now. We don't have any excuse for not making the world as lovely and beautiful as it can be. We strive for perfection, knowing that in order to strive for a harvest, we have to identify the seeds. So we do: we look for things to fix, and we look for things that are close to perfection, things that are capable of perfection, and we push everything else we can toward that perfection. Quakers were prominent abolitionists, voices in the Civil Rights movement, and anti-Vietnam war protestors. We take a spiritual issue with imperfection, and not in a utopian sense, but in a strictly humanist one: it's all within our power to create beauty, and I guess the only real sin is not to."

She's barely moved. Her eyes hang like gargoyles from dark lids, and I can't get a read on her.

But then she moves, and when she does, it's like she's a hummingbird at a feeder, her arm darting down to the table at my booth. She picks up the plate and sighs.

"So what do you want me to do?" she asks, pointing to the cheeseburger on the plate. Her gum pops like summer firecrackers.

"Just throw it on the grill for another ninety seconds or so," I say.

"And then it'll be perfect?"

I smile, if only to myself (she's not looking anymore). "Yup."

When it comes back and I take my third bite, it tastes like spit.

But a man's got to have principles.