“I want you to think of a safe space in your mind.”
I panic. This should be an easy thought. Even in hypnosis, I feel everything in my mind freeze at the therapist’s command.
Dear God, find a safe space. Something - Anything. I feel my body begin to angrily twitch in reaction to the stress of my mind. My brain bounces between places in my life, staying longer in some, desperately searching for a safe landing. The first house I ever remember. Navy blue painted shutters, wiggly water mattresses, small square windows that I can’t reach...my brain trips as if buckling in anxiety. No, this place isn’t safe. You’re scared. You don’t understand what that means. Why is that wrong? I won’t ask anymore. It’s better when you can’t be heard.
My mind leaps and the next house comes into view. The tan one with the maroon walls that mom painted one summer into the prettiest shade I’ve ever seen. The one with the green carpets and sailboat bordered walls. The one that smelled like cinnamon all the time and th-- NO. No. No, this place isn’t safe. You have to leave, please. Find somewhere else. Do it quickly. The twitch of my body has become a noticeable jerk.
Another jump, another place. My grandparent’s house. Mustard yellow walls with orange, brown floors. Fluffy carpets so comfy I just lay on them and stare at the ceiling. Sledding hills across the street that let me go so fast that I think I can touch the sky and rooms that hold...that hold, hold, hold. Oh no, please. Please. Please. I can’t keep going. The muscles of my neck begin to strain, my body going rigid, this is so much worse than the jerking. I’m frozen, trapped.
In a desperate scramble, my mind empties and Holland Lake comes into view. My body collapses and stills. My mind quiets. A tear slides down my face without conscious effort.
I’m okay. I’m safe. I’m alone on the dock. It’s not a pretty dock. It’s made of old, gnarled wood. Discolored from years of rain without any treatment to protect it. But that feels real. It made it through all of the ugly and it’s still here. Here just for me to sit on and let my toes reach the water.
The therapist begins to describe a deeper journey into my psyche, but I know I need to stay on the dock. There’s something I need to know. Why this spot? Why am I safe?
Memories begin to sift and play over the water. My front seat to the film of my life. I see a young version of me running along the pebbled beach. She smiles. I remember this day. I reach for her to try and stop what happens next, but the memory plays. She falls hard onto the ground and the boys with her laugh. Her eyes well and she cries, but stands up. She keeps running after them, tears falling, but keeps running. I watch. I remember. I learned I was strong here.
Memory fades and is replaced. A younger version of me walks on the dirt road at night alone. She’s scared. The shadows of the trees stretch uncontained by the light from the moon. She doesn’t like the walk home at night. The crunch of the gravel echoes through the path. But she keeps walking. She walks and starts to sing. A song that has no meaning beyond the one that she gives. I watch. I remember. I learned I could be brave here.
The night memory is replaced by a day. The younger me is on the water, tubing behind a boat. Knuckles white, legs flailing, smile so big it can’t be comfortable. She comes up onto her knees. I know the look - I can’t help but smile watching it - she’s going to ramp off the next wave. She’s going to see how high she can get; is today the day she defies gravity and flies? The wave approaches, she crouches farther, but I feel no fear for her this time. She is in control. She launches and loses her grip. For a moment, her body suspends in air,. It’s beautiful. But the moment ends and she crashes into the water. Smile on her face as she resurfaces - I watch. I remember. I learned how to fly here. I learned that for a brief moment, I didn’t need to be contained by anything.
The memories slow and a young me comes to sit next to me on the dock. She has a tear stained cheek, but she sits quietly next to me. I look to her face and I know. I could be alone here. I could be whoever I wanted to be here. I didn’t have to hide here. I could sit on the dock and stick my toes in the water and be me.
“This place is safe?” I ask.
“I think so.” She says.
My mom and I were in the car in Orlando, Florida after meeting for dinner at Sugar Factory. I had gotten tipsy on a monstrous, sweet drink that had been poured over dry ice for a smokey effect. As we drove back to the hotel, my mom looked me up and down not for the first time that night and asked: “Are those Doc Martens?”
“Yeah!” I replied. They were my first pair, and a helluva pair I had chosen. Instead of the classic black leather, I had gone with a deep purple patent leather/plastic material that to this day have not been broken in properly.
The outfit I had put together screamed “This Bitch Is Queer!” From the single black string tied tightly around my neck, to the striped alien crop top and patch-ridden overalls, the outfit was meticulously put together in ways that reminded me of my crush. In dawning those purple blister monsters, I felt closer to the girl who lived two thousand miles away and reminded me of Natasha Romanoff.
My mom was quiet for a moment, her eyes on the road ahead. Then: “Jamie says those are lesbian boots.”
I laughed, because that’s exactly what my older brother would say about these boots. And then, whether it was the buzz from the drink or my own need to fill the space with a joke, I said: “Well, actually…”
As a young kid, I loved playing dress up, especially when it involved Disney princesses. My parents spoiled me with my collection, and when it came to Belle and Ariel, I had nearly every single one of their looks in my possession. Not only that, I could recite every line and lyric from their movies, and would reenact their stories with my Barbie dolls. However, I was never afraid to venture beyond the princesses or the Barbies. On a visit to MGM (now Disney’s Hollywood Studios), I was told I could pick one costume. I chose Peter Pan. I still remember how the bright green velvet cap felt in my hands, and the excitement over how accurate it was to how he looked in the movie.
My parents were used to my strange sense of style. They thought it was funny when I walked around in nothing but my underwear, and they even pulled an old shaggy wig down from the attic when I wanted to dress up as Frodo Baggins. They weren’t the type to “worry” when I would pick something up for the “opposite gender” because they weren’t those kinds of parents. When I wanted basketball shorts from the boys section at Target, that's what I was allowed to get. When I begged for a Playstation 2 to play Grand Theft Auto, I was ecstatic when one Christmas it was sitting under the tree.
In elementary school, after having my heart broken by my first best friend, Jessica, I gravitated towards the boys. I felt more comfortable looking for frogs in the grass than playing “royals” and being the designated maid by the more popular girls, and I knew how to hold my own in a round of roughhousing.
However, when puberty reared its ugly head, the boys stopped wanting to hang out with me, and the girls started to say things about how I dressed, why my hair was always pulled back in a ponytail, and why I only wanted to hang out with the guys. While they started to experience that tingling feeling in their privates when they saw their crushes, I never thought about those things. I didn’t know why recess dynamics changed because nothing had changed for me. But to them, I was weird, and if I didn’t change, I would lose my place in the changing social hierarchies. I wouldn’t belong.
My belonging was already threatened by my debilitating anxiety, which left me incapable of staying at sleepovers and led to total meltdowns after any sort of large social gathering. So, I did what I had to do to survive, and quashed the side of me that found comfort and protection in the masculine. I conformed to gender roles that dictated how I should dress, how I should wear my hair, who I spent time with, and who I was allowed to have crushes on.
By high school, I had perfected “straightness” so much so that I believed it myself. But, when it came to friendships and relationships, they were all unfulfilling. Junior year, I captured the attention of a popular football player. It was the first time in a very long time that I felt wanted by another person, and even longer since catching the attention of someone who could give me the ultimate sense of belonging within the social hierarchy. By then I knew how to play the game and knew how to perform sexuality. I wore tighter, more feminine clothes and paid more attention to how I did my makeup and hair. I took scissors to an oversized men’s sweatshirt to show my shoulders and stomach. I bought a bra that was so padded it made me impervious to tit punches. I was the most feminine, sexy version of myself that I had ever been. But I didn’t understand what sexy was, I just thought I knew what it looked like. Throughout every era of my own gender expression, from Princess dresses to basketball shorts to socially acceptable pink Abercrombie polos, I never dressed with attraction in mind. How could I dress for something I didn’t experience?
When his texts got raunchy, so did mine. It wasn’t sexting, I was “telling him a story.” It was just another writing assignment. I didn’t realize at the time that it was all performative because I didn’t understand the part of me that was (and is) asexual. I just knew how I needed to look and behave to hold onto that sense of belonging and the feeling that I was wanted by someone else. That I was normal.
Alas, teenage boys get bored easily. So, when he found a girl who didn’t need to “perform” sexy (and no longer needed help in AP US History), I was forgotten. I was devastated. I wasn’t enough. I wasn’t normal. I was a weirdo who wrote stories about sex, but didn’t do it herself.
It wasn’t until college that I started to realize that my weirdness was really just queerness. Not only did I learn more about the spectrum of orientations, but I wasn’t bound anymore by the standards of a small group of cliquey teens. My university stood 60k strong, there was no place for a hierarchy. I threw away everything that had once shielded me from criticism and became what made me feel most like myself. I cut my hair short. I chose comfort over perception. I befriended who I wanted to befriend, chose not to pursue the “normal” sexual exploits of young adulthood, and found my tribe of weirdos. I stopped performing who I wasn’t and became who I was.
Coming out to my family was neither dramatic nor cathartic for me. The truth is, I was so lazy about coming out, that I did it once and never again. I just assumed my mom would tell anyone else who mattered. Though that was never confirmed… Hey Dad, if you’re reading this, guess what!
She took it well, especially because my coming out was more nuanced than just “I’m gay!” I had to explain that not only did I get crushes on women and men, but that my crushes had nothing to do with sex or sexual attraction. No, it wasn’t just a low libido, it was a fundamental lack of sexual attraction to people, even if I was head over heels in love with them.
The more I opened up to her, and to the many facets of my own identity, the more I realized how often I wrote my queerness off as just being weird, or having a mental illness. Did my anxiety make me not want to have sex? Did I consider women safer because they’re thought to have lower sex drives then men? Were all of my feelings real, or just lies my mental illness told me to keep me safe?
Clothing and my own gender expression played a bigger role than I thought. The suppression of those choices played a role in how long it took for me to come to terms with my identity. For so long, I beat myself up over not being “normal” enough. But now I realize there was so much about me that was queer that didn’t involve the fears I thought were getting in the way. In fact, being queer generated even more fear that I didn’t see.
It’s amazing what happens when you stop conforming to an ideal version of your gender and sexuality. My friendships have been deeper and longer lasting, I’ve found true agency over my body and mind, and more meaningful ways of creative expression.
Before the pandemic, I went to a bar in West Hollywood with a group of classmates from my MFA program. I wore a shirt (which I still find hilarious to this day) that has two cartoon thumbs pointing to my face that say: “This Guy’s Gonna Be a Daddy.” I told them a story about a horrendous date I had been on, where the guy got significantly drunker than me and I realized with horror that he reminded me of my brother. The remaining attraction I had left to this man died that night and I ghosted him faster than Casper. While my friends laughed and cringed at my story, one girl stopped me, confused, and said: “Wait a minute, I thought you were a lesbian!”
I can’t explain it, but that was and continues to be one of the proudest moments of my life. I was flattered that I could still surprise people with my own complexities and queerness. I was liberated by knowing I wasn’t just conforming to an identity anymore. I smiled, put my hand on my chest and said “Awww! Thank you!” I guess that’s the power of my lesbian boots.
Truly, this bitch is queer
I am soaked with sweat. My arms feel like jello. And after all these stairs I KNOW my ass will be on some JLO shit tomorrow. But all I can think about with each step is “don’t check your phone, don’t check your phone!” I’ve lost count of how many trips we’ve taken and how many boxes we’ve carried, but after these 5 flights of stairs, I’ll have my answer.
The summer of 2019 brought me a super hot fling in Rhode Island, I know, SO Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. But just like that franchise, that summer came to an end, and I returned to Manhattan trying to process that I wouldn’t be getting railed nightly anymore. Every time I have something good (like sex) I convince myself that this is the only time I’m ever going to get to feel this way and that I better enjoy it while it lasts. (Is this therapy?) I’m back in the New York groove and ready to fill the sexual void. I unpack and dive into my civic duty: matching with guys on Hinge.
One night I match with Allen. Like if Daniel Radcliffe was 6’3 with a jaw that could cut glass. One of the prompts on his profile is “I get along best with people who:” and his answer is “don’t care about stuff”…sigh...hot people can get away with ANYTHING. He seemed hunky, yet maybe unaware of just how hunky he was- and I liked that balance! (I am a Libra after all.) Allen’s chiseled looks and dumb answer to the prompt make me think that, at the very least, he could fill the void.
We make plans to get drinks that weekend near his place. I like when you get drinks near a guy’s place because it makes it so easy for them to invite you back to the futon they sleep on. I’ve been told my whole life that if you’re being abducted, the worst thing is being taken to a second location, but I couldn’t feel more the opposite about Allen. I’m getting to that second location!
Our date arrives and my Tall Ass Harry Potter is five minutes late, but I remember his profile- “he gets along best with people who don’t care about stuff” so that checks out. Allen tells me that he has the kind of job where you roll the sleeves on your button up to the ¾ length...which is one of the hottest ways sleeves can be worn. A fun fact about me is that when someone who wears sleeves like that is giving me attention, it’s really hard for me not to develop a crush on them instantly. I want him inside me, sure, but I start to think about our future tall children while he tells me about working in midtown. But it’s not long before the bar gets “too loud” (noise, the best wingwoman) and Allen says:
“Hey, my place is just around the corner, I have beer there if you wanna-?”
“Yeah, I’m down for that!”
Wow. I still got it! I had left Rhode Island at the end of the summer feeling so weird, drained, and kind of gross. I had convinced myself that it was going to be an eternity before I’d enjoy dating again without cringing, but here I am, back at Allen’s chamber of secrets! I was trying this new thing where I don’t sleep with people the first time I meet them, so we have a PG-13 futon makeout for the books and I bid him farewell.
I text Allen 2 days later:
“Hey, wanna hang out again or nah?”
“Yeah, definitely. I had a great time!”
I ask about Friday, but he says it’s his friend’s birthday and he can’t hang. I tell him I’ll check back in sometime next week. I get so giddy about the possibility of doing more than making out that I immediately tell everyone around me with a beating heart all about his jawline and our possible future tall children. I just really needed a win, and this felt like one!
A week after our perfect makeout, 3 of my friends are making the big move to the city all the way from North Carolina (the state we’re tragically from). Since I’m an amazing friend, I volunteer to help them move everything up to their 5th floor apartment. I’m so excited to see them and show them I’m back to thriving in the city. Before I leave to meet them, I text Allen:
“Hey - wanna hang this Friday?”
I find my friends by UHaul outside their apartment. They greet me with sweaty hugs and I tell them that I’m ready to be put to work, but...I’m also waiting on a text back from Allen. My friends squeal with me and we start bringing boxes up the five flights. I put my phone on Do Not Disturb and tell everyone I’m not going to check my phone until I take a break, an act of valor almost worthy of a purple heart in my opinion. Each trip is harder than the last, my willpower almost as weak as my upper body strength.
Like most vehicles in New York City, the UHaul is illegally parked, so we decide one person should stay with the truck at all times. After MANY trips up and down not allowing myself to look at my phone, my friends tell me I can watch the truck for a bit. I hobble down the staircase and hop into the UHaul. FINALLY I reach into my pocket to check my phone, right as a text from Allen comes in. But...it's not good. It’s mortifying and...confusing. Allen replies with:
“Hey, I’ll get back to u. I’ve felt pretty out of it since I saw u and developed like a cold sore on my lip. Idk if it’s related but it’s never happened to me before idk. Maybe these things just happen but need to rest up.”
I KNOW. When I read this text, I am angry- an emotion I rarely feel. Usually when things upset me, I go limp. Like pasta that fell on the floor. But now, I feel like I could drive that UHaul off a cliff, Thelma and Louise-style. Not only is Allen not imagining our future tall children, but he doesn’t even want me back on his futon! I can feel the void as a lump in my throat forms and tears start welling. Here I am, crying in a UHaul. I know, that sounds like the title of a song you’d find on the jukebox inside of a Waffle House. I digress. I’m standing inside this half-full moving truck, trying to process this truly bewildering text. Who the fuck...sends that?
I only have a minute or two before my friends make it back down to the truck for another round of boxes. It’s their first day living in New York and now I’m crying in their UHaul over a guy I went out with once. I’m asking myself, “Did I give Allen a cold sore? Do cold sores even work that way? Was he lying? He ‘felt pretty out of it since he saw me?’ Why did he say he wanted to hang out again?” I even ask myself, “do I just not tell anyone about this part?” But I’ve already built this up SO much to my friends, they are bound to ask what the outcome was. So, when they come down, I read Allen's text aloud.
By the time I get to “developed, like, a cold sore,” their sweaty jaws have dropped in unison. I was giving them a crash course into dating in the city before they even set up their wifi, but another fun fact about me is that I have the most AMAZING friends that couldn’t have been more #TeamGillian. My friends and I deliberate (aka we each Googled “cold sore how do you get” and read approx half an article each) and we conclude that I did not give Allen a cold sore.
And even... if... I... did….again, who the FUCK texts that to someone??? I personally think that ghosting is worthy of jail time, but honestly, I would have preferred it to getting a text like that. I grab the last box in the truck, feeling like the void will never be filled, like that one futon makeout was the last one I’ll ever have and embarrassed that I thought it could maybe one day be something more. But around the 3rd floor, I realize something- I thought the exact same thing about my Rhode Island fling, but here I was agonizing over this New York himbo just weeks later. It will only be a matter of time before I match with another sharp jawline! I take comfort in remembering the wise words of a poet: “I got reasons why I tease ‘em, boys just come and go like seasons, Fergalicious.”
I text Allen an Amazon link to a tube of Abreva, and say “good luck!” Allen never replies, but a year later, I match with him again! This time, on Bumble. Naturally, I message him to inquire about his cold sore recovery, but he doesn’t reply. BUT this time, there’s no crying and no sweating- I know there’s other fish in the sea and hopefully those fish DO care about stuff.
Earlier this month I got a text from Danny, the dear sweet editor of this blog, asking me if I wanted to write a blog piece. His thinking was I might have a unique perspective on masculinity. Though he might be right, I’m not really sure it’s that enlightening because I don’t really know what masculinity is anymore and honestly, I don’t care.
I’ve been on this planet for almost 28 years now and, for about 25 of them, I was identifying on the outside as a woman. I knew for a long time before that that it didn’t feel right, but it still took a quarter of a century for me to do anything about it. There were a lot of things to consider. Realistically, how was I actually going to survive the world if I was a 5’5” guy without a dick? Would I just always be some kind of freak to other people? Would I ever be able to find a partner who would love me and this “thing” that I’ve become? It weighed on me for a long time but I eventually realized I was miserable in my body so the change needed to happen. I consulted with my friends and family, and it was one of the better coming out experiences in the vast spectrum of coming out experiences that range from fantastic to life threateningly bad. My parents didn’t even bat an eye and with my friends, it was so unremarkable that I don’t remember coming out to a single one of them. It all just came together and confirmed my sense that this was a good decision. Going forward, I felt pretty confident and ready to take on masculinity.
I was pretty excited until a couple days before my appointment. Going through with transitioning, the hormones and the changes and what not, was daunting and anxiety inducing in a way that I didn’t really expect at all. Most people I’ve talked to were not at all surprised by how anxious I was, but I hadn’t been thinking about the beginning and the middle parts of transitioning; I was only really thinking about the end, which in my head was muscles and beard (if I was lucky). But then the realization dawned on me: I was about to do puberty again. Suddenly I was worried that this would mean my whole personality was going to change or I’d get really ugly as a man. But I ended up going through with it after a highly emotional five hour doctor’s appointment where I cried and panicked and confused the doctors with my distress. I got the first shot though, it was on. The next few weeks the anxiety started fading, the changes started coming and it was exciting again. I expected after all this chaos, a sort of calm to come over me as the testosterone created the physical and mental changes I’d been seeking. But you know what? It never fucking came. I’m definitely much happier with my body now, but there are certain parts of being a woman that I’ll always be wistful for. Not anything physical, but almost something spiritual or maybe even societal. Like someone who is ethnically-Jewish but doesn’t practice spiritually, though I gave up being Female I’m still always going to be culturally feminine.
I grew up what would absolutely be considered a “tomboy” in most senses: no girls’ clothes, no dolls, always outside or playing video games. One time my neighbor, a mother who wanted a daughter but instead ended up with three boys, tried and unfortunately succeeded in braiding my hair. My brother recently reminded me of this moment, laughing the whole time as he remembered how furious I was for the rest of the day. That was generally my reaction to any kind of stereotypically “girly” thing. But as a little kid and into adulthood, I always preferred hanging out with girls. I connected with them more. Even though I always felt more like a boy, I was still living my life through the lens of a girl and people responded to me as a girl. I was able to talk about my feelings with my girl friends and be affectionate with them. I was allowed to be sensitive and develop an EQ. And because the world saw me as a girl, it also allowed me to be treated like one by men; with that, you lose a lot of respect for masculinity. So it was weird coming to terms with being a dude, because quite frankly, I’ve never given a fuck about men. Generally speaking, I do not understand them and I don’t want to spend much time around them (except for Danny who is a good boy and I love his cute funny face). What even is their world? Why don’t they want to emote? Or talk to women like normal people? Why don’t they hug or touch their friends ever? It always seemed so silly to me, from middle school on when the gender gap seemed to widen into more of a trench, that this is how anyone would want to live in the world.
After I started transitioning, though, I thought I would have to try harder to fit more into that world. I especially thought this would be the case in terms of finding a partner, but as it turned out I really didn’t have to do anything. There is no part of femininity that I’ve kept that hasn’t somehow helped me in the trials and tribulations of my personal and romantic life. Apparently it’s charming that I do not come off as threatening and that I seem more interested in getting to know someone than getting in their pants. I’ve been through enough stuff with guys in my time as a girl to know how women do not want to be treated. Some of that weird, uncomfortable trauma has led me to being a better man that understands boundaries and doesn’t feel as entitled to the space and people around him. I love that I get to hang out with mostly women and feel like I can fully be myself without any judgment for needing to talk or cry or needing affection. Or that I can I will play as Toad or Shyguy in any Mario game because I think they’re the cutest characters and I don’t give a fuck that that’s not masculine. These things feel like they won’t change no matter how long I’m on testosterone, and I’m grateful for them. Instead of gaining a better understanding of masculinity, I’m just gaining a better understanding of myself and all the components that make me me.
Luckily for me, I went to what’s possibly the queerest liberal arts college in the United States and one of the main things I learned there is that gender is truly just a construct. The sooner I took that to heart, the easier things started to feel. I don’t need to know how to be a man; I am one the way I am and that’s good enough. Proving my masculinity doesn’t have to be inane things like knowing about sports or closing my emotions off to the world. It can just be me, the guy who shares his feelings and can’t stop buying stuffed animals because every time I see one with a cute enough face I know it’s begging for me to give it a home. Or listening to a female friend complain about how annoying high heels are and being like, “yeah, I can relate. I used to hate that shit, too”. To me, masculinity doesn’t mean anything, and yet I still think I’m somehow doing it right.
A stack of books on an impossibly-wide range of topics reaches chest-high atop my bedside table. They wheeze out to me from behind a thin layer of dust—“READ ME!” “Have patience!” I bargain, “I’ll get to you soon!” even though—both the books and I know—I’d rather lay back and read the ceiling for now. And, well, that’s just what I’m doing. Empty your mind…empty your mind. Pleading with myself to empty my mind...a shockingly ironic oxymoron.
As we have slowly begun to emerge from pandemic chaos and return to some degree of normalcy, I’ve found it difficult to find time to treat myself. With no work during the first part of quarantine, I allowed my uncle to recruit me into a campaign of outdoor tasks at his Long Island home. Suburbanites have a habit of letting tasks pile up over the course of several millennia. Thus began several months of digging up four tree stumps the width of California redwoods, pulling out the adjoining roots, tearing down the old fence and putting up a new one, then another one for a neighbor, and working on his dinosaur of a pickup truck. After all this, my work opened back up and I went right into it.
Many months later, here I am, a slug on a bed. My attention turns to my body. My feet hurt after two straight weeks of consistent running, exercise, and work. My shoulders are sore after another harrowing day spent helping my uncle put up yet another fence (for the other neighbor, of course). I feel a touch dehydrated, but I think I’ll wait on getting that glass of water, the bed is too comfy. For now, I’ll relax, relax, relax. Yet, just as my shoulders have begun to loosen up a bit, I remember I have to watch a classic film for class.
The grind—like the gremlin creatures from the eponymous movie, “Gremlins”—at first innocent, yet eventually growing into a real bitch, multiplying again and again, and showing up at every goddamn corner of my life…bastards. It is a never ending slog, toward what? It would be nice if it were free pizza, or maybe a gold toilet or something. Heck, I’d even take something cheap and disposable, like the plastic sunglasses you used to win with the tickets from Chuck-e-Cheese.
Grinding ever forward, in a few days I’m taking the real estate exam. Despite having wrapped the 75-hour prerequisite course ages ago, I took a long break to begin a 24-week Computer Science course. The course has winded down, and I am more thoroughly confused with the material now than I was before starting. I took my textbook and pitched it out the window. The book was still where it landed when I walked out of my apartment the next day, proving that the people of New York have little patience for the art of C++ coding; I don’t blame them.
My attention goes to my breath…up, down, in, out, like a wave. Slowly, I begin to relax. All is quiet. My head is almost clear. It’s been so many weeks of work, struggle, focus, and learn that I forgot what 15 minutes of meditative quiet time felt like. You know what I could use right now? Ice cream. And so it is that I’m sitting in the parking lot of the ice cream shop near my uncle’s house, holding a large Pistachio—yes, I’m an old man—ice cream cone and staring at planes taking off from Farmingdale airport.
We think of treating ourselves as something that needs to be extravagant, and social media tells us it should be. Relaxed bathing suit-clad bodies stare out from behind sunglassed eyes, wading in the waters of exotic far-off beaches. Sometimes, they sport a monkey on their shoulder with a caption like, “Living my best life! #vacay” or “#sunkissed” or whatever—insert cliché here—they can come up with. I’m not jealous; in fact, I’ll probably do the same thing when my vacation comes around, I love monkeys.
With pandemic chaos, hopefully, in our rear view mirror, let’s not simply throw ourselves back into the ceaseless grind. Let us instead remember that hard work and earnings are nothing without something to spend it on. Treat yourself from time-to-time; it can be as simple as going to the movies with a friend or walking in the park and watching the birds flutter by or, of course, grabbing a bite of ice cream. It can be appreciating the way the sun throws a glint across the Hudson as it sets in the sky. Or it can be noticing how the bee collects pollen from the flowers for its hive, moving from one plant to the next, coming away with more and more of a collection until it flutters off to its home—and you think you’re busy?? It can even be laying on your couch, staring at the ceiling, doing absolutely nothing at all.
When I was eight years old, a stray dog showed up in my neighborhood foraging for scraps in an overturned garbage can. I grew up in one of Tampa’s lower-income neighborhoods, the kind of place where (at my mother’s orders) I was never to leave the cul-de-sac without a parent. To most of our neighbors, a stray dog was just more Town ‘n’ Country window dressing, not worth
any more attention than the folks who parked their cars directly on their lawn, or the baggy-pantsed teenagers who wandered the streets smoking after school.
But my mother had instilled in me from a young age an earnest compassion for all creatures great and small. That compassion was a bit harder to apply here, as she had also raised me to be a lifelong cat person and every cartoon I had seen up to that point had made all dogs the mortal enemies of all cats. My friends’ dogs covered a spectrum from yappy and snappy to old and lumpy, so I didn’t quite get the appeal. This stray was different, though. She was gentle, curious, and playful. She had my trust from the moment our eyes met, as she slobbered all over my younger neighbor Anthony with a massive lick to the face. Clearly, this was not the aggressive dog from all the cartoons.
Anthony and I spent that whole day playing with the stray in our front yards. We named her Rex, in part because that’s what Spongebob had named his worm-dog-pet-thing, and also because I’m a millennial, and it’s my god-given duty to destroy traditional gender roles, even before I knew what gender actually meant.
It was Winter Break, so I spent several full days in a row hanging out with Rex. Tampa was getting chilly (by Tampa’s standards), and I had started to worry about where she went at night. I begged my parents to let me keep the dog over and over again. To my simple child brain, Mom would never say yes because, again, Cat Person™. In reality, dogs are a heck of a lot more demanding than a pair of aging cats. My parents probably hoped Anthony’s dad would adopt Rex, as he was the owner of the aforementioned old and lumpy dog. Imagine my surprise, when Christmas morning rolled around and my parents said we could keep Rex. A rare Christmas miracle for the Jewish kid!
It did not take long for Rex to become my constant companion, an overnight cure to my adolescent loneliness. I took her on walks around the cul-de-sac, tore trenches in the backyard from running too fast, and made her the subject of every school writing assignment I was given. She was my dog, and I was her boy.
Rex and I the night we adopted her. December 25th 2001
When I was twelve, my parents divorced. Mom, the Platonic ideal of a Cat Person, got full custody of Rex. We moved to a new house in a safer neighborhood, and the dog, who had up until now been relegated to the backyard and the garage, became a full-time indoor resident.
Though I was still the one who took her on walks and kept her in my room overnight, Rex started to show more respect towards Mom as the new head of the household. The clearest example to me was how she would raise a ruckus every time Mom came home from work. Rex never barked like that for me. One time a pair of plumbers spent an afternoon working in the house, and Rex refused to leave Mom’s sight the entire time they were there. One of the workers told my mom, “She’s not watching us; she’s watching you.”
This woman had become the most important thing in the world to Rex, and she didn’t even know that Mom was the reason she had a home in the first place. Even if her little dog brain could have understood that, I doubt it would’ve changed much. Rex was as giving to my mom as my mom was to everyone else. Finally, Mom had met her match in compassion, and it could not have been more deserved.
Some of that motherhood rubbed off on Rex, too. Moving indoors also meant that she started interacting with our two new kittens daily. Nobody knew what to expect the first time Bailey, the braver of the two cats, hopped over his gate and marched up to Rex in the living room. Time froze as we waited for nature to take its inevitable, brutal course. Rex then extended to Bailey the same greeting she’d offered everyone since the first time I saw her: an enormous lick from a tongue that was bigger than his entire face.
From that point on, Rex became something of a mother to Bailey, his brother Cantu, and their later-adopted sister Fluffy. Every day, the cats lined up for their turn at an ear bath from Rex. And every day, she cleaned them with a focus and determination that instantly called to mind the stereotypical image of a doting mother. Were these cats simply the rambunctious puppies she never had? Or was Rex mirroring the care that my mother showed all of her pets? It’s tough to speculate on, but given that some dogs truly do consider cats their mortal enemies, I like to imagine that she learned some of that behavior from watching us.
After I shipped off to college, it was Jackie and Rex against the world. Mom became the one who walked and fed the dog every day. For her part, Rex stayed by Mom’s side more than ever. Anywhere Mom went in her downsized townhouse, her footsteps were echoed by the gentle tippety-tappety of dog paws against the tile floors just behind her. If Mom was going up and down the stairs to wash and then sort the laundry, well then damn it, Rex was following her each way. As Rex got older, she abandoned any pretense of boundaries with Mom, and decided that actually, she had been a lap dog this whole time. The closer Rex could be to Mom, the happier she was; it didn’t matter if she was more than half of Mom’s size.
Even with months-long gaps between my visits, Rex still didn’t bark for my arrival. It could not have been more clear that I was no longer the dog’s favorite. And I was okay with that! As much as I used to think of Rex as “my'' dog, I think in the end her real purpose was to look after all of us. No matter the situation, Rex was there to accompany the lonely, protect the family, and render smiles out of tears. In other words, she was a dog.
In a lot of ways, my mom overcoming her hesitancy in adopting this dog was one of the best things she ever did for me, but I only recently learned that she came to this decision after a conversation with her own mother. For context, my grandmother, who is otherwise an incredibly caring individual, hates pets. She calls them “animals,” not pets, and thinks they all belong outside. I spent every afternoon at Grandma’s house after school, playing by myself in her backyard. She could see better than most how lonely I was, what with my incredibly small list of friends and my many complaints of bullying at school. So, despite her aversion to animals, it was Grandma who swayed my mom with a single sentence:
“Sam needs a dog.” Grandma always knew what we needed, be it homemade tea, a nap, or fresh-baked cookies. So when she said “Sam needs a dog,” it meant I needed a damn dog.
Mom let Rex into our family out of the kindness of her heart, and Rex spent the rest of her life repaying that kindness with interest. I wonder if Grandma knew how much she was helping her own daughter when she encouraged her to adopt this stray mutt. Regardless of the answer, what this tells me is that if you take care of your loved ones, that care will find its way back to you in some form or another. Maybe it will be in the form of a son who calls you every week and writes essays about how great a mother you are. Maybe it will be a fifty-pound dog who thinks she can fit in your lap. Whatever form it takes, I hope that care finds you.
Happy Mother’s Day, everyone.
My mom Jackie, fully unbothered by the fifty pound dog on her lap.
Looking back on my blue green planet,
Looking at how far I’ve flown,
Looking into the far endless dark,
Roaming the final frontier, home distantly present,
This vast shining star reservoir above, neighboring the many solar flares thereof,
I mention my findings in my memoirs: My thoughts, My reactions, My Dreams,
Eye to eye, screen to screen, glaringly numb,
Do they know? Are they aware?
As I attempt to rest floating within my lair,
The air in here I compare to a black and white back home,
Noir, the ever mystery of why despairs and affairs are often depicted with such fanfare,
The expel of malware from their hardwares, often unfair,
Rockwell and Roswell would be upset,
Therefore in my head, I declare a rare repair of my own software,
Laying bare wondering with the utmost care,
How somebody like myself could fare, out there, living a life on such a dare,
To risk, to open, to love, to crumble--
My thoughts tumble pulled to stumble, dry-white silent mouthful,
Relaxed hopeful, the full empty roomful,
I am in fact, humbled by the spoonful, yet baffled on how so many are so well-traveled,
Especially with how high above I’ve worked to become so elevated…
I often hesitated meditation, refusing my present presentation, relying upon pseudo self-regulation,
But aware of the slight depressive mind narration, I escaped into jailed sedation,
Eyes fainted, mind tainted, breathing regulated,
Vein to blue bloody vein, heart to red running heart,
Black wounds junction at the meeting,
Such feelings are fleeting as I allow self-bleeding,...
My skin, such a fiasco escape of the ticking grey and white,
The strife of my ongoing plight on this flight I constantly fight...
Wondering if risking my bright yellow shining light is worth--
A future sight in a chance to right a so-called “right”...
Why is innocence of an untested unright deemed to be not right?
Nicolas Sparks might write stories to delight--
Yet such themes I’ve often felt so denied as I irrationally found no time to bear such risky painful lives…
This black sky above me is currently airtight,
Why is being human so human?
Why blush to crush to only be crushed??
Much of the lushes in passing I’ve collapsed in reacting,
Notwithstanding the many crude hunches my eyes tended to horizontally follow,
Routinely, I’ve punched out to expunge the masculine bunch--
I wonder how hollow my corrections tend to swallow,
Those hardened Martian urges I tightly walk across run shallow in my shadows,
Such a rush in judgement, such indecision...a fissure within my boned earth,
An earth I grapple to hero, to not villain,
Configure to decency, to sense, to respect, not to where my species has been,
The desire to unify with one of Venus’ mysterious inhabitants erupts, in a whisper,
My face, my mind, my earth then gushes for the familiar, for the safety,
Pronounced, reliable, static, sedated, deafening…
Not a life I would have blatantly fated--
I have yet to attempt change, feeling ashamedly so,
At my current age compared to my youth, I initially miscalculated,
Assumedly predicted a fuller life filled out expeditanially more--
I felt now I’ve ignored too long my soul’s inner roar for something more,
Something I’ve never even implored before...
Fear, oh you familiar drug I’ve often abhorred and adored...
Then one midnight as I snored on board,
Beyond the many stars I’ve explored with these eyes, what appeared in front of me I could’ve sworn--
A woman….my age, my glasses, my goodness!
I fastened on her, then onto how those asses at NASA bypassed such a delicate phantom hourglass,
This stranger: smiling, confident, focused, not embarrassed, moving flawlessly barefoot into my comfort,
Blushingly frozen-red, my escape cut short as her long raven hair flowed,
I recall the moment as she opened my helmet, destroying my familiar,
Her green eyes my brown eyes locked, licking lips apart, vision all a blur to what was about to start:
A kiss, a first kiss, admittedly...my first kiss...
A long lust-filled long-awaited kiss,
Arms sway lifelessly, legs heavy grounded, gravity taking hold,
Her body warmth, piercing the icy thorned overgrowth,
I recall feeling such bliss lips to lips, also feeling slightly pissed as I quickly reminisced on all the lost time I’ve long missed,
Her hunger, her desire, her fire...I am engulfed,
The heat so neatly messy, my muscles tensing, such wet dancing flames blazing,
Body onto body, my arm hair raised to greet her goosebumps,
Lips to lips to neck to chest to lips to neck,
My mind blind yet my sight retained,
Succumbing, her arms enclosed upon my pulsating neck, my hands mindlessly traveling,
Our rhythms syncing to the Earth’s natural rotation,
A sudden jolt, her raised smile upon my hand’s newest body discovery,
I weak to this uncharted territory,
Breathing elevated, everything quivering, temperatures intensified,
Nobody could trivialize the size of this mutually orchestrated circumstance,
The emergence of two souls in trance, only enhanced by our bodily advances,
Her face, her voice, her earth!......gasping!, erupting!, exploding!.....
...Then as suddenly as it quickly appeared…!!
...All turns to nothing…
Awakened, falling from my bed, from in my apartment, onto the planet itself,
I concentrate hard on what has transpired, memories quickly fading--
Inspired I instantly try to rewrite the memory onto paper,
As I recall my dream, I realized how much I’ve been living above but not as much below,
My disappointment was not in having such a vivid dream,
But how for so long I’ve slumbered alive, leaving often-dreams behind,
Staying with Houston instead of launching as an Explorer,
How blind I find to have survived a life without a decent try,
So much life out there waiting for me to find…
Therefore, I shall step out into the unknown, to prove my existence,
And she will be there, waiting for me...to be better, to be aware, to be ready,
And I understand many have taken that one small step already,
But when it becomes my time to take one giant leap,
It’ll be for all humankind.
It’s that time of year! The sun is out, birds are chirping, summer is just around the corner, and you know what that means? Purging the old to make room for the new. It’s Spring Cleaning season, baby. I’d like to think of it as “New Year's Resolutions: Take Two.” Spring is our second chance to tackle those promises we made to ourselves when we counted down to 2021.
However, something is holding me back from taking the fullest leap possible. The residue of 2020 still lingers on me. An old mildew smell, a grease stain I can’t get out.
I am drowning in last year’s “laundry.”
You know what I’m talking about, right? The pile of dirty clothes you leave on your floor for days, culminating into a mountain, bigger and bigger, until it’s too overwhelming to face.
That’s how last Spring felt.
In March of 2020, a hole was planted within me. A helpless, crushing, pit in my stomach. It plowed through my chest, making it hard to breathe or stand up. I covered the pain with binge watches, bottles of wine, and mindless drives with nowhere to go. I needed to feel in motion and whole again. Instead, the laundry piled up, clouding my vision of peace and stability.
Throughout the year, there were glimpses of light and hope for the future. Late night discussions with friends who made me feel alive, dressing up and putting on makeup to go to the living room, and scavenger hunts to spice up a COVID birthday. I grasped any joyful moment so tightly my fist hurt. Depression and hopelessness begged for my attention but I pushed it away, afraid of the pit I’d gotten to know so well.
Holding onto the good and ignoring the evil, doesn’t mean it disappears. The pile grows, slowly but sure enough as time goes on, the pile transforms into an uncontrollable mess. It’s not until you sort, load, and wait, that you’re finally at peace (that is, until another load builds up).
That’s the promise I made to myself this year. Sorting through the mess, no matter how painful, to find my grounding again. Or else you’ll find me at the bottom, crushed by sweaters and jeans. Even though we don’t like to admit it (at least I don’t), every item in our “closet” means something. Whether it’s that ugly sweater your great Aunt gave you, or your favorite ballgown. We can’t hide from them. We have to face each piece; clean them, wear them, love them, until it’s time to let go.
This Spring, I vow to be patient, allowing myself to go through every item of clothing; touching, smelling, crying, laughing, ripping, throwing, embracing. I’ve learned that ignoring the problem doesn’t mean it’s magically solved.
After a year of a growing pile, it’s finally time to do my laundry.
It’s 2009, and to quote one of my favorite movies, I’m a “virgin who can’t drive.”
I walk everywhere. I have to. My parents work full time so if I want to do anything during the hours of 8am – 6pm I have to find my own way around. This includes walking uphill 2 miles from school with my textbooks only to get home a sweaty, hormonal mess.
Summers are the worst – it gets so hot in the suburbs. Me and my smart-ass friends lope around our town searching for fun things to do and places to go that have air conditioning and don’t care that we loiter or never buy anything. I marvel at the creativity of teenagers to find things that fill their time during the age when you’re seemingly too old for most summer activities and too young to leave the confines of your neighborhood.
My house is the starting point of the “long hang” because I live so close to premier destinations like the movie theater, Borders, Jamba Juice, two 7-11s, the park and two grocery stores. The world is our oyster.
My parents are rarely home during the day so we can scheme in peace. Down the street is my elementary school equipped with a huge black top and a jungle gym. During a blackout, we try to find refuge in the shade of the jungle gym since none of the usual spots had AC anyway. We trek around sweaty and self conscious, trying to distract ourselves from the heat by talking about our favorite bands and watching the guys skate down the mini hill on the playground. The afternoon heat is unbearable but the socialization is worth every drop of sweat.
When the power goes out we really have to use our imaginations. Even though my house is still cool, we can’t stand the thought of staying inside and not getting into trouble. At fifteen, it’s still awkward to have people of the opposite sex over to your house just to hang out. I only just started having real guy friends last year and we’re all still figuring it out. The only way to comfortably hang out is to subject ourselves to the dry heat of the suburb.
Mel, Liam, myself, and one or two of Liam’s friends make up our group every day. Me, Mel and Liam are kind of like a trio before Liam and I start dating. I realize that probably messed things up in her mind, but it’s always nice to have another girl around. It took the pressure off me to keep up with the boys.
We have our summer uniforms. The girls try to wear as little clothing as possible but still stay covered in fear of being called a slut – a difficult line to walk. Decked out in Hollister and Abercrombie layered tank tops and cut-offs, I always pray that no one notices mine are secondhand. The guys we hang around with are skater kids. In the style of the time, they all sport some kind of long sweeping hairdo across their foreheads. It gets greasy and stringy on hot days, but they never sacrifice their look for the weather – tight skinny jeans, usually matched with a band t-shirt (Green Day or A Day to Remember), vans and of course their boards. A lot of them straighten their hair, which is fun for Mel and me. Sometimes they let us do it for them. At the time I think they’re cool, but no one is cool when they’re 16 years old.
Liam and I recently got together after flirting for a year during drama class. He hit a growth spurt right before we met and he’s gangly, not really sure what to do with his body and his new found popularity now that he’s handsome. He doesn’t really skate though, mostly just longboards. The skater friends I’ll make in college would probably refer to him as a poseur. I think he is still trying to figure out where he fits in and later in the relationship he’ll take out his uncertainty and insecurities on me. But for now during the summer, he’s sweet and we’re inseparable.
When the sun starts to go down we go to City Hall with his friends and their girlfriends. They are all mostly my age but they all seem so much older than me. In my head I think it’s because they smoke pot and have sex but I don’t. Liam has been bugging me to smoke pot but I don’t really care to (later he starts bugging me to have sex as well). I got my period when I was 12, but those raging hormones of curiosity when it comes to sex still don’t hit for a few more years. It’s not that I’m uninterested – I like making out with Liam, I just don’t have too much interest beyond that. Or maybe I’m just afraid. It doesn’t matter either way – it’s way too hot to lose your virginity.
Adults, and some of my friends, warn not to go to the park after hours because that’s where kids deal drugs and smoke pot. I don’t care when I’m with Liam though – he’s 6’3” or something stupid tall like that.
One hot summer night, there must be truly nothing else to do because a huge crowd of kids form at City Hall. Not just the usual crew we muck around with. Liam’s sister is there – she’s a year younger than me and two years younger than Liam but she’s tall and curvy making her look older. She definitely looks older than me, I look like a kid. Probably why I’ve developed a sassy and “grown-up” sense of humor. I have the personality of fitting in when I don’t have the looks.
We glean from his sister there’s a fight about to happen at the park. Two brothers from our school are going to either beat each other up or beat someone else up. I don’t know them so I don’t really care. The group of teenagers on the lawn buzz with the excitement and the break from the hot mundane of August. I’m surprised the city security guards aren’t trying to break us up – they hate it when we loiter. A comment is thrown out that Liam’s sister has made out with both brothers, who is she going to root for? This makes Liam uncomfortable and he calls her a slut after she walks away. I don’t stand up for her, I don’t discover feminism until a year or two later but I’m not sure if I would anyway. Don’t want to look uncool and get involved with sibling relations. His sister being involved turns us off from watching the fight, we stay behind at City Hall while everyone walks to the park in classic teenage mob mentality.
Liam and I make out at City Hall. One of Liam’s other friends has stayed behind as well and he’s uncomfortable by our PDA. We don’t care though. He could’ve left. Eventually we walk to Liam’s house on the opposite side of the park. We catch snippets of the fight - someone’s eyebrow was busted open.
We end our hot summer day at Liam’s place. The boys play video games while I lounge in Liam’s bed trying to move as little as possible in unbearable heat. I’m not sure how I’m going to get home - I’ll probably walk.
Remember in preschool, right after recess but before snack time how you were forced to lay on that crunchy old mat and dare I say it, take a nap? As a kid, I detested that hour of the day. I wanted to get dirty in that not so hygienic sandbox or burn my butt on that piece of metal they refer to as a slide. As an adult however, I have done a complete about face. I have zero interest in the smelly tire swing and any moment to shut my eyes is a gift from the slumber gods. Be it power naps, bedtime, or the coveted sleep in ‘til one pm zees, a jolt of euphoria runs through my body at the mere thought of being cozied up in some soft cotton sheets and my cheek hitting the pillow. To me, my daily slumber habits are like a perfectly coursed out meal at a fine dining establishment.
Let’s start with napping. Like tapas style appetizers, I take two twenty minute power naps a day. I find that napping boosts my creativity, especially when I have a deadline looming. I swear this isn’t just some lame procrastination technique. Every time I have napped before an audition, it has been a smashing success. Prior to my accidental napping revelation, stress and anxiety used to run havoc on my professional life. I was going up for a series regular role on a major network television show and it was a disaster. I had my agent and manager calling constantly, switching audition times and delivering rewrites. I was in a complete state of panic throwing myself on my bed and balling my eyes out over the pressure. Somehow in the midst of my melt down I fell asleep. When I woke up half an hour later, I felt calm, clear about my character choices, and learned my lines effortlessly. I went into the audition surprisingly confident. I was not chosen for the role, but I did get a callback and felt good about my work. Since then my version of the quick “nooner” is a twenty minute power nap and I have them quite often and shamelessly, like a guilt free tuna tartar.
Naps are the appetizer, which makes a proper eight hours of sleep the main course. Yes, I said eight hours because that’s how much sleep as a grown ass woman that I personally need. It is during this hiatus from the world I delve in to dreamland setting my imagination free. My dreams are very cathartic allowing me to forget the woes of the day, coming up with solutions to problems that my awake brain can’t figure out, and even opening up my third eye to allow a prophecy or two to take place. I have woken up knowing that my best friend Stephanie is going to call me at two pm on Tuesday, heartbroken about another dud she is dating and guess what...at exactly two o’clock on Tuesday my phone rang and it was Stephanie! Now, I dismissed this as mere coincidence, but then the trippiest thing happened: she started venting about David the dud! Was I turning into Miss Cleo? Though being able to foretell the future via dreams is a rarity for me, what is not are several good REM cycles where I wake up the next morning as if life hit the reset button. I am clear headed, my muscles are relaxed, and I am a kinder human being. The exact same effects as a petite filet!
From filet to finish there is the final course: sleep in day. It is that sugary hit that you are oh so rarely afforded but are always highly anticipating. Now, because I wake up at the crack of dawn to workout, sleep in days are cherished. It is in these moments of partial cognition I get to daydream about my future or inhale the scent of lavender laundry detergent permeating off of my fresh linens. Part of my personal joy with sleeping in is being present. It is the one segment of my day that has no agenda except just being with myself. It is my own version of a zen garden, but in bed! In these sweet short lapses of time, memories of burning questions that have been plaguing my brain for ages reveal themselves...like what color were the kitchen countertops in my childhood home? I pondered this question endlessly. I thought about it on the treadmill and in the car. I even tried to meditate on it. Nothing. Then one early afternoon I’m sleeping in and boom! Ten year old me is grabbing a banana from the wicker fruit basket that was on the slate gray countertop. The countertop was slate gray! Not only that, I remembered the detail of every tiny square tile including a pink punch stain on the grout. The answers flooded in effortlessly. I don’t know why but remembering that random fact brings me so much satisfaction, maybe because now I could have other thoughts on the treadmill like, how many more miles until I burn off this tiramisu.
If it has not already become evident, like a scrumptious meal I love a succulent siesta. Be it a power nap app, a main of eight hours, or a sleep in confection; slowing down my brain waves is one of my favorite parts of the day. Unlike scorching my tushie on a slide, concocting my own sleep recipe brings balance and elation into my life. A stark contrast to the cranky kid who restlessly flailed on her crunchy preschool mat after recess but before snacks.