Category Archives: Memoir

She Pissed on my lap

I was sitting on my friend’s couch in the middle of a crowded birthday party when the cat jumped up on my lap. The woman next to me stopped her conversation to smile at me and say, “You must be a cat person.” Iris the cat purred loudly and nestled in, so I began scratching her chin. “Oh, I am. I grew up in a house where cats outnumbered people,” I told the woman, and then I felt something warm seeping down my inner thigh.

 

I jumped to my feet, forcing Iris to leap to the floor, and a wet spot spread down the front of my jeans. My sudden movement made everyone’s heads snap to me. All I could get out was an incredulous “She pissed on my lap.”

It took a few seconds for the shock to subside, then a couple guests began discussing the best way to get urine out of clothes. After I’d changed and the washer was churning, everyone at the party struck up conversations with me; they already knew my name. As an introvert, I was pretty uncomfortable with the attention, but I had no choice: I was The Guy Who Got Pissed On. But I soon found the conversations that followed were easy, not at all the awkward first conversations I’ve tried to strike up with strangers at parties. My brain didn’t get mired in the social anxiety I’d usually feel. The people at the party and I immediately had a topic to discuss and since it was a shared experience I wasn’t worried about being boring or a nuisance. I made several friends that night. Having a cat piss on my lap turned out to be a positive experience.

Shoes, or What Not To Do When People Call You Names

As the bus doors opened, a tall man planted his feet wide in the threshold and stretched his long arms to the top corners of the jamb. He wore jean shorts and an old concert tee, and he had what looked like a cold sore on his lower lip. Our eyes locked as he leaned out toward me and my partner standing at the bus stop. A smirk pulled at his mouth, and he mumbled as he stepped onto the sidewalk and elbowed past me.

A minute later my partner asked if I’d heard what the guy said. I had. Despite the racket of the idling bus I’d heard him clearly. He said, in an almost genial tone, “How’s it going, faggot?”

 

The first time I remember hearing that word I was in church. Some dude wearing a cardigan was pulling felt characters of Jesus and sheep and wise men out of a Ziploc baggie, preparing for class. I remember street lights were on in the parking lot outside, which means I wasn’t in Sunday school but at Awana, what the Baptists called a youth group but was really just Sunday school on Wednesday nights with a game of dodgeball and a juice box thrown in.

I was sitting in a half-circle of school desks with the other young Christian boys aged 9 to 11. The classrooms in our church basement smelled musty year-round, but especially so in the humidity of that early September night in Michigan. To this day, a dank room reminds me of rubbery pancakes and eternal salvation.

The kid next to me told everyone to look at how I was sitting. Hands on desk, left ankle on right knee. He said, “Why are you sitting like a girl, faggot?”

The Cardigan stopped unpacking.

“I’m not,” I said. “My dad sits like this all the time.”

“Haha! Nathan’s daddy’s a queer!”

“That’s enough. Let’s get started. Nathan, both feet on the floor, please,” the Cardigan said, and then he launched into his lesson, probably the one about turning the other cheek. I spent the rest of that class studying my teacher and classmates, watching how they sat, staring at the floor because, for some reason, I thought their shoes would show me what unified them and set me apart.

 

Just like in the church basement, the moment with the tall man on the bus happened in a flash. He was smirking and then he was gone and then I was sitting in the back of the bus kicking myself for not confronting him.

I could have adopted my most winsome Southern drawl, slid an index finger down his sternum and said Why, honey, you interested? Or I could have unleashed a wild grin—each tooth a separate act of defiance—and quipped I’m great, asshole, how ’bout you?  I could have called him the epithet that popped into my head when I saw the scab on his lip. I could have punched him in his willfully-exposed torso or tripped him as he stepped past me or I could have simply said “Fuck off.”

But I didn’t.

Thirty-some years after I put my feet on the floor, after the tribulations of reconciling my sexuality with my religious upbringing, after the lonely years post-college believing the ridiculous notion that all gay men ended up sad and alone, after the exhilaration of meeting my partner, after almost 15 years of enjoying a happy loving relationship, a stranger called me a faggot and I looked down at his shoes.

 

 

The Songs We Sing

Sometime in the middle of May, in the blinking daylight hours between rolling fog and thunderstorms, the buildings along Lincoln Avenue inhale. The restaurant workers in their white aprons have thrown open the large, floor-to-ceiling windows that line the fronts of their buildings. You have to fight against the draw of their breath as you walk by them, and the gift shop, and that store on the corner that sells running shoes, because the sidewalk could pull you inside to a waiting wood-trimmed bar or cash register. But it doesn’t. Instead it pushes you farther up the street past a Bierstube (once upon a time your neighborhood was German Town) where a young man stops talking to his date long enough to appreciate a tendril of her hair blowing onto his wrist.

And you feel an unfolding inside you.

The doors of the gift shop are propped open with heavy chairs. The greeting cards in the spinning racks at the front of the store whistle as the wind vibrates between them. They are reed instruments accompanying the bass of traffic noise rising from the busy street. They play a tune you find yourself wanting to sing.

A gaggle—or is it called a Fitbit?—of joggers stand outside the shoe store. They stretch, popping one foot up on the free-newspaper racks and light posts. Or they lunge, the hems of their matching yellow shorts almost make contact with the pockmarked sidewalk. The runners silently form a rank and piston their way down the avenue. Your shoulders square as you watch them. Your spine straightens. Intersection after intersection, they stop traffic with their presence until they turn left and vanish.

You walk the four blocks to Lincoln Square. Las Lagunitas, a new cantina, is raucous with 20-somethings. Its patrons spill neatly out onto the grid of tables formed on the patio. Chartreuse margaritas beckon from every table. On the other side of the patio gate, couples sit on benches gripping the handle of a baby stroller the size of a Humvee in one hand and a paper cup the size of a golf ball in the other. Inside the cups, mini-glaciers of coconut, chocolate mousse, and roasted-banana gelato peek at you over the rim. The parents chastise their sons and daughters to sit still, then they dip the tiniest shovels you’ve ever seen into their cups. You smile as they take their first bite.

The Fitbit of joggers thunder past you. You join their most informal of parades. They breathe loudly and rhythmically, and you match them. It is not a surprise that they take you back to the shoe store and assume their scissor and jackknife positions up and down the sidewalk. It is not a surprise to you because this ritual takes place every year: the birdsong, the echoes of laughter coming from inside the pub, the guitar riffs only audible when the School of Folk Music door swings open. None of it is a surprise. You breathe, you swing your arms, you glide up the back steps of your apartment ready to begin again.

 

What Matters

Lisa Burkhardt’s anger surfaced on her skin just like her frecklesslapdash and intense. She bragged she inherited her Irish temper from her mother and I believed it. When Mrs. Burkhardt took walks around the neighborhood without her usual thick ’80s makeup, I couldn’t tell mother and daughter apart. And Lisa could rant for hours using only swear words and the occasional “off” or “balls.” A neighborhood boy once teased me in front of her about being her boyfriend. She leveraged her lanky 14-year-old body to pin him against a tree and asked “Why? You jealous, little boy? Do you want me to give you a smooch?”

I worshipped her.

It helped that her green and black tri-level house peeked into our living room whenever my mom opened the drapes. But I didn’t need a reminder to visit her because I helped her with chores after school every day. I never knocked; Lisa said anyone willing to help clean her house was welcome. Together she and I scrubbed their already-spotless kitchen and bathrooms while blaring MTV.

Lisa wasn’t always angry and swearing, though. She liked to call the mop Boy George, as in “Grab Boy George out of the closet, will ya?” One time when I asked her why Boy George, she jabbed a finger at its shaggy locks and its mascara-thin black seam and said “Are you kidding? It looks just like him!” Then she dipped him in a bucket and sang over the sound of dripping water: Do you really want to hurt me? Do you really want to make me cry? On Monday afternoons when her mom worked late at the cable company, Lisa liked to take shots of Southern Comfort. She always offered me some and I always politely abstained, then lectured her on the perils of teen drinking. My words never stopped her, though. That’s pretty much how our friendship worked.

 

One morning before school around Halloween 1985, I watched an ambulance back into the Burkhardt’s driveway. Blue and red lights flashed but no siren blared. EMTs opened the van’s back door. I couldn’t see who they carried out on the stretcher, but after the ambulance pulled out of the driveway I watched as the orange leaves settled back down on my quiet street. I didn’t see Lisa that day or the next. The rumor around school was that her mom had died of a brain aneurism in the shower.

I waited exactly a week to climb the steps to Lisa’s front porch. The open-door policy felt revoked somehow, so I knocked until Lisa yelled for me to come in. As I passed the bathroom I noticed perfume misters and several cans of Aqua Net hair spray and the telltale pink of hair curlers jumbled on the counter. Lisa was sprawled on the floor of her room, dirty dishes fanning around her head like pets waiting for attention. Her eyes stayed closed.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Why? You didn’t do anything.”

“Do you want help with the bathroom?”

“No,” she huffed. The red in her eyes matched the red in her hair, and I found myself in a stare-down that didn’t break until she looked up at the ceiling. “Don’t you know that doesn’t matter anymore?”

I slouched back across the street soon after, feeling like I’d failed a test. Our street widened after that. Lisa found girlfriends in her grade and spent less time at home. Despite the constant gaze of her tri-level, I never visited her again. She entered high school; I followed quietly two years later. She said Hi to me in the hallways sometimes and drove me home once with a cigarette jammed in her mouth blasting Guns-N-Roses the whole way.

Twenty years later, she friend-requested me on Facebook. A private message popped up. Lisa asked how I was. I told her about my life in Chicago, about my partner.

—Does he treat you well? she typed.

He does. He takes care of me when I’m sick. He sings to me when I’m sad.

—Good. That’s all that matters. 

The flashing green light in the IM window went solid gray and she unfriended me the next day.

The Woman Who Died More Than Once

If my father heard me tell you that his mother died twice, he’d rock back on his heels, dip his chin so the tip of his cotton swab beard glanced off his sternum, and declare that she died all of three times. He would not elaborate. As you can imagine, these stories are not pleasant to recall; he rarely brings his mother up in conversation. Growing up, I don’t remember ever hearing her name.

Our differing sums can be attributed to absence. I forget about the first time my grandmother died because it happened before I was born. Unfortunately, all of this means you must rely on me to tell you stories of which I only hold shards. I will do my best.

In 1951 my father was 7 years old and his brother and sister, the twins, were 6. They were sitting or playing or napping in a house across town from the courtroom in which my grandparents slouched. A stoic judge restated the charges of The State of Michigan v. James and Romine, which I imagine includes public nuisance and several counts of child neglect. The case ended with the word guilty and three swift knocks of a gavel. Later in the week, a social worker came to the house, gathered the three children’s belongings, and drove them to three different houses full of strangers, foster families. And on the third or fourth night when my dad was lonely and confused and crying, his foster mother peeked into the room and told him that she was all he had, his mother would not be back. That was her first death.

The other deaths begin with phone calls placed to my father from strangers claiming to be relatives. The first one happened in 1983 and went something like this:

“This is your niece. My name is Karen*.”

“What can I do for you, Karen?”

“I thought you should know your mother has cancer. They caught it late. Things aren’t looking too good.”

“Thanks for telling me. I’m sorry for the people who care for her, but I do not count myself among them. Goodbye.” Dad hung up believing that was that.

The second phone call was less abrupt. It happened in the summer of 1989.

“This is your Aunt Loretta,” a woman said by way of a greeting.

“I didn’t know I had an Aunt Loretta.”

“Yes, well, this is her. Your mother is sick and she’s asking for you. She doesn’t have much time left.”

“You must be mistaken. My mother died years ago.”

“No. She’s had cancer before, a couple of times in fact. But she never let it kill her until now. Will you come?”

“I’m sorry, but there has been a mistake because my mother has never once wanted to see me.”

“There’s nothing I can do to change that, Edmond. But I’m telling you now that your mother is dying and she wants to see you.”

Dad didn’t go.

Two years ago, I connected with Karen’s daughter on Facebook. We got together for dinner one night. I was nervous; she was the first relative on that side of my family I ever met. I wanted it to go well. I wanted her to answer questions I’ve had simply with her presence. At some point, I started describing my dad, her grand-uncle, but she stopped me mid-sentence. She told me she’d met my dad at the wake in 1989. He never told us he’d gone.

My mind reeled to think what I was doing that day. I would have been 15, preoccupied by marching band practices and pool parties at friends’ houses. But even if I hadn’t been a self-absorbed teenager I still would not have known of his loss. He kept his family secrets. I resented his attitude then; I always felt like he was withholding himself. Now I understand that it was protection. It was my father’s determination to leave his past behind, to give his sons a less complicated family life.

I know facts about my grandmother now. I know her name was Mary Louise Romine. She was born in Parma, Missouri, in 1918. She was the oldest daughter of Clayton Romine and Elizabeth Lewis. She moved to Flint, Michigan, sometime around 1940 and eventually became the head cook of Higgins Restaurant on Corunna Road. She died on November 18, 1989 near Otisville, Michigan. I’ve been given pictures of her. She is the woman on the far left of the picture in the polka dot dress.

She is the woman who died not twice, but three times. She is the woman who profoundly hurt my father, but she is also the woman who directly shaped my father’s attitude toward his own family, made him want the opposite of what he had. She is a key reason I had a stable and loving childhood, and for that I begrudgingly thank her.

*names of living people are changed

String Bean

“Thin people shouldn’t talk about their weight. It always sounds like bragging.”*

A few years ago, at a party I hosted, an acquaintance— all six-foot three, 235 pounds of him— leaned down to me and said, “Look at you! You’re just a wisp of a thing.” He meant it as a compliment, but I couldn’t stop old insecurities from flushing my face. I felt like every jock I went to high school with somehow crawled through 20 years of space/time continuum to slam me up against my own refrigerator.

I am a thin man. That’s not bragging. I have always been self-conscious about being “too skinny.” It sounds weird now in these times of skinny jeans and moob jobs and size-zero male models, but I grew up when “skinny” was a put-down. It meant frail and nerdy. Thin guys were called weakling or twig or string bean. And everywhere we looked in the media of the 1990s we saw powerful bodies like Mark Wahlberg’s and Tyson Beckford’s with arms the same size as their thighs and shoulders that angled out from their waists at impossibly wide vees.

“Everyone likes to hear how thin they look.”

Not long after that party, I went to the doctor for weird feelings in my extremities. Tests were done and a specialist informed me that I was pre-diabetic. She gave me no prescriptions; she wanted to see how I fared without them. Instead, she handed me a tri-fold pamphlet with an illustration of what good eating habits look like: half a plate of vegetables, a slice of meat that could fit in your palm, and either an apple or a dollop of mashed potatoes. It looked meager. She told me to cut out carbs and sweets, to eat more greens and less starch. No sugar or white rice and exercise more. In other words, the string bean was on a diet.

“Man, when you turn sideways, you disappear.”

Of course, I followed her orders: I started ordering Amstel Lights (the beer with the fewest carbs) at bars. I ignored the looks on waitresses’ faces when I quizzed them about low-carb fare. I secretly put back the cake and donuts that well-meaning co-workers brought to my desk. When friends offered to “fatten me up,” I laughed politely. I became known as a health nut, and swallowed the anger I felt due to my prescribed eating habits. They couldn’t know I’d kill for a heaping bowl of pasta, or a sandwich with regular fucking slices of bread. I kept my mouth shut about why I ate the way I did because I knew they would say exactly what I hated to hear: “But you’re so thin.” As if being thin made me invincible.

Around Easter this year, I started feeling thirsty all the time. Like an unrelenting fill-a-swimming pool-with-unsweetened-iced-tea-and-I-will-either-drink-my-way-out-or-drown kind of thirst. I waited for the thirst to pass, finally seeing a doctor when it was either that or clawing my throat out. As the doctor handed over a prescription to manage the diabetes symptoms, she nonchalantly added, “One of the side effects is weight loss.” I’m not sure what sound I let out, but her subsequent concern demanded an explanation.

“Look at me,” I huffed, motioning with my open hands from my chest to my waist. “People tease me about being blown out to sea by a strong wind. I just started gaining back the weight I lost after quitting carbs on your orders, and now you’re telling me I have to start all over again?”

“Oh, poor skinny dude. Can’t gain weight. Boo-hoo.”

I know. There are so many worse diagnoses to hear. I’m lucky to live in a time and place where I can manage my symptoms with a pill. But this just happened. The ink has barely dried on the prescription bottle. I need a day (or six) to wallow in my frustration. I need to tell people that “thin” is not a synonym for “healthy.”

Five Star Mixtape

*The italic sentences in this essay are direct quotes from various people at various times in my life.

Temporary (Permanent)

(photo credit to Robert Couse-Baker via flickr)

I’d just been down the street helping Justin. He was (shirtless) that kid in the neighborhood who was nice to everyone, so I offered to help him fix his bike.

He asked me to (stop staring at him) grab the little oil can from the garage. It was unusual to find him alone, so I asked him what he’d done with his fan club. He joked that they were all marooned on an island together—that’s why he needed to oil his bike chains: he was preparing to save them from doom.

As I pedaled the upside down Schwinn with my hands, Justin leaned over me clicking the bottom of the oil can. I felt his knee lightly on my back. His (armpit hair, bicep) proximity made me uncomfortable. Side-stepping, I made some excuse about getting home, to which he replied cluelessly “Snag you later then.” I walked up the incline of my driveway shivering,  confused.

Inside the house, my brother was in our bedroom. Mom was working at the kitchen table and Dad was snoring on the couch. So my parents’ room was the only option for me to calm down and avoid having to tell someone (my secret) what was wrong. I wasn’t sure I could. I laid on my Dad’s side of the bed and closed my eyes. Whenever a breeze from the open window hit me, I took a deep breath until the shivering stopped.

A few weeks later, I was in our cramped garage watching my mom sand a dilapidated hoosier cupboard. Flecks of sawdust shone brightly in her dark curly hair. She stopped sanding for a moment to stand back and look at her work, so I took the opportunity to ask if she’d give me a perm. She questioned why and I said I wanted to (fix myself) try something different for my first year of junior high. She agreed to do it—more questions churning behind the words—and then looked back at the hoosier.

I watched her work a little longer, trying to figure out why she’d bought the old stained thing. I knew in a few months it would hold a prime location in her antique booth. Customers would comment on how stately and charming it was, but I just couldn’t see how.

My favorite tv show at the time was Head of the Class, about a bunch of high school misfits and their dedicated teacher. I had a crush on (Alan) Simone, the shy girl with the long red hair. Simone had a thing for the curly-headed and brainy kid Alan. Lying on my parents’ bed before, I had concocted a plan to look more like Alan and maybe find myself a Simone to take to the first dance of the school year. I saved money to buy a sweater with a dynamic pattern. I asked for wingtips and learned how to buff them. The perm was the last step.

On the Saturday before school started, I was sitting at the kitchen table with medium-sized pink curlers in my hair—Mom apologized for the color; they were her only set— when my brother walked in.

“What’s going on?”

“Nathan wanted something different this year.”

“A perm?” My brother sat down, a smirk across his face.

The chemicals’ smell hit my nose before I felt them dribble down my scalp. I started to panic. I asked my mom what would happen if I didn’t (change) like it.

“I never did understand why they called it a permanent,” she said, “when it’s only temporary.”

permanent200

An Anniversary

Once upon a time, there was a writer with low self-esteem. (ha! like there’re writers with high self-esteem!) After a talk with a friend, the writer decided to start a blog to keep track of the stories he uncovered researching genealogy.

But the writer was scared of anyone passing judgement on things that he wrote. He was also a bit of a perfectionist (this was before i realized perfection is boring). The writer was determined not to let negative thoughts stop him from doing something he liked.  After a week of futzing, he surrendered his first post to the blogosphere just before bedtime on February 14, 2014. (at this point, i’d like to formally apologize for writing about myself in the third person— i promise to never do it again)

Posting was both exhilarating and petrifying. He couldn’t sleep that night worrying about causing an international incident with an unfortunate typo or offending his relatives with a dangling participle. As the night progressed, he flirted with taking the post down several times, but he didn’t. (um, because i finally took nyquil that night and konked out) In the morning, he got up and checked his blog. A few of his friends and family members encouraged him by leaving comments, so he followed up with more posts.

Soon he decided his mind worked better without words clogging things up. He wanted to get back into the habit of writing again, so he promised himself he would publish twice a week for a year barring a vacation. (two postings every week but three, plus a post every day in november: I’d say I accomplished my goal)

After a few months, the writer noticed that blogging was taking time away from genealogy (and, you know, life). The writer was losing steam on both fronts and it was only a few months into his goal. He decided to ignore the issue by signing up for a blogging course.

The course introduced him to a gaggle of kindred writers. Interacting with them, he realized the benefits of socializing and getting inspiration from a diverse crowd of funny, smart, writerly people. (thanks meg, claudette,  hugh, karuna, and kat among many others!)

One of the lessons in the course was to participate in a blogging event. The writer saw an event, hosted by a writing community called yeah write, that required bloggers to write and post a 42-word answer to a question. After the posting deadline, everyone read the submissions and voted for their favorites. The writer entered his first piece to yeah write with this post.

The community left positive comments, and the entry did well in the vote. The writer tried other yeah write contests: nonfiction and fiction/poetry. He found motivation in having a deadline and an active audience. He churned out entries every week, some of them were even pretty good, such as his favorite genealogy post and his favorite fiction post. (ok, switching out of third person)

Blogging has opened me up to so many new experiences (which is surprising because it’s literally sitting at a computer alone for hours). I’ve been interviewed. Twice. I’ve participated in several blogging and writing courses. I’ve won a few awards. A month ago, I was asked to be a yeah write editor. The other yeah write editors are another group of honest and funny and smart people; I’m honored to join their ranks. They and the larger community inspire me every week to sit down and just do the work. Their comments and instruction have made me a better and more confident writer. Case in point: here’s the first fiction piece I posted, and here’s the one I submitted last week. (so. much. better.)

So, thanks everybody, for the encouragement and support. Because of it, I have accomplished my goal and feel good about where I’m at. My goal for this year is 52 posts (but, because I hate feeling left out, it will probably be more than that). I will participate in a non-blogging writing contest and I will try my hardest to get Freshly Pressed.

My Mind Is A Nursing Home Full Of Sleeping People

I’ve always been a fan of New Year’s Eve. I’d like to say it’s because of the unicorn-and-rainbow optimism, but really it’s because of the clean slate. New Year’s Eve gives everyone license to put the mistakes of the previous year behind them—even the vodka-fueled mistakes made just minutes before midnight—and be different, be better.

On New Year’s Day, I found myself watching a Twilight Zone episode. In it, an old man named Charlie wakes his nursing home friends and tries to convince them of his theory that playing Kick the Can will recapture their childhood.

“Us? Children’s games?” one indignant woman says.

“You can’t be serious!” her friend exclaims.

“Yes, that’s the secret, don’t you see?” Charlie’s eyes are so bright. “The secret of
youth. . . Wake up! This is your last chance. I can’t play Kick the Can alone.”

Watching the show, I realized a character like Charlie visits the nursing home of my mind every new year— shaking awake the grumpy, jaded, and stubborn old people who have let the bad stuff bring them down. Just like Twilight Zone Charlie, my Charlie tries motivating them to break routine with aphorisms like:

Maybe the fountain of youth isn’t a fountain at all. Maybe it’s a state of mind.

and

I know the  world is full of magic. I just know it is.

But it’s too late usually. The old folks in my mind are too set in their ways to change. So, I was thinking maybe I’d let Charlie rattle them a few times during the year instead of just at the beginning. Wake them up. Give them some opportunities to gain some happy memories to counterbalance the bad.  They aren’t going to experience anything staying in bed.

I’ve entered three messages every three months this year in my cell phone calendar that will ping me. When it does, it will say “Charlie says Wake Up! Kick the Can! Happy New Month!” Totally Polyanna shit, but I’m betting I’ll need to hear it.