Back Here

A woman in a green visor and apron asks me what she can get for me. I tell her a six-inch tuna on wheat. She assembles my sandwich automatically—bread, cheese, meat—but I am anything but automatic. I am trying something new; I am breaking old habits. I am following advice.

“Easy on the lettuce, please,” I say with an exaggerated smile. I’m trying too hard, but she doesn’t look up. “I’m a bit of a delicate flower.” I laugh at my words. Her head remains aimed at the bins of vegetables in front of her.

Great. Now she thinks I’m hitting on her. Maybe this is the wrong place to do it. Maybe I should try it with a co-worker first.

The sandwich artist’s eyes are suddenly on me, her eyebrows raised in question. Shit. Okay. She must have asked me what condiments I want.

“Extra extra extra mustard.” I cue her again with a smile. “Can’t have too much.” Yellow splatters the thin layer of lettuce. It’s too much mustard.

This is work for her. Listening to me is her job. Making me engage with someone who seems miserable at her job is unfair. It’s setting me up for failure. No. You’re going “back there” again. Be present. Listen to her.

“What’s that?”

“Anything else?”

I shake my head and she rings me up. Something on the other side of the cash register catches my eye. I stick my bottom lip out. “Those look good,” I say, pointing sheepishly to a display of cookies. “Could I get one, please? No, no, two. Two chocolate chip cookies!” I say it like the Count on Sesame Street.

She gives me a little laugh. I wonder if it’s pity.

“Back here” is the place I go during most conversations. On the rare occasion I tell someone about it, I point to a place behind my right ear and make a small circle. It’s the place I mull everything I’ve ever said to anyone ever. Ten minutes ago, fifteen years ago, it doesn’t matter. It’s my body language analysis chamber, my “What-I-Shoulda-Said” think tank, my “social faux pas” panic room.

My therapist, Esteban, reassures me that everyone has a Back Here, but some people stay locked back there longer than others. Or that’s what I read as his subtext at least because I’m pretty sure I’m the only person I know whose therapist recommends purposefully getting everyone they talk to in a day laugh.

“You do understand that I already put enough pressure on myself in social situations, right?” I asked Esteban when he suggested it. My scapulas prickled with sweat at the idea.

“Yes, but the logical  solution isn’t to never speak again, is it?” Esteban has a bit of an attitude. Usually, I like it.

“Well, no. But this seems like adding kindling to the fire.”

“Let me ask you this: How well are you listening to the person you’re talking to when you’re ‘back there’?”

I’d never thought about it. I am usually so anxious about what I say that I can’t process the other person’s words. “Not very well?”

“I think making someone laugh will force you to be present in the moment, really listening to what is being said and relating to it.”

“But what if laughter isn’t appropriate?”

“Then I want you to consciously be kind to them. If you’re walking away from people after making them laugh or giving them a compliment, then it will be harder for you to fixate on any perceived mistakes. We need to associate conversations with good things, not punishment.”

“But it sounds exhausting. I’m not a comedian.”

“More exhausting than making yourself feel bad about something you said a decade ago? I’m not asking you to do stand-up. I’m asking you to stay in the moment. Have some fun.”

“I don’t know if I can.”

“You’ve made me laugh three times so far this session. Of course, you can.”

Three weeks later, my co-worker, Andrew, greets me with a Good morning.

“Hi, Andrew. Can you show me your feet, please?”

“My feet?”

“Yeah, just checking something.”

He swivels in his chair and raises one penny-loafered foot, then the other.

“Good. No chains. You were sitting there when I left last night and you’re here now. I wanted to make sure you aren’t shackled to your desk.”

He fills the room with his chuckling. His laugh is a trophy.

*Names changed to protect the innocent.

Dog Days

On August afternoons, windows gape and fans yawn. The cats venture across the deserts of drab carpeting searching for a breeze, but my mother—outside with garden shears—hears music in the heat. Humming and the percussion of snapping lilac branches refresh her more than any succulent storm.

A Parking Lot Full Of Stones

The party store the Guls owned was within walking distance of our house.

But let me back up a minute to explain that very Midwestern sentence.

In Michigan, where I grew up, a “party store” is not a place to buy helium-filled balloons, or economy packs of Power Ranger-themed napkins and paper plates, no. A party store is a convenience store, a Kwickie Mart, a 7-11. Back in the 80s, they were everywhere and they were family-owned and the Guls, an Iranian-American family, happened to own the one nearest my house.

In rural Michigan, “walking distance” was a flexible term. It was all relative to how far away the places you needed to walk to were. I was 12 and lived about 15 minutes driving to anything interesting. So that’s how the Guls’ store became a neighborhood hangout. In 20 minutes, my friends and I could walk down a two-lane country highway and buy all the pop, Fritos, and Snickers bars we could afford. But the real attraction was in the back of the store.

If you walked past where Mr. Gul sat beside his cash register and turn left down a shadowy hallway, a neon glow would eventually greet you. It was there we would gather around the latest arcade games. Two at first, and then the Guls expanded to three.

The arcade hallway also happened to be the connection between the Guls’ store and their home. Through that closed door at the end, we could smell unfamiliar food cooking and hear people, usually women, chattering in a language we didn’t even know the name of.  Without fail, the Guls conversations would switch from Farsi to English when they walked through that door. The switch wouldn’t even register on their faces or in their body language; their cultural identity shifted as naturally as the cows in the fields outside shifted their weight to walk.

I suspect that door was also where the Gul children traded in their Persian names for English ones. I never knew the names Victor, Lila, and Ashley’s parents called them. Victor was a year younger than me in school. He had a round face with dark eyes and a gleaming smile. He didn’t have an accent; he was American, born and raised.

When Victor came through that hallway, he’d always stop and joke around with us until his father called him to stock the refrigerated case or sweep the parking lot.

He would sweep the entire parking lot. He’d even sweep the large stones that acted as barriers between the lot and the small patch of lawn that separated it from the trailer park street. While he swept, Victor waved to the cars that drove past. The store was on the corner of the country highway and the entrance drive to a large trailer park, so he knew most of the people in the cars. He swept and waved daily for years.

In 1990, two major things happened: I turned 16 and received my driver’s license, and the United States began sending troops to Kuwait to fight in Operation Desert Storm. The idea of wars wasn’t completely lost on me; we’d read about them in history class. Still, I was surprised at how little our lives had changed after President Bush had invaded. I was surprised at how few people even talked about it.

One morning, I got up early—I think I had to open the Subway restaurant I worked at—and headed to Gul’s party store for breakfast. As I was approaching, I saw all five of the Guls standing in the lot looking at the huge stones blocking the entrance to the parking lot. Someone had moved the barriers from the edges of the lot. The words “Go home Camel Jockeys” were spray-painted in red across the stones. With no way to pull in and a job to get to, I kept driving. I don’t remember thinking about it much after that. Work and school and friends kept me busy.

A few months later, my dad mentioned that the Guls had gone out of business. Apparently, the people of the trailer park got together and decided not to shop there anymore. They turned on a dime

Living just down the street, we hadn’t heard a thing about it. It never occurred to me that someone would treat the Guls that way. They’d been a part of the neighborhood almost all of my life.

Early early draft. Constructive criticism welcome.

The Difference Between Sympathy and Empathy

CW: pet death

“So, are you going to get a new cat?” my coworker, Bridget, asked. Her eyebrows rounded and the gray streak in her hair glowed in the harsh fluorescent light.

A mixture of impatience and grief constricted my throat. I had come so close to getting out the door. My computer was off, and I was on my way to the kitchenette, hands full of the dishes I’d dirtied over the course of the workday. A bowl and a plate balanced on top of a coffee mug. The strap of my messenger bag, filled with textbooks and prototypes of a project that was behind schedule because I’d taken an unexpected day off, dug into my shoulder, and I began to sweat under my winter coat.

“Well, she only passed a few days ago. I haven’t really thought about it.”

My words came out in an awkward lilt, a relic of my customer service days when I was forced to mask annoyance with politeness. I knew where this conversation was headed. Several other sympathetic co-workers had felt compelled to tell me stories of their pets’ deaths today.

“I remember when my Lucas passed. He hadn’t been well for a few weeks; the vet said it was probably a kidney infection. Anyway, I was on the couch watching TV. He got up on my lap like he usually did. I probably watched two or three shows before I got up. I stirred a little—that usually gets him up—but he didn’t move. Then I nudged him and realized how stiff he was, how cold to the touch. He had passed right there on my lap.”

A hiccup rose in my chest. Peering down the corridor into the kitchenette, I calculated how offended my coworker would be if I just walked away, or if dropping my dishes right now would reset the conversation or force me to listen to more memento mori stories. Instead, my mind flashed to three days ago. Daphne lay in her Darth Vader bed in the quietest corner of the living room. I shook a bag of treats as a greeting, which usually elicited a few meows and as much excitement as a sick 19-year-old cat could muster. But something was different. Her front legs moved to lift herself, but her hind legs stayed folded up against her white belly.

I emerged from my memory to find Bridget imploring me.

“Are you okay?”

I put the dishes down on the nearest tabletop. The room was empty, excepting the two of us. Screensavers on every computer showed lava lamp bubbles bouncing within the confines of the screens.

“What? Yeah, I’m so sorry about Lucas, but it was sweet that he came to you for safety in that moment. How long ago was that?”

“Maybe fifteen years? I’ve had three cats since. Ginger died at the vet, but she was older, like your kitty, so we had time to prepare…” She continued, but all I could do was wonder how she could possibly prepare. There is no preparing.

“She’s malnourished and dehydrated,” a young vet had said three days before, her white coat and purple Vans too bright in the beige room. “I had a hard time finding her pulse. What were you thinking about her care tonight?”

Daphne lay on the examination table wrapped in a white towel. She was so quiet; visits outside the house usually made her mewl. The vet tapped a clipboard with a pen as I looked at my partner. Muzak fogged the room.

“We’re prepared to let her go.”

Back at work, Bridget placed a hand on my arm. I didn’t know how long it had been since she’d stopped telling her story. Her mouth pinched with concern, and she held out a box of Kleenex decorated with Minions, their smiles and popping eyes looked sinister.

“I’m so sorry. Probably the last thing you want to hear right now are stories about death,” she said.

Early draft. Constructive criticism welcome.

Writing for the YeahWrite nonfiction challenge. Click the badge above to read other well-written essays!

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 yeah write superchallenge

Are you looking for kind and honest feedback on your writing? Do you like writing prompts and cash prizes? Then check this out:

The yeah write super challenge is a six week, three-round competition that will help you stretch your muscles as a writer and storyteller. Each participant will walk away with detailed feedback on their entries, and the winners will walk away with sweet prizes. The more people who enter, the bigger the prizes – so invite your friends!

Great, you’re saying to yourself, but what’s yeah write? Well, yeah write is an online writing community that hosts several weekly writing challenges. I’ve been involved in the group for over 2 years now, both as a contributor and an editor. Submitting to the challenges has provided me with weekly writing inspiration, a solid deadline to meet, and a supportive group of writers who have never let me feel like I was sending my thoughts into the digital ether. Because of the support of this group, I have submitted my writing to contests, magazines, and web sites! And I very much credit yeah write for my successes, so I’m really excited to tell you about the latest way to get involved! 

For our first super challenge, we’re calling for nonfiction entries of up to 1,000 words (fictioneers, you’re up next!) written to our specific writing prompt. For those without a blog, don’t worry! Submissions will be accepted via email so no personal website is required. The process is simple: we give you a prompt, and you give us* your best short essay and mostly-true story. The early entry fee is $20 USD until 11:59 pm on June 30, 2016. That means you have one day to sign up for the cheaper rate! From July 1 to 11:59 pm on July 6, the entry fee will be $25 USD. Entry fees go to prizes for winners and maintenance of the yeah write blog site.

We’ve collected more details for you here. Check it out, read the official rules, and start warming up those typing fingers. The yeah write super challenge starts on July 8, and registration is open now!

Please feel free to spread the word if you think anyone you know would be interested in our very first super challenge. We are so excited to get this started! Less than two weeks to go!


*Full disclosure: I’m not a judge in this round. But I will be judging the fiction super challenge coming up in a few months.

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.