The Red Carpet

Jason appeared in the doorway of the living room with a long velvet sash loosely wrapped around his jeans and t-shirt. He cocked a hip, and the red fabric shivered in the glow of my reading lamp. Ridiculously fake diamond earrings flashed below the trendy fringe of his haircut. He held a small bolt from which the fabric hung slack.

“Wow, you’re dressed to kill,” I said, jabbing a finger in my book. My chair creaked with the sudden movement. “Which production is it for?”

“Hello, stranger.” His voice came out breathy and deep. He dragged a single finger down one page of the open book. “That isn’t by chance a Raymond Chandler novel you’re reading, is it?”

“No, it’s a different kind of pent-up love story. A Room With a View. Which Chandler is it for?” Jason volunteered as a costumer at the community theater.

The Big Sleep. I’m thinking this will be for the femme fatale’s first scene.” He tightened the fabric around his torso so it fit more like a bodice and brought a wrist to his forehead, which emphasized the bulge of his bicep. “I was up for that part, you know, but they decided to cast someone more manly.”

He sauntered across the room, rolling his hips and unspooling fabric across the floor. A stick of incense burned on top of my desk. He picked it up and held it like a cigarette. The transformation was complete.

“Miss Vivian Sternwood,” she said. Her emphasis on the last syllable made me laugh, which made her drop character long enough to explain that Sternwood was the actual name Raymond Chandler gave his femme fatale. She continued. “Charmed, I’m sure. And you are?”

These metamorphoses fascinated and unsettled me, as did everything else about Jason. Since he’d answered my Craigslist ad three years ago, he’d never mentioned friends or family. He never dated, as far as I knew. If it weren’t for the constant humming of his sewing machine, I’d think he disappeared as soon as he stepped into the small box of his bedroom. An actor waiting in the wings for his next entrance. The theater only needed him to deliver his finished costumes. His only weekly routine: a hushed phone call every Sunday night in his room. I made sure to be around for it in case he ever came out and wanted to talk; he never did.

I took Vivian’s hand and kissed it. “Philip Marhomo, my dear. You look ravishing this evening.”

She smirked and scanned the room.

“My, it’s dark in here, Mr. Marhomo. A girl might think she lives with a vampire.”

She was right; the sun had abandoned me. Incense smoke casted a haze across my IKEA furniture, across Jason’s second-hand television, across the red carpet of crushed velvet at my feet. I’d been reading a long time.

Vivian floated around the room, turning on anything with a switch. Soon, lamps blazed. Jazz from the stereo and a Bogart movie clamored for attention. When she finished, she pointedly faced me and dropped the velvet. She wasn’t naked underneath, but the effect was still shocking. My ears turn crimson. She closed the book on my lap, put both hands on the arms of my chair, and leaned in.

“So tell me, my vampire roommate, do you want to bite my neck?”

Her five o’clock shadow encircled her full lips. Each atom between us spun counter-clockwise. I’d never had the spotlight of his… her attention so fully. She lingered, awaiting my answer.

I swallowed hard. “Only if no bullet- or dust-biting follows.”

She slid into my lap, curving her arm around my shoulders. “And if I let you, could you forgive my rent again this month, detective?”

The room refilled with light and noise. Vivian became Jason again.

“You know you don’t have to do that,” I said. “If you’re running behind, I can cover. It’s no big deal.”

It was Jason’s time to feel uncomfortable. He thanked me as he stood. His door clicking shut felt like a rebuke somehow.

Velvet still pooled on the floor. I felt compelled to pick it up. As I did, the city hummed behind the Venetian blinds, the neon streets reached out, the rain fell.

I made a ritual of turning things off—the ceiling fan, radio, television, all the lights except for the one I read by. I tried to re-enter Forster’s tale, but I couldn’t focus. I wanted to be ready for the next show.

Early draft. Constructive criticism welcome.

PS: Reposted to fix funky formatting.

Tether

Cal noticed when I walked into the bakery. He wiped his hand on the black sky of his apron, and a shy smile had spread across his face before the doorbell finished chiming. The smears of flour at his hips made me think of sex.

I decided to sit as far from where he was working as possible to test the tether between us. We’d only been dating five weeks, but I found myself wondering if I could resist his gravitational pull?

I placed my laptop on a table and arranged a few sample books for the Fogerty house. But blueprints and furniture catalogs could not compete with the spectacle of Cal in his natural environment. His biceps flexed as he kneaded dough; his large hands shaped and molded small planets of rye bread. His every action seemed risqué. And he knew I was watching him, too. He checked me with his eyes each time he ducked into the back room. He looped his thumbs around his tied apron strings and did a little tap dance while waiting to ring up customers.

After a half hour of this, he came over to my table and whispered, “You gotta stop watching me, dude.” He beamed; his crooked smile, pale eyes, and five-o-clock shadow reminding me again of some action/adventure star I’d seen somewhere. “I can’t concentrate.”

“Can’t help it. There are too many sweet things in this place.” His blush was a trophy. “All right. I’ll get to work.” Sighing, I plugged my ears with headphones and, as much as it pained me, ignored him.

Eventually, I fell into my work. The next time I looked up, about a half hour later, Cal was at the end of the counter talking to a pony-tailed woman with a thin pink scarf looped around her neck. I had to shift in my chair to see her face: the bridge of her nose rounded from brow to tip and her chin was soft. She looked nothing like Cal, whose face was all hard, straight lines.

Taking my headphones off, I heard her say she couldn’t wait for Saturday, then she shyly took both of his hands and stood on her tiptoes to kiss him. Cal’s eyes shot to me as she did it, giving me the answers to all of my questions.

Without thinking, I stood. “What the hell, Cal?”

One of my notebooks slammed on the floor. Everyone in the room was staring. The woman—still holding one of Cal’s hands—moved behind him. We stood like that for what seemed like forever.

“Cal?” the woman finally said. “Is something wrong?”

“I don’t know. Is something wrong, Will?” There was a warning in his words.

Yes.

No?

His lack of shame confounded me. Wasn’t he in the wrong here? This was about the time in the relationship when you’d find out you were with a cheater. It’s a risk you took with online dating—the Netflix and Chill guys, the polys—it’s all fine if that’s what you’re into. But that’s not what I was into. I thought I had been clear.

“I thought…” I didn’t want to admit it. “I just thought I was the only one.”

People in the bakery weren’t staring anymore, but all ears were aimed at us.

“You’re gay, Cal?” the woman gawped, and I realized she was younger than I thought.

“Yeah,” Cal said with a shrug. “Cara, this is my boyfriend, Will. Will, this is Cara Wilson, a friend of the family. ”

Embarrassed, I returned her hello and shook her hand. As we talked, Cara mentioned that Cal was catering her wedding for free. I asked about the wedding and the menu, giving Cal praise for his kindness. Anything to smooth this situation over. Within a few minutes, Cara said she had other errands to do. She hugged Cal, whispered something in his ear, and then she was gone.

Cal put a finger up. “Hold on.” He walked in back and returned with a co-worker to replace him at the counter.

“Follow me,” he said to me. Outside, he turned onto a side street before he spoke.

“I guess I’m out to my family now.”

“Shit. I’m sorry. My big mouth.”

“Nah, I was going to do it soon anyway.” He took my face in his hands. “They should meet you.” He kissed me softly, then put his forehead to mine. We closed our eyes.

Doing something new for the fiction|poetry challenge: two required prompts. This week the prompts were the word “baker” and the sentence “We closed our eyes.” Sound fun? Join us! Click the badge above for more info.

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 spread across his face.

The chemical smell hit my nose before I felt the liquid 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.”

Procession

FROM WHERE PHILIP SAT he couldn’t tell why people were laughing. The bride was only seconds into her march up the aisle and the back pews were already snickering. Since everyone was facing her, he saw the backs of fifty people’s heads tilt up in laughter. He felt his date, Ben, shrug his shoulders and then half-stand to get a better look. The laughter in the sanctuary swelled with each step of the bride. Philip looked toward the groom, who was smirking, and the groomsmen—there were 4—all looked toward the back wall with brows set deep in concentration. Odd.

The church was long—one of those monstrosities they built in the 90s, the kind crammed with Escher stairways and skylights shaped like amoebas. Everything in the church could have come straight off the set of Beetlejuice. A large skylight shaped like a cross shone down over the chancel. The day was overcast, but Philip imagined the drama of the moment the sun peeked out from behind a cloud and shined a spotlight on the…minister? Preacher? Father?

He leaned to Ben’s ear. “What do Methodists call their preachers?”

“Drones.”

“No, that can’t be right.”

“Look, Philip. Behind her.” Ben pointed above the bride. Given the dramatic and glacially slow step-together walk that, for some reason, was only employed during weddings and graduations, she was only about a quarter of the way down the aisle. She was gorgeous, Philip’s Aunt Stephanie, even more so after a morning of facials and waxings and touch-ups and blowouts. She had the Taggart nose—that same bump on the bridge that made everyone ask Philip when he broke it—but her complexion was darker and her emerald eyes made her look more like a Greek woman in an epic poem than the Irish lass she was. Philip spotted a gray disc bob above his aunt’s head. The drone held her veil in two places from above, making the edges wave to both sides of the congregation. Occasionally, whenever the drone fell behind pace, the veil tugged on the bride’s hair. Aunt Stephanie didn’t look bothered by it though. She kept her gaze on the nervous bald man awaiting her on the steps that divided the sanctuary from the chancel. The groom patted beads of sweat from his boxy forehead. The light shining down on his bald head made him look like one of those strange IKEA light bulbs.

“Is that a Millennium Falcon?” Philip asked.

“Six of them!” The crowd’s laughter muffled Ben’s excitement. Behind the first drone, five others became visible to the front of the congregation, working to keep the veil afloat above the train. Philip took a second to study what joy looked like on the side of Ben’s face he could see—the dimple, the etches around his eye, the sharp arc of his hair around his right ear. The abrasion on his forehead was almost fully healed. Today was their seventh date, which is why Philip hesitated to invite him to the wedding. But the days following the mugging shifted their relationship into a higher gear, convincing Philip to do something he’d never done before: introduce a boyfriend to his family.

“Did you see the bridesmaids?” Ben asked. All four women wore a flurry of taffeta and thin garlands in their hair. From their garlands dangled long teal ribbon, four or five of which were attached to still more drones that topped the women’s heads like mechanical halos.

“Who’s steering them?” Philip checked the front of the church again. He hadn’t noticed the little black boxes in the groomsmen’s hands before. Tangles of lace and ribbon fell from their antennae. Their looks of concentration suddenly made sense. That accounted for four drone pilots; who were the others?

“I don’t know,” Ben said, still beaming at the wedding procession, “but they’re really good at it. Have you ever tried to fly one of those things? It’s harder than it looks.” Ben flashed  Philip a wink. Thank God it was going well, Philip thought.

For another story with Ben and Philip, read Periphery.

The Creeper of the Family Tree (revised)

Sums it up pretty well.
Sums it up pretty well.

A few times a week, especially when I’m feeling groggy, I’ll jog up and down the stairwells of my office building. Each time I hit the bottom landing I’ll turn down into the little-used basement and lay on the floor for my jack knifes, squats, and pushups. I like that it’s cool and quiet down there, but mostly I want to spare my co-workers the mental image of me huffing and puffing while doing lunges.

The drawback to exercising in the basement is that it’s within earshot of the back door of the building. Many people take their cellphones to the bottom of those steps to make a call, or they’ll pause there to finish conversations with co-workers before going back up to work. As a result, I find myself overhearing a lot of strangers’ conversations without their knowledge. A few of them have actually screamed when I’ve emerged from the basement and crossed between them mid-conversation. Since mine is not the only company in the building, these people don’t know me as anyone other than that weird guy that’s running away from whatever suspicious thing he’s got going on in the basement.

In other words, I’m the inadvertent office creeper.

Me, after a workout
Me, during a workout

And sometimes, I must admit, I feel like a creeper when I’m researching my family: shining lights into dark corners, uncovering tawdry secrets, sniffing out facts about strangers to whom I happen to be related.

For instance, early on in my research I found the names and whereabouts of two relatives that had fallen away from the family. Exhilarated by my discovery, I immediately reached out to them on Facebook, but my enthusiasm was not reciprocated. They politely asked me not to contact them again. I was crushed. It hadn’t occurred to me that they wouldn’t be equally enthusiastic, nor had it occurred to me that they’d associate me with the grudge they held against our common relative. I didn’t understand their immediate dismissal at first. I’m not to blame for what happened to them, I thought, and the past is past.

But it’s not.

Let’s face it: families are messy. There’s a lot of baggage there, and genealogists like me make a hobby out of rifling through it like the NSA at security checks. My relatives’ rejection helped me to understand that my research and my feelings of connection to familial strangers could be construed as intrusive and stalkerish.

Their rejection also reminded me that our past is directly tied to our present. For some people, like my two relatives, the consequences of past events can be so raw for so long that an enthusiastic Facebook message might make the pain of an entire childhood resurface. I realize that now.

Then it occurred to me that if researching my living family members can stir up bad feelings, maybe it’s ticking off my dead ones, too. What if my research is just bringing up long-forgotten resentments and shame in the afterlife? What if they’re sitting together in an all-white hotel conference room right now throwing fast food wrappers at my image on the afterlife’s version of a television?

Most of my ancestors sought and successfully led quiet lives. They were solid, modest Midwesterners living as best they could in the capsules of their time. Maybe they weren’t the kind to like attention. I wonder if they find my stories about them ostentatious. I wonder if they’d rather not be researched by me at all. My devout Baptist and Methodist relatives probably wouldn’t agree with my life as a gay man. If they were living, they might have ignored me, disowned me, or sent me off to a ‘conversion therapy’ camp.

Obviously, I hope not. I hope they see my creeping as interest in their lives. I hope they appreciate that I’m trying  to understand and learn from them. I hope they recognize that their lives are inspiring me to be grateful for every moment of my own quiet and solid Midwestern life.

(I pulled this from my archives and submitted it to two very gentle editors for their feedback and guidance in yeah write‘s Silver Lounge. Thank you, Christine of trudging through fog and Rowan from textwall, for helping me see this post in a different light. Click here to read the previous version.)

 

The Creeper of the Family Tree

Sums it up pretty well.
Sums it up pretty well.

A few times a week, especially when I’m feeling logy at work, I’ll jog up and down the three flights of stairs in my office building. I do sets of exercises each time I reach the tucked-away basement. I used to do my jack knifes, squats, and pushups at the top of the stairs, but people would often be spooked when they turned into the stairwell and spotted me huffing and puffing on the landing situated just before the stairs open out onto the roof. The location I used before that was a recess in the hallway near the service elevator. I moved from there when not one, but two different dogs came over and sniffed my scalp as I did my push-ups (my office building is pet friendly). Those dogs made me feel a little vulnerable. So, I moved to the barely used basement for my privacy and to maintain other peoples’ sense of security.

Perhaps if I wore a bow tie while I exercised I would scare less people.
Perhaps if I wore a bow tie while I exercised I would scare less people.

The drawback to exercising in the basement is that it’s directly adjacent to the back door of the building. Many office workers take their cell phones to that landing, or they’ll pause there to finish conversations with co-workers before going back up to their desks. As a result, I find myself overhearing a lot of strangers’ conversations without their knowledge. My perfectly innocent presence still scares them when I emerge from the dank basement to cross between them mid-conversation and continue my jog up the stairs. I should also mention that my office building houses about 20 different companies, so these are people who don’t know me as anyone other than that weird guy that likes to scare people and enjoys having his scalp sniffed by dogs.

In other words, I’m the inadvertent office creeper.

Me, after a workout
Me, after a workout

And sometimes, I must admit, I feel a little like my family’s genealogical creeper: lurking in unseen corners, overhearing the snippets of their lives I find on documents and pictures, surprising newly found relatives on Facebook asking for info about their relatives after sniffing them out.

That’s why I’ve all but given up researching living relatives. As much as I would like to bring my distant cousins together, it feels intrusive and a little stalker-y knowing my connections to people who don’t know me. Also, I realized early on in my research that my feelings of connection to my relatives went unrequited more often than not (not to discount my family members who were open to connecting).

That was a hard lesson I had to learn just about out of the gate. I found some relatives and was instantly rejected because of bad blood. I just couldn’t understand their rebuffs  at first. What’s the big deal?, I thought, the past is past.

But it’s not.

If that were true, genealogy wouldn’t exist. Let’s face it: families are messy. There’s a lot of baggage there. And genealogists like me are set on rifling through it like the NSA does a suspicious suitcase. The past is directly tied to our present. Some events in the past are still so raw and tangible that a single name might burble up the pain or joy we associate with it to our surfaces like blood to a blushing cheek. And some details in our past can transfer to seemingly unrelated people and things. An inconsistent parent can deem an entire branch of a family tree unsavory. Words left unsaid to a loved one can fester and make a person want to never talk about that person again.  I realize that now. (Insert grateful prayer here about having to learn that lesson as opposed to having to live it.)

So, I often wonder if my research is ticking my ancestors off, like it did those relative who rejected my interest in them. Knowing that quite a few of my ancestors sought and successfully led quiet, honest lives. Perhaps, they weren’t the kind to talk about themselves. Or I wonder if they would rather I stick to the facts instead of making up my own flouncy stories about them. Perhaps more to my point, I wonder if they’d rather not be researched by me at all. Most of them probably wouldn’t have agreed (while they were living) with my life as a gay man. They were after all solid, modest Midwesterners living their lives as best they could in the capsules of their time. Some or most of them might have thought less of me, might have disowned me, might have sent me off to ‘conversion therapy’ camps, might have ignored me completely.

But I hope not. (Insert another grateful prayer here about the ability for times to change and for my very supportive family.) I hope they’re happy I’m interested in their lives, happy in my efforts to remember and learn from them, happy to have lights shine on events that no longer elicit bad feelings, happy I’m spreading their tales. I happen to believe, among many other things, that our relatives can see our lives from our perspective after they’ve passed, and I’d like to think that they know that I’m striving for the same goals they did: exacting my own quiet, honest life the best way I can in the capsule of my own time.

Surprisingly, that task has involved a lot more gasping strangers and dog snouts than I ever expected.