michael king

stack of stained pages, redacted love letters, spilling ink, pressing it into tomorrow

lately, this story.

That’s the thing about New York, she said, setting down her beer and shaking her head, the city spits you out three times before it lets you stay.

I nodded, accepting it immediately as truth. It was the summer of 2017, the muggy baton pass between late May and early June, and I was only visiting the city. A friend from college, then five years into his relationship with New York, had invited me to his Greenpoint apartment for dinner, where a mosaic of young people welcomed me in to exchange ideas and early-won bits of wisdom.

I was quiet, then, about the dream of moving to New York City, as though saying it out loud might somehow break it. Scare it away, just out of reach.

The city spits you out three times before it lets you stay, I thought to myself, grinning as the conversation turned to how many New York men use the word ‘deliverables’ when describing their jobs on first dates.

I think of my life in terms of semesters. I moved right to college after high school, then to graduate school, and then into a job whose first big hurdle was Fall move-in. It’s funny, sometimes, when people ask how long I’ve been in the city; I always catch myself before answering in semesters.

There is comfort to routine. Whenever my situation changes too much, I find myself willful in creating some new routine, a conductor glaring down a reluctant orchestra.

In March of this year, when I learned all our students would be moving home early, normalcy dissolved at my fingertips. Okay, I bargained with myself, we will get through this. I started each morning with a four-mile run, carving a path through the city, once-busy, now shuttered to silence.

Routine, normalcy, control. All of these were suddenly mirages, and I found myself wobbly on my feet. This is an excellent time to write, a friend suggested, and I exhausted at the thought.

How does one create in the midst of so much pretending?

I did my best to document what it was to survive this time. I mimicked my morning coffee in my own kitchen. I took photos of myself to remind myself that I’m real. I burst into tears listening to an upbeat dance song because I abruptly realized nobody I knew had seen my face in eight days.

In the Fall, some semblance of normalcy resumed. We had far fewer students than normal, but there was a move-in. The office was staffed sparsely, and plastic barriers were raised, but I had resumed leaving my apartment to ‘go to work.’

On the morning I learned I would be losing my job, after the floor stopped crumbling underfoot, after I steadied my hands, after I called my sister and stammered I lost my job before sobbing, I sat in the quiet and exhaled. I realized, then, that I’d been holding my breath for months, waiting for hard news.

I’m not good at saying goodbye before I’m ready. Each time, I am indignant, humiliated, furious, brokenhearted. So much of how I show up to my life revolves around the idea of writing these chapters well. Sometimes, I look at a paragraph and want to know just who the hell has the nerve to scribble like this.

I spend hours thinking of ways to turn the main character back on the path I imagined him walking.

Once, when a lover left, and I was sitting in fragments on the floor, I whispered to myself, you cannot write him back into your life. I wrote a Post-It note for my bedroom dresser: a person who wants to stay stays. But, months later, on a night run, my eyes broke like tired dams, and I stumbled into a cry on the sidewalk. Just come back, I stammered, fool me twice, fool me twice.

I fool myself with the notion that, when I leave a heartbreak, I do so having learned the lesson I needed. Now, I tell myself, I won’t have to fall apart that way anymore.

But here I am, in a year characterized by canceled plans and broken storylines, and I am again startled to find I’m not really at the helm.

When I close a chapter, I want that on my own terms. I want to walk the sidewalks I’ve been taking for granted, thank them for always guiding me home. I want to tuck love letters in the homes of everybody who’s kept me afloat, find just the words to impart, ensure no shred of meaning or sentiment is left beneath some unturned stone.

These past few weeks, I have wrestled myself, again and again, out of trying to right the story. Just let go, I whisper to my clenched fists, find gratitude for what was and get moving.

I don’t know that I believe New York City keeps any quotas for the times it will spit somebody out. I know it can seem monstrous and tall, cold and apathetic to whatever is devastating you. It can feel, to me, like the hardest place to find peace.

But there are times when the avenues and streets seem to line up just right, and I glance up and feel some kind of warming rightness. Remember when it was all just a dream, I remind myself, and now here you are, walking these sidewalks like you know them by name.

I’m letting go of the idea that there’s ever really a ‘right’ way forward. Over the past few weeks, I’ve held the pen in my fingertips, staring down the last paragraph with a furrowed brow, wondering where I want my story to go next. There’s probably joy and meaning and hope to be found in each of those ways forward; there is also always the strange grief of leaving the other paths unexplored.

Hands shaking, I am writing again. I’ve decided to build something new, to expand myself, to grow and fill a new space. My body is a plant repotted, roots acquainting tentatively with new soil, leaves shuddering in relief as they, again, discover there is light.

revisiting.

somewhere some hundred miles ago, i set
our pages down on the concrete, found a
rock with edges no more jagged than my own,
and set the damn stories down, no more
wringing meaning from my being and
finding the water again stained with you

getting better was training my hands
not to ball themselves into fists, clearing
the drawers of photo strips and small notes
with my name in your handwriting, making
room for the echo of your absence
to tucker itself out, giving my time only to
plants that bear fruit

but, tonight, i have the extra hour, and
my hands are busy putting the polaroids
in order, funny the way the life cycles of
trees help us keep our bearings in
the gentle continuity of time

when i loved you, flowers bloomed through
my aching sternum, ivy stretching its way
up your brick edifice and resolving to
pull down walls through devotion, driving
for hours beneath the darkest skies
just to kiss you good morning, writing
poetry in your language so you
might be willing to read it

and, when you loved me, you
startled at what it was to be seen, not
just watched, but seen, in honest light,
the way your throat caught when
i told you the third thing you
needed to know, and
for the moment, we knew

on the margins of a morning newspaper
dated some five years ago, i wrote
you goodbye, and time has
yellowed everything, softened
jagged edges down to nothing, i
can hold the stories again, lift us
up and set you onto the shelf,
sunflower petals pressed into
the old, hard page

like today.

what is there to do
on a day like today, when
the sky hangs heavy in
my tired palms, when
the knot in my sternum
wrings all my words
out, dull puddles on
the air-conditioned tile

grief and gratitude
make confusing roommates,
cohabitating in something
not like war, not like
harmony, i am an
acoustic strum in
an empty house, front door
racketing on
rusty hinges

remember, as children,
how we fought to best
one another at
holding our breath, who
could have known we
were training
for the art of scraping
hope free from the
hardship, mining meaning
from the hollow ground

something like poetry.

and, maybe, if i just write, let the thoughts flow freely from my wanting fingertips, it will be something like poetry, will rinse through the faucet rusted over by weeks, months of trying to grow hope from the concrete, pouring until the water flows clear, will you see it as poetry, when i hold it in my hands, will it feel heavy like truth, or drip from my thirsting palms?

maybe i need to stop writing these lessons down on loose leaf pages around me, every old injury repurposed into some lesson for the long journey after, could i have learned all the wrong things from all those scrapes on the pavement, is it possibly time to let my cautions go skittering, admit to myself that holding my breath and keeping my hopes on a leash has never once kept me safe from aching?

sometimes, when i tell you it’s going to be all right in the end, or a little bravery is all you need to break through, or you don’t have a single thing to fear about a truth you hold in your shaking palms, i wonder if you know i’m saying it as much for myself, throwing hopeful ideas against the wall and seeing what sticks

and it’s true, we have survived every thunderstorm, gritted our teeth and outlasted the will of even the most infinite nights, to find ourselves here, our limbs lined with scars and stories alike, disappointment a relentless villain but pisspoor murderer, and i will swear that we are never easier to love than when we are baring our brokenness

i go on writing you letters.

has it dawned on you, too,
that i’ve got no idea
what song you hum to yourself
as you get yourself ready
in the mornings, study
your face in the mirror,
pull into sleeves those
arms i used to think of as
home?

three days ago, i tried
to sketch the floor plan
of the house where i grew up,
my throat in a tangle as i
fought to remember the
color of the kitchen tile

i read that our bones
replace themselves every
ten years, time washing
like the tide against the
names i meant
to etch forever,
you were never here

and still i go on
writing you letters, hoping
you have let go of your
loneliest notions, hum
a song in your honor
on my walk to the
coffee shop, trace your
name with my fingertips
to see if they
remember the way.

the first fire.

all our bodies
are flint and steel,
our lives a series of collisions,
falls, near-misses, and
when we scrape against
the rocks, we are
mesmerized by the lights

sparks thrown by
the big, banal things,
sex and death and
love and heartbreak, and
somehow, despite every evidence,
we are sure we are the first
we know it in our limbs
we have discovered
fire

falling, familiar.

i am at odds with my body,
another wobbly walk home,
fresh blood stinging against
the open air, i am a
somatic wound shivering
in the wind

and how do i finish my poetry
on a night like this, what
is my voice but another
wailing failure to sing hope
through these closing walls, my
throat a vinyl scratched
and skipping, stammering
this will be, this will be fi, this
will b, be fine, this will, this

in the shower, i survey my
wounds and realize i wish
i didn’t have so much experience
bandaging them on my
own

i fall the same way
every time, even the
people i have just begun
to know shake their heads,
again?and i don’t know
what to tell them, except

i learned to sprint on
shaky ankles, and no
pavement’s made a
strong enough case for
slowing down just yet

this heart is so stubborn,
blood glistening through
the flesh freshly broken,
loving nothing more,
nothing, than the kind of
love that demands
running, reckless,
over the jagged slap
of broken ground

poetry

book club: ‘the perks of being a wallflower’.

If I’m honest, The Perks of Being a Wallflower sat on my shelf for years before I finally decided it was time to read it. The film arrived in 2012 and moved me profoundly, and I knew I’d need a little distance before delving into the book.

This summer, on an evening I decided to venture out to a picnic table on campus and read, I took Perks with me. I’m glad that I did.

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hoodie.

this hoodie has a history,
i wanted to tell him
as i dropped it in
his waiting palms

stolen from my sister
on the morning of the
Thanksgiving run,
some old boyfriend’s, but suddenly,
she must’ve known, mine

green stain from the
night my friends and i
tried painting my room,
my first lover and i
whispering i love you
at bedtime, smiling
in secret

grad school uniform,
late-night drinks and
later-night writing,
those wild, short months,
one last adolescence

given, for months, to somebody
who never intended to
stay, who slipped out of
my life like he owed
no explanation, but
who took the time to
fold it, hide it gently
on the closet floor
before he left,
found and held close
that fragile morning

for once, i
held onto my histories,
let a hoodie be, for the moment,
a hoodie, warm against
the artificial air

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book club: ‘the heart’s invisible furies’.

“Want to read in the park?” my friend asked me, and my yes was emphatic. I rolled up my favorite blanket, tucked it away in my bag, and ordered a coffee for pickup on the way. About twenty blocks into my walk, it dawned on me: I’d left my book behind in my apartment. Sighing, I texted my friend, “I forgot my book. Got anything for me to read?”

As he descended down the steps of his apartment building in Hell’s Kitchen, his face had a wry grin. “Have you read this?” he asked, handing me The Heart’s Invisible Furies. I shook my head, and he smiled. “It’s so sad, but so funny, in this specifically Irish way. You are going to love it.”

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The Heart’s Invisible Furies opens in a church building in a small village in Ireland. There, a teenaged girl is being publicly rebuked for her pregnancy, after which she arrives home to find her belongings outside the front door. Head held high, shaking her head at the unfairness of her world, she boards a bus to Dublin, where a chance encounter with a stranger changes everything.

“Long before we discovered that he had fathered two children by two different women, one in Drimoleague and one in Clonakilty, Father James Monroe stood on the altar of the Church of Our Lady, Star of the Sea, in the parish of Goleen, West Cork, and denounced my mother as a whore.”

The narrator in The Heart’s Invisible Furies is Cyril Avery, the child produced from the text’s early pages. His story is shared in chapters, each taking places seven years following the prior chapter. As the first chapter ends, Cyril’s mother in labor and bringing him into the world, the second chapter picks up, and we meet Cyril’s adoptive parents. There’s a jarring effect to this; at the beginning of each chapter, I found myself wondering what became of some of the characters I’d just fallen in love with.

As Cyril’s story moves forward, however, old characters weave themselves back in the narrative in surprising ways. As he discovers himself, a child adopted by wealthy, if unconventional, parents, he grapples with the journey of being ill-fit for the rigid world around him.

“It was a difficult time to be Irish, a difficult time to be twenty-one years of age and a difficult time to be a man who was attracted to other men. To be all three simultaneously required a level of subterfuge and guile that felt contrary to my nature.”

At its core, The Heart’s Invisible Furies is an examination of a life –– the way in which people appear, strangers at first and then vital sources of joy and pain, and are lost to us. In this story, there is violence, grief, failure, abandonment, an also there is humor, longing, love, and beginning anew. Humanity is under the narrator’s microscope, always explored with a bit of comical irreverence.

“But for all that we had, for all the luxury to which we were accustomed, we were both denied love, and this deficiency would be scorched into our futures lives like an ill-considered tattoo inscribed on the buttocks after a drunken night out, leading each of us inevitably toward isolation and disaster.”

After I posted a picture of the park on a night reading, I heard from several people who’d read this text before me. They each acknowledged that they’d loved it, and I trusted it would stick with me long after I finished it. The Heart’s Invisible Furies offers a gentle window unto all of us, our humanity, our cruelty toward the people we deem outsiders, our cruelty toward the people we are trying to love, and the ways in which we keep going after enduring grief. Told over seventy years, Cyril’s story features so much beginning again, and again, and again.