michael king

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

book club: ‘the friend’.

In my senior year of college, in a course called Creative Nonfiction, a professor shared an idea that cracked my mind open a bit: Dispense, if you will, of whatever separation you think there is between fiction and nonfiction. More often than not, he claimed, writers are more confessional than we’d like to believe in our fictions. And, in our nonfictions, we take our liberties.

Genres and categories serve their purposes, of course, but I find that interesting things happen at the spaces where they blur.

So it was when I read the synopsis for The Friend, a story I couldn’t immediately determine was true or concocted, confessional or creative invention. Calling off the search for certainty, I opted to read it as is.

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phantom pains.

Venturing out takes a bit more effort these days. My hair is a bit unkempt, the remnant of a whim and promise at the dawn of 2020, and requires a bandanna. Before putting in my headphones, I’ve got to pull on my facemask. Before I set out, I glance at myself in the mirror, shooting myself a small smile.

Maybe I’m kidding myself, but I think I see a difference in my eyes. I commit to smiling at strangers even if they can’t see it.

The city is nearly the same place it was when I moved here two summers ago. Businesses have risen and fallen, and the age of social distancing has cast a bizarre hush over all of it, but the buildings still sprawl, mighty in every direction. My eyes for it are new again, grateful for every inch of my wandering.

Everywhere there are stories. On 14th Street, near 3rd Avenue, I think of my friend who threw a housewarming party for his new roommate, then left us there with her to get acquainted. At that Mexicue, a first date that still makes me smile to think over, even if romance never blossomed from that vine.

There, the Mexican restaurant I went to with a friend after we finished a movie neither of us enjoyed. We both would have walked out, we realized, but we didn’t sit together and each of us stayed for the other. Our server, upon discovering we had no ambitions beyond chips and margaritas, ignored us for customers seeking entrees. A third friend arrived, having been ambling through that part of the city following a house party, and she greeted us with a story about a little black dress and a torn pair of tights. She’d ditched the tights, she shrugged. We laughed, and we raised our glasses.

I ache for new nights, for those wild moments where a bunch of people I love end up in the same place, the birthplace of stories. I yearn to come back to my apartment, exhausted and inspired, sloughing off my jacket and genuinely reveling in home.

Through the window, I can see the sky is blue, but I can’t quite feel the sun on my shoulders. Through the computer screen, I can see the faces of the people I love, but it’s not the same as knowing I can pull them into a hug.

I wait for the days of experiencing the world firsthand. I miss everything and everyone, and I’m tired of living with my breath half held.

A sharp inhale, a long exhale, fogging up the glass between us.

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on friends.

Happy anniversary, the text reads. Around me, my coworkers and friends are laughing, connecting, reuniting. It’s a golden evening in July, one of summer’s final love letters, and, eleven seconds ago, I was lost in all of it with them. Suddenly, my body’s gone cold, and all of them have blurred into the background.

A year ago, he left, shattering me and a hundred closely held illusions. On the first morning after, I embarked on a run, four miles under the summer sun, making it home just in time to collapse in tears on my yoga mat. Getting better was a conscious, stubborn process.

One text message, and my armor unravels at my feet.

I make my escape, bidding everybody goodbye with a wide smile, and walk to an empty parking garage. I stoop down on the concrete, reread his message a few times, and finally ask him: Why? 

At first, he is aloof, as though I’ve simply missed the joke. When my indignation builds, so does his: It’s been a year since we talked, which shouldn’t be true, but oh well.

And here we are again, the Scorpio, after stinging, reveals his own injury: Even after a calendar year, I haven’t taken him up on the offer to be friends. I see him now, in blinding, shaking clarity. I rise, shaky breaths, and walk right back into the sun.

But, hey, we can always be friends.

In some form or another, the sentiment seems to creep its way into the conversations whispered at a relationship’s burial site. The floor has just fallen apart beneath lovers’ feet, tears have leaked their way through the hollows of all bodies involved, and everybody’s reacquainting with the world in raw, exposed skin. Let’s be friends.

After much consideration, I reject any notion of it as ‘the right way forward.’ For a thousand reasons, not all of them mature or fashionable, but all of them honest.

Because my friends tell me everything –– their anxieties, their joys, the sex they’re having or want to have, their bad dates and good dates –– and I’m really not interested in hearing about those from somebody whose face I had to take down from my walls.

Because my friends rescue me when I fall, see the worst of me and stay, own up to their failures and stay, show up on my hardest, ugliest, messiest days. And stay.

Because the whole idea seems to be predicated on the notion that to be a lover is a simple stairstep above being a friend, that at least we can be friends, that, somehow, somebody’s decision to go means they are entitled to step freely among my friends.

Because friendship is not a consolation prize for you finding the courage or cause you need to stick it the hell out and stay.

I’m not saying it can’t be done, not criticizing anybody’s friendship with somebody they used to love romantically, but I am saying this: It doesn’t work for me.

Love letter to you, wonderer, who wandered into my pages carrying new definitions, the way the letters on every page before rearranged themselves upon your arrival;

to you, boisterous joy, whose laugh was the sun on so many bleak evenings, avocado and lime on the cutting board and music painting the air golden;

to you, examiner, eyebrows furrowed as you study the best and worst of me, your love the color navy blue;

to you, soldier, sharpening a machete on my behalf the moment my voice trembles, we both know you’ve got a bad habit of finding yourself in battles, but pinky-swear we will see every last one through;

to you, magician, whose spirit contains some of the same DNA as my own, we are mysteries to so many, but, to each other, a series of private jokes;

to you, tree with deep roots, steady in every storm, dropping fruit in my hands on the days I believe myself unworthy of nourishment;

love letter to you, to us, to the improbable miracle of existing at the same time, to rescue in the form of staying, to love itself.

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book club: ‘a tree grows in brooklyn’.

As a reader, I tend to shy away from ‘the classics’ in my selections. They’ve been mined for meaning, it seems to me, and there are so many stories waiting for my shovel. But here, now, in the days of quarantining far away from my family, I took A Tree Grows in Brooklyn down from the shelf. My Mom’s favorite book. I turned the page and began.

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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn takes place in the early 1900’s, before World Wars and the complications of technology. Its characters inhabit Williamsburg, Brooklyn, though the story lives and pours from the mind of Francie Nolan. She is young, bright, and her eyes are just opening to the truths of the world. Surrounding her are her family members, a younger brother Neely, her hardworking mother Katie, and her warm-but-wayward father Johnny. At the novel’s start, this is her world, and books are her only connection to anything outside of it. Read the rest of this entry »

still here.

These days, I busy my hands in the deep dig for hope. When this is over, I begin a hundred text messages. We build makeshift tomorrows with fantastic elements –– hugging one another close, sinking into seats at the movie theatre, dancing shoulder to shoulder beneath neon lights.

How quickly, we’ve learned, the familiar can unravel at our feet.

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in this moment.

I was at a meeting, etching song lyrics into the margins of my notebook, when it dawned on me that things were about to change. Classes are very likely going to move online, we learned, and, it’s possible we may all move to working remotely. Murmured questions began to rise from the group, and – as if by instinct – I started writing a message to my mom and dad.

If we end up going to remote work for a month or so for coronavirus, could I spend that at home? I hit send, tilted my head back, imagined what life might look like: Dad’s cooking, Mom’s stories from work, the dogs alternatingly comatose and frenetic, late-night vanilla ice cream scoops in yellow bowls.

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sixteen songs.

the rain isn’t much
for social distancing,
wraps my arms, kisses
my cheeks as i barrel
ahead, over sidewalks,
through scaffolding tunnels,
under awnings bearing
proud names over
empty stores

sixteen songs, and
i don’t want to stop
running, lungs never
more full than
right here, dreary
kiss from a weary
world, my bloodstream
run red

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