michael king

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

what a time.

I have the bad habit of holding my breath to get through painful things. At the doctor’s office, in a routine blood draw, my nurses often ask if I’m okay. Breathe, they remind me. Gentle eye contact, reassuring pat on the shoulders.

It’s like, if I can sit just still enough, the wave of hurt might pass me right by. Sometimes, by the time I realize I’ve stopped breathing, my lungs can’t help but gasp for air.

Over longer periods, the holding my breath gets (thankfully) less literal. After I realized I was gay, but before I was ready to tell anybody, holding my breath looked like ceasing building any concrete plans for the future. I stopped hoping for things, halted writing any plans, because the future felt suddenly out of reach.

That time lasted years, stacks and stacks of months where I was just scraping for hope in the present day, and, when I finally said those words – to myself, to my friends, to loved ones – I felt like my lungs finally freed up a bit of room.

It’s been a year of holding my breath, friends, of trying to wait out the grief of all my broken plans, but my sternum aches for honest air, and I haven’t saved a single person, myself included, by standing perfectly still.

No matter what the world feels like, time has resumed its quiet continuity, ushering all of us onward. We have lost jobs, packed our belongings in boxes, set them out in new spaces. There have been positive pregnancy tests, tearful hugs of grieving, tumors found in the bodies of our bravest, steadiest heroes.

So this is me, showing up, taking the deepest, if shakiest, breath I can muster. This is me declaring that surviving a pandemic is not the limit of my creative reach.

So often I am preoccupied by the people who belong in my past chapters. Loved ones who have died, lovers who have left, friends whose laughter I haven’t heard in years. It is jarring to me, the realization that I cannot bring them to today’s pages. The best I can do is keep their stories, taxonomies of our times together, nestled in the eaves of my being. Ask any of my friends: I overflow with stories.

Sometimes, in the midst of telling a friend the story of the time I was kissed in an empty storefront, I glance into my beer and furrow my brow. ‘I’m sorry,’ I chuckle, ‘I forget why I was telling you that.’

‘Because you remembered it,’ he offers, graciously, ‘and you wanted me to remember it too.’

Every time somebody goes, I feel a grief I know will echo throughout the rest of my lifetime. Time demands we give up so damn much to see what waits ahead, and dragging our feet only muddies the journey. The world feels, at times, indifferent to our grieving.

And yet there are skies that bring us hope on heavy mornings, cacti that blossom on the windowsill in light of the January snow. Living may be a hard damn scrape, but it stitches us back together all the same.

Above perhaps all things, I don’t want to regret. I don’t want to wish I’d been gentler, wonder what might’ve happened had I found the courage to speak. I am terrified of leaving my I-love-yous left unspoken, of leaving behind more scars than stories in my wake.

In my story, I have gotten it wrong. I have failed, on occasion with colossal emphasis. I have hurt people I have tried to love, and I have placed my time and energy in the wrong directions.

To dwell too heavily in the past, raking myself against my history’s hard edges in an effort to absolve myself, is to waste today.

In the same vein, to hold my breath and close my eyes in wait of better days is to miss the wonder of what’s happening right around me.

Pandemic or no, I inhabit a world, today, that will, come tomorrow, never again be within reach. It’s up to me to show up to it, to carry yesterday’s tomes and tomorrow’s hopes along with me into my living. There are love letters to be written, laughs to be shared, stories to be etched into the greater tale.

And so here I am.

ten days in.

ten days in and already
i’ve had trouble meeting my
gaze in the mirror, hung
my head, all my skin
new, once again, raw
against the open air

please just stop, i beg
the uncaged puppy in
the sparse amber light
of 3 AM, stop crying
and rest, but it is
my face flooded and
wet, he knows,
burrows into my
shoulder until my
breathing deepens

another time i’ve
been cradled by the
one i’d believed i was
saving

i am a runner deprived
of sleep, eyes weary
and legs weighty,
praying for something
like momentum, never
more alone than in
these heavy hours

string the lights beneath
the boards, bask in
the glow, the way
my friend’s weeps
turn to giggles over
Jennifer Hudson singing
Memories, tonight will be
a memory too, all of us
huddled around the fire
of each other’s company

these pages, too, will
yellow, and i will long
for the sounds of these
days, voices over the
phone, mysteries still
to be solved, loves to
be found, griefs who
will wait to be carried
some far-off tomorrow

2020: between heartbreak and hilarity.

For better or worse, I held myself together until the ripe old age of 25. Then, beneath an audience of golden October leaves, I wrecked myself and fell apart. My first love crumbled on impact, skittering across the concrete, and I shattered right there with it.

I sat down to write about it months later. Given time and space, I finally felt ready to revisit that harrowing morning, the paralyzing days that followed, and put it all onto paper. If I can understand the story, figure out where it belongs along my bookshelf, I imagine it won’t be able to swallow me up.

I wrote about myself in the second-person, further distancing myself from the moment. I became an omniscient narrator, critical and a bit mean-humored, and the me from that morning was now ‘you.’ You wake up and, for a good five minutes, you ask yourself just where in the fuck you are. The writing was cathartic, and it spilled out of my hands without effort. I finished it before my coffee line had vanished and, unsure what to do next, passed it along to a friend.

Days later, she returned feedback: I’m sure this felt good to get out, she said, but it’s not your best work. It doesn’t sound like Michael King. Your best stuff isn’t this severe. Your best stuff is somewhere between heartbreaking and hilarious.

The advice changed, forever, the way I approach hard stories. Not only when I’m writing them, but also when I’m making sense of something I’ve done. There’s humor in the mistakes, sure, but there’s heartbreak in what led us to make them.

So it is that I’m approaching putting 2020 to paper.

In March, my emotions were a slingshot ride. I woke up, most mornings, and felt a sense of wild hope, breaking into a run across a shuttered Manhattan and noticing the stubborn arrival of flowers and sun. I carried this momentum into the afternoon, working with determination to make something of the day. Then, without warning, there was despair. My voice breaking over the phone the moment I said hello to my sister, my eyes flooding like broken dams looking out at sunny, empty New York.

For months, I saw no one I knew in real life. On a run, I’d hear a song and imagine seeing my mother again at an airport, and I’d break into sobs, stumbling to a bench and letting the emotion take hold. On one such occasion, I glanced up to see a woman walking her dog, watching me and crying, too. We said nothing to one another.

Gradually, as late spring and early summer began to take hold of the city, we began to venture closer to one another again. A friend, stationed at a hotel for healthcare workers, asked if I’d be willing to come to his room and watch Drag Race and drink wine with him. When I arrived, he made me pull on scrubs before entering, coached me to walk like I knew what I was doing. An hour later, sitting on his bed and drinking rosé from plastic cups, I glanced across at him and felt rescued.

I’d imagined another summer of kickball games, boozy brunches, and crowded bars, but it was a summer of books and blankets in the park, wine and beer pulled from backpacks, music played over Bluetooth speakers. Hiking across Queens and Brooklyn and Manhattan to grab a beer from the breweries of each. Pizza enjoyed on the sidewalk, tears in gratitude of friendship, rehashing what exactly happened on the night the man fell from the roof (and, thankfully, survived).

June arrived, and it brought heartbreak along with it. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery. Their stories echoed across the globe, and our communities grappled with wounds long left ignored. Pride month became inextricably intertwined with Black Lives Matter, feeling more like the original Pride marches, and every corner of the city was covered in messages of mattering. For a moment, the world seemed to pause, to listen.

I lost my job in the Fall, and the home that came with it, and I spent a solid two weeks staring down the pathways ahead of me. What kind of story could I write, I asked myself. I felt exhausted, defeated, and tired of mining myself for hope. Stubbornly, I stood up and started looking for apartments, knowing a lease would be harder to obtain without a recent paystub. Election week arrived in that muddle, a series of sleepless nights that reminded me of the trauma of 2016 and the knots it left behind in me. It came and went, and soon a treasured friend and I were moving my belongings to my first chosen home.

The first time I hugged my mom this year, we both cried. I have cried more this year than any other, and I have learned to let hugs last as long as they can. Once, on a long drive, I heard my niece Lynnlee working to distract my niece Ivy, and Ivy broke into wild laughter. The sound struck deep, unburying something deep within me, a hope I’d kept sheltered in these hard days, and my eyes flooded with tears.

Sometimes, when I think back on the way I lived my life before this pandemic, I’m not sure I still have the energy in me to go back and live that way again. Even now, I find myself fatiguing earlier, longing for home and for bed, bracing for the possibility of long stints of time without being witnessed by loving eyes.

But 2020 won’t live on as ‘the year without stories.’ It was the hardest damn year, but it was not without stories: There was the ill-fated bike ride, the impromptu lip sync on 60th Street, the glitter night at Ross’s place, nights smoking and laughing on a fire escape, Thanksgiving getting tackled by gigantic dogs, and a hundred others.

It was heartbreaking, and, in the rarest moments of rescue, it was hilarious.

It was the year of broken plans, of postponed to postponed again to canceled, of running by shuttered windows and trying to remember what it all felt like before. The year of margarita toasts at computer screens, at meaningful glances with strangers, of stubborn warmth pervading the long chill. It was the year of corporate attempts at empathy, reaching our hands, instead, for each other’s, of shedding the thick skins we pulled on to try and feel safe. The year we felt like orphans in our own homes, grieving as a status quo, building with tired damn hands, the year of stubborn damn stories. It was the year we could no longer escape ourselves, glancing at ourselves in the mirror simply so we could feel seen again, finding our long-held flaws, our broken, breathing bodies, finding ourselves suddenly beautiful, strong, brilliant. It was the year of light bending itself to stretch into the deepest cracks, breaking through brokenness, illuminating us.

tell them.

Sometimes I think about New Year’s Eve in 2019. I recall blurry strings of lights, frantic planning and adapting, the splash of beer as plastic cups collided, the roar of ‘happy New Year’ into the open, unmasked air. I left the bar and meandered home in a happy, muddled state.

I remember thinking of the year as a blank page, one which would soon be filled with a story, and we were all dreaming up paragraphs. This would be the year we found love, the year we put ourselves out there, the year we traveled, or chased a new dream, or asked for that promotion at work.

Instead it was the year we discovered the planet had brakes, screeching ones, and our stomachs lurched as the driver’s foot slammed itself down. Weddings, flights to London, concerts, high school graduations, all reduced to a scribbled smudge in some calendar box.

I will write about what came next, the stories that emerged from the year without stories, another time.

Today, I am thinking on the people who carried me through. I am picturing the faces of the people who searched for me, found me in the lost days, shared in my laughter and shouldered my tears (Looking back, there was plenty of both.). In my time, in my way, I’m going to write them love letters.

I want you, each of you, to think on this past year. Think of who lifted you –– is lifting you –– from the mire of ambiguity, steadying your feet on shaky ground and serving as your reminder to believe in better tomorrows. I hope you are seeing someone, or multiple someones, and I hope you will tell them. Hand them flowers in the form of ‘you’re my hope on the hardest days.’

With love.

dirty slates.

in my childhood home, fruity pebbles were
an outlawed item, my mom convinced
there must be cement in the mix,
her fingertips raw from scrubbing
multicolored remnants from the
ceramic rims of white bowls

i am thinking about the way
matter clings to its existence, the
way everything bends itself
to survive, about how maybe
letting go is antithetical, somehow,
to everything

i am thinking of the
number of times my mom
has had to scrub beneath hot water
because i’ve been too careless
to rinse things away

i am thinking of you and
the way we’ll never
have clean slates with one another,
stagnant air and empty hours,
those things that seemed bright,
seemed sweet, scraping their way
down my ribcage

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.