in closing: the second ball state chapter.
by Michael King
i. I arrived at this chapter out of money and out of breath. That May, after decades of pushing my heart down beneath the surface, I came out to my parents. Letters typed with shaking hands, placed on the countertop in a house I didn’t expect to find empty. This was the beginning of a brave new chapter, I’d told myself, but I didn’t prepare myself for all the change my courage might bring.
My life in boxes, I drove to Muncie under the summer sun. In Indianapolis, my younger brother and I were startled by sudden rain showers, the kind where golden sunlight still prevails over the scene. To my surprise, the music on the radio cut out, and a radio personality told me news I never expected to hear in Indiana: the ban on same-sex marriage had been lifted in the Hoosier State. Tears flooded my eyes as I steered my way through.
We arrived to a crowd of helping hands, boxes and hangers lifted from my car and my brother’s truck and set in a new apartment before I could properly say thank you. I signed for keys, shook hands, laughed, sat with my brother over lunch, hugged him goodbye, and walked back inside. I studied the empty apartment for a moment, silent.
How to set up a life? I had no idea. I began a box at a time, pulling things out and guessing where they might go. I tried putting myself up on the walls. I worked to believe this was home.
ii. When this chapter was a blank page, the icon blinking and daring me to write, I had only scattered notions of what might populate these paragraphs. I wanted to approach living so my story might one day be worth telling. If I am the protagonist of this story, as we all are in our own stories, I want him to be brave, hopeful, and kind. Somebody who puts more love in the world than there was when he found it.
I wrote with clumsy hands in the beginning. At work, I was tentative and hopeful. Newly committed to living authentically, I resolved to letting people know I was gay early on. ‘My boyfriend is coming this weekend,’ I let them know, or, ‘my biggest accomplishment this year was coming out to my family.’ For this chapter, I decided, there would be no more undoing my first versions to make room for more honest ones.
We will break apart in this life, despite our most valiant attempts to hold ourselves together. Bravery means owning those parts of our story, too. In the fall of my first year back here, my first honest love fell apart in my hands, and all my foundations crumbled. After twenty-five years of holding myself together, I watched my pieces scatter themselves across the floor.
That day, and every broken moment since, there were people who showed up to sit with me through the mess. When I was so full of shame and sorrow that I couldn’t eat, a friend lured me off the couch, drove me to Panda Express, purchased me food, sat across from me and looked me in the eye: ‘Eat,’ she said, ‘you need to eat, and tell me whatever you need to tell me.’ She rescued me that day, and she’s rescued me several times since. Keep room for the people who love you just as adamantly on the days you’ve been shattered.
iii. There’s something to be said for the breaking apart; we find our absolutes when we’re faced with reassembling ourselves. In every chapter prior to this one, I found that people could be thrilled by my best performance. If I shrunk my worst qualities and capitalized on my magic, I just might be loved. It wasn’t until I stumbled into the pavement, watched my eyes become broken dams, that I began gaining an honest picture of just who I am.
The second time I fell in love, I did so with nothing to lose. My first heartbreak had pulled me to the floor and, true to character, I scrambled to my feet as soon as I could, began running. I stumbled into a man who struck me as reckless; he was warm and bright and beautiful, his love a shape-shifter, eyes daring me to give chase. I decided to run with reckless abandon, be brave in pursuit of a love story worth telling, stop resting behind walls and calling it courage.
To nobody’s surprise, we fell apart, and I was again on the pavement. On that night, amidst the mess, I surveyed myself and found so many scars. That morning, I put earbuds into my ears and ran toward the sunrise, breathing through pain, considering how I might love again. In the months since, I have found myself again and again, perhaps in ways I otherwise would have missed.
I’m still figuring out my absolutes, but I know so much more about them: I am in love with stories, and I view my life as an opportunity to write one. I am a wild believer in beginning again, a man who runs even before he is ready. On the days I own the worst parts of my story, I can create space for the people around me to do the same. I talk too much, sometimes saying more than I should, and I have a habit of revisiting my scars for meaning. I overflow with love, want to paint it everywhere, and, for a lot of people, it’s too much. I am stubborn, a fierce decider, reluctant to pull my feet from the path I’ve placed them on. If this heart settles on loving somebody, it will do so through their best and worst moments, will keep reaching for them, regardless of whether or not it finds them reaching back. I am always on the verge of running late, time never quite as infinite as I imagine it. I grew up nurturing the idea that I’m a difficult person to know and love, and undoing that is a daily practice. I love in capital letters, damn it, and I won’t apologize for it.
iv. One morning, I awoke to troubling updates on my phone –– a shooting, gay night club in Orlando, with dozens of people reported dead. I slipped out of bed, kneeling down to kiss my boyfriend on the temple, and sunk into my living room chair. The updates kept coming, the number of lives lost kept climbing. ‘If I am ever killed for being gay,’ I wrote, ‘let my life be a love letter to courage, to living an authentic story, to love itself.’
Love letters have shown up, again and again, in my writing this year. We all write love letters with the stories we’re living. We write love letters to our families, building our days around providing for them and laughing with them. We write love letters to our careers, pouring ourselves into work, building ambitions, uprooting and moving for new opportunities. Love letters to animals, to alcohol, to ourselves, above all else. What we love most, willing or not, has a tendency to show itself in the lives we build.
On one morning of this chapter, I awoke to a text from a new friend: ‘Your heart may be broken,’ the quote he sent read, ‘but your love still works.’ I read them, these words, again and again. In the middle of my mess, they pulled me to my magic. Yes, I was on the mend, but I could put my hands to work. And so I endeavored to show up, share light, build bravery, be a living and breathing example of loving through the breaks. To my joy, my love began to bear fruit: My friends braved past boundaries, my students began sharing the hard parts of their stories, my words gathered an audience.
My heart has become such a prolific author of love letters. My friends and family are no longer surprised by text messages letting them know they are loved, my students expect to see my hand raised to say ‘I love you.’ I’m beginning to believe that, when I die, the people who gather to make meaning of my life will understand the love letter I was trying to write. They’ll keep the story going after I no longer can.
v. Finishing a beautiful chapter is a tall order; I have spent the past few weeks unsure of just where to put all this gratitude. How many ways are there to say ‘you’ve changed my life by coming into it’? Can I put ‘I will stay with you for every chapter’ in words that will make the goodbyes sting less? And what should I save for the scrapbook, to run my hands over so I might remember all the magic we made? It’s felt something like reading a beautiful book with a highlighter, emphasizing the really excellent phrases, only to find myself highlighting it all, cover to cover.
So much of the beginning again requires letting go. As a writer, I find myself hoarding all of it, every person and memory, painstakingly gathered and detailed. To get to the next blank page, however, means putting periods at the end of some stories. Not everyone and everything gets to come with me to future pages. So I’ve found myself quietly writing goodbyes.
Goodbye to you, my first best friend, who convinced me by the wild beauty of your being that I should bare my heart, after all. Goodbye to you, coffee shop, where I have written through tears and joy and boredom and hope. Goodbye to you, beautiful students, who showed me that my hands can make magic, who gave me the radical benefit of the doubt. Goodbye to you, reckless handler of this heart, I will still find myself working to write happy endings for you. Goodbye to you, gorgeous campus, a place I have found myself a hundred times, have braved through breaks and rebuilt anew. Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.
vi. Lately, people have been asking me what’s next. Without a clear answer to give them, I have found myself working to give them some certainty. The truth is that I’m not certain. I have ideas, dreams I’ve quietly bundled and begun to run after, but it hasn’t been arranged in clear paragraphs. But I am also not scared –– if this chapter has taught me anything, it’s that our plans are wild mirages. We’re always a phone call from scribbling out imagined futures and writing on blank pages again.
I take comfort in all that I’ve learned. I showed up to this chapter with so little certainty, so much acquaintance to make with living authentically. Over the past four years, I have been a mess, I have been magic, and I have had beautiful people with me throughout all of it. In the next chapter, I will be passionate, unapologetic in my pursuit of love and courage, restless in trying to collect it, all of it, for the story I’m writing.
Right now, what I know is that I won’t settle for less than what’s honest. I will love in capital letters, will run after dreams like somebody who’s learned he will survive the scrapes, will show up with shaking hands for everything that matters. For today, here, now, on the eve of everything, that is more than enough.