A letter to me at twenty years old. Before I tell you anything, let me tell you what I remember: It’s the summer of 2009, and you’re a few weeks away from moving back to Ball State for Sophomore year. Your first year there brought you its fair share of breakthroughs –– a runner was born, shedding weight and few old notions about being stuck, and you’ve only just begun etching a story that feels like your own. You savor these days, home in Brazil, Indiana. Running childhood roads, laughing with family, jumping into Grandma’s swimming pool.
So much of who I am today is already true: wide-eyed, stubborn in your optimism and brash in your loving, prone to telling stories, invested in others, hushed in your hurting. All of it survives the decade ahead; some will be key to the surviving.
You hope your twenties will bring adventures, and I’m here to tell you –– they will. They won’t look a thing like you imagine, but I promise you this: You’ll know love, and heartbreak, and every color in between. You’ll run as far as your legs will carry you, laugh late into the night with the best of people, cry with friends as you stand at the endings, fall apart and rebuild.
So much is ahead that, today, you wouldn’t dare imagine for yourself. These are the days of fighting so hard to hold the word gay deep, deep down. Sometimes I wish I could show it to you, how differently honest air tastes to your lungs. Suffice it to say, you’ll find your way out, and people will stay.
And some people will leave. Right now, you imagine the people around you are yours forever, your best friends will still love you at the edge of your thirties, all of you married with kids, but you’ll come to know that not everybody can stay. They matter all the same. Somehow, the love from today bleeds into all the tomorrows.
You’re going to fail. Miserably. At the very things you’re most afraid of failing. Be gentle with yourself in the aftermath, because ugly pages will bring you compassion, and you’ll never feel so strong as when you learn to stand again. You’re worth love on the days you break apart. I know it’s hard to believe; I’m still working on it.
I’d tell you more, but what use would that be. Take off running, Michael. Run, write, love, believe like you’re certain things won’t fall apart. Even when they do, you’ll figure out there’s love all the way through.
Footnotes on my twenties. The beginning years were dedicated to wild youth and discovery. Everything was possible, and nothing could go wrong. At college, I became an RA, a job that brought exponential growth and changed my life. My friends and I were a robust assortment, laughing and arguing with equal intensity, and we closed out college with our futures all but mapped out.
Near the end of college, and through grad school, I stopped knowing how to outrun my heart: I fell in love for the first time. Hushed phone calls, sounds good, and whispered futures. And there were joys: coming out to a rainbow of friends, saying gay out loud, earning a Master’s degree in small-town Illinois, gathering courage in tiny increments.
I came out –– reckless courage, wild love –– and I navigated the realities of being seen under sunlight. Love disintegrated in my hands, the days of looking in the mirror and having no idea how to love the person looking back at me. The rescue of friends who reached for me anyway, the wild and devastating rescue. Meeting a boy who felt like recklessness, falling in love with my foot off the brake, discovering what it is to love in the open.
He left as recklessly as he arrived, and I fell again to the pavement, this time staying for a while. Why, I roared, pounding the ground, does love leave me? Then came the answer: finding love in every direction, holding my friends, being held, refusing to use somebody’s failure to love me well as reason to stop loving. Discovering, finally, the magic of believing in magic. Here, now, on the eve of everything.
Running out of good reasons to compromise. The wild leap, New York City, trusting my hands to build something new. The year of expanding wildly, of marching among rainbows through the wild city, of love unapologetic. Another beginning, the reminder that endings bring beginnings, beginnings and beginnings and beginnings.
Revisions. I sink into my chair, forehead pressing momentarily into my palms, and let out a long exhale. Around me, the tiles are littered with crumpled up sheets of notebook paper, each its own attempt to squish a decade into a meaningful story.
The first draft is palatable, optimistic. Written in bright ink and highlighting only the best days and nights. Laughter with friends, wild and young, and facing the obstacles with cobbled-together courage. It tells the hero’s story, another case made for loving me, rings emptier, emptier still.
The second is darker, heartbreak in somatic handwriting across the ledgers. The second I give space to the hardship, details bleed out in a flood, and I’m again indulging the temptation to let my scars ache alongside a chorus of memories.
The third reads like a defense, justifying the places I traveled to get where I am. The fourth, signs of fatigue, omitting emotion and conviction in favor of raw, lifeless detail. The fifth, a single sentence written over and over, there was love even in the way the pavement cradled me. Six, seven, eight, nine, crumpled up and tossed to the floor to make way for new pages.
It hits me, pages and pages later, knuckles worn down to the nub: This is the most honest story there is. Setting aside old stories to write anew, reaching to live a story I can tell without trying.
Who am I? I am a stack of stained pages, redacted love letters, spilling ink and pressing it into tomorrow.
The words fell out of me at a coffeeshop, and, for the first time in months, I had an answer to the question who am I.
At 27, I found myself again unraveled, my plans in tatters across the tabletop. That night, after months of trying to outrun the tough questions, I sat down to write and discovered the answers.
Stained. Redacted. Spilling. Heartbreak was a housefire, and I’d scrambled my way through smoke and flames holding onto only the absolutes. So much fell to ash, notions like I can love somebody’s selfishness away and if I show up, he’ll show up and I’m immune from falling apart.
More interesting, though, is what survived: A stack of stained pages, redacted love letters, limbs that spill ink and hands that insist on pressing meaning into future pages.
Love letter to my twenties. Love letter to the boy who didn’t believe his hands would ever hold what his heart reached for, love letter to the way laughter echoes from old stories, love letter to loves that fell into dust, love letter to loves that stayed, and love letter to the palms that sorted them apart, love letter to the hand pressed, fingers apart, against his sternum, love letter to the electric kiss in an abandoned storefront, love letter to the strength swelling in forgiveness, love letter to the way letting go makes room, love letter to the People Who Stay, to being seen in honest light, love letter to the stacking of stories, the way handwriting shows itself several layers down, to the wild and unbelievable then, there, here, and now, the everything, everything, everything.