what a time.

by Michael King

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.