Is there a better smell than a freshly struck match? I light a candle and watch the wick curl, remember the scratch of every page ripped loose from the binding, bad ideas and broken plans, and when did I become better at the breaking than the building?
Give me a life with a man who reads books, not out of some higher ground but because I can’t even fathom how safe it would feel to sit together in quiet, minds exploring worlds, with someone who knows how to be content with his thoughts and the things he already has
Pause at the library and study my reflection in the glass, am I really a character worth rooting for? Michael and his sinking arc, stubbornly clings to what has become heavy rather than glide his arms through the floodwater.
There are people in your story you will merely survive, I scribble down, kneeling beside the coffee table after a run then, beneath the shower, the sentiment melts as the cold rinses loose from my limbs
There are no bad guys, I write on an unblemished line, I know firsthand the hollow sting of having tried to love someone and instead leaving behind scars, then I shrug, stand up, tired of apples and oranges
Maybe everyone was trying his best, my jawbone says, generous, and my fingertips recoil, so it’s a matter of capacity, then, and not willingness?, my lungs bark, sternum wails, forehead aches at the cacophony, a body at war with itself, wringing itself ragged for some meaning, for some meaning
What does it say about you, says my heart, in some silence, that your love is this color, sun ray through an open window, what does it say, for some meaning, for some meaning?
sunrays of an early morning and here I am in the mirror my body a tender mammal warm and wanting, still recoiling where I press recklessly against the spaces where you pressed recklessly
some hundred crumpled-up poems over the last week, sharp-edged lines slicing papercuts into my healing fingertips, what is there to do with fury, really? I press on, starving the fever
relief swells in your absence, no longer combing up the crumbs and declaring myself full, watch all the prettiest boys open up briefcases and bruise my own wrists hoping you might just take the money
I’m sorry I wanted so much and expected so little, tell myself you could’ve left well enough alone, and still I’m enamored by the boy who tried to love despite better instincts, still feels so unflinchingly on this cold, bright damn morning
The best nights in New York City feel a bit like a runaway train. The city is hard, brutal edges and corners, but it will give you story after story if you let it. You just have to loosen your grip, feel the breeze against your palms.
It’s 3 AM, I’m sitting on the floor of a Brooklyn train station, and I am reveling in how free and beautiful life feels. The night freshly lived is a series of images: six-pack of sour beers, black henley stolen from my brother nine years ago, crickets at Zona Rosa, stories swapped on a bus otherwise empty, bags of chips on a free-standing laundry, my friend’s face as we break free to talk about life yet again.
And now this: Me, 33 years old and suddenly at ease with everything that’s ever happened, singing into the cavernous space. Really can’t remember where I left my spine, carrying my body in a bag for dimes. I pause, the melody warm on my lips as I hear my voice reverberate. Hidden in the pages of the New York Times at home. Nearby, two women turn to smile at me, one giving me a thumbs-up. I laugh, shy, and hum to myself instead.
We’re raised on stories with satisfying arcs. Heroes face down villains, lovers face obstacles, people meet the moment and change for the better. In college, a fellow writer told me I’d probably always write ‘coming-of-age’ stories. Everything you write is about learning to meet this world for what it is. At the time, I resented his boiling down of my gift to something so simple.
But here, on this night and against this wall, I have to admit: The greatest coming-of-age lesson I’ve ever learned is that stories don’t really have endings. Human arcs are messy, layered, mundane, back and forth. Happiness isn’t just a quick mountain away; love isn’t the period at the end of some sentence.
But, sometimes, the story we want to live chimes in perfect unison with the moment we’re living. Peace is a cat wandering into the crook of our arm, purring for the moment. Try and grab it, hold it too close, and it runs away and skulks beneath the furniture.
And so we sing into subway stations.
My therapist apologized to me this week. Last time, she explained to me, when you were telling me about some of the changes in your life, I showed too much emotion. I laughed, told her it was all right, but she insisted. No, I’ve thought about it, and I shouldn’t be another person making you feel like I’ll be happiest when you get it right.
The hair on my arms raised, a lump pressing against my sternum. I accepted her apology. Our time together is always work, a long breath in and out, but it is also like looking into the mirror for a good long while. Eyes gentle, mind relaxed. Investigating.
Afterwards, I grabbed a coffee and stared out the window at a city in motion. Folks were buying Christmas trees, eating bites of pizza in between foggy exhales. I realized the hardest part isn’t the learning, isn’t the discovering the hard truths about ourselves, but it’s the unlearning, the letting go.
Maybe you realize you push people away. Maybe you even break through to realizing you do it because you’re afraid of being let down, and pushing people away at least keeps the control in your hands. The epiphany can feel clarifying, relieving, but the work comes days, weeks, months later, when you find yourself pushing someone away again. When you realize naming the monster didn’t free you of it, and now you need to forgive yourself, set the monster down, and try something new.
We are learners, always. We learn and learn and learn. Unlearning, letting go, is the good fight for something better. It’s swimming against our own currents and trying to reroute the story.
I brought my cat home at the dusk of July. I woke up, walked to my rental car with a cat carrier, and took the tunnel out of the city and into New Jersey. My destination, decided by his foster family, was a rest stop named for Jon Bon Jovi.
In the back seat, on his own for the first time, he was timid and quiet, then began to cry out. One hand on the wheel, I reached my right hand back toward his carrier’s net boundary. He pressed his tiny face against it and purred. We arrived back into the city that way, jumping over the page into a new chapter together.
Months later, it’s hard to imagine my apartment without him. At night, when I climb up the ladder to my lofted bed, I know he is going to playfully bat at my feet. On the mornings I linger in bed and play on my phone, I know he will eventually get tired of waiting on me and make an appearance to coax me into the day.
He’s changed so much in such a short time, grown more confident and restful. Some corners of the apartment feel like his, and he stands most proudly in those. We have rituals, and he knows how to communicate their beginning with me. He paws at my legs when he wants me to lift him, stretches his body back and away from me when he wants me to brush his paws against the walls and corners. He can open the bathroom door if it’s not fully shut.
As December begins to melt into a new year, I think of his 2022. Lanky kitten has given way to playful cat, a fuzzy beast that revels in his own rest for most hours of the day. He has grieved his siblings, moved on from the places he called home before this, come to trust me, flourished alongside me.
Sometimes it tickles me that he has no concept of New York City, of the busy and bustling world roaring just outside the perimeters of this apartment. I feel sorry for him, and then I realize I shouldn’t. He is so deeply content.
Don’t you want to dance? a friend asks, and, before I know it, I’m riding a bike through the rain in a glitter-bomb jacket, the swaths of streetlight glow shattering into dancing stars across concrete buildings and rain-slicked signs
I wrestle in bed with someone new, we are kissing and laughing, and I am a mess of neuron sparks, poet with pen overflowing, there are better stories to write
This year I wrote letters only I will read, sighed long and slow as my eyes danced them over, hands dropping them on the desk to yellow in the honest air
November was the eleventh hour and I spent it reacquainting with a room full of abandoned selves, the me who fares oceans by intuition, the one who sings his story in boisterous tenor, me whose love blooms every morning into a bouquet he cannot help but hand out
In the corner, watching the window with a rueful gaze, the me who closes the door to rooms where he did not find honest welcome, who etches boundaries like cliffsides, keep your distance, I hugged him and thanked him
The me who sorts the Polaroids on the hardwood floor, arranges them into a meaningful thread, he asked me where you been and laughed warmly when I confessed it had been a shin-scrape year, that’s not the story, he showed me, whisking the blurry pictures aside, you see?
I walked into the room, embarrassed and wary, but they’d been waiting all the while, a family doesn’t ask for explanations upon the return, just pours a drink and admits it’s such a relief to feel you here again
my supervisor tells me you get to choose again and i have to go off camera so she won’t see a grown man wipe his eyes, I am telling this story just fine until my friend interrupts me to say you don’t have to keep saying ‘twice,’ and, puzzled, i ask what she means, she says say ‘it was a mistake’ but you don’t have to keep saying ‘twice’
on the night we gave up, i thought i might find tears when i crossed the finish line home, but no, just numbness and then relief, found fury and indignation and regret, my least favorite of these, in all the rebuilding tomorrows, but no tears
the only times i want to cry, am tempted to buckle into myself, are the moments i am offered grace, far easier to regard myself with brutal hands, stupid boy and your stupid hopes, steel myself over and keep going, ready to weather anything but a single gentle touch, any permission to confess the tender, animal griefs within me
There’s a thrill to the blank page, if I can stomach it. Where a cursor blinks, on and off, I’m staring at no small infinity of directions things can go. Each time, my fingertips start off clumsy at the keyboard, dancing in hesitant mistrust of my mind’s wandering whims. But, oh, the chord that ripples through my spine when I unearth something true.
I’ve started over before. Making my story home is a matter of leaning into my absolutes, my constants. The hard part, I find each time, is figuring out how to let go of the variables. How do I wrench my palms apart long enough to set free the beautiful edges of my yesterdays?
Part of that is being honest about the edges that weren’t beautiful. The isolation, the emptiness, the cold. The morning I woke up so panicked and broken I wanted to beat my ribcage with my fists, punishment for bringing myself here. The eerie familiarity of waiting in line to be remembered. Not recognizing myself in the mirror. Not wanting to.
It’s not the story I wanted to tell, and – to be honest – I still don’t care to tell it. It’s not that interesting. Nobody, myself included, surprised anyone. Everybody met expectations.
Turning the page, beginning again, takes courageous abandon. It requires us to let go of things and people we loved, honest-to-God loved, and allowing them to belong to past chapters.
At one such juncture in my life, I found my mind to be deeply impatient with the stubbornness of my heart. I envisioned them, separate entities, arguing at a train station. The tracks were rusted, overgrown with ivy, and still the heart sat on the bench. “Come on, Heart,” the mind pleaded, voice gentle, “he won’t be coming back.”
This time feels familiar and different. My heart and mind are on the same page, grieving and looking forward alike. I suppose I have these days to thank for a few realizations: My mind is just as ruminative and stubborn as my heart. I have trouble believing the beautiful stories belong to yesterday. I can take my time to find my voice again.
Perhaps I’m more acquainted with the hard parts of myself. The bitterness and fury I feel in the face of rejection. The way my spirit houses warmth and grace right alongside sharp insights and expectations. I see you and I love you and I hoped for so much more from you. All the linguistic magic I use to paint beautiful worlds around somebody, now at my disposal to indict them, final speech delivered to some jury.
I have to love these parts of me, too. To acquaint with them is to understand them, and to love them is to talk them out of their cruelest inclinations. I am willing to stay with me; I have my own back.
Whatever comes next, I am relieved the story will not be the same. If I encounter loneliness, at least it will be new loneliness. These are thoughts that ring through me on the hollowest evenings.
A person I love is staring down his own blank page. Right now, all he can see is the loss of everything, grief rinsing everything away. I hate to know he is aching; I love to know he is beginning again.
A few years ago, I texted an ex’s friend to let her know I understood she needed to be there for him. That, to some degree, the knowledge she’d be there for him gave me permission to detach. She answered with words that I’ve carried since: Anybody who knows you knows you’re about to show us what it is to blossom through pain.
Blossoming is, in my experience, painful. Healing is an acknowledgment of wounds, a letting go of the things that wound us. But there’s beauty in every step.
I am writing and I am building and I am bruised and I am furious and I am regretful and I am wanting and I am letting everything go.
It’s just past midnight, and I get the text. Can you? I exhale, breath colliding against the whirr of the fan. My cat watches, puzzled, as I climb right back down. An overnight bag: toothbrush and toothpaste, contact solution and lens case. My eyes aren’t ready for lenses just yet, so I squeeze my eyelids shut as they adjust.
I open them, red and purple toothbrushes coming into focus in the wastebasket below.
Outside the warmth is unseasonable. I stand in it, for a moment, feel my body adjust to the breaking of routines. It feels like college, this. Going outside into the night when we all know we’d be better served by bedtime. Here, in the wee hours, the rules seem to dissolve a bit.
Stories swell in the interruptions. We are never more present in our bodies than when we are surviving something.
I’m never the same kickball player two games in a row. On this afternoon, for reasons I don’t understand, I know exactly what I’m doing. A ball rockets into the sky, and I am bolting to meet its descent. When it thunks into my chest, I am not surprised, not even particularly elated. Later, bases loaded, I kick the ball right into an opening in the field, watching with a grin as runs pour in.
An hour passes, and I am walking the city beneath the sun-soaked blue. My strides are long, mighty, like my legs will carry me anywhere. In a window, I catch my reflection, and I stop to study myself. I feel, for the moment, beautiful. The slope of my shoulders, the warmth behind my eyes. My arms are refuge, my smile boyish and ready. I feel free.
Events stack up in the aftermath: I see a man on the sidewalk and we agree to hang out for real this time. I’m in the bar with a microphone, announcing finales. I dance beneath changing lights, cradle a friend’s face. I stoop to sit on a tree stump, calling to make sure somebody’s okay. There is no answer. I am at a bar, and a familiar face asks about my life. I pause, update him, and he tilts his head, offers kind words.
Days later, the same man posts a picture online, and I recognize the living room behind him. Nintendo Switch games in a neat stack behind his shoulder. My stomach sinks, and I am reminded of the many times I was supposed to be thrilled for you. I wanted to feel enthusiastic, excited –– at the least, calm.
It isn’t what I feel.
Sometimes, the story we’re living just isn’t congruent with the story we want to tell. When this happens, it’s like somebody rearranged your apartment, replaced the furniture. None of it quite feels like home.
To make room for you, I cleared out a space right in the center, and everything else stacked up in the margins. My walkways became narrower; unconsciously, I adjusted my gait. These days, I am pacing the floor, letting intuition guide my hands as I make my life home again. To love you was an interruption; to love myself is a return.
I am, in moments, angry. I am sad, am nostalgic, am bruised. If I’m honest, though, I am most often relieved. I am more myself, more present in my own being, than you ever made possible.
I tuck a Polaroid in a drawer of miscellaneous things. Everything I take down from the wall, I am reminded, makes way for something new.
I’m sitting, let’s say, at a coffeeshop. Soy latte nestled between my palms, my friend across the table, staring vaguely off as he ponders life. Abruptly, a stressful thought strikes and then lifts away. I clear my throat, ask my friend ‘say that again,’ and feel my body running through its fight-or-flight bullshit. What am I worried about? I search and search but can’t pinpoint it. I am, I realize, acutely aware of my heartbeat, of shrill machines, of the music saturating the scene.
A stressful thought, arriving and going, staining everything in its wake. It always takes a few minutes for the color to come in clear again, for the sounds to sync up with the images. The worry has a short shelf life, its usefulness even shorter.
This happened today, and I wondered if the stressful thought was you. I decided it wasn’t. I’m not sure I was right.
A person can have the same effect. Arriving suddenly and disappearing, messing up the color of everything for a while. It’s okay, the world will course-correct. Just keep breathing as your body debates whether you should tear shit up or run like hell.
What, exactly, am I supposed to do with this story?
In our last conversation together, you admit that you hate my need to ‘put everything out there.’ I’m sorry, I guess. I’ve always been this way, sharing my story as I’m discovering it. A friend once told me I plant a garden where my pain is, visiting and nurturing it and, eventually, sharing the fruit that grows from it. The analogy made my eyes well up.
I’m also not one to suffer in silence. My mom tells a story that, when circumcised, I cried in indignation until I tuckered myself out.
So, tender gardener or outraged infant, I am here with a story I do not understand how to sort. This will not, I know, live on to be one of my life’s great love stories. Neither was it horror, my predilection for hyperbole notwithstanding. It was human, I know, and it was predictable and messy and stupid and brave.
I study the shelf, wonder just where to shelve you. I promise I will soon start to tell the story without mentioning your name. These pages will yellow, collect dust.
I won’t etch a title into the binding.
I wake up feeling relieved. I run in the hotel parking lot, golden leaves skittering underfoot. The trees are about to show us how lovely it is to let the dead things go. Two autumns in a row, but now we’re in agreement. Peace knocks at the door, and I invite him in to stretch out and take a nap on the sofa.
I am a hundred miles from the city, and to be faraway yields hope. I will be hopeful for you, and faraway, and we will both write better stories for it.
There is anger, too. Time lost, tears shed, memories to set down and let loose. I don’t invite anger inside, just meet him at the door and encourage him onward. I’ve no need for his company; it has always only made me feel lonely.