michael king

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

saturday post: here & now.

I meet him for coffee. The coffeehouse is crowded, so we improvise two blocks up to a brunch spot we’ve both tried. There’s a ninety-minute wait, so we pivot, again, to a noodle shop. Over pad thai and spring rolls, we unpack our histories a bit. We moved here within a month of one another. His knee grazes mine beneath the table, and I’m surprised to see him blush.

Fast forward an hour, two men again on the sidewalks. Let’s go to the water, I suggest, and he agrees. I’m lowkey nervous, he says a few steps later, chuckling, filling a silence.

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funny story.

i saved a photo to my phone
i wasn’t thinking
just knew, by instinct,
how funny you’d find it
couldn’t wait to pull it up
thumbprints racing to write your name
like they’re still allowed to
write your name

then, like a snap,
rubber band stretched an atom too far,
history caught up to me
reminded me i don’t get to
send you funny pictures
reach for your name without thinking
i need to let go of phantom hopes
let the words we invented
become the lost language
they’re trying to be

so i’ve got this photo saved in my phone
in another life, it’d have made you laugh
but, in this life, today,
it allowed your absence
to flood the room.

poetry

 

book club: ‘how we fight for our lives’.

Despite what conventional wisdom might tell me, I have a tendency to judge a book by its cover. When I walked into Strand Books one afternoon, I did so with the intention of not buying any new books for myself. You have enough, Michael, I reasoned with myself. Then I noticed Saeed Jones’ How We Fight For Our Lives, like a novel on fire, propped up among the stacks. Intentions falling to ash at my feet, I reached for a copy.

When I cracked it open, intending to peruse a page or make a decision, I was pulled immediately into the story: a young gay man at the library, solicited by an older man to join him in the restroom, facing the dilemma between asking for help or allowing his feet to carry him where he wanted to go. I read three or four pages, immersed, before I remembered I was standing in a crowded bookstore. Sighing, I bought the book.

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How We Fight For Our Lives is a memoir, the author’s retelling of his discovery of the world as a son, a grandson, a black man, a gay man, and the intersection of all of these. Shared chronologically, stories from Jones’ life feel simultaneously realistic and raw. There is trauma, humor, loss, and horror. There is danger, hope, joy, and despair. All of it is shared unflinchingly, with refreshing honesty and humanity. My hands couldn’t set it down.

I was walking through a dusty, fluorescent-lit hallway––halfway to the assembly hall, trying with every filament of my body to look cool––when the two truths finally collided:

Being black can get you killed.

Being gay can get you killed.

Being a black gay boy is a death wish.

If you’re a black man in the United States, there is an inherent sense of danger in the world around you. In a different way, if you’re a gay man, the threat of violence looms around you. Carrying both identities, with the knowledge that there are certainly strangers in the world concealing hatred for both or either, intensifies that isolation. The experience of navigating that danger, walking the world with the keen awareness that it could show up and bring the story to a brutal, sudden end, often goes unacknowledged. As a reader, it hurt to navigate some of these moments alongside Saeed’s storytelling. He doesn’t flinch away from those moments, doesn’t pull away before exposing the nerves.

‘Deserved.’ I started circling that word like dirty water whirling down a drain. As I saw it, I had pursued him for much of that night ,hoping that he would invite me back to his place. I had seen him as a sexual object, or rather, I had built a metaphor around his body. And then, once we were alone in that room, he broke out of it, and almost broke me. Did I deserve what had happened to me? Had I been asking for it? Had I pushed too far? Or was this simply the risk I accepted, and would have to continue to accept, any time I went back to a guy’s place?

Much of the story in How We Fight For Our Lives revolves around the narrator’s relationship with his mother. Early in the story, Saeed alludes to the idea that his mother’s heart will not carry her beyond the pages of the story, that he will lose her before we are done reading. Still, there are stories that capture her humanity, her hope and heartbreak. As so often happens in the retelling of our stories of loss, there is a sense of hope that the ending will be different this time, that the very threads of reality, in the retelling, will work themselves into new knots.

‘Sedrick Saeed Jones, quit playing. I made you.’ She laughed then hung up. I wanted to laugh too, but I felt swept along, swept past. It annoyed me, how easily she was able to pry me away from myself. When I put down the phone, though, my frustration curdled into shame. How could I begrudge the woman who raised me on her own? How dare I, when she had found it in herself to keep loving her own mother through decades of ups and downs?

How We Fight For Our Lives is a provocative title for a memoir, sounding something like an instruction manual, promising answers to what is undoubtedly an impossible question. Who, I wondered, holding it in my hands, is the ‘we?’ Gay men? Black people in the United States? Sons raised by single mothers with ailing hearts? Mothers showing up to work in between orange pill bottles? Having finished the memoir, consumed it voraciously and let its stories echo over me a bit, I think the answer is yes. To all of those, each of them individually and sometimes all of them at once. Another question, what is it to fight for a life, rises naturally. The answer, I think, is both impossible and simple, found somewhere in the swell of hope among heartbreak, in the keeping on amidst falling apart. We’ve got to keep searching.

here no more.

i can’t find you in my poetry
my god, the months and months of
stubbornly writing every letter
of the alphabet, only to realize
i’d again spelled out your name
and now

i don’t stumble upon you in song lyrics
can’t fathom the sound of my name
in your voice, you are
a Polaroid photograph, yellowing on
some forgotten windowsill,
and i’m somewhere outside, a hundred
thousand miles away

poetry

book club: ‘the great believers’.

My friend, the Facebook message read, are you ready to have your heart broken again?

And so it was that I received the recommendation for The Great Believers, a novel that coaxed me into loving its characters, then (as promised) broke my heart as it pulled them through the heartbreak and hope of living, and losing their lives, through the AIDS crisis in 80’s Chicago.

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brother, i.

brother, i want to thank you
for taking the time to pin
my boutonnière to my lapel
i know it’s the sort of thing
i could have figured out for
myself, instead of waiting
five minutes before pictures,
but you didn’t say so, you
just smiled, just quietly
pinned them together

i want to thank you
for staying beside me
every time i spilled my life
across the sidewalk, another
failure to get it right, you
grabbed my shoulder, looked
me in the eye, told me
we’d keep on walking, you
and me, pick up what
we could and keep going

thank you for imaginary
games in the backyard,
sound effects and wide
eyes, how you believed
in things unseen, magic
faraway worlds, and
me, how you kept on
believing in me

i want to say i will
carry you with me
every step of the road,
brother, want to
grab your shoulder, look
you in the eye, tell you
it’s you and me

and, trembling fingers, i will
pin this boutonnière to my lapel,
the delicate bringing together,
how i will miss your gentle
hands, try and mimic them
in the mirror, brother,
i will carry us now

poetry

2019: the year of putting down roots.

2019rev

2019 arrived chaotically, waves of rainfall and loosely stitched plans ushering my friends and me into a dimly lit, low-energy bar with only a handful of minutes before the new year. We ordered drinks, grabbed the noisemakers scattered obligatorily across the bar and distributed them among the reluctant tables. Beers in hand, we watched the television set. When only thirty seconds were left, we shouted the countdown, our arms waving back like conductors at the unwilling orchestra.

By sheer force of will, or by nagging pull of tradition, cresciendo the orchestra did. Happy new yearwe proclaimed together. Band of strangers, hunkered down away from the rain, building hopes and beckoning in a year of new chances.

As 2019 loomed, I found myself decidedly unsure of how to think about the year to come. Normally, I feel reflected and ready, setting a vision for myself and embarking. But 2018 was a year of big change –– letting go of an old chapter, moving to New York City, beginning again –– and I wasn’t sure I’d found my bearings.

I need to put down roots, I remember thinking. I needed to start moving through this city like a citizen, somebody who calls it home. The more I reflected on it, the clearer my next steps became: cook more meals at home, find friends, build a community. Paint an orange glow over the miles and miles of slate gray.

In a one-on-one meeting, early in the year, I told my boss about this, and he nodded. “I’ve noticed you spend a lot of your time hosting visitors and flying home,” he told me, “I think it’ll change your life to focus on your roots here.”

And change my life, I did –– by inches at a time.

I started by making my bed every morning, a simple shift toward mindfulness. Per a friend’s recommendation, I checked out the world of Trader Joe’s, and my evenings became opportunities to cook for myself, plate my own nourishment, store the remainder for tomorrow’s lunch.

In the spring, I joined a kickball league for queer folks and met a wild array of inspiring, ridiculous, warm humans. They welcomed me in, and I rediscovered laughter and teary conversations and storied nights out and fragile brunches the morning after. By summer, I marched with them through the streets of my favorite city, Pride flag dancing in waves in the wind behind me. We passed Stonewall Inn, greeted crowds of thousands, laughed and danced and celebrated.

I broke new ground in ways intended and unintended. I bought new furniture, and I wept openly on the train home. I ran miles and miles, under every kind of sky, and I rolled my ankle on a visit to a friend, showing up at his doorstep with scraped palms and a month of healing ahead of me.

I left my twenties behind, let go of everything and everybody that wouldn’t be coming along with me to my thirties, and I felt gratitude that, sometimes, we don’t get to keep the things we think we want.

I look around, glimpse the faces that light up at seeing mine, the hands that reach for mine, the wild thunderclap of the city I get to try and burrow roots into, and I realize I’m living exactly the adventure I’d dreamt.

It was the year of conscious growing, of every mile carved from inches of stubborn hope, the year of believing before seeing, of wide-eyed sincerity wrapping arms around hard-won wisdom, the year of wild laughter, can you believe we’re here and this is real, the year of rediscovering my hands have the habit of reaching for what burns them, of training them to gently let go, the year of laughing with my sister over speakerphone, of learning to speak through the tears instead of choke to silence, the year of fighting to burrow through concrete, of trusting the sunlight to warm the sidewalks, sprawl out and unfurl, the year of dressing my limbs in every color under the sunlit sky, comprised of every last one, the year of believing in the wildest of magic, magic, magic.