what is growing if not learning to trust our broken fragments to come back together in the case we lose our footing in the following of our wildest whims
nobody keeps themselves safe by trying to glance ahead, pages flipping, skimming paragraphs for clues, the writing’s never on the wall ’til it is, ’til it stares us down in scarlet ink
won’t save my skin by holding my breath, can’t taste the truth and shroud myself away at the same time, sing to myself softly, i may not know where this road will carry me, but these palms are known in the art of reassembling a shattered self
plant your kiss against my jawline and there grows a poem on the way someone’s face never quite looks the same as it does at 1:31 a.m., eyes locked in indigo lighting, what a privilege to witness you firsthand, i can’t, for the life of me, pull my eyes away
and there, in the place where your head met my sternum, a poem for the way my wildest, brightest plans pale so abruptly the moment they are stood beside what is real and unimagined
when i tell you that you make me feel poetry, i mean to say that there are wildflowers stretching themselves across my wanting limbs, reaching, with the rest of me, for you
what a thing, waking to see your shoulder blades in silhouette your dark hair a tangle the rise and fall knowing, for the moment, we’ve chosen this, here, now
cluster of daisies in an empty espolón bottle, tee shirts and socks strewn haphazardly across the hardwood floor, bearing witness
if it’s true, like they say, that God doesn’t want this for two boys, then why did he hand us these wee hours, simple truths in honest light, why does your hand remember its way to mine while you sleep?
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.
ten days in and already i’ve had trouble meeting my gaze in the mirror, hung my head, all my skin new, once again, raw against the open air
please just stop, i beg the uncaged puppy in the sparse amber light of 3 AM, stopcrying and rest, but it is my face flooded and wet, he knows, burrows into my shoulder until my breathing deepens
another time i’ve been cradled by the one i’d believed i was saving
i am a runner deprived of sleep, eyes weary and legs weighty, praying for something like momentum, never more alone than in these heavy hours
string the lights beneath the boards, bask in the glow, the way my friend’s weeps turn to giggles over Jennifer Hudson singing Memories, tonight will be a memory too, all of us huddled around the fire of each other’s company
these pages, too, will yellow, and i will long for the sounds of these days, voices over the phone, mysteries still to be solved, loves to be found, griefs who will wait to be carried some far-off tomorrow
For better or worse, I held myself together until the ripe old age of 25. Then, beneath an audience of golden October leaves, I wrecked myself and fell apart. My first love crumbled on impact, skittering across the concrete, and I shattered right there with it.
I sat down to write about it months later. Given time and space, I finally felt ready to revisit that harrowing morning, the paralyzing days that followed, and put it all onto paper. If I can understand the story, figure out where it belongs along my bookshelf, I imagine it won’t be able to swallow me up.
I wrote about myself in the second-person, further distancing myself from the moment. I became an omniscient narrator, critical and a bit mean-humored, and the me from that morning was now ‘you.’ You wake up and, for a good five minutes, you ask yourself just where in the fuck you are. The writing was cathartic, and it spilled out of my hands without effort. I finished it before my coffee line had vanished and, unsure what to do next, passed it along to a friend.
Days later, she returned feedback: I’m sure this felt good to get out, she said, but it’s not your best work. It doesn’t sound like Michael King. Your best stuff isn’t this severe. Your best stuff is somewhere between heartbreaking and hilarious.
The advice changed, forever, the way I approach hard stories. Not only when I’m writing them, but also when I’m making sense of something I’ve done. There’s humor in the mistakes, sure, but there’s heartbreak in what led us to make them.
So it is that I’m approaching putting 2020 to paper.
In March, my emotions were a slingshot ride. I woke up, most mornings, and felt a sense of wild hope, breaking into a run across a shuttered Manhattan and noticing the stubborn arrival of flowers and sun. I carried this momentum into the afternoon, working with determination to make something of the day. Then, without warning, there was despair. My voice breaking over the phone the moment I said hello to my sister, my eyes flooding like broken dams looking out at sunny, empty New York.
For months, I saw no one I knew in real life. On a run, I’d hear a song and imagine seeing my mother again at an airport, and I’d break into sobs, stumbling to a bench and letting the emotion take hold. On one such occasion, I glanced up to see a woman walking her dog, watching me and crying, too. We said nothing to one another.
Gradually, as late spring and early summer began to take hold of the city, we began to venture closer to one another again. A friend, stationed at a hotel for healthcare workers, asked if I’d be willing to come to his room and watch Drag Race and drink wine with him. When I arrived, he made me pull on scrubs before entering, coached me to walk like I knew what I was doing. An hour later, sitting on his bed and drinking rosé from plastic cups, I glanced across at him and felt rescued.
I’d imagined another summer of kickball games, boozy brunches, and crowded bars, but it was a summer of books and blankets in the park, wine and beer pulled from backpacks, music played over Bluetooth speakers. Hiking across Queens and Brooklyn and Manhattan to grab a beer from the breweries of each. Pizza enjoyed on the sidewalk, tears in gratitude of friendship, rehashing what exactly happened on the night the man fell from the roof (and, thankfully, survived).
June arrived, and it brought heartbreak along with it. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery. Their stories echoed across the globe, and our communities grappled with wounds long left ignored. Pride month became inextricably intertwined with Black Lives Matter, feeling more like the original Pride marches, and every corner of the city was covered in messages of mattering. For a moment, the world seemed to pause, to listen.
I lost my job in the Fall, and the home that came with it, and I spent a solid two weeks staring down the pathways ahead of me. What kind of story could I write, I asked myself. I felt exhausted, defeated, and tired of mining myself for hope. Stubbornly, I stood up and started looking for apartments, knowing a lease would be harder to obtain without a recent paystub. Election week arrived in that muddle, a series of sleepless nights that reminded me of the trauma of 2016 and the knots it left behind in me. It came and went, and soon a treasured friend and I were moving my belongings to my first chosen home.
The first time I hugged my mom this year, we both cried. I have cried more this year than any other, and I have learned to let hugs last as long as they can. Once, on a long drive, I heard my niece Lynnlee working to distract my niece Ivy, and Ivy broke into wild laughter. The sound struck deep, unburying something deep within me, a hope I’d kept sheltered in these hard days, and my eyes flooded with tears.
Sometimes, when I think back on the way I lived my life before this pandemic, I’m not sure I still have the energy in me to go back and live that way again. Even now, I find myself fatiguing earlier, longing for home and for bed, bracing for the possibility of long stints of time without being witnessed by loving eyes.
But 2020 won’t live on as ‘the year without stories.’ It was the hardest damn year, but it was not without stories: There was the ill-fated bike ride, the impromptu lip sync on 60th Street, the glitter night at Ross’s place, nights smoking and laughing on a fire escape, Thanksgiving getting tackled by gigantic dogs, and a hundred others.
It was heartbreaking, and, in the rarest moments of rescue, it was hilarious.
It was the year of broken plans, of postponed to postponed again to canceled, of running by shuttered windows and trying to remember what it all felt like before. The year of margarita toasts at computer screens, at meaningful glances with strangers, of stubborn warmth pervading the long chill. It was the year of corporate attempts at empathy, reaching our hands, instead, for each other’s, of shedding the thick skins we pulled on to try and feel safe. The year we felt like orphans in our own homes, grieving as a status quo, building with tired damn hands, the year of stubborn damn stories. It was the year we could no longer escape ourselves, glancing at ourselves in the mirror simply so we could feel seen again, finding our long-held flaws, our broken, breathing bodies, finding ourselves suddenly beautiful, strong, brilliant. It was the year of light bending itself to stretch into the deepest cracks, breaking through brokenness, illuminating us.
Sometimes I think about New Year’s Eve in 2019. I recall blurry strings of lights, frantic planning and adapting, the splash of beer as plastic cups collided, the roar of ‘happy New Year’ into the open, unmasked air. I left the bar and meandered home in a happy, muddled state.
I remember thinking of the year as a blank page, one which would soon be filled with a story, and we were all dreaming up paragraphs. This would be the year we found love, the year we put ourselves out there, the year we traveled, or chased a new dream, or asked for that promotion at work.
Instead it was the year we discovered the planet had brakes, screeching ones, and our stomachs lurched as the driver’s foot slammed itself down. Weddings, flights to London, concerts, high school graduations, all reduced to a scribbled smudge in some calendar box.
I will write about what came next, the stories that emerged from the year without stories, another time.
Today, I am thinking on the people who carried me through. I am picturing the faces of the people who searched for me, found me in the lost days, shared in my laughter and shouldered my tears (Looking back, there was plenty of both.). In my time, in my way, I’m going to write them love letters.
I want you, each of you, to think on this past year. Think of who lifted you –– is lifting you –– from the mire of ambiguity, steadying your feet on shaky ground and serving as your reminder to believe in better tomorrows. I hope you are seeing someone, or multiple someones, and I hope you will tell them. Hand them flowers in the form of ‘you’re my hope on the hardest days.’
in my childhood home, fruity pebbles were an outlawed item, my mom convinced there must be cement in the mix, her fingertips raw from scrubbing multicolored remnants from the ceramic rims of white bowls
i am thinking about the way matter clings to its existence, the way everything bends itself to survive, about how maybe letting go is antithetical, somehow, to everything
i am thinking of the number of times my mom has had to scrub beneath hot water because i’ve been too careless to rinse things away
i am thinking of you and the way we’ll never have clean slates with one another, stagnant air and empty hours, those things that seemed bright, seemed sweet, scraping their way down my ribcage
That’s the thing about New York, she said, setting down her beer and shaking her head, the city spits you out three times before it lets you stay.
I nodded, accepting it immediately as truth. It was the summer of 2017, the muggy baton pass between late May and early June, and I was only visiting the city. A friend from college, then five years into his relationship with New York, had invited me to his Greenpoint apartment for dinner, where a mosaic of young people welcomed me in to exchange ideas and early-won bits of wisdom.
I was quiet, then, about the dream of moving to New York City, as though saying it out loud might somehow break it. Scare it away, just out of reach.
The city spits you out three times before it lets you stay, I thought to myself, grinning as the conversation turned to how many New York men use the word ‘deliverables’ when describing their jobs on first dates.
I think of my life in terms of semesters. I moved right to college after high school, then to graduate school, and then into a job whose first big hurdle was Fall move-in. It’s funny, sometimes, when people ask how long I’ve been in the city; I always catch myself before answering in semesters.
There is comfort to routine. Whenever my situation changes too much, I find myself willful in creating some new routine, a conductor glaring down a reluctant orchestra.
In March of this year, when I learned all our students would be moving home early, normalcy dissolved at my fingertips. Okay, I bargained with myself, we will get through this. I started each morning with a four-mile run, carving a path through the city, once-busy, now shuttered to silence.
Routine, normalcy, control. All of these were suddenly mirages, and I found myself wobbly on my feet. This is an excellent time to write, a friend suggested, and I exhausted at the thought.
How does one create in the midst of so much pretending?
I did my best to document what it was to survive this time. I mimicked my morning coffee in my own kitchen. I took photos of myself to remind myself that I’m real. I burst into tears listening to an upbeat dance song because I abruptly realized nobody I knew had seen my face in eight days.
In the Fall, some semblance of normalcy resumed. We had far fewer students than normal, but there was a move-in. The office was staffed sparsely, and plastic barriers were raised, but I had resumed leaving my apartment to ‘go to work.’
On the morning I learned I would be losing my job, after the floor stopped crumbling underfoot, after I steadied my hands, after I called my sister and stammered I lost my job before sobbing, I sat in the quiet and exhaled. I realized, then, that I’d been holding my breath for months, waiting for hard news.
I’m not good at saying goodbye before I’m ready. Each time, I am indignant, humiliated, furious, brokenhearted. So much of how I show up to my life revolves around the idea of writing these chapters well. Sometimes, I look at a paragraph and want to know just who the hell has the nerve to scribble like this.
I spend hours thinking of ways to turn the main character back on the path I imagined him walking.
Once, when a lover left, and I was sitting in fragments on the floor, I whispered to myself, you cannot write him back into your life. I wrote a Post-It note for my bedroom dresser: a person who wants to stay stays. But, months later, on a night run, my eyes broke like tired dams, and I stumbled into a cry on the sidewalk. Just come back, I stammered, fool me twice, fool me twice.
I fool myself with the notion that, when I leave a heartbreak, I do so having learned the lesson I needed. Now, I tell myself, I won’t have to fall apart that way anymore.
But here I am, in a year characterized by canceled plans and broken storylines, and I am again startled to find I’m not really at the helm.
When I close a chapter, I want that on my own terms. I want to walk the sidewalks I’ve been taking for granted, thank them for always guiding me home. I want to tuck love letters in the homes of everybody who’s kept me afloat, find just the words to impart, ensure no shred of meaning or sentiment is left beneath some unturned stone.
These past few weeks, I have wrestled myself, again and again, out of trying to right the story. Just let go, I whisper to my clenched fists, find gratitude for what was and get moving.
I don’t know that I believe New York City keeps any quotas for the times it will spit somebody out. I know it can seem monstrous and tall, cold and apathetic to whatever is devastating you. It can feel, to me, like the hardest place to find peace.
But there are times when the avenues and streets seem to line up just right, and I glance up and feel some kind of warming rightness. Remember when it was all just a dream, I remind myself, and now here you are, walking these sidewalks like you know them by name.
I’m letting go of the idea that there’s ever really a ‘right’ way forward. Over the past few weeks, I’ve held the pen in my fingertips, staring down the last paragraph with a furrowed brow, wondering where I want my story to go next. There’s probably joy and meaning and hope to be found in each of those ways forward; there is also always the strange grief of leaving the other paths unexplored.
Hands shaking, I am writing again. I’ve decided to build something new, to expand myself, to grow and fill a new space. My body is a plant repotted, roots acquainting tentatively with new soil, leaves shuddering in relief as they, again, discover there is light.
somewhere some hundred miles ago, i set our pages down on the concrete, found a rock with edges no more jagged than my own, and set the damn stories down, no more wringing meaning from my being and finding the water again stained with you
getting better was training my hands not to ball themselves into fists, clearing the drawers of photo strips and small notes with my name in your handwriting, making room for the echo of your absence to tucker itself out, giving my time only to plants that bear fruit
but, tonight, i have the extra hour, and my hands are busy putting the polaroids in order, funny the way the life cycles of trees help us keep our bearings in the gentle continuity of time
when i loved you, flowers bloomed through my aching sternum, ivy stretching its way up your brick edifice and resolving to pull down walls through devotion, driving for hours beneath the darkest skies just to kiss you good morning, writing poetry in your language so you might be willing to read it
and, when you loved me, you startled at what it was to be seen, not just watched, but seen, in honest light, the way your throat caught when i told you the third thing you needed to know, and for the moment, we knew
on the margins of a morning newspaper dated some five years ago, i wrote you goodbye, and time has yellowed everything, softened jagged edges down to nothing, i can hold the stories again, lift us up and set you onto the shelf, sunflower petals pressed into the old, hard page