michael king

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

in this moment.

I was at a meeting, etching song lyrics into the margins of my notebook, when it dawned on me that things were about to change. Classes are very likely going to move online, we learned, and, it’s possible we may all move to working remotely. Murmured questions began to rise from the group, and – as if by instinct – I started writing a message to my mom and dad.

If we end up going to remote work for a month or so for coronavirus, could I spend that at home? I hit send, tilted my head back, imagined what life might look like: Dad’s cooking, Mom’s stories from work, the dogs alternatingly comatose and frenetic, late-night vanilla ice cream scoops in yellow bowls.

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sixteen songs.

the rain isn’t much
for social distancing,
wraps my arms, kisses
my cheeks as i barrel
ahead, over sidewalks,
through scaffolding tunnels,
under awnings bearing
proud names over
empty stores

sixteen songs, and
i don’t want to stop
running, lungs never
more full than
right here, dreary
kiss from a weary
world, my bloodstream
run red

Hand

we, in the days of quarantine.

i am an early riser
with nowhere to go,
a storyteller hoping
the wifi won’t cut me
mid-sentence, a
runner through an
abandoned cityscape,
catching my reflection
in two hundred
silent storefronts

we sit in staring contests
with our calendar dates,
each daring the other
to make a bold prophecy:
the day i can meet my
friend at the coffeehouse,
clink my mimosa glass
amidst the brunchtime
cacophony, rifle through
the stacks at the
bookstore, just for
something to carry to
the park that day

we are postponed
wedding days, decorations
tucked into boxes with
tender hands, funerals
from a safe distance, i
hope you know
how much i loved
her laugh, birthdays
spent in empty
living rooms

and we are
bodies that break into
dance because they
crave freedom, faces
that spill tears, a
confession told through
rectangular screens, we
are runners watching
the horizon, waiting
for the signal to
go, limbs flailing, heart
thundering, go

hope is a stubborn
weed, whose flowers are
nurtured through
humor, sincerity, compassion,
stubbornness itself,
we are hope itself.

Hand

a poem for today.

i’m sitting here, silhouette
against a window to a
wounded world, and,
hands shaking, i’m
fighting like mad to
write hope into this story,

if i’m honest, i’ve wasted
twenty-one minutes
fumbling with my pen

outside, the sky teems blue,
sun pouring over all the
everything, and i
can’t decide whether
the world is saying
‘don’t give up,’ or
shining a light onto
its indifference

i am reminded of
the morning after he
left, the way my
rib cage ached from
making sounds i
couldn’t believe were
mine, how i stepped
outside to find
a world still in obstinate
motion, found hope
in that movement,
ran on injured ankles
until my feet fell
in rhythm

but where can i mine hope,
today, when everything
seems to have screeched
to a deafening quiet

we are children who
cannot board planes
home, mothers swallowing
anxieties and teaching our
children to bake, brothers
who cannot reach to pull
our siblings into a hug,
lovers looking at the
world through a
windowpane

stubborn gardeners of hope,
tamping down soil over
damaged seeds, praying
hope, too, will be
strong-willed.

Hand

book club: ‘the best kind of people’.

I’m not sure where or when I picked up The Best Kind of People, but I do remember knowing instantly it had all the ingredients of a novel I tend to consume: a compelling plot, a family at the center, and a narrative that jumps from person to person as they move through the story.

On the night I cracked it open and read it for the first time, I was meeting my friend at a coffeeshop in Hell’s Kitchen. “I was trying to read something lighter,” I told him, having just finished a series of heavy reads. He read the back cover and scoffed. “Yes, Michael. Light.”

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love letter in shaky handwriting.

I take a deep breath and study my hands. How do I write about today when I have no idea where we’re headed? In moments, I am joyful and boisterous; in others, I wrestle with despair. I am lonely and hopeful, afraid and resolved. This is what it’s like, I say to myself, to live through history. But how do I write about it? What voice do I take –– do I make jokes and brighten the room? should I offer words of hope, of courage?

Just show up. A voice, from deep within. An exhale. Don’t you understand? It’s always been this. You’ve always been writing in the midst of uncertainty. You’re long-practiced in the art of telling the story before you know where it goes. It’s hope, and it’s heartbreak, and it’s loneliness, and it’s laughter that echoes into memory. 

Write. I pick up the pen.

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thursday post: shaky days.

New York City declares a state of emergency due to coronavirus. I squint at my iPhone, tap the headline out of morbid curiosity. Swallowing, I glance up, look around at New York City. The sky is defiant in its blueness, sun pouring amicably over the concrete. Across the street, a man and woman stop to allow their dogs time to acquaint with each other.

I hold my thumb over the link, which Twitter says I ‘might be interested in,’ and hide it. Worrying never saved me, I chide myself. I listen to music, bask in my surroundings, let this body feel at home somewhere among the wild, concrete sprawl.

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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.