michael king

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

phantom pains.

Venturing out takes a bit more effort these days. My hair is a bit unkempt, the remnant of a whim and promise at the dawn of 2020, and requires a bandanna. Before putting in my headphones, I’ve got to pull on my facemask. Before I set out, I glance at myself in the mirror, shooting myself a small smile.

Maybe I’m kidding myself, but I think I see a difference in my eyes. I commit to smiling at strangers even if they can’t see it.

The city is nearly the same place it was when I moved here two summers ago. Businesses have risen and fallen, and the age of social distancing has cast a bizarre hush over all of it, but the buildings still sprawl, mighty in every direction. My eyes for it are new again, grateful for every inch of my wandering.

Everywhere there are stories. On 14th Street, near 3rd Avenue, I think of my friend who threw a housewarming party for his new roommate, then left us there with her to get acquainted. At that Mexicue, a first date that still makes me smile to think over, even if romance never blossomed from that vine.

There, the Mexican restaurant I went to with a friend after we finished a movie neither of us enjoyed. We both would have walked out, we realized, but we didn’t sit together and each of us stayed for the other. Our server, upon discovering we had no ambitions beyond chips and margaritas, ignored us for customers seeking entrees. A third friend arrived, having been ambling through that part of the city following a house party, and she greeted us with a story about a little black dress and a torn pair of tights. She’d ditched the tights, she shrugged. We laughed, and we raised our glasses.

I ache for new nights, for those wild moments where a bunch of people I love end up in the same place, the birthplace of stories. I yearn to come back to my apartment, exhausted and inspired, sloughing off my jacket and genuinely reveling in home.

Through the window, I can see the sky is blue, but I can’t quite feel the sun on my shoulders. Through the computer screen, I can see the faces of the people I love, but it’s not the same as knowing I can pull them into a hug.

I wait for the days of experiencing the world firsthand. I miss everything and everyone, and I’m tired of living with my breath half held.

A sharp inhale, a long exhale, fogging up the glass between us.

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on friends.

Happy anniversary, the text reads. Around me, my coworkers and friends are laughing, connecting, reuniting. It’s a golden evening in July, one of summer’s final love letters, and, eleven seconds ago, I was lost in all of it with them. Suddenly, my body’s gone cold, and all of them have blurred into the background.

A year ago, he left, shattering me and a hundred closely held illusions. On the first morning after, I embarked on a run, four miles under the summer sun, making it home just in time to collapse in tears on my yoga mat. Getting better was a conscious, stubborn process.

One text message, and my armor unravels at my feet.

I make my escape, bidding everybody goodbye with a wide smile, and walk to an empty parking garage. I stoop down on the concrete, reread his message a few times, and finally ask him: Why? 

At first, he is aloof, as though I’ve simply missed the joke. When my indignation builds, so does his: It’s been a year since we talked, which shouldn’t be true, but oh well.

And here we are again, the Scorpio, after stinging, reveals his own injury: Even after a calendar year, I haven’t taken him up on the offer to be friends. I see him now, in blinding, shaking clarity. I rise, shaky breaths, and walk right back into the sun.

But, hey, we can always be friends.

In some form or another, the sentiment seems to creep its way into the conversations whispered at a relationship’s burial site. The floor has just fallen apart beneath lovers’ feet, tears have leaked their way through the hollows of all bodies involved, and everybody’s reacquainting with the world in raw, exposed skin. Let’s be friends.

After much consideration, I reject any notion of it as ‘the right way forward.’ For a thousand reasons, not all of them mature or fashionable, but all of them honest.

Because my friends tell me everything –– their anxieties, their joys, the sex they’re having or want to have, their bad dates and good dates –– and I’m really not interested in hearing about those from somebody whose face I had to take down from my walls.

Because my friends rescue me when I fall, see the worst of me and stay, own up to their failures and stay, show up on my hardest, ugliest, messiest days. And stay.

Because the whole idea seems to be predicated on the notion that to be a lover is a simple stairstep above being a friend, that at least we can be friends, that, somehow, somebody’s decision to go means they are entitled to step freely among my friends.

Because friendship is not a consolation prize for you finding the courage or cause you need to stick it the hell out and stay.

I’m not saying it can’t be done, not criticizing anybody’s friendship with somebody they used to love romantically, but I am saying this: It doesn’t work for me.

Love letter to you, wonderer, who wandered into my pages carrying new definitions, the way the letters on every page before rearranged themselves upon your arrival;

to you, boisterous joy, whose laugh was the sun on so many bleak evenings, avocado and lime on the cutting board and music painting the air golden;

to you, examiner, eyebrows furrowed as you study the best and worst of me, your love the color navy blue;

to you, soldier, sharpening a machete on my behalf the moment my voice trembles, we both know you’ve got a bad habit of finding yourself in battles, but pinky-swear we will see every last one through;

to you, magician, whose spirit contains some of the same DNA as my own, we are mysteries to so many, but, to each other, a series of private jokes;

to you, tree with deep roots, steady in every storm, dropping fruit in my hands on the days I believe myself unworthy of nourishment;

love letter to you, to us, to the improbable miracle of existing at the same time, to rescue in the form of staying, to love itself.

Hand

book club: ‘a tree grows in brooklyn’.

As a reader, I tend to shy away from ‘the classics’ in my selections. They’ve been mined for meaning, it seems to me, and there are so many stories waiting for my shovel. But here, now, in the days of quarantining far away from my family, I took A Tree Grows in Brooklyn down from the shelf. My Mom’s favorite book. I turned the page and began.

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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn takes place in the early 1900’s, before World Wars and the complications of technology. Its characters inhabit Williamsburg, Brooklyn, though the story lives and pours from the mind of Francie Nolan. She is young, bright, and her eyes are just opening to the truths of the world. Surrounding her are her family members, a younger brother Neely, her hardworking mother Katie, and her warm-but-wayward father Johnny. At the novel’s start, this is her world, and books are her only connection to anything outside of it. Read the rest of this entry »

still here.

These days, I busy my hands in the deep dig for hope. When this is over, I begin a hundred text messages. We build makeshift tomorrows with fantastic elements –– hugging one another close, sinking into seats at the movie theatre, dancing shoulder to shoulder beneath neon lights.

How quickly, we’ve learned, the familiar can unravel at our feet.

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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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