Indented Upon the Body: Sex, Pleasure, Repulsion, and Reclamation

I have a dented front, like a beat up Honda. Where many men’s pectorals rest adjacent (sometimes flat, sometimes as hardy, risen plateaus) I instead have a slope and a concave valley, like the very tip of the inside of a skull. With my shirt off, it seems as if I have no heart, or God as taken an ice cream scoop to my chest, or I was dealt a punch to the sternum by Atlas. Sometimes it’s the remnants of a woodpecker’s bird’s nest

I’ve taken to calling attention to it, even when my shirt is on. Explaining that this defect was in fact the result of the very dream stuff I’ve listed above. In fact, I like to tell myself that I enjoy saying these things, as if I don’t sometimes catching myself in the mirror, slowly stroking my caved in chest like the curled up corpse of a dead pet. It can be hard to admit self-deprecation obviously what it is: a defense of sorts.

I don’t love my body, but I’ve never really hated it either. I’ve had the enjoyment, despite the death’s head on my chest, to exist in it without seriously interrogating it beyond the usual anxieties born of pituitary changes. For a good while, I just never thought of my body as a thing to hate, as anything but what it was: a body, which, as a kid, not yet understanding the fecundity of social data and anxiety that spills and flows between and around us all, I knew my body as it physically felt. It was warm. It glowed. Sometimes I could feel my pulse in my fingertips.

I don’t really know when I started looking into the mirror and seeing the hole in my chest as a perverse embodiment of lack, but I do know that at some point I would run and swim and sit and laugh, clothed and shirtless without being beholden to how others might be seeing the way I was presenting myself (which, to be clear, is just about physicality and not other deeply embedded interpersonal anxieties that had more to do with popularity or status. I’d, maybe as soon as I was conscious enough to be around other kids and to care about being around other kids, wondered what they thought of me on like a soul like level, what they thought of my essence. Listen, nothing is out of target range when it comes to self conscious anxiety).

 

This is not to say I don’t feel a presence of body. I do, however, remember a point in time when my body was present and I existed without necessarily being seen. I didn’t have to imagine how other’s would react to my physicality when seeing me. It was a kind of freedom, but an innocent and inevitably doomed one.

The moments that brought me to the surface, like an errant octopus poking its orb like eyes up over the break of the ocean water for the first time to be met with flashes of a hard grey sky, were direct comments (almost always benign) that I had a divot in my chest. Or a peanut butter cup. Or a big opening. Or twisty ribs. Or lacked a heart or looked funny or had bow ribs. Once it was a weird holey thing. And again, none of these were immediately cruel, but it was enough for me, a much younger (and while equally anxious, less refined in my ability to deal) less socially developed me. I took to thinking that this different bend in my chest was bad or unsightly, or even wrong.

So often it happened by the water.  Water, like anything efficiently malleable and massive, is a fine metaphor for nearly anything: Life, death, change (of moods, seasons [of life or nature], of sex) sex, rapture, emptiness, the void, every living thing and its connection. It seems fitting to me then that the beach or the pool or the lake or pond or river or wherever you first find yourself acceptably naked for the first time in public is a source of anxiety and arousal (two emotions that are far from mutually exclusive). It’s weird to learn to cover ourselves at all times, except for when we want to enter water, whether it be the purifying process of a shower, the amniotic bathtub, or in some place more public. And that we must carefully and discretely guard pieces of our skin from the sight of others lest we offend, are offended, get too worked up, work someone else up (there seem to be as many reasons as there are waves on the face of the sea). These public self-displays only really start to highlight how naked we are (beyond physicality) when those previously mentioned pituitary changes start to break through the levees and threaten to wash us away.

I can remember a very specific kind of stance us pre/teens of every sex used to take when near water. We’d wrap ourselves just so, clutch each elbow in the opposite hand and keep our arms close to our bellies to simultaneously obscure and highlight. Sometimes someone brave or foolish would verbally march their way across another person’s body and deploy a descriptive comment, laying out a landmark on this newly realized maps. For me, the one that really stuck was “What’s that hole in your chest?” as if I was supposed to have a ready explanation as to why my chest curved the way it did, like a physicist describing the current of a wave. I don’t think I retorted with anything but an uncomfortable look. Because it’s uncanny to realize that others see things that supposedly belong to us we never thought were there. Before it had been a chest. It was a warm smooth thing that attached my arms to and sometimes I washed with soap. It was warm, and I liked how it felt on my fingers. Now it was as if I was responsible for it, to explain why it existed at all.

John Berger, in his Docu-series, “Ways of Seeing” brings an excellent critical reading to the tradition of the female nude in painting. While this is no new knowledge, women are objectified more than men. Their body parts are chopped up and wrapped in gazes of various strength and intention. From a woman’s start, her body never really belongs to her and if it does, she is decried as vain, or conceited, or the worst thing, an aberrant sexual creature, a whore. Berger explains that the female nude reproduces this phenomenon. Think of the very few emotions women express in the nude. It is often a coy look, vacillating between innocent and empty, head turned as if to reject and invite. When Botticelli Painted Venus, the Goddess of love, even she seemed locked into a perfect limbo between nudity and modesty, never too cold so as to be unwelcoming (and a cold bitch) or to hot lest what we demanded of her was made too easily available and vulgar (an easy slut). Berger asserts that the socially acceptable woman is one who can constantly maintain this decorum of modesty, which requires her to constantly view herself as if someone else is viewing her, constantly monitor her body to make sure it presents itself in that middle space of (false) safety, constantly monitor her monitoring to keep from appearing self-absorbed. She must always keep up appearances and never be exhausted. The results of these mostly quiet and present demands are devastating. All I started with was an extra lumpy chest and it was too much for me in part because most of us men, far removed from the same psychic weight of self-consideration are the ones who watch and wait. Or at least, this is a part of the story.

One of the beautifully twisted results of modern equality is some perverse notion that, to free us all, everyone of every gender should be more objectified. In a turn so self destructive it might have been designed by Oedipus himself, the fitness industry, which has connections to the philosophy that a healthy body makes for a healthy life (and also benefits from the unrelenting brutality of our hungry cultural gaze), decided that women as bodily self moderators weren’t consumer enough, weren’t sweating the treadmills enough, and so men began escalating their physiques to cartoonish levels (though to be fair my chronology is pretty off here, but the point that women have always been objectified then taught to objectify themselves still stands). Understandably then, eating disorders in both men and women are at an all-time high (of course there’s probably more here to uncover, but that’s for another time).

What started for me as preteen moment of horror, a seed of self conscious embarrassment, like a teen soap version of Lady Macbeth’s stain, grew and grew until my skinniness itself was an extension of the void in my chest. I looked in the mirror, a horny, self-loathing teenager and only saw lack. I was not muscly enough and so not man enough or attractive enough or good enough. It was the usual nightmare each of us has faced in the harsh yellow lights of the locked bathroom, letting the male gaze of millions see through our own eyes until its pitiless stare has left nothing unturned, nothing private or loved.

And my impulse here is to make a nostalgic rallying cry where we might all, all of us of all sexes, return to that Edenic state of letting our bodies exist as physical things that need not be gazed at to constitute us as people. But this is misguided, and, more importantly, impossible. Like Pandora’s Box or toothpaste, what is loosed cannot be recaptured. This does not mean we’re doomed to forever salaciously drooling over chopped up bits of body parts that we’ve been trained to find arousing.

I think this is one of those places where the conventional, the cliché, the boring answer is the true one. Intimacy is a thing that transforms bodies in private.

I was alone with a woman I, at the time, loved deeply. Every time she scrunched her nose and looked in my eyes she made so many things in me glow. She was and still is beautiful. She did not think so. She’d shared with me how an earlier boyfriend had referred to her as that most damning word (fat) like a petulant child throwing a tantrum, just trying to hurt her. How her mother had grown up scrutinizing her diet and reprimanding her for anything sweet or fat or greasy or too heavy in calories or empty of nutrients etc. etc. It was many moments of petty viciousness that were absorbed in her body and redirected against it. It was devastating to see someone so alluring look on herself and shiver with disgust. Through long and torturous treatments by men and (some) women, her body had become abject. This, naturally, made our first forays into physical intimacy hard (I of course had my own hang ups and fears). And this one evening, in the earth tones of her bedroom, with a kind of luminescent glow to the room, I asked her if I could hug her while she undressed. Her eyes were soft and scared. She was scared. I was too. I didn’t know if I was forcing some demand on her that was unfair, or uncouth, but we both wanted to be with each other. And so, I hugged her and kissed her skin as she pulled of her shirt. And she had to stop. She asked me to help, and so she hugged me as I slowly undressed her. And I told her to hug me harder the more nervous she was. And she did, hug me. And we were both still scared, but she didn’t let go until we were both unclothed. And she let go so she could take her hand and gently rub the lack in my chest. And when she did, it was not to say she loved me despite this lack, but because she didn’t even recognize its existence as a lack. It was my chest and I wanted her to touch me, especially there, in that moment, more than ever. This missing spot became apart of me again, just as her body had started to become hers. And in those moments we were with each other as each other, with each other as we wanted the other to see themselves.

You see, the body is mutable. It is no one thing, but so often we’re left to experience it as insufficient or ugly or wrong. But it can change and I don’t mean a kind of vulgar physical change, but rather, all of use alchemists with our intents and attentions, can be infuse it with new moments, moments that, I believe, let us carry love in and on our skin. This is a hard thing to remember when looking in the mirror, and an even harder thing to find. But there is a kind of revolution of mutual understanding that happens in moments of deep and vulnerable intimacy, where we are reminded that our spirit is clay and it can be remade in the hands of someone close to us.

This doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes see my indent and wonder why God fucked with my ribs so much (after all, he just took one of Adam’s he didn’t remold his whole chest) but it does give me some sense that there is and always will be a possibility of transmutation of the body from pure object to a keeper of secrets: loving, silly, gentle, kind, warm, sexy, real, private moments all.

I think that maybe, like most things, we must remember to recall those moments we’ve been remade in, remade in the trust of a mutual intimacy, a thing that is, perhaps, always beyond objectification.

A True Story That is Not a True Story

I got on my bike because I was anxious. I wore a thick navy blue sweatshirt, jeans, a wool cap, and sun glasses because it was cool but sunny. Was self-conscious about the sunglasses because they were new and had weird green and blue camo print on the wings and I always felt self-conscious when I wore something new. Because what would happen if someone thought something bad about it? And I was biking on the bike path towards the shore because it was lush and verdant and pacifying and I thought about women and work and money and worry, I usually think about that stuff. As I passed people, they seemed like bits of blur, they were blobs in the peripheral; I didn’t want to make eye contact even though I knew the glasses would hide my eyes. Somedays something hurts because it just does. It was one of those days. But also I was thinking about “Here Comes the Sun” by the Beatles, and how I used to sing it with an ex-girlfriend of mine because it made me feel warm when we did. Except now I felt colder because she hadn’t been there for a long time and no one else had either because. After a good twenty minutes of huffing and pedaling the lush, verdant woods broke out, opened into a big aired path on the side of the lake that lead into a nicely maintained park because sometimes Burlington is beautiful. I didn’t feel cool, but I didn’t not feel cool. I was relaxed, looking with new, maybe kickass sun glasses and a big ole beard and was about to go sit on a swinging bench on the dock of the bay here because that’s how I wanted to enjoy a day and as I hopped off my bike and my feet hit the wood of the pier and I walked over to the bench I saw two women looking past me. I looked behind me because I wanted to see what they were looking at. There was nothing. There was the park and some people play Frisbee and some other walking the paths and there was a dirt parking lot up farther, adjacent to two nicely kept brick buildings and in the parking lot were a man and another man and they looked like deer darting through the woods as they moved through the bushes because they were messing around. And then I looked and everyone else in the park was looking because maybe the men weren’t messing around. And I thought, don’t make a big deal out of it because no one likes a panicky bitch. I thought that because when I used to think things about myself I thought in a cruel way. Then I was running towards the men. I was walking fast towards the men and I was running towards the men. I was walking fast across the verdant park. I was thinking about how it takes two people, not one, to make real change. That if you ever see folks cross the street during a dicey moment it takes one to pave the way and the second to subconsciously prove to the rest of the crowd that it’s safe. I was walking fast towards the men because it wasn’t safe. I remembered a time someone I loved was in trouble and something in me made a promise to another part and it said “now you turn and do what’s right. Now you do this.” I think I did. The right thing, I don’t know if I did it.

As I fast walked towards the men the world around me seemed to be filtered through a porch screen, there was a fuzz, a film grain, or haze, and a smell of ozone and the faces of those I passed were blank and they weren’t walking. I was walking because it wasn’t safe. And there was a pop sound because one of the men was shouting “Motha F*cka’s shootin’ at me.” I saw both men and they were both black or Hispanic and they were each on one side of a black Nissan Altima that was trying to get around a big white SUV and one man was in black and the shouting man was in a teal button down shirt because they were. And as I heard the shots they were pops because I don’t know if it was a real gun. Or there was muffling, but the man in teal was dodging and weaving like it was a real gun, but I didn’t feel scared like there was a real gun there, not even as scared as I had been firing a .22 rifle at Boy Scout Camp when I was little because maybe it wasn’t a real gun. And no one was moving besides me and the men because it wasn’t safe. And I didn’t know why I was going towards them because, like people told me after, that was dumb to do, one shouldn’t do that. But I did. And the man in teal was putting his hand on the Altima to keep it from leaving and shouting, “You stupid motha f*cka! You high on pills, dude! You f*cked” and the stupid motha f*cka was still, like, thrusting his gun, or, cap gun, or pellet gun, at the other man and it was popping, but I didn’t see any bullets landing and because I was talking to emergency services and then the police and describing it all and I wondered if the cops could hear the men yelling because one of them was yelling so loud. I have been useful before. I think I have saved a life before. I have felt powerless. Entirely, totally powerless. Agency has been stripped from me. I know what it’s like to be an object.

I was describing the men to the police and they were using the phrase dark-skinned and that made sense and I kept saying Hispanic or black and then the cars took off, ripped away, right up towards North St. and when I told the cops this I was about to ask if I should stay here and wait and then they hung up. I kept waiting to hear their voice on the phone because I thought they told you what to do.

I looked around. There was no one there now. People were walking with their heads down. Despite the general noise and bustle, the afternoon was silent and still. All of it was empty. Some folks stared at me as they walked past. I don’t know why. I felt live and empty. I don’t know why. I felt homesick for something that didn’t exist.

I was going to invoke the film Blow Up as a comparison point for this bizarre mime show I unknowingly took part in, but to do so would insist I was comparing fiction to reality. I can’t do that because I don’t know that anything I saw was real. Its’ not as if it didn’t all happen, I just have no place to put it.

Some people said, “well it’s because they were probably into drugs.” “Well are their gangs there? Because that can happen” And besides the obviously ugly racist tones there, it fails to touch on the real pulse of those moments that throb outside of reality: in many ways I carry myself through the day because I have a set of assumptions that things work in specific ways. Because I do. Why? Because I do.

I biked back up to my apartment because I thought I needed to be alone. I called a friend because I needed comfort. I sat on my bed shaking because I have seen moments like this before. Or because I have been stripped of all agency by moments like this before. Or maybe because my PTSD flared up. Or because it was funny to see two men playing violent mimes in the park. Or just because. Because I haven’t learned that somethings can’t be explained. Like the madness of a moment, or the quiet lament of loneliness, or the abject misery of objectification. Just because.

I’m writing this to you because I want you to believe me that it was real enough. That it was real enough to matter.

Ghosts that Haunt the Sun

Quick heads up: There is a graphic depiction of suicide. While I don’t think it’s gratuitous, don’t read this if you’re suicidal. Call a friend, or a family member or the suicide hotline at 1-800-273-8255. This will pass. Calling will help (if I made it through you sure as hell can).

 

I’m young, but I don’t know how old I am. I think I’m on a beach, but I can’t find the shore. I’m not looking for the shore. It’s low tide and I can tell by the stink. I’m running, my little body is running (I don’t think of it as little, but it is) and my watershoes, the blister-making kind with the mesh and purple neoprene that hold in liquid until it pickles your toes, are shouting with squelches as they land in the muddy beach dirt. I will run forward and I do not want to stop. There is no sun, no rosy fingers reach through the dark wool fog that seems shaped like an igloo. I’m running after my brother, or towards him. He may have cut his foot, sawed it even, on broken shell. He’s tubby with curly hair and I think he is bleeding and I need to find him, but as soon as I get to the edge of the igloo, into the dark wool, it just moves its walls. I repeat the same again and again. I am terrified he will be gone by the time I see him.

I’m older, but not much older. I’m on my back in a dark room. It’s our bed room. My brother is on the bottom bunk. I can’t see anything because it’s night time. I am furious. I am brimming with rage. And I take it out on Tom by refusing to say a word. He has his feet on the back of my mattress and is thrusting up and down like it’s a bucking sheep. I think I have been cruel to him. I think I stomped on his Legos and told my parents he did it himself. I think I hate this ride and want the morning to break and think I deserve ever moment of discomfort. I want to be alone.

I’m older still. We’re on Block Island, a little New England island. I’m away from the troop. It’s breakfast time and I’ve biked off by myself to buy a pastry, real early, just to feel independent. And I do and then I get the idea to bike up to the bluffs, because I’ve come in my early teens, to think of nature as my own private sanctuary. It belongs to me. And I am right about something: moments like these belong to me. And as I’m biking up to the bluffs I feel the fog on my skin, not wool this time but cotton cobwebs that give way to the slightest break, constant finish lines inviting one further. And I am in the fog and don’t see the sun, but I bike high enough that the fog is at my feet. And I drop by bike and walk on the sand to the edge of the bluff and realize that this is what the titans, first on earth, came and saw. The bluffs don’t give way to a drop, but to pillowed tufts of clouds just as the sun rises, prismatically, over the edge of the horizon, its beams singular, skipping of white like rocks on a pond, breaking and bending into different colors. I am in so much light I am no longer there and I am not alone. Still, I am not with others.

I’m now done with college and I’m reading a book and my protagonist is walking, with gloomy brooding, along the beach. It is hard to parse that this is the case, the words themselves are the fog I’ve felt in the past. But there are moments of color, recognition, there’s a dog, two lovers kissing, he takes a piss, he thinks of women, and then, like light itself, recognition breaks through the story. He reflects, “Touch me. Soft eyes. Soft soft soft hand. I am lonely here. O, touch me soon, now. What is that word known to all men? I am quiet here alone. Sad too. Touch, touch me.” And even though I know and have known that my solitude was not peace, but sadness, it only lights its way through my cortex now, brighter than ever. And it tells me the word known to all men: love. I think I do not know it. I think knowing love is like measuring the shape of mercury.

And here, now, before, I am in my dorm room. I have closed all the doors and put a chair against the wall. I know love now, or have decided to forget it. The only exhilaration is that all this ends. I am out of my wits, soppy and high. I think I’m committed mortal embarrassment. My friend is playing Batman in the next room. A small voice shouts the faces of my family and a louder voice is resigned, saying, they too will go, all will be fine, they too will go. The small voice knows this is not right. I am too tired to care. I drag a pair of Rubbermaid safety scissors across my forearm; the skin splits the lips of an embryo for the first time. Why doesn’t it hurt? Where is the terror? Where is my brother? The sun is gone. I am lucky to wake up.

I am home and I talk with my father. He’s telling me that was the worst day of his life. I tell him I wish it was the worst of mine. I ask him to tell me a good memory. He says, and I don’t remember this, he says once we just sat on the stoop, watching the front yard and the rabbits stop and start, sniffing. We ate lime green popsicles and he rubbed my back. We didn’t even talk, he says, because we didn’t need to, he says, the sun, how it shimmered and winked as it set said it all. I didn’t remember that, except now I do. I think of it all the time. I measure the shape of mercury by how far away I hold that moment in myself from myself.

I am visited by ten thousand nightmares: cruel, perverted, callous, and worst, lonely. I am reminded that I am running after my brother as I watch the sun come over the clouded horizon as I pull the knife over my arm as my father tells me he loves me and love is the word known to all men and knowing love is like measuring the shape of mercury and I have done just that as I remember the slow strokes of my father’s hand down my back as the sun sets again and it all tastes of green popsicles. I am reminded that all these exist and I am okay. I see the sun and I know this. I don’t see the sun and I know this. It took a long time to get here, but its been here all along.

I have found my brother. In that person born next to me and at times in all things. Maybe this too is known to all men.

And Finally, One About Dating

I have scars on my forearms. Both forearms. They stitch their way to my wrists like sloppy zippers or flesh frozen centipedes. They were once open and bleeding. Now they’re tattoos I sometimes forget about, but can find myself unthinkingly stroking when anxious. I was really scared to explain that I did this to myself to my first girlfriend after that bad night. I thought I’d be as ugly to her as the action itself was. Instead, she held both my arms in her hands like one would a sacred item and she started to kiss my forearms. Even though the scars are thick and I couldn’t feel her lips, she filled me with something both simultaneously soothing and enlivening. I think it was a little bit like love.

She hasn’t been my only girlfriend since that night, and she has been the only girl to kiss my forearms. I thought, cynically, that it would only feel good or be special that first time, but that’s not true. Every woman that’s put her lips to my arms has made me love her and myself in that moment. It doesn’t fade with repetition.

I have this starved attitude when I date, like, if I don’t make it work with whatever girl I’m on a date with then the jig is up, the apocalypse is in, she was the last person on the planet and I’m going home alone for good. I don’t really fully get why I think that way because, frankly, it just doesn’t jive with those intimate moments that refuse to be anything but life giving, the ones that never get old.

Dating is fucking weird for everyone involved. You take two people, each with their own labyrinth of neuroses and turn ons and hang ups and histories and funny bones and then expect them, with in a couple hours, to navigate the odd turns of some stranger (not to mention their own unexplored alleys) in hopes that there’s some kind of “chemistry” (a word that denotes a strict science, but might better be understood as alchemy).

But there’s something else. When Nietzsche lamented that God was Dead, it was the lament that some great spiritual dearth had descended on us. Who was to know that, at least in popular culture, and many of our own private wishes, another single human was supposed to pick up the slack (if you doubt me just think about the implications of the phrase “You complete me” and how easily G-D might fit in there).

And also, of course, if you guessed I’m intellectualizing to delay some inevitable tale of hope and woe, you would be right, but there’s been a bunch of them so lay off while I get my playlist ready.

There was that time I met a woman for coffee and we talked for four hours and towards the end of the date had nothing to say so just furtively glanced at each other and looked down and beamed then laughed about how awkward and non-awkward it was and both just kind of glowed. And, in a burst of enthusiasm I’ve come to fear and expect from myself, I wrote a journal entry that was just a wedding speech I’d give to our eventual marriage audience (they weren’t vows, and I don’t think grooms give speeches themselves… so I don’t know what I was thinking there). And I was so sure it would work because she’s smart and beautiful and sensitive. Until it turned out she had some stuff she felt she needed to work on and I probably definitely texted her too much.

Or that other time when I finally got to go on a date with this woman I just knew I liked (from her online profile) and the date was great. We sat on the lake shore in the budding spring and laughed and talked about serious stuff and she was playfully touching my leg when I teased her and I asked her what she looked for in a guy and she described basically me (I thought) and said she’d go on a second date when she vibed with someone and said we should definitely do that and when I texted her “So what do you think? Did we vibe?” She just said, “No, sorry we didn’t vibe.” OH, and I had already written another wedding speech about how my first one was dumb and this one maybe I was being foolish but I was pretty sure this was the right person. That was a shot to the ole ego. Lots of long bike rides in the rain and Sufjan Stevens after that one.

Oh! Or that time when I went out with that woman who was smart and funny and pretty and we went to a movie, then a restaurant. Then we did the same another night. And another. Then finally she brought me back to her apartment… Actually I’m gonna keep that one for myself. If I’m being piggish it both did and didn’t work out.

Look, there are plenty of other stories despite the fact I’m about as much of a Lothario as George Castanza. The point is, there is a kind of rinse wash and repeat cycle to all this that in some ways seems to directly contradict that sterling label of LOVE and INTIMACY, both of which sit so high up. And frankly it’s hard not to get downright cynical about the whole fucking thing, all of it: dating, women, society, humans, existence. I do not want to become some jaded misogynistic prick that’s too scared to get hurt again so he arms himself with the kind of dehumanizing attitudes that all this is just a game instead a really intricate dance no one knows the moves to (except we know a bad dancer when we see one). Because that’s what this is about. Can I be open enough to let myself be hurt in a very real way again and again until I’m not? It’s easy to say yes, it’s harder to live yes and in a lot of ways yes does not make sense, especially as an overly sensitive dude that used to drink a lot when things when wrong.

I’m not a person that believes I need someone else to become happy. In fact, I don’t really believe in happy, at least not as a consistent state of elation that last years. And yes we are in the land of clichés, but this is an important one. I would not want that. Can you imagine how out of touch someone has to be to live that way? What a drag it might be to be around them? If at every moment they were so emotionally frozen so to be incapable to reaching out to you when you were having a rough day. That’s what you might lose with that idea of happy: connection. Happy doesn’t keep me sober, connection does.

And really, I have to think that’s all any of us are looking for, really, when it comes to dating. That might look entirely different for different people, but isn’t that the goal? Not to find happiness in another person, but to be less alone in a tangible, consistent, and fluid manner? If that is the case, then no wonder dating is so Goddamn weird. How can any of us be expected to take such a huge leap of faith that some stranger might receive our weird labyrinth with grace and understand? A labyrinth (remember) we probably don’t full get ourselves.

I had this one date that was kind of a game changer for me. It was actually our last date, but at the time I didn’t want to believe that was the case. Because, she finally opened up to me. I thought we were connecting. She was beautiful and smart and successful, and we were talking as we walked down towards the setting sun (an orange and pink that evening) at Lake Champlain’s picturesque shore. And she told me that she was afraid to tell me what she was about to tell me. But I wanted her to. And she told me that she’d been diagnosed with bipolar disorder a few years back and she fought hard to get her arms around it and would have to be on meds for the rest of her life and assured me she had a handle on it now and that things were so good and as she was telling me this her eyes started to drift out towards the lake itself and she stopped looking at me, or really even talking to me. She was just talking. And I tried to assure her I was entirely comfortable with it, there was probably little she could scare me away with when it came to mental illness, and I was so involved in my own effort in sincerity it took me a moment to realize how distant her gaze was. And I asked her why she was so distant. She said, “Sometimes you’re used to getting a certain response and when you don’t get it you don’t know how to handle it” a kind of monotone flattening the pitch of her otherwise lively voice. And when I asked her what she meant she said that her ex had belittled her for her disorder. Called her crazy. I tried to tell her I’d never do that. She broke up with me the next day. And what stands out to me her is the real core of dating. That, whether we want to or not, we are putting some of our essence up for grabs, and have no idea really how others will react to us or us to others. And that, every date, as buffoonish as it might seem, as bull-in-a-china-shop-awkward, there is some gentle element we must treat in kind, even if it just means we feel hurt, especially because we know what its like to feel hurt.

But look, I’m not trying to give dating advice. What I’m saying, if only to myself, is this: what if my first girlfriend had seen the scars on my arms and recoiled. I’d probably be wearing long sleeves as we speak. Instead the best I can do is continue putting my arms out hoping that eventually someone might hold them again and kiss them again. That it is important that I hurt when I date, and I understand everyone else has and will too. And I try to be as amenable as possible. Trite? Maybe. But the scars on my arms and her long gaze into the distance, a gaze away from me, one seeking comfort from itself we encouraged by someone who refused to realize what kind of hurt they could inflict.

It occurs to me that there’s something really bizarre in approaching dating as a kind of duty to another person, but I don’t know how else to see it, how else to deal with my own hurt and the confusion of it all, how else to remember the delicate balance of these oddly intimate moments, but with a kind of diligence about some (possible) importance to it all. Could be I’m heavy handed, which would explain why I don’t vibe to much with others. Who knows.

Band

Sometimes, when I would drink by myself til I was bleary eyed, I’d try and make myself feel right by searching for the perfect song. This was always in the depths of the night and I would always be hunched at the computer, alone, an inebriated embryo in the yolk of the opalescent glow of the screen. It might be Pink Anderson or The Beatles, but it was usually Philip Glass, specifically Philip glass as performed on piano by Aleck Karis. Glasses’ looping movements in minor keys that opened up a theme only to close it by repeating it back felt exactly like the dark center at the core of this conveyor belt of addiction I’d grown into. The music and thus the effort simultaneously worked (I felt that emptiness in me from somewhere outside myself and was a smidge less alone) and didn’t work (I would always end up drunk again). Sometimes though, part way through the search I’d just pass out.

In many ways, he was a small town savior. He came in after the previous band director, who was well loved, was caught engaged in some seedy behavior and thus resigned. There was a fill in year where the interim director, an understandably unconfident young woman who, knowing her Sisyphean task, before stomping up the stairs for our first concert, shouted to the confused parents, “it will sound better when the new auditorium get’s built!” Under her guidance, it never really sounded better because high school boys can be assholes and assholes don’t easily make wonderful high school musicians. And in many ways his arrival was a kind of second coming for our high school music program. A talented director with an admirable pedigree, a degree of professionalism that only barely held back his burning love for music and his desire to get the best out of us. We played simple classics (I remember him wisely explaining he’d let us play the usual Christmas tripe because, he explained in his baritone voice, “you don’t mess with tradition.”) to truly avant garde contemporary pieces that made use of 5:14 time signatures and, unfortunately, prominent Euphonium sections. He was, as I would later say in a passive aggressive rap about him, given to the senior class on a tired bus ride on our Disney trip “big and he’s bald, but he’s got the plan.” He was rotund in a Falstaffian manner. He was the kind of man who twisted his wedding ring when he was talking. He was good to many students. I was not one of them. And so when he died under circumspect conditions, I was not sad and I was not happy and I was disgusted with my ambivalence. But in coming to understand my own drinking, I’ve come to love this man in a way I do not know how to explain. But, I’m going to try anyways.

This is the part where the writer usually I casually, but dramatically drops the subject’s name in an understated, but powerful fashion. I’m not going to do that. Partly because this blog goes out to people that knew him, and partly because I have no right to insist the story I’m about to tell is really his story. It is not his namesake. It is the ghostly shimmer of memories I’ve been left to make sense of and that is what I want to do. Because he was many things to many people. He did plenty veritable capital “G” Good. He convinced students who were unconfident that they should attend college, he nurtured talented musicians to be something even more, he demanded excellence and from many (some of whom now make their living as musicians) got it.

To be fair I probably shouldn’t have been in “Wind Ensemble”, the “good” band. I didn’t belong. In a way I only got in on a technicality. Under the interim band director’s whim I switch from trumpet (which I was passable at) to the Euphonium (or Baritone, mini tuba looking thing) because we were going to play the Jurassic Park Theme Song for the summer concert and it required a euphonium. The instrument’s keys were the same as the trumpet’s, the notes were the same and I happened to know that song really well (I was a dinosaur kid). She put me in wind ensemble. There weren’t any other people in the school who played euphonium. Except me, I did now. I was the one playing the euphonium in wind ensemble.

Of all the team sports I had to play baseball was my favorite sport. In baseball I got three tries. My first strike I’d be too nervous to even understand I was supposed to swing at the damn ball. The pitcher could lob a fat meatball over the plate and I’d watch it like it was a UFO. My second strike I’d be getting used to the feel of the creeping neurosis throughout my body, maybe look downfield, squint, start feeling like this was something I could do. I felt determined and nervous. And so, usually I did okay the third time around. Most of which is to say I’ve always had near crippling performance anxiety for everything and I did not have a handle on it as a sophomore in the good band in high school. So when he went around, with a matter of fact demeanor that seemed to invoke coattails and black bowties, on our first day of class I started wondering whether I should piss myself before or after I ran to the bathroom. But instead, while tuning, he got to me and asked to play a G (just the bread and butter of a horn) and my shaking lips on the damp cold mouthpiece managed to eek out something that sounded like a leaking balloon. He said “that’s okay, again” and was dismayed when I did little more. I’m not entirely positive, but I might have asked him to pass me. By the end he went to the piano and, with his pointer finger slammed the G key over and over until he agreed to pass. Some of the older students looked dismayed. And honestly, I didn’t blame them because I didn’t know what I was doing there. And from that moment forward I would dread band class for the next two years. And from that moment forward his dislike for me, or what I was, or what I represented, or what I meant to him, only increased. As did the humiliation.

I remember once, much later, in college, I was home from school with a debilitating depression. I was in my bedroom and it was sunny, but I couldn’t feel anything but a weird sort of numb fire that made life throb with a queasy feel. And I had music playing. It wasa the blues. Pink Anderson. And Anderson’s nearly anti-musical moaning over his deliberate repetitive guitar as he sang, “Baby please don’t go” started to settle something in me “Oh baby please don’t go” and I was watching this great hot weight simply dissipate “back to new Orleans” and for a moment, no, two, no, an entire minute “Baby please don’t go back to new Orleans I know you man done gone, baby please don’t go” my depression was gone. That moment was a jewel I did not know how to handle, I didn’t want to move and have it crack or have the owner come and demand it back. The blues seemed to cure me. But on the car ride to the record shop I felt the old wet wool ghost dripping with fire as my fathers face turned from elation back to a resigned concern.

I don’t want to be melodramatic about this. It’s not as if he constantly verbally harassed me or threw things at me or even really raised his voice to me. It was often mild disdain in the face of adulation for others. In many ways I wonder if I was a different, less sensitive (or touchy if I’m being unkind) person, if all of this would have simply passed me by, not been a big deal, if I wasn’t already predisposed to self-loathing and fear of punishment, if this might have been a laugh in some ways. What it did lead to was a measure of time every weekday I could count on being thoroughly disappointing. I could count on hating myself for my inability to perform. I soon learned how to make a joke of myself after he stopped the band for the fourth time and asked me in that frustrated, growl, “Mr. Mango… again?!” to which I’d yell, shamefully, “Oh God, this is why we can’t have nice things!” or something just as obviously desperate in its design to cover my hurt. He was not a bad man, but to him I guessed I was an impediment to the success and esteem of the band. At that time, with that neurotic frame of mind, I hated him as thoroughly and deeply as any teenager has hated any authority figure. I became a kind of joke with some of my friends. Never a joke that really came to prominence or was passed around with joy, but we joked about how much him and I hated each other. And still I don’t know why I was there, why I didn’t leave.

There was one day in particular, we were getting ready for some nationwide competition that I still don’t really understand the details of, and we were playing a particular (and lovely) piece that required one full measure of unadulterated Euphonium melody. At home I played the part feverishly. Again, again, this floating, dulcimer measure, that propped one small moment of a beautiful song, I would play it until my fingerprints knew it better than my thoughts. Like if I could outrun my head with sheer digit speed, I might be free from that damn demon neurosis that seemed to choke me so often. And so we were in practice and the feel of the band room was heavy, as if everyone was sweating, including the walls. And he was certainly sweating. And it was in fact raining out, the large wall that was just a window in this lovely spacious place colored a burgundy and complementary grape-like purple, and he stood on the podium and his sleeves were rolled up. He lifted his wand (and he was so wide that it was like watching the continents of the globe carry themselves of the face of the Earth only to smash back down, it was silly and powerful), made swift eye contact with the room and we began. And percussion was thumping as the clarinets ran and the flutes drifted in to the sound of rising horns and they dimmed to the sound of beating thunder in my ears, my own heartbeat breaking my feel for the music and he looked, and up went the wand, and down, and a flubbed sad note, a schlemiel of a thing tumbling into a pool at a party where no one was swimming. And from the top and yet again. And the thunder was so loud that I couldn’t even hear my own anxious self-hatred, and I felt the sweat on my back and the eyes of the room and looked up in diminutive stature and great contrition, as if apologizing for my existence, to see a furrowed brow staring straight down. And I looked around the room and caught some quizzical glances, some gentle looks of concern, but mostly unreactions, refusing to engage or comment. And he began to say, in that baritone, he didn’t know what to do, this was turning into a failure, all a failure. He looked me in the eyes and said, with a kind of gravity I cannot myself muster, “Mr. Mango, you’re bringing the band down.” And then I was the black hole in the room that sucked in all attention only to destroy it. And part of me now wants to laugh, because this scene is so fucking ludicrous. It was just band. And yet, even as I think of it now it hurts. It was not the first time I was humiliated, nor the last, but it was the most notable time in front of a group of peers, some of whom Ioved, or admired, or crushed on, or wanted their approval and all I heard was my own inner voice telling myself I’d been rendered into a paste under the thumb of his words. But this of course is not the entire truth of the situation. Because, you see, I also sat there with a straight face, and kept my internal hatred internal and this is what is so difficult about this memory, to me at least, is that compared to so much I’ve lived through that moment is a goddamn cake walk, but it hurt like hell. Sometimes it still does. I even got nightmares. Does that make me weak? I don’t know. I don’t think so, but how are we supposed to process humiliation? For a long time I didn’t know what to do with that question.

He was kind to my brother and sister. My brother is a superb drummer, my sister was a good flutist, it was weird being the oldest and a disappointment to a man that was not my parent. And after we’d made some uneasy peace (finally one day when he stopped me I just yelled at him “what the hell do you expect from me! It’s always the same” and he did lighten up) and after I left for college I’d come home to the local gossip. Most of which suggested that things were not as professional as I’d thought. That .he’d shown up to the parade reeking. That his wife was leaving. That he couldn’t function well in the morning. You know, that kind of nasty hearsay that’s as ugly in content as it is in intent. And part way through college my mom called me and told me that he’d died. Just, he’d died. And at that moment I was callous enough to say I didn’t care. And like any early death, the gossip didn’t stop. It stank of booze. I do not know how much or in what way, but it reeked of hushed whispers passing around the idea he’d died of alcohol poisoning. I didn’t want to care. I wanted to drink and get laid. I sure did drink.

Maybe the strangest thing about grace is not only the experience of it, but where you find it. Two months into sobriety, I had a dream where he stood at the podium again. The seats were black folding chairs with lush burgundy cushions, he was dressed in a smart looking suit, the lights seemed to follow us as if we were on stage and everything else was soft shadow. But this time, instead of playing music he came down and sat next to me and told me very earnestly he was an alcoholic. And I said that I knew. And his big round face and bald head, all colored an kind of light crimson changed without changing. The colors remained the same, but instead of some indication of a buffoonish bully I should eject from my mind, it was the hue of someone who was struggling with a drink, someone who could be warm and creative that was as riddled with demons just as I was and doing his best just like I was. And his best didn’t work. And in the dream he told me that. And when I got of from the chair and left, feeling lighter, I was thankful for that solidarity. And when I woke up I didn’t hate him anymore. I just, I didn’t. He made sense.

But here’s the hard thing and the true thing. I have no idea if any of that is true. That moment of closeness that I never felt with him in real waking life was my dream, my illusion, my fantasy. Even the evidence it was based on was gossip. I didn’t know the man or his insides. His cruelty was the realest thing I knew, the most confirmable. When I remembered him I remembered bringing the band down. But that particular not knowing is the exactly loveliness to this all. My subconscious did me a favor my conscious mind never could have. It forgave him. Those moments still hurt yes, but I don’t begrudge him. I feel a kind of cool sadness, a resting sadness, like the still water of a moonlit pool. And the thing is, that forgiveness ends up being more real than the gossip or the perceived cruelty. Forgiveness gets to exist where total ignorance and fear hovel up, because forgiveness wants me to loosen my grip on all this shitty stuff I thought was happening. He may have been an alcoholic, he may not have, but he definitely suffered and for that, some part of me better than my waking mind could forgive him.

It’s strange to realize that an internal act that reorients the way we might see the world is in some ways more real than the way we received said world.

And I have a special new freedom now. It’s this: I get to see him as just a man. A man I didn’t know a whole lot about, a man who I felt hurt by, a man who did good things, a man who struggled, and whether imagined or not, I get some sense of closeness to him.

Perhaps this is all deeply solipsistic, and in fact I’m only waxing poetic about how great I think my inside world is, but I think something else is going on. I think that, this was the kind of internal violence each of us experiences every moment of every day, just in this case it came to a tragic end. I do wish I’d known the good side of him like others did, but at the very least I can appreciate it was there. It is always there.

His favorite band is The Beatles. I know this from one strange mid-morning I shared with him. I was about to be a senior and he had asked to come in and meet with him. That morning he talked to me like I did matter and I was good. He even took an interest in me and when I told him I’d been really into the Beatles he said he shared that interest. I remember wanting to feel connected, so I asked him why he thought they were so good and he said something along these lines, “They were revolutionary right from the start. Right in Love Me Do you’ve got that thumping country drum line with a pop melody resting on top, but it’s so seamless you don’t even realize the blending is there. And they never stopped writing music that way.” It’s usually the first thing I tell a person when I want to sound smart about the Beatles brilliance. And part of me wishes I’d had more moments like that with him, where I felt appreciated, listened to and informed, but I also know that that part is misguided. That moment lives in me forever, just like the forgiveness, like the alcoholism. It is uncoupled from time. Now, while I might still remember I brought the band down and feel hurt I also know I was always and still am listened to. The really weird part is that now I wish I could tell him how much he means to me, how much I appreciate him, even if that ‘him’ is some facsimile of my own imagined solidarity. I hope somehow he knows that. I hope it’s not impossible.