Carolina Girls

Every summer, my family vacationed on Topsail Island, North Carolina for one treasured week. Mom would load the back of the wood paneled station wagon with brown paper grocery bags of food. My three brothers and I laid claim to our space for the four hour drive by karate chopping a boundary line in between us on the vinyl back seat, Hi-yah!

Invariably, someone’s foot, hand or breath would breach the imaginary border.

“Mom, he’s on my side!”

When she tired of playing the role of United Nations, Mom would banish the offending party to the way, way back.

I didn’t mind riding in the back so much. I’d lie down and watch the rows of green tobacco plants flicker by like the spokes of a wheel. When I became hungry, I’d pull out the Honey Combs cereal and have a snack while secretly admiring the picture on the box of Bobby Sherman.

Just when cow poker was about to lose its luster, Mom would sing “Who can see the ocean first?”

We’d train our gaze on the undulating sand dunes, searching the tiny valleys between them for a glimpse of blue. Like baby birds we’d chirp, “I see it! I see it!”

We were drawn to the sea, bobbing like bell buoys in the briny currents, searching for the perfect crest and sometimes getting pummeled by a rogue wave. At night, sunburnt, tired and lying in between the sandy bed sheets, we’d close our eyes and get rocked to sleep by the phantom push and pull, push and pull, push and pull of the tides.

We continued that family tradition for years, even after Dad left us. One moonlit night, there was a party on the deck of the cottage next door and I watched Mom peering through the open kitchen window, elbows resting on the sill. The sounds of “Beach music”—those boppy, Carolina R&B tunes—drifted up from the party below. Mom held her hand to her mouth as she laughed, her feet dancing to the beat. For the first time, I realized there was someone else my mother used to be. She was not actually born a mother. It was then that I realized she was in this alone.

Mom was fiercely protective of us, still is. Breaking into the Dameron family for any girlfriend and later, a boyfriend must have been a daunting task, much like wading into the ocean. There were a few family dinners with significant others that crashed terrifically beneath a sea of tears. I think Mom just got used to protecting our borders.

When I worked up the nerve to tell Mom that Paul was going to become my husband, I was terrified. She wept for many reasons, but happiness certainly bubbled to the top. Mom told me she felt like she had missed that boat—that she never really had “The love of her life.” She had devoted herself to her boys and God help the poor man who came calling at our door on Latham Road. He would have been greeted by a tsunami of rambunctious Dameron boys and the flotsam and jetsam of our pets. As much as Mom protected our borders, we flooded hers.

Like all kids, I pushed Mom and my brothers away at one point or another, attempting to find myself and become the man I am today, but Mom never stopped pulling me back. She starts every conversation with, “When was the last time you talked to your brothers?”

There is a faded photograph of Mom as a pretty, young woman clinging to us on Topsail Island. When I look at it, I can feel the phantom push and pull of the tides. God, we all look so happy. The edges may be a bit tattered, but it’s clear to see, Mom didn’t have one single love of her life. She had four. 


When I Said It

It was a garden level apartment, too far from Boston and too close to nowhere. On the day I moved in, I wrangled a queen sized mattress by myself until a young Latina held the lobby door open with her foot and guided the bed with her hands, using facial expressions and Spanglish to communicate, “Mira, left, left!” That first night, I lay awake on the bare mattress and listened to muffled conversations seep through the walls, too distant from English and not close enough to any language I could comprehend.

I was alone in a way that I had not been for more than twenty years—seven hundred miles and a secret separated me from my family.  It was not a complete break, but more of a fracture that we were attempting to heal, as if giving it a rest could mend the broken bones of our marriage.

I tried setting up rituals to break up the solitude, drinks at the Picadilly Pub with co-workers on Thursday nights, take-out sweet and sour chicken from Chin’s Garden for Friday dinner and a run along the abandoned rail bed of the Assabet River trail on Sunday mornings. But on Saturday nights, when the light faded, loneliness crept into my unfurnished apartment, like the scent of foreign foods being prepared by the unbroken families around me.

The sun would slip below the horizon around 4:30 pm and shortly thereafter, a group of Brazilian men in dark Levis, whooping and hollering, would emerge from the cinder-block apartment building and climb into the back of a pick-up truck, the night stretching out before them like a lubricious promise.

I chose one of those Saturday nights to rent a video, when video stores were still a thing. I walked up and down the aisles surveying the titles, already knowing which DVD I would select, too ashamed to see it alone in a theater and barely brave enough to hold it in my hands. I would rent it and return it through the after-hours slot and then cancel my membership.

I waited until most of the customers left. My heart pounded as I walked up to the cashier, DVD in hand holding it close to my body so no one could see and placed it title side down on the counter.

“Do you want popcorn or candy?” The cashier asked, nodding his head towards the selection.

“No, just this please,” I said without looking up.

He turned the video over, glanced up at me and said “I need your membership card.”

I thought his stare held a certain conviction as I fumbled through my wallet and when I looked up after finding my card, I caught him regarding my wedding band.

When I returned home, I poured a healthy amount of gin into a glass, placed the DVD into my laptop computer and sat in the single chair next to the small, folding kitchen table.

A dusty little town, the longing twang of a guitar chord and the forlorn landscape of Wyoming was all it took for me to know their love was doomed from the start. When it ended, one dirty, blood-stained shirt neatly folded into the other, it ended me too.

Like Ennis del Mar, I’d have to stand in that open space for a while, too afraid to move forward and too changed to go back. Looking into the mirror that night I decided for the first time to try out the foreign words, see how they might fit. It was more of a confession and less of an affirmation and only a whisper.

“Shit, I’m so gay.”


The Turkeys

The turkeys woke me this morning. They roam our Boston neighborhood in a gaggle, like a gang of delinquent teenagers. They are unafraid; defiant even as they strut across the sidewalk daring pedestrians to cross their paths. I’ve witnessed them charging the oblivious passerby, their brown wings extended, red wattles flapping and eyes narrowed. This morning, they are just outside my window.

When I lived in Franklin, MA a lifetime ago, the turkeys hung out on a rural back road next to a restaurant called “Ma Glockner’s,” an establishment famous for their chicken dinners served with a fresh cinnamon bun. It opened on Maple Street in 1937 on Thanksgiving Day, serving the domesticated big breasted, white, dumbed down brethren of the wild turkeys.

The land surrounding the restaurant could have been lifted from the pages of Watership Down; sun-dappled stones walls, birch leaves alternating green and silver as they shudder in the cool breeze and rabbit warrens burrowed among the twigs and russet colored leaves of the forest floor.  

I used to pass the turkeys of Maple Street on my morning and evening commute. I was mostly unaware of the beauty surrounding me. But every once in a while, one of those damned birds would run along the side of the road, hook a left and attempt to become airborne. Their lumbering bodies would tumble mere inches over the hood of my car, more like an awkward long jump across the road than a graceful bird taking flight. Startled, I’d pull my car into the parking lot of Ma Glockners and wait for a minute while my heart stopped pounding.

I sat there once, listening to Al Green on the radio singing “Love and Happiness.” The tune so sweet it made me tear up. A strip of clouds blushed orange in the western sky. Squirrels chattered in the Oak trees, turkeys huddled. I wanted a love that would make me do right and make me do wrong. Next life, I thought.

But here I am.

Each morning, I check the balance of my 401(K). I calculate the years until retirement. I glance at Facebook. I wait for an email from my agent. Perhaps he worked out a deal at two AM with a publisher and sent me a contract. It could happen. I re-read the same essay I have been working on for two months. I delete a comma and then I put it back. I look to see if any of the publications have accepted my submissions.  

How easily we fall into a routine. But this morning the turkeys gathered outside of my window and sang me a song. Gobble, gobble, gobble—“Wake up mother-fucker.”


When I Woke Up

When I was floating between jobs in the 1990’s, I worked as a reader. Breadwinner for my young family, and all I could scratch up were the lousy crumbs from a temporary job scoring high school essays, which were part of Ohio's standardized assessment exam.

I had to score the essays on a scale of zero to five. A zero meant there were no words written. A five was stellar, as if perhaps this should be published in a literary journal. A score of one meant they had written something, a word or two, typically some permutation of “This sucks,” or “Fuck you.” Judging by their essays, teenagers in the urban core of Cleveland, Ohio were brimming with hostility. Like most things in life, it was the essays in the middle that got messy. What was the difference between a two and a three, or a three and a four?

Most of the essays began verbatim, using the writing prompt, “One morning I woke up and discovered that I could fly.” What often followed was a quotidian trip drifting through the neighborhood as jealous friends exclaimed, “Hey, you can fly!!” Many of the girls flew to the mall to go shopping with their friends, or to Hollywood where they employed celebrities in cameo appearances. Brendan Fraser often appeared in a loincloth, fresh from his role in “George of the Jungle.” They would “make out,” but it rarely progressed beyond first base. Even in uncirculated print, teenage girls fretted about being called a slut.

Then there were the essays where girls drifted up to bedroom windows and secretly witnessed stepfathers committing some type of abuse, or boys flew into closets and stole guns. These were unscored and forwarded to my supervisors; middle-aged women, who poured over the words, with knitted brows, as they tugged at their sweaters, pulling them closed.

The essays were read twice by two different scorers. If we wanted to keep our jobs, we had to maintain a high accuracy rate with the tandem reader’s score. As my rate flailed, I worried that my temporary job would become a zero. Many mornings when I woke up, I wished I could fly away.

“Look, if the word ‘Slumbering’ is used in an essay, that’s an automatic four,” one of the readers confided to me in the break room. She was heating up her lunch, a single sweet potato, in the food-splattered microwave. It was the same thing she brought in every day. Karen was thin with stringy brown hair and paper-white skin with a slight blue sheen. She had the unsettling habit of staring at my forehead during our conversations. When she caught me looking down my nose at her shriveled-up potato, she glanced at my ham sandwich and said, “I think meat tastes like dried blood.”

“A four for slumbering?” I asked, patting the hair on my forehead, checking for fly-aways.

“Well, they have to write more than that, but you get the gist. More syllables and better word choices equals a higher score and vice versa.”

As my accuracy rate grew, so did my friendship with Karen. We shared the tidbits of our lives over lunches of sweet potatoes and ham sandwiches. Karen’s dream job was somewhere in the wilds of Wyoming where she could live and work on a ranch while writing and paying down her Grand-Teton sized school debt. Mine was to become employed full-time at a job that offered benefits; it was a three, though at the time I would have scored it a five.

Here is the thing about dreams. When life is a one or a two and you’re just trying to make ends meet, to be like everybody else, a three—somewhere in the middle—sounds pretty damn good. A five is unfathomable.

Every once in a while an essay deemed exemplary would be read aloud by a supervisor, giving us a break from the monotony of kids flying to the ubiquitous mall shopping trip, or drifting above the popular crowd and dropping egg-bombs. The first essay I scored as a five resonated deep in my marrow for reasons I could not then understand. I handed it to my supervisor, chest puffed out, as if I had written it myself.

“This is good,” she said. “Beautiful use of language and imagery, but I’m afraid it’s only a high three, perhaps a four.”

“But, she used the word slumbering,” I protested, “See? Right there.”

“It’s poetry, really, but how did the writer change? What do we discover about the narrator in the end that we did not know in the beginning?” she asked.

In the essay, the girl drifted above a handsome boy she loved, a honey-colored moon in his inky black sky. While he slumbered, she tugged at his tides and painted his face with her moonbeams. She was forever trapped in his orbit.

After I read the essay to Karen, she put down her fork-full of potato and asked, “Have you ever been in love like that?”

“Not yet,” I replied.

Her eyes fluttered for a moment and then her gaze drifted down from the bulls-eye on my forehead to the tears rolling down my cheeks.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“It was just such a beautiful essay,” I said, waving my hand in the air, brushing it off. But, while I was dreaming about life in the middle, this teenage girl from Sandusky, Ohio burned a hole through my forehead, pulled out a five and held it up for me to see.

On Monday morning, Karen didn’t show up for work. Later in the week, I received an e-mail from her. She woke up Sunday morning and decided to start driving. We shared fat e-mails about the dusty ranch and the colorful characters in her new Wyoming town, how the sky was so big, you could see a storm coming from a hundred miles away and how at night it grew so cold that when she went to the toilet, she was afraid her stream would freeze up.

I became employed full time at a company that offered benefits. I don’t know what happened to Karen. Our lives got busy and somewhere along the way, we lost touch with one another.  I imagine her steely gaze looking up at the windswept clouds racing over the Tetons. I lived in that messy middle for many years, moving up the ladder, hoping each fresh job in every new city would offer a benefit that the previous one did not, authenticity. When I finally figured it out, the storm of divorce kicked up and then it passed. 

Here’s the thing about dreams, you don’t necessarily have to fly away in order to make them come true, but you do have to wake up.    

I got up, brushed off the dust and became an IT Director for a prestigious consulting firm with stellar benefits in Harvard Square. Even so, sometimes at night, I lie awake, worrying about the college debt my children have amassed and wonder how I'll make ends meet. Then I’ll look over at my new husband Paul slumbering, as the full moon paints his face. A sense of lightness tugs at me and pulls me up. I am forever, happily trapped in his orbit. I found my five.


Lost and Found in The Land of Mañana

The waiter cradled two menus in his arms, like fraternal infant twins. I was certain the one I could not read listed the most delectable delicacies and the other one, the less attractive sibling, contained watered-down, Anglicized versions of Spanish dishes. He sized us up, by which I mean he mentally placed us on a scale, measured our weight in kilograms and then inquired, “Ingles or Español?”

His expression was the same one I had seen on my doctor’s face when he rhetorically asked if I “really understood what a healthy plate of food looks like?” The answer was obvious, though I could not seem to give it.

“Ingles, por favor,” my colleague Dan said.

It was then that j'ai regretté studying French in high school. I fell for the romance of the language, the way the S’s and vowels snuggled up to form liaisons, like two lovers clinging to one another on a misty, black and white Parisian afternoon. I thought if I learned the language of love, I might understand my internal version of it. But, simply analyzing a map versus walking the twisted lanes and secret side streets of a foreign city are like dining from the dollar menu at a Taco Bell and calling it tapas.

I didn’t expect everyone in Madrid to speak English, as if I had stumbled into the Disney Epcot version of Spain where the scrubbed down facades and cobblestone sidewalks did not offer up the occasional acrid, urine besotted scent. But, I also did not anticipate feeling so ill-prepared and let’s face it, so American. Not that I was un-proud of being American. I was just keenly aware of Europeans’ distrust in our politics. Never was there a more accurate warning label than a Donald Trump bumper sticker.

“I can’t make out the prices. These wines seem so expensive,” I whispered.

The older gentleman sitting next to us, so close that I could count the comb marks in his white hair said, “That’s not the wine list. It’s just the cover of the menu. They’ll bring an iPad if you ask.”

“Gracias,” I said, even though he spoke with a crisp British accent. And then I actually began to count the comb marks—in Spanish, but when I got to diez, I reached the upper limit of my knowledge.

I learned a handful of phrases on my trip to Madrid. I could say good day, thank you and ask where the bathroom was, but if anyone answered in Spanish, I would have been lost.

When I told our waiter the paella was muy bien, he smiled and said “Bueno.” I smiled back. I considered this a small victory until Dan explained that the waiter was correcting me. I had told him the food was very well, as if he were inquiring after my elderly aunt.

That evening, the language app on my iPhone indicated with a triumphant chime that I was one percent fluent in Spanish. Being one percent of anything does not strike me as something to crow about. I’m used to giving it my all, of working sixteen hour days in order to move a data center in Spain; of taking a sharp left in my early forties and tossing out the map while actually walking through the twisted chambers of my own heart after my first marriage to my wife imploded.

If you were to question my perseverance, I would tell you how I drove through a blizzard on a road I had never travelled to dine with the man who would become my husband. We met at a Mexican restaurant called “On the Border.” It straddled the state line between Massachusetts and New Hampshire. After dinner, I could not stop kissing him in the front seat of his car as the snow piled up. When I drove home, the landscaped was so altered I thought I’d never find my way. Here's the thing. Falling in love is like learning a new language; the only way to do it is to immerse yourself and risk becoming lost.

I may have only known a few Spanish words on that trip to Madrid, but mira, I made a decision. I would make them the most auténtico sounding phrases a Spaniard had ever heard. So, I listened closely and it seemed to me that Madrileños cast off their S’s the way Bostonians drop their R’s. No hypersexual French S’s rolling in zee hay with any proximate coquettish vowels.

After Dan and I finished setting up the new office we decided to take a walking tour of Madrid. When we approached the tour guide I said, “Buenos Dias. ¿Qué tal?” I barely acknowledged my S’s.

“Ah, si, Español,” he said.

“Ingles, por favor,” I replied.

“Well, your greeting was very convincing.”

After the tour, we walked through the heart of the city, along the twisted side streets and uncovered its secrets hidden beneath the cobblestone lanes and behind the Palacio walls. I turned to Dan and said, “I will give you five euros if you can find a Mexican restaurant.”

We sat outside at a table on Calle de las Hileras and ate Guacamole, tacos, tamales and quesadillas while sipping dos cervezas. It may not have been the healthiest plate of food in the world, but on that moonlit night in Madrid, it was the Spanish I knew snuggling with the Spain I was beginning to love.


Fashionably Late

Great news! My story “Operating Instructions” will be featured in the upcoming anthology Fashionably Late: Gay, Bi, and Trans Men Who Came Out Later in Life. The collection sheds light on a largely overlooked segment of the LGBT+ community and offers affirmation to older men coming out of the closet. The book will be out in March, but you can pre-order copies of the book right now through its Kickstarter campaign! Click here to visit the page.


I'm Gonna' Keep On Loving You

Paul’s definition of a good time is driving like a bat out of hell from Boston to Maine, which is funny, because that’s my definition of no sex tonight. You could say that he is an aggressive driver, but that would be an understatement. Maybe he is an obstreperous driver. The meaning of that word, which no one could define any differently, is to boldly resist an authority or opposing force. If that opposing force is impending death—car over cliff style—then yes, this is the word.

“Look Sweetie, no hands,” Paul says steering with his knees while changing lanes.

It’s this type of thing that people find charming in one another during the first several years of a relationship. They choose pet names for each other. They intentionally sing the wrong words to well-known songs together. They invent cute descriptions for each other’s body parts, juhostehagen, for example. They listen to REO Speedwagon. And because your love is so new and all encompassing, it washes a glowing rose colored haze over these things. You not only forgive him for listening to REO Speedwagon, you actually adore him for it.

But one night, many years into a relationship, when you come back from the gym and you’re tired and hungry and you’re pinching that roll of fat around your middle and you’re hurtling down the Maine turnpike at warp speed, guided only by someone’s knee caps, you remember that you not only dislike REO Speedwagon, you detest them, always have. You imagine REO’s speed wagon careening over a cliff and exploding in a terrific blaze amid the whiff of singed, over-permed eighties hair.

“Come on sweetie, do a little dance,” Paul says glancing sideways at me. He raises his eyebrows suggestively.

“Not feeling it,” I say and look through the car window.

It’s no secret that I’m the moody one, the thinking one. I’m writing a scene in my head as it takes place in front of me. Thirty seconds after Paul asks “What are you thinking about?,” I say “nothing.” Because how do I explain that I was just wondering about how in a parallel universe, there must be the two of us driving down another highway exactly like this one, asking and answering the same question? And if you were to keep looking, you would see that same scene over and over again like a repeating fun-house mirror? I could attempt to weave together the thoughts that got me to this point, but when someone asks you what you’re thinking about, they expect simple answers like “dinner” or “how pretty the sky looks,” not quantum physics.

I wish that I could wake up in the morning, throw my arms up over my head and start whistling the way Paul does, but I’m not wired that way. For years, I waited to see his bad side, but it never came. He’s eternally optimistic. And then it dawns on me, like the blush of orange spread across the evening sky that perhaps Paul’s definition of a good time is simply to have the wind in his hair and the open road before him. Maybe he’s thinking that somewhere along the line, in a parallel universe, he found the moody and overthinking guy sitting to his right sexy and charming, but now he’s just a buzzkill.

As if he’s reading my thoughts, Paul reaches over and pats my face.    

“Is it a good thing that after all of these years, I want to kiss your face and not bash it in?” he asks.

Yes, that’s a very good thing and I decide to define it as charming.

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