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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The Martin Guitar


She was what you would call a “character” if you were being kind, something else if you were not. We didn’t use the B word back then, lest we find ourselves gagging on the curious flavor of Irish Spring soap. Manly yes, but I did not like it. We called her Ginny, which was her name, a nickname for Virginia, the virgin grandmother. Grandma, Granny or Nana was too soft a moniker to stretch over that tough exterior, arms always crossed, black patent leather purse in the crook of her arm, plain woolen dress and dark plastic eyeglasses resting on the end of her nose. Her fire red hair was the one colorful accessory, a warning of sorts. Hugging her was like wrapping your arms around the wrong end of magnetized iron, you always felt as if you were being repelled.  

“Great heavens above,” she used to say, cigarette perched between the tips of two fingers, which she held above her right shoulder, à la Bette Davis.

She could bend that phrase to suit almost any emotion, shock, disbelief, disappointment. But whenever she said it, it always felt as if she was summoning an army of angels to judge my sorry, sinful ass. And I was a sinner, because every time she asked if we still had that Martin guitar, I’d lie and say “Oh yes!”

“It was your grandfather’s guitar and then your father’s, you know that don’t you?” she’d continue the interrogation.

“Yeah,” I’d reply.

“Yes ma’am,” she’d correct me.

She’d take a puff of her cigarette, narrow her eyes and say “You’re too skinny. Doesn’t your mother feed you?”

My mother sold that Martin guitar years earlier for the express purpose of putting food on the table after my father, Ginny’s cherished only child left us. But the phantom guitar remained. Sometimes my brothers and I would embellish the story and breathe a little more life into the fable. “We just had it re-strung,” we’d say or “It sure does sounds pretty.”

“It’s valuable. Don’t let your mother sell it,” She’d command.

Though we were children, my brothers and I understood that somehow my grandmother knew the guitar was as gone as my father. But we clung to the numinous fantasy, in part because we feared her reaction and perhaps more so because as long as the guitar remained, there was a piece of my father in the house.

We probably would have gotten away with the ruse had my grandmother chosen not to make a rare visit to our home after the divorce. It was strange to see Ginny out of her environment of stiff Victorian furniture and oriental rugs without “the help.” She was like a piece of antique furniture appearing all the more displaced in a room of orange shag carpeting with a brown corduroy upholstered sofa where four misbehaving boys were scattered about the floor like throw rugs as our mangy dog, Tiger farted.

During dinner, we attempted to steer the conversation from tumbling down the road we all knew it would eventually take. My older brother Chuck regaled us with his adventures in Boy Scouting and the call of the wild. My younger brother John secreted away the obligatory three bites of vegetables into his glass of milk. Matthew, the youngest, batted his eyelashes that were as thick as a girl’s and then, without thinking, I offered to play a rousing rendition of “Hot Cross Buns” on the piano.

“What?” I asked when my brother Chuck kicked me under the table.        

“Why don’t you get the guitar and make it a duet?” Ginny asked.

My mother scanned our faces and then asked Ginny to join her in the kitchen while she washed the dishes, relieving us from our usual post dinner clean up. We sat in the den in silence just as we did while listening to my mother’s one sided phone conversations begging my father not to leave. “You never could make my son happy,” we heard Ginny accuse my mother in the same kitchen where my mother sobbed over many a phone call from women confessing to affairs with my swarthy, handsome father.

And then, Ginny appeared in front of us, like one of those birds popping out of a coo-coo clock her body stiff as a daguerreotype portrait.

“You don’t have the guitar anymore do you?” she asked.

“No ma’am,” I said as her eyes became watery and red-rimmed.

Shortly thereafter we heard the tires of my father’s car pull up the gravel drive and then Ginny was gone. If I had been a good Christian boy I might have felt guilty, but I didn’t. I was just so relieved to be rid of that God damn, worthless guitar.


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The Blue Crab



The end of swim season was the end. There were no digital fibers in the fabric of our lives to keep us connected. Gone was the shock of the early morning water and the honey combed sunlight quivering beneath the surface of the pool. Gone were the Lycra suited lords and ladies of summer cheering from the edge. There would be no more frozen snickers, wafting scents of crinkled French fries frying or coconut scented mothers glistening. And most all, it was the end of congratulatory pats on the rear end from coach Hal with the blonde wavy hair and muscled legs like tree trunks. I was a moonchild born in July. The end of swim season was the end of me.

But after the end, my mother piled brown paper grocery bags filled with a week’s worth of food into the back of our wood paneled station wagon and so we began the four hour trek to Topsail Island on the outer banks of North Carolina. As the landscape flattened out and the green stalks of corn flickered by the window, we hit a bump in the road and my lungs deflated with a hissing sigh.

“What’s wrong with you?” my older brother Chuck asked.

“Shut-up,” I replied. Because how could I explain what was wrong with me, when what was wrong 
with me was so terribly wrong?

When the shoulders of the roads became sandy and the dunes dotted with nodding sea oats came into view, we rolled down the windows and inhaled the warm salty air, each attempting to spot the blue of the ocean first. It was an elixir that brought me back from the brink of death caused by teenage summer crush.

Towards the end of the week, my three brothers and I bolted through the screen door with the rusted spring hinge of the faded blue cottage, whack! Chuck with the fish heads, John with the string, Matt with the Styrofoam cooler and me with the net. We navigated our way across the street and through the reeds, side stepping the fiddler crabs retreating backwards.

We tied a string in a loop through the mouth of a fish head, our faces screwed up as if we had just bitten into a lemon and tossed the head into the shallow water of the sound. Within a minute or two there was a tug on the line and Chuck slowly pulled the string towards us as I dropped the net and scooped up a blue crab. I inverted the net over the cooler and shook it, releasing the clamoring crustacean.

After we deposited about ten crabs, Chuck pulled up another and when I captured it in the net and shook it, I discovered that it was hopelessly tangled.

“Reach in and pull it out,” Chuck commanded, but I could not.

“Come on you fag, just do it.”

I’m certain now that he used the term loosely, more as an insult and less as an accusation, but I felt ensnared in the word. And so I whacked the net against a barnacled wooden pole over and over again, tears streaming down my face as the crab’s body cracked and my brothers looked on with wide eyes and gaping mouths. The sun dipped below the horizon smearing orange streaks in the sky and I was left alone to pick the dismantled pieces of the crab out of the net.

It was the end of the season and it was the end of me.


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By Any Other Name


I was poking my fettuccine with a fork at the Cheesecake Factory on a cold November night while he explained the process for remembering all of his previous boyfriends. “Take the first initial of your last name, for instance mine is ‘B’ and give each of them a nickname that begins with that letter.” I don’t remember how the subject came up, but enumerating our previous love interests on a first date seemed dangerous.

“For example, ‘The Boozer,’” he said. “He was my first.”

I had less of a list of boyfriends and more of a handful of encounters; two or three fingers would have sufficed, really. I had been out of the closet for about six months and during that time I went out on a few dates. One guy even kept in touch with me, if you could accept a single misspelled text message as communication: “sorry, ben busy.” Buy a fucking vowel.

“Then there was the Biscotti,” he said. “He was sweet and I think he truly loved me.”

It wasn’t difficult to see why any person might fall in love with him. With his looks, all he had to do was smile and hearts melted. The middle aged woman at the table next to us was pretending to point out an item on the menu to her friend, but she was in fact, making a sloppy gesture towards my date. I could see her mouthing the phrase, as if she was talking to a deaf person, “Not that one, The-Good-Looking-One. Over There.” Bitch.

“The Bald eagle was next,” he laughed. “He lived in Lexington and put hair product on the twenty or so hairs on his head.”

As he continued to describe the bald eagle, I began to worry that we dated the same guy and then he mentioned him by his actual name. Correction, he had dated the bald eagle. I only had physical relations with him and then he flew out of the door. The guy who spent an hour applying gel to the sparse hairs on his head could not apply that same amount of attention on me. As he continued to describe all of the previous men in his life, I envisioned introducing him to my family and friends. I imagined them looking confused as they glanced over my shoulder while I mouthed the words, “No, The Good Looking One. Right Here.”

“Box-boy sold cardboard boxes for a living and collected washing machines as a hobby.”

My heart sunk. My two or three encounters were his full-fledged relationships. I was the crazy in their universe and they were the throw-aways in his. As he continued to go down his list, I began to wonder how I might be remembered, The Blunder, The Bozo, The Bitch.

When he walked me to my car, I thought about asking him what my nickname would be, but it was time to manage the crazy. Maybe I would come up with a way to remember him. If I were to choose the first initial of my last name, “D,” there would be plenty of options, Dazzling, Dreamy. Dammit, I was already hooked.  This was Dangerous.

I asked Paul once when he decided to stop collecting nick names and settled on me. Maybe it was because he finally found someone who could only be described with glowing B words: Beautiful, Beguiling, Bewitching.

“Was it because you finally found someone whose name begins with B?” I asked.

“Who are you?” he smiled.

Douchebag.


  



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Dancing For The Stars


When Paul installed a security camera in our cottage in Maine, I felt a celebutante’s dread that I would become the victim of a leaked sex tape. When I expressed this concern, he brushed it aside with a wave of his hand and said “It only records when we put it in ‘away’ mode.” In theory, this is true, but in practice it is false. The camera never records, because we never put it in away mode. But it is always on, a watchful eye streaming to an app on our iPhones with a five second delay. It is on demand déjà vu.

“Show me something,” Paul says as I walk into the kitchen.

I face the camera and give it a Kardashian caught without make-up look.

“No, I mean something good,” he says holding his iPhone up in front of his face while sitting on the sofa in the sun room and flicking his index finger and thumb, zooming in. He then offers some directorial advice “Do a sexy little dance.”

I perform my best Magic Mike moves.

“That was mechanical,” Paul sighs.

The life of a reality star is difficult and if being under constant surveillance were not enough, there is a microphone on the camera that is controlled by the iPhone app.

“Oh yeah, slice those limes,” a gravelly porn star voice, aka Paul, emanates from the speaker on the camera. “Now squeeze them, baby. Squeeze them real good.”

Correction, it is on demand porno vu.

When we are not home, Paul will occasionally say “I wonder what’s going on in the cottage,” which is my cue to open the app. I’m not certain what I expect, but every time I am chilled to see a creepy stillness, a kitchen table and four empty chairs in the shifting light of the late autumn New England sun, shadows in the shuttered sun room, the glint of sunlight on hardwood floors where the click of our footsteps have long since vanished. Perhaps even more eerie is the sound of our absence, white noise.

All of this makes me feel as if I am somehow cheating. Unless we have jumped off of a bridge on a snowy winter night and been pulled out of the abyss by a bumbling guardian angel, we’re not meant to see the world without us. But I do, and for all of the changes it has made to me, I am surprised to find it unaltered. The air does not quiver, as Isak Dinesen ruminated, with a color I have had on.

If our nearest possible alien neighbors were to poke their telescopes through the cloth of space, it would take at least twelve years for any images from Earth to reach them. This is the nearest “habitable zone” of planets, scientists say. The image of my sexy dance in a pair of boxers while slicing limes would echo through the cosmos, bumping into a passing comet and drifting over stars for more than a decade before reaching the blinking eyes of some extra-terrestrials.  

I imagine two alien lovers discovering my ethereal sex tape and looking at each other in that knowing way, touched by the absurdity of the universe and this gives me comfort. They would glance at each other and exchange thoughts without speaking, as Paul and I often do, then smile, turn on the microphone and whisper a gravelly message across the void.

“Get out.” 






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Public Displays


We are strolling along the Charles as Paul’s hand falls behind my back and taps me on the rear end. I swat at the air as if an angry swarm of bees has descended upon us.

“See that? Ninja like reflexes,” he says and performs a karate chop.  “Nobody would have seen me touch you if you hadn't made such a public display.”

He begins to sing. “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy, when you act gay.” He then slides his sunglasses down his nose with one finger, glances sideways at me while raising an eyebrow and says “You need modesty panels beneath that shirt. I can see your breasteses.” The thumb and index finger of his right hand come towards my chest like a snapping turtle, which I block with the back of my hand, hi-yah!   

Taking a walk with Paul is no walk in the park. My discomfort with performing public displays of affection is, perhaps, rivaled only by his delight in delivering them. The more I squirm, the more he fondles.

“You’re adorable,” he’ll say, while my hands dart to shield parts of my body as if my clothes have evaporated.

It is this reaction that fuels his glee.  You think I would learn.

When Paul is driving and I am sitting in the passenger seat, the slightest anomaly startles me, a car changing lanes, a bus suddenly stopping or the shadow cast by a passing bird.  All of these things will cause me to shout “Look out!” and stomp on the imaginary brake.

“Sweetie, look at me. What if I were to pass out right now,” Paul will say, his neck becoming slack and his hands flopping to his side.  The car will veer slightly towards the shoulder. “We would end up sinking to our watery death in the marsh,” Paul will say and my hands will fly up as if I’m swatting away bees again.

“Don’t do that!”

I can’t remember the exact moment I became so fearful, though I know it is entwined with when I became fearless. When you make the decision to become courageous and get what you want, you become afraid of losing it. We have never crashed through the guard rail.  No one has ever threatened us over a kiss, still I am like the dog getting his back scratched; too concerned that it will end to completely enjoy it.

But today it is a warm September afternoon and summer is flirting with fall. The leaves are glowing yellow. Rowers skim the river’s glossy surface like water bugs. Crickets are chirping love songs to one another and if gravity failed, we could sail forever together through the endless blue sky. I make the decision to enjoy the moment and then like a driverless car my thoughts veer towards the dark water.

“What are you thinking about, right now?” Paul asks, while pointing a finger at me.

“That I am afraid the literary magazine will not publish my piece, or worse, that they will. Maybe I shouldn’t have sent anything out.”

Paul screws up his face and says “They’re going to hate it. You will probably never write again.”

I throw up my hands to block the insult.

You think I would learn.




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Spinning Bottles


The first time I kissed a girl, I was twelve years old, which was also the first time I sampled my first taste of alcohol.  The two were, rather surprisingly, unrelated.  The former involved a gaggle of eighth graders in Carolyn Clancy’s backyard, spinning an empty green bottle and the latter a bubbling champagne fountain at my step-grandmother’s second or third wedding in Danville, Virginia.  Both of them left me feeling slightly nauseated.

For the life of me, I can’t understand why my father thought it was A-OK to let his twelve year old son drink four glasses of champagne.  Perhaps, he thought it might put some hair on my chest or maybe he found it charming the way, when loosened up, I performed my Cary Grant impersonation for the crowd.

“Judy, Judy, Judy.”

My step-grandmother wore a smart, ivory, lace jacket and skirt suit, smiled widely and her lilting southern accent curled up at the ends like her Mary Tyler Moore hair-doo. She wore bright red lipstick and from a distance she could have been a beauty queen, but when you got up close you could see how the lipstick bled into the tiny cracks around her mouth from years of smoking Virginia Slim cigarettes. The effect was slightly horrifying.

I suppose that’s the way I felt about Karen Enright too.  From an emotional distance, she looked appealing, but when the mouth of the bottle stopped spinning and pointed at her like a gulping fish I scanned the expectant crowd and wondered if they might settle for my Cary Grant impersonation instead.

“Kiss her!” The boys shouted at me.

“Judy”—I muttered.

“Just do it Dameron!”

The crowd wanted a lurid display of sex.  Sister Mary Claire had just that year, attempted to teach a classroom of hormonal boys the facts of life.  The girls were sent to another room to learn about their monthly gift. But, when Alex Brethette asked Sister Mary Claire if a blowjob was considered pre-marital sex, she became red-faced and was replaced by our hunky physical education teacher with the porno-mustache.  I was thrilled, however sorely disappointed that Alex never broached the blowjob question with him.

I finally mustered up the courage, stepped across the divide of the circle, closed my eyes, and planted a kiss squarely on Karen’s nose. My aim was a little off.  She jumped up, holding her hand to her nose and inexplicably, started crying.

“I’ll hate you for the rest of my life!” She bawled.

Her hatred lasted for one week, maybe two. My embarrassment lasted a little longer.

The first time I kissed a boy, I was nineteen years old and unsurprisingly, it involved alcohol, gobs of it. There was no spinning bottle, but the stars above us were twirling and they all seemed to point at a guy I met in a bar on the edge of town, beneath the moonlit shadows of the Colorado Rockies. My aim was much better this time and despite being a little more than tipsy, I don’t remember feeling nauseated in the least, quite the opposite.

I first kissed my husband in the cold Burlington Mall parking lot. There wasn't any alcohol involved, but the effect was no less intoxicating.   If I could go back, I’d tell my twelve year old self a few things. Ignore most of what nuns teach you about sex, alternate glasses of water with the champagne and have faith, it will take forty-four spins of the Earth around the sun to find your own charming Cary Grant. It’s worth the wait.



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