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.


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.


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.


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.


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.




First Person Possessive

On Wednesday nights, Dad would pull up the driveway in his Carolina blue Mercedes and honk the horn, cigarette perched in the corner of his mouth, hairy forearm hanging from the car window. My brothers and I would run down the front steps shouting, “Shotgun!” tugging at each other’s collars, attempting to hold the other one back. 

He would take us to the Village Inn Pizza Parlor on Battleground Road, where they played silent films on a canvas in a dimly lit, wood paneled dining room. By the flickering light of some bygone silver screen stars, we’d devour a large cheese pizza and drink pitchers of Coca-Cola with crushed ice and talk about nothing in particular and everything in general.

“All these youngins yours, sugar?” the waitress would ask, surveying me and my three brothers like we were a certain sign of his virility.

They sure are, honey,” Dad would reply.

That was the year language changed. “Our home” became “The house.” Possessive adjectives were too hefty to place into a sentence. Dad left Mom for a woman who was all of the things that she was not, blonde, young and childless. But, Wednesday nights and alternating weekends were ours, possessive. If he wanted to flirt, he could do it on his time, singular.

“I look just like my mother,” I said to the waitress.

The midweek meals and weekend sleepovers dwindled when my older brother went off to college. The last time we participated in a Wednesday night dinner, a Formica table divided the space between us at a McDonalds, while Dad drew down a cigarette. We spoke of nothing at all until he asked, “You about done?” and I replied “No, but we can go now.”

When Dad became ill, there was a sense deep down in my marrow that I needed to say something to him. The old, if you need to say anything, you better say it now, feeling. We’d be sitting in the afternoon sun on the brick patio, just the two of us and I’d rack my brain trying to fish up something worthy to say. Some timeless version of I love you, or I forgive you. I’d look over at his chemo withered frame and hairless head, but the words I was trying to push out would be sucked back in by a tide of embarrassment too strong to ford.

Funny, the things you remember when someone up and leaves; a cluster of red and yellow petals swirling in the sunlight on the front porch, the stench of stale breath and sweat soaked linens, a pair of skinny, pale legs twitching a death jig in a rental hospital bed and a smoke colored moon drifting through an inky black sky.

The last time I said anything to Dad was moments before he left. I sat in the coveted spot by his head and my brothers at his feet, as we counted the seconds between his final breaths.

“It’s OK, Dad, you can go now.”

That’s all I said.

Because the most important words I could think of to say were the ones my father was waiting to hear.

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