Living in De Wallen

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I’d been riding out the acid I took earlier that day, taking in the swirls and swoops of the waters of the Amstel, still reeling from van Gogh’s “Wheatfield with Crows,” which I’d only just seen in person for the first time that day. I’d left my first wife the week before, moved into a hotel in De Wallen with nothing more than a suitcase, and had been tripping pretty much constantly since that moment.

I didn’t plan on it, but I ended up sitting in that museum for five hours or more, staring only at “Wheatfield with Crows,” weeping and trying to cover up my tears so I wouldn’t get kicked out. I’d been kicked out before, and had had to cycle through disguises to keep them off my back. I couldn’t tell if I was weeping because of the painting or because of the fact that I’d just left my wife, was living out of a hotel, and had been riding out a bad trip that seemed like it would last forever. Maybe both. But that’s what I did, until the museum closed, and I was left to my own devices, wandering the streets of my hometown, my melancholy Amsterdam.

I think subconsciously I knew I was going to break up with her then, because I hadn’t taken acid in a while, eliminating my tolerance without consciously planning to, getting myself ready to be fucked up by the acid and the swirls of the Amstel and those fucking crows that were forever flying on a piece of canvas that had been attacked by strokes of paint by a guy perhaps more fucked up than I, or at the very least a whole hell of a lot more talented. I shamelessly cribbed his ideas for the majority of my early work, anyway. Only found my own vision after everything fell apart. It’s funny how things work out like that.

The way the streetlights shone against the nighttime water of the Amstel, I might as well have been looking into a sky below me. I bared my feet slowly, first removing my laces, tossing those into the water, then each shoe. In my mind, I was letting these things go, the same way I dropped my key in my wife’s hand, most of my belongings in the trash. Everyone was about Zen and minimalism back then, so I was able to frame it that way in my mind. If it was my choice, then it wasn’t sad.

Drizzle collected in a sheet on the pavement, and that collected on my bare feet when I eventually left the shores of the Amstel and went walking, collecting stares from those who assumed that I was homeless. They weren’t too far off the mark, but I found myself offended anyway. When they really annoyed me, I pretended to be assailed by voices telling me to kill and maim, shouting at them to leave me alone. Their faces when I said these things were priceless.

The local cinema had a midnight showing of Eraserhead for only a couple of guilders, so I went and saw it for the first time like that, still tripping, somehow getting past the staff without them noticing my lack of shoes. Maybe they noticed and didn’t care. I find that more likely. The film’s industrial soundscape seemed to come from everywhere. The smoke, and the shadows, and the iconic shape of Henry’s hair seared into my brain for future recall. The terrifying family dinner, the hideous mutant child, the deformed lady in the radiator. I let it all wash over me as my still chilly feet gently warmed in the cinema’s heat.

When the film finished, I walked slowly back to the hotel that was now my home, imagining that every wisp of smoke was an effect that David Lynch had meticulously planned. A street corner poet was roomed across the hall from me in the hotel, and he gave me a pair of shoes when I told him what had happened to mine. When I asked him why he had an extra pair, he said for situations like these. He brought out his Smith Corona and clacked at the keys while I painted, both of us trying to approximate my experience that night as I explained it to him. This was prime time for him to be out on the streets, typing up poems to pay for his room that night. But he had some extra cash to spare, and he could sense that I needed the company. So he wrote and I painted, talking about the movie, the Amstel, the crows, the barefoot walk, anything but what was really on my mind. The time to talk would come later. But right then, right at that moment, I needed to paint. And so I did.

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Dangerous Indeed

It started with us slow dancing to “Syrup” by Company of Thieves on your fuzzy rug, my feet bare and yours wearing socks with cute skulls on them. Our steps were as tentative as our hands, not quite sure where to place them. Your hair hung in front of your eyes as you looked down to check where your feet were going, and when you looked back up, your eyes caught mine right as Genevieve crooned, “Your love syrup, so sweet, I feel dangerous indeed.”

It felt like we were teenagers again, flirting, laying our words like playful traps and seeing what we’d catch. I hadn’t done this in years, and neither had you. It’s amazing what you can get used to: the monotony of stale love, the painful acceptance that things will never change. But then they did, and we did, and it was awesome.

We were both veterans of abuse and mistreatment, and we agreed that that sort of stuff builds character, but between us we had enough character to last several lifetimes. It was time to just be happy. Every story needs drama, but sometimes that drama needs to be kept safely in the past. So we danced. YouTube’s autoplay algorithm was on point that night, moving seamlessly from one sweet song to the next. After a while it didn’t matter, though. We could’ve danced to anything.

When that was through, we went for a night walk, sky clear and stars shining through. I joked about how back home in Chicago I could hardly see anything because of the light pollution, that you should count yourself lucky you live in North Carolina where the stars are plentiful. We flirted some more as we walked, and I did that thing where I pretended to softly karate chop you. I did it just to have an excuse to touch you, and you knew that. You karate chopped back.

It’s all about timing with these things. You’d just gotten out of a toxic relationship, and I knew you were in no position to commit to anything right away. We danced with our words, too. You needed someone who could accept you “as you are” and do simple things with you like “go on night walks.” I insisted that there was “someone just like that out there” and that “they might be right there in front of you and you don’t even know it.” You needed time, and I was willing to give it to you. You were worth the wait.

Before “Syrup” became our song, I’d listen to it again and again, seeing you in that relationship that was draining the life out of you. I’d wince every time it got to the end of the song, when Genevieve would lament that “it’s a damn shame we couldn’t be.” But dancing with you to that song for the first time, I couldn’t help but smile at those words, almost laugh at them. We were dangerous indeed.

When you needed support, I gave it to you. When you needed to hear that you could do it, I told you you would do it. My words weren’t empty, and you knew that. Years back, I’d been through the same thing, and I’d made it to the other side. And the dances continued, and the karate chops, and the night walks with stars that shifted their position in the sky as the days and weeks passed by.

There’s something to be said for letting something bloom. For watering it, giving it sun, singing to it, and watching it go from nothing to something. Something to be said for letting things take their natural course, for trusting the flow of things. The flow of people, and events, and affection. It flows like syrup, so sweet.

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Chuck

I remember at a young age being at Chuck and Mary’s house and seeing the framed picture Chuck had on the wall, a crying man’s fingers trailing over the Vietnam Memorial Wall, his buddy reflected in the smooth stone, still in uniform. I didn’t have a way of conceptualizing any of what Chuck must have gone through at that point. War to me then was propping up green army men and zooming jeeps along the carpet by hand. I couldn’t understand Chuck’s long pauses, the way he stared through things, the weight that each of his words carried.

There’s no other way to say it: Chuck is one of the toughest people I’ve ever known, but the kind of tough person whose armored exterior hid a sweet and mushy interior. He’d die to protect the people he loved. He had a way of getting me exactly what I wanted for Christmas, giving a matter-of-fact “you’re welcome” when I’d jump up and down and scream “thank you.” He’d take me aside, ask me about school, football, work, writing. I don’t know if he knew it while he was alive, but in a lot of ways, he was like a father figure to me.

As Chuck got older, his health deteriorated. He suffered illnesses I could never withstand, and he did it with grit, toughness, and humor. Maybe it was something he picked up in Vietnam, maybe it was just a part of him, but it seemed like nothing could keep Chuck down. I watched him lose weight dramatically, watched his mobility go away, watched him have to suffer the indignities of a body that simply didn’t want to do what he needed it to do.

As I grew up, Chuck went from being the guy whose presents I looked forward to every holiday to the guy who would level with me and talk through just about anything I was going through. Even as his body failed him, his spirit remained the same. It seemed like nothing could keep Chuck down.

Even to the very end, he remained that strong motherfucker, that guy who could disarm you with his dark humor and who hid how much he cared beneath his indomitable toughness. And sure, his humor got darker, and things pissed him off a bit more than they did before, but who could blame him? He was fighting the hardest battle of his life.

Chuck’s passed, and the hole is there, but I don’t think he’ll ever truly be gone. He’s just on the other side of the wall now, finally meeting up with his buddies after all these years. His body is strong again, and he can go where he wants to go, do what he wants to do. Not even death can keep Chuck down.

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Open Arms

If you’d have told me two years ago as I was staring at my open arms, open from where I’d cut them, as I was bleeding to death, that two years later I’d be happy, I’d tell you you were a fucking idiot. But you’d be right.

They told me later that if it weren’t for the ice cold water that I jumped into after doing what I did, I would’ve died. That it slowed the blood flow. It was a quick fall from the bridge: first air, then green-blue, almost black. Pure cold. I wonder to this day if I subconsciously did it on purpose. That maybe I’d heard about cold water stopping bleeding before, and had kept that as my backup plan if I decided I actually wanted to live.

There was my body, thrashing in the water, fighting to stay afloat with arms tired from blood loss. There was my blood, already staining my winter jacket, coloring my jeans, dispersing slowly into the Chicago River. There was my baptism, removed from my first baptism by twenty years and some change, but probably representing death and rebirth better than the first one. What could you need to be reborn from as an infant anyway? Original sin always reeked of bullshit to me.

After the rescue, after the ambulance ride, after the placement in the psych ward and the tearful visits from friends and family, I lay supine on my bed, let the clear light come in, and flipped open the David Foster Wallace novel that my friend gave me. The irony of being gifted a book that was written by someone who committed suicide after myself attempting suicide was not lost on me. I read about being a hero of inaction. Of not doing something grand and large, but instead simply not doing the wrong thing. Of making small and unsexy sacrifices each and every day for the good of others. Of putting a box around this day, this hour if you need to. I remember just looking at the cover for what seemed like hours, those perfect white clouds in an untouched blue sky, the title a seeming impossibility. Can anyone really ever reach infinite jest anyway?

I was in a toxic relationship, my job was shit, and I knew I needed a fresh start. So I left the relationship, quit my job, and moved halfway across the country. Every day felt like I was trapped at the bottom of a pitch-black well. The Frankenstein stitches came out of my arms, the wounds healed, days went by, but I couldn’t find a way out of the well. I tried to drink my way out of it, fuck my way out of it, but nothing really helped.

So I wrote. Wrote shit like this, fictionalized just enough so I could work up the nerve to put it out there. If you can slap that “fiction” label onto it, it’s almost as if it didn’t happen to you, no matter how true to life it is. I published. Got brought on as an editor of an online litmag. Reviewed other litmags for a major publication.

The well was still just as deep, but light was starting to seep in.

I went to bars. Going to bars was never my thing, but I assumed that that’s what you were supposed to do in that kind of situation. I met people. Slept with people. Got over that awkward guilt that comes with sleeping with someone new after getting out of a longterm relationship and being accustomed to sleeping with only one person for years. Was reminded of the grand diversity in bodies in the world, the grand diversity in ways to please those bodies. Wrote poems for women I hooked up with when they asked, turned men who reclined on my bed into characters in my stories.

I assembled some of my stories, realized that I was writing a novel without even knowing it. Had enough material for 30 pages, then took over from there. Wrote every day. Covered everything. Growing up poor. Getting bullied. Surviving sexual abuse and not knowing how to express that as a young boy. The works. Even covered that cold day with open arms, the freezing water that kept me alive.

So I don’t know when it happened. It wasn’t an overnight thing, that’s for sure. But one day, while taking inventory of my life and its debits and credits, I realized that I was happy. Things weren’t perfect. There were still plenty of improvements to be made. But I was happy. Content. Comfortable in my own body, my own head.

The book’s publication was nothing more than the cherry on top, believe it or not. It was the light beyond the well’s top, after I’d climbed my way out over the course of two years, fingers bloody and aching. I took my copy outside and sat on my porch, let the clear light come in, and looked at the cover, at my own name written on it. And then I looked at my arms, no longer open, scars faded. I closed my eyes, opened them again. Breathed. Felt the book’s cover between my fingers and turned to page one.

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Never Had a Home

I don’t know how to tell you I never had a home. We had houses–almost more than I could count, moving from one to the next, but no home. When people asked if my dad was in the military, I eventually just said yes, because that was easier than saying we got evicted again. Never having a friend for longer than six months, parents hanging up phones that I’d stay silent on, trying to think of something to say to the friends I left behind. They wanted me to leave it all, friends included. No reminders of the past.

I got it down to a science. Would get in a big fight with whoever picked on me first, blacken their eyes and bust their lip so I’d be left alone till we inevitably had to move again. Mom would work at gas stations or dollar stores, whatever she could hold down. Dad worked here and there as a driver, which gave him the idea that he could drive home after getting plastered at the bar on his days off. But if you pull the trigger enough times in Russian Roulette, you’re bound to find a bullet.

He went over a guardrail going 70. When the car came to rest at the bottom of the hill, it barely resembled a car. Let’s just say the ambulance didn’t exactly have to rush to the hospital.

After he died, my mom very quickly developed a chronic pain condition. The doctors had all sorts of reasons for it, but we all knew it was from heartbreak. Sometimes the emotional can become physical. She was prescribed painkillers, strong ones, but she never took them. Instead, she took to selling them when she was scheduled to work alone at the gas station, passing them to her customers along with their change. It was the only way she could keep us from being put out on the streets. She could’ve taken some and sold the rest, but she wanted to get the most money she could. She wanted me to be comfortable. So she suffered in great pain all day, every day. The logistics of managing a guilt that great are tricky, I can tell you. Having to sit by as a kid, helpless, as your mom cries in the bathroom, running the water in the hopes that you won’t be able to hear her, saying she was just freshening up when you ask.

Mom had a string of boyfriends, guys who by default went out in sleeveless shirts, made mountains of beer cans that would collect in the corners of the kitchen like some joke of an art installation. Years later, I’d do something similar at my first gallery feature: a pile of all the household items that can be used to destroy a life. Eventually, muttered insults would turn to shouts, and shouts would turn to pushes, and pushes would turn to punches. At 14, 15, 16, I didn’t have much chance of fighting them off of her, but I’d always try. Got a couple of black eyes that I’d cover up with mom’s concealer when she wasn’t around. I didn’t need Mom getting in trouble for something that wasn’t her fault.

I started reading, painting. I’d practice speaking into the mirror, refining the way I spoke. Saved up a summer’s worth of lawn mowing money and bought clothes that belied our poverty. A college roommate put it this way when I eventually let him in on my upbringing: “Man, I just thought you were some white dude from the suburbs.”

Here I am all these years later, settling in in Chicago, Wicker Park to be specific, standing in front of this gleaming white building that I’m meant to inhabit, meant to become the artistic director for this colony of artists. None of them have seen my eyes blackened, smelled the shirts I had to put on, day after day, when the washer would break and we had no money for repairs. They won’t know that I never had a home, and I’m not sure I’d be able to tell them even if I wanted to.

They say secrets keep you sick, but how bad can it be if I’ve been sick all my life? I’ve gotten used to it. So I’ll keep these stories close, hold them in so tight that they’ll never show. The best actors are the ones who don’t know who they really are. They disappear and reappear the way that they’re supposed to.

This will be the first city I’ve settled in my entire life. I have no plans to leave anytime soon, if ever, and it hits me that I don’t quite understand what this means. To plant my feet somewhere and call it home. Is that what this is? Maybe that’s what I’ll make it. And I’ll stay. Stay as long as I can. As long as the concealer stays on. As long as the new clothes hold up. As long as the smile can hide the pain.

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Here’s Waldo Monologue

Recently, I’ve been wanting to make some dramatic, character piece-type short films. Since they’ll be microbudget, chances are I’ll have to play the lead. So as practice, here’s me acting out a monologue from my novel Here’s Waldo. (It was so exciting to hear it out loud for the first time. 😂😂😂)