Death, smoke and birds. Mom-2022

July 31, 2022

Mom started dying, real dying not the dying that people tend to nonchalantly mention in conversation, “well, we all start dying the minute we start breathing”, not that kind, but the dying dying kind when the mind tends to go, and muscles tremble from the weariness of age. Age that stalks us like an oak tree that finally overcomes a house, dwarfing it under its shadow, bearish and spindly limbs scratching the windows like fingertips. “I am here” is whispers when the wind shows its might, pushing even the mighty oak into submission. I am here, indeed. Death seems to start with an event, sometimes they are obvious like a car crash, a stroke and other times they are so small they appear insignificant, perhaps a fall in the bathtub, or in my mother’s case a very minor traffic accident that broke a small bone in the top of her leg. She was in her mid-seventies when it happened, sitting in the passenger seat of my sister’s car. In fact, I was talking to my mother when the accident happened, they were rear-ended by a distracted driver—my sister’s car, a thinly made Toyota Yaris, was damaged but not too terribly and my mother complained about her leg, her back which was injured way back in the 1970’s when a New York City bus hit her car. Back pain plagued her for years, much like the depression and auto-immune diseases that draped over her life like a shawl. After the car accident she had trouble walking, and it wasn’t very long after she had her first fall that sent her to the hospital and soon to an assisted living center to rehabilitate all of these tiny chips and dents in her body, and as we would find out in  the coming years, her psyche. 

            For her, a woman whose depression and anxiety had at times kept her in bed for days and isolated her from life until she was able to shake it off with the help with life partner, the trip to the nursing home brought on more anxiety, and more fear that she had ever known. For those of us who loved her we pleaded with her to finish the rehab, we could see the writing of the future every day she didn’t complete her exercises, the frustration we felt came off as annoyance, judgement—we wanted more for her but perhaps, we did not fully understand the depths of her depression—who wants to acknowledge that our parents are depressed, have mental health issues. It might rub off on us. Her room at the assisted living felt like a department store display for a nursing home, sea scape painting (check), mounted television (check), wide bathroom door with handicap friendly safety measures (check), white walls (check), Bible next to the bed (check), smell of feces and urine from the hallway (check). It felt more like assisted dying than assisted living. She hated it, she wept, cried out and made a nuisance of herself to the nurses who responded in kind. She wanted to go home and had giant temper tantrums, she threatened suicide if she couldn’t leave and after a week of exasperation my stepfather took her home against medical advice. We all held our breath, we passed judgement, we gossiped but my mother got better, at least mentally—her mood picked up and she engaged in physical rehab at home and was soon standing up, walking with a walker and cooking dinner. “Come down and see us” she would say into the phone during my daily phone calls, and we would pack the kids into the car, drive the 100 miles to Cincinnati, jump into their pool, eat barbeque or burgers on the grill, chat on the patio and head home, relaxed and sunburned. Soon though, her physical therapy took a step back, the water rehab remained unfinished and her depression, that came and went like a bell that rang at the top of every hour returned. 

            My stepfather, Steve worked hard on the garden–both he and mother loved to watch birds and he constructed bird feeders all over their yard, in each one there would be different types of food for the variety of birds that would visit, some feeders were elongated screens filled with peanuts and others were more traditional, filled with small pellets and seeds—in the morning it was busy, sort of a rush hour of feathers and busy squawks, chirps and songs- with wings fluttering and chests puffing for the food. My mother enjoyed nothing more than to sit in her chair and look at these beautiful animals eat breakfast every morning. The back yard was filled with plants and flowers that Steve tended too, my mother would sit on patio and point out flowers she wanted him to cut, or a hummingbird or a chipmunk that had scurried out from the small red shed, its hesitant nose sniffing the air for danger. Theirs’s was a far cry from the life that they had led when they met over thirty years prior to her death, he was in drug rehab trying to beat a deadly taste for methamphetamines, heroin and alcohol while my mother was trying to coax recovery out of him. They fell in love, and while I was living forty miles away, a senior in high school they quietly moved into a small basement apartment near The Ohio State University campus. She had a chair sort of a throne-ish recliner that sat next to Steve’s although he very seldom ventured into it, a whirl of completed chores in his wake. She would look out the window at the birds while she devoured books and magazine, a stack nearby that she was working on or completed, she ate words like a vacuum. 

            The last month as she slowly seemed to melt, every day she slunk towards death ,her life seeming to pool around her, first her legs went—after a few weeks into her decline she could no longer walk or pull herself up, shortly thereafter most of the basic self-care was out of reach for her—like she was trying to catch a cloud in her hand.  Every day brought another humiliation from the universe about the fragility of our bodies, they are are destined to be destroyed. Mom knew this, she realized what was happening but she did not want to talk about it, she did not want to embrace death although it was obvious that she could no longer embrace life, at least the things about life that brought her great joy, her ability to even converse with what made her happy, her husband, her children and grandchildren was being whittled by the great woodcarver in the sky, with his sharpened pocket knife, stroking the life out of her in thin shards that fell around her, we were trying to pick them up. Small slips of her scattered around us. 

            Steve had put her in the sling, wheeled her carefully out into the living room and gently placed her in her yellow chair, she could see out into the front yard to the birdfeeders. A brown plush blanket covered her legs which were at this point, only causing her pain, swollen and sensitive to the touch, even moving them sideways brought stabs of pain the moved up into her lower back, and the blanket stretched up to her chest. Her long gray hair framed her head, her sparkling green eyes were translucent at this point, they struggled to focus, and she would stare into something, trying to make sense of an environment hat was changing around her as if she were gazing at the world from underwater, even though the water was crystal clear everything was washed out, blurry, slow moving—too far to touch. She was not getting enough oxygen to her brain, and her heart was overworking as was everything else in her body, her feet suffered and her ankles would swell up and painful to the touch but not as much as her mind which would slip into a haze, losing all sense of time and space. She began hallucinating. 

            We talked, although she was confused, she wanted to tell me things and she enjoyed hearing my voice. “Mom, what do you want to talk about?” I asked, as she sat quietly. “I don’t know….I’m not sure but I want you to talk with me.” I sat on the other side of the room, on the far end of their brown leather couch, the pillows bulky and soft, next to me another endless cup of coffee that helped me through my days, my afternoons, my evenings. “Why don’t we talk about Long Island” she asked me. She knew I loved Long Island, perhaps my favorite place where we lived when I grew up, I went to ten schools scattered around Ohio, New York and Virginia. I have written a great deal about my love of Long Island and the life we had there and even though we lived there for just under two years, it made such an impression that every day when I look up into the sky, I think of the vastness of the ocean I saw so much of in Springs, New York. “Yes, of course. You know that was my favorite place where we lived growing up.” She smiled, her eyes beaming, “Yes, I know—and guess what, it was mine as well. I want to tell you how much I liked it…..” and she lost her train of thought.  The birdfeeder shook with a cardinal trying to scare away a wren, the hum of the air-conditioner was a soundtrack. “Mom, what were you going to tell me about Springs?” “I don’t know.” The cold air blew out of the vents. “Why don’t you tell me, Bela. What you remember.” I got up and fetched another cup of coffee and sat down. “Well, I don’t remember much of the house, I shared a room with Z. I think Erica’s was across the hall and you and David slept downstairs. I remember having a very high fever, 104 or something, and you called the doctor asking what to do. You and David put me in the tub with cold water, and I remember you stroking my hair in bed while I went in and out of sleep. You kissed my forehead; your hair was long, and it draped over me like a red-haired canopy. I remember all of that and how close the ocean was and the forest in the back of our house, and you could cut through and be at a small harbor. Mom, you told us to never go there but we did anyways.” My mother was smiling as I told her this. And I waited. Feeling the space between us, small moments fell to the side. After a while I asked her if she wanted me to tell her more. “No, it’s ok. Maybe we can play a game?” she asked me. A game? “Sure, what would you like to play?” At that moment my mother transformed into a six year old girl, she was innocent, devoid of pain but filled with wonderment, trying to use her brain she looked around the room, eyes wide—you could feel her mind working on finding a game to play, her answer was sweet and when she mentioned it—I too was transformed to a six year old boy but with the knowledge that I was a middle aged man, a parent and in what happens to only the lucky, a son who was given the opportunity to parent their own parent. 

            “I know Bela, why don’t we count the pictures on the walls? That could be fun.” Moving he head slowly she scanned the walls of the living rooms, where she spent most of her days the last ten years of her life, reading her books, sewing, scanning her iPad, drinking coffee, tea, eating the sweets that she loved so much and of course, looking outside at the circus of birds that visited at all hours. This yard in southwestern Ohio was an oasis of food. As she moved her head, looking around it was as if her eyes were like the sun light moving across the walls, the floor as the day rolled by. “That sounds like a fun game” I replied. Smiling she asked me, “who should go first? Why don’t you start Bela?” On the wall across from me, above her head was a painting by a Native-American artist that Steve and she bought many years ago when they went out west, next to that above Steve’s chair was a Charlie Harper print, this she loved. Harper a native of Cincinnati made colorful paintings of birds and animals, she loved his work and I had always wanted to buy her one of his paintings, but they were too much for my social worker salary. So, she had prints, jigsaw puzzles, coffee mugs and clothing of Charlie Harper’s work, they were not the original, but they were, perhaps better because they were everywhere, reminders of nature—and the playfulness that it brings into our lives. And really, if one can drink out of a coffee mug of something you adore, what could be better? Above the fireplace there were photos of our family, a grand picture of my sister and mother, noses nuzzling each other, a mother transferring generational beauty to her daughter, middle aged both women with long gray hair touching, their smiles stretching past time as only love can do. They are smiling. Across the top of the picture window, Steve and Erica hung photographs by laundry clips so my mother could see her children and grandchildren, it is nearly impossible to feel lonely when in the present of children. By the front door next to a closet with large folding doors hung another painting, bought in a moment of shared interest and love by mother and Steve, across the floor and walls the sun made shadows, moving pictures. I started first, there were seven pictures hanging on the walls, I went slowly and gazed over the room, intentionally moving my head towards each item on the wall so my mother could see where they were. She was looking at me, staring intently but with a soft smile, her wide eyes swallowing up my gaze. “Ok, I have counted seven moms, see how many you can count.” There was a pause from her as if she were psyching herself up, “o.k. Bela, I am going to start” turning her head towards the east wall, the picture above the fireplace, “there is one” she moved to the next wall and quickly counted another one and then waited a moment, turned her head to her left, “I know there is one above me and that one,” which hung over Steve’s chair, she moved to another one above my head, “I think that is five or six” her eyes roamed the room and then they settled down, her face went blank—she turned quiet. Silence. “How many mom?” Looking up, she sighed, “I don’t know. What?” “How many picture are left on the walls?” She was lost. “I don’t know, what were we doing?” “Are you tired mom, do you want to stop and just sit?” She was childlike, still my mother, “yes, I think so.”

Mom.

April 9, 2022

My bathroom window looks out from the second floor into the backyard, the alley filled with broken glass, empty pizza boxes and tipped over recycling containers. The blinds mostly remain open, except for when the kids are with me, not for any sort of sexual kick but because my body craves the sun even if it comes in small gulps through the grubby window. Paint has flecked off the windowsill, occasionally I must scrub the mold from the rotting wood, careful not to get any splinters. The bathroom is quite different from the one from my previous house, we had just finished remodeling the bathroom when I moved out, and we got a very deep tub that I would stretch out and submerge myself under the water, small foothills of bubbles over my head. I only got to experience two baths before I moved out. One day I will have a deep tub again. Every few months I bleach the shower curtains from the discoloration that crawls up their side, rental properties don’t have shower doors, neither do the poor, we get by with Ikea or Dollar General flimsy curtains that collect filth like cheater slicks on the back of semi-trucks. Rehanging the bleached curtains brings me back to childhood where my mother would scrub the bathroom out with a bucket filled with bleachy water, sunshine pouring in through every window, Jim Croce, Joan Baez, or Carole King providing the perfect soundtrack for Saturday morning chores. It is here, in the small spaces of self-care, the cleansing of my body, folding of the laundry—where the memories unfold.

                I am fifty-three, peering ahead of me while not really trying to look back, the past can be pockmarked with regrets if it means one is unhappy today, but it can also be guided by favorable choices, or shall I rephrase it to makers of acceptance—memories can be monuments of connection, where we felt another deeply. “I’m as old as grandmother when she died” is a phrase I hear now, or it could be the person’s parent and I am thinking of bending this, reversing it to something like “I am the same age as when I knew my grandmother, my mother.” Although this would not be the case with my father whom I have a very distant relationship with, I might as well have a relationship with the moon that is how far apart we are, and even then I allow myself to be washed in the brightness of the moon when possible, I like to feel tiny but not small. That may be the difference between those relationships. My grandmother died while my uncle Pablo held her hands, I sat by her side, watching his pain as his mother slipped away. She smiled before she left the room, happy to see her “mommy and daddy and all my sisters and brothers” and of course the baby Jesus. She spoke these words in English, not Hungarian her native tongue or Spanish the chosen language of her sons. Which struck me as odd, she lived a transformative life, as a wealthy Hungarian girl, married young to a man nearly twice her age, and then the displacement of World War II cast them across the Atlantic to remake themselves as Venezuelans, something she never cared for. Then in the early 1960’s she reinvented herself again, this time as an American that also allowed her to be passionately Hungarian. Perhaps my grandmother did the most American thing an American can do, she reinvented herself over and over. She grew tomatoes in her front yard and had birdfeeders outside every widow of her house. She would speak to the birds every morning, sometimes in English, sometimes in Hungarian and sometimes, which was devastatingly adorable in bird. “twveet-twveet vittle birdie” I would hear her while I washed her dishes, even her bird was spoken in a Hungarian accent. I see the photos of old women in Ukraine, and in the photographs, they are called peasant women although it is now almost a quarter into the new century but yet, even on my phone the images of these women are of peasants. Although the blurriness behind them reveals the outlines of cars and power lines, they are from another time. Shawls wrapped over their shoulders, scarves covering their heads as if the gray sky above them will wrestle the hair from their heads. And always, their backs are stooped. I realize that many of these women are my age or just a few years older, their husbands pot-bellied with thick callused hands that have been constructed from work—real work, the kind that ignores the weather, and wears grease, oil, and filth like proud tattoos. I look at my hands, soft, almost like wool, my partner jokes that my hands are so soft they could be cut by handling a ridged potato chip. My grandmother was always old in my eyes. Even know as I have hopped over the age she was when I first met her.

                I have lived all over Ohio, and for periods of my childhood along the east coast and for a brief period in my mid-thirties I had a transformative year in Florida, one that like many American’s allowed me the opportunity to transform myself, I was not reinvented, that is too strong a term—I was by all accounts (mine being the most important here) transformed into somebody who behaved differently, and thus came to think differently.

                My mother has grown smaller, she is tiny in her bed, new bedding pulled up around and her sparkling blue-green eyes are watery not from tears but because that is their natural state. I kiss her fore head, her skin is thin—like paper from the 19th century, but my mother is from the first half of the 20th Century, barely—she was born into a house without indoor plumbing in Southeastern Ohio. Her “daddy” as she called him was really her stepfather, her own father bailed on his young family and lived a huckster’s life around the country, fathering at least eleven children by a variety of women from Ohio, North Carolina, Georgia and into the far west. By all accounts he was an asshole who did prison time in Indiana most likely for being, well, an asshole and crook. Austin Davis raised my mother and my Aunt Cheryl as if they were his own and they soon had a baby sister, my Aunt Candy who arrived after they moved to Columbus. A city that had indoor plumbing, electricity in every house, paved roads, and jobs. Grandpa Davis realized that Appalachia didn’t offer much for a WWII veteran with minimal schooling, so they moved soon after my mom turned 10 or 11. She went to a high school called Linden McKinley which was predominantly a white high school her freshman year and four years later she was one of a handful of white students left. She went to prom with a black classmate, and just a few years later she would be active in the civil rights movement although she was limited as to what she could do, tying her rope to an oddball Hungarian/Venezuelan man who was prone to talking to himself and eating raw onions. This, of course was my father and their marriage was doomed from the outset. She had to do her protesting on the sidewalks of the college town we lived in, she had three children before she turned 25, sometimes the Appalachian in us calls the shots.

                She stares up at me, asks about her grandchildren. Bruno my thirteen-year-old son comes into the bedroom, his hair curly and floppy as he strides into the room. “Bruno! Your hair, I love it!” she calls him over and he allows her to kiss his forehead, her fragile hands running through his thick as a briar patch hair. “Hiiii, grandma” he says as he looks at me—he does not like to be kissed or touched. Did I mention she is tiny in her bed; age has not only made her smaller but in many ways younger almost childlike. She is my mother. On the drive home, Bruno and I take turns playing song he sings along to the ones he chooses and sometimes to the ones I play until he grows bored and returns to his phone, his headphones and I switch to a podcast for the next fifty miles. When we do this, I always think of playing “Wendell Gee,” the last song on R.E.M.’s “Fables of the Reconstruction” for my mother in her blue Chevy Malibu. It had a tape deck, and I was sixteen or seventeen and she asked me what it was about, we played it, rewound it, and listened to it several times. “I don’t know, but it makes me think. It’s like a poem” I recall explaining to her how the song hit me. We talked about books, songs and how important music was for me. I then played her Lou Reed’s “Pale Blue Eyes” from a tape I had made at the college radio station I was DJ’ing at every summer. She drove in silence until we got to Maryhaven, a treatment center she was working at in Columbus. I think she was picking up her boyfriend, who would eventually become my stepfather. And much later, her caregiver. Oddly, I came to accept Steve into my life through his love of Lou Reed and John Prine, he had seen Lou in a former life. I don’t know if my mother ever knew just how important those songs were to me but that interaction in the car is stamped in my head. I have learned that life isn’t about surviving joy and pain but about appreciating the mundane. Joy, pain and the mundane. The middle parts are just as flavorful if we notice them.

                I went back to college at thirty-five, I was still a freshman when I took my second  ever college English class at Columbus State Community College, by far the oldest person in the room except for the instructor whom I didn’t make a very good impression with on that first day, when she mentioned there were not any older female composers and I shared that Clara Schuman who was married to Robert Schumann was a very well known pianist in her time who championed her husbands work and had a very successful career. She sniffed at me, and things sort of went south from there, as she made snide comments throughout the semester. I persevered through her ick to earn a B+ in the class, although English was the only class, I had ever consistently earned A’s in most of my life. I finished my two-year degree in two years, my undergraduate degree just a year and half after that, graduating with honors with both degrees and I then started my Master’s program at the age of forty, the same year my mother went back for her Master’s. Life took her another route though and she moved us from Athens, Ohio to a more rural area after she remarried. She finished her coursework for her Master’s degree in Geography but her final thesis sat in a box in the parsonage we moved into for the next four years. I like to believe my earning my MSW at the age of forty-two was for both of us. All of her children have graduate degrees and all of us have or are teaching at the University level. That was her work and not the influence of our father who chose to do his parenting in silence that grew over the years into nothingness which is to say he was never in our lives after 1982.

                I found something post fifty that I had not enjoyed since I was in third grade, when my desire to hold hands was almost completely snuffed out by yet another move—we had moved seven times in my short life by then and wanting to hold hands with my mother, father or anybody took a backseat to any sort of physical contact until I started humping at the age of seventeen. “Hump at it Bela.” When I was married, I did like to hold hands but not as much as my children’s mother, my hands were prone to sweat, and I never knew if I was doing it right. There was nothing better though when my children would slip their tiny fingers into my palm, knowing that I transmitted safety to them—I felt needed and that I had a role. This was blissful handholding, now they are teenagers, I still want to hold their hands, and cuddle but there is now the reluctant hand holders—as most teenagers do not really want to even stand next too their fathers, to hold his hand would be asking too much. But now, I love to cradle my partner’s hand, she folds it in mine, when we drive, I like to drop my hand into hers and steal smiles away from her and I cast them into the clouds so I can always think of her when I look. But don’t tell her this secret. When I was younger, I would tell people I couldn’t wait to be drunk but in hindsight I wanted to be in love-to be loved and to give love. 

I held my mother’s hand yesterday, it needs to be held, she needs to be held as I did when I clutched her waist and thigh as a child, hiding my face into her legs, inching around so I was behind her skirt—even at the age of four I wanted to be invisible. Her hand is soft, it will cut itself on the thinness of air at this point in her life. I lean down, kiss her cheek and whisper, “I love you mom.” “I love you too” she whispers back.

March 2002-March 2020: Sobriety, depression and laughter.

March 5, 2022

March 8 2002-March 8-2022.

                When the sunshine brings itself into the house, dust floats both up and down, circling the room as if air were water and each particle was a miniature fish swimming through the living room, the dining room and everywhere—it is teeming with dust. There is little anything to do about it, the old apartment had a furnace at least forty years old, parts of it incased in asbestos and one reason the rent is so cheap is because of the effort it would take replace it. We all die every moment, some die  just faster than others. Have at it asbestos spewing machine. The flowers add color to the shelves and stacks of books, the walnut furniture and, of course, the giant wall of records and compact discs that line the walls of the dining room. They demand attention, and why not-they most likely have saved my life on many occasions. Lifting my mood or matching it, tiny grooves brought to life by a needle and electricity. I have heard that the majority of dust is human skin, my house would seem to have the skin of every inhabitant that has ever walked the scuffed wooden floors the past hundred years, long after people die parts of then literally continue to swim around us.

                There are days that tug at me from the inside, pulling around the ankles of whatever it is that rests and propels me forward. A soul? A conscious? A sub-conscious? A river of tiny electrical outlets connected by cells and nerves inside my body? A tug this severe can  be an ache, and over the years, it started around the age of nineteen, hit several peaks when I was twenty-one, thirty-three and fifty—these peaks towered above me, but they were the edge of annihilation, like wind slicing through the branches—the ache can be violent or soft, almost undetectable except for the small wisps of the leaves. It is those moments I crave, when it is silent, more of a whisper than an insurrection in my mind—repeating itself like a 100-person choir coming to the chorus now.  I have resisted joining the choir for most of my life, and at other periods the metaphorical church doors were closed and my hope was that it was demolished, wiping out the sounds. The Depression (it deserves a capital D) was planted in me before I was born, like cicadas  already burrowed deep in the ground before my parents even met, it has existed in our family genes much longer than I can even guess—and for some in our family it has sprouted inside of us as if it were a doomsday vine, roots growing inside, and as we have aged so has the vine, its arms reaching deep into our psyche and some of our experiences sprout new buds. At various times in my life, I have been able to prune it, through love, through mediation, music, writing, running and through the past two years walking several miles every day. But the roots are there, entangled at my core, one person I know compared it to a giant pool of black water that feels I am drowning in.

                The asphalt basketball court at East Elementary was baking from the spring time heat, balls were bouncing in an out of the baskets, in the far corner of the court, a small courtyard held a particularly vicious game of dodge-ball, the thick plastic red ball with its red bumpy exterior, zinging unlucky victims—red welts a testament to their lack of mobility, being slow on an elementary school playground can be a deadly trait. The hill at the other end of the court dipped down into the swings, the monkey bars and a giant half buried tractor-trailer tire that smelled of urine and the fidgety moments of first kisses traded after lunch. I had been a quiet child, moving every year had taught me to be silent, wary of friendships and I was always the smallest kid in my class—shy—I tended to stay to myself, keeping myself fortified with Marvel comic books and my early interest in the records I started collecting in third grade. The baseball field was dotted with fourth and fifth grade boys, swinging wooden bats—trying to impress girls and the other boys by knocking a leather ball out of the infield. I stayed back, if it were football season, I would have partaken in the boys’ games but, being small, uncoordinated with limited hand-eye coordination left me quite happily on the sidelines. There, on the side of the black sheet of play I found a voice that I would come to rely on for most days of my life. Several teachers, including Ms. Houska who would vacillate between calm and empathetic to being witchy and loud was there along with one of the student teachers, a blonde woman whose name is long gone and may well be a granny at this point, and of course, there were the other kids who didn’t play dodgeball, basketball, baseball or want to hang on monkey bars and had outgrown the metal swings the past few years. These were, for the most part- girls. In this moment, I developed an instant character, a sort of hippie who spoke in a high-pitched voice and while I didn’t really know what marijuana was, I pretended I was high-my voice a high-pitched sing-song voice—they all cackled. The student teacher doubled over in laughter, and as we sauntered back into class, I felt charged, a bit tired but excited. Several of the girls, one of whom I had a fourth-grade crush on remarked how funny I was, and I felt her eyes on me. From that day forward, I used humor to help placate the sense of isolation, an outsider in my own world that would later take the already seeds of depression into those blossoming vines that would later wrap and choke my life.

                The clatter of the plates, knives, forks, a vase full of flowers surprised my first wife—“what the fuck is wrong with you?!” she screamed, our entire relationship was one long scream, her screaming, my screaming back at her, the broken bits of our house and squealing of tires. “You are fucking with me! Get off my fucking back!” I yelled back, shards of glass and ceramic on the floor— “Watch your step! You broke my plates! What the fuck?” tears streaming down her face, hands against the table-holding herself up. “Our plates, they are our plates!” I yelled back at her as I scrambled for keys and slammed the door shut. Soon, she would move out, the failed experiment of our short lived (more like deathbed) marriage abandoned in that small two-bedroom house on East Patterson Street. “You ruined my life” she said as her friends from work hauled out furniture, she got the keys to my small white Metro, and I was relieved that it was all I lost, the failure of the relationship sat on a throne in the back of my skull.

                The months that followed were a period of shrill fear that I skidded through, nights at various bars, my bedroom floor littered with clothes and records, there were bottles of beer on every piece of furniture in my room, cigarette butts that had burned the corner of my dresser, the table next to my bed—somehow I was never alone—the feeling of being alone brought a desperation that motivated me out of my house. I was a wanderer in a five-block radius. I soon fell in love, and that relationship lasted over twenty years—with chaos, another dip into the deep black water that almost drank me up—a night in a motel contemplating the metal of a gun in my mouth that turned into sobriety that I still live today. There were trips all over country, to Europe which felt like a home I never really had, a house and of course, two children. That marriage ended in 2018, a period where the blackness came oozing to the top and although I was sober, I felt bereft of myself. At times, I would wake up in my bed, my small dog snuggled next to me turn my head and weep into my pillow—I forced myself to work, to exercise and to show up. She and I talk frequently, we have too—the children we created are the center of our lives, and when we part—sometimes we hug and the love the built the children is there, different of course-but there—and it stretches outward into the kids lives, dreams morph, like clouds and I am ok with this. When I see my children, I see all the love I ever feel walking, talking, making me laugh and of course, causing me worry.

                Depression is something that is like a fog, but a fog filled with monsters, it pours outward like a gushing waterfall that heads for the ocean. At times it has felt like there is a snake trying to get out of my throat, but it slithers inside of me, choking me and it finally decides to stay, coiling inside of my guts waiting to spring out when the opportunity arises. Suicide is something that some people live with on an everyday basis, a taste that will not leave– like the bitterness of a lemon, but it never leaves. Add some sugar it makes it easier, but it only dilutes the acid. I get jealous of the branches on the trees that I stare outside my window, I imagine their bravery as the wind whips and rattles them year after year, and when the sun is out they drink it is as if they had never tasted shine before. Their roots hold them solidly, growing up into the sky and deep into the earth and then I walk in the woods and I notice the ones the collapsed under the weight of living too long, the wind catching it just right or a crack of lightening choosing to crawl up its spine and it lays on the soft floor of the forest, for the rest of the trees to see, it’s carcass now a home to insects, moss and critters. Of course they are just trees, with no mind to think of these thoughts that I transfer onto them. They have no eyes to see but they do feel in some ways, their roots communicating in what is called mycorrhizal networks, a language of survival they chatter to one another through fibers intertwining with one another, finding nutrients, water and the ability to let other roots where stones may be a barrier. The complexities of this provides hope, an opportunity to feel small for it is when I am small that I can experience the world, when feeling too full a person can’t learn any more. There is no room.

                A friendly nod, followed by a cold bottle of beer being pushed my way, the cool condensation streaming down its sides was a comfort. An easy way to feel differently, to slip into something else from what I wanted, and predictable. For certain I knew what would happen when I tilted the bottle to my mouth, first the small smell of the alcohol seeping into my nose and quickly followed by the beer. I always took a long drink, letting the beer go directly to the back of my throat, my ability to drink almost half of the beer in one long drag off the bottle was a practice, my mouth craved the cold bath of five p.m. I learned without ever thinking of it. Most of my regular bartenders usually had another one set up by time I could even position myself on the bar stool. Putting the bottle down in front of me, the taste still in my mouth, fermented with a touch of sting, I could already feel the change in my body—it was as if my brain was telling my body to have a head start, the buzz started almost immediately. Twenty years later and I can still taste the beer on my lips, the scent still buried in my mind. Sometimes it feels like I was drinking yesterday. The club was always open in my mind, living near a college campus in the middle of a large city provided shortcuts that gave myself permission to duck away, to squeeze a few minutes of change that was needed, or so I thought at any given moment but usually I only allowed this to happen in the late afternoon. In my perception, I was a disciplined drinker. Eventually if I didn’t treat it, I grew grumpy, agitated and morose—these were the danger zones, an internal DMZ that could prove dangerous for my partner and myself. Drinking was a slow courting, eventually we were married, the bottle(s) and I, although for me it was a private matter that I tended to announce publicly. The Anyway Records tee-shirts during this time had an unofficial slogan on the back, “Buy Me a Beer” which was our joyous secret handshake to one another and for those who didn’t get it, well that was the point.  But like all relationships, they must change, or they become dry, brittle and bitter by the time I was in my early thirties, with a gathering pile of dead friends and brokenness gathering around my path and with my own love story headed towards an oily ditch I had to make a choice.

                At the edge of the slim hospital bed at the Shands detox center in Gainesville Florida, I grappled with the fact that it might be time to break-up with alcohol, which was terrifying as most break-ups are, and I was a person who avoided confrontation, plus I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. Who would take my place of the various barstools in Columbus, Athens and to a lesser extent, Gainesville? What would those bartenders do when they pushed a Black Label towards and empty seat, I was creating ghosts. There were the conversations I was having with myself, in retrospect it was both silly and tragic, this is where my behavior had taken me—constructing make-believe scenarios around liquid. But it was scary and coupled with depression and the burgeoning sense that a big part of my identity (I had tee-shirts made for Christ’s sake!), was being discarded, I was not only petrified but also on very shaky ground. Although later that night in the large cafeteria a sea of alcoholics, sitting on hard plastic chairs, sipping coffee from small Styrofoam cups, mixed with powder cream and packets of sugar that always seemed to spill half of their contents on the fake wooden fold up tables, I was offered and accepted hope. Although these small saplings of optimism were like virga, precipitation that evaporates before it hits the ground. So, the trick was to make sure that I had to feed the clouds so to speak, every day before the entire clouds of promise vanished. My years of going to bars, nightclubs and pubs had oddly equipped me with some of the behaviors I would use to stay sober, mostly that while a depressed introverted sort, I really liked being with other people, albeit at a distance, sometimes that unspoken space was a bottle of beer or two inches of Maker’s Mark. I used this learned behavior, the one that allowed me to feel invisible to do something different, to show up—to become a vessel that could water the cloud. Even though I very seldom trusted myself, my inability to fully understand my motivations was naked, raw and I borrowed other peoples, or should I say I copied it. After a year or so of sobriety, I investigated Buddhist practices, mostly meditation but did a great deal of reading and journaling—-and they worked, for many years afterwards, the depression left, evaporated into nothing. There would be moments of lucidity where I noticed the emptiness of where the depression had been like noticing a scar that has dissolved over time, and the relief I felt was an akin to a giant metaphysical sigh.

                The rate of suicide attempts for children of parents who have completed suicide is 400% higher than those whose parents don’t complete suicide, and for people who experience a suicide in their lives, with friends and other family members there is a spike and it isn’t uncommon to see small mushroom clouds of despair that surround a completed suicide, the waves reach out and tap everybody within its orbit and then they too ripple around. If the person is a public figure the ripples continue far into the future, and for most these people it is the first remembrance of that person’s life, more so than even their greatest achievements whether it be music, acting or politics. The act provides a quiet permission that taking one’s own life is an option, it operates like a virus—thus the shame people feel when it is an ever-running option in their minds, as well as the shame for the people surrounding them. There is judgement, self and by others that presents itself as a solid stone mountain for dealing with those thoughts and especially the emotions that they come dressed in. Welcome to the Ball. For many substance users, for people that experience trauma and abandonment at an early age—we feel the actual physical environment differently than others, and this stems from an early age—we seek comfort from even the rooms we walk through and for me the primary one has been music, and it is the safest one. Even to this day, there is nothing more than I enjoy than driving my car listening to music and at times I want to sit in my partners drive way and hold her hand while I listen to Neil Young, Waxahatchee or any piece of music that comforts and inspires me, meanwhile she wants to get in the house, feed the kids, let the dog out, do things and I just want that little hand in mine and to listen. Or when I go to the gym, sit on the elliptical dance/running five or six miles to a soundtrack that I have created. I couldn’t not imagine living in the world pre-Walkman or phonographs. All those poor motherfuckers who lived before the mid-twentieth century, having to wait for wandering minstrels, or being able to afford orchestras—Jesus Christ how they must have suffered not knowing about the future of being able to listen to something whenever you wanted. But of course, it wasn’t just music I fell into to relieve my internal pain, it was alcohol, sex, the internet, buying things—even food—but all of them brought a different heat and different number of consequences, mostly feeding the black pool that has resided inside of me.

                “Hurry up Bela, Jesus you are so slow,” Jenny was yapping at me while I looked for my car keys, summer was coming to a fast close, we were driving from Columbus to her hometown of South Vienna, I didn’t want to go—really had no intention of returning to anything that was near my high school. In my mind I had left the trappings of that building behind when I walked out the door just a few months earlier, and besides Jenny’s family and me soon to be divorced stepfather there was very little I wanted to see in that area save for a few friends. “I have your keys Nerdla!” she was already outside, yelling from the sidewalk—“C’mon!” While the fall brought the end of summer it also welcomed school, new friendships, football, and a change of clothing. She wore a short summer dress and sunglasses, her hair was still long—almost big but more scattered than most of the hairstyles that were so common in the mid to late eighties, mine was long and curly, I had not cut it for nearly seven months—since my senior pictures which was also the last time I have ever combed it. We drove the 40 minutes, listening to R.E.M. on the wheezing tape deck in my car, the fields of soy and corn waved and danced at us as we passed a forty-ounce Milwaukee’s Best between us, “should we stop and get another one?” she asked as she drank the last swig near London, Ohio. We sill had fifteen miles to go. “We can get some at Shoemaker’s” I said, referring to the now long closed supermarket in South Vienna. Jenny’s older sister worked there as her husband’s family owned it, years later after the giant Wal-Mart opened up six miles down the road the store came to a slow, sad and shuttering halt as if it were a slow-motion tumbleweed turning over in the wind. It was the annual South Vienna Corn Festival, something I had never attended while I was in high school, and while most of the other kids in school flocked to both the Corn Festival and the Clark County Fair, these were events that were a bit much too busy for me, if there is anything that makes an outsider feel more outside its an event that is filled with people. The more people there were, doing things I had no interest in the more I wanted to flee—-I’d rather be somewhere, anywhere else. But I was 18, in-love and so we went. Moving to rural Ohio from Athens, Ohio—yes, a small town but also a college town was difficult and in hindsight, almost traumatic for me—going from being able to walk everywhere, hang out in record stores, be privy to college students blaring music on their lawns while suntanning, drinking and laughing instilled the idea of a wider bigger and exciting world. I left Athens at the age of 14, in the early 80’s—and by that time I had discovered R rated movies—I had seen An American Werewolf in London, Apocalypse Now, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, heard Bob Marley, The Clash, The Ramones and Devo. Suddenly I was transplanted into cornfields, and I felt like a scarecrow.  At the Corn Festival I ran into my friend Chris Biester who was home for the long weekend from Ohio University, he had his guitar and played a few songs on the sidewalk—most notably “Sugar Mountain” which he explained was meaningful for him as he just turned twenty. At the time, on that hot September day—for those five minutes everything was alright, Chris’s voice and guitar held the air around me and while some of the passerby’s were no doubt looking askance at him, I never noticed. Twenty seemed far away from me even though I was 18, I would soon be stepping out of adolescence and Chris was already in adulthood. It was exciting, nerve wracking. I drank more beer.  

                The trips back to Western Ohio got less and less, in a few years Jenny and I had broken up—-she would return often as she struggled with homelessness and her mental health she would come back and stay with her mother—these were always short lived, maybe a week or two at best. One time, when she returned from an ill-fate trip to Miami where she had convinced an old bar-fly friend to fly her down to escape the streets of Columbus, a trip the ended with her being forced into Jackson County Memorial Hospital after being found wandering around delusional and drunk, I picked her up at the Columbus airport. “Well. I don’t think I can go back to Miami—there is nothing there for me. Not sure what I’ll do but I can stay with mom for a while.” Shortly though, she was back in Columbus—ducking in and out of Bernie’s and North Campus bars and taking up refuge in the ravines of Clintonville. “I can’t stay in South Vienna” she said one day as we walked towards the Tim Horton’s that sat between my house and her tent, “I’d rather be on the street than feel cooped up there.” “Maybe just staying with your mom would be good for you? You can quit drinking and there are less temptations?” “What if I don’t want to quit? Besides, there is nothing to do, just Mom’s boyfriend and the dog—what am I gonna do, work at Shoemaker’s?” Oddly, I saw her point. She had travelled all over the world, been to Europe countless times, lived in Spain for a few months, not as a student but she had run out of money and a kind Spanish woman welcomed her in until she finally got wrung out by Jenny being Jenny and bought her a ticket home. This was in the early nineties, another adventure Jenny had that peeled under the wheels of her life. Jenny had lived a million lives by the time she arrived at her mothers in 2005, broken and bent—she knew she was becoming a shell of her former self, the bits and cracks of her were dropping off of her everywhere, every night she went. “I love mom, but I’d rather take my chances in Columbus.”

                There were times when we would talk, especially when she was really suffering—her skin bruised from the kind of living she did, she fell a lot—especially the last ten years of her life, not just from the alcohol but she was slowly using the use of her legs, she body thin from anemia and the inability of her to keep food in her body, it would erupt out of her when she tried to eat—it seemed she lived on vodka and Gatorade for most of her forties, “I can’t eat Bela, it doesn’t matter because I’m never very hungry.” Her hair was thinning, falling out in handfuls at times, the only part of her that seemed to be unchanged were her blue eyes, that still glowed while everything around them went dark, her body a leisurely collapse into nothingness, hers  was like an abandoned village near Chernobyl, with only the trees still growing. She would look at me, disparage my depression as if I had some control over it, “I can’t understand why you want to die sometimes Bela, I just want to live soo much—-I wish I could still do the things I used  to do.”  She wore herself out trying to live, later—when she was near death, she told me just a few weeks before she died, the final almost continuous run of hospitalization was like a grotesque version of a baseball player’s hitting streak, “I can’t do this anymore, I just hurt so much. I don’t have it in me .” I could say nothing, just nod in silent agreement, she was battered—the thinness of her living had become too parched, the booze she had tried to quinch it with had only withered her insides.

                Other times I would feel guilty when she said these things to me, as if I was robbing from her by being depressed, that one’s enthusiasm for living could be traded like a commodity. Later, I realized that moods are something I must learn to manage, that every day I drew away from my last drink was not always going to be better—I would have to encounter and persist through some dark times—but I knew if I had a drink it would allow the possibility of my inner doomsday machine to be activated. So, I haven’t. And I fill my days with laughter, regardless of how I might be feeling inside, I am always laughing, even alone—in the shower, on my walks, everywhere—I think if you know me, you know this much about me. I remarked to my partner recently that some people are like cut flowers, they sacrifice themselves to bring their beauty to others, cut at the stem, placed on a mantle, a coffee table, by the window for people to see-to smile, a courageous act. “There’s nothing courageous about it, they don’t have a choice to be cut—somebody just cuts them and sticks them in a vase.” Considering this, I thought about it, and just realized there is an acceptance then, it’s not aways a choice but there is beauty in existing and even in the slow melt of being in a vase, cut at the stem, brightly shining petals until they fall off. On March 8th, I will celebrate 20 years since my last drink.

Love, Death & Ornaments (Christmas 2021)

December 25, 2021

There is an old tree that sits in my front yard, I’m pretty sure there is very little life left in it because every time a fierce wind picks up, branches fall from to the ground like corn husks in October, but every spring the leafs manage to wrestle their way out of tree and happily soak in the sun until fall comes again. They do their job, poking up at the sky waving “We’re here! We’re here!”

Christmas 1969 (from left clockwise: Zotlan, Grandma Isabel, Erics w/ Teddy, Bela)

I buy a lot of cut flowers, usually the ones that are marked down at the local grocery store, the kind where if you are not careful, they all may lose their petals ala a Charlie Brown Christmas tree but I’m careful and can get at week of color out of them before they too, fall off onto the mantle and the desk that faces that grandpa tree outside. Perhaps they are commiserating with one another, the wilting sunflower and that gnarled tree outside. Wink. Wink. The past few years, since I was divorced, I wait to get a Christmas tree, usually the week before Christmas and sometimes my teenage children go with me and other times they don’t—but they always insist on getting the most loneliest tree there is, the Charlie Brown kind. I take some satisfaction in the fact that they feel sympathy for the runt of the litter tree. When their mother and I were married we had a tradition of driving out to rural Ohio and cutting down our own tree, having hot chocolate in the little barn on the tree farm and hauling it back to Columbus on the roof of our car. Setting it up while Christmas music played as the kids argued over who got to put on what decoration on the tree. One year after I carried the tree over my shoulder I soon developed a case of poison ivy on that side of my neck—even Charlie Brown didn’t have that happen to him.

December sky in Cedar Falls Ohio, 2021

        This year with a sixteen-year-old and a thirteen-year-old the fascination of the tree, of Christmas is waning in their minds. My daughter wraps all the presents, even the ones for herself and my son is too busy skateboarding and mocking adults to make the effort to get into the holiday spirit which is fine with me as I stayed a teenager well into my thirties. I misplaced the decorations this year, it seems I do a lot of this sort of thing—not just now as I walk into my fifties but for most of my life so for a few days the tree only had lights which because of my nerd-like eyesight was ok, its all a blur anyway. But, the other night rummaging through a closet I found them, a small box as the children’s mother and I split the decorations in half but, really, half the decorations are enough for the small tree I get every year. I pulled them out, each one encapsulating a memory—some are from my Hungarian grandmother and are over 70 years old.

Grandma Isabel Christmas tree 1973 in Lexington, KY

        My grandmother was a towering figure in my life, so much that her presence still elbows its way into the lives of her great-grandchildren who still ask me to tell stories of this epic woman. The woman saved everything, she would cut out pictures of teddy-bears, flowers and kittens from magazines and advertisements so when one sat down at her tiny round kitchen table a stuffed animal with half it’s ear sliced off would be staring at you from under your cup of coffee. “Grandma, why do you have all these cut-outs on your table, they are everywhere?” “Bela, I like dem. Dey make me feel good.” Sometimes she would slide some into the bills she paid, so some unsuspecting worker at the electric company whose thankless job was to open and process incoming checks would get a lapful of cut out teddy bears and roses. Hopefully it made their day or they just knew here, “got another check from that crazy Hungarian lady on Boxwood Avenue.” At Christmas time she would cut out Santa and elf advertisements, so those workers would get a cheap Christmas card with the checks they processed. My tree has a few of her “ornaments” some of which are just small plastic barnyard animals she swiped from my brother and I and tied yellow string around and put up on the tree. One “ornament” is just a plastic man with the string around his neck, he is quite truly hanging from the Christmas tree. There is another, a small yellow plastic man that she told me was me when I was 3 or 4 and there was a blue one that was my brother and an orange one that was my sister, our grandmother told us they reminded her of us when she saw them. Now, when I look at the yellow man I am reminded of her.

Coasters gifted to me by Tim Peaccock 2021

        There are ornaments my children made, small plastic ones they made by warming up plastic beads, some are just wooden laundry clips with shit glued on top of them, but to their parents they are gold. There are some from my elderly mother, ones she sewed and stitched together, small mementoes of her care and wanting us to have something of her—not just for her children but also her grandchildren and great grandchildren. They are all there on the tree, winking and sparkling from across the room. I have a small coffee coasters made from old 78” record labels that my friend Tim gave me last year, he made them during the first COVID year and every time I have a cup of coffee I get to think of his wonderful generosity. I have other things in my house, reminders of sharing and love, dried yellow flowers and a note from my sweetheart that she gave me on my birthday a few years ago, photos of my children in the Netherlands, a painting of Richard Brautigan my friend Derek made, a Sebadoh/Gaunt painted flyer, more dried flowers and books that hold not just memories but magic. I am wading through middle age, looking back and forward at the same time with not quite the lumbering of age but there are some memories that come back slower and with it, the Holidays have changed as people whom I have known have left for other places.  

  My girlfriend whose talent for language leaves me breathless and at times in total wonderment (and hysterics) has two children, the youngest still believes in the magic of Santa and it is a gift to see this still play out—-the telling of what happens Christmas Eve, the specialness of that age, the belief in things that make the world special. Of kindness, and thankfulness. I relish the quiet times in my life, of listening, walking and watching. I hope for everyone to feel connected this year, to laugh and to feel the joy of someone thinking of them and of course, to let others know you are thinking of them.

(a recorded version of this is on Jon Solomon’s 25-Hour Holiday Radio Show–archived every year, on WPRB https://wprb.com/)

from top left (Erica, dad, Bela, Zoltan–1973)
Christmas 2021
Christmas 2015

Uncle Pablo 1943-2021

November 15, 2021

“Hey! Hey, Bela! Open up” there was someone banging on the front door, I was sitting on the small couch reading a book while music played from the other room. I stood up, walked towards the door, and saw my Uncle Pablo holding up a six pack of Black Label beer and gesticulating with his other hand, “Open up my man!” he yelled through the window. From the upstairs my wife shouted down, “who’s here, you didn’t tell me anybody was coming over?” Her voice had a hint of irritation, it wasn’t uncommon for me to surprise her by not coming home if someone popped into the record store from out of town or invited me for a drink after work. Many times I would fail to call her until deep into my fifth drink. As I opened the door I turned my head, “it’s Pablo” and I could feel her sigh from the top of the stairs as he climbed through the open door. “I brought beer, let’s go to Larry’s.” He walked into the living room, “Heelllloooooo Merijn” he sang up the stairs towards her. “Hi Pablo, I’ll be down in a moment.” The apartment was a duplex with the front room holding all my records and shelves built into the wall to hold the massive amount of compact discs. Art books lined the opposite side of the compact discs, sort of his and hers matching shelves. The living room had two small tan couches that faced each other and a small coffee table, the walls were bare as the shadows from the sunlight made it’s own pictures that did a slow crawl across the room during the course of the day, in the evening the leaves from outside would cast themselves as waving and bending shadow puppets and the street lights provided the perfect background for them to do their lonesome nighttime dance. The kitchen was in the rear of the house, and I placed the beer on the counter, pulling out the bottle opener I cracked open two of the Black Labels. “What are you drinking now?” Pablo asked, raising his bottle to his mouth. “I was just drinking a tea while I read.” At this point in my life I was trying to abstain from drinking at home, it never ended up well and after a few I would be back out on the street and heading to a bar. Putting the rest of the beer into the fridge I asked him if he had eaten, “I had some bread at my mom’s” he said. I knew he quite literally only had bread at my grandmother’s, “we have some leftovers” and I pulled some mashed potatoes mixed with carrots out of the refrigerator, “Merijn made carrot mash and sausages tonight,” I plopped a cold sausage on his plate. “Thank you, no need to heat it up—do you have any mayonnaise” he tended to eat a lot of things with the white creamy stuff. “Have a beer Merijn” he offered as we moved into the other room. “No thank you, I am going to bed soon—I have to be at work early.” She stood for a moment, stared at me, and asked, “you will let me know if you go out, right?” “Yeah, not sure if we will nor not.” I knew this was a lie. Pablo was going to want to go out. I was his wandering late night partner, when he needed to be out he needed someone to go with him for as isolated he was he craved social interaction.

                Soon we were out the door, draining those first six beers only took a short while Pablo cleaned his plate, I washed up the dishes while he talked incessantly about what he did that day, running errands, going to the library, buying cheap books from the library store and dealing with my grandmother who was in the midst of a slow decline that would lead her to a nursing home in the next few years. Pablo had given his life over to care for her, spending most of his time in Columbus the past few years while her health declined and the other time in his home in Venezuela where he had a large apartment in Caracas and where he also owned a small marina in the middle of a massive nature preserve—it was here, on the beaches of the Atlantic that he felt most comfortable. Some one who appreciated nature without being curious about nature, in the same way I love opera—I don’t really care what the opera is about but I know I like to hear it. We first went to Larry’s where everybody he once knew had left years prior for new lives—marriage, kids, dive bars that would quicken their decent into alcoholism, but he scanned the bar nevertheless, like a dog that keeps searching the floor for crumbs. We only saw Jerry at the end of the bar, “hey Pablo” he raised his bottle and took a pull off his cigarette and snapped the pack of Doral’s back and forth with his hand while a cigarette shimmied out of the crumpled pack. Pablo who never bought a pack himself helped himself and let Jerry light it for him. Both him and I smoked occasionally, but we were awkward doing it, as if our faces were trying to walk with high-heels, we just couldn’t smoke elegantly like some others could. “What is going on” Pablo asked Jerry, the cigarette bouncing back and forth as if he were a seagull holding a flopping fish in its beak. Jerry answered with a nod, which didn’t answer his question and we got our drinks and headed to a booth where Jerry joined us, this was a trying time for Jerry-when he was wrestling with the decision to sign with Warner Brothers but it was also a trying time for my uncle who had decided not to pursue another job in chemical engineering and try to earn a living solely by operating the marina. By this time in his life he had sunk much of his life earnings into this project and there was little to show for it. Pablo told us stories of his time at Larry’s during the sixties and early seventies, “we would eat a stick of butter before parties so we could drink more,” “Bill Moss, Jim Williams and I would go from Charbarts (bar) and go to these parties and Bill knew every woman at every party—we would to the east side–after hour bars—the parties would last for a few days, I never went to class.” Bill Moss later started the Cap-Soul label and worked for the City of Columbus, Jim Williams was a Vietnam veteran who was one of Pablo’s best friends until he disappeared. “I don’t know what happened to him, he did a lot of drugs—I went to Caracas one year, came back the next year and nobody knew what happened to him” he said. Years later though a friend of mine in AA said Jim was his first sponsor, that Jim got clean and sober in the early eighties and devoted the rest of his life to helping fellow alcoholics and addicts. When I told Pablo of this he seemed relieved that he didn’t die from drugs. “A good man” Pablo whispered.

                Soon the bar closed, and we headed out to my car, it was late and I knew I would hear it the next day from Merijn. “Hey, let’s go to my friend’s house” Pablo suggested as we got in the car, a take-out six pack in our hands. Popping off the cap with a lighter, “Man, I don’t know. I’m tired” I handed him the bottle and did the same to another one. “You will like him” he tapped the glove compartment and started humming “All My Loving.” We drove for about ten minutes to an old mill that sat in the middle to Columbus, “he lives here, this motherfucker can drink my man!” Pablo was in a good mood. “Are you sure he’s up?” I asked, it was leaning towards 2:30 am and the lights were out. Pablo was already out of the car by time I got the words out, sauntering across the gravel parking lot, his silhouette rocking back and forth to the inner songs of the alcohol sloshing inside of his body. He knocked on the door. Nothing. Knocked some more. Nothing. Then I saw him pounding and yelled out. “Pablo, let’s go. Nobody is home” I poked  my head out the window. Suddenly, a light came on and the door opened. A hunched man with a beard leaned forward towards Pablo, the man looked like a shadowy Ichabod Crane as the moonlight lit up the two old friends. I could see them laughing and after a few minutes Pablo trudged back to the car, “let’s go!” As we pulled out I asked him what happened, “Oh, he wanted to talk about Jesus. He hasn’t had a drink in over ten years.”

                Pablo grew up in Caracas, my grandparents fled Hungary during the Second World War and ended up on a boat that chugged across the Atlantic while my grandparents hurriedly learned English and my grandmother breastfed her three children as there was so little food on the boat. My grandfather nearly died on the voyage, a skeletal shadow of his former self, a well to do engineer and college professor. He weighed less than a hundred pounds when the boat docked on the other side of the mountains from Caracas. Life was difficult for them, as my grandmother did not attend college after she graduated from a Sacred Heart Boarding School in Austria, her father was wealthy, and she married my grandfather shortly after high school and was soon pregnant with my father. The newlyweds did not like each other very much, they had little in common including their age which was fifteen years apart. My grandfather was an introvert, known for his brooding and darkness, he would take solace in painting, butterfly collecting and reading mysteries. My grandmother was the opposite, although a fiercely religious woman she loved parties, drinks, and dirty talk although she would never use a curse word in her life, she took great joy in reveling from others telling their bawdy stories. After Pablo was born my grandfather built my grandmother an a-frame house on Lake Balaton, nearly two hours outside of Budapest where he kept an apartment. Soon though, the war would force them together, their flight from Budapest across the country into Austria could be a movie, but like millions of others during that time survival makes strange bedfellows even if the bedfellows are married.

                Upon arrival in Caracas, my grandmother went to work for Price Waterhouse, and my grandfather gained employment as  structural engineer and just like they lived in Hungary he moved to a town several hours away. Grandmother soon found her social footing, there was a large Hungarian and European population in Caracas and she made fast friends, including the wife of the President. As a child I would marvel at the black and white photos of my grandmother at glamourous parties and smiling like a movie star but underneath this elegant veneer they struggled. My grandfather was not good with money and Grandma Isabel pined to live in the United States, most specifically Southern California. In the end she could not move to California and ended up in Columbus to be near her sons who were attending The Ohio State University. My two uncles, Pablo and Peter moved in with each other, living in various rundown apartment buildings around the Ohio State campus, both struggled with grades, attending class and it took them years to graduate. Pablo was kicked out of the university several times for academic shortcomings, he bounced around several of the nearby liberal arts colleges in the area before returning to OSU where he finally graduated in 1975, twelve years after he first entered. He managed to earn a degree in Mechanical Engineering despite his propensity to drink, it was not uncommon for him to spit up blood or double over in pain when he was younger. Pablo was also dyslexic which must have proved difficult for him as English was his third language, at the time there were no educational supports for him to succeed and even if there were he would not have accepted it.

                During the nineteen eighties, when my brother and I were in high school both Pablo and Peter would watch our wrestling matches, slip us money and knowing we were poor, Pablo bought us an Atari gaming system. Our father had abandoned us a few years prior and the two brothers stood in for him, at times driving us to Columbus, indulging us with White Castle hamburgers and letting us partake in a bit of drinking at Peter’s house. When my sister visited from California, Pablo would make sure to spoil her as well, when she brought her newborn for baptism Pablo arrived in our small, one general store town with my grandmother and beamed from the back of the church. He was not a religious man and his politics ran to the left of the left, he witnessed the crushing blows of American foreign policy in South America and was vocal when politics came up.

                It was just after Christmas in 1985, my senior year of high school was galloping towards it’s end—just five months to go, I was mostly living alone in the parsonage. Surviving on fifty-cent frozen burritos, hot dogs, and instant mashed potatoes, I was grateful when I drove to Columbus and Pablo took me out to eat at a diner and as we scarfed up biscuits and gravy he asked if I needed any money, at the end of the meal he slipped me a hundred-dollar bill. The next weekend I drove to Dayton to my second cousin’s house, Istvan who was my father’s cousin—he and his wife were physicians who fled Hungary in the late seventies, and after arriving in Ohio where he worked as a cab driver before obtaining their medical licenses. They lived in Kettering, a wealthy area of Dayton, I arrived excited to see them and my uncles—and upon stepping up to the front door I encountered a large puddle of vomit and before I was able to knock Istvan opened the door. Laughing, “watch your step Bela, your Uncle Pablo just vomited—he’s already had too much to drink! Welcome to our house” he shoved a long-neck in my hand and showed me in. Pablo waved from across the room, a drink in hand, oblivious to the fact that his body had just reminded him not to drink anymore. That night I got in my car, my head twirling like the snowflakes that were fluttering around the car and drove the forty miles back home, all of my seventeen year old brain turned up to eleven with beer, rum and cokes and the money Istvan and Pablo slipped me. I would have enough beer and gas money to tide me through January. The kindness of Istvan and Pablo followed me my entire life.

Uncle Pedro, “Uncle” Istvan, Uncle Pablo

                My grandmother’s large body had sunk into her bed as if she had been melting over the last few years of her life, a pool of flesh that had coalesced into her sheets. Her head was always propped up by a stack of pillows, her small room covered in photos of her family, a large painting of her father hung on one wall and on another hung several paintings of flowers my grandfather had painted for her. On another wall, next to a small closet door, the kind that is made to look like wood but is as hollow as a Styrofoam cup were photos of her children and grandchildren. Even though she knew she was dying she was always smiling, and we visited her every week—sometimes bringing her ice cream or flowers she would want to reach out and hold Saskia’s hand. Saskia who was two or three would stare down and her great-grandmother’s hand, skin as thin as soup– it was if it were made of the most fragile glass but her hands were always bruised, dollaps of green and brown spots appeared every morning as if they were mushrooms blotting out her once pale skin. Even her hands knew the end was coming. Saskia would look up at me while my grandmother would remark what a beautiful boy Saskia was, and I never felt the need to correct her, that Saskia was in fact the most beautiful girl in the word. “She will be dead soon enough, let her have this” I would think. Pablo was now staying in Columbus full-time to care for his mother and it took a while to convince him that, finally, at one point when her often replaced hips could no longer hold her or be replaced again that she would need to be moved. It devastated him. He was aimless as he watched her sink into her bed the last few years of her life, “did you go see your grandmother?” he would ask me. “Yes, I was out there yesterday.” “She told me you weren’t there, are you sure it was yesterday.” My father’s side of the family was always prone to paranoia, thinking everybody was lying and conniving, “Yes,” I would sigh, “I brought her flowers, they are by the window. I think she forgets things. She told me yesterday you were leaving for Caracas.” “Why would she say that?” he would ask. “Because she’s eighty-five years old.”

                When she got ready to die, she knew it. “I want to see my daddy and mommy” she would whisper, her once booming voice just a soft echo of her former self. The day she died, both my uncle’s split the day in half, as Pablo had grown angry with his younger brother and, sadly, did not want to spend the last days of his mother’s life together. My father had been down the day before she died to say his goodbyes, I stayed away when he was there—no need to have an argument in front his dying mother. The entire day I sat next to my grandmother unless Pablo or Peter wanted to hold her hand and whisper to her. Pablo was broken, tears streaming down his face, “oh mommy, dear mommy. Mommy, mommy mommy” and she smiled at him, “don’t cry Pauli, I will see you soon.” She turned her head to me, “Bela, tell him not to cry. I am happy.” As the day moved on she grew wearier and tired, soon her eyes closed as her breath became more laborious, but she responded to voices, squeezing our hands with those paper fingers until finally she stopped breathing in two long separated gulps. We held her and then Pablo looked at me, silently crying and walked out. He did not return and I took care of the transportation of her body to the morgue, working with the nursing home staff and saw him later that night. After her death, he retuned to Caracas more frequently but sent me an email message when I was vacationing in the Netherlands. “Bela, I have breast cancer. I know it is weird but it has spread to my lymph nodes, I should be ok.” I hung up the phone, at this point Pablo was not only one of my closest family members but also a friend. He had stepped in when my father stepped out and we shared some of the responsibility to care for my grandmother. I phoned Istvan to ask him Pablo’s chances and Istvan explained that they were not very good as breast cancer in men is dangerous, most men who develop it die as they do not get checked. Pablo survived but contracted scleroderma, a hideous disease that turns muscle into scar tissue, it would most likely be the leading cause of his death years later, he was a shell of his former self when he died, labored breathing his esophagus a tunnel of scars, like an hundred year water pipe filled with rust and deposits. He would suffocate to death.

                I am fifty-three, my parents are still living but my uncles are gone, both passing away within months of each other. They made amends a few days before my uncle Pedro died, wherever she was their mother was smiling and I’m certain some flowers instantly bloomed somewhere in the world. My children both met Pablo, who would drop by the house, no longer carrying a bottle of rum or a six-pack of beer but a gallon of vanilla ice cream and root beer to make Brown Cows—which he loved. The stories of my family are like hearing the wind against the eaves at night, just brushes of something to hear—shadows scrapping through their imagination while for me, they are turning into these things as well, almost nothing except uncertain memories. Both my uncles were sick for a long time when they died, I was able to see my Uncle Pedro last summer, spending time by the ocean and eating with him while I had not seen Pablo in years, even though he would travel to Miami for medical appointments he was proud and did not want his family to see him small, shriveled and just a thought of his former self. We would talk on the phone, his voice a weak creak and the last time I spoke to him I told him I loved him and he whispered “you too.” It was the closest he ever came to saying these words.

                I grew up displaced, not just from moving around the Midwest and the east coast as a child but emotionally, where my father would pull us in close then push us away with his anger, his paranoia and religion which he used as a brute force to try to carve his children into something he believed in but ended up bludgeoning  me, his take on religion was one of fear and not forgiveness one built upon his fear of others. He eventually abandon his children, each one of us when we entered puberty, his take initially was it was our mother, then us and then sin that drove us away from him and in reality it was his own mental state and the fact that maybe, just maybe he isn’t a nice person. My uncles, both undoubtedly scarred from their own lives of displacement tried in their own way to help my brother, sister, and I whether it was with food, welcoming us into their homes or slipping us money. They always reassured us our father loved us but we felt otherwise, their love was enough. I think about Pablo quite a bit, his death was not sudden and when his wife messaged me a few weeks ago I did not flinch and it took me a few days to weep which came suddenly, at a stop light like a spring shower that erupts for a moment when the sun is still shining, but the time the light changed it had left me. A few deep sobs and that was it. I was expecting more.

                He lived life at arm’s length and didn’t marry until he was near death, always waiting for something I think that emotionally maybe never came—his father was cold, a man who kept to himself and lived for much of his children’s childhood away from them perhaps for all the losses he had encountered in his life. The Second Word War loomed large in our family, it was a ghost that stole from the family, the stature of my grandmother’s family—the hotel she was born in, her privileged childhood, and the ultimate death of her father (Karoly Gundel) who was a figure larger and more brilliant in our world than anybody we had read about in textbooks. She mourned him daily, a famous chef in Hungarian history-who, based on the story our grandmother told us went blind when the Russian Army burned his treasured cookbooks in front of him. The painting that my grandfather painted of him hung in her living room. Blind smoking a large cigar loomed over our family gatherings, he may be dead but he was still the focal point in my grandmothers, thus in all of our lives. Pablo identified as Venezuelan more than Hungarian or even American (he became a US citizen in the 1990’s) and he lived his life closer to the Latin culture of Caracas and South America, one filled with dancing, multiple women, relaxing and friendship. I think of him, how he must have kept things at bay inside of him, his side of the family did not talk about suffering, only endured it—he was a figure in my life, one I will cherish who had large outlandish dreams, lived an absurdist life and was funny. My uncles offered me advice over the years, advice about sex “always lick the asshole”, drinking “eat a stick of butter before you drink, it was allow you to drink for hours”, self-care “when you wipe your ass, stand up, bend over and wipe from the top down”—one of the uncle’s actually enacted this act at a party I had thrown, eating “wipe the mold off the top, bake it and then put ketchup on it—it will be fine” and “do you want to drink or eat, good choice—booze will fill you up.” These were not the things that one would hear from parents, probably not from very many people but I have them, they make me laugh—even now—with their passing.

Uncle Peter (Pedro Koe-Krompecher) 1945-2021

July 20, 2021

When I lived on Chittenden and, later Summit Street, near The Ohio State University campus with Jenny Mae—our life filled with the sort of invisible desperation of poor college students who don’t realize that they are poor except we weren’t college students we were just poor and happened to live near campus. I was working two or three jobs, at least two record store jobs and an overnight shift at UDF where I mostly made fun of the drunken fraternity and sorority students who drunkenly and stupidly bought ice cream cones and tried in vain to buy alcohol after two a.m. Jenny worked as a bartender at several bars but spent most of her afternoons watching soap operas and then the Golden Girls, smoking pot and starting to drink Milwaukee’s Best around 5 pm until I got home or until she had to go to work to continue her pursuit of the perfect buzz. It was during these twilight hours that Uncle Peter would show up, me fresh out of my record store shift, opening my first beer—trying to catch up with Jenny who was usually so stoned at this point she was laughing to herself or maybe she was just responding to the voices in her head. Peter would bang on the door, dressed in tan, he looked like a foreign Jack Hanna but instead of being surrounded by animals he would do the inverse, surround everybody else with his booming voice and laughter. “Hey Be! I was in the neighborhood and wanted to check in on you guys.” Sometimes he would be carrying a bag of McDonalds filled with cheeseburgers “they are only $0.50 a piece for two bucks I’m mostly full and they taste good” or a carton of Church’s Fried Chicken, again proclaiming what a bargain they were, “you can get ten thighs for $5 and I can eat this shit all day long” he would offer the opened cardboard box in your direction, the sweet scent of fried chicken filing the room with it’s pungent scent, greasy fingers a testament to how good the fried legs of these birds were. “No thanks,” I would say but Jenny always dove in, “Thanks’ Peter I’m starving” her hours of weed making her hungry. If Peter didn’t have food he would ask me to make him some and while I cooked he undoubtedly would be smoking weed with Jenny in the other room although he knew I never smoked so he did it always out of eyeshot from me. He would then come into the kitchen, “Smells good Be’, I can’t wait because now I have the munchies.” Sometimes he would offer me some part time work helping him with some of the rental properties he owned, knowing we needed the money and at other times when he was leaving he would slip me a $20 bill again, knowing I was starved for cash. This was something he had started doing when my brother and I were in high school, stepping into the wide space our father had left when he chose to step out of our lives. Uncle Peter’s feet and love were larger than what felt like the crater my father had left behind in his abandonment.

He would take us to his house in Upper Arlington making up chores for us to do, one weekend I moved a giant pile of bug ridden boards from one side of his lawn to another and then back again, like an anxious teenage Sisyphus who was so completely creeped out by bugs and worms I would carry heavy two-by-fours by two fingers lest anything crawl up my arm or slither over my fingers leaving moist worm sludge all over my hands. “Come on Bela! It’s only worms, they don’t hurt anything” and he would fling them across the lawn and then reach into a bag of chips, ruining both the potato chips and my appetite. Years later I would ask him about this exercise in moving wood around the yard like I was moving furniture around a living room, “I didn’t need it moved but I wanted you to learn to work and be able to disgusting work—I had to justify a reason to pay you $50.” One job he had me help him on was cleaning out an apartment where he had to evict someone, this was at the height of the crack epidemic and the house was tiny in the Linden area of Columbus and as we carried garbage out from the house we would get stares from some of the young men who had walked up to the edge of lawn which worried me until Peter stopped and chatted a few up and soon they were all laughing. He knew some of their parents, he was able to make friends with anybody even gang members. He went back inside the house and  called me into the bathroom which gave off the rank smell of defecation and moldy carpet. He was going to go pick up a new toilet and be back in an hour and had instructed me to clean out the bathroom so he could install the new one when he got back. “I’m not going in there” I said, “Are you fucking crazy!?” I stood in the living room holding my nose. He asked me what was wrong and I pointed to the toilet that was overflowing with human excrement and garbage, beer cans and fast food packaging. “What?” he asked to me as he stared at it. Didn’t he see what I saw? “Dude, it if filled with shit, what the fuck?” I felt nauseous. “Well, they didn’t pay the water bill but they still had to shit so where else were they supposed to go?”, and with that he grabbed a metal trashcan that had been sitting in the middle of the living room, cockroaches scurrying about and put it next to the toilet, he then proceeded to reach his hand in and shovel the waste into the trashcan, “Be’, it’s only shit—it won’t hurt anyone.” After he deposited a few handfuls of the shit into the trashcan, he said shaking his head in feigned pity, “I have some gloves for you to make it easier.” Because there was no running water, he took a bottle of Windex and sprayed his hands and wiped them off with a paper towel that he deposited into the trashcan. He came back about four hours later, the street alive with cars, music and police sirens.  I had managed to clean up most of the apartment and sat on the porch soaking in all the action of the street.          

                Peter would speak as an authority on all things, mostly to just argue for not even argument’s sake but to just be contrarian—a loving thorn in your side because he enjoyed ruffling feathers. Never one to let facts get in his way, he would just pull them out of thin air and once you were trapped in an argument with him, one that he created and soon you would realize he just said whatever to fit his narrative which was whatever the opposite of yours. And when he spoke, he would layer his speech with long pauses for effect that he thought would lend credence to whatever point he was trying to make, and the only result was to give the listener more time to think how full of shit he was. I would not say Uncle Peter would lie–he would just imagine things, mostly that were not true…

                There are a few wonderful memories of have of my Uncle that show the depth of his love and commitment to his family, most especially his sons Pablo and Pedro and his ever-patient wife, Milagros. When I was younger and would be at the house in Upper Arlington he would leave the door open and I would venture in calling his name. At times there would be no reply and I would search around the house and usually find him curled up on one of the boys’ beds, his large body surrounding his children as they all napped. Usually I would raid the fridge (which usually had very little food) and wait out his nap. Another time I picked up my grandmother, whose girth was only outsized by her personality, and we went to meet Peter at Ponderosa where she would use a coupon for a Buy-One-Get-One Free dinner, she would always make me buy the cheapest one—never giving me a choice as she was buying. “Beellaaa, you get the chopped steak it is delicious and I get mine to go—we go to the salad bar.” I hated the salad bar, as we would usually spend over an hour at the all you can eat buffet which I found fairly disgusting. On one of these occasions Peter met us there and just ordered the salad bar for himself, he got there after us and as he eyed the gray chopped steak on my plate he asked if I was going to eat it. “No, it’s gray.” Peter took my plate, “just put some ketchup on it and it’s not gray anymore and it’s delicious.” He quickly devoured it. My grandmother had filled her plate with salad and off to the side she had filled a bowl with mayonnaise and shredded yellow cheese which she would eat from after several bites from her towering plate of salad. Peter stuck his fork in the bowl of mayonnaise and cheese and suddenly his mother stabbed him in the back of the hand with her fork. “Jesus Mommy!” to which my grandmother replied “Dat is my mayoonaize, geet yourself your own.” I was both horrified as well and bewildered by all of this. “Be’ go get me some mayonnaise and cheese please” he asked as I trudged off to fetch him a bowl full of condiments.

                A few years ago, Peter was visiting Columbus and was helping my ex-wife (whom he always asked about and loved dearly) with her house and he stayed in my small apartment that was just a few blocks from her house.

He asked me one day, “Be’ where is your tv?”

 I looked over from my cup of coffee, “I don’t have one. I don’t watch TV.”

“Don’t have a TV! What, how do you get the new?!” he was baffled.

I explained I read the news on-line, “I subscribe to the Times and Washington Post. I don’t like television news. And when people are visiting I want them to talk and not have the television interfering.”

Later that afternoon I came home and heard a tv blaring upstairs, he had bought a tv.

“I got you a tv, you need one for the news—to know what is going on in the world. I’ll hang it downstairs above your mantle for you.”

“Thank you, Peter, the kids will love the tv and I’ll watch it. But keep it in your room for now and when you are done I’ll put it in my room.”

He still wanted to put it in the living room but after some discussion he allowed me to keep the television upstairs. He was complicated yet simple and I never heard him complain about anything in his life as he would usually say when I asked about his health, “I’m great Be’, I always am because complaining gets me nothing. I love my kids and Milagros. I am the luckiest man alive and when I meet St. Peter I’ll tell him the same thing. I had the best life anyone could want.” I will miss him deeply. Thank you Peter for everything you did for me.

Springs, New York 1974-2021

July 4, 2021

“I think we turn here……or maybe it was back there, one of those other roads” I said scanning the woods surrounding the car, the map on the phone was an excellent guide in trying to get to where we wanted to go but, in my mind, I had no idea where this was, so we drove one way, turned, and drove in another direction. None of the houses looked familiar, they were larger, set back into the pine trees and wealthier than what stood on this point of Long Island over 45 years ago. Springs-Fireplace Road winds from one end of East Hampton to the other, looping through all of Springs, New York like an unraveled garden hose. My memory of living there is formed in clumps, nothing linear just emotional pockmarks nestled deep in my amygdala, they are all lovely and safe, so it makes sense that I wanted to go back here, to find the place where everything was perfect for a year or at least felt that way. We drove from Ohio on my own mission that my partner was able to indulge me in, with care, love and most importantly understanding how I have needed to do this. We listened to a very long playlist I have been adding to for the past year, comic/crime podcasts and laughed as we went across northern Pennsylvania in one “straight-shot” (moves arms back and forth quickly as if performing a jujitsu move.) I had been planning of returning to this brief childhood home since I became an adult and started travelling to New York City in the early nineties although almost all the trips involved seeing music or on those earliest trips a girlfriend, there was not any time to explore the haunting of my childhood, the globs of childhood that spoke from deep within my mind were easily wiped away by concrete, amplifiers, and sights of the city. Besides, I was usually too drunk or too hungover to want to drive 100 miles for something that may not exist any longer.

                Leading up to the trip I began experiencing vivid dreams, most involved the ocean and some that were filled with the anxiety of travelling, of waiting to arrive but not yet being where you are headed. I had also received a message from my estranged father who turned eighty this past spring, and in a moment of clarity I realized that I did not want our final correspondence to be one of anger, which it had been—our last correspondence one of sharp words that left no doubt where I stood on our relationship—me, as the protective father he never was. And, so I sent him an email in some ways trying to offer something akin to a truce—and allowing him the opportunity to meet his grandchildren who are now teenagers. There was no answer to my email until a few days before my fifty-third birthday and about two weeks before the trip to New York. There was nothing different in his tone or his thoughts, it was the same as it has been for the past forty years and while I realize as a middle-aged man, he can no longer hurt his son, it stung like a small soul pinch (a soul titty-twister) and then I moved on. (Sigh), I tried. It was this event that loomed over this journey backwards forty-five years as we are straight shotted across Interstate 80 while Everything but The Girl and Lou Reed bounced around my white Volkswagen sedan.

                My mother and my former stepfather David had moved us from Youngstown to Springs in late 1974 or early 1975 where he got a job as a marine biologist working near Montauk, for David it must have felt as if he was going home. He grew up in Brooklyn, went to Syracuse on a football scholarship, joined the military, ended up moving to Germany for his PhD and ended up meeting my mother in Athens, Ohio as her marriage was falling apart. He took a job in steel mill in Youngstown in 1973, maybe doing mindless blue-collar work would help him make sense of his life and after a year he moved us to Long Island. The time we spent there has made an indelible print on my life as the soft ease of living in the woods, near water that was so large to me at the time it appeared that the sea could swallow the sky in several gulps and without the arguing of my parents during the first five years of my life—for me, the memory of Springs has been one of calm and discovery—like watching a nature show narrated by David Attenborough, while there was some danger in the bush everything would be alright and, in fact, everything held beauty. There were deep walks in the woods behind our house, where we would find box turtles, and with the ocean only minutes away we would walk after a heavy rain and stare at the crashing waves, the violence of the water holding my gaze because there was nothing else to do. When one sees such authoritative beauty one can only watch. I fell in love with the ocean during that time in my life, it’s attraction still holds me today, when dreams of water—of traveling over it, and succumbing to it as a blanket covers a bed still arrive with regularity. Ohio has no sea, we do have Lake Erie—itself mimicking the ocean in it is midwestern manner—it too has a temper, as well as lighthouses, barges, and fishing, but it is miles from Columbus and when one knows something is an imitation, it will never hold the same power as the real thing. So, I continue to go back to the Atlantic Ocean of my childhood.

                “Let’s go to New York City” I mentioned to her one night, we were trying to plan our summer, both of us having a busy July and August planned, while trying to juggle children  and all after a global pandemic. Looking over dates we choose one and she asked me about Springs. I told her about my hopes of always wanting to return, to fold out the wrinkling brittle map of my childhood and see if I could connect the emotional dots by seeing the proof of when I felt a certain type of joy and calm. “Let’s go!” she said, kissing my forehead. “But it’s a far drive from the city—it is literally on the longest end of Long Island,” I explained, “probably a two- or three-hour drive.” “I always like driving with you” was her answer followed by another kiss. For my birthday she procured a motel room on the beach and off we went. Love is indulging in the other’s dreams. So we drove and drove and after a day in the city drove again out to  Springs, battling traffic and the male Australian voice from the Google Maps app on my iPhone  seemed to grow annoyed by my ignoring his advice. At one point I was expecting him to just say, “well fuck it then, find your own way mate.” We found Springs, and the ocean for which we tried to swim in—I was braver and stayed in longer, making several efforts before the cold water pushed me away so we collected shells, watched the clouds, and in one beautiful instance watched two deer climb upon the sand dunes to our left, their bodies holding our gaze until they slipped away into the darkness.

                That evening as we searched for a house that no longer exists, I phoned my mother asking her if she remembered the address of the house, “I don’t know Bela, let me think….if you go down Springs-Fireplace road and see the Pollack-Krasner House the road we lived on was right after that but I can’t remember the name—but the houses on our street were tiny they were probably destroyed for new builds. Our house didn’t even have insulation. Lee Krasner had another house that was next to ours, but she wasn’t there much—she was elderly if I remember correctly. I wish I could remember.” I can picture my mother looking up, trying to remember but drawing a blank.  I texted my brother and sister, but they could not remember, we were children, and it was so many years ago. We kept driving and soon realized that we may have driven by the place where the house had stood and in fact, the entire road may have been removed for the development of these newer houses. She touched my face as I drove, “are you ok honey?” I was and replied, “perhaps it’s best we didn’t’ find it, I don’t think it matters if we found it or not.” We went and got dinner at a seafood diner that had a list of famous people who had eaten there, and I fried seafood and had a chocolate egg cream.

                The next morning, we drove into Montauk where we ate pancakes that were not as world famous as the sign out front claimed there were, more like Mediocre Famous but the post-COVID interaction of the crowd inside meant for delicious eavesdropping and we played finger tag on the countertop and grinned at each other. We then journeyed to the  lighthouse that didn’t appear how I remembered it, nor did the drive to the end of the island but we paid the extra amount to walk around the lighthouse and gazed out over the rocky cliff into the boats below us, the swirling water and felt the sun against our faces. We held hands. “How do you feel?” she asked me midway on the drive back, “I feel good, it was worth it—thank you for indulging me.”

 David passed away about a year and a half ago and with his death some of the questions about Long Island and my time there are now lost, although my mother remembers some things, the long stretch of time since that period of our lives have grown so thin they have disappeared in places, invisible except for the emotions that come when I see the waves and smell the salt of the ocean, when I plunge my head into the waves I can taste my childhood, the salt sitting on my tongue from 45 years ago. It isn’t important if I saw the house or visited the library in East Hampton where we would watch black and white horror movies on spindly film reels, munching on bowls of popcorn, or even driving on the same road—the connection is there and although I would have liked to see it, to touch the places I once played there isn’t a need to do that. It is here, in my heart and I hold them inside of me. This summer my children will not be going to the Netherlands as they have for almost every summer of their lives, because of the pandemic they have another summer in Ohio—but this may be one filled with adolescent memories as they discover crushes and new experiences, they are pulling away from their parents and learning who they are. Everyday is something new for them, and while I want to pull them back—to have them laugh at my dad jokes from the backseat, this is their time to create new safe spaces of joy that will carry them through life.

Secrets

April 3, 2021

                As I made my way through the crowd of people, squirming, dipping my shoulders and ducking my head I went in one way into the crowd that hung over and around me like vines in a jungle and soon I appeared at the other end, like a rabbit running through a tunnel. I rose from the mass under a light but not in the shine of the sun but a beer light. I nodded towards the bartender who slid a bottle of beer towards me, raised on finger and pushed a shot of Jim Beam in my direction. He held up two fingers, for two dollars and I put a five on the bar another showed my palm to let him know to keep it, turned around towards the stage and quickly downed the shot. Grabbed the beer and made my way towards the restroom. As I stood at the urinal and drained the beer in two gulps while I peed, the beer fell deep in me and I felt good. Sparkling.  Soon I went back towards the front of the crowd, doing the same bent dance through all the sweaty bodies and sidled next to my girlfriend who eyed me suspiciously, “you were gone a while” she yelled in my ear, “did you get another drink?” She handed me the half empty bottle of Black Label she had been holding. I was not supposed to be drinking more than what I had agreed on before we arrived, two or three beers tops. I promised. “No, I didn’t get another drink” I felt like rolling my eyes. “O.K.” she answered, but her eyes said she did not believe me. I thought to myself, “no, I had two drinks.” In my mind I was not really lying, I was just omitting.

                “Please call me when you get home, from the show” she was calling from Gainesville and I was in the small bedroom apartment I was renting with my friend Kent in Columbus. I had arrived back in Columbus after fourteen months in Gainesville, with  just over a year of sobriety, and the apartment that Kent lived in was on the corner of 5th Avenue and Hunter anarea that was quickly being gentrified but we were both in early sobriety—he was working at the residential treatment program he had completed the year before, I was back working at a record store—the apartment had not yet been upgraded to the rest of the neighborhood. It was dusty with musty carpets and a faucet that was always dripping. “I will, I’m coming right back to the apartment after the show.” The plan was to see the show, and head home. My routine was to get up early, hit the gym, then go to work, hit a 12-Step meeting at noon, back to work and then another 12-Step group and then home where I would read before bed. It was working for me, the temptation to drink was dissipating by degrees as was the years-long depression that hung around me like a stench. I had actually started attending a gay AA meeting that was just down the street from our apartment, because there were no women there, I would not be tempted to engage in the other secretive behavior I had been involved in besides sneaking drinks. “I’ll call you when I get home, it shouldn’t be late—maybe twelve or so.” She instructed me not to call if it was too late, “I have to teach in the morning, but if you get in before midnight go ahead and call.” We told each other our love for one another and hung up.

                The show ended fairly early, somewhere between eleven and twelve—people were milling about, the band was loading out-with the exception of the primary singer who was standing at the bar receiving congratulations and getting a beer. I had not been back in Columbus long, and friends I hadn’t seen in almost a year were coming up and chatting—at this point, I had realized that I was a bit uncomfortable and had not yet made the connection that one aspect of my drinking had to do with the underlying social anxiety I experienced for most of my life—this revelation took some years to discover. We laughed, told stories and a few offered to buy me drinks, one person brought me a beer that I politely declined and shared that I didn’t drink any longer-a brave step for me. “That’s a good one, here you go.” Smiling, “no, I really don’t drink anymore. I quit over a year ago.” The beer sat between us, he hesitated, “I guess I’ll have to drink both!” he backed away as if he walked in on someone using the rest room.  There was a woman who I was talking with, we had flirted over the years and as we laughed, she inched closer to me, our hands nearly touching as we stood in a small circle of friends. “What are you doing after this?” she grinned, her smile a little off, her words a slushy slur. She had perfect teeth. Suddenly it hit me, my intention to stay at that point had drifted past seeing the music, of enjoying what I had loved so much and slide into the part of me that yearned for female companionship. Realizing that I could have gone home with her, I stammered, “I need to go home. It’s so great to see you but I need to get up early.” “Are you sure?” her eyes beamed into me. “Yeah, I do need to leave. It’s late.” I said my goodbyes. Everybody except me was wasted. As I got ready for bed that night, opening a book that helped me with self-reflection and hopefully pour some wisdom into my brain I had the realization that I was more tempted by the companionship than by the alcohol.

                There is a vail that we carry, an inherited invisible garment that is constructed from generation to generation—some  by words and some  by actions that never appeared, only stuck in the shadows of familial relationships. I learned secrets early, some I did not fully know the meanings behind, when a parent closed their door and there was a stranger with them on the other side. A fist fight in the front yard between my father and my uncle, both men spilling the others blood in the snow while my father hustled my brother into his car in the middle of the Christmas party. “What happened dad?” we didn’t want to leave, the latin and disco music carrying over the heads and into our famished ears, this was an experience we looked forward to every year. “Your uncle Pablo is an asshole” my father’s voice was gruff and stabbed through the car which seemed colder than the freezing December chill outside. He held a handkerchief to his nose as the blood dripped around his mouth onto his lap. His glasses crooked on his face. “We want to stay” my brother was cross with him, “we have all our stuff in the bedroom.” “O.k., then stay but I’m not.” Hustling into the house, the party hadn’t let up. Everything was a shimmying normal. My father picked us up the next day, in a bustled hurry he grabbed our things and barked at us to get in the car.

                This past year my partner asked me if I thought my daughter read this blog, “I don’t think so.” She asked me why and I explained that I don’t think she interested in what her father has done, and besides she is fifteen—she is discovering her own interests. “If I could read about my parents when I was fifteen you better believe I would” she smiled at me. “Do you think your kids will read your writing, your poetry?” I asked. “Yes, at some point.” Recently I received copies of my first book, a large heavy box appeared on the front porch while I was in the middle of a meeting. Bruno opened it up and held a book up, “wow dad, it looks pretty cool.” He yelled upstairs, “Hey Saskia, dad’s book is here!” She came downstairs and opened one of the hardcover copies, “this looks neat dad” her hand pressing against the dust jacket. Dusk jacket. “Are you going to read it?” I went into the kitchen, pulling a can of Diet Coke from my decrepit fridge. “Yes, of course!” she had moved to the heat vent in the dining room, her body wrapped in a blanket, she was turning the pages. “I’m happy you dedicated it to us, my name is in a book!” “Of course, it is” I turned the record over, the needle from the turntable was hic-cupping in the run-out groove. “Bruno are you going to read my book?” He was headed outside, skateboard carrying him across the wooden floors. “Nope! I don’t read dad. Let me know where we are going tonight” and the door shut behind him. Later, after taking Bruno skating while I went to the gym we came back to the house. Saskia was still on the vent as I walked through to fetch some water. “Still reading?” I asked. She was staring straight ahead and it had looked like she had been crying. “Dad?” I set the water down, chose another record and put it on the record player. “Yeah?” my back turned to her. “This was a weird book to read.” I turned around; she had a slight smile. “Why is that?” “It’s really sad but also funny at times. Plus, it’s strange to read about your dad getting blowjobs” she laughed. “Well, there aren’t any real descriptions of blowjobs” I replied in a matter-of-fact voice, I didn’t want her to be frightened of sex or talking about it—I had enough sex shaming when I was a child that I did not want to pass this along to my kids, “but yes, there are some sad parts, Jenny lived a sad life—one of desperation but she was also funny as was Jerry. Plus, hopefully there is some redemption in there.” There was a pause from the vent, “I suppose, but I liked it. I don’t think I’ll tell my friends to read it.” There are a lot of secrets revealed in those pages, it is easier to write the secrets than to say them.

                 The dance of lies that we learn takes us through truth and out the other end, sometimes like a bullet and other times like a soft cloth, but it’s always a dance that gets more complicated with more steps every passing year. I am a magician at times holding out one truth that acts as an inverse mirror, so strong that I believe it myself—but on the other side the truth dims under the layers of avoidance I learned to bury and fold into myself. There is a saying in Buddhism that that present is a shadow of the past, the future is a shadow of the present, the cause and effect of my drinking taught me subtle ways to avoid the truth although I tried to live my life honestly—to follow up on my word, the complexities of learning to live honestly was difficult even if on to the outside world I was honest. I was raised to tell the truth, it was hammered into us as well as to be mindful of those who suffer, stick up for the little guy, be true to your convictions—give of yourself. These stuck with me and my siblings, as we grew up these are things we did, challenged bullies, befriended the kids who were picked up, don’t follow the pack—live truthfully in your heart. I’ve challenged authority most of my life, and in high school it got me tossed out of class (for instance, when I told the biology teacher in the middle of class that using the n-word was offensive) or slammed against lockers by bullying teachers. I didn’t give a shit as I knew I was right, my daughter is the same way although she is wiser than me, she reads feminist literature, communist theory, Angela Davis and others. I gleaned my philosophy from Woody Guthrie, Kurt Vonnegut, the Clash and Huck Finn. When I was in my mid-forties, my marriage was disintegrating like a cardboard box left out in the rain. We were both unhappy but loved each other in such a mammoth way—it did not seem possible that two people with so much love could live in such emotional silence. I had been sober for nearly fifteen years and finally, out of dire depression went back to counseling. The edge of the bed is where I would sleep, my wife slept on the other edge and some nights I would creep downstairs and log into my computer searching for some connection or I would slip into Bruno’s bed and listen to his soft breaths next to me and stare at the ceiling. “Why do you leave our bed in the middle of the night?” Merijn would ask me in the morning, her eyes pleading and her voice taunt with anger and tension. “I don’t know, you are always mad at me” and while I would flip it back on her, a dangerous emotional game of ping-pong I truly did not know was transpiring between us.

                After talking with the psychologist who was an expert in the subtitles of what I was going through he explained to me that I was not uncommon, that he had many people, mostly men who had been sober for about as long as I had whose lives had slowly unhinged emotionally. My subconscious was operating on a different level than the rest of my brain—I was being powered by a screaming voice that was telling me things that simply were not true. Mostly that I did not matter.

                I imagine we are born with a massive empty space, one that is gleaming with shine, a polished universe devoid of anything but truth. The space is slowly filled, redesigned like a manic interior decorator constructing staircases to rooms with only one entrance, one room here then another until the rooms are all wedged together like slums on the side of a mountain. On top of the rooms, packed together as if they were shove-stacked into grandma’s junk room there is still the truth gasping for air as if it were the vacationers in the Poseidon Adventure, bobbing their heads above the rising water while the capsized luxury liner tries to drink in the ocean. But the truth slides between the rooms, like air and works it magic by slowly dismantling each room, acting like wind against sandstone. When the rooms are finally leveled, they leave a scar almost a ghost limb within our psyche—still there but not at all.

                In addressing my alcohol problem all those years ago, there were moments when clarity struck me dumb although dumb is not the correct word here, they actually struck me lucid. There were many experiences that happened, small discoveries—innocent like a child’s eyes ingesting a flower, a turtle poking her head out of her shell—small but transformative. One afternoon I was sitting in my office when we were living in Gainesville, my ex-wife was teaching at the university and I was alone amongst my records, the vintage clothing I was selling on ebay waiting for the dial-up internet to slowly load the photos of ancient Brady-Bunch shirts to sell. I was in the midst of working on my Third Step of AA, I had to complete it for my treatment program and for my AA sponsor. This was an odd time for me in terms of my spiritual life, I had come to the realization that my theistic beliefs no longer worked for me—if they ever had-the discovery of Buddhist philosophy smacked me like cold water from a shower—I was awoken to something new. “Made a decision to turn our will and lives over to the care of God as we understood him” is the third step but I didn’t believe in God, it was a dilemma, but it wasn’t really at all. My rooms were being slowly dismantled and tiny explosions were popping up in my brain, tearing apart the walls of those secret rooms—on that humid Gainesville morning, as sweat clutched on the back of my calves, my thighs sticking to the vinyl office chair I came to the realization that most of my actions, mostly non-actions in terms of my non-drinking changed me in subtle ways—time and space changed my mood if I allowed it. Running every morning helped a great deal, putting on my headphones, sliding a mix tape into my bulky Walkman I would be transformed by one step after another, one drum beat after another while I ran around Gainesville, exercising my secrets with the help of Superchunk, Springsteen and the Wedding Present blasting into my skull.

                I kept my secrets in a safe space, underneath walls constructed of guilt, bewilderment, a bit of shame tossed in along with a belief that everything was alright. Now. For years, the community that I discovered was the safety net I felt pulled onto, a joyous exercise of living that eased the rest of the hardships of life behind. An insular world was the one I was a part of, but it was outside of the world that that I was supposed to be a part of—one where personal responsibility—personal choice was dictated by how loud you played your music at night and if you could make it to your slummy job by 10 am. Nothing more. Nothlng less. Guitars were our bible, and amplifiers were the locomotive engines that powered us for far into the night that our ears and bodies still vibrated the next morning until the third cup of coffee pushed the last note out of our bodies the next afternoon. So, when it was time to get sober—to get real with what my ingesting alcohol had done for me for the past fourteen years it was frightening, a lot of rooms were constructed out of liquid and everything that came along with it, the broken relationships, the sex that left me wanting more but without the intimacy of a partnership—life had become, finally harder than what I thought it could be.

                Around one pm every afternoon in Gainesville, I would get home from the noon AA meeting I attended, and I would do my push-ups, slide into my running shoes, put the headphones on my head—checking to make sure that the batteries were working and start my run. It didn’t matter how hot it was, in fact the hotter it was the better it was as the anxiety that ran up and down my body was visible, eyes furrowed, I was restless but my daily seven-mile run did wonders. I would get back exhausted. At times when I was running the undisclosed parts of my marriage would burble up, twin spikes of betrayal would leave me shouting during these runs although the music was so loud, I could not hear myself. I would come back exhausted. Spent but always. Always. Always feeling better. Changed. There are times now when I look for a change in how I feel, there is never a longing for alcohol but there is a wanting to change the way I feel, to connect the feeling of disconnect to something the feels better, and the simple curiosity I felt on finding something new—besides alcohol, in those searing Florida days in those days that now stretch behind me like bridal train forgotten in the chapel,  and I forget what that period was like. It is simple to view the past as something that was something it wasn’t, remember the good times is a phrase that is uttered but my bones and cartilage only seem to recall the mutterings of anxiety, of the stark fear of aloneness.

                My father would pack us into his scarlet-colored Malibu, and we would drive into the hills of Southeastern, Ohio. The state route and back roads, zigzagging over the lumpy miniature mountains and fledgling woods that yearned to be forests but fell short because, well, this is Ohio where even the woods aren’t forests and the cities are still small towns. In the trunk were paints, watercolors, thick paper, jugs of water, empty jars, and if we were lucky a few bottles of warm pop. The two-lane roads would blister in the summer heat, newly laid asphalt would cover the potholes and short stretches of the road, at times it looked like chunks of black rocky caramel corn and would stick to the bottom of my father’s $500 car. “Shit” he would whisper to himself as he drove through a patch, the asphalt clicking under the tires only to get stuck on the bottom of the car like industrial freckles made by God. It was an escape for him, and for my brother and I. Although the twisty roads always made me car sick as my stomach dropped and jumped until he found a place to park and we would park at the side of the road on into a small dirt road so we could paint a barn, or field. He would turn the car off and pull everything out along with a few folding chairs. In my mind, this memory that has been boxing out so many other experiences that crowd the sky of my brain this experience happened a lot. The drives that we made to go painting but when I do the memory math, it didn’t happen very often. I only lived with my father from the 4th grade to 6th grade, two years and while I visited him every summer before fourth grade, I seldom spent time with him after moving out. And certainly, never painted with him after the 6th grade. But although these excursions only happened 5 or 10 times, they were joyous for me—the made a mark, an impression just like my comic books and my favorite records. Remember the good times. But the other side of this lies the violence of my father, not just the physical violence but his words—which could be hateful and cruel towards my siblings, my mother, myself and to so many others whom he felt threatened by. It was there, in those words he spit and yelled that I began to construct the rooms made for my secrets, that I had no idea that they even existed. There were trapdoors being created that I didn’t even know would be there until I fell through them nearly thirty years later. “I’m not falling” I would tell myself and the chill of ancient scars tugged at my ankles, trying to yank me to the bottom of the river. Kicking up, I leave the mottled green and brown slimy bottom, upwards towards the sunlight—bursting through the thin line of water into the air. Open.

                There are usually three parts to my secrets, me, the other and then the secret formed between us—an invisible wall that now pushes out in its flexible partitions in my brain—it breaths as if it had just run a race, hands on hips, cheeks blowing in and out—this secret reminds me that there were times when, I felt not only frightened but excited. When there were two of us birthing this yet unknown experience, we may have laughed into each other mouths. I climbed on top of you and you climbed onto me, leaving us gasping. A giggling, furtive act and as we laid staring at the ceiling afterwards you held my hand, finalizing the walls of that concealed room we had just created. “I feel evil.” I did not know if that was spoken in giddiness or remorse. Probably both.

My marriage had fallen apart, a slow sinking that took years, the foundation built upon quicksand, so much of my life felt like quicksand but at the beginning we were sure we were different. She was different, European, two parents still married, finishing her Masters degrees, more beautiful than any person I had ever seen—in real life or a movie, she spoke gently to me her voice a soft touch on my busy mind. A quieting gesture every time she spoke to me. And although the years before our marriage were filled with hidden lies I got sober within a year of our civil agreement—a commitment to transparency. But over time, after the children, after my own graduate degree, our voices turned sharp towards one another, we grew wary, I slept on the far side of the bed. I looked for other connections to feel alive—no longer the bottle but searching again—I was suffocating under a soft pillow of searching that had begun from the moment I fell into the world. Anyway, afterwards, both time and distance uncovered much of the rooms in my head, in my tiny two-bedroom apartment that I stuff with cut flowers whenever they are on sale (because I can), with stacks of records next to the blue turntable that spins from love, a gift, I unpack the rooms I created. Opening the light.

                Last night I walked with my partner, her small hands folded into mine, her blue eyes stealing small peeks at me as the April wind blew into us –we talked about our children. My daughter is fifteen, straight A’s, funny, creative—she loves to bake for her friends, she has good friends who also get straight A’s, they walk together and talk politics—feminist theory, a good kid. “Dad, if you want to sleep at Maggie’s this week when Bruno is at grandma’s you can” she volunteered the other day. I bring this up to Maggie who smiles, “well I know what I did when I was fifteen when my parents went out of town.” Me too, in fact my daughter is aware of it through my writing, “do you think she would do the things we would.” Concerned that my fifteen-year-old might be constructing her own scrumptious secrets while her father is across town, “you think she would do what we did?” Am I this naïve? “I’ll talk to her mother about being careful” I say, satisfied with my own answer. We cross the busy street and I pull her hand close to me, keeping out the worry of things I will not longer be able to control as if I could at all. Saskia asks me often about my friends, many who are no longer of this world, and mostly what I remember is the laughter, how funny they were, and sweet—everyone I remember was sweet. A hearty chuckle as Jerry Wick once sang. His was more of a hearty cackle that made the rest of the room feel both welcome and small. An incredible talent in and of itself. Jenny left a void but in that empty space she is still there, a ghost of broken dreams and shattered laughter. Edo with his warm smile, his soft eyes searching outwards. My grandmother, her eccentric beliefs and mischievous laughter. They all felt the world more than anybody should, they were the small hairs on the roots of trees searching for nutrients. “We laughed a lot” I tell Saskia, this is my explanation. I tell her that she needs to laugh a lot during life. It breaks down the things we unknowingly create. As we turn the corner into the neighborhood, my partner leans close to me—whispers a joke that only we will get as we riff on something absurd down the sidewalk for several blocks these secrets are ours and they are filled with our truth.

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Jerry Wick-20 years later

January 10, 2021

Twenty years ago today I walked into Used Kids Records and Ron House told me that Jerry Wick had been killed by a hit and run driver earlier that morning while riding his bicycle home after a night hanging around the places that felt like family to him: Used Kids, Larry’s Bar, Bernie’s and even BW-3 where the confines of warmth, music, alcohol and friendly faces made the world outside a bit safer, softer and easier—it’s ironic that the world outside, literally killed him as he rode home with a pizza on his bike handles.  Jerry was, for a period in the nineties my best friend and was family to me and for many of those whom I regarded family during that period of my life, the other staff members at Used Kids, the members of the New Bomb Turks and a few others from our insular scene—we were family and Jerry was the prodigal son who would at one moment make a comment to have us all erupt with laughter and the next somehow insult all of us with a single utterance.

                When I think of Jerry I think of his toothy grin and his laughter that would cause his shoulders to chug up and down as if they were the wheels on a locomotive, and his energy was like a train, even down to spitting black smoke into the air. We were drawn to each other by our love of music, by the one thing that never turned on us as we staggered out of broken and at times abusive childhoods into our early twenties, knees wobbly from our adolescence years but fortified by vinyl records, alcohol, and a charm we didn’t even realize we had. We were broken but confident that no matter what, we knew what we didn’t want and that was enough. We also had a built in soundtrack which was the music we created and took part in, our lives were a mix-tape to ourselves with our evenings filled with bands we would tape and plaster ourselves to in the form of the flyers we hung around High Street to have people join in our party, our lives: Guided by Voices, Sub-Pop bands, K records, Ass Ponys, Karl Hendricks, Superchunk, the bands were endless. Anyway, this was our life and it was safe, it felt safe even though we walked on the invisible line of life precariously, we had friends die of overdoses, car accidents and by suicide which haunted us both.

                Jerry pulled me from the rubble of a failed suicide attempt, something that was an exercise in both courage and fear—mostly fear but that has been something that I have had to accept in my life, like buying an old house with a cracked foundation. That’s me, I have learned to tend to it. Jerry nursed me back to health, mostly with laughter some music and even ambition, it was his idea to make Anyway records a viable thing and although it was something that drove a wedge between us after a few years it provided hope and even the simple thing of having a plan for anything even if it is as minor of putting out a seven inch record by a punk rock band that played the smelly cramped stages of Stache’s and Bernie’s. It was something. And something we clutched onto. My partner is a poet, she is nine years younger than me and we have realized that we had been at Larry’s at the same time, her stepping into her twenties, and me stumbling into my thirties. Jerry and I would dread going to Larry’s on Monday nights-poetry nights and we would grumble to each other as we headed over to BW-3 or Bernie’s until 10 when the poetry would end. We were too scared of the honesty I suppose while Jerry was comfortable hiding his words behind his guitar the bravery of reading in front of people was something we could not do. In the early 90’s Gilmore Tamney asked me to read some of my writing at Monkey’s Retreat, my hands shook so violently, and I clutched the beer I brought to the reading—I can still remember it. I did not read again for years and the last time I did, with my children in the crowd of an audience of poets and writers, I wept as I read with only a glass of water for assistance. Braver now than I was then.

                Jerry and I soon exhausted each other after a few years, he grew annoyed (and perhaps jealous) of my wanting to have a more traditional relationship—I was involved with my (now ex) wife and was trying to grow up—to limit my drinking which I was failing at. When he died in 2001, we were hanging out more, his band-Gaunt, had mostly broken up but he was working on his solo music and as a chef. He had newer dreams he was starting to form, he had bought a house, and although the dreams we had bought into in our twenties did not come out the other end of the decade as we had hoped, there was some semblance that something else could be possible. I would not call it hope at this point, perhaps it was more a rickety awareness that things could be ok even if they were different. We were now in our thirties, old in our punk rock world view but quite young from my vantage point of a fifty-two-year-old.

His final day was spent doing what he loved, he hung out at Used Kids most of the afternoon, drinking and listening to records with me and Mike Rep, we had a beer at Larry’s and I walked home to my more domesticated life and he was later seen at Bernie’s and Larry’s before picking up a pizza and taking the last ride home.

                His death was a turning point for me, it shook me deeply then as it does now—Jerry dying made me look more honestly at my own life, my own struggles and what I needed to do. In 2001 and more importantly 2002, I did not know what I wanted but I was certain what I didn’t want and that was to continue drinking and hurting not only those whom I loved the most but also myself. I was tired of hurting. Jerry was a critical man, one who had opinions about things he did know anything about but of things that hurt him—love, women, family, institutions—of course most of us have these same opinions about the very things Jerry did, things we know extraordinarily little about at that young age. Although pain and love seemed to brighter than, sharper and stinging, I realize now—twenty years later that they arrive in different packages and colors, some slide in softly, a hand clutching mine, the roll of my lover’s feet against my toes on the couch, a nuzzle, my son’s soft curly hair bobbing up and down as he laughs and my daughter asking me if she can make me food. I used to think of beginnings and endings which I no longer believe in, things just change, morphing into something else—shape shifting over time like shadows across the floorboards, almost unnoticed-I do not judge the shadows and I am trying not to judge anything anymore—things just move into something else. Jerry died and his life ended, I do not know about what came next for him, and there isn’t a day that doesn’t go by where he does not cross my mind—my own big life changes started with Jerry dying. Although Jerry has not been physically with me as I have gone through my life since that day, a long marriage and divorce, two children, falling in love again, three college degrees, writing, music, lots of pizza…sobriety, his memory has been with me every step of the way. A constant encouragement.

December 2020

December 24, 2020

“Dad, c’mere…. hurry.” My son, Bruno, was pointing at a tree hanging from a thin rope, surrounded by hundreds of other cut trees all dangling from the same type of cheap rope, like we had walked into a butcher shop just for trees. Their green carcasses swaying in the breeze. “Look at this one” he was all smiles, pointing at a thin sparse tree, one side devoid of branches, the top slightly dented and the base of the trunk crooked.

“Dude, I don’t know…it’s kinda um, special needs.”

“Exactly, we need a Charlie Brown tree and this one is the Charlie Browniest” he walked around the tree pointing out all its broken charms.

 “Bruno, can we get on that will hold at least a few ornaments?” his fifteen-year-old, sister Saskia sighed, clearly annoyed.

 “Sas, look—it’s perfect. Dad needs this tree in his house.”

 Laughing she concurred, “Yeah dad, Bruno’s right you need this tree—it’s a must for your apartment.”

 I fetched one of the Mexican workers at Oakland Nursery who walked over smiling, wearing a floppy Santa hat whose fluffy white top fell over his brown and cracked forehead, “Merry Christmas sir, let me help you.” I showed him the tree and his smile froze, “ah, hah.” he paused, “so you want this tree? This little guy?” His smile tilted towards nervousness, ‘this one?” he repeated himself.

“Yeah, this one.” I looked at Bruno, who looked at the man, who looked at me and I nodded.

Reaching up to cut the rope, he asked again, “you sure, we have a lot of other ones” scanning a hand towards the legion of trees swaying around us,

 “Yeah, they want this one” I answered, with eyebrows raised.

 Whistling he took out a small pocketknife and cut it down, pulled a small yellow tag from the tree’s hindquarters and directed us to pull our car around to pick it up. “Sir I will have it ready for you, Merry Christmas” he spoke with a Mexican accent,

 “Merry Christmas to you as well.”

                With the small tree strapped to the top of my Volkswagen sedan, one of my first steps into adulthood that I bought last year at the age of fifty-one we headed for home with a pit-stop at the grocery store for eggnog.

“Dad, it’s gross” Bruno offered.

“Get the good stuff” Saskia chimed in, meaning buy the $6 kind and not the store-brand that sells for $3 and is, indeed gross.

“O.K.,” I slipped on my mask and headed in, buying a cheap bouquet of starting-to-wilt flowers as I headed for the dairy department. This was our second Christmas in my small two-bedroom apartment since I moved out, the divorce sandwiched in-between then and now. At home, we carried the tree in, Bruno secured it in the hard green-plastic stand while Saskia searched for the two small boxes of Christmas ornaments, I kept while I poured us the eggnog and made made homemade whip-cream for the hot chocolate. We settled into decorating the tree, which because of its courageously pathetic stature took all of ten minutes. “Well, what do you guys think” I asked as I stared as it leaned towards the bookcase, a decoration broke free from one of the limp branches and crashed to the floor. “I love it” Saskia said triumphantly, Bruno added, “it’s cool, it’s for sure a Charlie Brown tree.” He grabbed his skateboard and headed outside. I sat on one of the small couches I have, looked at the twinkling lights, Christmas music playing around us and asked Saskia if she would sit with me, “yeah dad, but then I have homework to do.”

                That night they were both upstairs, I lite candles, put on some choral Christmas music and read while the lights winked at me with its colorful lights. They are older now, long past the days of believing in Santa or Sinterklaas which has peeled some of the magic of Christmas away but not all of it. Their mother is Dutch, hence the many years of believing in Sinterklass and we would try to incorporate both the traditions into our lives but their mother, a very practical woman did not really go all in for the Santa aspect, so Christmas turned into something we travelled to my mother’s for and to make a nice dinner. Divorce does not ruin Christmas it just morphs into something else.

                I was in graduate school, attending Case Western Reserve in Cleveland one weekend a month for two years. Every year we had driven out to rural Licking County, Ohio to cut down our Christmas tree and it seemed to snow every weekend we chose to do it. Afterwards we would retreat to the small barn the on the farm and have hot cocoa while they prepared our tree for the hour ride home. Scanning the walls, we would see our pictures from years past hung up as the owners took snapshots of various families when they engaged in their yearly ritual. We could trace five years of tree cutting and measure the growth of the children, even though Bruno was still quite young while I was going to graduate school. The weekend before I had to go, two weeks prior to Christmas we had travelled to the far end of the farm, sitting on hay bales on the back of a flat bed tractor as the wind whipped into our faces as we rocked back and forth over the muddy fields. We walked to the top of a hill and the kids chased each other around the trees, until finally after some insistence we picked one out and I grabbed one of the small bowsaws we were given and cut the tree down, yanking it up over my shoulder we marched to the wooden hut where a barrel fire burned to keep us warm while we waited for the tractor to take us back to the barn. That night we decorated the tree and tucked the kids in, and the week went forward. The following Thursday evening we had a row, she resented me having to go to Cleveland and leaving her with the children for the weekend— “I only have two semesters left and I’m done.” I had guilt when I left, the children were young—Bruno just three that year and Saskia was six and this began the seeds of a divorce that would happen by the end of the decade.

                Sitting in class on Friday morning I felt my neck itch, and by midafternoon it became unbearable, so I went into the rest room and examined my neck in the bathroom mirror. It was red and I had a red rash the ran up over my ear and stretched over my neck. I had poison ivy. In December. I wondered how I could have gotten it and I realized that I must have gotten it from the Christmas tree. I called home that night to check in and told my family, who laughed at my Holiday misfortune. Saskia remarked it was a Charlie Brown thing that would happen. Of course.  

“Dad, remember that time you got poison ivy from the Christmas tree” Bruno remarks as he glides by me on his skateboard, “try not to skate in the house, yes I remember—I can be pretty dumb sometimes.” Bruno skates by me the opposite way, just missing my toes, “I’ll say” as he rolls to a stop against a shelf of records and books. “Dude, please don’t skate in the house.” He walks by me this time, “I’m not, see I stopped” as he enters the kitchen and pours himself a bowl of cereal. “

“Saskia, can you do me a favor and wrap the Christmas presents I bought yesterday?” I stare at my email.

She unplugs her headphones, “you want me to wrap the presents?”

“Yes, please…”

 She then finishes my sentence, “because you suck at it?”

 “Exactly.”

She adds, “you mean the ones you bought us yesterday that you don’t want us to know what they are?”

“Yes, exactly. Just don’t show Bruno his and act surprised when you open yours.”

“O.K., will you buy me dinner?” she starts looking for masking tape.

“ummm, yeah.” I am easily defeated.

                I grew up poor, splitting time between my mother’s and father’s house made summers and holidays busy. At certain period in my childhood, my father lived in Athens, Ohio while we lived on Long Island and Virginia, and much later in rural Ohio. We would travel to Ohio for Christmas, hitting both sets off grandparents as well as my father, an awkward man who was even more of an awkward father. He was prone to laughing to himself and did not seem extremely interested in getting to know his children, it was as if he had been given a book about children but declined to even open it. He tried though, one year he gave my almost teenager brother and myself gifts that were more appropriate for seven and eight years old. ‘Jesus Dad, you could have at least asked what we wanted” my brother scolded him, in that moment I felt for my father who had done some last-minute shopping so we would have something under our tree. In hindsight, that was giving him too much credit, he could have easily asked us what we wanted weeks before. My own parenting skills are, at times bereft of discipline—although the children know their mother and I love them very much, and they are sweet, caring, and funny. But I try hard to provide for them that I did not receive from my own father, that is a childhood filled with sweetness and laughter, and if they want a new pair of shoes, a new skateboard, a book or to eat out, I usually do this for them. I do not wait for Christmas or birthdays, which may decrease the magic of Christmas but in the end, I would rather have Bruno be able to skate for hours on a board he can practice on then wait three months for a new board after he was whittled down his last board. I am learning this thing as I go along. A tree grows crooked because that is what it knows. I get up off the couch, go to the other room and flip the record over, on the table are two glasses with the remnants of eggnog and Bruno’s half-finished hot chocolate. Saskia brings down a handful of presents, “here dad, when my big present comes in can I have it?” Smiling I look at her, “you don’t know what it is, do you?” “I think I do, you told me to pick two things and you would buy me one. Can I have it?” “No honey, you can on Christmas. It’s a tradition.” I am making up traditions as I go along.

                Saskia is swinging towards adulthood, soon her Christmases will be filled with trying to duck out and be with her friends, and perhaps, if COVID did strike us to our knees this year she would now be looking at the clock waiting for her getaway, but I think she has not inherited some of my escapism.

                Christmas of 1986 was magical, I stumbled into my first love who came a-caroling to my front door as fat snowflakes floated around Jenny Mae and our classmates. A few days later we went on our first date which consisted of drinking a six pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon in my bedroom and listening to the Car first record on repeat. That Christmas break my brother was home on leave from the Army, he had spent the past few months in Germany and had stepped into adulthood wearing a Kangol hat, pleated stone-washed blue jeans and carrying cassettes of classic country music he discovered in the mountains of Bavaria. I was a senior and biding my time until the end of the school year so I could make my escape into the world outside of Clark County, Ohio—fueled by records, books and an imagination that was larger than the cornfields that surrounded our house. The parsonage where we lived in had turned into a launching pad for a two-week party over the holidays, our stepfather, a Methodist minister was not there much as we drank case after case of beer upstairs while listening to Z’s tapes, Christmas music and my R.E.M. and Lou Reed records. My first grimy Christmas.

                This was a year where Christmas had turned into a long holiday party, where we straddle adulthood, adolescence and firmly at an age where we had little to any responsibilities. I would carry on this philosophy for as long as could, well into my early thirties. During the break we got a room at the Holiday Inn in Springfield, Ohio and crammed as many 17- and 18-year old’s into the small room. There was a pool that we invaded as well as the bar, where a lounge singer, with full-on Magnum PI mustache and combover grew frustrated with the constant interruptions we flung his way. “C’mon guys, please be quiet” he begged as he launched into another tired Holiday favorite, “I’ll have a blooooo-Christmas, without youuuuuuuu” he bellowed as if he were Elvis, but he was not, and we let him have it until we were kicked out of the bar. Retreating to the hotel room, we bribed the two security guards to try arrest one of our old classmates, pinning the abhorrent behavior we were engaged in on him. As they had him against the wall, checking for weapons we all broke and howled with laughter. Promptly thrown out of the hotel, the security guards somehow ended up back at the parsonage, having quit their jobs that night to follow us home. As four a.m. rolled around, we sang Christmas carols as one of the lay passed out on the stairs wearing a red Santa hat. The mystery of childhood Christmas melted away that year in a pool of Natural Light and marijuana smoke.

                I hold my children close, as we navigate lives that have left them with two different homes and parents who still are parenting partners but no longer are lovers. They tend to help me more than I think I help them, lifting my spirits and with quit wits our house is closer to comedy than any sort of traditional household. My goal it to bring them into adulthood with fearlessness and courage, to be able to roll with setbacks with humor, cleverness, and compassion. So far, so good. Nearly a year ago, I fell in-love again—she is lovely, funnier than me and as tender as the inside of love, vulnerable and soft. Her youngest still believes in Santa, and he has Bruno on one of our walks if Bruno still believed in Santa, I held my breath as the street-smart Bruno told me this. “And what did you answer, buddy?” I asked, tensing up. “I told Rhett of course I did, and he said, ‘thank God’”, Saskia asks Rhett if he is excited for Christmas and he grins, “Of course! Who isn’t!?” I hope that Saskia’s forays into late adolescent Christmas can wait until she is farther along into her twenties.

Hands.

November 26, 2020

I have spent a great deal of my life being angry, an unsettled anger and perhaps, “angry” is too strong of a word—perhaps a feeling of displacement is more appropriate. Which means I have never really felt settled, which is in fact, a truth about me. When I was younger, during my teenage years and twenties my brother would remark to me “why are you such an angry young man” (he was prone to cliches at that point of his life) and Jenny Mae would accuse me of being an angry young man as well but this usually was spoken when she was disappointed in me—which was often. My response was usually defensive or incredulous, as the horror of the world was felt distinctly in my very being—the selfishness of Reagan, Bush(es) and capitalism. At times, these feelings would be dismissed as me being sensitive but there was another dimension to my anger and this was one of a propensity to violence which was just a half beer away in some situations. My trigger was always clicking although I kept it in check most of the times, but my past is filled with balls of fists that have struck my face, the back of my head as well as being stomped on a few times, and it is also pocketed with my own fists connecting with other people’s faces, heads, walls, dashboards, tree trunks, floors….the list of things my hands have been bruised on is almost as long as my life. When my ex-wife told me she was pregnant we cried together, it was something she was hopeful for and for myself it was something that petrified me—we were both crying for different reasons—hers was for love and mine was for fear, that the violence of my childhood would be doomed to this soon to be child and although I had become a practicing Buddhist and had been sober for nearly four years, I did not know if I had rid myself of anger.

                I drank for a feeling of intimacy, I am convinced that this was the main reason, alcohol helped with my feelings of unease of the “displacement” I felt, it centered me and in it’s charms I found love and intimacy. Or so I thought, I found smiles, acceptance, laughter and sex and what was so very important to me, that I found women who said they loved me as we laughed and fucked across bedrooms and bars, in the end I felt doubtful, unsettled by any words of affection. I would retreat to music, to the bottle and eventually towards other women and finally into total isolation.  A quest for intimate rejection.

                Jenny was loud, she crowded out the rest of the room with her manic energy, transforming calm into combustion until she would fold into herself and grow quiet. She would call these moments, “The Stare” when her face would grow blank, her eyes looking forward but vacant—she would be lost in something that she could not describe. Mostly, these were brief, maybe only seconds long but at other times they would last for up to half an hour, years later as she lay in a hospital bed experiencing visual hallucinations she turned her head and confessed she had been experiencing them for years, “since I went off to college, I believed there were men in the walls out to get me. I would joke about it but I was scared to death.” The nurses and doctors felt that her hallucinations had to do with her alcohol and drug use but it wasn’t until she prescribed a psychotropic medication did she experience a decrease in the hallucinations, by this time she had been slowly choked out by her alcoholism, her last breath just a few years away. I felt safe in her instability, she would prop me up (“you are the smartest person I know”) and then tear me down, (“you have no friends, only me and I hate you.”) This was the relationship we had, up until her death but I had quit believing her insults and judgements years before, like a tree letting go of its leaves I had moved on into another season.

                Biologically women tend to have more sensitive hands and wrists, there are several reasons for this, they tend to have a type of cell (Merkel) that are more packed closely together that creates a more nuanced sense of touch, there are also biological reasons dating back to when we were hunter-gatherers and even earlier when we were primates, when females held onto the young so they wouldn’t get eaten, drown, fall off a cliff or some other wilderness mishap. This is a key component of intimacy, one that I did not learn until many years later where emotional touch was difficult, as if I were built from magnets and when I was drawn to somebody I would suddenly turn away as I got closer—instead of clamping on I kept a hovering distance, an invisible field. Darting through my twenties and for much of my adult life I fell into patterns of escape: drinking, music, sex, internet, art—all taken too far and  making me feel bereft, and here it comes again: displaced. If someone grows up not feeling settled it is only normal that when it happens it may not be recognized for what it is or it is treated with skepticism. For myself, intimacy was equitable to sex and to getting approval. There was nothing deeper, because deeper can drown a person, annihilation.

                On my daily walk, through the small thatch of woods at the end of my street, just off a bike path, I enter through a small doorway made of leaves and small branches that have learned to grow sideways to let in those who need to step out of one world into another. The dog is let off her leash, and she bounds over small branches, darts into one side of a bush only to appear forty feet later out of another bush, like some kinds of natural subway system—she is covered in joy and everything in her wake is filled a hint of freedom, that is, until she is put back on her leash. At this point she gets frustrated with the red rope that has “End Puppy Mills” written up its spine, grasps it in her jaws and shakes it in anger until she gives up and starts the walk of sniffs and ghost pees towards home. The leash provides both the key to and from freedom. On these walks, that are as familiar as the smell of my morning coffee, the steps I take are the same as the day before, the same leaves crunching under my feet. The wood is large enough for me to lose my thoughts in but small enough for me to exit in a matter of minutes, and I suppose a real naturalist would scoff at my referring to this clump of trees and bushes as woods but I would say anything larger than ten trees and needs a path are woods in my book. Under the canopy of the arching branches that fold up around me, like spider web hands made of wood they cover the sky in the spring and summer, and in the fall they hover like swaying dark shadows until they shed themselves naked for winter, as barren as I tend to feel during that season. We have an understanding those trees and I. When I was a child my father would take us for hikes in the Hocking Hills, an area in Southeastern Ohio that is filled with caves and trails nestled in the foothills of Appalachia. It is all we have in Ohio; our version of mountains is but the beginning steps to the mountains of West Virginia that lay just fifty miles away on the other side of the Ohio River. But these are our hills, our over-reaching foothills, they dreamed of being giants but instead are like us, average but also remarkable in our ordinary essence. We would walk the trails of Old Man’s Cave, Cedar Falls and Conkle’s Hollow whose very name inspires the imagination. I would, and still do feel somewhat awkward on these walks, in the same manner that I would when I was trying, so hard at times, to be a Catholic.  A part that was searching in what I thought was all the right places, in the words of Christ, in the smelling of the incense and the rituals that still harken me back to some semblance of peace but mostly I was just a waiting for an epiphany that, alas, never arrived. I was left wondering why I didn’t “get it.” I still feel this way about much of my interaction with nature, there is satisfaction, but I enjoy my walks more when I have my headphones on and I’m listening to music. Every evening I fasten the leash to Pearl, my small Jack Russell mix whose energy is astounding and tiresome to watch, she is untethered to her passion for running which causes eruptions of joy as she literally bounces and hops through the woods and the surrounding field, every walk for her is a new adventure. I can only wish I had this simplicity. We walk with only the sky, the wind, and the stars around us. For the most part, the park is empty save for some of the homeless that may find some suitable places to camp under the hutches constructed by the close growing trees. It is during this time, alone with the dog, feeling the wind swift in my face and needling my mostly naked legs (I usually wear shorts at all times, even in the winter), that I feel something akin to feeling aligned with the unknown. There are several ways of feeling small, when dwarfed by depression sometimes it is a relief to have the outside, the sky and the silent existence of the trees to transform that smallness into something greater, larger—to dream and contemplate.

                On the other side of the river where the woods and bike path have grown side by side, there is a small graveyard that appears almost as old as Columbus. Sometimes we walk among this field of headstones, where somebody dug deep into the granite of these markers, carving in the names of people who someone loved enough to tie their memories to rock. Many have been washed away by the seasons the memories of their loved ones have long been extinguished but we look at the names, the dates of birth and death. Bruno will skate through the winding little asphalt roads that resemble driveways more than the streets of graves. I only walk here with others.

                Saskia was around two when my grandmother died, and I would sometimes take her with me when I would visit the old woman in the nursing home where she spent the last few years of her life. The room was sterile, but she tried to add as much of her overstuffed house as she could without replicating the hoarding clutter, she lived in. Against the large flat-screen television that sat on the small dresser in her room that resembled more of an affordable hotel room, sat a row of stuffed animals, above them on the wall paintings of flowers my grandfather had painted for her over the years and black and white photos of her parents, frozen in place from a world that will always be colorless and proper. Where men wore fedoras, walker, and derby hats. Women wore dresses with belted waists, wide pants and the day dresses my grandmother would wear for the rest of her life. Saskia would hold me tight, apprehensive about my heavyset grandmother whose deep Hungarian accent no-doubt frightened her and stare at her shriveling body in the bed. She was a large woman but the longer she was confined to her bed the more it gnawed at her, made she small—not only did it eat away at her life but it also shrunk her entire being. She would reach out to Saskia, whom she thought was a boy and coo, “He is so beautiful, let me touch his hands.” Her skin had turned to parchment and at times it would tear just as easily, the back of her hands were dotted with bruises and small band-aids where age would give in to the normal use of her limbs. When she reached for a fork, the skin would gently tug apart, and she would softly bleed. Saskia’s hands were new, fresh and full of the pinkish peach color that toddlers have, round and fat like dough she would allow my grandmother to hold her tiny balls of fingers until she grew to frightened and fold herself back into my arms. The touch was the gift. And when my grandmother died, I held those paper-thin hands, as she left her body. They grew cold quickly, within a matter of minutes, my Uncle Pablo held her and wept until her hands grew cold and left in a rush while I waited for the paramedics to haul her body away.

                I bought almost all of my clothes from thrift stores in during my twenties, except for the ones the were gifted to me by visiting bands and the shoes I grabbed from my dead grandfather’s closet everything else was from second hand stores. Everything was cheap, most shirts were a dollar or two and since the sixties and seventies were not that far away and a great many of my grandmother’s generation were starting to die off the clothes were a mirror into those decades. Stripped shirts, shiny button ups, evening gowns, dress pants and button-up sweaters. In the fall and winter, I would wear sweaters, never a fan of coats or even pants, I was poor and learned to wear sweaters in the house. I would visit my grandmother who would remark about the holes in my clothing, “Bela, your sweater is broken” pointing to a small hole in around the collar or on the shoulder, “get a new one please next time you come over.” She felt personally hurt that I would wear something in such disrepair to her house, “Grandma, I usually wait until they have five holes in them before I get a new one.” A philosophy I pretty much had and still do, I will wear anything until it is literally falling off of my body, half my wardrobe is in tatters and when I wear something for work people are genuinely surprised, “Wow, you are wearing pants and a shirt with buttons” my girlfriend has remarked to me. Buying clothes is a step into intimacy, an unspoken gesture of love and care, “I want your body to be comfortable, I want you to be warm, to look nice. I care about you.” A favorite scarf, robe or shirt are usually given from another-a reminder of love and goodwill. I care about you.

                I reach for my lover’s hand when I am driving, she sits next to me in the car-telling me about her day, her hopes, or singing along to the music that is always playing around us, it is unconscious but provides reassurance. I care about you. You make me feel good, safe. Hers are tiny hands and my hands swallows them, she squeezes my fingers while I stare ahead, another reassurance. There are other moments where I feel compelled to hold her close, bury my head into her neck, whispering until we giggle and again hold hands. My apartment always has flowers in them, I realized that while I have no interest in knowing the names of the flowers that brighten my mood—I like them, and it is ok not to know their names. I buy what I like, what looks comforting to me. It’s that simple. One day she sat on my couch and remarked that she liked that I bought flowers for myself, it was beautiful that it wasn’t just the flowers that she noticed it was my pleasure in having them, I laughed and explained that I don’t even know what I am buying, other than lilies which I do know and love but that I like to have them in my house. They are a comfort. They offer closeness by just being.

May 2021.

May 11, 2021

“My father was a sonofabitch, I would dream that he would die.” Nick told me this while he held a cup of coffee in his hands, the smoke rising from it into his face, he blew the smoke away, look up and smiled. He had the beard of a homeless man, unkempt, looking like brambles or an evergreen shrub whose owner had quit venturing outside for years. Except with Nick he had done the opposite living on the streets and in a tent for the past fifteen years. “This is good coffee; how much was it?” I bought him the same coffee I drank, somewhat of a coffee snob I wanted Nick to experience something that offered a little bit more dignity that the instant coffee he was used to. “Three dollars but don’t worry about it.” Eyebrows raised, “Three dollars? Wow, I can buy an entire jar of Nescafe for that.” He blew on the coffee again and took a sip. “Yeah, my dad was a mean one…he’d take his frustration out on my mom and if she wasn’t around, he’d go after me—never my sisters. One time he broke my arm and I couldn’t go to school for a month. My aunt finally took me from him one day, this was the sixties—they didn’t do anything to help kids back then. It turns out my uncle was worse than my dad—at least my dad only hit me.” He lets the words hang in the air. He has deep blue eyes, that sparkle under his wiry eyebrows that look almost maniacal, sticking out in every direction. I suddenly feel the urge to trim them. Those eyes though, so sensitive and deep, the light glints off them and in flashes they are almost golden. He feels deeply. Nick talks freely with me, pausing at times to let me know he hasn’t told anybody about what happened—only his mother once when he was visiting her when he was in his late teens, “I pissed the bed until I was twelve and wouldn’t talk to my teachers, they thought I was retarded and put me in those small classes, but I read every day. Comics and then I discovered the Tarzan books—Edger Rice Burroughs, Jules Verne, Victor Hugo…I wasn’t dumb—I was just scared.”

                For many years I worked with the homeless, mentally ill and tortured substance abusers—people whose childhood were filled with abuse more frightening than most movies, because the abuse came from not unknown monsters but the monsters of their families, the ones who were supposed to care for them, press their tears against the chest and drive the fright from their heads with kind words, a glass of milk and gentle kisses on the crown of their head. Instead, they planted the seeds of despair and fear in those young gentle minds, made of innocence and clarity—forever to be muddied and fearful—they grew up almost destined to a life of pain and confusion. “I didn’t have a girlfriend until I was twenty-eight and she went away, eventually she told me to choose between her and my drinking—you can see how that turned out.” His smile curves under the mass of hair the shrouds his face. He takes another sip of coffee.

                Most evenings I walk my dog, she is a Jack Russell mix, over five years old but lives every moment as if she were just hatched; let out of a shell. She pulls so hard on the leash her body twists sideways, my girlfriend calls it the comma walk, I find her energy exhausting. Some nights I walk for almost two hours, leaving around 10 pm and sometimes not getting home until after midnight—I sleep better after the walks. Never a person of nature, I don’t hike I’d much rather be ten or fifteen minutes from home just in case I have the urge listen to a favorite record or crawl in the bathtub, and I am fearful of bugs and poison ivy, so I prefer the streets over dirt paths covered in tamped down growth. At one end of my street there is a small thatch of woods that border one of the two rivers that run through Columbus, and at the other end, the north of my street there is a long ravine that stretches for nearly a mile. A hidden gem in the heart of Columbus, sort of my own Central Park without the whole New York City part. And the hot dog stands. About halfway through the ravine if I plan it right, I encounter three owls, it is almost nightly—they screech and coo at one another sometimes they ride one of the long branches of the thin powerful trees that stretch towards the moon. The trees look like wiry basketball players soaring and stately in their muscly exteriors. The owls do a little line dance together, shuffling along the branch and leaning into one another, at times they look like they are whispering little jokes in their partner’s ears. I screech at them, while trying to keep the dog calm, I like to think they screech back to me but I realize they are talking amongst themselves and most likely mocking me in the unknown manner that animals must do all the time. We have our own thing going on. Other times on the walk I usually run across deer, who stand tight in small packs, nibling on bushes and trees and the front yards of people who make way more money than I ever will. Sometimes they look like yard ornaments they are so frozen, looking side eyed as I try to shush the dog and other times, they dance nimbly away, their massive bodies balancing on narrow hooves, they are the ballet dancers of the trees.

                Never a walker, I found out in my twenties I was a runner both physically and metaphorically although staying in one city for most of my adult life provided me the illusion that there was something in me that stuck things out. Even being in a marriage for 18 years had convinced me I was not a quitter, but I was a runner, although the methods in which I learned to protect myself provided dangerous. The Buddhist Zen Priest Claude AnShin Thomas writes about the violence in all of us in his book, “At Hell’s Gate: A Soldier’s Journey from War to Peace”, a Vietnam veteran Claude AnShin came home broken, angry and eventually turned to drinking and found himself homeless until he went on a retreat with Tich Nach Hahn, eventually transforming his life—once an living instrument of violence to an instrument of peace. Being the way I am and being true to my DIY aesthetic as I was reading the book, shortly after it was released I got a hold of his publishing company and soon Claude AnShin and his aide were giving a workshop in Columbus and he advised me on not only Zen practice but on working with the own violence I grew up with, part of which was intoxicants I had ingested for years—a search of connectivity that left me barren as I limped and raged into my thirties. “You have to confront that within you” he told me as he ate unsalted popcorn from a large bowl. Sobriety was something still new to me as I look back, but I still had found and believed I had conquered it, I was two years sober—my mind clicking a fresh machine-reborn while I started reading books again, meditating, going back to college. “Oh, it goes much deeper than the alcohol” he chuckled, swirling his sun-burnt hands along the sides of the bowl, scooping up the last vestiges of tattered corn. I wasn’t sure what he meant.

                “Dad you basically give us anything you want because you feel guilty” my daughter remarked to me a few weeks ago, she was setting the table, trying to space the plates out around the small round table so we call all squeeze in around it as we could only use 2/3 of the table. The other third was pushed against the wall, we could see the neighbor’s curtains perfectly, they could see into our dining room easily as I never bothered to hang curtains downstairs. And if they are unlucky they can catch a glimpse of me munching away on Cap’n Crunch naked at 3 am, as I blink and chew away the oblivion I feel in the middle of the night. “Well, maybe” I say, my girlfriend gives me a slight smile and raises her eyebrows, “she’s got a point” her eyebrows are telling me. We are eating carryout tonight, every week when I have my kids, I remind them I don’t have money to eat out and yet, most nights that is what we do—I not only cave to make them happy but I’m usually too tired to cook (which I enjoy).  I try to explain to them, “When I was a kid we were poor, we never ate out and maybe got pizza once a month—if that. When your uncle Z and I lived with my dad we ate fifty cent pot pies, hot dogs or cereal for dinner most nights. My dad wasn’t around and when he was…he, well, wasn’t around. I want to give you guys what  I didn’t have.” Which is true, mostly though I want my children to be supported and loved. Sometimes it is hard to do this.

                Standing on my friend Tom Shannon’s porch in October of 2001 I was swaying a little bit to the music coming from the living room, maybe it was Love or Lee Hazelwood, Tom always preferred something older at home and the day drinking that led to early evening, then late evening allowed me to feel alive. There had been a show at Bernie’s, maybe Tom’s band The Cheater Slicks had played but we were gathered there on his porch and into the living room, and farther back -were people gathered into  his small kitchen, crammed next to each other—moving sideways to get to the refrigerator to pull out a beer or to put a six pack in. The autumn wind felt like a perfect shadow on my drunken self. I had been living with Tom for a few months, my (now ex) wife had moved to Gainesville where she had started teaching fine arts at the University and I had stayed in Columbus feeling my life was glued to working in a record store which was all I had ever known as an adult. I was a thirty-three-year-old college drop-out. Perhaps more scared I’d get found out than wanting to get out of what I was stuck in. There was a woman I was chatting with, humor has always rolled out of me like concrete pouring out of the back of a concrete truck, she was laughing and touched my arm as she said she would be back but needed to fetch a beer. Suddenly from across the street a couple of large fraternity looking fellows were running down the sidewalk, bulldozing their way over the large plastic trash containers that lined the street. They were laughing as each tub of trash fell into the street, beer cans, tin cans and white kitchen garbage bags tumbled into the street and yards. Without thinking I leapt off the porch and scampered across the street when I tackled one of the men from the side, he crumpled to the sidewalk. All those years of wrestling practice usually paid off when I was fighting, some of the other folks from Tom’s house crossed the street and when I bent the lunkhead’s arm back he yowled and after a few minutes he agreed to pick up the trash he had knocked over. I think his friend was long gone. On the porch my friend Gene marveled at my ability to take on the bigger guy but while it may make for a funny-ish story in terms of my own small attempt at environment justice the underbelly of this encounter is that I’ve had a temper that I have not always been able to control but for many years felt justified in flexing it as I felt it was needed.

                Waiting around for love felt like a flower waiting for a bee, knowing I would get stung, but the payoff was always worth it—although like the flower I realized that the bee would fly somewhere else, leaving a scar that, in some instances have remained but always have provided me the opportunity for retrospective. That mini brawl on Summit Street happened years ago, the person who flew across the street in drunken righteous anger metamorphosed into somebody else but inside there are kernels, rivulets of inner disturbance that move within me. Worry and anxiety can flood the rivulets, and like a ship captain that my know the waters around him but can’t control the water only navigate around the rocks, I try—sometimes successfully, other times it feels like I intentionally ramming my vessel into the craggy barnacle encrusted rocks. There are thumbprints inside of me, made from my father’s course words, from the anger that rode in waves inside of him until he would strike me—a hand across the face, his language brutal at times, the speeding of the car, dangerously accelerating through traffic—a whistle through his teeth as he seethed. I was scared of him, petrified but I tried for years to express the gentleness he was capable of showing, The clumsy, and oafish man who took us fishing, the immigrant who loved to sing along with Willie Nelson in his American made car, a father who would chuckle to himself at the buffoonery of Peter Sellers. I strived, in my own way to exercise that kind man out of him but at some point I realized that was like wanting to hold the sun. Eventually there was nothing left except the jingle of memories rattling around in my mind and the scars.

                Last week I lost my temper, which as a parent happens, but there is a difference with  me now from the man who cruised through my life, filled with alcohol and a moral high ground, not a healthy combination and I am a father who at the age 52 who feels deeply when I lash out. When I let my anger consume me. I am frightened and ashamed, although it doesn’t happen often it tend to fall into a deep depression when it happens—sometimes for weeks—the ache of myself cripples me emotionally. While I have grown to be more forgiving of others, it is still difficult to know better and forgive myself. No, better. Recently, my daughter and I, she of only knowing the world for 15 years squared off in the living room. In the end of it we were both in tears, and I was placing a call to the furniture repairman after flipping over my coffee table—and then, every step she took towards her mother’s that morning was more distance she put between her and her father. I last put my hands on someone in anger nearly twenty years ago, on Summit Street when I made that frat kid go pick up the garbage, he spilled all over the street, but I know what words can do to a child.

                My father turned eighty this week and I haven’t seen him in over fourteen years, have only spoken to him once during all that time, but spoken is an understatement as my words to him were curt and to the point—and in the moment I wasn’t the ten year old boy who craved his approval but the protective father who was establishing boundaries and in the time since that brief phone conversation I am both the loving father and a man who had thought he had extinguished most of his inner anger. And even though I felt the power in me when I spoke to him this past year, that I was able to push back on what I had felt for so long—I still feel the hurt of my words—that I was intentionally unkind, even in establishing my boundaries.

                When I was twenty-one years old, in the fallout of a break-up, feeling angry, lost and on fire I tried to take my life a moment of absurdity and failure that ended up with me in the emergency room at times both joking and then bursting into tears with the nurses and the doctor while they saved my life, I drove alone the next morning and waited for time to wash away the agony I felt morph into ache and finally a discomfort that has continuously stuck with me. Some years ago, in my mid-twenties my brother wanted to give me a gun—he had thought it was a needed necessity in Columbus. I declined, knowing the only purpose of having a gun was to count the bullets with my teeth. Sobriety taught me something new, as did the teachers and mentors that followed from the first days of wanting to learn how not to drink—whether it was Claude AnShin, Lama Kathy Wesley or the many books I read by eastern teachers—one of the most important things I can do is to be attentive. To be present, the screen saver on my phone is the simple word “available” that is one of the lessons I learned through my divorce. We were in counseling, trying to save something we carried deeply about but had lost our way and in the room of our therapist in a curtain of tears streaming down her face she bellowed “he is never here, he is always somewhere else.” She was right, and in my desire to protect myself-to defend who I was I stammered, shifting the blame to my ADHD, “it’s impossible for me to always be present.” Which was not true because there was (is) plenty of evidence that I can be focused, to allow myself to be with others. “Do you hear her?” he asked me, “she wants you to be available, not physically but emotionally.” It was then that I changed my screen saver, so when I pick it up I have a cue to remind me that I don’t have to be lost in diversion.

                My anger has left me barren at times, and I realize that isn’t just my father’s anger but also the anger of generations past, of his parents losing the life they had in Hungary—becoming immigrants in not just one land but two during their adult lives, and for my father twice before he turned twenty years old. And it goes past father, frustration handed down from mother to daughter, from father to son. A person can not be aware when filled with anger, with shame and righteousness. In those moments I am a balled-up fist, melting from the inside. What my daughter wants is a parent who listens, and if I am yelling I can’t hear anything—not even myself. And I want her to experience memories later in laugh that are filled with kindness with the attention, like a well-crafted painting or piece of ceramic that touches and moves. When I fell in love last year, I went to my psychologist, wanting to not make the same mistakes that I have so many times in my life and while we talked—mostly me, parsing out memories coupled with fears and hope he pulled me back and gave me a warning, “do not make yourself unlovable, you have done this to yourself forever.” I have done this, in subtle ways—pulling back emotionally, hiding, not being present—not, as he phrases it, leaning into love and being uncomfortable. “It’s ok” the lean tells me, meanwhile something inside of me throws a tantrum.

                When I do my work, my professional work, I try to create the space for men and women to be their authentic selves—to allow them to be angry with their parents and their life but also to listen—to use this space to help them grow—to shed themselves of the scars of their fathers, their mothers and those who were supposed to nurture them. As a father, a partner and as I view myself it is easy for me to concentrate on my failures, that I am the worst parts of me—which is true but this perspective does not allow me to see the other parts—the funny parts, the goofiness I have, and the courage—there is no space to grow when our lives are filled with shame. In a weird way, I don’t bring it to my work but I seem to allow it to flourish, at times in my own life. I am always learning, from my partner who teaches me to look up into the clouds and hold hands again, like I did when I was a child, from the clients I serve and of course, from my children who teach me lessons I should have learned years ago.

                Today my daughter had her end-of-the-year presentation with her mother and I, along with her advisors from school. She is fifteen, compassionate, funny and beautiful—and because of her hard work she will start taking college classes next year. There was never a doubt from her advisors that she could do this and when they asked if we, her parents, had anything to say I started speaking but I could not finish. I choked back tears and could only give a thumbs up because of my blubbering. As I looked at her and her mother through the screen because in COVID the entire world has separated, even from the ones we love the most, I saw two beautiful women who laughed and supported each other. I felt proud of them both, and while her parents are no longer married, I think she knows we love her deeply in spite of those kernels inside of me that sometimes pop like hot popcorn. I am, a proud papa.

                The owls sit swaying high above me as I pull Pearl in close on her leash, It is dark and they look like construction paper shadow figures, like something out of a children’s book and then suddenly one stretches out, wings expanding until the fill the space between the tree branches and the moon and fly above me- I can hear the fluttering of their wings and the creaking of the tree limb as it jumps into space and it is majestic. It brands itself into my mind, I will not forget it, this quiet bird flexing itself into the universe.

there is an owl in this photo

Stories

February 21, 2021

“Dad, tell me a story,” Bruno asks me as we lay next to each other, he is restless, his pointy legs shifting under the blankets, elbows unsettled–he is trying to twist himself into slumber. “I don’t’ have any stories to tell, I’m tired” I breath, hoping his overactive body will quit. “C’mon dad, you always have stories, please” he reaches for the dog that has settled between us, her neck reaching out to his hands that clutch her face; she will take anything that is offered. “Remember when you would tell me about Dr. Wigwam? I thought he was a real person, maybe tell me one of his stories?” I can tell he is starting to drift, “you know the one about the racoon making chicken soup?” His legs curl up under him. Dr. Wigwam was a character I had created to help the kids go to sleep when I would put them to bed, sometimes I would try to read to them, “A Cricket in Times Square”, “Wind in The Willows”, even “Tom Sawyer” but they always wanted me to tell them the stories I would make up on the spot, perhaps because the kids were always in the stories I told, they were the main characters. Some of the stories went on for years, “The Daddy and the Little Boy” which was Bruno and myself on an adventure where he had uncovered, by happenstance some nefarious plan for world domination by the evil Dr. Terminus, “Miss Duffberry” which centered on Saskia and her friend meeting a kindly old cartographer who discovers a plot by the evil oil tycoon, yep-you guessed it, Dr. Terminus. The aforementioned Dr. Wigwam who was a magical man who stood tall (nearly seven feet) and lanky, “he was almost as thin as the whiskers that stretched from his chin to his belly” who could speak to the animals, travelled in a lemon colored hot-air balloon and lived in a house that was a magical as a child’s imagination would allow. There was a story of a mouse who found her courage in a bakery behind her rose-garden apartment. The children would mine the stories out of me, and I would usually drift off to sleep myself as Bruno and his father would hide in the bowels of a lighthouse while sinister men marched on the floorboards above their huddled bodies, every creak of the wooden floors causing them angst. The next night Bruno would tell me where we left off and I would start the story again, never really knowing where it would end up. “Buddy, I don’t even know where to start” I reply, he silently knees me, “dad, it doesn’t matter, just start anyway.” Searching my mind for the stories, as if I’m trying to pluck the perfect cloud from the sky, I hesitate and then start, “Bruno shushed his father and pointed to the wall, they could hear the men fighting against the wind, ‘they must be near, their bikes are leaning against the back wall—we need to find them, or Dr. Terminus will have our head.” Soon we are both asleep.

                From my middle-aged perspective, the pulling of stories from a mind that is a haze of bills, deadlines, the emotional tug of relationships, pets, car insurance…is difficult—my thoughts are a chore to wade through, picking through the scraps of the day that passed and the days to come. I sound more tired than I really am when he asks me to pluck tales from my head, there is a tinge of resentment—a weariness as I reflect on all the things that have pushed out the giving part of my brain. From his perspective it is much different, he remembers the time together in bed, his father’s voice painting pictures of adventure with him as the hero. He isn’t aware of the fatigue I clutch too, as if my life choices are what controls my ability to give and receive love. I try to dispatch the wanting to have him shuffle off to sleep so I can cower alone next to him, my sweet boy, sometimes it works and sometimes I fall for the dizziness of my intrusive thoughts.

                My father wore corduroys, the lined indentations stood out like a topographic map, my fingers tracing them—down his leg as he drank his coffee. “Tell me the story of the bull” I would ask him, it is something his mother told us many times, when he was just a child and had stealthily climbed through a hole in a fence to pet a cow who stood near an old tree. Although it was not a cow but a bull who ended up chasing my father until he was scooped up by my grandmother, although my father was a terrible storyteller. Quick and too the point, when he told this story it ended quickly, there was no build up, no description of the heat, or the way his feet got stuck in the mud as the bull barreled down on him—this was how my grandmother told it. He would get up from the couch when his coffee grew cold, walk into the kitchen, taking the comforting fuzzy pants with him. When he spoke his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down, a ball of manliness stuck in his throat, I would ask him if I would have one when I grew up, he would chuckle and tell me “only if you are lucky.” He had a tweed jacket, the ones with the elbow patches that he wore to work—most likely a carry over from his brief spell of being a college professor, he would get his hair wet and comb it straight back, the sides turning gray—as he got ready to leave the house, he would leave his dirty razor on the edge of sink. The brush that he used to lather his face in shaving cream sat next to it, I would stare at them wondering what it would be like to shave one day. But my father was mostly quiet, he did not tell us many stories, nor did he read to us—although he loved to read, he would buy my brother and I books from the Little Professor bookstore in Athens, he tried in vain to steer us away from comics. The stories we were told were from his mother and our uncles, Pablo and Peter, their adventures burned into our spongy brains. The story of Pablo driving through Nicaragua and resting for the night, sleeping on top of his car in the jungle while Sandinistas rifled through the car unaware that he was asleep on top. It probably saved his life. My grandmother’s life was a trial of loss and gain, losing the life of wealth due to the Second World War, rebuilding her life not once but twice, in Venezuela and then in Columbus, Ohio. These made an impression on me, like a thumb print on a window, they would fade but always be there. Gaps fill the memories of my childhood, holes where laughter should reside, or learning to hit a baseball—the people who taught me to throw a baseball and a football were not my father, who appeared to be caught up in whatever worries seemed to be choking his life, but from my brother Zoltan and a step-father we had named David.

                The urge to give in to annoyance is great, and I was conditioned to do this—it was easier to complain and let the world know how heavy it felt to me than to work around the urge- to resist the “give-in.” As a parent I realize that this is an insufficient cop-out, that I do not want my children to learn that irritation is something to wear like a pin on a jean jacket. Patience provides the luxury of space, to allow the imagination to grow and feel deeper. Some years ago, when I was working with an addict who was struggling with a mind that was chewing its way out of his mind, he asked me about learning patience, me of all people I thought to myself, and I replied that the only way to learn patience was to do it. Not a very satisfying answer but the only answer. It is easy to get lost in the doom-scrolling of my mind, the reinforcements against this are being present with those in my life, easier to say than to do.

                At some point I started to write down the stories I told the kids, although I am unsure of my skills as a children’s storyteller, when I told my partner this, I added that I tend to sprinkle my stories with words such as “fuck” and “blowjobs” she believed me for a moment and reminded me you can’t put those words in books, probably not even YA books. When I write these memories of their childhood down it is with hope that they can recall sitting in med, staring at the ceiling, my words falling into them like small safety stones to protect and propel them into sleep. The stories would get tucked into their minds just as they were under their blankets.