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Voicemail

28 Apr

Hi, Roxy.

I keep reaching for the phone to call you. In those few seconds before the reality dawns on me, I take comfort in knowing that I’m moments from hearing your voice — that even if you don’t pick up, I’ll hear your outgoing message. And I’ll leave a voicemail, despite the fact nobody likes checking their voicemail, because whatever, you can deal with it. Sometimes even after I come to my senses and I feel the reality of your absence, a sensation not unlike falling, I think about calling you, anyway. I don’t think your voicemail is still connected, but maybe — and then I could leave a message you’ll never hear (you weren’t going to check it regardless) and it would almost be like talking.

I’m still not sure what I believe in when it comes to the afterlife, but I like to imagine you floating in the clouds somewhere, annoyed at the fact that you’re still getting voicemails, but mostly just frustrated that you can’t call me back. Believe me, it’s hard for both of us.

I wonder what you’d think of the way I air my grief in public. It’s something I’m still not sure I should be doing — yes, even as I’m doing it — but it remains the best way I know how to cope. From a young age, I learned that for me writing was the first step toward healing. And the second step, the more important step, was to put that out into the world, as scary and shameful as it sometimes feels. I guess the hope is that someone reads it and relates, that maybe I could help that person, but I think on a more basic level, I just want my pain to be heard. Otherwise I’m screaming into the abyss.

Put it this way: I need someone to listen to my voicemail.

I question my use of metaphors, my stylistic flourishes, the fact that I try to create something meaningful out of my grief instead of just writing “I miss you I miss you I fucking miss you” over and over again. Perhaps it’s self-indulgent — that I’m not just offering up something bare and raw —  but crafting language is how I process my thoughts. This is what happens when you major in English and you’re a little bit pretentious.

If I were leaving a voicemail, I’d keep it brief and tell you that, yes, I think about you every day, and some days are harder than others. I’ll feel fine and then a certain memory will needle its way into my thoughts, and suddenly I’ll find myself sobbing on the arm of my couch. But I’d also want you to know that I’m OK, that sometimes I’m actually pretty damn good. I am flawed in all the ways you knew me to be flawed and loved me anyway, and I am working to get better in all the ways you would have wanted to me to. On the good days I know that I can make you proud.

I didn’t know what I was going to write when I opened this page. I just knew that my eyes were welling up with tears because once again I thought of something to tell you, reached for my phone, and was struck by the fucking injustice of your death. It’s stupid and rude and I will never get over it. There is, as I think I’ve said before, a Roxy-shaped hole in my heart. As grateful as I am for all the love that surrounds me, nothing’s ever going to fill that back up.

(OK, I’ve given it more thought, and realistically, if there is an afterlife, voicemail is an eternal punishment, not the kind of thing you’d be subjected to in paradise. Besides, I’d like to think that wherever you are, you’re surrounded by all of us who loved you and will always love you. We exist there and here at the same time, which is exactly the kind of hippie bullshit belief system we might have laughed at back in high school. I mean, it’s still a little silly, but it’s comforting, so I’m going to hold onto it anyway.)

This is now verging on a ramble, the kind that I would instantly regret if it really were a voicemail. I try not to talk about these things too much: I don’t have a monopoly on grief, and I’m only one of many who misses you. And I don’t want anyone to think I’m a constant weepy mess, not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just not me. I am someone who does his best to hold it together, who sometimes needs to force himself to ask for help, who can be fragile or strong depending on the hour, and who honestly never would have made it this far if you hadn’t been there to help me along the way. I do cry, but I also smile — and that’s as much as credit to you as the tears.

I wish you hadn’t even read this, that you saw the missed call and were already calling me back.

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Happy belated birthday

2 Mar

Last week I got a birthday card from Roxy, five months after my birthday, three months after her death. Earlier that day, at lunch, I had been saying how much I wished I could write about the good memories, the nights we spent eating too much and laughing too hard over the kind of inside jokes that best friends accumulate over nearly a decade of being best friends.

I’m not there yet. It’s still too fresh. Her absence cuts too deep. And while I’d like to look back and smile — and I do! sometimes, I actually do — I can’t enjoy the memory and share it, because I’m distracted by the way her story ends.

The card encapsulates that perfectly, I think, because it’s ridiculous and funny in a way that Roxy appreciated. Which is to say that it’s a giant talking pickle that spouts out awful puns when you open it. But it’s also almost too upsetting for me to look at. Even having it in the house — I keep it next to the program from Roxy’s funeral — is bittersweet. I’m so grateful for this tangible heartfelt message, but its mere existence brings the loss into focus.

And so I’m left with the same hope I mentioned before I got the card, that eventually the sadness won’t be so overwhelming that it dwarfs the joy. One day I’ll be able to blog about Roxy and it won’t be the same mournful dirge. And I’ll appreciate the card for its sense of humor — so distinctly Roxy in my mind — without feeling the lump in my throat that comes from the words inside. I want it to become the kind of reminder that keeps me warm when I’m missing her, and not something I’m almost afraid to touch.

Because eventually the pickle is going to stop talking. That’s maybe the most ridiculous concern I’ve ever had, but the thought of it has made me well up on more than one occasion since I got the card. Once that happens, I’m worried I’ll feel even more alone, left with only the words. They’re good words, and they’re Roxy’s, but I don’t know when they’ll stop feeling like a punch in the gut: “Every year since we’ve met, we both get better and more fabulous. I look forward to who we’ll become and celebrating more birthdays with you.”

At least now, the pickle’s still rattling off puns — “Oh my gherkin, it’s your birthday! Hope you relish every second of it” — so I can smile through the tears. I’m not sure what happens next.

Addiction and free will

2 Feb

No one chooses to be an addict. Addiction is a painful, relentless, life-destroying force. The idea that anyone would make a conscious decision to live life that way — constantly in search of the next fix and an unattainable high — is absurd. Calling it a disease always feels limiting to me: “Disease” implies that there’s a cure. No one who picks up a cigarette or a bottle or a needle thinks that this will become the thing they can’t control. Addiction builds and it takes hold of you so suddenly you don’t notice it happening. By the time you realize how deep in it you are, you’re already stepping it up to harder drugs and dreading the agony of withdrawal. No one chooses to relinquish control.

No one chooses to stay an addict either, because once you’re an addict, you don’t have that kind of choice. Getting treatment isn’t a choice so much as a battle for survival, and it’s always easier said than done. A stint in rehab teaches you coping skills, but it doesn’t make the cravings go away. The program works, but you have to work it, and that takes a kind of strength many of us don’t have. Sobriety doesn’t fix the emptiness that until that point you’ve been self-medicating. It’s a coping mechanism for a world that is scary and fucked, for brains that are scary and fucked. No one chooses to need drugs to feel whole — or just to feel normal.

And no one chooses to die. Even those who take their own lives are fighting against depression so severe that suicide feels like the only option, and no one chooses that unbearable misery. Death is fucking infuriating, which is why we’re so eager to assign blame. To an outsider, death by overdose looks selfish: You chose to get high, you got careless, you died and left your family and loved ones behind to deal with your absence. But selfishness suggests free will, and addiction robs you of that. No one chooses to give it up willingly, and once it’s gone, it’s a fucking endless struggle to get it back.

I can complain

23 Jun

Few things annoy me more than someone saying, “I can’t complain.”

Because you can. Of course you can. There is always something wrong: if not with you, then with the world as a whole. And maybe it’s because I can always complain — and I’m really quite good at it — but it always feels a little condescending. It’s a dare almost, as if to say, “I can live my life free of complaints. I challenge you to do the same.” If that’s the game of it, I forfeit. I’d rather complain than be zen and obnoxious.

But lately I’ve been thinking a lot about contentment, or the lack thereof. It’s a problem I’ve encountered throughout my life, and it’s something I think we all deal with to varying degrees. There’s this sense that life would be perfect if we could just fix this one thing — and then we fix this one thing, and life still isn’t perfect. Far from it, in fact. For me, that’s always inspired guilt. Here I am, living a relatively carefree existence, and I’m still not 100 percent happy all the time. What more could I possibly want?

And even ignoring the massive injustices in the world, the rampant misogyny and homophobia that dominate our culture, the fact that countless children are going to bed hungry — even on a smaller scale of just my life, I’m not sure how much better things could really be. The big three are a great job, a great apartment, and a great boyfriend. Not to brag, but I have all three. So is there a fourth that I’m missing, or am I doomed (like the rest of us) to constantly seek out a sense of satisfaction and inner peace that simply doesn’t exist?

The short version: probably. I think we’re conditioned to always be striving for more. No one ever feels truly satisfied by his or her success, whether personally or professionally. And so, when asked, “How are things?” the appropriate responses are limited. Either you recognize everything great in your life, you realize how lucky you are objectively, and you answer, “I can’t complain,” because saying “I’m blissful” is false but anything else feels ungrateful. Or, if you’re like me, you recognize everything great in your life, but you also think about everything that’s somehow lacking, and to avoid being a whiny asshole, you say, “It’s fine.”

There is nothing wrong with being “fine.” Being fine means that you can complain, but that everything is at least OK. It’s the status quo, and it’s the answer most of us give every time we’re asked. If someone said to me, “Would you be satisfied being ‘fine’ or ‘just OK’ for the rest of your life?” I think I’d begrudgingly accept. Because even accounting for the highs and lows, the average of my experiences will almost certainly be somewhere in the middle. And there’s something tempting about cutting through the bullshit of feelings (both good and bad) and just accepting the in-between.

At the same time, that’s depressing. We all want to be able to say we’re happy. And looking toward the (hopefully very distant) future when we’re near death, we want to look back on our lives and smile. I’m not sure that’s a realistic goal, but hey, perhaps with senility we’ll get there. Really, though, whose life is so perfect that he or she can reflect on it as a whole and see only good things? I’ve been taking Prozac for years and I still don’t feel that optimistic.

So here’s what I keep coming back to: moments. In therapy I was taught to be mindful, and while I never really got into mindfulness meditation, the concept appealed to me. Living in the moment means shutting out all anxieties about the past and future in order to focus solely on the now. The idea is that whatever good thing you’re feeling — the ice cream you’re eating, the positive feedback you’re receiving, the orgasm that’s curling your toes — is the only thing you’re feeling. It’s easier said than done, but I think that’s the key to feeling more than “fine.” Because in any of those moments, when taken individually, you are not “just OK” — you’re fucking great.

Lately, because my life has been better than usual — especially when viewed from the outside in — I’ve come back to the “I can’t complain” quandary. It’s still not something I want to say (and I will never, ever, because it’s the worst) but I feel like I’m approaching that point where asking for anything more seems greedy. And so, the next time someone asks me how I am, I’m going to focus on that particular moment: what do I see? smell? taste? feel? Ideally, I can answer “I’m really good” and mean it. Because in that one isolated moment, what is there really to complain about?

On being single

27 Apr

Why are you single?

Because I want to be.
My therapist once told me that a good relationship is like icing on the cake, and you can’t frost a cake until it’s finished baking. I clearly took this to heart, as it’s been nearly a decade and I still bring up the analogy in casual conversation. I’ll be 27 in a few months, and I still don’t feel like a complete person — which is fine. But given my unfinished state, I’m not sure I’m ready to inflict myself on someone else. And what if it were the right guy? He might not like me as I am, realizing how much growing I have left to do. I could squander a great opportunity — or I could wait.

(I’m talking out of my ass.)
Maybe there’s some truth to the cake analogy, or maybe it’s something single people tell ourselves to feel better. All I know is I enjoy cake and I enjoy cake batter and I enjoy frosting on a cake and I enjoy frosting by itself. This idea that one has to be fully-formed before entering into a relationship is silly for a couple reasons. One, we are always growing, so to wait until we’re a complete human is absurd and frankly impossible. Two, we grow with other people. Which is to say, we adapt with one another. A successful relationship means that the growth process has to be shared, not finished ahead of time, separately.

Because I don’t need someone else to complete me.
I resent the idea that I’m somehow lacking without a partner by my side. I want to define myself, not to be defined by whom I date. Too often with couples, you see one or both of them losing an identity. He becomes another facet of his partner’s personality. She fades into the background as a plus-one. Moreover, the constant search for someone to spend one’s life with is a distraction — it ignores all the individual development the single person could be working on instead. And then what happens when your partner leaves? Are you a mere fraction of what you were before?

(But perhaps it’s not about completing a person. Perhaps it’s about completing a life.)
The fear of losing oneself in another is daunting, and it’s based in reality. We’ve all had a love affair (or at least a really intense crush) that took over entirely. We couldn’t focus on anything else, and every moment was defined by that other person. Love isn’t always like that, though: it doesn’t have to be all-consuming. And a person in love can still be just a person — there are couples that have lives outside of each other. And I think, yes, you shouldn’t need someone else to make you who you are, but maybe it’s not about that. There could be someone out there who doesn’t overwhelm your life so much as make it better.

Because I live a full life without a partner.
I complain a lot, but things are pretty good overall: I have friends I care about, a job I love, and a reasonable amount of people to read my ramblings. I get plenty of love in my relationships, even if none of them is A Relationship. I know these people care about me, and they show affection, and, perhaps most importantly, they stick around past the complications that would end many romantic relationships. Attraction fades and romance withers, but friendship endures. I think of the people I wanted to date who are friends now and I feel relief: would we still know each other if we’d been lovers?

(So why does it feel like something’s missing?)
Chalk it up to popular culture or holiday party invites that allow you to bring a boyfriend/girlfriend (not a friend, not a relative, not just someone you’re dating, OK?), but yeah, there is a lack you feel when you’re single. Sometimes it’s vague; sometimes it’s a direct and pressing need. Either way, this longing can put a damper on everything from dinners out with friends to birthdays to celebrating personal successes. There’s this nagging voice that says, “Yes, but” because as full as your life is, it’s not all the way there. And fuck, with a partner at your side, imagine how much fuller

Everything is less complicated.
The more I see my friends argue with significant others, whether over where to eat out or something more substantial, the less I want that in my life. I’ve been in a relationship before, and I remember how much work it is. There’s compromise — and it’s never as easy as just meeting in the middle — and there’s the need to always account for someone other than yourself. I like being an independent unit, because I never have to check in with anyone. I make plans for me and I go about my day without worrying what my theoretical boyfriend is doing. There’s no fighting. No anxiety over weeks without sex. It’s simple, and it works.

(But oh, God, the nights get hard sometimes.)
And I’ll think, I don’t care about fighting and I don’t care about compromise — I’d take it all just to be held from the moment I shut my eyes at night to the moment I open them in the morning. And maybe I don’t want to just worry about me anymore, because it feels selfish and immature, like the one last thing I’m not willing to accept about adulthood. It would be work, but that’s part of it. You’d feel the lows, but you’d also get to feel the highs. And you wouldn’t have to write about your feelings, which, incidentally, Stephen Sondheim already captured a lot more succinctly in “Being Alive”: “Somebody, need me too much / Somebody, know me too well / Somebody, pull me up short / And put me through hell / And give me support / For being alive…”

“You’ve got so many reasons for not being with someone, but Robert, you haven’t got one good reason for being alone.”

Louis 10 Years Ago

3 Feb

What is Louis 10 Years Ago?

Louis 10 Years Ago is my new Twitter project: you can find it here. It’s a real-time simulation of what I would have tweeted 10 years ago, if I’d been on Twitter instead of LiveJournal.

Twitter didn’t exist 10 years ago.

I know, smart-ass. That’s why it’s just a simulation.

How does it work?

I’ve been combing my LiveJournal for hilariously melancholy or dated excerpts that work well in the 140-character format. They will be queued so that they roughly match when I would have tweeted them 10 years ago. I began my LiveJournal on February 15, 2003 at 2:09 p.m., so Louis 10 Years Ago will begin tweeting on February 15, 2013 at 2:09 p.m.

That’s pretty anal.

Yeah, to a completely unnecessary extent.

What can I expect to see if I follow this account?

My transformation from awkward, depressed closeted gay teen to slightly less awkward, slightly less depressed openly gay twentysomething. To that end: tweets about high school, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and feeling fat. No joke-jokes, but plenty to laugh at, in a cringeworthy way.

Are you hesitant to expose yourself in that way?

Nah. When have I ever been hesitant to expose myself? No, that doesn’t sound right. I guess I don’t mind sharing the more embarrassing aspects of my past because, at best, they show how far I’ve come. At worst, they’re a good reminder that some things never change — I may always be insecure, a little out-of-place, and uncomfortable in my own skin.

I already know you’re neurotic from following your regular account. Why should I follow Louis 10 Years Ago?

Well, you shouldn’t if you’re going to come into it with that attitude. Seriously, it’s entirely up to you to let high school me into your life. I think it’s funny and a little sad, but your mileage may vary. I’m mostly doing this for myself anyway.

You are such a liar.

I know.

Can you give me some sample tweets?

Sure.

“apparently having my cell phone off for 30 minutes is scandalous. if they only knew exaclty how NOT rebellious i am.”
“watched ‘donnie darko,’ which was fantastic but paralyzing and mind-numbing.”
“i can’t think of a moment during the past month where i haven’t been confused. my only fear right now is this: what if things never get easier?”

Christ, you’re annoying.

I was 16, so yes.

What’s with all the lowercase?

I thought that was very edgy. Don’t worry, I discovered capital letters eventually.

How often will Louis 10 Years Ago be tweeting?

Sparingly at first. I wasn’t always a frequent LiveJournal user. And either way, I’m not tweeting every line of my LiveJournal — not even close — so it’ll never be too much. On rare occasions, there might be a burst of tweets, but nothing so extreme you can’t scroll past it if you’re not willing to commit.

How long will this project go on?

Good question! I have about a year’s worth of tweets now, but I can conceivably keep this up for the next few years. That’s way too far ahead for me to worry about now. It all depends on how receptive people are to the project, and if I can continue tweeting from Louis 10 Years Ago without losing my mind. No promises!

There’s one thing I still don’t get.

Ask me privately. Or just follow the account: I think it will be pretty self-explanatory once it gets going.

Would you like a hug?

More than anything.

I had a friend who lied to me

30 Jan

The larger story isn’t mine to tell. This is my personal experience, shared not for sympathy but to give some sense of where I’m coming from. I’m not defending anyone.

I met K. through mutual friends on Twitter. We bonded pretty quickly, as is often the case with people I get to know on the internet. When you put two neurotic, self-involved individuals together, they will never run out of things to talk about. We love finding out that we’re crazy in all the same ways! For a while, we chatted every day — first on Gchat, then via text. I had a friendcrush, and if I’m being honest, a crush-crush, too. Can you blame me? He was a musician. And even though he was straight, he liked to flirt, sometimes almost dangling the possibility of a tryst in front of me. I’m not saying I fell hard or anything. I’m just saying he was cute.

We made plans to meet up in person. He was going to stay with me for a whole weekend, and I was kind of thrilled. I felt like we’d really gotten to know each other at that point, but I was eager to see how we connected IRL. We talked about watching The Simpsons and staying up all night talking about our feelings. It sounded pretty ideal. The night before he was supposed to fly out to LA, he called me. It was the first time we’d ever spoken on the phone, and yes, I was enough of a dork to make note of that. I was panicked that he was going to cancel. Instead, he’d called because he wanted to tell me how excited he was about hanging out.

And then came the next day: the frantic early morning text, the cancellation, the tough-to-swallow story, the promise to make it up to me. I’m ashamed to say this happened three weekends in a row. Seriously. Each time, the excuse was harder to believe, but always too serious to call his bluff. Was he lying about a sick parent, a suicidal friend, a medical emergency? The second time he flaked I realized there was something not right, but he assured me that he was on the level. He knew how it looked, but it was just a case of really bad timing, and the universe being a colossal piece of shit. That was something I could get behind. I had an easier time accepting that the fates were conspiring against us than that someone I considered a good friend was a compulsive liar.

Over time, I began to suspect that the problem was him. His stories didn’t line up. He would contradict himself mid-conversation. It all came to a head when I learned about the lies he was telling other people. I won’t go into that: like I said, it’s not my story to tell. Suffice it to say, others had it way worse than I did. I tried to intervene on a couple occasions. The first time, he was able to talk himself out of it. I pointed out how unlikely it was that he was really a victim on all this — where there’s smoke… But he was very convincing. I let it go for a while. When it came up again, I confronted him more assertively. That’s when he told me to stop getting involved in other people’s business.

I was livid. I was hurt, too, but that seemed secondary. I tried to tell people that he was full of shit, that I’d seen through his lies, but I had little evidence. Worse, I worried about the repercussions of waging a full-on campaign against him. As outraged as I was by what he was doing to people I cared about, I feared that when the dust settled, I’d look like the asshole. He’d turn it all against me, and I’d just be some whiny asshole who got jealous and tried to make life difficult for someone cooler than he was. Even when I felt justified in my cause, I also kind of felt like a dick. And there was always this stupid doubt gnawing at me: what if he really was telling the truth? Maybe I didn’t have the whole story.

I know what I said about K. got to him eventually. That’s OK — I heard some of the awful things he said about me. It stung, but I felt some need to keep up appearances. We tweeted at each other, sometimes with slight hostility but always under the guise of friendship. It seems dumb in retrospect, but it was part my being taken in by his lies, and part my fear of consequences. Once when I did unfollow him after a particularly heated exchange, he sent me an apology email. The apology email is my greatest weakness: I probably shouldn’t admit this, but it’s the easiest way to end a conflict with me. I will always accept your apology. I will always feel crappy that I was ever angry.

When I first heard that his life was falling apart, I thought, “Fucking finally.” I’m not exactly proud of that reaction. On the one hand, I wanted him to suffer for what he’d put my friends through. On the other, I was reveling in the misfortune of someone else. There was so much about his behavior that never made sense — it was fucked-up and terrible, but it was also pathological. That’s a word I used often when trying to explain him. (Is it even the right one? What do I know.) This guy was a womanizer and a dickbag and a shitty friend, but he was also like me: a person whose brain didn’t function properly, a tremendously insecure narcissist, a drug addict.

And so, eventually, the anger faded. It’s not hard to forgive him for what he did to me, because it really wasn’t much. If I let him take me in, that’s my fault, too. But I can’t forgive him for what he did to anyone else — that’s not my place. And I want to reiterate that I’m not defending anyone: your actions may be reprehensible because of bad wiring in your brain, but they’re still reprehensible. I’m not making excuses — I’m looking for compassion. I hope that distinction makes sense. Maybe it seems silly that I’m writing all of this. If you only knew how long I’ve been waiting to get it out. It’s still such a small fraction of the bigger picture: it’s inconsequential in the long run.

For what it’s worth, though, I feel a little better.