Sixteen years old
Doing my chores
On a summer afternoon
With the window opened
Out over the rolling hills
Of Southern York County
Desmond Dekker sings to me
On the stereo for company
I can hear the world waiting
In the soundwaves
Making their way down the street
Reaching escape velocity
On their way out out
Of my lonely little town
I will make it out one day too
Scrape the dried Elmer’s glue
Off the sink with a smile
Check the stiffness of my hair
In the mirror for the tenth time
Spiked towards the sky
Like a middle finger aimed at every sideways eye
My mother sticks her head in the door
“Oh! I like this song!
I remember when it was on the radio”
Back when I was young
She hums along
With a rare smile
Cracking across her face
Remembering a life
Thirty years gone
All the sudden
My mother is no longer
The narcissistic monster
Living as a prisoner
To her suffering
Tethered to this decrepit house
Raising a selfish afterbirth
Already racing for a world
With no room for her in it
I see you as you were, mother
Young and full of hope once
Summer of ’68 in the desert
With the radio on
A glint of moonlight
Catching in your smile
Your broken home caught
In the reflection of
A rearview mirror
With good things on the road
Ahead of you
Raised ducking for cover
Seeking shelter from gathering clouds
And the chill winds
Blowing ill from a cold war
Summer of ’68
With power’s proxies catching a spark
From fires lit before you were ever born
Your older brothers
Jump from from iron birds
And into the firestorm
With not a reason why
But to do and stay alive
One took a bullet
To the thigh
And never quite got right
The other made it home
And never talked about
The War Again in his life
Into the mother
I once knew
Tiny and sometimes cruel, filling the world
Smart and sharp
With a quick wit
And the bitterness lingering
Below the surface to match it
You taught me well
How to stand up for myself
To everyone save
You taught me to lock
All the doors at night
Hide my heart
Hide my light
I see you there sometimes
Out there in the shadows
Lonely and uncertain
Where I am sixteen years old, steel-toes
Stomping up the stairs
To the sound of Desmond on the Stereo
Singing for every mouth to be fed
And waiting for the war’s end
Where all our noble failures born
From the best of intentions are forgiven
I see you now, in the lateness of the hour
The mother who
Did the best she could
With the mess and neglect
She was given
Spent a life running
Looking for the calm
After the storm
Looking for her son
Without seeing the one she bore
I will meet you there
When sun finally breaks through the thunderheads
Where Desmond Dekker is always singing
For every mouth to be fed
And every war’s end
Drunk, but not too drunk
Just marveling at
The taste of alcohol on my tongue
After five years of
World crushing panic
Every time I tipped a bottle back
Lying in bed
With candles lit
My last great love’s
Scent lingers on the pillow
Long after the echo
Of their laughter
Exited the room
Like cigarette smoke
Of toil dragging a body down
Taste the weight of age
Gravity gripping my face
Fear the grave
Lick my lips
Taste a long kiss goodnight
With all the beauty and bitterness
Of mortality languishing on my tongue
I was six years old the first time I was sexually assaulted. I can recall the majority of the details with clarity and alacrity. This is a blessing and a curse, I guess because the memories have stayed strong and present with me all these for the past three decades. I have spent the majority of my adult life wrestling with them. Like many survivors, the memories often come bursting out of me with little warning, and at inopportune times. Sometimes during the summer if I am sleeping in a room with a ceiling fan, I wake up with a start thinking it is someone’s breath on the back of my neck. I have spent much of my life in and out of various states of dissociation and bottomless rage. I have spent much of my life like I still don’t know how to say no, and often find myself intimate with individuals who know just how to exploit that.
On the other side of that survivorhood, I distinctly remember being thirteen and my male friends and I figuring out that that there was a blurred line between persistence and coercion. To our young minds, the absence of physical violence somehow differentiated us from the individuals who assaulted me years earlier. Furthering that idea, when I was fifteen, a group of boys abducted one of my friends and took her to a party where they assaulted her. This crime was never reported, but served as singular turning point in the young lives of my friends and I; a reminder of sorts of the secret truth we had always known, encoded in our young bodies: The bad men were real, and they mostly got away with what they wanted. My best friend and I walked around school carrying knives secreted away in our pockets the rest of that year, swearing that we were going to stab the one perpetrator we could identify to death the first chance we got. We never did. He went on to live a normal life until dying in a car wreck on the run from the law ten years later. I was at a party when I heard, and I laughed audibly, comfortable in the certainty that my friends and I were so different from this sorry, dead asshole.
When you are a young person, especially when you grow up in punk, you define yourself by what you are and what you are not. You delineate everyone into a clear “them” and “us”. You surround yourself with other freaks and outcasts and convince yourself you somehow live outside of the unrequited-blood soaked horrorshow that is life on this planet. My friends and I naively believed we were somehow different, all the while shutting out the voices of the women and queers in our lives who have been imploring us to just fucking listen and do better. The few deeply intimate relationships with I have had with men have been with fragile boys with fragile egos, unable in varying degrees to examine hard truths about themselves, always wondering why their lives are perpetual disasters and their exes fucking hate them. Don’t worry. I am counting my relationship to myself in there too.
I wrote letters to two of the individuals who assaulted me at the beginning of my thirties, never having the nerve to send them. Two years back, I decided to send them while trying to reconcile and change my own patterns of abusive behavior towards intimate partners. I held the naïve belief that maybe these two men would hear me out and open a dialogue and that maybe we could sort out some of this mess together. One of them responded. I obviously could not hear the tone in their voice as they composed an email, but I am fairly certain it differed very little from Brett Kavanaugh’s as they berated me, simultaneously calling me a liar and weak for still feeling the effect of their actions thirty years later. They included their phone number in the email, demanding that I call them, which I never did. I have no doubt that had we spoken on the phone, they would have sounded *exactly* like Judge Kavenaugh did on television the other day.
This individual also came out to me as trans in their email. Two days later, they committed suicide. I blamed myself for the death of another trans woman, and wondered what kind of common ground we could have found had they just listened. I wondered how similar the paths we had walked really were. I spent the next week certain their ghost was in the room with me at night and slept very little. I left my room only to eat or walk my dog. I told my friends I was sure that they would be waiting for me in hell when I died. The crushing feeling of guilt stuck with me until I thought about what an utter fucking chump move it is to hurl yourself into whatever afterlife will claim you rather than take responsibility for your actions.
My heart feels ripped out of my chest this week. My heart is broken for all the people I love who are survivors (and that is almost everyone I know.). My heart is broken for all the people I love who are raising children, especially daughters in this thresher. My heart breaks for the kids who come after us, who were supposed to inherit a better world. My heart breaks for the people I love who live the duality of being both survivor and perpetrator this week, because every person I have loved the most has endured/is capable of/has inflicted some serious harm, and we have to live the lives we’ve made and pick up the pieces. My heart breaks continuously thinking about the people who I have done harm to. My heart breaks thinking about what it is to live in a culture that benefits you so intensely that your hard-learned life lessons usually come at the expense of the people you love the most, and that is treated as normal.
I am tired. We are all tired. We are all tired and heartbroken, and I have no optimism with which to end this post, only a small body filled with venom and unwavering love for my friends doing the best they can.
Adrift and sinking, out where the horizon unfolds
Into rows of waves crashing down
Our lifeboats are full of holes
And someone threw away the oars
Our boats are taking on water now
As the lives and loves We forged sink below…
I just want a metaphor
For how we’re maybe out of our depth here
Where the water is deep and dark
Maybe we’re out of our depth here
And way out here there’s sharks.
Maps marked with blurred lines
and the last of a sky so blue
Just as summer gave way to fall
“You have to breathe. You have to breathe.”
Swallowing mouthfuls of air where the traffic snarls
Marveling at just how fucking ugly
Of a picture this world will paint you
Right as it runs you through
We’re out of our depth here
With blurred lines inked indelibly into skin
Too tender, too thin
Blurring the line again
Always between the intimate
And the violent
We’re out of our depth here
Because nothing prepared us for trespasses like this
Or taught us how to love without fear
The hour is now late
Ashore, annihilation comes home to call
With a knock knock knock at the door
Wolves hunger at the windows
Sharks circle the shallows
Murderers who murder each other
Set loose to stalk the halls
It’s that time of year again, where I write about you, or write to you. Four years ago tonight you texted me, late at night. I didn’t answer until the next day. By then it was too late. I hope you at least read the reply before you went.
I still have two bottles of mead that Roth and I brewed with the last of your honey. We brewed them in that awful haunted apartment on Grail Street that you and Adrien helped me move into. I’ll never forget the look on your face when we walked through the front door the first day and saw the acid-nightmare graffiti that the hippies who lived there before me left scrawled all over the walls.
“We need to paint all over this shit before it comes to life at night and eats you.”
We all laughed. It was funny in that “Maybe it can’t get any worse than this” way. There were a few months in that apartment that were alright. I liked living alone there. Some days I hid too much. Some nights I was really good at keeping myself occupied.
It was sweet when Molly moved in too. You only came over once more because the place was so creepy. I always look at that summer now in that like they were the last few good months we had before you died. You know how it is, when you end up dividing time in that before and after a person died way. Everything before they died just looks pristine and feels light, even if that wasn’t actually the case.
I felt haunted by the spectre of your death and it’s aftershocks for a full year. It manifested it self physically and I had to leave North Carolina. When I left North Carolina, the mead continued to ferment with Roth in the home they took me into when I got too sick to stay at Grail Street. I came back a year later and we bottled and labeled it. Then we spent the night we creeping around town like nocturnal fairies in the late night heat, delivering the bottles to your friends and loved ones. I think you would have appreciated the design. There was a lot of glitter.
I still have mine. I haven’t drank them yet. Whatever broke in my heart and brain in the aftermath of your passing still won’t allow me to drink alcohol, despite the fact that I maybe stayed drunk for an almost heroic three days straight in the immediate aftermath of your passing. Now I just can’t do it. I’ll start to feel sick and dump the rest of my bottle out. Even last summer, I tried to drink a bottle of hard cider on the banks of the French Broad with Ed. One of my favorite places, with a person I cherish. I took two sips and felt nauseous. I dumped the rest of the bottle into the the rushing water, thinking of it as an offering, and feeling comfort in the thought of all rivers leading to the Ocean.
Or worse, when the alcohol hits my bloodstream and I start to feel that sinking terror that I felt in the aftermath of your passing. You know that gnawing, deep dark existential terror we all feel at some point. We stare into nothing and worry that maybe just maybe, we live our lives for nothing, suffer, and then go into oblivion at the end. There is nothing else. No rhyme or reason, just chaos, violence, and darkness. That feeling happened a lot after you died.
The winter after you died Adrien and I had an end of the world party for ourselves on December 21st, 2012. You know, the night all these annoying ass new age crackers were telling us that the Mayans said the world was gonna end, or change, or whatever. It seemed like nobody could really decide which. I wasn’t sure if I cared. I just knew I was in pain a lot of the time and I hated everything.
We sat in my room on Grail Street. I was cleaning. Cobwebs lined the corners of my room. I didn’t knock them down. I thought of spiders as company. I put things that had belonged to the boyfriend in boxes to throw out. You had lived with him when you passed away. We broke up shortly after your death. It wasn’t sad. I was just ready for something else, and clawing to get away from him.
After that, then I read the runes. I can’t remember what they said. I only remember that it was no comfort. It thought back to a few months before you died in the summer. The day was too hot. You were crying alone in your room. I had never heard anyone be in such pain. I asked the boyfriend if he thought we should go comfort you.
“She’s fine. She just does this sometimes. I’ll check on her later” He said indifferently.
I had to leave because it was too agonizing to hear you hurting so much. I will probably regret not saying anything, or at least offering to bring you snacks, water, just fucking anything for the rest of my life. I thought about that day, and told Adrien I’d be right back. I took the boyfriend’s stuff out to the curb and threw it unceremoniously into the garbage.
Adrien sat in my bed drinking beers. As if he could tell what I was thinking, he mentioned you. Of course. It had only been maybe four months at that point. We talked about you a lot. All of us did. I’d like to think that you could somehow see how utterly beloved you were. I mean, seriously.. People were literally painting the town with your name. I also think you might have been embarrassed. I don’t know. Adrien was so sweet and assured me that they didn’t believe in oblivion, and that you were finally safe.
I just didn’t know. I just didn’t know anything except I missed you and you were gone. The nagging feeling that you had gone into oblivion just wouldn’t subside.
That darkness and emptiness swirled around the apartment all winter. We saw ghosts, but they were all scary, and none of them were you. Maybe you were just so ready to leave earth. I never really blamed you. And who would wanna spend the afterlife visiting the fucking Grail Street apartments, anyway? Sometimes I worry that I spent so much time being miserable in that building that my spirit is just going to gravitate back there when my time is up. Don’t worry. I’m doing everything I can to avoid that outcome.
That last summer in Asheville, mold sick and more depressed than I had ever been, I’d think I heard voices in both my waking hours and my dreams. I never knew if I was hearing an actual malevolent force, or if I just had to personify something that took you.
I got too sick and lost too much of my mind to stay at Grail Street. I moved in with Roth. Sometimes the voices and the panic would come to me there at night. I would lie in bed and claw at a now irregularly beating heart and pray for it to just beat right again. Some nights it just wouldn’t stop raining. The terror would get to be too much and I would lace up my boots in the night and speed over to Ed’s house to hyperventilate in their bed until daylight crept through the blinds. We were both terrified that my heart would somehow stop and death would come for me as I slept.
When I did sleep, I started to sleep with a loaded gun under the bed. I kept a baseball bat in the passenger seat of my truck. I would walk through downtown like a ghost haunting myself; eyes to the ground, fists clenching and unclenching. It was time to move on. It’s not that you were Asheville, but the pall your death cast across everyone I knew became to consuming to stay.
It took two full years of you being gone and a move across the country to feel any sense of lightness about you. Rachel, C-80 and I climbed a mountain on the anniversary of the day you left. We got to the peak late in the afternoon. You cold see for miles around. I whispered hello to you, and I told you how much I had loved you.
And that it was nice to see you again.
Maybe it took going to a place that was just too beautiful for words to feel like there had been anything else but pain and death for all of us.
And I hope you could see it. I really do. Because places this beautiful deserve to be shared with the people you love. And goddamn, were you ever loved. Not just by me, but by everyone who encountered you. Nobody had a bad thing to say about you. That’s a rarity in something as viciously petty and rife with shit talking as the radical queer community.
Every year, I write about you or I write to you. I post the same haunting photo of you. This year won’t be any different. I’m not ready to drink your mead yet. Maybe I’ll give it another six years. In 2022, it will have been ten years since you left. You’d be turning 38. I’ll be 41. If you were alive today, you’d be turning 32 this year. I still don’t resent you for choosing to go. I say it every year. Your death and it’s aftermath devastated me in a way that was almost awe inspiring. It broke me down and left me in pieces in a moldy room.
It broke everyone.
The only choice as to forge ahead through the ruins and reconstruct ourselves into newer and better people. We’ve all got to do that work for the rest of our lives. I know my works in that realm are far from complete. If anything was to be gained at all in the aftermath of your death at all, it’s to be inspired by the level of kindness, deep love, and humor you brought to your friends.
I hope to one day be able to bring even a fraction of the kindness and light to those I love that you showed everyone around you.
It hurts to become. It hurts to outgrow. It hurts to grow back.