Normal Boys Don’t Ask So Many Questions

Photo Credit: Strevo via Flickr

Part III: Is Queer Fiction about doing something different?

 

I

Paris, 2013

 

I’m twenty-one. Alone and cold, I step off the Megabus onto the Paris streets. My clothes are heavy, my bags harking down on my shoulders. I’ve come to visit my friend Dionne who I met when I was in America. One night, after a few too many wines, during a Skype where she showed me her small flat, I booked the fifty pound tickets with Megabus (the perks of a student life) to go to Paris. Now I’m here.

I’m on the metro, making my way to her side of town where she meets me on the streets full of snow and cold and we make our way through arched doorways and a courtyard of stone to her apartment. It consists of a bed, a bookshelf and a small kitchen. There are two doors in the whole place – the front and bathroom.

I spend four days here and the snow beats down against the doorframes. We spend our drink red wine and watch Lena Dunham’s Girls, much to my request after Dionne shows me the first episode and I become hooked. One morning she goes to her class, studying at the University for a year and I tell her I’ll meet her after. I spend the morning in her bed watching more episodes, neglecting Paris. Paris isn’t going anywhere.

But I get up. I venture out and everything is different. I am in another world, another place of tongues and streets so different from where I am. I fall in love with the difference of it all, the change it has, the new ways of life, thought, etc. I start to think about books, especially as I see a shop of French languages piled together on the streets. I think of different books, strange books. I think of queer fiction. Queer meaning strange. Strange meaning different. Queer fiction appearing odd as well as relating to the LGBTQ+ community. Difference in writing: due to the the writer or the story?

Growing up gay, you know you’re different. School demands children wear uniforms, not to make them belong but to maintain ownership. School did not teach me about being something important it taught me about being one of many, part of the robotic channel of children created under the roof of rules and Facts. Difference was not accepted, difference was punished by detention and bullying. I went to a Catholic school where mornings were spent muttering ‘Our Father’ and ‘Hail Mary’, praying to a God I found to be the definition of different – a God who created talking snakes and women coming out of men’s ribs, obedient animals, murderous parents.

I meet Dionne after her class and we walk to Shakespeare & Co book shop. Her accent is Scottish, thick, I call her Jimmy sometimes. She and I were the only two out of six British people going to America who weren’t English. Nevertheless, my faint Welsh accent disappeared on the Americans who asked me if I had tea every day and went to school like Harry Potter. Sadly, dear American children, we Brits do not. Not all of us, anyway. Dionne and I, Scottish and Welsh, from North and South, different from the others.

Is, then, queer fiction determined by a different way of thought? This box we all propelled into, is it that we jump out of it, stand and think? We break out into Queer, into the large, round ‘Q’. That night, Dionne and I hear the news that a new Pope has been chosen. The two of us consumed two bottles of wine and Dionne, whilst smoking a cigarette screams out of the window, “We have a new Pope!” to her sleeping neighbours. Popes and Bishops and Angels and Demons – it’s all a bit queer.

 

II

Edinburgh, 2015

 

I’m twenty-three. I sit in Elly’s flat, full of hot air balloons, Elvis and Angela Carter. There’s a new kind of difference. A few months ago, Elly identified herself as bisexual, the neglected B in the LGBTQ circle. This got me thinking about how I used to see bisexuality. As a teenager, ignorant, mouthy, I called bisexuality as ‘greedy’. Looking back, there is only shame at myself for saying such words. Bisexuality, this ignored, misunderstood part of the queer world. It’s been five years since I came out and within those five years I have learnt the fluidity of sexuality, the appeal, the desire, to step into the queer world and become a part of it maybe for a while, maybe for longer. There are so many of us registering, connecting with the queer parts within us.

And what then of the Q? What of all the other different things? Edinburgh, to me, is this fairy tale place, not the fairy tale of pixies and dust but arched towers and dark werewolf corners. There is beauty in the darkness as there is beauty in the difference. I’m working on a story I started at University, a Young Adult piece that my tutor, Philip Gross, said I should finish. I’m writing away, using characters from children’s stories, mashing together the beautiful difference that the other writers began.

The story is, at its core, for me. I imagine it would be too difficult to publish – a Young Adult novel with trans, bisexual, lesbian, gay and straight characters. Feminism and politics is at its core, the characters pulled out from their original habitats, forced into danger, magical creatures and Fact ideals surrounding everyone. Would this piece – would anything I write – be seen as Queer fiction? I said this before, that when I was a teenager I was terrified of being labelled a ‘Gay’ writer. Maybe it was because I wasn’t out yet, maybe there was still an element of shame, shame that was absolved months after I let everyone know my secret.

Writing is about a lot of things and one of those things is contributing to the conversation. In this ever changing, ever accepting, society we now live in, we need to not ignore the difference – the queerness – in all of us. To honour and not distinguish, to recognise, not ignore. Being different is something to be honoured, valued. Queer fiction has fought its way into the literary world, demanded to be taken seriously but labels don’t aid our fluidity – the fluidity of sexuality, of genre, of sex, of writing, of all the things that make us the book loving, story hunting, imagination addicted people that we are. At Edinburgh, past all the buildings, Arthur’s Seat and the Walter Scott Monument, I write and wish that the label, in its honour of difference, will break.




Crossings

They say you never forget how to ride a bicycle, but I know this is not the case. Long ago, in the days of banana seats and handlebar fringe, I rode all over town. My mother was preoccupied with finding a husband, or a job. Besides, it was better to have my own wheels. After school the town with its rolling hills and broad sidewalks was mine to explore, 50 cents in my pocket, ready to burn. I’d hated giving up training wheels. Like moving from a pony to a horse, the leap was too big. One day we were pedaling around the garage, decorating spokes with crepe paper for the Memorial Day parade. Next thing you knew, we had to learn hand signals and ride in traffic.

When I was 7 we visited cousins in the Rockaways. Michelle was 4, Tracy 2. The adults left us to entertain ourselves. After dinner I brought everyone downstairs for a play. “Don’t cross the street without looking, Michelle,” I lectured, a strict moralist even then. “I won’t,” she promised. But Michelle crossed the street anyway. She was run over by her pigtailed sister, driving a plastic Big Wheels. The title of the play: “Obedience Pays.” Our parents applauded, horrified. Somehow I learned to cross the street anyway.

My mother’s boyfriend Carl bought me a bike for my birthday, and I discovered the secret paths through people’s yards, the gaps under chain-link fences that are the mark of any true adventurer. A girl in my class fell off her bike and got a concussion. Would she need a wheelchair? Fail spelling tests? When she came back to school, she looked normal except for a bruise on her forehead. That year my mother met Arthur, who bought us a house in Miami. I hated everything about it. Giant flying cockroaches. Malaleuka trees made me sneeze. And Florida was incredibly flat: the highest point in the state was Space Mountain at Disneyworld! At least it was good for bike riding, even if the temperature rarely dipped below 80 and you could never coast downhill. I went to Girl Scout camp that summer. We packed a steamer trunk like I was crossing the ocean. The highlight would be an overnight bike trip to Cypress Gardens, where pyramids of waterskiers performed for cheering crowds.

The real camp was a different story: a couple of wooden buildings in the middle of a swamp. A bugle woke me at 6, on a cot draped with mosquito netting. You had to check your sneakers for scorpions. A giant snake lived under my tent, or so the older girls claimed. Cycling began at 3, the peak of the heat. I bailed the second day. My plump friend Beth took up synchronized swimming, twirling in the murky lake like Busby Berkeley dancers on inner tubes. Girls played kickball while I hid out in the shade of the art pavilion, weaving baskets. Greeting cards with jokes arrived every day from my mother. When I got home, I made my mother promise never to send me away again. I praised her lamb chops and diet milkshakes, grateful to have escaped the vats of lukewarm egg salad. For the rest of the summer I slept in and rode my bike round and round the sun-drenched island where we lived, for once content with its limits.

At school I worked hard, grading math tests and learning magic tricks. My best friend and I talked on the phone every night. We were 6th grade big shots: safety patrols with orange belts and a plastic construction hat I proudly wore on street duty. Buses loaded us up for tours of Nautilus Junior High where 9th graders towered over us. Just as we had gotten used to ordering little kids around, we would be reduced to this. Ten minutes before the hour, a bell rang and teenagers crushed into the sweaty halls and ran to their lockers.

A few fashionable kids sauntered by; maybe someone else carried their books. There was no question of riding our bikes to Nautilus. It was too far. We counted down the last weeks of elementary school. Our English teacher asked us to write poems for graduation, while the PE teacher taught us folk dances. We would go out in a sea of glory. Then one morning, a 5th grader named Suzy came in crying. Her mother had been driving to a friend’s house and came around a corner fast. Bruce Oldack was riding his bike, and they’d crashed into him. The smartest of the patrols, Bruce was really small, with a big head of curls and blue eyes. Everyone liked Bruce. We asked Mr. Sherman, the patrol advisor, what to do.

“Can we visit?” He shook his head. So we wrote notes to the hospital.

“Dear Bruce, We miss you sooo much! Feel better soon. ♡ Your friends.” The accident hung over the school. We pestered Mr. Sherman for progress. Was Bruce getting better? When was he coming back? We rode our bikes less fervently, avoiding the corner two blocks from my house. Suzy Gardner avoided us. Finally they gathered us in a room and told us Bruce had died. I’d thought he’d only had a broken leg. I was on flag duty and asked if we could fly the flag at half-mast. When I got home, I told my mom, who handed me a tumbler with Scotch and offered me a Valium.

“It’s better that he isn’t a vegetable,” she said. Comatose Karen Ann Quinlan was in the news, and I had no doubt that if I were on life support, my mother would pull the plug. I went to my room and cried, not just over Bruce’s death, but because they’d lied. We’d written all those great cards he was never going to read. We still rode our bikes to school and ate fudgesicles and played box ball. We danced and recited poems that now seemed hollow. Tomorrow tomorrow tomorrow tomorrow.

For us there will always be a tomorrow. American Legion medals were awarded at graduation. I won the girls’ award. They gave the boys’ to Bruce Oldack posthumously, the first time I’d heard the word. I stood onstage in the cafeteria in a pleated skirt, while the man from American Legion praised my creativity, and all the adults in folding chairs cried. We didn’t stop cycling then, but when I outgrew my girls’ bike, I never wanted an adult one. My world expanded beyond Bay Harbor.

I started to take the bus to the library downtown and later got rides from people’s older brothers. All through high school, I got rides home in the back of someone’s TransAm, from parties where a haze of pot smoke lingered over couples making out by the pool. I prayed for my future while the driver, who was usually strung out on coke and Quaaludes, ran red lights through the empty streets. I went away and didn’t looked back. Living in San Francisco, I found the whole idea of cycling laughable. I could barely drive downhill without burning up the brakes. Meanwhile, gamer friends rollerbladed, jumped out of airplanes, snow-boarded black diamond runs. I always liked brave people, hoping it would rub off on me. But it never did, perhaps because they weren’t brave in the first place. They just weren’t afraid.

On vacation in Mexico, I hiked through a canyon and got stuck on a ridge. There were eight of us out for the day. The leader, a woman of 70 named Cricket, taught yoga and told stories of her travels while we sunbathed nude. But today the path wasn’t wide enough, my feet weren’t steady enough. It wasn’t even anything impressive: just a narrow ledge with a stream blocking the trail. Everyone had gone ahead while I hesitated. I felt a familiar panic. I couldn’t go forward or back so I froze. My mother was never any help when I was scared.

“If you’re afraid,” she’d say, “don’t do it.” Her nonchalance frustrated me. While I was out riding horses with cowboys and backpacking across Canada and SE Asia, she was home in her La-Z-Boy. It looked so straightforward, just one tiny leap. I—I couldn’t do it.

“Señorita,” tried Pablo the travel agent, cajoling, “See, there is nothing to be afraid of.” He illustrated, jumping lightly from one rock to another like a gazelle. He offered a gallant hand. His fingers were so close. Everyone was waiting. I breathed out, then changed my mind.

“No,” I said, clinging to the cliff. “Señora,” he said scornfully. “Is so easy.” Next it was John’s turn. A burly man from Alaska, John had rafted the Grand Canyon with his son who had Down syndrome.

“How do you want to do this?” he asked. He came and stood next to me. I tried extending a foot into space over the pools of water, then quickly brought it back to safety.

“That’s right,” he said, “I know you can do it.” I scanned the hikers’ faces: Cricket, a massage therapist from Wisconsin, Pablo, a judo teacher. This was hardly Outward Bound. I’d taken a ropes course, and half the people reported breakthroughs, watching me cry on the tightrope. Everyone else could do this. Why was I such a loser?

“Okay,” John said, “put your foot here. Good…and then here…” With this man’s help I could cross the gulf and actually do it. My left foot slowly reached— “Enough,” said Andrew, a middle-aged Scot, as he grabbed me by the waist, jumped into a puddle, and tossed me across.

“Haven’t got all day.” I think of Bruce Oldack now and then when people ask why I don’t ride a bike. I come back to Bruce and Patrol Gossip and being able to roam all over the island, being able to ride and then walk my bike across the bridge and start pedaling again without ever stopping or hesitating. I had achieved a kind of mastery within my little world. Then it was time to move to the next level. One Christmas, I went to Thailand with my cousin. Between swimming and eating pad thai and buying sarongs, we visited Sukhothai, the first Thai kingdom. It was New Year’s Day, and we were the only Westerners. Families picnicked by the giant columns and crumbling Buddhas. But the distances were too far to cover on foot, and there weren’t any taxis.

“But I don’t ride a bicycle,” I protested. “You never forget how,” Keith said. He was recovering from a mountain biking accident where he’d broken his collarbone. My fears were not allayed when I saw the jumbled rows of bicycles: rusty things with defective brakes and stripped gears. I walked mine across the street while Keith sped off. At least it was flat. I got on and tried to ride.

“You never forget how,” I whispered, hoping it was true. The pedals spun, and I went nowhere. Each time a car drove by on the wrong side of the road, I cringed. I dragged my toes in the gravel.

“Keith! I need to buy pineapple!” We bought fruit and bits of fried pork. I dawdled by the postcards. Finally I had stalled long enough.

“Pedal!” he shouted. We were off. We rode from monument to monument, attracting more than our share of attention. Keith is tall and balding, with a broad smile—a bit Buddha-like. Everywhere we went, Thai families pointed at us and laughed. They stopped to take pictures with him and occasionally with me, the Buddha’s cousin. It was a serene day, as we began a new year by the lotus blossoms. There was no crowd, no impatient Scotsmen to fling me across the canyon.

Eventually I got the hang of it again, that feeling of flying when you don’t even realize your feet are moving, and you just sail into the wind. For an afternoon we explored another world, with lily ponds and temples carved in stone, the kind of place I can no longer find simply by riding out the front door of my home. Perhaps it was the magic of the kingdom. After all, I still don’t ride a bicycle. But you never forget how.




Windsor Rd. Dispatch: Boxes

So, I just got a box…

I happened to go and grab my new couch with my buddy Bob from the local IKEA (those little room tableaus are so cool I sometimes want to do just what my friend Andrew remarked on years ago and live in one). As many an item one gets from the Swiss furniture retailer, what I bought came in a great big box. And while I greatly appreciate being able to angle and lift a self-contained piece of furniture through the doors of the moderately sized Tudor I live in, and Bob has a great eye when it comes to putting stuff together, I did come to regard that empty box as much as the quickly put-together couch with a sense of fascination.

Long before the days of scheduled playdates and kids more fascinated with logging-on to their tablets then getting out to play, there was a time when a box like the one that housed my new IKEA couch would have been the center-piece of a few weeks, if not a full month, of play. I can recall the summer my buddy Tom’s grandfather came to dig-out a portion of Tom’s parent’s backyard for the family-room the old man was going to build. We played in and around that pit for weeks, it was ‘the’ thing happening on our block that summer with each progression of the room’s building giving us a different surface to cavort across or newly leftover materials to use in a myriad of ways.

The simplest of objects or spaces back then-a big cardboard box, the inner skeleton frames of the new library being built, a cardboard tube-would set us off on adventures even a Hollywood scenarist couldn’t screw-up. We used whatever we had on hand, not because our parents didn’t buy us those bendable Colorform Aliens, plastic replica machine guns or models, but because we were as fascinated by what we could make from something not a toy, as we were with playing with our toys.

Yes, once again I pine for the old days. But, here’s what I have been thinking of late (and it scares me witless)…

When a society comes to the point that the method of delivery of a product, service, communication becomes more important, sexy and ubiquitous then the product, service or communication then that society might just be damn well doomed. I believe we are truly in that state-of-decline now, as Facebook and our portable computer-ing devices are ever more infinitely interesting to us than the people we are ‘friends’ with or the Hollywood blockbusters we can view on our freaking cell phones for Christ’s sakes! It is less a “well, back in my day things were better because they were simpler” as it is that there is no delight in jumping into a box with some friends and pretending it’s your spaceship because it won’t actually deliver the digital interaction (in this case fly) in the way the simplest iPad will simulate flight. We are all too used to being enamored with/of our machines (or standing in line to get the new one), debating whether Bose or Beats earphones are better, bragging about how many Twitter followers we have that we simply don’t see that the method of delivery of the ‘thing’ has superseded the thing to the point where the thing doesn’t much matter anymore.

Allow me a digression to make this point even clearer.

As is my want and circumstance, I usually arrive at an appointment earlier than planned. I’ll enviably find myself sitting or standing around for a few moments before my companion arrives and am usually waiting with my nose deep in a book. If not reading I people watch. I let my mind wander. I do not do a damn thing save enjoy the sunlight on my adorable kisser. Archaic? Maybe. But I dig the Chaucerian pastime (look deep my little literary minions to find why I name dropped the great writer of the “C. Tale’s” right then) of just hangin’. But these days, because mainly 100% of peeps are so rigidly locked to their cells (the method of delivery of the ‘thing’ has superseded the thing) when one (me in this case) sits quietly at a table or stands holding up a wall outside a Starbucks just staring into space, one is constantly stared at in turn because in this day and age who the hell simply stands or sits somewhere empty handed, looking about, catching rays without their cell phone at least perched nearby or at least reading the daily paper?!

Get my point?

Whether we be playing with a plastic ball, in a box or simply watching a concert live without viewing the performance from our cell phone held aloft the entire show, these activities are simply not as interesting to the huddled modern masses as the stuff that makes, records or gives us access to our stuff. (How many people do you know snap a selfie in front of some natural wonder or historical site, then simply move on, as if the snapping of a selfie is what matters more than where they find themselves at?…and kudos to Disney for outlawing selfie ‘sticks’, they be getting’ all medieval Goofy on your ass!) And while I am truly sad for a generation who has no idea that texting in a movie is rude or that what is supposedly vetted across Snopes.com might still not be accurate, I fear more for their imaginations, the very one thing I feel as unique to us all as our fingerprints. (What good would I be to what I do for my daily bread if I couldn’t dream, ponder and create out of whole cloth the stories I do?)

Well, at least I got my box, I turn off my cell phone when I go to sleep and I have no desire to binge watch. And my imagination’s intact, thank you very much.

But then again, I’m an old man.




Real Boys Don’t Think About Thinking So Much

Part II: Is ‘Queer Fiction’ determined by its writer or story?

I

Yale University, Connecticut, 2012

I’m nineteen. I’m standing outside the dorm rooms. It’s nearly the night, the sky a heavy blue, the trees turning black, the street lamps have come on. I’m standing within one of the campuses of Yale. Yale sprawls over a large quarter of New Haven, the classrooms and campuses nestled close together. I’m making sure all of the kids are inside, to head to their rooms. I’m here for two months as a Camp Counsellor and Teacher’s Assistant. I’m wearing a shirt and a pair of shorts, my keys hanging around my neck. Nobody around. Tonight I’m on duty and the counsellors that aren’t are heading to the bar around the corner that serves us. Ironic, I become of legal age to drink alcohol in the United Kingdom but am not in the United States. The bartender serves us, we sit together and he refers to us as “the teachers” asks “how the kids are?” as we drink tequila.

I walk down the halls, check that everyone is OK and head to my room. It’s large with a fireplace. It has book shelves with my copies of House of Leaves and Lolita and the copy of Anna Karenina I got from the library which is opposite my bedroom window, against the courtyard. There’s a desk, exploded with papers, books and my laptop, a chest of drawers and a sad single bed with a sheet and a pillow. Why do Americans insist of never having duvets? I sit at my desk, move some of the papers – a mixture of lesson plans, extracts from novels, some of the kid’s work from class they asked me to edit and my own work. I start writing. I’ve spent the day in two Creative Writing classes – running one of them – a class on critical thinking and a class on Time Travel. I have a lot to write about.

I’m working on a series of stories about guilt in relationships for my University course. My tutor, Catherine Merriman, has already read two of them, I have six more to write. The couples are predominantly straight and it has happened accidentally. As I begin working, I remember a time when I wouldn’t allow myself to write gay characters for fear of people knowing I was gay. The first gay character I wrote was when I was fifteen, in a fantasy story I was working on about Vampires and teleportation. I gave it to my school librarian, Jessica Robinson, to read, thinking she might know. At that time in my life, I was also scared that, if I ever were published, I would be labelled a “gay writer”. Only a few months ago, my friend, Tom had been reading Hollinghurst’s novel, yelling at me to do the same. Now, writing about gay characters is naturally and I do it if it fits the character. “Write what you know.” Isn’t that the advice writers get? I’ve never been told to do it by any of my tutors but we all do tend to write what we know that’s how we make it authentic and raw and honest.

My stories at fifteen were ambushed with littered lies, half-truths I shaped and morphed to fit the fantastical character I had written. Before I moved out for University, I found all of the manuscripts I’d printed and kept. There were about fifteen, all of them two hundred to three hundred pages each, the odd novella. I read some of them. They were awful, some of the stories horrendous others OK but the writing overworked, riddled with clichés, melodramatic. I didn’t believe in any of these stories at the point of sitting and getting ready to leave and even through University I kept to straight characters not until my MA, when I was twenty-one, writing lesbian and gay characters in a natural way.

I got thinking, what determines a queer writer? Is it their writing – the stories they create – which feature queer characters or was it the writer him or herself that made it queer? Their identification with the queer label, they, themselves being gay or lesbian or trans etc then making their work queer fiction? Of course, straight writers write gay characters also. So what is the answer?

II

Milan, 2014

I’m twenty-one. I’m sat in my small bedroom in the apartment I’m renting in Milan. It’s at the edge of the city, the last stop on the metro. I’m sitting in the soft chair near the doors which open and let in the hot, summer air. My laptop whirrs on the high, small desk, my wallet, empty bowl and spoon next to it. I hear Avrina shuffling in her room, next to mine. We’re here together, sent from the University of Warwick to work with Tim Parks. He’s told me to spend the weekend only working on my novel and ignoring all the other work I’ve been doing. “Ignore that shit,” were his exact words. It always feels a bit surreal being with Tim, sitting in an Irish bar together, drinking beers as he talks to me about my story of a serial killer couple. He talks about the plot, the craft of the story.

Now, I’m thinking, thinking with my glass of red wine. I’m thinking about Eve, my main character. I’m thinking about her thinking. I’ve been working on a novel about Eve and Adam, married, successful, serial killers. I began writing in Warwick now I’m set to finish in Milan. Adam is straight, Eve has experimented with women perhaps she is bisexual. Now, in Milan, read and watched and experienced, I know sexuality’s fluidity. From a straight guy with a boyfriend to an old classmate, the realisation infected into my work sometimes more predominantly than others.

Would my story – if it were ever magically to be taken and published – be seen as queer fiction based on me, as a writer, being gay or as my story features a bisexual woman? Is it the story that contributes to the queer genre or is the writer? Are we to view Allen Ginsberg’s poetry – of course his infamous Howl – as queer poetry due to his sexuality, its content, or both? A trial was held for Howl. It was seen as pornographic, something I feel quite patiently about as I wrote in my column last time. Ginsberg was creative, he was original, he was forward in every possible way:

‘…who howled on their knees in the subway and were dragged off

    the roof waving genitals and manuscripts,

who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists,

    and screamed with joy,

who blew and were blown by those human seraphim, the sailors,

    caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean love,

who balled in the morning in the evenings in the rosegardens and

    the grass of public parks and cemeteries scattering their

    semen freely to whomever come who may

who hiccupped endlessly trying to giggle but wound up with a

    sob behind a partition in a Turkish Bath when the blond

    & naked angel came to pierce them with a sword…’

– ‘Howl’, Allen Ginsberg

And now, I’m thinking about a woman thinking. I’m thinking about her means of escape, her desire to run away and I have. I have successfully run away to Italy, away from the University and the rain and the grey-slacked roofs and dirty floors of Coventry. I had run to a place of food and coffee, cigarettes and hot pavements. I know the novel has issues, it’s been problematic from day one, nobody has been completely satisfied with the way I’ve decided to go with it. I know it will not get published in its current state but I am hopeful. It catches attention but it cannot ignite. I think, if I die, will it ever be seen and will people see me as some writer of queer fiction? Will they see me as fiction?

If I were to write a novel featuring only gay characters would it be seen and sold as queer fiction marketing only to them? I long for the day ‘queer fiction’ will be fiction, to be made accessible to all, to not eliminate or narrow, to join together the voices of queer fiction to the huge mass, to be given the respect it deserves having carved through years of discrimination, to appreciate the rights fought, nod to the Grandfathers and Mothers of that world and bring everyone together, men and women, equal creative radicals of the universe.




On Dal Lake

In memory of Sarah Groves, a British tourist, who was murdered in Kashmir in 2013.

 

At first, I didn’t remember you. Not when I first saw those great severe mountains. Hima’alaya—dwelling of snow, but, to me, more gravel than glacier, visibly igneous and churning. As if in a photograph suddenly drained of colour, those hills are surprisingly monochrome, their peaks swelling upward through a pall of thick cloud. I didn’t think of you, even though the black and white elements of the rock-face seemed to battle for territory; the white snow twisting in veins across the dark surface like straining animal hide.

I suppose I had forgotten you, or where you might be resting, whereas the hills stood, atavistic and close by and had witnessed it all. Guardians of Shambhala, you spent more than three months here; you rested a while at the gateway, but I didn’t think of you crossing over into that eternal valley. You were not a spirit; nor were you in the world of forms. You were nowhere near a conscious memory.

I didn’t see your reflection in the lake, only these mountains, deferentially recreated in its blue surface. Exactly as the pictures show it. This spectacle is why I came. In an old panegyric Khusro said of Kashmir ‘If there is paradise on earth/ It is here, it is here, it is here’. The truth of this, so many years on, is why others, like you, had journeyed northwards too.

And it  wasn’t guilt I felt, though I lay, warm-bodied on the sloping lawn, hardly believing the high ace which had been dealt me. Nor did I sense any of your pain when I idly nursed my nipple while I read. Instead, I took tea with the other guests and patronized the local handicrafts. When prompted, I cooed over the guest book, where the ink glittered with praise from rock stars and the diplomatic agents of Clintonia. I watched the scenery and was unworried. I slapped at water gnats and gaped at the ebbing gondoliers; then, merely to summon laughs, I suggested a swim.

It was that night, technically the next day but only moments into it when the bluebottle disturbed my sleep, knocking its clumsy wings and sets of eyes against my window. Then, the memories of your ordeal descended like a landslide shored up against my own distractions.

Your struggle resounded in the bluebottle’s low buzz of despair, the growing frustration, then silence. Your thwarted escape was transmitted in the limp tap against the glass; in its persistence, its gradual weakening.

Across the ceiling of my bedroom, everything reconfigures. The filigree pattern of the wood-carved wall above my head is lit-through from outside; its shadow creating kaleidoscopic horrors above my head. I stare down into the kaleidoscope’s tube; it swivels by scant degrees, and I am transported into your terror chamber.

My room was not yours exactly but seen one seen ‘em all.  Each houseboat on the lake offers the same: rectangular boxes carved in local walnut. They are baroque structures long and plushly-lined.  A lot like a coffin, only capacious and afloat. Decked out in colonial garb—chandeliers, ashtrays, books written in English— they were once a civilized retreat for the intruding nation which defamed then divided the civilizations it encountered. A place to cool off.

It was a room I would have shown off to my father, as you did, when your World Wide Web connection was strong and your screens merged and you spoke to him—surely delighted— in your waning hours. It was your last exchange, before the knock at your door and he sprung at you with all of his force. He was a stranger to you. A Flying Dutchman. ‘Are you spying on me?’ His paranoia was meted out in stab wounds all over you.

Lying alone, I think of him after the event, crossing the lake at dawn wearing your blood, and probably his own too (the reports say you fought back bravely). He is rowing himself in the boat onto which you, with all your verve, had painted, ‘NO WOMAN NO CRY’. His oars move in neat, syncopated time. Like the soldiers at the nearby borders he is capable, but he is also shoeless and short of breath. The Charon of Dal Lake –he steered and conveyed you, next he fled.

 

As he sluices through the water the mountains remain faithfully reflected. Their edges and contours are absurdly intact, spread across the surface in a horrifying, gently rippling rictus. He darts across the reflection and then he is gone. The mountains remain implacable and watchful. In overseeing what happened, they have somehow permitted it.

 

I throw back my bedcovers and make towards the lakeside window in dazed recrimination. The sudden recrudescence of your fate has set the world against itself; and the kaleidoscope tube swivels once more to bury me in your trauma. A car horn becomes an announcement of battle; the sound of barking dogs signals cosmic dissent. I imagine, like Macbeth’s horses, that the animals eat each other. Old prejudices prop up my mind as I spool backwards and rank the guests with whom I just dined in order of maniacal tendencies. Their smiling faces all sing with homicidal potential, like the merry cast of Cluedo. When I reach the glass, accompanied only by my heart’s jumpy errata, the wardrobe door suddenly closes and my self-same image in a long white nightie appalls me. I utter a long, low sound, a pathetic baritone of protest, some attempt at ‘I exist’ but it seems to make no incision on the scene. It only hangs, meek and immaterial, outside of your ordeal.

The lake under the stars is astonishing and treacherous in its beauty. And you were right to feel betrayed. I look across at the light from Hazratbal Mosque and I wonder what you saw or heard when you were lying prostrate, or supine, exhausted and beginning to let go. Was it dark in your room like mine? Or did he leave the lights on? Did you hear the call to prayer for an interventionist God who failed to save you? Could you perceive the lights of a car winding its way down the hillside, then forgetting to collect you? Higher up, losing blood now, perhaps you mistook the distant pepper of artillery for fireworks. But it was just the familiar refrain of a war that had divided the valley and left 60,000 dead.  And the old trappings: the barbed wire and sandbags, those soldiers lining the streets— were mere accessories and never guarantors of your safety. The curfews, the borders are shown to be meaningless when they’re so coldly transgressed.

You were found with your hand in your mouth. This sordid detail occurs to me so suddenly that I’m unable to stifle a bleated cry. Then, the kaleidoscope shifts backwards and our worlds realign, I weep; I am ashamed at fearing my life and not mourning yours. I move towards my bed where I watch the shaft of light beneath my curtains gradually brighten. I take hold of a pen to write it down, to settle my fears in a story. But I didn’t know you and you are nearly two years dead. The tale is mine and can never be yours.

Nor could the sun quite emerge the following day. The skies hung low and dismayingly grey, the air sweetly-damp and familiar, like Scotland. So, with all the stoicism of a tourist on the Western Isles I sat out on the lawn  and forked myself a limp omelette breakfast with the other visitors; my houseboat neighbours: last night’s abominable crue who I suspended and scrutinized for designs on my life. They left me their business cards, dangled dinner dates in Delhi, thinly intended job offers. More signatures in the book, more photographs, ‘one last click’, and then drivers were called, bags carried, doors slammed.

I continue breakfasting with the owner’s son—a historian, a grandfather, a botanist, a pale-eyed enthusiast in a sleeveless jumper. He is my favourite kind, and it is my favourite kind of breakfast. Unending, languid—more honey, another egg, pots of tea—and candid too, charged with that unique emotional intensity which chimes in around elevenses; from the shared indulgence of a long-running feast, from grasping the day, then willfully delaying it.

We speak about the recent floods in Srinagar and the years of fighting. I hear of miraculous rescues and violently quashed protests; of curfews and liquor bans and who-armed-who. We discuss Urdu, the BBC, democracy, hypocrisy and broken promises. I don’t mention you, your murder or the ongoing trial, it feels improper to mention more tragedy. Eventually, my clothes tighten, the meal ends. I continue staring at the lake.

Those mountains, once splendid and derisive are now hidden by hoods of white cloud, like heads stuffed under pillows. The air seems burdened with responsibility for the dead and, with seeds of new understanding, I begin to pity every living thing. I think again of the verse: It is here. It is here. It is here.

It choked at first, and it spluttered, but September’s monsoon rained down on your calamity. A whole city was submerged in grief for you; riverbanks swelled and doorways brimmed over with sadness. I picture fields of drenched red tulips, bowing their heads in the shuddering downpour. I see the blown about trees, older than Akbar, raising their branches in outcry.

Then, swooping in great circles, the eagles over the lake continue the lament, redoubling, then undoing the valley’s fury. Countless in number, spectacular, I hear them calling at my back, screeching and beating their wings like widowed women with unmade hair.

For the first time in my life I am interested in birds.




Tough Boys Don’t Read About Boys Kissing Boys

Part I: What is Queer Fiction & are we making distinctions by using such a term?

 

I

Cardiff, 2007

I’m fourteen. I’m bored. Bored and tired and irritated. Of it all. Of reading, watching, consuming, plots made of heterosexual relationships. Boys falling in love with girls, girls with boys. Boys kiss girls, girls kiss boys. The I love yous and I love you mores. The same. I can relate, I can understand but I’m not being allowed to see anything, read anything, experience anything that I want to experience in real life. The books I’m reading, films I’m watching are not showing me everything. Gay characters are these half-formed pieces of entertainment. They’re invisible, if used, silenced, never fully accomplished to their full potential. I know there has to be something out there – of course, there has to be. Gay people ‘exist’, although I don’t know of them.

Actors and writers and musicians and artists, out and proud, but far away. They live in Neverland. There are two other gay boys in my year at school – the first does nothing to sway my decision to not tell anyone that I’m gay whilst I’m still in high school. He’s overly arrogant, he starts singing and dancing in class, screams at the teachers. He embraces his homosexuality, in a sexually promiscuous way. Of course there’s nothing wrong with that, that’s a whole conversation in itself but his centre of attention attitude makes me irritated. The second is bullied, victimised, worse, pitied. I hide and I tell myself I’m not a coward, that my coming out in the brutal classrooms and even harder playgrounds would accomplish nothing. Why make things worse for yourself when you’re in Hell?

I curl over the laptop at night and order Alex Sanchez’s Rainbow Boys trilogy. They’re labelled as ‘Gay’ books and when I buy I’m recommended only homosexual plot-based books, Amazon assumes I would read nothing else. I grab the box when it arrives through the post and read the books in secret. Why else would I be reading them if I weren’t gay? Anyone who catches me with it will think – know – that I am gay. I might as well be caught with porn. Why else would you be reading if unless you are gay?

I read a lot. I write a lot. I finish and buy more – Perry Moore’s Hero, Geography Club, The Vast Fields of Ordinary, more and more. I read Hero in a day, indulging in the adventure. The second chapter has Thom, the young superhero of the novel, watch gay pornography on his father’s computer and have to worry about the history. I’ve done the same, this is the first time I’ve read it as words. I haven’t written about it myself. I haven’t told anyone I’m gay, I haven’t even told myself. I know I am. My interest – if it ever were that – in girls faded when I was eleven and masturbating over gay pornography seems like a commitment I’ve made to agreeing to who I am.

But it’s not just about masturbation or porn or sex, it’s about me trying to understand what the Hell I am. Nobody brought me up telling me it was OK to be gay. None of my friends know what gay is. “It means happy,” our mothers would tell us. Then, of course, the usual term as teenage-folk, “that’s so gay.” “Walking is for gay people.” “My pen broke. That’s so gay.” Gay then becomes dirty, sullen, incompetent. The phrase that is attributed to the books that make me feel a bit more normal. The books that, if anyone saw me with, would know my secret.

 

II

Cardiff, 2015

I’m twenty-two. Writing. Writing this column in the top room of the house with the rain drumming against the windows. My desk, crammed with books and papers, a cup of coffee (having recently become a barista – a struggling writer serving coffee, I am a cliché – I’ve began teaching myself the tastes of coffee) and a cigarette in between my fingers. Smoke and the coiling ash. I think about my fourteen-year-old self – nervous, angry, terrified. Being ‘in the closet’, as they put it, is a lonely business. My friend once said to me, “yeah, but you had it easy, everyone was fine with it.” The statement is true but that doesn’t take from the loneliness such a secret creates, as well as the mind-set a lonely person with such a secret has. I don’t like to indulge, I don’t like to go on, maybe that’s why writing about other people is so endearing.

Fourteen-year-old me didn’t understand the world and twenty-two-year-old me probably doesn’t understand it very much but perhaps a little bit better. The term “gay” is no longer ugly. I don’t hold anger towards my fellow flamboyant gay men. I’ve learnt – be who you want to be, find someone who loves you for you, don’t change yourself. Fourteen-year-old me didn’t understand that, he played too many games. But fourteen-year-old me had a problem – how do teenagers in the closet read ‘gay fiction’/’queer fiction’ without outing themselves? Even within eight years society has changed and being gay is much more celebrated than it ever has been but still that doesn’t mean all families and friends are that way – homophobia still exists, teenagers are still dying because of fear, of what will happen, of how their life will turn out. These books make a difference.

But why do we call the books ‘gay’ literature? Why is it ‘queer fiction’? The word ‘gay’, as I said, is no longer ugly but by calling something ‘queer fiction’ are we not distinguishing it from what it is? Literature. If the term ‘queer fiction’ is an acknowledgement of acceptance, aren’t we in an age in which we’ve moved past that and homosexuality – in all its forms – is recognised as part of society’s ‘norm’?  We have to ask ourselves – what determines queer fiction? Is it a story that contributes to the queer genre or is it a story that comes from a queer writer? Are we to view Allen Ginsberg’s poetry – of course, his infamous, Howl – as queer poetry due to his sexuality, its content, or both? Is Annie Proulx’s short story, Brokeback Mountain, part of the queer fiction world? And, if so, how is the fact that Proulx is a straight woman supposed to affect our perception of her story and our view of queer fiction?

Questions. Questions come in the form of smoke and reflections, the dying sunlight stretching through the clouds and rain. The literary world is joining our evolving society and putting more of an emphasis on gender equality when it comes to publishing books. Small Press & Other Stories will, in 2018, only publish novels by women for a whole year. Now, while I don’t agree with this – thinking the focus should be on making the publishing houses about equality overall rather than a year dedication – it does draw into the discussion queer fiction and whether we are distinguishing between writers and their work by calling it such.

2015 marks a big year for gay women and men. For those in the United Kingdom, it was the year Ireland legalised same-sex marriages. For those in the United States, it was the year all fifty states legalised same-sex marriages. It was, both days concluded, about love – the law cannot dictate who can love whom, therefore it cannot dictate who can marry whom. 2015 is a year in a more accepting world, a world, however, that has a lot of changes still to make. I sit at my desk, stubbing out the cigarette, existing in the smoke, pushing up, past my nostrils, to my eyes and lungs and beating hard hard. I listen to Yann Tiersen’s Amelie score and hold my pen, doodling, mindlessly, drawing houses and faces and eyes and stopping to make a circle, to draw a line, to form the shape of a Q.




Let It Go

“Less is more” is one of those phrases I’ve always liked the sound of. The line itself is a shining example of the minimalist ethos: spare, direct, a combination of three words that contains a world of meaning. The maxim has hidden depths and its elegance is hard to miss. Unless holed up in an underground bunker, we’ve all come across it at some point in our lives. It has such a familiar ring to it partly because corporate media and the advertising industry flaunt in our face, almost always bending it out of shape as a catchword to suit their needs.

Despite its familiarity – or precisely because of it – I’ve never given the phrase the attention it deserves. But the moment is here: the full impact of the line dawned on me when I started re-working the opening chapters of my novel. I am starting to chant it like a mantra as I go through the pages, shearing scissors in hand. The phrase is fast becoming friend and philosopher, voice of reason, guiding light.

Novelists are caught in a double bind. The novel is a sprawling expanse that offers us the scope for detailed excavation and explanation. The roominess of the novelistic form is tempting. It seduces you into unlocking the floodgates and letting words pour out. But verbiage without precision is dangerous. It turns off readers faster than you can say “postmodern.” The challenge is to find the right balance – give away enough, withhold the rest. Resist the temptation to explain in excess. Strip it down. Lose the flab. Where two words will do, don’t use twenty. If the narrative is being weighed down by too much backstory, find the strength to be ruthless and weed out the excess baggage.

Not that it is easy to do. One of the dilemmas I face while working on my novel is the question of how much backstory to include. I feel a compulsion to share every detail about the cast of characters with my readers. Even the faintest ripple that crossed the characters’ lives seems relevant. If something happened to X when she was 16 and my novel is set in a timeframe when she is 50, how can I not spend two (or more) pages on painting a picture of her past? Will the reader care about X if I withhold the backstory? Is X in danger of being misunderstood for good? It is an agonizing decision to have to make.

In an earlier draft of my novel, I had managed to include the backstory of all the characters in some detail. But the draft ended up sounding like pages and pages of notes I had compiled on the characters instead of a story that lived and breathed and flowed seamlessly. The backstory dragged the narrative down. It got in the way of pacing and rhythm and generally made a nuisance of itself. Instead of making things clear, it became an unwelcome distraction. Too much information was being fed to the reader, too little was left unsaid. I decided to step back and make room for the reader’s imagination to come into play. Out came the shearing scissors and I started work on a revised draft.

Writers who trust in “less is more” have great faith in the reader’s imagination. Hemingway and Raymond Carver excelled at it. Lydia Davis does it with panache. They use simple, direct prose to grapple with complex plots. A paragraph written in Davis’s trademark style can paint a searing picture of a character’s inner life more effectively than pages of descriptive prose. Every word hits home. Every phrase cuts to the bone.

Minimalism is not limited to literature’s threshold. It has shaped music, art, and architecture in significant ways. Japanese culture has admired the tradition of minimalism from ancient times for its elegant simplicity and quiet taste. Whether painting a canvas or building a temple, stripping down a work to its fundamental features is considered an act of aesthetic innovation. Zen Buddhists have their own take on it – they advise us to live more fulfilled lives by ‘doing less’ and devoting our focus to a few chosen tasks rather than scrambling around to take on a million things at the same time.

As in life, so in writing. Keep it simple. Draw the reader into the heart of the story with spare, direct prose. Trust in the power of simplicity. It can work wonders.




A Tale of Two Cities

Rebecca and I ate sushi for the first time the night of the Miami riots. We were finishing junior year at Beach High, and it was Saturday night so I had great plans of where to go in search of excitement. My mother was on her way to a party in Pompano. Clutching the Weekend section of the Miami Herald with its rave review of Su-Shin on 79th Street Causeway, I headed out in the Pinto to collect Rebecca.

Rebecca and I met in Journalism class. She had long black hair streaked with grey, perhaps because she was so wise. We were both A students except in Mrs. Comeau’s class where Rebecca got the only A. But this year we had Mr. Moses, who thought he was Moses—valiantly leading us from the swamp of ignorance through the liberation of literature.

My friends and I often took extravagant excursions to adult places, including a research trip for the school paper to The Crazy Horse, Miami’s first male strip show. My mother’s tennis team had been too. Shrieking groupies banged xylophone sticks on the bar next to $4.00 sloe gin fizzes (“Ladies, Bang Your Knockers,” the barker leered) and put tips in the g-string of Rocky, the Italian Stallion.

On that fated evening, Rocky removed Rebecca’s thick glasses to dance around with them on his massive member. (Of course she couldn’t see what he had done, and we never would tell her.) We had book reports to write, and that May, Rebecca had the misfortune to be working on Moby Dick. She never could keep a straight face about it while writing her paper for Mr. Moses.

Mr. Moses was a small man of 50 with bright blue eyes and a balding white crown who clearly resented not being a college professor. He adored us all but particularly me. “Wynnzie,” he would say patronizingly, in a tone my friends loved to repeat, “Read to us, Wynnzie.” And I would comply, reciting Emily Dickinson, or William Blake, or “The World is Too Much With Us.”

Mr. Moses’ great gift, as he danced in front of our class, was storytelling. Every so often he would forget all about American literature in favor of a dramatization. One Monday, ever bored with James Fennimore Cooper, he launched into A Tale of Two Cities. And not even the novel—the movie. He played all the parts: the small child run over by the imperious marquis, the cruel nobleman, the hapless father given a coin of gold in compensation for his son’s death. Who would forget the noble tale of Sydney Carton, and how he went to Paris in disguise to save Charles Darnay? Carton lost his head on the guillotine just as the bell rang.

But in May of 1980, Rebecca and I were across the bay at Su-Shin, with yet another book report due in two days, ready to delight in raw fish for our virginal palates. I ordered ambitiously. The waiter brought a carafe of hot sake that fogged up Rebecca’s glasses. Daintily, I tasted all the fish, dipping into soy sauce, spreading wasabi everywhere, opening up my sinuses for the next year. Rebecca, who was Kosher, ate only noodles.

“Delicious,” I told the waiter as I watched the chef chop octopus tentacles. Instinctively I understood that macho one-upmanship with sushi, to eat the most repulsive creatures that grow on sea walls and under motorboats.

“What kind of fish is this?” I asked, pointing to a spongy yellow roll, already my favorite. “Egg,” he said, putting down the check.

After dinner, we headed home, oblivious that Miami in general, but 79th Street and Biscayne Boulevard in particular, had gone up in flames.

The year before, an unarmed black man named Arthur McDuffie had been pulled over on his motorcycle by four white police officers and beaten to death. At Beach High, where as my friend Peter put it, football was played by the blacks against the Cubans against the Jews, an entire city held its breath.

And on that hot Saturday night, while Rebecca and I ate pickled ginger and dreamed about going to Ivy League schools, an all-white jury in Tampa acquitted the officers on all counts. It was only then that hell broke loose, although we didn’t know this until we were sitting in a plastic booth at Pumpernick’s on Biscayne and 125th Street, a diner with ancient waitresses where you went late on a Saturday if you didn’t do drugs or sleep around or drink, except coffee when you had a book report due in 36 hours.

So it was over a baked apple and a third cup of coffee that rumors began to fly: There was blood in the street. It wasn’t safe to go out or stay home. People—which was understood to mean black people—had been seen carrying torches and heading for the causeways to the beach.

And it’s that image I carry to this day, of men carrying torches to burn down the sacred beach, home then to retired grandmas in squeaking chairs on pastel hotel porches; to tourist hawkers who ran gift stores; and us, the white kids of doctors and lawyers who drove fast cars and ate sushi on the weekend. Our parents had taken us all the way to Miami Beach, as far south as a New York Jew could go, in search of warm winter breezes, panoramic ocean and bay views, the perfect tan. And now this.

Rebecca and I rushed home to watch the news and wait for my mom. Bricks were thrown at cars on I-95. Warehouses were on fire. People had been pulled from their cars and beaten to death.

These stories haunted Miami for years. On my way to Florida for Christmas vacation, I’d tell burly NY cab drivers where I was from. And they’d shake their heads and say, “Miami? I wouldn’t go there. You can’t walk in the streets. Everyone gets shot.”

And it was true, sort of, only on the outside, the sand still sparkled like diamonds when the sun shone on it in January. The waterfall at the Fontainebleau continued to pour, even after the Time cover story “Paradise Lost” documented what those of us who’d grown up there had known all along: that the Jackie Gleason show promise of the good life—the high-kicking memories of the June Taylor dancers—couldn’t revive a kingdom divided.

When my mother was growing up in NY, they’d taken the train to Miami. During a stop in St. Augustine, she went to use the bathroom. It was the first time she’d seen segregated drinking fountains, which shocked her. 25 years later, had anything really changed?

So that night in May, my mother and Rebecca and I wondered what had happened to our world. We had no way of knowing if the devastation would be for the better or the worse. It would mean the end of a white majority in Dade County, a world that since the Mariel boatlift, had come to resemble pre-Castro Cuba more than Havana.

I went to work the next day, popping popcorn at the Bay Harbor Theater, with its 1000 red rocking chair seats that paid for my stylish clothes and filled the gas tanks of Bay Harbor’s Camaros. But it wasn’t till school was canceled that we realized how serious it was.

Every summer, South Florida undergoes a massive hurricane prevention campaign, complete with evacuation procedures, first aid supplies, and repeated, stringent warnings not to surf in the calm in the eye of the storm. But no one could remember Dade County closing its schools.

Behind the candy counter at the movies, I was hugely relieved. I still hadn’t finished my book report on The Wild Duck for Mr. Moses. Each day, the honors English students would listen to the radio and start a telephone chain to pass on another reprieve. We might have gone to the movies, but a curfew was in effect after dark. (Until then, the only curfew I had ever heard of was on “Happy Days.”) So we stayed home and talked on the phone. And day after day, school was canceled.

We finally went back Thursday, but the Cuban kids stayed home. It resembled the early days of junior high when we’d been afraid to go to the bathroom because we’d been told that black girls with cigarettes would steal our lunch money and gold necklaces. (As far as I know this never happened to anyone. But it kept you from hanging out in the bathroom.) No one on the beach thought much about what was happening across Biscayne Bay, as desperate people in the African-American community, sick of a justice system perpetually stacked against them, burned down largely white-owned warehouses.

For most of us at Beach High, the riots were little more than an excuse not to do homework, an inconvenience. The jazz concert I had tickets for was canceled in curfewed downtown, where in that pre-Reagan era, there were not even homeless veterans to clean up off the streets.

Although we watched a woman on TV wearing a bandage wrapped around her neck describe having a bottle thrown through her car window at the intersection of 79th Street and Biscayne Boulevard, near McDonalds and Wendy’s and Su-Shin, I knew no one who was injured. I had no bricks thrown at my car, saw no glorious torches heading over the causeways to destroy the beach I then so despised.

But I had already plotted my escape. After a summer of working in the box office and traveling to the Washington Monument with Rebecca, I simply packed my bags and headed for higher ground: early admission to Vassar. On the last Saturday in August, I dropped my poodle at the kennel and came home to the emptiest house I could remember. Every satin and silver trace of my life packed into a box like an off-season Christmas ornament, headed for Poughkeepsie. Momentarily saddened, I turned on the TV, and there was A Tale of Two Cities, just as Mr. Moses had once acted it out in an air-conditioned classroom on war-torn Miami Beach.

For that moment, suspended between two worlds, I was divided as Sidney Carton never was, my sole nobility arising out of putting my head at the axe’s blade—or running away as fast as I could from a community I’d never been part of.

Dickens in Sydney Carton’s final, fatal triumph said, “I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss and in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long, long years to come. I see the end of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out.”

In time the flames in Overtown and Liberty City would die down, and people would forget, only to rise up and roar again. Two years later I came home on vacation, and a police officer named Luis Alvarez fatally shot an unarmed black man playing a video game in the back. And once again the streets of Miami were on fire. TV cameras zoomed in on Neville Johnson’s mother crying, “They did it again. They killed my baby.”

But there is no “they” that kills babies—it’s just you and me.

And I knew then that there really only are two worlds, and that is the place you that you are and the other one. And the other, because it is distant and unknown, shimmers with glamour, especially in the eyes of a 16-year-old soon-to-be college freshman. And sometimes it’s just the other people on the other side of town, and you don’t know what they do at night or what kind of dog they have. Or how it feels to always have a bright light shining in your face or a sharp knife dangling just beyond reach above your head.




The Communal Experience

In May, my friend Kari told me about the Festival of the Future series of indoor and outdoor exhibits at the New Museum on Bowery.

“It’s called Ideas City,” she said, and I was immediately sold.

It was a steamy afternoon that was getting gross with the amount of people and the air sitting around the buildings. We wandered around with red balloons encouraging people to learn more about AIDS research and HIV testing. We spent some time sitting in on a hackathon tracking black spending. And we collected a bunch of temporary tattoos from environmental activists and landscape architects studying how to better use the land and resources we already have. We walked up and around a side street that started with a few food vendors and some refreshing-drinks. Past that, everything seemed to devolve into experiments. Here try some smog meringue. Behind that, check out a huge mural-in-progress, all outlines and potential.

As we made our way down, we came across a long table where a couple dozen people sat haphazardly, munching on watermelon and pumpkin seeds. They tore off pieces of delicious loaves and dipped them in seasoned olive oil. One woman carefully eyed a pomegranate, and, unable to find a utensil, started cracking it on the edge of the table.

“Whoa,” I said. “What is this?”

“I have no idea.” We walked all the way to the end of the table, watching these people sit and enjoy their meal. At one point, we stopped and a man waved us over.

“Come sit!” he said. “Eat something.” Kari and I looked at each other and shrugged. We took a seat at the table.

“What’s the catch?” I whispered.

“Do we need to sign up for something?” Kari asked.

“Nope,” the man said. Then, he took a step back. “Oh, I’m not in charge. I’m just eating.”

“Who’s in charge?” I asked and he just smiled.

“Don’t know.”

Then, the man produced a knife. Let me pause here to acknowledge that this is an odd circumstance in New York City, but I assumed it was part of the festival. If this were any other situation, I’d be in a cult by now. The man deftly sliced open our watermelon and then went back to his own seat.

“This is all so…” I said.

“Odd,” Kari said.

We sat down around the free food, bottles of water and cups. On the tables were unsharpened pencils, pencil sharpeners, and stacks of paper with questions about affordable housing, whether we felt we paid too much for rent and how racial discrimination is tied to the housing crisis. As we sat there, abuzz with watermelon and happily full of bread, we were discussing housing and inequality, recycling and food waste, with some volunteers from the festival. We wondered whether this was what the good parts of communism felt like. People would walk by and look at us, the same way we looked at people a few minutes before and we waved them over.

“So this is the future?” One man asked.

“You want some watermelon?” I asked, all wide-eyed and Midwestern sweetness. I recruited more people to our table and a woman used the plastic cups to scoop out watermelon and share them with other new friends at the table. After awhile, a tiny light of skepticism creeped in and leaned over to check for tiny cameras or wires under the tables, recording us. I was disappointed not to find anything, but then I started to scan the buildings and found a couple cameras, slightly obscured but attached with duct tape. I waved at one, so they would know that I knew that they were watching. Then, I grabbed some more bread.

A bunch of kids in matching t-shirts ran over and stood in awe in front of the table.

“Watermelon!”

“Can we have some?” one of the tall kids asked. He was already reaching for the watermelon. My good teacher instincts were suddenly headbutted by this new life path I was taking. I looked at him and smiled.

“Of course!” I said. A teacher behind him tilted his head, as if to say, “Really?

“Umm…the food isn’t mine? So, that is entirely up to your teachers,” I said carefully.

“Awwww man…” the kid said.

“There’s plenty more for when you get back.”  I mouthed “I’m sorry” at his teacher, who smirked as the hustled the kids away from free, delicious food on a hot summer day.

Eventually, we wandered off to check out more sites at the festival and I tried to shake off the daze of the situation. We were talking to one woman who worked for a group that helped felons get their records expunged and she said, “You know I heard there are people giving out free food and water on the corner.”

“Yes!” I said. “You have to go get some.”

An hour or so later, on our way back, we saw the kids from earlier painting in the unfinished murals, brushes in one hand, chunks of watermelon in the other.